rynne: (crack the sky)
[personal profile] rynne
Here's the next chapter of this. :)

Title: Feet on the Ground
Author: Rynne
Fandom: Star Wars
Rating: PG-13
Summary: AU. Luke Skywalker has grown up his father's apprentice, and can't imagine anything but serving the Emperor. But after one mission, Luke's illusions begin to shatter, and Luke and his father begin to plan for the future--their future. Primarily a Luke-Vader story, with eventual Luke/Mara.
Author's notes: This is the first sequel to my fic Walking the Sky. I highly suggest you read that before reading this, though the basics are that Vader found Luke on Tatooine when Luke was nine, killing Obi-Wan and another Jedi, and leaving Owen and Beru alive.

This fic is written in its entirety, and is eight chapters long, plus a prologue. The only delay in posting chapters is when I get them back from my betas and make corrections, so I should be updating fairly frequently.

There are characters and concepts from the Star Wars Extended Universe in here, but very few. The biggest one is Mara Jade, who plays a large role, and who will be an important part of the plot, and not just as a love interest. I hope that I've provided enough background on Mara so that those of you who have seen Star Wars but not read any of the EU books would still be able to follow the story, if you want to read it--just think of her as an original character (which she is, though created by Timothy Zahn and not me).

Enormous thanks must go to [livejournal.com profile] krabapple and Trace for betaing. You made this fic much better than it would have been on its own. Thank you!

Prologue | Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six | Chapter Seven | Chapter Eight

--

5



Luke leaned back against the bar, casually sipping his drink and letting his eyes wander over the room. It was smoky, dimly lit, and crowded, full of the scents of unwashed bodies of several species. It was warmer than Luke would have preferred, but it was where his current quarry had come to taste the offerings of lowlifes, so Luke was there.

A Rodian glanced at him, perhaps wondering what someone like him--young, human, wearing moderately good clothes, and clean--was doing in a cantina like this. Luke gave no impression of even noticing the attention, and reached out with the Force to get the alien to think what he wanted it to--Nothing strange here. I want another drink.

Luke felt exposed. Damn the cloak and hood for being distinctive, but he didn't want to scare away the man he was hunting, and his natural appearance was less than intimidating, to say the least. He just wanted his cloak back.

Ah, and there was the quarry, over there in the corner. Senatorial aide Orin Jarrell of Aduba III, who had been embezzling Senate funds and using them for his own pleasure. He sat with a Twi'lek woman on each knee, and Luke grimaced in disgust at the evidence of the aide's exotic prostitute predilection.

Luke sipped his drink, trying not to gag. He wished he hadn't had to order anything--he hated alcohol and how it loosened his control, even with the metabolizing effects of the Force--but it would have looked out-of-place for someone to come into a cantina and not order anything to drink, and Luke didn't want to alert the good aide that something was amiss and risk him fleeing the cantina.

Then something crashed into him, and it was only his reflexes that kept him from spilling his drink all over himself. He turned to face an alien, short and chubby and furry with multiple eyes and appendages, that was weaving on its feet and apparently drunk. He didn't know what it was, and he didn't care.

Luke would have liked to blast it for jostling him and distracting him--he would have, if Jarrell had slipped out while Luke was catching his drink--but he was trying to remain inconspicuous, and Jarrell was still in the corner, so he ignored it. It didn't ignore him, however, saying something garbled in its own language. Luke raised an eyebrow at it, not having any idea of what it had said, and started to go back to his drink when a short and greasy-looking human appeared behind it and listened to it garble again.

"He doesn't like you," the man told Luke, after the alien finished saying whatever it said.

"I'm sorry about that," Luke said calmly and disinterestedly, not caring if he gained the regard of a drunken alien. He was about to take another sip of his drink when the man tapped him on the shoulder.

"I don't like you either," the man informed him.

"I don't care," Luke said, rolling his eyes and shrugging the man's hand off his shoulder.

Now the man looked angry, and people around them started to notice what was going on. Luke looked for the aide, to make sure he hadn't slipped away when Luke was distracted, but he was still there, with one hand inside one of the Twi'lek girls' shirts. He didn't appear to be paying attention to what was unfolding at the bar, which was fortunate, at least.

The greasy man grabbed Luke's chin and swung his head around to look at him. "You should care," the man told him, angrily, with a strange glittering in his eyes that Luke thought might have been spice. "I'm a wanted man. I've got a death mark in twelve systems!"

