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Title: New Year’s
Author: Maia (maia@bastcastle.org)
Rating: PG-13
Characters: Vader, OFC, a few other OC’s, and familiar faces.
Category: AU, Adventure, Romance, some Angst.

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

Summary: The New Year’s fete is upon them, and Maia and Vader meet someone they didn’t expect to see again at the festivities.

Author’s Note: This falls between ‘A Visit to Naboo’ and ‘Hoth and Bespin.’


The Executor, Imperial Center, Coruscant System. Month 10.

DAY 35 (NEW YEAR’S EVE)

I lie quietly in Ani’s arms while he continues sleeping. It’s been so very long, a year in fact since we have ... Don’t go there, I decide, don’t even think about it. Living together as close friends has allowed the rest of our relationship to progress and deepen in ways that it never would have otherwise. Bringing sex into the mix will only complicate matters. I look into my husband’s face again. He has never made a single move on me, nor once attempted something more intimate than a kiss. But his kisses are heavenly, I decide with a smile.

Admit it, I scold myself, own up to the truth, Maia. You want him. Despite all your resolutions to resist your own heart and feelings, you still want him. So what’s wrong with that, I argue back. He’s my husband, the father of my son. Why shouldn’t I want him in my arms? I start daydreaming about what I would like to do with the Sith Lord. I would really enjoy snuggling up to him and exchanging kisses. There’s no harm in that, so why not?

Because it wouldn’t end there, my conscience puts in, and you know it.

For once, I ignore that little voice in my mind, move in closer and give Ani a kiss just like the ones I used to wake him up with. His eyes fly open, stare at me in complete surprise, and I know in that instant he will do anything I want him to.

Kiss me, I order.

His mouth eagerly descends on mine, so I let him do as he wishes, relaxing completely under his lips. The kisses grow longer, sweeter, then become deeper and more passionate. How is he keeping himself under control when mine has long since fled the room?

***

A pair of soft lips pressed against my own interrupts my sleep. Maia has chosen to wake me this morning in the same manner she always used to. Her mouth parts a little as she nips my lower lip, so I open my eyes and look into hers.

She’s given in to the pull of our bond at last, but I won’t break her rule and take advantage of that. Instead I will wait, let her set the pace, and anything she asks of me, I will do.

Kiss me, she orders.

I ease her over onto her back and set my mouth against hers. She relaxes at that, so I keep my kisses light and gentle. When there is no objection, I decide to take a risk, and deepen them.

There is no protest from her. All I can sense is an almost desperate need for me to make love to her that she is doing her best to control.

Then all her attempts at control are gone.

Touch me, is her next command.

So I do.

***

I feel his hands brush downwards, following the contours of my body through the mothsilk I am wearing. When they return to my throat, he tugs open the top of my nightgown. Gentle caresses cover my body, so I slide my hands under his robe. Does his warm skin ever feel good next to mine.

‘Anakin,’ I whisper to him when he frees himself from his robe. ‘I want you.’

‘Shh,’ he scolds as he glances towards our sleeping son.

***

No answer from her, but I need her permission to take the last step, to perform the most intimate act. Despite her earlier words to me, I won’t make the mistake of assuming she is willing to let me do it.

‘Maia,’ I whisper to her, ‘do you want me to make love to you, or do you want me stop?’

Silence.

Then a hand reaches up, wraps around my neck and pulls me in for a most passionate kiss.

If you don’t make love to me right now, Anakin, she warns me, you’ll be sleeping in your pod indefinitely.

I share the sweet longing for her that she feels for me, and as I give in to it, our souls mesh. One light, one dark. Forever and eternally bound together as one. It is an incredibly intense, intimate moment between us. How I missed this, missed being part of her, her being part of me.

I gasp as my gift of foresight activates, shows me the path our futures will follow. Does her strange insight show her the same? Surely not, for I would know if it did.

This is not the future her odd dream reveals.

***

When I regain my senses, we are entwined in one another’s arms, my head on his shoulder, his resting against mine. So much for my resolutions.

We are meant to be together, Ani suggests, and our bond would have drawn us to this sooner or later. Fighting and resisting it was only making us both miserable.

His lips touch my ear.

My most beloved little wife, Ani dubs me.

Beloved husband of mine, I tease him back.

Now, what should we do next? he hints about.

No more fooling around, I warn. Mikal will be awake soon.

I have a better idea, then, he slyly states.

What? I ask, curious now.

The Emperor’s New Year’s Party! the Sith Lord reveals.

Nooooo! I protest in mock horror.

Not until later though. Let’s curl up for now, he suggests.

He wraps an arm around my stomach and pulls me in close to his chest. As he settles me in, his hand moves to rest in its usual spot on my middle. For an hour, we stay like that, basking in the afterglow of our love making.

***

I pull her closer, hold her tighter to my chest. Our reconciliation is now complete, I decide, pleased with how the morning has progressed. Maia won’t resist my touch or deny me again after this.

I won’t have to restrain myself any longer.

I decide to wake her up with gentle caresses. It’s long past the time when we should have got out of bed. My hand drifts down across her middle. From now on, all should be well between us.

There is an odd twinge in the Force, a sense that something has just changed, just happened. I stop my hand’s motion and reach out, probing to find out what has caused this disturbance.

And freeze completely when I discover what it is.

***

Ani? Is something wrong? I prod for an answer when he goes stiff against me.

You didn’t have Reena look after you, did you? he asks.

Look after me? Look after me for what?

Ani, what are you talking about? I fire back.

‘Kreth,’ Ani starts cursing aloud, then catches himself before he can wake our son.

I didn’t take precautions because I assumed that you would have, he admits, and from what I can sense, you obviously didn’t ....

Oh. No. He must be referring to ...

I move my hand to rest beside his and peer inward.

Damn.

Oh, damn.

No wonder he’s so upset.

Not upset, just surprised, he replies to that as I get a kiss on my neck.

‘You did want a daughter,’ Ani reminds me with a quiet chuckle. ‘She is just going to arrive a year earlier than I had planned.’

‘You are going to let me keep her?’ I ask, surprised.

‘Of course. Why wouldn’t I?’ he whispers in my ear. ‘Our daughter will be yours to raise and fuss over.’

‘Tell me about her,’ I suggest.

I feel his smile against my neck.

‘She won’t be anywhere near as strong in the Force as her brother, so my master will have no interest in her,’ he reveals. ‘I will train her to use what she has, though. It might be useful to her someday.’

‘And...’ I prompt.

‘She’ll be blonde, blue-eyed, and gorgeous, with my temper and your stubborn streak,’ he teases.

‘Ani...’ I growl a quiet warning at him.

‘Maybe impertinent, too,’ he keeps teasing.

‘Stop that,’ I hiss at him, but it is already too late.

‘Mama,’ Mikal starts calling.

‘Now you’ve done it,’ I scold my husband.

Our son rolls over in his crib and peers at us through the railings.

‘Mama,’ he says again.

With a resigned sigh, I get out of bed to look after him.

‘Next time,’ I growl a reminder at Ani, ‘it will be your turn.’

