Princess Leia Organa lay prone on the slab of metal that passed for a bed in Imperial detention centers, trying to summon her strength.
The interrogations, fierce and thorough, had left her body broken and her spirit resolved to defiance. She was too exhausted to move, but she dared not sleep for fear that she might wake up dead. She had not even the strength to weep for Alderaan, for all the lives and futures lost in the blink of an eye.
In less than an hour, she would be nothing more than a memory, yet another faceless martyr to the Rebel cause, as so many already had been.
It was not a prospect she relished, but it was just as well. She had failed those who trusted her the most--her father, when she failed to reach General Kenobi; her homeworld, when she foolishly assumed that Tarkin would exercise even a modicum of mercy and logic when she finally supplied the location of the Rebel base.
No one would ever know how she died. She would probably be exonerated, held up as an icon to inspire her comrades. They would urge the Alliance members on with words such as "honor" and "dignity" and "never again." They would say that Leia Organa was a victim of the Empire's injustice.
Perhaps it was better that they would not know the truth.
There were shouts and the sounds of blasters being fired outside and her clouded mind vaguely registered that something must be wrong. Perhaps her execution would be postponed.
Over it all, she could hear the clang of boots on decking, signaling that someone was approaching.
The door hissed open and she forced her eyes open. Shadowed in the doorway was a stormtrooper. She summoned her strength and pushed up onto her elbow.
The trooper stood, silent and awkward, just inside the door as if unsure as to what he should be doing.
Leia arched an eyebrow. "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"
She started. This was certainly not protocol.
"Oh, the uniform."
He reached up and pulled his helmet free. The first thing she noticed were the eyes, ice-blue and intense. They were somehow familiar.
"I'm Luke Skywalker," he breathed. "I'm here to rescue you."
"We can't keep running forever."
Luke glanced over his shoulder and grinned at the diminutive princess trying desperately to keep up.
"We could try."
"Then consider this," she panted. "I know my way to the detention block and the officers' observation gallery. You know your way from the hangar to the level above and the detention block. Given the size of this thing, we have a very good chance of getting lost."
Luke uttered a low curse and skidded to a stop. "You have a point there."
Princess Leia slumped against the corridor wall and squeezed her eyes shut. "Another good point is that the Imperials will be most likely suspicious of two civilians attempting to run a marathon on a space station that not even the Senate knows about."
Luke nodded and swiped his hand across his brow. It came away grimy and damp. "And we smell as though we did laps in the garbage system."
Leia nodded shakily. "Either way, we don't fit the image of anyone who should be on this station. I suggest we keep a low profile and make our way back to the hangar. Your friends should be able to meet us there."
Luke gripped her arm lightly, forcing her to meet his gaze. What he saw horrified him.
Her liquid brown eyes were glazed and bloodshot, a clear aftereffect of interrogation drugs. Studying her features, he could see the discoloration of bruises and half-healed lacerations.
"What did they do to you?" he breathed.
She looked away, clearly ashamed. "I'd rather not discuss it. Let's just say that the destruction of Alderaan was the last in a long line of brutal tactics." She pushed up her sleeve and he was stunned to see several patches of bruised flesh where she'd been drugged. "Most of them were from interrogation, but the last one was the drug they gave me in preparation for my execution. I convinced the medic to give me only enough to keep me sedated until I was back in my cell."
She glanced up and forced a smile. "Of course, I didn't know that I'd have to lead a group of wet-behind-the-ears commandos on my own escape." She buried her chin in her chest. "I also didn't account for reality. I barely had the strength to sit up when you barged in."
He shuddered deeply. "Why didn't you tell me?"
She shook her head in little jerks and her shoulders hunched. "I would have slowed you down," she bit out. "We need to get the plans to the Alliance as soon as possible, self-preservation not necessary."
Luke reached up and brushed a loose strand of hair back into place. "I'm so sorry," he said quietly.
Impulsively, he drew her into a gentle embrace. She rested her forehead against his collarbone and returned the gesture.
After a long moment, she pulled back and extended a hand. "I don't believe were ever properly introduced. I'm Leia Organa."
"I'm Luke Skywalker."
She pressed her lips together and the corners of her mouth turned up in a faint smile. "An auspicious name. Well, Luke, I think we need to be getting back to the ship."
The faint tremor of acceleration indicated that the Millennium Falcon had finally made it to hyperspace. Leia sighed in relief, then sank onto the gaming table's bench and let her head drop onto its checkered surface.
There was quiet laughter from her left and Luke draped a blanket over her shoulders. "I know exactly how you feel," he said wryly.
Leia let her head roll to the side so she could send him a half-hearted glare. "No, you don't," she said quietly. "Not unless you've been through some of Darth Vader's delicate inquisition, had your homeworld destroyed, and failed in the most crucial mission in Alliance history."
Luke slid onto the bench across from her and smiled sympathetically. "I can't say that I've had those particular trials, but how can you say that you failed? You retrieved the Death Star plans and are bringing them to the Alliance high command. What detours you took on the way there don't particularly matter."
Leia shuddered. "I failed the men who died protecting me on the Tantive IV. I failed the people of Alderaan..." Her voice broke. "I failed my father."
Luke reached over and lifted her chin so that she met his gaze. "None of that was your fault and I won't have you thinking otherwise."
She blinked back tears and smiled slightly. "I met you three hours ago and I already feel like you know me too well."
"I know the feeling," Luke said quietly. "Of course, maybe that's because I've been hero-worshipping you since the moment I ran across your message to Ben."
She sighed. "So that's why you came to my rescue. An over inflated sense of heroism. Typical male."
Luke laughed. "I felt connected to you somehow, as if I were meant to cross paths with you."
"Lucky you," she teased.
"'In my experience, there's no such thing as luck,'" he countered.
Leia frowned deeply. "What time did you barge into my cell?"
"About 1353," Luke replied. "Why?"
"At 1400 I was to be executed. Standard Imperial procedure means that I would have been taken out of my cell at 1355. When you came storming in, I thought you were the guard who was taking me to my death. I'd say that constitutes as luck."
He shuddered. "Not luck, just the will of the Force."
She reached across to take his hand. "I don't know how exactly to thank you," she said quietly.
He smiled wryly. "I'm sure you'll find some way."
Leia straightened. "You're a hot hand on a weaponry system," she remarked. "Were you at the Academy?"
He snorted. "Not even close. I'm nothing more than a Force-strong bush pilot off of a backwater world who happened to buy the only pair of droids in history to be toting along the plans for a superweapon."
Leia's eyes crinkled in amusement. "That'll be a story to tell the grandchildren." She sighed. "We can always use snub-jockeys. I think with your skills and my recommendation, we could land you a place in the squadron that goes against that thing."
Luke's jaw dropped. "You can't be serious."
She rolled her eyes. "It's not much, but it's a start at repaying the debt."
He grinned. "Let's just call it even."
The inhabitants of the Yavin base were not concerned with protocol tonight.
It was mere hours since the destruction of the Death Star and not a single person was adhering to duty. The exultation was too much.
Leia opened her door to find Luke standing rather nervously outside.
"I noticed you were holed up in your room, so I've come to order you to have some fun."
Leia smiled genuinely. "Yes, sir. Though, may I mention that I outrank you?"
"Nevertheless," Luke said with a touch of irritability, "I have come to escort you to the premises."
"Can I at least make sure I'm presentable first?"
He reached behind her and yanked out the fastening pins. Her hair tumbled down, framing her face.
"No," he said firmly.
Leia laughed. "So that's what they mean by letting your hair down."
He grinned. "In a manner of speaking, yes." He offered her his arm and she took it. "Off we go."
The officer's mess was a mob scene. The tables had been shoved against the walls to create a dance floor. Many couples were already moving to the upbeat music.
Leia couldn't help but smile. For once, the members of the Rebel Alliance were forgetting the urgency of their situation, the threat of the Empire, the duty shift that started in five minutes, and simply enjoying the fact that they were alive to worry about such things.
"I think the food is over here," Luke shouted over the din.
"If we can get through this crowd," she countered.
He seized her hand and led her through the crowd to the table against the far wall.
Leia turned to see Han waving. They both returned the greeting as he made his way to them.
"Try the ryshcate," he urged. "It's the only thing worth eating here."
"Naturally Corellian," Leia clarified.
Han grinned. "Naturally. All perfect things, myself included, hail from the Corellian Sector."
"I think I'm going to be sick," Leia mumbled to Luke.
He handed her a warm piece of ryshcate and she bit into it. The rich taste and sweet aroma nearly made her weep.
"All right, I'll concede the point," she said around a bite.
Luke wiped a crumb from her chin. "No talking with your mouth full, Leia. Didn't they teach you anything useful at the Royal Court?"
Leia swallowed. "Flogging peasants and being bossy comes with the territory; other than that, I don't think I need any instruction."
Luke shot her a mischievous glance. "How about dancing?"
"Don't even go there," she countered.
"I'm willing to take my chances."
Leia shoved the rest of her ryshcate into her mouth and took his hand. "You're on, farmboy."
However, as soon as they reached the dance floor, the music ended and a more traditional piece came on.
"I don't think I know this one," Luke admitted.
Leia's brow furrowed as she attempted to remember where she'd heard the piece before. A memory of the court dance instructor came to mind and she buried her face in her hands.
"Oh no," she moaned. "It's the p'qa."
She looked up. "A very traditional ballroom dance from Raltiir." Taking him in the dance position, she grinned. "I'll teach you, but you'd better have fast feet. You do three diagonal steps, then a hop-turn, then repeat the process until the music stops."
"If I'm not mistaken, we'll have an audience."
Leia grinned. "What, you scared?"
"After you," he countered.
The main beat came on and she took off at a furious pace. Luke, surprisingly, kept up fairly well, but they kept getting their feet entangled and Leia was soon laughing harder than she could remember.
"No, right, right," she sputtered.
"You've got to be kidding me."
He took her through a fast spin, then resumed in the wrong direction. Leia kicked him none-too-gently in the shins.
"The other way," he said incredulously.
"I can't believe that with directional skills like this you ever managed to hit the Death Star."
He laughed. "Flying has nothing to do with feet and insane music."
She released his left arm and stepped to the side, repeating the step, then snapping back into position. They repeated the gesture, then spun out and back into dancing position.
"I'm never letting you dance with me again," he panted.
"Oh, come on," she chided. "Just another thirty seconds."
"It's lucky we're the only ones on the floor or we'd kill half the base." He released her arm. "Up for another spin?"
She spun furiously, stumbling halfway through but keeping up the pace.
"Wonderful. Now when you land in a graceful heap it won't look so bad."
"Switch off, farmboy."
"Such language," he teased.
The music ended and the spectators burst into enthusiastic applause. There were whistles and a few catcalls and Leia blushed.
Luke for his part, flung his arms around her and lifted her off her feet in an embrace.
"Thank you for that," he panted. "That's the most fun I've had in weeks."
She grinned and rocked back onto her feet. "Me too. We'll have to do it again sometime."
He took her hand and kissed it gallantly. "Next time I pick the music."
She brushed a strand of hair, damp from perspiration, from her brow. "Of course."
A much slower song came on and the dance floor filled again. Luke bowed. "May I have this honor?"
She curtsied. "The honor is mine."
She placed her hands on his shoulders and he around her waist.
"We've got a long way to go," she said quietly, "but I think tonight will give us our second wind. We've been plagued by despondency for too long."
He winced. "I know the feeling. How long have you been in the Alliance?"
"Since virtually the beginning," she admitted. "When my father, Garm Bel Iblis, and Mon Mothma signed the Corellian Treaty consolidating the various resistance groups, I was twelve. I was a courier at the age of thirteen, the Alliance's eyes in the Senate at eighteen. I've been through most of our crises in one form or another."
"You are an amazing person," he whispered.
She smiled genuinely. "I'm glad someone thinks so."
He shrugged. "When in one week, someone pulls off her own rescue by blasting her way into an Imperial garbage chute, tells off Han, helps command a major space battle, and teaches a hopelessly uncoordinated farmboy to do the p'qa, you have to gain some degree of respect for them."
"What about you," she countered. "You evaded the entire Death Star stormtrooper force, figured out a way into the maximum-security detention level, staged an albeit partially unsuccessful rescue attempt, blew two TIES out of existence on your first try, then destroyed the most powerful weapon in history. If this is what happens in a few days of your life, I can't wait to see what you do with the rest of it."
He grinned. "I would be honored to have you as a friend. Would you so indulge me?"
"A little late to ask," she teased. "I considered you a friend the moment you uttered the words 'I'm here to rescue you.'"
"Don't you ever sleep?"
Leia glanced wearily up from the datapad and smiled at Luke. "Not if I can help it," she countered. "Why are you still up?"
He set his helmet on the floor and took a seat opposite her. "We just got back from duty patrol. After that scouting party, we aren't taking any chances."
Leia nodded. Two days ago, an Imperial shuttle and a flight of reconnaissance fighters had done a fly-by of the world where the latest Alliance base was. The members of Rogue Squadron had destroyed them, but the chance that a task force would show up to investigate was a dangerous reality.
Luke shook his head, yawning. "Not even a homing marker."
"A small comfort," she mumbled.
He reached over and snagged the datapad. "What are you reading now?"
"Reports from the Ketarn Battle Group." She tapped the screen. "They ran into another Victory-class Star Destroyer. Say that's the weapon of choice for the Empire these days."
"But," Luke prompted.
Leia sighed. "Intelligence says that there may be something major in the works."
"Another Death Star?"
She shook her head. "Thankfully no, but something a lot more dangerous than a Victory Star Destroyer."
"Fairly arrogant of them to name their latest design 'Victory.'"
Leia grinned. "You'll just have to go out and prove them wrong, won't you."
"I'll do my best." He checked his chrono. "Have you eaten at all today?"
"No time," she said. "Between command meetings, briefings, debriefings, and trying to get through this page for the last 2 hours, I haven't bothered."
"Me either." He shut off the datapad. "Come on, my treat."
She sighed and replaced the datapad in its drawer. "The usual place?"
Luke grinned. "Of course. The best survival rations and stale water our extremely limited budget can buy."
"As long as the other money goes towards things such as keeping your fighter from spontaneously combusting with you inside, I don't mind."
"I appreciate the concern," he countered.
She stood and pulled on a light jacket for the trek to the officer's mess. "Maybe we'll run across Solo and he'll take pity on us."
"No such luck. He's still on the run to Kitli."
The corridors were, naturally, deserted. At 0130, the only people up were those on duty or too wired to sleep.
A blast of warm air met them as they reached the door leading to the main courtyard. "Thank the Force we hit this base during the warm seasons."
"You call this warm," Luke teased.
Leia snorted. "Yes, farmboy. On some worlds we actually have cold seasons."
Leia smiled wistfully. "Some parts, such as the continent of Thon, never seemed to have such problems, but Aldera was beautiful in the Winter. The Palace there was almost delicate and ephemeral because whoever designed it insisted on a lot of windows and with the snow, it was almost surreal." She sighed. "There was a folk tale that a princess was once trapped in a castle of ice and was rescued by a handsome warrior who killed her captor. I used to pretend that the Aldera Palace was my ice castle and that I was only waiting for my knight."
She glanced over at Luke. "Of course, my knight would have frozen to death in my ice castle. Perhaps it's best that we met on the Death Star."
Luke grinned. "A cross between the ice castle and burning sands. Wise idea."
Leia yawned. "I'm not sure I can stay awake any longer. I might fall asleep in the jarek noodles and have to kill anyone who saw it."
Luke took her elbow and steered her back towards the barracks. "I agree. Food can always wait. Let's get you tucked in for the night."
"Yes, Father," she teased.
He whacked her arm gently. "Don't make me drug you."
"Not again," she groaned.
"Your debriefing last week," she countered. "If that wasn't a soporific, I don't know what is."
Luke laughed. "I was falling asleep myself. I'm sure only the ever-alert Commander Rieekan could have endured the tedium."
Leia grinned wearily. "At least you admit it."
Luke opened the door and gave her a gentle shove to keep her moving. "Come on, only fifteen more feet."
"Easy for you to say," she grumbled. "Stop gloating or I'll make you tell me a bedtime story."
"Skies forbid," Luke agreed. "I'm not sure Rieekan would approve of my slinging you over my shoulder and carrying you into your room."
"Inappropriate," she guessed.
She slumped against the wall and palmed open the door. "I see your point."
Luke embraced her from behind, then hauled her upright and helped her the few yards to her bed.
"Go," she mumbled. "I can't bear to have you see me like this."
He reached down and removed her boots, then set them beside the bed. "I'll be outside. Call me when you're ready for bed."
"If you haven't fallen asleep yourself," she countered.
He grinned. "Farmboy's honor."
Leia watched him go, then removed her tunic and slacks. Reaching up to her hair, she unfastened the braids and let them fall loose. Reaching over to the nightstand, she opened a drawer and retrieved a nightgown, which she quickly donned.
"Are you ready or have you fallen asleep."
Leia laughed. "Come on in."
Luke entered and immediately lifted the covers to let her stretch her legs out. "Lie down," he ordered.
Leia slid down until her head was resting against the pillow. Luke tucked the covers around her, then kissed her forehead.
"Sleep," he said in a mock grave voice that made her grin. "Morning will come too soon as it is."
"Thank you," she said softly.
The dawn was stained red.
The battle for the Khirva Valley fortress had been intense, long and exhausting. It was difficult to call it a victory for either side because of the cost of the designation.
Leia awoke to great pain in the makeshift field hospital that the Alliance had hastily constructed after nightfall had halted the fighting. The details of her arrival were as hazy as the morning light that warmed her face.
The moans of the dying drew her further into consciousness as she wondered if she were among that category.
A quick survey of her senses yielded the facts that she had been wounded in the side, shoulder and right arm. She had a deep gash in her right leg and someone was gripping her left hand tightly.
She stretched her fingers slightly and the person on the other end of the grip started awake.
Luke blinked several times, then his ice-blue eyes focused on her face and he smiled wearily.
"So, you're finally awake."
Leia attempted to return the gesture, but her split lip prevented her from succeeding.
"How did I get here?"
"The way most of those here did."
Her brow furrowed in concentration. "Please tell me I didn't collapse during the command debriefing."
Luke winced. "Unfortunately for your dignity, you did. Luckily, no one thought any lesser of you for it."
"What time is it?"
Leia groaned and pushed herself up on her elbows. Luke caught her around the shoulders and helped her sit up.
"Are you sure you want to move?"
She set her jaw and nodded. "The command force will be meeting at 0630 on the southern perimeter. I have to be there."
"No, you don't," he countered gently. "Much as we hate to admit it, the Alliance can survive without you for a few days."
Leia shook her head. "Not yet. As long as I can still move, I have to help get us out of this mess."
Luke sighed and slipped her arm over his shoulders. Standing, he hauled her up gently and she tested her weight on her right leg.
"Tolerable," she conceded.
Luke snorted. "I bet."
Leia made a face at him. "Why are you suddenly so belligerent?"
Luke frowned. "Not belligerent, overprotective."
"At least you admit it."
Luke turned her in his grip and pushed her gently onto the bed. "It's a five-minute walk to the southern perimeter. Rest until then."
Leia sighed. "I don't suppose you happen to have a mirror."
"I don't suppose you'd want to look in it," Luke countered.
Leia ran a hand over her mud-and-sweat-streaked face and grimaced as her fingers encountered the tenderness of bruises. "I suppose you're right."
She glanced over at his relatively unmarked face. "How in the stars did you manage to emerge unscathed again?"
Luke rolled his eyes. "I'd say luck if it weren't bad for the Jedi image." He reached over to wipe a trace of blood from her lips. "Besides, I wasn't at ground zero."
Leia winced. "True. The ground forces don't typically head straight for the maintenance hangars, even if they're on the way to the command center."
Luke checked his chrono. "Speaking of which, I'll be escorting you to the southern perimeter now."
Leia pushed to her feet. "About time."
Four minutes later, she hobbled up the last slope to the checkpoint at the edge of the southern perimeter.
Commander Rieekan's eyes widened as she came into view and Leia blushed slightly.
She could only imagine what she looked like. Hair in disarray, face streaked with mud, perspiration, and blood; her sleeveless undertunic had been abbreviated to treat her wounds and her jacket was in shreds. One leg of her slacks was cut off above the knee and the bandaging over the gash was soaked through.
He took her hand gently and kissed the broken knuckles, a remnant of the vicious hand-to-hand combat they'd resorted to the night before. She had earned those particular badges of honor against the jaw of a belligerent major and had been rewarded for her troubles with a black eye.
"Princess," he murmured. "Lovely as ever."
Her eyes crinkled in pained amusement. "Thank you, Commander."
"Commander Skywalker, good to see you well."
Luke saluted the assembled officers. "Thank you."
An aide-de-camp found a chair and Leia sank gratefully into it. "Gentlemen, what is our situation?"
Leia turned a glare at Luke as he entered the shuttle's cargo hold. "I can't believe you made me evacuate on the first shuttle."
"Call it protective instinct," he countered, "but you're technically among the wounded and therefore are first priority."
"Traitor," she hissed.
He passed her a pocket mirror. "You'll thank me later."
She glanced at the haggard expression in the mirror and winced. "I seriously doubt it."
Luke removed her boots and damp socks and hung the latter to dry over an exhaust vent. He then unwrapped the leg wound and cleaned it carefully, then redressed it.
He looked up to see her regarding him with an expression of mild bewilderment.
She shook her head vaguely. "I was just thinking I can't possibly deserve you as a friend and wondering how I'm supposed to repay you."
Luke grinned. "Fresh rations would be a start."
She reached over to slap his arm. "You know what I mean."
He leaned over to kiss her cheek. "Of course. I've been wondering the same thing about you for the two years we've known each other."
She embraced him tightly. "Enough of the mutual admiration society," she said quietly. "We've still got a war to fight."
He pulled back and smiled. "We'll always have some war to fight. Doesn't mean we can't take time to be friends."
"Very true." She shrugged. "What are we fighting for if not the future?"
"We may have a break."
Han stood before the High Command, looking decidedly nervous, but appropriately serious. Leia couldn't imagine why he had been granted an audience-Rieekan had been the one to arrange it-but it had to be something vital.
"Despite the strength of our piloting skill and an abundance of older snubfighters," Han began, "we have been outgunned in most of the engagements since Yavin. The simple fact of the matter is that the Empire, having been well-established as a military presence, has access to the finest minds in the Galaxy.
"However, one of these fine minds is a man named Tecch Litar and he's disgruntled. The Empire has employed him for seventeen years as one of their primary snubfighter designers. He's known for the Interceptor and Advanced models.
"He contacted me through unconventional channels during a run last week and expressed the desire to defect. Knowing that I was affiliated with the Alliance, he asked if I could arrange a meeting with someone in the Alliance to work out the details. I let Rieekan know of the situation and he proposed I come before you."
Leia straightened. "First reactions?"
Mon Mothma nodded. "Given the basic parameters, I believe that sending a small contact team is warranted. Perhaps only Princess Leia and Commander Skywalker."
"Commander Skywalker's expertise would certainly be beneficial," Rieekan agreed. "And an Intelligence agent to work out the details of his defection to make sure he doesn't get killed in the process."
"All in favor?"
The vote was unanimous and, as Han had been the last in a long order of business, the meeting adjourned.
"Are you sure this guy is genuine?"
Han shrugged. "Princess, nothing is sure, least of all Imperial contacts, but I trust it enough to send my friends into the situation."
She smiled genuinely. "That seems reasonable enough to me, but bear in mind that if we die, I'm holding you responsible."
He laughed. "Ever the optimist."
"Sometimes," Leia said wryly, "I think Solo picks these meeting places explicitly to annoy me."
Shouting to be heard over the ear-splitting tree drum music, Luke replied, "At least it's inconspicuous."
"Inconspicuous," Leia snorted. "We're the only humans in the place."
"Then Imperial spies should be easy to spot," he countered.
"Don't count on it."
Leia stiffened and immediately, the blaster of a barrel was pressed to her back. "I take it you're not our contact."
The gunman snorted. "Let's just say he came to his senses. On your feet."
Leia caught Luke's eye and he nodded briefly. Getting to her feet, she suddenly lunged forward, falling to her knees. Luke drew his blaster in one swift movement and fired a shot through the man's throat.
Catching her hand, he pulled her to her feet and sprinted for the door, weaving through tables and the crowd.
He was reaching for the door when it opened and the trooper behind it lashed out, knocking him to the ground. Before Leia could respond, he fired a stun blast, sending her careening back and to the floor. Every nerve on fire, she blessedly succumbed to the darkness.
"We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life."
Luke snorted in amusement and immediately regretted the action as the pain in his broken nose flared again.
Leia reached up to brush her fingers lightly against his nose. "I wish I could help you on that front, but you know how well the last negotiation went."
He smiled wanly. "Yes, I do admit that their negotiators were rather irascible."
Leia shoved him gently. "Don't mock me."
He winced. "I try not to, but when a diplomatic mission ends in an Imperial detention center, it's difficult to restrain myself."
Leia buried her face in her hands. "Don't remind me."
Luke wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into a loose embrace. "It's not your fault. We couldn't have known that our contact would sell us out."
Leia rubbed her neck absently. "How are we going to get out of this one?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "Given our status, I doubt if they'll even bother with a trial."
She shook her head. "No, they'll give us access to their version of 'formal legal proceedings.' Make it perfectly legal, so that the other dissidents will see what it means to defy the Empire."
Luke groaned. "What a mess."
She worked her shoulder around. "This is the second time I've been stupid enough to fall for a stun blast."
Luke caught his breath. "I was unconscious by then. Are you all right?"
She nodded fiercely, the moisture in her eyes belying the nature of the gesture.
He turned her to face him and reached up to brush the tears from her face. "It's all right," he said softly. "I won't let them hurt you again."
Her chest heaved. "I can't face Vader. Not again, not like this. I cheated him last time and he won't be so accommodating this time." She buried her face against his shoulder. "I don't know what will happen if they let him...question me again. I'm not sure if I have the strength to go through that again."
Luke drew her to him, running his hand over her spine. "You'll always have the strength," he assured her. "If nothing else because I will always be with you in spirit. I'd rather give my life than see you destroyed."
"I'm not sure we'll have a choice," she countered.
"How long have we been here?"
"Days," he mumbled.
The cell door hissed open and they broke away to see stormtroopers enter, followed by the figure that had haunted her nightmares for over two years.
Luke shot to his feet, drawing himself up to his less-than-impressive height less than a foot from Vader.
"You'll not touch her."
Leia was startled at the hoarse intensity in his voice, the cold fire in his eyes.
For a long heartbeat, there was no sound in the room, only the regulated breathing of the Dark Lord.
"I have no intention of harming either one of you."
"Banthaspit," Luke snapped. "You've come to finish what you started at the Death Star, to destroy the Skywalker line."
Vader laughed, a chilling, half-forced expression of emotion that was positively surreal.
It was the tone of someone who had forced himself to forget, a relearned skill mixed with unmistakable bitterness, and it chilled her to the core.
"How wrong you are," he rumbled. "I am only here to bring formal charges against you, according to formal Imperial procedure, before you are taken to Imperial Center for your trial."
Leia snorted. "Now you decide you want to make this legal."
Vader turned his head towards her and, if it had been possible, she imagined he would have glared at her.
"I have matters to discuss with Commander Skywalker. Take the Princess to the shuttle and sedate her."
Luke stepped back to block her. "I will not leave her."
"You are not in a position to make that choice," Vader countered. "Take her away."
The troopers moved forward and shoved Luke out of the way. Leia sprang to her feet, lunging for the throat of the nearest trooper. He cuffed her across the head, sending her flying back into the grip of the other trooper.
Leia twisted forward and drove her elbow into his chin. His grip slackened and she moved forward to help Luke.
A stun wand caught her square in the chest, an attack against which she had no defense. She collapsed forward, breathing hard, her eyes squeezed shut against the pain. Another trooper yanked her arms behind her back and cuffed her wrists.
Another stun blast sent her spiraling into darkness.
Luke fixed Vader with a cold glare. "You needn't have done that. She was only trying to help."
"She cannot think that defiance of any sort is acceptable," Vader responded. "It is what got her into her predicament in the first place."
Luke drew himself up. "What you must do, do it quickly."
Vader placed a hand on his shoulder and shoved him none-too-gently into a sitting position.
"I am not here to destroy the Skywalker line," he said quietly. "Quite the contrary."
Luke's emotions went from anger to resolve, then settled on bewilderment. "I don't think I understand."
Vader leaned in, but Luke could sense no menace in the gesture. Nor was he intimidated.
"Obi-wan never told you what happened to your father."
It was not the physical ailment that her incident with the troopers had wrought, nor the dull, personal ache that came with the knowledge that she was about to face Imperial 'justice.'
It was the deep, throbbing ache of knowing that she'd left Luke with that monster.
She curled into a fetal position as if to protect herself from the guilt that threatened to overwhelm her.
She knew the Dark Lord too well. The least he could do was kill Luke.
"Obi-wan never told you what happened to your father."
Luke's eyes hardened at the mention of his father. The one denied him by fate, obscured by his uncle, revealed by Obi-wan.
The one Vader had killed before Luke had come into the Galaxy.
"He told me you killed him," Luke growled. "That's enough."
Vader scoffed. "I should have known as much. Obi-wan always had a way of distorting reality. It is only natural that he would do so with you."
Luke settled into the Force, clearing his mind of anger and of fear, filling the void with resolve.
"You're not a proper authority to lecture on distorting reality," he retorted.
He could sense the bitter amusement in Vader's mind. "The Skywalkers are all alike," he rumbled softly. "Head-strong, fearless, Force-sensitive, and always getting in over their heads."
"Is that why you are destroying that line?"
If he didn't know better, he could have sworn that he sensed a vague blast of exasperation.
"I told you that is not my intent." He drew up to his full height. "I will not destroy that line because I myself am a Skywalker."
Luke's heart sunk into his heels. You've got to be kidding me.
"I don't understand."
"Indeed not," Vader said. "Let me make this clear: Luke, I am your father."
His breath exploded out from him in one horrified syllable. "No!"
"You know it to be true," Vader observed.
Luke raised a trembling hand to his forehead. He was right. In a blast of sickening certainty, he knew Vader was telling the truth.
"We can join our powers. Together we are much stronger than the sum of our parts."
"Stop it," Luke hissed.
"He has too much of his father in him."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"I want to be a Jedi like my father."
"He betrayed and murdered your father."
Luke stood and held out his wrists. "I will never join you," he said quietly. "I've not come this far to sell my soul to the demon."
Leia awoke as the interior lighting of the shuttle's cargo hold brightened. Luke was shoved in, his hands unbound.
Leia moved to help him up, but he collapsed onto his side, unmoving.
For a breathless moment, she thought he was dead, but to her great relief, he gave a loud, shuddering moan.
She dropped to her knees beside him and stroked his hair soothingly.
He was whispering something, his eyes unfocused and dead. It was this more than anything that frightened her.
He buried his face against her knee, finally weeping and she gathered him into a fierce embrace.
For all his heroism and strength of character, he sometimes just needed to be held.
She was more than willing to accommodate.
"I wished that Vader would kill you."
Luke looked up, stunned. "What," he breathed.
Leia, sitting in a corner with her knees drawn up to her chest, let her chin drop to her chest. "When they brought me here," she said softly, "all I could think of was that night on the Death Star. I thought I was dying and I accepted that gladly. But Vader told me that he would not let me slip away that easily, that I would scream a thousand times before I achieved death.
"If I had died, I would have won. By keeping me alive, he could cement his tainted victories a thousand times over and destroy me even more.
"When dealing with someone like Darth Vader, death is a blessing."
She intertwined her fingers and pressed them to her sternum, her throat momentarily too tight to speak.
"When they brought you back, I thought..." She buried her face in her hand, her shoulders heaving. "I thought the greatest pain I'd ever have to suffer would be going through that. Having my best friend be subjected to it is more than I can bear."
Luke crossed the room on weak legs and gathered her into a tight embrace. She clung to him with a heart-wrenching kind of desperation, weeping.
Her cheek pressed against his chest, she sighed. "You reminded me so much of what I was after Alderaan. Gutted, your eyes dead." She pulled back and fixed him with an intent gaze. "What did he do to you?"
Luke bowed his head. "Darth Vader was born Anakin Skywalker."
Leia sucked in her breath. "Your father," she said quietly.
He nodded, his shoulders hunching in anticipated defense.
Instead, she embraced him. "This must be so difficult for you," she whispered against his tunic. "I'm so sorry."
He pulled back and smiled wanly for the first time in days. "I always knew I was cut out to be a character from a badly-written holodrama."
Leia's breath caught in her throat. "He's going to have to let the Emperor know about this."
Luke nodded. "That's what I'm afraid of."
She shuddered. "I wish I could help you."
He nodded. "You do, whether you intend to or not."
"True," she admitted. "Is that why you're giving Vader the silent treatment on the way to Center?"
"Partially." His smile disappeared. "He asked me to join him."
"As a Sith?"
Leia shook her head. "No," she said firmly. "You have triumphed over your shadows too many times to live in their boundaries."
Luke sighed. "I wish I had your confidence."
Vader made a point of visiting Luke twice every day. Leia would be taken to a different room on some pretense and the two Skywalkers would sit in silence, the father trying to draw his son out of the protective shell, the son simply exercising his right to be bull-headed.
It was in the evening cycle of the fifth day of the trip that the silence was finally broken.
"What was she like?"