Enough of this. Luke twitched his hand, and his blaster slid from its wrist holster into his palm. He had it pressed into the man's stomach before anyone could blink. "I don't like you either," Luke said shortly, "and I think you'll find that my dislike is a lot more fatal than yours is. If you don't want to find out for sure, you'll leave me alone."

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Orin Jarrell start to stagger out the door, his arms around the waists of both Twi'leks. Without waiting for the greasy man's reply, if one was coming, Luke slid the blaster back into its holster and stood up, walking away and leaving the cantina without any resistance. It helped that people moved out of his way.

Night had fallen while he'd waited for the aide, and there were few people out on the streets. Keeping an eye on the progress of the aide and his Twi'lek supports, Luke ducked into an alley and pulled his lightsaber and compacted cloak from a large pouch belted at his waist. He swung the cloak around his shoulders and drew the hood up, then clipped the lightsaber to his belt with a sigh of relief--finally, he could get this mission over with.

He kept to the shadows as he followed the aide's progress, shunting attention away from him with the Force if anyone happened to look in his direction. The aide was heading for a seedy hotel not far from the cantina, one Luke remembered from his research on the area that rented rooms by the hour. Considering the way his hands were straying, and the way the Twi'leks were giggling, it was obvious what the aide intended to do.

He stalked them, unnoticed, straight to the rented room, projecting through the Force an image of empty air where he stood. Though the door in front of him was locked, that wasn't an obstacle; he turned the lock with the Force, and then quickly opened the door, stepped into the room, then closed and locked the door behind him again.

"Hey, what're you--" the aide started to shout, turning from where the Twi'leks had started to undress him to face the one who had just barged into his room. Upon seeing exactly who it was, however, he closed his mouth with a snap, and the blood drained from his face, leaving it a pasty white.

"Senatorial aide Orin Jarrell," Luke intoned, unclipping his saber from his belt and bringing it up to hold two-handed, "you have been charged by the Emperor for embezzling Imperial funds and spreading corruption through the Senate."

"Wait a minute, I can explain!" the aide protested weakly, groping behind him for his shirt, backing up until he was pressed against the cracked wall. The Twi'leks had fled to a corner, trying to escape his notice, and Luke paid them no mind; he was not here for them.

"The Emperor is not interested in your excuses," Luke said, and ignited the saber with its customary snap-hiss. "He has decreed your death."

Luke stepped further into the room, and the man shrunk away from him pathetically, gibbering about all the money Luke could have, or his share of the Twi'leks, and Luke snorted--as if he cared about money or sex with aliens. Bribery is utterly contemptible, Luke's father had told him once. It is a showing of weakness, whether you are offering it or accepting it. If I ever hear of you accepting a bribe, my son, you will regret it, I assure you.

But Luke had no interest in being bribed; what he wanted right now was for Jarrell to be quiet and stop his fearful babbling. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the Twi'leks scrabbling to unlock the door and leave, and he let them. It was not them he was after.

"--Please let me live, I'll give you anything you want, just--"

Doesn't he ever shut up? Luke thought, starting to become vexed. Oh well, at least it was easy enough to quiet the man himself. And without further ado, he swung his saber in a wide arc, beheading the aide in one swipe.

Then, not even bothering to glance again at his handiwork, he left. He was done here.

--

"The Aduba III Senator's aide is dead, Lord Umber?"

"Yes, my master," Luke replied, kneeling, his head bowed.

"Give your full report, Lord Umber," the Emperor ordered, sitting back in his throne.

And Luke did, sparing nothing, not even the drunken alien and greasy human and how he dealt with them. In some very few reports to the Emperor, he omitted a few details, such as after the mission to Ord Mantell a year ago, but that was unnecessary here. He had done nothing worthy of censure.

Or at least, he hadn't thought so. "You let the Twi'lek females go?" the Emperor asked, and Luke carefully hid a wince. Obviously he shouldn't have.

"They were not my target, my master," Luke said quietly.

"They were witnesses," Palpatine returned, displeasure evident in his voice.

Palpatine didn't care about the witnesses, Luke knew bitterly. That was just an excuse. In the beginning, before the galaxy knew it had another Sith Lord, he'd even instructed Luke to let such witnesses escape, so they could spread rumors and build up his reputation. But now, Palpatine just wanted him to kill, even when it wasn't completely necessary.

