The Emperor's Hand

One year after the Battle of Yavin…

Mara Jade sat alone in one of the lounges of Home One. The room was dark, lit only by the faint silver pinpricks of the endless star-field that she could see through the bubble of the observation dome above her. The star-field stretched off into infinite blackness, seeming like a jeweled blanket draped around the warship. Space this far out had an empty feel to it, but the innumerable sparkling points scattered throughout the velvety darkness burned brightly, islands of light in the sea of black.

The Rebel flagship was stationary for once, a rare break in the never-ending flight from the Empire. Home One and the rest of the Rebel fleet had paused for a few hours, taking a breath from the chase.

Of course, if it weren't for her presence here, the Rebels might have more of these precious breaks. Although her 'friends' with the Rebellion didn't suspect a thing, Mara was, in fact, a servant of that Empire, a spy within their ranks. Even now, she knew, she should be finding ways to send information to her master, Darth Vader, so that he could capture the Rebels and end this chase. But lately, her communication with her master had been rather scarce.

Had it really been six months since she'd left him a transmission? Mara leaned back in her chair, gazing up at the star-field, and wondered which of those stars her master was currently orbiting, whether on a planet or his massive flagship.

Well, she reflected, there really hadn't been any good chances to do so, after all. She was under deep cover and could not afford to compromise her position, right? Naturally. She was just biding her time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to aid her master.

As she reflected on her purpose here, Mara found herself drifting back to the first time she had met her master, back to her earliest memories.

Mara Jade's first memory was of being lost in a crowd of people. Tall, unfamiliar forms pressed in around her on all sides, shoving her this way and that as the tiny girl tried to navigate the sea of life forms. The noise of a thousand beings from a hundred different planets swelled around her in a horrible cacophony of gibberish. She was alone, with no anchor of anything, any presence she was accustomed to, adrift in the tide of people, and for the only time she could remember, Mara Jade cried in fear.

Looking back, she thought she couldn't have been more than three or four at the time, and it still nagged at her that her parents hadn't been there with her. It still bothered her that they wouldn't come make her feel safe, why they weren't looking for their little girl, lost and alone with tears streaming down her face.

No one in the crowd paid her the slightest bit of notice, and after what felt like hours of wandering, being jostled about by the crowd, little Mara had finally found a quiet spot that was out of the way where she sat down and waited for someone to come find her. From thinking about it later, she thought she had perhaps been at a terminal of some kind, a spaceport or some other sort of travel station. Most of what she remembered about the place was that it was loud, and smelled of exhaust and the mixed odors of the crowd. It terrified her, and she curled into a ball with her back against something metal and cold, waiting for someone to come find her.

Eventually, as the crowd kept moving, a shadow blocked out the sun overhead.

Mara looked up to see a tall, broad-shouldered man standing above her, his outline distorted by the long black cloak that fell from his shoulders. Her eyes widened as she looked up at the silent dark figure above her, his face obscured by the shadows cast by the sun at his back. She felt a nearly overwhelming sense of power radiating from the man, and her body tensed.

She was ready to flee from the frightening dark man, but something held her back, a sense that although he was powerful, that power was also held under control, and that it would not hurt her, perhaps it would even protect her. Mara knew now that he had touched her mind through the Force, but to a frightened little girl it had felt more like she had been scooped up into the strong arms of her father.

Finally, the man knelt, and she saw his face for the first time. He didn't smile, but his blue eyes seemed kind, though he seemed sad, too. She still clearly recalled the first thing he said to her.

"Don't cry."

The words were gentle, yet they carried an unmistakable note of command. So, she stopped crying and wiped her nose, looking at this big man with intense blue eyes who both scared her and made her not be scared at the same time.

The man held out a hand. "You don't have to be scared anymore. Come with me, and you'll never be lost again."

Oddly, Mara thought she could trust this man, even though she had never seen him before. She knew he was telling the truth, somehow, that he really did want to help her, to make her feel safe when all these other people ignored her and pushed her out of the way.

