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CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

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Mara stayed with Luke as he drifted in and out of consciousness on the trip back to the Falcon, passing shuttles from the Rebel ships Zephyr and Sol, who had arrived to take over the fight.

Nathan had fussed around Luke as they'd laid him on the narrow medi-bunk onboard the Falcon, grumbling at old instruments and faulty scanners and bemoaning the lack of IV fluids, completely in his element.

Han and Leia had set off for the cockpit, he to get them airborne and she to arrange for the medical bay onboard the Sol to be freed up, and as Nathan finally settled down it was the Wookiee, Chewbacca, who surprised Mara by remaining behind for long moments to lean in and gently rub his leathery knuckles down the back of Luke's cheek, whuffing unknown words to him, though Luke remained unconscious.

By the time they were airborne, Mara had dragged the only moving chair across the hold to sit beside Luke. Every time he woke he would drift for a second then jolt awake, eyes wide, searching for her, and Mara would squeeze his hand, smiling and murmuring reassurances as she watched the strange sight of a smile grace his battered face when he saw her, knowing she was real, drifting again almost instantly.

It was the two glancing heavy-weapons shots to the Falcon's shields which pulled him back to real consciousness as Mara stood, glancing about… The next second the Falcon lurched awkwardly to the side, artificial gravity only just keeping pace.

Luke was already pushing himself up. "That was weapons-fire."

"Stay there," Mara said, already heading out of the hold. "I mean it! Nathan?"

"We're staying right here."

She reached the cockpit in seconds, Han and Chewie both at the helm, Leia leaning forward over the cockpit comm desk. The visible beam of another heavy-weapons laser seared across dark space before them, lighting the cockpit momentarily as everyone within flinched.

"What the hell's going on?" Mara yelled.

"Three Star Destroyers just came out of hyperspace and ordered the Sol and the Zephyr to heave-to," Leia said, half-turning. "The Captain of the Rebel ship Sol opened fire on your Destroyer Tempest, and it just returned fire. I'm trying to raise the Sol now."

Another wide beam flashed past the Falcon, making Mara flinch. "Why did they fire on us? Aren't we transmitting Karrde's code?"

"Yeah," Solo answered casually without turning round. "They're firing on the Sol, we just got in the way."

"Is the Sol transmitting the code?"

"It wasn't."

"Why the hell not?"

"Because there were no Star Destroyers here when they arrived." Han's tone summed up his opinion of the Sol's reasoning.

Mara leaned back to touch Leia's shoulder. "Don't let them put the code out now. If they do, the Tempest will assume it's a Rebel code and fire on us too."

"I can't get through to them," Leia said. "They're not acknowledging our hail."

Another barrage came from the Tempest, rocking the distant Rebel ship.

"That was a direct hit," Han said gravely, leaning forward. "This is turning into a firefight."

"Then someone should stop it."

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Everyone turned to see Luke leaning hunched against the cockpit's doorframe, pale and drained.

Mara gave Nathan a withering look as he shrugged helplessly from behind Luke's shoulder. Luke stepped shakily to the comm console as Leia gave up the seat, letting him collapse down into it. Reaching over the controls, he flicked the switches with old familiarity.

"ISD Tempest, this is the freighter Millennium Falcon transmitting a security protocol. Our recognition code is four-nine-nine-five-three. Come in?"

Pausing for a response, Luke realized that everyone was staring and glanced about, his eyes finally resting on Han. "What?"

Han grinned inanely, glib melodrama hiding genuine pleasure. "Just, y'know…good to see you back at the controls."

Luke glanced away, uncomfortable even with this, Mara knew. To hide it, he toggled the sticky transmit switch several times. "I can't believe you haven't fixed this yet."

"Hey, you had her three years, junior," Han accused indulgently.

"She's not my ship," Luke replied in kind.

"Millennium Falcon, this is ISD Tempest. Please transmit that code again?"

Luke turned, all business. "I repeat, the security protocol is four-nine-nine-five-three. Put me through to the Captain—now."

The line cut and silence fell again. Always one to break it, it was Han who leaned back in his chair again, voice cagey. "So, uh…can I quote that recognition code too?"

Luke didn't turn. "Are you Emperor?"

"…No…but I know the code now."

The comm crackled to life again. "Millennium Falcon, this is Captain Murai of the Imperial Star Destroyer Tempest. I don't know where you got that code but you're ordered to stand down shields and weapons immediately, kill your engines and prepare to be boarded. Consider yourself under arrest for treason."

"Treason…" Luke leaned in, voice gaining strength and authority. "I'm not sure that's even possible."

"Wh…who am I speaking to?" The officer had lost none of his bluster.

Luke's own voice cooled by degrees. "You are speaking to the Emperor, Captain Murai, and I'm ordering you to stand down and disengage. Recognition code is Braxant-Raioballa-Atrivis-Lahara, voice sample is, 'meus vox vocis est meus key—agnosco mihi.'"

There was the briefest pause as the codes and Luke's voiceprint were verified, and this time when the Imperial Officer came back on, he couldn't have been more accommodating, voice tinged with a satisfying edge of bewildered alarm. "Excellency! I had no idea that… Sir, do you require assistance?"

"I have all the assistance I need, thank you, Captain. The Sol and the Zephyr were already in attendance when you opened fire on them."

"Sir, I had no idea! I apolo…"

"I will be boarding the Sol very shortly, Captain, and I don't expect to be under fire from my own navy at the time. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Excellency!"

Luke shut down the link, pushing himself up as he turned to Leia, his voice already losing power. "You might want to tell the Sol to stand down too."

Leia stared, uncertain. "You're still boarding the Sol? But you have three Star Destroyers here now. Their facilities are…"

"It has to be a Rebel ship." He let out a brief half-smile, exhaustion already beginning to overtake him again. "I want this to be seen to be a joint operation, the Alliance has to be involved, especially now."

As he spoke, Luke's hand went to the console, then he collapsed back into the co-pilot's chair, skin waxen.

Mara crouched beside him, seeing him fade. "Luke?"

"Whatever happens, I leave here on a Rebel ship, okay? I just need to…rest a..."

She smiled as his eyes fluttered closed, still fighting to the very last second.

Nathan was instantly there to check, but he was settling back to his usual self with Luke's return, and if Nathan wasn't panicking, then Mara knew Luke must be essentially okay.

As it was he glanced up. "Let's get him to your medi-bunk…and get the Falcon to the Sol, or we'll all be in trouble when he wakes up."

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Leia stood in the small medi-bay onboard the Sol, staring at her brother, still unconscious but stable. The gruff-voiced Mon Calamari medic had ordered everyone from the room early on, only Hallin remaining, even Leia bundled into the corridor beyond.

Leia had been dragged to the bridge almost immediately to oversee the capture of the Wasp when Madine's soldiers had finally rallied, and the news wasn't good, many having made it to the Wasp's shuttles to escape. But she was back down at the medi-bay the moment it had subsided. Now she was alone with the Sol's Mon Cal medic, the room quiet, Luke pale and drawn, finally hooked up to the fluids he'd needed.

"Exhaustion, dehydration, and some serious cocktails of drugs," the Sol's medic said soberly. "Plus he's faced some heavy physical punishment. But he's young and he's fit—nothing that won't mend."

Though he'd obviously recognized who he was treating, the medic had said nothing, rotating huge eyes to glance once to Leia, before going stoically on with his work.

"He's been sedated—give his body time to rest and repair a little—but…I'm moved to wonder what we'll be doing with him when he comes round, because I'd rather he wasn't marched down to the detention center."

"We'll be handing him back to his own people," Leia said firmly. "We don't kidnap leaders we're trying to negotiate with, we don't treat any prisoner like this, and we certainly don't organize public executions. None of this is our doing, and I won't have the Alliance connected to it."

The medic nodded as he let out a rough breath, seeming more reassured than anything else—which was good; she knew she could trust him.

"If that's the case then there's something else you should probably know about…this particular patient," the Mon Cal stated, voice neutral. "I have another list here—a separate one."

Leia frowned, uncertain what the medic was getting at but knowing from his tone that this was important. "Go on."

"I did a full-range scan." The medic turned glassy eyes down to the automemo he was holding. "This lists the injuries sustained during the last six years or so, discounting the present ones I just mentioned. All these occurred three to six years ago, though I'd estimate the majority are between four and six years old."

