"I can't believe we're on our way back there. Again."

Pursing his lips, he frowned as he leaned back in the pilot's chair of the unmarked Taylander shuttle the Alliance had provided for this mission. Glancing over at his wife sitting in the co-pilot's seat, Vader was more than a little perturbed to see a smirk on her lovely face.

"I'm glad you find this so…amusing, Angel."

"Well, I know how much you love sand, so…" She trailed off, smirk firmly in place, as she stared resolutely ahead at the lines of hyperspace swirling before them.

" .Ha…Very funny." He snorted, shaking his head, as he leaned over and flipped the switch of the nav computer that'd begun beeping, indicating they were nearing their destination. "So, tell me. How in the hell did this happen anyway? And, how did this Fulcrum manage to fall into Jabba's grimy clutches in the first place? Alliance operatives generally are smarter than that." He should know. He'd been hunting them down all over the galaxy for the majority of the last two years. Most of the elite corps of Alliance agents were battle savvy and intelligent. Not prone to being clumsy and stupid.

Also, given the Alliance's – and Padmé's - insistence that this Fulcrum had to be rescued as the next vital step forward in their newly formed allegiance, Vader doubted this was merely another rank and file foot soldier they were going after, which axed the clumsy and stupid notion immediately. This meant this individual was of much higher rank – and thus, importance to the success of their secretly combined directive of destroying Sidious and toppling the Empire.

He grudgingly admitted he was rather intrigued at the details surrounding this particular operative and their last failed mission. Which is why he and his wife were currently on a nondescript shuttle bound for his least favorite place in the entire galaxy. His home planet of Tatooine.

Not that he'd not had to visit that barren dustbowl on several occasions the last couple of years. He had. But, he'd not had the displeasure of visiting without the use of his climate controlled suit and mask as the terror inducing Dark Lord of the Sith. Since he was going on this little jaunt as Sandstorm, thus exposing himself much more than he'd like to the gouging bite of the sand and grit he so detested, he felt he deserved some answers to his questions.

Padmé rested her elbows on the armrests of her chair and tented her gloved fingers together before her, tilting her head back with a sigh, as she gazed at the ceiling of the cockpit. "The Alliance has been using a shadowport on Vergesso to transfer recently acquired goods and supplies to various hidden Rebel outposts scattered across the Outer Rim."

"Acquired? Don't you mean stolen?" Vader arched an eyebrow.

His wife's lips twitched, "I prefer to think of it as…liberating them."

"Semantics." Nodding once in amusement, it was his turn to smirk.

Rolling her eyes, she continued, "Bail got wind of possible Imperial spying of the facility, and he and Mothma sent Fulcrum to investigate."

Vader nodded silently. The Empire had indeed suspected Rebel activity in the Bajic sector of the Lybeya System, including on Vergesso. In fact, Grand Moff Kintaro had voiced suspicions of such and had recently requested assistance from the Imperial Navy in rooting out the problem. Interesting that it was his wife that confirmed said activities – instead of the vast Imperial spy network deployed across the galaxy. Of course, now that he knew about it, he had no desire to stop the Alliance's clandestine activities in the sector. Rather, he'd prefer to do all he could to expand their efforts. Anything to thwart Sidious' plans was a plus.

How ironic, he silently mused.

Padmé continued, "When Fulcrum arrived, it was discovered that Jabba was using an inside operative from one of the legit subsidiaries of the Tenloss Corporation, a Yasiloran male named Tuufik, to divert a portion of these liberated materials from the Corporation, which is a front for the Tenloss Crime Syndicate, as I'm sure you know," He nodded once. Yes, he was aware. "...that were intended for the Alliance's use, to instead sell on the black market, intending to funnel the unmarked credits to Jabba's coffers. What Jabba didn't know – and Fulcrum soon found out – was that Tuufik was double dealing. He was actually siphoning off large portions of the materials he was supposedly selling for Jabba…and instead was selling them anonymously through middlemen to line his own pockets."

She paused in her story to glance at him. Keeping his expression neutral, his gaze was nonetheless intense as he processed this information.

"But somehow Jabba did find out, I take it?" He arched his brows again questioningly.

Nodding, she sighed once before continuing, "Yes. You see, word soon got back to Jabba about Tuufik's little scheme, and he sent his own goons to Vergesso to investigate. Apparently, in the course of their so called 'investigation,' they crossed paths with Fulcrum, and things got ugly when they attempted to extract Tuufik to take him back to Jabba's palace on Tatooine, and Fulcrum intervened. I don't have to tell you that it would not be good if Jabba became aware of the ins and outs of our Rebel network in the Outer Rim."

"True." Vader nodded in understanding and agreement. Hutts could not be trusted. Ever. Not for anything.

She nodded, "Anyway, long story short, Fulcrum got caught in the crossfire, so to speak, and ended up being captured and taken to Jabba instead. Thus, our mission to…"

"Liberate them?" Vader's voice was slightly mocking.

Padmé narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips, "Yes."

Grinning, he shook his head as he turned back to the control panel, preparing to cut the sublight engines. "Well, getting snatched by Jabba's goons off Vergesso is a whole different Sabacc game than liberating someone from Jabba's palace. Believe me." His fingers flew expertly over the ship's controls to prepare their landing sequence, as he flipped the switch to bring them out of hyperspace.

Padme silently watched her husband for a moment then arched a slender brow, "Meaning?"

He shot her an amused glance, "Angel, you don't just brazenly waltz up to Jabba's front door and knock and expect to get in, no questions asked. It's more like a fortress than a palace really, and Jabba doesn't let just anybody in there either," his voice was wry as he shook his head again. "I swear, the Hutts are more paranoid than Sidious, I do believe. And, that's saying something, trust me."

Padme considered this, watching out the front viewport as they left the swirls of hyperspace behind and the distant light brown orb of rock and sand that was Tatooine suddenly came into view. "What do you mean?" If they were going to successfully rescue Fulcrum, they needed all the expertise they could muster. And, there was no denying her husband was about as expert as one could get on matters involving Tatooine. Even if he hated to admit it.

Letting out a sigh, he eased back on the throttle, slowing their approach speed, as he entered the ship in a holding pattern, waiting for planetary clearance to be given before starting their landing cycle for their designated approach vector. "Well, first of all, it's isolated. Very isolated."

"Why? Hutts aren't generally 'loners' by nature. They like to socialize and throw their rather gargantuan weight around, so to speak."

Smirking at her comment, his lips twitched as he flicked a sideways glance at her, "True, but Jabba didn't actually build the citadel. He simply seized control of it."

"Explain." She had to admit, she knew next to nothing of Tatooine's local history, other than what Anakin had divulged here and there over the years, which was surprisingly little. As a native of this barren wasteland, if he had any intel that could be of assistance in this endeavor, even if it ended up being nothing but mere folklore, it was better than nothing. Any advantage was better to be had than none at all.

She refocused her attention as Vader began to speak.

"Originally a monastery, it was erected for the Order of the B'omarr monks. They preferred to be segregated from other planetary settlements, so they built it on the fringes of the Northern Dune Sea, where they could be relatively assured their solitude. About a century or so later, a band of outlaws led by a man named Alkhara used the structure as a base of operations as they fought with the Sand people and plundered the local moisture farmers. Alkhara and his bandits augmented the facility, adding a labyrinth of subterranean corridors with several dungeons and other chambers, including living quarters separate from the monks that still dwelled there. He even carved out a roadway from the citadel to the Western Dune Sea and the Pit of Carkoon and added a nine-story tower and other battlements. Eventually, Jabba moved in and ousted Alkhara and his bandits and seized control of the structure for himself, and he fortified it even further, plating the exterior walls with ditanium and adding an expansive hangar bay for his personal fleet of ships and speeders. He also added further chambers in the bowels of the facility, including his own throne room, if you can believe that."

Padme smirked, "How majestic."

"Hardly. It's even rumored that he keeps a rancor in the dungeons."

"Really? Sounds like quite the party animal."

