"They are ready."
"So soon? They are barely into their teenage years, my master."
"They are old enough. Your first battle came years earlier, and you did well, did you not?"
"That was an accident of the Force."
"Life is an accident of the Force."


Luke Skywalker leaned back into the shadows, watching the fifteenth Royal Empire Day Gala from the safety of the second floor.

He detested parties. The Senators, Governors, and Moffs who made up the Imperial bureaucracy seemed to regard them as open invitations to attempt to entangle him in their backroom deals, and if it wasn't a politician trying to extort money from him -as if he had access to his father's bank account -it was an Admiral attempting to impress the Emperor. Not a one of them ever looked at him as anything other than a pawn, and they hated him for refusing to participate in their game. He hated them right back.

He took a drink from his water glass to cool his throat, turning an irritated glance toward the dance floor. Leia stood out in her elegant white gown, a diamond among the gaudy frippery that surrounded her, which was probably her intention. Of course, she could just be feeling contrary – the Skywalker name was almost synonymous with black, and Leia seemed to want to prove that particular conception wrong every time she walked out the door. He grinned, remembering an incident with an extremely pink dress. It was the first time either of them had been a social gathering, and she had been determined to not let Father's shadow fall over her. He hadn't bothered – he knew he looked like Father, and he liked looking like Father, but Leia…

He smirked. She had completely befuddled the majority of the Imperial government that day, and he doubted they would ever recover. It was the rare politician who could talk to her without huffing off in a fit of stuttering rage five minutes later, schemes of power lying in shambles at their feet.

He let his eyes wander to the edges of the ballroom, where the children of the politicians and admirals clustered, whispering and giggling among themselves about whatever the latest banal gossip was. One caught him staring, and quickly looked away, but not before he saw that flash of fear in her eyes.

He flinched, then glared at the group. They had no right to judge him, and he shouldn't care what they thought. He didn't care what they thought. He didn't, he didn't, he didn't, he didn't.

"They fear you because you are better than they could ever dream of being… "

His knuckles whitened as his fingers tightened around his glass.

"They fear you because you are better than they could ever dream of being. You are Sith, dear boy, and they are merely human. Do not worry yourself about it, they will learn respect."

"But I want friends…"

"You have friends, Luke. You have Leia, your father and I. You don't need anyone else." A piercing gaze settled on him. "Don't try it, my little sithling. Believe me, it only leads to regret and pain. They can be your servants, your enemies. But never your friends."

The Emperor was not always right. But, he was very, very close.

"Luke?" A familiar tenor pulled him away from the banister. "I thought you might be hiding up here." Podi Carwin, the eldest son of Senator Carwin of Fondor, stood at the top of the stairs, looking faintly amused. He was seventeen, two years older than Luke, and the friend that the Emperor thought was impossible to have. Luke smiled.

"I'm not hiding, I'm…" He fumbled for a word. He could not very well say 'brooding', and 'plotting the downfall of the Imperial bureaucracy' was even worse.

"Hiding. You can't stay up here for the entire party, you know."

"Yes I can," Luke said, a bit petulantly. "Leia will cover for me."

"That's not the point." Podi gave him an exasperated look. "Luke, there are at least three dozen pretty girls down there who would kill to get a dance from you."

He shook his head. "No thanks, Po'. That's your game."

"Oh come on, Luke. There's a gorgeous redhead down there who is about your age. A real looker. And –"

He cut him off. "No, Podi. Half of them are probably just scheming to get to my dad, and you know it."

Podi studied him, and Luke held his gaze, a hint of steel in his eyes. He was not going into that cesspool, no matter the pretty girls. And if Podi decided to whip out that 'duty to the people' argument again –

Podi looked away, and Luke let the breath he had noticed he was holding go.

"Alright, Luke. Your loss. See you at the sims tonight?"

"Yeah. Yes. I'll meet you out front in three hours."

"Is your sister coming?"

"Probably not. She actually likes these things." Luke smirked.

Podi nodded. "Well, happy birthday. See you in a few hours."

Luke waved him off and turned back toward the railing. Ignoring the colorful figures below him, he pulled a datapad off his belt and switched it on. He could hide for the whole party, but he could not think about politicians the entire night. Not without breaking a glass, anyway. He brought up TIE Ace 2 and started blasting x-wings.

He had just entered the Geonosis level when a sense of urgency brushed his mind. Leia.

Luke, you need to come downstairs, quickly.> She was there and gone, obviously distracted.

He did not hesitate, pocketing the 'pad as he hurried to the steps. Leia would not ask for him lightly. He picked up another glass of water from a serving droid as he followed the thread of her summons, skirting the edge of the dancers and leaving groups of disgruntled Senators in his wake.

He found her, sitting at a table next to the floor-to-ceiling window on the east side of the ballroom. And he saw the scarlet robed reason for his sister's urgency.

"Your Majesty." Luke bowed at the waist.

