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Gungan to the left


Blood and Ashes (PG-13)


By : GrandAdmiralV

Archived on: Monday, September 25, 2006

Summary:
Mičle has her own reasons for being in Jabba's palace. But when she's forced to play reluctant nursemaid to a wounded Boba Fett, she finds her life taking a very different path.... Immediately post-ROTJ, slightly AU if you take the EU profics into account.

I

They had been gone far too long, that much she knew. Although there were no chronos in the kitchens of Jabba's palace, Miele had trained herself to make a rough estimate of the passage of time without any visual aids. She knew that at least four and possibly closer to five standard hours had to have passed since the inhabitants of Jabba's palace had enthusiastically climbed aboard his sail barge to watch the baiting and eventual deaths of his latest batch of prisoners. One of them had even looked a little familiar, as if she'd seen him once or twice on the streets of Anchorhead, but she knew better than to hope she could do anything to save him.

Unlike the others, she had no stomach for that sort of thing. The palace had emptied down to the lowliest kitchen drudge -- save for her. She had a knack for hiding in shadows, making herself easily overlooked, and so no one had come searching for her when she had vanished into one of the larders as everyone else was hastening out the rear entrance of the palace and onto the barge. At the time she had only thanked whatever powers might be that she would have a few hours of uninterrupted time to resume her careful slicing into Jabba's security system.

That fat slug would probably have had an apoplexy if he knew how far she had already gotten, but she was careful to cover her tracks. Anyhow, she knew the basics of the system well enough; it was her father who had programmed it, after all, and he had trained Miele in the tricks of the trade. Good thing that Jabba hadn't bothered to investigate Lestan Fels closely enough to discover that Tatooine's best slicer had a daughter, let alone one who rivaled her father in her ways with a security system. No, Jabba had thought himself very clever to hire Fels and then have him killed once the security system was in place. He hadn't thought that there was anyone on this miserable rock who would bother to avenge the dead slicer.

She had come here two months ago, already aware of what had probably happened to her father, and she'd been careful to come disguised. Jabba's lechery was legendary, and Miele, after carefully inspecting her reflection before setting out, had come to the dispassionate conclusion that she was just pretty enough to attract attention if she didn't do something to alter her appearance. Nothing drastic, of course, but it was amazing what deliberately dirty hair pulled back in a severe knot, a few carefully applied blemishes, and exaggerated shadows under one's eyes could do to make a person look absolutely unappealing. Even so, she'd been on the receiving end of a few nastily significant glances from Bib Fortuna, Jabba's majordomo. She counted herself lucky that it hadn't gone any farther than that -- and perhaps his unhealthy interest was what had led him to hire her in the first place.

But now -- Miele settled back on her heels and sighed. She'd made good progress during the past few hours and felt confident that, given a little more time, she would finally be able to slice the codes that protected Jabba's vaults and gain access to the treasures she knew he hoarded there. Of course she would never be able to bring her father back, but at least she could steal his murderer blind and finally get herself away from this forsaken planet once and for all.

The silence around her was disturbing. She knew the palace as well as anyone, but it was an unsettling place even when fully occupied and much worse when it was apparently deserted, as it seemed now. What could possibly have happened? There had been whispers that one of the captives claimed to be a Jedi Knight, but she had dismissed that rumor out of hand. The Jedi Knights had been dead and gone for a long, long time.

Still...

Miele pushed her chair away from the computer console in the guards' chamber. Like the rest of the palace, the room had been hewn out of the native Tatooine sandstone, but the banks of machines were an incongruous note in the otherwise primitive surroundings. It was cool in here, though, the conditioners working overtime to ensure that the precious computers didn't overheat. Perhaps it was the temperature of the room that made her shiver.

Or perhaps it was something else. Miele thought she couldn't stand the silence a moment longer. The air felt laden with ghosts suddenly; she wondered how many hapless prisoners had met violent deaths in the palace, and she shivered again, harder this time.

Anything would be better than sitting here and wondering until she slowly drove herself mad. She remember how her father used to tease her for her endless questions. Why are there two suns, Da?...Why do the sandpeople hate everyone else?...Why do stormtroopers wear that armor? Aren't they hot?

Anything of course, but the questions she had really wanted to ask. Why don't I have a mother like everyone else? Why did she hate me so much that she left? But even at five Miele had known better than to ask some questions....

Shaking her head as if to rid herself of these unpleasant recollections, Miele made a sudden decision. She knew where the palace 'speeders were kept, and of course she would have no difficulty getting through the security system that sheltered them. If something really had gone wrong, wasn't it her responsibility to discover what had happened? She hadn't allowed herself to make any friends during her tenure at the palace, but at the same time she didn't think she could leave people she had worked with to die out in the desert. Assuming that the worst had happened, of course. It was entirely possible that the Sarlacc was being more than usually entertaining and they had just stayed out longer than usual. Somehow, though, she knew that was a false hope.

The parking garages were located at the rear of the palace, not far from the small docking bays Jabba kept for the private use of certain guests who didn't wish to fly into Mos Eisley. There were five landspeeders, all looking the worse for wear. Looks could be deceiving, though, as she knew all too well; Jabba's mechanics kept them well-tuned. On one wall of the garage was a gun locker, and she keyed in the code -- stolen during one of her slicing sessions -- and lifted out a heavy blast rifle and a pair of smaller blasters. It was getting close to dusk, and although she knew the sandpeople kept a respectful distance from Jabba's palace she wasn't about to take any chances.

She selected the landspeeder closest to the garage entrance, more for ease than because it looked better than any of the others. Since it was an older model, it had a chip-matching system. The chips had been stored in the locker along with the guns, however, so it was easy enough to get the thing started and maneuver it out of the garage.

Even now, this close to dusk, the heat was intense, enervating. Miele knew she would never get used to it, no matter if she lived to be a hundred and died on this rock. But she had brought a few flasks of water with her, knowing that even without direct sun she could die of dehydration within a few hours if she wasn't careful. She took a few sips, then set the flask down on the passenger seat. The next stage of the journey was going to require both hands.

The Sarlacc pit was located roughly southeast of Jabba's palace. Even driving as quickly as the terrain would allow, it was a good hour's ride. Miele cast a nervous glance over her shoulder at the setting suns and prayed that she could make it there before the last bit of light disappeared. Jabba or no, the sandpeople considered everyone fair game after sunset, and she didn't care to become yet another statistic. No one would come looking for her if she disappeared.

The smell of burning greeted her long before she reached the actual Sarlacc pit. Acrid and heavy, the scent of smoke hung in the hot desert air like the memory of a bad dream, impossible to ignore. Miele slowed the 'speeder's headlong flight as she came on to the site of the disaster.

There was nothing left, save scattered wreckage and a few unpleasant dark blotches on the sand. Whatever had been the cause, the sail barge and everyone on it apparently had perished in one colossal explosion. Black smoke still swirled heavily in the hot air.

She brought the landspeeder to a stop, then reached for one of the blasters. Just because she saw no movement didn't mean that predators couldn't be lurking nearby -- at the very least, Miele expected to see a sandcrawler pull up at any moment. She couldn't imagine that the Jawas would allow such a large piece of salvage to go untouched for very long.

After making sure that the safety on the blaster was off, she climbed out of the 'speeder and moved toward the Sarlacc pit, stepping carefully between the pieces of shrapnel and other, less distinguishable bits of wreckage. The cloying smell of burning flesh rose to her nostrils, and Miele forced herself not to gag, making herself breathe through her mouth despite the painful dryness at the back of her throat.

There was nothing here -- nothing to salvage, no one to save. Perhaps the rumors in the kitchen had been true, after all. Miele couldn't imagine anyone but a Jedi gaining the upper hand when he was so grossly outnumbered.

It was stupid for her to have come; all she had done was risk her own safety when she could have holed up in Jabba's palace and worked at the security system until it yielded its remaining secrets. Obviously no one would have come back to disturb her.

With a sigh, she turned and took a step back toward the landspeeder. It was only then that she heard the faint moan from somewhere behind her.

Whirling, she held the blaster out in front of her, one trembling finger hovering over the fire button. "Identify yourself!" she called into the gathering dusk, hoping that her voice sounded more confident than she felt.

No reply save another faint groan, this one fainter than the last. Whoever or whatever it was, they didn't sound very threatening. However, she knew better than to lower the blaster as she retraced her steps toward the pit of the Sarlacc, taking care to maintain a respectful distance from the actual opening. The whispered horror stories she'd heard from the other kitchen drudges were enough to convince her that she needed to give that dark, gaping hole in the ground a wide berth.

As she came closer she finally saw the man who lay face down in the sand. From this angle he looked dead, armor scored and even smoking in a few places from the stomach acids of the Sarlacc, his helmet knocked clean from his head and lying a few paces away. Even in the dimming light Miele could see blood gleaming in his short-cropped dark hair, black against black. But then she saw one of his hands move slightly, a futile clenching gesture that seemed as if he were trying to gain a purchase so as to pull himself farther away from the pit.

Although she'd never seen his face, she recognized the armor. Boba Fett. The bounty hunter. Just one of the myriad scum Jabba had infesting his palace. For one moment she was tempted to just leave him there to die -- after all, the man had made his living from human misery -- but almost as soon as the thought crossed her mind she knew she could not abandon him to the desert, no matter who he was or what he had done. Anyone who had the strength of will to survive the Sarlacc deserved a second chance.

She squatted down in the sand next to him. "Fett?" she said softly. "Can you understand me?"

The smallest movement of his hand was his only reply.

Still, it was better than nothing. "I've come from Jabba's palace," she went on, thinking that perhaps her words would give him something to hold on to besides the pain. "I have a landspeeder. I'll bring it closer so I can take you back."

This time there was no answering movement, and Miele could only hope that he had heard and understood. As quickly as she could she threaded her way through the wreckage back to the 'speeder and then maneuvered it as close as possible to the wounded man. Once she had clambered back out again she looked at Fett and swore softly. He would be no help to her in his condition. How she was supposed to maneuver his approximately fifteen stone of dead weight into the landspeeder was beyond her. There was nothing in the immediate vicinity that would help her leverage him up off the ground, and she was afraid to leave him to go look for something in the wreckage farther away.

In the end, she did it through brute strength and sheer force of will. She was young and healthy enough, and the last few months had hardened her muscles to the point that she found in herself the power to do what was necessary. Oh, she knew she'd have sore muscles tomorrow, and even now there was a worrisome twinge in her lower back, but somehow she managed to half-lift, half-drag him to the speeder and then push/pull him into the passenger seat. These operations did nothing to improve his condition -- halfway through her maneuvering he finally fainted, for which she was grateful. She hated to think of even Boba Fett suffering the kind of pain her awkward handling must have caused.

Finally she was able to take the driver's seat and then push the accelerator to maximum, retracing her path back toward the palace. At some point during the time she'd been dragging Fett into the 'speeder one of the suns had set, and now the remaining star was only a bloody disk on the far horizon.

Speed was the only thing that could save the both of them now, and she used it brutally, jouncing the landspeeder with reckless determination over landscapes not meant for that sort of travel. She had thought Fett still completely dead to the world, but after one particularly harsh drop-off she suddenly felt his hand tighten on her leg. Startled, she'd looked down for a second to see him shake his head slightly.

"Don't do that again," he whispered, before passing out once more.

"No problem," she muttered, but she did ease off the accelerator just a bit. He was right -- it wouldn't help if she upended the 'speeder in a ravine or particularly deep sand dune.

After what seemed like an eternity but was actually less than an hour, she saw the domes of Jabba's palace appear on the horizon, glimmering faintly in the purple-hued hour after sunset. The security perimeter was still in place -- she could see the faint bluish haze between each of the markers -- but she had a remote with her that would deactivate it long enough to allow them inside. What she was going to do with Fett after they reached the relative safety of the garage, she wasn't sure.

Whether it was just luck or the aura that still surrounded the palace even though its owner was now dead, they managed to slip inside the perimeter unremarked and unmolested. Miele pulled the landspeeder into the garage, then leaned over to make sure that Fett was still just unconscious and not actually dead. Yes, there was still a pulse in his throat, but it was thready and weak. She needed to get him into a med unit as quickly as possible.

Jabba did have a fairly well-stocked med center in his palace, for whatever reason. Possibly to keep his victims alive between rounds of torture, or possibly because he did have some valuable slaves and other hangers-on who were of more use to him alive than dead. Like everything else, Jabba had wanted to take care of medical emergencies in-house. Although she had never been there, Miele knew where the med unit was located; she had made it her business to learn as much as she could about Jabba's palace and its inhabitants.

Again she spoke to Fett, not knowing whether he could even hear her. "I'll be back soon. I have to get a stretcher for you." She was thankful that the med unit was equipped with a repulsor-powered stretcher, for she knew that there was no way she could have dragged Fett all the way from the parking garage to the second level of the palace where the med unit was located.

As it was, the trip nearly finished him. Just the act of dragging him out of the landspeeder and onto the stretcher caused him to cough up a great gout of dark blood, staining what remained of his jumpsuit and half of the shapeless tunic she wore. After that his swarthy skin took on a strange, grayish pallor, and the black shadows beneath his eyes seemed to spread. All Miele could do was push the stretcher along as quickly as possible, keeping one hand resting on his as she did so. She thought it was important for him to know at some level that someone was still with him, even if he had retreated so far into unconsciousness that it seemed almost like death.

The medical droid with which the med unit was equipped was an older model, barely self-aware, for which Miele was thankful. She'd had enough of the newer versions' chatty bedside manner when her father had had a heart attack a few years ago and had to go into a clinic in Anchorhead. Its hum seemed to become steadily more disapproving, however, as it moved its sensors over Fett's motionless body, almost as if it thought she were somehow responsible for his current condition. After a moment, though, it began hooking him up to various life-support devices, even as it started to cut away his shredded jumpsuit and the few bits of armor that still clung to it.

Embarrassed, Miele looked away, but not before she could see the extent of the lacerations that covered his torso -- angry burns and something that looked suspiciously like marks left by enormous suction cups. She shuddered, then went to one of the cabinets off to one side of the bed on which Fett now lay. Her back was beginning to ache more than ever, and she hoped she could find some sort of painkiller to keep it from getting any worse.

Sure enough, there was a row of analgesics and narcotics in the first cabinet she opened. She selected something low-level enough that wouldn't make her drowsy but at least would take the edge off the pain. She had a feeling that this was going to be a very long night.

Behind her the medical droid methodically worked away at Fett, wrapping his body in some sort of healing pads until he was practically cocooned in them, with only his face visible. He had a few cuts and bruises across his forehead and on his chin, but that seemed to be the least damaged part of him; Miele supposed his helmet had saved him there.

"Will he live?" she asked finally, as the med droid stepped away from the bed and began disposing of the bloodied pieces of jumpsuit it had cut away from Fett's body.

If a droid could shrug, Miele thought it might have. Instead it said only, "A chance. Not much. He is strong. That helps."

Yes, it does, she thought. She supposed he would have to be, to survive for so long and so well in a profession as ruthless as his.

"The night will tell," the med droid added cryptically.

For a moment she could only look at it, uncomprehending. Of course, she thought. If he lives through the night he might survive after all.

"I want to stay with him," she said at length. "Remain here, of course, but you can shut down for now. I'll call you if I need you."

The droid nodded its assent, then resumed its normal station in a far corner of the room, powering down against further need. The light in its eyes dimmed, and its head slumped forward.

Miele waved a hand to bring down the light level in the room; it was too harsh, too bright. She didn't know how Fett could rest in that sort of glare. Once it was a softer, more reasonable level, she went to one side of the room and brought back with her a chair that floated on its own repulsors, then drew it close to the bed. Then she took one of his hands in both of hers, but lightly, so that the pressure of her fingers wouldn't do any more damage to the wounded flesh underneath.

"I'm here," she said again, wondering as she did so whether it made any difference. Really, why should she care if this man lived or died? She didn't know him. She was nothing to him. But the irrational tears rose up in her throat and choked her as she thought of her father, dying alone and unregarded in this palace, surrounded by strangers who had laughed and jeered at him. No one should have to die that way. Not even Boba Fett.

Was it her imagination, or did she feel a momentary pressure on her fingers from the hand she thought had lain so still beneath hers?

"I won't let you die," she whispered fiercely, and there it was again, a flutter so infinitesimal it could have merely been an involuntary reflex, just overtaxed nerves twitching beneath the flayed skin. But she refused to believe that.

The night will tell, she thought.

But what the next day would bring, she didn't dare think. All she could do now was sit here in the soft semidarkness and pray that the palace wouldn't claim yet another uneasy ghost....

II

At one point during the night she was certain Fett had died. She had slipped into an uneasy sleep even as she sat in the repulsor chair next to the hospital bed, only to be awakened by the strident beeping of the equipment monitoring his vital signs. Before she could fully realize what was happening, the med droid was already at Fett's side, making adjustments to the liquids that dripped into his arm and sliding an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. When that didn't produce the desired result, the droid shocked him twice with the fibrillators built into its hands, and suddenly the alarm subsided into the low-level pulsing of a normal sinus wave. It was probably the soft murmur of the machine that had put her to sleep in the first place.

Through all of this Fett hadn't moved. Miele reflected, as she tried to settle herself into a more comfortable position in the chair, that the only thing about him which seemed alive was the pulsing light of his heart beat on the monitor.

"You shouldn't scare people like that," she said finally, after making sure the med droid had settled back down into deceptive quiescence. Obviously it was on a hair trigger if anything in a patient's condition changed -- she hadn't even awakened fully before the droid was already at work on Fett.

She wondered whether he could hear her at all. Somewhere she thought she had read that people in comas could still sense when people were talking to them, but perhaps that only counted when the people involved actually knew one another. At any rate, talking to him made her feel better, and she hoped it would help keep her awake.

"You don't know me," she said, making her tone as soft and reassuring as she could. "My name is Miele, and I work here in the palace. That's where you are now, in the med unit. You're going to be fine."

Pausing, she glanced down at Fett's slack features and thought he looked anything but fine. Still, a little misplaced optimism couldn't hurt. "Anyhow," she continued, "I'm hoping that you can help me out once you're on your feet again. I want to get off Tatooine, and I know you've got a ship out back in one of Jabba's private docking bays." Again she laid her hand on top of his bandaged one. "And if saving your life isn't enough, I'm willing to share Jabba's treasure with you. I'm close to cracking the code. A day or so more, probably. That's what I'm doing here -- I'm no more a kitchen drudge than you are, but it was a good disguise."

She stopped then, wondering if she had said too much. What was to stop him from killing her after she had broken Jabba's security system? Oh, she had saved his life, but was that enough? She knew next to nothing of him save his reputation as the most ruthless bounty hunter in the galaxy, but even bounty hunters had to follow some sort of code, didn't they?

Well, there was no help for it now. Very likely he couldn't understand or even hear what she was saying, as far into unconsciousness as he had retreated. And if he had heard and understood, perhaps the lure of Jabba's riches was enough to give him the will to survive. It was what had sustained her over the past few months, ever since she realized that Jabba had murdered her father after the final code for the security system was delivered. The money...and revenge.

At first, of course, she had merely been unbelieving. Her father had been secretive about his latest job, but he had promised her that it was finally the big score, the one contract that would earn them enough to get off Tatooine forever. His skills with computers had never translated to any sort of talent with finances, and they had always led a precarious existence, never sure if they were going to make the rent or have enough to eat -- at least until Miele was old enough to take matters into her own hands. From the time she was fourteen she had managed the household, and things had run a bit more smoothly as a result, but they had never been able to scrape together enough credits for passage off Tatooine.

Lestan Fels actually was an offworlder, a native of Ator. It was a freelance assignment with a mining company that had brought him to Tatooine, where he fell in love with the beautiful red-haired daughter of a moisture farmer from Anchorhead. That much Miele knew, but what exactly had transpired when she was barely six months old her father would never say. All she knew was that her mother had left, apparently with the remainder of his earnings from the mining contract. Lestan ended up trapped on Tatooine with an infant daughter to raise and no immediate prospects of returning to his home world. It was not in his nature to complain, but Miele knew he hated Tatooine almost as much as she did.

When he had been missing for two days, she'd known that the worst must have happened. Although of course Lestan hadn't told her for whom he was working, it didn't take a differential equation to figure out that there were only one or two potential clients in the area who had both the need for that high-level a security system as well as the means to pay for it.

Not knowing what else to do, she'd gone to the local Imperial garrison to make a report. Unlike most of the other inhabitants of Anchorhead, she was on good enough terms with the troops stationed there. Perhaps the rumors of Imperial oppression were true, perhaps not. All she knew was that the presence of the squad of stormtroopers and the officers who led them kept at least a semblance of order in the rough desert town. Certainly she would not have been able to walk the streets so freely if it weren't for Captain Malec and his men.

It was Captain Malec who saw her, and for that she was grateful; he was young for the post and had always been friendly. Too much so, her father had grumbled -- he didn't like the idea of his daughter flirting with the leader of the local garrison. Miele hadn't seen what the problem was. Captain Malec was charming and only seven or eight years older than she, and certainly of a far higher caliber than the local boys, who talked incessantly of moisture farming or tricking out their sandhoppers and not much else. At least Jerran Malec was educated and well-spoken, which was more than she could say of the Anchorhead set.

But when she had sat down in his office and poured out her troubles to him, at first he had looked away, his pleasant features clouded.

"We can file a missing-being report, of course," he said formally, and she could see his blue eyes shift past her to the two stormtroopers standing on either side of his open door.

"How can he be missing if I'm pretty sure I know where he is?" she had demanded, and after that he had stood and palmed the door shut, then returned to his desk.

"I wish I could help you, Mia," he said, and even the sound of her father's nickname on his lips had brought the tears she had been suppressing for too long to her eyes.

"Why can't you, Captain Malec?" She had been deliberately formal, using his title, although she had spoken his given name before in private.

Even though the door was shut, he had lowered his voice. "The Empire has a policy of not getting involved in Jabba's affairs. We leave him alone, and he leaves us alone to do as we wish. The arrangement has worked thus far."

"Even if innocent people are involved."

"Unfortunately, yes."

She'd wanted to hate him then, but couldn't; the dismay in his face was all too obvious. He wasn't responsible for the Empire's edicts and was only trying to make the best of a difficult situation. An officer who asked too many questions would soon find himself on the fast track to nowhere -- although she couldn't think of many posts worse than Tatooine. It was, as she'd heard one of the troopers comment once, the "ass-end of space."

"So what am I supposed to do?" she'd asked at length. "Just pretend that nothing's happened?"

"That would be the wisest course, yes." Unexpectedly, he had reached out and taken one of her hands in his. "I know this is improper of me, but -- "

She'd narrowed her eyes then, wondering what was going to come next. Unwanted advances were certainly the last thing she needed right now.

But he had surprised her. "I have enough saved to get you offworld. You could be in danger, if your father has let on to Jabba that he has family on Tatooine. Let me get you away from here -- my tour is over in three months, and I could come to see you before I'm sent on to my next post."

The unexpected generosity almost undid her. It would have been so easy to let Malec take care of her, hustle her offworld to someplace safe. Perhaps he had convinced himself that he was in love with her, or perhaps it was merely some sense of old-fashioned honor that spurred him to attempt her rescue.