She made her decision in that moment. Standing up, Mara Jade wiped tears from her face for the last time. She took Darth Vader's hand and never cried again.

The hiss of the door opening and soft, almost hesitant footsteps behind her brought Mara back to the present. She glanced back and saw a figure silhouetted in the doorway by the light in the hall beyond.

Judging from the long, wavy hair and the loose-fitting robes, it could be no one other than Luke Skywalker. He had let his hair grow out over the last year, and whether he was doing it deliberately or not, he now looked more like the Anakin Skywalker of the Clone Wars era than ever before.

But there was one obvious difference; his eyes, though they were the same color as his father's, held a sense of innocence still, and also a deep-seated innate gentleness that Mara had never seen in his father. If Anakin's eyes had ever been like his son's, the events of his life had hardened them long years ago.

Mara shook her head slightly. What was she thinking? She was a loyal servant of the Empire, and the only reason she was getting close to Luke Skywalker was so she could turn him in to his father, her master. Her master who had rescued her when no one else even seemed to notice her existence. The man who had taught her that she didn't have to be afraid. It was just his reflection that she appreciated in his son.

"There something you need, farm-boy?" she asked, using her teasing nickname for the young man.

There he went, blushing whenever she talked to him. Even if Han Solo teased him about it incessantly, she found it a bit endearing, in a cute puppy-dog kind of way. A cute puppy that she was going to turn over to his enemy…

Focus, Jade, she reminded herself.

"I… well… ah," Luke stuttered, embarrassed.

Mara smirked. "Well, go on. Out with it, Skywalker. I don't have all day here."

Luke brought one hand up to rub the back of his neck. What made this so amusing was that he'd faced down uncountable numbers of Imperial troops virtually without fear, pulled off daring rescues and other almost unbelievable exploits, and yet he still stumbled all over himself when trying to talk to the girl he liked.

Mara leaned back in her chair and adopted a patient expression. What she kept to herself was that she privately found it just as unnerving to talk to him. Luke reminded her so much of his father, but at the same time he was so different that she couldn't believe he was Darth Vader's son.

"Well… Admiral Ackbar is organizing some scouting missions to look for a new base," he began, visibly forcing himself to relax his posture, "since the Empire has found our last couple more quickly than we'd anticipated."

What he didn't know was that he was talking to the reason why those bases had been found so quickly. Mara found it a very strange feeling to live and work with people she was, at least in theory, supposed to be trying to kill. It felt almost like betrayal, but that was ridiculous, wasn't it?

"I've been asked to choose a crew for my own mission," Luke continued, "and I was wondering if maybe you'd like to go with me."

Mara couldn't resist a bit of teasing. "Shouldn't you be making that an order, Commander Skywalker?"

Luke blushed, exactly the reaction she'd been hoping for. "I… well…"

Mara laughed as she stood and playfully clapped his shoulder. "Sure, I'll go with you, Skywalker. Who else is going, Solo and his furry friend?"

Luke shook his head. "No, Han and Chewie are off on a run right now. We'll be taking a scout ship."

Mara smirked again. "I don't know why Solo keeps playing at smuggling. He's as much of a Rebel as you, even if he doesn't want to admit it."

"I don't know, either," Luke replied, shrugging. "That's just Han, I guess."

It finally caught in Mara's mind that this man was supposed to be her enemy. What was she doing, acting like his friend?

It was all part of her cover, another part of her mind offered. If these Rebels thought her one of them, they would be less likely to realize she was an Imperial spy.

Yes, that was as good an explanation as any.

"So," she said, more to distract herself from her persistent train of thought than anything else, "who else is going?"

"A pilot, named Dak," Luke replied. "The scout ship's only big enough for three. We're leaving this afternoon at sixteen-hundred hours."

