April 1, 2000
Category: Star Wars
Author: FernWithy

[Disclaimer]

Imperial Entanglements

Father's Heart, Part Four

Disclaimer: "Imperial Entanglements" 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.


All the empty spaces. They seem to last forever.

"How do we tell her? What do we say?"

"I think she knows, Bail. Look at her."

The dark, lonely spot, where the safe-place was. The still-and-strong place. She curls into it, and pulls an imaginary cover over herself.

A warm body, curling around her. "My poor little one. Poor all of us." A kiss, someone else's tear against her face. "But you know, don't you?"

The word, always stuck in her mouth before, never easy to get her lips around. But now, the need to say it. And she is gone, to the empty places. "Mother."

"Yes, love," the other says. "Mother."

***

La'azum, years later.

Jaet Bishapi fell back into the shadows in a rush, as the phalanx of stormtroopers turned the corner in formation. The factory was working at high speed, staffed both by efficient Imperial troops and by closely watched prisoners. Getting in would not be easy. Getting out would be next to impossible, but was not as important. He felt the weight of the detonators in the packsack. He could set the Empire's fleet back ten years in one night. And tear down something Vader built. That, he admitted to himself, also held a strong attraction. He was glad of an excuse to finally do it.

A maddening itch made him look down, and he realized that his mechanical foot had landed in some kind of insect nest. Damnable thing never felt where it was going until it was too late to get out of it. He dropped further into the shadow, and brushed the insects off his legs. There was a time when he would have known (and cared) what they were called, but Dr. Bishapi had long since lost his interest in knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Now they were just a nuisance and a --

Lights flashed in the night, and a siren went up. Alarm! For a confused moment, Bishapi thought they had bugged the nest. Then he realized that it was just an escaped prisoner alarm.

Just.

He sighed. They would go into full lockdown now. He wouldn't be able to get in. This had happened twice before, and he was beginning to wonder if these were staged escapes, to excuse lockdowns. He wouldn't put it past the Empire.

He needed more information. He needed to know the way in, what the shifting schedule was. He needed someone who might be able to catch a glimpse behind the Empire's masks.

Luckily, he knew just such a someone.

***

"... so I told my parents they could just fly off... "

Leia smiled politely at the wildly-dressed boy across the table from her, as he went on with his rambling monologue. She'd agreed to let him take her to dinner (though he'd said it would be easier to avoid "his public" if they ate at her home), but at some point she had forgotten his name, and it wouldn't be polite to take her calendar out and check while he was talking.

"... I figure, if they can't take a few loud drums, it's their problem... "

He was some sort of musician. Zeria had sent her a message and asked if she could please-please-PLEASE get a thumbprinted holo of him, and when he'd asked for a date in return, it had seemed like the polite thing to do. And Leia was curious. She knew very few people her own age on Coruscant, and had never been on an actual date before.

She didn't think she would be on another any time soon.

"...and that's when I told my manager, Hey, you want me up there on that stage, you can bloody well get me a few more credits for it... "

She found she could feign interest by staring at one absurd piece of jewelry after another; the boy obviously considered himself a tough rebel. She smiled at the thought. He was a singer, for crying out loud, and had never rebelled against anything real in his life, nor was he a particularly tough character (though she had to admit that after experiencing Zokusa or Vader, or, for that matter, Bishapi, she was hard to impress on that count). He returned her smile, assuming it was meant for whatever he was talking about.

"...I don't know what these screaming little girls think; they got no other life. This one little kid told me she'd bought two copies of everything I sang, and I told her not to buy anymore, 'cause I don't want any little freaks like that around..."

Leia sipped the ruby bliel thoughtfully. It was too sweet, but she had a lingering childhood fondness for the flavor. She supposed it would disappear in time.

"...so they follow you everywhere, and you just want to smack 'em sometimes..."

An Imperial probe droid swooped down and looked in the window. She had a mad urge to wave to it. She saw more of it than she did most people now. She restrained herself, barely, and wondered if she could think of anything unobtrusive that might get her arrested if the probe saw. That would give her an unimpeachable excuse to end this.

"... but there was this one girl on Tatooine -- this was back when I was still playing backwaters like Mos Eisley -- slinky little thing, said her name was Camie. One of those hick country girls that'll throw themselves at anyone. You should've seen the sorry farmboy she was trying to get away from. Called him 'Wormie,' of all things..."

Doorbells were a gift of the Force.

Leia was so relieved by the interruption that she didn't bother to see who it was before keying the door open from the remote on her wristband. She was standing to greet her visitor when her date -- for the first time in nearly an hour -- fell silent.

In the silence, the hiss of an indrawn breath. The forced exhalation.

For a panicked instant, Leia thought she really was going to be arrested (and it suddenly didn't seem like an exciting diversion), then she realized that Vader hardly would have signaled his arrival if he were here to arrest her. She turned to him, and offered a smile that was only slightly strained. "Lord Vader," she said. "Please come in. Welcome to my home."

He came into her parlor, looking acutely uncomfortable in the posh surroundings.

There was a crash behind her, and she glanced back involuntarily. Her date had gotten up too quickly, and knocked his chair into a free standing vase. "Uh, sorry... I... " He looked nervously at Vader, then grabbed his jacket. "I just remembered, I gotta... I got some people to see. Maybe some other time." He left abruptly, circling around Vader as surely as if a wall had been built in a large circumference around the Dark Lord.

Leia tried to suppress a giggle, and mostly succeeded.

Vader nodded slightly, a gesture that Leia took as a replacement for a smile. His voice was as good-humored as she had ever heard it (though that wasn't saying much). "I question your choice of companions," he said.

Leia finally gave up and laughed. "A lot of people say that to me."

Another nod. "I would imagine so."

There was an awkward moment or remembering that they were now divided, then Leia fell back on her manners. She gestured to the table. "Would you care to join me for dessert?"

"I am unable to do so, Your Highness."