She hadn't known what to say. She'd made a few inarticulate attempts, had begun to really cry, then let him fold her into his arms and hold her while she wept. If nothing else, it had felt good to have his strong arms around her, to feel the reassuring roughness of his woolen uniform against her cheek.

In the end she had been able to leave without really promising anything, knowing even then that she would never forgive herself if she didn't do something to avenge her father's death. What poor Captain Malec had thought of her disappearance, she didn't want to contemplate. Probably that Jabba's goons had spirited her away, finishing the job once and for all.

But now Jabba was dead, along with all the rest of his court. It wouldn't be too long before the next piece of scum rushed in to fill the vacuum Jabba's death had caused, but Miele thought they had a few days before the news spread. She only hoped that a few days would be enough.

The palace was empty of all but a few lower-level droids, for which she was thankful. Several of them would have been difficult to manage, such as EV-99, but they had been destroyed along with everything else on the sail barge. She never thought she'd be grateful for Jabba's raging ego, but obviously he had wanted the largest audience possible for his latest Sarlacc-baiting.

There was the slightest shift of the hand which lay beneath hers, and she looked down, startled. Fett did look better after all; the shadows under his eyes seemed a little less black, and that frightening grayish tint had disappeared from his face. And now she could actually see his chest rising and falling as he breathed, sending the healing oxygen through his body.

"You're too mean to die, aren't you?" she asked, but softened the words by reaching up to touch the dark wavy hair at his temple, now matted with blood. Once he had recovered enough he was definitely going to need a good cleaning up.

Miele wasn't sure, but she thought she saw the smallest quirk at the corner of his mouth. Then again, it could have just been a trick of the lighting.

Speaking of cleaning up, she thought, looking down at herself as if for the first time. Blood spattered the right side of her tunic, and she was streaked with grime everywhere. Fett looked as if he were holding on, and now she could think of nothing else but a long soak in a 'fresher and a change of clothing. There had to be something fit for use somewhere in the palace.

After rousing the med droid and instructing it to keep a close watch on Fett, Miele went down the hall and up to the third story, where she knew the slave girls' dormitory was located. She thought that might be her best chance at finding the toiletries she needed, along with a change of clothes.

Sure enough, the bathing chamber was stocked with all sorts of little luxuries; apparently Jabba liked his slave girls sweet-smelling and moisturized before he tossed them to the Rancor. Miele stood in the 'fresher for the longest time, reveling in the warm water that cascaded through her filthy hair and washed the grime from her body. She had to wash her hair three times before she felt it was clean enough, and it was utter bliss to finally cleanse her face of the dirt and false blemishes she had adopted as part of her disguise.

After that she dried off and then wrapped the towel around herself, going in search of something to wear. Although Miele didn't doubt Boba Fett would enjoy waking up to see her in one of the slave girls' scanty dance costumes, she had something a little more substantial in mind. She had seen several of the girls when they arrived at the palace, and they had worn ordinary enough clothing. It had to be around here someplace.

It was shoved into the farthest corner of the wardrobe that all of the girls had apparently shared. Miele thought she even recognized the fitted tunic and loose pants the Twi'lek girl Oola had first worn when she came to Jabba's palace. That was good, because Oola was closer to Miele's size than any of the other slave girls, and the costume fit very well.

It felt odd, to be wearing the clothing of a dead girl, but Oola certainly didn't need it anymore, and Miele did. Besides, the feel of something besides roughly spun bantha wool against her skin was pure heaven. She didn't know what the low-necked dark tunic and pants were made of, but it was definitely some exotic offworld fiber, silky and sleek. And it wasn't any of the endless variations on off-white, ivory, and beige that were ubiquitous on Tatooine. Miele thought she could go her entire life without wearing a single one of those colors again.

But she had spent enough time here. She ran a comb one last time through her damp tresses, then slid on a pair of sandals she had found on the floor of the wardrobe. Finally she left the room and headed down, past the second floor where Fett slept, all the way to the cellar where the kitchens were located. Although she felt considerably better than she had before she showered, she knew she wouldn't be able to keep going without a cup of caf...or several, she thought. It wasn't the first time she had pulled an all-nighter, but a healthy dose of the stimulant drink would be just what she needed.

It was somewhat unpleasant to be returning to the kitchens, where she had labored in ugly anonymity for several months, but at least now she felt like herself again. She made short work of brewing the caf and decided to bring the whole jug of it with her back to the med unit, along with half a loaf of only slightly stale bread. Miele couldn't remember the last time she had eaten anything.

When she returned, all was as she had left it: the med droid hovering by Fett's bedside, the bounty hunter lying still under his covering of bandages.

"How is he?" she asked, as she set the jug of caf and the bread on a counter.

"Better," the droid replied, and pointed at the monitor as if it thought she could translate its readings. "He'll come out of the coma soon."

"Good." She busied herself with pouring a cup of caf; behind her the droid seemed to hesitate for a moment, then moved off to its corner.

The rush of the stimulant along her nerve endings was almost as heavenly as the shower had been; she hadn't realized how groggy she was until she let the caf wake her up. The bitter-chocolate taste awoke her stomach as well, and she pulled off a chunk of bread and took several healthy bites. It was only after she had satisfied her appetite somewhat that she picked up her cup of caf and resumed her watch over Fett.

She didn't think him particularly handsome, although there was something about the mouth that suggested he might have a nice smile -- not that he would have much use for it. Certainly he seemed swarthy and exotic when compared with someone who more closely fit her masculine ideals, such as Captain Malec.

Not for the first time since coming to Jabba's palace, she found herself thinking of the young Imperial captain and his offer to her. Was he even still on Tatooine at all? He'd said his tour was up in three months, and she had been here more than two. It was entirely possible that he would be gone by the time she finally cracked the security system. No, her only real hope of leaving remained with the man who lay so still before her. At least now she was certain he was going to make it, although she couldn't imagine at the cost of what pain. Right now the med droid had a heady cocktail of narcotics coursing through his system so he might rest, but he couldn't function that way indefinitely. Sooner or later he would have to heal on his own.

Despite the caf, she could feel her head beginning to droop. Perhaps it would be best if she went back up to the slave girls' dormitory and caught a few hours of sleep on one of the narrow beds there. Fett didn't seem to be in any immediate danger, and right now her eyelids were beginning to feel like lead.

So she rose, and turned to set her empty cup down on the counter, but not before a hoarse whisper from the bed behind her halted her movement.

Miele whirled to see Fett staring at her, eyes very black beneath the heavy brows.

"Did you," he asked, in so soft an undertone she could barely understand him, "say something about Jabba's treasure?"

III

For a moment all she could do was stare at him, not believing he could have actually spoken. A few drops of caf spilled from the mug that dangled from her suddenly heedless fingers before she recovered herself enough to place it on the counter.

"You heard that?" she managed at last.

His eyes shut briefly, lashes black against his bloodless cheeks. "I heard a voice. Gave me something to concentrate on."

"Does it -- does it hurt very much?"

There was no mistaking the ironic glance he gave her as he opened his eyes once more. "Probably not as much as being completely digested would have."

Well, she had deserved that. Obviously he was lucid, if still very weak. And since he had heard her comments about Jabba's treasure, there was no going back now. She said, "Jabba hired my father to rebuild his security system. Then he had him killed." She paused, but Fett made no comment. "So I came here to crack the security system and steal whatever Jabba might have hidden in his vaults. Now he's dead, so my job is a lot easier."

"But you need a way out of here," Fett whispered, his voice cracking on the last syllable.

Concerned, Miele looked over at the med droid. "Should he have some water or something?"

The droid hurried over, looked at Fett's vital signs, then laid a temp strip across his forehead. After that it flashed a light into each of his eyes. Through all of these dubious ministrations the bounty hunter remained stoic, unmoving.

"Water, OK," the droid finally announced, pulling a perma-sealed moisture pack from one of the cupboards and attaching it to a long flexible tube. It pushed one end of the tube through Fett's cracked lips and hung the pack from another arm of the rack that held the various fluids that were slowly seeping into him.

Fett took a few careful sips, then nodded at the droid, which removed the tube from his mouth. "Better," he said. "So you'd give me half Jabba's treasure just to get you offplanet?"

"That's right."

He was silent for a moment, considering. "You don't need me to get off Tatooine."

Miele tried to remind herself that he was in a lot of pain. "Well, yes, I do, actually, because you've got a ship right here. I don't know how much is in those vaults, but I'm pretty sure it's more than I could load onto a landspeeder, and those are the only vehicles left in the garages now. And in case you weren't aware of the fact, the chances of a single unarmed 'speeder making it all the way from here to Mos Eisley are pretty slim. So you and your ship are my best bet."

Before answering, he gestured with one bandaged hand to the med droid to give him another few sips of water. Then he said, "Better half than nothing?"

"Exactly."

Another, longer silence this time, one in which she could only imagine what he must be thinking. Probably that she was unbelievably na?ve and would be easy enough to take advantage of later on, after the treasure was actually secured. There were hundreds of places to stash a body in the palace, after all....

"All right," he said finally. "I owe you one."

That was the second time this evening he had managed to render Miele speechless. She had expected much more of an argument over her request, but she should have known that whatever else he might be, any bounty hunter as successful as Boba Fett would have to be a realist.

However, she was able to recover herself enough to nod coolly and say, "Good." Inwardly, though, she was cheering. Now all she had to do was crack that damned code.

He nodded, but his eyes were sliding shut already. Even that brief exchange seemed to have exhausted him.

"Sleep now," she said, "but I'll just be upstairs. Have the med droid call me if you need anything."

The barest movement of his head was the only reply she received, but Miele was satisfied. He seemed willing to help her. The best thing now was for him to get plenty of rest so that he could heal as quickly as possible. In the meantime, she needed her sleep as well, if only for a few hours. Then it was time to really review the defenses of the palace and hope that she and Fett could retrieve the treasure and take off before any of Tatooine's teeming underworld showed up with the same idea.


Miele had planned to sleep for only a few hours, but almost seven had passed before she awoke with a start, fumbling for a few moments at the unfamiliar covers before she realized that she had put herself to bed in the slave girls' dormitory, and not on the lumpy pallet which had been her sleeping accommodations for the past few months. A few narrow bars of sunlight made it past the heavy metal shutters on the window, bright and sharp as laser beams in the otherwise dim chamber.

She had been so tired the night before she hadn't even tried to find some sort of garment to sleep in and instead had collapsed onto one of the narrow cots fully clothed. Now the garments she had chosen so carefully the day before were crushed and stale, but she couldn't worry about that now. She had work to do.

The computers in the guards' chamber were as she had left them of course, still humming quietly to themselves in the unnaturally chill air. Miele had made a brief detour to check on Fett as she made her way down here, but he slept soundly, with the med droid a watchful shadow in one corner. She thought there had been one or two fewer bags of medication attached to him than there were the night before, and once again she had uttered a silent prayer of thanksgiving for his apparent resilience. Perhaps they could get out of here even more quickly than she had hoped.

Her father, like most slicers, had made a habit of building back doors into his code. Although clients disliked the practice and usually hired other slicers to come in and disable the back doors, the truth of it was, if you were hiring the best, there wasn't much you could do but pay your experts enough to keep them happy so that they would have no reason to use the back doors -- or you could just have them killed, as Jabba had done with her father and no doubt countless others. Miele had so far been able to access the standard security protocols, the automatic systems that kept the perimeter activated and restricted entry in and out of the palace save to those who knew the access keys, but so far she had been unable to pick her way through the forest of code that protected Jabba's vaults and the databases that contained his personal financial information.

She could not allow herself to become frustrated. Unraveling code was as delicate and time-consuming an affair as picking apart a skein of spider silk, and one false move could be just as deadly. The standard bits of data her father usually embedded so that he could access all areas of a system without having to go through the regular protocols were suspiciously absent in Jabba's security systems. Either Jabba had been wise to him from the beginning, or Lestan had worked scared, burying the back doors so deeply that even his own daughter could not begin to guess at the keys that would unlock them.

The hours passed, uncounted and unnoticed. It wasn't until the pain behind her eyes grew too sharp to ignore any longer that Miele finally sat up from the console, leaning back against a chair that had been intended for a far larger occupant. It was then that the base of her spine added its protest to her already outraged brain cells.

"OK," she said softly, easing herself out of the chair. Dimly, she realized she was hungry as well. What time was it, anyway?

She glanced up at the chrono on the wall, saw that more than six hours had passed, and swore. No wonder her head was killing her. And what of Fett?

When she arrived in the med unit after a guilty dash upstairs, Miele saw that her concern was unfounded. The bounty hunter sat propped up against the cushions as he sipped some kind of broth through a tube.

"Nice of you to drop in," he commented.

"I figured you weren't going to die any time soon," she said, giving him a sour look.

"Right. 'Too mean to die' is what you said, I think."

"Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong." What was it about him that just rubbed her the wrong way? He was far too self-assured for someone who had just been puked out of a subterranean digestive tract.

Her stray thought of the evening before had been correct -- he did have a nice smile, even with the chapped lips and abrasions marring his chin and left cheek. "I'd say that assessment was correct."

"Hmm." She made a show of scanning the life-support machines at his bedside, although she could make very little sense of most of the readings, save the heart-rate monitor. "So you're eating already?"

"The med droid seemed to think it was OK."

"Well, that's more than I've gotten today," she said, aware all over again of how empty her stomach felt.

If it was sympathy she was looking for, she had definitely come to the wrong place. He just watched her, face expressionless, and she was suddenly all too aware of her rumpled clothing, the hair she had knotted back into a careless braid hours ago when she tired of it continually falling into her eyes. Of course, what the hell did it matter what she looked like, anyway?

Annoyed, she said, "Since you're obviously not going to drop dead any time soon, I'm going to go fix myself something to eat. Then I'll get back to work."

"Sounds like a good idea." Fett's tone was carefully neutral, but she got the impression he was laughing at her.

Son of a -- she thought, but just gave him an irritated nod before stalking out. Who knew she could have come so close to throttling a man she had just saved the day before?


Several days passed in much the same fashion. Fett continued to gain in strength, although the med droid insisted that he stay in bed and not risk disturbing the bandages that concealed his healing flesh. Miele knew he must be in considerable pain -- she could see it in the sudden tightening of his jaw sometimes when he spoke, or in a subtle deepening of the lines around his eyes, but of course he uttered not one word of his discomfort.

The forced inactivity must have been driving him mad -- Miele knew she would have been climbing the walls in similar circumstances -- but he never let on that his convalescence was anything more than a minor inconvenience. His only request was that she retrieve a data pad he had secreted in the apartment Jabba had given him for his use after delivering Han Solo to the palace. She had done so, and after that he had sat up for hours in bed, speaking into it in a soft undertone she couldn't understand.

For her own part, Miele felt no closer to breaking her father's code than she had when she first arrived in the palace. She knew intellectually that that was not exactly true, but still the hours of careful tinkering with very little to show for them were beginning to wear on her. Fett's silence on the subject didn't help, either. After one inquiry -- to which he received a reply even she had to admit was snappish -- he had refrained from mentioning the subject again.

Failure was not something she could begin to contemplate. Hadn't her father trained her in code since she was old enough to understand what it was? Couldn't she, even before she was out of what passed in Anchorhead for a school, slice programs that people twice her age couldn't crack? So what was it about this one that seemed so uniquely unbreakable? Miele had to give her father grudging credit for what was undeniably his masterwork, but at the same time she found herself wishing that he had been just a little bit less thorough.

It was after one of these brain-bending sessions that she found herself distractedly wondering what was going on in the world outside. They had been so isolated here, so hidden away, that she'd forgotten that time kept passing for the rest of the galaxy as well. So far there had been no challenges to the security of Jabba's fortress, no interlopers seeking to seize the apparently unguarded palace, but Miele knew that could change soon enough.

She had to go to Jabba's chambers for a comm station that connected into the galaxy-wide communications net -- probably he hadn't wanted his underlings to be informed of current events. Previously she had avoided Jabba's noisome personal suite, having no reason to go there, but a scan of the communications system for the palace showed that his were the only rooms that had the properly connected console.

Even after standing empty for days, the chambers emitted a foul reek, as if something had crawled in there and died -- which it might very well have, she reflected. But the rooms seemed empty enough, although she tried to avert her eyes from the walls, which were covered in the Huttese equivalent of erotic art.

The comm station, in direct contrast to the barbaric decorations of the rest of the room, was sleek and new, a very late model. Nevertheless, she had a difficult time finding a clear channel at first -- many of the images that came through were fuzzy and filled with static. Most disturbing of all, the channels that usually carried the official Imperial newscasts and approved programming were completely blank.

"What the hell...?" she murmured, hands moving over the keyboard. Had the entire galaxy erupted while she and Fett were secreted away here in the abandoned palace?

Apparently it had. Finally she was able to locate a relatively clear station, one that was filled for a moment with an unfamiliar symbol, blue against white. Then a polished-looking, fair-haired woman's face filled the screen.

"Although isolated fighting still continues, largely it appears that the Empire has collapsed with the death of Emperor Palpatine over Endor. Leaders of the Rebellion are now convening on Coruscant, where the interim government is extending open hands to all beings of the galaxy. Former Senator Leia Organa is asking for cooperation from local governments to keep civil unrest to a minimum. During this period of transition, all beings are urged to remain in their homes whenever possible -- "

Hand shaking, Miele turned off the comm. It was too big. How could the Emperor be dead? How could the Empire -- the only government she had ever known -- suddenly be gone? Of course she had heard of the Rebellion, had even heard rumors that the Empire had suffered a terrible defeat a few years ago when its Death Star superweapon had been destroyed, but was it possible that the Rebels had succeeded at last and had brought about the complete destruction of the Imperial order?

What this might mean for her, she wasn't sure. The Empire had kept a light rein on Tatooine all these years, but its presence had maintained at least a semblance of order. That carefully groomed announcer could mouth whatever platitudes she wanted about local governments curbing civil unrest, but truthfully, there wasn't any real local government on Tatooine if you discounted the Imperial garrisons.

Miele found herself hoping that Captain Malec had made it offworld before the Empire fell. Perhaps he had been off-duty, enjoying the brief leave he had mentioned to her during that long-ago meeting in his office, and so was safe. She had a feeling that the denizens of Tatooine would not treat the local garrison troops well once they realized there would be no fear of reprisals....

Her mouth was dry, and not just because of the parched air. Perhaps she and Fett were safe here for now -- or perhaps the collapse of the Empire would be the final impetus to send all the scum of Tatooine running in their direction. Even as she hurried down the deserted corridors of the palace she found herself mentally reviewing all its defenses, hoping they would be enough, worried that they were woefully inadequate. Maybe it would be better if they just ran for Fett's ship now and got out while they still could.

Not that Fett would have any reason for taking her with him now, before the treasure had been secured. There was also the very good chance that he was still far too unwell to pilot a landspeeder, let alone a spacecraft.

Miele hadn't even realized she was running to the med unit until she found herself pausing at the open door. She waited there for a moment, looking in; Fett seemed to be asleep, the data pad propped up against his chest, his bandaged hands folded across its closed case.

"You've been running," he said then, even though his eyes were still shut.

Had she really been breathing that loudly? She supposed she was; she knew her heart beat so heavily she was surprised he hadn't mentioned that, too. "I just -- " she began, then realized she didn't know exactly what to say. Again, the enormity of the situation hit her, and she began to shake with delayed reaction.

At that point Fett did open his eyes and look over at her. She thought she saw the faintest flicker of concern cross the swarthy features, but his voice was expressionless enough as he asked, "Is there a problem?"

"You might call it that," she said, and gave a short, only slightly hysterical laugh, which she clamped down even as it escaped her lips. If she started in with that there was no telling where she might end up. "I just monitored the comm station in Jabba's chambers. Fett, the Empire is over! The Emperor was killed at some place I've never heard of -- Endor, I think. They're saying the Empire has fallen apart!"

If she had been expecting any sort of outward response, she would have been disappointed, but by now she had come to realize that Fett revealed very little of his emotions. Still, with news as astounding as that, she would have thought that he would look at least slightly shocked.

He didn't, of course. The dark eyes narrowed a little, but that was all. "Interesting," he said, after a lengthy pause.

"'Interesting'?" she demanded. "That's all you have to say?"

With that he did give her a quick glance, and there was the faintest quirk at the corner of his mouth. "All that's changed for me is who pays the bills," he replied.

Outraged, she glared at him, wanting to say something witty and cutting in response, but she knew that was impossible in her current state. "So what are we going to do?" she managed at last.

"What we have been doing. I'm not fit to get out of here yet, and you haven't broken the security code. So I don't see much changing." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "Although if you could work a little faster, it might be a good idea."

All the epithets her father had hurled at recalcitrant computers and Imperial tax collectors came bubbling up to her lips, but Miele knew better than to say anything out loud. She couldn't risk antagonizing Fett now, not when things were even more unstable than she had thought. "If you think I haven't been working myself to death over that code -- " she spluttered finally, knowing even as she said them how weak the words sounded

.

"I know you have," he said, and although she should have been reassured, somehow she wasn't -- there was something very cold and measured in the glance he gave her. "Believe me, if I thought you weren't doing everything in your power to break that security system, I'd have been standing down in the guard room with you, holding a blaster to your head."

He meant it, Miele knew. For the first time she realized how dangerous he really was -- and how very little she meant to him. She was a tool, nothing more. And if that tool should prove to be unreliable....

"I'd better get back to work, then," she said at last, when she thought she could speak without completely breaking down. She had no idea how she could possibly concentrate at such a time, but she also knew she had to get out of Fett's presence as soon as possible.

"You do that."

And taking the curt sentence as a dismissal, she turned and fled in the direction of the guard chamber. It was only once she was there in its relative safety that she collapsed in her usual chair, shaking in the overly conditioned air, forcing her palms against her eyes in a futile attempt to hold back the tears that had already begun to stream down her cheeks.

Once the fit of weeping had passed, though, she felt a deeper chill take hold of her. All this time she had feared the outsiders who might converge on Jabba's palace at any moment -- and all the while she had been harboring a man who could prove to be a greater danger than any of them....

IV

In her dreams Miele heard an insistent shrilling that went on and on, a sound that could not be ignored. With a gasp she sat up in bed, clasping the side of the cot on which she lay in an attempt to orient herself. The room was dark, save for a luma she had left burning at quarter-power in the dressing area, but it took only a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. Nothing seemed any different from the time she had put herself to bed -- had it been hours or only minutes ago? Then she realized the screaming sound had not originated in her dreams but had actually interrupted them -- it was the siren for Jabba's perimeter security system. That could mean only one thing.

Cursing, she pushed the covers away and bolted for the door, tripping over the sandals she had left on the floor next to her bed. She paused just long enough to gather them up and half-skip, half-run as she slid her feet into first one, then the other, even as she pounded down the hallway to the staircase that led to the ground floor of the palace. As Miele passed the landing to the second floor she heard a loud crash from the vicinity of the med unit and looked back, startled, only to see Boba Fett stagger out into the hallway, pulling at the bandages on his hands even as he headed toward her with grim determination.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded, stopping to let him catch up to her.

"Is that the perimeter alert?" he asked.

