Anakin Solo ran through the jungle of Yavin 4, dodging the monstrous Massassi trees and leaping over small bushes in his haste. He clutched Tahiri's limp body against him, holding her close so she would not be hurt by his mad dash.
The Yuuzhan Vong were right behind them.
He catapulted himself over a huge root in his path, using the Force to cushion his landing so he could keep running. His heart pounded raggedly in his chest and air ripped through his lungs with every breath, yet still he continued running.
His mind reached out to brush against Tahiri's. She was still unconscious. The Vong had injected some kind of drug into her bloodstream, presumably to keep her from running away. It had been months since she was captured by them; Anakin refused to let the familiar guilt rise in his throat at the thought of all that time. He could have rescued her sooner, if only he'd known. Her head lolled against his shoulder and her hair flew up to scald his eyes. He blinked the hairs away and pressed on, his speed increasing as he drew strength from the Force.
The clearing opened up at his feet so suddenly he almost crashed into the side of his ship. The pursuing Vong's yells increased in volume as they saw him ahead.
"Fiver!" he screamed, using the Force to pop the hatch. "Power it up!" Without a thought, he gathered his legs beneath him and leapt up into the X-wing's cockpit.
Anakin began to settle himself in, with Tahiri curled up awkwardly against his chest. The lambent crystal in his lightsaber pulsed a warning to him, and he glanced up.
Thud bugs, coming right at him. He reached up and yanked the hatch down; the hinges and controls screeched in protest, but he fitted it in place just in time. The thud bugs impacted against the transparisteel and bounced off harmlessly.
"Fiver! Go! " he shouted, and the X-wing lifted off the ground. With reckless abandon, Anakin used the Force to shove aside obstructing branches above the ship, clearing an exit path for them, through which the fighter shot gracefully.
A small squadron of coralskippers awaited him in the skies above. He finally managed to let Tahiri down onto his lap, her head resting against one side of the cockpit and her feet against the other, freeing his hands to fly the ship.
He juked from side to side, boosting the acceleration until he was pushed against the back of his seat. He would not risk Tahiri's life by engaging the skips. He shot past them before they realized he was not attacking, and they scrambled to follow.
Good, I got the green squadron, he thought. The lambent crystal again warned him and he corkscrewed to the side, still shooting toward the safety of outer space. They followed him, matching speeds, but strangely did not fire.
Seconds later, the atmosphere evaporated from his viewport, revealing the stars in all their glory. He reached out with the Force to guide his hands as he maneuvered, aware that the skips were right behind him, and plunged the X-wing blindly into hyperspace.
Fiver whistled frantically in his ear, but Anakin merely gritted his teeth, waiting for more than two seconds before he let the fighter emerge back into realspace. The droid emitted a relieved squawk-they were still in one piece.
"Now for the real jump," he said aloud. "What's the safest route to Coruscant from here?"
A series of whistles and bleeps accompanied the numbers and symbols scrolling across his monitor; he shoved the hyperspace lever forward, and the X-wing leapt forward into hyperspace again. His rescue was successful-now he could take Tahiri home.
He sucked in a deep breath, aware that his heart was beating painfully and he was panting for air. Running miles through the jungle was exhausting, to say the least. Of course, sitting crammed in the cockpit of an X-wing fighter with an extra passenger was not particularly relaxing, either.
He closed his eyes and reached out to connect with Tahiri's mind again. She remained in a deep, drugged sleep, and he realized that she would just wake in her own time. He sighed and settled back to wait, taking the opportunity to study her face. Her pale hair was long and matted, and her eyes were sunken. The most shocking feature, however, was the addition of three scars across her forehead, two more down her chin, and a bright tattoo on each cheek. He touched her chin and the pale scars that disfigured it. The Vong would regret doing this to his friend.
Anakin was startled awake by movement. His legs were numb from having Tahiri lying across them for so long; a glance at the chronometer told him it had been hours. Tahiri moaned softly, her hands fluttering against his shoulder.
He smiled. "Wake up!" The sound of his voice jolted through her, and she stiffened. "Tahiri! It's okay!" He grasped one of her hands. "You're safe now."
Her eyes snapped open and locked onto his, the bright green seeming to bore a hole straight to his heart. "Hok tsak!" she snarled, hate distorting her features. Her fingers twisted into claws and scratched at his face.
Icy fear stabbed him in the gut. "What?" he gasped, catching her wrists before she could hurt him.
"Tsak!" she screamed again, her familiar voice raised in a high, alien sound.
"Tahiri?" His heart leapt into his throat. Had the Vong completely corrupted her?
"Riina," she hissed.
He drew away in horror. Her eyes were completely blank-she had no memory of him.