"No need for that, Luke." Emperor Palpatine motioned to an empty chair with a reassuring smile. "Have a seat. Help yourself to the wine; you can celebrate a bit, it is your birthday."

Luke reached for the wineglass in front of him with some trepidation and tried a sip. It was odd. Fizzy, cold, and sweet, it left the air in his throat warm, like he could breathe fire. He wasn't sure if he liked it or not. He shared a glance with Leia, and he could tell that she didn't like it at all.

The Emperor smiled, and Luke abruptly took another sip and set the glass down. Warmth crawled up his throat again as he smiled back at the Emperor.

"I am sorry that Lord Vader could not make your birthday. The Rebel Alliance is developing a worryingly fanatical militant stance." Piercing yellow eyes took on a worried cast. "It is almost enough to make me wonder if they have found a Jedi hiding in one of those bog planets they favor for bases."

Luke scowled. The Rebellion was bad enough without adding Jedi to it

"I thought all the Jedi were dead?" Leia asked sharply.

"All of the ones who fought are dead," the Emperor patiently explained. "It is conceivable that a few were cowardly enough to simply go into hiding. If one is with the rebels, then he lacks the intelligence to hide well. Your father is tracking down their base as we speak." He smiled widely. "If things do go badly, and the Rebels turn from a nuisance to a threat, well. We have some interesting surprises for them. Senator Carwin – Your friend Podi's father, isn't he?" The Emperor glanced at him, and Luke nodded. "Senator Carwin has turned up a rather phenomenal engineer somewhere. The Kuat Shipyards should have some rather useful presents soon."

"Presents?" Luke asked excitedly, then blushed as The Emperor turned an amused gaze on him. "May I fly them?"

"We shall see, little one. They will not be ready for another five months at least." Luke's face fell, and the Emperor continued on in a gentler tone. "I believe Podi is on the balcony, if you wish to practice your skills. I have heard that you discovered the Palace simulators."

"Uh-" Palpatine wasn't supposed to know about that, but he didn't sound mad. Or even annoyed. Luke floundered for a moment, then settled for a sheepish "Yes, sir."

The Emperor smiled sympathetically and waved him off. "Leia and I will be fine. We have some Senators to discuss, and I know that you are not truly interested in that. Go on and enjoy yourself."

"Thank you, your majesty." He bowed, flashed a good-bye smile at Leia, and took off for the balcony, keeping his stride to walk with not a little effort.

The third-floor balcony was dark, lit only by a few glowlamps and the lights of Coruscant. Luke could see the silhouettes of two figures by the railing. Podi must be talking to a girl – the balcony was a romantic spot. Luke smiled and moved forward.

"- son of Vader could be so gullible?" Laughter rang through the sharp night air.

What?

Luke stopped, the shock of betrayal rooting him to the ground.

"It's rather pathetic, actually. Just act normal – pretend he is from the Young Royalist's group or something - and he'll love you. No, not that way!" Podi laughed. "He isn't interested in girls. Or he is dating his sister – either way, he's not available."

Anger threw itself against Luke's skull, and he took a step forward.

Wait.

Patience. Let him hang himself with his own words. Act on your anger, but do it when you choose. Palpatine's advice for dealing with politicians came back to him, and Luke stopped himself, listening through the roar of adrenaline rushing through his veins.

"He trusted me enough to leave me alone in Vader's office. Can you believe that? He goes outside to deal with some troopers, and I use the security chip he had to hack into Vader's desk." Luke's hands clenched and unclenched rhythmically, but he did not move.

"You're kidding me." A girl's voice.

"No, completely serious. I told you he's gullible. Anyway, I downloaded a few unfinished blueprints – turns out Vader engineers starships for a hobby – and ran them over to my dad. He put them through a panel of engineers, finishing them and making some modifications so that Vader doesn't notice, and sold the plans to Kuat for 20 million credits. He cut me a percentage, so now I'm a millionaire, and Luke is still clueless!"

Luke had enough. He did not need to hear anymore; Podi's family was finished. He strode forward, straight for Carwin. The lanky youth turned around at the sound of Luke's boots.

His eyes widened. "Wait -!"

Luke grabbed his shirt and slammed him into a pillar. Carwin grabbed at his arm, but Luke ignored his scrabbling and glared at him. "You Huttslime," he hissed.

Carwin kneed him in the stomach, and Luke dropped him, hand going to his belly as he gasped for breath. Carwin took the opportunity to scramble away, nearly tripping in his haste. He took one look at Luke, then turned to run for the door.

Luke stopped him.

He brought the hand that was not clutching his stomach up and pinched his thumb and index finger together, lifting Carwin off the ground. The girl screamed. Luke watched Carwin claw at his throat for a moment, then tossed him against a wall, where he slid bonelessly to the ground.

The red-haired girl scurried out, sobbing.

Luke couldn't take his eyes off Podi, even when his sister ran in, and only one thought occupied his mind.

The Emperor was always right.