He thrived on pain.
Most sentient beings in the Galaxy regarded pain as something to be avoided. They thought it to be an unnecessary evil that could destroy and weaken. Pain to the unenlightened yielded scars.
Any member of the Sith Order, however, knew better.
Pain was neither evil nor unnecessary. Pain was what tempered the forces of the Dark Side and strengthened its servants.
Moreover, pain drove the course of history and empowered the forces of destiny.
It was pain that caused a Galaxy to stand by as the Jedi were exterminated. It had been the fear of pain that kept those same citizens flocking to the banner of the New Order. It had been the means of the downfall of Anakin and Luke Skywalker.
Force-willing, the vicarious need for pain would now lure Leia Organa Solo onto the same path as her family.
Palpatine was well aware that it would take more than mere physical stimulus to drive her to the necessary rage. It would take such intense agony as to risk driving her to madness.
They would have to bring Han Solo within microns of his life and sanity many times, then draw him back. Should he die, they would most likely have to kill the foolish girl anyway.
His Hand reported that the next generation of Skywalkers was well on its way. A sweet irony that could work well in the favor of his plans for Organa Solo.
The child could even destroy the last remnants of a heritage before its birth, if not carry on the legacy of darkness that was being established.
The Skywalkers would be his slaves, of that there was no doubt. It only required a modicum of patience and the necessary influence.
He could wait. You did not enslave a Galaxy through impatience.
Han quickly lost count of the days.
He could not even recall how many times they had interrogated him, what methods they had used.
The only thing that remained in his wearied mind after each session was the pain.
It consumed him, jolting through every fiber of his being, ripping every breath from his lungs in agonized howls.
The only thing that kept him from slipping into madness was Leia. Somehow, through their bond, she was able to bear the pain with him.
He hated that she had to endure the pain with him or even know what he was going through, but he was infinitely grateful for her steadying influence. Her love anchored him, gave him something to hope for.
And to dread.
He knew that, had his wife not been a potential Sith, neither of them would endure this.
Leia was strong, stronger than any other person he'd ever known, but she had her breaking points. Han did not want to contemplate how long it would take before his ordeals brought her to another one.
He often wished that he had the power to cloak his thoughts, mask his emotions, but even Force-blinds could pick up on his senses.
A light flickered on, sending pain stabbing through his eyes, already made sensitive by the narcotics they used to cloud his judgment.
Instinctively, he threw an arm over his eyes, only bringing more pain, but he restrained a groan.
A white gauntlet seized his wrist and hauled him off of the cot. Too weak to stand, Han's knees buckled and a second hand seized him under the arms.
They dragged him out of the cell and down the corridor to the detention level's command center.
They avoided his eyes, knowing he was doomed to a long and agonized death.
Han forced himself to lift his chin as they entered the turbolift. Immediately the trooper at his rear bludgeoned him viciously over the head.
"None of that," he snarled. "Unless you care for more."
"No point," Han mumbled through his already broken jaw.
He earned six more blows before they arrived at their destination, a nondescript room marked only by a pair of posts in the center. Han was bound to these by thick strips of leather and left to await his brother-in-law's convenience.
The cruciform position was suffocating, the pain in his arms and legs considerable, but he had to keep up a brave front if nothing else for himself.
The lights were extinguished and the door opened, silhouetting Luke, flanked by two Fleet troopers.
Han lifted his head. "Come for more entertainment?"
He heard a snort from Luke. "Certainly, though I imagine Leia will enjoy it much more than you."
Forgetting his situation, Han lunged forward against his restraints and was struck across the face for his trouble.
"Leave her out of this," he snapped vehemently.
"Not an option," Luke responded. "We would kill you if she were not involved."
"Then kill me," he bit out. "She will not yield to this chokehold diplomacy."
"All in good time," Luke said evenly. "You have not outlived your purpose to us by far."
One of the troopers moved behind him and he heard the hiss of a force-whip being activated.
His back muscles tensed instinctively, as if the motion could ward off the sting of the blow.
He stayed relatively upright until the tenth blow, when blood flowed freely from his back and the burns stung with intensity. His jaw clenched, he kept his glare fixed on Luke.
"It will take more than that," he rasped.
Luke stiffened. "I don't doubt it. Continue."
Han straightened, bracing himself for all the good it did him. The next blow came so violently that he was pitched forward, dislocating both shoulders.
And yet he still did not make a sound.
For Leia, he would be strong.
"Afraid of this we were."
Leia wiped her mouth with a trembling hand and fixed Master Yoda with a heartsick gaze.
The sendings were becoming more frequent now, with increased intensity and duration. She could sense everything and it made her physically and emotionally violently ill.
"I will do what I must," she said hoarsely. "He cannot endure this alone."
"Endure this he may have to," Yoda responded. "A dangerous time this is for you."
"I am not the one in danger here," Leia snapped. "My husband is being subjected to Imperial interrogation and I can do little to help him."
Yoda settled into a sitting position. "An alternative there is?"
Wary, Leia scanned his features for hidden meaning. "Which is?"
"Sever your bond."
"No," she breathed. "At the very least, they will kill him."
"Perhaps what is needed this is."
Rieekan shook his head. "We've been over this," he said grimly. "They have nothing to gain by his death."
"They will have my rage," Leia said quietly. "It's the first step on the course they wish for me."
"And now?" Rieekan inquired.
"Only my determination," she stated. "On a level, I have a degree of anger for what they are doing to Han, but I can control it."
"Keep pushing they will until break you do."
"I don't intend to break," Leia bit out.
"But Han will still be their captive?"
She shuddered violently. "I will face my family and the Emperor once more if that is what it takes to save the father of my child, but I will do it on my terms."
"That may not be an option."
She pushed to her feet and tilted her chin, meeting Rieekan's gaze. "It will always be an option and one that I will enforce. All depends on it."
"I've had a lot of strange ambitions in my life."
Luke arched an eyebrow at Leia, grinning broadly. "For example..."
"Not many Alderaanians want to be a bike-racing Senator. And, despite what you may think, not many Senators actually want to save the Galaxy."
"But of course," Luke quipped, "you wanted to do it all."
Leia shrugged, returning the smile. "I want to live deliberately. Too many people find themselves in apathy or complacency.
"I can't allow myself to be that way. It's not good for me and it surely will not benefit those I love."
Luke nodded. "It's when we lose sight of ourselves that we lose our way."
"So what are your strange ambitions these days?"
She sighed and leaned back against his chest, her eyes unfocused, her mouth curved slightly in a smile. "Believe it or not, I want to lead a normal life."
"Impossible," Luke teased.
Leia elbowed back gently. "You know what I mean. I have this need to find love, to laugh a lot, cry when I need it, be mortal."
"And you aren't?"
She winced. "Not as long as our compatriots still think of me as the Ice Princess."
She could feel him sigh. "That hurts you, doesn't it."
She nodded. "My father raised me to love much and have compassion for all people, even those I did not think deserved it. To know that I'm regarded with that title means I've failed him."
Luke squeezed her shoulder sympathetically. "Not failed. It's the product of errant Corellians with too much time on their hands."
Her brow furrowed. "Most children don't want to be like their parents, but I want so desperately to follow Bail's example.
"If I can't even earn the respect of the Alliance members, how am I ever supposed to succeed as a mother?"
"You want to be a mother," Luke said, a note of surprise in his voice.
Leia laughed. "Another one of my strange ambitions, I guess."
"Not at all," he assured her.
"At least three children. In some ways, I'd hope they'd be something like you."
Luke gathered her in a gentle embrace. "You underestimate yourself."
She reached up to grasp his forearms, smiling at the stars. "I wonder what their father would be like?"
"Lucky," Luke interjected. "He'd have to be to have won you."
"Thank you," she said quietly. "I could use a bit of unrestrained flattery sometimes."
"I'm more than willing to accomodate," he assured her. "I have quite a list."
"What about you," she probed gently.
"I do not want to be a mother, if that's what you mean," he quipped. "I do, however, wish for much of what you aspire to. We're much alike in that respect. We have very set priorities and values. I suppose it's what brought us to the Rebellion in the first place--that those values were being threatened by a tyranny."
"It frightens me that we may not succeed," Leia confessed. "After all this fighting, we may have done nothing more than secure greater danger for future generations."
"It's the risk you run with any noble cause," he countered, "but don't fear. The Empire will fall, whether in our lifetimes or a millennium from now. There must be balance in all things and the darkness has reigned for too long for the fates to not balance it in the light."
"I would have not pegged you as a philosopher," she teased.
"Not a philosopher, an idealist. Now and forever."
Leia let her hands drop into her lap and clasped them there. "I don't quite know why, but that's very comforting."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Perhaps the time is now for you to consider taking a less active role in the Rebellion."
Leia stretched to pull on her boots, then frowned at the medic. "I'm only eight weeks into this pregnancy," she said sourly. "It's certainly not time for me to take a desk job."
Dital Mea sighed wearily. "You're under too much stress as it is. Your husband has been in captivity for three weeks now. Normally, that would be a traumatic thing, but you feel everything that he does. That has to be taking a toll on your body and soul."
"That's not the point," Leia protested.
"It most certainly is the point. I don't know what your sentiments on the matter are, but I'd like to see you have an uncomplicated pregnancy."
Leia's eyes dropped to the floor. "My husband is suffering for my sake," she said quietly. "I'd call that a complication in the first place."
"Moreover," Mea continuted, "you're undergoing Jedi training."
"I'm sure thousands of Jedi have survived pregnancy just fine," Leia countered.
Mea shook her head in disgust. "I don't want to have to declare you medically unfit for duty."
Leia straightened, her eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Threats don't become you, Mea."
The other woman folded her arms, her expression set in defiance. "Stubbornness doesn't become you, despite your lifelong practice of it."
Leia had to laugh. "I'll keep that in mind, but I'm still not backing down from my duties."
She stood to go, but Mea caught her arm. "If not for yourself, be selfish for your child. Or at the very least, for Han."
A familiar ache settled in her chest. "I'll think about it," she promised.
Mea grinned. "Good girl."
Leia pulled her arm away gently and smiled. "Anything else?"
"How's the morning sickness?"
Leia winced. "Worse than ever," she admitted. "Does it ever stop?"
"In time. I can prescribe something to fend it off, but it's not a good idea for someone on active duty."
Her chin dropped to her chest. "You're blackmailing me, aren't you?"
"Not at all," Mea quipped. "Blackmail doesn't become me as well. Think of it as logic. You may have heard of the concept once or twice."
Leia seized a rolled bandage and hurled it at the medic. The other woman parried it neatly, then shrugged.
"Like I said, think about it."
"Mea is threatening me with bedrest unless I step back from the war."
Rieekan snorted in amusement. "It's about time someone did."
Leia frowned at him, not really meaning it. "I don't know why everyone's so overprotective of me. I am capable of taking care of myself."
He shook his head. "I don't know what Mea's excuse is, but as the closest thing I have to a daughter, you're too near and dear to my heart to risk losing again.
"Besides," he continued, "at least it's me. Were Han here, he would have you sedated into submission for the entire nine months."
Leia smiled sadly. "He wouldn't dare."
"Maybe not," Rieekan conceded, "but you can be sure that he'd be nine times as overprotective as I."
"I imagine he would be."
He set the tray on her lap, then settled onto the bed across from her with his own. "Have you sensed anything from him lately?"
Leia shook her head slightly. "Not for four days. I'm not sure whether it means that he's too damaged to respond or even send or whether he's being blocked. My hope is that they're allowing him some breathing room for now, letting him rest and heal."
"Is that standard Imperial procedure?"
She swallowed back the lump in her throat, fighting to keep her composure. "When I was Vader's prisoner on the Death Star, they once let me be for six days in a row because to continue would have killed me. I had to heal myself as best I could before they continued."
"Perhaps that's the explanation," Rieekan said grimly.
"I hope not," Leia said fervently. "If that's...if he's at that level, I don't know what to do."
"Didn't Vader once say he could keep you alive as long as necessary, that you would wish for death a thousand times before you would achieve it?"
Her composure dissolved then, giving way to quiet sobs, her shoulders heaving. "Don't remind me," she said finally.
Rieekan set his tray aside and moved to sit next to her, wrapping an arm about her shoulders.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I know that this can't be easy for you on any level."
"When Luke and I were captured and the truth about Vader came out, he looked so completely destroyed that I thought he'd undergone the same thing as I had. I wished then that Vader would kill him rather than make him endure that."
She looked up, her brow furrowed. "I can't, logically, wish that on Han, but I can't in my heart hope that he lives to remember it."
"I know," he replied. "Perhaps, for once, we should listen to Master Yoda and let the Force look after its own."
Arms wrapped around his shoulders, cradling him, encircling him in love.
For once, there was no pain, no reflexive drawing away. He settled back, exhausted and relieved.
"How," he breathed.
"The Force," Leia breathed in his ear. "And love."
Turning, he clasped her in a desperate embrace, wanting to draw what power he could from her love before their time drew to a close.
"It's all right," she said softly. "I'm here, I'm always with you."
"I know," he murmured. "It's just that the hope of this moment is what keeps me grounded."
"It will be more than a dream soon," she promised.
A horrified fear flashed through his mind. "Leia, don't..."
She drew back and shook her head gently. "No. There is another way; I just don't know what yet."
He smiled. "Pity you don't have my expertise."
She nodded. "Your walking carpet is threatening to charge in there, weapons at the ready and hope he doesn't get killed."
Han laughed easily, drawing her back into his embrace. "Sounds like he learned from the best."
She rested her head against his shoulder, her grip tightening around his waist. "I miss you," she stated. "Everything seems so empty without you in my arms."
His throat constricted. "I know exactly what you mean, Princess." Sighing, he stroked her back gently, smoothing away the tension. "How you ever endured this at the hands of Vader..."
She let out a small sob and sagged against him. "I'm so sorry," she breathed. "This is all my doing."
"Don't think that way," he chided. "You may be their goal, but you are in no way their means. You have no part in this and I won't have you thinking otherwise."