"You've obviously been hanging out with Kenobi too much," He snorted in disdain, as their clearance codes flashed on the holoscreen imbedded in the control panel between them. He acknowledged their authorization clearance with a flick of a switch and engaged the thrusters to increase their speed to head in the general direction of the Dune Sea.

"Maybe. But, it just so happens I've been to a few soirees similar to this in my time." She smiled coyly as she input the landing sequence into the computer, keeping her eyes squarely on the controls before her. She felt his gaze on her and turned her head slowly to glance at him, a look of pure innocence on her face but her eyes twinkling mischievously.

They stared at each other for a long moment before his eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth to speak...then apparently decided against it and shook his head, "You know what...I don't want to know." He turned back to focus on piloting their ship.

She laughed, "Well, what did you expect? Assassins don't hang out at galas and tea parties, Ani." She arched her eyebrows at him, her look amused. "We tend to hang out in the very worst dives and shitholes this galaxy has to offer. It's were all the best intel is." She shrugged matter-of-factly, her words causing him to slowly turn and look over at her once more. Oh yeah. She was an assassin now.

He tended to forget his wife was lethal.

He arched his brows and nodded once, "Point taken."

"So, where are we going, exactly?" she asked as they entered Tatooine's atmosphere.

"We're heading for Wayfar, past the Jundland Wastes, east of the palace. It's the nearest settlement to Jabba's. It's not safe to land anywhere within the nearby vicinity of the palace itself. For one thing, we'll be detected by the perimeter sensors, which is dangerous. For another, the Sand people and Jawas would likely dismantle and strip down our transport while we're inside, leaving us with no way off this cursed rock, which is even more dangerous. Don't worry. They have a small, but very modern spaceport and hangar bay in Wayfar. We can store our ship there while we're at Jabba's. It'll be safe there. People on Tatooine can be a ruthless lot, true, but they're used to the frequent comings and goings of this type of transport - and the various sorts of smugglers, pilots, and assassins that fly them. Like us. They also know to ask few questions in matters that don't personally concern them. It's part of how they stay alive on this rock."

"Perfect. So, how do we get to Jabba's from Wayfar? I assume walking is out."

"You assume correctly. Walking pretty much anywhere on this planet is suicide...for a multitude of reasons. Nope. The Alliance provided us with an NxR-T82 landspeeder, at my request. Ultra fast and highly maneuverable, it actually contains a cloaking device, which we'll need to approach the palace. There's only two ways inside Jabba's...the road I mentioned that was built, which leads directly to the front entrance, and Jabba's private hangar bay. I'm thinking the hangar is out. We don't have the access codes to get in through the shields, and the cloaking device, though more limited than you'd find on a ship, should nonetheless be effective enough to keep the S&J's at bay long enough for us to get what we came for and then get the hell out."

"S&J's?"

"Sorry...localspeak for Sand people and Jawas."

"Ahh...I see." She watched intently for several minutes as he flew the ship in low over the desert toward a smallish township on the near horizon. "Wait a minute...Doesn't the NxR only seat two people? How are we supposed to get Fulcrum out of there? Strapped to the hood like a felled dugar dugar?" She frowned at him in confusion.

He chuckled as he banked the ship in a graceful arc, headed for the docking bays of the Wayfar spaceport. "No. That was the older models. The T80 series are all four-seaters. That's why I asked for this model specifically. I know its specs, as I've flown them before."

"Great. Well, now that that's settled, let's talk entry tactics. Any thoughts?" She gave him a pointed look as he set the ship down with pinpoint precision in docking bay twenty-three. Quickly, they worked together to run the landing cycle and shut the engines down. Once that was done, they unhooked their crash webbing and swiveled in their seats to depart the cockpit.

Heading through the ship toward the cargo hold where their speeder was waiting, Vader couldn't help watching the sultry sway of his wife's hips as she walked ahead of him. Smirking, his eyes glued to the rather delectable view of her magnificent feminine form, he replied, "No, but I'm guessing that knocking on the door and shouting, 'Surprise! We're here!' isn't the best way to go."

She paused mid step and turned to look at him over her shoulder, her expression blank as she simply stared at him. He grinned and shrugged. "Sorry. Pardon the levity, Angel." He wasn't sorry, and she knew it, because she simply arched a brow in silence before rolling her eyes and turning to continue forward. Still, it was adorable how she kept muttering (curses, he was sure) under her breath, making him grin even wider.

Reaching the cargo hold, Padme palmed the access panel, opening the door. Entering the hold, the ring lights immediately came on as they walked in, Vader motioning at the waiting speeder with a grand sweep of his arm, "Ta-da! See? Four seater. Just as I said."

"Mmm...So, I see." Padme walked around the speeder to the front passenger seat, leaning one hip against the side of the craft, crossed her arms over her chest, and explained their plan of action, "Part of the intel we've received is that Jabba is more than a little upset at this entire debacle, and he's placed a rather substantial reward for Tuufik's capture."

"How substantial?"

"Forty thousand credits, alive…" she paused, and he arched his brows questioningly.

"And…?"

"Sixty thousand, dead."

Vader whistled and nodded, "A Death Mark, huh? Jabba's pissed off, alright."

"Indeed. Which is our segue inside."

"How so?" Vader crossed his arms over his chest, his gaze on his wife intent as he listened to her spell out their course of action.

"Word on the spice runs is that Jabba's looking for a very skilled - but relatively inconspicuous and unknown - bounty hunter to take the job." She smiled a charming smile and arched her brows, her look pointed.

Vader nodded, well aware of where she was going with this. "Boba Fett's too high profile, in other words. Which leaves the door open for an obscure pair such as us, correct?"

"Correct." She nodded once then smirked, her dark eyes gleaming, "Only, we're splitting up quickly once we're in the door. I will proceed to speak with Jabba while you navigate the subterranean tunnels to the dungeons and retrieve Fulcrum."

He frowned, "Why am I going into the dungeons? I don't even know this Fulcrum. You do. Wouldn't it be better for you to retrieve the package and let me handle Jabba?"

"No. I'm better at...diplomatic discussions. Not to mention, I have a much better working knowledge of Hutts and their politics than you do. Besides, you can barely tolerate Hutts on a good day, and we know what can happen when you lose your temper, Ani." She gave him a stern look.

She had a point, and they both knew it. He rolled his eyes and conceded with a huff, "Ok. Fine. Have it your way. I'll retrieve Fulcrum while you distract Jabba."

"Good. I'm glad you see it my way." With that, she nodded smartly, and headed back into the main area of the ship. He watched her go in confusion, turning his head to watch her over his shoulder.

"And, where are you going, Angel? The speeder's in here."

"To change. I'm not going in my Nightblade getup. I'm wearing something different for this mission," she called back over her shoulder.

My wife and her infernal wardrobe! He tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling, breathing in deeply to stem his frustration. "Fine! Just don't be all day about it, alright? This isn't a senatorial gala here!"

"Whatever, Ani!" reached his ears, along with his wife's laughter as he heard the door whisk shut to one of the two sleeping quarters on board. He rolled his eyes and grit his teeth, swearing in Huttese under his breath. Women! As long as he lived, he didn't think he'd ever understand them.

His wife especially.


Force, he had a bad feeling about this.

The heat was sweltering as they stood just outside the massive entrance to Jabba's palace. He glanced sideways once more. Admittedly, his wife didn't just look badass in that outfit. She was badass. With a capital 'B'.

From the helmet and blackened viewfinder that completely covered her head and face, down over the matching, form fitting silver and purple Mandalorian body armor with the dual Corellian CH-16a heavy blasters strapped in the holsters on her hips, the highly illegal Nylaar military-grade blaster rifle mounted on her back, not to mention the various other hidden weaponry and tools she had stashed all over her person, including inside the compartments of the heavy leather belt cinched around her waist, his wife was certainly a force to be reckoned with. Even without the Force, he silently mused.

He'd hire her himself, he had to admit. So, he had no doubts Jabba would do the same. He tried to ignore the fact that her ensemble still left little to the imagination, at least in terms of her form and shape. He bit back a snarl. By the Force, Jabba and his goons had best keep their filthy hands to themselves with her or he'd show them just how aggressive his form of negotiations could get.

