April 1, 2000
Category: Star Wars
Author: FernWithy

[Disclaimer]

Behind the Mask

Father's Heart, Part One

Disclaimer: "Behind the Mask" was written purely for personal amusement, and involves no money. It is intended as an interpretation of some events in the Star Wars universe, not as any infringement upon Lucasfilm's copyright.


Half-heard whispers in the night.

"He'll see her. He can't miss his own -- "

"Obi-Wan told you that she can -- "

"I don't care! I won't take chances! I have to hide her. He may not recognize her alone, but he'll know if she's with me. I can't hide it, not in my eyes, not with her here."

Hands lifting her up.

"It's so small, too small, she'll be frightened... "

"She'll be all right. Won't you, my brave little one?"

Placed in the bright box, with the warmth of her mother's scent and the cushions of her clothes.

A soft hand, caressing her face. "Be still and strong, little one. You have your father's heart and your mother's love. Don't be afraid."

A bright bauble glistens, then the trunk closes and the light disappears.

In the darkness, soft breathing. She is safe here. She is still and strong.

***

Ten years later.

The Empire was not welcome on Alderaan.

Leia Organa knew that, even at twelve. She could hear her father's anxiety in the coolness that had crept into his speech, see it in the stiff set of his shoulders. Leia felt the tension in the air, like the static electricity before a lightning storm. Imperial visits were feared and hated.

But Bail Organa often needed to negotiate with the Imperial bureaucracy for the release of political prisoners, so there was no avoiding the contact. He also orchestrated disaster relief efforts in several systems, and sometimes needed to ask the Empire to release one of the ships sent for such a mercy mission. The Empire had never trusted these ships, and they were often boarded and confiscated. Once, they had detained a ship bound for the plague-ridden world of Gonjua for six weeks and hundreds of people had died. Leia wanted to burn every pockmarked face into the Empire's memory for that, but Father insisted that she learn how to submerge her anger and behave like a princess at all times.

Even today.

Imperial visits were common, but visits from Lord Vader were not. A message had arrived earlier that Vader was to be expected. It was brief and chilling: "I have been sent to conclude the negotiations." There were rumors about how Lord Vader concluded negotiations. None of them mentioned mutually beneficial compromises.

Leia put on her best day-gown -- an antique lavender one, with wide sleeves and a faded blue sash, made for a long-ago queen -- and pulled her hair into a high crown of braids, secured with a silver comb that bore the crest of the royal house. She wanted to show Lord Vader the strength of a united Alderaan, the devotion to the old traditions that had bound the world together before the Empire, and would last when the Empire was a forgotten nightmare.

She checked her face in the mirror, and wished that she was old enough to wear makeup, or that Mother would give a brief respite from her rule against doing so before her thirteenth birthday. She had a fond memory -- one of her secret memories -- of having her face painted in bright, theatrical colors by a kind woman with sad eyes, who had spoken to her softly and tenderly, and smiled as she made the vibrant marks on Leia's face. She herself couldn't have been more than three, but she remembered that

(her truemother)

the woman had playfully dabbed a bit of red on each cheek, and smiled and cooed as Leia returned the gesture, poking her own pudgy finger once on each of the woman's cheeks. Leia didn't know who the woman was, though she had suspicions on the matter that hovered between memory and a dream. Her father merely told her that maybe, when she was older, he would explain. For now, she was never to speak of the woman, or even to think of her frequently. It wasn't an easy instruction to obey. The woman haunted her.

She went downstairs to join her father.

Bail Organa glanced sideways at Leia when she arrived in the Great Hall, smiling slightly at her dress; she'd known he would understand the choice. She smiled back, and he put a hand on her shoulder as she came to him. "You are certain that this is what you would do?" he asked. "Last time you saw Lord Vader, you ran as soon as he spoke to you."

Leia felt the blood rush up into her cheeks. "I was seven," she said. "And stupid. I was scared of his breathing machine. I'm not anymore."

"Are you sure that was all?" Father's eyebrows drew down, drawing his gaze inward with them. His eyes seemed to darken. "He didn't say anything that struck you as strange or frightening, did he?"

A strange bird began to flutter in Leia's heart at the odd question, but she caged it. It was understandable that Father was concerned. There were matters in the Organa household that did not bear a great deal of Imperial scrutiny, and Leia was aware enough of them to make her conversation with Vader of interest to him. "He told me I was good at handling my new speeder bike," she said, shrugging. "I just didn't like that he'd noticed me. I guess he was trying to be nice."

"I find that somewhat unlikely." He looked back toward the arch, and shook his head. "You're sure it was just the breathing machine?"

Leia thought about telling her father about the strange feeling she'd had, as if some insect was buzzing inside her head when Lord Vader had looked at her, darting this way and that, looking for something to feed on. When it had drawn close to her secret memory of the pretty lady with the sad eyes, some instinct in her mind had risen up and swatted it away as effortlessly as if it were a swampfly. She didn't understand how she'd done it, but it hadn't been difficult, and she knew she could do it again. Princess Leia Organa was not afraid of swampflies. So it wasn't exactly a lie when she told her father, "No, it was just the breathing machine."

