The first thing Padmé noticed as she opened her eyes was that the main lights in the bedroom had been turned off. The last thing she remembered was Anakin ordering her to go to sleep before he laid down beside her, most likely to read as it had been still relatively early in the evening. Apparently, a large period of time had passed if he had decided to go to sleep himself.
She glanced at the chrono on the night table on her side of the bed. The time read just after 0300.
She had been sleeping for over eight hours. Adding to that the five hours she had gotten earlier, she had slept far longer than she normally did. (On an average night, she was lucky if she got six hours.)
It was no wonder she now felt wide awake!
And hungry, she added as her stomach made its displeasure known. Which was not surprising since she had not eaten since lunch...yesterday.
Deciding it best to take care of her hunger before she did anything else, she slowly sat up, being careful not to disturb Anakin. (So much for his "threats", she mused.) She turned to look at him and saw that he wore the contented expression of one experiencing pleasant dreams on his face.
She couldn't help but smile at the sight of him. Even after nearly twenty years of marriage, words could never fully express how much she loved him. He was everything to her and she wanted nothing else than to keep him safe, happy, and loved. Years ago, she had left everything she knew behind to do just that and she had never once regretted the decision.
A decision she would make again in a heartbeat.
Possibly very soon...
Pulling herself back from her musings, she slipped out of their bed and got to her feet. Using the dim illumination from the single nightlamp, she made her way out of the room and into the hall. Once there, she headed for the kitchen.
Suddenly, there was a soft beep from behind her and she turned to see Artoo rolling after her.
He beeped and whistled at her in concern.
"I'm all right, Artoo," she assured him. Years ago, Anakin had ordered Artoo to watch over her when he was not available and the little droid took his job very seriously. "I didn't have dinner, so I'm getting something to eat. You're welcome to keep me company if you'd like."
Artoo beeped affirmatively and continued following her.
Padmé could only smile and shake her head.
Finally, she arrived at the kitchen and, not bothering to turn on the main lights, began to contemplate what she wanted. Given the lateness (or earliness, rather) of the hour, she didn't think it wise to eat anything too heavy. After a bit of rummaging, she decided on a small piece of yaranj melon. Then, gathering the necessary utensils and a plate, she went to sit down at the table, Artoo following her every move.
She sliced the yaranj in half and then halved one of the two pieces. She took the quarter and put it on her plate. Her stomach grumbled again as the very sweet aroma reached her nose.
As she began to eat, Artoo beeped a question that she could only guess the meaning of without a translation.
"I couldn't sleep anymore," she told him. "I'm wide awake and I couldn't go back to sleep if I tried. As far as I'm concerned, I'm up for the day."
"Is that so?"
Her eyes turned towards the voice and found her husband standing in the doorway with his arms crossed.
"I thought I told you that you weren't to leave the bed without my permission."
"I didn't want to wake you," she defended herself. "You appeared to be in the middle of an extremely...pleasant dream."
"I was," he answered, his expression still stony despite her attempt at a tease. "It was about you. Artoo," he addressed the astromech, "leave us."
Artoo whistled in acknowledgment and obeyed.
As soon as he was gone, Anakin continued, "You should have woken me, Padmé, dream or not. I could have brought something to you. You didn't need to get it yourself. You need your rest."
"I've had more than enough rest for one night," she argued. "As I told Artoo, which I'm sure you overheard, I couldn't go back to sleep even if I wanted to. I'm completely awake. I'm fine, I promise.
"And what about you?" she tried to change the subject. "You need your rest too."
"I'm not the one who was so tired that I couldn't even stand," he countered. He sighed, his features finally relaxing. "I'm just worried about you, that's all. I hate it when you're not well."
"I know," she soothed. "But I'm fine now, Anakin. I wouldn't lie to you about that. I just woke up and realized that I was no longer tired. Please believe me."
"I believe you," he relented, moving into the kitchen. "I love you."
"I love you too." She gestured to the quartered yaranj. "Would you like to join me?"
"I'd love to."
He came over to the table and sat down, taking a piece of fruit and placing it on a napkin.
"Always, my love," she smiled at him as he took a bite of the yaranj. "So, care to tell me what that dream of yours was about?"
"Actually, it would be easier just to show you," he said. "But then..." The smirk that she loved so much formed on his lips. "...you'd just be tired again."
"A very tempting offer," she replied, forming a seductive smile of her own. "One very much worth the risk of exhaustion. We do, after all, have a few hours before the kids get up."
"I just got an even better idea," he proposed. "We could wait until tonight and use it to celebrate our success."
Padmé's playfulness vanished. "And if we don't succeed?"
"We will," he insisted. "There are too many things working against her. She has no evidence, nothing. How can she prove that we're lying? She can question us all day for all I care, but it's not going to make a difference. And don't forget Obi-Wan will be there too. He'll get her to see reason."
He reached across the table and took her hand in his.
"Everything is going to be fine," he promised, squeezing her hand. "I swear to you it is. We won't have to leave again."
"The thought of starting over after having lived here so long..." She sighed. "We've spent so much of our life together here. This is where we've raised our children. Ammae was born here. This is our home. To have to leave it..."
"I know," he said, giving her hand another squeeze. "I feel the same way."
"I love you," she spoke.
"I love you too," he echoed. "More than anything."
A silence fell over them as they each ate their piece of fruit, their hands still entwined.
"You know," Padmé began in a thoughtful tone as she finished eating, "despite everything, I can't help but feel sorry for Ellara. Her heart is in the right place, as is everyone's in the group she's a part of, but what they're trying to do can never work. It's impossible to predict what a child will do when he grows up. Teaching a person about democracy doesn't mean he'll embrace it or even want to fight for it. How can they not see that?"
"I can't understand it either, but apparently they all believe in this Clearl Toron's plan because Ellara wouldn't be here if she didn't," Anakin pointed out. "Maybe when this is all over we can ask Obi-Wan about it."
"It's such a waste," she commented, shaking her head. "All of those well-meaning people doing something that won't do anyone a bit of good. There are so many other ways in which they could be fighting against the Empire. Effective ways." She sighed again. "But at least they're trying. Which is more than so many others are doing."
Although Entellion was in the Outer Rim, they still received HoloNet broadcasts and Padmé tried to keep up with current events as much as possible. Although there were sporadic reports of rebellious activity, most news was of Palpatine taking away people's freedoms one by one. And the people let him. Most did not even try to defend their rights. And it made Padmé's heart sick.
All her life, she had been encouraged to help others. It was how she had been raised and educated. The Naboo were a generous people and the need to help those less fortunate than themselves were ingrained into them from an early age. She had chosen to go into public service because she had seen it as the best way to help the most people. It was why she had allowed herself to be talked into running for councilor here.
Because of her upbringing, she had always had difficulty accepting that others did not feel the same way as she did. Ignoring the plight of others seemed inconceivable to her yet there were thousands who did just that. She knew that if she did not have Anakin and her children to protect she'd be actively opposing the Empire.
Sometimes, she felt guilty that she wasn't...
"Most people are afraid to take risks of any kind," Anakin explained. "They fear the consequences they'll have to face if they fail. And fear is a very powerful deterrent, especially when the opposition is the Empire, which is known for violently retaliating to any dissent. Personally, I can understand their inaction. I know from experience how paralyzing fear can be." He smiled at her. "Not everyone can be as brave or generous as you, my love."
"You mean as I used to be," she corrected, now starting to feel the guilt again. "These days, I'm just as guilty as those others. What have I done to oppose the Empire? Nothing. And I know I could make a difference. I have no right to accuse anyone."
Anakin's smile faded.
"You say that as if you want to be doing something."
"There are times when I think about it, yes," she honestly admitted. "It's very difficult to hear about atrocities and to know that I can't do a thing about them. During my time as both queen and senator, I was always working to put an end to injustices wherever I found them. For the longest time, it was my entire life. It feels strange to not be doing it anymore."
"You do that here," he pointed out.
"It's not the same," she countered. "Here I'm only focused on one city. The Empire affects the entire galaxy. There are so many worlds in need of aid and only so many people to give it. It...hurts to think about it...
"Which is why I don't think about it very often." She smiled at him. "Because I have four very important people in my life who demand all of my attention." She brought her other hand to cover his. "Four people I love very much."
"But if you didn't have us?" he questioned. "What would you be doing?"
She frowned. "Anakin, why are you asking me this? You know me better than anyone, my love. You know how I feel about what's happened to our galaxy. What's really bothering you?"
He took a deep breath. "The way you were talking... It almost sounded as if you sometimes...regretted the life you had chosen.
"A life in hiding with me."
"Oh, Anakin," she breathed, tightening her hold on his hand.
His train of thought suddenly became clear to her. By confessing her sporadic guilt, she had caused him to start doubting her happiness. He had misconstrued her words, believing that she had admitted to not being satisfied with her life and that she was not entirely happy, a situation he could not tolerate. Her happiness was everything to him. He even put it ahead of his own, a habit she had repeatedly tried and failed to break him of.
It was imperative that she set him straight immediately. His pain was as intolerable to her as hers was to him.
"Never, my love," she insisted. "Never. Choosing this was the second best decision I made in my entire life. How I could I ever regret something that has given me so much joy? Look at all the wonderful things I have because of it.
"Because of you."
"I only want you to be happy," he told her, confirming her suspicions of what exactly had been on his mind. "I love you so much."
"You make me happy," she informed him. "I know I've told you this so many times over the years, but you are my sole reason for living. I was nothing until I met you. I was merely half-alive and empty, caring only about my work. Then you came into my life and everything changed. You are everything to me."
Releasing his hand, she stood up and came around the table to where he sat. She knelt down by his chair and put her arms around him.
"This is where I belong," she emphasized. "With you, wherever you are. There's nothing to regret. I love you, Anakin. Now and forever."
Anakin's arms wrapped themselves around her. "Thank you, Padmé," he murmured. "Thank you."
They held each other for an indeterminable period of time, Padmé filled with relief that she had been able to prove to Anakin that she had no regrets and was completely happy. She loved him so much. He and the children were more important to her than anything else. They were her entire world. As she had told him, how could she regret something so wonderful?
"What was the first?" Anakin suddenly interrupted her thoughts.
"First?" she repeated, unsure of what he was talking about.
"You said coming away with me was the second best decision of your life," he clarified. "What was the first?"
She pulled back so that she could gaze into his eyes.
"Becoming your wife," she answered with a smile.
His eyes widened in surprise at the admission.
"I love you, Anakin," she told him once again.
"I love you too," he replied before leaning down to give her a kiss.
"My angel," he whispered as he separated from her. He took one of his arms from around her body and brought up a hand to caress her face. "Come back to bed with me."
She simply nodded before extricating herself from his arms and standing up. She extended her hand to him and he took it, rising to his feet.
"Lead the way."
Obi-Wan was in a deep meditative state when there was a knock at his door. The sound immediately brought him out of his trance.
"Master Kenobi?" Ellara's voice quietly called from outside. "Are you awake?"
For a while, he had allowed himself to forget his purpose here and what he had done last night, but Ellara's presence returned him to reality and the relaxation brought on by his meditation evaporated.
The time had come to face the new day.
Composing himself, he stood up from his position on the floor and went to open the door.
"Good morning, Master Kenobi," Ellara greeted him. She was carrying two shoulder bags as well as her workcase. "I'm leaving for work now and I wanted to check in with you before I left. I didn't disturb you, did I?"
"Not at all," he informed her. "I've been up meditating since dawn."
"Dawn?" she repeated, distress entering into her tone. "Why were you up so early? Is it because you had trouble sleeping? The room wasn't comfortable enough for you, was it? I'm so sorry."
He mentally shook his head at her continued feelings of inadequacy. (Feelings that unfortunately no longer applied to her investigation...) "You're jumping to conclusions again. The room was perfectly fine. I found the bed to be extremely comfortable. I'll have you know I in fact slept very well."
Confusion replaced the distress. "Then why were you up at dawn?"
"A force of habit," he explained. "When I was a young Padawan, my master, Qui-Gon, insisted that we should always awaken at first light and meditate so we could start our day feeling calmed and refreshed. It was to be done as soon as we woke up and we could not eat breakfast until after it had been finished. In the beginning, I hated it and just did it to appease my master, but as I got older, I saw the wisdom in the practice. It is a wonderful way to begin the day and I try to do it as often as I can."
Anakin, of course, had hated the daily meditation with a passion. More precisely, he had hated any mediation for that matter. Getting him to meditate, especially when he had been a child, had been a struggle. Thankfully, as he had gotten older, he had protested less, but he'd always found a way to let Obi-Wan know how much he couldn't stand it. It had become yet another running joke between them.
Guilt surged through him as he thought of Anakin. He dreaded telling him how badly he had failed him...
"I'm so relieved," she said. "I spent the entire night worried that you wouldn't find the room comfortable."
"It would take a lot more than discomfort to keep me from sleeping," he assured her. "But as I already said, the room is perfectly fine. Thank you again for allowing me to stay in your home. Your gracious hospitality is very much appreciated."
"It was the least I could do," she told him. "I know it doesn't even begin to repay you for all that you're doing for me, but I thought it the best way to show you my gratitude. Thank you for coming here and teaching me. Without your help, I wouldn't even be having a meeting today."
It was a fact he knew all too well...
"You can't even begin to imagine how much better I feel this morning," she went on. "You've saved my investigation, Master Kenobi. Before you came, I didn't even know how to begin. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
"You give me too much credit," he waved her off, knowing it was a lie even as he spoke it. As she herself had just said, there would not even be a meeting if it were not for his "help." It was as if he had doomed Anakin and Padmé himself. "I merely showed you the techniques I knew. It was you yourself who took them and mastered their use. You always had the ability within you. You would have been fine without me."
It was, of course, another lie. Without his help, it was his friends that would have been fine. Now, because of him, it was more likely than not that their life here was over.
I have failed you again.
Logically, he knew that he had done the right thing. Ellara had turned out to be an incredibly quick study, which had required him to teach her more than he had originally planned. If he had hesitated or shown reluctance to teach her, she would have grown suspicious, which could have ultimately jeopardized his mission for the High Council, an occurrence he could not allow. He'd had no choice but to continue to instruct Ellara and, by default, created a true threat to the continued peaceful life of Anakin and Padmé and their children on this planet.
He would have to warn them before Ellara had them trapped in her classroom with him helplessly looking on...
"You're just saying that," Ellara argued. "I was completely clueless and we both know it. You deserve full credit for whatever we find out today. I could not have done this without you. I can't thank you enough."
"You have too little faith in yourself," he truthfully told her. "My help would have been worthless if you had not been able to apply the techniques you learned. You are stronger than you realize, Ellara. Believe in your abilities and be proud of them."
Despite everything, he liked Ellara very much. It bothered him that she had such low self-esteem. She was a bright and talented young woman who had much to offer the galaxy. (If only she could be made to see the futility of Clearl's plan, something he wished Clearl herself would realize. Both of them were wasted out here when the Alliance could have benefited from their talents.) He hoped that she would one day realize just how gifted she was.
Unfortunately, all his compliments seemed to succeed in doing was embarrassing her and making her blush.
"Well, I guess I should head off to work now," she said, displaying her typical discomfort at his praise. Her normal reaction was to either change the subject, as she was doing now, or to credit her accomplishment to someone else. "You're welcome to use anything you want in my house. If you're hungry, there's plenty of food in the kitchen unless, of course, you'd prefer to go out. It's up to you. I left a flimsy on the kitchen table with all the security codes for the house. Feel free to come and go as you please.
"I also left contact information in case you need me for anything," she continued. "And that's it unless you can think of anything else I might have forgotten."
"I don't believe there's anything else," he told her. "So I'll see you after your class ends for the day?"
"Yes," she nodded. "Meet me in the classroom and as soon as Hayd and Natala arrive we can get started."
"Sounds like a plan," he said.
"Great," she smiled. "See you later then. Have a good day."
"You as well," he replied.
With a last smile and nod, Ellara left.
He retreated into the room and sat down on the bed, trying to formulate his next course of action. As he had decided last night, he needed to pay Anakin another visit to warn him about Ellara's new competence. If he and Padmé were going to have any chance of getting through the questioning and having Ellara believe that they were telling the truth, they needed to be prepared for everything Ellara was planning on throwing at them. It would be difficult given what she had learned, but possible.