She let out a shuddering breath. "I'll try."
Han reached up to tilt her chin to meet his gaze. "Just remember that I love you so much that I willingly endure this to keep you safe."
Her mouth quirked into a smile. "I know. And remember that I love you too much to let you do this alone."
"Of course," he agreed, returning the smile. "We're just too lovesick to think about self-preservation."
She winced. "That's essentially what Rieekan's been saying."
Han shrugged. "I should have known."
She smiled. "Someone has to be overprotective of me until we can be together again."
"I'll do whatever it takes," he said fervently.
She turned and pulled his arms around her waist. "Please," she murmured. "Come back to us."
"Us," he repeated.
She pressed his hands to her abdomen and somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he sensed a primitive light pulsing.
His brow furrowed and then recognition struck and he sucked in his breath. "When?"
"Just before you left," she said quietly.
"Stang," he said, awestruck.
I'm going to be a father.
The thought elated him at the same time as mildly frightening him. If Palpatine went after their child...
But no. Whatever it took, his family would not come to that.
Leaving one hand on her abdomen, he turned her head to face him and kissed her with a fierce, heartfelt passion.
"I'll be home as soon as I can," he promised.
"The plan is failing."
Palpatine frowned pensively. "Explain."
Mara looked up at her Master's face, then quickly shifted her gaze back to the flooring. "You intend to lure her to the Dark Side through her husband, but she is becoming too powerful. She is no longer overwhelmed by what is happening. If I were foolish, I'd surmise that she has found her peace."
"Impossible," he growled. "She has been physically ill from the effects of her husband's torture. What could have changed?"
"Their bond is too strong, perhaps," Mara surmised. "They are able to share the burden, feed off of each others' strength."
"That must change," Palpatine stated in clipped tones. "Are you able to reach Organa Solo's thoughts without her discerning it?"
"Yes, my Master," Mara said. "She does not even realize what I am."
"See to it that the situation remains as thus," he ordered. "She will feel his agony through their bond, but you must do as I have instructed you in the past. Block her power to respond. She must not be able to carry his burden and he will not be able to sense her support or love. That will destroy her more than any phantom pain could ever accomplish."
A rare grin spread over her features. "With pleasure, Master, but what of Master Yoda? He will interfere."
If it were possible, she could have sworn that his mood darkened considerably. "Ah, yes, the illustrious Yoda. He has been a pestilence for too long."
"Yes, Master. How shall I deal with him?"
A yellowed grin appeared beneath the hood. "I have plans for him."
"I have determined to take the position the High Command has been pressing me with," Leia stated. "It will keep me relatively out of danger as well as giving me much-needed time for my training."
Rieekan nodded approvingly. "I know this isn't what you would have chosen, but I certainly think it's for the best."
"I know," she said quietly.
He reached across the table to take her hand. "What brought this on?"
Leia's mouth twitched, then settled into a frown. "You know that I was able to...converse with Han over two weeks ago."
"Well, I think they realized it because the torture increased in intensity after that. The worst I can remember. But I haven't sensed anything in almost five days."
Rieekan blanched. "Is he...?"
"No," she said firmly. "I would know if he were, but he's being blocked from me. They've ceased the interrogations for the time being and I can't help but wonder if it's in preparation for something worse."
"Paranoia of the Dark Side is," he quipped, attempting levity.
Leia shook her head, half in disgust, half in desperation. "It worries me, Carlist.
"As well it should," he said gently. "I'm sorry, but I don't know what to tell you or how exactly to help."
She smiled weakly. "I can't expect you to have all the answers when even Master Yoda can't provide them."
He released her hand, then stood. "Are you up to a diplomatic mission?"
Leia's head snapped up. "What, now?"
"No, but we'd have to leave within a few days."
"We," she repeated warily. "Where to?"
"That's an interdicted system," she protested, "and we've all got death marks. How do you propose to even get onto the planet?"
"Loopholes," he stated. "Legally, you are of Corellian citizenship because you are married to one."
"But I cannot use that in my favor," Leia countered. "'Hello, I'm Leia Organa Solo of the Rebel Alliance. You may remember my husband; the famous Corellian scum?'"
Rieekan laughed. "Nevertheless, a Division director within the Corellian Security Force has asked to meet with representatives of the Alliance. He contacted us through an emissary who will arrange the necessary paperwork should we agree to the mission."
"Can we be sure it's not a trap?"
He winced. "We can never be sure, but I know the emissary personally. We can trust him."
"How very reassuring," Leia said dryly. "All right, let's get to work."
The ride inbound to Coronet was surprisingly smooth-going. They cleared customs and immigration services without any delays, but Leia suspected it was because their only travelling companion was the husband of a prominent CorSec agent.
Diric Wessiri saw them settled into quarters at a safehouse in the Government Center district, then left with promises to return as soon as possible.
Leia stood at the window, opaqued from the outside to foil any air-borne surveillance attempts, and gazed out on the night lights of Coronet.
"I had hoped that my first visit to Corellia would involve something more than hiding."
"And that Han would be able to be here," Rieekan observed.
"Very perceptive," she said quietly.
"I don't have to be a Jedi to see that," he countered.
One arm wrapped around herself, one hand covering her mouth, Leia stood in silence, waiting.
She heard a distinctly impatient sigh from Rieekan. "The least you can do is sit down. We've had a long journey."
Leia turned a smile on him. "I guess I'm just a bit apprehensive. Surely you haven't forgotten what happened on my last diplomatic mission."
"I have immunity..."
"But my death sentence still stands. And I'm sure one of these CorSec lackeys could turn a profit from delivering me into the hands of justice."
Rieekan shook his head. "Bastra and Wessiri are good men. We have little to fear here."
Leia opened her mouth to speak, then froze, unable to breathe.
A quiet alarm in the back of her mind had gone off.
Rieekan was immediately on his feet, crossing the room to take her by the shoulders. "What is it," he demanded.
Leia closed her eyes, seeking out some sense of the danger, but could get nothing more than a vague knowledge.
"Not here," she said finally. "But someone I am bonded to is in great danger."
He sucked in his breath. "Yoda?"
She hesitated, then nodded. "I can't contact him," she said, her voice suddenly hoarse. "Something is blocking him."
Rieekan guided her towards the sofa. Leia reached out a hand to steady herself...
And suddenly, a light exploded behind her eyes. In a flash, her mind sensed malice, determination, the calm of the Force, and finally resignation. A hundred images, of pain, of massacres, of friends long-gone assaulted her next.
Then came the light, an attempt to chase the shadows of the past away with all that was right in the Galaxy. It enveloped her, blinded her, then disappeared as though efficiently snuffed out.
It was the silence that frightened her the most. She felt maimed, as though part of her had been torn free of her soul. Where a steadying influence had been, there was only emptiness, yearning to be filled.
A howl filled the silence and startled her until she realized that she was the origin of the anguished cry. She screamed again, unable to stop herself, unable to suppress the outburst. The howls were punctuated by convulsive, wracking sobs that were echoed in every vacant corner of the Force.
Master Yoda was dead.
"Oh, Sith," she breathed.
Her knees buckled, but Rieekan caught her under the arms. "What happened?"
"Master Yoda," she breathed.
Recognition flashed in his eyes. "No..."
It was almost a pleading tone, as if he were begging his senses to deny it. The last hope of training her to fighting the prevalent darkness could not be gone.
Leia shook her head, her eyes tightening in anticipation of tears. "He's dead," she stated in a rasping voice. "I have nothing except experience left between myself and the fate of my family."
The mission seemed to last forever and, indeed, it was over two weeks before they could return to the Alliance.
Leia felt herself sinking further and further into frustration and despair. Between the tenuous alliance formed with Gil Bastra, the Imperial complications that had barred their departure, and the increasingly alarming silence in the Force that she sensed from her husband, she was in great spiritual danger.
More than anything, the pervasive silence threatened to suggest that the Force had abandoned her. She could not bring herself to believe that, but she could not find evidence to the contrary.
For all her meditations and exercises, she could not find her center. She was floundering and life would not give her the time she needed to heal.
It was for that reason that she locked herself into her cabin on the shuttle as soon as she boarded, leaving Rieekan strict instructions not to disturb her.
If she were to save her soul from herself, she would need this solitude.
She began her meditation as she was now accustomed, with reaching to the child within her, drawing from the simple sense of peace and joy that she could sense coming from her daughter's mind.
It reminded her of the purest form of the Force and always seemed to center her.
Letting out a shuddering sigh, she settled deeper into the Force and out of consciousness.
"How long was I out?"
"Three days," Rieekan said quietly. "I thought it best not to disturb you."
Leia rubbed her neck absently, her eyes closed, and nodded.
"Are you going to be all right?"
She looked up and managed a half-smile. "I think I will be," she assured him. "I needed to regain my focus, use the Force to calm and strengthen myself. I was dangerously close to giving in to dark emotions and I couldn't allow that to happen."
He drew her into a gentle side embrace. "What do you think happened?"
"Assassin," Leia said firmly. "I know exactly who it is."
Rieekan's eyes widened. "What?"
She winced. "It's obvious in hindsight. At the sentencing, there was an attempt on my life. Luke didn't sense it because the assassin blocked my thoughts and presence from him. Ensign Emal stirred a memory in me the first time I saw her, of the assassin.
"I have no doubt now that Master Yoda died at the hands of the same woman who tried to kill me. She calls herself Mara Jade. The Emperor's Hand."
"Stars," Rieekan breathed.
"Who else could have shielded herself so well that I didn't even realize she was a Sith?"
Rieekan squeezed her shoulder, not missing the bitter note in her voice. "Don't blame yourself," he said quietly.
"Who next, Carlist," she bit out. "How many of you will they kill before they kill me?"
"Don't," he admonished.
She drew away, rocking to her feet. "How can I not? Honestly, how can I not?"
"How can you," he countered. "None of this is your fault."
She threw her glass across the compartment, where it shattered. "The people I love are being tortured and murdered because I am too stubborn. That is ample guilt."
"Do you think they blame you?"
Rieekan stood abruptly, towering over her. "That's where you're wrong."
Her eyes narrowed. "Am I?"
"Absolutely," he stated. "Think about it. Yoda gave his life because he wanted to preserve you, the hope of the Jedi Order.
"I risked death, imprisonment, or worse on Coruscant for one simple reason: I care too much for you, love you as a daughter, to let anything happen to you. Han..."
He shook his head. "How can you even consider that he'd blame you for this? He has risked his life willingly for you countless times and he still does. For you, for your child, for himself.
"You told me yourself that he ordered you not to blame yourself for this. Considering the fact that we both outrank you, I would advise you to follow orders."
Her breathing settled and a bit of the fire left her eyes. "I hate it when you're right," she said finally.
"Only because it's so rare," he countered.
Crossing to him, she wrapped him in a tight embrace. He cradled her head to his chest and sighed deeply.
"You'll make it through this," he promised, "but you're going to have to trust that what you're doing is right."
Leia frowned. "That may be harder than any other mission I've had in the Alliance."
"Where there is no body, there is no crime."
Leia snorted and sank into a chair opposite the Intelligence Major. "Jedi bodies have, historically, been known to disappear after their death."
Major Dzarn arched an eyebrow. "How convenient," he said dryly. "What proof do you have that Master Yoda is even dead?"
She let her eyes fall closed and let out an exasperated breath. "I have no physical or even circumstantial evidence..."
"Then I do not understand why you are taking up the time of Alliance Intelligence," he said, irritated.
"I am not fabricating this," Leia snapped. "I felt Master Yoda die nineteen days ago at the hands of Ensign Emal."
His mouth curled into a sneer. "Oh, really."
"Ensign Emal was involved in an accident and died," Dzarn stated. "That was twenty-two days ago."
"She's not dead," Leia protested.
"Madam," Dzarn said, clearly struggling to be patient, "I know you have been under considerable stress as of late, but this must stop."
The door hissed open and Dzarn shot to his feet, snapping a quick salute. "General Rieekan."
"At ease," Rieekan said.
Leia stood and turned. "I was just exlaining to the Major what transpired nineteen days ago. He has his doubts."
"I see," Rieekan said icily.
He crossed to stand next to Leia and drew himself up to his full height. "Major."
Dzarn stiffened. "Yes, General?"
"You know Leia Organa Solo, do you not?"
The Major's eyes flicked to her, then back to Rieekan. "By reputation and casual interaction, sir."
"Is she a woman of her word?"
"I believe her to be, but..."
"Yes or no," Rieekan said calmly. "Is she honest in her dealings?"
Rieekan nodded. "Why do you refuse to hear her report?"
Dzarn's brow furrowed. "Surely you don't believe that she sensed a murder halfway across the Galaxy, committed hypothetically by someone who had been dead for three days?"
"I believe that Leia Organa Solo has a great deal of power through the Force and that her sense of the event is entirely plausible. Moreover, I do not believe things are as they seem in this situation.
"We have, as you know, had several issues with internal security. Whether or not her story is true, and I know it to be, her allegations at the very least must be heard and considered. If you are incapable of realizing that, I will be happy to find you another profession. Is that clear?"
Dzarn's expression darkened. "Yes, sir," he bit out.
Rieekan nodded once, then gestured Leia to a seat. "I'm sorry for the interruption, Leia. You may proceed."
"Thank you for that."
Rieekan squeezed her shoulder, his expression grim. "It was necessary. I know as well as anyone that the Intelligence underlings are even more skeptical than myself."
Leia smiled slightly. "Impossible to imagine."
"Are you all right?"
She nodded. "A bit shell-shocked perhaps, but still functional."
"Glad to hear it."
He glanced at his chrono, then winced. "It's getting late, but I can't let you go to bed on an empty belly."
Leia rested a hand on the abdomen that was swelling with each passing day and smiled ruefully. "I wouldn't exactly call it empty, Carlist."
He nudged her playfully. "You know what I mean. The mess hall should be still open and even if it isn't, I'll pull rank."