Beyond the huge arch that generated the forcefield of the palace's front door, Leia could see the line of the Imperial convoy. It wasn't large -- just six vehicles -- but it dominated everything it passed, a cold steel knife stabbing into the living flesh of the world. It pulled in front of the palace, and a hatch opened in the middle shuttle.

Lord Vader stepped out of it.

He looked straight through the forcefield, and Leia knew he was looking at her from behind those plexisteel eyeguards. It was crazy, but she was absolutely sure of it. She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. She was a princess of Alderaan. She was not afraid.

The forcefield was deactivated, and Lord Vader strode inside. Four guards followed in his wake, but he never even glanced at them.

Bail Organa took a step forward. "Lord Vader," he said, giving a small bow. "My home is open to you, as it always has been."

"You have small choice in the matter, Organa," Vader said. He glanced at Leia. "I am pleased to see you again, Your Highness," he said.

Leia's temper rose up like a draigon at the way Vader had treated her father, but she saw how well Father retained his composure, how dignified he remained in the face of the insult, and longed to be like him. "My daughter will observe our negotiations," he said.

"If that is your wish."

Lord Vader led the way into an anteroom, not even bothering to give Bail the appearance of being the host in his own home.

Behave like a princess, Leia reminded herself. At all times. She caught her temper and choked it as she followed them. It was still struggling to free itself when negotiations began.

***

Vader was fond of the young princess.

Granted, it was a detached fondness, a sort of academic interest -- fascination, perhaps -- but it was a fondness nonetheless. It puzzled him. He felt very little now. The strong feelings, like anger or aggression, flowed quickly and easily when he needed them. But this was a feeling of a different order, a strange leap of his blood, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with it. The child reminded him of

(Amidala)

HER, he supposed, with her long dark hair and royal title. And certainly, the child had known... HER... in her infancy -- this was where she had been before the end. He had tried to read the girl's memories once, to see what was there. He hadn't suspected that the rebel Organa would be foolish enough to divulge vital information to his seven-year-old daughter. It had been a purely personal search. Foolish, he thought now, to have been obsessed with finding mere scraps of information, on the off chance that they would make a pattern leading him to --

He stopped thinking about that; it was not comforting to him. He still wanted to know what this child might or might not remember, on the off chance that there was something about... matters that were of interest to him... but he no longer felt the desperate need to simply see the pictures in her mind, any more than he felt the need to open the trunk where he kept the things of HERS that Saché had brought to him, though he still occasionally found himself doing so. Habits died hard.

What fascinated him about the princess, though, was the almost unconscious way she had blocked her mind from his when he had tried to access it. There had been a strong sense of being struck back, of being caught by the wind of the Force and thrown aside. He had not heard of anyone else with this particular talent. Many people were simply blank slates -- they never reached into the Force, and left no footprints on it to be traced. Neither Bail nor Saché Organa was open to him at all, and never had been, even in days when they had no reason to hide. They were simply invisible, in any but the most rudimentary ways. Their daughter, on the other hand, was visible and strong. She would need a mentor at some point. She called out like a beacon in a crowded room; even those who weren't attuned to the Force could feel the power of it. She would be a great leader someday.

Organa and the princess sat together at one end of the small conference table. Vader himself preferred to stand. His full height inspired quicker negotiations. The guards for both sides lined the walls, in an alternating pattern, as was the custom on Alderaan.

Organa spoke first. "Until our medical ship is returned from Ampinua, I see little room for negotiation."

Vader paid no heed to the absolute tone of Organa's voice. "We captured a rebel commander named Jaet Bishapi on Ampinua."

"Bishapi is a physician. He has made no secret of his political views, but you and the Empire know full well that he has never acted on them."

"You are assuming an antiquated legal system, Organa. Bishapi has broken no fewer than thirteen Imperial laws, including laws against sedition, which carry a death penalty. His execution is scheduled within the next forty-eight hours." Vader watched Organa carefully, but let his gaze take in the girl as she sat fuming beside him. He could sense that she was embarrassed for her father's powerlessness, but he could find nothing more specific about her. He was sorry he had allowed her to oversee the negotiations. Rebel or not, Organa needn't be shamed in front of his child.

Still, her presence had not been Vader's idea.

"I imagine," Organa said, "that you would not have been sent to deliver this message unless the Empire wants to bargain for something. We both know that Bishapi is no real threat."

Vader slowly raised an eyebrow under his mask, only realizing partway through the motion that no one would be able to see it. "Do we?" Of course, that was the Empire's official position -- the point of coming here was to use Bishapi's life as a bargaining chip to disarm the fleet of ships Organa had at his command -- but Vader was not as certain as the Emperor or the Governors on this matter. Bishapi traveled to unstable worlds, and spread his sedition among people who had little to lose, like the Ampinuans. Stricken by natural disasters and greedy despots who operated outside the laws of either Republic or Empire, Ampinua was ripe for political unrest.

But it was not his choice. If it had been up to Vader, the Empire would have sent in engineers to repair the damage and governors to establish order in the chaos, but Ampinua had been deemed non-essential, just as Bishapi had been declared a non-threat.

