Coruscant. She had usually been able to keep away from this planet as much as possible since the Emperor´s death. The memories of this place were too painful. Strangely though, now that she stood here yet again, on one of the Imperial Palace´s landing platform´s, she felt at ease. And the reason for that was standing by her side. Mara Jade calmly turned her head and smiled.
Standing two paces away Luke Skywalker bent down on one knee to take his niece and nephews in his arms. The three children were squealing in delight and Mara could not help but feel the love between them. They were a true family, and here she was, a stranger, cut off from that affection and everything they shared. It was a bitter feeling. And to her surprise she felt something else too. Jelousy? Her head came up and she looked into Leia Organa Solo´s knowing dark eyes. The princess smiled at Mara´s suddenly sour expression and came forward to greet her. "It is good so see you here," she said warmly and nodded once before she went on to welcome the Jedi students. Her husband was deeply immersed in a conversation with his friend Kyp Durron. They were laughing a lot. Everyone seemed to have someone. Except for her. She wanted to kick herself for thinking this way immediately. When had she ever needed someone? And yet, when the Jedi Master rose again and turned towards her, his blue eyes shining brightly with joy, Mara knew that she had lost this fight already. She loved him. It was the simple truth.
Luke Skywalker was deep in thought when he followed his sister into the Palace. What was to expect from the Senate and, more importantly, from Fey´lya? These negotiations were very welcome, of course, but they would have to be careful too. His father had warned them before, that the Jedi should be independent, not a government´s elite force. But Luke also was aware of the Senate´s feelings. They did not want any more Dark Jedi. And yet Luke would have to convince them that this was inevitable. You just had to deal with it somehow.
Here was the question though: It had been Borsk Fey´lya personally, who called back the Jedi. To accomplish what? And unfortunately Luke was pretty sure that he knew the answer.
His father had made it clear that the Empire´s true state should not reach the President´s ears. Two hot fronts? Was it that bad then? Luke wasn´t sure. But he feared that Fey´lya would turn Anakin´s words against him. So Luke would have to be very, very careful in explaining the dangers of the Dark Side. He sighed deeply. Life was never easy.
The first meeting was with the Defense Council and the Skywalker twins were relieved to have at least some friends among the council. Admiral Ackbar and General Bel Iblis had wanted to help the Empire throw back this invasion the moment they heard of it, but Fey´lya had vetoed against any intervention.
Seated next to each other, Leia squeezed her brother´s hand gently and gave him a smile of encouragement, before he rose to speak: "I thank you again for this invitation and I hope that our negotiations will be short. Let me first outline the arrangements we are thinking of. The Jedi will be informed of the governments proceedings and will in turn offer their advice if necessary. There is no loyalty to the government, only to the people. In fact, to best describe it would be an independent cooperation," Luke smiled softly and let his eyes wander over the assembly. It was, to his surprise, Ackbar who replied first:
" You are saying that the Jedi will have every right to interfere with the government..."
"No, what I meant is that we will offer advice. That is something different."
"Then the government is allowed to offer advice in the matters of the Jedi too?" Luke shook his head slowly:
"That is hardly possible, Admiral, for understanding the Force requires the mind of a Jedi." Ackbar threw Leia a glance:
"Yes, I understand that. But if the government fails to understand your actions, there will be conflicts again."
"A very reasonable point. That is why we suggest a liaison, a mediator, if you will."
"Yes. Of course."
"That does sound acceptable," the Mon Calamari answered calmly and most of the other representatives nodded in agreement, "However, we do have some suggestions too."
"Please, go ahead." Standing up, the Admiral started walking around the table, an unsettling move, and unexpected. Luke caught Leia´s frowning face and wondered.
"There have, in the past, been regrettable incidents with some of your students. And you will understand that we want to contain such incidents before they can turn into desasters. Therefore we suggest a database on your students. Psychological profiles, achievements, behaviour and so on."
"Who will have access to these files?"
"Only the Defense Council, and your liaison."
"You realize, of course, that this kind of database would again put the Jedi in the position of an elite force. And they will not stay students forever. But I understand that you want some kind of security to make your own judgements. Still, the Jedi will not fall under New Republic jurisdiction. That is another condition." Luke saw the Defense Council share uncomfortable looks. But he clearly remembered Mon Mothma demanding the execution of Gantoris and Kyp after their fall to the Dark Side. He did not want that to happen again. So he tried to soothe them: "Any Jedi who violate our Code, which will be made available to you, will be judged by the Jedi." Yeah, once someone explains the old Code to me.
Admiral Ackbar looked more than uncomfortable and he was seeking strength from his fellow Council members. All of them were eying the Skywalker twins with a mixture of compassion, sorrow and regret. Luke´s scalp tingled warningly, but he had expected this. "You are referring to my father?" - "Yes," obviously relived that it had not been himself to drop the fatal sentence, Ackbar returned to his seat. "We have gathered information that your father has rejoined the Empire. The Senate doesn´t know yet and I wanted to hear you before I tell them. Is it true?"
Luke and Leia shared a glance. "It is true," the Jedi Master answered finally.
"He wants peace and he is starting with the Empire, since the New Republic refused to even consider peace."
"That is not entirely true."
"It is. You do not trust him."
"If you want peace, then the answer is yes."
"You understand though, that many will interpret his rejoining the Empire as a threat. He does not enjoy our protection anymore as he did under the Truce of Onderon."
"He does neither need nor want your protection. But I grant you that, he is doing his best to force you towards peace. But he is no threat. And if you believe that you would not be talking to us, you would be out there leading a New Republic armada against the Empire."
"The President is concerned."
"Is he now," that from Leia," Then maybe we should put his worries to rest. When are you planning to inform the Senate?"
"Tomorrow, at 1400."
"Good. I will be there, of course. About the Jedi. Are we agreed?"
"I am glad to hear it," she smiled broadly at her Mon Calamari friend, then rose. Luke followed her lead and, bowing slightly to the Council, the twins left finally.