He reached out to touch the tattoo on her cheek, but she slapped him and threw herself at him again. His head snapped back against the seat, dazing him, but he grabbed her shoulders. His arms were longer than hers, so she could not reach him. Instead, she drew her knee up and kicked him in the stomach. He doubled over, releasing her and gasping for breath. Then she was all over him, scratching, slapping, and biting every bit of exposed skin. He lifted his arms in a half-hearted attempt to protect himself, but suddenly his life seemed worthless.
"Tahiri!" he yelled again, hoping that some of her true self still remained in her mind.
"Riina," she snapped again. "Riina Kwaad, tsak! Yov una!"
Suddenly, the barrage stopped. He lifted his head to see her staring at him, hatred in her eyes. "Infidel," she spat.
He sucked in a deep breath. Perhaps they could communicate after all. If she could understand him . . . "Tahiri," he said quickly. "I know you're in there somewhere--"
She backhanded him across the jaw. "Be quiet, Infidel. You are not worthy."
Anakin refused to let himself flinch. Instead he just looked at her. "Why are you here?"
"Take me to your pathetic leaders," she whispered. "Take me to them now."
Anakin gritted his teeth. "No." She raised her hand to strike him again, but he caught her elbow. "I can't, Tahiri." He swallowed , suddenly having trouble breathing around the lump in his throat. He reached down and touched the controls, jerking them unceremoniously out of hyperspace. "I can't," he repeated, his voice stronger now.
Her eyes narrowed. "Stop," she commanded.
He shook his head slowly. "No." He raised his voice. "Fiver?"
A long, low whistle sounded in the cockpit, and Tahiri's head jerked up. "Infidel," she spat again. "Get me out of this abomination."
He ignored her. "Fiver, set course for the Dagobah system." The droid began to bleep a question, but he cut it off. "Take us to Dagobah. Now!"
Tahiri growled deep in her throat. "Dagobah?"
"A planet with no abominations," he said softly, still gripping her elbow, "where you can learn to be Tahiri again."
As much as it had hurt Anakin to tie up his best friend, it gave him some satisfaction to hear her Vong curses as she struggled against her bonds. She might be able to use the Force, but since Tahiri lacked the finesse to untie herself, especially with him standing guard, he guessed that Riina would be unable to as well. "Oh, be quiet," he told her as she let loose with another string of words. "At least you don't have to work." He reached up and unloaded another box from the X-wing's hold. He had very few supplies left; at some point he would have to sample the local wildlife.
The damp, swamp air filled his nostrils with the scent of decay, but strangely it was not a disgusting smell. It was refreshingly alive, unlike Yavin 4 had been when the Vong got their filthy hands on it. This journey was so unlike the last time he had visited this planet. Tahiri had been with him then, too, but it had been the Tahiri he knew and loved; they had both been young and idealistic, not yet hardened by war. He longed for those days.
"Tsak!" Tahiri screamed at him.
Anakin sighed wearily. "Same to you." He pulled out the last box and closed up the hold, then leaned against the side of his fighter, studying her. "No wonder we managed to get away from Yavin 4. They wanted me to take you back to Coruscant." He smiled grimly. "Of course, you're a Jedi. You woke up too soon and I cottoned on." He rubbed his cheek ruefully where it was swelling as a result of her blows.
"Infidel. Release me." She tossed her head, trying to dislodge the damp hair that clung to her cheeks and forehead.
"Nope." He crossed his arms across his chest. "I can't release you until I know you won't kill me as soon as my back is turned."
Tahiri snarled angrily and fought against her bonds. He had forced her to sit against a tree, then wrapped cords around her shoulders and below her waist, as well as tying her ankles and wrists.
"You're stuck, Riina . . . or whatever you call yourself." He smirked, then turned away so she would not see how much it hurt him to treat her like this. Whether or not she remembered him, she was still Tahiri, his best friend. Until now he had never realized how much she meant to him.
"Will you at least feed me?" she asked bitterly.
"There! A full sentence!" He applauded, each clap loaded with sarcasm. "Sure, if you can stomach my food." He opened one of the ration boxes and removed a stick of food-substitute. It was relatively unappetizing, but then, anything that would last that long in the hold of a ship would be. He carefully unwrapped it, squatting in front of Tahiri. "Here, eat." He held it out in front of her mouth.
Her cheeks flushed angrily. "You degrade me, Infidel."
He shrugged. "You're hungry, Vong." She was not Tahiri any longer. He had to stop thinking of her as his friend. Anakin took a bite out of the stick, chewed it up, and swallowed with exaggerated slowness. Then he held it out to her again. She hissed at him, but took a bite anyway.
He smiled. "There, that wasn't so hard, was it?"
Her face twisted into a scowl, made more ferocious by the scars and tattoos. "Do not be so sure of yourself, Infidel." She spat the chewed-up food into his face.
Anakin jumped back, furiously wiping the stuff off his cheek. She laughed, a sound nothing like the one he was so familiar with.
