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Gungan to the left

By the Grace of Lady Vader (PG)

By : Aeryn; ami-padme; FernWithy

Archived on: Monday, April 7, 2003

When Amidala of Naboo rejoins her husband in Imperial high command after the battle of Yavin, they will stop at nothing to reclaim their family and avenge themselves upon those who tore it apart.


The shot seemed to come from the sun, knocking Vader's TIE fighter into an uncontrolled spin away from the slight gravity around the Death Star. His wingman's fighter exploded against the side of the trench.

"What?" he demanded of no one in particular. But the answer was obvious. As the fighter spun, he saw the smuggling freighter skim over the surface of the station, guarding and clearing the way for the one remaining X-Wing ? the X-Wing piloted by someone who called out to Vader's Force sense like a clarion...or a warning alarm.

My death begins today.

The thought did not trouble him; in fact it seemed something of a relief. What waited could not be worse than the lava, or the suit that had followed it.

But his concern now was with that freighter. He hadn't felt it coming at all, could sense nothing of its pilot. Was it simply that the Other drowned it out?

No... no, this one was a blind spot in the Force. He would mean trouble. Vader carefully stabilized the TIE, started to lock his guns on the freighter (a shame; he would have liked to examine the ship more closely, as it was a well-put-together machine), and prepared to fire.

There was no sound when the Death Star blew, at least not this far out in space. Vader saw a flash of fire, then froze as he felt the deaths of thousands of men he had served with and commanded. He had little sorrow for the upper echelons ? Tarkin particularly would have no grief wasted on him ? but the pilots and guards, the mechanics and workers...Vader had not cared for their project, but they had served under him, and he was responsible for them. He felt them ripped away as if part of himself had been there with them. For a moment, he was incapable of doing anything other than holding his hands to the crown of his helmet, trying to shut out their dying screams. Then the shockwave hit, and the TIE was thrown clear, spinning off into deep space.

He re-stabilized by instinct before realizing that it was pointless. This TIE was specially designed and could handle somewhat greater distances, but he was far from any Imperial base, and he somehow doubted the Rebels would take kindly to a landing on Yavin IV. And he sensed that he couldn't hide himself, not for long, not with the Other, the one-who-called, anywhere nearby.

He was dead.

This time, the thought brought no relief. He would die, alone in the cold of space, with no one to even notice his absence. A fitting punishment, perhaps, but unacceptable nonetheless. If he were to die in anonymity, he would at least be warm. He adjusted the navigational controls, and set course for Yavin's sun. The Son of the Suns, he thought (with all the bitterness the phrase always evoked), would return home to die.

A light flashed on his communications board. He almost didn't answer it; he was too focused on deciding how to die. But something...some other sense...

He leaned down, and touched the speaker curiously. "Vader," he said.

Silence. Then, slow surprise. "My Lord?"


"We've lost contact with the Death Star."

"The Death Star was destroyed by the Rebel force on Yavin."

More silence, longer. Finally, the stranger said, "My Lord, this is a grievous blow."

Vader had had enough of the conversation. "Identify yourself, your vessel, and your location."

"I'm sorry, sir. I am Captain Reotti, of Prison Camp One-A. We were moving several prisoners to the Death Star, under Governor Tarkin's orders. As a shield against Rebel attacks."

The fury rose in Vader. Even dead, Tarkin made his mind burn with it. A foolish, dishonorable, dangerous...

His thoughts stopped abruptly. "Captain Reotti?"


"Please repeat your station."

"Prison Camp One-A, my Lord. Previously located on Naboo."

The name of the world was enough to send his blood coursing through what was left of his body. Naboo. Her world. And Palpatine had a prison camp there...a prison camp whose existence Vader had been kept ignorant of. He no longer imagined the impossible ? that SHE would suddenly appear again, miraculously risen from the ashes of her funeral fire, whole and beautiful ? but it was an interesting puzzle. Interesting enough, perhaps, to delay his death. "What is your current location, Captain Reotti?"

"Currently two light days from the position we are tracking you in. But we were attempting to contact the Death Star because we have had an engine malfunction. We will need time to repair our hyperdrive...or we will need to come at sublight speeds. Either way, we're two days distant from you, my Lord."

Vader nodded. "I will find my way to you, Captain. Send your coordinates. It would be wise to have medical personnel on hand."

The coordinates came through, and Vader did the calculations in his head. He would have to lower his metabolism considerably, but that was much easier now than it had been before the machinery. He made the adjustments, then slipped into a deep meditative state, trusting in the Force and Captain Reotti to bring him out when the time came.

Just before he crossed the threshold of consciousness, he felt the strange, inexplicable presence again. But then he was deep under, and knew nothing at all.

Amidala sat quietly in a darkened alcove.

Captain Reotti had seen to it that she was given a full-sized stateroom with a porthole ? he was a kind man, in his own way, if not terribly perceptive ? but she had been unable to sleep in the soft bed, and the streaking of the stars outside had held no charm for her. The ship was dismal. Its destination would undoubtedly be more so. She wanted to return to Naboo, to the cool blue depths where Camp One-A had been hidden inside Gungan shields. The water held a comforting oblivion that deep space never seemed to carry for her, and she wanted to sink into it.

My Leia. My beautiful little girl.

She lowered her head, pressing her hands against the back of her neck. Palpatine had made a special call just to tell her about Alderaan. He thought he was simply taunting her with the knowledge that her final haven no longer existed, that Ani had stood by and watched it destroyed for the punishment of a Rebel spy. She hoped that she had not let on anything else.

She knew that she should be mourning the whole world ? the rolling hills, the gentle plains. Millions of souls had been lost. Bail Organa had been taken from the galaxy. But there was only one soul she wept for, one that mattered to her. Leia's little face, round and pixie-ish, so like Ani's that it was a wonder anyone who saw her didn't jump to all the right conclusions...her lisping little voice...the fine brown hair...Leia admiring herself in a pane of transparisteel, Leia chattering away to a bird that had landed on a window beside her crib, Leia playing with her old royal makeup and giggling at the sight of herself "all paint-y upped."

She had fought the hysteria successfully, but she was tired and hollow, and when Reotti had chosen fifty prisoners, she'd simply gone along docilely. She wondered in a distant way if this was Palpatine's idea, or if heads would roll. And she wondered if Ani would be waiting at the end of the voyage for her.

She hoped so.

She would trade every ideal she'd ever had right now, just to sink into his embrace and never come out of it. It was a horrible impulse. He had stood there and watched Leia's world destroyed, been a party to it, even if only by inaction. She wanted to kill him for it. But she wanted him to hold her first. Just long enough to feel her whole heart beating for the first time in twenty years.

She was too tired to be confused by it. She felt what she felt. There was little to be gained by analyzing it or chastising herself for it.

The ship shuddered, and suddenly the starlines vanished, replaced by the thick blackness and tiny points of light that marked the eternal midnight of deep space. She felt a vague stirring of puzzlement, maybe even full-fledged curiosity. There had been no effort to organize the prisoners, so they were not approaching their destination. They had simply stopped.

A strange, tickling sensation crept across Amidala's arms, making the tiny hairs stand on end. She could feel it in her scalp as well. It was like walking through a thunderstorm, just before the lightning began. She could even almost smell the ozone.

"Ani?" she whispered.

No one answered.

For the next four hours, no one came to her, but her mind was gradually beginning to reassert itself. There was a question to answer, a problem to solve, and she responded to it as naturally as she would respond to a treatment for an illness. She came to the conclusion that they had engine troubles, but that didn't explain all the clacking armor on the floor outside. Stormtroopers were mobilized, and there was a great deal of shouting.

A battle had been lost.

The station Palpatine had bragged to her about, the one that had destroyed Alderaan, the one the prisoners were being brought to had been destroyed in turn. She didn't know this with absolute certainty, but it made the most sense.

A moment's fierce joy rose up in her, and she quashed it. She didn't want to feel joy so close to Leia's death...especially since Ani had been on that station as well.

That sobered her. Had she lost them both? Was Luke still out there, someplace?

She let the last possibility soothe her as much as it could. Luke, safe on Tatooine, probably bored but certainly protected with Owen and Beru. She pictured him as well as she could ? Ani's hair and eyes, her own face. Maybe he would be small, as she was. She went to the bed, and tried to dream it, but succeeded only in bringing back her last moments with Leia. It was still a kind dream, and she didn't know that she'd slept for nearly thirty hours until Captain Reotti was standing beside her, clearing his throat loudly. No Imperial officer would have dared touch Lady Vader; Amidala could at least take comfort in that knowledge, though the extreme aloofness made her feel lonely. When she opened her eyes ? noting the time and date in a surprised second ? she saw Reotti silhouetted against the porthole. "My Lady," he said. "I think you should come with me."

She followed him out into the corridor, quiet during sleep hours, and into an infirmary. In the middle, a temporary oxygen tent had been set up. Droids worked inside of it, creating an effective wall.

"We retrieved his TIE fighter this morning," Reotti said. "He'd put himself in some kind of stasis for a long voyage without proper life support, and we're reviving him. I thought you might like to be here."

Amidala almost asked, Who? But that would have been absurd. The question was, Who else?

The walls of the oxygen tent collapsed, and the droids parted to begin the cleanup. There, in the middle of the circle they'd left, was Ani...or whatever Ani was hiding behind.

Amidala felt her hand rise to her lips, heard herself gasp. He was encased, head to toe, in some kind of mechanical armor, and his head was covered with a grotesque mask that looked like a skull. The soft sound of the respirator that kept him alive filled the small room.

For a long moment, they simply stared at one another.

Then, in a burst of courage and desperation, she ran to him.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away?




It is a dark time for the Rebellion.

The Death Star has been destroyed, but the
Empire has grown even more powerful in the three
years since. Imperial troops have driven Rebel
forces into hiding, and the Rebellion's numbers
have dwindled, as the gentler touch of the resurrected Lady
Vader has soothed the open wounds of angry citizens.

Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a
small band of Rebels, held together by
Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa, has taken refuge
on the remote ice world of Hoth.

Lord and Lady Vader, obsessed with finding
the two Rebel leaders, have dispatched
probe droids into the far reaches of space...

Amidala sat quietly in her spacious quarters aboard the Super Star Destroyer. She waited for her husband to return from the bridge, hopefully with some news that would lead them to the Rebels?and their children. They had been searching fruitlessly for far too long. It was time for things to start happening, and she didn't need to be Force-sensitive to realize that.

She had waited so long for this. So very, very long. The last two decades of her life had been filled with little besides the personal torture of knowing the danger her children lived in, of knowing there was always a chance they would be discovered?of not knowing how they were, or if they were even still alive.

Then there were the thoughts of him. Her Ani, or Vader, or whatever he chose to call himself. She had never shaken the belief that she would have made the difference, if only she had been able to see him or talk to him after he first left?there was no evil so deep that it could have kept him apart from her?

And now ? finally and inexplicably ? she had been given that chance.

Amidala had never truly entertained the thought of leaving Anakin again. Every single objection she had had eventually fallen by the wayside. Some of them were more difficult to swallow than others, but nothing was important enough for her to risk being anywhere else. She had already tried being apart from him, and that had been an abject failure for her family, for the entire galaxy. Never again. Whatever let her be by his side was enough for her.

And if her position helped her find her children, and bring down Palpatine, all the better.

Those were the ultimate goals. That she would find the twins and bring them home, and together, they would dispose of the Emperor. She could finally atone for bringing him to power, and the galaxy would stop paying for her political and personal mistakes.

