Editor's note: The author wishes it to be known that the following is an edited version of the original story. The changes were made to meet the guidelines established by TheForce.Net
The Alliance believed itself fuelled by righteousness. Oftentimes it seemed to be running on hate.
For a minute he thought his vision hummed, but it was just the blood rushing through his ears.
Lights pulsed overhead in time to the beat of a bruised heart. They were moving so fast, screaming across his vision. Lights like an airbus rushing over his head. Lights like lasers grazing across his cockpit. Lights like the reactor wall shaft skittering past. Light then dark then light then dark. Like life, where all things condescend into right and wrong, light and dark. Darkness when Owen and Beru lay smouldering in the desert. Light with Leia in his arms after the Death Star died. It had always been this way, he was sure; the certainty of all things classified under the labels of 'good' and 'evil. Yet now suddenly, strangely, there was grey between the lightness and the dark. Grey when they sat in the frigid nights on Hoth; grey when Leia pouted and glared at him, lowly commander-pilot-farmboy Skywalker, when he disagreed with her.
Lights of a reactor wall shaft tripping past; dark of Vader reaching for him; grey pain of screaming until your blood ran from red to raven.
Somewhere deep, deep down there was a little melancholic thought that laughed at the absurdity of the revelation that there was an existence beyond the explicit, and it loved to hide in the darkness and pretend nothing had changed. So then there was only the dark.
So dark. So, so, so black and hot... his true left hand and his burnt right stump flailed in the darkness searching for the crack in his dark little world. Because there had to be a crack here, somewhere, if he looked hard enough. And then this despair, this self-loathing, this terror wouldn't be complete, couldn't wrap around his throat and keep on tightening; the outstretched, imploring black hand couldn't keep squeezing... There was a crack, somewhere. There was. It was how the light got in if you just knew how to look for it.
"Leia, it's dark. Why is it so dark?" He was shivering and laughing and crying and... someone was clawing at his hand, his free hand, his only hand, like they would tear it away from him.
Take it. Please take it. Take it all away.
"I don't see anything." His voice tasted of bile and salt and metal. "I see him." His lips tasted of fear.
"Shh... shush Luke... He's not here. He's not here."
A soft voice like warmed honey and mandarin breathed the mantra over him, over and over and over. And he was falling, over and over and over; down the shaft, lights flickering past. Down past sanity and further. It was the only sane thing to do.
And he was falling still, lights flickering. But he was grinning, not screaming. Falling from Vader, dear Father, dear Old Dad; man he'd worshiped in the desert and monster he'd confronted in the wind.
I am your father. It was beautiful. So simple, so simple like Luke, and so destructive like Luke, spawn of Vader.
"He's not my... he is my..." Lips fumbled for the word and Leia was cooing over him, hand brushing frantically at his brow like she would push the fever away. Cold and heat settled around him over the blanket she'd tucked around his blinking, unseeing body. He was so cold. He was so hot. He was shivering in the burning confusion.
The lights stopped, trembling, and he cried with laughter when he didn't die. "Leia! I flew!"
"Shush, Luke. You're going to be fine. Please; be fine. Hang in there."
Clinging to cold metal pipework, wind shoving and barrelling full throttle into a battered, but not beaten, body. Hang in there... hang on... don't let go Luke. Come with me, rule with me, but don't let go.
He giggled furiously and Leia clamped a hand over his mouth to stop the mocking, empty noise, letting a little sob of despair leave her own lips.
Rule as father and son? Father was dead. Dead dead dead. Dead Owen, Dead Beru, Dead Ben, Dead Dad.
"Ouch." That stung, what was that? "Le-... Le-... Le-ia? Father?"
The light was all gone, all gone now. And that burned. He sat bolt upright. "Leia! I know!" He clawed blindly for her, found a handful of sleeve and clung to it. "I know."
Leia was so quiet, was she even there? Had they left him on his own? Alone? Please no! "Leia!"
"Leia! I know!"
Small, strong hands pressed him back down and he struggled as voices mused in angry tones around him, smothering him along with the blackness. He was sucking in breath and he was throwing up despair. Leia was holding his hand, his sweaty, shivering hand, and asking him to be quiet.
"Qui-et?" He forced his lips around the word. "But... Leia... I know... he's..."
Sweet, soft, sweat-scented skin touched his lips as she placed a finger to his mouth to quiet him.
Right, farmboy shouldn't speak now. He was in the presence of a Princess. Stupid, callow, tow-headed farmboy wasn't worthy of her highness.
Farmboy; that was all he was. Please, let that be all. All he was... all he was doing now... choking in the sand of Tatooine, burning in her heat, dying... please let him be dying. Please don't wake.
Ha! Ha! Who are you calling now, huh? You're so alone, you're so alone!
Tears were spilling from his sore eyes and skin brushed skin, wiping them away as voices swarmed angry around him.
"... if he knows... something..."
"... have to... get him... he knows...."
"... might be.... vital... might.... must tell us..."
Honey tones; sweet, silky, smooth honey tones bit out with sharp little teeth.
"He's been through enough! Let him be."
How could anyone deny her, beautiful Leia? Beautiful, tortured, hateful Leia. She hated Vader. Dear dad, how she hated him. How she must hate him.
"Leia, I gotta..." He broke into hysterics that tore at his throat, dry from screaming denial, so ready to scream acceptance. Father! Dad! Daddy! He giggled furiously at the thought of Darth Vader bouncing him on his lap as Beru once had and... "Ouch!"
What was that? What was... what was... What was, was dead; was gone, was left in a black cloak and mask and called Daddy.
Big, brave, role-model dad. How he loved him, cherished him, adored him. How he hated him, loathed him, despised him.
Anakin Skywalker... Sky-Walker... hadn't he flown? Hadn't he swooped down on him above the carbonite pit? Hadn't he been so graceful, like the Krayt Dragon so lethal and... and... wonderful. Hadn't he? Hadn't he flown! Wasn't he the great pilot Ben, old liar Ben, had told him he was?
"Luke, What did Vader tell you?"
Huh? Who was that? Hers was a voice as caustic as blaster back-wash, bitter and sour and... not Leia. Not Leia? Who then? One of the others, others that hung around his bed whilst he sweated out the fever under dark-bright lights.
"I... he flew..."
"Tell us Luke, what is so important?"
No no no!! My secret, my secret! Not yours! Don't you see, it's all I've got left! Nothing's right, anymore! Nothing will ever be right! Was I always so wrong? So wrong, wrong, wrong.
He only whimpered in reply and tried to roll away from the demanding voice.
"Leave him... let him... sick...."
"Father?" Help me! Help... I... They want to know! They want to know! They know!
His crying voice caught in his throat and the reply lay there waiting... praying... Help me!
Vader's voice, his mind-voice, didn't hiss. It was beautiful, it was twin suns sinking in the desert, and cool water in the noon heat. Hot and cold and wonderful. But how it hurt him.
Was that father? Was that... the others Asking him, questioning him, jabbing him with needles whilst Leia, beautiful, strong, soft Leia did nothing?
Luke, you must not tell them.
Panic. That was panic, and fear and something he added himself. Lust? Lust to tell them. Let them take this burden! Let them feel this fever!
Leia? Father? Vader? His mind burned in confusion; his skin burned in torment and no one was helping him.
Little Jedi... shush... quiet now... please...
He couldn't, he couldn't 'shush'... couldn't. His mind dragged and pulled and hauled the words into his throat with the sting of more drugs in his arm whilst he was screaming 'stop it, stop it, stop it!' in his head.
No, no, no! My secret! Mine! And I don't believe it - I don't! It's not true! It's not even true!
They were so quiet, suddenly still, and his breath wheezed in the cold med bay air. Dark figures, loomed over him (but there's no light to see) a hand reached out as if to touch his cheek (but there's no light to see!) but instead it grabbed him along his jaw and he felt that. Stars... stars it burned! Stop it!
The grip tightened and a fingernail grazed along the bone.
It was so quiet, so shocked, so deliciously unbelieving that he smiled. He smiled. And the grip got tighter. The face loomed over him, short auburn hair blazing bright with fury (but there was no light for him to see by...)
Luke you must get out... get up... That was Vader's voice; father's voice. He let it bath him; so cold against his burning skin; against the woman with the burning hair.
"Mon, you're hurting him!"
She had to, she had... to... what? Had to hate him. That was right. Had to hate him. His beautiful, sweet, adored Leia. Her honey tones were sour and sickly. Her choked, desperate pleas for her friend - farmboy, Sith-spawn, Little Jedi - were dying away in his hearing. He couldn't see. He couldn't hear. Couldn't taste; couldn't feel. His tongue was too big in his dry mouth and his mind too sickened to damn himself any more but...
Father, they know...
Leia's hands slammed down like thunderbolts, and it was a miracle that the synthesised Alderaani Maplewood conference table didn't crack open under the force of her denial.
The small council, Mothma, Ackbar, Rieekan, regarded her with expressions set in stone from a million trials across a thousand worlds. Pity, contempt, disillusionment. The oval table rocked again as she leaned forward towards the three, knowing the shocking red of her eyes and the tears crystallised on her cheeks like Hutt trails made her look frightful. That was better than looking frightened; better than the terrified truth behind the curtain of long chestnut hair.
"No. No more questions. He's been through enough."
Mothma was the only one to shift in her seat, but not from squirming under Leia's formidable gaze. She met her expression with one of equal steel and her voice was laced with poisonous loathing.
"Commander Skywalker has withheld... valuable information, Princess. He must answer our questions." Her tongue had the sting of the frosty kiss of a Hoth night against bare skin, but Leia burned with confusion and desperation.
"At least wait until he's healed!" Only force of will was keeping the tears from pricking her eyes, again, as she felt the mass confusion of the past few hours fall heavy on her shoulders.
Her plea was met only with silence.
"You're not going to heal him?" she asked, incredulous. The room didn't even shiver, and the stern expressions never wavered, even when she reeled from the realisation to sit back heavily in her chair. Her hands shook and she grasped them firmly together in front of her, skin as white as bleached bone. The frosty looks she got from those gathered in the room nipped with sharpened teeth against her reserve.
"He is the son of Darth Vader. He is dangerous. His ill health is our ally."
Her voice was so cold, so cruel, and for a minute Leia was back in the Emperor's throne room, meeting those putrid yellow eyes for the first time as she stared their revered leader down. Mon gazed sadly at her, but her eyes swam with the same loathing Leia had witnessed there, and that she herself reserved for few people in this turbulent galaxy but could well understand.
"We don't know that."
The words seemed to dance in the frigid air, laughing, and Leia's lips were turning blue with the cold, the creeping feeling of the inevitable pressing her hands behind her back. She couldn't let go, though. Luke was her friend, he was a hero, a saviour, a...
Stars... he was the spawn of her worst enemy. The thought of that black death-mask, those unrelenting strong hands and gravelled, emotionless voice, sent shivers of hate running up her spine.
Luke... You can't be his son! Did you betray us? Were you always here to kill us, did you know he would take Han? Did you want him to?
She choked on the thoughts that she couldn't push back like she could the sentences she refused to voice. Had he betrayed them? Was he a traitor? Would he have slipped the knife into their back whilst they danced in celebration?
How can you think that! He's risked everything for you! And he's lost everything now, even the father he so idolised!
The image of that slight, forlorn form curled up on the medical frigate both tore at and reassured her troubled heart. She hated to see him in such pain, so confused, so devastated, but she silently thanked the Force that he was in no fit state to live up to his heritage right now. When had it come to this? When had she become scared of the boy she had been proud to call her best friend? Had it been in her fits of tears over the past few hours, or sometime before that? Sometime when his Jedi heritage was revealed in those spooky little coincidences?
Rieekan slid a datapad towards her bloodless features and she gingerly looked down at it, tears pushed back by curiosity.
"We have records of Darth Vader's genome," he said, tone emotionless. Leia reached out a hand, forcibly stopping the shaking. She picked it up off the high, polished table, seeing her own small, scared features reflected in the dark wood.
"It's too close to Commander Skywalker's for them not to be related." Mon spoke, clearly savouring Leia's reaction.
Her hand closed around the datapad before she threw it back to bounce along the tabletop. How she hated irrefutable proof that left no room for even a last hope.
"Luke has never done anything against us." She pleaded with them, not caring for any loss of dignity. "You cannot blame him for his father's actions."
The room was silent, air conditioning humming sadly.
"Look at him! Go look at him! He's not Vader's son in anything more than medicine!" Was she saying those words? She, who had thrown herself onto the bed in her small quarters and sobbed through the long, pre-dawn hours, mourning the loss of a dear friend and hating what had replaced him? So hateful. Hate as powerful as that she felt for Vader, almost masking her... well, yes, her love for that boy.
Love? Not like Han, but it was still there, still deep, still unyielding to even this revelation, still incriminating in front of these Three who would condemn her friend, friend, for his genes.
"He's in pain, Mon! Look at him! This has devastated him."
She knew it; she could see it in those tired, feverish blue eyes. What had Vader said to him? What had he asked of him? And why hadn't Luke gone with him? All he had here was persecution; a group he had fought and suffered for who refused to even treat him.
Mothma's auburn hair was swept back to reveal eyes as hard as boron-armour. She was not the woman Leia was used to following and respecting. All she was now was a manifestation of the fear the rebels had for Vader. The Alliance believed itself fuelled by righteousness. Oftentimes it seemed to be running on hate.
"We don't know that he wasn't aware of this all along."
That was ridiculous; that was outrageous; that was what she had been thinking not a minute before.
"I doubt he would have destroyed the Death Star had he known. I don't think he would have gone three years as a Squadron Commander, destroying the Empire, if he'd known." Oh, her tone was absolutely icy now, even Mon couldn't match that. Even Hoth would tremble at those tones.
Mothma flinched a little then shook her head. "We can't know for sure. We must question him further."
Silence. They all knew they would have to go through her to get to Luke. They all knew the implications. They were all willing to do that.
"Leia, have a care. You're only incriminating yourself by doing this."
Ackbar's long, spindly hands pleaded with her, but all she felt was Mon's contemptuous stare roaming over her. They were out for blood. They were all out for blood: Luke's blood, and her blood if she was offering. Vader had hurt the Alliance too much, hunted them down too relentlessly, murdered and tortured to find -
- to find his son.
"What is this about?" she challenged them, and tired white hands spread fingers over the dark wood of her homeworld. Alderaan. Vader's glove-prints were still heavy on her shoulders, and Luke's kiss of congratulations was still tickling her cheeks. "What do you really want from him? Answers, or revenge?"
Mothma spitted Leia with a stare that reminded the Princess why this woman was leader of the Rebellion - she had an unwavering determination and a complete righteousness ingrained in her, from auburn roots to flowing white dress hem.
"If Skywalker knew, then he was undoubtedly sending Vader information of our whereabouts. The blood of thousands of rebel soldiers and innocents is on his hands-"
"Spare me the speech, Mon. This is no-"
"IF he did NOT know, then it still remains that Vader tracked us down because of him. And we cannot allow that to continue."
All thoughts of rebuttals died on Leia's lips at the implications. "What are you planning...?" she asked, disturbed by the shaking in her voice. Had she been able to claim Force sensitivity, she might have been extremely concerned about the dread crawling around her stomach. As it was she had a very bad feeling about this. Mothma was staring at her like a Hutt eyeing a pile of shining credits in need of counting, lustfully waiting for her to reach the conclusion.
"The charge is treason, Leia."
Treason. This was a war: this was a military operation. And for treason there was only one penalty. Death.
"No!" The word exploded from her lips and fell upon the Three like an avenging angel until they froze in their seats. Ackbar's long hands twitched nervously. "NO! You can't do that!"
"Leia, we will have you removed if you don't calm yourself." Her voice was steel and tannin.
"Calm?! You're about to kill the Alliance's Hero! He destroyed the Death Star, he's our only Jedi!" Well... semi-Jedi... Jedi-Sith-Force-sensitive child anyway.
Rieekan barked in distaste, "And just where do you think he got that particular talent?"
Mothma waved him down and loomed over Leia. "The charge is already filed."
"What!! You can't!-"
"You can't kill someone for their family!" She felt all the arguments that she had prepared to persuade them to start trusting Luke again crumble like Tatooine sand between her fingers, leaving her mouth with a gritty taste. "You-"
"We're not," Ackbar put in, and he was the only one that had adopted a solemn tone. Leia whirled on the Mon Calamari.
There's something not right here... they look honest, but...
"Explain," she growled. Yes she was bordering on insolence; yes she was edging closer to getting arrested or at least thrown out, but no she didn't care.
"Commander Skywalker went AWOL for well over two months he-"
"I'm sure he had a reason." Her voice was suddenly quiet, and she was grasping for confidence in front of these three, literally judge, jury and executioner.
"And you still don't want us to question him?" Mothma asked.
Leia felt as if the room around her was trembling, but it was just the shaking of muscles in her arms supporting the heavy burden of lost trust above the table. She forced her legs to bend and allow her to sit a little ungracefully back in her seat.
"When you're trying to persuade the inconvincible, always show utter confidence in your own convictions, my daughter. Your strength of will may be their undoing."
Leia drew on the teachings of her father to try and save Vader's son. Why did that seem to mock her so much? She set her face in a stony mask of disgust for those three arranged in front of her.
"I know where Luke was," she said, voice back to the dusky honey tones they were used to confronting.
There was silence for a moment and then, "And you did not think to tell us?" Mon leaned in very close and Leia flashed her a defiant glare. Hadn't these people been her friends yesterday? She could barely remember.
"I don't know exactly where, but I believe he was training to become a Jedi."
Again, more silence, more steady singing 'humm's of the air conditioning.
"It makes no difference. As an officer, he should have informed his superior-"
"-who died on Hoth-"
Mon Mothma openly glared at her now. "Please let me finish before you attack, Princess." White teeth bared against thin lips in something that might once have been a smile. "As I was saying, had this occurred, request for leave would have been filed. It was not. Commander Skywalker told no one, he just left. He left Rogue Squadron without a Leader. How many of his squad died on the jump out because there was no Luke Skywalker to lead them?" The sting in her tongue was becoming strangely familiar.
Leia sat still for several heartbeats that throbbed loud in her ears. Judge, Jury, Executioner. "Any excuse will do, won't it."
No one answered. No matter; it hadn't been a question. They wanted blood, needed to swap Rebel pain for Imperial, and saw a wonderful, enticing opportunity in Luke Skywalker...
"Morale will fall if you execute the troopers' Hero," she pointed out, clinging to that last hope; Luke's victories for the small band that would destroy him. Did he even realise his danger, curled up in the grips of a fever on the ship flying shotgun to this diplomatic shuttle?
There was a horrible, drawn silence that made her feel like the muscles in her neck were being slowly tightened like the finest of Alderaani stringed instruments. They were playing some terrible game with her.
How did she know that? Was it in Ackbar's clenched hands, or the pinched lips of General Rieekan? A terrible grating on her nerves and her vision swam with images she hadn't conceived running through her mind. A cold truth hit her like winter rain on the open Palace terraces and she pushed through the lies these three had been spinning in front of her for the past ten minutes.
This won't be official.
"Luke Skywalker will be listed as missing in action?" She spat bitterly. Rieekan could barely look at her as Leia almost leapt over the table to grab them all and try and shake some sense into them. "Why try to deceive me?! Why not just tell me you're going to murder him? Why?"
She could see that something was working behind those intelligent eyes of Mon Mothma, but she couldn't pull the facts from the woman in front of her. Why? Why? Why try and persuade her they would take an official route when she knew... she felt they had no intention of a trial for Commander Skywalker.
No one spoke, no one looked like they would answer her questions. No one told here what they really planned. No one told her they felt they couldn't possibly wait long enough for a trial, but they didn't need to. It was clear to see on Rieekan's screwed-up features.
What's going on here, Mon? What aren't you telling me? What have you got planned?
"I think we have concluded our discussions here. Luke Skywalker will be questioned further, and a trial prepared."
Prepared. Prepared. Not carried out, though. You have absolutely no intention of going through with one, do you?
She stood shakily and straightened the white ship-suit, her gut churning with disgust; more disgust even than she had felt when she recognised the truth that Luke was Vader's son. Disgust that was pure and undiluted as her gaze tore into those she had respected not a day ago, and who now plotted the death of her friend and then tried to pretend that they would even bother to do it officially.
She fixed Mon Mothma with a soul-shattering stare that made the older woman flinch a little.
"I have always stood for justice. I will see that it is carried out," she said icily, skating the lines of treason herself, as she turned on her heal and stalked from the frigid room, colder even than the Imperial Senate had been in its last days.
He drifted in macabre nightmares, curled up on the med bunk and clutching at sheets with his one good hand.
Something warm brushed his cheek and he opened seared eyes to the soft touch. Leia...
Something comforting embraced his mind and he tried to push it away. Father...
"Le-ia. It hu-rts." He was biting his lip with the fury of her touch and the words were only a little more mangled than his vision of her. This couldn't be his Princess Leia stood at his bedside, gently brushing the lonely tears of frustration that had slipped past his resolve. Couldn't be her tear-streaked face and eyes red like twin sunsets on distant Tatooine, so, so far away now.
Where were her beautiful rosy cheeks? Why was she so pale and cold? Why did she stand so far him from even as she tried to comfort him?
He should be used to the fire on his skin by now. It had been there for so long now that he could barely remember when it hadn't existed; he'd just lain here in bright med-bay lights for so long. Just lain like a stupid farmboy.
Stupid farmboy. Shoulda' stayed on the farm. Shoulda' kept on farming, stupid farmboy.
The fire was Owen's face flushed crimson in horror at what his own little horror had done; little Jedi horror. The fire was Biggs burning in the superheated atmosphere of a battered x-wing. The fire on his skin was confusion and begging for help and desperation mixed about equally. And it burned even brighter with his father's rage at the rebels' treatment of their 'hero'.
Yesterday, the thought of admitting his father was alive would have laughed and danced around him, pointing and screaming hysterically. Today, it was strangely mute and only left a muffled sting in its wake.
He shifted as little fingers brushed hair from his eyes and he tried to focus on his silent, tearful best friend. The fingers stroked him like they would a pet, oh-so protectively, oh-so absent-minded, and he saw her eyes flicker to the starscape beyond the med bay.
No, no, no... not starscape. Hyperspace.
They were running again, still running; ever since they had put him here, they had kept on running. Running from him, running far from his questions, his cries to help him; running from the cold, dispassionate, blank stares of the stars to the cover of hyperspace.
And Leia was running too, in her mind. She was tripping and falling all the way, but she was still running from him, stroking his cheek like she actually cared when all she wanted was freedom.
Freedom from him, freedom from Vader's son. And freedom was a word a rebel rarely used without thinking.
He thought perhaps those little mocking thoughts of his acceptance might have just matured and nodded sagely. He couldn't really tell, his perceptions merely mirages in the waves of heat surging through his weary body.
Still, he knew what was on her mind.
Her eyes flicked down to him and he tried to rise onto an elbow, but all he got was the nauseating spin of the world as she both approached and moved further from him. He didn't think those big brown eyes had ever looked quite so sad.
The words caught in his ears and rampaged through his feelings. Gone? Gone? Gone like Biggs, Owen, Beru? Or gone like Ben, still there haunting him? Or... gone like father, still there tormenting him?
His fuzzy tongue burned as he licked parched lips, wanting to be able to speak, wanting her help. Please! Please make this stop!
"Vader... sold him to a bounty hunter for Jabba," she said, voice deep with the sorrow he found himself wallowing in and bursts of emotions erupted like super novae in his seared mind. Hatred of Vader for taking Han, hatred of Jabba for ordering the bounty; pity for Leia for her loss and pity for himself when he saw the love shining in her eyes for that smuggler, perhaps even replacing the void left by his drugged revelation.
"Shssh... don't try to speak." Again the hand brushed his brow and subdued him. It's not like you could make it better. It's your fault.
The thoughts were sad and immediately rescinded, but he felt them. He crawled lower onto the mattress and just wished for silence. But she continued speaking.
"Luke... I..." His eyes closed. Please, don't say it! "I know it's true, they did a blood test. They..."
The disillusionment came out in a low moan as he scrunched his eyes shut and hugged his destroyed right hand to his chest, pressing deep against where the ache told him his heart existed. He didn't need that, didn't need proof!
"Lea-ve me... al-one."
He didn't mean it. She knew it. She moved to try and hug him and he tensed like she would slip a fatal shot in his arm rather than offer comfort. When she drew him into a fierce, protective hug he could only sob a little in protest, his voice completely eluding him now as the pain on his skin peaked. It hurt.
He felt tears that weren't his own roll down his back in little trails of liquid fire and he relished the fact that his sweet Leia could still show feeling, even if not for him.
"I... I can't get them to treat your fever, Luke. I'm sorry. They-"
Now she choked up. Luke had never heard her so upset that she couldn't speak. He sought out her cheek with his good left hand and wiped at the tears falling into the silence, desperately wanting to apologise. But it hurt so much to talk, so very much. He tried to gather the Force a little and give him strength, but it made every nerve in his body fire until he tensed under her slight, strong arms.
She pulled away a little and seemed to study his face then, something like determination crossing her features. She grasped his hand as she would a weapon and looked as if she would never let go.
Please don't... don't let go. I can't do this... alone....
"I'm not going anywhere."
Had he sent that to her? With the immense discipline that little Jedi Master who had seen failure written already on his young features had taught him, he formed the words carefully on his lips before breathing them.
"Don't cry. We-'ll get Han ba-ck." His voice started to falter. "I'm sorr-y. I did-n't kn-ow..." He lost it but it had been enough. She looked at him for a moment, rich chestnut hair curling and plastered on her teary cheeks. Then she leaned in closer to whisper with guarded breath in his ear.
"I don't care whose son you are. You're still Luke Skywalker. I still..." She faltered as if she couldn't say it and he knew that was true. "You're still my best friend."
His lips burned with their own fever now. Too much... too much, too fast. She looked at him sadly before turning around and his heart skipped as she moved away from him, long hair wafting behind her.
"Fit him with the new hand, and treat that fever."
The med droid approached a little warily as if sensing the fire in that small frame. Luke looked on blankly as fell back to the soft mattress.
"Madam, I've been instructed-"
"I know. I'm overruling that. Treat him. You're a medical droid, doesn't it go against your programming to deny him treatment?" Her voice was blistering in his ears, and he gave a little involuntary cry as the rest of their conversation was lost to the swirling storm of his own thoughts and pain.
She reappeared and gave a concerned if distracted look around herself, almost nervous. Then she whispered close. "He'll do what he can."
"Lei-a. What... wh-at are th-ey do-ing?" He blinked, trying to force his eyes to work and understand the plethora of emotions running over her face.
She just closed her eyes, then she shivered a little and it passed down to his left hand in her right, making him tremble. She brushed his forehead with her other hand and bent over, kissing him lightly on the lips.
You're lying! Liar! You, Ben, Yoda; liars! Tell me the truth!
The words wouldn't form and she drifted away from him like a distracted cloud in the Tatooine sky. Don't leave me! The door whispered shut behind her and he closed his own burnt eyes.
Nothing. Nothing? Liar.
They all lied. All of them. They had probably all known, all of them, all along. His teeth clenched painfully in his mouth and he felt his hands balling into fists of frustration, wanting desperately to get away from everyone who lied. But they all lied.
I did not.
His breath went from hot to cold as he passed into the shade of his thoughts, to the darker areas he tried not to tred too often.
Father? How it still burned to think the word. More torment than his tortured skin endured. But his feverish mind refused any other label.
Rest now, Little Jedi. Rest and I will find you.
Panic stirred in his gut and he could do nothing but blink his eyelids furiously in denial.
I don't want you to find me! he threw back into those shadows. Those cool, calm, deliciously comforting shadows.
The voice that returned was almost amused. Then why do you keep calling to me, my son?
Calling? Calling? He wasn't... he was... he was... he was a Dark Lord's son. Calling for his father.
It was an order and stubbornness kicked in like an afterburner. He pressed his left palm over both eyes and tried to stop the light from burning him further. No! What's going on? Tell me. You know! Everyone always knew. Don't lie to me.
Everyone always lied. Vader would be no different.
There was a pause like frustration loosed on the wind with a sigh and Luke shivered, wanting the cold to wrap him up further.
I have never lied. They want revenge from me and will take it from you.
Revenge? From him. Panic rose in his stomach as hot as the med bay air and he was struggling to breathe as another sting pricked his arm. Eyes flittered open as the droid retreated with the hypo.
Revenge? Kill me? Kill me?! I haven't... I...
Hot indignation and cold realisation were enough to make him nauseous as the sedative pulled him gently down with sorrow into the cold arms of sleep. It was so sweet and invigorating and he relished it as the reply came back to him, fuzzing and fading.
Tell me where you are, my son. I will not let them take you. I will not-
- But he wasn't even capable of listening anymore.
Mon Mothma visualised the small packet of pain suppressants almost wistfully as she continued to keep a mask of indifference on her face.
The headaches had started barely a month ago, after a brief, and in retrospect foolish, trip to Coruscant in hopes of initiating peace talks. She should have known better than to believe Palpatine would even consider making concessions to the Alliance. But she hadn't been able to resist going and trying to soothe out relations between the warring parties. Nothing had been soothed - only a little pride ruffled, and she had ended up with a swift dismissal and a debilitating illness for her troubles. And the pain had steadily been beating a path through her sanity.
Mon had always been focused, always identified her target and never lost sight of it until she achieved it; the political gundark that never let go once it got a bite. That was not true anymore. Now she had such conflicting thoughts that sometimes she lay in the stark starlight of her darkened stateroom and felt like screaming in a very un-senatorial fashion at her contradictory, belligerent thoughts.
The four hour window for the suppressants was never enough, and the medics just shook their heads in bewilderment at her condition. It was bizarre, disturbing and left her lying in a darkened room clutching her head in pain far too often. Clutching it much as the young commander-turned-sithspawn did now under the ministrations of Onebee's truth serums.
Watching the slight, blonde-headed boy writhe and blink back tears of frustration did nothing to quell the pain beginning to form in the back of her mind, but it gave her surprising satisfaction to see him struggling as hard with his own errant thoughts as she was often doing these days. The pain was severe enough for him to express it audibly and she felt a twinge of twisted jealousy that she could do no such thing lest the Council realise something was wrong with their leader.
She focused again on his reactions; the flushed skin, wide blue eyes and shaking hands. Despite Princess Organa's attempts to get him treatment, he was failing miserably at refusing their questions. That, too, gave her a queer satisfaction that made her lips stretch across bared teeth into a small smile, feeling lustful revenge rise inside her where before there would have been pity. Oh, but it was good to see Vader fail at something. One Vader, or another.
She would have to have a stern word with that little firebrand of a Princess latter about the replacement of his hand. Or perhaps sooner, given the disappointing outcome of this little ask-the-traitor session. Skywalker apparently knew nothing. Nothing more than that single truth revealed after a brief but life-altering battle on Bespin. There was nothing to be gained here but ramblings of denial and pleas for help.
She tilted her head to one side and allowed her eyes to bore into him as Rieekan asked yet another question. He blinked red eyes and the thin sheen of sweat on a feverish brow gave his skin the pale glow of starlight. His stilted, choked voice told them nothing new and Mon knew she should bring an end to this.
But, oh, it felt so good to see him writhe under their questions.
That feeling both disgusted and intrigued her and if nothing else was to come of this than to acknowledge that she harboured these feelings of distaste for the boy then so be it. The outcome, whether for security of the Alliance or for revenge, would be the same no matter the motivations.
"General, I think that will be enough."
Rieekan did not reply, but Skywalker's eyes snapped open and fixed her with a feverish gaze, locking onto hers and holding them mesmerised. His lips curled up as he shook sweaty bangs away from those intense blue eyes and spoke in that pained voice.
"You en-joy-ed th-at."
She refrained from the grim smile she wanted to give him. He would be dead soon anyway so it mattered little what he thought of her. She affected a shocked stance and then feigned gaining control over herself again. It seemed to convince Rieekan.
"No, of course not Commander."
Of course not, Vader. I didn't enjoy it; I relished it.
His eyes blinked and for a second they burned clear and shed the misty look of a drugged, ill captive. They ripped right through her, dissecting former-Senator Mon Mothma as easily as could Palpatine and Vader. She shivered a little, involuntarily, and focused on her distaste for the boy, strangely finding it difficult to conjure it up amid feelings of misgivings.
"Y-ou nee-d to ta-ke ca-re in you-r own thou-ghts." He blinked again and the injured, subdued youth was back in front of her.
Snarling a little and wondering what he meant she turned on the medical droid. "Sedate him and-" Her commlink beeped insistently. "Mothma."
"Madam, we have exited hyperspace."
Mon regarded the general and the ex-commander with something akin to glee as the droid injected the hypo in Skywalker's arm. "The Imperial Fleet...?"
"We have no indication that they have tracked us, Ma'am."
She nodded in relief and offered Skywalker a glare as the indignation of being tracked for so long using one of their own wormed in her gut as a true, absolute, real-Mon-Mothma emotion. But he was already out of it, head slumped against the pillow, in no state to offer any more Jedi tricks or insights.
"Good, thank you. Hold orbit here." She flicked it off, the turned to Rieekan looking uncertainly at the sleeping youth. "General, prepare the shuttle for Commander Skywalker."
The tone was authoritative and if he had any doubts he neither voiced them nor let them show on his face. He inclined his head in acceptance as she turned on her heel and stalked from the small bay.
Leia's head was in her hands when the doorway chimed once and opened. She didn't bother to lift weary eyes at the sound of small feet whispering across the floor, followed by the heavier strides of troopers.
Sighing inaudibly, she forced loose hair back from her face and let her gaze fall upon Mon Mothma, approaching slowly in a state of intoxicated indignation.
"Princess the council agreed that Luke Skywalker was not to be treated."
Took you long enough to find out. Truly, no one on the council wanted to face Luke Skywalker anymore, no longer their callow-hero-farmboy, but son of their worst enemy save Palpatine. How they must have whispered premonitions of the terror he would wreak if they allowed him treatment, and how they must have given that med room wide passage for those fears. Delicious, then, that those same fears that kept them away had given Luke privacy enough for treatment.