She scowled at him, provoked that he was out of bed at all, and even more irritated that he had so obviously brushed off her first question. "Yes," she said shortly. "I can handle it."

"You?" he asked, and raised an eyebrow. Before she could reply, he went on, "Are the main defensive controls in the guard chamber?"

"Yes, but -- "

He didn't bother to wait. Limping a little, he hurried down the stairs as Miele trailed in his wake, desperately searching for arguments that would be effective in getting him back into bed and finding none.

At this hour the palace was dark; no one was around, after all, to see that proper illumination had been provided. Fett seemed to have very good night vision -- he must have eyes like a Tusken Raider, she thought -- but even he accidentally collided with some low-hanging chimes in one doorway, the sound a sweet discordance against the continued shrilling of the siren.

She wondered how he was able to find his way to the guard chamber so easily. It was not as if he had been a regular inhabitant of the palace, after all, but perhaps it was his practice to familiarize himself with his surroundings wherever he went. Again she thought of his long, bloody career, and of all the survival skills he would have been forced to develop along the way.

Light flooded out of the guard chamber into the dark hallway; Miele wasn't sure whether she had forgotten to shut it down when she had retired for the evening or whether the overhead lighting came on automatically once the perimeter security system had been activated.

Fett pushed on ahead of her into the chamber, heading automatically for the main security console. The viewscreens revealed only dark desert, broken here and there by the bluish glow of the perimeter wards -- all screens save the one that showed the rear approach to the palace.

"What is that?" she asked, pointing at the dark bulk that seemed to fill the screen. In shape it recalled vaguely a jawa sandcrawler, but otherwise it resembled those slow, lumbering vehicles about as much as the Anchorhead boys' sandhoppers did an X-wing fighter. The unknown vehicle had an oily, gunmetal finish that shimmered oddly in the glare of the activated defense field; its outline seemed to be spiked with a number of strategically placed laser cannons.

"Get me into the system," Fett commanded, once again ignoring her question, but Miele knew better than to argue. She hastened to the console, tapped in the code, then stepped aside.

Fett lifted his bandaged hands to the controls and paused. Then he seemed to shake his head slightly, and pulled at the wrappings that covered his fingers. One by one they came away, revealing mottled, half-healed skin still marked by livid bruises and angry red abrasions.

Swallowing slightly, Miele forced herself not to look away. If his hands were still that bad after healing for almost a week, she hated to think what his wounds must have looked like when the med droid first treated him.

Now unencumbered, Fett's fingers flew over the controls. Miele watched as he poured extra power into the shields that protected the rear of the palace and activated the laser cannons mounted to either side of the massive front gates.

"But why -- " she began. She couldn't understand why he was bothering with the cannons if the attackers were coming from the rear. Even as she spoke, however, the forward perimeter defenses flared as small dark figures came out of the night, blasters firing.

"Take the controls," Fett said, and she hurried to take his place at the keyboard even as he moved to the right, grasping the heavy console-mounted cannon grips.

The palace defenses were good against most types of blaster fire, but no defense field could keep out biological attackers, which was why Fett had increased power to the shields guarding the rear of the palace. Somehow he had known that ground forces would be attacking the main gates, and that increasing the force field there would have been of no use.

He had pushed as much power as he could to the rear shields, but he didn't know the system the way she did; Miele had spent hours working through its subroutines and codes and knew where she could steal the power they needed -- from the backup generators, the underutilized environmental controls, even the power-cell chargers in the garage. She was but dimly aware of Fett working beside her as she hacked away at the computer system, shunting power to the rear defense fields. The only systems she considered sacrosanct were the weapons controls, of course, and the environmental support systems for the ground floor of the palace; the last thing she needed was for either her or Fett to overheat and collapse in the thick of battle.

No sooner had she completed the first pass through the system than the laser cannons on the massive vehicle threatening the rear of the palace let loose, bombarding the shields with heavy pulses of red and green fire. The ground shook beneath them, but the shields held.

"Take that," she muttered, but she didn't have time to enjoy her victory for very long. Again the cannons opened up, and this time they knocked the shields back by a good twenty percent.

"Can you hold them?" Fett asked, not taking his eyes off the viewscreen in front of him. His fingers seemed to move on their own, working the cannon controls. She could see from a quick glance at the screen that the ground in front of the palace gates was already thick with bodies.

"You hold yours, I'll hold mine," she replied, fingers pounding away at the keyboard. She could steal some power from the gates to the Rancor's enclosure; certainly it didn't matter now whether the gates were open or shut. And of course -- the refrigeration units in the kitchens. Several days ago Miele had transferred all the remaining edible food to one unit instead of having it scattered amongst four, but she hadn't bothered to shut down the power to the three that were now empty. That would do nicely.

The attacking vehicle fired again, and again, but once more the shields held. Beside her Fett paused, and the endless fire of the defensive cannons ceased.

"What -- " she began, lifting her gaze once again to the screen that showed the front gates. Whoever the attackers were, she couldn't think there were very many of them left. Even the destruction at the Sarlacc pit couldn't compare with the carnage Fett had left behind.

"Watch out," he said, and sure enough the vehicle fired again. This time there seemed something almost petulant in its attack, as if those manning the controls knew all too well that their ground forces had just been decimated.

Miele pushed the backup power she had just located into the shields, and although they lost a few percentage points, they were still holding just fine. "Why don't we fire back?" she asked. "There are gun emplacements to the rear of the palace as well!"

"No point," he said. "We'd have to drop the shields, and right now the shields are doing better for us than the guns would. I'm not sure they'd even be enough to punch through the shielding on that thing."

He was probably right, but part of her was still annoyed that they couldn't shoot back at the invaders, blow a hole in the huge unwieldy machine that continued to fire at them. Now that Fett had stopped firing the forward guns she did steal a little power from the cannons to bolster the shields; that seemed to have done it, for after one last shot the firing abruptly ceased, and the bulky vehicle slowly lumbered back into the inky blackness of the Tatooine night.

For a moment she watched the viewscreen, unbelieving, certain that reinforcements were just around the next dune. But all she could see was the restored bluish glow of the perimeter wards, as the security system reestablished itself now that the interlopers were gone. "We did it?" she asked finally.

"Looks like it," Fett replied, easing himself down into one of the oversized chairs. Unlike her, he almost fit. Then he turned his hands over, looking down at the newly bloodied palms with mild interest.

Despite herself, Miele let out a sound of shocked dismay. "Your hands!"

"It's nothing," he said, closing his fists. "Guess I should have kept the bandages on."

Miele stared at him for a moment. His face was calm enough, but she could see from the tightness of his jaw that he was probably in considerable pain. Then, a little amazed by her own boldness, she went to him and reached out, forcing one of his hands open with both of hers. His skin felt rough and warm under her cold fingers.

"You'll be lucky if that doesn't get infected," she said. "I'm surprised the med droid let you get up at all."

He kept his fingers outstretched under hers even as the dark eyes crinkled a bit at the corners. Was he laughing at her, at her feeble attempts to play nursemaid?

"Let's just say that the med droid and I had a difference of opinion."

She recalled suddenly the crash she had heard as Fett left the med unit. "You didn't -- "

"I'm sure it can be repaired." Again that swift dark look from under the level black brows. "Are you any good with droids?"

She dropped his hand suddenly, wishing she had the courage to tell him to go to hell then and there. "We couldn't afford any," she snapped. "But I guess you'd better hope I am, since I doubt I'd be any better at fixing you if that gets infected because I couldn't get the med droid back together."

"You might surprise yourself."

And you might get stuffed, she thought, but said only, "Do you think they'll come back?"

He looked over at the viewscreens, head cocked slightly. "Probably. But we've earned some breathing room. I don't think they were expecting to meet quite this much resistance. So now they'll go back and plan and regroup."

Hopefully we'll be out of here before they get to that stage, was Miele's next thought, but she only nodded. "Then we'd better get some rest -- and we'd better do what we can with your hands."

Fett seemed to be in agreement, for he stood and left the guard chamber after a final quick glance at the security perimeter. She followed him back up to the med unit, where indeed the hapless droid had been knocked into a corner, its head askew and one arm completely broken off.

Miele wondered where she would ever find the time to fix the droid and continue slicing the security on Jabba's vault. Oh, well, sleep is highly overrated, I hear, she thought wryly, moving to the cupboards and pulling out a disinfectant wash and several unopened bandage packs.

"Get back into bed," she instructed, and to her surprise Fett did as he was told, climbing under the covers and laying his head back down on the pillow. Perhaps even he had had enough by this point. She couldn't begin to imagine how painful it must have been for him to continue firing those cannons even as the skin on his hands broke and bled....

So it was with more gentleness than she had first intended that she swabbed at his abraded palms, feeling herself tense as the antiseptic surely stung on the open wounds. Of course Fett made no sound throughout these operations, but she thought he looked a little pale, and once or twice he shut his eyes as if to better cope with the pain.

Finally she was done, Fett's hands newly covered in clean bandages. Miele hoped that she'd gotten the wounds clean enough; she shuddered to think what kind of microbes could have been left behind by the last creature to grip the handles of the cannons' firing mechanisms. Still, without the assistance of the med droid she was left with only the rough first aid she had learned growing up, tending her father's occasional cuts and bruises as well as her own. Until her father's heart attack neither one of them had ever been ill enough to require the services of the local clinic.

She gathered up the empty packaging and was dropping it into the waste receptacle when Fett spoke.

"You did well down there."

She looked over at him, startled. Had he actually just given her a compliment? "Excuse me?"

He looked at her steadily, expressionless as usual. "You do well in a crisis. Better than I had thought."

Trust Fett to neatly undercut any words of praise in such a fashion. Miele felt the color flood to her cheeks. "Well, I know I'm just a girl," she replied, her tone mocking. Better than he had thought? Nice to know that his expectations had been so low!

"Precisely," he said, completely ignoring her jab. "How old are you?"

"Twenty standard," she said. "As if that should make any difference!"

Fett moved his head on the pillow so that he looked directly up at the ceiling and then shut his eyes before replying. "I don't know many twenty-year-olds who could have handled themselves as well. So don't argue with me, Miele," he added.

It was the first time he had ever called her by her given name. There was something oddly intimate about hearing her name on his lips -- as if this were the first time he had actually thought of her as a real person with feelings and thoughts of her own and not simply an unwelcome and unnecessary intrusion or at best a tool to be used and discarded.

"Thank you, Fett," she said at last, when she thought she could trust her own voice. She told herself she was just tired and overcome by the aftermath of the adrenaline rush of the battle; the warning sirens had pulled her out of deep sleep, after all -- who wouldn't be shaky after something like that?

"You're welcome," he said, and again she could see the little quirk at the corner of his mouth that bespoke a secret amusement.

After an awkward pause, she said quickly, hoping he hadn't noticed the uncomfortable silence, "Well, I'd better be off to sleep, too. I'll try to come back and check on you in a few hours."

"That's not necessary. I'll be fine."

She supposed he probably would be -- how long did it take for an infection to develop, anyway? More than just a few hours at least, and she knew she needed to get some sleep or she wouldn't be of any use to anyone. Without the med droid to alert her if Fett's condition took a sudden turn for the worse, she knew she didn't have many options.

"Good night, then," she replied, and turned and left the chamber.

It seemed as if there were far more stairs going back up to the slave girls' dormitory than there had been when she had hurried down them only a few hours ago. Miele pulled herself up the long, weary climb, step by step, fumbling her way in the darkness. Only when she finally returned to the narrow cot she had claimed as her own and laid her head down on the lumpy pillow did she feel herself begin to tremble with reaction.

It hadn't been enough to be attacked by unknown enemies. That had been frightening, of course, but she had mentally prepared for it as best she could. Also, somehow, she couldn't feel as frightened as she knew she should have been, not when she had gone into battle with Boba Fett at her side. There was something strangely reassuring having someone next to her who had probably faced down much worse throughout his life. He had lived to fight another day, and so she had been confident she would survive as well.

No, that wasn't it. What made Miele shiver now was the sudden wave of emotion that had passed over her when Fett had spoken kind words to her -- when he had uttered her name and looked at her with a new respect. She didn't know exactly what that emotion was. All she knew was that when she had finally wished him a good night, she had had to fight a sudden urge to lean down and lay her lips against the wavy dark hair, to gently touch the bandaged hands that lay crossed on his chest.

It was impossible. She didn't even like Fett very much. Was she so pathetic, so starved for human contact, that only a few kind words from him were enough to turn her into the sort of girl she had always despised, the ones who trailed after the boys in Anchorhead, giggling and flirting and trading stolen kisses behind Fixer's shop?

You're just tired, she told herself. It will all be better in the morning.

But when she shut her eyes, all she could see was that tiny smile at the corner of Boba Fett's mouth, and all she could think about was what it would feel like if she ever got the courage to press her lips against his.

Sleep was a long time coming that night....

V

The hospital bed was empty when Miele finally returned to check on Fett late the next morning. Again she had overslept, although it was difficult to say whether her reluctance to get up that morning could be attributed to the disruptions of the previous night or a natural disinclination to avoid seeing the bounty hunter after such unwelcome feelings about him had surfaced.

Still, having once steeled herself to face him -- after a protracted grooming session in the dressing area of the slave girls' quarter, when it seemed no matter what she did her hair would not behave itself -- she was nonplused to see that he was gone. The pieces of the broken droid had been gathered up and stacked neatly in a corner, and the bed itself was likewise made up, with the sheets pulled taut over the pillow and the coarse, dark blanket tucked in with military precision.

Well, at least he's not a slob, she thought, but still she felt a stab of irritation. Who did he think he was, anyway, getting up and roaming around the palace when he was barely healed? She would have thought he'd sleep until early afternoon after the excitement of the previous night, but once again he'd proven her wrong.

It was in the guard chamber that she found him, of course. He sat in front of the main viewscreen, fast-forwarding through a series of images that looked as if they'd been taken from the security cameras that watched the front palace gates.

He looked up as she approached. The bulky bandages were gone; the skin that had been hidden underneath was still mottled and red in patches, but the healing process was obviously further along than she had thought. Somewhere he'd found a loose-fitting shirt and pants in standard-issue Tatooine beige to cover himself; in the mundane garments he should have looked less exotic, less alien, but somehow their very ordinariness only served to contrast with the swarthy skin, the distinctly offworld cast to his features. Miele found herself wondering where exactly he came from.

She opened her lips to speak and found her mouth oddly dry. She swallowed, then said, "You should be in bed."

"No time for that." He turned back to the images that scrolled in front of him.

"What are you doing, anyway?" she asked, moving farther into the room. Somehow it was easier to approach him when he wasn't looking directly at her.

"Going through the old security logs. I'm trying to see if our friends from last night ever paid Jabba a visit while he was still alive."

"Know thy enemy?" she asked, and was rewarded with a quick approving glance.

"Right. But I've gone through eight standard months of these logs, and so far nothing. Doesn't mean much, of course. People in Jabba's circle can hold grudges for a long time."

She found she liked to hear him speak. He had a slight singsong accent, one she hadn't heard before. At times it almost reminded her of the more precise intonations she found common in natives of the Core worlds, such as her father or Captain Malec, but then the vowels would flatten out and lift in a manner peculiarly his own. Miele herself hadn't inherited much of her father's accent, save for a certain clarity of diction sadly lacking in most of the other denizens of Anchorhead.

For a moment she continued to watch the images scroll past. It was amazing what a collection of scum had called on Jabba. Most of them seemed to have come to pay him sort of tribute; the great majority of the visitors revealed on the security cameras brought various boxes of loot -- hard currency, precious metals, drugs -- all of which were handed over to the security guards and secreted away somewhere in the vaults. The display brought home to her just how much treasure they were probably sitting on, as well as her continuing failure to recover it.

"I'm going for some breakfast," she said at last, when it grew obvious he didn't care to indulge her in any more conversation. "You want any?"

Still he did not look up. "Sure. And some caf, if you've got it."

Back to kitchen drudge, she thought, but after all, she had offered. They had to eat, and he was showing remarkable signs of improvement. Probably he was relieved that at least now he could be an active member of the team; she couldn't begin to comprehend how the forced inactivity had probably chafed at him. If the med droid were still functioning she was sure it would have had a few choice words about Fett getting up so soon, let alone removing the bandages, but in the final analysis it was the bounty hunter's body and he should have the power to decide what he was or wasn't capable of. He hadn't seemed to have been in a great deal of discomfort -- not that that meant anything. Fett had to be in the sort of pain that would have brought screams from lesser men before he'd allow even a grimace.

Many of the foods in Jabba's kitchen were unfit for human consumption, but Miele had already separated out those she thought were edible, even if they didn't look very appetizing. Some of them simply needed to be cooked instead of eaten raw. And in certain sections of the refrigeration units she'd found offworld delicacies that Jabba obviously kept on hand for important visitors -- rare, aged cheeses from Commenor; some kind of creamy, sweet dessert topped by swirled nuts; filets of the tenderest herd animals from Naboo.

None of that seemed appropriate for breakfast, but there was still bread she had made a few days earlier, as well as the makings of leth, a common grain-based hot dish common on Tatooine. For protein she added several wedges of creamy bantha cheese to the tray she had set aside to take back to Fett in the guard chamber. During all these preparations the caf sent its rich bitter-chocolate aroma into the air, waking up Miele's stomach, which strenuously protested the lean rations she'd been feeding herself lately. She ate her own bowl of leth standing up as she waited for the caf to finish brewing; that was enough to keep her going until noontime, and she wanted to get back to work as soon as she brought Fett's food to him.

That thought brought to her the uncomfortable realization that the computer console where she did all her slicing was located in the same guard chamber where the bounty hunter was even now viewing the security recordings. True, the two workstations were situated on opposite sides of the room, but up until now she had always had complete solitude in which to work, and she wasn't sure how well she would do knowing that Fett would be less than three meters away from her as she pounded away at the elusive code. Still, there wasn't much she could do about it, save order Fett out of the guard chamber, and she wasn't sure she had the courage to do that.

Once the caf had finished brewing she poured two large mugs, one for herself and one for Fett, and set them both on the tray. The route from the kitchens to the guard chamber was somewhat long and circuitous, but Miele had no doubt she could follow it in her sleep. She had gone that way far too many times already.

At least the bounty hunter did her the courtesy of looking up and nodding when she came in with his breakfast.

"That smells good," he said.

"Well, it's nothing fancy, but it should be better than whatever liquids the med droid was pumping into you," she replied, relieved that she sounded relatively normal. Paradoxically, she found it easier to be with him now; there was certainly nothing in his voice or manner to suggest he had any idea that her feelings for him had suffered a sea change the night before. Perhaps she would be able to get out of this without making a complete fool of herself after all.

Fett turned away from her, attention consumed by his breakfast and the ever-changing images that flickered across the viewscreen. Miele hesitated for a moment, then realized he would not bother to say anything else to her because right now he had better things to do with his time.

Biting back a caustic remark about leaving a tip for the wait staff, she clutched her own mug of caf somewhat grimly as she crossed the room to take her usual position at the main computer console. After logging in, she sat staring at the screen for a few moments, frowning. Even though fewer than ten hours had passed since the last time she sat in front of this screen, it felt as if it had been ten days. How could she concentrate? How could she follow the unending streams of numbers and symbols, picking each one apart until she found the missing bits of data that she could finally reassemble into the code that would unlock Jabba's vaults?

Fett was silent as always, but still she could hear each creak of the chair as he shifted his weight, the light tapping of his fingers on the keyboard -- even, Miele fancied, an occasional sigh as yet another sequence of images revealed nothing. She typed in a few lines of code, then another, feeling she had to do something. He wasn't holding a gun to her head, she thought, but he might as well have been. There was no way she could think with him in the room.

"Excuse me," she said at last.

He looked around, one eyebrow lifted slightly.

"Look, I know you're trying to help, but I just can't concentrate with you in here. Sorry," she added lamely, although his impassive features certainly had not invited any apology.

To her dismay, Fett rose from his seat and came toward her. Then he paused a few steps away, arms crossed over his chest. He was not particularly tall, although he topped her by more than a few inches, but she hadn't realized before now how well-built he was, how much strength was in the heavily muscled arms and chest. Of course, up until now most of his physique had been concealed by layers of bandages.

He looked at her narrowly for a moment, the dark eyes unreadable. Then he looked from her to the streams of data that flowed over the computer screen and back again. "Right," he said finally, and turned and left without another word, pausing only to gather up the empty breakfast dishes and pile them on the tray. Then he was gone.

Miele hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath until the door whooshed shut behind him; once she realized she truly was alone again she let the breath out and shut her eyes, trembling slightly. The man definitely had the knack for intimidation, whether he intended it or not.

"OK, then," she said softly. "Let's do this."

After all, Fett had granted her the gift of solitude. Now it was up to her to use it wisely.


"Miele."

She pushed at the rough hand that clasped her shoulder, not really comprehending at first whose it was. "I'm almost ready," she muttered, then realized she was face down on the keyboard, her left arm the only thing protecting her cheek from myriad square indentations from the individual keys. She sat up, pushing the chair straight back into Fett's midsection.

"Easy now," he admonished. He must have been standing behind her, reaching down to nudge her awake.

"What -- what time is it?" Her brain still felt fuzzy. After Fett had gone she had buried herself in the code, working at it, teasing it, all to no avail. Every pathway she had gone down seemed to be a dead end.

The hours had passed, and at one point she had begun to feel hungry again, but the pangs disappeared after a while as she continued to work. Some time later her eyelids had started to droop, and she had fought the weariness, forcing herself on, sure that the answer was almost within her grasp. At some point, she supposed, she must have simply passed out from exhaustion.

"Past midnight," he said. "I thought I'd leave you to work, but when I came back in from going over my ship I saw the light still on, so -- " He frowned at her. "Making yourself sick isn't going to get us out of here any sooner."

"I'm OK," she countered, even though she felt anything but all right. Now that she was awake she felt ravenously hungry, and so dizzy she was afraid she'd have a hard time standing up.

He didn't bother to reply, instead handing her some kind of rough sandwich he had apparently cobbled together for her from the supplies in the kitchen.

"Thanks," she said, and took a bite. Surprisingly, it was good. She took another bite, accepted a cup of water he produced from a tray he had apparently brought in with him, and drank deeply. After a few minutes she began to feel a little more human. "I guess that wasn't very smart of me," she added, even as she felt her cheeks flush with the admission.

"No," he agreed.

Miele noticed that he had discarded the baggy Tatooine-style clothing he had worn earlier and was clad instead in a close-fitting gray jumpsuit. Well, he had mentioned going out to check on his ship; apparently he'd been able to scare up a change of clothes while he was out there. "Is your ship all right?" she asked. The last thing they needed was for their only offworld transport to have been damaged in the attack.

He nodded. "The docking bay's inside the security perimeter, so it's OK." To her surprise, he touched her shoulder briefly, then said, "Come on. You need to get to sleep."

The touch had been fleeting, but she could still feel the weight of his hand of her shoulder. Miele stood, a little surprised at how shaky her knees felt, how stiff her back was. It would be good to lie down on a proper bed.

She stumbled a bit as she tried to maneuver past Fett and the chair in which she had been sitting, and he reached out to put a steadying hand on her elbow.