And not very likely.
He dreaded telling this to Anakin after assuring him that it would be impossible to fail. Although it had been a lie even then, the chance of success had been much higher. Anakin would not be happy learning that he had been lied to. He had always hated dishonesty and had a history of reacting violently when finding out the truth. (Thankfully, Padmé would be there with him. She'd be able to calm him down and get him to focus on what was truly important.) But Obi-Wan knew that this was the only way to ensure that they even had a chance of fooling Ellara.
Because if he didn't...
He sighed, feeling incredibly guilty. He hated the position he was in, but as long as he was a Jedi, he had no choice in the matter. His duty had to come first. Protecting Clearl from the Empire took precedence over everything else. Anakin and Padmé, sadly, were not a part of that duty. He knew that they both knew and understood this, but that knowledge did not make him feel any better. He wanted nothing more than to help them and keep them safe.
Yet so far, he had done nothing but make things worse for them.
"What a mess," he murmured to himself.
He looked at the nearest chrono. The time was 0630, which was far too early to go to Anakin. There would be too many other people traveling the streets on their way to work or school. He needed to wait until he could move undetected from Ellara's home to Anakin's residence. There was nothing he could do for the time being.
Realizing that he would need all of his strength to make it through the difficult day ahead, he decided that the best thing he could do was eat breakfast.
A day that had just barely begun...
As the time for Amidala's office hours to begin came and went without Amidala herself appearing from within her house, it became glaringly obvious to Mara that the former senator was not going to work today.
She cursed at her bad luck. The entire day was a complete loss, which meant that she now had to wait at least another three days to initiate her abduction plan. (Three because today was the end of the work week and Amidala would not have gone into the office for the next two anyway.) The successful removal of her target from the planet hinged on being familiar with Amidala's daily routine. She needed to know all of the places Amidala went during a typical work day and from which ones her absence would not be immediately noticed. And she couldn't find that out while her target sat at home.
It was imperative to find out why her quarry had not gone to work and how long she would be away. It would be a waste of time to sit outside of the house every morning until Amidala finally emerged. She had better things to do, such as familiarizing herself with the city itself. The more she knew about her location, the easier it would be to follow her target. But before she could do anything she needed to know exactly when Amidala would be returning to her office so she could plan accordingly.
She considered her options. Her two choices were to either ask someone directly or to instead lift the information from someone's mind. Both approaches had their own set of difficulties, but she decided that asking would be better in the long run. Mainly because it would be faster. Taking information from someone's mind involved a lot of clean-up work that she didn't know if she had time for.
The issue then became whom she would ask. Unfortunately, since she had only been on the planet less than a day and had yet to follow Amidala around, her list of possible subjects was extremely short. She only knew of two groups to choose from: Amidala's family or her coworkers.
She immediately decided against asking the coworkers. Her age alone ruled it out. Amidala's office was only open during school hours and she would inevitably be asked why she wasn't there herself. She'd never be given a chance to ask any questions of her own. There was no point in even trying to go there.
That left, unfortunately, Amidala's family, none of whom she particularly wanted to deal with. (Or, in the case of Vader, was she allowed to deal with. Her master had made it very clear that she was to stay away from him.) But for the sake of the mission, she would do what she had to do.
With Vader already off-limits, her only choices were the three children. Ammae, the youngest, was swiftly eliminated since she, like her mother, had not left the house this morning. (She was probably still sick. Perhaps she had passed on her illness to her mother.) Therefore, by default, she was left with just the twins, Luke and Leia, to choose from.
In her opinion, Luke was the obvious choice since he had already seen her the day before. He would recognize her and, thanks to his blatant physical attraction to her, welcome her attention. (As she had observed yesterday, the boy was an idiot and he would be completely oblivious to her true intentions.) He'd willingly answer all of her questions without a second thought. A few hours with him and she would know everything she needed to know. A distasteful prospect, but one she was willing to put up with in order to complete her mission for her master.
Deciding that this was her best option, she eased her way out of her hiding place and began to make her way out of the development.
She quickly assembled a plan of attack in her head. She'd approach him as he left school, pretending to be new to the planet and that she was looking for someone to show her around. Luke, being the do-gooder that he was, would happily offer to be her guide, which she would graciously accept. And as he took her around the city, she would casually question him about his family. Questions that she knew he would not hesitate to answer.
It was the perfect plan.
By the time the day was over, she would have all of the information she needed and she would owe it all to the son of the man she hated more than anything else in the galaxy.
Mara could not help but smile at the irony.
It seemed that the day was not a total loss after all...
As Ammae finished reading the latest assigned chapter of her literature text, she noticed that she was thirsty. It had been hours since she'd last had anything to eat or drink and now she was craving something cold and sweet.
I want a fizzly, she decided, almost tasting the carbonated beverage she loved so much. She hadn't had one in two days because of her lingering queasiness, but she was feeling a lot better today and thought her stomach could handle it.
Shutting down her datapad, she deposited it onto her nightstand and got up from her bed. She straightened out her nightgown (she hadn't bothered getting dressed this morning since she had already known that she wasn't up to school) and headed for her door. Opening it, she left her room and started walking towards the kitchen.
As she neared the family room, she heard voices.
Mom and Dad she automatically labeled them without really listening and decided to greet them before getting her fizzly. Afterwards, she could go back and sit with them while she drank. It would be nice to spend some time alone with her parents without the twins around for once.
The biggest drawback to having siblings was always having to share her parents' attentions. She knew her parents did their best to give the three of them equal time, but most of it went to Leia because she was always in trouble. She and Luke were given whatever was left over which, when she thought about it, wasn't much. (She and Luke had talked about it and had agreed never to complain. Mom and Dad worked so hard all of the time and then they had to deal with all of the problems Leia caused. Why upset them by being angry over something so petty?) But she treasured the time that she did get and today she'd get more than usual. Mom had stayed home from work which meant that she had her and Dad all to herself until the twins (or at least Luke) came home from school. She was going to enjoy every second of it.
However, as she was about to enter the room, a third voice, one she had never heard before, spoke, freezing her in place.
"...I can't even begin to express how terrible I feel," an unknown man was saying. "If she succeeds in her mission, it will be entirely my fault."
The words startled her. "Mission"? "Fault"? Who was this man and what was he talking about? What was going on?
It was obvious Mom and Dad knew him. Her parents would not have let him in the house if they didn't. But who was he? And how had he found them? (Mom and Dad were in hiding, as she had literally just found out. No one was supposed to know where they were.) And why hadn't she been introduced when he arrived? Did they not want her to know about him? Why?
Ammae could not decide if she was more confused or curious. So although she knew it was rude to eavesdrop, she continued to listen, hoping to get some answers to her questions.
"You did nothing wrong, Obi-Wan," Mom told him. (The name "Obi-Wan" sounded familiar to her for some reason, but she could not place it at the moment.) "You were sent to help her, which is exactly what you did. We understand how much you're risking just by talking with us. I don't think we need to tell you how much we appreciate it."
Obi-Wan abruptly stopped speaking and Ammae wondered what had happened.
"It appears that we aren't alone," he calmly announced.
Ammae gasped, bringing her hands to her mouth and drawing herself up against the wall beside the entryway. He knew she was there? How?
"Ammae, sweetheart?" Mom's voice called. "Is that you? You can come in now."
Ammae hesitated, fear coursing through her now that she had been caught. Were they mad at her for listening to their private conversation? Was she in trouble?
She heard them begin to whisper and knew that it was about her.
"Don't be afraid, Little Angel," Dad spoke as soon as the whispering ended. "You're not in trouble. It's all right. You can come in."
Her heart racing, she took a deep breath and stepped into the room.
Mom and Dad were sitting together on the couch, holding hands as they often did. Obi-Wan sat across from them in a chair and Ammae did a double-take as she realized that he was dressed in the traditional robes of a Jedi Knight.
"You're a...a...Jedi!" she exclaimed. (No wonder he had known she was out there!)
As she had just learned, Dad had once been a Jedi himself, back before all of the bad stuff had happened in the galaxy. So she supposed it made sense that he and Mom knew another Jedi. But hadn't they told her that they had not seen or heard from any other Jedi since before they had gone into hiding? If that were true, how had this Obi-Wan found them? Or had they lied to her about it? Why?
"Indeed I am," Obi-Wan said with a smile. "Hello, Ammae. It's very nice to finally meet you after hearing so much about you."
Ammae was too stunned to reply. He had heard about her? Did that mean that her parents had in fact kept in touch with him? Who was he?
Overwhelmed and confused, she remained where she was, unsure of what was happening.
"Come sit with us, Little Angel," Dad beckoned as he and Mom slid apart to make a space between them for her. He patted the couch. "There's nothing to be afraid of. We'll explain everything."
Not knowing what else to do, she obeyed and went over to her parents. As soon as she sat down between them, Mom pulled her into her arms.
"What's going on?" she asked. "Who were you talking about?" She turned to Obi-Wan. "What would be your fault? Has something bad happened? Are my parents in trouble?"
"She asks a lot of questions, doesn't she?" Obi-Wan commented.
"There's a reason I call her our little probe droid," Dad put in. "Ammae, sweetheart," he continued and Ammae looked at him, "this is Obi-Wan Kenobi, a very old friend of ours. Mom and I have known him for a very long time. He's come to help us with something."
Ammae's eyes widened as she suddenly realized why the name had been familiar to her: she had first heard it less than two days ago.
"You...you were Dad's master!"
Her parents had mentioned him very briefly, only to say that he had taught Dad how to be a Jedi and that he had been a very good friend. She wondered what else they hadn't told her or the twins. How many secrets were they still keeping? And why were they still keeping them?
"That I was," Obi-Wan confirmed.
"You were much more than that, Master," Dad interjected. "And you still are."
"Thank you, Anakin," Obi-Wan quietly responded and Ammae got the feeling that there was something she was missing.
"What's he here to help you with?" she questioned, looking at Mom and Dad in turn. "That person's mission you mentioned earlier?" she asked Obi-Wan. "Who is it? Do I know her? Is she trying to hurt my parents?" She turned back to Dad. "Do we have to leave?"
"We don't know yet," he told her. "It all depends on what happens this afternoon."
"What happens this afternoon?"
She heard and felt Mom take a deep breath. "Ammae, there's something we need to tell you about Miss Rittani."
Ammae turned to look at her, shocked by the mention of her teacher.
Miss Rittani, her teacher...her friend...was trying to hurt her parents? She couldn't believe it.
It couldn't be true. Could it?
"Miss Rittani is not just a teacher," Mom explained. "She belongs to a group of beings who want to stop the Empire. She was sent here as part of that group's overall plan."
"I don't understand," Ammae confessed, unclear about what was going on. "Isn't wanting to stop the Empire a good thing? How can doing that hurt you?"
"Her main mission here, which is to teach children like you about the Old Republic and democracy, is not what is putting us in danger," Mom clarified. "The danger comes from something new that she is trying to do and the reason it is so dangerous is because it could lead very bad people to us."
"Like the Emperor?" she asked, shivering at the thought. If he ever found her parents...
"Yes, like the Emperor," Dad verified. "That's why it's so important that Mom and I stop her."
"What is she doing?" she wanted to know, though now afraid of hearing the answer. If it was bad enough to attract the attention of the Emperor...
"She's trying to find me," Mom told her. "Or, rather, who I was a long time ago: Senator Padmé Amidala."
"Oh!" Ammae gasped as understanding struck her. If anyone, especially the Emperor, thought that Mom was still alive and here... But why would they think that?
"But why...?" she started to voice the question but trailed off as she realized that she already knew the answer. "It's because of me. Because of what happened in class."
"Yes," Obi-Wan confirmed. "She believes you're helping to hide her."
"Helping to hide her?" Ammae repeated, growing more and more confused by the second. "How could I hide anyone? I'm only ten!"
"Which is why she believes your parents are involved as well," Obi-Wan explained. "Your behavior after seeing the picture led Miss Rittani to believe that you had been instructed to keep the senator's identity a secret. She knows that you will not tell her where to find the senator. So her only option is to ask your parents, who she feels are the ones truly hiding her."
"No. Oh, no," Ammae murmured, guilt replacing her confusion. "This is all my fault! I'm sorry." She looked to her parents. "I'm so sorry!"
"No, it's not, baby," Mom countered. "It was nothing but a terrible accident."
"But it is," she argued. "Because I didn't know. If I had known..." She trailed off as she realized it sounded like she was blaming her parents. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for it to sound that way."
"We know, sweetie," Mom assured her. "Truthfully, we should have told you a long time ago. We made a mistake and now we have to correct it."
"And you can, right?" Ammae asked, hopeful. She desperately wanted everything to be okay. "She'll believe you when you tell her you don't know Senator Amidala, won't she? Doesn't she have to?"
She watched as the three adults exchanged glances.
"Doesn't she?" she repeated, feeling her hope vanishing as she remembered what she had initially overheard Obi-Wan and her parents talking about. What had he helped her to do?
"Ammae, sweetie," Mom began in a gentle voice, "we're not going to lie to you and tell you that we'll easily be able to convince her. You deserve to know the truth. And the truth is that there is a very good chance that we're going to fail."
Ammae nodded, afraid to speak.
"Miss Rittani is expecting us to lie to her," Mom continued. "And she is going to do everything in her power to lure us into telling her the truth. Finding me is very important to her. We're going to do our best to keep it from her, but we don't know what's going to happen once we're sitting in the room with her. There are any number of things that can go wrong. And if they do, we'll have no choice but to leave the planet."
"I don't want to leave," Ammae softly declared.
"Neither do we, baby," Mom told her. She kissed her on the top of her head and Ammae also felt Dad place a hand on her back. "But leaving here is the only way we can stay safe if we fail to convince Miss Rittani we don't know anything. If she continues to feel that we know something, she'll ask for help and others will come looking for me too. They'll want to question us as well as try to find me themselves. And the only way to make sure they don't find anything is if we're no longer here. Does that make sense to you?"
Ammae nodded again.
"But Mom and I are going to do everything we can so we don't have to leave," Dad put in, moving his hand onto her shoulder. "We promise."
"I know," Ammae told him. "I just wish..."
"What do you wish, Little Angel?"
"That you and Mom didn't have to hide," she said. "That the Emperor hadn't turned against everyone. Why did he do something so evil? How could he do it?"
"For power," Obi-Wan spoke up, drawing her attention. "Do you know what a Sith is?"
She nodded. She had learned about them when she had studied about the Jedi Order. The Sith were evil beings who hated the Jedi and had tried to destroy them multiple times. According to her research, they had disappeared thousands of years ago.
"The Emperor is a Sith and power is the only thing that matters to him," he continued, surprising her. (The Emperor was a Sith? How could that be?) "By destroying the Jedi and eliminating the members of the Senate that opposed him, he insured that there was no one left to take his power from him. Fortunately, he did not entirely succeed."
"I'm glad," Ammae told him. "I hope somebody stops him."
"You're not the only one, Little Angel," Dad said. "According to Obi-Wan, there are many, many people working together to free the galaxy from his rule. Obi-Wan is one of them."
"Do you think you can do it?" she questioned, feeling a fresh surge of hope.
"Only time will tell," Obi-Wan answered.
Ammae nodded, accepting what he told her. The Emperor had been in control of the galaxy since before she had been born. Stopping him would not be easy.
If even possible...
"Ammae, baby, was there a reason you came out of your room?" Mom suddenly brought up. "I'm sorry I didn't ask you sooner. Was there something you needed?"
She shook her head. "I was just thirsty," she explained. "I wanted a fizzly. But I was passing by and heard a strange voice, so I stopped to listen. And then Obi-Wan felt that I was listening and you called me in."
"Are you still thirsty?" Dad asked.
"Come on then," Dad said, taking her hand. "I think I want one too."
It was a ritual between them. She'd say she wanted a fizzly and then Dad would decide he wanted one himself. They would each take a container and then they'd sit together and talk about all sorts of things. It was something he just did with her and no one else. It always made her feel special.
Dad turned to Mom. "You and Obi-Wan start talking strategies. I'll be back as soon as I can."
He stood up and Ammae followed suit after a last squeeze from Mom.
