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Title: Alliance of Enemies
Author: Aria Saralyn (http://www.fanfiction.net/u/1107492/)
Rating: PG
Category: Adventure, AU
Characters: Vader, Leia

Disclaimer: I do not own Star Wars. This is a non-profit story being written only for entertainment.

Summary: After the Tantive IV falls into Imperial hands, Princess Leia is made a very interesting offer . . . The original trilogy with a twist. A work in progress.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” -- Irish Proverb

Prologue: Sith Meets Senator

Seventeen-year-old Senator-Princess Leia Organa stood alone in a corner, watching the other politicians mingle with wide eyes. She'd only replaced her father in the Senate less than a year ago, and she hadn't managed to make friends – or, at least, allies – with any of her colleagues yet.

Well, there was one girl Leia was friends with, but Pooja Naberrie had gone back to her home planet of Naboo for a four-week vacation, and so Leia was alone, the lone person under forty in the whole group.

A serving droid offered her a glass of Alderaanian wine, and she took it gratefully. At least it was something to do.

She eyes the room again over the rim of her glass as she took a sip, and saw her father's friend, Mon Mothma, looking over at her. Leia averted her gaze and hoped the other woman wouldn't come over. Mon Mothma was a nice enough person, but Leia was intimidated by her calm, confident poise.

She turned back to her conversation, and Leia heaved a silent sigh of relief, only to catch her breath as another figure, dressed from head to toe in ebony armour, stalked into the room.

Darth Vader stood tensely in the middle of the room. Conversations had stopped at is appearance; he angrily waved his hand, and the senators resumed their chatter. Vader looked around for a corner to hide in until the gathering dispersed.

For some reason Vader could not fathom, Sidious found a sort of sadistic pleasure in forcing him to attend these political parties whenever he was on Coruscant – which was why Vader tried his best to avoid Coruscant. Unfortunately, he could only avoid it for so long.

One corner of the room opened into a small kitchen where droids went to gather drinks and odd little delicacies, the contents of which Vader did not even want to think about. Two other corners sheltered tables, around which several older senators were seated. And the lasted provided cover for a girl dressed in white.

Vader blinked. If he didn't know better, he would have said this child – for she looked very young, with her big uncertain eyes and slight build – was an angel, like . . .

Best not go there.

But as he looked closer, he saw differences that proved to him that he was not seeing a ghost. Her eyes, though the right colour, were too big, her face too narrow, her cheekbones too high – and a million other little things. Still, she would have made a good decoy . . . if only a decoy was still needed.

He gave himself a mental shake and headed toward the girl, who was doing her very best not to pay any attention to him. She would be the easiest to intimidate from her spot in the corner, he was certain of it.

The very last thing Leia expected was for the Dark Lord to start invading her space.

She had been trying to ignore him, though it was hard. This was the first time she had seen him up close. Pooja said that he often came with the Emperor to oversee Senate proceedings when he was on Coruscant, and was the Emperor's official ear and voice at gatherings such as this, but he had been away for the last three years, overseeing the Navy against the Rebellion.

All her life, Leia had heard about how horrible and terrifying the Sith Lord was, but her first reaction to him was admiration. In his shining armour and moving with a flawless grace Leia envied, he was magnificent.

But then he came toward her, all the stories she had ever heard about him flooded her mind, and she began to panic.

And then he was right there, and talking to her.

“You should be out on the floor, child. A pretty young creature like you would have lots of friends.”

Yes, she had to admit, that was true. She was pretty, her father always told her so, and at seventeen she had her whole life ahead of her. Why shouldn't she get out and socialize a little? It would be good for --

“Hey!” she snapped, jerking herself free from whatever he had tried to do to her. “Don't do that!”

To say that Vader was shocked would have been an understatement. Mature men had been unable to resist him when he put his will behind the strength of the Force, but this tiny twig of a girl had tossed the suggestion off as if it were nothing but an irritating water droplet. It was a phenomenon that floored him.

He decided to do something he had not done in nearly twenty years: act innocent.

“Do what?” he inquired.

Her eyes narrowed. “I don't know; whatever it was that you were doing! And don't deny that you were doing it – I know it was you!”

He inclined his head. “As you wish, milady.”

She blinked at him, caught off-guard. “What?”

Why had he just called her that? He had only ever called one woman that, and she wasn't her.

He just stood there, not saying anything. Maybe she would take the hint and go away, like he wanted her to.

But instead, another woman joined them, one Vader hated with all the passion he was capable of feeling.

“Ah, Lord Vader,” Mon Mothma greeted him sweetly. “I see you've met our newest member, Senator-Princess Leia Organa. A delightful charm, is she not?”

Vader just stared at the woman. This was Bail Organa's daughter, his successor in the Senate? Sidious had told him of the girl; according to the other Sith, she was as much of a menace as her father or Mon Mothma. Looking at the quiet, lonely child, he would never have believed it.

“Pleasure,” he said shortly. She gave him a small smile in return, lips tight.

“Leia, dear, there's someone I want you to meet,” Mothma said, steering the girl out onto the floor. Vader slid into her vacated spot, wedging himself between the two walls and wondering why he didn't want to see the youngest Senator go.

Chapter One: The Deal

I woke with a start at the insistent pounding on my door.

“Princess!” called a voice I recognized as the captain's. “Princess, we are under attack! You must get up!”

I immediately rose to my feet, only to have my vision black out from standing up too fast. I've been doing that for longer than I can remember, yet I can never remember to take things slowly. I sat down on the edge of the bunk again.

When the dizziness faded, I made my way to the door. The captain was outside, shifting from foot to foot with impatience – or panic. “Who?” I asked him shortly.

“The Devastator, Your Highness.”

Darth Vader's current flagship. I set my jaw. I did fear the monster, but not nearly so much as I should. I had talked to him several times since our first meeting over two years ago, and I had always found myself in a stimulating conversation. Even as I despised him for his means, I had to admire him for his dedication.

But now I was in a compromising position. I had never given Vader any reason to suspect me of being a member of the Alliance to Restore the Republic, and he wasn't stupid, but I was treading on dangerous ground. If he was even in the least bit surprised to find me a traitor to the Empire, this could be the last hour I lived.

At that moment, the alarm bells began to ring shrilly. “They've breeched the door,” Captain Antilles muttered anxiously. “Princess, you must abandon ship.”

I ignored him. “Secure the cockpit.” He hesitated, and though I was touched at his concern, the last thing I needed was a nursemaid. “That's an order, Captain.”

He nodded tightly, looking unhappy, and dashed from my side. I took a deep breath, and headed in the other direction, from which I could distinctly hear the shrill voice of my protocol droid and the incessant beeps of my astromech.

Time for Plan B.

Hidden behind a corner, I waited for R2-D2's blue and white dome to swivel in my direction before crooking my index finger at him. The loyal little droid discreetly left his companion's side and came to me.

“Artoo,” I whispered. “I need to record a message for Obi-Wan Kenobi. He's on Tatooine, the planet below us right now. As soon as I'm done, you need to use an escape pod and get down there to him. Understand?”

He (for some reason, I can never think of any of my droids as an it) beeped an affirmative, and I entered a datachip with my authorization code into Artoo's mainframe. I remember, when my father first gave Artoo to me, how I had thought it odd that an astromech would need an authorization, but Papa had said that Artoo had served in the Clone Wars, and that it seemed reasonable, in an effort to prevent sabotage to the ships due to their own droids being reprogrammed by a spy. Yet to this day I've never seen another droid with the same program, and I've seen a fair few that sure looked like they were from the Clone Wars.

The recording light clicked on, and I recorded a quick message for the Jedi general. I had never met him – Papa claimed that he isolated himself on Tatooine out of grief over what happened to the Jedi Order. But he told me to contact him if I ever needed a favour, and this definitely constituted asa favour.

C-3PO's shrill metallic voice rang out just as I was finishing, and I pulled my authorization chip out of Artoo before allowing him to go with his counterpart. With any luck, Threepio would follow Artoo's lead and get off the ship. Threepio has his uses, but being able to deal with a crisis is not one of them.

Then I pulled out my blaster – just in case – and set about finding an escape pod of my own.

The next thing I knew, I was lying on my back, hands bound in front of me, staring down several heavy-duty blasters.

“You're the ambassador?” a mechanized voice asked.

I blinked, clearing my vision, and the white blur above me formed itself into four stormtroopers. “Yes,” I snapped with as much dignity as I could muster. “Untie me at once!”

Predictably, they ignored my order and pulled me to my feet. “Lord Vader would like to speak with you, Ambassador.”

Of course he did. “Then I suppose it is fortunate I also wish to speak with him, is it not?” I huffed, and allowed them to pull me down the hall.

As we grew closer to the sounds of conflict, my stomach plummeted to my feet, and my heart jumped to my throat. Please, I begged the ever-elusive Force, please don't let me die.

I immediately marched up to the Dark Lord and began to verbally pound him. If I was going out, it'd be with a fight.

“Lord Vader, I should have known. Only you would be so bold. The Imperial Senate will not sit for this. When they find out you've attacked a diplomatic --”

“Don't play games with me, Your Highness,” he retorted, and damn him, I couldn't find any hint of emotion in his mechanical voice. I had no idea just how angry he was. “You weren't on any mercy mission this time. You passed directly through a restricted system. Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies. I want to know what happened to the plans they sent you.”

Well, at least he didn't threaten me . . . directly. I decided to play stupid. “I don't know what you're talking about. I'm a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan.” I winced, certain he was so not going to fall for it.

But he surprised me, ducking around my cover story with ease. “You're a part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor. Take her away!”

One of the stormtroopers pushed me, and I decide to walk rather than be tossed over some guy's shoulder and carried out like a stubborn child. I didn't even glance over my shoulder, because I knew Vader's attention was already elsewhere.

I had no idea how much time had passed by the time Vader showed up again. I had been shuttled onto a space station I could only assume was the Death Star, which gave me the shivers. I had peeked at those plans; they were terrifying.

I had been sitting in the cell for what seemed like days by the time Vader walked in, an interrogation droid at his side, and I was so thoroughly sick of white that I was actually happy to see him, despite his threatening greeting – until I got a good look at the needle that the droid was aiming at me.

And then Vader said something.

It wasn't in Basic, and I had no idea what it would mean, but it stopped the droid in its tracks. I had never known an interrogation droid to shut down on command before. They were like rabid nexus when activated; uncontrollable.

“It means go in Atrisian.” His harsh voice echoed around the cell, and I jerked my eyes from the droid to his shining mask. “It is meant to be ironic. It will stop any Imperial interrogation droid in its tracks.”

I blinked. “Okay.”

He crouched beside me, so that I actually had to look down into his face – mask. It was altogether very disconcerting. “Do you understand?” he asked softly.

“Say it again?” I asked timidly.

He repeated the word.

I nodded. “I think I've got it.” I said it back to him, and he inclined his head.

“Good.” He stood.

I glanced between him and the droid again. “So . . . any particular reason you told me this?”


I looked back to him expectantly. When he didn't elaborate, I added, “And it is?”

“I want your help.”

“My . . . my help? With what?” I couldn't imagine anything he'd need my help for. He'd always seemed so self-sufficient.

“I want you to help me kill the Emperor.”

I was so glad I was sitting down. “What!”

His voice dropped. “I want you to ensure that somehow, the Emperor dies during this Rebellion of yours.”

I gaped for several seconds before finding my voice again. This was the last thing I'd expected to hear. I'd've been less shocked if he'd asked my to shoot him. “Why?”

“I have my reasons.”

His tone was decidedly clipped, and I dropped that line of questioning. “How exactly to you foresee this happening?”

Vader's head tilted to the side, as if in thought. “I do not expect you to actually kill him, Princess. I will do that. I merely request that you give me the opportunity to do so.”

“So what exactly are you proposing?” I asked carefully.

“A truce. You help me manipulate this war into a scenario that will end the Emperor's life, and I will make certain that your Rebellion survives to see him fall.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I will keep the Empire as far from your back as I realistically can,” he clarified.

I nodded slowly, trying to absorb it all, It seemed so surreal. “Okay. Okay. And what happens when he's dead? We go back to trying to blast each other out of existence?”

“I'm sure we could work something out after some . . . aggressive negotiations.”

Just then, his comlink beeped. He glanced at the number. “I must take this. Have you made a decision?”

I couldn't think, so I went with my gut feeling. “Yes. Yes, I'll help you.”

“Excellent.” He made to leave, and I jumped to my feet.


He turned, comlink beeping insistently in his hand. “Yes?”

“What do I do now? How do I get back to the Alliance?””

“I'll tell you when I know.”

And the door slid shut behind him.

Chapter Two: Misunderstandings

Vader came to me the next morning – or so he claimed; I had no way of knowing what time it was. He was silent as he bound my hands, and I didn't dare attempt to whisper anything to him, to try to find out what was going on. That would only serve to make the two stormtroopers he had with him suspicious.

His gloved hand went to the small of my back, and I moved forward obligingly. He was tense; I could feel it radiating from him, and his hand on my back was as stiff as metal. An uneasy feeling settled in my stomach.

Eventually, we reached the bridge. I immediately latched on to the officer who turned to greet us – it was Tarkin, a monster of a human being if I'd ever met one. I hated the cold, slimy man more than any other being in he galaxy.

“Governor Tarkin,” I said waspishly. “I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash.”

That little dig was purely revenge for his silence on the way down here. A little warning that I'd have to deal with this snake would have been nice, and I clearly recall mentioning to Vader once, during one of our discussions on Coruscant, just how much I dislike Tarkin.

But if Vader was the least bit insulted, it didn't show. He was as stone-like as ever. I continued, “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”

At my back, Vader tensed even more, but somehow I got the odd feeling it was from holding in laughter.

Tarkin wasn't as amused. His hand shot out and gripped my chin. “Charming to the last. You don't know how hard I found it signing the order to terminate your life!”

I jerked my head out of his grip, Vader's presence at my back making me braver. “I'm surprised you had the courage to take the responsibility yourself!”

His lip curled, and for a moment I actually thought he might hit me. Then, he spun away. “Princess Leia,” he said, coldly formal, “before your execution, I would like you to be my guest at a ceremony that will make this battle station more operational. No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now.”

As I tried to fathom exactly what he meant, I felt Vader tense even more, and he shifted. Ironically, it gave me hope. I had never really minded Tarkin's threat of death, because I was certain Vader would protect me. Yet I had believed that he was in agreement with Tarkin on most things. Obviously, I was wrong, and I almost relaxed, sure that Vader would thwart whatever evil scheme Tarkin had up his sleeve.

I smiled mirthlessly up at him, almost smug in my self-assurance. “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

He was smug right back at me. “Not after we demonstrate the power of this station. In a way, you have determined the choice of the planet that'll be destroyed first.”

Destroyed? As in, made uninhabitable? I fervently wished we'd had time to study the plans before the Empire had caught our trail.

Tarkin wasn't done. Unfortunately. “Since you are reluctant to provide us with the location of the Rebel base, I have chosen to test this station's destructive power on your home planet of Alderaan.”

An icy fist of fear seized my stomach. “No!” I nearly screeched forgetting about Vader for the moment. “Alderaan is peaceful, we have no weapons, you can't possibly --”

He loomed over me. “You would prefer another target? A military target? Then name the system!”

Once again Vader shifted behind me, and, rather panicky, I wondered what he wanted from me. He'd said he needed the Alliance, so surely he didn't expect me to actually tell the truth! Not that I would, anyway . . .

“I grow tired of asking this,” Tarkin snapped at me. “So it'll be the last time. Where is the Rebel base?”

I lowered my head, as if admitting defeat. “Dantooine. They're on Dantooine.”

He smirked over my shoulder, and I felt the urge to slap him for dismissing me as soon as I gave him an answer. “You see, Lord Vader, she can be reasonable.”

I vaguely recalled Vader's words as he'd entered my cell last night with the droid. So he'd told Tarkin he'd actually interrogated me and I hadn't cooperated. Well, that was okay. I wouldn't have.

Then he turned to another officer. “Continue with the operation. You may fire when ready.”

I couldn't believe my ears. “What?!”

“You're far to trusting,” Tarkin told be haughtily. “Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration. But don't worry. We will deal with your Rebel friends soon enough.”

I lunged for him. “No!”

A strong hand on my shoulder pulled me back. Vader. Right. He'd stop this. We were partners now . . . or something like partners. He couldn't just stand there and let them blow up a planet! My planet!

“Commencing primary ignition,” a voice said. I was too dizzy with panic to try and pinpoint it.

And then there was a flash of light, and Alderaan was gone.

Just – gone.

Not dried out, or flooded, or the air stripped of oxygen – actually gone. Blown away.

I couldn't believe it. There was absolutely nothing left.

I'd never get to bury my father.

My knees went weak. “And you call yourselves human,” I hissed.

Vader escorted me back to my cell. He was as silent as he'd been on the way to the bridge – I shivered – earlier. But when we arrived at my cell, he hesitated, as if to say something.

I beat him to it. “How could you?” I demanded harshly, near tears as I glared at his unfathomable black mask. “Why didn't you stop him?”

“The Emperor ordered me not to interfere,” Vader replied lowly. “He is already displeased that I pushed back your execution; I was under strict orders to do nothing. It would have been treason.”

“I thought you wanted to commit treason! You want to kill him!”

“Keep your voice down,” Vader told me. “You are becoming rather shrill.”

“Of course I'm shrill! You just forced me to watch as my homeworld became space dust! How can you sleep at night, doing things like that every day?”

“I don't,” he informed me shortly. “I meditate. I will come see you later.”

He left abruptly, and I sat down on the hard bench. So this is how it's going to be.

Pulling my feet up, I curled into a fetal position and cried myself to sleep.

Chapter Three: Parting Ways

I don't know how long I slept, but the next thing I knew, Vader was shaking me awake.

I could still feel the tear tracks on my face, and the last thing I wanted was to talk to him, but I sat up anyway.

“A ship has been pulled in on the tractor beam,” he told me. “The occupants will be coming for you.”

I lay back down, not even bothering to question him. “Fine.”

It seemed to take forever for my rescuers to show up, and I began to question their competence. In fact, I had nearly fallen asleep again by the time my door was blasted open.

I propped myself up on one elbow and waited for the smoke to clear. When it did, I blinked in confusion.

The stormtrooper before me looked silently back.

But something about him wasn't quite right. Then I realized what it was.

“Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?” I asked him, amused.

The helmet tilted, confused. Then a voice from inside said, “Wha . . . oh, the uniform!” and the helmet was yanked off to reveal the most innocent-looking young man I had ever seen. “I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you!” he announced.

I nearly laughed at his ridiculous statement, but managed to hold it in. Instead, I settled for a polite, “You're who?”

“I'm here to rescue you,” he repeated. “I've got your Artoo unit. I'm here with Ben Kenobi.”

The General! “Ben Kenobi!” I exclaimed. “Where is he?”

Luke gestured happily out into the hallway. “Come on!”

I followed him with as much dignity as I could. If Vader actually thought this child was going to successfully get me off this monstrous hunk of metal, he had even less faith in the Empire than I did.

We began to run along the corridor, only to meet up with an older man dressed like Luke, in a stormtrooper suit minus the helmet, and a Wookiee, both wildly aiming shots at the troops behind them. “Can't get out that way,” the man informed us casually.

I glared at him, trying to keep my temper in check. This was not a game, no matter if Vader was secretly protecting us or not! “Looks like you've managed to cut off our only escape route,” I shot back, empathizing the word only.

He gave me an insulted look that clearly said, I'm older and wiser, listen to your elders, and retorted sarcastically, “Perhaps you'd like it better back in your cell, Your Highness.”

So he knew about my title. Too bad common courtesy seemed to be out of his reach.

Luke was busy talking to Threepio (I was happy to hear that Artoo and Threepio hadn't been separated) when the troops the man had been shooting at began to advance on us.

“There isn't any other way out,” Luke told his friend as he and I huddled together, feeling safer just from the physical proximity to each other.

“I can't hold them off forever!” the man snapped.

I couldn't help rolling my eyes. “This is some rescue, “ I complained, hoping to nettle the arrogant man. “When you came in here, didn't you have a plan for getting out?”

It worked. He jerked his head at Luke, grouchily shouting, “He's the brains, sweetheart!”

Typical mercenary. Blame someone else when things go wrong.

Luke looked sheepish and somewhat anxious as he looked down the hallway. “Well, I didn't . . .”

Enough! my brain screamed. I snatched Luke's blaster out of his hands and shot a hole in the grate leading to the garbage chute. Not my favourite mode of transportation, but I didn't want the Empire getting a hold on naïve little Luke; they'd chew him up and spit him back out. The mercenary – for I was fairly sure that's what he was – well, him I didn't really care about. As for myself, I was fairly certainVader would protect me, even if he didn't extend the gesture to my homeworld.

“What the hell are you doing?” the mercenary yelped as the bolt flew past him. Too bad I missed him.

“Somebody has to save out skins,” I snapped back. “Into the garbage chute, flyboy.” And with that, I jumped.

The Wookiee followed my after a few moments, and then Luke. Almost immediately, the three of us realized that the door was sealed after Luke nearly killed us all trying to blast it open.

Of course, the mercenary couldn't keep his mouth shut, once he joined us. “Oh, the garbage chute was a really wonderful idea! What an incredible smell you've discovered! Let's get out of here. Get away from there . . .” He pushed Luke away from the door and aimed his blaster at it.

“No!” Luke shouted. “Wait!”

Too late. I fought the urge to strangle the mercenary as the bolt he shot at the door bounced off the durasteel and around the room.

“Will you forget it?” Luke demanded when we were finally able to stop ducking. “I already tried it. It's magnetically sealed!”

“Put that thing away!” I growled at what's-his-name. “You're going to get us all killed!”

He sneered at me. “Absolutely, Your Worship. Look, I had everything under control until you led us down here. You know, it's not going to take them long to figure out what happened to us.”

“It could be worse --” I began, but was cut off by a horrible, hungry moan that seemed to come from beneath our feet. Even the mercenary went white.

“It's worse,” he mumbled, but there was no bite in it. The Wookiee howled and tried to hide in the shadows, a rather difficult feat for someone his size. Luke and the mercenary held their guns at the ready.

“There's something alive down there!” Luke stated unnecessarily.

“It's your imagination,” the mercenary told him, but his eyes said that his imagination was working overtime, as well.

“Something just moved past my leg!” Luke insisted, eyes wide. “Look! Did you see that?”

The other man squinted at the water. If the situation weren't so serious I would have made a remark about his eyesight. “What?”

Luke only had time to yell, “Help!” before he was dragged completely under the water.

“Luke!” the mercenary bellowed, beginning to flail about in what I presumed was meant to be a search pattern. “Luke! Luke!”

And then he surfaced with a gasp. “Luke!” I screamed, and snatched up a pole for him to grab onto. I held it out to him. “Luke! Luke, grab a hold of this!”

“Blast it, will you?” Luke groaned as he attempted to reach the pole. “My gun's jammed.”

“Where?” the mercenary asked, squinting again.

“Anywhere!” Luke cried in both desperation and exasperation.

The mercenary fired his blaster, but it did little good, except for getting Luke dragged downward again. The mercenary continued to shout his name until suddenly, the walls shuddered.

We froze, then gave each other frightened glances. The Wookiee, almost forgotten in the corner, gave a shattering howl.

And then Luke surfaced again. “Grab him!” I ordered the mercenary, who obeyed me for once. “What happened?” I demanded of Luke.

He gave me a confused look. “I don't know, it just let go of me and disappeared.”

The mercenary tensed. “I've got a very bad feeling about this . . .”

And then the walls began to close in on us. Literally.

What was Vader thinking?! I realized that he wanted to douse any suspicions about our deal, but really, this was going a little too far!

“The walls are moving!” Luke exclaimed, once again stating the obvious. I was going to have to talk to him about that little habit. Specifically, how to break it.

But first things first. “Don't just stand there!” I snapped. “Try to brace it with something!”

We did try, but everything we moved either bent or snapped under the pressure of the walls, which continued to move slowly but steadily inward. The Luke brightened.

“Wait a minute!” He pulled out his comlink. “Threepio! Come in, Threepio! Threepio!” But the droid didn't answer. Luke frowned. “Where could he be?”

Luke continued to try to raise the droid as the Wookiee, whimpering and whining under his breath, tried to physically hold the walls back with his paws. His friend was trying much the same tactic, only with his back instead of his hands. We spotted another pole at the same time and again tried to brace the walls, but it didn't work and I ended up sinking into the garbage. I tried to lift my feet, but garbage was being pushed onto them, burying me.

“Get on the top!” the mercenary yelled at me over the grinding noise the walls made.

“I can't!” I nearly wailed back as Luke still exclaimed over the absence of my protocol droid. Damn it, Vader, make it stop!

The mercenary reached out to me, and I gripped his hand tightly, noting vaguely that my own hand, so tiny in his, was white and shaking with fear.

“One thing's for sure,” he grouched as he attempted to pull me up. “we're all going to be a lot thinner. Get on top of it!” he repeated urgently.

“I'm trying!” I replied.

Just as I managed to join the mercenary on top of a garbage heap, Luke comlink rang. He answered it, and though I couldn't hear the greeting from the person on the other end, Luke's exclamation of, “Threepio!” was all that was needed for my hopes to rise once again. Perhaps we weren't going to die here after all.

It took some repetition, but eventually walls were stopped – and just in time. We bolted out the now-open door into a deserted hallway, where Luke and the mercenary discarded their clumsy, helmet-less stormtrooper outfits, taking only the utility belts. And then, of course, the mercenary decided it was time to get all high and mighty again.

“If we can just avoid any more female advice,” he said in a casual yet superior tone that gave me an almost irresistible urge to smack him, “we ought to be able to get out of here.”

Well,” Luke said optimistically, “let's get moving!”

But then the Wookiee noticed the creature that had attacked Luke trying to get out of the garbage chute, and the mercenary aimed his pistol at it.

“No, wait!” I hissed at him. “They'll hear!”

But he shot anyway. And, as I'd predicted, the noise banged and echoed throughout the chamber. I was furious. Luke simply shook his head.

By the Force, how had these two ended up friends?

As the mercenary tried to bully the Wookiee into moving, I decided I'd had enough. I moved over to him.

“Listen,” I told him waspishly. “I don't know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you do as I tell you. Okay?”

I hadn't meant to give him a choice, but obviously he thought he had one. “Look, Your Worshipfulness,” he snapped back at me, “let's get one thing straight! I take orders from one person! Me!”

I let my upper lip curl slightly as I replied, “It's a wonder your still alive.” I lengthened my stride only to nearly trip on the heels of the Wookiee. Frustrated, I growled, “Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?” Moving around him, I stalked off, leading my so-called rescuers to the docking bay.

Chapter Four: Dealing With Death

“There she is,” the mercenary said as we looked down at his ship, the pride in his voice evident.

I was not nearly so impressed. It was, quite literally, a heap of junk. There were dents everywhere, and it had obviously been patched up more than a couple times, and judging from the all different shades of gray I could see, it had been with whatever was available rather than the correct parts. It took a moment before I realized he wasn't joking.

“You came in that?” I said in disbelief. “You're braver than I thought.”

He shot me an insulted look. “Nice. Come on!”

We moved off down the hallway. Luke had consulted with the droids, and they were near the ship. But as soon as we rounded the first corner, we came face-to-face with a squad of stormtroopers.

They seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see them. I should have known better, I suppose, but I had thought that maybe Vader would have only sent troops to the detention area. He did want me to get away, after all. Once again, I had underestimated him and his desire to keep our plan a secret.

The troopers recovered first. “It's them! Blast them!” Or maybe they're under Tarkin's command.

The mercenary was firing before my brain fully caught up with the situation. “Get back to the ship!” he shouted at us as he and the Wookiee took off down the hallway.

“Where are you going?!” Luke yelled at him. “Come back!”

He didn't hear. Or, more likely, he did, and chose to ignore the summons.

“He certainly has courage,” I said sarcastically.

“What good will it do us if he gets himself killed?” Luke countered. I was proud of him for that comment. Maybe there was hope for the innocent, child-like young man after all. “Come on!”

We dashed toward th hangar, Luke randomly firing shots behind us in the general direction of the troopers that were following us. We ducked into a doorway and raced down a narrower sub-corridor. At the end there was another door, which we ran through --

-- only to nearly fall off the edge of a retracted bridge.

Panting, Luke muttered, “I think we took a wrong turn.”

The troopers were still on our tail; we could hear them clattering down the hallway. I reached over the controls for the door behind us, and shut it, but to my dismay, there was no lock.

I said as much to Luke. His idea of a fix was to fry the controls to a crisp with a blaster bolt.

“That ought to hold it for a while,” he said.

I nearly rolled my eyes, but there were more important matters at hand.

“We've got to get across, “ I reminded him Since he was now closest to the controls, I added, “Find the control that extends the bridge.”

He blinked, looked at the burnt controls, and turned sheepishly to me. “I think I just blasted it.”

There were noises at the door. “They're coming through!” I hissed.

Suddenly, there were troops on the other side of the bridge. Luke dispatched them quickly, but the encounter just drove home my point.

Luke gave me his blaster. “Here, hold this.” Then he pulled a thin rope from the utility belt he wore as I dealt with the onslaught of troopers from the other side of the abyss (blessing my father for allowing me to take weapons classes despite Alderaan's peace policy all the while) as the door behind us was slowly hitched upward.

“Here they come!” I said, as a reminder to Luke to hurry up.

He tossed the rope, and it wrapped itself around a large pipe on the other side. With no time for anything other than an experimental tug before having to swing across the abyss on it, I kissed him quickly.

“For luck,” I told his dumbfounded expression.

And luck was with us. We made it to the other side safely and ran off down yet another small corridor.

We found the mercenary and the Wookiee by the hangar bay. “What kept you?” the mercenary asked irritably by way of greeting.

“We ran into some old friends,” I replied.

“Is the ship alright?” Luke wanted to know.

“Seems okay,” the mercenary replied, eyes going back to the hunk of scrap metal he called a ship. “If we can get to it. Just hope the old man got the tractor beam out of commission.”

Right! General Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi was with them. I'd totally forgotten.

We were nearly to the ship when we found General Kenobi – locked in the midst of a lightsaber duel with Vader.

He glanced at us, and raised his blade slowly, an obviously suicidial move.

I narrowed my eyes at Vader. Don't you dare. Don't. You. Dare.

He dared. And Obi-Wan Kenobi died with one swift blow of Vader's bloody blade.

“No!” Luke screamed. I wanted to scream myself, but there was no time. We hurried onto the ship and took off, leaving the Death Star behind us. Yet when I thought at Vader, We will be talking about this, you bastard, I could have sworn he heard me.

I comforted Luke as we flew away from the Death Star. He needed it – General Kenobi's death had hit him hard – and it kept my away from that insufferable, arrogant nerfherder in the cockpit (whose name, I finally learned, was Han Solo. And his copilot, the Wookiee, was called Chewbacca).

“I just can't believe he's gone,” Luke mumbled, staring down at the table.

I knew the feeling. “There wasn't anything you could have done,” I told him soothingly.

That was went Han Solo interrupted, by rushing into the hold. “Come on, kid, we're not out of this yet!” he snapped at Luke.

I felt the urge to snap back at him. Luke was grieving ,and in my mind the last thing he needed was the burden of responsibility. But Luke jumped up eagerly, and I assumed that this would be a good coping mechanism for him. Left alone, I went to the cockpit to see what was going on.

Although I couldn't understand Chewbacca, I liked him well enough, and he welcomed me into the cockpit as Luke and Han chattered over the intercom.

Chewbacca spotted the TIEs first, and pointed them out to me with a bark. “Here they come!” I informed Luke and Han.