"I will not make such a mistake again, my master," Luke said, and was glad that the pretense of respect let him keep his head bowed, so that Palpatine would not see the angry flashing of his eyes. A mistake, to let live people who had done nothing to either the Empire or him...it was disgusting. Even his father killed only those who offended him or threatened the Empire.

The Emperor considered him for a moment. "No, you won't," he agreed. "But as a reminder..." And Luke knew what was coming.

He stayed his ground as lightning flashed out of Palpatine's hands and enveloped Luke, running over Luke's skin and dashing pain into every nerve, though not enough to threaten permanent harm. It wasn't for very long, just a few seconds that lasted a lifetime, but when Palpatine pulled it back, Luke remained on his knees not only because that was what was demanded of him as the servant to the master, but also because he couldn't stand up.

Luke waited in silence for the tremors to stop, and for Palpatine to dismiss him. But the Emperor kept him waiting, even as he regained enough strength to stand and walk out the door under his own power. The silence grew between them and filled the room, and though Luke wanted to leave, to go greet Mara and wait for his father, he stayed where he was. He wasn't about to incur another punishment for leaving before Palpatine dismissed him.

Finally, Palpatine spoke. "Still," he said, almost kindly, "you have done well. Devotion is rewarded, my young lord."

Confused, but cultivating stillness of mind and body, Luke murmured, "Yes, my master."

"Look at me, young one," the Emperor commanded, and Luke looked up, the Emperor's hard yellow eyes catching his and holding. Luke wanted to gulp and look away, but didn't dare.

"You are devoted to me, aren't you, Lord Umber?" Palpatine crooned, still holding Luke's eyes with his.

Though there was no pressure on his throat, Luke felt like he couldn't breathe. "Yes, my master," Luke answered, feeling tendrils of the Force coming from Palpatine and reaching for his mind.

As he'd long ago learned how to do, he made his mental shields flexible and hid away his most private thoughts, building up strong barriers within barriers, just in case. The Emperor's Force tendrils hit his flexible outer shield and slid away. They came back, stronger and more numerous, and Luke weakened his shields just enough for Palpatine to be able to punch through without thinking it too easy.

It hurt when Palpatine broke through, not unlike the lightning of a few minutes ago. But Palpatine had done this before, and he would undoubtedly do it again, and so Luke was able to take the pain and use it, sending it through the Force to subtly redirect the tendrils' search away from his most tightly shielded thoughts.

After a few minutes of ransacking his mind, the Emperor left, oozing satisfaction that he'd found everything and not even realizing that there had been more he hadn't seen. If his head hadn't felt like it had been pounded repeatedly against the floor, and if he hadn't still been in front of his so-called master, Luke would have laughed. So much for the all-powerful Emperor, he thought with a mental smirk.

The Emperor leaned forward in his throne, stretching out a hand to where Luke was still kneeling on the floor. "I am sorry about that, young one," he said, false regret dripping from his voice. "But I had to be sure of your loyalty." He dropped his voice, as if sharing a confidence. "Not all around me are as loyal as you, Lord Umber."

Luke stopped himself from blinking in surprise--Is he referring to whom I think he's referring?--and murmured, "They are foolish, my master."

"They are," the Emperor agreed. "You will help me dispose of traitors, will you not, Lord Umber?"

"I am at your service, my master," Luke replied evenly, despite the rapidly increasing beating of his heart. There's no way he can know. It's just suspicion, that's all. He tried to convince himself that Palpatine couldn't know for sure, but his heart wasn't listening, still beating rapidly.

"Good." The Emperor sat back. "You may go, Lord Umber."

Luke rose, and bowed, then turned and started to leave. But the Emperor's voice stopped him, just before he reached the doors.

"I believe you have started a friendship with my Hand," he said idly, as if it did not matter. Luke froze, then recovered himself and turned back to face the Emperor again.

"Yes, my master," he said, seeing no reason to deny it, not when the Emperor obviously knew.

The Emperor regarded him for a moment, the little smile on his face saying eloquently that there was something he knew that Luke didn't. "Her duties as my Hand would be compromised if she were to become pregnant. Do not get her with child," he advised. "Now go."

What?

His mind almost stopping in complete surprise, Luke bowed, turned, and left the room on autopilot, able to think only one thing.

What?

--

Luke was confused, and hated it.

He hated even more that the person to whom he had always gone when he was confused, his father, was away from Coruscant on assignment and far enough that they couldn't reach each other through their bond. Luke desperately wanted someone to confide in right now.

Though, admittedly, his father might not be the best person. He didn't, after all, know that Luke was friends with Mara Jade, much less the possibility of something more.