"I'm all right," she protested. As tired as she was, she couldn't trust her reactions right now. Better to keep contact with the bounty hunter to a minimum.

He withdrew his hand, but remained close behind her as she made her way to the main staircase and began the climb to her room on the third floor. Perhaps he was worried she would trip and fall on the stairs -- a distinct possibility in her current condition, she thought.

All the way up she clung grimly to the handrail, as much pulling herself along as actually walking up the steps. That part of her mind she'd lately begun to despise wondered idly whether he would catch her if she tripped and fell, and what it would feel like to have those strong arms close around her and hold her securely. Luckily she hadn't taken complete leave of her senses yet, because she knew deep down that she would never allow herself to do anything so foolish.

Finally -- after she felt as if she'd climbed twenty flights of stairs instead of just two -- they paused outside the doorway to the slave girls' dormitory. Fett eyed the portal with some curiosity, then asked, "Why up here? The guest chambers on the second floor are easier to get to."

There was nothing in his face save a mild interest, but Miele still hesitated a moment before replying. "I -- I didn't have much in the way of clothes, and there's a good deal here in the closets that I can use. So I just decided to stay up here." Of course she'd never admit that she would have felt odd sleeping on the same floor of the palace as he, even though they would have been separated by at least ten rooms.

"Mmm," was all he said, and again she got the feeling he was secretly amused by her. Perhaps he was recalling some of Oola's more creative outfits and wondering whether he'd ever see her in one of those.

Not a chance in hell, she thought, so keep dreaming, Fett!

"Good night," she said then, making sure her voice sounded firm and in control. No sense in giving him any further ideas.

Once again she thought of how alone the two of them were here. It had been much easier when he was an invalid; then she had known what the boundaries were between them. Now he was suddenly an active part of her life, and although part of her craved his company, she couldn't help but be a little afraid of him as well. It had only been a few evenings ago that he had threatened to hold a blaster to her head, after all, although of course he hadn't done anything remotely that sinister. Still, she began to wonder what would happen if he ever started to look at her as a woman and not just as the means to Jabba's treasure.

"'Night," he said, and again his face was impassive, giving no hint of what he was thinking. Without another word he turned and headed back down the stairs, leaving Miele to stare after him in the darkness.

After a moment she stepped inside the dormitory, then pressed the controls to shut the door. For the first time she realized it had no lock. It made sense, of course; slaves were property, with no more right to privacy than a droid or a pack animal. But the lack of security bothered her more than she cared to admit, even though she realized that a simple door lock was certainly not enough to deter a man like Boba Fett. If he wanted to get inside, he would, and that was that.

Perversely, the thought did not comfort her. She would have preferred a lock, ineffectual as it might prove to be. Perhaps she should move to one of the guest quarters on the floor below. Then she noted that she couldn't possibly move her room now, or Fett would be sure to comment.

"Damn him, anyway," she muttered, even as she moved into the room and pulled out the simple long shirt she had been using to sleep in. Even though she knew the door was shut and the windows securely shuttered and latched, Miele still felt exposed. She changed as quickly as she could and pulled the covers up to her chin, despite the heat of the chamber.

Tired as she was, sleep seemed to elude her. Every time she shut her eyelids she'd suddenly hear a sound from the corridor outside, and then she would startle, eyes flying open, straining to see something -- anything -- in the darkened room. Of course there was never anything there, so she'd slide back down against the coarse sheets, heart pounding irrationally in her chest.

Would he creep in here in the dark, waiting until she was off-guard and asleep? Would she sense nothing until she felt his hand on her mouth, his body against hers? She told herself that was ridiculous; the man was a bounty hunter, a professional, not some kind of sexual predator. Moreover, she reminded herself, even as she clutched the sheet tightly against her breasts, he was recovering from significant injuries, and probably the last thing on his mind was forcing himself on unwilling women. No, she was just exhausted and not thinking rationally. She would wake up in the morning and feel like a complete idiot.

And it was with these no-nonsense words echoing in her mind that she was finally able to fall into an uneasy sleep, one in which no specter of Boba Fett haunted her dreams. Instead she dreamed that she wandered the halls of Jabba's palace, certain that each doorway led to freedom, only to find all of them barred against her. In her dream she finally collapsed in some dim and forgotten corridor, weeping, certain that she would be trapped here forever in a nightmare of her own making.

Miele awoke in the dim reaches of the night, tears still wet on her cheeks. Never before had she felt so alone. At that moment she would have welcomed Boba Fett's presence -- anything to keep the darkness at bay. But of course he was safely asleep somewhere in his own room below her, and she knew she would never go in search of him. To do so would be a display of weakness, and she could never allow that. So far she had earned at best a grudging respect from the bounty hunter; she was not about to jeopardize that because of a silly nightmare.

Hugging the lumpy pillow to her, Miele turned over in bed, willing herself to breathe deeply. You only need him for one thing, she thought, and that's to get offworld. And he only needs you to get Jabba's treasure. Beyond that, you mean nothing to one another.

But even as she slipped back into the shadowy edges of dreams once again, she knew she was lying to herself. Perhaps she might mean nothing to him, but she feared he meant more to her than she wanted to admit -- enough that had he appeared in her chamber now, she would have gone to him willingly, let him fold her in his arms, given herself to him -- anything to hold back the emptiness she now felt. She felt she could have given him anything, just for a few moments of peace.

VI

"Rath Darkpiper," Boba Fett said, not bothering to turn from the viewscreen.

"Excuse me?" Miele hesitated at the entrance to the chamber, caught off-guard by Fett's cryptic comment.

With that he did swivel halfway toward her. Then he gave a slight inclination of his head in the direction of an image frozen on the screen behind him. "Our friendly visitors from the other evening. Think I finally got a lock on 'em."

Again, his simple matter-of-fact attitude was immediately reassuring. Although she had spent a considerable length of time in front of the dressing-room mirror this morning berating herself for her apparently groundless fears of the night before, Miele had still felt anxious at confronting Fett once more. What if he could read some of her internal turmoil in her face? But she saw nothing in his own features save a slight satisfaction at finally solving the mystery of their attackers.

"So who's Rath Darkpiper?" she asked, hoping that she hadn't paused too long before replying.

"Typical Jabba wannabe," he replied. "Maybe not completely typical. He's pretty well-backed. Let's call him the number-two or -three fish in this small pond."

For a second she stared at him blankly, not comprehending the reference. Then she recalled a few of the things she'd read about xenobiology, including creatures that actually lived in the water on some worlds. Trying to assume a sage expression, she said, "Got it."

His response was that same slightly lifted eyebrow, as if he knew all too well that she didn't have any idea what he was talking about. "He was in a lot of the same stuff as Jabba -- smuggling, racketeering, slaving. Looks like Jabba got the better of him once or twice, which would have given him a reason to come sniffing around -- as if just picking at the leavings in the palace wasn't enough reason."

Despite herself, she moved farther into the room, pausing only a few feet away from the screen that showed the aforementioned paragon. The image from the security camera was grainy and small, but she made out a human male of about her father's age, only built on a far grander scale. Lestan Fels had been a slim man of middle height; this Rath Darkpiper would have topped her father by almost a head and was proportionately broad, though not fat. He wore dark, elaborate offworld robes that were ridiculously inappropriate for the Tatooine climate and was surrounded by a group of thugs only marginally larger than he.

"Nice," she commented. Then she noticed the empty pot of caf sitting on the desktop next to a stained mug and a plate decorated with a few scattered crumbs. "Have you been in here all night?"

He shrugged. "You need to be alone to work, and I wanted to finish this up. Seemed like a reasonable allocation of resources."

She tried to estimate how many hours he'd been up straight without rest. At least thirty-six, as far as she could guess, which was far too long for a man who should have still been convalescing in bed. She knew better than to remonstrate with him, however, and said only, "Well, I'm up now, so if you want to catch a few hours' rest, go ahead." At his brief hesitation, she added, "Don't worry -- I promise I'll come get you if any other wandering thugs come by."

The dark eyes watched her carefully, and Miele felt a small flush start to her cheeks. She could only hope that her desert tan hid most of it. What he saw in her face she couldn't begin to guess, but he gave a small nod and stood. Positioned so, he was very close to her -- closer than he had ever been, and Miele remained frozen in place, wondering what he would do next.

Then, without another word, he left the room.

Miele hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath until he was gone. Then she let it out slowly, wondering if she would ever be able to completely control her reactions around him. That brief second when he stood -- when he had been so close to her -- had been enough to start her heart pounding. Again he had given her no encouragement, no reason to think he had meant to do anything but rise and exit the chamber. But still --

Stop being a girl and get to work, she thought, grimly pulling out the chair that faced the main computer console. You don't have time for this romance-vid poodoo!

To her relief, however, this time she was able to concentrate well enough. Whatever the reason -- whether it was the fact that Fett had absented himself before she began to work, or whether he had at least put a name and a face to the threat which had confronted them two nights ago -- she could feel that familiar sensation of sliding into the endless numbers, feeling them almost like a living force as she picked through one data stream after another, searching for the anomalies, looking for that one microscopic piece of data that seemed out of place.

To her surprise, after a few hours of this Miele actually found something. It was tiny, only one letter, but it was not where it should have been. She pushed herself back in her chair, staring at the screen, then leaned forward and tapped a few keys. The data flowed past, again with that tiny blip in the center of the complicated stream of numbers and symbols.

"What were you up to, Father?" she murmured. It had to mean something, of course; this was often how her father programmed in his back doors, by putting in random word associations known only to him and his daughter. These combinations had ranged from arrangements as simple as the letters of her own name to the name of her favorite vid-star, spelled backward. All she had to go on now was one letter, which she had to admit wasn't much. Still, it was more than she'd had a few hours ago.

"B," she said aloud. She did that occasionally, usually while trying to solve a particularly difficult puzzle. Her father had teased her for the practice, but somehow the sound of her own voice was reassuring. Besides, it wasn't as if anyone could hear her now anyway. "Well, you put that in every possible combination with every other letter in the alphabet and get, what? A few hundred million possibilities?"

Still, she refused to be deterred. Of course, it wouldn't be something random out of those hundred million possibilities; it had to be something of importance to Lestan Fels...or possibly his daughter.

She tried to think of things that started with "b," hoping all the while that her father hadn't reversed the order of the letters or turned the entire word inside out. Otherwise, she'd be here forever. "Bantha, bacta, Beru -- " she smiled briefly, thinking of the kind-faced older woman she used to see occasionally at the Anchorhead trading post. The smile faded, however, as she remembered how the sandpeople had wiped out the Lars homestead. At any rate, somehow she doubted her father would have used a moisture farmer's wife as the code word for the back door into Jabba's security system. " -- Beggar's Canyon, Bib Fortuna -- "

Now that was even more unlikely, although the irony of having Jabba's majordomo as the key was not lost on her. She scrolled through more data, looking for an "i" or an "e" on the simple assumption that the word had to have a vowel in it somewhere. It didn't take long for her to locate the "e."

Big deal, she thought, only the most used letter in Basic. But she could tell she was getting closer.

It had to be something important. So who or what had been so significant to Lestan Fels that he had used the letters of their name as the code-breaker for the toughest piece of security he had ever written?

The answer came to her suddenly, in a piece of insight as blazing as the first rays of Tatooine's binary suns when they broke over the horizon each morning.

"Belissa," she breathed. Of course, who better -- what better -- to be the hidden piece of code than the name of the woman who had betrayed him and left him here on this barren piece of rock more than twenty years ago?

With fingers that shook only a little, Miele brought up the login screen for Jabba's private security system. At the prompt, she typed in Belissa, and watched the login screen fade away, to be replaced with a graphical interface that allowed her access to the vaults, Jabba's personal files, his offworld accounts -- everything she'd pursued relentlessly for the past few months and had begun to think she would never find.

She wasn't sure where to begin, but the vaults seemed the best bet. After all, even with the codes that allowed her access to Jabba's offworld accounts, it would take some work to do anything with the funds -- she would have to set up her own accounts, come up with plausible reasons for the transfer of large sums of money from one account to another, and who knew what else. But the vaults were here, and they held tangible goods. And it was really a half share of the contents of those vaults that she had pledged to Boba Fett.

Fett, she thought, and glanced up at the chrono on the wall. A little more than three hours had passed since she had begun her work, which meant it would be scorching high noon outside and far too soon to comfortably rouse the bounty hunter. She doubted, though, that he would appreciate her solicitude in letting him sleep while she went to inspect the contents of the vaults. The last thing she needed was for him to suspect her of hiding any goods from him.

She unlocked the vaults remotely from her workstation and then rose, leaving the guard chamber and heading upstairs for the guest room on the second floor of the palace where Boba Fett slept. Of course the door was locked, but it had a courtesy page system, and she pressed the button and waited.

He was at the door sooner than she would have thought possible. "What's the matter?"

He must sleep in that jumpsuit, Miele thought irrelevantly, and then wondered whether she was disappointed that he hadn't been a little less...clothed.

She cleared her throat. "I did it."

"Did what?"

"Broke the code. The vaults're open."

For a long moment he only stared at her, almost as if he wasn't quite sure he could believe her words. Then he said, "Show me."

So she led him down the stairs, past the guard chamber, past the kitchens, and then down another flight of steps, this one narrower and more dimly lit. They were now in a sub-level of the palace, not far from where the Rancor had once been kept. The air still stank slightly of carrion and another darker, more subtle smell -- the scent of fear.

At the end of a short corridor was a set of three heavy doors composed of overlapping metal plates. Next to each of the doors was a control pad where one could type in the access code if necessary. Since Miele had already unlocked the doors from her workstation in the guard chamber, the light on each control pad glowed green.

She stepped forward and palmed the lock to the center door. It slid open, and the contents of the vault were revealed to them.

Secretly, Miele had harbored visions of some glistening golden cave filled with treasure uncounted -- visions inspired no doubt by some of the more lurid vids she had watched as a child, of space pirates and interstellar buccaneers. The truth was much more drab, yet no less rewarding. Inside the vault were neatly stacked storage containers and crates; Fett walked up to one and opened the lid, revealing tidy stacks of glistening silver-gilt credits. Miele was sure she had never seen so much money in her life.

Boba Fett turned toward her, and the look of approval on his face seemed at that moment just as priceless to her as the riches contained in Jabba's vaults. "Good work," he said.

"Thanks," she replied carelessly, but inside she was rejoicing. Was he actually smiling at her?

"We'll need to get some repulsor sleds down here," he went on, surveying the contents of the vault with a practiced eye. "Have you seen any?"

Miele didn't hesitate. After all, she'd spent enough time here that the palace was as familiar to her as her own home. "There are two in the garages, and another one down near the back gates."

"Good," he said. "Why don't you get the sled by the back gate, and I'll bring in the two from the garage. It'll take a few trips, but we should be able to get everything into Slave I. "

Nice, friendly name for a ship, she thought, although she knew better than to say anything aloud. At least she was reassured that he had said "we" and didn't appear to be planning to kill her any time soon.

Of course, she thought wryly a while later, as they both returned with the repulsor sleds and began loading the contents of the vaults onto them, there's no point in him doing away with me now. He'd just have to do all this work by himself.

It was soon evident that it would take far more than one trip with the sleds to load everything. Fett had seemed sanguine about being able to haul away the contents of all three vaults, but Miele found herself wondering just how much the cargo hold of his one smallish ship could really carry. But once they had deposited one load it appeared there was still plenty of room left, and she trudged back down to the vaults with him, even as she wondered whether he was going to work her until she dropped from hunger or exhaustion.

Miele tried to calculate how many hours it had been since her meager breakfast. At least six or seven, which normally wouldn't have been so bad, but moving the various crates and caskets was backbreaking work.

"Fett," she said finally, after they were midway through the third load. "I have to stop for a while."

He deposited another crate on the sled closest to him. "Why?"

She reached back to rub the part that ached the worst, right at the base of her spine. "Because, unlike you, I'm not some sort of machine! I'm starving, and my back is killing me!"

"Your back," he repeated, eyes narrowing slightly. He considered her for a moment, and Miele felt herself grow tense. Was this it, then? Would it be now, when she revealed her weakness, that he would decide she was of no further use to him and would rid himself of her once and for all?

Still, she refused to let him see her fear. "Yes, my back!" she snapped. "I appreciate the need to get all this loaded on your ship, but we do need to take a break every once in a while. Besides, you wouldn't have had any of this if it weren't for me!"

She had expected some sort of argument. Instead, he nodded and said, "True." Then he took a step toward her. Then another.

Not knowing what else to do, Miele stood her ground. He was close -- so close she could feel the heat off his body from his exertions. Slowly he reached out, his hand descending until he touched the small of her back. Then she could feel his strong fingers begin to knead at the aching muscles, as if he could dispel her exhaustion merely with his touch.

Of all the ways she had dreamed of him touching her, this was one she had never considered. Still, she was afraid to protest, afraid to try and move away -- and it did feel good, she had to admit to herself, especially when he brought down his other hand and began to rub her back in earnest, powerful fingers digging into her flesh.

A small moan escaped Miele's lips. Once she had let it out, she wished beyond anything that she could take it back, but the sensations rushing over her now were too strong, too unlike anything she had ever felt before.

"Better?" Fett asked, again with that quirk at the corner of his mouth. He paused, but kept his hands placed firmly against the small of her back.

A wave of fury rushed over her then, and she opened her mouth to fling back some sarcastic retort, some insult, anything -- but he was too fast for her. Before a word could escape her lips his mouth was on hers, and he pulled her against him, holding her so tightly there was no hope of escape. There was nothing except the feel of his mouth on hers, the sensation of his body pressed up against hers, the strange roaring in her ears as she realized what was happening.

It wasn't her first kiss. No, she had given that up years ago, as so many other girls in Anchorhead had -- out near the lean-to behind Fixer's shop in a place that afforded shelter both from prying eyes and the glare of Tatooine's twin suns. The boy had been in her class and had been called Drix, and that was all she remembered of him. At any rate, that kiss compared to this one roughly the same way a skyhopper compared to a Star Destroyer. Drix, she recalled, hadn't seem to know what he was doing at all, whereas Boba Fett obviously did. He seemed to fill her universe, the taste of him, the clean smell of his sweat, the slight rasp of his unshaven cheek against her skin, and she knew she was lost. She could no more tear herself from his grasp than a starship could free itself from the gravitational pull of a black hole.

Finally, though, he lifted his mouth from hers, although he still held her closely, as if he were afraid she would turn and bolt if he let her go completely. He watched her, even as she stared back up at him, into those dark eyes that seemed black as the depths of space, at the thin-lipped mouth that just seconds ago had been pressed so firmly against hers.

Miele took a breath, then another. It required a conscious effort, as if somehow the autonomous systems that regulated her heartbeat and breathing had somehow been disrupted by that kiss.

"I've been wanting to do that for a while," Fett said at last.

Again she could feel her face flush, but Miele also felt strangely triumphant. Boba Fett had wanted to kiss her, of all people. She wondered what sort of exotic women he had known across the galaxy, then clamped down on that thought. His past didn't matter. What mattered is that he had wanted her, here and now.

"So have I," she whispered, and he smiled.

"I could tell," he replied.

So much for all her feeble attempts at trying to conceal her feelings. Still, what did it matter now? He had wanted the same thing, after all.

She held herself in the encircling strength of his arms, feeling the slow rise and fall of his chest against hers. How odd that he should seem so calm, while her own heart pounded against her ribcage and each breath felt shaky and jagged.

He watched her for a few seconds, and then she could see him bending down to kiss her once again. She raised her lips to his, waiting for that electric moment when they touched.

It never came. Instead Miele heard the familiar shrilling of the perimeter alarm, and Fett stepped away from her immediately.

"Darkpiper," he said, "has impeccable timing...."

VII

Fett turned immediately and began moving toward the steps while Miele hurried after him, still not completely comprehending. "How do you know it's Darkpiper?"

"I don't. But it seems like his style. Probably took him a few days to gather all the necessary reinforcements."

They both ran up the stairs, Miele trailing in the bounty hunter's purposeful wake. She knew where he was heading, of course -- back to the guard chamber. How unfair that Rath Darkpiper -- or whoever the new intruders turned out to be -- should show up when she and Fett were so close to loading all the treasure and getting off Tatooine forever.

And when you were so close to getting kissed again, she thought, but she refused to dwell on that. There was a time and a place for everything, after all, and this definitely was not the time to be thinking of anything quite so frivolous -- even though she thought she could still feel the touch of his lips against hers, the pressure of his hands against her back.

But once they entered the guard chamber the main viewscreen did show the same sandcrawler-on-steroids vehicle Miele had seen the other night, although it looked odd in the harsh sunlight, its dark sides gleaming with a peculiar oily shine. The light on the comm station was blinking, indicating an incoming transmission.

Fett went straight to the comm, although Miele noticed he was careful to toggle the switch that changed the outgoing signal to audio only before he allowed the message to come up on screen.

Immediately the viewscreen filled with the not-altogether-pleasant image of Rath Darkpiper, who sat in a large command chair that was flanked by a pair of well-muscled goons, one human, one a race that Miele couldn't identify, a huge red-skinned humanoid with wolfish features and the broadest shoulders she had ever seen. Darkpiper had fixed what he apparently thought was a pleasant smile on his face, although the impression was spoiled somewhat by a pair of platinum-capped incisors. He leaned toward the viewer slightly and said, "Greetings, defenders of Jabba's palace! I feel that perhaps we got off on the wrong foot the other evening -- may I know whom I have the honor of addressing?"

Miele raised her eyebrows at Fett, who shook his head slightly even as he gave her a brief, tight grin. Did this Darkpiper person think he was speaking to members of the Galactic Senate or something?

"That information is not necessary for our conversation," Boba Fett said, after a pause. "What do you want, Darkpiper?"

The smuggler's pouchy eyes tightened briefly before he replied, "I fear you have me at a disadvantage, sir. You have my name, but I don't have yours. In addition, you keep your face from me. I would not call this a promising prelude to negotiations."

Smoothly, Fett said, "Call me a lieutenant to Jabba, if you must."

"Then perhaps you should consider giving yourself a battlefield promotion, considering that your master is now scattered in a thousand pieces across the Jundland wastes." Again Darkpiper leaned toward the viewer. He did not improve on close-up. "And judging by the amount of other body parts we found near the Sarlacc pit, it appears that most, if not all, of Jabba's court perished with him. Were you planning on defending the palace alone...indefinitely?"

"Only until I got rid of you," Fett returned, and Miele couldn't help but smile. She got the feeling that Boba Fett ate thugs like Rath Darkpiper for breakfast.

Darkpiper's platinum-accented smile grew a little tight around the edges. Still, his voice was smooth enough as he replied, "You may find that a little more difficult this time around. And after all, I'm only trying to reclaim what's mine."

"What's yours?" Fett echoed.

"A rather large shipment of spice, which Jabba had stolen from my warehouses. You understand -- I'm just a legitimate businessman trying to make my way in the galaxy. It's difficult when the competition steals your product."

"So you came in here, guns blazing, all to recover a stolen spice shipment." Fett's tone was neutral, but somehow he managed to convey a wealth of skepticism in that very blandness.

"One can never be too careful," Darkpiper replied, settling back into his oversized chair. The goons to either side of him crossed their arms, and Miele watched, fascinated, at the display of rippling muscle this action precipitated.