Leia blushed, suddenly realizing that of course he couldn't eat outside his bubble, and her invitation would only remind him of it. Her embarrassment faded to a vague pity, and she wondered how long it had been since he'd broken bread with another sentient creature. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't think about it in time."

"You need not apologize. It is... somewhat rare for a companion not to take notice of this condition. I take no offense."

Leia nodded. "Is there something you need of me, Lord Vader?"

Vader looked out the window, noticed the probe droid. "Walk with me, Your Highness. We have matters to discuss."

There was no question of not going. Leia took a cloak from her closet, locked her door, and followed him out.

He set an uncomfortably quick pace, and despite his professed desire to speak to her, said nothing as they walked. He led her past the Senate chambers, up a level, and across a series of walkways to another narrow staircase. They went up for several more levels, until Leia began to lose her breath from the altitude and exertion. Finally, they emerged onto what seemed to be a landing platform, many levels above the main part of the city. There was nothing special about it, except for the sheer drops on three sides... and the fact, Leia realized, that they were above the altitude at which the standard probe droids were able to function. She was alone with Vader. Was it for her protection? For his own? Was he planning to kill her here? Or to defect to the Alliance? To arrest her, or to help her?

She wished she understood him better.

He walked to the very edge of the platform, still saying nothing. His cape flew back in the wind. Leia pulled her own cloak more tightly around her shoulders -- it was cold up here. She glanced down and noticed that the platform was made of interlocking squares of metal. Between them, they looked like the end of a chess game, the last piece on either side, moving aimlessly around the board. She wondered who had been checkmated.

Finally, her turned to her. "Your Highness," he said, "you could have a brilliant career in the Empire."

"I don't want a career in the Empire."

He came to her, knelt before her so they were eye to eye, and wrapped his large hands around her upper arms. It wasn't a rough gesture, nor did it seem meant to confine. It was merely a connection, almost a tender one.

The thought crossed her mind that her opponents would have a field day with the image, as it would feed into their perverse fantasies. And she could imagine herself slipping into his arms right now, letting him hold her, wrapping herself inside his overwhelming presence. She thought he wanted her to. But it wasn't what they would make of it. It was a different sort of holding altogether.

"I cannot protect you forever, Leia," he said. "If you place yourself as my enemy, you will be my enemy. Do you know what that means?"

Leia nodded dumbly, not knowing what to do or say.

"It is not what I wish," Vader said. "I ask you to reconsider. If you move through channels, as you have in your relief efforts, you could accomplish a great deal more than you will with your Rebellion."

"What do you want of me? I have reconsidered. Then I reconsidered again. And again. The answer doesn't change." She bit her lip. "I have to do what's right."

She had expected the hands to tighten on her arms, possibly to snap a bone like a twig. Instead, his grip became looser, and one hand came up and cradled her face. His thumb ran lightly across her cheekbone. She felt something both soft and sharp under her finger, and realized that her own hand had risen to his wrist, and was skating along the neat crease of his leather glove. She had never stood so close to him before, so close that she could see, behind the deeply tinted eyeguards, the shadowy suggestions of his eyes.

For an instant, an image came unbidden to her mind -- a young, strong man with blue eyes so bright and intense that they were only partially offset by his casual grin and easy laughter. Leia knew those eyes from somewhere, knew she could place them if only she had time.

Then he was gone.

Vader let go of her abruptly and stood up. "Of course, Your Highness," he said. "We must all do what we feel is right. I apologize for that... indiscretion."

A bitter wind blew up from below, and stole what little warmth there had been on the platform, tearing it harshly out of the folds of Leia's cloak. The top of an Imperial transport came into view, and its engines drowned out all speech. It landed at the far end, and Governor Tarkin stepped out of it. "Lord Vader," he said without ceremony, "your presence is required on La'azum. The Inferno awaits your arrival. You will leave immediately."

Leia had never directly seen Vader take an order before. He had always seemed perfectly in control of his surroundings. But when Tarkin delivered his instructions, Vader simply nodded curtly, wished her farewell, and left.

Tarkin smiled at her. "You assume far too much of Vader, and give him more credit than he has earned," he said. "He is under my command, not vice versa."

"I'm well aware of Imperial bureaucracy," Leia said, not wanting to let Tarkin know that she'd tacitly assumed Vader operated outside of it. "It's hard to miss a system that manages to combine all the inertia of the Republic with all the brutality of the Empire. But at least it seems to be blessedly inefficient."

"As charming and respectful in midair as you are in the Senate. What a lovely trait." He gestured to his transport. "Come, Your Highness. I'll give you a ride back to your quarters."

Leia realized with dismay that she hadn't been paying close enough attention when Vader brought her here, and it would take some time to find her way back alone. "Thank you," she said. "But I prefer to walk."

***

Vader had swallowed the humiliating order on the landing platform, and now, on the shuttle to his Star Destroyer, it sat heavily inside of him, turning loathsome and poisonous. Tarkin hadn't needed to issue his commands in front of Leia. He could have waited. And he could have remembered that, no matter what the bureaucratic structure was, Vader had ways to pay back such an insult.

And, yet, he'd taken it, and he supposed there was nothing to be done about it now. Leia had seen him in a far weaker position before Tarkin's arrival. He regretted that. His intention had been to try to convince her of her potential within the Empire, not to use... whatever it was between them... to manipulate her. Yet when he'd seen her standing there in the wind, a small white creature in the cold sky of Coruscant, he'd wanted to be close to her, to shelter her. And when she'd said that there were things she couldn't do, places she couldn't follow him --

No, that had not been Leia. Leia had not said that. That had been another voice, echoing Leia's words in his mind. The beloved voice that somehow always made him weak. His mind had flown back to the last time he'd seen HER, held her in his arms. He'd sought her out on Alderaan without any clear idea why, and followed her whispering voice to a balcony where she'd been hiding with Saché, whispering just below his understanding. Saché had left hesitantly, dragging the trunk back inside with her, leaving them alone for the last time.