Vader's mask turned to face Luke. "Who?"
Luke set his jaw. "Mother."
His father's posture sagged, his chin drooped. It was the first sign of genuine emotion that Luke had ever seen from him and it stunned him.
"Padm? was life itself," he began tentatively. "Breathtakingly beautiful, wise beyond her years, too good for me to start with."
Luke smiled in spite of himself.
Vader was silent for a long moment and when he resumed, his voice was a lot softer. "She was much like your Princess. Both wore their elegance like a mantle, but had the perfect blend of culture and courage. At fourteen, she led her people successfully through a war."
Luke nodded. "She does sound like Leia."
"I met her at that time, when she was enmeshed in a war, time moving too slowly for the pace of injustice. I fell in love with her immediately, or what passes for it in nine-year-olds. Some things you never outgrow."
"I never knew her," Luke said quietly.
Vader snorted. "I'm not surprised. She would never have come to Tatooine; she hated it almost as much as I did."
"You were a Jedi at nine," Luke said incredulously.
Vader shook his head. "That is when I entered the Temple."
"So young," Luke breathed.
Vader snorted. "Master Yoda thought I was much too old. You began your training at twenty to protect you from me. Most Jedi were immersed in the lifestyle from the time they were six months old. I was nearly denied training because of my age."
"How did she die?"
Vader sighed, an electronic hiss. "I don't know. She went into hiding after I turned, understandably. The Emperor ordered her home planet of Naboo razed, her people killed or imprisoned, and as a final insult, I was to spearhead the operation. We left her palace at Theed in flames, the grasslands devastated. Operatives say she barely escaped with her life. I have reason to believe that she went to Alderaan.
"The last time I saw her was long before then, at Theed, in our chambers. She must have been pregnant then, but neither of us knew it. We attributed her constant weariness to the war against the clones. She insisted on being personally involved in them and it took a lot out of her.
"I had not seen her in three weeks, since I was on assignment, and while I was gone, Obi-wan voiced his concern at my frequent visits to Chancellor Palpatine. He sensed that I was changing, as did Padm?.
"I found her preparing for another state function, as on many other nights. She wore an elaborate royal blue affair that was longer than she was tall and probably weighed more. Her hair was in a crown of braids, her face undecorated.
"We fought and I struck her. I don't know why, it's something I would have never done then. I still cannot forgive myself for that. When she finally spoke, it was with a tone of deepest betrayal. She told me..."
Throat too tight to speak, Luke simply stared at his father. Tears streamed unbidden from his eyes.
"She told me, 'my husband is dead; you have no place here.' I left without trying to make amends."
He turned his head to look at Luke. "I will forever regret that I left her with nothing but pain."
Luke bowed his head, then inhaled slowly and let out a shuddering breath.
"How did you meet?"
Vader sighed again. "I was a slave on Tatooine when a Jedi Master and a Queen's bodyguard came to find a replacement hyperdrive..."
"Leia, you'll never believe..."
Luke stopped short. For a moment, he thought the cargo hold was empty, but then he spotted Leia curled into a ball in the corner, her shoulders heaving, her form wracked with sobs.
Luke rushed to her side and dropped to his knees. Leia looked up at him and he choked.
Her right cheekbone was bruised, her left eye blackened and swollen shut. The right side of her jaw was swollen to twice its normal size, clearly broken. Around her neck were the fading marks of fingers and one of her arms was bleeding from a deep cut just above her wrist.
"What did they do to you?"
She took a deep, shuddering breath. "The guards decided I needed to be taught a lesson about the folly of defiance."
His eyes traveled over her body, checking for more injuries. "They didn't..."
She shook her head adamantly. "Thank the stars, no. What they did was much worse."
Her hands fell away from her head and Luke gasped.
Her glorious hair was gone, shaved completely off. The torn flesh of her scalp was a clear indication that they had dragged her by her hair to break her resistance.
"Oh Sith," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm so sorry."
He helped her sit up, feeling her sag wearily against him.
"We're never going to escape," she said softly.
Luke smiled. "You're forgetting one thing. The Falcon Rescue Squad."
She snorted. "Given the empty coffers and the lack of someone to bully, Solo is not likely to be in the same Galaxy as the Alliance by now."
"You never know," Luke countered.
She looked up at him. "I'm scared; is that wrong?"
He shook his head. "Not at all."
"I never thought this would happen."
"Don't worry," he said. "We'll be at Imperial Center in an hour."
She shuddered. "I can't go out there like this," she said tremulously. "Half the planet will be watching."
"I don't think we have much of a choice," he said wryly.
She swallowed, then straightened her posture with obvious difficulty. "Then I shall have to confront them as a Princess of Alderaan, hair or not."
Despite the late hour, the arrival at Coruscant could only be defined as one thing: a riot.
They were surrounded by stormtroopers in tight formation, mostly to prevent their escape, but as they moved through the crowd, it became evident that it was also to ensure that they reached their trial in one piece.
Leia carried herself like a queen, even when a rotting blumfruit, flung by one of the bystanders, struck her full in the broken jaw. Her step faltered for a heartbeat, but she did not break, did not even send a scathing look over her shoulder.
A group of Alderaanian refugees was staging a protest a few hundred yards on. As they passed, a female broke through the ranks of stormtroopers and flung her arms around Leia. Leia returned the embrace gracefully, then pried her away.
"Do not weep for me," she said quietly. "Justice will prevail."
Then the woman was gone, pushed back into the crowd by the guards.
It took a half hour to make their way from the landing pad to the Imperial Palace, less than a block away.
They were taken directly to the prison wing. A guard, younger than them both, checked them in with barely concealed excitement, then sent them to be dressed in the prisoners' uniforms.
The uniform was like an abbreviated flightsuit, allowing for the stuncuffs they had worn since departing the shuttle.
The guard used a crude laser-cutter to tattoo their identification code on their arm with an unsteady hand.
Finally, they were left in a small cell that comprised of two beds, a sink, and a table with chairs.
Leia immediately took her seat on the left bed and rubbed her collarbone absently. Her hand slipped briefly beneath the collar and returned holding a datachip. She palmed it and wedged it under the stiff mattress.
She beckoned him over and he sat next to her. Embracing her tightly, he whispered, "What was that?"
"The refugee who broke through the ranks is an Alliance Intelligence agent," she said softly.
"I should have known," Luke said wryly. "When can we get out of here?"
"They don't know. She just said that they'd contact us again somehow."
"That's a relief."
He pulled back and sighed. "We should sleep. Tomorrow will come too soon as it is."
Rough hands were shaking her awake, bringing her back from dreamless sleep to tortured reality.
Leia blinked against the harsh light, then pushed herself up on one elbow. "What?"
"Visitor," the day guard snapped.
Leia turned her head to see a tall, dark-haired woman watching her from outside the security field.
She extended her hands wearily and the guard clamped stuncuffs over her wrists, then bound her ankles. He seized her elbow and hauled her to her feet, the motion sending a painful jolt from the cuffs into her muscles.
If they keep this up, they'll stun me into catatonia by the time the trial starts.
Leia hobbled across the cell, fire accompanying every step. In another burst of patriotism from a guard, she had suffered a dislocated knee and a broken wrist and she had yet to see a medic.
The woman's placid expression had dissolved into a full scowl by the time the guard got her settled in a chair.
"I'd advise you not to be so rough with my client," she snapped.
"Only as much as she deserves," the guard replied.
"Leave us," the woman ordered. "We have much to discuss."
Leia straightened her posture as the guard departed. "I assume you're our lawyer?"
"Guilty as charged. Ils Keteren."
"Leia Organa," Leia replied. "But you probably knew that."
"How did you have the misfortune of drawing this case?"
Ils smiled. "Are you kidding? Every lawyer from here to Mos Eisley wants to be involved in this trial. I have some...contacts with the Alderaanian refugee population on Imperial Center and after a few days of string-pulling, I have the honor of being your lawyer." She craned her neck towards the cell. "I had hoped to speak to Commander Skywalker as well, but am I correct in assuming that this is the time at which Lord Vader makes his daily visits?"
"Correct," Leia said with a frown.
"I'll have to speak with him later today, then." She noted that on her datapad. "I'm having a court-order sent over for immediate medical attention. Their captive ethics leave much to be desired."
Leia snorted. "That's a bit of an understatement."
"Is there anything else you require?"
She shook her head. "Not for the moment."
Leia folded her hands in her lap. "So, Counselor, what exactly are the charges against us?"
"The Imperial Starfleet has been demanding a full court-martial for Commander Skywalker. However, since he was never part of the Empire or its Starfleet, they cannot legally hold one."
Ils sighed and pulled up another file. "For you, high treason, murder, conspiracy to suborn the government, espionage, obstruction of justice, and genocide."
Leia's throat tightened. "Why genocide?"
Ils dropped her chin to her chest. "Alderaan."
Leia's throat threatened to rise against her. "What," she rasped.
"When the destruction of Alderaan was announced, the official Imperial doctrine was and still is that the Rebel Alliance destroyed it to spite the Empire. As civilian second-in-command of the Alliance, you are being held responsible for that."
Leia bent forward, her head between her legs until the nausea passed, leaving her with a throbbing headache.
"It's ridiculous," Ils said angrily, "but I've submitted a motion to have that charge dismissed. If they pursue it, I'll suggest a separate hearing to deal with that charge. However, its prevalence will almost ensure that it makes it all the way to the formal court proceedings."
"What about the others? Espionage?"
"The Death Star and the TIE-fighter development facility you torched at La'azum."
"Obstruction of justice?"
"The Death Star plans."
Leia lifted her cuffed hands to rub the bridge of her nose with her right hand. "Murder," she said softly, afraid to ask.
Ils shook her head. "A non-human engineer at La'azum. You were partially responsible for the building collapse that killed her. Lord Vader himself filed the charge."
Leia closed her eyes, trying to block out the memory. The collapsing factory on La'azum, the fire that ate away at the Dark Lord's cloak, the sudden explosion that had brought down the east wing. She remembered a delicate woman caught in its path.
"I see," she said quietly. "And Luke?"
"This is where it gets complicated," Ils admitted.
"How are they labeling the destruction of the Death Star?"
"Espionage and an unprovoked attack on a civilian target."
"Civilian," Leia exclaimed.
"And unprovoked," she said. "They reason that the only act of violence performed by the Death Star's 'defense mechanisms' was the shot that destroyed Alderaan. Not only do they deem that law-enforcement, they claim that it was not a sanctioned attack. Because the command structure of the Death Star was headed by an Imperial governor and an emissary of the Emperor's, they claim that it was a civilian facility."
"So they're admitting that they destroyed Alderaan, then claiming it's my fault?"
Leia clenched her fists. "For every Imperial atrocity, they must have a team of specialists to justify it."
"It doesn't stop there. One of his charges involves his Jedi training."
Leia arched an eyebrow. "Explain."
"In a decree issued just after the Clone Wars, it is stated that 'any person found to be in the lifestyle, pursuit of training, or advocacy of the Jedi Order shall be considered an enemy of the state and subject to appropriate ramifications.' Palpatine declared war on the Jedi and that decree has never been rescinded, so Luke is subject to it."
"So that's how they justified the Purges," Luke said quietly.
Leia turned to see him enter the room, his face drawn, his fists clenched. He bowed to Ils, then sat next to Leia.
"I am Luke Skywalker. You are our lawyer?"
She nodded. "Ils Keteren. We were just discussing the formal charges."
"So I deduced," he rejoined.
"You two are setting a bit of a legal precedent with this trial."
Leia snorted. "Glad we could be of service."
Ils smiled. "Is there anything you have questions about?"
Luke shook his head. "I'm sure Leia will fill me in on the necessary details."
Leia cleared her throat. "Is this a matter of Tribunal or are we subject to a trial by jury?"
"Jury. The judges would have to recuse themselves for conflict of interest." She shrugged. "It's better than having to convince Darth Vader of your innocence."
To Luke's surprise, it was a woman who showed them into the Emperor's chambers. Flame-haired and dour, she bowed to Vader, then eyed Luke suspiciously.
"His Majesty will speak with Lord Vader first," she said coldly. "Commander Skywalker, you will wait here."
Vader crossed the antechamber and disappeared through a door. Luke stood awkwardly in the atrium, unsure what to do.
The woman placed a hand on his sternum and shoved him none-too-gently into a chair.
"So," she spat. "You're Vader's brat."
"So it seems," Luke said evenly. "And you're the Emperor's?"
She snorted. "Hardly. I am Mara Jade, his personal emissary and the highest-ranked assassin in the Empire."
Luke's mouth curved into a smile. "Remind me not to get on your bad side."
She dropped into a chair. "You are an enemy of my Master. It's not a choice you can afford."
Luke rested his hands on his knees. "Does everyone know about my father?"
"Only those who are directly threatened by your treason."
"So the Emperor sees me as a threat," Luke said quietly. "I'm flattered."
"Don't expect to live long enough to enjoy it."
Luke shook his head. "The Emperor has sanctioned the legal proceedings; he will wait until the people of the Empire have their nominal justice, then kill me himself."
"Or turns you."
"Not an option," he returned.
"Then he will have to kill you," she assured him. "He cannot have such a palpable Force presence interfering with his dominion."
"I would rather die than betray myself."
She stood. "Glad to hear that. I don't expect I'll have the dishonor of dealing with you again."
The door through which Vader had left opened and she extended her hand in its direction with mocking respect.
"Enter, young Skywalker."
Luke had expected a dark, cavernous throne room with subdued lighting and an infinite supply of shadows.
The modest office, filled with sunlight and self-conforming repulsorchairs was certainly the last thing he expected.
Vader stood to one side, not speaking or moving. Luke expected he had been commanded to remain detached from the conversation.
"Welcome, young Skywalker," Palpatine said quietly. "This is a most unexpected pleasure."
Luke remained at attention, his gaze focused on the viewport. He would not speak, he would not think, and he would not allow himself emotion.
It was the only way to survive this interview.
Palpatine steepled his fingers, regarding him with mild amusement.
"You fool," he drawled. "Neither your silence nor your apathy will save you from your destiny."
"And what destiny is that," Luke said evenly.
"The same one that befell your father. The Skywalker line is one of strength, the measure of which cannot be expressed in the service of the Light Side."
"Better to have weakness walk at my side than have tainted victories," Luke snapped.
Palpatine smiled, a sardonic, yellowed half-grimace that only deepened the furrows in his face.
"I will have my way," he stated. "One way or another."
"I am here for trial as a war criminal, a proceeding which you sanctioned."
"Indeed." His eyes narrowed to slits. "I will let the Imperial people satiate their thirst for blood and then we will reopen this discussion. If they have not killed you and you will not yield, I will do the honors myself."
It was in the third week of their imprisonment that it all came apart.
What had begun at their arrival had escalated into nearly a crisis.
There were protests of every kind--ones against the imprisonment, against the trial, even against the Emperor's assurances that they would not be executed without formal legal proceedings. Closet extremists, impoverished refugees, and Republicists were all united against the purported injustice of the current events.
Leia squinted at the crowd gathered outside the Imperial Palace. "If only they would take their fervor and charitable donations and join the Rebellion."
Luke grinned. "Most of the types here aren't interested in action, only reaction. I have no place for sign-carriers and lobbyists in my squadron."
Leia shrugged. "A whole lot it's doing any of us. The stormtroopers have seen to it that they remain a deterrent power."
Luke reached over to squeeze her hand and she smiled vaguely at him. "Don't worry. We're only going to give our depositions. There shouldn't be any problems."
"Nevertheless," he cautioned, "stay on your guard."
"Isn't that what our knights in white armor are for?" she teased.
At an unspoken signal, the doors opened and the escort of twelve stormtroopers began clearing a path through the congerie.
They were halfway to the landspeeder when a shot rang out. One of the troopers fell, his armor smoking. Two of the others moved towards the assailant, while another seized Leia by the upper arms and began hustling her along to the speeder.
She saw the blaster rifle take aim a millisecond before the shot blew apart the head of her guard.
The palpable tension had dissolved into a full-blown melee by this time.
Leia sensed the danger just before she heard a blood-curdling yell and turned to see a man charging, blaster at the ready.
Without thinking she stretched out her hand and the blaster rifle flew into her grip. A heartbeat later, another guard, sensing the potential disaster in an armed prisoner, bludgeoned her across the back of the head.
Her fingers released the weapon as she fell to her knees and in the next moment, the guards hauled her to her feet and pushed their way through the crowd to the landspeeder. Luke joined her a minute later.
"What was that?" he gasped, struggling to regain his breath and composure.
Leia fingered the developing welt on her skull. "I have no idea," she said shakily. "I sensed the danger and reacted to it."
"You reacted with the Force," he said. "Why didn't you tell me..."
"I didn't know," she hissed. "I've never had that happen to me before."
"Vader will be after you, now," Luke said with quiet intensity. "You'll live your life in fear that it's not an isolated event, that you could become him."
"I know." She buried her face in her hands. "No chance that you did it?"
He shook his head solemnly. "What a mess."
She let her head sag against the seat cushion. "Understatement of the aeon."
"Lord Vader, we have an interesting development."
Vader drew himself up and took the datachip from the young major. Inserting it into the player, he watched in silence. Another riot, another diverted catastrophe.
Then, he saw Leia. Silhouetted in profile, she flung out her hand and summoned the blaster to her hand.
His breath caught in his throat, his heart skipped a beat.
It was an impossible idea. Organa would have never allowed a Force-strong child to be the Princess of Alderaan. There was too much risk involved.
He didn't know.
He let out his breath and closed his eyes. That night on the Death Star, he hadn't been able to break her will. Not because she was stubborn or well-trained, but because the Force was with her.
"Major, send a request to medical records. Have them run a biotic comparison check between Leia Organa, Bail Organa, and Anakin Skywalker based on the requisite Senatorial records. Have her blood sample tested for midichlorian counts, and have the results sent to me."
"Yes, my lord."
They would have to investigate this further.
Leia was summoned the next morning to meet with Vader.
A transport was waiting in the personal vehicles hangar of the East Wing. Someone didn't want the public knowing that she was leaving the grounds.
She could understand that.
It was, understandably, with great apprehension and no small amount of fear that she climbed into the landspeeder which would bring her to Vader's private residence.
The guards left her hands unbound, her feet free of the shackles.
She had been given appropriate civilian clothing for the occasion. An ankle-length black skirt, too loose about the waist for her diminished figure so that they had to belt it tightly; a long-sleeved green tunic that hid the raw abrasions which resulted from three weeks of confinement to stun-cuffs and garden-variety binders. Her hair, barely more than a bristle was freshly washed and they'd done their best to mask the bruising with concealing agents.
A stranger might have thought her simply on her way to meet a friend for brunch.
The memories of her last private encounter with Vader, that night on the Death Star, were fresh in her mind. The unrelenting pain, the mental torture.
He had beaten her savagely that night for reasons that she still did not understand. Leia's father had given her a necklace that had once belonged to her long-dead mother--a pendant carved from a japor snippet on a golden chain.
When Vader had seen the necklace, he'd flown into an outrage. Leia had never seen him that out of control.
Judiciously, she had left the necklace in their cell, in Luke's safe-keeping.
She adjusted the hang of her tunic and turned her head to gaze out the window. They were entering Sursey, a suburb of sorts that lay southeast of the Senate complex and due east of the Palace.
Mon Mothma and Garm Bel Iblis had both taken up residence here during Senate terms. The Organas' Coruscant residence was just a mile away.
In the early days of the Rebellion, it had been a running joke that the Alliance was more of a neighborhood watch than a Galaxy-wide entity.
The speeder pulled up to the curb in front of a simple, two-story home. The guard, for once a man in simple Imperial uniform rather than the armor of stormtroopers, helped her out of the speeder and guided her up a stone walkway to the front door.
"Go in," he said evenly. "Lord Vader is expecting you."
Leia nodded silently to him, then opened the old-fashioned hinged door.
The entry hall opened out into a modest living room with few items of furniture so as not to block the sunlight streaming through the bay windows facing the thoroughfare.
It was not the decor that caught her attention, but what covered the three other walls.
Dozens of holos were arranged in patterns. Many of them were of a woman--dark, elegant, and breathtakingly beautiful, but hauntingly familiar.
With a start, Leia realized that she was probably looking at Luke's mother.
Her eye traveled along until she found one involving two men and the woman. The bearded one, much older, was clearly the legendary Obi-wan Kenobi. The younger could have been Luke.
"Luke looks much like me."
Leia turned to see Darth Vader standing in the doorway of an adjoining room. She sucked in her breath sharply, then let it out in a soft hiss.
The mask was removed, revealing a heavily-scarred face and skull. The pattern of scarring indicated burn damage. The skin was pale from the years without sunlight exposure and the lips were thin, almost colorless.
The voice, deprived of the filter and modulator was deep, but more reedy than she would have expected.
But it was neither the face nor the voice which startled her.
"You did not expected to find a human beneath the mask," he observed.
She shook her head. "It's not that," she said softly. "You have Luke's eyes."
He nodded gravely. "It is what convinced me that Luke was indeed my son."
She looked back towards the holos. "What was her name?"
"Padm?," he replied.
He drew up beside her and his eyes searched the wall until he found what he was looking for.
Reaching up, he removed one and handed it to her.
"I assume you recognize the woman to her right?"
Leia smiled wistfully. The woman in the picture was Sach? Organa, the woman who had raised her as her own daughter. "I was not aware that they knew each other."
"To the contrary," he said quietly. "Sach? Organa was one of Padm?'s handmaidens. She was more than a friend, but less than a sister. When it became necessary for Padm? to go into hiding, she went to Alderaan where her friends could keep her safe."
"Has Luke seen this?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I'm not sure he is prepared for this."
She drew herself up. "I think he needs to know where he came from. Your...revelation left him confused as it is."
"Perhaps," he rejoined.
He rehung the holo, then turned to her. "Come with me."
She expected a burst of fear, but for some reason she felt no malice, no ill intent from him.
He led her into the study and gestured her to a seat. She sank into it, wary.
"Intelligence sent me a recording of how you...handled the riot yesterday."
Leia stiffened. So, we're finally to the point.
"I see," she said.
"Were you aware that you were Force-strong?"
She shook her head. "Nothing like that has ever happened to me before."
"Most curious," he murmured, "but the Force cannot always be manifest in such dramatic occurrences.
"When you were imprisoned, they took a blood sample. After seeing the recording, I had it tested for midichlorian count."
He sighed, as though weary of having to explain such things. "Midichlorians are symbiont creatures that, if in great concentration, open a person to what we know to be the Force. Your midichlorian count was almost 19,000."
She glanced at her hands, forced them to uncurl. "I don't understand."
"You are extremely strong in the Force," Vader clarified. "You are only untrained."
Leia's heart began pounding. "The Emperor will..."
"We cannot keep the Emperor from knowing about this," he said. "Perhaps he has already done tests of his own. There will be a time when you, like Luke, will have to decide which cause you will serve.
"That is not why I summoned you here today, however."
Leia's shoulder's hunched inward. "Why then?"
His lips pressed together, then curled up into a benign smile. "You have your mother's audacity."
"You never knew who your birth mother was," he stated. "You were raised to think of Sach? Organa as your mother."
Leia nodded again. "What's your point?"
"Have you never wondered why you and Luke have such a close bond?"
She bit her lip. "He is the best friend I will ever have, nothing more."
"You will find that it is you who are mistaken," he said quietly. "About a great many things."
Leia's throat tightened involuntarily. "Explain," she said in a weak facsimile of the regal tones she'd learned to speak in.
"All Senate members have blood records archived here on Imperial Center. I had your records checked against Bail Organa's and Sach? Organa's. Neither match."
Leia forced herself to take a deep breath. "That does not matter," she stated. "He was the greatest father and mentor anyone could wish for."
"True, but he was not yours." He pulled up a datafile on the screen of the datapad. "On the contrary, when your record is run against that of a certain Senator from Naboo, it matches almost perfectly. The missing link is in that of a Jedi Knight."
Leia's brow furrowed. She wasn't sure she liked where this was going. "I don't understand," she said.
"You will." He seized her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. "Leia Organa, you, like Luke, are born of the Skywalker line."
She raised a clenched fist to her mouth. "Why should I believe you?"
"Search your feelings. They will reveal..."
"I don't have that luxury," she snapped. "Stop speaking in riddles."
"You know I speak the truth."
"Convenient, isn't it." She stood. "I have no reason to believe that this is anything more than a ploy to serve your twisted purposes."
"Leia," he said, almost in a pleading tone.
"Do not address me as such," she hissed.
"Anger is of the Dark Side."
She jabbed a finger in his face. "Don't you dare lecture me on anger, darkness, or anything else in your field of expertise."
He closed his mouth, actually chagrined.
She lowered her arm and turned her back on him, then left the house.
"The queen had a huntbird,
The queen had a lark.
The queen had a mockingbird
that sang in the dark."
The child fussed, more than slightly frightened of the strange noises and sensations that accompanied space travel.
Her mother raised her to her shoulder and began rubbing her back soothingly. The child's wail immediately quieted into a soft whimper, then subsided all together.
"She's a quiet child."
The woman smiled sadly at the Jedi Master. "If she's anything like her mother, that won't last long."
He snorted. "Knowing Bail, he'll have her maintaining diplomatic silence by the age of two."
The woman shifted her grip so the infant was cradled in the crook of her arm. "At least she'll be raised as the princess she is meant to be."
She let her chin drop to her chest, her dark hair falling like a curtain over her shoulders. The child reached up to explore it with sticky fingers.
"I hate to separate them," the man said, "but there would be too many questions asked."
"And Anakin would never return to Tatooine," the woman replied softly, "not even for his son."
"Luke will be well-protected," he assured her. "Once you and your daughter are safe on Alderaan, I will take up residence on Tatooine; when the time comes, I will train Luke."
"As you did his father," she said with a touch of bitter irony.
He winced. "I do not believe Anakin Skywalker was the Chosen One. The Jedi Council believed in the end that it would be his offspring."
The woman glanced at her daughter. "Surely not..."
"No," the man replied. "Leia, in all likelihood, will never know of her Jedi potential. It will be the son of Skywalker."
The woman's shoulders hunched inward. "What a burden to carry."
A pinging alerted them to the hyperspace indicator. "We're coming up on Alderaan."
The woman adjusted the straps and shifted her daughter to a more comfortable position.
The Master throttled back into realspace just above the planetary orbit.
The comm crackled. "Shuttle, identify yourselves and state your business."
The Master reached over and toggled the transmission switch. "New Hope, out of Raltiir, on a special mission to the viceroy. Clearance code Angel 7 hapspur 83."
"Confirmed, New Hope. Proceed to coordinates Alpha 937 mark 21 mark 5. We will have a landspeeder waiting for you."
The Master turned to the woman. "We will have to bring her in without being noticed."
"A Jedi, a queen, and an infant," she scoffed. "It sounds like the start of a bad joke."
"Nevertheless, she must not be seen by anyone except the viceroy's family and trusted advisors." He turned to look at the cargo hold. "I believe your trunk will suit our purposes."
"I can't put my six-day-old daughter in a trunk," she exclaimed.
"It is the only way. There are oxygen-supply bottles. Use the smallest mask you can find."
The woman shook her head. "I hope you know what you're doing."
The child was two years old now and fully enmeshed in the lifestyle of a Princess of the Royal House of Alderaan.
Many people said she was the exact image of her mother, Sach?. Wisecracks about her temper were addressed, tongue-in-cheek to her father, the viceroy, and received with a wry smile and a comment about being "genetically predisposed to bossiness."
The Galaxy was falling apart, but the Royal family was content to simply raise their daughter.
The mother had secreted herself away among the refugee populations on the southern continent.
Bail Organa looked up as his office door opened. He heard tiny
footsteps, then a giggle. Then a small face, framed by elaborate braids,
appeared around the corner of his desk and his foster daughter grinned
at him. He grinned back, then made a funny face. She giggled again.
"Daddy, come on. You said you would play."
"In a minute, Your Highness. I still have to finish these matters."
She pouted and sat down next to the desk, waiting impatiently.
He was about to close up for the day when a messenger arrived. "General
Kenobi to see you, sir."
Bail hesitated, then swung his daughter onto his lap. "I'm sorry,
but I have to see the General. We can play tonight and then tomorrow,
I'll take you to Antibes to show you your Palace."
She kissed his cheek and got down. Kenobi let her pass, his expression
somber. "She looks just like her mother, a natural-born princess."
Bail smiled. "That she does. How is Amidala?"
"Dead." Kenobi shook his head. "I never thought it possible to die of a broken heart."
"How," Bail breathed.
"Coronary disorder," Kenobi stated. "They could do nothing to save her."
He unclenched his hand to reveal the necklace. "She wanted Leia to have this."
Bail's throat tightened. "Later, when she can understand."
Leia awoke with a start, her heart pounding, her face wet with tears. Her hand instinctively went to the pendant at her throat.
She turned her head to see Luke sitting up. Naturally, he'd sensed her turmoil.
"When did you return?"
"Late afternoon. You've been sleeping most of the day, apparently."
She sat up, her hand dropping to her side. "I met with Vader today," she said softly.
"Oh," he replied.
She drew her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "Come here, please."
He crossed to her side and sat next to her, taking her trembling hand in both of his. "What did he say to you?"
"I have Jedi potential, obviously," she said softly. "He cross-checked my blood to see if it were a genetic tendency. It didn't match to either of the Organas."
Luke's eyes widened. "You mean...?"
She nodded. "They weren't my parents. He then claimed that you and I have such a close link because we are both..." She squeezed her eyes shut. "Skywalkers.
"I didn't believe him. In fact, I walked out on him."
He laughed shortly. "I don't understand."
She nodded. "Neither did I. But I just had a dream of the past, of my mother. I cannot understand why, but Vader is telling the truth. His wife, Padm?, gave birth to twins and, for their safety, separated them. One went to Tatooine, where Vader would never return. The other was raised on Alderaan, as a Princess."
Luke's jaw dropped slightly open, then he gathered her in a tight embrace. She buried her face in his neck, returning the gesture.
"Somehow, it makes sense," he whispered.
Vader summoned both of them the next day, at midday.
The Skywalkers arrived, therefore, at the home in Sursey for the first family reunion of sorts in twenty-three years.
Leia wore the necklace, her square neckline allowing it to be seen clearly. Luke was allowed to wear his lightsaber, the one Obi-wan had claimed belonged to his father.
It was a tenuous peace offering, they knew, but a necessary one. If they were to accept him for who he was, they must begin with the tangible legacies.
They had talked, long into the night, sorting out their confusion, anger, and fears.
Luke had reasoned that they must confront Vader together, with their minds clear of any prejudices. It was the only way to prevent themselves from becoming their own worst enemies.
It was a time of tears and bitter memories, but a time for friendship, when they united as never before to defeat their demons.
Leia opened the door and led the way into the living room. Luke drew up short, staring in amazement at the holos.
"Yes," she said softly. "Mother."
Luke reached out and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Now I know who you take after."
Leia smiled and reached up to take his hand. "Come."
They came to a stop before the one that she'd last seen the day before.
"Ben," Luke muttered. "And the other man is Anakin Skywalker?"
"Indeed," Vader's voice affirmed from their left.
Luke forced himself to count to three before turning.
Leia had warned him that Vader would be maskless, that the air in the Skywalker home was regulated so that he did not need the protective mask, but nothing could have prepared him for the eyes.
Luke was silent for a long moment, unable to work words past the lump in his throat. Finally, he simply bowed.
"You needn't be so formal, Luke," Vader said quietly with a half-smile on his pale lips.
He turned to Leia, his smile disappearing. "After the way we left things yesterday, I expected to never see you again."
"I know you speak the truth," Leia said evenly. "It does not mean I forgive you. But I do not hold any anger against you. It is a useless commodity."
Vader nodded. "What convinced you?"
"Mother," she said.
His gaze flickered with sadness. "I see you brought the necklace."
He reached up to touch it and Leia recoiled instinctively. He winced and withdrew his hand. "May I see it?"
She reached up and unfastened it, then handed it to him. He ran a thumb over the design and Leia was stunned to see the beginnings of tears in his eyes.
"I gave this to her two days after I met her," he said quietly. "For luck, to remember me by. Even then, I was in love with her. She died wearing this and I thought it had been cremated with her.
"After she died, someone sent me what few belongings she had with her. A humanitarian gesture, I suppose." He looked up. "Where did you get it?"
Leia swallowed. "Bail gave it to me for my Ascension birthday. He said my mother had wanted me to have it."
"I imagine she would have."
"Both the defense and prosecution want you on the stand," Leia commented over lunch. "How do you expect to justify what you did on the Death Star?"
Luke's fork dropped to his plate with a clatter and he shot Leia a sharp look.
"No, it's all right," Vader said, catching the meaning. "The prosecution wants me there because I am the only surviving witness of what happened and know precisely what went on."
"What went on was not my fault," Leia said dryly.
"Indeed not, but the Empire will not dare question my prerogative. I am the Emperor's second-in-command and have certain privileges..."
"I don't consider the power of cognitive distortion a privilege," Leia bit out.
"I am not the one on trial. The Empire is putting both of you on trial because you endangered or took lives. They must have their justice."
"Or what passes for it in the Empire," Luke commented to his bruallki.
Vader looked between the two of them, his expression that of a lost child. "I cannot stop what is about to happen, both in the justice system and the Force."
"As if you could."
Luke looked up at Leia. "We'd best not bring this up. It does no good."