Mara gave him a teasing salute. "Yes sir, Commander Skywalker," she said, smirking again. Luke blushed again, and she laughed. He was just too much fun to mess with.

She gently punched his shoulder as she left the room. "See you in the hangar, farm-boy," she said, walking off down the hallway.

As she drew closer to her quarters, a more serious part of her mind took over, the assassin, the sniper, the Imperial agent trained by Darth Vader himself. This mission would be a perfect opportunity, the agent part of her mind insisted. Alone on a scouting mission with Luke, she could easily overpower the pilot, sedate Skywalker, and take the scout ship directly to her master. It would more than make up for neglecting her mission for so long.

But, the other part of her mind, the part that had slowly been making friends with the Rebels, the part that had been putting off sending another report for months, an almost unforgivably long time for even a deep-cover agent, quietly objected, not wanting to see Luke end up in Vader's clutches.

Mara knew what would happen if she brought Luke to his father; she had watched him train others, and had been trained herself. She knew Vader's methods; his son would go into the training Luke Skywalker but come out someone else entirely.

"Release your anger!"

Darth Vader sent a powerful Force shove out at the young Mara Jade, now in her early teens, and knocked her sprawling across the floor of the training room.

She got to her feet, but he sent out another wave and threw her back into the wall with painful, jarring force. Her training saber slipped from her fingers and clattered away, and he swooped in, his own training saber swinging down in a long arc that would meet her shoulder.

Mara dove out of the way, twisting under another pull of the Force from her master, and emerged from her roll with her weapon in hand. She ignited the white practice blade, angling it in a defensive pattern as Lord Vader jumped over, swinging his weapon in a blindingly fast offensive series of slashes.

She knew what he was doing; he was trying to frustrate her into becoming so angry she touched the Dark Side and let it influence her during battle. But, some inner part of her didn't want to.

Combining lightsaber attacks with a barrage of Force shoves and pulls, Lord Vader charged in a whirlwind, trying to overwhelm her.

"Anger can make you stronger," he said as she tumbled to the floor again, nursing a good-sized bruise on her upper arm. "It gives you power," Vader continued. "If you allow yourself to become angry with your opponent, to hate him, you will find a reserve of energy that will let you overpower him."

Mara shouted in frustration as he tripped her with the Force when she tried to get up, knocking her on her face again. Furious, she leaped to her feet and threw her hand out toward her teacher, intending to shove him back.

Instead, twisting bolts of lightning leaped from her fingers, crashing into Lord Vader with all the strength of her frustration and anger. Further aggravating her, he blocked them all with his lightsaber, skillfully sweeping the blade to intercept each bolt.

"Good," he said, smiling broadly. "Very good."

But nothing felt good about it. Mara was surprised that she had used Force Lightning, as that had not at all been what she intended to do. Conflicting emotions swirled within her, confusing her, and she found herself disoriented momentarily.

"But, you must balance your anger," Vader continued, seemingly not noticing her confusion. "You cannot allow your anger to control you; to immerse yourself that deeply into the Dark Side will eventually turn you into a monster, a mindless animal seeking only more violence."

Calming down, Mara nodded, still trying to process what had happened.

"The Light Side of the Force brings calm, serenity," said Lord Vader. "With it, you can control your anger, make it a tool to serve you, your servant instead of your master. But," he warned, raising a hand to emphasize his point, "as with the Dark Side, too much of an immersion in the Light can weaken you. If you allow yourself to rise too high into the Light Side, all aggression is purged, and you are left unwilling to take the necessary measures to act."

His features adopted an expression that could almost be described as a sneer, though not quite. "The old Jedi Order claimed once that the Dark Side was clouding their perceptions, diminishing their ability to use the Force." Lord Vader gestured to himself. "They found me, and thought I was the fulfillment of a prophecy, the Chosen One to bring balance to the Force."

Mara nodded as she sat down on the floor, crossing her legs beneath her. She adjusted the legs of her workout shorts as she waited for Lord Vader to continue.