She and Anakin had discussed their?plans?for the Emperor on more than one occasion. Amidala had quickly realized how ineffective the Rebellion would be in destroying the Empire. It disheartened her a bit ? her children's lives were wrapped up in that cause, and she had lost many friends to it. But despite the victory at Yavin, the simple truth was the Rebellion didn't have the resources or the popular support to create anything more than a minor uprising. Palpatine was too smart and the Imperial military too large for them to ever be victorious.

And even if they were, what then? The Alliance was little more than a rag-tag group of outcasts and criminals ? if it weren't for Leia, Mon Mothma and a few others, they'd have no credibility at all. Did they actually expect that they could form a New Republic? That they could unite themselves, much less a fractious galaxy? Though she had great faith in her children's skills, she knew this was beyond them.

She and Anakin were in the proper position to wield real power, to create real change. The military, the regional governments ? he could bring most of them under his control with little difficulty. And she, of course, had become so popular with the masses that they'd be more than willing to support them when the time arrived.

It was ironic. Anakin had told her on more than one occasion that there was no room for compassion when attempting to take over and run an Empire ? yet it had been her compassion that had put her in this position, and forced Palpatine's hand in the process.

Anakin had been furious at her for circumventing his authority when they went to Trika 4. His reason for going there was simple ? to restore order to a planet that had fallen into riotous crime after a long famine. Little thought was spent on giving the Trikans any real assistance, and Amidala soon found herself rectifying that oversight.

Shock was the reaction she received from the people when they saw her handing out supplies and food in the camps, expressing sorrow and sympathy for their plight. It was simply unheard of for any Imperial to do such a thing. And she had the nerve to claim to be acting in Lord Vader's name. She still wasn't sure exactly what possessed her to do it (besides a true yearning to help). She had been certain that her transgression would not be tolerated.

But it was. Anakin knew that taking back the supplies or otherwise trying to undermine what she had done would be far more trouble than it was worth. So he grudgingly left her to control the mission, for the sake of simplicity.

By the end of the week, word that "Lady Vader" had saved the people of the planet had spread halfway across the galaxy.

By the next week, Amidala found herself repeating similar feats in as many systems as she could fit in her schedule.

It felt wonderful to be able to make a difference to those who had suffered so long under Palpatine's rule. But it wasn't enough. She knew that the Emperor was not fond of this arrangement ? she knew he was using her to his own ends. The minute the risk of keeping her outweighed her usefulness... for now, though, she was helping solidify his support ? and, he hoped, leading him to new apprentices through her search for her children.

That would never happen, though ? they would never follow him, she wouldn't lose them the way she lost her husband. Instead, they would be the last piece necessary to destroying him and his Empire. She had no doubt she and Anakin could stay ahead of him long enough to accomplish that ? they had so far. He wouldn't even realize what happened before his world came crumbling down around him.

She would finally beat Palpatine at his own game.

The sound of the door opening startled her. She turned and stood to face Anakin as he entered their quarters. "Is there any news?"

"I believe we've found them," he replied. "We are heading for the Hoth system now."

Amidala felt a satisfied smile come to her face. It was just a matter of time.

Her smile lit the gray military quarters, and Vader wished to return it. But they had experimented somewhat with ways for her to live easily in his atmosphere ? the hyperbaric, heavily oxygenated air of his sterile spaces ? and nothing had quite worked yet. He could not simply respond to her without a good deal of rather involved preparation.

A wave of anger at the injustice of it at least served to quell the desire to smile. "We are approaching Hoth at top speeds," he said. "It is my hope to take the base with minimal damage. The troops are under instructions to bring the Rebels to us as prisoners."

She nodded. They both knew their quarters were, in all likelihood, bugged. They dared not speak of their plans here. "Soon," she said. "Soon, it will be over."

"Yes, my love. Soon." Their eyes met, hers never faltering to search. She always knew where he was looking, despite the opaque lenses.


When she had returned to him, he had understood his purpose for the first time. He had understood what he was meant to do, and why this path had opened before him. He had understood it as soon as he'd seen the way the people responded to her, the way she wanted to build the galaxy.

He would clear the way for Amidala.

So she could rule without challenge.

And the Maker himself wouldn't be able to help anyone who dared oppose her.

The glare off the snow was blindingly bright, making it impossible to distinguish sky from horizon, or horizon from tundra. Luke stared into it, trying, with no noticeable success, to readjust his goggles to cope with it. The tauntaun he rode seemed to be doing marginally better. She was used to it.

A flash of even brighter light, white on white, broke the afternoon, and Luke drew his electrobinoculars from their loop on his utility belt. It was a neverending job, watching the sky here. Many things fell out of it. It was probably another false alarm, but they couldn't take chances. There weren't enough people here to begin to survive an Imperial assault. He raised his wrist and spoke into the comlink. "Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han, old buddy, do you read me?"

The pirate answered immediately, but irritably. "Yeah, I'm here."

"No life signs," Luke said automatically. It was the same every day. He and Han had volunteered for the afternoon patrol, and there wasn't any room for schedule relief.

"No kidding," Han said. "Leia's the only one crazy enough to decide to live here."

Luke rolled his eyes. Han was free to go any time. Han knew it. Luke knew it. Leia knew it, but she seemed bound and determined to annoy him into actually acting on it. Luke didn't understand her at all. At first, all had been well. But then Lady Vader had appeared on Trika, and several Rebels had mentioned that she might make a valuable ally on the inside. Leia had gone stiff and pale, and had responded by calling Lady Vader "the worst kind of traitor." Ever since, she'd been thoroughly defiant toward any conciliatory gesture, any chance of making peace with the Empire rather than achieving victory over it. Mon Mothma was as firm in her rejection of Lady Vader, but gentler in her handling of people. Leia seemed to want to dare people to defect...and some had taken her up on it.

Luke had decided two years ago not to brave her wrath by bringing it up, but he himself was not averse to Lady Vader's actions. If she could bring some kindness into the Empire, then maybe part of the war could be avoided, or at least the devastation of it lessened. He'd tried to find information about her, but she was as much a blank slate as Vader himself. She was referred to as his "wife of twenty-three years," but of her whereabouts until Trika, or her identity before she became Lady Vader, nothing at all was mentioned. Luke supposed it was out there to be found, but too much searching would come to Leia's attention.

"You still there, Kid?"

"Yeah. I just saw a meteorite hit. I better check it out before I come in tonight."

"You can add it to the rock collection by the generators." Han cut off the communication, and Luke caught a slight motion on the far horizon.

The tauntaun was twitching its head back and forth nervously, making a clicking noise in its throat. Maybe it would be better to just go back. Get a fresh mount, not so skittish...

The tauntaun reared up, and Luke almost lost his seat. "Hey, girl. What is ??"

But he never finished the sentence. Swimming up from the landscape, like living snow itself, a white creature with red eyes and sharp claws lunged at Luke.

He was knocked from the back of the beast, into hardpacked snow that bit at the exposed parts of his skin.

The creature howled into the sky.

Luke reached for his blaster, but the creature took another swing at him, knocking off his aim and throwing his blaster uselessly into a snowbank.

He saw the third blow coming too late to duck.

He fell unconscious into the snow.

Han stormed through the base, impatiently ripping his goggles and hood away, cursing under his breath as a blast of cold air hit him. Just once, he wished he could come inside and have it be warmer than it was out there.

At least he'd be out of here soon. He was silly ? sentimental ? for staying as long as he had. The Rebellion's numbers were dropping on an almost daily basis. And none of those deserters had bounty on their heads. No, they had just given up, and bailed out. Got tired of fighting for a galaxy that seemed to care less and less. If people were happy living under a dictatorship as long as Lady Vader shook their hands and smiled at them--or at least made them believe she was smiling behind her veils--who were they to argue? Who were the Rebels to risk their lives day in and day out trying to change their minds?

Chewie howled at him loudly, and Han frowned at him. The ship looked like it was in pieces ? well, even more than usual. He had hoped that Chewie would have gotten further during his watch. The Wookiee yelled again, this time waving his blowtorch for emphasis.

"Relax, will you! I'll be back in a minute to help you out. All right?"

Chewie just grunted in annoyance.

Han ignored him and continued to the operations center of the base to check in?and to check out. He wasn't exactly looking forward to it. He'd miss the friends he had made in the Rebellion, but he was sure they'd understand. But Leia?


She would scratch his eyes out for certain. Sometimes, he thought his fear of her was what kept his fear of Jabba in check.

But that wasn't entirely true or fair, and he knew it. He hadn't stayed out of fear, or even out of some misguided loyalty to the great Rebel cause.

Did she even know that she was the reason he stayed? She certainly didn't act like it. That woman was more difficult, more frustrating than anyone he had known in his life. He couldn't begin to figure out what was going on in her head half the time, and often wished he could find a way to stop caring. But he couldn't, no matter how she acted. He kept thinking that he could get through to her, make her open up?

It wasn't that he didn't understand what she had been through. Han supposed that the destruction of one's planet would be more than enough to drive most people crazy. But Leia had never been most people. She had kept going at full throttle, a feat that he admired greatly. They eventually became very good friends, which he appreciated ? he hadn't had a real friend besides Chewie in years. Sure, there were always little sparring matches and disagreements, but he thought they had really started to become close.

And then everything changed. Something was driving her crazy ? something she refused to share with anyone.

He shook his head, suddenly realizing that he was standing outside the operations center, doing nothing. He marched in to give his report.

"General, all the sensors are in place, but there's no sign of life out there." From the corner of his eye, he saw Leia turn to him.

"Commander Skywalker reported in yet?"

"No, he's checking out a meteorite that fell nearby." She was openly staring at him now. He glanced at her briefly, then continued. "General, it's time for me to leave, I can't stay anymore." She turned away in a huff. Wonderful. "If I don't pay off Jabba the Hutt, I'm a dead man."

The General gave him a resigned smile and extended his hand. "A death mark's not an easy thing to live with. We hate to lose you, Han." Han shook the man's hand and thanked him.

He headed slowly over to her, bracing himself for a fight. "Well, Princess, I guess this is it."

Her expression was blank. "That's right."

Han was completely taken aback ? she couldn't even pretend that she cared? "Well, don't get all mushy on me," he snapped. "So long." He blew out of the room, angry and confused, the way he always seemed to feel when he was around her these days.

He hadn't gotten two steps down the hall before he heard her calling after him. "Yes, Your Highness?"

Now that she had his attention, she seemed to be at a loss for words. "I thought?I thought you had decided to stay."

He tried to shrug nonchalantly. "I changed my mind."

"Han, we need you here."

He rolled his eyes. "We need?"

"Yes! You know that. We can't afford to lose any more people like you."

"And you, Leia?"

"Me?" She blinked. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He'd had enough of this. "Probably not," he replied, and again tried to get away from her.

But she was still hot on his heels. "And what exactly is it that I'm supposed to know?"

Han stopped and turned around. "Look, Leia, I don't need another one of your lectures on my loyalty to the Rebellion. I've been more than loyal, and definitely more loyal than anyone else here. I stayed years longer than I had to." He heaved a frustrated sigh. "Don't you ever wonder why ?"

She didn't hear the question. "Fine. Leave. Far be it from me to hold you back from your life as a smuggler. It doesn't make a difference ? whether you leave, or if you all leave."

"What is wrong with you, Leia?" He was shouting now, and several people in the hallway jumped, and then tried to look as though they weren't listening as they walked by. He barely noticed them; his eyes bore into hers.

To his great surprise, she fell silent. Then she looked away.