"So if I return this missing spice, we can call it even?"

Darkpiper smiled then, a smile as oily and unpleasant as the finish on his oversized sandcrawler. "Not quite. You see, I incurred significant damages the other evening -- loss of personnel, repairs to my vehicle, that sort of thing. I expect to be reimbursed."

"I would call those justifiable damages, considering you attacked the palace first."

The smuggler didn't even blink. "Not at all. We were forced to open fire after your perimeter defenses launched the first salvo."

Despite her distaste for the man, Miele had to respect his sheer audacity. She knew for a fact that the defense system was just that -- once the security wards were set off, the palace shields were immediately raised. She and Fett hadn't gone on the offensive until Darkpiper's ground troops had begun to assault the front gates. After that -- well, Darkpiper was right about one thing. Fett had decimated a significant number of personnel that night.

"Interesting," Fett replied, "since my records show that I didn't begin firing until your troops attacked the palace."

Darkpiper waved a hand. "Semantics. At any rate, I calculate that approximately sixty percent of the contents of Jabba's vaults should take care of your debt."

"That a fact?"

The smuggler allowed himself a smile. "Yes."

Miele had been watching Boba Fett carefully during this exchange, and his expression had never changed throughout. Now, however, he frowned slightly, then rubbed one finger over his chin, as if considering some possible action. He glanced away from the viewscreen, gave Miele a thoughtful look, then nodded to himself even as he hit the mute button on the comm.

"Think you can handle this guy for a few minutes?" he asked.

Appalled, Miele looked over at the viewscreen, at the smugly complacent features of Rath Darkpiper. It was definitely the face of a man who was used to getting what he wanted. Did Fett really think she could deal with Darkpiper without getting the two of them into even more trouble? Still, she knew she couldn't let the bounty hunter down. Obviously he had thought of something, but he needed her to keep Darkpiper occupied while he slipped away.

"What do you need me to do?" she asked.

"Just keep him talking. Pretend you're my assistant. Act like we're going along with his demands." Fett gave her a quick glance. "Take your hair out of that braid."

"What?" Miele looked up at him, wondering whether he had finally begun to lose his stranglehold on sanity. "What the hell difference does that make?"

"Rath Darkpiper likes a pretty girl. As soon as I'm out of this room, I want you to put the comm on visual. But you should let your hair down."

She glared at him even as she reached up to pull away the bit of string that bound the end of her braid. Typical that he would think to distract Rath Darkpiper that way, instead of employing her to man the cannons or handle some other infinitely more exciting occupation. Instead he wanted her to play secretary! She decided it wasn't worth arguing over, however, and shook the loose ends of her long red hair over her shoulders.

"All right?" she demanded.

"Much better," he agreed, and for a second she could see his gaze moving over the unbound length of her hair. Then he fixed her eyes with his, all business once more. "Just keep him talking. Agree to anything -- act as if you're looking up information on the computer. Flirt if you have to."

"You've got to be kidding," she said flatly, looking over her shoulder toward the impatient visage of Rath Darkpiper on the viewscreen.

Fett didn't bother to reply, instead handing her a small com link. "When I give the signal, drop the rear shields."

"What are you going to do?"

"You'll see." And with that cryptic remark he left the room.

Miele sighed and approached the comm, then toggled the switch to activate the video feed on her end. "Um...Master Darkpiper?"

The smuggler, who had been clearing his throat in a most ostentatious manner and was obviously annoyed at being left hanging for so long, straightened up in his chair. His expression of petulant irritation slowly transformed into a small leer as he focused on her features. "And who might you be?"

"My name is Miele." The second after she said the words she realized that perhaps handing him her real name hadn't been the wisest thing to do; still, there was nothing she could do about it now. "I'm told I need to assist you with reparations?"

He watched her for a moment, apparently thinking over her sudden appearance. "Where's your boss?"

Damn, Miele thought. How do I keep getting into these messes? But she managed to arrange what she hoped was a pleasant smile on her face and replied, "Checking your inventory, sir."

He lifted a bushy eyebrow, then nodded slowly.

Not allowing herself to give a relieved sigh, Miele turned to the computer and began pulling up the inventory lists of the vault contents. It seemed a better idea for her to appear as legitimate as possible, and at any rate she was sure that Darkpiper couldn't see the contents of the computer screen before her. Surely Jabba had to have been storing spice down there along with everything else, although she and Boba Fett had not found any in the first two vaults they had emptied.

Hoping that she had the appropriate expression of helpful concern fixed on her features, Miele ticked her way through the inventory lists. She even went so far as to slide a finger over the computer screen as she went along, so that Rath Darkpiper could see how industrious she was being in restoring his stolen goods.

After a few moments, she thought she had located the goods in question. "Aha!" she exclaimed, and then smiled winningly up at the smuggler. "I think I've found it, sir. Forty-five cases of glitterstim spice?"

"Forty -- " Darkpiper began to splutter, then he cleared his throat and smiled...a fat, greedy smile. "That sounds about right."

Miele was fairly certain that what had been stolen from him wasn't even half that number -- just one case constituted a fortune, let alone forty-five -- but if it kept him happy and unaware of whatever Boba Fett might be up to....

"And then, sir," she went on, trying to recall the brisk yet formal way Captain Malec's underlings had reported to him, and hoping that that sort of delivery made her sound more efficient, "there is the matter of the damage to your vehicle?"

"Well, yes," Darkpiper said, clearing his throat and squinting, as if he were trying to restore his focus back to her. Apparently the mere mention of forty-five cases of spice had unsettled him somewhat. "I had to replace the plating all along one side, and then there was the damage to the guns..."

"I assume you kept the bill?" she asked, then wondered whether batting her eyelashes would be too much. She decided it would, and instead gave Darkpiper another sticky-sweet smile.

He cleared his throat again. "I'm sure I could lay my hands on it if I had to," he muttered, for a second looking flustered.

"Well, we can do with an estimate for now," Miele said, straining to keep her false smile from turning into a grin. This was beginning to be downright fun.

She could almost hear the coins jingling in Darkpiper's head as he calculated how much he could plausibly claim. "Thirty thousand," he said finally.

You could have bought a whole new vehicle for that much, she thought, but of course said no such thing, instead pretending to make a notation in the computer. "Anything else?"

"Of course," Darkpiper responded immediately. "The little matter of twenty-two of my men, dead! And most of them with families -- I'm a generous man, my dear, but even I can't hope to support that many dependents."

It took every effort of will Miele had not to burst out laughing at that remark. She was certain Darkpiper would rather send all those hungry mouths to the grave along with their fathers before he'd stoop to support a single one of them, but she had to admit that the man's overweening self-delusion was somewhat amusing.

"Well, sir," she said after a moment, when she was sure she could maintain a reasonably sober tone of voice, "of course no one can put a price on a human life, but -- "

"I'll take ten thousand for each of them," he said promptly.

None of which would make it to any surviving dependents, Miele was sure -- if they even existed, which she was beginning to doubt. She gave a dubious glance at the two henchmen who flanked Rath Darkpiper and thought that if they were a representative sample of the smuggler's staff then any one of them would have had a difficult time finding someone with whom he could procreate.

"So I believe," she said, tapping away at the computer keys, although in actuality she was doing nothing but scrolling between two inventory lists, "that would make it a grand total of a quarter-million credits, plus the forty-five cases of spice?"

He frowned, and paused for a moment. Miele fancied she could see his lips moving slightly as he did the sums in his head. Then an expression of lazy greed moved over his fleshy features. "That sounds about right."

Damn. She'd been halfway hoping he'd put up more of a fight -- it was beginning to look as if they'd settle this more or less peacefully, and yet there was still no sign of Boba Fett. Thinking quickly, she asked, "Would you like that in cash or in kind?"

Darkpiper sat up straighter in his chair. "What did you have in mind?"

"Only that we could offer you more spice, or some other sort of goods that perhaps you could get a better price for in the Outer Rim. You could make back your damages and still profit."

The smuggler scratched his chin, watching her carefully. Then he smiled, and the glare of Tatooine's suns glinted off his platinum-capped incisors. "You've got a good head on your shoulders, girl," he said, in what Miele supposed he thought were ingratiating tones. "Now Jabba's gone, maybe you should think about jumping ship and coming to work for me."

OK, now would be a good time, Fett! she thought, even as she hurriedly fixed another manufactured smile on her lips. "That's um, very flattering, sir, but I still have work to do here -- "

"I could make it worth your while," he interjected, and there was no mistaking the leer he gave her along with those words.

Miele thought she'd rather jump in the Sarlacc pit than go to work for a man like Rath Darkpiper, but she was saved from a reply by the squawk of the comlink and Boba Fett's command, "Now, Miele!"

Without thinking she pulled up the screen that controlled the rear defenses and shut them down. From somewhere behind Rath Darkpiper she heard someone call out, "They're dropping the rear defense shields, sir!"

The smuggler pinned her down with a furious stare. "What the hell are you playing at?"

In all honesty Miele was able to reply, "I don't know what you're talking about, sir!"

With a curse Darkpiper heaved himself up out of his seat, but by then Miele knew it was too late. She had caught a glimpse from the secondary viewscreens, the ones that surveyed the rear of the palace, and now she saw what Boba Fett had planned.

His oddly shaped ship came out of the late afternoon glare of the twin suns, apparently hurtling headlong toward Darkpiper's modified sandcrawler. The cannons of the land vehicle had already begun to fire, but the first bolts bounced harmlessly off his shielding even as he banked at the last moment -- just as two torpedoes dropped from the underside of the Slave I and plowed directly into the sandcrawler.

The explosions were immediate, and oddly satisfying. Two huge gouts of orange-red flames blew out from either side of the smuggler's vehicle, even as the image on the viewscreen faded to a wall of static. Miele quickly shut off the comm and turned her attention to the feed from the primary security camera, the one fixed on the front gate.

Not pausing to enjoy the success of his first pass, Fett came back around again and dropped another pair of projectiles. They, too, connected, and the sporadic firing that had continued after the first torpedoes had hit abruptly ceased. Explosion after explosion shook the vehicle, followed by waves of black smoke. By the time it had cleared, Miele could see that the sandcrawler had been completely flattened. There was even less left of it than there had been of Jabba's sail barge.

Miele slowly let out a breath, and then shook her head. There was something very odd about being in the middle of a conversation with a person and then having that person suddenly snuffed out of existence. Not that the universe would miss Rath Darkpiper, she thought, but it was still a peculiar sensation. One minute he had been there, and the next --

And the next there had been nothing but static. Static and smoke. But at least he was gone, and that meant one less thing for her and Boba Fett to worry about.

She looked up and he was suddenly there, pausing in the doorway to the guard chamber.

"Nice shooting," she commented.

He shrugged. "They were an easy target. Hadn't even bothered with particle shielding."

"How did you know?"

"I analyzed the data from the first attack. Sloppy. Then again, most land-based attackers don't use torpedoes, so I suppose they weren't out of line in thinking they were safe." The black eyes glinted at her, his amusement showing in the slight crinkles at the outer corners. "You did a good job of keeping Darkpiper talking."

"Well, it's easy when you've got someone who likes the sound of his own voice." She stood, feeling suddenly awkward, and pushed her loose hair back over her shoulders. "Of course, he also liked what I was promising him."

"Which was?"

"Forty-five cases of spice and about a quarter-million in loose change."

"No wonder he wanted to go on talking."

Miele crossed her arms, and fixed Boba Fett with what she hoped was a no-nonsense stare. "Well, I had to keep feeding him what he wanted to hear, considering how long it took you to finally get it together."

He lifted an eyebrow. "Ever been on a spaceship?"

"No -- so what?"

"Even the fastest ship takes a few minutes to power up. You can't force some things."

Once again, he was right. Whenever she was around Fett Miele seemed to be constantly reminded of how little she really knew about how the galaxy worked, of how sheltered her life had really been. It was not a feeling she enjoyed. For the first time she realized she had always thought of herself as -- how had Fett put it? -- a big fish in a little pond. She'd always considered herself superior to the denizens of Anchorhead, people whom she'd considered to be narrow-minded at best and positively backward at worst. It was humbling to realize how insignificant she really was.

"Miele."

She lifted her head to look at him. Someone who hadn't spent the last week watching his face would have thought there was no expression on those swarthy features, but she knew better. There was approval in his eyes, approval and growing respect. Once again he had set a task for her, and she had not been found wanting. She had a feeling that it was no easy thing to earn Boba Fett's respect.

"I suppose we'd better get back to work," she said, and at that he actually smiled.

"I had something a little different in mind," he replied, and held out his hand.

She took it, wondering what was going to come next. She should have known.

"I hate being interrupted," he said, pulling her toward him.

Once again his mouth met hers, and she let herself fall into the embrace, letting him surround her, become her universe, until nothing else mattered. She had only an intellectual understanding of what drowning was, but she thought dimly that this was what it must feel like -- to swirl down into darkness, to feel nothing but the pounding of your heart in your breast, the pulse of blood in your ears and throat.

Finally he let her go, and she stepped back, gasping a little.

He smiled a bit, just that small lift at the corner of his mouth, then said, "Now we get back to work." And with that he turned and headed back out into the corridor, obviously expecting Miele to follow him.

Which of course she did, her pulse still racing and breath coming to her with difficulty. As she trailed after Fett she wondered if she would ever begin to understand him -- whether he was just toying with her, or whether he felt for her even a little.

What frightened her was that she found she didn't care. As long as she could be with him, nothing else mattered.

VIII

The forty-five crates of spice did turn out to be hidden in the third and final vault, just as Miele had suspected. She paused in her exertions for a moment as Fett stood and looked at the neatly stacked crates, his eyebrows creasing slightly. Probably he was trying to decide whether it would all fit in the already overloaded cargo hold of the Slave I.

"We're leaving it," he said finally, and Miele stared up at him in shock.

"Leaving it?" she demanded. "Do you have any idea how much that stuff is worth?"

"Probably more than you," he replied, fixing her with a quelling dark gaze. "But I'm not a smuggler or a drug dealer. I've got no use for it."

Miele opened her mouth again, took a closer look at Fett, then decided it was better not to argue. He was right -- of course she had no idea what the street value of that much spice could be, but she was fairly sure it was quite a bit -- probably as much as the treasure they'd already loaded. Still, he must know what he was doing. She thought for a moment of the difficulties involved in trying to move that much spice around, realizing that without connections they'd have a very tough time unloading the stuff.

"Besides," he added, pushing the button to close the doors to the vault, "if the bones aren't picked completely clean when the next scavengers show up there's less of a chance they'll start wondering where the rest of the treasure went."

It took a few seconds for the full import of his words to sink in, but once it did Miele cast a worried look up at Fett. "So you think there'll be more?"

"Of course. The universe has an unending supply of scum." He must have noticed the concern on her face, for he went on, "But don't worry -- we'll be long gone before the next one shows up."

That did reassure her, as well as the fact that he had said "we." The fear had still been there, buried but not forgotten, the worry that he would just go off and leave her here once the treasure was loaded. Even as she had watched Boba swoop down on Darkpiper's sandcrawler one small part of her mind had wondered whether he would just keep going once he finished his attack run. After all, he was on board a ship already loaded with the bulk of Jabba's treasure. There had been nothing to stop him from heading on out into space.

Nothing, except...except what? He had kissed her, but Miele knew that even she wasn't na?ve enough to think that necessarily meant anything. People left all the time. Her mother had run off, and she'd abandoned a husband and baby. All Boba Fett would have left behind was a silly girl who'd been foolish enough to think he owed her some kind of debt.

But he didn't leave, she thought fiercely. He came back, and he's still here now. That's got to count for something.

"When are we going?" she asked. Best to confront the source of her worry at once -- not that she would necessarily know whether he was lying to her or not.

His reply was immediate. "Tomorrow morning. We've bought some breathing room; that should be safe enough. And the ship's ready to go if any more trouble crops up sooner than that."

"Good," she said, perhaps with a bit more depth of emotion than she had intended; Fett gave her a searching look, and she added, "I could do with some rest first. And a decent meal."

He nodded, but didn't look particularly enthused.

"Bantha steaks from Naboo," Miele offered, and he raised an eyebrow.

"Where'd you get those?"

"Lost treasures of Jabba's refrigeration units," she replied.

"Appropriate."

"Dinner at 0700, then," Miele said, and was gratified to see him nod. After all, they deserved a little celebration for their last night on Tatooine....


She tried to make everything as perfect as she could. Cooking for her father all those years had certainly given Miele a certain level of skill, for of course they'd never been able to afford a droid to take on those sorts of tasks. But they'd also never had the funds to buy the sort of foodstuffs she was making now for Boba Fett, and she fretted over their preparation much more than she ever had over a meal for her father.

Of course there were the gorgeous pale pink bantha filets, but along with the steaks she concocted a rich side dish of delicate rosy-veined tubers with cream, accompanied by fresh-baked bread and a salad of various offworld fruits that she'd found in a back corner of one of the freezers. The wine cellars located just below the kitchens yielded all kinds of riches, but Miele had no real idea of what she was looking at or what would work best with the meal she had prepared. After scanning the various labels (those that she could read; several were in alien scripts), she stood there for a moment, irresolute, and finally grabbed two bottles: one red wine and one pale straw-colored vintage. Fett could decide which one he wanted -- if he drank at all, she realized suddenly. Still, from what she had read and what she had seen on the various 'net programs, wine was usually expected with dinner, and she did not want to appear ignorant.

Jabba of course had had no real use for a dining hall, but the palace had belonged to the B'omarr monks before it was Jabba's property, and so the old room was still there, more or less intact. The other kitchen drudges had mentioned that it was used every once in a while, if Jabba had important enough visitors, but that had never happened during Miele's tenure in the palace.

She wiped down the old polished travertine dining table and dusted off the rustic wooden chairs, then found an ancient pair of carved stone candlesticks and a box of candles in one of the kitchen cupboards, along with some faded but clean table linens. The candles intrigued her; she's seen lighted candles once years before at a friend's home as part of their Boonta Eve celebrations, but they were a rarity in Anchorhead, an archaic tradition that even then Miele had found strangely charming. Now she thought they would add an elegant touch to the table.

Allowing herself once last quick glance around the kitchen to make sure everything was in hand, Miele then ducked out and hastened up the steps to the slave girls' dormitory; it was almost 0700, and she'd told Fett she would call him on the comlink when dinner was ready, but she had one last thing to take care of. Off went the serviceable but now stained tunic and pants she had been wearing, and she drew out of the wardrobe an outfit she'd spied several days ago but hadn't thought she would ever have reason to wear. Like Oola's other pre-slave castoffs it consisted of a fitted tunic over narrowly cut pants, but this one was of shimmering copper-colored fabric, embroidered in black and gold around the deeply cut neckline and side-slit hem. It was sleeveless, and in the trinket box the slave girls had shared Miele found a stack of gold-colored bangles, five for each wrist, and a pair of dangling earrings to finish off the look. The flat sandals she had been wearing all along would have to do.

Once she was done Miele paused in front of the mirror in the dressing area and surveyed herself carefully. Fett had obviously liked seeing her hair down, and she had to admit the effect was good, especially the way the long coppery-red strands blended into the silky fabric of the tunic. There were pots of cosmetics stacked neatly along the counter, but Miele didn't really know what to do with them, and now was not the time to for experimentation. Instead she settled for giving her hair a few quick brush strokes before she turned away from the mirror and hurried back downstairs, all the while telling herself she was making a fuss over nothing. Fett did not seem like the sort of man to be impressed by fancy clothes -- far from it -- but Miele told herself that it would be disrespectful to the meal she had prepared to sit down at table in the same disheveled garments she had been wearing. Let Boba Fett make of her appearance what he would.

One of the suns had already set, and the other was low on the horizon when she returned to the dining room. Miele lifted the mechanized lighter she'd found in the kitchen to first one, then the other of the two candles she had set out on the table. The flickering light combined with the ruddy glow of the one remaining sun to turn the chamber into a swirl of red and copper that reflected off the polished stone of the table and the faded frescoes on the walls. The color found an echo in her hair and the clothes she wore, and for a second she felt as if she were suspended in light, floating on the edge of another world. Then she blinked, and the impression was gone, though the room was still awash in copper-tinted hues.

She lifted the comlink. "Any time you're ready," she said.

Fett's voice came through immediately. "Got it."

Miele set the comlink down on a sideboard and returned to the kitchen, where she transferred the food to its serving pieces, and began moving it to the table. She'd already unstoppered the wine and set the red bottle in front of Boba Fett's place setting and the pale yellow one in front of hers. The plates she had set out were old, old metal, probably left over from the monastery days as well; the monks had been ascetic to the extreme, but even they had had to eat -- well, at least before they achieved enlightenment and sealed themselves into small glass jars for all eternity, she thought wryly. The oversized wine goblets were newer and bore all the marks of Huttese ostentation -- permaglass bowls set into dark metal bases that looked like writhing serpents -- but she hadn't been able to find anything more appropriate and so had set them down on the table with a sigh.

"Expecting company?" Fett asked, pausing at the entry to the dining chamber and eyeing the elaborate spread.

"Just you," she replied, hoping the ruddy light that spilled in through the arched windows hid the flush in her cheeks.

He made no reply, instead taking in her elaborate costume with a slightly arched eyebrow. Then he gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head before moving to the chair at the head of the table and sitting down in it.

Miele gritted her teeth and thought, Count to ten.... If that was how he was going to be, fine. She pulled out her own chair with a rough scrape of wood across stone and settled a napkin in her lap. "I thought it would be nice to celebrate my last night on Tatooine," she said evenly. "I'm sure planet-hopping is old news to you, but I've never been anywhere but here."

After a quick survey of the table, Fett nodded. "This looks about as good as anything I've had offworld."

"Well -- thank you." Once again he had caught her off-guard with a compliment. To cover her confusion, Miele lifted a ruddy-hued bottle and asked, "Wine?"

"Normally, no, but -- " He lifted his shoulders. "I suppose it couldn't hurt."

She poured him a glass, filling it only halfway. Those Hutt-designed goblets were enormous; it would be far too easy to overindulge if one didn't pay attention. After she did the same with her own goblet, she set the wine bottle back down, then noticed with some surprise that Fett had lifted his glass and apparently was waiting for her to do the same.

"To Jabba," he said, a sly glint in his eyes, "without whom this feast would not be possible."

"To Jabba," she echoed, unable to repress a smile. Really, Fett had the oddest sense of humor. Then she lifted the glass to her lips and drank, feeling the warmth of the heavy wine work its way down her throat. The sensation made her feel very adult and somewhat wicked. She's only tasted wine once before, at an engagement reception for a school friend of hers, and it had been nothing like this. At the time she had thought wine rather sour and nasty, and certainly not worth the fuss. But this deep red vintage tasted of fruit and earth and an alien sun that made things grow instead of burning them into dust, and Miele thought she could definitely get used to it.

After that they were silent for a few moments as she loaded Fett's and her own plates with all the various foods she had spent the afternoon preparing, and they began to eat. It seemed years since she'd had a proper meal besides hastily scrounged bites when she could no longer go on without some sort of food. The drudges had never gotten that much to eat, and she had been careless about meals once she was on her own. Now the tender meat and carefully seasoned side dishes tasted like a little piece of heaven.

