Author's Notes: Because I am ready to begin writing the finale sequence and I have no idea how long it will take me to finish it, I am posting another chunk of the story. Work is still insanely busy at this time (April 2012) and because of the stress, I am finding it hard to concentrate on my writing. I thought it would only be fair to my readers to give them something more to read. This is the longest I've ever taken to write a single story and as I've said repeatedly, I feel horrible about it. That is the only reason I'm breaking my personal rule of posting before a story is completed.
All questions and comments may be e-mailed to me. Please see my profile for details.
Thank you and I hope you enjoy the story.

"Padmé?"

Startled by the sudden sound, Padmé gasped as she jumped in her seat, her hand reflexively going to her heart.

It only took her a moment to recover and she then immediately looked up to find the source of the voice that had spoken her name.

As she should have known (who else would come looking for her this time of night?), it was Anakin, who wore an expression of utter embarrassment.

"Oh, Force, Padmé, I'm sorry," he apologized profusely, coming to sit beside her on the couch and taking her hands in his. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"It's all right," she assured him, her heart already beginning to calm down. "You just startled me, love, that's all."

She wasn't surprised that she hadn't heard his approach. She had been too engrossed in her studying of the maps the Alliance had provided them with of Imperial City and the palace complex. She had been spending the last few hours attempting to memorize as much of them as she could.

Although the subject had never come up in any of their planning sessions, it had occurred to her that Imperial security, especially in the vicinity of the palace, would have to be a lot stronger than simple checkpoints run by stormtroopers. Like them, anyone with the means could purchase false ID docs. Palpatine was too smart and too clever to leave himself so poorly guarded. And given the sparse number of checkpoints labeled on the maps, her intuition told her that there had to be numerous other forms of surveillance, from hidden cameras to undercover guards, all over Imperial City.

Surveillance that would instantly flag a group walking around near the palace while constantly consulting a map as suspicious. (There were no tourists allowed on Imperial Center. Each sector of the city had its own separate permits. A visitor caught in a sector that he did not have the correct permit for was arrested immediately.)

That meant that their only chance of successfully infiltrating the palace would be if no one gave them a second look. In other words, they had to blend in.

And blending in meant that they couldn't openly consult any of their maps...

"What are you still doing up so late?" Anakin asked, releasing her hands. "You know you need your rest. This can't be good for the baby."

"Anakin," she couldn't help but laugh, genuinely amused by his priorities. (They were about to embark on a dangerous rescue mission on which their very lives were at risk and all he could focus on was the well-being of a barely developed fetus. Who else but her husband would think that way?) "I think he or she is a little too small right now to be affected by my sleeping habits. Besides, all I'm actually doing is sitting here and reading. I can think of a lot of things that I could be doing right now that would be a tad more strenuous and still wouldn't harm the baby."

She knew exactly what he was worried about. Her poor choices during her pregnancy with Ammae had badly scarred him and now that she was pregnant again, he was unable to move past his fears that she'd inadvertently endanger herself and the baby. And because of those fears, he had become more overprotective than he normally was, which was already extreme. (It was the reason he was trying so desperately to keep her from going on the mission.)

She picked up his hands. "Anakin, how many times am I going to have to swear to you that I won't make the same mistakes before you'll believe me? I promise you that I've learned my lesson. I'm going to take care of myself this time. You have my word."

"Oh, really?" he challenged. "If that's true you wouldn't be coming with us tomorrow. Personally, I can't think of anything more strenuous than participating in a rescue mission. For both your sake and the sake of the baby, you should be staying here. I wish I could talk you out of it."

And here we go again, she silently sighed, unsurprised by the attempt.

"You know why I can't stay behind," she firmly reminded him. "I refuse to be stuck here not knowing what's happening, terrified that I'll never see you or Leia again. Do you have any idea what it was like for me during the war? I was living in constant fear. And then if that wasn't bad enough, I went through it again when you went to face Obi-Wan when he first found us. I'm tired of it. Never again. I want to be there so I can witness Leia being freed. I don't care how dangerous it is. I have to be on this mission."

She momentarily entertained the thought of turning the tables on him and asking him to stay behind, but she knew that would be one of the worst things she could do. He was too convinced that it was entirely his fault that Leia was imprisoned and he wouldn't realize that she was only teasing him. It would send him into another spiral of guilt and depression, which was the last thing he needed this close to leaving on the mission. (And mentioning Leia was only one of many things that could trigger that disastrous reaction. He had a long list of things that were bothering him and bringing any of them up, even inadvertently, could lead to him falling back into a depression.) She needed him to be as calm as he could be when they arrived at Coruscant. (She hadn't said anything to Obi-Wan or Ahsoka, but she was worried that once they were there, his emotions would take over and that they would cause him to do something that would result in him being hurt or killed. She'd have to keep an extra close eye on him until they had returned to safety with Leia.)