"Lord Vader," Organa began, "there is little to be gained for either of us by parrying on obvious points. I am well aware that you and the Empire are willing to bargain for Bishapi's life. You are equally well aware that I will do so."

Young Leia was staring stonily at her hands, folded neatly on the table. She had apparently been instructed not to speak. Pity. Vader would have liked to hear what she had to say. "Very well, Organa. If that is what you wish. Your fleet is suspected of transporting weapons to the Rebel Alliance. It will no longer do so."

"You've never found any evidence of such a thing."

"Do not insult my intelligence."

To Organa's credit, he said nothing.

Leia's hands were clasped tightly together, and Vader could see the slight flicker of motion as she flexed one finger after another in a rhythmic pattern. She wanted to be tapping them in her impatience and rising temper.

Vader continued. "Alderaan has been a seedbed of discontent from the beginning. Bishapi is a symptom of a larger problem, which I intend to solve today. We will return your physician to you. And you will disarm. Fully and immediately."

Leia stood, and banged her hand on the table. "That would leave us without any way to defend ourselves against your thugs!"

"Leia, you may leave the room. Now," Organa said.

Vader considered forbidding it, but thought that it would be improper for him to contradict the girl's father in matters that were not Imperial.

Leia's nostrils flared a few times, then she turned on her heel and left the room.

"I apologize, Lord Vader," Organa said. "She has a rather volatile temper at times. I had thought she would have learned to control it by now."

Vader did not accept the apology. He thought less of Organa for making it. Such a temper might have proven an asset to this girl, but it was being trained out of her as surely as if she were a padawan. By the time she reached adulthood, she was certain to have become as much of a

(slave as)

doormat as

(I am)

her father was.

"Shall we return to our negotiations?" he asked dryly.

***

Leia paced the hall outside of her father's study, her gown billowing behind her in a cloud of sheer fabric. She knew she was in trouble. She knew she had broken her promise not to speak. And she knew that she got in more trouble for losing her temper than for any other crime she regularly committed. Father always made it into a lecture. Mother (who, thankfully, was off-world for a conference and would be until this faded away) always looked at her with sad, disappointed eyes that were even worse than a lecture. The royal house of Alderaan had officially declared the temper of the princess to be a matter of planetary security.

Well, why shouldn't I be mad? The whole thing is a humiliating mess. No one should talk to my father like that. And the Empire has no business stopping medical ships, or telling any world that it's not allowed to defend itself anymore.

She reached the end of the hall and turned smartly, pacing back the other direction. She had a list of things to tell Lord Vader, and she wished now that she had done so, as long as she was going to be in trouble anyway.

The door to Bail's study slid up, and he called her inside.

He was sitting behind his large desk, several viewscreens raised and showing him different images. He motioned for Leia to sit down. She knew the routine -- he wouldn't start speaking to her until he thought she had sufficiently calmed herself. She breathed deeply and watched him scan the news, and waited to be addressed.

"You broke your word," he said at last.

"I know, Father. I'm sorry."

"Had you been conducting the negotiations, you might have cost Jaet Bishapi his life."

She sighed deeply. "Then you're going to disarm?"

"We have no choice in the matter. It was either disarm now and get Bishapi, or have Bishapi executed, then receive another order to disarm, this time with the backing of a military much stronger than anything we can muster. You need to understand the political realities of living in a world under suspicion. Lord Vader made the Empire's position quite clear."

"I hate him," Leia muttered, half under her breath.

"You fear him."

"I do not! I'm not afraid of him anymore. I just hate him, and I wish he was dead."

"Leia!" Bail Organa was around his desk in three large steps, and his hands dug into the muscles in Leia's upper arms. "Don't you ever say that again! Do you hear me? You must not say that, or think that. Ever."

"Why not? He wishes other people dead. He wishes Jaet Bishapi dead."

"What Lord Vader wishes or does not wish is not my concern. I am not responsible for him. I am responsible for you, and I am telling you now that you must never wish such a thing, not even in your most secret heart. You would come to regret it. Deeply"

"But why?"

Bail looked at her sadly, then looked away and let go of her arms. "Because thoughts like that poison the mind, Leia," he said finally. "I will not tell you not to fear Lord Vader -- and please do not give me any more bravado on that count, because if you don't fear him, you're a fool; there is reason to fear him. I will not tell you not to hate him, though it is my hope that... that you will either learn to pity him, or at the very least to hate him for the right reasons."

Pity him? "What are the right reasons?" she asked.

"Lord Vader was a great man once," Bail said softly. "Behind that mask is a man who could have done great works in the name of all that was good. He is strong, and he could have wielded that strength against the Emperor. He stole himself from the galaxy, Leia. He stole himself from you."

"From me?"

"From everyone."

Leia stared at a ray of sunshine coming through the high windows. A mote of dust was floating in it. Her father was hiding something. She didn't like that, but she was used to it. "So I'm supposed to feel sorry for him?"