I was unsure how many fighters Vader had sent after us, and I dared not estimate. I had to learn not to expect special treatment just because of our deal, and counting the enemy ships would just discourage me. Again.

A few shots were fired, and then a screen in from of me flared with light. I glanced at it. “We've lost lateral controls!” I informed my companions, and was rewarded by a muffled curse from Solo.

“Don't worry,” he said confidently a moment later. “She'll hold together.”

Another bolt hit us, making the ship rock and shorting out a control panel. I frowned.

“You hear me, baby?” Solo's voice came over the intercom, and I nearly snarled at him for the degrading nickname before he added, “Hold together!” and I realized he was talking to the ship. Typical pirate.

I turned my attention back to the battle outside. There seemed to be less TIE fighters now than there had been, but I knew that didn't mean anything. The Empire was notorious for its replaceable staff.

Eventually we were down to two. Luke had apparently forgotten about General Kenobi for the moment, as he was happily shooting at TIE fighters with Solo's encouragement and guidance. I wondered idly what it would take for war to stop being a game to him.

“There are still two more of them out there!” I warned them as soon as I was sure of the number.

We were hit once again, but Solo and Luke made quick work of them. Impulsively, I jumped up and hugged Chewbacca. “We did it!” I exclaimed, echoing Luke's comment as it came through the intercom.

In the background, Threepio began to complain.

Solo strode back into the cockpit, a self-satisfied swagger in his stride that set my teeth on edge. When he took over the controls, Chewbacca left, presumably to check out the damage to the ship.

“Not a bad bit of rescuing, huh?” Solo asked me with a smirk. “You know, sometimes I even amaze myself.”

“That doesn't sound too hard,” I snapped back. What was it about this man that made me so angry? My next words had a dual purpose; to bring him down off his high horse, and to keep suspicion off Vader, me, and our deal. “Besides, they let us go. It's the only explanation for the ease of our escape.”

“Easy?” Solo's tone and look were both disbelieving, and I mentally gave a victory cheer. Princess, one; pirate, zero. “You call that easy?”

“They're tracking us!” I insisted, working to keep the glee out of my voice.

“Not this ship, sister,” he said loftily.

I was about to hit him with a scathing reply when a horrible thought occurred to me: What if Vader was tracking us?

I tried to dismiss it. He wouldn't do that.

Would he?

If I find a tracking device anywhere near this ship when we land, I vowed silently, there will be hell to pay.

Chapter Five: On Yavin IV

I shook off my feeling of unease and changed the topic of conversation. “At least the information in Artoo is still intact,” I said optimistically.

Solo glanced over at me, then at the little blue-and-white droid. “What's the little guy carrying that's so important, anyway?”

“The technical readouts of that battle station,” I replied, not able to see how telling him could hurt, and hey, if he was willing to actually have a civil conversation, the least I could do was be nice in return. “I only hope that when the data is analyzed, a weakness can be found. It's not over yet!”

He snorted, and my opinion of him fell once again. “It is for me sister. I ain't in this for your revolution, and I'm certainly not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I'm in it for the money!”

I set my jaw – something I had to stop doing, no matter how much he annoyed me. If I wasn't careful, I was going to shatter it one of these days. “You needn't worry about your reward,” I said tightly. “If money is all that you love, then that's what you'll receive!”

I jumped to my feet and left the cockpit, running into Luke on the way. “Your friend is quite the mercenary. I wonder if he really cares about anything – or anyone!”

And with that, I stalked off.

Alone in the hold, I sank into thought. I couldn't believe the callousness of the pirate! Even Vader believed in a cause, had a goal. Granted, it wasn't exactly a noble one, but to me it was still better than living merely for money.

I thought a little more about Vader. I knew I couldn't tell anyone about our deal. Mon Mothma would insist I drop it, and the recruits would forever see me as a traitor. That meant it would be my burden to bear alone.

I frowned. It was heavy, though, and I already had so much responsibility to bear. Maybe I should back out. Things were already progressing in a direction far different from the one I had imagined when I had made this deal. With the destruction of Alderaan – I forced back the lump that formed in my throat at the very thought – and the death of General Kenobi, I would have sworn nothing had changed between us.

Of course, that was the point, but still! We still had the Empire breathing down our necks despite Vader's promise to me to keep them away – but really, what's the promise of a Sith worth?

I buried my face in my hands. This was all so complicated! I hadn't thought this deal through very well at all; in fact, I had likely endangered the Alliance by agreeing to it! Damn Vader!

And how was I supposed to contact him? He hadn't given me a comm number. Was I supposed to sit prettily until he decided to contact me?

Well, screw that. If he wasn't going to treat me like the partner in this deal that I was, then he would have to deal with th situation on his own!

I nearly whimpered. He didn't even have a plan! How could I have agreed to be part of something that didn't even exist except as a vague concept in the mind of the half-mad arch-villain of the galaxy?

Stupid, Princess. Very, very stupid . . .

I stood up and began to pace. Maybe if I could come up with an idea . . . I'd probably have time to; I didn't expect him to contact me anytime soon. So what could we do?

Well, first of all, the Emperor was on Coruscant. Always. In my lifetime, he had never so much as taken a couple days to visit his homeworld of Naboo – two days being the minimum, because it was a day's journey each way from Coruscant. So whatever happened would have to happen on Coruscant.

I bit my lip. The Alliance was ages away from being ready to attack Coruscant. I was having my doubts about our ability to take out this monstrosity of a battle station. Our equipment was old, our numbers less than a fraction of Coruscant's population – and that included the members of permanent cells set up apart from the main base, people we couldn't call on easily anyway.

I sighed. How exactly did Vader expect this to work?

Maybe we could send in a small group, an assassin group. The Emperor would be sure to call on Vader for assistance . . .No, he'd send Vader out to kill us, not keep him close as a bodyguard.

What could we do to put Vader, armed and ready to strike, beside the Emperor?

The only thing I could think of was to send a unit against the palace while Vader and the Emperor were in conference. But even then there was no guarantee they'd stay together.

I sighed and sat back down. No wonder Vader didn't have a plan.

I bounced a little on the balls of my feet as I watched the trees of Yavin IV disappear underneath us. In the distance, the ruin we had set up base in drew ever nearer.

We docked in the general landing bay, and were greeted by a grinning mechanic, who promptly called, “Oi! The princess is alive!”

A cheer went up among his colleagues, and I smiled shyly as he found an armoured military speeder for us to use to travel across the general hangar to the military one. Han grumbled at their good moods, but I refused to let him get me down; these people, my fellow Rebels, were all I had left now. They were my family, and I was happy that they were glad to see me.

As soon as the speeder halted, Commander Willard scooped me up in a giant hug as everyone around us watched, chattering and smiling.

“You're safe!” Willard exclaimed in relief. “We had feared the worst.” He let me go and continued, “When we heard about Alderaan, we were afraid that you had been lost along with your father.”

I paused briefly. No, I wanted to say, Vader was protecting me. Because as soon as I said that, the situation would be out of my hands. It would be the High Council's burden to bear.

Unfortunately, if I said that, I would also be questioned and watched like a hawk until they had milked all the information they could out of me. Not appealing at all.

No it was simpler to keep this to myself. “We don't have time for our sorrows, Commander,” I told Willard. “The battle station has surely track us here --” If it has, I will kill Vader “-- it's the only explanation for the ease of our escape. You must use the information in this Artoo unit to plan the attack. It's our only hope.”

There, Lord Vader. Is that enough cover for you? I sighed discreetly. Hopefully Vader had enough sense to get off the Death Star while he still could.

A few hours later, General Dodonna approached me, a small object in his hand, which he waved at me. “You were right, Princess,” he told me. “They did track you.”

He offered me the device, and I took it, furious. How dare he? So much for keeping the Empire off our back!

I handed it back. “Then we need a strategy more than ever,” I replied sweetly. “How is the planning of the attack coming?”

Finally, we were ready to launch our attack. The Death Satr was on its way, and we needed to get to it before it reached us.

Dodonna and I found Luke by his X-wing, looking upset.

“What's wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, it's Han,” he sighed, and I stiffened. Not again . . . “I don't know,” he continued. “I really thought he'd changed his mind.”

right. The pirate had taken the reward the Alliance had offered and disappeared. “He's got to follow his own path,” I told Luke, rather than saying what I really thought of the man. “No one can choose it for him.”

Luke looked down. “ I just wish Ben were here.”

I couldn't help it. I gave him a comforting hug and a peck on the cheek, then left to watch the battle from the war room.

Chapter Six: Empire Vs Alliance

I put General Kenobi, Han Solo and the tracking device all out of my mind as I gazed down at the battle being projected in the war room. My associates and I watched closely as the stimulated image of the Death Star approached Yavin IV; slowly, small green dots surrounded us on the holo – our small fleet of X-wings. I tuned everything else out as I gazed at the picture and listened to the tinny voices that echoed over the comm.

. . . fifteen minutes,” one stated. I winced. That was the amount of time we had until the Death Star attempted to blow us into oblivion.

Red Leader began the checking-in process; I felt a twinge of guilt over not knowing the man's name. Of course, we had thousands of members, we recruited more every day, but I still felt bad over not being able to know everyone by face and name.

As everyone checked in, my thoughts wandered to Vader. I really wished he'd contact me; I wanted to know exactly what his plans were for this battle. Maybe he'd anonymously disable the Death Star's firing mechanisms? Or overthrow Tarkin? Perhaps he'd convinced the snake to bargain with us.

Yeah, right, Princess. Get real. I frowned.

Then I heard Luke check in and smiled; he was one of the last. Our small fleet of X-wings went out.

And then the battle began,and my smile vanished.

Luke took an early try at getting to the Death Star's weak spot. I held my breath as I watched the dot I knew represented him dive in, nearly fainted when he disappeared in enemy fire, and had to remind myself to resume breathing when he emerged from the flames.

I got a little cooked,” he said over the comm, “but I'm okay.”

He took enough time to get his bearings back, then went in again. Or tried to, at least. An excess of enemy fire forced him to take out those sources and leave the objective alone for a while.

I began to pace with anxiety. Dodonna watched my passively from a corner; I ignored him. I knew he thought I was too young, impulsive, rash, emotional and several other traits that would do little good and quite a bit of harm on the battlefield. But his opinions were not my problem.

The battle continued. Luke received a glancing blow, and I desperately wanted to order him in, but I didn't say anything. Why did I ever let him go out in the first place?!

Because we needed pilots. And because if you hadn't, he would have asked why, looking at you with those big blue eyes, and you would have melted and let him go.

When had I become such a pushover?

Luke caught a tail, but another pilot got rid of it for him. Gold Squad attempted a run.

An officer pointed out several new fighters that had entered the fray; they were Imperial. I bent over the holo.

Three fighters in particular caught my eye. They were travelling quickly in a triangle formation, the one in the lead strangely brighter than the others. A different style of ship, perhaps, or --

-- or heavily modified.

It's Vader. Somehow, I knew it without a doubt. What is he planning?!

. . . five minutes,” the computer chimed over the comm system. I clenched my teeth and found Vader's fighter again, following its path as he flitted about the battle space.

And then he shot at one of our pilots. Unlike Luke, this one didn't reappear.

I felt the blood drain from my face in shock, then surge back up in fury.

As I glared at his little red dot on the hollow, he fired again.

And again.

And again.

I could have cheerfully disemboweled him by that time.

Dodonna went to the comm and ordered half the Red Squad – the fullest squad left, at half their original size – to split up; half would stand by while the other half attempted a run. To my immense relief, Luke was one of the ones who fell back.

Vader went after the attackers, his wingmen closing up formation as they went. My shoulders tensed.

He shot one.

Then another.

Only Red Leader left, now. I bit my lip so hard it began to bleed.

Red Leader managed to get off a shot and avoid Vader, but it didn't go in. My hands clenched.

Luke was given the order to go in.

And Vader finally managed to kill Red Leader.

The tension in the air was thick. We realized now just what a suicide mission this had been. I resumed pacing as Luke and his two comrades began their run.

The guns mounted on the surface of the Death Star itself swiveled to follow them down the trench, showering laser bolts into the space around them. Behind them, Vader and his wingmen had circled back and were now proceeding to chase them down the trench.

Luke and the other two pilots had worked out a system – I'd listened to them talking about it over the comm. But that system didn't take Vader into account.

The first time Vader shot, he scored a hit. The fighter didn't disappear off the holo, but it did drop out of formation, the pilot expressing regret all the way. We sent a quick call down to the landing bay to give the mechanics a heads up, then we turned back to the battle.

Vader had let the wounded craft go; he was still tight on the tails of the other two fighters. If you so much as singe Luke's hair, I'll . . . I couldn't finish the thought, unsure of what I would do.

Luke sounded fairly calm, but the panic in the other pilot's voice as Vader pressed him had strained his nerves, I could tell. Just a few more metres, I urged him silently.

Then, Vader got the other pilot. Now, Luke was alone.

“He needs to get out of there,” I said, my tone clipped.

Dodonna frowned at me. “He's our only hope, Princess.”

I frowned right back. “I realize that, General. That doesn't mean he's in danger and needs to blow that things as quickly as possible. Vader will lock on him any second --” What is he thinking?! “-- and then we will have no hope!”

I turned away, and we went back to watching the projected battle in grim silence.

Vader was gaining on Luke, and with every inch my muscles tensed even more.

Suddenly, a beep sounded. My head flew up.

“His computer's off,” a voice informed us – another strategist watching from another part of the building. “Luke, you switched off your targeting computer. What's wrong?”

“Nothing,” Luke reassured us. “I'm alright.”

A blast came from Luke's comm. “I've lost Artoo!” he said, dismay evident in his voice.

I jumped up at that news, wringing my hands. He didn't have any backup! I bit back a desperately unladylike phrase from my lips.

The intercom sounded. “The Death Star had cleared the planet,” it told us, infuriatingly calm. “The Death Star had cleared the planet.”

Vader began to fire at Luke. I was ready to throttle him with my bare hands.

Suddenly, one of Vader's wingmen disappeared, and Vader stopped firing.

We all blinked in confusion and leaned over the holo. Another ship had entered the battlefield, larger than either an X-wing or a TIE fighter, but far smaller than a Star Destroyer. If I had to hazard a guess, I could have suggested it was a light freighter, like --

Yahoo!” came the exuberant shout over the comm, one I knew all too well.

“Who gave him our frequency?” I muttered.

“Are you complaining?” Dodonna asked me increduously.

I smiled reluctantly. “No.”

You're all clear, kid!” Han added to Luke after a few more moments of battle. “Now let's blow this thing and go home!”

Always eager, Luke did exactly that. He shot and hit, and within milliseconds, the Death Star was no more. We all sagged with happy weariness, smiling all around.

Great shot, kid, that was one in a million!” Han sang over the comm.

We all headed for the door. I was the last one out, and the only once to notice as Vader's ship skipped off the radar into space.

Luke climbed slowly out of his cockpit, bright blue eyes wide with exhaustion. This whole thing was probably a bit surreal to him, never having been involved in battle before, and then to nearly single-handedly win us the most important one of our lives . . . I'd be stunned, too.

I called his name and pushed to the front of the crowd gathering around him and threw myself at him. He caught me and we moved in a delirious circle, half dancing, half bouncing. The Han shoved his way toward us and joined our celebration.

Luke's smile was downright beautiful. “I knew you'd come back!” he said to Han joyously. “I just knew it!”

The pirate's answering grin was just as happy and only slightly more arrogant. “Well, I wasn't gonna let you get all the credit and take all the reward.”

“I knew there was more to you than money,” I broke in. And if I hadn't known it before, well, I certainly did now.

Just then, Luke noticed his burnt-out astromech, ironically at the same time C-3PO did.

“Oh, no,” Luke groaned. I wasn't sure if he meant the damage to R2-D2 or Threepio's alarmed squawking.

“Oh my! Artoo! Can you hear me? Say something!” The golden droid turned to the mechanic anxiously. “You can repair him, can't you?”

The mechanic looked like he was trying not to laugh. “We'll get to work on him right away.”

“You must repair him!” Threepio stressed. “Sir, if any of my circuits or gears will help, I'll gladly donate them!”

“He'll be all right,” Luke assured him.

I slipped my arms around Luke and Han and hugged them to me. “We'll all be alright.”

I watched Luke, Han and Chewbacca stride toward me and kneel at my feet. They were being honoured for their roles in the Battle of Yavin, as the poets and bards were now calling it. I decorated all three, and they stood, turned, and posed for pictures with me.

It was such a happy time, yet all I could think of was just what I was going to say to Vader when he finally deemed fit to call me. He had a lot to answer for.

Interlude: Bones To Pick

I was uncertain of which Yavin moon I had crashed on; whichever one it was, I didn't like it.

It took me a good hour to wretch the mangled door of my cockpit open enough so that I could exit my craft, even with the superior strength my prosthetic limbs afforded me. An exterior examination revealed little worth salvaging, and I gave up on the machine with frustration. Even if I had the tools necessary to repair it – which I didn't – I would need days longer than I had rations. Which I also didn't have, having used up the suit's storage supply the last time I had found myself stranded.

The moon I was on had rolling plains, and there were some trees visible in the distance, but it was obvious a drought was underway. The grass was sparse and yellow, and the trees were skinny and limp.

I growled under my breath. I hated dry places. They made the leather portions of my suit crack and wrinkle.

I turned in a slow circle. There was no evidence of life, human or animal, in any direction.

I pulled out my comlink. I despised calling on my subordinates for help – it made me seem weak in their eyes. However, it seemed I would have no choice.

Suddenly, I paused. The Devastator had been in orbit around the Death Star when it exploded; she would be in no shape to come rescue me – presuming she was in any shape at all. Plus, in my absence, it was the duty of my crew to report in to Sidious, who would no doubt be in a very foul mood when he learned that his pet monster machine had been demolished.

I decided to wait a few hours. By then the rumours of my death would have started, and Sidious's anger would have gone from lava to ice, meaning it would be more focused on the Rebels and revenge, rather than blaming me for his own lapse in judgment. Which it was, since I had found the Death Star's weak spot years ago, and he had continued construction despite it rather than revising the blueprints.

One spark of mistrust in a plethora of fireworks.

Fireworks that had led me to my deal with Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan.

The girl was a firework in and of herself. She was incredibly lucky she hadn't been assassinated yet.

All the same, one had to admire her spunk. It reminded me of myself at that age, a part of my past life I tried to avoid thinking of, yet somehow I could never quite forget it when she was around.

She would be furious with me. She was already angry over the fact that I killed Obi-Wan, and her losses in the battle had likely added fuel to her fire.

I sighed. I had better get this over with.

I punched in the number I had lifted from her comlink while she had been a prisoner on the Death Star. It rang six times before she answered.

“What the hell are you playing at?” she hissed at me, her fury radiating through the Force. That was another surprise I had gotten from her after making our deal; she was Force-sensitive. Untrained, of course – I sincerely doubt she even knew what it meant to be Force-sensitive – but she had good enough mental barriers to keep Sidious from getting curious, which was all I cared about. I would have liked to have measured her sensitivity, but it was impossible with her shields (however instinctive) up, and it was also irrelevant. There were no Jedi out there to train her, and she'd likely slit her own throat before consenting to be my apprentice.

Oh, well. I'd just have to find that pilot.

Yes, I'd definitely be going after the pilot.

“Good evening to you too, Princess,” I snapped back, the vocalizer taking most of the emotion out of my tone.

“I cannot believe you,” she continued waspishly. “How could you? Killing all our men like that? What happened to our partnership? Is this your sadistic way of backing out on me?”

“Would you prefer I announce my defection, Princess? Because that is essentially what my inaction would have done. And I can hardly imagine that going over well with either of our organizations.”

“And you couldn't have missed a few more shots?!”

“Your pilots were utterly predictable, Your Highness. I gave them as much leeway as I reasonably could. It would have been laughable to miss any more than I did.”

She opened her mouth, radiating righteous indignation – then shut it again, lips compressed. She knew I was right. Even if Sidious didn't torture and kill me over the disloyalty, her own Rebellion would do it for him for my crimes against humanity. She also knew that I was the best pilot in the galaxy, and to perform beneath my usual standard would have been dangerous.

“Fine,” she said, acknowledging my point in a clipped tone and accepting – albeit ungracefully – the truth in it. “Then explain the tracking device.” She gazed at me, eyes cool, narrow, and level.

“You and your rescuers had no knowledge of the layout of the Death Star, no knowledge of the technology it employed, and your troops consisted of a hotheaded pirate, an unpredictable Wookiee, a youngster with little to no training in weaponry, an old man far past his prime, and yourself, not to mention a ship so rickety it threatened to collapse in the tractor beam. To let you escape without an ulterior motive would not only have raised suspicions worthy of investigation, it would have been an embarrassment to the Empire. An insult, if you will. I could not take that risk.”

“And speaking of General Kenobi,” she added, the only indication she had listened to the entirety of my speech in the continuous tensing of her shoulders, “what did that old man ever do to you?”

I wanted to laugh in her face. Oh, if only she knew! But she would have to settle for the short answer. I was not about to get into that whole story with herof all people.

“He was a Jedi,” I told her. “I need no other motive.”

She seethed, words writhing behind her lips, but she bit them back, wary of my ire.

“Where do we go from here?” she finally asked, her voice tight.

“I need the name of the pilot who fired that hit on the Death Star,” I said.

Her reaction was immediate and violent. “Absolutely not!”

“Princess --”


“I --”

“This is not negotiable, Vader! If you want his name so badly, figure it out yourself! You will get no help from me or anyone else in the Alliance!” And with that, she hung up on me.

Behind my mask, my eyes narrowed. “Is that a challenge?” I asked the empty air.

Then, after a moment, I smiled painfully.

“Yes, I do believe it was.”

It took me another hour to raise one of my officers on the comlink.

“Sir!” he said – a new man; I didn't know his name. “You're alive!”

“Of course, General,” I snapped impatiently. “It would take more than a few hours on some backwater moon to kill me.”

He gulped. “Sir . . . you've been gone for over four days.”

I tilted my head, letting this new information register. I must have been knocked out during the crash and not realized it.

I looked back at the officer. “Then you had best come pick me up,” I said, my voice low. “I imagine the Emperor is not pleased.”

Chapter Seven: The First Dream

My argument with Vader put me in a foul mood. The man – if he was a man – was utterly despicable. He had no morals, no values – all he wanted was to get ahead of everyone else in the galaxy, like an animal, attempting to bite and scratch his way to the top of the pack. May the best beast win.

The Alliance was in the middle of a move. Since the Empire now knew about our Yavin base, we were packing up and leaving before they could sufficiently regroup and attack us again. We had very little defense against Star Destroyers.

The base only had a skeleton crew left. I was to fly out the next afternoon; Solo had disappeared two days before with a promise to show up at the new base – eventually. Luke was still here, but he spent a large portion of his time with the pilots, since following me around while I did my duties bored him to tears.

Only Mon Mothma and a few select pilots knew the location of the new base; until we got there, none of us would know. It was one more security measure. Well, Solo knew it too; I had argued against that – the man wasn't even officially part of the Alliance, refusing point-plank to give up the neutrality he got by remaining a smuggler. The battle four days ago had pretty much shattered that neutrality, according to everyone, Ally or Imperial, but the stubborn man refused to admit it. Anyway, Mon had agreed to tell Solo, despite my protests – she called it an act of trust. I called it stupid.

I continued to fume as I prepared for my last night at the Yavin base. Tomorrow, I – along with the rest of the remaining crew – would go the new one. I crawled into bed and curled up into a ball under my blankets, childishly hoping that with the new base would come a new beginning, in which I didn’t have to worry about Solo or Vader. If only . . .

I was standing in a dusty, disorganized shop. Mechanical pieces were strewn across shelves and piled in the corners. Very few of them appeared to be functional, or even in one piece.

I was aware of three other beings in the room with me, but I knew there was a starship just beyond the borders of this city with the rest of our crew. In front of me and slightly to my left, there was a man with long brown hair liberally streaked with grey. He was our leader on this little outing, and I respected him greatly. He was facing a grouchy-looking, blue, flying alien that I had just laid eyes on and would be perfectly happy never to do so again. Beside me was a tall orange alien I knew was rather clumsy, but very good-hearted. He was very curious, but he was used to being in and around water. The desert wasn’t agreeing with him.

A slight movement on my other side drew my eye to the little blue and white astrodroid idling at my heels. His dome swivelled around as he took in our new surroundings.

A shout from the blue creature startled me. Qui-Gon, our Jedi leader and my protector, had been starting negotiations to get the hyperdrive we needed.

A little boy raced out from a back room. He was adorable – all blonde hair and big, bright blue eyes. I guessed him to be about nine or ten, though he was small for such an age. He eyed the blue alien’s hand warily as the creature raised it, but he bantered with the creature in a language I didn’t know for a few moments, then moved over to the counter as Qui-Gon, my astrodroid Artoo, and the blue alien went out the back door the boy had come in as the Gungan Jar Jar picked something up. Qui-Gon immediately took it from him.

Don’t touch anything,” Qui-Gon ordered on his way out.

Jar Jar made a face at Qui-Gon’s back, his alien features twisting in such a way that I was hard-pressed not to giggle.

The little boy sat on the counter, legs swinging idly as he cleaned something with a stained rag. I looked around th shop, trying to be inconspicuous. Every now and then the boy would glance up at me, which made me a bit embarrassed, but I smiled at him anyway. He was just a little boy, after all. I couldn’t see the harm.

Are you an angel?” he asked me.

I blinked; I didn’t know what an angel was. “What?” I replied, hoping for clarification.

An angel,” he repeated. “I’ve heard the deep space pilots talk about them. They live on the Moons of Iego I think. They are the most beautiful creatures in the universe. They are good and kind, and so pretty they make even the most hardened spice pirate cry.”

I was speechless. He thought I was beautiful? I’d never been unhappy with my looks, but I would hardly consider myself beautiful. My sister Sola was the beautiful one in our family.

And good and kind? He’d just met me! I certainly hoped I was those things – some of the decisions I had to make as Queen made me doubt it at times – but how would this little boy know what I was like?

I’ve never heard of angels,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

You must be one,” he insisted. “Maybe you just don’t know it.”

I smiled. He was so cute! “You’re a funny little boy,” I told him. “How do you know so much?”

His smile wasn’t quite as bright as it had been. “When I was little – three, I think – my mom and I were sold to Gardulla the Hutt. She lost us betting on the Podraces, to Watto. He’s a lot better master than Gardulla I think –“

I’m sure he had a point somewhere in that story, but I was so shocked I had to interrupt and make sure I’d heard right. “You’re – a slave?”

He set his jaw. “I’m a person, and I have a name!” he said defiantly, then looked back at the part in his hands with something akin to embarrassment – or perhaps shame. “It’s Anakin,” he finished, his voice quiet.

I felt horrible for making him feel inferior – if I had. Who knew how a little boy’s mind worked? “I’m sorry,” I apologized anyway. “I don’t fully understand. This is a strange world to me.”

How very true. I was so used to blues and greens and fabrics of every colour that this world, Tatooine, with it’s tan and white, was the oddest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

He seemed to forgive me instantly, and the bright smile was back. “You’re a strange girl to me,” he replied cheerfully.

At that instant, a loud noise from a back corner drew our attention. Jar Jar had managed to bring a small droid to life, and held onto it as it began to move.. As he attempted to stop it, it began to knock over shelves of parts and other mechanical pieces.

Hit the nose!” the boy told him, almost exasperated. Mechanics must come naturally to him – either that, or he couldn’t imagine anyone not seeing one of these droids before.

Jar Jar followed the instructions, and the droid collapsed in his hands. He put it down, and moved away.

I turned back to the boy. “So what’s it like, being a slave?” I asked, careful to keep any sort of infliction out of my voice, saving mere curiosity.

He shrugged. “It’s alright. Keeps me fed, and I’ve got a home. My mom’s got a lot of skills that a lot of owners can make use of – she can cook, and clean, and she knows how to read, write and figure, so she can keep the record books.”

Is she teaching all that to you?” I asked. “So you can be useful like her?”

Yeah,” he said. “I can do some . . . but owners have only got to keep moms and kids together for five years. After that, we can be sold away. I wouldn’t have lasted long id I weren’t so good at fixing things. I’m making my own droid,” he added proudly.

I could hardly believe my ears. What he was describing to me was criminal! How could the Republic allow such a thing?

I was about to ask another question when Qui-Gon came back in.

We’re leaving,” he said shortly.

I frowned. His negotiations must not have gone too well. I smiled at the boy, wishing I could take him with me, like a child with a toy. He was such a sweet little boy.

I’m glad I met you . . . ah . . . “ I’d forgotten his name! I was sure he’d told me what it was, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember.

Anakin,” he supplied helpfully.

Anakin,” I finished with a smile.

Anakin Skywalker,” he added.

Padme Naberrie,” I told him, then turned to follow Qui-Gon.

As I reached the door, I heard him call, “I’m glad I met you, too!”

“There is still . . .”

. . . good in him.”

I sat straight up, looking for the woman who had whispered those words. They hadn’t been part of that dream I’d had, that insane, weird dream. They had been distinctly real.

But I was alone.

“Great,” I muttered as I rolled out of bed. “I’ve finally gone crazy.”

Then a realization hit me hard, like a smack in the face or a fist in the gut.

“Anakin Skywalker . . . Skywalker – that’s Luke’s name!”

Chapter Eight: All About Luke

I didn’t have a chance to talk to Luke before we left Yavin, and he went on the freighter ship with the X-wings and other pilots while I took a more comfortable transport. However, it was hard to enjoy said comfort when I had such questions zipping around my mind, all demanding to be answered immediately.

“Leia!” Mon Mothma called out to me.

I looked up at her with a start. “I’m sorry; what?”

She smiled. “You must be thinking deeply – that was the fifth time I’ve called your name.”

I felt my cheeks redden. “Sorry,” I apologized again.

She brushed it away. “I just wanted to tell you that we’re going to Arbra.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “Good choice. Isolated, but rather nice climate.”

She nodded back. “Exactly.” She took a sip of her drink, then asked a question I had been dreading. “So, what thoughts had you so rivited you tuned the reast of the galaxy out?”

I smiled weakly. “Nothing really important.” I wrinkled my brow and cast my eyes down. ‘Just thinking about home.”

It worked. Mon got up and came to sit by me, wrapping her arms around me. I felt horrible about using Alderaan’s memory in such a way, but I couldn’t come up with anything else.

If this deal was going to accomplish anything, I was going to have to learn how to lie. How ironic that after two years in the Senate, I still had not acquired that skill.

“It was a terrible act,” Mon told my hair soothingly, “but it cannot be undone. Your father would want you to move on, Leia. He would want you to continue to fight, not in revenge for those who have died, but in hope for those you still live.”

And that, I told myself, is why Mon makes such a great Senator.

I sniffed and gave her a small smile. “Thanks, Mon,” I said. “I’ll try not to dwell on it.”

She sat back. “See that you do.”

I sniffed again and got up. “Excuse me,” I said. “I have to used the refresher.”

With that, I moved to the back of the ship, locked myself in the refresher, slid down the wall, buried my head in my arms atop my knees, and tried not to cry. I had avoided thinking about Alderaan for so long . . .

Suddenly, my comlink rang. When I looked at it, no number was displayed. Immediately, I knew who it was. Very people in the galaxy could afford an untraceable comlink, and none of them were in the Alliance.

“What do you want now?” I hissed at Vader, terrified that Mon or somebody would overhear and still angry with him over our last discussion. I made sure the door was locked, then slid across the floor to the back of the refresher, hoping the extra meter or two would help muffle my voice to anyone listening from outside the door.