Anakin heaved a sigh. "You're so stubborn."

"Look who's talking," she pointed out, trying to lighten the mood. "I'd say if anything, you're more stubborn than I am."

He gave her a weak smile. "That's probably true," he conceded.

"You never take no for an answer," she added.

"Except from you," he reminded her. "You don't give me any other choice."

"Of course not. I'm your wife," she told him matter-of-factly. "If you want to maintain peace in this marriage, you have to do exactly as I tell you."

"As milady commands."

She leaned in and gave him a kiss. "That's a good boy. Now why don't you go back to bed and let me finish up here. I won't be too much longer, I promise."

For a second, she was sorely tempted to remind him about the many the all-nighters she had pulled while pregnant with Luke and Leia, but decided it was best to drop the subject of rest and pregnancy all together. If she didn't put an end to the discussion now, they would be going back and forth about it up until the moment they left on the mission.

"What are you doing anyway?" he asked, indicating the piles of flimsies and datapads lying on the caftable. "Is there a reason this place is starting to look like your office?"

"Very funny," she retorted. "For your information, Master Jedi, I'm trying to make sure Imperial Security doesn't take notice of us of before we even make it inside the Palace."

"And how are you doing that?"

"By memorizing all these maps," she informed him. "It occurred to me that security might take a closer look at a group of people standing around and reading a map around the palace," she explained. "Remember, the palace is off-limits to those who don't have prior authorization to enter it. Anyone using a map in the area is going to appear suspicious. If security stops us, there's a good chance they'll discover that our ID docs are forgeries. They were only designed to get us past checkpoints run by stormtroopers. I don't know how well they'd survive a full scrutiny by an actual security officer.

"The only way to ensure that we get inside unnoticed is if we look like we belong," she emphasized. "And as long as we're carrying an open map, we won't.

"Huh," Anakin commented, "I can't believe none of us thought of this earlier. It makes a lot of sense. Great catch. What made you think of it?"

"It's because of what I noticed while I was going over the maps myself," she told him. She reached out and picked up one of the datapads from the table in front of them. Activating the holographic map display, she handed it to him. "Here, take a look and tell me if you notice anything unusual about the placement of the checkpoints."

Anakin spent a few moments scanning the map.

"I think I see what you're talking about," he finally said. "The closer you get to the palace, the fewer the checkpoints."

"Exactly," she confirmed. "Which, knowing Palpatine the way we both do, doesn't make any sense. He's too protective of his power and position to leave himself so poorly guarded. Unless..."

She paused and waited for him to pick up on the prompt.

"Unless that's what he wants his enemies to think," Anakin finished, putting it together. "Lead them to believe that they can get close to him unchallenged while in reality there are numerous hidden security measures to stop them before they get anywhere near the palace."

"My thoughts exactly," she told him. "Anyone with enough credits can purchase false ID docs and everyone knows that stormtroopers are notoriously easy to trick. The only way for Palpatine to know for certain who belongs and who doesn't is to have everyone watched at all times. That means hidden holocams and plain clothes security officers and who knows what else. I'd also assume that newcomers to the palace would be assigned experienced guides. We bring out a map even once and we'll probably be instantly swarmed by security.

"I just thank the Force I noticed this tonight so I had time to commit as much of the maps as possible to memory," she purposely added. "Think of the disaster it would have been if I hadn't."

She wanted Anakin to realize that she was now indispensable to the mission. By being the only one to have the maps memorized, the others could not proceed without her. She had effectively guaranteed her place on the team. Now he couldn't make her stay behind for any reason. She was needed.

"Um, Padmé, you do happen to realize that there are Force techniques for enhancing memory, don't you?" Anakin pointed out. "Obi-Wan, Ahsoka, and I can easily memorize them too on the flight over."

Oh, she thought disappointedly. She had forgotten that the Force could be used that way. Now she no longer had an indisputable reason for being on the mission.

Anakin folded his arms. "So basically you've missed out on your much needed sleep for absolutely no reason."

"That's not true," she retorted, crossing her own arms. (It was ironic that because of his obsession with her health, he had missed her very obvious attempt at making herself a necessary member of the rescue team.) "While I may have forgotten about the memory enhancement that you and the others can do, I still needed to memorize the maps for myself. What if we get separated during the mission? If I'm not as familiar with the city and the palace as the rest of you, how would I be able to find you again? It was important that I do this, Anakin.

"And if it makes you feel any better, I promise to nap the entire flight to Coruscant," she added, softening her expression and unfolding her arms. "I'll hit the bunk immediately after takeoff, no arguments. How's that sound?"

"If I say it sounds good, will you come to bed right now?" he hopefully asked, dropping his own arms.