It was after his accident, but before the miserable suit was complete. The mask covered half his face, and he had draped his misshapen form in a deep hooded robe. SHE had seen him, and lowered the hood, and looked upon him with sadness, but no horror.

"Oh, Ani," she'd sighed, and somehow, from her, the name didn't send up a wall of fire in his mind. "My poor Ani." She kissed the burned skin under his eye, and held his ungloved hand to her face. There was still some flesh on it then. infections had taken what little was left in the years since.

But her eyes were faraway, her voice coming from beyond a great divide. He hadn't yet mastered the vocoder that read his speech patterns, and was still trying to time his speech to the enforced breath rhythms of the pneumatics, instead of depending on the motions of his mouth to activate the machinery. It was his own voice, attached to his own vocal chords. Perhaps a bit deeper, but his own. But he couldn't seem to make it speak the words he would have it form. For now, he was only able to speak short, inadequate sentences. "Our child?" he asked, seeing that her gown once again fell flat against her. "Where?"

She closed her eyes. "I lost our child, Ani."

He felt she was lying, remembered something, some sense he'd gotten from Kenobi. But her grief was real. It was so real he could feel it even through the blocks she always kept up in her mind. She was in pain over the child. "I, too," he said. "I lost him."

"Yes," she said. "I know." She turned to him, and leaned her head against the machinery of his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her.

"Come with me." He stroked her hair. He could not say there would be another child. They both knew there never would be, not anymore. But there could be... something. "Come, my love."

"The answer doesn't change. I have to do what's right."

No. That had been what Leia had said, just now. Not what Amida -- what SHE -- had said so long ago. His mind had no business taking him back there. He didn't want to go. He had a different life now. There were no more pitying glances, only fear and quick obedience. It was better this way. The other man he had been was gone. With HER, and with their lost child.

The shuttle docked, and Vader went out into the bay of the Inferno. Captain Derjan was waiting for him, and gave the usual courtesies. They calmed Vader. Things were in order. He reached the bridge, and Lieutenant Piett gave him a report on the disturbances on La'azum.

"Nothing of significance," he said. "An escaped prisoner who was recaptured. A bit of a riot on the assembly line, easily controlled."

"Why is my presence required, if there is nothing of significance?"

It would have given Piett a chance to place the blame on someone else's shoulders, to say, "Well, I, of course, told them you needn't be bothered." But Piett was a good and honest officer, who would not have said such a thing even if true. Vader respected him, and that was not a common honor for Imperial officers to receive. Piett took responsibility for what happened under his watch. "We have noted signs of rebel surveillance," he explained. "In examining the perimeter after the escapee was returned, we found several small camps. There is either one persistent spy, or a group of them. It could also be natives, but Kel Rejuo and I thought it prudent to assume the worst."

"You have done well, Lieutenant. I will examine the disturbance myself."

"Thank you, my lord."

Vader acknowledged his thanks publicly, and privately resolved to recommend him for a better post than La'azum the next time he spoke to Palpatine. Perhaps Rejuo could resume that command in time, though he would have to approach the subject carefully.

He considered going to his chamber to meditate, but decided that he could be of more use on the bridge. Meditation seemed like a poor idea. He'd spent too much time with his own mind already today.

***

Leia found that her feet remembered the way home better than her mind did. Without thinking about it -- she wasn't sure she could have thought anyway; the conversation was swimming in her mind, that strange, gentle gesture -- she followed the narrow staircases and the walkways Vader had led her along earlier, and much sooner than she had anticipated, she saw the top of the Senate's vast dome. She wondered if she was finally becoming accustomed to Coruscant.

The first thing she noticed when she got home was that her door was unlocked. A hot fury rose up -- had Vader led her so far away, pretended such tenderness that her heart had almost broken, just to send a team of searchers into her quarters while she was gone? What a fool she was! A silly, deluded child, to believe that... just when she'd thought he was --

"Leia?"

The voice came from inside the apartment, and Leia realized that she had opened her door, and was just standing and staring at the locking mechanism. She looked up, and saw her mother standing beside the table. She'd been picking up the last remnants of Leia's dinner date. Had it only been an hour ago?

Her mother?

Leia blinked and smiled widely, unambiguously glad of her company for the first time today. She ran to Saché, and hugged her tightly. "Mother! I'm so glad to see you! Why are you here?"

Saché pulled away, a surprised smile on her face. "Well, I'm happy you got to 'glad to see you' before 'why are you here?'!" She linked her arm through Leia's, and they sat down together on the sofa. "As it happens, I'm here to see someone very important."

"Who?"

"The new Senator from Alderaan. I understand she's distinguished herself quite well."

Leia blushed. "Did you really come to see me, Mother?"

"Yes. And it's not even in your official capacity. It just gets lonely back on Alderaan. Your father has his other responsibilities. My own have been altered somewhat of late."

"Why?"

"It's not important." She glanced over Leia's shoulder as subtly as she could, and Leia realized that the probe droid must have come back. It wouldn't do to discuss Mother's "other responsibilities." "I had Threepio let me in. I still have an override. I hope it's all right?"

"Of course it is!"

"You seem to have had company earlier," Saché said, glancing at the table. Anything you want to tell me about?"

"Nothing I even want to think about." She laughed, then told her mother briefly about the date.

Saché rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Leia, you don't need to date a boy just because he asks."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"How did you finally get out of it?"

Leia's smile fell. "An old friend stopped by," she said tensely, and knew from her mother's face that she didn't need to specify which old friend. All the day's strangenesses -- her utter failure of her first date, her walk with Vader, that strange tender gesture, Tarkin's interruption -- came into her mind at once. She burst into completely unexpected tears, and put her arms around her Saché's neck, clinging to her as she had when she was small. "I'm so glad to see you!" she said again. "I'm really, really glad."