Except--what possibility? Luke could honestly say that he had never thought of her in that way. He'd never thought of anyone in that way. He'd never had the time.

He kept walking, and almost of their own accord, his feet started on the path to the corner of the thirty-second floor library where he would sit and think, sometimes with Mara and sometimes without her. He wasn't sure which of the two possibilities he would prefer right then; Mara was nice to talk to, and she'd actually listen to him, but this was not a topic he wanted to tell her about.

He could imagine it now: "Mara, the Emperor told me not to get you pregnant. Any idea why he'd think that I might?"

He winced, and knew that he could never say something like that to his fiery friend. It would probably be just as much a shock to her, and sounded faintly accusing anyway. He couldn't be sure that it was she who had told the Emperor of their friendship, when they weren't even really keeping it a secret. Their spot in the library was still open to the Palace, after all, and they'd seen others there before, others who might have informed the Emperor of the relationship.

Halfway from the throne room to the library, Luke stopped. He was thinking too much--the Emperor had probably just misunderstood their friendship and equated it to something he could relate to, like lust and desire, without the deeper emotions to go along with it. He was reading too much into the Emperor's statement.

He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and changed direction. He didn't want to sit in a library and think right then. He wanted to be doing something, something active, something that would take his mind off thoughts that didn't make sense.

Fifteen minutes later, he walked through the doors of one of the palace's gyms. It wasn't the most exclusive, didn't have the best personal trainers and equipment, but Luke in his palace persona of navy lieutenant wouldn't have been able to afford such a gym's membership anyway. This one was quiet, its equipment was good enough, and it didn't break his cover.

"Nice to see you again, Lieutenant," the receptionist said cheerfully as Luke signed in. He gave her a perfunctory nod and, after a bit of preliminary stretching, headed over to his favorite apparatus, the uneven bars.

He chalked his hands for traction, and then jumped up to the higher bar, his back to the lower, catching the bars and hanging for a moment, his weight pulling his body down, stretching his arms and shoulder muscles. He hung completely still, without even trembling in effort, then closed his eyes and swung himself up.

He went over the bar, momentum carrying him up and around. Over and over, again and again, pulling his legs back and pushing them forward to continue the motion. Then he let go with one hand and flipped around to face the other way, catching the bar once more just as he flew over the top again.

He turned, and concentrated on nothing but the turning. He didn't need the Force for this. He'd used it at first, but then he'd seen other men, Force-blind men, do it all by themselves, and Luke had decided that he would do it that way, too. It was purely his ability holding him here now. Here, with just him and the bars and the chalk on his hands, the sweat beading on his face, the air rushing past him, he felt...content.

Then, just as he started down again and passed beneath the bottom of the bar, he let go and sailed to the lower bar, catching it and swinging over the top of that one.

It was an advantage to be short, here, and his gymnastics training was one of the few occasions during which Luke was glad of his height. Because of that, Luke spent much time in gymnastics, alternating between bars and rings, horse and floor and balance beam, and anything that would challenge him.

Gymnastics was entirely him, him and his body and his concentration, and on days like today, when he didn't want to think, didn't want to use the Force, it was a much better form of exercise than lightsaber practice.

Swinging over and over, muscles bunching and releasing. He lifted his hands, let his body carry him up and over the bar, then grabbed it again on his way down.

Turn.

Turn.

Let go one hand and turn over, then turn, turn, again.

Luke's world narrowed until there was nothing that existed in the world but him and these two bars and the sensations surrounding them. The chalk on his hands, the skin-warmed bar they were wrapped around, the perspiration on his forehead, and the air wiping it away.

He switched between the bars, back and forth and back and forth. His arms were getting tired, and his stomach muscles were protesting, but he didn't use the Force to replenish himself, and he kept going. Up and over and up and over, rhythm and strain becoming one and the same.

Then, just because he could, he ended it with a flourish, pushing off the high bar and flipping in the air until he landed on his feet.

It was the kind of gymnastics workout Luke loved, intense enough to numb his mind without unduly tiring his body. And he was content, a feeling that was getting increasingly rare. He was covered in sweat and he desperately needed a shower if he didn't want to start smelling soon, but he'd had a good workout and it felt great.

Those good feelings flew right out of his head when he turned and started to cross the floor to the showers--and saw Mara Jade, dressed in a leotard and sweat pants, hair pulled back in a tight braid, stretching on the mats in one corner. He hadn't known that she came to this gym, though it made sense, as her persona was about as affluent as his, and this was a good gym for people in their supposed income ranges.