“I have questions,” he informed me sternly. But then, he always sounded stern.

“About?” I shot back impatiently.

“Luke Skywalker.”

I froze. “I’m not telling you anything about him.”

“Just general questions, Princess. Nothing that would compromise his location.”

I frowned at him. “You can ask, but I don’t guarantee I’ll answer,” I said, already certain I would not be answering any of his inquiries.

“Which world is he from?”

I snorted. “Why, do you want to blow up his planet, too?”

“Your Highness –“

“I’m not going to tell you, Vader. So save your breath.”

His helmet tilted forward. “What can I do or say, Princess, to convince you that I am not interested in harming the boy?”

My rely was immediate. “Drop the subject.”

He was just as quick. “Not an option.”

We stared at each other in silence for a few moments. Then, Vader spoke again. “You must place your trust in me sometime, Princess.”

“You have given me no reason to trust you.” I sighed.

“I have given you my word.”

“The word of a Sith,” I spat. “What is that worth?”

“Depends on the Sith,” was his enigmatic reply.

I sighed again and bent my head back until it rested against the wall and I was looking at the ceiling. My thoughts were in turmoil. Every fibre of my being demanded that I cut Vader off, that I run as far from him as possible and hoard every shred of information I had from him. But we were supposed to be partners . . .

“What does this information have to do with our deal?” I demanded aggressively.

“Skywalker is Force-Sensitive,” Vader replied. “He is also exceptionally powerful within the Force. I have sensed him often since he came to my awareness at Yavin. It is only a matter of time before the Emperor begins to sense him as well. When that time comes, he will order Skywalker hunted down and destroyed.”

“That’s not helping,” I informed him, wide-eyed. I should have known that Emperor would – “Wait. What do you mean, the Emperor will sense him?”

“The Emperor is a Sith,” Vader told me simply.

My jaw sagged. A Sith? The Emperor? But . . . it made sense. All the little things, threads that hadn’t quite fit before but were to small to be of much notice, now had a place . . .

“He is known as Darth Sidious,” Vader added in what I assumed was supposed to be a helpful tone. Then, with a little more steel, “May I continue?”

I nodded.

“I believe Skywalker may be the key to destroying Sidious.”

I looked directly into the mask, startled. “Because he’s strong in the Force?”

A slight pause. “Yes.”

“Are you lying to me?” I asked suspiciously.

Vader looked to the side. “There are a couple more reasons, but I am not sure about them yet, so I prefer not to voice them until they are more grounded.”

I bit my lip, but nodded. I would have said the same thing. “Fair enough.”

The mask swung back in my direction. “So you will answer my questions?”

“Just the little ones – you know, like past and things,” I cautioned.

The helmet inclined in a regal nod, and he began. “Homeworld?”

“Tatooine,” I replied promptly.

He seemed to get angry at that, but then he continued as if nothing was amiss. “Names of parents?”

I sat back with a frown. “I . . . don’t know. He never mentioned any parents.”

“Any relatives?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

He stared at me for a moment, probably trying to figure out if I was lying or not. Then he nodded again. “Very well. Birthday?”

My mouth opened, but I couldn’t say anything. “I – I don’t know,” I managed to stammer. How could I call Luke my friend when I didn’t know such simply information?


I shook my head in bewilderment.

“Occupation, before joining the Rebellion?”

I bit my lip. “I don’t know.”

Vader shook his head in frustration. “What do you know, Your Highness?”

I was ready to cry. “Obviously not very much.”

A strange sound emitted from the mask; I assumed it was a sigh. He gave me his comm number (finally!) with orders not to call unless it was extremely important, and then only in the dead of the night, Coruscant time, and hung up on me.

I sat in the refresher a few minutes longer, dwelling on our conversation and resolving to talk to Luke at the earliest possible opportunity, not just about the little boy in my dream but about himself.

Suddenly, a question hit me that I should have asked Vader.

“How did he know Luke’s name?”

Chapter Nine: Life And Times

It took me a week, but after we got settled on Arbra I made a point to look up Vader’s history, in a last attempt to understand exactly what I was dealing with. Unfortunately, the only time the computer lab was empty was at three in the morning, and my own wouldn’t be set up for at least another three weeks.

I rubbed at my eyes, irritable.The search was not going well. We had virtually nothing of any use on Vader – it was all battles he’d been in and the atrocities he’d committed over the years.

I did learn that Vader had suddenly appeared one day, out of the blue, as a fully grown being (it was impossible to tell if her was a man or merely man-shaped)and with a ridiculously high status in the Empire for a nobody from nowhere. He had defied the Emperor a grand total of one time, when he had been ordered to Naboo for the King’s coronation when the Emperor formally turned the planet’s government from a democratic monarchy to an absolute one. Vader hadn’t shown up, and had disappeared from sight for two weeks afterward. I always thought he had just hidden away, like a dog afraid of being beaten, but now that I knew the Emperor was a Sith, it was much more likely that said beating had put him out of commission.

The archives also claimed Vader had a secret castle somewhere, but no one knew where.

There were plenty of theories about what kind of being he was. Many believed he was an alien who couldn’t breathe oxygen. Some said he was humanoid, but he wore the suit to be more terrifying. A select few – doctors, I noticed – claimed that the suit was life-support. I almost dismissed that one as utterly ridiculous, but a small part of my mind told me not to be so judgmental.

I sat back. Life-support. The idea was truly horrible. If that was true, he should very likely be dead. There are very few things that bacta and surgery can’t cure.

The more I thought about it, the more gruesome sense it made. Vader seemed to simply appear out of nowhere because he hadn’t worn the suit before he was Vader . . . wait a minute. So if Vader only became Vader when he went into the suit, then who was the man before Vader?

A Jedi, maybe? My father had told me various horror stories about Jedi who couldn’t take the stress of the Clone Wars and turned their backs on the Jedi way, to what Father called the “Dark Side.” He said that these fallen Jedi became insane, crazed beyond control, and that often their former comrades had been forced to kill them. Could Vader be one of those, who had managed to hide from the Jedi? He didn’t act crazy, but then, he was an Imperial.

The rumour was that Vader had led the attack on the Jedi Temple at the beginning of the Empire, but no one could recall seeing him around there. But if he had been a Jedi, then no one would have suspected . . .

It made perfect sense. But now the question was, which Jedi was he?

That would be nearly impossible to find out. There had been thousands of Jedi. It would be like searching for single ship in the galaxy. You’d have to be extremely lucky to find the one you were looking for before you died of old age.

I groaned in frustration and lay my head on the desk beside the computer. I didn’t really have to find out who Vader was . . . even if it would help . . .

I woke with a start, my head and neck sore and stiff. I turned to see what had woken me up; Luke had just entered the lab, smiling hugely at the sight of me. I turned back to my computer; my search for Vader was still displayed. I closed it quickly.

“Leia!” Luke said as he drew close. “What are you doing in here?”

“Nothing in particular,” I murmured, stifling a yawn.

He gave me an odd look, as if he knew normal people didn’t do to computer labs at all hours of the night for nothing in particular, but he didn’t voice any objections to my answer. Which was good, because if he wanted normal, he should have stayed on Tatooine. That, and I wasn’t in any mood to be civil.

“Mon Mothma’s called a meeting,” Luke told me. “She wants you there.”

I nodded and logged out. “Fine. Where is she?”

“Conference room number four.”

“Okay. Thanks, Luke.”

He paused. “I have to come, too.”

I gave him a look. He didn’t seem to be lying, but it made no sense for Mon to want a mere pilot at one of our meetings, even if he was the man who had destroyed the Death Star. I shrugged; if he was mistaken, Mon would tell him that quickly enough. “Lead the way, then.”

We moved down the hall, the deafening sounds of construction keeping us from talking. The base was situated in an abandoned warehouse, and although the main structure was still here, we needed rooms built in the open storage spaces.

Conference room four was located at the far end of the building, as far away from the construction as possible. That was likely why Mon chose it, because it was also the smallest and would be crowded with the entire Council and Luke crammed into it.

The table had been cleared from the room, opening up some space. Chairs were lines all along the walls for the Council members. Mon sat directly across from the door; there was one empty seat beside her. I took it, leaving Luke to stand forlornly in the middle of the room, looking for a seat of his own.

Mon got straight to business, for which my curiosity was grateful. “Skywalker, are you aware of the bounty that has been placed on your head by Darth Vader?”

My eyes widened, any trace of sleepiness gone. It was all I could do not to jump up and demand more information of Mon – precisely, what in the hells did Vader think he was doing?!

Luke merely blinked at her. “Uh, no . . .”

Mon pulled a formal looking document out of the folder on her lap. “This is the warrant for your arrest, Skywalker,” she said, and I craned my neck over her shoulder in an attempt to read it. Unfortunately, she flipped it around so Luke could see it, so I was left starng at the white back of the page.

“Vader has ordered for you to be taken alive and unharmed, Skywalker – this is odd behaviour from him, as you can imagine. I’ve seen alive on a warrant from Vader before – it usually means he wants to make sure the victim suffers greatly – but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen unharmed.” Mon paused. “Not only that, but he specifically states that should you be in any other condition when he recieves you, there will be dire consequences for whoever turns you in.”

Luke looked confused and a little worried. I didn’t blame him, the poor boy. Going from being a respectable farmer to a wanted man in less than three weeks was bound to be overwhelming. Most likely, he didn’t realize just how odd this warrant really was.

Less than three weeks – was it really such a short time since I had made my deal with Vader? It felt like a lifetime.

“And the bounty,” Mon continued, a strangled note in her voice, that made me give her a sidelong look, “is one and a half billion credits.”

The room burst into chaos.

I nearly fainted. Most of us had bounties on our heads, especially those of us on the Council. Mon’s was the highest of us all.

And Luke, this little farmer/pilot from Tatooine, had just trumped her by half a billion credits.

It took a few minutes, but Mon finally managed to get everyone calmed down again. Luke looked ready to die from embarrassment.

“Skywalker,” she asked evenly, “Do you have any idea why Vader wants you so badly?”

Luke shook his head, blue eyes wide.

Mon sighed, and I interrupted. “Luke, you were with Obi-Wan Kenobi when I first met you; could Vader have connected the two of you?”

His shoulders lifted helplessly. “I don’t know.”

He was stressing out. I caught his eyes and held them, trying to make him relax. Calm down, Luke. It will be okay.

He gave a funny little jerk, as if he actually heard me, and I saw him narrow his world until it included only him and me. “Think about what you know of Vader, Luke. He’s evil, he’s a monster, he’s power-hungry, and he always listens to the Emperor. He is, unfortunately, the best pilot in the galaxy. He’s rich, he’s infamous. He’s feared. Think about him.” I gave him a moment. “Now, what about you would be attractive to a being like that?”

Luke frowned. “I can use the Force,” he said slowly. “Does that count?”

I smiled widely. That little piece of information was exactly what I had been aiming for. “Yes, Luke. That definitely counts.”

“You’re Force-sensitive?” Dodonna demanded. “Why didn’t you think to tell us this earlier?”

“I didn’t think it was relevant,” Luke replied sheepishly.

“Not relevant?” Rieekan said, shocked. “We have -- you are a Jedi, and you didn’t think it was relevant?”

“Generals,” I said sharply. “Luke has grown up on Tatooine, in a time when Jedi are not only extinct, but forgotten. It is not surprising he chose to keep this from us; all it does is point out the fact that he is different from us. And that wasn’t what you wanted, was it, Luke?”

He shook his head, thankful I understood. “I just wanted to fit in.”

I sat back. “You see?”

“And I’m not a Jedi,” Luke added. “Ben barely had time to teach me anything before . . .” He looked away.

“That’s not good,” Mon murmured. “An untrained sensitive is susceptible to the Dark Side.”

“Like Vader,” Luke supplied. “That’s what Ben said.”

Mon nodded. “You must take care, Skywalker, not to fall into Darkness as Vader did. Can you train yourself?”

Luke frowned. “I’ll try . . .”

“Would General Kenobi have anything that could help you among his possessions?” Dodonna asked.

Lukes’ eyes widened. “Probably. That’s brilliant! I’ll have to go to Tatooine to look, though.”

Mon nodded. “You have permission to go.”

Luke made a beeline for the door.

“Wait a moment,” Mon called out. Luke’s shoulders slumped.

“Yes?” he asked in a small voice as he turned back to face us.

“I think it would be best if you went into a protective guise, Skywalker – an attempt to keep Vader from finding you. You would undergo surgery to change your appearance, and you would change you name.”

“Absolutely not,” Luke replied immediately. It was the firmest thing I had ever heard him say.

Mon leaned forward, trying to persuade him. “Skywalker, this could very well keep you out of Vader’s clutches while you do your training. It would keep bounty hunters off your trail. It’s safer for everyone.”

“I’m not afraid of Vader,” Luke said calmly.

Mon looked at him for a long minute, her expression unreadable. “You should be,” she said at last, and dismissed him.

I followed Luke back to his room, which he shared with another pilot, who wasn’t around at the moment. My old Artoo unit greeted us.

“He seems to have taken a great liking to you,” I commented.

Luke looked around at me. “Oh, yeah! I keep forgetting to give them back to you.”

I smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll come borrow Threepio when I need him, and you’ll need Artoo here more than I do.”

Artoo . . .

He had been in my dream! The one where I had been Queen of Naboo, on Tatooine . . .

That reminded me exactly what I was here for. “Luke,” I asked, turning to him, “can I ask you something?”

Chapter Ten: Murderer

“Sure,” Luke replied, tossing himself down on his bunk, then rolling over to face me.

I sat down on the bunk by his knees, and paused. How was I supposed to start this conversation without rousing his suspicions? “I was just wondering why you objected so strongly to the idea of a disguise,” I said at last.

He looked slightly embarrassed. “Well, this is going to sound kind of stupid,” he replied, “but I’ve always been told I look like my father, and I didn’t want to lose that, you know? My looks and my name are the only parts of him I have. I don’t want to lose them.”

“So you never knew your father?”

“Nope. He died before I was born. Uncle Owen always told me he was a navigator on a spice freighter, but Ben says he was a Jedi, and that Uncle Owen didn’t really like that much – didn’t want me following him.”

“Your uncle raised you?”

Luke nodded. “And my aunt Beru.”

“Well, what about your mother?” I asked.

Luke gave a small laugh. “Funny thing is, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru aren’t even sure who she was – or is, maybe. Aunt Beru remembers this one girl my dad brought home to the farm once, but she doesn’t know if she’s my mom or not.”

“That must be hard,” I said. “Not knowing who your parents are, if you wanted to.”

Luke gave me a funny look. “You phrased that weird.”

I felt a slight blush stain my cheeks. “Sorry. I’m adopted, you see, but I never wanted o know who my birth parents were.”

He sat up. “You're adopted? I didn't know that . . . and you don’t want to know? Why not? Aren’t you curious?”

I nodded. “I am. But I’m also curious as to why they gave me up. And I’m not sure that’s a question I want to know the answer to.” I shrugged. “I suppose I should have asked while I had the chance, huh?”

His eyes went wide in sympathy. “Oh, Leia . . . I’m sorry.”

I tried to smile bravely. “Can’t change it. Just – take my mind off it, will you?”


I shrugged again. “Tell me about yourself.”

He blinked in confusion. “Okay . . . what do you want to know?”

“Whatever you want to tell me.”

He propped himself up an elbow and frowned in thought. “Uh . . . I was born on Empire Day,” he said. “How’s that for ironic?”

I looked over at him. “Empire Day, as in the first Empire Day?”

He nodded. “Yeah, why?”

My jaw sagged a bit. “Because that’s my birthday, too!”

He stared at me, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Are you serious?”


“That’s so weird!”

“I know! We have to have a joint party.”


He looked absolutely thrilled. Truth to tell, I was too. It was a rather juvenile thing to get excited about, but I was excited all the same.

“So, tell me about this Jedi father of yours. Did he die in the Purges?”

Luke shrugged. “Ben never really went into any detail, just said he was an awesome pilot and warrior, and a really good friend. He said Vader killed him personally.” He looked up at me. “See why I can’t be afraid of Vader? He killed my father, Leia! If it weren’t for him, I would’ve had my dad growing up. So I have to help you guys fight the Empire, and I can’t be afraid of Vader. I’ve got to honour my father’s memory.”

I was in shock. And I was furious. Vader had killed Luke’s father? Not for the first time, and likely not for the last, I could have happily slaughtered Vader myself.

I managed one more question before I made my retreat. “What was you father’s name, Luke? Maybe we could find a picture of him or something in the Archives.”

He perked up. “You really think so?”

“Sure.” My smiled felt forced. “Why not?”

“It was Anakin,” he said. “Anakin Skywalker.”

The little boy in my dream.

Vader killed that sweet, gorgeous little boy.

And so I got angry at Vader. Again.

I now had more answers than I had time to process them. I crawled into my bed and lay flat on my back, eyes closed, attempting to sort out all the information.

Vader had killed Luke’s father, whom I had dreamt about, and now wanted Luke to join him in ridding the galaxy of a tyrant . . . by corrupting Luke in the process?

How did that even make sense? Vader was even more twisted than I thought.

I rolled over, vowing not to let it happen.

It was midnight, Coruscant time, and everyone was in bed. We were in deep space by now, and I reveled in the sheer smoothness of it. In atmosphere, I almost always got motion sickness, but not out here, among the stars.

I moved across the main room toward the console. Sabe had left the monitor on, as I’d asked, and I quickly found where she’d saved the recording of Sio Bibble. I was about to watch it when I heard someone shifting in the corner.

I turned around and saw Anakin sitting in the far corner. He was curled into a tight ball under a blanket, and yet he was still shivering like a leaf in the wind. My heart ached for him.

I walked quietly over to him, careful not to wake Jar Jar, who was snoring on the floor by the door, and sat beside him. He twisted his head to look at me; for a moment I was afraid I had scared him, but I soon realized that was not the case. Uncannily, he had already known I was in the room.

Are you alright?” I asked him softly.

It’s v-v-very c-c-cold,” he replied, the tears in his eyes falling down his cheeks as his shivering shook them loose, despite his best efforts to hold them back.

I handed him the over-jacket of my handmaiden uniform. “You’re from a warm planet, Ani. Too warm for my taste. Space is cold.”

He tucked himself up in my jacket and buried his feet under my leg. Even through his socks and my leggings and skirt, I could feel his icy toes. Peering over the collar of my jacket, he said, “You seem sad.” His voice was muffled my the fabric.

I took a breath and began the act. “The Queen is worried. Her people are suffering – dying. She must convince the Senate to intervene, or . . . I’m not sure what will happen.”

He gave me a small, hollow smile. “I’m . . . I’m not sure what’s going to happen to me, either. I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” He sniffed and ducked his head under my coat and his blanket, seemingly looking for something. After a moment, he reemerged and handed me something. “I made this for you,” he said. “So you’ll remember me. I carved it out of a japor snippet. It’ll bring you good fortune.”

I inspected the object in my hand. It was a necklace, with a thin wooden charm that must be the japor snippet Anakin was talking about. On the wood, a symbol was carved; it was beautiful and inticate, though I didn’t know what it meant. I put it over my head.

It’s beautiful,” I said sincerely, “but I don’t need this to remember you. Many things will change when we reach the capital, Ani, but my caring for you will always remain.”

I care for you too,” he told me, a soulful expression in his big blue eyes, which began to well up with tears again. “Only . . . I miss . . .” He couldn’t go on.

You miss your mother,” I finished for him.

He nodded, tears rolling down his cheeks again. I put my arms around him and held him close, rocking him gently until he fell asleep.

There is still good in him.”

I sat straight up. “You again?” I muttered.

Whoever it was didn’t deign to answer my question. I flopped back and rolled over, pulling the covers over my head and promptly falling back asleep, resolving to look up this Padme Naberrie soon.

Chapter Eleven: Social Life

I stood in the docking bay, waiting for Solo to land his hunk of junk. Though he had left before us, he was just turning up now, and I was ready to tear a strip off of him.

“Where have you been?” I demanded as soon as he set foot off the ship.

He grinned arrogantly at me, and I wanted to slap him. “Miss me, Your Worship? Aw, I’m touched.”

“Touched in the head,” I snapped back. “If you’re going to continue your association with the Alliance, we need to be assured of your position at all times!”

He gave me an insulted look. “You think I’m a turncoat? I promise you, Princess, I got no love for the Empire. But I do have a job, and I ain’t so deep into your Rebellion that I’m going to let you boss me around. So lay off!”

“It’s been a week!”

“I had to make a delivery!”

I swung in front of him, forcing him to stop. “Look, Captain, if you value your freedom so much, the Alliance has no use for you. Make your choice.”

“I have responsibilities! Things I have to do!”

My expression didn’t change. “Make your choice, Captain.”

He set his jaw, and opened his mouth –

“Han!” Luke called exuberantly from behind me. “You made it!”

“Hey, kid,” Solo replied, looking past me and over my shoulder. I turned and let Luke step up to us.

“So, are you back for good now?” Luke asked.

Solo looked taken aback, and he glanced at me as if he suspected I had asked Luke to inquire about his plans. I met his gaze squarely, and he eventually looked away.

“What’s wrong?” Luke asked, his smile fading a bit.

Solo draped an arm around his shoulders and the two of them began to move into the main building. “Nothing, kid,” he drawled. “Not a thing. So tell me, the food around here any good? I’m starving.”

My computer was finally set up, and I sat in front of it long into the night searching through the Archives, looking for Padme Naberrie. I frowned as I read through the list of partial matches.

Padme Aadine. Padme Alexia. Padme Amidala. Padme Bihar. Padme Dane. Padme Darsay. Padme Glonna. Padme Jasteine. Padme Kelli. Padme Kittia. Padme Lianna. Padme Miuy. Padme Pakae. Padme Rashe, Padme Serrah, Padme Stolastree, Padme Tiana, Padme Vera, Padme Xienia, Padme Zhar; Ashla Naberrie, Druin Naberrie, Jhos Naberrie, Pooja Naberrie, Quadah Naberrie.

Aside from Pooja Naberrie and Padme Amidala, I didn’t recognize any of the names, and Padme Naberrie certainly wasn’t there. Pooja was one of my friends from the Senate; Amidala was a Senator during the Republic, who helped my father start the Rebellion when the Emperor was still just the Supreme Chancellor – albeit with emergency powers – by being one of the active supporters of the Delegation of Two Thousand. I had studied countless of her speeches and proposals, and she was one of my idols. Unfortunately, she had died shortly before I was born, on the day I was born, actually – of a broken heart, over the Republic, according to the rumour mill – so I never had the chance to meet her. Which was a pity, because I would have loved to.

However, it was Pooja who had the most chance of being able to tell me just who Padme Naberrie was. With any luck, they weren’t too distantly related for her not to know who she was. But then, if she had been a Queen . . .

I typed Queens of Naboo into my search bar and hit Enter. A chronological list appeared before me, with the names of the Kings faded to grey.

Queen Charpathya, Queen Bilyndah, Queen Garlina, Queen Joslinda, Queen Fhjorda, Queen Dhahlya, Queen Igrainia, Queen Ilanna, Queen Herpacha, Queen Kahleerah, Queen Phorquna, Queen Vistilina, Queen Esoltue, Queen Danhikah, Queen Myrendia, Queen Xiera, Queen Wendegina, Queen Ysariah, Queen Taslyn, Queen Naudilina, Queen Zekiesha, Queen Olyqua, Queen Usingsa, Queen Ailyscha, Queen Brecessa, Queen Swyllia, Queen Terichta, Queen Amidala, Queen Jamillia, Queen Lalilia.

I frowned. No Queen Naberrie anywhere to be seen.

I glanced at my clock, it was late here; what time would it be in Theed, where Pooja lived? I pulled a time chart up on my screen.

It was even later there than it was here. I sighed. Apparently, I would be getting no answers tonight. I shut the computer down and crawled into bed, but try as I might, I couldn’t get to sleep.

Eventually I did fall asleep, however, because when I awoke, there was someone in my room.

He was studying my Alderaanian moss painting, the one of the waterfall in Aldera Park, and so his back was to me, long brown hair tied at the back of his neck with a leather thong. His clothing was plain, but very well made.

I nearly screamed, but managed to hold it in check and kept my body still. If he thought I was still asleep, so much the better. I began to inch my hand toward the table beside my bed, where I always kept a blaster stored.

The next thing I knew, one of his hands was around my wrist, holding me captive from my pistol, and the other was pointing his own blaster at my head.

“Hey, Princess,” he said cheerfully.

I stared at him, my eyes meeting his brown ones. He wasn’t exceptionally tall, but he was very muscular and strong – brawny, I’d call him. His grip on my wrist was unbreakable.

He holstered the blaster and let me go, then held out his hand as if he expected me to shake it. “I’m Jix,” he continued with a friendly grin.

“You’re who?” I managed.

He shoved at my legs and sat on the edge of my bed. “I’m Jix,” he repeated. “Wrenga Jixton. My uncle D sent me.”

“Your who sent you?” I was beginning to feel like I was missing something.

“My uncle D. You made a deal with him, remember?”

It hit me then. “You work for Vader?!”

He nodded and grinned again. “Yep. He wanted me to give you this.” He handed me a small, wrapped package.

I took it warily. “What is it?”

“Open it and see!” He bounced a little on the edge of my bed, like a child on their birthday. “It’s no fun if I tell you!”

“Knowing Vader, it’ll explode when I do,” I muttered, holding it slightly away from my body.

The man’s – Jix’s? – eyes widened in shock. “Oh, no, Princess. He likes you. You’re useful. He wouldn’t kill you!”

I leveled a look at him.

“I know he doesn’t always show it . . . and okay, he may not exactly like you per se . . . but he wouldn’t!”

I gave him a look. “Do you make excuses for him often?” I asked sarcastically.

His look, self-pitying and soulful, would have been funny if I hadn’t been so irritated. “Yeah . . .” he sighed. “And the worst part is, no one ever believes them!”

I just stared at him. “I wonder why,” I replied, my tone bitingly sarcastic.

He just shook his head. “I’m not going to argue with you. Being verbally smacked around by a female was not in my job description. Just open the present.”

I glared, but began to gingerly pick it open. “What is your job description?” I asked as I played with the package.

“Now that would be telling.” He grinned at me. “Have you got it open yet? See? See?”

I pulled open the plain box and turned it upside down. A bundle of packing spilled out, followed by a small, hard metal object. It hit me square in the thigh, on the bone. I let out a yelp.

“Careful!” Jix lunged forward to rescue the object from my lap. “You’ll break it!”

“Thanks for your concern,” I muttered angrily, rubbing my sore thigh. Of course a gift of Vader’s would manage to hurt me, even if it was inanimate.

Jix held the thing out to me, and I took it from him, gripping it a little tighter than was likely necessary. It was a comlink.

A brand new, completely up-to-date comlink, and obviously a very expensive one, if the numerous dials and buttonsand the shiny chrome on it were any indication. I had a feeling that if Luke, Wedge or any of the other techno-geeks we had on base got a glimpse of it, they would be salivating.

On the other hand, I preferred utility to special features. If my comlink retained its default ringtone instead of having a different popular song for every person in my address book, that was fine with me. If the image stayed the standard blue colour instead of projecting a neon rainbow that changed every three seconds, I didn’t mind. Luke had managed to rig his so that whoever called him looked as though they were standing in the rain, a natural occurrence on Yavin that he had gaped at for hours. Solo’s I suspected, was also toyed with, because he always sounded more suave than he actually was over the comm.

The comlink I now held in my hand looked like one I had seen the boys drooling over in a magazine a few weeks previously, except it was more sleek, more shiny, and less bulky. The boys would have died.

I glared at Jix. There had to be a catch.

“It’s programmed to disguise Vader’s voice,” Jix explained happily, oblivious to my glower. “And he fiddled with the holo display; it’ll show someone else. So if anyone catches you talking to him, they won’t know it’s him. He’s rigged up something similar for himself.”

And Vader was just thinking of this now? I smirked. “Had a close call, did he?”

Jix managed to look innocent and didn’t answer, but I knew I was right when a new respect for me entered his dark brown eyes.

I waited for him to leave. He didn’t. “You can go now,” I encouraged him.

“Well, uh –“ He swallowed and stood up. “There’s actually something else.”

His nervousness made me exceptionally wary. “What is it?”

“Okay, before I tell you, understand that this was not my idea. I was fully against this from the start. I don’t think it’s necessary, but Uncle D insisted. It was all him. So don’t kill me, alright?”

My eyes narrowed and I tried to prepare myself. What could possibly be so bad?

“He wants me to escort you to that big to-do you guys are putting on tonight,” Jix said in a rush, and winced back from me, as if expecting me to explode.

With the dreams, Solo’s return, the bounty on Luke and everything else going on, I had completely forgotten about the gathering we were having tonight. Mon liked to have at least two a year, to help keep morale up. How a high-class gathering boosted morale, I wasn't quite sure, seeing as most of our recruits preferred to be covered in engine grease, but Mon insisted. Now that I had been reminded of it, I didn’t disappoint Jix.

No! I refuse! It’s not going to happen! If you think I’m going to bring an Imperial into a situation like that, you’ve got another think coming! You tell Vader –“

Jix held up his hands, looking terrified. “Tell him yourself, lady! Number’s programmed into the comm! I’m just the messenger!”

I glared furiously and snatched up the comlink. It took me a moment to figure out how to get into the address book feature and then make the call, but the delay only fueled my anger. By the time Vader answered, I was practically overheating. I could certainly feel the flush on my cheeks – indeed, over my entire body.

“What do you think you’re playing at?!” I fairly shrieked. “He is not coming with me tonight! Not going to happen! Do you understand me? He is going to leave right now, and neither he nor anyone else you send is going to get into the base!”

“You didn’t do a very good job of keeping Jixton out, now, did you?” Vader asked me evenly, and I blinked at the device in my hand. I hadn’t noticed in his short greeting – either I had been too worked up, or it was too short a phrase, or perhaps both – but Vader sounded . . . well, not at all like Vader. He spoke in a baritone, and he sounded, not only young, but organic. Or at least as organic as one can sound over the comlink. Not only that, but the image projected was of a young, curly-haired man. I was so amazed I nearly forgot about the issue at hand . . . but not for long.

“That is not the point –“ I began to retort hotly.

The blue eyes (the whole holo was blue, but for some reason I was convinced that the eyes were blue too) blazed. In the back of my mind I wondered idly how that was possible, since the image was supposed to be synthetic. But I was more focused on outwitting Vader, for once.

“That is exactly the point, Your Highness,” he informed me icily, the lips of the image moving in perfect synchronization with the words. “Jix got in. Your base, its location and layout, is no longer a secret from me. You would be wise not to fight me on this.”

“Why?” I snarled. “So you can pull another Death Star out of your pocket and spread our atoms across the galaxy while we sit pretty and smile at you?”

His lips twisted and he sighed. “It is not in my best interests to blast you out of existence,” he said in a tone that was probably meant to be soothing and came out as patronizing.

“You had no trouble with Alderaan,” I hissed back, the pain of it still cutting me deep.

“Alderaan,” he told me calmly, “was not under my jurisdiction. Rest assured that if it had been, it would still be whole.”

“. . . You’re saying you wouldn’t have destroyed it?” That threw me.

“Of course not. It was senseless. One should not use power simply because one has it available.”

“Tarkin wanted me to tell where we were based,” I pointed out. “He had a reason.”

“A very petty one that I told him would not work,” Vader replied.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Vader hadn’t supported the Death Star? And from the way we were talking, one would have thought I was the Imperial and he the Ally. It was mind-boggling. I was speechless, needing to think about that.

“Is that all?” Vader asked me, slightly impatient.

“No. How did you find out Luke’s name?”

