"Fett, I'm sorry that I fell in love with you, but there's nothing I can do about it," she said, squeezing his hand sharply.
He glanced down at her. Her hand felt so small in his gloved hand. The light of the setting sun caught in her long golden hair, making it look like a beautiful halo around her lovely face. But looks were deceiving. This angelic looking creature beside him harbored deep ties to darkness. Her small hand could, with only a gesture, kill. She was the Emperor's daughter. And Fett should have stopped things long before this, but he had been powerless to do so.
"My father can't keep me here indefinitely," she said, the flash of defiance clearly recognizable in her startling green eyes.
"You should not have angered him," Fett replied, matter-of- factly.
"He pissed me off."
Beneath the helmet, Fett smiled. He couldn't help it. Her childish demeanor made him smile. He could barely remember being a child. But he had to admit that over the years sharing her childhood had given him something.... cherished. How long had it been, he wondered? She had been seven-years-old the first time they had met. She had stowed away on his ship. Surprised, he had fired his blaster point-blank at her, only to watch her deflect the laser bolts. And then she had thrown-up all over the place. He was still smiling beneath his helmet. That had been thirteen years ago. And now they were lovers.
That had been a mistake. He knew it. But there was nothing he could do about it now. He glanced behind her to where four red-robed Imperial Guards stood silently, waiting and watching.
"Goodbye, Raian," he said, stepping away from her.
She said nothing in return, but with the enhanced audio receivers inside his helmet, he heard her sigh of longing and he felt guilty for leaving her.
He walked quickly, crossing the intersection and turning between the tall buildings on the opposite corner. He had already squelched his emotion; it wasn't smart for him to be dwelling on such things out in the open where anyone and everyone might be targeting him. Although, for the most part, he was as safe here as anywhere, probably more so since this was her home.
He reached his ship and made a thorough search around it before boarding. Once inside, safely sealed off from the rest of humanity, he removed his helmet and ran his hand through his dark brown hair. His face was scarred from many fights. The most recent, a welt still raised and angry red above and over his right eye, had been delivered by a Corellian pirate named Folloan Racken. Just three days ago, Fett had tangled with the pirate, and had lost 20,000 credits because he had to kill him. The bounty had been dead or alive, but alive Racken was worth more to the Empire. Too bad the pirate had managed to knock off Fett's helmet and deliver that near-blinding blow. Fett took no pleasure in killing the man.
His fingers traced the welt, and he closed his eyes and found himself remembering Raian's soft lips kissing a trail over his wound. His eyes snapped open. Dammit. He didn't want to care.
He began the preparations to depart. As SLAVE I was lifting off the landing pad, he saw an explosion across the city. The brief flash of light fanned out into a golden glow. Something was burning. He leaned forward and hit the com, asking for clearance to leave Coruscant space.
Three hours into his journey, three hours of quiet and peace, three hours of clearing his mind to all but the hunt ahead, and then, unexpected interruption.
The holocom light flashed repeatedly, the signal strong, important, Imperial. He donned his helmet and hit the com control. An image began to form on the holopad.
"Lord Vader," Fett acknowledged with a slight nod of his head.
"Bounty Hunter," the dark Lord of the Sith said, his voice the same cold, modulated tone Fett had come to know by heart. "A GH-TROC Freighter has been tracked to your co-ordinates. The pilot is wanted by the Emperor, alive. The bounty is 250,000 credits."
Fett leaned forward, trying hard to conceal any surprise. Who in the hell was worth 250,000 credits?
"This is the man you'll be hunting." Lord Vader stated. His image faded and that of a young, slender light-haired man appeared. A companion file was immediately downloaded into Fett's computer.
Fett glanced at the data. "This is Moff Curand's son," he said. Curand was a well-known man with connections. His family was regarded highly in Imperial circles. This didn't make sense. But before Fett could ask what the kid had done Lord Vader's image re-appeared on the holopad and answered his unasked question.
"Cet Curand ran his swoop into the Princess Raian. It exploded. In the confusion, he managed to escape."
Fett's heartbeat tripped. It surprised him; this reaction. "Is she...."
"She's alive," Vader said. "Critically burned, but alive."
Fett could hear the restrained anger in the Dark Lord's voice. The explosion must have been the same one he'd seen during lift-off. If only he had waited another few minutes... He knew the fate of those Imperial Guards who had failed to protect their charge.
On the computer, another file downloaded and Fett turned to watch it. It replayed the hit. It showed the swoop speeding erratically down the crowded street. The bike swerved up onto the walkway, never slowing down, and slammed into Raian's body, impaling her and pushing her into the building where it exploded into a fireball. A fine, cold sweat broke out all over Fett's body and his hand shook as he reached to turn off the image. It happened in a second. Her guards had no time to react.
"250,000 credits, alive," Vader repeated. "If you bring him in by this time tomorrow, I will personally match that sum."
Fett nodded. "I will bring him in."