"Fine, then. In answer to your question, apparently I won't be feeding you after all." He ate the rest of the food himself, packing away the box.
"It is getting dark. Surely you won't leave me tied to a tree the entire night."
"Surely I will." Anakin turned his back to her, anger filling him. How could the Vong do something like this to his friend? But he would never let her see how much it hurt him. He grabbed a lumpy bag from the pile of supplies and began to erect a small shelter.
By the time the tent was up, darkness had fallen completely. Night sounds began to fill the dense swamp around them, and Tahiri's eyes widened. "Infidel," she called imperiously. "Are you going to leave me here all night?"
He straightened and glanced at her. She sagged against her bonds, her knees tucked up against her chest and her bare feet covered in slime. His heart ached to free her, yet her eyes still burned with hatred despite her exhaustion and chill.
"Yes," he answered, then crouched down to crawl into the tent. He wanted to be alive when he woke up the next morning.
Anakin wandered across a featureless plain, so heavily shrouded by mist that he could not even see his feet. The ground was perfectly flat. The mist covered everything, surrounding his entire body, yet somehow he felt that if he just kept walking, he would break through it.
It was perfectly silent here on this strange, unsettling world. His ears strained to catch a glimmer of sound somewhere, but there was nothing to be heard. He reached out with the Force, exploring his surroundings beyond what he could see.
Your eyes can deceive you-don't trust them.
The lack of visibility seemed to heighten his senses as he searched. It must be here somewhere. He knew he had to find it on this planet, yet with all the mist, he could walk right past it without seeing it.
Whatever "it" was.
Suddenly a scream pierced through the dim air, shattering the silence. "Anakin!"
He froze, recognizing a voice he had never thought to hear again. "Tahiri?"
"Anakin!" Her voice was louder this time, and more frantic.
"Tahiri!" He spun, straining through the mist to see her, but it would not part.
Her voice echoed from every direction. "I'm here! I'm right here! Anakin!"
"I'm coming!" he yelled, but did not know which way to turn. He blindly set off to his right, running as fast as he could, but her voice grew no nearer as she continued to scream, her voice terrified and hysterical.
Anakin jerked as he came suddenly awake, banging his head against a tent pole. His heart was racing, and he still felt as if Tahiri were near him. He pushed recklessly out of the tent, not caring that one of the sides caved in, and looked over at the tree.
She lay against the trunk, still safely tied. Her face was relaxed, and her hair spilled down over her shoulders. The dark tattoos stood out against her pale cheeks. He inched closer, studying the patterns. They were highly stylized and decorated, but he could make out what they depicted.
One was of a coralskipper, etched with the same delicacy and care as he would have devoted to a human face. Every detail of it was unique and perfect. It was slicing through a New Republic cruiser, single-handedly causing immense damage. It would have been beautiful, but for the chilling image and the dark, dirty colors with which it was created.
Her other cheek was very different. The colors were violently bright, with bloody crimsons and blues as deep as midnight. He squinted at it. The image was mostly abstract, but seemed to have meaning and shape hidden deep within it. Then it snapped into focus, making him gasp. Tahiri's old, unscarred face lay hidden in dark, swirling shadow, surrounded by smoke and soot. From the shadows behind it emerged another face, this one so hideous it took Anakin's breath away. It was completely covered with tattoos and scars; the lips were frayed, and numerous cuts dripped blood down her cheeks. Yet the green eyes were the same-it was Tahiri.
A blood-curdling yell shook him to the depths of his soul as Tahiri woke up to see his face inches from her own.
"Tahiri," he whispered, biting back tears.
She shook with rage, screaming again. "Riina! Riina! "
Anakin balanced precariously on the top step of his X-wing's ladder, watching the canopy slowly lower. His heart ached at the thought of what he was about to do. He had already wired the fighter to respond only to his voice. Hopefully, Tahiri would be unable to kill him, steal the ship, and get away. Now to make absolutely certain.
He took out his plasma torch as the canopy settled into its catches, then took a deep breath, steadying himself. He was about to effectively cut himself off from any escape, and any outside contact.
And if he hesitated any longer, he would never manage to do it. He closed his eyes and turned the torch on, pointing it at the locking mechanism of the canopy. The metal twisted and curled, melting into an unsalvageable mess. He repeated the process again on the other side of the cockpit, then turned the torch off again and fastened it onto his belt.
"Aagah," Tahiri hissed from behind him. Her voice still sounded heartbreakingly familiar, though she was hoarse from her night tied to the tree and her refusal to eat or drink. "Infidel."
He swiveled around and swept her a mocking bow. "Vong."
She glared at him-a familiar expression these days. "You have sealed off our only means of escape."
"Your escape, you mean," he pointed out. "I can't let you get back to the New Republic."
"Yes, I know," she snapped, leaning her head back against the tree trunk.