He smiled, but it was mirthless, dangerous. “Do you really want to know?”

I took in that smile and was quite sure I could guess accurately, especially after the reports we received of several cells being wiped out by Vader and his forces. “How could you?” I accused.

“This is what happens when you challenge me, Princess,” he replied softly.

“You just want to kill Luke the way you killed his father,” I snapped scathingly.

Vader’s reaction to that remark was not what I had expected. “The way I what!?” he roared.

I winced at his volume, confused. He looked shocked; even stunned. But before either one of us could get our mouths open again, my room door opened and Solo, of all people, sailed in.

“Good morning, Your Worshipfulness!” he said cheerily.

“I don’t recall inviting you in here,” I bit out. “Get out.”

“Don’t worry, Your Worship, I won’t tell the higher-ups that you were cooing to your boyfriend on the job.”

“She was hardly cooing,” Vader replied from my comlink, his tone still taut. I shoved it under the covers, holo side pressed into the mattress.

“I’m not on the job yet,” I reminded Solo.

He actually had the audacity to smirk at me. “Yes you are. It’s past eight hundred hours, Princess. You were officially on the job ten minutes ago, and Mothma’s lookin’ for you.”

I nearly swore. Either I had overslept, or Jix and Vader had kept me occupied for longer than I thought. And speaking of Jix –

I looked furtively around my room for the Imperial. He was nowhere in sight, but my refresher door was closed. I usually left it open. Hoping that’s where he was – I did not want him wandering free around the base – I turned back to Solo.

“Tell her I’m sorry and that I’ll be down shortly,” I said. “Now leave.”

He gave me a mocking bow. “Your Worshipfulness’s wish is my command.” He was nearly out the door when he turned around and added, “It’s nice to know I’m not the only one you treat like crap. I was beginning to feel rejected.” He was gone before I could grab something to throw at him.

“I’ll show you rejected,” I muttered savagely, drawing the comlink out from under my blankets as Jix poked his head out of the refresher.

“That was entertaining,” Jix said conversationally. I glared at him.

“Get out,” I said to him. “I have to go,” I told Vader.

“Tell me about this nonsense of killing Skywalker’s father,” Vader demanded.

“Are you denying it?” I asked sardonically.

“Yes!” Vader retorted. “Because I did no such thing! Who told you that I did?”


“Who told him that I did?”

“I don’t have time for this.”


“I don’t have time!”

The holo image sat back, jaw clenched. “Very well,” Vader replied tightly. “But this conversation is not over, Princess, and next time I will not take your refusal to answer my questions so well!”

I merely shut off the comlink and looked up at Jix.

“Out!” I yelled.

He scurried out the door. “I’ll be here at nineteen hundred hours, Princess,” he called over his shoulder.

I groaned and dropped my head into my hands for a moment, then forced myself out of bed and prepared to meet the world.

He was an hour early, the bastard.

“Can’t you tell time?” I snapped as I ushered him into my room, afraid someone would see him if I made him stand in the hallway.

“Didn’t I say eighteen hundred hours?” he asked innocently.

I glowered at him. He wasn’t fooling anyone. I knew full well that he knew he had said nineteen hundred hours. He just thought that I would have left without him if he came on time.

Which I would have, but still.

“What am I going to tell people about you?” I griped as I search for a pair of stockings.

“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” he replied, eyes going back to the same painting I had caught him studying earlier.

“Helpful,” I growled as I pulled on my stockings and began looking for my red shoes.

I didn’t wear red often, though it was one of my favourite colours. I loved jewel tones, but they were impractical for the Alliance. However, these gatherings – parties only in the noble, courtly sense of the word – were the perfect place for me to wear both the colours and the dresses that came in them. However, as a result of wearing them so rarely, I often had difficulty finding the accessories that went with them.

“You look nice,” Jix said as I dragged the second shoe out from a box in the back of my closet.

“Thanks,” I muttered, a habit of politeness warring with my instinct to be hostile to Imperials. I put both shoes on and balanced myself on the high heels. Now the brilliant scarlet hem of my dress only just touched the floor. Before, I had been tripping over it constantly.

“Alright,” I sighed. “Let’s get this over with.”

He offered me his arm with a perfectly executed courtly bow, and some of my irritation at him faded. It had been a long time since I’d been treated like a beautiful, expensive figurine, and although I hated to be seen as inferior or useless, the feminist in me happily took a back seat when a man treated me like a lady. In the midst of all this war, even I sometimes forgot I was a Princess. It was nice to be reminded.

I lightly laid my hand on the inside of his forearm, and he winked at me. I laughed.

“I do believe, Mr Jixton, that you are a scoundrel,” I teased.

“Ah, milady, for you, any man would clean up his act,” he replied seriously, as would a highborn gentleman in the same situation. I smiled as we moved out my door and down the hallway..

“Where are you from, Jix?” I asked. “You seem to be a contradiction in and of yourself.”

“Comes with the job,” he replied. “In my line of work, if you don’t fit in, you get noticed, and people watch out for you. And when people are watching you, you can’t do your job properly, and things get messy.”

“You’re an assassin,” I realized with a slight frown. My gut twinged, but I couldn’t tell if it was unease or disappointment.

“Sometimes,” he admitted. “Sometimes I’m a spy. Sometimes I’m a messenger. I have authority over the Fist, so sometimes I’m a commander. I’ve done clean-up duty – if you known what I mean – and I’ve done some PR. Recently, I’ve taken to babysitting.”

I nearly choked. “Babysitting?”

“Well, not really babysitting. But close enough. Making sure people don’t get killed and all that jazz.” He flashed me a grin.

I blinked. “You mean . . . me? Vader wants you to make sure I stay alive?”

He laughed. “Nah, not you. He knows you can take care of yourself. He thinks you’re the best shot the Rebellion has; the rest of ‘em just seem to shoot at random and hope they hit something. You can actually aim.” He laughed again.

I managed an ironic smile. “That’s because I’m female, and I actually recognize the benefits of aiming, rather than trying to shoot off as many rounds as possible.”

“Ouch.” He smirked. “She bites.”

I delicately bared my teeth and clicked them at him. He chuckled.

And then we were in from of the doors leading to the largest common area in the base. I took a deep breath.

“So what’s my cover?” Jix asked as we paused in front of them.

“You’re an acquaintance from Corellia that I met two years ago when we were both on Coruscant. You fixed my comlink for me when I dropped it in a mall, and you recognized me as the Allied Senator from Alderaan. You expressed discontentment with the Empire and an interest in joining the Alliance, but were unsure of whether or not you wanted to make the commitment. We stayed in touch, and you happened to be passing through the system, so I invited you here to help you make you your mind.”

He mulled it over, then nodded and asked, “How did you know I was from Corellia?”

I smirked. “Lucky guess.”

He frowned. “It’s the accent, isn’t it?”

I nodded with a smile.

He sighed. “Uncle D always says I need to get rid of it, and I’ve been doing really good with it, but every time I get nervous, I slip back into it.”

“You’re nervous?” I asked. He didn’t seem nervous.

He gave me a wry grin. “I’m openly walking into a room full of my boss’s enemies. Should I not be nervous?”

“Point.” I placed my hand on the door. “Shall we get this over with, then?”

He nodded, then raised his chin and helped me push open the doors.

From my position by the refreshment table, I watched Jix out of the corner of my eye as he moved seamlessly through the crowd. He stopped every now and then to talk to someone, but he never stayed long. Our story seemed to be holding fairly well; Mon had only given me a disapproving look before welcoming Jix, and he had charmed her so utterly that I was fairly certain I would not be receiving a lecture on security later.

I tensed as Solo’s Wookiee friend, Chewbacca, approached Jix.Imperials weren’t known to be the most accepting people in th galaxy, but Jix held out his hand with a grin and happily shook Chewbacca’s great paw. I relaxed again.

Mon came up beside me and ladled some punch into a glass. “I like him, Leia. He seems very dedicated. And he has the prettiest blue eyes, don’t you think?” She moved off without waiting for my answer.

Which was good, because I froze. Then, I looked over at Jix, who was currently talking about life on Corellia with Solo. Perhaps Jix felt my gaze on him, for he turned and met my eyes with his own, deep brown ones.

Chapter Twelve: The Plan

“Hey Leia!”Luke jogged up to me from behind. I paused to wait for him.

“Hi, Luke,” I returned. “How are you? Did you enjoy the party last night?”

He snorted. “That was hardly a party,” he said disdainfully, and I had to stifle a giggle. I doubted Luke had even known what a party was before meeting Wedge and the other pilots.

“Well, it’s Mon’s idea of a party,” I replied with a smile.

“So I have a question,” he said suddenly.

“What is it?” I asked patiently.

“Who was that guy with you last night?”

My stomach roiled, and I instantly regretted the light breakfast I had eaten. “He was just an acquaintance, Luke. Why?”

Luke shrugged. “I just really liked him, is all. I wanted to know if he’ll be around more.”

I had to clench my jaw to keep it from sagging. Luke had liked Jix, too? “I wouldn’t count on it, Luke. He’s not a part of the Alliance, and Mon won’t let him follow us around like a lost puppy.”

“She lets Han,” Luke pointed out logically.

I frowned. “And I have never understood that decision.”

“Leia, why don’t you like Han?” Luke asked me, catching a good look at my expression.

I waved the question away. “I like him well enough; I just think he’s arrogant, and unreliable, and rude, and uncouth, and –“

“Alright, alright.” Luke held up his hands in defeat. “Just . . . can you please try to get along with him a little more? Not that I mind being the center of your attention –“ He blushed. “– but it’s kind of awkward, being around the two of you, because you’re always fighting . . . like last night, at the table with the food . . .”

I placed my hand on his shoulder, trying to forget about the conversation Solo and I had had after Jix left. We had caused quite a scene. “I’m sorry, Luke. I haven’t been very respectful of your feelings, have I? I’ll try to do better. Don’t be afraid to remind me if I forget, alright? I want – I hope we’re friends.”

He nodded eagerly. “Oh, we are! It’s just, you’re so busy . . . sometimes I wish we were closer, but I understand you’ve got responsibilities –“

“Luke.” I looked him squarely in the eyes. “I am never too busy for you. Understand? My friends come first. Always.”

His smile was wide enough to reach the ends of the galaxy. “Thanks, Leia.”

“No problem.. Ever.” I smiled back. Then, said smile vanished when I thought of something. “Hey Luke – what colour were Jix’s eyes?”

He looked confused. I couldn’t blame him. “Blue. Why?”

I smiled again, but it was forced. “No reason,” I told him. “No reason at all.”

We were preparing for another move, leaving very little time for me to make the calls I was desperate to induce. Han and Luke took off for Tatooine to go through General Kenobi’s effects, with instructions to meet us on the new base. Once again, my objection against telling Solo the location of the new base went unheeded.

Finally, I gained the time necessary to put in a call to Naboo.

“Leia!” my friend Pooja Naberrie greeted me enthusiastically. “It’s been too long. How are you?”

“Well,” I replied with a smile that felt entirely phony. “Pooja, this isn’t exactly a social call.”

“Oh?” Her eyebrow lifted in a charming manner.

“I need to know about a woman named Padme Naberrie, once Queen of Naboo.” I bit my lip, hoping she could help me.

A strange expression crossed her face. “How did you know she was a Naberrie?”

I blinked. “What?”

“Our monarchs take political names. It helps to set up an impartial face for the public. Aunt Padme did the same. No one outside the family should know she was once a Naberrie.”

“She was your aunt?” I felt as if I had stumbled into a gold mine.

Pooja nodded. “She took the name Amidala when she was elected.”

I nearly fell off my chair. “Padme Amidala was your aunt?!”

Pooja giggled at my shocked face. “Yes. But before you ask, I don’t remember much about her. She was always very busy, hardly ever home at all, and I was only seven when she died.”

My head was spinning. I was dreaming of Padme Amidala? Why? “Thanks, Pooja. Now that I know that, I can do some research.”

She smiled. “Not a problem. I was good to see you, Leia.”

We said out goodbyes, and I sagged in my chair. I didn’t need to do any research on Padme Amidala. I knew everything about her already. She was an idol of mine.

Then I sat up. I knew everything about her life as a Senator. My knowledge of her life as Queen was sketchy at best. I typed her name back into my search engine and clicked on the first item that came up.

At that moment, my comlink rang. I took it from my belt and flicked it on, only to have the main menu flare up at me. I frowned, and it rang again – except now I realized it was coming from across the room.

From that comlink.

I growled under my breath, exited the search – which put me in a foul mood all on its own; who knew when I’d have another spare moment? – and stomped over to retrieve the ridiculously flashy and expensive piece of machinery that I downright refused to keep on my person out of fear that it would draw unwanted attention.

Very unwanted attention.

“What?” I snapped crossly at Vader as a greeting.

“Tell me about this preposterous notion that I killed young Skywalker’s father.” Vader sounded just as cross as I felt. His little holoimage certainly looked the part, too, with a narrowed glare and a hard set to the jaw.

“Took you long enough to call back,” I replied archly, just because I could. Idly, I wondered if he could kill someone over the comm.

You were not answering your comlink,” Vader growled. “It is not my fault that you are avoiding me. Now stop stalling!”

“I was not avoiding you,” I shot back, stung. “Just because you didn’t have the sense to send me a comlink that wouldn’t draw the attention of everybody and their astromech –“

“There is no point in getting anything but the best,” Vader replied tightly.

“Yeah, especially if the point is to keep this little deal a secret!” I said sarcastically. “Since me suddenly acquiring a brand new comlink that no one in the Alliance has access to or resources for wouldn’t raise any suspicions at all!”

“Just say it was a gift from Jix,” Vader suggested. “He told me about his cover story; it would have made sense.”

“Oh, about Jix.” I immediately jumped to the new topic, unwilling to admit that he may actually have had a good idea. “I don’t think I ever expressed my displeasure about his presence.”

“I believe you expressed those quite clearly,” Vader replied.

“No,” I said, biting off each word, “I don’t believe I have. You see, I previously objected to his presence at the party; I never actually voiced my concerns about his sneaking around in general.”

I could have sworn Vader sighed, but the image merely pursed its lips and looked bored.

“I want you to stop sending him,” I continued severely. “And I mean it. I don’t want him to deliver any more of your little gifts, I don’t want him to come with any messages, I don’t want to see him skulking about the halls spying for you, and I certainly don’t want him chatting up my friends. Am I clear?”

“Crystal,” was the dry reply. I narrowed my eyes.

“I mean it.”

“I know.”

We simply stared at each other for a few moments.

“Well?” he asked finally.

“What?” I jumped a bit, startled at his sudden demand.

“About Skywalker –“

“Fine,” I interrupted waspishly, still not entirely sure my conditions had gotten through to him. “Luke was told by General Kenobi that you killed his father. That’s what you wanted to know, right?”

“Obi-Wan has been filling the child’s head with lies!” Vader growled, half to himself. “He died far too quickly.”

I snorted, and decided to plunge ahead with something that had been brewing in my mind for the last several weeks. “Right, well, anyway, I’ve been doing a bit of thinking, Vader, and this little deal isn’t really working out. I think we should call it quits.”

He was silent. My stomach started to roil. “Vader?”

“I do not think that is a good idea, Princess.”

“Why not?”

“The time will come, Princess, when we will both be very grateful for this arrangement.”

“Oh, really? And just when would that be, hmm? Because –“

“I have not had the time to formulate a plan, Princess, and to be honest I believe that any plan would immediately fall apart. What I need is to know that when the time comes, the only major fatality will be Darth Sidious. That is the purpose of this deal, Your Highness.”

“But –“

“Stop worrying. Even if it takes years, your Rebellion still has the benefit of my protection. You should not be complaining.”

I frowned and glanced away. “It just seems like we’re not accomplishing anything.”

He was silent for a moment, then named a date. “We will attack your new base then. I will ensure that you have plenty of time to evacuate your personnel. Stay behind; tell them what you will, just make sure you do not leave until I arrive. We can make a show of capturing you, you can come to the Executor with me and I will go over some documents with you, and then we will arrange your escape back to the Rebellion. Will that make you feel more included?”

I mulled it over. “Just me?” I wasn’t about to put anyone else at risk.


“Even if you have the chance to go after someone else?”

The briefest of pauses. “Even then.”

“And you’re sure you’ll be able to find the new base?”


“And you swear you’ll let me go afterward? And not follow me?”

“I do.”

I nodded slowly, too curious to care if he was lying to me, and too desperate to be involved. Maybe if I knew what was going on, I would sleep better at night. “Alright. It’s a date.” My lips twisted in perverse irony. A date with Darth Vader. How romantic.

“Excellent.” He paused. “Could you . . . do your best to persuade young Skywalker that perhaps Obi-Wan’s words were not entirely literal?”

I stared at the holoimage. The man in it looked cramped, as if asking for favours didn’t come naturally to him. Ironically, that was exactly how Vader sounded, too. “I’ll try,” I said, confused. “What shall I tell him instead?”

“Just . . . just that Obi-Wan likes metaphors. A lot. And that, well . . . he had a rather odd point of view sometimes.”

I nodded slowly. “Alright.”

He smiled tightly. “Thank you.”

I didn’t bother to tell him that Luke was currently off-world, and would be for some time. If I was lucky, this entire conversation would have slipped my mind by the time I finally got around to talking to him again.

Chapter Thirteen: The Plan Unravels

We had been settled on Hoth for a month before I had the time to go back to the search Vader had interrupted. I drank the information in eagerly after a brief glance at the photo – it was one I’d seen before.

Elected as Queen of Naboo at age fourteen, thirteen years before the rise of the Empire, Padme Amidala brought about many changes for the good of the Nubian people. Most notably, she fought back against the blockade the Trade Federation had placed her planet under in the first year of her reign, thinking to take advantage of her youth, and as a result signed the peace treaty with the aquatic Gungans, natives of Naboo’s shimmering lakes, that had been oppressed, persecuted and then forgotten by the human population for centuries.

During the blockade, the young Queen was evacuated from her planet by Jedi. Her location during her time off-world is unknown until she arrived on Coruscant to make her case before the Senate and plead for help in defeating the Trade Federation. In the ensuing battle back on Naboo, noted Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn lost his life.

The remaining seven years of Amidala’s rule passed with remarkably little fanfare, and soon the people were clamouring for her to amend the constitution so that she could serve a third term, or for life, as some extremists demanded. However, Amidala had no ambition to rule her homeworld forever, and she refused all such petitions.

After turning the title of Queen over to another young woman, Amidala continued her public service as Senator of Naboo. Again, the first year was the hardest, and several attempts were made on Amidala’s life just as the vote on the Military Creation Act, a bill Amidala vehemently opposed, appeared on the horizon. The first attack thrust Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, an old friend of Amidala’s from the days of the Trade Federation blockade, and his Padawan Learner, Chosen One Anakin Skywalker, back into her life . . .

I reread that last confusing phrase. Padawan Learner, Chosen One Anakin Skywalker? What in blazes did that mean?

I typed Anakin Skywalker into the search bar. I should have done this while Luke was here, I chided myself. I had told him I would. I studied the picture while the rest of the page loaded.

He looked extraordinarily like Luke – except where Luke had an overabundance of innocence and enthusiasm, this man looked like he’d seen far too much in his lifetime. He wasn’t really that old, though . . .

I could sympathize. There were days I would swear I’d been through five lifetimes.

His golden brown hair was tousled, and though he didn’t slouch, his shoulders were hunched under his long black cloak, hands in his pockets, as if he wanted to hide from the galaxy. He wasn’t looking at the camera; his gaze was focused on the ground, strain lines and a long scar around the one eyes that I could see.

Suddenly I noticed the little arrow under the picture. Was there another photo?

There was! I nearly squealed in excitement as it began to load.

The difference was so startling, my jaw dropped. It was an extremely close shot, only from forehead to chin, and he was smiling.

Not just smiling, either – a full-blown, mirth-filled grin. His lips stretched over straight white teeth, which were slightly parted as he laughed. His eyes shone out of his face, joy evident in them, a little crinkled in the corners from the force of his grin. But it was the startlingly vivid blue of his eyes that took my breath away.

Wow. Hard to belive this was the little boy I saw in my dreams . . . dreams which I hadn’t had in a while. I frowned. Why had they stopped? It was obvious the story was only beginning. I began to read.

Anakin Skywalker, Chosen One of the Jedi Order, Clone Wars Hero With No Fear, was the most promising young man ever to fill the role of Jedi Knight.

My eyebrows rose. Modest, much?

A superb pilot, Skywalker played a vital role in the battle against the Trade Federation during the Naboo blockade at the tender age of ten – and that only just turned. Little of his life before bursting into Jedi notice in that battle is known; however, he was a native of Tatooine, and as a result had immense love and awe for rain that lasted throughout his tragically short life.

Skywalker was apprenticed to Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi after the Battle of Naboo and much discussion on part of the Jedi Council. At ten, Skywalker was too old to normally be considered for a Jedi apprentice, known as a Padawan Learner. However, due to his intense sensitivity to the Force, an exception was made and Skywalker began to path to Jedi Knighthood.

The article continued with accounts of several famous situations Anakin was involved in. I found them entertaining, but I was anxious to learn more about his relationship with Padme Amidala. At last, I came to a paragraph that bore her name.

At the age of twenty, Skywalker was assigned to protect Padme Amidala, Senator of Naboo, during several attempts on her life. It was his first assignment without his Jedi Master at his side, and his last major one as a Jedi Padawan.

The friendship Skywalker and Amidala had formed during the Battle of Naboo was rekindled, and they remained close friends until the end of their short lives. They fought together during the battle of Geonosis, the first battle of the Clone Wars, where Skywalker lost his right arm at the elbow but ultimately were successful.

Six months later, Skywalker was raised to Knighthood, an honour he accepted with pride. He took his duties seriously, and his tenacity in battle earned him the moniker ‘The Hero With No Fear’ in addition to the Jedi ‘Chosen One,’ a title that has not been explained further than that it comes from an ancient Jedi prophecy.

Skywalker rose to position of Commander during the Clone Wars and was eventually appointed to the Jedi Council. However, this appointment was not to last long, as Skywalker and the rest of the Jedi was cut down during the Great Jedi Purge scarcely a week later. Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and leader of the Jedi Purges, personally saw to Skywalker’s demise.

However, during the three years the Clone Wars took place, Skywalker . . .

The rest of the article was about Skywalker’s exploits during the Clone Wars, and I sat back in frustration. Close friends? That’s it?

I skimmed the rest of the article, looking for more, but only one other paragraph caught my eye, and it one served to make my blood boil in my veins.

During the Purges, Skywalker was immediately attacked by Darth Vader, who no doubt thought it best to take out the strongest and most promising Jedi first. Although the battle was witnessed by none, it is said that it continued for hours before Skywalker’s organic body finally betrayed him to Vader’s mechanical stamina. Proof of the intensity of their battle is found in the fact that Skywalker’s body could not be recovered.

I exited the search, feeling pale. There was no way I’d be showing this to Luke.

“What is all this?” I asked curiously.

Luke looked over at me. He had just arrived from Tatooine with Solo and Chewbacca, with two large knapsacks, the contents of which were currently strewn across Luke’s bed, desk and floor.

“Those –“ He pointed at the books on the bed, “– are Ben’s journals, the old ones, from, like, forever ago. Pre-Clone Wars. And a few newer ones, but really, Tatooine’s not that interesting, so I suspect that’s why there’s less. Those –“ His finger moved to the holocubes stacked on the desk, “are Jedi training devices. “And all of this –“ He waved his arm at all the objects that hid the floor around him, “well, I’m not entirely sure what they all are, but they looked cool.”

I fought down a smile. Typical boy.

And I loved him for it. Because when I was with him, I could just be a typical girl, not a Princess or Senator or warrior.

“Can I read some of those?” I asked, looking at the journals with interest.

Luke’s grin was sheepish. “Actually, I was hoping you’d offer. I have to go through all the holocubes and figure out what most of this stuff is, so if you could go through those, let me know if there’s anything I need in them - -you know, instructions and whatnot –“

“I’d be happy to!” I said with delight, then winced inwardly at my ulterior motive. Obi-Wan Kenobi had been Anakin Skywalker’s Jedi Master, and I had no doubt those journals were chock-full of information about him.

“Oh, and anything about my dad, too?” Luke added, looking at me again as I reached for the journals. “Ben said they were friends.”

I grinned. “Sure thing. And I’ll do you one better. I’ll condense all of it, so you don’t have to go searching these old journals for it. I’ll put it all on one holodisc.”

He looked like I’d just given him a handful of stars – absolutely delighted.

“You’re the best, Leia!” he said, giving me an enthusiastic hug and making me laugh.

“Anything for you, Luke,” I replied, even as my stomach knotted at my deception. “Anything for you.”

The journals were actually fairly interesting. They were started at the behest of Obi-Wan’s Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn – the same man, I realized, who I had dreamed about and the article about Padme Amidala said died during the Battle of Naboo. Apparently, Qui-Gon believed that keeping a journal would help Obi-Wan (whom I guessed to be about sixteen or seventeen at this point) “organize his mind,” whatever that was supposed to mean. Obi-Wan himself wasn’t entirely sure.

The first four journals were fairly boring – well, they were interesting, but they contained none of the information I was looking for. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the fourth journal that things stated to get interesting.

Obi-Wan was stuck on a ship, stranded on Tatooine, protecting a Queen while his Master and some other members of their crew went into the city – or, as Obi-Wan put it, what passed for a city on Tatooine. From the city, Qui-Gon found a been with a midi-chlorian (what?) count that was higher than Master Yoda’s.

Okay. Still, from his phrasing, it sounded impressive. Higher than should be possible, he said, too. Was that a good thing, I wondered?

Eventually, at the beginning of the fifth journal, I found out that this boy was indeed Anakin Skywalker. My stomach gave a little flop as Obi-Wan recalled events and retold the stories of others as I had seen them in my dreams.

Then there was a gap of about a month, and when Obi-Wan returned to his journal he explained about Qui-Gon’s death and how Anakin had become his apprentice, or, as he called it, Padawan. This was apparently against the will of the Jedi Council on the basis that he was too old ( the kid was all of nine, by the Force!) but it was Qui-Gon’s dying wish that Anakin be trained as a Jedi, and Obi-Wan was determined to see that wish through. Lucky for him, the Jedi decided to allow it.

The next several volumes – at least fifteen or twenty, as the entries became rather lengthy – were dedicated to the raising of Anakin. The boy proved to be handful, and Obi-Wan had no experience with children. My heart ached for him, especially as he eventually grew attached to Anakin and began to care for him as a son or younger brother, as opposed to seeing him as a burden Qui-Gon had bequeathed to him. However, I had to laugh at Obi-Wan outrage when Anakin successfully pulled a prank on him, and at Obi-wan’s attempts to get revenge – his attempts were rarely as creative as Anakin’s, but Anakin seemed to have a blind spot when it came to simplicity, and fell for most of them.

And then there was Obi-Wan’s attempt at The Talk when Anakin was thirteen. I laughed myself sick when Obi-Wan embarrassed himself fumbling awkwardly through The Talk only to have Anakin tell him at the end of it, with immense amusement, that he already knew all of it. Apparently, Obi-Wan wrote wryly, children from Tatooine aren’t as innocent as children form the rest of the galaxy are.

Eventually the two of them were sent on off-planet missions, as Anakin grew up and was better able to look after himself. This kept Anakin’s boredom at bay and the pranks lessened, though Obi-Wan did grudgingly admit to his journal that he actually missed them.

Anakin was seventeen when I fell asleep, the journal still open on my lap.

“That’s so weird,” Luke said as I recounted all I had learned of Anakin to him the next day. He was seated on the floor, reassembling one of Obi-Wan’s objects, while I was sprawled comfortably across his bed.

I had typed up the information, too, just as I had promised, but had decided to wait and give it to Luke when they were complete. However, I had been utterly charmed by the young Anakin Obi-Wan spoke of, just as I had been in my dreams as Padme Amidala, and I couldn’t resist telling Luke all about his father’s antics so far.

“Why?” I asked in reply to Luke’s statement.

“Because Ben said that he trained Vader. He never mentioned training my dad, too. Maybe that’s how they met! My dad and Vader, I mean, at first. Because you have to know someone before you can betray them, right? And that’s what Ben said Vader did to my dad. Betrayed and murdered, he said.”

Unnerved, I agreed, wondering what I was going to find in the resto f those journals.

Unbidden and unwelcome, Vader’s request rose in my mind. I frowned mentally at it, but my conscience wouldn’t let me ignore it.

“You know, Luke,” I said carefully, “sometimes things aren’t always what they seem. Obi-Wan may have been a Jedi, but he was human, too, and humans can have a funny way of seeing things. I think you should be taking Obi-Wan’s words with a grain of salt.”

“Ben wouldn’t lie!” Luke insisted.

“I’m not saying he did. I’m just saying that he may not know the whole story.”

“What else is there to know?”

I bit my lip. “I‘m not sure.”

Three months past his twentieth birthday, Anakin began to have dreams about his mother – or at least, that was when he started complaining about them to Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan said he reassured Anakin about them, but secretly feared that Anakin possessed the rare gift of Prophecy.

The dreams recurred steadily; every morning, Anakin would wake up late an exhausted from too little rest. Soon, the nightmares increased in intensity to the point even Obi-Wan began to sense them. However, he feared Council repercussions if he allowed Anakin to go check up on his mother. I frowned, not agreeing with his decision at all.

Three weeks after Anakin’s first complaint about the nightmares, he and Obi-Wan were called to protect Senator Amidala. My interest was immediately piqued.

I smirked in satisfaction as Obi-Wan grumbled about Anakin’s inappropriate feelings for the Senator. I knew there had to be something going on there besides friendship! Unfortunately, Obi-Wan finished with the statement, At least she has more sense than he. This little infatuation will be over soon.

Obi-Wan sent Anakin and Padme to Naboo, then made his own way to Kamino. It was an entertaining read, but I really wanted to hear more of Anakin and Padme. They were destined for each other. I could feel it in my bones.

But Obi-Wan didn’t see them again until the Battle of Geonosis, and romance wasn’t exactly his top priority there, though he did note that Anakin’s feelings for Padme did not seem to have lessened. I was happy to read that.

Then, however, he recounted the loss of Anakin’s arm, and I nearly burst into tears. That poor young man! Prosthetics are available that are better than the organic appendage could ever be, but everyone I know who ever lost a limb would gladly give up the special features for their own, flesh and blood arm.

Anakin, I think, took it better than Obi-Wan did. While the older man fussed like a mother bird, Anakin simply went on with his life. There were far more battles now, and as I read, both men became more cynical and weary with each passing page. Even Anakin, who was usually so up and ready for a fight, began to wish the war was over. I could sympathize with that. I had once glorified war, too, believing in the nobility of our cause and entirely too sure that our side would win simply because it was the right one. Now, after so much loss, I was disillusioned and tired of war. I wished, as Anakin and Obi-Wan did, that it was over.

As the war finally came to a close (not that it actually said that, or anything; I just knew by the dates) Obi-Wan’s entries became more jumbled. He worried about Anakin’s relationship with Palpatine – something that disturbed me greatly when I learned of it. Why hadn’t Obi-Wan mentioned this before? How could he not think such information important.

But then, everyone knew that Palpatine was a master of intrigue, disguise, lies, and, according to Vader, the Sith.

And, speaking of the devil, where was Vader? Obi-Wan’s entries made no mention of him, and the Purges got closer with every page I turned. So where was Vader? Even if he hadn’t gone by the name of Vader then, Obi-Wan had told Luke he’d trained him, but the only person Obi-Wan had trained so far was –



It couldn’t be.

It couldn’t.

It wasn’t possible.