She let out a shuddering breath. "You're right." She dabbed her mouth with a napkin. "Tell us about Mother."
Leia sank into the chair opposite Ils and smiled. "I assume your long absence can be explained by the unshakable defense you're putting together."
"Something like that," Ils said, returning the smile. "I'm glad to see they let you out of the stuncuffs."
Leia flexed her wrists. "As am I. Now I can compose a complete sentence within less than ten minutes."
"Happy to hear it." She reached into her satchel and withdrew a thick stack of vellum. "I brought your fan mail after sifting out all holos."
Leia rolled her eyes. "I'll keep it for some light reading. They don't allow us access to readercards or even the old-fashioned printings for security measures. They'll probably forbid me to take this into the cell for fear that I'll attempt suicide by papercut."
Ils' smile disappeared. "The scuttlebutt is that you two are being smuggled out of here on a regular basis to meet with Vader."
"We are summoned, not smuggled," Leia corrected.
"It doesn't look good, Leia. I'd advise against contact with him until at least the trial starts. I can even have the courts order it to prevent a conflict of interest."
"He's our father," Leia countered.
"Nevertheless, people may believe that you're trying to evade the system, to recuse yourselves from the trial. And if the Emperor misinterprets it, he could bring you up on the Jedi charge as well."
"All right," Leia said quietly. "When's the arraignment?"
"Five days." She drew up a file on the datapad. "I'll have the clothing sent over tonight in case it needs to be altered. For Luke, we're opting for a simple uniform that is neither Jedi nor military. Very neutral. You will be in a gown that is more suited for a princess as a reminder of who exactly you are."
Leia winced, imagining a torturously elaborate gown. "Must I?"
Leia studied her hands. "Have the witnesses been issued subpoenas?"
"Of course." Her mouth twitched. "The prosecution is calling everyone from Darth Vader to spies who have infiltrated the Alliance. We have the minor setback of not being able to subpoena any of your comrades, since the Empire would immediately arrest them as well, but that is only a minor one."
Leia nodded. "I hope so, for all our sakes."
Leia awoke on the morning of the arraignment with aching muscles, a clenched jaw, and a pounding headache.
The chrono in the conference room adjacent to their cell indicated that it was 0623. The preparations for the day were to begin in seven minutes.
The arraignment was scheduled to begin at precisely 0900. Ils had figured ninety minutes for the grooming, five minutes to travel to the Hall of Justice, thirty minutes to brave the holoshills, and ten minutes to process the final paperwork before taking their places in the courtroom.
"Early is on time, on time is late, late is unacceptable."
Leia had to smile at the memory of her Aunt Tia's favorite adage.
She stood slowly, a spasm in her lower back preventing her from straightening fully. She braced herself against the wall and stretched the muscle as best she could, her lip clenched firmly between her teeth.
"You all right?"
"Back spasm," she gritted out.
She let her arm drop and made her way back to the bed, easing herself onto it. Luke was at her side in a heartbeat, helping her lie down.
"Fine time for my humanity gene to kick in," she quipped.
Luke smiled grimly and gently rolled her onto her side. She felt him wedge a pillow between her knees.
"That should help a little. When the mob arrives, we'll get you some cophine."
Leia sighed. "All right."
He squeezed her hand gently. "Why are you up so early?"
She sighed heavily, not quite wanting to admit what had awakened her. "Would you believe I'm afraid?"
"Of the trial?"
She nodded weakly. "Counter-insurgency always seems so right until you get called on the carpet for it."
Luke laughed. "Your actions against the Empire are still right and probably saved millions of lives. The fact that they, in their biased state, disagree does not diminish that in any way."
As usual, he made sense. She squeezed his hand in return. "Thank you," she said softly.
"I'm just telling you what any other person with half a wit would."
"Not that," she protested. "Everything. I don't know if I could endure any of this without what you've done for me."
He smiled. "Think of it as compensation for twenty years of lost opportunities."
She let her arm dangle across her abdomen. "Not lost, deprived. We have Vader to thank for that."
Leia could see Luke wince. "We have the rest of our lives," he countered. "Let's not dwell on the past."
"Agreed." She smiled faintly. "Besides, the lawyers will do enough of that for us."
He snorted. "I suppose it's our comeuppance for all past acts of selfish reminiscence."
She squinted at him. "Have you been memorizing the dictionary again or am I rubbing off on you?"
"A bit of both," he said with a grin. "Do I make you proud?"
She blinked back the sudden tears in her eyes. "Every day."
A murmur of voices at the security post alerted her to the approach of the team and they both rolled her eyes in mutual exasperation.
"Welcome to the first day of history," Luke said wryly.
They were quite a pair.
Luke wore a stylishly cut suit of black caten, vaguely military in fashioning. The image was enhanced by the knee-high black boots that encased his legs. His lightsaber hung from a hook on his belt, more a ceremonial decoration than anything since the power source had been removed by a guard. His golden hair was styled in the same vaguely shaggy look that he had worn every day that she'd known him.
Leia, for her part, was dressed up to the nines.
She still had not much hair to speak of, but she had resisted all attempts to coerce her into wearing a wig of some kind. It may be appalling, but it was a small indication of the injustices of the Empire.
The gown was an Alderaanian design but not as needlessly elaborate as she'd expected. It was not white, rather a matte off-white. The neckline formed a v just beneath her collarbones and the elbow-length sleeves were fitted to her delicate arms. The fitted bodice ended in a flared, lavender skirt, elaborately embroidered in a floral pattern with silver thread. The shoes were hidden, but had low heels so she would not risk tripping over herself.
She wore nothing in the way of jewelry, but her nails were carefully manicured her hands smoothed until there were no signs that she'd ever overhauled a sublight engine or hacked her way through a jungle.
In appearance, she was virtually the same princess who had left Alderaan three years ago, but at heart, she was a warrior, jaded by experience and the need for defiance.
It was that spirit and not any crafted image that would sustain her through the proceedings.
They were ahead of schedule, having managed to escape the holoshills after only twenty-five eternities.
Leia could hear the roar of the gathered citizens behind her. The courtroom was filled to capacity. Ils had quipped that they might have to move this into the Senate chamber by the time Darth Vader took the stand.
For now, the fact was that 4,000 people had been admitted into the Hall of Justice for the arraignment. Some had been there for days, hoping to be present for the momentous occasion, so that they could say to their grandchildren, "I was there when the Empire reclaimed its justice."
Leia pushed to her feet, ignoring the residual pain of the back spasm.
"The honorable Governor Esio Turot presiding. All ye who have business with this court of law, stand forth and ye shall be heard."
The judge sank into the seat at the front of the packed courtroom and rang a crystal, signaling for silence.
"In the matter of the Galactic Empire versus Princess Senator Leia Organa and Commander Luke Skywalker, we have acknowledged the following charges.
"Leia Organa has been charged with high treason, murder, conspiracy to suborn the government, espionage, obstruction of justice, and genocide.
"Luke Skywalker has been charged with Espionage, an unprovoked attack on a civilian target, high treason under the provisions of the Setarin Resolution..."
"The Jedi matter," Ils clarified quietly.
"Conspiracy to suborn the government, and murder."
Turot fixed them with a stern gaze. "The defendants will please rise."
Leia stood once more, her chin held high.
"Do you understand these charges?"
"Yes, Your Honor," they both said.
"Leia Organa, how do you plead to these charges."
Leia set her jaw. "On all charges, not guilty."
There was a definite murmur, not unexpected.
"And Luke Skywalker, how do you plead?"
"Not guilty on all charges."
He reached over to squeeze her fingertips, then released them.
"This trial will commence in seven days at 0900 hours, whereupon we will hear the opening statements and prosecution will call its first witness."
The crystal rang once more, ending the session. Leia let her breath out. "That is the most preparation for a two-minute interview that I've ever encountered."
Ils smiled grimly. "But it made an impression. For one thing, Turot never recognizes a caste system. The fact that he called you Princess is a good indication of his high regard for you."
"Let's just hope the magnanimity sustains."
The return to the Palace was fairly uneventful. After weeks of encountering riots, protests, holoshills, and assassins every time they ran the gauntlet, it was odd to have a reprieve.
Leia surmised that many of them had been in the courtroom and were still attempting to exit the building.
Ils had sent them on to the cell block alone, promising to join them shortly.
They arrived at detention to find that they'd been transferred. The guard, unusually cranky, had them escorted to the South Palace block, half a mile away down the Grand Corridor.
The cells there were less utilitarian, with conventional durasteel bars instead of force fields and windows that overlooked the plaza before the Ministry of Defense.
"This dates back to the late Republic," the new guard explained, "when the Palace was a complex of buildings in the administrative district."
"Why were we transferred?"
"A bomb threat," he said simply.
He gestured them into the cell block. "Your lawyer just made contact. They'll be here in three minutes."
Leia smoothed the skirt of her dress. "No time to change, then. It takes me at least four to get out of this dress."
"No, Your Highness," the guard said with a hint of a smile. "You may wait in the first conference room to your left."
Luke guided her into the conference room and helped her settle into a chair. "This could be a lot worse."
"Granted," she agreed. "The guard doesn't seem as trigger-happy as the night shift or as sullen as the day-shift."
"Wonder what's keeping Ils."
"And who are 'they?'"
Luke glanced over his shoulder. "I think we're about to find out."
They stood as Ils entered with two civilians--a man and a woman. Ils smiled genuinely and gestured them to seats.
"I apologize for the delay, but our defense team has gained two new members."
She gestured to the woman. "This is Mariah Taren. She will be handling depositions and ensuring your safety during the trial."
"The other is Cas Emedath."
Leia's eyes finally fixed on her male companion and her heart leapt into her throat.
He gave no sign of recognizing her, only nodded curtly.
"Luke, Mariah and I would like to meet with you first. Leia, you will remain here with Cas until summoned."
"All right," Leia said evenly.
"Cas" sank into the chair opposite her as the others left. For a long moment, there was only silence.
"Well," he said quietly. "Another fine mess you've gotten us into, Your Highnessness."
Leia had to smile. "I thought it was you," she replied. "I thought you'd be long-gone by now."
"And miss this?" He shook his head. "Not on your life. Besides, the contact who sold you out was my friend. I feel just a bit responsible."
"Responsible is hardly the word I would associate with you."
He rolled his eyes. "I see that they didn't shave your wits with your hair."
She stiffened. "Some of us haven't executed half of them."
He grinned. "You know me too well."
He reached across the table to brush her fingertips with his in a light squeeze and his smile disappeared.
"Ils told me about Vader," he said softly. "I'm sorry."
She bit her lip. "Feeling sorry for myself won't change anything."
"A wise approach, given how this trial is likely to turn out."
She snorted. "I expected you all to break us out of here before the verdict."
Han smiled. "Breaking the two most prominent prisoners to ever be tried on Coruscant in recorded history out of maximum-security containment on the Emperor's throneworld takes time, Leia dearest."
She narrowed her eyes. "You've had four weeks so far. What's taking you so long?"
He withdrew his hand and shrugged. "We didn't know if we'd be able to rescue you before the trial, so we've been putting most of our efforts into preventing your execution. Then we worry about your escape."
"How touching," she said wryly. "I suppose you've been funding the mission with a floating sabacc ring as well?"
He grinned. "Someone had to do it."
"We have a slight problem."
Luke looked up to see the defense team enter the cell block. He stood and crossed to the bars.
His stomach sank into his toes. "How slight?"
Han shook his head imperceptibly. "We should leave this for a more guarded situation, I think."
Ils nodded and turned to the guard on duty. "Please escort my clients to conference room alpha."
The guard unlocked the door and stepped in. Luke held out his wrists automatically. Leia joined him and they were brought into the room.
Ils was facing away from them, her shoulders hunched in tension. As soon as the door shut, she turned.
"With two days until the trial formally opens, someone has found out about the Skywalkers," she stated.
"What," Leia breathed.
Luke's throat tightened. "How do you know?"
"It's a fairly well-known holoshill and he sent the documented proof to my office along with the statement he was prepared to issue to the public."
Luke glanced at Leia, found her eyes as tight as his throat. "I should have known this would happen."
Mariah cleared her throat and clasped her hands in front of her. "What we need to ascertain is what we should do about it and if and how it will affect the proceedings."
"Legally," Ils countered, "it shouldn't. Your lineage may be a pre-existing variable, but it is not one that was taken into account at any point in your lives."
"The public will want answers," Han muttered.
"We aren't at liberty to give the public what it wants," Luke said quietly. "We are nearly as ignorant on the matter as they are and until you allow us to deal with our father again, that situation will not change."
Ils nodded grimly. "I'm afraid the policy on that still stands. Until the day he takes the stand, any contact with his children could be construed as interfering with a governmental investigation."
"When will that be," Leia asked.
"He is ninth in the line of witnesses." Ils sat down. "I suggest that we do not refute the claims, but do not respond to anything. We must make it clear that our primary focus is in seeing justice done and that the Skywalker issue has to take a lower priority."
Luke winced. "Who's first?"
He could sense a faint flash of anger in Ils' sense. "Former Imperial Senator Ahdi Lzru."
Leia straightened, her jaw set, her sense roiling with restrained anger. "Lzru was one of the first Senators after Bail, Mon Mothma, and Bel Iblis to join the formal Rebellion. He was in the highest councils and was even there the night I put my support fully against the Empire. Someone in that council was leaking information because most of the Senators involved were assassinated over time. We thought Lzru dead after the dissolution of the Senate, but evidently we've found our informer."
Ils nodded. "So it seems from his deposition."
"The slimetrail," Leia spat. "He probably got a sectorial governorship for our demise."
Han snorted. "Naturally."
Ils nodded. "I probably don't need to mention this, but I'd advise you both to restrain anything that may be bias. We will hit them harder than they hit us, but we must be patient in all things."
"Diplomacy," Leia muttered. "The art of saying 'nice rancor' until you find a big enough rock."
The first morning of the trial, ominously enough, arrived in the midst of a horrendous storm.
The defendants arrived at the Hall of Justice to find the crowd of thousands diminished to a few dozen reporters and holographers braving the rain to catch a glimpse of them on their way to their day of judgment.
Leia bent her head against the torrential rain and biting wind, drawing her hooded cloak closer around her form. Han placed a hand on her elbow, urging her forward.
She mounted the steps to the Hall quickly, ignoring the commentaries which ranged from scathing to monotonous.
Ils met them inside, looking more calm than Leia felt.
"The trial's been moved into the grand audience chamber, where they can squeeze in another three thousand."
"That's reassuring," Luke said wryly. "Have they reserved the Senate chambers for the verdict?"
Ils smiled slightly. "I'll look into it."
Leia pushed back her hood and shook her head, letting the drops of moisture fly off, then swept her cloak off. Han took it and retreated to the ground-floor office they'd been given.
She wore a simple white dress, much like the one she'd worn to the medals ceremony on Yavin IV, belted at the waist, with a full skirt and fitted bodice.
Ils looked her over approvingly. "I think we should make our way up now. Cas will join us shortly."
Leia lifted her skirt so as not to trip on it and followed Ils up the Grand Staircase. The grand audience chamber took up the entire west side of the building and was rarely used for anything short of a state funeral.
The heralds opened the doors and they entered the chaos.
Built on three levels, it reminded Leia more of a concert hall than a courtroom. The witness box and bench were center stage, with the court reporter's desk just forward of that position. The two sides were more upstage, the visual layout bringing the focus to the judge. Behind the boxes was a narrow corridor separating the court from the courtesans. The main level and the two balconies were built in tiers, allowing every person a clear view of the proceedings.
Leia moved to the third chair behind their table and sank into it gracefully. The chrono indicated three minutes until the trial was scheduled to start, so she focused her energies on calming herself in preparation for the day ahead.
She stood as Turot entered.
He sat and rang the crystal and they resumed their seats.
"Let it be known," Turot said firmly, "that there will be no partisan displays. There will be no outbursts, no attacks, and no disruption of this courtroom. We are to conduct these proceedings as we would in any other case. If you do not comply, you will be physically removed from the premises."
He straightened and glanced towards Ils. "Counselors, are you prepared to present your opening statements?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
Turot turned to the prosecuting attorney with a grim smile. "Counselor Dulor, you may present first, whenever you are ready."
Mali Dulor, a handsome Corellian half a foot taller than Leia, stood and moved from behind the table.
"This is a legal precedent. For over a decade, the nominal Rebel Alliance has been terrorizing the innocent peoples of the Empire in the name of what they call justice. It is a corruption that has reached most levels of society, from peasants to princesses.
"The reason we meet here today is to send a message: that no man may dispense justice at blasterpoint, that no princess may exercise unrighteous dominion for the sake of vanity. In short, we are not putting two civilians on trial; we are judging the actions of all such dangerous fanatics.
"Before you, you see a man and a woman, fairly non-descript. Nothing distinguishes them at first sight. But the fact of the matter is that for years, they have been endangering your lives, destroying your families. They are on trial for such things as murder, high treason, espionage, and even genocide.
"Any of these things individually would be grounds for execution. And yet they live in a shroud of impunity and would gladly do it again. No longer can we stand by and allow this madness to continue."
He returned to the table and sat, his mouth set in a firm smirk. Ils stood, her face expressionless. She did not acknowledge Dulor's presence, only took her place.
"We are here today, not to vindicate, but to validate. What we must decide is the difference between fanaticism and self-defense.
"Ask yourselves whether, if you were the victim of repeated injustices, you would stand idly by and allow the practice to continue.
"Counselor Dulor would have you believe it is that exact illustration that brings us here today. It is that illustration that drove a pacifist and a farmboy to take up arms against their oppressors.
"They did not act against the Empire out of any sort of fanaticism, malicious intent, or anything so dramatic. They simply defended themselves against the possibility that it would happen again and again, to others just like themselves.
"The Empire may call it criminal, but it is nothing less than heroism.
"You will witness a wide variety of testimonies. You will hear stories of secret councils and dangerous missions. You will hear stories of atrocities beyond imagination. You will often find yourselves confused because of the distinction between Imperial decree and the truth.
"The truth is all that matters here and when it comes down to it, the truth is that my clients' hands are clean. They have nothing to answer for but conscience."
There was a murmur of conversation, but the on-lookers seemed to be actually heeding his warning.
Turot frowned. "Very well, Counselors. This trial is formally opened. Counselor Dulor, you may call your first witness."
Dulor stood. "Prosecution calls Ahdi Lzru."
Lzru, a stooped, wizened human, approached the witness box. The bailiff swore him in, then helped him into the seat.
Dulor clasped his hands behind his back, his jaw set firmly. "Please state your name and detail your employment over the last ten years."
Lzru settled himself into a more comfortable position, then narrowed his eyes in concentration. "Ahdi Lzru. I was the senior senator from Izodi ten years ago and on the subcommittee for military appropriations. After the dissolution of the Senate three years ago, I was offered a position in the Ministry of Defense. I have been working there since."
"How do you know Princess Leia Organa?"
"I was a friend of her adoptive father's, Bail Organa. I visited Alderaan on many occasions. When she entered the Senate, five years ago, I became better acquainted with her."
"While in the Senate, you were given a..."
Ils stood smoothly, with no sense of urgency. "Objection," she called. "Counsel is leading the witness."
"Sustained," Turot said. "Rephrase the question, Counselor."
"Were your Senatorial duties your only concern at the time?"
"Could you explain the mission given you by the Emperor?"
Leia caught her breath and straightened her posture almost imperceptibly.
"The Emperor was concerned that members of the Senate were combining efforts against him. Knowing that I spent my military years in counterintelligence, he requested that I seek out these traitors and enter their confidences. Once there, I would report on their members, actions, and plots."
"When did this take place?"
"Five years ago."
"When did Senator Organa become involved?"
"Shortly thereafter." He paused for a moment, sensing Leia's cold gaze, then averted his eyes. "When Organa was a simple planetary ruler with only a few organized cells spread throughout the Core Worlds, Princess Leia was usually used as a courier. However, after the formal organization of what is now known as the Rebel Alliance, Organa chose to keep her involvement to a minimum.
"I began reporting on the Alliance members of the Senate about the same time that she was elected to represent Alderaan. Two of their number were keeping her closely monitored to observe where her loyalties lay.
"It was clear that while she did not openly oppose the Empire, she did not approve of its brand of justice. The Alliance deemed it wise to approach her."
"What was her response?"
"She agreed to meet with the leaders of the Rebellion."
Dulor crossed to the prosecution's table and retrieved an audiochip. "If it please the court, we submit this recording as Exhibit A."
"So noted," Turot said evenly. "The recording will be played and marked as evidence in the court records."
A few seconds later, the recording began. Crackling and marred by static, it was obviously made with crude instrumentation, but the content was undisputable.
She recognized Mon Mothma's voice as well as her own uncertain "hello" in response.
"You come to us of your own free will," Bel Iblis' voice said.
"We have watched you a long time," Lzru's voice interjected. "What brings you to the Rebellion?"
"I cannot stand by as the Empire systematically destroys what little justice Palpatine salvaged from the shambles of the Old Republic."
"Fine words," Bail Organa said, "but you are a Senator of the Empire. You are well-versed in speechcraft. How do we know that you are sincere?"
"You know I am a woman of my word. My father raised me in honor."
There was a ripple of laughter on the recording. "Indeed," Bail continued. "What is your goal in fighting the Empire? Do you intend to restore the Old Republic?"
There was a pause. "No," she heard herself say. "The Old Republic failed for several reasons. Its government put its faith entirely in the rule of the few. It was not willing or able to deal with the concerns of its people. As a result, its selfishness devolved into corruption. The Alliance should not revert to the Old Republic, but replace the New Order. What we should strive for is to reform the government into something that holds its members accountable and ratifies justice and legislation on a more concrete level."
"Do you hate the Empire?" Bel Iblis inquired.
"I think that's all we need to hear," Dulor said evenly. "No further questions, Your Honor."
Luke shifted slightly in his seat. They had just concluded the testimony of the third witness of the day and his patience was wearing thin.
After Lzru, they had called a factory guard from La'azum who had testified to the act of espionage committed allegedly by Leia which brought an entire TIE-production facility to ashes.
Ils had easily maneuvered him into self-contradiction and nothing much came of the testimony.
The third witness had finally reminded them of the other side of the trial. A former B-wing pilot who had been captured two years ago, he had detailed the events in the Death Star trench in a shaky voice with excruciating detail.
The Death Star, despite its name, was billed a civilian station. Luke Skywalker, the pilot stated, had repeatedly and without provocation attacked a non-combatant facility.
Such an act was deemed murder. Ils had attempted to rehabilitate the witness, but his affidavit only afforded him enough to comment on a single military event. Dulor had reminded them all of that fact rather snidely and she'd been forced to abandon the line of questioning.
The weather had turned colder, apparently, yielding snow. It frosted the windows and drifted on the sills. Gusts of wind rattled the windowpanes.
Neither the attorneys, judge, defendants, witnesses, nor the court members seemed to notice.
Turot rang the crystal to silence the court as the pilot was escorted back to detention, where he would await transport back to the prison camps of Ziost.
"We will recess now until tomorrow morning at 0900, whereupon you may call your next witness, Counselor Dulor. This session is adjourned."
They stood as Turot left the courtroom, then relaxed. Luke breathed a sigh of something not quite like relief.
Finally able to speak, he first turned to his sister.
Her face was drawn, her jaw set, her eyes dull.
"Are you all right," he said quietly.
"No," she admitted. "But I will be."
He embraced her tightly. "I know."
She rested her cheek against his chest, her chest heaving in a sigh. "I can't imagine what it will be like with Vader on the stand."
He pulled back and offered a grim smile. "Whatever happens, we'll face it together."
She looked up. "I wish either one of us had enough Force-experience to guard ourselves, prepare us for the strain."
"Someday," he promised.
Han returned with the cloaks and helped Leia into hers. Luke smiled at the slight affection he could sense coming from the older man.
I think you'd better keep your eye on Han, he sent.
She arched her eyebrows in disdain at him, but did not reply.
Luke allowed himself to be cuffed, then followed Ils and the rest from the courtroom.
A closed speeder awaited them near the South entrance. Leia entered first, moving to the far side of the compartment. Han sat next to her. Luke took his position across from both of them and was joined by Ils. Mariah sat on the smaller seat that joined the two sides.
"It's all right," Ils said a few moments later. "We can't expect to win or lose the trial with the first witnesses. Don't worry."
"Who's worried," Leia and Han said in unison.
Luke quashed his weary grin.
"I'm ordering a bar on visitors for the rest of the day. You both look as though you could use some rest."
"Very perceptive," Luke said wryly.
They heard the clinking of metal half a heartbeat before the grenade exploded, slagging the front end of the speeder. Luke instinctively threw himself forward, partially to avoid any subsequent blasts, mostly to shield his sister from danger.
The second blast sent the speeder onto its side, then crashing into an inverted position.
For a long moment, there was only silence, then he heard the blaster shots.
Ignoring the pain in his ribs and the blood streaming into his eyes from a gash in his forehead, Luke pulled himself from the speeder. Focusing all his abilities on his strength, he positioned himself beneath the speeder's edge and heaved upwards.
Settled into the Force, he barely registered the blasters falling, one by one, silent. He only returned to full awareness when the speeder was righted.
Then the effort overwhelmed him and he was unconscious before he hit the ground.
"In view of the circumstances," Han said hoarsely. "I think we should move for a continuance."
Mariah rubbed her eye absently. "I think Governor Turot would be amenable to that. Unless you have some mystical legal expertise, we need to acquire a new lawyer."
Han looked up to see Governor Turot enter the waiting room. They both shot to their feet and a heartbeat later regretted the action.
"Perhaps you should save formality for a day when you haven't been bombed."
Han eased himself back into the chair, careful of his fractured wrist and two cracked ribs.
Turot sank into the chair opposite them. "I just learned of Counselor Keteren's death," he said quietly. "My deepest sympathies. She was a honorable woman."
"Thank you," Mariah said softly.
"How are the prisoners faring?"
Han shook his head. "Luke's got a mild concussion to recover from, but otherwise should be fine. Leia will be out of bacta tonight."
Turot winced. "A senseless act of violence." He straightened. "I took the liberty of arranging for another lawyer, one with certain sympathies and an extensive knowledge of the case."
"Thank you, sir," Han said formally.
"He will meet you at the office in the Hall of Justice at 2000 tonight. In the meantime, I am granting a delay for obvious reasons.
"There will be a one-week continuance. One week from today, you are expected to return to court to resume the trial."
Leia was released the next afternoon, subdued by the shock of nearly being killed.
The first order of business was to place them in separate cells. They protested vehemently, but in the end could do nothing to prevent it.
Luke spent their brief time together each morning teaching Leia to draw on the Force for strength, calming, and most importantly communication. Their nights were no longer silent as they used the Force to comfort and communicate with each other.
On the morning of the third day, they had a visitor.
Han and Mariah were accompanied by a tall, dark-haired man of medium build and stern features.
"Seth Cetarn," he said without preamble. "I am now your lawyer."
Luke shook the extended hand, then helped Leia into a seat.
"How is the case going?"
Cetarn's mouth twitched. "We're only three witnesses into the proceedings, but by the time we get to Vader's testimony, we should have a good deal of serious cross-examination points under our belts."
"And when we get to Vader," Leia said quietly.
"I've studied his deposition and the preceding Imperial decree concerning Alderaan carefully. I also spent a considerable amount in the Imperial archives, reviewing official records from the Death Star project, the surrounding circumstances, including the dissolution of the Senate and the purges on Raltiir."
"For all that work," Luke said wryly, "I hope you've yielded something useful."
"Indeed." Cetarn clasped his hands before him and offered a grim smirk. "I think we have a good chance of having genocide dropped from the list of charges."
Luke blinked. "You're serious," he said in mild surprise.
"Of course. I never make a promise that I can't keep."
He turned to Leia. "I understand Governor Turot is a friend of yours."
Leia nodded slowly. "When my father retired from the Senate, Turot took over the senior senatorship of Alderaan to let me fill Turot's place. We became friends in those two years, but of course I lost track of him in the Death Star era."
"Nevertheless, what are his sympathies? Does he have any counter-imperial leanings?"
"As an Alderaanian, naturally. When in the Senate, he was on the verge of formally joining the Rebellion. Whether he would have the gall to make the sympathies known by countering established Imperial doctrine, I do not know."
"We'll have to watch that. I will be pursuing the dismissal whole-heartedly."
"I trust," Leia said firmly, "that everything in this trial will be pursued whole-heartedly."
Cetarn nodded. "That's one thing you won't have to worry about."
Leia opened one eye and glared icily at her father. "Not on your life."
"You will speak to me or I will..."
"What," she snapped. "Subject me to some of your delicate questioning as you did the last time?"
Vader sank onto the cot opposite hers with a low growl. "You refused to contact me."
Leia pulled her blanket up to her chin and sighed wearily. "I explained to you that Counselor Keteren forbade it."
Vader snorted. "A foolish precaution."
"Until your testimony, this could be construed as interfering with a governmental investigation. And after the testimony, I may not want to speak to you ever again."
"I know that will not be the case."
Leia sat bolt upright, her eyes blazing. "Do you," she hissed. "Do you claim to understand me in the slightest? How? By your mind-abuse, your phantom pains? Do you feed off the agony of your nominal children and then assume that you have the right to invade them?"
"I didn't know."
"Banthaspit," Leia snapped. "That means nothing except you're even more of a heartless monster than I could have conceived of. If you had done it to someone with whom you had a connection, a past grievance, it would have been simply an atrocity. Your actions towards estranged innocents makes it an abomination, an unforgivable act."
"Your hate makes you powerful," he observed.
"You'd like to think that," she countered. "You'd like to assume that you will always be the strong one, the feared because you embrace your darkness. But it is not meant to be.
"You cannot possibly win because the light will always be served by love, which is a stronger power by far than anything you corrupt us to."
"Yet you cannot love me."
"No," she said in the voice of someone on the verge of tears, "not yet."
He crossed the room and reached out his hand to brush away the moisture from her cheeks. "You are so like your mother," he said, his voice actually sad.
"Do you think she ever forgave you?"
"No," he said quietly. "She had you to remind her of what she lost, a fresh wound to the day she died."
"What a miserable existence," Leia said bitterly. "To be so consumed by betrayal."
He straightened and turned. A few moments later, he returned with a trunk. Leia eyed it warily.
"Is that hers?"
He nodded. "When she died, Sach? sent this to me, against Bail's wishes. I wish you to have it."
Leia's throat constricted. "Thank you," she whispered. "I have nothing of her but memories and this necklace to offer Luke. Perhaps this will remedy that."
"I hope so."
"This is what I came to the Organas in."
Leia sat on the bed with her knees drawn up to her chest, her hands clasped between her kneecaps, her face drawn.
"She came to Alderaan with nothing but what could fit in this trunk after being a queen," she said softly. "I can't imagine what that would be like, living your life with a few dresses and bittersweet memories."
Luke squeezed her knee. "Of course you can. She may have come to Alderaan that way, but you left it in the same way."
She lifted a hand to swipe at her eyes. "Very true."
Luke ran his hand over the ornate carving on the trunk. "Do you want to open it?"
Her mouth twitched into a half-smile. "I'm not sure I do. Opening a can of wyrms, so to speak."
"I think we need to, sometime," he said quietly. "If nothing else to see where we came from."
Leia swallowed past the lump in her throat and nodded. "Let's do it."
Her legs extended and she let her feet drop to the floor. She knelt carefully, then ran her hand along the rim, searching for a catch.
Her hand caught on something and, heart pounding, she depressed the catch. With a creak, she lifted the lid.
The lid was lined with static holos of Anakin and Padm?--a few were at their wedding, but most of them were candids taken during times of simple joys and rare peace.
Holos of children were on top of the trunk's contents. Most of them were of Leia, taken while she was a small child in the Royal Court of Alderaan.
Leia lifted one from the stack and ran her finger over it, her throat tight, her eyes stinging with unshed tears.
It was a picture of her and Bail, on one of the rare family outings that they were afforded. Leia couldn't have been more than two. The white sands of beaches along the Tilun Sea on the continent of Thon were the only indication of where they were. They were walking hand-in-hand, neither of them was looking at the holorecorder. Leia was studying her tiny footprints in the sand, Bail was watching her with wistful joy.
"That's Bail," Luke asked quietly.
Leia nodded, letting the holo drop from her hand. Luke lifted the stack of holos from the trunk and placed them carefully on the bed.
Underneath was a blue tunic, gray overshirt, and slacks of an unfamiliar cut.
"I can't believe this," Luke breathed. "It's what a Tatooine would wear."
Leia arched an eyebrow, then glanced at the lid of the trunk. Her eyes traveled over the holos until she found one of the Skywalkers, much younger. Padm? was wearing the Tatooine dress, grinning broadly. She was kneeling next to a boy in farmclothes with an intense gaze and a shock of blond hair.
"That explains this," she said.
She lifted the clothes out and set them aside. Underneath was an elaborately decorated dress, something their mother must have worn as a queen.
Leia lifted it out and stood, shaking the fabric out.
For all its embroidery, the dress was simply cut. A fitted bodice with a square neck and elbow-length sleeves flared into a full skirt that had a petaled overlay.
The entire thing was a deep red velvet, embroidered in gold thread. The underskirt was a slightly lighter shade.
Leia fixed a smile on Luke. "I think I've found what I'll wear for Vader's testimony."
Luke nodded solemnly. "You'd be beautiful in it."
She lay it carefully across the bed. "I almost hate to see that in there, since it means there's less room for the rest of her things."