She laughed easily. "I'd appreciate it."
As they turned into the corridor on the right, a thought struck her. "Where have you been all day? I know that your debriefing ended well before mine even began."
His face sobered. "Arranging a mission for one of the squadrons."
She arched an eybrow. "Assault?"
"Recon," he corrected. "It could be crucial."
"Sounds exciting," she said wryly. "Anything disastrous I should know about?"
"Possibly," he replied. "The Empire's all worked up about something. There has been a higher concentration of communiqu?s from the top to the Fleet and the installation we're going to recon in the last month than in five years. Except for when the Death Star was in the works."
Leia sucked in her breath involuntarily. "I hope it's nothing that serious."
"Nor do I," he agreed, "but we need to know. Before it's too late."
"Director Bastra was, naturally, hesitant about unconditional support," Leia stated. "He is very dedicated to those in his division and unless there are certain assurances, he's reticent to throw in his support at all."
Mon Mothma sighed wearily. "Assurances of amnesty, protection, and the like, I presume?"
She nodded. "He realizes that there are no certain things in this Galaxy, but he rightfully expects that if he is to entrust us with information concerning Imperial operations and the lives of his people that we will trust him equally."
"Reasonable enough." She turned to fix Rieekan with a gaze. "What is your assessment of this man? Can he be trusted?"
"I believe so," Rieekan assured her. "He is of high standards and fiercely loyal to those under his stewardship. His Intelligence skills and contacts are phenomenal and any member of his team would be an asset to our Alliance."
Mon Mothma nodded. "In that case, we seem to have a new and valuable ally. Notify Bastra that we will do what we can to help."
Leia let out her breath, then straightened. A muscle twinged sharply and she rubbed her back, waiting for Mon Mothma to continue the meeting.
"What is the status of the Krakana reconnaissance mission?"
"They arrived at the staging area two days ago and will be commencing the actual mission within two hours."
"You'll keep us apprised?"
Rieekan bowed his head slightly, smiling. "Yes, Madam."
"Very well. Leia, you have something to report on the assets tracking front?"
Leia keyed up the file on her datapad, then forwarded it to the rest of the people in the room. Rising from her seat, she cleared her throat.
"As you can see, our Intelligence operatives have been closely tracking..."
Her voice broke off abruptly as a wave of pain assaulted her, coming like a blow to the side of the head. Dazed, she swayed and caught herself against the edge of the table.
Rieekan was at her side immediately, but Leia barely registered his presence. The pain was coming like the ebb and flow of the tide, steady and intense.
But there was nothing physical about the pain. Unlike the other times, this seemed to be entirely psychological.
Her mind belatedly recognized the same influence that had nearly destroyed her on the Death Star. Without laying a hand on a victim, a Sith could drive them straight into the jaws of Hell.
The anguished howls in her mind were not wordless this time. Han was crying out for her, pleading for her to be with him.
It's not real, she thought desperately. Please, Han. Fight it. None of this is real. Focus on me, on our daughter.
She could not touch his mind, send the sentiment through their bond. It was as if one of them had completely closed the other off.
Redirecting all of her energies into the service of the Force, she pushed against the barrier between them, but it was as intractable as the force that had blocked her from Master Yoda not so long ago.
The pain was no longer imagined. Luke or Vader--she was no longer able to distinguish between the two--had driven him to psychosomatic agony.
Her muscles arched and spasmed, sensing every jolt of the nerves, every nerve ending on fire. Her throat constricted, her breath came in sharp, moaning gasps that could not possibly sustain her.
Canting forward, she twisted to land on her side. She curled into a fetal position, gulping for breath that did not seem to come.
She could have dissipated the pain, spared herself the agony of enduring this again, but that was not an option. She had pledged to carry the burden of life with Han and that meant she must bear what she could of his pain now.
And yet, he could not sense her, could not receive her comfort or bleed off the pain so that they shared it. He would feel entirely alone in his torment and she could do absolutely nothing about it.
It abruptly subsided as she knew it would, leaving both of them to regain their strength. Leia stretched out, desperate for contact, but the barrier was still in place.
Her eyes snapped open and through her tears, she could see the entire High Command kneeling at her side, their expressions reflecting everything between bewilderment and terror.
She knew exactly how they felt.
"A sending," Rieekan explained.
Madine's jaw was slack. "I've never seen it have such an effect," he murmured.
"It was worse this time," Rieekan said, "wasn't it?"
"Yes," she croaked. "I could sense everything that was happening to him and he was crying out for me, but I could not reach him."
Rieekan's face drained of color. "Madam, I think it best if I return Leia to her quarters before they have a chance to strike again."
"Agreed," Mon Mothma said, her voice trembling for the first time since Leia could ever remember. "I think this meeting is effectively adjourned."
Leia had not the strength to protest the motion or when Rieekan lifted her into his arms, carrying her from the room as he would a child. She only rested against his chest, still attempting a sending of her own.
Finally, exhausted, she refocused and calmed her own pounding heart, regulated her breathing.
Rieekan obviously sensed the change. "Stars, Leia, are you all right?"
Her jaw clenched. "It was exactly like that first night on the Death Star, before Vader tried attacking my body as well as my mind; and because it's Han, it was as though it had been happening to me directly, all over again."
He sucked in his breath, then let it out in a quivering hiss. "I thought as much," he said quietly. "I remember when you first told me about what happened to you on that station, I hoped I'd never be able to imagine it. That's not an option any more."
Leia reached up to touch his cheek. "I'm sorry, Carlist."
"Stang," he breathed. "Don't think you're the one in need of apologizing."
"A familiar thread of conversation," she said hoarsely.
"All-too-familiar," he replied.
The mission was launched, but radio and visual contact was forbidden, as were all inter-system transmissions.
Because Krakana Squadron had undertaken the mission of surveying one of the most infamous and semi-mythical design facilities in the Empire, there could be no unnecessary risks.
Thus, it was not until seventeen hours after the mission was launched that they heard from the Commander.
"It's prime for the taking," Commander Niak stated. "As far as we can tell, the main problem will be ground-based security. Should we take them by surprise, they will be out of commission before they can even bring their weapons emplacements to bear."
Leia, leaning against a sensor console shook her head. "I don't like this," she said carefully. "There has to be a reason for the apparent lack of resistance capability."
"Perhaps they were counting on their isolated nature to insulate them against assault," Mon Mothma commented.
"Not likely," Rieekan countered. "That is the place that turned out such things as the Interceptors, Lancer-class frigates, and Super Star Destroyers. Imperials tend not to be subtle about defenses."
Leia frowned. "If that's true, then why is Niak reporting it as primed for the taking? We know that the channels have been buzzing about something in high places and yet one of their primary weapons design facilities is left vulnerable? I don't buy it."
"Unless," Rieekan cut in, "this is a simple matter of misdirection."
All heads turned to look at him. "Explain," Mon Mothma requested.
Rieekan straightened. "If you'll remember three years ago, one of the primary reasons why we were able to locate the Death Star's construction facility was that we tracked the Fleet movements. Ships were massing near Horuz for unexplained reasons and the Imperials underestimated us, so we caught them unawares.
"This time, however, I believe they've learned their lesson. The data we require will not be where the Fleet is massing. The Trzai Fortress would be the prime spot to store it while we're searching the obvious places."
Leia sucked in her breath, then nodded. "It makes sense."
"So our next course of action would be..."
"A counterdiversion," Madine suggested. "Make the Imperial Starfleet believe that Trzai is not even an option for our next assault. We stage an attack on some more 'significant' target and in the meantime, quietly slit the throats of the subtle."
Admiral Ackbar leaned over to key the transmission on the comm. "Commander Niak, how did your unit fare?"
"Three damaged craft, but one of them went down in the wilderness."
"Any word on the status of the fallen pilot?"
"Her wingmate says she was going to try to go to ground, but we're unable to ascertain much."
"Thank you for your report," Mon Mothma replied. "We will contact you later."
"Yes, Madam. Niak out."
Leia sank into a chair and steepled her fingers, pressing them to her lips pensively.
"Can we afford to stage two major operations concurrently?"
"We'll have to. If this facility is as crucial as it seems, we can't afford not to overtake it. The diversion is equally as important."
"If we don't fool the Starfleet, the entire operation at Trzai may well be forfeit," Rieekan agreed.
Mon Mothma's mouth twitched. "Gentlemen, you have one week to come up with a viable proposal based on the information at hand."
There was a chorus of "yes, madams" and then they were dismissed.
Rieekan fell in step with Leia as soon as they left the conference room. "I assume you'll be shuttling back with me within the hour?"
Leia nodded wearily. "I'm afraid that if I stay here another heartbeat, Mon Mothma will convince me to go on another diplomatic mission."
"Stars forbid," he sympathized. "However, I don't think after this morning's episode, she'll be wanting you anywhere further than a stone's throw from a medcenter."
Leia's mouth drooped in sympathy with her sinking heart. "I'm not sure I know quite what to do any more," she admitted, "if this is how it is to be."
Rieekan nodded. "But you can't bring yourself to inaction," he finished.
She folded her arms protectively across her chest and fixed him with a gaze. "I don't want him to go through what I did," she said quietly. "I'm on the verge of standing in for him if it means he'll not suffer."
"But that's what they want you to do," Rieekan countered. "It's what Luke thought would succeed on Imperial Center. Surely you know better."
"Knowledge is not always the basis of action," she replied.
"But experience must be."
She blanched. If the recurrence of the Death Star experience were the basis of her next actions, she was doomed.
"I had hoped so."
Deprived of everything except the prisoners' uniform and his own pain, Han knew he had to come up with a new strategy.
He was sick, physically and psychologically. He barely had the strength to stand when commanded or forced and after each session of interrogation, he fell instantly asleep. He was too exhausted to fight back as the Han Solo he was accustomed to would have.
Worst of all, his bond with Leia had been entirely severed, it seemed. Sometimes, he thought he could sense her in the recesses of his mind, fighting desperately to reach him, but then the sensation would fade into pain.
He did not believe her absence from his mind was anything of her doing. Knowing Luke...
No, not knowing Luke.
The Luke he had known would have never done any of this. The kid would have died rather than subject a friend to anything of this sort.
Perhaps the operating word was 'died.' The Luke Skywalker he had called a friend for almost four years was either dead or on the verge of it. In his place was this doppelganger, a primal shadow.
On some level, Han feared his brother-in-law, no matter how absurd that seemed. But in their daily rendezvous, all pretense was abandoned.
Interrogation reverted all men to the most basic instincts. One was the survival instinct that kept him from slipping willingly into a state of death.
The other was a level of emotion he thought he'd abandoned with his old life on Corellia. It was unthinking, unquestioning, and unhesitating.
He could not afford to feel that way, so he anchored himself in daydreams.
It was a childish pursuit, but it kept him focused and gave him hope. As every nerve jolted and his body and soul was tortured, he would dream of his child.
It was a daughter; he wasn't sure how or why he knew, but there was no question. He could almost see her in his mind's eyes, with Leia's delicate features, his eyes, her glorious hair. He imagined how he would spoil her rotten, dedicate some time each day to making her laugh.
Names were another matter. None seemed to fit, but he could at least imagine looking into the face of his sleeping daughter and knowing instinctively the name by which he would call her for the rest of her life.
His arms ached to hold her, but moreover, he ached to share these dreams with Leia. The woman he loved, carrying the burden alone.
No, she would not be alone.
Not if he could help it.
"This cannot go on."
Luke tucked his hands into the sleeves of his robe and fixed the holographic Emperor with a glare.
"Your phantom pains and psychological tricks are not working," he reported. "Solo is too strong for that and my sister is not stupid enough to fall to that tactic."
Palpatine sighed wearily, as though he were a long-suffering parent trying to discern how to chastise a rebellious child.
"Then there must be a new tactic," he said finally. "But not now."
Luke's eyes narrowed. If not now, then never. "Master?"
"There is another matter that requires your attention," Palpatine continued. "The Death Star workers need some...motivation. I am placing you in command of the facility."
A thrill of excitement mixed with disgust coursed through him. Excitement at being in command of such a gargantuan project. Disgust was the remnant of his bond with Leia, knowing the pain the existence of such a station would reawaken.
He shut out that thought immediately, then hesitated. Perhaps...
Palpatine obviously was thinking along the same lines, judging from the leer on his face. "The Death Star may very well be just what we need to destroy Organa Solo."
"And what of Solo?"
"Leave him behind," the Emperor commanded. "Trzai is remote enough that we shall have nothing to fear. And when you return, there may be no need for him any longer."
"What of Lord Vader? Would he not be more suited to command?"
"Indeed," Palpatine stated, "but he is still the watchdog of the Imperial Starfleet. The Rebel scum are massing for an assault on one of our shipyards. They hope to repeat the debacle at Horuz. Little do they know."
Luke nodded. "They rely on the feats of the past to fuel the hopes of the future. That is why, in the end, they must all die. Any sentient that short-sighted cannot deserve to live another heartbeat."
The mission of conquest against Trzai was launched within twelve days of Niak's report. The intervening days were filled with brainstorming sessions, sleepless nights, and a desperate need for caf.
Optimistically, the High Command was to shuttle to Trzai within five hours of the landing of the troops.
As with every major operation, Leia was unable to bring herself to sleep. She supposed it was a mixture of worry, compassion, and heartfelt apprehension, but she could never allow herself reprieve until the final numbers came in.
Rieekan sat with her on the shuttle, awaiting the clearance to leave, one hand resting on her forearm, the other typing on a datapad.
"Four hours and fifty-seven minutes," a Corporal at communications reported, "and still no contact."
Leia calmed her senses, forcing herself to assume that it was simply a need for comm silence. The alternative was unacceptable.
"What do we do?" she murmured to Rieekan.
"We proceed as planned," he replied. "And if, when we arrive at Trzai, it is still in Imperial hands, we join the effort."
"Hopefully, it won't come to that."
"It won't," he assured her. "How are you holding up?"
