Pain.

It was mind-numbing, excruciating ... she wondered, vaguely, if he had broken anything, before coming to the realization that everything hurt: her head, her chest, her arms ... even her toes, it seemed. Even her hair. She fought against unconsciousness, reaching for the Light to sustain her this one last time, to give her the dignity to die as a Jedi should, as the last of the Jedi should --

And she found it. She drew it in quickly, nearly sobbing in relief, and let its warmth flow through her battered body. Carefully, she directed it towards her wounds, towards her sore and aching muscles, towards the painful bruises and lacerations she'd picked up during the fight. Slowly -- too slowly for her comfort, but it would have to do -- the pain began to abate and her mind began to clear.

He was watching her, a quizzical expression upon his face. "I didn't think you'd know how to do that yet," he told her, raising an eyebrow. "Even that much control of the Force could have helped you earlier, you know."

She opened her mouth for a sharp retort -- or a multilingual hypothesis on his ancestry, whatever came out first -- before coming to the realization that she couldn't.

She couldn't open her mouth. She couldn't move her jaw at all. In fact, she couldn't move at all.

She fought to move, to fight back, to win back control of her seemingly paralyzed muscles; she struggled to stir her head the tiniest bit, all to no avail. He held her against the wall with a powerful Force-grip, held her pinned and frozen like a giant insect for his inspection. She wanted to spit, to curse, to howl her fury at this black-clad monstrosity -- and found that she could do little more than glare at him.

So she glared.

He laughed, the sound of it once more echoing off the walls for what seemed to be forever, before dying in the silent oblivion of the abandoned Temple. "So feisty," he complimented, sending her an amused glance. He looked at her thoughtfully, standing with his arms crossed behind his back and his legs splayed, ignoring the blood now dripping down into his black collar. He was smiling, a self-satisfied little smirk that sent tremors up and down her immobile spine.

Like a little boy inspecting his new toy ... albeit an insane, sadistic, and evil little boy ...

"Whatever shall I do with you, dear?" he mused, ignoring her poisonous glowering. "It would be a shame to kill you, because then you'd be all gone -- but, still, it'd be so much fun."

He took a step closer, reaching out a hand for her face, and she fought to draw back, to flinch away, but couldn't do anything more than stare at him in wide-eyed shock. She didn't want to die, didn't want it to end here, after so long, but no matter how hard she tried to move, she couldn't; his control of the Force was unmatched, rivaling that of some of the greatest Jedi masters and far surpassing her own. He brought a hand to her head --

-- and withdrew the clasps that held her hair pinned up. She had put her hair up before the fight, knowing that it would get in the way, but now ... he took them out one by one, letting loose the cascade of fiery hair that habitually hung to her shoulders.

"So much beauty," he whispered, looking into her wide eyes. His expression was unreadable, his eyes cold and impassive. Or was there a hint of something there ... "So much beauty should never be tamed."

Abruptly, he turned away and began to pace, his dark cloak whirling behind him as he strode forward and back, never more than a meter away from her. "I didn't expect her to be so beautiful," he growled seemingly to himself, almost snarling with what sounded surprisingly like desperation. He spoke quietly, but he was close enough and the Temple was silent enough that his whispers carried over to her ears.

That certainly didn't conform to his normal patterns ... and, stars, she knew she looked anything but beautiful at the moment. Perhaps the years on the run had taken care of the excess weight from childbirth, but they had also taken their toll in other ways, especially during these last few days. She was dirty, exhausted, bone-weary ... not exactly the quintessence of beauty, and not exactly someone the Dark Lord would look at with such a worshipful gaze ...

She allowed herself to take comfort, briefly, in knowing that her son was safe, far, far from here. Before she left for this planet and for what would almost undoubtedly turn into a suicide mission, she had entrusted him to Winter's capable care. The white-haired woman was already watching over the Solo children, had already managed to protect them from the countless kidnapping attempts that seemed to go with their last name, so what was little Ben Darklighter compared to that ...

He stopped pacing, suddenly turning back around to face her, the smirk back in place and eyes once more the impassive cubes of ice she had come here expecting. He seemed to have pushed the other issues aside, for the moment, meeting her defiant gaze with steady eyes that screamed his resolve. She would have shuddered if she could. "Mara Jade-Darklighter," he purred, tasting her name on his lips and tongue. "Mara Jade-Darklighter ... I guess I may as well tell you why I've been chasing you for all these years, hmm? It doesn't really seem fair otherwise, does it?"

He cast an amused glance up to her face and began pacing again. "I hope you're quite comfortable up there; I'm afraid it's going to be a rather long story."

Five steps, about face, five steps, about face ... he strode forwards and back in front of her, never any more than three feet away, his black robes fluttering slightly as he moved. He stalked back and forth with feline grace and military precision, things she would have thought mutually exclusive until she saw the Dark Lord. His movements -- even his walk -- spoke of power; unbelievable power, controlled by unbelievable discipline ... it was almost hypnotic, his walk, watching him as he paced ... five steps, about face, five steps ...