By the late afternoon, Ani is working at the data terminal in his office and I am playing, on the floor in front of his desk, with Mikal. He is almost a year old, now, and quite the busy little boy. I nudge the new, blue and red striped ball Thirsk had given him with the Force. It is promptly grabbed, carefully examined, then rolled back in my direction. This is one of his favorite games, the only one he never gets bored with, but after a few minutes of this, I want to do something else. I set the ball aside and start rummaging in his toy box. Maybe he would like to try stacking those brightly colored blocks.

When I return my attention to Mikal, he is holding the ball again.

Didn’t I just put that out of his reach?

I tempt him into dropping the ball with one of the blocks and hide it just out of his sight while I retrieve the rest of the blocks.

He has it once again when I turn to set the blocks in front of him. I know what’s up now.

‘Ani, stop playing games,’ I scold my husband.

‘What?’ is his startled reply as he looks up from the monitor.

‘Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about,’ I chastize him.

‘But I don’t,’ he admits and I can sense Ani’s genuine puzzlement.

‘Watch Mikal then,’ I suggest.

It takes a minute or so to persuade our son to let me have the ball. This time I hide it behind me before I pretend to look in the toy box again. There is the faintest of tremors in the Force, and when I turn back, Mikal has the ball.

‘He’s calling it to himself, rolling it along the floor,’ the Sith Lord notes, leaving his spot behind the desk to join us on the floor.

‘Clever, sneaky, Mikal,’ I tease. ‘You liked fooling mommy didn’t you?’

Our son crinkles his face up in a smile and starts laughing, reacting more to my tone than in understanding of the words.

‘Let’s see what his range is and what he can do,’ Ani suggests. ‘It won’t be much, but now that he is showing signs of his Force abilities, he will need some rudimentary training to control them.’

Ten minutes later our son is lying in Ani’s lap, sound asleep.

‘That’s a good way to make sure he will have his nap without protest,’ I wryly comment.

‘The concentration and effort will tire him out every time,’ Ani offers with amusement. ‘I’ll put him to bed.’

When the Sith Lord comes back, I have packed up all the toys. He extends a hand to help me up from the floor.

‘I think ten minutes of that each day will be enough at first,’ he decides. ‘If we keep it like a game, it will become natural, reflexive, to him.’

Ani is standing near to me, so I settle into his arms for a hug. He willingly obliges me.

‘My sweet, little wife,’ he teases. ‘Shall I take you back to bed for a while?’

I purr at him. That sounds like a good idea. A rest might help if we are going to be up all night, too.

‘I was thinking I might have a short nap, myself,’ he admits.

Good. I am in the mood for some cuddling with him.

Within minutes we are happily wrapped around one another. It’s like old times, I tell myself. He used to hold me like this back at the observatory. I carefully turn my head and body a hair to look backwards over my shoulder. The Sith Lord’s helmet is tucked between my shoulder blades, one arm tightly wrapped around my waist, the other under my head. With a contented sigh, I snuggle in close to his chest and fall asleep.

‘Up you get, sleeping beauty,’ Ani’s voice cuts through my dreams.

I open an eye and look up at him. Rats. Why does he always interrupt that neat dream? With a great deal of reluctance, I drag myself out of bed.

‘Party time,’ he reminds me.

I roll my eyes and make a face. Parties. Ugh. More like torture. All those boring social climbers and back-stabbing courtiers. One of the few times Ani brought me to a small evening gathering was to that dinner at the Governor’s on Corulag. I was ready to leave within the hour. No, I am no good at pretending I want to be there, and my tendency to tell people what I think will get me into plenty of trouble.

‘Do we have to?’ I plead, whining a little.

‘Yes,’ is his firm reply.

I make another face at him.

‘Stop that,’ he insists. ‘It won’t be that bad.’

I roll my eyes again. Right, sure, Ani.

That prompts him to shake a finger at me.

‘Behave, wife,’ he scolds, ‘or I won’t give you your present.’

My ears perk up. Present? He has a present for me?

‘I’ll be good,’ I promptly promise.

‘Close your eyes then,’ Ani instructs.

I shut them instantly and listen while he goes to a compartment to fetch something. One of my hands is lifted, an object set in my palm, then Ani bends my fingers around it so I can’t drop it. When he releases his hold on me, I keep my eyes closed and only use my fingertips to try and figure out what it is.

The regular facets tell me it is either a mineral or a cut stone, but knowing him and my tendency to collect rocks, it is more likely to be the former.

‘It’s a mineral of some sort,’ I tell Ani.

‘Yes,’ he admits.

With an expert touch, I start cataloging the crystal faces, their planes and angles. Puzzled, I roll it around in my hand. No, it isn’t anything I immediately recognize. Think hard, I scold.

I start repeating my observations aloud to jog my memory, ‘It’s symmetrical, belongs to the orthorhombic crystal system, has an F Bravais lattice, probably is point group mm2. Miller indices ...,’

I stop when the Sith Lord starts chuckling.

‘You’re enjoying this,’ I note.

‘Definitely,’ he admits, ‘and I doubt you will work out what it is that way.’

‘Is that a challenge?’ I rather stubbornly ask.

‘If you like,’ he teases.

‘Name your stakes, then,’ I dare him.

‘Maia,..’ he starts.

‘Name them!’ I insist.

‘Stubborn, aren’t you,’ he tries to tease me some more.

‘Ani,’ I growl at him.

He doesn’t answer and I know he is deciding what to wager. This could be both interesting and fun.

‘Dinner wherever you like,’ he finally offers.

I think about that for a few seconds, then start smiling.

‘Dinner .... and dancing wherever I like,’ I up the stakes.

There is that break in his breathing. Dancing in public is not high on his list of favourite things and I know he is wondering what I am up to.

‘Acceptable,’ he concedes. ‘Now, your matching bet?’

I weigh what to offer. It will have to be something meaningful and personal. And precious.

I will give him the one thing I have held back from him. The only thing I have been unable to bring myself to do.

Trust.

I will give him my complete trust once again.

‘Afterwards,’ I quietly say, ‘I will be yours to do with as you wish. No restrictions, nothing forbidden. Whatever you want, I will do.’

There is silence in the room. Does he understand what I am offering him?

***

She will give herself to me?

Is willing to let me decide what we will do?

And without any conditions?

The last time she made such an offer, I forced her to do something she never would have willingly consented to. So why is she repeating that mistake, leaving herself completely vulnerable again? Surely she knows what I might ask of her.

I stare at her, silent, as I realize exactly what she has just done.

Trust.

She has finally decided she can trust me - trust me to not ask that of her, trust me to not repeat that terrible scene, trust me to never hurt her like that again.

The one thing I thought irretrievably lost - her trust - she is now willing to give back to me.

This time I will make sure I don’t lose it again.

I reach over, touch her face, and brush my fingers down her cheek. My love, how can I ever match that? Nothing I can offer in return will ever match what you have just given me.

***

Gloved fingers brush down my face.

‘Maia, I can never match that,’ Ani softly admits. ‘Never. And I do understand.’

He pulls me in close, crushes me to his chest, and just holds me there in his arms. The crystal falls from my fingers, completely forgotten, as the tears start to escape on me.

As Ani rocks me in his arms, he soothes, ‘Don’t cry, love, please don’t cry.’

That only makes it go on longer.