He held her eye for a short while before looking back down to his automemo, voice grave. "Both his clavicle—his collarbones—have been fractured at separate times, the left twice. His jaw's been dislocated twice and broken once. His right eye socket has been shattered and repaired. His left shoulder has been dislocated more than once causing deep tissue, nerve, muscle and ligament damage. He's had compound fractures to the ulna of his left arm and repeated dislocations to his left wrist. Most of the bones of his left hand have been broken- carpals, metacarpals and phalanges, some repeatedly over the several year time period, as have many of his ribs. He has damage to five vertebrae, all of which have been treated, but weeks after the fact. There are hairline cracks to the tibia and fibula of his right leg, inflicted at different times, and his left ankle has been dislocated, probably twice. The left fibula has incurred a severe compound fracture at some point—it's been pinned and the bone laminated to repair it, the damage was so severe. He's had repeated lacerations over the whole of his body with dermal, sub-dermal and deep-muscle damage; some were sutured and repaired, many simply left. Deeper scans show he also has scarring from several internal injuries, most of which are concurrent with violent trauma."

The Mon Cal paused, looking to Leia for long seconds, then turned his eyes down again. "As I said, time-point scans show that these injuries are clustered time wise—so he probably went six months with no injuries at all, then many were inflicted at once over a very short period—a few weeks perhaps, we can't be more specific than that. But they're always clustered in this way. The injuries are very easy for us to trace because most weren't dealt with at the time of injury. There's evidence that bone-knitters were used on the fractures and sutures on the worst of the wounds, but judging from the repair, I'd say it was many days, probably weeks, after the injuries actually occurred."

As he doled out this shocking liturgy, the medic reached down and lifted Luke's cover down to his waist—and Leia inhaled, appalled, eyes to his chest. She was a half-step back, hand to her mouth before she knew what she was doing, seeing the heavy scars criss-crossing flesh, some deep, some raised, all pale with age.

So many. Too many to count.

"Luke…" she whispered, dismayed. So many scars.

"They cover his whole body," the medic said grimly. "As I said, they're grouped to separate, brief time periods over several years, as far as I can tell. No particular reason—they're not medical and they follow no pattern. This is heavy scarring from severe injuries—the lesser ones will have faded long ago. I've…seen this kind of thing before, of course, though this is unusual in its extended time period." He set his head to one side, some allowance made in his voice now. "You understand what I'm saying—that I believe this was...punishment, torture perhaps."

The power of the word forced the breath from Leia's lungs. This was what haunted him—this was what she saw in the shadows of his eyes—how could it not?

She was in the corridor before she realized what she was doing, taking Jade by the arm and forcibly pulling her away around the corner. Jade twisted free, scowling.

"What the hell?"

"Luke," Leia said. "The medic just told me what happened to Luke."

"Is he all right?"

"In the past—I'm talking about in the past—four years ago, maybe six."

Mara's chin rose a fraction, mouth hardening, and Leia felt her anger rising. "You know, don't you—you know what they did."

"So now suddenly you're outraged. You, who left him there in the first place—just abandoned someone who bought your freedom with his own. You, who leads the Rebellion that tried to assassinate him. Do you want me to go on—because I've got more. How about your handing him over to Madine? You didn't seem so very outraged then."

"I want you to tell me the truth," Leia said, holding her anger in check. "I've just been given the facts, now I want to know the whole truth."

Mara glanced away, suddenly subdued. "You have no concept of what he endured to keep this much of himself."

"I'm beginning to understand," Leia said quietly.

"No, you don't," Mara said unequivocally. "Nobody does. Until you've faced Palpatine head-on, you have no idea of just how punishing that can be, mentally and physically. Palpatine took him apart more than once. Took him to pieces, you understand?"

"Palpatine? I thought…I thought it was his father."

"No, Vader tried to protect Luke…in his own way, I suppose," Mara allowed.

Leia's anger cooled several notches as she considered this, for the first time finding something in the wraith that had been her father that she could actually understand. But she couldn't forgive—not yet. "Well then, he didn't try hard enough."

"I've told you," Mara said, shaking her head, "you didn't know Palpatine. You don't know the power he held, his willingness to use it. That close to him…everything, everything went exactly to his command. Everyone followed it to the letter, without hesitation. How do you think one person can stand against that? You all spent your lives hiding out here in the Rim Systems, running from place to place, always on the move, always underground, an endless effort to stay ahead of him and he still dominated your daily existence. Whether through his military or his influence in the Royal Houses or his civilian governors or his control of the banks or of free passage… Borders, taxes, you name it, he controlled it—completely.

"Now imagine standing next to him—imagine having all that power and all that authority and all that strength of will turned on you and you have nowhere you can run. There's nowhere you can hide—he'll come for you, and he'll drag you back, and I promise you he'll make you wish you'd never been born. And in the end, you'll do what he ordered you to anyway, one way or another. Vader couldn't protect Luke—nobody could, Luke knew that." Mara paused, as if studying her own words as she spoke them. "He did what he had to just to survive… And you of all people should be grateful that he did, because if he hadn't, you'd be long dead and your Rebellion would still be some insignificant justification for Palpatine, an excuse for him to put more and more laws into effect in the name of the public protection."

"I fought Palpatine all my life."

"And yet you still needed Luke to remove him—or do you seriously think you could have managed that otherwise. And you did your fighting with an army at your back; Luke had no one. Every single time he faced Palpatine, every time he argued or questioned or challenged, he did it alone. I couldn't help him…nobody could. Every step he took, it was absolutely alone. That's what you're seeing when you look at those scars; you're seeing Luke Skywalker breaking through the surface of Palpatine's Sith. You're seeing a battle fought because he couldn't—wouldn't—quite let Luke Skywalker go. And then you actually had the gall to stand in front of him and question his commitment, his motives… You have no idea what he's already given to get this far."

Leia glanced down, genuinely chagrined. "I want to believe in him, it's just…every time I see him, I get some sense of… I think he believes in what he wants to do, I really do…"

"He does."

"I just…sometimes…I don't think he believes in his own motives."

"Because of Palpatine! Palpatine manipulated and dictated to him for five long years, and I can tell you from personal experience, that's a hard thing to climb out from under—more so for Luke, because Palpatine had to control him completely."

"Do you think that Luke can step back…from what he's become?"

Mara sighed, glancing down, all bluster lost. "I don't know. But I do know that Luke's not the thing that Palpatine wanted him to be. He never was… That's why he has those scars."

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Returning to the silence of the still-darkened medi-bay, Leia wrapped her arms about herself as she watched her brother sleep, alternately trying so hard to forget the sight of those scars, then forcing herself to remember; to incorporate it into her concept of all that he'd become. All that he'd dealt with alone and tried to overcome. Nightmares made into memories: harsh, brutal, biting—devastating.

She remained as the night wore on, watching her brother as Nathan Hallin and the Sol's Mon Cal medic buzzed in and out constantly, and Mara Jade never strayed further than the corridor outside. But occasionally Leia had time to herself to simply stand and watch her brother, and internalize everything that had happened.

She knew, of course, what had transpired in the hold of the Wasp; Han had told her in broken, incredulous words what Luke had done, and she'd sent troops back to the commandeered Wasp to retrieve the security images, guided by the medic, Kalter. Had seen for herself what her brother could do. What happened when Palpatine's Sith wolf broke through all of Luke Skywalker's painstakingly created shields. Was that why he has them, she wondered? Was that why he maintained that distance, that detachment. Was that what held the wolf at bay?

Because she knew now what Luke had warned her about.

But she also knew now what Palpatine had done, to create the black wolf which prowled her dreams.

She was still standing like that, still trying to sort through the knot of feelings that were welling inside her, when a long slice of light cut a strip into the darkness as the medi-bay door slid aside and Han entered. He walked up beside her without a word and wrapped his arm reassuringly about her, pulling her close. She leaned into his silent strength for a few seconds before straightening, her hand resting on Luke's arm as she turned to Han, eyes glassy with tears at the mass of emotions which tangled within her.

"Han Solo," she said, smiling, "I'd like you to meet my brother."

Han let out a quiet laugh. "You think he's gonna lamp me for leadin' his sister astray?"

Leia smiled, eyes remaining on Luke. "I'll put in a good word for you."

They were silent again for a few moments, both staring at the battered, sleeping man before them, Leia lost in long-gone memories. It was Han who broke the silence, shuffling uncomfortably. "Did you see the images from the Wasp?"

"Yes." What else could she say?

"You know they were gonna fire on him."

Leia sighed, the scene running again in her head, incredible, unfathomable…deeply disturbing. "He did what he had to, just to survive." Jade's words a few hours earlier.

"Do you think he could have stopped them all like he stopped Madine?"

"I dunno. I do know that when I was running through that ship myself, I wasn't aiming to wing any armed soldiers I met…were you?"

Leia remained silent, that macabre confrontation replaying again. Living, breathing men atomized in a single, scarlet instant.

She remembered the moment when it had occurred to her onboard the Wasp to question whether the Emperor she now negotiated with had actually once been Luke Skywalker—the Luke Skywalker she knew. If that barely grown, good-natured, easygoing man she'd know from Tatooine had been real, and had been forced to endure all that had happened during the last six years.

What would it have done to Luke Skywalker, to have lived this life…faced these trials?