Saché smoothed her windblown hair, and kissed the crown of her head. "It's okay, Leia." Her voice was soft and gentle, but confused. "Everything's just fine."

After a long while, Leia explained what had happened. "I just don't understand him. I really don't. Why can he be so kind one minute and then... do what he did to Bishapi?"

Saché sighed. "What he did to Bishapi is a mild thing, comparatively. Vader kills, brutally and frequently. He doesn't take delight in it -- at least I don't believe he does -- but he certainly doesn't hesitate."

"But when he talks to me..."

"I know, Leia. At first, I thought it was a game, but what you tell me... I'm disturbed by it." She shook her head. "I can't tell you that his affection for you is unreal. I think it's real enough to disturb even him. But it will not stop him from hurting you if he feels he has a reason to do so. Don't give him your trust, Leia. He'll break it."

"Of course I don't trust him." Trust Vader? Hadn't she immediately suspected that he'd broken into her quarters?

"You don't distrust him, either," Saché said, her eyes narrowed. "Not really, or at least not enough."

"Maybe if I did trust him... I mean, if someone did... I mean... you know what I mean, Mother. Maybe... "

"Maybe he'll suddenly reform and rejoin the human race? I've heard the theory before. From someone who knew him better, and for whom he had a good deal more affection. It didn't end happily." Saché gave Leia a bitter smile. "The Empire owns Vader. He left the human race a long time ago. I'm not sure it's worth wanting him back."

***

Rejuo was waiting at the factory's entrance when Vader arrived on La'azum, and led him out to the perimeter without any preliminaries. She had changed a great deal since Motibi, in an aggressive attempt to gain the respect that should have been hers by position and talent. Her wings had been surgically removed, her hair cut short and styled severely. Her soft, traditional Ampinuan clothes had been replaced by something that resembled an Imperial uniform (she had still not been granted a commission, and was addressed only by the Ampinuan honorific "Kel"). The situation was unacceptable, but Vader had been able to do very little to ease it. Perhaps someday.

When he was Master.

"...and you can see here, Lord Vader," she said, stooping to point to a pile of ashes on the ground, "that this camp was set up for some time. It may well have been for observation."

"Was a fire observed?"

"No, sir. This is just beyond our perimeter, and I'm afraid it went unnoticed."

"Very well, Kel Rejuo," Vader said. "What else has been found?"

"Three similar camps. And this." She led him along the perimeter, about ten meters from the camp, to a collapsed frinchesil nest. The burrowing insects were crawling everywhere, trying to rebuild it. "We have been meaning to destroy this nest for some time -- the frinchesils have been pests -- but we've now put off action until we can properly inspect the damage. It wasn't caused by any of my people. We discovered it the morning after the escape."

"It wasn't made by your escapee?"

"No. He ran the other way. And there is some indication that whoever stepped on the nest was headed toward the factory, not away from it."

Vader reached into the Force, trying to find any traces that had been left on its surface here. It frequently was more effective than trying to read any particular person. Here, he sensed frustration, impatient waiting, anger, lust for vengeance. And annoyance.

He bent, to look more closely at the footprint in the nest. Solid, unremarkable. He looked at the one behind it. Smaller, less heavy. More carefully placed. Real... the other was mechanical.

The feelings could have belonged to any number of rebels, and the mechanical foot could have belonged to anyone. But the combination of the two things pointed to one obvious conclusion.

Bishapi. The rebel scum who hadn't even had enough honor to stay with the princess on Ampinua, after he'd blundered her into the situation in the first place.

"I need to contact the Empire, Kel Rejuo," he said. "I must use your private communications room."

She nodded, and led him into the factory. Her office was on an upper floor. She keyed in her security codes, and left the computer waiting for Vader's higher level clearance. Vader thanked her, and waited for her to leave.

Tarkin responded with his usual contempt. Why Palpatine had given him authority -- over his own apprentice, no less -- was a mystery. "Yes, Lord Vader? Have you found something, or is this merely a courtesy call?"

"Bishapi has been investigating the factory."

"That thug? Well, remove him at once. I believe him to be responsible for the sabotage of a transport that killed two Imperial governors last month."

Vader thought Bishapi might well go up in his estimation, if he kept choosing his targets so wisely. "Bishapi has disappeared again. He will certainly make contact with the Alliance soon."

"Probably with your... friend... the young princess."

Vader didn't want to agree with him, but knew he was right. Bishapi would think Leia a primary link to the Empire, and try to use her to get inside. He was not convinced that she would resist the temptation to do so. "In all likelihood," he said.

"Very well, then. Return to Coruscant, and have her followed until he makes contact with her. I won't have this petty troublemaker wandering around free. It is time to put a stop to him once and for all."

"As you wish."

***

Leia had had little contact with the Alliance since her initiation, which her father had told her to expect -- sneaking her out of Imperial range had been dangerous, and a cool down time was necessary to deflect suspicion. Let them think she'd run off to meet a boy. Leia hadn't much liked it, but she supposed she understood it. Her father himself had left a few days later, knowing that a social family visit would look suspicious if it lasted any longer.

A mother visiting her teenage daughter for the first time in a year and half, on the other hand... it could go on indefinitely, as long as Leia remembered to act annoyed from time to time, which wasn't all that easy. Leia was developing a whole new view of Saché Organa, and it fascinated her. This woman had assembled a real army! Up until now, Leia had assumed that the Rebellion was carried out on a case by case basis, by loners like Bishapi. Saché agreed that it had been so for most of its existence, but that things were about to change. It was coming close to the time to really take on the Empire. Most of this was conveyed by coded language, or in quick bits of conversation when Saché was convinced the were alone. Leia wanted to know and learn everything.

"You need to be patient," Saché told her, darting through the garment district of Coruscant two weeks after her arrival. The constant motion -- in the places where a mother and daughter could be expected to be -- was a foil for the probe droids. Leia had suggested climbing above their range, as Vader had, but Saché had told her (through a laugh as she examined a particularly ugly piece of jewelry) that it would only raise suspicions and bring real spies, who weren't as easily fooled. Today, they were looking at formal dresses, giving them an excuse to drape cloth over their faces and lean in and whisper to one another.

