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Title: Be Careful What You Bid On...
Author: Maia (maia@bastcastle.org)
Rating: G
Category: Humor, AU, Adventure, Romance, some Angst.
Characters: Vader, OFC, a few other OC’s, and familiar faces.

Disclaimer: I am not making any money from this, and he doesn’t belong to me. Darn.

Summary: Sometimes you get exactly what you bid on.

Author’s Note: Once in a while I get the urge to write something which is humourous and a bit silly. You have been warned!


It’s Saturday night and my daughter is in her room, sound asleep and quietly snoring. I’ve finished all my chores for the day and prepped my lectures for next week, so I am killing time before I go to bed by checking out what’s up for grabs on eBay. Sounds pretty pathetic, doesn’t it? Professor, divorcee with two and a half year old, and at home on the weekend surfing the ‘net instead of out doing something else, but that’s been the story of my life of late.

Tonight there isn’t much interesting for sale. The usual badly made Jedi robes, the odd decent Vader helmet, and other odds and ends I usually find when searching for Star Wars costume pieces. Bored, I put in another query just using Vader as the search term.

Up pops a long list of action figures and toys. Scrolling down through it all, one entry catches my eye, so I click on it.

And promptly start laughing.

‘Oh, man,’ I say to myself. ‘This has to be a joke by one of the guys in the 501st.’

I read the description again. Dinner with Darth Vader. At the Manarai Restaurant on Coruscant, no less. And the seller is listed as Palpatine, based here in my home city. No bids on it yet and several days before the auction ends, so to amuse myself, I flag it as an item to watch and go to bed.

***

A few days later, I an working my way through my e-mails and find an auction ending notice from eBay. Time to go see if anyone actually put a bid in on that dinner, I decide.

No one has. It seems everyone else has decided it’s a joke, too.

‘Alright,’ I tell my little girl who is busy scribbling in her coloring book. ‘Mommy is going to have some fun and see what happens if she bids on this.’

I enter $50, hit the place bid button, and turn my attention to back to my child. If I win the auction, I’ll hear about it soon enough.

***

The next morning, the first entry I notice in my inbox reads: You Have Won eBay Item: Dinner With Darth Vader.

‘Mommy won,’ I tell my daughter as I start chuckling. ‘I don’t know exactly what I have won, but I have won it.’

She looks at me, obviously wondering what I am laughing at.

‘Never mind, sweety,’ I add. ‘Mommy’s just being a bit silly.’

This is just too good. Time to pay, though. Still, $50 for dinner and what should be an entertaining evening is a good deal. I add the information requested - my name, address, and phone number into the PayPal message window and hit enter.

‘Paid up now,’ I say to her once I have signed off. ‘Now we’ll see if it’s a joke or not, and just who it is, too. I suppose it could be kind of fun, if it’s one of the local 501st guys who I know.’

She dumps her oatmeal on the floor with a crash, and looks over at the upside down bowl.

‘Messy,’ she calls, pointing at it. ‘Mommy fix.’

I let out a sigh.

‘Whoever he is, I hope he doesn’t mind a two and a half year old coming along for dinner,’ I wryly note.

***

I answer my master’s summons promptly since how he had worded it had made the meeting seem urgent. When I enter the throne room, he is alone, so I climb the stairs and kneel before him as I normally would.

He doesn’t say anything for quite some time. I don’t bother trying to hurry him and let myself slip into a light meditation instead. When he has had enough of making me wait, he will give me my orders.

‘I have a task for you, my apprentice,’ Palpatine finally speaks.

‘What is thy bidding, my master,’ I give my usual response.

He sits back in his seat and begins laughing. This is not a good sign. Normally when he indulges himself in this way, it bodes ill for whoever has his attention.

‘It won’t be an onerous duty,’ he suggests, ‘but it is a necessary one.’

I tip my head up from where I had been staring at the floor and look at him.

What is he up to?

Now that my focus is directly on him, the Emperor steeples his hands and smiles at me. He is most definitely planning something from the look on his face, and I am sure I will not like what it is.

‘You need to socialize more,’ he abruptly announces.

‘What?’ I say in surprise before I can stop myself.

Socialize? Why? That’s a pointless waste of my time. I only go to formal functions when it is necessary or I have been commanded to appear. Expecting to be told I am to show up for some boring court ball or state banquet, I prepare myself to hear exactly that.

‘I have arranged a date for you,’ Palpatine slyly states, watching for my reaction. ‘It will be with a woman from a remote planet who has chosen to meet you. From what my spies have discovered, she should be most suitable match for you.’

I freeze in place. What? Is he insane?

‘You have done what?’ I blurt out.

‘It was rather simple, actually,’ he continues, ignoring my outburst. ‘I placed the equivalent of a personal ad on one of their sales listings, to see what would happen, and she purchased it. Or rather I should say she bought an evening with you. The results should be rather entertaining, don’t you agree?’

I choke a little, causing my respirator to wheeze. There is no way I am going to co-operate with this.

‘I am not going to spend an evening with this woman,’ I growl in protest.

My master rises and points a finger directly at me.

‘You can and you will,’ he orders, leaving no doubt that I had better comply. ‘I will not risk my reputation for keeping my word, even on some backwater planet, because you refuse to follow my wishes. You will go fetch her from her home world, bring her back to Coruscant, and take her to dinner at the Manarai, just as the contract I agreed to states. If I find the results amusing, I will let you return her to her home. If not, I will see to it that she stays with you permanently, as your guest.’

I draw myself upright and stand there, clenching my fists and shaking with impotent rage. How dare he do this to me. My private life is my own - it is the only thing I have left which is my own and not under his direct control. He has no right to foist this woman, this complete stranger, on me.

‘You will obey me, my apprentice, or face the consequences for defying me,’ he reminds me in a softer tone of voice, in that warning tone he always uses before he attacks or punishes.

I quickly consider my options. If I am belligerent, he will simply force me into doing as he pleases. Despite what I want, the obvious choice is to acquiesce.

‘One evening? Dinner and that is all?’ I decide to pin down precisely what is expected of me.

‘That is all,’ Palpatine agrees, then adds another condition, ‘and I require a recording of your dinner with her as proof. What you do with her for the rest of the evening,’ he goes on, his smile reappearing, ‘is up to you, but I don’t need to see it.’

My fury spikes again. As if I would ever do what he is suggesting. Or let him see it if I did.

‘Lord Vader,’ I state with as much dignity as I can muster under the circumstances, ‘does not fool around on first dates.’

With that I spin about and stalk out, not bothering to wait for a dismissal. My master knows he has pushed me too far and for once lets me leave without a reprimand for my rudeness. Still, I have the distinct and infuriating impression that he has managed to out-manouevre me in some way.

By the time I reach my castle, the file on the human female I am going to dine with is waiting. There is no holo or flat image with it. It does contain a quick description of her background, co-ordinates for a hyperspace jump, and the location where she lives on the surface of her home world.

I see no reason to delay and send a brief message using the antiquated method indicated: ‘Lord Vader will be at your residence at 18:00 tonight. Dress appropriately for a formal engagement.’

Hopefully she will know what is expected of her.

***

It isn’t until the following Friday that I receive a message about my dinner date. Rather than an invitation, it reads more like a command: ‘Lord Vader will be at your residence at 18:00 tonight. Dress appropriately for a formal engagement.’

‘How typical,’ I growl. ‘Expects me to drop everything at his convenience. Just for that I am wearing one of my Padme gowns.’

I give my daughter a kiss on the top of her head.

‘And miss sithling will wear one of her pretty dresses, too.’

The two of us spend the day outside, in the backyard and on the deck until it is time to get ready. Fortunately, my daughter likes getting into fancy clothes. She thinks it’s great fun. I dress her first and turn her loose in the living room with a few of her toys while I debate what to put on myself.

I end up wearing the black leather and lace number from Attack of the Clones. The message said formal, so formal it is.

At 5:55pm, I take a peek through the front window. There is no one to be seen anywhere in the neighbourhood. Maybe I am going to be stood up after all. If I am, I will leave some nasty negative feedback for ‘Palpatine,’ I decide.

When 6:10 rolls around, I start pacing back and forth. He’s either going to be fashionably late or pull a no show.

Then there is a knock on the door.

***

I leave Piett and Jir at the shuttle with the four troopers I had brought for security. Not that any is needed. No one noticed my ship as it slipped under their defenses or when it landed amoung the trees. It should be simple to find the address I was given and bring my ‘date’ back before anyone realizes I am here.

‘Stay with the shuttle,’ I order my officers and troopers. ‘I should not be gone for very long.’

As I move from shadow to shadow, staying under cover as best I can, I almost feel like a young padawan again, sneaking out to get into mischief or visit Padme without Obi-Wan’s knowledge. An ironic smile tugs at my lips. Now, with my regulated breathing, creeping up on anybody is an impossibility.

When I reach the last darkened spot I can conceal myself in, I survey the street. It should be the house directly in front of me, the one someone just peered out the window of. For a few minutes I debate what to do. I can still go back to Coruscant without the woman, but that will result in some sort of punishment for noncompliance with my master’s orders.

Reluctantly, and not sure what I am going to encounter, I cross the road, go up to the door and knock on it.

***

‘Mommy!’ my daughter cries as she runs to the top of the stairs.

I shoo her aside, open the child gate, and go down to the door.

Standing outside when I swing it open is one very tall, solidly built, black armour clad figure. He did show up. For a moment I stare. That has to be one of the best Vader costumes I have ever seen, and I have examined many over the years. It’s far better than mine.

‘Won’t you come inside, my lord?’ I finally manage to get out.

A slight inclination of his head is the only answer I get before he steps through the door. The strong silent type. He must not be using a voice amp even though there is a breathing loop running.

‘Darth!’ my two year old shouts cheerfully. ‘Darth!’

Her bouncing up and down, and happy shrieks definitely get his attention. She always does that when she sees someone suited up. Unless it’s me, of course. Then, she still calls me ‘mum.’

‘I was not aware you had a child,’ he finally says something in a perfect James Earl Jones baritone.

Wow. He either has the voice down pat or is using a Hyperdyne to shift his lower, but I have heard those and use one myself. They don’t come close to producing a voice that good.

‘That’s Catherine, my two year old,’ I reply, ‘but most people usually call her the ‘sithling’ instead.’

His focus returns to me.

‘Sithling?’ the Vader impersonator asks, obviously curious about her nickname.

Oh, boy. He isn’t with the local 501st or he is new to it. Everyone in the Squad knows my daughter since I am the Squadron Leader. I let out a sigh. Explanation time and I bet he is going to react the way most do.

‘Come upstairs and I’ll show you,’ I offer.

He waits until I have opened the gate and moved Catherine aside before he climbs the stairs. How ever his armour is put together, it allows him to move smoothly and freely - far more easily than most who wear it. When I have a chance, I think I will ask him who made the various pieces.

‘Darth!’ my daughter says as she tugs on my hand. ‘Up!’

‘No, sweety,’ I scold her a little. ‘You must be good and behave yourself.’

I know she wants him to pick her up. Rather than let her loose, I keep a firm grip on her and go into the dining room. The simplest way to explain things is to show him a picture of myself in armour with Catherine by my side in her black tunic and cloak.

‘I have my own set of armour,’ I reveal, handing him the framed photo from the top of the china cabinet. ‘When she was a baby, people started calling me Lady Vader and her the sithling. It’s sort of appropriate, I guess.’

Silence.

Then a break in his breathing.

Followed by an odd, low noise which grows louder and evolves into laughter.

‘Fine, laugh,’ I growl at him, pulling the picture from his hands and returning it to its place. ‘That’s the usual reaction I get, but I would have thought someone in the 501st who is also a Sith Lord would have at least heard of me since I am the only woman in the group who wears it.’

‘I know everyone in the 501st Legion,’ he calmly replies, ‘since I head it, and there are no women who wear a copy of my armour in it.’

At this it is my turn to laugh. I know the Legion CO, and this fellow definitely isn’t him. It’s becoming plain that bidding on the dinner date was a really, really bad idea. I seem to have ended up with someone who really thinks he is Darth Vader. Maybe I had better role play along with him until I can get him out of my house and lock the door.

***

The door is promptly opened by a redheaded woman in an exact copy of the gown Padme wore on Naboo when I made one of my awkward confessions of love to her. Why, of all the possible dresses she could have chosen, did it have to be that particular one? I stare at her, which is what she is doing back at me. Obviously she did not think I was going to show up.

‘Won’t you come inside, my lord?’ she finally invites me in.

I tip my head in agreement and walk into her house. She’s quite tall for a woman, I note, and not as young as I first thought, either. There are a few white hairs scattered amoung the flame colored ones.

‘Darth!’ a child cries from the top of the staircase. ‘Darth!’

My eyes are drawn upwards to where a little girl is enthusiastically calling my title and jumping about. Her attitude stuns me. Most children are terrified of my armour and I know parents use me as a monster who will come and get their youngsters when they are disobedient.

‘I was not aware you had a child,’ I state, silently cursing that missing piece of data which should have been in the report.

This will complicate matters considerably.

‘That’s Catherine, my two year old,’ her mother tells me, ‘but most people usually call her the ‘sithling’ instead.’