"You don't know." Her voice was as low as he had ever heard it. "You don't know what this has been like." She closed her eyes for a moment. "You couldn't possibly understand. Nobody does."

Han had the vague feeling he should still be angry at her, but his curiosity at her change in demeanor got the better of him. And he did want to know, want to help. "Understand what?" he asked gently. "I wish you would tell me." Leia stared at him quietly, but seemed unable to say anything more. "You know, whatever this is that's bothering you is eating you alive. You've got to talk to someone." She started shaking her head vehemently. "Is it about?about all that stuff that happened before? I know that Vader ?"

Her head snapped up. "You don't know anything," she said sharply. "I don't need your help, and I don't need you to stay. You want to leave? Then go. Don't try to put this off as my problem."

The anger came back at him in a rush. "Fine! Go crazy, I don't care." The words felt hollow ? he was still intrigued by whatever had triggered those quiet moments ? and she looked a little hurt, which surprised him. But his fury and confusion didn't allow him to sort any of it out. So he just turned and walked away. This time, she didn't follow him.


"Hey, she's back on!"

Dak rolled his chair across to the holoproj, with its scrambled visuals and terrible audio. Still, there was no mistaking Lady Vader, with her flowing red veils and long red gown. There was almost as much speculation about what her face really looked like as there was about her husband. In her case, everyone figured she was a beauty. Little glimpses could be seen...the turn of a cheek, the deep shadow of an eye, the imprint of a full lip. There wasn't a guy Dak knew who didn't have his own idea what she looked like under there, and each of them pictured her as what he perceived as perfect beauty.

Though Dak would never admit it to anyone, half the time including himself, he pictured her as looking just like Princess Leia. Which would be an exceptionally bad idea to express anyway, when he thought about it.

"What's she doing?" he asked.

"Who cares?" one of the other pilots ? Terlik ? said. He was smiling, and leaning forward eagerly.

"Be careful," Risa Nelva said, giving Terlik a dark look over her shoulder. Women weren't immune to Lady Vader, but they seemed a bit slower to worship her.

Terlik waved it off. "No one's deserting. I don't see why she can't let us enjoy the show."

Risa paused, her face a mask of disbelief, then laughed aloud. "You're actually more afraid of Princess Leia than you are of Lady Vader's husband?"

"She's actually here; he's actually not."

Dak settled in to watch. The figure of Lady Vader appeared to be kneeling beside a small boy, and through the cracked static, he heard her say, "Peace, child, what troubles you?"

Yuruo, a young Deridian pilot with deep blue hair, just shook his head, his eyes never leaving the flickering figure. "How does that work, do you think? The two of 'em?"

Risa rolled her eyes. "I think that's an inappropriate thing to talk about."

They ignored her. "I mean really, can you see them together?" Terlik wrinkled his nose. "Wonder if she gets under that mask of his."

"Guys..." Risa said, her voice a low warning.

They continued ignoring her. "Yeah," Dak said. "Gotta see that homecoming. Surprising him by showing up all know, without the veils..."

"Yeah, and he ?"

The holoproj was abruptly discontinued, and Dak knew before he turned to the door exactly who he would find there.

Princess Leia stood, white framed in white (Risa had once quipped that she wished Leia's hatred of the Vaders would at least prompt her to stop dressing as monochromatically as they did), her lips a thin, angry line. Her face was as white as her uniform, except for two bright firespots high on her cheekbones. She stared at them for a long moment, her eyes shifting from one to the next. When she caught Dak ? and it definitely felt like he was caught, trapped in a tractor beam ? he thought laser beams might well shoot out at him and fry him on the spot. Worse, he felt deeply and personally ashamed.

She spoke at last, her voice clipped. "Has anyone seen Commander Skywalker?"

"No, ma'am," Risa said. "He hasn't come in here yet."

Another circuit with those cutting eyes. "Very well. I'll see if he's contacted Captain Solo. If Commander Skywalker does come here, tell him to see me immediately." She turned on her heel and left.

The pilots looked at each other guiltily, and Risa sniffed disdainfully. "Don't look at me," she said. "I told you not to talk about that."

With a flip of her hair, she followed the Princess out.

A loud, satisfying crash sounded in Han's ears. Sure, it was childish to be throwing his tools all over the Falcon, but he couldn't think of anything more productive to do at the moment. Except maybe yelling at Chewie. "Why'd you take this apart now?" He got no response. "I'm trying to get us out of here and you ? forget it. Just forget it."

"Excuse me, sir?"

Great. Unlike Chewie, these mindless droids never knew when to shut up or leave him alone. "What do you want, Threepio?"

"It's Princess Leia, sir. She's been trying to get you on the communicator."

Han was overcome by annoyance. What could she possibly have to say to him now? "I don't want to talk to her."

"Well, Princess Leia is wondering about Master Luke. She doesn't know where he is."

"I don't know where he is."

"Nobody knows where he is."

He frowned. "What do you mean nobody knows?" Han tried to figure out how long it had been since he had gotten back to the base?it felt like hours. "Deck Officer!" The droid tried to say something again, but Han quickly shut him up. "Do you know where Commander Skywalker is?"

The man stared, shrugged. "I haven't seen him. It's possible he came in through the south entrance."

A sinking feeling settled in Han's stomach. "It's possible? Go find out, it's getting dark out there." The man turned quickly, leaving Han pensive and worried. He was already sure that Luke wasn't on the base ? he never missed checking in, and he wouldn't be this hard for Leia to find. The Rebels had all received dire warnings about the nights on Hoth, about not falling into the trap of thinking they had gotten used to the cold. If Luke was still out there?

"Excuse me sir, but might I inquire... what is going on?"

Han said something dismissive to Threepio, and headed for the main hangar.

The officer soon followed him in with his report. "Sir, Commander Skywalker hasn't been seen at the south entrance. Maybe he forgot to check in ?"

Well, that settled it. "Not likely. Are the speeders ready?"

"Not yet, we're having trouble adjusting them to the cold."

Would nothing go his way today? "Then I'll have to go on a tauntaun."

"Sir, the temperature's dropping too rapidly."

"That's right, and my friend's out there in it." He had no intention of listening to any of their warnings anyway. No matter how much they annoyed him, or how ridiculous the situations they got into, Han knew he was always bound to help out the few friends he had.

"Your tauntaun will freeze before the first marker."

"Then I'll see you in hell!" Han spurred his tauntaun, and rode out into the dangerously cold night on Hoth.

It is a pleasant dream that has come to him several times in the last few years, a dream of a voice he knows and loves, a dream where he feels safe and desperately wanted. The voice is gentle and low.

The dream changes suddenly, and he is alone...but he can hear her still, calling out to him. "Luke? Luke? I need to find you! Where are you, my precious son?"

And he wants to run to her, but he feels ? no, he knows ? that to do so will destroy everything and...

The dream ended and wakefulness returned.

The first thing he was aware of was a painful sense of pressure on the underside of his eyes, and the taut pulling of the muscles in his cheeks. There was a heaviness in the crown of his head, and a warm, frightening tingling in his scalp.

After that, there was a strange sound, neither hum nor buzz, that overlaid the sound of the wind outside. Like an aural veil, it seemed to both interfere with his ability to perceive, and separate him from everything around him.

Finally, Luke noticed his feet...or rather, noticed that he didn't notice them. His legs were stretched and tugged like pull candy, but the pain stopped in a seeping line above his ankles. He couldn't seem to find his feet along the paths of his nerves.

He opened his eyes.

At first, he didn't quite process what he was seeing, but it became clear quickly enough. He was upside down. Everything had a funny, shimmery look, because of the pressure on his eyes.

From the blood rushing up against them. Great. Not going to help my response time.

With a painful effort, he bent his neck and looked up. His feet were still attached to him ? thank the Maker ? but they were frozen in two or three decimeters of clear ice. He'd need to...

His lightsaber was gone. He hadn't even realized he was reaching for it until his hand came across the empty loop in his belt. He let his head back down, and scanned his surroundings.

The creature that had attacked him was sitting several meters away, eating the tauntaun. Luke felt a moment of grief ? it had been a good beast ? but he didn't have time to get sentimental. He put the creature out of his mind. His goggles still hung from his jacket by one frayed strap. Nothing seemed to be on the snow...

But there. Poking out of the snow, just out of reach. The black handle of Anakin Skywalker's lightsaber.

For all the good it's doing me, it might as well be back in Ben's house on Tatooine.

But thinking of Ben gave him the answer. Let go your conscious self...Use the Force, Luke.

He hadn't tried this before, but there was little choice. He reached out his hand, and concentrated on the saber.

Nothing happened.

Except that the creature glanced over and noticed that he was awake. It growled and stood. Luke had to get out of here, and now.

It belongs to you. It wants to be in your hand. Call out to it.

It wasn't Ben's voice. It was Luke's own, in some way that he didn't understand. He relaxed, and held out his hand again. He could feel an energy flowing through his arm, a stream that didn't travel along his blood vessels or his nerves, but along some other, elemental pathway that seemed hungry for it. The saber began to shake in the snow, to pull out a few centimeters.

The creature took a step toward him, distracting him, and he lost his hold. He struggled, pushed the advancing creature from his mind. The energy came back into him.

The creature moved more quickly, swung its giant arm again...

Just as the lightsaber flew into Luke's hand and ignited. He arced it quickly through the ice (hoping against hope that he would miss his numb feet), and fell to the ground, swinging the lightsaber on the ice creature in the same motion.

It screamed and stumbled backward, bleeding from the stump of its arm, staining the ground red. Then it fell beside the tauntaun.

Luke tried to stand, but his feet wouldn't hold him properly. He staggered from side to side, no longer focused, no longer thinking, just needing, in the most visceral way, to leave this place of blood and pain, even if it meant his death out on the tundra.

He stumbled out into the frozen sunset.

"My Lord, we are making good time to the Hoth system."

Vader nodded curtly at the young captain (Piett, he believed; a decent man, and therefore a rare commodity in the upper echelons of the military). "I will prepare my shuttle for landing," he said.

Piett didn't even blink at the strange practice, simply saluted and went on his way. Vader had made certain to actually do maintenance on the ships in his private fleet often enough that he could disappear to the hangar without raising eyebrows. Amidala always smiled and laughed when he gave this reason. "Ani," she would say, and why the name never infuriated him coming from her lips he didn't know, "expect what you like from the men, but don't tell me that's the only reason you come to me covered in engine grease in the evenings."

Vader didn't disabuse her of the notion that he was recapturing childhood memories ? it made her happy, and that was his priority ? but in fact, he took little pleasure in maintaining the over-specialized, over-centralized technology that Palpatine favored. What pleasures he was able to take from his talent, he took from the captured Rebel ships, which were old and needed maintenance badly, but which were built to be weapons, transportation, and occasionally even living quarters. They were machines that both needed and pleased him. But they were not kept in a place he needed to develop a habit of coming to. The hangar where they were stored was bugged.

He entered the hangar that housed TIE fighters and shuttles, passed his own fighter without a glance ? no one would dare check to see if he had actually altered it in any way ? and went to a shuttle in the far shadows. It had been in need of repairs to its hyperdrive for some time, but Vader had seen to it that it continued to slip to the bottom of the priority list. He hit a button on the remote built into his wrist, and the gangplank lowered. He couldn't see into the shadows, but he didn't need to. He went inside.