Luke had removed two more fairly non-descript items of clothing and was staring at a leather-bound book in his hands. "I think I've found something."
Leia dropped to her knees. "What is it?"
"Mother's journals," he said quietly. "There are ten of them in here."
Leia lifted another identical one from the trunk, her hands trembling. Opening it, she found an entry written in small, elegant script.
"'The days are too long and yet too short,'" she read. "'Every day more reports of horrendous casualties come in and I wait with bated breath for any news of Anakin.
"'Still there is no news. He is not on the casualty lists, but they are unable to locate Ben's unit. They were inserted into Mandalore covertly and there hasn't been word since.
"'I can't help but be frightened. Perhaps my best friend, the one who swore he'd marry me all those years ago on Tatooine, lies dead in the streets and I'll never know.
"'I must not allow myself to think that way. The war is tapering, the Republic forces prevailing one system at a time. Anakin will come back to me, if nothing else to make good on that child's promise.
"'He has to.'"
Luke rested a hand on top of hers, squeezing gently. "I don't know about you, but I think we should avail ourselves of this treasure."
"Certainly," Leia said.
She removed five and handed them to him. One by one, she folded and repacked the clothes, then replaced the holos on top.
"Another day," she said softly.
"Please state your name and rank."
"Zaid Othar, Commander."
"How long have you served the Empire?"
The hatchet-faced man's thin eyebrows furrowed. "Since the beginning. I was a soldier of the Republic in its last days. When Supreme Chancellor Palpatine declared the New Order, I immediately placed myself in his services."
"What was your role in the early days of the Empire?"
"I worked under General Setarin. After the Emperor declared war on the Jedi, Setarin resolved to expunge the threat from the Galaxy. I had a role in bringing that to pass."
Leia saw Luke stiffen, squeezed his hand slightly. Don't, she warned. Anger is of the Dark Side.
He returned the gesture, then settled back.
"How did you go about that?"
"In the beginning, Sith commandos would target numbers of the Jedi interspersed throughout the soldiers sent against the clones. Our role was to pinpoint the locations for the death squads.
"We were equipped with bioscanners that were designed to look like normal medical instruments but took midichlorian readings. The memory bank was connected to an archive so that a Sith anywhere in the Galaxy could know where a Jedi lay in wait. It became very useful when the death squads began working with our own forces."
"By the Setarin Resolution, what are the criteria for..."
"Objection," Cetarn called, "counsel is leading the witness."
Turot nodded slightly to Cetarn. "Sustained. Rephrase the question, Counselor."
Dulor bowed briefly. "Yes, Your Honor."
He turned back to Othar. "How would you determine if a person is in violation of the Setarin Resolution and the subsequent legislation against the Jedi?"
"By the criteria of the legislation, any person in the pursuit of the lifestyle or training of the Jedi is under suspicion and subject to its consequences."
"You are not here under subpoena," Dulor observed. "When you learned of this trial, you were one of the first to come forward in hopes of seeing justice enforced."
"I recognized that by his actions and even his appearance, Commander Luke Skywalker was pursuing the lifestyle of an Order known to have conspired to suborn the government. When he arrived on Coruscant, by leave of Lord Vader, I proceeded with the established means of identifying a Jedi."
"Does Commander Skywalker fit the criteria?"
"No further questions, Your Honor." Dulor smirked at Cetarn. "Your witness, Counselor."
Cetarn stood. "Commander Othar, you say that without exception Commander Skywalker fit the description of a Jedi. Would you please clarify that statement?"
"He has a midichlorian count of 21,000, which makes him undeniably a Jedi potential. He carries a lightsaber. He has been known to..."
"You have no concrete evidence of what he has been known to do. You are testifying to personal experience, not the vague rumors of the military. Do you have any real proof that, other than wearing the lightsaber that once belonged to his father, Luke Skywalker has ever acted as a Jedi?"
"No," Othar admitted. "Lord Vader said that..."
"Hearsay," Cetarn spat. "No further questions, Your Honor."
"The prosecution has temporarily suspended the subpoenas of the next three witnesses because of the ineffectuality of Commander Othar's testimony," Cetarn reported. "They may be recalled later in the prosecution's list of witnesses, but for now, they are out of the way.
"What that means is that tomorrow morning, Darth Vader will be taking the stand."
"So soon," Leia exclaimed.
He nodded gravely. "He'll be on the stand for a fairly long time, since he can testify to almost everything Leia's been charged with and with Luke's unprovoked attack on a civilian target."
Leia snorted in disgust. "So he claims."
"Exactly," Cetarn said with a smile. "I want you both to rest as much as possible. The guards have orders not to admit any visitors. You'll need your strength."
He glanced over their prisoner uniforms. "Mariah and her geniuses will figure out what to clothe you in for tomorrow."
"With your leave," Luke said with a slight smile. "We already know."
"Wake up. It's time to face our waking nightmares."
Leia blinked against the light and scowled half-heartedly at Luke. "Poetic," she said wryly. "How did you get in here?"
He offered a grim smile. "You wouldn't wake up, so they insisted I gently nudge you into the world of the living."
Leia ran a hand over her hair, smoothing the short locks down as best she could. "What time is it?"
She sat up and threw the blankets back. Standing, she crossed to the bars and rapped loudly.
"I need to use the showers, if it's not too much trouble."
She could sense Luke smiling and turned back to return the gesture. "What are you grinning at, farmboy?"
"Nothing," he said with a feigned air of innocence.
He preceded her from the cell and was escorted to a separate refresher.
Leia took her time in the shower, not willing for the realities of what she would face today to intrude. It was only when an impatient guard threatened to stun her if she didn't wrap up her business that she toweled off and returned to her cell.
Crossing to the trunk, she opened it. The dress was carefully folded at the top, only submerged beneath the journal Leia had been reading before she slept.
Leia removed the prisoner tunic and pants, then slipped the dress over her head and stretched to zip it.
Standing, she adjusted the hang of the fabric around her form so that it flowed with the natural curves of her body.
She was not pleased with the stark outlines of her collarbones nor the faint outline of her lower rib nor the way the cuffs engulfed her tiny wrists, but the dress felt natural, like a gentle embrace.
There was a faint scent that lingered, a combination of wildflowers and delicate spices. Certainly not what she expected.
The memories were as faint as the aroma of mother. Leia took several calming breaths and attempted to open herself to the Force.
Settling into her subconscious, she probed the aura surrounding the dress for any lingering images.
A crushing, desperate embrace. The cool breezes setting the skirt to swaying on a midnight walk. The feel of a warm hand at the fabric covering the small of her back, guiding her.
With the sensations came half-remembrances of deep laughter and bittersweet times. Leia closed her eyes and caught a flash of blue eyes, sparkling with unbridled amusement. The same eyes, filled with tears. They were the same eyes that had half-frightened her that first day at the Skywalker home.
Leia broke from her reverie and half-consciously brushed at the waist of the dress.
She pulled on the stockings and slipped her feet into the low, black shoes. She combed her hair into what semblance of style she could muster and fastened her mother's necklace about her neck.
"Ready, Your Highness?"
She turned to see Han standing at the entrance to the cell block. "As ever."
The former Anakin Skywalker sat in the third row behind the defendant's table, not daring to move or speak.
Despite the nearly seven thousand people crammed into the hall, he had the entire row to himself.
Understandably, no one particularly had the desire to be in close proximity with a Dark Lord of the Sith.
The prosecuting attorney had arrived ten minutes ago, taking a brief moment to speak with him before settling into the chair behind his table to await the day's proceedings.
He was acutely aware of the hushed conversations and pointing fingers that accompanied his arrival, but they did not matter. Anakin Skywalker was watching for no one but his children.
He had dreaded this day since the moment he'd realized that, as an Imperial officer, he'd have to condemn his own daughter with the carefully perpetuated lies.
He would have to look her in the eye and tell her that after the physical, mental, and spiritual torture he had put her through not only in that cell or in the observation gallery or in the subsequent years, she was going to die for the fact that he could not acknowledge it.
He could not, as Darth Vader, sit on the stand and tell her that he was wrong.
It horrified him that, even three nights ago, when she openly berated him for what he'd done, he could not bring himself to tell her that he was sorry. Could not admit that he'd give anything to forget her screams, blot out the memory of the fear in her eyes.
She might not ever forgive him in the first place and he could not even attempt an apology; the words froze in his throat.
The doors at the rear of the courtroom opened and Vader turned to see the defense team enter, followed by Luke and Leia.
He saw Luke enter first, dressed in the traditional robes of a Jedi, complete with lightsaber. It was not necessarily a good move, given the court and Empire's animosity towards the ancient religion, but it was nevertheless a powerful statement.
Luke was not acknowledging that he was Vader's heir, but instead that he was the heir to the legacy left by the memory of Jedi Anakin Skywalker, his true father.
It was Leia that brought tears into his eyes.
Resplendent in a gown that he hadn't seen in twenty-five years, he would have sworn that she was Padm? herself.
She carried herself without fear, her stride confident and steady. She did not look his way as she passed, but touched Luke's arm and whispered a brief comment that made him smile faintly.
Anakin felt his own lips curl into a half-smile at the evident empathy between his children.
She paused at the entrance to the main court, then glanced at Anakin, then back to Luke. Luke squeezed her forearm and said something that Anakin could not discern. Her brow furrowed, but she nodded and turned to approach him.
She drew up short and Anakin arose, bowing slightly. "Good morning, Your Highness."
"Thank you for the trunk," she said softly. "I don't think I've ever received such a poignant gift."
Vader gestured to the gown. "It is my pleasure to know you have put it to use."
She blushed slightly. "When I saw it, I knew what it needed to be used for."
"It is a dress of many memories," he said quietly.
Leia's eyes became unfocused for a moment, then returned to their typical intensity. "I know."
"She wore that gown to many private functions. She allowed me to kiss her for the first time while wearing it. She welcomed me back from the wars in it." His voice broke. "It was in that gown that your mother agreed to marry me."
Leia's eyes softened. "I had no idea," she admitted. "The memories did not pinpoint events."
"What did you sense?"
"Great love, joy, bittersweet moments." She shook her head. "I wish I understood more of the Force."
"As do we all," Anakin agreed.
She glanced over her shoulder and Anakin saw Counselor Cetarn beckoning her forward. When her eyes returned to meet his gaze, the soft light of compassion was gone again.
"The proceedings are about to start," she said tightly. "I must go."
She turned her back on him and he suddenly burst out, "Leia."
Her shoulders stiffened and she did not turn, but she stopped in her tracks. Her shoulders seemed to slump in defeat or, more likely, weariness.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly.
She turned, stunned, and he could see tears forming.
"I can't atone for what I've done, but I can't allow you to think that I'm proud of what happened, what I did."
The tears spilled over onto her delicate cheeks. "It's a start," she whispered. "I'll see you on the other side, Father."
Anakin turned to face the front of the courtroom as Governor Turot entered. He rang the crystal and they resumed their seats.
"The security on this facility has been increased," he began. "Due to the sensitive nature of the testimony we are about to hear, there will be no displays of emotion, partisanship, or anything of the sort. This rule will be strictly enforced, by myself if necessary."
He turned to Counselor Dulor. "Counselor, are you prepared to call your next witness?"
"Yes, Your Honor. Prosecution calls Anakin Skywalker."
Anakin rose and made his way to the witness box.
The bailiff approached, a young Lieutenant who was clearly terrified.
"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, by the grace of the Emperor?"
Anakin took his seat and felt his heartbeat increase in pace as Dulor approached.
"State your name, any alias, and rank."
"Anakin Skywalker, Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith."
"What is your relationship to the defendants?"
They've been in my blaster sights for the past three years. I am their worst nightmare. They are my children...
"I am their father," Anakin said simply.
Dulor nodded. "Would you describe for the court the circumstances under which you encountered Princess Leia Organa three years ago?"
"I was supervising the purges of rebels on Raltiir when I met the Princess on an alleged mission of mercy. She had often been found in areas where rebel violence was predominant and I felt the need to question her as to this fact. She denied any connection between the two events."
"Was that the last time you encountered her?"
"Objection, counsel is leading the witness," Cetarn said predictably.
"Rephrase," Turot replied.
"When did you next meet her?"
"In orbit above the planet Tatooine. She had passed through a restricted system, intercepted rebel transmissions containing datatapes concerning the Death Star, and then evaded inquiry. Due to the Imperial loyalty of one of the Tantive IV's crew, we were able to overtake the ship. She allowed herself to be captured and brought to me."
"She allowed her capture?"
"Yes. From Rebel contacts as well as Lord Tion, she had learned of the Death Star and agreed to let herself be captured so that a team of saboteurs could be inserted on the Death Star."
"How do you know of this?"
"The saboteurs were captured afterwards and revealed their purposes in debriefing."
"Could you enlighten us?"
"I'll allow it to a point," Turot said icily. "We need not stack objections, Counselor Cetarn."
"Yes, Your Honor."
Anakin set his jaw and closed his eyes, unwilling to watch Leia. His mental shields reflexively went up, blocking out the inevitable stab of pain. "The Princess knew that the Death Star was nearing completion and intended to use its prime weapon to eliminate a threat to the Alliance. By the time Governor Tarkin threatened Alderaan, the team was in place. The 'location' of the base was a code. If she were to identify it as Talasea, the saboteurs were to abandon their posts at the superlaser and set off a destruct sequence in the reactor core. However, if she identified it as Dantooine, they had her command to destroy the planet in their sights."
"How dare you!"
The outburst was not from the gallery nor from Cetarn, but from Leia. On her feet, tears streaming down her face, she had screamed the statement with a hoarse tone of betrayal.
"You cannot possibly sit there and feed the lies of monsters to the soul of justice."
"Counsel will kindly advise the defendant to restrain herself," Dulor snapped.
"I will not be restrained," Leia spat. "Not while this fallacy is allowed."
Turot rang the crystal. "You will restrain yourself now or I will have you held in contempt of court and forcibly removed from the proceedings until you are able to."
Luke stood and wrapped an arm around Leia's shoulders, bringing her back into the chair by sheer powers of gravity. She turned and buried her face in his shoulder. He ran a hand along her spine, soothing her emotions.
Anakin's throat tightened. Will this never end?
Not until you can proclaim the truth, his mind answered, not your twisted propaganda.
"Continue," Turot ordered.
"Yes, Your Honor." Dulor turned back to face Anakin. "Are we to understand that Princess Leia Organa willingly murdered millions of her fellow citizens?"
Dulor's mouth twitched. "No further questions at this time. We will address the other charges after whatever weakness Cetarn manages to throw at us."
"Keep the personal remarks to a minimum, Counselor," Turot interjected.
Cetarn stood and moved from behind the table, his stride that of a predator. "Lord Vader," he began. "You just testified that Princess Leia Organa was fully responsible for the destruction of Alderaan."
"And yet the decree concerning the event states that it was a Rebel act, independent of Imperial equipment.
"You have extensive experience with the Alliance Fleet. How would you characterize their supplies?"
"That is not relevant to the matter at..."
"Answer the question," Cetarn bit out.
Anakin arched an eyebrow, stunned by his audacity. "Limited. They are forced to use ships which were old in the last days of the Republic and reformed passenger liners. Their starfighters are their strongest asset."
"Then how does the Empire explain their role in the destruction of an entire world?"
"An act of espionage."
Anakin winced at the hint of uncertainty in his voice. Cetarn chose to jump on it.
"Is that a question or a fact."
"Objection," Dulor burst out. "Counsel is badgering the witness."
Cetarn's smirk spread into a toothy smile and then shrank into a grim line. "Why was Senator Organa arrested in the first place?"
"As I said, for passing through a restricted system without clearance, intercepting illegal transmissions, and resisting arrest."
"And you chased her across half the Outer Rim before capturing her. That would indicate some matter of urgency. Did you have proof that their passage was intentional?"
"What was their declared purpose?"
"You fired on a disabled consular ship," Cath said with an air of disbelief. "Without provocation?"
"She refused boarders."
"Understandably. And yet," he continued, "you held her without pressing charges. In fact, the first time any criminal reference to her actions was filed was five weeks ago."
Anakin drew himself up. He would not be intimidated. "There was no time."
Cetarn lowered his chin. "The trip from Tatooine to the construct facility at Horuz took four days. You held her for three weeks after that. And you are claiming there was no time to give her legal consideration?"
"Your Honor," he countered, "I'm merely making the point that Lord Vader's earlier testimony does not coincide with logic."
Anakin's heart was beating impossibly fast, his mind struggling for composure, his breath unnaturally loud in his ears.
"Lord Vader is not on trial here," Dulor snapped.
"It is not my place to accuse, but charging Leia with genocide is a rather drastic accusation. If, as they profess, the members of this court wish to see the full measure of justice exacted in this case, I feel that the matter warrants clarification."
"Nevertheless," Turot interjected, "please get to your point, Cetarn."
"Gladly, Your Honor." He turned to face Anakin. "Did you have any proof of wrongdoings?"
"The intercepted transmissions," Anakin stated firmly.
"You stated earlier that Princess Leia was directly responsible for the destruction of Alderaan. What can you possibly cite as her motive?"
"Alderaan was an adversary..."
"Alderaan was a neutral world with pacifist philosophies. Moreover, at your behest, they had no weapons. You rationalized the disarming of the world because of suspected Rebel tendencies. How could she see that as a threat?"
"Objection, calls for speculation."
Cetarn sighed. "Your Honor, there is no logical way that my client could be guilty of this crime. Once again, I move for the charge to be dismissed."
The court fell deadly silent. Turot eyed Anakin, then turned his gaze to Leia's tear-streaked face. A long moment later, he nodded.
Luke squeezed Leia's hand tightly, his face unreadable.
The court was not so sedate. It took five minutes and half a squad of stormtroopers to calm them down.
"In light of this motion, the witness is placed on suspended subpoena. The prosecution, after adapting their case, may reserve the right to recall."
"Motion to have testimony stricken from the record," Dulor said urgently.
"Denied. A grave injustice has been affected today. The Galaxy must know as much."
"We will have a fifteen minute recess at this time," Turot continued. "When we return, the prosecution will reopen the examination of Lord Vader."
He rang the crystal and Leia stood as they exited. Her hands were trembling violently, her emotions running rampant. The outrage that her father's testimony had inspired would take a while to repress.
Cetarn placed a hand on her shoulder. "Cas, would you take her to the defense office? I think she could use some downtime."
Han took her elbow and guided her silently from the courtroom. Holographers and reporters crowded around, hoping to catch a picture or comment.
Leia withdrew into herself, unable to deal with this for the moment. She only wanted to blot out the memory of the morning, pretend that she hadn't heard him say that.
"Leave her alone," Han snapped at a reporter.
"We're only after the truth."
"The truth is that she was subjected to something horrible today. Would you mind giving her breathing room?"
They somehow made it to the defense office and Han helped her settle onto the plush sofa, her feet elevated.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Leia collapsed into the tears that she had been restraining since the dismissal of the charge.
"I thought I'd be able to handle it," she said softly. "I wouldn't let him break me that night on the Death Star and I shouldn't have let him break me today."
"He didn't," Han assured her.
Leia covered her eyes, her chin quivering. "I promised myself I'd never let him see me cry."
Han sank into a chair next to her and removed her shoes, then began massaging her feet. "Well, you had your retribution. Not only did Cetarn get away with badgering him into a stuttering stupor, but he destroyed himself."
Leia laughed in spite of herself and let her hand drop to her side. "It's not something I'll ever forget."
"Nothing in this situation particularly is."
He brushed a rogue strand of hair back into place, then leaned down and kissed her forehead.
"You'll come through this," he promised her. "Whatever they throw at you, justice will prevail, the war will continue, life will go on. Luke will still be an idealist, you'll still be genetically predisposed to bossiness, and I'll still be hanging around just to rile you up."
Leia smiled gratefully at his humor. "Promise?"
"Counselor Dulor, you may continue with your examination."
Dulor stood and bowed to Governor Turot. "Yes, Your Honor."
Luke could sense that his confidence was shaken. Their strongest case against Leia had been dismissed and now they had to move on to pile-ups of circumstantial evidence.
For the first time in five weeks, there was a chance that they might get out of this alive.
"Lord Vader," Dulor began, "you testified earlier that Princess Leia Organa intercepted illegal transmissions while passing through a restricted system on false pretenses. Were you able to ascertain what the actual content of the transmissions were?"
"We intercepted a fragment of the transmissions and were able to slice the encrypt codes. The file was excerpted from the complete technical readouts of the Death Star as well as subtext indicating its location and command structure. The plans had been on a convoy conveying them to the Imperial vaults here on Imperial Center, but were lost in a battle."
"Given this, you took Princess Leia into custody for what reason?"
"Objection, counsel is leading the witness."
"Sustained." Turot nodded to Dulor. "Rephrase."
"What was your intent in taking the Princess captive?"
"It was two-fold," Vader stated. "The primary purpose was to recover the stolen data. If that did not succeed, I was to recover the location of the Rebel base from her and eliminate the threat of their fleet attacking the station."
"What measures did you take towards those ends?"
"I spoke to the Princess on numerous occasions prior to our arrival at the Death Star in hopes that she would avoid any unpleasant confrontations, but she refused her chances for mercy. Once there, we began the standard questioning, with mild interrogative procedures. It was at Governor Tarkin's behest that the threat against Alderaan be realized."
Luke's stomach churned at the memory of what the 'mild interrogative procedures' had done to Leia. "She refused to divulge either piece of information?"
"As a Senator of the Empire, the heir-apparent of Alderaan, and a diplomat, she would not understand the implications of obstructing justice that way?"
"Objection, calls for speculation."
"Certainly," Dulor said in a purely patronizing tone, "the esteemed Princess Leia knew what treason was."
Leia dug her nails into Luke's palm, her jaw tightening in synch with her grip. He rested his free hand on top of hers and squeezed her fingers gently.
Stretching into her mind, he sent what calm he could to her emotive centers. She squeezed her eyes shut, then let her breath out in a soft shuddering sigh.
Dulor frowned slightly. "Is there any chance that she could have misunderstood?"
"Any logical reason for her reticence?"
"Lord Vader, is there any way in which her actions could be construed as anything but obstruction of justice, bordering on treason?"
Dulor turned a smirk on Leia. "No further questions at this time, Your Honor."
Han passed a sheaf of datacards to Cetarn. Cetarn pulled up the first one and stood.
"Lord Vader, do you personally monitor every transmission between the Executor's crew and the rest of the Galaxy?"
"Overruled," Turot said with an odd note in his voice.
"No," Vader admitted.
"Only those transmissions of utmost importance, right?"
Luke suddenly understood his intent and had to smile at the diversionary tactics.
"Aren't you glad he's on our side," he said quietly to Leia.
Her mouth was a grim line. The tactic was tenuous at best, but worth pursuing.
If it worked.
If not, it was just a wasted line of questioning that discredited their case. Luke fervently prayed that something would come of it.
"Is there any concrete evidence that the transmissions were authorized and or received by Princess Leia and not one of her crew?"
"The archives detail the Chief Medical Officer's evaluation of Senator Organa shortly before she was rescued. It is submitted to the court as exhibit D.
"In it, there is a record of Princess Leia being tagged and prepared for death."
"Yes. She was scheduled for execution."
"Without a trial."
"Invoking the current emergencies."
"Of course," Cetarn said, slightly mocking.
Luke's smile vanished and he leaned forward slightly. "Dr. Vos reports broken ribs, wrist, multiple lacerations, facial contusions, a concussion, and an overdose of the interrogation narcotic alecuse. Not to mention serious nerve damage. She states that 'the prisoner was so damaged by the extensive interrogation that any form of resistance, much less standing on her own legs was impossible.' Were these the effects of standard questioning?"
"Counselor Cetarn," Turot said impatiently. "What is your intent with this line of questioning?"
"Merely to establish that Princess Leia Organa was detained and underwent deep interrogation illegally and for reasons that were not substantiated, even by circumstantial evidence."
"Your point is acknowledged," Turot replied. "You have nothing more to gain in this line of questioning. Do you have any more pertinent questions for Lord Vader?"
Luke felt a flash of frustration and defeat from Cetarn. "Not at this time."
"Counselor Dulor, proceed to the next issue."
"This court is recessed until 0900 on the first day of this coming week."
The crystal rang and Leia stood in silence as the Governor exited the chambers, then let her breath out in a sharp hiss.
"Well," she said softly, "that wasn't so bad."
Luke squeezed her hand. "You made it through the first day. No reason to believe the rest should be any worse."
"Point," she conceded. "As long as I don't get threatened with contempt of court again, we should be fine."
Cetarn nodded grimly. "I expected it to happen eventually and, quite frankly, had every reason to believe it would arise during the Death Star testimony. Let's not dwell on it. If nothing else, it generated sympathy for you in the jury."
"That's always a good thing."
Cetarn lifted his valise and turned. "The next day will be another long day. We covered genocide, obstruction of justice, and high treason today, but then he has to cover everything relating to conspiracy to suborn the government and murder. Not to mention, his testimony regarding what Luke did in the Trench for unprovoked assault on a civilian target and espionage."
Leia flashed a wan smile at Luke. "That doesn't sound too hard."
The congerie of reporters had itself had increased to unimaginable proportions. As usual, Han kept one hand on her elbow, the other on the small of her back, guiding her through the crowd to the speeder without a word.
Leia sank onto the seat and sighed. "I'm surprised at Turot. First he dismisses two hours early, then gives us four days before the next day of proceedings."
Cetarn's comm-link beeped. "Cetarn here."
Luke reached across to grip her hand and smiled. "More time to shore up our defenses."
"Indeed." She shook her head in mild disgust. "My father would have been appalled with me today."
Han snorted. "How do you compute that one?"
"A Princess never allows the enemy to see what lies beneath," she stated. "I remember the day Sach?, my mother, was murdered. It was during an Imperial raid here on Coruscant and she was caught in a crossfire that she should have been nowhere near. I was in a state of shock by the time I returned to Alderaan. I had to arrange for the memorial, make public statements without condemning the people who had did it, and deal with the Imperials threatening a blockade because of rebel activities.
"All the while, Vader was watching, knowing what I had to be going through, knowing what any other child would have done. But I didn't have that luxury. Bail saw to it that I did not allow Vader to see any sign of weakness. When the memorial was over, the Imperials cleared out of the system, and we were alone, he told me, 'now you can mourn.'
"He taught me that the welfare of those I cared for should never be buried under the selfish needs."
"Yes," Luke said, "but even Princesses of Alderaan are entitled to be selfish once in a while."
Cetarn shut off the comm-link. "Governor Turot has recalled me to his office. I will come by tomorrow."
"Good night," Leia called.
He turned and threw her a half-salute. "You did wonderfully," he assured her.
Han palmed the door shut after him and settled back into the seat. "Butaris Game Preserve," he called to the driver.
Leia arched an eyebrow. "Is our escape or execution to take place there?"
Han grinned. "Neither. Cetarn knew that you two could use a recess from reality, so he arranged for you to be allowed two hours of guarded furlough."
"Brilliant idea," Leia said wryly, "but I'm hardly dressed for a day at the zoo."
"It's been taken care of."
Leia stretched languidly. "All right, forced enjoyment to commence on my mark."
Luke laughed and settled into the chair. "Would you believe this is my first ocean?"
Leia smiled. "Given the floating dustball you were reared on, yes."
Luke sighed. "It's a pity I can't go in. I always wanted to stick my feet in something other than bathwater and mud."
Leia stood and without a word began rolling her slacks up to her knees.
Han squinted at her suspiciously. "What are you doing?"
"Going in," she replied.
Seeing the look on his face, she grinned. "Don't worry, I won't try to swim to freedom. Are you two coming or not?"
Han sighed in mock-resignation. "I suppose so."
She was halfway to the water when someone grabbed her behind. She screamed for help, but then realized the trick when Luke took hold of her ankles.
"You can't do this," she shrieked. "I'll have you both up on charges of treason."
"We're past caring about that, remember?"
Her last words before they flung her into the water were "This is no way to treat a princess!"
She emerged spluttering, her hair plastered to her forehead. "That's it," she growled, "now you're in for a burial at sea."
Han responded by dunking her. She came up and twisted his arm, pinning it to his back.
"Don't ever do that to me again."
"You've got to be..."
"Say, 'Yes, Your Worshipfulness,'" Leia ordered.
"Yes, Your Worshipfulness."
It was at that moment that a Force-induced tidal wave soaked them both.
"THAT'S CHEATING," Han roared, diving after Luke.
Leia burst into light laughter and drew on the Force, disturbing the flow of the water with a facsimile of wind so that Han was caught in a cross-fire.
Helpless, he held up a hand. "I surrender."
"If Turot, Cetarn, or even one of those reporters saw us, they'd have us executed first, then put us on trial."
"I don't think indignity is a capitol offense yet," Luke countered.
"Thank the Force for that," Leia agreed. "However, I was in considerable distress this morning; people will think I didn't mean it."
"There's no shame in reprieve."
Luke crossed to her side and wrapped her in a firm embrace. "The next person to bring up the trial has to buy dinner."
She sighed. "All good things are compounded and created in moments of unbridled insanity."
"How much do you remember of her?"
Leia set down her fork and smiled. "You mean mother?"
"Of course," Luke said. "You had two more years of experience with her than I did."
"Granted," Leia said quietly, "but I was an infant. The memories aren't very clear."
"Tell me, please."
She sighed and leaned back in her chair. "She was very kind. I can't remember her ever being impatient with myself or anyone else for that matter."
Luke felt a momentary flash of bittersweet amusement somewhere in the recesses of his mind. "At least we know we got our stubbornness from Father."
Leia offered a sad smile. "In a way, I think she was more stubborn than the both of us put together. Or maybe, like you, the stubbornness is instead a form of innate strength.
"I remember sensing some deep hurt from her. I think it must have been an aftereffect of what Father did to her, but I knew that I was the only one who could tell how deeply it ran. It was almost sympathetic, in hindsight an early manifestation of the Force, but she was able to be strong for everyone but herself.
"I remember that she once told me that the only one who cannot see the mask is the one wearing it. For them, nothing exists but the reality festering behind the perfect illusion."
Luke reached across the table, gripping her fingers gently. She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears and memories.
"I think you have the misfortune of knowing what she felt like."
"Misfortune, no," she whispered. "I've heard people say that certain events scar them for life, but I see it as shaping life. I would not be the person I am today if I hadn't had my raw material tested and refined."
"Thank the Force for miserable existences," Luke quipped.
He smiled gently, sending love and what comfort he could offer through their bond. "What is your strongest memory of her?"
Leia reached up to press her hand against the necklace. "A lullaby." She blinked, then heaved a shuddering sigh. "I think I remember it most because she sang it to me the night she died and for years, Bail would sing it every night. Even the night before I left Alderaan for the last time."
Luke was silent, waiting for her to be able to continue. She dropped her head onto her outstretched arm, weeping.
Luke moved around the table, not releasing his grip on her hand, not wanting to break the connection. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, simply letting her take in his comfort.
Softly, she began to sing.
"When morning comes,
with untainted futures,
I'll rise with you
to share in your joy.
To tell you I love you
and always be with you
that each new morn will
bright hope be.
When day wears on,
with life's small trials,
I'll stand by you
to share in your life.
To give you small comforts
and be your safe haven
so each new burden will not
be carried alone.
When evening comes,
with all its weariness,
I'll pray for you
to conquer your doubts.
To meet each new challenge
with love and great strength
so you can be a guardian
of hope, friends, and love.
When night befalls
and darkness o'ercomes you,
I'll watch over you,
keep you safe through the night.
That light will return
and you'll see the dawning
and know that I love you
through morning and night."
They were both weeping openly now, for themselves, for the mother they never knew, for the father they'd lost. Mostly for what could have been.
"She taught you well," Luke whispered.
Leia raised her head and turned her head to face him. "What do you mean," she asked.
"You've lived your life as that song promises."
Leia bit her lip, her brow furrowing. "I hope so."
Luke embraced her tightly, rocking her as he would a child. "The light will return," he promised softly.
"Do you think we can sue for child abuse, neglect or malpractice?"
Leia looked up, amused. "What, so our tactic is 'release us or we'll make you pay child support?' You've been reading too many courtroom thrillers."
"Nothing that's not in the holonets," Luke quipped. "That's more interesting than anything that Bothan Jan Gish'ram has to conjure up."
Her head came up. "You're serious," she said. "That's what terrifies me."
Luke shrugged. "We certainly have sufficient evidence."
Leia shook her head and returned to reading. "I don't believe you can sue a Dark Lord of the Sith for malpractice."
"There's a legal precedent for such a matter?"
Leia smiled, but did not look up. "I doubt it, but it's not worth the try."
Luke shrugged. "I think I'll let Cetarn die of shock by suggesting that when he comes tomorrow."
Leia arched an eyebrow at him. "Don't do that. Other than Vader and his bipolar testimonies, he's our best asset."
"True," Luke conceded. "I hear you've had offers for your memoirs."
Leia's mouth quirked. "Seventeen of them. I could fund the Rebellion with my scandalous tales of midnight abductions, surviving genocide, reckless smugglers, lost farmboys, and estranged fathers. Not to mention the sequel based on this trial. Think I should do it?"
"I'd be willing to give it a try," Luke rejoined. "If you won't write it, I might have to come out with a tell-all expose on you."
"Already been done," she countered.
Luke fixed her with a stare. "Are you all right?"