I look back at her, not sure that I heard her correctly.

‘Sithling?’ I ask, wondering why she would call her daughter that.

She sighs, then offers, ‘Come upstairs and I’ll show you.’

I follow her up the stairs after she has gone to move her daughter out of the way and open the gate for me. He house is a hodge-podge of different styles of furniture and decoration. The area next to stairway has several couches in it and toys are strewn across the floor. It is plain that this is a mother who loves and spends time with her child.

‘Darth!’ Catherine says again, pulling at her mother. ‘Up!’

‘No, sweety,’ she scolds, but gently. ‘You must be good and behave yourself.’

This child wants me to pick her up? I waver between doing just that out of curiosity to see how she will react, and staying aloof to maintain my distance. Thankfully, I am handed an old style flat image before I can come to a decision.

‘I have my own set of armour,’ the woman tells me, as she gives me the picture. ‘When she was a baby, people started calling me Lady Vader and her the sithling. It’s sort of appropriate, I guess.’

The image in it is of myself - or rather a smaller version of myself, with a slightly younger ‘sithling’ in a black tunic and cloak beside me.

For a minute I stare at it, not sure what to say.

She dresses as me.

In a copy of my armour.

And it’s a very accurate copy, too, right down to the lettering on my chest control panel.

No wonder her daughter isn’t afraid of me. She has seen her mother impersonating me and has no reason to fear. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but I have never seen or heard of a woman wearing my armour before, and I can’t think of a single reason why she might want to do so, either. At least she has an understanding of how it is for me and what my limitations are, having experienced the same herself.

I can’t stop the low rumble which begins in my chest and gradually makes it’s way upwards. Within a few seconds, I am laughing, genuinely laughing, in pure amusement for the first time in years. Is this what Palpatine meant when he said she was a match for me? But surely he couldn’t have known of her armour.

‘Fine, laugh,’ she growls at me, and I hear the hurt in her voice when she turns away and replaces the picture. ‘That’s the usual reaction I get, but I would have thought someone in the 501st who is also a Sith Lord would have at least heard of me since I am the only woman in the group who wears it.’

‘I know everyone in the 501st Legion,’ I quietly admit, ‘since I head it, and there are no women who wear a copy of my armour in it.’

Something about my statement of the obvious makes her laugh in turn, but I don’t know what it is.

‘Perhaps we should go have dinner,’ she hints as she leads her daughter down the stairs, to the door.

***

‘Perhaps we should go have dinner,’ I suggest, hoping he takes the hint as I lead Catherine down to the doorway.

‘And your daughter will be coming with us,’ he states as he follows us.

‘Of course,’ I answer, amused. ‘What else would I do with her?’

‘Good. After you, milady,’ he says, waving me through the open door.

It seems I am not going to have the chance to lock him out and he’s big enough that I won’t be able to physically shove him out the door, either. I suppose I can manage an evening with him, if I must, but I am never bidding on a dinner date on eBay again.

Be careful what you bid on, comes unsolicited into my thoughts, because you might just get it.

I lock the door after us then look around. There is no car to be seen in the driveway or on the street. Surely he didn’t walk here?

‘My shuttle is in the nearby orchard,’ he responds to my openly concerned looks.

Shuttle? Great. He is going to role play this to the hilt. I bet it’s a beat-up old pick-up truck and he didn’t want to scare me off by parking it where I could see it. This is getting better every minute.

‘Lead the way, but if my new shoes get ruined traipsing through the mud, I expect you to replace them,’ I grumble.

He doesn’t wait for Catherine and I, and quickly strides away, vanishing between the rows of cherry trees. We are supposed to follow him, I assume, growing more annoyed every second. This is definitely not worth the $50. Maybe I should just call the whole thing off, but my stubborn streak and curiosity are getting the better of me.

***

I have no objections to leaving. The journey to Coruscant is a long one, and the sooner we go, the better.

‘And your daughter will be coming with us,’ I decide as I trail down the stairs after her.

‘Of course,’ she confirms. ‘What else would I do with her?’

Leave her behind, I think, but given what I have already observed, there is no way she will consent to that and no point in trying to persuade her to. To survive my master’s ‘date’ I need her co-operation as well. There’s no reason to antagonize her before circumstances require it, either. I will simply adjust my plans to accommodate Catherine and hope she doesn’t create too many complications. If it comes to it, and I have no other choice, I could resort to using the child to keep her mother in line, distasteful as I find that sort of tactic.

‘Good. After you, milady,’ I say to her, sending her through the door ahead of me with a gesture.

She quickly secures her home and looks anxiously around. For our transport, I soon realize.

‘My shuttle is in the nearby orchard,’ I reassure her.

Her expression doesn’t improve, and if anything becomes more concerned

‘Lead the way,’ she instructs, ‘ but if my new shoes get ruined traipsing through the mud, I expect you to replace them.’

Typical female, I note. She’s more worried about her footwear than where we are going. I walk swiftly away, gaining a lead on her. Before she gets to the shuttle I need to make sure Piett and Jir are ready.

‘Jir,’ I call to him when arrive at my ship, ‘get the sedative patches ready. You will need ones with dosages suitable for a small child and an adult female. We will have two passengers tonight, not one.’

He blinks at me in surprise.

‘She has a young daughter she will not leave behind,’ I add a further explanation to my orders. ‘It will be easiest to drug them both rather than deal with an unhappy and wide awake two year old for the time we will be in hyperspace.’

No, the prospect of entertaining what would probably be an upset toddler for several hours is not a pleasant one. Still, the child does seem to like me, and I find that rather ... appealing.

***

I pick Catherine up and slowly make my way along, doing the best I can to avoid any mucky patches. After two days of rain, the ground is saturated and puddles are all over the place. Soon, my house is out of sight and it isn’t clear where ‘Vader’ disappeared to. I don’t like this situation at all, and my danger sense starts to sound a warning. Time to go back to safety.

‘We are going home, sweety,’ I whisper in my daughter’s ear. ‘Mommy doesn’t like this at all.’

As I turn around, a firm hand takes a hold of my shoulder.

‘This way,’ I am told as he steers me sideways. ‘It isn’t far.’

His arm slides lower, to my waist. So much for escaping. My concentration and eyes stay at my feet, though. There are still plenty of wet places I don’t want to step in.

***

When I go to fetch them, I find that she has stopped and is preparing to return to her home. I set my hand on her shoulder and turn her in the correct direction.

‘This way,’ I tell her. ‘It isn’t far.’

Just to make sure she can’t flee or bolt when she sees my ship, I drop my arm to her waist. Her eyes stay focussed on the ground, though. Why is she so worried about her shoes? If they need to be replaced, I will simply buy her another pair or have them copied for her.

‘Captain,’ I call to Piett who is ready and waiting. ‘Take the child.’

***

‘Captain,’ I hear him call to someone. ‘Take the child.’

‘What?’ I blurt out.

My attention instantly shifts from the ground to what’s in front of me - which is one bright white, lambda class shuttle, four stormtroopers and a couple uniform wearing officers. The nearest of the officers reaches for Catherine. I try to twist about to avoid him, but find myself securely held in place by Vader.

‘No, you can’t have her!’ I yell at them.

I keep struggling, refusing to let go of my daughter who is now starting to make quite the fuss of her own. Using the freer of my arms, I slam my elbow backwards into the Sith Lord’s stomach. He lets out a surprised gasp, indicating I did a bit of damage.

‘Sedate her, quickly,’ Vader snaps while I do my best to kick the Captain in the shins, ‘before we are noticed.’

Something is slapped against my neck by the second officer, a Lieutenant by his rank plaque, and I start to get dizzy. My grip on Catherine loosens and she is ripped away from me by the Captain. Determined not to go down without a fight and intending to get her back, I keep doing my best to escape from them. There is a satisfying yelp when my foot finally connects against something vulnerable. Good. I hope it was Vader I got that time.

‘Let me go!’ I yell at them. ‘I want my daughter back!’

‘Use another sed-patch!’ someone orders.

A black leather covered arm across my chest hauls me backwards. I resist the temptation to bite him on the forearm because I know that won’t do any good. Another plastic square is stuck on me, but this one I manage to tear off. I am not letting them drug me again. Vader’s other arm wraps around my waist, pinning my hands in place at last.

‘Enough,’ he growls.

I ignore him and aim another kick at the Lieutenant, but he moves out of my range. Catherine is nowhere in sight, prompting me to start struggling again.

‘What have you done with my daughter!’

‘She’s on the shuttle already,’ Vader tells me, ‘and sedated for the trip.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ I snap at him, moving in a way which forces him to shift his grip.

Perfect. I know exactly where the metal prosthesis on his arm is supposed to end and flesh begin. Before he can react, I turn my head sideways and bite down as hard as I possibly can on that vulnerable few inches below his shoulder pauldron. At the same time, someone else smacks one of those patches over my jugular.

It took three hefty men to subdue little old me, and one of them a Sith Lord, is the thought which runs through my head as I finally black out.

***

‘What?’ she bursts out, snapping her head up.

From how she stiffened instantly, the shuttle she sees is not what she expected. I shake my head in frustration. How does she think I got here? In my fighter?

Piett moves to take Catherine from her, but she twists sideways. I increase my grip on her waist to keep her from escaping. We need to see to the child first before drugging her mother. And my instructions were very specific in that regard. She can’t fly without being sedated.

‘No, you can’t have her!’ she screams at us.

Perhaps I should have told her how we were getting to Coruscant before we left her house, I think with a frown. This is not going according to plan at all. The uproar her daughter is creating will surely draw unwanted attention if I don’t act swiftly.

She makes another attempt to get away and keeps Catherine out of Piett’s reach. I start to shift my grip, intending to pin her further, but she somehow manages to slam an elbow backwards into my abdomen. Sithspit, that hurt, I decide as she hits one of my few vulnerable spots and I gasp involuntarily.

It’s time to put a stop to this before I lose my temper and hurt her.

‘Sedate her, quickly,’ I growl while she continues to struggle, ‘before we are noticed.’

Jir is able to get close enough to slap a patch on her throat. It will take effect almost instantly, so it shouldn’t be long until this farce is over. I feel her go a little limp and nod at Piett who is finally able to take Catherine from her. The loss of her child, however, brings out new energy reserves. She continues to fight, and kicks Jir - and quite hard, too, from noise he just made.

‘Let me go!’ she yells. ‘I want my daughter back!’

‘Use another sed-patch!’ Piett suggests as he carries the now sleeping child away and into my ship.

I pull her back into my body with an arm across her chest. There are ways to restrain her without causing injury and I am far stronger than she is. Her struggles abate a little as she realizes I am not going to let go. The Lieutenant steps in closer, and slaps a second patch on her. This one she rips off before the drug can enter her system. I wrap my other arm about her waist and pin her hands in place to prevent that from happening again.

‘Enough,’ I growl at her.

My warning prompts her to defiantly kick at Jir again, but my aide has learned his lesson. He steps well out of range.

‘What have you done with my daughter!’

That’s what the problem is. Her maternal protective instinct is fuelling her adrenaline surges and preventing the sedative from working. Perhaps I need to reassure her all is well.

‘She is on the shuttle already,’ I tell her, ‘and sedated for the trip.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ she snaps at me as she wriggles a bit.

I move to prevent another escape attempt, but instead of doing the expected, she turns her head sideways. And bites me on the arm. Hard. Right above the cybernetic prosthesis where my skin is the most sensitive.

‘Jir!’ I shout while doing my best not to let the pain I am in show.

The third patch he sticks on her lands right over the major artery in her neck. Within seconds she is unconscious. To save time, I carry her into the shuttle myself and lay her down on the floor beside her daughter. Piett, I see has taken a few minutes to make the girl comfortable, covering her with an emergency blanket from the ship’s stores. He can see to her mother as well.

I drop into a chair beside them and flex my arm, noting exactly where she bit me. There’s probably a large bruise and a set of teeth marks on my skin under the leather bodysuit.

‘Piett,’ I tell my officer once we have left the ground. ‘The next time a similar situation arises, remind me to never provoke a female with offspring.’

***

I feel terrible, is the first thing I think when I start to wake up.

My mouth has a bad taste in it and I know I must have bruises on my arms. I roll onto my side and open my eyes a crack. No reason to give away how awake I am, and I am going to use any advantage I can get.

The bed I am lying on is soft and large. My little girl is asleep next to me. There is no one in the room that I can see, so I reach over and pull her closer. She snuggles in tight without waking. I vow to not let anybody take her away from me again.

I make a quick inventory of the room’s contents once I have found the energy to get up. One bed, two chairs, a table, a closet with some clothes in it, and a dresser. The floor is covered with soft rugs. Whoever chose the furnishings has a decent sense of taste, I grudgingly admit, but there are no clues to where I have been taken, no window to look out of or escape from, and the door is locked. My ruined shoes are on the floor by the bed, so someone is definitely going to be supplying replacements.

What serves as a bathroom is to one side, so I go wash my face and stare in the mirror. My hair is a mess and I look like I could use a day or two of sleep. I do my best to make myself presentable and go sit on the bed.