"You ready, Angel?"

"Yup. Let's do it." Her melodic voice was garbled and distorted by the vocoder built into her helmet, much like his own was in his Sandstorm disguise, which he was wearing for this particular mission. She turned and swept her gaze from his feet to his head. "I don't see your lightsaber. You've got it with you, I hope."

"Of course, I've got it. But you're the one who said I needed to be circumspect with my Force ability. Remember? Walking in with a lightsaber attached to my hip would kinda defeat the purpose, don't you think?" His tone was dry. He reached up with his right arm and pounded on the corroded door with his fist.

"Ani, by the moons of Rion, if you don't zip it, I swear…"

Amused as he was, he was prevented from answering by a round hatch opening on the door and a long camera with rotating optical sensor extending out toward them, a male voice demanding in Huttese to know who was there.

"Speak Basic!" Vader demanded, even though he'd understood them perfectly well.

"I heard what they said, y'know," Padme commented.

Vader turned to look at her, arching one eyebrow questioningly, "Since when do you speak Huttese?"

"I learned from one of my trainers." She shrugged.

Well. His wife was just full of surprises...Sometimes he rather wished she wasn't, in all honesty.

"So, you, uh, understood everything I said in the TIE fighter during the battle, then?" He shot a sheepish glance her way, somewhat embarrassed to think she'd understood the more colorful phrases he'd used.

He could feel her amusement loud and clear through the Force. "Every. Word."

"Damn." He muttered under his breath, which only amused her further. He clamped his mouth shut and refused to say anything else on the subject.

"Who are you and why are you here?" The same voice suddenly boomed out, now in heavily accented Basic.

Padme calmly stepped forward before Vader could respond and answered, "I'm Noojja Dokic. This is my partner, Beek Varz. We're bounty hunters from Unagin. We're here about the Vergesso job."

"How did you hear about that?" the voice asked suspiciously, the orbital sensor moving back and forth between them.

"We have our sources. Now, open up! We'd prefer to speak with Jabba himself. Not one of his flunkies." Vader growled. He was fully prepared to open the doors himself if this idiot didn't do it for them. He just hoped it wouldn't come to that and thus, blow their cover.

The camera immediately retracted, the round portal slamming shut behind it. Vader seriously thought their request for entry would be ignored at first, but after a long moment, the slow grinding noise of the door opening could be heard before the locks embedded in the ground under the door disengaged, and the massive sheet of durasteel began to rise. A wave of blessedly cooler air engulfed them...immediately followed by a putrid stench that made Vader nearly gag. Kriff, how he wished he was wearing his Vader suit and helmet, to block the smell if nothing else. Glancing at Padme, he leaned over and muttered in a low, disgusted tone, "Do you smell that?"

"Nope. Air filters." She pointed to her helmet and tapped the side by her ear. He huffed at the amused tone in her voice, distinguishable despite the vocoder.

Once the door had lifted midway up, they entered with a determined stride, walking several meters into a long, dank, dark entrance tunnel, where they were immediately stopped by a couple of rather grotesque looking Gamorreans, dressed in matching vests and carrying overly large axes. Guards, obviously. The pair were motioning at them with their free hands and grunting at each other in their native tongue. Looking around, Vader sensed several hidden security cameras and quickly used the Force to disable them. Good. No holos of their arrival - or his trek through the dungeons to retrieve Fulcrum - would be recorded. Out of a side doorway, a pasty-looking, older white male Twi'lek with red eyes appeared, approaching them. Immediately, he opened his mouth to speak, but before he could do so, Vader ordered, "Basic!"

The Twi'lek inhaled sharply, audibly, taking a momentary step back before approaching them and bowing slightly. When he spoke, his voice was somewhat raspy, but intelligible, "Of course. I am Bib Fortuna, Jabba's majordomo." He stood up straight again, bringing his long talon-tipped fingers up and spread his hands wide in a questioning gesture. "Who are you and why have you come here? Did Jabba send for you?"

Padme answered, "Not exactly. I'm Noojja Dokic. This is my partner, Beek Varz. We're bounty hunters from Unagin. We overheard in the cantina in Mos Eisley that Jabba's offering a lot of credits for a bounty on Vergesso. Word is that he's looking for a relative unknown for the job. So, here we are." She motioned between herself and her husband without turning her unseen gaze from Fortuna.

"I will need you to wait here with the guards while I speak with Jabba to see if he is willing to discuss this matter with you." The Twi'lek tilted his head towards them and began slowly backing away.

Reading Fortuna's mind easily and seeing clearly his duplicitous intentions, Vader lifted his right hand and with an imperceptible wave of his fingers said, "You will take Noojja directly to see Jabba. However, first, you will tell me where Jabba is holding his prisoner Fulcrum who was brought here from Vergesso."

Seeing the blank eyed stares of the two Gamorrean guards, as well as Fortuna, Vader knew the Force had taken hold of the three of them. He waited as Fortuna spoke, "I will tell you where Fulcrum is, then I will take your companion to see Jabba."

Good. Just what he wanted to hear.

"The prisoner you seek is in the third level dungeons. At the end of this tunnel, turn left. Go to the end of the hallway. You will see a lift. Take it down. It will take you to the correct level. There are three branches of cells on the third level, one to the left, one to the right, and one in the middle. Fulcrum is on this level. I do not know which specific cell block they are in."

Well, at least it was a start.

Nodding in understanding, he waved his fingers again, "Very good. You serve your master well. For this, you will be rewarded. You will take Noojja to Jabba now. You will make sure she is not harmed by anyone. You will forget that I was here or that you ever saw me. You will forget what I asked you for. You will not follow me to the dungeons or send anyone to check up on me."

"I will take you to Jabba now." Fortuna bowed to Padme and motioned for her to follow him. Glancing at her husband once more, she silently nodded, then moved to follow the majordomo in the direction of Jabba's throne room, the two Gamorrean guards trailing along in their wake.

Vader waited until they were out of sight, exhaling softly, before silently setting off in the direction of the lift, disabling security cameras at every turn with a wave of his hand.

Time to find this Fulcrum, bust them out, and then get the hell outta here and off this sorry kriffing excuse of a planet.

He had a reunion with his kids to get to.


"How in the kriff did I get myself into this?" Vader muttered to himself (again) as he turned around to go back the way he'd just come.

He'd honestly figured it'd be fairly easy to find this Fulcrum once he hit the third level. He'd thought wrong.

Turns out getting off the lift was the easy part down here. What Fortuna had failed to mention - or perhaps just didn't realize - was that each of the three sets of dungeons the majordomo had mentioned being on this level was a mini-maze in and of itself with walkways that criss-crossed and backtracked every which way between cell blocks in what was undoubtedly a purposeful design to confuse and befuddle prisoners attempting to escape. Pure genius. If he wasn't so kriffing annoyed by it, he'd probably applaud the ingenuity of the people who built it.

Gritting his teeth, he swiftly retraced his steps, stretching out with the Force to make sure no guards were nearby. As he approached the crossway he'd just passed through, he paused for a moment, closed his eyes, and besought guidance from the Force. Come on. I need a little help here. Opening his eyes, he felt a gentle tug in the Force, however slight.

Go straight, it seemed to say.

He moved quickly down the semi darkened passage, the only light down here from very dimly lit wall sconces positioned at alternating points along the walls every few feet, many of them broken, some of them missing entirely. Thus, visibility was poor at best and nonexistent in spots. Distantly, the muted screams of the occasional prisoner could faintly be heard, along with the clanking sounds of heavy chains moving. Apparently, this section of the dungeon was, at this moment anyway, empty.

Time to look elsewhere.

He had to admit, as he trudged along...Despite being thoroughly pissed off and frustrated as hell at the moment, he was actually glad he'd been the one chosen for this particular task. No damn way did he want his wife trudging around down here.

At least he had the Force...Well, not that it seemed too inclined to help him at any rate.