I set the journal down with less than four day to go until the Purges, with Obi-Wan leading army on Utapau. I couldn’t bear to read any more.

A week later, I had managed to convince myself that I had jumped to the wrong conclusion. In all likelihood, Vader wasn’t even human. Maybe he had sparred with Obi-Wan a couple times when he was a Jedi – would Obi-Wan see that as being a pupil?

That’s what I put in the report I had made up for Luke, anyway. I certainly wasn’t going to tell him that the only student the General had ever had was his father. And Obi-Wan did mention sparring with several younger Jedi called Padawans, which I had come to recognize as a bizarre term for student. I told Luke that Vader was likely one of them, and eventually I started to believe it. After all, it just wasn’t possible for Vader to be the adorable little child from my dreams. Nobody could change that much.

Eventually, I went back and finished Obi-Wan’s journals, and it seemed my logic was correct. Obi-Wan didn’t ever describe the Purges in detail – one entry he was involved in the investigation on Utapau, and the next he was en route to Tatooine with Baby Luke.

So much has happened, I don’t know where to start . . . he wrote. I was still on Utapau when things started to go badly. Apparently, the clones were implanted with an override – Order 66. When it was triggered, the Jedi were shot. By the troops we commanded! I nearly didn’t survive. I headed out for Coruscant immediately, only to be intercepted by Bail Organa, who had Master Yoda with him.

I bit my lip. I never realized my father had been so involved in the Purges. He never spoke of it, not surprisingly.

Master Yoda and I went to Coruscant, to the Temple. We found the younglings . . . oh, Force! They had been brutally slaughtered. All of them, along with all the Padawans, Knights and Masters also residing there. I was very nearly sick right there.

The security recordings showed us the horrific crimes, and it was there I learned that Anakin was gone. I had never really worried about him before – never really had the cause to. He was always so competent, so strong and sure . . . I knew he had weaknesses that could be played on, but I never dreamed . . . he was one of the last I’d have thought could fall, despite the warnings Master Windu gave . . . but he had been overtaken by Darth Vader, and then I had to go after Vader.

I can’t . . . I killed Vader. That’s all I can say.

Padme gave birth . . . I can’t believe I was so oblivious . . . they must be hidden. I am taking Luke to live on Tatooine. He will not be found there. The planet causes Vader too much pain. I shall go into exile there, and watch over Luke. He’s all I have left of Anakin, now.

I felt tears welling up in my eyes. Poor Obi-Wan! And Padme – what happened to her? Did she just agree to let Obi-Wan take her child from her? No, wait . . . Padme Amidala died on Empire Day, my birthday, and Luke’s. Could she have died giving birth to Luke? Not a broken heart over the republic, as so many thought, but over the father of her child? I read on.

There was a gap of two months, and then came the last, short entry.

I was wrong. Vader lives. The Force help us all.

In my distress over Obi-Wan’s journals, I barely noticed the days go by. Then, Vader called.

“Are we still planning for tomorrow?” he asked promptly.

I blinked. “Tomorr – oh! Yes, alright,” I agreed quickly, a knot forming in my gut now that the date was so near. “Remember your promises.”

He sighed. “I will, Your Highness.”

I bit my lip, an irrational desire blossoming. “Call me Leia,” I said impulsively. “I know you’re trying to be polite and all, but – call me Leia. Please.”

He was silent; I think I shocked him. “As you wish,” he finally replied. “Leia.”

The next day was cold. Well, we were on Hoth; what day isn’t cold? But it seemed colder than normal.

I spent the morning with Luke, wincing at the recent scars he had acquired after being attacked by a wampa and then frozen. I remembered all the arguments I’d had with Solo that day, and the next, when I’d kissed Luke, and frowned. What did the man do that irritated me so much? Even I couldn’t place it.

Vader didn’t show up until early afternoon. By the time the alarm sounded, I had worked myself up into a fine state.

I moved to the main control room; that was where I had assured Vader I would be. I was there most of the afternoon as the battle raged outside. Then, the sirens went off that indicated a breech in the building’s security. Vader had made it.

Almost everyone was evacuated by that point. I was no longer worried about Vader’s intentions. He’d done everything he said he would. He’d given us warning by coming out of hyperspace too close to the system, he’d sent out large, awkward, relatively easily dispatched pieces of machinery, and he’s waited until mostly everyone was gone before coming into the base, so there would be fewer casualties. I was actually somewhat proud of him, and was kind of impatient to see what he had to show me.


“You alright?” Solo asked from beside my elbow.

He’d startled me – I’d thought he’d left – but I refused to show it. I would not give him that satisfaction. “Why are you still here?” I snapped.

“I heard the command center had been hit,” he replied with concern.

Concern? Oh, that was rich. “You've got your clearance to leave.”

he raised his brows at my tone. “Don’t worry, I’ll leave. First I’m gonna get you to your ship.”

Oh, no. No, no , no!

Threepio piped up from my other side. “Your Highness, we must take this last transport. It’s our only hope!”

Damn droid. I turned away in dismissal of both of them and gave my attention to the controller “Send all troops in sector twelve to the south slope to protect the fighters.”

A blast rocked me off balance, but I caught myself. Threepio landed on Solo, which made me smirk inwardly.

“Imperial troops have entered the base,” a voice over the loudspeaker announced. I rolled my eyes. Well, duh, genius.

Solo grabbed my arm.. “Come on. That’s it!”

What did he care? I tried to jerk my arm out of his grasp but he held firm.

This was not in the plan.

I pressed my lips together and looked at the head controller. “Give the evacuation signal and get to your transports!”

Reluctantly, I let Solo lead me from the room. Vader wouldn’t happy, but he would just have to deal.

Behind us, I heard Threepio begging for us to wait.

We ran for the transport. Even if I had to get on, I could always sneak one of the many escape shuttles and come back. It was likely I’d be the only female one the transport, as it was the last one and men vastly outnumbered women in the Alliance anyway, so I could always cite the need for womanly products as my excuse. The men never questioned that one.

And then the roof caved in. Literally.

“Transport, this is Solo,” the pirate was saying into his comlink before I had the chance to get my bearings after being shoved to the floor. “Better take off – I can’t get to you. I’ll get her out on the Falcon.”


And then we were running the other way again. My mind was whirling. How was I going to get out of this one?

Threepio was still behind us, complaining plaintively. I barely heard him, but Solo gruffly made sure he kept up.

Chewbacca was already at the ship. Han hustled me aboard, then ran to the cockpit, Chewie on his heels. I made off to the refresher, complaining loudly that Solo hadn’t given me time to go. He growled unintelligibly at me, but waved me off. I went.

I locked myself in the refresher, then flipped on the comlink I used to call Vader. “Where are you?” I hissed.

“I could ask you the same question,” he replied.

“They made me leave. I couldn’t stay it would have looked suspicious. I’m on the Millennium Falcon, in hangar eight,” I told him.

He barked a few orders to the side, then looked back at me. “Do you know where the minor auto feeds are?” he asked.

“By the main power lines, right?” I replied.

He nodded. “Loosen a few of those. It will not stop any pilot worth his pay for long, but it may should give me enough time to reach you. I will have my men dismantle the hyperdrive.”

“Okay.” I shut off the comlink and went in search of a nearby power box. I found one rather easily, and did as Vader suggested.

It was kind of ingenius, actually. By loosening the feeds, it didn’t look like sabotage to anyone who found it, and when it was found sabotage wouldn’t be suspected the way it would be if anything major was tampered with, as most of the major parts only died from wear or being obviously cut. The feeds, however, made said major parts work harder, and thus made the machine harder to start, accelerate, steer, and any other number of annoyances.

I made my way to the cockpit, where, my work was already being noticed.

“Would it help if I got out and pushed?” I asked with bite.

Solo had the gall to give me an insulted look. “It might!”

Threepio came in and tried to tell Solo something. I hadn’t noticed he that he hadn’t followed Solo. Surely he didn’t know anything about my handiwork? I gave the droid a dark look, but Solo managed to shut him up all on him own.

There were troopers outside now; a few even disappeared under the ship, but they didn’t seem to do anything to hinder our immediate progress.

“This bucket of bolts is never going to get us past that blockade,” I hissed, trying to rattle the man.

He didn’t even blink. “This baby’s got a few surprises left in her, sweetheart.” I glowered at the nickname, even though it made me feel all warm and tingly inside.

We strapped ourselves in. “Come on! Come on! Switch over. Let's hope we don't have a burnout,” Han muttered.

Then the engine rattled to life.

“See?” Han said pointedly.

I sighed in disappointment, my jaw tight. “Someday you’re going to be wrong, and I just hope I’m there to see it.”

He just gave me a withering look. “Punch it!” he told Chewbacca, and then we were off.

Chapter Fourteen: Chase

I sat stewing in the navigator’s chair as Solo and Chewie tried desperately to get us all away from where I wanted to go. I could only imagine how Vader was handling things.

“I saw them! I saw them!” Han yelped as he tried to do several things at once.

“Saw what?” I snapped, my frustration adding just the right amount of tension to my voice.

“Star Destroyers. Two of them. Coming right at us.”

I glanced up. Maybe it wasn’t too late!

Threepio hurried into the cockpit. “Sir, sir! Might I suggest –“

Han glared at me – as if this were all my fault. Which, in a way, it sort of was. “Shut him up or shut him down!” He turned to Chewie. “Check the deflector shield!”

Chewbacca barked.

Han groaned. “Oh great. Well, we can still outmaneuver them. Prepare to make the jump to lightspeed.”

“But sir!” Threepio squawked.

“They’re getting closer!” I hissed at Han, trying to keep up the charade, though I was secretly hoping for tractor beam.

Oh, Force . . . hoping for a tractor beam? What was wrong with me!?

Solo smirked. “Oh yeah? Watch this!” He pulled back the lightspeed lever.

Nothing happened. I nearly cheered.

“Watch what?” I snapped instead as Han and Chewie looked at each other in horror.

Han tried again.

Again, nothing happened.

“I think were in trouble,” Han muttered.

“If I may say so, sir,” Threepio interrupted again, “I noticed earlier that the hyperdrive motivator has been damaged. It’s impossible to go to lightspeed!”

Han got up. “We’re in trouble!” he repeated, more urgently this time.

Suddenly an image popped into my mind of a boy with round cheeks, blond hair and bright blue eyes. Luke’s father, Anakin, as I’d seen him in my dreams. Padme Amidala had met him when her hyperdrive failed.

I smiled to myself. “I wonder if I’ll get a cute little boy,” I murmured under my breath.

Unfortunately, Solo heard me. “Gee, Your Worship, I didn’t know you felt that way. I’m flattered, but to be honest, I’m not real sure I’m ready to be a father.”

I could have killed him. He read my expression and wisely left the room.

I sat idly at the helm, staring out the window but not really seeing anything. Solo and Chewie were in the back, trying to fix the hyperdrive. Every now and then a crash, yelp, growl, bark or panicky voice would reach my ears, but I paid them no mind.

Thinking about Padme Amidala had led my mind back to Obi-Wan’s journals, and something was bothering me about them, but I couldn’t place my finger on it. It was just a vague feeling I had, but one I couldn’t shake. What was it? I thought back over the last few entries, the really sad ones, the ones where everything fell apart.

We found the younglings . . . Anakin was gone . . . he was one of the last I’d have thought . . . he had been overtaken by Darth Vader . . . Padme gave birth . . . they must be hidden . . .

That was it! They must be hidden. They. Who was they? Luke, certainly. But who else? And was it only two? Or more?

Perhaps Padme Amidala had survived! Obi-Wan’s journals didn’t mention anything about her death . . .

But no. Amidala’s funeral had been quite public; she had been a prominent political figure.

But hadn’t she been pregnant when she died? I frowned. It seemed to me that she had been. It was kept relatively quiet, something of an open secret since there was no record of her being married, but I was almost sure she had been carrying when she died . . .

And Luke was alive.

So maybe the funeral was a ruse, too!

But then why was Luke raised by his aunt and uncle? Surely Amidala would not have let her child be taken from her?

Well, Luke had been told that his mother died. Perhaps Amidala was told that her child died?

I frowned again and sighed. This was so frustrating! Who else was included in that word, they?

Suddenly, something large moved in front of my eyes, jarring me from my reverie. My eyes focused, then widened. “Han!” I yelled over the comlink. “Han, get up here!”

He was there within seconds, for which I was grateful. I pointed out the front window as I moved from the pilot’s seat. “Asteroids!”

He took my place as more asteroids appeared in front of us. “Chewie, set two-seven-one.”

My eyes widened as I calculated that course in my head. “What are you doing!?” I nearly screeched. “You’re not actually going into an asteroid field!?”

“They’d be crazy to follow us, wouldn’t they?” His tone was ironic.

An asteroid hit the side of the ship. “You don’t have to do this to impress me,” I said desperately.

Threepio spoke up, sounding just as terrified as I felt. “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately three thousand seven hundred and twenty to one!”

Han set his jaw. “Never tell me the odds!”

Chewie barked as another asteroid hit us. My shoulders grew tenser by the second.

Solo gave me a quick glance before turning his gaze back to the scene before us. “You said you wanted to be around when I made a mistake; well, this could be it, sweetheart.”

I tried to glare at him, but ended up looking more pleading than anything else. “I take it back! We’re going to get pulverized if we stay out here much longer!”

Another aseroid came a little too close for comfort – actually, they were all too close for comfort. “I’m not going to argue with that,” Han muttered in agreement.

“Pulverized?” Threepio whimpered.

“I’m going in closer to one of those big ones,” Han announced suddenly.

“Closer?” I repeated, shocked.

“Closer!?” Threepio yelped.

Chewie barked something short and abrupt. From the look on his face, it was the same thing Threepio and I had said.

We were hit again. I grabbed the back of Han’s chair to steady myself as Threepio panicked. “Oh, this is suicide!” he cried.

Han nudged Chewbacca and pointed out the window. “There. That looks pretty good.”

“What looks pretty good?” I demanded.

“Yeah.” Han had a small, self-satisfied grin on his face now. “That’ll do nicely.”

Threepio turned to me. “Excuse me, my lady, but where are we going?” Despite his politeness, there was still an edge of hysteria in his voice.

Suddenly, we dove steeply, and then were swallowed in the blackness of the crater.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” I said to Han sourly.

He nodded. “Yeah, me too.”

“Where are you?” Vader demanded as soon as I answered my comlink.

“In a cave, on an asteroid,” I said as I made myself comforable on the refresher floor.

Vader growled wordlessly. “You should have waited for me!”

“I tried!”

“Not hard enough!”

“Well, what was I supposed to do? Say, sorry, I can’t leave, I'm meeting our archenemy here any minute now?”

Vader frowned silently and I allowed myself a brief flash of triumph.

“I suppose it does not matter all that much,” Vader admitted finally. “After all, it is not as if this meeting was important.”

“It was important to me!” I snapped, my ire flaring.

His eyes narrowed, and his tone had a bite to it. “Then what do you propose we do, Princess? I can hardly go searching through an asteroid field for you – in case you have not noticed, my ship is not quite as small and agile as yours. The damage would be catastrophic.”

It was my turn to frown. “I know, I know.” I bit my lip.

He waited impatiently for me to speak again. Finally, I looked up at him, an idea forming.

And suddenly I had the feeling that I’d seen the person in the holoimage before. I just couldn’t place him . . .

And then it hit me.

Vader was projecting an image of Anakin Skywalker.

It wasn’t the same as the pictures I’d seen. After all, the first one was a profile shot, and dark, and the second had been filled with mirth. This image was full of anger, and the scar over right eye was missing. But there was no doubt that it was the same person.

A cold knot formed in my stomach, and I set my jaw.

“How did you know Luke’s father?” I asked tightly.

“What?” he asked, surprised.

“If you know that you didn’t kill him, you must have known who he was. How?”

Vader’s voice had an edge to it. “He was a hero of the Clone Wars. Everybody knew who he was.”

“Why him?”

His brows drew down in confusion. “What?”

I waved an impatient hand at him. “Why did you choose him to be your image? Are you trying to irritate me? Because it’s working. Are you trying to prove that the two of you were such great friends and convince me that you would never hurt him and by using his image you’re honouring his memory? Because that’s not working!”

I paused to catch my breath. Vader was silent and as still as a stone for several seconds. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and controlled.

“I didn’t realize it bothered you. If you like, I’ll change the image.”

“You do that,” I snapped angrily, then turned off the comlink with more force than was necessary before I remembered that I hadn’t told Vader of my idea.

Oh, well. That was fine. He didn’t need to know about it.

I stood with Typho and Dorme. “Honestly, I don’t need a bodyguard,” I insisted rationally.“Especially not a Jedi bodyguard. They’ll only be bored, following me on my duties, and they’ll only get in my way. It’s perfectly fine. I can take care of myself.”

No one is doubting your ability with a blaster, my lady,” Typho assured me as Dorme frowned at my stubbornness. I knew Corde’s death had upset her – it had upset me, too – but this was going too far. “However, there are more ways to kill someone than to attack them directly. Jedi sense danger of all kinds; they will be able to protect you best.”

No better than I can protect myself,” I insisted, though I knew it wasn’t true.

Typho smiled sadly, calling my bluff. “Far better, actually, my lady.”

At that moment, the doors opened and Jar Jar walked in, his bonelessly fluid walk seeming awkward out of his natural habitat, as it always did. And as always, he had that slight air of clumsiness that he couldn’t shake no matter where he was.

Lookie – lookie –“ He babbled excitedly. I caught his eye. “Oops! Oh, dear, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten myself again.”

I smiled, then looked at the two Jedi behind him.

I recognized Obi-Wan immediately, despite the ten years that had passed. His hair was long now, partially tied back, and he had a beard, but his eyes still had that merry twinkle in them. “It’s a great pleasure to see you again, my lady,” he greeted me.

I smiled politely. “It has been far too long, Master Kenobi. I’m so glad our paths have crossed again, but I must warn you that I think your presence here is unnecessary.”

His smile was gracious and didn’t hint at the fact that he likely thought I was being stubborn and ungrateful, as everyone else did. “I’m sure the Jedi Council has their reasons,” he said smoothly.

My phony smile refused to become any more sincere, so I turned to the other Jedi, waiting for an introduction – until I noticed the braid hanging behind his ear, the mark of a Jedi apprentice. Surely this tall, handsome young man wasn’t . . .

Ani?!” I burst out in surprise as his bright blue eyes, eyes I had never forgotten and knew immediately, met mine. I fumbled for my next words. “My goodness . . . you’ve grown,” I finished lamely.

It was so true, though. He didn’t look anything like I remembered, saving the eyes. He was so tall now, he towered over me. Somehow, in my head he had stayed ten years old. His hair, out of the Tatooine suns for so long, had darkened. His cheeks had lost all their chubbiness, replaced by high cheekbones and a strong jawline. From what I could guess by the way his clothing fell, his body had hardened, growing more lean and muscular, whereas before it was full of childish softness.

But perhaps the most startling change, aside from his height, was the shape of his body.

It was a man’s body, there was no doubt of that. His shoulders were broad, his hips narrow, and though he was slender, it was obvious he was not done filling out yet. I had no doubt that once he was done, he would dwarf Obi-Wan.

So have you,” he replied, his eyes holding mine and burning with an intensity I had never seen in him before. “Grown more beautiful, I mean . . . and much shorter – for a Senator, I mean.”

Only years of being in the public eye and leaning to keep my emotions from the masses kept me from blushing at the awkward compliment; as it was, I held my arms and hands close to my body in an effort to keep them from shaking, and locked my knees to keep my legs from melting under the heat of his gaze.

What was wrong with me?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Obi-Wan shoot Anakin a disapproving look, and that was all I needed to shake off whatever had happened to me and attempt to regain control of the situation.

I laughed and shook my head. “Oh, Ani, you’ll always be that little boy I knew on Tatooine.”

He looked down, cheeks glowing a dull red as Obi-Wan and Typho smiled in that superior, knowing way that parents get whenever their teenager has a hopeless crush. I restrained myself from smacking them both in Anakin’s defense, then frowned mentally at the desire.

Our presence here will be invisible, my lady,” Obi-Wan assured me, turning his attention away from Anakin.

I’m very grateful you’re here, Master Kenobi,” Typho told him before I could get my mouth open. “The situation is more dangerous than the Senator will admit.”

I don’t need more security, I need answers,” I informed them both with a slight bite to my tone. “I want to know who is trying to kill me.”

Obi-Wan frowned. “We’re here to protect you, Senator, not start an investigation –“

We’ll find out who’s trying to kill you, Padme,” Anakin assured me. “I promise you.”

The three of us merely blinked at him. We hadn’t expected him to speak up. He bit his lip in frustration at our silence and his faint blush returned.

We are not going to exceed our mandate, my young Padawan,’ Obi-Wan informed him sharply with a glare, and I held back a wince at the reprimand.

I meant in the interest of protecting her, Master, of course,” Anakin replied.

We are not going through this exercise again, Anakin. You will pay attention to my lead –“

Why?” Anakin asked calmly, though there was obvious tension underneath his skin.

Obi-Wan reared back in surprise. “What?”

Why else do you think we were assigned to her, if not to find the assassin? Protection is a job for local security, not Jedi. It’s overkill, Master. Investigation is implied in our mandate!”

I secretly agreed, but Obi-Wan was rapidly turning red now, so I kept my mouth shut.

We will do as the Council has instructed,” Obi-Wan said, voice firm and cold, “and you will learn your place, young one!”

I had to speak up. “Perhaps with merely your presence, the mysteries surrounding this threat will be revealed. Now, if you will excuse me, I will retire.”

They all bowed slightly as I all but ran from the room.

Dear Force! I was definitely feeling those ten years. Anakin had grown up so much, but at the same time, he was still exactly the same. Still eager to please, always wanting to help, to make things better . . .

My lady?” Dorme asked.

Right,” I murmured, and sat down in front of my vanity so that she could take the style out of my hair.

Is that the young man who gave you that necklace?” Dorme asked conversationally.

I had forgotten about the japor snippet. It had quickly become part of my daily accessories. When Dorme had first started to work for me she had asked about it, and I had told her about Anakin.

Yes,” I replied, almost in a daze, as my fingers went automatically to the wooden charm. “Except he didn’t resemble a man at all back then.”

Dorme smiled at me in the mirror. “Amazing how we can never imagine children changing, isn’t it?” she said. “Though in reality it is they who change the most.”

Indeed,” I murmured, staring at the japor snippet. Then I closed my fist over it. I recognized the look in his eyes, the longing and the lust. But he was a Jedi; I was a Senator. And even if I felt anything other than friendship toward him – and I did, there was no point in denying it – we could never be together. Jedi were not allowed to marry, I knew that, and for a Senator to help a Jedi break his vows would be disastrous.

No, we could never be together. I would have to convince him of that if he continued to pursue it.

Even if convincing him meant breaking his heart.

Dorme lay my nightgown on my bed and left me alone. I glanced at the security camera Typho had installed in my room in anticipation of the arrival of the Jedi, then dug out another nightgown and threw it over the device.

Be on alert, Artoo,” I told my little droid as I slipped into the nightgown I would be sleeping in. He beeped in reply.

No sooner had I settle the fabric around my ankles than a knock came at the door. I opened it a crack.

Anakin was lounging on the doorframe. “You shouldn’t leave that covered,” he told me quietly.

Too bad,” I replied.

He straightened. “Padme, listen to me. I realize you don’t want us here, but we’re trying to protect you. The least you can do is not inhibit our work.”

I swallowed. He really had grown up. “I’m not comfortable with the camera,” I told him. “I’ve activated Artoo to stand guard.”

That’s not enough. What else do you suggest, milady?” he asked impatiently.

I glanced to the side, then back at him as an idea came to me. He was standing so close . . . he was taller than I had initially thought, and received another slight shock when I realized that I had to look up at him. Way up. Before, his head had come to my shoulder. Now, I only came to his.

I’ll be bait,” I said with more confidence than I felt.

And you expect that to work without allowing me – us – to view your room?” he asked skeptically.

I raised my eyebrows. “You’re a Jedi, aren’t you?” I shot back coolly. “Can’t you sense things like that?”

His own brows rose, as if I had challenged him. Which, I supposed, I had. He stepped back from the door and gave a slight bow. “As you wish, milady.”

I shut the door, then sagged against it. It was going to be a long night, and I didn’t think I was going to sleep through a wink of it.

There is still good in him.”

I groaned and rolled onto my back. “Back, are you?” I muttered. I sat up and smiled, realizing just how much Luke looked like his father, and just as convinced that there was no way Anakin Skywalker was Vader. He was just too . . . human, too sweet and caring, for that.

Then I glanced at my chrono. It was time to go.

I slid out of bed, already fully dressed. I grabbed my jacket, my blaster and a couple of Imperial credit chips, then moved soundlessly out of the room, closing the door behind me.

I stopped only once on my way down the hall, to check and make sure that Han and Chewbacca were both asleep. I had considered drugging them, but the only sedatives available were in the Falcon’s medical kit, and would be sure to be missed. Plus, if they did catch me, it would just be one more thing for them to be angry about. So, I decided to let them sleep naturally.

What I didn’t understand was how they didn’t wake each other up with their snores. The thin walls of their rooms did little to keep me from hearing their noise in the hallway; surely they could hear each other.

I shook my head at their male oblivion and continued on my way, thankful that my room was at the other end of the hall.

Chapter Fifteen: Visitor

I moved silently through the ship, my footsteps nearly impossible to hear. I was heading toward one of the removable shuttles Han had replaced the escape pods with. They were the latest craze; not only did they allow one to leave the ship while in space, they could be steered and controlled to a degree pods could not, and they were equipped with enough of an engine to travel in short spurts. Plus, they could re-dock on the host ship. It would be more than enough to get me to the Executor and back without anyone noticing.

The shuttle was already on standby mode as a precaution, and I took a moment to familiarize myself with the controls before I activated the engine and navigating systems. Then I detached from the Falcon (wincing at the roar of the motor), carefully turned the small craft around, and left the cave the way we had entered it.

It wasn’t until I saw the blinking lights of the Executor that I began to panic. In my desire and haste to find out what Vader had up his sleeve that I had completely and utterly forgotten about the sleeping habits of the two million or so men he employed.

Or, more aptly, their lack thereof.

I mentally debated the pros and cons of turning tail and fleeing back to the Falcon, torn between wanting to be involved in Vader’s plan to destroy the Emperor and not wanting to die surrounded by people who hated me. By the time I finally came to my senses and decided to run while I still could, I was close enough to the massive Dreadnaught to see inside individual openings on the side of the ship, including a small docking bay that looked rather . . . empty.

Well. That’s . . . convenient.

I was not hailed as I slowly slid toward that docking bay, driven by my curiosity. Besides, I had an amazing sense of danger, and it was as quiet as could be at the moment.

I let the shuttle float through the atmosphere shield and gently set it on the ground. Then I lowered the boarding ramp and cautiously stepped into the clean – practically sterile – surroundings of the docking bay.

“You have to leave.”

My heartbeat skyrocketed. I whirled around.

“Now,” Jix added, his eyes shadowed.

I raised my chin. “Why?”

“Because somebody is bound to find out that I scratched your presence from the radar records, and if you’re still here when that happens, it will be near impossible to get you out.” His eyes darkened as he shifted his weight impatiently, waiting for me to obediently leave like a good little girl.

Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t in the mood to be obedient.

“I want to speak to Vader,” I told him haughtily in my best Princess voice.

I’m afraid you can’t do that,” he replied calmly and firmly, though the slight crow’s feet at the edges of his eyes deepened.

He was hiding something, I was sure of it. Something about Vader. And I wanted to know what it was.

I started down the hallway that looked like the main one. Jix slid in front of me and blocked my path, his face set.

“Look,” I said impatiently. “I’m here to see Vader. I don’t care if he’s busy, I risked a lot to make this trip and I’m not leaving until I have some answers. So we can do this the easy way or the hard way, but I will get my way in the end. Your choice.”

Jix simply stared at me in disbelief. I took the opportunity to duck past him and dash down the hall. I managed to make it about halfway down before he caught up with me again. This time, he didn’t even make a sound; he simply pulled out his blaster and leveled it at my forehead, right between my eyes.

“You wouldn’t,” I stated quietly, suddenly uneasy. Jix, who had been so cheery when he’d introduced himself to me forever ago, looked far too serious for my taste.

“Wouldn’t kill you?” he specified with a tight grin. “Nah. But I would stun you, bundle you into that shuttle of yours and send you back out into space, drifting until you came to your senses again. Care to test me?”

I gulped and lifted my chin, preparing to reply, when a ripping pain shot through my abdomen, causing me to double over as a chilling scream echoed from the room in front of me and to my left.

I straightened to find Jix heading for the door. “What’s going on in there?” I demanded as I jogged to catch up with him. “The slaughter of baby animals?”

“Go home,” he hissed at me, shouldering the door open and bursting into the room.

“Not on your life,” I muttered under my breath as I followed him in. “Or mine,” I added as an afterthought.

The room was even more sterile-looking than the docking bay was; a closer examination of my surroundings revealed the reason why. It was a medical bay – a small one, but quite advanced if the instruments in my view were any indication. It was definitely safe for surgery.

There were two people in the room besides Jix and myself – a white-robed doctor, who appeared to be in his late thirties or early forties, and a patient I couldn’t see very well, but I could tell that the person’s skin was nearly as pale as the doctor’s coat.

The doctor himself was standing over the patient, who was lying on the bed. The doctor was using only his hands, pressing different points on the patient’s body, probably attempting to lessen the pain by manipulating pressure points – Luke had received similar treatments after being attacked on Hoth.

The man on the bed was sucking air hungrily from a loud oxygen machine, and his chest rose and fell laboriously with the effort. Occasionally his arms and legs would stir, seeming both restless and lethargic, flashing gold in the harsh lights. I noted the large red gash on his abdomen – only half cleaned of blood but obviously a surgical cut and neatly stitched up – a split second before another tidal wave of pain lanced through me. At the same time, the man on the bed cried outand arched his back, rising off the bed, apparently coming out of his drug-haze.

Jix watched the whole scene with an anxious frown, worry lines appearing between his eyebrows and ignoring me completely. “Can’t you give him something?”

The doctor barely spared him a glance. “I’ve already got him on enough morphine to drop a Wookiee. Anything more could kill him. Could you finish cleaning off the incision? It’s really bothering me.”

Jix and I moved at the same time; he glared at me as I reached the wash basin first. He stood over my shoulder, hovering, and shifted his weight from foot to foot in distress as I gingerly applied the soft cloth to the stitches. “This is Uncle D we’re talking about. He’s not going down from an overdose.”

Uncle D? I knew that name . . .

The doctor glanced at me dispassionately over the man’s bare abdomen, then looked briefly up at Jix. “That’s not a chance I’m willing to take.”

And then I nearly dropped the cloth in shock.“Uncle D – that’s what you call Vader!” I said over my shoulder to Jix. Then I looked down at the man beneath my hands, hardly able to believe it. Tentatively, I once more touched the cloth to his skin, studying him all the more closely as I gently washed the blood off the cut.

His arms were prosthetic from the elbow down, one slightly higher up the arm and a darker gold than the other. Neither had any synth-skin covering itmerely the golden skeleton with the circuits wrapped around and attached to it. His legs, disappearing into the sheet, were the same. His skin was as white as snow – nearly transparentand covered with thick scars, most notably a deep laceration across his eye. Part of his skull, in the back, appeared to have been removed, or caved in, and I was glad I couldn’t see it clearly due to his position on the bed and mine beside his ribcage. He was bald, without even eyelashes, and the skin around his eyes appeared bruised, making him look almost like a corpse – I’d actually seen corpses look better than he did. However, despite all the imperfections, all the damage, he still had a physique that most men half his age would envy . . . but what was his age, anyway? I couldn’t tell; the scars and hair loss fooled me. I guessed at about mid-sixties.