She allowed herself a small, mirthless smile and brushed the sleep from her eyes. If Mon wanted to believe she was wiping away tears, let her.
"I don't remember taking any vote on that."
She rose to her feet from the desk that was devoid of personal possessions, all of them lost on Hoth. Mothma held no sadness in those brown eyes that gazed back as hard as hull plates at the Princess, and her stance blazed with silent fury and expectation. It made Leia distinctly uneasy, her skin crawling in little ripples of confusion and disquiet.
"It was explicit," Mon spoke, her anger thick in the already tense atmosphere of the small room. There was something else there except indignation at having her order disobeyed... something like a mother scolding her child and Leia thought perhaps her righteousness was overtaking her sense of reality.
She batted the statement away with the wave of a hand. "Are you still going to question him again? I don't think we voted on that, either." Her tone was dusky with distaste.
Mon gave a bitter little smile that made Leia's mouth sting. "It has already been done."
Leia's big, brown, sad eyes widened in rage and she flicked a glance at the troopers, suddenly uneasy about their presence. They didn't acknowledge her and she was all at once aware of both her smaller stature and slighter build; feelings she got whenever preparing for a fight. There was more going on here than a battle of tongues. How she wished Chewie was here, that she hadn't insisted they leave immediately with Lando to track Fett.
How she wished they would answer her panicked calls.
"There was no time to-"
"Hutt spit! Don't give me that!" Incredibly, her finger was pointing at Mothma's chest in accusation. "Couldn't wait to see him squirm, could you?"
For a minute something passed over the older woman's features and Leia feared she had struck a little too close to the truth. The air seemed to close around them in anticipation and the room cooled perceptibly when Mon took another step into the dark. Leia shivered involuntarily as she looked into those suddenly shallow eyes and saw yellow flecks streak outwards like laser bolts.
"We needed answers."
"And you got none." She should really have tried to keep the hope out of her voice there. Some trained diplomat. But if Luke had known all along... she didn't know what she'd do. Probably leave him as she had earlier when he'd pleaded for answers. Left him... Oh Leia, what kind of friend are you? You weren't even there when they interrogated him.
She hadn't known! She hadn't! But... it would have been so easy to guess they would do this...
Mon didn't deny her statement and relief flooded into her like sunlight filtering into the cavernous halls of the Royal Palace of Alderaan that Luke's father had destroyed. Instead she leaned a little further towards Leia in a gesture that reminded of her someone else... someone...
Starlight played across those age-worn features and-
She twisted around to look out the viewport and her breath caught on her teeth. They had exited hyperspace.
Strangely, she cut off her words as the drive tail of a small rebel shuttle caught her full and absolute attention as it arced down to the planet turning at the medical frigates feet. It enraptured her, captured her gaze and chilled her mind. She felt the blood begin to drain from her face as Mon stepped closer.
Leia didn't even bother to ask. She didn't have to.
The feeling of anticipation grew around them like Chiparca roots entangling her and anchoring her feet to the floor whilst her mind was soaring high in panic and terror. A hand on her shoulder that was neither comforting nor supportive gripped in the exact same spot where Vader's glove prints still lay from the first Death Star and she had a macabre feeling of deja vu.
It wasn't a question. Mon didn't answer her; she gripped her shoulder harder and held her in check as Leia tried to step towards the viewport. The troopers in her periphery never moved as Leia trembled in her own terrified anticipation.
Beyond the small transparisteel window, probably only a matter of a few hundred metres away, the shuttle winked out of existence in a burst of incandescent fire that was quickly extinguished by the cold breath of space.
It was strange, really. Had someone asked her not ten minutes ago what she would have expected to experience upon the death of her best friend, rebel commander Luke Skywalker, she would probably have suggested bright, brilliant explosions; horror personified into chaos; the fireworks of first love and first death. Something to match the terrible tearing she felt; something that gave substance to the ripping sound echoing in her ears and loosed in a wail of despair and disbelief.
In the actual moment though, all she saw was a small, quickly quashed explosion no brighter than a candle blowing out.
Her emotions fully matched her expectations however, and there were fireworks, loud and clear and blinding, in her mind.
"You... you..." What was the proper thing for the Princess of dead Alderaan, friend of dead Luke Skywalker to say right now? Perhaps she should regain composure, stand regally and offer something contrite about her disgust. 'You had no right to do that!' perhaps? How about, 'you've just made a very big mistake, Mothma.'?
No... she had other things she wanted to say right now...
She let her anger explode brilliantly around her and whirled on the woman restraining her, hatred solidified by the small, thin-lipped smile she saw there. "You Hutt-slime cold-hearted bitch!"
Her own heart was bursting and tumbling rapidly down through her ribcage to despair as the last embers of the shuttle flittered away in small, dying comets. Dying... dying... Too late! Already dead you mean!
The thought laughed so loud she was sure her sanity had walked out of the dark, oppressive room along with her last hopes for a good, old-fashioned happy ending; slamming the door to anything resembling happiness in her face. Another dear, desperately needed companion gone. Gone. Taken from her, ripped flesh-from-flesh like... like something she couldn't quite remember but that tasted of the past; of a mulling infant and a sad, brown-eyed face she called 'mother'.
Taken, like Mother, like Father... like Han...
The cry of his name came a little late but it didn't lack any emotion for that. Mothma forgotten, she rammed her fists against the transparisteel in desperation, caged. The jolt shocked her back to the stark reality of the here-and-now and she found her arms clawing for her revered Leader before she had any conscious knowledge of the intent.
Mon stepped quickly backwards from the tempest in Leia's eyes as she hurled abuse in a very un-Princess-like manner at the woman who had betrayed her friend. The troopers, grim faces unmoved, stepped forward to intercept her and Leia forcibly relaxed her muscles and her voice. Getting herself arrested would do Luke no good.
Nothing would do Luke any good now...
The first tears ran in fiery little rivulets down her cheeks and tasted of salt in her quieted mouth. Would everyone she ever loved be taken from her?
Loved...? Yes, loved. Whose son he was didn't (hadn't) matter (mattered). Whose genes he bore (had borne) didn't change who he was (had been). How had she ever begun to think they did?
That bitch, that cold, mean, betraying bitch finally spoke and Leia felt disgust in her throat along with the salt of her tears as her tone registered as triumph. "A regrettable accident," she cooed.
Leia's fingers raked neat little slits into the hand that tried to offer false comfort and Mon quickly snatched it back, shocked.
Why are you shocked? What did you expect - acceptance, understanding, thanks?
Mon's eyes flashed yellow in pain and contempt and she fixed Leia with a gaze touched by the sick loathing she had previously reserved for Vader's son.
Vader. Oh stars... Vader was not going to be happy about this.
She felt a cruel little smile of her own pass her lips and Mon startled for a second.
"You've murdered Darth Vader's son," she spat, hearing the grief colouring her words, shocked by the vehemence there. "We've all heard the tales of his vengeance."
For a second, a precious second she would cherish for a long while like a small child hugging a favoured toy in times of darkest trouble, Mothma looked truly disturbed as if she had not even stopped to consider that thought. Had she been foolish enough to think Vader would stop chasing the rebels when there was no Luke to latch on to?
"He'll chase you down all the harder now." She felt acid on her lips. Her tears tasted of guilt and pain but her voice tasted of revenge. She lashed out with words when the troopers restrained her from approaching further. "Oh, Mon, what have you done? He will not give you mere death now."
It gave Leia no comfort; couldn't begin to patch the gaping hole in her heart, but oh, the look of terror was pure ecstasy in a world suddenly devoid of light.
"Us." The caustic voice quivered a little and Leia offered another mirthless smile.
"You. I hereby resign from my post in the Alliance."
The world shook around her, trembling at the thought that princess Leia Organa could cease being a rebel. But this wasn't the rebellion she had fought and suffered for: this was a rebellion which made her suffer, taking from her a truly kindred, brother-spirit. The loss burned bright and painful and fuelled her muscles until she could stand straight between the rebel troopers as if they were escort guards. "I'm sure your guards won't mind escorting me to the docking bay. After all, what use will two troopers be against the wrath of a Dark Lord of the Sith?"
The pale, sick face of her former leader lost all expression and the eyes lost their yellow tint as fear settled neatly into them. She offered no resistance when Princess Leia of Alderaan walked in small, shaken but righteous steps from the room.
Aboard the rebel shuttle, hyperspace throwing facets of gold and auburn across the sleeping features of Luke Skywalker, the slim form in the pilot's uniform turned in her seat and stood swiftly, stalking towards the 'dead' Jedi. The deck plates hummed into the cold dark of the cockpit, the ship undamaged from the decoy explosion of shrapnel and plastisteel set off a bare millisecond before 'jumping. A small, pale hand checked the readout on the med bunk monitors and reassured itself that he was still completely unconscious.
The figure moved away and began to strip off the stiff olive-green shirt to reveal a thin black ship-suit underneath, the trousers similarly thrown into a heap on one of the monitors clustered around the two figures.
The last piece of her disguise, the cap lying neatly on her head, was removed. Smiling grimly to no one but herself in the pale backwash of hyperspace, she shook a long, fiery coil of red-gold hair to lie loose around her shoulders.
"This is it?" Palpatine nudged the small, stunned body beneath his feet with his boot, but it gave no indication other than a little, weak moan that it felt anything. He sniffed disapprovingly. This 'thing', this weak little forlorn figure laid out before him, gazed blankly with muddy blue eyes, firelight caressing its cheek.
"Yes, my Master."
Mara stood to one side, gaze bright and alert but unimposing as her Master studied his newest toy. The Skywalker child gave a little vain attempt at movement which only brought the Emperor's gaze back to where it lay on the soft padding in front of the hearth of an open fireplace. The child was so small, so utterly tiny that he felt he could take it in his hands and just... snap. If it would only get up, the fun he could have with it! Testing just how weak it truly was, knocking it down again and again and again. He let the pleasure of that thought coat thin, cruel lips with a dextrose smile.
He knelt at its side, black robes pooling over its feet, and savoured the wide-eyed stare and the terror that passed over its lips but was never voiced. He smiled again at his Hand's swiftly delivered work.
"What did you give it?"
"Just a sedative," she replied, voice deliberately unimposing. Apparently she realised that this was a delicious moment for Palpatine, one in which he wished to relish to every last morsel and not be plagued by interruptions.
"The rebels seemed disinclined to treat him. It made his capture easy."
He cackled at the obvious lack of the word she was clearly thinking - pitifully easy. Delicious.
"Good. Mothma is better than I thought." His words crackled darker than the fire licking at the sides of the hearth, maw-like opening swallowing the small boy in front of it in red light and leaving the rest of the cavernous room in shadows. Mara stayed within those dark confines and if she wondered at his statement, she never asked.
Palpatine ran a long, cracked fingernail across the child's cheek, watching the shivers of fear spark outwards from its panic-stricken eyes and mingle with fire embers. This little thing... had Vader found it so difficult to track? Perhaps it had hidden in the smallest of holes, buried itself far from its enemy. Perhaps, but no wonder it had been found and brought to him, by Vader or not; it burned too brightly in the Force to stay hidden. As his hand brushed the warm cheek with fingertips as cold as an open grave, he felt the power trickle behind them in little rivulets released by its fear. He traced them backwards with his hands, greedily sucking up the power released by the fear, intoxicating in its potency, as sweet on the tongue as a matured red wine and as deep in flavour as hot Corellian whiskey. He found his lips curling up with pleasure from this little thing, bursting with power as did ripe fruit laden with promise on hot summer's afternoons. The fire provided the heat; the child the power.
"Did you leave any trace?" The words sounded drunk even to him and he laid his palm flat against the child's face, covering those wonderful, bright, delicious eyes and let himself swim in power such as he had not felt since... well, since Anakin.
At the momentary pause, though, he turned and pierced his Hand with yellow eyes burning with intensity beyond flames in the hearth. Underneath his suddenly tight hand, the youth whimpered from the pressure closing around its temples; eyes; mouth.
She shifted her feet barely perceptibly and met his gaze. "There was little time for planning my Master. They moved quickly; I had to convince them to let me onto the shuttle they planned to destroy with him aboard."
Palpatine laughed cruelly "Such an unglamorous end for our little Jedi." His hand squeezed further, drinking on the fear beneath his palm, the little sounds of protest ricocheting against skin as dry parchment. Oh, yes, he had done right bypassing Vader. He might never have had this opportunity otherwise.
She inclined her head but offered no comment on that. Instead, her deep voice, silky like fine Alderaanian linen, carried on her explanation, "I killed the crew, planted a shrapnel explosive and set it of off before we jumped. I believe it fooled them."
"But you do not know?" The words bore as deep into that hardened soul as his gaze did, his body framed in the firelight. Outside, beyond carved stone walls and parapets, blizzards whistled and white snow buffeted the walls in a powdery tempest as furious as his concern that this, his... toy, might be taken from him.
The word bore no remorse, no fear. Mara Jade had long since learnt that Palpatine did not enjoy weakness in his servants, only submission. But it was a hard word for her even then, bitter and small and falling on her lips like spoiled and sour crushed fruit. He let her ponder it for a few seconds broken only by the Skywalker child's feeble little complaints that neither paid any heed to.
"It seems I will have to contact dear Mon to make sure you left no errors behind." He was as surprised as she to discover no reprimand in the words. It was, perhaps, because he knew she would have done her best and the speed of the assassination was out of her control, or that he was preoccupied by his catch.
Mara inclined her head and, again, asked no questions. Palpatine leered a little at that, knowing how inquisitive she must be, both about her captive and her mission. "You wonder, don't you, my young Hand?"
There was no sound but the crying of the gales and the little Jedi. Then Mara stepped a little into the firelight. "Yes, my Master."
He looked away from her for a moment and back at the small boy, taking his hand from its face for a few seconds. It was so bursting with power. Its reconstruction would be so utterly delicious. Mara had carried out her orders, brought it to him with very little delay and no interference from its father, so why not reward her?
"Do you remember a 'Peace' mission Mothma attempted a little over a month ago?" he asked, eyes on boy. The fire made wonderful patterns on its brow, a strange tableau of alien writing on its face and side. The other side, the shadowed side, burned just as brightly in his mind as he studied it, measuring, deciding how best to break it, and then repair it. Shape it with a little pain here, a little hope there; remake it. It would require him to knock it over again and again and again and that he would enjoy.
"I do. Mon Mothma left rather abruptly." Her red-gold hair burned brightly in kindred spirit with the blazing fire and sconces dotted around the room in small pockets of light. Her tone was as icy as the turbulent weather outside though, bitterly cold and destructive. It was one of the things he valued her for.
"Oh yes, but not after we had a little chat." He cackled and the fire shivered, shadows tottering around them, drunk by the power at their feet. For itself the child barely noticed the sudden crackling of the atmosphere in apprehension and Palpatine ran a finger across the full lips admiringly. What a wonderful job the Alliance had done - subdued this little Jedi so that he was ripe for the taking with nothing more than lack of medical attention! How the little Princess would cry to see this! How delicious her tears would taste, salty and bitter with betrayal and loss, by far the best combination to savour in his enemies.
As he turned back to his Hand, he saw something in her stance; a small window to her feelings quickly covered again by an emotionless expression made cruel by the play of firelight and the howling wind. Palpatine frowned at that but continued his explanation.
"Mon agreed that it would be prudent to keep an eye on our little Jedi."
Would she see it - ah! There was the twitch in the corners of her mouth - she knew there was more.
"You planted a suggestion?" she asked, silky tones betraying no emotion.
"No... no...." Ah... he had thought she was so close! "A mind link. Quite handy, don't you agree, to be able to keep an eye on the Leader of the Alliance when she's running around the rim worlds trying to hide?"
As he spoke, he continued to drink in the fear beneath him, although to his disappointment it was subsiding a little; the sedative dragging the small form towards unconsciousness. Perhaps the rhythmic caress of the firelight also lulled it further. Palpatine pursed his lips in annoyance, having not yet discovered enough of the child to begin breaking it, or to stop revelling in his victory. His fingernail brushed neat welts into the lips until they bled a little. That helped; the pain brought something akin to awareness back to it and it struggled weakly. Much better.
"Yes. You control her thoughts?" Mara asked.
Again, when he turned back to her there was a quickly concealed disturbance on her expression and Palpatine's frown deepened. Annoyance bled with the boys lips and he studied the hard lines of his favourite assassin's face, searching.
"No, merely gave her a little perspective. Something troubles you, my dear."
She flinched, but not before her gaze flickered to the youth on the floor. The wind seemed to grow in volume outside the mansion walls, biting with icy white teeth at the large, velvet-draped windows.
He tsk-tsked her mockingly and turned back to the boy in understanding. "You dislike this?" His hands stroked the hard line of its jaw with long white fingertips. He didn't need to look at her to feel disgust light in that crumpled heart before being rapidly extinguished.
"I have no feelings for or against the boy," she said.
He laughed, a cruel little laugh but it echoed in the room, bouncing off stone walls. "No, of course not."
Deliberately opening himself to her Force presence and the feelings she could never hide from him, he let his fingernail draw a red welt along the collarbone.
He sensed the disgust again and wondered at it. It was not attraction she felt; not compassion. It was not a sense of ownership being infringed upon, nor even disgust at the actions themselves. It was... what was it? Hard to say; very hard. His Mara could be so complicated sometimes, behind a steely mask of competence she hid a turbulent storm of emotions which she never dared acknowledge. Perhaps it was jealousy? Perhaps not.
The boy was regaining his voice, he noted with some pleasure. Palpatine drank it up as Mara looked on silently, the moment of indiscretion gone as soon as the boy started to fight back, however feebly. Perhaps it was contempt at exploiting someone who could not fight back? But her Master did that on countless occasions. This girl was still a mystery sometimes.
Pure, absolute terror rolled off the child and into the Force, such turbulence that the Emperor had to concentrate on maintaining a disconnection from pure feelings and keep himself grounded in the real world, such as it was.
"I have no problems," she said, voice absolutely calm.
"Good." He pursed his lips, believing her. It was not the captivity it was... something else.
But this had been revealing, in more than one way. When you had your Jedi child subdued at your feet, how did you go about breaking it? Oh, he could hit it, maim it, hurt it. But there were little stirrings of doubt in his mind, nibbling at the corners of his half-formed ideas like vermin. Doubts that said this child wouldn't submit simply to pain. He could offer it riches and power, but it plainly didn't want that. What was left? Where was the soft spot he could prod until it burst and released that power tenfold to what he felt from it now?
It blinked up at him with sad blue eyes, lips trembling. "St-op."
The voice was small and cracked through a weeks worth of fever and confusion. It was also rich and empowering, if a little provincial.
"Why, Little Jedi?"
It flinched beautifully at the designation, muscles tightening in little waves that ran from head to toe. Palpatine waited for his answer.
The boy sucked in breath around sore red lips, shining in the firelight, but it didn't have the strength to lift its head from the stone floor to implore. Poor, little, weak thing; he would show it strength.
"Pl-ea-se." It begged much as its father had twenty years ago; without any real hope. The eyes had crystallised with fear and the fingers shook.
He looked down at his hand on its skin, then at the distraught face, and the soft spot that would yield the power, would burst this ripe fruit, was abundantly clear. Mara had shown it to him, perhaps inadvertently.
"I don't think it liked that," he commented, removing his hand, regretful of the loss of the connection to such potency."
"No," was her only comment, and he chuckled at her tartness. It was not directed at his actions, he knew, but at the reaction of the boy.
He wasn't surprised to see little trails of tears on the child's cheek, like spice veins in Kessel rock. He brushed at them. "You know who I am, child?"
"Y-es." It tried to nod, but the gesture was futile with Palpatine's strong grip on it.
"Good, good. I wish to complete your training, my little apprentice." Little, tired, terrified, strong apprentice. His mouth curled into a smile as it blanched and tried to shake its head free of his grip. The fingernails only dug in harder, shadows of their imprints deepened by the fire.
"Oh yes, in time you will understand." He stroked the cheek almost affectionately and there was a violent reaction in the child, trying to shake free. Yes, he'd found the weakness. Anakin's had been his lust for power but no such thing existed here. This boy's weakness was his innocence and Palpatine was wonderfully adept at exploiting that. This would be deliciously easy; the weak ones never truly understood what was happening to them and it left them floundering in a smothering darkness until they could no longer escape.
"Shssh now... sleep." The gnarled hand rested on his forehead and the boy's eyes rolled backwards, body slumping into unconsciousness. Palpatine studied it a moment longer before standing, cloak swirling over its face. It covered the boy like a funeral shroud.
Finally, he turned from the inert form to his Hand, standing silently by, probably understanding that she had given Palpatine the leverage he sought.
"I must consult Mothma."
"I believe she is a little busy at the moment," Mara commented. As they talked they moved from the firelight to the huge window dominating the far wall and the Emperor gazed at the little white flecks beating the glass in the moonlight. It was so futile a gesture from the storm... as futile as the child's attempts at resistance, now and in his future training. The snow pounding to get out; the child's strong heart hammering against its ribcage to escape. He did love those little ironies.
"Indeed, Vader is not happy," He chuckled, knowing Mara wondered at the hidden meaning but not divulging the necessary information. "I believe the rebellion has bitten off more than it can swallow with this latest mistake."
"It appears so." There was an unvoiced question there that the Emperor did not deign to answer. He gestured to the child.
"Take it back to its room, have it treated for that fever." It was uncommonly kind of him, but it was less fun working with injuries you hadn't yourself inflicted. "And bring it to me tomorrow."
"Yes, Master." She bowed in reverence and he didn't acknowledge it, his thoughts elsewhere; on the child's training, and on his Hand's somewhat unusual reaction to his interest in it. Did she think he had a sexual interest in it, was that it? Well, it certainly was pretty, but not in the ornamental sense. He chuckled; if he wanted sexual pleasure he wouldn't go to such trouble to kidnap a virgin farmboy. It didn't exactly seem like the type to be proficient at such things. No; it simply intrigued him.
"And then you must leave me, my dear. I have other missions for you to complete. You have done well here, and I know I need not remind that you must speak of this to no one." He gazed at the snow beyond the window; the Manari mountains of Imperial Centre obscuring the lights of the vast city at the mountain's knees.
"No, my Master."
He dismissed her with a wave of a crinkled hand, but watched with intent dirty yellow eyes as she removed the unconscious little Jedi from before the fire, carrying it into the shadows and the darkness beyond. A feral grin touched his lips at the thought of Darth Vader, out on a mission of revenge for its death, chasing down Mothma and her little rebel band with fury unmatched since the death of Amidala. Apparently, his block on the child's connection to its father was working wonderfully, bolstered by the fact that Vader fully believed the reports filtering through to him of young Skywalker's demise.
His pleasure erupted in a cold laugh and the squalls of snow laughed with him.
Leia Organa, former Princess of Alderaan, former Senator, former member of the Rebel Alliance, wondered if the misery was ever going to end. She swirled her drink around the glass before taking another sip, face wrinkling at the acrid taste that was mostly pure alcohol mixed with a little of something that tasted a little of swamp water. Lovely. Such high-class establishments she found herself drinking at these days.
She stifled the smirk behind another grimace at the taste and kept her eyes on the cantina entrance, waiting. Since leaving the medical frigate aboard a commandeered shuttle, which her conscience had demanded she return after landing, she had called Chewie and Lando and asked for a ride. Things were moving far too fast for her; far too fast. A week ago, she had been a high-ranking member of the Alliance Council. Now she was... neither rebel nor imperial; neither outlaw nor common citizen. Just Leia. All she was, had been and ever would be was described by what she had lost and it left her feeling like an empty shell of the feisty Princess Han and Luke had pulled from the heart of the Death Star.
Han and Luke; both lost to her now. Both leaving very deep scars in a heart they had managed to defrost from the icy attitude she had used as security. With them, it had felt so good to be open. Without them here it just felt vulnerable and bare; free for the whole world, alliance, senate and cantina, to scrutinise and she didn't like that. She swirled the drink again, unable to force herself to take another swig of the tepid liquid.
Several denizens had approached her in various stages of drunken disrepair, and she had waved them all off easily and with detest, emphasised by her 'borrowed' blaster. How ironic; the Princess of Alderaan who had had everything she ever wished for was now reduced to a white ship-suit and a borrowed blaster, concealed by a homespun cloak, also not hers. The strangest thing about that was that she really didn't care.
Again, she swirled the drink; again, she grimaced at the taste. Rank heat waves rose into the air around her, sweat and smoke heavy in the dark light.
"Princess?" The voice was concern and charm mixed more equally than her drink was, and she realised with some chagrin that she had swapped studying the entranceway for studying the glass.
She looked up, eyes heavy, into the wide brown eyes of a large Wookiee and the concerned, down-turned mouth of Lando Calrissian.
"Hello," she offered weakly. Her fingers rubbed at the chipped glass of her drink as they seated themselves opposite her. From their worried expressions, she knew they had figured out something had gone seriously wrong and she hadn't called them for a social visit. Perhaps the rumours were spreading faster than she could run.
"What happened?" Lando's dark skin shone with sweat and she wondered if they had run from the docking bay to the cantina.
She didn't offer a smile and found her fingertips shaking. "Luke's dead."
Oh, she could have broken that better. It was cruel on all three of them to give it out so deadpan. There was silence from across the table and she glanced back up and into outright shock.
"Luke's... what?!? He wasn't that badly injured!" Lando protested, Chewbacca strangely mute. With trepidation, she studied Calrissian's clearly upset face. He had barely known Luke; had, in fact, been instrumental in his near-capture by Vader. And here he was; caring. But then Luke tended to have that effect on people. He was instinctively likable.
Had been instinctively likable.
Tears threatened her sore cheeks, stinging her eyes as surely as the tepid alcohol in her hands would. She was squeezing the glass so hard she was sure it would shatter into as many sharp little shards as her heart had. She concentrated on the liquid as Chewbacca found his voice, still quiet but rumbling deeper than she had ever heard it before. She understood little of what he said and looked to Lando in askance.
"He asked how it happened," Lando said. He looked at the glass cracking in her hands and slowly, gently pried her dirty fingers open with his own, setting the glass back onto the table.
My hands are dirty.
My hands are dirty too, what are you afraid of?
Afraid of? Of loss, of heartbreak, of exactly what she was experiencing now. She splayed her fingers out on the metal-grill tabletop and knew she had to answer Luke's friends. "They executed him. No; actually, they murdered him."
Chewie finally found his voice. He howled in outrage and disbelief and she looked at him with big, sad brown eyes. The cantina patrons barely gave them any spare glances.
"Chewie... Chewie...! Quiet down!" Lando hissed at him, grabbing handfuls of shaggy fur to try and attract the furious Wookiee's attention before he started dicing the cantina occupants with those sharp claws extended in outrage.
Lando, a woefully inadequate hold on the Wookiee's arms stopping any carnage, looked over at Leia where she remained seated. "Why?"
This was the hard part, the part where Chewie really was likely to start tearing arms off the nearest sentient. The part she could barely say. So she only whispered it.
"They got scared. They found something out..." Come on Leia, say it. She put on an emotionless mask and steeled herself as both Lando and Chewie looked down at the quite, petite figure. "Luke was Darth Vader's son."
If possible, they were even quieter than they had been at her first revelation. Chewie stood absolutely still for a full ten seconds. Then the outburst came and she sat quietly by and let them shout at her, letting them deny it just as she had. She studied her hands, barely hearing the shouts. "It's true, they did a blood test. And then they killed him, because they got scared."
Dust motes danced in the air between them and she felt strangely detached, unwilling to touch that emotional pain again, or feel it in empathy. "He didn't know," she added, forestalling any questions about Luke's loyalty. She didn't think Chewie would have asked anyway.
Something like recognition passed over Lando's lips as he asked a question weighted with intent seriousness and wonder. "Then the reports from the fleet... Vader is massacring them. Is it because...?" Perhaps there was even pride there.
Leia simply nodded and gave a small little mirthless smile. "He's not happy."
Chewie burst back into a violent fury again, not knowing what else to do and she barely saw anything more, mind lolling in memories. When the table in front of her was violently overturned and her erstwhile drink spilled to the floor, she looked up at the Wookiee, his rage apparently spent.
"We have to go to Tatooine," she said.
Lando, she saw, did not know what to say, and so for once said nothing. He knew he had no place in their grief, having barely known Luke, but he felt it just the same. She could see it in his suddenly dimmed eyes.
She licked her lips and rose from the seat. "And... there's something I have to do."
Stop it! Leave me alone, please leave me-
"- alone!! Please!"
The fingers caressing the sensitive skin on his hip dissolved into the reality of a bright morning. The blistering heat of a fever and an open fire were replaced by brilliant sunshine and cold stone beneath his back. And, when his eyes obeyed his command to open, the whistling squalls of snow were replaced by motes of dust skipping across the air.
Luke Skywalker blinked, unmoving, mind clearing like the deserts before a sandstorm, turbulence of fitful nightmares dying on his lips. Nightmares. The unreal; the conjured that couldn't touch you like those dirty, cold hands had touched him and-
The moan was weak but not lilting, his voice no longer catching on a fever, and it came from his first look around the room where he lay, to the fireplace and velvet drapes that were cold and bare in morning sunshine. No nightmare this; no imaginary hand smothering his face, no spectra leering over him. This was reality, as cold as the stone beneath his back and as clear as the swathes of snow beyond the stone-carved window.
"Nap time's over, Skywalker." Despite the cruel taint on the silky voice, he was glad that he at least owned the name he had thought belonged to him. It seemed to be all he had left from the last time he had fallen asleep. This was no stark medical facility, no rebel barracks and no shuttle. This was... this was a cold, broad, stone-walled room that echoed with his words and diminished him to a small, confused rebel.
The world blanched in indignation at his attempts to sit up, and he knew it was too soon. Still, he rested his back against frigid stone window mounts, mountains beyond spearing a bright cloudless sky. Somehow, he doubted his own position was so bright and hopeful. From the shadows by the fireplace, the woman with the red-gold hair and the voice like silk stepped forward, her face a picture of scorn.
"Up," she ordered, cat-stepping forward across deep-pile rugs. "The Emperor will be here soon."
The Emperor!? His mind whirled and his fingers clutched at the edge of the stone window seat he sat upon as the memories of last night flooded his mind in a black, ugly tide. Fingers on his face, his chest, his hip. Sore, bruised lips pleading with a sick old man with putrid eyes to stop. The Emperor.
His back collided with the cold window at her words. A reply was not needed; he knew she saw the fear blossom in tired blue eyes and there was something there, on her face... his lips struggled to name it but his mind flailed blindly for an answer to her curiously incongruous expression. As quickly as it had appeared, it was banished as she turned expectantly to a far door, large and old like everything else in the room. His fingers gripped tighter onto the edge as the air sang in anticipation. Or perhaps it was just the furious, terrified blinking of his eyes rustling in his ears.
The door opened and Palpatine entered in a wash of black robes and dark Force waves spilling into the room. The Royal Guards in their towering red uniforms were dismissed as he spitted Luke with a gaze that ripped right through any barriers he had been attempting to construct. The humourless cackling only helped to dissolve Luke's resolve into a mushy pile of lost hopes.
The redhead stepped away from Luke and bowed reverently. Luke would have stood to present a more formidable presence in front of his enemy, but he didn't think Palpatine would be impressed by him collapsing to the floor in a terrified little heap. His heart hammered so hard he thought it would pummel itself to an early grave against his ribs.
"Dismissed, Jade." His voice was as Luke remembered; salty and sharp like quicklime.
Jade whispered from the room and left Jedi and Sith facing each other in an uneasy standoff. Luke found his feet under him and stepped forward boldly, banishing memories of his crackled, spindly hands on him from last night. "Emperor Palpatine." He inclined his head, trying to mask his fear behind icy determination, not bowing; there was no respect in his stance. Loathing perhaps, but no reverence.
Palpatine stepped within breathing distance of Luke and laughed, teeth and eyes shining yellow in the sunlight. Luke almost wished he was still delirious and didn't have to confront this.
And why was he confronting this, anyway? Where was Vader, if his plan had been to bring 'Skywalker' before the Emperor? And where was Leia, beautiful loyal Leia, if Vader had not brought him here? Where were his friends, and more importantly his enemies? And where was his self-confidence and unwavering hope? Were they all bunkered out together under the same fear rushing through his veins like glitterstem?
In his reverie, he never saw the spindly white hand reach out for his cheek before chalky nails brushed against it, Luke's disgust boiling hot in his stomach. He backed against the stone ledge of the window-seat and he wished fervently to have the fever back and to escape reality. He wished even harder that he knew how in Sith he had gotten here.
"You're confused, my young Apprentice. Do not be, it is very simple and soon you will understand all." The hands raked over his cheek almost affectionately and Luke nearly, nearly pushed the dictator from him. But he didn't; he'd heard the stories of Palpatine's wrath. It was not time to test it yet.
"Where am I? Where's Leia?" Only hurriedly assembled Jedi resolve allowed him to ask.
Palpatine looked at him quizzically and patted his cheek. "It matters not. You will be here a while yet, that is all you need know. Concern yourself with more important things."
After a life under the shadows of half-truths and outright lies, Luke disliked intently being kept in ignorance. It must have shown on his face because Palpatine laughed as he turned away to a large seat by the fire, robes billowing behind him in a black cloud that disturbed the sunny day.
"What do you want?" He barely realised his hands were shaking and his cheek felt immeasurably dirty as Palpatine hid in the shadows of the chair.
"Why, nothing more than you, utterly and completely, my young Apprentice."
Luke's resolve faltered for a moment at that, his heart fluttering in persecution and detest. To be owned? To be controlled? By this disgusting slime? Never.
Somehow, he had expected, hoped for even, a better reaction than mocking laughter from the dictator. It turned his blood grey.
"Sit." A bleached white hand indicated the chair opposite Palpatine's. When he didn't move the Emperor scowled and a rush of air like dust over parchment indicated his displeasure. "Sit, and be thankful I do not demand you kneel permanently in my presence."
No, but there will come a time for that, won't there?
He pursed his lips in annoyance at the future whispering in his ear. He didn't like it. He sat.
"You wonder, no?"