The first thing he saw was the shimmer of the emergency lights on the deep red veils she wore (they had agreed that it would be unwise to allow anyone to see her ? there were still those who remembered Queen Amidala and the Jedi she had married, and that was not a memory that would be useful to their cause), then the smooth turn of her ankle somewhere beneath. The lights came up, and he saw her all at once, the scarlet angel who had won the heart and the soul of the galaxy.

As she had won his, long before they truly knew her.

But this was not a place for tenderness. There were such places, and there were moments of great tenderness between them, when the walls of his chamber rose around them, and she wore the flexible face shield (ironically enough, an application of Gungan technology) that allowed his touch while still allowing her to breathe the air...That she would still accept his kiss ? that she had, in fact, made rather elaborate arrangements to accommodate it ? both astounded and humbled him, and filled him with deep gratitude. But this was a place for other concerns.

"Have you confirmed that they are there on Hoth?" she asked.

That the Rebels were on Hoth was not in question. "I have sensed Luke there. He used the Force, and his signature is distinctive."

"And Leia? Is Leia there?"

"I find it unlikely that she would be absent." A tense silence fell between them. The lie ? the huge, horrible lie she had told ? was still a wound between them, and would not be fully salved until they were all together again. He had suspected Luke's existence, so somehow it was not as terrible to discover that secret...but to have a child he never dreamed of, to have Leia taken from him without so much as a whisper in the was intolerable. But, just as she had laid aside many of her own...disagreements...with him, so had he laid aside his anger at her over this. He waited for the stinging to go away, then went on. "She will not come to us easily, Amidala. Her resistance to any sort of authority is considerable."

"She'll listen," Amidala said softly. The veils shifted, and Vader could tell by her posture that she was biting her lower lip. "She has to."

"Amidala, you must be prepared for certain unpleasant things. The twins have set themselves among our enemies and there will be fighting."

"But Lord..." She stammered on it. She had never called him "Vader," and he didn't think she ever would. "I don't want them hurt. I will protect them, if it comes to that."

"I have no wish to hurt either of them. But if one or the other of them engages us in a fight, we will need to end it."

She turned her face up to him. He could see the vague outlines of her features under the veils, and her eyes were probing his. "I know," she said after awhile. "But if they...if they're hurt badly, it?defeats the purpose of this."

"They will not be hurt badly, or killed. They will return with us. I will see to that."

"And then I'll speak to them." Her eyes moved restlessly around the shuttle. "Maybe I should try to speak to Leia first. Surely, she doesn't want to prolong this war unnecessarily."

"Her behavior thus far doesn't support that assessment. Let me bring them to you, Amidala. Then you can explain the situation to them. You will win their support. And without them, the Alliance will unravel, and we shall have peace at last."

"And then we go after Palpatine," she said firmly. Vader simply prayed that no one had thought to bug this shuttle over the past week. "The four of us, together. He won't be able to stand against us all."


Her eyes became focused, and turned on him. "But I mean it, Ani. I will protect them."

"Of course you will," he said. "I would expect nothing less."


"Any word yet from Commander Skywalker or Captain Solo?" Leia asked the on-duty ensign at the command center comm station, walking up behind him.

The ensign, a fresh-faced pale sort with dark blond hair like Luke's ? Leia suddenly felt a pang at the latter's continued absence ? tapped a few keys on his console, then a moment later shook his head at the Princess. "We've received no transmission since Captain Solo's initial report an hour ago. Would you like me to ?"

"Contact me immediately if there is any change in the situation," Leia cut in crisply, turning on her boot heel and walking briskly out of Command, towards the main entry hangar, leaving the young ensign with an only slightly perplexed expression on his face. After all, this was typical behavior for her of late...

A human lieutenant ran up to her in the corridor, which was empty at this late hour, falling into step with Leia, trying to match her quick, steady pace. "Princess," he said, breathing heavily, not even drawing a glance from Leia as she continued her stride. "I've received word from General Rieekan that it will be time to seal the security doors soon. The blizzard outside is worsening." As per typical evenings on Hoth. But that had no soothing effects on the Princess.

"Am I also to understand that Commander Skywalker and Captain Solo have yet to return to base?" she returned coolly, quickening her pace towards the front hangar, still not visually acknowledging the lieutenant.

Undeterred, the lieutenant ? Alchar ? continued to match her pace ? but his voice took on a decidedly more hesitant tone. "That is correct, Your Highness. But despite the unquestioned importance of the Commander and the Captain to the Alliance, the safety of those who currently are here must be taken into consideration...and the General has agreed to send a scouting team out early tomorrow morning, once the blizzard has passed, to conduct a search for them..."

Morning...why not just wait until next week, for all the chances they'll be alive by then...

"That, and the chances of Solo and Skywalker's survival are considered minimal enough to not be worthy of consideration against the safety of those here at the base?" Leia replied, her voice becoming deceptively soft. She stopped suddenly, fixing the lieutenant with a fiery opal gaze, which visibly brought him up short.

"Tell the General this, Lieutenant Alchar," Leia continued in the same tone to the officer, whose face was starting to redden from factors other than the cold. "I am aware of the importance of and intend to ensure the safety of those stationed here; so far, it has not been threatened. Commander Skywalker and Captain Solo have been and are extremely invaluable to the Alliance ?" and to me... "? and I will not see their lives lost and have such a potentially damaging blow placed on the Alliance because their comrades were afraid to brave the cold a little longer than necessary...which they themselves have already done to an extended degree tonight out there. The doors will remain open for the time being, until they return ? or it has been decreed by myself that the chances of danger to the base outweigh those of their survival." Whichever comes first...

The officer swallowed and nodded. "Yes, Princess," he said, turning away and running down the corridor.

If only Luke hadn't just had to check that meteorite...a rock from space, which we get every day on Hoth, of all things...! It wasn't the first time Luke's curiosity had gotten him into trouble since Leia had known him. It just hadn't endangered his life ? or that of his friends, however indirectly ? like this before.

Slowing her pace ? suddenly she was no longer in a hurry to arrive at her destination ? she arrived at the hangar a few minutes later. Like all hours of the day the cavernous expanse of the main snubfighter hangar was abuzz with the activity of droids and sentient beings alike, all mulling around performing the daily tasks inherent to their existence ? the number was smaller at this late hour, but still far from empty. But despite being surrounded by so many, Leia still felt a keen, biting sense of aloneness seeping through her brain like the cold through her gloves. So many here, and she was still at heart as alone as if she were in deep space...even with Luke and Han around it was still like this...

She'd told herself this was the way she wanted it. For a time, she'd masqueraded it as self-reliance, not allowing outside help from anyone ? but pragmatism had fizzled that out fairly quickly. This way, no one would pry at her about the jagged splinter in her soul that had been plaguing her for the last two years ? reopening the wound she'd had ever since she'd seen that awful transmission intercepted by the Alliance, from the Lady to the Lord Vader...The one she had not told a soul about, the one she still saw unwillingly replayed with razor-sharp clarity in her mind's eye.

The unmistakable mechanical breathing, recognizable even through the initial white fuzz of static. "I have warned you repeatedly not to contact me on this frequency. I cannot guarantee its security, my Lady."

The static resolving itself into a familiar beautiful red-clad figure, for the first time the face with the familiar full lips, defined chin and delicate cheekbones ? and Leia's own eyes ? seen unshrouded by its typical red veils...Leia remembered her heart freezing in her chest...

The musical laughter that had responded, reverberating through Leia's soul as it awakened bell-clear memories of lullabyes, sung in whispers by that same voice to a little Princess in her crib. "You worry about me far too much, my love. When are you expected to arrive in-system?"

She clenched her fists tightly against the memory as she continued walking, much like she had when she'd initially reacted to this revelation of her true and horrific heritage. Only this time the gloves on her hands kept her sharp nails from cutting deep, bleeding wounds into her palms.

You worry about me far too much, my love...

No, it couldn't be bad enough that her own mother had betrayed her, returned to him...she had actually called him, unhesitatingly, "love" matter if he was in fact Leia's...was her...

As always, she knew the end to that sentence, even if she never did allow herself to complete it. Even after all this time, was she still fighting the truth?

No, she assured herself. She was fighting the Empire, and they were the Empire, her greatest enemy (no matter what connections they had to her; it wasn't like she'd asked to be born). She couldn't afford to spend her effort fighting anything else.

As Leia strode through the hangar, not looking at anyone else, she could still sense the sudden knife-edged silence in areas as she walked past people. She heard the unmistakable increase in heated...gossipy...murmurs that officers and duty techs exchanged the moment they thought she was out of their earshot. She knew it was about her; there was nothing else there could be, particularly now that her temper was known infamously throughout the Rebellion. Leia felt a heat rise in her cheeks as she experienced this; after some time she'd become somewhat adapted to it, but it still sparked a reaction in her she was too tempted to act on and one she would rather not acknowledge had come from her mind.

Maybe it hadn't come from her, but from him.

There were a lot of things which ? or whose ? origin she didn't care to acknowledge, she thought.

She had a very active loathing for gossip of any sort ? more often than not Leia found it to be the misguided child of too many idle wandering minds...which the Alliance certainly didn't need. There had been enough wandering as it was.

It had been little wonder, then, that she'd been ready to eat a lightsaber blade when she'd seen a few certain pilots watching a holoreel of a certain popular, traitorous...high Lady of the Empire...speculating on certain "special" activities they thought she performed for her husband...

She'd nearly choked on the barely stifled, angry burst that had risen from her core.

Aside from the obvious annoyance a superior might typically have at the sight of his workers engaged in such an unproductive activity during duty hours, the process had struck Leia as thoroughly revolting on more than one front, or maybe just multiple facets of a larger one ? and an extremely personal one at that, which was the main source of her anger at witnessing it. It was bad enough they actually seemed to approve of her, and what she was doing...

How dare they have the gall do that?a part of her, the base central core of her anger, had declared...

The idea that she probably would willingly subject herself to that black monstrosity in such a manner...the idea that something related to that was one of the primary reasons Leia existed...

A familiar chirping gratefully jerked Leia from her unpleasant reverie, for a brief moment prompting a small smile: hers and Luke's droids. Bless the two of them; they'd been outside for the past hour with Artoo's small radar dish, sweeping its signal through the blanketing snow. The signal more than likely was not strong enough to penetrate the blizzard, but it was good of them to try.

Leia wondered if they were missing her friends as much as she was.

The squat form of Artoo Detoo trailed in through the still-open base security doors following a muttering See-Threepio, who was lamenting how the water from the snow in his circuits would most certainly impair his higher cognitive functions.

Leia wished she could find as easy an excuse as melted snow.

She leaned back against the fuselage of an X-Wing near the base's entrance, flicking her gaze to the thick durasteel doors that would, when closed, shut out both the frigid Hoth weather and the beasts that accompanied it. She could just barely make out the rapidly darkening sky in sporadic bursts between the blowing whiteness, and knew what it meant for the still unreturned Han and Luke. The familiar furry leviathan form of Chewbacca the Wookiee, Han's copilot ? and best friend ? for once not working on the Millennium Falcon to stand vigil for his companion, standing near a pile of machine parts not far away, let out a low, mournful growl: he knew what it meant too.

She knew it was time to close the doors. They should have long since been closed, truthfully; the evening blizzards had already started, more intense than usual, and even now various Rebels in the hangar were bundling tighter in their winterized clothing, trying to avoid the swirls of blustering snow that were making their way in.

Was she merely delaying acceptance of the inevitable with her actions? She briefly wondered. That Luke and Han were not in fact returning?

They'd been through so much, so many scrapes together that to have something like this claim the lives of two of just wasn't right.