When I am settled again, I turn my head so I can rest my cheek against his chest. I would much rather stay here than get dressed up and go to some tedious party or another.

‘Mama!’ Mikal interjects.

I start giggling. Our son has impeccable timing. That’s twice today he has interrupted a special moment between Ani and I.

‘I’ll see to him this time,’ Ani offers, ‘so you can figure out what your present is.’

The crystal is called from the floor to his hand and then set back in mine. While I sit on the bed and worry away at this puzzle, my husband retrieves Mikal from the crib, plunks him in his chair, and gives him his cup of blue milk. As I roll the mineral about, I can hear our son noisily drinking his dinner. I had planned on weaning him completely in the next few months, but now I will have to do that much sooner. My body will find it hard to keep him fed while his sister is busy growing inside me.

‘Ready to give up yet?’ Ani suggests.

‘Nope,’ I tease with a smile.

I run a finger along one of the crystal faces. My knowledge of mineralogy and crystallography hasn’t helped. This must be something that is very rare or doesn’t exist on Earth. So, what other clues might I use?

Ani could have bought it specifically to baffle me, but I doubt that. Most of his presents lately have been things he has found or purchased on planets he has had to go to for one reason or another. It must be from one of those, then. My mind runs through the list. Are any of them famous for gems? Or rare minerals?

Only one system is.

‘It’s a Corusca gem from Yavin, isn’t it?’ I ask him.

Surprised silence. He didn’t think I would know about those.

‘And a natural stone, too,’ I add just to bug him a little.

More silence.

‘Did you find this on Yavin 4?’ I tease him. ‘Or did you go out fishing for gems on a slow, boring day?’

A low chuckle at last.

‘The Commanders needed some practice, so I went out with Black Two and Three for a few hours. It hit my TIE and lodged in one of the solar panels when I ducked into Yavin’s upper atmosphere to set up an ambush on them,’ he finally admits. ‘It’s a nice stone. I could have it cut and set if you like.’

I open my eyes and look at the brilliant gem in my hand. Now I remember. This is that ‘bit of debris’ he had mentioned over a year ago, when he had been there to supervise the search of the abandoned rebel base. Since the Death Star had been destroyed at Yavin, I had assumed he meant a piece of the station had hit his fighter.

‘No,’ I decide, ‘I like it the way it is.’

I head towards my dresses’ compartment and pull out my ‘treasure chest’. Setting the crystal on the table, I sit down in the chair beside Ani, open up the box and debate where to put my latest present. Mikal spies the bright crystal and makes a grab for it.

‘No grabbing, Mikal,’ I firmly tell him. ‘Be polite.’

He scrunches up his face in frustration and tries again.

‘No grabbing,’ I repeat.

‘Mama,’ he says, making the ‘let me see motion’ I taught him.

‘That’s better,’ I tell him as I let him pick up the gem and examine it closely.

‘Maybe he’s planning on being a geologist like his mother,’ Ani teases.

Mikal tries his best to stuff the stone through the small openings in the top of his cup.

‘More likely an engineer from that display,’ I tease him back.

He gives up and drops the cup on the floor. Mikal’s eyes follow its path as it bounces then rolls across the room. His attention is quickly back on the crystal.

‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ my husband comments as he uses the Force to retrieve the cup.

Mikal looks over at him. He’s spotted his cup.

‘Dada,’ he calls, beckoning for it.

‘Don’t, ... ’ I start to warn, but Ani gives the cup back to our son before I can stop him.

It is soon back on the floor again. This time I fetch it, but I refuse to give it to Mikal. I am not teaching him that throwing his cup on the floor is a game. After a few howls of protest, he is looking at the gem again. He brings it up close, tries to chew on it for a minute, then drops it on the floor, finally bored with it.

‘Didn’t taste very good, did it, son?’ the Sith Lord asks.

Mikal looks at him and makes a razzing sound of disapproval. My husband tries to repeat it back at him, producing a very odd effect as his vocoder processes it. Our son does his best to imitate that, yielding an even stranger set of noises.

Ani starts to laugh which gets Mikal giggling as well.

‘Honestly, Ani,’ I scold as I pick up the gem and put it away, ‘There are times when I don’t know which of you two is more of a kid. You or him.’

‘Me, of course,’ he teases.

With a touch I open the compartment with my gowns and select one for tonight. Our son brings out the very best in him, I quietly admit to myself as Ani settles himself on the floor to play with Mikal. No one would ever recognize the Emperor’s military commander in the man who is happily goofing around with his infant son. If only things could stay this way. If only the rest of the galaxy would just go away and let us live our lives in peace and obscurity.

I glance towards the door to our living quarters as I put on a set of earrings. That door is more than just a physical barrier. It is the entrance to our own private world, a world where the Sith Lord can be himself, be my husband, be our son’s father. Be who I want him to be. But the minute he steps outside of it, that man is gone. Wiped away by necessity. Only the Sith Lord exits these rooms, only Anakin enters them.

My necklace slides into place. No one else sees his private faces, not the physical one, not the personal one. Only I will ever see those. And our children. Mikal has no fear of his father’s armor or mask, nor of his unmasked appearance. Both to him are his ‘daddy’ as they will be to our daughter.

I pick up my small mirror to check my hair and scant make-up. Learning to accept the limitations his position imposes on him has been difficult for me. Understanding that he can only be himself, here, in private, came early. Accepting that I could not change that has been a struggle.

The mirror goes back in my make-up bag. It is only recently I have finally conceded to myself that I cannot change him. Despite what Michael had wanted me to do, despite my own desires, I cannot force Ani onto another path. He has to make that choice himself. But it is so very, very hard sometimes to bite my lip, say nothing, stand aside and watch what he does without comment.

My last chores are to retrieve my ‘saber from where I keep it locked safely away from Mikal’s curious fingers and select a veil to go with my gown. I don’t have to wear one of those any longer, but it will be a way to hide myself from uncomfortable stares and scrutiny. Ani, I see, is watching over our little boy again. My husband has done that many times in the last few months - stood guard over our child when he thinks I am not going to notice. It is one of the Sith Lord’s ways of quietly demonstrating just how much he loves his son.

***

I look up from where I am playing with Mikal and see Maia select a gown for tonight. She puts it on quickly and from her thoughtful expression is busy musing again. A rather loud squeal comes out of our son. He’s such a happy child. It takes very little to entertain him and I enjoy the time I spend playing with him.

Mikal grabs at my robe, tugs on it to get my attention. With a gesture I send a ball flying into his hands, then begin tickling him when he finally tires of that game. I sense Maia’s eyes on me, catch a glimpse of her smile at our antics.

I must look quite undignified - on my hands and knees, down on the floor, making silly noises with my infant son.

Do all fathers act like this?

It’s time for someone to go to bed. I get up and stop Mikal from crawling over to his mother who is staring outwards, towards the door to our private living quarters.

A doorway. A barrier designed to keep the outside world from getting in. A means of protecting my family from more than just physical threats.

Whenever I enter these rooms, I shed my public image. I refuse to allow the darker aspects of my personality in here. This is Anakin’s domain, not Darth Vader’s. Within this small sanctuary, hidden from view, only the loving husband shows his face to her, to our son, and I can safely be my true self, be the man Maia deserves to have as a mate.