"Yes." He was well aware of the darkness he sat in, of the darkness he was facing, but he could not deny his confusion, nor did he try. "I don't understand." Was that a weakness he had revealed? No - Palpatine well understood his confusion. Voicing it hurt no one, and ignorance was his worst enemy here.
"Then let me explain. I rescued you." His hands lay flush with the arms of the large chair and the smile mocked him until Luke felt very small, very open. He felt like those eyes tore his dignity; his confidence from him layer by layer to reveal a frightened little Jedi underneath. And where was Vader in all this?
"You... what?" Diplomacy was never his thing. The words sounded provincial in his ears. Palpatine's steady gaze was stripping him of the years in the Alliance, of his training, leaving only a callow farmboy underneath. One who lived in lies and ignorance.
"The Alliance may swear allegiance to the Force, but in reality they only revere it as a primitive culture rushes to worship a malevolent God. In fear. They feared you, they tried to destroy you. But then, you knew they would." He leered at Luke and Luke shifted uncomfortably in the deep seat.
-... they want revenge from me and will take it from you... -
The question was almost on his lips, the question about whether it was because of his blood relations, but his mind banished it in a fit of denial. He shook his head barely perceptibly and knew Palpatine had seen it anyway. "Because of Vader?"
The word was pleasurable in the dictator's lips and sour in Luke's mind. "Because of my father."
Palpatine looked at him in askance and confusion, and that sent a shiver up Luke's spine, his throat suddenly dry.
Luke's heart, as much as it had been clambering for an escape route from his chest, suddenly stopped and he imagined Palpatine holding it bleeding in those white, white hands, leering. "Vader."
The chuckle was ghastly, and it tore through him, turbolaser fire through flimsiplast. "Your father? Ahhh... Little Jedi!! Foolish Jedi!! But... ah, so cunning! Vader tried to win you through your heart, by giving you a hope to run to!"
The laugh was too much for Luke's nerves and his fingers dug into the arms of the chair, world spinning madly. "He's not...."
He was so still, so very still, his heart truly torn from his chest. Played; like a foolish, callow, lowly farmboy. "No! That's not true! That's-"
"Impossible? I'm afraid not. Ah, but what a clever ploy by Vader. I must congratulate him on the attempt." The eyes took on a distant look and Luke barely knew he was standing, stalking the Darksider in front of him. Lost, found, and lost again. Abandoned, reclaimed, rejected. It brought burning tears to tired eyes.
Palpatine seemed utterly unconcerned, almost contemptuous, about the boy in front of him, hands balled in fury and loss. "Who are you calling, Little Jedi?! Your father died twenty years ago, slain by the man you gave his title to! Oh - this is delicious. He would have died twice over!"
Would his mind never stop giving Vader that designation now? Where it had been so hard to accept, now it was hard to destroy. And, indeed, there was absolutely no answer to his pleas. He choked down a cry of anguish, feeling like nothing more than a little Force-sensitive doll for the rulers of the galaxy to play with when they got bored or melancholy.
"You have no father, little Jedi. You're so alone."
Oh, that was too cruel. Weren't those the words he had screamed in his delirious mind when Leia had herded him to the medical frigate? Wasn't that a cry of denial now turned into lost hope? Truly, Palpatine sat in front of him now with Luke's heart neatly removed from his chest.
Enraged, Luke lunged for the small Darksider. He was so weak, so frail; surely Luke's bare hands could strangle the life from him?
He was in for a sore disappointment. Palpatine came swiftly to his feet as the attacked was launched and blistering white-hot sparks erupted from his fingers. The shock barely registered before the lightning struck Luke. His forward momentum reversed, he slammed back into the chair he had vacated, crying out. But now, now, he no longer had anyone to cry to. Leia and the Alliance wanted him dead, and his father was once again lost to him. Who was left? Only the Emperor and his cackling yellow eyes.
The despot advanced, bony fingers spread and he leered as another shot burst through the weak mental shielding Luke threw up. He writhed in pain, not hearing his own pleas to stop, and neither did Palpatine. There was a sickening look of glee on the old man's face.
Finally, after seconds of sheeting pain, Luke opened burning eyes to find Palpatine stretching out a hand for his cheek and the tears rolling large down his face. Tears are for the weak... and the truly desperate.
Luke jerked his head backwards, was rewarded by hitting the back of his head on the chair. His skin screamed at him, but his desperation and despair hollered mockingly as Palpatine's hand settled over his bruised lips.
"Never do that again." There was no need for threats; they were implicit. Luke shuddered as the hand brushed his lips.
"Little Jedi," he whispered, proximity choking, "you have lost so much. Your friends, your family, yourself. And they have all lied haven't they? Lied to the innocence they thought to use as they willed? Let me tell you a truth, my Little Jedi." The Emperor's breath whispered against Luke's skin and he thought he might gag, but the words echoed around his head enticingly. "What you learn here will be your comfort. The power you yield will be companionship. The Force is the only truth you will ever know, and its intimacy will replace the human comforts that would burn and betray you. And knowledge - that too you can have. Never to be deceived again. Never to be vulnerable with your innocence. Never to hurt like this again." His hands caressed Luke's chest in ownership over where his heart lay. "Will you take that? Will you forsake ignorance and learn?"
His mouth faltered under the cold fingers, and he wanted to throw Palpatine off him but... where would he run to? Who would he run to? The only embrace left was in the freezing snow beyond these stone walls, or in the misery of life as a fugitive from two would-be governments.
"No." His voice was hoarse and they both heard the lie.
Where were his Jedi skills? Where was his control? It was lost - lost from the moment the Emperor had touched him and threatened his dignity, swallowed by the black hole that resided in his heart when he had lost his father. And, more than that, it was doomed from the very outset, from the moment he had left Dagobah.
Dagobah - he had thought Ben and Yoda had wanted him to stay because he lacked the skills. Now he thought it was because he lacked knowledge, because he wallowed in ignorance. But that, after all, was their fault!
"So, Yoda lives still? Do not fear, I will kill him for you," Palpatine whispered and Luke felt the tears of outrage slip over Palpatine's fingertips.
"Hush, child. Do not be weak, I can show you such power that you will never cry again. Take it."
He shook his head, trying to clear the fog that had descended, Palpatine's formidable presence looming over him, offering, enticing, intoxicating in a dark cloud of forbidden power. He didn't trust himself to answer. The dictator saw this and softly, with deceptive care, planted old cracked lips in a kiss on Luke's forehead, brushing the tears away with his thumb.
Palpatine laughed at his mental cry and whispered. "There is no one to hear you, Little Jedi. You, you're mind and body, are now mine."
Palpatine was wrong. There was someone to hear Luke's pleas, and his cries plagued her with nightmares she could never hope to understand the import of.
Sand whisked around her feet and stirred the hem of her farmer's skirt as she stared down at the small pile of bleached rocks that was all that remained of Owen and Beru Lars. Twin suns blistered the air with waves of sweltering heat and the outcropping of rock soaked it up easily. Leia Organa did not. She shifted uneasily, feeling her skin prickling and burning in front of the shallow grave and monument Luke had constructed before joining General Kenobi.
Tatooine; the Dune Sea. Where this mess had really started, where Artoo and Threepio had stumbled from a torched escape pod. They had been here several days now before Leia had gathered the courage to come out to this place, whilst Lando and Chewie continued to monitor for Boba Fett arriving with his bounty. Tatooine to rebellion to Tatooine: full circle.
Soft, mournful currents of sand drifted down to her and she let her gaze rest on the grave for a long while, the homestead in the distance, reclaimed by native farmers, serving as a suitable backdrop. The tears were overwhelming her pride, standing here at the beginning. Or perhaps it was merely the end that had blossomed from here.
She was kneeling at the edge of the pyramidal heap of desert shrapnel, reading the small placard at the head of it, mind registering the words and their importance to the Tatooine farmboy-turned pilot- turned Jedi.
Owen and Beru Lars.
There was no date, no epitaph. Just names. Apparently for Luke that had spoken volumes.
Her hand toyed with loose sand at its base and her eyes toyed with the idea of crying. Again. Instead, she reached into her small holdall and removed the scrap of soft material there, laying it in the white dust. The black material sucked up the sunlight and was soon hot to touch as she just stared at it for long seconds, so reluctant to take this final step. Finally embracing the inevitable, she unfolded the corners and laid it out on the ground, looking at the contents, somewhat melancholy. Her fingers traced the outline of the rank insignia for a few moments and she allowed herself to think back to her friend, almost imagining his wide blue eyes. Almost seeing him, backlit by sunshine and heavy velvet drapes. She shook the image from her head, wondering where it had appeared from, sure she had never seen him like that. Tears touched her cheeks unbidden as she closed the material again, sealing away the last part of Luke Skywalker and placing it beneath the placard with a delicate, reluctant sigh.
"I know you would have been proud," she murmured to the dead beneath her feet.
"They would have been outraged."
The ground might have shuddered or she might have trembled; it mattered little which. Her heart froze in her chest, touched by a shard of ice and she couldn't move, frozen with her fingers on the small bundle. Her breath rushed out of her in a strangled cry and she kicked around in the sand, falling clumsily onto her back and trying to both crawl away and stand.
"What... what are you doing here?" Her fingers fumbled at her hip for a nonexistent blaster, still onboard the Falcon along with Lando and Chewie.
Darth Vader approached from the top of the dune, shadow stretching for her. "I am not going to hurt you, stop crawling away," he rumbled, voice dark and heavy.
She tried to gather her wits about herself; instead gathered her dress and stood slowly, considering going for her commlink. Sand grazed her skin as she swiped angrily at the tears on her cheeks, not wanting the Dark Lord to see her like this. Not since... the last time. She shuddered in the heat. His black cloak wove little trails in the sand behind him as he stepped forward and she halted him with a sharp, nervous glare.
"Well?" She brushed sand from her skirt and moved to place the grave between herself and the Dark Lord responsible for her current misery. The black visage stepped down from the dune towards her and Leia's feet threatened to drop her to the ground again in fear.
"What are you doing here?" he countered with no animosity, only sadness, stepping forward until his feet touched the bleached pile of stones. The jet black of his armour was out of place in the sandy wastes, and yet he was strangely also a part of the desert. She shook her head, trying to clear the twisted perception.
Her fingers twitched unhappily for a blaster. "Trying to find some closure. You?"
"Trying to find a beginning," he answered.
She looked up into the black mask that had tainted her nightmares up until very recently before being replaced by something deeper, darker. There was a lump in her throat that was very difficult to swallow past as she kept a steady gaze on her friend's father. Luke's father, at his guardian's grave... and, in his stance, he was clearly troubled. That was not something she was used to seeing on the Dark Lord. Even through her fear and shock, a small thought recognised that this enigma somehow seemed less terrifying when he had a history as Anakin Skywalker.
"I thought you were out massacring the Alliance," she bit out, but was dismayed by her own lack of animosity. After all, perhaps he was merely here to mourn Luke, much as she was... empathy with Darth Vader? The thought made her sick.
"What happened? Too easy?"
He tilted that black-masked head to one side and a ripple of fear rushed through her at recognition of one of Luke's mannerisms. "No, Princess."
"What then?" This new, strangely pensive Dark Lord was making her distinctly uneasy. If he was here to kill her, why not now?
"I heard you were here," he said. Her breath caught in her throat and she skidded back from the grave, sand screening her from him momentarily. When it cleared, he had made no move towards here. "I merely wish to talk."
Her fists clenched and unclenched. "Allright."
There were other options, like screaming or running or attacking, but somehow she wasn't inclined to take them. This was just too un-Vader-like for her.
"You left the Alliance shortly after Luke's death." To her surprise, as he spoke he leant forward over the shallow grave and lifted the fabric she had laid there, opening it and studying it with a regretful sigh. Leia felt her eye's bulge.
"Immediately after... was he really your son?" Had those words really come from her mouth? She scarcely believed she could have voiced that thought.
"Yes." That was pain. It was the first time she had heard it in Vader's voice and the humanity of it was shocking. "Princess, the reports I have are... somewhat sketchy. What happened?" He folded the fabric and replaced it under the plaque; she studied it a moment before answering.
"I..." She gave herself a heartbeat before continuing. "They got scared, he was talking deliriously when we got him out from Bespin." She shot a glance at Vader that truly was hateful. "Something about a secret. Mothma was there, she wanted to know what it was. They drugged him. He told them. There was a meeting, a sham really; they'd already decided. They... tried to convince me they would have a trial for treason."
His questioning gaze made her pause and the air grew cold around her, forcing a shiver through her muscles. A small stone tumbled from the grave to a clattering stop.
"They? Or Mon Mothma?"
Her gasp escaped in a little strangled exclamation. How had he known she was thinking that? Was he inside her head? Her eyes narrowed. "I... it was the Council that agreed-"
"Are you sure?"
She hugged her arms around her waist self-consciously as the cold black eyes of the mask tore through her, before she fetched the dignity and self-confidence of Senator Organa from the deep confines of her empty world and stood up straight. "Mon did seem a little... over-eager," she admitted. The images swirled in her head - Ackbar and Rieekan sitting passively by, not meeting her gaze, and Mon, so unlike the woman she knew, eyes shining in hatred, holding her back as the shuttle exploded.
"I see..." Oh, that was cold. That was so cold. Somehow, she almost pitied Mothma for her mistake now. Somehow, she knew the price was going to be very high indeed.
She watched Vader's fist curl in barely contained anger and hatred and carried on, finally speaking the truth she knew - Mon, not the Council, was responsible. "I knew she planned no such thing but I... I didn't expect her to move so fast!" She knew she was pleading with both herself and The Father not to blame her, but she continued, "I was trying to contact friends, trying to get help to get him away and then... then they just put him on a shuttle and blew it up."
Her voice had trailed to hoarse whisper and Vader was leaning intently forwards. "You're certain the shuttle was destroyed?"
Leia looked up sharply and, unknowingly, took a step around the grave head to face Vader, Destiny and wonderment cheering her on. "I saw it!" she growled.
"Then I am wrong." There was a queer sadness in that voice, resignation almost, and it made her heart crumple.
He looked up at her and waved a gloved hand through the air. "I had... hoped the rumours were false."
She shook her head sadly, "Why?" The word was quiet, so quiet, it whispered on the warm Tatooine winds and with his prolonged silence, she thought perhaps he hadn't heard her. But he had.
"He's died before, and I felt it. You both died. This time... I felt nothing," he said, then he looked up as she inhaled sharply.
"What? When?" The idea - it was ridiculous, and yet something whispered in her that it was nothing more than the truth. There was more silence, more ominous silence as still as a fresh corpse.
She paled, memories flooding, instinctively touching her cheek to where the vanished scars had been from her duel with Vader, stepping hurriedly backwards at the dark memories of a particularly cold Darth Vader beating her and Luke to small tattered corpses in a dusty, crumpled temple. Mimban. "No... we can't have died. That's not possible."
"It is. Luke healed you, and himself, somehow. Or did you think your injuries disappeared into mere nightmares?"
She flinched at that word - nightmares - and he saw it. The hand stretched out invitingly for her, maybe even to offer her some support, but before he could question her, she growled at him in her deepest, duskiest voice. "You...! Some father. You beat him; tried to kill him! Did kill him, and me - I remember; it was so bright! " The memories pushed through more brilliant than the Tatooine sunshine and she pulled herself away from them, still wondering but unwilling to look at them. "Why?"
He sighed and it whispered up with the heat waves. "That was not me."
She shook, "Had a bout of insanity, did we?" Sarcasm aimed at a Dark Lord; that was tempting fate.
He barely acknowledged it. "No. It was not me. Palpatine was... experimenting with clone technology. I think he thought it a perverse irony to clone me and then torture the clones until they had to be placed inside suits such as this. They went a little... crazy. And they had no knowledge that I was once Anakin Skywalker. When I found out I killed them all. Except one Palpatine already had out on a mission. To Mimban. So the clone you encountered, and killed, did not know Luke was my son." Leia was looking unconvinced. "I have a mechanical right hand, Princess. I lost it after Luke blew up the Death Star, as punishment. The clone Luke killed had a flesh hand. Did he tell you that?"
Leia gaped at the Dark Lord, at the revelation. "Yes..." She closed her eyes. "And you... you felt Luke die after the duel?"
"Yes... and you. It was... disturbing. If brief," he admitted, and Leia almost had the insane urge to offer a hand in comfort. The idea mocked her as she reopened her eyes.
"And you didn't feel that this time?"
"But you can't... sense him now?"
The answer was a long time coming, "No."
They stood silent for several minutes. Leia watched the sand churn at the graves feet. "Perhaps it was because he was unconscious."
"I doubt that."
She stared up into the black mask that conveyed nothing of the emotion in his voice; emotion he was trying hard to conceal. "If you've... hoped this all along, why haven't you been out looking for him all along?"
The stories she'd had over the past two weeks... they were chilling. Vader in a rage was deadly, and not a quick, neat death either. The man in front of her though was not shaking with rage, was not demanding her blood for failing his son. He was... despondent. She might have said afraid even, but she had never known Darth Vader to know fear.
"I was... consumed. I felt a loss in connection, and with the stories... I was a little angry."
'A little...'? That was a liberal use of the word. The silence continued until she sighed. "Is it... possible? I saw the shuttle destroyed." The words were dry and painful.
"I ask again; are you certain?"
She flinched at the words, taking a step backwards before she could stop herself, remembering those words from her time spent in his company aboard the Death Star. Her heart beat wildly.
"I... thought so." She was no longer sure. Maybe her mind was just being messed up by those weird, macabre nightmares.
"Did they retrieve bodies?" Was that... hope?
"I doubt they would bother," she admitted. Could it be possible... could she allow herself hope too? The sorrowful blue eyes from her nightmares appeared to plead with her to try.
The eager steps of Darth Vader brought him up to her and she didn't flinch. "Princess, you seem to have a preoccupation with nightmares."
Her head snapped upwards, but as she tried to move backwards from him, his hand closed around her arm and held her there. There was something intent in his stance, something desperate. "Get out of my head!" she snarled.
"Well?" His voice was mesmerising.
"I... I've been having dreams..." She glowered, trying to pull her arm free, trying to stop fresh tears and wishing for strength. All she got were some pretty bruises.
She yanked hard on her arm. "They're none of your business, Vader!"
He sighed and shook his head, "And you were being so co-operative... Princess, it may be important. You... heard Luke on Bespin didn't you? Do you hear him now?" His voice pleaded with her to confirm it.
She froze and knew he had his answer. Yes she heard Luke; heard him screaming for someone to come to his aid. Guttural cries of lost hope. But they were only nightmares... weren't they? "Yes..."
The rhythmic hiss of the respirator stopped and she looked up startled. "I'm missing something here.... something important..." he murmured.
The uneasy silence was interrupted by the sound of feet skidding in the sand a strangled cry of surprise. Dark Lord and Princess turned to the new arrivals.
"Leia! Fett's here! He -"
Lando shut up very abruptly when he spotted the dark figure looming over her. Chewie, bowcaster aiming, snarled at Leia to get out of the way. She couldn't even if she'd been willing to.
"Stop and she comes to no harm." Vader growled, but to Leia there seemed to be less menace there than she had expected. Chewie faltered but didn't drop the weapon.
She barely even heard the exchanged threats, her mind bursting with confusion and indecision. Han! He was here! Fett was here! And the man that had taken him from had his hand clamped firmly around her arm. She felt desperate, needing to escape, needing to rush after Fett. And... and leave Vader here, after discovering a faint little sliver of hope she had thought lost? The idea was ludicrous. But... Han...
The hot wind stirring sand around their feet seemed to whispering at her to make a decision, and she knew it was right. If she chose wrong, they would all pay dearly. But... there was something different about Vader. Perhaps it was just her perception of him as Luke's father. Or perhaps it was something more, something of that infamous Skywalker heart. Regardless, she had to choose now: oppose Vader and go after Han. Or go with Vader on the slim, wild hope Luke was still out there. Both made her heart crumble like the sand under their feet. But maybe... maybe she could do both...
Decision made, she whirled to her two companions. "Stop! Chewie!" she called, and the Wookiee faltered some more. She turned to Luke's father, sighing in resignation.
"I want to find Luke, but I cannot abandon Han."
He never moved, and probably he had expected just this. "I see."
She fought the compulsion to fight the Sith and said something she could never have expected to pass her lips. Something which bound these two together, forming a truce based solely on trust. "If you help me get Han out, I'll help you find Luke," she implored.
There it was. Co-operation, alliance, trust. Stars, it made her stomach turn. But it also felt like the right thing to do.
Chewie and Lando, bare metres from them, both inhaled sharply at her words, although they probably didn't understand their true import for Leia Organa, staunch soldier against anything and everything Vader stood for. Except that he now stood for Luke, and she couldn't fight him.
The mask considered her and she felt hope ripple down her arms beneath black-gloved fingers. "And if I refuse?"
"I don't think Chewie will hold out much longer." She smiled sweetly. He chuckled with scorn - actually chuckled - and released her.
"It isn't wise to upset a Wookiee, although I think I could handle him," he said, bass tones rumbling. "Very well, but you must tell me: what do these nightmares show you?"
The mention of them; it sent her stomach into tight little corkscrews. He looked visibly shaken as she paled at the memories, bile rising in her throat as Lando and Chewie approached cautiously, not understanding the pact made between the enemies but honouring Leia's decision.
"You... you don't want to know." The words were caustic.
Vader leaned in closer and this time his voice definitely trembled with fear and pain at what she might say. Fear for his son, she realised. Human, mortal fear. "Tell me..."
"Pain, darkness. And..."
He looked at her and suddenly her world consisted only of herself, her nemesis and her nightmares. "Death."
Palpatine watched it try to hold the tattered skin together, fully appreciative of the sight. It glared a little blankly at him and struggled to stand. When it couldn't, when it let out a little moan of dismay, Palpatine turned his back on it and moved away giving a soft chuckle. The Skywalker child remained kneeling on the rug, face furious and red with unshed tears as one hand clutched around the wound in its left arm. Palpatine circled the boy.
"You do insist on learning in a most difficult manner," he commented, watching the child stiffen as he moved behind it where it couldn't see, where its bruised back wouldn't allow it to turn to. Its hands slipped down from the wound when the skin became too slippery and there was a sigh of pain.
"You do not control me."
From the stiff words, Palpatine knew they were spoken through painfully clenched teeth. He snaked a hand into the mop of blonde hair, rake-thin fingers catching on sweaty tangles. "Really?"
The pressure kept it down, but Skywalker tried to stand all the same. His fingers tightened in the hair.
"Well?" There was no answer, only the hiss of a forced intake of breath. "You understand so little, my young apprentice. But understand this fact and things may be a little easier on you." He knew there would be no answer, no admission - yet. He removed his fingers and continued his circle, the disgust and fearing pouring off his Little Jedi and he lapped it up.
This was more fun than he had anticipated. He beat it and it always got back up; would it never learn that he would simply knock it back down again? Again and again and again...
No, it understood. The furious face told him that. But it couldn't stop the denial that fell on its lips every time it spoke. Such will power. But then, if it was weak in spirit, what use would he have for it? He patted the furious face with his palm and it remained kneeling. Good. Perhaps it was learning after all.
"I will not turn. I will die first." The words were washed in na?ve idealism Palpatine was so enjoying destroying, piece by ripped-up little piece. And it tore so well.
"That will not be necessary," he cackled and crouched to the figure, took its bleeding arm between white fingers. He ran his fingers over the deep tear, saw the question pass over the boys lips, before they were set stubbornly into silence.
"I hear your thoughts. There is no need to refrain from asking."
The glare could not have contained more hatred. Then it shivered as Palpatine basked in the power that rushed up to meet the angry feelings. The Jedi mantra was repeated in its darkened mind and the child calmed. It stared back defiantly, not looking at the cut Palpatine was healing, little shivers in its back betraying the pain.
But it didn't speak.
"It is a simple trick," Palpatine answered anyway. The child shook with rage at having its thoughts violated. In truth, there was no reason not to think it would be curious about how the Emperor had broken the skin by a mere look. He did not have to probe its mind to know that. "One you will perhaps learn, one day." It was simple matter manipulation to open a wound like that, not unlike the floating-rocks trick all Jedi learned. He sneered at the thought, contempt easily seen on his cracked features.
It inhaled sharply at the look of distaste on the Emperor's face. Looking at the defiant, weak little child he smiled. That seemed to unnerve it more than the stroking did. "Will you not allow me to show you such power?"
It struggled to stand, but its muscles refused the order, still tingling from lightning. In two weeks since beginning this 'training' Palpatine had still not tired of seeing those tendrils snake over the boys skin. He rubbed the tip of his tongue over his teeth thoughtfully, almost regretful that there were definite signs of change in the boy and such punishment might not be necessary in a few more weeks. That would indeed be a shame.
"No," It hissed. "I will not turn."
There was such defiance there, unbridled emotion spilling out and making the words more damning than any action the child could have taken. Every denial only pushed it further.
"Indeed. Why not?"
The blonde head snapped upwards in surprise and the lips parted in horror. Yes, it really was quite beautiful, that innocence. Beautiful, trembling and obedient. The pleasure washed through him at the sting in the voice, so misguided. "The Darkside is evil. It is everything I fight against. That is not how... how we're supposed to use the Force."
The laughter that came from Palpatine was the first true mirth he had expressed in a very long while. He stood, voice crackling and bounding back to him off stone walls. The child shivered uncertainly.
"Young fool! You still don't understand." He stood and turned, the cape snapping at the boy's face. He felt familiar emotions rip through that small, slight body. Fear, loneliness, confusion. That played into his hands wonderfully and he manipulated them with all the skill of decades worth of mastery of the Sith ways. The child never even saw the trap.
Yes, indeed it was changing. Only a few days ago it would have let him punish it before uttering those words. "The Force is a tool. Nothing more," he said. He flushed the robes out as he sat in the chair. The boy remained kneeling, confusion on its tired face.
"That's... not true. It's too natural, too old. It's... too alive to be used as a tool. You can't-"
It was almost gaining in confidence. He slapped it back down.
"Fool. Listen to what you say. You protest because you believe it is ethereal, some God-like entity." He leaned closer to the child and drew it towards him with a stirring of the Force. It crawled, obedient. Trembling and obedient and beautiful. "You would describe sentience where there is no such thing. The Force is the energy field from all life, but is not itself alive. And being natural makes it above our sentient demands? Fool!"
He snatched a handful of the black tunic and drew Skywalker closer. It whimpered in pain before returning to a defiant and... yes, interested expression.
"The Force is no more alive than is fire and it is just as 'natural'." One gnarled hand indicated the flames in the fireplace. "It is a creation of the living but we don't claim it to actually live, think, act!" The claws of his fingernails tightened. "The Jedi were fools and were consumed by the fire they revered but refused to use. They didn't tame it and it took control. They watched, listened, passively observing so much that they never noticed it enclose and destroy them. Fools, just as you are."
It was struggling for words, eyes wide with fear. Its gaze flickered to the large hearth, then back to Palpatine, and he saw understanding blossom there. But it was not spoken.
"But... the Darkside-"
"As you know it, it is nothing more than a Jedi horror story." He shook his head, eyes shining. "The Force must be used, there is no other way."
The child shook its head furiously. Confusion and macabre understanding were shaken from its face hurriedly. "No. The Jedi use it, but they use it for the good. They use the Lightside. You are the Darkside, and that is nothing more than pure evil."
Palpatine stood in a swirl of angry robes. He stalked forwards and the child began to claw uncertainly backwards away from the Emperor, defiance crumbling.
"The Force does not care how we use it - it is not capable of caring. Does the fire care what you burn and what you warm? There is no discrimination there - it is power, pure and simple. It only relishes being used at all." He crouched over the figure. "What matters, if something must, is who uses it."
The little, weak thing shook its head frantically, trying to block out the words that so went against what its teachers had told it. It licked dry lips uncertainly. Before it could speak he placed two fingers over its mouth, knowing this would shatter its concentration.
"And you, Luke Skywalker, are nothing but darkness."
It blanched and the light seemed to fade a little from around him, sconces flickering.
Oh, but the word was so uncertain, so scared. He grabbed the back of its neck with spindly sharp hands and wrenched it backwards until sick yellow met terrified blue. "Yes. You; who kills indiscriminately, who murders millions on the Death Star. You, my little Jedi murderer were born for the Darkside," he spat.
Feelings of anger and disgust poured through the small frame. And loneliness - so alone. Little abandoned, unloved Jedi. Little, misguided, betrayed Jedi. The feelings were unstoppable, everything it had stood for kicked out beneath its feet. Palpatine's hand closed tighter as he invaded the fragile, shattering mind and he delighted in what he felt being voiced there.
Friends, family; loved ones and those he hated too; all were destroyed. None of them cared. None came for him. All gave him pain and he delivered it back tenfold. Because he was born for the Darkside.
It sobbed briefly and then the eyes snapped open in panic. It felt it. It felt that power - he could see it clearly in those seared eyes.
It blinked and in that second, in that single eye-blink the sconces winked out, the fire in the hearth coughed, exploded, died, and the ancient glass on paintings and light fittings burst into small, wicked shards and rained down in a hard storm. Dark energy poured, delicious and warm, over both of them and it cried out, so loud but it did nothing to stop it.
Palpatine laughed in something that might have been triumph, but felt more like delight.
Leia set the make-shift mirror to one side, lit by a small glow lamp. She studied the reflection only briefly, not willing to see the tired eyes or weary, sand-bitten skin. In the small bunk aboard the Falcon the light was dark but it was enough to work by. She reached up uncertainly and undid the clasp to her hair, tangles of plaits falling to her shoulders. Splaying her fingers, she ran her hands through them until her long chestnut hair laying in a curtain around her.
A curtain she could no longer hide behind like a spoilt Alderaani Princess, or an Imperial Senator, or an Alliance Leader.
No; she was just Leia now. Leia Organa, no title, no rank, no fixed abode. She nearly laughed at that last mocking thought; the man who was at least in part responsible for that little fact only a bulkhead away. Yes, Leia Organa, as much a nobody as Luke Skywalker had been, had just made a pact with the devil. Or rather, the devil's henchman.
And if she had to do this, if she had to strip off the Princess and the Senator and follow this man, then here was another symbol to abandon.
She lifted the little scissors to her fingers and let out a shivering breath. Her Aunts would murder her if they knew... but her Aunts were another part of a distant past. She took her hair between her fingers, to a length just beneath her jaw line, and snipped. The tearing sound, its symbolism, was not lost on her, and she forced the tears back down for a more honourable use. It was only hair. She continued.
After several minutes, her long, rich hair lay across the bunk seat and she set the scissors down. In the mirror, the woman who looked back at her with a sharp little bob and a defiant set to her jaw was anything but the grieving Princess. She looked deep into those eyes and hoped she found herself soon.
"Princess?" The door swiped open.
They covered him in a black cloak and cowl, probably not wanting to 'scare' the Palace servants. He accepted it gratefully, not wanting to scare himself. When he and his escort reached his quarters in a quiet little funeral procession the doors whisked shut behind him and he stood in the entranceway, not seeing.
There was no sense of time in this quiet, dreadful place. He did not know how long it had been before he'd felt those dark stirrings, but they followed Palpatine's creeping fingers and laughed when he pleaded with him to stop. The taste of disgust and terror was utterly familiar to him now, as was the broken tearing of his soul every time Palpatine stroked his cheek, touched his lips, whispered of more if he didn't obey.
All he wanted now was respite, but he knew his disturbed thoughts would plague him through the cold night. He had nothing. That had been difficult to accept, and more difficult to voice, kneeling before the man who wanted to be called 'Master'. He had nothing, but how he pleaded, begged, craved for something of his old life. For friendship, for love, for something other than the wretched old man whose pet he had become.
How he wished that Vader was his father, because no father would allow a son to go through this.
He needed someone to save him, and there was no one. Not even his enemy, anymore. Only Palpatine and... stars help him but he was beginning to listen to the old man. It was a curious feeling, watching as you fell, unable to stop it and strangely detached.
And every time he found the focus to try and stop, Palpatine rendered him incapable with fear, pain, lust. Anything to break his little toy and start gluing it back together into his macabre little vision.
The black material of the cloak weighed heavy and he stumbled forwards towards the windows. He kept the drapes shut now. At first, placed in this little cage, he had sat staring at the snow and mountains for long hours between his 'sessions' with Palpatine, unable to sleep for the dreams that came to him. In time, he had learnt that it only hurt him more to be so close to something he might never have again, millimetres from his hands but light-years from his future. Now, the dark red curtains blocked out the hope he longed for, shut out the light.
Because it just hurt too much, and this was easier than dealing with the pain.
The pain of loss. The pain of betrayal. The pain of rejection and confusion. It made his legs crumble and he sat down heavily on the floor, completely spent. What had he done? What had he felt? That power... that was the Darkside and it had torn him apart. He had called out for anyone - his father; Leia; Han; anyone - to help. No one did. It fed off his fear and anger. It loved his disgust as surely as the Emperor did. His need for rescue made it stronger... but when that need was gone, who would he be? Not Luke Skywalker. Not anymore. Maybe he really had died on that shuttle.
He looked down at the blood on his arm, grey in the unlit room. The skin was clear and unmarked, the deep ugly gash neatly healed. By the Darkside. By Palpatine's soft strokes. How was that possible? Didn't Yoda say the Darkside was destructive? Then how could it heal? Who was lying..?
He balled his fists and thrust them into his eyes to push back angry tears of despair. He would not turn...
... but that dark power had felt so good.
"No...." The moan was less loud than he would have liked; less insistent. "Leia... what's happening to me?"
Only howling of blizzard winds answered him and he buried himself deeper in the cloak.
"That is not going to work," Leia snapped her head around, neat ends of her bobbed hair sweeping out angrily. In the half-light of the Falcon's cockpit, Vader regarded her impatiently as she stormed forwards, lithe frame boiling with frustration.
"Leia, we don't have-"
"Don't call me that. And don't tell me we're running out of time; I know." Her flash of anger dissolved into the gut-wrenching images of her nightmares, into her stomach turning small, tight little cartwheels at that feeling she couldn't even name. She knew; knew time was slipping through their fingers, black gloved and porcelain white equally. It burned like misery but cried like despair... and there was more. Little fleeting glimpses of darkness that scolded when she got too close and cries that shook her until she was screaming. She knew.