"Vader is a prisoner held by the chains he forged himself, Leia. I don't know if that means you should feel sorry for him or despise him all the more. That's something you have to decide. I just want you to remember it. But whatever you do, you must not wish him dead. If you are going to make pointless wishes, wish... " He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. You will not attend any more diplomatic functions until I am convinced that you know how to comport yourself." He turned ostentatiously toward a viewscreen. The meeting was over. Leia left the room without saying goodnight.

She wandered the halls for nearly an hour, watching the sunset from many different windows, her mind restless. Something in her father's intensity had disturbed her, for reasons she could not name. There was something at the edge of her memory, trying to surface. It was near the secret memory. Something about

(be still and strong... don't be afraid)

a trunk.

She pushed it away. She was not supposed to think of this, and at the moment that seemed like the sanest rule that existed in her life. She pulled the comb out of her hair, and tucked it in her sash, then went to watch the rest of the sunset from the Great Hall, through the arch.

Lord Vader was already there, standing at the center of the door, a black mountain against the vivid red of the sky. He was aware of her presence, though she wasn't sure how, or how she knew it.

Well, she wasn't going to miss the sunset just because he was in her favorite spot. She wasn't afraid of Lord Vader. Oddly, she really felt that this wasn't "bravado," as her father thought. She was fairly sure that she really wasn't. She knew that he could hurt her, and didn't imagine he would hesitate to do so, but she felt confident that she could handle anything he inflicted upon her. She didn't know why she felt this.

"Good evening, Your Highness," he said. "I would be pleased if you would join me."

Leia wasn't sure what to do with the invitation. She had no desire to join Lord Vader, and was vaguely insulted at being invited to a sunset in her own house by anyone, but to turn around and leave would mean she was letting him alter her plans. She settled for saying, "Hello, Lord Vader," and sitting down on the wide steps of the grand staircase.

That strange buzzing appeared in her mind again, as she had expected it would. It buzzed toward her meeting with her father, and she shunted it easily aside, as she had before. It hovered near thoughts of her mother, and of school, and she let it stay for a moment; there was nothing threatening. Finally, as she'd known it would, it sought out her secret memory. She needed to make no effort to push it away. It was an instinct, like blocking a blow with her hands. The strength of the reaction startled her, as her mind seemed to push outward against Vader like a hot wind, pushing a fire back in on itself. It was much stronger than it had been when she was seven. She didn't let her face register that she was aware of anything out of the ordinary. Lessons in diplomacy were good for something after all.

"... race?"

Leia looked up. She hadn't realized that Lord Vader had been speaking to her. "I'm sorry? I didn't hear you well."

"The last time I was here, you were racing a rather nice speeder bike against a rather unworthy opponent. Do you still race?"

Of all the strange questions Leia had been asked, this one seemed to her the most surreal. Darth Vader, standing in her father's Great Hall, after having humiliated him in negotiations, asking calmly -- like any other adult trying to strike up a conversation with a strange child -- if she still raced her speeder bike. She couldn't imagine why he would be interested in such a thing, yet she remembered vaguely that he had been watching that race five years before, and had evinced more interest in it than either of her parents. "No," she answered. "My parents really didn't like it very much, so I stopped." That much was true; they had purely hated it when she had zipped through the local park, racing against her friend Zeria, and seemed only to hate it more when she protested that she enjoyed doing it.

"A pity," Lord Vader said thoughtfully. "It is a pleasant pastime for a child." He turned back toward the arch, and looked at the now darkened sky.

"No one ever beat me. Not Zeria, not anyone."

"Then it seems to me you were in need of more talented enemies."

Leia smiled despite herself, then hid it quickly, remembering why Vader was here, and who he was. Why should she take pleasure in his approval of such a silly thing? Who was he to approve or not approve?

But she couldn't deny that she did take pleasure in it, and that she found it strangely comforting to think that Lord Vader might have some mundane interests that had nothing to do with executing doctors and "concluding" negotiations.

She looked at him guardedly, at the black cape, at the lights of his breathing apparatus. It was grotesque, and she thought he could have done something about it if he was inclined to, but he wasn't completely repulsive. He was just a man with a medical condition that required certain machinery.

"I regret what you witnessed this afternoon, Your Highness," he said. "It is necessary to the stability of the Empire to quash the Rebellion quickly. Once that is accomplished, we can put structures in place to handle emergencies like the one on Ampinua more efficiently."

"What kind of structures?"

Vader turned and looked at her, and she imagined a look of surprise under his mask. Then he began to explain.

***

Vader had, in fact, been taken by surprise by her sudden question. Organa's daughter, willing to listen to someone else's point of view?

Yet the princess was listening attentively as they walked around the grounds and he spoke of his view of the galaxy, about how he wanted to use the power of the Empire to settle territories out into the Outer Rim, to restore order and make possible a civilized life, even for people

(enslaved)

trapped on worlds whose natural tendency was toward chaos. He could bring in schools and courts, and organize disaster relief far better than Organa ever could with his ragtag collection of out-of-repair starships. The people would realize, at last, that order was helpful to them, that the order protected them in a way they had never been protected under the corrupt Old Republic. The Emperor would see to it that the same standard of justice applied to all the people of the galaxy. He had promised that much. As soon as the war was over and the resistance crushed.