She'd known even then that it wouldn't have broken him, not Luke. But it would have changed him, she knew. Forced him, just as Mara Jade had claimed, to become something else, simply to survive. Was that what Leia was looking at now? Or was she simply letting her heart rule her head?

All she knew was that something whispered as it always had. Something warmed her soul and froze her heart in the same instant, wrapped about by the abiding recognition that long before she'd known the truth, she'd held a deeper knowledge that they were bound together somehow, she and the wolf.

"C'mon." Han squeezed Leia's shoulder as he guided her away from her vigil, but she leaned back against his pull, unwilling to leave.

"Where are we going?"

"I'm taking you to get somethin' to eat—I don't want your brother gettin' at me for that as well."

"I'll eat here."

"You know you're hoggin' him, don't you?" Han said good-naturedly. "Mara 'I'm just a bodyguard and if you try to say any different I'll floor you' Jade has been waiting with varying degrees of impatience out in that corridor for the last two hours. I can actually see smoke startin' to come out of her ears."

"I'm his sister!"

"I know, sweetheart," Han said in sympathetic tones as he turned her smoothly about. "And Force help him, 'cos already you're tryin' to dictate his life and he's not even awake yet."

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It was the early hours of the morning and everyone slept, the events of the last week catching up on them all now that their adrenaline was spent. Only Mara remained in the still silence of the darkened medi-bay, nursing a swell of silent contentment as she watched Luke's eyes flicker in sleep, sensing the undercurrent of his presence within the Force, soothing and diffuse.

Even Nathan had left to get a few hours sleep, though not before he and Mara had quietly discussed how exactly they were going to bring Luke up to speed without his immediately wanting to get up and do something about it.

The way Mara saw it, there were three sticking points: firstly, the fact that Madine and around a dozen of his SO troops had managed to board one of the Wasp's shuttles and break free, escaping to hyperspace. Secondly, how exactly were they going to broach the whole subject of Kiria D'Arca arresting Nathan and intending to arrest Mara, and thirdly…well, she'd have that conversation on her own with Luke, Mara supposed, nerves fluttering in her stomach at the thought.

The Force quivered in a subtle shift which brought her back to the moment as Luke's eyes fluttered open. He glanced quickly about, tensing to rise in the same instant as Mara stood, and she watched his shoulders slacken again as he saw her, and felt her own smile radiate through her entire being. "Welcome aboard the Sol," she said, knowing it would be the first thing he asked.

He glanced about again, blinking slowly, pulling his thoughts together. "Are we guests, or…"

"Well, we're not in the brig and the ceasefire's holding. And we now have nine Destroyers in close proximity, and more on the way."

He slumped back. "No, you were right to only bring three—order the others away for now."

"Well, I can try," Mara said, standing and slipping out of her boots as she lifted the blanket of his high medi-bunk, suddenly feeling she wasn't nearly close enough to him. She shook her head as he looked quizzically to her. "Long, long story. Move over."

Luke glanced to the corner of the ceiling, eyes remaining on the lens there as he spoke. "You know they have security surveillance in here, don't you?"

Mara didn't even slow down. "You know I learned how to deactivate those systems when I was twelve, don't you?"

"Now that is an education." Luke grinned tiredly, the sight macabre on so beaten a face, as Mara climbed into the narrow medical bunk beside him.

"Anyway, they've run a tracer over you, because you're sending half the medical sensors haywire—apparently at some point you swallowed some kind of scrambler and it's cutting out all the medical gear and the surveillance near you. I'm assuming it's the one that Leia says she gave you."

"That's where that went!"

"Yeah, you'll be seeing it again in three to five days. Why did you have it in your mouth?"

"Long story."

Mara settled against him—and paused as he tensed, hands to his stomach, worried she'd hurt him. "What's sore?"

"Nothing, it's just cramp," he dismissed too quickly. "I don't care."

They lay for long moments in contented silence, as Mara made the most of the lull before whatever the hell the next storm would be, because with Skywalker, she knew it couldn't be that far away. She leaned back again, voice dry.

"You know, I know that you like playing sabacc, but if you could use something other than your own damn neck occasionally…"

Luke managed a half-smile. "Well, if you played sabacc with me more often over a table, maybe I wouldn't feel the need to play it big-scale like this."

"Yeah, nice try, flyboy. I'm still not spending the one quiet evening in every blue moon that we get together letting you fleece me out of yet more credits with sabacc."

He shrugged. "Well, at least now you'd have an even chance…"

Mara frowned, then her eyes widened in realization as she straightened slightly to look at him. "You said you didn't use the Force!"

He grinned, blue eyes bright against the deep bruises beneath them. "I know. I can't believe you bought that."

"You are so very lucky you already have broken ribs right now," Mara growled in mock indignation, settling against him again.

They fell back into that comfortable silence, as Mara began to drift in the soothing darkness…

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"Have you contacted the Patriot yet?" Luke murmured at last.

"Wow, you sure know how to sweet-talk a girl," she uttered wryly.

"I need to make arrangements for the HoloNet to be there for the handover and for Home One to…"

"You've been awake three minutes—don't start jumping back into it all already, Skywalker," Mara scolded lightly. "We've managed just fine for the last two weeks. One more night won't make any difference."

"I just need to organize a few things, get them underway. I need to make sure that the Rebel ships get safe passage—but you can do that—and we need to choose a hand-over point for…why aren't you in the Patriot, anyway?"

"We'll talk about it tomorrow."

He hesitated a second then let it go, tensing against some unknown ache before continuing. "I need to see Leia—Home One should be there at the hand-over. That could mean a few days' wait, right? Where are we? You need to move the main fleet out of the…"

"Okay, maybe we do need to talk about that a bit," Mara allowed. "I'm not presently in command of…well, anything."

She felt the bristles of his chin brush against her hair as he looked down. "You're…what?"

"I left Coruscant to… Look, it's a long story, all right? Suffice it to say, Kiria D'Arca is Empress in more than title right now."

She felt Luke's head fall back, his voice conveying that something had just come clear. "Kiria held power."

"Not my best decision, I know, but…"

He straightened slightly to look at her. "Wait a minute, she's Regent right now? I thought the Empress…I thought Kiria was dead?"

"Dead? No, why would she be dead?" Mara sat up a little. "What, did you think I'd just kill her the moment you were gone? I'm insulted!"

"No, Madine said…" Luke collapsed back down, shaking his head. "Doesn't matter—it doesn't matter."

They were silent for a few moments more, though this close to him Mara could sense his thoughts buzzing now, tired as he was. Eventually he could resist no longer. "No wait, it does matter. Why aren't you Regent—are you saying Kiria is?"

"Kiria is, I'm not. I handed power over to her to come after you when we saw…the images. I didn't know she'd just turn around and arrest Nathan."

Luke struggled to sitting as his voice rose. "She what!"

"Okay, I meant to ease you into that one a little gentler…"

Luke was already throwing the blanket aside.

"Wait." Mara grabbed at his arm, pulling him easily back, so weak was he still, his arms wrapped about his stomach. "What exactly do you think you're going to do about it right now?"

"I'll see what comes to mind between here and the comm room."

"Luke, seriously—are you going to have that conversation on a Rebel comlink? Besides, the comm room is all the way over on the other side of the ship, and frankly I don't think you'd make it that far," she added dryly.

Luke let himself be pulled back, his flare of anger already subsiding—though having been lectured by Nathan on the inadvisability of going off to secret meetings with insufficient bodyguards every single time he'd opened his eyes onboard the Falcon had probably helped, Mara reflected.

"Seriously, she arrested him?" Luke repeated, though his voice had more amusement than fire now. "For what?"

"You know, I'm not entirely sure. The specifics didn't really come up when I was busy busting him out of his locked apartment."

They settled again, and Mara listened to the sound of his breathing, feeling the pulse in his neck beat against her cheek.

"So how are you feeling?" Luke asked at last, eliciting a quiet laugh from Mara as he added, "What?"

"Only you could lie in a medical bay, in this state, and ask how someone else was feeling, Skywalker."

"I mean…I dunno, weird eating habits, that kinda stuff."

Mara was silent for long seconds. "When did you work it out?"

"About a week before Kwenn."

"Thanks for passing that on."

"I thought you knew and weren't telling me."

"Why would I not tell you?"

"I don't know—I figured maybe you were waiting for your moment, or maybe you were trying to decide…if it was the right thing."

"Do you think it's the right thing?"

"I think…" He paused, searching for words, and Mara held her breath. "I think it's amazing and incredible and…admittedly a little surprising… But I can't tell you how much it means to me—or how much you do, for that matter."

"You didn't always think that way about it," she said quietly. "Otherwise you would have said something."

"I do now," he said earnestly.

"So…" Mara said after another long pause, "where exactly does that leave things?"

"What things, exactly?"