The hiss of the respirator filled the air and she snapped back to the present, to her waking problems. "Jabba won't buy it."
In a tight black ship-suit and dark hair to her chin, she was a little macabre image of the Dark Lord stood in the deepest shadows. In the frustrated balling of his fists and the impatient clipped tone of his voice he was her panicked sense of failure given form. Neither seemed to notice.
"You have an alternate plan?" His breath hissed, biting as hard as the sand storm winds against the Falcon's hull.
She fought the frustration that bustled its way into her mind, "Yes. You're Darth Vader. I would have thought you had some bargaining power, with the whole Imperial fleet in your fist. I'm sure Jabba would be more than willing to listen." Sarcasm had crept into her voice. But that was okay, it made it into his too, both of them releasing anxiety born from the disturbing half-glimpses of a shrouded future onto each other. And that shroud felt very much like it belonged in nowhere but a morgue.
"I'm sure." His voice was dipped in reactor acid. "I'm also certain Palpatine would also wonder at my intervention in smugglers business."
She stalked closer, up to the dark mask. Right up to those blank eyes that betrayed nothing. "What does it matter what Palpatine thinks?" she hissed.
Vader said nothing and she felt suspicion wriggle its way into the light. She shivered. "Unless..." Her head snapped upwards, but she wasn't seeing. She was remembering. "You think Palpatine is involved in this."
The Emperor was involved? It would be just like one of his twisted little plans to make us all think Luke is dead...
But, no. He wouldn't be just involved in some cruel hoax, would he? He-
She shook her head and turned from him thoughtfully, trembling. "No. You think Palpatine has Luke."
There was a silence. A silence bleaker and colder than those twilight wastes beyond the viewport.
"It would make sense."
She looked up at the voice that had trembled oh-so slightly, and she searched for something like fear, something like disgust, something like the emotions ripping through her own body.
"Because I cannot touch him, and yet he is sending to you. Only Palpatine has the power necessary for that. Because he wants him destroyed or..."
Her voice caught and she backed away from Vader until she sank into the pilot's chair, pushing it around to face her new ally.
She flinched at that thought - ally - but there was no other description. Leia Organa was helping Darth Vader; the man who had destroyed her family, her home, her cause and her friend. Yes; he had destroyed Luke on Bespin. Father or not, he had shattered Luke there. She could not allow herself to see compassion here, could not allow herself to imagine he could be subject to the true feelings of a father. There was nothing to this but a convenient pact between sometime-enemies who each needed the help of the other.
Which left the obvious question; what would happen to Luke if they found him? Was he better off where he was now?
The word screamed through her, rippling her muscles in little waves of disgust and confusion as it passed. It was not something she could understand, but it smacked of the truth.
"Or...?" she repeated. There had been no answer.
Her eyes closed and shut out the visage of a concerned Darth Vader. She could not allow foolish hopes to interfere with her perceptions right now. "Turned?"
"To the Darkside of the Force. Like his father."
Her jaw set in a determination which was, to Vader, strangely familiar. "He won't," she said, eyes blazing with the only light in the cockpit.
The was a silence that dragged between them, "You speak out of ignorance. We are wasting time."
She jumped back to her feet, unable to control the need to move and fight. "Then demand Jabba turns Han over to you!"
"Foolish girl." He turned from her angrily and she had the insane urge to offer comfort to his obvious frustration at the delay. "If I do that, Palpatine will know I suspect something is wrong. He will hide Luke, banish him to some hole where we will never find him until... it is too late for him."
She whirled on him. "And just why do you care about that?" She felt her animosity flair but, well, it had been a long time coming.
He faltered better than she could have hoped for. His voice shook the air. "What do you mean?"
She sprang through the opening he offered by the question, determinate and indignant. "You! You hardly want his welfare!" she spat, muscles coiled even though she would never have been foolish enough to attack him physically.
"I never wanted him hurt. I-"
"Hypocrite!" She was almost shouting now, anger bursting. Yes he was her ally, yes she was cooperating with him, but no she didn't have to like who he was, or what he'd done. "You hurt him! You cut off his hand, beat him, shattered him." Her voice came in little shivering waves of remembrance; that sad despondent face with those wide blue eyes. "When we pulled him off Cloud City I thought we'd never get through to him. Some father - one who beats his child into submission. And what did you want, anyway? Not to kill him, no - but what were you going to do with him?"
Her fists rested in the natural curve of her hips as she glowered with the force of supernovae. The Dark Lord sighed wearily. "I was... to take him to Palpatine."
She blanched, but hadn't she expected this? Why else wouldn't he have killed the last of the Jedi? "You wanted to turn him, too." She spat. "You hypocritical, heartless bastard. You-"
She hadn't realised it, but she was pointing a shaking finger at Vader as if it was a blaster, firing again and again with biting little comments against his intentions. He reached out and grabbed that hand, silencing her with the shock. "You know nothing Princess." His voice was dangerous; rarely had she heard him so angry and it made her shake before she could control her rebelling muscles. "I did not wish for him to be hurt."
"Hurt? Hurt? You have no idea what's happening to him right now. I do. I-"
"Your lack of imagination surprises me. I do know. You broadcast your nightmares so strongly any Force-sensitive within a hundred kilometres must be having sleepless nights," he hissed, hand tightening around her wrist.
She blinked hard, struggling to see him - really see him - in the dim light. "I... I do?"
"Yes." She heard it now - Despair. Pain. Horror. He had seen those dreams, lived them with her in the few short days they had worked together on a plan into Jabba's Palace. Suddenly his sometimes aloof quietness, quite uncharacteristic of the Darth Vader she knew and hated, was explained. He felt his son's pain, as did she.
Leia Organa - Princess, Senator, Rebel no more - laid a trembling hand on his in apology. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."
"But you are quite right. I hurt Luke."
Her head snapped up but her hand remained on his sleeve. She wasn't even certain what had been in that deep voice. Was it regret? Shame? Perhaps he was just passive. "You did." There was blame, hatred, pain in her own voice, but not as vehement as she might have expected. It was... unnerving. She had to ask. "Do you... regret it?"
The room cooled a little further, icy in the Tatooine night. There was no answer and she waited, willing to let the silence continue until he broke it. This was his call; he had to answer her if they were to work together.
"It was necessary."
That was no answer. That was neither regret nor pride. It was... somewhere inbetween. He was somewhere inbetween. She looked curiously, without fear, at the man responsible for so much loss in her life and had the perverse feeling that she might have actually gained something.
He looked at her hand on his own and she snatched it away as if burned, thrilled and disgusted by the connection they were forming in little over a day. I formed a connection to him in under a day on the Death Star, too.
The reminder of Vader's true nature was a rude awakening and she stalked past him for the corridor. His gaze followed her, curious about her suddenly chilly attitude. "Of course." Her voice was as cold as hyperwash. A change of subject was definitely needed. "Your agents should be in place soon. We should be ready to move."
He obviously heard the disapproval, the doubts. They could have used the might of the imperial Navy to crush Jabba, but they didn't. Yes, his reasons were solid for not doing so, for not alerting Palpatine if he indeed... 'had' Luke. She shivered violently at the memories; the dark, smothering presence she sometimes felt could quite easily be their despised Emperor.
"They already are. That is what I came to talk to you about."
And not to argue over the plan, again? Well, I'm still not convinced. She let him see her doubts in the grim frown of disapproval she gave him. He ignored it.
"This must look like your operation, and yours alone. Otherwise, any rescue of Luke will be in jeopardy."
That little word, so innocent - rescue - brought this situation back to her. For Vader to defy Palpatine, to plot against him... it was tantamount to treason.
She walked in neat little determinate steps, "But it will take more time to set up our own covers. Why don't we use the bounty hunter idea? I could deliver Chewie-"
The rumbling cough behind her made her turn on her heel and glare in defiance, hands suddenly on her hips, little jagged edges of her new hair pointing accusingly. "What?"
He followed her into the light, padded corridor. "He will see straight through that. Chewbacca would never allow himself to be captured by someone so... little."
She glowered and the air burned in bruised pride. "Fine."
She whisked around again and grabbed her dancer's outfit from an overhead locker, tossing it onto the holotable as she stalked through, his heavy footfalls behind her all the way. Chewie and Lando looked up from their game as their figures suddenly swam in lycra and black sequins.
"Lando? It's show time." The defiance in her voice was harking back to her regal nature, pride surfacing from the Dark Lord's comments.
Behind her she could have sworn she heard him mutter "There's something else here... something I'm missing..." as he studied the little fireball gather her disguise with strength of purpose and self.
She turned towards him, eyebrows arching for the ceiling, "Ready?"
"Absolutely, your highness."
She stormed for the entrance ramp, a thunderstorm of anxiety and determination.
A week later and Leia swung her hips in little rhythmic circles, fingers playing with the air in synchrony to the other two dancers, hair plastering across ruby-coloured lips.
Yes, it should have been demeaning for the former Princess to dance like this for a Hutt, to swing her body enticingly for the grotesque slug, but she somehow knew that their original plan of her feigning being a bounty hunter would have fallen flat and who knew what would have come of that?
She turned her arms through the air, the music allowing her to use the curves of her body in a way no Royal Aunt had taught her. Still, Leia could dance. The Princess of Alderaan hardly would hardly not know how to dance, prepared for dancing at the many royal functions by her patient tutors. Except that dancing had not been quite like this.
She didn't have the height, but she had the lithe body and the control, and her determination to see this through made up for the rest. In fact, Jabba seemed to appreciate her enough to place her amongst his most favoured dancers. That was doubled edged - it got her closer to the slug, meant her story was believed, but it also meant she was actually exciting the Hutt. Fortunately, there was no time for retching at that idea.
She swung in a half circle with the others, dancing from her waist to the music as Jabba rocked bulbous and swollen on his platform. She batted smoky eyelids accordingly and hid her distaste behind years of training in subterfuge in the Alliance. The outfit hugged her as close as lubricant on bare skin and she had learnt there was nothing to be done about the leers of the denizens except ignore them and silently promised them a long, slow death when they finally sprang their attack. She had suffered worse than this. She could last a little longer.
Jabba bellowed approvingly as the trio of dancers swept low, giving full cleavage. Hardened Alliance soldier or not, this was still nauseating. She wondered darkly if Vader had thought up this cover just to take the Princess down a notch or two.
Well, he could wish again. Yes, it was humiliating, but she kept a hold on her pride, on her feisty defiance. And he couldn't knock back the Princess, because Leia wasn't sure she existed anymore. No more than she was sure whether or not the Dark Lord Darth Vader existed any more. She hid the frown that thought begged for and concentrated on the routine.
Another swirl of lithe hips, another clap from Jabba.
I hope you get a very painful death, Jabba. Let's see how well you dance with a lightsaber strapped to your tongue...
Perhaps the worst thing was that as she moved her body in intricate little numbers for the Hutt whilst wearing disturbingly little except the slashed body suit, the man she would truly love to be doing this for was hanging, face contorted in frozen pain, a bare few metres away.
After several excruciating minutes, the music stopped and the pawing of drunken courtesans began. Strange, it was much like the Imperial court, except here the mauling was physical and not mental. Still, she knew which she preferred. A sour little smile sent one drunken bith scuttling away.
Lando passed across the floor, face half-hidden by his disguise and gave a brief little nod to get ready. Soon.
Now if she could just stay innocuous and make her way over to Han's frozen form... She pressed deep into an alcove, pushing the tangles of hair from her cheeks and watching the staggering crowd. Soon, it had to be soon.
"You're new here, aren't you?"
She whirled to the voice, sickly sweet and dripping in tannin. The black-haired older woman's smile was much more genuine than her voice.
"Yeah, a couple of days."
The other nodded knowingly and Leia felt her brow wrinkling with confusion. She had found few of the dancers were talkers, and she much preferred it that way.
As she stepped out of the alcove, a stray hand from a passing Rodian slipped down her thigh and she resisted the urge to push it away violently, preferably with a large blaster hole in its chest. It didn't take well to her brushing it off and wrapped a green-skinned hand around her wrist as it yanked her towards it. Panic flared momentarily as it breathed in her skin drunkenly before speaking a language she couldn't understand.
She tried to pry herself free but it tightened and she was sure she'd scream at those sucker-covered fingers as they plucked at her skin. Somebody get me out of here!
A sharp hiss in the same language got the aliens attention as black-haired woman snapped at it. It fell backwards as if stunned and replied, slurring, before winding a staggering path for the bar.
Leia shuck the dark cloud of anger and disgust from her feelings, trying to calm herself. She rubbed ruefully at her bruised wrist and momentary loss of composure. "Thanks," she murmured.
"No problem. Sometimes you gotta be real firm." The smile held no mirth.
Leia tried to look around without being suspicious, skin tingling in expectation... soon. It was going to be soon. If Vader would only hurry up and get her out of here!!
"Where you from?" The woman asked, trying to be conversational. The smoke drifted in little binding tendrils around them, emphasising that these two dancers were not here for the company and that idle conversation seemed a little... pointless. Still, she couldn't get out of it now without appearing suspicious.
"Alderaan." Well, why not? Princess Leia wasn't the only girl from there.
Usually, when she told people that, when she revealed who she was, there was an apologetic mumble, perhaps even sincere expressions of regret. This woman simply laughed.
Leia glowered at her even as movement stirred at the back of the crowd. Where was... ? There. A figure moved in the shadows, little blinking lights in his hands.
"Well, at least you don't have to worry about citizen taxes anymore." The woman chuckled and shook long, fluid hair over her shoulder. Leia might have turned then and glowered, maybe even bitten with well-sharpened verbal-teeth. But something caught the dancer's eye and she hurriedly stepped backwards. "Oh..."
Leia whirled, sudden dread worming in her gut. The world spun slowly and as she faced the dais again something clicked around her throat. The solid snap made her jump in sudden fear, not certain whether it came from the ominous low chuckle from the dais or from the quick, knowing glances that passed between the remaining dancers, backing away. Her hands flew to the collar all the favoured dancers wore, and the chain that had been snapped onto it. "What?!?" She asked, more than a little alarmed.
The Gamorrean grunted at her and, frustrated at her inability to understand, at her anxiety and confusion, she turned back to the black-haired woman in askance. She had quickly scuttled away, nowhere to be seen. Leia was forced to turn back at a tug on her collar, world falling apart to panic. The guard pulled her over towards Jabba, and he leered appreciatively at her moves of defiance.
What does he want? What is this? Why did they all back off-
Sudden understanding rose with the smoke and fear as the music began to build again. Jabba wanted a private dance.
This wasn't part of the plan!! They needed Leia to slip out and unfreeze Han whilst Lando and Chewie confused the drunken pirates with gas grenades; whilst Vader befuddled the minds of anyone not suitably inebriated.
She struggled weakly. "No... no!"
Suddenly, she wished Vader had listened to her, that he had been made a visible presence in their plan. The look in Jabba's glassy eye was truly disturbed and her arm muscles fought against the guard's pull.
The guard handed the end of a long leash to his Hutt master and Jabba leered more.
Then she did something she had not done in a long time; Leia panicked. She tugged on it and it was tugged back twice as hard, almost sending her sprawling.
But she needed to be free! Lando had already set the charges - they could go off any minute.
Her eyes were blinded by the smoke in the room and the music built further, enveloping her. Maybe... maybe if she ignored the Hutt in front of her, ignored the crowd, she could do this and not get killed for being unentertaining.
The world swirled with the alien melody, with the smoke and alcohol and the leering eyes of Jabba. And she knew she had to dance as the crescendo built.
Stowing her pleas for freedom in that place she had visited many times before - when Alderaan died, when Vader tortured her, when Han was lost - she began to dance. She let her hips flow in a rhythm of their own, let her lips pout and her hands play with the chain. It was disgusting, but what else was she supposed to do?
Leia pushed blindly past the panic and hoped the music would stop in time to be released from the slug. She spun on her naked heel, glancing under the rope, scanning the room for Lando. She didn't see him anywhere.
As she came back around, still dancing, Jabba pulling her steadily closer, she flicked the chain. She meant it as defiance but it only excited him more and he started reeling her in, tongue rubbing against fat lips. She glanced around; no Lando; no Chewie. Where were they?!?
Somebody get me out of here!
She thought she saw something, eerie and unreal, from the corner of her eye and far in the periphery, like a dark cloak flickering momentarily. She snapped her around head to it. Nothing. Now she was seeing things. Still there was a feeling... like acknowledgment. The chin snapped her head forwards and she was pulled back to the present.
The tongue flicked out again and disgust poured off her as she growled in defiance, snatching back at the chain. The anger, and disgust burst past her disguise and showed fully on her face. She summoned up her strength and spat at the Hutt.
That was a mistake.
Jabba's mood suddenly soured, expression going black and she saw his fist hammer down on the dais, bellowing in indignation. She screeched - No! - but it was too late.
The room cheered in expectation and her feet skidded along the floor before the ground beneath her feet opened and she was falling.
Darkness swallowed her as there was a thunderous crack above her head. The air sang with the sour smell of ozone. Explosions burst across the air in plumes of toxic smoke and cries of confusion. The lights above her winked out as she hit the bottom and rolled to her feet on sandy ground, dust grinding into her naked knee. The chain tangled her arms together and she rushed through an adrenaline haze to untangle herself.
Cries from above drifted down to her as the diversion was launched - smoke bombs blinding the occupants of the throne room; Vader's agents moving through the crowd, killing them; Lando and Chewie going after the reinforcements - but with no Leia to free Han. She looked up at the distant forms above her, the rumbling of the dais closing off the hole she had dropped through.
Desperation took her voice and she leapt to shaky, bruised feet, "No!!" she cried, clawing at the slick stone walls, fingers scraping on the hard surface. "No! Lando! Chewie!" Her fingers grasped for purchase on the walls but the dais covered the hole completely, leaving total and absolute darkness.
It smothered her, so like the darkness in her nightmares. She expected groping hands to take her from the corners, expected raking bleached fingers to smother her sense, snake around her, possess her.
But Destiny had a different fate in mind for Leia Organa from that of her brother's.
There was a ravenous roar behind her. She fell in shock and frozen horror back to the ground, landing and tripping on the debris on the floor. Her fingers clawed in the dirt as she tried to stand in pitch black. It bit into her hands as she searched for a weapon, anything she could use to defend herself. She found nothing except jagged little splinters that dug beneath her fingernails.
Leia turned around as the creature made its approach, and saw the shining yellow eyes fix on her as the faint outline of a huge, scabbed creature appeared from an opening doorway. She scrambled backwards, sucked in breath at the realisation of just how big it really was. And screamed.
The door was open.
He lifted tired eyes, heavy under lashes that hid him from the darkness swirling in little eddies around him and frothing over with power when he touched them. His hands wrapped around the deep carving on the seat he knelt beside, skin burning from the movement after hours of pressing against the hard wooden floor. He felt the whisper-thin tendrils of dark energy that entangled his legs and arms offer a little support as he hauled himself to standing, teeth gritted, legs trembling.
His body protested but his mind was gagged. The door... it was open.
His fingers pushed into the carving of the seat arm until the skin began to bruise and he looked down at the white marks on his fingertips, sudden hope blistering through him. He nearly leapt forwards as the implications blossomed full and fervent in his head - the door is open!! - and he staggered towards it.
The movement; sudden, exhilarating, and of his own volition, was a mistake. He fell to hands and knees as his legs gave out in a little cry of pain. He was sucking in hope and crying out despair, his fingers digging into the rug, thick and reeking of the Emperor, as he pulled himself to a half stand, stumbling forwards, half supported by one hand on the floor and half by solid, desperate determination.
His heart thudded against his bruised ribs, the only sound in the room. He didn't even know when his Master had left, didn't even remember when he had obediently knelt by his side and when he had been left there to a restless silence, nor why he had docilely stayed like that, knees digging into the floor. He didn't know. It didn't matter. The door mattered - the doorway, the escape. No guards. No drugs. No Emperor. He could make it.
Adrenaline surged through his bruised veins, nowhere near quenching his thirst for action, pushing him further towards the door. The long black robes tried to entangle his feet, snaking around his legs like the little swirls of dark energy he felt, trying to make him trip, trying to make him fall.
But he didn't.
His hands grasped at the wooden doorframe as he stumbled, muscles mewling like tortured, confused children at their sudden abuse. It didn't matter. His eyes burned with tears, and they were joyful not sad; not scared, not like the little spice-trails that had glittered his cheeks for so long now. So long.... he didn't even know how long.
His hands found purchase on the frame and he stood, sucking in breath, drinking in air that did not belong to that cursed room behind him, where the Emperor taught, toyed with and tempted his little pet. Luke was past even retching at the memories. They didn't matter. The corridor mattered.
He walked out and collided in a dazed stumble with the opposite wall. He took that energy and focused it forwards pushing off the wall and moving down the corridor. He felt drunk. He felt like he was wandering back to his bunk after a night on frigid Hoth with his friends and a case of whiskey. His friends... they were... who were they? He pushed his pale fists into his eyes, trying to see them, but all he saw were crackled white hands and putrid eyes.
-... Your faith in your friends would have destroyed you. They tried, but they failed, my young apprentice. Failed only because of my intervention... -
He found his throat constricting at the words, and he saw... who was that? A man with an easy smile and a gluttonous ego and a blaster always strapped to his hip. His friend... what had his name been?
Kid? No; no that wasn't right. He had called Luke that.
Kid. As in... son?
His hands trembled as he guided himself along stone passageways. Palpatine kept few servants here, and fewer droids. It was as lonely as the grave, and colder.
He dug little red welts into his palm with his fingernails, trying to hear that voice, trying to understand its meaning, to know who said it. Trying to understand the longing that was tearing him apart.
But... it didn't matter. It didn't. Because Palpatine, hard, cruel, cold Palpatine said that it didn't matter. That Luke had betrayed the voice and that it never really cared anyway. And Palpatine said so; and Palpatine was always right.
Luke stumbled over his own feet and finally fell.
The heavy black of the robes Palpatine dressed his little doll in billowed as they settled, funeral shroud and christening veil both. He was dying here; he felt it. But it wasn't true death; it was his mind dying, dissected by Palpatine's sharp little claws, pieces nicked out of him and explored before being discarded or twisted, replaced or restructured.
Each day, each day with her bright sunshine and her howling nights, he felt himself die a little; death by degrees. Slowly. Oh-so painfully. And yet, it wasn't death. It was birth. It was replacement. It was Palpatine sculpting with little, delicate, well-placed carving strokes on the raw potential he saw in Luke Skywalker.
That was the detached view; that was the third person view. But Luke lived this first person, his mind shattering into little shards like coloured glass needles, and Palpatine picking a precious few to re-use, crushing the rest beneath his feet as he stormed around that cold, cold room, 'teaching'.
His palms rested on the cold stone and he pushed up off the floor, back on his feet, moving again, a drunkard staggering from the brewery like his life depended on it. And it did.
A servant rounded the corner as Luke did and they collided, dark Little Jedi and confused human slave stumbling. The tall human's eyes bugged like he'd taken a step through an open airlock and Luke panicked. Truly. His fear called that dark power to him, that power Palpatine poured into him with little strokes and sucked up greedily when his toy worked as it was supposed to.
The servant went for a weapon, any weapon and Luke stepped out into detached, emotionless third person as the boy he had once been threw his hand out and crushed the servant against the wall, bantha stepping on a jawa. The man never even found the time to scream as his body convulsed and the jawbone cracked with a hollow whumph!
He looked at the body curiously, shock in its unseeing eyes. His hand fell to his side, the dark power whirling little bug trails around his mind, searing little paths through to that ability in his memory. It was beautiful and it was irreversible. Perhaps Luke Skywalker was already dead.
He stumbled on.
He pelted down darkened stairwells and through low doorways.
Chaos reigned. It reigned in a galaxy under Palpatine's withered little hands, it reigned in Lord Vader's mind when he tried to untangle his feelings from his motives about his son, and it reigned in Jabbas smoking, darkened Palace.
Vader swept through, down, going down, following the cry he had heard in his mind. Somebody get me out of here!
In the darkness, cloaked by a Darkside veil that hid him from any of the Palace guards not running around in panic, he could move freely. He could have chosen to go after Jabba the Hutt, he did after all have an old debt to settle, or to get Solo himself and avoid any more mishaps. But he didn't. He followed the Princess's frantic call, wondering at how it had reached him, wondering at why it had felt like his heart had undergone sudden decompression and imploded.
His saber lit ruby-red in the dark light before the Rancor pit and the guard's eyes bulged before the blade slipped through him and he collapsed with a tired sigh.
Emotions boiled through the Dark Lord, dark and confusing. He was running for the door to the pit, slicing hurriedly through the bars and slipping into the dark. The sudden urgency he felt was overpowering. Yes he needed the Princess alive to find his son, but there was something else here, screaming in background like an obstinate child...
The Rancor loomed large and he couldn't see the little Princess behind it, but he could feel her presence, fear pouring off in a torrent that nearly knocked him over in shock at its potency. Never had he been able to sense another's emotions so effortlessly, except with....
The saber sizzled and skin burst when he swiped it across the rancor's thigh. It howled in rage and turned on him, Leia calling out to him through the darkness, screaming, telling him to go after Han.
Stubborn, foolish girl. So much like Luke in that respect. So much.
A Rancor fist grabbed at him and it fell to the floor, severed as the blade cut through it. The creature became irate and lashed out behind it, striking Organa and throwing her to a collision with the wall to land in a dark little heap on the floor.
Something like panic hit him as she hit the stone wall and the Force rushed to him. He pushed and the Rancor howled in pain before falling unconscious as its head struck the pit side. Dust, blood, spittle rained down as it collapsed to the floor and Vader jumped around it to the Princess' side. She was raising herself onto one elbow, moaning weakly. Something struck him like a kick to his heart and pieces of a puzzle he hadn't even known he was trying to solve began to fall into place.
Stubborn, foolish girl.
Why did he care so much, why was there a little voice screaming at him to get her out of there? Darth Vader didn't care about her, Darth Vader didn't waste emotions on the pain of others, or their fear. Darth Vader had no emotions like that.
Well, then, perhaps there was more to him than just Darth Vader.
The thought tore through him and he stood very still in the dark, saber hissing, knowing that with that thought he had contradicted everything he had forced himself to believe in for the past twenty years and finding a strange, perverse comfort in it. Perhaps it was just revisiting Tatooine that had made these emotions start boiling up in him.
Except... hadn't it started on Bespin? Started when blue eyes locked on blue and burned away the light-years between Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker? Hadn't it erupted after Luke's death?
He lifted her small form into his arms and headed out of the pit, the rancor not stirring. His hands touched her arm where the creature had slashed her skin with razor-sharp claws, drawing blood. Electricity bounded up his arm and realisation began pounding at the door to be let in.
The big, flat door rumbled aside and wind gusted through to him, nearly shattering his resolve in the icy bite on his pale skin. The heavy black robes hid none of it, and the darkness could not banish it.
A delicious sound, a comforting embrace, a loving kiss against his mind pulled him forwards into the open docking bay. The stone slipped under his feet but he didn't fall. Not yet. Tired eyes took in the large room, devoid of vehicles, devoid of life, snow drifting through the open door to creep across the stone.
The sound built and he turned his head, trying to find it, feeling like a small black smudge against the cool white and stone background.
But that sound... it was beautiful, and he had not seen nor heard beauty in... too long. It wrapped him in a warm embrace of love and he blinked back tears of joy at the sound, so familiar and warm in the frigid air.
He stumbled for the entrance to the empty docking bay, stumbled until his legs gave out and he was kneeling in the snow before the doors, Hoth flashing through his mind... Hoth and a creature that attacked him, a man that rescued him, a...
Frustrated and angry, he shook the memories away, unable to understand them any longer. They were... not his.
One pale, pale hand went to his forehead and he cried out in frustration. The singing built and he lifted his head as a snowy wind whipped at his hair, brushing feather-like cold fingers over his face so unlike Palpatine's claws. He forced his eyes to open past the tears freezing on his cheeks, little icicles mocking the swathes of frostbitten snow before him. Born in a desert... died in a desert? Why not?
He couldn't get his feet to stand so he half-crawled forwards and the singing built until he looked up, lashes blurring with heavy snowdrifts. He looked up into the big, sad brown eyes of a woman, her hand reaching tentatively for his cheek. He would have gasped, would have screamed but the wind stole his voice.
It didn't steal hers. She sang, voice a smoky timbre that reminded him of... someone. He knew the song though - it was a lullaby. A child's lullaby, soothing and gentle and familiar and her hand brushed away his fear and despair with the sparkling, blue, eerily unreal touch.
He formed a word on his lips and didn't even recognise it himself, a word he had never addressed anyone with and his mind didn't understand. Mother.
She smiled brilliantly and nodded and he still didn't understand.
There was a murderous chuckle behind him, a familiar voice grating slicing the air as the woman faltered, smile fleeing before the Emperor. She look troubled, her song dying and her throat choked with tears. Her ethereal arm slipped through Luke's, grasping for him as he turned to his Master.
His breath froze in front of him as Palpatine stepped into the snow, smiling.
"Leave us, Amidala. You failed far too long ago to make up for it now."
The words sent little ripples through the woman's figure and she shot a harrowed glance at Luke that was pure despair. Then the wind took her, blowing little glittering sparkles away with the swirls of snow that made it into the hanger entrance. He looked at them despairingly, heart wrenching for her and not understanding why.
"Does nobody stay dead anymore?"
His lips were floundering in silence and he turned as he felt a presence behind him, approaching and then he couldn't turn away from those furious yellow eyes, frozen in the snow. The bitter cold was turning his skin a sickly shade of pink and there was a memory there... something... another unreal figure in the snow....
Had he had his voice, he might have screamed in frustration.
A hand was laid in his freezing hair, "Obi-Wan would have done better to appear himself than send her," Palpatine muttered, and the words fled from Luke's mind even as he wondered at them, shoved away by the little weaving tangles of dark energy the Emperor splayed in Luke's mind.
He tried to push away the feeling that he was missing something. Tried not to starting shouting in annoyance at the frustrating confusion and the dark little fingers of the Force that seemed to be playing in his mind, steeling the information away as he tried to chase it down.
He took the steps up from the pit two at time, the saber still lit and bathing terrified, confused faces in blood-light. He slowed to a walk as he entered the throne room and strode across the dance floor, Jabba bellowing.
Leia's head lolled against his arm, mumbling soft words. The room was hot and smoky but her skin was frozen, her lips blue. She shivered violently and he looked at her in yet more confusion, wondering how she could be so cold and who she was talking to. She looked locked in a trance.
He was striding for the alcove where Solo's frozen form was still hanging when Leia said something coherent.
He hit a mental wall and rebounded, almost dropping his bundle of disguised princess as the truth finally registered in his mind. Her lips moved more but he couldn't hear her. She had a distant, far-away look in her eyes, glazed and murky and a strange blue playing across them.
Leia Organa, adopted daughter or Bail Organa, friend of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Leia Organa, rescued by a Tatooine farmboy who formed an inexplicable fascination for her.
Leia Organa, who sensed his son's thoughts even when he could not-
"Amidala?" Her brow puckered in confusion and he nearly, nearly dropped her then, on hearing a name so sorely missed and so hated in his darkest moments. And then, remembering her... looking at the Princess... it was obvious. Blindingly obvious, and he felt like a fool.
Leia Organa was his daughter.
Oh, but how she looked like her. How foolish he had been, how blind. But wasn't it like Kenobi to hide her in plain sight as he had hidden his son on his home world?
Something broke then, something died, something withered in his heart and he felt... joy. It poisoned him, Darth Vader, whose emotions could only ever revolve around his hatred. He had lost a son... gained a daughter.
No. Luke was not lost. Not yet. But if he stood here all day staring in amazement at the daughter he had never before imagined existed, then he would be lost.
He cradled her a little closer, held her a little tighter, and moved for the block of carbonite as a Wookiee with singed hair and Calrissian with his blaster held defensively joined him, faces grim.
"Where are you running to, Little Jedi?" The hand left his hair, the fingers scraping his skin as the Emperor stood and moved away from him.
In the cold light of morning, dark little snowflakes smudged the white of the sky as he peered up into it, knowing his voice was lost again, like so much else in his life. Gone. Taken. Ripped away.
The voice whispered hot in his mind, "Go then. Run. If that is what you wish."
Luke's heart soared, reaching for the sky with her white background and her dark specks of snow, the absolute opposite of the night sky he had longed to be close to on... Tatooine? Where was that? What was that?
His hands sunk into the snow up to his wrists as he pushed off the floor and he stood, shaking. He didn't look back, he'd never look back, as he stumbled forwards and the Emperor made no move to stop him.
He stopped himself.
He hit a wall, but there was nothing there. He felt a leash tighten around his throat but there was nobody holding it. He coughed and choked for words, a little dark statue against the snow. Against freedom. Against.... loneliness, death, weakness.
"Why have you stopped, Little Jedi?" The words swept in darkness over the snow, a shadow appearing over him.
"I..." Frost kissed his lips and silenced him. His dreams died. His heart died. He died.
Palpatine let him fall back down to the snow and the room sang with his victory, dark and sickening, not at all like the soft, comforting words of that strange woman who touched his cheek with true compassion, not possession.
He wanted to move. He wanted to run. He wanted his feet under him, his sanity back in his hands, running to a cold death beyond the Palace walls.
Palpatine knelt behind him and Luke choked on words of protest when he encircled his body in arms that offered no warmth, no comfort, only ownership and pain. His body cried for him to fight and he shook uncontrollably when he didn't.
The black robes of the Emperor wrapped around him, pulling him back against his Master and the lips whispered breath without heat against his cheeks. "Are you going to leave me now, Little Jedi?"
"You... you've taken everything from me." He wanted to fight but the Emperor touched his lips to silence him. His voice whispered protests against those fingers but neither heard them.
"I've given you truth."
Luke's eyes closed until there was only the biting wind and the Emperor, the coarse fabric of his robes rubbing against his cheek.
"I don't want it!" he gasped.