"But how is it justice to keep medicine away from people, like you did on Gonjua?" she asked.

"It is a dangerous time, Your Highness. We must be vigilant. It is unfortunate that many people choose to mix terrorism with benevolence. We must stop the first, even if it requires impeding the second, if we are to maintain order."

Leia frowned. "It's still not right. No one was bombing anything. It was just medicine."

"It was regrettable," Vader agreed. "But unavoidable. Perhaps we should speak of other matters now. We are approaching an impasse."

Her eyes narrowed, but she shrugged an agreement. The conversation drifted for several minutes, skating over the edges of many topics, but came back, naturally enough, to its beginning, to her racing. She appeared to have decided that they could share this ground, and clearly was glad to have someone with whom to discuss it.

Even me, Vader thought. She is glad even for my company in this matter. It was an unsettling thought. People were rarely glad of his company in any matter, and he considered this a proper state of affairs. But he was glad of the company as well, and searched his mind for the manners of light conversation that he had long since abandoned.

"...and I probably could have gone faster, but my speeder bike wouldn't go with me."

"Have you considered altering the engines?"

"I don't know much about them. I mean, a little bit, but I don't think I could change them around, at least not without help."

"Perhaps I will teach you."

"Why do you know about racing?"

It came out easily and unexpectedly, though he had not spoken of any part of his past for many years. "I raced when I was a child."

"What did you race?"

A voice in Vader's mind -- the voice of a man who could no longer be allowed to exist -- tried to speak to her question, to tell her about the dunes and rocks of Tatooine, about the exhilaration of travelling at speeds that would make her speeder look like it was standing still. Vader did not give that voice any quarter, even now, when it could do no harm. It occasionally cleared its throat to speak on other matters, and he had no interest in its opinions at those times. Better to cut it off in all situations than to risk its nattering interruptions when it counted. "It no longer matters," he said. "It was another lifetime."

Leia did not press the issue. She might have been forming her own opinions, and Vader would not stop her from doing so. It occurred to him that befriending the princess might prove useful in his future dealings with Organa. And at a later date, she might prove to be a powerful ally. He savored the thought of that. He would be glad to claim Organa's daughter to the Empire. It would be just. And if it would help to allow her to imagine him as a child racing just as she did (or as she wished she did), then he would allow her to spin the fantasy.

More comfortable, now that he understood his own reasoning, he resumed the conversation. "And what of you, Your Highness? You say you no longer race. What occupies your time now?"

"Tutors and school," she answered. "And learning diplomacy. That takes up a lot of my time. And learning to control my temper, which my father says ought to take up all my time."

"You can gain respect in a negotiation by not backing down," Vader said, feeding what he knew well was her belief.

"That's what I've been saying! But it didn't seem to work well today. And I am sorry for interrupting the negotiations. I was out of place."

"You have no need to apologize, Your Highness. The reason it didn't work today, as you put it, is that you were in a position in which you had no options. In a stronger position, a well-controlled display of defiance might have been quite effective. It was a girl not much older than you are who began to dismantle the Republic with just such a show of defiance in the Senate."

"I know that story."

"I thought you might." Vader decided to press the issue. "Do you know who that girl was? I believe she might have been here for some time when you were young."

Instantly, the girl's guard went up. He could feel the howling wind of it coming out from her mind. HER presence was obviously something the girl did not want to discuss, or had been forbidden to discuss, although Vader failed to see Organa's reasoning for the latter. "I see I should apologize now, Your Highness," he said. "I'm sure it was simply too far back in your memory to be of note."

The wind subsided, and Leia smiled. "It no longer matters," she said. "It was another lifetime."

For a brief moment, Vader was angry, then he realized that she meant only to share a jest with him. She had no reason to believe his question was of great import to either of them. He wished he could laugh briefly, to reassure her that he knew it was a jest, but he had long ago lost that ability.

He suspected it wasn't necessary. For the moment at least, she'd granted him some kind of provisional trust. That would be enough to start on. From there, he could lead her anywhere.

He waited for the voice in his mind to protest, but it was, for once, silent.

***

Leia dreamed of her mother that night.

Not her adoptive mother. Saché Organa was certainly beloved to her, and no one outside of Leia's mind would be allowed to refer to her as anything other than her real mother. But inside Leia's mind was another woman, the sad-eyed woman who never left her. In the privacy of almost unremembered dreams, Leia always called her "Mother."

They were in a world of shifting rocks and sudden drop-offs, with fires burning all around them. The woman's face was painted like a porcelain doll's. There was something else about her, something strange that Leia couldn't place. "We all have to wear masks sometimes," she said. "There are faces we can't let them see."

"Let who see?"

"That's the riddle, isn't it? Who is the only person who can never see behind a mask?"

Leia thought about it, and the answer came to her with no fanfare; it was obvious. "The person who can't see behind a mask is the person wearing it," she said.

"That's right, little one." Her voice became firm, almost dangerous. "And that means, no matter what you may see behind a mask, you must never assume that the person wearing it will see the same. Be mindful. Take nothing for granted." She smiled, and ran a hand over Leia's cheek. "But don't stop looking, my love. Don't ever stop looking."