"What a mess," Leia remarked once they were walking towards her apartment. "Yes, isn´t it? We can only try to keep the damage low, but Father will have to do the rest. Except, that is, that we will take care of Xixor." - "And I will take care of Fey´lya." They smiled at each other, then Leia shook her head slowly:
"I can´t believe we are doing this. Things have happened so fast, it is a wonder we haven´t been crushed by them yet."
"Well, sometimes being Jedi does pay off after all."
"Definitely. Once we are back home I´ll tell you what I have planned for tomorrow."
Admiral Daala was impatiently pacing the length of Anakin´s deserted office. He was off, playing at the front and here she was, trying to hold Disra and his fellows in check. They were planning something, she knew. Palleon had just arrived on a shuttle from his flagship, the Chimaera. She and three sister ships were the only defense Bastion had right now and Daala very much hoped that the New Republic did not drop a big surprise on their heads. She did not understand why Anakin had called nearly all capital ships to the front, leaving the capitol undefended. This was like an invitation to the enemy. Maybe he had planned on that, but lately she had found many of his decisions to be foolishly risky and dangerous. In short, she was nervous.
Suddenly the door chimed open. Daala spun around, frowning at the newcomer. The woman was a tall blonde, with a dancer´s figure and grace. "Who are you and what do you want?" the Admiral asked harshly and stepped towards the desk comm. Her left hand rested on the blaster at her hip. This question was superfluous though, she knew, this unannounced visitor could only be an assassin. Daala drew her blaster smoothly and got off three shots, before she vaulted the desk. As expected, the woman had thrown herself sideways towards her former position. From her higher position Daala aimed another shot at the blonde. But the assassin was faster. Throwing her weight against the desk she pushed it out from under Daala´feet. The Admiral was shocked. How did she manage that? This table was so heavy that no normal human being could move it all alone. But no time to think. Her feet hit the floor and she barely avoided the blonde´s highly aimed kick. Growling softly, Daala crouched low, then rolled under the assassin´s next kick, grabbed her leg and threw her off balance. How heavy she was! And then the truth hit her. This woman was no human, she was an HRD. Daala bit her lip in frustration. This meant that she really had no chance. Too bad.
High Admiral Palleon walked into the meeting room feeling exhausted. And Disra´s smug smile did nothing for his foul mood. "Gentlemen," the Imperial commander began, his mouth twisting in distaste, "I have reviewed your most recent reports and must admit that there were some unclarities. For instance, the trade ship agreement. Wasn´t this supposed to be divided so there would be more competition to lower the prices? According to the report it was given to only one organization. And furthermore, one outside of the Empire." His eyes swept over the assembly. They were watching him alright. He straightened, feeling uncomfortable: "What is the matter? You might as well spit it out now," Palleon growled, tensing for a possible attack.
As expected, it was Disra who took the lead and stood to speak: "We are all a bit disappointed, you see? Someone, whose name I needn´t mention, promised peace to the people, yet it is the military that rules and at the same time we are at war. How does that go together? Not at all."
"The people are better provided than before, Disra. You cannot deny that. So what do you really mean?" The man actually laughed.
"High Admiral, I cannot say I am a friend of the military..."
"As long as they don´t defend your interests?"
"And I really am not fond of having a Sith rule the Empire again..."
"Instead of you?"
"Please stop interupting me."
"Disra, why don´t you come to the point? Treason remains treason, no matter how much you try to defend it. What do you want to do now? Take over? I need not remind you that Lord Skywalker will return here. And he will not be pleased."
"I do not care. We can defeat him, you know?"
"Frankly, I don´t. You have four ships here, under my command, if you may recall."
"Ah, but no. I will have a lot of ships to defend this planet as long as is needed."
"The New Republic will gladly take the opportunity to take down your precious Sith once and for all. And we will certainly not stand in their way."
"Brilliant, Disra, just brilliant. And who will provide these ships?"
"That is the most delightful question, Palleon," he gestured towards the door and the High Admiral turned around to see a blonde woman enter, her black uniform splattered with fresh blood, "May I introduce to you Guri, right hand to Prince Xixor of Black Sun?"
"Black Sun! Are you out of your mind? That is a criminal organization, that..."
"Has been useful to the Empire before."
Palleon gave up. He shrugged once and spread his arms wide: "Do what you want. You will regret it." And then he saw her.
Aboard the Hydra Anakin Skywalker was pacing the bridge impatiently. "Still no reply," Captain Fulan informed him and he could sense the crew´s anxiety. There was no way to raise Bastion, no beep out of the planet. "Put the ships on Red Alert and have them move into battle formation as soon as we leave hyperspace." - "Yes, Lord Skywalker." Taking his seat and gripping the arms of the command chair tightly, Anakin stared out of the viewport, his heart fluttering nervously. The communication silence could only mean that they were too late.
So, Xixor was a step ahead of him. This was unfortunate, and regrettably, there could not but be victims. Victims he could name right here and now: High Admiral Palleon and Admiral Daala. He swallowed hard. Not her. Please no. But he also knew that it was inevitable. Stay calm, Anakin told himself. Nothing is certain. You´ll see. Just wait.
Space around Bastion seemed to be crowded with ships of various designs, but most of them heavier crusisers. In their midst the four star destroyers he had left behind under Palleon´s command. Indeed, they were late.
"Sir!" Fulan called out.
"I see it, I see it. No need to panic."
"Sir, we are counting 200 ships."
"Ah, 200 you say?"
"Nice odds, those, 1 to fifty. Are the ships ready?"
"Call reinforcements. No, recall all ships from the front."
While the Captain hurried towards the stunned comm officer who, like everyone else of the bridge crew was staring transfixed at the display in front of them, Anakin studied the ships´array. It was a mess, to say the least. Obviously they thought that with this number of ships on their side strategy was not needed. What did they expect? That they would simply surrender or even run? He smiled to himself. Bastion lay in the middle of a defensive ring, but the enemy ships had stayed clear of the atmosphere and the planetary shield. The atmosphere woudl slow down any ship to a point that made it nearly unmaneuvearable, and especially ships the size of his star destroyers. The shield, on the other hand would ward off any orbital fire.