In keeping with her own persona as a dancer, as soon as she'd finished her stretches, she moved into a dance routine. She dipped and turned, braid whipping behind her with every pirouette, arms and legs transitioning smoothly from one step to another.

He'd never watched her do something like this before, an activity where her inner gracefulness was displayed completely. Aside from that first mission where he'd barely seen her, he'd mostly just talked to her and walked with her. And while she had always moved with a definite fluidity, that was nothing compared to what he was witnessing now.

She was utterly beautiful, and Luke wondered for a moment at how he had never noticed it before.

Her eyes were closed, her face completely peaceful. She was all over the place, high and low, one moment snapping her foot up, and the next, sinking into a perfect split.

How could I have ever thought her plain? Luke thought, entranced. He was momentarily glad that she was keeping her eyes closed, so that he might watch her without her knowing.

Her body whirled and dipped and flowed across her corner of the floor, and Luke followed her every movement with his eyes. His hair was still tousled and his sweat was drying on his skin, but he barely noticed. She had nearly every iota of his attention, and Luke wanted to keep it that way. He wanted to watch her forever.

Then her eyes snapped open, and Luke started, because she was looking directly at him, despite being across the floor. And almost before he knew it, she was right in front of him; he blinked and hadn't seen her move, and spared a wondering thought at how easily she seemed to rattle him, that he couldn't concentrate properly on something so necessary as always knowing others' positions in relation to himself.

"What are you doing here?" she asked quietly, a few wisps of hair loosened from her braid. Luke's hand twitched, and he resisted the urge to tuck the hair behind her ears.

"Working out," he replied with equal softness, and gestured to where the uneven bars were standing behind him. "I just came from a report to our master, and wanted to work out."

"By watching me?" she asked, wryly, raising an eyebrow.

Luke felt his ears grow warm at that, and thought he might have been blushing. Blushing! he mentally groaned. Have I no control? But it seemed he didn't, for cheeks grew warm as well at her continued gaze.

"I'd just finished, and I saw you," he said, willing the color in his cheeks to go down. But as her eyebrow remained quirked, he knew he must have failed. "It was a lovely routine."

She smiled, gently. "Thank you," she said. "I choreographed it myself." The wisps of hair floated around to frame her face, and Luke had to again restrain the urge to tuck them behind her ears, and perhaps let his fingers linger by her cheek.

"You did a good job," he told her, and then immediately wanted to kick himself. A good job! Wonderful compliment, Skywalker. Could you have said anything more stupid?

But she only said, "Thank you," again, and didn't seem to mind the inanity of his compliment.

They stood there for a moment, seemingly content to gaze at each other in silence. But Luke was growing increasingly aware of his sweaty and rumpled appearance, so he broke the moment and said, "I've just finished my workout, and I'm still sweaty. I was going to take a shower now, but later..."

She smiled at him again, and said, "I'll meet you in our usual spot."

Luke returned the smile, unaccountably glad that he would see her again, and soon. And though it took more effort to walk past her towards the showers than he thought it should, he felt her eyes on his back as he strode away, and kept smiling.

--

She was there, just as she said she would be. Luke didn't know why that simple fact suddenly made him so happy. Or maybe he did, and didn't want to think about it.

She nodded at him when he joined her, and asked, "Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?"

Brief images flashed through his mind--the Emperor's parting statement, the dance Luke had just witnessed, even his father when they'd talked about Palpatine and fear--but he didn't mention any of them. Instead, he shrugged.

"Nothing in particular," he said. "I just wanted to talk."

So they spoke of inconsequential things. He didn't mention their jobs or their master, and neither did she.

She talked of dance. "I had a choice," she said at one point. "My main cover could be concubine, or it could be dancer. I chose dancer."

"I'd choose the same," Luke replied, eliciting a laugh. He'd thought when he first talked to her that he liked her laugh, but he hadn't noticed how musical it was. He wondered for a moment what her singing voice was like.

Then she eyed him appraisingly, and Luke fought the urge to squirm and blush. "You'd probably be a pretty good dancer," she said, to Luke's surprise. "It's sort of like learning combat, in a way. You've got to be really aware of where your body is and how it moves...those kinds of lessons could carry over from fighting into dancing, or vice versa. I think you'd do well."

