Drive You Mild (PG-13)

By : obaona

Archived on: Monday, June 6, 2005

How do two powerful, individualistic people who were formerly enemies unite? Emperor Luke Skywalker, meet Jedi Knight Mara Jade.

The heavy cloak blocked everything out; it was dark, and all that could be heard was the high whistle of the fierce wind ? and all that could be felt was the warmth of the cloak and the harshness of the sand.

At the Battle of Corunlder the Rebellion suffered a massive, debilitating defeat.

It is imperative to understand the political landscape that caused such a battle to happen in the first place; in hindsight, the Rebellion?s success was not likely and it was a bad tactical move. However, Emperor Vader had just died and his son, Luke Skywalker, was young and untested at only nineteen years of age. It seemed a ripe time to deal the Empire a substantial blow by destroying one of their major shipyards.

The new, young Emperor had anticipated such a tactic, however, and with the advice of his military advisors and his own brilliance, the major blow became a major defeat. Surprise was lost, and the anticipated chaos of succession never occurred. In the first true act of his reign, Emperor Skywalker proved his ability to end the war his father had fought, and the war the first Emperor had propagated.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. III.

The place was incongruously known as the Porch, but when one looked at it, it could hardly even be called a room. The ceilings extended a dozen meters in height, with converging arches. The windows were visible as such only by thin, decorative lines spun through them. It was decorated in a lush red, and all of the furnishings were older than the occupants.

?My lord ??

?My decision is final,? Luke Skywalker said bluntly. He wasn?t even facing the man behind him, but instead he was staring out at the Imperial Gardens. They surrounded the Imperial Palace on Coruscant, muffling the hustle and bustle of the city-planet. They had every plant imaginable, procured from all corners of the galaxy and perfectly attended. This particular view had a sparkle of blue and violet plants set among dark green, lush leaves overlooking a pond with an unusually natural appearance.

Luke heard the sigh. ?Very well,? Luke said dryly, ?if it makes you feel better, present your arguments,? he said with a casual hand wave, meeting the dark brown eyes of his advisor.

His advisor was an older man, well into his sixties. Kejal Mauwel had a distinguished appearance ? white hair shorn short and a gravely chiseled face with dark eyes. Before Luke he had served Darth Vader, Luke?s father, and had done his job well; so well that when Palpatine was dethroned and executed, he took the place of Palpatine?s old majordomo. Besides his duties in that position, he had often advised his masters in everything imaginable. First Vader, and now his son.

Ignoring Luke?s tone, Kejal launched into the explanation of his position. ?It makes no sense to parley with the Rebels ??

?New Republic. Might as well get used to it, Kejal.?

?The New Republic. They have amassed an army in the previously Unknown Regions, yes, but it is still no match for the Empire and you, my lord.?

?Perhaps, my lord. But the fact remains ? this manner you have chosen to cease hostilities makes no sense,? Kejal said. He stood stiffly, in a militarily correct posture, while Luke slouched in a comfortable armchair beside a huge floor to ceiling window. The rich colors contrasted with the more natural colors of the garden outside. Luke didn?t react to the blatant criticism. He looked out the window again. But he was listening. ?It implies a long-lived effort at unification between the Empire and the New Republic, my lord. There is no reason for such, and to do so would undermine the Empire?s power.? He paused, and sighed again, his favorite method of chastising Luke. ?Your father ??

?My father is dead, Kejal,? Luke said fiercely, turning to stare into Kejal?s eyes. His gaze was so intense Kejal dropped his eyes. Luke calmed, realizing that Kejal must be truly worried to mention his father after all this time. ?I must act as I see fit, not by my father?s memory. I must adapt.? He waited a moment for Kejal to look at him again. ?You will not refer to my father in such a manner again.?

?Yes, my lord.? Kejal paused. ?If I may, my lord, what is your reasoning behind this move, then??

?It is not easy to explain, Kejal,? Luke said lowly, his intense persona fading. ?I have seen something in the Force. We must prepare ? we must be ready. We can?t afford to fight the New Republic, though I doubt they realize such.?

Kejal looked at Luke curiously. ?If it is a crisis in the future which worries you, my lord, why have the Jedi not sensed it??

?I don?t know. But they haven?t, and regardless of their knowledge or lack thereof, I must go by what I see.? He put his elbow on the sidearm of the chair, and propped up his chin with his fist. ?She will make a good match, Kejal. She was born an Imperial, though she is one of them now, and that will make the Imperial people soften to her. They will think her misguided, perhaps.?

?She is also a Jedi and the leader of their navy,? Kejal pointed out.

?Which makes her acceptable to the New Republic as the liaison between us, because they will trust her,? Luke said mildly. ?By marrying her, I will have shown the galaxy that I am no longer willing to continue this war, nor many of the things the Empire has done. Moreover, she will keep her position in their military forces, but she will still be my consort. It will at least distract against any attempts by them to attack the Empire.? He shrugged slightly. ?It will balance out well enough with my power as Emperor.?

?It will also create a power struggle between the two of you, my lord. She will be in charge of amassing and maintaining an army to use against you, but must still be loyal to the Empire as your consort. You will cease hostilities and open trading routes, true, but she will still be forced to serve the Empire in some sense. I do not see how one can keep such a contract.?

Luke looked at him. ?Then let us hope that Mara Jade is a reasonable, intelligent sort, Kejal.?

After the massacre of Rebel forces at Corunlder, the Rebellion retreated into the Unknown Regions, forming a government and people largely militaristic in origin. Emperor Skywalker chose not to attempt a strike in regions they were unfamiliar with to rid the galaxy of the Rebels; it was considered a surprising decision.

Conjecture quickly ceased, however, when the Emperor kept Rebel forces out of the Empire with as much diligence and dedication as his father had. The Rebellion was permitted to exist outside of the Empire, but any attempt by them to enter the Empire was harshly punished.

Speculation existed that the Emperor was, for reasons unknown, pushing the Rebellion into becoming a stable, independent government. Some believed this was so that the Rebellion could be more easily dealt with later; more wild speculations also abounded.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. III.

The area was not the Old Republic Senate by any means. For one thing, it was much smaller ? the room held a few thousand at the most. The seats were, however, arranged in a circle with the seats rising upward with each row so everyone could see and be seen.

Mara Jade sat in one of those seats, watching the discussion. Her red hair was, as usual, tightly braided, and she wore the crisp black and gold New Republic uniform casually and easily. The hairstyle threw her sharp cheekbones in relief, made her features seem more severe. She was a naturally beautiful woman, but seemed to be almost working against that in her appearance. She was expressionless as she listened and watched the discussion, the picture of Jedi serenity.

?We cannot be seriously considering this offer,? Senator Kelwesh called out. ?It?s ludicrous!?

?On the contrary,? Senator Bel Iblis, a man from Corellia, said as he rose. ?It makes perfect sense.? There was a babble, but he continued on, overriding them with his strong voice. ?He does several things at once. By taking one of our most famous heroes ? the destroyer of the Death Star ? as his consort, he immediately downgrades our cause with the public at large even if he does follow through with the ceasing of the Sedition Act. The trade agreements make us seem unreasonable if we don?t comply, and to top it all off, he wishes Jade to remain commander of our Navy, leaving us vulnerable through her. Then he turns on us, and we?re completely destroyed ? and more importantly, our cause lost.? He sat down.

?I disagree,? Bail Organa proclaimed. ?Emperor Skywalker seems more amiable to the New Republic than Vader ever was. He has let us continue here in the Unknown Regions largely without any harassment, even those of us with family within the Empire. This could be an honest offer.?

?Then why the marriage to seal the contract? A hostage?? Bel Iblis demanded, glaring at Organa.

?I would agree that something else is going on, but I am not sure that is what you claim,? Organa replied, folding his hands in front of him. ?And it may be as it would appear, that he wishes true peace between us.? He rose, and looked out at the small senate. ?I urge you all to consider this well. Vader may not have taken down the sedition laws, the strict control and lack of true democracy, but he took away the slavery and rampant killing of citizens. Skywalker has shown himself even more inclined towards such over the past decade since Corunlder.? He sat down.

The voices rose again, but this time no strong one came out into the forefront, taking control of the situation. Mara was familiar with that happening and stopped paying attention, instead focusing on the other three Jedi also present: Mace Windu, Yoda, and Adi Gallia. They glanced at her as well, and with a discreet wave of Adi?s hand, they left. Murmuring an excuse to Commander Del, sitting next to her, Mara got up and left the room to join them.

Adi and Mace were waiting for her, hands in their robes.

?What do you think?? Mara said without preamble.

?The Council believes the Senate will come to the conclusion that such an agreement, even if intended to be a trap, could be beneficial to us if we?re careful,? Mace said. ?Even if it is as Senator Iblis claims, this will strengthen our resources and might even make the Imperial citizenry more sympathetic if we are seen as possible allies.?

Mara nodded. She had suspected the same thing.

?The question is, are you willing?? Adi asked, touching Mara?s arm gently.

Mara looked down, then met her old Master?s eyes. ?I will do what I feel I must. As I?m sure Emperor Skywalker is.? Mara shrugged. ?It?s a contract, not love. I must admit I am surprised. The idea of arranged marriage is a very old one, hardly in use.?

Adi nodded. ?It seems odd to us, as well. You are a Jedi; he may wish an heir.?

?I don?t think so,? Mara said, shaking her head. ?Skywalker?s mother wasn?t Force-sensitive and he came out a plenty powerful Sith Lord. He knows that.?

?Nevertheless,? Adi said severely, ?you cannot forget what you are, and what he is.?

Mara nodded. ?I won?t, Masters.? She looked to both Adi and Windu, and then bowed. They responded in unison with a nod of acknowledgement.

Adi smiled at her for the first time. ?We?d better get in there to calm matters down. No doubt they?ve gotten into a flurry of arguments already.?

?I swear they enjoy it,? Mara finished with a smirk.

Adi stepped forward and lightly hugged her old Padawan. ?Whatever happens,? Adi murmured, not having to complete the phrase, laying her hand on the side of Mara?s face briefly. Then the Jedi Master in Adi returned, and she nodded solemnly at Mara. Windu had waited patiently, and they went back into the Senate chambers together.

Mara stayed a moment, gathering calm and composure. She wondered what the terms of the marriage contract would be ? Skywalker had spelled out the contract between the New Republic and the Empire, but not their marriage contract. And that was what made her nervous. If she agreed to do this, she would probably be doing so before ever seeing it ? theoretically, no doubt, she could back out, but that wouldn?t happen.

Wondering anew why in the galaxy Skywalker was even bothering with the New Republic, Mara went back to the Senate chambers.

Emperor Vader was known as ?Lord Vader? for the fourteen years he served Emperor Palpatine. His past was largely unknown ? his sole claim to identity was as a Sith Lord. It was during the years in which Emperor Palpatine?s rule destabilized that he began to build the power base that would allow him to rule in Palpatine?s stead. To the day of the writing of this document, the exact cause and manner of Palpatine?s death remains uncertain, but it is largely accepted that Vader felt Palpatine could no longer rule, and killed him as a result.

For the galaxy, this turned out to be a boon. Emperor Vader was as fierce and unyielding as Emperor Palpatine had ever been, but during his short reign he abolished the slavery of alien species that Palpatine had ordered as ?necessary?, lowered taxes, and crushed all Rebel efforts so thoroughly that once a planet had been taken care of, it would not need intervention again. He was considered to be a practical Emperor for his efforts to treat Imperial citizens fairly, but sedition or disagreement with Imperial methods was still punishable by execution.

He was revered by many even after his death.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. II.

Luke?s office wasn?t particularly opulent. Palpatine had had a taste for the big, the overdone, the plush . . . he loved to show his wealth and power. Vader had cared little for such displays, and at Vader?s request, most everything in the Imperial Palace was stripped and burned. It was rumored Vader had said only ?Get rid of it all? and Kejal had done the rest of his own accord; only he and Kejal knew that rumor was actually true. As such, the beautiful architecture of the Palace remained, but little else did. Luke hadn?t bothered to do much with it either, just told Kejal to put something subtle and comfortable in and then left the matter alone.

As a result, while Luke?s office was larger than most homes, its major features were the sweeping ceilings and meticulously ordered documents and reports. Luke unordered them every day going through them, and at night his staff would come in and put everything in its place again. Luke was presently doing just that ? disorganizing everything, making notes, and giving brisk orders to the questions and reports that came in every few minutes.

?I?m sorry, my lord, there are acolytes in the courtyard again.?

?Let them stay there for an hour, then ask them to leave. If they don?t, stun them and drag them out,? Luke ordered briskly, instantly, not looking up from what he was reading ? or even pausing.

?Yes, my lord," came Kejal's voice.

Luke heard him step away. Luke was quickly lost again in the humdrum of keeping the Empire running. Most decisions could be made by his staff, who were all extremely competent, but some had to be made by him. Even after all kinds of levels, he still had a lot of work to do. And a lot of that he still delegated to others. Scattered among new galactic laws proposed by the Moffs ? who served as a Senate, of sorts, as Vader had abolished the original one ? were reports of sedition and plans to circumvent Luke. There were even a few plausible assassination plots.

Some time later, he heard Kejal return, but he stopped before reaching Luke. A murmur of voices, and then nothing.

?What is it?? Luke asked, looking up at last. Kejal was looking down at a datapad with a concerned look on his face.

Kejal silently walked over to Luke and handed it to him, deftly avoiding a stack of documents.

Luke perused it, then grinned. ?The New Republic accepted.?

Kejal sighed.

Luke looked up at him. ?This is a good thing, Kejal.?

?If you say so, my lord.?

Luke shot his advisor an amused look at the deadpan note to his voice. ?I do say so.? He put the datapad down. He would give the Republic?s reply to his staff to see what they made of it, get their opinion, and have them draft a reply. ?What did you come here for??

?You asked to be notified of the Vaderians? movements,? Kejal said delicately.


?Security guards waited an hour, as you said, then asked them to leave. They refused to leave, so they were stunned and dragged out.? He paused. ?They?re back now, my lord, in more numbers.?

Luke raised an eyebrow, and leaned back into his seat, which automatically adjusted for the movement. ?Did they say why??

?They believe today is astrologically significant, and that they may see your late father if they concentrate on . . .? Kejal paused, accessing his nearly perfect memory. ?Celestial changes.?

Luke snorted. ?They want to wish him into existence? They may manage to make themselves hallucinate an appearance at the rate they?re going.? He shook his head. ?It baffles me, Kejal.?

?That people believe your father will return from the dead??

Luke gestured dismissively. ?That there are so many of them,? he amended. ?And that some are even successful in life."

Kejal shrugged. ?There is another group that thinks the same of Palpatine.?

Luke blinked. ?Ah?? He shook his head, throwing off his confused thoughts. ?Tell them it?s by my order, then stun them and drag them out again. And keep guards posted so they don?t return.?

?Yes, my lord.?

?And call my staff in for a meeting. I need to talk to them regarding the New Republic situation. And the marriage contract.?

Though the identity of Emperor Skywalker?s mother is no longer secret, very little else is known about the circumstances of his conception, birth, or upbringing. It remains a mystery how she became pregnant with Lord Vader?s child, though rumors persist that the Jedi know the tale. Emperor Skywalker refuses to speak on the subject of his father?s possible romance or his upbringing other than to say that his parents cared for each other. He went on further to say it was the past and unimportant to his rule.

Regardless, many like to speculate on the clearly unlikely romance between Padm? Amidala and Lord Vader.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. II.

Mara Jade?s office was unsurprisingly austere ? calm, but hardly welcoming. It was the kind of place that Mara liked for both of those reasons, but she wasn?t alone at the moment. Master Adi Gallia, Mara?s Master when she was a Padawan, was also present, a look of distinct unhappiness in her light blue eyes. She and Mara had known each other since Adi had found her all those years ago in the Empire.

?It has nothing to do with love,? Mara said as if trying to convince herself, not taking her eyes off of the marriage contract she held loosely in her hand.

Adi raised an eyebrow. ?That isn?t what I mean, and you know it,? she said, calmly sitting in Mara?s chair. ?I was referring to possible entanglements with this man. You will be living with him.?

?I know,? Mara said, finally looking up. ?I?ll hardly be near him, though. The contract doesn?t specify that, and I doubt he wants a Jedi around him all that badly. The Palace is certainly large enough for the two of us.? She paused, and added, ?It?s not a bad marriage contract, as these arranged marriage things go.?

?He wants you to stay on Imperial Center for six months, Mara. That hardly suggests he intends on leaving you alone.?

Mara shrugged. ?Yes, but he?s not restricting my movements or actions otherwise. The six months is probably for show for the Imperial citizenry. He can?t keep me for longer, and reasonably expect me to keep my position in the New Republic.? She sighed. ?Why am I not convincing you, Master??

?I?m worried for you, Mara,? Adi said intensely as Mara finally met her eyes.

?It?s not that the idea of marrying a Sith doesn?t make me ill, but politically, this works.?

?Another reason to hate politics,? Adi said with a smile.

Mara laughed. She looked at Adi for a long moment, perfectly aware that Adi truly was worried for her. Adi?s concern was perfectly reasonable ? Mara did not tend to leave things alone, and regardless of anything else, being on Coruscant with a Sith Lord would affect Mara. Whether for better or worse . . . It wasn?t as if she was going to fall in love with the Jedi?s mortal enemy. Love had been the beginning of Anakin Skywalker?s undoing, if not the actual direct reason for his fall. All Jedi knew that.

?It?s not unreasonable,? Mara said softly.

?It?s insane,? Adi said in agreeable tone.

For someone on the Council, Mara mused, her Master was awfully contrary. ?Sometimes we must do what is requested of us.?

?But that does not mean we should act without careful thought first. I wonder if you are truly aware of what you are getting into, Mara.?

?We need this, Adi. You know that as well as I. With the trade agreements that Skywalker is proposing, the Republic can grow. At the moment . . .? She shook her head. ?We?ve become a real government. It?s time to start admitting it. If we don?t get those trade routes, then we?ll have to continue working under the Empire?s nose to get the supplies we need to make life out here work. And who knows how long that will last? Whatever Skywalker thinks to do with this . . . contract between the Empire and the Republic, the Republic will get out stronger for it.?

?That is not what I meant, my Padawan,? Adi said severely.

Mara looked at her for a moment, then walked over and bent down to lightly kiss her on the cheek. Adi looked at her in mild surprise. Mara was not inclined to be affectionate. ?I?ll be fine,? she said simply.

Slowly, Adi nodded. She rose, a regretful and faintly chastising look in her eye, like Mara had failed to learn some lesson. Mara watched her leave, then plopped into her chair, staring at the marriage contract.

It was insane. But she?d do it for the Republic.

The Jedi Council thought she could handle it. Or more specifically, Skywalker. She would be at his mercy, of course, surrounded by his men, but they felt that she was a secure enough Jedi that little would rattle her, and whatever plans Skywalker had for in this marriage, that she would be able to counteract that much, at least. That he was asking specifically for a marriage was, they felt, done for reasons beyond the obvious ? to weaken morale, to weaken the Republic?s position as a cause, even to get information on the Republic?s military forces. Skywalker was too smart for it to be only that.

It had been eleven years since he had given the Republic a major blow ? when it was then the Rebellion, at Corunlder. But no one had forgotten it, and no one could fail to note how well he ruled, how well he countered their every move, and how well he had kept them out of the Empire.

Skywalker was no longer a child, and he had hardly been more than one at Corunlder. But the Republic had grown as well, and however he planned on making the Republic pay for the trade agreements and ceasing of hostilities, he wasn?t going to get away with it.

Social customs changed very little during the transition of power from the Old Republic to the Empire and during the Empire?s rule. Culture changes over time, and while upheaval might speed the process along and influence the way that change goes, it still takes time ? and usually, a new generation.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. I.

Coruscant. From space, it had glittered like a multi-faceted, metallic jewel. There were even patterns to the way the lights shone, subtle curves suggested by the placing of buildings.

While the vessel she had arrived on was one of the Republic?s military vessels, Mara was not in her uniform. Instead she wore a dark green dress that served to emphasize her femininity. Adi had helped her in its choosing, as the Emperor?s servants had asked her to wear something besides her uniform, at least for the initial meeting on Coruscant, when the Empire would get its first look at her. After a brief spat with Adi, though, Mara kept her red hair tightly braided. The break was quickly mended when Adi mentioned how she had never expected to be in this position ? virtually that of a mother watching her daughter marry.

Adi had found Mara as a young teenager living on a Mid-Rim world in the Empire. She was Force-sensitive, and the local police were catching onto the fact because she was instinctively and foolishly using her powers. Just in little ways, but the detectives who investigated Mara?s petty crimes were quite astute. When Adi found her, she realized the girl was in danger, and took her to the Rebellion and as her apprentice. That was how Mara found herself in the Rebellion, and how she found herself destroying a battle moon with a hastily formed squadron. Mara was a decent pilot, but it was the Force ? and her training and knowledge of it ? that allowed her to make the crucial shot that destroyed the Death Star.

Ironic that that act would eventually lead her here, as someone suitable as a consort for an Emperor.

While they were marrying ? and would be husband and wife ? the terms of the marriage had been carefully spelled out. Mara would not be Empress, though she would have a title of nobility, and any attempt at succeeding the Emperor would be illegal and punishable by death. To Mara?s relief, the only thing it said about children was that any children born of the marriage would be considered Skywalker?s alone, but it also implicitly stated that children were not required of the union. It also stated that if she had a child by someone else, it would be considered illegitimate, not Skywalker?s child; punishment for contaminating the line of succession was not stated. Dissolution of the treaty would also mean divorce, though it did not say what would happen if vice versa occurred. It appeared Skywalker wanted to keep his options open, but most everything of great import was there.

As Mara had said, it wasn?t a bad contract.

being here . . . Mara shivered and resolutely walked the rest of the way to the Imperial Palace platform. Even the platform, she noted, was elaborately and stunningly made. Roughly circular, everything was in curves sharply defined.

To say there was a crowd around the area was an understatement. Below the platform, Mara would see thousands of people. Coruscant being what it was, there wasn?t much surface room for walking around, and so even more people crowded on nearby platforms. She even saw people smashed up against windows in apartment buildings. She had no idea how many people there were, but certainly in the tens of thousands present ? and Force knew how many were watching over the Holonet.

Then there was the noise. Some were cheering, some were booing, but there was a lot of talking. It was like muted thunder.

For a moment, Mara felt overwhelmed. Adi came up from behind her, and while she stayed an appropriate distance away so that Mara would be the focus of anyone looking, Mara felt it and relaxed slightly.

Chastising herself for her lack of proper calm, Mara walked forward. Skywalker wouldn?t be meeting her yet ? instead, his majordomo, Kejal Mauwel, was to meet her and take her into the Imperial Palace. Mara figured it was likely a demonstration of their difference in social rank.

Kejal Mauwel was well known in his own right, however. Not necessarily by the public; but they weren?t what mattered in this reminder of status. The Rebellion knew him well ? he had served and assisted Vader for years, and while he had little to do directly with the persecution of the Rebels, he had on two separate occasions found Rebel spies. He was extraordinarily intelligent, and had advised Vader in everything but war.

It was said that while Vader was away fighting Palpatine?s war, it was this man who raised Luke Skywalker. That alone was reason for Mara to be wary.

For all of that, though, his presence wasn?t quite what she was expecting. The vaguely military clothing and posture were all expected, as were the piercing dark eyes and chiseled face. The gentle smile and bemused emotions Mara sensed were not expected. He wasn?t frightened by her; it would be more accurate to say he was puzzled.

Mara walked another step closer to him, and in a movement so smooth as to be choreographed, he bowed and she held out her hand. He lightly kissed it, his lips dry.

"Welcome, milady,? Mauwel said with a smile. He nodded briefly at Adi, the only Jedi who would be accompanying Mara into the Palace ? there were more on the ship and in the small contingent in orbit ? and Adi nodded back. He stepped aside and gestured. ?If you would, milady. Master Jedi.? Another nod to Adi.

Mara attempted a smile and followed him into the Palace.

The Imperial Palace was what she expected it to be ? huge and grand. Mauwel led them through several halls ? each big enough to be a landing bay, though with much nicer furnishings and architecture ? until they reached a medium sized room decorated in soft yellows and beiges, with a few dustings of red. It was almost stark, like a desert.

Mauwel gestured for Adi to sit. ?My lord insists Master Gallia stay here and go no further. He wishes to meet milady alone,? he said, looking at Mara.

"Any reason why I have to stay?? Adi said mildly, sitting and crossing her legs. In her brown robe and cream colored tunic, she appeared at home in the room. Mara stood out.

"My lord did not say,? Mauwel said calmly.

Liar. Mara thought. ?Very well,? Mara said before Adi could speak. ?Shall we??

Mauwel bowed. Adi looked discomfited, but willing to stay put. She shot Mara a warning look ? be careful. You cannot forget what you are, and what he is. Mara nodded silently.

Mauwel led Mara out with Adi going into a calming meditation.

They passed through more huge halls, but Mara didn?t fail to note the increased ? or more obvious ? security. When she saw the Red Guards before an elaborately carved wood doorway, she knew she was near him.

She reached out with the Force, both to calm herself and to see what she could sense. To her surprise, she sensed very little. No malevolent evil, no massively strong presence. She could tell someone was behind the doors, but that was all. A test, perhaps. That was probably what this meeting was ? an examination of her. It was also a likely explanation for him wanting to see her alone.

Without a word, Mauwel opened the doors, the Red Guards standing by patiently, but still alert. Mauwel gestured for her to enter, and with some trepidation, she did. Mauwel didn?t follow. The doors closed, and it seemed like it had a note of doom to it. Mara immediately told herself she was being ridiculous, and strode forward.

The area was some kind of adjacent room to the Imperial Gardens. Three of the ?walls? seemed to be composed of little but windows. All were as high as the ceiling, and that was at least a dozen meters. A few couches and chairs were dotted beside the windows. In the middle of the room, there was one table with nothing on it. The floor was plain wood, and there were no rugs. It was a decidedly spare room.

"I like the simplicity.?

Mara jerked her head in the direction of the voice. Only then did she see Skywalker sitting in one of the plush chairs, nearly lost in its seat. He was little more than a dark figure, especially against the dark maroon of the chair. With a shiver of fear, she realized her failing to see him had been deliberate on his part.

He looked quite casual, not at all formal ? or evil, for that matter. He was leaning against one of the arms of the chair, elbow propped up on it, and his chin resting in one of his hands. His short blond hair barely caught some of the afternoon light, making some of it appear lighter than it was, and the rest darker. Somewhat to her surprise, he looked as lithe and fit in person as he did on holos.

His crystalline blue eyes were electric when they met hers. Skywalker definitely had a presence ? when he chose not to disguise it. She could still sense virtually nothing of the man beyond the fact that he was there. That was a skill that surely rivaled that of Mace Windu ? at least.

?Nothing to say?? Skywalker inquired with a lift of one eyebrow.

"I thought that was a statement, not a question,? Mara returned easily. She walked forward, until she was a mere few meters away from Skywalker. Emperor Skywalker. No, she shouldn't think about that. She settled into the chair opposite his, noting that his eyes followed her every move.

"True,? Skywalker conceded. ?How was your trip??

"Can we skip the banal niceties?? Mara shot back.

"Certainly,? Skywalker responded instantly. He then paused, as if thinking. ?I expect a number of things from you,? he continued, rising. Mara watched him warily, but he made no hostile move ? and he was not likely to, Mara reminded herself. It would be pointless at this stage. ?Besides what is mentioned in the contract, I expect you to be civil in public to any and all Imperial citizens ? no matter what you have against them.? He looked at her pointedly.

Mara knew her reputation for a temper ? and considering the Empire probably had a few spies in the Republic, he probably did too. ?I understand,? she said simply, repressing the urge to shoot off a few sarcastic comments about Imperial dignitaries.

"You will have to attend social functions occasionally. Most of these will probably occur before the six month period you stay here is up. I will expect you to repress the urge to use the opportunity to speak your political views. What you do in your Republic is your business, so long as it does not reflect badly on me; but here, you will act as if you are an Imperial citizen.? He paused again.

Mara said nothing, knowing there was more.

"Any attempt on your part or any of your retinue to spy or otherwise cause the Empire or me harm will result in a dissolution of the treaty. I trust that will not be too difficult. After the wedding, no Jedi will be permitted on Coruscant, either, besides you.?

"Why?? Mara blurted.

"I do not trust them,? Skywalker said blandly.

"Because of what happened to your father?? Mara asked, knowing she was probably being daring and not particularly caring at the moment.

Skywalker merely frowned. ?What do you mean??

"I ? well, what Obi-Wan Kenobi did to him, putting him in that suit,? Mara said with a half-shrug.

Skywalker looked taken aback. ?That was between Kenobi and my father, not me and the rest of the Jedi.? He looked at her intently. ?I am not prone to acts of revenge for the sake of revenge, Lady Jade. If I were, this treaty would never have been proposed.?

"Oh,? Mara said blankly, thinking that over.

"Anyway,? Skywalker said, ?as I was saying. The public is rather . . . romantic, so it?s best if we?re seen at least liking each other.?

"You better not be saying we have to snuggle in public,? Mara said with a snort.

Skywalker smiled. Mara found herself surprised by it ? it was simple, light, no complications in his expression of amusement. She had expected something more sinister. ?No, of course not. If need be, I can have a few holos doctored up, but that shouldn?t be necessary. Just ? hold my hand in public, or something equally harmless.?

Mara nodded.

"And by the way,? Skywalker said, looking her over carefully, ?your appearance will also matter.? Before Mara could react, he had stepped over and loosened a strand of her red hair.

Mara?s reflexes caught up as she rose and caught his wrist in a strong grip, her fingers on pressure points. Skywalker didn?t react to the pain he must have been feeling.

"Appearances can be deceiving,? Mara said evenly, quoting Master Yoda, choosing not to think about or mention the fact that he had darted through her defenses easily. Another demonstration, perhaps?

Skywalker looked at her mildly. Did he ever do anything that wasn?t mild, for Force sake? ?Appearances can be important.?

"Only to the fool,? Mara snapped back.

He laughed. If Mara had been surprised by his smile, she was immediately caught by his laugh. Why did she have the feeling it was a laugh without pretenses? He made a slight movement with his wrist, and Mara lost her grip as if she was trying to hold water. ?You have lovely hair,? Skywalker said at last.

"Was that a compliment? We?re not friends, we?re having an arranged marriage,? Mara said acidly.

Skywalker?s amused expression faded, and Mara felt a stab of ? something. ?Not friends, perhaps, but allies, I would hope.?

Allies? They were enemies forced into a difficult situation. ?You are an odd man,? Mara replied, letting her hand drop as her confusion only increased. An odd Sith Lord.

Skywalker moved away from her, not replying to her comment. ?Kejal can lead you back to your Master. He?ll also inform you of wedding details,? he said calmly, evidently choosing to end the discussion. ?If you have any questions or concerns, you can bring it to him. If need be, he will bring it to my attention.?

"Thank you,? Mara said awkwardly.

Skywalker nodded. He made no motion or signal that Mara could see, but the doors opened and Mauwel stepped in, bowing slightly. ?Lead Lady Jade to Master Gallia,? Skywalker ordered. He looked at Mara again. ?It?s easy to get lost here,? he added. Not a security measure, was the subtle undercurrent.

Mara didn?t know what to say, so she said nothing. Apparently a reply wasn?t needed ? Skywalker turned away to face the windows, and Mauwel motioned for Mara to go with him.

Mara was glad she was going to have the opportunity to talk with Adi. To say the meeting hadn?t gone as planned . . . She asked nothing that she wanted to, nothing about the treaty, no commanding him to explain why he wanted to marry her when he could easily do the treaty without (at least, she thought so), and she didn?t even ask why Mauwel called him ?my lord? instead of ?your highness?. He had caught her off balance and kept her that way.

At least I returned the favor ? somewhat, Mara thought.

Kejal found Luke staring out at the Imperial Gardens after he returned Jade to her Master. He looked curiously amused, but also thoughtful. Kejal knew Luke well; he was thinking, and Kejal would not interrupt his concentration.

He waited silently by the door, quieting his thoughts.

Finally, Luke turned and faced Kejal. ?What do you think of her??

"Lady Jade? She is what I expected, my lord.?

Luke raised both eyebrows. ?Really? In what way??

"She is clearly strong-willed and not easily intimidated. However, she seems willing to cooperate from what I have seen. I did not eavesdrop on your conversation with her, of course, so that is all I can tell. I would say you will have some trouble with her, but nothing extremely significant.?

Luke nodded slowly, turning his attention back to the vibrant gardens. ?I like her,? he said suddenly.

"Personally, or as a good match??

"Mostly the latter, at the moment,? Luke admitted, looking down briefly. ?Our talk was brief, yet I sensed she is independent from her Jedi masters, which is important.?

"Why so, my lord?? Kejal asked, able to tell there was a reason for that being important beyond the obvious.

"We must be allies if this is to work, Kejal,? Luke said quietly. ?I do not think I?ll be able to play a game with her, not fully. I?ll have to bring her to my side, at least partially.?

Kejal paused, struggling to find the appropriate words. ?My lord, I do not doubt you, but ??

"I have no intention of turning her,? Luke said, truly amused now by the misconception. ?You have known me for nearly twenty years; am I my father?s heir in all ways??

Kejal looked at Luke for a long moment. He had known Luke for a long time, and it was almost odd to see him here now, as an intelligent, capable adult. He had first seen the boy as a frightened child, not quite a teenager, under Vader?s care; even, for a fortunately brief time, as a child under Palpatine?s care, if it could even be called such. He was the one who had tutored the boy, had put him to bed at night when his father was away. He had sought, of course, to remain at a respectful distance, but had essentially failed. Vader hadn?t failed to note it, but to Kejal's surprise, he had allowed it. Of all people, Kejal had seen the most how Luke changed his father.

Lord Vader had been a Sith Lord; Luke had merely the skills of one. Kejal knew the difference, as he had first seen it during the very last few years of Vader?s life. But it was even more emphasized in Luke.

Kejal sighed. ?I fear, my lord, that this is likely a matter beyond my comprehension.?

"Ah,? Luke said, a twinkle in his eyes. ?You mean it?s another of my wacky Force things that while you do not trust, you at least confess exist.?

Kejal bowed slightly, letting a small smile touch his lips. ?As my lord says.?

"It was the Force in some respects, but not all. I did choose her for the role she will play long before I even had the idea of arranged marriage.?

"So it was the Force that prodded you to add the arranged marriage to the list instead of something else more . . . common?? Kejal prodded.

"Yes, indeed it was,? Luke said with a regretful sigh. ?The will of the Force or not, it gives me other possibilities, other avenues ? I will use them as well.?

Kejal nodded. ?If I may ask, my lord, what did Lady Jade think of you??

Luke looked at Kejal in surprise, and then turned contemplative. ?I think I unnerved her,? he said decisively.

Mauwel had left Mara and Adi alone in the room Adi had waited in when Mara went to speak with Skywalker, after telling both of them they had merely to ask anyone for anything they needed. Mara had nodded, saying nothing. And when Mauwel left, Mara had remained silent.

Adi had already ascertained that the room had no obvious spying devices, and it was unlikely anything they said could be of use anyway. Mara knew this as well as Adi did, and the continued silence was bothering the Jedi Master.

To all appearances, Mara could have been meditating. She sat on the edge of one of the two couches facing each other, posture still and correct as her dress pooled around her feet. Her eyes were closed. Yet Adi sensed confusion through their bond. Uncertainty. That was a rarity for Mara Jade ? she had always been possessed of boundless confidence, even when it was not entirely called for.

Adi chose to wait. She sat on the other couch, across from Mara, and folded her hands in her lap, falling into a meditative state herself.

It was some time later when Mara spoke. ?He is not what I expected, Master.?

"In what sense??

Mara opened her brilliant green eyes, staring directly at Adi. ?I sense no darkness in him.?

"Is that what disturbs you?? Adi said with an upraised eyebrow. ?I?m skeptical of that. He has great skill ? we?ve always known that. That you would not sense something is hardly surprising.?

Mara looked away, shaking her head. ?He slipped past my defenses like they were nothing. He touched my hair and I couldn?t stop him.?

"He touched your hair?? Adi asked, eyes narrowing.

"Yes,? Mara said with a smile directed at Adi. ?He said I have beautiful hair. Not to worry, Master ? he also assured me he has no intention of forcing a relationship, though we must carry on some semblance of one for the public.?

"Nevertheless. . . be wary of his attentions,? Adi said with a frown.

"I will,? Mara assured her. ?Though I doubt wariness will do much good if he changes his mind, save for the fact that I might not be so surprised.? Her mouth quirked into a smile.

"What else did you speak of?? Adi asked briskly.

"He essentially told me what he expected of me. Nothing that I didn?t expect in that respect ? be civil to all Imperials, try to keep quiet about my political views . . . that kind of thing,? Mara said, leaning back, clearly going over the conversation in her mind.

"And what else did he say??

Mara looked at Adi with a slight, thoughtful frown. ?I sensed something . . . elusive.?

"Far-reaching?? Adi queried. Mara had no gift for foresight, no more than any other Jedi, but then this whole exchange was odd.

Mara nodded slowly. ?Yes.?

Adi was possessed of the urge to grab Mara and take her back to the Jedi, to figure out what was going on here. She sensed Mara was already becoming entangled with Skywalker. Mara would seek him out, try to understand ? challenge and question. And that could, very possibly, lead to dark places. But there was nothing to be done about it; Adi knew she would have to trust her former Padawan, trust that she had trained her well to resist the Dark Side, even when only inconspicuously present.

"Padawan. . .?

Mara leaned forward with a smile, her gaze going from distant to present. She placed one of her hands over Adi?s. ?It?s all right, Master. I don?t trust him, or what he says. But he?s a puzzle . . . and I won?t have much else to do for six months but figure him out.?

Little happened at the wedding, but it was truly a sight to see.

Mara, of course, wore white; but to call her dress ?white? was oversimplifying. It shone with a beautiful luster, like a living jewel. It covered her from her neck to her ankles, but around her neck, her arms and her back, it was so thin as to be a simple silver sheen across smooth skin. Brilliant green jewels lovingly set in gold were placed around her neck, and strands of gold and green were pulled through her hair, which was set high with a few loosely but carefully placed curls falling down. The train was fortunately not long ? only about a meter. It was strangely practical in another sense, too ? it had a barely noticeable clip on her hip for her lightsaber.

She and Adi were quite bemused by that, and asked if Mara was actually permitted to wear the lightsaber during the ceremony. They were even more bemused at the affirmative they received.

Of the Jedi, only Adi and Mace Windu were permitted to attend; Skywalker absolutely refused to let Yoda even land on the planet. Very privately, Mara didn?t blame him. She would have done the same in his shoes. Nor was Obi-Wan Kenobi allowed to attend, though he had professed curiosity in the son of his old Padawan. Not that most people knew Vader had even been a Jedi, or the origin of his last name. Anakin Skywalker had been wiped from all records save for those of the Jedi.

When Mara walked up the aisle ? and it was a grand aisle, with hanging plants and beautiful flowers ? past the crowd of people, past her Master sitting in the back, up to Skywalker, she saw why she had been permitted her lightsaber; he wore his. It looked finely crafted and polished to a sheen. He wore black, the opposite of her white, and she mused with a certain amount of humor how appropriate that was. His outfit was more understated than hers, but no less well-made for that. She saw hints of dark blue in the almost military fit, similar to the small bits of emerald in hers.

They went through the ceremony easily, both calm. The worry about the event was over; it was happening. The priest finished, and they finished their lines. They kissed lightly, and his lips were warm and dry; it was not hard to put a pleasant look on her face. He had a similarly pleasant expression.

Then they faced the crowd; the people in the actual room were more understated in their applause, but Mara heard the wild shouts and screams of the crowd outside the Imperial Palace.

They were married, and in the same ceremony, the treaty was signed.

Luke Skywalker was fourteen when he was first introduced to the galaxy. He was immediately introduced as both Emperor Vader?s son and heir. It was immediately remarked that he appeared to be a solemn, serious child and early reports proved that assumption correct.