"You and me things…you, me and junior things. You, me, junior, and Kiria D'Arca things."

Luke sighed. "You tell me?"

"Nobody tells you anything, Luke Skywalker," Mara said knowingly. "So spit it out."

He paused a good while, clearly playing things through in his mind. "Does Kiria know I'm here?"

"You spoke to the Captain of the ISD Tempest, remember? Half the fleet's turning in our direction right now."

"But is it public?"

"… No. What are you thinking?"

"I need to speak to Leia. Ask her to contact Kiria directly and make her an offer."

"To do what?"

"Get rid of me. Kill me, in exchange for concessions from the new Empress. Theoretically I'm a headache to the Alliance and if Kiria's really looking to secure her own rule, I'm sure as hell an impediment to that, too."

Mara leaned back slightly. "You want to try to make her condemn herself by her own actions?"

"If Kiria accepts and we hold proof, then I have a legitimate case against her without losing too much support from the Royal Houses—I hope. This has to be on lawful, justifiable grounds—reasons the Royal Houses would accept. If I lose that support, even temporarily, this could all collapse like a house of cards."

Mara remained silent for long seconds, thinking. "That makes perfect sense," she allowed, nodding, "and not a word of it is true, is it?"

Luke frowned. "What?"

"That's my measure of you now, Skywalker, you know that? If it's all perfectly rational and reasonable, then it's not what you're really thinking."

Luke gave the barest of amused smiles. "You're saying I'm neither rational nor reasonable?"

"No, and you're getting off the subject. Nathan pointed that handy little fact out to me; that if you don't want to answer something, you always come back with a question."

"So now suddenly Nathan's your guru?"

"You did it again."

"I…" Luke paused, then seemed to relent slightly, his head falling tiredly back onto his pillow. "I've forgotten the question now."

"Nice try. I was saying that your method for dealing with Kiria was too perfect—so spill it."

Luke sighed. "I have to give her this chance, Mara. I have to give her the benefit of the doubt."

"You remember that she arrested Nathan, right? A minute ago you were apparently willing to walk back to Coruscant—in a medical gown, I might add—just to face her down."

"Did she actually have him marched down to the detention center—did she have the arraign read to him?"

"Brace yourself, but I don't think she feels any particular need to be as legally correct as you are."

"Because it sounded to me like you said she confined him to his quarters."

"With guards outside."

"Seriously, tell me what she's done wrong—tell me one thing that would even begin to form a legal case against her?"

"While I might just give her that locking Nathan up would always help any situation..." Mara paused—but the fact was that D'Arca hadn't put a step wrong. She hadn't—ever. Even now, Admiral Joss had said the main fleet was already being reassigned along the Perlemian Trade Route in the Mid Rim, though there were, as yet, no public reasons given as to why.

She'd performed flawlessly when the chips were down and Luke was in trouble. Enough so that Mara had been willing to hand the Empire over to her—albeit temporarily—because she'd known that…damnit, she'd known that Kiria would do the right thing. She'd rallied the Royal Houses, she'd held the Empire together… Yes, Mara didn't like the woman personally, but…

"Mara, Kiria knows the Royal Houses better than anyone else. She knows the mood on the ground, she knows how they'll react because she'd do the same. She knows what they need to keep them willing, to move them forward with the new regime, and she's willing to use all that in our favor. I need that…so I guess the question is, can you live with it?"

"You're asking me?"

"Yes."

Mara thought again on Luke's ring…that was pretty inspired. She narrowed her eyes. "Are you asking me if she can stay—or are you asking me if she can stay with you?"

"With me? There never was a with me, Mara. There never will be."

"You're sure?"

"Aren't you?"

"You're doing it again."

Luke grinned this time, tipping his head in acknowledgment. "It's habit, that's all. You get habits like that when people take every passing answer you ever give and translate it on a galactic scale."

Mara nodded as her own lips crooked into a knowing smile. "I actually think I know what you mean… Scary isn't it?"

"You get used to it," Luke murmured sagely, the tired allowance in his voice hinting at his realization that Mara had now experienced, however briefly, what it was to rule.

"Well, having gotten used to one facet of how you think, let's go for another shall we?" Mara tried. "Tell me what you're really thinking about Kiria D'Arca."

"What I'm really thinking?" Luke sighed as if bracing himself. "Okay, firstly, I'm thinking that Kiria will turn Leia down…or I'd be very surprised if she didn't. But if she does turn Leia down, I'm hoping that'll set your mind at rest."

Mara smiled, though he couldn't see. "So you're just doing this to help me sleep at night?"

"And me," he leaned back slightly to look her in the eye, "since I'm assuming we'll both be in the same bed."

Now that really made her smile.

Luke dropped back onto the pillow. "Secondly…I know that I need Kiria to make this work, for all the reasons I've already said. I can't tell you how integral that ability to tap into the Royal Houses is right now, to everything. Changes are picking up momentum and this little episode may well be nothing compared to those we have in store. Kiria can hold the Royal Houses steady..."

"You have the military to control the Royal Houses."

"Mara, half the leading military and all of the Regional Governors are the Royal Houses. Most of the ranking military Officers and Moffs come from that strata of society. I simply don't have a big enough pool of officers or diplomats who've made it on their own merit to change the system yet, and I'm not gonna just exchange one bad system for another. Better the devil you know—and can control. Kiria gives me a huge advantage in terms of influencing the Royal Houses and therefore a good portion of the military, and that's one great big headache less to worry about. Now's not the time for any change that isn't absolutely necessary. And she and I both know exactly where we stand with each other—we always have. I need her, and she needs me—politically."

"Politics," Mara growled. "Why can't someone else do the damn politics for awhile."

"I'm working on it," Luke said. "And if it makes you feel any better, I'm guessing that Kiria will be panicking big-time right about now because of what she did to Nath. Knowing Kiria, she'll be working very hard to translate that into a trade-off, if she thinks she can buy your continued silence."

"Wait, why would she think I wouldn't have told you already?"

"Because she's a political animal. She'd assume you'd be holding that kind of knowledge in reserve to see what it's worth, as she would."

Mara smiled, knowing that having arrested Nathan was only half of that particular headache for Kiria D'Arca. "And you're going to keep quiet about knowing, because as long as she thinks you don't know, she's still in a corner, right? See, now, this sounds like fun."

"Welcome to politics," Luke said dryly—then his voice turned serious. "Mara, we have the opportunity to push things forward so much on the back of all this—but for that I still need Kiria. So you see we're back to the same question… Where exactly does that leave things—you tell me?"

Mara stilled to silent consideration. "I suppose to get rid of her now, after all this, would be a little ungracious in the public's eye, especially for the Emperor whom they think can do no wrong right now."

She heard Luke's teasing smile in his voice. "Do no wrong, huh?"

"In the public eye," Mara underlined dryly.

"Strictly public, then?" Luke asked in kind. "Well, if I stated the fact that yes, I am sure that there never was or ever will be a with me in regards to Kiria D'Arca…does that earn me a few points in Mara Jade's books too?"

"I'll think about it," Mara said. "Besides, if you need someone in the Royal Houses that much you'd just have to replace her anyway, wouldn't you? Even if you got rid of her, you'd be going shopping when we get back to Coruscant."

"I'd…find a way to work round it somehow."

"Please—come to think of it, the moment it got out that you were back on the market we'd have every frip and airhead with a drip of blue blood hanging round the Imperial Palace again. I gotta give D'Arca that: she keeps the boards clear, doesn't tolerate any gold-diggers."

"You're all heart."

Mara shrugged elaborately. "Credit where it's due. And that sassy little cheerleader from the Inigo family has been particularly persistent. She so very has her eyes on you."

"Which one is she?"

"The one who was trying her best to cut an inroad actually on your wedding day. I was watching her on security footage."

"No, don't remember."

"Green dress."

"No."

"Grief, how can you not remember, she was barely in it!"

"Oh wait, I remember her!"

Mara had already half-turned before she realized he was teasing her.

"You know, you've got to have a little faith, Mara. I can't stop speaking to every female member of every race just 'cos it makes you antsy."

"In my defense, you did marry the last one you got speaking to."

"Touché," he said easily—then his tone turned serious again. "Tell me you can't live with Kiria being there. Tell me it means that much to you, and she's gone."

"It means that much to me."

Luke sighed just once, but his voice was committed. "Then she's gone."

Mara blinked, surprised, pushing up onto one elbow to look him in the face. "Really? I thought you said you couldn't do this without her?"

"I can't…but I can do it without you even less. So she's gone—my word."

Mara stared for long seconds…then pursed her lips, resigned. "…Fine, she can stay."

"No, it's okay, really—"

"Don't start, otherwise I might just change my mind."

"…Sure?"

"Whatever. Greater good and all that," Mara said as she settled back down against him, more deadpan than she really felt. Suddenly suspicious, she glanced up to his battered face. "You are the most… Did you do that on purpose?"

