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Title: A Visit to Naboo
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: What starts out as a typical day on the Executor results in an unusual and surprising visit. Extracted from the AU ‘The Sith Lord and the Scientist.’


The Executor, Naboo, Naboo system. Year 0, Month 8.

DAY 20

I turn myself over and look at Ani. He’s still asleep and my restless tossing about has pulled the sheets off his chest. With a careful tug, I pull them up again, noting that his most recent wounds, the one across his ribs where his armor was slashed through and the blaster burn on his left shoulder, have almost healed at last.

Stop fussing, he scolds.

His blue eyes are open, watching me, but he doesn’t appear to be irked or annoyed.

‘You should be sleeping,’ he tells me next.

‘Now who is the one making a fuss?’ I tease him back.

‘Hungry again?’ he asks, though I am sure he knows the answer.

I move in a little closer and kiss him.

‘Go back to sleep, love,’ I whisper in his ear.

The Sith Lord looks a bit amused at my suggestion, but doesn’t object when I sit up beside him. Reaching behind me on the shelf produces a small bowl of veggies to munch on and a glass of water. In the last few days I have become adept at eating in bed without spilling anything or dropping any crumbs.

‘If you keep eating at this rate,’ Ani teases me some more, ‘I will have to do something about it.’

‘It’s not my fault that your son has decided to go on a growth spurt,’ I admit. ‘If I don’t eat now, I will be miserable in the morning. Just be glad it shouldn’t go on for much longer.’

I crunch away on what tastes like a carrot, but no vegetable from Earth was ever this bright neon green in color. Before starting on the next bit, I look down at Ani, and decide to bug him for a few minutes.

‘Ani?’ I ask.

He lets out an unidentifiable noise. I guess he took my advice and went back to sleep. Rats. I want some company and it seems that I won’t have any. With an annoyed sigh, I finish eating, return the bowl to its place and sip on the glass of water. There’s no point in trying to get Michael to show up either. The Emperor is on the planet below, too close for my brother’s comfort. He plans on staying well away until the Sith Lord has finished his business here and put some distance between me and his master.

Well, I will just amuse myself for a while. I start counting days. Twenty-one Earth weeks. Just over halfway. And I am showing to the point where none of my dresses can conceal my condition any longer. I carefully rub my stomach. It’s big enough that it is becoming hard to find a comfortable position to sleep in. Poor Ani has not said one word in complaint, but I know I have kicked him a number of times and swatted him with my arms when I try to turn over. One morning he had retreated to the opposite edge of the bed in an attempt to get away, only to have me follow him over there, insisting on curling up to him. Maybe I need a separate bed so he can get some undisturbed sleep.

‘No, I won’t sleep apart from you,’ he instantly replies to that thought.

‘You’re awake,’ I note.

‘There’s no point in my falling asleep until you do. That way I won’t get attacked by flying feet and hands again,’ he teases.

‘I don’t mean to,..’ I start apologizing.

‘I know that, little goddess,’ he breaks in, taking the empty glass from my hand and returning it to the shelf. ‘It’s hard for you to settle in when our son is busy and you can’t find the position you need to be in. Now come here, and let me hold you for a while.’

I hunker down under the blankets and snuggle up to him. It’s getting difficult for him to hold me close, and other things are becoming more like gymnastics than I would like. Last night was quite funny as Ani tried his best to keep his weight off of me.

‘It wouldn’t be as awkward as that if you would simply let me use another position,’ he scolds a bit.

‘Alright,’ I egg him on, ‘go right ahead and do so.’

‘Now?’ is his unbelieving response to that offer.

‘Why not now?’ I shoot back. ‘It’s far too early for anyone to suspect you are awake so there shouldn’t be any comm calls to disturb us.’

That’s all the encouragement required.

An hour later both of us are satisfied and much too lazy to get out of bed.

‘I should have found and married you years ago,’ Ani’s sleepy voice tells me.

I run a finger down his nose, then brattily ruffle his hair. It needs trimming again. For a few minutes, I just rest my chin on his chest and stare happily into his eyes.

‘We should try to sleep a bit longer,’ the Sith Lord decides. ‘I have much to do today.’

That prompts a sigh from me. He has to meet with the Emperor later in the day and I will be stuck on the ship. By myself. Again. And with no Michael to keep me amused.

‘Why don’t you help Melina go through all of your accumulated correspondence this morning?’ he suggests.

I make an exasperated noise. Now there’s a boring task. Invitations to turn down, people to send two sentence notes to telling them to shove off, charities to deal with. Melina keeps anything upsetting from reaching my eyes, but I know that what I see is only a small fraction of what comes in each week. Ani almost never bothers with anything he is sent. He has several aides back on Imperial Center who screen and sort through all of it. Only when something unusual arrives does it make its way across the Sith Lord’s desk.

‘I don’t know why you insist on seeing your mail when you obviously don’t want to handle any of it,’ he wryly notes.

‘Curiosity,’ I admit.

‘Perhaps you need something else to occupy your time then,’ he hints. ‘There’s all of those documents which arrived yesterday.’

‘No, not more economic and production reports to analyze,’ I moan. ‘That’s even more boring than reading through my mail.’

‘Well, then, what would you like to do?’ he asks.

I smile to myself and let my fingers trail down his chest, across his stomach, intending to ...

‘No,’ he firmly refuses, stopping my hand’s descent with his own. ‘We’ve done enough of that today already.’

Rats.

‘How about spending some time in the salle?’ I suggest.

He’s considering that.

‘I’ve finished the training ‘sabers. Maybe you would like to try them out before I go,’ he finally offers.

My ears perk up. Cool.

‘We can try dueling again!’ I happily decide. Ani hasn’t let me do that for weeks.

‘No more free-form duels, Maia,’ he warns. ‘You are far too clumsy for that now.’

He hasn’t forgotten the last time we dueled and I lost my balance.

‘But ...,’ I start to protest.

‘NO!’ he adamantly insists, ‘and don’t ask again. We will work on first form drills and velocity sequences instead.’

‘Not more of those,’ I start complaining. ‘After almost two months of nothing but the same stuff I am starting to get quite bored.’

‘Bored or not. You will repeat them until I am satisfied with your progress,’ he crankily states. ‘Now go to sleep before I change my mind.’

I shift off his chest, turn over and do my best to settle in. Ani’s just as strict in the salle as my grandfather ever was. If I continue to argue or question his decisions about my training or dueling with him, he will just make me do more solo drills until I shut up about it. Maybe the Sith Lord’s worse than grandfather. I compare the two for a few minutes. No, I finally decide, grandfather was far harder on me. Ani always stops when he senses I have had enough. Grandfather would push me to the point of collapse before backing off.

‘You’re a better teacher than grandfather ever was,’ I admit to him.

‘Only a fool would try training you the way he did,’ Ani quietly observes. ‘You are far too delicate for that sort of brutal treatment. What remains of your clumsiness is related more to his insensitivity than any fault of yours.’

‘It’s how he was taught,’ I respond.

‘And did he treat others the same way?’ he asks.

After a moment’s consideration, I shake my head.

‘I thought not,’ the Sith Lord states. ‘He expected your abilities to be the same as your brother’s. When you didn’t measure up, he just tried harder to force you into that mold, and that is completely unreasonable.’

‘You’ve been talking to Michael again,’ I wryly note.

‘Yes,’ he admits, then orders, ‘now go to sleep.’

I feel a kiss on the back of my neck and his hands help to move me into one of the few comfortable positions I have found for sleeping in. A few caresses to my middle and Ani has quieted our son so I shut my eyes and do my best to fall asleep.

After a while, I give up since I am far too alert now. My love is dead to the world, though, and I don’t want to wake him up. With a sigh, I resign myself to lying in bed, thinking, until I do drop off again.

The last month has been strange to say the least. A brother I thought to never see again has become a regular fixture in my life. Michael’s visits have made living with Ani’s increasingly restrictive orders bearable. Maia, you should be thankful, I remind myself. You have a husband who loves you and is willing to put up with a Jedi ghost as a brother-in-law. Those two have started to act more and more like friends, too, even though neither of them will admit it. Men can be so incredibly stubborn sometimes.

My mind wanders off to think of my rather obstinate friend. Commander Tosack has driven them nuts down in Medical, refusing to stay in bed and behave himself. His entire focus has been on getting back to work and blueprints keep appearing in his room despite Trever’s attempts to keep them out. Maybe I should go visit Tosack again. We are still in the middle of a holochess game. A smile sneaks across my face. I know very well that a large sum of credits has been wagered on the outcome. Every move either one of us makes is quickly relayed throughout the ship and hotly debated. I also know Ani has been following our game’s progress though he pretends to have no interest in it.

The Sith Lord’s even breaths feel warm against my ear, reminding me of how close we have become in the last few weeks. His tendency to shove me aside whenever he feels a bit insecure is gone now, and he is quite careful to spend what time he can with me. He has even started to confide in me a little, but I realize he is still trying to protect me by holding back most of what he knows and is busy with.