She clasped her hands across her belly and smiled tightly. "About as expected. My nerves are shot, I'm ready to collapse from exhaustion, and I'm having odd cravings for tchak-nut butter and pickled tubers. On the other hand, Han hasn't been touched in five days and I'm beginning to regain my sense of him."
"That's good," he offered.
"It's better," she countered. "It's only a matter of time before the Sith come up with a new tactic and matters will be worse."
He tried to smile, but it ended with a simple twitch of cheek muscles. "Cynicism is of the Dark Side."
A familiar pang in her heart caused the tight smile to shrink into oblivion. "I fear for him, Carlist, but moreover, I fear for what I am willing to do to spare him pain."
His mouth settled into a grim line. "Now you know how he feels."
"Shuttle Excelsior, you have clearance to depart. Clear skies."
The co-pilot leaned forward as the Captain opened up the throttle, moving quickly through the magcon field into the space beyond.
"Acknowledged, Control. Excelsior out."
Leia let out her breath in a shuddering sigh and turned to Rieekan. "Let's just hope clear skies over Trzai is only the beginning."
"I would say it is my pleasure to present the Trzai Fortress to you," General Thalor said, "but as you can see, this was a hard-earned victory, if we can even call it that."
Leia stood at the edge of the roofport, gazing out over the valley. It reminded her too much of Khirva, of another dawn stained red.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "Nothing can justify the losses suffered today, but we can hope that their sacrifice forwards the war effort."
"Oh, I don't think there's any doubt of that," Thalor said. "Preliminary findings can keep us busy for another ten years."
Leia clapped him on the shoulder, then smiled grimly. "Glad to hear it."
The sound of booted footsteps on the metal staircase succeeded her recognition of Rieekan on the approach.
He was out of breath, perspiring lightly, but there was a definite excitement in his sense as well as on his features.
"What is it?"
He seized her shoulders. "You need to come with me."
Not asking questions, Leia excused herself and hurried after Rieekan. With each passing step, she was more unsure whether to be excited or apprehensive.
What was it that Rieekan had found?
They reached the lowest level, completely cut off from the rest of the world, save for two stairwells. Most of the levels had turbolifts, but Leia quickly realized the reason for the discrepancy.
This was an isolation block. The tormentors typically refrained from employing such things as turbolifts and comm systems because such familiar sounds would anchor prisoners to the outside world instead of fostering desperation.
A contingent of guards was stationed outside a door halfway down the hall. Recognizing Leia, they stepped back, allowing her passage.
The room was dimly lit--the prisoners would have trouble adjusting to bright lighting--and the only sounds were of ragged breathing, but the form crumpled on the cot was unmistakable.
With a strangled cry, Leia rushed to him, dropping to her knees at his side. His eyes were closed, his teeth clenched, and he was curled into a fetal position.
Reaching out with a trembling hand, Leia brushed a lock of matted hair from his face, then slid her hand down to stroke his cheek.
He did not recoil, but his limbs relaxed and his jaw unclenched. Finally, his bloodshot, dilated eyes opened and focused on her face.
For a breathless moment, Leia was afraid he would recoil or even strike out at her.
Instead, he grinned as best he could with a split lip and pushed up into a sitting position with obvious difficulty. "You're a sight for sore eyes," he said hoarsely.
The tears came then and she clutched him to her, sobbing convulsively with relief and joy. His face buried against her chest, his arms snaked around her waist, bracing her to him. He rocked, but she was unsure whether it was he drawing comfort from the motion or giving it.
It mattered not.
"He's still sleeping?"
Leia looked up to find Rieekan in the doorway, smiling broadly.
"He's had a long day," she murmured. "I don't begrudge him this."
"And yet you will not let yourself rest," he countered, entering and sinking onto a bench opposite her.
"It's not a matter of allowance," she mused. "I just can't bear to stop watching him, getting reacquainted with every feature that I love so dearly."
Rieekan nodded. "Thank the Force," he said raspingly. "Finally, you can find some of the peace you deserve."
"Not yet," she stated. "I still need to resolve the reason why Han was forced to endure this."
She saw a flash of pain, of annoyance, and then of deep-seated compassion in his eyes. "But not tonight," he begged.
"No," she said quietly. "Not tonight. Tonight, I want to sleep in the arms of my guardian angel."
Rieekan's smile broadened, but the sadness did not leave his eyes. "I suggest you get to it then. Morning will come too soon as it is."
"What time will the command debriefing of the operatives be?"
He shook his head firmly. "I'm requiring you to take the next two weeks as in-house furlough. You've both earned it."
Something in her throat tightened and she smiled, close-lipped, eyes tightening in anticipation of tears.
"Thank you, Carlist."
"My pleasure," he assured her. "Good night."
She rose then, retrieving a well-worn nightshift from her satchel. It was not her most elegant item, but it was a familiar one and she wanted her husband to awake with his cheek pressed to its fabric.
She undressed, then slipped the shift over her head, tugging it downwards over her gently swelling form.
Finally, she turned off the lights and stretched out next to Han, drawing his arms about her waist to rest on the swell that was their daughter, so that their family finally slept in peace together.
"No, please, the darkness..."
Leia awoke as soon as her shoulder hit the floor, having been flung from the bed by Han's thrashings.
Stunned, she pushed up on her forearm and crawled back to the bunk. He was drenched in a cold sweat, his limbs flailing madly. Understandably, he was in the thrall of a nightmare.
Reaching into his mind through their bond, she extended the calming tendrils of the Force and his shouts subsided to whimpers, then subsided altogether.
Leia let out a shuddering breath and sagged back on her knees. Not again, not like this.
His eyes abruptly snapped open and his breath came in ragged gasps. His hands reached out to clutch her shoulders, then drew her to him in a fierce embrace.
"Don't leave me," he pleaded over and over, his voice trembling.
Leia's throat constricted and she was unable to speak, unable to comfort him, so she simply held him.
"It's all right," she whispered finally. "I'm here. I'm always here. Now and forever."
"I was so afraid," he murmured against her shoulder. "Afraid of what you might do to save me, what they might do to you, to our daughter."
"I won't let them," she promised. "I have you back. There is nothing that could lure me now."
"How do you know," he demanded hoarsely.
"I don't," she admitted, "but it's a day to day process and waking up next to you every morning, I will have nothing to fear."
He broke away and cupped her cheek affectionately, but the haunted look in his eyes remained.
"Now, who's the wretched sentimentalist?"
She smiled genuinely. "I learned from the best."
Leia awoke to find her mercenary husband talking to her belly.
Bemused, she strained to watch him, her heart swelling with joy and love for this man.
"Now," Han was saying quietly, "I know that as our daughter, you're going to be absolutely perfect, but I need a favor. I know that you probably don't have much control over these matters, but it's something to consider.
"Your mother is the most beautiful, exquisitely perfect being I've ever known and if you could be just like her, I'd be ecstatic. Force knows you probably don't want to end up like me. I don't deserve either of you, but I want you to know that part of the reason I love your mother so completely is that despite this fact, she still chose me. Understood?"
There was an answering roll and Leia had to stifle a laugh at his awestruck expression.
"She means, 'Yes, Daddy.'"
Han sat bolt upright, startled and Leia caught his arm, pulling him back into a prone position.
"It's all right," she said quietly.
"How long have you been listening?"
Leia grinned. "Long enough. What would your team think if they knew you spent your mornings negotiating with your unborn daughter?"
He pushed up on his forearms and stretched to kiss her. "I don't care."
Leia patted his cheek playfully. "I'm glad to hear that, because I'm most certainly going to let Rieekan know and no secret's safe after that."
He shifted his weight, settling back into a kneeling position, and brushed a strand of hair from her face.
"I hope you haven't been doing the same," he countered. "Anyone who talks to their own stomach is slightly nuts."
Leia snorted. "I suspect you think everyone is slightly nuts."
He shrugged, grinning easily. "You know me too well."
She reached up to take his hand. "I've missed you terribly," she said quietly.
He bent forward and brushed her lips lightly with his own. "I know exactly how you feel."
Standing unsteadily, he began dressing. Leia watched him in silence, horrified by the way the clothes hung off of his diminished form.
"What are you doing up," she asked.
"Making you breakfast in bed," he replied.
"I don't have to be at work today."
He paused, then turned, a skeptical expression on his face. "Why not?"
"Rieekan ordered me to spend the next two weeks with you," she explained. "No work, no duties, only us."
His face broke into something almost resembling a leer. "I was hoping you'd say that."
She pushed into a sitting position and folded her arms. "You'll not be so pleased when you hear what I have to say, flyboy. The first thing we're doing is having a medic check you out."
He hesitated, halfway through the motion of unbuttoning his shirt. "I don't need it," he protested wearily.
"Oh no?" She arched an eyebrow. "Then show me your back and shoulders, for one thing."
He flashed her an annoyed look. "Don't fight me on this."
"I could say the same," she countered. "I felt everything you went through and if what I felt is any indication, you're in no shape to be anywhere outside of a medcenter."
He slid the shirt off of his broad shoulders and, despite having full knowledge of what had happened, Leia still gagged at the sight of the spiderweb of welts, gashes, and scar tissue.
Her eyes closed as she tried to block out the memory of that sight, to put it from her mind, but she could not.
"Please, Han," she whispered. "Don't make me carry you."
She heard him sigh and opened her eyes to meet his gaze. Finally, he nodded.
"Only for an Alderaanian Princess."
"He is nowhere near as bad as you were after the Death Star," the medic assured her, "but he still has problems of his own."
"Such as," Leia prompted, her throat tight.
"Malnutrition, internal bleeding, and of course a rampant infection from the flagellation."
Leia forced herself to remain steady. "Bacta," she finally managed to say.
The medic nodded. "As soon as the antibiotics kick in, which will be in the next hour, I will have him in bacta for seventeen hours. After that, he can go home if all goes well."
Mea emerged from a side room and fixed Leia with an exasperated glare. "You again. I thought Rieekan ordered you to take the next two weeks off."
"My husband," Leia said simply.
"Oh," Mea breathed, flushing red. "How are you holding up?"
"About as expected," Leia admitted. "I'll be better when I can stop worrying about him."
Mea rested a hand on her shoulder. "Soon," she assured her. "This too will pass."
The news of the defeat at Trzai sent Luke into a fury that left half of the Trzai survivors and a third of their guard force dead or comatose.
Then it sent him to his Emperor.
"I told you the plan would fail," he bit out, "and now because you were too blind to acknowledge a threat, our bargaining chip has been rescued."
Palpatine appeared unaffected by the news. "This is certainly unexpected," he said simply.
"It was expected," Luke countered harshly. "The Rebels, for all their weakness and insolence, at least had the sense not to repeat history. As we should have."
"You fool," Mara interjected. "You are at fault. You let the scum trick you."
Luke jabbed a finger at the Emperor. "Under his orders," he snapped. "He was fool enough to send Vader and half the Starfleet to Bilbringi to ambush a fleet that never arrived. Meanwhile, our most crucial development and design facility was overtaken. Your venerated Emperor here is the fool, not I."
Enraged by his insolence, Mara lunged for his throat, but with a casual flick of his hand, he sent her flying back to crash into a bulkhead. She crumpled, unconscious, to the deck.
Luke turned a fierce glare on his Master. "What am I to do now?"
A malicious grin spread across the Emperor's features. "Wait," he stated.
Luke snorted derisively. "We've wasted too much time as it is."
"Be that as it may, the Rebels will soon know of the Death Star's existence. Conscience alone, not to mention desperation, will drive Organa Solo to action. She will come to you and you will bring her before me."
His grin shrank into a sneer. "And then we will see which half of the Force needs balancing."
She sat cross-legged in the east gardens of the Antibes Palace, her face upturned to the warm spring rain.
"Peace this is?"
Leia turned her head to see Master Yoda, slightly washed-out and certainly spectral, perched on a low wall of river stones. He was regarding her solemnly, his gimer stick tapping the stones impatiently.
Her mouth quirked into a smile. "I suppose this is one of the advisory visions Luke once spoke of."
The voice was new, but somehow familiar. She recognized the tall, bearded man from the holos she'd seen of General Obi-Wan Kenobi.
"In the Old Republic," Obi-Wan continued, "a Council of twelve Jedi Masters advised the members of the Order. We are few, but we will function in the same capacity."
Leia clasped her hands in her lap and her mouth settled into a grim line. "At least you know when counsel is most needed."
"Don't center on your anxieties, Leia," another voice interjected.
Leia's brow furrowed as an unfamiliar form came into focus. Tall, bearded, with noble features and intense eyes, she had not even come across a holo of this one.
He obviously sensed her confusion. "Perhaps an introduction is in store. I am Qui-Gon Jinn, Master of Obi-Wan Kenobi, student of Master Yoda."
Leia frowned. "To what do I owe this?"
"Crucial times these are," Yoda continued. "On the days to come all depends. On your shoulders much rests."
"I am just one woman," Leia protested. "And I am not the Chosen One."
"But you have the power," Qui-Gon interjected. You were never meant to be the Chosen One, by birth or training, but by temperament, you will be the one to bring the prophecy to pass.
"There will be balance in the Force, but only if you succeed."
"Succeed," Leia repeated. "You want me to face the Sith again?"
"On a balance point the Galaxy rests," Yoda stated. "Heavily burdened by darkness the scales are, but with light you may and must conquer."
"You are a great force of love," Obi-Wan said gently. "Greater than anything your mother ever was. Despite the current situation, your compassion was nearly the undoing of Vader himself."
Leia's throat tightened in frustration. "If I surrender now, all I have fought for will be lost."
"Not surrender," Qui-Gon corrected. "You will go before the Sith, but you will never surrender."
"You hope," Leia said doubtfully.
Obi-Wan's mouth twitched. "You are unsure?"
"I thought I was sure of Luke's unwavering devotion to the light," she countered. "The past few months have taught me not to be sure of anything."
"Too much of her mother she has in her," Yoda mused. "The skeptic ever."