"No, I'd've asked her to leave."

"You just said you needed her to stay."

He shrugged, wincing slightly as his battered body complained even at this. "Calculated risk."

Mara glanced away as she pressed closer to him, smiling in spite of herself. "Fine, all right, we will play more sabacc, okay? On the condition that you stop playing it big-scale… Are you happy now?"

"..Yeah…" Luke paused just slightly, a slow smile creeping across his tired face. "…Yeah, I think I am. You?"

"I think I can live with that." Mara nodded slowly, thoughts going back to Kiria… To General Arco's communiqué saying that the Empress had been given the opportunity to arrest Mara and Nathan when their shuttle had been spotted just two days out of Coruscant… Yet she'd given the order to let them pass, unopposed. "And anyway, we had words when you were gone—quite a few, in fact. I'd say we've come to our own particular arrangement, D'Arca and I. Doesn't always work, but when it does, it gets results."

Luke nodded, eyes closing as he let his head drop back…then frowned, looking quickly to Mara. "Wait, you had words?"

"Yeah."

"You and Kiria?"

"Yeah."

"About me?"

"I think you came up in the conversation." Mara grinned. "Worried?"

The man who had dueled Darth Vader, faced down Palpatine, ruled an Empire, and was now working to broker peace on a galactic scale nodded without hesitation. "Yeah, very."

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"Good morning."

Still muzzy, Luke opened his eyes at the greeting, to see Nathan hovering over him, staring solicitously.

"Your nose is broken."

"Yeah, I know," Luke said, easing up and squinting in the painfully bright light. "I was there when they did it."

"You also have…"

"Wait, don't tell me," Luke said quickly. "I seriously don't want to know. Tell me what's happening outside."

"Well, Mara's gone to find the mess hall, but…"

"No, I mean the galaxy, Nath. Big picture."

"Oh. I think Organa's been putting together a summary for you—you know, she's as bad as you when it comes to never turning off. I don't think you two should work together, you'll just egg each other on. I can't imagine what you'd do between you if you got started. Oh, she sent that offer to Kiria D'Arca as you asked last night, on the frequency you gave her. Put forward that rather…interesting proposal to remove you entirely. Why are you squinting?"

"Planet-sized headache," Luke dismissed. "Any reply?"

"Not yet. But Admiral Joss tells me that the main fleet received new orders a few hours ago. Their mandate's to converge on the Tholatin System and blockade it so nothing gets in or out. They've been ordered to identify and detain a Rebel freighter named Sol—though ever the politician, she apparently used the word, safeguard."

"So she'll send her reply when she's sure she has the system locked down."

"Perhaps you should board the Tempest now—it's still off our bow."

"No, I'm staying right here."

"Is this a bad time for me to point out that the last time you boarded a Rebel freighter without sufficient security, they did this to you?"

Luke couldn't help but smile. "It hasn't stopped you the other dozen times, Nath. Can we turn the lights down in here?"

Nathan backed up to lower the lights. "Do you need a painkiller? They haven't given you anything because…well, you still have quite a few other drugs in your system."

"Painkiller would be good," Luke admitted uncharacteristically. "And something for nausea."

"I'll speak to them."

"Thanks. Then you need to get onboard the Tempest and head out to meet the Patriot."

"I'm sorry, what?"

"I need you onboard the Patriot by the time Leia returns to Home One."

"Leave?" Nathan's eyes widened. "Do you know how long it took me to find you?"

"Nath, for once in your life could you just…" Luke broke off, doubling over as his stomach cramped painfully.

Nathan stepped quickly forward to rest one hand on his shoulder. "What's wrong, what's hurting?"

"Nothing, just cramps."

"I'm not going anywhere—I'm your physician and you need me here."

Luke shook his head. "Nath, listen to me, because I'll tell you this as many times as I have to until you understand: I don't need a physician. I need a Chancellor I can depend on. One I'd trust implicitly because I know that he knows my mind and what my choices would be."

"Send Mara—she's a Senior Aide too."

"You're saying if something goes wrong onboard the Sol, you're gonna be more useful here than Mara?"

"…Possibly…"

"And I can tell her you said that?"

"…no…"

"Nath, I need you onboard the Patriot far more than I need you here, I promise you. And I need you there under an official diplomatic banner." Luke tried his most persuasive smile. "Even I need friends in high places sometimes."

"So does that mean that if I become a Chancellor, there's a chance that you might listen to me occasionally?"

"That's why they call them chancellors, Nath." Luke caved a little at Nathan's pointed lack of amusement. "Anyway, I always listen to you."

"But is there any chance that you might listen to me and actually take my advice?"

"Possibly, some of it… There's always that chance," Luke said gamely. "I guess you'll have to try it to see."

"If I go—if—you need to promise me you'll not try to push yourself, and you'll do as the medic here says."

"I promise."

"And mean it."

"Fine, whatever, Nath."

"And don't try that I'm indestructible tone on me," Nathan chided good-naturedly. "It loses a little of its impact when it's accompanied by two black eyes and a broken nose."

Luke smiled weakly as he collapsed back. "I'm still here, aren't I?"

"You are an impossible man," Nathan said wryly, "and it's good to see you in one piece, my friend. After…Wez…"

"I'm sorry, Nath—sorry I couldn't tell you."

Nathan shook his head in dismissal, clearly not yet able to talk about Wez's actual betrayal. "Why did you let it go ahead?"

"I needed to be sure. I needed you to be sure…I couldn't lose you as well as Wez."

"Mara told me you knew when you went to Kwenn Station that something was wrong."

"You and Mara are talking way too much."

Nathan grinned, but only briefly. "I should have known. You were like a caged nek all that morning—and you didn't want Mara to go… I talked you into that, didn't I?"

"Don't flatter yourself, Nath," Luke quickly dismissed Nathan's guilt, knowing he'd dwell on it otherwise. "I changed my mind, that's all."

"And you couldn't have changed it to not going at all?" Nathan asked wryly.

"I had to give Wez every chance to back out." Luke shrugged, trying to make light of it at Nathan's guilty face. "Hey, if I'd've known Madine was involved, I might not have been as willing to spring the trap."

"No, you might not," Nathan said. "But you'd have done it just the same, wouldn't you?"

Luke didn't reply—but then Nathan knew him well enough to know that this was an answer in itself.

"Thank you," Nathan said simply at last. "You take insane risks, you know that?"

Luke smiled, easing himself to a more comfortable position, his whole body aching. "I prefer to call them calculated."

"Yes, I think you got the figures a little out on that last one."

"Hey, I didn't say I was good at the math."

"Perhaps you should let me calculate the odds of this new little diversion then? Particularly since I'm apparently a Chancellor now."

"Does that mean you'll take it?"

"Do I get a larger apartment?"

"You can have mine if you'll take the damn job."

"I think something a little less ostentatious in the South Tower will be fine… Plus an explanation of just what you need me to do so very much."

"I need you to go out to meet Kiria. She'll be coming in on the Patriot by now, I'm guessing."

"She hasn't sent her answer to Leia Organa yet."

"Because she's nervous about Leia following through on her threat and killing me as soon as Kiria dismisses the deal." Luke dropped back onto his pillow, tired and dizzy. The room had begun to spin slowly, reminding him all too vividly of the cell onboard the Wasp. "She'll want to buy as much time as possible to get Destroyers in position and interdict the system before she answers."

"Maybe she has a point. They're not all as amenable as Organa."

"They're not all Crix Madine either." Luke sighed, running out of steam to argue. "Kiria D'Arca's useful because she knows the Royal Houses…well, Luke Skywalker's useful because he knows the Alliance, and I'm telling you this…they will return me, and this may even get them into talks, with your help. Nath, I've spent the last year and a half working to persuade everyone that the Rebel Alliance aren't so very different from us, and angling to reintegrate them. I'm not losing all that because of Crix Madine. If we do a public transfer from a Rebel vessel to an Imperial one—if people see that, because the Holo-press are in attendance—I think it'll diffuse a lot of the damage he's done."

"What do you need me to do?"

"I'll travel to the nearest planet on the Sol. I want you to board the Patriot and liaise between Leia and the Empire—that's something I can't trust Kiria to do. Confirm a date and place, and make sure that Home One attends—and that the Holo-press are there." Luke smiled wickedly. "All those restrictions lifting—let's actually give them something to report."

Nathan hesitated. "You should probably know…last time we met, Kiria arrested me for treason."

Luke leaned back, exhausted but still smiling, eyes closed. "Well then, feel free to gloat a little—you're officially pardoned and you've been promoted to the rank of Chancellor. Tell her if she wants it in writing I'll come and scrawl it in indelible ink all over that damn marble receiving room that she loves so much in her apartments."

Nathan smiled. "Maybe I'll paraphrase that to, 'He seemed somewhat displeased at certain of your actions,' if you don't mind."