He shrugged his broad shoulders beneath his own sleeveless black shirt, glancing out of the wide window at one end of the room at the Coruscant traffic outside. Finally, he resumed his lesson.

"The Jedi claimed that somehow the Sith's use of the Dark Side was affecting their own powers, and that I, in destroying the Sith, would bring the Force back into balance. I do not believe this to be the truth. I think the Jedi's weakening was due to their own unwillingness to touch the more powerful aspects of the Force. They were weakening themselves."

He held his hands out on front of himself. "I am right-handed," he said, flexing the mechanical fingers of that hand. "Suppose I were to cut off my left hand simply because I use it less often. Would such a decision be foolish?"

"Of course," Mara replied. "You have two hands for a reason; only using one would handicap you."

Vader leaned forward slightly, an approving smile quirking his lips slightly. "Exactly. The Force is the same; using only one side is just as foolish as only using one of your hands."

"Then what was the prophecy supposed to mean?" Mara asked. Her master had never discussed this particular subject with her before. "How are you supposed to bring the Force into balance?"

Lord Vader gestured to the training room around them, and by extension the rest of the Sith Temple, which had once been the Jedi Temple. "I do not know what the prophecy was originally intended to mean," he said. "But I believe I have finally found the correct way to use the Force: use both sides equally, making use of their respective qualities. The Dark Side holds tremendous advantage in battle, as it greatly strengthens a wielder, but the Light Side has its own advantages, such as healing."

"Take the lightsaber as an example," he said, pulling his regular weapon from its place on his belt. "Suppose I was to use this to kill a Senator who opposed one of my decisions as Emperor. Would that be good or evil?"

"Evil," Mara replied. "You cannot kill someone for no other reason than because they disagree with you."

Vader nodded. "But suppose I was to then use this same weapon to block a stray blaster shot that had been about to hit an innocent bystander. Is that good or evil?"

"Good," Mara said. "The bystander was not involved, and you should not let him be killed for no reason."

Lord Vader tossed his lightsaber from one hand to the other. "The exact same weapon was used in both scenarios," he said. "Is the weapon itself good, or evil?"

"Neither," said Mara. "It all matters on how you, its owner, use it."

"Exactly." He looked down at her as if sharing some exciting secret, almost smiling. "The Force itself is neither good nor evil, Mara," he said. "It simply is. Good or evil comes from the way it is wielded."

Mara nodded uncertainly. She wasn't sure if she really believed this or not, since she only seemed able to access the Dark Side when using the Force for some selfish or violent purpose. Lord Vader's lesson seemed to be contradictory to how she herself perceived the Force. She dismissed her concerns; Lord Vader knew what he was doing, after all, so she probably just didn't understand enough about the Force yet.

Lord Vader dismissed her to go and meditate on what he had said then, but try as she might, the young Mara was unable to reconcile the Sith Master's lesson with what she felt.

Her questions were eventually pushed aside in the face of much more intensive training; Lord Vader needed a capable agent, and he needed one soon. He advanced Mara's training, focusing more on combat and stealth lessons, as well as infiltration techniques to more easily blend in with whatever situation she found herself. Naturally proficient in such things, Mara quickly became an exceptional agent, and before long was named as the Emperor's Hand, Darth Vader's personal agent to whom he trusted the most clandestine and sensitive missions. Her very existence became a secret, and none knew her true identity but the Emperor, his Sith Apprentice, and Grand Admiral Thrawn, Vader's most trusted officer.

The Force became just another tool in her arsenal, and for years Mara gave no further thought to the relationship between Dark Side and Light Side. When a situation arose where she needed to use the Force, she simply used it however was necessary to complete her mission.

She continued in this pattern for years, until the fateful mission to Alderaan, where she was assigned to confirm the existence of the suspected Rebel cell there, and, if present, proceed to infiltrate it.