I let myself brood a bit. Ani has found no clues that might help him locate the Rebels’ new base, and he is becoming frustrated enough to start taking personal risks just to track them. The assassination attempt he fought his way out of happened during a trip to visit one of his information sources a week ago. Maybe I can assist in some way. No matter how careful the rebels are, there will be patterns in their movements which might give away where they have relocated to. I will offer to help in the morning. My mind more settled, I pull my love’s arm tight around me and go to sleep.

When I wake, Ani is gone, working in his office, no doubt. Rats. No bath for me today. Grumbling to myself, I manage to get out of bed without too much difficulty and make my way to the ‘fresher. An hour later, I am busy debating what to do. There has been no sign of the Sith Lord so he must be somewhere else on the ship. So much for practicing in the salle with him. Fine, I’ll comm Melina and go through my mail like he first suggested.

I am settled in the den and properly covered when my aide shows up. She sets a stack of flimsies on the table so I give them an irritated glare. I hate those plastic printouts and always end up with cuts on my fingers from their sharp edges. For once I get an apologetic look from her.

‘No paper available today, my lady,’ Melina apologizes, again, using her usual excuse.

I don’t answer, just pick up the top one and start reading. By the time I am halfway through the pile, I am thoroughly bored. With a sigh I toss another party invitation on the growing heap of things to have Melina send the standard refusal to.

‘Don’t these people have anything better to do with their time than bother me?’ I snap.

‘It would be considered quite a social coup to have you attend...’ my aide starts, but stops when I give her one of Ani’s looks.

‘What’s the point of asking? His Lordship would never allow it,’ I flatly state. ‘He never lets me go anywhere. Or do anything.’

I am starting to whine so I shut up and pick up the next flimsy in the stack. A request from a charity for aid. These are much harder for me to deal with. So many people in need and so little I can do to help them. I read the letter through a second time, then set it to the side to look at again, later.

When I am finally through the stack, I return to the few things I had set aside to reconsider.

‘Check on these to see if they are legitimate,’ I tell Melina, handing her the four letters I had selected, ‘and get back to me right away with what you find out. I suspect that two of them are frauds, but the others I am not sure about.’

She doesn’t blink, just checks something on her datapad, and tosses the two documents I was suspicious of onto the refusal pile.

‘I thought those would catch your attention, so I already checked,’ she admits. ‘Here’s what I found out about them when I investigated.’

Melina is getting to know me all too well. Another stack of flimsies appears on the table. More to go through? With a sigh I start reading once again. By the time I have finished the summary section, I know what I want to do.

‘I will fund this, but anonymously. See that everything is done properly,’ I order, handing her back the charity’s request.

‘But my lady,...’ my aide starts to protest, obviously upset by my decision.

I raise an eyebrow. Melina is going to argue with me?

‘Is there a problem, Lieutenant?’ I coldly ask. It is not her place to question, only to obey.

‘They’re not human,’ she finally spits out, and the venom in her voice takes me aback. ‘Why waste valuable credits on something no one else would bother to support?’

I stare at her, completely shocked. This is not the Melina I am used to. She has never shown any indication she held this sort of opinion, and while I have always known that an anti-alien bias existed in the Empire, this is the first time I have had it shoved in my face.

‘Would you see children suffer needlessly? For no good reason? When I can do something to help?’ I prod her, watching carefully for her reaction.

The disgust on her face is all the answer I need. So, my aide is at heart a true daughter of the Empire. They have done their work well with her. I have never had any tolerance for this sort of prejudice. Not at home, and definitely not here.

‘They’re aliens. Not human. Not worth the effort. Why waste time, credits and energy on them?’ she tells me, making no attempt to hide her loathing.

That does it.

‘Get out,’ I snap at her, letting my temper rear its head. ‘Get out. Now. Before I do something I might regret.’

The tone in my voice makes her go absolutely white. Good. She has clued in that her comments have crossed the line with me.

When she still remains seated, I get up and snarl, ‘Didn’t you hear me Lieutenant? Get out. And don’t come back.’

She moves too slow for my taste so I storm after her, heaping curses on her head in every language I know to hasten her progress. When she bolts through the door, my anger at her is sated, but I am still disgusted by the attitude her words represent. I stand there for quite a long time, venting my frustration by swearing, but this time in Sith.

‘That happens to be physically impossible,’ a quiet, amused voice states as the door opens.

Ani. Melina must have commed him. I am probably in for it now.

‘You are nasty when you lose your temper,’ Ani calmly notes, stepping inside and letting the door close after himself. ‘Lieutenant Panib was in tears when she commed me.’

That instantly deflates my remaining fury. What am I doing? Jedi don’t through tantrums and chase people like that, no matter how much they are provoked.

‘I want her replaced, my Lord,’ I flatly state. ‘Immediately. Today even. I won’t have my decisions questioned.’

‘There’s more to it than that, isn’t there?’ he astutely observes.

I stay silent as he escorts me back into our private quarters.

‘Well? I want an answer from you, or shall I go ask the Lieutenant what set you off?’ he continues to dig.

I refuse to answer. He is probably just like her and won’t understand, so why bother. And Melina. She’ll quite happily give him all the details no doubt. Well, let her go right ahead and do so. I don’t care.

Ani’s helmet swivels as he looks down at me. I can tell he’s deciding what to do.

‘Consider yourself confined to our private quarters,’ he finally orders. ‘When I come back you will explain to me why you will not put on another display like that again. And Melina stays. You will apologize to her and be more civilized in the future when you disagree with her.’

Ani leaves me in the den, shuts the door after himself and locks it. I stand there, fuming at him now instead of my aide. How dare he do this to me. I won’t apologize and I won’t have anything more to do with Melina either.

I retrieve the information on the proposed children’s hospital and the other letter I had set aside, then head into the bedroom to brood. With a tug, I rip off my veil and toss it on the table. My temper has come back again and is demanding some sort of release, so I proceed to shred the hated mothsilk into narrow strips, letting them fall on the floor as I go. Satisfied at last, I prop myself up in bed and start reading.

It’s a good project, I conclude, and a necessary one. So few hospitals address the needs of the non-human community and even fewer the specific problems of their children. How could anyone with a speck of decency ignore this? I will support this, I decide, and I don’t care what anyone thinks.

With a sigh, I drop the flimsies on the floor and look at the other letter. Some class of youngsters has written to me wanting to know what my homeworld is like. I start to smile at that. Cute. And harmless. Melina had checked to make sure it was legitimate. Okay, I will write them back.

I go to one of my compartments to retrieve some paper and my stylus. How should I describe home? After a few pages, I add my sigil and set the stylus on the table.

Home. How I miss it. And my family. And Rick and my other friends. For once I give in to a bout of homesickness. It would be June now. Summer holidays. The hills will be green until the brutal heat of July arrives. Convocation day would be about now, too. The lake should be starting to swarm with tourists and the early local vegetables start to appear at the fruit stands. Strawberries ripen towards the end of the month. How I miss going to pick buckets of those. Neema fruit don’t quite make the grade even though they taste almost the same.

I let the tears escape. I miss home and I want to go back there. I am tired of the Empire, tired of never knowing if Ani will return to me from his excursions in one piece or not, tired of not being able to do and say what I want. I don’t want to be here any longer. I hate the Emperor, hate this ship, hate being stuck where I am.

I want to go home.

With a sob, I give in completely, throw myself on the bed and cry myself to sleep.

***

Another officer to replace. How unfortunate, but repeated incompetence is something I refuse to tolerate. I turn away from the dead Commander lying sprawled across the deck and signal his removal.

Naboo beckons through the transparisteel so I take my place at the head of the bridge and stare out.

What am I going to do with her?

Thanks to Melina’s indiscretion Maia’s childish display has become the talk of the ship. Does she not realize I can’t allow such behavior to go unanswered? Not realize how her actions reflect badly on me? She should be grateful I disciplined her in private, sparing her the public humiliation I could have inflicted on her.

I pause a moment. Perhaps it is for the best. The situation has given me an excuse to confine her to our quarters, where she can’t get into trouble, while I am on Naboo.

I reach out, feel her distress and anguish, but don’t respond. Let her hurt for a while. It will serve to drive the lesson home. I want her to think twice before ever throwing a tantrum like that again.

Piett approaches to inform me that the Lieutenant has been located at last. Did she really think she could hide from me? Time to find out exactly why my wife chased her like a madwoman.

***

Ani’s been here and left while I was sleeping, judging from the empty glass left on the table. He did that on purpose, just to make a point. I stay in bed and warily look around. The stack of flimsies is gone from the floor as is the letter I had written and left on the table. Snooping again are we, Sith Lord? Well, I don’t care. For once I am not giving in one inch to him. He can lock me in here as long as he likes.