"I know, I know," Leia said. She stopped at a small store, and looked in the window at an absurd purple dress. Saché pulled her on by -- very maternal, but also a sign that the shop was known to have snoops. "But there's so much to do."

"You don't know the half of it."

"That's the problem!"

Saché laughed, and looked up at the sky, where traffic of all sorts flew above them. "How I wish there were real birds!" she said. "There are in other places, you know. A whole flock of them, in fact." It was an obvious code -- she was telling Leia that the Alliance had assembled a fleet; Leia had lived with her parents long enough to know that -- so she padded it with extraneous talk. "When I was growing up on Naboo, there were birds everywhere, and I loved to see them..."

Leia listened eagerly. Much of what she said really was about the flocking habits of birds on the ruined planet of Naboo, but it was enough of an in for Leia to ask how many "birds" were in a "flock." She wasn't sure what kind of ships each bird species referred to, but Saché's tone of fond reminiscence was very convincing when she explained that there were several hundred in some kinds, but only a few in others. "You should see them fly, though -- really very skillful!" She was starting to speak vaguely about a large nest when a fruit peddler approached them.

"Ruby jerises! Makons from Sullust! Pallies!" The peddler held out a small round fruit. "Try a pallie, Ma'am?"

Saché took the fruit. "My very favorite, I'll take two." She paid the peddler, and took two pallies.

Leia was about to bite hers when Saché suddenly grabbed it and switched, muttering about clumsiness. She turned it over, and Leia saw a pattern of red lines drawn into the fruit's skin. Saché glanced at it briefly, closed her eyes, then opened them to check again, then bit the design away. She pointed toward a dress shop at a small intersection, then led Leia briskly toward it, and past it, down the small street, and into an alleyway. Leia wasn't given a chance to ask questions.

***

The fruit peddler tried to run after them when she saw two "merchants" leave their stalls to follow, but she never had a chance. Four stormtroopers emerged from the shop behind her. They didn't bother to arrest her, just marched her off. She was certain she would die. After nearly ten years in an Imperial prison camp, she wished she had.

***

They had taken a complicated route to the old city, braiding one traffic pattern to another, travelling almost aimlessly, circling the transit system at high speed but managing to take nearly three hours to reach anything that looked like a stopping point. Saché had spoken cheerfully the whole time, pretending to inspect her purchases. Leia was growing exhausted by the time they finally arrived at the battered, vandalized door -- one of many such in this forsaken neighborhood. She had not been surprised when Jaet Bishapi himself answered the signal. Mati and Tral were also there, along with a small group of people Leia did not know.

Bishapi was in high spirits, and, Leia thought, a little drunk. Mother briefed him on the fleet, not bothering with the code; this was apparently considered a safe house. She also said that there was a base on a moon of Yavin, and that it was fully staffed.

Bishapi gave a joyous whoop. "Well, I say it's time we get this going, don't you Saché? Let's hit their fleet. It's almost over!" He started to reach for Saché, then changed his mind and picked Leia up. He swung her around. "They have a lot of resources sunk into this new fleet Vader is building. And the same old Imperial idiocy -- they have it all in one place. We can set them back ten years in a single night."

"Very good," Tral said dryly. "Then we'll only be ten years behind them, instead of twenty."

Mati rolled her eyes. "Our fleet is in fine shape. I've seen it. We aren't flying junk."

Bishapi ignored them both, and turned to Leia. "And, Your Highness, that brings us to you."

Saché looked up sharply, but said nothing.

"Me?"

"Yes. We're having a little trouble getting into the factory. We'll need you to go in for us."
"I don't think that's wise," Saché said.

"All she has to do is bat those pretty brown eyes of hers in the right direction, and she's in."

Leia's heart sank. She supposed the request was inevitable, but she'd hoped the day wouldn't come. She tried to deflect it, though she knew better than to pretend she didn't know what was meant.. "I haven't spoken to Lord Vader regularly in several years," she said.

"But you have his ear and his trust," Bishapi answered.

"If I do have his trust," she said, "I couldn't... it wouldn't be proper for me to betray it."

"Proper?" Bishapi nearly leaped off of Mati's couch, his white hair flying wildly around him. "It would be proper for you to march into his Star Destroyer and pull all the plugs out of that machine!"

"Please, Jaet," Saché said quietly, "let it go."

Bishapi acknowledged her with an impatient wave, then knelt in front of Leia. For a moment, she expected him to touch her face gently, say that he could not protect her forever. Instead, he spoke in a quieter voice. "I admire your sense of duty, Your Highness," he said, "but Vader does not deserve your trust, nor to have his own respected."

"That's not right..."

Bishapi had stood again, and was pulling at his hair. "He murdered my brother with a flick of his wrist! He vaporized a shipload of physicians near Corellia. He cares nothing for anyone's life, including his own, and that is not human at all. Not any kind of thinking creature. Vader is Palpatine's attack dog, Your Highness. If you start thinking of him as anything else, he will only end up tearing your throat out."

"I will not do as you ask, Jaet."

She didn't see it coming. The back of Bishapi's hand came at her like a hammer's blow, and she was thrown into the ratty couch. "What kind of game do you think you're playing?" Then, his face horror-stricken, he tried to help her up, muttering that he was sorry, that he hadn't meant to...

Leia stared at him, eyes wide. She'd always suspected he was crazy, but in an eccentric, amusing way. Now, he was just mad. The man she was seeing now was the man who had cut off his own foot to spite the Empire.

Saché pulled him back, and Mati and Tral helped subdue him. Saché turned to Leia, who was still sitting on the couch, stunned into immobility. "Get home, Leia. Take the longest route you can and keep your eyes open. We'll take care of this."