The wind slapped him, stinging his face. Palpatine's fingers enclosed on ice-kissed cheeks, hand across his mouth, his eyes, blocking out all perceptions except sound. Luke's fear poured out of him as it had that first night and his resilience fled into the snow storm that had built around them, whipping at them, laughing at Master and apprentice.
"You do. You felt it, earlier. You want it. It is a part of you now." The hand tightened and he was pressed back tighter against the Emperor, all fight gone. Yes, he had felt it. Yes it had felt good. "Will you leave me now, Little Dark Jedi?"
Little Jedi... shush... quiet now... please...
Stay/leave? Live/die? Dark/light? Who was he asking? Luke Skywalker or... someone else? Palpatine's little plaything?
"I hate you."
"I know. Will you leave?"
-... Luke you must get out... get up...-
Calrissian's eyes flicked over to him again before he turned eyes-front and continued the short trudge through the desert storms. Still in his arms, Leia was ominously quiet. In Chewbacca's arms, Solo was equally unconscious, although his was forced by sedative after they defrosted him. Leia, his daughter and Solo, her lover. The Princess and the smuggler; not so unlike the Queen and the slave, so long ago now. How had he missed it?
He pushed those thoughts away as the Corellian freighter became visible through the gritty winds of his childhood, as Chewbacca climbed the ramp and immediately took his partner to the med bunk, grumbling all the while about the sand in his hair. It was probably the same bunk his son had laid upon after Bespin... probably this was the same uneasy quiet that had descended on the small group. And as much as he would shove those difficult thoughts away, he couldn't escape them here, amongst his children's friends and his own enemies.
Leia didn't stir when he laid her on a separate bunk; she had gone deathly quiet after her brief delusional mumbling in Jabba's now scorched throne room. Even the loud crack of the thermal detonator exploding and destroying all evidence of Vader's participation in the bungled rescue hadn't woken her. It was probably just the concussion. Probably.
"Get us into orbit."
Calrissian barely blanched at the order, but his eyes remained stern and hard with unease. "Chewie? Could use a copilot." The man's voice lacked its usual cheep-silk charm, and was caustic from too much blaster backwash in the firefight. Vader could easily have piloted, or copiloted, but there was no way Calrissian would let him anywhere near the controls.
The Wookiee finished arranging his partner on the pallet and growled with deep concern. The choice was a difficult one - let Vader copilot and Han's worst enemy touch his precious ship, or leave Han and Leia with the Dark Lord? He grumbled but trudged after Calrissian for the cockpit, shoving a hypo into Vader's hands, a serum to counteract the sedative.
Vader stood staring at the unconscious Captain for long minutes that stretched into the whine of repulsorlifts starting. The Falcon lifted deceptively smoothly as he relented and injected the hypo. This would not be easy.
Solo stirred restlessly before his eyes shot open and fixed on Vader. He was awake in an adrenaline-rushed heartbeat, and Vader almost regretted including the drug that would cure his hibernation blindness. Still, the sound of his respirator would have given him away, as would his voice. Solo lurched to his feet and immediately collapsed to the deck with a howl when his frozen muscles refused to remember how to work. He shivered but Vader didn't offer a hand in help - he didn't think it would be appreciated. Solo retreated away until his back collided with the foot of the bunk.
"You!" He pointed a finger at Vader, using it like a weapon to keep his nemesis away. "What are you doing here...?" He looked around suddenly and his eyes grew wide. "What are you doing on my ship?" He growled. "And what am I doing here?"
The accusing finger began to shake with fatigue and Solo clutched it back, the bolts from his eyes enough to keep the Sith at bay.
"Captain Solo, I-"
"Don't 'Captain Solo' me! What are we doing here?" He seemed to notice the deckplates vibrating with the heavy humm of the engines. "And who's flying my ship?"
So many questions... so arrogant. How did his daughter put up with this man? He was hardly suitable for the daughter of Darth Vader. He -
Vader cut off that thought abruptly, one of those over-protective father thoughts that had plagued him since discovering the existence of more Skywalkers that threatened to tear his cool, aloof Dark Lord image into little irretrievable pieces.
"Calrissian and your Wookiee are flying. We are leaving Tatooine. The Princess and-"
"Princess??" His eyes flicked around the small bay and he leapt to his feet when he spotted Leia, out cold with a bruise deepening on her temple. "What did you do!?" He tried to run to her but fell, landing close enough to touch her arm tentatively and then remove it as if burned.
"Nothing, she hit her head when -"
Solo turned a stony stare on him, his concern admirable even if he was hardly suitable for her. "Don't give me that you-" Would he never let Vader finish explaining? It was his turn to be interrupted.
"Captain Solo, I have not touched Princess Leia, and you are not in my custody. I just participated in your rescue." He made the words rumble in deep bass tones around the small room and Solo stilled, frown puckering his forehead.
"I participated in your rescue. You were held by Jabba in his Tatooine stronghold which is now... no more," he replied. He finally offered Solo a hand to help him stand and the smuggler scowled at it like it held a lit lightsaber. His muscles bunched as he levered himself up with the bunk side.
"Why would you do that?" The brown eyes declared an astute intelligence that warned off from lying. But Vader never had any intention of that.
"It is... complicated," he replied slowly, cautiously, words cat-footing across the hold. Solo seated himself on Leia's bunk and tentatively brushed a swirl of hair from her cheek. His eyes seemed sad to see the sharply cut hair and Vader had to resist the urge to stop the smuggler from touching his daughter.
"Looks like we've got plenty of time, Vader. Why don't you start at the beginning?"
Vader suppressed a deep sigh at the vehemence there, but it was completely understandable. For himself, he felt a little less loathing for the smuggler, a little more respect. It was... disturbing that he could so easily stop those feelings of hate and turn them into a begrudging acceptance. "Very well. We called a truce. I want Luke. The Princess wants Luke. So we are working together... at least temporarily. She would not, however, leave-"
Again, Solo interrupted with a sour stare and a grimace, "So she and Luke finally got it together while I was gone, huh? Shoulda' known she'd eventually fall for the farmboy look after... everything that went on between them."
Vader felt his stomach begin a slow dive for the deck plates at the implications. "No. Leia and Luke are not... together. Why would you say that? Have they ever...?" He couldn't even say it! Unbeknownst brother and sister... an item? Kenobi had much to answer for, but this would be beyond the pale.
That was it; his stomach hit the deck and he leapt to his feet enraged, cursing.
Solo looked at him a little quizzically and even more alarmed. "Huh?"
Vader felt dark, nauseous images begin to cloud his mind and he shoved them away roughly "What... what have they done?"
Solo was staring suspiciously now. "Just kissed a couple of times, far as I know," he said slowly, eyes growing wide when Vader slumped against the wall in relief. They hadn't... gone further. He was blessing every deity he'd ever heard of and swearing allegiance to the merciful side of the Force, not appreciative of Destiny's sick sense of humour.
Solo stood on shaky feet and stalked forwards, eclipsing Leia. "Look, you better start making sense soon or I'll have Chewie toss you out an airlock, truce or not." He looked around warily. "Where is Chewie anyway?" His eyes narrowed even further, if that was possible.
Thankful for an alternative line of conversation, Vader replied quickly; a little too quickly. "He is piloting with Calrissian-"
"What is he-"
"Captain Solo, we may have called a temporary truce, but if you do not stop interrupting me during every explanation then I will throw you out the airlock, my daughter's mate or no."
As soon as the words were spoken he felt stupidity hammer at him.
"Leia, what do you remember of your mother? Your real mother?"
Leia blinked tired brown eyes and pushed at the shards of brown hair obscuring her vision. Sat beside her on the medbunk, Han held a troubled expression firmly in place of the delight she knew was plastering her face.
"Not much, really. A few images, a few feelings. I think she must have died when I was very young. Why?" She accepted the hand the helped her to sit up and pushed disgustedly at the dancers uniform. The Falcon hummed at sublight, and she wondered at the absence of Vader. Perhaps he hadn't made it out - or perhaps Chewie or Lando hadn't. She couldn't remember, dark feelings of complete loss and misery clouding her memories. She thought there might have been snow... but Tatooine hadn't known snow in millennia. There was darkness, and that seemed familiar, but also love, and that seemed foreign.
"Her name? Do you remember her name?"
She clasped his hand in her own and gave him a quizzical stare. "Why?"
"It's important Leia." The words came down hard, demanding and bitten short by his obvious agitation.
She wanted to question him more, to demand her own answers, but the air was frigid with anticipation, so she answered. "Padm?."
He inhaled sharply, voice caustic. "Sithspawn. He was right." He almost laughed at some private joke and rubbed a calloused hand over his face, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"Han, what is it?" she asked, words gentle. Perhaps the carbon freeze had left some after affects; perhaps he was in shock...
He brushed a hand across her cheek tentatively and bit his lip. It wasn't a mannerism she was used to from this hardened smuggler. He was soft, gentle, tired. Han Solo... yes she loved him. She had never doubted it, but now she found her heart hammering to be free of her chest, terrified of something... of his next words, of his next expression, of his next touch. She shivered.
"Leia... there's something you should know," he whispered, stroking her cheek softly. It brought up strange, macabre feelings that felt both foreign and familiar and she didn't know whether to accept the comfort or run from it.
"What?" Her voice shivered in apprehension.
"I know about Luke. About Vader." Leia squeezed his hand tighter and he looked on it before tracing little lines of dirt on her fingers. My hands are dirty. It really didn't matter.
She felt her lips try to form an apology, sympathy, but nothing came out. This wasn't the revelation.
"But there's more and I... we thought it might be better if I told you." He wasn't looking into her eyes. Han Solo always gave it to you straight, always told it as he saw it. Not now.
"What?" She felt like it had to be the only word in her vocabulary, but it was the only one that mattered.
"There's another Skywalker, Leia. This isn't easy to tell you but-"
She felt the sob pulled from her throat before he finished as the truth, mean and heartless and irrevocable settled around her, water on a drenched ground. "Me?"
His eyes finally met hers and he nodded before pulling her into a deep embrace. "I'm sorry, Leia. I'm so sorry."
To him the words sounded small and cruel; to her they were at least an acceptance of her regardless. And she cried, him pushing the little trails of tears from her eyes with his thumbs, her unable to tell him that she cried not because she had gained a demonic father, but had gained a brother already ripped from her.
Seconds, minutes, hours later and the tears were dry at last, Han holding her like he would never let go. She held on even tighter, needing to know he never would. The rasp of Vader's respirator filled the doorway and she lifted her eyes to him, her father.
Her hands tightened around Han's shirt and her fingernails dug welt in her palms. "Please... don't bother," she spat, but it was not vehement, only tired. Vader was distinctly uneasy, but what did he expect? Her to run to him and jump into his arms screaming daddy!?
Do you? You're not my father by anything other than a cruel twist of fate.
He stilled his approach and she wondered if he had heard her before realising that she didn't care if he had.
Leia pushed strands of wet hair from her eyes, and stared him down. "Where are we?"
He paused before answering, not happy with the change of subject. "Holding orbit around Tatooine. I could contact the fleet and find out where the Rebel Feet is holding out, but..."
"That would look suspicious," she agreed, "Palpatine will know." Strangely detached from the situation, strangely not talking to her father but to her erstwhile ally, she rose. "They're at Sangrine."
Han looked up in shock at her, eyes wide. "Princess-"
"We need to find Luke. And I can think of only one person who might know where he might is."
He stood beside her, eyeing Vader warily. "Who?"
Vader stepped forwards boldly and Leia was surprised when she didn't move back from him in disgust. "Mothma."
She saw Han's jaw harden at that name, "Right." There was nothing but a barely concealed loathing there. "I'll set course. It's about time she got what's coming."
Leia might have argued against his obvious hatred for their former leader, but she couldn't swear that it wasn't something she didn't feel herself. As Han stalked from the room Vader approached cautiously. She looked up sharply at him, then forced her anger to cool down. They both stood there, staring, neither knowing what to say.
"I should have told you myself," he said finally.
She pushed at the short hair that Han had described as 'different, but lovely' and tried to glower. She failed and just sighed, sinking back to the bunk. "No, I think it was better from Han. Look at how Luke reacted to you telling him."
She almost managed a smirk and he laughed mirthlessly. "He jumped off a gantry."
There was more distinctly painful silence before she shifted to stare into that dark mask, wondering. How had this man been married to her mother? Or was he married at all; was she just a fling, a whore, a rape-
She flew to her feet at the thought and his hand shot out to hold her stop her from running, clearly hearing those random thoughts. "You think I have no honour," he hissed, incensed, "I loved her, and she was my wife. Or rather, Anakin's wife."
Anakin. Anakin Skywalker. That name was easier to call father than Darth Vader and she almost took comfort in it.
"I... No, that's not true. I just don't understand," she said, taking a shivering breath.
"It is... complicated."
She wore her stern Senatorial gaze, "Isn't it always?"
"I did not say that I wouldn't explain, just that it may take a while," he rumbled.
Realising she had been jumping on every word he said, she just nodded. This was so hard, almost too hard to stand and take, to have Bail banished by Vader. It went too far; Destiny went too far with this particular joke. But Leia was strong, had always been strong. And now, when she might never know Luke as a brother, she could at least try and know her errant father. Try.
"I understand," she murmured, and realised the she did indeed appreciate how difficult this was for them both. She had spent so long trying to understand what Luke had gone through in those hours of understanding that when it came to her turn, it was not quite as sharp as she might have expected.
Perhaps... perhaps it also had something to do with Vader's rapidly shifting attitude.
"Leia... " She looked up, "There is one thing I must ask.... Do you know how Amidala died?"
"Amidala? That was my mother's name? I never knew... I called her Padm?." The question had shocked her both by the humanity and the content. "No. They never told me," she said sadly.
"Is that how you found out about me... about us?" She realised she had backed away from him unconsciously and, chiding herself, took a step closer.
"Yes. She was known as Amidala, and as Padm?. You called for her in the throne room," he said, also taking a step nearer to his daughter.
The room chilled and something like realisation hit her. "I called her Amidala?"
"But I didn't know her as Amidala," she whispered, and Vader inhaled sharply. "I remember... images. I saw her, as I remembered her, only older, and through a blizzard. And someone said that name... I think it was. It was-"
Her eyes flew open, wide with fear and Vader grabbed her arm, "Palpatine?"
Oh, stars. She had been in contact with Luke and neither of them had realised it at the time. But why was Luke seeing his mother, and why did Palpatine say her name...? She shook her head fiercely, brown hair swishing. None of this made sense. Her father was ominously quiet and she looked up to see him staring blankly into space.
"Princess," he said formally. "I want to try something."
She found a lump forming in her throat. "What?"
"I want to see if we can contact Luke again. Palpatine is blocking me from him, but he does not know of you, and your connection to your... twin."
Twin. Twin. She had never thought of it like that. Flesh torn from flesh, the mewling of an infant, and sad brown eyes filled with tears.... It was so familiar, a memory dear but forgotten. Luke. Her twin. Luke and Leia Skywalker. It sounded... right. Hadn't she been thinking that she was no longer Princess, nor Senator, no Rebel Leader Leia Organa? Hadn't she thought she was now just Leia? Well, she had been wrong. She was Leia, but Leia Skywalker.
She inhaled sharply. "Let's do it."
The fire was bright enough that when he held his fingers out in front the flames they glowed with the red crayon outline of a child's drawing. Even then, it took focus to recognise the hand as his own, to know the pain in his knees from remaining kneeling so long belonged to him, that the heat on his skin was truly his. And when he found that focus, doubts began to crawl across his vision, uncertainty making him shiver, not convinced anything was his own anymore. Not certain he even existed anymore as anything other than disparate feelings and images that failed to form a coherent whole.
Luke Skywalker. Luke. Sky. Walker.
Luke - a strong name that Beru had called light when she sang in sad, hushed tones when no one but Luke was listening.
- Starlight, starbright,
Soon light returns the night... -
A name he'd heard countless voices calling, but could no longer remember who they belonged to. He could only conjure up vague images that might be no more real than the nightmares that took him in the night. Luke; hero, farmboy, Jedi. He was none of those, not anymore. So perhaps he was no longer Luke.
Sky. All the skies he had seen had been different: brilliant shades of blue; washed cloud covered mists; boiling angry grey. Sky - there were so many possibilities, so perhaps he owned that, perhaps one of those belonged to him. Perhaps he just no longer knew which.
Walker. Walk; to travel, to move on. That he owned, because he felt the changes pushing at him, prodding and pinching as much as the medics needles and Emperor's strokes. He was moving on from what he had been to something new, something dictated by the Emperor, his Master. But then, if he had once owned that word, and was now moving on, perhaps he no longer owned it at all and wallowed instead in a paradox.
He sighed. Luke Skywalker. That couldn't be him, could it?
He traced the red-rimmed outline of his fingers, staring. If he wasn't Luke Skywalker, then who was he? His Master stood on the other side of the hall, atmosphere awash with the black storm clouds and his already foul mood, for once not the fault of Lu- of him.
He watched the fire dance; watched it curl and twist, and smiled.
"I... I don't know how."
Han's hand squeezed hers a little tighter, encouragement in the gentle reassurance of his skin on hers. On her other side Vader's hand tightened in urgency and the small circle of three - Leia, Han, Vader - remained cross-legged on the floor despite her protestations.
"You can do it. You have this strength. Please, Princess. We need to try this." That was Vader.
She nodded numbly despite all three remaining with eyes closed. She pushed back awareness of the cold deck underneath her, of the sting of coolant vapour in the back of her throat, and concentrated. She knew Luke could do this, knew he could touch the Force in an eye blink, but she found her breath labouring at the effort and her eyes flew open disgustedly. "I can't do it! I just don't have it."
Han's wide brown eyes opened and he smiled ruefully, "Well, Luke did get it a lot quicker."
"It doesn't matter. You can do it, Leia. You did it... on the Death Star." Vader said with an earnestness she was more used to from her newly found and lost brother. Icy determination colder than the metal deck plates made her take both their hands back in hers and close her eyes. Any mention of the Death Star brought her hackles up again. Her interrogation session... mediated by her father. Anger flared and she pushed it aside, concentrating.
"I'll try," she said wearily.
"If you try, you will fail. You must be determined to succeed, nothing else will do." Vader said as he gripped her hand harder. Leia had noted during the short trip, after her initial vehemence had died into a whisper of hatred and pain, that he was attempting to make more contact with her. Small things: a touch on her arm in support; leaning closer when sharing information; attempting to not be so imposing against his daughter who was a good foot and a half shorter than him. But it didn't disturb her, and that was both worrying and heartening. In the few brief minutes she had stolen with Han, they had agreed wholeheartedly on one thing:
Darth Vader had changed.
Murmurs of conversation in the background did not grab his attention. Murmurs from the fire licking at the heart did not possess him. He let his thoughts drift easily on the dust motes. He let the feelings of the rug underneath his knees be quashed by the feel of the room in the Force, darkened now but not any stronger than in the light. Only more... potent.
His eyes sparked with the fire and his vision exploded.
Leia's hands gripped Han's and Vader's suddenly and she gave a startled little gasp. Beside her, her father whispered a name.
He felt... he felt something familiar, delicious. Something like smiling and crying, something like laughter and tears. He blinked but his vision remained shattered and he dropped his hands to the rug to steady himself, taking handfuls of the thick pile between his fingers. A name lingered on his lips, a name loved, cherished, needed; so needed he felt his eyes pricked by the sting of tears and his voice fled. He didn't need it.
She gasped, laughed, cried. Vader held her down, his Force-sense dancing in firelight.
Luke? Was he Luke?
- starlight, starbright... -
Was she talking to him, or someone who stood in the shadows where he couldn't see, couldn't reach. He frowned.
Luke. The call came again, insistent.
- soon light returns... -
Leia frowned and world tilted under her. If the others hadn't held her up, she would have fallen, even from being seated. Who? Who? What did he mean? Firelight danced, stonework sucking in the heat from a great hearth. Before she could have thought again, a new presence asked for entrance to her mind, pleading almost, beckoning almost. Vader. Father. She let him in.
My son... where are you?
Luke shook his head furiously at the dark images. Son? He was nobody's son. There was no one to call him son; no one to call father. His fingers tightened and the image of a dark death-mask swam into his vision, jet black; cold, cruel black; black like so much of his life. He knew that mask. Knew that voice that didn't hiss, that trembled with excitement and expectation. But who was it talking to?
Who am I? he asked, suddenly desperate.
The voice shivered and he swallowed hard, leaning towards the dark images.
Luke Skywalker, my son.
Luke? Skywalker? That couldn't be right. The Emperor said... he said... he whispered, he stroked, he said there was no Luke Skywalker anymore. No Luke. No light.
-... starlight, starbright...-
He had no name until he earned it.
Vader felt disgust rip through him as he heard those thoughts. Luke was still there, he could feel it; burning bright and resilient, but buried. Buried because Palpatine told him so, because Luke had no one left to believe in, not even himself. The Emperor was driving out Luke and replacing him with something else, something macabre and Luke still fought, he just didn't realise it.
You are Luke Skywalker, named after your father, Anakin Skywalker.
His vision of the fire swung precariously as Luke nodded. I was, but Vader killed him. So if the father doesn't exist, why should the son?
Vader's hand tightened and Leia didn't protest at the pain. He felt her mental call of anguish as she, too, realised the mess Palpatine was making of her brother's mind.
Palpatine had told him Vader had lied; that called out loud and clear, burning bright over every other thought.
He had given the name of 'father' to another, to the one who murdered him. How could he ever trust himself again? Luke shivered, focusing on the dark mask.
I don't know who I am.
The feelings that returned were tinged with sadness and outrage, pity and hatred. Hatred Luke knew well, and sadness. But pity... no one pitied him here, even the medics that tended his Master's punishments never spoke, never looked into greying blue eyes.
You do. Search your feelings, Luke. Your father lives still. I am your father.
- I know it's true, they did a blood test... -
- ...why do you keep calling to me, my son? -
- I don't care whose son you are. You're still Luke Skywalker... -
He felt his son shake at the words and pushed on. Search your feelings, you know it be true. Seeing through Luke's eyes, through his mind, images flickered; Bespin in shades of grey and red and forgotten feelings swelling.
There was a stillness and then his heart jumped with a sudden cry, full of pleading and knowledge, rushing headfirst into a mental wall that crumbled and Luke's awareness leapt in realisation of the lie Palpatine had told, still clouded by longing and terror.
Get me out of here!!
His lips burned, wanting to scream. Palpatine lied!! He had a father - he did! He lied.
- Never to be deceived again -
- Never to be... -
- ... deceived... -
Hold on Luke, we're coming. That was Leia; sweet, honey-toned Leia, voice singing in hope that Luke let wash over him.
Footsteps of outrage behind him echoed across the hall, then black cloth sweeping over the rug and his heart stilled in sudden dread, fear, loathing, terror.
Something grabbed him, shook him, hurled words of outrage at him. He might have braced himself, might have tried to just lay and take the punishment but when Leia screamed in mutual pain he pushed at the Sith, dark Force eddies strangling the other's words of outrage. Force lightening hit harder and he screamed.
It tangled his legs and brought his vision rushing back to snap to the stone ceiling. He was lying now on his back, the Emperor approaching, furious, fingertips sparking like arc welders. Luke couldn't crawl backwards and there was no return to his mental calls, the contact lost. His lips moved to form words of defiance, or even a call for mercy, but there was no sound. The Emperor reached down and took a handful of blonde hair, yanking him to his feet with a pitiful cry of pain from tortured muscles.
Luke shut his eyes, knowing no pleading would stop the outburst of anger from his Master.
Palpatine worked him until he clawed, screamed, cried out; cut him until he begged. Then he sat beside the sobbing body, face broken down from seething anger to something more serene and far more dangerous.
"Tell me again, what is your name, Little Dark Jedi?" He breathed the words over tender, burnt skin and they exploded in little fiery patterns.
"I don't have a name, Master," he said, almost believing it again.
"And your father?"
"I have no father," he whispered. He dearly wanted to curl up on his self and scream in anguish but Palpatine remained seated beside him for long seconds, considering, incensed enough not to even touch his toy.
"I see you forget your place too easily, child," he said, almost offhandedly, "I must be more... diligent. You have only yourself to blame, child."
Luke stilled as the far door cracked open and Palace servants poured through in meaningful steps.
Leia tore from the contact, screaming. She rushed to her feet, shaking, and collided with the wall. Her own vision came back slowly and she shook as Han came to his feet and caught her as she fell, sobbing. She buried her tears in his shoulder, Vader never moving from his cross-legged position on the floor.
Han lowered her opposite him and she tried to stop the shaking, tried to banish the last remnants of pain and terror, knowing now just how real those nightmares had been. She looked at Vader, deathly quiet. Even without the Force, the outrage was obvious, the air crackling with his anger.
"Vader?" Her voice was steadier than her nerves. There was absolutely no answer, absolutely no reaction.
She stared at him, eyes growing wide as realisation slammed full force into her gut. Something had happened, during that exchange, something had happened to Vader. She licked her lips and Han let her go from a fierce hug as she crawled uncertainly for Vader.
"Father?" The word bit but she still managed it. "Father, that was.... horrible." She needed sympathy, she needed him to tell her it was half her imagining, half exaggeration, but there was no movement from the still figure, no sound but the heavy rasping of his breath.
Something had happened...
His head shot up. "Yes? Can this ship go any faster?"
"You've changed," Solo pointed out bluntly what was becoming obvious to him, from the moment he had formed this truce and perhaps even before then. "Don't ask me how, and don't expect me to start congratulating you, but you're changing."
Vader didn't speak, instead he fixed Solo with a stare that yesterday would have frozen the smuggler's blood. Today, Solo batted it away with a wave of his hand. "And don't ask me what you're changing into either. But if you're going to get Luke out of there, you better start accepting it or you're going to fall flat on your face."
Solo turned and pointed a warning finger at him - he wasn't finished. Vader's gaze narrowed but his daughter's chosen mate never saw it through the black mask. "Don't 'Captain Solo' me - I'm not finished." He had an amazing capacity for stating what was blindingly obvious. Vader said nothing. "Now, Her Highness has told me about this 'truce' you two have formed, and I don't like it."
He scowled, the little nick of a scare stretching over his skin. Vader was sorely tempted to bat the smuggler down, but he sat impassively in the copilot's seat.
"Actually, no scratch that. I'd have thought she'd gone space-crazy if she'd done it a few weeks ago." After Bespin. "But now I don't think it was such a bad idea, and that's what I don't like." His lips hardened into a straight, unwavering line before he spoke again. "I've heard the story. Luke is your son, and you want him back. I can understand that. But what I don't understand - and what you and Leia don't seem to want to talk about - is why."
"I'm afraid I don't understand, Captain." He shifted uneasily.
"Sure you don't. On Bespin, you snatch your son's best friends, torture them -"
"It was necessary, Captain. There was no other way to get his attention."
"A quick hyper-comm wouldn't have done the job?" He shook his head. "Besides, that's not what I'm getting at." The words were contradicted by the hard glare in his eyes, but Vader let it pass. From Solo's stance, his manners, and the hard set of the jaw, he knew that beneath the bluster of a well-formed attitude, this was hard enough for the smuggler talk about without Vader pointing it out.
"Then what are you getting at, Solo? We have precious little time," Vader rumbled. Again though, Solo seemed unaffected. This could get annoying if Solo refused to be intimidated.
"You torture his friends, then when he turns up you... what? Beat him up a bit, throw him out a window, cut his hand off, toss him down a reactor shaft-"
"And you didn't stop him, did you? Couldn't you do that, with all your Force hocus-pocus?"
If ever eyes truly glared blaster-bolts, Solo's did, the sparks of hyperspace thrown like little jagged daggers at Vader.
"I could have," he said slowly, feeling Solo's point begin worm its way in. "But he needed to learn-"
"Even if it killed him?" Solo glared, fists clenching and unclenching. The desire to leap on the Dark Lord and beat him to a mushy pile of pulp was clear to them both, but Solo refrained.
"He did not die."
"He should have. That fall should have broken his neck." Again, the finger was pointed at him accusingly. Solo seemed to have only one accusing look, and it involved that finger and several hard lines forming around his eyes.
"The Force was with him," Vader rumbled, disliking this conversation intently. "Make your point, Captain. I have little time for your rebukes."
"I'm getting there, keep your cape on." There was no smile turning the corners of his mouth up, despite Solo trying to lighten the mood. "So you beat your kid up, to... what? Try and get him to join you?" Vader gave a reluctant nod, "But now, suddenly, when he's being 'turned', or whatever you want to call it, you're jumping around like a wampa on the wrong end of an ion cannon."
The room was silent for a few beats, where Vader steadfastly refused to think. "Your point?"
"The question no one here seems to dare ask - why?"
Vader let the sigh slip from his lips. Solo might be an arrogant ego-tripper, but he was astute. Solo pushed on when there was no answer. "One minute you're beating him up, and the next minute you're coming over all fatherly. I've seen you pacing, I've seen you stand and just stare into nothing, and that's not something I'm used from the great, infallible Darth Vader."
No, it wasn't was it?
Vader was silent for long seconds and Solo just sat staring, demanding, his eyes belying the quick intelligence working there. This was a question Vader had hoped never to have to address. Leia seemed inclined not to mention Bespin, the politician in her knowing it could shatter their uneasy truce. She had avoided it, despite the obvious pain and anger she felt. Vader was more than happy with that decision.
Solo, though, was no politician. And, what's more, he was right.
That was a hard thing to admit. He had respect for the smuggler, but only for his amazing lucky streak and his ability to win over both his children. He had never really given too much thought to his intellectual abilities.
"When Luke was reported dead and I couldn't find him in the Force..." He trailed off, Solo's intense gaze choking the words in his throat.
"Go on, like you said, we haven't got much time." His eyes flicked to the hyperdrive counter, but there was a deeper meaning there. If Vader didn't face the truth soon then there would be no time to do so. And that might just be disastrous.
"I was angry," he said at last. Solo leaned back in the black couch like he wanted to be some Imperial Centre shrink earning thirty thousand an hour. He almost begged to have little spectacles balancing on his nose and to have his finger steepled together thoughtfully. Vader banished the image and continued. "I was angry at the Alliance. But I was angrier with myself. It was my fault the Alliance tried to rid themselves of Luke, because of who I am." He turned his head to the stars, "I am not used to guilt. It is a new emotion to me."
Solo gave a quick smile, "That wasn't the only new emotion, huh?"
He sat back with a slightly smug grin, "Go on."
He couldn't say it. He didn't remember how. "You've made your point, Solo."
The smuggler shook his head, "Not quite. Come on, it wasn't the anger that mellowed you."
Mellowed. Mellowed. That was hardly the word to use for the Lord Darth Vader.
"Allright, I'll say it. You realised you loved that kid. Am I right?"
"Solo, we're approaching reversion..." Han didn't have to say anything; the look on his face said it all. If you can't say it now, then we've already failed. And the worst thing was he was probably right. If Vader didn't sort through this mess of emotions, how could he possibly hope to act on them and win? His eyes closed, his breath came slower, and he barely felt the reversion to realspace.
"Very well, yes I realised I felt love for my child. It was... more destructive than I could have possibly imagined. I left the fleet and sought out Leia."
"You told her you wanted to know if she still felt Luke. But that was only an afterthought, wasn't it?"
His teeth ground at the insight. Never, never would Darth Vader have imagined having a heart-to-heart with Han Solo. It was... ludicrous. But then, so was forming an alliance with the Princess of Alderaan, so why not?
"Yes, it occurred to me during meditations on the way to Tatooine."
"Why did you go there originally?"
He had the unnerving feeling Solo had already knew the answer. "I... wanted to know Luke. I couldn't think of anyone else who would know him as well."
Solo refrained from a smirk and nodded. "Like I thought." He turned back to the controls and guided the Falcon in towards the distant speck of a ship against the starred background. "You've changed."
It was Solo's turn not to meet the other's stare, until finally Vader was forced to ask, "You've all noticed?"
Yes, it was a little less than blindingly obvious to all of them, but Vader wasn't quite sure... how he had changed, what he was changing into. The 'why' they both acknowledged, but what did it mean?
Solo nodded, brown hair throwing faceted highlights around the cockpit, fresh from the shower. "I think even Threepio noticed, and that's quite an achievement," he smirked.
"I built Threepio." Vader said, almost quietly, almost embarrassed. He chided himself for that tone of voice, but there was no taking it back now.
Solo turned to him, eyes growing wide, "You what?"
"When I was nine. I built him." Vader tried not to squirm beneath the smuggler's gaze. Darth Vader was not intimidated by Han Solo.
"Why?" Solo asked, then laughed at the double meaning. Why torture the galaxy like that? Vader chuckled, actually chuckled, and shrugged.
"Idle pastime, I suppose."
Solo grinned and shook his head, "You see, this is exactly my point." He pointed that finger again and Vader was sorely tempted to relinquish Solo of it if he didn't damn well stop taunting him with it.
"You have another point to make?"
"Do you think you could get around to it a little quicker this time?"
Solo smirked again, "And her Highness says I'm too blunt. Sure, Anakin."
He jumped in his seat despite himself and whirled on Solo, seeing the man back up just a little at the obvious vehemence, "That name no longer has any meaning for me."
"Sure it doesn't." Solo leaned in conspiratorially. "That's why you claim his kids, his droid, and his childhood I suppose?"
Vader stilled, no rebuke for the smuggler. He did think of Luke and Leia as his... and yet they must have been conceived before Darth Vader was... born. Solo was not only astute, he was merciless as he carried on making his 'point'.
"And I suppose that's why you didn't answer to the name 'Vader' back during that weird s?ance? You want to guess what name you answered to?"
Vader was still, watching the Mon Calamari cruiser grow in the forward viewport. "No." It wasn't so much an answer as a denial.
Solo grinned smugly, but thankfully dropped 'the finger'. "'Fraid so, Anakin."
"That name no longer..."
"You need to try and sound more convincing when you say that, you know. I don't think even Threepio would buy that right now."
Vader's hands clenched on the edge of the copilot's seat, "They are my children. I am-"
There was a crunching sound as the upholstery ripped free of the metal support on the Wookiee's seat and he looked down at it, broken.