My stomach growls at me. I definitely need to eat and I will have an equally hungry and unhappy child when she wakes. I let out a snort. So much for dinner with Darth Vader.

***

For a few minutes, I stand outside the door to the room where I had left my ‘guest’ and her daughter early this morning. The sedative they were given should have worn off by now, but I find myself reluctant to open the door and find out if that is the case.

She is just a typical female and you won’t see her again after tonight, I argue with myself, so why are you so worried about what she might think of you? It’s not like this ‘date’ means anything. You are only going along with that to keep Palpatine happy. Just go in there, tell her what you need to, and leave.

My hand hovers over the controls for the door.

The trouble is that she is not an ordinary woman, and I am not quite sure what to make of her. I have never encountered anyone like her before. She isn’t afraid of me, fought with me tooth and nail when she thought her child was in trouble, and wears a copy of my armour. The last of those marks her as unique. Sometime today, I decide, I am going to ask why she does that.

I punch the door chime, announcing my presence and avoiding any possible chance of walking in on her in a state of undress. Her assistance is still required and being polite is the safest approach to take. Besides, I fully expect her to be angry with how she was handled last night. If I can defuse some of that with a display of good manners, I will.

I open the door with a wave at the panel.

She is sitting on the bed, guarding her still unconscious daughter. I take a step inside, allowing the door to slide shut, and stop. Once she realizes I am there, I find myself on the receiving end of an extremely angry stare. That’s justified, I suppose, but it’s time to reassure her that her concerns for her child’s safety are unfounded.

‘The sedative was necessary for the journey,’ I explain. ‘You would not have been able to tolerate the hyperspace jump without it. Don’t worry about your daughter. She will be awake in a few minutes and then I shall see to it that you both have something to eat.’

She says nothing and continues to glare at me.

Another approach to try then - humor.

‘When provoked you are as vicious as a mother sabercat protecting her cubs,’ I admit. ‘That bite you gave me was nasty.’

My arm has a bruise on it the size of my palm. When I first took my armour off to look at it, there was a set of indentations in my flesh where her teeth had clamped down. It will be a week before the purplish color starts to disappear.

She smiles at me, and the hostility I felt from her fades considerably. I suspect she knows exactly the type of damage she inflicted.

‘Good,’ she tells me. ‘I hope you remember that the next time you try something like that.’

I don’t need her to remind of my folly from last night, so I cross my arms over my chest in annoyance and examine her from a distance. The bottom of her dress is splattered with mud, her hair has partially pulled out of the style she had twisted it into, and what little make-up she is wearing is smudged. She appears tired, even after her drug induced sleep.

***

There is a soft sounding chime before the door slides open. I slowly lift my eyes up from watching my daughter sleep and give the Sith Lord who walks in the dirtiest, nastiest look I am capable of.

‘The sedative was necessary for the journey,’ Vader flatly states, understanding exactly what my gripe is with him. ‘You would not have been able to tolerate the hyperspace jump without it. Don’t worry about your daughter. She will be awake in a few minutes and then I shall see to it that you both have something to eat.’

I refuse to answer.

‘When provoked you are as vicious as a mother sabercat protecting her cubs,’ he continues. ‘That bite you gave me was nasty.’

That prompts me to smile wickedly at him. I bet he has a nice bruise and a set of teeth marks on his arm as souvenirs.

‘Good,’ I reply. ‘I hope you remember that the next time you try something like that.’

He doesn’t move from where he is, crosses his arms over his chest, and stares at me. I can tell from his body language that my attitude is irritating him. Crabby, cranky female Earthlings who are more than willing to stand up to him are probably not what he is used to dealing with. Not that I really care what he thinks of me. I am not putting up with being mistreated.

***

‘You owe me a new pair of shoes,’ she complains, indicating the pair on the floor beside her, ‘and I want you to take us back to my home immediately. I am not staying here one second longer than I have to.’

Doesn’t she realize that we have more important things to worry about and discuss than her ruined footwear? There’s a replacement pair in the closet, with the Melanani gown I had purchased for her this morning. Hasn’t she seen those yet? I bite back a snide comment about foolish female concerns and keep my response to her second request short.

‘Not possible,’ I refuse her.

I receive another irritated look from her.

‘The great Lord Vader can’t take me home?’ she snidely remarks. ‘He can show up and kidnap me, but not return me?’

I keep my hands at my belt, resisting the urge to do something to change her insolent attitude.

‘You came willingly,’ I calmly remind her, ‘and even I am not always free to do as I wish.’

No, under these circumstances my hands are tied. I must do as my master has ordered. Whether she likes it or not, whether she co-operates or not, we will have dinner at the Manarai tonight, even if I have to carry her there kicking and screaming... and biting, myself.

Her daughter moves a little as she wakes, so her mother’s attention shifts. The emotions I sense now are purely maternal ones, with a bit of underlying annoyance aimed at me. A stir in the Force alerts me to someone else’s arrival.

‘Your meal is here,’ I announce as I move out of the server’s way.

He is quick to set out their lunch and leaves silently.

‘You should eat, rest, and then prepare yourself for dinner at the Manarai tonight,’ I advise. ‘There’s an appropriate gown and shoes in the closet, and suitable clothing for your daughter as well.’

‘Do we get to go home after that?’ she asks, sounding a bit worried.

I can’t answer her since I am not the one who will make that decision. Rather than use a convenient lie to allay her fears, I turn about and walk out without saying another word.

***

‘You owe me a new pair of shoes,’ I prod, pointing at my mud covered black leather pumps, ‘and I want you to take us back to my home immediately. I am not staying here one second longer than I have to.’

‘Not possible,’ he denies my request.

I glare at him.

‘The great Lord Vader can’t take me home?’ I sarcastically comment. ‘He can show up and kidnap me, but not return me?’

‘You came willingly, and even I am not always free to do as I wish,’ he cryptically answers.

Catherine begins to stir, so I stop baiting him. There’s no point in provoking him into doing something which will upset her.

‘Your meal is here,’ Vader announces.

He steps aside, allowing a man wearing a blue tunic to enter, set two covered plates on the table, and leave.

‘You should eat, rest, and then prepare yourself for dinner at the Manarai tonight,’ he suggests. ‘There’s an appropriate gown and shoes in the closet, and suitable clothing for your daughter as well.’

‘Do we get to go home after that?’ I ask, but he ignores my question, spins about and walks out, shutting and locking the door after himself.

Insufferable man. Why did the real Darth Vader have to turn out to be just as infuriating as I imagined he would be?

***

‘Lieutenant, I have a task for you to do,’ I tell Jir, whom I had summoned to my office.

‘Yes, my lord,’ he answers.

There are problems I must see to today, and he can save me some time. I’ll send him to find out what I need to know for tonight.

‘Here,’ I tell him, shoving the datapad I had been working with across my desk. ‘There’s a list of questions on that I want the answers to. Go talk to the woman and get them for me.’

He hesitates, then picks it up. After last night and the kicks she landed on him, he considers this to be a hazardous duty.

‘I trust you can ask her a few simple questions,’ I note, amused.

‘My lord...,’ he replies.

‘You will find that she is considerably more co-operative today,’ I try to reassure him, but can’t resist getting in a poke as I dismiss him with a wave towards the door. ‘But as a precaution, you might want to stay out of kicking or biting range.’

***

Catherine picks away at the unfamiliar vegetables on her plate while I do my best to eat mine. The food is good, if completely unlike anything from home. I know keeping my strength up is a smart idea even though I really don’t feel like eating, so I force down each mouthful despite my lack of appetite. Eventually, I give up and set the fork aside.

I don’t understand what is happening at all, and I don’t like going into what could be a very dangerous situation with no information to work with. If it were just myself, I would simply dig my heels in and refuse to co-operate, but I have my daughter’s safety to think of. At least I haven’t been hurt, other than my pride, and Catherine recovered from the drug she was given with no apparent ill effects.

‘Mommy?’ she asks.

‘Come here sweety,’ I offer, opening my arms to her.

She quickly climbs onto my lap and snuggles in. I’ll let her cuddle with me for a while before I share a bath with her. First, I suppose, I should go check out what clothes have been left for us to wear. The bottom of my dress is splattered with mud from the fight in the orchard and it’s probably as ruined as my shoes. Something else to get a replacement for before we go home, I note, annoyed. That material took me months to find and I don’t know if I have enough left over to make a second one.

The door chime sounds. I don’t bother getting up and stay where I am when the Lieutenant I kicked in the shins comes in. He nods at me, sets what looks to be a datapad on the table, and takes the chair Catherine vacated. At least he doesn’t seem to be holding a grudge against me.

‘I am Lieutenant Jir, Lord Vader’s aide,’ he introduces himself. ‘I have been ordered to ask you some questions.’

‘If his lordship wants to know something,’ I growl, ‘he can take the time to come and ask me himself.’

His mouth drops open then promptly shuts. It’s obvious that he can’t conceive of anyone standing up to the Sith Lord.

‘It would best if you...,’ he starts.

I cut him off with a gesture.

‘If I what?’ I ask, resisting the urge to snap at him. ‘Do as I am told? I am not doing anything until somebody tells me what is going on.’

He looks rather uncomfortable, and refuses to meet my eyes. I decide to push the issue and see what I can find out from him.

‘So, tell me, Lieutenant, what is going on?’ I press. ‘ Why did Lord Vader feel it necessary to have a dinner date with someone from my remote and obscure world?’

‘He was ordered to,’ the Lieutenant admits.

There’s only one person who bosses Darth Vader around, but why would the Emperor do such a thing to his apprentice?

‘I see,’ I reply, trying another angle to fish for some more details. ‘He was ordered to spend the night with some female he has never met before.’

If the Sith Lord thinks I am the type who fools around on first dates, he had better think again.

‘No, you don’t understand,’ Jir blurts out as he reddens to the top of his ears. ‘It isn’t like that at all.’

‘Good,’ I decide, ‘because ...’

The rest of what I intended to say is forgotten when the door slides open again, this time revealing the Sith Lord. He didn’t bother to announce he was there, either.

***

While I walk through my castle, I start thinking about what I am supposed to do tonight. As a result, my feet take me on a detour rather than directly to the hangar.

I stop in front of that door. Again.

Perhaps I should simply go in and talk to her myself since I won’t be able to concentrate on anything else until I do.

I touch the door controls and step inside.

‘My lord!’ Jir exclaims, jumping to his feet. ‘I...’

‘Dismissed, Lieutenant,’ I motion him out of the room with a gesture.

He must have just started speaking to her since he didn’t return my datapad before he left. I want something to talk about at dinner tonight, so I suppose I will have to ask her those questions myself. It should take only a few minutes to find out what she prefers to eat and what interests we share.

‘Darth!’ Catherine squeaks, pointing at me.

For a minute, I look at mother and child. They’ve eaten lunch, and the ‘sithling’ is up in her mother’s lap, happily settled in. Both are still wearing their clothes from yesterday, so I will keep our conversation brief to allow them some time to freshen up and change.

‘Darth,’ I am called again.

She still shows no signs of fear.

‘It is both fortunate and unfortunate that you have a child,’ I admit.

Unfortunate in that my master might use the girl in some way, and that her presence here will complicate matters. Fortunate in that she likes me and I won’t have to worry about a terrified child disrupting dinner.

Her mother says nothing and stares at me. So, she wishes to engage in a contest of wills. I indulge her for a few minutes and quietly watch Catherine looking at me.

Finally, I decide that I can’t waste any more time playing childish games with her.

‘You are not going to make this easy for me, are you?’ I note.

‘No,’ she states. ‘Why should I?’

Of all the women Palpatine could pick to inflict on me, why did it have to be one who is almost as stubborn as I am and difficult as well? I consider what to do, then choose to be nonthreatening by reducing my height in relation to hers. Quickly covering the distance between the door and table, I pull the empty chair away from it and sit down.

For a few more seconds, I debate what to say, then let out a sigh - or as much of a sigh as the respirator allows me. This is not going to be easy.

‘That bad?’ she hints, and I catch a wave of sympathy from her.

I have just made it plain to her that this dinner date was not my idea. Perhaps I should tell her enough of the truth to manipulate her a little. That might make her sufficiently co-operative that we will both survive tonight and be able to go back to leading our separate lives without my master interfering further.

‘We are the unfortunate victims of one of my master’s practical jokes,’ I ruefully admit. ‘He hopes it will cause me considerable public embarrassment, but I do not intend for that to happen. If he finds the results entertaining, he will let you go home.’

‘Some joke,’ she grumbles, her voice barely audible.

‘Simply play along with it as best you can,’ I suggest.

‘And what exactly am I supposed to do?’ she asks.

There’s a question I don’t have an answer for.

‘I am not entirely sure,’ I inform her. ‘If I did know, I would tell you.’

The exasperated expression on her face tells me that was not what she wanted to hear. For a moment, I wish I did have a more solid and thorough response, but I truly do not know what Palpatine expects of us.

‘I will be back in a few hours,’ I advise as I slowly rise from the chair. ‘Make sure you are ready by then.’

***

‘My lord!’ Jir exclaims, jumping to his feet. ‘I...’

‘Dismissed, Lieutenant,’ Vader sends him out with a wave.