But then a lot of things weren't.

She wouldn't accept the possibility they would be gone from her life forever...

And something hit her just then, like a soft yet firm blow to the chest; and then it was as if a burst of clarity had displaced the protective lens she'd kept over her eyes, the one that had shielded her from all the horrifying possibilities she didn't want to acknowledge. Leia's lips tightened to the point where they nearly disappeared, as reality finally forced itself to be acknowledged, if at least only temporarily.

Delaying things wouldn't change the possibility that Han and Luke might not return. That she might be left alone without those she cared about in the universe.

It wouldn't change the fact that the woman she'd cared about more than anything as a little girl was not with her, instead collaborating with a government Leia had made it her life's purpose to destroy, returning to the man who had hurt them all. The man that was Leia's father.

Briefly moving her eyes to the side, she recognized the gray parka-clad figure of Colonel Bren Derlin several meters away, as one of the on-duty officers jogged up to him, his excited voice carrying over just enough for Leia to overhear.

"Sir, all the patrols are in. But we've still not he?" Derlin raised a hand, casting a brief look at Leia, and she heard no more. But she knew what they were talking about.

Leia looked towards the doors once more and tightened her lips for a moment, knowing the decision she had to make.

Artoo and Threepio shuffled their way ? well, with Artoo it was more rolling ? towards her. Artoo let out a brief series of beeps. "Mistress Leia...Artoo says he's been unable to pick up any signals," Threepio translated, resting the tips of his gold-plated fingers on Leia's forearm. "But he is willing to admit that his own signal may not be strong enough to penetrate the storm. Certainly not far enough to abandon all hope."

Colonel Derlin made his way up to her a moment later; Leia forced herself to meet his soft gray eyes. "Your Highness," he said gently, as if perhaps he were concerned he might arouse the Princess's legendary temper. "There is nothing more that can be done tonight. The shield doors must be closed."

She was making the decision that she knew could very well mean the life or death of two men she cared for deeply. Yes, somehow, she felt it a little easier now to admit she actually did care for Han Solo ? but she regretted that it took the possibility of his death, his no longer being in her life, for her to admit that.

Derlin and the young officer stood there expectantly, awaiting her decision.

The Princess closed her eyes and nodded slowly to Derlin, looking away from them quickly.

"Close the doors," Derlin ordered the officer next to him, who moved quickly to comply.

Leia saw Chewie look at her, surprised at the understanding in his deep brown eyes. Somehow she'd expected it to be a look of betrayal instead, that it was her decision potentially condemning his life friend to a cold, lonely death. (Leia, for a heartbroken moment, pictured the image of a near-frozen Han and Luke, banging on the closed shield doors in the night...the howling of the night's winds drowning out the sounds to any who might have heard them.)

But perhaps she'd misjudged the Wookiee code of honor ? that Chewbacca would instead acknowledge the fact that it had been Han's own decision to return outside to search for his comrade, that Han would accept his fate as consequences of his own actions. Leia tried to take comfort from this, and their shared pain over the situation, but after a moment she found she simply just couldn't look at the Wookiee anymore. Let alone take any comfort from him.

Threepio, of course, could always be counted on...

"Artoo says the chances of Masters Han and Luke's survival are approximately seven hundred and one," he told Leia softly.

With a low mechanical rumble, the huge doors began to slowly slide shut.

Leia and Chewie kept their eyes on the diminishing gap between the doors, hoping that in this last moment two familiar figures would suddenly appear in the snow-covered darkness, running through the blizzard.

The doors moved even closer together. Artoo let out a subdued beep, and Chewie averted his gaze from the exit, propping his furred forehead against a nearby bulkhead.

Smaller and smaller the gap became...

Leia never moved her eyes from the gap, even as it disappeared.

The doors came together with a solid steel clang. At that very moment Chewbacca raised his head in a mournful howl, which echoed throughout the hangar, nearly overcoming the clang of the doors themselves.

"Although Artoo has been known to make mistakes...from time to time." Leia looked incredulously at Threepio, but he had already turned away, muttering "Oh dear, oh dear," to himself.

"Don't worry about Master Luke," Threepio consoled Artoo. "I'm sure he'll be all right. He is quite clever, you know. For a human being, anyway."

Despite the vaguely disparaging remark it had included, Leia fervently hoped his sentiments were right.

But, maybe, tonight was a night for accepting the things that hurt you.

He was going to die. Or maybe he was already dead.

Luke couldn't quite decide which was true. He wasn't even sure if it really mattered.

He couldn't feel anything. His legs had gone completely numb from his experience in the cave?and since he couldn't see more than a step or two ahead of him, he couldn't tell if he was moving or not. He was trying ? but to what end? He couldn't pretend that he knew which way the base was. So, if he wasn't dead yet, he would be soon anyway.

Luke felt himself become dizzy, felt himself?fall? The impact never came; there was only a dull awareness that he wasn't standing any more. He started to roll over, mostly as an attempt to settle the spinning in his head. Eventually, he felt like he was right side up again, and started going through the motions of walking.

It wasn't long before he fell once more, straight on his face. This time he felt the impact. This time he didn't bother to fight it. He would die out here, covered by the snow. The white sheet that appeared before him slowly faded to black, and Luke felt himself slip away.


His name. Somebody was saying his name. And with the voice came a sudden, if limited, warmth. It didn't really do much to thaw out his body, but it brought back a touch of his awareness, and made him realize that he wasn't alone out there in the snow.


Luke summoned strength from that flicker of warmth, and it was enough for him to lift his head out of the snow. And he saw?

It couldn't be.

"Ben?" The Jedi's spirit almost blended fully into the gray skies behind him. But he was definitely there, looking both somber and concerned as he stared down at Luke.

"You will go to the Dagobah system."

His voice came through so clearly, despite the wind and snow... it was as though he was speaking from within Luke's mind. "Dagobah system," Luke repeated.

"You must bring Leia with you, Luke. Once there, you will both find Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me."

Before Luke could question his directions, the warmth left him, and he was freezing again. No, don't leave. "Ben?" He saw his hand shakily reach out before him, towards a vision that was already fading. "Ben!" Lost and alone again, Luke passed out in the snowy bank.

Han could barely see him, unmoving and becoming covered by the falling snow. He veered wildly between relief and dread ? he had found Luke much more quickly than he had anticipated, but it could still be too late.

"Luke!" he cried as he impatiently dismounted his tauntaun. He rolled Luke over, grimly noting the bleeding and bruises that covered his face. "Give me a sign here." He leaned in closely to listen for Luke's breathing. Of course, he couldn't hear much of anything, what with the wind ? and the unceasing mewling of his tauntaun. He stood to stare at his steed in annoyance?

?which turned to disbelief as the animal promptly keeled over and died.

A string of curses sprung to Han's lips, as he wondered for the hundredth time that day what he could have possibly done to deserve all of this nonsense.

"Ahh," he grumbled angrily. He could worry about that once he and Luke survived this mess.

Grabbing Luke roughly by the arms, he dragged him slowly over to the tauntaun. At least he'd get some use out of this animal.


Good, so he was still alive, and even almost conscious. Maybe he had gotten here in time after all. Han unhooked Luke's saber from his belt, and clumsily ignited it.


He sliced the animal open lengthwise. "Hang on, kid." Luke continued his babbling and Han tried to ignore his own revulsion as he pushed Luke under the animal. "And I thought they smelled bad on the outside," he moaned to himself. With a final shake of his head at his run of bad luck, Han set about building the shelter.

The morning sun washed Hoth with a cold pink light, and the four pilots of Rogue Squadron skimmed off in a widening fan across the ice.

The snowspeeder was a two-man craft, but Zev was in it alone, as he almost always was. They did drill with two-man teams, because it would be necessary if they ever had to go into battle here, but there just weren't enough men to double up on a regular basis.

It wasn't worth it. The numbers were going down so fast, and now...Solo and Skywalker, probably dead. It would be the deathblow to the Alliance. Princess Leia could tighten her grip as much as she wanted to, and people loved her and would stay for her sake even if she didn't, but it would take what little morale there was left.

And, on top of it, the Empire was getting more tolerable. Zev's own little sister had gotten a surgery she'd needed for years when Lady Vader had heard of her illness. The streets were cleaned up on Galarn. Crime was down. There was food on every table.

Sure, as long as you know to keep your mouth shut, to look the other way when people disappear, and most important, to never ever question anything...

Zev blinked it away. He wasn't going to leave the Rebellion. He knew it. But so many of the guys he knew had just thrown it in. They knew that all would be forgiven, if they just swore loyalty and kept to it. They knew they'd be watched. They didn't plan on doing anything that would get them into trouble.

A light flashed on his comm panel, and he focused his attention back on the cold morning. His morose mood was broken by a wave of fierce hope. "Echo Base," he said into his transmitter. "I've got something! Not much, but it could be a life form."

He guided the speeder toward the energy source he was tracing. A hunched, snow-covered dome twinkled up out of the tundra. A small figure appeared against the sun glare.

They'd done it.

They'd really done it, or at least one of them had.

He switched the channel on his transmitter to the emergency channel that Solo and Skywalker would most likely be on. "This is Rogue Two. This is Rogue Two. Captain Solo, do you copy? Commander Skywalker, do you copy? This is Rogue Two."

No answer for a moment, and he had a minute of wondering if it was an illusion, then a sharp crackle of static filled the cockpit.

"Good morning," Solo said. "Nice of you guys to drop by."

Zev smiled in relief, all thoughts of desertion leaving his mind as if they'd never been there. He switched back to the Command channel. "Echo Base...this is Rogue Two. I found them. Repeat, I found them."

Leia leaned forward slightly, reaching out to brush a section of blond hair away from Luke Skywalker's unscarred cheek.

He'd been removed from the bacta tank some time last night, early on in Hoth's sleep cycle, after spending the entire day in its healing fluids. Han and the droids had disappeared shortly after, leaving Leia alone to keep vigil over Luke's bedside. The medic droid had placed Luke here in an isolated section of the base's cramped infirmary, away from any prying eyes. After being removed from the tank there had still been residual scarring on his face that even bacta could not heal; the 2-1B droid had applied a healing mask to that side of his face, the white, plasterlike surface molded to fit perfectly. It was to be just worn overnight, so it should be coming off soon.

Leia didn't like the mask at all. The sight of Luke's face half-bare, half-covered by a mask brought up thoughts of certain people she'd rather not ever think of again in her life. So she sat on his left side, away from the mask. If she sat in just a certain way, she didn't have to see the awful thing ? but if she moved even the teensiest bit, or Luke turned his face a bare hint...there it was.

Luke was lucky to have even survived, the on-duty droid had declared when Han had carried Luke's snow-caked, half-frozen form into the infirmary. It wasn't the attack from the wampa itself ? Luke had been fortunate the wampa had slashed him where he had; the scarring would probably remain and had been quite gruesome, but the blood loss and nerve damage from the blow had been minimal. The danger had come from lying in a weakened state so long in the deathly cold night blizzards ? had Han found him even a few minutes later, Leia might be visiting Luke in the base's cold makeshift morgue instead of here.

Leia's lips tightened. Han.

She just couldn't decide how she felt about him. Every time she thought she finally had him pegged, he went and changed things again. When she'd thought he was going to die, she thought perhaps she'd finally started to feel something more than their relatively cool friendship ?but when he'd come back, arrogant pride and all, that door had slammed shut again. Leia put aside what she'd felt as that purely situational, panicked attachment which people usually experience when in danger of long term, even permanent, separation. At times she questioned herself as to why she'd kept pushing so hard for him to stay with the Rebellion ? though at this point, the Alliance could use all the leadership it could get. Han Solo was brash, stubborn, prideful to the point of suffocation ?