Anakin sighed. Being this stubborn and unreasonable must a constant in the Vong genetic code. "If you'd stop threatening my life, I could let you free. Without a ship, there's no harm you can do right now. And if you agree not to kill me, then there's still some hope of you getting off planet."
"I could steal your lightsaber and slice my way into your ship," she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder.
"Not if you want to breathe on your way back," he countered. "I'm willing to bet you have no idea how to repair the damage that would cause."
Her festering silence was answer enough. He climbed down off the X-wing and strode over to her. "If I let you go, will you promise not to attack me?"
She looked up at him, her eyebrows furrowing.
"On your honor as a Vong."
"Fine!" He knelt in front of her and gripped her shoulders tightly. She winced and struggled, but he held her fast, staring into the lovely face that used to belong to his best friend. "On your honor as a Yuuzhan Vong warrior, do you promise?"
She made no reply, only watched him, her face expressionless.
He sighed in exasperation and released her, walking back toward his tent to grab a bite to eat. What would it matter if she agreed to cooperate, anyway? A Vong could not be trusted. Yet in his dream Tahiri had still been within her; perhaps some glimmer of Tahiri's integrity would manifest itself in this wild creature. Even if it didn't, he reasoned with himself, she was smart enough to know that he was her only means of escape. Logically, she could do nothing to harm him.
He looked back at her and she narrowed her smoldering eyes at him. He turned away, disgusted by what his Tahiri had become. She did not have a gentle bone in her body.
"Yes," came an unexpectedly small, docile voice from behind him. "I promise."
Night on Dagobah was pure, with only the slightest hint of light. The planet had no moon, and the weak starlight could not penetrate the thick clouds and vegetation.
Down on the surface, straining to see the stars, Anakin fought back a feeling of utter desolation. He could not remember being anywhere recently without the comfort of the night sky. Even in the midst of war and death, the stars were always there, a constant presence.
Just like Tahiri.
She had always been there for him, since he was eleven and she nine. A sad smile blossomed on his face as he recalled the first time he had ever seen her, a small, barefooted girl. She had talked a mile a minute from the moment he met her until she was taken by the Vong. Riina Kwaad was silent and deadly, her once-familiar green eyes as hard and cold as the ice they resembled.
He sat up and looked over at her. She lay next to a tree, her body completely relaxed. Anakin suspected she had not truly slept for a very long time-the Yuuzhan Vong needed less sleep, and she had not slept much during her first night as his prisoner. He crawled over to her side and looked down at her.
The look on her face almost made him cry out. Her eyes were screwed up tight, as if trying to shut something out. Her lips twisted in agony, grotesquely distorting the tattoos on her cheeks and the scars on her forehead. He reached out into the Force, trying to sense her feelings. He felt nothing-her Vong emotions did not drain off into the Force.
Then her entire body tensed, as if she sensed him. She shuddered once, and her eyes flew open. He jumped back in surprise, but she did not seem to see him. She stared straight overhead, then her eyelids slowly slid closed as her body relaxed again. Her face melted into the impassive features of sleep.
Anakin moved closer to her again, his brows knitted. What was that? Slowly her body uncurled until she lay on her back, stretched out. A gentle breeze rose, blowing a tendril of pale hair across her cheek. He reached out to brush it back, and found his hand resting on her cheek.
Her skin used to be so soft. The tattoo had turned her cheek coarse and . . . wrong somehow. It violated, mutilated her perfect face. He leaned closer, searching her face for a sign of her old self. He trailed his finger across the scars on her forehead, then down to touch her lips.
"Tahiri . . ." His voice broke. Where was she now? Had her true spirit been completely swallowed up by Riina Kwaad? Her body was different, yet some of her old self seemed to be there still. Riina was stubborn and haughty as only his Tahiri could be. Tahiri could never be held back-she kept going, through thick and thin, always at his side. He wondered if she would ever again be the same girl he had known.
He realized he did not want her to be. She was no longer a child, that much was obvious by looking at her. She was a young woman now, and they could never return to their old ways.
"I'm in love with you, Tahiri," he whispered, swallowing back a torrent of roiling emotions.
Before he realized what he was doing, his face was mere inches from hers, then his lips brushed against hers. Her lips were warm and soft; the touch shook him to the core of his being, and he pulled away. She had not moved.
She was so beautiful . . . He rubbed a lock of her hair between his thumb and forefinger. He used to be able to touch Tahiri, to hug her, but he could not get near to Riina.
He had never kissed Tahiri before. He wondered fleetingly what she would think of it, and knew with sudden confidence that she would kiss him right back. He leaned down to brush his lips against Tahiri's again, wishing he had her true self back so he could take her in his arms and see her reaction to his kiss. Unmanly tears sprang to his eyes, but he did not rub them away.