Anakin sighed deeply. Well, this was not the time to be cautious. It was true, they could not last against 200 ships, even if they were that small. The four star destroyers alone matched his own fire power and the rest were enough of a nuisance to wear them down. "Captain Fulan," he said. "Yes, sir?" - "Please, move the ships to the following coordinates and order our fighters to get the planetary shield generator under our control immediately. Our strike teams are to take over the planetary guns and open fire on the enemy ships. And if our exhaust ports damage any building I´ll have your head and those of the other captains, is that clear? And have my shuttle stand ready." Paling slightly Fulan bowed shortly and left his commander´s side again. Anakin rose slowly, straightened his uniform and strode off the bridge towards the bridge hangar, where the white Imperial shuttle was waiting. This would be sweet revenge. And a nasty surprise for Disra and his fellow traitors.
High Admiral Palleon´s face was flushed red with anger. His hands bound behind his back he had no possibility to strike down Disra were he stood, smiling a self-satisfied smile, deliberately ignoring Admiral Daala´s bleeding body lying at his feet. That droid had dragged her into the meeting room as if she were trash. And noone had even bothered calling a medic for her.
"Are you planning on just letting her die?" he growled viciously. "No," Disra smiled at him,"She can still serve us well as a hostage, if need be. Ah," he gestured towards the display at the wall, where three green specks had just appeared among a sea of red, "This will be them."
Palleon´s heart skipped a beat. Skywalker was back! But, he thought in dismay, what could he accomplish? There were too many ships between them and Bastion. They had no choice but to surrender or run. And that would doom them as certainly as taking up the fight would.
Disra stepped over Daala contemptuously and walked up to the huge viewport. He stared up towards the grey sky and laughed silently. "Brilliant," he whispered," just brilliant." The sudden, deafening thunderclap caught them all by surprise and Palleon nearly jumped out of his skin when he beheld the awesome sight of three star destroyers hanging nose-down over the city and fortress, one of them only a hundred meters away from where they stood. This is what I call precision, the High Admiral thought before his brain caught up with him and he nearly fainted. "You are right," he shouted when he had finally caught himself again, laughing at Disra´s pale face," This is just brilliant!" The star destroyers might not be able to move, but they didn´t have to. Already he could hear the whine of fighter engines fill the air. The ships had jumped right under the planetary shield. A very dangerous and bold move, but obviously it had worked. He shook his head, still only half believing what he saw. "Didn´t I warn you?
Anakin Skywalker had landed his shuttle in one of the fortress´s hangar bays. Focusing on his anger and despair he had the strength to run despite feeling dizzy and sick. Daala was in grave danger, he could feel it. If he came too late... Skidding into the meeting room, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, he took in the whole scene in one go and lunged for the HRD immediately. She danced out of his way elegantly and in passing even managed to break a rib or two with a move of her steel hand. Anakin was spun around, coughing, then caught his balance again. He shook his head, clearing his thoughts and threw out a hand towards her. The look of surprise on the droid´s face quickly died, as limbs and wires and everything were crushed by a giant fist. He let the steel frame drop to the floor and turned towards Disra, fuming.
The man was absolutely terrified now and dropped to his knees like a ragdoll: "Please, mylord, have mercy!" he cried, loosing all his dignity in one go and Anakin hesitated for a moment. His cold blue gaze swept over the faces of the other men present. All of them were staring at Disra in disgust. Anakin slowly bent towards the whimpering governor and whispered. "No need for confessions, my friend, I know who made you do it." And then he slowly curled his right hand into a fist.
High Admiral Palleon stood rooted in place when the Jedi Lord stormed into the room. The brief fight with the droid assassin had gone by so quickly that he wasn´t even sure it had happened, until he risked a look at what remained of Guri. But then he saw Anakin Skywalker bend over Disra, who knelt howling on the floor in front of him, saw him straighten up and change. It was as if a dark cloud was slowly gathering around him, letting the hard yet gentle Jedi vanish before the eyes of the beholder. In his place rose again the Dark Lord of the Sith, unforgiving and cruel in his arrogance. Palleon had heard of these executions, but had never witnessed one before. The casualty with which the traitor´s life was ended was terrifying alright. And when Anakin turned to look at him his icy blue eyes filled Palleon with cold dread. Here was someone he had never wanted to meet again. "Leave," Skywalker hissed and Disra´s remaining followers fled his eyes. The door crashed close behind them with such force, that even the ceiling lights went out.
Anakin fought the numbness trying to overwhelm his heart and mind, tried to shed that cold anger and the need for revenge. Dropping down next to Daala he felt all strength leave him suddenly. He should have seen this coming. He should have been here. Too many mistakes. Far too many. "Palleon," he whispered, his voice broken. "Yes?" - "Take over for me, will you?"
Anakin waited for the medics to take Daala away into the infirmary, then slumped into one of the chairs, brooding. After a while he noticed Palleon looking at him steadily.
"What?" he barked and his hands gripped the chair arms tighter.
"Sir, we have still this fleet to deal with," the High Admiral reminded him quietly.
"I told you to take over."
"Pardon, but that would not be a wise move."
"I don´t care."
"You should. And besides, I have no idea how I could get 200 ships out of the system. Our reinforcements will arrive in 5 days at the earliest."
"Have your troops regain command of the four star dstroyers in orbit."
"More easily said than done, my lord."
"Leave me alone for a while."
"As you wish."
Closing his eyes, Anakin waited until he heard the door close behind Palleon. He had been so close, too close. And the most frightening thing was that the Dark Side would really just make all this so much easier. No spells of fatigue, no dizziness, no pain. A tempting prospect. "Hang on," he told himself quietly.
"Don´t you want to see her?"
"No, I have other things to do."
"You are worried."
"Why are you trying to hide it?"
"Palleon, I know she is in good hands."
"Still, you should go."
"No. You yourself said I should take care of all this and so I will. Admiral Daala can wait. She won´t run away anyway, right?"
"Good. Have our star destroyers move out of the shield. No damages, mind you. And I want you to inform the populace of what just happened."
"What about the enemy ships?"
"They are leaving, aren´t they?"
"Yes. But why?"
"I made a deal."
"A deal. And do you want me to tell them about that too?"