"Only one fizzly for you, young lady," Mom warned her. "Your stomach was still bothering you at breakfast. Carbonation isn't the best thing for it. Do you hear me?"
"I hear you," Ammae acknowledged.
"Good girl. I love you."
"I love you too, Mom." She looked up at Dad. "And you too, Dad."
"I love you too, Little Angel."
She directed her attention back to Obi-Wan. "It was nice to meet you, Obi-Wan. Thank you for trying to help my parents."
"You are very welcome, young one," he smiled. "And I enjoyed meeting you as well. You are as bright and sweet as I had heard you were. It is no wonder your parents are so proud of you."
"Come on, Little Angel," Dad gently urged. "Let's get those fizzlies."
She let Dad guide her out of the family room and into the hall.
Truthfully, she didn't want to leave just yet as she still had many questions that had not been answered (such as how Obi-Wan had known about Miss Rittani), but it was obvious Mom and Dad did not want her to listen to whatever they were going to talk about now. So she'd go with Dad and have a fizzly instead. It made sense that there were things they did not want to say in front of her. She was, after all, still a little girl and they wanted to protect her. So she would let them. There would be plenty of time later for her to ask her questions.
And to find out whether or not they would have to leave the only home she had ever known.
While her students took a study period, Ellara stared at the piece of flimsiplast she held in her hands. On it was written all of her notes from her session with Master Kenobi as well as the questions she planned on asking Hayd and Natala. However, trying to read the words only overwhelmed her.
The confidence that she had felt when she had left for work this morning had vanished. As the time for the meeting drew nearer and nearer, she only became more and more worried.
How can I do this? she asked herself despairingly. I'm too nervous to think straight. I'll never remember what I'm supposed to do.
She knew it was too late to back out of the meeting now. She had no choice but to go through with it. She only hoped that she could keep herself together for the duration and remain firmly in control of the conversation's direction.
Thank the Force Master Kenobi will be there with me, she thought.
She had come to realize shortly after she had left her house and her fears had returned full-force that Master Kenobi was the source of her confidence. When she was with him and he was constantly praising and encouraging her, she felt like she could really and truly succeed in her mission. But as soon as she was alone again, she had begun to doubt herself. She needed the constant feedback and encouragement from him. It made her feel like she could do anything.
Unfortunately, he had informed her yesterday that he would be saying little at the actual questioning. His reasoning had been that the Peridons were more likely to open up to her, a friend, than a stranger like himself, which did make sense. (As he had explained to her, their trust in her would play a major role in whether or not they felt safe enough to reveal their secret.) But at least he would be there and she knew his presence alone would be helpful. (But he had promised to come to her aid if at any point the conversation strayed from her control.)
She sighed and put down the flimsy. Worrying about the meeting wasn't doing her any good. She needed to think positive instead. Clearl was counting on her to carry out this investigation. And the last thing she ever wanted to do was fail Clearl.
I can do this, she instructed herself. I can do this and I will.
She once again picked up her notes and began to carefully read them.
Luke finished paying for his lunch and made his way into the cafeteria. His eyes scanned for a table at which to sit. And, almost immediately, he found one.
Leia was, as usual, sitting all alone at the back of the room. She looked slightly less annoyed than she had this morning. To Luke, this meant that he had a possible chance of getting her to let him talk to her before she either left or chased him off. So it was a chance he was most definitely going to take.
He had been concerned about her ever since the night of Ammae's school incident. When Leia had majorly overreacted to Dad's common sense instructions on how to deal with Ammae, Luke had suspected that something else was bothering her and became determined to find out what it was. He knew from experience that you always felt better after talking about something that was disturbing you. Therefore, it was only logical to try to get Leia to talk about whatever it was on her mind. And who better to talk to than her own twin brother?
Of course, getting Leia to talk about anything civilly was a challenge. Yesterday's failure at trying to get her to do something with him so that they could talk was a perfect example. But he had no intention of giving up. He would keep trying until she told him what was on her mind. His twin deserved nothing less.
He made his way over to her table and sat down directly across from her. Leia pretended not to notice him.
"Hey, Leia, how's it going?" he cheerfully greeted her.
"What do you want?" she demanded, not bothering to look up at him.
"What? A guy can't want to be with his sister?"
"Not if he's normal, no," she told him flatly. She gave him a look. "But that doesn't apply to you, does it?"
He ignored the insult. (What else could he do? Reacting to them only encouraged her to get nastier.) "I was wondering if you were doing anything after school."
"Didn't we already have this discussion? Yesterday?"
"No, yesterday I asked you if you wanted to come with me while I picked up Ammae's homework," he corrected her. "Today I'm asking you if you're doing anything after school because if you're not I wanted to invite you to hit the shops with me."
She snorted. "The shops? Where all the losers hang out? I don't think so. And as I told you yesterday, I have things to do. But don't let me stop you. You go and have fun."
"Oh, come on, Leia," Luke persisted. "It might be nice to do something different for once. Besides, I could really use the company. Please?"
"Do we really have to go through this again?"
"I just want to spend some time with you," he informed her. "It's been so long since we've done that. I miss you."
The look Leia gave him made him want to slide his chair back several feet.
"Luke, there is something seriously wrong with you," she declared. "For the last time, I'm never going to want to do anything with you. Never. Get it? We're siblings, not friends. So get over it and go annoy someone else. I don't want to hear another word on the subject."
But Luke had no intention of giving up. He was going to keep trying until she forced the issue.
"We used to do everything together, remember?"
"When we were ten!"
"So why not now?"
She made a noise. "I gave you all of the reasons yesterday. Don't make me say them again."
He decided to try another approach. Hopefully, this one would work.
"Don't you ever get tired of being all alone?"
"You can't really mean that," he insisted. "Everyone needs someone to talk to sometimes."
"Are you naturally this dense or do you have to work at it?"
"I'm just concerned about you," he confessed, attempting to see if being somewhat truthful would make a difference with her. "I worry about you all the time."
"Oh, stars, not that again," Leia groaned. "Is that what this is all about? You're worried about me again?" She gave a harsh laugh and he knew that this approach hadn't worked either. "Luke, you are really something else. How many times do I have to tell you that I'm the last person to worry about? Save your worry for someone who needs it and leave me alone."
"I worry about you because you're my twin and I love you."
She made yet another sound. "Go away, Luke. You're really starting to annoy me."
Luke finally conceded to himself that he had lost this round. Once she warned you that she was getting annoyed, things only got worse from that point on. (Experience had taught him that lesson very well.)
"I'll leave," he sighed. "But I still want you to go to the shops with me." It was a last-ditch effort, bound to fail, but he figured it couldn't hurt to try anyway. "I'll wait for you after school in case you change your mind."
"Then you're going to be waiting a very long time," she informed him. "It's not going to happen. My stuff is too important to wait."
"Goodbye, Luke," she cut him off, preventing him from asking his question.
He stood up from the table with his tray.
"See you later?"
"Whenever I get home," she replied. "Goodbye."
"Bye," he finally said and walked away with his tray.
So he had failed again. No big deal. He would just keep trying until he succeeded. Leia would eventually give in.
Satisfied that he had done his best, he went off in search of another table where he could finish his lunch.
Han grinned smugly to himself as he ended the call to city information. The droid who had answered had told him exactly what he needed to know.
You can't hide from me, kid, he silently declared, eager to see the expression on Leia's face when she found him waiting for her right outside of her school.
She was in for one hell of a shock.
"Chewie, I'm going out," he called, unsure of exactly where his copilot was hidden within the ship's innards. "I'll finish with the coolant unit repairs when I get back."
Tell Leia hello for me, Chewie roared back from wherever he was.
Chewie's casual mention of Leia's name made Han stop in his tracks.
The Wookie was on to him. Not good. (Although he knew perfectly well that Chewie knew him better than any other living being, he still liked to pretend that he could fool him. After all, he had a reputation to maintain and hanging out with a kid was definitely not supposed to be his style!)
"What makes you think I'm going to see her?" he countered loudly to insure that Chewie heard him.
Chewie appeared in an open hatchway with his arms crossed.
Maybe it's because you've done nothing but talk about her since you met her, the Wookie pointedly informed him. She's constantly on your mind. It's obvious you're infatuated with her.
"I am not," he indignantly defended himself. "She's just a kid. I just happen to find her amusing to be around, that's all. She makes me laugh." He paused for effect. "Which is more than I can say about you."
I'm sure that's why you keep me around, Chewie retorted. We both know you'd be lost without me.
"Oh, so now you're trying to make me laugh," Han shot back. "Too little, too late, furball. Maybe I should just replace you with Leia. That would probably solve all of my problems right there."
I should let you, Chewie told him. It would be interesting to see how she fairs as a pilot. And then when she fails and you come begging for me to come back, I can refuse to rejoin you.
"I'd like to see you try," Han replied. "Isn't there some rule against that in the life debt you owe me?"
I'm sure we could find a loophole somewhere.
"Why don't you start looking for one while I'm out?" Han suggested. "That way when I return with your replacement, you'll be all set to go."
Ah-ha! So you admit that you're going to see her, Chewie roared triumphantly. You're completely smitten.
"Don't you have some repairs to be working on?" Han complained.
The sooner The Falcon was fixed, the sooner they could go and report to Jabba and get paid. (Luckily, they had completed the drop before being shot at and hit.) They were currently low on funds and there were some upgrades Han had been wanting to perform for quite some time but couldn't afford at the moment. Truthfully, they probably would have been finished by now if Han hadn't been spending so much time thinking about and looking for Leia...
Although he wouldn't miss this planet one bit (it was too tame for his tastes), he knew he'd miss the smart-mouthed kid with the superiority complex. Leia was an enigma and she intrigued him. He wanted to learn more about her. He enjoyed spending time with her. If she had been older...
Don't keep her out too late, Chewie "warned" before laughing and disappearing from the hatchway.
"Pain in the neck hairball," Han muttered.
And then he continued on his way, eagerly anticipating Leia's reaction.
This was going to be fun.
"I suppose I should be leaving now if I'm to arrive before you do," Obi-Wan told Anakin and Padmé after checking the time. "Ellara was very insistent that I be with her when the two of you get there. And since I'm walking..."
"Are you sure you don't want us to drive you and then drop you off a couple of blocks from the school?" Anakin asked again. He had made the suggestion earlier, but Obi-Wan had turned him down then as he intended to now.
"I'm sure," he told him. "I can't risk anyone seeing you with me. But thank you again for the offer." He grinned at him. "Though I'm sure your driving hasn't improved much over the years."
"Anakin is a very safe driver these days," Padmé defended her husband, patting his hand. "Aren't you, my love?"
"And we both know whose fault that is," Anakin retorted. He returned his attention to Obi-Wan. "She refused to get in the speeder with the kids unless I promised to drive safely."
"Apparently a very effective deterrent," Obi-Wan decided. "It's a shame I didn't think of something like that."
"It wouldn't have worked, Master," Anakin assured him with a smug grin. "Terrorizing you was just too much fun."
"I thought as much," Obi-Wan declared, shaking his head. "Padawans these days. No respect for their elders.
"Well, as much as I'm enjoying learning of your low opinion of me, I truly must be going now," he continued, rising to his feet.
Anakin and Padmé followed suit.
"Thank you again for all you've done for us," Padmé told him. "No matter what happens with Ellara today, we know that you did everything you could. Anakin and I are eternally grateful."
"I only wish I could have done more," Obi-Wan said. "If it weren't my mission for the High Council..."
"There's no need to explain yourself," Padmé assured him. "We understand your position. You have nothing to feel guilty about."
"Listen to her, Master," Anakin insisted. "We're just glad you were able to warn us at all. We now have an actual chance of getting through this."
"I hope you're right," Obi-Wan replied, a fresh surge of guilt flowing through him. He knew that Ellara was not going to make it easy for them thanks to his teachings. "You shouldn't have to pay for my failure."
"Obi-Wan," Padmé sighed, "how many times are we going to have to tell you that you did nothing wrong? You did what you had to do. You are on a mission of vital importance to the future of this galaxy. Anakin and I are fugitives from the Empire. You cannot allow yourself to be associated with us. No one can even be allowed to suspect it. You did the right thing. Stop telling yourself that you didn't."
"Padmé's right, Master," Anakin supported her. "You had a job to do and you did it. It was the right thing to do."
Anakin met his gaze.
"The Jedi thing to do."
Obi-Wan couldn't help but smile at that. "It seems that you learned something from me after all."
"I learned everything from you, Master," Anakin quietly said. "I was just never any good at practicing it."
Padmé moved closer to her husband and put her arm around him.
"We'll see you at the school, Obi-Wan," she spoke up. "May the Force be with you."
Obi-Wan bowed formally. "May the Force be with you, milady." He looked at Anakin. "And with you as well, my Padawan."
"May the Force be with you, Master."
Obi-Wan bowed again and then left.
He had done everything he could. The rest was up to them. His only task now was to watch as the events played out before his eyes.
And to place his faith in the Force that his family would be all right...
Leia held back slightly as the rest of the student body filed out of the school building, keeping an eye out for the one person she wanted to avoid more than anything. Luke was the type who, if he said he was going to wait for you, really would wait for you. She was not in the mood to have to deal with him right now. (He had already passed his daily annoyance quota at lunch.) All she wanted was to go to her private warehouse and continue with her all-important Jedi training. She didn't have time to do pointless things like listening to her idiot twin try to force her to hang out with him. (The entire galaxy was in the hands of an evil tyrant and Luke wanted to go shopping? Oh, please!)
Dork, she added for good measure.
After a few minutes, the last of her fellow students vanished from sight, leaving the hall completely deserted.
And best of all, there was no sign of His Royal Annoyingness.
Thank the Force!
Never one to let an opportunity pass her by, she made a run for it, passing through the doorway and entering into the fresh afternoon air...
Only to have her jaw drop open as she found Han Solo nonchalantly leaning against his speeder which he had parked directly in front of the school.
"Hey, kid," he called out to her in a casual tone. "Fancy meeting you here."
Leia opened her mouth to say something, but she was too shocked to speak. What in the...?
"You know, something really needs to be done about the security on this planet," he continued in the same casual manner. "I mean, that information service of yours doesn't even bother to question a guy who claims that he's moving into a certain swanky neighborhood and wants to know which school his lovely teenage daughter would be going to. It's a good thing most criminals are too stupid to figure out these things or you'd be in some serious trouble."
Leia again tried and failed to voice her utter shock at his presence.
Han grinned. "I told you I'd be seeing you today."
At last, Leia's ability to speak returned. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm waiting for you, of course," Han replied. "It occurred to me that all we've been doing since we've met is me driving you to your house. Not too much fun when you think about it. So I decided that it was time for us to do something different. Instead of taking you home I'm taking you out. And I thought when better to begin than the moment you get out of school? Great idea, huh?"
She gawked at him. "You've got to be kidding me."
"What? Can't a guy want to spend time with the most exasperating kid he's ever met? So, Sweetheart, what do you say? Wanna go and have some fun?"
She couldn't believe what she was hearing. Han actually wanted to spend time with her? To really do something with her? (She knew he had enjoyed giving her rides home...) No one outside of her family had ever wanted to be with her like that before. (Which, of course, was because most people were afraid of her...) She truthfully did not know what to make of it.
"W-why would you want do to that?" she finally managed.
"Because I like you, kid," Han admitted, giving her yet another shock. "Why, I don't know, but I do. I mean, you're a rotten brat who does nothing but insult me but, for some strange reason, I like you anyway. You intrigue me and I want to know more about you.
"I want to know you, Leia."
Leia had no idea how to respond. Han's unexpected honesty (and according to the Force, he was being honest. She could detect no deceit from him) had caught her off-guard. This was a new experience for her, one she was unprepared for. Most people either avoided her or attacked her. She did not know how to deal with something like this: an offer of friendship.
"I..." she barely managed. "I don't know..."
"Don't tell me I'm making you nervous," Han suddenly quipped, his usual cocky grin back on his face.
Leia glared at him. "Don't flatter yourself. You don't have what it takes to make me nervous."
She still didn't understand what had just happened, but at least they were on familiar ground now. He would insult her and she would insult him right back. It was a safe and comfortable level of interaction. This she knew how to deal with.
He chuckled at her retort. "So, are you ready to go somewhere and have some fun?"