I seal the seam on Mikal’s sleeper, silently wishing he would stop wiggling and squirming so much. He starts yawning, so I take him to his crib and cover him for the night. The blanket is promptly kicked off as he makes a grab for my hand. Gently, softly, I touch his mind and use his drowsiness to quiet him. Maia is much better at getting our son to go to sleep than I am, but it is a privilege to do this for her, a measure of her trust in me.

‘Dada,’ he quietly calls me, so I stay beside him, let him hold my fingers, while I watch over him until he is soundly asleep.

Daddy. Father. Titles I will hear from my son and daughter to come. Mikal doesn’t fear me at all. Hopefully he will never have any reason to be afraid of me.

Maia is busy with her makeup. Soon she will be ready to leave. And I will have to put my mask back on. Not the physical one, which I am already wearing, but the personal one, the one I hide my true self behind. It has been very hard for her to accept that I can only be myself with her in private. I know she wishes she could change that, but as long as my master is alive, this is how it must be.

I step away from the crib and slide my arms around Maia’s waist from behind. She lets herself fall back against me, rests her hands on top of mine.

My beautiful wife. The woman who loves me enough to generously give me an undeserved second chance at having a family. I glance back over my shoulder. My little son.

I finally have everything I once thought lost forever - a loving wife and our child.

Can my life be any better than this?

***

Arms slide around my waist from behind and hold me close, so I set my hands on top of his and lean back against him. Ani knows I have been letting my mind wander everywhere while he changed our son into his nightclothes and put him to bed.

Daini and Cyran will be here soon to watch over Mikal for the evening, and Thirsk, Kohvrekhar, and Ghazhak, to guard him. It doesn’t matter, though. Even with all the security, I am uncomfortable being away from him for very long.

‘I don’t like leaving him,’ I whisper to Ani as I look over at our sleeping child.

‘Call your brother then,’ Ani suggests.

‘What?’ I blurt out.

He hasn’t mentioned Michael in ages.

‘He can keep an eye on things and let us know instantly if there are problems,’ he decides. There is a pregnant pause, before the Sith Lord sheepishly admits, ‘If he is still willing to have anything to do with me, that is.’

Michael has every reason to stay well away. The Sith Lord treated my brother atrociously that night he came to comfort me after the first of Ani’s beatings. In his mindless rage, Ani had warned him away, threatened him, attempted to destroy him even. Only my screams of agony as the bond with my sibling started to shred had stopped him. Michael had come back to me just once after that, and I had only sensed his presence, not seen him. The Sith Lord had done enough damage that physically manifesting was impossible for him.

‘He won’t come back,’ I tell Ani. ‘He can’t. You damaged our bond and hurt him far too much for him to ever manage that again.’

For a minute he doesn’t say a word, but I can sense the sadness and deep regret my husband feels. What he did during those few terrible weeks has left permanent scars on both our souls.

‘Maia, I am truly sorry for that,’ Ani apologizes, ‘I know what your brother meant to you ...’

The chiming of the comm interrupts the rest of what he was going to say. Mikal’s troop of babysitters have arrived.

‘What’s done, is done, my love, and can’t be changed,’ I remind him as I free myself and secure my veil in place.

With a tug on his hand, I pull him towards the door. I am not letting Ani slide into another one of his guilt sessions. He has put himself through enough of those in the last year already.

‘Let’s go to this party you are determined to be at,’ I suggest. ‘The sooner we get there, the earlier we can leave...’

Two hours later, we are in the large audience hall in the Imperial Palace. Having endured the usual formal introductions, I am busy surveying my potential hiding spots. Unfortunately the best of those have already been claimed. Rats. At least the Emperor isn’t here so I won’t have him to steer clear of. Ani had said that his master was ‘elsewhere’ but gave no details. Others I want to avoid, however, are.

I let Ani lead me along wherever he wants to go. As long as I am at his side, no one will bother me, but I know sooner or later he will want to have a private word or two with somebody and I will be in the way. Hopefully there will be someone I know nearby to escape to when that happens.

The Sith Lord eventually steers me towards a group of military men in dress uniform, some of whom have their wives at their sides. No, I think to myself, not an evening of shop-talk. I keep my resigned sigh under wraps. My job here is to be the pretty trophy wife, so I will be quiet, well-behaved and demure, and, I decide, with a hidden smile, make private comments to Ani to keep myself from becoming too bored by it all.

One of the younger officers notices our approach, stiffens and makes a quick, quiet comment to his comrades. They react instantly, becoming ramrod straight and losing their relaxed, slightly careless attitudes. A familiar face turns towards us. Captain Piett, I note with some relief. At least one person I know is here.

‘My Lord, my Lady, allow me to introduce you to my wife, Blitzé,’ Piett starts the round of introductions.

‘My Lord, my Lady, good evening,’ she echoes her husband’s greeting.

His wife is dark haired and blue eyed, and dressed in a simple, but elegant party gown. She’s not as tall as I am, but in every way she perfectly complements her husband. When she speaks, her accent identifies her as a native of Naboo.

I smile at her. Here is someone I can talk to, perhaps befriend, if my husband gives me the opportunity. As a fellow military wife, we should share some common concerns.

Piett continues around the circle, but I quickly tune him out as he goes through the names and ranks of those surrounding him. The last man he introduces gives me a start. That name - I know it from somewhere, but I can’t recall where I have heard it before or why it is important.

While he drones on about his career, I carefully study Admiral Ozzel. He’s impeccably groomed, not a single hair is out of place, suggesting he could be a bit of a perfectionist. The accent is similar to those from Carida, and his mannerisms are polished and a touch arrogant. Old money - he reminds me of someone with that background. His family must be wealthy and probably has a strong military tradition as well.

‘... and I have been assigned to active duty again after spending some time teaching in the Naval Academy here on Imperial Center,’ Ozzel’s comment cuts through my thoughts.

‘And your command?’ Ani politely asks.

He’s as bored by this long-winded Admiral as I am.

‘I have yet to be assigned to one, my Lord,’ Ozzel admits.

Hope and pray it isn’t yours, I tell the Sith Lord. He would put you and the entire crew to sleep the way he carries on about nothing.

Maybe Trever could use him as a mobile tranquilizing unit, Ani suggests in return.

Our silence encourages the Admiral to keep rambling.

‘I have some affinity for languages and a broad background in Naval history. I think I would enjoy a posting where I could put both to use,’ Ozzel adds.

Noooo, that’s even worse. He could put the crew to sleep in several languages, I tease Ani.

‘My analysis of several battles has become part of the mandatory curriculum at the Academy...,’ the Admiral continues on with an in depth description of his theories.

When he finally finishes, I roll my eyes and make a face at him, knowing he can’t see anything under the veil I am wearing.

Overly simplistic, I harshly criticize. In the field, such inflexible tactics would get you and your men killed very quickly.

I have to agree with you, Ani replies.

‘Perhaps you are familiar with the First Battle of Megiddo?’ my husband asks before Ozzel can start on another long lecture.

Ani, I warn, don’t you dare.

He ignores me.

‘The Aruna Pass?’ the Sith Lord prompts when Ozzel says nothing.