“How old is he?” I asked softly.

Jix and the doctor exchanged a look. Finally, with a roll of his eyes and a tightening of his lips, Jix indicated surrender.

“Forty-five,” the doctor said.

I stared at him in shock. “What happened to him?” I finally managed to ask.

The doctor simply shook his head.

So this was what Jix hadn’t wanted me to see. His boss, naked except for a strategically placed sheet, and obviously the victim of some horrific, unspeakable injury. As another wall of pain washed over me, I wondered if this was something Vader had to live with all the time.

I straightened as the pain subsided and was reaching for the cloth again when strong, cool metal fingers closed over my wrist. I jerked my head up to look at his – Vader’s – face

– and fell into eyes bluer than the water of the Alderaanian Lakes, bluer than the summer sky after a storm, a more brilliant hue than any jewel I had ever seen, so blue that it seemed impossible for such a shade to occur naturally –

– but here it was, staring back at me from the face of the battered, bloody arch-villain of the galaxy.

“Angel?” he whispered, those beautiful eyes slightly unfocused but no less bright from the drug-haze. The word startled me, and I started breathing again.

“Um . . .” I licked my suddenly dry lips. “No. Sorry.”

That obviously wasn’t the answer he was expecting. He blinked, and his eyes cleared, becoming sharp and penetrating and, if possible, even more intense. He released my wrist as if I had burned him and attempted to sit up, wincing. “Sorry,” he muttered, casting his eyes down as if embarrassed.

As if he had expected me to be someone else . . . an angel . . . or someone who answered to the name Angel.

My father had told me stories about angels. They were exceedingly beautiful creatures who were purely good, who always did the right thing. The idea of an angel – or even someone who resembled an angel – having anything to do with Vader was preposterous. I didn’t know him well, but I knew him well enough to know that much.

Then I looked down at the man on the bed; the man who was barely a man anymore. He was struggling simply to sit up. I didn’t know this man at all.

The doctor placed his hands on Vader’s shoulder and back, attempting to help him ease into a sitting position. “This is early, even for you,” he commented.

Vader looked up at him. “The Princess . . . wishes to speak with me,” he replied simply, as if I was the reason he’d woken so soon after his surgery. His voice was low and rough, and it seemed painful for him to speak.

Vader had surgery. Vader needed surgery. The idea was mind-boggling. He’d always seemed so strong, invincible. To have him transformed into a mockery of a human being right before my eyes . . .

The doctor looked at me sharply. “Can it wait?”

“She has . . . gone through enough. Let . . . her speak.” He looked at me expectantly.

“Make it quick,” the doctor requested.

I nodded and took at deep breath. “How did you know –“

“It’s . . . the middle of the night, Leia. It’s . . . rather obvious that you snuck out of your friend’s . . . ship and came here in secret, looking for . . . answers. You’re lucky you weren’t . . . shot down on sight.”

“I understand Mr. Jixton had something to do with that.”

A wry grin flitted across Vader’s face under the oxygen mask as he heaved another breath. “No doubt.”

Suddenly, another spasm of pain shot through both our bodies. He recovered first, but when I looked up at him again, those amazing blue eyes were a sickening, haunted yellow, without a trace of blue in them. Unconsciously, I stepped back in horror and ended up pressed against Jix’s chest.

Jix slid his arm around my waist, holding me tightly against him, and lowered his head until his mouth was beside my ear. “Be careful,” he told me, his voice so low that only I could hear it, though by the sarcastic, twisted smile on Vader’s face, he know doubt knew what Jix was telling me. “Yellow means he’s immersed in the Dark Side. He’s . . . volatile, in such a state.”

I swallowed nervously as Jix eased his grip and dropped his arm, leaving me to face Vader alone.

“Well?” Vader asked, and his tone was colder, harsher than it had been a mere second before.

I cowered against Jix’s broad chest, terrified by those eyes. “I – I – I just wanted to, to see what you said you had to show me. About – you know. Right?” I finished uncertainly, finding it difficult to reconcile both – or all three – versions of Vader in my mind.

Vader frowned fiercely.

“But you know, I just – I better go. It’s fine. No big deal.” I eased around Jix, toward the door, never turning my back on Vader.

I was almost there when he spoke again. “What are you going to do, Leia?”

I started at the sound of my given name on his damaged lips. “What?”

“You are one of five people who know my deepest secret.” I must have looked confused, because he continued, “You know that I’m broken. What are you going to do with that knowledge?”

Oh, the possibilities. I looked into his eyes, forcing myself not to flinch, searching for the challenge that wasn’t in his tone. All I could see in his eyes, evil as they were, was pain and desperation.

And then I knew what I was going to do.

“Nothing,” I told him, lifting my chin. “It’s your secret, and I’m going to keep it, because I’m you’re my ally, and that’s what allies do. We watch each other’s backs; we keep each other strong. And so that is what I’m going to do for you.”

The evil yellow light faded from his eyes, returning them to their breathtaking blue, but the pain didn’t come back – or if it did, I didn’t feel it (why was I feeling it, anyway?) and he didn’t show it. He simply stared at me, and soon respect and gratitude crept into his gaze.

Respect and gratitude. From Darth Vader. The world as I knew it was ending.

“Thank you,” he said softly.

I nodded, then ducked my head and bolted out the door.

Chapter Sixteen: Kisses

I made it back to the Falcon and my cabin without mishap, and spent the two hours until Han and Chewie woke thinking about what I had just witnessed.

When I finally emerged from my cabin, my thoughts still whirling, Han and Chewie were discussing a flaw they had discovered in the asteroid we were in.

“You’re right, pal,” Han said in reply to something Chewbacca had just finished saying. “I’m going to shut down everything but the emergency power systems.”

Threepio moved forward. “Sir, I’m almost afraid to ask, but does that include shutting me down, too?”

I smiled wryly. It was nice to know that some things, like Threepio, never changed.

Chewie barked something that sounded suspiciously like “yes.” But Han grinned at the golden droid.

“Nah, I need you to talk to the Falcon, find out what’s wrong with the hyperdrive.”

Suddenly, the ship lurched. It wasn’t the first time it had done that, but it was the worst one, and it sent us all off balance and several loose items flying. Chewie howled.

“Sir,” Threepio said. “It’s quite possible that this asteroid is not entirely stable.”

Han looked ready to punch Threepio. “Not entirely stable?” he snapped back sarcastically. “Well, I’m glad you’re here to tell us these things. Chewie, take the Professor in the back and plug him into the hyperdrive!”

If Threepio could have blinked indignantly, I was certain he would have. “Oh, sometimes I just don’t understand human behavior! After all, I’m only trying to do my job in the most . . .” His voice trailed off as Chewie led him away.

Suddenly, there was another lurch, and when it was over, I found myself in Han’s arms – not exactly where I’d expected to be.

“Let go!” I insisted.

Han simply hushed me, and I began to notice just how nice it was to be held. His arms seemed to support me effortlessly, and his chest was broad and strong. I could feel his abdominal muscles against my back through both our shirts . . .

But it would be best if I ended this before the damn pirate got any ideas. “Let go, please,” I tried again.

“Don’t get excited,” he teased me.

That was it. My temper flared, and I tensed. “Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited,” I hissed at him.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” the infernal man replied wickedly as he set me on my feet, gripping me under the arms as if I were a child, but his fingers brushed the sides of my breasts, sending streaks of heat through my body. “Haven’t got time for anything else,” he added evilly, smirking as he left me alone in the cockpit.

I stood still for a moment, wondering if the moment had really happened. As a Princess, Senator, and leader of the Alliance, I had very little time for romance, but I had hoped for love and a family all my life, just like many other little girls. Of course, I was only twenty two, and had convinced myself that I still had plenty of time to settle down, but in reality, my lack of experience worried me. Was there something unattractive about me?

Or had the Force simply decided that I was meant to be with an unruly, uncouth smuggler from Corellia?

A princess and a smuggler. I pursed my lips, certain that the aforementioned smuggler was currently laughing uproariously at my expense, patting himself on the back for having shaken my carefully crafted cool.

I finished with the valves I had been repairing and tried to pull the engagement lever. It was stuck. I hissed in frustration as I tugged on it, taking all my anger at Han out on it.

Suddenly, arms came around me. I jumped in shock and pushed back, about to attempt to pin the intruder against the wall before I recognized him. When I did identify him, I ignored him, turning back to the lever.

“Hey, Your Worship, I’m only trying to help!”

I clenched my jaw. I was going to have to talk to him. “Would you please stop calling me that?”

To my surprise, he replied, “Sure, Leia,” more amicably than I’d ever heard him sound before.

“You make it so difficult sometimes,” I informed him, still not bothering to look at him as I fought with the lever.

“I do,” he agreed, and I nearly fell down in shock. “I really do. You could be a little nicer, though.”

I clenched my jaw again. I knew there was a catch. I resisted the urge to tell him that if he would simply stop insulting me at every chance he got, then I would be nicer. Didn’t he know how his behavior got my hackles up? Couldn’t he see that I was simply reacting to the atmosphere he set?

“Come on, admit it,” he pushed gently. “Sometimes, you think I’m alright.”

Finally I gave up on the lever, and turned around, nursing my sore hand.

“Occasionally,” I admitted grudgingly. “When you aren’t acting like scoundrel.”

He laughed at me, and I nearly punched him, except he had taken hold of my hand and was massaging it. I swallowed. Hard.

“Scoundrel?” He repeated. “Scoundrel? I like the sound of that . . .”

“Stop that,” I begged quietly, but there was no heat in it.

“Stop what?” he asked innocently.

“That!” I tugged at my hand, but he held it firmly. “My hands are dirty,” I said lamely.

He grinned, catching the excuse for what it was. “My hands are dirty, too. What are you afraid of?”

I raised my chin and met his eyes. “Afraid?” I meant for it to come out as a challenge, but it was far too weak for that.

He began to close the distance between us. “You’re trembling,” he observed.

I was not! Was I? “I’m not trembling,” I insisted.

He was still moving toward me, and I couldn’t bring myself to move away.

“You like me because I’m a scoundrel,” he told me confidently. “There aren’t enough scoundrels in you life.”

He was so, so close now, his gaze fastened on my mouth. His words were becoming distant, absent. He was no longer focused on the conversation. My heartbeat sped up. I wanted this so badly, but at the same time, what would it do to our working relationship? What if it didn’t work out? Force knew how long I’d be stuck with him – what if it was all spent in awkwardness because this, whatever it was, didn’t work?

“I happen to like nice men,” I whispered in a last ditch effort to dissuade him, but my tone was breathy and expectant and not dissuasive at all.

“I’m nice men,” Han murmured, and that was when I knew that this was going to happen. Definitely. For certain. But still, I couldn’t help arguing with him.

“No, you’re not, you’re –“ And then his mouth was on mine, lips covering my own, warming me from head to toes. He kissed me slowly, and I moaned softly in protest, involuntarily pressing my body into his, wanting to feel him against every part of my body. I rose onto my toes in an attempt to try to get closer to him. Hesitantly, I put my hands on his chest, not sure what else I should do with them, only wanting to please him. Would he prefer it if I wrapped my arms around his neck? Or around his waist? What did he want from me!?

And then his hands were moving. One crept up my arm to the nape of my neck, fingers tangling in my hair. The other slid slowly down my side to the small of my back, pulling me closer to him, and started to go lower, as if he was going to hoist me up . . .

“Sir! Sir! I’ve isolated the reverse power flux coupling!”

Han pulled away, aggravation in his eyes. With one hand against the wall, he turned to Threepio coldly. “Thank you,” he said tightly. “Thank you very much.”

I slipped away from him, too overwhelmed to stay and confront what had just happened.

“Oh, you’re perfectly welcome, sir,” Threepio replied happily as I stole away.

I rose from the boat, acutely aware of my dress – and how it revealed my entire back and arms – as I stepped onto the dock. Anakin fell into step beside me, and I was just as aware of his gaze on me. I fought down a blush and took the stairs as gracefully as I could as a trio of servants carried our luggage into the house.

Neither of us spoke as we crossed the veranda, and I wished Anakin would say something. This was getting awkward. We’d had our share of awkward moments lately, and I was sick of them. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I was left hoping he would.

But he didn’t.

We stopped at the edge of the veranda, and I gazed out over the lake.The way it shimmered and sparkled in the sun brought a memory to mind, and I decided to share it, desperate to break the silence.

When I was in Level Three,” I began, “we used to come here for school retreat. See that island?” I nodded at it. “We used to swim there every day. I love the water.”

I do, too,” Anakin replied softly, not even glancing at the water; instead, his eyes were focused on me. “I guess it comes from growing up on a desert planet.”

I swallowed hard, trying to ignore his attention. “We used to lie on the sand and let the sun dry us, and try to guess the names of the birds singing . . .”

I don’t like sand,” Anakin told me. It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here . . .” He raised his hand and stroked his fingers down my arm. I fought off a shiver of pleasure. “Everything is soft . . . and smooth . . .”

I tried to calm my racing heart, certain he must be able to hear it, it was beating so hard. “There was a very old man who lived on the island. He used to make glass out of sand – and then he’d make vases and necklaces out of the glass. They were magical.”

He waited until I turned to look at him, and caught my eyes. “Everything here is magical,” he told me, his voice husky, and my knees nearly gave out from under me.

I took a breath and tried to keep my mind on track. “You could look into that glass and see the water . . . the way it ripples and moves. It looked so real . . . but it wasn’t.”

Sometimes,” he replied – and was it just me, or was he closer than he had been? – “when you believe something to be real, it becomes real. Real enough, anyway . . .”

Yes, he definitely was closer – and moving closer still. “I used to think,” I said desperately, but unable to tear my eyes from his, “that if you looked too deeply into the glass, you would lose yourself.”

I think it’s true,” he murmured absently.

And then he closed the small distance between us, and his lips met mine.

I nearly melted. He was so warm, and he smelled so good . . . he tasted like a delicious mixture of spices, and his hand stroked lightly up and down my arm. He made no move to pull me closer, and I began to relax, heat spreading though me as I returned his kiss. This is okay, I told myself. This is innocent, it’s chaste, it’s not going anywhere . . .

Liar! screamed the rational part of me. If this is okay, next you’ll be saying it’s okay to let him touch you, okay to let him see you, okay to let him have you . . . stop! Stop now!

I broke the kiss. “I shouldn’t have done that,” I gasped, and turned back to look out at the lake.

I’m sorry,” he murmured in my ear, still so, so close. “When I’m around you, my mind is no longer my own.”

I nodded, too quickly, too vigorously. “It’s the situation,” I said, making excuses for the both of us. “The stress –“

He looked directly at me, and added, “The view.”

There is still good in him.”

I woke from my nap with a start.

Even my dreams were turning against me! Could I not find a respite from my confused feelings even in sleep?

I reached out for the control panel, imagining Han’s large, strong hands working here, in the ship he knew so intimately . . .

I sat up, my hand still trailing on the dashboard. Had I heard something?

And then I jumped back in shock as something attached itself to the window, giving me an unwelcome view of the underside of a suction pad and glowing yellow eyes. I moved further back as the thing let out a screeching sound and moved away.

I raced from the room.

I found Han, Chewie and Threepio in a spare cabin. “There’s something out there!” I insisted, my eyes locked on Han’s. There were the first words we had spoken since our kiss.

“Where?” he replied.

“Outside,” I told him, wishing he’d just understand already. “In the cave.”

As if to prove my point, there was a loud, sharp banging sound on the hull of the ship. Chewbacca barked in anxiety.

“There it is!” Threepio exclaimed. “Listen! Listen!”

“I’m going out there,” Han said abruptly, moving toward the entry hatch.

“Are you crazy?!” I half hissed, half shrieked.

He gave me a look. “ I just got this bucket back together – I’m not about to let something tear it apart again.”

Han and Chewie both grabbed breath masks and headed out the door. Hurriedly, I followed.

“Then I’m going with you!”

“I think it might be better if I stay here and guard the ship,” Threepio called after us. We didn’t pay him any attention.

It was extremely dark outside, and surprisingly soft and sticky.

“This ground sure feels strange,” I commented. “It doesn’t feel like rock at all.”

Han knelt to get a better look at it, then glanced around the cave. “There’s an awful lot of moisture in here,” he said slowly.

I shifted uneasily. “I don’t know, I said doubtfully. “I have a bad feeling about this . . .”

“Yeah . . .” Han commented, his attention focused elsewhere. “Watch out!” he shouted at me as he shot something, and it fell at my feet.

I skittered backwards, nervous. Han moved to look at the thing.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he mumbled, half to himself. “Mynocks. Chewie, check the rest of the ship, make sure there aren’t any more attached. They’re chewing on the power cables.

Great. Excellent, I though sarcastically.

“Mynocks?” I inquired aloud.

“Go inside,” Han told me reassuringly. “We’ll clean them off if there are any more.”

And as if he had conjured them with those words, we were swarmed with the ugly creatures. I covered my head with my arms and dashed for the ship.

Suddenly, there was a shot, and the cave rocked angrily. Han caught me and together we ran up the boarding ramp. As soon as we were inside, Han let me go and look for Chewbacca.

“Alright, Chewie, let’s get out of here!”

“But the Empire is still out there!” I protested, keeping up my ruse. “I don’t think –“

He simply pushed past me. “No time to discuss this in a committee!”

I stared after him for a moment, confused by his mixed signals, then wondered if I was reading too much into his actions. “I am not a committee!” I replied hotly, following him.

Han already had us in the air by the time I reached the cockpit. “You can’t make the jump to lightspeed in an asteroid field –“

“Sit down, sweetheart, we’re taking off!” was his terse reply.

Chewie barked.

“Look!” Threepio squealed, pointing out the main window.

“I see it, I see it!” Han snapped.

“We’re doomed!” Threepio cried. I resisted the urge to smack him, certain I would only hurt my hand on his metal plating.

“The cave is collapsing!” I said in shock as I looked out the window.

“This is no cave!” Han told me tightly.

“What?” I said, and then realization dawned. We were inside something. And if this was the end were coming out – I didn’t want to think about the end we went in.

We barely made it out. Han winced as we felt the vibrations of the thing’s teeth nicking the hull. I could sympathize.

And then the fire from a Star Destroyer started.

Han glared at the nav screen with outraged dismay. “Let’s get out of here,” he muttered. “Ready for lightspeed? One, two, three!” He pulled back the hyperspace throttle.

And nothing happened.

He blinked in shock, then burst out, “It’s not fair!”

Chewie began a loud, angry series of barks and growls, complete with flailing arms and pounding fists. Han tried the lever again.

“The transfer circuits are working!” Han replied to something Chewie said. “It’s not my fault!”

What had Vader done to the ship that Han couldn’t fix?

“No lightspeed?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“It’s not my fault,” Han whined at me, his eyes wide.

“Sir,” Threepio interrupted, “we just lost the main rear deflector shield. One more direct hit on the back quarter, and we’re done for!”

Han’s lips (oh, those heavenly lips!) tightened into a line. Then, he pulled another lever.

“Turn her around,” he ordered.

Chewie looked at him as if he’d gone insane and barked something at him.

“I said turn her around!” Han repeated. “I’m going to put all power in the front shield.”

“You’re going to attack them?!” I squealed in shock.

Threepio didn’t like that much, either. When he spoke, his voice was pitched slightly higher than usual. “Sir, the odds of surviving a direct assault on an Imperial star Destroyer –“

I made my decision: to support Han. “Shut up!” I ordered Threepio.

He listened to me for a bare moment, then began again. “Captain Solo, this time you have gone too far!”

Chewie growled menacingly at Threepio, but the droid was wound up far too tightly. “No, I will not be quiet, Chewbacca! Why doesn’t anyone listen to me?”

Han glanced over a Chewie, ignoring Threepio completely. “The fleet is going to break up. Go back and stand by the manual release for the landing claw.”

Chewie obeyed with a bark.

“I really don’t see how that is going to help,” Threepio continued. “Surrender is a perfectly acceptable alternative in extreme circumstances. The Empire may be gracious enough to–“

And he fell silent as I let my hand drift away from the switch under his chin.

Han shot me a grateful look as we settled onto the exterior of the Star Destroyer. “Thank you.”

“What did you have in mind for your next move?” I asked.

“Well,” Han began to explain, “if they follow standard Imperial procedure, they’ll dump their garbage before they go to light-speed, then we’ll just float away.”

I smirked at the irony. “With the rest of the garbage. Then what?”

“Then we find a safe port somewhere around here.” He switched on the computer and opened a search field. “Got any ideas?”

“No, where are we?” I peered over his shoulder.

“The Anoat system,” he replied.

“Anoat system.” I mulled that over for a moment. “There’s not much there.”

“No,” Han agreed, then tilted his head in consideration. “Well, wait. This is interesting. Lando.” He pointed to a spot on the screen.

I followed his finger with my gaze. “Lando system?” I asked, confused. I’d never hear of it.

He gave me a little smirk. “No, Lando’s not a system, he’s man. Lando Calrissian. He’s a card player, gambler, scoundrel.” He caught my eyes with his own. “You’d like him.”

I tore my gaze away from his flirtatious stare. “Thanks.”

Han looked back at the screen. “Bespin. It’s pretty far, but I think we can make it.”

I read some of the information. “A mining colony?” I asked skeptically.

“Yeah, Tibanna gas mine. Lando conned somebody out of it. We go back a long way, Lando and me.”

“Can you trust him?” I asked pointedly.

Han looked insulted. “No! But he has no love for the Empire, I can tell you that.”

A bark form Chewie came over the intercom. Han craned his head around to look out the window.

“Here we go, Chewie. Stand by . . . detach!”

And so we floated away. We all head our breaths for a moment, but then the Star Destroyer hopped into hyperspace and was gone.

I couldn’t keep the grin from my face. I looked down at Han, whose relief matched my own, and made an instant decision.

I kissed his cheek. A small gesture, but it meant a lot to me. I hoped he realized that. It was an experiment, a where-are-we-going-with-this, what-do-all-these-new-feelings-mean, I’m-willing-to-try-if-you-are kind of kiss.

Out loud, I simply said, “You do have your moments. Not many, but you do have them.”


I started violently, nearly falling off my chair. “Yes?” I answered after a moment.

It was dinner time, and only Han and I were in the room. Chewie didn’t eat with us (I took Han’s excuse about Wookiee eating habits at face value) and we hadn’t turned Threepio back on yet. It made for a rather quiet meal.

Except I wasn’t eating. I looked down at my bowl, from which I had been spooning up stew only to pour it back in again. I covertly glanced at Han’s dish. He was nearly done.

A line appeared between his brows, indicating just how awkward he found the situation. I tensed. That didn’t bode well.

“I don’t . . .” He waved his spoon in the air, searching for the right words. “You’ve just seemed . . . a bit off, lately. Preoccupied, like. I was just wondering . . .”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you sure you want to know?”

He blinked. “Well, I think so. I mean, it’s not . . .” He paused, and the line deepened. “It’s not that time of the month or anything, is it? Cause I really don’t need –“

“No,” I interrupted, almost as embarrassed as he was. Our relationship was definitely not to that stage yet. “Just . . . a question.”

He put his spoon down and laced his fingers together under his chin, elbows on the table, looking at me expectantly.

I took a breath. “What would you do . . . if your enemy turned out to be . . . something . . . other than what you expected?”

He pressed his lips together in thought. “You mean, if you discovered a secret about them that makes them seem a bit more human?”

I nodded, surprised at his maturity and insight. “Yeah, something like that.”

He shrugged. “Well, depends on the secret, doesn’t it? Are we talking big enemies or little enemies, here?”

“Well – strictly hypothetically – big ones. Like Imperials, for instance.”

He tilted his head and a sparkle entered his eye. “Like Vader?”

I stared at him, nearly panicking. “No – Vader’s – he’s –“

He held up a hand. “Just humour me on this, okay?”

I bit the inside of my cheek. “Alright,” I agreed cautiously, already planning the quickest route to the escape pods in case he pulled a blaster on me for my deception.

He stared down into his empty stew bowl for a few seconds, jaw working as he put his thoughts in order, then looked up at me again.

“Little known fact of the matter is, that suit he wears was designed by Corellians,” Han began slowly. “When I was a kid, I was going to do a project on it for school; the teacher found out and forbade it. Never did like that teacher after that,” he added as an afterthought.

“Why forbid it?” I asked, not understanding.

He gave me a mirthless half-smile. “Cause Vader uses it. And they don’t want anyone finding out why. If anyone knew anything that could come across as a weakness in Vader, they’d be deader than a doornail within hours. Not that thy told me any of that. Course, it didn’t scare me too much, and I did some research anyway.”

“And?” I breathed, almost afraid to ask.

“And it was originally designed for a man who’d had first degree burns over seventy five percent of his body. Guy had a phobia of death, apparently. Anyway, it’s basically a torture machine. It’s awkward, and painful, and as soon as you can get corrective surgery, you should, because this thing is downright nasty. I don’t know how Vader’s put up with it for so long.”

I swallowed. Hard. “So . . . what are you saying?”

He leaned toward me earnestly. “Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the guy’s a sick, twisted son of a bitch. But honestly, Princess, you’re telling me that you don’t wonder what put him in that suit? Why he still has to wear it? Who he was before he had to put it on? And really, can you blame the poor bastard for acting the way he does? And knowing all that about that suit, can you still hate him as much as you did?”

I could hardly believe my ears. “You . . . pity Vader?”

He sat back. “Well, now, pity is a strong word . . . but yeah, I guess I do. He’s evil to the core, too, but . . . don’t you ever wonder why he’s evil? Does that suit maybe have anything to do with it?” He shrugged and rose from his seat. “Anyway, that’s all deeper than I planned to get. See you, Your Worship.”

And he walked out the door.

I sat there for a long time afterward. All that talk about Vader . . . could Han really not know my secret?

I pondered that question until I fell asleep at the table.

Interlude: Arrangements

I sat in my hyperbaric chamber, the helmet and mask detached from the suit. Jix sat in a portable chair at my knee, elbows on his thighs, hands clasped in front of him, head hanging in boredom. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with him being there, even after three years, but he insisted, and for some strange reason I gave in to him, as I always have.

He glanced up at me, completely without fear. Hurry up, his eyes seemed to tell me. We need something to do.

Jix had never shown fear around me, even in the beginning. Maybe because he had found me three-quarters dead and had to nurse me back to health, had practically forced himself into my service, had never failed me once in the three years of our acquaintance . . . I would never admit it, but I found it refreshing. It was almost like having a friend, except that I don’t have friends.

I had been especially grateful for his trust during the Rebel gala, when he had allowed me to use the Force to take over his vision and watch the Rebels through his eyes. It was only after he returned that we discovered that his eye colour had actually changed to mine when I activated the Force-vision. With any luck, no one noticed, and if they did, they didn’t understand what the change meant. But still, notice of it would raise suspicions, and I hoped it was the former.

I took a breath and reached into the Force, pulling it around myself and shaping it over my features. It was harder than it had been – ever since the Princess recognized my face as that of Anakin Skywalker, I had been using a different one to appease her, and therefore actually had to hold an unfamiliar shape on as well as the glamour that gave me the appearance of wholeness. As if glamours aren’t hard enough to hold onto . . .

When I felt it finish, the last few strands smoothing over my vocal chords to bring my voice back up to par, I look at Jix, who grinned in delight at me. “Well, aren’t you a heartbreaker,” he teased.

I frowned at him, but he waved me off. “Seriously, Uncle D, it looks fine. Stop worrying.”

“What if it slips?” I wondered aloud, my voice once again an easy baritone that I hadn’t bothered to change with the image – adding another complication was just asking for trouble, and she hadn’t complained about the voice, only the image. “It’s so much harder to hold . . .”

“Stop fretting,” Jix replied easily. “You’ve done it before.”

I frowned again. “I know,” I sighed in resignation, and activated the comm station in front of me, entering Leia’s number into the system. Then I rechecked my grip on the Force, and waited for the call to go through.

“Hello,” she answered uneasily, her voice low. She was feeling the subtle shift in our relationship just as I was – not subtle at all, but one of the giant waves of Kamino, washing over us, soaking us to the skin and chilling us to the bone. Ever since she had rushed in after my surgery . . . the one that I shouldn’t have needed . . .

My liver had failed. It had been an utterly ridiculous catalyst – I had been dueling with one of my specialty droids, and it had managed to get under my guard and land a blow directly on my gut with its durasteel elbow. Designed not to pull their blows and set on the most advanced level, it had sent me sprawling to the floor with a ruptured liver and had nearly killed me before I managed to turn it off and contact Polor, my personal physician. I had been rushed into emergency surgery, and Polor managed to patch up my liver, though he warned me (as he had been doing for years now) that with such inferior prosthetics, one day all my synthetic organs and limbs would go into failure and there would be nothing he could do for me. Luckily, livers could regenerate given time, and eventually the patches he used would dissolve harmlessly in my bloodstream.

“Leia,” I greeted her, enjoying the feel of her name on my tongue, as sweet and smooth as caramel. She had such a lovely name. If I had a daughter –

But I didn’t. I had a son. A wonderful son . . . who was more than I thought I’d ever have, at any point in my life.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“On our way to Bespin, for rest and repairs,” she replied instantly, and I vaguely noted at how far our relationship had progressed since we had first made our deal. She was a lot more trusting of me, and I . . .

I wasn’t quite sure what I was.

“What did you do to the hyperdrive, anyway?” she queried. “Han hasn’t been able to make anything of it . . .”

I gave a small, enigmatic smile, but mentally my smirk was a mile wide. Jix had been the one to disable the Millennium Falcon, and the trick I had taught him was a rather obscure way of crippling a ship that I had discovered back when I was a Padawan, and I had kept it a closely guarded secret. In fact, without Jix or me there to guide them, the only way anyone could fix it would be if they had my old astromech at their disposal . . . and the Force only knew where he was now.

“An old trick from the Clone Wars,” I said, not quite lying.

“Oh,” she replied, a small frown forming on her face. I could nearly see her mind working, as she tried to figure out how to tell the smuggler about this bit of information.

Before she could ask for more details about what I had done to the hyperdrive, I changed the subject. “Perhaps we could meet on Bespin,” I suggested cautiously.

Her expression froze. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said slowly. “We’re really just looking for a chance to relax, get our feet back under us. That sort of thing. So if you don’t mind . . .”

“I understand,” I assured her.

“Thank you,” she replied.

“Goodbye, Leia. I'll call again when there is something else we need to discuss.”

“Alright. Goodbye, Vader."

We turned our comms off simultaneously, and I let the Force illusion I’d created around myself melt away.

“You lied,” Jix accused me flatly, but his eyes danced. I often suspected he rather enjoyed drama and intrigue.

“I didn’t lie, I merely . . . omitted certain things.”

Jix snorted. “Yeah, like the fact that you’ve already got a bounty hunter on their tail who has already told us their destination and that we’re already en route to Bespin? Oh, and what about your plan to have a chat with your little boy, who, while still rather little, is no longer a boy? And just how did you plan to get her boyfriend out of Fett’s mitts?”

“Her boyfriend?” I replied, genuinely confused.

Solo, Uncle D. That is, assuming they’ve jumped each other’s bones yet. I’m thinking they have, since they’re both still alive. They were practically homicidal with sexual tension when I went to that sorry excuse for a party a while back.”

“I . . . see.” This was a complication I had not anticipated nor foreseen.

Jix smirked. “She’s gonna rip your throat out. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I think.”

I cut him a look. “Do you have anything useful to say, Jixton?”

“Sure do.” He straightened from his slouch. “Remember when you were in the infirmary, and Missy burst in?”