"It depends on what you have in mind," she carefully answered. The reprieve had been short-lived. They were now back into new territory she had no idea of how to navigate. She thought it best to let him lead her.
"Hey, I'm the offworlder here. You're the one who knows where all the local fun is to be had," he reminded her. "You're in charge. Unless..." The grin returned and grew even wider. "Unless you'd rather just go about your normal daily routine with me tagging along."
"Not a chance, fly boy."
He snapped his fingers. "Darn! I was so sure that would work!"
Leia couldn't help but laugh.
Maybe things weren't so different after all...
"So, kid, where would you like to take me?"
She searched her memory for some place to go with him. (It had been so long since she'd done anything other than Jedi training...) It had to be somewhere he wouldn't get bored or cause too much trouble. (Han was still a spacer, after all. And spacers had reputations she knew mostly to be true.)
"You like games?" she asked as a possibility came to mind.
"The ones I can win I do," he informed her. "And that's most of them in existence."
"Good," she spoke, deciding on their destination. "Then I have a perfect place in mind."
"All right. Let's go then," he told her, straightening up and opening the passenger door for her. "Hop on in."
"Thanks," she said as she climbed in and began securing her restraints.
He closed her door and then made his way around the speeder, getting in himself.
"Where to, kid?"
Leia smirked evilly.
"To a place called 'The War Zone.'
"I think you're gonna love it."
Luke walked down the hall without even bothering to look for Leia. If he knew his twin (and he knew her very well), she was long gone by now. He had gotten delayed (Pitrik and Bryna, fellow members of the community service club of which he was president, had been unsure of the date and time of the next meeting) leaving his last class and had been unable to be waiting for her by the exit. Leia would have used his absence to make a quick getaway.
There was no telling when he'd see her again today.
He sighed. He would just have to try again tomorrow. Hopefully he'd have better luck.
He arrived at the end of the hall and pushed the door open.
Only to have something slam into him and knock him to the ground as he stepped outside.
"I'm so sorry!" a girl's voice cried. He felt hands trying to help him up. "It's all my fault! Are you all right?"
"I think so," he said as he pushed himself into a sitting position. "Nothing seems to be..."
He trailed off as he looked up and suddenly found himself gazing into the face of the beautiful girl he had seen yesterday at Ammae's school.
"...hurting me." He smiled at her. "Hello again."
"Again?" Her expression turned puzzled. "Have we met before?"
"Not exactly," he admitted. "I saw you at my sister's school yesterday. We said a quick hello to each other before you walked off." He grinned. "I take it I didn't make much of an impression."
"Oh! That was you?" She suddenly looked embarrassed. "I'm so sorry! I was in such a bad mood yesterday and I wasn't really paying attention to anything. My parents forced me to go check out the school since my little sister will be going there. I didn't want to be there and didn't really do what I was supposed to. My parents were not happy. So, as punishment, I've now been told to check out the school where I'll be going."
"Hey, no problem," he waved her off. "At least you didn't try to hit me or anything."
"No, instead I nearly flatten you," she pointed out. "I'm surprised you're even talking to me after the way I've treated you."
"Everyone deserves a second chance," he asserted. He grinned even wider. "Even after almost flattening someone. So, why don't we start over? My name is Luke. What's yours?"
"Shannin," she told him.
"Hi, Shannin. It's very nice to meet you."
Their eyes held for a moment and Luke suddenly began to feel very strange. He couldn't quite describe the sensations except to say that they were both scary and wonderful, an unusual combination if there ever was one. Unusual...but good. And there could be no doubt that they were being caused by Shannin...
She was so beautiful and seemed so sweet. He immediately knew that he wanted nothing more than to get to know her. To spend time with her. To...
His train of thought shocked him and he broke away from her gaze, blushing furiously. He was terribly embarrassed by what he had been thinking. What was wrong with him? He had just met her! How could he be feeling this way about someone he had just met? Was it...normal?
Although he was sixteen and had been told often enough that he was a good-looking young man, Luke had absolutely no experience with girls. Yes, he had grown up with two sisters and had a number of female friends, but never before had he thought about one like the way he was thinking about Shannin. He had never really paid attention to them that way. Truthfully, it had never been all that important to him.
Until he met Shannin...
Growing more embarrassed (and redder) by the second, he quickly busied himself with gathering up everything he had dropped when he had fallen. It gave him something to do so he wouldn't keep staring at Shannin.
She must think I'm an idiot.
"Let me help you," Shannin offered, picking up the items he had missed. "It's the least I can do."
"Thanks," he accepted, taking his belongings from her. "I should probably put more of this stuff in my pack, huh?"
"If there's any room left in there," she said. "It looks like it already weighs a ton."
"Kind of," he admitted. He stood up and Shannin did the same. "I carry around everything I could possibly need for a day at school in it. It's a lot, but I believe it's better to be safe than sorry. I never use my locker."
"Wow," Shannin commented. "Let me guess. You're one of the smart kids, aren't you?"
"Not really," he told her. "My sisters are the smart ones. So is my mom. Me and my dad let them make all the decisions."
"Because they're so smart or because you're outnumbered?"
"A little of both."
She gave him a look.
"Okay, more because we're outnumbered."
"Thought so," Shannin grinned triumphantly and they both laughed.
"So, um," Luke said after they had finished laughing, "did you get a chance to look around the school yet?"
"No, I never made it inside. Instead, I ran into a rather large obstacle."
"Oh, right. Sorry."
"It wasn't your fault, remember?" she reminded him. "I was the one who wasn't watching where I was going."
"You know, I could show you around if you want," he offered, changing the subject. "I kind of know the place pretty well. I spend most of my time here because of the clubs and all I'm in."
"I couldn't ask you to do that," she waved him off. "I don't want to keep you from doing whatever it was you were in the middle of when we literally ran into each other."
"I was just going to the shops to get some stuff for one of my clubs," he told her. "That can certainly wait. Helping a friend is more important."
"You already consider me your friend?" she asked, sounding extremely surprised. "Wow."
"Of course. Why wouldn't I?"
Her question startled him. How could someone like her not know how friendships were formed? She was so nice. Wouldn't she have had a lot of friends?
She shrugged. "It just seems so fast, that's all."
Not knowing how to respond to that, he simply resumed the conversation.
"If you know your class schedule, I can show you exactly where your classes are," he let her know. "Do you have it yet?"
"I'm getting it tomorrow, actually," she told him.
"Okay. I'll just give you a general overview of the school then," he decided. "I'll show you the important places that you'll need to know, like the labs and cafeteria."
"Yes, there's no place more important than the cafeteria. I can tell I'm with an expert guide already."
"Very funny." He walked back over to the door and pulled it open. "If you'll follow me, we'll start with the mathematics department first."
"It sounds like a plan to me," Shannin declared. "Lead on."
"Okay. It's right through here..."
"So much for your theory that I was born to do this," Ellara weakly joked after her classroom had emptied of the last student. "I think I'm more nervous now that I was yesterday!"
"You'll be fine," Master Kenobi soothed her. "Recall how confident you were this morning. You know how to handle every possible scenario. You have all the necessary skills. Believe in yourself."
"I just can't stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong," she confessed. "What if I mess up and lose control of the conversation? What if they refuse to answer any of my questions? What if they just walk out? I only get once chance at this. I can't fail. Clearl is counting on me."
"Clearl will know you did your best no matter what the outcome," he assured her. "She is not the type of person to hold anything against another being. She should be the least of your worries."
"It's just that this is so important to her. You know how much Senator Amidala-"
Startled by the voice, she turned around to see Natala and Hayd Peridon walk into the room.
They're early! she panicked. She had not expected them to show up the moment school ended. She had thought it would be at least a half hour or so afterwards. (It was her own fault for not being specific.) What are they doing here so early?
She fought to keep control of herself. The urge to start hyperventilating was strong, but she could not fall apart. Not now. The time to conduct her investigation had arrived.
There was no turning back.
"We're not too early are we?" Natala asked, concern clearly in her voice.
Blast! It was obvious she had failed to completely cover up her nervousness. She would have to act quickly to show both Natala and Hayd that she was nothing but confident and relaxed.
"Not at all," she answered in the calmest voice she could manage, forcing herself to smile. "In fact, you're right on time," she continued, walking over to greet them. "Please, come in and have a seat. We'll get started as soon as you're ready."
"Wonderful," Natala smiled back. "I'm eager to hear what your friend here has to say.
"Hopefully things that you'll find useful," Master Kenobi spoke from beside Ellara, stunning her. She had not noticed his approach. (A bad sign, she realized. She was so nervous that she was not paying complete attention to her surroundings. Pull yourself together! she ordered herself.) He extended his hand to Natala, who took it graciously. "A pleasure to finally meet you in person, Councilor."
"Please, call me Natala," she urged him as they shook hands. She released her grip and gestured to Hayd beside her. "My husband, Hayd."
"Pleased to meet you," Hayd said, shaking his hand as well.
"Likewise," Master Kenobi replied and Ellara could have sworn she heard the slightest hint of amusement in his voice but dismissed it to her fear-addled imagination.
"Shall we get started?" Ellara proposed, amazed that she still sounded calm.
"Yes, of course," Natala told her.
"Over here," Ellara led them, motioning to a group of chairs set up in the back of the classroom.
She felt a momentary twinge of jealousy as Hayd placed his hand on the small of his wife's back and gently guided her over to a chair. It was a small gesture, but it was typical of the two of them. They were always doing seemingly minor things like that for each other. There could be no doubt that they were deeply in love.
How Ellara wished she could be in Natala's place in those moments...
She waited a few moments before joining the others, taking the time to perform a few of the quick breathing exercises Master Kenobi had showed her for settling her nerves. Then she went over to an empty chair and sat down.
"Thank you both again for coming on such short notice," she began.
"It was our pleasure," Natala told her. "How could I turn down an opportunity to hear about more ways to help the children?"
"Actually..." She swallowed and glanced at Master Kenobi, who nodded encouragingly. She nodded back before returning her attention to the Peridons.
Here I go.
"That's...not the reason I asked you here today," she finally confessed, eliciting shocked expressions from both Natala and Hayd. "There is something much more important I want to discuss with you instead."
"And that would be?" Natala prompted after she had recovered, folding her arms. Her expression had quickly gone from shocked to stony.
Hayd merely looked disappointed.
Ellara could not blame them. She had lied to them to bring them here and they were angry at her for it, rightfully so. Friends were not supposed to lie to each other. But what other choice had she had?
She took a deep breath.
"The current location of Senator Padmé Amidala."
This is for my master, Mara reminded herself as she once again resisted the urge to just kill Luke Peridon and be done with it. I need him to complete my mission.
After spending what seemed like years with what was possibly the most annoying being in the entire galaxy, Mara was ready to scream. It took all of her control to remain in character. (Luke would not understand why the sweet and gentle "Shannin" was suddenly pummeling him senseless. That would take more brains than he had.) She was very glad that she only had to endure this torture for one day. All she needed this idiot for was to get into his house so she could learn the current condition of his mother. Then she could be rid of him.
She wondered if her master would let her kill him after Vader had rejoined him...
"Just one more thing to get and then I'm done," Luke cheerily informed her. "That should be everything the club needs to get started on our new project."
"Great," Mara commented in the same tone, ignoring the urge to gag. "It's obvious your club would be lost without you."
Luke made one of his now-routine embarrassed laughs. (Kill me! she begged. Please!) "That's not true. I'm only doing what any president would. It's my job to make sure everything we do runs smoothly. It's nothing special."
"There's that modesty again," she said with her best fake smile. "You should be proud of what you do for your club. It's obvious it's proud of you or you wouldn't be its president."
"The only reason I'm president of most of the clubs I belong to is because I'm the only one not involved in anything else," he explained. "My clubs are pretty much my life."
Loser! "And why is that?" she asked, putting as much interest as possible into her voice.
He shrugged. "Because I love to help people," he answered. "There's nothing I enjoy more." He grinned at her, which only served to increase her desperation to slug him. "Pretty weird, huh?"
Do you really want me to answer that? "Actually, I think it's rather wizard," she told him, again suppressing the gag reflex. "You're a special guy, Luke."
All for my master, she repeated to herself. For my master.
They fell silent as Mara allowed the idiot to recover from his embarrassing display. (Men were not supposed to blush.) She wondered how much more of this torture she could take.
Luke had all but told her that he was finished at this shopping center. The question was where he was planning to go next. She hoped he was ready to return home. The sooner she could get inside his house and investigate Amidala's condition, the better. Once she knew when Amidala would be back at work, she could free herself from Luke's unbearable presence.
She decided she would rent a hotel room so she could take a long shower. Being around Luke had made her feel so dirty!
"Well, here's that last store," Luke broke the silence, pointing to a store front on the left. "Thanks again for coming with me while I ran these errands. It was really nice of you."
That's what you think. "What are friends for?" she replied sweetly.
He smiled at that. "Yeah. That's exactly it. Thanks, Shannin."
"You're welcome, Luke."
"So, um, where are you headed after you leave here?" he asked, trying and failing to be nonchalant.
"I don't know," she told him. "What about you?"
"Home," he let her know. "I have a ton of homework to do. My teachers are relentless."
"Need any help?" she questioned in as innocent a way she could manage.
He laughed. "Do I need help? Do I ever! My little sister is better at more of these subjects than I am! And you thought I was one of the smart kids!"
Hardly. If he hadn't been in front of her, she would have snorted. "I'm actually not too bad in a couple of subjects myself. If you want, I could go over some of your work with you."
"Really? That would be great!"
So easy... "Hey, I'm starting at your school first thing next week," she "reminded" him. "It might be a good idea to at least get a feel for what I'm jumping into."
"Yeah," he agreed. "Great idea. And maybe...um, that is, if your parents don't mind...you could, I don't know, stay for dinner too?"
Pathetic. "I'd like that, Luke," she lied with a straight face. "Why don't I call my parents and ask them while you go into the store?"
"Sounds like a plan to me," he accepted. He put his hand to the touch panel next to the store's entrance. "I won't be long. Cross your fingers that your parents say it's okay."
"Don't worry. They will," she assured him. (Although she had no intention of contacting him, her "parent" would be extremely pleased by the invitation. Especially in that there had been no need to use the Force to acquire it.) She made a show of pulling out her comlink. "Go on in. I'll be waiting right here."
He smiled, nodded, and disappeared into the store.
Mara heaved a sigh of relief and returned her comlink to her belt.
She had accomplished her goal and gotten the idiot to invite her home. Now all she had to do was find out when Amidala would be returning to work.
Then she could finally put her plan into motion.
"How many times are we going to have to tell you that we don't know anything about this senator?" Anakin pressed Ellara in an exasperated yet controlled voice. "You're wasting your time with us."
Padmé squeezed Anakin's hand, silently showing her approval of his control. He had not lost his temper once, though he had come close a few times. (He had come a long way from the reckless boy she had fallen in love with. Marriage and fatherhood had changed him, making him the man he was today.) He was giving a beautiful performance and she could not be any prouder of him if she tried. Even Obi-Wan was impressed, judging by the quick looks she had exchanged with him while Ellara was distracted by Anakin.
"I still don't believe you," Ellara stated firmly though her desperation was clearly in her voice now. "You know something. I know you do. Tell me and you'll never hear another word from me about this again. Please."
Padmé's heart went out to Ellara. The poor woman was trying so hard to remain calm, but it was obvious she was close to tears. (Obi-Wan's worries had been completely unfounded. Ellara had been on the verge of falling apart from the moment she and Anakin had arrived. She wondered what had happened between the time she had left Obi-Wan that morning and the beginning of the meeting.) This investigation meant so much to her and Padmé realized that she would be devastated by failure, but it was imperative that she failed. It was the only outcome that would guarantee the safety of Padmé's loved ones. And as much as she hated and felt guilty for hurting Ellara, her family had to come first.
Even after all of this time, it still felt strange to put her own needs ahead of others. If it were not for her family, she would have gladly revealed her true identity to Ellara if only to help redirect her and her group towards a more effective means of helping to defeat the Empire. But she could not risk having anyone knowing that she was alive. (In a perverse way, she was grateful that Palpatine had declared her legally dead. It made hiding all the more easier.) She could not do that to Anakin or the children. Their survival depended solely on remaining hidden.