He continued onward, pausing once or twice to check his direction with the Force. It was insistent. Go straight. Finally, when he was back to the main walkway where the lift was, he closed his eyes, focusing intently on the Force.

Turn left, center section.

He turned left, waving his hand to disengage all the security cams in the vicinity. Moving faster, as the Force seemed to whisper louder to him with each step, he paused when he entered a rather cavernous rotunda with four individual sections branching off in four different directions. He cursed his luck in Huttese. Great. Just great. Talk about stonewalling.

He didn't have all day to do this. He needed to find Fulcrum. Like now.

He jerked when he suddenly heard muffled grunting growing louder. He tilted his head to try and get a lock on where it was coming from...Reaching out with the Force...There. Down the third corridor of the four, headed right for him. He sensed two presences, both unknown to him. Probably more Gamorreans. He backed up a few paces into the shadows of the corridor he'd just come out of it, flattening himself against the wall. He waited, watching to see who would emerge. If they came straight for his position, he'd have no choice but to kill them. He'd rather not do that if he didn't have to. He was too focused on his immediate directive to bother analyzing his response - and the fact that it was more Jedi like than Sith like.

He silently observed two Gamorreans exit the third corridor, one carrying an axe; the other appeared to be holding a food tray. Likely a meal for one of the prisoners. Good. He watched as they lumbered over to the first corridor, which was to his left and began walking down it and out of his sight. Hurrying quickly, Vader made to follow them, staying far enough back so as not to be detected. He disabled more of the security cams as they walked along, bypassing several closed cell doors on both sides of the corridor as they went.

They continued straight for several minutes, walking through three separate crossways before turning right on the fourth one. He paused at this juncture, peering round the corner to watch their slow progress. They came to another crossway and this time turned left. He dashed after them with Force enhanced speed, paused at the left turn, glancing down the semi-darkened corridor to watch them, before quickly moving to follow. Finally, halfway down, they stopped.

He hung back in the shadows, watching as the one with the axe pressed his palm over the access panel of a heavy cell door on the right. The door whisked open, and the two Gamorreans were illuminated by the dull yellow light that spilled out into the corridor. Suddenly, Vader felt a hard, fervent pulse from the Force. This must be it. Fulcrum's in there. But before they could step in, Vader felt his blood freeze when he heard a voice call out, "Back again, eh, Boys? Lunchtime already? I didn't bother eating the slop you brought for breakfast. I seriously doubt this meal will be edible, either. You should've just saved yourselves the trouble, y'know."

His mouth dropped open behind his mask, his eyes going wide, and he felt frozen in place, all the while his heart thundered wildly in his chest. He knew that voice! By the Force, she was still alive! He'd thought her dead! Yet, here she was very much alive!

And working for the Rebellion!

Ahsoka was Fulcrum?!

He swore to himself in Huttese. No damn wonder Padme and Mothma had insisted on this liberation project! Or that Padme had insisted on his coming down here to get her. Very funny, Angel.

No matter. He had to get her out of there. Now.

Moving forward quickly, he withdrew the blaster from the holster on his hip, and just as the two guards entered her cell, he quickly shot them each in the back, immediately reholstering his weapon as they fell face forward onto the stone floor, dead. The axe clattered loudly across the floor as it dropped from the grasp of the first guard that fell. The guard carrying the meal tray landed on top of the food, and a low squishing sound could be heard in the room.

"Well. Saves me from giving them a tip now. The service here's as lousy as the food is anyway." Ahsoka was leaning back on the metal slab that made up her bed, back to the stone wall behind her, one leg bent at the knee, her lips pursed as she squinted at the open doorway where Vader now stood. "Who the hell are you, by the way?"

Staring at her, he wondered for a moment why she'd ask him that since she should've recognized his Force signature immediately. For that matter, why hadn't he sensed hers? But then he heard the slight hum in the room, and realized the answer why. Force suppressive binders. Figures. No matter. She'd figure it out as soon as those cuffs came off.

Then he'd have a real problem on his hands.

Because no kriffing way would she take his sudden appearance that easy. Granted, he'd not seen her since that fateful day she'd come to him for help against Maul, but that was years ago now, and truthfully, he'd just assumed she'd been eliminated either by Maul or in Order 66. He really shouldn't be that surprised she'd survived, though. After all, he'd taught her well.

He tilted his head and observed his former padawan. She looked well, toned and fit. Healthy, despite her present predicament. He couldn't help smiling under his mask. Little Snips had grown up. Her montrails were adult sized, as was her much taller stature. She must be a good four or five inches taller than Padme now. Interesting. Her Force signature was suppressed, true, but no doubt it blazed bright as ever.

This was not what he'd expected. And, he was pretty sure he was going to have to do some slick maneuvering here - not to mention some fast talking - to convince her not to try and kick his ass. Because try she undoubtedly would.

And unlike Padme, she's got the Force...and we don't have time for a knockdown, drag out here to settle things.

"Hellooo?! Are you deaf, mute, or dumb? Maybe all three? I asked you a question! .Hell. Are.You?!"

Vader was jolted from his internal musings by Ahsoka's rather assertive questions. She was snarky as ever, he realized in amusement. Better tread carefully. Looking at the rather perturbed - yet wary - expression on her face, treading carefully suddenly seemed like an understatement. No. An impossibility...but he decided to give it a shot anyway.

He gulped.

"I'm here with Nightblade. My name's Sandstorm. The Alliance sent us to rescue you, Fulcrum." He went with the truth. Well, as much of it as he dared anyway.

She leaned back in surprise for a moment, but he could still feel her hesitation and wariness through the Force. Good. She still had her wits about her. He had a feeling they'd need that to get out of here.

"You're Sandstorm, huh? I've heard of you. A hidden Jedi who somehow escaped the purges." Her look turned thoughtful, analytical, as she swept her gaze up and down, from his feet to his head. She didn't recognize his voice, obviously due to the vocodor. So far, so good.

She pursed her lips and shot him a pointed look, as she extended her wrists toward him, "Well? What are you waiting for? An invitation? Get these damn binders off so we can get the hell outta here! I don't know about you, but I'm ready to blow this joint!"

Here comes the tricky part. As soon as he removed those binders, she'd probably explode on his ass. Oh well. He'd deal with whatever she chose to dish out, unpleasant though it was sure to be.

Walking forward until he stood before her, he waved his right hand over her wrists, unlocking the binders with the Force. The unclicking of the locks could be heard, the humming sound extinguished, and they dropped to the stone floor with a clatter. Instantly, she curled her arms toward her chest, rubbing her wrists with her hands. She tilted her head back and squinted up at him, nodding once, "Thank yo-..."

She cut herself off in mid statement, and he instantly tensed, bracing himself for what was bound to come next. He felt a myriad of things all at once from her: Recognition, shock, hurt, and anger. All of these melded together in an amalgamation of a Force wave he'd expected...but still wasn't prepared for when it hit him.

And hit him, it did. Like a tsunami.

Ahsoka surged to her feet with an uncharacteristic snarl, extending both hands toward him and blasted him off his feet with a Force push he admittedly didn't know she was capable of. He went flying across the room, landing flat on his back on the hard stone floor, just shy of hitting the far wall. For a moment, he was winded.

Momentarily stunned, he lay there for just a second, before he shook off his own surprise and pushed himself back to his feet. Slowly, he straightened, holding his hands up in a placating gesture, eyeing his former padawan cautiously. She was standing with her arms still extended, fury etched across her features, her blue eyes blazing. "YOU!" she practically screamed at him.

"Fulcrum, now don't get excited. Please listen to me...I-" he attempted to begin, but just as he'd suspected, she was having none of it.

"Listen?! You want me to listen?! To what? More of your lies, you backstabbing cretin!"

He backed up a step, keeping his hands up in front of him...for one, so she could see them and two, in case he had to gently push her back a space to keep her from hurting either of them. Which was looking more and more like a real possibility.

"No. I'm here. With Nightblade. To rescue you…" He tried again, keeping his voice low and as soothing as he could. He even sent soothing vibes through the Force, hoping she'd realize he was speaking the truth.