The image of Lord Vader flickered and faded, leaving Fett alone once again.
He stayed on course and came out of hyperspace near Alderaan. He would prefer to hunt his prey on the surface, but time was of the essence. He killed all unnecessary power and hung in space, waiting.
He was good at waiting. Normally, he would use the time to think and re-think his catch. He would play the scenes out in his mind in every possibly combination, preparing himself mentally to better react physically. Even at forty years of age, his reflexes were still quick, and his actions still cunning. But now, all he could think about was her.
She knew how to wait as well. She had waited thirteen years to make love to him. And despite their mutual inexperience at such things, she had awakened a raw hunger within him, one that would have been better off left alone, forgotten. She had seduced him. She had been rough and demanding and intense. Despite his strict moral code, and the fact that they both knew marriage between them was impossible, that darkness within her excited him. She had told him he would be her only lover, and he believed her.
SLAVE I shuddered as the blurred shape of a freighter shot by. Fett swore under his breath at his inattentiveness. He should have been ready. His fingers worked over the scans quickly, and his target was confirmed. With the flip of a lever, SLAVE I awoke and shot through space after Cet Curand.
It was all too easy. The kid was inexperienced and could barely maneuver the old TROC freighter, let alone try to dodge an enemy. It took two shots to disable the shields, and then Fett locked onto the craft. He could tow his catch home, but there was a nagging doubt that the kid might do something stupid, like kill himself. So, Fett boarded the freighter and hauled the kid aboard SLAVE I.
Fett could feel the kid trembling as he shackled him to the seat, and he had seen the pasty-gray skin in nearly every one of his catches. There was no doubt the kid was going to die a horrible death.
"It was an accident," the kid pleaded.
Fett could smell stale liquor and fuel on the kid. In his mind he could see the swoop swerving, drunkenly, and slamming into Raian, dumping it's fuel and exploding.
"My family will pay you well for my safe return," the kid said.
Fett stood up and looked down on Cet Curand. He was about the same age as Raian. Fett felt incredibly old.
"If your family still lives," he said. It was simply a statement.
The kid's complexion turned white as all the blood drained from his face. For a moment, Fett thought the kid might faint, and that might be a good thing. It would save him from having to listen to his pleading and crying on the return trip.
"What do you mean? The Emperor wouldn't....."
Fett shrugged his shoulders and sat down in the pilot seat. He'd been around long enough to know that the Emperor would....indeed. He opened a comlink to Lord Vader. When the image of the Dark Lord appeared, the kid fell silent.
"I have him," was all Fett said.
"Very good, Bounty Hunter. Proceed to the Emperor's Skyhook."
"As you wish," Fett acknowledged, reaching a gloved hand across the console to turn off the com.
"Please, it wasn't supposed to happen," the kid started yammering.
Fett tuned him out and focused on the Navcomputer. The jump into hyperspace was a smooth one, and now he had nothing to distract him from the kid's whimpering.
"I just left a party. The street was so crowded. I... I couldn't hold onto the bike. Someone cut me off. It was an accident. Can't you see ...."
Fett thought about tranquilizing him just to shut him up, but with his luck the kid might have some sort of reaction and die on him. That had happened to him, once before. A Twi'lek he'd captured for Jabba the Hutt screamed for seven hours straight before Fett put him to sleep. But the drug reacted badly and stopped the Twi'lek's heart. Fett had worked nearly fifteen minutes trying to get the heart started again, but to no avail. Jabba was specific in demanding this particular bounty alive. Fett pawned the dead Twi'lek off on 4-LOM, letting the irritating droid think it had stolen the bounty from him.
"They'll sentence me to death," the kid said, his head hanging resignedly.
"Maybe the Emperor will let his daughter pass judgement on you," Fett offered. He wondered why he said such a thing. But it seemed to give the kid a glimmer of hope. Raian did not strike the same fear into the citizenry that her father did.
For the remainder of the trip, Cet Curand was quite. Fett knew he must be thinking that perhaps if he had the opportunity to explain to Raian, he might not die. Fett neither knew or cared what Curand's sentence would be. But if Raian did sentence the kid, Fett was curious what she would pronounce upon him.
A landing pad had been cleared for Fett on the Emperor's Skyhook. From there, the transaction was completed, and Fett viewed his account to be doubly certain the amount had been credited before releasing his prisoner to the Imperial Guards. The 500,000 credits had cleared, and Fett went back inside his ship to bring the kid out.
He unlocked the shackles. "Come on," he said.
The kid was so scared he couldn't move.
Fett jammed the barrel of his blaster into the kid's side, hoping to force a reaction. But the kid was nearly catatonic. Beneath his helmet, Fett frowned. He really hated carrying his catches, it wrecked havoc on his back. He lifted the kid by the arms and half carried, half dragged him down the ramp of SLAVE I. He watched as the red-robed guards took him from there, and he hoped they weren't stupid enough to let the kid get away again.