He was beginning to wonder if that would ever happen.
The dream began just as it had before. Anakin wandered through the mist, searching for something, unable to rely on his eyes, yet too distracted to use the Force.
The scream came just as it had before. "Anakin!" He whirled, looking around frantically. "Anakin!" Tahiri's voice sounded weaker this time, and that stabbed his heart with fear.
"Tahiri!" he shouted back, feeling suddenly small in this alien world.
Her voice broke on a sob. "Anakin . . ."
He panicked; she was nowhere in sight.
Your eyes can deceive you-don't trust them.
Anakin closed his eyes and cast about with the Force. Tahiri was impossibly far away, but he knew where she was now. She was alive. He began to wade through the mist toward her. It took seconds and hours and years to reach her.
A small, lost-looking shape emerged out of the mist before him. "Tahiri!" he cried in relief.
She turned around, her green eyes flashing, and he stopped short. "Tsak!" she screamed, and launched herself at him.
Anakin stumbled back, confusion welling up inside him. He fumbled for his lightsaber, but Riina knocked him over and pinned him. "Jeedai," she snarled, lifting her hand to claw at his face.
Anakin automatically reached out with the Force, trying to stop her and finding that he could. She was still in a human body. He flung her off of himself and leapt to his feet to tower over her.
"Where is Tahiri?" he demanded.
An echoing scream deafened him, though Riina's lips remained closed. "I'm right here! Anakin!!!"
Riina glared harder, and Tahiri's cry was abruptly cut off. Anakin stared at her.
"Ana--" Again, Riina grimaced, and Tahiri's plea was strangled.
Anakin fell to his knees beside Riina, and suddenly his hands were around her neck, squeezing and twisting the life out of her. "Let her go!" he shouted, rage clouding his senses. "Let . . . her . . . go!"
Screaming filled his mind, and it took him a few seconds to realize that Riina still lay in complete silence.
"Anakin! No! Stop! Anakin!"
"Tahiri!" he cried, red haze still obscuring his vision. "I've got to save you!"
"You're . . . killing . . . me . . ."
"What?" His hands loosened on Riina's throat.
He looked down, finally able to see again. Riina looked up at him, fear in her eyes-her soft, green, familiar eyes. Then her eyes rolled back in her head and her body went limp.
"Oh, Force, no!" He snatched his hands away and stared at them. How could his body have betrayed him-betrayed her?
He lifted her frantically into his arms. "No, Tahiri! Come back! I didn't know!" Anguish roiled through him and he screamed, a wordless wail of grief and rage, ripping through him. The silence sucked it away, and it echoed faintly, leaving him weak and trembling, tears falling unchecked down his face.
Her voice whispered in his mind as if from a great distance, fading into eternity. I was there the whole time, Anakin . . .
Anakin stood over the sleeping girl, his breath ragged in his chest. It was just a dream, just a dream . . . Yet the feel of her delicate neck in his hands had been all too real.
"I know you're in there somewhere, Tahiri," he said softly, not wanting to wake her. "You're trying to reach me through my dreams, so there's no reason I can't reach you through yours." He took a deep breath. If he bungled this and Riina woke up, she would never let him have another chance.
Anakin let his eyes drift closed, centering his being, then opened himself completely. He had once chance to strengthen Tahiri before Riina swallowed her up forever.
Tears stained his cheeks as his habitual guards dropped and his love for Tahiri spilled forth toward her, not toward the body which Riina inhabited, but the Tahiri he knew was inside her somewhere.
i know you are in there tahiri somewhere and i love you and i am never going to stop trying to save you
He fell to his knees beside her, not even noticing the flash of pain from his skin as a sharp twig tore his pants and cut him.
because i love you i love you tahiri and i will never abandon you
He felt the slightest touch of her mind against his, and doubled his efforts, pushing through Riina's shields and sending his comfort to Tahiri on the other side.
i am here for you my love i am here i love you i love you i love you
anakin anakin anakin . . .
He realized he was sobbing in relief and joy and love. tahiri i love you do not ever doubt that my love i am here for you tahiri hold on i am coming for you i love you
Her touch drew slowly, reluctantly away from him. He squeezed his eyes shut as tight as he could, his entire being focused on her presence in the Force, as tiny as it was. come back to me tahiri do not leave me again i cannot live without you come back hold on i love you
She brushed against his mind again, her touch more tender than the softest kiss, then disappeared completely. Anakin's mind slowly returned to his body, and he realized he was lying face down in the mud, clutching Tahiri's body against him. He released her and climbed to his feet, disoriented, his head spinning.
The expression on her face was again full of pain, and he finally understood the scope of the internal battle taking place inside her body. Two warring selves, each as real as the other, fighting ruthlessly for possession of the body they were forced to share. And all he could do was send Tahiri strength and comfort, and try to keep Riina from winning.