Leia Organa sat quietly in her chair and tried not to fidget with her clothing. She was nervous, she had to admit it. In his speech following Admiral Ackbar´s report Fey´lya had made it very clear that the Empire would pose no threat in the near future anymore and he had given the Senate a desire for peace. To Leia it was obvious that he wanted to be remembered as the one president who finally brought peace to the galaxy and defeated the enemy once and for all. This was nothing new to her. He had tried this before, but then Anakin Skywalker had defended peace with a few simple words. Threats, mind you, but it had worked. Now though he was not here to prevent a renewed war that was surely coming. For what else was the Bothan aiming at than a declaration of war?
The princess frowned slightly, when she saw an aide wave urgently at the president.
Fey´lya answered the call angrily, then reluctantly straightened again to speak. All eyes were on him now and this time he seemed to be uncomfortable with it. "We have a message, it seems," was all he said and Leia could feel his anger rolling off him in huge waves. Something had gone wrong here. And when the holoimage flashed into existence above the senators´heads she knew what it was.
Anakin Skywalker had crossed his arms in front of his chest and cool blue eyes were regarding Borsk Fey´lya sternly for a moment. Then he let his arms fall to his sides and nodded slowly: "President Fey´lya, Senators of the New Republic," he began and his voice was no more than a rasping whisper," You are all aware of the happenings at the frontier to the Unknown Regions." Excited whisperes rose throuout the room as the assembly remembered Leia´s warnings from not five days ago, half forgotten in the rush of more recent events. Anakin´s icy eyes swept over the senators to emphasize his next words as he went on:"The Empire is not what it once was," he sighed and shook his head sadly," and we cannot stand against this invasion anymore. Bastion has fallen today."
Leia started in shocked surprise. Bastion had fallen? Impossible. But Anakin did not give his audience any time to recover: "So you see that I have no choice. We have only few ships left and I will not risk my people further without..." he broke off, closing his eyes for a moment. His daughter could feel the anticipation in the Senate Chamber rise to a nearly unbearable level. They all knew what had to come now. Leia stared at her father with morbid fascination. She was not sure how much of what he had said was exagerated, but Fey´lya would be very careful not to correct him.Theoretically she knew that the Gryssnyr had not nearly enough ships to wear the Empire down. Xixor´s ressources went only so far. But emotionally her father´s words had touched her deeply and she knew the other senators must be feeling the same, even stronger, since they did not know what she did.
Anakin Skywalker folded his hands in front of him, lowered his head, as if what he was going to say next did cost him very much, and again the level of anxiety rose up. "I ask you, Senators, not to turn your eyes away from our plight. We are all that stands between the New Republic and this invasion, but without your - help we will certainly perish," facing Fey´lya calmly he waited for the President to dare an answer. Leia could feel the Bothan´s impotent rage. Again Anakin had outmaneuvered him. Behind his mask of sorrow and concern the Imperial warlord must be laughing at him. For how could the President refuse this offer of peace? Wasn´t that what he wanted too? No, Leia knew better. He wanted Anakin Skywalker and the Empire to pay the prize in blood.
Fey´lya´s head snapped up and his violet eyes met Anakin´s blue ones. They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Then the Jedi Lord´s lips curved into the tiniest of triumphant smiles.A low hiss escaped Fey´lya´s mouth and he answered venomously: "You speak easily of compassion and forgiveness, Lord Vader." Anakin did not even flinch at the other´s words, but his face hardened visibly. Leia heard the sharp intake of breath from the senator´s next to her. Theoretically the Senate knew Anakin´s past, but a lot of time had gone by since the truce of Onderon was made and the Jedi Lord had wisely kept ot of Coruscant´s sight from then on. By calling him by his former title Borsk Fey´lya had reminded them all of who was asking for peace here. But it was too weak an argument and Leia felt her admiration grow for her father´s master manipulation. By offering his neck to the senators at least verbally he had not only put their fears about him being out of control to rest, but he had also made sure that they would side with his people´s suffering, real or not. Only the most uncivilized being would take advantage of such an offer. And Fey´lya had walked right into his trap.
Nodding his head slowly Anakin Skywalker accepted the President´s words:
"I see," he said coolly," so the New Republic would rather fight this war alone?"
"We have the resources to defeat both the Empire and this invasion force," Fey´lya shot back angrily, "If you think you can save yourself by hiding behind the people you betrayed...!"
But Anakin did not let him get any further. "Betrayed? To hear these words from you of all people," he hissed.
"What do you mean?" the Bothan asked, now cautious. Blue eyes burning with outrage Anakin leaned towards him:
"You would risk a war again, now that I have offered peace to you?" Sputtering a bit, the President was silent for a while, but unwilling to back down. That would look even more stupid. So he plunged onward:
"If you are saying that I am betraying your trust, think again. You may have won the Senate for now, but they don´t know what I do. Your defense is built on nothing but lies!"
"And what lies are these?" Anakin´s smile was cruel, to say the least. Any honest answer to this question would break the Bothan´s neck. Feeling the eyes of the assembled senators boring into him, Fey´lya sullenly sank into his chair.
It was, Leia decided, as good a time as any to make her own move. "Peace," she said and her voice rang through the chamber easily. Holding her head high the princess adressed her father directly: "Would you please specify?" He nodded once, confirming his willingness to go along with her game for a change, but then she saw a flash of anger cross his face. When he spoke though he was deadly calm: "The truth is, Senators, that the Empire is far from defeated. This so-called invasion is no threat to us." She wanted to kick him for his show of arrogant pride, but this was not the right time. If he didn´t shed that haughty air soon the senators would demand his head anyway.
"So you lied," she stated calmy, shooting him a warning smile. But the mischievous glint in his eyes told her that he did not approve of her course. "How then can we be sure that you are sincere?"
"My offer still stands and it is sincere, but maybe you should consider your President´s words more carefully."
"What are you accusing him of?"
The roar of outrage from the senators was deafening. Over the crowd Leia met her father´s eyes and saw only sadness there. "We will investigate this," she said finally, her throat thick with tears. For now she saw it clearly. By standing up to speak she had brought the Jedi into play, Fey´lya´s career would be finished before this affair was over and in the end noone would realize how they all had been manipulated. Anakin was willing to risk anything for his children´s and the Jedi´s future. Even if it meant sacrificing himself. And in realizing this Leia knew that she had been very wrong to doubt her father´s intentions at any time. He was a true Jedi, even if he did not want to admit it.