Leia got up, dazed, and she stumbled out the door. She didn't even head toward home. No matter how shocked and surprised she was, she had enough wits to know that she might be followed. It wasn't until she got back to the marketplace that she learned that the damage had already been done. She didn't bother to hide her route back.

***

If there is an irony to betrayal, it is this:

Vader was more deeply fond of the princess than she was of him. He valued being with a person who no longer shuddered at his appearance, who spoke to him as she would speak to any other human being. He felt fiercely protective of her, as he had of someone else, long ago.

Yet it had never occurred to him -- not even as she risked her position to avoid betraying his trust -- that he should not complete the task assigned to him.

He might have refused had he been asked to dispose of the princess herself, but that order would not be given; she would too easily become a martyr. Hurting her feelings was not a serious consideration.

As to her companions, he didn't give them a second thought. Bishapi had ceased being a non-threat with his attack on the governatorial shuttle. The others, whoever they would turn out to be, were undoubtedly well aware of it, and involved just as deeply.

The spies had temporarily lost her in the public transportation, but she had been spotted again, in the company of a woman whom the spies had been unable to identify. It had taken only a few minutes to ascertain which door they had disappeared behind.

As he had hoped, the princess left the meeting early. She disappeared down an alley, then Vader ordered his troops inside.

The twelve stormtroopers blew the door inward with no trouble, and a woman's scream told Vader that damage had already been done. He walked through the smoke, and saw the broken body of a woman on the floor. Dark hair, fine red gown. Half of her face was gone, but in a moment of terrible memory, he recognized the other half. In another life, she had been his friend.

Saché. The princess had come here with her mother.

The voice in Vader's mind howled in inchoate regret, but it was too late to change this. Vader did not care for its input, and turned it off as coolly as he could turn off a holo-projector. It fell silent.

Two more shots, and a man and woman went down. Senators. Tral and Mati. He memorized their faces as well as he could. They were known rebels, but had served their worlds honorably. He burned their faces into his mind, so he would not forget the price paid to end this war once and for all.

A wild yell, and Vader felt himself pummeled from the side. There were shots, but Vader deflected them. He wanted some answers from this, not just death. He took Bishapi by the throat, and held him a foot above the floor. The bones in his neck were fragile, his windpipe easily crushed. Vader's anger was hot and powerful. It was all he could do to keep it under control.

He reached into the Force, pushed his way into Bishapi's mind as far as he could go. It was easier like this, holding his life in one's hands...

But the image that came first was what was first in Bishapi's mind. Vader saw his fist rising, saw it striking Leia, saw her falling back toward the wall. Before he could stop himself, his fist had tightened, and he heard the crack of bones. Bishapi's eyes bulged outward. Vader thought he was smiling in satisfaction. He threw the corpse across the room.

"Burn it!" He stooped to pick Saché up off the floor. She, at least, would be properly honored.

***

Leia stood beside the pyre on the desolate world of Naboo, where her mother had always expressed a desire to return at the end of things. She tried to imagine it as it once was, but her mind was as scarred as the land, and she could only see it through the veil of destruction. Her father was by her side. A hot anger burned in her soul, blazing brighter than the pyre before her. And a deep shame. It was her fault.

Vader.

Always, it came back to Vader, in the end and in the beginning. She had found him at the apartment, carrying her mother out of the fire. Her first thought had been that he'd rescued her -- rescued! -- and then she'd seen the open wound on her mother's head, and understood everything. He'd followed her. He'd used her to kill rebels, and to kill her own mother. She had screamed in her fury. Vader had simply put her mother's body in her arms. He had expressed some kind of sorrowful platitude, and she had screamed again. She didn't know what she'd said. She had stayed there, holding Saché's body until authorities arrived to take them both away.

Vader. In the end and in the beginning. But now and forever, it would be the end.

"It is not your fault, Leia," Bail said, putting his hands on her shoulders. "It's a danger we all know. We all live with it. Your mother knew this could happen."

"I didn't distrust him enough. She said so."

Bail said no more, and Leia knew it was because he couldn't argue with it. She had allowed this to happen. It wouldn't happen again. She looked across the pyre. People had gathered her on the ruined plains. The Empire had the gall to send representatives. And far back, a prisoner was guarded by a phalanx of stormtroopers. Bail had looked disturbed, but said only that she was the last of Queen Amidala's handmaidens, now that Saché was gone. The woman stood in lonely silence, heavily hooded and weighed down with grief. When she had first appeared, Leia had commented that she must have some clout to be released for a funeral. Bail had said that, in all likelihood, it was not a privilege, but a punishment -- she was being forced to witness the end of her world.

As was Leia. A tear burned out of her eye, cutting a path down her cheek. Then the tears ended, and she watched her mother's body burn with her anger rising higher and higher inside her.

Finally, the pyre collapsed, and the crowd began to disperse. Leia paid little attention to the people passing her, wishing peace to her and to her father. She nodded curtly to them. Then suddenly, the last handmaiden stood before her. Her hood hid her face almost completely. Leia waited for her to say "Peace to your soul, child" -- the common consolation -- but instead she put her hand on Leia's shoulder and said, "Be mindful of your anger, Leia. I see it in your eyes. It will have you."

Leia looked up, the hate rising with the anger. "I have a right to be angry! That's my mother!"

"Take care not to buy your rights with your soul. Your mother wouldn't want that."

The voice was gentle and soft, but Leia couldn't stand it. She pulled away from the hand on her shoulder, and went to stand by the remains of the pyre. The stormtroopers took the handmaiden away. Leia's father waited until she was out of sight, then came to her. Leia wouldn't allow his touch, either.

She stayed until the last ember burned out. Every flame was recorded in her mind. She would push them back out, burn the Empire with the heat of her fury.