Her eyes raised. "About as expected. Tomorrow, Vader goes back on the stand. I'll have to sit there, knowing that the lies he tells have killed millions and I'm probably next in line, if I'm lucky. Death is the least of my worries right now."
He nodded somberly. "I see your point."
"I knew you would," she said quietly. "The only thing that cheers me up at the moment is knowing that Vader is, most likely, the last witness for the prosecution. That means the trial is half-over unless they recall the witnesses that were to have preceded Vader."
"Point," he conceded.
Half-over. They were halfway to having to face the Emperor again. No matter what the verdict was, if they didn't join him, they'd die.
If they did join him, they might as well have.
"How many children do you want?"
Anakin's brow furrowed in concentration as he seriously considered the answer. "At least seven."
Padm? laughed and her hand dropped to slap his brow playfully. "Unless you're willing to bear a few of them yourself, I think seven is a bit much."
He reached up and took her hand. "Dear heart, you know I'd do anything for you, but I must draw the line somewhere."
"As must I," she countered with a genuine smile. "I think I would be happy with two."
"Two," he repeated.
Her eyes took on the distant look that he was so in love with. Most people would interpret it as estrangement, but he knew that it was the way she looked when she was dreaming about them.
"A boy and a girl," she said softly. "Force willing, they'll have your nose..."
"And your looks."
She smiled broadly. "No, he'll have your eyes, the same unruly blonde hair, and the same stubborn nature. The girl will be the spitting image of her mother and be perfect, of course."
"I think I'd like that," he agreed. "She'd probably grow up to be a Senator, he would have engine lubricants running through his veins."
She nodded. "Probably."
He sighed deeply. "After these bloody wars and so many years of madness, I'd treasure them more than anything, yourself excluded. I would die sooner than let them be hurt."
"Yet it's inevitable," she countered sadly. "The way the Republic is going and Palpatine's brutal tactics..."
He raised a finger to her lips. "I told you the first one to mention the war had to buy dinner."
Her loose hair fell in a curtain over his face as she bent down to kiss him. He tilted his chin, gladly accepting the tender gesture.
"Does that even the score?" she whispered.
"I'm deeply in your debt, now," he replied in kind.
"You're forever doomed to that fate, Jedi Skywalker," she countered, tugging playfully at his braid.
"We'll cross that bridge when we reach it," he said quietly.
"What makes you so sure that there will be a 'we,'" she teased.
He settled his head deeper into her lap. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
He nodded, then reached up and tilted her chin so that she was gazing at the myriad constellations visible through the transparisteel ceiling of the Senate Arboretum.
"I would give anything and everything for you, Padm?. My love, my life, my soul. If possible, I would scoop the stars from the sky and lay them at your feet."
Moisture fell on his lips and he realized she was crying already.
"I can't promise you the stars," he whispered. "I only have this one."
Her gaze dropped to his hand. He uncurled it to reveal a solitaire on a white gold band.
"If you will accept this one and all that I am, I promise to spend the rest of my life chasing down the others."
He sat up, then knelt and took her hand gently. "It would be the greatest joy if you would have me for a husband."
She closed her eyes against the tears. "No," she said, "the greatest joy would be if I were your wife."
Unable to contain himself, his face broke into a broad grin. "Does that mean yes?"
Her laughter exploded from her in a ecstatic half-sob. "Yes, you idiot."
They came together in a fervent embrace, lips meeting in sweet perfection, and Anakin knew he held the Galaxy in his arms.
Anakin awoke with a heavy heart and a growing sense of dread.
It was probably the last day of his testimony, the last chance for him to make the truth known.
He could not bring himself to do it.
To concede their innocence would be suicide, to say the least. The public, to say nothing of the Emperor, would have his head on a platter.
But moreover, to do so would be to admit that he was wrong.
He wasn't sure he was ready to face those monsters.
Certainly, the man who had married Padm? all those years ago had been a different Anakin, but it still appalled him that he could so easily destroy those he was supposed to protect.
Granted, he was determined to corrupt his only son, enslave him to darkness, but the greater sin would always be against Leia.
She was a magnificent creature, with pure intents, an overactive sense of justice, and a deeply compassionate soul. She had more strength than he thought possible.
Obi-wan had once told him that he was fortunate because no matter how much of himself he lost, there would always be sufficient love to find him again.
For twenty-three years, he'd doubted that. He'd doubted that there was any love in the Galaxy.
Luke was a man driven by hurt and anger, but tempered by compassion. It was a dangerous balance between Anakin's temperament and Padm?'s tacitude, but one that could not be easily shaken.
Leia had very little of the Skywalker mentality in her. Had she been born thirty years earlier, she would have been much like Qui-Gon Jinn.
She had more than enough love to find him.
If only she could forgive him.
As Padm? had said, that night in not-so-distant memory, she was exactly like her mother.
And yet he considered her an enemy, something to be crushed. She was a remnant of what he had been and a threat to what he had become.
He hadn't felt such a profound sense of shame in their lifetime.
He was their father, but he was their adversary. And as such, he had certain duties to his master and himself.
He arrived at the court with the step of a man facing his doom.
The four-day recess had allowed the court proceedings to be moved into yet another arena.
The South Audience Chamber of the Palace could hold 15,000 people and by the time Han awoke, the holoshills were reporting on the mile-long line outside the Palace of would-be spectators.
It was a kind of morbid curiosity that drew the citizens to this sort of thing. Everyone, it seemed, had a grievance with the Rebel Alliance and the two terrorists associated with it.
Turot, disgusted with the entire mob, had threatened to sell tickets. Unfortunately, that had caught on and by the time the defense would open, passkeys would be required for every person to enter the courtroom.
As it was, Han required three forms of identification and a passcard to gain entrance to get to the defendants' box.
Leia, resplendent in a deep purple gown of brocaded velvet tailored perfectly to her slim form, still bore the telltale signs of fatigue. Her face was drawn, her eyes sunken, and her shoulders unnaturally tense. The only thing that convinced him that she could endure the day's proceedings was the unquenchable fire in her eyes.
It was the same stubbornness that drove her on through every adversity life had thrown at her thus far and it was that trait that would allow her to outlive the Empire.
She looked up as Han approached and managed a faint smile. "Are you as excited about this as I am?"
Han snorted and sank into the chair next to her. "You have no idea."
She shrugged. "I can hardly contain myself."
Han grinned. "Hopefully, you'll contain yourself better than the last day of testimony."
She blushed. "Don't count on it. The only thing keeping me from beating him into a stupor is the threat of contempt of court and a planet full of stormtroopers."
"Why not," he teased. "You're already imprisoned. Worst it could get you is solitary confinement and barring you from attending the trial."
She leaned closer, smiling. "Not so loud," she whispered. "I can't have conspiracy to commit murder added to the list of charges."
Cetarn took his seat on the other side of Luke and sent them both a tight smile. "We have enough troubles to worry about today without this sort of thing."
Leia nodded. "Anything I should be warned about?"
"Not unless Dulor attempts to bring in testimony not in evidence. And if that happens, neither I nor Turot will allow that."
Han returned his smile. "That's reassuring."
Cetarn turned to talk to Luke and Leia turned back.
"Does he ever lighten up?" she whispered.
"Not in my experience," Han admitted, "but he's one of the best."
Something unreadable flickered in her eyes. He would have called it fear if he didn't know better.
"Let's hope so."
Han rested a hand on top of hers. "Are you all right?"
Her mouth twitched into a smile. "No, but I will be."
"As soon as this trial is over," he continued.
"As soon as this witness is excused," she countered.
Han squeezed her fingertips gently, sympathetically. "I can't imagine how hard this must be--knowing that the man on the stand, the one who should be your greatest protector, is up there condemning you today, possibly to death."
Leia winced. "Yes, well, considering he's dedicated himself to destroying my brother and I for the last three years, I suppose it should come as no surprise." She shrugged with feigned nonchalance. "Still, it does."
"The whole thing with your father is a surprise for all of us," he countered.
Leia shook her head. "He may be my father, but I have a long way to go before I can acknowledge him as any sort of family." She looked down at their hands. "I was orphaned three years ago and since then, I've had all the family I'll ever need in the form of my friends."
"And of course, your real family, albeit incognito."
She smiled. "Of course."
Han released her fingers and schooled his features into an expressionless mask. "You'll do fine."
"I wish I had your confidence."
Han pushed to his feet as Turot entered, then sank back into the chair.
"Prosecution, you may recall the witness."
Dulor stood. "Prosecution recalls Anakin Skywalker."
Han turned to see Vader enter the courtroom from the rear. The chamber provided a long promenade for full dramatic effect.
As if the Sith Lord's entrance needed any help with that.
He could see Leia, her chin level, but her eyes were fixed on Turot. Stars bless her, she was refusing to let Vader affect her.
Now, if only that could last throughout the day.
"When was the last time before the incident on La'azum that you saw Princess Leia?"
"On Naboo, two weeks earlier." There was a hiss, an electronic sigh. "I knew her adoptive mother quite well and attended the memorial service."
"What was the Princess' mindset at the time?"
"Objection, calls for speculation."
Dulor shook his head. "It goes to intent as well as state of mind. Lord Vader not only was well-acquainted with the defendant, but had the power to sense her emotions."
Turot nodded. "Overruled."
"She was angry, as would be expected. Sach? Organa had been a significant influence in her life and to have that taken away from her when she was in a new phase of her life was traumatic."
Han heard the crackle of vellum being crushed in a fist and turned his head slightly.
Leia's jaw was set, her eyes narrowed in fresh pain. Han winced. Other than the events on the Death Star, her mother's murder had been the deepest wound she'd ever experienced. It had permanently altered her and was one of the driving forces behind her involvement in the war.
Han reached over to rest his hand on Leia's forearm. Her fist unclenched slowly and, without looking his way, she nodded.
"If she were experiencing a loss, would she not be more predisposed to melancholy than anger?"
"No," Vader said firmly. "Sach? died during an ambush on Coruscant. She should have never been there. Leia blamed me for her death and was angry towards the Empire in general, but mostly towards me."
"Would you describe the events of the Rebel sabotage on La'azum?"
"I was conducting an inspection of the TIE-production facility, since new design features had been implemented recently. It was my duty to ensure that the work was going forward efficiently.
"The perimeter sensors indicated the approach of unidentified craft. We found this odd, since La'azum is not a commercial world, nor one often visited. A more thorough scan indicated an X-wing attack.
"The North Wing of the factory was destroyed first under the barrage.
"Kel Rejuo, an Imperial design specialist and a friend of mine, and I were attempting to evacuate the building when the ceiling collapsed. Rejuo was severely injured.
"It was then that I saw the young woman on the speeder bike. She watched the factory fall, watched my friend fall under the destruction she and the air forces had wrought. Then, as I attempted to help Rejuo, she fired on us.
"The blast set off a subsidiary fire. I was able to stop it from consuming the both of us, but the fire caused another structural collapse. The superheated metal exploded outward and Rejuo was crushed under the collapsed wall."
"Who was the woman on the bike?"
"Princess Leia Organa."
"How could you be sure?"
"I recognized her immediately from her features, hair, and the modified bike she was using. There was no question as to her identity."
"And her intent?"
"Clear," Vader said shortly. "Her demeanor was as determined to destroy then as it is to defend today."
Han blinked, forcing himself not to wince. The description was, if nothing else, completely accurate.
"No further questions, Your Honor," Dulor said quietly.
"Counselor Cetarn," Turot said, "do you have questions regarding this matter for the witness?"
Cetarn stood, his shoulders tense, his eyes narrowed. "No, Your Honor."
"Very well. Proceed."
Luke kept his features schooled into an expressionless mask, more for his own sanity than any externality.
The rest of the morning and the first part of the afternoon had been taken up by the testimony regarding conspiracy to suborn the government.
It would have taken much less time had the prosecution not felt the need to attempt to submit more evidence than could be sifted through in a lifetime. Half of it was immaterial, repetitive, or inadmissible.
The process was painstaking and no one seemed to be able to discern the point of it all.
Vader, for his part, spoke very little. Luke attempted to get a sense of him, connect with him, but, whether for his own sake or his children's, he had his mental barriers firmly erected.
It frustrated Luke immensely. He had hoped to be able to counteract what his father was saying with the intents in his heart, but Luke would never know.
Second-guessing was a dangerous sport.
Leia, on the other hand, was holding up remarkably well. The four-day recess, combined with the change of environment, seemed to have renewed her energies.
She was not letting their father intimidate her for one second. Instead she kept herself calm, her expression one of sedate interest. In the few moments she let Luke into her mind, he could sense an underlying tension and unmistakable disturbance at the matters being dealt with, but she would not show it.
Finally, Turot, wearied by the endless data stream and petty squabbles between the lawyers, decided they'd "heard enough of this nonsense" and ordered Dulor to move on.
Luke shifted uncomfortably in the chair, physically preparing himself for the emotional barrage to come. As if posturing, literally, would make any difference.
"Lord Vader," Dulor began, "you were the second-in-command of the Death Star. What was its purpose?"
"The official purpose of the Death Star, when proposed to the Senate, was to use it as a traveling mining facility. It was designed to demolish spatial masses such as fragments of dead worlds, elimination of asteroid belts, and the like."
"There are very few records pertaining to the project. If it had such a benign purpose, why was it not more publicized?"
"Because of the station's primary tool. It had the power to demolish planetary masses in a heartbeat. While it would revolutionize the mining industry, if it fell into the wrong hands, the results would be...disastrous."
Leia snorted in disgust. No kidding, she sent.
Luke bit his lip and nodded fractionally. Reaching over, he squeezed her hand briefly, then returned his attentions to the proceedings.
Dulor shot them both a patronizing look, then turned to Vader.
"So to protect the citizens of the Empire, it was kept a secret."
"If it were a civilian station, why were there so many stormtroopers stationed there?"
"Security," Vader said simply.
Right, Luke thought. Chokehold diplomacy, as usual.
Dulor had obviously thought through the major points of cross-examination, objections, and possible obstacles. One by one, he was eliminating them.
It was a clever tactic and one that obviously annoyed Cetarn.
"Kindly explain what transpired on its last day of operation."
"We were in orbit above Yavin IV when two squadrons of snubfighters raised ship. Ignoring our attempts to hail them, they began a run along our equatorial maintenance trench.
"When they began firing on maintenance workers and defense emplacements, Governor Tarkin recognized the danger and ordered defensive measures.
"At first, the gunnery emplacements were a sufficient deterrent, but when it became clear that they would be overtaken, I summoned two of our finest pilots and we took to space in defense of the installation."
Luke felt his anger rising at the nonchalance with which Vader described the heated battle which had destroyed all but two of the twenty-four pilots who had entered the confines of the Death Star's energy field, Luke's best friend included.
With great difficulty, he dissipated the emotion, allowing it to strengthen his resolve rather than corrupt his soul.
Why leave yourself vulnerable?
Luke's head snapped up. The voice was not that of his inner monologue nor Leia's telepathy, but came from his father.
You stay out of this.
He caught a flicker of hurt coming from the man. Like any warship, Vader had to lower his shield to fire his primary weapon and Luke had gotten in a salvo at the right moment.
I will not be you. I would never stoop that low.
By hating me and fearing what you can become, you already have.
I do not hate you. I merely object to your existence.
He closed off his mind then, carefully erecting the mental barriers. Leia, obviously sensing the change, rested her hand on his forearm. He nodded gratefully to her, then set his jaw and focused once more on his father.
"Had you ever attacked the Yavin IV installation?"
"Did they have any reason to view the Death Star as a threat?"
"They attacked and destroyed an installation with civilian purposes, without provocation."
Dulor shook his head in feigned sorrow. "No further questions, Your Honor. Your witness, Counselor Cetarn."
Cetarn stood and approached the bench calmly. "Lord Vader," he said politely, "we established in your earlier testimony that the Death Star's 'primary tool' as you described it was fired, under Imperial authorization, on a non-combatant world. It was construed as an unprovoked act of war. After such an action, how could it be classified as a civilian station?"
"Its purposes were still civilian, as were its leaders."
"Granted. Why was the Death Star in the Yavin system in the first place?"
Had it been possible, Luke thought Vader would have blinked. "What?" he rumbled.
"It's a simple question. What was its purpose in visiting the Yavin system?"
"I assure you, it was non-combatant."
"Oh, really." Cetarn held up a hand and began ticking off points. "Four of the inhabitants of that base had been at Alderaan as well as on the Death Star. They knew that the Death Star had destroyed Alderaan. They also knew that, after being taken onboard they were repeatedly assaulted by the so-called security. They barely escaped with their lives. Shortly after their arrival at base, this 'civilian facility' arrived in-system and refused radio contact. How could they possibly construe that as non-combatant?"
Cetarn waved a hand. "Rhetorical question, Your Honor."
"Acknowledged." Turot leaned forward, his gaze intent. "Do you have further questions for the witness?"
"No, Your Honor. My point has been made."
"The witness is excused."
Luke sagged in palpable relief, then immediately straightened.
"The prosecution rests its case, Your Honor."
Turot nodded. "This court is recessed until two weeks from today, at which point the defense will open its case."
The crystal rang and they rose. Leia was trembling slightly, most likely from emotional exhaustion. Luke squeezed her hand and she turned to offer him a weak smile.
"We made it," she said softly.
Luke returned the smile. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Her smile shrank into oblivion. "Easy for you to say."
"Summons from Lord Vader," the guard called.
Luke crossed to the barrier and took the extended datapad. 'It would be my honor if you would join me this evening...'
Leia glanced over the message. "I'm not going," she said firmly. "Not after that testimony."
Luke turned an exasperated look on her. "Leia..."
She whirled to face him, her eyes blazing, her jaw clenched. "Don't tell me I can't avoid this, that I have to be stronger than the force of my anger. The fact is, I spent the last three years without a father and I can spend the next three hundred without him. That man is not our father. No father would even consider doing that to his children."
Luke's heart ached for her, for the girl she'd been and the woman she'd been forced to become. "We have to give him a chance."
"I've given him more chance than he'll ever deserve," she retorted. "Someday I will forgive him, but I will not attempt to do it now and I most certainly will not do it under duress."
Luke nodded and returned the datapad. "You may inform the courier that we have chosen to refuse the invitation."
"I do not believe it to be a matter of debate," the guard said nervously.
"Nevertheless," Leia said, her voice a little less abrasive than it had been the last time, "we will remain here."
"Yes, Your Highness."
He departed and Leia let out her breath and smiled tightly at Luke. "Thank you."
Luke's heartbeat slowed to its normal rhythm and he returned the smile. "I understand your point. I may not agree with it, but this has to happen in its own time and I'm willing to bide my time by your side."
Leia sank onto Luke's bed, her arms folded protectively over her abdomen. "You've forgiven him, haven't you."
"No," Luke admitted, "not by a long shot. What he did to my family, to Ben, to you, is hard for me to accept. But I am willing to accept that he is our father. As such, I feel an obligation to myself as well as to him to give him opportunity for redemption."
He smiled slightly. "Aunt Beru used to say that 'each person deserves as many second chances as it takes.'"
Leia's eyes misted slightly. "My father's favorite phrase was, 'Alderaan is only as eternal as the compassion of its people.'"
"Wise words," Luke said quietly.
Leia's mouth twitched. "I think I might have liked your aunt."
Luke winced; Leia most likely would have loved Beru. Despite the disparity in station, they were both survivors with more of a sense of compassion than of self-preservation.
"You're probably right," he agreed. "As I would have liked your father."
She bit her lip. "How did we get ourselves into this mess?"
Luke's smile broadened. "An overactive sense of heroism and the intense need for justice." He shrugged. "What was it you said to General Dodonna after Yavin? 'They were in the wrong place at the wrong time...'"
"'Naturally they became heroes,'" she completed. "It does seem to turn out that way, doesn't it?"
"Every time," he said wryly. "But I wouldn't trade it for anything."
She smiled slightly. "Nor would I."
Leia awoke from a troubled sleep to find Vader in her cell.
Startled, she sat bolt upright, stifling a cry.
"Please don't," he said quietly. "I intend you no harm."
Leia drew the blanket around her form and fixed him with a frank glare. "I think you're a little late for that."
Even with her rudimentary skills in the Force, she could sense him blanch telepathically.
"That's why I came," he admitted.
Leia tilted her chin. "Out of morbid curiosity?"
"You might say that."
She smoothed her hair down with one hand and moved into a more comfortable position with the other.
"What were you doing?"
"Watching you sleep." He sank into the chair, obviously uncomfortable. "It's a rare thing to see you at peace."
"You know as well as anyone why," she snapped.
"Leia," Vader said quietly, "I didn't come here to fight you."
"Oh, really," she said, her voice beginning to tremble. "What was your intent?"
"I didn't like the way we left things."
"Your revisionist history tends to do that," she countered. "What did you expect me to think?"
"I can't say that either of us is particularly proud of what transpired at La'azum or on the Death Star."
Leia held up a hand. "I should hope not. Otherwise, there is no hope for you."
"Strong sentiments for someone as purportedly compassionate as you," he observed. "I sent the summons in hopes of some sort of preliminary reconciliation. You chose to refuse that gesture."
"Only because I could not believe it to be heartfelt," she said quietly.
"I have no peace offering this time but myself," he said calmly. "I cannot change what I said nor how you feel about it. I can only hope to change the future."
Leia sighed deeply, unsure of how to respond. His words were genuine, his Force-sense confused, but her prejudices ran strong.
"I had hoped that this day would come, when you would approach me rather than ambush me."
He snorted. "It is rather out of character, I'd admit. But I've spent twenty-three years as your enemy. Things will have to change someday."
"I doubt they can be effected with a two-front war going on."
"Court-side and vac-side?"
Leia had to smile. "You talk like a snub-jockey, you do realize that?"
"Of course," he countered. "You didn't think I spent my entire life with a respirator and a lightsaber, did you?"
She shrugged. "I have nothing but a few holos to prove otherwise. I don't exactly know you."
"A situation that I hope will someday be rectified."
Leia let her chin drop to her chest, not meeting his gaze. "When all of this is over," she said softly.
"The war or the trial?"
She smiled at her knees. "I don't know if either of us will outlive either one of those."
"And if I survive the war, you'll probably see to it that I'm tried as a war criminal."
She raised her chin and arched an eyebrow. "Am I that predictable?"
"It's inevitable." He stood. "I would like to reissue the invitation. As many times as it takes."
"I can't speak for Luke," she said quietly, "but I think I can arrange a truce for the night."
"First one to mention the war or the trial is grounded."
Leia glanced over her shoulder at Han and frowned. "I see your point, but one question."
"Yes, Your Highnessness?"
She arched an eyebrow. "Since when did you become my mother?"
He whacked her shoulder gently. "Stop whining, sit up straight, eat your tubers."
Luke snorted. "First, that's not funny and second, you're not supposed to completely blow your cover. No 'highnessness,' 'worshipfulness,' or 'royal whininess.'"
"He's never called me Your Royal Whininess," Leia protested.
Han mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like "not to your face."
"And for your part," Luke interjected before she could start another row, "you have no past history with him before 7 weeks ago, so no cracks about his ship, his personal upholstery, or his half-baked heroism."
"Yes, father," she quipped.
"Han has a good point, though. If this is a truce in theory, we can't bring up the trial or the war."
"Agreed," Leia said.
The speeder slowed to a stop and Leia glanced out the viewport. "We're here."
"A Sith in Sursey," Han said incredulously.
Leia threw him a grim smile. "It's Skywalker's home, not Vader's."
"I see," he said skeptically.
The guard opened the door and helped her out. Han followed, then Luke.
"Should we wait for a summons or something," Han muttered.
"Of course not," Leia answered. "We find our own way in."
She strode up the front path and opened the door. Stunned, Han followed.
"We're here," she called.
"This is positively surreal."
Leia smiled. "I know what you mean."
He gazed around at the holos. "Are these..."
"Yes," she said. "Fairly easy to tell where we got our looks from."
"You have his nose," Han countered.
"I see you had little trouble with traffic."
Leia turned to see Vader, once more unmasked with a light body armor still covering his extremities.
The look on Han's face was absolutely priceless. For once, he was speechless, his jaw slightly agape, his eyes fixed on Vader's.
"Anakin Skywalker, this is Cas Emedath. He's on the defense team and our guard for the night."
"Don't insult my intelligence," Vader said mildly. "Captain Solo is not unknown to me."
Han stiffened. "I have no intention of letting you take me into custody as well."
"That is not my intention at all," Vader countered. "You have not been betrayed in the seven weeks you've been on Coruscant, have you?"
"Not to my knowledge," Han said darkly, "but the Empire doesn't seem to hand out official notifications on the matter."
Vader smiled tightly. "Indeed."
Sensing the impending brawl, Leia gripped Han's arm and fixed him with her most fearsome glare. "Remember your rule about topics of discussion," she urged him. "We have enough potential for disaster as it is."
Han winced. "I guess I'm grounded, then."
She smiled. "We'll consider letting you out early on good behavior."
"What rule?" Vader inquired.
"Anyone who mentions the war or the trial is grounded."
"A commendable idea." He stepped aside. "Dinner is ready. Perhaps we should address that matter first."
Dinner had ended surprisingly well, with no major catastrophes and only a few minor altercations. The departure from the reality of their situation had helped everyone's spirits. Luke and Leia had even volunteered to handle the mop-up.
Leaving Han to deal with Vader.
"That went better than expected," Vader said quietly.
"Leaving the war out of it seemed to work well," Han agreed. "It must be a relief to see them happy for once."
"It shames me," Vader countered. "I wonder what might have been."
"If you had been involved?"
He nodded. "When I learned that I had a son, and the hottest hand in an X-wing at that, it enraged me, but more than that, it hurt me deeply.
"At first I blamed their mother, hated her for denying me the joy and honor of being a father, the thrill of watching his first steps, knowing that when his first word would be Dada he would be addressing me. Vainly trying to explain the mystery of the female species to him. Teaching him the ways of the Force, for he is indeed strong.
"Knowing my connection to Leia made it worse. She is so much like her mother, so strong and bewilderingly magnificent. I've known her for several years, but could never have fathomed that she was mine. I am sick when I think of what happened during her time on the Death Star.
"Finally, I realized that it was not Padm? that I should berate, but me. All of this is my fault."
Han was silent for a long moment, gazing out the window at the lights of the city. He had despised Vader ever since he learned what Leia had gone through three years ago. He had seen first-hand what his so-called justice wrought upon the Galaxy. It was the same sort of ruthlessness that had killed Han's family and it terrified and enraged him all at once.
And yet Vader was admitting defeat, trying to reconcile with himself. "Have you told either of them this?"
"No," he admitted.
Han sighed. "I'm not an expert on the subject, but it might improve your relations."
Vader snorted. "The legendary Captain Solo, family therapist."
"Don't let it get around," Han rejoined.
"I suppose it's useless to ask what your intentions towards my daughter are."
Han held up his hands, grinning. "Don't look at me," he quipped. "I'm in it for the money."
Anakin returned the smile. "Somehow, I don't believe you."
Han's expression darkened. "I forgot you read minds."
"Not quite," he said quietly. "But I see how you look at her."
Han folded his arms and pressed his lips together. "And how is that?"
"Like a yardkid who's just seen his first TIE-fighter. A sort of amazed, adoring stupidity."
"Thanks a lot," Han growled, but the smile remained. "As of yet, there are no intentions. I like her--she's more amazing than either you or I can ever possibly give her credit for--but I don't deserve her. We've barely made it past the perpetual arguing phase."
Vader laughed as though he were still unaccustomed to the gesture. "I don't think Leia will ever grow out of the perpetual arguing phase in any relationship, even with Luke. As for your other concern, I know exactly how you feel."
"Really," Han said skeptically.
"I was born a slave and fell in love with a queen. By some miracle, she loved me back, but I fought hard to keep her in that frame of mind. As should you, should the case arise."
Han flushed red. "I don't think we're within the same sector as that point."
Vader smiled knowingly. "You're closer than you might think."
Leia stepped into the room at that moment. "Hope I'm not interrupting anything," she quipped.
"Not quite," Han replied.
She arched an eyebrow at him, then turned to Vader. "It's getting late," she said quietly. "I think we should be going."
"I'll have a speeder summoned," Vader offered.
"If you'll excuse me..."
Han stood and smiled. "So, it wasn't as bad as anticipated."
She nodded slowly. "Rather disconcerting, if nothing else, but it could have been exactly like the other times."
"And it wasn't?"
She shook her head. "Not by a long shot."
She ran a hand through her hair and blew out her cheeks. "You lived through your dealings with the Dark Lord, I see."
Han grinned. "Let's just say it was enlightening."
"Bored out of your mind yet?"
Leia's head snapped up and she smiled at Han through the bars.
"Of course," she said lightly. "I've been stuck in here for eight days with nothing but journals and my memoirs to keep me entertained."
Han stood aside to allow the guard to unlock the door, then stepped in.
"Vader hasn't summoned you again?"
Her lips pressed into a thin line. "Now that his part of the trial's finished, he was recalled to the starfleet. He left a brief message, but he's already back in the Imzotru Sector stamping out resistance with his oversized heel."
Han snorted. "With all the drama and intrigue going on around here, I'd forgotten there was a war going on."
Leia sighed and set down the journal. "I envy you."
"What, for my rakish good looks, incurable cynicism, lucrative business, and personal upholstery?"
Her chin dropped to her chest as she laughed silently. "No," she said. "Your ability to depart from reality."
"I wish it were more readily accessible," he countered.
She nodded. "So, what brings you here? You don't usually make social calls this early in the morning."
"I'd hoped to talk to both of you, but Luke seems to have disappeared."
"Not disappeared," she corrected. "He's with Cetarn and Dulor."
"Ah, I see. And why is Luke dealing with those demons?"
She arched an eyebrow. "I'd think you'd know about that."
Han shook his head. "I've been concentrating on other matters as of late. Letting Mariah and Cetarn take care of the mind-numbingly boring parts."
She caught a flash of sadness in his eyes and sense and caught her breath. "What happened?"
His mouth twitched and he looked down at his hands. "One of the cells here was discovered and of the hundred members, sixteen lived to talk about it. The traitor isn't clear, so everyone's a suspect, no one's worthy of friendship. We have no traces, no links to the Empire; whoever sold them out covered their tracks all too well. Of course, half of the survivors are former Imperial Counter-intelligence experts, so if they don't want to be discovered, there's not a chance. It's a public relations nightmare."
Leia nodded grimly. It had happened many times before in Alliance history. She had experienced it a year ago while leading a Matirn contingent. It had been terrifying and humbling, to know that such things could happen without a trace.
He rubbed his eyes wearily, then looked up. "I've been taking care of mop-up, so you'll have to brief me on the trial. What is Luke doing?"
"Preparing for the defense," Leia explained. "He'll be the pivotal witness."
"Not you," Han said in mild surprise.
Leia blew out her cheeks and nodded slowly. "We talked about it and decided that I have nothing more to contribute to the trial. Luke is the perfect objective by-stander witness."
Han grinned. "Very true. You're usually up to your eyebrows in treasonous acts; Luke just kills off anyone who objects."
Leia scowled. "Remove tongue from cheek, then speak."
Han sat back in the chair. "What were you reading?"
Leia ran a hand over the leather-bound journal. "The usual."
"How far do they go back?"
Leia bit her lip. "Nearly as I can tell, about thirty-five years. She began keeping a journal shortly after she became the elected queen of her homeplanet. Two months later, an Old Republic entity called the Trade Federation, blockaded them and she was thrown into the middle of a war." She sighed. "Sometimes I wonder if this isn't a never-ending cycle. She led her people to war at fourteen, entered the Senate at twenty-three, was at war again after that... "
Han offered a wry smile. "It does sound remarkably like you."
She nodded. "Sometimes I don't know what to credit the Organas for..."
"Or blame," Han teased.
She shrugged. "Bail used to say that I was genetically predisposed to bossiness. I used to think it was because he was even more stubborn than I, but now that I know that I have a tyrant on one side and a warrior queen on the other, I'm not so sure."
"Are you glad Vader won't be there for the rest of the trial?"
She nodded. "I hoped that this would become easier, that I'd be able to accept him into my life, accept what that meant, but it takes a lot of getting used to."
He snorted. "I can't even imagine."
Leia folded her arms protectively over her abdomen, her eyes distant. "Whatever verdict this trial yields, the Emperor will not allow us to exist if we are not on his side. As Vader's offspring, we are a considerable threat.
"I think that's what frightens me the most. I've seen the way he works and it's very likely that he will force us to surrender our souls or sacrifice the other's life."
Han shuddered. "You might have to choose between becoming like Vader and letting Luke live?"
She nodded. "We always agreed that we would rather kill each other than join them, but I'm not sure I could actually order Luke's death and I'm not sure that I could live with myself if I was only able to live through Luke's darkness."
Han's brow furrowed. "I don't know what to do, but I know that when the time comes, you will know what is right."
The guard rapped on the bars, startling Leia from her light sleep.
The chrono outside showed that it was barely after dawn. "So early," she mumbled.
She heard footsteps approach, then Cetarn spoke. "I thought you might want to visit with our first defense witness before we got on with the day's proceedings."
Leia opened her eyes to see a tall, silver-haired man of medium build and solemn features standing to the left of Cetarn.
It took her a heartbeat to scan her memory, but then he frowned impatiently and she gasped.
"Tarrick," she breathed.
Standing, she threw her arms around her father's oldest friend and most trusted aide.
"We thought you were..."