Fett appreciated the meal as well, she could tell; she'd spent too many years feeding her father not to know when a man was enjoying his food. He ate efficiently and quickly, but not so rapidly that she couldn't see him pause every once in a while to savor a bite.

"Computers and cooking," he said at length, after taking a small sip of wine. "Any other hidden skills I should know about?"

"Not that I'm aware of," Miele said, pleased that he seemed to be enjoying himself. "Although I should warn you that I play a mean hand of sabacc."

"I don't gamble," he said flatly. "Waste of time."

Lifting an eyebrow, Miele replied, "My father preferred to think of it as a game of skill. He found it an interesting way to teach me probability."

"Mmm." Fett applied himself to another piece of bantha filet.

"My father didn't gamble," she said, suddenly irritated by what she saw as a silent condemnation. "We liked to play cards together."

He looked up from his food and gave her a slow, measuring stare. "Did I say anything?"

She had to admit that he hadn't, really. What was it about him that always made her feel on the defensive? There was no way, after all, that Boba Fett could have known her father's fascination with sabacc was one of the chief reasons they had never had enough money to get offplanet. In silence she poured herself another half-glass of wine, trying to ignore Fett's pointed stare as she did so.

"So what about your father?" she asked finally.

"My father didn't play sabacc, either."

"Funny. I mean, what did he do?"

Was it her imagination, or did his jaw muscles tighten involuntarily, just for a second? It was hard to tell in the flickering light, but she noticed he lifted his own glass and took another drink before replying. "He was a bounty hunter."

"So you're just carrying on the family business?"

"Guess you could put it that way."

She watched as he refilled his plate. The man definitely could eat when the opportunity presented itself, but she supposed that was just another survival tactic. Might as well eat when the eating's good, she thought. Then she wondered about Boba Fett's father, tried to imagine what the bounty hunter must have looked like as a little boy, and failed miserably. He was one of those people who seemed to have sprung full-grown into the universe.

Probably Fett wanted her to leave the conversation where it was, but Miele's curiosity got the better of her. Besides, she had her own reasons for wanting to know more about Fett's family -- somehow his father had been a bounty hunter but had managed to have a son, so personal entanglements weren't completely taboo, apparently. "Was your mother a bounty hunter, too?" she asked at last.

He smiled at that, but there was no humor in the expression -- it was a mere baring of teeth. "I didn't have a mother."

It figured. She should have known better than to get her hopes up. With a brittle laugh she said, "Well, neither did I. Mine took off when I was six months old."

She hadn't expected sympathy, and she got none. Fett shook his head, speared another piece of bantha filet, then chewed it carefully before replying. "That's not what I meant. I didn't have a mother because I'm a clone."

For a moment all Miele could do was stare at him. A clone? Of course she'd heard of clones, seen vids about the Clone Wars (carefully edited by the Imperial censors, she was sure), but they had always seemed like something out of the past, relics of a time most wished forgotten. It didn't seem possible that Boba Fett could be a clone. They had been bred to be servants, and he was, if nothing else, a man in control of his own destiny.

But he was watching her carefully, as if her reaction were important to him. She wasn't sure what she thought. Perhaps this new knowledge should have changed her feelings toward him, but to her he was still the same man. So he had come into the world a little differently than other humans...that didn't change who he was, did it?

Casually she lifted her wine goblet and made an offhand gesture before taking a sip. "Well, I suppose that's one way of making sure your kids take after you...."

He didn't relax so much as become slightly less rigid in posture. "Right."

She had the feeling that the conversation had veered into territory he had never meant to explore. Until she had come to Jabba's palace she had of course never heard of Boba Fett, but she guessed that he had tried to keep his origins very much a mystery. "It's all right, Boba," she said, realizing as she did so that she had never before called him by his given name. "Your secret is safe with me."

"Thanks."

Was he mocking her, ever so slightly? Sometimes it was impossible to tell. However, she chose to believe he wasn't, mostly because she had grown weary of feeling that she was a source of private amusement to him.

"Anyhow," she went on, wondering whether it was between the ninth and tenth or fourteenth and fifteenth sips of wine that she had begun to feel a little dizzy, "what's the plan after we leave Tatooine?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing. You're the one who wanted offplanet."

I knew that, Miele thought. "Right, then." Frowning slightly, she gazed at Fett, realized she was staring at his mouth, and shifted her glance so that it appeared she was looking past his shoulder to the age-smudged fresco on the wall behind him. "So how much is my take, anyway?"

"Don't know for sure. Probably five, six million."

Blinking, Miele studied his face carefully to see if he was joking, then decided he probably wasn't. With a hand that shook just a little she tore off a piece of bread and put it in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Five million credits. With that she could go anywhere in the galaxy, do pretty much anything she wanted. But she knew what she should do, what her father would have wanted her to do.

"I need to go to a university. A good one," she said finally.

He appeared nonplused. "What for?"

Surprised, she looked at him for a moment, studying his features in the uncertain candlelight as she considered her reply. Going to a university -- or the Academy -- had been the only ambition of anyone Miele had known who had had the slightest bit of gumption. It was the only way to get off Tatooine and earn some respectability at the same time. And her father had certainly drummed into her the necessity for a formal education. Her thoughts had run in that path for so long that she had never considered any alternative, never thought there could be anything else for her. But obviously Fett thought differently.

"I'm guessing you never went to college," she said.

At that he really did give what sounded like a genuine laugh. "You're guessing right." He lifted his glass and drank, black eyes watching her closely over the rim of the gaudy cup. "Can't say I missed it."

Miele lifted her shoulders. "It's just what I always thought I'd do. Go to a good university, then work as an analyst somewhere."

"Sounds safe."

Those words made her want to cringe. Safe, was that how he thought of her? "Or not," she said boldly. "I guess with five million credits I can do whatever I want, right?"

He was silent for a moment, then replied, "I think your first plan's a good one."

Oh, he was impossible. At that moment Miele thought that if someone showed up on the spot and offered her a full scholarship at Coruscant University she'd turn it down, just to spite Fett. "I don't even know whether I can get into a decent school, anyway," she remarked. "My education here was a little irregular, and now the whole galaxy's in an uproar. Who knows how long it would take to get someone to look at my transcripts?"

"Shouldn't be a problem, if you flash enough credits around," he said.

She wanted to retort that that wouldn't make any difference, but Miele knew better than to start another argument. This dinner wasn't going at all how she had planned. What had happened to that feeling of romance, of possibilities, that she had sensed when she first lit the candles and thought of the man who would soon be joining her in the copper-washed dining chamber?

He's being Boba Fett again, she thought, and rolled her eyes. Really, she would be better off rid of him. He could just drop her off on some nice planet, say Commenor or Issor, and she could get her degree and bank her half of Jabba's treasure -- thank you very much for your assistance, Master Fett, have a nice life. If only it were that easy.

"What are you going to do with your half?" Miele challenged, feeling reckless.

"Bank it," he said, imperturbable.

Again it was impossible to know whether he was joking or not. In desperation she said, "Fett, if you don't shut up right now and kiss me, I think I'm going to throw this wine goblet at your head."

He smiled then, a slow, easy smile. "If that's what's bothering you -- " he said. And he pushed his chair back and stood, going over to her and raising her up out of her own chair.

Much better, Miele thought, when he's kissing me I don't think about how much I'd like to kill him.

And as he continued to kiss her she realized she didn't have to think about anything else at all. The universe seemed to compact itself down to the feel of his mouth on hers, the warmth of his body, the taste of the wine on his tongue.

And everything else, she decided, could wait.

IX

They walked in silence for a time along a sweeping terrace that hugged the circular main tower of Jabba's palace; probably it had been constructed by the B'omarr monks as a platform for stargazing, though Miele doubted that any of the denizens of Jabba's court had wasted much time watching the stars. Hot as the desert was during daylight hours, it was equally chill at night, although the warm sandstone of the building still radiated the heat it had stored up during the day.

Ghomrassen, the largest of Tatooine's three moons, hung low in the eastern sky, a huge golden orb that cast a glittering track across the desert sands. Miele paused at the curved stone balustrade that edged the terrace, gazing down at the desolate landscape beneath her. She had had the fancy that perhaps one last look at the world that had been her only home would have aroused some feelings of nostalgia, but now she felt nothing but relief that after tomorrow she would never have to see these sand-scoured wastes again.

Fett was quiet, watching her from the shadows. He had held her for some time in the candlelit dining hall, in a prolonged embrace from which she had emerged gasping once again and not quite sure what to do with herself. Luckily the prosaic interruption of cleaning up after dinner had leveled her head somewhat, although at the time she had wondered why she was even bothering with the dishes or the mess in the kitchen. Certainly it was not out of respect for whichever crime lord or bandit might take over the palace next. Something in her had simply rebelled at leaving the place out of order; she'd spent too many years straightening up after her father, and keeping things tidy was ingrained in her by now. At least Fett had made no protest when she pulled herself from his embrace, and he had even carried dishes into the kitchen in stoic silence. Once she had finished with the remnants of dinner he had accompanied her here without protest, although even she wasn't sure at the time why she had come.

"What do you think's going on out there?" she asked finally, waving one hand at the star-flecked skies as if to indicate the galaxy in general.

He raised his face to the heavens; the warm golden light of the moon seemed to smooth out the scars and lingering redness that were constant reminders of his sojourn in the Sarlacc pit. "Fighting. Confusion. People dying."

"So how does that make it different from any other day?" she retorted.

Fett allowed himself a small smile. "You sound like me."

"It's all this time I've been spending in your charming company."

Her words did not seem to anger him; instead he shook his head and stepped toward the balustrade to stand next to her. A chill tendril of desert wind caught in the dark close-cropped strands at his hairline, ruffling them slightly. "A machine like the Empire can't collapse all at once. They'll keep fighting until they know it's time to stop. Some of 'em won't ever figure it out."

"So is it even safe to leave?"

"Safer than staying here."

Miele shivered slightly, and Fett dropped a casual arm around her, pulling her closer to him. Stupid of her to have come up here anyway without grabbing a cloak or shawl first, although she had to admit there were worse ways of staying warm than to have Boba Fett holding you close. The cold didn't seem to bother him at all, although his long-sleeved jumpsuit of course was warmer than the thin sleeveless tunic she wore.

"Chandrila, or even Ralltiir," he went on. "Someplace where the Alliance was already strong. That's the sort of planet you need."

You need. Not we need. The words grated on her, though Miele tried to tell herself that the bounty hunter was simply giving her predicament precedence. He'd agreed to help her, and so his concern now was solely for her. She had no doubt that, if left to his own devices, he could fly right through a battle between Imperial and Alliance forces and come out the other side completely unscathed.

"I don't know anything about either of those planets," she said flatly, staring out into the empty moonlit desert. It must have been the wind that brought the stinging tears to her eyes.

"Planets are planets," he replied. "They all have good and bad. Some have more of one than the other." For a second his eyes narrowed, although whether it was a reaction to a sudden gust of wind or some internal reflection she wasn't sure. "This one's pretty much a dump, though."

It wasn't even in her to defend her home world, for she knew he was right. Perhaps someone else could have seen something admirable in the tenacity of the moisture farmers and other inhabitants who tried to scratch an honest living from this rock, but all Miele could do was wonder why anyone would live here when they had the rest of the galaxy to choose from.

"We may not get that far," he went on, and he, too, stared out into the desert night, as if unable to meet her eyes. "Both those planets are in the Core. It's a long way from here."

"We'll figure out something," Miele replied, and tried to take comfort in the strength of his arm around her, the warmth radiating out from his body like the banked heat of Tatooine's now-absent suns. "I trust you."

At those words he became still, almost rigid in his silence. She suddenly wondered how long it had been since anyone had said anything like that to Boba Fett -- or whether anyone ever had. Possibly it had been imprudent of her, but she couldn't take the words back now, and for some reason she believed them. He could have betrayed her earlier today, and had not. Besides, she'd just spent the larger part of two months looking over her shoulder, not confiding in anyone, always afraid she would be caught before her work here in Jabba's palace was done, and it felt better than she had thought possible to lay some of her burden on Fett's very capable shoulders.

Miele wondered if he would protest or demur, but he remained silent, although he did finally turn to look at her. What he saw in her face she couldn't know, although she was relieved her eyes were now relatively dry. In the uncertain light of the one moon his own face was even more unreadable than ever, but she stared back up at him steadily, willing him to hold her gaze. I believe in you, she prayed that gaze told him. I trust you to get me safely away from here, even in a galaxy that's tearing itself apart.

They stood that way for a long moment, until at last he said, "It's too cold for you out here." Then he dropped his arm from around her and instead took her hand, leading her back inside the palace.

Not sure at first where Fett was taking her, Miele followed him down the winding staircase. The light was dim in here; a few lumas at strategic points gave enough illumination to keep a person from tripping over themselves on the steps, but they did nothing to dispel the shadows that lurked in the corners. Once again she had that sensation of ghostly presences hidden in the darkness, whispers at the very edge of hearing. Miele shivered, glad she would be quit of this place in a few short hours.

It was only when they paused on the landing to the second level that she realized what Fett had intended. Just a few doors down from where they stood was the chamber where the bounty hunter had slept for the past few nights. Miele looked up at him, mouth suddenly dry.

He returned her gaze, his face expressionless as always. "If you don't want to -- "

Oh, but she did, and that was what both frightened and thrilled her at the same time. Somehow she knew that once she followed Boba Fett into that chamber she would have left her old life behind forever, that she would finally have stepped over the shadowy threshold between adolescence and adulthood. Her life had already undergone wrenching changes, but this was different. From this there would be no going back.

"I do," she replied, marveling at how steady her voice sounded.

One eyebrow lifted, and she thought he looked a little amused, but he said only, "Good." And then he palmed the lock and led her into his sleeping quarters.

He had left one luma illuminated in the far corner of the room, so that it lent a soft wash of light to the chamber, just enough to reveal offworld furnishings that no doubt had been expensive but were the height of bad taste -- carved stone touched with silver and gilt paint, window hangings in a particularly excruciating shade of mauve, a gruesome piece of art depicting a group of Twi'lek dancing girls. In short, it was a suite that Jabba had probably preserved for his favorites.

"Nice," Miele commented. "I'm glad I decided to sleep upstairs in the slave girls' dormitory."

"Bed's comfortable at least."

She was tempted to reply, Prove it, but knew that she'd probably find out for herself soon enough. And he gave her no time to think of an alternative retort, for once again he pulled her against him, his mouth on hers, his hands moving through the free-falling masses of her hair, finding the pressure clasps that closed up the back of her tunic. It fell from her with shocking ease, and suddenly she could feel his fingers moving against her bare skin, sending little shivers all over her body.

At the same time she reached up to pull at the tab to the locking fastener that closed the front of his jumpsuit. It separated to reveal a well-muscled torso, albeit one that showed skin still reddened and scarred by the Sarlacc's embrace. But Miele found she didn't care, instead running her hands over his bare flesh, feeling the hardness of his muscles under the roughened skin.

And then they fell onto the bed, and for a while there was nothing but him, the feel of him, the taste of him, until the world seemed to implode as the pleasure overtook her?.

They lay there for a time, listening to one another's heartbeats, until finally he rose from the bed and went to the 'fresher. She could hear the water running as she remained there, stretched across the sweat-dampened sheets, feeling as if every nerve ending in her body had suddenly been given a charge from a power generator.

I feel different, Miele thought suddenly, although if challenged she probably would have been unable to say how. All she knew was that until this moment she had felt only half alive.

A few moments later he returned to bed and lay down beside her; she could see the water glistening in the wavy dark hair around his forehead before he settled himself against one of the pillows.

"I didn't know I was your first," he said finally.

"Well, I haven't had a lot of opportunity," she replied, thinking at the same time how glad she was of that fact. He was silent, and she added, "Does that bother you?"

"No." He moved his head on the pillow so that he was looking directly at her and then said, "But I could have been more careful -- "

"It was perfect," she said firmly, and meant it. She was sure that Fett would not have avoided taking her to bed if he'd known she was a virgin, but it would have changed the dynamic between them. As it was, he had approached her solely as a woman he wanted, and Miele preferred it that way. Things were complicated enough as it was.

He did not reply, but instead rolled over and kissed her almost harshly on the mouth, as if to make up for any perceived weakness in his earlier diffidence. "'Night, then," he said, and with that he returned to his former supine position. His eyes closed, and almost immediately his breathing slowed into the regular rhythms of sleep.

Must be another survival trait, Miele thought. Still, she was a little shocked at how quickly he had slipped away from her. It seemed odd to have experienced such intimacy and then, just as suddenly, become two separate beings again.

She supposed it made sense to make the most of this last night's sleep in Jabba's place -- who knew what awaited them in the galaxy at large tomorrow -- but no matter what she did, she could not seem to make herself at ease. The mattress was, as Fett had claimed, extremely comfortable, but she could not find a restful position. Luckily her tossings and turnings did nothing to disturb the sleeping bounty hunter; probably he had already logged her presence as a non-threat and so was immune to her restive behavior.

Finally she rolled over on her back and stared up at the ceiling, at the faint whorls and scrape marks in the roughhewn sandstone as revealed by the uncertain light of the luma. Beside her Boba Fett slept, his chest rising and falling slowly under the thin sheet. She could feel the warmth of his body next to hers and recalled with a rush of heat the feeling of that body against her.

Her whole being seemed to ache as she thought of him, and she said aloud, in a soft, wondering voice, "I love you."

He did not stir, of course, and she had not wanted him to. Those were words she would never have the courage to say to him, not unless he had given her overt encouragement to do so beforehand, and she could not imagine that happening for a long time -- if ever. No, she let those three words float on the night air, merely an acknowledgment to the universe of her feelings for him. She had never been in love before, had never known before what it meant or how it would feel.

At least she assumed she was in love with him. That must be what made this strange ache in her breast as she looked down at him as he slept, this overwhelming rush of emotion that made her want to lean down and kiss him awake so that she could feel him as one with her once more. She held herself still, however, trying to content herself merely with the sight of him, the heavy dark crescents his lashes made against his cheeks, the wide thin mouth, the scar that creased one eyebrow. No, he was not handsome, as she had thought dispassionately days ago -- a lifetime ago -- when she had first looked down at him as he lay unconscious on the grav-stretcher. But there was not one thing she would change about that face, now so familiar to her, so beloved.

"I love you," she said again, this time in barely a whisper. No matter what happens, she thought, no matter if the galaxy is tearing itself apart. I've had this time with you, and no one can take that away from me.

She thought of what they might be facing once they left Tatooine, of all the turmoil they were sure to confront. She knew she should have been frightened, but somehow she wasn't. Somehow she knew that Fett would keep her safe, and the rest of the galaxy be damned.

It was then, finally, that she was able to relax into slumber, to let the deep, calm breaths of her sleeping lover be her final guide into sleep. She closed her eyes, secure in the knowledge that he would be there beside her when she awoke.

X

Miele opened her eyes. The ceiling above her was unfamiliar, stenciled around the edges in a vaguely unpleasant scroll design in purple and gold. For a brief second she couldn't remember where she was, and then memory returned, along with a subtle soreness in her body that had not been there before last night. She reached out to where Boba Fett had lain, but the bed was empty.

"Time to go," he said, looking down at her from the foot of the bed. He was dressed already, of course, in the familiar gray jumpsuit, and in one hand he held the battered helmet that was the only piece of his armor Miele had been able to salvage from the destruction at the Sarlacc pit.

Relief made her silent for a moment. For just one second she had been sure he had left after all, abandoning her and her foolish dreams. She should have known better. He hadn't let her down so far.

"Let me just go gather my things," she replied, then began to slide out of bed, pausing for a second once she realized that her clothing was still in a heap on the floor. Cheeks flaming, she looked away from him as she bent over to pick up her discarded tunic and pants, then quickly pulled the tunic on over her head. Damn it, this sort of thing was so much easier to handle when it was dark....

Still not meeting Fett's eyes, she hurried out of the guest chamber and up the stairs to the slave girls' dormitory, where she allowed herself a brisk five minutes in the 'fresher before collecting the few odds and ends she considered worth taking off planet: her scarred old datapad, a few changes of clothing, the one pair of sturdy boots she owned. All of these items she stashed in a wilted duffel that she'd found tucked into a far corner of the wardrobe, and at the last minute she added a random sampling of the toiletries from the dressing area. All in all, it was a meager collection, but she didn't mind; with her half of Jabba's treasure she'd be able to buy herself anything she wanted once she and Fett were safely away from Tatooine.

Miele had to go all the way down to the guard chamber to find the bounty hunter, as he had not bothered to wait for her in his borrowed guest suite.

"Everything looks clear," he said. "Just thought I'd do one more sweep of the perimeter before we drop the shields."

"Well, I'm ready," she replied. ...barely, she added mentally, thinking of her still-dripping hair and rumpled clothing. But she'd known better than to make Fett wait any longer than was strictly necessary.

"Right, then." He stepped away from the console. "You can take it from here."

Of course. She'd cracked the security system, but she'd never given him the access codes -- and he'd never asked her for them. If she'd bothered to think about it earlier, she should have known that was one indication of his intention to do right by her; otherwise, he would have forced the codes from her and then disposed of her as he pleased.

She moved past him to enter the password to log in to the main security screen, then tapped in the command to lower the shields. After she had done so she looked up at Fett, surprised by how vulnerable she suddenly felt, although there had been no indication that any enemies were within a hundred miles of the palace. "We're ready."

He nodded. "Come on, then."

And it was with that unceremonious command that she trailed after him out of the guard chamber, through the dim corridors of the building which had been her home for the past few months, and out into the blinding heat and light of a Tatooine morning. The ramp to the entrance of his ship had already been lowered, the doors standing open; clearly he had been prepared for a fast getaway.

The metal of the ramp clanged hollowly under her feet as she climbed up behind Boba Fett into the cramped cockpit; it was oddly configured, with the seats fixed at right angles to the short corridor through which they had just entered. For a moment Miele couldn't understand why the cabin had been set up that way, but then she realized it must be that the ship used the same engines for both upward and lateral thrust. Once they were free of a planet's gravity well then they would be facing in what she thought of as the right direction, with the engines pushing them forward.

But in the meantime the setup was both awkward and unexpected, and she had to clamber into her seat even as Fett slid into his with practiced ease. She fumbled with the safety harness, and after the bounty hunter flicked a switch to close the rear hatch he reached over to assist her, his hand carelessly grazing across one of her breasts.

"Sure we have time for that?" she snapped, and he grinned.

He didn't bother to protest his innocence, instead saying only, "Later."

It wasn't worth arguing over, she decided, especially since the memory of his touch had sent pleasant chills racing across her body. Miele knew she would only be a hypocrite if she protested, so instead she allowed herself a small shake of the head and then turned to watch the small square of hard blue sky visible through the view port ahead of her.

Boba Fett toggled a few more switches, and she could feel the engines come to life beneath her, the subtle vibrations seeming to penetrate to her very bones. Once, a few years ago, her schoolmate Drix had taken her for a ride in his skyhopper -- no doubt in a failed attempt to impress her -- but that fragile little vehicle could not begin to compare to Fett's scarred but powerful ship.