Poor man. I hope I didn’t get him into trouble, I think as he practically flees the scene.

‘Darth!’ Catherine chirps, pointing at him.

For a moment after the door has closed, Vader simply stands there, watching us, his hands resting on his belt. We must be quite the sight - I in my mud stained dress with my sleepy, messy haired daughter on my lap. Catherine smiles happily at him and nestles into my shoulder.

‘Darth,’ she repeats, a bit quieter this time.

‘It is both fortunate and unfortunate that you have a child,’ Vader finally says.

Fortunate? I suppose he sees her as a way to make sure I do as he wants. From the fight I had with him, it should be obvious that there’s no way I will let any harm come to her. But unfortunate? What does he mean by that? Is she a hindrance to his plans?

I stare back at him. Staying silent is one tactic I know works for getting people to talk, especially if they are needing to unburden themselves. Apparently he also is aware of this. For a few minutes, both of us patiently wait for the other to break the hush in the room.

At last, he gives in.

‘You are not going to make this easy for me, are you?’ he observes.

‘No,’ I admit. ‘Why should I?’

A slight hesitation, then he pulls the second chair farther away from the table and seats himself in it. The costumer in me observes how easily he did that, taking notes for how to modify my own set of armour.

He makes what I take to be a sigh.

‘That bad?’ I suggest, starting to feel a bit more sympathetic.

It’s obvious that whatever this dinner date is about, it was not his idea, and that he likes it even less than I do.

‘We are the unfortunate victims of one of my master’s practical jokes,’ he ruefully states. ‘He hopes it will cause me considerable public embarrassment, but I do not intend for that to happen. If he finds the results entertaining, he will let you go home.’

‘Some joke,’ I mutter under my breath.

‘Simply play along with it as best you can,’ Vader advises.

‘And what exactly am I supposed to do?’ I prompt.

Time to get what I need to know from him in order to survive this.

‘I am not entirely sure,’ he admits after a pause. ‘If I did know, I would tell you.’

This is just wonderful. We have both been set-up on a blind date by an old coot looking to torture both his apprentice and I as a form of amusement, and neither of us has any inkling of how to get out of it.

‘I will be back in a few hours,’ the Sith Lord warns as he gracefully rises from the chair. ‘Make sure you are ready by then.’

Catherine slides off my lap and follows him to the door, so I get up myself. I know what she is going to do and I am curious how he will respond to her.

***

Partway to the door, I hear quiet, light footsteps behind me. A child’s footsteps, I realize when there is a hard tug on my cloak.

‘Darth,’ Catherine says, trying to get me to notice her.

I halt midstride and turn around, curious to see what she will do.

‘Up!’ she demands, reaching above her head to me. ‘Up, please!’

I look down at her, then over at her mother who has followed after her. Consent is given in a brief nod, but I can’t bring myself to do as requested. Not immediately. How many times did I imagine a scene like this one? Or have a vision of my son or daughter running to me, to be swept up in my arms? The only difference between this and my old dreams is that there is no Padmé here and the child is not my own.

For a few seconds I waver, debating whether I should leave or not. My eyes shift downwards again. Those little arms are still beckoning to me, and that is the deciding factor. I don’t see any reason to scare her, and no one will ever see this. Slowly, deliberately, I bend a over little bit and hoist Catherine up into the air, setting her on my hip once I have straightened again.

‘Hug!’ she requests next.

Hug? Hug? Sith Lords do not give hugs.

At least this Sith Lord does not give hugs.

I look into her big, blue eyes. She stares back at me and blinks, not the least bit perturbed by who I am. A daughter of mine might have had those eyes and blonde hair, and the fearless attitude, too. Alright, I concede. One hug and I had better not be asked for another one after this. Carefully, I shift her about, moving her so she can put her arms around my neck. It can’t be very comfortable for her to reach around my helmet.

‘She’s used to me picking her up when I have my armour on,’ her mother reassures me, ‘so don’t worry.’

I don’t nod in response since Catherine almost has a death grip on me. Pulling her back a little gets her to release her hold, so I lower her gently to the floor.

‘Darth,’ she happily calls me.

‘Little sithling,’ I name her, letting my amusement show in my tone when I set my hand on her head.

Such a sweet and loving child. And completely unafraid, as well. It’s really too bad she isn’t mine.

I take my leave with a nod and spin on my heels. There’s still work to be done today, but I feel better than I have in weeks - months, if I am honest with myself. I am almost looking forward to tonight, even. Perhaps a frivolous evening’s distraction is a good idea, although it isn’t what I would have planned for myself.

The door slides shut behind me and when I am almost at my castle’s hangar, it occurs to me that I didn’t ask a single one of the questions I had intended to.

***

‘Darth,’ she says, grabbing his cloak and yanking on it to get his attention.

Vader stops instantly and turns around.

‘Up!’ Catherine demands, two little arms stretched over her head. ‘Up, please!’

His helmet tips down to look at her, then he glances over at me. I nod my consent to him before his attention shifts back to her, but he still hesitates. No doubt this is dragging up painful memories of what might have been for him. Finally, he carefully lifts her up and rests her against his hip.

‘Hug!’ she requests next.

Again that pause before Vader moves to give my daughter what she wants, letting her wrap her arms around his neck for a moment. From his body language he is uncertain of himself, not sure of how she will react, and afraid of accidentally hurting her.

‘She’s used to me picking her up when I have my armour on,’ I reassure him, ‘so don’t worry.’

He sets her down with as much care as he used in lifting her up. We definitely need to work on that, if he is going to do that in public tonight.

‘Darth,’ Catherine calls him again.

‘Little sithling,’ he dubs her, placing one large, gloved hand on the top of her head for a few seconds, and sounding rather amused by her fearlessness.

When he leaves, there is a difference in his step. Not quite a lightness to it, but a distinct change in demeanor. He needed to experience some human contact, I surmise, and my nonthreatening little girl was the perfect one to give it to him.

‘Bathtime,’ I announce.

‘No,’ Catherine stubbornly refuses, running to the other side of the room in an attempt to escape. ‘No bath.’

‘Yes,’ I firmly state. ‘Bath. Now.’

She’s taken to making a ruckus about not wanting a bath whenever I tell her she is getting one, but once in the water, she plays quite contentedly. It’s just typical for her age to be stubborn about it at first.

‘No bath,’ she argues back when I catch her.

As I carry her into the bathroom, the protests get louder.

‘No, no, no,’ she howls.

It’s a good thing Vader isn’t here to see her more sithly traits coming out. If he was, he would probably be having serious second thoughts about taking her along tonight.

***

The tight fitting black dress in the closet proves to be as elegant as any of Padmé’s gowns. I growl a few curses under my breath as I fight to get it fastened in back and the fabric suitably adjusted in front. The Sith Lord has typical male tastes, I decide, when I stare in the mirror at myself and, in particular, the bustline the bodice has created. Men always go for what looks good to them and practicality never enters their minds as an important consideration. They should be required to try on what they expect us women to wear. Then, they might think twice before asking us to put on anything too ridiculous.

Catherine’s simple white dress is far easier to get her into. Once she’s ready, I let her explore the room and what little is in the closet and dresser. The evening gown I had worn from home is definitely a writeoff, I note as I hang it up. Maybe I will simply keep the one I now have on as a replacement. I start to grin at that thought - I would have the real thing rather than a replica.

‘Jump!’ my daughter shouts from behind me as she does exactly that. ‘Jump! Jump! Jump!’

‘No jumping on the bed,’ I scold her as I turn around and catch her in mid-hop.

She’s run out of things to do, and there are no toys to keep her occupied. It’s too bad I have no way to send a message to Vader asking for something to relieve her boredom. Not that he would have any children’s toys on hand anyway, but he could have someone go buy one or two for her.

‘Come help mommy and do your hair,’ I offer.

She can play with the brush I found in the dresser until I am ready to go. Soon, her hair is a mess from her attempts to comb it, but she is happy, busy, and behaving herself.

I untwist my hair from the knot I had wound it up into while it was drying and let it fall down over my shoulders. The style of the dress calls for an ‘up do,’ so I give my hair a good brushing and set about coiling it again. This time, though, I leave a few locks out to form curls framing my face. It’s not the most sophisticated look I have ever used, but it is all I can manage at the moment. While there is a complete set of make-up in the drawer with the brushes and combs, I keep that to a minimum since I am not sure what is in it and don’t want to risk an allergic reaction.

At least the Sith Lord was kind enough to have someone make sure everything I might need was on hand. He probably didn’t want to leave anything like that to chance, either, given the potential for a disaster tonight. When I have done my best, I return all the cosmetics to the drawer, and peer at my reflection again. One forty-something, slightly tired looking, single parent stares back at me.

‘I hope he doesn’t expect too much, sweety,’ I tell Catherine as I help her onto my lap and start to work the snarls out of her hair with my fingers, ‘because this is what he is going to get.’

***

For a third time, I am outside that door, but now it is to take my ‘date’ to dinner. If she is like most women, she is probably running late and not dressed yet. I use the door chime to signal my presence and wait, giving her a few minutes to make herself decent just in case. Avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation is a wise idea, too.

She is seated in front of the mirror, her daughter with her, and they are wearing the clothes I had selected for them. Good. They are both ready to go.

Catherine flies off her lap and runs to me, crying ‘Darth!’ as she comes towards me.

Her mother misses catching her by a hair’s breadth.

‘Oh, no,’ she says as her child impacts against my legs and clings to me. ‘Please don’t...’

‘Don’t what?’ I ask as I feel someone hang on even tighter. ‘I find her rather...,’I hesitate, not sure what to say. The first word which came into my mind isn’t one I want to use. At least not now. Finally, I settle on, ‘...amusing and have no intentions of harming her.’

She tips her head, watching the two of us, a smile threatening to break out. I suspect if I let this go on for much longer that another hug will be demanded, and I would prefer to avoid a repetition of earlier today.

‘We should go eat,’ she suggests at last. ‘She’ll be hungry soon and you don’t want to be dealing with a cranky sithling.’

A cranky sithling or a cranky Sith Lord? Perhaps she intends to imply more than what she has stated.

‘Then we shall go,’ I concur, offering my own multi-layered comment in return. ‘A cranky Sith is not something you want to see.’

That should give her something to consider, if she is having second thoughts about being co-operative tonight.

‘Hand, sweety,’ she tells Catherine, holding her hand out in an attempt to draw her child away from me.

‘No!’ Catherine rejects her mother.

Her arms, which are wrapped around my legs, pull her in tighter, and she buries her face in my surcoat. Like mother, like daughter, I observe. Each is as stubborn as the other. Rather than interfere in this clash of wills, I wait. Let her mother manage this. If it goes on for too long, then I will deal with the child myself.

‘Catherine,’ she tries an order this time. ‘Take mommy’s hand.’

‘No! Darth hand!’ I hear from amidst the fabric of my robes.

If this were my daughter, at this point I would apply some discipline for being disobedient, but her mother shrugs her shoulders in defeat instead. She probably wants to avoid a scene.

‘She is going to be stubborn,’ her words confirm my suspicion, ‘so unless you want a tantrum, it’s best to humor her for a few minutes.’

The last thing we need is an unhappy child raising a ruckus. And although I could easily stop any tantrum she might throw, it makes more sense to head it off beforehand. She won’t be able to run away if I have a firm grip on her, either, and no one in my employ will say anything in public about what occurs inside my castle’s walls. Anyone foolish enough to do so won’t survive very long past opening their mouth.

I indicate my agreement with a nod.

‘Hand,’ I firmly tell Catherine, while using the same gesture her mother had.

She grabs my hand and starts pulling insistently on it. ‘Sithling,’ it seems, is an appropriate name for her in more than one way.

‘Milady,’ I call to her mother.

I beckon to her with my free hand, and shift my arm when she goes to take my fingers so that she understands she is to take that instead. Handholding indicates a more intimate relationship than what we have and it is not warranted under these circumstances. Hopefully she will quickly learn what is expected of her. Otherwise, it could be a very long and potentially awkward night.

***

Ten minutes later the warning chime sounds, but the door doesn’t open immediately. I guess Vader doesn’t want to risk walking in on a half-dressed female and is giving me enough time to make myself decent.

‘Darth!’ my daughter cries as she launches herself off my lap and at the Sith Lord who is standing there when the door finally slides out of the way.

I miss grabbing her by a finger-length as she races over to him.

‘Oh, no,’ I say as she piles into his legs and wraps her arms around them. ‘Please don’t...’

‘Don’t what?’ Vader answers as he looks down at my little girl, who is now doing her cling-on routine. ‘I find her rather...,’ he pauses, obviously searching for the right word to use, ‘...amusing and have no intentions of harming her.’

Amusing? That’s not what he was going to say at first. I tip my head and watch the two of them for a few seconds. Catherine will be demanding another hug from him if we stay here much longer.

‘We should go eat,’ I hint. ‘She’ll be hungry soon and you don’t want to be dealing with a cranky sithling.’

‘Then we shall go,’ he readily agrees. ‘A cranky Sith is not something you want to see.’