"I think mine sounded better, but whatever." Luke stiffened, hands going again to his cramping stomach, though he tried hard to hide it, aware that he still looked like hell, and Nathan, ever the medic, wouldn't leave if...

He glanced up quickly as Nathan stepped closer. "Close the door, Nath. Is this scrambler still working?"

Nathan did as he was asked, nodding as he returned to the bed. "Yes, it is."

"I need you to do something for me…without arguing."

"What?"

Luke brought his hands up to drag them back through his hair, aware of how badly they were shaking. "On the ship…one of the drugs they were using with the SK that Reece had given them was Frost."

Nathan's expression hardened in disgust. "Fralodiost, yes. There were still traces of both, as well as traces of Amo-tricliptidine, in your bloodstream when we got you here—and in your liver and kidneys."

Luke hesitated. "Would the medi-center have any?"

"No, they'd never stock a…" Nathan halted, realizing. "You want me to give you a highly addictive narcotic?"

"No, I want you to buy me three days, until I get back to the Patriot. I need that time, Nath—I can't deal with this now, not with everything else that's happening."

Nathan shook his head. "I'm not… I really don't know. Luke, I can't give you fralodiost, it's highly addictive and injurious."

"Nath, I need something to counter this withdrawal—just until I get back to Coruscant, that's all."

Nathan sighed, deeply worried. "How often did they give it to you?"

"Often enough that I need it now. I really need it. I have since the first time I woke."

"Do you know how much?"

"No, it was mixed with the SK. Combined, they were maybe forty milliliters to start…by the end, I think it was eighty."

Nathan let out a low breath, shaking his head.

"Three days… I need to buy three days, you know that." Luke shook his head. "I can't stop yet, not when I'm this close. Nath, I need those three days."

Deeply unsure, Nathan relented. "I can synthesize something from medicinal ryll and co-fralodistillate which will dampen withdrawal symptoms and control the cravings with…minimal effects. Take it last thing at night and you can sleep through the symptoms." Nathan's face became serious, stern lines etching his brow. "I'll give you enough to last until you come back onboard the Patriot; one dose a day, no more."

Luke nodded, letting out a breath before looking back to Nathan. "And no one knows—and I mean no one. Not Leia, not Mara, no one."

"I understand."

"Can you get the drugs without anyone knowing?"

"Yes, I think so."

Luke sighed, hands dragging through his hair again. "…I should rephrase that: after a day and a half without anything, can you get the drugs right now without anyone knowing?"

Nathan straightened. "I'm sorry, yes…I'll get on it."

Luke nodded once. "Then you need to get onboard the Tempest and get to the Patriot as soon as you can."

"I'm on my way—as long as you promise to remain in the medi-center, do as you're told, and rest."

Luke let his head drop back onto the pillow, the room still spinning. "Deal."

Nathan turned to go. At the door he paused, turning back in wry realization. "You have no intention of keeping that promise, do you?"

Eyes still closed, Luke's smile turned into an easy grin. "Welcome to the wonderful world of politics, Chancellor."

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When Leia entered the medi-bay late that afternoon, it was to see Luke sitting upright, the Sol's Mon Cal medic leaning over his back as he pulled surgical sutures free. Immediately upon seeing her, Luke straightened, uncomfortable.

She waited in silence until the medic had finished, gathering his apparatus to leave quickly and without comment. Alone now, she offered the obvious, hoping to set this to rest by referring to it openly. "I've seen the scars—all of them. I know what they are; Mara told me."

Luke shrugged the medical sleep-shirt back on in silence, seeming resigned rather than embarrassed or defensive. But then what could he say, Leia supposed?

Seeing him struggle to pull the shirt over stiff shoulders Leia stepped forward quickly, but he shook his head. "I'm fine. I don't need help."

Pale, mismatched eyes glanced quickly to her then away, the deep bruises beneath making them seem impossibly blue. Memories of their escape from Bespin fired for Leia, when she'd tended a bruised and battered Luke after his ordeal with Vader…though at the time Luke's trials had only just begun; she knew that now. She was struck quite suddenly by how easily she could go back to that moment and that mindset. By how similar he looked, hardly a day older, though it seemed that centuries had passed.

Quite suddenly her eyes were blurred by tears at the ache within her for the friend she'd lost, a place in her soul that no one else could fill.

He glanced to her, clearly uncertain whether his words had caused this. "Leia?"

"Do you remember in the medi-bunk onboard the Falcon, after Bespin?"

His voice was quiet, still weak from exhaustion and injury…but something more was there; some openness of his own. "I remember."

"Do you…think we could pick up from that point again?" Leia asked tentatively. "Just…pretend everything in between never happened?"

He was silent just for a moment, and Leia held her breath, clinging to the hope that…

"No," he said at last, the word broken by regret. "No, that man's gone. I'm sorry."

Leia shook her head as she stepped closer. "I don't believe that—I don't believe he's gone, just…lost. Broken perhaps. We can find him, fix him again, make him whole."

"I don't think so. He lost too many pieces along the way." Again that momentary silence, his voice laced with regret but certain, now. "You can't rebuild what's gone forever."

He looked to her, and in that moment—just for a few seconds—all those shields fell and Leia saw in his eyes the man she'd known, the same insecurities and doubts and hopes and…no.

No, he wasn't the same—and he was right; he never would be.

His face turned down, and when he spoke his composure had returned, the slightest sigh beneath his words touching on deeper emotions. "You want something that doesn't exist any more."

"Don't you?" When he didn't reply, she stepped closer, not willing to give up so easily. "Hope is the…"

"Hope is the first thing you lose," he said quietly across her words, the honesty in his voice reaching deep inside her, touching her soul in a way that made it bleed for him. "Hope is the first thing they take."

A slight, self-depreciating smile touched the corners of those scarred lips, though he wouldn't meet her eye. "Trust…trust and faith you give away. You give it to those you value and you hope they'll give it to you in return."

He shrugged, and as suddenly as it had materialized, his momentary vulnerability dissolved again, locked away behind those shields… But she knew now why the shields were there; what unhealed wounds they protected, as he spoke again.

"But like hope, they're finite…and when you have none left, then you've learned your lesson."

He didn't say more, didn't need to. Leia had taken her share of both from him, she knew; exacted her own price.

"I'm so sorry." It was all she could find to voice her regrets, pitifully inadequate before the depth of emotion which moved her.

"For what?" he said easily, tone that perfect facsimile of dismissive amusement, even now, as he began to tire. "For making me Emperor?"

Tears welled up in her eyes and she blinked them away, making him glance uneasily to her. "Don't—don't make light of this. I have…no idea what to say." It was all she could offer before this truth.

Luke looked away. "There's nothing to say. It was a long time ago."

"But you carry it with you every day." How could he not?

He smiled slightly, though he was clearly fading as his head fell back onto his pillow. "Of all the things I carry, that, I promise you, is the lightest."

"You could have told me," Leia said quietly, but he didn't speak, eyes closed now, still exhausted. "I was just trying to do the right thing," she added softly. "To look at the greater implications."

He laughed just slightly. "Following your head instead of your heart."

Leia frowned. Wasn't that just exactly what she'd been worrying this morning—that she was letting her heart rule her head? "Is that so wrong?"

"No, it's just…something I read once," he murmured. " 'She balances the fate of worlds whilst head and heart make war.' "

She stared, not understanding, either his words or the wry amusement beneath them. "Poetry?"

"Prophesy." He shrugged at Leia's unspoken skepticism. "I don't believe them either…or I won't be bound by them, at any rate. I have my own intentions." He opened his eyes suddenly. "I need you to do something for me."

"Go on?"

"Home One has to be there when I return to the Empire, it has to be seen."

"Home One?" Leia glanced down. "It'll be hard to convince them if there are Imperial Destroyers there."

"Go back—persuade them. Tell them I'll personally guarantee their safety. They'll need to do this when the talks begin anyway, and if they do it now, it's a public statement of shared intent. You need to distance the Alliance from Madine's actions—this is how you can do it."

"Let me tell them who you are, who you were—the truth." He was already shaking his head, but Leia pushed on. "Luke, what do you have to hide any more? The real truth would be a huge incentive to sway the Alliance."

"But it would lose me the Empire. Completely. We'd be back to square one, only worse, because there'd be a huge power struggle to gain control, maybe even a knee-jerk response against the Alliance."

"You don't know that."

"I hold power in the Empire by being what they believe me to be, I hold it together on the strength of what they think that I am: Palpatine's heir. Do you seriously think that anything less would keep the military together, hold them in check—contain them through the change? You think the military would fight to keep an ex-Rebel in power when the challengers to all this change start speaking out? You think the Royal Houses, who stood behind Palpatine for three decades, would stand for that? Everything that I've built, I'd lose."