"When I finished off the new order of Jedi, Leia Organa Solo and her ilk, I thought I would be bored ... after all, what more challenge could the galaxy offer me once I had reduced the great Jedi Order to nothing?"

He laughed, filling the Temple once more with the resonant echoes of his mirth, deep chuckles of dark amusement that would have sent strong men to their knees. If any Jedi remained -- their ghosts, their spirits, whatever could have remained after this man had cut ruthlessly down -- they would be screaming in rage at this profanity in their most sacred place. As it was, his laughter died into the quiet nothingness, leaving only the sounds of his boots as he paced the floor.

"So imagine my surprise when, just a while after I finally killed Durron, he presented me with a list of other Force-sensitives I had never heard of ... females, all of them, and all extraordinarily strong in the Force. Perhaps stronger than some of the Jedi, even. As it happened, my Master had been prepared before my birth -- he was looking for a child to train even before he had ever heard my name.

"They were to be his Hands. Assassins, mercenaries, whatever suited his fancy ... but he found me instead, when Kenobi had to flee the planet after killing my father. Little blue-eyed blonde infant that I was, but already as strong as he'd ever seen ...

"So I tracked you down. Killed you one by one. It was simple, really -- none of you had had any real training in the Force, and even those who had received some had gotten sporadic training at best. Nowhere near as strenuous as hunting Jedi, but, for pure entertainment value, it would do in a pinch."

He stopped pacing. Turned and faced her again. Arms clasped behind his back with military discipline, gaze trained unwaveringly upon her face.

"You ... you're that last one. The most powerful. Odds are that, had my Master not found me all those years ago, he would have taken you as his student. If things had gone differently, our positions would have been reversed. That's why, I figured, we had that bond ... you're a shade from a past that might have been.

"I saved you for last. I felt it -- dammit, I felt something -- from the first moment I saw your name; it was something, nothing, all at once. Something deep inside that I will never be able to put into words. Something ... damn you, something that I never wanted to feel. I could feel you -- bonded to me somehow -- but it was a shadow of something that didn't exist. But even though it was just a hint, just a shadow of the thing ... it was enough. A shadow of something, maybe, a hint of what could have been, what might have been if things had been different, perhaps, but strong all the same ...

"But, dammit, that's all you are. You're a shadow of a maybe that never became real, and can never be real ... and now I get to kill you." He growled as he spoke, but he looked far more relaxed as he took the few steps between them. Far less angry than he had been a few moments before, and perhaps the ice had melted just the tiniest bit.

He brought his hand up again, gently stroking her cheek. "I just didn't expect you to be so beautiful," he muttered again, to himself or to her she didn't know. His eyes ... it couldn't be denied now. There was something in his eyes that she couldn't identify -- by the hells, something she didn't want to identify ...

"You ... you really love to hear yourself talk, don't you?" she gasped, straining against his hold to no avail despite the shudder his words elicited from her. He had loosened his grasp during his speech, but her limbs were still held fast to the wall. "Just kill me and get it over with, you dirty son of a Hutt!"

He grabbed her chin, wrenching it up sharply so she had to look him in the eye. She bit off a gasp of surprise, fighting the pain his grasp had caused her, and glared defiantly back into his blue eyes. She couldn't move her jaw, still caught in his Force-hold, so it had to be enough.

"I hate you," he growled, carefully studying her expression. His eyes were icy, promising death and a thousand things infinitely worse, and his fingers gripped her jaw with bruising force as he twisted her face towards his own.

She spat.

He savagely backhanded her, splitting her lips in new places. She held back a cry, barely -- this is it this is the part I die oh stars I don't want to die -- and raised her head again, still defiantly glaring at him.

"Damn you," he snarled, rage fueling his words and filling his eyes with something beyond simple hatred. "Damn you to the deepest Force-forsaken hell ... idiot Jedi, don't look at me like that!"

And then he leaned forward, firmly fastening his lips to hers for a long, drawn-out kiss that was like nothing she had ever experienced.

It started out roughly.

Biting and nipping at her lips and tongue, demanding entrance into her mouth with an urgent need. Forcing her mouth open with aggressive jabs, plundering her mouth mercilessly, ruthlessly. A show of strength as he dominated and overpowered her, putting down her attempts at resistance until it she wanted to scream in defiance but couldn't ...

But slowly --

Slowly, it transformed into something totally different.

His kiss turned into something else, something far less urgent and something far more tender. Soft lips lowered to meet her own, seemingly shaped just to meet with hers. A tongue flicking gently at her lips, teasing them open with gentle touches and feathery brushes. A perfect, cool, wet mouth meeting hers again, and again, soft, long, sipping kisses that seared her soul ...

He broke off, turning away abruptly while she tried to catch her breath. And decipher what had just happened. Her mind was tumbling, racing to and fro in its desperate attempt to determine what had just happened, why it had just happened -- whether or not the universe was pulling the greatest prank she could ever have imagined ...