There’s several layers of meaning in his statement, I am sure, and only one of them is referring to Catherine. My eyes meet the lenses of his mask. He might be acting in a reasonable fashion right now because he requires my voluntary co-operation, but if he is provoked, I am sure the results could be quite nasty.

‘Hand, sweety,’ I tell my daughter, holding mine out to her.

‘No!’ she refuses, holding his legs even tighter and burying her head in the folds of his surcoat.

‘Catherine,’ I firmly order. ‘Take mommy’s hand.’

‘No! Darth hand!’ she insists.

I shrug my shoulders helplessly and drop my hand to my side. Time seems to be important here, so I decide to avoid a confrontation and temper tantrum instead of making her behave herself like I normally would.

‘She is going to be stubborn,’ I warn the Sith Lord, ‘so unless you want a tantrum, it’s best to humor her for a few minutes.’

A nod in reply from him.

‘Hand,’ he tells her while offering his to her.

Catherine takes it and starts to tug on him impatiently. Time to go while she’s being a bit more accommodating.

‘Milady,’ I am called while he extends his free hand towards me.

I guess I need to treat this just like a date at home and go along with whatever is expected of me. Hopefully I won’t do anything foolish or get myself into too much trouble by not knowing the local customs. I go to take his hand but he moves his arm in a way which indicates I am to grasp that instead. Alright, first rule to remember - no handholding.

Somehow I stop a sigh as he leads my daughter and I down the corridor outside the door. This could be a very long evening, indeed, if I am going to be learning an entirely new set of behaviours as I muddle my way through it.

***

As I lead them through the corridors of my castle, I ignore the odd surprised look we get from my staff. Let them think what they will. Their opinions do not matter. Fortunately no one says a word or approaches too close, which doesn’t improve my mood very much. I am not going to hold Catherine’s hand in public, I vow, and if she throws a tantrum, I will stop it immediately with a touch of the Force, regardless of what her mother thinks of that.

We enter the hangar, and I start towards the largest of the air speeders. While it isn’t a very long trip to the Manarai, she might like to see a bit of Imperial City along the way. My choice of vehicle doesn’t go unnoticed, however.

‘You can’t be serious,’ she blurts out. ‘We aren’t going in that, are we?’

I halt and look at her. What’s wrong with using an air speeder? It is perfectly safe and I will be piloting it.

‘Is there a problem with taking an air speeder?’ I ask. ‘You won’t see very much of the city from inside my shuttle.’

She rocks from one foot to the other. Apparently she is not comfortable with the thought of flying with me, and there is obviously something she is not telling me. Her reluctance to even consider getting into the air speeder is leaking out into the Force, so I can’t miss how she feels.

‘I...’ she starts to explain what the problem is. ‘I...’

Her face flushes as she becomes more and more flustered with embarrassment. I wait for her to finish, but finally give up and state what I have worked out from her reactions and the report I had read.

‘You have a fear of heights and of flying,’ I tell her. ‘That must be why I was ordered to sedate you for the journey from your home world.’

She nods in confirmation. Palpatine must have had his spies dig into her background to find out that fact. I wonder if my master knows about her habit of wearing a replica of my armour.

Her phobias, though, are something I can fix - if she will allow me to. I let go of Catherine. Ignoring the child now wrapped around my legs, I set my hands on her mother’s shoulders and make an offer to her.

‘Do you trust me enough to let me help you with this?’ I ask. ‘Even if we take my shuttle, you will still have to deal with the restaurant being at a considerable distance above the surface of Monument Plaza.’

She blinks at me in surprise.

Has no one ever told her there was a way to deal with her fears?

***

We stop, after a trip down in a turbolift, at what must be his home’s hangar. The shuttle which brought me here is to one side, but the Sith Lord heads towards a much smaller vehicle - one which I really, really don’t want to get into.

‘You can’t be serious,’ I complain. ‘We aren’t going in that, are we?’

He stops and looks down at me.

‘Is there a problem with taking an air speeder?’ Vader asks. ‘You won’t see very much of the city from inside my shuttle.’

I shift nervously from one foot to another. There’s not much to the vehicle in question and no way to block out the view from the seats, either. If he thinks I am willingly going to get into it, he is in for a big surprise.

‘I...’ I begin to stammer out an explanation, a bit too embarrassed to admit what the problem is. ‘I...’

He waits patiently for me to finish, but I can’t.

‘You have a fear of heights and of flying,’ he astutely guesses when I can’t get the words out. ‘That must be why I was ordered to sedate you for the journey from your home world.’

I mutely nod in answer. The only way I can fly is if I am heavily drugged. Somehow Palpatine must have done some research on me and discovered that fact. Biting my lip, I start to wonder what else the old coot has found out. I bet he thought my wearing a copy of his apprentice’s armour was quite amusing, too.

Vader lets go of Catherine’s hand and frees his other arm from my grip. My daughter promptly attaches herself to his legs again but he ignores her.

‘Do you trust me enough to let me help you with this?’ he questions, setting his hands on top of my shoulders. ‘Even if we take my shuttle, you will still have to deal with the restaurant being at a considerable distance above the surface of Monument Plaza.’

I stare at him. My acrophobia has been a constant problem, so if he can do something to fix it, I am willing to give it a try.

‘Go ahead,’ I give my permission, while wondering what I am getting myself into. ‘Do whatever you need to.’

***

‘Go ahead,’ she allows, after a moment’s debate. ‘Do whatever you need to.’

I move my hands upwards, slowly so I don’t startle her, and cup her face with them. To prevent her being distracted, I hold her so her eyes focus on my mask. What I will use is a very simple Jedi healing technique, but she is untrained so I will have to improvise a little.

‘Synchronize your breathing with mine,’ I instruct, ‘relax, and don’t fight what I am going to do.’

For a minute, her breathing is out of step with mine as she struggles to do as I asked. Then she adjusts it again, her pattern finally matching my own. I wait for her to start slipping into a light trance, supporting her body with an arm around her back as she begins to go limp. Perfect. She is in as suggestible a state as can be achieved in this short a time.

I touch her mind now, sending a light probe over its surface, looking for the source of her fears. She promptly shoves my mental ‘fingers’ away. That’s due to inexperience on her part, I decide.

*Don’t fight me,* I warn her. *This isn’t easy to do with someone who has had no training.*

It will be easier to prevent any further attempts to rid her mind of me by swamping her conscious self with my personality. Her head falls against my chest as I do so. To keep her from panicking at my actions, I flood her mind with a sense of fearlessness.

*There is no reason to be afraid of anything,* I reassure her. *No reason at all.*

*The Hero With No Fear,* she quotes back at me.

*So I was once called,* I admit, wondering how she knew I had been named that, *and so you need to be.*

I find the spot in her personality I require, the location and source of her problem, and alter it. That should take care of her fears of heights and flying. Fortunately, both were tied to a single traumatic incident. There is no reason to go looking for another one, but I will leave a connection in place until I am sure, just in case there is.

As I retreat from her mind, I discover that she is clinging to me, her arms about my neck and her face right in front of my own. It’s a good thing there is no one around to see us, I wryly note. If I were to do this in public, the press and media would go into a frenzy. I take a quick look about the hangar and see Jir, who is standing by the shuttle, staring at us with his mouth wide open.

*This must be quite the picture to anyone who is watching us,* I hear her think.

I silently agree as I pull her hands away.

‘My staff knows better than to say anything to anyone about what happens within the walls of my castle,’ I state, making sure my voice is loud enough that my aide can hear it.

*He must have heard my thought,* she thinks next.

‘Yes, I did, but I won’t maintain the connection any longer than is absolutely necessary,’ I tell her. ‘Once I am sure you can cope, I will let it go.’

‘Could we still take your shuttle instead?’ she asks.

I pause, considering her request. If I haven’t eliminated her fears, I will have to either make another expedition into her mind and hope it won’t take too long to find what I had missed, or lightly sedate her and take my shuttle anyway. It is heavily armed and shielded, too.

‘It would be safer from a security standpoint, true,’ I decide, ‘and we will test your fear of heights by having you sit next to me in the cockpit.’

I disengage Catherine’s arms from about my legs, take her hand, and allow her mother to set hers on my arm again. The shuttle is close by, but I don’t give them the opportunity to explore its interior. We are now running late. Jir is swift to strap in Catherine and sits beside her in the passenger compartment. He can entertain her while we are in the air. I settle into the pilot’s seat and indicate that the co-pilot’s station is to be occupied by her mother.

Clearance to leave arrives over the comm, so I launch my shuttle from the ground, all the while keeping a careful watch for a panicked reaction from the woman sitting beside me. There is none.

‘You seem to have conquered your fears,’ I observe.

‘Yes, thank you,’ she answers. ‘I think I will be fine from now on.’

‘Good,’ I reply, releasing the mental connection I had held for the last few minutes.

Strangely, I feel a sense of loss at the absence of that contact with her.

***

His hands move to frame and tip my face upwards. He leans over a little so that I am forced to look into his eyes through the lenses of his mask.

‘Synchronize your breathing with mine,’ he instructs, ‘relax, and don’t fight what I am going to do.’

It takes a minute or so to do as I am told, and I soon realize that he is trying to put me into a trance-like state. He must be intending to use hypnosis or something similar. I’ve tried that before but it didn’t work. This time, though, it is different. Once I feel myself start to go a bit limp, he puts one of his arms around my back to support me. There is the strangest sensation inside my head, an odd tickle which doesn’t belong, so I push it away.

Don’t fight me, I hear in my mind. This isn’t easy to do with someone who has had no training.

My head falls forward as his personality overwhelms mine. For a brief moment, I know everything about him - all of his past, his future plans, his feelings and emotions - then that knowledge is gone. A cool undercurrent of fearlessness floods my mind next, replacing any concerns I had about stepping into the airspeeder.

There is no reason to be afraid of anything, he whispers to me. No reason at all.

The Hero With No Fear, I remember, but that was quite the misnomer.

So I was once called, he admits, and so you need to be.

He does something then, changes a fundamental element in my psyche with an almost physical snap. I find myself clinging to him, my arms around his neck in order to keep to my feet, so I force myself to look into his mask. We are close enough to one another that if he didn’t have his helmet on he could almost kiss me.

This must be quite the picture to anyone who is watching us, I think to myself.

‘My staff knows better than to say anything to anyone about what happens within the walls of my castle,’ Vader reveals as he steadies me, pulling my hands from where I had them.

He must have heard my thought.

‘Yes, I did, but I won’t maintain the connection any longer than is absolutely necessary,’ he reassures me. ‘Once I am sure you can cope, I will let it go.’

‘Could we still take your shuttle instead?’ I hint.

He hesitates, considering my request.

‘It would be safer from a security standpoint, true,’ he decides, ‘and we will test your fear of heights by having you sit next to me in the cockpit.’

With that, he takes Catherine’s hand and offers me his arm again, before leading us over to and into his shuttle. I look about once we are inside, but he doesn’t give me a chance to be too nosy. The Lieutenant who I met earlier quickly joins us and straps my daughter in. His job, for the moment, must be child minder, but I still make sure she is where she can see me when I take the seat Vader indicates beside him. For the first time in many, many years, I find that the prospect of being airborne doesn’t bother me.

When the Sith Lord receives clearance to leave and the shuttle gracefully rises, I look out the forward windows without flinching. Obviously whatever he did, worked.

‘You seem to have conquered your fears,’ he notes after glancing over at me.

‘Yes, thank you,’ I reply. ‘I think I will be fine from now on.’

‘Good,’ he responds, and that strange tickle in my mind fades away to nothing.

He’s kept his promise, but with the absence of his presence in my head, I feel a distinct sense of loss.

***

During the flight to the Plaza, I point a out a few of the more important landmarks to make small talk. It’s been years since I have had to entertain anyone in this way and it feels odd but not uncomfortable. I start to relax in her company, becoming more at ease as time passes. How long has it been since I could talk to someone, really talk to someone, without the fear of my words being twisted for political or personal gain?

I start the landing cycle, selecting the most prominent of the platforms to set down on. It will be easier to secure my ship here, but my presence won’t be missed, either. The moment I am seen in the company of a woman, I expect the reporters who haunt the area to appear. There’s no way to avoid that, though.

The engines complete shutting down so I turn in my seat and look at her.

‘Monument Plaza and the entrance to the Manarai Restaurant tend to have reporters lingering around them. They lie in wait for celebrities in hopes of taking a compromising holo or obtaining an exclusive story,’ I warn. ‘Seeing you at my side will attract them. Do your best to ignore them. If any become too pushy, I will deal with them.’

The last time someone from Holonet News decided to accost me, I threw him through the window I had been standing in front of. I doubt that any will come too close or risk a similar fate. Still, with a child in tow, I will need to be careful what I do and not scare her unnecessarily ... and when did you start worrying about things like that, my inner Sith prods. I ignore that voice. For one night, I decide, it doesn’t matter to me what anyone, including my master, thinks of what I chose to do.

***

I bite my lip at his warning about the paparazzi. It sounds just like home where celebrities constantly worry about everything they say and do in public. Somehow, I doubt that the Sith Lord really cares what the reporters write about him. From what he has said, they are just another nuisance in his opinion.

‘Surely they wouldn’t be foolish enough to...,’ I start a question.