"You know what must be done," Obi-Wan said quietly. "In your heart, you have known for a long time what it would take to save yourself and your family, but you must have the courage to do it."
"I've already said that knowledge is not always the basis of action," she countered. "When it comes to it, I may have the courage, but not the strength, to do this alone."
"Alone you will be never," Yoda said sharply. "With you we shall be. To us you must hearken when the Force speaks."
Leia nodded. "But how will I know when..."
"You will know," Qui-Gon assured her. "You must not doubt yourself. There is still much you can and will do."
"How?" Leia asked. "I cannot abandon the Alliance for personal pursuits."
Something flickered in Yoda's eyes, a bemused foresight. "Present itself an opportunity will, very soon."
"Do you fear what you must do?"
The question from Obi-Wan was simple, but it gave her a moment's pause.
"Not what I must do," she said carefully. "Only what I may do instead."
"Constant vigilance," Qui-Gon admonished her. "There are no sure safeguards against the darkness within, but it is the best preventive measure you can take."
"I'll bear that in mind," she assured him.
"Then may the Force be with you."
Realizing the utterance was a parting benediction, Leia cried out, "Wait!"
But they were already gone.
Leia awoke to find that it was raining in her conscious world as well.
She rose quietly, careful not to wake Han, and crossed to the chair nearest the window.
Gazing out at the barren landscape that surrounded the Rebellion's latest base, she searched her soul for some modicum of peace.
She would have begun a meditation, but her daughter was finally quiet, resting as they all should have been.
On a side table was one of the journals Han had managed to smuggle off of Coruscant during their escape. She kept it close at hand for moments such as these, if nothing else to lose herself in the horrors of the past to avoid the problems of the future.
Picking it up, she opened to a page near the end, hoping for at least a distraction.
Today is Anakin's birthday. He would have been twenty-one.
But instead, Obi-Wan brought me news that the man I've loved for so long is dead. Not in the traditional sense of ceasing to live, but the soul that we both knew so well is enveloped in darkness.
He is alive, somehow, sustained by the powers of darkness, a victim of a spiritual and physical holocaust.
Part of me, most of me, wants to go to him, to give him all that I am to bring him back to life, but I know that cannot be done.
Instead, I must learn to forgive and forget.
No, perhaps that's not the right word. Never forget.
It would take more than my love to save him now, but I am only Padm?. I am no miracle worker, no savior. I am only a heartsick woman carrying children that the remnants of the Jedi Order are staking their existence on.
If he was not the Chosen One, they think his son might be.
It is a great burden to place on anyone, but my daughter will see to it that he does not carry it alone.
And perhaps that will save us all.
"A team of Bothans, codenamed Guardian, has been dispatched with the task of locating the second Death Star and ascertaining what it will take for our forces to destroy it."
Mon Mothma's image frowned. "When were they dispatched?"
Leia checked her chrono. "Three standard days ago."
"Perhaps Rieekan should not have been so eager to move," Mothma said irritably. "Seventeen hours between mission approval and launch is an abominably short time."
Leia's eyes narrowed. "He did what he had to, Mon, as we all do."
"I suppose you're right. You will notify us when there is news?"
"Of course. Organa Solo out."
She slumped back in her chair, the weariness finally overtaking her. Her two weeks of furlough had been abruptly curtailed at nine days by the news that there was another Death Star nearing completion.
She pushed to her feet, a muscle twinging in her back. The price you pay, she thought wryly. If Han wants another, he'll have to carry it himself.
Yet she couldn't deny the innate elation that accompanied the experience. It humbled her to know that, as the Galaxy found themselves enmeshed in the forces of destiny, she was the vessel of the next generation of heroes.
Force-willing, they can be everyday heroes, not ones that require formal commendations and posthumous decorations. This madness must end with us or all will be lost.
But for now, I must rest.
Han was dozing, his sleep devoid of those horrific nightmares for now. Leia peeled off the taupe tunic and grey slacks, then crawled under the covers.
He stirred, then blinked at her, smiling. "I wish you would come to bed with me sometimes. This way, you're like a frightened child crawling into his parents' bed during a storm."
Leia drew him in for a long, lingering kiss, then grinned. "Most frightened children don't do that."
"True," he murmured, his grin that of a sated child. "All right, I'll drop the analogy if you do that again."
She laughed. "Now, now," she chided gently. "If I did that, you'd think I was your harem-on-demand."
"And you're not," he mumbled sleepily, his eyes drifting closed.
She slapped his belly none-too-gently. "I'll forgive that given the hour and the fact that your brain doesn't obey orders to function after midnight."
One eye opened warily. "Is it midnight already?"
"Well past," she countered. "I've been talking High Command into not killing Rieekan for the past three hours."
He rolled her onto her side and wrapped his arms around her, hands clasped over their child. "Sounds like you need this bed more than I do."
Leia sighed wearily and rested her hand on top of his. "That, my love, is a gross understatement.
She drifted to sleep to dream of encroaching shadows and destinies stained with blood.
The call came during dinner three weeks later, when they were all too busy swapping stories to remember that there was a war going on.
Leia took the call, leaving the galley for a long time.
"You're lucky you caught her," Rieekan murmured. "Her last three suitors ended up in the morgue before she even considered the proposal."
Han arched an eyebrow. "I knew she had a lethal temper, but..."
He trailed off as Leia reentered, her face drawn, her steps labored. "What is it," Han breathed.
Rieekan shot to his feet. "Are they ready for debriefing?"
She nodded. "There's not much to debrief. Of the twelve-man team we sent, two returned and one of them is in surgery. But they have the information we require."
Rieekan let out his breath in an explosive sigh. "Thank the Force."
She nodded. "I don't recommend debriefing them until tomorrow, but we should let Mon Mothma know."
"Certainly." Rieekan pulled on his jacket and grabbed a roll off of his plate, stuffing half of it in his mouth. "I hate to cut this short, but I'll need to take care of the necessary preparations."
"Good night, Carlist."
Leia sank onto the bench next to Han and her head dropped onto his shoulder. "It's amazing how two furballs can drain you of energy."
Han rubbed a hand along her spine, smiling sympathetically. "Which ones returned?"
"Fey'lya and Kre'fey."
His smile disappeared. "Our favorites. They'll probably be lording their sacrifice over us for the next twenty lifetimes."
"Bothans thrive on cliche and self-importance," she agreed.
He stood abruptly. "No more of this," he ordered. "I order you to be distracted from the war for one night."
She folded her arms. "How am I supposed to do that?"
He clasped her hand and pulled her gently to her feet. "By coming topside with me for one thing."
She gestured mournfully to the increasingly prominent bulge of her abdomen. "I don't think I'll fit through the hatch."
He grinned. "Not even close. You have a few days more yet before reaching Huttdom."
"Watch it or I'll sit on you," she warned.
He pulled her closer and wrapped her in a warm embrace, pressing her cheek to his chest.
She was on the verge of relaxing when the commlink sounded.
Han whimpered, a heartfelt noise of protest, and retrieved it from his belt. "Solo here," he bit out.
"Derlin," the other voice clarified. "Sorry to interrupt your lounging time, but we could use you down here."
Han rested his chin on top of Leia's head, sighing in annoyance. "Is it absolutely necessary?"
"I'd have to say yes."
"I'll be there soon. Solo out."
Leia released him gently. "If it's not my work, it's your playtime," she grumbled.
He bent down to kiss her once more. "Don't wait up for me. I'll just see you in my dreams."
She grinned. "I'll be waiting."
"Our compatriots are growing suspicious."
Rieekan shot Leia a wry look, then stretched. "I can't imagine why, despite the plethora of High Command meetings, the mysteriously disappearing Bothans, the massing of the Fleet, and the sudden rearranging of squadrons and units."
Leia's lips were pursed in annoyance. "They will catch on that they're not privy to some crucial bit of information."
"That's right," he agreed. "And they're not to be privy to that information until the time is right.
"The information is crucial, but everything in the New Sun campaign must be carried out on a need-to-know basis."
"They have a right to know," Madine interjected.
"We have a right to succeed," Leia countered. "If we announce that we have a grand design for a decisive blow against the Empire, we open ourselves to security leaks."
"She's right," Rieekan agreed. "Even when the briefing takes place, those not involved in the missions cannot even know. We do not want to be piloting ourselves into a black hole, as it were."
"Morale will plummet, performance will lag..."
Rieekan slapped a hand on the table, startling them all into silence. "This is not about rights," he said in a low, intense voice. "This is about operational security and the lives of our compatriots. I will not compromise this campaign to boost morale."
Leia turned to see Mon Mothma enter with measured strides. She met Leia's gaze and shook her head as if disgusted by the situation.
"We have enough troubles without this ridiculous infighting," she continued. "There is more information."
Leia's jaw clenched. "What more can there be?"
"Don't worry," Mon Mothma assured her. "These are good tidings. The reason why security was so tight, why all but two of the Guardians perished, is because the Empire is preparing for a visitor to their latest project."
"The Emperor," Rieekan breathed.
Mon Mothma nodded. "We intercepted transmissions confirming as much."
Leia's jaw slacked and the color drained from her face. This was better than they could have hoped for. If the campaign succeeded, they might take out the Emperor as well.
"Now that that's settled," she continued, "we have the matter of the commands. Admiral Ackbar will be in command of the Fleet, but we have not determined the leaders of the other two components. Any suggestions for snubfighter lead?"
Ackbar, silent until now, sighed. "I would recommend Wedge Antilles."
Leia winced and Mon Mothma, catching the look, turned. "You disagree?"
"Wedge is a superior fighter pilot, but he's used to small-unit tactics. We will be requiring someone with experience in controlling large task forces."
Mon Mothma bowed her head briefly to Leia. "Point taken. Who would you recommend?"
"Lando Calrissian. He has had long-term experience with such matters during his tenure as Baron-Administrator of Bespin and for the last four months, he has been acting in a similar capacity."
"I approve," Ackbar stated.
"As do I," Madine agreed.
Leia turned to see Rieekan nodding. "And the ground commander?"
"That's where it gets difficult," he murmured.
Han sat upright in bed, rubbing the fatigue from his eyes. "It's after 0200, Leia. Can't they at least let you sleep?"
She sank onto the edge of the bed and smiled. "They don't think humans need to sleep," she countered. "And with only four days to the briefing, we can't waste any time."
"I see," he mumbled.
She suddenly sobered. "I hear you're on the commando mission."
"Good news travels fast," he agreed. "You didn't think I'd let you have a place in the history books by yourself, did you?"
She leaned forward with difficulty to kiss him lightly on the mouth. "Not if I can help it. Besides, I'm going with you."
His hand snaked out to grip her wrist tightly. "You can't," he said urgently. "Not with all the danger involved."
"I'll be in no less danger on the command ship," she countered. "In fact, I won't be as much of a target with you because we're supposedly taking them by surprise."
She could see him stiffen, even in the dim moonlight. "I don't want you anywhere near that system, much less in the line of fire."
Her eyes hardened. "It's either that or surrender to the Emperor now, since he'll be on-station."
"Sithspawn," Han said fervently. "Just when I thought my life was uncomplicating itself."
"How in the moons of Kessel are you going to get medically approved for the mission?"
"Other than her, I am in perfect health," Leia countered. "I don't intend to die."
"Lady," he said softly, "no one ever intends, but it happens all the same."
"I wouldn't hate this mission if you three weren't along."
Leia folded her arms, scowling in defiance. "Great," she growled. "In five seconds, I go from being the love of your life to being classified with the droids. See if I ever bear you a child again."
Han turned to grin at her. "You know what I mean."
"I know exactly what you mean," she countered. "That's why I'm indignant."
He took her by the shoulders, meeting her gaze steadily. "I don't like putting you or our daughter at risk."
Her jaw trembled. "I can take care of myself, you know," she said quietly.
He drew her into a tight embrace and rested his chin on top of her head. "Can I help it if I'm selfish?"
She laughed softly, tightening her grip. "Never stopped you before."
He grinned. Stang, I love this woman.
"I heard you loaned Lando the Falcon."
He shrugged. "If they're going to succeed, they'll need the fastest hunk of junk in the Galaxy leading the way."
"Instead of tailgating," she quipped, "but if we fail, you may lose it."
He sobered. "If we fail, we won't live long enough for it to matter."
She sighed, resting her head against his chest. "This is going to be terrible, isn't it?"
He snorted. "I think that's a given, yes. I still don't understand why you need to do this."
"Closure," she said simply. "For myself, for Luke, for Force's sake."
Han closed his eyes, memorizing the feel of her in his arms, the warmth of her embrace, the smell of her hair.
If he were to die, he wanted that to be the last thing he remembered.
"All right," he said finally. "I don't like it and I don't entirely understand it, but I accept your wisdom."
She pulled away and stretched up to kiss him.
For a moment, they were neither princess, nor smuggler, Senator nor hero, husband nor wife. They were simply two people, terrified at the thought that they might die in the times to come, clinging to the last steady influence in their lives.
Finally, they broke away and walked to their destinies, hand in hand.
"On approach to the Death Star."
Leia, seated in the navigator's chair, could not help gaping. The sight was hauntingly familiar, horribly similar to the station that had once destroyed everything she held dear.
Bisecting their view, however, was something that inspired much more fear and apprehension.
Instinctively, her mental barriers snapped up, girding her mind in a reflective wall.
It wasn't a foolproof method by any stretch of the imagination and they probably already knew she was coming, but at least she could block their sensing her onboard an Imperial shuttle.
A flashing light on the comm console indicated that they were being hailed.
"Here goes nothing," Rieekan murmured.
"We have you on our screens," a clipped voice stated. "Please identify."
Han reached forward to toggle the transmission switch. "Shuttle Tydirium," he said evenly, "requesting deactivation of the deflector shield."
"Deactivation of the shield will commence when we have confirmation of your code clearance."
Han turned to offer a confident grin. "Transmission commencing."
Leia was not so sure. Something lingered in the back of her mind, brushing at her danger sense, but it wasn't anything concrete as of yet.