"Ellara, don't you think we would have told you something if we knew it?" Padmé offered. "We hate the Empire as much as anyone. Why do you think we chose to raise our family out here in the Outer Rim? We wanted our children to grow up free from its oppression.
"I have nothing but admiration for you and your group," she honestly told her.
Ellara had grown desperate enough to reveal everything, including Obi-Wan's true identity. (Padmé had hidden her momentary amusement of Obi-Wan's shock at that revelation. He had obviously not been expected it.) It was clear that she was no longer thinking straight. Telling them the details about Clearl and her mission as well as identifying a Jedi Knight was a huge risk on Ellara's part. She was trusting them with knowledge that she should have known better than to share. If Padmé and Anakin had been just anyone, she would have just put herself as well as Clearl and everyone else in the group in danger.
Padmé had a feeling that this meeting would very shortly be coming to an end.
"This Clearl sounds like a very good woman," she continued. "She has a vision and the drive to bring it to life. She's doing what I would be if I didn't have a family to raise. If I had the information you want, why would I keep it from you? Why would Hayd? We would do everything in our power to help you. You cannot even begin to imagine how desperate I am for the Empire to fall."
Padmé felt Anakin squeeze her hand in both comfort and encouragement.
"We're your friends, Ellara," Anakin spoke up. "Don't you think we'd help you if we could? Think about it."
"I..." Ellara started to say something then stopped. She sighed. "I don't understand. If you really know nothing about Senator Amidala, then why did Ammae recognize her picture? Why the strange reaction?"
"We can't answer that for her," Padmé said, understanding that the questioning had at last ended. Relief flowed through her. Ellara knew she had failed. It was finally over. "You know as well as anyone how insatiable Ammae's desire to learn is. It's obvious she stumbled onto something that she's afraid to share. What, none of us can say. We can only hope she'll eventually open up to someone and let it out."
Ellara looked utterly defeated and Padmé had the strong desire to comfort her.
"I was so sure," she murmured. She turned to Obi-Wan, who Padmé knew was hiding his relief at the turn of events. "It seems I have wasted your time, Master Kenobi. I'm very sorry."
"There's no need to apologize," he waved her off. "You may have been mistaken about the senator, but think of this as a learning experience. You learned a new skill and one that's use you excelled at, I might add."
Always the diplomat, Padmé mused.
Anakin leaned close to her as Ellara and Obi-Wan continued talking. "We did it," he whispered.
She slightly nodded, aware that Ellara could return her attention to them at any moment.
And, as Anakin straightened up, she did just that.
"And I owe both of you an even greater apology," Ellara said. "I lured you here under false pretenses and then I wrongfully questioned you. I took advantage of our friendship and used it against you. You were rightfully angry at me when this all began and I don't doubt you're still angry now. I'll understand if neither of you wants to speak to me ever again. And I promise you Ammae will know nothing of this. This is between us. I hope you'll forgive me for my mistake, but if not, I'll understand."
"Ellara, don't be ridiculous," Padmé gently chided her. (After all, Ellara wasn't the only one being deceitful...) "Of course we forgive you. Why wouldn't we? As you said, it was a mistake. Yes, I was angry at first but after you explained everything, I understood what you were trying to do. I see no reason why a small incident such as this should destroy our friendship." She turned to Anakin. "Do you?"
"No, I don't," he answered, looking at Ellara. "Do you agree, Master Jedi?"
"I do," Obi-Wan said as Ellara turned to him. "No one has been harmed by this incident. Inconvenienced, perhaps, but nothing more. Anyone who would end a strong friendship over something like this was never a true friend at all."
"Very true," Padmé agreed. "See, Ellara? You have nothing to worry about." She reached out to her and took her hands. "You're still our friend and your secret is safe with us. And as proof of our friendship, I'd like to invite both you and Master Kenobi over for dinner tonight. I know Ammae is eager to see her favorite teacher again." She looked over at Obi-Wan. "And I believe Luke already invited the both of you over anyway."
"Indeed he did," Obi-Wan verified. "However, he happens to believe that I am simply a teacher named 'Ben.' I believe it would be in the best interest of your children if we don't contradict that misconception."
Of the children, Ammae was the only one who knew Obi-Wan's actual identity and Padmé knew she could be trusted to keep the secret in front of Ellara. Luke and Leia on the other hand... Leia...
"Of course," Padmé nodded. "Would 1800 be a good time for the both of you?"
"It's fine with me," Ellara told her. "Master Kenobi?"
"Ellara's schedule is my own," he said. "I will come whenever she does."
"1800 is it," Padmé declared. "Now," she went on, rising to her feet," in light of this development, I think it's time for me to return home so I can begin dinner preparations."
Everyone else stood up as well, Anakin wrapping his arm around her waist.
"There is to be no talk of this incident at dinner," she warned. "This is simply going to be a pleasant dinner between family and friends. Are we in agreement?"
"Of course, Natala," Ellara nodded. "I don't think I can ever tell you enough how sorry I am."
"The best apology I can receive from you is for you to put this entire incident behind you," Padmé informed her. "Can you do that?"
Ellara nodded. "I'll try."
"A very wise Jedi master once said that you either do or do not. There is no try," Obi-Wan interjected. "It is a lesson I have found to be most accurate."
"All right then," Ellara said. "I will do my best to put it behind me."
"That's all I ask," Padmé let her know.
Anakin gently pulled her closer against him.
"Natala and I will see you tonight," he told the others. "Ellara, I promise you have nothing to worry about. You've been a wonderful teacher to Ammae and a good friend to us. This misunderstanding won't change anything."
"Thank you," she smiled at him.
He smiled back. "We'll see you later.
"Let's go," he murmured to Padmé.
"Ellara, Master Kenobi," Padmé acknowledged the two of them.
Obi-Wan inclined his head and Padmé nodded back.
Farewells exchanged, Padmé allowed Anakin to guide her from the room.
In silence, they walked down the hall, Padmé leaning against him, filled with sweet relief.
It was over, finally over.
And they had succeeded.
Their family was still safe.
Once they were outside, Anakin stopped and repositioned her so that she was facing him while still in his arms.
"We did it," he repeated his earlier words. "Just like I promised you we would."
"Thank the Force," she breathed. "I never thought we'd convince her."
"But we did, my love," he reminded her. "We're safe now. You don't have to worry any more."
"I love you," she smiled at him.
"I love you too."
He leaned down and kissed her, pulling her close.
When they parted, he softly said, "Let's go home."
She nodded and let him lead her back to where they had parked the speeder.
She had a dinner to arrange.
"I had a really good time," Leia spoke as she and Han exited the diner they had gone to after leaving "The War Zone." "Thank you."
"It was my pleasure, Sweetheart," he told her. "It's not every day a guy like me gets to spend an afternoon having fun like this. I enjoyed it myself."
She grinned. "I bet you did. I just don't understand how you could beat me at all those games. I still say you cheated somehow."
She still couldn't believe how much fun she had had with Han. He really was the nice man she had initially sensed him to be and he had left no room for doubt that his intentions towards her were entirely pure. He had never once suggested that they do anything inappropriate. She really was a "kid" to him and he treated her as such. So when he had said "fun," he had meant it.
For the first time in her life, Leia had a friend.
It was both strange and wonderful.
"Me cheat? Never!" he defended himself. "You just can't get over the fact that I was better than you. And I was so sure that the dessert bribe would make you forget!"
"You wish," she retorted. "I must warn you, Captain Solo, I don't easily accept defeat. I foresee a rematch in your future."
"Do you foresee another defeat in your future too?" he challenged. "Because it's impossible for anyone to beat me. I'm just that good."
"Is that so?"
"Ask Chewie. He'll tell you."
Leia snorted. "Sure he would. After you reminded him who owed whom a life debt."
"I'll have you know that the furball threatened to break that very same life debt only earlier today," Han informed her. "Holding it over him just doesn't work anymore."
"Such a tragedy," she mock-moaned. "I'm sure your friendship will never be the same."
"Especially when I told him that you were going to replace him as my copilot," he grinned.
"Really? And when did you plan on making this drastic change?"
"That depends. On you."
"On me?" she echoed. At first she had thought he was joking. But there was something in the emotions she was picking up from him... "How's that?"
"The moment you decide you want to blow this boring little planet, the copilot seat is yours."
And then she realized he was completely serious. This was no joke. He was making her a genuine offer to become a part of his life. And from what she knew about spacers, this was not something that happened often.
"That could be a while," she cautiously stated. While she liked him and considered him a friend, there was the fact that he was much older than she was. She was only sixteen. Even she didn't know what she wanted to do with her life. (Except for that very important personal mission she had to fulfill...) "I'm not quite ready to go anywhere."
"I know," he said and she suddenly understood that he was all but saying that he would wait for her. He liked her that much. The revelation blew her away. "I was just saying, that's all." His irreverent smile came back. "All you'd have to do is comm me and say 'Han, throw the Wookie out the airlock' and I'll be back to pick you up in no time flat."
She tried to picture Han throwing Chewie out the airlock. "You know, you might need help with the airlock part."
The momentary seriousness had passed and he had once again returned their conversation to its normal lightness.
He shrugged. "Details! So we'll wait until you're onboard and we'll throw him out together. Problem solved."
She laughed. "Don't tell Chewie or you'll be the one going out the airlock."
"And he'd do it too," he assured her. "The furball has a temper you wouldn't believe."
"Not as bad as mine, I'll bet."
"Hmm," Han murmured thoughtfully. "I don't know. Do you rip people's arms off when they really annoy you?"
"I haven't had any luck with that yet, but I do have a mean kick," she answered matter-of-factly and the two of them laughed.
They finally reached where he had parked the speeder.
"Where to now, kid?" he asked.
She took a look at her chrono. "Home.
"Yeah, it's starting to get late and I wanted to get home on time today," she explained. "It might be nice to not have a lecture for once."
"I hear you, kid," he said, opening the door for her. "A lecture would be a lousy way to end your fun."
"You have no idea. My mom's lectures..." She shuddered. "Ugh!"
"Then let's get you home so you can avoid it," he asserted as she got in. He closed the door behind her. "You deserve at least one night of peace."
"I second that!"
They laughed again as he walked around to his side of the speeder and got in.
He started the ignition. "Here we go."
She nodded and he started to drive towards her neighborhood.
And then it hit her that their time together was over. And that made her very sad.
I don't want it to end.
Luke stared at the completed equation on the screen. "I still don't see how you got that."
Shannin made a sound that Luke couldn't tell if it was a sigh or a groan. "Which was the part that lost you?"
"This one," he said, pointing to the fifth step. "I don't understand why you did what you did."
"Well, you know the overall goal of the problem is to identify all of the variables, right?" she asked and he nodded. "And you identify the variables one at a time by isolating each one. So all I did here was isolate-"
"Luke, Ammae, we're home!" Dad's voice called from somewhere in the house, cutting Shannin's explanation off.
"Great!" he told her. "You can meet my parents now."
He had a feeling that Mom and Dad would like her very much.
"Don't you want to finish your homework first?"
"It can wait," he assured her. "Besides, I really want to introduce you to my parents. I know they're gonna like you."
"Okay," she gave in. "Let's go meet your parents."
"And my little sister Ammae," he added. "She's the one who usually helps me with my homework. She'll be glad I've found someone else for once."
Shannin raised an eyebrow. "Your little sister helps you?"
He shrugged. "She's incredibly smart. Why not use her?"
"You have a point," she admitted though there was a tone in her voice that Luke couldn't understand. (The tone showed up every once in a while, but he ignored it for the most part since she had been nothing but sweet and understanding all day.)
He turned off his terminal screen and got up from his seat. "Let's go. I promise you that you'll like them. I have really great parents."
"Apparently so." She stood up and followed him to the door.
Luke smiled at her and palmed his door open. "Come on."
He took her hand and led her out of the room and down the hall. He could already hear Mom and Dad talking to Ammae.
As he reached the end of the hallway, he saw the three of them hugging.
Shannin made yet another sound at the sight. "Affectionate, aren't they?"
"My family," Luke proudly told her. "Aren't they great?"
She simply nodded.
He tugged on her hand. "Let me introduce you." He pulled her out into the open.
"Hey, guys. I have someone I'd like you to meet."
Mara struggled with her emotions as her idiotic companion dragged her to meet both her target and her hated rival.
She had seen images of Lord Vader before, but none of them had ever presented him in the way she saw him now: openly hugging and kissing a little girl.
This was her master's coveted apprentice?
He had got to be kidding!
Who had ever heard of a soft-hearted dark lord of the Sith?
She did not know what to think. For years, she had dreamed of meeting and killing this man. Her master had warned her repeatedly of how deadly he was and that he could kill her effortlessly. In fact, she had been ordered to stay away from him because of it. Yet how could she reconcile that with what she was seeing before her eyes? The great Darth Vader being affectionate with his own daughter?
"Mom, Dad, Ammae," Luke said, "this is my new friend Shannin."
Mara gave them her best smile. "Hi."
"She and her family just moved here and she starts at my school next week," he continued. "We met today, well, more like ran into each other actually." He once again made that annoying smile that she swore was begging her to slug him. "And I asked her if she'd like to come over for dinner. I told her you wouldn't mind."
"Of course not," Amidala agreed and walked towards Mara with her hand extended. "It's very nice to meet you, Shannin," she took her hand and gently shook it. I'm Natala, Luke's mother. We're having some friends over for dinner and we'll be honored to have you join us."
"Thank you, ma'am," Mara politely answered with her fake smile firmly in place. (This was going to be a long ordeal!)
"Natala," Amidala insisted. "Friends shouldn't be so formal with each other."
"Natala," Mara repeated, making a mental note. Although a seemingly minor piece of information, her training had taught her that nothing learned about a target was to be ignored or discarded because one never knew when it could be used against them.
"And I'm Hayd," Vader introduced himself, coming to stand beside his wife and taking his turn shaking Mara's hand. He grinned at her in a very un-Sith-like manner. "As I'm sure you guessed, I'm Luke's father."
The gag impulse returned. "Very nice to meet you. Luke wasn't lying when he said he had great parents."
"Luke also has a tendency to exaggerate," Vader pointed out. "If you're going to be friends with him, you need to remember that."
"Dad!" Luke protested and Mara kept from laughing.
"So who else is coming for dinner?" Luke wanted to know.
"Ellara and her friend Ben," Vader informed him.
Alarm bells suddenly went off in the back of her mind. Vader and Amidala had openly invited Kenobi into their home? Weren't he and Vader sworn enemies now? Something was very wrong here. What was going on?
She needed to contact her master as soon as possible.
"And this is my little sister Ammae," Luke spoke, returning her focus to the present.
The little girl standing next to Luke looked at Mara warily.
"Hello," she quietly greeted.
"Hello," Mara replied.
It was obvious that there was something about Mara that was making the girl nervous though Mara knew her performance was flawless. Given who the girl's father was, she had a feeling she knew what the cause was. And to test her theory, she sent out a light Force probe to the girl.
And immediately found her answer: the girl was unconsciously using the Force as Mara had thought. She did not have the feel of an active Force user, but there was a definite sense of the Force around her. Unlike her brother who gave off no sense of having ever touched the Force at all-though Mara suspected both he and his sister would be very powerful if they received proper training. After all, they were the children of the Jedi's Chosen One.
Whatever Ammae was detecting from Mara, it was making her uneasy.
Not that it mattered. Luke and his parents liked her. They were not going to lose trust in her over the word of a ten year old who had a bad feeling. She was in no danger of being thrown out of the house. She would be able to stay for dinner and complete her recon mission.
Her master was more than likely going to find her report to be most interesting...
Suddenly, she heard the sound of information being pressed into a keypad. Within seconds, the front door to the house slid open and a newcomer entered into the hallway.
The third Skywalker child.
Leia, Luke's twin.
Who apparently was a very powerful Force user.
She stopped speaking and stared directly at Mara.
"Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?"
Leia's mind had been preoccupied by Han's last minute confession that he was more than likely leaving Entellion tomorrow when she had walked into her house and been practically slammed by her danger sense.
Surveying the scene before her, the only new element was the strange girl she had never seen before. Logically, she was the only possible source of the danger. So, logically, Leia had attacked her first.
The girl glared back at her.