He surprises me by laughing a little as he rises from the pilot’s chair.

‘Within minutes of your holo being taken with me,’ he reveals, ‘every network will be speculating about who you are, what I am doing with you, and whether Lord Vader, confirmed bachelor, has found himself a suitable mate.’

My cheeks begin to redden at that. He can’t be serious about that last bit?

A hand is offered, so I take it and let him help me to my feet. His helmet swivels as he looks from me to my daughter.

‘I expect that a few will claim she is mine, and that you are my mistress or secret wife, whom I have kept hidden away,’ he wryly adds.

I start giggling a bit myself. Secret wife, indeed!

‘That is a bit of a stretch,’ I tease. ‘From simply sharing dinner on a first date to being your wife, but I guess selling newspapers or their equivalent, like at home, is more important to them than the truth.’

He glances down at our hands, quickly releasing mine when he realizes he is still holding it. In some ways he seems rather awkward, almost shy, and unsure of what he is doing. How many years has it been since he had to escort a woman to dinner? Or had a normal conversation with anyone?

I look into his mask, but he breaks our eye contact and steps into the passenger cabin of the shuttle. With no reason not to follow, I trail after him, taking Catherine’s hand in mine when she slips off the seat next to the Lieutenant’s. Fortunately, she seems content to hang onto me rather than demand that of the Sith Lord.

Vader stops at the top of the shuttle’s ramp. It has already been lowered, but we are still out of the view of anyone on the outside.

This is your last chance to back out of this dinner date, I think to myself. You can turn around, sit down, refuse to go out there, and insist on being taken back to his castle or your home.

I take a quick peek over at Vader. Apparently he is having similar thoughts run through his mind because he also pauses for a moment. His internal debate doesn’t last long. Finally he offers me his arm again, so I set my hand lightly upon it and allow him to lead us down into the Plaza.

There is nothing hesitant in his stride as we disembark, but he slows his pace to match mine, and more importantly, Catherine’s. I suspect if he had a choice, he would be rushing us across the stone pavement to reach the restaurant on the other side as quickly as possible.

We are no more than twenty meters from his ship when the first of the reporters he had warned about show up.

***

Here they come, I think, disgusted as the reporters descend upon us. They are just like a swarm of piranha beetles hunting for blood, or womprats being drawn to a rotting bantha.

I sense a touch of nervous fear from my companion. Her fingers tighten as she realizes my prediction is about to come true.

‘Stay calm,’ I advise in as low a voice as my vocoder will allow.

The grip on my arm increases the nearer the media come to us.

‘Lord Vader! Lord Vader!’ the voices ring out in attempts to attract my attention.

The sounds of a dozen or more holocameras fill the air. They are pushing the boundaries of what I consider to be my personal space, but I ignore them and continue in a straight line towards our destination. The sooner we are out of the public square and inside the restaurant, the better.

‘Lady Vader!’ one of those pursuing us tries next.

Some of the reporters are becoming a bit too bold.

‘Get a few good ones of the kid!’ I hear someone shout.

‘Mommy!’ Catherine calls.

She stops dead in her tracks and buries her face in her mother’s dress, obviously frightened by the increasing press of bodies around us. Even though there is still some open space between the crowd and us, with Catherine’s reaction, I decide it’s time to make an example of someone.

‘That’s enough,’ I growl.

I select the nearest individual with a holocamera and aim a finger directly at him. With a touch of the Force I lift him up, suspending him in midair, while I debate exactly how to make my point. Those around him, whether friends or rivals, back away.

‘You,’ I state, ‘have upset my...’

I hesitate and give my victim a shake while I work out what word best describes her. Friend? We haven’t known one another long enough for me to really use that term. Partner implies more of a relationship than we have. Date? No, not date, I decide. It sounds so ... inelegant.

‘...companion’s child,’ I finish, settling on what had come to mind earlier and seems more neutral. ‘I do not like it when she is upset.’

Silence from everyone.

Until I casually toss the cameraman aside, letting him fall to the pavement with a thud.

With that, the crowd starts frantically whispering and a few leave at a run, no doubt rushing off to submit their stories. No one takes another picture or steps any closer.

***

‘My lord,’ I hiss at him.

He turns to look at me, but I know most of his focus is on the retreating reporters who have taken the hint and chosen not to provoke him further. It’s clear to me why some of them are in such a hurry to go, but I doubt that the Sith Lord understands what has happened.

‘Do you know what you have just done?’ I continue in a whisper.

‘Removed some annoyances,’ Vader rumbles, the amusement evident in his voice.

‘Uhmm,’ I dither a bit. ‘Not really.’

How am I going to explain this? He’s obviously been out of the dating scene for so long that the jargon of today is unfamiliar to him. Otherwise, he would never have called me what he did.

‘Explain,’ he orders.

I let out a sigh and brush Catherine’s hair with my hand. She’s much quieter and happier now that there is no one near us.

‘Companion was not the best way to describe our relationship,’ I tell him. ‘It carries ... implications of intimacy and long term attachment.’

It doesn’t take him very long to realize exactly what I mean. There is a peculiar break in his breathing which seems to indicate his surprise, too.

‘A most unfortunate choice of word,’ the Sith Lord admits. ‘Years ago, the meaning was quite different.’

He turns to watch the last of the stragglers leaving the area.

‘They have their story now,’ he ruefully adds. ‘My public announcement that I am keeping you as my mistress. No doubt the Emperor will find that extremely amusing. Or infuriating.’

A part of me feels some empathy with him. I have made foolish gaffes in the past myself. Nothing as bad as this one, though, and my mistakes never had the potential to anger a Sith Master.

‘Perhaps we should go have dinner,’ I suggest as I rest my hand on his arm again.

***

I feel her hand on my arm, but there is compassion in her touch this time. She understands, I realize, really understands exactly what sort of trouble I might have just created for myself. What appears on the holonews or is distributed in flimsie printouts isn’t important - the galactic population’s sentiments are inconsequential. Palpatine is the only being whose opinion matters, and Sith Lords do not go out in public and tell the universe who their current mistress is.

Ignorance, I decide. I will simply confess my ignorance of what the current definition of companion is. Hopefully that will be sufficient to avoid any negative consequences.

‘You must be hungry,’ I note.

I lightly set my other hand atop the one she is grasping my arm with for a few seconds to reassure her all is well. My mistake may cause her pain and grief, too - especially if my master chooses to take my words as the truth.

***

He rests his other hand atop mine for a brief moment in an almost comforting gesture. This is not something I would expect him to do. There is more to the trouble his errant admission might cause than he is willing to tell me, but I won’t dig for an explanation right now. I am getting hungry, and Catherine needs to eat.

‘Milady,’ he hints.

I walk at his left side, Catherine in tow, across the Plaza. The people who are still around seem to be going about their own business, and don’t come too close or give us more than a cursory glance. Their lack of interest is a relief.

When we reach the turbolift, and step between the private security who are guarding it, I don’t flinch. Just as in the shuttle, my fear of heights is gone. Permanently gone, I hope. Catherine lets go of me and puts her face and hands up against the glass window.

‘Oh, no,’ she quietly indicates her discomfort as the ‘lift begins to rise.

‘She always says that when experiencing something new she isn’t sure of,’ I tell the Sith Lord. ‘None of the elevators she’s been in with me had windows.’

I let go of him, move to her side, and crouch down as much as the dress will allow me to.

‘It’s alright, sweety,’ I soothe, wrapping my arms around her, ‘we are almost there.’

***

That simple, comforting gesture reminds me of my own mother and what she would have done in a similar situation. My fingers twitch where I am resting them at my belt. This ‘date’ is bringing back too many memories which I would prefer to forget and leave in the past.

The silence stretches and starts to become awkward. I guess I am expected to say something, but nothing appropriate comes to mind. As the turbolift stops and the door opens onto the Manarai’s reception area, I almost rush out of it. But instead, I take a step back and grab my date’s hand when I catch sight of who else is at the restaurant.

Why did he have to be here tonight?

I glare at Xizor who is speaking with one of the establishment’s staff members. He glances in my direction and that oh, so annoying Falleen smirk appears. A few seconds later he is walking towards us, stopping just outside of my lightsaber’s range.

‘Lord Vader,’ he greets us, ‘how kind of you to stop by for dinner. And is this your wife? Or is it mistress? And what a lovely child you both have.’

The woman beside me stiffens. After her experience down in the Plaza, she doesn’t appreciate hearing that from him, and neither do I. It’s to be expected that Xizor would hear about what happened immediately. His spy network is almost as good as the Emperor’s. Somehow I resist the urge to Force choke him right then and there.

I decide to put a stop to any thoughts he might have about creating trouble.

‘My companion and her child, Prince Xizor,’ I calmly state as I shift my left hand from hers to lightly rest around her waist, while warning him off with my right, ‘who are both under my protection.’

The meaning is implicit in my words and gestures: They belong to me. Leave them alone.

***

When Vader is confronted by the alien he calls Prince Xizor, I can sense a showdown brewing. These two really don’t like one another. The Sith Lord’s right hand drops from where he had been pointing it at Xizor and he shifts into a ready stance. I decide that getting out of the way would be a very wise idea, so I step sideways. As I do so, I feel his left hand slide across my back until he catches my right elbow with it, stopping me from going any further.

Stay, I hear him tell me in my head. Xizor won’t escalate this from a verbal sparring match to an actual physical fight. He knows he would lose if he did.

I freeze in place from surprise as much as in obedience.

Didn’t you tell me you removed that connection with me? I think at him.

I did, but you don’t have any mental shields and you aren’t resisting me, either, he notes, amused, So it’s easy to project my thoughts into your head and hear yours in return. If it bothers you, I won’t do it.

I debate what I should tell the Sith Lord while Xizor’s expression suggests he is doing the same. Finally, the alien concludes that he can’t win this and tries to make a graceful retreat.

‘Then I would hope your protection is effective,’ Xizor states, before taking a swipe. ‘Unfortunately, I have business to attend to and must go. Do enjoy your meals - those of you who are able to.’

Vader’s fingers tighten on my arm, so I know that volley scored a hit in a vulnerable location. He ignores the military bow Xizor makes and doesn’t bid him farewell. My eyes follow the alien until the lift doors are closed behind him.

‘Nasty,’ Catherine quietly offers her opinion.

‘Yes, indeed,’ Vader agrees.

‘She can be rather astute about people sometimes,’ I admit as I give her hand a squeeze.

‘Many children are,’ he comments, leading us over to the maître d'hôtel. ‘They sense things more clearly than most adults do.’

***

The staff member Xizor had been speaking with nervously watches our approach. He saw the confrontation I had with the Manarai’s owner and has assumed the worst.

‘I have a reservation,’ I inform him. ‘Your best table, for the evening.’

‘The reservation was for two,’ he states, looking pointedly over at Catherine, ‘not three.’

‘Is there a problem?’ my date quietly asks.

‘No,’ I instantly answer her.

Her expression reveals that she doesn’t believe me, but she doesn’t voice her opinion. From his attitude, I decide that Xizor has left instructions for the staff to be as difficult as possible. Even so, this is an easily remedied situation.

‘You will see to it that my table is ready for me, now,’ I order, motioning with my hand and using the Force to impress a sense of urgency and obedience.

‘I will see that your table is ready,’ he repeats back to me before giving a quick bow and disappearing into the dining area.

‘That’s a neat trick,’ my companion notes.

‘It has its uses,’ I admit with a low chuckle.

A moment later, the man has returned, with a woman I expect will be seating and serving us for the evening.

‘My lord,’ she instructs, ‘please follow me.’

***

I set my hand on his arm again, and let myself be led into the restaurant proper. The Sith Lord’s use of the Jedi mind trick probably circumvented an argument or a nasty scene. Biting my lip, I consider the encounter with Xizor before that. Something tells me that dinner is probably going to be an interesting experience given the attitude of the Manarai’s employees. They are obviously more afraid of disobeying the alien than what an annoyed Sith Lord might do to them.

‘Your table, my lord,’ the woman we were following announces.

She steps away and leaves us. Vader lets me settle Catherine in the small seat which has been supplied for her, before pulling my chair back and taking his own. Proper manners, so far, seem to be the same as at home.

The Sith Lord spends a moment moving his cloak about, clearing it away from his feet, presumably so it doesn’t catch on anything or interfere with his movements if he has to get up quickly. Even in what should be a safe setting, he prepares himself for battle. Does he ever relax, I wonder, or does he spend each second of his life worrying about an attack from someone?

Once comfortable, he pulls a small, white cylinder out of his surcoat and sets it on the table. Catherine makes a grab for it, but he moves it well beyond her reach.

‘My comlink,’ he reveals when I raise an eyebrow in question. ‘Even off-duty, I cannot be out of communication.’

I nod. That makes sense to me, but why didn’t he leave it where it had been stashed? Surely it doesn’t need to be out where my daughter might do something to it.

‘Their menu is extensive,’ Vader tells me, short-circuiting that line of thought.

With a wave, he indicates that I should look at the sheet resting on the table. I pick it up and quickly discover that it is written in Aurabesh.

‘I can’t read this script,’ I sheepishly admit. ‘It isn’t used at home, so I haven’t bothered to learn it. You will have to translate or order for me.’