"Now we find out if that code is worth the price we paid," she said grimly.
Rieekan rested a hand on top of hers and squeezed her fingers gently.
The harried noise of a data uplink was beating a frantic tattoo in sympathy with her heartbeat.
"It'll work," Han assured her. "It'll work."
Abruptly, a sense brushed against her defenses, briefly. She let out her breath in a shuddering sigh.
"What is it," Rieekan asked quietly.
"Luke," she stated. "He just sensed me. He knows we're here."
She could see Han's shoulders stiffen, his chin come up. "Nothing to worry about," he said, his voice slightly strained. "He can't know that you're here."
"I'm not so sure," she countered.
Han hesitated, then his posture slackened. "Keep your distance, though, Chewie, but don't look like you're keeping your distance."
The Wookiee roared a question.
"I don't know," Han snapped. "Fly casual."
There was a long silence, longer than they should have expected. Biting her lip, Leia focused on calming her senses, blocking out all extraneous emotion.
"Shuttle Tydirium," a new voice said, "what is your cargo and destination?"
Han let out his breath. "Parts and technical crew for the forest moon."
A longer pause.
"This isn't looking good," Rieekan murmured.
"They're not going for it, Chewie," Han said grimly.
Everyone straightened, eyes fixed on the comm unit, hearts pounding.
"Deactivation of the shield will commence immediately. Follow your present course."
Leia slumped, sighing in relief.
"See, I told you," Han said confidently, though his voice trembled. "No problem."
"Stay low," Rieekan ordered. "I don't want you in some trigger-happy trooper's sights."
Leia scowled and unholstered her blaster, dropping to her knees to ascend the low ridge.
"Put on some weight and they all think you're an idiot," she grumbled.
She hung back with the rest of the strike team, scanning the area for danger.
Moments later, Han and Rieekan rejoined them. "Imperial patrol," Han reported. "Four of them. Not much, but we can't afford to have them in the way if we're to get to the shield generator by tomorrow."
Rieekan nodded. "Break by teams. If we can't take them down, we don't want them to know there are more of us out there. While we're handling this, move towards the next rendezvous point at 381 mark 94 and 842 mark 6 on the grid. We'll regroup there."
Leia moved up to join Han. "You tactical geniuses have a plan yet?"
Han opened his mouth to speak and she held up a hand. "One that won't get you killed?"
His jaw snapped shut and he grinned sheepishly. "Point."
Leia checked the powerpack, then looked up. "I'll provide cover fire. You two take a less subtle approach."
Rieekan nodded. "Sounds like a plan."
Leia crouched, sighting in on the first of the troopers as Han made his approach. One pace from the trooper, a twig snapped and the trooper whirled, striking Han with an uppercut. He went flying back and a blaster bolt exploded where his head would have been.
Leia squeezed off three shots, blowing the helmet of the trooper apart.
Rieekan, abandoning all hopes of subtlety, was engaged in fisticuffs with another trooper.
Leia blasted his opponent, but the whine of speeder bikes alerted her to another complication.
The remaining two troopers were fleeing to report a Rebel presence on the moon.
Leia bolted for the remaining bikes and, leaping onto one, took off at breakneck speed.
Rieekan pulled alongside her.
"Break," he shouted over the roar of engines. "We'll flank them. Try not to veer too far off the beaten path. And jam their commlinks. Center switch."
Leia flicked the switch, then swung the control yoke, veering between another set of trees.
She caught up to the trooper just after clearing a fallen tree. Firing the laser cannon attached to the front of the bike, she slagged the engine and the bike exploded against the next tree, taking the trooper with it.
Multiple bursts of laserfire to starboard indicated Rieekan was having troubles of his own. Leia throttled back, then turned sharply, vectoring to move in behind his pursuers.
She arrived to see his bike take a hit. It rocked, but he stayed stable until the trooper in pursuit fired a handheld blaster.
Leia fired a burst, catching the rudder. The bike spun out, then crashed into a tree.
Rieekan's bike was the next explosion, but he was not on it.
Bringing her bike to a halt, she leapt off and ran forward.
Rieekan lay face-down, but the fact that his skin and skull had been blasted away suggested that even if she tried to save him, he had died instantly.
Hands trembling, she turned him over. His dark eyes stared sightlessly at the canopy of trees, so she palmed them closed.
Leia would have wept, but the sound of an igniting lightsaber brought her to her feet.
Luke burst from the cover of the trees in a run, rushing her with saber swinging.
She ignited her own saber in one swift stroke and parried the low blow, then pressed forward, swinging in at his legs.
He parried easily, his face grim. "You should not have come."
"You promised me the next time you saw me, I would die," she bit out. "Why not end it here?"
"Because this is not the time," he said simply. "But soon, all things will come to pass."
He twisted his wrists counterclockwise, driving the saber from her hand, then swung a blow at her forehead.
Just before it would have landed, he extinguished it and instead bludgeoned her across the head, bringing blinding pain and darkness.
Leia awoke with a splitting headache and a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
She was lying on her side in a pool of water, her face warmed by the sun, but her tunic half-drenched.
Pushing up on one elbow, she surveyed the scene. Nothing but trees for miles.
"Great," she murmured. "All I remember is it was by a bunch of trees."
Lifting her wrist-scanner, she checked her position. If she had no more interruptions, she could get to the rendezvous within two hours.
But there was the matter of Rieekan. He deserved better than an unknown grave, but there was no time to give him a proper burial and she'd never make it if she had to carry him.
Whipping off her pack, she extracted a blanket. Clearing a space 6 feet around him to prevent the spread of the fire, she draped the blanket over his limp form.
Dropping to her knees, she smoothed his features into peace, then kissed his cheek and drew the blanket over his features.
Finally, she sighted in and fired twice, creating a pyre.
Then, tears streaming down her face, she fled into the woods.
"Colonel Solo, someone's coming."
Han spun, dropping into a crouch, his blaster sighted on the space between trees.
For a breathless moment, there was no sign of any movement, but then Leia appeared, running hard, her face streaked with tears.
He holstered his weapon and exploded from his crouch, running to her. She buried herself in his embrace, her shoulders heaving with sobs.
"It's all right," he whispered. "You're here."
"Rieekan was killed," she gasped out.
Han's heart sunk straight into his heels. "Oh, Sith," Han breathed. "Leia, I'm so sorry."
"I couldn't save him," she moaned. "I was too late."
"It's not your fault," he insisted. "Are you all right?"
She drew back and he noticed for the first time a burn high on her forehead, as if the business end of a lightsaber had hit her there.
"I ran into an old friend," she said quietly.
She nodded. "I don't know where he went from there."
"Probably back to the generator," another commando, Page, said grimly. "Do you think the mision's been compromised?"
"Undoubtedly, but we have to press on nonetheless."
Han released Leia gently, then turned to the rest of the group as Chewie moved to embrace her as gently as possible, given his size.
"The trek is about..."
Suddenly, Chewie yowled and set off through the trees.
"Great," Han growled. "Chewie!"
They followed him to a clearing, where an animal carcass was strung up on a pole.
"Stay back," Han barked at Leia. "It may be a trap."
Leia arched an eyebrow. "The Imperials wouldn't bait a Wookiee, especially since we're not supposed to be here."
"So, what is this?"
She scrubbed her hands over her face and scrutinized it. "I'd say something the locals left behind."
Leia's eyes widened and her hand came up to point at a point beyond him. "Perhaps those ones?"
Leia left the council of Ewoks, unnoticed, and it wasn't until Han had concluded their business with the chief that he realized his wife was missing.
He found her in the small quarters assigned them, her back to the door.
Han paused in the doorway, just watching.
She was half turned, her form edged in silver moonlight. Her head was bowed, her delicate chin resting against her shoulder. Her shoulder-length hair hung like a curtain, but on the side facing him, it was tucked behind her ear, exposing her dark eyes.
Her hands were claspd over the swell of her belly, her shoulders hunched.
Despite her obvious emotional distress, she remained exquisitely beautiful, regal even in this primitive setting.
"So, how did it go?"
Han started from his reverie and grinned. "We've got a guide, supplies, and all the food we want."
"Good," she said quietly. "Finally someone on our side."
He crossed to sit next to her, drew her into a gentle embrace. She rested against him, her head on his shoulder.
"What is it," he asked.
"I have to go," she murmured.
Han's shoulders stiffened. "What? "
She turned to look at him. "I can't stay here any longer. I have to face what the Force has in store for me."
"Even if it's death," he snapped.
"Even if." She broke from his embrace and stood with obvious difficulty. "I told you I needed closure. Well, I just realized this is a part of that."
"Closure nothing," he bit out. "This is suicide."
"You're not exactly in top form. How do you propose to survive?"
"Any way I can," she countered.
She turned to go, but he shot to his feet and caught her arm. "I won't let you do this, Leia."
"You can't stop me."
Her eyes were pleading, her voice trembling. "I have to do this," she stated. "Please, understand."
"Understand what? That my wife wants to sacrifice herself and won't explain why?"
"I don't want to do this, but I have to."
She stretched up and kissed him fiercely, desperately. Han crushed her to him, returning the kiss.
"Return to me," he pleaded. "Whatever the cost."
She nodded and pulled away, then pushed past him, crossing the bridge into the darkness beyond.
The mists were rising over Endor, shrouding the trees and diffusing the early morning sunlight.
Luke stood at the railing, staring out into the forest. Somewhere out there, the woman who was at the same time his best friend and worst enemy was waiting for the right moment to strike.
He would have to kill her today, of that he was certain.
For all of his fury and bitterness, he couldn't help but regret that fact. He would be ending a legacy that could have shaped the Galaxy.
Behind him, the door to the airlock hissed open and he turned to see a guard formation enter. They split down the middle, revealing Leia in manacles.
She fixed him with a steady gaze, not reacting at all.
"This is the Rebel that surrendered to us," the captain of the guard reported. "Although she denies it, I believe there may be more of them out there and I request permission to..."
"Granted," Luke snapped. "Search out her compatriots and bring them to me. Dismissed."
Finally, they were alone, facing each other in silence. Leia's gaze had still not wavered.
"So," Luke said grimly, "you have come to me."
"Indeed," she said evenly. "This is my destiny."
"To die or turn?"
Her gaze finally flickered. "Perhaps the former, never the latter."
"If not the latter, certainly the former," Luke countered.
"If it be the will of the Force." She straightened. "And if it is your destiny to die or turn back?"
"Never the latter," he stated.
"Are you so sure?"
Something in his mind rebelled against the idea, but he shook his head. "I will not be swayed from this course. I will bring you before my Master and then you will die."
Leia's chin tilted defiantly. "If I were meant to die, you would have done it already."
"No more of this," Luke snapped.
"There must be more, because you are foundering. You are caught between two warring factions, I can sense it in you."
"You sense nothing," he roared. "It is too late for this nonsense."
"If that were true, you would not continue to spare me," she countered. "You only need a guide back to the light. I am here for that reason."
Luke signaled on his commlink and the door opened to admit more stormtroopers. "You are here to meet your destiny," he said simply. "I send you to it."
She did not respond or even look back as they took her away. Luke leaned on the railing, curiously sickened by the encounter.
Long day ahead.
Leia raised her head as she left the turbolift and halted. For a long moment, she and Vader just stood there in strained silence, until the trooper behind her bludgeoned her across the back of the head, sending her to her knees.
Leia rose, dazed and turned to see the trooper clutching his throat. The gesture was all-too-familiar when associating with Vader.
She turned and rested a hand on her father's arm, shaking her head imperceptibly. His fist unclenched and she could hear the breathing resume in ragged gasps.
At an unspoken signal, the guards departed and Leia was alone in a remote corridor of a Death Star with her father.
She stood straight, her eyes fixed on the eyeshields that blocked those pure blue eyes from view, and waited for him to speak.
"So," he said finally, his voice softer than she had ever heard it, "it has come to this."
"As we always knew it would," Leia countered in an even tone. "We only hoped for a change of course."
He nodded. "The future is always in motion, but we want it moving in our favor."
Leia's brow furrowed. "Perhaps, either way, it is."
"You fear nothing," he observed.
"I fear myself," she stated. "That is more than enough to keep me busy."
"Were that true, you would not be here." He gestured to himself. "You believe that you will have the strength to remain in the Light. It was that same arrogance that destroyed me."
"I know better," Leia said sharply.
"Do you? Or are you here to find out just how far you dare go?"
"I am here out of love," Leia nearly screamed.
There was a pregnant pause.
Leia let her breath out in a violent sigh and let her chin drop to her chest. The fury, the sheer desperation that had threatened to overwhelm her since the moment Rieekan had died, was roiling in the pit of her stomach, sickening her, exhausting her.
She took several calming breaths, but the roiling fury did not subside. It throbbed with every heartbeat, every breath.
Sometimes I think she knows the darkness she was born into.
She could not allow herself to follow in her father's footsteps, to forget herself. If she did, all was lost.
I can't do it like this. If I cannot even face my father without hatred, how will I save myself in there?
"You doubt," he stated. "That is good. It is through questioning that we can find truth."
"But not peace," Leia countered.
She shook her head. "I will not turn, come what may. If it means I die, so be it."
"And what of your child and husband? Does nothing matter to you but your own selfish concerns?"
Leia's eyes narrowed. "Selfish," she said incredulously.
"Absolutely. You are doing this for your own purposes, without even thinking of what it will do to them."
Her fury finally subsided into resolve, tempered by familiar ground and firm convictions. "You're absolutely wrong," she murmured. "This is all for them, for the rest of my family. If that is selfish, then I choose that path. They will understand that, Force-willing."
"And your husband," he countered. "Did he understand when you left him to get yourself killed?"
Leia looked away and he snorted. "I thought not."
Her head came up to gaze at him once more. "I will not listen to this," she said evenly. "I know who I am and where I stand and, when the time comes, I will know what to do to best serve that person and those she loves most. Can you say the same?"