The woman's makeup faded away first, revealing her ageless, beautiful face. In the instant before she faded away entirely, Leia thought she saw another shape, a true shape beneath, but it was gone before she could recognize it.

Then the vision disappeared, and Leia was left on the burning plain. She wandered it until she awoke.

It was only on the edge of waking, in the no-man's land of dawn, that she realized what had been strange about her mother: in her secret memories, and in all her other dreams, the woman had soft brown eyes, much like Leia's own. In this dream, her eyes had blazed out from behind the makeup -- and they were a bright, piercing blue.

***

Jaet Bishapi arrived a week later. He was a human, of indeterminate age, with young eyes and long white hair that flew wildly in the wind. He laughed easily, and sang in a loud, booming voice. Leia liked him a great deal, but thought he might not be entirely sane.

"Yes," he said one night after supper, not long after he got in, "Ampinua is in a bad way. The usual fever, of course. I offered them a cure." He wiggled his eyebrows.

"Which I'm sure they gratefully took," Mother said.

"Took it? Why, they were already trying to figure out how to make the medicine themselves. I just gave them the right formula."

Leia wished they wouldn't speak in such obvious codes; if they were going to speak of the Rebellion, she wished they would do so outright, or at least in secret phrases that couldn't be understood by any nearby five-year-old. Besides, there were other priorities on Ampinua, and they came before the Rebellion, just as they should have come before the Empire on Gonjua. "The tidal wave," she said, "was it really as bad as they say? Did it really go all the way across a city?"

Bishapi nodded, becoming serious. "Yes, Your Highness. I didn't mean to make light of the disaster. An undersea quake raised a huge wave, and it moved cleanly across the isthmus, where Fazon, one of the chief cities of Ampinua, lies. Many people had evacuated when the scientists predicted a plate shift, but people can be very stubborn when it comes to leaving their homes, and there were many who decided to stay and ride it out. All but a very few of them were killed. And the water supply has been tainted, which really is causing a disturbing digestive illness to spread among the survivors. It was a tragedy. Many lives were lost and destroyed, and many of Fazon's priceless works of art have been lost forever."

Leia tried to imagine it, a wall of water sweeping across a city, destroying everything in its path and leaving misery and disease in its wake. Her heart went out to these people she did not know, and she longed to go there and comfort them. "I want to help," she said.

The three adults all looked at her keenly, a sudden silence falling on them. Leia could hear a whistlebug in the garden outside, humming to the evening.

"There is little you can do, Leia," Father said after awhile.

"I can give medicine to people. And I can help clean up the rubble. Please. I want to help them."

"No," Mother said.

Bishapi had been shaking his head all along. "This is not a good idea, Your Highness. Geologic instability is only one of Ampinua's problems. It has also been largely usurped by a man called Mol Zokusa, an ex-Imperial officer who was dishonorably discharged by Lord Vader."

Mother looked up sharply. "Vader?"

"There is a certain irony in it, isn't there?" Bishapi shook his head. "No, Zokusa is a thug. Vader considers him corrupt. And Vader destroys anything he considers corrupt. It's common knowledge that Vader wanted him executed, but was over-ridden by the Governors." He snorted a humorless laugh. "Then again, even Vader has to be right sometimes. Law of chance. Zokusa is a despot. He needs to be taken down."

"Really, Jaet," Mother said. "I thought we'd leave that sort of thinking to the Empire."

"You haven't seen them, Saché," Bishapi said. "Zokusa funnels nearly everything through his own personal treasury. He takes his pick of the women. He sends his thugs out after anyone who he thinks he hasn't stolen enough from yet. If we back down from people like Zokusa, then Vader has one up on us."

***

Two unrelated things happened the next month.

The first was that the disarming of Alderaan began. Lord Vader oversaw it personally. It was a humiliating moment for the planet, and Leia felt it keenly, but it gave her many more chances to speak to Vader. She had lost all fear at his appearance, and found -- somewhat disturbingly -- that she could speak to him easily, about many subjects. Racing kept coming back, but she also discovered his knack with anything mechanical, and he listened attentively while she complained about her linguistics tutor. There was no single thing she could pinpoint in these talks, no memory that she would later identify as the seed of a friendship, no unique understanding they reached. It was just... something, a sense of belonging and understanding that nourished a part of her soul she hadn't even realized was starving.

Her parents had objected to the talks at first, but their arguments were hollow, and Leia had won her case easily. She could keep secrets, and she didn't find Vader's blatant Imperial proselytizing at all alluring. She tried to listen through his polemics to find whatever good ideas might be hidden in the dark morass of his mind. She hadn't found any yet, but she was certain they existed.

The other event was her friend Zeria's thirteenth birthday.

The two girls had been friends for as long as Leia could recall, though their families had little to do with one another. Zeria's parents owned a market in town, and they had met when Leia and her mother had gone on a rare royal outing. They'd hit off so famously that arrangements had been made for them to continue playing together, despite the vast differences in their lives.