Wrong move. She growled and shoved him again with the Force, pushing him roughly up against the wall behind him and pinning him there. Surprised once again at her greatly enhanced abilities in the Force, he didn't fight back, though he certainly could have. But he knew that would defeat his purpose here, and he needed to appear as non threatening as possible if he hoped to get Ahsoka to see sense and listen to reason.

She'd always been a smart one. Here's hoping that's still the case.

"Fulcrum! Listen! Please!" His voice, though still distorted through the vocodor, was pleading in its cadence...a tone he hoped would register with her.

She relaxed her guard just a bit at his words but it was enough for him to break her hold on him and stretch out with his own Force grip, wrapping her in a mental hold and lifting her up off the floor, suspending her in midair. His grip was firm enough to keep her from getting loose, but not tight enough to hurt her.

Not that that mattered. Immediately, a curse in her native tongue blistered the air as the Togruta former padawan began thrashing about in an attempt to break free. Sorry, Snips. Not happening till you calm down.

" .Go! Now, Vader!" She snarled through gritted teeth, as she continued twisting and contorting herself in a futile attempt to get loose.

Vader shook his head, walking closer to her but stopping just out of kicking range. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited for her to settle down and stop fighting him. "Not until you calm down, Fulcrum. We need to get outta here, but until you stop fighting me, you're gonna have to hang around up there."

She seemed to get he was serious and stopped writhing in the air. But while she was no longer actively fighting him, she continued to glare daggers at him, her blue eyes flashing, as she bared her gritted teeth at him. If looks could kill, he'd undoubtedly be a dead man, but at least she was now quiet. That was better than pushing him around any day.

And, at this point, he'd take what he could get.

"Fine. I'm calm. See? Now, let me down,Sith."

He sighed. He didn't expect this to be easy. Hopefully, her common sense would kick in, though, before he had to do something drastic. Like knock her unconscious and carry her out of here over his shoulder. He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it - just in case anyone might overhear that shouldn't - and decided to see if their Force bond was still functioning.

"Ahsoka? Can you hear me?"

His former padawan jerked slightly, pursed her lips, narrowed her eyes at him...but she nodded silently.

Ok. Good. Progress.

"Ahsoka, before I let you down, I need you to understand something, and I know this is probably gonna be hard for you to believe, but I am no longer Sidious' apprentice."

"HA! You're right, Vader. That is hard to believe!"

"It's the truth! I swear! I've abandoned my place in the Empire and I've somehow found myself the leader of a mutiny against Sidious. Furthermore, I have entered into a secret alliance...well, with the Rebel Alliance...in a joint effort to bring down the Emperor and topple the Empire."

For a long moment, they stared at each other before she threw her head back and began to laugh hysterically. He sighed again and rolled his eyes, his lips twisting beneath his mask. Women!

After a few minutes, she gasped out, "Y-you...expect me...t-to believe...t-that...you're working with us...against him? Seriously?!"

When he silently nodded, her look turned incredulous before she burst into another fit of laughter. "Oh...that's hilarious! I wish the Negotiator could hear this!"

He huffed. This was getting them nowhere. Fast.

"Please use our Force bond to communicate in here, ok? We need to be careful about anyone trying to eavesdrop on us. I shouldn't have to remind you that that wouldn't be good! You're smarter than that, Snips!"

At the use of her old nickname, her eyes flew open wide, and her jaw went slack, and she literally seemed to sag in the air, just staring at him. "You…you called me Snips! Like you used to."

He smirked, injecting amusement in his tone, "Why wouldn't I? It's your name. Sort of. Besides, you're just as snippy as ever. In that respect, you've not changed a bit."

She arched an eyebrow, "Indeed." She then switched back to using the Force, "So, you've dumped your Master, huh? About damn time you came to your kriffing senses."

"Yes. You could say that."

"I'm curious...Why? I mean, as deep as you'd sunk...What's transpired that led you to bail on old Palpy and the Dark Side? Whatever it is, it's gotta be major." She tilted her head as she appraised him, waiting and wondering what he'd reveal next.

Major is an understatement. He thought then sighed and started again, "Look, the reasons why are too many and too long to explain here. The more talking we do, the more dangerous our escape becomes."

He knew as soon as he thought it, she wasn't gonna buy it. In fact, she was already pursing her lips and shaking her head no.

"You're one to talk. Now, I refuse to go anywhere with YOU until I get some damn answers!"

"We don't have time to chat, Snips! Now, I'm gonna let you down, but then we've gotta get outta here!"

She nodded once, and he slowly set her down on her feet and withdrew his mental hold. "Ok. Let's go."

But she didn't move. Only crossed her arms over chest and shot him a pointed look.

"I thought you agreed to leave once I let you go?" He asked in frustration, motioning with his left hand at the open cell door.

She simply stared at him, her lips twitching and her eyes narrowed. "I'm altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further. Now, I want answers."

His jaw dropped behind his mask. Of all the…"E Chu ta!" He swore out loud. "Snips! Not now!"

She simply tilted her head and continued to stare at him, completely ignoring his outburst. He counted backward from five to calm down. "By the Force!" Her expression didn't change, and he threw his hands up in the air in total frustration…"FINE! Here's the abridged version: Nightblade is Padme. She's my wife. We have two-year-old twins. Sidious lied to me about EVERYTHING. Working with Alliance to destroy the bastard. Enough said. Now, let's get escaping before we get dying!"

Not bothering to explain any further, he simply turned on his heel and made for the open door. If she wanted out of here, she'd do the smart thing. He heard her soft footfalls behind him and knew she'd followed him. Good. Wise move.

"I expect a full explanation once we're out of here, y'know."

He rolled his eyes. He'd expect nothing less from her.

Ignoring her comment, he looked left and right down the corridor and then turned and went right, motioning with a wave of his hand for her to follow him. She silently did as he bid. As they quickly moved along, stopping at the next crossway, he could feel her stretching out with the Force in conjunction with his own search to check for any other guards.

Not sensing anyone, they made their way quickly and quietly through the maze of dimly lit passageways. This wasn't the way he'd entered this cell block, true, but he figured it had to lead to a way out at some point. Besides, he wasn't exactly sure where Jabba's throne room was on the levels above them, and they still had to find Padme first before they could blow this joint. No way in hell was he leaving his wife behind in this cesspool.

After several left and right turns seemed to get them nowhere, he heard a dry "Are you sure you know where you're going?"

"Trust the Force, Snips."

"It's you I'm questioning. Not the Force."

Huffing, he continued to seek guidance from the Force. They reached a fork in the passage. He felt a gentle tug to the left, which seemed to head off down a longer, more darkened tunnel than the corridor on the right. When he paused, seeming indecisive, he felt a stronger, more insistent pull of the Force. Ok. Left we go.

He turned left.

"Wait. Are you sure that's the way outta here?"

"Have I ever steered you wrong, Snips?" He felt her incredulity practically explode in the Force. "Never mind. Don't answer that."

"Hmm…"

Ignoring her, he shook his head and led the way down the tunnel. They could hear vague muffled noises echoing around them but couldn't tell from where they came or what they were from. Midway down, there were other corridors branching off to the left and right, but these were completely darkened. They continued forward. Up ahead, the corridor dead ended at another rotunda, this one smaller with an arched durasteel door at the far end with an iron grating over the front of it. Odd. He'd not seen any other doors like that down here. Reaching it, Vader noticed there was neither a handle nor a lock on the door. Curious. Glancing all around, he noticed two security cameras on opposite sides of the top of the door, in the ceiling. Waving his hand, he disabled them.

Ahsoka was looking around as well, a frown on her face. "Seems like a dead end. Looks like you knew where you were going alright."

He turned his head slowly and simply looked at her. She smirked. "What is it with men and directions anyway?"

"Very funny, Snips." She just shrugged her shoulders but made no reply. "Well, the Force led us down this particular tunnel for a reason. This must be the way outta here. So, I say we try and get through this door."

"Ok. How do you suggest we do that? Knock?"