Any response was cut off as the turbolift opened once more and Luke emerged.
"I commed on the way up," he reported. "The Emperor awaits."
Flanked by her family, Leia turned to face the doors and, when they hissed open, strode into the throne room with more confidence than she would ever feel about this day.
The doors hissed closed and the throne turned slowly to reveal Palpatine, grinning demonically.
"Welcome, young Skywalker," he mocked. "I have been expecting you."
Leia ascended the stairs to the Emperor's position with confident strides, keeping her gaze focused on those sickly yellow eyes and the rotting leer.
She could not quite tell what he reminded her of. An eager child, a predator, or a rapist. His eyes and senses were filled with an almost desperate lust for dominion, over her, over her family, over the child she carried.
Force-willing, he would die today, knowing that he had failed in all of those areas.
Perhaps they would all die, still bickering over her soul as the Rebel fleet blew them into spacedust.
It was not an option she treasured, but perhaps all she needed was time.
No, that wasn't right.
All you need is love.
She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin, "charming to the last."
I will not fear. I will not succumb to fury. I will fight if I must, but only in the light.
She wished she could feel the confidence those words implied, but she must take this one step at a time.
The path of darkness or light is a matter of day-to-day choices, but also the choice that we take with every breath, every step.
"Together again," she said evenly. "Where is your minion?"
His leer spread. "My Hand is elsewhere, carrying out my will. She will join us soon enough."
"Soon enough," Leia repeated. "Soon, I will be dead and you with me."
The Emperor cackled, briefly, sharply, and a thrill of something entirely unpleasant coursed through her veins.
"You assume too much, young Jedi," he spat. "Your fleet, your friends, and, moreover, you will fail."
Leia's lips spread in a grim smile. "Your overconfidence is your weakness."
"Your faith in your friends is yours," he snapped back. "Were you not so blind, your precious General Rieekan would not be ashes underfoot now."
Leia quickly quashed the burst of anger that threatened to overwhelm her again.
Control, control, you must learn control.
"Enough of this," the Emperor said, his voice reverting to mild tones that she had so often heard when he was manipulating the Senate. "Take her away."
Leia straightened, her chin held high. "No."
He arched an eyebrow, either surprised or pleased by her defiance. "No?"
"This will end today, either way. If I have to fight my way out of it, so be it, but I will not let this madness be perpetuated."
He shook his head, half in disgust, half in feigned disappointment. "Young fool, you truly do not understand."
"Do not underestimate me," she countered.
Do not underestimate the powers of the Emperor or suffer your father's fate you will.
She did not know where that came from, but the meaning was clear.
"I underestimate nothing," he growled. "But, though you may know no more after today, I will not let you die until your child and soul are mine."
Leia's face drained of color at what he was suggesting.
"Yes," he continued. "A comatose person can survive for years, but four months is all we require. We will simply keep you under sedation until your child can be surgically delivered and then, you will die, knowing that she is ours."
She sensed a burst of desperate fury, not from herself, but, surprisingly from Vader.
Perhaps she was not alone here.
"I will not allow you such a victory," she stated calmly.
"You may not have a choice," Luke interjected.
"It is pointless to resist," Vader added.
Leia turned a glare on her family. "You stay out of this."
Palpatine chuckled. "I am already on the road to victory, it would seem, whether you realize it or not."
Leia shook her head adamantly, a small smile gracing her lips at his arrogance. "You are blind," she stated. "You only see what you want and abandon reality. That is what will get you killed."
"Go ahead," he goaded. "I am unarmed. It would be so simple to strike me down. And you believe that your family languishes in darkness because of my manipulation. They would be free of that influence, you would be victorious. You would have destroyed the core of the Empire and taking the rest apart would be a simple matter."
It was, naturally, tempting. With that leer directed at her, with the darkness roiling about the room, engulfing her, driving at her defenses, she wanted more than anything to end this all quickly.
But this was not the way.
"That is not freedom," she said quietly. "You would be dead, but I would have inherited the darkness. And I am not so foolish that I do not realize that it takes more than an absence of night to drive away the shadows."
"Indeed," he replied.
A flicker of something outside the viewport caught her attention and she turned to see the space outside suddenly very crowded.
The Rebel Fleet had arrived.
A wave of relief washed over her, but was quickly dampened by the fact that...
"A pity," he murmured. "Going to all this trouble and the shield is still up. They'll have to deal with the Imperial Starfleet instead."
He tapped a switch on the control arm of the throne. "Admiral Piett, this is the Emperor. Commence attack."
Turning that leer back on her, his grin spread. "As you can see, your friends have failed and soon there will be nothing left of the Rebellion but abandoned bases and half-forgotten legends of names like Skywalker and Organa and Rieekan."
"It's not over yet," Leia said firmly. "Until the last of us is dead, it will never be over. Moreover, until you are dead, we will not rest."
"I'm counting on it," he replied evenly. "And when that occurs, it will matter not, because you, like your family, will be mine."
Once upon a lifetime, there was a boy named Anakin.
A boy with hair woven from pure gold, eyes formed from sapphires, and an easy grin, he was born to be a prince among men, but destiny formed him as a slave.
He was abused, branded, flagellated into subservience. He could not allow himself to bear himself as royalty or those he loved would be punished even more severely.
So he bore himself meekly, waiting for a time when his courage and royal bearing would save them all.
He was neither naive nor jaded, selfish nor careless with his generosity. He only knew pure emotion, that which he feltwas right.
Things had never felt so right as the day when his guardian angel had first visited him. The moment he saw her, he knew he would go anywhere and do anything for her.
And he did.
That boy had been taken from his home, not by marauders in the night or by terrifying creatures, but by a knight and a damsel-in-distress, of his own free will.
And yet he had felt terrified, lost, alone. The dreams he had entertained of becoming a Jedi were replaced all too often by the nightmares of what the consequences would be.
No longer a boy, no longer naive, and no longer guarded by any angels, this Anakin looked into his only daughter's eyes at his Master's feet and knew she understood exactly how he had felt, a lifetime ago.
She was terrified, alone, but she was not lost by any stretch of the imagination.
Force-willing, the day to come would not change that.
"There is more," the Emperor said mildly, his glare fixed on Leia.
She turned from the viewport and Anakin saw the fire in her eyes, but could only sense love, compassion, and resolve coming from her.
"More," she repeated.
Her gaze flicked to him, inquiring, pleading for an explanation without having to learn it from this monster.
Anakin had nothing to offer her, not even support.
Instead, he had to stand by as the awful truth was laid out. "Your Rebel scum have staked your entire operation on the assumption that if the shield is taken down, there will be an incomplete, unarmed station primed for the killing."
Leia stiffened and Anakin felt a wave of outraged fear roll off of her.
Don't! his mind screamed, desperate for some reason to stop her from brushing the Dark Side.
Where had his priorities gone?
Put in perspective, he countered.
"Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station."
Leia whirled to face the viewport, perhaps driven by morbid curiosity or just to confirm that his Master was not lying.
Oh, that he were.
As the first of the graceful Mon Cal Star Cruisers disappeared in the path of the superlaser's beam, he sensed every death, but did not care. He had sensed too many to be affected by any of them.
It was the images that followed, a flash of memory.
"Since you are reluctant to provide us with the location of the Rebel base, we have decided to test this station's destructive power on your home planet of Alderaan."
"No," Leia burst out, desperate, frantic. "Alderaan is peaceful. We have no weapons. You can't possibly..."
Tarkin closed in, towering over her, encroaching as a slave-driver might.
"You would prefer another target? A military target? Then, name the system."
Leia had backed away, straight into Vader's grip. But she did not recoil.
Strange that she was more afraid of this arrogant son-of-a-Sith than of the man who, for over a week, had driven her to within a micron of her death or madness.
"I grow tired of asking," Tarkin said in a low growl, "so this will be the last time. Where is the Rebel base?"
Leia stiffened, fear and heartache roiling off of her. Her gaze was fixed on her homeworld, but she was torn between the lesser of two evils matter.
"Dantooine," she finally whispered. "They're on Dantooine."
The most advanced interrogative procedures in the known Galaxy and she had been broken by a simple threat.
"You see, Lord Vader," he gloated, "she can be reasonable."
"Raising his commlink, he smirked. "Continue with the operation. You may fire when ready."
"You're far too trusting," Tarkin said mildly, dispassionately. "Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration. But, don't worry. We will deal with your friends soon enough."
Vader clamped his hand over her shoulder restraining her only by extreme force. Any lesser man would have found himself facing a dead Governor and a triumphant Princess.
Anakin startled from his reverie to find his hand clamped on Leia's shoulder, still.
He could not remember crossing to her side.
She shook him off violently. "Don't," she hissed.
Another Cruiser vanished and then a frigate.
With each passing moment, she was slipping away from reality, from what she needed to hold to to save herself.
She whirled to face the Emperor once more and, for the first time, Anakin saw pure murderous intent in her eyes.
Not pain, not desperation, not fear, but something far more dangerous.
Control, control, you must learn control.
The Emperor's smile shrank into an oblivion covered by a grim wistfulness. His hand rested on her lightsaber, stroking it.
"You want this," he observed hoarsely, "don't you. The hate is swelling in you now. With each passing moment, you make yourself more my servant."
Leia turned her head to stare out the viewport for a long moment, then whirled and called her lightsaber to her hand.
Without thinking, Vader's blade ignited, parrying the potentially lethal strike just inches from the throat of their oppressor.
And he could not explain why he had stopped her.
The parry caught her off guard, the harsh clash of the blades bringing her back to reality.
Her eyes focused on those eyeshields and for a moment, the locked blades and mutual confusion were all that stood between them.
Had those blue eyes been visible, she was sure they would have blinked.
As the shock wore off, she realized one crucial thing. Dark or light, she had to be stronger than her opponent.
Bringing her left foot back, she pivoted counter-clockwise and sunk deeper into her stance, drawing her arms in towards her body.
Vader stepped forward, bringing the battle away from his vaunted Master. Leia allowed the advance, moving to where she could have more space.
Come and get it.
The next blow came high and she drew her saber up parallel to her left ear in a graceful arc, meeting the swing and deflecting it downward by twisting her wrists and tugging the blade forward violently.
The crossed blades sparked as they hit his shoulder and he let out a strangled yell.
In the next moment, Leia was flying back, compelled by an unseen Force. She dampened her fall, but still had the breath knocked from her lungs.
The clang of boot on metal alerted her that Vader was descending the staircase she had just bypassed.
She pushed to her feet and snapped her saber up in the first defensive position, igniting it.
He shook his head, either disgusted or mournful. "This is futile, Leia."
"Were it futile, I would not be here," she countered.
"Are you so sure?"
He drew up short of her, his saber held in a low, one-handed guard stance.
"I did not come here to fight you," she said softly, "but if that is what it takes..."
His weight shifted back, allowing him room to bring the lightsaber around and up into the third attack position, slicing in towards her right hip.
Leia parried easily.
"You do not understand. We cannot exist on opposite ends of this spectrum."
Leia dropped to one knee, ducking his next swing to stab upwards towards his solar plexus. He blocked it, but not easily, and she exploded from her crouch, using the momentum to drive him back against the stairs. He stumbled, then side-stepped, forcing her to pivot.
She expected another attack, but none came for the time being.
He seemed to be hesitating, as if unsure he could actually destroy her. Her senses fluctuated between heartfelt elation and a telepathic smirk.
She settled for the grim resolve that had been her constant companion since the moment she surrendered herself on Endor.
"That is where you have always been wrong," she stated firmly. "There must be opposition in all things. Otherwise, there can be no balance."
"Balance," he scoffed. "A word the fool Jedi worshipped and died for. There can be no balance."
She extinguished her lightsaber and held the hilt low, near her thigh.
"The balance of the force comes in love," she said, for once, with as much confidence as she felt. "The Jedi hoped for a Chosen One in you, but you failed because you were unable to accept and give complete, unconditional love.
"Master Yoda once told me that your children could be the ones to bring balance. Perhaps he was right. We have every reason to succumb to our hatred, to the pain, to bitter shadows of the past, and yet we love you. That brings us closer to balance than anything else."
"Even love cannot conquer everything," he bit out.
"Perhaps not," Leia said quietly, "but it can try."
"That's why you're here, isn't it."
Her mouth quirked into a sad smile. "Perhaps. I certainly didn't come to be turned."
Something indescribable entered his senses then, perhaps a prod from a Master who realized that the situation was slipping from his grasp. It was something like what she had sensed in Luke during that last encounter on Ketaris.
"Fool," he spat. "You are unwise to lower your defenses."
Her saber came up too late and his blade bit deep into her left shoulder, nearly cracking through her collarbone, but just grazing it.
An eye for an eye. He wants to match injustice drop for drop.
She twisted away, the blade doing more damage than she could probably afford, but she was free of it. His next swing was parried by a violent counterpoint thrust that forced him to pivot.
Leia let herself fall back, drawing away, then swung low, leaving a deep, smoking gash in the armor. She even thought she saw horribly scarred flesh beneath, but there was no time to consider it.
A primal yell followed the tingling of her danger sense. As Vader collapsed onto his back, breathing raggedly, his son went flying from the throne platform to land before Leia.
A vicious slash scarred her face just below her right cheekbone. Leia snapped her saber up and batted the saber to the side, ducking away from its path, and brought her elbows up, deflecting it from beneath.
"Why do you fight this," he burst out.
"Because it is not my destiny to live by hate," she replied.
"Then it is your destiny to die by love," he snapped.
"Like I said," she gritted, "if it is the will of the Force."
His next swing came with such force that she stumbled back, losing her balance to land on her back with the point of a blood-red lightsaber at her throat.
Leia caught her breath, then released it slowly, determined to take this in stride.
She focused on the blue eyes she loved so well and could barely recognize the man within.
But there was something, deep-seated in his eyes and in his senses that could not be quashed.
It was a dormant virtue that she needed to reawaken--compassion.
"You can't win," she stated. "Whether I live or die, it matters not."