He clenched and unclenched his fists at his sides. hold on tahiri do not give up i am here for you always i love you
It was not until afternoon that Dagobah's humid heat woke Anakin up. He sat up, blinking and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, trying to figure out why he had slept so late.
Riina stood on the other side of the camp, watching him silently.
"Good morning, er, afternoon," he called to her. She did not move.
It was then that his memories of last night crashed in on him, and he gasped at the intensity of the experience. "You--" he gasped, staring at her. She was not just a Vong impostor living in Tahiri's body anymore-she was actively trying to kill Tahiri.
Anakin climbed to his feet, never taking his eyes off Riina. "Vong impostor," he hissed at her.
"Infidel," she greeted him, matching his tone.
Anakin fought to control the hatred rising in his heart. "You're killing her."
Riina did not even blink. "Yes." Anakin gaped at her. "And I am winning, Infidel. You pathetic Jeedai are no match for the Yuuzhan Vong."
Anakin could think of nothing to say to that. Instead he reached out with the Force to touch Tahiri. Riina threw her head back and let out a harsh laugh. "You will never reach her, Infidel. She is mine."
Riina's mental blocks left him no way to get in to Tahiri. He realized that only in sleep would he be able to reach Tahiri. For now, she would have to fight alone, without his help. He could do nothing.
Or couldn't he? He jerked his head up to look at Riina, standing tall, proud, and defiant across the camp from him. He could try to work from the outside in. Do or do not, he reminded himself. There is no try.
"Vong impostor," he spat again. "You are no match for the Jedi. You and your pathetic gods who can't even touch the Force."
Her eyes flashed. "I am Yuuzhan Vong, and I can touch the Force."
"You are a freak." It hurt to say that to Tahiri's body, but he steeled himself to insult her and distract her as much as possible.
She took a step backward, her brow furrowed as she studied his face. He had never been so openly rude before.
"You stole someone else's body because the Vong are too weak to touch the Force."
He ignored her. "You aren't even a real person. You were made up in the mind of some Vong shaper--"
"--who only wanted to use you for some sort of experiment or something!"
She snarled and tackled him, but she wore the body of a young human female, not a Vong warrior. Anakin grabbed her wrists and shoved her easily onto the ground, then stood over her, panting. "There is no such thing as Riina Kwaad," he told her.
She blinked, looking suddenly disoriented. "What?" She struggled to sit up, but he held her down. She blinked again, her eyes focusing on his face. "Anakin?"
"Anakin, let me up!" Her brow furrowed. "It's me!"
He swallowed. Her eyes were so soft and warm, nothing like the chiseled ice of Riina Kwaad. A hoarse shout built up in his chest. "Tahiri!" He released her, only to sweep her up in his arms. "It's you! Tahiri!"
She pressed her cheek against his, and he realized as their tears mingled that he was crying. "Anakin, you saved me!"
He looked down at her, memorizing her smile. "I love you, Tahiri. I never got to tell you that."
"I felt it," she whispered. "In the darkness, I felt it." She trembled slightly, and he held her closer. "You saved me." Her eyes searched his face. "But I'm not safe yet, Anakin."
His blood seemed to freeze in his veins. "What do you mean?"
"She's still here . . ." Tahiri's voice sounded distant, as if she were concentrating on something else. "She is stronger than I am . . ."
Anakin felt her slipping. "Tahiri! No!" he shouted, horrified.
Her body jerked in his arms, and he held onto her, trying to give her some of his strength, but feeling helpless. She stiffened, and he closed his eyes wearily, knowing that he now held Riina.
"Tsak!" she screeched in his ear. He released her. "Infidel Jeedai! She will never conquer me!"
Anakin was getting sick of the misty planet. The horizon never changed. This time he was ready for the scream when it came.
But this time the scream was different. "Jeedai!"
Anakin took off running without conscious thought. His instincts told him that if he found the source of the screaming he would find Tahiri, though it was Riina who had called his name.
Then another voice stopped him short. "Anakin! Stay back!"
"Tahiri!" he yelled. "I've got to save you!"
Her voice was quiet. "No, Anakin. You don't always have to be the hero. You don't always have to break through all the barriers. Sometimes you just have to stand by and watch."
"But I can't!" he shouted, anguished and helpless.
"Then you can never truly save me." Her voice had shrunk to nothing more than a sad whisper.
Anakin shuddered violently as Riina's voice once again rang out. "Infidel Jeedai!"
He lowered his head and charged through the mist, which finally parted to let him through. He bowled Riina over as Tahiri watched in silence. "I'll save you," he gritted out, drawing his lightsaber. Within seconds, his blade sliced the life from Riina Kwaad.
Anakin straightened, panting. "I . . . saved you . . . Tahiri." He looked over at her. She had disappeared.