(just like you...)

?but Leia still knew a part of her, beneath all the icy layers (which had, appropriately, earned her among those staffed at the base the nickame "the Ice Princess") she'd built up around herself ever since she'd seen that intercepted transmission, there was a layer that Solo sometimes actually seemed to pierce. That admitted its vulnerability to the notion he'd no longer be a constant in her life.

Maybe that was why she had trouble admitting anything. No one liked admitting vulnerability, least of all Leia Organa.

But in any case ? after all that talk in the South Passage of having his own life to follow, of him belonging elsewhere ? Han had gone out and saved Luke, risking his life on a flimsy chance his friend would still be alive...yet again forcing Leia to alter her perceptions of him...

(I knew there was more to you than money!)

But he was gone again now, leaving not a second after Luke had been given a clean bill of health ? as if he had finished his business at last, and there was nothing left to keep him here, and Leia had made no move to stop him.

(Nothing left. Not that you'd willingly admit to him, anyway.)

So she'd come in here to watch Luke ? she didn't want him left alone again (it was as if an unseen-before-now motherly tendency had awakened in her at the sight of Luke's scarred, doll-like face). Leia also reveled in the silent companionship he offered: his mere presence was like a calming salve to her emotional wounds and best of all, there was no voice of his playing the role of conscience, trying to tell her to just open up to her problems. There was only peaceful silence. Nothing to preoccupy her thoughts, leaving them free to wander...but like children, idle thoughts tended to wander where you'd just as soon not have them go...

She sighed. Maybe silence wasn't such a good thing.

Leia shifted uncomfortably in her seat ? and suddenly, there it was. That wretched healing mask. The mask that served, aside from healing, the additional purpose of hiding a mass of disfigured grotesqueness beneath, something terrible enough that it could not be allowed to behold the light of day...

No. She was thinking of someone else. Not Luke.

Connections rose unbidden in her mind, to figures unbreakably connected to her yet from whom she'd have given her right hand to sever herself. Images of the Lord and Lady Vader swam through her mind atop a wave of revulsion.

Above all else she'd felt violated...contaminated when she'd learned it was their treacherous blood that flowed through her veins, a filth in her Leia knew no amount of sonic showering would remove. She wanted to smash something every time she saw a clip of an Imperial news story, heard others chattering about the latest great deed the "First Lady of the Empire" had done. But something about that transmission had changed something inside Leia, and she knew outbursts would no longer be effective as a release of her anger, this was something buried away, omnipresent, always eating away at her. She knew she couldn't afford to be prone to outbursts anyway, if she hoped to remain a leader of the Alliance. Even now though, she knew the primary reason she was still commanding was not because those beneath her respected her ? but because they feared her.

A mandate by fear. Like the Empire...Like Vader.

Of all the things to be heir to...

She moved her hand away from Luke's face and clenched her fist, stilling the hot bubble of anger she felt rising from a bitter knot in her stomach.

Luke's eyes opened then, the bright blue in them cloudy for a moment, then clearing as they focused on her. "Leia?"

"I'm here," she said quietly, leaning forward and instinctively stroking his face again. Not a romantic caress; it just felt right to do it.

Luke smiled at her just then, and Leia felt another sense of unease in her gut. She was well aware of Luke's feelings for her; he was too honest to hide them even if he'd wanted to. But as much as Leia loved him ? yes, she would admit that much; she found oddly it didn't make her defenses bristle a bit ? her heart simply didn't lie with him that way. And the concept of telling him, of hurting him ? that did bristle.

There was no denying the bond that had formed between them their three years together, ever since he'd charged bumbling into her detention cell on the Death Star. After spending only a short amount of time with him she'd felt an instinctive connection toward him, and he to her, one she didn't understand to this day ? but knew that she would be lost without. She trusted him more than anyone she knew. She just wasn't in love with him.

She forced herself to look at that half-masked face, into those innocent blue eyes that always seemed so familiar to her, like an echo from a past life...

She thought back to last night, when she'd believed she'd never be able to see them again...she was thankful for whatever hand had decreed that was not to happen.

"I heard you," he said quietly.

"Heard me?" She hadn't said a word aloud since she'd come in here.

"When I was unconscious," he explained. "Just now, I heard ?" His face scrunched a moment, and he reached up to the mask. "Can we take this off?"

"Well, it's been on there long enough," Leia quipped lightly, prompting a small smile from Luke. "Do you want me to...?" She trailed off, hoping Luke wouldn't make her fulfill what she'd just unthinkingly volunteered. But Luke nodded.

It's just a mask. Nothing you should fear.

Leia exhaled a slow breath and, reaching out slowly, placed her fingers under the edge of the mask and began to gently pull. A new image blossomed in her mind just then, superimposed over Luke's face: one half of the head the skull-like masked visage of Lord Vader (only incomplete, with blazing blue eyes burning out from where the opaque lenses should have been...); the other half the naked, familiar face of his devoted wife. It shocked Leia; why in the galaxy should she make that sort of connection? Luke was nothing like those figures. It must be the facemask, she decided. That at least explained Vader.

But why would her mind conjure up any connection between Luke and her own mother, the woman who was a traitor to her own bloodline? Something about Luke's features, the way they ?

The flash was gone, as Leia pulled the mask free of Luke's face. She set it aside out of sight, as grateful to be rid of it as Luke apparently was.

"Thank you," Luke said, thankfully rubbing his now free cheek. There was a bit of scarring and probably some soreness there still, but it was hardly grotesque, and would certainly lessen with time.

"You were saying that you heard me," Leia prodded gently. "What did you hear?"

"When I was unconscious," he explained. "I heard you ? what you were feeling?"

Leia's lips formed a small smile. "I'm sorry I woke you."

His eyes softened in obvious discomfort. "You were in pain, Leia."

Leia stifled a swallow, but her lips still tightened. She didn't question Luke's new mysterious abilities; he was party to a power she now knew ? bitterly ? she must also be heir to, but she had a justified reason for rejecting what Luke had embraced so fondly. He wanted to be like his father. Leia didn't exactly get to enjoy that notion.

Luke had, in his healing sleep, managed to pick up her tumult of emotions ? Leia chided herself for not maintaining her mental shields; with all the tumultuous emotions she'd been feeling, it would have been a surprise if she hadn't been practically sending out her emotions on a wide-band subspace signal. But if he'd managed to pick up something clearer, more definite...

"Who was hurting me?" she asked.

"I don't know," Luke admitted, a sad smile flitting across his lips. "I didn't see anything I understood ? I only knew you felt like someone had betrayed you. Someone you cared about. There were some flashes of color, of black and red..." He shook his head. "It's gone now."

Leia grimaced inwardly. "You didn't see anything else?"

"No. I felt you in pain, and that woke me up here. But...but what I saw, Leia..." He looked down and placed his hands on one of Leia's, holding it.

Leia squeezed his hand back, through the contact returning the warmth Luke had given her ? as much as she could give, at least. "I'm fine, Luke," she soothed, affording her friend as warm a smile as she could manage. "I'm just fine."

"You're very strong. I've always loved that about you," Luke said, prompting a small smile from the Princess. "The Force flows strong in you, Leia."

"I know," she murmured grimly.

"That must be why he asked me to bring you..."

Leia's brow furrowed in inquiry.

"I saw Ben," Luke explained to her.

"Ben? You mean General Kenobi?" There weren't that many Bens she and Luke had encountered in their lives.

Han had told her of how Luke had been mumbling names and words when he'd recovered him..."Ben" had been one of them, then something like "Dagobah"...and her own name. Leia had been tempted to just put it off as the hallucinations of someone in shock ? but now, after he'd read her emotions so effectively, without even trying, she wasn't so sure.

"When I was outside?in the snow," Luke continued hesitantly, as if he were in fact concerned Leia might think he had been hallucinating. "I saw him."

"But he's been dead for three years," Leia said gently, disgust rising briefly as she remembered witnessing on the Death Star as Vader's red blade sliced down, through the old man's robes. "Vader killed him, Luke. How could you have seen him?" She was saying it as much for her reassurance as his; she had little doubt of what Luke had seen, and had a vague inkling of what it could mean. After all, Kenobi had taught Vader, long he probably knew any number of secrets of Leia's dark heritage...

"I saw him," Luke insisted. "He must have been in spirit form; he seemed almost translucent...and he was glowing. He spoke to me. He wanted me to go to this planet...Dagobah, I think," he continued, frowning. Leia sat like a stone statue, waiting for him to continue. "To learn from the Jedi Master who had instructed him."

"Another Jedi? He managed to survive the purge?" Leia felt a sense of guilt at thinking of the terrible Jedi Purge, knowing it was her direct ancestor that had been the main driving hand of it...

No. She should not feel responsible for something he did. There was nothing she could have done about it.

"Don't ask me to explain it," Luke shrugged. "I only know what Ben told me. He told me I was to go to Dagobah...presumably as soon as possible..."

"Are you going to go?"

"I don't see that I have any choice."

"But what about the Alliance?" A sharp pang of disbelief went through Leia's chest. Luke couldn't leave them now...he himself was a large rallying point for Alliance morale; the innocent farmboy who'd risen from obscurity to take out the Empire's mightiest superweapon. If he, Luke Skywalker, the Alliance's greatest hero, were to leave the Rebellion ? leave me... ? what message would that give those in the Alliance who already had their doubts about it? How many more would leave? Han himself had already left, and she was sure wind of that would be spreading through the base soon..."What could you do alone on Dagobah that could possibly help us here?"

"If I'm trained as a Jedi," Luke explained, fixing her with those clear blue eyes of his, "I'll have a better chance to be able to help the Rebellion. I'm doing nothing sitting here hiding on Hoth,'ve seen it, the numbers we're losing. We're losing this war. If I can become a Jedi...that may be enough to turn the tide. It might bring others back to our side again."

"And it will make you a greater target for the Empire," Leia pointed out coldly, her eyes flashing in pain at him.

Luke's lips formed a hard line; he was aware of that perhaps even more than she was. "It may be enough, Leia. If it can it's an opportunity I don't want to risk because I was afraid to risk my own life." Leia stifled a swallow: it was the same thing she'd told the ensign in the corridor two nights ago. Luke wouldn't have known, but it had the same effect nonetheless. "And hopefully," he continued, his gaze at her softening, "I won't have to do it alone."

Leia stared at him uncomprehendingly.

"He told me to bring you with me, Leia," Luke said quietly. "I've felt your power, so I'm certain Ben is aware of it. I assume he means for Yoda ? that was the Master's name ? to train us both."

Leia was incredulous. It would be folly for Luke alone to leave the Rebellion; but Leia was a leader of the Alliance. For just a moment, she began to allow herself to consider the possibility that the snow had seeped through Luke's brain a bit more than previously thought. Though she was certain Luke would never do it, it was almost as if he were asking her to run away with him...she couldn't dare lead Luke on like that, even under the premise of Jedi training. (Which Leia was none too keen on beginning, anyway.) And she had duties to the Rebellion, however dwindling it might be. She could hardly ?

"How ya feelin', kid?" a cocky, cheerful voice suddenly interrupted, abruptly killing the conversation between the two others in the room. As it turned out, Leia would reflect later, that would be the only positive side effect. She forced herself to look away from those pleading eyes of Luke's, avoiding having to answer him as she pulled away in surprise at the unexpected arrival.