"I know," Tarrick interrupted in a low voice. "But like a select few of your father's aides, I was on a courier mission when Alderaan was destroyed. Since then, I've been working with the Alliance contingent here on Imperial Center while holding an odious bureaucratic position in the Empire so there were no suspicions."
"Tarrick has been a valuable treasury of information about you, your family, and more importantly, your actions and philosophies."
Leia smiled for the first time in days. "I can imagine."
He pulled away gently and fingered a lock of her chin-length hair. "I never thought you one for trends."
"Not my choice," she countered grimly. "Bail would hate it."
"Bail would be proud of you," he countered softly. "For everything you have and haven't done to preserve the justice he died for."
Leia's throat tightened and she smiled sadly. "I'd like to think so."
He reached up to squeeze her shoulder. "Have no doubt. I remember once when we were in the Clone Wars, he told me that in every great conflict, those who had gone before would keep watch over us because we are the reason they lived and sacrificed. Whether we live or die in its course matters not because we are doing so in the service of life. Bail is most certainly watching over you."
"Thank you." She pressed a hand to the pendant at her throat. "Did you know?"
"About your parentage?" He nodded. "I was there the night you arrived on Alderaan."
"Why did no one tell me?" she implored.
"Because you are a princess in word and deed and something as trivial as genetics cannot mar that."
Leia focused on her bare feet so he could not see the tears in her eyes. "Thank you, Tarrick. It is a great comfort and joy to have you here."
"With that in mind," he said, "I think you should prepare for the day. You can't show up at the court looking like a freight hauler's assistant."
Leia grinned. "I'll see you on the other side."
"Defense calls Detin Tarrick to the stand."
Leia sent Tarrick a small smile as he was sworn in and took his seat. He returned the gesture, then focused his attentions on Cetarn.
"Tarrick, how well do you know Leia Organa?"
"Very well. I've known her as long as Bail and Sach? Organa had. She grew up seeing me every day and we became friends of a sort."
"You were Bail Organa's personal aide, is this true?"
"Were you aware of his support of and involvement in the Rebel Alliance in its early days?"
"What was Princess Leia's involvement during that time?"
Tarrick sighed. "She was little more than a diplomatic courier. She was barely more than a child and often was sent to bring messages to cell leaders or engage in humanitarian missions."
"So she was not actually involved in the Rebellion at the time?"
"No. Leia was a young woman of strong ideals and an even stronger sense of justice. She was opposed to Bail's involvement because it endangered innocent lives unnecessarily and she told him so on several occasions."
"How do you explain her actions, then?"
"Do you mean at the time or later?"
Cetarn clasped his hands behind his back. "Let us start at that time. We will address her later...career in a moment."
Tarrick nodded. "Leia loved her father very much. She would have done anything for him which did not endanger the people of Alderaan or put him at risk. She, of course, knew the risks involved in his support of the Rebel Alliance, but she knew that to have him carry out her missions would put him at risk for discovery."
"What were her views on the Empire?"
"Objection," Dulor called. "Calls for speculation."
"Your Honor," Cetarn interjected before Turot could rule, "this witness has known Princess Leia Organa since her infancy; he was Bail Organa's top aide, meaning he was privy to extensive knowledge about the members of the royal family. I would reason that Tarrick has the sufficient authority to comment on Leia's philosophies."
Cetarn nodded his thanks to Turot, then turned back to Tarrick. "Tarrick, what were her views on the Empire?"
"She was not openly opposed to it. She objected to their 'brutal' tactics and their impatience for justice, but she recognized that they had united a Galaxy with auspicious intents. Whatever it had devolved into was a matter of circumstance."
"How old was she at this point?"
"Yet, we have heard evidence that four years later, barely months after her induction into the Imperial Senate, she formally joined the Rebellion. How do you explain this?"
"The first evidence of her disenchantment with the Empire came when she was campaigning for the position of junior senator from Alderaan. Critics equated her with Vader because of their unique friendship during those years. The Empire was becoming more adamant in its attacks on insurgent factions and using more and more brutal tactics. Leia, being an Alderaanian and a pacifist, found the developing situation disturbing.
"When the purges at Motibi were announced, she publicly denounced the senseless massacres which had taken place. She believed that the Empire had completely departed from its original intents of defending, protecting, and serving the justice of its peoples and she said so."
Cetarn nodded. "That's what drove her to oppose the Empire?"
"It was the first step in a line of mounting injustices. A woman can only turn her back on so many atrocities. The turning point would have to have been the murder of her mother. It's what drove her from nominal support into active rebellion."
"You are a loyal citizen of the Empire, are you not?"
"Certainly," Tarrick stated.
"Do you feel Leia Organa was unjustified in fighting back?"
"Absolutely not. It is what any person should do to save those over which they have stewardship."
Cetarn turned a vague smirk on Dulor. "No further questions, Your Honor. Your witness."
The Tatooine landscape was washed out, the gritty swells of the Dune Sea barely distinguishable from the craggy cliffs of the canyons. The suns were rising in the east and a hot desert wind was whistling through the gorge.
It took Luke a bewildered heartbeat to recognize them and another to wonder why he was there.
"You have some questions, I'd imagine."
He turned to see Ben Kenobi, looking exactly as he had when Luke last saw him on the Death Star three years ago. As usual, a vaguely sardonic smile was on his lips, his eyes narrowed, as if there were some private joke he were enjoying.
"You might say that," Luke said with mild annoyance. "You left a lot of things unsaid."
"As always, for a reason," Ben countered.
"You lied to me," Luke stated. "You taught me to hate and fear Vader because of what he did to my father, to the Jedi."
Ben shook his head. "Hate, no. I taught you only what you needed to know. Your animosity was much safer than your reaction to the truth would have been."
"You'd have rather I found out like this," Luke snapped.
"Frankly, yes." He sighed wearily and settled onto a rock. "If I had told you the truth about your father back then, it would have overwhelmed you, consumed whatever potential for good you harbored. I did not lie; I only distorted."
"Distorted," Luke said disbelievingly. "That's the understatement of the eon."
Ben's smile stretched slightly, then shrank into oblivion. "We couldn't risk the truth at that time. You were an idealistic young man with an overactive sense of heroism and a sheltered life, albeit by our own designs. After all we've done to keep you safe, out of his reach..."
"We," Luke repeated. "Who is this we?"
"I told you once that we are not altogether alone in the Galaxy," Ben explained. "When all of this is over, you must see to it that your Jedi training is completed. Your powers are too great, too dangerous, to be unbridled. We learned that lesson all too well with your father.
"The only living Jedi Master is one of our greatest--Yoda. He and I have been watching you for many years."
Luke cradled his head in his hands. "I'm not sure I understand."
"It's not likely that you should," Ben assured him. "You have a great burden to carry, as a warrior and as a Jedi. I did not tell you who Anakin Skywalker had become because we had not come this far to lose you."
Luke nodded slowly. He could not quite fathom the gravity of the situation, but he could certainly understand any fears regarding Vader.
"What about Leia?"
Ben smiled wryly. "Leia," he said quietly, "now there's an entirely different matter."
"Why did she not know of her powers?"
"To protect her. We deemed that the Organas would be able to protect her from being discovered as a Skywalker, but there are other methods of hunting down a Jedi potential. So, when she was young, I dampened her powers, blocked all memories that she might have of them."
Luke frowned thoughtfully. "Then how did she..."
"In extreme circumstances, such as her interrogation on the Death Star and the riot here on Coruscant, she would unconsciously draw on the powers of the Force. It's what sustains her, keeps her from the fate that met lesser people."
"Is she to be trained as a Jedi as well?"
"Yes," he said, "but not now."
"It is not her powers the Emperor wants. She is too wise, too practical to be tempted by what he can offer her. Nevertheless, there will come a time when she will need to develop them. The greatest danger now is that the servants of the Dark Side will threaten her to convert you."
Luke closed his eyes against the image of Leia wielding a blood-red saber, dark fire in her hands.
It was a fear he had never allowed himself to fully consider, partly because he did not want to think of something that pure being consumed by the darkness, partly because if it could happen to her, he could succumb as well.
She had once made him swear to kill her before Vader could have her, but he wasn't sure that in practical aspect, he could allow that.
"I couldn't," he breathed.
"You may have to," Ben countered. "We can only hope that it won't come to that, but the Emperor has no scruples, no ethical barriers to hinder his ambitions. Leia's life would be a small price to pay for your soul."
Luke blinked back tears. "What am I to do?"
"You will know when the time comes," Ben said cryptically.
Luke snorted. "Some help you are."
Ben sighed. "There is not much I can tell you about your future."
"Because of what it might cause," Luke said, curious.
Ben shook his head. "Primarily because it is always in motion. Whether you will come out of your current trials alive is still a matter of debate."
"How very reassuring."
Ben's mouth twitched. "Come now, Luke, that would be cheating." His features returned to the familiar expression. "All in due time. My time draws to a close. Remember who you are and what Vader once was."
The image drifted away as dust in the wind and Luke awoke with a modicum of peace.
The day passed slowly, with few moments of triumph and even fewer glimpses of hope. The defense was proceeding, but the Imperial justice system was doing its best to see that it faltered.
Finally, Turot called a recess for the day and the defendants returned to the Palace, weary and worried.
"Does anyone have the feeling that this part of the trial will be excruciatingly short?"
Leia arched an eyebrow at Han across a cup of caf, then set her mug down. "I never thought I'd hear you use excruciating and short in the same sentence."
Han shrugged. "For good reason. Compared to the endless parade of cranky Imperials that could condemn you, we have precious few people who can speak in your favor."
"He's right," Luke agreed. "We can't call in anyone from the Alliance, most of the potential character witnesses are dead, and up until my testimony happens first thing next week, the witness list primarily consists of spies and Senators."
Leia shook her head in disgust. "It's dark times when we have to rely on turncoats for our salvation."
Han grinned broadly. "Isn't that the corporate philosophy of the Alliance?"
Leia fixed him with a half-hearted glare. "You know what I mean."
"You'd do well to remember that you've been alive these past three years because of those turncoats."
Leia had to smile, despite the pervasive gloom that had been their ever-present companion throughout the day's proceedings.
"As if I could forget."
Han checked his chrono, then stood and stretched. "I hate to leave you to your own devices, but I'm due at Cetarn's office in fifteen minutes and it'll take at least that long to get through the typical mob."
Leia's smile shrank, then disappeared as she affected a hurt look. "Fine, go. We can handle the rejection."
Han bent down to kiss her cheek. "I'm sure you can. Get a good night's sleep or I'll have to take matters into my own hands."
"We'll try," Leia assured him. "Good night."
She sipped at her caf, then eyed Luke warily. "What are you looking at?"
"Nothing," he said unconvincingly.
He gestured to Han's retreating form, then at her. "So, should I be planning the reception yet?"
She seized a bit of l'ka meat and hurled it at him. "Very funny."
Luke smirked. "He loves you, Leia."
Her brow furrowed slightly. "I wouldn't go that far."
"You can't tell?"
"Oh, yes," she said with mild sarcasm. "Strangulation is always a sign of affection."
"It's a shield."
She shrugged. "For now, it doesn't really matter either way. If he tells me, so be it. But we have a trial to finish."
Luke winced, almost imperceptibly. "Right."
Leia leaned forward. "What is it? Have you had any degree of prescience concerning the outcome?"
His eyes crinkled in amusement. "Come now, Leia, that would be cheating."
She rolled her eyes. "I knew it. We're going to die, won't we?"
Luke laughed. "I don't know. The future is always in motion, so any prescience I might have could well be useless."
Leia sighed wearily. "Part of me wants all of this to be over. It's like a poorly-crafted play and I don't want to be right about the ending. But part of me fears what that ending might be and I don't want to see the end of what we've had here. We may have been imprisoned for the last three months, but we've survived thus far because we have each other. It's a humbling and relieving experience."
Luke reached across to take her hand. "Whatever happens, we will always be together, in life, death, and spirit. If that's true, what else do we have to fear?"
Cetarn arrived early the next morning, his expression weary and haggard, but his eyes betraying a certain excitement.
"There will be no trial today."
Leia rubbed her eyes, then blinked in bewilderment. "Why will there be no trial and why are you so happy about it?"
"Not happy," Cetarn corrected. "But if this goes through, things are definitely looking up."
Leia glanced at Luke and he shrugged, just as mystified as she. "All right, we're listening."
He took a seat and folded his hands. "We have a new witness."
"Ten years ago, while a Colonel in the Imperial Starfleet, he was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged on charges of accidental manslaughter. He spent four months in an Imperial prison camp before escaping through the help of some specialized contacts. To return the favor, he shuffled his assets into Alliance Intelligence."
Leia's eyes widened in recognition. "You're kidding."
Luke frowned at her. "You know who he's talking about?"
"Of course," she said quietly.
"He has commanded both of you and knows you very well. After following the events of this trial, arrived last night demanding to be allowed to testify on your behalf."
"Rieekan," she breathed.
Cetarn nodded, containing his smile. "I immediately contacted Turot and Dulor and explained the situation.
"Naturally, Dulor wanted to keep him off the stand at all costs, which of course made him look not only desperate but ineffectual. Turot decided that Dulor's objections were moot and authorized the subpoena. We arranged an immunity deal to protect him from prosecution and Turot granted a four-day continuance to allow the defense team to prepare for his testimony."
"What's the danger?" Luke interjected.
"Simply put," Leia said, "he made a lot of enemies in his time with the Starfleet as well as after his court-martial. Not to mention those who would like to see him murdered for every successful mission he's brought off against the Empire. If someone discovers that he's here, it's a good chance that they'll act on those feelings."
"Exactly," Cetarn agreed. "We've got him in a safe house that hasn't been used since before Yavin, but that doesn't make him safe."
Leia knew that all-too-well. These sorts of dangers were ever-present, it seemed. It was a time-honored tradition of obstruction of justice.
She did not want to consider what would happen. Rieekan was the closest thing she had to what Bail Organa had been. A long-time friend, he had taken her under his wing after her return from the Death Star. His taste exact for overprotectiveness amounted to something of a disease.
Through some of the darkest times in her life, he had been her guardian angel, more than a friend, less than family.
After all Rieekan had done for her, she could not allow him to die, not even for her salvation.
Leia drew herself up, her throat tight. "Please, do whatever it takes to protect him."
"Certainly, it's the least we can do."
Her throat tightened and she swallowed past the lump. "When can we see him?"
Cetarn smiled slightly. "Funny, he asked the same thing."
"Tonight," he assured her. "I understand you will be with Vader in the early evening."
Luke snorted. "Does anything get past you people?"
"Of course not," Cetarn said mildly. "We're Alliance Intelligence; we can't afford to miss any details."
He turned back to Leia. "We will visit once you have returned."
"I look forward to it."
"The Emperor means to destroy you."
Leia ran a hand through her short hair and smiled sardonically. "I thought that was a given, from what he told Luke."
"You don't understand," Anakin said tersely. "Whatever decision you make, in his favor or not, he will destroy any trace of what you may have once been."
Leia looked up to meet his gaze. "As he destroyed you," she said quietly.
Anakin looked startled, but there was no disguising the impact her insight had made.
"That's the great danger, isn't it," she continued. "That what we are, you once were, and what you are, we could become. For all of your protestations and your loyalty to your Master, you don't want to see us do the same."
Anakin turned his head to smile wryly at Luke. "Are you sure she's not a Jedi yet?"
Luke returned the smile and sipped at his glass of water. "She's cursed with the power to read between the lines."
"Cursed? Only the victims think that," Leia quipped.
"True," Luke returned.
Leia sighed and sank into a seat. "Let me put it this way," she said. "I would rather die than become you."
"And Luke," Anakin countered. "Would you have him die rather than let yourself succumb to the Emperor?"
"I would," Leia said, her voice a little less calm than it had been a moment ago. "I would hope he would return the favor."
"I would," Luke assured her.
Anakin snorted. "You've spent your entire lives trying to uphold justice, to save others lives and you will both die because you're too stubborn to take that devotion to the next level."
"No," Luke said firmly. "That devotion is what keeps us from going to what you consider the next level."
Anakin blinked. "Explain."
Luke sat back, his eyes closed. "It is true that we could use our powers to influence matters and bring an end to this conflict sooner than expected, but because we are devoted to justice, we know that to do so would be an abuse of our powers and an injustice itself to those we try to help. But as mere mortals, we can see that unrighteous dominion is no longer a force in the Galaxy. It may cost more lives and drag this war out for years, but it will be resolved at the right time."
Anakin looked between the two of them. "You have too much of your mother in you," he said quietly to Luke.
"From what Ben told me, I doubt it's entirely her fault."
Anakin's smile disappeared. "Once upon a lifetime, maybe."
Leia let her hands drop to her lap. "Now, to turn the tables," she said. "Why don't you abandon all of this?"
Anakin snorted. "I don't suppose you would believe this has a better health plan?"
Leia smiled slightly. "Not good enough."
"It's too late for me," Anakin stated.
Leia's brow furrowed. "Once upon a lifetime, I would have agreed with you, but I know better. It's never too late."
"You'd like to think that," he countered harshly.
"No," she corrected, "I want more than anything to make myself believe that you can never be anything more than a monster behind a mask, but it's not true. Everything in life is a day-to-day process. You became what you are one step at a time and you can return the same way."
"It's not that simple," Anakin said, but there was no malice in his tone, only bewilderment, as if he hadn't quite considered this before.
"I think you of all people know how to work hard," Luke interjected. "If you decided, you could certainly do it. If necessary, with our help."
Anakin smiled grimly. "If you're finished with the call to repentance, I believe it's about time for you to return."
At the door, Leia hesitated, then turned and stretched up to embrace her father for the first time in her life.
"Please, think about what we said," she whispered. "It's more worth it than you can possibly imagine."
Leia wrapped her arms around herself and leaned her forehead against the cool transparisteel of the speeder's window, keeping her gaze on the dark streets of the capitol city.
Her heartbeat was still unnaturally loud in her ears, her eyes blurred with inexplicable tears.
For the first time, she actually felt a sense of pity for the man who called himself her father. It was mixed with an unusual longing that she couldn't quite explain nor pinpoint.
Luke sighed wearily, his head resting against the headrest, his arms hanging limp at his side. His legs were splayed, his right foot propped on the seat in front of him.
Leia smiled slightly. For all his heroism and maturity, Luke always reminded her of the wide-eyed farmboy who had burst into her cell that day three years ago.
It was one of the things that she loved most about him, his constancy. She could trust in him unconditionally because of it.
"How are you holding up?"
Luke's voice startled her from her reverie and she blinked at him. "Is it just me," she began, "or was that conversation entirely surreal?"
Luke smiled. "I know what you mean."
"Did I really just call the second-in-command of the Empire to repentance?"
"Even he acknowledged it."
Leia squeezed her eyes shut, the headache that had lingered in the back of her mind returning with throbbing intensity to the forefront.
"If it helps," Luke said quietly, "I'm very proud of you for what you did back there."
She reached across to take his hand. "It does help," she assured him. "Thank you."
Luke squeezed her fingertips, then released her hand. "Did you mean what you said back there?"
He met her gaze and she saw a trace of fear in his eyes. "Returning the favor," he stated.
She nodded solemnly. "Absolutely."
Luke's mouth twitched. "All right, I'll honor that."
"I never doubted you would," she countered. "I know you too well."
He smiled grimly. "That you do. What was it that you once told me? 'To be a good servant, you must love the ones you serve; to be a good leader, you must be willing to sacrifice the thing you love most.'"
"Right," Leia said quietly. "Of course, it's not very comforting in hindsight, but it's what is right."
The speeder slowed to a stop outside the Palace and the guards checked their bindings before leading them inside.
As soon as the stuncuffs had been removed, they were led into the cell block.
Rieekan turned to face them and Leia rushed to him without thinking, throwing her arms around him.
Immediately, the guard prodded her with a stunstick and her back arched, every muscle spasming.
Rieekan caught her as her legs buckled and embraced her gently.
"Prisoners are not allowed physical contact with..."
"I know," Rieekan said gruffly, "but I have not seen her in some time and she is as much my family as Luke is hers. We'd appreciate some degree of leeway."
The guard shifted uncomfortably and Cetarn stepped between them. "Leave. There is nothing to be gained from this behavior."
Leia sighed against Rieekan's chest. "Three of the most intimidating people in the Galaxy in one corridor; perhaps we should invite Palpatine for a block party."
Rieekan snorted. "I see you've kept your humor."
Leia pulled back and smiled up at him. "It's what keeps me grounded." She sighed. "I can't believe you're here."
He took her by the shoulders and kissed her forehead. "It is my duty, honor, and pleasure to protect you; this is the least I can do."
"It could get you killed," Leia protested.
"For a worthy cause," he countered. "If I die here, it will be knowing that is that you might live. I think it's well worth the effort."
"The trial has been moved, for the time being, to a small hearing room in the recesses of the Hall of Justice."
Luke arched an eyebrow. "They expect to fit our barbarian hordes into a hearing room?"
"That's the point," Cetarn countered. "Governor Turot agrees that Rieekan is at great risk in being here on Imperial Center. He has made these arrangements to protect the interests of our highly sensitive witness.
"There will be more guards than attendants. We will allow only the judge, defense and prosecution teams, the witness, and the defendants into the area. The proceedings will be broadcast to satellite locations, but there will be no chance for patriotic elimination."
"Does Rieekan have any sort of immunity," Leia asked. "Given his occupation over the last ten years, there's nothing to stop the Imperials from destroying him as they're trying to destroy us."
"Exactly my thoughts," he agreed. "When I first notified Dulor of the surprise witness, I suggested the idea of complete immunity. He didn't much like it, but with a lot of persuasion and a bit of blackmailing, we were able to work out a deal."
Luke snorted. "Given the dossier on Dulor that I'm familiar with, I find it hard to believe that there is much to use in the trade of blackmail."
Han grinned widely. "That's where I come in handy."
Leia returned the smile. "I should have known."
"The matter is irrelevant," Cetarn interjected. "In two days time, Rieekan will be on the stand. Following his testimony, Luke will be called. The defense, for the foreseeable future, will rest its case directly after that."
"You're not going to put up more of a fight," Leia said, her voice not inquisitive but slightly bitter.
For the first time, Cetarn's mask split and Leia could see a quiet desperation in his eyes. She could finally see the toll the battle had taken on him, see the wearied soldier tiring of fighting a losing battle.
And she knew exactly how he felt.
"We're fighting shadows," he said in a strained tone. "I wouldn't have given this defense a glacier's chance on Tatooine of going this far when I first took this case. We have succeeded in several aspects, but there is little more I can do.
"We can't fire any more paper bullets and erect stale defenses. Even Turot's patience is wearing thin."
Leia's throat tightened. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I just can't resolve myself to the inevitable."
"I know," he said quietly. "I know all too well."
Leia lifted her chin, an attempt at defiance, but moreover a display of strength. "No matter," she said simply. "We will end this in dignity and strength. I have every faith in you and whatever the outcome is, I will not begrudge you what great things you have done for us."
Cetarn smiled thinly. "I'll have to depose you on that one in the event that I have to keep Mon Mothma from assassinating me."
Leia laughed lightly. "Consider it done."
Leia settled onto the cot, bone-weary. It was not so much the trial as the anticipation that was grating on her. The inactivity that preceded each session in the courtroom was maddening sometimes.
Another day of brief meetings with Han, Cetarn, and Rieekan; there had been a few conversations over meals with Luke, but it was only mid-afternoon and Cetarn had placed them under what he half-mockingly referred to as bed arrest. It meant resting until the next day's proceedings.
Leia didn't mind it in principle, of course, but practical application was an entirely different matter.
Removing her half-boots, she flexed her feet, then pointed them, working some blood back into the stiff muscle fibers.
Finally, she reached over to the chair at the end of the bed and retrieved her mother's journal.
Opening to an entry in the late parts of the volume. The date pinpointed it as in the second month of the formal Clone Wars that Leia had studied so frequently in school.
"Sometimes I wonder if any of the battles I'm fighting are worth the effort. Whether as a Senator or a warrior queen, I seem to be fighting one losing battle after another. When the casualties mount and yet apathy seeps in, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern any measure of hope.
"And yet I cannot bring myself to admit defeat. Throughout these dark times, I cannot help but believe that there will be change and the light will return. Somehow, our tribulations will yield benefits, if not for us, for those who are to come.
"When I leave this world, I may be nothing more than a faceless martyr or a half-remembered relic of the royal traditions, but I will be at peace knowing that I lived in accordance with my conscience and my own overactive sense of justice.
"And for that, I will have no regrets."
Anakin dreamed of Tatooine that night.
Not of the hazy, silent mornings nor the perpetually infernal days.
When the suns had set, a deep chill would settle over the valleys and a near-silence would ensue.
When Anakin was a child, he would hear wailings on the wind and voices in the breeze. He could never quite understand what they said, but despite their ethereal quality, they never seemed to frighten him.
Perhaps the night wind gives voice to our unseen guardians, his mother had once said.
"Perhaps she was right."
Anakin turned to see Qui-Gon, his hands hidden in the folds of his robes, his eyes belying the grim amusement that his stern posture did not convey.
"Master," Anakin murmured.
His body felt surprisingly light, unweighted by the restrictive armor; his voice was natural and unmodulated. In the flow of the Force, he was still the heartsick Jedi Knight who had died in that lava pit.
"Why am I here?"
Qui-Gon smiled slightly. "That is for you to find out. As to the practical reason, the Force often calls on its own for teaching opportunities."
"The Force rejected me," Anakin bit out, "as the Order and the Council did."
The older man sighed wearily. "If that were true, you would not be here."
Anakin shrugged. "I didn't think I had any choice in the matter."
"Perhaps not," his would-be master countered, "but when the Force called you, you responded. It speaks well of your loyalties."
"My loyalties do not lie in the service of your Force. You do not understand the power of the Dark Side's grasp."
A flicker of sadness passed into Qui-Gon's eyes, then disappeared. "I wish that were true."
I don't think so. No one can kill a Jedi...I wish that were true...
A memory swept away by the winds of fate.
"You are here, Anakin Skywalker, because you are at a crossroads. On the one hand, you have the perceived strength that you have clung to for the past twenty-three years. On the other, you have the strength that your children draw on in serving the Light Side. They are what you might have become, what you could have been if your stubbornness and bitter nature had not intervened.
"You have a chance to embrace their strength and make it your own. It is a powerful gift that the Force--and the love of your children--has granted you. I'd advise you to take advantage of it."
"It would take more than love," Anakin said softly.
"Yes," Qui-Gon said wryly. "Padm? realized that too late."
The familiar heartache returned to a heart he no longer realized he had.
"If Padm? couldn't rescue me, what makes you think my children could?"
"Their love has a stronger force," Qui-Gon said. "They have been wronged greatly by you. Leia should have died through what you did to her; it was only your insistence that she live long enough to betray herself that prevented that.
"You are the contributing factor to most of the pain she's had to endure and yet she is unable to keep herself from loving you. That is a stronger love than any Padm? might ever have had and it is that love that can save you."
"If I let it," Anakin countered.
"Yes," he said. "That is always the great danger. But remember this, Anakin. The paved road is not always the one to success. It is by taking the chance on the road less traveled by that all the great things in life are accomplished."
"The defense calls Carlist Rieekan to the stand."
The rear doors hissed open to reveal Rieekan, impassive and impressive, in full dress uniform. He strode down the aisle with deliberate steps, offering nothing but a fleeting smile to the defendants.
Leia recognized this as his 'battle mode.' When he entered this phase, nothing short of his own death could distract him from what had to be done.
She hoped it wouldn't come to that.
Rieekan took his place in the witness box and, with a final straightening of his dress jacket, settled into the chair.
Turot glanced over towards the prosecution table. "Let it be understood that the witness has complete immunity from prosecution and as such, any attempts to incriminate him during this testimony will result in my decision to strike the line of questioning from the record for his own safety. I will also subsequently deny further questioning and move to the next witness."
"Yes, Your Honor," Dulor said calmly.
"He will be the only witness of the day for security measures. After the conclusion of his testimony, he will be escorted to Eastport and allowed to leave the sector with impunity. Counselor Cetarn, you may proceed."
Cetarn consulted his datapad one more time, then stood. "Since the witness was called on such short notice, there was no time to append his record and files to the court record, so it is necessary to briefly review the facts. I apologize for this procedural matter, but it is a necessary one."
"Granted," Turot said mildly.
"Please state your name and rank for the court."
"Carlist Etan Rieekan, General."
"Please briefly detail your employment over the past fifteen years."
"After faithfully serving the Imperial Navy as a Colonel for eight years, I was court-martialed for killing a fellow officer who attempted to eliminate me from the ranks. The court-martial found me guilty of involuntary manslaughter and I was sent to Kessel to serve a ten-year sentence.
"After four months, contacts on the outside world managed to negotiate my release. By that time, I was justifiably disenchanted with the Empire and took them up on an offer to join the Rebel Alliance. I have been serving in Alliance Intelligence and commanding bases for the last eight years."
"How do you know the defendants?"
"Princess Leia Organa was the heir-apparent of my homeworld. As a member of the Palace Guard, I became fairly well-acquainted with her. When she returned to the Alliance after her imprisonment on the Death Star, we began working in more close proximity and became close friends."
"And Commander Skywalker?"
"As the commanding officer of the Alliance's most elite squadron, he has frequent dealings with Intelligence for the sake of planning missions. At the last base I commanded, his squadron was the primary aerial defense."
"Are you a member of the Alliance High Command?"
"As such, you are privy to all levels of information concerning Rebel operations, is this correct?"
"You have been informed of the charges against two of your comrades. Do you understand their basis?"
"Objection," Dulor called, standing abruptly. "This court is not concerned with the political bias of the witness."
"Perhaps they should be," Cetarn countered. "This witness has volunteered to testify to accurately refute the claims that the citizens of the Empire have brought against my clients. If he is to be effective in any way, his understanding of what we consider to be their crimes is a crucial matter."
Turot nodded grimly. "Objection overruled. You may answer the question, General."
"Yes, I understand the basis of the charges, though I do not agree with them."
"Duly noted," Cetarn said, his face resuming the slight smirk that seemed to infuriate Counselor Dulor. "Let us start at the beginning, with Toprawa. How did the mission come into existence?"
"A courier on Raltiir made his way to the Alliance from an independent resistance group. He had been part of a mission to discover the nature of a project directed by the Grand Moff Tarkin. When they learned of the Death Star, they decided that their resources were insufficient and turned over what they knew to us. Tarkin had sent a convoy heading towards Imperial Center with the plans on board and covert operatives, during a space battle, managed to smuggle the datafiles off of the convoy and to a cell on Toprawa."
"How did the Organas become involved in all of this?"
"Originally, they were not to have been involved at all, but Bail Organa was the only one with enough diplomatic immunity to carry off the mission.
"Shortly before he was to have left, the Ghorman Massacre and the assassination of Garm Bel Iblis occurred. Leia Organa, in response to the increasing vigilante justice being displayed by the Empire, offered to help the cause in any way possible. Subsequently, we learned that the next step would most likely be her assassination, so the High Command decided that her brief disappearance would be the best tactic. Bail Organa supported it, partially to save her life, but mostly because he trusted no one, not even himself, with the security of innocent lives."
"If the Empire was publicizing the project as a civilian station, why would there be any need for security?"
"The darkest secrets are cloaked in good intentions," Rieekan said darkly. "Not even the designers were aware of its true purpose. However, Lord Tyon, one of the men working under Governor Tarkin, disclosed to the Organas that it was a machine of war, with the express purpose of 'snuffing trouble out of existence.' It became evident to all involved that the station was a considerable threat.
"The mission to Toprawa was not one of war but an evaluative one. Princess Leia was to bring the plans to Alderaan where the Command would be able to evaluate the data and decide how best to proceed."
"If there had been no attacks made by the Death Star, why not ignore it until the threat became a reality?"
"When you see that someone has you in their blaster sights, you do not wait for them to fire on you." He fixed his gaze on his hands, folded in his lap. "Unfortunately even dodging cannot prevent it from hitting another innocent target."
"Ah, yes," Cetarn said grimly. "Alderaan. Would the Alliance have attacked the Death Star had it been a different target?"
"Absolutely," Rieekan said firmly. "The Empire went too far in its unprovoked attack, whether it was on Alderaan or any other world. The senseless extermination of millions of lives is absolutely inexcusable. Princess Leia once said that at that point, the Empire stopped being at war with resistance and became at war with life itself. I think that statement was not a matter of mere hyperbole."
Leia's throat tightened. I should hope not.
"So it is not, as the Empire claims, an act of the Rebels?"
"General, in your experience, does a civilian station yield a firepower of the magnitude to destroy entire planets?"
"What would the expected defense armaments of a station with the Death Star's published intents of mining operations be?"
"Well, if it were a mining operation, it would be allowed a maximum of ten turbolaser emplacements on-station with a few more on out-station vehicles. A complement of a squadron of starfighters would be allowed for standard defense purposes. Finally, there would be an allowable total of thirty minor gunnery emplacements in the event of an aerial attack. Anything more would be violating its definition of a civilian station."
"The Death Star, according to our records, had 60 turbolasers along the equator with more than thirty more surrounding the primary weapon of the turbolaser. Out-station vehicles were lambda-class shuttles which were specifically commissioned by the Imperial Starfleet Authority for use in short-range combat situations. There were a gross--one hundred forty-four fighters. We won't even go into the minor gunnery emplacements. It would take too much time."