Solo leaned back in his seat and gave him a little privacy by focusing on the stars again, "Like I said, you need to start accepting it, or Luke doesn't stand a chance." Vader was surprised when Solo leaned in closer, conspiratorially, "This is your call, you know. You think you can rescue Luke, and I believe you. But only if you're ready."
"I know, I know. I'm the last person you expected to hear this from, but everyone else, Leia included, didn't seem prepared to touch the subject with a force-pike." He smirked, "Don't get any ideas about me forgiving you about Bespin," his eyes had hardened and there was a little shiver of remembered pain that he couldn't suppress, "But I know when something has to be said and I'm not afraid to say it." He turned away again, "Even if it's something I never could have imagined myself believing before." He murmured and lapsed in to contemplative silence.
He was right - the situation was ridiculous. Small-time smuggler lecturing the Dark Lord? He might have smirked, but the words, all of them, stung a little too true and he sat pondering them for long minutes as the Falcon approached Home1.
The Calamari cruiser that had been bulbous and crude to Imperial eyes but strangely compelling and organic to his own, hung in a stationary orbit over Sangrine on the other side of the galaxy to Tatooine. Long hours in hyperspace had taken their toll on the freighter's occupants, but not nearly as much as the brief contact with his son had. He kept telling himself that at least Luke still lived and held a little defiance, but the feelings he had touched during the brief contact burned.
They both turned at Leia's shaking voice and saw her enter the cockpit, a hand on her forehead.
Both men glared at each other before turning back to the Princess of dead Alderaan.
She stumbled forwards and Solo leapt upwards and caught her before she could fall, lowering her into the navigators seat. "What is it?"
She shook her head, bit her lip. "I... felt like I couldn't breathe, I was suffocating. And then... nothing." She pressed the heel of her hand into her temple, "And now I think I have the world's worst migraine."
Vader stood and approached her, his fingertips resting on her temple before Solo could complain. She sighed thankfully as he bled away the pain, then crouched in an un-Dark-Lord-like fashion. "Luke?"
She nodded, "I think so."
Vader sighed and looked out the cockpit uncertainly. What was Palpatine doing now? If only they had a location.... but Luke hadn't known, and only one person might yet be able to tell them. Mothma. He was going to have to be careful not to kill her out of rage before they could get any information out of her.
Chewie muscled into the already-cramped cockpit and Vader turned to Solo, "Get her to the med bunk and give her a pain suppressant."
"What about Luke?" Leia asked, brown eyes wide. So much like Padm?...
"Leia... there is nothing we can do from here. I'm sorry. The sooner we get that location, the sooner we can actually take action. Until then..." He trailed off sadly, feeling the words tear at him as surely as they did at his daughter. She nodded glumly and allowed Han to guide her from the cockpit. Chewbacca wedged himself into the copilot's seat as Calrissian appeared stony-faced and grim in the doorway. Vader stepped aside and the Baron-Administrator took the helm.
Hold on, my son. Just a while longer...
He had the wrenching feeling that it was already too late.
Leia had some serious misgivings, but she hid them away. Home1 had allowed the Falcon to dock reluctantly, Ackbar almost believing Leia's story that she was sorry she had overreacted and had come back to the fight. Ackbar had pushed her for details, but swallowed Leia's concerns about comm security.
Those weren't her concerns however, and she had no qualms about lying to Ackbar. She didn't even have any problem with Vader coming along, cloaked by the Force. That only gave her an unnerving reminder at his power. What had her stomach performing tight barrel-rolls was the upcoming meeting with Mon Mothma.
Her eyes were set as hard as duracrete as Vader opened the door by sliding the saber into the locking mechanism. She took a breath and steeled herself. Han leaned in close to her, smelling of soap and aftershave and she breathed it in, a familiar, welcome scent in what had become enemy territory.
"Relax, Leia. You'll do fine."
She nodded, her short hair bobbing up and down. She gave a grateful little smile and brushed nervously at her ship-suit, smoothing out nonexistent creases.
Vader walked in front of them, a black avenging cloud of anger, frustration, and barely checked fury. Strangely though that didn't concern her either and she could only wonder at the ease with which the thought of killing Mon came to her. She shucked it from her shoulders and followed her 'father' into the darkened room.
This was not the scene she expected. Mon was laid on a far couch, not touched by the starlight, and she didn't stir even at the sound of Vader's respirator. Han shot her an unnerved glance and Leia shook her head fractionally, confused. The door shut behind them, blocking off all light in the room and still Mon didn't stir. In the starlight, Vader stepped towards the sleeping figure, shrouded in a white senatorial dress and clutching a brushed-silk cushion over her head.
Leia was by his side in a few steps and she reached down tentatively for Mothma's pale neck. There was still a pulse and she closed her eyes in relief. If Mon had been dead...
She seated herself on the sofa opposite to Mon and laid her blaster in her lap. Han stood behind her, arms resting on the back of the sofa and she accepted the strength his presence offered.
"Wake her up," she said.
Vader's black-gloved fingertips rested momentarily on Mothma's forehead and she was sure she saw him snatch his hand away in disgust. That was a feeling she truly understood.
The room was quiet as Mon's eyes flickered open and she sat up abruptly, white fabric whispering against her skin as her eyes grew as wide as twin Tatooine suns. The short auburn hair was dishevelled as she began to rush to her feet with a cry of alarm, seeing Leia seated opposite her, fingers playing with the trigger on her blaster.
Vader's hand pushed her down none-too gently and she finally seemed to register the wheezing sound of his respirator. She sat stock still like a womp rat caught in the glare of speeder lights. Her breath stopped, them came out in a rush.
Leia smiled and it was small and bitter, "Hello Mon."
Mon seemed far frailer than Leia remembered and she clasped her shaking hands in her lap as she tried to find a focus. "Princess," she said, voice caustic but quiet. Leia frowned mentally but didn't let it show on her face. "To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?"
Vader seemed to tense but Leia knew Mon better than he, and he was quiet. For now. "Oh, I think you can guess that Mon."
Her eyes narrowed, sparking. She pulled the fabric of her dress closer around herself as she spoke, "I thought you were above murder, Your Highness."
"Unlike yourself." Leia nodded, trying to suppress the bile rising in her throat.
Mon said nothing and Han leaned over the sofa and plucked a small bottle from the table, examining it in silence. Mon followed his actions but said nothing, despite the panic that crossed her face.
"We need some answers Mon." Leia said. She was careful to let Vader's presence do the intimidating, and for herself to act as the lesser of two evils. "I think you might have them."
"There's no need to be so formal, Mon. Please, call me Leia." She smiled weakly and Mothma shifted uneasily. Take it, Mon. Take the easier option and just tell us.
They had discussed this at length, Vader wanting to opt for a simple mind probe to get the answers. Leia had no qualms about that, but Vader didn't appear to know how well it would work, and they would only have one shot at the probe. So persuasion was plan A; the mind probe Plan B.
"Leia, I didn't expect you to fall in with such bad company when you left. Won't you consider coming back?" Mon asked.
Han was tossing the small bottle of pills from hand to hand, a frown on his face.
"I would, if the Alliance wasn't as corrupt as the Empire. That's not why I'm here, Mon," Leia said. She glanced at Han - what? - but he just shook his head.
"Then why don't you get to the point, Princess?" Mon bit through clenched teeth.
Leia was going to answer but Vader interrupted, heavy bass tones rumbling and more reminiscent of the Vader she had known from before this whole mess had started, "Where is my son, Mothma?" The concern appeared well masked, but not to Leia. It still tainted his words, the need, the desperation; all bitten short by his fuse-less temper.
His hand was on her shoulder, squeezing, and she gritted her teeth against the obvious pain. "I'm afraid he's dead, Lord Vader. I-"
"Mon, we know he's alive," Leia said. She was going to say more but Mon looked up sharply, lips parting in surprise. Leia really did frown now.
"What?" Mon almost shouted, only Vader's hand keeping her down. Misgivings started to grow tenfold in the pit of her stomach. She didn't know. She really does think he's dead. "But the shuttle..."
Leia shook her head, and when she looked back up, there was that same cold, hard hate in Mon's eyes, little specks of yellow scooting outwards into the dark. "He's alive. Where is he?"
"I... I don't know what you mean," she stuttered, eyes glaring, but the rest of her was shocked still. "I don't know." And the worst thing was, Leia believed her. She looked to her father in askance but he seemed to have slumped.
"She's telling the truth," he said, words quiet.
At that new tone of voice Mon turned suddenly on the Dark Lord, eyes growing even wider. The room was quiet for a while before Han spoke. "These are some serious chemicals, Mon. Having trouble sleeping?"
Leia heard the accusations in Han's voice and bit down on her tongue to stop from screaming in outrage at the woman in front of her. She forced herself to concentrate on her as she slumped against the seat. Vader actually let her shoulder go. "That's none of your business," she snapped.
She actually trembled then and Leia gave her father a shocked look. "Answer him," Vader said, the words trembling through her.
Mon closed her eyes and shook her head.
She gritted her teeth as Vader moved closer, almost menacingly. "I've been having headaches. Migraines. Not that it's any of your business."
Vader inhaled sharply and moved around the sofa back to stand in front of Mothma. To her credit, she barely flinched when his hand shot out to her temple. Leia, memories of the Death Star churning in her gut, stood and walked to her side.
"What is it?" she hissed. Han was on the other side, the same expression of confusion on his face.
Vader said nothing and Mon hissed and closed her eyes.
Something stained the air, a tingling of anticipation and her hands tensed around her blaster, seeing Han do the same as he tossed the small packet of depressants to the floor. Her fingers were trembling when Mon's eyes flew open and she launched herself at Vader's throat.
Both Han and Leia reacted instantly and hauled her back to the seat. Leia sucked in a shocked gasp as Mon's eyes settled on her, burning yellow.
"Father?" She turned to Vader, but he was still.
Mon didn't blanch at the designation and a cruel smile spread over her lips. Vader didn't speak, his hand clenched around Mothma's temple.
Mon cackled then, a cruel, cold laugh that wasn't quite in sync with her lips. Leia felt her own eyes grow wide at the sound, memories rampaging through her mind. Memories... that laugh.
"Mothma..." Han started, but suddenly quieted, words dying as he stared off into an imaginary distance.
"No..." she hissed. "Palpatine."
The thin lips smiled wider as she threw back her head and laughed, a sick sound that came straight from the crypt.
"Father!!" she called in alarm. The woman underneath her arms bucked as she fought Leia's grip. It was only then that she noticed the deathly pallor of Mon's face, the yellow eyes dominating.
Vader's hand was squeezing deep into the flesh of Mothma's temples as the woman shook with an alien laughter. He didn't appear to react.
"What the hell is going on?" Han snapped out of his daze and shouted over the sound and Leia daren't answer him. The muscles in Han's arms bunched as he held the slight woman down. "Leia, what's-" He was suddenly quiet but Leia couldn't move her head to see if he was allright; she was held tight, her gaze locked on the frail, pale woman.
Mon turned her head to Leia, skin bunching around Vader's unmoving grip. Those yellow eyes bore into her, ripping straight through her and she cried out in alarm.
"Who would have thought it? Twins," Mon hissed, but the voice was older and more cracked than it had once been. Leia's breath went out of her in a gasp and she turned to her father, unmoving, locked in some battle of his own.
"Father..." Leia whispered despairingly, unable to move or away.
Vader stirred and looked over at her, achingly slow as her feet went out from under her and she began to fall. Then his hand shot from Mon's temple as if burned and the woman slumped back suddenly from his grip.
" What happened?" Her lips were numb, but the words were still understandable as he leant over her urgently, concern etched in every movement.
His fingers rested on her temple and when her senses began to clear she saw him shaking his head.
"Mon-" Her head flicked over to Han, trance broken again, his hand trying to find a pulse and failing. Her eyes were still open, but were a dull grey in the starlight.
"It was Palpatine. He had some sort of link to Mothma," Vader explained. "I tried to find out where he was."
Leia, walking a little shakily at his side, nodded, "You didn't manage it?"
He turned to her, "No. I was about to but he would have attacked you." She looked up, eyes wide and tired and he could feel the exhaustion she was trying to hide from the sudden attack.
"I... I don't understand," she said. She glanced at a Rebel trooper as he gave the group an overly long stare. Vader frowned and waved his hand, and the man shrugged and walked on. That was sloppy; he must be more tired than he cared to admit. They had better get back to the Falcon soon or the crew might begin to break through the vision he was projecting over them.
He sighed, "I think he did it through me, rather than Mothma. She has no Force talent so..." He trailed off.
"But you don't know." Solo walked up beside Leia and hugged her waist to him when her steps began to falter as they approached the docking bay. Vader almost thanked him, but stopped himself.
"There is much Palpatine can do which I do not understand," he admitted.
She nodded, lost it thought. If Vader hadn't reacted to that plea - Father! - if he hadn't believed he was Leia Organa's father, what then? But he had. He had answered that name, and Anakin Skywalker was her father, not Darth Vader. So what did that make him? Anakin or Vader? Was Vader just a shell he was hiding inside? And if so, why? Why didn't Anakin just step forward as Anakin?
So many questions... Solo was right; he was going to have to resolve this. He had to accept it... he had changed.
As they entered the bay a group of tech officers were approaching. Most gave them a wide berth but a few walked towards the group, apparently oblivious to them. One walked into Leia, knocking her over. He saw his daughter bite back a comment about watching where they were going; knowing it might break the illusion.
The crewer continued, despite having bumped into an invisible obstacle, turning her back on them. He frowned at her as she hurried from the docking bay. She never looked back, her head of red hair pointed firmly towards the nearest turbolift.
"Hey!" Leia called, surprise rolling off her.
Vader whirled towards his daughter and Solo helping her off the deck. In her hands, trembling with excitement, she held a datapad.
"Stop her!" Leia called. Vader turned back for the young tech, but she had disappeared.
"What is it - oh, Sith!" Solo almost swore, then he was whooping in delight.
Excitement took his feet and compelled him to snatch the datapad from Leia's hands. He looked at it; looked again, reread it a third time to be sure he wasn't seeing things.
He's at the Manari Mountain Palace Retreat, Coruscant. You've got maybe another two days before it's too late.
It was followed by a string of co-ordinates, and a floor plan of the Palace. The tech had slipped Leia Luke's location. He glanced behind him again but there was no sign of the redhead. It didn't matter: the Force was screaming at him that this was right, that this was where he would find his son.
"It's over a day to Coruscant from here," Leia said, voice shaking. Her excitement sparked through the air. "Let's get moving."
Vader closed his eyes and laughed.
The night was cold and dark; the deck of the cabin floor colder still.
"Leia?" She looked over at Han as he lifted a sleep-creased face from the sheets and struggled to focus leaden eyes on her. She felt the lop-sided grin touch her lips, comforted simply by his presence as his words came muffled through the sheets. "What's wrong?"
The tension in her hands receded a little when she forced them out of the tight little balls of fear and anger. She used her spread palms to brush the tears from her cheeks, knowing he wouldn't miss the gesture. He didn't. He sat up and made an attempt at wrapping the sheet around the lower half of his body, bare torso tawny coloured in the faint light.
"I couldn't sleep."
He quirked his head to one side and sighed, the sound brushing over her, calming despite her turbulent emotions. "Nightmares?"
"Yeah..." She was hugging her legs to her chest to stop the shaking, not caring about either the show of emotion or the sheen of sweat on her skin making the nightshift more see-through. In her hands she clasped the cold hilt of Luke's lightsaber... or rather, the saber that had been passed on to him, from his father. From their father. She rolled it in her hands. "For your protection." Vader had said. Initially, she'd refused. "For your heritage." He'd walked away then, and it had been several minutes before she'd hooked it to her belt, yet to ask how and why he'd retrieved it from Bespin. Not that it mattered.
Han stood and shuffled towards her, the serious look on his face confounded by the vaguely comical movements, and she accepted the warm embrace eagerly. He wrapped the sheet around them both where she sat on the floor, not even grumbling at the frigid cold of the deck plates. The heat from his skin was more potent than a cold shower could have been, reminding her that she was alive, that she was not the one living those nightmares.
The selfishness of the thought hit her and she shivered, burying herself against the warm skin of his shoulder, inhaling the smell of soap and night-sweat. Guilt was useless, and would help no one, least of all Luke. Only resolve would help now, and she was more than determined to get the saber in her hands back to its rightful owner, Luke Skywalker.
"We made a mistake," she mumbled against him, feeling him shiver as her breath skittered against his skin.
"Who us?" he said, infamous Solo humour not managing to break her tension.
She nodded, her hair clinging to his skin as tightly as her arms clung around his waist. He held her tighter. "We shouldn't have tried to contact Luke."
His fingers brushed the soft skin on her arm, "Why not?" His words were muffled from speaking into her hair.
"Palpatine knows now." She shivered, despite the tight embrace. The cold on the deck was creeping up her skin. She lowered her lashes when he tried to find her gaze.
He was silent, his breath coming in waves through her hair as he considered the statement. "Maybe it was inevitable."
Leia tightened her grip on the one stable element of her life. Inevitable that Luke would turn...? "No." She said fiercely. "This wasn't meant to happen." It was a strange tension running through her, an absolute conviction that this was not the way things were supposed to happen.
Han ran a hand down her back, fingers tracing her spine, "That's not what I meant. I meant it was inevitable that Palpatine would find out. 'Darth Vader' has been silent a while. I don't think you did too much harm."
Too much. Too much; too much, too fast. What if too much was far more than enough?
"Han, I think he's dying."
She expected denial, punctuated by his soothing caress, but she got silence. Silently, he lifted the saber from her hands and placed it on the shelf above his head. He only spoke when she lifted her head to his stormy eyes. "You don't know that," he said. He didn't sound convinced.
"I do... I wake up and I can't breathe. It feels like fire but there's nothing there, and there's no smoke, no flames." Her breath stilled in the air. "There's no light at all, and all I can feel is his despair." She shook and didn't even try to stop it. "What if we're too late, Han?"
"We still have time."
Time. It was time that was working against them. They could pour their hearts into the search, they could use the monies of a Dark Lord and a Princess, they could use their formidable desperation to try and make the Falcon to go just a little faster. But it was the time she had taken to travel to Tatooine, the time she had needed to rescue Han that worked against them. Did she resent that?
Of course not.
The reaction was immediate; and immediately distrusted. She wasn't quite sure she believed that thought, even when the source of any guilt pushed little strands of hair from her eyes.
"I'm not sure," she said. Morning bristle rubbed against her cheek. "I don't know what the dream means. It's..." She shifted against the sheet wrapped around them, "It's confusing."
He anchored her with his arms, circling her waist, "Have you asked your father? He might understand it better."
She sighed at the immediate revulsion at that thought. Still, it was lessening. "Yes."
Han's fingers stroked little trails over her back but the muscles refused to relax, "What did he say?" He was insistent, but calm. His voice was as soft as the sheet he wrapped her in, but far warmer. It was incredibly tempting to be lulled into an embraced sleep. A sleep that would be chased by dreams that were far from imagined.
"He wasn't very clear." She shrugged. The Darth Vader they had known would make his point known with the bluntness of Imperial authority. This new Darth Vader was strangely elusive with his answers. "He doesn't know if it's more feelings than something physical happening to Luke." The hands tensed, as she knew they would. Han was the stable point in her world that every disparate thought and action spun around. She let her eyes close, to drop into that stability, offered by the one she had once thought as fickle and wayward as a Veekan whore. He had changed; she had changed him and Luke had changed him.
"What kind of 'physical' somethings?" His voice growled and trembled warm against her skin. She didn't open her eyes, but she knew his glare was blazing.
"I don't know, and I think maybe he doesn't want to, but when I feel it, I can't breath, and my skin is burning. Vader said that might be just 'the physical symbolism of mental changes', supposed to weaken you for the real changes. Whatever that means. He talked, briefly, about some old Sith rites of passage ceremonies that Palpatine might be using, but he wouldn't go into details." She shivered.
Han was silent a moment, breath steady, stable, solid, reliable...
"Like an Undercut," he said, strangely appreciative. She opened tired eyes and looked at him curiously, drinking in those stable features.
He nodded, that grin returning although solemn, "Old tactic someone taught me on the Spice runs. It's basically a distraction, but the difference is it's blatant."
"Go on." She rested her head against his shoulder, watching her breath play with the tawny hairs there.
"This guy, he taught me it when we were relieving a customer of his stockpile." He paused to smile, memories playing out, totally unembarrassed by his past. "He knew we were coming, and there was no way we could have gotten it out of there if he wanted to stop us."
"What did you do?"
Han grinned again, relieving some more of her tension, then he continued, a little smugness colouring his voice. Hard to believe they were less than five hours out from Coruscant. "We went in, made a play for it. He was so busy worrying about how we were going to do, spent all that sweat and frustration trying to figure out the plan, that he didn't notice when we sneaked it out the back."
"You got it out right under his nose?"
"Sure, we paid a guy from the local cantina to dress up in the local garrison costume and had him come in whilst we were making a fuss out the front. He made it look like he was trying to arrest us. The owner - we did it in his shop - the owner nearly had a fit at having the police breathing down his neck. You could almost see his mind ticking over, deciding whether it was some elaborate ploy or just fate. Screwed himself into a ball over it. Worked a charm. Chewie got clean away with the stuff."
Leia took in a breath of stale cabin air, "So you're saying that you used an elaborate front to con him?" His nod bobbed his stubbled chin on top of her head. Her fingers found his as she shivered, "Then, you're saying the ceremonial part of... whatever Palpatine is doing doesn't matter."
He shrugged, and she knew he was giving that lop-sided grin that would light the room if only she could see it from this position, "Well, I don't claim to know how the Emperor thinks Princess, but since when did ceremony have any meaning?"
Her brow wrinkled, "Lots of times," she protested, turning in his grip and frowning, "Royal ceremonies on Alderaan always had a purpose. Funerals, marriages-"
She broke off and blushed suddenly at that last word, coughed to cover her discomfort. Now why did that give her such a strong reaction?
"Sure, they have a purpose, but do they have any meaning? Going to a funeral doesn't make anyone any less dead, getting married doesn't make you love the other person any more," he argued. There was a strange warmth spreading across her chest as he struggled with the word 'marriage', but she couldn't say where it came from.
"That's just the cynical smuggler talking. Of course they have meaning, they solidify, unify; they're a physical manifestation of feelings, traditions..."
"And that's her Highnessness talking." He raised those expressive eyebrows. "They only serve to manipulate peoples feelings. And that's my point - if Palpatine is performing some sort of sick ceremony on Luke -" His cheek twitched, his fingers tightened, before the anger flashing in his eyes bled away by force of will, "Then it might be nothing more than a way to make him more... prone to the Darkside. You know; let his barriers down when he gets afraid."
She looked at him curiously, then buried her head against his shoulder. "You've been talking to Vader," she said, "About the Force."
He shifted uncomfortably, "Always good to be prepared," he murmured, only slightly tinged by embarrassment.
"I thought you didn't believe in that stuff, Solo." She hid the grin in the skin of his shoulder.
He groaned and she knew his eyes were rolling, "I might be cynical, Leia, but I'm not stupid enough to deny what's right in front of my eyes."
"I know that," she whispered, "I was just surprised. Vader said-"
"Leia," he interrupted her. The room dropped a couple of degrees as her heart started a rapid descent towards the floor. Leia shivered.
"I don't think you should call him that anymore," Han whispered.
"Call him what?" Her breath came in little ice clouds.
She couldn't look at him, "Well what do you expect me to call him? Father?" She trembled and he held her tight.
"No... no." He sighed and it brushed her skin soothingly again, "Look, he's changed. He's accepted it... well, nearly. You need to too."
She heard the suck of a breath being held and wasn't entirely sure if it was his or hers. She shook her head, "I... I can't."
Han was strangely silent. "Leia, you have to do this. For him."
With a shock, she realised she was not the only one trembling. "For him?"
"Oh, Sith-hell. I can't believe I'm asking you to trust Darth Vader, but I think you've got to. If you're going to get Luke back, you need Anakin Skywalker with you, not Darth Vader."
No one spoke for several long seconds. Leia's mind was numb. It was the blissful feeling she had longed for over the restless nights. Now it was here, it made her want to scream.
"Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader." Han was being gentle, but insistent. She felt like a moth dragged towards the flame when she should have gone willingly. But the truth was not something easy to embrace.
"Don't you think I know that?" She shifted uncomfortably against him, anger boiling. She pushed it aside.
"Hell yes. I'm just not sure you see that Darth Vader has become..."
"Well he's acting pretty spaced, Leia. That's not Darth Vader, so who is it?"
When she stiffened it was only the tension deep within her bursting to the surface. "Han I can't do this. I can't accept this... can't accept that... thing as my father!"
Her hands found the sheets and she was wringing them between bleached white hands. Han took them in his own and stopped her frantic action. "Then at least accept him as something other than Darth Vader."
Her lips pursed in concentration as she leaned into him again. "I'm... not ready."
"It doesn't condone his actions, Leia, to admit he'd changed. Damn it, I still feel the urge to throw out an airlock every time I see him, but we need him, and he's not the same guy that... well, you know."
"He's hurt us all. Badly. And I'm not saying forgive... just..."
"Put it aside?"
She studied her own hands in his, "I'll try."
Her head rested on his chest for long minutes before he spoke again, Leia furiously not allowing her mind to work. "Less than five hours now," he whispered into her hair, "You should get some sleep."
"I... I don't know if I can."
The arms around her tightened, comforting. How had she ever thought the smuggler was cold-hearted? "Okay, but there's one other thing, Leia."
She tensed. "What?" She clung to the sheet and to him.
"You think we could get off this deck? It's colder than a camping trip to Hoth."
She chuckled. "And I guess you'd know, flyboy."
The door was open.
That felt like a strange mockery, a twisted d?j? vu that clung to the ebony trim of his cloak. The memory was not his own, and Anakin didn't need to question whose it was.
The door was open. That was snow-blinded trust, and a despair that hit you in the base of your stomach like a dewback jumping from the canyon edge.
Anakin's lips curled into a smile that was a strange mixture of melancholy and acceptance, acknowledging the simile based on his old homeworld for what it was - a burgeoning familiarity with his old life. Deep meditation since leaving Mon Mothma behind as a revenge-swollen corpse had forced a decision upon him not unlike the decision a nine year old Tatooine slave had once had to make, between two lives; one achingly secure but unfulfilling, and one with a promise of strength and... Light. As it had been then, the decision had never really been decisive at all; it couldn't possibly be, when it had been made seconds, minutes, hours before Anakin had realised he had to choose a direction at all.
He could not be Darth Vader, no more than he could ever be a lowly slave boy.
To say he had eradicated Darth Vader by a bare two days mediation whilst wanting to tear his small bunk apart in rabid frustration and panic for his son was, well.... an over exaggeration. But Obi Wan had been right when he had told Anakin, then a willing Padawan, that the decision is half the journey. The path was chosen, and attending to it over all others was worth more than the first step.
He could hope, anyway. Because the last thing he needed now was a war between disparate personalities.
But that reduction of Dark/Light to some split personality psychosis, Anakin knew by painful personal experience, was a gross oversimplification.
You didn't turn Dark simply by donning a black cape and mask. It was a state of mind, it was submission and it was control, and those two were never in harmony except when you let your feelings rule your head and didn't think too much on your actions. And that, at least for Vader, was the essence of the Darkside; it gave you enormous powers to do what you wished, to control what you wished, and then took away any responsibility for using them appropriately. He'd had the power to save Padm?, but not the will when it mattered most. He'd had the security of being controlled, only to find himself hung by his own leash.
When he reflected on it, as he had during those snatched hours of meditation, he realised now why the discovery of children had hauled him back from that path to stand at the intersection yet again. It was love, yes. It was need, certainly. But, even more than that, it was a desperation to have those children by his side, as his children and not as his subordinates. And that could never happen in the Dark. He would have had to control them, and control holds no love. Only fear; only greed.
Leia watched him with Padm?'s eyes. The stone corridors were empty and quiet except for their determined footsteps. The sconces were lit, the drapes fluttering mournfully in a cold wind, but no voices carried along the carved corridors.
And the door to the throne room was open.
If Anakin had had any doubts that this was a trap, they evaporated into the air more easily than the shaky breaths of his daughter did where they crystallised in the frigid cold.
The flight in had been hard, but not near impossible, as it should have been. Solo had brought the Falcon into planetfall in the shadow of a cargo caravan. The irony of using the same trick employed to elude him after Bespin was not lost on him. The cargo holder was hideously slow, the flight to the Manari mountains excruciating, waiting for interception by the Imperial navy. Anakin had been counting on being able to intimidate the navy into backing off. It had not been necessary; they had not been intercepted.
Solo had taken a less-than-direct route to the mountains, taking them well past Jade's deadline. He didn't have enough mental-fingers to count off the clues to this being a trap, not least the easily identifiable agent that had passed on this location.
And yet... that seemed so obvious. Almost like Palpatine didn't particularly care whether or not they thought this a trap, only that they came at all. And here they were. What else could they have done?
The worry in his gut curled painfully at that, leaving Anakin with the wrenching feeling of indescribable loss. That, perhaps more than the ease of their entry to Palpatine's mountain retreat, was as ominous as the storm brushed skies.
"He's expecting us."
Anakin nodded. "Captain Solo, you and Chewbacca must stay here-"
The headstrong smuggler shook his head fiercely, the Wookiee keening a negative, "No way. I go where she goes." Solo gestured towards Leia with a determined look of over-protectiveness that Anakin was easily beginning to share.
"This is not a matter you can be involved in, Captain."
"Hutt spit it isn't!" Again, Solo brought out that accusing finger. "I'm coming in there."
Anakin looked between Wookiee and human, then gave a mock sigh of grudging agreement. "Very well. When Luke or Leia dies because I have to split my attention between an injured son and his wayward friends, I hope you'll be understanding if I can't quite manage to quash the urge to cut that finger off."
Solo nodded in self-congratulations. "Good, let's get-" Then he stopped. The words seemed to suddenly register in Solo's mind and brown eyes stared suddenly at his accusing hand. He grimaced, lowered it and tucked his blaster into it, glaring. The vehemence there was begrudging of the logic, though. Anakin found himself nodding in relief that Solo understood.
"Stay and guard the door." Solo had that look of imminent protest on his lips, a look that came so naturally, but he narrowed his eyes and nodded. "If anyone approaches, kill them." He would cover their backs here, whilst Calrissian guarded the ship in the snowbound hangar.
There was a burning in his chest when he turned to Leia, a pain at taking his more-than-capable daughter into danger. But she needed to be there, as much as he did.
He just nodded and strode for the open door.
For the first time since they had arrived here, Anakin reached out into the Force for the familiar balm of his son's presence. What he found nearly stilled his steps forward, the lights of sconces flickering in a cold wind.
Luke was here, in this room beyond the swathes of shadows at its entrance. He was here, but the bond they should share was tattered, bloodied. In Anakin's mind, it stung under his touch like the frothing pain of a fresh burn on tender skin. And Anakin knew how that felt. His son's presence was there, and it was... not there. It was clouded, distracted, in a pain that set Anakin's heart doing panicked loops and hammering at his chest for freedom.
Leia walked to his left side, Luke's lightsaber clutched in her pale hand. She halted in the doorway, clearly feeling the waves of past agonies seething up from between the flagstones to greet them. Anakin stilled beside her, tempted to tell her to start running and not look back. A crackled voice, marked by mockery, pulled his awareness from his pale daughter to the depths of the room beyond.
"Won't you come in, my friend?"
Palpatine. He lounged by a burning hearth Anakin recognised intimately from Leia's nightmares.
Anakin was compelled by the voice, his footsteps loosing the soothing ring of his heel against stone floor as he crossed over the rug towards the man he had called Master.
Man? How could he think of this thing as a man? It was barely alive, the skin held to crumbling bones only by sheer Force of will. Age had treated Palpatine poorly, but no worse than he deserved.
Anakin said nothing as he halted before the seated Emperor. Leia had hung back in the doorway.
"Lord Vader, a pleasure to see you. What brings you here?"
Now Anakin spoke, an ironic smile twisting scarred lips into a smile. "That name no longer has any meaning for me."
The words were the cool draught of water after years in a lifeless, loveless desert. He basked in it, could feel Leia's appreciation from across the room, and allowed himself a measure of pride.
Palpatine steepled his fingers in mock thought. "Indeed? Then you have no use for it?"
Anakin resisted the urge to shift from foot to foot, wrapping the tendrils of Force around himself in a measure of security. What did the old man want?
"None. I serve you no longer."
One brittle eyebrow rose for the ceiling. "Ah, then you will have no argument to me reclaiming it and passing it on to another?" He smiled wickedly, firelight adding to that putrid yellow of his eyes. He flicked a long, chalk-nailed finger and a figure stepped forwards from the shadows and into the light.
Anakin's heart must have stopped. It had to have, because there was no pain comparable to the burning ache that clenched it as his son stepped forward to stand at Palpatine's right side.
His mouth wouldn't work, as still as his heart and his breath. The brash boy was gone, the young man he had fought in the winds of Cloud City buried. Had this been what Padm? had seen when she looked at him twenty years ago? Had she died in the first raids of a Rebellion, or from the throes of a broken heart, malignant with the change the Darkness brought to someone you couldn't deny love for?
No. This was worse.
Anakin's hands balled into fists. Padm? had at least seen a drastic physical change, and not a despairing mockery of what she'd once known. The fine, aristocratic features of the boy were achingly pale despite the firelight, the blue eyes wide and swimming with restrained power. The dark fabric of rich robes made him both taller, more powerful, and smaller, more desperate. Emotions raged in a war across his features as Anakin looked at him, threatening to tear those bleached features apart. There was pain, radiating outwards with a heat akin to the flames of the fire. Old pain from old wounds, and fresh pain from indecision, confusion. There was hope, and there was horror. The need to get out of the room, the uncertainty of what Darth Vader was doing standing in front of him. Perhaps even memories of Bespin.
There was a strangled sob from behind him that might have formed the word 'Luke' if it hadn't been obscured by tears. Leia dropped the lightsaber with a clang, frozen in shock, and Anakin couldn't turn to her. He heard her scramble to retrieve it.