"Lord Skywalker," Admiral Ackbar called out suddenly. Anakin turned his head to face him slowly. "Lord Skywalker, we are grateful for your offer, yet I think I am speaking in the name of all Senators when I ask you to lead the negotiations here on Coruscant." The slow smile forming on the Jedi Lord´s lips was not menacing at all but amused:
"So you can keep an eye on me?"
"Thank you for your honesty, Admiral, but I will not lead the negotiations on the Empire´s behalf."
"You will not?"
"No. I have designated another representative, High Admiral Palleon."
"Then what will you be doing?" Anakin´s smile deepened.
"I will do what I do best."
"And what is that?"
"Can´t you guess? There is still a war to fight, although you are not aware of it."
"Lord Skywalker, we would much rather have you not run around the galaxy playing at war."
"I never play, Admiral, and I do not care what you want."
Leia stood again to get their attention. Her chocolate eyes sought her father´s gaze again as she spoke: "Please, hear me," she began and swallowed:
"The New Republic cannot and will not leave any threats unanswered. And peace is not the same as justice. You should know that."
"What do you mean?"
"You cannot make this war personal."
"I cannot? I have made peace personal and I do not see any difference here." Leia shook her head and her face became grim:
"Then you leave us no choice but to show you the difference."
"Any violent activity on your part will be treated as a hostile action towards the New Republic. As it was stated in the Truce of Onderon."
"I remain true to my word."
"Then you accept this condition?"
Anakin nodded once and smiled at his daughter. "I hope you will bring peace at last," he whispered, then broke the connection.
"You told him what?" Luke was shocked and nearly jumped off the couch he was currently occupying, while Leia recounted the happenings in the Senate.
"Look, he was practically begging me to do it. The Force only knows what he is planning."
"But.," her brother started protesting again, when Mara, sitting next to him, lay a warning hand on his forearm:
"Don´t you see? If you want the Jedi back where they belong you have to create a certain image for them. And Leia is right. You cannot allow your father to roam the galaxy in search for prey. And he would, if you let him."
"Luke, you trusted me with the post as liaison. Now you really have to trust me to do my job properly." He sank back into the soft couch sullenly:
"Yes, I know. And I can see what he´s doing. But I don´t have to like it, right? I just think that he is going about this the wrong way."
"Really? He knows he doesn´t have much time and so he´s making sure that someone else can bring this to an end."
"Then why this argument at all?"
"Colateral damage. He hates the Republic. And I do not know what he is planning."
"That makes two of us. So we will just have to be prepared."
"But for what?"
"I don´t know, but I believe he will not harm the Republic."
Luke sighed deeply and leaned his head against the couch´s back, closing his eyes. Being a Jedi Master had proven to be more difficult than he had imagined. And he didn´t need his father to confuse his students about what path to take. Anakin was neither Light nor Dark and the freedom that gave him frightened his son immensely. There was noone who could control him, no government he answered to. He was the sole person responsible for his actions.
And Luke knew that he himself was not yet ready to take this responsibility too. That was why he had suggested this arrangement with the New Republic. Maybe someday he could shed his fears, but for now he needed some kind of security. At first he had thought that Anakin might be able to provide it, but his father had this idea that his children were adults and could take care of themselves. Well, he was right, of course. Again a sigh. "Come on, Skywalker," Mara chided him and poked a finger into his ribs," snap out of it. This isn´t so bad." He opened his eyes and stared at her, then at his sister. He´d have to talk to Leia one of these days, that was for sure.
Later that day, night already falling, Luke stood on the balcony of the small guest room Leia had given him. From the inside of the apartment he could hear her soft voice telling a story to her three children, with Threepio commenting it now and then only to be shouted down by the kids to be silent.
"It is so peaceful, isn´t it?" Mara said quietly as she came up from behind and joined his side, "Not what we are used to."
"Yes. But I would love to get used to this. All of it," he replied. She smiled:
"Why so worried?" Turning towards her Luke folded his arms in front of his chest and eyed her curiously:
"He wants me to see him as an enemy."
"Not only you, it would seem," Mara remarked playfully and shook her red mane, "I think you are mistaken here. He is just doing what he thinks is the right thing to do and he doesn´t care for any government. I told you he works alone best."
"But he has been alone for so long."
"Do you think that was why he turned? Because he felt lonely and rejected?"
"Maybe. What did you feel when you were on the Dark Side?"
"I know what you mean. When Palpatine died I had a hard time adjusting to being all on my own. I did not know where I belonged."
"Do you know now?"
"You asked that question before, remember? On Dromund Kaas."
"I remember. You didn´t answer me then. Will you now?"
Her emerald gaze focused into the distance, looking right over his shoulder. Then, suddenly, she stepped forward and put the palm of her left hand on his chest, bent over to whisper something into his ear. He started in surprise, but Mara only smiled at him and turned around to leave. He had not expected this. Wished for it, maybe, ever since he had found how much they complemented each other, how much they shared. But Mara had always seemed to reject him. Then later they had formed a sort of friendship that always held the promise for more. But even then Luke had put that feeling down to his own imagination and wishful thinking. Now though he could be certain of her sincerity. Her words had left no doubt about it: "I belong with you." And, Luke realized, he felt exactly the same way.
Leia rose from her seat on little Anakin´s bed and smiled. Her youngest son lay asleep, smiling dreamily and she carefully bent forward to kiss his cheek lightly. For a moment she remembered her father´s joy at playing with his grandchildren, and the guilt he felt at not having been there for his own children. Still, even though Anakin kept himself apart his daughter could do nothing but love him nevertheless. Leia knew he needed it, now more than ever, and sincerely hoped that it would help him somehow. She and Luke were only beginning to get to know him. It should not end so soon.
"Leia?" Turning around she smiled at her brother and put a finger on her lips, motioning him outside. After they had left the children´s bedroom and closed the door behind them she dropped onto the couch heavily.