Another shuttle arrived. In a flurry of movement, the passenger's disembarked. They were dressed in the familiar blue of the Imperial Surgeon's Guild, and before he realized it, Fett had fallen in line behind them, taking out the last one and dragging him quickly into SLAVE I.
The uniform was snug, but suitable. He knew nobody would recognize him without his trademark Mandalorian Battle gear, except for Raian, and maybe the Emperor. There was no doubt in his mind that the Emperor had holo-recordings of him with Raian. He had found the camera's, and it was the sort of thing the Emperor would do. He ran toward the transport and climbed aboard just as the doors closed. He reached his hand into the pocket of the blue tunic. The identification card ranked the doctor he had stolen the uniform from as an intern, but that was enough to get Fett where he wanted to go.
Once inside the Imperial Palace, Fett asked a single question and discovered where Raian was. He made his way down the wide corridor and up the turbolift. He was stopped only once, by a lone security guard who checked his phony id and admitted him to the surgical wing.
It took him three minutes to secure himself outside the med-bay where she lay sleeping. He had to take out the intern already stationed there before he could sit down at the monitors.
The lights in the room were dim. The various camera's mounted in the walls and ceilings showed Raian from every conceivable angle. The left side of her head was completely covered in gauze, and the right side of her face was swollen and red. Her left arm and hand were elevated and soaking in bacta-fluid. Her hand was mangled into something unrecognizable; two of her fingers were nothing but charred bone. Fett found it difficult to imagine why they hadn't replaced her hand.
A dark figure sat behind her bed, quietly. Fett sucked in his breath as he realized it was her father. Did the old man really care? Fett doubted it. He was probably worried that his 'experiment' might end before he was finished studying it. There was no love between Raian and her father. In fact, Fett had watched her cry many times over her failure to please him. His was verbal abuse, and he dearly loved entice his daughter into uncontrolled fits of rage. Fett believed the Emperor somehow fed off of that rage.
Behind him, the sound of a respirator broke his fascination with the scene in the room. He wheeled around instinctively, and then realized he had no weapons.
"Bounty Hunter, I should have expected you'd come," Lord Vader spoke as quietly as his modulated voice synthesizer would allow.
Fett nodded and looked away from the Dark Lord to the monitors. He could almost feel her pain.
"She will recover fully. The surgeon's don't expect much scarring." Vader said.
"Her hand," Fett said, staring again at the monitor that showed the burned and twisted limb.
"She has a great aversion to cyber-implants."
Fett knew this.
"The scientists are growing muscle and tendon tissue now. They will be doing some rather, unconventional surgery."
A soft voice, barely audible, whispered from the monitors. "What happened to me?" The voice was filled with anguish and pain and Fett wished he had not come. He was trying to put distance between them, and now he was being pulled right back into her world. He was trying not to care, but it was too late for that.
He listened as her father's ancient voice explained, and he was surprised that the Emperor told her the truth.
"Did he do this on purpose?" her voice asked. And then, as if remembering, she struggled to sit up, to look around, to see. "Fett. Is Fett all right?"
The monitors screamed to life as her heart rate, pulse, blood pressure and respiration shot off the scale. Her father restrained her. Fett could see his pale, wrinkled hands gently holding her down until she stopped fighting. Fett would never have believed he could harbor such deep feelings for her, but seeing her like this, so beaten, so helpless, made him want to kill Cet Curand. He would gladly return the credits for the opportunity.
The med-droid in the room hovered over her and administered something that seemed to calm her immediately.
Behind him, Cet Curand was brought in. By the looks of him, they had given him something too, but it wasn't something nice. Fett knew first hand of the Empire's pain-inducing drugs. And he knew Cet Curand had been interrogated. The kid's eye's were sunk back into his head, and bloodshot. His pupils were mere pinpoints. His breathing was ragged and erratic.
Inside the room, the Emperor pointed at Cet Curand. "This man openly admits running you down. I leave his fate up to you, my daughter."
Fett watched the monitor closely. He could see Raian struggling to focus on the kid. The eye that wasn't swathed in gauze squinted painfully. Fett expected the kid to plead for his life, but the life had already been tortured out of him.
"Hang him," Raian said.
Fett sucked in a breath. It was not a response he had expected her to give.
"Hang him at the spot where he ran me down, and leave his body there until I am well."
Fett had stopped breathing. She had passed sentence on him in the same tone of voice she would use to say good-morning. It sent a chill down Fett's spine. All these years she had told him they were too much alike, and he never believed. But now, he believed.
The Emperor's wicked laughter slashed the silence. Cet Curand was taken from the room. Fett stood up, still trying to absorb what had just happened. She was deadly, this child of the Emperor. She was unique. She was his. He no longer had any doubt. She had foretold him all of this, but he held onto the belief that destiny was not a concrete thing, it was determined by the decisions made during a lifetime. And his decision was made.