DAY 24

Four days, I think as I wake up. It’s been four days since Ani left for the Emperor’s retreat. Four days since we have spoken. Or rather, since I have spoken to him. He made several attempts before he took his shuttle down to Naboo to get me to talk to him. I am not playing that game. I know what he wants, but I won’t give him the satisfaction of hearing it from me. There is no way I am going to apologize. Not to Melina. Not to him. The Sith Lord should just forget about it.

I shift myself up a little bit, prop myself up with the pillows and debate what to do today. A few kicks hit me from within, so I push down the blankets and watch a bump appear and disappear with regularity on my stomach. That’s hilarious. I begin giggling which stops my son’s squirming for a moment. Soon enough he starts up again. Too bad Ani is being so difficult and unreasonable. If he were here, I am sure he would laugh at this, too.

‘My little, active son. Are you going to be this busy once you are born?’ I ask my middle. ‘You will be quite the terror if you are. I can just imagine having to chase after you everywhere.’

I let him move about for quite a while before soothing him into being quiet. Time for me to get up. What to do? Wandering into the kitchen, I spend a few minutes poking about in the cooling unit and cupboards. There are fresh neema fruit in the cooler if I want some, but the thought of food makes me feel ill. With a sigh, I let the door on the cooler snap shut.

A glance at the door controls in the den reveals that I am still locked in and I have no way to get out, either. Ani was smart enough to take my lightsaber away while I slept and couldn’t put up a fight about it.

I can’t even summon someone using the comm. When I tried, I discovered that the only signal that will go out is for Reena. And Ani had thoroughly briefed her on what she was allowed to do, too. The doctor will only talk to me if I need some medical advice and she won’t come to see me unless the situation warrants it.

He has completely isolated me. Punishment for my tantrum. Discipline for chasing after Melina.

I refuse to give in to him this time.

Bored, I head back to the bedroom and drop a memory chip into the comm unit. I know Ani checks on me at about this time so I will do my best to annoy him. He hates some of the modern music in my collection, so I pick a few pieces, start the first one and crank it up loud. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the comm unit activates and promptly shuts off again. I was right then. The Sith Lord definitely doesn’t like heavy metal.

By the end of the day, I have discovered that Ani can’t stand punk or rap music either. Thank you, Jamie, I think at my distant brother, you must have known I would have a use for those cd’s some day.

It’s late in the evening now and I still haven’t eaten much. This is not good, I decide. I have barely touched any food since Ani left. The sight and smell of it just makes me feel queasy. Maybe I should drink some fruit juice. Five minutes later I am in the ‘fresher wishing I had tried water instead.

Tired, fed up, and frustrated, I go to bed and try my best to forget about everything except getting some sleep.


DAY 28

I feel rather fragile and unsteady today, so I am very careful when I get myself out of bed. My hands are shaking quite badly by the time I have managed to get dressed and over to a chair.

Should I try to eat this morning?

I examine the tray I had left on the table last night. Randomly selecting a piece of bread, I proceed to shred it, nibbling on the small pieces with long stretches of time between each one. If I eat too quickly or too much, I will only make myself sick. And the anti-nausea patches have proven to be completely useless for combating whatever is wrong with me.

You could comm Reena, my conscience reminds me, but I ignore it. The first time I did, she told me what Ani’s rules were. When I tried a second time just to have someone to talk to, she cut me off after only a minute. The third time, I was snapped at and after that, I could only leave messages - Reena wouldn’t answer in person at all.

With a sigh, I resign myself to toughing this out on my own.

It takes an hour to eat all I feel is safe, then I return to the bed again. I haven’t tried singing in days and I have little strength to do much other than the absolute minimum. My mind has been busy though whenever I have been awake, so I let it wander a bit.

Thankfully the Emperor is returning to Imperial Center this morning. Maybe Ani will be back as soon as Palpatine is gone. With that thought, I pull his pillow close in and immerse myself in the Sith Lord’s scent. I miss him terribly. Even having him on the ship and ticked off at me is better than being locked up by myself and alone for days on end.

I let myself relax and stretch out with my senses. The black hole in the Force the Emperor makes is like a cancer on the world below. Yanking myself back a bit, I look around for Ani. He’s there, too, but his Force signature is nowhere near as powerful or dark. A careful survey reveals that there are other far weaker Force sensitives nearby as well. I quickly fall out of my meditation. No way am I going to let anyone catch me poking about where I shouldn’t be.

With a gesture I call my photo album to my hand. Flipping through it occupies my time, but also fills me with longings for home. I turn to the last few pages, the ones I put the party pictures in and stare at the one of Ani and I on the dance floor. How simple life seemed to me then. There was just the two of us out at the observatory - no Emperor for him to answer to, none of my colleagues about to get underfoot - only Ani and I.

How I wish he had stayed with me there and never brought us back here.

Homesickness hits me again, so indulge myself and give in to it.

***

I bid my master farewell and watch him finally go into his shuttle. It is a relief to know that he will be gone shortly, but I do not leave the landing area until his ship is a speck in the distance.

Thoughts of my wife fill my mind as I walk back to the stone buildings. Maia’s childish attempts to irritate me stopped rather abruptly two days ago. Reena has heard nothing from her either. Perhaps she is trying other tactics to gain attention now - silence and sulking.

I make my way to the balcony, set my hands on the stone railing and stare across the lake.

If only Melina had been more careful. Using a comm unit in such a public place to call me and then putting on that show of hysterics and tears that she did...

I let my right hand clench into a fist. The Lieutenant did that deliberately. She knew every word we said to one another would be overheard and repeated. But for what gain? A bit of embarrassment for me and much worse for her. Surely she knew I would discipline her for that indiscretion. Why else would she then try to hide? The only person she truly hurt was herself...

 ... and Maia.

How clever and utterly ruthless. Melina has had her petty revenge for Maia’s scolding. Revenge imposed on my wife by me. I will need to transfer the Lieutenant to where her skills at manipulation will better serve the Empire. There is no place for such a creature on my wife’s staff.

With a careful, light touch I reach out to my little wife. She is homesick and heartsick again. I resist letting out a sigh. Every night since I left she has cried herself to sleep, pining for her homeworld and yearning for me. There is nothing I can do about the former - to her, her homeworld must be forever out of reach. As for the latter, my master left me no choice. It is far too dangerous for Maia to be anywhere near him. She had to remain safely confined within my quarters on the Executor.

A few raindrops hit the calm surface of the lake. I watch the ripples spread out from the impacts and dissolve into complicated interference patterns as the rain continues to fall. Master Yoda once compared the ripples produced by a drop of water with the effect of one’s actions; the results can be farther reaching and more unpredictable than one might expect.

My meditations are disturbed by the presence of another Force sensitive nearby. Inquisitor Redge has sought me out. The fool. No doubt he is here to offer still more excuses for why his agent failed to retrieve the holocron. He can wait.

‘My Lord,’ I hear him say, so I dismiss him with a gesture.

He ignores it and steps closer, despite the fear I sense in him.

‘I do not wish to be disturbed, Inquisitor,’ I hiss at him.

‘It’s your Favorite, my Lord,’ he flatly states, his fear becoming audible now. ‘There was an urgent message from the Executor...’

I stay frozen in place, my back to him, and once again reach out to my bondmate. Her mind is quiet, silent. There is no reaction at all to my attempts to contact her, so I force my way inside. She’s unconscious, and ill, very ill, and I have been so preoccupied that I did not notice this until now.

Maia...

‘... she’s been poisoned somehow and is dying,’ I only half-hear him finish. ‘And they need your permission to try to save your son.’

No.

Not again.

I will not lose someone I love again.

I refuse to let this happen.

Somehow I find myself running. Running to my shuttle, then across the docking bay, through the corridors down to Medical.

Reena and Trever see me, step out of my path, wave the others from the room. I stop in the doorway and look at the small figure in the bed, surrounded by monitors and barely breathing. She is as white as the sheets they have covered her with, her cheeks hollow as if she had not eaten for days.

Maia, I call to her.

***

When I hear Ani call my name it is all I can do to open my eyes. He is here at last, standing beside me. And he’s dripping water all over the floor.

‘You look like a drowned rat,’ I tease him in a barely audible whisper.

He hesitates, then replies, ‘And I think you have looked better, yourself, too.’

I shut my eyes again and concentrate on my breathing. Ani’s fingers trace a slow path down my cheek. It must have been raining where he was. The smell of damp leather is quite strong until he moves his hand to rest it on the side rail of the bed.

Maia, my beloved, my little wife, he starts to comfort me. Everything will be alright. I won’t let anything happen to you...

‘My Lord,’ I hear Reena quietly say.

Their footsteps leave the room. Reena will speak with him in private, but I already know what the Sith Lord will be told. They can’t find the source of the metabolic poison, and without knowing exactly what it is and how to treat it, my systems will shut down, one by one, until the inevitable happens. Ani will have little time, perhaps an hour or two, to make his choice: either to wait, continue trying to save me, risking his son in the process, or to have Reena take our child while he is still unharmed, killing me with the surgery I am now far too weak to survive.