"Yes, I will," she acquiesced, knowing it was the right thing to do to keep him happy.

She had hoped to spend at least another half hour studying the maps, but Anakin's happiness and peace of mind were more important. She was confident that she had enough of them thoroughly memorized by now to serve the mission. (Besides, she could always take a few more peeks during the trip to Coruscant. If Anakin thought she was napping, he would not want to disturb her.)

"I still wish you weren't going," he tried one last time.

"You can wish all you want, but it doesn't change a thing," she informed him. "I'm going no matter what. You want me to stay behind, you'll have to lock me up." (Scarily, if Ahsoka and Obi-Wan weren't going on the mission as well, she wouldn't put it past him to do just that. Thank the Force that they were not going alone!)

"I had to try," he sighed. He took her hand and stood up, pulling her along with him. "Let's go to bed."

Padmé shook her head as he guided her towards their bedroom. If they survived the rescue mission, this was going to be a very, very, very long pregnancy.

They reached the bedroom door and Anakin started to reach out to the panel, but suddenly pulled his arm back.

He turned around and took Padmé's free hand in his.

"What is it?" she asked him, wondering what stray thought had passed through his mind and deterred him from his quest to make her get her sleep.

"Would you ever stop loving me for any reason?"

The question was so strange and so unexpected that she was too stunned to immediately respond.

What in the galaxy could have made him even think such a ridiculous thing? They had been married for nearly twenty years and she had supported him and loved him through the worst times in his life. (What could be worse than turning to the dark side and killing the people you considered your family?) They had survived incredible hardships together. After all that, what could possibly make her stop loving him? The question made no sense.

"Anakin, how can you even ask me this?" she wanted to know. "How can you not know how I feel about you, my love? You are my life, my world, my entire universe. You and our children both. I'd have nothing without you. You're everything to me. Nothing is ever going to change that. Nothing. I love you."

"But... But... What if I did something... Something so awful..." he started trying to elaborate, but trailed off as if he were unable to explain what he meant.

Padmé tried to imagine what he meant by "awful," but did not know where to begin. She knew he had two main goals in his life at the moment. The first and more important was to rescue Leia from Palpatine. And the second was to ensure that she, Padmé, did not endanger her health during her pregnancy. Neither of those could lead him to doing anything that in her mind would be "awful." Awful things could happen during the attempt to rescue Leia, but those would be to him and the others rather than something he did himself.

Unless...

"Are you worried that if we get caught, Palpatine is going to force you to rejoin the Sith in exchange for Leia's life?" she questioned. "Is that what you're afraid of?"

He shook his head. "I'd never rejoin the Sith."

"Then what? Because I can't think of anything at all that could possibly change how I feel about you," she informed him, looking him directly in the eyes. "You're a good man, Anakin. Your heart is always in the right place. Even when your actions have been wrong, you did them for the right reasons. Your instincts have always been to help others. So unless you've had a sudden change of heart and now want to rule the galaxy next to Palpatine, I don't think you have anything to worry about. I'll love you always and forever. All right?'

He held her gaze for what seemed like an eternity before responding.

"All right."

And then he kissed her.

Yet it was not the typical gentle kiss that usually followed one of their discussions. Instead it was passionate and intense, the kind of kiss that they shared when they were intending to make love.

Or when they were going to be apart for an unspecified amount of time.

He had kissed her that way during the war and hadn't known if he was coming back alive.

And he had again kissed her that way before going to face Obi-Wan on Postaym...

Suddenly, she became very worried. Something was very, very wrong if Anakin was acting like he would never see her again. Of course it was possible that either of them could be hurt or killed on the mission, but the plan was for everyone to stay together the entire time.

Unless...

"What aren't you telling me, Anakin?" she quietly asked him when the kiss ended. "What are you hiding from me?"

First the strange question and now a kiss she could only describe as a goodbye kiss. He was acting like he knew that he wasn't going to survive.

Which explained why he had been trying so hard to get her to stay behind...

What was he planning to do?

"I love you so much, Padmé," he softly said, not answering her question. "More than anything."

"Please, Anakin," she tried. "I need to know what-"

He cut her off with another intense kiss, making it crystal clear that he had no intention of telling her what was on his mind.

Realizing that attempting to have a conversation with him when he was like this was pointless, she surrendered to the kiss and allowed him to lead her wherever he wanted to go.

((((())))))

Ahsoka was pulled out of her sleep by the insistent beeping of her comlink.

Groaning, she sat up and glanced at the bedside chrono. It read 0315.

Who in the galaxy would be calling her this early and why? (The Council knew she was on an unofficial assignment. Her name would have been removed from the roster of those Jedi who were available for missions.)

With a yawn, she picked up the comlink.

"Tano," she answered, doing her best to keep her drowsiness out of her voice.