Ani stares at the now flustered Admiral who is obviously trying to conceal his ignorance of that particular engagement. The other officers are casting surreptitious glances at one another. They are enjoying Ozzel’s discomfort just as much as Ani is.

‘It’s part of the curriculum my Lady taught at the Academy on her homeworld,’ he adds for good measure.

I hear a few quickly stifled snickers from some of the officers surrounding us.

That’s enough, Ani, I firmly order. It’s not funny any longer.

Ozzel’s eyes bore into me. He resents the fact that the Sith Lord has used me, a mere woman, to thoroughly humiliate him in front of anyone within listening distance. Ani has just made me an enemy.

‘My Lord, I am of the firm belief,’ the Admiral flatly states, ‘that women have no place in the military or aboard ship.’

Dead silence falls around us. Ozzel just put his foot and knee in his mouth.

A hiss escapes from the Sith Lord’s mask. Piett gives me a quick look and takes an immediate, careful step away from the Admiral. The General to Ozzel’s other side does the same. They at least have some idea what Ani’s reaction might be to that remark.

This is going to be nasty and there is no place for me to escape to. I will have to stand here and watch.

I feel goosebumps rising all over me and the hairs go up on the back of my neck. Soft footsteps echo from behind us in the now silent chamber. The sound of robes whispering against the floor grows louder as someone approaches.

Who?

Unable to stop my curiosity, I turn to look.

Michael?

Here?

In his black Sith Lord robes?

Are you insane? I scold my brother.

As of a few minutes ago, yes, he teases me.

***

I raise my hand, intending to dispose of this annoying, arrogant fool. No one insults my wife like that, questions my judgement like that. The other officers back away. They know what Ozzel has just earned himself - a permanent, deadly reminder of why it is not wise to irritate a Sith Lord.

There is an odd eddy around us. Something has shifted, changed in the Force.

I tip my head, extend my senses, then notice that Maia has turned around and is staring at something behind us.

I swivel my head about to look at what has her attention, then spin completely around at what I see. For an instant, my surprise overrides my respirator; my breathing breaks for a split second before resuming its previous pace.

What is he doing here? Maia seemed convinced he was gone for good, but no, here he is, dressed as a Sith, sauntering across the audience chamber with a smirk on his face.

Michael tips his head in greeting once he reaches us. He ignores me for a moment, looks down at Maia and kisses her forehead through her veil. I hear a whisper make its way around the room after that. Everyone is wondering who the tall, red-haired stranger is who walks in and casually kisses Lord Vader’s wife right in front of him.

I am not having him create a messy scene in public, I decide.

‘You are a menace,’ I growl at him in warning.

Other than the sound of the group of officers making their hasty retreats behind us, there is silence in the room. So much for dealing with Ozzel. Now, I have my brother-in-law to worry about instead. And no one here wants to miss seeing this confrontation.

Which is not much of an improvement in the situation.

‘It’s nice to see you too, brother dear,’ Michael teases in reply.

I set my arms across my chest and glare at him, furious. Fool of a Jedi. Of all the stupid things he could say, that has to be one of the worst. Obviously he has no idea just how much trouble his attempt to tease me is going to cause.

The pest starts smiling at me.

Doesn’t he realize there is nothing to be amused at?

Michael, I hear Maia telepathically warn him, after Ozzel’s idiotic display he’s in no mood for your nonsense.

‘Cranky tonight?’ her brother prods despite her warning.

I refuse to answer him.

With an offended air, Michael states, ‘I travel halfway across the galaxy for a visit and you won’t even say ‘hello’. How rude.’

That does it, I decide. It’s time to leave before he makes another foolish remark.

‘ “Hello,” ’ I promptly reply, ‘and goodbye.’

I grab Maia’s arm and pull her along, hurrying past her brother towards one of the exits. There is no way I am going to fuel the court’s gossips by finishing this conversation in public. Michael follows us at a more leisurely pace.

I note the narrowed eyes and measuring looks on a few faces as we go by.

Sithspit.

Quite a number of prominent people are here and they all want to know more about this brother of mine who has appeared out of nowhere. And enough of them have the Emperor’s ear that there will be no way to hide him or conceal this incident from my master.

The three of us eventually end up in a small waiting room nearby. The second after I have taken care of the monitoring cameras and microphones, I settle my wife in a chair and stalk towards Michael.

‘You, Jedi, are either completely insane or have a death wish,’ I snap at him. ‘Do you have any idea who was in that room?’

‘I think I saw Drayneen lurking near the fountains,’ Michael starts a list, ‘Jade was hanging about with Tremayne, ...’

After he adds a few more names, I finally stop him with a wave of my hand and the comment, ‘So you have an intimate knowledge of who the Emperor’s Dark Side adepts, Hands, and Inquisitors are. I should have expected that given what your sister knows and once knew.’

Maia looks a bit puzzled at that. I decide I won’t enlighten her further.

‘They can’t do anything to me,’ he smugly states, ‘so why worry about it?’

‘You had better start worrying right now because if you think I can protect you from my master once he knows of you, you had best think again,’ I warn, shaking a finger at him.

Michael merely smiles at that.

A low, frustrated growl emerges from my throat. He thinks this is amusing? How stupid and dense can he be? Maybe he needs to think about the potential consequences of his actions.

‘Since you obviously have no regard for your own existence, perhaps you should consider what might happen to your sister if the Emperor gets his hands on you,’ I tell him.

The smile disappears from his face. He had never thought of that.

‘As it is, I am going to have a hard time explaining to him how I suddenly acquired a ‘brother’ he has never heard of,’ I wryly admit.

I can’t tell my master the truth. Admitting I have let a Jedi escape destruction, relative or not, alive or in whatever state of limbo Michael is in, could be messy and possibly disastrous.

‘Tell him the truth, that I’m Maia’s brother,’ Michael suggests.

‘And have him decide your family is too powerful to leave be? That my wife could produce a child who might threaten him? Give him a reason to take her and my son and daughter from me?’ I ruthlessly question. ‘Are you mad?’

‘Not mad,’ Michael sheepishly admits, ‘just rather foolish.’

For a few long minutes, there is silence while I debate what to do about the mess I now find myself in. A rather clever idea occurs to me, but it will require his co-operation and Maia’s complete ignorance of my plans.

The door chime sounds. I open it with a gesture to reveal Inquisitor Tremayne standing there. He’s here for the brief meeting he had asked for earlier today. This is even better. I can use him as an independent, unbiased witness.

‘A word in private, Lord Vader,’ Tremayne requests.

‘Take my wife for a walk in the garden, little brother,’ I order Michael.

I need to get both of them out of here while I discuss how his search of the Outer Rim for any potentially useful Force sensitives is progressing. The Emperor will want an update on this matter very soon. And the more candidates Tremayne has for me to select from, the better.

I can safely delay telling Michael my plan for a few minutes.

***

I get to my feet and take Michael’s arm. He doesn’t feel as solid as he has in the past, so I am careful how I hold onto him as he guides me out the glass doors into the courtyard beyond. We settle ourselves on a bench near the small pool where I can watch Ani and Tremayne through the transparisteel windows.

I don’t believe you, I snap at my brother, you stay away for months, leaving me to conclude you are gone for good, and then choose to reappear and make nothing but trouble. Do you have any idea what Palpatine will do to him if he thinks Anakin has hidden you away for the last two decades?