Leia bit back a smile. Cetarn was certainly making an effective point.
"By those specs, is there any way the Death Star could have been considered a non-combatant?"
Rieekan snorted. "If that much enemy gunnery had shown up in Imperial space, it would have been destroyed with no questions asked and no hesitations."
"But that is not why the Rebel Alliance assaulted the station?"
"No. It was to prevent Alderaan from happening again."
"So the Battle of Yavin was in response to the deliberate act of war against Alderaan?"
Leia glanced at Luke, found him checking off charges on a piece of vellum. She plucked the stylus from his fingers and set it on the other side of the table. He let out his breath and smiled gratefully.
"I think you've made your point, Counselor. I suggest you move on."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"How would you characterize Leia Organa as a person?"
Rieekan smiled for the first time since taking the stand. "Charismatic, unhesitatingly compassionate, and aggravating as anything."
There was a ripple of laughter and a snort of disgust from the prosecution. Leia simply grinned.
"Rieekan knows you too well," Luke murmured.
"As do you," she countered.
"Could you elaborate on that point," Cetarn said mildly.
"She is an excellent leader because she has a deep love for those she serves and inspires them to greatness. I cannot expound on the measure of compassion she innately shows. As for aggravating, she often frustrates those who think that a Princess of Alderaan should rule the Alliance from an ivory tower. She is always letting herself get up to the eyebrows in danger because she doesn't trust the lives at stake to anyone but the few who can do it right."
"Do you consider her impulsive or rash, then?"
"Not at all. She never does anything unless the cause or effect will benefit those she cares about."
"Could you explain to the court Princess Leia's state of mind upon her return to the Yavin base?"
Turot fixed his gaze on Cetarn. "Counselor, I trust the prosecution's objection is unfounded?"
"I believe so, Your Honor. It goes to the court's evaluation of how Her Highness acts under duress and her overall character in terms of war."
Leia kept her eyes fixed on her fingers, terrified that if she met anyone's gaze, the emotions would overflow. Luke gripped her hand gently, acknowledging that. She squeezed his hand gratefully, then closed her eyes against the tears.
"Objection overruled," Turot said, "but close on your point quickly."
Cetarn sketched a humble half-bow. "As efficiently as I can, Your Honor."
Turot nodded. "Proceed. Restate the question."
"No need, Your Honor," Rieekan interjected.
"Very well. You may answer the question."
"Leia was understandably distraught. She had just repeatedly undergone Imperial interrogation, seen her world die, and come within a few minutes of being terminated. Yet she remained focused. She did not allow any selfish concerns to interfere with the reality of what we were facing."
"Do you believe her actions throughout this war to be personal?"
"On some level, yes. It is personal because she is concerned for the well-being of every soldier she sends into battle, the outcome of every mission. But she is not fighting this war for herself, only the future.
"She may have acted against the major political force in the Galaxy, but it is only out of a deeply ingrained need for justice. She would never act for any lesser reason."
Cetarn nodded. "Thank you. No further questions, Your Honor."
"We will recess for one half hour and when we return, the prosecution may cross-examine the witness."
Dulor was on his feet, his jaw clenched, his eyes carrying a hint of resignation. "Your Honor, the prosecution has no questions for the witness."
Luke's grip on her hand tightened to an almost bone-crushing intensity and Leia caught her breath. Cetarn arched a skeptical eyebrow. Rieekan blinked. Even Turot looked surprised.
"Very well," he said finally. "The witness is dismissed."
Rieekan stood and strode to a seat behind the defense table. Turot turned to Cetarn. "Does the defense require additional time to prepare the next witness?"
"No, Your Honor. We will be prepared as soon as Your Honor requires it."
"Be prepared to call the next witness on the first morning of the coming week. Court dismissed."
"I don't envy the jury."
Leia arched an eyebrow at Rieekan. "They're making a crucial judgment that will go down in the history books if nothing else. At the very least, they'll make millions off of the process. What's not to envy?"
"The process." He steepled his fingers. "I've read the transcripts. If they have more than half a brain cell and a modicum of conscience, they'll recognize that what you did had some merit. But they can't live knowing that they let the two greatest enemies of the Empire live."
"The two greatest enemies of the Empire are the Emperor and Vader," Leia stated. "If they realize that we're mere puppets by comparison, we have nothing to fear."
"How very optimistic of you."
Leia's brow furrowed with concern. "Are you sure you can't wait out the trial?"
Rieekan smiled grimly. "Much as I'd prefer this circus to the newest base, I have a base to command. Besides, after tonight, if I'm found on the planet, I'll be held in contempt of court."
"Yes," Leia agreed. "I meant to ask when you earned your fifth pip."
"The High Command made it official about five weeks after your capture."
Leia embraced him tightly. "Thank you for everything," she said softly. "No matter how this turns out, I will be eternally grateful to you."
"Just make sure I see you back at base."
Leia winced. "That's not a promise I can make. I can only cheat death so many times."
"But you will," he assured her. "I'll be waiting for you."
Leia settled back on her heels. "I'll do my best to ensure that you don't have to wait too long."
"Rieekan lied," Leia said over dinner.
The entire defense team immediately came to attention, staring at her.
"What do you mean," Han choked out.
"Nothing in the way of perjury," she said with a sad smile. "But he said that I'd never shirked duty, put myself before the needs of others. He knew that wasn't true."
Luke swallowed the piece of bruallki he'd nearly choked on a moment earlier, then frowned slightly. "I've never known that to be false."
Leia focused her gaze on her utensils. "That's true. It's only something Rieekan and I know about."
Han grinned broadly. "Well, now that our interest is piqued, do tell."
"Casting pearls before neks," Leia quipped.
Luke smiled wryly. "I don't know about that, but we've saved your neck several times; I think we're entitled to your innermost secrets."
Leia flushed a deep shade of red and Luke could see her send a smile at Han. "Not all of them," she countered. "All right, it was when we first returned to Yavin.
"The first twelve hours were kind of a blur. I spent two hours in debriefing, then another three evaluating the datatapes. General Dodonna ordered me to get some rest, so I headed back to my quarters..."
In the practical sense, Leia could hear the persistent knocking at her door, but her clouded mind refused to process what that meant.
She lay on her bed, curled into a semi-fetal position, her eyes closed, her cheek resting against a soft pillow.
It was a position of what little comfort she could attain and she was not ready to disturb that.
She desperately needed to rest and revive, but once she yielded to sleep, the nightmares came--part memory, part contingency.
She'd woken in a cold sweat with her heart pounding and the wounds reopened. Instead of the refreshment rest should have brought, she was more desolate than ever.
A series of clicks followed by a loud pop sounded and the door swung open.
Too exhausted to be startled, Leia sent a half-hearted glare at the figure shadowed in the doorway.
"That's breaking and entering."
"I know," Rieekan said with a grim smile, "but you didn't show up at the command briefing, no one's seen you in seven hours, and you didn't answer the door. I assumed you were either dead or had your reasons. Either way, I was worried and had to investigate."
"Oh, Sith," Leia murmured against her pillow. "I missed the briefing?"
"Don't worry," he assured her, pulling up a chair and closing the door behind him. "You could have given the briefing and you'll be there for the pilot's briefing tomorrow morning."
"Very true," Leia said wryly.
"Are you all right," Rieekan asked quietly.
She snorted. "Hardly."
His smile disappeared. "Alderaan?"
Leia rolled onto her stomach and sighed. "Alderaan, Vader, Tarkin, the Death Star, the farmboy, the egomaniac, his personal upholstery..."
Rieekan smiled slightly. "I can't imagine it's easy."
Leia grunted in agreement. "I was tortured and beaten to within an inch of my life, denied the distinct pleasure of dying for the cause, then forced to watch as they destroyed everything except my life. As soon as they slated me for execution, half the detention-level officers wanted to have their way, and I beat them senseless until they learned their lesson and drugged me into submission. Then five minutes before I'm to die, the rescue happens, garbage chute and all."
Rieekan winced. "Last I heard, the garbage chute was your idea."
Leia snorted. "Only because the impromptu rescue squad didn't think about the need for an escape route."
"And you haven't exactly had much downtime since arriving here," he added.
She turned her head to look at him, her brow furrowed. "The sensible thing would be to put it all off until dealing with the pain wouldn't endanger innocent lives."
"But the pain is now," he said quietly. "And it gets so strong sometimes that nothing else can take priority."
She nodded miserably. "You understand."
His lips pursed. "Unfortunately, I have more experience than many in the area of severe emotional trauma."
"Four months in Kessel will do that to you," she commented.
"Ten years of losing battles will as well," he countered.
"What I'm struggling with isn't the pain itself but how to find how to walk the thin line between logic and selfishness."
"I don't think that's something you are struggling with. You seem to have found the necessary balance already. You did what had to be done and then looked after yourself. That's not selfish; it's mortal."
"I'm not sure I'm flattered," she said wryly.
"You don't have to be," he countered. "And besides, we all deserve a little selfishness. It's what makes us Rebels."
Luke looked up and grinned as Cetarn entered the cell block. "Come to prepare the witness, Counselor?"
Cetarn offered a wry grin. "No, I've come to dismiss you."
Startled, Luke shot to his feet. "What?! Why?"
"Rieekan," Cetarn said simply. "You and he had virtually the same amount of admissible evidence and I didn't expect to be able to have him testify to much, but we were fortunate and Turot gave us enough leeway to send Dulor into a state of shock."
"So that means when the next session adjourns, we'll be waiting for a verdict?"
Luke sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "The end is coming a lot sooner than I expected, either way." He winced. "Leia should know about this."
"She's the next stop," Cetarn assured him, "but I don't want to be within firing range when she finds out that I'm curtailing the trial."
"She's as weary of this trial as any of us."
"And tired of being talked about in the third person," Leia called from her cell.
Luke glanced towards the direction of Leia's voice. "Eavesdropping is of the Dark Side," he retorted.
He could barely hear the snort of laughter. "You're very liberal about your definition of the Dark Side," she informed him. "And other than a few cutlery lessons from Obi-wan and five minutes over the Death Star, you and I are equally trained in the Force. Besides, my telekinetic skills are a lot better."
"Now, children," Luke mocked, "no bickering."
Cetarn rolled his eyes in exasperation. "I should be leaving now, but I thought I should let you know that you can stop losing sleep over your grand confessional statement."
"We appreciate the effort," Leia assured him. "Now go determine how you're going to convince the jury to let us live in the course of one speech."
"Are you afraid of what might happen?"
Leia clasped her hands in her lap and frowned thoughtfully at her father. "Not so much afraid as apprehensive. This entire trial seems like unnecessarily prolonged humiliation and in a few days, it'll be over. The Empire will have spoken, the people will have their justice, and we, most likely, will have been executed in a horrendously public manner."
"Unless you obey the Emperor," Anakin countered.
Leia squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head violently. "You know that won't happen."
He offered a tight smile that certainly did not reach his eyes. "Do you?"
"Of course," she said simply.
"Once upon a lifetime, I said the same thing," he rumbled.
"Yes," she replied, "but I know better."
He laughed shortly. "I expect you do."
Leia's brow furrowed in annoyance. "Do you really wish to see me become the monster you have?"
"You still cannot see past your prejudices," he observed.
"Answer the question, Father," she bit out.
"I do not wish for you to die."
Her hand raised to her cheek, to a faint scar that had come from that night on the Death Star.
"Somehow I do not believe that," she said softly.
Anakin grimaced. "I don't fault you for that," he agreed, "but I no longer view you as an enemy or threat. I see past your...choice in careers and see something of what I used to be. Especially the temper."
She flushed red. "I thought that was dispensed with the tiaras."
"Perhaps, as you are royalty by title as well as action. It matters not that the Skywalker and Naberrie lines run through your veins. It is the Organa spirit that you embody. It humbles me greatly and makes me very proud to know that you are my daughter."
She rested her chin on a hand. "I remember hearing tales of a giant spectral chadarn who appears before someone dies. Reminds me of you."
Anakin snorted. "I'm a household pet?"
"No," she countered with a slight smile. "A harbinger of doom."
"I appreciate the sentiment," he said wryly.
Abruptly he sobered. "I'm sorry I'm that," he said quietly. "That even now I'm more of a spook story than a man. When I realized who you were, I had hoped that before this ended, you would be able to remember me without hate."
Leia's throat constricted. "I don't hate you," she countered. "I can't."
She saw something like understanding and fleeting pain in those eyes, as though a scrap of memory had surfaced and he had buried it deep once more.
"I see," he said in a strained voice.
"Are you all right?"
He shook his head as though to clear it. "It's nothing. Something the man who would have been my Master once said."
"I see," she lied.
There was an awkward silence. Leia focused on anything but his face. He seemed to be reading her features.
"I'm afraid," he finally admitted.
Leia looked up, stunned. "Of what?"
His eyes were unfocused, narrowed. "That it isn't worth it. That I will have lived this way for twenty-three years, destroyed those I love, alienated the important people in my life for nothing. That you will die knowing that I failed you beyond forgiveness and that I wouldn't even change to save you."
Too weak to move, too moved to speak, Leia simply let the tears flow.
"Do you think Mother forgave you?"
"Yes," he said. "She withheld love and forgiveness from no one, not even myself and perhaps that is the great tragedy."
"Indeed." She looked away. "I wish I had her strength, that I could put all of this behind me and look to the future as I should. Even when it's clear that the only future I will have is these next few days."
"You have more strength than you could ever imagine," he asked softly. "It is only a matter of looking past the Skywalker in you to find it."
"Not looking past," she corrected, "going through. The strength I need comes from you as well."
He stood. "Tomorrow will come sooner than we all expect," he said quietly. "I will summon your transport."
She did not rise, did not look up. Her heart pounding, her eyes stinging, she realized what he already knew, that there was life beyond bittersweet shadows.
"Father," she said in a voice so soft that it was barely audible even to her. "You have nothing to fear."
She looked up, free for the first time in years. "I forgive you."
"How was it?"
Leia sank onto the cot opposite Luke and kicked off her shoes.
"Amazing," she breathed softly.
Luke looked up, stunned. "That's not a frequently-used adjective," he observed. "In fact, it's considered rare in your realm. May I ask what happened?"
"Tonight was rare," she countered. "After three years, I finally have closure."
Luke stood and crossed to her side, giving her a stern look. "You didn't assassinate the Emperor, did you?"
She grinned broadly. "Not yet, but the night is young."
Luke had to laugh. "Then what?"
She clasped her hands in her lap and turned to look him in the eyes. "I forgave Anakin Skywalker for Darth Vader."
Luke's jaw plummeted a few millimeters towards the floor. "How?"
"I still don't know," she admitted. "But I finally realized that it all didn't matter. There's precious little time to waste on phantom pains and lingering heartaches."
Luke sensed an overwhelming relief roll off her and his heart rejoiced for her. "Amazing," he repeated.
She pressed a hand to her sternum. "I've never felt this much at peace," she said quietly.
Luke nodded. "If anger is the strongest force of the darkness, I think forgiveness must be the greatest of the light." His face broke into a wry grin. "If they let us live, it will be rather anticlimactic."
"No, it will certainly change the way I fight the rest of the war. Or at least I hope it will."
She reached over to take his hand. "I wish you could have been there."
"Not to worry," Luke quipped. "He's on his way here and fifty credits says that his first words will be 'Why can't you be more like your sister?'"
Leia laughed tearfully. "You're on."
"You lose," a voice countered.
They turned to see Vader standing outside the cell. Leia smiled and stood. "I'll leave you to it, then."
The door swung open and Leia moved past Vader. The guard locked the door behind her and Luke was alone with his father once more.
"I assume she told you."
"Of course," Luke said simply.
"But you are not so easily persuaded.
Luke's jaw clenched in a mixture of annoyance and frustration. "It's not a matter of persuasion; it simply takes more to break through my barriers."
"We are much alike," Vader observed.
"That's what I'm afraid of."
Vader sighed wearily. "When my mother sent me to be trained as a Jedi, she told me, 'Don't look back.' I know why now. The bitter past destroys your present and taints your future. I learned that too late."
"It's not too late."
Vader took a seat with a modulated snort. "You may die this week. Do you really think posthumous absolution counts for something?"
Luke winced. "This is the most unconventional 'do it now for tomorrow we die' speech I've ever heard."
"You rejoice over Leia's choice, but you refuse to accept it?"
Luke looked up, startled at his father's insight. "I rejoice because the most important person in the Galaxy to me has found her peace. She's finally happy and that's all that matters to me."
"She's very fortunate to have you," Vader said quietly.
"The feeling's mutual," Luke replied.
There was a long silence as each attempted to discern where they should take this next.
At last, it fell to Luke to continue the conversation. "Why are you here?"
"Because I leave for the Fleet in less than an hour. I may never see either one of you in life again."
Luke let out his breath in an explosive sigh. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm being short-sighted."
"A natural reaction to the circumstances."
"I wish I could do what you ask, but not yet."
Another sigh. "Why can't you be like your mother? Why do you have to remind me of who I once was?"
"Because I am what you could have been," Luke stated calmly.
Luke nodded to the package in his father's hands. "What is that?"
Vader looked down. "For Leia. It was my favorite dress of her mother's and if they put you to death, I wish..."
Luke could have sworn his father's voice caught, then faltered. Luke nodded solemnly. "I understand."
"You couldn't possibly," Vader rumbled. "I have lost everything because of the Dark Side and I'm about to lose my children as well."
"No," Luke said. "Now you understand what you did to Leia three years ago, why she despised you so completely. Perhaps your kindness to us in these last months is a form of reconciliation for that."
He stood abruptly. "I must be going. Perhaps we will meet again. May the Force be with you."
Luke did not reply until his father had left the cell block, too confused to speak.
"And with you, Father."
Leia sat on her bed in her chemise, head in hands, elbows planted on her knees. She did not know what was wrong, only that when she tried to stand, the throbbing headache and nausea threatened to bring her to the floor.
It was the last day of the trial and she could not bring herself to the right frame of mind for what that meant.
The weariness was all-encompassing, finally overwhelming her. But she could not allow it; the events of this day were too important to postpone.
"Wake up," Han called cheerfully. "The sooner we get this over with."
Leia did not have the energy to glare at him, only waved him into the cell.
He drew up short. "You look like you're going to be sick."
She didn't respond and he crossed to her side, pressing his hand to her brow.
"Oh, Sith," he murmured. "You're sick."
"It's not that bad," she protested wearily.
"Yes it is. I'm contacting Cetarn."
"No," Leia snapped. "I have to go through with this. Today."
"You'd rather collapse in public than let the suspense hang for another heartbeat?"
"Quite frankly, yes," she replied. "This must end today."
He sighed. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. Besides, I haven't seen the Senate Chamber in three years. No reason to delay that reunion."
She pushed to her feet and swayed for a moment, then forced herself to be strong, be silent.
"Please," she said softly, "my dress."
Han passed her the gown her father had left the night before and helped lift it over her head. She worked her arms into the sleeves, then waited as he fastened up the back.
A velvet gown in deep purple, it trailed the floor with its full skirt. The bodice had a square neckline and the sleeves were tapered just below the elbow. A cape of the same material and hue was attached to the shoulders at epaulets.
It was a gown suited for royalty, something she could not quite believe even now.
"It's beautiful," he said. "A pity you have to look the walking dead in it."
Leia sent a half-hearted glare. "We should be going."
The Senate hall, containing thousands of layers of repulsor boxes for the various delegations, was fuller than Leia had ever seen it. Every box, every spectator's gallery, was filled. The Chancellor's box was where Turot and the court reporter took up station. The defense had been granted the use of the old Alderaanian box, while Dulor hung back in the Corellian Sector's.
The crystal rang loudly, calling the session to order. Turot was viewing the raucous crowd with something between disgust and rage.
"Counselor Cetarn," he began. "Are you ready to proceed?"
"Yes, Your Honor," Cetarn said. "The defense rests."
There was a roar of approval and a fair number of catcalls. Leia, barely able to keep upright, kept her face impassive.
Turot nodded grimly. "We will now hear the closing statements. Counselor Dulor, you may proceed."
Dulor stood, his stance confident, his eyes betraying nothing. It was the posture of a self-assured victor.
"Before you," he said, "are two of the worst enemies the Empire has ever known. You know this to be more than mere hyperbole by experience. You have heard of their atrocities, their secret combinations against those who would protect you, and their apathy in the face of injustice. The truth of their crimes has at last come forth in all its appalling detail. Now we are asked to deem what shall be done about it.
"Bail Organa often said, 'You should determine the course of justice, not by the sharp parameters of jargon, but with two questions in mind: what will your posterity think of it in the decades to come and what will you think of yourself tomorrow.'
"I will not recite our reasons for this trial. I will not remind you of the evidence. You already know all that is needed to do what is right for yourselves, your posterity, and the Empire. Put it to good use in the time to come."
Cetarn rose, his stance aping that of Dulor's, but not reaching his eyes. Leia could sense that he was as apprehensive and annoyed as she.
"You have heard many incredible tales in the course of this trial. Ones of betrayal, of murder, of an alleged holy war, and of political intrigue. There lies all you require to condemn my clients.
"However, that is not the point. These actions were acts of defense, not always against tangible threats, but all the same against grave injustices.
"Had these been presented objectively, in another time or place, we would be calling for vigilance, not vengeance. The question is not whether they took up arms against their oppressors, but rather, would not we?"
There was a ripple of horrified indignation. Leia caught Cetarn's eye and sent a tight smile. He'd made his point.
Turot rang the crystal. "There will be order in the court," he said coldly.
Cetarn turned back to Turot. "Nothing further, Your Honor."
"The jury is dismissed for their deliberations; the verdict will be issued the morning following their decision to allow for ample warning. The court now stands in recess."
"I don't want to eat, I don't want to talk, and I most certainly don't want visitors."
Han laughed and set the tray down on a side table. "It's a little late for that, Your Crankiness. I came with food, fully intending to talk to you."
She groaned, flinging an arm over her eyes. "How long was I asleep?"
"Twenty-nine hours. After seeing your undead impression, Turot had a medic sent to check you over and you were treated for a viral infection. It wasn't life-threatening, but it was nasty enough to keep you thoroughly miserable, as you well know. In the meantime, you should be back to what passes for normal fairly soon."
Leia sighed and let her arm drop to her side. "No word from the jury?"
Han shook his head grimly. "They're working late on this."
She sat up carefully, letting her muscles adjust to the strain bit by bit. "The problem," she stated, "is that no matter how innocent we are, they'd get slaughtered for anything less than the death sentence."
Han winced. "No one wants to be on the jury that let you two get away."
"Exactly." She ran her fingers through her hair and her mouth curved into a grim smile. "I suppose it doesn't matter much. We're not going to leave this world alive."
"Come on," he chided. "Let's keep a little optimism here."
She scowled half-heartedly at him. "I'm the civilian second-in-command of the Alliance," she said simply, "and a Princess of Alderaan. Optimism is the one thing that did not come with the training."
Han bent forward to spear a piece of bruallki. "I have it on good authority that this is your favorite meal, so I pulled some strings and the 23rd Hour produced its first take-out meal."
Leia's jaw dropped a few centimeters. "How did you manage to..."
He stuck the piece in her mouth, forestalling any further questions. "I told them that the last survivor of their longest-standing patrons was awaiting execution and needed some comfort food. I had to force them to accept payment."
Chewing thoughtfully, Leia settled into a more comfortable position and took the tray. "Lekri-braised bruallki with baked hars, sweet bread, and takrine for dessert. They remembered."
"They wanted to send wine, but it's not allowed on the block."
Her brow furrowed as she fought back tears of gratitude. "Thank you," she said softly.
He reached across to squeeze her hand. "I wish there were a way, an escape."
Leia squeezed her eyes shut. "As do I. I wish we hadn't trusted your contact, had fought back better, that Luke didn't have to be mixed up in all of this." She looked up. "I don't want him to die for my causes."
"Even if he does so willingly?"
Leia scrubbed her hands over her eyes. "We both know better than that."
"Are you sure of that?"
"I hope so," she admitted. "He's too protective of me. Always has been. And while that comforts me and has brought us closer than I'd ever have imagined, I feel that the subsequent risk seems to be the greater debt."
"He loves you too much for that to matter. It's a maddening charm you have."
She shrugged. "It hasn't worked on you yet."
He snorted. "What do you call the Death Star?"
"A marginally profitable venture." She folded her arms. "If you'd known what you were getting yourself into, would I have ever met you?"
"Absolutely," Han said firmly. "I keep coming back for more, don't I?"
She had to smile. "I thought it was our stunning vistas, fine food, and exquisite supply of female officers."
She sighed wearily. "I have to admit that I was surprised at your being here. I'd have thought that you'd be far away from taking sides. What changed your mind?"
"Rieekan," Han admitted. "I wouldn't have given the Alliance a second thought, but he sat me down one day and surprised me."
Intrigued, Leia arched an eyebrow. "How?"
"He said, 'I've been watching you. I am not unfamiliar with your rather unusual past. I know you trust even fewer people than you like. You are a self-proclaimed lone gunman and I can understand, even respect that. You'd not be alive without it, despite Leia's attempts to convince you otherwise.
"'But, Captain, you have a choice to make. You can pretend that none of this matters, that it's simply a place to wait for your next credits. You can continue denying yourself the opportunity of changing the life of disenchanted self-interest you've lived.
"'Or you can validate your friends' trust in you by putting aside all selfish concerns for their sakes. You can change the Galaxy, if nothing else, for the safeguards of the future.'"
"Amazing," Leia said. "When was this?"
His mouth twitched into a wry grin. "Two months after Yavin. I told him I'd stay on, but I wasn't promising anything. As soon as word of your capture came through, I put in a call to Rieekan and said, 'I'm ready to be unselfish; when can I leave?'"
Leia smiled genuinely. "Thank you. You've kept me sane through this."
"Well, that's what friends are for."
"Recent inquiries confirm that the jury is burning the midnight oil on the Organa trial. So far, they have spent the last thirty-four hours in deliberation. Judge Esio Turot had to force the recess..."
Leia shut off the viewer and sank into a seat. "I was once told that the outcome is best if the verdict takes a long time."
"By that rule," Luke said wryly, "we should be off-planet by nightfall."
She snorted. "I wish they'd stop calling it the Organa trial, as if your life isn't at stake here."
"You're more scandalous. With me, they can say I was an idealistic hick who'd do anything including treason to get around. They can say I was brain-washed by the Jedi. But you were a princess, an influential Senator from a Core World, and above all, a pacifist. Then you disappeared and reemerged as the avenging angel of the Rebel Alliance.
"They don't want to identify with us or what we did, so focusing on the inexplicable is easier for them to swallow."
Leia nodded. "It makes sense."
"When the war is over, we'll probably end up as an epic holofilm."
She smiled faintly. "As long as Tetiva Langi plays me, I don't mind," she countered.
Luke nodded seriously. "She's certainly short enough."
Leia flung a chunk of gorrnt at him, trying not to be amused. "I've pretty well figured that I won't be able to control my response to a guilty verdict. What shall we do if it doesn't happen?"
Luke grinned. "We could always p'qa down the Grand Corridor."
She laughed. "It's a date."
There was the sound of a throat being cleared and they turned to see Han, looking decidedly somber. Her heart sank into her toes. "What is it?"
"The jury is ready to issue the verdict," he confirmed. "Tomorrow morning. The holoshills haven't been informed, so we have about thirty minutes to get you out."
Leia sucked in her breath. "To where?"
Her eyes widened in recognition. "Beruss? How did that happen?"
"You have friends in high places. He managed to arrange for the two of you to be his guests until the conclusion of everything."
"Not I," she said quietly. "Bail. Beruss was an old friend and during my Senate tenure, Exmoor was very much a second home to me."
"Nevertheless, we're short on time. Let's get moving."
They were escorted into Exmoor with all the pomp and circumstance of a triumphal procession.
An honor guard of twelve led them along the long, winding drive while the rest of the Exmoor guards stood at attention along the route. A flight of bovary birds were released into the night sky, but quickly settled amid the myriad lights threaded throughout the cha'ala trees. The Illodia Tower itself was fully illuminated and Leia could see a considerable reception waiting for them at its base.
As they approached, the guard formation split, peeling away to allow them passage. Doman Beruss stepped forward, smiling broadly.
"Little Princess," he murmured fondly, wistfully.
Leia crossed and enfolded her friend in a warm embrace, then brushed his cheek with a kiss as in the old days. "Doman," she replied softly, "it is a great to see you again. And Exmoor."
He nodded. "Would that the circumstances were better."
She nodded grimly, then glanced down at her rumpled prison uniform. "I'm afraid I'm not adequately dressed for such a grand reception."
"Leia," he chided gently, "you should know as well as any that 'the mantle of true nobility...'"
"'...is ever a member, not an accessory you can don with the day's raiment or discard at the close of your dealings,'" Leia finished her father's oft-repeated aphorism. "I remember."
Doman tilted her chin slightly so that she met his gaze. "You are truly Bail's heir, no matter the circumstances of blood or public opinion."
Leia smiled sadly. "I hope he thinks so, too."
Shaking off the emotion, she turned to beckon Luke forward. He approached warily and Leia rested a hand lightly on his shoulder. "Senator Doman Beruss, it is my greatest honor to present Commander Luke Skywalker, my brother. Luke, this is Doman Beruss, Premier of Illodia and a very old friend of my family's."
"An honor on my part," Doman countered. "My great-nephew was in Rogue Squadron after Yavin and spoke more highly of you than of Mon Mothma herself."
Despondent recognition flashed in Luke's eyes. "Kerev Matis. One of our finest. I was deeply saddened by his loss."
"Thank you." Abruptly, he clapped his hands. "Come," he said. "The end draws near and I do not intend to let another opportunity pass by. You have not eaten?"
Leia winced. "Not yet."
He nodded. "I suspected as much. Dinner stands in readiness; I suggest we not keep it waiting."
"Are we there yet?"
Anakin laughed lightly, nudging his wife gently forward. "For a diplomat, you have no patience."
Padm? snorted. "I do my job; I never claimed to be any good at it."
Abruptly, she halted and planted her hands on her hips. "Anakin Skywalker, I am not going one step further until you tell me what's going on."
He placed his hands on her shoulders and continued walking. "You'll get killed for your efforts. You're in the middle of a major thoroughfare."
He could see her blush by moonlight and she allowed him to guide her forward. "You interrupted a meeting with the Supreme Chancellor, then blindfolded and kidnapped me. I deserve an explanation."
"Curb," Anakin said gently and she surmounted the obstacle. "Seventeen paces more and you'll understand."
He guided her up the stairs, then opened a door and swept her off her feet. Stepping over the threshold, he felt a rush of elation and contentment.
"All right, you can remove the blindfold now."
She lifted it from her eyes and he knew from her awestruck gasp that she understood.
The house was two-story and built in a style familiar to any person from Naboo. Even vacant, Anakin sensed something radiating off of it.
"What do you think?" he asked eagerly.
"Patience," she admonished. "I haven't seen the bedroom yet."
Anakin grinned and let her down. "By all means, Senator Skywalker."
She drew his arms around her shoulders from behind and, step for step, they walked every foot of the house, each room exciting them more.
Anakin christened the deal with a deep, passionate kiss in their bedroom, but Padm? was still not convinced.
Moments later, they were in the alcove bedroom. Padm? stood at the window, arms wrapped around herself, her eyes on something not beyond the picture window.
"This will be the children's room," she said finally.
Anakin, taken slightly aback, smiled. "By that time, you'll be Supreme Chancellor and we won't have to worry about mortgage payments on your salary and my perpetual pro bono work."
"Not likely," she murmured. "Re-election is in three years, not seven months."
Anakin's hand shot out to grip her shoulder. "What?!"
She turned a tearful smile on him. "Seven months from now, Anakin, you'll be a father."
Anakin thought his heart would burst, so he expended the energy in another heartfelt kiss.
"I'll call the realtor," he murmured against her hair.
She draped her arms over his shoulders and latched around his neck. "That can wait. For now, may I have this dance?"
He reached up to cradle her head against his shoulder and braced her with the other arm. "My honor, duty, and pleasure."
Memory faded into mist, but his Padm? remained. Startled, he drew back. "You're not..."
"No." She winced. "I'm not a dream and I'm not quite real. But I am Padm?."
"How are you here?"
She drew him deeper into her embrace. "When I learned that Qui-Gon had put in his two centimes worth, I insisted on equal rights."
"Ever the negotiator," he said wryly. "Why?"
She sighed and broke away, her hand going to his brow, smoothing away the worry lines. "Because you are in distress, because you are approaching a critical junction. Mostly, because you need to know a few things and if you're not inclined to listening, I'll summon Ben."
Anakin flinched. "I suppose Master Yoda wants a crack at me as well?"
She smiled grimly. "He is not of the dead yet."
Anakin blinked, startled, but refocused. "All right, what do I need to know?"
Her smile stretched a little. "An improvement. You've moved from wanting to kill everyone to just those who don't scare you witless."
She moved her hands to grip his tightly, fervently. "It's never too late for resolutions. You fear your course because you are about to probably lose your son. He is what you would have been, once upon a lifetime, from the fierce loyalty to the stubborn nature. And you wish that he would see his way clear to forgetting the pain for a heartbeat so he could pardon you, but you know why he doesn't.
"You also hope he would seek your pardon so you could feel in some way justified for what you're doing."
Anakin grimaced. "You've given this a lot of thought."
"Perfect hindsight," she quipped. "But I know that before he dies, he will be able to forgive you as I have."