"Ahsoka, it's Anakin."

There was a brusqueness to the tone of his voice that brought her to full alertness.

"We're getting ready to leave," he informed her. "How soon can you be at the hangar?"

"Not long," she assured him. She immediately threw off her blanket and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "Ten minutes at the most.

"What's going on?" she asked, curious to know what had brought about the earlier departure time. "Why the sudden change in plans? Has something happened?"

"I'll explain it to both you and Obi-Wan when you get here," Anakin promised. "Just be here as soon as you can, okay?"

"Okay," she acknowledged. "Let me get dressed and I'll be at the hangar as soon as I'm done."

"I'll see you then," he accepted. "Skywalker out."

And with those words, the connection ended.

She put down the comlink and stood up.

She wondered what had made Anakin decide to push up their schedule. It had to be critical to their mission or Padmé would have talked him out of it. (As far as she knew, since their operation was a rescue mission that involved getting in and out of the Imperial Palace as quietly as possible, their timetable was not dependant on any events occurring on Coruscant.) Had the Force sent him a vision?

In the end, it didn't matter. Anakin was the leader of the mission and if wanted to start it early, that was his prerogative. He was probably just eager to get his daughter back.

Pushing her curiosity aside for the time being, Ahsoka started getting ready.

((((())))))

Obi-Wan stepped into the hangar and immediately spotted Anakin, who was pacing in front of their assigned ship's extended ramp. To his surprise, there was no sign of Padmé. (He had hoped to find out the reason for their early departure from her first. Anakin had been known to leave things out of his explanations if he didn't think they affected anyone else but him.)

"Any idea what the sudden hurry is?" Ahsoka asked as she arrived and came to stand beside him. "Anakin wasn't exactly chatty over the comlink."

"I'm as in as much of the dark as you are," he let her know. "I had been hoping to ask Padmé first, but she seems to already be on board."

"Probably tied down to a cot," Ahsoka commented. "You know how thrilled Anakin is that she's coming on the mission."

Obi-Wan shook his head. "I understand his concerns because of her issues during her previous pregnancy, but he's treating her as if she's too fragile to even leave her bedroom. His fears are overriding his common sense."

"What common sense?" she shot back. "It'll be a first if I ever see him use it."

"Point taken," Obi-Wan accepted. He sighed. "I suppose we've kept him waiting long enough."

"Let's get this show on the road," she agreed. She gestured for him to go first. "Lead the way."

"Oh, of course," he lightly retorted. "That way, if we're late, Anakin will blame me since he'll see me first."

Ahsoka adopted an innocent expression. "Maybe."

"I knew he was a bad influence on you," he mock sighed and he began walking, Ahsoka following.

They crossed the hangar and made their way over to where Anakin was waiting.

"Thank you for coming so quickly," he greeted them. "Follow me and we'll get underway."

Before either of them could say a word, he turned and ascended the ramp.

Obi-Wan and Ahsoka exchanged glances, both surprised by his sudden change in demeanor.

Shrugging, Ahsoka did as she was told and entered the ship after him.

Obi-Wan did the same.

There was still no sign of Padmé. Wondering where she was, he reached out with the Force to try and locate her presence.

"She's not here."

Obi-Wan looked up to find Anakin standing in front of him.

"She's still asleep in bed," he continued. "She won't be coming with us."

"And she has no idea that we're leaving, does she?" Obi-Wan knowingly countered.

"I had no choice," Anakin defended himself. "Even Master Yoda felt that it wasn't a good idea for her to come. It's for her own good."

"What did you do, Skyguy?" Ahsoka wanted to know, her arms crossed.

"I pushed her into a deeper sleep," Anakin informed her. "That's all. She'll wake up in a few hours. I just made sure that she wouldn't hear me leave."

"Oh, she's going to be so mad at you when we get back," Ahsoka told him.

"I know," Anakin agreed. "But all that matters is getting Leia back. She can be mad at me for the rest of our lives is she wants to. As long as Leia is safe again, I won't care what she thinks of me."

"You never planned on letting her come in the first place, did you?" Obi-Wan realized, already knowing the answer.

What Anakin had done was not something that could have been pulled off in the spur of the moment. It had to have been carefully planned. Changing the departure time alone had to have been done days in advance.

There would be no convincing him to change his mind.

"No, I didn't," he admitted. "I won't let her risk herself and our baby like that, Master. This mission is too dangerous."

"You really had no right to decide that for her," Ahsoka informed him. "Padmé is a grown woman, Master. She's not your padawan who you can order to stay behind whenever you want."

"No, she's my wife and the love of my life," Anakin countered. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to ensure her safety. She knows how I feel. She'll just have to understand."

Obi-Wan sighed. He turned to Ahsoka. "There's really no point in discussing this any further. Nothing either you or I can say will change his mind. It would be best to just get underway."