At least I can take comfort in knowing my death won’t cause Ani’s. Michael was able to sort that bit out for me. Instead, I will end up like my brother - a Force spirit doomed to wait for my life-bonded’s death. I can live with that, I wryly think. But my poor love will have two Jedi ghosts who will nag at him. And boss him around. The Sith Lord has no clue how to raise a child and will need all the help I can give him.

His regulated breaths are audible to me once again as Ani quickly returns to my side.

‘Send Major Fervis to me, here,’ I hear him order.

A gloved hand lifts and laces the fingers of my left in his own. He says not a word, just stays quietly beside me, waiting for the Intelligence officer to appear.

‘Tell me, Major, what you know so far,’ Ani asks when Fervis comes into the room.

‘Shouldn’t we discuss this elsewhere?’ Fervis suggests.

‘No,’ the Sith Lord snaps. ‘Now, your report?’

‘The toxin is not recorded in any of the archives. If it were, Reena and Trever wouldn’t need an unmetabolized sample to work from,’ the Major reveals. ‘We searched your quarters, removed and tested anything she might have ingested, but found nothing. Nor was there any trace of anything in any clothing or personal items she was in contact with.’

‘The source must be there somewhere, Fervis, and we are running out of time. Go look again and this time, you had better find it,’ Ani threatens.

I try to squeeze his hand a little to get his attention.

He’s doing his best, I tell the Sith Lord. They are all doing their best.

His other hand joins the one already holding mine, covering mine completely. I send him a few reassuring thoughts, but Ani’s mind is racing, far too busy to take any comfort in what I am doing.

Maia, tell me everything you have done since I left. Even if it’s trivial, even if you think it is insignificant, he insists.

I do my best to humor him, knowing that there is nothing I can say which will help much. My mind ticks off the time, though. Soon Ani will need to make his decision and I suspect he is delaying that as long as he can so he doesn’t have to face the reality of the situation.

An hour goes by and I find it increasingly harder to breathe. Reena comes in to check on me and I open my eyes long enough to see her frown at the monitors. She shakes her head, then slips an oxygen mask over my face.

‘That should help a bit, my lady,’ she tells me before leaving Ani and I alone once more.

Major Fervis stops by soon after.

‘We found nothing, my Lord,’ he reports, sounding thoroughly frustrated at his inability to solve the mystery. ‘I even had my men take sample peels from the floor and walls. If the source was there, it is gone now.’

Ani is silent at that. He simply waves the officer from the room.

‘How can something so deadly disappear without a trace?’ the Sith Lord muses out loud. ‘No one entered my quarters after I locked you in. And those rooms were sealed after Reena had you taken from there. The source must still be there, somewhere. Fervis has missed something.’

I sense him rock back and forth, from one foot to the other. He’s pacing in place while his mind works away at this.

‘What about the clothes you were wearing?’ the Sith Lord asks.

Tested already, I tell him.

His fingers loosen their grip on my hand. I feel him carefully check each of my gold arms bands, looking for a foreign substance, I guess. He is touch is gentle as he does this, and I know he is doing his best to avoid disturbing any of the i.v. lines Reena shoved into my veins.

‘Nothing,’ he admits, ‘but the only thing to leave my quarters was you.’

I feel myself drifting off and fight to stay conscious. An alarm sounds. I hear running footsteps and Reena’s voice calling out various commands.

‘You must tell me what you want us to do, my Lord,’ I hear her shout at him. ‘There is no more time to spare.’

My world goes black before I hear his answer.


The Emperor’s Retreat, Naboo, Year 0

THIRD HOLIDAY OF THE YEAR

***

I lean against the stone balustrade and let my senses sweep around me. She’s nearby again, hovering, waiting for me to acknowledge her presence.

Maia, I scold, stop playing games.

A warm breeze catches my cloak and I hear her easy laughter behind me. I smile and shut my eyes. Now that she has been set free, my love is happy and content. Let her continue to play her games. It will do no harm and there is no one left here to disturb us.

The blue millaflowers to my left rustle and stir. I glance towards them, allowing myself to be momentarily distracted, then spin instantly and open my arms to catch my wife as she throws herself towards me.

***

‘You will have to be much faster than that,’ Ani warns me.

Rats. I have not managed a single sneak attack on him despite a morning’s worth of trying. This was the closest I have come yet. Maybe I need a better distraction than just moving a few flowers about with the Force.

‘My stubborn little concubine,’ he teases. ‘Why don’t you just give up? I won’t let you creep up behind me and do what you are planning to, so why do you persist in trying?’

I don’t answer, just snuggle close in and rest my head against his shoulder. Every failed ambush has resulted in ten or so minutes of being held by the Sith Lord. It’s enough of a reward to make repeating my attacks worthwhile. His low rumbling purr sounds above my head as he slowly rocks me in his arms. I let him soothe me, allow my body to relax, and gradually slip into a light doze.

‘Sleepy, little Favorite,’ I hear him tease. ‘Time to put you to bed again.’

His arms shift, and I am lifted and cradled to his chest. Ani’s rooms are nearby, overlooking the lake and the gardens. Only the Emperor’s suite has a better view. A short walk later and I have been laid down on the bed, gently set on my side and covered with his cloak.

You’re indulging me, I tell him as I pull the soft fabric up to my chin.

I want to spoil you today, he admits. You have had so little of that in your life.

Ani settles into the chair beside me and I catch his hand, holding it for a few minutes before I fall asleep.

***

I release her hand once she is soundly asleep and watch the regular rise and fall of her chest. Despite her playfulness, my love is still weak, thin and pale. It will be many weeks before the traces from her brush with death are completely erased.

It was so very, very close. Only a lucky glance from me during the second of her seizures spotted the patch left unnoticed on her back. The patch which nearly killed her. I reach over, slide my cloak down and look at the dark, square scar the poison left on her skin. It will fade with time but always be a permanent reminder.

Replacing her impromptu blanket, I prepare for an hour or so of quiet meditation. Her naps tend to be short and frequent, and although security is the same as at the palace on Coruscant, with Imperial guards at every strategic point, I will not leave her unattended, not for a moment, not even here.

I slide into a meditative trance and look down at my wife and our son. His Force presence shines brightly within her, completely unaffected by his mother’s close call. A parasite Reena had jokingly called him when I spoke with the doctor in private before she allowed me to take Maia from Medical early this morning. My love’s body will starve her to keep our child alive. He stirs at my touch so I quiet him, not wanting his mother to wake. She needs to rest and sleep.

***

I open my eyes and look up at Ani. He’s deep in his meditations so I stay quiet and wait for him to give me some indication he is aware again. While he muses, my eyes wander around the room. A large bouquet of red and blue millaflowers has been left on the table. They smell nice, like the moisturizer I use on my stomach. I think the Emperor must like them, too, since they are growing everywhere in the gardens. Movement draws my attention from the flowers, so I watch the curtains framing the windows billow and swirl with the warm spring wind. The sheer drapery hanging from the bed’s canopy does likewise. Naboo’s rainy season is over and the hot days of summer are on their way.

I like it here. It’s nice and peaceful, and the mountains surrounding the lake remind me of home. Maybe Ani will stay here a few days longer so I can explore a little bit.

Ani reaches over and brushes his fingers down my face.

‘Hello, love,’ I tease him.

‘Lunchtime for you,’ he tells me.

I make a face at that. It is still difficult for me to keep anything down, but I must eat.

‘Let me help you get up,’ Ani offers.

He retrieves his cloak and shifts me about bodily before lifting me up and onto my feet. Ani keeps a careful hold on me, so I act impulsively and wrap my arms around him. I want to be held some more. The Sith Lord pulls me closer, humoring me once again, and I feel his hands sweep his cloak around my back. Good. I can stay as long as I want to.

Safe. I feel completely safe here in his arms. And cherished. Ani haunted my room in Medical this last week, leaving my side only when necessary. So much for keeping his feelings hidden from the crew. Or anyone else.

‘By now it must be apparent to everyone exactly how things are between us,’ I decide.

‘It doesn’t matter any longer,’ he reassures me. ‘Palpatine ordered me to be affectionate to you in public. Besides that, you are my Favorite, the mother of my heir, and if I had ignored or neglected you, it would have raised other questions.’

‘Right,’ I tell him, ‘sure, Sith Lord, try to come up with ways to justify your doting attitude and persistent hovering. There’s no one on the Executor who would ever buy that last excuse now, not after the way you tore through the corridors to get to my side, and definitely not after Reena found you collapsed in the chair next to my bed several nights in a row.’

‘My beloved, stubborn little goddess,’ Ani teases. ‘One day you will push me into doing something in public that I probably shouldn’t.’

I start to smile. There are a few things I can think of which fit into that category.

‘Maybe you should hold me in your arms,’ I suggest. ‘Or how about a proper marriage proposal with you down on one knee?’

Ani starts chuckling at that so I decide it would be best to let my idle fantasies go. He won’t ever do anything outrageous anyway.