"What´s up?" she asked, a bit tired," I have time, it seems. Han promised to come home early tonight and I don´t think he will after all," she added with a look at her chronometer. Luke sat down in a chair opposite from her. "Mara has left already?"
"Yes," he answered, apparently deep in thought.
"What did you two talk about?" She smiled when her brother blushed slightly. "You are in love, am I right?"
"I cannot hide anything from you, can I?"
"You don´t need to, Luke."
"Yeah, you´re right. Do you know how much I have envied you for your family in the past?"
"Not until now. But you are part of my family."
"I know, I know, but it is not the - same." Leia smiled again, then stood and walked over to embrace him tightly:
"I am happy for you, brother, and I want you to be happy too. That is all that counts. Mara is a great woman. You are so good together."
"Yes," he mumbled," Apparently Father and Karrde thought the same." Now she laughed out loud:
"They set you up? No!"
"Who set who up?" Both turned around and smiled at the newcomer.
"Luke is in love. With Mara," Leia told her husband proudly.
"Is that all you are going to say, dear?"
"I just hope she won´t try to kill him again."
It was nighttime on Nar Shadaa and the Dark Prince was fuming. His allies didn´t answer his calls and there was no word of Guri. Something had gone definitely wrong and he didn´t like that at all. If there had not been one good piece of news he´d been very disappointed. Apparently Vader had finally managed to alienate the New Republic. They would go after him, no doubt, and the Empire would fall. That was at least something. Now, if he could only find out what exactly had happened...
"Your highness!" Xixor did not even look around.
"What is it?" he growled.
"There is someone to see you."
"I told you that I did not wish to be disturbed."
"Well, they didn´t really listen when I told them that."
They? He risked a glance over his shoulder and froze. Standing next to his aide was a tall woman, a broad smile on her face. He remembered her instantly.
"Have you come to take me up on my offer?" he teased the warrior. She shook her head and laughed:
"Not really, your highness, but it is good to see you again."
"Yes. May I introduce some friends to you?"
Xixor smiled tightly and shook his head. The Jedi. He should have known that they would not just stand by and watch. Not waiting anymore he bolted and ran.
"He´s getting away!" Kam Solusar shouted angrily and started running after Xixor. But Kirana Ti held him back.
"We are only to scare him off, remember?"
"Yes, but I thought this was a stupid plan from the beginning." She eyed him with her eyebrows raised questioningly:
"Well. It´s too late now. Here they come. Did you have some fun?"
Gantoris and Kyp were both smiling broadly: "Sure we did," the older Jedi replied,
"What about you?"
"Mission accomplished," the Dathomir witch answered and punched Kam´s shoulder playfully, "Let´s get back to Tionne and Streen."
They met their fellow students in the comm center of what had previously been Xixor´s headquarters on Nar Shadaa and now was nothing more than a deserted building. Thanks to Kyp and Gantoris. "Are you tracking?" Tionne nodded, not taking her eyes off the displys: "He´s headed for Dromund Kaas, just like Master Skywalker said." - "Good. Then our job is done. Let´s go."
Mara took her seat in the copilot´s chair next to Luke as his fingers danced over the controls in a preflight check. "He´ll reach Dromund Kaas ahead of us," the young Jedi Master told her calmly and lifted his head looking out of the forward viewport.
"So?" Luke turned his face towards her and regarded her earnestly:
"We don´t know what is waiting for us there."
"Yes, we do," she whispered softly. A frown appeared on his forehead before he nodded:
"Right. It will be dangerous."
"Not more dangerous than anything else we´ve been through so far."
"Okay, then let´s do it. Ready for take-off."
"What mess have you gotten us into now?" Daala asked the man sitting next to her bed ironically and had the satisfaction of seeing him blush slightly.
"A mess?" he protested and smiled, "No mess at all." She closed her eyes tiredly.
"Palleon told me you made a deal with the Gryssnyr. What did you tell them?"
"That they can keep the ships if they return to their homeworld immediately and that we may work out a trade agreement."
"Well, I also told them that they better leave before I come and get them."
"Yes, that sounds more like you. And they took that threat seriously?"
"They remember the Sith."
Daala kept silent for a while and watched Anakin´s face closely. His eyes were troubled, tired even. He did not look good at all.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked finally. His head snapped around to face her directly and he smiled:
"Then I will come with you."
His quick answer surprised her. She had expected him try and convince her to stay behind, to recover first. But no. He had agreed immediately. Very strange.
"When do we leave?"
"As soon as possible. Only three ships. We won´t need more."
His tone made her skin crawl and when he stood to leave, moving with a slow grace as if in a trance Daala knew that he was going to Dromund Kaas to die.
Anakin stood swaying slightly on numb legs, with hot tears of anger flowing down his cheeks. He surveyed the destruction before him with his lips pressed tightly together and he felt just awful. This wholesale massacre was more than a waste, it was shameful and he hated himself for his actions. Everyone had died, everyone he could find. Gripping the handle of his lightsaber in both hands he was crying, mourning his victims in silence.
Still, TIE bombers raided the vicinity, sowing their own deadly seeds. He could hear the bombs detonate, felt the heat of the explosions. No quarter, he had ordered, and his troops obeyed. Shaking himself out of his daze he looked around. He was gasping for air heavily; his lungs had been damaged by chemical gases and internal injuries. His body was shaking now, his teeth chattering. Sweat poured down his face, over the scratches and cuts across his cheeks, as he dragged himself over towards the old Sith Temple. Upon reaching the overgrown entry, he dropped to his knees, moaning softly, for once not caring wether anyone saw him in this weakened state or not. If anyone remained alive here at all. Looking up he could see the TIE fighters withdraw. Confused, Anakin concentrated on his flagship and smiled. The aching in his chest belied his anxiety mixed with utter exhaution and desire. Whatever happened to the fleet now did not lie in his hands anymore.