"Then, why let you live," he countered.
Leia shrugged her shoulders and let her saber arm rest against the floor, noncombatant.
"What do you have to gain from my death?"
"Reprieve," he said immediately.
"From me or yourself?"
The dormant virtue stirred, but did not awaken, but there was a definite change in his eyes.
"Fight," he ordered.
Leia's brow furrowed at the tone in his voice. Almost pleading, as if he were on a balance point and needed familiar ground under his feet.
She would have to make sure he chose the correct path.
Her jaw set, but her eyes softened. "No," she said quietly. "I will fight you no more."
"Enough of this."
The Emperor was descending the stairs, his eyes blazing, looking, if possible, even more displeased than ever.
"You have failed, young Skywalker," he told Luke. "If you wish to redeem yourself, you will finish this now."
Leia kept her gaze steady on Luke. His head turned to look at his Master, then back at her and the virtue finally burst into consciousness.
The blade extinguished and Luke threw the hilt aside. "Never."
Palpatine halted, his eyes narrowing. Stretching out his hand, he called the saber to it and thumbed it on, illuminating his features in a demonic aura.
"So be it, Jedi," he spat. "I will destroy her, then deal with the rest of your traitorous kind."
Luke turned to face the Emperor, repulsed for the first time in months by what he saw and sensed.
The mad glint in the eyes, the predatory leer, the rotting effect of the Dark Side. The gnarled hands, as twisted as the mind they served. The form, stooped under the burden of pure evil.
Whatever this monster had been had rotted away, leaving only the most banal manifestations of the Dark Side.
And Luke had followed it, succumbed to it, asking too few questions and forgetting himself.
Luke set his jaw, fighting hard not to succumb to the fury that the realization of what he had done inspired.
"You will not destroy her," he said firmly, evenly, his voice finally free of bitterness or harsh anger. "You will have to kill me first."
Leia had gotten to her feet, moving painfully, but with determined steps. She drew level with him and through his shattered barriers, he could sense her feeding warmth and love into his soul, filling the hollow spaces.
It was like a flood, threatening to drown him, but he relished the sensation, embraced it.
Turning, she handed him their father's saber, her fingers lingering a bit longer than expected against his.
He met her gaze and saw no bitterness, no blame there, only the love that would save them all.
"We will face this as we always have and always will," she said hoarsely. "Together."
Igniting her saber, she pivoted and charged forward, swinging the saber in a tight arc.
Moving with a swiftness and strength Luke would not have expected, Palpatine parried the blow at a diagonal, then drove the blade inward towards her abdomen.
Leia sidestepped easily, disengaging her blade briefly before slashing in from above. As he moved to parry it, Luke swung at his midsection.
An unseen force, exactly like that he had encountered the day of the verdict slammed into him. The Dark Side would help deflect it, but he could not afford that chance, so he merely absorbed it as best he could, channeling the energy into his movements.
The mental impact had driven him back a few paces and cost him half a minute. Leia was driving forward, attacking quickly and fiercely.
He sensed something inherently dangerous coming from her and reached out, brushing against her mind with a rivulet of what was flooding her mind.
She hesitated, then pressed on, but something stopped her dead in her tracks suddenly.
Her hand went to her abdomen and for a horrified moment, Luke realized he might have damaged his niece as well, but then her mind cleared of everything but the grim resolve and pure intent that she had brought to the Death Star today.
As Luke drew level with her, he could see something like peace in her features. Something in her connection with her daughter had given her the strength to envelop herself in the light side. The strength that it yielded was so potent that nothing spiritual could penetrate.
And in that moment, Palpatine struck.
The saber drove through her sternum, severing muscles, bisecting blood vessels, and snapping bones.
A scream ripped itself from his throat as Leia fell to her knees and he prepared to land a killing blow.
Then her eyes opened and, gazing straight into the jaws of Hell, she drove her saber through his throat.
The Emperor crumpled and for a breathless moment, the Galaxy was silent.
Then all the Dark Side energy within him exploded outward in the all-too-familiar blue lightning. Flinging himself in front of Leia, he dragged her away from the onslaught, nearly crumpling himself.
But then a third party joined the effort, telekinetically drawing them away from danger.
Finally, it ended and Luke simply lay there, limbs trembling, muscles straining against the agony, but holding Leia.
Tears streamed down his face, finally released after months of apathy. "Leia," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Her eyes blinked open, narrowed with pain, but she reached up to cup his cheek with a trembling hand. "There is no regret, only love," she countered softly, "and as Father knows, the strongest force of love is forgiveness."
In some unknown moment, he had crossed to his fallen Master's side and was standing motionless, gazing down at him.
Not for the first time, Luke desperately wished to see behind the mask.
"Father," he called. "Your Master is dead and your daughter will die. Now is not the time for inaction."
As if waking from a dream, his father straightened and, with not-quite-steady strides, his arm staunching the flow from the wound Leia had inflicted, crossed to them.
Luke pushed to his knees, still cradling his sister in his arms, and Anakin Skywalker reached out to take his daughter in his arms.
Kneeling, he braced her for a moment against his knee. Then, reaching up, he began to disengage the mask.
Leia realized what was happening first, for tears began to stream down her face. "Father, no, please," she pleaded. "Let go."
He shook his head firmly and pulled away the last of the mask. His eyes, infinitely weary, profoundly sad, focused on her face and he lifted her, cradling her in one arm.
Anakin placed a trembling hand on her brow and closed his eyes.
At first, Luke could not discern what the intent was, but then he felt Leia strengthen, begin to stabilize through some measure of the Force.
Not the Force. Anakin's life force.
As he had given her life, twenty-four years ago, he was giving her what life he had left.
In a hoarse, weak voice entirely unlike Vader and a shell of Anakin Skywalker, he whispered her name over and over, as if sustaining her by mere reminder of her existence.
Leia was weeping freely now, her face buried against his armor, her chest heaving with wracking sobs.
Anakin turned her head gently with one hand and pressed the first kiss to her forehead.
"That you might live," he said softly, "my angel."
He raised Leia in trembling arms and Luke rushed forward to take her before his father's strength failed him.
"Go," Anakin ordered hoarsely.
"You're coming with us," Luke stated. "No questions asked."
"It is too late," he countered.
Leia shook her head. "We have to save you."
Anakin pulled himself up and onto a low bench, then regarded them wearily, solemnly. "You already have, Leia."
He turned his face away. "Go, now. I will handle this."
Luke was nearly to the turbolifts when something struck him, compelling him to turn again to face those eyes.
Anakin looked up, startled. "Yes, Luke?"
"I forgive you," Luke said simply. "And I love you. Always know that."
Something like a smile came to his lips. "I know."
Then, Luke turned, leaving behind a husk of a man with not the strength to live, but finally at peace.
Anakin rose from the bench and promptly collapsed to his knees from exhaustion.
He had given Leia everything, as he always should have, only reserving enough strength for what needed to be done, and barely enough at that.
I'm coming, Ami.
Half-crawling, half-dragging himself, he made his way up the staircase, each movement bringing more and more pain.
Finally, he took his place in the throne, the situation he had dreamed of for a lifetime, and felt no satisfaction.
The Emperor had this station equipped with a self-destruct mechanism, only accessible by himself and Lord Vader.
Lord Vader may have died, but his handprint was still very much alive.
Removing one glove, he pressed it to the sensor.
He moved as if in a trance, only conscious enough to perform the functions.
His mind, however, was with his children. He could not bear to intrude on their reunion, but simply enveloped them in love.
Then, to his surprise, Leia reached out to him, touching his sense for the last time. A moment later, his son joined the telepathic embrace.
And then he felt no more.
A bright light. Perhaps this was fabled light at the end of the tunnel.
It materialized into the noonday sun over Theed.
He was alone in the gardens, sitting in the meditative stance that had worn him out through his years as a Padawan.
He closed his eyes, simply feeling the warmth of the breeze, sensing the vibrant life around him.
A hand cupped his chin, raising it, and he opened his eyes to find Obi-Wan meeting his gaze.
"Welcome home, Padawan."
Anakin rose slowly, chagrined, not daring to make contact.
Obi-Wan relieved him of that duty. Reaching out, he pulled him into a firm embrace.
"Remember what Leia said," Obi-Wan said. "There is no regret. There is only love."
Anakin buried his face in his Master's shoulder, his arms tight about his waist.
"Easy," Obi-Wan admonished. "We have the rest of eternity for that. For now, there's someone who's been waiting twenty-two years to see you again."
"Padm?," Ani breathed, releasing his old friend.
She stood just beyond, her arms open, her eyes devoid of either hatred or judgment. He rushed to her, burying himself in her embrace, finding her mouth with a sweet intensity.
Her tears mingled with his own, but they didn't dare pull away, didn't ever want to let go again.
But finally, she pulled away and gazed into his eyes, memorizing him as she had so many years ago. Her fingers wound through his hair stroking it gently.
She could not stop feeling him in her arms.
He knew exactly how she felt.
"Welcome home, Anakin," she said finally. "We've been waiting forever for you."
Leia awoke to find herself in an Alliance medical center's bacta tank. Someone was tugging on the hose connected to the breath mask and beckoning. Kicking furiously, she burst through the surface and ripped the mask free.
"Welcome back to the world of the living," Mea said wryly. "We were worried for a while."
Leia pulled herself up, finding secure footing on the stairway. Mea wrapped her in a warm towel, keeping her muscles warm.
Leia stumbled on the last step, her legs still weak from the ordeal, and familiar arms caught her.
She looked up to find Luke smiling grimly at her. "Good as new," he murmured.
Leia straightened and embraced him tightly, her face buried in his neck. "Almost, but that'll improve in time."
"I hope to stick around for all that time," he assured her.
"I'll hold you to that," she countered. "Where's Han?"
"Debriefing. There's a lot to explain."
Her eyes flickered to meet his. "Indeed there is," she said quietly. "Have they debriefed you yet?"
He shook his head. "I've been under a loose house arrest, but they agreed to forestall until you were out of bacta to pass judgment."
She winced and took the set of clothes he proffered. "I'll help in any way that I can."
She disappeared behind a screen and changed into the comfortable tan slacks and loose green tunic, then slipped her feet into the low boots.
"So, where is the High Command meeting?"
He grinned genuinely for the first time she'd seen in months. "Not the High Command, the Inner Council."
Her eyes widened. "You don't mean..."
He nodded. "We're the New Republic, but they've been waiting for the high Princess of Alderaan to be a signatory to make it official."
She trailed off, shaking her head. "Winning a war does strange things to your mind."
He gripped her elbow and steered her gently out of the medcenter. "And speaking of strange things, any unpleasant aftereffects?"
Her brow furrowed as she clasped his other hand. "I killed an Emperor, nearly died, was revived by allowing my father to die, and all this after a full day of saving my family?"
"I suppose it'll take some serious getting used to," she admitted, "as all of this will, but it, too will pass."
He stopped and turned to face her. "I never got to thank you. For saving me, that is. The great love you have..."
She shook her head. "It's no more than you would have done and I would do it again." Suddenly, her mouth quirked into a smile. "But if you do ever require that service again, I may have to kill you."
He snorted. "I think I can live with that."
They walked in amiable silence for a long minute, just sharing their strength and love.
"I meant to ask you," he continued. "You hesitated on the Death Star just before you killed the Emperor. Why?"
Leia's heart tightened, then relaxed and she rested a hand lightly on her abdomen. "It was this little girl," she admitted. "I was being devoured by anger, the violent urge to destroy him no matter what the cost. Then, she kicked for the first time and I realized what the cost was.
"It refocused me, released my anger, and I knew that if I were to kill him, I would finally be doing it for the right reasons."
"Thank the Force," Luke breathed. "I have the feeling she will have her mother's heart and love and her father's reckless abandon."
Leia rolled her eyes in desperation. "Let's hope not."
Luke slipped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her into a protective side embrace. "She'll be perfect. Let's leave it at that."
He turned into a side corridor and they found themselves in the antechamber of a conference room, guarded by six Fleet troopers.
The first guard raised his commlink. "Councilor Organa Solo requests entrance to the..."
"Send her in."
Luke kissed her forehead. "I'll call you tonight."
Her mouth quirked. "Promise?"
He nodded. "They're waiting for you."
Leia turned and entered the room to find eight wry grins focused on her.
"I've been hearing this crazy rumor," Han said, rising. "Someone told me the reason you've been in a bacta dip for the last five days is that you single-handedly took out the Emperor."
Leia embraced him fiercely, her chin resting on his shoulder. "I had some help, but I did deliver the killing blow."
He pulled back and kissed her gently. "I hope it was worth it."
She glanced over her shoulder to where the door was closing on Luke. "Absolutely."
Four months of relative Huttdom and eleven hours of labor later, the first of a new generation of Jedi came into the Galaxy.
"Kicking and screaming," Han observed wryly. "She is exactly like you."
Too elated and exhausted to protest, Leia simply grinned at her tiny daughter, resting comfortably against her chest.
"What's her name," Luke inquired from the other side of the room.
Leia's eyes clouded briefly with something like wistfulness and she cradled the infant's head closer to her heart.
"Her name is Kaiya," she said quietly. "Kaiya Solo. It means 'forgiveness.'"
Raising her eyes to meet her brother's, she smiled. "I thought it was rather appropriate."
His eyes focused on something in the distance. "For this generation, on which rests the hopes of the future, I think it's perfect."
She nodded. "Would you like to get acquainted with your niece?"
He reached over to take her, marveling still at her size, and cradled her gently. One tiny hand curled around his index finger and he looked up to see Leia's eyes filled with tears.
A vision flashed past his eyes, of a young woman, bearing Han's grin and Leia's delicate features, radiating the light of love and the Force.
His gaze returned to his newborn niece and he recognized the same light.
It had been a long road, with many pitfalls and even more sorrows, but for now, all was right with the universe and, sensing the balance this great light created in the Force, he could believe it would remain that way.
"Perfect," he repeated.
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