Leia forced herself to keep the shock at his unexpected appearance out of her gaze as she beheld the form of Han Solo ? apparently as confident as ever, a brash twinkle in his hazel eyes. Again, he'd turned the tables on Leia's little judgments, upsetting them completely. He strode through the door to Luke's room, trailed by the familiar forms of Chewbacca, Artoo and See-Threepio; where they'd been until now Leia had no inkling. The two droids went over to Luke, congratulating him on his quick recovery.

Han gave an amused smile as he saw Leia pull away from Luke so quickly ? there was a flash of something ? no, it couldn't have been jealousy ? in his eyes, his uncouth mind no doubt conjuring up some twisted fantasy. Well, let it, she thought, as she placed some distance between herself and the new arrival.

"You don't look so bad to me," Han continued, sitting at Luke's bedside, sliding himself into the seat Leia had just vacated moments before. "You look strong enough to pull the ears off a Gundark."

"Thanks to you," Luke said, giving his friend a half-smile.

"That's two you owe me, Junior," Han informed him, knowing full well that nickname annoyed Luke. Han turned to Leia, who now stood against the far wall, her arms crossed in an imposing posture. "Well, Your Worship," he said, his cocky smile widening. "Looks like you managed to keep me around for a while longer."

"I had nothing to do with it," Leia informed him curtly, folding her arms tighter across her torso. "General Rieekan thinks it's dangerous for any ships to leave the system before activating the energy shield around the base."

"That's a good story," Han nodded, leaning back against the wall next to Luke, and folding his hands back behind his head. "I think you just can't bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight."

Even Luke rolled his eyes at that one; Leia stifled the urge to do the same, shaking her head in mock sympathy.

"I hope you washed yourself after sticking your hands in whatever pile of poodoo you pulled that delusion out of, laserbrain."

Chewbacca let out an urf-urf-urf of laughter; Han shot him a betrayed look. "Laugh it up, fuzzball," he said, walking over and putting his arm around Leia, squeezing her shoulder. "You didn't see us alone in the South Passage. She expressed her true feelings for me," Han added to a visibly surprised Luke.

Annoyance shot up like hot magma in the Princess, bringing heat and color to her cheeks. She curled her fists into tight little balls, as Han released her, grinning smugly. How dare he have the gall to make such a comment..."Why you...stuck-up, half-witted..."

Han began laughing; Leia immediately went to stand over by Luke's bedside again ? cutting a pose that would have made Vader proud, yet only seemed to serve to amuse Han further.

"Half-witted?" Han laughed. "I'm not the one leaving my insults half-finished in the air, Princess. Must have hit pretty close to the mark to get her that riled up, huh, kid?" he added to Luke. To his credit, the Tatooine man kept his silence: any smart man confronted with the Princess's temper would have.

Well...not any smart man.

Leia glared at Han. A vicious idea for revenge came unbidden into her mind; no doubt from her Vaderish side.

She knew it would be unfair to use Luke's feelings for her that way; but at that moment she would have given anything, just to see that smug grin wiped off of Han's face. She nodded slowly, her mouth hanging open ever so slightly, moving her arms out of their crossed position to stand her hands on her hips.

"Then I suppose you don't know everything about women, do you."

And with that Leia gripped Luke's face firmly and pulled it to hers; she gave Han only a cursory glance as she crushed her lips on to Luke's, whose eyes widened at the sudden gesture. Leia held the contact despite the sudden wave of sickness, of plain wrongness that seemed to rise in her the moment their lips made contact...

It appeared to have the desired effect. Han's posture didn't change, but his eyes seemed to Leia, watching out of the corner of her eye, to narrow and harden to two opal shards as he witnessed the seemingly passionate exchange. Good. Even Chewie and the droids ? Threepio, at least ? seemed to be gaping.

A static crackle issued on the room's intercom system. "All command personnel report to Command Center," the muffled, monotonous voice directed.

Incredibly grateful for the interruption, Leia tore her lips away from Luke's, momentarily meeting his eyes to still the questions she knew were in their depths. Fighting away the bitter taste in her mouth as she shot a caustic look towards Han Solo, she strode coolly out of the room, leaving one flustered young man and four flustered witnesses behind. "Take it easy," she heard Han mutter to Luke as he followed Leia out.

Leia forced herself not meet Luke's gaze one last time before she passed through the exit ? and found herself instantly regretting it.

As if some part of her knew, somehow, that it was going to be a very long, troubled time before she would ever see him again.

Han wasn't exactly command staff ? hell, he wasn't exactly, technically, in the Alliance ? but no one had ordered him out of a meeting so far, or, for that matter, looked surprised to see him at one. So he followed Leia out of the infirmary when the announcement came, glad for the chance to go. Chewie tagged along at his side, the only sane creature in the whole place.

What kind of game was she playing? Luke? After all this time, he was supposed to believe...

Didn't matter. Any idiot could see that she hadn't much been enjoying that little liplock. To Han's great surprise, Luke didn't look like he'd much liked it, either.

He was only a few steps behind her by the time they got to the Command Center. Whatever game she was playing was done. Here, she was in command, and everyone knew it.

Rieekan looked up from a console screen when they came in. The general's face was tired ? must have been up all night, after that little stunt of mine, Han figured ? and he looked like he could use a year's leave. "Princess," he said. "We have a visitor."

Leia's mouth tightened even more than usual, and she crossed the room in four irritated steps. Han followed, and looked over her shoulder at the blinking green light on the console.

Riekkan pointed to it as if they couldn't see it. "We've picked up something outside the base in zone twelve, moving east. It's metal."

Han didn't think Leia's face could get more despondent, but she must have been entertaining some hope of a quiet day, because her eyes suddenly grew even more sunken, her cheeks ashier. "Then it couldn't be one of those creatures that attacked Luke."

"It could be a speeder," Han tried, hoping to ease her mind. "One of ours."

The communications officer looked at him like he was crazy. Of course ? he'd just questioned her ability to do her job. "No. Wait ? there's something very weak coming through."

Leia crooked a finger at Threepio, and he obediently clattered over to the comm station and listened to the faint string of beeps. After about fifteen seconds, he looked up. "I am fluent in six million forms of communication." (Han bit his lip; it wasn't time to quip that Threepio needed a new opener.) "This signal is not used by the Alliance. It could be an Imperial code."

Could be? Han shook his head. "It isn't friendly, whatever it is. Come on, Chewie, let's check it out."

Rieekan nodded, and, as Han and Chewie headed out, gave a vague command to a few guards to follow them.

The trip wasn't long ? whatever it was, was traveling fast. It had a scent. It was out of zone twelve, and had crossed into zone four, just east of the base, when Han and Chewie caught up with it.

There was no mistaking Imperial technology, Han thought as his heart sank, even with a droid he'd never seen before. It had one possible purpose, and it was built to fulfill it efficiently. Four legs that might have been some use on the floor of a cave hung down like tentacles as it hovered over the snow, but everything else was in action. Sensors spun. Transmitters buzzed. An antenna was trembling. Something was beeping with a regularity that was maddening.

But it was sensitive. Chewie stood slowly, trying not to catch its attention, but it "saw" him immediately, and fired a deadly volley. Chewie dove for cover. Han decided that it was time to disable the thing's sensors.

He took advantage of the momentary distraction of Chewie's predicament, and fired quickly. No one ? sentient or not ? outdrew Han Solo.

This thing was no exception.

His blast hit squarely at the base of the antenna, and he had time to think, That'll do it, before the whole machine began to tremble and spark. Then it blew itself into pieces.

Just great.

Han put his blaster back, and stared at the pile of scrap metal with more than a little frustration. Imperial technology. Better to self-destruct than compromise the mission. The same thing they expected out of their army. Chewie barked a question, and Han shrugged. He got out his comlink and signaled the base. Nothing about this was going to make Leia happy.

"Afraid there's not much left," he said, without preliminaries.

There was a pause, and he could almost see her there, closing her eyes slowly, then opening them again. "What was it?" she said after a moment.

"Droid of some kind." Han tried to find a way to word this so that it wouldn't sound like he was trying to wriggle out of responsibility for its destruction, couldn't, and just spit it out. "I didn't hit it that hard. It must have had a self-destruct."

To Han's surprise, Leia didn't sound like she was ready to rip his head off. Her voice simply sounded like she was putting the pieces together to form the puzzle she'd known the solution to before she sent them out. "An Imperial probe droid."

Han agreed. "It's a good bet the Empire knows we're here."

"We'd better start the evacuation," Riekkan said.

Leia looked at him dully. Evacuate? Retreat?


To her horror, there was a part of her that just gave a sigh of relief at this last. Yes, surrender. Give in and let it be. Nothing more you can do. You've lost, it's over.

She wondered briefly if that was her mother's voice, then shut the thought away. Evacuation wasn't surrender; it was the only way to avoid surrender. And Han was right. If it was a probe droid, it'd probably had a good idea of where they were since it was in orbit. It would only have come this close for confirmation. The Empire was undoubtedly already on its way.

"Do it, General," she said. "I'll get the rendezvous point set up."

Piett handed Admiral Ozzel the third maintenance report he had been ordered to do that shift. The man's pettiness was amusing to Piett ? Ozzel wasn't pleased that Vader hadn't taken his advice about Hoth, and was making his subordinate pay through a series of mundane and useless tasks. Eventually, Piett thought he might say something, and they could get past this nonsense. He hoped so.

Ozzel barely glanced at the report before handing it back to Piett. "That's fine, Captain. Perhaps you could do a weapons check."


"Yes ? I know how sure you are that the Rebels are on Hoth, Captain. I want to be certain we are fully prepared for battle if?when we find them."

Piett knew that it would probably be best to just turn away, but found himself saying, "I was simply carrying out my orders to report any unusual findings from the probes, sir."

"And even though there are hundreds of systems left to search, we are now decided on Hoth." Ozzel gave him a barely concealed smirk. "I hope you are prepared for the consequences when Vader realizes he was sent on a fool's errand."

Piett couldn't help but start at that thought. He knew he had followed proper procedure, and that he was right to report his findings?but there was always the chance that the Rebels wouldn't be there. And it was unlikely that Lord Vader would be particularly understanding about it.

But he wasn't about to admit that Ozzel had gotten to him, though he knew he was starting to tread a thin line in his demeanor toward his superior officer. "Have you been given any reason to believe that they aren't on Hoth, sir?"

"Indeed, Admiral."

Piett and Ozzel whirled around, their argument instantly forgotten. Lady Vader stood before them.

Piett was surprised to see her on the bridge; she only made appearances here on rare occasions. Her presence was most often felt in the less official parts of the ship ? in the lounge, in the mess halls ? places where she could interact with the officers away from Vader's command. It was awkward at times, since no one knew exactly how to address her (Was she their superior? Could she give them orders?), but she never seemed concerned with that.

Of course, being the wife of Darth Vader basically gave her the run of the ship. The general consensus was to do whatever she said, treat her with the utmost respect, and hope and pray that she didn't speak ill of you to her husband. Over the last few years, the infamous stories of Vader's temper had split along two lines ? on what he did to those who annoyed him, and on what he did to those who dared to do anything that upset his wife.

Ozzel recovered first, and managed to stammer, "L-Lady Vader. I apologize for not noticing you earlier. Is there anything I can assist you with?"

Piett was certain he could see her smile, though making out anything underneath those veils was nearly impossible. "Yes, Admiral, I believe you can. I couldn't help but overhear your conversation, and I would like to understand your concerns about Hoth."