After a minute of searching, he had found her. She lay sprawled on the ground, a lightsaber wound across her body. He did not have to touch her to know that she was dead.
If this is a dream, let me wake up.
He tilted his head back, the mist bathing his face in alien tears that ran down his face and neck and soaked his collar. His arms stretched out around him, seeking something to grab ahold of, but there was nothing. Nothing but him, and two dead bodies who had somehow merged into one.
Dread settled in Anakin's stomach when he awoke, a heavy reminder of his dream. Could he truly do nothing to save Tahiri?
He groaned and sat up, looking around. Riina was up and pacing again, back and forth across the campsite. She spared a disdainful glare in his direction, not pausing in her step.
Anakin watched her slender form as she prowled. Tahiri was in there somewhere, and he had been forbidden to help her. He shivered. Twice now he had killed her in his dreams, accidentally, by trying to kill Riina. However much it hurt not to try to help Tahiri, it would hurt infinitely more to know that he had robbed his best friend --his loved one -of her life.
"Good morning, Vong," he called, trying to sound cheerful.
"Infidel," she sniffed in reply. Anakin sighed and pulled himself to his feet, grabbing a nutrient bar and shoving it into his mouth. He grimaced, sick of the stale taste of his food. They had only been here for a few days, but it felt like years, and the lack of variety was becoming tiresome.
"So, Vong, what shall we do today?"
She stopped and raised an eyebrow at him. "'We'? 'We' shall do nothing today, Jeedai."
"My company's that bad, is it?" Anakin was beginning to understand why his father had been so scathingly sarcastic with his mother when they had first met. She had apparently treated Han with the same attitude that Riina was now pulling on him. It was getting extremely frustrating.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Tsak to you, too."
She stared at him. "Tsak?"
Her presence in the Force shifted, a subtle but noticeable change. Anakin choked and ran to her. "Tahiri!"
She lifted a hand to stop him from touching her. "Don't," she said tightly. Every muscle was tense, and her face was drawn.
Anakin fell back, clenching his fists. He would not interfere and harm Tahiri, even if that meant watching her struggle alone.
Alone . . . The word seemed to echo in his mind. As long as he and Tahiri had each other, they would never be alone. But it was by no means certain that Tahiri would win this fight, this war she was waging. Waging alone.
Anakin stood quietly, watching her. Her eyes were closed now, her face screwed up in concentration. All of her focus turned inward, and for a fleeting moment he could see both of them, Riina and Tahiri, two competing selves in the same body.
He swallowed hard, biting back a cry as darkness settled once again over Tahiri's soft features. The eyes opened again, not looking at him. Riina.
Riina sank into a crouch, her face impassive. Anakin could not feel her thoughts through the Force, but he could tell from the alert state of her body that the battle was not over yet. He did not dare risk speaking to her.
She looked up at him without seeing him, and he turned away to escape the empty gaze. Fight her, Tahiri. Come back to me.
He walked away, needing to get away from the encampment. The Dagobah morning was fresh and new, though still oppressively hot and humid. He was beginning to get used to the weather here. Life surrounded him, the Force enveloping him in a gentle blanket of comfort. No wonder Uncle Luke looked back fondly on his days here, strenuous as they had been. The Force was a constant presence on this planet. Jacen would love it.
Anakin swallowed, fighting back a pang of acute loneliness. Jacen was nowhere near him, nor was Jaina, nor his parents. Nobody he knew was here, not even Tahiri, the one he was trying to save.
Silence surrounded him, a silence muted by the comings and goings of the beings around him. It seemed to breathe and shift, almost an entity in itself.
Abruptly, a scream broke through the silence. "Anakin!"
He froze. It was the voice from his dream.
"Anakin!" The voice broke on a sob, then rose in a wordless wail of complete agony and grief.
He was running toward it, unaware of any conscious decisions on his part. It was what had happened in the dream; now his legs moved automatically through the morning mist.
The ground was not flat and featureless here in the real world. Anakin's toe caught in a tree root and he went sprawling in the soggy muck, but quickly leapt up again and continued running. He had to keep running, keep searching . . .
Searching for what?
Tahiri was up there, somewhere, ahead of him. He could feel her. Something was attacking her. Something . . . someone. Riina.
"Anakin . . ." Her voice was strangled off this time.
"Tahiri!" he shouted, despair filling him and pushing him relentlessly onward. "No!"
He burst out into the clearing. Tahiri stood alone in the shadow of a massive tree, the tattoos on her face standing out in the weird half-light.
"Anakin!" she screamed, looking right at him but not seeing him.
"I'm here!" He gripped her shoulders and shook her. "I'm right here!"
"Anakin, don't leave me!" She started to cry, huge tears sliding down her face and dripping off her chin. Anakin's chest tightened and he shook her again.
She collapsed, her knees unable to support her under his onslaught, and he went down with her, kneeling beside her. "Tahiri, don't do this to me!"