"Leia!" Mom cried. "Shannin is our guest! How dare you speak to her that way!"
"She's no guest," Leia countered. "Something's not right about her. If I were you, I'd throw her out now."
"Leia, she's my friend!" Luke jumped in. "How can you say those things? You don't even know her."
"I don't need to know her," Leia brushed him off. "I already know enough about her. She's dangerous."
Mom folded her arms. "And you know this how?"
Too late, Leia realized what she was doing. By carrying on this way, she was in danger of revealing her secret. How was she supposed to get out of this one?
The girl, Shannin, smirked at her.
"We're waiting, young lady," Dad informed her. "Your mother asked you a question."
"Maybe she thought she was someone else," Ammae quietly spoke up, saving the day. "Stuff like that happens all the time."
Leia looked over to the "droid" and mouthed a silent "thank you." Something really was up if Ammae was helping her. Normally, the "droid" completely ignored her. (Not that she blamed her. She'd been pretty rotten to her over the years.)
"Really?" Dad said, his expression dubious. "Is that true, Leia? Have you mistaken her for someone else?"
Leia decided to make a show of thinking about it.
"Well, I... No, I couldn't... How...?" She heaved a dramatic sigh. "It's possible," she finally conceded.
Shannin's smirk turned triumphant, convincing Leia that Luke's so-called new friend was anything but. She may have convinced the dork and her parents of her supposed good intentions, but Leia knew better and, apparently, so did Ammae. And Ammae didn't even use the Force!
She would have to grab the "droid" and talk to her when no one else was looking.
"I think you owe Shannin an apology," Mom sternly commanded.
"Sorry," she grumbled at Shannin.
"What was that?" Mom pressed.
"I'm sorry," Leia apologized in her sincerest voice.
"That's okay," Shannin spoke in a sweet-sounding tone, her smirk now conspicuously absent. "Mistakes happen."
"They do," Leia agreed. But not this time. You're bad news and I'm going to have to somehow prove it.
"Leia, I think it best if you go straight to your room and start your homework now," Mom decided. "While I'm extremely pleased to see you come home on time, your outburst was appalling. We're having guests for dinner and I expect for you to be on your best behavior. I want you to stay in your room until you're called for. Are we clear, young lady?"
"Absolutely," Leia replied, not really caring. All that mattered was proving that Shannin was not who she seemed to be.
Of course, she currently had no idea how to do that but she'd think of something!
"Then go," Mom ordered.
"Fine," Leia said and began to walk away.
However, as she passed Ammae, she mouthed "follow me."
Ammae nodded, indicating that she would come as soon as she could.
If anyone could help her come up with a scheme, the "droid" could.
Satisfied that she had recruited an ally, Leia strode out of the hall with her head held high.
Obi-Wan frowned as he tried to interpret the disturbance he had just sensed in the Force. Something had just happened somewhere near by, but he could not figure out what. All he knew for certain was that a very strong Force user was involved.
He knew Anakin wasn't involved. He would have recognized his distinctive Force presence if he had. Though whoever it was was nearly as powerful as Anakin had been.
One of his children, perhaps?
It was a possibility. The twins had actively used the Force when they were very small until their parents had made them stop. But what if one of them hadn't stopped?
Anakin and Padmé had briefly shared with him their troubles with their oldest daughter. Leia was disobedient and secretive. It would be very much like her to be still using the Force. Though for what, he couldn't even begin to imagine.
If it was Leia that was behind the disturbance, what had happened to result in such a strong broadcast?
Unfortunately, he had no time to investigate. He and Ellara were expected for dinner in less than two hours. He could not properly track down the source of the disturbance in such a short time.
But if it was Leia, he'd know the moment he entered the house.
But if it wasn't...
The mystery would just have to wait.
Anakin found Padmé in the kitchen overseeing Threepio's preparation of tonight's meal. (Artoo was also supervising, though he was harassing the "chef" more than anything else."
He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.
"How's everything coming?" he asked her, kissing the back of her neck.
"Very nicely," she told him. "I think there's going to be enough food for everyone."
"I'd hope so," he teased, "otherwise we'd have a war on our hands."
"You mean other than the one that already started in the hallway?"
She sighed and turned around in his arms.
"What are we going to do about her, Anakin?" she questioned, her expression serious. "Her temper has always been out of control, but never like this. What was she thinking, accusing someone she'd never even met that way? Something must be going on with her. Something we don't know about."
"Which is everything she does," he pointed out. "Force knows where she goes every day and why she's always home late."
"Except for today," Padmé put in. "Why come home early today? What happened?"
"It must have been bad whatever it was," Anakin decided. "And something about Shannin reminded her of it."
"We need to talk to her about it," she said, "but when will we ever get the chance? She's never here. She's either at school or off to where no one knows where to find her." She paused. "I think it's time we put an end to it."
"But how?" he wanted to know. "As you said, she's never around. And even if we did try to ground her, she'd find a way to get out. You know as well as I do that she would."
"I know," Padmé admitted. "It's just wishful thinking on my part. I'm always so worried about her. She's only sixteen years old. She's been lucky so far, but what if one of these days she gets hurt? What then? No one would know where to look for her. And with that temper of hers, it's bound to happen sooner or later. I fear for her."
"So do I, my love," he assured her. "As difficult as she is to deal with, she's still our child and we love her. We only want the best for her."
"Do you think Obi-Wan might be able to help us?" she wondered. "As an outsider, he may be able to see something we've missed."
"It's worth a try," Anakin told her. He gave her a small smile. "After all, he had an unruly teenager of his own to deal with."
"But you were never as bad as she is," Padmé reminded him, ignoring his attempt at lightening the mood. "Plus you had training to take care of yourself."
"I was bad enough," he argued before returning to the issue at hand. "We'll ask Obi-Wan about it after dinner, all right? We'll let Luke and Ammae keep Ellara busy while we take him aside and explain the situation to him. How does that sound?"
"Good," she told him. "I'm willing to try anything. I just want this behavior to stop."
"So do I, Padmé.
"So do I."
Mara sat next to Luke as he continued with his homework, only half listening to whatever he was babbling about. Her mind was too busy figuring out how was going to use the impending dinner conversation to her advantage.
Vader, Amidala, and Kenobi, all together in one room. How long had they been in contact? What was the status of their relationship? Why did the children appear to be in the dark about Kenobi's identity? And how did Kenobi's involvement with Rittani's group fit in to all of this?
These were all the things she needed to learn so she could report it back to her master. He needed to know all of it, in detail. She planned on leaving nothing out, especially everything concerning Vader. Her master needed to know that his apprentice was no longer his apprentice.
It was glaringly obvious that he had abandoned his place as a Sith years ago. Sith did not work as lowly mechanics or shower their children in disgusting displays of affection. Nor did they have anything to do with Jedi that did not involve destroying them. Lord Vader was not worthy of his title or the high opinion her master had of him. He was a traitor and she wanted to kill him more than ever.
Perhaps her master would grant her wish once he knew what had happened.
However, there was one obstacle in the way of completing her mission: Leia.
That horrible girl had nearly ruined everything. If her parents had believed her... Thankfully, they had sided with sweet, innocent "Shannin" and sent her to her room. Apparently, they were in the dark about her incredible Force abilities.
Which was yet another piece of proof that Vader was a failure as a Sith. A true Sith would have long ago trained such a powerful Force user in the ways of the dark side.
She knew Leia was probably going to spend the entire meal making nasty comments about her and trying to convince her parents that "Shannin" was "dangerous." (Which, ironically, was true. If she wanted to, Mara could probably kill them all.) If she didn't have to concentrate on her mission, she'd find it amusing. As it was, it was simply going to be an annoyance.
Her only other concern was Kenobi. He could not be allowed to know that she was a Force user. (According to her master, Vader no longer used the Force which was why she had not been afraid to use it in his presence. The only time he'd be aware of her usage would be if she tried to probe him, which she doubted she'd ever have to do.) So she would suppress her presence in the Force as her master had taught her as well as refrain from using it for any reason. She also has reinforced the blocks in her mind as a precaution though Kenobi, as a Jedi, was forbidden from probing anyone's mind without first obtaining permission.
She was then pulled out of her thoughts by a tug on her shirt sleeve.
"Shannin, did you hear my question?" Luke wanted to know.
"Sorry," she apologized with a sweet smile. "I was just thinking about something I had learned in my old school that I think will help you with this. Want to hear about it?"
"Do I even have to ask?"
Mara silently groaned at the thought of having to put up with this idiot for several more hours yet before she could leave.
And then she began to instruct him in the basic mathematic concepts she had learned three years ago...
Leia sat at the dinner table, mostly ignored and bored out of her mind. Mom, Dad, and Ellara's friend Ben were acting as if they were old friends and had known each other for years. Ellara was talking with Ammae and telling her all she had missed in class the past few days. (Only the "droid" would be interested in hearing about school at dinner!) And Luke was deep in conversation with his new "friend" Shannin.
Leia knew that there was something wrong with this Shannin. If the Force had declared her a danger, then it had to be true. The question was how to prove it?
Ammae had come to her room after the hall "incident," but the two of them had been unable to think of any way to trick Shannin into revealing her true intentions. (Leia had been tempted to reveal her secret to Ammae, but had decided against it. The "droid" could not be trusted to keep it. She told their parents everything.) Shannin was too smart. She'd never fall for any of the tricks they knew. So maybe she'd try something Shannin couldn't know...
According to what she'd learned about the Jedi, it was possible to use the Force to look into someone's mind. While the Jedi had viewed this action as unethical and would never do so without permission, Leia believed that in an emergency situation like this ethics went out the airlock. (Her family's life was in danger!) Taking a look around Shannin's mind would tell her everything she needed to know about her and more. There was bound to be something in there she could bring up that would force Shannin to expose herself as the monster she truly was.
Confident that she was being ignored, Leia took a deep breath and reached out with the Force towards Shannin's mind...
Only to immediately hit a mental wall.
Shannin's face whipped around to glare at her and Leia came to a sudden terrifying realization.
Shannin was Force-sensitive too.
Obi-Wan had instantly felt that someone called on the Force and known immediately that it was the girl sitting across the table from him.
His suspicions had been right. Leia was the mysterious Force user he had sensed earlier.
Anakin and Padmé would have to be told.
However, what she was using it for he could not tell. Any Force usage of his own would alert Leia to his own ability and he did not want to risk it while Ellara and Luke's friend were around. He would have to ask her when he pulled her aside for a private conversation.
Suddenly Shannin, Luke's friend, turned to glare at Leia and Leia's immediately withdrew from the Force, radiating shaken emotions.
Something had just happened. And it involved both girls.
Could Shannin be Force sensitive too?
What had Leia done?
Obi-Wan watched as Shannin transformed her expression back into the pleasant smile she had worn all evening.
"Luke, Natala, Hayd," she spoke, calling attention to herself. "Thank you so much for this wonderful evening but I just noticed the time and realized that I need to get home now."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Padmé told her. "We've very much enjoyed your company. I know Luke has especially."
"Mom!" Luke cried in embarrassment and Obi-Wan had the urge to laugh. Luke had sounded exactly like his father had at his age.
Shannin smiled and put her hand on Luke's. "I've enjoyed your company too. It's not often that my own family sits down for a meal like this."
"You're welcome to join us any time," Anakin said.
Obi-Wan quickly shifted his gaze to Leia and saw that she had gotten over her shock and now appeared to be fuming.
She needs training, he realized. Her emotions are too volatile.
In other words, she, more than her other siblings, had her father's temper.
"Thank you," Shannin replied and stood up. "Luke, would you mind walking me to the door?"
"Of course," Luke answered, rising from his own seat. He nodded at everyone in turn. "Mom, Dad, Ellara, Ben, Leia, Ammae."
"Good night," Shannin told everyone as she offered Luke her arm.
The farewell was returned and Luke led her out of the dining room.
Obi-Wan returned his attention to the still-fuming Leia. He feared an explosion was imminent once she deemed Shannin out of hearing range.
But it never came. Instead, she stood up and announced, "Thanks for dinner. Ellara, great seeing you again. Ben, nice meeting you. I've got homework to do. I'll be in my room if you need me."
And before anyone could respond, she was gone.
Obi-Wan turned to Anakin and mouthed "we need to talk."
Anakin nodded his acknowledgement before turning to Padmé and whispering something to her.
She leaned over her husband and mouthed "thank you" to Obi-Wan.
Obviously, more was going on than he had thought. And it was big enough to concern Leia's parents.
He was eager to learn everything in detail.
He hoped he'd be able to help.
Luke stood in the doorway with Shannin, unsure of what to say.
"I'm, uh, glad you were able to come tonight," he began, recognizing how lame it sounded in his own ears. "It was...nice."
"It was," Shannin agreed, smiling at him. "Thank you for having me."
"You're welcome. And I'm, uh, really sorry about my sister. She's, well, she's..."
"A troublemaker?" Shannin suggested.
She laughed. "Don't worry about it. I get the feeling that she's all talk and no action."
"You're wrong about that," he said, momentarily getting serious. "Leia's gotten into a lot of fights over the years. She's been known to hurt people. Badly." He swallowed. "When she started threatening you..."
"Luke, I can take care of myself," she assured him. "Your sister doesn't scare me. If anything, I find it sweet that she's so protective of you."
He started. Protective? "I hadn't thought of that."
Shannin laughed again. "Trust me. That's all it is."
"So, uh, I'll see you in school next week," he continued, not sure how to end this conversation.
Suddenly, Shannin leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, taking him by surprise.
His hand flew up to cover the spot her lips had touched.
"Maybe even sooner than that." She stepped outside. "Good night, Luke."
"G-good night," he echoed.
She smiled at him again and then walked away.
Luke waited until she had vanished from sight before closing the door.
He fell heavily back against the wall, shocked by what she had done.
She kissed me!
Mara wiped furiously at her mouth, hopefully removing all traces of the idiot's taint from her lips.
Kissing him had been nauseating, but important to her cover. It has solidified in Luke's tiny mind that she, "Shannin," liked him. And a girl that liked him couldn't possibly be bad or dangerous.
She had especially been proud of her insinuation that his sister was simply "overprotective." The boy had completely fallen for it. He would not be doubting her intentions any time soon.
Nor would his parents, for that matter. They had also bought her act and saw "Shannin" as the sweet innocent Mara had designed the persona to be. Any girl Luke brought home would have to be. (The ones with even a fraction of a mind would know better than to waste their time on him.) Leia would have no affect on her family's opinion of her.
Not that she even felt threatened in the slightest. Leia did not have what it took to do anything other than annoy her. Her use of the Force was pathetic. She was powerful but completely untrained. Her laughable attempt at reading Mara's mind was all the proof she needed. (Any half-trained Force adept knew how to tear down mental barriers.)
Leia was nothing but an infuriating annoyance.
Mara couldn't decide if she wanted to kill her or her brother first.
She changed her focus to her current physical location. She had reached the top of the neighborhood where Vader and his family lived. Determining that she was far enough away to avoid Kenobi sensing her Force use, she sat down on the curb and delved deep into the Force to contact her master.
As always, her master's response was almost instantaneous.
What have you learned, my Hand?
We were wrong about Kenobi, she began her report. He is on friendly terms with Vader and Amidala. He was welcomed into their home tonight. I believe he has known about their location and has been in contact with them for some time. I have yet to determine why he was deceiving his colleagues in the intercepted transmission, but it seems that the three of them are continuing to lie to Rittani, the teacher he was supposedly sent to help.
It is also my belief that Vader is no longer a Sith.
And what has brought you to that conclusion, my Hand?
His relationship with Kenobi, Mara informed him. His relationship with his wife and his children. His general overall behavior. None of it conforms to what I know of the Sith.
And how is it you know so much about being a Sith?
I have observed you, my master, she told him. I have watched and learned from you. You have achieved all of your desires. Only a true Sith could have accomplished all you have.
She both felt and heard his laughter.
So young and naïve, he said. My dear Mara, your desire to please me has clouded your judgment. You see things but you do not understand them.
It is inevitable that Vader will rejoin me, he continued matter-of-factly. He will have no choice.
I do not understand, Master, she admitted, confused why her master would still desire such a weakling as his apprentice when he had someone like her ready and waiting.
Remember why he first joined me all those years ago.
