Looking For Home: My Home Is You title image

Chapter Fifteen

Luke’s chin itched as the stubble brushed against the helmet still locked around his head. He concentrated on the sensation to keep his mind from cartwheeling in the zero-g field he floated in against the restraints. His only other choices of focus was the headache caused by the buzzing surrounding the entire cell or the bond with Mara. Meditation hadn’t stopped the anxiety building in him the longer he stayed restrained like this and the buzzing breaking his access to the Force. He fell onto the bond to remember that Mara was safe on the other end and she was keeping Korora and Artoo safe by pretending to be the Emperor’s loyal Hand. The bond had felt like she had her arms wrapped around him.

That he felt reasonably sure was some sort of hallucination; Mara Jade didn’t give hugs, unless you were a small child launching yourself into one. As much as Mara innerly flailed about it, she hadn’t stop showing Korora affection. He didn’t worry about the two of them alone for this long; Mara thrived under pressure.

The waste elimination tubes retracted and metal fingers adjusted Luke’s trousers back into place. This was a new development. He had no way of knowing how long it had been attached to him. Gravity returned at the same time as the restraints opened and the helmet lifted from his head. He tipped forward, slamming his eyes shut against the light, and landed on his hands and knees against a flat metal floor. The buzzing felt closer and louder, but maybe that was just due to his ears being uncovered. Sedriss’ voice sounded uncomfortably loud. “Still with us, Skywalker?”

“Yes,” Luke said as he blinked at the familiar floor. He turned his head and saw the curved bars between him and the two adepts. Great, just what he wanted to see. He sighed and sat back on his heels, facing the two men on the other side of the cage. “Are we there yet?”

“We’ve reached Byss,” the white-haired man answered. Luke considered him; Solusar was the name given to Mara in the hangar bay.

Sedriss glared at them both. “This isn’t a social call, Solusar. Let him save his questions for our master.” He worked a control in his hand and the cage lifted higher off the floor and floated through the door of the cell. The two adepts flanked the spherical cage as they headed down the corridor to the security station between the cells and the turbolift.

“I can walk,” Luke said. Actually it would feel good to work his muscles against gravity again.

“But you aren’t going to,” Sedriss said. “We’re taking no chances on you escaping.”

Luke scratched his chin. “If I’m meeting with someone important, can I have a chance to clean up?”

“No time for that.” Sedriss sounded gleeful about denying Luke a razor as they entered the turbolift. “I thought all you Jedi wore beards.”

“Not all of them. I imagine it would’ve been too hard for the women even with the Force.”

Solusar snorted. Sedriss scowled at him and Luke. “We’ll see just how amusing you are after your audience with Darth Sidious.” He used the Force to press the turbolift’s control.

Luke adjusted his legs to sit cross-legged on the floor of the cage. The turbolift opened into a docking bay and they parked the cage inside a Lambda-class shuttle’s rear compartment between the bucket passenger seats that the adepts strapped into. He lacked a sight line to the cockpit’s viewport, but it was obvious that the Eclipse was too massive to descend into the atmosphere of Byss.

He recognized when the shuttle hit the atmosphere, but felt the buffeting of something more than wind. Suffering and misery on a scale that dwarfed what he had felt at Jabba’s Palace. He glanced at his guards. Solusar looked resigned, gazing at the cockpit. Sedriss looked serene as his eyes dropped shut. It occurred to him that when Mara called Byss a resort, one of them should have asked what kind of resort would a Sith lord build.

“If you stand up now, you will see it,” Solusar said after Luke bolstered his mental shields against the pain.

“See what?” Luke asked.

“Shavit, Solusar. He’s a prisoner, not an honored guest.”

“You don’t think the Emperor’s Citadel is awe-inspiring? Better not let our Master hear that.”

Luke stood up to spite Sedriss’ sneer. A spindly red and black tower capped with a massive dome rose above the other city towers rising from the planet’s surface. “It looks like Cloud City on Bespin from this angle.” It wasn’t as high in the atmosphere as that repulsor-lifted city, but enough to strike a familiar chord. It also reminded him of a vaporator mushroom.

“And its cells will be your home,” Sedriss said. “If you live that long.”

“Somehow I doubt that’s your decision.” Luke sat down cross-legged again while Sedriss scowled.