Plots and attempts at gaining favor in the young man?s eyes came to be very quickly; but Skywalker proved himself to be astute. His father also proved to be very protective. Skywalker did not attend school, but was tutored, and he rarely appeared in public until the last couple years before his father?s death. Almost immediately after choosing to put himself in the public eye, he began to creep into the hearts of Imperial citizens everywhere. In Luke Skywalker they found someone both sympathetic and relatable ? unlike his armored father, or the secluded Palpatine.

---Annals of the Empire, Vol. II.

When Luke let loose a strangled cry, his guards didn?t come running. They were well attuned to his sleeping patterns, and they knew any interruption would be unwelcome.

Luke?s room was nearly totally dark. With his excellent eyesight, when Luke opened his eyes, he could see faint outlines, smudges of color, and that was enough to orient him. The soothing golds and blues so reminiscent of his childhood immediately calmed him. He sat up, looking blankly at nothing, just breathing harshly. Sweat ran down his back, making detours along the raised marks.

Eventually, his breathing evened out. He had nightmares in cycles ? one every night for a week, and then nothing for at least three months. As such, he wasn?t surprised by having been awakened. His staff wouldn?t be surprised either ? he would be cranky for the next week. He had already noticed with some amusement them preparing for it.

He slipped out of bed, the silken sheets not clinging to his bare skin. They were smooth, almost sensual, and remained cool against his heated body. Luke sighed and pushed his dampened hair out of his face. He stepped forward to a side table pressed against the wall and got himself a glass of clear, cold water. It slid down his throat with a satisfying rush.

He moved slightly, glass still in hand, and turned a clock so it faced him. Early morning. So early it was hardly past yesterday. He briefly debated going back to sleep, then gave up on the idea as being unrealistic.

After another gulp of water, he put the glass down. He then walked into the refresher, which was right next to the side table, across from his bed. He flicked the light on without any preparation, and immediately winced as his night vision was bombarded.

The marble floor, beige streaked with shots of blue, was cold against his bare feet, and Luke winced again. After giving his eyes a few moments to adjust, he opened them fully and looked in the huge, floor-length mirror.

His blue eyes were bloodshot. That would have to be dealt with before he left the room. A minor touch of the Force would be required, probably. His hair stuck up in several directions with no rhyme or reason, and darkened, sweaty clumps stuck to his nape and forehead.

He slipped off his sleep pants and stepped into the shower, turning on the water and finding the appropriate amount of heat. As hot as he had the water, it felt cool against his skin, the water running down his back in cooling waves, as if he were reliving the heated physical pain of his youth.

As calming as the shower was, some salt made its way down the drain.

When Luke left the shower, he was fully composed.

Bail Organa did not like the idea of what he was about to do, but it nevertheless gave him some hope. The issue he was to bring to Emperor Skywalker was not one covered in the treaty. He had told his fellow Senators ? the Senators of the New Republic ? that he was inclined to believe Skywalker truly wanted peace, but he was not certain of that. He was not certain of the Emperor?s good will.

Mauwel was, as typical of him, both quiet-spoken with few words and analyzing as he listened to Bail?s request to speak with Skywalker. He nodded, eventually, and left to go speak to Skywalker.

Bail waited with a certain degree of nervousness in the sedately decorated parlor room. He quieted his thoughts, burying certain ones deep in his mind as the Jedi had helped train him to do. It was of vital importance that Skywalker could not sense anything from him.

When the door opened again, Bail was surprised to see that it was Skywalker, not Mauwel.

"Your Highness,? Bail said with a slight ? perhaps too slight ? bow.

Skywalker merely nodded. ?You wished to speak with me??

?Yes,? Bail said, following Skywalker as the man casually sat down on one of the couches. Skywalker appeared . . . almost startlingly young. He certainly doesn't look his age, Bail thought. ?Concerning Alderaan.?

"What of it??

"As Your Highness may or may not know, I have a daughter there whom I have not seen for quite some time,? Bail said.

Skywalker?s eyes narrowed. ?Ah, yes. Leia Organa. One of the New Republic?s people,? he said casually. ?Not that I expect you to admit that, of course,? he added with an ironic twist of his lips.

"I wish to see her,? Bail said simply. ?While you permitted many of us to come here and have opened trade lanes in these past weeks, you have not rescinded the orders that keep us out of the rest of the Empire.?

Skywalker didn?t answer for a moment. ?I cannot have your people running around causing chaos within the Empire, Senator, nor will I allow rampant immigration between the Empire and the Republic,? he said at last.

Bail made to speak, but Skywalker held up his hand.

"Perhaps something else could work,? he suggested. ?As you said, most of your people are allowed on Coruscant and will be for the time being, save for the Jedi. Perhaps Coruscant can serve as an intermediary so that you may see your daughter. Is that acceptable??

All while under your careful eye, with only those you grant not likely to cause you trouble here able to take advantage of it, Bail thought. ?It is, Your Highness.?

"Good,? Skywalker said, rising. As he neared the door, he turned to face Bail briefly and added, ?By the way, you should tell your daughter to be more careful in those cautiously worded communiqu?s of hers.?

Bail stiffened. Skywalker raised an eyebrow, and left.

Bail slowly sat down. So Skywalker knew of the messages between Leia and him. Leia was running Alderaan?s resistance cell, though of late it had gotten less support as the Empire slowly started to become more amiable. Skywalker was making everything difficult ? he retained enough total control that doing anything he did not wish was nearly impossible to accomplish, and yet he gave enough freedom that people were willing to believe more would come. Moreover, he endeared his people to him.

The man was far too astute, and that fact only renewed Bail?s very private misgivings concerning the treaty.

But his daughter. Leia. While they had spoken regularly since Bail?s flight with the rest of the Rebellion to the Unknown Regions ? to build their own government, their own worlds, which they had done ? they had not seen each other in nearly a decade. When he left, his daughter had been a young woman, one much like her mother. And now . . .

At least Skywalker had given no indication he knew Leia was his sister. Only Bail and the Jedi Council knew the truth. Obi-Wan, his old friend, had taken Leia to him, told him of her past and what her future had to be. Bail had agreed to raise her as his own, and he had never regretted it. He did not regret it now. Though he wondered, unable to help himself, what exactly had happened that Vader knew of Luke, and not of Leia. How Luke had gotten to be in Vader?s possession, and how Leia had escaped it. The Jedi would not speak of the matter, and they would also not say if they ever intended to tell Leia the truth.

No matter. If the Jedi believed it was not dangerous for Leia to be on the same planet as her brother, then he would see his daughter again. The rest . . . were merely worries that he could do nothing about. That he could not truly plan for in any more of a way than had already been planned for.

He focused his thoughts on seeing his daughter again.

And so it passes. Life goes on, and we go with it, as we must, as we cannot fail to do. We must not drown in our sorrows. Let us hope that we may experience the fullness of the future by leaving the past behind.

---Luke Skywalker at Darth Vader?s funeral, excerpt: Annals of the Empire, Vol. III.

For all that the hall leading to Skywalker?s office was in soothing, muted colors of green and blue, the two people standing outside of it were hardly soothed. Although one must consider that it was morning, and early morning at that.

"I want to see him,? Mara said, emphasizing each word, carefully bringing out each syllable. Mauwel did not look impressed. In fact, Mara was gaining the feeling he didn?t like her. It had been nearly a month since the wedding, and Mara?s curiosity about anything and everything did not sit well with the man. Things were settling down for the Empire and the Republic ? trade routes were opened, business deals made, and diplomatic incidents dealt with ? but Mara had hardly gotten started. She had rarely seen Skywalker at all.

"My lord is ?? Mauwel began imperiously.

Skywalker walked out of his office, holding a cup of something steaming in his hand. He hardly looked like an Emperor ? he looked distracted. The casual light blue tunic and bantha hide pants didn?t help. It seemed that when not in public he didn?t dress as formally. He looked at Mara, politely surprised. ?Lady Jade.?

Mara folded her arms and shot Mauwel a dirty look with a sweet smile. Then she turned to look at Skywalker again, folding her arms and giving him a challenging look. ?I was wondering if you?d give me a tour.? She gestured widely, to encompass the entire Imperial Palace.

Mauwel sighed.

Skywalker glanced at him, then returned his gaze to Mara. ?Give me five minutes.?

Surprised and delighted, Mara nodded. She hadn?t really expected him to agree, though she really hadn?t known what to expect in response to her request. Truthfully, she just wanted to pick his brains and didn?t see a better way of doing it. Of course, he would know perfectly well what she was trying to do, but such was the way of things. Besides, that would make it all the more interesting.

Skywalker was there when he promised to be. He came out of his office again in a few moments, and without a word, gestured for Mara to follow.

"What do you want to see?? Skywalker asked at last.

Mara didn?t answer for a moment, thinking about it. ?I heard you have a museum in the palace . . .?? she offered.

Skywalker nodded, looking rather taken aback. ?We do.?

Probably wondering why I would want to see an Imperial museum, she thought. But it was as good a place as any, and they both knew she wasn?t here for the tour.

"So why does Mauwel call you ?my lord??? Mara asked suddenly.

Skywalker glanced at her, as calm and mild as he had been in their first meeting. ?Tradition, really,? Skywalker replied. ?My father didn?t care for titles all that much. He allowed Kejal and everyone else to call him ?my lord? even after his ascension to Emperor, and I saw no reason why I should be any different."

"You?ve known Mauwel a long time??

"Yes,? Skywalker said shortly.

"Are you close?? Mara queried further.

Skywalker looked at her, expression still mild, and raised an eyebrow. ?We?re here,? he stated unequivocally.

The Imperial Palace?s museum was not a public museum ? nothing there was on display to the public, and to a degree, that showed. There were no exhibit lines, no carefully marked pathways, and no displays beyond a simple text explanation beside a few pieces. The museum essentially consisted of a long, twisting room that could be more accurately called a hall. The ceilings were vaulted and Mara could see jewels huddled in the shadow of curves, giving a faint sparkle to the otherwise plain linen-colored walls. It was full of eclectic items and huge bookcases that held actual books, along with datapads and other trinkets.

Mara wandered among the items curiously. ?Where did you get all this from?? she asked, picking up an old datapad copy of History Before the Republic, Vol. II.

"Most of it comes from the Old Republic ? their Agornon Museum,? Skywalker said, referring to the official museum of the Old Republic. ?The more recent items were collected by scholars in service to the Empire, for the most part.?

"You mean the old propaganda machines?? Mara said lightly, looking at Skywalker.

"In some cases,? Skywalker said, a slight expression of amusement lighting his face for a moment.

Mara raised an eyebrow.

"I am not na?ve, Lady Jade, and neither are you,? Skywalker added.

Mara put the old datapad down. ?Is that why you chose me??

"I chose you for a number of reasons,? Skywalker evaded.

Mara kept walking, and Skywalker went with her, though somehow he managed to give the impression he was merely wandering in the same general direction, not following her. ?Was it primarily for my position in the New Republic military? The fact that I am one of the four regional commanders surely was part of it. Do you think you?ll actually learn anything from me??

"I think nothing of the sort, Lady Jade,? Skywalker said coolly, his eyes like ice. ?I would not need to go through all of this purely to gain some insight into your military.?

"But it?d make a nice bonus,? Mara said snidely.

"As I?m sure knowledge of Sefer?s whereabouts would be a nice . . . ?bonus?, as you say, to you,? Skywalker said. He met her eyes for a moment, gaze intense and searching, and then looked away with deliberate casualness.

Mara stiffened. Sefer was a top-secret weapons research installation of the Empire?s. They didn?t even admit to it existing ? until now. That could only mean Skywalker knew that they knew of it. Considering the Death Star disaster years before, security was extremely tight in the Empire, and as far as Mara was aware, they had no reason to believe themselves compromised. Yet, evidently they had realized that they were.

Sefer. . . what it could it mean? Was the Empire truly making new weapons for use against the Republic? Sefer was no longer needed if Skywalker intended to keep the treaty. Was that why he was willing to mention it, or was mentioning it a deliberate act to scare her?

"I see,? Mara finally managed, tone noncommittal.

More silence. Mara and Skywalker kept walking, and Mara deliberately looked around, still looking over the ancient items. Skywalker didn?t push her.

"Do you think you scare people?? Mara asked at last.

"Only the sensible ones,? Skywalker replied. Mara shot him a surprised look. ?Are you sensible?? he asked, looking directly into Mara?s eyes.

Mara didn?t flinch. She smiled. ?Guess not.?

Skywalker smiled. It was a considering smile ? a smile that showed intelligent pleasure. ?Good,? he said simply.

"Why is it good??

"I do not believe fear is as effective a tool as many in the Empire thought,? he said calmly. ?The mere fact of the existence of your New Republic proves that.?

Mara thought about that. ?You could have destroyed us at Corunlder, but you didn?t,? she said finally, meeting Skywalker?s startling blue eyes. ?Why is that??

Skywalker cocked his head. ?You already know the reason.?

I don?t buy that you didn?t want to go into unexplored territories,? Mara said sharply. ?I wouldn?t believe it any more than I would believe in a deal with a Hutt."

"I did not feel it was worth the effort,? Skywalker said matter-of-factly. ?Your position there was more readily defensible, and the expenditure of lives would be great.?

You care about lives?Mara thought. ?You?ll forgive my skepticism,? Mara said with a snort. ?I don?t think you capable of such charity.?

"Your opinion of me is unduly harsh,? Skywalker said with a dry expression.

Mara folded her arms. ?Prove it.?

"I already have,? Skywalker said levelly. He paused, looking away thoughtfully. ?I am not my father, Lady Jade. Nor am I Palpatine.?

Mara made to speak, but stopped herself. Sniping at him wasn?t going to help matters. She remembered how off balance he had put her before ? he didn?t seem to be attempting to do such now, instead answering her calmly. He had said he wanted them to be allies. Did he really believe that? Sefer . . .

"Did you love your father?? Mara asked suddenly.

Skywalker jerked, startled eyes turning to her. ?Yes,? he said finally. ?I did.?

"I find it hard to imagine,? Mara said softly. Her words were sharp, nearly insulting, but her gaze was mild.

Skywalker looked down, a slight crease appearing between his brows. He took an aborted breath, then exhaled and inhaled slowly. ?My father . . .? He hesitated. ?He loved me enough to risk his life killing Palpatine,? he said, gaze meeting Mara?s again.

Mara was shocked. ?I didn?t know Sith could love.?

Skywalker?s voice became nearly inaudible. ?He was hardly a Sith at the end,? he murmured.

As Mara was about to ask what that meant ? this conversation had been nothing but revealing ? Skywalker abruptly turned away from her. Mara automatically refocused herself, becoming more alert to their surroundings. A small, cowled creature about the size of a Jawa silently ghosted up to Luke. Mara couldn?t figure out from where. It said something in a small, hissing voice.

Skywalker replied in the same tongue, and the creature went behind a stack of old books and simply vanished.

"What is it?? Mara demanded.

"A bomb has been found in the East Courtyard,? Skywalker replied calmly. ?I have to go. We can continue this later, if you wish.?

"I do wish,? Mara said automatically.

Skywalker nodded and moved away. His steps were light and fast, and he was soon out of sight. He had gone from quiet and calm to intense and focused in a moment. Mara suddenly remembered how easily he had gotten out of her grasp in their first meeting.

Her mind was awhirl, but not because of the bomb ? because of Skywalker, and what he had said. Was it an attempt at sympathy? It must be. Why else would he say the things he had, to someone he hardly knew? Perhaps it was an attempt to distract her from Sefer. Well, that wouldn?t matter. She would report it to her superiors and the Jedi Council, and they would certainly not be distracted. And Mara wasn?t going to be distracted by Skywalker?s fascinating words, anyway.

Mara was not fooled.

She stared down at a book dryly titled, Basic Complex Analysis of Sentient Cultures, the words going over her head. A few minutes passed, and Mara looked up, thinking, Okay, so maybe I am distracted. Well, that?s what meditation is for. Focusing.

With a plan of action, she left the museum. She would have to ask Skywalker about the bomb when they met again. She wasn?t worried, but she was curious about who had planted it and why.

Kejal must have been worried to send one of the Noghri. Jade had likely thought Uwkewel a simple messenger, but his presence probably meant more Noghri had been added to the twelve Noghri guards constantly following him in the Palace. He was sure Jade hadn?t sensed them; they usually kept just out of his normal range of awareness so as not to bother him. They had an uncanny knack for keeping just out of a Force-sensitive?s range of sensing. Vader had briefly considered using them as assassins against the Jedi before coming to the decision that it would be a waste; the Jedi would quickly become aware of them, and assassination was not going to bring the Jedi as a whole down.

Instead, he had chosen a dozen Noghri as Luke?s personal guards and trainers.

Uwkewel had directed Luke to one of the subsets in the Imperial Palace. They were buried in the deep levels, far beyond where most thought the Imperial Palace extended. Kejal would be there.

The walls of the White Room were stone, with a level of cortosis ore and durasteel beyond that. As the name suggested, it was nearly entirely white. It was older than the Empire, but Palpatine had modified it to be a hiding place of last resort. Luke knew it was overkill for him to be down here; his security forces likely already had the situation dealt with. Besides which, the walls of the Palace had been designed to take direct aerial bombardment ? it was unlikely any bomb would be damaging enough for Luke to be in danger. However, everything he needed was down here anyway, so he wasn?t going to argue with Kejal about it.

A huge communication center sat in the middle of the massive room. Kejal was standing by it, staring down at one of the screens.

"Report,? Luke ordered as he entered the room. He cast his senses about; there were at least twenty Noghri in the room, plus a dozen Red Guards.

Kejal looked up. ?It was a Class A thermo-detonator; time setting.?

"Was?? Luke said, coming beside him and taking in all the various screens and reports in at a glance.

"It?s been defused,? Kejal said with a nod.


"Blacked out at the moment.? Kejal knew what Luke would ask next, so he didn?t pause. ?We think it was the Vaderians.?

"You think?? Luke said with upraised eyebrow.

"We already got a warrant and have stormed their headquarters; no report on how that went,? Kejal replied.

Luke nodded slowly. ?Good. Get that information.?

"Yes, my lord. And if it is them . . . ??

Luke shrugged. ?Find all the ringleaders, have a quick, military trial and execute them all.?

Kejal nodded. ?A military trial, though, my lord??

I don?t want the chaos of a civil court,? Luke said. ?Come up with a reasonable explanation; I doubt many will care if there?s evidence. And there will be,? he added with a pointed look.

"Yes, my lord.?

Luke rubbed his face. ?I?m going upstairs. I think I skipped lunch.?

"I?m surprised you remembered, my lord,? Kejal said, knowing Luke?s habits well.

"Ha,? Luke said tiredly.

"I assume the conversation did not go well?? Kejal said, studying Luke.

"It didn?t go quite as I planned,? Luke explained. He headed for the doorway, thinking to leave Kejal behind, but he followed Luke. After a few moments of silence, Luke continued. ?I managed to put her on the trail of Sefer. They?ll find it abandoned, of course.?

"And then they won?t believe it, and eventually that fact will put them on the trail of the weapons facility at Kearek, as you had planned, my lord. What went wrong??

Luke and Kejal went into the lift, along with two Red Guards and a Noghri. ?I revealed something I didn?t plan to,? Luke admitted. ?I can work it to my advantage ? she thinks I?m trying to gain her sympathy, and that will make her react in exactly the opposite way.? He shrugged. ?When they find Kearek, she?ll recommend they step up their own weapons program while using the trade routes of the treaty.?

"Then that is good news, my lord.? Kejal looked at Luke with an intent expression. ?But you are still troubled.?

"I told her something true, Kejal. Yes, this time I used it ? but next time?? Luke said fiercely. ?She puts me off balance, and I can?t figure out how she does it. I haven?t had anyone ask me that kind of question about my father in years, yes, but I don?t just blurt out whatever comes to mind with others who take me unaware.?

Kejal looked startled. ?She asked about Lord Vader??

Luke raised an eyebrow, and stepped out of the elevator. ?She is a Jedi; I suppose it makes sense she would be curious.?

"I would think her less curious than most,? Kejal said disapprovingly, following Luke. ?Precisely because she is a Jedi, she knows more than most. Perhaps she should be more carefully watched,? Kejal suggested.

Luke paused. ?Put two Noghri on her.?

"Yes, my lord.?

The original intention of the Empire was to destroy the Jedi Order; all its members were declared outcast, criminals by nature. Several thousand of the Jedi died during the Clone Wars, but many remained during the rise of the Empire. Lord Vader and others were given the task of hunting them down. The Jedi, however, were not easy to find ? not only did they hide with skill, they virtually created the Rebellion in their efforts to survive, bringing many to ?awareness? of the Empire?s wrongdoings long before they would have come up with the idea on their own.

As bounties and hunting parties increased in size, so did the Rebellion, until the Battle of Corundler, where Emperor Skywalker rescinded the active orders to hunt the Jedi down; in that moment, the Jedi became worth no more than any other Rebel. Reasons for the move remain unknown, and it is considered one of the few puzzling things of Emperor Skywalker?s reign.

---Annals of the Empire, Vol. II and Vol. III.

The Jedi Temple was nothing like the one on Coruscant had been. The one on Coruscant had been ancient and stunning in its beauty. Everything from the architecture down was wonderfully and lovingly crafted. This Temple, on the Republic?s capital world of Ferwyn, was no less lovingly made, of course. But the pride of the Jedi was gone; the building was not only much smaller ? partially to accommodate the fact that there were fewer Jedi ? it was also much more plain. The four, short spires were, as with the old ones, curved, but there the resemblance ended. They were a simple whitewashed stone and woven durasteel, without an ounce of decoration.

In one of those spires, the occupants studiously went over the new information brought to them.

"What did the NRI decide?? Obi-Wan Kenobi asked, referring to the New Republic Intelligence department. He sat in one of the room?s five chairs, hand thoughtfully stroking his white beard. But while his age was obvious, his bright blue eyes had never dimmed.

Mace spent a moment looking at him. ?They think Sefer is an attempt at a decoy, and they?re looking deeper for some other weapons research installation.?

Obi-Wan nodded, still looking down at the datapad in his hand.

"I don?t like it,? Adi Gallia said uneasily, her long robe trailing along the hard floor as she slowly walked in a circuitous pattern.

"Luke isn?t stupid. I?m not sure Sefer was an attempt at a decoy,? Obi-Wan said, looking at Adi. Mace didn?t fail to note that Obi-Wan still referred to Skywalker so familiarly, and neither, he was sure, did Yoda, who sat in another of the room?s chairs. Yoda was being uncommonly quiet, observing rather than interacting.

"Then what was it? He mentioned it to Mara for a reason,? Adi pointed out reasonably.

"I just think there?s something else going on,? Obi-Wan said, looking up and meeting Adi?s eyes.

"I hardly think you?re an expert on the boy, Obi-Wan ?? Adi began.

Obi-Wan didn?t wince, remaining calm and attentive, but nevertheless, Mace gained the impression he should have. No one but the Council knew where Obi-Wan had been for twelve years; why he had left the Order, and why he had come back. Many Jedi initially viewed him with a certain degree of wariness, remembering Dooku. But the man had quickly proven his good and gentle nature. The fire in Obi-Wan?s soul had never dimmed, but it had been gentled by his time on Tatooine.

"Correct, Obi-Wan is,? Yoda said softly, tapping his gimmer stick thoughtfully. He had a penchant for interrupting at exactly the right time, after everyone had made a fool of themselves arguing.

"I?m not sure I believe there to be a deeper plan,? Mace disagreed gently, ?but it should be considered.?

Adi nodded.

"How is your apprentice doing?? Obi-Wan asked Adi softly.

Adi paused, considering. Her worry was plain to everyone that knew her, but she had not voiced any concern for Mara. ?She?s fascinated by Skywalker. Otherwise, she appears to be fine. From what I understand, she?s hardly spoken to him outside of public appearances.? She sighed. ?Not counting the recent discussion, that is.?

Mace nodded thoughtfully. ?What Skywalker said concerning his father was surprising,? he said, watching Obi-Wan.

Obi-Wan, aware of the scrutiny, gave him a dry look.

"Bail contacted me just before this meeting,? Mace added.

Yoda?s ears perked.

"Concerning what?? Obi-Wan asked.

"He spoke with Skywalker about Leia,? Mace said with a sigh.

"That was dangerous,? Adi commented.

"Yes,? Mace agreed. ?But besides that, Skywalker agreed to allow the two of them to meet ? but only on Coruscant. He refused to lift the travel ban. Regardless, Bail is asking us if we think it too dangerous for Leia to be on the same planet as her brother.?

Obi-Wan shook his head. ?Even if he did recognize her as Force-sensitive, which is unlikely as her presence has never been strong, there is no reason for him to think she is his sister.?

"Hmm,? Yoda said. ?Nevertheless, dangerous it could be.?

Everyone was silent for a long moment.

"I almost feel that this is a decision not for us to make,? Mace said at last. We know so little, he thought. Our belief in our own wisdom lost.

Obi-Wan nodded silently, as did Adi.

"Then our decision, that is,? Yoda stated, gravelly voice quiet.

On that, they all agreed.

Taking refuge in the Unknown Regions was an unexpectedly good move for the Rebellion. They settled a number of worlds, formed a more traditional government ? as opposed to the militaristic nature they had relied on before ? and had a few non-Empire worlds join their cause. Before that time, the Rebellion constantly drifted and had no solid base or home. In the Unknown Regions, that changed; and settling in the Unknown Regions changed them as well.

---Annals of the Empire, Vol. II.

The room was basically a squat rectangle. It had the look of a military bunker; fitting, since that's essentially what it was. Displays and computers were all over the walls and the small table in the center was crowded with a few Senators and military and intelligence officers. The world of Kearek covered the displays and information brought by spies scrolled across the bottom.

"It would appear Senator Organa was incorrect concerning Skywalker?s motives,? Bel Iblis stated, his fierce gaze briefly coming to rest on Bail?s face.

Bail said nothing.

Commander Wedge Antilles nodded reluctantly, leaning back in his chair. ?So it would appear,? he said. He was here for his opinion and a report, and he wasn?t pleased with his findings.

Bel Iblis gestured for him to go on.

"The NRI had Rogue Squadron go on a flyby to see what we could find. And while all that communication cra ? equipment slowed us down, I don?t think we were seen. Kearek does appear to be a weapons facility, and they seem to be in production overdrive.?

"Go on,? Bail said, no skepticism in his voice; it was a simple request for more information.

Well, everything the equipment picked up, as well as signs of recent testing in the surrounding area on the moon and accompanying moons. Security was tight, too. At least four squadrons down there, and who knows what else. There was a sensor grid around the moons to avoid, as well,? Wedge explained. He reached over and changed the display. ?These are scans of the two main buildings. The energy signatures . . .?

Bail nodded as Wedge trailed off. ?We can still use the treaty,? he said at last, turning his attention to the others in the room. ?We?ll inform the other Senators . . .?

"And when Skywalker comes, we?ll be ready,? Iblis said definitively. ?The Empire will be destroyed at last.?

Bail looked regretful. ?Yes,? he agreed. ?Jade should probably be told as well ? she might be of use.?

Alna Gol, head of the NRI, smiled. ?Yes,? she said, her dark eyes calm and even, belying the look on her face. She had remained silent and unnoticed through the meeting, as was her habit. She only brought attention to herself when necessary. ?Her position within the Empire can be used to weaken them ? even without breaking the treaty. Rumors, creating contacts and assets . . .? Her eyes lit up at the possibilities only a spymaster could see. ?Even helping us get spies in, if need be.?

"It won?t be easy,? Wedge muttered lowly to himself.

"Why do you say that?? Alna inquired, hearing it anyway, looking at Wedge.

Wedge looked uncomfortable. Spying ? or intelligence gathering ? was not his forte, and he knew it. ?Jade is a Jedi, for one thing. Skywalker is a Sith. There?s more going on there than simple politics ? the powers a Jedi has, the powers a Sith has. That has to be taken into account as well, along with the balance act she?ll be pulling. Convincing Skywalker we?re clueless while doing this behind his back.?

Alna shook her head. ?She can do it. Adi Gallia, her Master, was part of the Jedi?s spynet before the Old Republic?s fall.?

Wedge didn?t look convinced, but he acquiesced silently with a nod.

"She must do it,? Iblis said simply. ?With this new information, there?s little other choice.?

Emperor Skywalker is known for his political astuteness; his enemies fear him with just reason.

---Annals of the Empire, Vol. III.

Luke always kept a certain distance from his subjects. Due to the political nature of his position, it was more difficult to keep to that line, but he nevertheless did so. He attended meetings and events, of course, but he never fraternized. He just smiled at his people. He did love and care for them ? but ?they? was a huge number in his mind. He thought he rather failed to see the trees for the forest, but such was nearly unavoidable in his position.

He sensed that Lady Jade was mentally debating whether he was sincere when he smiled at the crowd assembled around the massive building. They were together ? this would be one of their joint public appearances. She had taken Mauwel?s advice rather reluctantly, and wore a dark green dress with her red hair loose around her shoulders. And while they both went through the motions of opening Coruscant?s planetary museum, Luke had his thoughts on other matters, and Jade had her thoughts on him.

The Vaderians were causing more trouble. Assassination threats were becoming more frequent ? frequent enough that Mauwel wanted to cancel this particular public appearance. As a result, Luke had ordered Mauwel to send assassins after the lead members of the group. The whole thing was almost silly, in Luke?s opinion. He was Darth Vader?s son, and yet they wanted to kill him. Did they think that would please Vader? Well, who said fanatics had to have logic?

Lady Jade?s suspicion and thoughtfulness tickled at the edges of Luke?s senses. Her regard, while not really discernable to the public eye, was nevertheless intense.

When they both sat down for the celebratory dinner ? one where Luke had plans to undermine two bills the Moffs were proposing, among other things ? he sensed Jade relax.

Luke made polite chitchat with the Grand Moff from Delerka Sector, mentioning offhand how he ?disliked? certain new policies that other Moffs were implementing. The man quickly paled ? he was easily manipulated ? and hurriedly gave a few excuses, then went off to talk to one of his fellow Moffs. Luke watched him long enough to confirm the spreading of what he had said, and then dismissed the problem. Either they would get the hint, or they wouldn?t. If they did not, Luke had already set up a rivalry between Delerka and Massanor Sector that he could use. New, more easily manipulated Moffs weren?t hard to come by, though good ones were. He kept those.

Jade was close enough to him that they could speak softly and still not be heard by others. ?Do you think threatening him was necessary?? she asked casually, almost as if the subject wasn?t that important to her.

Luke looked at her with some surprise. He let it show in his eyes, in the Force, but nowhere else ? no reason for anyone else to realize what the two of them were talking about. ?He will either get the hint, or he won?t,? Luke replied. He hadn?t been aware she kept up with politics enough to realize what he was doing, though he should have expected it.

"So you get your way with threats??

"I get my way by outmaneuvering them,? Luke said, shooting her a sharp glance full of warning.

She didn?t appear affected. ?So it?s someone else who holds the bloody knife, then??

"Such melodrama,? Luke said dryly, becoming more interested in the conversation.

She raised an eyebrow and smiled slightly. Her body language changed slightly, leaning in, becoming more aggressive in stance. ?But I?m right.?

"Nevertheless, your technique could use some work,? Luke shot back, consciously making himself appear more relaxed, instead of tensing.

Jade leaned back. ?I?ll keep that in mind.?

"I?m sure you will,? Luke muttered.

Jade smiled.

The rest of the dinner passed in silence between the two, though both made conversation with others. It wasn?t necessary that they speak to each other, and Jade was apparently content to leave it that way, at least for the time being. In the beginning, she had been more cooperative during the public appearances, but recently she had taken up the habit of saying things meant to startle ? only to him, of course. She kept the agreement of their first meeting studiously.

So while Luke felt the subtle shift in her emotions during the dinner, he paid it no mind other than to note it.

At night, the Imperial Palace lit up. The gardens which surrounded the entire area ? something Luke had encouraged to spread during the annual updating of the grounds ? had luminescent strings wrapped around the trunks of trees and the delicate low-hanging branches of bushes and hanging plants. Sometimes Luke enjoyed walking out at night ? it seemed then like he was alone, even though he knew he wasn?t, and had he cared to look, he could have confirmed the fact.

Small, ivory leaves lay along the pathways running throughout the gardens. They were shaped in little hearts, and some seemed perfect and beautiful lying there on the thin, wide pieces of wood that the walkways consisted of. Except, of course, for the few lying on the border between the walkway and the garden ? they were muddy and trampled; torn. The keepers could have kept everything immaculate, of course, but Luke preferred the more natural appearance. Disorder in order.

Luke wandered. He walked slowly, with no particular direction in mind. Exhaustion from the day was setting in, and while he knew he should go to sleep, and he knew that he could probably force himself to go to sleep, he gave into his restlessness. He knew he wouldn?t be bothered ? few were even allowed into the Palace, and even fewer would be permitted to get close to him at all.

The soft, indirect light of Coruscant filtered in from above; the thick brace of leaves only blocked some of it.


Luke turned, startled. He reached out with the Force at the same time he recognized the voice, cursing his own stupidity. He always had to be aware; even when he was safe, he had to be aware.

"Hello, Lady Jade,? Luke said, turning away, continuing his walk.

Jade wasn?t wearing the dress of earlier anymore ? instead, she wore a loose tunic and a pair of dark pants. It wasn?t the style of a Jedi, though, despite the colors. It was more casual, less heavy and overbearing. The light seemed to touch upon her like a ghost, giving her sharp features a mellow blue cast. Even her striking red hair was dimmed.

"We never got to continue our talk,? she said softly, walking fast enough that she caught up to him.

"Which one??

"The one in the museum,? she replied, shifting her hands so she held them clasped behind her back. The movement made Luke aware she was had her lightsaber; Luke had left his in the Palace. Another moment of careless stupidity.

"How did you get here?? Luke said, changing the subject.

Jade cocked her head. ?Don?t you remember giving me permission to have the run of most of the grounds? Including the gardens??

"Ah,? Luke said. It hadn?t occurred to him that she would ever find him here when giving that order. One thing after another.

"What were you thinking about?? Jade asked, still walking beside him.

Luke shrugged. ?Nothing in particular.? Which was true enough ? not that he would have shared anything of his thoughts with her regardless.

Jade wasn?t taking the hints that he was giving to leave him alone. ?I was thinking of our talk in the museum,? she said. ?About the things you said . . . and the possible motives of them.?

Luke resisted the urge to raise an eyebrow, though he was surprised. Surely Jade wouldn?t confront him on Kearek. She was supposed to think the emotional talk in the museum was meant to be manipulative, and the talk of Sefer a threat or a decoy.

When Luke said nothing, Jade continued. ?Vader loved you??

Luke stopped walking. Why in the Force would she want to know about that? She was supposed to think he was trying to manipulate her emotionally. Should I play along? Luke wondered. ?Yes,? he said cautiously.

Jade looked away, green eyes glinting brightly for a moment, the color quickly subsiding. ?Why did he kill Palpatine??

It was Luke?s turn to shift his gaze. ?To save me,? he murmured.

Jade looked at him. ?Why??

"Why?? Luke said, scoffing. ?Palpatine was a Sith, I was powerful and young . . .?

"But wouldn?t Vader have used you in the same way? As a tool??

Luke shook his head silently.

"Why won?t you answer me?? Jade demanded.

Luke pursed his lips. ?If you persist in your assumptions, it will never make sense to you. I have already told you why.?

"My assumptions?? Jade said, a hint of outrage to her tone.

Luke smiled grimly, and subtly shifted the topic. ?Your Master Yoda has a saying about the Dark Side. Touch it and forever will it dominate your destiny.?

"Yes?? Yeah, your point being? her eyes said.

"I personally don?t believe that, but he does have a point,? Luke said, starting to walk again. Jade had to half skip forward, unprepared for his sudden movement. ?Touching the Dark Side does influence you.? He met Jade?s eyes. ?Did it never occur to you that it could go the other way as well? That the Light Side could influence a being of darkness??

Jade looked stunned, her eyes wide. ?I ??

"No matter. I can see it hasn?t. I can?t say I?m surprised ? in your persistence of being only Light, you can ignore what is right in front of you,? Luke said caustically. ?That the Light and Dark Side are different, exact opposites, is not in question ? but are intelligent beings so clear?? Careful, he warned himself. Don?t get to close to the truth.

Jade wouldn?t meet his eyes, though he tried. ?I didn?t think of it that way.?

"You aren?t encouraged to,? Luke stated. ?Too much risk, I suppose.? It was half apology, half insult.

Jade started to recover. ?And what of you? Are you saying the Sith see things more clearly??

"Not at all,? Luke replied. ?Sith are just blinded by Darkness as Jedi can be by Light.?

"The Light doesn?t blind,? Jade snapped.

"No,? Luke agreed. ?But you can use it to blind yourself. The Dark Side blinds all on its own.? He shrugged, leaving the obvious unsaid.

Jade said nothing. He could see thoughts racing through her mind ? her eyes showed her confusion and surprise. She was freshly wary of him. ?The way you speak . . . are you not a Sith yourself??

Luke hesitated ? stupid, stupid, he thought, don?t hesitate. ?I have the skills of one,? he dodged.

"But not the Darkness??

"We all have Darkness,? Luke said with an almost gentle smile.

Jade wasn?t giving up. She folded her arms, her gaze intensifying. ?Your father, the man who raised you, was a Sith Lord, and you?re telling me you?re not on the Dark Side? I don?t believe that ? trained from birth, you?d be too deeply enmeshed to see your way out.?

"Trained from birth?? Luke blurted without thinking, and then stopped himself. Taken by surprise, the best thing to do is attack. ?And are you too deeply enmeshed in the willing blindness of your Order to the gray of this universe to understand of what I speak??

"I wasn?t trained from birth,? Jade said, eyes narrowing, but not commenting on his tone on the matter of his own training. He wondered if she believed being trained from birth marked one irrevocably in what they were trained in ? she was foolish if she did, considering the amount of Jedi that turned to the Dark Side during the Clone Wars. ?My Master found me as a thief in the Empire. You know that ? or you should.?

"Giving my intelligence operatives credit?? Luke murmured, a smile lurking at the corners of his lips. For all the danger in this conversation, he found himself enjoying it. Jade wasn?t surprised or taken off balance easily. He supposed he respected her in the same way he did some of the New Republic ? they kept him on his toes.

"You?re distracting me,? Jade said, starting to give a rather disbelieving smile. ?Getting me off the subject.? She cocked her head. ?You didn?t answer my question ? are you in the Light or Dark??

Luke decided to answer honestly, instinctively knowing lying would be futile. ?I don?t know.?

Jade frowned, her fierce expression softening into something more gentle ? concern. ?You can?t dance between the two.? Her eyes narrowed, as if realizing that while discussing the Jedi, Luke had never claimed the Light Side weaker or useless ? he had attacked the Jedi, never the Light Side. It was a fine difference, and one Luke hadn?t really expected her to catch. ?And you don?t want to, do you? But you don?t know how to stop.?

Luke let his expression harden. ?Don?t presume,? he said harshly.

Jade reached out ? for what, Luke didn?t know, but this had gone too far. He had miscalculated both himself and her, and done so badly. It was too obviously not a play at sympathy to her. He grabbed her wrist, much in the same way she had grasped his at the first meeting.

Jade didn?t react other than to stop moving. ?I have my lightsaber,? she pointed out softly, ?and you are unarmed.?

"I am the weapon,? Luke hissed. His father had trained him to be able to deal with any situation ? one like this included. As long as he kept his wits . . .

Jade flinched slightly, but didn?t back away.

Luke had lost ground, and he wasn?t going to get it back. He was too sympathetic in her eyes. He had lost this round ? and perhaps the whole battle. Regardless, he could try to minimize the damage. Maybe he could still pull this off the way he had planned.

Moving so quickly she hadn?t a hope of reacting in time, Luke grabbed her arm and immobilized her, suddenly behind her with all the leverage. He took her lightsaber off her belt and pressed the business end to her throat. She wasn?t breathing hard, but her pulse was racing and her body tense as wire. Luke leaned in close, able to smell the clean scent of her skin. Her hair moved with his breath. ?Don?t threaten me.?