Despite herself Miele felt her fingers clench on the worn synth-hide of her armrests, even as the Slave I reached full power and began to rise majestically from the sandy docking bay in which it had rested. It's all right, she thought. Millions of people go into space every day. It's perfectly safe. But she was unable to release the death grip on her seat as she felt her home world's gravity begin to claw at her, forcing her to breathe consciously, making her feel as if all of her limbs had suddenly turned to lead. It didn't help that, because of the ship's orientation, she could see nothing but blue sky, a sky that grew darker and darker blue, verging into navy, until it was suddenly black and dotted with stars.

Then she could sense the ship shifting orientation, rolling forward, until all at once the great sandy-orange disk of Tatooine was before her, filling the view port. To one side Tatoo I, the larger of the binaries, erupted over the planet's terminus in a spectacular wave of searing yellow-white light.

"Any final words?" Fett asked.

Miele looked over at him. He looked serious, but she knew better; she'd grown adept at reading the subtle nuances of a barely lifted eyebrow, the faintest shadow at the corner of his mouth. Then she turned and stared for a long moment at the ochre-hued planet before her, the only home she had ever known. Her father had died somewhere down there; in a shabby corner of Anchorhead, a small house where she had once lived was no doubt already overrun with sand borers and rock beetles. After a long pause she gave a grim smile and said, "Good riddance."

He gave an approving nod but made no other reply. Instead he reached over to the controls at his left and made a few adjustments, and the Slave I turned away from Tatooine, picking up speed as it moved deeper out into space.

If Fett had been expecting any opposition as they left the system, he must have been disappointed, Miele thought. As they rounded Guermessa, the smallest of Tatooine's three moons, she thought she saw the tiny winking lights of another vessel at far range, but that was all. And then there wasn't time to focus on anything else, for Boba Fett pulled down a handle to engage the hyperdrive, and known space exploded around her.

"So where are we going, anyway?" Miele asked at length, once she was sure she'd grown accustomed enough to the stomach-churning spectacle of hyperspace to speak in a reasonably normal tone of voice.

"A place named Kaal," he replied.

She frowned. "Never heard of it." Which, she had to admit, didn't mean much. Galactic cartography had never been her strong suit.

"It's in the Mid-Rim -- about fourteen standard hours from Tatooine. It was under nominal Imperial control, but it's basically a resort world." He gave her a sideways glance. "Lots of tourists, lots of strangers. Even with what's going on right now, it should be fairly safe. No one should look twice at us."

That sounded fairly reassuring, except for the part about it being a journey that would last at least fourteen hours. The seat she currently occupied was actually quite comfortable, despite its battered appearance, but Miele wasn't sure she could sit in one place for that long.

Some betraying expression must have crossed her face, for he continued, "There's a small cabin and a 'fresher through that door to your left if you need to get up."

It made sense. This ship was his home, after all -- he couldn't possibly spend his entire life in this cockpit, although she had the feeling he had slept in the captain's chair more often than not. The three steps from the door he had indicated to the cockpit were just enough to make the difference between life and death in a risky situation. Still, she was glad to know she could get up and move around a bit if necessary.

Which she did after a while, as Fett seemed indisposed to conversation and there was only so long she could sit in her own chair and stare out at the odd, twisting shards of space that flashed past the viewport at speeds beyond comprehension. The tiny cabin he had indicated would be useless when the ship was planet bound, since the small cot and bench it contained would have been perpendicular to the floor. But now it served well enough for her to lie down and rest her head on the somewhat lumpy pillow. At least this bed was far too narrow for Fett to have ever shared it with another woman.

That thought led her to wonder what he had felt, if anything, about last night's encounter. Certainly today he had been all business -- except for that brief touch just before they took off from Tatooine -- but what else, really, had she expected from him? For him to go down on one knee and proclaim his undying love for her? He'd be more likely to sprout wings, and even if he had done something so completely out of character, Miele had the uneasy feeling she would have burst out laughing at such behavior. No, frustrating as his complete unresponsiveness could be at times, that was the man she had fallen in love with, not some soppy hero from a romance vid.

And she was here after all, lying on his distinctly uncomfortable bed, breathing in the recycled air that seemed faintly scented with his sweat -- she supposed it was ingrained in the ship's air-circulation system after so many years of housing the same inhabitant -- not left on Tatooine with a knife in her back or, worse, abandoned to the tender mercies of bandits and crime lords such as Rath Darkpiper. Boba Fett was taking her someplace he felt was reasonably safe, and they still had a lot to do.

Once they had acquired secure lodgings she would need to procure a computer much more high-powered than her outmoded old datapad and then go about the tricky business of setting up new accounts for both herself and Fett so that she could begin to transfer the funds from Jabba's offworld accounts. There wasn't necessarily that much true slicing involved, since she already had the access codes for Jabba's accounts, but it would take delicate handling just to keep the money transfers from attracting any unwanted attention. At least the current unsettled conditions in the galaxy should work in their favor. Miele doubted very much that anyone would be paying too much attention to accounts suddenly being depleted when the legitimate owner wasn't around to protest their sudden diminished state....

She must have dozed off at some point in her ruminations, for Miele awoke suddenly, feeling as if some invisible hand had tried to push her off the bed. After a few seconds spent reorienting herself, she realized what she had most likely felt was the ship's transition back into normal space. It didn't seem as if she could have been asleep that long, but then again, her slumber of the previous evening had not been particularly restful.

Staggering a bit -- the lumpy pillow and flat mattress seemed to have kinked her spine -- she stood and made her way back into the cockpit. Fett seemed not to have moved at all since she left, although it was possible he had slept briefly at some point. He gave her a brief nod as she resumed her place in the seat next to his.

"Rested?"

She thought about making a snide comment regarding the mattress, then decided against it. "Sure."

"We're coming up on Kaal now," he said. "Looks all right."

It was only the second planet she had seen from space, but it was as different from Tatooine as two planets could be. Even from orbit her home world was dry, dusty, and dead; this Kaal shimmered both blue and green, banded with lacy white clouds. One tiny moon peeped out past the planet's terminus, and Miele could see the tiny flickering lights that bordered Kaal's continents in the darkened edges of a crescent shadow as it turned its face from its star.

"It's beautiful," she breathed. Of course she had seen holos of other planets, even ones as lush and lovely as this one, but they didn't convey the sense that these water worlds somehow appeared in real space as delicate jewels that could be cupped in the palm of one's hand.

He made a noncommittal sound.

Trust Fett to ignore the aesthetics of the situation, Miele thought, but she was amused rather than annoyed. Quite possibly he had seen planets much more impressive, but she was still enchanted by the promise those glowing colors represented. Were there real oceans down there, mile upon mile of water completely uncontained by any sort of storage facility?

She did not have time for further contemplation of the planet's beauties, however, as a hostile female voice suddenly sounded over the comm.

"Unidentified ship, this is Kaal Spaceport Authority. State your name and business in the Yushan System."

Fett leaned in toward the comm. "Kaal Spaceport Authority, this is the light cargo vessel Endeavor II, inbound from Gyndine. Transmitting ship ID and cargo manifest now." He tapped away at the modified keyboard to his right, no doubt sending the promised information to ground control.

Miele raised an eyebrow, and he gave her a small, tight smile before saying, "Always have a cover story prepared. We could have made planet fall in stealth mode and maybe none the wiser, but we're trying to look legitimate -- and I'm not here on a hunt, anyway."

She nodded, and then the comm beeped again.

"Endeavor II, you are cleared to land in docking bay 127 in Kardesh Major -- or what's left of it. Transmitting coordinates."

Fett lifted an eyebrow. "Kaal Spaceport Authority? Clarify 'what's left of it'?"

Something that sounded suspiciously like a sigh came over the comm. "Full details aren't available at this time. However, a large portion of our coastal resorts have been decimated by a series of tidal waves. Kardesh Major is partially located on high ground, so the spaceport there is still intact. Mostly."

Miele wondered what a tidal wave was, then decided this was probably not the best time to ask. It didn't sound good, however.

Fett appeared to hesitate for a moment, and then said, "Coordinates accepted, Kaal Spaceport Authority. Preparing for our descent into Kardesh Prime." He toggled the comm, then glanced over at Miele. "Better strap yourself in. I'm not sure what's going to meet us down there."

"Wouldn't it be better to just turn around and leave?" But even as she asked the question Miele slid into the co-pilot's seat and began struggling with the elaborate safety harness.

His response was immediate. "No. That would look suspicious, and I'm not sure what kind of a system force they have here and how zealous they are. Sounds like they were hit with some kind of natural disaster, anyway, and not an enemy attack. It may be kind of a mess, but that may work to our advantage."

As he spoke his hands were busy on the controls, and the blue-green disk of the planet expanded in the forward viewport until Miele had the sensation that they were falling into it, captured by its gravity, certain to disappear into its vast oceans. Suddenly the concept of that much water wasn't all that appealing.

But of course they weren't falling, but sweeping in a smooth, controlled dive that took them through the upper levels of the atmosphere and then down into billows of grayish-white material that Miele at first couldn't place and then realized must be clouds. On Tatooine the only clouds one ever saw were high, thin strips of cirrus against the metallic blue sky, but she had read in one of her school texts that they were composed of water vapor and could be quite developed on some planets.

As they were here, obviously -- so much so that as the Slave I dropped lower into the atmosphere their misty consistency turned into discrete water droplets and then, as they finally emerged from the cloud cover, outright rain. They were flying low over a silvery gray landscape partially obscured by the heavily falling precipitation, and so all Miele could make out was the low jagged edge of a continent moving up toward them through the drifting veils of rain. Then she felt the ship shifting around her as Boba Fett slowly rolled the Slave I to get it into position to land in their designated docking bay, and suddenly her only view was of a square patch of gray sky and a frightening quantity of loose water streaming off the transparisteel.

Once again the comm beeped. "Endeavor II, you will refrain from disembarking until a spaceport official has confirmed your paperwork and cargo. Someone will be with you shortly."

"Understood," Fett replied, then switched off the comm. He reached down to undo his own safety harness and stood.

Miele began slowly to unbuckle her own seat belts, but that last request from Kaal Spaceport Authority had her more than a little concerned. Sure, it was one thing to beam a bunch of false information down to some official who didn't know any better, but how on earth was Fett going to get a hold full of credits and other obviously ill-gotten loot past a customs official?

"Um, Fett," she began, after she had disentangled herself from the last bits of harness and eased herself out of the seat. "I'm assuming that what we've got in the cargo hold doesn't exactly match whatever manifest you sent down to the spaceport authority when you requested permission to land."

"Yeah, so?"

"So what are you going to do about it?"

One eyebrow lifted. "I remember you saying you trusted me."

"Well, yes, but -- "

He stepped closer to her, then bent down and gave her a swift, hard kiss, smothering her protests. "So trust me."

She wondered exactly what trick it was he had up his sleeve, but she knew better than to question him further. All right, she would trust him. After all, he'd had a great deal more experience racketing around the galaxy than she had, and he didn't look at all worried. In fact, that eyebrow of his was still quirked, indicating some private amusement. All she could do was sit back and wait to see what happened next.

XI

The first thing Miele noticed when Fett opened the hatch was the scent of moisture and of damp vegetation, both overlaid with a wild salty smell that she couldn't place at all. The air was cool and wet, and a strong breeze blew errant droplets of rain into her face. Even when standing in a 'fresher she'd never quite experienced the sensation of an atmosphere so heavily laden with water, and for a few seconds she felt as if she couldn't breathe, that the air was too thick and she could drown in it.

Standing outside in the rain, and looking none too happy for it, was apparently the port official who had come to inspect the Slave I. He was a slender human male of indeterminate age, and his face, under the plastic-wrapped cap he wore, was as pale as Fett's was dark. He held a datapad and scowled at Miele as she descended the boarding ramp a few feet behind the bounty hunter.

"Who's that?" he asked. "I didn't see her name on the manifest."

"Just took her on at my last port," Fett replied smoothly. "I haven't had time to update my records."

"Name?" the official inquired, after darting a quick glance at Miele's low-cut neckline.

"Callie Sunrunner," Miele replied promptly. Callie was an old classmate of hers, and Miele figured she wouldn't mind if her name was borrowed in a good cause. Besides, the chances of Callie ever being on Kaal were virtually nil.

"Occupation?" The official's derisive look made it quite obvious what he thought her primary function was on board the Slave I.

"First mate." It was all Miele could do to keep from laughing; she supposed at some other time she would have been offended by the spaceport official's assumptions regarding her status, but he wasn't really that far off from the truth in this particular instance.

The man's eyes narrowed, although he went ahead and made a notation in his datapad anyway. "All right, Captain Marr, let's take a look at what's in your hold."

Marr? Miele mouthed at Fett as they moved toward the cargo bay. He gave her a barely perceptible shake of the head, from which she inferred that she should follow his lead and keep her mouth shut. Apparently "Captain Marr" was an alias he used occasionally; she assumed that the false identity matched whatever doctored manifest he had beamed down to the port authority in the first place.

The cargo hold looked the same as when they had left it: neatly stacked containers of various sizes secured by webbing. Miele couldn't help giving Fett an anxious glance; it didn't appear as if anything had been touched, and so she couldn't imagine what the bounty hunter might have done to conceal the fact that they were carrying a load of contraband Imperial credits.

Face impassive as always, Fett paused by one of the containers.

The spaceport official pointed at the crate. "Open it."

Hardly daring to breathe, Miele looked on as Fett unlatched the container and lifted the lid. Inside were...what? Certainly not Imperial credits. The crate appeared to be full of cushioned foam into which had been carefully laid pieces of some sort of machinery -- possibly mining equipment, since she thought she recognized the fluted metal bits that were sometimes used to bore through rock. Rusted pieces similar to the ones in the crate were a familiar sight around Anchorhead, home of more failed mining projects than the officials there cared to admit.

The official pulled off his dripping cap, revealing thinning fair hair. "That one, too."

Boba Fett unlatched the container the official had indicated and stepped back. This one looked as if it held a medium-sized generator, the sort that would be used on-site to power the types of drill the other crate had contained. He raised an eyebrow at the official. "Any more?" His tone indicated nothing except boredom and, perhaps, the mildest irritation at having to go through the motions of an inspection he'd had to suffer a thousand times before.

But the spaceport official wasn't about to let it go that easily. "That one in the back," he said, pointing to a container in the far corner of the cargo hold.

The sigh Boba Fett gave was scarcely audible, although Miele was fairly certain it was mostly for show. She supposed even someone who didn't have anything to hide would be irritated by the request -- was this annoying little man going to make the bounty hunter open every container in the cargo hold?

The final container's contents were as innocuous as the other two; this time the items revealed proved to be no more incriminating that spare landspeeder parts.

Still, the official held up the datapad one last time, obviously re-reading the manifest Fett had sent to the spaceport authority. "Resupply for the mining colony on Nylos, huh?"

"Right."

The spaceport official made a few final notations, then tucked the datapad under his arm. "Logged and noted, Captain Marr. Kaal Spaceport Authority welcomes you to Kardesh Major. Information for offworld visitors can be found on the local 'Net, channel 185."

Fett inclined his head. "Thanks."

And finally the troublesome official took himself off, replacing the cap on his head before he stepped out into the persistent rain showers.

Miele turned to Fett. "What -- "

"Not now. Gather up your things -- we're getting out of here."

So even though she was full of questions -- the most important being, where the hell are all our credits? -- Miele remained silent while she retrieved the shabby duffel that was her only luggage and followed Boba Fett out into the rain.

It was cold, and the raindrops felt like fine needles on her bare arms. She shivered, thinking it would have been nice if Fett could have warned her about the climate on this world. Still, she supposed he'd had more important things on his mind.

The spaceport itself was a mess; one-half of the complex seemed to have slid down a hillside and was now closed off by bands of glowing green tape. Miele wasn't sure if it was the rain or some other force that had caused the hills to collapse, but whatever had happened, it seemed to have thrown the place into complete disarray. Everywhere she looked she saw crowds of annoyed tourists, some human, some alien, most of them standing in queues and looking as if they wanted to be anywhere but here.

Great vacation spot, Fett, she thought, but decided it was better to save her arguments until they were somewhere private.

They had no trouble getting a droid-operated taxi; most people seemed to be leaving Kardesh Major, not arriving, and there were fleets of the compact little 'speeders circling the spaceport.

"The Grand Imperial," Fett said to the droid cabbie, and Miele raised an eyebrow.

"Sounds posh," she commented.

He gave her a very small smile. "You'll see."

Up in the taxi's driver's compartment the droid cabbie began burbling away cheerfully. "Grand Imperial, sure...you're lucky, the Imperial survived the waves, high ground, you know. Just ten minutes, and they'll be glad to see you...tourists running away like boojins off a sinking ship...who'd've thought one Dark Jedi could have made so much trouble...."

"Dark Jedi?" Fett interrupted. Until then he'd been leaning back against the seat, lids half-closed as if to block out some of the droid's babbling, but he sat up suddenly, black eyes narrowing.

"That's the rumor," the droid responded cheerfully. It was a model Miele didn't recognize, a spindly little thing with four arms and a narrow, flattened head. "Crashed his ship right into the ocean on the other side of the planet -- totally wiped out the Unis Islands. Tidal waves everywhere. Kardesh Major's still here just because it's mostly on high ground."

"And the Jedi?" Fett's eyes were still narrowed; Miele could almost see the tension in his body.

"Oh, dead. Yep. Not even a Dark Jedi could survive crashing into the ocean at 10,000 kilometers an hour, don't you know." The droid's jolly tones never altered during the relaying of this information -- probably it had been programmed to be artificially cheerful at all times.

"Sounds painful," Miele offered, and Fett gave her a look as if to say, don't encourage it!

"Oh, yeah, you people do crazy things, that's for sure. Like diving into the ocean at suborbital speed would bring the Emperor back!"

"Are we almost there?" Fett grated. Although he seemed to have relaxed slightly once he'd heard the Dark Jedi was no more, it was clear he would have liked nothing better than to blast the head off the garrulous droid.

"Just 'round this corner."

And sure enough, the droid took the bend at a speed Miele wasn't sure was entirely safe, and the Grand Imperial stood before them.

Up until that time, the largest structure she had ever seen was Jabba's palace. The Grand Imperial would have dwarfed the palace in one wing. It was a huge edifice of white stone -- or possibly white permacrete made to look like stone -- that had been built on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Three domes that appeared to be made of multicolored glass topped the mammoth structure, although Miele couldn't be certain of the materials, since the dimming light and ever-increasing rain made it difficult to see details clearly.

The droid taxi whooshed to a stop under a portico whose underside had been decorated in a complex mosaic depicting some sort of alien marine life. Apparently the Grand Imperial eschewed droid labor, for it was a young man who opened the 'speeder door for Miele and offered her a gloved hand, helping her out onto an elaborate runner of intricately worked design.

"Welcome to the Grand Imperial!" he announced.

"Uh -- thank you," she replied, allowing him to retrieve her battered duffel from the floor of the back seat, feeling even more acutely aware of the rumpled garments she wore and the sad state of her hair. She brushed at the wrinkles on her tunic, then added in what she hoped were space-weary traveler tones, "Such a dreadful flight! I thought we'd never get here."

From the back seat she heard something that sounded suspiciously like a snort. The porter leaned down as if to help Fett out of the taxi, then backed up quickly after receiving a freezing stare from the bounty hunter. Fett unfolded himself from the back of the cab, still glaring at the nervous young man.

"Thanks," Boba Fett said finally, and tossed a five-credit chip at the porter, who caught it and looked relieved that Fett hadn't thrown anything incendiary at him.

"Great people skills, Fett," Miele said, once they were safely out of earshot.

"That's 'Captain Marr,'" he replied, not bothering to look back at her. "Don't forget it."

Yes, sir! she thought, but remained silent as she trailed after him across the enormous marble-paved lobby of the hotel. In here the walls seemed to be made entirely of glass, encasing tanks of what she assumed were the more colorful examples of local marine life, while overhead huge duraglass globes cast a warm light across the enormous room.

It seemed to take forever to get to the main desk; there was a lot of real estate to cover, although the lobby was conspicuously empty, with staff obviously outnumbering guests at least three to one. Again, the clerk who waited for them was human, this time a young woman probably not too many years older than Miele herself.

"Reservations?" she asked.

For a second Miele wasn't sure what Fett was doing, exactly, and then she realized he was smiling. It was such a rare expression that she gave him a startled look. Then she realized exactly what he was up to.

"Well, I don't exactly have any, but I was hoping you could help me out -- " And he slid a credit chip across the counter.

Apparently Miele wasn't the only one to be affected by that smile. The clerk looked at Fett and returned the smile with one of her own. "Well, sir, we do have some rooms available -- "

"Excellent."

The clerk swiped the credit chip, and her eyes widened slightly. Then she tapped away at her keyboard. "In fact, given the present situation -- I mean, the Grand Imperial values your patronage, sir. We'd like to offer you a free upgrade to one of our Moff suites by way of thanks."

"Well, thank you -- " and here Fett leaned in a little closer, as if to take a better look at the glowing letters on her name tag -- "Selchen. I do appreciate it."

She blushed. "Oh, it's no problem, sir." Then she handed a coded security card and the credit chip back to him. "Please let us know if there's anything we can do to make your stay here more comfortable."

"Will do." He pocketed the card and the chip, then gestured for Miele to follow him toward the bank of repulsorlifts that stood at the far end of the lobby.

Once they were safely inside, Miele turned to the bounty hunter. "All right, where is Boba Fett, and what have you done with him?"

Again that flash of teeth. "That's Captain Marr, Miele. And I didn't deviate from my standard procedures -- I merely analyzed the situation and then used the approach I had determined would work best."

"Whatever you say," she replied. Maybe that was true, but she'd gotten the feeling that Fett had positively enjoyed cranking up the old charm to get what he wanted out of that clerk.

Once she saw the suite, however, she was not inclined to argue with Fett's methods. The main bedroom alone could have swallowed up her old house in Anchorhead, and the 'fresher was so large she wondered whether they were supposed to sleep in there as well, especially since there was an elegant little lounging couch placed against one wall of the dressing area. Best of all, though, the suite's far wall was made entirely of duraglass and overlooked the ocean, now dark as blood in the last light of the setting sun.

"All right, I forgive you," she said finally, after returning to the sleeping area.

"For what?"

"For flirting with that clerk." Miele took another look around the sumptuously decorated chamber, from the blue-green hangings of some foreign, shimmering fabric on the walls to the vases of flowers that stood on the bedside tables. Their blue and purple blooms gave the room a delicate, spicy scent, at once alien and enticing. "Actually, considering how nice this suite is, I forgive you for anything you might ever have done wrong."

"That's a lot of forgiving."

He was most certainly correct in that, she thought, but at the moment she didn't care. "But I really have to know," she continued. "Where the hell are all our credits?"

"Still safely in the cargo hold."

"Excuse me?" What load of bantha dung was he trying to sell to her now? "I don't remember seeing any credits -- just a bunch of mining equipment."

"Don't forget the landspeeder parts," he said, setting the synth-hide bag he had brought with him on the foot of the bed. From it he withdrew his battered helmet and set it with some reverence on top of the cabinet that held the holo-projector.