“I’m not likely to forget, Jixton,” I told him dryly.

“Right. Well, did you notice, every time you were in pain, she doubled over, too?”

I frowned. Most of that day was a haze. “Vaguely,” I murmured, managing to find a memory that matched his description.

“Well, could you perhaps explain to me why she would do that?”

My brow furrowed as I frowned at him. “Sympathy pains?”

Jix shook his head confidently. “I don’t think so. She was having those pains before she knew you were in surgery.”

“What exactly are you getting at, Jix?” I asked, impatient to see his point.

He shrugged. “Not a thing. Just curious, is all.” He stood up. “I take it I’m to skulk around Cloud City, stalking Missy and her posse?”

“Just don’t let her see you,” I reminded him.

He snorted. “Please. Give me some credit, Uncle D.”

He hopped out of the hyperbaric chamber and loped out of the room with an easy grace I had once had. Now, I could only envy it as I braced myself for the betrayal I knew I’d see in Leia’s eyes the next time we met, all the while wondering at Jix’s assertion that she had felt my pain as her own.

Chapter Seventeen: A Chance To Relax

No, I don’t have a landing permit,” Han said, exasperated, into the comlink for what seemed like the billionth time. “I’m trying to reach Lando Calrissian.”

More fire came at us.

“Whoa! Wait a minute! Let me explain!” Han squawked.

“You will not deviate from you present course.”

“Rather touchy, aren’t they?” Threepio questioned airily. Imperials he wanted to surrender to, but being attacked by these people didn’t faze him in the least. Strange droid.

“I thought you knew this person!” I snapped at Han.

Chewbacca barked, and Han glanced furtively at him.

“Well, that was a long time ago. I’m sure he’s forgotten all about that.”

I turned one of my famed Royal Glowers on Han.

The intercom piped up again. “Permission granted to land on Plateform Three-two-seven.”

Thank you,” Han muttered back, turning the intercom off with an angry flick of his wrist. Chewie merely grunted.

Han turned to look at me, a pacifying expression on his face. “There’s nothing to worry about. We go way back, Lando and me.”

I set my jaw. “Who’s worried?”

“Oh,” Threepio commented as we exited the ship, “no one to meet us.”

I turned immediately to Han. “I don’t like this,” I said bluntly. This friend of his sounded for too sketchy for my taste . . . and this was saying quite a bit, considering that I had a long-term deal with Darth Vader . . . who presented himself as whole over the comm, even though I now knew better . . . and to be reminded of his condition . . . it was unsettling, to say the least.

“Well, what would you like?” Han retorted, just as tense as I was.

“They did let us land,” Threepio reminded us optimistically.

“Look, don’t worry,” Han said, almost more to himself than to us, forcing himself to be calm even as his hand hovered over his blaster. “Everything’s going to be fine. Trust me.”

The door before us opened, and a group of people led by a sharply dressed, dark-skinned man about Han’s age strode toward us. His expression was dark.

“See?” Han said to me. “My friend.” Then he leaned over to Chewie and muttered, “Keep your eyes open, okay?”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes.

They stopped about ten feet away from us, and Han and the leader – the infamous Lando Calrissian, apparently – eyed each other warily, as if trying to judge if the other was going to shoot.

Then Lando spoke. His words were not comforting. “Why you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler! You’ve got a lot of guts coming here, after what you pulled.”

Han’s face was deceptively innocent. Me? he mouthed.

Lando began to move again, threatening Han with his body language. My hand inched toward my blaster, just in case.

Jumpy as I was, I nearly shot the man when he suddenly threw his arms around Han in a hug and laughed. Han just stood there, shocked.

“How you doing, you old pirate?” Lando exclaimed jovially. “So good to see you! I never thought I’d catch up with you again! Where’ve you been?”

Han finally got his act together and greeted the other man with a smile and chuckle.

“Well, he seems very friendly,” Threepio observed cheerfully, moving toward them.

Reluctantly, I pushed off from my post beside the ship. “Yes,” I muttered skeptically, not liking this man for a reason I couldn’t name. “Very friendly.”

“So what are you doing here?” Lando asked as he urged us toward the door he had just come through.

Han glanced back at the Falcon. “Ah . . . Repairs. Thought you could help me out.”

Lando’s eyebrows shot up. “What have you done to my ship?”

Han reared back, insulted. “Your ship!? Hey, remember you lost her to me, fair and square!”

Beside me, Chewie growled. Lando looked over at us. His eyes widened when he saw me. I wanted to poke them out.

“Hello. What have we here?” he breathed, reaching out to take my hand. “I’m Lando Calrissian, the administrator of this facility. And who might you be?”

“Leia,” I told him simply, charmed despite my distrust of him.

“Welcome, Leia,” he replied, saying my name with reverence as he raised my hand to his lips.

Han took my hand from him. “Alright, alright, you old smoothie,” he joked with something resembling a sneer. Han pulled me close, tucking me under his arm and away from Lando. I grinned inwardly as my heart did somersaults of joy and the butterflies in my stomach began to flutter with a vengeance.

Behind us, Threepio tried to introduce himself, only to be summarily ignored. “Well, really!” he muttered indignantly, scurrying after us.

“What’s wrong with the Falcon?” Lando asked Han.


“I’ll get my people to look at it.”


Lando turned to me, probably figuring that he could get more of a conversation out of me than he was getting out of Han. “You know, that ship saved my life quite few times. She’s the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”

Key words being ‘hunk of junk,’ I thought, but didn’t voice.

We were in the city now, with workers moving all around us, giving us curious glances as they passed. Han finally broke his silence.

“How’s the gas mine? Is it paying off for you?”

Lando turned introspective as he began to talk about his operations. “Oh, not as well as I’d like. We’re a small outpost and not very self-sufficient. And I’ve had supply problems of every kind, and I’ve had labour difficulties – what’s so funny?” he asked as Han began to snicker.

“You,” Han said simply. “Listen to you – you sound like a businessman, a respectable leader. Who’d have thought, huh?”

Lando stared at him for a moment, then began to grin himself. “You know, seeing you sure brings back a few things.”

“Yeah,” Han agreed, puffing up with self-importance.

Lando shook his head, still grinning. “Yeah, I’m respectable these days. It’s the price you pay for being successful.”

Both men laughed. I couldn’t see what was so funny.

We kept moving through, and were shown directly to a large penthouse suite. I was thankful. My limbs were stiff with exhaustion.

“I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon, to take you to lunch,” Lando said – and was it just me, or did I see a flicker of something in his eyes? “You can see more of the place then. I just figured you’d want a real bed and bath first.” He winked at me, and there was no trace of whatever I saw before.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” I said, and shut the door in his face.

Han came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. “He is our host,” he reminded me. “Would it hurt to be a little nicer? I’d like to stick around for a couple of days, at least, before you get us kicked out.”

I huffed. “His definition of nicer is not my definition.”

Han chuckled, face buried in my hair. The vibrations from his chest moved through my shoulders and upper back. “Yeah, he is kinda . . . overt, isn’t he?”

I snorted. “That’s one way of putting it.”

His face crept around my head to nuzzle against my cheek. “So . . . now that we’re all alone . . . what do you want to do?”

I glanced around; we were alone. I could hear Chewie moving in the distance, though, so I assumed he was merely in another part of the suite. And Threepio . . . well, I wasn’t sure about Threepio, but it was hard to wonder about the prissy droid when Han was holding me like this . . .

I raised a hand and patted his cheek, then slid out of his embrace. “ I want to have a shower,” I said as I headed for the bathroom. “A nice, long, hot shower.”

His eyes lit up. “I can help you with that,” he said eagerly, trotting after me like a puppy.

He was too late. I closed the bathroom door and locked it behind me, then leaned against it, grinning like a fool.

“Leia?” he called mournfully though the door.

“See you in a couple hours, Han,” I called back sweetly.

“A couple hours?!” he yelped. “Are planning to leave any hot water for me?”

I laughed outright at that. “No,” I replied, and began preparing of a long, relaxing soak.

I watched the waterfall in the distance, trying to suppress a grin. Anakin was sitting beside me, looking expectant. I glanced down at the grass near my hand and reached out to brush my fingers through the tiny white flowers. “I don’t know . . .” I murmured coyly, not entirely sure I should be talking to him about this.

He gave me a look, a half-smile on his face. “Sure you do. You just don’t want to tall me.”

I raised my brows at him. “Are you going to use one of your Jedi mind tricks on me?”

His smile grew. “They only work on the weak-minded. You, milady, are anything but weak-minded.”

I smiled back in spite of myself, my resolve evaporating. “Alright . . . his name was Palo. I was twelve. We were both in the Legislative Youth Program. He was a few years older than I . . .” My smile turned into a mischievous grin. “. . . very cute . . . dark curly hair . . . dreamy eyes . . .”

He wasn’t smiling quite so broadly now, and I felt a flash of triumph. “Alright, alright, I get the picture . . . what happened to him?”

I shrugged. “I went on to become Queen. He went on to become an artist.”

Anakin smirked. “Maybe he was the smart one.”

I shook my head in wonder at him. “You really don’t like politicians, do you?”

I like two or three, but I’m not really sure about one of them.” He winked quickly at me, then shrugged and looked away. “I don’t think the system works.”

I sat up. This was the first time he’d mentioned any such dissatisfaction to me, and frankly, I was shocked. “How would you have it work?” I queried, wondering if this was just a ploy to get my attention. If it was, it wasn’t needed. He already had my mind in tangles.

He looked back at me, catching and holding my eyes, and I saw the truth in them. He wasn’t making this up to get my attention. “We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problems, agree what’s in the best interests of all the people, and then do it.”

I blinked. “That’s exactly what we do, Ani. The trouble is that people don’t always agree. In fact, they hardly ever do.”

Then they should be made to,” he insisted.

By whom?” I pressed, wondering how I could get him to see that his logic was flawed.. “Who’s going to make them?”

He averted his eyes again. “I don’t know. Someone.”

I frowned. “You?”

He rolled his eyes but still wouldn’t look at me. “Of course not me.”

I sat back, studying him. “But someone.”

He finally raised his head to look at me. “Someone wise.”

I shook my head, unable to agree with him. “That sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me.”

Well, if it works . . .”

And then I noticed it. The small twitch at the corner of his mouth that told me he was holding in a smirk.

My jaw dropped in outrage, and Anakin, realizing he’d been found out, let his grin bloom.

My stomach flipped. I ignored it.

You’re making fun of me!” I accused him hotly.

Oh, no,” he insisted, trying to smother the smile again. “I’d be much too frightened to tease a Senator.”

I threw a piece of fruit at him. “You’re so bad!”

He caught the fruit. I threw more. He caught those, too.

Damn Jedi reflexes.

You’re always so serious,” he told me. “Always carrying the weight of the universe on your shoulders.”

And then, to my utter amazement, he started to juggle the fruit.

I laughed in delight and threw more over to him. The ninth one did him in, and all the fruit fell around him. I laughed even harder, and he began to chuckle, too.

Then he spied a shaak, and his eyes lit up. Before I could say anything, he was on his feet and moving toward it, circling around before approaching it so that the animal wouldn’t see him. Then he jumped on it’s back. I clapped a hand to my mouth, half-worried but tempted to giggle at his audacity.

And then the shaak bucked him off.

I gave a small shriek, and held still, waiting for him to move.

He didn’t.

Anakin . . . !” I yelled at him, beginning to panic. I leaped to my feet and rushed to his side.

He was lying face down. I turned him over –

And met his laughing gaze squarely.

I squealed in fury and made to smack him on the chest, but he grabbed my wrist in mid-air. I pulled free and tried again, but he caught me that time, too. And now he wouldn’t let go.

I my attempts to get free, I rolled away from him, but he followed, so now he was on top of me. I kept fighting, and we rolled again, and again, and again. Finally, we settled down, me on top, my legs falling on either side of his hips –

and then I made the mistake of looking into his eyes.

His brilliant blue eyes, darkening with lust as he tried to pull me closer, tried to kiss me as I felt him grow hard against my thigh . . .

With a strength that surprised us both, I tore free from his grasp and scrambled away, still sitting on the grass, my dress tucked around my legs and my back turned to him as he stood up and discreetly adjusted his trousers. Then he moved around in front of me and offered me his hand. I took it and he pulled me up. As soon as I was on my feet, I dropped it as if it burned my skin.

When I can finally bear to meet his eyes again, I found no traces of embarrassment in them, and, though I wondered how he could come out of a situation like that with such an easy manner, I wasn’t going to question it.

Ready to go home?” he asked quietly.

I nodded. “Yes.”

With a courtly bow, he offered me his arm and we walked back toward home.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that his comments about politics hadn’t been entirely teasing . . . and I couldn’t forget the feel of him against my body.

There is still good in him.”

Those words rang in my head long after I had woken up, just as disturbed by Anakin’s statements as Padme Amidala had , I thought back to my earlier notion the Vader was actually Anakin Skywalker. I had forced my self to reject it back then; now it was becoming harder to do so.

I paced the main room of the suite, waiting for Han to come back from wherever he and Chewie had gone. And why were all the steamy dreams coming now, of all times, when I had ample opportunities to be alone with Han? Having such romance in my dreams was making me ache for one in real life, and damn if I was going to give into the pirate that easily!

Speaking of the devil . . .

“The ship is almost finished,” Han told me, giving me a kiss on the forehead. “Two or three more things and we’re in great shape.”

I tried to smile. I had managed to drop Vader’s hint about mechanics from the Clone Wars, but I wasn’t sure if Han had gotten the message. “The sooner the better,” I said forcefully, the attempt at a smile dropping from my lips. “Something’s wrong here. No one has seen, heard, or knows anything about Threepio, and he’s been gone too long to have gotten lost.”

Han slipped his arms around me, pulling me close until I was pressed against him from ribs to knee. “Relax. I’ll talk to Lando and see what I can find out.”

I pulled away and sat down.“I don’t trust Lando,” I hissed in reminder.

Han sat beside me. “Well I don’t trust him either – but he is my friend.” I glowered at him, wondering how the words friend and distrust could possibly fit into the same sentence. “Besides, we’ll be gone soon.”

My glare faded, and I searched his face, not sure what I was looking for. “Then you’re as good as gone, aren’t you?” I replied.

He didn’t say anything.

Suddenly, the door slid open to reveal Chewie, who had a box full of . . . Threepio?!

“What happened?” I gasped in shock.

Chewie gave a long, convoluted explanation. I looked to Han for a translation.

“Found him in a junk pile?” Han repeated.

I looked at Chewie’s mournful expression. Despite his complaints, I realized that the Wookiee must have developed quite a fondness for Threepio.

“Oh, what a mess,” I sighed. “Chewie, do you think you can repair him?”

Chewie studied what was left of Threepio dejectedly, then turned back to me and gave a sad shrug.

“Lando’s got people who can fix him,” Han piped up.

I gritted my teeth. If he didn’t shut up about Lando . . .

“No thanks,” I replied waspishly.

The door slid open again at that moment, revealing Mr. Administrator-of-this-Facility himself.

“I’m sorry,” he said with a curious look. “Am I interrupting something?”

“Not really,” I said coolly.

He didn’t take the hint. “You look absolutely beautiful,” he complimented me with a smile. “You truly belong here with us among the clouds.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. “Thank you,” I replied stiffly.

“Will you join me for a little refreshment?” he asked cordially, his gaze never leaving me.

I looked back at Han, who was looking at Lando with suspicion. For a moment, I was happy that he finally shred my opinion of the man, but then I realized that he just didn’t like Lando looking at me, and the feeling faded.

Chewie barked hopefully.

Lando finally glanced at Han and Chewie. “Everyone’s invited, of course,” he added. Then he turned back to me and offered his arm.

Smiling tightly, I took it – it would have been far too rude not to.

Suddnely, Lando’s tilted his head. “Having trouble with your droid?” he asked.

I looked at Han in a panic.

“No,” Han told him calmly – a little too calmly, I thought. “No problem. Why?”

He took my free hand and pulled it through his arm, effectively stealing me away from Lando. We sailed through the door, giving our gracious host no choice but to follow.

“Okay,” he mumbled disbelievingly as he trotted after us, shrugging. After a moment, he said, “Uh . . . this way.”

I looked over my shoulder at him and frowned. There was definitely a strange emotion in his eyes that I didn’t like.

“But the dining hall is this way,” Han objected obliviously. “I saw it.”

Lando swallowed. “Well, yeah, but . . . there’s another one this way . . . smaller and a little more . . . private.”

I opened my mouth to decline, but Han got his open first. “Whatever,” he replied, and guided my around to follow Lando.

I glared daggers at him, and he actually had the audacity to look confused. I could have shot him.

“So,’ Han said, turning to Lando to avoid my expression, “what kind of taxes does the Empire make you shell out?”

Lando gave a half-smile. “None, actually.”

My eyebrows shot up, as did Han’s.

“But Tibanna gas carries insane taxes,” Han pointed out. “You should get a discount, becasue you’ve just got a tiny place here –“

“So you see,” Lando interrupted, looking very satisfied with himself, “since we’re a small operation, we don’t fall into the . . . uh . . . jurisdiction of the Empire.”

I took a breath and fought the urge to roll my eyes. This respectable businessman wasn’t telling the government what he was up to. Brilliant . . . not.

“So you’re a part of the Mining Guild, then?” I asked pointedly, already knowing what the answer would be.

“No, not actually. Our operation is small enough not to be noticed . . . which is advantageous for everybody, since our customers are anxious to avoid attracting attention to themselves.”

The Alliance could definitely use a place like this, but it was foolhardy on Calrissian’s part not to be registered with either the Empire or the Guild. We usually bought from people who were registered but willing to sell under the table – it was safer that way. We wouldn’t be found out unless someone took a rather close look at the business’s books. At a place like this, which was basically illegal, the moment they were investigated, we were in deep trouble.

We turned a corner. “Aren’t you afraid the Empire’s going to find out about this little operation and shut you down?” Han asked, voicing my thoughts.

Lando put on a grave face. “That’s always been a danger looming like a shadow over everything we’ve built here. But things have developed that will insure security. I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever.”

Before I had time to process that statement, Lando opened the door before us to reveal Darth Vader.

I clenched my jaw. Apparently I wasn’t the only one around here making deals with the devil.

Chapter Eighteen: Dinnertime

I was shocked to see Vader there, but I got over it very quickly.

Then, I became angry.

I wasn’t the only one. Han drew his blaster and fired at Vader in quick succession. But Vader wasn’t the arch-villain of the galaxy for nothing. He simply raised his hand, and the bolts deflected into the wall. Then, quicker than the blink of an eye, Han’s blaster was resting in Vader’s hand.

Vader placed the gun on the table. “We would be honoured if you would join us,” he said calmly.

It was only then that I noticed the bounty hunter standing at Vader’s side and slightly behind him. I thought I recognized him, but didn’t dwell on it.

Han glared at Lando, not bothering to reply to Vader.

“I had no choice,” Lando protested. “They arrived right before you did. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Han snapped.

“Leave us,” Vader ordered Lando. The door behind us slid open – I hadn’t even noticed that it had closed – and Lando backed out hurriedly.

As soon as he was gone, with the door tightly shut once again, I turned to Han. “I told you not to trust him!”

Han’s jaw sagged. “This is not –“

“And you!” I whirled to glare at Vader.“You told me you would stay away from here!”

“Wha . . ?” Han gasped beside me, but I didn’t even spare him a glance. I was past caring about who knew about our so-called deal.

“Leia –“ Vader began, but I cut him off.

Your Highness,” I snarled in correction.

“Hold on –“ Han objected, having found his voice once again.

“Shut up, Han!” I growled at him, then turned back to Vader. “I want you gone within the hour,” I ordered icily.

“I cannot do that,” he told me flatly. “Sit down.”

I crossed my arms. “No.”

“Princess. Sit.”


Vader moved around the table toward me. Han stepped in front of me, but suddenly the bounty hunter – Boba Fett, my mind finally supplied – was there and pulled him around to the other side of the table.

Vader stopped merely inches from me, looking down at me from his towering height. “Your Highness,” he said, his voice as low and soft as it could be, with that harsh vocalizer, “sit down. We can talk about this.”

“What is there to talk about?” I hissed. “You went against my wishes, which you had agreed to. As far as I’m concerned, you just broke this deal into tiny little shards!”

His gloved hand shot out an gripped my upper arm. His fingers overlapped as they circled my bicep. “My business here has nothing to do with our deal.”

“Hey, Your Worship –“

I jerked at my arm; Vader held it fast. “You should have thought of that before you followed me here.”

“I was here first,” he reminded me.

“That’s not the point!”

“Then what is the point?”

“The point is that you did what you said you wouldn’t do! You went against your word, you betrayed me! And therefore the deal is off!”

“So why are you still here?”

“Because the door is locked!”

Vader tilted his head. “How do you know that?” he asked, his tone no longer challenging but curious, his hand dropping from my arm.

I blinked. How did I know? Had I heard the click of the lock as it fell into place? I couldn’t remember. “I don’t know,” I snapped impatiently. “I just do!”

“I see,” Vader replied mysteriously. I glowered.

“Leia –“ Han’s voice was beginning to sound slightly hysterical now.

And then an all-too-familiar figure sauntered into the room from a door behind and to the left of Vader.

You!” I hissed furiously.

He actually had the audacity to wave cheerfully at me. “Hey, Princess. Good to see you again.” Then he spotted Han. “Solo! Hey man, been back home lately?”

Han stared at him, completely stunned, as if he hadn’t been before. I was actually surprised he didn’t collapse. “Uh, no,” he managed. “It’s Jix, right?”

“Yep,” the infernal Imperial replied with a grin.

“Hey, weren’t your eyes blue last time?” Han blurted out, coming back to himself a bit.

Jix’s grin became a bit forced, and there was a rather pregnant silence.

“So Uncle D,” Jix began, turning to Vader.



“Any what?” I demanded.

“Very well,” Vader sighed, ignoring me.

“Is it dinner time yet?” Jix asked, slight yearning in his tone.

“We were waiting for you,” Vader replied.

“Seriously?” Jix looked far too delighted. I wanted to smack him silly. “Aw, Uncle D, I didn’t know you cared!” He pulled our a chair and fell into it, then stared at the table expectantly.

Vader pulled out a chair for me. I nearly refused it, but I realized that I had a better chance of getting answers from Vader if I cooperated with him – for the time being, anyway. After all, it was just dinner. We’d be in better shape after eating something other than cabin rations anyway.

Vader took the head seat, putting me at his right hand and Jix at his left. “Solo?” he said to Han, making the question sound like an order.

Han and Chewie exchanged looks, and whispered a bit, but they sat down beside me when Boba Fett took a menacing few steps toward them. The bounty hunter himself remained standing. Vader paid him no attention.

The food came quickly; it was an impressive spread, I had to admit. Vader had even remembered Chewie in his preparations, and there was a large raw bantha flank for him to tear into. Chewie looked half surprised at Vader’s thoughtfulness, and half convinced that he was about to be poisoned. He sniffed the meat cautiously.

For the rest of us, there was fresh Hodean bread, butter still hot on the top of the loaves, and an assortment of spreads to go on it; nerf steaks, a bantha roast, Nautolan fish, Nubian fowl and Kaminoan shellfish; fruits and vegetables from numerous worlds, made into about six different kinds of salads and side dishes, with real cheese cubes in some of them (I couldn’t remember the last time I had real cheese); some kind of soup I didn’t recognize but which smelled heavenly; and all the nerf milk, sparkling water and fruit juice one could want. There was even a bottle of Alderaanian wine. My throat closed up at the sight of it.

Vader and Fett made no move to take off their armoured helmets, and I idly wondered how only three of us were going to finish off this elaborate banquet.

Then I remembered that they were Imperials. Leftovers didn’t matter; only the amount of selection. I cast my eyes down at the napkin my well-trained hands were automatically smoothing over my lap, inwardly wincing at the waste of food.

I made my way through half a dozen shellfish and a serving of salad (the cheese tasted even better than I remembered) before I started talking again.

“So tell me why you’re here,” I said to Vader, trying to sound pleasant, as if we were just making idle conversation. It was easier now that I had eaten something.

“Wei-wa –“ Han tried to interrupt, his mouth full. I kicked him under the table and kept my eyes on Vader. Jix looked at me as if he thought I was going to rip Vader’s throat out with my bare hands. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t such a bad idea.

“Please, Princess, just be tolerant,” Vader told me.

I leaned forward. “Listen to me, you son-of-a –“

“Don’t go there,” he hissed at me. “I’m warning you, Your Highness – do not go there.”

Something in his mechanical tone frightened me enough to drop the insult but not enough to dissuade me from continuing on with my speech. “I have been nothing but supportive of you. I have done everything you have asked of me. I have stayed in this little arrangement far past the time when it should have ended because you still had things you wanted to do, things that, may I add, are going nowhere fast. I’ve done research for you, I’ve herded the Alliance in the direction you desired them to go, I have accepted all your sorry excuses, I’ve hijacked ships for you, I’ve kept certain secrets of yours. You have nothing to complain about when it comes to my work for you. The very least you could do is be respectful of my wishes for once! But now I find you’re incapable of even that much!”

I stood up and placed my hands on the table, leaning toward Vader in hopes that my point come across unaltered by Vader’s selective hearing. “Do you know what it’s like to have someone take things from you and give nothing back? To have them use you until you are worn out and weary to the bone? I have to admit, I never did. I thought I gave up everything for the Alliance – all my personal hopes and dreams. Now I realize that nothing I have ever done has hollowed me out the way this deal has. Everything I do revolves around you and your grand plans. I’m trapped in your delusional little scheme and I’m sick of it!”

Han had stopped chewing and was staring at me in horror, his mouth hanging half open. Chewie was limp in shock. Jix looked impressed. Fett hefted his blaster a little higher. Vader was still as a stone.

“I didn’t realize you felt that way,” Vader finally answered, his voice so low that even with the vocalizer, I could barely hear it. That piece of machinery could pick up and convey a surprising number of inflections.

“Well, I do,” I snapped back. “And I want things to change. Immediately, and for certain, this time. I don’t want you nodding and agreeing with me and then turning around and doing the exact opposite of what I ask of you. Again.”

Vader stood, and I straightened. The action didn’t do much; he still towered over me. “I will review our arrangement –“

“And how exactly will you do that, considering it’s not written down?” I interrupted harshly.

“I will consider what you have said,” Vader rephrased, “and we will talk in the morning. Is that a suitable short-term agreement?”

I frowned. “I suppose.”

“Very well.” He nodded his head in my direction in a shallow bow and stepped back from the table. “To me, Jixton,” he added as he swept toward the door.

“But-but-but – I’m not done!” Jix protested as he stood, then sat, then stood again as his stomach warred with his boss.

“Finish your meal,” Fett ordered suddenly, eyes fixed on Vader. He moved to block the Sith Lord’s path. “His Lordship and I have to talk.”

Vader’s shoulders tensed, and he drew himself up to his full, incredible height. “I don’t believe we do,” he stated coldly.

Although Vader’s icy tone would have had anyone else scampering away like a beaten pet, Fett didn’t so much as twitch. “Well, you believe wrong,” he informed the other armoured man. “You’re changing your plan for some Rebel girl, and I want to know how this is going to affect my plan.”

“Take care to recall that if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have a plan,” Vader snarled back.

Jix was on his feet now, warily eying the confrontation. Food forgotten, he began to slide around so that he could see Fett around Vader’s wide shoulders, and his fingers twitched at his hip, as if anticipating having to draw a blaster in the very near future.

“I prefer to be the one calling my own shots,” Fett retorted, “not some two-bit Sith Lord who can’t even –“

And then Fett was smashing into the wall behind me and directly over my head. I shrieked and shot from my seat to a far corner of the room as the bounty hunter slid down the wall. Han scrambled to my side, Chewie at his heels.

“What is going on?” Han demanded.

“I don’t know, I wasn’t informed about Fett’s involvement!” I snapped back, more harshly than I’d intended.

He reared back, insulted. I put my hand gently on his arm.

“I’m sorry, Han. I don’t mean to snap.” I watched Fett struggle to his feet as Vader towered over him angrily. “It’s just . . . now’s not the best time.”

“Well, when would be a good time?” Han replied impatiently.

Fett pulled his blaster from its holster and cocked it. Jix did the same, and Vader’s lightsaber was ignited and humming before both of them were done.

I gulped nervously. “Can I get back to you on that?”

Han sighed. “Whatever you say, Princess,” he muttered, but I barely heard him. I was already focused on the seemingly forthcoming battle.

I knew without a doubt that this room was too small for a duel among two blasters and a lightsaber. This was going to have to end before it began, or someone I had to yell at was going to die before I had a chance to give them a good and loud lecture on the errors of their ways.

I pressed my back to the wall and began to move toward Fett. If I could catch him off-guard, then Vader or Jix could end this before things got even further out of hand.

Jix caught my eye, read the look on my face, and shook his head frantically and minutely.

“Leia!” Han hissed at me.

Shut up, I glared back.

I caught Jix’s gaze again. He was still giving me don’t-try-it looks, so I ignored him and focused on Fett.

The bounty hunter had moved from the wall to the table; now, using a chair as a step, he boosted himself up so that he was standing on it, now he was head and shoulders above even Chewie. His hidden gaze appeared to be locked on Vader, and we all could see that his blaster was aimed directly at the Sith.

Vader, I knew, had seen me. I could feel his displeasure at my involvement in the back of my mind, but he was just going to have to deal with it.

And then I was finally behind Fett. I sized him up, planning to tackle him –

– and he spun, leapt from the table toward me, and hit me in the temple with the butt of his blaster. I dropped like a stone, pain exploding in my head and all my limbs paralyzed in shock.

“Leia!” I heard Han yell.

“My plan and my cut remain the same,” I dimly heard Fett order, and I managed to crack my eyes open enough to see that he was pointing his blaster straight at my face.

“Just get out,” Vader snarled back, and I wondered if I had actually heard defeat in his voice before I sank blissfully into darkness.

Chapter Nineteen: Left Without Choices

I’ve come to see my mother,” Anakin says, staring in fascination at his old droid.

Oh dear! I’m so terribly sorry, Master Ani . . .”

Owen Lars,” he introduces himself, holding out his hand for Anakin to shake. “I guess I’m your step-brother. Oh, and this is my girlfriend, Beru . . .”

Is my mother here?”

No, she’s not.”

A middle aged man with no lower legs came into view, sitting in a hoverchair. “I’m Cliegg Lars. Shmi is my wife . . .”

Where are you going?”

To find my mother . . .”

Please don’t leave us, Miss Padme. These people need your help . . .”

Come topside, everybody! He’s back!”

Anakin removed the bundle from the back of the speeder as carefully as if he were picking up a baby bird. He glared at Cliegg, Owen and Beru as he passed them, not saying a word . . .

Life seems so much simpler when you’re fixing things . . . I’m good at fixing things . . . I always was. But I couldn’t . . . Why did she have to die?” The anguish in his voice was heartbreaking. “Why couldn’t save her? I know I could have!”

Sometimes there are things no one can fix. You’re not all-powerful, Ani.”

Well, I should be! Someday I will be! I’ll be the most powerful Jedi ever! I promise you – I will even learn to stop people from dying!”

I – I killed them. I killed them all. They’re dead. Every single one of them. And not just the men, but the women . . . and the children, too. They’re like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals . . . I hate them!”

I wasn’t strong enough to save you, Mom . . . I wasn’t strong enough. But I promise . . . I won’t fail again. I miss you . . . so much.”

There is still good in him . . .”

I woke slowly, my head pounding and my vision swimming as my injured mind tried to make sense of the jumbled sentences and flashes of imagery I’d gotten from my dreams. However, that made my head hurt even more, so I winced and stopped thinking so hard.