"At least take your own name back. Luke, there's nothing left—there's nothing left of your past anywhere. No one would know who you were based on your name anymore, so few remember you. Take it back; take your name back."

Luke shook his head. "I don't care if they know who I am, it doesn't matter any more. It doesn't even matter if they understand why I'm doing this. What matters is that somebody does it."

And how could these be the words of a Sith, Leia thought? How could he believe himself to be such, listening to his own words.

"And they can never know that we're brother and sister," he warned, voice hard. "Ever. If they did, you'd lose the respect and the support of your people and the power base you've built. Everyone would believe that we were only ever setting up a dynasty to rule, one way or another. That it was all political games."

Leia sighed, looking down. "Maybe I don't care."

"Yes, you do, because it'd take apart everything we've worked so long to build, and that's bigger. We know—that's enough." He smiled. "And anyway, I need you. I need you to fight me. Every step of the way, every single day, I need you to fight me and question me, if only on the political stage. I need you to do what I know I'd never let anyone else even attempt—what I'd take them apart for trying. I need you to push me, I need you to challenge me. Make me do the right thing. I need you to be my conscience."

"You don't need my conscience, you have your own—that's what's got us both to this point."

Luke glanced down, thoughtful. "My Master used to say conscience was a weakness to be used in others and conquered within myself. And I did so—because I wouldn't let him keep on using me."

Leia frowned. "Your Master?"

"Palpatine." There was no hint of apology in his voice when he looked to her. "Because he was my Master. He made me what I am, good and bad—and if you don't want to believe that, then answer this…did you trust the wolf in your dreams, before you realized it was me?"

Leia remained silent, knowing the truth, and when Luke looked quickly down, she wasn't sure if it was victory or disappointment she saw in his face. "I told you before, don't deceive yourself. Don't think for a moment that this will be easy, or that I'll simply give you what you want, or agree with anything you say on how to move forward. There's too much of Palpatine's wolf here. You ask me if I can go back—you don't understand how well he taught his lessons… There's nothing left to go back to."

"You're not a wolf," Leia said categorically. "And you're certainly not Palpatine's wolf, no matter what he did or didn't do."

"You're not looking closely enough," he said dismissively. "I'm seldom as obvious as my actions onboard the Wasp."

Leia glanced momentarily away, the macabre deaths of Luke's jailors playing again through her mind. Did he know she'd seen the images?

She looked back to coolly calculating eyes, as he spoke. "You told me once that for a wolf I rarely bared my teeth. That doesn't change the nature of the beast."

"I also said that you do only what you perceive as necessary."

"You're right; and I always will—so I'll say it again: that makes me the most dangerous wolf of all."

Leia held her ground, unfazed, becoming more used to these quicksilver changes in temperament now, a method to push others back to a safe distance, whether he knew it or not. "Why are you telling me this?"

"You want to understand me? That's who I am—that's what Palpatine made me. I will always be the wolf to some degree. I can control it, most of the time, turn it to my own use… But not every time. You need to know that."

"Mara trusts you."

"Mara's…selective in what she chooses to see."

Leia lifted her chin, frustration setting in. "Mara may see what she wants to see but you know damn well that I don't. I weigh up the facts and I make my own decisions and come to my own conclusions based on them, and I'll tell you this—you're not Sith. Or do you think for one moment that I'd have come back to that table and tried to negotiate with a Sith? You once said to me that our meeting would never have happened in Palpatine's reign, and you're right. But that's not only because he never would have initiated it. The fact is, I never would have gone back to that table a second time, because I never would have believed it could have worked—not with him. With you, I did. I still do. And I'm not talking about all this—everything that we know now. We didn't know it then, and yet we both came back to that table."

"I sat at that table trying to decide whether to destroy you or not," Luke said with raw honesty.

"I'm sure you did, and you know I did the same… But you didn't do it, did you? That's the fact: you didn't do it."

"That doesn't change what I am."

"No, only you can do that. And don't tell me that you don't want to, because I won't believe you." She stepped forward, her voice softening slightly. "Luke, you said you were so far from the light that you didn't know where to turn to look for it… Don't you realize—you've already started walking towards it…and I won't let you turn away."

He shook his head. "Don't—don't trust. I don't want blind trust—that's no use to me."

"Then what do you want?"

"I told you, I need a conscience, someone with the same end goal as I have, but who'll question my motives and my actions every step of the way. Someone with the nerve and the power to challenge me, to hold the wolf in check."

"And you think that's me. Why?"

"Because you're my sister. You have the same abilities I have—you just need to learn to use them."

"No." Leia shook her head. "More basic than that."

Luke frowned. "What?"

"You came to me. You could have chosen anyone but you came to me, long before you knew what we were to each other. Why? Because you trusted me. You believed in me, in my judgment. That's the fact, isn't it?"

He took a breath to speak, but Leia was on full form now, shaking her head. "Well then have faith in it now. Have faith in my convictions about the man that I believe in, and because of them, maybe have a little faith in yourself. Yes, I saw the images in the Wasp's hold—I ran them back a little earlier too… I watched you back over that center line believing you would die, for no other reason than because you didn't want to give Madine what he wanted—the means to start a war. Isn't that the truth?

"You're the same man you always were, Luke Skywalker, and I know it. I believe it. Otherwise why would you bother with all this, when you already have power? Why put that on the line? You're still trying to get that peace you were fighting for when you were eighteen, aren't you? You're still willing to give up everything for that greater cause, one which always looked outwards, to others. You're trying to do what you believe is right—you always were. You removed an Emperor who ruled by force and you're slowly dragging his Empire back to a democracy, giving freedom and rights back to the people. That's what's at the core of you, when all else is stripped away, and that's who I believe in." Leia paused, quoting again the words that Luke had challenged her with on their first meeting. " 'It's not what you call us and it's not where we stand. It's what we do which defines us.' If you're going to brood on something, brood on that."

She leaned forward, hand reaching out to gently brush the long, loosely curled hair from his forehead. He leaned back, disconcerted rather than offended, but she smiled, voice turning gentle. "And then get some sleep."

She turned, wanting to give him the rest he so clearly needed, but paused to glance back from the door. "Perhaps you're not Luke Skywalker any more, but I can tell you this, Excellency… Luke Skywalker would have been proud of you."

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Alone again, Luke pondered Leia's words, her very existence the one proof that overrode all others, because she was his sister. The blood in his veins, the inheritance, the legacy…all this he shared with her.

Was that why he'd found it so necessary over the years to keep her in his life in one way or another, some distant empathy sounding that pitch-perfect refrain at the very edge of his consciousness?

His sister, his twin. She was a part of this heritage, his legacy, and she was just and fair and good…and so he'd held that potential too. However twisted by Palpatine, he'd held that potential… and so, therefore, did his unborn son. And that was good enough for Luke. That was everything.

For his son.

For himself…Luke thought back to that moment on the Wasp, to the way that he'd killed the soldiers about Madine, the men who had tormented and tortured at Madine's command. It wasn't until he saw Han's face as he'd come down into the bay, sensed his hidden wonder and deep unease, that Luke had even bothered to think about what he'd done to Madine's men, realizing that he'd killed them in the same way he'd killed the guards who had tormented him on Palpatine's behest when he'd first turned to the Dark Side—ripped them to shreds in the blink of an eye, at the speed of the thought.

Then, the action had seemed so momentous—a life-changing act. Now, it seemed nothing at all, dismissed already. He pondered this for a long time, studying it dispassionately against Leia's claims, wondering again how far he had fallen without even realizing it.

Remembering his drug-induced admission to the medic: "The one thing I really fear, that demon in the darkness, is myself…"
It was his burden to carry, the result of Palpatine's flawlessly executed work. No matter what anyone else believed, he still knew the truth. But he wouldn't be bound by it; would push the wolf back down to walk in his shadow once more. Staring out of the medi-bay's small viewscreen, he watched the dawn race across the surface of the distant rust-red moon where he'd so nearly lost everything, the bright light of dawn chasing back the darkness of another night…but only ever holding it at bay. At this distance it seemed so tranquil, so serene. Perfect night and pristine light. He smiled, realization granting a strangely calm acceptance; that was where he lived his life now, he knew—where he always would. Balancing forever on that knife-edge, at the very brink of the dawn and the darkness.

If that meant he had to learn to deal with the wolf, to fulfill the oath he had sworn against a vindictive old man's ceaseless ambitions, then he would. He could. Maybe there was a wolf in his shadow…but it would damn well learn to walk to heel.

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It was well before breakfast when Mara entered the medi-bay, but Luke was already sitting up. He still looked like hell, but was starting to make the effort to hide the fact, which meant that he was on the way to mending, she knew.