I love you, Anakin, I tell him.

You tell me that all the time, even when I have been horrid to you, the Sith Lord notes.

I want to say it to you, I admit, and you need to hear it.

He’s thinking about that, so I set my cheek against his chest and lean on him. I feel a hand touch my hair then move to rest in the center of my back. With a contented sigh, I shut my eyes and wait. His cloak holds in our body heat and the warmth of the cocoon he has created soon lulls me into sleep once again.

‘Still sleepy?’ Ani asks, so I nod my answer to him.

‘You must eat, my Favorite,’ he reminds me.

I don’t argue since I am a little hungrier now than I was when I first woke up. Ani’s arms free me from his embrace, but he keeps one secure around my waist to steady and guide me.

Where are we going? I look about as we walk from Ani’s quarters back out to the balcony. We head to a section of the Retreat I haven’t been in yet, wander along another stone patio before the Sith Lord steers me into a cozy dining room and settles me in a chair.

Not bad, I think as I check out the room. More millaflowers in tasteful vases and the view of the lake through the open double doors is pretty impressive. I take a close look at the rich wood of the table and run my fingers along the edge. No tree from Earth ever grew like that.

‘Jut tree wood,’ Ani identifies. ‘The nuts are toxic, and a favorite food of the peko peko bird.’

‘The big, blue bird we saw this morning?’ I ask.

‘Yes,’ he answers, pulling the chair across from me away from the table and sitting down.

‘It looked a bit like a great blue heron from home,’ I decide, ‘but herons eat fish and frogs, not nuts.’

‘Frogs?’

He doesn’t know what a frog is? I stare at him while I figure out how to describe one.

‘Small amphibians,’ I identify, then use my hands to show their size, ‘about so big. They live in water for part of their life cycle. My brothers and I used to go down to the pond at gran’s house and catch them when we were kids. It was fun seeing which one would croak the loudest or could jump the farthest...’ I stop dead at his first chuckle.

The Sith Lord keeps laughing and there is a smile behind the mask, I just know it.

‘You are a brat,’ I growl at him, sure that I have been lead on once again. Of course he knows what a frog is.

Ani only laughs louder. He’s in an exceptionally good mood today. I stretch my hand across the table and he holds it is his own, only releasing it when my lunch arrives about a minute later. Two servers dressed in blue set the trays on the table, bow and back out of the room. I give Ani a questioning look and reach for one of them. The Sith Lord shakes his head so I pull my hand back, move it to my lap, and wait. Another man appears carrying a pitcher and glasses, and proceeds to set out my meal. Once he has left, I lift the cover on the silver bowl, dropping it in surprise at the heat I feel on my fingertips.

‘The kitchens are nearby so your soup will be hot,’ he warns me as I blow on my slightly toasted fingers.

Wary now, I pick up the largest of the spoons and give my lunch a stir. Steam rises as I move things about. Maybe letting it cool a bit would be a smart idea. It does smell delicious so I take a cautious taste. This is better than good, I decide. I quickly dig in, not bothering to wait until it has cooled. Ani watches me eat, no doubt entertained by my antics whenever I bite into something that is still a touch too hot.

When the bowl is finally empty and I have set the spoon aside, Ani offers, ‘I could have some more nuna soup brought for you, if you like.’

After considering that for a moment, I shake my head. Dessert is waiting and I want to see what it is. I eye the other silver dish. Whatever is under the cover must be cold judging from the condensation and rills of water which have run down from the top. My curiosity gets the better of me at last so I lift the lid. Iced neema fruit. Ani knows these are one of my favorite things.

‘Fresh from the Emperor’s own garden,’ he admits.

‘Thank you,’ I tell him before I start in on them.

I eat slowly, savoring every bite. My stomach has been quiet for the first time at a meal in weeks, so I intend to enjoy myself. The last neema fruit looks lonely by itself in the dish. I take my time cornering it with the spoon. As I lift it up, it rolls off. Rats. A second try is no more successful than the first. Annoyed now, I chase it around the bowl. Stop that, I think at it. When I almost have it in position, it moves sideways, and I know exactly what has been going on.

‘You,’ I growl at Ani, ‘had better stop that.’

There is a flash of amusement from him. I make another try for the neema fruit, only to have it jump out of my spoon again. Irked, I grab at it with the Force and give a tug. It refuses to move. Instead, it hovers in front of me. Alright then, Ani, you can keep it. I won’t play along any longer.

He holds in it place a moment, then moves it to right under my nose. I watch it, wary of what he might try next. When the servers reappear to clear off the table, the neema fruit drops back into the bowl. With a grin of triumph, I quickly scoop it up and finish it off before Ani has another chance to play any more tricks on me.

‘Time to go for a walk,’ the Sith Lord decides as he helps me from my chair and escorts me from the dining room.

‘Where?’ I ask, curious as to what he is up to now.

‘By the lake, down to the summer house the Emperor’s concubines like to laze about in,’ he tells me.

‘I would like a bucket, please,’ I politely request.

Ani looks over at me and I know he is wondering what I want a bucket for. He doesn’t ask, though, simply stops in the garden on our way to the shore and sends one of the gardeners to fill my request. I happily swing the pail by its handle as we walk along. This should be fun.

When we reach the water, I find a rock to sit on, pull off my shoes and socks and drop them in the bucket. The Sith Lord watches me as I stick my bare feet into the dry sand. Rats. It’s not very warm at all. Maybe the water is a better choice. Before Ani can stop me, I wade into the lake, holding the skirt of my dress clear. My retreat is even faster. Double rats. The water is even colder than the sand was.

‘That was not a wise thing to do, Favorite,’ Ani scolds. ‘The water will not be warm enough to go into for another month. Besides that, you might attract the attention of one of Naboo’s large aquatic predators with your splashing about.’

‘What predators?’ I ask, now eyeing the lake warily.

‘Colo claw fish or opee sea killers would both find you a tasty snack,’ he calmly reveals.

I take a few more steps away from the water. Being dinner for some critter is not on my list of things to do this afternoon.

‘Then again,’ Ani continues, ‘you are probably not big enough for them to bother with. Something the size of my shuttle is more to their liking.’

If that’s true then those must be pretty big beasties. I back away a bit more. No way am I getting too close. When I am what I judge a safe distance away, I turn to face Ani. Then I feel something cold, wet and slimy wrap itself around my ankle. I try to yank my foot free with no success. Whatever has grabbed me refuses to let go despite my increasingly desperate attempts to shake it off. With a shriek, I finally launch myself at the Sith Lord who moves out of my reach and starts laughing at my predicament.

I stop my struggles, look down at the piece of seaweed wrapped around my leg, then glare at him. He set me up. Again.

‘That was not very funny, Sith Lord,’ I growl at him.

‘I thought you found lake monster jokes rather amusing,’ he teases.

‘Not when they are played on me!’ I decide.

With a couple of stomped steps, I return to my rock, free my ankle, and toss the length of seaweed at Ani who easily dodges it. Yuck.

‘Feeling a bit better, are we?’ he teases me some more.

I shift my attention to the water and watch the small waves roll up the beach. How do I feel? Tired and a bit unsteady, but Reena told me it would be quite a while before my strength comes back. The constant nausea seems to have faded at last, and the other short term effects of the poison worked their way from my system a few days ago.

That’s not what I am concerned about, Ani tells me as he sits beside me on my rocky perch.

He pulls me close, then wraps his cloak around my back as the wind picks up a little. I let my mind wander while I try to figure out what to tell him. A touch on our bond tells me he is quite worried about my emotional state. And he has reason to be, I suppose. Ani felt nothing but homesickness and loneliness from me for days.

‘I should never have locked you up like that. Not for as long as I did. It was a stupid and insensitive thing to do,’ he admits. ‘All I did was drive you into despair again. You would think that one of these times I would learn from my mistakes...’

I half-listen to him apologize, then hush him with a finger to his breath screen. Enough is enough.

‘You can’t change the past, Ani, so stop, please,’ I ask him.

The Sith Lord falls silent at that.

We sit quietly beside one another while my feet dry in the sun. The sand is soft here and reminds me of an old childhood memory.

‘When I was very small, my parents took my brothers and I down to the ocean,’ I tell Ani. ‘I had never seen so much water and sand before. And the smell of the salt spray as the waves hit the rocks along the shore...’ I let my voice drift off before smiling and adding, ‘It was great fun looking in the tide pools at all the strange creatures and building sand castles. Michael, Jamie, and I buried our youngest brother in the sand and left him there. He screamed until dad came along and rescued him. We had to be nice to him for days afterwards or he would go running to mother and complain that we were picking on him again.’

‘The world I spent much of my childhood on was covered in deserts,’ Ani reveals in response. ‘There was very little water and sand got into everything. I have no fond memories of that place and only went back when I was much older and my mother died.’

I rest my head against his shoulder and think about that. Putting his statements together with the odd comment he has made before about his past, I realize that his childhood must have been a rather unpleasant one.