With a casual flick, Luke shifted the lightsaber away from her throat, turning it on as the business end faced beyond her. He dropped it over her shoulder, and while she was fast in grabbing the hilt, she wasn?t fast enough to stop the blade from lightly touching her skin.

Luke was already a few steps away as Jade turned, eyes full of anger, to look at him. He said nothing, merely looked at her levelly. He could see her consciously calming herself, falling into Jedi techniques easily and naturally. It was hard to say how she would react to his sudden violence, but she would likely believe him verging more on the Dark Side than the Light, which is what he needed out of the action.

She shut off the lightsaber. ?I get the point,? she said coldly.

"Good,? Luke said, expression impassive, and then very deliberately turned his back on her and walked away.

Mara went to her quarters with an outwardly calm appearance, though inwardly she was seething ? not at Skywalker, as much as she was tempted, but at herself. It was a bad habit of hers, she knew. Adi had often chastised her, reminding her that anger at oneself could be as dangerous as anger as someone else. And Mara had a natural tendency towards anger and impatience. It was tempered by practicality and control ? she would even use the emotions at times, to the concern of Adi ? but still, it was not the way for a Jedi to act.

Though, who knew?

With a mild curse, Mara walked into her bedroom and pulled off her shirt and shift. She threw them onto the huge bed and walked into the refresher. Like all rooms in the Imperial Palace, it was beautiful and luxurious. Mara still hadn?t adjusted, though she liked the mellow greens and blues of the fabric and marble.

She looked at her shoulder in the mirror very carefully, studying the red and blistering skin. The wound stung, but it was not a bad burn; with Jedi healing techniques, it would be gone by tomorrow. Really, her ego was smarting more.

Skywalker was a Sith. She couldn?t forget that. She couldn?t forget what Adi told her ? to remember what she was, and what he was. And yet . . . he was nothing like she expected. What he had told her about the Jedi, about blindness, about people . . . it rang of truth to her. It wasn?t even precisely heretical, it simply wasn?t the way Jedi thought. Of course there was black and white ? but weren?t there also shades of gray? Was Skywalker in one of those shades? If he was, Mara thought darkly, he was probably way over, nearly into black. But he was right when he said intelligent beings were rarely one or the other. As insane as Vader being affected by the Light Side might seem, it could very well have been the case.

And again that seeming contradiction. The unexpected violence, and yet . . . the telling of truth, the gentle sadness in Skywalker?s eyes when he spoke of his father.

"Sithspit,? Mara muttered, and immediately decided that wasn?t the best curse word to use in this case. Of course, ?by the Emperor?s black bones? wasn?t much better.

She rummaged through the cabinets and found a first aid kit. It was one of the best-stocked she had ever seen ? and it had even had instructions. ?Nice job,? she said to herself, taking out a bacta patch. It was layered bacta, with thin strips of anti-infection agents in between.

After carefully putting the patch on her shoulder, she turned the shower on, but didn?t step in. She put on another tunic, this time one of her Jedi ones, and carefully took out a small, round disk. She set it on the counter, hit a few buttons to scramble any spy devices in the area, and then waited. It was unlikely Skywalker?s people could listen in with the combination of the scrambling quality of water and the high-tech devices set into the small disk, so she would fairly free to speak for a while.

Within a few moments, a very small holograph of Adi Gallia appeared. She smiled when she saw Mara.

"Something wrong?? Adi asked immediately, pleasure shifting to concern.

Mara shook her head. ?I?m fine.?

Adi?s pale eyes narrowed slightly. ?How are you handling Skywalker? Are you having any trouble with him trying to read you??

Handling? Hardly, Mara thought. And he doesn?t have to use the Force to read me, judging from his immediate reaction to my shift in feelings ? disgust to pity? ? half an hour ago. ?No, no problems. He?s largely ignoring me.? That much was true. It was the times when he didn?t that she had trouble.

Adi nodded slowly. ?Good.? She took a deep breath. ?I?ve got a few things to update you on.?

"Let?s hear it,? Mara said briskly.

"As in, readying for war??

Adi nodded. ?Yes,? she said. Mara couldn?t read her expression well, nor read her in the Force, but she instinctively sensed some kind of regret in the single word.

"So the treaty . . .?

"Maybe to soften us ? get more spies in through open lines,? Adi suggested. ?Regardless, we?ve decided to take some action. You won?t be directly involved in any spying, but you?ll be covering for some operatives. You won?t know who, however, for safety?s sake.?

Mara nodded. Logical. ?We?ll follow the letter of the treaty, just as he is,? she said with a slightly wicked smile.

Their talk continued on some time after that, going into details and specifics. As the talk continued, Mara felt herself become angry at someone besides herself ? Skywalker. He went on and on about his good intentions, about how he had already proved himself in doing the treaty at all. She had almost bought it, and the galaxy was buying it. It was infuriating.

Adi finished with a less than professional goodbye, making Mara smile. Adi was always the one to give her these updates and her orders. It was a connection they cherished ? they could, of course, speak any time they wanted to, but this was the only time they could talk without being overheard by Skywalker?s spies. The hologram finally winked out, and Mara was alone again. With her thoughts and frustrations, as it were.

Skywalker was a lying bastard after all. Good intentions, her ass.

The laws of the Empire changed with each new reigning Emperor. Palpatine created many new laws, including slavery and sedition laws. Vader was noted for completely excising the slavery laws and even doing away with conscripted labor and indenture contracts outside of the military. Emperor Skywalker was known for many other things, including forming a more democratic process in his laws, though much power still remained with him ? most of the laws he imposed had to do with freedom of speech.

---Annals of the Empire, Vol. III.

The military courtroom was unsurprisingly austere. It was fairly simply made, with four walls, a place for the defendant and a place for the prosecution. A few seats ? very few, as this was a military court ? were set behind that for observers. It was all done in stark tones of white and gray.

The defendants ? the Vaderians who had tried to bomb the Palace ? sat huddled together miserably. Their leaders were gone, mysteriously dead, and they would soon be convicted and executed. For all of that, though, they shot the military panel looks of distaste and defiance.

Mara watched the trial from above. The court had a high ceiling, but until the other day, Mara had not realized that it was done that way for the observation spots just outside of the room, looking in. They were one-way walls. It was rather typical of the Empire, in Mara?s opinion. Not really needed, but there anyway. Mara had discovered it accidentally ? well, maybe not so much of an accident, but it was a surprise ? and had used it ever since to watch proceedings. No doubt Skywalker was aware of it, but he had said nothing.

"You know,? Mara said suddenly, ?I figured you would come here.? She turned slowly, savoring his reaction to her lack of surprise.

Skywalker walked forward to stand beside her, body atilt in a casual, leaning manner, even though there wasn?t anything to lean against in the spare room. He looked down at the trial, an odd smile playing at his lips, and folded his arms. ?Indeed??

"Yes, indeed,? Mara said gravely. ?I thought you would want to see the fruits of your orders for false ? if decidedly convicting ? information.?

Skywalker turned his gaze to her, a flicker of startlement passing over his face, then disappearing just as quickly. ?Ah,? he said with deliberate blandness.

"You strike me as that type of personality,? Mara said, turning away to look down at the courtroom again. ?The gloating type.?

She heard ? felt ? him walk next to her.

When he spoke, his voice was softer, but more easily heard. ?You can think I?m here to gloat if you wish,? he said calmly.

Mara turned her head to look at him, skeptical and suspicious. He gazed down at the courtroom with a thoughtful look, the venom in her words not affecting him at all. She sighed inaudibly. Here they went again. ?So what should I be thinking, in your opinion??

Skywalker blinked and shifted his gaze to hers. ?My opinion has nothing to do with it.?

Mara shot him a glare.

"Tell me, do you ever pause to look at the consequences of your actions?? Skywalker asked. ?This is nothing more than that.?

Mara looked at him in disbelief. ?Do you honestly expect me to believe you?re here out of some sense of obligation? If you were so ? moral, you wouldn?t have done this in the first place. The law is not sacred to you, but a tool for you to use. Don?t bother pretending otherwise; I won?t buy it.?

Skywalker smiled, but his eyes were icy. ?I?m not pretending to be moral,? he said slowly. ?Merely self-aware,? he said with twitch of his lips.

"Self aware of what??

"You know,? Skywalker said, stroking his chin for a moment, ?Palpatine was like that. Didn?t much think of the consequences for his actions, once he had the Empire. He thought he didn?t have to. That was his downfall. It won?t be mine.?

So, then, Mara thought, you?re saying that you are merely trying to be more calculating than Palpatine . . . smarter. Why do you always have to come off as a Sith?

That?s the question.

"Did you have a happy childhood?? Mara asked suddenly.


"It?s a fairly normal question,? Mara said reasonably, then paused. ?Well, sort of normal. Did you??

Skywalker turned to face her fully, an expression of befuddlement on his face. ?Why??

Mara didn?t meet his eyes, instead looking down at the courtroom, where one of the Vaderians was protesting something vigorously. ?I didn?t. Not really ? certainly not in the sense most tend to think of happy. I lived on the streets, which is more about survival than living. Then . . . then Adi found me,? she said softly, letting a smile touch her lips. ?I fought her so hard, but she was always there for me after that.? She focused on Skywalker again. ?I hated her sometimes, because she was so cruel, but she wanted me to live more than anything. Through all those years of staying undercover, her whole goal in teaching me was one thing . . . so that I could live.?

Skywalker looked at her steadily, face blank.

"I think it didn?t really matter to her ? Light or Darkness. She just wanted me to live. In those times, that was all she had to hold onto. That?s why the Jedi never let her on another long-term mission again . . . because they saw that.?

Mara took a half-step closer to Skywalker. ?I wonder . . . did you hate your father?? she murmured.

A flash of pain passed over in Skywalker?s eyes, but it disappeared almost instantly. She saw calculation there, but also uncertainty. In that mere instant, he was judging how best to respond to get the emotional result he wanted out of her. ?It doesn?t matter,? he said coolly.

Got you, Mara thought. Skywalker was constantly toeing a line with her, between making her feel sympathy for him and making her hate him. His noncommittal response was the best of both worlds, he probably thought ? it didn?t make her feel sympathy for him or truly dislike him. Why, however, did he feel the need to do that with her constantly? She knew now that the whole conversation in the garden had been a slip on his part; he had gotten too much sympathy from her, and had to correct that fact, which he had done by nearly attacking her.

He was trying to make himself ambiguous. But who was he, really? The one she sympathized with, or the one she didn?t? Which was real, and which was the fake?

And why?

"What will happen to them?? Mara asked, abruptly changing the subject and gesturing loosely at the Vaderians.

"They will be found guilty and executed,? Skywalker said simply.

How casually you view their lives,Mara thought. ?Why didn?t you just let your men find out what they could, and use that? Why didn?t you go by the law? And then there?s even this . . . farce of a military trial.?

Skywalker glanced at her. ?What would you have me do?? he challenged. ?Tell me, how much do you know of their beliefs??

"Little, I imagine,? Skywalker said dismissively. ?Then consider what would have happened had I acted as you suggest ? there would have been years of discovery and trials little more than public circuses. I assume you have seen what happens when public image controls how things are done. The rule of the mob.?

"So you don?t trust your people at all, is that it?? Mara said, folding her arms.

"The people will follow what they believe their peers will,? Skywalker replied matter-of-factly. ?It?s a simple game of follow the leader, but they can?t figure out who the leader is unless they are given one.?

"Well, that?s so much better; you consider them idiots.?

"No,? Skywalker said with a slow smile. ?Not in the sense you mean. As a whole, yes; as individuals, no. It?s really a question of education. They aren?t ready for democracy as you know it. They don?t have the necessary traits.?

"Then how ??

"Does the New Republic flourish?? Skywalker finished with a wry smile. ?Your Republic is not representative of all peoples, as much as it likes to think so. And even you fail in some ways.?

Mara resisted the urge to put her head in her hands. On one hand, Skywalker was supporting the notion of his own absolute power; in the other, he supported the notion of democracy, even admitting that it was better. Admitting, almost, that the Republic was better than the Empire. While at the same time refusing to have democracy . . . Force, she was getting a headache.

"The Vaderians are essentially amoral optimists,? Skywalker said, getting back to where they were in the beginning of the conversation. ?You fail to see that because you think of them as the victim. Simply because they are not getting your version of fairness and justice does not mean they are less evil than they are. It?s a tendency of you and your people, to automatically believe whoever is against the Empire are themselves good. You should know better.? He paused. ?They want the Empire my father ruled back. They see through . . . how do you say, a tinted past? But they will do anything to get what they want; the end justifies the means.? He halted momentarily, as if waiting for a response from her.

"I?m listening,? Mara said warily. Skywalker was trying to manipulate her ? but once manipulation was realized, it lost its power. She wondered if she would be able to see through what he was really trying to get her to do in this conversation. And what better way to do that than to listen? And it might actually throw him off-balance for once.

"If I had not had my people act quickly to arrest and convict them, I can tell you with a good amount of certainty what would have happened. The attacks would have escalated, but they would have learned and gotten better. More people would have died; hard to say how many, but a lot of people gather in my courtyards for various reasons every day, and not all of them to demonstrate against or for me.?

Mara looked down at the helpless Vaderians.

"They would have become more public ? as many supporters as they lost by their actions, they would gain more believers. Such is the nature of things ? people readily believe because they want to believe. And they don?t reason, don?t think things through as they should. The media would have had a hell of a time getting the story, and pushing it for all it was worth, adding to the chaos. Along the way rumors of my father would no doubt rise ? suspicions over his death, my ascension. There would be political backlash, probably severe enough that it would damage your cause as much as mine.?

Mara turned away from the Vaderians, meeting Skywalker?s calm blue eyes. ?So you acted to avoid all that.?


"It doesn?t make it any less immoral,? Mara said softly. ?You are still twisting things for your best advantage.?

Skywalker actually smiled ? a small smile, but there nevertheless. ?Ask your Mon Mothma if she does the same thing. Or Master Yoda. Most rulers believe in the rightness of their actions to some degree ? those who do not are rare, and more remembered for that fact.?

"Like Palpatine??

Skywalker nodded. ?Yes. Like him.?

"Do you think you?re doing the right thing? In . . . the decisions you make, where you lead the Empire?? You are not Master Yoda or Mon Mothma, for at least they admit to higher ethics than that of convenience, or the end result, she thought. But do you honestly believe you are doing the right thing? And are you?

Skywalker closed his eyes briefly. ?Often my benefit and the Empire?s benefit are one and the same. The Empire prospers; so do I.?

"And when they don?t coincide??

Skywalker?s gaze was steady on Mara?s, but she didn?t feel any need to drop her eyes. There was no challenge in that look, but a simple meeting. ?Can you accept that this ?? he gestured at the Vaderians ? ?will not change?? he asked, dodging the question.

Mara felt both saddened and determined; now was an important moment. She sensed that clearly within the Force. ?Do you feel it?? she murmured, speaking of the wavefront of a tumultuous future in the Force.

"Now is the balance,? Skywalker said harshly, startling her. She looked up at him, quickly. ?What you decide, Lady Jade, decides if this treaty works. In this, both the Empire and the New Republic will be held in sway by your actions.?

Mara took a deep, steadying breath, sensing in his words an abrupt dropping of pretense and manipulation ? for the moment. ?I think,? she said, finally feeling the power in Skywalker?s gaze, ?that in this case, rightness and benefit coincide.? You may be using this treaty, but so shall we, she thought. And I will find out what your true intention is . . . how many other things have you manipulated us into believing and doing? I will work to make the Senate believe in this treaty, and I will work to get out of it all that we can. But I must also accept, partly, your plans and ideas. She sighed. As distasteful or appealing as they may be. Or as false . . . or true.

Skywalker nodded shortly. ?That?s enough.?

It seemed to answer her thoughts as well as her words, even as she knew it didn?t. In that moment, she wondered anew, in a fresh sort of paranoia, how much Skywalker knew, and how much of history he was planning. Had he even planned their knowledge of Kearek? It was enough ? but enough for how long? He didn?t intend for this treaty to hold together; Kearek guaranteed that. But she doubted now if Kearek was what it seemed to be. In her mind, she could see what her eyes saw, but overlaid upon that was plans within plans, some too ghostly to as yet see.

Skywalker was the key to it all. If she could figure him out . . . She had time. Four months left until she would leave, to return occasionally on matters of the treaty and their travesty of marriage, and until he revealed his final plans concerning the treaty and the New Republic. Kearek. All of it.

He had slipped at least once.

He would do it again.

Mara said nothing and did nothing when Skywalker finally turned his back on her and left. Instead, she kept gazing down at the Vaderians, helplessly fighting against something she doubted they even comprehended. They were pawns in a little game of their own; a shadow of a much bigger game on much higher stakes. How little you know, Mara thought with no feeling, of what greatness and smallness you are.

Family remains culturally important in the Empire, despite many years of Imperial propaganda under Palpatine?s rule that suggested training schools ? with Imperial curricula and doctrine ? would be more efficient. Emperor Vader has never actively undone any of Palpatine?s work, but he does not appear to share Palpatine?s opinions regarding the importance of family, and the effect of family upon society.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. II.

The hologram winked out and Mara let herself fall the short distance to the refresher wall. Her head hit the tile with a dull thunk and she exhaled forcefully. She sat on the floor, facing the doorway and staring ahead at where the hologram had been.

She needed to speak to Skywalker. What Adi had told her had to be acted upon as soon as possible. Mara thought it interesting, though, that Adi had chosen this way ? through their untraceable way of communicating ? to give her the news. She had a few ideas about what to do, and Adi had given her a few suggestions, as well. It would also appear that the NR wanted Skywalker to know that they had ways in and out of the Palace that he wasn?t aware of, along with having Mara deal with this situation. Because his lack of knowledge about how Mara received the information would definitely tell him that. Of course, Adi had mentioned nothing, but it wasn?t necessary. Any knowledge that Mara might be given may in fact be detrimental to whatever the plan was. Mara would act as they expected her to act, and would have to trust that they knew the rest ? and that they knew what they were doing.

At least she knew Skywalker wouldn?t react or comment on the intelligence aspect. However, given their past conversations, he would probably succeed in taking her by surprise and totally confusing her view of reality. He had a knack for it, just like whoever was following her within the Palace had a knack for keeping out of sight.

Skywalker, Mara mused, didn?t really look like a Sith. His honest features begged one to trust him, and his calm demeanor said that he was a reasonable, sensible individual. It was difficult to overlay that image with the one she knew to be true. Or believed to be true. More and more she felt that those glimpses of emotion were, in fact, very real.

Why did he have to look so damn appealing? And moreover, there were those persistent hints ? that the Force begged her to pay attention to ? which simply didn?t fit. Half the time she was convinced the cold, menacing Sith Lord was Skywalker?s true self, and the other half of the time she doubted that he was one at all. Were the moments of vulnerability manipulation or truth? And did it matter? The treaty was not defined by Skywalker?s personality, but by what he chose to present as his personality.

She had taken him off guard before. Those times were mostly preceded by those moments of seeming weakness; perhaps there was a connection there she could use to her advantage. It was as if he was more capable of handling her anger than her compassion or understanding. Either that, or her compassion and understanding weren?t part of the plan.

With a heartfelt sigh, Mara rose. She slipped into the already running shower, getting clean and composed while contemplating strategies. Then she dressed and looked at herself in the mirror. Her skin was freshly flushed from the shower, making her green eyes appear all the more brilliant. She drew one hand down the side of her face, feeling the softness of her skin.

"Act like a Jedi,? she said sternly to her reflection. ?Or at least look like one.?

Leia Organa was a beautiful woman. Her face had a rather sweet appearance, with warm brown eyes and smooth, unblemished skin that shone. Her hair was pulled back from her face into an elaborate braid pulled into loops and she wore her white Senatorial dress.

For all of that formality, she laughed as her father, Bail Organa, embraced her, easily picking her up and whirling her in a circle. The same happiness that radiated from his daughter showed clearly on his face. He, too, was dressed formally for the occasion ? this first meeting between the two in a long time.

Luke watched it from a distance. Both Organas were meeting in one of the Imperial Palace?s many courtyards. The gardens overflowed with flowers and stunning greenery, but none of it impeded Luke?s view, though it screened him from being seen. He stood on a large, ivory stone balcony up above the sprawling courtyard, the unrelenting black he wore making him a dark spot in fields of white and green.

"What is it, my lord?? Kejal questioned, stepping forward beside Luke. As always, his whole appearance was understated. He faded into the background even here.

Luke smiled, knowing he had given little to tell Kejal that something was bothering him. The man watched his old charge carefully, no doubt about that. He wondered briefly if anyone could have read that he was bothered ? and firmly repressed the mental image of the unpredictable Mara Jade. ?They look happy,? he commented.

"I have no doubt they are,? Kejal said softly. ?Does it bother you to view the New Republic in such a sympathetic light?? he guessed.

Luke laughed. ?No,? he replied, knowing that the guess was more likely a prod than what Kejal really thought. ?I?ve known for a long time that usually one?s enemy is not so black and white as one would wish.? He sighed. ?Not to mention other things.?


"She?s Force-sensitive,? Luke interjected quietly. ?Leia Organa. Not at all trained, and she uses her ability passively, if at all.?

Kejal said nothing for a moment, and Luke knew he was busily processing this new fact.

"I think that?s why Bail was so worried about her coming here, to Coruscant,? Luke added, glancing at Kejal.

Kejal frowned. ?He feared you would try to use her, or perhaps kill her??

"Maybe he thought I would think her a threat regardless of her untrained status,? he said with a shrug. ?I don?t, of course. I would worry more over her political leanings. But it makes me curious as to what the Jedi are up to, as they must have known she has Force ability. Why did they leave her here, in the Empire? I know the war separated many Rebels from their families, but the Jedi could probably have made a successful attempt at getting her out. Why would they fear my attention to her Force-sensitivity so much??

Kejal didn?t truly reply, knowing it to be a rhetorical question. ?Perhaps it doesn?t matter at this point, my lord,? Kejal ventured. ?And they will be carefully watched during the whole visit.?

Luke nodded. ?Perhaps.?

He turned to look at the Organas again. Bail had his arm around his daughter, and she was leaning into the touch, smiling. They were oblivious to being watched, in this moment putting aside political worries or aspirations that would normally dominate during any visit to the Imperial Palace.

As he watched the paternal affection, he felt a wave of sadness come over him, oddly powerful and unusual in it coming at all. He let his shoulders slump and leaned against the rail of the balcony. Allowing himself a moment of melancholy - weakness. He felt drained from the cycle of nightmares, and everything was just so much more of an effort. He closed his eyes, remembering his own father.

He would never forget that moment when his father died; when he felt his father pass on into the Force. Darth Vader had been serene, accepting at the last what was happening to him. Both had been indifferent to their harshly sterile surroundings. His father hadn?t even cared to be somewhere nicer in his last moments ? he told Luke that being with his son was enough, his blue eyes twinkling.

Luke had felt some relief, even in his grief, that his father had not died as a Sith would, fighting and enraged, but peacefully.

He was pulled out of his thoughts by Kejal?s touch. His old teacher had put his hand on the side of Luke?s face, and then he carefully smoothed Luke?s hair back. ?He was glad, you know,? Kejal murmured. ?You changed his life, and for the better.?

Luke smiled faintly.

Kejal let his hand drop.

"If he had waited . . .? Luke began.

"If he had waited until you were older, more able to help him defeat Palpatine, in all likelihood he still would have been injured severely enough to never fully heal ? and you would be far, far worse off, something he would never have wanted,? Kejal said firmly.

Luke nodded, knowing it was true, but fact and emotion ? in these moments of regret ? were not often cooperative with one another.

Kejal watched Luke for a moment longer, then spoke. ?There?s more recent data on the New Republic. We think they have found Kearek.?

Luke exhaled. ?I?ll want to see the details.?

"They?re waiting for you in your office,? Kejal assured him. ?Lady Jade has also requested to see you.?

Luke nodded curtly. ?Send her here.?

Kejal bowed his head.

"Thank you,? Luke said after a moment, carefully meeting Kejal?s eyes.

Kejal smiled, an uncommon expression on his face, and with a slight bow and no more words, he left Luke alone.

When Luke finally turned his eyes back towards where the Organas had been, they were sitting on a garden bench, holding hands and talking intensely, the joy still suffused in their faces. Bail said something, and his daughter laughed.

"Skywalker?? Jade?s voice came with no warning, smooth as velvet, but Luke wasn?t surprised by her presence. While she had given no noise to indicate her presence, he could feel her fierce light in the Force. Slowly, carefully, even as he turned to face Jade, he shut off that part of his senses, that he had used when he had originally noted something odd about Leia Organa ? and therefore discovered her Force-sensitivity. Being open in such a way could lead to vulnerability, a better chance of Jade being able to read him.

Jade, oddly enough, was dressed full out as a Jedi. Luke wondered if that was deliberate. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, though, and her expression calm, not hostile.

"You wished to speak with me?? Luke asked, watching her. It was certainly possible that she had come to question him about the executions of the Vaderians and their quick descent from the public eye, but he wondered if she was really foolish enough to go after that argument at this point.

"Yes,? Jade said with a slight nod, stepping forward to stand by Luke, who hadn?t moved from his position near the rail.

It suddenly occurred to Luke that he could test Jade, and see if she reacted to him watching the Organas. He deliberately turned away from Jade, looking down at the gardens ? not at the Organas, but elsewhere.

"There?s been an incident,? Jade said smoothly. ?I don?t think your people have heard about it yet.?

"What kind of incident?? Luke asked warily, stifling a sense of alarm. He faced her, the plan to make her eyes wander to the Organas immediately being given less importance. It clearly had something to do with the treaty; only on something like that would Jade go to him in this more professional manner. And since this would be the first such incident, it would have to be handled carefully by both sides. This would, in a sense, be the first true test of Jade?s ability to hold the treaty together with Luke.

"It was concerning a trade in the Outer Rim. One of the New Republic traders got accused of cutting corners and stealing, and they shot right back at your people with accusations of fraud, among other less business related matters, such as species racism. A fight broke out, and two people are dead. The media hasn?t gotten a hold of it yet, but we expect they will fairly soon.? Her explanation was concise and clear, as expected.

"I see,? Luke said, thinking. Obviously she had heard about it before him because the Outer Rim was closer to New Republic space ? it might have even been on the edge of their space. News still took time to travel, especially in the Empire. Even a decade of his rule hadn?t changed that. The first spot of trouble, and it a particularly nasty one at that ? dealing with precisely the issues that made Imperials distrust the New Republic, and New Republic citizens hate the Empire. ?I?ll have a statement released before the media gets a hold ? perhaps that will limit any repercussions. It occurred in Imperial space??

"Yes,? Jade said with a nod, grimacing slightly. Though it really didn?t matter ? any criminal proceeding was bad news, no matter where it happened. ?We plan on releasing a statement as well. It was Imperials that were killed, so to avoid any question of . . . unfairness, we have a suggestion to make.?

Luke didn?t fail to note the repeated usage of ?we?. ?Yes??

"Let Andar Kel take the case for the prosecution.?

Luke raised his eyebrows. Let a New Republic citizen prosecute in Imperial courts? Granted, Andar Kel had been a famous lawyer in the Empire before defecting, but in a sense, that made it worse. But it seemed like a reasonable compromise ? at least on the first case like this, where appearances were most important.

"It will reassure the Republic of fairness,? Jade explained, ?and given that the case is clear and nothing is in dispute, the Imperials will be satisfied when the defendants are convicted.?

Luke noted that she didn?t refer to either the Republic or the Empire as ?us? in that case. ?Very well. I agree.?

Jade looked surprised, then relieved. ?Thank you,? she murmured.

Surprised by his easy acquiescence, no doubt. She would soon learn that he wasn?t stubborn to save face, or what one might perceive as such a situation. They would be working together beyond the six months she was staying on Imperial Center. She had given a workable solution; that was all that mattered.

That was convenient, Luke thought, joining her to look down at the gardens ? but he carefully kept himself aware of her. Her sense in the Force, and her physical presence. As such, he felt it when she stiffened, and a quick glance confirmed what his other senses told him: she had found Leia Organa. Almost immediately, she relaxed, returning to her former state of calm. It was barely a hitch in smooth waters, but it was nevertheless there.

"I?ve thought on our discussion about the Force ? and the Jedi,? Jade began quietly. She glanced at him, quickly returning her eyes to the sprawling gardens. ?You gave me a lot to think on.?

Very vague. ?I enjoyed our discussion,? Luke said, showing no hint of the wariness he felt.

I don?t think you did, actually,? Jade said, mouth quirking in a dryly-amused smile. ?I think that you took a misstep, and you tried to correct it by . . . showing me your more aggressive nature.?

Luke raised his eyebrows. ?You may believe that if you wish,? he said mildly.

Jade reacted slightly to his condescending tone. ?If I wish?? she muttered with a short glare. ?Well, I do,? she informed him coolly.

Luke let himself smile. Provoking her and then appearing to want her trust ? it kept her on the knife-edge balance that he wanted. That he needed for this to work. ?What is it that you wish to ask, Lady Jade??

"Are you a Sith?? Jade asked bluntly, lips firm and eyes steady on him.

"Do you think I am?? Luke said, letting his smile transform into a smirk.

Instead of her anger increasing, though, Jade looked at him for a long, drawn out moment ? Luke felt mentally breathless. Something was happening behind those brilliant eyes, and it was giving Luke an uneasy feeling. Then the fury he had felt rising within her fizzled and died. She smiled, and there was a glint of triumph in her eyes.

"No, actually,? she said, calm returning like a sudden, smothering blanket.

Luke let himself feel a slither of alarm. ?You are unwise in this matter, Lady Jade.?

"Actually,? Jade said, relaxing against the railing, a small smile on her lips, ?I think I?m finally wising up.?

Luke said nothing. This was unexpected; unpredicted. Such things always happened, but this had more import than the small surprises she had given him before. He sensed a complete mutation in her view of him, and considering he used to have her right where he wanted her . . . it probably wasn?t a good thing.

Jade was looking at him steadily, her head turned slightly to meet his eyes even as her body faced the gardens. It was a vulnerable position, but Luke sensed nothing of vulnerability in her. ?I wonder what made you resist being a Sith Lord,? she said quietly. ?Your father? Or was it you who changed him? I?ve heard rumors that Vader didn?t raise you entirely. What were you, then? An innocent child?? Her eyes held true sadness; he sensed it.

He had to act to correct this. ?We all get over our innocence, don?t we?? he said with a carefully cold and calculating expression.

Jade cocked her head. ?But ? do we choose, then, to be a good person or a bad person??

"Good and bad?? Luke said scornfully. ?Do you view things so childishly?? he snapped, hoping to prod her sense of pride of her understanding.

"Is it not better to view things with both the innocence of a child and the cynicism of an adult, rather than one or the other?? Jade said sweetly. ?People have shades of gray, is that not what you said? But there is also black and white, for there to be gray.?

When had she gained control of the conversation?

Jade wasn?t done. ?You know what I think?? she said, turning herself around so that she faced in the opposite direction, her arms folded, leaning against the white rail. ?I think you had too much of the light in you to be able to be what . . . Palpatine, your father, meant you to be. And not enough darkness to endure it.?

Jade nodded slowly, a new caution in her face. ?Perhaps. But I think,? she said, her voice softening, ?I may see something that you do not wish me to see.?

Luke acknowledged the carefully worded point with a slight nod, and stared at Jade for a long moment. She wasn?t totally in control ? the wariness in her eyes and the slightly more than alert tenseness to her body indicated that. She had completely changed his profile of her in the past few minutes, but he could adapt. She was not invulnerable, not beyond manipulation, even still.

"What do you know of my father, Lady Jade?? he asked casually, shifting his body language from focused to relaxed.

Jade tensed up more, then consciously loosened the muscles in her body. ?What every Jedi does,? she said quietly.

Luke took a step up to her, knowing she wouldn?t back away. He let his eyes linger over her face, her hair, and her neck. ?Did you ever wonder how he hid his darkness from the best of the Jedi??

Luke smiled. ?I am my father?s son.?

Jade didn?t speak, catching the warning and the note to correct her view of him. He doubted she would take it fully, but it might be enough. She had to see him as a possible threat, as a danger to herself and to the New Republic. He was fairly certain now she wouldn?t try to break the treaty over anything that happened between them, but her knowledge and opinions still affected how the Republic would react to him, and that was important.

After a period of long, tense silence, Luke started to walk away. As he reached the hall, Jade spoke.

"And are you your mother?s son as well??

Luke didn?t let himself freeze or otherwise react to the mention of his mother. He hadn?t known her, regardless ? he only knew of her, and thought of her as only an orphaned child can think of a mother: a dream, and nothing more. He kept walking.

He heard Jade?s sigh fading into the quiet.

"Wars are not over until all the combatants are dead.?

--- Emperor Darth Vader, Excerpt from Annual Imperial State Speech, Annals of the Empire, Vol. II.

Mara had been initially surprised by Skywalker?s office. It was huge, as she had expected, but there reality veered off from her expectations. The high ceilings? impact was muted by the soft light, and the furniture of the room was simple and unostentatious. Not to mention actually comfortable. Skywalker?s desk was made of beautiful mahogany wood, but it was littered with documents and datapads in a display of sheer disorganization. She had a feeling this was where Skywalker really worked, not where he normally greeted visitors or allies.

She carefully lowered herself into one of the four comfortable chairs set in front of Skywalker?s desk. She smoothed her ivory colored dress over her legs and leaned back to wait. The dress had been one of many of the things Mara had simply been given when she started living in the Palace ? she had a huge wardrobe now, not to mention her own sparring room in her wing, jewelry, and her own staff. Not that she used her staff, particularly, except to organize anything having to do with her Imperial duties.

Skywalker didn?t seem to expect anything from all the gifts ? they were hers to do with as she pleased, and use as she saw fit. At first, Mara had thought them to be a foolish attempt at awing her, but she soon realized Skywalker giving it all to her was merely practical; she used everything to some degree. Skywalker always endeavored to be practical, really, which was another reason the treaty was so baffling.

Mara sighed after a few minutes and closed her eyes, folding her hands in her lap. The material of the dress felt silky against her skin and where it fell off her shoulders, it hardly felt like she was wearing anything. It was one of the more light and airy things she had, and she had worn it deliberately.

She opened her eyes when Skywalker walked in. He looked as casual as her, and she thought with some humor that they were both too aware of appearances. Mara had scorned it in their first meeting, but she had eventually found it useful to use appearances to manipulate people?s perceptions of her.

Instead of sitting behind the desk, he sat across from her in one of the other chairs. He had a datapad in his hand that one of the servants had handed him when he entered. He glanced at it, then looked at her, as calm as ever. ?I hope you?re well, Lady Jade.?

"I am,? Mara said with a slight smile. ?And if you weren?t well, you wouldn?t tell me, so you?ll forgive me if I don?t bother to ask.?

Skywalker was startled into a smile. ?Very well,? he murmured. ?I understand that issues are rising from the Vaderian trial?? he asked more clearly.

Mara nodded, stifling a sense of annoyance. She didn?t like it either, of course, but the Republic Senate was making a bit of a stink over it, and she was of the opinion that they had bigger things to deal with. ?Yes,? she confirmed, slipping into a more professional state of mind, as they both did in these meetings. ?I?ve managed to keep some of it from the public?s awareness already. It?s not making headlines, at any rate. But several Senators are planning on trying to incite public outrage in an attempt at getting a better trade agreement between us and one of your main food suppliers, Algnor.?

Skywalker nodded, processing the information. His spies were good, but not that good. Normally Mara would have left this kind of issue to the Senators and the Algnorans to duke out, but things were still too new and untested. They could not be left to chance. To all appearances, the treaty had to go as smoothly as cream for the first few years; tensions and biases were still too strong from the rebellion ? the war ? on both sides.

Mara had come up with a solution, but she didn?t know if Skywalker would buy it. If not, they could work something out, but this would be easiest. ?I was thinking you could preclude the whole thing by offering better trade agreements.?

Skywalker raised an eyebrow, and Mara knew ? for once ? what he was thinking. That would be uncommonly conciliatory and even submissive of the Empire, and she doubted he wanted to give that impression any more than that the Empire was full of plotted trials. Finally, he shook his head. ?No, I won?t do that.?

"Then. . . ?? Mara asked, knowing he would try to come up with a compromise.

"Perhaps we could offer to open trade negotiations,? he suggested. ?And you could have a talk with those Senators.?

"Perhaps,? Mara said. She bit her lip lightly, thinking. One of the main problems of the New Republic was food production; it had been very sparse in the first few years when they tried to get crops up and running on new and strange worlds. It still was a bit of an issue. ?As long as trade continues while the negotiations occur.?

Skywalker hesitated. ?Very well.?

"Agreed, then,? Mara said briskly. Politics. She still hated politics, even though Skywalker made things easier on her by not hiding everything behind compliments and flowery words made of slime. But this was, after all, her role in the treaty. She met Skywalker?s startling blue eyes, and then continued easily, ?I?ve heard rumors ? ? spies, naturally ? ?that trouble is brewing over the trial, and that Andar Kel?s life is being threatened.?

Skywalker waved a hand dismissively. ?I?m handling it.?

Mara paused, wondering whether to challenge that. ?I?ll expect it handled, then.?

He bowed his head slightly, lips curving slightly at her words.

The rest of their talk continued similarly. They spoke on all the matters where Imperial and Republic concerns met, and worked out plans of action acceptable to both parties. When they were done, Mara felt tired and heartily sick of the subject. The only indication of how Skywalker felt was that he kept closing his eyes briefly every few minutes.

When the list of things they had to talk about were done, Mara didn?t feel like pursuing anything else, and Skywalker didn?t give her much opportunity.

Despite that, when Mara left Skywalker?s office, her duties weren?t done. Neither, she suspected, were Skywalker?s.

It would be ironic, she mused, if while she was forming lines of travel within the Imperial Palace for Republic spies, he was working with his security officer how to stop them.

Wisps of steam drifted lazily up towards the vaulted ceiling of the large bathroom. Mara?s eyes followed it until it dissipated. Then she looked down, taking an errant, curling strand of hair and putting it behind her ear, and looked over the report Adi had given to her in their last communication; it was an update on Mara?s regional center. Mara would review it and give suggestions to the person who was temporarily in command. Of course, she could only give orders in general overviews ? so many things required immediate attention, which Mara was unable to give while on Coruscant.

Mara shifted her position, adjusting her folded legs so they wouldn?t fall asleep.

Soon enough, she would be back. In two weeks, it would be six months since the signing of the treaty and the marriage. She would leave for Ferwyn, the Republic capital, a few days after the six months were complete and resume her position as one of the regional commanders. She and Skywalker would have to remain in nearly constant contact, of course ? in fact, they had to meet more and more often as time went on and complications from the treaty arose. As Skywalker had no doubt realized, there wouldn?t be time in many of the cases to wait for one or the other to give agreement on an issue. The six-month period served as a training session for them both in what the other side was willing to compromise on, and what they were not.

They were learning each other?s political likes and dislikes. They would have to act on their own in many occasions; this was to ensure that when those decisions were made, they would be agreeable enough that neither side would renege.

Skywalker was professional. When Mara thought about it, he always had been ? it was always her who pushed that boundary and turned any conversation into a personal one. Of course, Skywalker had recently been quite adept at sidestepping many of Mara?s attempts to do just that. It was frustrating. Mara knew she didn?t have much time left to figure Skywalker out, and that was something she desperately wanted. More than that, she felt that it was necessary. Why did he try to manipulate her view of him the way he did? If she could figure out how Skywalker thought, she might be able to find out what he was planning, and if he was planning against the Republic. The lack of Darkness that she felt didn?t mean he wasn?t developing something to attack the Republic, it just meant he wasn?t totally evil. She had to be careful.

With a sigh, Mara decided to leave the reports for later. She locked them securely, so that if anyone tried to break into the files, they would erase and self-destruct. Then she hid them in a small place she had made in the bathroom floor. She got up and stretched, the straining feeling wonderful.