"Fine," Ahoska gave up. "I still don't like it. It's not fair to Padmé."

"Maybe not," Anakin agreed, "but I feel better knowing that she's safe and out of harm's way. And that knowledge will go a long way in allowing me to focus on rescuing Leia.

"Now which one of you is going to help me take off?" he firmly changed the subject. "How about you, Obi-Wan?"

"I think I'll give that honor to Ahsoka," Obi-Wan waved him off. The topic of Padmé was clearly closed and Anakin would not discuss it any further. "Her piloting skills are much closer to yours than mine are."

"You know, I've never figured out if that was a compliment or an insult," Ahsoka commented.

"Some things are better left unknown," Obi-Wan informed her.

"Oh, it's an insult," Anakin declared.

"Definitely an insult."

((((())))))

Padmé slowly woke up, feeling incredibly relaxed and refreshed. It was a result, of course, of last night's lovemaking session with Anakin. Her beloved was an amazing lover. There were no words to describe how wonderful he made her feel with his touch alone. And last night he had been especially thorough, making sure there was not a part of her left unkissed.

She rolled over to see if he was awake. (If he was and it was still early enough...)

Instead, she found him gone from their bed.

It was then that she remembered what today was and she immediately pushed aside all thoughts of her own personal pleasure.

Today was the day that they got Leia back. Nothing else was more important than freeing her from Palpatine's clutches.

She sat up and reached out to feel Anakin's pillow. As she expected, it was cold. He had left her side more than a little while ago, most likely having gone to meditate as he did whenever he had difficulty sleeping. (She prayed that it would have its usual effect of centering him, which he desperately needed to be if he was going to make it through the mission unscathed.)

Wondering what time it was, she turned to look at the bedside chrono.

And, to her shock and horror, saw that it read 0845, three hours past the time she was supposed to have been awakened.

"What?"

How was this even possible? Even if the alarm had failed to go off, which was highly unlikely (not only was it her own personal chrono that she had relied on for years, but Anakin had just given it a tune up less than a month ago), there was the fact that her absence would have been noticed by the others. After all, there was only four of them going on this mission. Someone, her own husband for one, would have-

"Oh, no," she groaned as a sudden terrible thought crossed her mind. "He wouldn't have."

A bad feeling forming in the pit of her stomach, she picked up the chrono.

Ever since her pregnancy had been discovered, Anakin hadn't stopped begging her not to go on the mission. For days it had been a constant battle with him. At times she felt like her reasons had gone in one ear and out the other. He had even tried again last night.

And then he had asked that bizarre question if she would ever stop loving him for any reason...

Her bad feeling intensifying, she toggled the chrono to the timer screen.

And had her suspicions confirmed: the countdown had been stopped, leaving over three hours left on the clock.

"Oh, Anakin. What have you done?"

Suddenly, everything about his strange behavior last night made complete and utter sense. This was the reason he had asked that question and why he had then initiated the intense lovemaking. When she had continually refused to agree to stay behind for her, in his words, "own safety," he must have decided to take matters into his own hands. And Anakin, being his insecure self, had come the conclusion that in doing so would cause her to stop loving him. (Why he would think that she would end their relationship over something like this was beyond her. While it was wrong, he had done it with the best of intentions. As always, he was simply trying to protect her.) It was why that first kiss had felt like a goodbye. In his mind, it had been.

Truthfully, she had every right to be furious with him and if it had been done by anyone else, she would have been. But because it was Anakin, she didn't see the point in being angry. He honestly believed he was doing the right thing and protecting both her and their unborn child. Yes, it was extremely hurtful and disrespectful, but Anakin wasn't capable of understanding that. He only saw that there was danger and felt that he needed to protect her from it. Being mad at him wouldn't change anything. And if he came back and had not succeeded...

Or if he didn't come back at all...

"Oh, Force," she murmured, realizing that now there was no one on the mission who could prevent him from doing something foolish.

Obi-Wan and Ahsoka would be too focused on accomplishing their part of the mission to watch Anakin. They would be expecting him to act like the Jedi they remembered him to be. (She wondered what he had told them to explain her absence. They had both known how important coming on this rescue mission was to her. The story Anakin told them would have had to be a believable one.) But because this rescue involved his family, Anakin would be anything but dispassionate and calm. He was driven to do whatever it took to free Leia. And if he wasn't held back...

Not wanting to dwell any longer on what she couldn't control, she decided to get up and check on Luke and Ammae.

She stood up from the bed and, to her surprise, discovered that she was wearing one of her nightgowns.

Anakin, she shook her head in amazement.