***

It was not evident to the people around her. When she returned to Coruscant, she was subdued, but she returned to her business, arguing cases before Tarkin and organizing disaster relief for the unfortunate worlds of the galaxy. She even used Imperial channels. It wouldn't do to call attention to herself. No one blamed her for not speaking to Vader anymore, and Vader never attempted to contact her.

There were rumors that she had been recruited by the Rebel spies in the Senate, but there was no corroborating evidence. Bishapi's lair had been burned clean. The Empire did not question her presence, because they had been reminded that a senatorial inquiry into the "tragic accident" might prove awkward. So Leia was allowed to go about her business.

She used her freedom well.

She had Zeria send her speeder bike from Alderaan. She could use some other vehicle, but she had plans for this one. She contacted Tarpals and Madine, and sent them to gather troops for assault. She prepared the Tantive IV for a voyage, and scoured it for tracking devices. She had no intention of following her scheduled flight plan. It wouldn't take her directly where she was going, of course. It would develop engine trouble somewhere near Sullust, where Madine had arranged for new transportation.

She had it planned. She would finish what Bishapi started, and use the army her mother had built. She would go to La'azum. As soon as everything, and everyone, was in place.

***

Vader arrived on La'azum a week after Rejuo informed him that the final assembly work was set up. He wanted to inspect the components for himself. Rejuo's modifications looked promising, providing steadier and more precise handling. She had surprised even him by improving the propulsion system on a whim. The new fleet would be able to outfly anything the Alliance had.

Vader had been forbidden to join the Imperial contingent at Naboo for Saché's funeral, and he suspected that he wouldn't have been welcome. He had never seen such hate as had been in Leia's eyes when she screamed at him. And screaming was all it had been -- a crazed, inarticulate accusation. He'd thought she might lose hold after that. But the reports from Coruscant said that she was adjusting after all. Vader had pulled back the spies. Her circle of rebel companions was gone. Including Saché. Vader's mind kept circling around memories he did not care to think about. Leia was not the only one who would hate him for this death.

"My lord?" Rejuo said, breaking into his thoughts. "Are you satisfied with the components?"

"Yes, Kel Rejuo. You have done well. I will see to it that you are properly compensated. You have my personal apologies for the rather substandard treatment you have received thus far."

"You owe me no apologies, Lord Vader," she mumbled, and looked away. Vader picked up on a streak of embarrassed affection -- even a strange kind of attraction -- and was taken aback by it. Surely, she was joking.

She led him out of the work area, where the component prototypes had been placed for his inspection, and toward the offices. It was night, and most of the workers had been given leave while the factory was converted for its final push. Vader could hear his footsteps echoing.

Into this barely broken silence, the attack came without warning.

Most of the defenses around the plant had been placed to deflect guerilla warfare, and had proved effective in stopping all rebel sabotage. The rebels had never launched a full scale attack before, and precautions had been woefully small in this area.

An explosion rocked the north wing of the building, and the roof above them was torn away. Vader saw the shadow of a boxy X-wing fighter, then the blast of a laser canon. He pulled Rejuo toward an exit. Flames lit the hallway as another X-wing fired on the building.

"The components!" Rejuo shouted, running toward the workroom.

Vader pulled her back. "Leave them!" he ordered. "Get out of this building."

Another ship began its bombing run. Vader used the Force to knock it violently off course, and was gratified to hear it crash into the rocks beyond the perimeter.

Vader and Rejuo reached the factory's exit just as the roof fell in behind them, sending out a cloud of metal fragments. Vader looked back at it involuntarily, then noticed that Rejuo had fallen still beside him. He turned back to her, and noticed the rebel ten feet away, sitting quietly on a speeder bike, wrapped in camouflage from head to toe, goggles over her eyes.

"Goodbye," she said, and raised a blaster. It was not aimed at either Vader or Rejuo, but at the ground. She fired before Vader comprehended what she was doing. A wall of flame shot up in a semi-circle around the door, closing them in. A flame tasted the edge of Vader's cape, and licked upward.

The rebel watched this, then turned the speeder bike around, and deliberately accelerated past the normal range. Into the range he had installed four years before.

Leia.

Vader pushed the fire away, and got Rejuo out of the circle, pushing her back toward the wall to stand between her and a further attack, though he didn't believe one was coming. Leia had done what she'd come to do. He let part of his cape burn away, but stopped the flame before it did any real damage.

Leia!

She had watched him burn. Stood and watched and waited for it. And let him know who she was. She had --

An explosion rocked the building, and the wall burst outward in a shower of metal and fire. Vader was clear of it, but Rejuo, standing in its protection, was struck from behind. He saw it like a terrible nightmare, her small body crushed under a pile of bricks, her hair lit in an obscene halo of fire, her face distorted by the heat of it. He used the Force to push the bricks outward, unheeding of them as they glanced off his armor, then picked her up carefully. She was gasping for breath, and blood trailed from her nose.

There would be time later for anger at Leia -- a lot of time -- but now, he had to get medical attention for Rejuo. He carried her to his shuttle -- somehow missed in the general destruction -- and flew her up to the Inferno, where a medical droid would be waiting in his chamber. He could hear her labored breathing from the shadows, a horrible echo of his own. Worse, he could hear her moaning in pain. She was awake, and he didn't dare let her slip into unconscious oblivion.

A squadron of TIE fighters flew out in formation to defend the shuttle. Most had been involved in the attack on the Rebel ships, but the short battle seemed to be over. They escorted him to the docking bay, and then he sent them to hunt down any remaining ships in the sector. The Rebellion would not emerge from this unscathed.

He stayed with Rejuo in the chamber as the droid tended her. Her eyes flitted from fixture to fixture, terrified of her reflection. "All will be well," he said.

She coughed, then cried for the pain of it. Her lungs were crushed. She would need a respirator, and soon.

The feather weight of her hand on his arm. He turned to her. "You are in need of something?"

She nodded. "Can't... " she said. Her good arm gestured weakly at her chest, her body. "Can't... do this."

"It is unpleasant," Vader agreed. "But livable."