He turned back to face her, face once more composed as he silently regarded his captive. He looked the same, but totally different. His posture, the set of his face was the same as it had been before -- angry and powerful and full of some unfathomable dark purpose -- but gods, his eyes ... his eyes held some expression she had never seen in them before. It wasn't hatred -- in fact, it seemed the farthest thing from hate imaginable ...

"I hate you," he whispered again, stepping forward to gently trace a hand down her cheek. She shuddered at the tingling sensations elicited by his touch; despite whatever lies she told herself, she was equally torn between jerking away from the cool caress of his fingers and leaning more deeply into the intimate feel of his hand. The look in his eyes, the touch of his skin, the cadence of his voice -- all belied the meaning of his words.

His eyes had softened; the icy perfection had melted into something far more welcoming. They beckoned her closer, enticing and beguiling, promising things that they had no right to promise. They made her think of home, of warm nights gently cradled in strong arms. They made her think of peace, days and weeks and months without being on the run, constantly dodging Imperial forces, constantly wondering if she could survive until the next dawn.

His hand traced the curve of her cheek, lingering over the cuts her struggles had caused, elegant fingers dancing over her skin. He trailed a gentle path down her face, carefully wiping away her tears with tender strokes of his long fingers. He brought up his palm, cupped her face in his hand, and, despite herself, she found herself leaning into his touch. It felt ... it felt right, somehow. Right in a way she couldn't define, right in a way she could hardly begin to understand.

He moved on from her face to her neck, and he pulled closer. She found herself inhaling his scent -- stars he smells like sunshine how can he smell like sunshine damn him to hell he shouldn't smell like sunshine -- and would have gasped in surprise if she could. She would have shuddered if her muscles were under her control. Not because his touch was repulsive, though, but because it wasn't -- because, despite the fact that he was in the perfect position to snap her neck like a twig, she felt safe. Because his touch made her feel safe and she didn't want him to make her feel safe and she wanted to hate him but couldn't quite manage to do it.

His hands laced themselves in her hair, calloused hands through soft hair, running through endless eternities of the softest red silk in any of the galaxy's planets. His fingers ran through her hair, scratching lightly at her scalp. The feel of his fingers running through her hair, the purely blissful sensation of his touch, woke nerve endings that had been slumbering for what seemed like eons, calling them back to life after decades and centuries of nothingness. They called something within her, something she had thought long dead, something that felt so right somewhere deep inside her heart and soul.

His voice was soft, compelling. It was hypnotic and melodic, smooth and dark; it called to her. It bespoke of hopes and dreams and fantasies that might once have been shadows of possibility. His tone was full of some emotion she did not want to think about, did not want to even begin to guess. Because, had he been any other man in the galaxy ... she might have called it affection. Or warmth. Or tenderness.

Or maybe ... maybe even ...

He stepped away, pulling back from her. And oh gods, she didn't know how that made her feel because her body -- stars, her heart, her soul -- screamed for his touch while her mind shrieked in protest. Because, damn him, he was her weakness, had always been her weakness; even while he was tracking her across the galaxy, even as she fled from planet to planet just to escape his saber -- but, by the Force, there was nothing she could do to make it stop ...

"I hate you," he murmured, eyes still full of that emotion she didn't want to contemplate, hand gently stroking her cheek with something akin to tenderness, "because, had things been different ... I think I may have loved you."

He flicked his fingers slightly and, suddenly, the Force-hold on her body was gone. She would have tumbled to the ground, bonelessly weary in body, mind, and soul, had his arms not been there to catch her before she landed. His arms ... stars, dammit, his strong arms around her, cradling her to his broad chest. A gentle voice in her ear, crooning soft nonsense words as he carefully took her into his embrace ...

"Because you make me feel things I have never felt before ..."

Soft blond hair, feathery soft ...

"Things that I have no right to feel ..."

His broad, muscular chest ...

"Things that I don't understand, that I never wanted to understood ..."

The peace she found in his embrace ...

"I think I might love you, even now ... and dammit, there's nothing I can do to make it stop ..."

The oblivion of happiness and comfort ...

"Except maybe ... this ..."

He pulled away from her, carefully letting her onto the ground as he regarded her with his beautiful blue eyes. Eyes that were filled with that indefinable emotion -- after all, who could define love? -- and a weary resolve. Eyes that were windows to his soul, the soul that was screaming in agony and despair at his intention. Eyes that let her see into his heart, all the hatred and anger ... and the one spot of light, the one shadow of maybe that would have been -- might have been, could have been, should have been --

She closed her eyes, blocking away the sight of his stars-damned gaze. Because, dammit, she could lose herself in those eyes forever, without a thought to the fate of the world or the galaxy or whatever else might be in danger from this demon in an angel's body.

She thought she felt a feathery touch to her forehead, even as she heard his lightsaber ignite with a muted snap-hiss.

And then his voice, his warm breath whispering into her ear -- "Goodbye, love."

Finis