In the middle of sneaking out, he had taken the time to dress her in her nightclothes. (He must have used the Force to deepen her sleep because she was a very light sleeper and something like being moved around and dressed would normally have awakened her. It also explained how she had slept so late. Normally she woke up fairly early on her own.) Only her Anakin would be so considerate. (Another reason why being mad at him was pointless. Every action he took, no matter how small, was motivated by his love for her.)

She went into the fresher, put on the robe she had hung up the previous morning, and then left the bedroom.

"Mom! You're still here?" Luke cried out in surprise when he saw her emerge from the room. "I thought you and Dad were supposed to have left hours ago."

"Oh, Dad and the others did," she informed him. "I'm the only one still here. Dad decided without telling anybody that I shouldn't go and turned off my alarm while I was asleep."

"What?" Luke replied, sounding stunned. "But why?"

"You know how-" she started to answer but she was cut off by Ammae's happy squeal of "Mom!"

"You're still here! You didn't go!" Ammae cheered and she ran over and nearly knocked Padmé off her feet as she threw her arms around her waist. "Thank the Force! I've been so worried!"

"I know, baby, I know," Padmé soothed her youngest as she hugged her back. "You don't have to worry about me anymore. I'm here with you where it's safe."

Ammae, whose curiosity and imagination often ran away with her, had been beside herself ever since Leia's kidnapping. She had convinced herself that Leia was being horribly tortured by the Empire and that anyone who went to rescue her and failed would share the same fate. Learning that both of her parents had planned on participating in the rescue had almost been too much for her. Getting her to bed last night had been almost impossible.

"But Dad and Leia and Obi-Wan and Ahsoka..."

"Dad, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka are Jedi," Padmé gently reminded her. "They can take care of themselves."

May the Force keep you safe, my love, she silently added.

"You can't know that," Ammae insisted. "There are so many things that could happen to them! What if they get caught? Or...or...?"

Suddenly, Padmé realized that being left behind was a blessing. Ammae needed her. (She and Anakin had clearly underestimated how upset this whole crisis was making her. Given how mature she acted most of the time, it was sometimes hard to remember just how truly young she still was.) It would have been a mistake for both of them to leave her.

"Try not to focus on all the what-ifs, sweetheart," she told her. "You'll only drive yourself crazy. Believe me, I know. It's better to just hope and pray for everyone's safe return."

"Mom, why didn't Dad want you to go?" Luke asked again after Ammae had settled down. "I thought it was always the plan for the two of you and Obi-Wan and now Ahsoka to rescue Leia. What changed?"

"The new baby," she explained. "You know how protective Dad is of all of us. I think finding out that I'm going to have another baby made him really think about how dangerous the mission would be. It was very wrong of him, but I understand why he did it."

"Are you mad at him?" Luke wanted to know.

"No, baby," she honestly answered. "I'm not."

"Good morning, Mistress Padmé," Threepio greeted as he and Artoo came to join them. "I was under the impression that you and Master Anakin were to be away for a few days. Is he still here as well?"

"No, Threepio, it's just me," she let him know. "Anakin left as planned."

Artoo beeped a comment.

"Of course I was going to offer her breakfast," Threepio indignantly defended himself. "Unlike some malfunctioning mechanics I know, I have manners."

Artoo replied with some distinctly sarcastic sounding noises and rolled away, clearly not in the mood to argue with his counterpart.

"Well!" Threepio huffed. "That was uncalled for."

"I would love some breakfast," Padmé told him with a smile. (She wondered what Artoo had said. The little astromech had a "mouth" on him and he had no qualms using it. He drove poor reserved Threepio up the wall.) She turned her attention to her children. "Have you both eaten?"

Ammae nodded. "About an hour ago."

"I'll prepare you some food at once," Threepio said. "Where would you like to be served?"

"The kitchen table will be fine," she let him know.

"It will be ready shortly," he informed her.

"Thank you, Threepio."

I have to call Bail and let him know I'm still here, she suddenly thought, remembering his promise to watch over the children while she and Anakin were gone. Now that she hadn't gone on the mission, there was no need for him to go out of his way.

She looked down at Ammae who was still clinging to her.

"Ammae, sweetie, I have to go make a quick call to Bail," she said, gently breaking out of her embrace. "I need to tell him that I'm still here. Remember that I told you I had asked him to look after you and Luke while Dad and I were gone?"

Ammae nodded again.

"He's very nice," Luke said. "I like Winter too."

"They're good people," she agreed. "Bail is my oldest friend from the Senate. He and his late wife Breha were always there for me when I needed them. I owe him more than I can ever repay.

"Why don't you two wait for me at the table while I go make the call?" she suggested, bringing the conversation back to the present. "I won't be long."

"Yes, Mom," Luke replied. "Come on, Ammae."

"I'm really glad Dad made you stay behind," Ammae said as Luke took her hand.

Padmé watched them head into the kitchen. Yes, it truly was for the best that she had been left behind. Both her children needed her here.