Zeria's birthday party was going to be the first of the Thirteenths. Like many cultures, Alderaan had once held thirteen to be the age of majority, and it remained the most heavily celebrated birthday in a child's life. Zeria had decided on a masquerade to be held in the Hall of Memory, with the theme of creatures from Alderaan's ancient myths. Zeria had chosen to be the angel Uali. Leia, as her best friend, agreed to be Uali's sidekick, Voj, who was generally the one who got the pair in trouble (Leia secretly preferred Voj, though Uali was supposed to be the Alderaanian ideal; Voj, at least, took the initiative now and then).

The costume was the bright red of sunset, with a feathered mask that covered most of Leia's face. The gown skimmed her body, clinging to curves she hadn't realized she'd been developing until she put it on. She felt acutely self-conscious, and was glad of the diaphanous cape that draped over her shoulders and down to her waist, covering the disturbing new shapes. Zeria's costume was the same, except in the blue of the sky at noon. They sat together on the dais, and the first half of the party -- the dinner -- went splendidly. Leia offered a funny toast (a light wine was allowed at Thirteenths), and Zeria swore they would be best friends forever.

If so, either "forever" or "best friends" meant something different to Zeria than it did to Leia. After dinner, there was a formal dance. The boys crowded around Zeria, and she agreed to dance with each of them. No one, however, asked Leia, and she was left stranded alone on the dais. Every now and then, Zeria would pass by with a wave, but she never stopped to talk, and never sent anyone else over. Apparently, no one had much interest in talking to Her Highness, or so Leia gathered from overheard comments. She watched from behind her feathered mask, and tried not to be disappointed. It didn't work. Unable to conceal it, she slipped outside after an hour, thinking only to get some fresh air.

Her speeder bike was hovering where she'd left it earlier, beside Zeria's. She hooked it over to her with the remote that dangled on her bracelet disguised as a charm, and climbed on. With no particularly planned destination, she slid out into the night.

At first, she just meandered over the rolling hills, feeling the wind billowing back her gown, and flattening the feathers of her mask against her face. She dipped into the shallow valleys, following the courses of the small creeks, sometimes low and under the branches of the trees, sometimes high above them. Had anyone told her that her eyes had been closed nearly half the time, she would not have believed it.

She found herself at last in the park where she and Zeria had raced when they were children, the place where Lord Vader had watched her and complimented her, and the place where she had run away from him without a word. She'd been foolish.

She glanced around quickly, to see if she was alone. Satisfied, she bent low over the steering column, and hit the thrusters.

She was astounded by the speed at first. It had been so long that she'd forgotten what it felt like to really fly. But she gained control, feeling the turns of the track and the shimmies of the machine through some network of nerves that reached beyond her body. She increased her speed.

Once around the long track, twice. Ducking under artfully constructed obstacles, and over the rolling hurdles. Zipping between two crafted shrubs.

Faster.

Third and fourth revolutions. It wasn't her imagination. The speeder bike was going faster than it was supposed to be able to. She didn't stop to question it -- she pushed the thruster further, and took it as far as it would go.

Under, around, over. A controlled spin through the landscaped canyon. Her heart was racing, her face flushed with exhilaration under the mask. Her gown and her hair flew behind her in a river of red and brown. She should be wearing a helmet, she knew, but this...

She came out onto the open stretch, and almost missed the hulking black form against the night sky. She veered, and was sure she had lost control -- she had time to think, that'll teach me about the helmet -- but found the speeder righting itself and slowing, turning back toward the center.

Vader was waiting there for her, his hand slightly raised.

He was controlling her speeder. She didn't like that much, but supposed she probably owed him her life. Of course, if he hadn't been standing there, she wouldn't have had to veer.

"Good evening, Your Highness," he said.

The speeder stopped, and Leia climbed off it. "Hello, Lord Vader."

"I see you have discovered the modifications I made to your engines."

Leia's eyes darted to her speeder bike. So that was why it had been going faster. "I think you might have warned me."

"I didn't imagine you would take it to a speed you were unable to control. You didn't. You flew well. Do you enjoy the power of it?"

A part of Leia was tempted to scream that she could have been killed, that it was high handed of him to tamper with her property without her consent, that his questions were intrusive. Instead, she smiled broadly, nodding, the corners of her mouth tickling against the feathered mask. "Thank you," she said.

"An early gift. I believe your Thirteenth is coming soon?"

"Next month." She had not thought yet about her own celebration, and now didn't want one. The lines of dutiful faces waiting to get their dances over with were too awful an image to contemplate for long.

He nodded. "I will no longer be on Alderaan at the time. The disarmament will be complete within two weeks."

Leia sighed. It was not one of the matters she could discuss with him. There weren't even any shared axioms upon which to base an argument. "Where will you be next?" she asked.

"That is not for your ears, Your Highness."

She shrugged. Such statements were not new to her. Jaet Bishapi had said something similar when he'd left last week. "Will you return here?"

"Perhaps. Someday. If it becomes necessary. I am somewhat unwelcome here."

It would have been good form to contradict him, but they had dispensed with good form early on. If she thanked him, it was because she was grateful. If she welcomed him, it was because he was welcome... and she couldn't pretend that he would ever be welcome on Alderaan in a general way. "I should get back to Zeria's party," she said. "Before I'm missed. It wasn't very polite of me to sneak away."