Luke flicked his gaze to her, an anguished expression quickly wiped away. It was almost impossible for Anakin to restrain himself from jumping forward and spiriting the boy away.
Palpatine was still smiling. "After all, it is an auspicious name. It should be passed on." He turned then to Luke, talking almost conversationally. "What do you think, Little Jedi? Do you like it?"
There was a moment of absolute revulsion as Palpatine stroked the back of his hand across Luke's cheek. Darkness flooded him, following quickly on the heels of his burning anger. Get off him, you bastard! Anakin shook with the need to act on that hatred.
Palpatine only crackled. "Careful, Anakin." The name was dust in his mouth. "Hate leads to the Darkside. But then I suppose you know that, no?"
Anakin trembled in rage, trying to calm his emotions. The power tempted him to strike out and reclaim Luke, who didn't even flinch at the contact. Words absolutely failed him.
"Little Jedi?" The word was mockery. Luke's gaze, glazed and confused, flicked between Anakin and his Emperor.
The words were like a blow to Anakin's gut. We waited too long. We waited far too long.
"Let him go," Anakin growled, the words menacing through the vocoder. He was peripherally aware of Leia standing still rooted to the spot, staring at the three dark cloaked figures.
Palpatine chuckled, "No, no. I don't think so." He turned back to Anakin, his hand falling from Luke's cheek. Anakin heart went for a full-fledged cheer when the boy inched further from his Master, his eyes looking pleadingly at his father.
Stay calm, Luke. I'll get you out.
The thought hammered against the barrier erected between father and son, and Palpatine shook his head. "You never did learn, did you Anakin?"
"I thought I learned far too much," Anakin spat. The cold fury was still there in his veins, potent and threatening.
Palpatine sighed almost wistfully. "You were such a recalcitrant student. Not at all like your son. He's just plain stubborn."
Snow squalls beat at the glass windows, and Anakin took a step closer. "What do you want? Why do you want me here?"
That crooked smile came again, but Anakin's eyes were on his son, edging slowly away from Palpatine. He didn't even look like he knew he was doing it.
"What do I want?" His hand snaked out and clutched the black sleeve of Luke's robe. The boy didn't flinch as fingernails dug into his skin and he was hauled back to his former position. "I want your son."
He couldn't help it; the anger boiled hot in his cheeks and he took another step forward, prodded on by the low growl in his daughter's throat.
"Oh, originally I wanted whichever proved the stronger between father and son." Yellow teeth shone as bright as his eyes when he smiled. "But now I just want your son. He's very strong, you know?" His hands began to stroke Luke's sleeve. Luke looked down fiercely, but the resistance died almost immediately.
"Yes, I know. Stronger than you realise, I think." It took a supreme effort not to launch himself forward and wrest his son from that bony grip. The silent warning against doing just that hung on the blue tinged fingertips of Palpatine's free hand.
Again, that chuckle that shivered up his spine. "Perhaps, perhaps... he certainly took a lot longer to turn than you did. Tell me, what took you so long to get here?"
Anakin growled low in his throat. Leia walked up behind him to stand just behind him, to his right. The fury was coming off her in hot waves as the fire crackled in a strange harmony to the tension in the air. Anakin's eyes remained fixed on Luke, not bothering to answer Palpatine's question. There was a strange worming of pride in his gut at the statement, and another feeling he recognised as guilt at the accusation. The high black collar framed mournful blue eyes as Luke watched the confrontation with a strange detached sadness hiding behind those blonde lashes. Even screaming his denial on the gantry on Bespin, he had never looked so lost. It ignited feelings in Anakin that were murdering the rage that rose with Palpatine's words, letting him push the Darkness away savagely every time it beckoned.
When it was clear he wasn't going to rise to Palpatine's taunts, the Emperor frowned, forehead crumpling. "Still..." his voice was again wistful, "It might be interesting to see who is the stronger." His hand waved through the air, fire patterning it.
Leia cried out as the saber in her hands was ripped from her grip and flew to Palpatine's. She cursed under her breath. Calm, Leia. Don't give in.
Anakin kept his eyes on his son. His jaw was set in a fierce determination, but his eyes were still glazed. This had gone on far enough.
Palpatine turned the saber in his grip, fingers crawling over the weapon Anakin had made as a padawan, years past now. The Emperor looked over at Luke, a tendril of Force energy forcing the boy's gaze down to his own. Luke struggled with words of defiance as the saber was placed into his hands.
That fierce possessiveness was back, Anakin struggling with disparate feelings of disgust and despair. And, yes, there was fear too, as Luke rolled the saber in his hands and fluttered his eyelids closed.
Palpatine looked between them, considering. Anakin tensed. "I'm not about to fight my own son, Palpatine."
"So certain of yourself... You didn't seem so disinclined on Bespin, my apprentice," Palpatine chuckled. "But I'm afraid I'm not about to offer you a choice, Anakin. Do you remember your last sacrifice to the Darkness? Ah... yes, I see you do. They screamed beautifully, didn't they? " Anakin flinched. Palpatine continued, eyes on Luke, "He needs only that last step now. Needs only to take his place at my side. And you, Anakin, are standing in his way."
"I'm not going to fight him." He tensed. Luke had yet to reopen his eyes.
Anakin's body tensed in anticipation, hearing nothing but the squall of snow outside.
And then the crackle of lightning. And Leia's scream.
The bolts hit her in the stomach, throwing her to a rough collision with the wall behind them. Furious, Darkness flowing with the hatred, the saber came from his belt and snapped to life. Before he had any conscious knowledge of what he was doing, he leapt across the remaining distance, blade sweeping up and down towards the decrepit old man, ready to slice him through -
- only to be intercepted by the blue blade of his old saber, held in the unwavering hands of his son.
Over the sparks of clashing lightsabers, Palpatine cackled.
His son looked at him across locked saber blades, his blue eyes glazed but mournful, his jaw set determinately.
Anakin jumped backwards, disengaging his blade, heart running in circles. His son scissor-stepped around the throne, the air crackling with determination. He took another step backwards, and the lightning flew from Palpatine's fingers again, towards his daughter lying in a choked heap by the wall.
He had to move forward and intercept it, letting it tangle around the ruby blade. Luke came on at him, blade slashing for an intercept. The strength of the deflection rocked Anakin's hands, almost as much as the shock of the power behind the blow rocked his emotions. Luke didn't even blink as he stepped forward again, lashing out with the blue blade. Anakin intercepted it but stepped back, retreating. Luke came on, the Force tumbling between them as son attacked father.
The slightly stiff movements were the only betrayal of Luke's imprisonment, the slight wince of pain that made it no further than his eyes as he moved the protesting muscles in an elegant attack. The small part of his mind not involved in an intricate dance of saber blades let Anakin acknowledge his son's skill, and not with a little trepidation. The blade was brought high and dipped towards Anakin's head. Again, the intercept. Again, the retreat.
Luke didn't let him have time to breathe; he came on, lashing out, fury uncontrolled, only his eyes speaking an inner turmoil.
His eyes, and his screaming through the Force; a cry of anger, frustration and confusion that scolded the tight web of energy reaching through the room, shaking it. Luke didn't want to do this, but with every fear that rose up swam a new tide of power that pushed past thought and left only action.
Even as Anakin forced himself to fight past the anguish clear there, the import of hearing that cry hit him harder than the sharp jab from Luke's saber.
The natural Force bond between father and son was back.
Anakin's head whipped upwards and he grasped the lingering tendrils of that presence, teeth gritted. Luke blanched visibly, his hands shaking.
Luke. Hear me.
Palpatine chuckled, slamming the barrier up again and for a long moment, filled with suppressed anger, Anakin wondered if his old Master had dipped it for a moment just to taunt him, to give him a glance at the lost child.
Luke had faltered, but with the wall back up the false certainty offered by the Darkside energy swam to him in dark waves. He clamped down fiercely on his raging emotions and swung the saber in a vicious infinity loop, forcing Anakin to stumble away again, backing dangerously towards a far wall.
He couldn't bring himself to attack though. He wouldn't. Not after Bespin.
The connection was as easily lost as it was found, and the bond between father and son was silent, Anakin screaming into the Force to try and find it.
"Not like that, Anakin." Palpatine was smiling, blue lightning twirling around his fingers. His gaze went to Leia, heaving herself off the floor with little half-sobs of pain. Palpatine raised his eyebrows.
Two choices then; let Palpatine hammer a defenceless daughter with the lightning, or attack a more-than-capable son.
Gritting his teeth, he blocked Luke's next attack, trying not to register the lingering hate there, and slashed the blade for Luke's midsection. He could have prayed to every deity he had ever heard of and not believed in when Luke intercepted the attack, a frown of dismay across his face.
"Luke, fight this. Don't let him control you." His gut performed its own gymnastic miracles as Obi-Wan's words to him two decades ago were spoken through his mouth. He repeated the words again, not disengaging this time, but forcing a retreat from his son. It was not easy; the boy was incredibly strong, grown since Bespin in ways even Vader would never have wanted. The anger sparked in his eyes, lashing out as surely as his blade did.
"Control me? What about you?"
His voice was broken with raging emotions as the blade swept in again, lightning fast. They skidded across the rug and stone floors, too fast to follow, parrying and striking on instinct until sweat shone on Luke's face, the first sign of true life in the boy Anakin had seen since stepping into this haunted room.
A ripple of a Force-tug behind him and one of the ancient tapestries draping the walls dropped towards him, trying to smother him. He sidestepped easily. Straight into Luke's blade, the boy slashing it down towards his hand.
Anakin dodged quickly, throwing himself out of the contact as heat teased at the fabric of his armour. The dodge turned quickly into a roll as Luke snapped a leg out and dug it into his side, kicking the older man over. He hit the stone floor hard, a disturbing crunching sound in his ears that he hoped was only bent armour and not bones. He came back to his feet cleanly, crouching low, without thinking swiping the blade low for Luke's feet.
It was moving before he knew what was happening, and for a moment it didn't look like Luke would step back in time. He didn't. Instead, he leapt above the arc, landing back hard on the ground, on top of Anakin's right hand, grinding it against the stone. He was effectively immobilised for the precious few seconds that would be all his son needed to finish the fight. Anakin grunted at the pain, but held onto the lit blade. Had this been what it had felt like for all the Jedi he had 'purged' from the galaxy? To be attacked by one of your own, to try not to hurt them because you still cared, only to find yourself on the wrong end of a saber blade?
He tensed, waiting for the final sting of a saber opening him from hip to hip. It never came, the blue light bathing the stones beneath him but never falling down to slice him open. It was a seconds worth of hesitation and Anakin used it. A push of the Force and a wrenching of his hand and Luke lurched backwards with a startled curse, the blade slashing a deep gash into the flagstones.
He pushed off the floor with his left hand, hurriedly coming to his feet and skidding backwards. He got the blade back up as Luke came on again, throwing himself into the attack as much as Anakin threw himself into the defence. The only sounds in the room were Leia's muffled moans of pain, the crash of sabers, and the snow outside beating the walls. And, of course, Palpatine laughing coldly to himself.
They moved from the flagstones to the rug in front of the fire, the open space of the hall where there were no drapes to throw or walls to back opponents into. Only the sabers and themselves. Anakin whipped the blade around and down, stepping into a feint. Luke took it, and he twisted his wrist before his son got there, thrusting one hand out and into the side of Luke's head. He'd hoped to knock him out; instead Luke managed to move backwards and go with the blow, breathing heavily and momentarily dazed.
If he could have, Anakin would have taken that respite to wipe away the sweat from his forehead. With the mask covering his head, there was no point even trying. For not the first time in recent weeks, he felt like the armour that supported him was no longer a part of him, like it was permanently attaching him to Darth Vader. And hindering him.
Luke came on again, balance regained. Physically, they were equally matched. He wouldn't win this one with brute force.
"I broke his control on me, Luke. He cannot offer you anything but misery, if you search your feelings you can feel that. He cannot control you unless you want him to." The minute the words were out, he heard the mistake, wincing at it.
"Want him to? Want him?" Luke brought the saber down in a vicious arc aimed to neatly slice his neck from his torso. Anakin intercepted, pushing backwards on the blade and making Luke take a step back. "You think I wanted this?!"
"All I ever wanted was a father to look up to, to be proud of, to be proud of me." The voice sounded strained, but the fight continued, Luke punctuating with saber blows. One of the sconces fell to the ground with a wicked smack from the backwards swing of an attack, molten wax splashing and hissing.
Luke attacked mindlessly in his fury. There was barely time for thought now, but as his son kept attacking, bleeding more and more offensive action from his father, Anakin saw with sudden clarity a way to bring the boy back. That brief contact onboard the Falcon, so long ago now, had shown it to him. Now Luke showed it to him again. Palpatine had succeeded in taking from Luke everything left worth clinging to the Light for, as he had with Anakin, years ago.
And what brought me back? Something to fight for. A family.
To drag him back Anakin needed only to offer Luke something to fight for. Such as a father.
He frowned. "Look at me, Luke." The boy set his jaw. "Look at me!" Anakin shouted, wincing when it was the bass tones of Darth Vader echoing through the room and not the gentle but determinate voice he had intended. Luke's eyes were widening in a heart-rending echo of his mother's expression of alarm. Anakin disengaged his blade and Luke made no attempt to use the opening. He just looked at him, hands clenching around the hilt of the saber.
"Reach out to me," Anakin insisted.
The boy's lips set in strangled determination, and even through their broken bond Anakin sensed his thoughts skittering as uncontrolled as dust motes in a Tatooine sandstorm. Fear kindled from a reminder that he faced Darth Vader was lit in his mind, fear that he might lose, and a deeper fear that he might win.
"Reach out," Anakin insisted, trying to get the sound of his voice to be less reminiscent of the Sith Lord. "I've changed, you have to sense that, Luke."
The frown crumpled his pale features as the uncertain tendril of Force energy reached for Anakin. He let it come, didn't hurry him, his heart thumping blood through his temples. The touch was at once achingly familiar, and tragically different to that he'd experienced a bare few months ago when he'd implored that Luke 'search your feelings'.
Luke flinched, blanched, looked ready to bolt the room. His eyes went wide. "I..."
Anakin nodded, "Darth Vader was never your father. I am."
The reaction he got was not the one he expected. The boy stood stock still, the saber hissing warningly in his hands. Palpatine was talking, but Anakin blocked it out, watching his son. He shook his head fiercely, bangs on blonde hair whipping around.
"Where were you!?" Luke cried, his voice accusing and full of a pain Anakin couldn't douse, not yet, "Where were you?!"
Palpatine laughed. Luke attacked again, and Anakin felt everything begin to tear itself apart.
Where was he? When - in those twenty years of playing the Dark Lord, abandoning a child to an orphaned upbringing on Tatooine? Or where was he, when he severed his hand on Bespin, where was the father then to protect him from the monster he had become? Or... where was he these past months? Where was he?
His blade faltered and in that moment Luke struck forward. He was good. He was far too good, calling the Force to him in his anger. Anakin stumbled, nearly fell, felt himself pushed backwards. He collided with the wall behind him with a solid thud as Luke's palm came out and a ripple of the Force knocked him off his feet.
It took a moment to gather his breath around the respirator. When he looked up, Luke stood over him, the blade at his father's throat, hand shaking, sweat glistening.
"I... I can't..." Luke was imploring, his eyes shutting down to deny what was in front of him.
"Let go, Luke. You don't need the darkness," Anakin implored. Obi-Wan's words again. They hadn't worked the first time, why would they work now? The arm holding the saber shook, the blue blade wavering in front of his throat. "You can't do this Luke, I can feel your confusion. You've been manipulated. Let it go. Just let it go, and come back with us."
The eyes remained closed, the trail of a tear worming out from under the lowered lashes and rolling down his cheek, liquid fire in the hearth light.
Anakin proffered a hand, "Luke?"
The boy opened his eyes to answer, but the expression that crossed his face had Anakin's heart captured. Luke looked around in shocked pain and anguish, staggering backwards, murmuring no, no, no, no...
Confusion was replaced by clarity as a furious Palpatine stepped beyond the firelight. He felt the energy pouring into his son and came to his feet incensed as the Emperor crossed to them, his face a mask of fury. His decayed gaze was on Anakin's son, and Luke was tossing his head in denial. "Get out of my mind!" he screamed.
Anakin re-ignited his saber and went for Palpatine once more. He had the pleasure of seeing the Emperor's eyes grow wide as he back-pedalled, before the spark of Force energy leapt for his son and Luke jumped forwards to intercept the blade.
Anakin barely had time to switch it off in his shock, Luke coming within a death's whisper or being skewered by the hard light.
Such trapped devotion, such unthinking loyalty... such slavery. Anakin saw the desperation written all over Luke's features. The boy attacked again. Reaching for the bond did nothing; Palpatine blocking it yet again.
No reaction, the words bouncing back at his like snow skittering off a glass pane.
Glass pane? His eyes flicked to the window and the squalls of snow.
The plan was still-born as Luke attacked again. If Anakin had thought his son was good before, he was sorely mistaken. That had been nothing compared to the savage beauty of his skill now, blows raining down with absolute accuracy despite his eyes being half-lidded, trying to shake Palpatine's influence.
As Luke's sweeping attack came in for his midsection there was a cry from across the room. "Luke, no!"
Leia was on her feet again, her emotions and her voice betraying her anguish. Anakin didn't look, but Luke did, and the distraction was enough. The seat beside the fire wobbled, then flew towards Luke. He sensed the incoming missile, lifted an arm to block it and, but not fast enough. It barrelled into him, lifting him off the floor with a cry of surprise and throwing him against the window -
- but not before he grabbed Anakin's hand, yanking him off the floor with him. Anakin bit down a cry of surprise as his feet left the ground, thumbing off the saber before it sliced through them both.
Luke's body hammered the glass, and hairline cracks spidered outwards with a loud crack. For a moment that grew too long, it seemed like the glass wouldn't give under their weight. Then it splintered into jagged fragments reflecting firelight and snowstorms.
Leia was shouting, Anakin was cursing and the wind was suddenly loud in his ears as the death grip on his hand hauled him through the broken glass after his son. The wind howled in expectation, sconces blown out, drapes whipping hard-edged tails at them as they tumbled to the snowfields beyond. For a minute they hung in the air before impact, but the window was a bare few metres above the snow and they tumbled under the direction of gravity.
Luke landed first with a suppressed cry of pain. Anakin rolled as he hit, but the snow gave under his weight and billowed over him in drifts of powdery cold. He gasped against the frigid feeling of fingers teasing cold knives through his skin. The pain from his son increased with the same sensation, but on skin unprotected by armour.
Any instinctive action of protection or attack was bitten back by the still-lit blue saber in Luke's hands.
No physical influence then. But mental, perhaps.
The shock of the cold riding through Luke's mind left him reeling and Anakin pushed forwards with the Force, searching for the elusive bond between father and son. The wind shrieked like a banshee in his ears and Palpatine was reaching out at the same time, scratching mental fingers for Anakin's son. For minute Luke was suspended in a mental tug-of-war, eyes fluttering closed.
Palpatine had the power, the experience. But Anakin had the unleashed desperation, and a forgotten ally.
She got the hint. He couldn't see her, but Palpatine's cry of surprise told him she had attacked him and there was a muffled thump of bodies against snow, both of them toppling to the ground. Leia was cursing as she attacked, venting anger and disgust at what the Emperor had done to her brother. She was a firebrand, that one. Fortunate that she didn't have too much Force training, otherwise the anger pouring off her would have been enough to level a small city, never mind a distracted and shocked Emperor.
It didn't last long, Palpatine presumably throwing the girl off, lightning cracking the air open again. But it lasted long enough for Anakin. In that momentary distraction he reached back for his son.
Luke flinched visibly when he found the natural connection between them and smothered it with his own sense, feeling Palpatine's rage trying to tear it open. Anakin took the buffering, his gaze fixed on Luke.
Help me. Preserve this.
He heard him. Luke stumbled backwards from his advance, blade lowering uncertainly. Anakin's saber remained stubbornly unlit, the message clear. He sent a wash of feelings over Luke then. Comfort. Hope. Pride.
The boy staggered but his face lit despite the shivering, despite the snow buffeting them.
Oh, stars. It was like rainfall after a drought and he drank it up greedily.
Luke, hold on to it.
Luke blinked. Blinked again, and the wash of understanding touched his eyes. He shook his head barely perceptibly, shaking off the confusion and fear. Luke nodded. The wave of energy that poured between them was almost staggering, brighter than the white snow trying to drown them.
They both turned; they both stopped suddenly, Luke's hand tensing around the hilt of the saber. Palpatine advanced through the deep swathes of snow, black robes sinking. Leia followed him unwillingly, his hand digging into her arm whilst she was clutching her stomach, her face pale.
He blinked, snow-dashed lashes hitting his cheeks. The snow bit into his skin but it was wonderful in its pain. He relished it, wrapped it around himself. Pain meant you were alive, meant Luke Skywalker was alive. He took a shaky breath, the bitter air hitting the back of his throat, sore from screaming. It didn't matter, he felt alive, energy sparking along the connection between him and... Vader? Anakin?
The cold was digging into his skin, numbing him, and it didn't matter. None of it mattered. The impossible was true. His father was here, back to reclaim a son he loved without conditions. The black material of the robes couldn't smother him then, the sting of wounds old and new couldn't touch him, even the clawing of Palpatine through his mind didn't register.
He turned at his name, the only name he would ever acknowledge, and his breath froze in the air. Leia looked at him with a half-conscious expression of pain and the anger boiled hot in his stomach. It didn't warm him.
Luke's gaze flicked to his father, then to his right hand, rolling the saber between his fingers tensely. He let the dark feelings bleed into the snowfields along with blood from countless glass wounds.
He took a step forwards, feet sinking into the snow up to his thighs. "Let her go."
Palpatine's gaze fell on him, and despite himself he shivered violently, memories battering down his resolve. "Come here, Little Jedi." The shivering got worse at those hated words, and the strength flowed away from him faster, the light dimming -
- and then flowed back to him from his father, a warmth that heated frost-kissed skin and soothed screaming muscles. Luke stood taller, awash with the offered help. He had to be strong. He was strong.
- ... stronger than you realise, I think... -
He sent gratitude back to his father, took another step towards Palpatine. The Emperor narrowed his eyes, clenched his arm harder around Leia's arm. She winced, some of the awareness coming back to her eyes and forcing her to struggle harder.
The anger drained from him, fear and desperation dropped like a dirty cloak. He looked at the Emperor and suppressed his rage, his disgust, his fear. And that left him with... pity. Where did that come from? All he saw was the empty, decaying shell of a man corrupted by too much power. Had he ever laughed or cried, shown pain or shown happiness beyond his manipulations of Luke? Ever shown a glimpse of the man's form he rested in?
He looked down at the fingers of his left hand, at the little rivulets of freezing sweat and blood lying there, trying to remember if the Emperor had ever bled, even in those incensed moments when Luke had lashed out physically.
-... Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter... -
Luminous beings, perhaps, but caged all the same. The Darkside had stolen Palpatine's humanity, if he'd ever had any, but left him in a frail, vulnerable human body. Vulnerable.
Another step forwards, and this time not as a slave being reeled back in but as the first eddies of a plan began to unfurl. His father stood very still, watching, even the wind was silent for a moment.
Luke adopted the face of a stricken slave, lowering his lashes to the disturbed snow. Palpatine's leering triumph leapt across the Force, fully believing in his overconfidence that he had won his slave back again. The agitated movements of his father could only reinforce the image Palpatine greedily accepted, but Luke could not look back and reassure Anakin.
The possessive trust Palpatine had in him allowed another step forwards without suspicion, the overconfidence admitting the next step. Each step let him begin to shape a plan, dismissing a purely physical attack against the man who had purged the Jedi. A lick of the saber's sting would not work. He would probably not even get close enough to light it.
Luke resisted a smile as the plan became as clear as if it had been written in blood in the snow. He would never be able to both keep the Emperor's attention and attack him at the same time. Fortunately, at last, he was no longer alone. He might not be able to attack himself, but he would provide the distraction that would break Palpatine's concentration long enough for a physical attack to reach that vulnerable, human body.
Another step, Palpatine sensing no deception.
He didn't look back at his father. He could never look back.
Palpatine looked at him with eager eyes, desiring the power he knew was within Luke. Palpatine knew him. And he knew Palpatine, including his weaknesses; including his overconfidence. He would never believe his slave would turn against him now.
Palpatine smiled as Luke took the final step, desperately trying not to look into Leia's eyes.
He didn't answer her.
Palpatine lifted bloodless fingers to his cheek and scraped a nail along the skin there. His lips were curling for a smile but Luke got there first, never letting it near his eyes. Palpatine's breath crystallised in front of them, his other hand letting go of Leia. She shook her head fiercely, awareness back fully.
Luke's hand snaked upwards for Palpatine's palm on his cheek and pressed it there. The Emperor betrayed his surprise in his eyes, but said nothing. The air seemed to still, the snow settling out of the blizzard.
Destiny was cheering him on as he raised his other hand to that bony palm on his cheek, the saber dropping to the snow, unlit.
Leia was staring in horror; he could feel it rolling off her as she jumped to her feet and tugged at his arm. "Luke! No!"
Shssh Leia... I have to do this.
His father was calling in his mind now too - Luke, let go... Luke, don't!... Not like this! - but he was stilled, enraptured by the scene swirling in front of him in broken glass and snow.
Luke kept his eyes locked on Palpatine's as the other attempted to free his hand. Luke kept it clamped against his cheek. He lifted one hand and pressed it against Palpatine's own cheek, completing a circle between them. Oh, it should have been sweet revenge, to use the Emperor's own tactic of distraction against him, but the disgust rolled through him, whether from himself or his audience he couldn't say, blunting his emotions. That was good, because revenge was never of the Light.
And he needed the Light.
Leia gave a startled curse and stumbled backwards from him, letting his arm go as the energy poured into him. He drew on the Force, on the Lightside he hadn't touched in so long, and it was a balm to deep burns.
"I'm not your slave." He whispered into the wind. Palpatine was focused fully on him now. Just a little more, a bit more distraction from the other figures in the snow, and an attack might make it through. "You thought to control me." He whispered against the parchment skin. "You never imagined it could be the other way around." There was a momentary pang of worry that he had let his plan slip, but Palpatine only frowned.
His father was calling in his mind, telling him this was not the way, telling him not to make the sacrifice.
I have to do this. Be ready.
His father redoubled his efforts to dissuade him, but Luke refocused on Palpatine. "You were wrong, your Highness. I'll never turn. You'll never have me." He breathed deep. "You want this power? Here, have it."
Luke didn't see the look of confusion on Palpatine's face. He closed his eyes. He felt more than heard Leia and his father start in shock, and smiled. The Light danced around him so easily, blindingly bright, lighting up the stormy afternoon.
-...and you, Luke Skywalker, are nothing but Darkness...-
Never had the wretched old man been so wrong. The Light came to him in a breath of fresh, cleansing air, gusting through him to the aging Darksider under his grasp. The old man was completely distracted by the attack.
He heard him. There was the snap-hiss behind him and the snow was bathed in blood red.
"This is far from what you deserve," Luke whispered, although over the singing of the Force it was doubtful anyone heard him. Certainly they wouldn't hear him over Palpatine's enraged shriek. His hand trembled, and the snowfields trembled with him.
The air sang with the hiss of a lightsaber before it sliced cleanly through Palpatine. A tremulous minute of outrage and then, finally, thankfully, in a fit frozen sunshine, the Emperor collapsed. He choked, screamed again. And died.
Or, more exactly, burst.
The explosion knocked her off her feet and into long minutes of unconsciousness. When she woke, she was cold and she was bleeding and she couldn't remember why. Action came before thought, Leia crawling away from the dark heat, hands and feet sinking into snow. Wondering what she was crawling from was her first conscious thought, the sting of blood and ozone hitting the back of her throat and worrying at her memories. Then came wondering why her hands and fingers felt dead, and why the rest of her body was screaming in abject torment. When she coughed, there was the taste of ice mixing with the warmth of her own blood. She blinked, trying to force the scene around her to make some sense.
Her arms trembled and she remembered... lightning screaming through the air, pain exploding behind her eyes, writhing, screaming; dying maybe.
She forced her head up from the snow, biting down on the lip that was already split from the blast of... an explosion? She shook her head fiercely and memories finally came flooding back, the image of Luke and the Emperor standing entranced burnt onto her retina. She heaved her weight up on dead arms, shoving aside handfuls of powder-fine snow. Breathing came to her easily enough now she wasn't kissing the ground, and she took gasping lungfuls of the cold air.
Everything was quiet, even the snow made no sound as she dragged herself to her feet. Her voice hitched in her throat and she coughed again around the syrupy metal of her senses. It was too quiet, far too quiet after what had just happened. A cold wind stirred over the snow and she shivered.
She managed to shout "Luke!" before the scene erupted into chaos.
The deathly quiet of the scene was broken by the sound of blaster fire ripping open the air above her, bolts hitting the disturbed snow and erupting in miniature geezers. The ground lurched underneath her, snow tumbling and she lost her balance, shouting in surprise as snow evaporated around her and rose in curtains of superheated water.
The Emperor's guards. Took them long enough.
She looked around desperately, angry shouts and the thud of return fire hitting stone split the air. One voice she recognized above all the angry shouting.
"Han!" She turned, footing shifting on the suddenly unstable snow. As she turned, she took in the destruction that in her half-conscious desperation she'd been attempting to escape.
Again, her breath caught against her throat, terrified sobs hitching against her chest. The clean swath of snow Luke and the Emperor had stood upon only (seconds, minutes, hours) before was gone, replaced by the heaving side of a crater that dipped beyond her eye level, water hissing upwards as it evaporated from the heat, snow still falling down the sides from the blast that had knocked her senseless.
"Luke!" Was she reduced to single names for speech today? "Where... where are you?" She struggled to run forward but every muscle in her body chose the moment to spasm and her question turned into a sob of pain, anguish and frustration as she tried to wade through melting snow towards the crater. Luke? Where are you! There was no answer. You can't be dead! You can't! Not now!
More angry shouts from behind, one that sounded like her name, and she half turned to see a dark figure running across the snow. Her vision split, went binary, and started a lazy spin as every muscle in her body made a good attempt at contracting at once. Her fingers found little to haul herself forwards with and she was sinking into the snow, almost not feeling it begin to bury her as more blaster fire opened up hissing water around her and she was still crawling, still trying to go forward, still looking, calling, screaming for her brother, tears slipping past her resolve and -
"Leia? Leia! Calm down." Hands, rough but familiar, were shaking her and she realized she was sobbing, reaching forward blindly, and going nowhere. That voice though, it was warm like an embrace, comforting like a caress, soft and stern and concerned.
Blaster fire hit close by, comets streaking across her closed eyelids. The scene had descended into a war zone.
"It's all right, I'm here. Calm down." Someone stroked her frozen hair. "Calm down. Everything's okay."
"What happened?" Even the muscles in her jaw were spasming. More blaster fire, brilliant against the snow, like and unlike the lightning that Palpatine had-
The muscles in her legs cramped and she bit back a shout of pain. Don't think about that. Don't think... forget it. It's not burning anymore. It's not tearing you apart anymore. It's just a memory now...
"S'alright Leia." Someone hugged her and tried to banish the cold with comfort. "You're all right."
She nodded, almost believing. The air continued to hiss with shots from the Palace, the whine of speeders added a new current to an already chaotic scene, but the crater was still deathly quiet.
"Princess, now would be a very good time to leave this party." He tightened his grip. She looked up, saw the approaching black specks of the speeder bikes arrowing in on them. "The throne room's locked up but it looks like they're going to long way 'round."
Throne room? Locked up? What was he-
Of course... In all the confusion, she'd forgotten that they had left him to guard against interruptions. In the chaos of saber duels and Force Lightning - don't think about that - she'd not given any thought to what was happening beyond that one room. Some Rebel Leader.
"What happened?" she asked again.
"You know Leia, I have absolutely no idea." There were arms around her, tight now, bringing her to her feet. "We kept the guards away, until the explosion. Chewie's gone back for the Falcon; they're jamming the commlinks. I got to the window, well what's left of it, as they started firing on you. Your father was running for Luke. At least, I think it was Luke, in that crater." He nudged a shoulder in its general direction. "What the hell caused this - no, wait, maybe I don't want to know."
"I've got to get to Luke." Her fingers were managing to work back to life past the frostbite, telling her they still existed through the burning ache of muscles and bone. She struggled forward a step.
"No, come on." He hauled her backwards, "We have to get better cover." He started pulling her towards the stone walls of Palpatine's palace.
She wrenched her hand free, "No! I have to-"
"Leia! There's no time for this!" A hand around her shoulder, pulling her back. Her heart was hitting the back of the throat. There was still no movement from the crater's edge. "They'll be protected by the crater sides. We- "
"Then so will we." Stubborn refusal to give in kicked in like an afterburner and gave her strength enough to drag him forwards with her. Despite protests, he supported her as she struggled towards the ominously quiet crater trying to ignore the kick of blaster fire.
"Luke? Father!" Had she just called out that name? Han was firing back at the palace walls, cursing loudly at life in general and Skywalkers in particular.
Over the hunched shoulders of the crater, the destruction was shown in ridges of snow pin-wheeling outwards from the centre. And at the centre, the figure of Anakin Skywalker was hunched over the inert form of his son, both perfectly still, Anakin's hand resting on Luke's temple as the water continued to rise in hazy waves above them.
"Father!" His concentration snapped at her call, punctuated by green blaster bolts impacting in the snow beside them. Anakin's head came up, Darth Vader's gaze locked onto hers. Leia took a step forward and Han's curses got louder and more elaborate.
"Leia, those speeders are nearly here."
She nodded, "Father, we have to leave."
He was already lifting the inert form into his arms. As he climbed the steep slope of the crater, Luke's head lolling against the breastplate, he let his gaze sweep over destruction. More blaster fire illuminated the glint of metal buried in the snow and he called both lightsabers to his hand, snapping them to his belt.