She then walked over to the comm station and entered in Bail's code.

((((())))))

Leia's eyes flew open as...something, she wasn't sure what, pulled her out of her sleep.

She remained completely still as she tried to determine what had awakened her.

Had it been a sound? She listened for anything out of the ordinary, but she heard nothing unexpected. Had it been movement? Was someone other than Han in the room with her? (Ever since the day that Han had told her that he loved her, she had started coming into his bed at night for comfort. It was something she hadn't done since she was a young child. When frightened by either a scary sound or a nightmare, her parents' bed had always been open to her. The same had been true for her siblings. Now Han's bed had become that same kind of nighttime sanctuary for her. She hadn't asked him and he hadn't said anything, so she had assumed he was all right with it.) But as her eyes scanned the darkness, she couldn't detect anything that didn't belong.

That left only one other thing for her to do: reach out with the Force.

Just as His Royal Creepiness had taught her, she closed her eyes and stretched out with her feelings. (He was the most vile and evil jerk to ever walk the universe, but he knew stuff that was aiding her in her quest to be a Jedi. As distasteful as it was to train with him every day, she was learning useful skills.)

And found that same...something.

It was hard to describe and she was unsure of exactly what it was, but it felt like...like...a shifting, for lack of a better word. As if something had...moved. It didn't make any sense, but that was the feeling she was getting through the Force. What it meant, she couldn't even begin to guess.

"Leia?" came Han's sleepy voice. She felt him turn towards her in the darkness. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," she assured him, feeling bad that she had disturbed him. (It was the first time he had openly acknowledged her presence in his bed.) "Something woke me up, that's all. I'm sorry I woke you up too."

"Don't be, Sweetheart," he waved her off. "Was it a bad dream?"

Leia wasn't sure how to answer. Although Han had seen her use the Force multiple times since the beginning of their imprisonment, he was still incredibly skeptical, especially when it came to things he couldn't see.

"It wasn't a dream," she finally said, deciding that it was best to be honest with him. There was no point in lying to him. "It was a feeling through the Force. I can actually still feel it now. It's that strong."

"Is it a good feeling or a bad feeling?" Han wanted to know.

"I can't tell," she admitted, grateful that he wasn't questioning her or being sarcastic. (She could sense that he was being serious, which touched her deeply. He was pushing aside his skepticism for her.) "I wish I could. In fact, I'm not even sure what it means. All I can tell you is that it makes me feel like something's changed, if that makes any sense. That's it. I guess I haven't learned enough yet."

"What about your best buddy? He probably felt it too, right?"

"Oh, there's no question," she verified. "I felt it and I'm just a beginner. Not only is he incredibly powerful, but he's got years of experience behind him."

"Well, there you go. Problem solved," Han declared. "You may not know what this feeling of yours means, but he will."

"So? How will that help me?" she questioned. "He'll probably question me about it and then punish me when I fail to tell him."

"Not if it's bad news for him," Han corrected. "Think about it. You said it felt like change, right? Well, bad change for him is good for us. And he's not the type to let on when things aren't going his way. Bad for his image, you know."

Leia suddenly realized where he was going. "So if he doesn't say anything about it when I'm training with him tomorrow, that means that he didn't like what he felt."

"Exactly, Sweetheart," he confirmed. "The more closemouthed he is about the whole thing, the more likely it is that our luck will start turning around for us."

"Oh, I hope so," Leia said. "Do you think that there's any chance that we can escape from here sooner than you planned?"

"Probably not, but it might make things go a little smoother when the time comes," he told her. "If His Royalness is distracted by even the smallest threat to his rule, he might start paying less attention to the minor day to day goings on around here. All his focus would be on keeping his enemies away from Coruscant. It would probably be a while before he noticed your absence."

"Wouldn't that be wonderful?" she wistfully said. "I hope that whatever it is that I felt ruins his entire year."

Although she couldn't see it, Leia could sense Han's half grin.

"His entire year, huh?"

"I'd have said his life, but that would be hoping for too much."

"You can never hope for too much, kid," he informed her. "Go for it."

It was her turn to grin. "Okay. I hope to the Force that whatever's coming ruins his life so badly that his own Empire kicks him off his throne."

It was a silly thought, but it was exactly what she needed to feel better.

"Nicely done," Han praised. He pulled her into his arms, surprising her. "Now go back to sleep. It's late and I'm tired."

Leia doubted she could go back to sleep now. For the first time in what seemed like forever, she felt hopeful again that she'd escape this hell and be reunited with her family.

"Good night, Han," she said, deciding to just enjoy the feeling of being in his arms. He didn't need to know that she wasn't tired.

"Night, Sweetheart."

She closed her eyes and it wasn't long before she was asleep.