Mara Jade used her real name as her alias in this mission, since it was untraceable to the Empire; she did not officially exist in any registration documents, anyway, and even if she was referenced in any communiqués between Vader and Thrawn, both simply referred to her as 'the agent', and were never more specific.

She chose her own mission parameters, and when selecting a name for her Rebel alias, something prodded her to use her own. She thought it might have been the Force, but gave no more thought to it as she set up the rest of the mission.

Mara traveled to Alderaan as a student transferring to the university, and quickly established herself as a vocal detractor of the Empire, joining in with the protest groups university students were wont to form. Before long, she was quietly approached by a recruiter for the Rebellion.

The recruiter, a woman named Winter, asked her if she wanted to do more to oppose 'the tyranny of the Empire', and in her guise as an impassioned student, Mara readily agreed. Her constructed background held up against the thorough check by the Rebels, since it even went so far as to provide a number of references and 'family members' -all Imperial agents- to confirm her documentation and story.

Mara was made an official member of the cell of the Alliance to Restore the Republic on Alderaan, but to her frustration, she was able to do little more than confirm the cell's existence to her master, as the Organa family never gave any indication that they were in any way affiliated.

Winter was a servant in the Organa household, Mara knew, and likely operated directly under Bail Organa himself, but again, there was never enough evidence to conclusively prove his ties to the Rebellion.

Publicly, the Organa family remained vocal, but still law-abiding, detractors of the Empire and Lord Vader. Mara spent more than a year trying to prove that they were high-ranking members of the Rebellion, but was never successful. She never actually met any of them, and so instead set about gathering all the information she was able on the Rebellion in general. Due to the way the Alliance was structured, each cell knowing next to nothing about the rest of the organization, this was extremely difficult.

Lord Vader commanded her to remain in deep cover on Alderaan and participate in whatever missions she was assigned, telling her to be patient.

Eventually, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker came to Alderaan to free Leia Organa and the rest of her family, and Mara's mission became both more interesting and more complicated.

She had been told much about Kenobi by Lord Vader, who hated his former teacher more than any other individual she knew of, blaming Kenobi for the losses he had suffered during the fall of the old Republic. Mara had been surprised to find Kenobi almost nothing like Vader's descriptions; he appeared to be fairly pleasant, patient with his apprentice Luke, and, while still devoted to the old Jedi Order, seemed to be a good man.

Mara was privately puzzled at this, since this was the first sustained contact she had ever had with a Jedi. She'd helped Galen Marek, later Darth Nova, assassinate one once, but that had been long-distance support; she'd wounded the Jedi with a sniper rifle, distracting him long enough for Galen to finish him off.

There had been several opportunities during the escape from the palace to allow the Imperial troops to capture the Rebels, but Mara's instincts told her that Kenobi and his apprentice would take the Organas to the secret Rebel base; planting a tracking device on their ship to let Lord Vader follow them would prove much faster and more effective than torturing the information out of them.

Mara's disguised beacon allowed the Executor to track the Millennium Falcon to Yavin, though the Rebels were somehow able to defeat the mighty flagship with only fighters.

Over the next year, Mara remained in place as a deep-cover agent within the Rebellion, and though she dutifully filed reports as often as the situation allowed over the first few months of that period, gradually, despite herself, she began to care about the people she lived with.

The Rebels genuinely believed Darth Vader's rule was having an adverse effect on the galaxy; he was a tyrant, they believed, only interested in shaping civilization to his whims. It was strange to hear her teacher, the closest thing she had to a father, talked about with such hatred, and while she objected at first, gradually, their points began to make sense to her.

For one, the Rebels insisted, the Emperor's ability to ignite a sun into supernova through the Force made him even more dangerous; what was to stop him from simply obliterating the home systems of his more vocal detractors? He and his apprentice were virtually living weapons, and the Rebels argued that both needed to be eliminated before they both allowed their power to shape them into even worse tyrants, controlling all life in the galaxy through fear of obliteration.