She walked into her bedroom, considering the various possibilities ? relaxing, meditating, getting something to eat. None totally appealed to her, though, and instead she decided to do a combination of things: exercise and meditate. What better way to do that than to take a walk?

Like Skywalker, she had an entire wing of the Imperial Palace to herself. As with the rest of the Palace, the ceilings were high and the halls wide. One thing the Palace had a lot of was space, something normally very rare on a crowded planet like Coruscant. Inside, though, it seemed like a different planet. There were lots of people, yes, but with wide expanses. The dark colors of burgundy and red gave the place a warmer tone, in spite of its great size.

Mara had never thought she would find it soothing to walk the back halls of the Imperial Palace.

A few months after arriving, she discovered she wasn?t the only one with the habit ? Skywalker routinely wandered about, documents in hand and a thoughtful expression on his face.

As such, she wasn?t entirely surprised to find him sitting on the floor in an immaculate but completely empty back hall. His back was up against the wall, which was carpeted to about waist height. His head was back, exposing his neck, and one leg was stretched out in front of him. He didn?t appear to be aware of her, his body relaxed and his mind clearly elsewhere.

Mara wondered briefly why Skywalker wandered around where people could find him, then dismissed the thought to be considered later, and began to walk to Skywalker.

Luke was tired.

The exhaustion was more mental ? emotional ? than physical. He mused that perhaps he should go to one of the training rooms, and hack a battle droid or two to death. The wall was unyielding against his back, and should have been uncomfortable, but instead it was a pleasurable ache. He longed for physical distraction to ease his mind. There was no other comfort for this.

The cycle of nightmares always made him feel jittery. It was impossible to completely put the night terrors behind him; they crept up in subtle ways all through the day, nearly driving him wild by the end of it. It didn?t help that he knew, without a doubt, that he would be getting more nightmares tonight, when he slept. That wouldn?t be long from now, considering his state. His body still craved sleep, even when he knew it would only bring more unrest.

Perhaps that was why he was here. The back halls of the Palace were quiet, empty at this time, and spacious. He didn?t like being in his wing all the time ? it would begin to feel claustrophobic. Thus, he had a habit of wandering the halls. Besides, he was perfectly safe in his own palace, no matter what Kejal?s paranoid mind came up with.


Luke?s eyes snapped open and adrenaline rushed through his body. He didn?t move otherwise, though, for two reasons: one, it would indicate he was startled, and two, it would make any motion after that unexpected.

It was Jade, though. Her green eyes held puzzlement as she looked down at him from a safe distance. Her red hair glinted gold in the dimmed light, and it looked rather damp. She wore a loose sweater with a hole in one shoulder and pants that dragged along the floor. The total effect was one of total comfort and no style. Apparently she hadn?t expected to run into anyone. Luke knew perfectly well she walked the back halls of her wing occasionally, but he hadn?t thought she would go beyond her wing.

It was dangerous that he hadn?t sensed her approach. He was far too distracted. Why was this cycle so different from any of the others? The nightmares hadn?t changed.

Luke kept his expression cool and unaffected, even though in his position on the floor, he could hardly intimidate her. ?What?? he asked simply.

"I, ah . . . wasn?t expecting to see you here,? she said casually, taking a careful step closer.

Careful. Well, that was good, at least. ?I was thinking,? Luke said with as much blandness as he could manage.

She nodded. ?So was I,? she said with a faint smile.

Let?s be friends? he thought cynically. You should try some other angle; this one will fail, he advised mentally. He shot her a noncommittal glance and rose to his feet. Maybe he could retreat with some dignity. ?It?s late,? he said shortly, and began to walk away.

"Skywalker, wait.? He heard Jade quickly walk to him.

He turned. ?Yes??

She placed a gentle hand on his arm; he resisted the urge to snap at her and break her arm. It was terribly tempting, with this attempt at friendliness. The kindness and fake intimacy with the touch were too much. ?May the Force be with you,? she said after a moment?s hesitation. ?Sleep well.?

Luke just looked at her, for a moment stunned by her audacity ? a Jedi, saying that to a Sith Lord? Was this a joke?

Jade lifted an eyebrow for a second, her face impassive, but her eyes full of calm consideration, and then she spun lightly on her heel, walking away. Her back was to him, but he sensed no relaxation or insult in the movement. Her walking away was . . . walking away. Nothing more, nothing less.

No, it hadn?t been a joke. Would she think it ridiculous later? Yes, probably. But in that moment, he realized, she had meant it. Whatever she thought about him ? whether he was in the Darkness or the Light ? she had wished him to know the Light. It was a casual thing, something Jedi said to each other every day. Wishing the other well. Friends, allies, comrades. He doubted she meant it so deeply, but nevertheless, there had been some kind of feeling behind it.

What had she thought of him, sitting alone in the dark? He hadn?t considered what that might mean to her. What did she see in him? What did she believe? Did she truly believe he was, if not in the Light, on the path to it?

Could he consider that compassion real, and not some play, some attempt at manipulation?

Luke started walking to his apartment. It didn?t matter, really. If she had felt anything other than hate or disgust, she was a fool. He fully intended to use her; that was all she was. A single moment of compassion in all that wouldn?t matter, anyway.

He had Kejal. His supporter, his friend, his mentor. He wasn?t alone.

He shouldn?t be thinking about this at all. He would use Jade to convince the Republic he was a threat, but one to be dealt with in the future. That was the driving importance, and that had to be his focus. Were a few stray thoughts from his mission going to happen? Of course. He was a fallible being; but he would be as little of one as possible.

Luke stopped when he realized where he was: the training rooms. He had been heading for his quarters, but perhaps this was better. Droids were not living things, and death wasn?t even an appropriate word concerning them, but destruction was destruction. He would use his emotions, yes, as he always did ? they were a tool as was everything else. He would use these distractions to destroy these meaningless machines, and then they would be gone.

The next time he and Jade had to work together, these irrationalities would not arise.

When Mara slipped under the covers, it was with a sigh of bliss. The smooth shimmersilk of the covers felt wonderful against her heated skin. Fresh from the shower, going to bed ? this bed ? was like falling into a fluffy and silky bit of the Light Side. She would miss this bed when she left.

The exchange with Skywalker had been odd; short, but definitely odd. She had a dim sense that the conversation was more important than she realized, but that didn?t give her much to go on. She really didn?t know what the whole thing had been about. She could have sworn that when Skywalker first looked up and met her eyes, she had seen something dark and desperate in them. In a moment, it was gone, and Skywalker was as collected as ever. He so rarely slipped.

Still, it was that moment and that look in his blue eyes that had kept her from reacting to his cool, abrupt words. She felt a flicker of compassion, yes. Skywalker was like a sea, with everything roiling beneath seemingly calm waves. If he felt a moment of distress, it would harm nothing to give comfort, or to feel the need to do so. She was convinced he wasn?t evil; he was complex. A mystery. The way he had reacted to her kindness ? with such anger ? had confirmed the theory that had arisen in that last, meaningful conversation. He was not Dark, but twisted with it. And he wanted her to think he was perpetually on the edge of Darkness, which perhaps he was, but that didn?t make the situation any less bizarre.

Her thoughts converged in confusing ways, and eventually, Mara sighed, attempting to push them all out. Maybe one day she would figure Skywalker out, but she doubted it. In the meantime, confusing herself wasn?t doing any good. It wasn?t any use thinking about it. Either it would come to her, or it wouldn?t.

With that final, only mildly confident thought, she fell asleep.

It is said that Padm? Amidala died of a broken heart, the tragedies of her past too great to bear and the dismal future too hard to imagine. Whether she truly loved Vader, or merely some aspect of him, is an important question in understanding the motivations and actions of her, Vader, and perhaps even Palpatine.

---Annals of the Empire, Vol. I.

Mara took a long, deep breath when she stepped on Ferwyn. The busy spaceport ? it had always been busy, but that had increased with the treaty ? seemed to rush around the platform, filling her senses with a cacophony of noise and sights, from brightly colored buildings to the muted beauty of the blue sky. The natural wind blew through her hair and rustled her skirt. Despite its importance, Ferwyn was nothing like Coruscant; natural fields and lakes still covered her surface, and it showed in the fresh air currents from the nearby sea. The sense of life ? not a mass of white noise, but smooth and balanced ? was refreshing and shocking at the same time. Mara smiled.

Adi stood at the end of the landing platform, still and silent in her Jedi robes, though a huge smile split her face. She stepped forward lightly and surely, and Mara leapt forward to meet her.

Adi?s expression changed subtly as she took a closer look at Mara, but she embraced her old Padawan without hesitation, firmly and with joy.

Mara laughed. ?I look different, I know,? she admitted, drawing away from her Master. Instead of her normal, total lack of fashion, she was dressed in a sleek, dark style. Her hair was swept away from her face, but fell down her back loosely, over the black silk of her shirt.

"You look like you?ve spent the last six months on Coruscant,? Adi said dryly.

Mara dipped her head in rueful acknowledgement.

Adi held Mara?s hands, looking her over again. Mara waited patiently, a smile lurking at the corners of her lips. Adi?s hands left Mara?s, gracefully rising to her face and gently touching her brow. ?You?re well??

"You know I am, Master,? Mara said simply. ?We?ve spoken often, and besides, you?ve drilled too many lessons into my head. I was without your company, Master, not your wisdom.?

To her surprise, Adi?s smile faded. ?You speak so well,? she said quietly.

Not sure what to say, Mara paused awkwardly. ?I?m still me, Master,? she whispered.

"I don?t think anything could change that,? Adi said with a growing smirk. Then her expression softened into something calmer. ?Come. The Council wishes to speak to you. There are some things that must be done in person.?

Mara nodded.

Adi led the way to the sleek Republic speeder that was waiting nearby.

Mara looked up once more as the New Republic vessel left the port, ascending into space, most likely to go back to the edge of Imperial space where it patrolled, but she didn?t miss the brief, concerned look Adi gave her.

Morning swept into the room gracefully and silently, light touching upon everything with the gentlest kiss. The curtains were pulled aside, and the strong light of dawn, combined with the desert tones, strongly reminded Luke of Tatooine. He lay in bed, the sheets tangled around his legs, his eyes closed but his face turned towards the sun. He knew he should be up, but instead, he was lying there, doing nothing and thinking nothing.

"My lord??

Luke opened his eyes and turned his head. Kejal had entered the room, and was walking over to Luke?s bed. He looked as impeccable as ever, not at all like this was early morning, when normal people were just getting their minds in gear. His face was expressionless, but Luke sensed a private worry.

"Are you going to get up, my lord?? Kejal inquired softly.

Luke looked out the window again. ?I don?t think so,? he said at last. ?Cancel . . . everything.?

He sensed Kejal?s nod. ?Did you sleep??

Luke shook his head. He felt it when Kejal gently sat on the bed, but the older man said nothing. Luke closed his eyes again. A few minutes passed lazily before Luke spoke, aware of Kejal?s silent guarding, and that the man would continue it until Luke did something. ?I think the cycle is over,? Luke ventured.

"That?s good, my lord.? Kejal?s voice was unusually quiet.

"I want to sleep.?

Kejal rose and walked over to the curtains.

"No,? Luke said. ?Leave them open.?

Kejal hesitated, then nodded. ?It was a bad cycle, my lord??

"No worse than usual,? Luke said with a sigh.

"Then why? This should not affect you so deeply, my lord. That it does . . . and continues to do so, is not a good sign for things to come.?

"I don?t know,? Luke said with a half shrug. ?Perhaps I simply became too used to the luxury of not having them in the time between.?

Kejal nodded, but Luke wasn?t sure if he bought it. No matter; Luke didn?t know the true reason anyway. Quick, ghostly thoughts and images of Jade passed through his mind, and he remembered her quiet touch and how after that night when she had wished him to sleep well . . . he had. Did the Jedi know some new technique of how to stop nightmares, or did Jade? He doubted she even knew of his nightmares; very few did. And yet, there were things Darkness could not conquer, if they were of Darkness, and he did not have the knowledge to use the Light.

"Stay with me, Kejal?? No doubt Kejal had other things to do, but for now, he would do this.

"Of course, my lord.?

Luke heard him settle quietly into a chair at the foot of Luke?s bed. Luke wrapped the silky sheets around himself and turned onto his side. He could sense the guards outside his door, as alert as ever, and beyond that he could sense his Palace and the rest of Coruscant. Slowly, gradually, he limited his senses, until there was nothing but the light so reminiscent of his old home, Tatooine, and the memories of those warm and innocent times.

Eventually, he slept, but lingering flashes of his nightmares still remained in the deepest part of his dreams.

The Temple itself was not a great beauty, as the one on Coruscant had been, but it nevertheless had its own character. Mara felt it merely walking down the simple and stark halls to the Council chamber. She felt the weight of the power of the Jedi, and it settled comfortably around her. She knew she didn?t look much like herself, but she was accustomed to acting and reacting a certain way on Coruscant, and whatever misgivings that gave her Master, that understanding was ultimately a good thing.

But it was good to be home.

The Jedi Council was waiting when she and Adi entered. To her surprise, Adi didn?t take a seat, but stood beside her. Master Windu and Yoda sat directly opposite them, and Obi-Wan Kenobi sat calmly to one side, an odd expression of amusement on his weathered face. Windu was shooting him curious glances, and Yoda looked half-asleep, which probably meant he was meditating.

Mara bowed. ?Masters,? she murmured respectfully, meeting their eyes one by one.

Master Windu began. ?It is good to see you well,? he said simply.

"Thank you.?

"We know that you?ll be debriefed by the NRI, and we?ll receive that information, but we wanted to ask some questions that probably aren?t on their list,? Obi-Wan said smoothly. Another curious look from Master Windu.

Mara nodded at Obi-Wan. Of all the Council members, besides Adi, she probably knew him best. He and Siri Tachi, another of Adi?s apprentices, were very close. Suspiciously so, some said, but it was wisely little discussed. Regardless, he had often stopped by during the early years of Mara?s training, and always had a helpful ? and sometimes humorously witty ? comment to give her.

"Did Skywalker ever attempt to turn you?? Windu asked.

Mara could feel their intense regard in the Force. ?No,? she said firmly.

"Touch you with the Force, did he?? Master Yoda asked, finally speaking.

Mara shook her head. ?No.?

Obi-Wan spoke up. ?Do you think Luke is a Sith Lord??

Luke? Mara thought. ?I . . . don?t know,? she said honestly. ?I?ve never sensed any true darkness from him, but he shields very well.?

"But is that your opinion, or what you have sensed?? Obi-Wan asked pointedly. Windu shot a longer glance at Obi-Wan this time.

"One cannot skirt the edge of Darkness,? Windu said repressively.

I sense some infighting over this, Mara thought.

"And once lost, there is no coming back,? Adi added.

"I disagree,? Mara said immediately.

"As do I,? Obi-Wan said on the heels of her words.

"Quiet you will be, Obi-Wan,? Yoda interrupted.

Obi-Wan sat back, but a smile remained on his face.

"Touch the Dark Side you do, and forever it will dominate your destiny,? Yoda said.

"How do you know?? Mara returned, a sliver of tension and worry rising within her at disagreeing with Yoda.

"Teachings from the Sith and Jedi war from a thousand years ago stated and proved it, as did the fall of Anakin Skywalker. He touched the Dark Side, and he remained with it for the rest of his life,? Windu declared. ?Do you doubt the wisdom of the Jedi, Mara? Or . . . perhaps Skywalker infiltrated your thinking rather than your mind.?

"And one is a stepping stone to the other,? Adi said, a heavy warning in her tone. Ah, so this was why Adi stood beside her; she acted as Mara?s Master here, not a member of the Council.

Mara glanced at her. ?Skywalker and I discussed many things, but he spoke in questions. He did not state,? she said with a meaningful look at Windu, ?he asked.?

"A question can be as powerful as actual knowledge,? Obi-Wan pointed out, apparently unable to resist.

Another surprised look from Windu, probably because Obi-Wan was half-agreeing with him this time.

"But does that make Skywalker wrong?? Mara said smoothly, carefully taking any snap from her voice. Well, perhaps that wasn?t the right thing to say.

Windu drew back, but looked at her levelly.

Adi?s gentle touch brought Mara?s gaze away. ?Mara, sometimes influence is not easy to see. And sometimes it may appear correct. But you must trust our knowledge in this.?

Mara wavered. Adi was right, at least partially. But what she and Skywalker had discussed also rang of truth. Could the Light blind? She saw glimmers of Light within Skywalker; she was virtually certain of that now. And yet, the Jedi refused to consider the possibility. It was out of the question. If Darkness could influence a being of Light, why could the opposite not happen?

Perhaps the Light did not blind, but one could willingly blind oneself. What better example of that than the Jedi? The Jedi were good, yes, and their ways right, but were there things beyond what they had considered? Mara did not doubt she was on the right side, and that the Dark Side was wrong and evil, but there was more to consider and contemplate.

Mara lowered her head. ?I will think over what you have said,? she said submissively.

And she would. That she implied she was seriously shaken in her beliefs, well, she couldn?t help what they thought of her.

Adi touched Mara?s shoulder. ?We will help you.? She paused, and added, ?You have done well, don?t doubt that. No Jedi could have stayed there, so close to a Sith, and been unaffected.?

Mara nodded. ?Yes, Master.?

She looked at the Council. Obi-Wan met her eyes with a wary amusement, and not a glint of belief. Windu looked calmer, but displeased. And Yoda looked . . . like Yoda. Inscrutable.

"You will take over your duties as regional commander soon, correct??

Mara nodded. ?Yes, as part of the agreement. And I?m eager to get back into it ? dealing with politics so much was not exactly pleasurable.? Hint that she didn?t enjoy her time on Coruscant, which was true ? she didn?t enjoy most of it.

"Your duties will bring you back there, and back to Skywalker.?

I?m counting on it, Mara thought, having plans of further inquiring on certain subjects with Skywalker. He had confused and irritated her, but in the end, her curiosity was winning out. ?I know. But I?ll have time before I?m needed in manners concerning the treaty.? She smiled at her Master.

Adi smiled back encouragingly.

Windu nodded. ?May the Force be with you,? he said in dismissal after a quick confirming glance at Yoda, apparently considering the matter at least on the way to being resolved.

Mara bowed again, as did Adi. As they turned to leave, Mara chanced a quick look back at Obi-Wan.

He was smiling. Mysteriously, with a thoughtful look in his eyes.

Mara allowed herself to raise an eyebrow, and then left, Adi?s gentle touch leading her on.

How deeply do the emotions and lives of officials affect matters of state? It is impossible to know and impossible to measure, but one can assume that some correlation must exist. If a child cries, and the mother goes to her child to find him hurt by a stranger, will she be more likely to sign a bill for more police officers patrolling the streets the next day?

When one takes this factor into consideration, the history of the Empire becomes much more complex and fascinating. What of the rumors of Vader?s love affair with a Republic loyalist? Emperor Palpatine?s apparent lack of deep emotional connections?

--- Annals of the Empire Vol. I, excerpt from the Second Edition (Unedited; First Edition edited by Imperial Academia).

Erdwin Wel was an extraordinary intelligence officer, but he was rather bland to listen to unless you were interested in and familiar with the subject.

Luke looked at his Intelligence officer steadily, giving the man all the attention the discussion required. Wel laid things out clearly with great ease, and despite his youth, he betrayed no sense of nervousness, not even in the Force. His thinning hair was neat and his dark eyes met Luke?s without flinching.

"They have followed us to Jalnor from Kearek in the past six months,? Wel said. ?From there, they discovered Tern and Ulten; Tern was immediately evacuated, but we let them think that their other spy was not compromised. Since then, their efforts at weapons development have increased significantly, and they appear to be seeking out technology that will lessen the effects of any stoppage of trade,? Wel said matter-of-factly. Luke could see thoughts and ideas flashing in the man?s head even now. It was still rather amazing to Luke that the man was so comfortable in Luke?s office, given how nerve-wracked he had been the first time he had entered the room. Since the ?mysterious? death of his first Intelligence leader, Wel had unexpectedly had to take over.

"I assume you?ve made some headway in stopping those attempts??

"Yes, my lord. But we?ve had to be very cautious, and that has limited our abilities somewhat. We are working around those inefficiencies, however,? Wel assured Luke.

"Good. What of the Palace??

Wel hesitated. ?We have worked in conjunction with the Security Officer ??

"I know that,? Luke interrupted. ?Just give me a summary. Jade gave that warning to us for a reason.?

Wel nodded reluctantly, knowing that Luke was referring to the fact that while Jade had lived in the Palace, she had had ways of communicating with her superiors that Luke?s people could not detect ? and moreover, that Jade had deliberately revealed that to him. Or perhaps it was her superiors that had issued that warning, through Jade. It didn?t matter ultimately.

"We?ve found two spies. No connection to Lady Jade that I can determine, but that means nothing. We?ve also found six listening devices and two sending devices. As you requested, we?ve left a few of them in, but . . .I don?t think we?ve found them all,? Wel admitted. ?However, we?ve been able to ascertain that your wing was never compromised. Everyone who has entry has been confirmed as both loyal and unusable as a tool.?

"That?s something,? Luke said with a sigh.

"We will do better, my lord,? Wel said firmly, determination shining on his face.

Seeing that, Luke knew no further prodding was necessary, and certainly not threats. ?Good,? he said simply. ?You can go.?

Wel rose and bowed, then left.

Luke slumped into his chair and let his head fall back so that all that was in his sight was the arched ceiling. He closed his eyes. The never-ending game with the New Republic was tiring, but necessary. It was something he had been having to forcibly remind himself of late, especially since his security chief?s unexpected death. Frederic Gelnor had served both him and his father well and his loss was a loss. Gelnor had had no specific successor in mind, though plenty of contingency plans.

Moreover, the manner of his death was cause for alarm. He had drowned in his own bath and while it was possible it was an accident, it seemed too convenient. If the New Republic was involved ? or the sole perpetuator ? then an editing of Luke?s plans would be required. He didn?t think the New Republic would go that far, as they loved their morals dearly, but he couldn?t depend on that. It all spoke of the game reaching higher levels.

The business with the spies was going as Luke had planned, however, as was the ?discoveries? of Imperial facilities. The deepening strength of trade was also going as planned, perhaps even a little faster than anticipated, which was a good thing. Considered as a whole, the plan had not been forced to deviate as much as he would have thought, given the saying that no battle plan survives the first strike.

"My lord??

Luke opened his eyes and straightened in his chair. Kejal stood before him, his hands folded neatly and his expression reserved. He looked more watchful than usual, though, something Luke had noticed him doing more often since Jade left and that particularly bad cycle of nightmares. ?Yes?? Luke asked, forcing the weariness from his voice.

"Lady Jade is in orbit. She has informed us that she will remain here for several days to deal with any issues that require her,? Kejal said.

Luke blinked. ?That?s unexpected. Where did she come from??

"Antioch, my lord, where there was a border dispute between the Empire and the Republic. She apparently decided to swing by Coruscant en route to Ferwyn.?

Luke nodded. ?Let me know when she arrives on-planet, and what she does.?

"Of course, my lord,? Kejal said simply, with a slight bow.

Luke waited for a moment, knowing instinctively there was something more. Kejal sighed. ?Spit it out,? Luke advised.

"This is a dangerous ploy, my lord,? Kejal said, probably already knowing the argument was lost, but making the attempt anyway. ?The Republic is massing an incredible force. The longer we wait, the more dangerous they will become.?

"I?m counting on it,? Luke said dryly.

"My lord ??

"I know you doubt what I have seen, Kejal. You?re simply going to have to trust that I know what I?m doing.?

Kejal frowned. ?As always, my lord. But my concern remains; should not contingency plans be made? Not doing so could be dangerous.?

"I?m always playing dangerous games,? Luke said lightly. ?Tell me when Lady Jade requests a meeting,? he repeated, changing the subject and ending the conversation. Contingency plans wouldn?t do any good if this failed. There were no contingency plans for this.

Kejal bowed his head. ?Yes, my lord.?

"Thank you,? Luke added.

Kejal nodded, looking slightly relieved. Luke was listening, just not agreeing. Kejal bowed again and left the office. Luke closed his eyes again. Things had changed since his and Jade?s last talk ? the last true one, not the formal farewell she had gotten when leaving Coruscant for Ferwyn. The one that had unbalanced him, the one he could not afford to repeat.

Luke breathed deeply. He would not repeat it, but he had learned from it.

Adna Gol had a rather unique trait. She was so often like a ghost, disappearing into the background, melding with it in a way that Mara found astonishing. The small, trim woman looked so ordinary, but her mind was incredible. She had an eidetic memory and the intelligence to back all that knowledge up. For all of that, though, her ghostly trait was, oddly enough, still apparent when she was a six inch hologram. Mara had to stop herself from letting her gaze pass over the head of the NRI.

Mara?s office on board her flagship, Vindicator, was a typical military office. It was relatively small ? meetings took place in conference rooms, not offices ? and sparsely decorated, its main feature being the massive desk covered with displays and datapads, most of which were encoded at any given time. Security was high. Mara?s fleet ? most of which she had left behind at a neutral star system before going to Coruscant ? wasn?t doing all that much, beyond normal patrol and following Mara around in her duties as Skywalker?s consort. They still drilled regularly, though, and while most of them didn?t know it, Mara was preparing them for a war everyone believed to be coming.

"Are you listening?? Gol demanded, her pert six-inch form being stretched to its full height.

"Of course,? Mara said. ?I?m just not interrupting for once.?

Gol eyed Mara warily. They had worked together frequently since the treaty seven months before and hadn?t always gotten along that well.

Apparently satisfied, Gol continued. ?Our research is finally starting to pay off. We should have new weapons held in reserve soon, and ready for distribution. Assuming we have the time, within five years we should be ready to take on the Empire. Or so I?m told ? you?ll have to talk to the head of NRF for details, which I?m sure you would understand even if I don?t.?

Mara nodded. NRF was New Republic Forces. They not only had a leader of every department ? navy, ground troops, and so on ? but they also had an overall leader: Admiral Ackbar. He was managing the war effort; Mara didn?t envy him the job. He had to prepare the whole military without letting them know they were being prepared, because if they knew, then it would leak. When dealing with such massive numbers of people, it was inevitable some things would get out.

Gol switched gears without warning. ?I assume you?ve heard of Frederic Gelnor?s death. It provides us with an unprecedented opportunity ? his death was unexpected and he had no clear successor. We have another job for you to do when you land on Coruscant. Skywalker has found a few of our spies and listening devices, though not all. We need you to get Skywalker out of his wing. The rest will be handled.?

Mara raised an eyebrow, then nodded again. ?Very well. For how long??

"An hour will do,? the NRI head said simply.

"What of Ulten?? Mara inquired abruptly. She was aware of most of the things the Republic was involved in to ready for war; it was unavoidable in her position. ?Was your spy tracked down??

"No, not as far as we know. But we think Ulten may be a decoy, unlike Tern. It?s hard to say.? Gol shrugged, expression calmly resigned. Sometimes you never find the answer in the intelligence business.

"Okay,? Mara said with a nod. ?I?ll let you know when Skywalker will be out of his wing. I need to arrange it.?

"Very well. Until then,? Gol said without fanfare, and the hologram disappeared.

It was perfect. Mara could do her duty and get what she wanted at the same time, all by simply asking Skywalker for a talk, one not related to official duties. Skywalker was a puzzle she wanted to figure out and she wanted to . . . understand. How he had not turned to the Dark, even if he had and recovered, and what he was now. Everyone assumed Skywalker was out for war; Mara didn?t think it was so simple. There were better ways of destroying the Republic, and Skywalker had to know that. The New Republic was putting the treaty down to something they simply didn?t know yet, but they were still assuming they knew the destination when they didn?t even know the road.

Nevertheless, everything they knew indicated there was another reason behind the treaty, and that was enough reason to be extremely cautious. Mara would have to tread lightly with Skywalker. He might not be Dark, but what else he was ? well, that was another question.

Decision made, Mara opened a channel outside her office to the bridge. ?Get me Kejal Mauwel on the comm, please.?

It was the room where they had first met. The high floor to ceiling windows were the same, as was the sparse if comfortable furniture. The garden pressed up against the windows, almost like they were on the edge of invasion. Light, cast in soft beams, filtered through the heavy foliage. It was night, but that was nearly a meaningless term on Coruscant, even in the darkest reaches of the Imperial Gardens.

The sole table in the room was tucked in the window corner. Two comfortable wood chairs were placed on opposite sides. A simple meal was set.

It looked, Luke decided, almost like it was romantic. He was hoping the effect would put her off-balance. He wanted to test her, gauge her mental state and discover what was going on in that mind. He wanted to know why she had wanted dinner with him in the first place. He half suspected it was so that she could pick his brain, but he wasn?t sure. Time would tell.

Kejal had arranged the dinner, with some misgivings. Luke had agreed to it; Kejal had thought he should refuse, and had given Luke a plethora of reasons why he should refuse. Luke had listened and then repeated his earlier decision. Kejal had sighed. It was becoming more typical of their interaction as Kejal grew more nervous over the way Luke?s plan was progressing.

Luke walked over to the window that stretched from wall to wall, entirely facing the gardens. Dark and thick leaves pressed against it, growing against the smooth surface. Luke wandered even closer. Pressed in between the leaf and the glass was a tiny insect, lazily wandering around in its territory. He focused on it, letting the simple life of the plant sink its serenity into him even as he felt its mad rush of growth ? ever constant.

A muted footstep made Luke turn, though he had sensed Jade?s impending arrival for some time.

She was dressed beautifully. Her fiery hair was loose but pushed out of her face, and while she wore no jewelry, it didn?t appear necessary. Her smooth skin glowed in the ambient light. The dress she wore didn?t appear to be of Republic make; it was red shimmersilk, something practically unknown in the Republic due to its rarity and the Imperial taxes on it. It was floor-length, but was loose and had a practical air, and managed to appear both elegant and casual.

Yes, definitely from her Imperial wardrobe.

She raised her eyebrow at his regard. ?Yes??

"You look lovely,? Luke replied, the compliment coming easily to his lips, not least because he meant it.

She nodded slowly, her only reaction to the compliment, then walked forward, standing where Luke had been gazing at the leaf. She lightly touched the glass where the insect was. ?It?s amazing, isn?t it??

How did she do that? Luke wondered, knowing she hadn?t seen him by the window; he had moved closer to the center of the room before she entered. ?The Force is a remarkable thing,? he said quietly. He stepped back, and gestured at the table. ?Dinner?? This is your game; start playing, he thought.

Jade acknowledged his tone with a nod and a small smile. She followed him to the table, and once she was seated, Luke sat down as well. Jade eyed her food, then eyed Luke with equal intensity.

It was by silent agreement that they began eating the dish. It was Chad fish, dressed in a few rare spices; not a rarity, but rarely made so well. Luke patiently waited for her to speak, calling upon years of diplomatic experience. Jade was a straightforward person; she would reveal her intentions soon enough. He would let take her the initiative.

She started the conversation suddenly but innocuously. ?I hope my settlement of the border dispute is acceptable,? she said abruptly, expression neutral.

Luke nodded. ?It is,? he said simply.

Jade twirled a piece of food with her fork. ?I?ve missed our talks,? Jade said quietly, a hint of something coolly serene but challenging in her green eyes.

Luke nearly choked. That was definitely unexpected. ?Ah?? he managed in a bland tone.

"Yes,? Jade confirmed, gazing at him calmly. She apparently felt no need to continue, at least at the moment.

Luke knew perfectly well that remaining silent was a common tactic to get the other person talking ? often telling more than they intended to reveal. He had used the technique often enough himself to recognize it. However, perhaps he could let her think he was more off-guard than he really was. ?Our talks where I questioned your beliefs, the Jedi order, and the Republic?? Luke asked calmly, trying to get his wits more firmly about him. He had told himself he would be ready for his next meeting with Jade and she had dashed that idea within minutes. Nevertheless, he was determined that she would not catch him at a vulnerable moment this time.

Luke stared at her in bafflement. What a bizarre thing to comment on. ?Lady Jade ??


"Mara?? Luke repeated stupidly, still struggling to fully find his equilibrium.

Jade nodded. ?Call me Mara. After all, I?ve never called you by any title,? she added matter-of-factly.

Luke decided he was going to have to accept that a considerable amount of his energy was going to go towards him scrambling to get any understanding of Jade. This new tactic was baffling and totally against what Luke had anticipated. He had predicted that she would be more personal, along with talks of business, but this went far beyond that. He felt that Jade had a definite direction she wanted to go in, and he had expected that, but he suddenly realized that direction probably had nothing to do with his position of power, or at any rate, not directly.

She was curious about him. Perhaps even curious about his beliefs, which was even more surprising, considering her position as a Jedi. Their discussions had apparently affected her viewpoint more than he had realized.

That brought a new feeling to Luke, one he couldn?t quite name yet. ?Very well,? he said at last. ?Mara it is.? He deliberately made no mention of his name.

Jade smiled slightly. ?Do you believe a Jedi could go to the Dark Side and then come back?? she asked.

Luke immediately thought of his father, the obvious point of this question. ?I would think that a better question to ask of a Jedi,? Luke pointed out, not wanting to get into a debate about his father, or, at any rate, a discussion about the sort of situation his father had been in.

Jade took another bite of her food, her movements easily graceful. ?The Jedi are pretty convinced it?s impossible. I don?t necessarily agree. Do you remember what you said to me, about Light influencing a being in the Dark?? She paused, sipping her wine as Luke watched. ?Speaking theoretically, if you believe that, wouldn?t you believe it possible??

Luke raised an eyebrow. ?Theoretically? was essentially meaningless in this context, and Jade surely knew that. Perhaps it was her way of distancing them both from the subject of their discussion. ?The two are definitely connected,? he admitted easily, choosing not to be confrontational. He would let her lead the conversation; he would react. It would give her an illusion of control while he gained extra insight into her thought processes.

Jade leaned back, putting her hands in her lap. ?But is the connection strong enough to turn the theoretical Dark Jedi?? Her question seemed rhetorical, so Luke didn?t answer. She continued, eyeing him thoughtfully. ?You don?t think so, do you? But if that?s the case, you aren?t following your thoughts to their inevitable conclusion.?

"I didn?t say that,? Luke said neutrally, making her work for a real response.

"Of course, then there?s the question if there was any Light in the person to begin with,? Jade continued. ?If the person was formerly a Jedi, well, that would make a difference. But if the person wasn?t ? would it matter??

Luke met her gaze evenly. ?I am not a Jedi,? he stated flatly. ?Nor do I think the question of the person?s past is relevant.? He was skipping from confrontational back to their ?hypothetical? situation, as a warning of sorts to address the subject more sensitively.

Jade merely looked at him seriously. ?I think you?re right. I don?t think it would matter if the person was a Jedi ? or in the Light ? once or not.?

"Then there is choice,? Luke pointed out. ?Unless you?re suggesting that Palpatine was redeemable.?

"No,? Jade said thoughtfully, ?he was irredeemable by his own decision.?

The conversation was making Luke uncomfortable. He had a feeling it was heading in a direction he wouldn?t care for. ?Yes,? he agreed cautiously, taking a mental step back, intending to let Jade take over the conversation again. It was difficult, reacting properly to her unusual and unexpected questions, but it was revealing some of Jade?s thoughts. She was evidently very interested in whether he was Dark, and whether the Jedi were actually right about a person being unable to ?recover? from the Dark Side.

Jade said nothing, letting the silence continue, but something in her manner led Luke to believe that she wasn?t trying to get him to talk ? that instead, she was thinking. ?I think the Jedi are wrong,? she said at last, voice soft.

"And how do the Jedi feel about that?? Luke asked with equal quiet. There was something ? something in the Force ? that told him this moment was important. He didn?t understand why, but he trusted that instinct. Jade was instrumental in his plans.

Jade smiled slightly, more of a quirk on the side of her mouth. ?I let them think that I had accepted their point of view.? She gave him a full smile. ?I did learn things from my stay here, you know,? she said, taking another sip of her wine.

Luke was surprised, and he let out a little startled smile. The comment could have been sarcastic or accusatory, but it wasn?t. It was . . . honest. ?We all learn from our experiences,? Luke said, purposely ambiguous; little more than filler conversation, though true nonetheless.

"Yes, we do,? Jade agreed. She paused, her gaze thoughtful. ?I think you?ve learned from yours.?

It was subtle, and the words vague, but Luke caught her meaning through more than her words: she didn?t believe he was Dark, or at least that he wasn?t now. Luke paused, frantically thinking, wishing he had a good response. Jade was still supposed to believe he was capable of evil action, against her and against the Republic. He needed that caution, that belief, for her to react appropriately to ?leaked? intelligence.

And yet . . . Jade was clearly not easily manipulated. Another solution would have to be found. ?Perhaps,? Luke admitted. ?Why the interest??

Jade sat back. ?Because I enjoyed our discussions, even if you were trying to manipulate me into something most of the time.?

Luke was taken aback. Was she telling the truth? ?I ??

"Sometimes,? Jade continued, ?you told me the truth anyway. I sensed that.? She paused, and Luke waited. ?I am . . . trying to look beyond my prejudices.?

Can I do the same? Luke wondered. ?And have an honest talk,? he finished quietly.

"Maybe the Jedi would think it wrong ? oh hell, I?m sure they would,? she said with a flash of dark humor and a spark in her green eyes, ?but I like talking to you, Sith or not.?

Luke smiled briefly. ?I find you exasperating, but interesting,? he said, putting his elbows on the table and leaning forward, meeting Jade?s steady, intense gaze.

She lifted an eyebrow. ?I?d like to talk again. After this.?

He wanted the same thing; this new, amazing thing full of danger and uncertainty, so unlike any of his previous experience with a relationship beyond that of manipulator and manipulation. There had been a simple, powerful bond between him and his father, forged with both pain and love; between him and Kejal there was solidarity. He wanted this, briefly, with desperate strength. He felt his control weaken, and he looked down, nearly overcome. He wanted to take that step, but all his experience and knowledge held him tensely to silence, his body taut with struggle. ?I?d like that,? he whispered, at last.

A smile slowly, quietly spread over Jade?s face, gradual and oddly sweet. ?Then it?s agreed,? she said simply.

Luke looked away for a moment, thinking, nearly trembling in the unexpectedness of his own actions. He still needed certain things from Jade; he couldn?t allow their talk to affect his plans so severely. Jade was waiting patiently for him to speak. ?The New Republic has a good intelligence agency, does it not?? he said at last. He continued, the question rhetorical. ?I wonder if it has heard anything on the rather mysterious death of my Security Officer.? Rather blunt and obvious, but it would do. Some kind of balance had to be maintained; he could be interesting to talk to, perhaps, but no more.

Jade sat back, smile fading and expression becoming more thoughtful. She met his eyes, and he saw understanding in their green depths. She had gotten his message, that regardless of their talks, his position still remained the same, and by extension, so did hers. The plans and struggles between them would not change.

Jade nodded, finally. ?But must we speak of that now? There is time ? and a place ? for that later.?

Luke smiled slightly, accepting that answer. ?All right.? Then this talk would have none of the realities of their situations encroaching. ?So what do we talk about, then?? he asked, suddenly giving over control, nearly an admission of uncertainty. This was all new and strange; yet, it also seemed somehow clean.

Jade considered his words briefly, looking out the window, at the fiercely alive garden. ?How about we talk about the Force,? she said at last. The window was close enough to touch, and she did so, trailing the outline of a leaf pressed against the clear barrier. And Luke suddenly realized . . . she felt it. When she had come into the room, she had sensed the lingering sense of his presence, and she had then known that he had stood there, staring out.

"The Force it is,? Luke said simply, and prepared himself for a thoughtful discussion.

A heavy peace had settled into Luke. He knew it would not last, and roiling uncertainty would return quickly along with a new perspective on his talk with Jade, but it was pleasant. He was lost in thought as he walked back to his quarters, pieces of conversation echoing in his mind. Jade had left for her ship, and they had awkwardly parted, the conversation easy except when it ended. Luke hadn?t spoken of it, but he was sure the agreement between the two of them to talk had been at the forefront of her mind as it had been in his.