"Can't," she said again, turning her wounded face from him. "Help me."

A jumble of images came into his mind, as she pushed them out at him in a desperate plea. She saw herself within the Empire, the constant snickering raised to a new level. She saw herself among her own people, shunned for the life she'd chosen off-world. And her face...

He heard her sob. Her beautiful face was a ruin. She wasn't a vain woman, but this seemed to cut her most deeply. Vader understood this better than she thought.

"Help me," she whispered again. "Please."

He stood beside the examining table, tilted up to forty-five degrees to ease her breathing while the droid worked. "You are certain?"

Her eyes blinked rapidly, and she nodded. A gasp for air.

Vader dismissed the surgeon droid. "Then it comes to this."

"Yes... Lord Vader... I... "

He sensed the words she meant to speak, and did not wish her to say them. He wouldn't have her last experience be a rejection. "I shall miss you," he said. "You will not be forgotten."

"...thank you... for... all. I would not... have it... otherwise."

Her eyes slid shut, and he thought the she might slip away on her own, but she didn't. They opened again, deep with pain and grief. He placed his hand over her throat, caressed it gently. "You are certain?" he asked, one last time.

"Certain," she whispered.

He brushed her hair carefully away from her face with his free hand. "Goodbye, my friend," he said, and pressed down with his thumb. He felt her windpipe collapse under the pressure, and the life slipped out of her quickly. The corpse did not look peaceful. They never did. It just looked empty. He called for the medical droids to have her taken care of. She would be buried with Imperial honors.

Leia's face rose up in his mind, the hateful, cold set of her chin as she'd fired. He saw the flames rising up again, the wall collapsing, Rejuo falling beneath it. And Leia, watching. Waiting.

His rage was not hot, but cold and reassuring. The game was over. She had chosen, and she had betrayed him. There would be no more coddling of this child, no more protection. She had put herself outside the circle of his life. The voice in his mind could howl all it liked; he would give it no quarter.

At least not now.

Later, perhaps, on Coruscant, the walls closed around him and the thin gold chain twisted around his fingers... then, just maybe he would let that voice speak, if it still had something to say. Maybe he would mourn his own broken heart. Maybe he would speak to... to HER... in his mind, as he had been wont to do in the past, holding her few remaining possessions to his heart.

Or maybe he would finally throw them into the incinerator where they belonged, and have done with it.

***

Leia was shaking when she reached her transport, hidden in the hills of La'azum, and her stomach couldn't take the pressure change upon liftoff. She had never been sick in flight before.

The pilot was in high spirits, congratulating her on a successful first mission. It wasn't a victory, precisely -- the Alliance had gained nothing but time -- but hadn't it been grand? Hadn't they showed the Empire that they were to be taken seriously now?

Leia saw the flames in her mind, creeping up the edge of Vader's cape. The woman beside him, jumping desperately away.

What have I become?

She arrived on Sullust, and General Madine led her back to the Tantive IV. "Engines are fixed, Your Highness." He flashed her a grin.

"I watched a man burn."

Madine said nothing to her. He led her onto her ship, and got her to her quarters. "Rest," he finally said. "You need sleep."

"I wanted to kill him."

"Get some rest. I'll get Captain Antilles. He'll have you safe on Coruscant in no time."

Leia took the order. She laid down on the great, soft bed that had been provided as an ambassadorial perk. She'd never slept in it, but now, she was so tired, so...

I watched him burn.

The tears didn't come suddenly. They began slowly and unimpressively, building bit by bit into a torrent. But they were silent. Leia didn't even know she was crying when she finally drifted off to sleep, though crying was the first thing she was aware of in her dream.

It was not her own. It was just a soft sound in the abyss, far below her. She was trapped again in the web of spun glass, her hands and feet bleeding from the cuts. The web shattered, and she fell into the darkness.

A cool wind caught her, placed her gently down on solid nothingness. Beside her, her birth mother was sitting on a rock, back to the world, crying in the dark. Leia reached out to her.

"Go away. You are not my daughter."

Leia looked down at herself. She was dressed in one of her white gowns, but it was drenched in blood. She screamed.

"What did you expect?" her mother asked.

"I didn't mean to -- I never wanted to -- "

"That is a lie."

Leia fell to her knees in front of her mother. "Please! Forgive me! I'm sorry! I'll never... Oh, I swear, I can't be like this! Please! Help me!"

Time in dreams is strange -- it seemed both instantaneous and an eternity before Leia felt the cool finger lift her face up. Her mother's eyes, blue as the desert sky, glowed softly in the darkness. "My Leia," she said. "My beautiful girl."

The relief was palpable. Leia felt her entire body relax, and she fell into her mother's arms. When she looked down at herself, she saw that the blood was fading from her gown. "I won't go down that path," she promised, over and over. "I won't. I can't."

"You can. But you won't. You're turning back now." A gentle hand cupped her face, the thumb caressing her cheekbone. She looked up. Her mother was smiling again, soft and sad.

There was a crackling sound in the darkness, and Leia looked up to see the web reforming itself in the emptiness, beautiful and distant. Then she became aware of the other sound, the harsh breathing.

Her mother stood, agitated. "He is angry, Leia. You need to hide, and hide well. He will not forgive you. Do not ask."

Leia glanced around fearfully. The sound was everywhere.

"You'll be safe here," her mother said, pulling around the rock she had been sitting on, which Leia could now see was a trunk, or perhaps it hadn't been a trunk until she saw that it was. "But you must hurry. He'll see. He can't miss his own -- "

Leia shook her head, willing the sentence not to be finished.

"You have your father's heart and your mother's love," she said. "Be still and strong."

Leia climbed into the trunk, and the cover closed. She was still and strong She was wrapped in the warm sent of flowers and her truemother, hidden once again, and safe.

***

The trunk was set carefully aside, in its place beside the door. It was not opened again. Nor was it incinerated.

THE END


FernWithy

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