"We have to call-"
The ground heaved under her again, Han holding her up with a hand around her waist whilst his blaster hand continued to exact retribution on the Imperials hidden by the palace walls. Snow again curtained them, adding to the confusion. She looked to the figure of the ex-Dark Lord holding her brother and had the bizarre urge to throw herself into an embrace with them.
"Leia, get to the ship!" her father called, the deep boom of the vocoder breaking through the turbulent air.
Ship? What ship?
Before she could shout the question, a shadow fell over them, blocking out Corusca still screaming for the horizon. The Falcon hovered, not quite touching the melting snow.
Han's hand left her waist, wrapped itself around her wrist and hauled her towards the lowering ramp. Imperial blaster fire hit the hull of the ship, rebounding with a more metallic thud as they heaved out of the snow and into the safety of the corridor, her body protesting all the way.
Sudden acceleration and the screaming of her calf muscles made her lurch into Han, who had suddenly gone binary in her vision, plastering them against the acceleration padding.
"How... how is he?" she managed around gritted teeth. Her own injuries were nothing compared to the waxen face of her brother.
The wind and the blizzard howled beyond the closing landing ramp. "I put him in a healing trance." Anakin was pushing forward against the swaying of the ship in atmosphere. The blaster fire had died away with altitude. "He took the full force of the blast. We have to get to the medical centre." Short, blunt, to the point. Very Darth Vader, even if he did have the more kindly tones of Anakin Skywalker honeying his voice. Leia was beyond wrestling with her own perceptions.
"Are you kidding!" Han shouted, banging backwards into the padding as the ship lurched again. "This is a wanted ship, we can't go near there!"
"You'd be surprised what Darth Vader can manage to permit on Imperial Centre." The tone was not quite humorous. Han quietly glared.
Leia ignored the argument and turned to Luke, who had also spawned a clone that revolved in her vision. She hissed at a sudden ache beneath her skull.
"Fine. Chewie!" Han let her wrist go and turned to stalk towards the cockpit, probably to throw Lando out of the pilot's seat. As he let her go, there was a strange falling sensation as her feet buckled and she started a slow slide for the deck. Han was still railing on, her father giving succinct rebuttals.
Both men turned to her as she hissed in pain. "Um... can I-" Whatever she was going to ask for was lost as she surprised even herself and slipped into blissful unconsciousness.
He awoke to the feeling of soft silks on his skin and wide, brown eyes smiling.
That voice... he knew that voice. It was almost too much to believe and the smile cracked across his face before he had time to really think. "Leia?"
She grinned, eyes sparkling. Were they tears or was that joy shining there? "Well, actually it's afternoon. But like Han says, anytime you wake up is technically morning."
His eyes felt groggy and his skin dry and stretched like he'd spent too many days on the Dunes. He followed the pale of her hand as she reached out and wiped a damp cloth over his eyes, washing the sleep away. She put it on a nightstand somewhere beyond his view. All sensations of cool water on his skin and fresh air in his lungs were periphery to staring at her in absolute wonder. "Better? You've been in the healing trance for days."
He just gaped for a moment, trying to put the memories together and failing miserably. His mouth shut with a click that had to be audible as he quashed the farmboyish reaction, chiding himself. Leia's own grin became impossibly wide as she saw the gesture. His hair was given a friendly ruffle and suddenly he was enfolded in petite but fragile arms, the perfumed fragrance of her hair another familiar presence that soothed his bruised heart.
But why is it bruised?
He frowned. She must have felt it; she brushed a hand over his damp forehead, little straggles of hair following her fingers like she would brush away the worry lines. She was still smiling but her gaze was more serious now. He frowned deeper, noticing for the first time the blunt cut of her hair framing her jaw. "Leia?"
Memories swarmed like rabid insects and he couldn't catch them all at once and force them to form a coherent whole. He brought his fingers up the shards of her hair and brushed the tip of his thumb over them. There was no avoiding the questioning look on his face.
"You don't remember?" She looked so pale and fragile, like but unlike the strong, resilient Princess he had left behind on...
Hadn't seen after Mothma had...
After the interrogation and...
And the snow and the fire and...
A gasp that was half sob, half horror hitched its way past his throat. His hands trembled as the memories stopped swirling and started mocking. He dropped the lock of hair. Before he could say anything, Leia embraced him again, engulfing him in her arms and comfort and the sweet, familiar presence of his best friend. His eyes squeezed against the need to cry and she rocked him gently, murmuring... something. Holding on to him, even tighter than he held on to her.
He'd done it. He'd gone over to the Darkside... he could barely even remember where the line had been or when he had crossed it. He remembered resisting. He remembered fighting. Somewhere that had switched from fighting Palpatine to fighting his father who was... was Lightside now? Could Anakin Skywalker have returned whilst Luke Skywalker was sinking? He couldn't qualify or quantify the feelings that went with the memories. Misery, loathing, self disgust; they were all present. But so was hope, longing, confusion... enough disparate feelings to fight a small war with. Which, in essence, was exactly what had happened.
Finally, long after he had stopped choking down his tears, she let him go, pressing him back down to the soft, silky touch of sheets on a wide bed. He blinked.
"Where are we?"
"Father's castle." It took a moment for that to register. She smiled weakly, coughed a little. "Seems like he had this all planned out. These were the quarters he had made for you when he found out about you and... well, you know the rest of that story."
"Oh." What was he supposed to say? "Yeah."
She coughed into the growing silence. "What... what do you remember?"
He tensed but resisted the urge to shiver. "Everything up to the explosion." He sucked in a deep breath, the images flowing freely now. Fighting, hurting, dying. "Leia, I'm so sorry. I couldn't stop it, I couldn't help it. It was like I was a spectator in my own body I- " he faltered. His eyes went wide with one particular memory. "Leia, that lightning. Are you..."
She smiled weakly. "I'm as confined to quarters as you are. But we're both going to be fine."
He narrowed his eyes, "Are you supposed to be resting somewhere?"
She rolled her eyes. "Did you always read me so easily?" she chuckled, and it was the most wonderful sound he'd heard in too many days. "Yes, but I'm fine. Really. And I wanted to be here when you woke up."
"It would have been confusing," he admitted. He had pulled himself up onto his elbows, but the muscles there were already trembling with exhaustion and he sank back into twilight-coloured sheets. "You should get back if you're supposed-"
"Don't you want me to fill in the details?" She smiled, "And besides, I'm here under the pretence of changing your bacta treatments."
"I don't think they'll buy that. A droid could manage that." He smiled, but felt it slip from his lips at the look on her face. "What is it?"
She'd never been that good at lying to him. Her face was averted, hands working to peel bacta patches free from the sterile packaging. He grabbed one pale hand. "Leia?"
She let a slightly strangled sigh loose. "Luke... I'm sorry I couldn't do more for you onboard the medical frigate. I... I know I was aloof."
"You were worried about Han."
"That's not an excuse." Her hands trembled as she tightened her grip on him. "I... I was scared. When I found out who your father was..." She blew out a breath that stirred the ends of her new haircut. "It scared me. I'm sorry."
He swallowed. Hard. "It scared me, too."
To his surprise she nodded as if she truly understood. "If you don't want anything to do with me now, I'll understand." He felt like he'd torn the words from the mouth of a krayt dragon. He swallowed again around his misgivings as she looked at him with sad brown eyes, not knowing whether he could take rejection after... everything.
"After all," he added, almost bitter but managing to work around that tone in is voice, "I've already shown quite a family resemblance to him. Well, not in appearance, but in character I'm doing pretty well. Maybe it's in the blood, or the genetics or... I don't know. Maybe all Skywalkers are supposed to fall badly like we did." How could she be with him now? How could she treat him, help him, comfort him, bear to touch him?
Her reaction was nothing he could have expected. She leaned forward and kissed him on his forehead. "Shut up before you damn us all, Luke."
His eyes flew up to her, the question on his lips. She shook her head, closed her eyes, a look of abject concentration furrowing he brow.
"Shssh... I can do this."
"Do what? You-"
Luke, can you hear me?
He nearly fell from the lush sheets Darth Vader had been considerate enough to provide for his wayward son. Stunned, he croaked, "How did you...?"
In my mind, Luke. Can you talk like this?
He blinked several times before answering, almost fearful of touching the Force and finding it... tainted. Yes, but I'm the trained Jedi. I'm supposed to be able to do it; you're not. How can you...?
She cracked a smile, despite the fact her eyes remained scrunched closed in concentration. Not true. Close family members are supposed to be able to do this too.
There was a heartbeat of complete silence whilst his shock rebounded off the walls of the large, luxurious bedroom. "Family?" he finally asked.
- ..."Where are we?"..."Father's castle."... -
"'Father's' castle. As in our father's?"
She bit her lip as she opened her eyes, nodding. "Right on target as always, brother."
His mouth gaped open and smiled wide, absolute joy bouncing between them. Her eyes really were shining now, and it was both delight and tears of joy that made her smile glow. And then a disturbing memory decided to surface. One of another recuperation in a rather colder environment.
"... Leia. About the med bay on Hoth and our... ermm..." He realized suddenly he was blushing furiously, Leia's own cheeks going ruddy. She squirmed, just a little, and looked at him through lashes lowered to her red cheeks.
She coughed to try and cover the embarrassment. "I... well, I guess that was a bit of a mistake." She looked curiously whimsical then, "Although I don't regret it, not really."
"I know; you only kissed me to take a stab at Han."
She shook her head. "Well, yes... but also because you meant, mean, a lot to me." She shrugged, then covered the awkward silence. "Just don't tell Han you're the better kisser or I'll never hear the end of it."
He laughed, but it tore into sore ribs and he winced halfway through. Leia forcefully pushed him back to the sheets again. "Always nice to know," he murmured.
In the silence that followed, Leia pulled the sheets down to his waist and stripped the bacta bandages from his ribs. The bacta left a sticky film on his skin that she washed away with the damp cloth. Her fingers were cold against sleep-warmed skin. She was infinitely gentle and Luke just watched her for a moment, until someone had to break the silence before it became bloated.
"Han's here?" He frowned. The last he remembered was... Leia, looking despondent, broken and lost onboard the frigate.
It was strangely curbed and he sighed. "Leia, you asked me if I wanted you to fill in the details. I do." The earnestness broke her away from tending his ribs.
"All right." She wiped her hands, then laid down on the wide bed next to him, pillowing her head on his chest. It was an oddly trusting posture for someone who had witnessed him trying to hack their father to pieces and -
No. Don't think about that.
"Palpatine was influencing Mon Mothma from the start. Your... execution was a ruse to get you to Palpatine." When he shivered at violently bright images in his head she put her arm around his shoulders, over his chest, and hugged. "Vader... Anakin..." She stopped, frowned, then shrugged. "Father found me on Tatooine."
"Tatooine? What were you doing on Tatooine? What was he doing there?"
"I was... well, never mind. Vader came looking for me." He tensed, "It was fairly obvious something was wrong. He'd already... changed. Or, was already changing. We made a truce-"
"The Rebellion made a truce with Darth Vader?" His tone was openly incredulous.
"No..." She said after a long pause, "Just between us. I left the Rebellion."
He didn't know what to say. Finally, all he could ask was, "Why?"
"Why do you think?" Her voice still grieving, "I thought they'd murdered you. I couldn't stay with them!"
Princess Leia... leaving the Rebellion? For him? "Oh, Leia..." He still didn't know what to say.
Apparently, he didn't have to say anything. She gave him a squeeze and continued. "We got Han back from Jabba before coming after you." There was an apology in her eyes but he didn't comment on it.
The scent of soap and perfume was delicious and lulled him towards a sleep he fought, just to get the answers. "Mothma?"
"Dead." He tried to hear regret there but couldn't. "Along with most of the Rebellion."
"Why?" Did he really have to ask?
Leia seemed to take a breath that took all the air out the room. "Imperial vengeance." Nothing more had to be said. Luke tucked away that fact as a reminder that even if his father was back, he was far from the benevolent, benign man Luke might want to imagine. Except, it seemed, towards his children. Maybe they could work on that. He wasn't shocked but he was strangely grateful, an emotion he quashed quickly.
He closed his eyes as she relayed the rest of the story in strangely dispassionate tones. They were closed, but not so much out of a need for sleep as for giving a silent prayer to every deity he'd ever heard of that they had managed to make it to him on... "Where was I?"
"Coruscant. We're still on Coruscant."
He laughed into her hair. "Well, that's ironic. Three of the Empire's Most Wanted in its rotting heart." He shivered. "Although I suppose having your father as the second in command helps."
"First in Command, now," Leia whispered. "And Lando and Chewie are here too." Lando had stuck around? His estimation of the man was raised another notch. Not that his memory of the Administrator was very clear ... it was fringed with memories of a painful fever.
There was more silence. He'd thought she was just thinking, but he caught the choked sobs, muffled by his skin. "Leia?"
She clutched him harder, then managed to speak around tears. "I'm sorry, it's all just hitting to me now that I can stop and think for a while. I thought you were dead." She sobbed. "I thought I'd lost you all, and everything I'd believed in went with it." Was she more upset by losing that, or from realizing she could be that close to someone? Princess Leia didn't like to be reliant on, or vulnerable to, many things or people.
But then, seeing her hair cut short around her shoulders, he realized maybe this wasn't Princess Leia anymore.
Leia, you should have tried living that nightmare if you thought knowing about it was bad. He caught the thought before it became telepathic. "It's okay," he murmured. "We got our happy ending."
Happy? Happy? ... Pain, blinding pain, tears running down your cheeks from desolation and isolation. The Emperor's hands roaming over you, leering, smiling, teasing you towards a Dark precipice and -
He severed the thoughts violently, but shivered involuntarily.
"Happy?" Leia echoed his thoughts. "Luke, the Rebellion is gone. We've found out we're the children of our worst enemy and-"
"All right, it's a fairytale then. They always have something nasty to go with the happy ending. You know, the selfish Bantha herder gets eaten by the krayt dragon, or the Princess has to cut her hair to make a - oh, sorry," he mumbled.
"It's okay. But it has to have a moral."
She chuckled, "Every story has to have a moral, otherwise there's no point telling it." She shrugged, pursed her lips. "Hmm... can't think of one for this particular fairytale."
He kissed the top of her head. "How about, 'Never kiss your brother. It only leads to trouble.'?"
"Sith, Luke, you're evil." She must have felt his muscles tighten painfully. "Oh, Luke... I'm sorry." She bit her lip. When he didn't answer her due to his heart going through explosive decompression, she hitched up onto her elbows. "Stars, I'm bad at this. Look, Luke. You've got to listen to me now because this is important."
"It's okay Leia. I know what I did." He sighed sadly. I'm tainted. I've started down the Dark path. It's not just dragging at my heels anymore, I've embraced it. He looked at her sadly, And I'm taking you down with me.
"I said listen, Luke." She had her sternest Rebel Leader look on, the one that instantly made him obey. "Give me your hand."
She grinned wickedly and snatched his hand - his left hand - and held it at the wrist.
She batted eyelids. "You trust me, don't you, brother?" He sighed wearily. "Now close your eyes."
He raised his eyebrows at that but obeyed hesitantly. She turned his hand over so the sensitive skin of the inside was under her fingers. He nearly snatched it back when he felt her begin to tickle the skin at his wrist. "Hey! What are you..."
"Does that tickle?"
She laughed, "Good." He was going to complain, but clamped his mouth into a line. Trust her, right. "Now, I want you to tell me when I reach the joint at your elbow." He nodded and she started to trail her fingers lightly up his arm, a meandering path. Air conditioning hummed softly in the background and there was the smell of caff brewing that made his mouth water and-
"Perfect." Her voice was smiling. He opened his eyes.
"What was the point of that? I... hey, is that where I stopped you?" She nodded. Her fingers were resting a good two inches from the joint. "I thought you said I got it right."
"Who says you didn't?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" He frowned openly now. "That's not the right place."
"No? I only asked you to tell me where you thought the joint was. This," she tapped her fingers against painfully pale skin, "this is where your mind thinks the joint is. Are you going to disagree with your own mind?"
Was she being deliberately cryptic? The frown looked like it might become a permanent fixture. "You're telling me not to argue with my own mind. You want me to trust my instincts?"
"Right again, brother."
"But my instincts were wrong this time." And so many other times...
"No, they answered my request perfectly. They weren't right physically, but they gave a good indication of what your subconscious is thinking. It's not always easy to separate what you perceive physically," she ran her thumb along a bacta bandage on his arm, "from what's really going on in your head."
"I sense a lesson coming, sister..."
She shrugged. "Naturally. So, on instinct, what do you think? Are you still tainted by your time with Palpatine?"
"Leia..." He didn't know how to explain this. The air conditioning continued to humm away to an uneasy silence. "Leia, moving between the Darkside and the Lightside isn't that... simple. It's not a switch you flick, otherwise I think our father would have come back sooner. It's not even a conscious decision....oh." Wasn't this what she was trying to tell him? Not to trust conscious reasoning because it couldn't always tell you what was going on in your mind? He was lecturing her with her own lessons.
"Exactly," she smiled, "So what do your instincts tell you?"
He made the effort of breathing steadily, removing himself from conscious thought and -
"No, I'm not on the Darkside." He heard the relief, the surprise in his own voice.
She let out a heavy breath, "I know. Father did a... probe whilst you were sleeping. He's certain, I just wanted to be sure you are too." She smiled, and he felt emotions wash over him and between them. He lay back for a moment, just revelling in the clean feeling of the Force flowing easily through him.
"Is there something else about my arm or have you become attached to it?" The smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
She raised both eyebrows. "You've been around Han too much, little brother." She lifted his hand into the light, bent it slightly back towards him, and removed her fingers. "You see that?"
He squinted, and there was a line where her fingers had been, a natural crease in his skin. "What is it?"
"That," she said, "is where the joint of your arm used to be, when you were a baby." She continued before he could question, "You see, your mind remembers even when you've changed physically."
He closed his eyes, "I get it."
"My mind remembers how I used to be, before... Palpatine. So there's no reason not to be that same person, if my mind knows how."
She smiled, kissed him on the forehead. "Nearly, but not quite, little brother. There's a few things worth taking with you from all this, I think."
"Like the moral of the fairytale?"
"You're going to make a great Jedi, Luke." She winked and smiled, warm and bright and lighting up the room. "Father was... proud of you. Or maybe stunned. What you did was stupid but brave." She wagged a finger at him, "You have a great power Luke. It made you prey to Palpatine and it'll make you prey again, but you have this gift and you're going to use it."
He mock saluted her, "Yes, Ma'am." Then he sobered, "So, father is... he's..."
"He's not Darth Vader anymore. I still can't believe I'm saying this, but arguing with myself was beginning to give me chronic migraines so I gave in and accepted it. Anakin Skywalker is back. It's not over yet but... it's not a journey you're going to have to take alone."
He let himself slump back to the pillows, almost content as long as he didn't let the memories swim back up within biting distance.
"I better finish these," she said. He looked up and saw her running her thumb along the edge of a bacta patch on the side of his left hand. She undid the bandage, put it aside and -
"When did I get that?" he murmured. The wound was ugly and open, it looked almost fresh but that felt... wrong. Something was tingling in the back of his mind; something was itching its way through his brain.
"Huh? I don't know, from the glass, maybe?"
He shook his head; that wasn't right. "No."
The memory was knocking for entry and he let it in. Palpatine watching as Luke tried to stop the flow of blood from his arm, and then the skin repairing when he touched it...
Luke looked wide-eyed. "He didn't heal it. He just repaired it." Somehow, the words seemed to echo around his skull. He looked owlishly at his sister, blue eyes clear and comprehending. "The Darkside doesn't heal. It can't." It was equivalent to respraying over a dent in hull plates; it didn't fix the problem, just masked it. Which meant... which meant that maybe 'Darth Vader' had never been able to heal himself because he was using the Darkside. Maybe it wasn't that it couldn't be fixed, but that he was doing it the wrong way...
"Luke, you're not making any sense." Leia was shaking him lightly, looking concerned.
"I know, I'm sorry." How could he explain it to her? "Get father."
"Are you all right? Do you need the medic?"
"I'm fine, just... get father, Leia."
His gaze bore into her as she turned with a pinched expression of confusion and left the room. Luke pushed backed the silken sheets, sighing at the cool air brushing his skin under sleep trousers. Wincing only a little, he managed to persuade and bend his body into a kneeling meditative pose before the door opened and his father entered. His father, only dressed like Darth Vader. Luke could shed the dark clothing Palpatine had had him wear. His father could not.
Not yet, anyway.
He had crossed the room in three quick steps, Leia hanging back nervously before pacing forward restlessly. Snatches of memories came back to him from the past few days in his healing trance. That dark mask by his side, fingertips on his temple, gloved hands wiping a cloth over his forehead; strangely homely memories that were testament to the change from Darth Vader to Anakin Skywalker.
"Luke?" The word held greeting, relief, trepidation and annoyance in unequal amounts. He smiled as warmly as he could manage. "What are you doing?" Bass tones rumbled in admonishment, the order to get back in bed clear from the inclination of his mask and firm hands on his hips. He stomach performed churning loop-de-loops when he recognised it as Leia's expression of annoyance.
Luke started to open his mouth to explain what was going on, but realised that he couldn't form adequate words to explain it. Instead, he opened himself freely to the Force bond they had used infrequently. He let explanation flow between them, the indrawn gasp around respirator all he needed to hear to know his father understood. Suddenly, the import of what he wanted to try hit him, of what it would mean for Anakin Skywalker to shed the armour.... and what it would mean to him to have his long-dreamed-of father here.
He was broken from his dreaming by the sharp word. He frowned, "No?"
His father stalked forward, the black of his suit merging with the dark decoration of the huge room. Luke wanted to shiver, thinking of the circumstances under which Lord Vader had expected to see his son in this room.
"It's too much. You're not well and there's no reason to think it would work." His father stated, the voice of command.
"It will work. I know it will," he insisted. "I can heal you."
He hesitated, just a little. Leia was frowning in the background. "Later, perhaps. Not now." He took a step forward, purposeful. Luke knew the intent was to get him back down and in bed and, he had to admit, his ribs were beginning to ache fiercely.
"It has to be now," he struggled to explain, "It has to be. I think... maybe with all the healing energy you've used on me, it's enhanced my own. I don't know if it would work at any other time."
He could almost sense the frown. There wasn't any logical reasoning for what he was saying, it was just a gut feeling, but Luke had survived three years on the run by trusting gut feelings. Maybe his father acknowledged that, because he gave a frustrated sigh.
The Force was swelling around them, between them, bouncing back from father to son and growing. "I'm fine and I think we should do this now. It seems... right," he said to the unanswered question. "You should sit."
Anakin delayed a few seconds before nodding and sitting. This close... this close to Darth Vader it still made him want to shiver or bolt from the room. Old memories, old fears; not easily banished after three years running from the man who used to wear that armour. He quashed those feelings viciously, and reached out his hand.
"Do you trust me?" He saw a muscle in Leia's cheek twitch at that.
Anakin did not hesitate. "Trust you to look after yourself after you nearly threw your life away to kill Palpatine? Absolutely not." His voice softened, "Trust you to stubbornly follow your own feelings regardless? Yes." It was almost... affectionate.
"I'm usually right."
"That's the only reason I'm sitting here."
"Then let me do this..." Luke closed his eyes with a smile on his lips. The Force energy tangled around his fingers again, potent. It reached out gingerly under Luke's guidance, seeking the bond between them that had been proven to exist and opening it fully. He heard his father hold his breath, helpless against apprehension and... hope?
He reached beyond the link, healing energy engulfing the man in his mind's eye. It hit his father in a wall of blinding light, a sheet of energy. Then it coalesced to become more defined.
Heart. Throat. Head. Lungs.
They both gasped as the sheer Force of it ripped through him, Luke's hands trembling where they lay. Scar tissue, the hasty repair job of a broken body, became the fresh, healed tissue as alveoli smoothed and spread, weaving back together. Tattered heart muscle reformed, fibres spreading and connecting again. Then he directed it to his head, unused and withered neural tissue remembering how to work the lungs, the heart again. Connections sprang back, soothed and renewed.
Through that natural bond he felt what his father felt. His throat felt balmed, feelings of returning health bobbing in the Force like a cork in a river of the finest, richest wine.
Minutes, maybe hours, passed and when it dissipated, his head was sagging against his chest. He breathed unsteadily and toppled forwards dizzily. Strong, black clad arms caught him and lowered him to the bed. Everything swam, everything sang, suddenly the air conditioning was humming contentedly in time to his breathing.
"Hmmm...?" He struggled around a stuffy, too-large tongue, exhausted. "Did it work...?"
"Luke, you healed me."
Weary beyond consciousness, he dropped like a dead weight towards sleep. "You're welcome." Sleep beckoned, and it was cool and welcome and there was no room for Darkness.
12 months later...
Luke let out a loud whoop as the speeder gunned past his opponents, the tang of fuel and sweat hitting the back of his throat and lifting his cry higher, louder. " 'Greatest starpilot in the galaxy'?" he yelled into the comlink attacked to his collar. Sand and grit came up from under the engines, drying his lips, "You having an off day or just getting old?"
The look of indignant rage on Anakin Skywalker's face when Luke whipped his head around to see him was enough to make him start laughing again. Anakin, a shock of blonde regrowth on his head and a scowl worthy of a hutt, yelled right back at his son, "I thought I'd go easy on you, take pity on those less gifted than I, but now..."
Luke felt the tug in the Force before the accelerator cut off and Anakin's speeder shot past his, followed by Luke's shout of cheat! as he tore up the Tatooine wastes.
Up there, somewhere on the ridge, Acting Chancellor Leia Organa Solo was watching with a wide smile on her face. She was thinking, remembering, lapping up the last minutes of a sorely needed vacation from holding together the remnants of Alliance and Empire under the name of The Republic. Not the Old Republic, or even the New Republic. Just the Republic; hoping the Empire would one day just be a momentary blight in the Republic's long history. The merge hadn't proven easy, but she'd never thought it would.
She was thinking whilst she watched the race ripping up the sands below her, admitting that sometimes, just sometimes, she wished her father had stayed in a place of command after Palpatine's death. Maybe even holding the Empire together under the guise of Darth Vader. That wish, she knew, was just a manifestation of how weary she sometimes felt. But Anakin Skywalker was always there, always offering help, advice and support after the mysterious 'death' of Darth Vader and his 'rescue' from an 'Imperial prison' by his Jedi son. She smiled at the story they had given. Not quite the truth, not quite a lie. Most eagerly took up that particular 'fairytale' when they heard it and few knew the extra details that were required to get the full picture.
She lifted her head to the sky and Tatoo 1 and 2 screaming over the horizon, to the sound of repulsors hammering the ground as a group of ten x-wings and a very familiar, very sorely missed Corellian freighter eclipsed the light. For a minute she mulled over mixed feelings of happiness at seeing Han return from a 'special' mission for her, and resignation at having to leave Tatooine behind to go back to Coruscant.
The shadows of the ships waved and rippled as they shot over her head, drawing strands of hair towards the sky.
Another loud cry drifted upwards with the heat waves, Luke's laughter at drawing level with his father again. He was the slighter of the two, but he lost no control over the heavy speeder for it. Especially, she noted, now he had completed his Jedi training with his father. Their father had insisted Luke take the title of Jedi Knight after his defeat of Palpatine, but Luke had been unsure and, they both agreed, his training had neglected some of the less combat-orientated aspects of being a Jedi. And... when they had travelled to Dagobah to consult Master Yoda they had found only the ghost of the Jedi Master, who had given his blessing to their father continuing the training.
Nobody had been surprised when they had both chosen Tatooine for recuperation and, eventually, that training.
Leia had been here when Anakin had declared unilaterally that Luke was fully trained, adding with a proud grin that he didn't think his ego could take training the boy anymore, as it frequently left him nursing a bruised backside from being knocked to the ground whilst duelling. Luke had give a sunny smile and shrugged, backed by a dusky sunset.
A fairytale ending indeed...
Well, not yet, but soon...
They crossed the finish line - an outcropping of rock that had eroded in the middle to make twin pinnacles - together in a dead heat and Leia started down the crumbling path after them even as Luke's shout of surprise reached her as the x-wings made another pass and settled to the ground.
"Father?" Luke narrowed his eyes but the taller Skywalker shrugged.
"Nothing to do with me."
The ships settled with a final cough of hot dust into the atmosphere and Luke peeled the goggles off his face and scrubbed at the grime collected on his face from the ride with an equally dirty sleeve. He jumped from the speeder saddle and ran for the ships as the nearest cockpit cracked open and a figure jumped to the ground and tore the helmet off.
"Wedge!" Luke threw himself into the welcome like a bug hitting the screen of a podracer going through Beggars Canyon. Both men nearly barrelled to the floor with the enthusiastic greeting before a second figure joined them, Luke greeting Han with a smile as wide as the Dune Sea.
"Luke, it's been... ages..." Wedge grinned and shook a mop of brown hair free of desert dust.
"Longer than that," Luke agreed. Anakin walked up behind them, arms folded over his chest, a quiet grin on his face. He watched on whilst they greeted the others, some his son appeared to know, others he didn't but greeted with enthusiasm. Leia appeared at his side and winked. He raised a querying eyebrow.
"Just watch," she whispered.
"What are you guys doing out here in the backend of nowhere anyway?" Luke finally asked.
Wedge slapped him on the back, Han laughed. "Well we didn't come out here for the nightlife, kid," Han grinned.
Luke managed to both laugh and look confused. "What then?"
"Wait here." Wedge winked and leapt up to the cockpit of his x-wing, he rooted around inside whilst Luke raked sandy fingers through his hair. He dropped back down and threw a dusty, long unused helmet into his hands. He recognised it immediately, of course. After all, a pilot's helmet is the only thing standing between them and repeated concussion.
Luke looked up, wide-eyed. "Wedge...?"
Han stepped forward and slapped him on the back as Leia spoke from behind them all, trying to speak with an official voice around her own smile, "Commander Skywalker? On behalf of the Republic Navy, I'd like to reinstate your rank. The Republic is in need of good pilots."
That was certainly true, Anakin thought. Despite their best efforts and the use of Darth Vader's connections and Imperial secrets, many corrupt members of the old Empire had decided war was preferable to peace. Especially those who had been near the top of the command ladder.
"And if you've stopped convalescing in the desert, Rogue Squadron wouldn't mind having its commander back." Wedge grinned. Luke just looked down abashed at the helmet in his hands.
"I... Wedge, are you sure? I know you were given command when..."
"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't, Luke. We've lost a lot of pilots, but we've gained some new aces too. And... I try, but there's no one like Luke Skywalker for getting his squadron into unhealthy raucous good fun."
Luke grinned, then tried to school his face into something more Jedi-like. Anakin almost felt his emotions cool palpably. "I'm supposed to be a Jedi now." Luke coughed. "I don't think..."
A heavy hand settled on his shoulder, warmth and encouragement spreading between Luke and Anakin. "The old Order might have objected, Luke, but the old Order is gone. If we're going to rebuild the Jedi, maybe following their rules to the letter isn't such a good idea. I don't see how it would do any harm and I for one am not ready to start training any new students yet. Finishing off your training was one thing... starting with a whole bunch of new students, that's something else. In time, yes definitely, but for now..." He didn't say it, but Anakin knew Luke would always be happiest in the cockpit. He was a Jedi in his head and a pilot in his heart. Just like his father.
Luke nodded, closed his eyes and smiled. "All right, I accept but..."
Wedge narrowed his eyes, the same expression he got whenever Luke was about to give out a really stupidly brave mission plan. It brought back good memories. "But?"
"You've only got ten ships here. With me that makes eleven..." He looked questionably at his friend.
Wedge nodded. "Right, we need another member."
Luke grinned, again, and waved his hand theatrically. "Well, I think I've found him. Father?"
It managed to take Anakin by surprise, and it also managed to get him mimicking his son's wide smile. "Luke, they might not want me..."
Wedge slapped him on the arm, a friendly gesture he hadn't known in... years. It shook him more than he expected. "Want you? If you've even half the skill Luke used to boast about, you're welcome in this squadron."
How to tell them... How to tell Wedge Antilles he just offered to fly on the same side as Darth Vader? And then... looking into the other man's eyes, he realised he didn't have to. Wedge knew, and had accepted, whether from cajoling from Solo or respect for his son, Anakin didn't know but suddenly, the future was bright.
"Thank you," he almost whispered. "I'd be honoured."
Solo was embracing his wife with a fierce, possessive hug, his chin resting on the top of her head, "Well, now that's sorted, anybody fancy trying Mos Eisley for a celebratory drink?"
"I thought you weren't here for the nightlife, Han." Luke's eyes were laughing.
Han snorted, "Got me there, kid. But the liquor stalls are okay, and I need a stiff drink before we go ferret out Isard." Leia was rolling her eyes, the hot sunshine making her sleepy. Or maybe it was just being this close to Han that made everything seem... contented.
Anakin listened to the idle conversation, the good-natured banter of old friends. He followed when the suns began to set and everyone, Rogue Squadron, General Solo and Chancellor Organa Solo, headed for the Falcon. His lips pursed in curiosity, and then his eyes widened in recognition as he spotted one member of the Rogues lingering back and watching the suns sink. Red-gold wisps of hair stuck out from a tight plait.
He nearly approached her, nearly demanded what Mara Jade thought she was doing in Rogue Squadron. And then... sitting with Luke under the green glow of a nightlight, his eyes half-glazed as he recounts those months with Palpatine. Talking about his first conscious moment, when Mara Jade was in the room, saying, "It's strange. She brought me there, but Palpatine got rid of her quickly. Too quickly, maybe. I don't know why, but she was the only one that ever seemed like she might give a damn about what was happening...and I can't seem to hate her for it."
Mara turned to him. She might have seen the recognition there, but she just winked and turned to follow the rapidly disappearing group into the freighter.
Well, he supposed, everyone deserves a change to turn their life about.
He picked up pace, crossing a short distance of desert cooling in the welcome arms of a Tatooine night to stand next to his son. And he would have sworn that standing up on the ridge above them, backed by the sunken twin suns of his home world, the eerily blue-washed figures of Masters Jinn, Kenobi and Yoda were smiling. And nodding approvingly.
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