A quiet interruption stopped Luke. ?My lord?? Wel asked.

Luke looked at Wel, noting the controlled anger he sensed in the Force. The man stood alert, gaze sharp. ?Yes?? Luke said, accepting Wel?s unanticipated query. Speaking to Luke was generally something one had to arrange.

"There was an attempted intrusion into your wing during your dinner,? Wel said simply. ?It appears to have been carefully timed; we allowed the intrusion to take place, per your orders, and then removed the device.?

Luke paused. ?What was the intent of the device??

"A listening device only, my lord.?

It was clear what had happened; Jade had arranged the dinner with Kejal and offered a specific time. Jade had either arranged the attempted planting of the spy device and distraction, or had arranged the distraction at the orders of her superiors. They were not foolish and had known that any attempt would be quickly discovered if Luke were nearby; it was a side effect, in a sense, of his Force ability. He was constantly aware, and they no doubt knew that.

Luke nodded, seeing Wel waiting for a response, beginning to become nervous. ?Good job,? Luke said, giving the man an encouraging look. ?See to what needs to be done.? Vague, and purposely so; he left it in Wel?s hand, an expression of trust. Most likely Wel would visibly increase security, dissuading any further attempts and warning at the same time. Perhaps the Noghri would continue shadowing her when she was on Coruscant.

Wel smiled. ?Thank you, my lord.?

Luke gave him another brief nod, and Wel bowed deeply, leaving quickly, new energy in his movements.

It weighed like a fact in Luke?s mind that while the dinner itself had been a distraction, none of the conversation within it had been. He knew he should be doubting everything that had occurred, but he did not. He didn?t even find the intrusion attempt disturbing.

Jade was still a New Republic officer and a Jedi Knight, and Luke was still the Emperor. They both knew it and accepted it. Truces would occur when they could, and that was also something they accepted.

The Empire is thorough and unbending in its acquirement of intelligence information. This combined with stringent precaution make its security and intelligence forces formidable, despite the relative ?youth? of the Empire.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. I.

There were many sections of the Imperial Gardens. Among them was a sprawling garden that actually wound along a path, one that rather looked like the garden was slowly and cautiously encroaching on its territory. The plants grew wildly, freely, with little attempt by the gardeners to control it; over the past two years, the plants had made leaps and bounds in growth. Bright green surrounded the two of them, with the occasional dot of an equally bright flower in another color.

"So you?re saying that uncertainty is what drives the mob mentality?? Mara questioned, gazing at Skywalker and ducking out of the way of a huge, hanging leaf.

"In good part,? Skywalker said, eyeing the path before them, confident and yet his words held that slightly neutral edge ? always ready to react and respond in the most advantageous way to win the argument. ?Consider it. The pressure of one?s peers has always been a driving force, most usually noted in youth, but something that exists throughout a person?s lifespan to some degree or another. Combine that with the instinctual thought of safety in numbers ? or rightness in numbers, though they don?t consciously think of it that way ? and a lack of understanding, or thorough understanding, of the situation and you have a powerful force.?

Mara nodded. ?I see what you?re saying, it?s simply that I think one can?t discount free will. Or free will in massive numbers of people,? she said pointedly.

Skywalker nodded. ?Oh, I agree. I just think that?s an extremely rare thing in any large number. And differences, even as individual as they can be, if they aren?t extreme enough, it?s like . . . comparing the splash of a pebble in a pond to a boulder.?

Mara laughed. ?Well, yes.?

Skywalker smiled back. It was that small smile, slightly mysterious, making Mara wonder what other reasons he had for smiling. He seemed like he had reasons for everything so often, it almost seemed silly at times. This was their third private conversation since their agreement and Mara was learning that he had a definite skill for constantly keeping track of everything in a discussion, bringing up points from an hour before and using them, even having seemingly innocuous points that she had agreed with not long before and using them as well. It was a constant, intriguing challenge to talk with Skywalker. Though their subject matter was often serious, they didn?t go into it with that attitude, and it was interesting to see the intelligent playfulness that sometimes appeared, disappearing again like a cold day on Tatooine.

Mara turned her focus at the sparkling pond for a moment. ?You know, we could discuss something besides politics and philosophy.? She looked at Skywalker, catching a moment of thoughtfulness on his face.

"Yes,? Skywalker said slowly. ?But a great many things are fraught with things not so pleasant.?

Mara cracked a grin. ?Politics is pleasant??

"Skywalker. . .?

Skywalker?s voice grew cold. ?I told you before that if you insist upon this, you will find something you do not wish to see.?

Laughter to almost-threat in an instant. It was a strange mix, totally contradictory, and yet with Skywalker it was an intriguing glimpse of something complex. He fascinated her.

Mara stopped walking and faced Skywalker, looking him in the eyes. He was totally calm, as he always was, and as she always was. Neither could afford anything less. ?You fit nearly every definition of a tyrant,? Mara mused, watching his eyes, ?and yet, you seem such a reasonable one.?

Surprise and uncertainty briefly showed in his eyes, but they quickly passed, any hint of his thoughts overridden by a smothering wave of quiet. ?Mara,? he said sharply, for once using her name, as he so rarely did, despite her request.

Too close, then, to what lies between us, she thought. And everything was between them: the Empire and the New Republic. Even more, with things unknown to one side and known to the other. Still, she wanted to ask, and not for the Republic?s sake. Skywalker seemed so simple before she knew him: astute, yet still evil. After their first meeting, she had realized how simplistic such a view of him was.

He had warned her. He did that quite often, never wanting to take that most dangerous step of making things more personal, regardless of the reason for doing so, even as she ran into it blindly and recklessly. He was, in a sense, cautious for her, though she was certain there was more than one motive to that.

Mara sighed and turned away. They started walking again, sometimes nearly bumping into each other because the pathway was so narrow. But the garden was full of wild life, and that was why Skywalker had chosen it. Mara knew that with dead certainty. A lot of things about Skywalker were still a mystery, but she was beginning to know him in some ways. He had a wry sense of humor, usually very understated and subtle, though it usually took something surprising to get a laugh out of him.

"You know, you don?t make starting a conversation very easy,? Mara commented, glancing at Skywalker.

He looked uncomfortable for a moment, then gave her a wry look. ?Yes, I know.?

Mara started to smile. ?I?m very patient for putting up with you.?

"And to think that I never really thought patience was one of your strong suits,? he shot back.

Mara laughed and winced. ?I see my fame has spread,? she said dryly.

"Certain aspects of it, perhaps,? Skywalker agreed. He paused, then almost absentmindedly added, ?From what I understand, your colleagues respect you highly.? He glanced at her quickly, and Mara wondered what her reaction to that was supposed to be.

"I got instant respect for destroying the Death Star,? Mara said after a moment, watching Skywalker. Not a whit of reaction to the mention of the doomed station. Although, it was Palpatine who had insisted it be created, and Vader had continued the project simply to not waste the resources already put into it, his distaste for the project being notorious. By the time Skywalker came to the throne, it was gone. ?I had to prove I deserved it after that. Which I didn?t, a lot of the time,? she added.

Skywalker looked thoughtful. ?Why was it you?? he asked after a moment.

Mara shrugged, sighing. ?Luck, really. I mean, I know what they say about the Force, but while I?m a good pilot and shot, I should never have even been there. I?m not the best, and I used the tracking info of the pilots who went before me.? She smiled briefly. ?Maybe it was the Force that allowed me to make the shot, but the rest of it was the other pilots.?

Skywalker seemed to be considering that response. Looking for false modesty? Mara wasn?t a fool; she knew what she was capable of and what she wasn?t, and a pilot she was not. It was a skill she possessed in some degree, nothing more.

"How did you feel about it?? Skywalker suddenly asked, looking like he was feeling awkward.

Mara was taken aback. Then she breathed deeply. ?One of the first things my Master told me after I returned was how many people were on the station. How many had died.? Mara turned away, feeling uncomfortable herself. ?It was necessary, but a great many lives ? even some good ones ? were lost. I suppose I feel regret.?

Skywalker looked down, an expression of bafflement on his face. It was subtle, most of it showing in his eyes, which were often more expressive than his face, but it was there.

Not at her words, she realized, but that she had spoken them. ?You expected me to shut you out of something so simple?? Mara inquired politely.

Skywalker shot her a fierce look, but said nothing.

"Like you did with me,? Mara concluded. ?It doesn?t . . . compromise security to tell you something like that,? she added.

"But it could be a distraction,? Skywalker pointed out, speaking slowly.

"That?s always a risk, for either you or me. We know what we are,? Mara said.

"Do you really think you can talk to me and still remain objective?? Skywalker asked her, stopping in the path. Mara stopped with him, facing him. ?Still do your duty??

"Why do you care?? Mara quickly retorted. Because you do care, evidently. ?Do you think I have to think of you as an evil monster??

Skywalker actually smiled at her. It was not entirely cold, more condescending. ?Haven?t you figured out yet that everything is a manipulation??

"So the question becomes, do you want me to think of you as a monster or a human being capable of emotion?? Mara asked with a sweet smile.

"I suppose it?s your job to figure that out,? he said lowly. He smiled, not nastily this time, and very quickly and lightly, kissed her on the cheek, his gaze warm and soothing. His breath was warm, his lips soft, but in that brief moment that was all she could tell. Mara drew back, startled, putting her hand to her face.

She was also thoroughly confused. It came back to the old question, she abruptly realized: were the moments of cruelty the manipulation, or the moments of vulnerability? Or could it even be both?

"You broke our truce,? Mara said after a second?s hesitation.

"You broke it first,? he said smoothly, a child?s words with no childish intent.

Mara thought rapidly. The truce had not so much been broken as blurred. What was within the purview of the truce and what was not? They had agreed to talk and put their positions aside, if only in the content of their conversations. And they had done so, over two conversations spread out over a year. Nearly two years since their very first meeting. The question still nagged at her, nearly every talk with Skywalker leading to new doubt.

But why ? why ? then, did he keep springing up the moments of vulnerability if he wanted her to think him capable of evil? It wasn?t necessary. If the moments of vulnerability were a manipulation, it made sense to mix in the coldness, because otherwise it would be blatantly unbelievable. The only alternative was to believe that he was trying to make her believe him capable of evil, but was failing. His fa?ade kept lapsing, and he had used that lapse to make the fa?ade even more believable, as if he were trying to manipulate her into believing the Light in him and failing.

It was an epiphany, in the true sense of the word. Final and complete.

What kind of person must he be, she wondered, what kind of life must he have lived, to use his own pain and vulnerability so cruelly? To make another think it a lie?

The questioning of her had been another attempt by him to distance himself. He kept opening up to her emotionally, unintentionally, driven by her questions and prodding. She kept him off-balance, and he didn?t know how to react, so he reacted honestly; he was perhaps even an honest person at heart. He had questioned her not out of curiosity ? or that wasn?t the main reason for it ? but because he wanted her to understand what it felt like to be questioned in something so private.

Why, indeed, would a Sith even think of the emotional aftermath of killing as being a private thing?

Oh, Luke, she thought, you are more complex than even you know.

"Perhaps I don?t want to converse by the truce?s rules anymore,? she said at last. ?I think this is far more interesting, don?t you??

"Playing with a nest of gundarks is also interesting,? he commented mildly in return.

Mara smiled. ?Then let?s play.?

Almost a declaration of war between the two of them; certainly a declaration that manipulation, deceit, and plain cruelty could now be used in their conversations. The content of the conversation itself could, without the truce, be utterly without honesty. Yet Mara did not think that would be the case, at least not fully. The endless dance that Skywalker tried to play would continue, but its success would end.

Skywalker did not answer for a long moment, searching her face. Mara kept her expression smooth and calm. ?Very well,? he said at last, a glint of suspicion in his eyes.

Mara wondered if he thought she had planned this conversation and was, in fact, planning to use it as part of some greater manipulation of him and his perception of her. She hadn?t, of course. It had been entirely unintentional. Skywalker simply made the driven part of her personality bloom. She wasn?t honestly sure how he did it; she had thought she had gotten that part of herself under control years before.

After a long moment of silence, Mara spoke. ?Thank you,? she said, not sure what she was thanking him for ? the opportunity? He didn?t want this; he wanted things to be safe. She wanted more than that.

Skywalker gave her a look with more suspicion in it this time. ?You?re welcome,? he murmured, clearly not sure what he was being thanked for.

Mara simply nodded. Then she let herself smile, just slightly, a curve of her lips. She looked at Skywalker, judging the moment. ?So, then,? she said slowly, watching him, ?what is your opinion on the influence of the individual in matters of state??

The sun was setting.

Even with the eternal lights of Coruscant, night still existed. The stars shone brightly, the intensity of the Inner Core allowing it to be visible. Daylight ended last for Luke, in the Imperial Palace; there were no taller buildings, and it took time for the sun to hide behind the planet?s curve. When it finally set, spikes of light reached outwards, slowly fading. It was still a striking sight, here in this office, as much of one as it had been years ago, at his arrival.

The light of the sun spiked, and Luke closed his eyes.

He heard Kejal come closer. His advisor had waited patiently with him, after Jade had left, knowing somehow that Luke would want to talk at some point. He, if no others, knew what Luke really felt.

Luke glanced over his shoulder, standing still, his hands loosely clasped behind his back. ?Get Wel,? he said briefly, but softly.

Kejal nodded, disappearing, and Luke turned to look outside again.

The truce was broken. Jade had broken it. He still wasn?t sure why, and that disturbed him. Had she discovered something during their conversations to make her break it? He had sensed some intense realization from her, but he had no idea what had sparked it, if indeed it had been sparked at all. If Jade was willing to let the truce go, she was more than likely willing to lie, by inference or directly. Perhaps she had already lied, used their conversations in some fashion, and this was a declaration of such?

It was unsettling. He didn?t think she had at any point lied to him, but he was beginning to doubt his abilities in concern to her, which was extremely dangerous. He needed to be able to read her well. He hadn?t thought her this complex, this unpredictable, when he had decided to use her. His lack of foresight ? ironically ? had gotten him into this situation.

He turned away from the window when Wel entered. Wel bowed deeply, body language stiff, as usual. His clothing looked freshly pressed, not at all like this was the end of the day. ?My lord??

"I want a report,? Luke said brusquely, walking by his desk, trying to appear casual when he knew he felt nothing of the sort. ?What occurred during Lady Jade?s stay? Anything connected to her at all??

Wel shook his head. ?No, my lord.? He paused, adding with a flash of wary studiousness, ?I have implemented new measures. I can say that there is a very low probability something occurred I was not aware of, my lord.?

He was slipping; even Wel could tell something was wrong. He paused, considering. He trusted Wel. He was a good man, and a good officer, and he served Luke well. ?What is your opinion of Jade as a security risk??

Wel almost shrugged, the motion stopped nearly instantly after it was started. ?Moderate, my lord. She is in the military, so intelligence gathering is within her purview, but her status as your consort and her public position make keeping things status quo too important to risk. Political dealings aside, I doubt she has many, if any, military oriented efforts within the Empire.?

Luke paused, tensing even further at the hesitation. ?And what do you think personally?? he asked, mouth dry.

Wel looked surprised. ?I don?t know, my lord. She has many good traits, despite being a Jedi and with the New Republic, but I do not trust her.?

Luke nodded, taking a deep, calming breath. For some reason, Wel?s simple words settled him. Luke was not a fool; he did not think all the Jedi monsters, or stupid, or any of the other things Imperial propaganda had so frequently listed. No, she could not be trusted, but whatever plan was behind this latest move, it was not . . . was not cruelty, to give and take away as she had done. ?You may go,? he said at last. ?Thank you.?

"My pleasure, my lord,? Wel murmured, bowing again. He left the room without a curious glance. He was focused, and knew better than to focus on things he shouldn?t.

Silence. Kejal had said nothing, merely listening, but certainly analyzing. He walked over to Luke, stood by him.

Luke met his dark eyes.

"Will you continue to see her?? Kejal queried gently.

Luke cocked his head. ?I have to, and you know that.?

"Please don?t deliberately misunderstand me, my lord,? Kejal said with a slight frown, eyes narrowed slightly. Almost, but not quite, the expression he used to get when chastising a younger Luke.

Luke pursed his lips, turning away. When he finally raised his gaze, it was dark and cold. ?I must know what she is trying to do,? he said.

"My lord . . .?

"I?ll be careful,? Luke assured him.

"You have been,? Kejal muttered, the concern not fading.

Luke spoke quietly, but firmly. ?I have to use her, but if it is unavoidable, I will react. Plans change, and if I must, I will subsidize her role.?

At last, the tense worry began to fade. Luke noted it, felt himself relax slightly in response.

"Be well, my lord,? Kejal said finally.

Luke bowed his head, and Kejal left him alone.

Creating hatred, dislike, and other strong emotions has always been an integral part of politics; manipulation not only occurs in the facts, but in the emotional arena as well.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. II.

The ballroom of the Imperial Palace was one of those places that deserved a capitalization: The Ballroom. It was huge, stretching nearly a quarter of a kilometer in length. The floors were spotless marble in different colored chunks, set in an outwardly sprawling design. Ceiling high windows dominated one side, though the navy blue curtains were mostly drawn against the low-lying sun of the early evening.

Luke sat at his table, a huge thing of solid, carved wood. The table sat on a dais with a few other tables, seats of honor near him. Not that he generally cared for most of those that sat nearby; his staff waited in the shadows, and his allies didn?t often care to show their power. Most of the Grand Moffs, on the other hand, were always eager to do just that. This time, however, the raised dais was full of not only Imperials, but Republic officials as well.

It was a moment that should have been full of tension. Jade, however, appeared perfectly relaxed, even in the Force. Luke was too focused to be tense; this interaction would be important to their future dealings, in how they handled each other after the changing of the deal. What was personal affected the professional. It was inevitable.

Jade was here, on Coruscant, with other New Republic officials. Three years after the initial agreement and signing of the treaty, they would be going over it again. Most of the changes would be minor ? simple things that no one had anticipated, because nothing is ever anticipated entirely, without flaw. Since a new signing would occur, Jade would have to be there. It was nothing unusual, of course. Most modern treaties between friendly parties went through minor changes in the first few years.

'Friendly parties? was probably a misnomer in this case, Luke thought, but at least both sides were appearing friendly. The Moffs were, for once, being somewhat cooperative without undue effort on Luke?s part. They had had little say in the signing of the first treaty, and they were still privately miffed about it, as well as too frightened to really say anything publicly.

He had been forced by circumstances to assassinate one of their members recently. It had been necessary, and he did not regret it, but he knew the cautiousness would not last; it would fade in time, and they would again take great risks, often in ways Luke did not desire, and he would again have to demonstrate that he was not to be trifled with. If he did not, it would simply continue, and he could not have that.

And Jade looked too comfortable for his comfort.

She stood with her former Master, Adi Gallia, and a few other Republic officials. She was talking animatedly, her hand gestures loose but wide in scope. She wore a black dress, uncommonly serious, the material bunched to her throat, yet falling to her waist in the back, leaving her back completely bare. He wondered if it was part of the wardrobe she had been given; it certainly didn?t look very ? Jedi.

She smiled suddenly, graciously turning from the officials to one of the Moffs. Luke thought he caught a hint of distaste in her green eyes, but he couldn?t be certain. The Moff left her alone soon enough, and she relaxed, talking with her Master.

Luke, of course, did not have the option of even having a casual conversation. He could not really mingle; his status, his power, made it too difficult for him to do that comfortably or wisely. At best, he could make them feel, if not comfortable in his presence, at least safe. And not even that, with most of the Moffs. There were few he trusted, though many of the old ones from Palpatine and his father?s rule were dying out, being replaced . . . That, too, was inevitable. As was the fear in their eyes.

Luke made a conscious decision not to tense when Jade decided to head in his direction. She walked straight up to him, no pretensions. Closer now, Luke could see she had . . . taken special care in her appearance.

Without speaking, Jade stood beside him and took his right hand in hers. ?Skywalker,? she murmured in greeting.

"Lady Jade,? Luke said in return, more stiffly than he would have wished.

"So how have you been?? Jade asked casually.

"I am well,? Luke said, suspicious. The Grand Moff who had spoken with Jade ?wandered? off to speak with another Moff. Luke noted it, and caught Wel?s eye from across the room.

Jade nodded slowly, still watching him. ?I trust the treaty is still serving your interests??

Luke merely looked at her, not letting his uncertainties show. What the hell did that mean?

"In the sense that the treaty will continue,? Jade added.

Is she asking me if I plan on attacking soon? Luke thought with disbelief. He would not have thought her capable of such forwardness. ?The treaty remains,? he said blandly, vaguely.

"Oh, well, that?s good,? Jade said with hardly a hint of sarcasm.

Wel nodded at Luke. The Moffs were up to something, yet again. ?What did Grand Moff Teiren speak to you about?? Luke asked abruptly. Best to find out at the source.

Jade looked surprised for a moment. ?He asked about the treaty,? she said finally, the words coming calmly and easily. ?How well it?s going, and so on and so forth.? She raised a perfect eyebrow. ?Your subordinates conspiring against you??

"And you think yours don?t?? Luke asked mildly, meeting her gaze evenly.

Jade smiled, her eyes narrowing. ?Why would they??

Mara waited patiently for an answer, fury rising within her. She knew little of it would show, except perhaps in her eyes; it had always been hard for her to control the look in her eyes.

Skywalker didn?t answer directly. He turned away, watching her out of the corner of his eye, every movement calculated to convey casualness. Mara wasn?t fooled, and wondered why he still bothered to keep up the in-control act with her, at least to this degree. ?I suppose you didn?t know one of your subordinates sent a message to Adna Gol, concerning your habit of disappearing on Coruscant during visits.?

Mara felt herself pale slightly, and quickly tried to regain her equilibrium. ?Our visits??

"The matter was dealt with,? Skywalker said smoothly. But you should have known, was the added implication. Also implied ? in his tone ? was something less than friendly.

"I see,? Mara said, knowing that one of Skywalker?s spies must have intervened in some respect. A message to Adna Gol? That would be hard ? the spy must be high-ranked, then. But how could she tell Gol her suspicions without revealing herself? Skywalker had put her in a difficult position, and purposely so; for what purpose, that was probably not revealed to the full extent.

Still. He had protected their meetings, and he had no reason to do so; they were more damaging for her than him. He didn?t have the Jedi Council watching over his shoulder, trying to decide if he was turning or not, whether the Dark had touched him.

Of course not. The Dark had touched him.

As had the Light, Mara reminded herself. But if it was an attempt at a threat on his part, it didn?t quite make sense. ?Thank you,? she said deliberately.

Slight twitch. Skywalker smiled slightly, but that was indicative of nothing. ?You?re welcome.?

"I don?t mind, you know,? she said simply, almost casual, but knowing she was watching him too closely for that.

"Mind what?? Skywalker asked, looking ? almost startled. Damn.

"It wasn?t necessary, trying to ? what, prick my conscience by reminding me of breaking our deal? But I don?t mind.? She smiled.

Skywalker looked nonplussed. Then his expression smoothed. ?The deal was never real.?

"I believed the deal necessary for you. But it wasn?t necessary for me. I wanted to talk to you anyway.?

"I. . . see.?

Mara shrugged. ?It was real to me,? she said softly.

Skywalker merely looked at her.

"So how are you today?? Mara asked.

"I?m fine,? he replied calmly.

"No irritating Moffs? Insubordinate subordinates??

"The Moffs are always irritating,? Skywalker said offhandedly. Then he blinked, as if surprised at himself.

Mara laughed. ?I find the Senators irritating about half the time,? she admitted easily.

Skywalker gave her a ghost of a smile. ?I imagine they would be. Don?t they argue all the time, with so little central authority??

"Oh, yes,? Mara said, feeling a dangerous sort of thrill that he was conversing with her. Even over something so inane. ?It?s kind of interesting to watch sometimes, if you?re not involved and thus totally frustrated, to see how things change through discussion.?

"Sometimes,? Skywalker echoed quietly.

"How have you been?? Mara asked again, equally quiet.

Skywalker met her gaze. His eyes looked impossibly blue, and even as she saw something occurring in his mind through that gaze, she didn?t have the slightest clue what it was. ?Good enough,? he whispered.

Mara let a few measured moments pass. ?Do you think good enough is good enough?? Another moment, to let him think. ?I don?t,? she told him, but in a soft way, a gentle way.

He looked away, instantly shutting down the instant of connection she had felt ? not only brought by his eyes, oddly expressive for a few brief moments, but in the Force, like he had lingered and almost touched her. Wondering if she had upset him, and strangely unwilling to do so after hearing him say ?good enough? in that damnably acquiescent way, she rose. ?I ??

He grabbed her wrist, almost painfully, in the same grip that she had used on him three years before, when they had first met. ?Stay.? It came out like an order, but something flickered in his eyes that hinted otherwise. As did the mere fact he had bothered to say it at all.

Mara slowly sat down again, carefully keeping her gaze on him, completely unwilling to be the one to break it.

And finally, she saw what had been bothering her since that first crack, she saw what it truly was: self-hatred.

It lasted all of a moment, but it was a moment that stretched to eternity and snapped in Mara?s mind. Do you hate wanting this? Why do I never understand you?

He inhaled deeply. ?We shouldn?t do this here,? he said simply.

"But we will,? Mara half-asked, seeking confirmation. He wouldn?t squirm away from her. ?I want to.?

"Wants are dangerous,? Skywalker said, narrowing his eyes.

"But they can be worth it,? was her retort.

"Even at the expense of others?? he asked, smiling now, but sadly.

What did that mean? What was he referring to? ?I won?t hurt you,? she said, confused.

He closed his eyes and shook his head. No, that wasn?t it, at least not directly.

"But my plans must succeed,? he said with simple insistence.

"And I would endanger that? I don?t see how. Unless you intend to fight with us, with the Republic ??

"The treaty will never fail,? Skywalker said, and Mara felt the blunt honesty. ?But it will not always be as it is.?

"So long as my people live, and are free, that is enough for me,? Mara said.

"Enough for what??

"Enough to give up on changing your plans. I don?t think you mean us harm. And I don?t think we can stop you,? Mara said simply. ?I feel your strength in the Force, and I even feel, at times, the lightness of your spirit.? She paused. ?Sometimes the Force wills things people never would.?

"Or governments,? Skywalker murmured, looking away. He looked like he was consciously, carefully, controlling his breathing.

"Does it will this, that we are driven to each other? I don?t know. Wouldn?t you like it to?? Mara asked him. The words she spoke were incredibly daring, and despite her Jedi training her heartbeat thumped so loudly she could hear it.

He nodded jerkily, looking both unwilling and oddly bewildered ? caught off guard in a way Mara had never seen. ?We can?t do this here,? he repeated. His gaze shifted, flicking around.

"They can?t hear us, though,? Mara said, suddenly feeling cautious.

"No, but they can see us,? Skywalker said with a tight smile. ?And our conversation has been less than casual.?

Mara leaned back in her seat. ?Good point.?

Skywalker breathed deeply. He looked away from her, out into the crowd. Mara did a quick scan ? some had noticed their conversation, but were thinking little of it. They had controlled their reactions and expressions well, those moments of tenseness so carefully disguised only each other could see it.

"Go to my wing, after the ball,? he said at last. ?I?ll tell anyone who asks that a crisis arose about the treaty here, and we were discussing it.?

Mara nodded slowly. ?Very well.?

His eyes flicked over to meet hers. ?You had better go,? he said calmly, and that sea was once again serene.

Mara smiled, a quick polite smile for those watching. ?I?ll see you then,? she said, and rose to her feet.

She didn?t turn, gave no hint of awareness of it, but he watched her until she met up again with Adi.

War is always intensely personal on at least one level, hence the common comparison of love and war.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. I.

Luke closed his eyes. I wish life were so simple.

When Jade spoke, it was passion and logic ? that seemed so irrefutable, the words impacting with such strength he could hardly reason a response, but that wasn?t the reality of it. She simplified things on the surface, going to what she saw as the root issue ? not knowing there was no root issue.

He had invited her to his wing of the Palace. He knew she had never been here. It would have been a serious breach of security if she had, and every attempt she made at entering had been subtly guided away, and she had eventually concluded it was not worth her time to try. Why had he told her to come here? Privacy was not really an issue; he controlled the Palace, he could have had them meet privately virtually anywhere.

This room was a smaller one, built up against one of the gardens. It was a casual meeting place, a few chairs and couches, and a pleasant view of a small lake and some surrounding greenery. Sterile, almost, in its controlled fashion.

"My lord?"

Luke turned, meeting Kejal's darkly worried eyes. Luke opened his mouth, but found he had nothing to say. He closed his eyes and shook his head.

He heard Kejal walking up to him quickly. "My lord, you have lost focus," Kejal said, his voice soft instead of hard and reprimanding, as Luke had been expecting.

"Have I?" Luke whispered, and opened his eyes. "Everything is shifting. I feel it. But the end remains as I have foreseen." Adrift, rootless, but still . . .

Kejal frowned, but before he could respond, Luke's head jerked up. "Jade is approaching," he said, face and posture settling into an appearance of calm. A moment passed, and Kejal studied Luke. Luke met his eyes briefly, then turned to the entryway.

She stepped into the room, then halted, looking at Kejal, who bowed to her and silently made his way past. She watched him leave.

"Skywalker," she said in greeting.

Luke changed his posture to something more inviting. "Lady Jade," he said simply. She walked up to him, by the window, and glanced out briefly; it didn't appear to interest her, and she returned her attention to him.

Luke felt a deep calm settle over him as he let the Force flow through him; no small touch, but a roaring through his mind, energizing his body and yet keeping him still.

Jade stepped closer to him, so they were a mere foot away from each other. "I never understand you," she said softly.

"I sympathize," he whispered.

Her green eyes shifted in emotion ? from this, to that, and back again, in the flicker of a movement as she studied his face.

"Are you all right?" she asked, eyes narrowing slightly, not in suspicion but in concern.

Luke shook his head slightly. A thousand things whirled through his mind, distilled to only a few ? duty, destiny, and what he could not have. What he believed he could not have; was not capable of having.

The movement somewhat hesitant, she touched his arm. And all through this, he kept himself tightly coiled in the Force, barely present, and so did she.

He could not totally sense her intent; her concern, her directness, yes. Yes. The moment stretched because of a thousand things, fears and worries and duty . . .

Why am I pushed and pulled? he thought, and then kissed her.

Her lips were soft and warm, and her head tilted immediately, and he was right there with her, pushing. He was aggressive, but so was she. He ran a hand down her startlingly bare back, her skin smooth and soft and warm. And there it was, then, this gentling, this smooth give and take, no blood here.

It felt intensely real and in the moment, and he reveled in it.

He could feel her in the Force clearly, strong and beautiful and full of light. Her presence in the Force shone wildly, and he let his shields falter, brushed her mind with his own. There was never simply the physical. Mara responded, deepening the mental touch.

He slammed her against the window, still kissing her, and she slammed right back, and his mental shields just collapsed before her.

He was out of control.

Mara moaned lowly, not in surrender, and Luke broke off the kiss. Her eyes shot open, looking at him from mere inches away, but there was no calculation there, just intense regard. Luke breathed deeply, inhaling her scent at the same time, and closed his eyes, bowing his head, resting it on her shoulder. Her hands seemed to come up automatically, smoothing his hair, and they both breathed, struggling to find remnants of control.

He realized he was shaking.

Images flashed through his mind, of him and silk sheets, and he stepped away from Mara, opening his eyes, scanning her, the room, out the window and those damned manicured gardens, everything, feeling threatened.

Mara let him go. She exhaled roughly, and touched her lips with her fingers, not in an alluring way, but as if to feel what remained of his forceful touch. Her green eyes were dark, as roiled as his.

He couldn't bring himself to feel satisfaction at that; he was too unsettled himself.

"We shouldn't have done that," Mara suddenly said, taking a deep breath and looking at Luke.

He looked at her sharply. "Shouldn't we?" he returned smoothly. He reached out for Darkness, and it came surprisingly easily. He touched her with it, caressed her mind, and she stiffened.

As easily as that brush of the Force, he felt the Darkness fade.

Mara slowly relaxed, gazing at him with returning calm. Then she nodded. "Perhaps," she said, and he wasn't sure if she was saying yes or no, or even knew herself.

He had kissed Mara Jade. No, he had done more than that. To call that a kiss was understating its importance.

Reality seemed to come back, insurmountable. He suddenly realized what he was doing; risking it all, his plan and the Empire and all of it, for this? He couldn't afford it. He tried to see what was to come, and saw the same confusion he had before. Plans never survived first contact, but this plan could not come into being at all with the future so damn uncertain.

Mara seemed to swiftly become aware of what she had done, as well. Shock showed in her eyes, like she hadn't quite expected this of herself.

Luke stepped back, Mara unable to because of the window, and they stared at each other.

"I'm a Jedi," Mara said bluntly, green eyes crystalline.

"I'm not," Luke said, with as much force and tact.

"You're a Sith," Mara said darkly.

"I wasn't the only one in that kiss," Luke snapped.

Mara jerked back, then nodded slowly. "I didn't start it," she said roughly.

"Yes, you did," Luke retorted. "You started it all. With your challenges, your beliefs, the deal, all of it." It was a painful, truthful admission ? and a stupid one, and Luke kicked himself mentally. And yet ? what had she been expecting?

Mara looked away, bare emotion on her face: confusion, wonder.

Luke felt disgusted, mostly with himself. "Get out," he snarled, too overcome to be polite and deadly, just wanting her gone. He felt a dull ache instead of rage.

Mara shook her head after a long moment. "You're right," she whispered. "You're right." She met his eyes, and he waited. "It wasn't a lie," she said softly.

I crave this too much, Luke thought. I cannot have this.

"Luke," she said, utterly gentle. "I see your intelligence, I see your fierceness, I even see your pain."

His head snapped up at that, and he glared at her briefly.

Her hands were flat against the window, her body still having not moved away from where he had pushed her. "You've captured me," she whispered.

"Ihate you," Luke whispered back, looking down, feeling torn and broken, meeting her gaze finally.

She stepped away from the window. "I know," she said simply. "I know," she said, and carefully, cautiously, she put her arms around him, and why did it feel so damn natural to return the embrace?

They stayed that way ? for a time. Luke was not sure how long; the individual moments blended into a peaceful stream. They stepped away from each other as one, barriers rising, low but still quite present. He could not meet her eyes, but she could not meet his either, so there was no real sense of vulnerability.

"The Jedi ?" he began.

"Will never know of this," she finished, and he wasn't at all surprised, but he had to ask.

He felt the sharp burn of painful irony; she could not tell her superiors, and he had none to tell, only subordinates to worry. If she had to keep things from them, did he not have to keep things from himself?

He could not bring himself to think of the future.

She nodded after a moment as he said nothing, and then added, as if she did not want to say it directly, "This won't end." She glanced at the door, as if thinking of responsibilities, their lives, what had to be done next, but the movement seemed tired and unenthusiastic. It seemed neither of them wanted to leave this moment.

"No," he said in quiet agreement, wondering if he was damning them all.

She needed no more than that, and left, and he wondered when she would come back.

The ball was still carrying on loudly when Mara returned. Adi met her gaze immediately, and Mara saw something close to anger in her Master's eyes. Mara didn't take a deep breath; she betrayed none of her nervousness. With a gracious smile and quick movements, too quick to be caught by any one conversation or person, she made her way to Adi.

"Master," Mara said in greeting.

"What have you done?" Adi said bluntly. Her expression remained neutral, but her hands were tucked in the sleeves of her robes; never a good sign.

"A crisis arose concerning the treaty," Mara lied smoothly. "That's all." She raised an eyebrow. "I doubt he can turn me in twenty minutes, Master."

Adi's eyes narrowed. "I will speak with the Council concerning this."

"Will you?" Mara challenged. Her Master truly was suspicious ? what had she seen? What had she guessed? "You can't protect me every instant, and it's not necessary. Having the Council question hardly helps anything, other than to make me appear dangerous to our own people."

"We have not forgotten the example of Obi-Wan's apprentice," Adi said lowly.

"And have you forgotten, then, of me?" Mara returned.

Mara softened her tone. "I know you are, Master. But I am a Knight now. I am doing my best."

Adi nodded slowly. She appeared to be about to say something more, but they both paused as someone approached them. Mara took a quick note of who surrounded them, who could have overheard their conversation. Would Skywalker know of it? Probably.

Bail Organa greeted them cordially. "Jedi Jade, Master Gallia," he said. "I hope I have not interrupted."

Mara smiled. "Not at all."

"It is a pleasure," Adi said, bowing her head slightly. She smiled, and her compliment was genuinely meant. Most Jedi respected Organa greatly, even those who did not know him personally. He was less of a politician than most.

"I was wondering if I might have a moment of your time," Organa said genially. "I just received some important information that might be made of use here."

"Oh?" Mara said, curious now.

Adi looked inquisitive.

"Our initial findings on the project I mentioned the other day ? on board Mara's command vessel ? have been confirmed. There is indeed a larger project occurring in the Empire. In fact, it is believed to be already widespread. Glena suggests we use our time to ask questions."

Translation, Mara thought: Skywalker really was inputting social behavior codes into certain history and government lessons, perhaps on some social engineering scale. Organa hadn?t offered details, and it wasn't surprising, given that just about every government did so to some degree, but Skywalker had left the topic alone for some years. And Adna Gol, head of intelligence, thought the Moffs and other people at the ball might know something about it.

Personally, Mara doubted that. But she nodded anyway. "Understood."

Adi murmured her agreement.

Organa moved away in a typically graceful exit.

Before Adi could speak, Mara did. "Do you remember the Vaderians?" she asked suddenly.

Adi blinked, taken aback. "Do you mean those who essentially worshipped Lord Vader?"

Mara nodded. "They were later convicted of treason and executed. The Force is prodding for some reason," she added, watching Adi's reaction, wondering if she was feeling it, too.

"I sense nothing," Adi said, shaking her head.

Mara exhaled. "It's something ? elusive. Like they're connected somehow."

Adi frowned. "Perhaps the Vaderians are connected in the sense of Skywalker deliberately using them to create a certain reaction and backlash in society. Punishment for disobedience, perhaps?" She sighed. "Yet it feels too subtle, too distant in connection."

Mara nodded. "Perhaps," she said, taking that thought and putting it in the back of her mind to simmer for a bit.

Adi watched Mara for a moment longer, light blue eyes intense. Mara wondered briefly if she would bring up Luke again, but she didn't. "We should not abandon the Republic officials," she mentioned.

"Yes, Mara said, managing a smile, though her mind was whirling in a circle a parsec a minute. "We should get back to business."

It was a small room, a tucked away place in the Palace, like the architect had made a mistake and had to do something to fill the space. The walls were wood panels, the floor a warm red, the furniture comfortable and well used.

Luke had always liked it.

Kejal often found him there. He wasn't sure how Luke had found it, perhaps by accident, but he sometimes suspected Lord Vader had first brought his child here. He had, a few times, found Lord Vader here, before Luke's arrival. He had had a feeling it had reminded Lord Vader of ? home, perhaps, or his wife. He wasn't ever sure.

Luke sat curled up on the couch, staring out the small window that overlooked nothing more than a small thicket. He was neither tense nor relaxed; utterly difficult for Kejal to read.

"My lord," Kejal said softly.

Luke turned to look at Kejal. "I'll be back in a few minutes," he said, referring to the ongoing matter of the ball and the treaty signing.

"It did not go well?" Kejal said, ignoring that. He was no fool, and would not be distracted by such a thing. It was a half-hearted effort on Luke's part regardless. Kejal had already mentally assigned fifteen minutes for this discussion anyway. Ideas about Moffs and the military and the Republic also ran through his mind, juggling themselves naturally in his priorities.

Now, Luke's mental well-being was his concern.

Luke shrugged. "That's a hard one to answer," he said dryly. Kejal waited. "I kissed her," Luke admitted.

What? Kejal thought, but at the same time, it all suddenly made more sense.

Luke was attracted to Lady Jade. Probably not just physically, but also emotionally; the two went hand in hand for Luke. It was in his personality to be that way.

Kejal stepped right up to Luke, until he stood by him.