I, ...

Do you have any clue what this could cost us? We could lose our children, no thanks to you. I could lose Anakin, lose everything all because you decided to turn up and pull an idiotic prank.

Maia, ...

You scold me for doing things without considering the consequences, then do something like this? Honestly, Michael, did you stop for even one minute and think things through?

I had no choice, my brother finally gets a few words in.

And what exactly is that supposed to mean? I snap at him.

Anakin would have killed Ozzel and I couldn’t let that happen. Not yet. It’s far too early for that yet, Michael blurts out.

I roll that around for a minute or so. That Ani would do something to the Admiral was obvious to everyone, but too early? What does Michael mean by that?

Michael, I want some answers. Now. No more evasions, no more ‘you don’t need to know that yet’s’. I want the truth from you, I insist.

My brother shifts uncomfortably beside me, then gets up and paces back and forth, casting glances between Ani and I. My husband might be comfortable hiding behind a convenient lie or two, but Michael isn’t. He might be evasive, refuse to answer, but my brother will never lie to me. Finally he stops pacing, sighs and drops himself on the bench again.

You aren’t supposed to be here, he tells me. Anakin’s fighter bounced too close to a collision between a star about to go nova and a black hole. Time and space ripped, and he ended up on Earth, a place he never could have got to otherwise.

That was just about the stupidest explanation I have ever heard.

What you just told me sounds like something out of a really bad science fiction story, I scold him. I’m a scientist. I know better. That can’t happen, so try again.

He lets out a resigned sigh, and tries to convince me again, You would know it to be the truth if you hadn’t completely mangled your memories.

Fine, then, I give in, I am not supposed to be here, I concede, not wanting to argue with him any longer. So what. I’m here now.

Yes, and your being here is causing all sorts of problems, he wryly admits, like the one I just short circuited.

All you did was create another, worse one, I growl at him.

The Sith Lord still has to figure out how to explain Michael’s existence, and my brother’s lame story is not going to help one bit. I watch my brother carefully. From the look on his face, he’s busy having a private mind-to-mind talk with Ani.

Listen to me Maia, Michael tells me as he tips my chin up to look into my face. In meddling and trying to repair the timeline, I have made mistakes that I can never fix now, and you have paid and will pay the price for those.

What is he going on about?

Always remember that I love my little sister, he reminds me, Sith Lady though she is.

Michael?

No matter what happens, react as you would naturally. Don’t try to play act, be yourself.

With that he rips the mothsilk veil from my head, pulls me close and kisses me. My first shocked reaction is to shove him away, the second, to slap him. Michael just catches my hand, twists it painfully behind my back and forces another kiss, this time a deep one, on me.

What the hell do you think you are doing? I yell at him.

No answer and I am starting to panic a little. Ani is going to completely freak out if he sees what is going on out here. With all my strength, I use my free hand to land a stinging slap on Michael’s face, get loose from my brother and bolt from the bench. He pursues me as I run around the pool a few times, then flee towards the room where my husband is. Tremayne and the Sith Lord finally notice the ruckus, both men turning to face the glass doors as I burst through them, Michael close behind.

I duck behind Ani who blocks Michael’s path when he tries to make a grab for me again. Tremayne hauls my brother back with a firm grip on his arm.

‘What is going on here?’ Ani asks rather forcefully.

I rest my forehead against the center of Ani’s back, and do my best not to tremble too much or have a hysterical fit. This is going to be really, really nasty.

The Sith Lord turns around to look at me.

‘You’re shaking,’ he observes as he gathers me into his arms, ‘and your veil is gone.’

I nod an affirmative to him, too upset to answer verbally.

‘What did he do to you?’ he asks me, but I know he is glaring over at Michael.

Tell me, Maia, Ani insists. I won’t be angry with you.

He... I start, then stop. I can’t tell him what my brother did. Ani will destroy him for that.

‘Tore off her veil and kissed her,’ Tremayne calmly replies. ‘Then tried to force himself on her when she resisted. When she escaped, he pursued her. I saw the entire incident.’

A furious growl sounds above my head. Anger echoes across our life-bond. Nasty doesn’t begin to describe the reaction I expect from Ani now.

‘Bring him,’ Ani orders as he shifts an arm around my waist to guide me across the room. ‘I will deal with my brother in a more suitable setting.’

Before I am pulled out the door, I cast a fearful glance back at Michael who is being dragged along, unresisting, by Tremayne. My brother has really done it this time, but instead of looking worried or concerned, he’s completely calm, as if nothing had just happened. When he meets my eyes, he winks at me, so I quickly turn my attention forward again. He’s up to something, I decide, and Ani is probably in on it. Well, I won’t let on that I know about their little plot and spoil their fun.

Our return to the audience hall causes silence to descend. Tremayne marches Michael to the center of an area clear of partygoers and releases him. My brother shrugs his ruffled robes back into place and gives the Inquisitor a dirty look.

‘That was completely unnecessary,’ he scolds Tremayne as he makes a show of smoothing out a wrinkle.

Ani motions Piett over from the group of officers he is hanging out with and orders, ‘See to my wife for me, Captain.’

The Sith Lord then leaves me standing beside Piett, who exchanges puzzled and worried looks with me. All I can do is shrug my shoulders. I am as much in the dark about what will happen next as he is.

Everyone watches the Sith Lord stalk towards my brother. Tremayne wisely retreats to stand beside me, to my right, while Piett is on my left.

‘I should have killed you a year ago,’ Ani growls at Michael, ‘instead of being charitable and letting you go. I think that today I will finish the job.’

‘That’s not a very pleasant thought,’ my brother quips in response.

He’s deliberately trying to provoke Ani.

‘Be silent, pest,’ the Sith Lord snaps back.

Now I know for certain they are both playing some sort of game. Ani only calls Michael ‘pest’ when he is a bit annoyed or teasing him. I let myself relax a little. Time to enjoy whatever show they have planned.

‘If you are going to kill me,’ Michael suggests, ‘at least do a proper job of it.’

A hiss comes from Ani’s mask. He turns, holds his hand out and with a thought pulls my lightsaber from my belt to his hand.

‘Take it,’ he orders Michael, holding my ‘saber out to him.

They can’t be seriously considering a duel?

‘What? No formal challenge? No calling me out for offending your wife’s honor?’ my brother teases as he accepts the weapon.

Those two are going to duel. I bite back my words of protest. Anything I say will only make things worse. As the injured party, by custom, I am forced to stay silent anyway. My honor is my husband’s business now.

‘I am not going to make my private affairs public knowledge,’ Ani growls at Michael.

‘Private?’ my brother replies with a snort. ‘Hardly. There were plenty of witnesses.’

More than Tremayne saw that? I think a moment. There were other people in the garden. I was just too preoccupied at the time to really notice them. The color starts to rush into my cheeks so I do my best to control and stop it. How embarrassing can you get. French kissed in public by my own brother - yuck.

‘She really is a good kisser, but I am sure you are well aware of that,’ Michael gets in a deliberate barb.

Ani whips his lightsaber off his belt and turns it on with a loud sounding snap-hiss.

‘Maybe I should have stolen a few more before she slapped me and ran away,’ he sadly notes.