"It appears to lift up rather than swing in. So, there's got to be an access panel here somewhere. Look around. See if you see it."

They both looked and didn't immediately find one. Ahsoka slapped her palms against her thighs in disgust, forgetting to communicate through the Force. "Great. It must be hidden for some reason, and I don't think I want to know what that is."

Frowning, he figured they had only one option at this point. "Ok. We use the Force. On three, we lift."

"I've got a bad feeling about this." She simply shook her head.

Ignoring her caustic wit, he stretched out with both hands toward the door, closed his eyes, and when he felt her move into position to do the same, he counted off, "Ok. One...Two...Three!"

Instantly, they both concentrated with their powers on forcing both the grate and the door opened. For a moment, they felt resistance, but then a grinding sound could be heard, and slowly, the grate, then the door began to rise. Once it was about chest height, they ducked under it and moved forward.

Instantly, the most atrociously pungent odor he thought he'd ever smelled - and he'd smelt a lot of foul scents in his time - filled his nostrils, making him nearly want to retch. He heard Ashoka gag behind him, and glancing over his shoulder, he noticed her screwing up her face in revulsion. "What an incredible smell you've discovered, SkyGuy!"

"Ignore it. We gotta find an exit outta here."

Looking around, they appeared to be in a small cave maybe? But his sense of unease grew exponentially when he noticed the grating on the ceiling high above them...and the bones and decaying remains of something rotting littering the sand covered floor beneath their feet.

He also noticed that muffled noise they'd heard earlier...only now, it sounded much louder, and it seemed to be coming from directly above them. And it had a rhythmic beat to it. It sounded kinda like…"Music?"

Ahsoka looked up and pointed at the ceiling, "Sounds like the party's up there. Know we didn't get an invite, but maybe they wouldn't mind a couple of crashers."

"Yeah. I think up's the way to go. It certainly couldn't get any worse down here. Not with this smell." Under his mask, Vader wrinkled his nose.

Suddenly, the Force seemed to scream a warning, and Vader literally felt the hair on his arms stand on end. But, before they could do anything, the door they'd entered slammed shut behind them, just as a rumbling sound above them drew their attention. They watched as a stone panel over the top of the ceiling grate began to slide back...and revealed a whole slew of yelling, clapping, whistling sentients of various races and species, obviously enjoying a party of the seediest proportions. Yep, that was indeed music they'd heard.

And right in the middle of all that debauchery, stood his wife, staring down at them, and he could feel the fear and concern rolling off her in waves, which did nothing to improve his ever growing angst.

"Think they've got anything edible up there? I'm kinda hungry after refusing the slop they sent me earlier."

"Not now, Snips!"

"Huh, huh, huh, huh," Reached their ears, and a thread of ice wrapped around his spine. He knew that laugh, and he listened in growing anger as Jabba mocked them before smugly sentencing them to death - said in Huttese, of course. Well. At least Padme heard that just as plainly as I did.

Jabba punched a button on his enormous chair, and behind them, a massive door began to lift open, and a loud scuffling noise...followed by an ear-piercing roar reached them. Turning slowly to look behind them, Vader felt his stomach drop to his toes, his blood freezing in his veins.

"Uhm...SkyGuy...I hate to tell you this, but I think it just got worse."


How in the hell they were going to get out of this mess, Padme had no kriffing clue.

She'd followed Fortuna down into the lower levels where Jabba's so-called 'throne room' was located. Unbeknownst to her husband, the Alliance had secretly sent Rex and a couple of other Rebel soldiers ahead of them to Jabba's to infiltrate it and blend in as guards. As soon as she descended the steps into the room, she caught sight of Rex, and he'd given her the barest hint of a nod, acknowledging her presence. Mothma had briefed the trio of their mission directive...and her and Sandstorm's role in it. So, Rex knew her cover story, and in all honesty, though she was certainly more than capable of protecting herself, she couldn't deny having the good Captain along for the ride, the clone who'd served her husband so faithfully in the 501st, was a relief to be sure.

Of course, she'd had to negotiate with Jabba all on her own, which had been a bit tricky, even speaking fluent Huttese. Not that she'd let that fact slip, pretending to utilize Fortuna as a translator in her negotiations with Jabba. She'd expressed her reasons for being there, and when he'd seemed reluctant to offer her the Vergesso job, indicating she wasn't what he was looking for in this endeavor, she very calmly pulled out a thermal detonator, turned it on, and threatened to blow Jabba and his entire palace to smithereens unless he agreed to give her the job.

She had to give it to him. While everyone else in the room had screamed hysterically, Jabba had merely laughed and declared her to be his type of scum, fearless and inventive...and had promptly agreed to give her the job. If only he'd given her the coordinates and the downpayment for the hit right then, she could have left his putrid presence and gone in search of her husband to aid him in securing Ahsoka's release.

Alas. It wasn't to be quite that easy.

Apparently, after eyeing her from head to toe and grotesquely licking his toad-like chops suggestively, as part of the deal, Jabba insisted she stick around for the current day's festivities. Feeling nauseated at the prospect, she'd declined, forcing herself not to shudder in revulsion, but when he'd declared that if she attempted to leave the party too soon, he'd see to it she didn't leave at all...she felt she needed to at least pretend to agree, for the moment. Especially after glancing quickly around the room and taking note of several more guards now lining the perimeter.

Typical Hutt. She could completely understand Anakin's utter dislike of their entire race. Amoral. Ruthless. Greedy. Hedonistic. Gluttonous. Their race was as loathsome as any she'd ever encountered in the galaxy…And if her husband ever found out what Jabba had even hinted at in their discussion...he'd kill the wretched creature without a second thought.

Or maybe she'd do it instead.

Admittedly, Hutts annoyed her as much as they did her husband. Not that she'd ever admitted that out loud to anyone before, of course. As a Galactic Senator, she'd had to deal with the Hutts on many occasions over the years, and she found their tactics, and their temperament, to be difficult to handle in the best of circumstances.

Not that she would call this the best of circumstances.

Perusing the party goers jammed into the room, she felt revulsion at the inebriated or spiced out beings cavorting about in drunken and stoned revelry…while at the same time, feeling heartbreak and compassion for the scantily dressed slaves, both male and female, who were weaving through the crowd, serving more drinks, more spice, more death sticks...or even themselves, she had no doubt, as she had to fight the urge to kill the Rodian male she watched groping a female Twi'lek slave across the room.

Unfortunately, freeing the slaves in Jabba's palace, unlike the ones they'd freed in the mines awhile back, wasn't on the day's agenda. No matter how much she wished it was. Nope. This was a surgical extraction. In, grab Ahsoka, and out. That's it.

She bit back an aggrieved sigh.

Hopefully, her husband had managed to find Ahsoka by this point. The atmosphere in here was rather stifling...and she'd already had to fend off the unwanted attention of more than one of Jabba's guests while canvassing the throne room, looking for a nondescript way out of this den of concupiscent iniquity. True, since becoming one of the most feared assassins in the galaxy, she'd definitely seen her fair share of...questionable establishments but, sweeping her gaze around the room once more, she had to admit...she'd never seen anywhere that approached this level of lewdness. Period. Not even Bespin or Coruscant's lower levels.

And that was really saying something.

At that moment, a flurry of activity by Jabba's personal pedestal drew her attention. Fortuna was motioning to the floor and speaking in a rather agitated and urgent manner with his master. Smirking in her helmet, she had a feeling she knew what all the fuss was about.

Or should she say whom.

She edged back around the room, passing by Rex and silently motioning toward Jabba with a slight tilt of her head. The Captain tapped one index finger against her arm once as she brushed past in acknowledgement. She knew his eyes would be watching her like a Nockmyn hawk. After a couple of minutes, she managed to maneuver to within a few feet of Jabba, and she watched with rapt attention as the gigantic slug began to laugh, obviously delighted at whatever news his majordomo had just given him. He began to speak to the room at large, and she listened as he said that some unexpected entertainment was about to begin.

Oh no. She suddenly had a bad feeling in her gut at just what that might mean.