Mara had talked with her master about this shortly after the end of the Ssi-Ruuk war, and he said he would never use his power to destroy a sun unless presented with no other option; he understood very well what this ability meant, and while he was content to let the rest of the Empire think he was willing to use it again, he had privately resolved not to.

Darth Nova, on the other hand, seemed almost eager to use his power again. Galen had truly changed after the final campaign of the war; the man whom people called Darth Nova was not the Galen Marek she had grown up with, and part of her was glad she had no further contact with him during the months after the Battle of Yavin, as he had become very disturbing to talk to after his ascension to Sith Lord.

Further clouding her thoughts was Luke Skywalker; sometimes he would say things that reminded her so much of Lord Vader that Mara had to force her face to remain expressionless so as not to give something away. But he was different; he had almost no trace of the ever-simmering rage within his father. She wondered if he was what his father had been like as a Jedi; the Rebels who had lived through the Clone Wars certainly thought so.

She had once heard a conversation between Bail Organa and Jan Dodonna that had changed the way she thought about both Skywalkers.

The two Rebel leaders were in the officer's lounge of Home One, talking to one another at one of the tables as they ate their afternoon meal. Mara was sitting in one of the couches, working on a report on her datapad, when something Organa said caught her attention.

"Sometimes talking to that boy is just like talking to his father twenty years ago," Bail said.

Dodonna nodded as Mara glanced up. "You're right, Bail," the general replied. "I know it's certainly a boost for morale that he's decided to fight with us. The troops are happy to have a Jedi in the ranks, especially a Skywalker."

"That's a difficult example to live up to," Bail said. "Anakin was a hero in the Clone Wars, so much that the Separatists might have won if not for him. Who else could have killed Dooku?"

"But that's what worries me," said Dodonna. The general rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he glanced over at the other Rebel leader. "Anakin fell to the Dark Side, and look what's happened as a result. I know this is a terrible thing to say, but what if Luke starts to follow in his father's footsteps?"

Bail shook his head. "He won't. Obi-Wan told him as much as he knew about Anakin's fall, and I'm sure Luke won't make the same mistakes." Organa gestured to the viewport as he spoke, as if indicating the past. "From talking to Master Kenobi, I believe Anakin would not have done what he did if not for Palpatine; the Chancellor was darker than any of us realized, until it was too late."

Bail paused for a moment and looked down at his plate in thought before he continued. "It's probably not my place to say this, but from talking to both of them, I think Luke is becoming what Anakin was supposed to be, what he would have been, if not for the Chancellor."

Dodonna nodded in agreement. "I think you're right, Bail. Jedi were always very mysterious about the Force and whatever prophecy Anakin was supposed to fulfill, and I never understood much of that, but I do know Luke is a major asset to the cause. All of us will have to be very careful to not let him make the same mistakes as his father."

Bail frowned pensively. "I fear to think of what might happen for all of us if he does."

The two of them had continued talking after that, but around that time Solo had come in and started talking to her, distracting Mara from what else the Rebel leaders had said. She caught more about Jedi, and something about a 'Master Yoda', but she hadn't been able to listen closely enough.

It was strange hearing people talk about Lord Vader that way, odd to hear the other side of the issue, and before she caught herself, Mara had begun to wonder if Lord Vader was right after all.

As she packed her bag for the scouting mission with Skywalker, Mara paused as she retrieved some of the items none of the other Rebels knew she had. Her fingers paused on an injector which could be used to deliver either sedatives or poison, depending on the mission, and a small frown crossed her face as she looked at it.

Luke trusted her; he obviously cared very much about her, and would never suspect her of doing anything that might hurt him. It would be so easy to take advantage of that trust, to knock him out with the injector and take him to his father, but some part of her objected to this.