A hand touched my temples lightly, and the headache disappeared. I looked up at my benefactor gratefully, an expression that quickly turned sour when I saw who it was.

“I trust you feel better now,” Vader said, sitting back in a chair across the tiny room.

I felt better, alright. Good enough to be angry, in fact. “I really hate you right now,” I hissed at him, my shoulders tensing defensively.

“I know,” he replied calmly, his unnerving black gaze never wavering from my face.

“You said you’d always stay a step behind us!” I reminded him waspishly.

“My priorities have changed.”

I narrowed my eyes. “So your little escapade into the dark and dreary recesses of your mind convinced you to double-cross me, is that it? Finally decided you’ve had enough of me, Lord Vader?”

“No!” He stood and whirled so that his back was to me. “Our deal still holds. These are personal priorities.”

I snorted. “Personal priorities? Are you serious? This is war, Vader. There’s no such thing as personal priorities.”

“Perhaps not for you.” He bowed his head and turned it slightly toward me.

I gritted my teeth in frustration.“Fine, then. Personal priorities. Whatever. Why is Fett here, and what plan was he talking about, and how is this going to affect me and mine?”

Vader looked away again and didn’t reply.

Well?” I demanded, my stomach sinking as I got to my feet.

“I did not realize how . . . close . . . you and the smuggler had become,” he said finally.

An imaginary piece of ice slid down my spine. “What has that got to do with anything?”

At last, he turned back to face me. “Fett helped me locate my son.”

“Your son?!” I gaped. Who . . .” And then it hit me. “Luke.”

He glanced at the floor briefly before raising his head to look at me again, confirming my worst suspicions.

“So you really are Anakin Skywalker,” I said in slight wonder. I’d had my suspicions, of course, but to have it confirmed was something else entirely.

“You knew?” he asked, sounding surprised.

I shrugged. “Not really. It was more of a . . . guess. Just some coincidences . . .” I looked up at him sharply. “Who did you kill?”

He shifted uneasily. “I have killed a lot of people.”

“I know.” I bit my lip, trying to explain without sounding like I was judging him – which, if course, I totally was. “These were on Tatooine. You were young . . . your mother had just died . . .”

“Tuskan Raiders,” he said abruptly. “Sandpeople. They killed my mother, so I killed them.”

He sounded defiant. I studied him closely.

“You really loved her, didn’t you?”

He reared back and stared at me, shocked. “She was my mother! Of course I loved her!”

I nodded and looked down, unsure how to react to the revelation that Darth Vader had actually loved someone.

“Did you love Padme?” I finally asked in a small voice.

He stilled. “Where did you hear that name?”

I swallowed. “I have my sources.”

He looked away, breath coming out in a rush. “I am not going to go into this with you,” he decided. “I need to tell you –“

“You did,” I realized. “Was she – was she Luke’s mother?”

He looked away and didn’t answer.

“Anakin?” I prompted softly, hoping the sound of his old name would help him open up and tell me what I wanted to know.

It didn’t work. His head snapped up and I could feel the weight of his glare. “That name no longer has any meaning for me,” he insisted sharply.

I didn’t believe him, but I let it drop. “If you’re sure.”

“Quite.” He took a deep breath and continued. “Fett helped me locate Luke. In return . . . he wanted to bring Solo and the Wookiee to Jabba the Hutt.”

My jaw dropped, then I snapped it shut in fury. “And you agreed?” I screeched.

“Like I said, I did not realize –“

“I don’t care what you realized! You don’t do that to people! I can’t believe you’d do this to me! To him! To us! How could you –“

“I tried to change it,” Vader shot back, overriding my tirade. “When I realized your feelings for him, I tried to change it. You must believe that I did. I managed to get him to let the Wookiee –“

“Chewbacca,” I interrupted sullenly.

“– I managed to get him to let Chewbacca go. But he is fixated on keeping Solo. That is why he attacked tonight; he knew I was going to try to alter the deal again.” He paused, then finished, “I am afraid, Princess, that Fett is one of two people from whom I cannot twist or control. I do apologize.”

I was ready to cry. “Can you . . . can you make sure he doesn’t hurt Han?”


“I can try,” Vader replied at last, “but I cannot guarantee success.”

“What?” I asked numbly.

“There is . . . a carbon freezing chamber, in the lower lever of the city.”

I blinked. “You . . . you want to freeze him? In carbonite?”

“People have survived it,” he reminded me quickly. “It is possible.”

“I . . . I know . . . “ I was at a lost. I felt entirely overwhelmed. “I . . .”

“Princess, Jabba likes trophies. He will most likely keep your smuggler frozen and hang him on a wall for decoration. You could rescue him at your leisure.”

“If the freezing process doesn’t kill him . . . “ I shivered. I was so cold. Cold and tiny and helpless.

Vader stepped close and grasped my chin in his large, gloved hand. He raised my face so that my eyes met his. “If you don’t agree to this, Jabba will surely kill him. This way, he has a chance.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Let me protect him for you, Leia.”

I closed my eyes, hating myself for what I was about to do, and whispered back, “Okay.”

Chapter Twenty: Numb

The troops shoved me into the round, windowless room, and I suppressed a scowl as my gaze went straight to Han. I had known that Vader would likely torture him – not only to keep up appearances, but also to weaken his body so that he would be more receptive to hibernation. At full strength, human beings tend to fight the process, which results in death. When weakened, they accept it in an effort to give the body time to heal.

Which actually made sense, in a twisted sort of way. But then, this explanation had come from Vader, and that man was nothing if not twisted.

And I had to wonder how he knew all this in the first place. Just how many people has he frozen in carbonite?

But knowing about the torture and seeing its effects were two completely different things. I immediately went to his side and smoothed his hair back from his forehead, trying to assess the damage.

“Why are they doing this?” I whispered for Calrissian’s sake. I knew he was standing right outside the door, trying to work up the courage to come in. The troopers and I had passed him on our way here.

Han blinked at me, and I schooled my features into a concerned mask, using only my eyes to convince him to play along with me.

Then his eyes closed again. “They never even asked me any questions,” he replied tiredly, when a rather severe overtone of pain.

The door opened. “Lando, “ I whispered to Han, who immediately struggled to his feet.

“Get out of here!” he attempted to bark as I held him up.

“Shut up and listen!” Lando retorted. “Vader has agreed to turn Leia and Chewie over to me –“

“Over to you?” Han snorted disbelievingly, leaning heavily upon my shoulder.

“They’ll have to stay here, but at least they’ll be safe,” Lando pointed out. I frowned, not reassured. I‘d rather be with Vader than with this character.

“What about Han?” I snapped pointedly.

“Vader’s giving him to the bounty hunter,” Lando replied, then winced, waiting for our reactions.

“Vader wants us all dead!” I snarled, mentally adding, Sorry, Vader.

“He doesn’t want you at all!” Lando objected. “He’s after somebody called . . . Skywalker.”

Han sagged in my arms. “Luke?”

“Lord Vader has set a trap for him,” Lando confirmed.

I hadn’t thought about that, and nearly became angry over Vader for doing something so underhanded, but then I realized that if Vader wanted to talk to Luke, a trap would be the only way to get near him. Luke, unlike me, wasn’t about to sit down to dinner with Vader.

And then I understood, exactly and completely, why Vader was here. Here, and not somewhere else, he could set a trap for Luke.

“And we’re the bait,” I said aloud, wondering tiredly if I should bother getting angry about the fact that Vader had omitted this little detail.

And I suddenly, fully realized that Vader had been planning to hand Han over to Boba Fett all along, likely without carbonite to protect him. What had he said about not knowing how close we were? He had thought Han was just – a chauffeur, or something. Someone expendable. But somehow he had found out the truth . . .

I sighed mentally, too weary to bother being angry, even though I probably should have been furious.

“Well, he’s on his way,” Lando confirmed, jolting me back to the present.

“Perfect,” Han growled, his entire body tensing. “You fixed us all pretty good, didn’t you? My friend!

And with that, he slammed his fist into Lando’s face.

The fight ended just as quickly as it began as Lando’s guards entered the fray and thrust Han away from Lando. Chewie growled fiercely and started toward the knave, earning the unwanted attention of the guards and their guns.

“Stop!” Lando shouted at all of us before anyone could get hurt. “I’ve done all I can,” he told Han tightly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do better, but I have my own problems!”

“Yeah, you’re a real hero,” Han spit back sarcastically.

Lando left without another word. When we were alone again, Han gratefully sank back onto the hard bench with my and Chewie’s help.

“You certainly have a way with people I commented wryly, inspecting the wound on his chin. I tore off a piece of my shirt and used it as a rough rag to soak up his blood.

“So do you, apparently,” he commented wryly, catching and holding my eyes. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Chewie turn his back discreetly, trying to give us the semblance of privacy, but I knew he would be listening. The big carpet was nothing if not curious.

However, I found myself profoundly embarrassed by the whole situation, and I cast my eyes down to my hands, which were still wiping away his blood.. At the time I had confronted Vader, I hadn’t cared what Han found out. What he knew now was a different story entirely.

“How long, Leia?” he persisted.

I paused and closed my eyes briefly, then went back to work. “Just over three years,” I replied evenly, unable to mistake his meaning.

A covet glance at his face revealed that his eyes had widened in shock. “Before or after we met?” he asked, sounding a little shaken.

I paused, then replied, “Before.”

“Damn it to the hells, Leia –!” he swore, stunned.

“I know, Han!” I shot back, not able to bear his criticism. “I know. I’ve beaten myself up over it numerous times, tried to get out of it just as many! But I’m stuck now.”

“Go to Mothma.”

“And be tried as a traitor?”

He was silent, and I blew out a breath. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re right – about Mothma, anyway. She is kinda quick to judge.”

“I’m still sorry.”

There was another heavy, oppressive silence.

“Look,” I said finally, “Vader wants the same thing we do . . .”

Han snorted. “What, to kill Old Toadface?”

I raised my head and stared at him in shock. “How did you –“

Han attempted to roll his eyes. “Oh, come on, Princess. Guy’s had him in a stranglehold for years. Why wouldn’t he want to kill him?”

I tried to smile. “You know, for a smuggler you have an uncanny grasp of Imperial politics.”

He smirked, which turned into a grimace of pain. “Comes with the company,” he grunted in reply.

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I apologized again. “I’m sorry, Han.”

He waved it off. “I know. And Leia –“ he paused for a moment, as if thinking something through, then continued. “Whatever you need . . . I’ll help. I’ll keep this secret for you. I’ll fly you to rendevous. I’ll deliver messages. Whatever you need.”

I was shocked at his offer, and it took me a moment to respond. “. . . Why?”

“Because I trust you to know what you’re doing,” he replied instantly. “And I trust you to do the right thing. And because I love you.”

That shocked me even more than the last statement had. “You . . . love me?” I choked out.

He nodded feebly. “Yeah, Princess, I do.”

I st back on my heels, confused by the intense rush of feelings that was overwhelming me. “. . . Oh . . .”

He smiled. “Why? What did you think I felt for you?”

I glanced at him quickly, then back down at the floor. “Honestly . . . I wasn’t too sure.”

“Well, I figured it out about two hours go, and now you know too. And I mean it, Leia. I’m here for you.”

I took his hand, tears welling in my eyes. “Thank you, Han.”

He touched my hair lightly. “You’re welcome.”

The carbon freezing platform was bustling with activity as we were led onto it, all of us handcuffed – except Threepio, of course. Droids weren’t usually handcuffed, they were instead fitted with restraining blots. When they had the means to run away, anyway, wich Threepio currently didn’t.

“If only you had attached my legs, I wouldn’t be in this ridiculous position,” the golden droid was busy squawking at Chewie from his harness on the Wookiee’s back. “Now remember, Chewbacca, you have a responsibility to me, so don’t do anything foolish.”

“What’s going on, buddy?” Han snarled at Lando under his breath as were placed next to the mine administrator.

“You’re being put into carbon freeze,” Lando replied shortly.

A muscle in Han’s jaw jumped, but other than that he didn’t show any sort of response. I wished he would. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel so guilty about not warning him . . . or about agreeing to this stupid, stupid idea in the first place.

Across the way, Boba Fett leaned close to Vader. I assumed he was saying something, but I could hear him. However, Vader’s reply, amplified by the vocalizer, carried easily.

“The Empire will compensate you if he dies. Put him in!” he ordered Lando’s workers, ugly little aliens that were well-suited to mine work.

Suddenly, Chewie howled in grief and swung at the guards. Other troopers joined the scuffle, but it’s not easy to control a rampaging Wookiee.

I stole a look at Vader, who was watching impassively, and likely impatiently, too, as Threepio began screeching at Chewie.

And then Han’s voice entered the mix, and my attention immediately swung back to my own side of the platform. “Stop, Chewie, stop! Do you hear me? Stop!”

“Yes, stop, please! Threepio begged, sounding terrified. “I’m not ready to die!”

Han shrugged out of the grip of the trooper beside him, who made to hold him back until Vader’s black gaze swung in his direction. He ceased his attempts immediately. I was impressed despite myself at Vader’s control over his troops.

Han was at Chewie’s side by now. “Chewie! Chewie, this won’t help me. Hey! Save your strength. There’ll be another time. The princess –“ Han glanced over at me, and I moved closer, understanding the role Han wanted me to play. “You have to take care of her. You hear me?”

I snuggled up close to Chewie’s side and looked up at him, making my gaze as wide and pathetic as I could.

I worked. Chewie let out a stricken wail, but stopped his attack. The troopers immediately clapped binders on him.

And then Han turned to me – and suddenly he was giving me the most heart-stopping kiss I had ever received in my life. Of course, it didn’t help that I was so worried about him that my heart felt like it would stop at any time anyway, but it was at that moment that I knew that what he had told me earlier was true – he really did love me . . . truly, madly and deeply, with all his heart. And so I had to tell him.

As soon as they dragged him away from me, I called out, “I love you!”

He just smirked at me. “I know,” he replied simply and calmly, and I realized that he had known before I had. That knowledge made me cry as I watched the freezing plate lower, and I had to turn away, unable to watch my beloved smuggler disappear in a cloud of carbon smoke.

And then he was lifted out, and my eyes went wide in shock. Whatever I had expected, it was not this, this giant slab of metal with Han’s face and hands pressing out of it. And I could have borne the pain of seeing him like this, if it weren’t for the expression on his face, the expression that screamed at me to help him, to save him. Lando knelt down beside the slab, checking the readings on the side.

“What’s going on?” Threepio jabbered. “Turn round, Chewbacca, I can’t see. Oh . . . they’ve encased him in carbonite. He should be quite well protected – if he survived the freezing process, that is.”

Sometimes, I could cheerfully dismantle Threepio.

“Well, Calrissian?” Vader barked. “Did he survive?”

Lando sighed. “Yes, he’s alive. And in perfect hibernation,”

Vader turned to Fett. “He’s all yours, bounty hunter.” He looked back at Lando. “Reset the chamber for Skywalker.”

My head shot up at this, and I glared at him in fury. He was going to do this to Luke, too? And what was his excuse this time? I doubted a carbonite wall hanging would be as attractive to the Emperor as it would be to Jabba the Hutt, especially when the person inside was Force-sensitive.

“Skywalker has just landed, my lord,” an officer announced.

“Good,” Vader replied. “See to it that he finds his way in here. Calrissian, take the Princess and the Wookiee to my ship.”

Lando reared bak in outrage. “You said they’d be left in the city under my supervision!”

“I am altering the deal,” Vader hissed at him. “Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

Lando gulped and his hand jerked instinctively to his throat before he ushered us out of the room.

Vader had refused to meet my eyes throughout the whole exchange.

I had a bad feeling about this.

I saw Luke on our way through the halls. I did my civic duty and yelled, “Luke! Luke, don’t – it’s a trap! It’s a trap!” at him, but other than that, I couldn’t bring myself to care about much of anything. I was terrified, and I was numb, and for the first time in years, all I wanted was my father to come and make everything all better.

Chapter Twenty-One: Pain

I wasn’t really paying attention to where the troopers were taking us. Now that I knew we would be going with Vader, I was trying to figure out how to convince him to help me rescue Han and to not kill Chewie and Lando . . . well, not Chewie, anyway.

Lando, well . . . best not go there right now.

And then our little group stumbled to a halt, and I jerked myself out of my plots to see Lando’s aide and a dozen or so guards pointing weapons at our captors, who were a little less than prepared to meet them.

Well, well, well. Looked like Vader was going to have to step up their training. My lips twisted with irony as Lobot shoved one of their blasters into my hands.

Lando took one from his aide, too. “Well done,” he told the group. “Hold them in the security tower – and keep it quiet. Move.”

The troopers were marched away without another word. Lando turned to Chewie and began picking at the bindings around the Wookiee’s wrists.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I snarled at Lando, furious at having my half-formed plans ruined.

“We’re getting out of here,” he replied.

“I knew it all along,” Threepio piped up from Chewie’s back. “Had to be a mistake.”

And then Chewie was free, and just about as impressed as I was. His large, hand-like paws were around Lando’s neck in an instant, forcing him to his knees as he tried to twist free of Chewie’s iron grip.

“Do you think that after what you did to Han we’re going to trust you?”I hissed, focusing only on one reason for my ire.

“I had no choice . . .” Lando gasped. Chewie barked angrily at him.

“What are you doing?!” Threepio squawked. “Trust him! Trust him!”

I ignored that stupid droid. “Oh, we understand, don’t we, Chewie? He had no choice!”

“I’m just trying to help . . .” Lando whined with what little air he had left.

Force, but I hate whiny men.We don’t need any of your help.”

“Ha-a-a-a . . .” Lando gasped.

“What?” I snapped impatiently.

“Ha-a-a-a-a-a-a . . .”

“It sounds like Han,” Threepio said helpfully.

Chewie eased to pressure on Lando’s throat just enough for him to say what he wanted to say. “There’s still a chance to save Han . . . I mean, at the East Platform . . .”

“Chewie.” I said – and that was all I needed to say. He let Lando go, and we raced down the hall, leaving Lando to breathlessly stagger after us.

“I’m terribly sorry about all this,” Threepio told Lando as we ran. “After all, he’s only a Wookiee.”

I wasn’t sure how long we were running for when I saw Artoo. I simply dashed past him, knowing the little droid would follow us. Threepio, however, started yammering to him, and I wished desperately for a short circuit in his verbal systems.

Finally, finally we got to the landing platform –

– but not soon enough. Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched Boba Fett’s ship fly away.

“Oh no! They’re behind you!” Threepio yelled suddenly. I was about to ignore him, as I had been doing, but a blaster bolt exploded beside me, too close to comfort, and I went into action. Chewie and I covered each other as we shot at the troopers.

The violence overcame me, and I found myself fighting with a ferocity I had never experienced before. Every trooper that fell beneath our fire gave me a grim sort of pleasure. It felt almost like a trance, one that was only broken by Lando’s cries about the elevator. We dashed aboard, and the door closed just before the stormtroopers reached us.

Once we were on the level that Han, Chewie and I had entered the city on so long ago, we ran headlong for the Falcon, no longer intent on revenge but on escaping with our lives. However, the door to the landing platform shut in our faces. With troopers behind us, we were effectively trapped.

Chewie returned fire. I glared at Lando, who was frantically fiddling with the control panel.

“The security codes have been changed!” he told me desperately.

“Artoo, you can tell the computer to override the security system,” Threepio supplied helpfully, sounding calmer than he had since I couldn’t remember when.

Artoo dutifully plugged in while Lando sent out a public announcement to the citizens of the city to warn them of the situation. Brownie points for the moron.

Suddenly Artoo went up in smoke. He shot back from the terminal, wailing and screaming like there was no tomorrow – which there very well might not be, if we didn’t get out of here soon. I gave the little droid a glance, but he was still grumbling, which I took to mean he was fine. I knew from experience that astromechs are extraordinarily tough. Artoo and Threepio started arguing again; I ignored them as Lando led us down another hallway.

The now-panicked residents of Cloud City were falling over themselves – and us – in their attempts to leave. We managed to get to the landing platform relatively unscathed, randomly shooting over our shoulders in the general direction of the troopers. We managed to get up the ramp, seal ourselves safely inside the ship, and take off. I sagged into the chair next to Chewie – Han’s chair. I watched the sky grow closer –

And then I heard it. I heard him call my name.


Leia. Hear me.

I sat up. “Luke . . .” I whirled to Chewie. “We have to go back!”

“What?” Lando exclaimed in disbelief. Chewie growled the same question.

“I know where Luke is,” I told Chewie, a hint of pleading and desperation creeping into my voice.

“But what about those fighters?” Lando objected.

“Chewie, just do it,” I said, the pleading replaced with demand.

“But what about Vader?” Lando continued.

I nearly laughed in his face, but Chewie saved me by snarling at him.

Lando backed off, and I smirked to myself. Princess one, Idiot zero.

“Go under,” I instructed Chewie.

We circled back and dove underneath the city. I was on the edge of my seat, craning my neck trying to see Luke. I didn’t understand the pain I was feeling or how I knew where Luke was, or how I had managed to hear him over a distance . . . but Luke was Force-sensitive, as was Vader, and I could hear Vader over distances . . . or I thought I could . . . maybe I was just going crazy! But some thing deep inside told me I was saner than ever.

Lando saw him first, much to my chagrin. “Look, someone’s up there!” he called out to us, pointing out a side window.

I ran over to look. A single glance told me all I needed to know. “It’s Luke. Chewie, slow down. Slow down and we’ll get under him. Lando, open the top hatch.” As I gave the orders, I never tore my eyes from Luke’s form.

Why is he hanging upside down?

“Okay. Easy, Chewie.”

The ship slowed until we were hovering on the spot. I gave it a second, then impatiently switched on the ship’s comm. “Lando?” I asked anxiously.

“Okay,” he replied, the intercom adding a tinny quality to his voice. “Let’s go.”

We fled away from the city, and then Lando led Luke though the door of the cockpit. I flew at him and pulled him into my arms. He sagged against me, exhausted and trembling.

“Leia,” Luke gasped.

I gently started toward the door he had just come in. He needed to lie down.

Out in the hallway of the ship, I paused to readjust my grip on Luke, putting one arm around his waist and grabbing his arm with the other. As soon as I touched it, he jerked his arm away from me.

And then I saw it. His hand.

Or rather, his lack of a hand.

“Oh, Luke . . . what happened?!” I gasped in shock and pity.

He wouldn’t look at me. “Vader,” he muttered, swaying in my arms.

I couldn’t believe it. Vader had . . . had . . . his own son! I blinked rapidly and shook my head, trying to hold back tears and accept the information I’d just heard at the same time.

I let his arm go, and he immediately curled it back up against his chest. I put my newly-free hand on his stomach instead and led him to the bunks. I helped him lie down, then went to get the medical kit, already trying to figure out ways to kill Vader in my head.

I still . . . it was just too much. I knew Vader was evil, and I’d seen him in all his terrifyingly cruel glory before, but this . . . this was beyond cruel. It was beyond human.

I couldn’t believe I’d actually started to trust him. How could a person be willing to harm their own child like this? It was . . . I couldn’t find the words to describe it. All I had was a sick, sinking feeling in my stomach and a vicious desire to snap Vader’s neck with my bare hands.

I wrapped Luke’s arm in a protective cuff until we could get him proper medical attention, and ordered Chewie to seek out the closest Alliance medical frigate. I wanted to stay by Luke’s side constantly, but I soon had to leave when the constant firing of enemy fighters became even more intense.

“I’ll be back,” I told him with a soft kiss, and left the room, feeling his gaze on my back as I went. Every step away from him was harder, but I forced my feet forward until I was standing behind Lando and Chewie in the cockpit.

“Star Destroyers,” I murmured unnecessarily. They did, after all, have eyes.

“Alright, Chewie,” Lando told the Woookiee. “Ready for lightspeed.”

I glared at him. “If your people fixed the hyperdrive.” A green light on the control panel flashed on. “All the coordinates are set. It’s now or never.”

Chewie barked, nodding his head vigorously.

“Punch it!” Lando called.

Chewie pulled back the lightspeed throttle and the ion engine began to wind up. And then . . . nothing happened.

Chewie howled. I closed my eyes in exhaustion, too tired to be angry.

“They told me they fixed it!” Lando cried. “I trusted them to fix it! It’s not my fault!”

Chewie just snarled and stormed out, his intentions to try to fix the hyperdrive again clear as tools clattered and banged around the engine room. I slid into the empty seat, not so much as looking at Lando.

After a few moments of tense and awkward silence, something in the control panel blew up, showering us with sparks. A wave of despair hit me as we both jumped to attention and desperately searched for the source of the commotion.

“Chewie!” Lando called over the intercom.

And then Luke was there, clutching at the stump of his hand. I went to him immediately and was about to tell him to go lie down again, but he got his mouth open first.

“It’s Vader,” he said despairingly, swaying on his feet. “Ben . . . why didn’t you tell me?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by that question, but the agony in his voice was enough to snap me out of my apathy – mostly because it made me furious with Vader all over again.

All of a sudden, we were thrown around like rag dolls as the ship shot into hyperspace. I sagged into the seat, breathing a sigh of relief; my priority right now was to get Luke as far away from Vader as possible.

One look into Luke’s haunted eyes, however, convinced me that the Dark Lord and I would be having a little chat in the near future.

And this time, I would not be letting him walk all over me.

No, my days of listening to Vader were over. A new era had begun.

The age of the Dark Lord of the Sith had ended, and the age of Leia Organa had begun.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Aftereffects

I stared out the window of the cruiser, every now and then glancing over at Luke and the medi-droid attending to his hand – or wrist – or whatever. Honestly, the whole thing made me squeamish. I’d never thought I was bothered by gore before – it was kind of hard to be when people get hurt as often as members of the Alliance do – but there was something inherently disturbing about lightsaber wounds that just turned my stomach. Maybe it was the distinct lack of gore.

Or maybe it was just the person responsible for Luke’s maiming that made it so much worse.

I had been far too forgiving of Vader up until now. Foolishly, I had assumed that because we had a deal, he was on my side.

But it had never been about that. He was an Imperial to the core, and I had overlooked that in favour of the power he could bring to the table. And therein lay the fatal flaw of my reasoning: If he had all this power, he wouldn’t need my help in the first place.

Not that I had done much up until now, but Vader believed our deal was pivotal to the destruction of the Emperor. And that belief of his gave me power.

And it was time for me to use it.

My deal with Vader had gotten me out of some tight situations, but it was time for those situations to stop occurring in the first place. It was my turn to call the shots, and to find out if there really was honour among thieves.

Oh, Vader would kick up a fuss, to be sure, but he had been unwilling to let me out of the deal when I wanted out, and I sure wasn’t about to let him off the hook when the going got tough. He’d just have to put up with it.

“Luke, we’re ready for takeoff.” Lando’s voice crackled through Luke’s comlink like a whip, jarring the stillness of the medbay.

Lando and Chewie were headed to Tatooine, trying to keep up with Boba Fett and carbonite-Han. Once they had a solid lead on him, Luke and I would follow to help with the rescue.

Until then, I had some business to take care of.

“Good luck, Lando,” Luke replied as I glanced over at him, relieved to see that the prosthetic was in place. In fact, the operation looked nearly complete.

“When we find Jabba the Hutt and that bounty hunter, we’ll contact you,” Lando reaffirmed.

“I’ll meet you at the rendezvous point on Tatooine,” Luke replied with assurance. I smiled fondly at how much he had grown as a person since I’d met him. No longer a naive farmboy, but a blooded warrior. However, in my opinion, the price had been far too high.

“Princess,” Lando said, jerking me from my thoughts at the sound of my title, “we’ll find Han. I promise.”

Luke looked over at me, silently asking if I wanted to reply. I smiled and shook my head slightly.

“Chewie, I’ll be waiting for your signal,” Luke informed the Wookiee, turning his attention to the comlink again.

Chewie’s barks came through sharply over the comlink.

Luke smiled. “Take care, you two. May the Force be with you.” He shut the comlink off as the droid began poking his artificial hand. “Ow! Ow!” he hissed.

The next thing I knew, he was at my side. I glanced at the hand, but it looked completely normal – Not like Vader’s, a traitorous voice whispered in my mind.

I shoved the thought aside as I leaned into Luke. His arm came around my shoulders, and together we watched the Millennium Falcon detach and soar away from us – leaving me with nothing but Luke and my fury.

It was strange, not having Han around. I had gotten so used to his presence without noticing.

Would he ever forgive me, once he found out that I had known he would be frozen in carbonite? I didn’t know, and I tossed and turned for hours, agonizing over what I would do if he didn’t . . . .

I stared at myself in the mirror.

I never thought I would wear this dress, at least not for a long time yet. And now I’d donned the wedding dress that was once my mother’s – that I had always planned to wear one day in the far, far future – and was about to step outside to greet my secret groom, a Jedi Padawan whom I had no right to love.

But I did love him, with all my being, despite the fact that he was five years younger than me and barely out of childhood; despite the fact that he had sworn himself to the Jedi Order as I had done to the people of Naboo and neither of us were free to make any more vows; despite the fact that we were in a war and there was no time to nurture a relationship; despite the fact that he was rash and arrogant and obstinate and –

And I loved him.

He had been given two weeks leave to recuperate from the loss of his hand, a loss that stung me almost as much as it hurt him. He was coping admirably, though, and was already pushing himself back into top condition.

I don’t know what I had been thinking, inviting him to spend his leave here on Naboo with me. Maybe I had actually been hoping for this to happen – though I certainly felt stunned when, less than a day after our arrival, he had enticed me into a walk at dusk and proposed in the deserted Thebes Square Garden.

I knew he was still shaken from the loss of his arm, and feeling his own mortality. At barely twenty, his own death wasn’t something he liked to dwell on, and it was a possibility he had been forced to face a mere three days ago. I should have said no and told him to ask again when his emotions weren’t running so high.

But my emotions – the fear of losing him without ever having him – were just as high, and I said yes.

And now here I stood, willing my nerves into submission as I stared into the mirror.

The bed behind me caught my eye, and the butterflies I had been working so hard to quell started fluttering again with a vengeance. Not for the first time, I wondered if things might have been easier if I had been raised to be accepting of premarital relations.

Somehow I doubted it. Anakin preferred to go all out, no mattered the difficulties. He wouldn’t have been satisfied with such an arrangement, either. If he had been, he would have propositioned rather than proposed.

One more deep breath, and I walked out onto the veranda.

Anakin was standing at the far end, where so long ago – had it only been days? – we had stood looking out over the lake. His entire face lit up in joy and awe as he watched me walk toward him.

We didn’t speak or touch as the holy man recited the marital blessings, but the air between us was charged. We both murmured our acceptance of our vows in the appropriate places, but neither one of us was paying much attention.

Something cool and hard brushed against my hand; Anakin held my fingers delicately in his artificial hand. He eyed me with wariness, silently making sure I was alright with the cool metal touch.

I tightened my grip on his fingers and lifted my face to welcome his kiss.

“There is still good in him . . . .”

“Where are we going?” Luke asked as he watched me lace up my boots with determination, my stuffed pack on the ground beside me.

“First, we have to make contact with the Alliance,” I said with authority. I had this all planned out, and damn if I wasn’t going through with it. “We may not have been working as closely with them lately, but we’re still part of it and they need to be brought up to date.”

“And then?” Luke persisted, obviously as antsy to rescue Han as I was.

But first things first. “We go to Coruscant.”

Luke frowned, puzzled. The Alliance usually stayed as far away from Coruscant as possible, given that it was the Imperial headquarters, as the ever-creative new name of Imperial Center implied. “What’s on Coruscant?”

I smiled tightly. “Assets.”

To be continued...

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