‘Your childhood sounds like it was difficult and nasty, Ani,’ I decide.

‘Hard and sometimes harsh would be a better description,’ he states. ‘I had my mother and a few friends for company, but my upbringing was nothing like yours.’

‘My childhood must seem like one of luxury and privilege in comparison,’ I wryly note.

‘Not really. You were driven and pushed rather ruthlessly from an early age,’ the Sith Lord notes. ‘When were you ever allowed to just be a child? Watto at least permitted me a few childish dreams and pursuits. Your family never let you have that choice.’

‘That’s a cruel way to put things, Ani,’ I scold him. ‘My parents were not as harsh as you are trying to make them out to be.’

I start thinking about his opinion. No, my parents might have been persistent in trying to get me to make the most of my abilities, but they were not at all cruel in how they went about it. And they did encourage all of their children to have other interests. Not once was I scolded for taking time from my studies to find out what the Sith Lord was up to or for my visits to various Renaissance fairs.

‘They sent you to school when you were far too young for it,’ he reminds me.

School. I make a face. School was misery for me.

‘... and then away to university when it would have been better to wait a few years,’ Ani continues.

True, I admit to myself. My first year was lonely and all I wanted to do was go home.

‘At least they had enough sense to make sure that pesky brother of yours went to the same institution the following year,’ he tells me.

‘You’ve been talking to Michael again. I had never mentioned that to you,’ I note.

‘So tell me now,’ he suggests.

Alright, then.

‘I was in residence the first year and had a room to myself. The other girls on the floor mostly ignored me, that is when they weren’t busy teasing me or trying to embarrass me. To keep my mind off how miserable I felt, I spent most of my time hiding out in the library, reading whatever looked interesting,’ I start out.

‘And...’ he prompts.

‘The second year I was to share a quad - four bedrooms with a common kitchen, bathroom, and living room. I had no idea who my roommates would be. When I arrived, only Liz was there, so I had my pick of the three remaining rooms,’ I continue.

I start to grin. Liz was a hoot. She had told me to grab the best remaining room before our two male compatriots arrived. My eyes had gone quite big at that. The concept of sharing close quarters with two unfamiliar and unrelated men was a shock to my sheltered and naive system. At least she didn’t laugh too much or too loud at my protests. All Liz had done was make lewd comments about what she intended to do with them if they met her criteria for ‘hit over the head and drag into bed’.

Ani starts chuckling a bit. He’s heard a few Liz stories from me already so he knows exactly what she is like.

‘My poor little, innocent Favorite,’ he teases. ‘That sex-crazed woman must have completely shocked you at first.’

‘I was not that naive,’ I scold him, ‘but I did make sure my room was well away from hers.’

Yes, I had been most careful to make sure our rooms had no walls in common. There was no way I wanted to be eavesdropping on any of Liz’s nighttime adventures.

‘I spent quite a while unpacking and hiding out in my room. I thought the most prudent thing to do was stay out of sight while the guys arrived. Once I had the opportunity to listen in a bit, and see what they were like, I figured it would be safe to make an appearance,’ I admit.

My memories of putting my stuff away are still clear, all these years later. Not that I had much to unpack - my laptop, a few books and clothes, pictures. I snuggle up to Ani.

‘There was one picture in particular that I made sure was visible only to me when I was in bed. No one else ever knew it was there,’ I tell him.

‘Infatuated with me, even then, were you?’ he teases me some more.

I go bright red and protest, ‘It wasn’t like that at all.’

The Sith Lord turns his head to look down at me. Rats. He’s going to insist on a further explanation.

‘So tell me how it was, then,’ he prods.

Damn. I just knew he was going to ask that. With a sigh, I try to remember what I felt at that time.

‘You were someone safe, at a distance. I could feel whatever I wanted to and never worry that you would ever know or that it would make one bit of difference,’ I try to put my thoughts and feelings into words. Color creeps into my cheeks again as I admit, ‘I used to think of you as my knight in shining armor who would rescue me some day. It sounds pretty stupid and childish, now, doesn’t it?’

For once Ani doesn’t tease me or make one of his dry comments. Instead, he simply pulls me in closer and waits patiently for me to keep speaking.

‘The stronger feelings for you, those came later, after I knew...’ I stop my revelation mid-sentence.

What had I known about him? I push at my memory but nothing comes back to me. Blanks, all I find are dead ends. Whatever it was I once knew, I had removed it. I give my head a frustrated shake.

‘I can’t remember what it was,’ I finally confess.

‘It’s alright, Maia,’ Ani soothes. ‘Someday your memories might come back. For now, finish your story so we can continue on our walk.’

Story? Oh, that.

‘It was quite a surprise to hear Michael’s voice when he showed up,’ I admit. ‘Liz was a bit put out when I tackled him. She thought I had a prior claim, until he told her I was his sister, that is. Rick arrived later so I gave him the same reception just to see how Liz would react. She somehow knew that chasing after my old friend would be a waste of time and never tried to catch him. Tease, yes - she was quite merciless at that, but she never once tried to get him into bed. Michael, now he was fair game. Liz made his life rather interesting for the next few days, and finally gave up when he dragged her out of his bed and locked her out in the hall in only her underwear. Not that it made much difference. My brother was more embarrassed about that than she was - Liz just used it as an opportunity to flirt with anyone who wandered by to see what the fuss was all about. You should ask him about some of her other tactics since he has always refused to tell me everything she tried on him.’

Hearing that question from Ani should ruffle my brother’s feathers. I know of at least one other incident involving Michael, Liz, and the shower.

‘Over the next few years the four of us became rather well-known around campus. We used to fence in the hallways when the weather was bad or the salle unavailable. Liz was rather hopeless at it and spent most of her time being our lookout and watching for the residence don,’ I finish up.

‘You miss them,’ Ani states.

Miss Liz and Rick? Terribly. Just like I long for home and my family. I bite my lip and look away while I try to hold in the tears.

‘Let it go, my little love,’ the Sith Lord soothes as he pulls my face back around and holds me tight to his chest. ‘Just let it go.’

I bury my face in his robes and cry until I can no longer say a single word. He knows that getting me to talk about home would produce this reaction eventually, so why did he persist in having me do it?

Because you must let it go, he insists. You can never go back there and your constant grieving over that is making you physically ill.

I stay quiet in his arms and concentrate on controlling my breathing to calm myself. Ani’s right about this, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about the situation.

You couldn’t have both, I remind myself, and Ani knows that. If I had remained at home, I would have lost him forever. It would have been impossible for him to come back for me. And his medical needs meant he could never stay with me there. The only way for me to keep Ani was to go with him. There was no choice other than the one he made for me.

I let out a sigh and make a decision.

‘Home is where you are,’ I tell my love, letting my homesickness go at last. ‘Home will always be where you are.’

There is a gentle, soothing touch on our bond and a light caress brushes the tears from my face. I lean into his chest, listen to the waves on the lake, and relax.

‘Don’t fall asleep yet. There’s a nice spot not too far from here where you can have a nap,’ Ani offers after a few minutes.

I shift a bit in his arms and feel a squirm or two from our son. Right on time, I wryly think. It’s been just long enough that the sugar from lunch has woke him up. The funny twitches continue on a regular basis, so I start giggling.

‘He has the hiccups,’ I tell the Sith Lord. ‘Reena told me this could happen, but I never thought it would.’

Ani’s hand slides down to my middle. Someone’s curious from what I can sense.

‘So he does,’ he confirms with some surprise. ‘How odd.’

‘It won’t harm him,’ I reassure Ani, ‘but it does feel weird.’

I reach down, brush the dry sand from my toes, retrieve my socks and shoes from the bucket, and replace them on my feet. Once I am ready to go, the Sith Lord gets up and helps me to my feet. As we wander along the beach, I keep a sharp eye out. Time to put my pail to use.

There’s a good one, I decide. With a gesture I call the shiny pebble to my hand and drop it in the bucket. A few other stones, oddly shaped bits of glass and wood worn smooth by the waves and sand, an old coin, and brightly colored shells quickly join it.

‘What are you doing?’ Ani asks at last, his curiosity finally getting the better of him.

‘Collecting treasures,’ I admit. ‘You can’t walk along a beach without doing that.’

I know he just gave me one of his looks.

‘Well, you can’t,’ I insist. ‘It’s tradition.’

‘I see,’ he replies. ‘You pick up whatever catches your eye and then carry it about with you.’

‘Not exactly,’ I decide.

‘Then what do you do with all the bits you have selected?’ he prompts.

‘Sort through them when you are done and decide which ones to keep,’ I reveal.

‘You are supposed to do this every time you visit a beach?’ Ani wonders.

‘A beach or any other interesting place. You keep the best or strangest things you find to remind you of where you were,’ I answer as I spot another shiny metal bit out in the lake. ‘I had quite a collection of odd rocks in my office from the various places I had been to.’

That earns me another look from him.

