Summary: Mara Jade has a chat with the Empire's prize prisoner.

Disclaimer: I don't own Star Wars

The number of men crowding into the room increased. There were ten, fifteen of them now, all pointing blasters at him but not firing. What—?

"Turn off your saber," one of them commanded in a rough voice. "You can't win."

Luke looked at the speaker. The figure stood in a shadow, was hard to see until it stepped out into the light.

The reptilian alien was about his height, covered with black scales, with a mouth full of pointed teeth. Definitely a meat-eater. He thought he recognized the species of a Barabel, but he wasn't sure; he hadn't seen a lot of them. Barabels didn't leave their homeworld very often.

Luke saw that he didn't have a chance, even using the Force. He clicked his lightsaber off.

"Wise move," the Barabel said. "My people have great respect for Jedi Knights and I am sorry I must do this, but it is business. Take his weapon."

One of them moved in and removed the lightsaber from Luke's grasp.

Luke looked back at the Barabel. "What do you want?"

"Sorry, but we want you, Skywalker."

Shadows of the Empire, pg. 175-176

He didn't smell right.

"Hello, Skywalker," she said softly and switched on the light. A brilliant glare filled the cell.

"Mara." He looked up from his cot, shielding his eyes with his arm. "It's been a while." She didn't answer, only looked at him, carefully. There were more bruises this time. That gash across his chin hadn't been there three days ago. But those were nothing. The evidence of her Master's progress lay in the subtler scars. The fragility of his voice when he said her name; the bitter lines of his mouth. His hand…his hand clenched in a white-knuckled fist, even as he slept. Luke Skywalker was a man on the cusp of breaking. He looked like it. He sounded like it.

But he didn't smell like it.

"You were snoozing," she observed caustically. "Always this sluggish in the middle of the day?"

"I don't know what time it is," he countered. "Could be midnight, for all I know. I've lost track."

He was being evasive.

"How can you sleep?" She walked over to the cot and knelt down beside him, observing his face critically. "They'll call for you soon. It can't go on much longer. Think of it, Skywalker. You'll be a lord of the galaxy before the week's out. And you're napping. Maybe that's why you're so damn hard to turn—they can't get you awake enough to see sense."

Instead of replying, he reached out a hand and touched her cheek. She sucked her breath in sharply. For a split second, the complex decision matrix of Mara's mind swam in conflict. Did she knock him out for insolence…or press his hand closer? In the end, she did nothing. Only closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of him.

"You're tense. I can feel it." She was close enough to feel his breath on her cheek.

"Strangely enough, so can I," she retorted, sharper than she intended. "Comes with the job description." He made a soft, thoughtful noise.

"Turn around."

"What?" Mara's eyes flew open. He blinked.

"Turn around. I think I can help."

"Then you've got another think coming," she snapped, and started to pull away. His hand moved through her hair, running the length of it between his fingers.

"I'm not going to hurt you, Mara." Again, the wrongness of his scent hit her. Clean, soapy fresh, a little sweet… "Come on. I've been at your Master's tender mercies for weeks, now. What could I do to hurt you in this condition?"

"Nothing I couldn't deal with," she admitted easily. "But you come on. No one turns their back on an enemy." His hand slid down to the hollow between neck and collarbone.

"We both know I'm not your enemy." Not anymore, was the unspoken implication.

"You've turned, then?" Her tone sharpened in anticipation. This would please her Master greatly. Not to mention Darth Vader. He'd never be so foolish as to reveal it, of course, but Mara had the distinct impression that he disapproved of the Emperor's methods. She glanced at the caked blood on Skywalker's temple, the swollen eye and cut lip. Well, the would-be-Jedi was Vader's son, after all.

But even he had to admit that it was working.

"No," he said. "I will never turn to the dark side." The words had a tired feel. "But I'm not you're my enemy, Mara Jade." She considered him for a long moment.

"Hmm," she grunted, and twisted around—just halfway. A wide, carefree grin spread across his face. Then he winced.


"Bantha brain," she muttered. "What are you going to do?" He rubbed at the scabs on his cheek for a moment, then swung himself upright on the cot.

"I'm going to rub your back."

"You're what!?" But then his hands were on his shoulders, and then his strong, broad fingers were kneading into her muscles, and oh, force, it felt like heaven. She closed her eyes and whimpered a tiny, unheeded protest. His hands moved down her spine, seeking out the knots, chasing out the spidery jolts of pain, massaging them relentlessly until there remained only a vague, delicious ache.