Luke silently shook his head, to what it was hard to say ? his own emotions, Kejal's ready and already known disapproval?

Kejal crouched down, until level with Luke, and he felt his charge's minute relaxation.

Luke let out a harsh breath. "I can't even handle it, can I?"

"There are many concerns with Lady Jade," Kejal said softly.

"That doesn't matter," Luke said bluntly. "I know what you're referring to, and yes, there's that, but . . . I ? why am I this way?"

Kejal knew. Luke craved an emotional connection, emotional security. He had known it briefly as the adopted child of Beru and Owen Lars, but that had all ended when Vader took him ? and Palpatine entered Luke's life when he was still a child. Even the thought of what Luke had gone through before the evil man's death had the ability to make Kejal's steady fa?ade break.

"I'm sorry," Kejal said at last.

Luke's blue eyes looked up, clearly startled. "It's not your fault."

"But your father's?"

Luke smiled painfully. "I was his son. He could not leave me be," he said with soft matter-of-factness. He shrugged, and changed the topic. "I know you think me a fool about Mara."

"You find it difficult to balance emotional and political matters when they do intersect," Kejal said, which was not quite an agreement, but pretty close. He believed Jade to be dangerous, no question, but Luke had made the decision to continue on with her in some fashion much earlier. He could only hope that Luke still saw things clearly enough to deal with both matters ? what he believed to be in the future, and what he could do now to affect that future.

Luke was by no means a simple person, and what he saw in the future only made events more complex. There was no one to guide him in this, and not for the first time, Kejal regretted not having any Force sensitivity. He loved this boy like he was his son. How could he not?

Luke didn't answer him, looking away again.

"I trust you," Kejal said deliberately.

Luke met his eyes with a sharp look, which gentled. "Thank you."

Kejal waited there, silent and still even in this uncomfortable position, until Luke rose, ten minutes later, to return to the ball.

When Luke walked out, he did so with focus, and in that intensity Kejal saw once again a brilliant, damaged mind.

The philosophy of the Jedi is easily available and widely known, but little understood.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. III.

Mara was tired, but her mind was on fire. Since the ball, since their meeting, since that kiss, since dealing with all the new issues constantly regarding her position, and since Adi had grown freshly suspicious, she hadn't much time to think over what had happened between her and Luke. It had been weeks since then, but she had been too busy to stop and think.

Mara didn't exactly have quarters on Ferwyn. The Jedi Temple had many rooms, and she used this one regularly whenever she was on planet, but due to her position in the military she quite often was in space, or in Imperial territory, where she had an apartment just about everywhere. The Empire was, she rather thought, spoiling her relentlessly. Skywalker was spoiling her, then, through the Empire ? in a sense.

Mara folded her arms over her stomach and lay back on her bed, staring at the soft tan ceiling that was everywhere in the Jedi Temple. She could feel her heart in her chest, feeling frightened but vivid and alive at the same time. It was dangerous; he thought it was dangerous and so did she, but she couldn't stop herself. And neither could he.

She closed her eyes whenever she thought of meeting him again. Soon. Soon.

As suddenly as that, she got up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She cocked her head, looking at the small closet across from her. She stood, slowly, and made her way over to it. Opened it. Inside was the black, backless dress she had worn . . . then.

I can't believe I am being so foolishly sentimental, she thought, shutting the closet door and wincing.

A buzz announced someone at the door. Curious, reaching out to the Force, Mara sensed a familiar presence, but it wasn't Adi.

She walked over and hit the control panel.

Obi-Wan Kenobi stood in the doorway. He looked up and smiled at her, and Mara just gaped for a second. What was he doing here?

"Hello," he said genially.

"Hello, Master," she said, stepping aside and letting him enter. She cleared her throat, more off-balance then she felt she should be. On the other hand, everyone knew Obi-Wan had a strange regard for Skywalker.

Obi-Wan sat on the couch, and waited until Mara had settled on the single chair in the living area before speaking. "I wanted to talk to you concerning Luke."

Mara nodded calmly, then said, "Why do you call him that?"

Obi-Wan smiled, looking slightly taken aback. "You know, most people don't ask me that question."

"I'm not most people. Are you going to answer?" Mara said bluntly, taking the offensive. Though perhaps she shouldn?t be thinking of a conversation with a member of the Jedi Council in battle terms . . .

Obi-Wan settled his hands on his knees. "Luke wasn't always in Vader's care. I took him to Tatooine, to be raised by his aunt and uncle. I concluded that Vader would never return to a place that carried so many memories of him, whether as Vader or Anakin Skywalker."

Mara blinked, things coming together. Luke had repeated her statement about being trained from birth ? of course. He wasn't, and she had merely assumed, as did other Jedi, that he had been. That conversation suddenly had more depth; he hadn't mentioned any aunt or uncle, had he even intended to reveal that he had been partially raised by them?

"They raised him? Until ? when he was fourteen? That was when he was presented to the Empire as Vader's heir, after Palpatine's death.

"Twelve," Obi-Wan corrected, "but yes."

Twelve.Twelve. "That's where you were, all that time," she blurted.

Obi-Wan dipped his head in acknowledgement. "He was a good-hearted boy."

"And he's not now?" Mara challenged.

Obi-Wan gave her a studying look, and Mara realized that challenge was somewhat revealing. Or could be, with the right eyes. "I do not believe he is entirely in the Dark, as I suspect you do not, either."

Mara didn't answer, just pursed her lips.

"I will not ask you to speak of it, but I sense no harm to you or him," Obi-Wan continued. "I came here to discuss something else with you. It does concern Luke, but on a more peripheral basis."

Mara exhaled a measured breath, wondering if she had dodged a blaster bolt ? that anyone else would have shot, perhaps, if not Obi-Wan. This old man, this dangerous man. To her and Luke, and oh Force, she was categorizing them together. "And that would be?"

"I have not seen Luke for quite some time, but the Council still considers me to have a greater insight into his mind than anyone else," Obi-Wan stated, the intensity in his blue eyes fading to something more soothing. "As a result, I am more aware of intelligence gathering efforts than most. It's been dismissed by Adna, but I have come to several conclusions which I believe you may find useful."

What does he know? "I'm listening," Mara said noncommittally. It suddenly occurred to her that this could be a trap, by Adi's design, but why use Obi-Wan, who so regularly went against the norm?

Obi-Wan seemed to pause, eyeing her closely. "I'm sure by now you have the report on the teaching in the Empire."

Mara nodded.

"Adna and the others believe he's psychologically preparing the Empire's next generation for a long war with the Republic, and a total eradication of our ideas. I disagree. It's almost as if he is preparing future generations for the mindset necessary for democracy, including a strong sense of galactic unity." Obi-Wan paused. "In fact, I believe he's not just starting with the next generation, but is starting now, perhaps doing even more than manipulating events for his goal, but manipulating them. For example, the execution of the Vaderians after the bombing pulled the surrounding areas together ? and Luke has only strengthened that result through policy in other areas."

The connection I sensed? Mara thought. None of this is any accident; it all connects. It must. "That doesn't answer why he's doing all this."

Obi-Wan shrugged. "If I had to guess, I'd say he's looking more towards absorbing the Republic, instead of eradicating it. Several things contradict that notion, however, like the building of new, advanced weaponry. The Jedi Council also has suspicions about him spreading his influence through our media and the Senate, though there seems to be little of that confirmed so far."

Mara sighed. "He certainly doesn't make things simple," she muttered, leaning back.

Obi-Wan laughed. "No, he does not."

Mara shook off the confusing whirl of thoughts Obi-Wan's words had evoked; she would think over them later. "The Jedi Council doesn't know you're here, do they?"

"I don't inform the Jedi Council of my every movement," Obi-Wan said smoothly.

Mara leaned forward. "You know, I bet this conversation would make the Jedi Council very suspicious, considering they already are suspicious of me and Skywalker." She didn't say it in a challenging tone; a question was implicit in her words.

"As they are of me," Obi-Wan returned. "But you sense it as well as I, do you not?"

"The fight against Palpatine had at least simplicity going for it," Mara dryly remarked.

"There were so few shades of gray," Obi-Wan said softly. "At least for most."

And for you, fighting your own student? She could only imagine the pain, but she saw no pain in this man's eyes. He looked toward the future, not the past and the burden of history. "And what now?"

"Now, the Force guides us towards something else, Obi-Wan said simply.

Do you sense the pull between him and me? Mara wondered. What does the Force tell you? "Yes, it does."

"Trust in the Force. I do," Obi-Wan said after a pause. Then he rose to his feet, and Mara joined him automatically. "I will leave you to meditate and think over what I have said," he said. "May the Force be with you."

I think it is, Mara thought, and said, "And with you."

With a smile and a duck of his head, he left her rooms.

Mara smiled.

Luke was awake when the sun rose. The windows were partially open, and the slice of light gradually brightened over the hours. Luke didn't bother to get up, though ordinarily he would probably have just started the day earlier than usual. Instead, he kept his breathing slow and even, his eyes open, and watched the sunrise.

It was almost meditation, but not so deliberate. He felt, at least for the moment ? it wouldn't last ? almost . . . lighthearted.

Around the time he normally woke, he swung himself out of bed. He walked to the window, and the heavy pressure of his life settled again on his shoulders. For once, so rarely, he wanted to buck it off and leave it behind. But he couldn't do that. That wasn't his life, this was. He had the Force.

He took a deep breath.

He had a feeling it would be a good morning.

The Jedi Temple was always peaceful in the morning. There weren't many people up and around, and adding to that, the Temple had been built bigger than was actually needed for the present number of Jedi. Rather optimistic on the Jedi Council's part, but considering their numbers were growing once again ? very, achingly slowly ? perhaps it was justified. Mara had never been to the old Temple, but she thought she would like this one better anyway. She didn't care for overdone opulence, not here nor on Coruscant.

The simple, rough marks of a practical building subtly soothed her.

And it was not a bad thing, necessarily, to be summoned to appear before the Jedi Council.

There could be many reasons for it. From what concerned the Jedi Council in the military, to a new mission the Republic had already agreed to, to just about anything else.

She walked into the Council chamber without announcement. Only about half the Council was present, which was not uncommon. Only the most important missions or debriefings had the full Council. Mara let out a tiny sigh of relief.

She bowed before them, and folded her hands into her robe. "Masters," she greeted.

Adi smiled at Mara, and Mara smiled back.

"Adi has spoken with us about your actions and her belief of your state of mind for the past several years," Mace Windu began, leading off as Yoda was not present. "Not just concerning Skywalker. You have been under a great deal of pressure, and as trained as you are for it, we have brought you here to advise you to seek a period of meditation."

Mara cocked her head, breath coming a little faster, wondering if she would be justified in panicking ? not that she would, of course. "A period of meditation?" she asked, glancing at her Master.

Adi leaned forward. "This is not a chastisement, Mara. But you are not a Jedi Master, and you are among the first generation of Jedi not to be trained from birth." She paused, and the silent example of Anakin Skywalker went unsaid. "You are a Jedi, nevertheless," she continued softly, a small smile lighting her face.

"It is time to rest, and recover strength in the Jedi way," Windu confirmed.

Mara nodded slowly, relaxing in minute bits. Suspicion remained as to their motive, but it wasn't as if they were suggesting brainwashing. "And the way you would advise me to do that would be?"

"Stay at the Temple. Meditate. Join with other Jedi in learning and teaching," Adi said simply.

"It is something many of us have done," Windu added matter-of-factly. "Depa's loss in the Clone Wars may have been prevented, had she not been on the front for so long."

Mara nodded, feeling uncomfortable at the mere reminder of Depa Billaba ? and that Windu would use it. It was a quiet fact among the Jedi that Depa was not dead, but had been driven insane in battle and was cared for now by the Order. All Jedi lived on the edge, continually seeking closer communion with the Force; many found that the more danger, the closer they kept to the edge of reason and combat, the more they depended on the Force. The seventh form, Mace's form and Depa's, had been based on that belief, as was the first form to some degree.

The advisement to meditate and regain a sturdier standing in the Jedi way of life probably was occurring because of Adi's concern, but it wasn't a bad thing. If Mara was in the right, the Force would strengthen her resolve, not weaken it. Self-awareness was always key to the Jedi existence.

"And my responsibilities?" Mara asked at last, feeling a twinge at having to let go, even for a while, of her power and responsibility. With it came knowledge she would not have otherwise. Especially knowledge that hinted of Skywalker's goals, which were still so confusing, but almost certainly connected in some way.

"Taken over temporarily," Adi said. "As when you spent time on Coruscant, your involvement in your military section would not be ended, merely lessened."

Mara looked at her for a moment. "And this has already been decided?"

"Not confirmed," Adi said, not hastily, but with a certain awareness of treading lightly in their relationship. "But planned for, yes."

Then they would not force it upon her. She took a deep breath. She would not see Skywalker for a longer time, yes, but . . . this would be good for her. She could not deny to herself that the whole situation had her troubled: Skywalker, the Republic, the treaty, and Skywalker. To be closer to the Force was to be better prepared for everything. "Very well." She smiled slightly. "I think I'm looking forward to my meditation."

Not a vacation, quite; but Jedi never truly had them. They did not escape the daily ways of their lives, but trained themselves to handle them better and rest in preparation for any rough times.

Adi smiled, a full smile.

"I will handle loose ends," Mara continued, seeing the relief in her Master's eyes. "And then stay here for a time."

Master Windu also smiled. "And we are pleased to have you."

He felt it as a quietness . . . at times.

Luke did meditate regularly, but not necessarily in the way the Jedi did. They detached themselves from emotion, to feel peace and goodness he presumed, and that was not his goal in meditation. To feel the Force more completely, ah, that was the true purpose of meditation. To be open to it in such a way that all else simply ceased and became one with perception through the Force.

Though his eyes were closed to it, the garden spread before him in a magnificent display of life. This garden was one of those only loosely kept by the gardeners, with the plants going where they willed, where the sunlight led and survival demanded, rather than the mechanical intricacy of any formal garden. Dark splashes of green were interrupted solidly by hints of color: blue, yellow, red, orange.

His father had meditated in his chambers; Luke preferred here.

Even still.

He opened his eyes after a moment. "What is it, Kejal?"

"A piece of intelligence just arrived," Kejal said quietly, finally walking up from behind Luke to face him.

Luke studied him closely; it was hard to tell if the news pleased Kejal or not. "What is it?"

"Jade agreed to stay on Ferwyn, at the Jedi Temple, for the next several months. At least."

Luke looked at him sharply. "And?" he said, with a touch of hostility. The news probably pleased Kejal ? his old teacher was suspicious of Jade, and moreover Luke's reaction to her. Not that Luke didn't have a certain suspicion about that himself, it was all too damning and important, but it bothered him that Kejal was so concerned about it.

It made him wonder if he should be more concerned.

Self-doubt killed.

"You will not see her for a time, my lord," Kejal said softly. "Perhaps it would do you well to consider the matter further." Thinking of that kiss, no doubt; not that he could think of it more than Luke could.

Luke, at least, knew the matter was not so simple as considering it and doing whatever decision he made; that method had already been proven faulty by experience. He sighed, and Kejal waited.

"I understand," Luke said briefly, and waved Kejal off. "Go."

Kejal nodded, bowed briefly, careful and formal in this ? knowing Luke's troubled reactions on the matter, and left.

Luke sat staring at the gently waving long grass that had mysteriously sprung up one day in the garden. Unsettled. Wishing for a moment that he did believe in purging himself of emotion.

Understanding is precarious and uncertain. To know everything is a matter of impossibility; factors of all kinds take part in any situation, and the truth is all those things combined, but no one can know them all. And so history is a greater facet of understanding, but by no means whole. Those personal things that influence people of great power are never as fully understood as they are within the moment.

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. I.

"But what the hell does it mean?" Bail demanded, pace fast and expression resolute. He had an aura of outward, intense focus, but so close to him, Obi-Wan could see his worry.

"I don't know," Obi-Wan said bluntly, keeping pace with his friend easily. "But it can't be ignored because we don't understand it."

Bail stopped walking suddenly, forcing Obi-Wan to stop as well. The few Senators still leaving the conference room went around them, choosing to ignore the conversation they were having. There was plenty of room in the wide, impressive hall of the Senate. "And what of my daughter?"

"What of her?" Obi-Wan returned calmly. "We have seen no evidence of interest in her beyond her position as your daughter."

"If that is meant to reassure me, it is failing," Bail said dryly.

Obi-Wan shot him a small smile. "I don't think she's in any danger, and neither does the Council."

Bail nodded in acknowledgement, though some worry clearly remained in dark eyes. "It appears to me that Skywalker will attempt to reintegrate us into the Empire, but I have no idea why he would do such a thing."

"Lack of motive doesn't mean it's a bad motive," Obi-Wan said, but it was more of a possibility in his tone than a statement. "But you're right. And why he would choose to do so by changing the Empire, not us, is not clear to me."

Bail raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps it is you, this time, who is thinking in terms of the old Empire," he said, referencing Obi-Wan?s rather blunt statement to the Security Council of the NR that they were fools if they treated Skywalker like he was his father.

Obi-Wan nodded in acquiescence to the point. "He wouldn't use brute force unless it was necessary, true enough. It would be much easier to change the Empire's culture to accept us than the other way around."

"But if that is the case, then why does he continue to provoke us? Does he mean to reintegrate us by force?" Bail asked. "The Intelligence department continues to find more evidence of weapons build-up. Which could, naturally, be explained by the Empire mentality of more and bigger is better, but I thought we agreed Skywalker is not that kind of fool."

Obi-Wan sighed. "This all feels too planned ? none of this is an accident, it must all connect somehow. Either we are not supposed to know about the weapons he is building at all, which would take some optimism on his part, or he is looking for a specific reaction from us."

"Perhaps a specific one from the military rather than the public," Bail suggested. "After all, publicly all efforts are being made for us and the Empire to get along, while there is this weapons race behind the scenes."

"But why allow our military to build up, when he intends to conquer us anyway ? culturally or by force?" Obi-Wan retorted. He shook his head. "It is too easy to find holes in any explanation."

"We don't have all the facts," Bail said simply. "Speculation is useless until we do. I may have been hasty in speaking on Skywalker's behalf regarding the treaty and hoping for the best, but I think the others are hasty in believing the exact opposite of him."

Obi-Wan nodded. "We should wait, and keep an open mind."

"Agreed," Bail said briefly.

"I believe you have a meeting to go to," said Obi-Wan, shaking off their serious topic of conversation and smiling at Bail.

Bail smiled in return. "I believe you have a young lady to go see."

Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow. "Do you mean Mara or Siri?"

Bail laughed. "Perhaps both," he said, knowing as well as Obi-Wan that Siri was generally not mentioned in the same sentence as Obi-Wan ? mostly out of tradition that one simply did not mention such things. "I believe if anyone will figure this mess out, it will be Mara; she knows Skywalker best, as little as that may be." He sighed, then seemed to shake off the momentary exhaustion. "May the Force be with you."

Obi-Wan gave Bail a studious, overly serious look. "Of course. I'll tell Siri you said hello." He paused, and turning away, added, "May the Force be with you."

Bail gave him a sketch of a bow, and they departed from the area.

Meditation was many things for a Jedi. It was revival, refreshment, and peace, which was all of those things.

In meditation one could also find guidance. A Jedi didn't meditate on nothingness or an object; they meditated on the Force, which was a living, changing thing. In it and through it a Jedi could see the future, see the present, and understand life much more clearly.

It was all of those things that Mara sought. She saw Skywalker through heavy mists of uncertainty ? knowing he was in the future, but how and what was happening could not be seen. She suspected the Jedi Council was just as blind, unable to pierce the sheer enormity of all the possibilities. So many things could change at any moment, and the future could not be clearly seen the less certain it was.

She could feel him, though. In the present. For all that he could and did hide himself from the touch of a Jedi, his presence and his actions created massive ripples in the Force. What he did effected so many, it was easy to sense him, if only indirectly most of the time. His presence was like that of the whole Council combined; important and strong. Still, at times, it was as if his mask slipped, and in the deepest moments of meditation she would catch that, and feel him.

Sadness, regret, pain, determination . . . they fell through her fingers like shimmersilk.

But guidance. How she felt drawn to Luke was indescribable and forceful, and the Force matched what she already felt. It was no accident, nor mere politics, that Mara was his wife ? if only in name.

When she meditated, she felt close to him. Almost as if she could reach out and touch his presence, his aura. Where she was certain the Council could not touch him at all, she saw glimpses. They sought his presence in the Force as a Sith, and she never did.

Skywalker was not a Sith. He had told her he had the skills of a Sith, and that was true; but she didn't feel the destruction waiting to happen, the quiet after a devastating storm, in his presence. She felt anger, yes. Pain, too.

And then depth; such wonderful depth of hidden joys and grief.

When she saw her own future, it appeared less uncertain to her than his, oddly enough. She saw herself in white at times, in the Imperial Palace. Other times she saw glimpses of battle and struggle. Powerful emotions swirled through all of those visions.

She set them aside in favor of the present; the visions would make sense when it was the right time.

Her loyalty to the Jedi was unshaken. She had carefully examined the foundations of her beliefs and compared them to that of the Jedi. She still believed in the Code. That which had given her solace, and a home she still loved. The wisdom of the Council that she still treasured.

And the guidance of the Force most of all.

Step forward, it told her.

Jedi had the tendency ? not always, admittedly ? to die peacefully. Not that they didn't die fighting, but they smiled when they died, they accepted it at the end. Luke had always thought that rather idiotic, and his father had encouraged that belief. Luke had felt one had to go to the end fighting with everything they had, resisting with every small amount of will and power, because that sliver could just be enough for survival. Because otherwise it was just seeing the odds and giving up. He'd rather believe in a miracle.

He was beginning to wonder if his view was narrow.

Luke had, naturally, seen Jedi killed. Vader had certainly kept up killing Jedi after Palpatine's death, though as Luke grew older he grew less interested in doing it himself, or having Luke come along.

Luke had privately thought himself foolishly squeamish, but he didn't like to watch them die. He suspected now that his father had realized that.

Actions were always balanced by the chances of success. Luke did not undertake things he knew would fail unless he had no choice ? or the other choice was even more unacceptable.

Avoiding Mara, and his feelings for her, seemed like something with little or no chance of success. And he didn't even want to, anymore. He wanted to see what would happen. He wanted ? he wanted. Desired.

He wondered, sometimes, what it would be like not to struggle every second of every day, of knowing when to accept and when not to. Was that what Jedi felt? For when he had seen them die, and they always did die, there had been a peace there that Luke had not experienced since Tatooine. Could one accept and be at peace, and yet ? not give up?

How much did he truly understand of how to live? Could he fight onward for and because of what he had seen, and yet have peace?

Could he have the weakness of love, and success in war?

Luke closed his eyes, the garden before him fading from view. He slumped in his seat, pulled his knees up in an uncommonly child-like action. The silence enveloped him; he could hear himself breathing. He caressed his wrist, where Mara had touched him. He touched his lips, remembering their kiss.

He opened his eyes. "Kejal."

"My lord?" Kejal said, walking forward into Luke's range of vision. He had waited just inside the room, staring out through the glass into the garden, with Luke, saying nothing and doing nothing, becoming so silent his presence was barely felt in the Force.

Luke looked at him. "Take the window out."

"Excuse me, my lord?" Kejal said, blinking, dark eyes showing startlement.

"The windows," Luke said, gesturing at the windows in place of two walls. "Take them out."

"My lord, then the gardens will be in the room."

Luke nodded calmly. "I know that. Have it done."

Raising an eyebrow in silent question, but evidently deciding not to comment, Kejal nodded. "Yes, my lord."

Luke turned back to look at the garden, separated from the room by only a thin window. The dark green leaves pressed up against it, surely and determinedly trying to make their way past to grow, and grow.

The Temple was quiet.

Obi-Wan had nightmares about silence sometimes, but today he could tell it was the quiet of peace. The shadows were cast long and the light was golden through the simple windows. For all the physical differences between this Temple and the one Obi-Wan had grown up in, that had oddly remained the same: there was always, always a special quality to the light. Because Jedi were here.

Even Tatooine had had that kind of light, on the softest of days.

Mara was meditating in one of the few gardens spread here and there, allowed to grow freely and randomly ? not nearly so exquisite as those of the old Temple, but alive nevertheless. Obi-Wan had briefly talked to Adi before deciding to meet her, wanting to know Mara's state of mind before speaking to her. It would warn Adi ? and the Council ? that Obi-Wan was up to something, but they had no concrete reason to think anything important was occurring or being said, and Obi-Wan doubted Mara would enlighten them.

Ironic, that his only connection to Luke now was another Jedi.

Mara sat on a stone, roughly rectangular, that had grown to be used as a bench of sorts. He was glad to see that she had at least visibly returned to roots, wearing the simple garb of a Jedi.

He walked to her, and then sat beside her, there being room on the rock. After a moment or two, Mara opened her eyes and looked at him. Then she smiled. "Greetings, Master Kenobi."

Obi-Wan's mouth quirked into a smile. "Obi-Wan, please."

She nodded. "What is it?"

Obi-Wan chose not to answer her question immediately. Currents in the Force tingled at his senses, cautiously, and he obeyed, easily and naturally. "You know," he said, "while you're here meditating and grounding yourself, finding peace, the rest of us are growing increasingly worried over the treaty and the Empire." His tone was dry. She didn't appear to really share any of their concerns ? and while Obi-Wan was divided on the subject of Luke, Mara merely seemed cautious of the Council.

"And Skywalker," Mara added astutely.

"As always," Obi-Wan admitted.

Mara flashed him a smile, the peace never fading from her eyes. "I've been out of touch with most of the current Intel news. Has something happened?"

Obi-Wan shook his head. "Things have progressed in more alarming ways, but nothing is actually surprising. Luke ignored the Republic for so long, and now he's doing the exact opposite."

Mara looked thoughtful. "He told me that things will change, but the treaty will remain," she said after a moment, watching him.

Obi-Wan was surprised. "Do you believe him?"

Mara paused. "Considering the context, yes," she said after a moment of hesitation.

"Dare I ask?" Obi-Wan said, raising an eyebrow.

Mara blushed, and Obi-Wan's curiosity increased tenfold. "May we keep this between ourselves?" she asked.

"Of course, Obi-Wan said immediately.

"I feel . . . that the Jedi do not necessarily interpret the Code correctly, as arrogant as that sounds. I don't intend to disobey, necessarily, but I just can't seem to agree."

"That's not inherently wrong," Obi-Wan said, thinking. In a sense, it sounded like Anakin, if less confidently said, but Anakin was right in some respects ? and entirely wrong in others, to devastation. "But it is dangerous."

Looking taken aback, Mara nodded.

"That you must not forget," Obi-Wan warned. "Regardless of what Luke has told you, touching the Dark will forever effect you, and if you dance around it, you will fall."

Appearing appropriately chastened, Mara nodded again. "But of dealing with people who dabble in the Dark Side? What do you do then?"

"What are you asking?" Obi-Wan inquired, seeing a specific issue that Mara did not quite want to ask. "Can a person in the Dark be turned?"

Mara bit her lip, then said bluntly, "Yes."

"The Council says no; I am not so sure, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. Having seen so many Jedi fall in the Clone Wars changed some opinions. Surely a friend . . . ?" Obi-Wan shrugged. "I imagine it would be difficult. As much as I tried to keep Anakin from going over that cliff, he did, and many paid the price for my failure."

Mara looked away.

"And if you fail with Luke," Obi-Wan said gently, "many could suffer. You could fall, if you get too close, and the disaster would be much worse."

"So you're saying, then, that I should not try?" Mara snapped, fire in her eyes. "Aren't you the one who always questions the Council's thoughts on him?"

Obi-Wan nodded gravely. "Yes. But I am more aware than you, I think, of the dangers involved. I am not saying you should not try. I am saying it is dangerous, you could be killed, the treaty destroyed, and the Jedi could suffer for it." He softened his tone. "Such is the reality of the situation. As Jedi, we all face situations that affect the lives of many others." He paused, but she said nothing, staring ahead, and he continued. "Adi worries for you because you are like a daughter to her, like Siri is to her. But she trained you, and she trusts you. For all that Anakin was the first not to be trained from infancy, that does not guide you. Do not doubt yourself, but consider wisely your actions."

After a long moment, where Obi-Wan felt the Force sway in indecision, Mara spoke. "Thank you. I will consider your advice ? and your warnings," she said, meeting his gaze, her green eyes calm again. The Force settled.

"Thank you," Obi-Wan said, bowing his head slightly. "If I may, what will you do?"

Mara sighed. "What the Force tells me to do," she said matter-of-factly, a smile touching her lips.

Obi-Wan nodded, and allowed a smile to grow.

"So," Mara said firmly, "why did you come here?"

"Actually," Obi-Wan said, remembering they had gotten a little off-track, "I came to ask your opinion on recent events with Luke. I have the feeling you know him a lot better than the Security Council does ? perhaps more than the Council would wish." His eyes twinkled.

Mara formed an expression of seriousness, but her eyes showed amusement. "Okay. And I suppose you figured I would be more honest with you?"

Obi-Wan spread his hands silently.

Mara grinned. "All right."

Obi-Wan had a feeling that when Mara returned to her position, Luke was going to have an interesting time of it.

To the glory of the Empire.

--- Dedication, Annals of the Empire, Vol. I.

Mara did not usually receive intelligence reports as a whole. Generally speaking, information came in erratically, with the recipients never totally sure what the information meant or how it connected. That was where analysis came in, of course, and cross-analysis of that information and other information, past history and character profiles of operatives, spies, and the enemy. But since her sabbatical, Mara had not gotten those reports in increments like she usually did, and there were whole masses of condensed reports waiting for her.

Reading through it all at one time, seeing it as a whole instead of in pieces, the picture of what Skywalker was planning began to gain some coherency on the edges. Still a little fuzzy in the middle, the core of the issue, but that wasn't terribly surprising.

Not everything that happened within Skywalker's sphere of influence was planned, but it was all used. From the Vaderians and the public reaction to that, to the school system and curricula, Skywalker was changing the Empire, and when the Empire changed, so did the Republic.

No, Skywalker did not intend war; not with the Republic, at any rate. If anything, Mara was beginning to believe the entire appearance of war was a disguise of some sort for something else, though she couldn't imagine what.

Perhaps she would ask him. His response, no matter what it was, would be indicative of something. Besides which, she didn't think Luke particularly enjoyed lying ? he just did it on a regular basis because it was necessary.

Mara closed her eyes and smiled. She had taken some initiative since returning to her duties, finding that her assistants had done more than a competent job while she was gone, and she had left to them a good deal of the prerogative they had possessed during her absence. That left her free to travel a ways, of course, and take care of her duties as Skywalker's consort - which were more interesting, in her opinion, at least where such duties and Skywalker intersected.

Such interaction caused her Master to worry, but that was unavoidable.

Mara opened her eyes. Coruscant was before her on the gigantic viewing screen in her office on board the Republic ship Singularity, the night side visible at the moment. Lights were spread across its surface in dizzying patterns, so intricate they could only have been formed over hundreds of years. If she looked carefully, the dizzying pattern was beginning to converge on one spot: the Imperial Palace. Even buildings and spacelanes centuries older, it would seem, took notice of the relatively new Palace.

Her awareness of the Force was constant now. The daily meditations on Ferwyn, the weaving of it into her life and thinking, and the habit of reaching out and touching it every moment had increased her connection to it. Having midichlorians, even the training, were only steps onto the path of becoming more and more of a vessel of the Force. And with that, she felt peace settle on her, lightening the load of everything else. To have purpose ? what a joy that was.

The missions for the New Republic, the constant struggle for survival in those early years, and even the silent fight between her and Skywalker had all distracted her from doing that which would help her. The Council had been right; she had needed that stay.

The Force sang with a sweet melody. She sighed, closing her eyes again and relaxing. Skywalker was still barely a twinge on the edge of her senses. Definitely more than before, her senses better attuned to the slightest ripple, but not nearly enough. Her knowledge was limited to that he was on Coruscant.

Her comm beeped, and she leaned over to check it, but it wasn't an audio message.

Welcome. I'll be at the Palace.

Mara had to smile. She wondered how long he had spent deciding on the proper amount of casualness and calculated lack of personal tone.

She rose to her feet and walked out of the office, not even glancing back.

The Palace had at least two of everything, and backups for that just in case. The greenhouse was the rare exception. Unlike the rest of the Palace gardens, it was protected from the dirty air of Coruscant, even the water being completely pure, with no disinfectants or additives to keep it free of bacteria. The plants were carefully chosen to live in the secure environment of the greenhouse, forming a tiny, complete ecology.

It was hot and humid.

Luke knew for a fact that Jade had never been here, and she probably did not even know it existed. It was tucked away in one of the many obscure corners of the Palace, and served little purpose ? it wasn't public, to show the magnificence of the Empire, nor was it particularly meant to be a private sanctuary. Luke had discovered it a few months after Jade had left the last time, after the adjustment of the treaty. For some reason, it reminded him of her.

The first thing he noticed was that her sense in the Force had changed. The effect of her presence on the Force around her was subdued, but more intricate in the ripples of her emotions and thoughts, not so easy to discern. Her skill had increased, and for some reason, that made Luke feel . . . more intrigued. It would be a challenge to read her.

He turned on the bench to watch her approach. She wasn't dressed in Jedi clothing, but instead wore a white tunic that was fitted, but loose, with a white skirt that stopped below her knees. And sandals, revealing nicely formed feet.

She smiled at him, meeting his eyes, and he returned it, with some reservations, but he'd been having those for months and they were easily pushed aside.

She didn't speak until she had settled beside him on the bench, giving him a thorough once-over with her green eyes. No apology about it, but neither was there any in his regard of her.

"I've never been here," she commented, glancing around at the high, translucent dome above them and the rich garden surrounding them.

Luke nodded. "I know," he said simply.

"Is that why you chose it?" Mara asked, coming to that conclusion effortlessly.

Luke hesitated, then nodded. Perhaps she had also learned better skills to read him, as well. He touched the Force, never quite brushing her shields, trying to get a sense of her without being intrusive or her being aware of it.

"So," Mara said after a moment of silence. "What did you want to talk about today?"

Luke's mouth twitched, reminded of the deal, wondering, wondering . . . but he was being foolish. "Everything and nothing," he said lightly with a shrug.

"Covering all the bases, I see," she retorted with humor.

"As always," Luke murmured, aware he often seemed calculating ? though he often was. "Did you enjoy your long stay on Ferwyn?"

I did," Mara said, raising her eyebrows slightly, eyes moving away in remembrance. "It was good for me."

"It didn't end this?" Luke asked, deliberately bringing up their last meeting. Not that he thought he could ever bring up that kiss specifically, that horribly intense and revealing moment.

"No," she whispered, expression unreadable. She shook her head, the action stronger than her voice. "Not in the least."

"I'm glad," Luke said, voice no stronger than hers.

She smiled, a full smile that reached her eyes, and her aura in the Force danced briefly. "Good." There were a few moments of quiet, where they simply watched each other. Taking it slow, easy, no pushing here. She felt wonderfully alive, sitting there, and Luke just took it in, noting her attentiveness to him and not being bothered by it. A strand of her red hair lay over her shoulder.

She smiled again, and Luke returned it. "I like your hair," he said, randomly, totally unsure of where to begin. There was no goal here, no desired end result, because he wasn?t sure what he wanted to begin with, and this was hardly politics anyway. "It's such an unusual color."

"I had a pirate once threaten to take it and my scalp because of that," Mara remarked with dry humor, surprising him.

Luke laughed, trying to picture that, and a younger Mara. More fiery and uncontrolled, he imagined, less restricted by Jedi behavior. He ? would have liked that, he thought. "I'm sure you showed him the inadvisability of that."

She shook her head, not in denial, but amusement. "My Master said later that my reaction to that didn't help our situation any."

"You don't strike me as having ever been timid," Luke remarked, thinking that a good thing.

"I cursed out the Council once," Mara said, nodding sagely.

"I would have liked to see that," Luke said, laughing. Twice, already.

"What, no recording?" she inquired with a raised eyebrow.

"I wish," Luke said, shaking his head, trying to picture the Council's reaction to such a thing. He wondered if they had all been there. His father's tales of the Council had hardly led him to believe that such things would ever occur among the Jedi. Perhaps that was another change since the Jedi began taking older initiates, or taking students old enough to be Padawans. And for once Luke was not thinking of the political advantage of having bugs in the Jedi Council's meeting area.

More quiet, then.

"What about you?" Mara asked. "Any funny stories to tell?"

"I don't think the Palace is as relaxed as your Temple," Luke said, looking away, not really in sadness. His father's death, and the complexities of his life, were not something that haunted Luke any more. "My father and I had our moments, though."

Mara looked out into the green thick of plants. "Some of the Jedi have fathers that they know, but not many," Mara commented softly. "How different that must be."

"It is connection," Luke said quietly, meeting Mara's eyes when she finally turned back to him. "How the Jedi ever separated children from their parents ? what a loss," he said. "It is a wonderful, unexplainable thing, but it changes you."

"Maybe that's why they didn't allow it," Mara said.

Luke considered. "Perhaps," he said after a moment. "But I think the Jedi lost a lot of depth for that."

Mara cocked her head. "Depth of feeling?"

"Yes. Or the variety present in life, at the very least. It is a commitment of a different sort, I suppose," Luke said. "To something imperfect, that you nevertheless love. That is life, not commitment to some abstract."

"The Force isn't abstract," Mara retorted, drawing herself up.

"But the interpretation?" Luke asked, raising an eyebrow, knowing perfectly well that Mara did not entirely agree with the Jedi's interpretation, at times.

"Point conceded," Mara said with a smile.

They both waited, for what, Luke couldn't guess. A minute passed, while the uncomfortable feeling of speaking of emotions faded.

"Thank you for coming," Luke said awkwardly after a moment.

"My pleasure," Mara returned easily. Her smile faded. "Do you ?"

"Feel that there is so little time?" Luke finished. "I find it ironic we have stolen moments that neither of us are sure we should be having, and yet we are married."

"Even if just by politics," Mara added, with a wry smile.

"More than that," Luke admitted in a spurt of unexpected honesty, startling himself. Either she saw the truth with uncommon clarity, or he blurted it out; surely this was the fault of the Force. He paused. "What did the Force tell you, when I proposed?"

"It told me to say yes," Mara whispered. "As it told the Jedi, and they couldn't understand why." She paused, searching his gaze. "I wasn?t part of the original plan, was I?"

For a second, Luke felt panic, wondering ? did she know? But there was no way for her to know, even if she could put it all together, because no matter how far the NR had infiltrated his people, the key would be missing. None of them saw. Not even her, and his heart calmed.

He shook his head.

"Whatever that plan may be," she added, and he had a feeling she knew he relaxed further at that. He did not mean to reveal himself so thoroughly to her. He could not, not yet, still. "Well," she said, "since regardless of that, we are wed, perhaps we should get to know one another."

What a simplification of reality, Luke thought. Are we wed, truly? Not in the spirit of the word. But he didn't say that, because he didn't want to. "So, then," he said casually, "what do you want to talk about?"

She smiled, pretty green eyes intent. "Everything and nothing."

So they talked. The conversation drifted from topic to topic, dancing from politics and philosophy to favorite foods. Luke, she learned, had a surprisingly unsophisticated taste in food. Probably from his time on Tatooine, but she wasn't quite ready to reveal that she knew that yet. Instead, she teased him on his simplicity, and he had hardly seemed to know how to react, finally settling on a sharp remark on Jedi humbleness.

She liked watching him while he talked. He revealed more of himself when he did that, when he relaxed a little and let his guard down just a touch. The brightness in his eyes, the energy in his movements, his careful attentiveness to her, how he reacted and responded to what she said. How he was when he talked about the past, about his father.

Neither of them had mentioned any uncertainty over what they were doing. Because it sure as hell wasn't just talking.

Exhilarating, but still frightening, Mara thought.

He was very human, in all the vulnerabilities and strengths of that word, when he talked about his father. Just mentions, really, here and there, nothing truly in-depth and personal. When she talked about her experiences, her thoughts, his regard became very focused. To have all that intensity and calculation on her was somewhat intimidating, but then ? she could see his caution, as well. His being taken aback, his surprise.