"Whatever. So what did you do with the credits?"

"I didn't do anything with them."

Miele gave him an unbelieving stare.

Finally, he appeared to relent and said, "I told you I'm prepared. I always carry a few cases of what looks like legitimate cargo around with me, something to match whatever fake cargo manifest I'm currently using."

"But he picked those cases at random!" she protested.

"Did he?" Fett returned, with a lift of the eyebrow.

"What, did you use some sort of Jedi mind trick on him or something?"

A look of distaste crossed Fett's features. "Hardly. Most customs officials are lazy and invariably choose cases toward the front of the cargo hold."

Miele took a breath. "Fine, but he also had you open up one in the very back. What about that one?"

"Finest holo projectors money can buy."

She raised an eyebrow.

"It's true. Since they're projecting a fixed image, the fidelity is very high. And they fit right under the lid of just about any crate or container you're trying to disguise. Can't tell it from the real thing, unless you try to stick your hand in it."

"And what happens if someone sticks their hand in it?"

"Their hand gets shot off."

Well, that was more like the Fett she knew and loved. "Subtle."

"Whatever works."

There wasn't much arguing with that, she knew. Frowning, she gazed across the room to where Fett's battle-scarred helmet sat on the entertainment console. "You seem pretty casual about walking around without that on," she commented.

He shrugged. "It's hard for people to recognize you when no one knows what you look like."

Again, she couldn't really dispute that statement. It was true -- if Boba Fett had spent his entire adult life masked behind that helmet, then who would know what he looked like once the helmet was removed? Besides, she was fairly certain that the well-starched staff of the Grand Imperial would have been less than thrilled if the threatening figure of the galaxy's most notorious bounty hunter suddenly appeared in the lobby and demanded a room. Odd that in this case Fett's true face was his best disguise.

"So what of all that nonsense the droid was spouting about Dark Jedi?" she inquired, sitting down on the foot of the bed and pulling off her sandals. The carpet felt indescribably soft under her feet.

"I'm not sure it was nonsense. Something bad happened here, no question."

Miele stopped kneading her toes in the rug long enough to look up at Fett. "I thought there were no more Jedi." Except one, she added mentally. It had to have been a Jedi who finally bought Jabba's number.

"There were Dark Jedi," Fett replied. "I saw at least one of them. Darth Vader."

Although the name meant little to her save a whisper of malice, still she shivered. "Are there any more?"

He shrugged. "Hard to say. The Emperor kept many secrets."

And apparently he's taken them with him to his grave, she thought. "None of this is very reassuring, Fett," she said, her tone a gentle rebuke.

"It wasn't meant to be." Even as he replied he stepped toward the enormous suite-spanning windows and touched a small control pad in the wall. The duraglass gradually darkened to black, blotting out the dim view of the night-shrouded harbor beyond. "Better," he said.

"I liked the view," she protested.

"You can't see anything at night anyway. It was too exposed for my taste."

Miele wondered whether she would ever win an argument with Fett and decided probably not. Still, she was determined to enjoy herself. She was off Tatooine after all, and right now she was enjoying luxury she had never imagined, let alone seen with her own eyes. "So what now?" she asked.

Was that a swift glance he gave toward her, toward the bed? Miele couldn't be sure, and in any case he actually moved away from her, toward the comm console embedded in the elegant little carved table across the room. "I thought I'd introduce you to an interesting offworld custom. It's called room service."


Later -- much later, actually, after a divine meal of which Miele recognized nothing but enjoyed everything, too many glasses of some glorious fizzing wine Fett said was imported from Commenor, a leisurely soak in the 'fresher (which did fit two very comfortably, as Boba Fett had pointed out), followed by a prolonged session in a bed that was even more comfortable than the one in Jabba's palace, Miele lay back against the pillows, certain that she had never felt so contented in her life. She tried to think if there was anything that could have made the evening better and decided that was impossible.

Fett lay in bed next to her, idly playing with a strand of her unbound hair. His expression was almost sleepy, but she knew better; if any threat had presented itself he would have been on the alert faster than she could blink.

"Thank you," she said at last.

He paused, one coil of shining copper hair still wrapped around his forefinger. "For what?"

"For getting me away from Tatooine. For bringing me here. For everything." She wanted to say, For letting me love you, but she knew that would be going too far. Even though they had shared all the intimacies a man and woman could share, she knew as well that that was the one boundary she dared not cross. Oh, he had caressed her, held her, brought her to the heights of pleasure as she dug her fingers into his barely healed back and cried out his name over and over again -- but even as she had fallen back against the pillows, sated by pleasure, she had known that she could say nothing more, could only whisper his name one last time as she collapsed from the aftermath of the waves of ecstasy he had wrung from her body.

The dark eyes watching her in the muted glow of the overhead lamps seemed amused. "I told you I owed you one."

"Then you repay your debts very well." And she leaned over and kissed him on the corner of his mouth, in that one spot where he usually betrayed his amusement with her.

"In this case, that's easy enough," he murmured, and shifted slightly, allowing her to pull close to him once again. His free arm dropped around her, and then his eyes closed, his body relaxing against hers.

Did I wear you out, old man? she thought with some amusement. Miele wasn't exactly sure how old he really was, but she knew he had to be at least fifteen years or so her senior. Not that it really mattered, she supposed, and she was weary as well, her body finally succumbing to the night's over-indulgences. Her eyes closed slowly, and she relaxed, feeling the warmth of his body and the rise and fall of his chest against her back. Every day is a victory, she thought, in those last few seconds before sleep claimed her. Every night a reprieve. Every moment longer he stays with me, I have won that much more.

Even then she knew better than to ask herself how long it might last....

XII

The days slipped by. Although Fett disappeared from time to time on business he would not discuss with Miele, she still had plenty to keep herself occupied during the hours she was left alone. Her second day on Kaal she purchased a computer and set about moving a good portion of Jabba's offworld funds into several accounts she set up for herself. For some reason Boba Fett would not allow her to establish an account for him, and neither would he give her any information on where to send his share of the fortune.

"Keep it safe for me," he said, in answer to her slightly irritated queries. "I can get it from you when I need it."

"You're joking," she replied.

"I don't joke about money," he said. Then he got that sardonic glint in his eye and added, "I trust you."

Miele wasn't sure whether to be offended or amused -- was he mocking her? In the end she had only shaken her head and continued with her work. It wouldn't have been wise to drain the Hutt's accounts completely, anyway. Instead, she siphoned off amounts of money that seemed somewhat obscene to her but, if noticed as missing, might only lead one to conjecture that perhaps Jabba hadn't been doing quite as well as he had led everyone to believe.

At the same time she sliced into the admissions system at the University of Sanbra and retrieved the transcripts she had sent there a little over a year ago. She had been accepted, but the tuition proved out of reach, and nothing had come it. Extracting her transcripts from their system was the easiest way she could think of to apply to the other universities on her list. First among them was the University of Reena -- previously Miele had thought she would never be able to afford the tuition, but of course that wasn't a concern any longer. Chandrila was another option, and she submitted an application there and to a few other places as well.

As she waited for word, she amused herself by exploring Kardesh Major and its environs. On a few occasions Fett accompanied her, usually when the outing involved something physical in nature -- climbing the low ridges that encircled the city to the north and east, riding a transparisteel-bottomed hoverboat out into the shallow green waters beyond Kardesh Bay, or even attending the local version of pod-racing. But during all of these diversions she noticed a restlessness in him, saw the way his gaze would sometimes turn westward to where the spaceport was located, and it troubled her.

He was marking time, she realized finally. Their pact had originally involved only his getting her away from Tatooine, but whether from a sense of misplaced chivalry or concern that she still couldn't make it on her own, he was staying with her until she had her future settled and knew where she was going. This was not how he lived his life normally -- trapped in an over-civilized city, sleeping on fine sheets, searching for ways to fill the empty hours.

Of course it was not a lifestyle to which she was accustomed, either, but the novelty of living on Kaal was enough to keep her entertained. What a refreshing change it was never to worry about how much anything cost or whether there would be enough to eat, to wander into the shopping districts and buy whatever she wanted, to have a team of hotel staff that catered to her every whim, whether it was bringing up another meal or sending a stylist to her suite to make sure every hair was in place before she went out to dinner. No, there were definitely worse ways of spending one's time.

But she knew this idyll couldn't last. The fear had been there, ever since she had admitted to herself how much she cared for Fett, but she'd been able to push it aside. Now that grew more difficult with every passing day.

He's bored, she thought one morning, as she stood in front of the mirror. Her hair still fell in complicated ringlets from the style of the night before, and her eyes were smudged with leftover cosmetics and lack of sleep. There's a whole galaxy fighting and dying out there, and he's stuck here with you.

Surprisingly, Imperial Center -- Coruscant -- had fallen to the Rebels without too much of a struggle, but there were many other sectors of the galaxy where Imperial and Alliance forces still fought. How long it would all go on was anyone's guess. They were safe here, but that didn't count for very much. Miele recalled the hint of contempt in Fett's voice back on Tatooine when he had called her plans for the future "safe."

And so she waited to hear back from any of the universities to which she had transmitted applications, tried not to ask Fett where he went during the day -- she had a sneaking suspicion that he was in the midst of having his armor repaired -- and attempted to quell the fear that seemed to rise in her a little higher every day. It didn't help that on several occasions she felt quite ill and remained in bed longer than she normally would have. She attributed it to the rich seafood-based Kaalish cuisine and thought nothing more of it.


The message looked innocuous enough. From the Registrar's Office, it said, and Miele assumed it was merely an acknowledgment that her transcripts had been received. Still, she clicked on it, if only to clear it out of her incoming messages folder. Her eyes scanned the few paragraphs the message contained, and then she sat quite still.

"Close message," she said at length, and Fett stuck his head out from the dressing area.

"Did you say something?"

Miele stared at him for a moment, as if trying to memorize every line of his face, every detail, from the sheen of his still-damp hair to the dark stubble on his unshaven chin. "I got in," she replied finally, marveling that her voice sounded so calm.

He didn't bother to ask what she meant. "Where?"

"Reena. My first choice. I didn't think they'd get back to me so fast." No, she thought, I thought I'd have a few more weeks at least. A few more weeks with you.

Nothing in his face, no response, not even the slightest hint of disappointment or surprise. He asked, "When do you start?"

She picked up the cup of now-lukewarm caf that sat on the table next to her computer, took a careful sip, and forced herself to swallow, even though the liquid tasted like gall. "Winter term starts in five standard days. I have to look into transport, but it's probably going to take me at least three days to get there, so -- "

"So -- " he repeated, and looked down at the sonic razor he held in his hand as if wondering how it had gotten there.

Say something, she thought. Say anything. Say you'll go with me -- say that you don't want me to go -- that you want me to stay.

A long pause, one in which Miele was certain Fett could hear her heart pounding within her ribcage. Then he said, "You'd better start packing, then. I told you that you bought too many clothes."

And with that he disappeared back into the dressing area. A few seconds later she heard the sound of the razor being switched on.

The computer screen before her seemed to blur. Angrily, she blinked back the tears. Don't give him the satisfaction, she told herself. What did you expect, anyway?

The message from the University of Reena had a biometric acceptance system. Her thumbprints and retinal scans had been included with the transcripts she had transmitted and were already on file. With a savage gesture she lifted her hand and pressed her thumb against the screen, indicating she had accepted their offer.

The hell with you, Fett, she thought, and went to retrieve her suitcases from the wardrobe.


The taxi that carried them to the spaceport was larger than the one they had first used after their arrival on Kaal; it had to be, to accommodate Miele's luggage.

Through it all, the last-minute travel arrangements, the conversion of her share of Jabba's credits into vouchers or deposits in the accounts she had established, she managed to avoid any confrontations with the bounty hunter. She'd even allowed him to make love to her one last time, although for once she took no real pleasure from the act. She watched everything she did as if standing to one side and observing, as if it were all happening to someone else.

Now and then she reflected on how strange it was that one person could change her priorities so greatly. Six weeks ago she couldn't have imagined a better future than attending a prestigious university, especially without having to beg for scholarships or grants. Now, when she thought about school at all, it was with a feeling of gray indifference.

Still, she had made her decision, the only logical one she could have made. She was proud of herself for never having wept in front of Fett, not even the one dim morning when she had crept from bed and gotten sick in the 'fresher. She had stayed there much longer than necessary as she clung to the edges of the commode and tried to calm the wracking sobs that shook her body. Miele told herself it was nerves, but deep down she was beginning to realize it was more than that.

He sat beside her now, face unmoving, as the sights of Kardesh Major streaked past. Today of course was beautiful, the sky a delicate blue-green traced with slender clouds. It seemed to mock her dark mood.

At least this time she went forth looking like a lady. No one would have guessed her dubious origins by looking at her, she thought. The Tapani Sector, where Reena was located, had a reputation for snobbery. But between her expensive clothes and the trace of Core accent that was her only inheritance from her father, no one could possibly guess that fewer than two standard months earlier she had been scrubbing pots in Jabba's palace.

The taxi came to a slow stop outside the spaceport's main entrance -- the only one functioning after the disaster of a month ago -- and the door lifted open. At least this time their trip hadn't been interrupted by an overly talkative droid; this one seemed to have had its voice circuits permanently disabled.

Fett got out and extended a hand to her. For a second she hesitated, then took it. After all, she told herself, she couldn't exactly make a grand exit if she ended up tripping over the heavy skirts of her traveling suit.

Handler droids appeared to extract her luggage from the cargo compartment of the 'speeder. She handed the thin plastic ticket to one of them. It passed a reader over the ticket, nodded, and directed the other droids to take the luggage to the complex of docking bays controlled by Tapani Royal Spacelines.

Still without speaking, she handed the droid cabbie a credit voucher, waited while it scanned the voucher and collected its fare, then turned to go inside the spaceport. At least it looked as if they'd done some cleaning up in the intervening weeks; the green caution tape was gone, and new transparisteel gleamed along the entrances.

"I can go from here," Miele said at last. "Thanks for coming with me this far."

He gave her the familiar narrow look from under dark brows, and shook his head. "I'll see you over to the boarding area."

She knew there was no point in arguing with him, and so she merely lifted her shoulders and walked into the spaceport, pausing briefly to study the glowing holographic map just inside the door. The TRS lounge was at the far end of the spaceport -- naturally, she thought wryly -- and it appeared the moving walkways were still broken. At least she had had the sense to wear flat shoes.

The corridors of the spaceport were considerably more crowded than they had been when she and Boba Fett had first arrived on Kaal. Tourism seemed to be picking back up, for which she was glad. The local economy had been in a freefall since the series of tidal waves that had obliterated most of the coastline. Of course, as Fett had dryly pointed out after she returned after yet another shopping expedition, that didn't mean Miele had to single-handedly shoulder the responsibility of reviving it.

As they walked, neither speaking, she wondered what stubbornness or final sense of duty led him to come with her. She knew better than to hope for a final impassioned outburst. He probably just wants to make sure I really do get on the ship, she thought. I've complicated his life enough as it is. If he only knew just how much more complicated I could have made it....

The TRS lounge held a few travelers, mainly humans. It had survived most of the damage that touched the rest of the spaceport; dull gold hangings softened the huge transparisteel windows, and alien flowers bloomed in tastefully grouped planters.

Fett paused only a few steps into the lounge area, far enough away from the other travelers so that he and Miele wouldn't attract any attention. At least, that was what she assumed his intention was, although she reflected that spaceport lounges such as this one had probably been the stage for countless teary good-byes and other not quite socially acceptable scenes.

At least her eyes were dry -- for now. She glanced up at Fett, and tried to look at him with the eyes of a stranger. Then he became just another swarthy, stony-faced man of middle height, with nothing in particular to recommend him.

I can do this, she thought. If nothing else, Fett has certainly taught me a good sabacc face.

If her own lack of expression discomfited him, he didn't show it. "So you're sure you have everything set?"

She nodded. "The housing agent at school already has an apartment secured for me. I'll get the rest of what I need once I arrive on Reena."

Was it her imagination, or was he beginning to a look a little uncomfortable? He frowned slightly, and she stifled a sudden absurd impulse to laugh. Who would have thought that the galaxy's greatest bounty hunter could be laid low by a simple good-bye at a spaceport?

"It's been fun, Fett," she said, making sure her voice sounded brittle and light. "I'd promise to write, but since I have no idea where you'll even be -- "

"Miele." His voice was quiet, but something about his tone quelled her, stopped the flow of deliberately sarcastic words. "You know I'll always be able to find you."

"Right," she replied. "How could I forget? The great Boba Fett always gets his man."

He didn't bother to correct her with any nonsense about a Captain Marr.

"The question is," she continued, forcing a twisted smile to her lips, "whether you'll want to find me."

"Do you undervalue yourself that much?"

"Why not?" From the speaker system she heard the announcement for her flight; it had an odd, tinny quality, as if she were hearing it with ears not her own. Then, knowing a good exit line when she heard one, she added, "You did."

And with that final shot she turned away from him and forced herself to follow the other passengers down the corridor that led to the ship. Even as she did so she wondered whether he would try to stop her.

Of course, he did not.


Her passage was for first class, naturally. Since Miele's only experience of space flight had been her trip to Kaal in the Slave I, she was pleasantly surprised by the luxury that greeted her as she entered the main compartment. No cramped grav seats here; the first-class lounge looked more like the lobby bar of the Grand Imperial than the interior of a spaceship, and her sleeping quarters, although small, had been designed with every convenience in mind.

The handler droids had done their jobs. Her luggage was already there, stowed under the bed and in the small wardrobe. A comfortable chair stood near the small square viewport, and she sat down on the well-padded seat to watch her departure from Kaal.

In a gentle, majestic movement, the liner lifted straight up from the docking bay. Miele watched the ground slowly recede until all of Kardesh Major lay spread out below her. Immediately ahead of her the sea glinted blue and green, glowing one last time in her vision before the ship moved up through the cloud layer. Then the curve of the planet transformed into a disk, even as the luxury liner turned away from Kaal and pointed toward the black of deep space.

The shift into hyperspace was barely perceptible on a ship of this size. But Miele watched the starfield distort into streaks of pale fire and realized she was already on her way to Reena. Suddenly she felt very tired.

So he was gone. She realized she had never even said good-bye.

Everybody leaves, she thought. One by one, they had all abandoned her in their way. Her mother. Her father. Why had she thought Boba Fett would be any different?

The hurt came then, a deep cramping ache that felt like the accumulation of every unshed tear she had ever held back, every word of love she had never spoken to him. Suddenly she felt as if she were being suffocated, and she pulled in a deep gasping breath. Finally the tears followed, and she leaned her head against the viewport and wept. She wept not because she expected any comfort from it, but because she knew if she held the tears in any longer she would surely die.

Time passed, and gradually her sobbing eased. She raised her aching eyes to the viewport and watched the hyperspace-distorted heavens streak by. His absence from the pretty little stateroom felt like a gaping hole in the fabric of her universe, but she knew that no amount of tears would change that.

Her mouth was dry, filled with the taste of dust and ashes, like the dryness of a Tatooine summer. She stood and went to the little refrigeration unit. It, too, had been stocked with all manner of conveniences, and she pulled out a small pouch of mineral water.

The water revived her somewhat, but it did little to dispel the bitterness she could still taste. It came from somewhere deep inside her, and no amount of water could change that.

Everybody leaves, she thought again, and she brought her hand to rest against the still-flat contours of her abdomen. But I won't. I'll always be here for you, little one.

Fett might be gone, but she had this one last legacy from him, something he could never take away from her. Something to remember him by.

Where Fett was now, she had no idea. Away from Kaal already, no doubt. Quite possibly he had gone straight to his own ship after she was safely off-planet. There would always be the next hunt, the next score. It was what drove him, and she knew she could no more change that than change the color of his eyes.

You may think you're alone in the galaxy, she thought. But there will always be this other part of you, this one good that came from my love for you.

She wished she could stop loving him. It would be easier that way. The best she could do was transfer that love to his child -- and hope that, one day, it would be enough.



Original cover by GrandAdmiralIV. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.


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Author: Elana Darksaber
Date posted: 9/26/2006 1:02:08 PM
Elana Darksaber's Comments:

oh wow....this is just such a good story, it had me glued to my computer since I began reading it and to the end! It's really a nice change to see a Boba Fett fic, standing at the side of all others...I like the way you write, and the way you caught that aura of Boba...I could almost hear him speak when I read the lines!
Though tis sad that he and Miele parted this way..then again, one can't have it all. *means self* good job!

Author: ApprenticeEternal
Date posted: 9/27/2006 11:01:55 AM
ApprenticeEternal's Comments:

Good to see this had been updated from the FanFic.net. Brilliant story

Author: furrylittlebantha
Date posted: 9/30/2006 11:39:13 PM
furrylittlebantha's Comments:

Oh, excellent! Finally in the archives. This is truly a piece of writing that needs to be in here. As usual, far above what one normally calls fanfiction. 100% classic!

Author: SWpants666  (signed)
Date posted: 10/2/2006 8:46:37 PM
SWpants666's Comments:

Awesome to see this in the archive! :)

I'm sure I've told you how I feel about this, but just in case:

I love every part of it. I love how you show their attraction (and her love) blossom, but one that doesn't make Boba fall out of character at all. And it's sad that they each had to do their own thing, but it's nice to see that Mičle will pass on that love and care to her child :)

Author: thefragile7393
Date posted: 10/5/2006 1:38:40 PM
thefragile7393's Comments:

An absolutely awesome fic!!!!!

Author: Mad Ike
Date posted: 10/7/2006 12:50:01 AM
Mad Ike's Comments:

It's good to see the bounty hunters as people capable of leading lives beyond their duty. It's not so much one sided then and I find it more interesting a read. Spot on showing.

Author: groovydarthonyx  (signed)
Date posted: 10/20/2006 1:49:02 PM
groovydarthonyx's Comments:

alright. i'll say it: this fanfic is up there with "The Sands of Time." i've never been into Fett stories (except jeff42's "First Catch") until now!

Author: rnlaing
Date posted: 10/24/2006 11:24:19 AM
rnlaing's Comments:

i've read this story over and over again on ff.net . I ADORE IT!

Author: sharyntyre
Date posted: 10/29/2006 8:54:48 AM
sharyntyre's Comments:

Fantastic story, one of the best pieces of FAn Fic I've run across yet. Great job with Fett. I'll be looking for more of your scriblings!!!!

Author: Shuro
Date posted: 3/6/2007 12:20:23 AM
Shuro's Comments:

wow this is really well written! its nice to get under his armor once in a while.... you caught another side of him very, very well! but its sad that they part

Author: Darth Star
Date posted: 11/5/2007 10:39:42 AM
Darth Star's Comments:

While this is nothing but a fangirl's dream come true, it is interesting enough and Miele is characterized well enough to avoid falling into Mary Sue territory, which is always good.

Nice read, a little bit on the fangirl side, but it is very good. Congratulations.

Author: Olika
Date posted: 11/22/2016 11:50:32 AM
Olika's Comments:

Has anyone managed to find the sequel to this fanfic? I think it was called Mandalore's Son, but I might be wrong...I've been all over google searching, but I've had no luck.


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Archived: Monday, September 25, 2006







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