"It would be unfortunate to waste such a beautiful costume."

"Do you really think it's pretty?"

"I consider you lovely."

Lovely. The warmth of the word filled her chest, and she stood straighter. He didn't lie to her any more than she lied to him. If he said she was lovely, she was. She had never been lovely before. "Thank you," she said again.

She climbed back onto her speeder, and returned to Zeria's party. As it turned out, she had been missed, if not greatly. A few of the boys noticed her windblown hair, and the confidence she carried herself with. Two of them asked her to dance, then there was a circle of them. Zeria saluted her from across the room. Leia winked back at her from behind her mask.

She began looking forward to her own Thirteenth.

***

Vader watched the princess glide off toward town, smiling ruefully behind his own mask. It was a smile that no one on this world would have associated with him... except maybe Saché, but she had flown offworld the day he'd arrived, and at any rate could not see it any more than anyone else could. His plan to bring Leia into the Empire was failing -- she was a stubborn child -- but he still found himself enjoying her company.

There were those, he knew, who would impute something improper to his attitude. In general, he did not object to people assuming the worst of him -- it was usually true, and generally useful -- but in this case, the idea sickened him. He knew the power of the Dark Side, and had given himself to it, but he was not deviant, not in that way. Such grotesqueries were for people like Zokusa, who thought the universe existed to sate their base desires.

Vader despised them.

He thought the princess a lovely child, that was true. But a child. Not an object of desire, except in such a way as any adult desired to protect a child and raise it in his own image. He supposed he did desire her in that way (Vader craved a child of his own, and suspected strongly that one existed -- he'd sensed the boy's presence in Kenobi's mind just before the fires had seared the split between them forever), but she did not return it by desiring to be protected or raised. He was only able to sate that desire by giving her something on the ground that they did share, and it was small ground. He was beginning to accept that.

It would actually be considerably less than two weeks before he left. Alderaan's stash of armaments was less than the Empire had estimated, and Vader had guessed what had become of the discrepancy. The ship that had left last week had been far too large for the amount of legal cargo it carried. The commander of the stormtroopers who had examined it swore that it had been checked from stem to stern, but Vader believed the man to be a fool -- the cargo holds he described searching would only take up half the space the ship had for them. Alderaan's machinery of war had been moved, right under his nose, along, he was certain, with Bishapi. And there was little doubt as to their common destination, and his report to the Emperor had finally resulted in permission to follow personally.

Vader relished the chance to go to Ampinua at last, and solve all the problems of that world once and for all.

***

Leia returned home just before midnight -- long after her usual curfew, but Thirteenths were special, and carried special privileges -- humming a popular dance tune under her breath and pretending to dance with handsome Mip Luha, who had twirled her around the floor twice earlier. She was thinking about her own Thirteenth in earnest now, unable to imagine a way to top Zeria's.

"And who's this masked woman?" someone said, picking her up and swinging her around. He laughed loudly.

She pulled off her mask, and turned to smile at Jaet Bishapi. "I thought you were gone!"

"I was. Now, I'm not. Come, your father is on the balcony." He held out his arms. "Shall we dance our way to him?"

Leia dropped a curtsey, and let Bishapi lead her across the Great Hall, through the dining room, and out onto the balcony, where her father stood and applauded. Leia collapsed into a comfortable chair, laughing. Much had happened; the night had soared back and forth between despair and exhilaration, and she was exhausted. She wondered what she might dream about tonight.

"We've been talking," Father said. "And I sent a careful message to your mother on Malastare. She has finally agreed."

"Agreed to what?"

"Generous impulses should not be forbidden." Father stood, and looked out across the plains. Leia wondered if he'd seen her racing earlier. She hoped not.

"I'm sorry?" she said.

"Ampinua," Bishapi jumped in. "I'm returning to Ampinua tomorrow. If you want to help, Your Highness, you are more than welcome to."

Leia sat up straight, both her gaiety and her exhaustion evaporating. "Ampinua?" she repeated.

Father turned back to her and nodded. "Yes. This is a simple enough mission. Jaet will have you inoculated against the viruses that are spreading before you go. You will do as he says, though. Your mother and I are both concerned about the political situation. Jaet has promised to keep you out of it."

"Which political situation?" she asked. She didn't mean to sound disingenuous; she really wasn't sure if they meant the Rebellion, or the despot Zokusa that Bishapi and Vader both wanted dead.

"Any political situation," Father said. "I have no desire to see you go to war with anyone just yet."

"Neither do I," Bishapi reassured him. "But I do want to see you stand up and do what you believe in doing. And I think you're good company. It will do my heart good to have you along. What do you say?"

Leia thought about asking if she'd be home in time for her Thirteenth, but realized that would sound childish and selfish. And besides, what better way to come of age than by actually entering her parents' work? She smiled. "I say, what do I pack?"

***

She dreamed nothing that night, because her waking thoughts were too quick and excited to allow sleep.

Ampinua, she thought. A chance to really

(solve all the problems of that world)

make a difference.

At last.


FernWithy

Go on to Father's Heart, Part Two: Problem Solvers

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