That prompts the Sith Lord to shift into a ready stance.

‘Now don’t be so hasty,’ Michael scolds.

‘Why not?’ Ani growls. ‘I have already been far more courteous to you than you deserve.’

‘We should name our seconds if you are going to do this in the traditional manner,’ my brother reminds him.

‘Go ahead, then,’ the Sith Lord tells him, sounding a bit exasperated, ‘name your second.’

Michael quickly surveys the crowd.

‘What is he doing?’ Piett asks me.

‘Choosing a second,’ I answer. When I get a perplexed look, I add, ‘In duels of honor, on my homeworld, the combatants choose someone they trust to make sure it’s a fair fight. And to kill them if their wounds will be fatal but are not immediately so.’

‘Somehow I doubt that will be a problem, my Lady,’ Tremayne dryly comments.

My brother’s eyes finally reach mine. With a mischievous grin, he points a finger at Piett and says, ‘I’ll take the Captain over there.’

‘Me?’ Piett chirps in disbelief.

Michael nods at him.

‘I don’t know anything about dueling!’ the Captain protests.

‘Then my second, Lord Tremayne can help you,’ the Sith Lord decides.

The Inquisitor beside me stiffens a bit and it is rather obvious he wasn’t expecting that particular honor. I cast a sneaky glance over at him. Something has been going on between him and Ani for over a year. Every time they are within a light year of each other they end up in private meetings. Plots and more plots, I decide.

The sound of my ‘saber igniting focuses my attention back on the two men in front of me. Michael tips the grip a few times, tries a quick swing or two and gives an approving nod. He’s quite familiar with how I like my rapiers balanced so it will be easy for him to adapt to the ‘saber’s.

‘Stop trying to delay the inevitable,’ Ani snaps, his irritation plainly evident.

‘Temper, temper,’ Michael teases as he shifts into his usual ready position.

I have always wondered what a duel between those two would be like and I will very quickly have my answer.

‘This shouldn’t take very long,’ Tremayne quietly states under his breath.

‘I wouldn’t be so sure about that, my Lord,’ I reply.

The Inquisitor looks over at me. Curious are you?

‘They are evenly matched in physical size and strength,’ I reveal.

Tremayne’s remaining natural eyebrow goes up.

‘And?...’ he prompts me.

‘In their ability with a lightsaber as well,’ I admit.

He stares at me in surprise. Didn’t expect that, did you.

‘An interesting pairing then,’ the Inquisitor decides as we both wait for the first blows to be traded.

Ani and Michael quietly stare at one another, each silently daring the other to make the first move. I see that slightest of shifts before the Sith Lord starts a blindingly fast attack to Michael’s left. It is just as quickly parried with the resounding crack of the two blades echoing through the room. The next riposte is of equal speed, the block, the same. Ani tries a feint, Michael swats it aside and begins his own series of counterattacks, forcing the Sith Lord to take a step or two backwards before recovering and returning to the offensive.

The blows continue to be traded back and forth as they circle one another. Not a single one comes close to landing. Nor does their speed diminish. If anything, it picks up once they have established their rhythm and are comfortable with the other’s style.

Michael is as brilliant with the blade as I remember, but the many long hours Ani has spent in the salle with me has accustomed him to the style Michael and I were both taught as children. The Sith Lord could never stand toe to toe with my brother and fight him on his terms otherwise.

The duel drags on. Two minutes pass, three, then four. How much longer can they continue at this speed and level? Tremayne shakes his head in disbelief when they are still trading blows with ease as the ten minute mark approaches.

I finally realize that neither one of them is holding anything back, and neither one can get an advantage over the other. Michael can keep this up forever, but Ani can’t, I note as Ani adjusts his respiration rate for the second time. My husband is going to do himself some serious harm if he doesn’t back off a little and get some sort of rest break. Somehow they have to finish this.

Michael catches a glimpse of my worried face and winks at me. Now what?

Ani begins another attack. Michael parries, then lets the Sith Lord bind their blades. Loud sparking fills the room as the power cells are pushed to their maximum. The only other sound is Ani’s breathing.

The Sith Lord steps sideways, freeing his blade as he moves into a loosely held stance. He tosses a feint at my brother next, following that with a backhanded counter-attack. Michael is forced to back away by that.

No, he’s going to try and use my trick on Michael. But my brother knows that one and how to effectively counter it. Ani is going to get himself killed.

Ani, don’t, I call to him for the first time during their duel.

He ignores me, steps into the quick spin, changes the grip on his ‘saber as he does so.

Michael, please, I try next.

No answer to that either.

The Sith Lord slams his blade hard against my brother’s, the attack low, to Michael’s off-side.

My brother adjusts his grip and shoves back, binding their blades once again, but he doesn’t launch the counterattack I had been expecting. Instead he seems to lose his balance a little.

No.

Ani frees his blade.

No, Michael, steady yourself, quickly, hurry.

My brother’s eyes meet mine as Ani swings his ‘saber sideways at him.

I turn away and refuse to watch what I know will happen now.

There is the sound of a lightsaber impacting on a body, a split second of silence, then the chime of my ‘saber’s metal hilt hitting the stone floor.

In that instant I fall to the floor as well.

***

I watch Michael disappear, his robes falling to the floor, cut in half exactly as Obi-Wan’s were.

That’s a very clever trick.

Did my old master plan to use it to distract me from my son as he escaped from the Death Star? Or was his sacrifice an impromptu one? Surely he knew there was no place to flee to, nowhere he could ever hide, no evading his inevitable death at my hands.

With a gesture, I retrieve Maia’s saber, call it to my hand and hook it onto my belt. My own joins it.

Tremayne caught Maia as she fainted and is carefully cradling her in his arms. At least he has the good sense to look a bit uncomfortable about that. Piett is not sure what to think, given the expressions which are fighting for a place on his face. The others in the audience are already busy discussing what all of this meant. I ignore them. Right now, only my wife is important to me.

The Inquisitor passes Maia over to me the instant I am in front of him. I carry her from the chamber, the ranks of partygoers parting in front of us like water before the bow of an ancient sailing ship.

After the display I just gave, no one is going to risk offending me for a third time tonight.

***

The touch of a gloved hand on my forehead rouses me.

Stay where you are, little goddess, Ani tells me. You have had a bit of a shock.

I open my eyes and look about the room. It’s the same one we were in earlier. Ani’s sitting in a chair beside the couch and has just straightened up from leaning over me. I choke back a gasp when I spot the third occupant of the room.

I’m not that easy to get rid of, Michael scolds. I just pulled a vanishing act so Lord Vader’s ‘brother’ could die a rather spectacular death.

And I guess your mauling me and stuffing your tongue down my throat was part of the act, too, I do my best to growl at him.

I am truly sorry for that, little sister, my brother tries to avert my wrath with an apology. That was Anakin’s idea, not mine. I wanted to give you some warning of what we were up to, but he wouldn’t let me. He knew you would never be able to fake as good a reaction as your real one would be. If it makes you feel any better, you are just about the last person I would ever want to kiss like that. French kiss my sister - yuck.

Ani? I put all my annoyance into that one word.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, he sheepishly admits.

Next time, I growl, you can be the one to French kiss my brother.