To save his wife, Mara recalled. He was dreaming of her death and you told him that the dark side could prevent her death.
Very good, he praised her. Why was saving her so important to him?
Because he was obsessed with her, she answered, remembering what she had been taught years ago. He did not want to lose her.
That's only part of it, her master corrected. The cause of his obsession and his fear of loss was his love for her.
She still did not understand. She had been raised to think of love as a weakness. The Vader she had heard stories about had seemed incapable of love. He was strong and ruthless, a killing machine. He had brutally murdered hundreds of Jedi and then single-handedly assassinated the leadership of the Separatists. How could a man like that love? Yet...
Yet she had seen that very same man behaving ridiculously affectionate with his wife and children. She had found him pathetic and unworthy of her master's attentions. What had happened to change him? How could her master truly expect him to become a heartless killer again? It seemed impossible.
What you see as weakness, my Hand, I see as control, her master explained. Vader has always been guided by his emotions, love being the strongest of those. It was why the Jedi never truly trusted him when he was one of them. His love is so powerful that he will do anything to protect those he cares about. Even kill.
And suddenly she understood.
You told him killing would save his wife.
It was a startling realization. It meant that she had wasted so many years hating someone not even worth the effort. If he had only become a Sith to keep his wife from dying...
More precisely I told him that killing would make him powerful enough in the dark side to prevent her death himself, her master clarified. An impossible feat, of course, but Vader was too blinded by fear to realize this. He desired the result so desperately that he acted without thought. He would have done anything I asked.
And he will again, he finished with complete certainty. Because there is now more than just his wife to endanger.
Excellent, my Hand. You are beginning to understand.
She decided to risk his anger. It seems to me, my master, that you spend more time forcing him to do your bidding than you should. Why not take an apprentice who would fully appreciate the honor?
Her master simply laughed again. Like you, my dear Mara?
I know it is not my place to contradict your wisdom, my master, but, yes, I believe I would make a better apprentice than Vader, she told him. My loyalty to you is unwavering. You never have to deceive me into obeying your orders. I obey because I want nothing more than to please you. I know I would not let you down.
And that is precisely why you will never be my apprentice, her master flatly informed her. A Sith cares nothing for pleasing anyone but himself. You have the ambition but not the mindset, my Hand. Tell me. Do you foresee yourself killing me and taking an apprentice of your own once your training was complete?
Yet that is what a Sith does, he pointed out. The rule of two must be maintained. I killed my own master years ago and I expect my own apprentice to do the same to me in time. Vader would have no qualms with ending my life.
I can change, she assured him. Given the chance, I would make you proud.
You do make me proud, he replied, by doing my bidding as my Hand. You question, but you always obey.
Mara knew that the subject of her possible apprenticeship had been closed for now, but she still held out hope. She wanted to be his apprentice more than anything. She refused to accept defeat just yet. After all, Vader was not yet back by his side...
Do you still think you will be able to bring Amidala to me? her master questioned, returning to the reason why she was on this planet.
Not with Kenobi so close by, she answered. He would know if she was no longer on the planet.
Then you will have to take one of the children instead, he declared. The youngest, perhaps.
Mara knew who she'd rather take, but simply said, Yes, Master.
Ammae was the logical choice. She was the baby of the family and would be the most effective in luring Vader into her master's clutches. Unlike the twins, she had no means of defending herself. (Though she had to wonder about Luke. Was someone as stupid as he was capable of fighting off an enemy?) Once she was taken, it would not be long before Vader followed and promised to do anything to get her back.
In fact, I want you to take her tonight, her master ordered. Can you do that?
Easily, she told him. It was simply a matter of entering her room, drugging her, and carrying her to a ship. (She had known that she would need to leave her stealth craft behind ever since her master had ordered her to capture Amidala. She would have to "convince" a pilot to "lend" her the use of his ship.) The girl would be in her master's hands tomorrow.
Excellent, my Hand, he praised once more. Then I anticipate your return to Coruscant. Bring the girl before me as soon as you arrive.
Yes, Master. It shall be done.
Good. I will see you and the girl tomorrow.
And with that, the communication ended.
Mara opened her eyes and got back onto her feet, a plan already forming in her mind.
Ammae was already as good as hers.
Dinner had ended and everyone had moved into the family room where dessert had been served. (Padmé had been amused by Obi-Wan's attempt to resist what she knew to be his favorite sweet before surrendering to his desire. He had given her a most un-Jedi-like look.) Conversation had continued to be light and friendly. With the exception of Leia's strange behavior, the evening had been very pleasant and enjoyable. (Padmé knew Anakin had especially enjoyed spending time with Obi-Wan. It had been a very long time since they had last seen each other.) But now that it was getting late, the serious discussion with Obi-Wan could no longer be put off.
Padmé leaned in as if she were going to kiss Anakin's cheek but instead whispered into his ear, "We should talk to Obi-Wan now." She then kissed him before straightening back up.
Aloud, she announced, "I hate to be the one to ruin the fun, but it's getting rather late and we seem to have left a large mess that needs cleaning up. So I think if I plan on going to bed at a decent hour tonight, I should start taking care of it." She stood up from her seat. "Though if anyone wants to have pity and help me, they're welcome to come."
"I'll help," Ellara immediately offered.
"Let me amend what I said," Padmé waved her off. "If any big strong men want to have pity and help me." She smiled at Ellara. "You've had a rough day. You should rest. Besides, Ammae would hate if you disturbed her."
Earlier, Ammae had fallen asleep while leaning against Ellara. (Luke, declaring the pose "adorable," had taken a holo of it and had promised Ellara a copy.) Padmé had not been surprised. The poor girl had had yet another large information overload today. It was completely understandable that she was exhausted.
Ellara smiled back. "I see your point. But I demand the company of at least one of these 'big strong men.'" She turned to Luke. "I pick you."
Luke laughed. "Yes, ma'am!"
Perfect, Padmé thought. She had planned on making Luke stay with Ellara regardless. He could not overhear the discussion that she and Anakin were about to have with Obi-Wan.
She shifted her gaze between Anakin and Obi-Wan. "Well? Do I have your pity yet?"
Anakin made a long-suffering sigh for Ellara's benefit and joined her. "As my mistress commands."
She stared pointedly at Obi-Wan, who nodded imperceptibly. He knew what she was doing.
"I might as well surrender now," he declared, standing up. "What would you have me do?"
"Gather up those dirty dishes and follow me," she ordered. "The two of you have your work cut out for you."
"Thank you, Ellara!" Luke announced. "You saved me!"
Padmé made a show of folding her arms across her chest. "For now, young man."
Luke looked sheepish. "Sorry?"
"You should be," she teased her son. "I expect you to be a good host while Dad and I are in the other room."
"I'll do my best," he promised.
"I know you will, sweetie," she smiled. She returned her attention to Anakin and Obi-Wan, who had completed the task she had "assigned" to them. "Into the kitchen with the both of you!"
She led both of them out of the family room and into the hall towards the kitchen.
Once she was sure they were out of Luke and Ellara's hearing range, she said, "I'm sorry about that in there, but it was the only way we could get you where we could talk to you. We were planning on speaking with you anyway, but Anakin mentioned you wanted to talk to us as well. But I think we all have the same topic in mind."
"Leia," Obi-Wan spoke and Padmé nodded confirmation.
"She's out of control," Anakin told him. "What you saw at the table was nothing compared to what happened earlier tonight. We need help, Master. We don't know what to do with her."
"We thought that your experiences with Anakin at her age might show us a solution," Padmé explained. "We're willing to try anything. We need to put a stop to her unacceptable behavior before it's too late."
"Both Padmé and I are afraid that her mouth and temper are going to get her badly hurt," Anakin went on. "And since she doesn't ever tell us where she goes, we fear that when that happens we won't know where to find her."
"Unfortunately, that is the least of your problems," Obi-Wan informed them. "She's using the Force as well."
Padmé was stunned. Leia, using the Force? Still?
Leia, who was angry all of the time...
"We put a stop to that years ago," Anakin voiced for the both of them as they entered the kitchen. "Or we thought we had."
"She was using it at the table," Obi-Wan let them know as both men deposited the dirty dishes into the sink. "I think she was trying to do something to Luke's friend, who I believe may be Force sensitive herself because she detected Leia's attempt, which obviously took Leia by surprise."
Anakin turned to Padmé. "That might explain her initial reaction to Shannin. If she's never felt another Force user besides Luke or Ammae, she might view any response to her as hostile."
Ammae, like her older siblings before her, had unconsciously used the Force as an infant. But without anyone encouraging further use (as Luke and Leia had done for each other) and her parents constantly telling her "no" when she accessed it, she had forgotten she had the ability at all.
"She probably felt threatened," Padmé agreed. She looked back at Obi-Wan. "When she came into the house and saw Shannin, she became furious and declared her a danger and that we should throw her out. We, of course, didn't know why Leia was acting that way and sent her to her room. She was so angry... You don't think...?"
She felt Anakin place his arm around her waist.
"I haven't felt the dark side taint since I've been here," he assured her. "Leia may have strong emotions but she is not allowing them to influence which side of the Force she touches.
"For the moment, anyway," he amended. "But I fear that may change over time if she does not receive proper training. She's very powerful, much like you Anakin."
"She's very much like me in a lot of ways, Master," he told him. "She has a temper, worse than mine."
"It's gotten her into trouble at school," Padmé added. "She's been in several fights."
Obi-Wan nodded, absorbing what he was being told. "That is troubling to hear. How long do you think she's been actively using the Force?"
"There's no way of knowing for certain," Padmé admitted. "We thought we had put a stop to it when she turned six, but it's possible she never stopped. We just assumed she had because Luke did and he had only used it at her urging."
"She has obviously put a lot of time and effort into her abilities because she definitely knows how to focus it," Obi-Wan said. "She's has achieved a fine level of control, which is unusual for someone who has not received any training of any kind."
"I think you've just solved the mystery of where she disappears to every day, Master," Anakin spoke up. "She must have found someplace to practice."
"How long has she been disappearing like that?"
"At least a year now," Padmé told him. "But you think she started training herself earlier than that?"
"Most definitely," Obi-Wan confirmed. "Her control is too good for just one year.
"If things were different, I'd say she would have made a fine Jedi."
"And that brings up another issue," Padmé spoke. "It's dangerous to even be suspected of being Force sensitive. Leia knows this. Why do you think she's training herself so diligently? What good does it do her?"
"That's a question only Leia herself can answer," Obi-Wan pointed out. "She's too old and her skills too honed just to be practicing for the enjoyment of it. She has a reason that must be learned as soon as possible.
"I think it imperative that she receive proper training as soon as she can," he continued. "I don't think she can be made to stop at this point. Her actions make it very clear that using the Force is very important to her. But I fear what will happen if she continues unsupervised, especially if her temper is as volatile as you say it is."
"But who could train her?" Padmé questioned. "Anakin can't because using the Force will lead the Emperor to him and you have your mission for the Alliance. There's no one."
"Technically, Anakin can still instruct her," Obi-Wan countered. "There's no reason why he'd have to touch the Force to do so." He faced Anakin. "Do you think you could do that?"
"I don't know," Anakin told him. "I'm her father. I might be too close to her to properly teach her. You'd be a better choice, Master."
"We need to talk to her about this before any decisions are made," Padmé interjected to prevent the inevitable back-and-forth argument. "She needs to hear everything we've said and to have a say in what will be done. Leia does not react well to having things forced on her. It needs to be her decision, her choice."
"You are right, of course," Obi-Wan agreed. "But we need to speak with her very soon. I feel guilty for saying it, but I cannot afford to stay here much longer."
"We understand," Padmé assured him. "You have your mission. We can't thank you enough for what you've already done for us."
"Why don't we talk to her first thing in the morning?" Anakin suggested. "That way we can stop her before she leaves for the day. How early can you come over, Master?"
"As early as you need me to be."
Leia was sprawled across her bed, her mind furiously trying to come up with ways to expose Shannin for the danger she was. Luke and their parents had to be made to see the truth: Shannin was up to no good and could not be trusted.
Unfortunately, the fact that Shannin was Force sensitive herself created a major problem she was unprepared for. How did you trick someone who knew how to use to Force into exposing her true nature?
All of her training so far had been to deal with the Emperor, who was nothing more than an old man. (A disgustingly evil old man, but just an old man.) She had never bothered learning about defeating another Force user, which she now realized was a terrible mistake.
What was she going to do?
If only she could figure out what Shannin wanted. It was obvious she was just using Luke for something. But what? Luke knew nothing about nothing. All he cared about was helping others and saving the planet. What could he have that Shannin was after?
The best way to find out, of course, was to hang out with Luke and see how he'd been spending his time lately. The prospect made her shudder (too much perkiness for her tastes), but it would go a long way in helping her figure out what Shannin was up to.
She rolled her eyes as she imagined how happy Luke was going to be when she told him she was going to take him up on his offer to spend time with her. (There was no question her twin had issues.)
Why Luke had decided they suddenly needed to spend time together was beyond her, but when Luke got an idea stuck in his head, it stayed there. And stayed there. And stayed there. Until something happened to made it happen. So by hanging out with him she'd take out two remotes with one lightsaber swipe: she'd shut Luke up and she'd find out what Shannin was after.
I'm going to get so behind in my training, she groaned.
Her plan of attack in place, she decided to go to bed early.
Force knew she was going to need her energy to keep up with her hyperjerk of a brother.
"I hate my life!" she announced to her ceiling before getting up and readying herself for bed.
"Thank you for having us over," Ellara said as she and Obi-Wan were walked to the front door a few hours later. The children had gone to bed a while ago (or, in Ammae's case, been carried to bed), leaving the adults alone to have more serious discussions. "It was a wonderful evening."
"See? Didn't I tell you that we were still your friends?" Padmé reminded her. "I'm glad that you and Master Kenobi had a good time."
"It's been a long time since I've had a meal like that," Obi-Wan spoke and Anakin knew he meant it. Padmé had purposely included a number of his master's favorite foods. "And unfortunately it will an even longer time until I do again."
"You're welcome back any time," Anakin told him, truly meaning it.
"And that goes for you too, Ellara," Padmé added. "Don't wait so long between visits again."
"I won't," she promised.
"When are you leaving, Master Kenobi?" Padmé asked Obi-Wan for Ellara's benefit.
"First thing in the morning," he lied. First thing in the morning, he was coming back here to join them as they confronted Leia.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Padmé replied. "Will you be coming back any time soon?"
"I don't know. It will depend on how much Clearl needs me," he said.
"Well, in any case, keep in touch with us through Ellara," she told him. "We enjoyed meeting you and we'd like to keep apprised of how you are doing."
"I'll be sure to keep you informed," Ellara put in.
"Good," Padmé asserted. "I'll hold you to that."
"And she will," Anakin added for good measure.
"I think you're being warned," Obi-Wan smiled.
"I can see that," Ellara smiled back. "Well, in that case, I better say good night before anything else happens."
"Good night, Ellara," Padmé said, pulling her into a hug.
"Good night, Natala," Ellara returned the hug. "Thank you for understanding."
"Good night," Anakin told her, taking his turn and hugging her.
"Good night," Ellara echoed and Anakin silently laughed as he noticed her slight hesitation to let go of him. (He had never paid any attention to it before, but Obi-Wan had informed him of Ellara's massive crush on him. Now he was seeing little things he had missed in the past. It was very amusing.)
The farewells with Obi-Wan were more formal for appearances sake. It would look too forward to hug someone they had supposedly just met, especially if that someone were a Jedi.
Then the front door was opened and their guests departed, leaving Anakin and Padmé alone in the hall.
"So," Anakin began, maneuvering Padmé into his arms. "What was that you were saying just this morning about us not succeeding?"
"I was wrong," she conceded. "Thank the Force, I was wrong."
"I also seem to remember promising to tell you about a dream I had last night," he continued. "Are you still interested, my love?"
She moved herself closer against him. "What do you think?"
He leaned down and kissed her, running his hands along her back.
Without breaking the kiss, he lifted her up into his arms.
"It began with a kiss," he murmured as they parted.
"Followed by many, many more."
Mara sat waiting in the backyard of the Peridon house, biding her time until she was sure that everyone inside was asleep. The last of the bedroom (Vader and Amidala's) lights had gone out around a half hour ago. (She didn't even want to imagine why they were up so late. Ick!) Very soon she would make her move and take little Ammae out from right under their noses.