Oh, gods…

Who knew anything in life or death could feel so good?

She let herself drift. For a brief, blissful time, nothing at all existed but Skywalker's hands on her back and the peace wrapped around her. Finally, he pulled away. She opened her eyes and looked over her shoulder.

"Hmm," she said again. Several old cuts had reopened on his hands. "That's gotta hurt." He touched them gingerly and looked up at her, smiling. A significantly smaller smile this time, but no less innocent.

"Felt good, didn't it?"

"Just passably so," she grunted.

He nodded, seeming satisfied, and stretched back down. "An object lesson," he said conversationally. "That's what the light side feels like to me."

"Backrubs from the Force. Ah." Mara's voice dripped with sarcasm, but inside, she was trembling. Relaxation dissipated instantly. Something was not right…

"Not backrubs," he went on. "Peace, Mara. The feeling that your life is contained in that instant, and nothing can hurt you. Trust."

Then she knew it, instantly, in a quick jab of insight. He was still smiling. She wanted to claw it off his face.

Because it was a lie.

"Why are you doing this?" she murmured. "What's the point of pretending? You're not a Jedi Knight anymore."

The smile faded from his face, and his eyes. Without warning, the temperature in the room seemed to plummet. It was true, and he knew it. They both knew it. No one could stand against Palpatine—no one. His deft use of brutal torture and psychological manipulation was beyond human threshold of endurance, no matter how strong or determined that individual was. And by now, Skywalker was sure to be pretty far gone. She didn't know why it was so important that he realize—that he realize he wasn't really Luke Skywalker anymore. But it was.

"It won't be long now," she continued, voice dropping. "One, two more sessions. You're almost there." Something flashed in his eyes, a shadow, a gleam of cold steel. She could smell him better now—smell the fear, the sudden black rage, the lust and the terror and the misery. She could smell the dark side on him. Mara scooted away involuntarily as the swirling wave washed over her. Yes, he frightened her, as Vader and the Emperor frightened her. But it was a familiar fright. She vastly preferred fear to the insipid sweetness of the weak side. And infinitely more than a pretense of light

…Didn't she?

Then the shadow vanished. His face smoothed into those innocent, lying features again.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Mara."

"You sleep," she said, voice slow and heavy with realization, "because it's another way of hiding. You're afraid."

"Fear is of the dark side," he shot back, voice serene. "I am not afraid of what they do to me."

She favored him with long, measuring look.

"No, Skywalker." Mara stood up. "You're afraid of yourself. More than anything." He opened his mouth…and closed it again. A different kind of smell crept into the room, moldy and damp. Not the smell of darkness.

The smell of despair.

"My Master calls," she said softly. "It's time." He did not move. She stared down at his battered, defeated form, and suddenly felt a strange urge to comfort him. To pat him on the shoulder and let him know things would be okay.

But she knew they wouldn't. And Mara Jade never lied.

"Get up, Skywalker." She grabbed his shirt and hauled him up roughly. "Let's go."



"Please. Call me Luke." He smiled lopsidedly, flinching as the wounds stretched. "It might be the last time…well, you know."

Yes. She knew. The last time it was truly his name.

"Then answer my question first. Why the shoulder-rubbing crap?"

He shrugged.

"I don't know. My way of whistling in the dark, I guess. No reason to dwell on stuff if you can't change it." That's what his mouth told her. His eyes told her more. I'm falling. Why watch if I can look away? The smell of him told her the truth, though. It rushed up to fill her head, tingling with conflict, strands of dark and light interwoven and struggling.

The truth was that Luke Skywalker was making a last-ditch attempt to overpower the darkness within, whether he realized it or not. All the light side nonsense—wasn't. It was a game, but a real one. He played dress-up with light because he hoped desperately that the fantasy would come true, and everything would turn out all right. Like it always had before.

Mara exhaled. She would say nothing. He'd be stripped of his illusions soon enough. When she saw him again, he would be pure.

She shoved him toward the door—then stopped. A touch of the Force, and the light flickered off. Darkness surrounded them. He shifted, confused.

She kissed him.

After, he reached up absently and touched his lips. She saw the motion in the darkness and smiled.

"Remember that when you're my Master, Luke." With a non-too gentle nudge, Mara started him down the corridor.

His fate awaited him.


A/N: Yes, yet another angsty one-shot featuring Luke. I'm starting to think it's time to branch out…