The shuttle landed inside a docking bay. Two more guards waited for their procession down the gangplank. They were dressed similar to the Imperial Royal Guards Luke had seen briefly on the second Death Star only instead of the swathing red robe and helmet; the front piece of their helmets were black, they wore a black breastplate and gauntlets over a crimson red body glove, and a black cape descended from their shoulders. They carried a double vibroblade instead of the force pikes. One led the way through the corridors and the second took the rear, leaving the two adepts to flank Luke’s cage.

He felt Mara’s bright presence and sensed the length of the bond growing shorter between them no matter what turns the corridors took. That had to be a positive sign if they were taking him to Darth Sidious, Emperor Reborn, or whatever their leader’s name was. She was in audience with him and not locked up somewhere in this Citadel. Revulsion slammed into him followed sharply by panic. Resolve as strong as durasteel smashed that panic down. Mara? What’s wrong? He projected, but the only answer he got was an increased throb in his headache.

The corridor finally ended in a metal-lined throne room that sparked Luke’s memories again. The guards in red and black stopped and flanked the door. They parked the cage between two massive viewscreens that had been programmed with a view of outside the tower. A staircase ascended to a platform with a pair of duty posts before a few more steps up to the dais. The throne was a replica of the one he had seen on the Death Star. It even had its back to the room so the occupant could look out of the only real window. The sky was beginning to streak with the reds and oranges of sunset. Mara was close by, in an adjacent room probably since he didn’t see her. She was calm again and he needed to stay focused on what here alarmed her so badly.

The throne slowly turned revealing the same image from his nightmares of the past: a hooded robe, the heavy wrinkles carved into pasty flesh peering out of the shadows, and yellow eyes gleaming at him. Luke steeled himself against reeling. “Adepts, release him and remove that device from my presence. I will send for you when I have need of you.” Even the voice was the same! How was this possible? He felt Palpatine die in the Force. The Dark Side energy had blown back out of the shaft on the second Death Star. Palpatine died.

Sedriss and Solusar bowed at the waist and spoke in unison. “Yes, Master.” The restraint bars in front of Luke slid apart vertically as he climbed to his feet and stepped out of the cage. His throbbing headache eased as the cage retreated behind his back, but he kept his gaze on the replica of Palpatine before him. The same icy hate he last felt at the Death Star was here, pouring from that figure, who had a corporeal heartbeat and respiration.

Palpatine chuckled dryly. “So young Skywalker, you were mistaken about seeing the end of me.”

Luke filled himself with the calm of the Force. “My father was very good at killing people. I suppose you are very bad at dying, your Highness.”

The icy hate combusted into rage, but the cowled head only frowned. “You will suffer for your insolence, Jedi. Suffer until you join us for sheer relief.” Palpatine’s rage abated but still pulsed. “How long will you withstand torture? Do you have your sister’s stamina?”

Luke clenched his fists, but a door behind him slid open before he rebuked this Emperor Reborn. “Please, Master, don’t torture him,” Mara said. “He’s more useful in one piece.” She stopped next to Luke with Korora balanced on her hip again. The girl cringed against Mara. He couldn’t read any strong emotion from Mara, even through the bond. Maybe she intended on not being a distraction for his concentration or protection against Palpatine’s retaliation, but all it did was add to his growing disquiet.

“Have you forgotten your place, my Hand?” Palpatine’s voice dripped with venom.

She tightened her grip on Korora as she dipped her upper body forward. “But Master, you taught me to never waste a resource. Skywalker is more useful as a Jedi. He can heal. Your plan,” she tensed mentioning that and Luke’s unease grew. “Doctor Akura has doubts that science can accomplish what you want. Even I felt that from him.”

Palpatine further banked his rage and waved his hand. “Doctor Akura does not understand what the Force can accomplish. He should look on this as a way to expand his knowledge.”

“Master, neither you nor Lord Vader ever healed me. Skywalker has.”

After they had gotten safely away from Wayland, Luke had put her into a healing trance on the way back to Coruscant. And he buried that memory deep since he had no idea how much this Palpatine knew about the Wayland operation. He glanced at her while keeping Palpatine in view. What was this plan that could hurt her? His stomach churned. Palpatine had already ordered her to do what? She said she had orders after that Force attack disguised as a message, but he had thought it was just summons to come here. He breathed through flared nostrils.