‘You are not filling my quarters with rocks,’ Ani scolds. ‘I don’t care how interesting or unusual they are.’

Oops. He must have seen the overflowing shelves and cluttered window sills. Drawing his attention to my rock collection was a bad idea.

‘I’ll keep them in one of my compartments, then,’ I offer.

‘No,’ he firmly replies. ‘No rocks.’

‘But I’m a geologist. I am supposed to have a rock collection,’ I try to get a concession from him.

‘No.’

‘How about just one,’ I try again.

‘No rocks, Favorite, not even one,’ Ani growls.

I give up at that. He will just get annoyed if I keep bugging him about it.

We make our way to the stone summer house. Its windows run from the ceiling to the floor and all of them are open. A warm breeze is now blowing so I settle myself on a bench overlooking the lake and dump my treasures on the leather cushion beside me. Ani joins me and looks at my collection.

Coins first, I decide. I pick up the two well-worn bits of metal and examine them closely. There is not enough left of the engraving to figure out what they were or where they came from, so I give them to Ani. He shakes his head after a minute and returns them. Back in the bucket they go. Glass next. Various pieces of colorless, purple and green. No sharp edges are left and the effect of waves, sand and time have removed any identifying features. The purple one has the neatest shape. I add it to the coins and toss the others out the window and back into the lake. My fingers run over the smooth surface of the small bit of wood I had picked up. That feels neat. It quickly goes to keep the coins and purple glass company. Shells now. Most are broken or chipped, but I look at each one anyway. Some look like snail or clam shells from Earth, others are like nothing I have ever seen before.

‘Do you know what these are?’ I ask Ani, handing him a few of the more unusual shells.

He turns them over a few times, then hands them back.

‘I think they belong to a snail that lives on red glie, but I am not sure,’ he says in answer.

I line the shells up on the bench. The best one I pick out and add to my ‘keeper’ stack.

Now for the pebbles. I sort through them, looking at the type of rock and minerals that are in each one. Most are rather boring. An attractive, brightly banded one catches my eye so I set it aside. Two others join it. The rest I toss out the window. With a touch of hesitation, I set them in the bucket.

‘No rocks,’ Ani reminds me.

Rats. Maybe I can sneak a pebble into my pocket without getting caught.

‘Stubborn,’ he teases.

‘So are you,’ I start our usual exchange.

‘Contrary,’ he plays along.

‘And so are you,’ I reply, doing my best not to grin too widely.

‘Little hedonist,’ he ventures next.

At that I tackle him, pinning him to the bench.

‘Is that an invitation?’ I ask, running a finger suggestively from his throat down his chest, heading towards his belt before he grabs my hand.

‘Not here,’ he scolds. ‘We might be seen.’

I let him up instantly.

‘Naptime for you,’ Ani suggests once he has gained his feet.

With a few quick motions he has settled me on my side again and tossed his cloak over top of me. Darn. I would rather stay awake and tease him than have another snooze.

‘You must rest,’ he reminds me.

Alright, I decide, I’ll behave and have a nap. With a sigh, I shut my eyes and soon drift into sleep.

***

She’s sound asleep again. Good. My agent is supposed to be here soon and Maia should sleep through my meeting with him.

I look at her collection of treasures. She is such a stubborn little creature. But if I let her bring even one of them back to the Executor, my quarters will soon resemble her office and be completely cluttered with her keepsakes. I reach for the pail, then stop myself. Tossing them out will only upset her. Let her have her few pieces of Naboo. If they get in my way, they will simply disappear.

‘Playing at the beach, Uncle Dee?’ I hear a voice tease.

I whirl about and growl a warning, ‘Jixton.’

He just continues to lean against the wall and grin at me. Maia was right. For all his usefulness, Jix is an irritant.

‘I have an errand for you, Jix,’ I tell him.

He looks past me, at my wife, and my temper starts to fray.

‘Aunt Em looks rather unwell,’ he observes.

I deliberately step into his line of sight.

‘Yes,’ I admit, ‘she was very ill and you are going to trace the toxin’s source for me...’

***

Ani? I wonder as I wake up and open my eyes.

The Sith Lord freezes and stops his conversation dead. I have obviously interrupted something, but I need to move a bit before I can fall asleep again. With a careful shove, I shift about and shut my eyes again.

Jix’s comment prevents me from falling asleep.

‘It’s from Falleen,’ he flatly states.

‘And how would you know that?’ Ani snaps. He’s getting annoyed.

‘It’s rather obvious. Look at her eyes,’ Jix suggests.

I hear the fabric of the Sith Lord’s tunic move as he steps closer to me.

Wake up a moment, love, he tells me, and open your eyes for me.

I quickly comply and look up at him. He sets a hand under my chin and tips my head back and forth a few times. A rather interesting curse or two in Sith erupts from him next.

Ani, what’s wrong? I ask.

Go back to sleep, little goddess, he suggests.

‘The sickness ended an hour ago, I would guess,’ Jix states as he moves closer. He is all business now and there is no trace of teasing left in his voice. ‘Where did it enter her system?’

I feel Ani slide his cloak from my back. Jix doesn’t touch me, but I know he must be taking a good look at where the anti-nausea patch was. The Sith Lord lets out an angry hiss and gloved fingers brush my back as he pulls the cloak to where it was before.

‘Nasty,’ Jix observes. ‘But that will clear up in a few days just like her eyes will.’

What will clear up? And what is wrong with my eyes?

Go to sleep, Ani orders, nudging my mind as he does so.

When I wake up again, Jix is gone and the Sith Lord is sitting next to me on the bench. He runs his fingers through my hair once he realizes I am looking up at him.

... close so very close... is a stray thought I pick up from him before he can hide it.

‘Something is very wrong, isn’t it,’ I observe.

He hesitates, then resumes his caresses.

‘Anakin,’ I warn.

His even breathing is broken by a sigh, but he still doesn’t answer me. I shut my eyes tight. He’s back to keeping secrets again. Fine, then, stay silent about this. I won’t pry.

‘The poison was custom made by an expert of Falleen origin,’ Ani finally reveals. ‘Jix had encountered something like it when he was on that planet many years ago. Fortunately, the manufacturer had no way of knowing how far along in your pregnancy you would be before using that particular package of patches. The elevated hormone levels in your system and increased blood volume bought enough time to save your life.’

‘You have sent Jix off to find whoever made it, haven’t you?’ I shrewdly surmise.

‘Yes,’ he reluctantly admits, ‘but it may take him months to track them now. The trail has grown cold, Maia. That package was planted weeks, perhaps months, ago in the Executor’s medical supplies.’

By who? Someone who could move around the ship without attracting attention. And when? Perhaps before the ship’s recording systems were operating? There would be no record of their movements then. Now that limits the possible times considerably. It would have to be before the ship was launched and after my pregnancy became obvious. Unless....

Ani, who knew I was pregnant early on? I ask, not really expecting an answer.

His touches abruptly stop and I can almost hear his mind working away at this.

Trever down in Medical, but he caught it on one of his blood tests. I told Thirsk immediately. He had to know. That’s why he was always so careful with how he handled you during your lessons with him, the Sith Lord admits. No one else knew. Not until I told the Emperor a month later.

I consider what he just told me and my mind makes an intuitive leap or two.

Mia knew, I decide. She just never let on that she did. Just like she knew what you felt for me and stayed silent about that to protect herself.

And she probably told her controller about both, is Ani’s wry comment. It makes perfect sense. Question is, did she plant the patches, or did her contact arrange for someone else to do that after the Lieutenant’s death?

The Sith Lord gets up and starts pacing while he worries away at this problem. After a few minutes of watching him, I shut my eyes and start to drift again. I am still tired.

You are exhausted, Ani notes. I shouldn’t have taken you for such a long walk.

I’ll be fine, Ani. I just need to sleep a bit longer, I tell him.

Rest, then, my love, he suggests.

A nap will be good, so I give his cloak a tug and let myself fall asleep. Sometime later I wake to the sound of Ani’s lightsaber. I open my eyes a crack and quietly watch him run through one of the more complicated set patterns he uses to warm up. When he finishes and his head turns to look over at me, I know he has sensed I am awake.

‘Time to go back,’ he decides, as he walks towards me, shutting off and replacing his ‘saber on his belt.

Ani takes my selected keepsakes and tucks them inside his tunic. I guess he is going to let me keep them after all. The bucket is set aside before he pulls his cloak off me. Minutes later, he is carrying me back towards the Retreat along a gravel path well above the shoreline. I look about as we go, but nothing really interesting catches my attention. From the shadows, though, it is late in the afternoon, so I must have slept for quite some time.

‘You needed to rest,’ the Sith Lord admits, ‘and your eyes have started to lose that odd orange hue already.’

‘Orange eyes. Ugh,’ I reply. No wonder he reacted the way he did earlier.

‘It won’t last,’ he reassures me.

‘Good,’ I tell him, ‘orange eyes will only clash with my hair color.’

He responds to that with a low chuckle.