Her head jerked up, another scream ripping through her throat and bursting upon Anakin's ears. "Anakin!"
He reached out with the Force, instinct taking over in the face of such raw pain. Riina was there inside her, torturing her. He sought the presence that was the Yuuzhan Vong and began to choke her. He felt her neck being crushed as his fist tightened.
"Anak--" Tahiri's voice trailed off into a gurgle, but her hand came up to touch his cheek. He looked into her eyes, which finally seemed to see him. They widened in fear, and she shrank from him.
Another voice spoke in his head. Anakin, no. This is not the way.
His grip loosened on Riina's throat, and Tahiri gasped, falling forward on her hands and knees and gulping in oxygen. Her body shook.
Anakin stared, the significance of his dreams flooding in on him. He almost retched as he realized what he had almost done.
"I tried to save you . . ."
Tahiri's tears pattered on the ground below her, then her body, already exhausted by constant internal conflict, stiffened again.
Anakin wrapped his arms around her, trying to give her some of his strength. "No, not again, dear Force, not again!" He threw his head back, crushing Tahiri's body against him, and cried out into the impassive mist. "Damn you, Vong! Damn you to whatever hell your gods send you to! "
Another voice mingled with his, shrieking in rage and pain and exhaustion, a single, drawn-out syllable. "Tsak!"
Anakin pushed Riina away, but she clung to him. "Anakin, no! Please!" She was Tahiri again.
His head swam with confusion and desperate fear. He knew he was tilting close to the dark side but he didn't care anymore. He backed away from Tahiri, shaking violently. "Who are you?"
She drew herself up. "Riina Kwaad."
He swallowed. "I don't believe you."
"What?" She blinked.
"I don't believe you. I don't believe Riina Kwaad exists. I don't believe in you. " She shrieked in rage and lunged at him, but he fended her off, just as he had in his first dream. His hands found her neck. "If you don't exist, then this can't possibly hurt you."
His hands tightened; her eyes widened as she realized his intent and she struggled, but he was relentless.
Dear Force, let this work . . .
She scratched viciously at him, her sharp fingernails drawing blood from his hands and arms and face, but he shut his eyes and continued to strangle her. After what seemed like years, her body jerked and went limp.
He dropped her body to the damp ground, keeping hold of a wrist to check for a pulse. There was none.
"Riina Kwaad is dead," he whispered down at her body. "She never existed." He swallowed, fighting back tears. But did she kill Tahiri before I killed her? In his dream, after he killed Riina, Tahiri's voice had still spoken in his head. She should still be alive.
He sank down to sit in the mud, drawing her onto his lap and rocking back and forth with her against his chest.
tahiri you are not dead you are alive come back come back now i love you
His tears caressed her still face. Her head flopped forward onto his shoulder and he squeezed her tighter.
you have to be alive she did not kill you because you are strong and i love you i love you come back to me
He rocked faster and faster, his breath coming in ragged gasps and drowning out all else.
no tahiri no no no i love you you cannot be dead you are not dead i love you come back do not let her win she cannot defeat you
Sobs wracked his body and hers with it. He shuddered violently, blinded by his tears and deafened by his own howls of anguish.
New thoughts merged with his, but he barely noticed.
anakin do not leave me i need you anakin i love you i am here anakin
tahiri i love you tahiri tahiri
anakin oh anakin anakin
Her arms were around his neck and they held each other through the storm of emotions coursing through them.
"Anakin!" Her lips met his, then broke away, frantically kissing his cheeks and jaw. "Oh, Anakin, she's gone, she's gone!"
"Tahiri! You're alive!" He pulled away far enough to look at her. Her face was smudged and dirty, with tracks of pale skin visible where her tears had washed away the grime. He had never seen anyone so beautiful before in his life.
"You saved me!"
"I almost killed you!"
She was laughing and crying at the same time. "The dreams . . . I could only reach you when Riina was sleeping . . ."
"I know, my love, I know . . ."
He felt like he would never let her go again. Their cheeks were pressed close together, and he turned his face sideways to kiss her again. She responded breathlessly, her arms sliding around him.
He broke away, touching his forehead to hers. "Oh, Anakin," she whispered. "I love you so much!"
"I'll never let you go again," he promised, sweeping her up in his arms and heading towards his X-wing.
"You sealed it up, remember?" she said in his ear, gesturing toward the cockpit with her chin.
"I can fix that." He set her on her feet, one arm still around her waist, removed his plasma torch from his belt and hefted it carefully. He kissed Tahiri again, briefly, then turned his attention to his X-wing.
At the sound of the plasma torch opening the cockpit, Fiver came to sudden life, bleeping and whistling.
"Tahiri's back," Anakin said in reply. "She's back, and we're going home."
Original cover by Darth Minus. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.