“Then you know how. You have been learning from him.”

“He hasn’t taught me the healing technique. And even if I could figure it out, he’s more powerful than I am.” No, they hadn’t covered healing yet. Luke had figured they had time to ease into that one.

Palpatine’s eyes narrowed, but his voice only held a gentle curiosity. “My Hand, why are you so insistent on Skywalker’s involvement?”

“Because I want to live!” Her voice rose and she swallowed hard as she curled tighter around Korora and kept her gaze on the floor. Luke glared at Palpatine. What had he told her to do that threatened her life?

Luke wished they had started healing lessons. Anything to lessen the panic in her voice. He had only helped her heal once from the aftereffects of Force lightning. He had healed himself more, but he wasn’t a medic. What if it was something—he cut off that thought with determination. He’d find a way to save her no matter what.

“No other reason?” He sounded aggrieved. “I must compete for your loyalty now?”

“There is no competition, Master.” Luke felt Mara’s inner sincerity match the sincerity in her voice.

“But you will give him a chance to spoil the results of your task.”

Luke caught her flash of lingering irritation over sparing C’baoth only to kill him later. “Master, you would not believe how seriously he takes that sanctity of life tenet. I’d worry about sabotage from anyone else on this planet before him.”

Palpatine tilted his head as he studied them both. Luke continued strengthening the mental shielding Mara had taught him and impassively matched that yellow-eyed gaze. Mara’s plan was to be the Emperor’s Hand and woe to anyone who tampered with her agenda, but he had a bad feeling—a dizzying hollowing return of the Death Star grabbing hold of them bad—that Palpatine had increased the sabacc stakes. Still, Luke was not about to open his mouth or mind and crash her strategy right now. Palpatine finally shrugged minutely. “It is a small thing to ask for. And you have never asked for anything but the tools necessary to complete your task.” His voice grew more authoritative. “Very well, Skywalker will be your medic for as long as you need one and he behaves himself.”

Mara bent slightly, holding onto Korora with both hands not to drop her. “Thank you, Master.”

“Now, change your attire and perform for the Court.” Palpatine leaned back on his black curved throne.

“As you wish, Master.” She turned to Luke and passed Korora to him. “Make yourself useful.” Korora wrapped her arms around his neck and he balanced her against his chest. Mara pivoted away and hurried to a doorway beside the false-window viewscreen on the right of the throne room.

Luke rubbed Korora’s back as she hid her face against his neck. Her heart hammered away with her fear, though it was easing now that she knew he was here and okay. The mess of her black hair had been smoothed and gathered so her curls made a puff on top of her head.

Palpatine pressed a button on the armrest of his throne. “Executor Sedriss, Skywalker will be living with my Hand and her daughter. Make the necessary changes to the Hand’s suite to accommodate and contain him.”

“I’ll begin immediately, Master.”

He cut off the voice-only comm and pointed to the stairs. “Seat yourself for the performance, young Skywalker. My Hand is most eager to display her talents once again. You and your rebellion have not appreciated her gifts.” Luke chose the bottom-most corner on Palpatine’s left and angled his body to ease his neck as he watched the aged man. Never take your attention off a predator, and Palpatine was worse than any womp rat. There was room enough between him and the guardrail for Korora. She twisted out of his lap to stand on the step and keep Luke’s left arm wrapped around her. “How odd that my Hand’s daughter doesn’t have more in common with her mother.” Palpatine said conversationally as if he hadn’t threatened Luke minutes before. “My Hand sparked with energy at her age.”

“It’s been a long trip,” Luke said carefully. He was flashing back to Palpatine cordially inviting him to the viewport beside his throne to better see the destruction of the Rebel Alliance fleet. “Korora’s probably just overawed by everything.” He suspected it was far more likely that Mara coaxed the girl into staying quiet in Palpatine’s presence and his presence was keeping her crowed.

“Yes, the child is most likely unaccustomed to any luxuries being raised among the riffraff my Hand has been reduced to associating with. Your father was much the same when he first arrived on Coruscant.”

“Coruscant still doesn’t realize the wealth their planet has.” Luke refused to be baited with reminisces about Anakin Skywalker that he had no way of possibly verifying.

“Did you have a pet as a child, young Skywalker? Was that something your aunt and uncle could afford to give you?”