I get the distinct sense that he finds that rather amusing.

‘You ought to have some familiarity with Aurabesh, given the talent for languages which was listed in the file I was sent on you,’ he says to me.

I give him my best annoyed look.

‘I don’t know every language and script which exists,’ I inform him of the obvious. ‘I am not a protocol droid.’

‘For which I am most grateful,’ he quietly notes.

Is he flirting with me? Or referring to something else?

‘Any preferences?’ Vader asks, before I can come up with an appropriate rejoinder. ‘Food allergies?’

Tipping my head, I consider that for a moment.

‘I can’t eat shellfish,’ I reply, ‘and I prefer simple dishes, without excessive sauces and such. For Catherine, plain is better, too. Nothing here will be familiar to me, so go ahead and choose something for us, something which is popular, perhaps.’

His helmet swivels to stare at the woman who had seated us. She is not overly hasty in her response to that, and actually turns away, pretending not to notice us for a few seconds. The staff at the Manarai, I decide, definitely need to watch themselves. Vader won’t put up with this sort of treatment for very long.

‘My lord?’ she asks when she finally comes over. ‘How may I serve you?’

He doesn’t waste any time giving her our order.

‘Blossom wine for my companion, neema fruit juice for the child,’ he rattles off. ‘Nuna soup to start, nerf steak with sufar greens as the main course, and uj’alayi cake for dessert for both.’

I blink at his choice of title, but wait until we are alone before questioning him about it.

‘Why did you call me that?’ I ask, puzzled.

To protect you, he thinks at me. We are being monitored, and not just by Xizor. I intend to have a bit of fun at my master’s expense. Play along with me until I indicate it is safe.

Alright, I concur, not at all sure what I have just agreed to.

Aloud, he answers, ‘You would rather I call you something else?’

‘Whatever title you choose to bestow is agreeable to me, my lord,’ I amiably reply.

He sits back a little, and it appears that he is giving that statement some serious thought. Our server returns, places the drinks he had ordered on the table and departs again. Hopefully she will be faster with dinner. Catherine is rapidly losing interest in looking out the window and watching the other people she can see. Soon, she will be seeking alternate forms of entertainment.

While I debate what to do, I carefully sip at the wine and discover it is sweet. The alcohol in it quickly rushes to my head.

The Sith Lord leans forward, apparently having made some decision. He takes my free hand, the one which isn’t playing with the wineglass, holds it in his own and gives it a quick squeeze. I look up from my drink, curious what he is up to.

‘I can think of one title I would like to give you, my lady,’ he says.

I freeze. From the way he emphasized ‘lady,’ he’s going to spend the evening not so subtly flirting with me. This could be entertaining or awkward depending on where he goes with it. From his earlier behaviour, it’s obviously been quite some time since he last tried to romance anyone.

‘My lord, I,...’ I begin but am cut off when Vader raises his hand.

One glass of neema juice is in the process of being knocked over. Somehow, though, the glass rights itself, only spilling a few drops on the table. The Sith Lord lowers his hand again, returning it to rest atop mine. Catherine stares at him, surprised.

‘No mess?’ she tells us, puzzled by what just happened.

I see her fingers creep towards the glass again. When they bump up against it, she finds that no amount of pushing will tip it. That’s another useful trick, I note with a smile. Too bad I can’t do that myself. There would be fewer ‘accidents’ to clean up.

‘She’s bored,’ I warn, ‘and will keep trying to get your attention.’

***

‘Whatever title you choose to bestow is agreeable to me, my lord,’ she answers, playing the game along with me.

I sit back and debate where to go with this. My ‘comlink’ is in reality a small camera which is broadcasting our every action and word to my master. After my public slip-up, I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by flirting with her for the evening. And Palpatine did say he wanted my date to entertain him.

The sithling is looking about, her attention shifting from one person to another. She’s getting bored and needs something to do. I glance over to where our server is trying to be inconspicuous. In a few more minutes, I will see to it that the soup is delivered, even if it means going into the kitchen myself and making an example of someone. Lazy and insolent staff are one annoyance I refuse to put up with.

Movement brings my attention back to the woman seated across from me. She sips at her drink far too quickly and I can see the effect of the alcohol as I watch her. Blossom wine is obviously new to her. I know it is potent enough that two glasses should be sufficient to make her quite drunk.

I lean forward, take her hand in mine and give it a light squeeze of assurance under the camera’s field of view. Her eyes lift from staring into her glass and meet mine.

‘I can think of one title I would like to give you, my lady,’ I impulsively state, softening my voice on the last word.

Her fingers tighten in mine. She understands what I meant by that. Now, will she go along with it, at least for show?

‘My lord, I,...’ she starts, but I silence her by raising my hand.

Someone has decided that I am not giving her enough attention. As her glass is stealthily pushed over, I react, setting it upright with the Force before holding it firmly in place. Juice rescued, I replace my hand, setting it over her mother’s once more.

‘No mess?’ Catherine says.

The following attempts to tip her cup fail. Her mother smiles, having figured out exactly what I am doing. There will be no accidents or messes here.

‘She’s bored,’ I am warned, ‘and will keep trying to get your attention.’

***

‘Catherine,’ I scold, ‘behave yourself.’

She pulls her hand back from the glass and gives me a dirty look. Mommy has spoiled her fun, but I won’t allow her to act up in public if I can prevent it.

The first course arrives before I can work up the courage to finish my interrupted reply to the Sith Lord. Rather than being set out individually, there is one large tureen and two small bowls. Our server leaves the soup on the table but doesn’t offer to ladle it out. I guess we are supposed to look after that ourselves.

I lift the lid to take a look at the soup. If it’s too hot there is no way I am giving it to my daughter. Steam rises when I stir it a bit. Definitely needs to cool for a while, so I set the serving spoon down. It should only take a few minutes for the temperature to drop.

‘Why do you wear a copy of my armour?’ Vader finally asks the question I suspect has been bugging him all day.

Embarrassed, I drop my eyes and focus on my wineglass. How am I going to explain this to him? It’s one thing to wear the armour, at home, where bumping into the real Darth Vader was a remote impossibility, quite another to try telling him in person why I am doing that.

He waits, patiently, for me to say something.

‘Because it was a challenge to make,’ I quietly admit.

More silence on his part.

I let out a sigh. He is not going to let me avoid giving him the whole truth.

‘Because ...’

I stop my sentence dead, not entirely sure of how I should finish it without sounding like a complete fool. What does he expect to hear from me? That I admire him and imitation is another form of flattery? I know some of the guys in the 501st find putting the armour on gives them a feeling of power. For others, it is the reactions that they get from kids which are their reward. My reasons for wearing it are completely different from theirs.

‘It lets you hide,’ the Sith Lord astutely intuits.

Surprised, I nod an affirmative. I wonder if he figured that out on his own or picked it out of what I was thinking. He shifts back a bit in his chair, and I get the distinct impression I am being measured in some way.

So, he prompts me in my mind, who or what are you hiding from?

The world, I own up in the most general way I can, hoping he drops the subject.

I start to serve the soup. Two large spoonfuls for Catherine and a full bowl for myself. If she asks for more, I will give my daughter a second helping. While I carefully taste it myself, I ignore the feelings of insistence I am receiving from the Sith Lord.

‘You don’t want to give me an answer, do you?’ Vader observes when his mental prods fail to elicit any further response from me.

At that, I decide to give him something to think about. This is far too personal to discuss in public with someone I don’t know that well.

‘Why do you continue to wear yours, my lord,’ I boldly turn his question around, ‘when I am sure that advances in medical technology should be able to free you from some of it?’

A sharp indrawn breath on his part.

‘Because it lets me hide,’ he growls.

I must have hit a nerve. And quite a sensitive one at that.

‘Everybody hides behind masks and armour, my lord,’ I state, refusing to be the least bit intimidated by the show of his infamous temper. ‘The ones we use are simply more visible than others.’

When he doesn’t reply, I move my legs out from under the table. My motions draw his attention. I look at him for a moment, gather up my courage, and when I see his mask tip down, I drop my eyes to watch what I am doing. Slowly pulling the skirt of the gown up, I reveal the burn scars which cover my skin from knee to foot. Before anyone else in the restaurant notices, I let the material fall back into place.

‘I trust that answers your question,’ I say in as calm a tone as I can manage.

***

‘I trust that answers your question,’ she tells me in an even voice before raising her wineglass for another mouthful.

Her hand is shaking a bit, sloshing the blossom wine as she returns the glass to the table. No doubt she thinks the alcohol will steady her nerves.

‘Yes,’ I admit, ‘it does.’

What else can I say to her? Given who I am and my own experience, showing her scars to me took every bit of courage she has. I struggle with what to do next. Asking her what happened is out of the question, despite my curiosity, and I am not very good at inane small talk. Dinner is definitely not going the way I had planned it to.

Fortunately, the crash of cutlery hitting the floor breaks the silence, distracting my date. The sithling, thankfully, tends to have good timing.

‘More soup, please,’ Catherine requests once she has her spoon back.

‘Just a little more,’ her mother tells her. ‘Dinner is still to come.’

‘Nerf steak with sufar greens,’ I remind her, using the convenient opening to try salvaging the evening.

‘Which is?’ she asks, going along with the abrupt change in topic.

‘Two rather common foods, as you requested,’ I answer, a bit amused. ‘In fact, nerf is one of the most popular meats. Sufar greens are often fed to children, who sometimes try to avoid eating them.’

As I finish, our server appears with the dish in question. It will be interesting to see what the sithling does with the vegetables, given my own childhood memories of them.

‘Beef and spinach?’ my date calls the nerf and greens, sounding caught between amusement and annoyance. ‘You ordered us beef steak and spinach with everything else you could possibly have chosen from?’

The woman with the meal in hand stops and looks back and forth between us. She doesn’t know if she should set the plates down or not, given the reaction their arrival has prompted.

***

I stare at the two plates which have been presented to me for inspection.

‘Beef and spinach?’ I identify our meal. ‘You ordered us beef steak and spinach with everything else you could possibly have chosen from?’

Our server hovers, waiting for me to approve of what she has brought us.

‘You did ask for something popular,’ Vader repeats himself.

‘So I did,’ I accept responsibility.

I indicate to our server that she is to set the plates down. Silently, I vow that if I ever have dinner with him again, I am going to ask for a menu with pictures of the various offerings rather than trust the Sith Lord to pick something suitable.

Catherine immediately lets her opinion be known after poking the greens with her fork.

‘Yucky!’ she loudly states. ‘Spinach! Yucky!’

‘Catherine,’ I scold her. ‘Don’t be rude.’

I eat a mouthful of the greens as a demonstration.

‘See, they taste good,’ I try to encourage her to do the same. ‘Mommy likes them.’

Her expression speaks volumes. There is no way I will be able to persuade my daughter to try a single bite of the sufar greens. Vader, however, opts to step in.

‘No greens,’ he warns her, ‘no dessert.’

‘No spinach,’ Catherine tells him.

This ought to be interesting. Stubborn Sith Lord meets equally obstinate sithling.

‘Eat your greens!’ he orders, shaking his finger at her.

‘No!’ she defies him, waving her fork in imitation of his gesture.

The Manarai’s other patrons are starting to take notice of the verbal sparring match. Their conversations have grown quiet and I can see that a few are watching the proceedings quite intently. It isn’t every day you that see Darth Vader arguing with a defiant two and a half year old and apparently losing. I debate intervening before it escalates further, but my daughter has something else in mind. She takes a fork full of the contested vegetable and flings it at the Sith Lord. The greens hit him just above the lenses of his mask and slide down to land in his lap.

There is complete, absolute silence in the restaurant.

The only sound for a few seconds is Vader’s breathing.

Then Catherine points at him, starts giggling, and says, ‘I win!’

I know I shouldn’t do it. I know it will probably get me into trouble, but I can’t help myself.

I start laughing.

***

‘I win!’ the sithling declares as she points at me.

Her giggles, combined with peals of laughter from her mother, continue as I brush the sufar greens off of myself. I use the time it takes to rid myself of the vegetable to work out how to deal with the situation. There is no point in being angry with the child, and I did, in a way, provoke her.

Note to self, I decide, in future never order sufar greens for a toddler.

I can sense the underlying tension in the air as my date’s mirth finally fades. Everyone here is waiting to see what I will do, anticipating that I will apply a form of painful or lethal discipline.

Do they really think I am capable of harming a child in such a way?

If so, they are in for a shock.

‘You can only win,’ I calmly tell Catherine, ‘if I have the equivalent in sufar greens to defend myself with. It must be a fair and equal competition.’

I don’t know who looks more surprised - my companion, her daughter, or our audience who are now concentrating on their own meals and trying, unsuccessfully, to appear disinterested.

‘I wouldn’t encourage her in that way, my lord,’ my date softly warns. ‘It will only result in more of the same.’

A low chuckle escapes before I can stop it. She’s worried I might start a food fight with her child? Once, as a padawan, Obi-Wan and I used one of those as a diversion to get out of a particularly sticky situation we were caught in. The resulting mess was rather spectacular. I feel a smile tug at my lips. Perhaps a food fight in his restaurant and the resulting bad publicity would be a way to repay Xizor, but the consequences if I start one myself might not be worth the effort. Instead, Jixton can do the deed for me in a few days.