Surely two people getting to know each other was normally like this.

She could hardly stand it. She wanted to know more, she wanted past those walls, and damn it, if she could get past his, she'd let him past hers.

She wanted to know.

He was so much more than the Emperor. Or a Sith. If he was one at all.

Surely it wasn't her imagination that he was equally interested in her?

Besides that kiss. They were drawn to each other, no question about that. Just questions about almost everything else.

"This is very different," Mara said at last. Less fraught than their other conversations, like that kiss that neither of them could mention had released some kind of tension. It was slower, more relaxed, a gradual and less painful revealing and discovering.

"It is," Luke said softly.

Mara studied Luke for a moment. "Do you think we could be friends?"

He met her eyes. "No. I don't think this is that simple. Do you?" he questioned, calm and in control.

"I don't think I want it to be," Mara challenged.

Then she waited. Watching him to see what he would do. They both tiptoed very nicely, but the time for that was over, as far as Mara was concerned. She could feel the Force, ready and waiting for them. Here, in this garden, the air thick and humid, the smell of him so near, the intensity and power of his presence ?

Luke let out a small breath, a smile lurking at the corner of his lips. "Neither do I," he admitted finally. Mara said nothing, watching him. Nervous tension rose in Luke, in contrast to her apparent calm, to act or not to act, and which would he regret more.

He leaned forward, not quite tentatively, and that was enough for Mara's face to soften, for something within her expression to give, and he kissed her.

Smooth and easy, warm and soft. He drew away from the kiss for a moment, and her sudden exhale was warm. He could feel her mouth twitch into a smile, and he kissed it away. Gentle, still, and this their only contact. It was a give and take, no struggle for dominance or understanding. Just . . . sweet.

Bittersweet when he finally broke the kiss, reluctant, and she followed him for a moment, eyes opening into slits of soft green. Her eyes closed and she smiled, bringing her hand to her mouth, but not actually touching her lips.

Watching her do that felt more intimate than kissing her.

"Meditate with me," Mara murmured, something deep and unsettling in her eyes.

Luke choked off a quiet laugh. "I kiss you and ?"

She raised an eyebrow. "And I ask something more of you."

"Is it more?" he asked, deliberately and strongly meeting her eyes.

"I want to know you," she whispered.

Luke cocked his head. "I don't think this is the way things are normally done." No accusation in that, just observation, but he waited to see her reaction.

"We're normal?" she said, eyes widening.

Luke looked away for a moment, smiling briefly, but it quickly faded. "You're right, though," he said, referring to the intimacy involved. He shook his head. "I don't even meditate like a Jedi does." He met her eyes. "What do you think you would see?"

She looked surprised by that. "You," she said simply.

"Not the people I've killed?? Even the Jedi?" Luke questioned. Was he afraid of that? He was, in some sense, but he almost wanted to dare her to see what he was. She had told him once she wanted to get beneath his shields, and he had told her she wouldn't like what she would find. Would even he?

"I don't think you're perfect, or your father," Mara retorted, and Luke almost recoiled, regaining control just in time. But there was no censure or anger in her voice.

"Forgiveness and acceptance opening the way?" Luke asked softly. The key to friendship. "My ? someone told me that once," he said, slipping, but not caring for once.

Mara paused, withdrawing slightly. "How about honesty?" she asked, and without waiting for a reply, continued, "Was is it your aunt or uncle who said that?"

"How ?" Luke demanded, startled. Stopped. "Kenobi." Flat. But honesty, nevertheless. "My aunt," he said after a long moment. "Aunt Beru." Yet another pause, then he added, "They're dead now," almost cruelly.

Mara wasn't fooled. "How did they die?" she asked, the unperturbed tone to her words saying ? I thought we were beyond this. But not only that; it was still a question truly asked.

Luke closed his eyes, and rubbed his face, unable to speak. How did she do that? See beyond the delay, the doubt, and the stalling tactics. I want this, too, he thought. "They were caught in a sandstorm," he said at last. "After I left. A very painful way to die."

And still, she was astute. "You felt it?" she said, a look of pain on her face.

"I was skilled enough for that, by then," he said dryly, sadly.

Mara took his hands in hers, and Luke permitted it. She took a breath, then spoke. "Let me in," was her soft request.

Quite a request, but . . . were they not what they were? They were trained Force-sensitives, whoever it had been who trained them. And he wanted this. He desperately wanted this, and he felt that same desperation from her. Painful, urgent ? who could ever call love weak? This woman challenged everything about him, saw his weaknesses, and he could not help but be here, with her. He did not want to let go of these feelings she evoked.

He twisted his wrists, smoothly taking her hands in his. He brought one hand up, kissing her palm. The affection of the act was calming, and her shiver despite the heat made him feel ? he was not the only one powerless. She brought that hand to the side of his face, watching him, waiting, concerned ? he closed his eyes.

There was always a subtle difference in how he felt the Force, when his shields were up and high as they could be, and when he relaxed, and left himself open. Something he had rarely done, only with his father after Palpatine's death, but freeing and wonderful despite the rareness.

Mara felt like light.

Strands of it, webs, interconnecting and strong. She was a Jedi, he could sense that more clearly than ever. Her strength and fierceness shone out from her, easy to see now, when before he had sensed a wild power, not yet tamed by time and experience. Immature, he had thought, but no ? this was fire. Hard, harsh, dangerous, yet curving and smooth, elegant to the touch.

He was tentative. Slowly and carefully, he let himself be more aware of her in the present, now ? with his mind opening before her. Not all the way, that probably wasn't even possible, and shields still remained, yet she could see more of him now than he ever thought he would reveal. Some parts of himself were still hidden, perhaps even to himself.

He felt her wonder, and exhaled sharply at the pureness of it.

I would not curse you, she thought, and he heard it.

What do you see? he wanted to ask, but didn't.

I see you.

"I'm being very irresponsible," Luke murmured, eyes still shut.

Mara raised herself onto an elbow to get a better look at Luke. He lay on the wild grass, sprawled in a completely relaxed manner, completely ignoring the dizzyingly beautiful dome up above. Mara had lain similarly.

After that conspicuously unmentioned shared 'meditation', they had been absolutely exhausted. Mara knew they had barely brushed beyond the surface shields of both their minds, but even that was ? stunning in depth. Her Master had often told her that people were so complex, and when the Force was involved, even more so; never in her life had Mara seen something more aptly demonstrated.

Luke had been almost ? lighthearted when they finally stepped out of it, while they were both a little dazed. They had walked around the greenhouse for a while, neither saying a word. Mara was still absorbing everything she had felt. Light, and Darkness, and a hell of a lot in-between. Luke was . . . more than she had imagined.

The grass was a very comfortable place to sit, really. And to lie down, if one was so inclined.

"Why are you being irresponsible?" Mara finally asked, propping her head up with her hand.

His blue eyes opened and he looked at her. "I have duties."

"They'll manage," Mara said offhandedly, plucking the grass.

He reached out and stopped her, shooting her a smile. "Protected preserve," he murmured.

Mara stared at him in disbelief. "Showing your sense of humor now, I see."

"It's true," he protested, both earnest and mocking.

She smiled at him. It seemed to her they were both smiling a lot, a really rather obsessive amount, since meeting each other a few hours ago. A few minutes passed that way, Mara thinking, peering at him, and Luke very calmly, almost drowsily, returning the favor.

"When do you have to go?" Luke asked suddenly, softly.

"Pretty soon," Mara said, sighing. It was like a magical spell, being here, uninterrupted. Surreal, really, if she was honest with herself. Frolicking through a greenhouse with a half-Sith hadn't been how she thought this day would end.

"This will pass," Luke said, as if reading her thoughts.

"This?" Mara murmured.

"Happiness," Luke finished. Mara met his eyes sharply, somehow surprised by his bluntness. "We'll have doubts, fears, maybe even ? something will happen, to even better illustrate how foolish this is."

Mara snorted, knowing it was in some sense true, but it had been true for quite a while now. "Don't be a cynic."

"Who is more the fool, the fool or the fool who follows him?" Luke queried, ignoring her words.

"I don't know, what would that make you?" Mara retorted.

Luke grinned. "I'm still deciding on that one."

"I know you're not a Sith," Mara stated. "The skills, you said, but not the nature ? or desire. And I saw you." You can't hide as much as you used to.

Luke nodded, the movement seeming somehow careful, some shadow in his eyes. "But I'm not a Jedi. And I won't abandon the Sith ways."

"Why not?"

"Because they serve me well," Luke said sharply, as if it was obvious, and she was a stupid child for asking. Of course, only one of them here was an Emperor, so in a certain sense, he had a point.

"You can't dance around the Dark Side," Mara pointed out, remembering Obi-Wan's cautionary words.

"I don't dance or dabble," Luke said wryly. "I use it when it suits me."

"You're not that in control," Mara said flatly. Fear, pain, seduction, and the final fall; Luke was at the precipice, having crawled back up from the depths, she felt. "No matter what you think. These shadows I see ? don't tell me the Darkness doesn't haunt you, I won't believe you."

Luke closed his eyes, saying nothing. That perfect mask of control didn't slip; he was too skilled for that, but then, she knew that would be the case. How he structured his mind, his emotions, was still something of a mystery to her, even with what they had so briefly shared.

"The Dark Side will never ease your pain," Mara said softly.

"I'm not ?" he began, than stopped, as if realizing the uselessness of the denial. "And the Light will?" he said, opening his eyes, glaring at her.

"Forgiveness and acceptance aren't Dark Side traits," Mara retorted, with full awareness.

Luke's eyes narrowed, but Mara felt through the Force a small, shielded amount of amusement. "How can this work when we don't even believe in the same things?"

"I learned from you," Mara said. "Do you remember telling me how Jedi use the Light to blind themselves? How Light can influence a being of Darkness?" Did you believe that? "Couldn't you learn from me?"

Luke stared off into the distance, then refocused his gaze on her. "I don't know," he said simply, the remark more powerful in that she had only once heard him say that before. "What will you teach me?"

Mara looked at him carefully for a long moment, then lay beside him and put her head on his shoulder. She felt him stiffen, tense as if to strike out, and she carefully held still ? then he wrapped one arm loosely around her. "Does this bother you?" she whispered, wondering if he had ever had this for the sake of having it. If Vader had ever held him.

Luke could be breathtakingly, disturbingly honest. "Yes, it does."

She didn't ask why he was holding her anyway.

Skywalker stood on a distant landing, watching her leave. Mara felt him before she saw him, his presence creating the slightest of ripples. Before stepping onto the ramp of the shuttle, which would take her to the Republic ship up above and away from Coruscant, she searched for him with her eyes.

He stood alone on the landing, though she caught a glimpse of something hooded and small. Despite the huge Palace behind him, he didn't look small and insignificant, aware of the enormity of his surroundings; it was just there, present by his allowance, a representation of his power.

She could not see the look in his eyes.

She turned away, walking on board, wondering for the briefest of moments, wishfully thinking ? what would have Luke been, had he not been Emperor Skywalker?

To the glory of the Empire., she thought sadly.

To die fighting is to die free. Should we then cower in the dark for a few more hours of falsely lived life?

--- Excerpt, quote from The Clone Wars: Vol. II, Bail Organa. Annals of the Empire, Vol. III.

The hologram of Leia flickered, the quality grainy with frequent interruptions. Still, the serenity of his daughter shone through despite the tone of worry to her words.

"Father, the Imperial Intelligence division is growing continually more suspicious of me. I know we have spoken on this before," Leia said ruefully, "but it is still a matter of concern. The pressure isn't easing. I don't know if this new direction in the Empire's interests is because of the new Intelligence director, but this could seriously compromise our situation on Alderaan." She paused, swallowing, and it was left unsaid where that would lead.

"I look forward to seeing you on Coruscant, Father. I believe it's too dangerous to pass information that way any longer, however. Han . . . I think Han can get past the Imperials without being caught. The weapons plans will make their way to you," she said, determination once again coloring her tone. Her voice softened. "I hope to see you soon, Father."

The holo flickered for a moment longer, holding, then died. The tiny device that had somewhat miraculously shown it became inert once more, and Bail sat for a moment, then turned to his friend, also sitting on the couch in Bail's apartment, waiting for his response.

Obi-Wan's expression was grave. "Perhaps it is time for Leia to make her way here," he said reluctantly, folding his hands into his robe. "I can only agree with your assessment ? it is becoming too dangerous."

"The added attention Skywalker may be granting her . . ." Bail shook his head. "Leia doesn't know why I'm so worried about that. I finally told her that her birth mother had been briefly involved in the beginnings of the Rebellion in the Senate, but I don't think convincing her to leave Alderaan will be that easy. I'm not even sure she believes my explanation ? I wouldn't, in her situation."

Obi-Wan sighed. "There's no reason to think Luke would pay any more attention to her by now ? to be quite honest, if he doesn't know she's Force-sensitive by now, he's not going to, and if he does know, he clearly doesn't care. She's just gotten too close to whatever Luke is attempting to hide."

Bail snorted. "Well, she's not going to back off."

"Perhaps not," Obi-Wan said with a small smile. "That would not appear to be in her character."

Bail met Obi-Wan's eyes. "I wonder . . . if I should tell her the truth."

"It is your decision, ultimately . . . but I don't see what it would accomplish, other than anguish for your daughter, and perhaps further complications. I would talk to the Council first, as well," Obi-Wan advised.

Bail nodded, the thought of telling Leia the truth being a distant, unsought option in his mind. And yet, if it got her out of the Empire, it might be worth it. She'd be safe with the New Republic as she could not be in the Empire. And at least the deception would be over, whatever the results to their relationship.

"Perhaps you should ask Mara Jade her opinion," Obi-Wan suggested.

Startled, Bail carefully examined Obi-Wan for a moment. "Why do you say that?"

Obi-Wan shrugged. "She knows Luke best, there is no denying that. I tend to think her view of him is more accurate than most, even the Council's, or mine."

Bail nodded at last. "I will consider speaking to her."

"I don't envy your decision, old friend," Obi-Wan said simply, meeting Bail's eyes.

Bail took some comfort in that, and nodded. Yes, he had some thinking to do, indeed.

Blasted bureaucracy.

She spent hours muddling through it, and then more muddling through Imperial politics, which was just as bad as bureaucracy; in fact, the two often interconnected in strange and unusual ways, like the New Republic Senators wanting to increase patrols around space lanes with a lot of farming traffic of ciyanth berries while the Empire had a little fit over the prices, which Mara as consort was supposed to soothe for the sake of the treaty, and then the various logistical issues involved in pleasing the Senators and placating a few Imperial Moffs. Frustrating to say the least. In moments of dark humor, Mara imagined Palpatine and Vader never had this problem; placating and pleasing were not on their list of priorities.

With Luke, she wondered . . . No wonder he skipped between the two, Light and Darkness: bureaucracy, and less bureaucracy.

"Knight Jade?"

Mara looked up from her datapad, turning to face the very familiar owner of the voice. Bail Organa stood before her, his presence, as was typical, calm and steady, save for a few subtle ripples of something else that she sensed.

He regarded her with dark eyes for a moment, then continued. "May we speak in private?"

Mara hesitated, curious, then simply nodded. He could want to speak to her on anything, though it most likely wasn't frivolous, as some of the other Senators could sometimes be in their requests. Especially here, so close to the Senate hall itself.

"My office?" Bail suggested, but something about it seemed necessary, like he would press if he had to.

"Shall we?" Mara said with a genuine smile.

Bail returned it, and silently led the way to his office. As with most of what served as the Senate building, it wasn't very austere or impressive, but it served its purpose well enough anyway. When they entered, Bail didn't sit; Mara waited for him to speak.

"I want to ask you something, and you must not ask why," Bail said bluntly.

Mara opened her mouth, then closed it, ready to argue, then realizing . . . well, despite her curiosity, Bail no doubt had his reasons. "Very well."

"Obi-Wan has said you know Skywalker well, better than any of us," Bail began.

Better than any of you know, she thought. "Perhaps so," she agreed cautiously.

"The Empire has been keeping a close watch on my daughter, and increased pressure on her and the other operatives on Alderaan," Bail said. "Do you think Skywalker intends to follow through on the increased threat?"

Mara sighed, and shook her head. "It may not even be Skywalker. I doubt he keeps tabs on everything his counter-Intelligence section does. But he's not shown any greater inclination to go after our people than he has before." She shrugged; that was all she had. She sensed there was something more behind what Bail was asking, but she wasn't sure what, precisely, that something was.

"A not very specific answer to a not very specific question," Bail murmured, slowly sitting on one of the guest seats.

Mara looked down at him for a moment, then sat in the other seat, waiting.

"We know that Skywalker will play a game on many levels to get what he desires," Bail said after a long, drawn-out moment. "Would he do the same with a Force-sensitive? Even a Jedi, or a person with the capability of being one?"

It suddenly made sense. "You mean you think he may be after your daughter because she's a Force-sensitive?"

Bail paused, staring at Mara. "Most Jedi don't sense that about her."

Mara met his eyes. She wouldn't have known, save for an overheard conversation and a few files she had no business looking at. "Skywalker doesn't want an apprentice."

Bail exhaled roughly.

"I'm fairly certain of that. And he would see it as a waste of time and effort to have an unwilling one, like Leia Organa," Mara continued. Even if he did know she was his sister.

"That is . . . a relief." And yet, not all worry was dispelled; Mara could sense that.

"But they're still after her," Mara said softly, looking into Bail's eyes and seeing the worry of a father.

"She refuses to leave. She's trying to get to us weapons plans from Kearek on new, advanced ship designs and missiles," Bail said.

"I'm sorry," Mara said, rather uselessly. They could use the information, but Leia Organa's life would be a high cost. The situation wasn't any easy one.

Bail sighed, then seemed to withdraw, becoming once again a collected, composed man, instead of a worried parent. For a moment, Mara felt a sharp ache, remembering her conversation with Luke about fathers and children, that blood connection. Even if Bail and Leia did not technically share that, they still had that connection. She and Adi were very close, but she had a feeling it was not quite the same, somehow. Mara's history as a thief was so different from that of a normal Jedi, and while their relationship had been different for that, Mara had never thought of Adi as a mother.

Her loss, or perhaps the loss of them both.

"Thank you," Bail said at last. "You have ? given me some relief," he said with a gentle smile.

Mara just nodded to that, feeling that it had still been inadequate. And yet, as she considered Bail's words further, she wondered ? did he fear that the extra attention would lead to the discovery of Leia's true identity? She didn't quite dare ask, but it made sense. Still, what she had told him was true: it was unlikely Luke had any true interest in Leia. "I will leave you to your thoughts," she said finally, rising to her feet.

Bail rose with her, gaze intent, as if seeing something in Mara that was making him think. "May the Force be with you," he said.

"And you," Mara returned.

Several days had passed before Bail spoke with Obi-Wan again, and by then he had come to a decision: not to tell Leia about her brother, and to use every other means to get her to come home. Up to and including getting what Bail referred to as 'that smuggler', Han Solo, to agree to help when he arrived with the new weapon system plans.

Obi-Wan thought it fortunate for Solo that Bail didn't know yet about the wedding.

But Bail was astute, and he'd pick it up soon; Solo wasn't the most ethical of people, but a good deal of it was due to circumstances where Solo had chosen survival, and overall, the young man was probably not a bad choice. Children ? well, they would deal with that when the time came.

He had already picked up on something else, something that Obi-Wan had seen as well. Mara ? twitched when Leia was mentioned. Almost guiltily.

The Force was indicating that it was time to confront that.

Perhaps it was underhanded, but Obi-Wan felt that after a long day of boring, frustrating work, Mara would be at her most vulnerable. It would be humorous if the situation wasn't so serious. If Mara knew, others might know, and that did not speak well for Leia's precarious situation. As well as the fact that Mara might have had an ethical lapse herself.

As usual, Mara was staying at the Temple while she remained on Ferwyn. It reassured the Council and pleased Adi, and it was probably the most restful place for Mara. Having been there before, Obi-Wan knew where Mara's quarters were, and had no difficulty waiting for her to pass by. Night was falling, leaving deep shadows everywhere, somehow elegant in the starkness of the Temple.


Obi-Wan pulled back his hood, stepping forward out of shadow. "Hello, Mara."

She smiled tentatively, a bit puzzled. She entered her quarters, and stepped aside to let him enter as well.

It was time for him to be less of a considerate, wise Master; that which Mara had always known him as.

"Do you ever think about the Death Star?" Obi-Wan questioned.

"What?" Mara said, blinking.

"Destroying it," Obi-Wan prompted, giving away nothing in his posture or eyes, knowing Mara to be well attuned to such by now.

She hardly even tensed; yes, she was skilled in hiding. Skywalker had likely taught her that, whether he intended it or not. "Dwelling on past acts achieves nothing."

"And what of better understanding?"

"Understanding of what?" Mara asked warily.

"Consequences," Obi-Wan said, most innocuously.

She met his gaze evenly, folding her arms, her body language no longer tense, but firm and unyielding, not ready for combat but unmovable. "One million, two thousand, four hundred and thirty-two. Not including the droids." She paused. "What of consequences?"

Good, Obi-Wan thought. That she knew that so well, sad as it was, and that she had vision enough to see, react and act. Luke had chosen a consort well. And yet, that very fact also mostly confirmed, to Obi-Wan's mind, that Mara did know. "You know of Leia."

"She is Bail Organa's daughter ? Mara began after a hesitation.

"You know that is not what I am referring to," Obi-Wan interrupted.

Mara halted, closing her eyes.

"How did you discover the identity of her parents?" Obi-Wan asked softly.

"A half-heard conversation," Mara said dryly, "hacking skills, and a rather lacking sense of not knowing what it is to know more than you should." She walked away and sat down on her couch heavily. "The files were wiped not long after, though I did secure them better anyway."

Obi-Wan sighed silently. "It is dangerous that you know. Bail sensed something was wrong, and told me. What if you make that mistake around Luke? For all that I don't believe he would harm her, it is not my decision to make ? and certainly not yours."

"I know," Mara said simply, meeting Obi-Wan's eyes. "But Luke, unlike you, has no reason to suspect anything."

"You call him Luke now?" Obi-Wan queried.

Mara chose not to point out that so did he. She merely shrugged, though through the Force he sensed brief spike of something ? not quite alarm, but close. "As you told Senator Organa, I probably know him better than anyone in the New Republic, at this point."

"Just be sure," Obi-Wan said softly, "that he does not know you so well ? or the information you possess."

"I would never betray the New Republic," Mara snapped.

"I would have said the same of Anakin," he murmured, "but then, he never did see it that way regardless."

Mara exhaled sharply, and did not reply.

And what more was there to say? He had cautioned her, advised her, and the rest was left up to her. The decision was hers, good or ill, and even Obi-Wan did not dare guess which path to choose. Anakin, ultimately, had chosen the wrong path, and yet, he could have been right. What had he seen that Obi-Wan did not? What did Obi-Wan understand that Anakin had not?

How strange, that so much shifted by the decisions of one person. Some called the Force the course of a river, and yet, how one tiny rock could shift the entire path of it remained mystifying if that was so.

"May the Force be with you," Obi-Wan said at last, and it was a benediction of sorts, and a warning as well.

Mara's eyes were dark with certainty. "And with you."

The light of day was giving him a headache.

He supposed it was inevitable. Five months since their last meeting; he was in the middle of a cycle of nightmares again. Still, he would have preferred not to be so unbalanced when he saw her again. It was bad enough how unsettled and unprepared she always found him. It was particularly bad, he thought, when he felt more in control of the Empire than he did in a personal relationship . . . which wasn't supposed to be personal to begin with. That truly said something, with how unwieldy and unmanageable the Empire could be.

All very cynical.

He was still looking forward to this.

He turned away from the window, pondering having the floor length curtains drawn closed. He wrapped his arms around himself, feeling absurdly cold. Maybe he was getting ill.

Surely it didn't have anything to do with the Republic getting too interested where they shouldn't be yet, Mara coming, Kejal's silent disapproval, and that Moff getting too uppity in dangerous ways.

Luke sighed, and pushed all that out of his mind. He sat on the couch and rested his head in his hands for a long moment, drawing on the Force to calm and strengthen him.

Ah, there it was. Like tightly drawn shimmersilk, that was her presence.

"Tired?" Mara asked, stepping into the room as he raised his head.

He didn't say anything, just watching her for a moment. She wore white again, leaving him to feel lost in the dark in his black. Strange, how the white didn't wash her out, but made her look more alive. "I'm fine," he said finally.

She walked over to him and sat down beside him. He leaned back, content for the moment to let her take charge, curious to see what she would do with it. She didn't speak, instead facing him and laying her head on the back of the couch. A very casual position, very trusting, unready for combat. So odd, when they normally faced each other, watching every movement.

They sat there for a while.

Luke closed his eyes, the quiet soothing.

He was startled by her touch ? a gentle hand on the side of his face ? and his eyes snapped open. Stupid, he thought, letting yourself relax that much. You can't stop being aware ?

"You don't have to be tense every moment," Mara remarked, withdrawing.

He raised an eyebrow, sitting fully up, and said dryly, "You know my situation that well?"

"Simple practicality," Mara said, not offended. "Even Sith have to sleep."

Luke's eyes narrowed, off-put. "I have heard that some Jedi don't."

"But they still rest," Mara corrected, smiling.

"We only have today," Luke pointed out. Such a childish admission, and an unguarded one. Mara traveled constantly, whereas Luke was kept busy even just staying on Coruscant.

Mara paused, considering, green eyes dark. "Okay. Maybe we should go for a walk."

Not really what he felt like doing, but he nodded anyway. He rose to his feet, offered her his hand to help her rise, which she took to his surprise. "Lead the way, my lady," he said with a demure smile.

She shot him a suspicious glance, but led him out of the room. They walked slowly, casually, though Mara tensed for a split second when she realized they were being followed by Luke's guards. He had always told them to keep a greater distance before, but in this case, he hadn't expected to be leaving the room, so they were following at their normal distance.

"I thought Sith could take of themselves," Mara murmured to him.

Luke focused on her. "The smart ones have good subordinates," he retorted, perfectly aware of the purpose of the jabs.

Mara shrugged innocently. "What about the rule of two?"

"Don't be childish," Luke said mildly.

Mara smiled briefly.

She's up to something, Luke thought, but didn't let that thought show on his face. He should be more guarded, that was all. He nearly stopped, however, when he realized where she was leading them. This was far too specific, if they were going where he thought they were. They moved through the Imperial Gardens, with little conversation, slowly meandering over to the balcony where they had discussed Andar Kel and he had watched Leia Organa, wondering what the Jedi were up to.

Luke had nearly forgotten that the Organas? meetings had continued here, in the Imperial Palace.

Mara seemed somehow aware of the direction of his thoughts. "I want to tell you something," she said, her gaze intent on his.

After a pause, Luke dipped his head in acknowledgement and agreement. "Very well."

She led him to the balcony overlooking the gardens. To Luke's surprise, there they were ? Bail and Leia Organa. Rumors continued to abound, of course, that Leia Organa had married her paramour, Han Solo, but that was the only thing Luke could think of that could possibly be of interest. Puzzling, and Luke didn't like being puzzled; or led when he wasn't in control, led to something unexpected.

Mara casually leaned against the balcony, gazing down at the Organas talking, their voices too low to be heard. Luke joined her cautiously, checking the angles to make sure they were out of sight from the Organas. Had this been planned with them? Surely not an assassination . . . he could not think that of Mara, and it made no sense, anyway.

"What is it?" Luke asked warily, unsure he even wanted the answer.

Mara glanced at him. "I don't really have any right to do this, but . . . look at Leia," she said.

Cautiously, Luke turned away from her, focusing on the girl. "What about her?

"Reach out in the Force," Mara requested softly.

"I already know she's Force sensitive," Luke said blandly, hoping that was it, but having a feeling it wasn't.

Mara simply nodded. "I know. The Jedi started suspecting that you knew. I had a conversation with Bail, as well."

Luke turned his attention back to Leia. She was his own age, a beautiful woman, fiery and intelligent. A New Republic agent, as well, though that wasn't quite as dangerous for her since the treaty four years before. The Jedi had hidden her in plain sight ? why was still a mystery.

"What does the Force tell you?" Mara asked, again eerily seeming to read his thoughts.

Just how tired am I? Luke thought, reinforcing his shields, and opening himself up to the Force fully, listening to the stillness, not acting, but letting himself be acted upon ? led, in the one way he could truly accept. He closed his eyes, exhaling, not doing this halfway, but immersing himself into the Force. Like an ocean, marked by the waves of the living, distant shores with faded images telling of what was to be and had been.

Why had the Jedi been so protective of her? In such a strange manner? Why had Mara twitched at her presence, those years ago?

Padm? Amidala.

Rich brown hair, brown eyes as deep as the forest, his father had said ? beauty beyond that of an angel of Iego. She was so strong, your mother, an excellent politician, but one who cared, unlike these fools ?

Luke stumbled back from the balcony railing, his body suddenly clumsy with tension and fear. "No," he breathed.

Mara reached for him, but he slipped out of her grasp, meeting her gaze angrily.

"How?" he gasped, and damn this lack of control. If he had been more on guard ? Force, how could he not have known? "She's my sister, isn't she?" But why ask? The Force confirmed it joyously; it is connection, Luke had told Mara, but apparently he had more than even he knew.

Mara nodded, eyes gentle.

Luke took another step back, definitely out of sight from the two people below, breathing harshly, already beginning to regain control. "My twin," he said softly, finally meeting Mara's eyes.

Mara said nothing, newly tense.

"Why tell me this?" he whispered. "She probably hates me." Hating Mara. His father was gone, and she gave him this, but for what reason? And that Leia Organa would hate him suddenly hurt, as it would not have before; damn Jade. Was this to get him out of control? Always, always she pushed.

Mara approached him, clearly searching for words. Luke grabbed her arm painfully, but she merely met his intense gaze, not even attempting to escape his grip, a total contrast to the violence he wanted to inflict. "I trust you," she said softly.

He let her go, suddenly disinterested, wishing her to be gone. "You shouldn't," he muttered, turning away, walking away. This changed nothing; he had no interest in turning Leia, regardless of whether she was his sister. She was too set against him to ever be useful as an ally, regardless of her relation to him. Which she was probably unaware of, all considering. Whatever emotional reaction Mara was looking for, he would not grant it.

"Do you trust me?" Mara asked, and he tensed anew, wanting to react.

Luke simply stopped. "How?" he said, eyes filling with tears, though none fell. She did this, put him on guard, and then asked that question? He didn't understand her. There is no safety. I'll never be safe. Always be aware, his father had said, and he'd learned that lesson. Not being aware had led to Palpatine being in control of his training. Had led to Palpatine taking steps to ensure his apprentice, and his apprentice's powerful child, would be no threat to him.

Mara quickly stepped around him, to meet his gaze when he would not meet hers. "You won't hurt her," Mara stated. "You'll protect her now. I know that. That's in you, Luke."

"Have you seen that?" Luke growled, wondering what the Force showed her. He grabbed her shoulders and slammed her against the wall, unworried about anyone seeing them. The guards would keep them away, and they knew well enough to keep their thoughts and what they saw to themselves. Was that the point of this new pain she was forcing on him? To show him ? what? Himself?

Mara permitted the roughness for a moment, watching him, then unexpectedly and deftly applied the Force, slipping out of his grasp, though not actually moving otherwise. "You've shown me ? you've shown everyone. Your officers don't fear for their lives or their jobs as long as they know they've done their duty well; your citizens don't fear you, but love you."

Luke's arms fell to his sides, and he stared at her blankly, emotions roiling. "Why do you do this to me?"

"Who else will?" she whispered.

"I shouldn't trust you," he said brokenly.

And that was triumph for her, he realized, because that meant he did.

But she only kissed him, no triumph in that at all. Gently, and just so. He closed his eyes, wanting this to last, and wanting nothing more than to collapse and rest. Guards everywhere to keep him safe, but he always had to be aware, he thought. And what did that mean? Who did he trust?

The Force whispered to him of the nature of strength.

He kissed her back. Somewhat tenderly at first, more for himself than her.

They broke it off by silent agreement, and it truly felt like a breaking.

He was tired, but he met her eyes, and he saw her exhaustion, even this close to her, so close he could feel her breath on him. "I trust you now," he said simply. And what a burden, that had been so easily lifted.

She closed her eyes and laughed breathlessly.

She stroked his hair, and he closed his eyes. "Are you all right?" she asked, voice low.

"How can you trust me?" he asked in return, opening his eyes, watching her, reaching out in the Force for her presence, to read her and gain any sense of her he could.

"I see . . . what you do, what the Empire does, but I can't believe you do it for ill," Mara said, the words carried by a quiet breath. "I have always pushed you, and pushed past your manipulations, because I sensed that. You aren't evil," she said with gentle finality.

Luke put his hand to her face, tracing one of her eyebrows with his thumb. "Just tainted by the Dark Side, by my own will?"

"Maybe not by yours," she said, "so much as the life you have lived." She smiled at him. "You asked me ? can a being of Darkness be influenced by Light? And if," she continued relentlessly, "that is so, and a Jedi fall to the Dark, can't you find your way to the Light with as much completeness?"

"It takes time to fall," Luke murmured.

"To either," Mara admitted. She didn't look away, silently urging him to meet her eyes, and he finally did. "Fall with me?"

He was already falling.

Attempts to understand the life of Padm? Amidala are fractured at best. Her public life ultimately revealed little of her private life, though that was not thought at the time. She was thought to be open and honest, one of the few truly ethical politicians. The mystery of her relationship with Lord Vader has since shadowed that reputation, and cast new doubt on the last known facts about her life. How could a person with such contrasts in her life have dealt with those contradictions? Did Vader betray her . . . or did she betray him?

--- Annals of the Empire, Vol. II.

It was strangely enlightening, how comforting an embrace could be. Not for him; for her.

There was something about the warm solidarity of a person, holding onto them, holding them there, that brought a sense of security.

Luke, too, had calmed. He let her go first. He remained tense, but seemed calmer, more composed. He looked around the balcony area, eyes dark.


He looked out over the balcony rail, though from this angle she knew he couldn't see Leia. "This is too public," he said at last.

Mara nodded. "Then what do you suggest?" she said, playing along with his composure. His presence in the Force, while more collected, was definitely still roiled and unsettled.

He met her eyes, holding her gaze for a moment, then started walking away.

The abruptness surprised Mara, but she followed him regardless. He went inside, made the first turn, and opened the first door.

It led to a simple room. Luke stopped, a surprised look on his face, and Mara realized he didn't know where they were going either; he just wanted to get away from that balcony. A bed dominated the room, which was small. The window barely showed a corner of the gardens. It was probably a guest room for minor dignitaries. Luke stared into the room blankly.

"Luke?" Mara said softly. "Are you all right?"

He entered, then turned to face her as she followed him, and quietly shut the door. "I thought you had stopped asking stupid questions," he said at last, with no rancor.

"Stupid questions, or ones that I already know the answer to?" Mara retorted sharply.

He raised an eyebrow just slightly, and Mara sensed approval, as if she was a student who had learned a lesson well.

She sat on the loveseat set against the small window, leaving plenty of room for him to sit beside her. He did so. "You're not all right," Mara stated.

"I have a sister," Luke said matter-of-factly. "I have a twin sister."

Mara nodded slowly. "Yes, you do."

"Secondary motives," Luke said, staring blankly at nothing.


"My sister. She's gotten into trouble with the Imperial Intelligence, hasn't she?" Luke asked, looking over at Mara.

How did he ? "Yes," Mara said after a second.

"Clever," Luke remarked, looking away again. "Tell the truth, and still get what you want."

Mara put her hand to the side of his face, and turned his head to face her. "Stop it."

Luke closed his brilliant blue eyes. "I?m so tired," he admitted softly. He paused, stilling totally for a few seconds. Mara could feel his struggle, his shields slipping to her. He trusted her, and still, there was so much undiscovered between them. He wanted ? he wanted to weep. The walls were crumbling before her, and behind them she sensed horrible pain.

"You should rest," Mara said to him.

He sighed, and placed his hand over hers. "I can't."

"Why?" No real pressure behind the question, more like encouragement.

"I can't," he repeated. He opened his eyes. "Stay another day."

Mara nodded without hesitation.

"I have to go," Luke said, letting her hand go, but she took his hand in a gentle grasp.

"No, you don't," Mara rebuffed. "You want to regain control of yourself."

He smiled at that. "Would you deny me the chance to deal with what you have told me?"

"Not when you put it that way," Mara said wryly.

Luke paused, meeting her eyes. How oddly revealing that could be ? and yes, she could see that he needed time. "Thank you."

Deciding now was the time to retreat ? and she couldn't help but think of this in battle terms, at times ? Mara rose to her feet. Luke remained sitting, but he kept his gaze on her.

She kissed him on the cheek. "I'll be waiting," she said softly.

She didn't want to leave him behind.


And yet, it seemed incidental. No, he was fairly sure it was incidental ? not unplanned, certainly, a contributing factor, but hardly the driving one in Mara's decision to tell him about his sister. He had already admitted he trusted her.

Strangely ironic, really.

He had completely lost control of the situation when he began to trust her, and that trust began to guide his actions towards her, when that trust started changing the plan. The idea had to keep her ? and therefore, the New Republic ? balanced on the edge of a knife about him and the Empire. But Mara had managed to see things both in a more black-and-white and complicated perspective than he had granted her able to, and disaster had resulted.

So to speak. But the ironic part was that he was doing the exact opposite of what he had ever thought he'd do, of any mistake he had thought he would make. That he would begin to trust her, like her, more than like her, had never occurred to him. To truly have her as an ally, not an ally by circumstance, was . . . seeming to be within reach. Frightening all the same, though, for several reasons.

Luke could have anyone he wanted and he knew it. He was also aware that such was meaningless, because he couldn't trust any of them, and by even giving the hold of being in his bed for a few hours, he would lose some degree of control, allow some amount of manipulation.

How ? why ? was he trusting her on a personal level? And why was he so damn incapable of trusting her on that level, and separating that from everything else?

Kejal was right. He was a fool.

Luke looked up from his desk. He hadn't actually been getting any work done, and Kejal's entrance had him uneasy. More likely than not Kejal would see his distracted state. And if he didn't know the reason for it already, he would very soon; Luke did not commonly keep anything from Kejal, and no lines were in place to do so.

Kejal stopped in front of Luke's massive, buried desk, and looked Luke straight in the eye. "My lord, what have you done?"

Luke sighed. "It's impressive, how you actually say that title convincingly, yet still sound so chastising."

Kejal didn?t smile. "I know you well, my lord. Something has happened, and considering the events of the day ?" otherwise known as the Mara event, Luke thought, as Kejal continued, "it's not difficult to make a leap in logic."

Luke felt a faint urge to squirm uncomfortably, passing by almost unnoticed. "It was unsettling, as my visits with her tend to be." He deliberately didn't mention Leia Organa, uncommonly feeling that it was none of Kejal's business.

Kejal's eyes narrowed, and his correct posture got even stiffer, that vaguely military bearing becoming even more so. "My lord, please."

"I wonder," Luke said softly, "if I have destroyed everything. I am afraid to look into the future." He met Kejal's eyes. "But I can't bring myself to completely regret it. Or try to undo what I've done." He smiled faintly. "Perhaps I am more like my father than I realized, setting everything aside for . . ." He trailed off, the word too powerful to be spoken yet. Fiery intelligence to match his own, compassion, understanding ? way too much understanding . . . He could not forget those green eyes.

"All plans change over time," Kejal said after a moment.

Luke was surprised by the conciliatory note in that remark. "Yes. Of course."

"The key is not having the perfect plan . . . but in having a plan that can be adapted," Kejal continued. "Basic military tactics, my lord, as your father taught you. You have what you need to make a correct decision, you simply need to remember it."

And that ? was it a call to return, away from Mara, or a call to reasoning, away from denial of the truth? "I know you disapprove," Luke said quietly.