And Luke shuddered melodramatically. "Sith Lords do not dance," he told her, with pretended affronted dignity. Then he tried to imagine his father or Palpatine dancing, especially the way he'd just seen Mara do--Palpatine performing pirouettes, cowl and all, and his father leaping about with his cape streaming behind him--and he couldn't hold back the laughter.

"What?" she demanded, and soon she too was dissolved in mirth as he shared the image with her. He could feel her shock at his temerity, and her thought that such an image seemed awfully close to mockery, but the laughter won out, and he was glad it did.

He told her about Tatooine. "It's all sand and heat and sky," he said. "And there aren't any clouds, because there's not enough moisture in the air to make them. And because there aren't many cities, there's not much light pollution. Nights are beautiful, on Tatooine. You can see the stars so clearly, especially compared to here on Coruscant. It's amazing."

"It sounds gorgeous," she said, her chin resting in her palm, her elbow propped up on her knee. "I'll have to go there, someday."

"It's not all good," he told her, remembering. "There're two suns, and it's so damn hot and dry...there's practically no water. I'd never learned to swim or even taken a real water shower or a bath before I came here."

"Well, as long as you can keep clean..." she said dubiously, and he let a smirk flit on and off his face. She'd always preferred water showers to sonics.

"Sand gets everywhere," he said. "Especially where you least want it to be. My father hates sand."

"Is he from Tatooine too?" she asked, and Luke nodded.

"It's why I spent my childhood there," he replied. It had been the only place where he had been a child, really. He'd grown up quickly after he left. "My father still had family there, his step-brother and his wife. My Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru."

"What are they like?" Mara asked, and Luke thought for a moment.

"Weathered," he finally answered. "It's what life in the desert does to you, I suppose. And people on Tatooine tend to grow up like the desert around them, so that they're either harsh or steady or both. Uncle Owen's harsh and Aunt Beru's steady...they balance each other."

She scooted closer, so that she was only a couple inches away from him, and laid a hand on his arm. He fought to keep from blushing at the touch of her skin on his. "Do you miss them?"

"I see them sometimes, still," he replied. It was an evasion--his feelings for his aunt and uncle were mixed and complicated. He was always glad to see them, and yet always glad to leave. "My father lets me go home for visits."

The word home had dropped naturally from his lips. Do I still think of it that way? he wondered, and didn't know how to answer himself.

"Really?" she murmured. "I'm surprised the Emperor lets you. I would have thought he'd call them distractions."

"He does," Luke admitted. "But the Emperor allows it anyway. Father says it's because it would have been somewhat hypocritical not to let me see my aunt and uncle, since my mother would have lived with us had she survived, and family is family."

"Hmmm." The answer was noncommittal, and Luke wondered if she found the explanation as shifty and confusing as he did. The Emperor had never seemed one to care about keeping families together. Why his father didn't just say outright that he'd threatened the Emperor into it, Luke didn't know; but then, Luke wouldn't be able to tell that to Mara, personal servant of the Emperor that she was.

They spoke of other things, and it gave Luke the time to study her, and the new strangeness he was feeling that was centered around her.

Do I like her? he asked himself, and the answer was an unequivocal yes. She was intelligent and had an engaging sense of humor, even if she could be quite acerbic at times. And she understood him and his position, probably better than any other girl he might meet would. She wasn't afraid of him.

Do I want her? he asked himself next, and that was a harder question to answer. She'd grown up more since he first met her, and though the change had happened so gradually that he'd never noticed it going on, now that he could stop and look at her, plain would never again be a word he could use when thinking of her. She was pretty, but not beautiful, not quite. Striking, perhaps, was the word to use.

He'd been getting little shocks every time he looked at her, or when she touched him, ever since Palpatine had brought up the idea. And for a moment, he thought that those shocks had been due to Palpatine tampering with his mind somehow, but he'd checked, and found no trace of the Emperor left in his mind. He'd ask his father to check again, just to be sure, but for now it seemed that they truly were his reactions.

He looked at her, found himself following the curves of her lips as she talked, and immediately tore his gaze away. But then he was drawn yet again to her mouth; he found himself wanting to press his own mouth against hers, and then knew the answer to his question. Yes.

Yes, I want her.

And he found himself wondering, Have I always been attracted to her? How could I not have known before? It disturbed him that he hadn't known himself as well as he'd thought, if feelings like these could have been lurking out of sight.

But then all thoughts of Mara Jade flew out of his mind as he felt a familiar presence enter Coruscant's atmosphere, and he knew his father was finally home.
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