Michael starts snickering at that and I quickly join him. The images my mind is conjuring up are rather lurid and hilarious.

Stop that, the Sith Lord commands, trying to get some control over the situation. It’s not that funny.

We just laugh a little longer before conceding to him.

Scram, pest, Ani finally orders. I want to spend the rest of the evening with my wife.

Michael promptly complies and vanishes.

‘I had a few drinks and other refreshments brought in here for you,’ Ani tells me as he helps me up into a sitting position.

I quickly survey the pitchers, glasses and trays of fancy looking treats on the table. All that for me?

‘Help yourself,’ he insists.

I reach over and select one of the juices. It looks and smells like my favorite so I quickly fill a glass and choose what appears to be a chocolate brownie to nibble on. Both taste delicious. What to try next?

By the time I have had started on my second treat, Ani has retrieved my ruined veil from the garden and tossed it aside as a lost cause. The holes where the fabric tore on the hairpins are too large to disguise and it will look silly if I wear it as it is now.

‘We will do without it for the rest of the night,’ Ani decides. ‘I have had enough of crowds for the evening anyway.’

He resumes his spot in the chair across from me and watches me demolish a large portion of the food on two of the trays.

‘You eat like I don’t feed you enough,’ he finally comments.

I blush at that. I like sweet things and whoever made these goodies was a master chef. These are the best desserts I have ever had.

‘You are eating for two again,’ he quietly teases. ‘I suppose your cravings for sugar could have come back a bit early. Do I need to worry about melted ices in the autochef?’

I make a face at him. The only time I get my favorite ‘ice cream’ is when Ani makes it for me. Every time I have tried, it ends up a melted mess.

‘Ready to go for a walk in the gardens?’ he asks once I have drained my glass and set it aside.

My reply is to offer him my hand and let him pull me to my feet. He guides me outside, into the now dark courtyard and steers me deep into the maze of ornamental gardens. The largest ones are lit with torches.

‘Why is it so dark?’ I ask.

‘The lights are out all over Imperial Center in anticipation of the fireworks to come,’ he tells me. ‘There are just a few people left out here so only the more popular gardens are kept lit.’

We wander around a large fountain, then stop by a series of small ponds. I give the water in one of the pools a stir with my fingers. The brightly colored fish quickly scatter, then return to investigate my hand when I hold it still. Curious if I can draw them closer, I reach out with the Force and tempt them nearer.

Here, fishy, fishy, I think at them.

A large blue one swims closest, touches my palm with his snout before vanishing again with a casual flip of his tail.

‘It’s beautiful here,’ I muse aloud. ‘So much variety. Every garden is different.’

‘The Emperor’s staff includes the best horticulturalists and landscape designers in the galaxy,’ Ani answers.

We leave the fish behind as he steers me away from the more central formal gardens. Eventually we reach a small, intimate one, with a small pool in the middle, in front of an artificial cave. Someone has set floating candles in and around the water, but there is no one nearby now. The Sith Lord tugs impatiently on my hand so I follow him into the grotto. Moss covers the floor and the smell of growing things fills the air. Alive. This place smells incredibly alive.

‘You can sense it, feel it, can’t you?’ Ani whispers.

I nod at him. I know what he is referring to. Potent. This spot glows with the Force.

‘Come here,’ he orders, tugging me back against him so we both face the entrance to the cave.

With grace one wouldn’t expect of him, the Sith Lord drops into a cross-legged position, pulling me down with him to sit on his lap. His arms wrap around my waist, holding me tight, so I lean backwards into his chest.

‘No one will disturb us here,’ he whispers suggestively in my ear.

The latent power of this spot is affecting him. His lust surges across our bond, and it is demanding the fulfilment of the primal urge to mate and reproduce.

I shift in the Sith Lord’s arms, push him over backwards and give in to what we both want. There is no force in the universe which can stop what we need to do. Both of us are completely caught up in the moment. A few minutes later, he is flat on his back, with my head resting on his chest, until both of us have recovered enough from our experience to speak.

‘Ani, what happened?’ I ask.

‘Release of stress from the duel on my part - I wanted you, and your body was ready and demanding that we mate, so we did,’ he answers with wry amusement.

‘A bit late for that!’ I joke in return. ‘I’m already pregnant!’

He pushes me off of his chest and sits up. His helmeted head turns to look over at my lounging body.

‘That’s odd, you don’t look it,’ he teases back.

I toss a clump of loose moss at him. He ducks and it hits the wall with a splat.

‘That’s not funny,’ I scold, ‘It’s taken me months to get back into good shape and soon I will have to start all over again.’

Ani quickly motions me to his side.

‘Maybe you should wait until after all of our children are born before worrying too much about that,’ he suggests.

‘All of our children? Ani...’ I warn.

‘Five,’ he answers my implied question. ‘You will give me four sons and a daughter.’

I stare at him. Three more pregnancies to go through after this one? All that misery? Being sick, being unable to do anything. Going through the pain of birthing them?

‘Are you serious?’ I ask.

‘Completely,’ he flatly states. ‘You will bear me five children.’

My eyes shift down to my flat stomach. Number two is on her way already.

‘It’s a good thing I like kids,’ I decide.

He chuckles at that.

‘Come over here,’ he offers, ‘so we can watch the fireworks together.’

I happily sit beside him in the entrance to the cave and look skyward. No trees to block our view and the surrounding gardens have hidden any trace of the buildings in the palace complex. We could be sitting anywhere on any world. With a contented sigh, I lean against Ani and pull his arm tight around me. This is nice. No one around to bother us.

A caress drifts across my middle, so I add my hand to his and give it a squeeze. Sneaking off and having a bit of fun was a good idea. His hand traces the same path again, then stops as he looks in at our daughter.

‘Maia,...’ he starts to say something.

I let my own senses peer inwards.

‘Gods above,’ I blurt out. ‘How did that happen?’

‘Twins,’ Ani whispers, ‘Force no.’

I take another look. The second bright Force spark is still there.

‘This was not in anything I foresaw,’ he admits, sounding a bit shocked.

With a careful touch, I examine my two daughters’ Force presences more closely. Two girls, mirror images of each other. Cool.

‘The fertilized egg must have split sometime late today,’ I decide.

‘A few minutes ago, I think,’ Ani answers me, ‘since this is the first time I have sensed the second one.’

He is silent for a while, thinking.

‘Two girls,’ he whispers again. ‘What am I going to do with them?’

‘Enjoy raising them,’ I tease, ‘play with them while they are growing up, pull your hair out when they start chasing boys, be the proud father the day they get married, and spoil the grandchildren rotten after they arrive.’

‘Grandchildren?’ he asks, sounding a bit sceptical.

‘Children always grow up someday, my love,’ I remind him. ‘They won’t stay little forever.’

‘All too true,’ he quietly agrees.

A hand caresses my face as we stare out at the night. My Anakin, my husband, my love. So much has happened in the last year. Our son. Our estrangement and reconciliation. And now our twin daughters to look forward to. There have been good days and bad days, and days I would rather forget, but I wouldn’t trade any of it, not even for a trip back home.

A blaze of light turns the night into day. Then another.

I turn my head a little to watch the fireworks. A New Year has started. It’s time to let the old one go.



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