Why did he want to know about that? Luke could play the small talk game, even if Leia always said he spoke a truth that was impolite for the time and place at some point during the event. “My friends had pets. I was more interested in flying than animals.”

“My Hand wanted a pet. How old was she, nine, ten? She never asked for one, but she did yearn for one for a while. I would have given her one had she dared ask for it.”

And probably made her kill it in a loyalty test later, Luke thought to himself. What had he forced Mara to agree to now? Luke’s prosthetic hand clenched into a fist again.

Palpatine chuckled. “Perhaps if I had surprised her with a pet, she would not have asked for you.”

Luke bit down his automatic desire to retort to any oblique references of sentients owning another sentient. Mara’s return aided via distraction. She had loosened her red-gold hair from its braid and it cascaded around her shoulders. The gray flight suit she wore before had been traded for the shortest green gown Luke had ever seen on her. The collar fit around her slender neck like a choker leaving her shoulders and arms bare. The main portion of the bodice formed a green diamond covering her breasts and navel before connecting with the green skirt at the top of her hips. The side panels of the bodice were made of a translucent material that only existed to give the illusion that the sequins were on her skin. The skirt skimmed her hips and legs and ended in a ruffle at her mid-thigh. The dress Mara had worn to the opera hadn’t shown as much of her pale skin as this outfit did. Suggested rather than exposed, that’s what she had called it.

But the color. Mara often wore green and it made her green eyes more luminous. He had never considered that it was a habit formed because Palpatine preferred to see her in it. No wonder she had been so quick to quip about his wardrobe choices.

“I must apologize for only having recorded music, my Hand,” Palpatine said. “Our focus here on Byss has not been on the arts as of late. Time enough for it later, once the galaxy has been put right.” He pressed a control on his armrest and string and woodwind instruments from unseen speakers filled the throne room with an ominous throb.

Mara moved and Luke’s eyes widened in appreciation. He knew she had superb muscle control from their sparring sessions and watching her fight, but he never saw her use it like this. She twirled with the dark tones of the music, moving faster and adding leaps as the tempo increased. The dress left her back bare save for a few straps crossing it. A crescendo was reached and the deeper beat ended and she paused her entire body into a back-arching bend while the silence stretched. His hands twitched to glide along her curves.

Lighter strings changed the song and Mara slipped into delicate movements of just her feet to the notes made by a keyboard instrument. The movement built into other parts of her body as the strings’ melody grew stronger. He wished he had the talent to move with her like that. Her delight in her effort sparkled along their bond. The only place he could move synchronously with her and not make a stumbling fool of himself and her was—he broke that thought off viciously only for it to be replaced with her predatory grin from Anor’s windowless torture chamber. That didn’t deter his desire at all. It was no big surprise, was it, falling for Mara Jade? She was so happy right now. What chance did he have with a woman so tenacious and graceful and beautiful and happy to be his friend?

Korora leaned against his leg to get a better view of Mara. Her face was a study of delight. What was wrong with him? Mara was literally dancing for their lives right now, and whatever else Palpatine was forcing her to do was not so benign. Not if a doctor was involved and she needed a medic with her constantly. He took a deep breath, and channeled his desire into the Force. Now was the time to support his friend.

The deeper melody returned and with it Mara leaped into the air like gravity no longer had any control over her. She was pulling on the Force to sustain her stamina; how high could she go if she used it like Luke did in battle? Palpatine chuckled, and Luke tightened his mental shields, wiped any emotion from his face. “She’s mine,” he said in a low voice. Luke glanced up at the Emperor Reborn. “They’re all mine,” Palpatine added, sending a wave of possessiveness towards the population of this Citadel, the planet below, and the galaxy beyond.

Luke turned back to Mara’s dance as she returned to the floor in a twirl. I saved my father from you, he thought zealously, I will save them too.

The man on the throne chuckled. “Much pride I sense in you, just like your father.” Luke ignored that jab. The Force brought him here if only to serve as a beacon of Light amid all the Dark. Palpatine continued. “And how can you save those who do not desire rescue?”

By helping them save themselves, Luke thought, careful not to project it.

The deeper melody reached its crescendo and this time Mara bent forward in a deep bow as her knees bent to bring her whole body as close to the floor as she could go. The music ended and she waited in the same pose.

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