Admiral Daala stood at the viewport, gazing at the ships slipping into formation around her small fleet. "Ma´am," Captain Fulan called cautiosly after twenty minutes or so and Daala turned around slowly. "What," she asked calmly. "The New Republic ships are hailing us." The Admiral´s eyes were drawn back to the planet and a look of hurt and loss flashed across them for a split-second. Then she went over to the holocomm and straightened herself: "Put them through." Admiral Ackbar´s face appeared instantly and the Mon Calamari acknowledged the Imperial Admiral with a nod:
"Admiral Daala, the New Republic government has sent us here to eliminate the last threats to the Republic that might have survived. You and your troops included." Daala met Ackbar´s gaze levelly.
"What choice do we have?" she asked, smiling sadly.
"None," the Mon Calamari replied, his voice softening, "Where is Lord Skywalker? Is he with you?"
"Lord Skywalker decided to take the fight to the enemy. I have recalled my troops and he has not returned with them."
"I see. Still, we cannot wait. My orders have been specific to bring you as soon as we can find you."
"We will surrender," Daala sighed finally, eyes focused into the distance. How could she leave him all alone down there? She should not have listened to him, should not have let him go. Fool! She shook her head angrily. Admiral Ackbar´s voice broke through her brooding thoughts.
"Thank you. I expect your shuttle in two hours."
"Of course." Ackbar broke the connection and the red-haired admiral turned around to face her relieved crew. "Captain Fulan, give the good news to the troops. And I need to talk to the other captains at once."
"Yes, ma´am. What about Lord Skywalker?"
"We will have to honor his sacrifice," Daala replied, although her heart was breaking at the thought of leaving him behind.
Still, there was nothing she could do. She closed her eyes and remembered his arms wrapped tightly around her body, his head resting against hers, the tears flowing over both their faces. How much she had longed for him then. "I do not want to let go," she had whispered quietly. He had kissed her slowly then, brushed his hand over her eyes, stopping the tears: "I love you."
When Anakin stepped into the ancient temple the first thing he noticed was the cold air surrounding him, easing away the heat of battle. His left hand reached out to touch the carved tiles on the wall next to him, caressing them gently as he walked forward, deeper into the structure. Silence hung like a promise of peace in the broad shadowy hallways and he could hear his own hesistant footsteps echo faintly in the distance. For a while Anakin paused, leaning against the cool, moist wall, fighting to remain upright. Dizziness swept over him in gentle waves, tried to break down his defenses, but he would not allow that. Not yet. He pushed himself off the wall and continued his slow walk. Finally he had reached his destination.
The Chamber of Dreams looked exactly like Luke had described it to him and Anakin stood in the doorway staring into the gloomy distance, sighing. The first step was the hardest, but determination drove the next one and an iron will pushed his dying body onward. In the end Anakin Skywalker stood proudly facing his destiny.
Leaning his head back and looking up towards the dark ceiling he closed his eyes, a smile on his lips. He could hear his heart-beat pounding in his ears as it became first incredibly fast and then slowed down gradually. He had been fighting this losing battle for so long, but now Anakin surrendered finally his will, his anger, his pain, everything, feeling a profound peace and calmness settle over his mind, easing the roaring fire burning in his soul. "There is no death, there is the Force", he whispered, his words echoing throughout eternity.
The sudden sound of boots crunching on gravel snapped his head around and icy blue eyes drilled into the newcomer with a cold anger. Xixor smiled at him, a snake´s smile. He held his blaster in one hand and Anakin could see his eyes on the lightsaber handle in his own hand.
Xixor eyed the tall man carefully. Sitting there in the darkened hall, his long legs stretched out before him Vader did look more tired than anything else. But there was a distant fire burning in his blue eye that banished the darkness into the background and held Xixor´s gaze transfixed. "You lose again," Vader said calmy and a tiny smile appeared on his dry lips. "Well, I am not the one dying here," the Dark Prince replied flippantly. Again that cold smile: "Who cares?" The two adversaries remained silently wary for some time, each immersed in his own thoughts.
What was there to say? Xixor repressed the urge to put his blaster to the Dark Lord´s head and press the fire button with difficulty. But the man was so close to Death that killing him now would be more an act of mercy than revenge. And mercy was not something he wanted to give Vader.
Anakin Skywalker smiled. He could feel the Dark Prince´s internal struggle and it amused him greatly. Shaking his head suddenly he laughed. "What is so funny?" Xixor growled. "You are, your highness." The snake blinked at him once or twice, then took a step back. "What do you mean?" Anakin pushed himself up and rose slowly. Xixor brought up his blaster and aimed it at his chest.
"Did you think I would forget you? Forget what you did to my children?"
"I did nothing worse to them than you, Vader."
"True," the Jedi Lord replied coolly, "But since we both have reason to hate each other it doesn´t really matter who did what, does it?"
"Why bring up this point then?"
"Because I want to teach you a lesson. Because power is not a tool to use for your own ends." Xixor laughed:
"Your son must have had a bad influence on you. Come on, you used your power for your own ends too."
"That is not quite the same. My ends were not personal gain."
"How noble. And what does that have to do with me?" Anakin smiled coldly:
"Revenge, Xixor, is a very dangerous emotion. Especially when one does not have the means to carry it out."
"You are making no sense, I must tell you."
"Leave. Go now. Think about revenge. It will eat you up. I know."
"You are mad."
"Oh, no. This is the Dark Side, Xixor. And it will destroy you in the end."
Xixor hesitated. Vader was clearly out of his mind. Which was nothing new, of course. Eying him warily the Dark Prince retreated a few steps.
"I am free to go?"
"I am a dying man, Xixor. Who am I to stop you."
"I don´t believe you."
"But I am surely not going to stay here forever."
Walking backwards slowly, keeping the blaster aimed at the tall man who was gradually fading into the shadows, the Dark Prince felt cold dread grip his heart. Something was wrong. This was too easy. Vader would never let him go like this. His breathing became faster and irregular. He had never felt so nervous in all his life. His allies had left him and Vader had wiped out his associates. He´d have to start anew yet again. Well, he could manage. Could he really? The Jedi had found him once and they would likely find him again.