Despite herself, she had come to care about him, too. Mara knew that she should see him as an enemy, but try as she might, she could find nothing to hate about Luke, not even the fact that he despised his own father. Knowing all that Vader had done, especially to Luke's mother, the young Jedi's anger toward his father was understandable.

A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts, and Mara hid the injector under the bag before getting up to answer.

It was Luke, but he wasn't alone; Han Solo was with him, and the Corellian smuggler grinned as Mara opened the door.

"Heya, Red," he said as he leaned against the doorframe. "You goin' with me and the kid?"

"When did you get back?" Mara asked.

"About an hour ago," Han said. "Jabba's pretty mad and the Empire's even madder, so I figured I'd better lay low for a while, stay under the radar with you guys."

"Han's going to take us in the Falcon," Luke said. "I decided to change the plan."

"Fine with me," Mara said, gesturing at her bag. "I'm ready to go whenever you are."

"We're just going to fuel up the Falcon and give her a quick tune-up," Han said. "We'll probably leave in a couple hours."

"See you then," she said, making sure to smile.

Luke and Han nodded and left, headed off down the softly lit hallway.

Oddly, it was fine with her, Mara thought as she stepped back into the main room of her quarters and sat down on the bed.

Mara rationalized to herself that taking Skywalker on the Millennium Falcon would be next to impossible; she would almost certainly be able to sneak up on Luke and sedate him, but then she would still have Solo and the Wookiee to deal with. Adding to that was the fact that the Corellian and his partner had modified their freighter so far from factory specifications that Mara doubted anyone but the two of them could figure out all its systems. A pair of smugglers would have so many fail-safes and other tricks that they could have the entire ship sealed off and unusable by anyone but the two of them in an instant.

She would then have to force them to unlock the systems, but a pair as wily as Han and Chewbacca would find some way to trick her or overpower her; even with all her training, Mara knew Solo and the Wookiee were clever enough to come up with something, given enough time.

Yes, the sympathetic part of her assured the agent, now was not the right time. More opportunities would come in the future.

Whether or not she would take them was a matter for further debate.


Author's Note: First, apologies for the long delay. I'm writing several other stories besides this one, and that, combined with the repairs I had to have done on my laptop, caused me to have less time for writing than usual the last couple months. But, I have it back now, and I'm busily writing the next and last oneshot in this series, as well as 'One Missed Strike, Part II'.

Thanks goes to my beta reader, Desteni, for her suggestions and advice on this story. Part of the delay was me taking a little extra time to improve this story based on her comments, so I am very grateful for her help. Thanks also goes to you, the readers, for following the story and letting me know how much you're enjoying it.

Next, we fast-forward another year to You Guys Need Some Fun, a lighter story in which Han Solo decides his friends need a break from saving the galaxy, so he takes them to Ord Mantell for the Blockade Runner's Derby, to enter the Millennium Falcon in the race. But, unbeknownst to them, the deadly bounty hunter Boba Fett tracks them there. Solo and his friends are worth a substantial amount of money to the Empire, particularly Luke Skywalker, and Boba Fett never passes up a challenging hunt...

(UPDATE 10/20/09: Sorry to those who were still expecting it, but I don't think You Guys Need Some Fun is ever going to be posted. I tried, I really did, but a space race is just not something that works well in text. It's a very visual thing, and there's only so many ways I could say 'Han swerved the Falcon around a chunk of space debris' without getting repetitive. I just cannot get it to a point where I'm happy enough with it to post. Plus, that story was not essential to the storyline of this AU, so as much as I hate to admit defeat, you're just going to have to use your imaginations as to how that adventure went. I've provided a few clues here and there in 'One Missed Strike, Part II', so you can just head on over there now.

This has been a somewhat humbling reminder that I still have quite a ways to go in perfecting my writing skills, so it's useful at least in pushing me to work harder to improve. Let that be a lesson to you: You can always get better. Never think you've reached the peak of your skills; always try to do better than you did in your last story. So, on that note, thank you for reading and reviewing, helping me to improve!)