‘If you eat some of your steak, you may have dessert,’ I hear a compromise wisely being offered.

Thankfully, the sithling does exactly that and no further missiles are sent in my direction.

***

I finish off my steak and greens without engaging in conversation with Vader. He seems to be in a contemplative state of mind, so I decide that it is best to wait for him to say something first. My daughter eats only a few pieces of her nerf. I guess she had more soup than I thought since she doesn’t seem very hungry any longer.

Our server is faster with the dessert than with the other two courses. I suppose that’s to get us out of the restaurant before the Sith Lord or Catherine can create another scene.

‘Your uj’alayi cake,’ we are told as the main course is cleared away.

I merely nod while I examine what is on the table. It looks a bit like a fruit and nut cake from home, but without the white glaze icing I use when I make mine.

‘It’s a Mandalorian delicacy,’ Vader offers, finally breaking out of whatever mood he was in.

‘Cake,’ Catherine happily chirps.

So much for her being full. I cut her piece and set half of it aside. From past experience, I know that she will squish what is left over once she has eaten as much as she wants of it. Tonight, though, she finishes all of hers. My own portion I eat a little slower. The cake is good and I want to enjoy it.

There’s no need to rush, but a glance through the window shows it is getting late. The more tired she is, the more bratty she is, so going back to the Sith Lord’s residence and putting my daughter to bed is probably a good idea.

‘We should go soon,’ Vader suggests after Catherine’s second yawn.

‘She’s tired and it is late for both of us,’ I admit.

He picks up his comlink, does something to it, and returns it to wherever it had been previously stored. In payment, he sets a plastic credit chip on the table. I don’t bother asking what the meal cost or if he left a tip. It’s not important and I know he can afford to pay for it.

Vader rises to his feet and offers me a hand. I take it and let him pull me to my feet.

‘Up?’ I am asked, so I lift Catherine from her chair.

She’s almost asleep now, I observe as she wraps her arms around my neck and snuggles in close. By the time we reach Vader’s shuttle, she is snoring.

***

I wait until we have landed in the hangar and Jir has left my shuttle before saying anything.

‘After I take you to your quarters,’ I reveal, ‘I will have to speak with the Emperor.’

She acknowledges that with a nod.

‘I won’t know if I will be allowed to take you home until then,’ I add.

Another nod. She’s staying mute to avoid waking her daughter.

I watch them both for a moment and a protective emotion stirs in me. My master’s games have put us into this situation. Hopefully he will have had his fun and let them go. If he doesn’t ... well, I will deal with that if it happens. There is far worse company he could inflict on me.

***

Walking silently at the Sith Lord’s side, I allow him to guide me back to the room I stayed in last night. I suspect he is worried, but he doesn’t want to say anything about it.

‘Good night, my lady,’ he bids me farewell after he opens the door for me. ‘I will see you tomorrow morning. Hopefully the news I will bring will be agreeable to us all.’

‘Good night, my lord,’ I risk a whisper.

His hand touches the control panel again and the door slides shut. I turn away and go to the bed, slowly easing Catherine from my arms and covering her with a blanket. She doesn’t stir. Stripping my dress off doesn’t take much time, and someone has seen to it that I have a nightgown to wear. I pull it on and sit at the table, reviewing the day’s events and trying to figure out one very complicated man.

Sleep evades me, though, and it is many hours later that I give up worrying about what will happen tomorrow and crawl into bed myself.

***

‘Lord Vader,’ Palpatine’s hologram greets me, ‘your behaviour surprised me.’

I bite back a retort and instead simply recognize him in turn with, ‘my master.’

‘First you publically declare her your mistress, then you proceed to treat her as such,’ he reminds me. ‘I gave no such instructions to you.’

‘It was a misunderstanding,’ I explain. ‘A word with a change in meaning I was unaware of.’

‘I see,’ he replies, tapping his fingers on the arm of the throne. ‘A misunderstanding.’

I don’t react. He will either drop the issue or not.

‘And I suppose you found it rather amusing to spend your evening flirting with the woman and entertaining her child?’ he asks next.

This I won’t let pass, since I was following his orders

‘You told me I “need to socialize more”,’ I quote back at him. ‘I was merely taking advantage of the situation and practicing.’

An evaluating expression crosses his face. No doubt he has already come up with his verdict. This meeting with him is simply for show, yet another way to exert his control over me.

‘Given the display you put on tonight, I think you have practiced quite enough,’ Palpatine decides. ‘Unless you have a reason to detain her, return her to her homeworld.’

‘As you wish,’ I agree.

He doesn’t bother with a farewell and ends the transmission.

I step off of the Holonet pad, relieved that went as well as could be expected. Still, all things considered, I don’t feel as pleased as I thought I would be about the Emperor’s decision to let her go.

***

The Sith Lord announces himself with the same chime he used yesterday. It doesn’t wake us since Catherine and I have been up and dressed for an hour. We finished breakfast about ten minutes ago, too.

‘I have been told I am to take you home,’ Vader informs me without any preamble.

‘Good,’ I reply, my fear of being stuck here finally alleviated. ‘When can we leave?’

‘Now, if you are ready,’ he answers.

Ready? I was ready to go home five minutes after I had arrived.

‘Catherine,’ I call to my little girl, ‘we are going home.’

***

I drop my shuttle into hyperspace and use the kaleidoscope of colors to help meditate, but the sounds of a child playing echo in the passenger compartment behind me, reminding me of where I am going and why. Sending Jir out to find a few toys was a wise idea. Catherine should be busy for most of the trip.

For a while I mull over the results of my ‘date.’ Palpatine’s reaction to what he observed last night indicates that I did the unexpected. Keeping him off-balance and guessing about my motives will become increasingly important as I begin to put my plans to remove him into place.

I turn about and watch mother and daughter. Jir is explaining what a bantha is to them both while Catherine plays with the stuffed one I had specifically ordered him to buy. Old memories from years ago stir again. Don’t even think about that or about her, I scold myself. You are not that man anymore. Friendship is not the same for a Sith no matter what you might want.

Returning my gaze forward, I reluctantly accept how things must be.

***

Hours later, we are almost home. Catherine, finally bored with the novelty of her new toys, has long since fallen into a doze. She will sleep until I need to carry her from the ship to my house. Jir is reading his data pad, so I don’t bother trying to talk to him. And Vader... the Sith Lord hasn’t said a word to me since we boarded his shuttle and dropped into hyperspace. Rather than disturb him, I have done my best to keep my daughter quiet and occupied.

‘We will be leaving hyperspace in about a minute,’ Vader announces.

I peer forward, through the windows in the cockpit. From my vantage point, I see the multicolored streaks and swirls resolve into the moon and Earth.

Home.

The Earth grows larger as I stare at it. I should be relieved that we are finally here and that I will be home soon, so why am I feeling a bit disappointed?

***

I travel along the same trajectory I used two nights ago, land in the same spot, and shut down the shuttle’s engines. This shouldn’t take long, but I am still reluctant to draw any attention to my presence here. No one notices us as we walk through the orchard. Like before, it’s as if the entire area is deserted.

‘My house is in that direction,’ she indicates with a tip of her head since her hands are occupied with carrying Catherine and her stuffed bantha.

‘Lead on,’ I suggest, content to follow her for the last part of our journey.

While we continue to walk, I brood. We are similar in so many ways, this woman from an obscure planet and I. And unlike many I have encountered in the past, she has treated me neither as a superior to be feared nor an inferior to be commanded, but as an equal and a friend.

A friend, I remind myself, who needs my protection. Neither my master nor Xizor will leave her and her child in peace after today, and she has no way to defend herself from either of them.

A thousand possibilities echo through my mind at that thought, but which path we will take depends on her.

***

‘Mommy’s house,’ Catherine informs us once she spots our home.

‘Yes, sweety,’ I tell her, ‘Mommy’s house.’

I set her down once we reach the door so I can find my keys and open it. Vader stands there, still silent. He’s probably glad to be rid of us, I decide, since he wasn’t happy about the date Palpatine had arranged for us in the first place. A quick look in the mailbox reveals a bunch of bills, so grab those and wave the Sith Lord inside.

‘Bills,’ I admit as I toss them onto one of the steps. ‘I’ll pay them tomorrow. I suppose I should see what I need to do for the next week that’s work related, too. Sometimes I wish I was anywhere but here.’

‘You could always come back to Coruscant with me,’ Vader volunteers.

For a moment I say nothing, while I consider what he has just said. Is he serious or not? I tip my head and stare at him. Before I make that sort of life changing move, I need more information.

‘And what would I do?’ I ask in response to his offer. ‘I don’t belong there and I wouldn’t fit in.’

Silence.

It then occurs to me just how lonely and isolated his position makes him. He can trust no one, and he most certainly can’t allow himself the luxury of friendship with anyone who might prove to be an enemy in disguise. That I am a stranger, an outsider who has no ties which could become problems, makes me ‘safe’ in his eyes.

I let go of Catherine’s hand and send her up the stairs to find a toy to play with while I debate what to do. Vader has been nothing but kind to her, despite her brattiness at dinner, and she has taken to him as well. If anything, they would be good for one another - he to impose some discipline, and she to soften him up a little.

When my eyes pass over the family photos on the wall, a few other questions come to mind. Would anyone miss me if I left? My brothers are scattered, with lives and families of their own. We rarely see one another any more. While I have a wide circle of friends, there is most certainly no one special in my life. Work-wise? I have been searching for another job for months. There will be no great loss in leaving the one I have, and I am sure that I can find something on Coruscant to occupy my time.

I return my gaze to the armoured man in front of me. What exactly does he want from me? Friendship as he has said or something more? I am too uncertain what his reaction might be to ask him directly, but perhaps there is another way to find out some of what he is feeling and thinking.

‘It’s traditional here to end a date with a good night kiss,’ I inform him.

Vader stiffens instantly.

‘But since that’s not possible,’ I reassure him, ‘I will settle for a hug as an alternative.’

I step forward, half expecting him to back away or push me aside, but he doesn’t. Instead, I am almost grabbed as he pulls me in close, and wraps his arms and cloak about me. I let myself lean against him. His body is warm and like a solid wall next to mine. Setting my ear against his chest armour, I listen carefully for the beating of his heart. It’s barely audible under the sound of his regulated breathing.

‘Yes,’ the Sith Lord says, having figured out what I am up to, ‘despite what many say, I do have a heart under the armour.’

He’s layering meanings again, like he has several times today, but in this instance he’s given away far more information than what he may have intended to. I nod my head and wait for what he might do next. A hand rises to touch my face and lightly brushes the curl which had fallen into my eyes behind my ear.

‘If I could kiss you good night, I would,’ he finally admits with a touch of sadness in his voice, ‘since this seems rather inadequate as an appropriate farewell.’

He’s just given me the answer I need to make my choice. And while he has only asked for friendship, there is the unspoken possibility for more than that, and that is all I need to know.

‘Not a farewell,’ I decide. ‘I am going back with you.’

***

Her request for a hug surprises me, but since it’s obvious she has no interest in taking up my offer to return to Coruscant, I decide to oblige her. There will be no harm in it.

When she steps towards me, I open my arms and pull her in close. Without her fighting to get away from me, I can feel just how small she is against my chest. She’s cold from walking through the orchard without something to cover her arms and shoulders with, so I pull my cloak over her back to warm her up a little. For a moment she is still, quiet, and I realize that the ear set against my armour is listening for a heart beat. It should be audible, if barely, through the durasteel and leather.

‘Yes,' I wryly admit, ‘despite what many say, I do have a heart under the armour.'

Does she understand what I mean by that besides the obvious?

Her head nods, so I have my answer. Time to see how she will react now that there is no audience to see us, or reason for her to put on an act. I touch her cheek with my finger as I move one of the curls rom her face with it and tuck it back behind her ear. She doesn’t flinch or attempt to pull away.

Good.

One last test.

‘If I could kiss you good night, I would,' I state, letting some of my loneliness creep into my tone, ‘since this seems rather inadequate as an appropriate farewell.'

Will she accept my friendship or reject it?

‘Not a farewell,' she calmly replies. ‘I am going back with you.'

I don’t let the relief I am feeling show as I let her go. It will be easier for me to protect her on Coruscant, and I will have her nearby.

‘Then you will need to pack quickly,’ I warn. ‘Take only what is most important to you. I will comm Jir and ask him to come help with your belongings.’

***

I watch Lieutenant Jir carry Catherine towards the orchard where the shuttle is waiting. She peers over his shoulder at me, but doesn’t make a fuss. The few possessions I am taking with us have already been packed into a couple of trunks and loaded so my attention is soon on my final task here. For the last time, I turn the key in the lock and drop it through the mail slot in the door. My landlady will get my voice message in the morning and call my brothers. They will take care of what I have left behind.

The Sith Lord beside me sets an arm around my waist, using it to turn me away from my former home. When we are a few steps away, he shifts his hand, entwines his fingers in mine, and leads me onwards.

I don’t look back.

***



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