He had lost sight of Vader completely now. But he had not moved, had he? Gripping his weapon harder Xixor risked a glance around. He was standing in the sunken-in doorway, nearly home free. "Xixor." The whispered word froze him in his tracks. Vader! And he must be standing right behind him. The Dark Prince lashed out blindly and took a few pot-shots at the temple´s interiour. Noone was there. Noone. Vader was playing games with him, was he? Xixor shook his head grimly. He should have killed him when he had the chance. "You never had a chance," the Dark Lord´s voice intoned softly right by his side. Xixor turned around slowly. Vader was looming over him, his blue eyes colder than he remembered, his face deadly pale.
Standing there, Xixor in his reach, Anakin hesitated again, just as he had before killing Disra. He saw into the Dark Prince´s soul, saw the fear and despair, saw himself there. "Go," he whispered and Xixor ran, without looking back. Anakin watched him go. He was tired of playing endless games. Tired of always fighting. He sighed deeply. It was time to finally let go.
Luke Skywalker only half noticed the destruction when he raced towards the temple entrance, Mara at his heels. If he was too late this carnage would be the least of his worries. Skidding over the moist flagtiles of the hallway he caught himself against a wall and ran onward. To his horror he could see an orange light spilling out of the Chamber of Dreams, filling the hallway with an eerie glow. "Father!" he called loudly, his voice echoing away into the distance. There was no answer. Finally he had reached the doorway and stopped, breathing hard. The glowing pillar of light pulsed with a life of it´s own and the glowing spirals like ripples in a pond quietly ran towards the walls and vanished. Noone was there. "Are we too late?" Mara asked when she came to a halt next to him, "Where is he?" - "I have no idea."
They went searching the temple for hours, but could find no trace of Anakin anywhere. "He´s gone," Mara said finally, eying Luke with worry. He was staring into the distance blankly, disbelieving: "He can´t be," he whispered finally and Mara´s heart ached at hearing his deeply anguished voice. Worse, she could feel his pain, the loss he felt, the sense of having been left behind yet again.
"Luke," she called softly and lay a hand on his shoulder, "You knew this would happen."
"I know," he shot back angrily, then calmed himself, "I just thought..."
It was late afternoon, when Luke and Mara walked the small pathway up to the President´s Residence on Coruscant in silence. "At least we have peace now," she told him quietly and squeezed his hand gently. He simply nodded, but did not reply. The door opened and Han Solo smiled at them broadly, although his eyes told a different story. "Welcome," he said and embraced first Mara, then Luke, leaving an arm around his friend´s shoulder as he led them inside, "Leia and the kids are waiting for you."
Luke felt a pang of guilt when he saw his sister curled up on the sofa, her chin resting on little Jacen´s head lightly, a warm smile on her lips. Why could he not just return that smile? He felt completely empty, as if someone had ripped out his heart and mind all at once. For Leia it had been easier so far because she had had so much to do, negotiating peace and then her inauguration as President after Fey´lya had stepped down. Now though her sadness seemed to trouble even her children. "Unkle Luke!" Jaina called and ran to meet him, flinging her arms around his legs in joy. "Hey, little one," he answered and took her in his arms, "have you missed me?" She nodded.
"Any news?" Han shook his head no:
"Nothing. Everything is quiet and happy. The military big wigs are falling all over themselves in praising Palleon as a mediator. Not that he isn´t a good strategist too."
"What about Daala?"
"She´s quiet too. Sad."
"I should go and visit her," he put his niece down on the floor and sighed, "Maybe she
"What?" Leia asked suddenly, "What could she know? She said he went to Dromund Kaas to die and she let him go. That is hard enough. Don´t make her talk about it if she doesn´t want to. Anakin," she called her son, who had his little nosed pressd against the glass door leading out to the veranda, "you´ll catch a cold."
She stopped herself in shocked surprise when she saw what the little boy was staring at. Luke´s eyes followed her gaze and he gasped, shaking his head. Mara just laughed. "Hey, what is it?" Han demanded, a bit confused and tried to see anything in the evening gloom. But his wife had already gone and opened the back door.
Anakin Skywalker grinned sheepishly: "Sorry for not calling ahead, but I had to pay a visit to someone else first."
"Is she alright?"
"Oh yes. Can I come in?"
"Of course," Leia stepped aside and let her father pass, smiling hugely, "By the way, everyone thinks you are dead."
She laughed and took him into a tight embrace, then pushed him into one of the chairs. Jacen and Jaina immediately took their chance to crawl into his lap. Luke sat down next to him, staring at his father as if he were a ghost:
"What happened? I could not feel your presence anywhere," he asked accusingly. Anakin smiled at him:
"Well, you couldn´t. There is no Death, there is the Force, remember? Once I realized what it truly meant it was easy."
"And what does it mean?"
"You live for Life, not Death. I was blinded by my own fear of dying before I could get everything done that had to be done. But when I surrendered myself to the Force completely, and I mean everything, I could feel the essence of life, and I died."
"Yes. It is a bit hard to explain, but only when you are ready to give up life can you regain it. Do you understand what I mean? Like a young tree that bends with the wind instead of trying to fight it. For it would certainly break if it did. This way though it will rise again once the wind has died down. In fact, this is also the essence of being a Jedi. You may bend, but you will never break and you will be there when you are needed."
"I understand. I think."
"I am sure you will, in time," Anakin replied absent-mindedly and Luke knew better than to ask what he was thinking right now.
Looking at his father´s profile, the earnest expression on his face and those cool blue eyes focused into the distance, the young Jedi Master could, for the first time ever since he´d known him, see no shadows of anxiety, anger or tension there at all. In fact, he seemed to be completely at ease.
Feeling his son´s eyes on him Anakin smiled and leaned back in his seat. He had learned something about himself and the Force that had helped him see his life differently. All of it, past and present. Back on Yavin he had told Luke that the only boundaries he ever had to respect were those limits he set for himself. For a Jedi with Luke´s potential this meant that there were virtually none. But on the other hand that freedom could not be misused, which was why any standard the Jedi Master set for himself would be higher than for anyone else. And sometimes that much responsibility could be frightening. Especially since his father had set such a bad example in his previous life. But he had understood what Anakin meant by letting go too. That was the most important lesson of all: To never ever stop growing and learning. This was what it meant to truly be one with the Force. Once learned there was nothing to fear. Ever. Not even death.