When we reach the Retreat, Ani doesn’t head for his quarters, but back to the dining room instead. Dinner time, I guess as I am set down in the chair I occupied earlier. My meal is different from lunch - roast nuna, a few vegetables that are considered delicacies, and sweet shuura fruit for dessert. The Sith Lord is silent while I eat, deep in thought about something. After I finish, he guides me into a nearby sitting room and settles me into a chair by an empty fireplace.

From his body language, he’s not sure what to do and is debating what to say. I watch him pace a moment, then see him glance towards the door which instantly swings shut. Whatever is bothering him, Ani wants to deal with it in private. He steps closer to me, sets his hands around my face, and caresses my cheekbones with his thumbs. For a long time, the Sith Lord just looks at me. I stay silent and wait.

Finally, he slides his hands down from my face, takes my left one in his and drops to one knee in front of me. What is he up to? There are no hints at all from our bond since he has closed himself off as tightly as possible.

‘I want you to listen carefully and then answer my question,’ Ani requests.

I nod my understanding and agreement. I will do this for him.

‘Forget everything that has happened since we left your homeworld. We are back at your party, by the fountain with no Jedi around to interrupt,’ he tells me.

I shut my eyes and let myself go back to that moment in the courtyard. Ani had held me close and I had felt completely secure in his arms. He had been so unsure of what to say to me, then, as well.

‘You told me you would go with me...,’ Ani continues.

Yes, I had said that, but only after convincing myself to tell him the truth of what I would do.

‘... and I could not find the right words for what I needed to say to you. I am not a poet, not a politician or anyone who is adept at that sort of thing...’

He had struggled for quite some time before blurting out his admission of how lonely he had been, and even after that he still fought with himself for many minutes more.

‘... so I won’t bother trying to come up with anything original or fancy. I will just ask you straight out...’

I freeze in my chair. The third question. The one Nigel interrupted. The one he never did ask me.

God’s above.

I don’t believe this.

He’s decided to make a formal proposal after all.

‘Ani,’ I reassure him, ‘you don’t need to do this.’

A tight squeeze to my hand shuts me up.

‘You asked me that second night what I wanted from you and I refused to answer. But I knew. I knew the moment you stayed in my arms and let me comfort you. Anyone else would have fled. But you stayed. Do you have any idea what that meant to me? How it felt to know I had finally found someone who might actually be capable of loving me?’

There is such pain and hope in his voice as he says that. Oh, my love, we were two very lonely people who needed one another.

‘That night on the roof. You sought me out and didn’t reject me when I held you. Instead, you actually flirted with me. Pulled me in closer. Didn’t want me to let you go. So I was daring and let myself hope a little. And the next day it was the same. Only when I repeatedly hurt you did you run from me.’

He hesitates, no doubt remembering that nasty scene.

‘And when you swore the oath of binding to me. You were so very stubborn about wanting to know what you had said. Somehow the implications and meaning escaped you.’

His hand gives mine another gentle squeeze.

‘But you seemed happy that I accepted, so I assumed you knew what you had done and that you wanted me as your mate since you willingly let me do as I wished that evening. It never occurred to me that you didn’t understand, at least not until I first spoke with you on the Executor a few days later,’ he wryly admits.

That evening. The first time he had, the first time we had ... Oh. I feel my cheeks start to heat up.

‘The first time you told me you loved me,’ Ani softly adds.

I reach over and trace the cheek ridge of his mask with a finger. That was the first time he heard it from me, but I had said it to him before, in my dreams.

‘I only wish I had the courage at the time to say the same to you.’

The Sith Lord hadn’t. It was almost two months after that before he did so, and it was a struggle for him to say it even then.

‘I should have asked you this long ago, Maia,’ the Sith Lord quietly states.

I hold my breath in anticipation.

‘Will you marry me? Be my wife, my love, my Lady?’ he asks, finally. ‘I might never be allowed to acknowledge you as such in public, but you will always be that to me in my heart.’

I let my mental defenses drop and tip his masked face up with my free hand so I can look into his eyes. Oh Ani, my love, do you know what it means to me to hear you ask that? My eyes start to water a bit, but the tears are ones of happiness, so I let them escape.

‘Yes, my love,’ I tell him. ‘My answer is yes.’

***

I watch the old priest take his place beside me.

Does he remember another ceremony he conducted here years ago? Does he remember the young Jedi and senator who pledged themselves to one another?

I turn away and look out at the lake for a moment. This wedding won’t remain a secret for very long. My master will learn of it soon enough.

Let him learn of it. Let him wonder. I don’t care.

Maia has earned this. Deserves this.

She is my Lady, my wife. He has no right to deny us this.

I hear her light footsteps against the stone. Her brother’s more solid ones accompanying them.

He has decided to act as our witness, like C-3PO and R2 did decades ago.

I turn and watch her approach.

She is dressed in white, clad from head to toe in shimmering mothsilk, a thin veil covering her hair and face. Somehow she has managed to disguise her pregnancy, hiding its curves under meters of fabric. How sweet she looks, how innocent.

I take her hands in mine and only half-listen to the words the priest speaks, answering automatically as I need to. Maia’s face holds all of my attention. The joy I hear from her as she says her vows to me, the love in her voice are echoed by what I feel through our bond, matched by what I see in her features.

The Naboo ceremony is finished, but I have one more thing I need to do. I pull the gold bands from where I had hidden them, slide one onto Maia’s finger, then allow her to do the same with me. She seems surprised I knew to do this, then smiles at me, knowing I must have asked her brother what was customary among her people.

Then we are alone, on the stone veranda, staring into one another eyes.

There is no Sith Lord here, no scientist.

Only a man and a woman who love one another.

***


MONTH 9, DAY 1

I feel a bit cold so I shift a bit in bed and reach over to where Ani should be, intending to snuggle up to him. He’s gone from my side, though. On our wedding night, no less. Irked, I carefully push myself upright and retrieve my nightgown from the floor. The air is cool so I quickly put it on. My matching mothsilk robe rapidly joins it. With a sigh, I wander through Ani’s suite. Where is he?

The outer door slides open at my touch and I finally see the Sith Lord, standing on the balcony, hands resting on the stone railing, looking towards the mountains where the faintest hint of the upcoming sunrise is starting to become visible. He turns when he senses me and beckons me over and into his arms.

‘Is something wrong, my love?’ I ask him.

‘At this moment in time, no,’ he admits.

‘Then why are you up and about so early?’ I pry.

‘I am doing my best to avoid another few hours of trying to satisfy my insatiable wife,’ he teases.

Oh. I blush bright red. Even though the only place in his suite where he could remove all of his armor was in a meditation pod, he had still insisted on letting me have my way with him in the bedroom. And I think we tried every possible arrangement his armor allowed. As many times as I wanted to, too.

‘Then I will let you have a rest until tonight,’ I reply with a smirk.

‘Temptress,’ he calls me.

‘Sith Lord,’ I respond.

I shift a touch in his arms and set my cheek and hand against his chest. It’s getting hard to snuggle in close with my expanding middle. While I let his body heat warm me up, I look at the ring on my left hand again and smile happily to myself. Ani had sneakily consulted my brother about Earth customs. No one but us will know what my gold ring means, and no one will see its mate on the Sith Lord’s finger.

My mind wanders back to the previous evening. Ani had insisted on doing things properly. I was dressed in white with Michael there to give me away. The only other person involved was the old Naboo priest who had conducted the ceremony. He had thought the exchange of rings odd but let us do as we wanted.

And afterwards... I pull myself as close to the Sith Lord as I can. Last night was special and Michael had volunteered to stand guard to keep anyone from disturbing us.

‘Thank you, my husband, for everything,’ I tell him.

His low rumbling purr sounds in answer.

‘You’re completely content,’ I observe.

‘I have every reason to be. I have a beautiful wife, an heir on the way, and no reason to personally go chasing after rebels for a while. Palpatine has other errands for me to do,’ the Sith Lord reveals, then quickly adds when I stiffen, ‘We won’t be separated, my love. I will be taking the Executor.’

Good, I think to myself. I have had enough of being apart from him.

It’s growing lighter, so I turn my head and look towards the sunrise. The sky and clouds are painted various shades of pink and red. Naboo’s sun is yellow and the dawn should produce similar colors to those on Earth. A few birds in the Retreat’s gardens react to the sunlight by singing.

Ani was right. The dawn is beautiful here.

‘Sunrise is for beginnings,’ he suggests.

And sunsets are for endings, I silently add. I quietly remember the sunset he held me through back on Earth. For once, no homesickness threatens. Home is where Ani is, I remind myself as I suppress a yawn and relax in his arms. It’s too early to be up and about.

‘My sleepy little wife. I think I will take you back to bed,’ he teases.

‘Go right ahead,’ I decide.

His arms lift me up and we are soon back in bed, wrapped around one another once again. Soon it will be time to end our brief holiday and leave, but for now there is only the two of us to worry about and all is well.



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