After she had finished speaking with her master, she had returned to her stealth ship and retrieved all the supplies she foresaw needing to complete her mission. She had changed into a multipurpose unisuit and armed herself with both her lightsaber and blaster. (The weapons would be needed when she "borrowed" a larger ship.) From her med kit, she had taken a syringe and filled it with sedative. The sedative would ensure that Ammae stayed unconscious until they were at least off-planet. Last but not least, she had taken a miniature luma so she could see what she was doing in the pitch black house.
She glanced at her chrono. It was nearly 2330. She'd wait a few minutes more and then she was going in.
She wanted this mission finished already.
Leia sat up straight in bed, the Force screaming "danger!" in her mind.
The exact same warning she had felt when she had arrived home to find Shannin standing with her family.
Immediately, she reached out with the Force, searching for the source of the danger and found it.
Not wasting a second more, Leia leapt from her bed, grabbed her lightsaber from its hiding place, and raced out of her room.
Careful not to wake the brat up, Mara pulled Ammae's arm out from under the covers and turned it so that the veins were exposed. With her free hand, she retrieved the filled syringe from the pouch on her belt. Using the luma held between her teeth, she illuminated a target on the girl's arm. She pressed the needle lightly against the skin, lining it up with the vein.
"Get away from my sister!"
Dropping both the luma and the syringe, Mara whirled to see Leia standing in the doorway wearing her nightgown and holding an ignited lightsaber.
"Who the hell are you?" Leia demanded.
"Someone who's going to teach you a lesson," Mara retorted, standing up and pulling her own lightsaber from her belt. "You're going to pay for interrupting my mission."
She ignited her own blade and smirked as Leia gasped at its color.
"What? You've never seen a red saber before?"
"You're a Sith?" Leia asked incredulously.
"Not yet," Mara corrected. "But one day I will be. Too bad you won't be around to see it."
"Wanna bet?" Leia challenged.
"You don't stand a chance," Mara told her matter-of-factly.
"Try me," Leia urged.
"Fine. But don't say I didn't warn you."
And then she attacked.
Ammae was startled awake by a very loud noise. She didn't remember actually falling asleep. Her last memory was of sitting with Mom, Dad, Luke, Miss Rittani, and Obi-Wan in the family room and feeling very tired.
Rubbing her eyes, she sat up in her bed (someone must have carried her there) and looked around.
And then she screamed.
Anakin bolted up in bed as another scream echoed through the house after the one that had pulled him from his sleep.
Ammae! he panicked as he recognized the terrified voice.
"Anakin!" Padmé's frightened voice cried as she sat up next to him. "Ammae!"
Not taking the time to acknowledge her, he jumped to his feet, pulled on his robe, and tore out of the door towards Ammae's room.
And his jaw dropped at what he found there.
Obi-Wan suddenly awoke as the powerful Force disturbance plowed through his mind.
It was filled with both terror and anger.
Instinctively reaching out with his senses, he found the now-familiar Force signature of Anakin's daughter as well as another he did not recognize.
Anger, pain, and terror were radiating from Leia.
Something terrible was happening.
He had to get to her.
"Lord Vader," Mara spoke as her master's favorite entered into the room. "Our master sends his greetings."
Vader, looking ridiculous in nothing but a robe, stared in shock at the scene before him. He saw his eldest daughter on the floor, burned from where Mara's blade had found her skin and bloodied from where she had been physically punched and kicked after losing her lightsaber earlier in the fight. (Leia had to be the sorriest excuse for a warrior Mara had ever met.) And he saw his youngest sitting on her bed, pressed against the wall and crying in terror.
"Dad!" Leia weakly managed.
Within in seconds, his shock turned to anger.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"My name is Mara Jade," she identified herself. "And I am the loyal Hand of our master. Unlike you, I would never turn my back on him. My only goal is to serve him."
Amidala appeared in the doorway, also wearing nothing but a robe.
"Stay back, Padmé," Vader ordered. "What do you want?" he questioned Mara.
"To do our master's bidding," she answered matter-of-factly. "He has ordered me to bring the little brat to him. He seems to think that you'll rejoin him if I do that." She shrugged. "Personally, I don't think you're worth the effort, but who am I to question my master?"
"You're not taking any of my children anywhere," Vader informed her. "And I'm not going with you. I suggest you leave this house immediately."
Mara laughed at him. "You think I'm going to do anything you say? I have my orders and I intend to follow them."
"You're not touching Ammae!" Leia insisted, trying to sit up.
"Shut up," Mara growled, kicking her in the stomach.
Leia cried out and both of her parents called her name.
"Leave her alone," Vader ordered.
"Or what?" Mara challenged. "You think I'm afraid of you, Lord Vader? I've spent years wanting to kill you. If I didn't think my master be would displeased, I'd kill you now. You-"
"Hey, what's going...?"
The idiot's face appeared in the doorway.
There were no words to describe the pain Leia was in. When Dad had spoken to Ammae about lightsabers, he had said that they cut through anything and that the slightest touch of the tip left a severe burn. Leia had now experienced the burning first hand and bore the evidence of it all over her body. Mara had been merciless. And that had been before the fistfight.
She wanted to move, to act, but knew to do so would only invite more pain. Mara was standing over her and would hurt her again if she so much as twitched. Her stomach still throbbed from the kick she had received. She did not think she could handle another hit of any kind.
Above her, Mara was speaking to Luke, laughing at his trusting nature and telling him what she thought of him. If she could look, she knew Luke's face would be filled with pain. He had really liked "Shannin" and hearing her speak so cruelly must have been killing him.
If Leia had the strength, she would have gotten up and killed her.
Idiotic as Luke was, he was her twin and she was the only one that could talk to him that way.
"That's enough!" Dad interrupted and Leia heard more anger in his voice than she'd ever known him capable of. She had no idea what he and Mara were talking about, from masters to that strange name "Vader" she kept calling him, but she knew it was bad if it was making her usually calm father get angry. "This is between you and me. Orders or no orders, you are going to leave my children alone."
Mara laughed again. "Really? And how do you plan on making me do that? I don't see a weapon on you.
"Or are you going to use the Force?"
Anakin felt Padmé's nails digging into his arm.
"Anakin," she tearfully murmured. "We have to get them out of there."
"I know," he told her, battling against the anger that was threatening to overwhelm him.
Giving into his anger (the thought that anyone would dare threaten his children...) would not do any good for either Leia or Ammae. He had to remain calm and focused if he even hoped to get this servant of Sideous (his former master had resorted to using children to do his bidding now?) away from his daughters. Only by keeping a cool head would he be able to find a solution.
But what could he do? Entering into the room would more than likely result in Leia's death. Mara was literally standing over her and could kill her with one thrust of her lightsaber. And Ammae was trapped on her bed. Mara stood between her and the doorway.
But, conversely, Mara was trapped as well. As it stood, she had no way of escaping with one of the girls. He would not let her walk out the door and if she made a move for the window, he would be able to grab her.
Despite her talk, Anakin knew he could easily defeat her. He was both bigger and stronger than she was. If they were out in the open, he would have already put an end to this nonsense. But instead she was standing in the middle of his child's bedroom, forcing them to maintain a stalemate.
"I don't need to use the Force," he replied to her taunts, the mention giving him an idea. Sideous already knew he was here. What did it matter if he used it? "You're trapped here, Mara. You've already failed your mission. You have no way of leaving this room unless we let you out. And we're not going to let you go unless you release both Leia and Ammae."
If he could move something with the Force and distract her for even one second...
"I don't need your permission," she shot back. "The advantage is mine." She indicated Leia with a nod of the head. "Your daughter's life is in my hands. If you want her to live, you'll let me go with the little one."
"You're not taking her anywhere," he asserted, his eyes scanning the room for something to latch on to with the Force.
"And you're going to stop me how?"
And then he found something that he had never expected to see: his own lightsaber, lying on the floor.
How had it gotten there?
Leia, he realized, understanding how she had been so terribly injured. She had tried to fight Mara.
"I'll think of something," he told her as he tentatively stretched out towards the Force for the first time in eleven years.
Mara must have sensed it because her eyes narrowed.
"What do you think-"
Her words were cut off as the lightsaber leaped from the floor into the hand he extended to receive it, the Force once again freely flowing through his body feeling as if it had never left. He ignited the blade.
"Step away from my daughter.
Leia's eyes widened in shock as she witnessed Dad use the Force. She had known for three years that he had been a Jedi, but she had never seen him as a Jedi.
It was amazing, a complete transformation. He was still her dad, the same man she had known and loved her entire life, but there was something...different about him now. The Force had given him an element of power and authority. He seemed...unbeatable.
So why had he stopped using it?
"So you want to fight me now?" Mara questioned and Leia looked up to see that Mara was no longer paying attention to her. "I suppose you'd be more challenging than your spawn. She didn't last very long. Think you can do better?"
"I'm giving you one last chance," Dad announced. "Move away from my daughter."
Leia saw her chance.
"Okay!" she exclaimed and kicked out with one of her legs.
Mara, who had taken her eyes off of Leia, was caught by surprise and went down.
"Leia!" she heard Mom call out.
Leia began scrambling away towards the door but felt a hand clamp around her ankle.
"Where do you think you're going?" Mara taunted and yanked on Leia's leg.
Leia heard voices crying out her name but froze as a blaster was pointed directly in her face.
"Get up," Mara ordered coldly.
Leia did as she was told.
"Let her go," Dad called out.
"You know, I've changed my mind," Mara said conversationally as she grabbed Leia by the arm and shoved her blaster against her neck. "Taking the little one is too much trouble. So this one will have to do. My master will understand.
"So if you don't want me to kill her right now, you'll move out of the way and let me walk through the door," she continued, digging the blaster deeper into her skin.
"Anakin," Padmé whimpered, terrified for her child's life.
Mara had not given them a choice. If they didn't let her leave, Leia would die.
Anakin did not move.
"You have to let them go," Padmé urged. "It's the only way."
"Do it, 'Anakin,'" Mara taunted. "If you want your daughter to live, get out of my way."
"Dad..." Luke breathed, the first words he had spoken since entering into the disaster. Padmé could tell that he was in a state of shock.
"Shall I start counting down?" Mara offered. "Would that help you make a decision faster?"
Anakin hesitated for a moment and then extinguished his blade.
Mara smiled and Padmé felt a chill run through her.
"I knew you'd see it my way." She pushed at Leia. "Move it."
Padmé gently pulled Anakin out of the doorway and wrapped her arms around him from behind. She wanted to cry, but refused to let Mara see her break down.
Mara led Leia out of the room at gunpoint, her blaster remaining planted against her neck.
Padmé looked at Anakin's face and couldn't read his emotions.
She feared what that meant.
Mara walked down the hall with Leia and Padmé followed with Anakin. When they reached the front door, Mara keyed it open and turned to face them.
"You'll know where to find us," she said. "Our master will be very pleased to see you again, Lord Vader."
She stepped through the door, pushing Leia ahead of her.
"Oh," she added, stopping and looking back again, "don't try to follow. If I even think you're behind me, she dies."
Then she turned her attention back to Leia.
"Time for us to take a little trip."
When they had vanished from sight, Padmé collapsed, barely registering Anakin's arms as they caught her.
Leia knew struggling would only get her killed, but she had to find some way out of this. She had to! She refused to let this lousy Sith wannabe win.
But what was she going to do?
Mara, unfortunately, had the upper hand: the blaster that was pointed at her neck.
As they continued walking to wherever it was Mara was taking her, Ben Kenobi, Ellara's friend, rounded the corner and stopped in front of them.
And apparently he wasn't a teacher after all.
He had a lightsaber.
"Let the girl go," he commanded, reminding her very much of Dad in that moment.
"I'm going to tell you the same thing I told her parents," Mara informed him. "Let us go or she dies. It's your decision. I don't care either way though my master might."
"She'll do it too," Leia added in case he didn't believe her. "Don't fight her."
"Where are you taking her?" he wanted to know.
"Ask your former Padawan," Mara told him. "He'll tell you all about me."
"Who are you?"
"As I said, ask Skywalker. He'll tell you everything you need to know. Unless you want to test me." Leia felt the gun lift from her neck and resettle against her temple. "I have no problem killing her though I don't think you want her death on your conscious."
As with Dad, Ben hesitated before extinguishing his lightsaber.
"I thought you'd see it my way," Mara said. "Out of our way."
Without a word, Ben stepped aside and Leia was once again being pushed by Mara.
She had a very bad feeling that she was not going to be able to escape on her own.
"You know, Chewie," Han informed his copilot as he reattached components, "you should have thought things through before you decided to mess with the shield generator. I thought you wanted to leave in the morning."
The computer said it was malfunctioning, Chewie defended himself. You weren't here so I had no choice but to investigate myself. How was I supposed to know that it was the computer that wasn't working?
"Maybe by checking the computer first?" Han pointed out.
He groaned, exhausted and annoyed. He had returned to the hangar after bringing Leia home to discover that Chewie had kept himself busy by doing a full systems check. Unfortunately, the computer doing the check was broken itself, resulting in things being pulled apart that shouldn't have been. He had not been amused to find his beloved Falcon in such a state.
"That's it," he announced. "I'm going to bed. We can finish this in the morning. If we're lucky, we'll be on our way by early afternoon."
Will you be visiting Leia first? Chewie asked innocently.
"I'm not in the mood, hairball," Han growled. "You can stay up if you want, but I'm hitting the mattress. Good night."
He stalked out of the engine room and headed for his quarters. He was exhausted and wanted to sleep. However, as he walked past the open hatchway, he heard angry voices coming from somewhere in the hanger.
Too young to be out so late.
Deciding to investigate, he walked down the ramp and followed the sound of the voices.
And to his surprise found Leia and another girl her own age standing around.
The other girl had a blaster and she had it aimed at Leia's head.
"You don't know how much I want to kill you," the other girl was saying. "But my master would prefer it if I brought you to him alive, so don't make me shoot you."
"I'm not leaving with you," Leia asserted. "So just kill me already."
"I'm getting really tired of you," the girl with the blaster said. "Maybe I will just kill you."
Han stepped out into the open, unholstering his own weapon.
"Can I help you two ladies with something?"
"Han!" Leia cried. "Get out of here! She'll kill you!"
The second girl swung her blaster around to point at Han. "You two know each other?"
"Leia's my friend," Han told her, taking aim with his own blaster. "And I don't take too kindly to people who threaten my friends."
"Han! Don't do this!" Leia urged. "She's dangerous."
"I'm dangerous," Han asserted, moving closer to her which allowed him to take a good look at her. She was bruised and bleeding.
What the hell had happened to her?
"Why don't you walk away, little girl? We wouldn't want you to get hurt now, would we?"
The other girl snorted. "You think you can intimidate me? You have no idea who you're dealing with."
"Why don't you tell me so I'll know?" he shot back.
"He has a ship," Leia suddenly said to the other girl. "He can take us where you want to go! You don't need to kill him!"
Han had no idea what was going on, but he would do whatever he could to get Leia out of this mess. So if he had to offer the Falcon's services, he would.
But once they were in space, all bets would be off.
The other girl didn't lower her blaster. "Is what she says true? Do you have a ship?"
"Why? You want to charter a ride?"
He wanted to play it as casual as possible. He didn't know if this girl had a hair-trigger or not and didn't want to risk ticking her off if he could help it. Leia's life was on the line.
"I need to get off-planet with her," the girl told him. "And I need someone to take us somewhere. Would you be willing to do that?"
"Can you make it worth my while?" he wanted to know, still acting as if he didn't care. "I don't fly cheap."
"How about this? You take us or I kill her where she stands."
It was obvious the girl was done playing with him.
Pushing her further could be deadly.
"All right," he accepted, putting his blaster away. "I'll take you."
"Good," the girl smirked. She gestured with her blaster. "Then let's go. I want to be in space as soon as possible."
He put his arm around Leia and felt that she was shaking terribly.
"Han," she murmured and he saw the fear in her eyes.
Whoever this other girl was, she was dangerous if she could do this to someone as tough as Leia.
He turned to the other girl.
"Follow me. I'll take you to my ship."To be continued...