At that moment, Jabba smacked his pudgy palm down on a button on the arm of his chair...and the stone floor in front of her began to slide sideways, revealing a grate in the flooring beneath it...and stepping gingerly forward with the cheering ecstatic crowds now grappling with each other for the best view, she looked down in growing horror…to see the upturned faces of her husband and his former padawan down in the pit below.

Her gut tightened in anguish as she listened to first Jabba declaring, then Fortuna translating, the death sentence of her dear friend...and her beloved soulmate at the jaws of a ravenous rancor! The crowded room around her positively exploded in delighted glee at the doomed individuals' fate. Padme thought she was going to be sick, as memories of Geonosis flashed through her mind.

Well. They'd managed to escape that nightmare. Surely, they could escape this one. She hoped.

That was when they heard the creaking and groaning of a massive door being slowly lifted along the back wall of the pit Anakin and Ahsoka were in. She, along with everyone else, heard the scraping of claws followed by the blood-curdling roars of the enraged rancor, and her stomach dropped to her toes in utter dread.

By the Force….

As the enraged animal appeared behind them, she heard Ahsoka say, "Uhm...SkyGuy...I hate to tell you this, but I think it just got worse."

Anakin's reply was a little harried, "Really?! You think?...No shit it just got worse!"

With that remark, her husband whirled suddenly, brandishing his Jedi lightsaber. Igniting it with a snap - hiss, the blue blade hummed to life...and the collective gasp of shock reverberated across the room around her. Even Jabba seemed speechless for a moment.

Anakin yelled instructions at Ahsoka, who used the Force to hurl jagged stones and large bones at the animal to distract it and draw it's attention away from Anakin, who was trying to get behind the thing. The previous cheers in the crowd turned to jeers, as they watched the two Force sensitives battle against the rancor.

Her eyes glued to the scene below, she watched as Anakin slashed at the rancor's arms and legs, dodging the animal's attempts to grab him in its massive claws, which only seemed to be pissing the thing off more. Ahsoka wasn't quite so lucky, not having her lightsabers with her, and Padme gasped with everyone else when the creature managed to grab her with one giant claw, lifting her up to bring her toward its mouth for a juicy bite.

Anakin yelled, "Catch!" and flung his lightsaber toward the Togruta, who stretched out her hand and called the saber to her, grasping it and igniting it in one fluid motion, and as she neared the rancor's face, she stabbed it in the eye with the saber. The creature screamed in agony, and began thrashing its arms about wildly, opening its claws and dropping Ahsoka to the ground in the process.

She immediately whirled to get out from underneath the lumbering, roaring animal as it wildly thrashed about in pain, its claws smacking the stone walls of the pit with a resounding Crack! She took the opportunity to use the lightsaber to cut through the animal's nearest ankle joint, severing tendons with a single stroke. Now, more wobbly than ever, it stumbled backward, as its ear-piercing screams rent the air, and Anakin stretched out with both hands and heaved with a mighty Force push.

Padme gasped with everyone else as the rancor was literally lifted off its feet and blasted backward toward the entrance from whence it came. Next, her husband stretched out with the Force, lifted a nearby rock and hurled it at a small control panel embedded in the stone wall behind the wounded, still flailing creature. The rock found its mark with pinpoint accuracy, and the massive door that opened to release the rancor was now the instrument of its death, as it crushed the doomed creature, its locking pikes slamming down, piercing the animal's skull and pinning it to the sandy floor of the pit. A pitiful gurgling noise could be heard as the last echoes of its final roar faded away.

Up in Jabba's audience chamber above the pit, an equally enraged Hutt was now going ballistic at the destruction of his prized rancor, screaming promises of the imminent demise of the two Jedi who'd dared to evade their death sentence.

His promises of vile retribution blistered the air as he flopped around in his chair, flailing his arms wildly. He actually hit Fortuna across the chest and knocked the Twi'lek to the floor as the furious Hutt continued to roar. The terrified screams of the party goers erupted in a cacophonous clamor as they backed away from the grate, cowering in fear at just what punishment the incensed crime lord might deem appropriate for them.

And with each passing moment, each threat hurled out by Jabba, Padme's own ire rose. At what the Hutt had done to Ahsoka, to the multitude of abused slaves in his compound, his implied suggestions toward herself.

But most of all for daring to try and murder her beloved husband and her children's father.

And the thought of her husband almost dying at this vile monster's hands now...when hope had finally been reborn, when her Ani appeared so close to redemption...when it was finally time for him to meet their children...Well. That was just one insult too many, and the presently tenuous control she held on herself snapped, severing any logical thought processes she had.

And just like that, Jabba unwittingly unleashed a different kind of hell on himself and his minions.

And the Hutt never saw it coming.

Pssssheww

Suddenly, in the midst of the chaotic din, another lightsaber ignited, the glow - and the hum - from the pulsing purple blade filling the room. More screams echoed as sentients scrambled away in every direction in a mad dash to flee from the bounty hunter who was obviously more than just a bounty hunter. They needn't have worried. They weren't her real target.

That bloated egotistical slug was.

But first things first.

Her blade swung down in a smooth arc of motion, slicing through the grating with a shower of sparks. With one circular sweep of the blade, she cut out a wide enough swath of metal for Anakin and Ahsoka to jump up through. Reaching out with one leg, she lifted her booted foot and stomped down on the grating, dropping the cut piece to the pit floor below. Glancing down, she noticed Anakin and Ahsoka already moving into position to make the Force assisted jump.

Not bothering to dwell on that, she quickly relit her saber and began making her way toward a now growling and screeching Jabba, who was shouting obscenities and gesticulating frantically at her advancing form, ordering his guards to kill her. Sorry. Not happening, Hutt.

She vaguely noticed Rex and his two soldiers hoisting their rifles and blasters, preparing to return the anticipated fire. They weren't disappointed. A barrage of blaster bolts erupted, coming in from every conceivable direction. Padme expertly swung her saber in a rolling circle, deflecting shot after shot. It slowed her forward progress, but didn't fully impede it. Her conscious thought had narrowed to only one being, one objective...

Kill Jabba.

Nothing else mattered in that moment.

She didn't hear the whoosh of the two Force sensitives as they cleared the grate opening and entered the fray of an unexpected battle. She didn't hear Rex shouting orders or hear Ahsoka and Anakin calling her name frantically. Nothing registered but the overwhelming need that burned in her very bones and pulsed in her veins to eliminate that piece of blubbery smelly filth from the galaxy. Permanently.

Moving with speed and agility, she felled every guard and goon that attempted to block her path. The moans and groans of the dying interspersed with the staccato sound of blaster bolts ricocheting in every direction. The stench of death filled the room as the carnage mounted. Anakin was trying to reach her through the throng of dead and dying bodies that now littered the floor. Ahsoka and Rex, under Anakin's orders, were trying to direct all the escaping slaves and fleeing partygoers to safety out of the stairwell leading to the front entrance of the palace, while more guards swarmed into the room from other areas of the citadel.

And all the while, her senses remained honed on Jabba.

Stepping over bodies, she continued to fight her way forward, her saber swinging left and right to block incoming shots. She noticed an opening to the left of Jabba's pedestal that appeared to lead to a way around it. That could work to her advantage...facilitate an attack from behind the gargantuan crime lord. She dove for it, flipping gracefully up and over two Gamorreans in the process, landing behind them and quickly jerking the blaster from her left hip holster and shooting each one in the back. Not waiting to watch them fall, she reholstered her blaster and turned and climbed up on the small dais, immediately behind Jabba's chair. Perfect.

Crouching down, she ducked behind the Hutt, knowing he couldn't see her. He was too busy shouting himself hoarse at the bloodbath taking place before him to notice she'd disappeared from view. Padme smirked. No one was paying him any mind anyway. They were all too busy trying to save their own hides at this point.

Carefully, she eased up onto the back support of the chair, having just enough room for the pads of her boots under her toes, her heels hanging off the edge. Slowly rising, she kept her weight evenly balanced on both legs. She'd likely only have one chance at this...and she intended to nail it. She noticed from this view Anakin's wide-eyed gaze on her, and he stretched out with his left hand toward her and screamed, "Nightblade, No!"