((((())))))

"I trust I have made myself clear on this matter?" Sidious questioned the two of his servants who were standing before him.

Both Commander Illik, the head of his palace security, and his Hand answered in the affirmative.

"Good."

He had summoned them to his presence almost immediately upon entering his throne room.

Today was the day Skywalker was coming.

He had awoken from his sleep knowing that Skywalker was very near. His former apprentice's Force presence felt stronger and closer than it had since the day he had reappeared in the Force. There was no doubt that he'd be arriving on Coruscant before the day was over.

And he clearly wanted Sidious to know that he was coming.

"I will personally make sure that every single one of my men know that this Skywalker is to be taken unharmed," Illik declared. "Failure to comply will result in severe punishment. You have nothing to worry about, my lord."

Sidious smiled inwardly at Illik's confidence. The man was highly ambitious and truly believed in his own infallibility. (Sidious knew better, of course, but there was no reason to rob Illik of his beliefs.) It was what made him such a good servant. (It also saved him the trouble of having to punish Illik for his failures. He did an excellent job of punishing himself.)

"I expect no less from you, Commander," Sidious told him. "But do not forget that Skywalker is a Jedi. Capturing him will be a difficult undertaking. But I have complete faith in you and your men."

"Thank you, your highness," Illik said, standing just a little bit taller at the praise. "I will not fail you."

"I should hope not, Commander," Sidious let him know. "You are dismissed."

Sidious had no illusions that he would fail to capture Skywalker, but Illik's efforts would herd him towards the throne room, where Sidious and Leia would both be waiting for him. Once Skywalker was there, his slow destruction could begin at last.

"My emperor," Illik bowed and then he turned and walked away.

Sidious immediately turned his attention to his Hand, who could not understand why she had been summoned at the same time as Illik. (Mara had made it clear on multiple occasions that she thought Illik was incompetent and she utterly disliked him.)

"Do you know why I wanted you to be here when I gave Illik his orders?" he asked her.

"No, Master," she answered and Sidious could feel her curiosity. "You told me that I am not to go anywhere near Skywalker. That makes it impossible for me to help that idiot do his job. How do you-"

"Commander Illik's actions will do exactly what they are supposed to do," Sidious cut her off. "I do not expect him to succeed in stopping Skywalker any more than you do. I simply need to make sure that Skywalker finds his way to me. Commander Illik and his men will do just that.

"You, my dear, are to prevent Captain Solo from making contact with Skywalker," he told her, with the intention of getting her to do the exact opposite.

Having his Hand present when Skywalker was shown that his daughter had replaced him as Sidious' apprentice would go a long way in ending her ambitions to be that apprentice herself. It was prove to her once and for all that he had no intention of ever making her his apprentice. And the severe punishment that would follow would make sure she never set out to deliberately disobey him again.

As for Captain Solo, he would see that Leia would never leave with him as long as her father was a prisoner. He would be given a choice: remain and continue to be Leia's companion (from both his Hand and Leia, he knew what Solo had become to Leia) or leave and never have contact with her again. There was no need to imprison or execute him. Either of those fates would distract Leia and Sidious could not have that especially when she still had yet to embrace the dark side. (If his visions were true, that would be taken care of shortly as well.)

"I need you to make sure that he doesn't leave his assigned quarters until Skywalker has been dealt with," Sidious continued. "Skywalker must not know that his daughter has become my apprentice until I inform him. Do you understand this, my Hand?"

"Of course, my master," Mara dutifully answered, her thoughts instantly taking the path that Sidious had hoped. As always, she would do exactly as he had predicted. "I will stay with him until I am ordered elsewhere."

"Excellent," Sidious said, mentally smiling as he followed his Hand's train of thought. She saw an opportunity to be rid of all of her problems at once. She would use Skywalker as the means of removing Leia and Solo from Imperial Center. And informing Skywalker of his daughter's usurping of "her" apprenticeship was foremost in her mind. "I can always count on you, my Hand."

"I live to serve you, my Master," his Hand told him, which was completely true. Serving and pleasing him were all that mattered to her. It was just unfortunate that she felt that the best way for her to do both would only be as his apprentice.

"Now go and send my apprentice to me," he instructed her, ensuring that she would bring both Solo and Skywalker directly to him. "I want her at my side when her father arrives."

"As my master commands," his Hand bowed, her thoughts again following the path he had laid for them.

"I will summon you once Skywalker is properly dealt with," he let her know. "You are dismissed."

Mara bowed a second time and began to quickly make her way from the throne room.

When she had passed through the doors, he openly smiled.

Events were progressing even better than he had hoped. With Skywalker finally neutralized and his daughter on the path of the Sith, there was nothing left to stand in his way. (The rebellion was a minor annoyance, nothing more. He barely gave it any thought.)

The galaxy was, and would remain, his.