"I wish you the best, my lord," Kejal said, eyes kind, and there was something strong in that word, 'wish'. Kejal was always grounded in practicality, and yet Luke sensed wistfulness in his affection and frustration.

How amazingly humbling it was to discover all over again that human beings were so complex, and his grasp of the Force clearly not up to the task of dealing with it. "Thank you," Luke said finally.

But Luke still didn't dare look to the future.

She walked alone to meet Luke. Technically, she was supposed to have left today, but she had delayed the departure of the New Republic vessel for another two days. No doubt when she did return there would be questions as to why, but she would deal with that when the time came. And already she was planning to come back to Coruscant in a few weeks. She didn't want to be away.

This deepening of their relationship ? and that's what it was, as much as she marveled at it ? was exhilarating, exciting, necessary.

She didn't think she could even explain it to herself anymore.

It was intriguing to her, that she didn't have any escort. Not any that she could sense at the edge of her senses, as she always had before, and even more surprising that such an expression of trust was occurring when she was, for the very first time, entering Luke's wing of the Palace. Luke had waited until it was almost nightfall before contacting her with a simple message. She wondered what he had been up to, what he had been thinking, or if he would even mention it. She suspected not; they were both fond of not mentioning their positions.

Mara adjusted the Jedi robe around her shoulders.

Architecturally, Luke's wing was similar to the rest of the Palace, with the high ceilings and large, spacious halls. There it diverged, because Luke's private wing had an entirely different feel to it. There was no sense of auspicious royalty, nor was there any sense of being watched, that subtle paranoia that existed as a part of life in Imperial politics. Guards were more visible, but their presence less intrusive regardless.

That sort of contradiction was very Luke, Mara felt.

She didn't have any trouble finding the room he had said to come to. Mauwel had given her directions thoroughly and politely, and Mara in turn had chosen to ignore his careful disapproval, not sure what to make of it.

Mara paused at the door, then entered.

Luke was sitting on a couch that dominated the simple room, but he rose to greet her after her first step, smiling.

"Hello," Luke said, expression watchful but not tense. He paused, she wouldn't quite call it a hesitation, then leaned over and lightly kissed her on the cheek. "Would you like to sit?"

Mara smiled at his carefulness. "Sure." She sat down on the couch, and he sat beside her, angled to face her. Mara took the moment to examine the room more closely. The floor and walls were simple, stained hardwood, and both the couch and single, undecorated rug were white. Deliberate? she wondered, and wondered if even he knew.

A moment of silence, and they hadn't had many of those.

"You look tired," Mara commented. He did look very tired ? not obviously so, but even the slightest bit was surprising to see, given Luke's self-control.

His gaze flicked away for a moment, like he was momentarily pondering his response. "I didn't sleep."

"Why not?" Mara asked, surprised.

"I haven't been sleeping well," Luke said with a shrug. "It will pass."

Mara paused, considering whether to push. "But why have you not been sleeping well?"

A definite hesitation on Luke's part, then, "Dreams. They come and go." He cocked his head. "But is that really what we want to talk about?"

"Perhaps not 'we'," Mara murmured, teasing.

Luke hardly reacted ? a slight twitch, and that was all. "I contacted my head of Intelligence," he said instead. "About ? Leia. She won't be bothered ? more than she can handle, anyway."

"Did he ask why?" Mara said, surprised. And intrigued that he was indicating he had no intention of Leia ever figuring out that was he protecting her, much less why.

"I haven't told anyone," Luke admitted. He shrugged. "But then, what would be the point?"

"What do you think the point of me telling you was?" Mara asked without thinking.

Luke looked at her, like he was wondering if she really wanted a response to that. "I don't think I need to answer that," he said at last, tone dry.

Perhaps a silly question, in hindsight. "What do you dream?"

"What do you dream?" Luke retorted.

"Which category of dream?" Mara replied sweetly.

His mouth twitched into a repressed smile. "How did you know I wouldn't hurt her? Organa?" He said it calmly, but with confrontation in his eyes.

"Because. . . I was right about you," she said. "Obi-Wan was right about you, being more than what you present to others. He indicated to me as much. What was it you said about Jedi and blindness?"

"And Kenobi chose not to blind himself?"

"The only question is whether you choose to," Mara said, and he withdrew slightly at that, knowing what she meant. As the Jedi blinded themselves about relationships and the Force, did Luke blind himself in regards to the Dark Side? But Mara continued, seeing the shadows around his eyes, and choosing to react. "You don't have to answer that," she said, a matter-of-fact tone to her words, no pity. "You should sleep."

He watched her, judging her. Always judging, always considering, that kind of examination of motives never ceasing, even though he was so much more relaxed around her now. He didn't reply, and Mara wondered how many had or would say such a thing to him.

"Luke?" Her voice soft.

His brow creased. "I know. I probably know them."

"I could help you," Mara said, knowing he'd probably reject the offer, but making it anyway. Perhaps she could do something. At first look it seemed so trivial, but it really wasn't. His admission to it was important, and the fact he couldn?t sleep well was important to her.

He shook his head. "Talk to me."

"About what?" Mara asked, rather startled by the request.

"Anything." His words were honestly said, gaze intent and interested on her.

She had always pushed him about his past, about his behavior . . . Rarely had he gone after her in the same way, though when he did it was always to great effect. She still remembered those conversations, about Jedi and politics and blindness, self-imposed or otherwise.

So she talked about her life as a Jedi. She talked about missions, frustrations and joys. How she loved Adi. Why Adi had never taken on a long-term mission again, and what the Council had to do with it. The war had changed all the Jedi, sometimes making them very different from what even they would have considered acceptable Jedi behavior a decade before.

In a completely different, but no less revealing way, Mara opened up to him.

He asked good questions, too. About this and that, subtly taking a different viewpoint or opening one up to her that she had never before considered.

It was less about battle, this conversation, than give and take; an equal sharing, she learning of him through his questions, and him learning of her through her answers.

At some point, Mara got to her feet to illustrate some point, and began walking around the room as she spoke, loosening her limbs and watching Luke remain seated, lazily watching her as she spoke.

He had relaxed as they had talked. Tension even she hadn't been aware of seeped from him.

Not once had they talked about politics or the Jedi.

"It was really horrible when Adi tried to teach me how to dance," Mara said, smiling at the memory. Luke had been telling her about his etiquette training, and how irritating it had been. His father, he had added, had always avoided him during those hours, a tidbit of information that Mara found highly amusing.

"Why? What happened?" Luke asked, looking at her with open curiosity.

"Here, I'll show you," Mara said, gesturing for him to rise.

After a moment, he did so, moving to stand in front of her.

"She was trying to teach me the Alderaani waltz," Mara explained, "and I was getting the timing all wrong, because the damn thing doesn't follow a proper beat."

Luke nodded ruefully. "Yes, you're supposed to be a moment behind the beat."

Mara held out her hand, and Luke took it as his other hand settled on her waist.

"She tried teaching me at first," Mara continued, starting to move, the movement deliberately clumsy and also making Luke trip over his own feet. "Then she recruited Obi-Wan somehow. I'm sure he wondered what the hell he was doing trying to teach a snotty fourteen year old the Alderaani waltz."

Luke smiled faintly. "I can just imagine," he said. "Father, when he spoke about it all, said Obi-Wan didn't have much rhythm ? that he couldn't sing, either."

Mara laughed. Luke was naturally graceful, and even with her in the lead and showing him how badly she had done it, he managed to keep a fairly normal rhythm. After a moment, Mara stopped pretending to be awkward, and they danced to the sound of their breathing. Just off the beat.

She looked into Luke's eyes. "I was so awkward then, in many ways," she murmured. "So angry all the time. Anger was my way of dealing with pain."

Luke's breathing hitched, just barely. "Mine, too."

Choosing not to react, not to create pressure however unintentional, Mara continued quietly. "It was so hard in those years. I was so different. I lost my temper, I yelled at my Master, and I used to think I'd never be a Jedi. That I didn't have it in me, as much as I wanted it." Her voice became so soft as to become inaudible, and she looked away, her focus on the past. "I used to cry myself to sleep, because I felt so weak."

Luke abruptly stopped their silent dance, putting Mara off balance. She held onto him, as he remained steady as a rock. She met his eyes, startled, and he was staring at her, mute with pain. "I know what that feels like," he whispered. "I wonder if I can do this. What I'm supposed to do, what the Force guides me to do."

And what is that? Mara wondered, but right now it hardly seemed to matter. "You're not weak," she said, knowing that without a doubt.

His smile was one of self-derision. "I can't even conquer my nightmares."

"Maybe you just need help," Mara said evenly. "Just like I did."

He shook his head. "I can't conquer the past. I can't fix it."

"Then they are one and the same, your nightmares?" Mara asked.

He hesitated, taken aback as if realizing how much he had told her, then he simply nodded. "There are so many things," he said softly.

"You may not be able to conquer them, or fix them, but they are the past," Mara said, remembering her own past. "Starving on the streets, trying to keep myself from being raped ? they aren't pleasant memories, but I don't feel pain from them anymore. I accepted ? I . . . healed, eventually." And yet, saying that was painful.


"Let me help you," Mara said, her focus now totally on him.

For a moment, Mara thought he would repeat his inarticulate plea, but he didn't.

"Tell me," Mara gently urged, insistent but not harsh.

He took his hand from her waist, and brought it to her face. "Some things are too horrible to tell."

She opened her mouth to ask a question, and he placed his thumb over her lips, silencing her.

"Vader took me too soon," Luke said at last, his words unexpected. "I was strong enough to be a threat, too weak to defend myself."

"Two years," Mara said, remembering the gap between when she knew he had been on Tatooine, and when Luke's existence had been declared after the death of Palpatine.

"My father ending up in that suit was always something Palpatine had appreciated, even though he didn't plan it. He liked to control through pain, and fear," Luke said distantly. "It was two years of hell. Even then, when I was fourteen, we hardly defeated him, as young as I was, as weakened by that suit as my father was. But he refused to wait ? Father refused," and his words were skipping over each other, this confession unpracticed and raw. "He died for that. He never recovered from his injuries," Luke whispered. "For my weakness."

Mara shook her head in denial, eager to deny, because it wasn't that. "He died because he loved you. And I imagine he died gladly for it," she said firmly, knowing that at least: Vader had loved his son.

She touched his mind through the Force, opening her own, and she felt something within him just collapse.

He gasped out loud, his pain vivid in the Force, painted in bloody slashes in images from memory as his shields dropped around Mara. He still remained standing, and Mara didn't know how, because she was falling. She felt like she was going to vomit as his confession became mental and full.

He drew back, pained, feeling foolish and lonely ? she sensed it quite clearly ? and she placed her hands on his shoulders, holding him there.

"Force," she managed. She met his eyes, and of all things, saw concern for her there. "How can you say you're not strong?" Palpatine had not merely been cruel, he had been sick and disgusting, and she loathed him with all her strength. How ? how could he have done that to a child? How dark had Vader been, to allow that, then? She hated him, his death not sparing him her anger.

"He didn't," Luke denied, listening to her thoughts, shaking his head, upset and his eyes full of tears. "He tried ? " and more images, of fighting, of clean medical bay beds.

"How could he bring you there, away from Tatooine?" Mara questioned, voice hoarse with emotion. They were standing so close to each other now, her eyes were closed and she could feel his breath on her neck. Not quite an embrace, too tense to offer comfort. "Knowing he could not protect you?" Had he known how far his protection would have to extend ? had he known that he would even want to?

"Because love is a twisted, complicated thing," Luke breathed into her ear.

Mara felt a tear slip down her cheek. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry for everything you went through."

Luke was gentle in his response. A mental touch on a memory, of when a man had come too close for comfort, and the bruises that took weeks to fade. So am I, was his reply, and she had no idea how her shields had slipped that far. What now? he seemed to say.

She had no words, the emotions she was feeling too intense to describe, his response too frighteningly wonderful to respond to. It was a meeting, a total understanding, a sharing of pain that was somehow being halved and torn apart.

Somehow, their lips met.

Her hand raked through his hair, her other hand was on his back. She could feel his tenseness as his hands went down her shoulders, to the small of her back. But how could this be twisted? There was something so sweet, so wonderful, here. His face was ever so slightly rough, like he needed to shave. He drew a finger up her spine, and she shivered, nearly falling into his arms.

Luke broke off the kiss, then pushing her robe away, he kissed the joining of her shoulder and neck. Mara pulled up his shirt, feeling smooth skin beneath.

He moaned, uncontrolled, and she forced him to kiss her again. She was ineffectually trying to take off his shirt, but he had already thrown aside her Jedi robe, his hands everywhere, stroking her stomach, moving up her bare back beneath her tunic. She wanted to be with him, to melt into him and be as close as possible. His mind was joined with hers.

It surprised them both when Luke slammed into a wall, jerking them away from their kiss. Somehow they had moved from the center of the room.

Mara opened her eyes, looking into Luke's flushed face and suddenly very dark eyes. Desire flourished between them, the Force tingling with it.

"No," Luke groaned, licking his lips, his eyes closing desperately.

"What?" was all Mara managed to say.

He drew his thumb across her lips, sighing, and spoke . . . very softly. "I would not have our love borne of pain."

Mara closed her eyes, exhaling roughly. Breathing. Both of them just breathing. "You're right," she said finally, the words drawn reluctantly. To do this now, with both of them so fresh from pain, desiring comfort, would be . . .

"You're perfect," Luke said to her, all the explanation he wanted to provide.

Mara smiled, and kissed him again, but gently this time, lingering but not pressing. He wanted this out of love, not hurt and desperation for contact, for reassurance and connection.

"Stay with me." It was a request, his voice somehow tender.

Mara nodded wordlessly.

He kissed her again. Gentle, aware of her scars, and his own.

"I won't let you have any nightmares," Mara whispered fiercely.

"How could I?" he said, as if her victory was inevitable.

They drifted away. The walls of the Palace had suddenly become meaningless, blurs of something unimportant. But the look in Luke's eyes, the age on his face, the way he walked, the way he kept looking at their joined hands . . . That was the world. That was entirety.

She wrapped her arms around him in his bed, the silken texture like a caress against her skin. Luke's head on her stomach was a comforting weight, the way he stroked her inner thigh somehow more soothing than erotic.

She was right beside him as his thoughts slowed, and he drifted off to sleep.

No nightmares dared disturb his sleep.

The galaxy was changing, and the consequences were spinning just out of his grasp.

---Annals of the Empire, Vol. I.

Luke didn't know a huge amount about his mother. His father had spoken of her little, the topic tender still, though when he did speak of her, he always did so with great respect. An odd thing, but that most of all had always been clear to Luke's young eyes.

Would he now better understand the contradiction inherent in his mother? Who she had loved, who she had lost . . . Who she had hidden. He understood that better now, he thought, and that made him wonder how far he had come since listening to his father's every word. But his father was gone, and he was here.

He knew he was awake, but he didn't really feel awake; it wasn't dawn, he wasn't planning or worrying. He wasn't thinking about much other than the present, letting his thoughts drift, calm and serene. Mara was facing him, her eyes closed, the glint of her red hair spilling over the sheets, the pillows carelessly thrown aside in the night. The light was dim, brushing her features faintly. Shifting with the beginning of restlessness, he realized they were both still fully dressed. But he didn't want to get up, not yet, not while she still slept so close to him, close enough that he could feel the life in her, coursing through her, her every exhale.

It made him think of quiet nights at home, on Tatooine. Knowing he was safe, having nothing to fear, dreaming of adventure and being so ignorant of reality. What bliss that had been, save for the torment he had inflicted on himself through his childish dreams. Perhaps that was what he had dreamed of tonight, with the nightmares held at bay.

Luke gently caressed Mara's face; she didn't wake, trusting even in her sleep. That made Luke smile.

He let himself fall back asleep.

Luke's arm was around her, his other a resting place for his head. He was still asleep, and sleeping dreamlessly, his breathing slow and even. She could barely make out the planes of his face, the curve of his lips. She was aware of slight shifts, vagaries in the still sea of his mind.

Shifting slightly, she carefully brushed his hair back away from his face, not quite even touching his skin. There was something vulnerable in his lack of movement, in how he didn't react to her presence, didn't judge or plan, just slept.

Mara suddenly felt tears in her eyes, totally unexpectedly. Something indefinable rose in her, overpowering, and yet, when it settled, no less strong but quieter. I love you, she thought.

Taking a deep breath, she checked her internal clock. It would be dawn soon, she realized, and more likely than not Luke rose with the dawn.

Considering how deeply he was sleeping, perhaps she should change that for today.

Moving very carefully and slowly, Mara got out of bed, her Jedi clothing suddenly feeling rough against her skin. She looked around the room, all details having escaped her the night before. It was a large room, but nothing was really surprising about it. Most of the colors were soothing tans and blues, reminding her of the desert, for some reason. Something was very stark about it, though she couldn?t say what, exactly.

It looked like there was a bedroom, where she was, and then a larger living area just beyond that.

The wooden floor oddly cold ? she would have expected it to be heated ? she walked over to the other room, silently opening the door and stepping through.

The presence of Kejal Mauwel in the other room made her start, though she kept silent.

He looked at her, dark eyes intense ? not quite displeased, but not quite having the disapproval of the night before, either. He stood by one of the two elegantly formed couches, a dark statue. The lights were not on.

Mara exhaled slowly, stepping closer to him, but he said nothing, merely watched her.

"I found your robe," he said blandly, voice quiet and unobtrusive.

That, she had not expected. She flushed, remembering how she had lost it, and folded her arms, fingers twisting the loose tunic she wore. Deciding not to reply that, and that it was probably a rhetorical statement anyway, she said softly, "Luke's deeply asleep. I think it would be best not to wake him this morning."

Mauwel cocked his head, but said nothing.

Mara raised an eyebrow, no longer willing to take this silent treatment. "He told me he hasn't been sleeping well because of nightmares."

Mauwel sighed, and something seemed to gentle in his eyes. "Did he tell you what he dreams?"

"I know why he dreams," Mara said after a moment.

Mauwel nodded, taking that in. "They come in cycles," he murmured.

"Ah." She studied him. "Why are you here?" she asked, glancing around the room.

"To watch over him," Kejal said with a slight, uncharacteristic shrug. "And what of you?" he asked sharply.

"Same thing," she replied calmly.

More silence. Mara made her way over to the couch opposite Mauwel's position, and sat down. Kejal did not move. She met his eyes squarely, bluntly, wishing no maneuvering or posturing here. She sensed that Luke was close to Kejal, and that was reason enough to pay attention to this man.

"I fear for him," Mauwel said at last. "Because of you."

Mara pursed her lips. "Don't," was her soft reply. She saw worry in his eyes, the worry of a parent. Too many fears to count, to be expressed, to even be known. How often, she wondered, had he stood here over his charge?

Mauwel shook his head slightly, irony in his eyes. "Why?"

Mara said nothing, remembering Luke's words to her ? how he had, that first time, so sharply pointed out her blindness. "You already know why," she said. "Even if you don't believe it."

"You have unraveled everything he has planned for," Mauwel said lowly.

Mara didn't know what he was talking about, and was probably not supposed to; she did not know everything that Luke planned. So much of his actions as Emperor were a total mystery to her, even if she understood him now, on a personal level, better than she had ever thought to know anyone. She had seen into his soul, and yet ? she did not know everything that he had seen, and so could not say what decisions he had made. "Is that a bad thing?" she said finally.

"Perhaps," was Mauwel's noncommittal reply. He paused. "Perhaps you can undo the damage you have done. If you are willing."

And what did he speak of, Mara wondered. Betrayal? She had promised her Master she would not betray the Republic, and still, as she sat here, she had no intention of doing so. But she did not believe that by trusting Luke she was betraying ? perhaps that was what Obi-Wan had meant in his words to her of his lost apprentice.

She could feel Luke steadily now, a constant sort of presence. He was shielding, yes, but she felt she was inside those walls now. And what did Obi-Wan know of Luke? He had fears; she had truth.

"I would not have Luke have any regret," she said at last.

"Then I have done all I can," Mauwel whispered, bowing to her.

He walked out of the room without another word, leaving Mara alone.

It was well after dawn when Luke fully woke up. He looked around his room, feeling confused and disoriented, and he had that groggy feeling of having been sleeping too long. The room was bright with light, and empty except for himself. His mind began to catch up on past events, and it suddenly occurred to him that Mara was not present.

Even in sleep, the mind remembers, and Luke traced his memory back to Mara rising from the bed . . . touching him briefly, then leaving to the other room. He had a vague memory of voices as well. Why had he not woken? Even without the nightmares keeping him from entering restful sleep, he should have woken. He should have. He always had to be aware.

Clearly, however, he wasn't.

Feeling grimy, Luke threw back the sheet, rubbing his face. And yet, his body felt undeniably rested, like he did after immersing himself in the Force and finding its strength.

He reached out in the Force, finding Mara. She wasn't far away, and though he sensed she was awake, she didn't respond to his mental touch. After a moment, feeling the peace within her, he realized she was probably meditating. He refined his senses, and after a moment, felt her coming out of the meditation.

And what now?

He had revealed so much to her, his greatest pain and deepest regret. She hadn't turned away. And his duty seemed to become meaningless in the face of her presence. He trusted her, he evidently trusted her enough to continue sleeping even while she woke, but she was still a Jedi. Could she possibly understand? Would she believe him?

Kejal believed him because he had seen much of the Force, even if he never experienced it personally. Then, of course, there was trust between them.

Mara was considerably more difficult; she was trained. But for that very reason she was more aware ? often seeing into him with a great deal more accuracy than he would have initially guessed. But she was still a Jedi, with those loyalties, and he did not think she would give them up.

Had he given up his? Could he?

Luke's eyes snapped open when Mara entered the room. She wore her Jedi robe tightly wrapped around her, but was barefoot, he immediately noted uncertainly. She walked over to bed and sat down, smiling at him.

"Morning," she murmured. She cocked her head. "I was cold," she said, shaking one of her voluminous Jedi sleeves.

"Oh," Luke said blankly, blinking.

"How are you?" she asked, moving up beside him on the bed, taking his hand in hers. He stared at their joined hands for a moment.

He was afraid, but he didn't want to say that. He put a sliver of a shield around that tiny feeling, squashing it. "I didn't dream," he said, finally deciding on what to say.

She nodded. "I asked your majordomo, Mauwel, to let you sleep in."

"You spoke to him? What did he say?"

Mara didn't answer for a moment. "Just some things that made me think," she said softly.

"What things?" Luke demanded, tensing up.

Mara smiled at him, easily and with no tension of her own. "I felt like I was being interrogated on my suitability," she teased.

"Oh," Luke said again.

She paused, hesitated.

Then kissed him. Luke returned the kiss with fervor. Smooth give and take, and why did she even hesitate to do this? There was always a certain darkness to their interactions, some bridge, perhaps, not yet fully crossed, but this ? this was always pure, in that sense.

He kept his eyes closed when she gently disengaged from the kiss, and when she made to move, he brought a hand up to her face and held her there. "Help me," he whispered. "I didn't dream," and that was all the explanation he could give.

He opened his eyes, and saw understanding in her green eyes. To have this . . . to have peace, he would give up what he had been taught. Power had done little for him but destroy him. Perhaps, he thought, it was an equal trade after all. He would not blind himself as the Jedi had done; Mara . . . had lifted the veil.

She gently and silently urged him to lay down, and when he reluctantly did, she curled up against him, the back of her head on his shoulder. He put his arms around her, and she laid her hands on his.

"I have duties," Luke said after a moment, really just a comment. "And your people ?"

"I sent them a message this morning," Mara said, stilling. "They were a bit worried," she admitted sheepishly.

Luke nodded slightly against her head. "I wish ?" he suddenly started, then stopped.

"You wish what?" Mara asked, not moving, voice quiet.

For foolish things, Luke thought. "I fear to look in the future, for how much you have changed it," he whispered.

At that, Mara twisted her neck to awkwardly look up at him. "And what do you see?"

He sensed curiosity there, and willingness. A Jedi, he thought, but perhaps not one of the Jedi Order. Everything moved so quickly ? the Force warped in its urgency, and for all that Luke wanted to lie here and do nothing, he couldn't. As much as Mara wanted it, as much as he wanted it for himself, the Force was demanding his attention. He did not want to look, afraid . . . afraid of giving this up.

Visions of the future were always troublesome, revealing in glimpses those events which created the most consequences, which were inevitable in manner, delayed and diverted or not. When his father had found him, he had realized Luke's latent precognitive ability, though neither he nor Luke could find any way to use it for years. And some things could only be revealed in time, when it appeared even mastery of the Force was meaningless and no one could see.

Luke always saw such gray.

He wondered, in his cynical moments, if Jedi saw it all brightly, covered by the clouds of the Sith.

He wondered if they were blinded by the light.

What am I to do? he asked the Force, and it answered.

He sat up, and Mara quickly had to readjust her position. Her eyes were intent on his, demanding. They could both be quite demanding when they wanted to be, the smoothness of surrender always little-lasting. He had always seen that as a threat, a nature perhaps that the Jedi did not care for, but she nevertheless possessed.

He took a deep breath, looking into her eyes. "I want to show you something."

Vader's love lasted in legend; every year he visited her grave on Naboo. And as the tale went, every year until his death, the flowers at her grave bloomed.

---Annals of the Empire, Vol. II.

The Force was alight with the sense of something new.

He had quickly urged her to her feet, and told her to get dressed. Baffled, but willing to be obedient, Mara had left his rooms for her own quarters and quickly gotten dressed. When she returned, driven by curiosity now, Luke had showered and dressed as well, wearing a simple outfit like her. There was an energy about him, an intensity that spoke more of purpose than nervousness.

Without a word, he began to lead her through twisting halls.

He held her hand, though.

Both silent, he led her deeper into the Palace, into areas she had never been permitted.? They went underground, and the guards become sparser but more intense in their regard of her. She suspected they would have confronted her, had Luke not been there, clearly leading her. The Force twined around everything, some important point being reached. What did this mean? She remembered her words to Kejal, and her words to Obi-Wan. She'd fallen, she suspected, just not in any way the Jedi had imagined.

Luke felt oddly standoffish to her, not like he didn't want to be close to her, but a different sort of reluctance. As he held her hand, he would rub her skin with his thumb, then stop, as if realizing what he was doing. As if reassuring himself that she was tangible.

"Luke?" she started to say.

One look from him cut her off. Something she couldn't quite read swirled in his eyes, something like fear, excitement, and nervousness mixed together. He did not want her to ask questions.

In these deepest parts of the Palace, she saw signs of the old Senate building, signs of buildings swallowed whole and incorporated into the design. Soon enough, elegance faded to practicality, and wide-open spaces to more military advantageous narrow halls. She studied everything despite their quick pace.

He led to her a room that was more a cavern, the walls white. An unused throne sat in one corner, and in the center of the floor was a geometric design in red. Thin lines on the floor spread out from it, and she sensed it was more than decorative. The whole area had a darkly lush feeling, like there were layers to sink into beyond what she could see.

"Luke. . . What is this?" Mara asked. She stopped just inside the room, then turned to direct her attention to him.

Luke reluctantly let her go of her hand, his touch lingering, then walked to the center of the room, staring at the red design for a moment. She then she felt a brush of the Force, a movement.

The illumination of the room dimmed, hushing the light, and a galaxy spread before her and around her.

It was a hologram of the entire galaxy, clearly recognizable despite its huge size. It spread over most of the room, and she realized that was why it was so empty of anything else. The stars were tiny pinpricks of light suspended in nothing.

She looked at Luke, but he was merely watching her.

Swallowing, feeling a strange trepidation, she looked at the holographic galaxy more closely. She could identify all the various rims ? they were in subtly different shades. Strongly overlaid it, twisting outward from the Core Worlds, were star systems in red. That also looked familiar, though it took a moment to realize why: all the systems were in Imperial space.

"It's entirely to scale," Luke said, breaking the silence, but the comment felt somehow useless and inane."

"I don't understand," Mara said, reserved, walking through the hologram, her presence not even causing a ripple.She walked towards the Unknown Regions, finding ? the New Republic, her systems in blue. She could almost see where Ferwyn's star would be. "Why are you showing me this?"

"Look closer," Luke requested simply.

Frowning, Mara examined the hologram in more detail, reaching out to the Force to guide her. She took a step forward . . . "The red extends into the Unknown Regions," she said, startled. Lines, only, at the very edges of unexplored space, but oddly the farther in, the more explored the map showed the area to be. She turned to look at Luke, demanding words on her lips.

"Yes," Luke said before she could speak. "Palpatine began exploring the Unknown Regions before he even declared himself Emperor. My father continued the effort, as did I."

Mara paused, considering. He wanted her to arrive at some point, obviously, and wanted her to figure it out for herself. She found herself oddly irritated, that he was treating her like a student. "Then . . . why did you leave us be, when we fled there?" Her gaze was sharp. "You were lying when you said you didn't want to attack us because you weren't familiar with the area."

"I had another reason," Luke allowed, hands clasped together.

"You mean a truthful one," Mara said, raising an eyebrow.

Luke spread his hands slightly. "You are not alone in the Unknown Regions. I asked the Chiss to leave you be, and fortunately you have not intruded on their space ? they are very territorial." He sighed. "A very dangerous place, the Unknown Regions."

"Why would you want the Republic to flourish?" Mara demanded, and yet, had it not all led to this? Skywalker's actions were unexplainable, they had always been. The New Republic had accepted the treaty because there was no better option, not because they understood his motives. She had accepted the treaty for that reason. "Don't lie to me," she said darkly. "What is this?"

"Why would I leave the Jedi alone, when I had no reason to do so?" Luke returned, meeting her gaze evenly.

"Why don't you tell me?" Mara snapped.

Luke paused, taking a breath. "That is what I?m doing," he said, something dark and uncertain in his tone.

Mara turned back to the map, wondering what it was that gave Luke that haunted uncertainty. The Force swept over her, taking her breath away. She reached out to touch a star, and to her surprise, text drifted up in the hologram, giving its name and coordinates. She couldn't imagine how difficult such a precise hologram had been to build ? she had never seen anything like it. The technology required to be able to extrapolate distances and the slowly changing way the stars related to each other was not something she had been aware of existing.

"Everything I do is for a single purpose," Luke continued after a long moment, and she had a feeling he did not like the silence. "The treaty, the games between my weapon designers and yours."

Mara met his eyes, surprised.

"When I told you about Sefer and that led you to Kearek, that was deliberate," Luke added, no mockery or triumph in his eyes, just simple, calm fact. Calculation ? he must thrive on it, she thought, or how could he stand it? "The rest of the conversation," he said dryly, "was not."

A smile briefly touched Mara's lips, and she felt Luke relax slightly. "Tell me," she asked, seeing Luke waiting, trying to see what her reaction to that very revealing information was. Had Luke been playing them all along, in intelligence and counter-intelligence operations? It seemed to be so, and that information would be dearly wanted by the New Republic.

"When I came to the throne those years ago," Luke began, "everything changed. Not just for the Empire, but for me. My father was dead, and I was on my own. My Force abilities had increased, and when I fought the Republic, I saw consequences for my actions more far-reaching than I had realized. The Force gave me a warning."

"Of what kind?"

"Of something to happen, far in the future," Luke said softly. He looked away from her, to the holographic galaxy, expression thoughtful. "It's strange, what I can see and not see. There will be a war, a great war, but I cannot see the enemy. I can see our suffering, our fighting, and yet ? they are never there." He stopped. "I know, somehow, that the Jedi will be necessary to win the battle." He shrugged and met her startled gaze. "I do not know why."

"That's why you left us alone," Mara murmured.

"I still don't care for the Jedi," Luke said a shrug, and the remark seemed almost pointed, despite its casual delivery.

Mara chose not to reply to that ? or point out the contradiction in her presence, since she had, after all, not ceased to be a Jedi. And he as a Sith . . . well, that had faded long ago, to the end that Luke had chosen light.

"I see not only the future, but the past whenever I try to see through the uncertainty. Whatever is coming, it began long ago, and cannot be stopped," Luke said.

"And why do the Jedi not sense this trouble ahead?" Mara questioned, daring him.

He smiled, painfully, looking almost . . . rejected. "I have already told you why," he whispered. "I am . . . different. Beyond that, I could not say; I do not pretend to be favored by the Force, Mara." He regained control. "What does the Force tell you?"

Mara shook her head ? she could not answer. The Force lighted upon her shoulders, her mind, calming her but not yet giving any answers. "But you said everything," she said roughly, "was deliberate." Not this, she didn't think. She could not worry herself over that, but what could tear them apart still remained unsettled. "What then of the treaty? You say there will be a war. Not a war with us?"

Luke seemed to almost flinch at the word 'us', but merely shook his head. "Think," he said patiently, not condescendingly so, but sharp in intent nevertheless. "I've already revealed some of my reasoning to you in our earliest discussions. What is the difference between the Republic and the Empire?

There is a basic difference in thought process," Mara said at last.

"And differences ? conflicts, variables ? bring change."

"Even, say, to the field of developing weapons," Mara said, mouth dry, starting to understand. "You were pushing us, with the knowledge of Kearek. Pushing weapons development, our armies and our ships. Not to fight with you, as we've thought, but to fight this war you've seen." She halted. How desperate he must be, she thought, to play such a dangerous game, where the pieces could fall at any moment.

Luke just nodded, waiting, not looking at her. How careful they were being, here.

"And thus, the treaty," she said quietly. "To keep us both your friend and your enemy." And she could not help but ask, doubt entering her heart even now: "What was I, then?"

"Your purpose," Luke said, his tone revealing nothing, "was to keep the Republic on that edge, of not knowing my intentions. You were never supposed to think I was totally evil, but nor were you supposed to . . . do what you did," he said, meeting her eyes. He stiffened his back visibly, sighing, walls coming up around him at Mara's dismay.

"And the marriage?" she asked flatly. I was never supposed to push. And he was never supposed to react.

"Something the Force led to me to do," Luke admitted, having answered this question before, but answering it again anyway. Perhaps sensing that she knew she was getting the truth finally, and she wanted it all. "I never ? the consequences of that were, are, spinning out of my grasp. Perhaps that was the intent of the Force." Rueful, at the last.

"It would never work," Mara said bluntly. All the consequences, all the risks ? what he proposed was complex and unwieldy. What did he see, that he thought this possible? "When the war came, how would we get along to fight together? The Empire and the Republic? It would never work with so much distrust, even if we did have better weapons to fight with." Even kept on that balance, which Mara had quite likely disrupted judging from Kejal and Luke's comments, distrust would fracture anything built.

Luke hesitated. "I thought of that," he said. He began walking through the hologram, making his way closer to her and the representation of the New Republic's space. "The actions of the Vaderians weren't planned, but how I dealt with them was, in a sense, part of a larger plan. It's much easier for me to change the Empire to suit the Republic rather than vice versa, and that's what I did. I imagine by now your intelligence department has seen the social changes I've begun implementing."

Mara nodded, having no words to speak. This final thing, this knowledge he was giving her, had as much impact as everything he had told her last night, but in a totally different way. And these words he spoke to her, words . . . She knew what he would ask at the end, and she did not know her answer. A game of dejarik, and she was the crucial piece; the game piece he was convincing.

"The Empire's fault has been its inability to change, to adapt," Luke said, his tone even and smooth, almost like that of a teacher at the Temple. "That was something begun long before my rule, and really, before the founding of the Empire. The roots were set deep in the Old Republic itself. Palpatine was right about one thing ? it was stagnating, destroying itself slowly. The people didn't care about anyone but themselves, and so, the majority of the politicians running the Old Republic did not care, either. Naboo was a prime example of that, though it turned out well ultimately." Another pause, and Mara remembered his mother was from Naboo. The world had been touched in the Clone Wars, as many were, but of all the worlds in the Empire, Naboo had ultimately become one of the most cherished, most especially under Vader's reign. But Luke was continuing. "I have been forcing a change in my people, forcing a reaction ? as I did with the Vaderians, using them to bring the people closer to me. It is all designed towards that end. I don't anticipate living forever, Mara, and when I die the Empire is going to have to take care of itself."

"So, then, your plans reach beyond this war you have seen?" Mara's voice was soft, her gaze intent as she watched Luke explain.

"Yes," Luke conceded. His eyes showed his passion, odd to sense now ? never had she sensed passion from him when he spoke of the Empire, never had he spoken of it as being his. Truly, he had hidden much. But always before there had been a reason for him to hide, and she sensed relief in him, the Force whispering its secrets to her.

Once begun, the unveiling became more rapid. Things were very suddenly starting to make sense to Mara. Disturbingly so. She had a feeling Luke knew it, as well; he waited for her to speak. "You didn't really lie when you said the treaty would never be broken, did you?" She exhaled roughly, putting a hand over her eyes, feeling stupid. "You don't intend to make war with the Republic ? you intend on absorbing it into the Empire."

Luke sighed very quietly. "The Republic cannot survive on its own. I see that, even if you do not. It will shatter within twenty years, if not less, of peacetime. It is too divided among itself ? no single thing binds you except the desire to escape the Empire, for an abstract sense of freedom the majority do not fully understand to begin with." Biting, that, and bitter. "They are the opposites, Mara ? the Republic and the Empire. The Empire has stability, and the Republic has fire."

"So you solve your problem by changing the Empire, to making it possible for the two to unite," Mara said, still seeking confirmation.

Luke nodded. "If I should fail, I see disaster. The war that I see will not be easy. It will be long and hard fought, and should any part fail, all will fail. The war will drive the New Republic to me, and everything before that will keep it there," he said simply. A long pause, and the Force stilled as if in reaction; the importance of this moment not denied in that respect, at least. "Mara?" he said after a moment, an honest call.

Mara met his eyes, seeing so many things in what should have innocent, blue depths. "I won't say I'm not horrified," she said tactlessly, but he didn't look surprised. "And it has all been a manipulation, hasn't it?"

Luke smiled, pain suddenly in his eyes. "I tried to so hard with you. I couldn't figure you out at all."

"And now?"

"And now I ask for your help," Luke said. And he waited.

Mara turned away, not caring how Luke was feeling right now. What he was asking of her was betrayal. Perhaps kindly betrayal, if what he said was true, but betrayal nevertheless. And . . . she was stalling. It was true; she sensed the truth in his words, the Force confirmed it.

She thought of Luke and his father. Vader had loved Luke. He had never intended to do so, but he had, and love was an emotion the Dark Side rejected absolutely. Could she even have doubt, now, with Luke? He was reaching for her, as she had offered to him. Even now, with this revelation, how had that changed? She saw the goodness inside of Luke that he hid so carefully, keeping it such a secret for the reason of the world he lived in.

"I did not want to look toward the future," Luke whispered, interrupting her train of thought. "I did not do so, until today. Because I couldn't bear it, if I had to lose you for the sake of it."

Mara faced Luke, looking into his eyes. He had lost everything for her.

Was this not ultimately simple? And she felt herself, in her heart, give all that she had up. For the sake of this, for them, and for the future.

Because she wanted it.

The Force was beautiful, expansion, space itself. It was born into people, and living in them, feeling their pain and love and anguish. And now ? now, was that not destiny? Did it not speak to them both of the rightness of things? She felt it in her blood, calling her, and its path was her path.

This kiss was gentle. For Luke it was not so ? he kissed her back roughly, a tremble running through his body. Emotions, jumbled and erratic, falling into her mind. Her hands in his hair, his body next to hers, and every touch terrifying fire. But sweetness and gentleness, too. His movements were driven, passionate, and she could not help but respond to that. She felt it in his mind, and in sharing it became magnified.

This was the man she had fallen in love with. Someone who had risked everything, who had lived a hard life and survived. Someone who saw her, and was no longer content with just that. She had walked after him and now he walked after her.

She drew back, gasping, but he said it first: "I love you," he whispered. I never hoped to have this, he thought, and she heard it.

She felt her eyes fill with tears. His forehead was pressed against hers, and she breathed with him. I never dreamed that I could. All blindness was now stripped away.

And words were meaningless.

Be with me, make me strong. Be with me, make me . . . Be with me.

In the twenty-second year of Emperor Luke Skywalker's rule, the Empire was attacked; the invaders called themselves the Yuuzhan Vong.

---Annals of the Empire, Vol. V.

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