But his warning was too late. Before Jabba even knew what hit him, Padme lifted her blade high and then rammed it down with all her might...impaling her saber directly through the top center of Jabba's skull. The giant slug let out a frightening growl that faded to a gurgle before falling silent altogether, as she twisted the saber once, pushing down with all of her weight on the hilt, before jerking it free. The Hutt's large tongue stood out straight from his gaping mouth, quivering, as his body jerked spasmodically in its final death throes.

It was done. Jabba was dead.

Psssssssssshhh

Her purple blade vanished from view as she turned the weapon off once more and put it back in its hiding spot in the hidden compartment on her belt. Her chest heaving, she jumped backward off the dais, landing solidly on the floor just as Anakin grabbed her wrist firmly and pulled, telling her, "Let's go!"

He voice was clipped. He was frowning, and his eyes had darkened to the color of angry storm clouds. He was not pleased about something. The massacre in here maybe? She couldn't understand why, if that was the case...After all, Jabba has been a menace on Tatooine since Ani was a boy. He should be pleased he's dead.

Still, as he marched her through the now quiet - and empty of the living - throne room, up the stairs, and down the long corridors leading out of the complex, his demeanor seemed almost grim. Confused, she opened her mouth to speak, only to have him cut her off before she could breathe a word. "DON'T say anything. Not now. Not here. Wait till we're on the ship."

Ok. Fine. If he wanted to wait, well…discretion was the better part of valor, right? She could be patient.

Moving faster as they reached the massive front entrance they'd walked in hours earlier, they headed for the speeder where Rex and Ahsoka now sat in the back seats. She didn't see any sign of the freed slaves or the escaped partiers anywhere on the horizon. Reaching the speeder, Anakin silently pointed to the front passenger seat while he climbed in the driver's seat. She moved around the speeder, climbed in, and he immediately fired the engine and headed for Wayfar, staring straight ahead, refusing to speak to any of them. She turned around to glance quickly at Ahsoka who merely arched her brows and shrugged. Apparently, she was just as confused by Anakin's silent brooding as she was.

This should be interesting then, she thought, and settled in for the ride back to the spaceport.


"What the hell were you thinking, dammit?!"

She shifted uncomfortably under her husband's stern gaze.

They were alone in the cockpit, having just entered hyperspace on their way home to Gandle Ott after dropping off Ahsoka and Rex at their designated rendezvous point. He'd had a lengthy and private conversation with Ahsoka in the cargo old after they'd left Tatooine's airspace. She and Rex had left them to it while they contacted Rebel High Command with the final report on their mission.

After their discussion, Anakin had joined Padme in the cockpit, shutting the door for some privacy of their own. He'd told her what he and Ahsoka had discussed and that he'd come clean with his former padawan about everything, past, present, and immediate future at any rate, including his tirade aimed at Obi-Wan. He'd talked one on one with Rex for a long while also, expressing surprise at his former captain's involvement with the Rebellion, but ultimately, all had been forgiven between the two men, when Rex had stood at attention and crisply saluted his former commander, simply stating, "Welcome back, General."

Now, they were speeding toward home to reunite father and children.

But first, they needed to discuss what was weighing heavily on his mind at present.

He sat, arms folded across his chest, his right index finger tapping against his opposite biceps, and he was tense. All over. Even his jaw was tight, his teeth clenched, and his lips were flattened into a thin line.

Observing all these silent body signals of his inner turmoil, she tilted her head and voiced her confusion in as soothing a tone as possible. After all, fighting wouldn't get them anywhere. "What are you talking about, Ani?"

He tilted his head back and heaved a sigh, staring up at the ceiling, before he brought his head back up and looked at her again, this time with genuine concern in his eyes. "Jabba. The kriffing bloodbath YOU started. Ring any bells, Sweetheart?!" His look turned pointed at his sardonic reply.

Oh...That. She bit her bottom lip for a moment, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks. Yeah, Mothma and Bail hadn't been too thrilled to hear about that little tidbit either. Both Rebel leaders had chastised her rather soundly for such a poor move and such an uncharacteristic lack of wisdom on her part for launching such an attack on the Hutts' most formidable leader.

No doubt her husband agreed, considering the seriousness of his expression. "Look, Angel...You knew what our sole objective was on this mission. To get Ahsoka out. That's all! We weren't there to take down Jabba!" She opened her mouth to respond, but he threw up a hand to forestall her, "I know how vile and loathsome he was. Trust me! I know! And while I can't deny Tatooine...and the Outer Rim territories as well...are better off in one respect without him, the fact is...and you don't know how badly it pains me to say this...those planets are likely to be in far worse shape without Jabba than they were with him!"

"How do you figure that?!"

He shook his head and reached up to rub his left hand wearily over his face before looking at her as if he was having to explain basic addition to an unschooled child. "Angel, nature abhors a vacuum. You should know this. In fact, I know you know this truism. That said, let me ask you a question. What do you think will happen on Tatooine now that you've removed the strongest, most powerful bully on the block, so to speak?" He arched his brows at her, waiting to see what she'd say.

She said nothing. The cogs were slowly starting to grind now that the heat of battle was behind them and the adrenaline rush well and truly subsided, and her eyes grew wide in dawning horror, as the realization of just what she'd done began to seep into her brain.

Now that they were on the same page, he drove his point home fully, leaning forward in his chair and resting his forearms on his knees and staring deeply into her eyes. She needed to understand exactly what the potential consequences of her actions today were.

"With one swift stroke of your lightsaber, you've now removed the only force in the Outer Rim strong enough to hold the Empire and all the other crime syndicates combined at bay in Hutt controlled space. In essence, you've single-handedly opened the possibility of yet another civil war to erupt on the galactic scene, because Jabba's son, Rotta, is nowhere near as strong or as crafty and shrewd as his father was. And, none of the other Hutt Clans have anyone really capable of taking over the job either. And we," he motioned between them, indicating their new secret alliance,"meaning the Alliance and myself, of course, have our hands full trying to bring down Sidious and his regime. We don't have either the time or the resources to even attempt trying to fight the Empire and stabilize the now very unstable situation in the Outer Rim."

She blanched. He was right. She knew he was right. Blast it, she was smarter than this! How had she lost her normally rigid control over herself?

His next question was softer, more confused. "Why? Why'd you kill Jabba? That's...that's just not like you, Padme. Today, you acted more like I would have. And that scares me."

His words were almost whispered, but in the silence of the cockpit, she heard every word loud and clear. She struggled to formulate her response, to vocalize why she'd done what she did. "I...I guess I just did what I thought needed to be done, Ani. Like I've seen the Jedi do over and over again. Like you used to do when you were a Jedi. When...when Jabba sentenced you to death like that...Now, when...when you're starting to turn things around and get going in the right direction again. When you're finally ready to meet our children properly...When we finally have a chance to renew our relationship...I don't know...I heard Jabba ranting, and something in me just snapped, I guess. So, I did what I thought any Jedi would do." She shrugged and reached out to grasp his hand to twine their fingers together...only to have him gently withdraw and lean back in his chair as he shook his head sadly.

His next words were somber, and frightened her deeply, "You're right in that you reacted like me today, Angel, but not when I was a Jedi. No. Today, you acted like I would have as Vader."

He paused. "You acted like a Sith Lord today, Padme. Not a Jedi, and that worries me more than anything."


This is the longest chapter ever written for this story. Actually, it might be my longest period? Not sure about that, so...don't call me on it. But yeah, the length is a big reason why this hasn't been posted in a while...plus I had zero desire to write this chapter and skipped to the next one (which is complete, I just have a few things to tweak). Ya'll seriously need to thank my beta. This wouldn't have happened without her. Period.

So, next update will be soon, like this upcoming week soon.

The songs for this chapter are Mereen from Game of Thrones (for the beginning part) and the Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson for the throw down at the end of the chapter.

Review!

Love,

Sarah