"Well, Kiria's come back with her reply, and it's a pretty categorical no," Mara said, much as it pained her. "And just to clarify that, it arrived with nine more Star Destroyers and two Interdictors. Leia's passed on the fact that she made the offer at your behest, and the codes you gave her, as well as the planet you want the actual transfer to go ahead on. Arco's already contacted me to say that preparations are underway for the fleet to converge on Serenno for your return. The Scarlet Empress has, once again, managed to come out whiter than white."

"Disappointed?"

Mara shrugged, climbing onto the bunk but sitting on top of the sheets. "Maybe a little."

"Did she ask to speak to you?"

"No, why?"

"She will. She's not gonna stay very whiter than white if it gets out that she tried to arrest Nathan, and she knows it."

Mara nodded, wondering privately why she hadn't yet admitted that D'Arca had been about to arrest her too. But she didn't want to be the one to load anything more onto Luke right now. Sitting up, his arm around her as she leaned in to him, he seemed to be improving, but she'd also seen his frailty when he tried to walk more than a few steps, the stiffness and obvious pain which slowed his every movement…and those were the injuries she could see. He remained, as ever, one of the most resilient people she'd ever met—and she had to wonder what that cost him, deep down.

He squeezed her gently, breaking her line of thought. "I'm fine."

"I didn't say you weren't. I did, however, promise Nathan that I'd make sure you kept your end of his bargain."

"You know, I'm not sure I like this two-prong attack you pair have going."

"Learn to live with it." Mara smiled. "Leia said she'd stop in before she and Han set off back to Home One."

"Good."

"Han didn't want to go. He made the very good point that if you're determined to have Home One at the handover, we could all travel back to Home One onboard the Sol, then go on to the handover point."

"He already told me, but I don't want to arrive at Home One on a Rebel vessel…let's not tempt providence too much," he said wryly. "We'll stay onboard the Sol to travel to Serenno and meet the Patriot and our fleet there."

"They're already arguing about how many ships each side can have in orbit and planet-side," Mara grumbled. "I'm not happy about this at all."

"About what?"

"Han and Leia leaving. Have you spoken to the Captain of the Sol yet?"

"No."

"And you don't think that's odd? Convention aside, the Captain of some third-rate Rebel freighter has the Emperor onboard and she doesn't even bother to come down here to speak to you."

"Well, I'm still her sworn enemy."

"Oh, you remember that, do you?" Mara raised an eyebrow, half-turning to him. "I wasn't entirely sure any more."

"But that's what the talks are for," Luke continued smoothly.

"Yes, but the talks haven't happened yet—in fact, forget happened, forget even started—no one even knows about them yet. Which means as far as Captain Varo is concerned, you're still her enemy."

"Well then, that's what I have you for."

Mara turned to glare for a few seconds, but Luke only smiled, and she knew there was nothing she could say that would dissuade him. "You're missing a tooth, you know that?"

"Can you tell when I talk?"

"No, not really, it's too far back. Only when you smile." Mara shook her head wryly, leaning back against him again. "Seriously, you're worried about a tooth? Have you seen what you look like?"

He moved against her, and she heard the rasp as he rubbed at the stubble on his chin. "I know I need a shave."

Mara shook her head at the subtle shift of subject. "Yeah, 'cos that'll sort it out."

She paused…but she may as well get it over with, whilst he seemed in an amenable mood. "And speaking of sorting things out, when were you going to tell me about your sister?"

Luke tensed slightly against her, though when he spoke, the exasperation in his voice was clearly feigned. "People are talking way too much around here."

"Actually she didn't tell me," Mara said without turning. "I worked it out. The holo on your desk…it's your mother, isn't it?"

For a moment he remained silent. Even now, with her, he still avoided intimacy, instead deflecting it with humor. "I hope between all your rummaging through my personal holos…"

"You have one."

"You only found one?" Mara nudged him at the affected mix of surprise and relief in his voice, and he grinned, settling back as he returned to the point. "So in between not finding all my personal holos…"

"One of them'd better be of me."

"In between that, did you actually open up that document I told you to?"

"You know, I can't help but reflect on how typical it is that you're more willing to talk about State secrets than you are about your personal holo collection."

"I was just wondering how you knew about the talks with the Alliance."

"You were already talking to Leia, and that whole 'Draw the Rebel leaders into a trap' thing was way too neat and plausible. I just reapplied 'Luke-logic' to it. That, and the fact that Leia told Nathan."

"So you didn't open the file?"

Mara still stared straight ahead, at the far wall, uncomfortable. "You said open it if something happened to you…well, you're still here."

"You're telling me you didn't read it when I'd given you the code?"

"Did you really think I would?"

She felt him turn slightly to look at her. "Mara Jade, did you not read it because you were getting superstitious?"

"No!" She let out the word in a rough, dismissive laugh.

"You did!"

"Hey, I'm pregnant! I'm allowed leeway!"

He settled back again. "Okay, I'll give you that one."

"One? I get to use that for the next six months."

"Yeah..." he said, apprehensively, and she turned to study him.

"Worried?"

"No…" He smiled at his own bravado. "Yes. Just…you know, the fatherhood stuff— worried about whether I'll be a good role model."

"Role model?" Mara laughed. "Luke, you're the Emperor!"

"I didn't mean that," he dismissed out of hand. "I mean…a good father."

"For him, you will be."

He looked away again. "You don't know that."

"I do," she said, absolutely sure. "Because I know you—and so does your sister. Leia said…"

"She's wrong," Luke said categorically, clearly with more force that he'd meant. He sighed, looking down. "I can't change what I am, Mara."

"People can change—I did. Or do you think I'm the same woman who would back Palpatine now?"

He pulled her back down, and she nestled against him as he spoke. "No. But then, I think you always were this person. You didn't change, you just had to…find yourself."

"Well maybe you've always been Luke Skywalker. Palpatine didn't change you, Luke, you just have to…"

"Find that out again." He smiled at her tenacity, but she heard the brittleness behind it, the weariness as he prepared to throw himself back into the fray again.

He was, as ever, that same complex contradiction of inconceivable power and genuine conscience, Mara knew. But he was balancing on a knife-edge, a position he couldn't possibly maintain. Something had to change—something had to give. It had always been Luke, Mara realized—she'd always expected it to be. Ever since that hotheaded Rebel pilot had arrived on Coruscant, she'd continually expected him to simply adapt to his new life. But then he seemed always so fluid, so capable, so resilient.

Well now it was her turn…and when it came right down to it, it wasn't hard at all. What had he said to her once? That it was all about recognizing what you wanted—what really mattered to you—and accepting what you had to do to gain it.

Because if she said this, she had to mean it, Mara knew. She had to be absolutely prepared to back up her words…and she finally was. The last few weeks had clarified for Mara what was truly important; had taken all those ambitions and expectations which were left over from a past before she'd ever even known Luke, and percolated and clarified them with devastating effect.

And so she truly, truly meant it:

"Let's leave. Let's just leave now. Nathan's already gone, Leia and Han will be gone in another hour—we could just take a shuttle and head for open space. To hell with the Empire. Leave it. Give it to Leia Organa if that's what you want. Give it to Kiria D'Arca. I don't care anymore."

She felt his chin move slightly from where it rested against her temple, the stubble sharp and gritty and wonderfully reassuring in its imperfection.

"And leave everything behind?"

"Everything. We don't need it."

"Your past, your Palace…your Emperor?"

She shook her head, completely, utterly sure. And how incredibly easy it was, to be this sure—how right. "It's just stuff. Just baggage. It's not you. You're what I want—to hell with the rest."

A slow, gentle calm rolled over him like a heatwave, warming him clean down to his bones as tense muscles relaxed against her, the quiet peace radiating from him wonderfully infectious to Mara's senses. She smiled as she wrapped her arms and her thoughts tightly around him. Nothing was worth more to her—nothing.

"Look at that." She smiled, eyes blurring with tears which she blinked away. "Still growing."

"Still crazy," he murmured, but she could hear the joy in his words.

"Whatever."

He squeezed her again and she leaned into his embrace, holding tight. Which was just as well, because his next words would have floored her.

"I think maybe we should stay a while yet. I'm not done being Emperor."

She leaned back, shocked. "Stay?"

He shrugged, a shadow of a smile on his lips. "Why would I leave now—it's just getting interesting. Let's see where we can take it."

Mara sniffed away her tears, suddenly suspicious. "What do you mean… You're going to use this, aren't you—that's what this whole Serenno transfer is. You want to use it to push change through."

"I can't do it without you, Mara. You're my cornerstone—you're my strength."

Mara arched her eyebrows. "Oh, you have your own strength, Luke Skywalker."

"I trust yours more."

Trust. Mara felt the smile come to her lips at that; felt it settle like an embrace about her. Funny, he still had the capacity to throw her—somehow that was incredibly appealing.

He grinned, and when he spoke it was with that soft Rimworld accent that she loved. "I'm gonna change the galaxy, Mara—and you're gonna help me."

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