"That's optimistic, since they'll be dead by the end of the week."
"O ye of little faith."
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Do you know something you're not telling?"
Something flickered in her eyes, an intense sorrow that broke his heart. "Now, Anakin, that would be cheating."
And then she was gone.
He was on a fast track to nowhere.
Luke was running hard, his breath coming in ragged gasps, his chest heaving, but he could not tell where he was going or why. He only knew an overwhelming sense of urgency.
Every turn brought an impasse, every backtrack yielded more of the same.
Weak with exhaustion and frustration, he slumped against the barrier, sweat mingling with inexplicable tears.
"Father," he gasped. "Father, please..."
"Come to me."
He turned to the source of the voice and found himself at the edge of a chasm.
Father stood at the base, dwarfed by the towering rock face. He was looking to him, calling to him, reaching for him.
Luke lifted his foot, ready to take the leap of faith, all for love of a man who had betrayed him, and someone caught his arm, staying him.
He turned to see Leia, her jaw set in determination, her eyes filled with a quiet despair. "No," she said quietly. "Not like this. It's not worth what you will lose to gain him."
Luke's brow furrowed in confusion. "It is the only way."
She shook her head fiercely. "It is tainted, manipulated. If you choose this path, you may not be able to return when you become lost."
"We can find our way back together," he reasoned. "Father and I."
"The blind leading the blind," she countered. "Please, Luke."
Luke awoke in a cold sweat, his heart pounding. He closed his eyes, shuddering violently, but he could only see the sorrow in Leia's eyes.
He flung an arm over his eyes, felt a weight fall from it.
Startled, he sat up. Leia was asleep, half on her knees, half slumped against the side of the bed. Her right arm was outflung as though it had been resting on his.
She stirred, then blinked several times. "Are you all right?" she asked immediately.
Luke had to smile, despite the sobering nature of the dream. "You broke into my suite in the middle of the night to find that out?"
She folded her arms across her chest and hunched her shoulders in a shrug. "I sensed something through the Force, so I came in to see what was bothering you. You were locked in a nightmare and I couldn't reach you, couldn't bring you out of it. I could only be there. It frightened me, so I can't imagine what it was doing to you."
Luke shuddered. "I'll be all right," he promised. "Just a critical junction."
She half-stood and moved to sit next to him. "What were you dreaming about?"
"Vader," he said simply.
She looked away, but not before he saw the look in her eyes, the same as in the dream. "Popular subject tonight," she said softly.
"Alderaan," he inquired gently.
She nodded. "Among other things. It was more a series of impressions than anything else. Him at my mother's funeral. The mask infuriated me because I couldn't imagine anyone with that level of apathy and malice being able to honor my mother. I held him responsible for her death and it was the first time I knew murderous intent.
"Two months later, I led the attack on the La'azum factory. I knew he would be there and when I had him in my sights, I couldn't give him a quick, merciful death. I wanted him to suffer. My mother had once told me that he came to his demise in a pit of fire and if there were any one thing he was afraid of, it was flames. So I encircled him in fire, wanted it to consume him."
Luke's eyes widened at her confession, but he did not pass judgment, only held her hand and waited for the rest.
"The next time I saw him was when I was brought before him at blasterpoint on the Tantive IV. I was trying desperately to be strong, to fear nothing from him. I used sarcasm as a defense because he had stripped me of everything else, but I was terrified because the worst he could do was not to me. He was famous for breaking prisoners through...unconventional methods that often involved threatening outside parties.
"That night on the Death Star..."
Her voice broke and she buried her face in her hand, her shoulders heaving. Luke drew her instinctively into a tight embrace as he always did when her past became too much for either of them. She rested her cheek against his shoulder and after a moment, her breathing quieted into silent tears.
"That night on the Death Star, he assaulted my mind with everything at his disposal. I was foundering, completely spent, unable to take any more. I couldn't answer his questions. I don't remember screaming, but my throat was raw, almost bleeding. And then when I had nothing left to sustain me, he left me to the interrogation droid.
"I knew that the next time it happened, I would either die or become catatonic. He would only intensify his efforts and I would not succumb to them. I welcomed it. Instead, I was brought before Tarkin."
She looked up at him, her brow furrowed. "I learned more about hate and pain in the three weeks I was his prisoner than I have in a lifetime. In the dream, I was drowning in a sea of blood. What I felt against Vader was smothering me."
Luke frowned slightly. "I thought you'd forgiven him."
"I forgave Anakin," she said quietly. "Apparently, my mind is fighting the shadows he left behind."
Luke nodded. "I know what you mean."
She glanced down at their intertwined hands. "I imagine you do."
He brushed her forehead with a kiss. "Sleep," he pleaded. "We'll both be fine, but tomorrow may not be so easy."
They bypassed the crowd outside the Senate for safety's sake. The holos from the area were something of a riot.
In addition to the normal protesters and well-wishers as well as those driven by morbid curiosity, there were a mass of new factions.
The widows and survivors of the Death Star had held a candlelight vigil throughout the night, with their leader vociferously calling for justice for the dead.
Alderaanian refugees were divided between those singing the requiem prayers and those clamoring against Leia.
The primary reason for their detour was the group burning effigies.
Han gazed out the viewport in the lounge outside the Alderaani platform. "Well, it looks as though you have a fan club."
Too apprehensive to respond, Leia simply rested her forehead against the glass and watched the proceedings.
"I hate to think what will happen if they let us go."
Han winced. "I think we can safely say that they'll assassinate you at that point."
"Oh good," she said dismally. "Something to look forward to, then."
Han's arms encircled her shoulders from behind, gently comforting her. "You'll make it through this, Leia, I know it."
"I'll have to take your word for it," she said softly.
The door behind them opened and an aide entered. "Five minutes. Please assume your positions."
Leia leaned her head back, her eyes closed. "Already."
Han kissed her neck lightly, then released her. "Come on, Princess, let's get this over with."
Luke met them at the door and took Leia's hands in his own. His eyes were unfocused, seeing something beyond reality.
"No matter what happens in there, I always have and always will love you," he whispered.
"And I you," she replied.
She embraced him tightly, desperately, briefly, then stepped back and led the way into the box.
Cetarn greeted them only with a grim smile, as though he didn't trust his voice. Leia bowed her head slightly, acknowledging both the greeting and the sentiment.
She took her seat and folded her hands, not allowing herself to clench them into fists. Above all, she was a Princess and she would not let them see her break.
The madness of the streets seemed to have been left with the blasters at the entrance. There was the customary chatter, but not the impassioned demonstration of the mob.
It was a relief; this entire affair was too much of a circus as it was.
She turned to look at the platform where the jury was seated. Seven men and five women, all human according to Imperial judicial mandates. All civilians, fairly non-descript.
Not one of them was meeting her gaze.
She couldn't help but wonder if they were dreading this day as much as she, if any of them had sleepless nights over the outcome.
If they passed a not guilty verdict, they would be pariahs, possibly even subject to the unrestrained wrath of their comrades. Lives could be destroyed with two words and they knew it as well as anyone else.
And yet there was irrefutable evidence; the length of time they took to issue the verdict was testament to the controversial nature of the trial.
Leia stood gracefully as Turot entered the box and moved it to the center of the arena.
"The honorable Esio Turot presiding. You may be seated."
Leia sank into the seat and fixed her eyes on Turot's face, set her jaw. The end was indeed approaching, but she was determined to face it with what dignity she had left.
Turot met her gaze and she could detect a nearly imperceptible sadness in his eyes. He shook his head slightly, then rang the crystal and turned to the jury.
"I have been informed that you have reached a verdict."
The foreman, a lanky, dark-haired male, rose. "We have, Your Honor."
"Very well. The defendants will rise." He turned to look at the defense box. "Princess Leia Organa, Commander Luke Skywalker, you have been charged with high treason, murder, espionage, conspiracy to suborn the government, obstruction of justice, and an unprovoked attack on a civilian target.
"The court has heard ample evidence concerning these matters and is ready to render its judgment based on the testimonies of your peers. Are you willing to accept the judgment of this court of law?"
"Yes, Your Honor," they replied.
He nodded slightly. "Let the verdict be read."
The foreman bowed to Turot respectfully, then cleared his voice. "In the matter of the Empire vs. Princess Leia Organa, we find the defendant guilty on all counts."
Leia expected some excited outburst or at least a roar of approval, but there was dead silence. Her jaw trembling, she nodded her acceptance of the judgment.
It was entirely expected, but she was unable to keep from feeling despair settle into the pit of her gut.
"In the matter of the Empire vs. Commander Luke Skywalker, we find him not guilty on the counts of espionage and an unprovoked attack on a civilian target. We find him guilty on the counts of murder and high treason."
It was then that the chamber erupted in cheers, catcalls, and applause. Every person was reacting to the fullest extent of their abilities, except the defense.
Cetarn nodded grimly, but did not react otherwise. Han was scowling at something in the distance. Luke, admirably, was as impassive as Leia herself.
Turot rang the crystal four times before the chamber quieted. "There will be none of that," he said coldly. "This is a grave matter and it will be treated as such."
Turning back to look at Leia, he set his jaw. "The sentencing will take place at 1900 tomorrow evening in this chamber. Court is adjourned."
They were alone with the Emperor.
For once, every aide, flunkie, guard, and yes-man had been evacuated so that nothing but oxygen stood between the Sith and the Skywalkers.
Luke stood at attention in the middle of the throne room, his mind perfectly blank, waiting for Palpatine to acknowledge them.
At last, he turned from the viewport with an expression that could only be described as a smirk.
"Welcome, young Skywalkers," he purred. "We have much to discuss."
"There is nothing to discuss," Leia snapped. "We know of your intentions and cannot, will not ever honor them."
Luke felt a rush of mixed emotions--pride that his sister had the strength and courage to defy an Emperor, and fear that it would get her killed.
Palpatine recognized that. "Brave words for someone facing death," he mused.
Leia straightened her posture, taking on her full regal bearing. "Whether I live two days or two centuries more, I will never join you."
Emboldened, Luke tilted his chin, meeting the Emperor's gaze and trying not to fear what he saw there. "We may not have your ambition or our father's strength, but we have the ambition to be free of injustice's burdens and we are strong enough to not make our father's mistakes."
Leia nodded slightly, approving. "If you'll excuse us, we'll take our chances with the courts."
"Your brother will die."
She snorted and turned her back on him, moving towards the door. "The courts have spoken, Palpatine, so that's no longer an effective threat."
"You don't understand," Palpatine snapped, all pretense of equanimity gone. "If you will not turn, you will watch him die. Then you will live out your days as my apprentice, knowing that he died for you, for nothing."
Leia step faltered, then halted. Crossing to her, Luke seized her by the shoulder and turned her to face him. "Leia," he pleaded. "You know what I would have you do."
"It's not that simple," she said softly. "I can't let him..."
"You have to," he countered, "and you will."
"As for Leia," Palpatine continued, "we have...plans for her."
Leia blanched and Luke felt his anger rising with his gorge. How dare they put her through that again. How could he even suggest that?
Leia's gaze was fixed on the floor, her shoulders trembling. Her mouth was forming words, but he could not understand them.
Finally, she looked up and his heart stopped at what he read in her eyes. She was actually considering it.
"No, Leia," he breathed.
She searched his face, looking for some hint of what to do. He had never seen her look so lost.
Finally, she blinked and a trace of the old Leia returned.
"One day," she called.
She turned to glare at Palpatine. "We will give you our answer in one day."
Palpatine sneered. "This is not a negotiation."
"Wait or have neither one of us," she snapped, stalking forward. "You've waited twenty-three years for the Skywalkers. Twenty-three hours won't make a difference."
Luke sensed the danger a half heartbeat before the Emperor's hands erupted in lightning. With a cry, Leia was thrown back into a guard rail. She crumpled and Luke instinctively ran towards her.
An invisible force like a kick to the side of the head sent Luke to his knees. In the moment of distraction, two guards had entered and interposed themselves between the two. Luke steadied himself with one hand and reached out for Leia in the Force, to carry the burden with her, but some externality was blocking her mind.
She was silent, Force bless her. He could see her writhing, knew she was alive and conscious, but she would not make a sound.
The barrage stopped and Luke pushed to his feet. The guards moved aside at a signal and he ran to Leia, then knelt and cradled her gently against his chest, trying not to notice the stink of ozone, the strong aroma of charring flesh.
Her eyes were firmly shut, her teeth clenched, her breath coming in sharp gasps punctuated by soft whimpers. Her entire form was shuddering violently.
But she was alive.
"Help me up," she gasped softly. "I can't let him see me like this."
Luke felt a flash of anger. "Leia, a Sith just made a very serious attempt at killing you. Don't be so hard on yourself."
Placing a hand on her forehead, Luke took what pain he could, absorbing and shunting. She relaxed slightly and Luke eased her into unconsciousness.
"You have one day," Palpatine said simply.
Luke stood, Leia practically a deadweight in his arms, and left the room.
Han was waiting outside, in the rotunda deemed the Gallery of the Martyrs. He stopped pacing as they emerged and swore softly.
"Later," Luke bit out. "She needs a medcenter."
Han lifted her from his arms and set off towards the turbolifts. "Beruss is having us picked up one level up in port 173. We'll completely bypass the mob."
"Good," Luke said quietly. "I don't want them to see her like this."
Once they were on their way to Exmoor, Luke sat back, weary.
"She fought back," he stated. "Palpatine threatened both of us and what he was going to do to me provoked her. She, in turn, insisted he give us one day to consider, a stalling tactic. He used Force lightning on her, then granted the request."
Han frowned. "What exactly is the ultimatum?"
Luke's brow furrowed. "If she doesn't turn, she'll watch me die and then be his prisoner and apprentice until she dies, knowing I've died for nothing. If I refuse to turn, they'll put her through the Death Star again and who knows what else."
Han's expression darkened. "That krething son-of-a-bloated-gorrnt."
Luke smiled grimly. "My feelings exactly."
"What are you going to do?"
Luke looked down at his sister's sleeping form. "What I promised myself I would do back when the issue first arose. Three years ago, Leia asked me to see that she died before she joined Vader and I asked her to reciprocate the favor. If it comes to that decision, I hope I can trust her to remember that promise."
Han grimaced. "You know we're doing our best to make sure you don't have to make that choice, don't you?"
"Of course," Luke said. "But nothing ever goes as you plan it."
"What Palpatine wants is not an option," Han said gruffly.
"Unless you get us out of here soon," Luke countered sharply, "there may not be another option."
"I know, we're trying."
Luke sighed. "Our only hope may be Vader."
Han snorted. "How do you figure that?"
"A hope," Luke confessed. "He may kill her before Palpatine can put her to use."
"I can't believe this conversation," Han said angrily. "We're talking about Leia's life here."
"I know," Luke snapped, "but there may not be another choice. This entire situation is insane."
"That," the other man muttered wryly, "goes without saying."
Luke closed his eyes, intensely weary. "What would you do?"
"Give in, then when he's trying to goad you or threaten her, assassinate him. You're condemned as it is."
Luke had to smile. "I'll keep that in mind."
"For now, sleep on it. You'll know what to do when the time comes."
Leia awoke in her room at Exmoor, feeling intensely weary and sore. The bedside chronometer indicated she'd been sleeping off the effects of her meeting with Palpatine for over a day.
In two hours, she would have to go to the sentencing and then Palpatine would demand her answer.
She knew instinctively what her answer would be--she always had--but her mind still rebelled against the idea of sacrificing her own brother to save her soul.
The future, if they lived, was bleak indeed, but it was one of their own choosing.
A yawn next to her startled her out of her reverie and she turned to see Han stretching lazily.
"How are you feeling," he asked.
She winced. "Fried."
He laughed. "I can imagine. You were in bacta all night and sedated for the rest of the time. The medic said you'll have partial hearing loss in one ear, short term memory problems, and soreness from the calcification."
"Great," Leia grumbled.
"Turot has made the sentencing a closed proceeding, as with Rieekan's testimony."
"Thank the Force." She pushed into a sitting position. "Can you hand me the robe?"
He reached over to retrieve it. "I'll go inform Beruss and Luke that you're awake. We've been worried."
He kissed her lightly on the mouth, surprising her, then stood and left the room. Leia stood carefully and cinched the robe around her, then crossed to the refresher.
An hour later, she emerged from her quarters, ready to face whatever the proceedings threw at her.
The package Vader had left for her before returning to the Fleet contained a gown of deep blue velvet with capped sleeves and a gold embroidered pattern in a geometric design along the v-neck collar and floral embroidery on the fitted bodice. The waistline was raised slightly and then fell in a full skirt to her ankles. An Alderaanian opal necklace, also her mother's, hung at her neck, matching the dangling opal earrings in her lobes.
She had to wear the mask of self-assurance well today or it would all come apart.
Dressed in military blues, Luke cut a dashing figure, but his eyes betrayed his apprehension.
Crossing to him, she embraced him tightly. "It's all right; it'll all be over soon."
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "For not helping yesterday."
She smiled weakly at him. "I know you tried; that's more than enough."
"All the same..."
"I know," she assured him. "It's my fault for hesitating."
Luke shuddered. "I understand because I had the same hesitation. If you hadn't spoken first, I might have done something drastic."
Han was scowling out the window. "There are barbarians at the gate, Your Highness."
Leia snorted. "Holoshills?"
"A fate worse than death," she groaned.
Luke linked his arm through hers, an attempt at levity. "Come on, brave soldier. Like you said, it'll all be over soon."
"Incoming message," the speeder pilot called. "Palpatine will be at the trial."
Luke cursed under his breath. "What is that about?"
"Undoubtedly, he's apprising Turot of his generous offer," Leia said wryly.
"Or keep him reined in," Han added.
"Or there to kill us himself," Luke concluded.
"Come on," Cetarn said wryly, in a perfect imitation of Han. "Let's keep a little optimism here."
Leia laughed. "No time for that, we're already here."
The hatch opened and Han exited first, helping Leia out in his wake. The port was deserted, cleared for security purposes. Leia found herself watching the shadows, since such a place would be perfect for assassins to lurk, exacting their own brand of vigilante justice.
But they made it to the Hall proper without incident.
At the top of the stairs, Leia's low heel caught on something, pulling her foot from its shoe. She paused to readjust it...
A heavy weight slammed into her from behind and immediately pinned her by the arms, the other hand clamped over her mouth.
Leia flailed her legs, trying to find purchase, but finding none. She bit down hard on the palm, but the person would not relent.
A knife entered the soft flesh of her back, then retracted and struck again below the floating ribs. Leia forced herself to fall forward a bit, found footing, and kicked straight back, sending the assassin into the shadows once more.
Luke had paused a hundred yards further, his brow furrowed.
She limped from the shadows, trying to stem the flow of blood. Luke's eyes widened and he ran to her, catching her as she fell.
Cetarn backtracked, his face grim. "My office now. Cas, inform Turot that we'll be delayed."
Luke helped her into the defense office and onto the divan. Cetarn worked quickly, applying pressure bandages and checking her vital signs.
"She's not in any immediate danger. As long as the blood is stemmed by the bandages, she won't bleed to death before we get her home."
"I have the feeling," Leia choked out, "that someone wants me dead."
"Did you see who it was?"
She nodded, remembering a flash of red-gold hair, the intense green eyes.
"That woman in the Emperor's chambers."
"Mara Jade," Luke said grimly. "We're not her favorites by a long shot."
Leaning in, Cetarn studied her carefully. "Can you endure this for a few more minutes?"
Leia nodded weakly. "Let's end this now."
He helped her to her feet and Luke helped her the rest of the agonizing way to the chambers.
Palpatine sat in the third row, but it was virtually impossible to find him among the Royal Guards. Leia didn't even bother to search him out, only made her way with confident strides to the defense box.
Forty-five seconds later, they rose as Turot entered and called the court to order, unnecessarily.
"Will the defendants rise?"
Leia stood and clasped her hands behind her back. She schooled her features into a calm mask and kept her eyes forward.
"The Emperor has generously offered to spare your lives if the remainder of them are spent in service to the Empire and Emperor Palpatine himself. I have been informed that you were apprised of this offer last night, so I will ask for your decision on the matter."
Leia straightened to her full height, despite the pain. "I refuse, Your Honor. I will not sell my soul to save my life."
Luke reached over to squeeze her hand. "I refuse," he concurred.
Han looked grim. Turot looked saddened. Dulor looked disgusted.
Leia couldn't see Palpatine's face, but she could sense that he would be looking furious.
"In that case, the court sentences you to death by blaster fire, sentence to be carried out by a court executioner tomorrow at noon at the Bakyar Game Preserve. This court is adjourned."
The roar of approval from the mob in the streets below was audible even on the third floor and entirely expected. Han turned and led her from the box without a word.
Guards encircled them immediately, leading them to the personal vehicles hangar. Cetarn was the first one in. "Change of plans. Set course for the Palace. Have Palace Medical send someone over immediately."
"Already done," Han called. "They'll be waiting when we get there."
"The Palace," Leia repeated. "We're not going to Exmoor?"
Cetarn shook his head in disgust. "The Emperor ordered it."
"Of course," she grumbled. "Keeping us close at hand for the convenience of his assassins. We have seventeen hours to live and they'll be spent in the Imperial Palace."
Luke nodded. "Just what I always wanted."
Han settled onto the cot across from Leia and waited for her to respond.
"I'm not going to sleep," she mumbled into the pillow, "so don't try to convince me otherwise."
"Wouldn't dream of it," he assured her. "How are you holding up?"
"Splendidly. It's wonderful to have familiar sheetrock under my skewered and slow-roasted body."
Han grinned. "At least you've kept your sense of humor."
She glowered at him. "I'm not allowed bacta or anesthetic, so I'm dizzy, miserable and rather badly stitched up. On top of that, I'm being publicly executed for making the universe a better place in fourteen hours. Any minute now, however, someone will show up and try to kill me. They'll succeed because I'm too weary to fight back, so forgive me if I'm a little cranky."
Han sighed and kicked off his boots. Leia gave him a puzzled glare. "What now?"
"You're not cranky; you've been thinking. Now, ordinarily, that's a dangerous thing, but now it may send you to an early grave. So, I'll stay with you and talk this out."
"Oh, no," she groaned.
"Oh, yes." He lay down, his arms behind his head. "All right. Tell me about it."
"Luke wouldn't do this to me."
"Luke doesn't need to. I happen to be endowed with an overabundance of stupidity, so explain it to me."
He could hear her weary sigh. "Three years ago, I was about to die. I thought how horrible it was to follow in my father's footsteps only to end a faceless martyr. Now I'm anything but faceless and I'm not sure I prefer it at all."
"I see. Neither option is much comfort to the recipient."
She nodded. "Dying doesn't get any easier each time around. I'm twenty-three. I've spent seven years of my life fighting and I'm still fighting and in the end, they still win."
"That's where you're wrong," Han interjected fervently. "They haven't won at all. You can't look at Rieekan or Luke or some green commando and think you've lost, because for all your fighting, you've inspired revolution. Long into the future, they will be celebrating each triumph because you set them on the right path, whether by example or force."
Leia was silent for a long moment. "For a smuggler, you have an amazing grasp of motivational speaking."
Han grinned. "Don't let it get around."
She sobered. "In fourteen hours, no one will know."
"Oh, yes, that."
She tossed the pillow at him. "no one will ever say that compassion was your undoing."
"The Imperial Starfleet would disagree," he quipped.
"Your personal upholstery," she said quietly. "I've missed him."
"You're one of his favorites. If he's not ready to kill me for leaving him to the mercy of Threepio, he'll kill me for not saving you."
"Every time Luke goes on a mission, he leaves letters for his friends in case he doesn't survive. I'll write one to Chewie to explain and properly say goodbye."
Han tossed the pillow back. "I'll see that it gets to him."
"Thank you for everything."
Han stood and crossed to her side. "Your Worship, it has been my great joy."
He bent and kissed her, lightly at first, then with increasing intensity. She reached up to touch his face, then stretched to return the gesture. He cradled her head for a breathless, sweet moment, then broke away.
"I'll be back at 0900," he said quietly. "Please sleep."
"Message from Lord Vader."
Luke reached through the bar and took the chip and reader. Activating it, he dialed back the volume so only he could hear it.
There was no visual, but the timbre of his father's voice was unmasked.
"They tell me that you are to die soon. I can't accept that I will never see you again. Perhaps it is because I will, whether in this life or what lies beyond.
"It is my deepest regret that what I became, who I am, keeps me from what I once held most dear. I have destroyed who I was because what I am shames me. And now that I recognize that, there is precious little to salvage. I have only you as my reflection and, like the man I was, you are too strong, too fiercely loyal, to let those shields down.
"I can only hope that, as you are my better in many ways, you would move to a higher level of compassion and forgive, perhaps not Vader, but Anakin."
Luke shut off the reader, but did not dare move. His heart was pounding, his head swimming.
Down, down, down...
It was a long time before he could sleep.
Leia awoke late that morning, still wholly exhausted from the last days. The block chrono indicated that it was 0937, barely a half hour before they were to be prepared for execution.
She lingered in the shower, over the customarily extravagant breakfast that was to be their last meal. Luke was uncharacteristically withdrawn as well, but she didn't have to ask why. She had heard the guard announce the message, had been able to listen to the recording through the walls, and had sensed her brother's turmoil.
Han had attempted to retain some degree of sanity, but the imminent event foiled his efforts.
"I keep expecting some intervention," Luke remarked. "At each stage, I wait for a resolution."
"Common," Han said. "Her Highness is the only person I know who knows better."
Leia attempted a wry smile. "After the first few termination blocks, you figure out that any rescues are nothing more than bizarre accidents."
"Case in point, the Death Star," Han agreed. "Who would have figured that when Artoo and Threepio landed on Tatooine, they'd escape the routine memory wipe the Jawas are fond of? Or that they'd be cleaned by a wet-behind-the-ears Jedi farmboy with a chronic sense of heroism."
"Thanks a lot," Luke said wryly.
"It gets worse," Leia added. "Artoo was a service droid on our mother's starship. When I was brought to Alderaan, mother had his memory wiped and his services donated to the Organas."
"Case in point," Luke concurred, "But it gets a lot more interesting. Threepio was assigned to the Tantive IV as an interpreter after serving the high court of Alderaan in the same capacity since the end of the Jedi Purges. Before that, he was the protocol attach? for Naboo's Senatorial delegation. That was after serving a family on Tatooine. He was built by a 9-year-old slave boy for the boy's mother, Shmi Skywalker."
Han's expression darkened. "I knew he was the greatest evil the Galaxy has ever known."
Leia finally smiled. "Enough six degrees of separation. I believe the retinue has arrived."
Five men stood outside, tool bags in one hand, IDs in the other.
Leia folded her arms. "Only five? I think I'm insulted."
"Might as well get it over with."
"Not as if we have a choice," she countered.
Han stood. "Do you want me to come with you?"
Leia shook her head. "I'll need you afterwards," she said in a trembling voice.
"I'll be there."
Leia crossed to the medics. "We're ready."
The CMO gestured to her. "She needs retagging and compound fractures. On the male, tag and simple breaks."
"Why the distinction?"
He turned a sardonic grin on her. "We remember what happened last time. You'll not be so lucky again.
"Dress, then cripple," Leia groaned. "What is so revolutionary about that?"
Han bit his lip as he worked the gown's sleeve over the protruding bone in her forearm. "Policy," he spat. "I'm sorry I can't be of more help, but my medpack consists of two bandages and a blaster to put you out of your misery."
"I may take you up on that." She rested her forehead against his shoulder, trying to concentrate on shunting the pain away. "How's Luke?"
"About as expected. Cetarn's helping him as we speak."
She nodded. "How long until we have to leave?"
He reached around her neck to fasten the japor snippet necklace, then took her face in his hands and kissed her gently.
"I don't know how, but you'll get out of this."
"Not something I want to hear from the rescue party," she said softly.
Han grimaced. "He's the brains, sweetheart."
"I don't doubt it."
Reaching around her and under her knees, he lifted her from the bed and carried her into the corridor.
Leia glanced over at Luke. "A fine pair we make."
"At least you look beautiful doing it," he countered hoarsely.
"Let's move out," Cetarn said. "We have little time to lose."
Halfway through the Sityan canyon, an explosion rocked the transport, sending Leia careening into Han. She stifled an outcry, then slid down in the seat.
"Not another assassination attempt," she groaned.
"No," Han countered with a grin. "A diversion."
She blinked, then her jaw dropped open as comprehension hit. "You've got to be kidding me."
"Not at all. Not only did we set up this, we figured out four different escape routes in case we need a backup."
"You've finally learned your lesson," she mused.
"I'll explain when we're out of here."
Scooping her into his arms, he hit the manual override on the hatch, then bolted from the burning craft.
Once in the cover of a cave, Cetarn hit a remote and the transport evaporated in a ball of flame.
Turning to her, he smiled. "It's amazing what a few units of E-6 can do to a moving vehicle."
"Minor setback," Leia said skeptically. "We can't exactly make a run for it on compound fractures."
Han grinned. "Not a problem. The authorities will send a team to find us and when they arrive, we blast them and steal their speeder. Not to mention, one person in each speeder of this convoy is a Rebel agent. So no more problems with operating numbers and restricted access. If worst comes to worst, we have a ship at the Bakyar District Spaceport and we can make a civilian landing here."
Leia shook her head in amazement. "I never thought I'd see a logical brain cell in effect. Why here?"
Han shrugged, but couldn't stop grinning. "We were informed that for security reasons, the caravan of speeders was to be broken up for a period of fifteen minutes, during which there would be comm silence. We rerouted to go through the Sityan because the metal deposits foul up the sensors on flybys. Not to mention, it's a bit difficult to locate a wrecked transport in all this wasteland. We had a window of time to get under cover and we took it, rather well if I say so myself."
Luke coughed. "We've got the team incoming."
Cetarn drew his blaster and backed against the cave wall, his stance that of a fighter for once.
"On my mark," he murmured. "Our guy's the one with a baldric."
Han got into position, then sighted in. Leia simply sat back and watched.
The first one went down with a hole in the eyepiece of the armor. Cetarn dropped two more on a quick sweep, each with headshots. Han took out the last one as he was moving for his blaster.
"Not a bad bit of rescue," Han said. "Sometimes, I amaze even myself."
The last trooper pulled off his helmet and glanced them over. "We reported in just before we reached the wreckage. We're to return to the Palace District as soon as we're finished here."
"Great," Cetarn said shortly. "Get the armor off of two of them and help our friends here get suited up."
Leia frowned. "How are we going to pull off being stormtroopers when we can't walk and have been supposedly shot in the eye?"
"That's the point," Han said. "You'll be playing the part of corpses. Standard Imperial procedure for stormtroopers is to have them sent to family. The ones you're using are fronted by families on Coruscant which are actually safe houses. We'll take care of the paperwork. If everything goes wrong, we blast our way out."
"Ah, yes," Leia said wryly. "The old fallback."
"What are we waiting for," Cetarn said. "Let's get moving."
"Leia, wake up."
Leia blinked, then squeezed her eyes shut against the light. It was only four hours since she'd gone to sleep and she ached everywhere.
"Five more minutes," she mumbled.
"Leia, please wake up," Han said urgently. "Luke's gone."
She sat bolt upright and stared at him. "What do you mean?"
"He put our guards into a trance and got out. We don't know where to, but he left you a letter."
She seized the datapad and activated the file. It was text and not long, but somber.
LEIA, I AM SO SORRY TO DO THIS TO YOU, BUT IT IS THE ONLY WAY TO SAVE BOTH OF US. I HAVE RETURNED TO THE EMPEROR. BECAUSE I AM THE GREATER THREAT, IT IS MY HOPE THAT HE WILL SPARE YOU IN EXCHANGE FOR MY SOUL.
I DO NOT KNOW WHAT WILL BECOME OF ME. PERHAPS I WILL DIE SOON. PERHAPS I WILL BE OF USE TO HIM IN THE SAME CAPACITY AS OUR FATHER, MUCH AS IT HORRIFIES ME. BUT THE MAN YOU KNOW AS LUKE SKYWALKER WILL DIE THAT YOU MIGHT LIVE.
YOU MAY NOT UNDERSTAND NOW OR EVER. YOU MAY NOT FORGIVE ME. BUT YOU MUST MOVE ON AS YOU ALWAYS HAVE.
DO NOT MAKE MY SACRIFICE MEANINGLESS. DO NOT DESPAIR AND DO NOT ATTEMPT TO REACH ME. ALWAYS KNOW THAT I LOVE YOU.
Tears streaming down her face, Leia shut off the datapad and hurled it across the room, then buried her face in her hands. Puzzled, Han nonetheless enfolded her in an embrace. Exhausted, she wept against his shoulder until she had no more tears. He asked no questions, only held her.
"We have to leave," she said quietly.
"What about Luke?"
She shook her head. "We can't risk it. For us or for him."
Han's expression darkened. "What do you mean?"
She pressed a hand to his chest. "Later. For now, let's get going."
"So, you've returned."
Luke turned and immediately lunged for Mara, pinning her to the wall by the throat.
"I'll not forget what you did to Leia," he hissed. "Nor will I forgive."
She raised her knee and kicked out, sending him staggering back a few paces.
"That's the point." She gestured to the office. "Your Master is waiting for you."
Luke tried to walk with confident strides, but only felt his resignation growing as he approached.
The door opened, keyed from the inside and he stepped into the darkened room.
"Welcome, young Skywalker, I've been expecting you."
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