Her voice was kind ? it was almost a request instead of an order. Ozzel scrambled for an answer. "My Lady, I was simply relaying the fact that our droids have not yet finished their extensive search?we may yet find something else?"

She nodded. "A sensible concern." She turned to Piett. "Yet, you are more certain that they are there?"

Piett swallowed hard. "I believe our findings are indicative of a military base. And Hoth is a remote system, which would make it more appealing to the Alliance."

Again, he thought he caught the shadow of a smile. He hoped he wasn't staring too hard. Unlike Vader, who didn't seem to want people to imagine there was anything under his mask, Lady Vader seemed to invite curiosity. Seemed to want to draw people in.

Finally, she said, "Captain, I appreciate your efforts." Piett nodded. "And Admiral, your caution is reasonable, but we must be prepared to act when an opportunity presents itself. It is critical that we find the Rebels and reach them before they move on to another location." After a short pause, she added, "It would be most unfortunate if we were to lose them because the correct information was withheld or not listened to." Her voice had hardened slightly, leaving an implication hanging in the sentence's wake that made both men cringe. "Do you understand, Admiral?"

"Yes, My Lady," Ozzel replied. A moment of strained silence followed. "Do you require anything else?"

"No," she said, and her warm personality came through again. "I simply came up here to observe the goings-on, and perhaps see how our officers are holding up. Idle curiosity."

Both men bowed slightly as she turned to walk away. She soon had an ensign explaining something to her about the sensors, while the rest of the bridge watched anxiously, also hoping for a chance to show off.

Ozzel turned to Piett, and the two stared at one another without saying a word. Neither could tell what Lady Vader had thought of their conversation, or what would get back to Darth Vader. It was strange to fear such heavy retribution from so kind a woman. It was a powerful combination ? no wonder she was held such a high position in the Empire.

Finally, Ozzel dismissed him. Piett spent his time off-shift reading every report that came from Hoth.


Barely controlled excited scurrying seemed to be the activity of choice at the small linked connection of snow-coated caverns and tunnels that served as the central hiding place of the Rebel Alliance. Parka-clad humans and non-humans alike, as well as various models of droids, hurrying about: performing last-minute repairs on starfighters, troop transports; preparing weapons emplacements, loading up anything in the base that wasn't bolted down into the nearest ship large enough.

Much scurrying, indeed. If one did not bother to look closer and observe the expressions on those running about, one might have thought the excitement to be just that: the adrenaline surge, the high emotional rush that most sentient beings experience when they're about to enter battle. And not have noticed the thick, almost palpable sense of apprehension that pervaded the atmosphere.

The Empire was coming. This base had a particularly efficient grapevine, so everyone on the base had become aware of this fairly quickly after the probe droid's discovery. They also knew that in the inevitable battle that was to come that whatever force they managed to muster here against the Empire ? in this case, a small group of volunteer fighter pilots ?would be essentially self-sacrifice, a suicide mission for those involved. A diversion, in hopes that the Empire's death messengers would be focused enough on it ? and taking the base ? that there was a chance that the majority of the Rebels stationed here could make their escape towards the main fleet's planned rendezvous point, sectors away in space somewhere. (Wherever that turned out to be; the senior staff was understandingly keeping mum about that particular point.) The Rebels here didn't have the means to fight off a full-fledged Imperial assault ? it hardly made sense to store all a krayt dragon's eggs in one chamber; only part of the Alliance's forces were stationed here. So they were going to have to do what they'd done three years earlier when the base on Yavin had been discovered ? pack up, fast, and get the hell away from it as quickly as they could. Only this time, there was no afterglow of intense triumph to boost the morale of the beings here.

The mood, under other circumstances, might have been different. They might have been excited. They might have been ready to fight. But many simply were in doubt. If the Rebels hadn't been losing so many numbers, so many of their ranks discreetly making their way over to the Empire to congregate at the sound of the beautiful Lady Vader's deceptively comforting words like they would a siren, seeking solace from the conflicts of the civil war under her protective scarlet wing...If their own leaders had not been so distracted...Even the Princess herself, once a stalwart figure of stability, the mouth that once spilled forth words that became a rallying point for so many oppressed beings alike was now barely speaking at all, and when it did it was like a bitter tonic, daring people to face it and stay or go.

And many went. Even now many wanted to leave ? and would have, were it not for the imminent conflict. Some tumultuous minds wondered briefly if the Lady Vader would be part of the force that was undoubtedly en route to Hoth, and what decision they would make were they to ever face her...If she were to hold out that small white hand of hers ? would they spit on it and thrust it away, like the Princess had ordered them to do, or would they reverently grasp it, following it to a new life under the government they'd once fought against?

One man, who'd had little care in his life for whoever controlled the galaxy or the conflict being waged for that cause, and therefore little care for the Vaders themselves, had decided to spite the conflict and leave nonetheless.

Han Solo stood atop the twin sensor prongs that made the nose of the Millennium Falcon, frowning at the open panel of circuits at his feet, tapping the visibly well-used hydrospanner in his hand against his hip. A technician might have been able to pinpoint the problem that currently plagued his ship and even perform the operation necessary to rectify it, but Han wasn't interested. Even if there had been technicians available that weren't already working on "more critical tasks," he'd not have let any of them lay a finger on his vessel. So he and Chewbacca, who was currently running repeat ship diagnostics in the freighter's side cockpit, seeing if he could locate the snag from that end, were the only ones working on the spacefaring junk heap.

Actually, they knew what the problem was. But for the first time, perhaps because it had amazingly never managed to occur before, or because there were other certain things weighing rather heavily on his mind, Han wasn't entirely sure how to solve it.

The sublight drive didn't work. Actually, it did work...but the computer in the cockpit just simply refused to communicate with it. A connection had failed somewhere along the route from the engines to their corresponding operations consoles in the cockpit. Either way, left unmaintained it meant Han's continued stay here, which he had no desire to do even if it weren't for the Empire breathing down their necks.

Not for the first time Han cursed the weather of this dismal planet. If the cold weather had caused failures in the running of the Rebels' frequently maintained snowspeeders, then it shouldn't have been surprising that the Falcon's hodgepodge collection of seldom-inspected parts would succumb to the frigid temperatures and snow and leave Han stranded here. Through a series of trial and errors whose proof of existence was in the newly scored burn marks on his hands ? the mark of temperamental circuits blowing in his face ? the human and his Wookiee copilot had determined the kink in the circuit pathway from the sublight to the cockpit was somewhere in the bulkhead near the nose of the vessel. Only they weren't certain exactly where.

Han was only grateful the hyperdrive had ? so far, apparently ? escaped any damage. He didn't plan on being on this planet when the Imperials arrived, in fact hopefully several parsecs away and in the process of moving even further. But if the sublight didn't work, he wouldn't even manage to break Hoth's orbit.

He bit his lip as he bent down to adjust one of the loose connections in the open panel, trying not to think of a certain pair of bright, haunting sable orbs that appeared in his mind every time he'd hoped he'd found any solace in thinking of leaving this godforsaken place.

Leia. The one pillar of uncertainty in his single-minded determination to leave the Rebellion and never look back. Even his friendship with Luke wasn't truly reason enough for him to stay ? he genuinely liked the kid, and would miss the idealistic naïveté that hadn't existed in Han's life till he'd met Luke ? but if there was one thing Han had learned in life, it was that you couldn't always afford to keep the friends you might happen to make (in his case, though, there really hadn't been that many). If the time came to leave them behind, you couldn't afford a wave of regret coming up and clouding your judgment.

You don't think I'm fool enough to stick around here, do you?

Besides, the kid was smart, Han had assured himself. He could make it without Han's help ? even if he had just saved his life out there in the snow. But Luke had a good solid mind, and Han had no doubt he would be able to learn on his own.

But Leia...Han genuinely worried for her, however much the tough smuggler self in him had scorned that self-admission. Her growth over the last few years had been almost the exact inverse of Luke's: while Luke had developed from an uncertain, lonely boy into a maturing young man, Leia had over time begun to lose the smart-tempered fire Han had grown to love to a bitter, pained and increasingly isolated nature. He sensed she would only get worse as this war continued ? that if someone didn't stop her, she'd spiral herself down into a pit of self-destruction worse than any Imperial battle station garbage chute. And that, probably no one would be able to help her out of.

He wished to hell he knew what was eating at her, he thought as he picked up a welder and melted two wires in the open panel together to complete a severed connection; the one he believed to be the missing link between the engine and the cockpit. But no, Leia seemed perfectly content to alienate herself from her few remaining friends and comrades, bottling whatever acid flowed boilingly in her away, refusing to tell anyone what it might be. She hadn't even told Luke this, and she was closer to him than anyone. Han admired Leia for her strong-willed self-reliance, but this was getting ridiculous.

Three years ago he wouldn't have turned a second look at the obviously despairing Princess ? her problems were not his to deal with. But something in him had changed, and now, whenever he looked at her, it became increasingly difficult to look away from her again. Her problems, somewhere along the line, had become his problems.

I ain't in this for your revolution, and I'm certainly not in it for you, Princess.

But if she didn't want his help...well, you definitely couldn't give something to Leia Organa if she didn't want it. Luke wasn't the only one who'd learned anything in the past three years.

And anyway, his life was on the line here. Even now Han was certain Jabba's minions were scouring the galaxy, searching for the well-recognized saucer-shaped freighter, which would make whoever brought it in to the crime lord instantly wealthy.

So he'd forced himself to look away from her yet again, shunting the haunting image of those suddenly beautiful brown eyes out of his mind. And, unlike Yavin, he truly was going to leave this time.

Han finished his welding job and flipped the panel shut. He gestured to Chewbacca to turn the lever to feed power into the new circuit. "All right, that should do it," he shouted. "Try it..." He leaned forward...

And leapt straight back as the top of the panel exploded in a flurry of bright blue sparks that suddenly leapt upward, burning Han's face and jacket and adding to the burns already on his hands. Han let out a loose string of Corellian swear words under his breath, futilely trying to wave the sparks away.

"Turn it off!" he shouted frantically to Chewbacca, who moved his furry paws in a flurry to comply ? but the sparks continued to fly, and to make things better, the hangar's fire alarm had started to go off, its punctuated shrieks drawing attention from everyone in the vicinity. "Turn it off!" Han yelled again.

The sparks continued, and Han's face grew redder, not just from the sparks. That was the last time, he decided firmly, that he would allow himself to get distracted by thoughts of stubborn Princesses (of all things...) when his freedom and life lay on the line.

This definitely was not his day. Next time, he would be the one in the cockpit, and would leave the welding to Chewie.

Luke shook out his blond hair and zipped up the orange pilot suit, casting a final look around the infirmary that had been his home for the last several days.

He wouldn't miss it, he thought. In a little while, not long after he left this place, he would be flying with Rogue Squadron in the upcoming battle, this time as their leader. He felt a sense of excitement course through him at the thought of piloting again after being snowbound and grounded for so long ? judging from the incredulous looks from other Rebels in the briefing room as he'd unhesitatingly volunteered to be one of those few that would see battle, he was probably one of a very few on base that actually looked forward any to the impending conflict. But what he'd told Leia in the infirmary still held true: he'd spent too much time sitting on his duff (Luke smiled inwardly at the unintentional Han Solo mannerism) at the base as it was, and now he had a chance to actually be useful to the Rebellion again. Luke knew he was a good pilot, probably the best the Alliance had ? he might as well put those skills to use for a greater good than simply preserving his own life.

The bulky Two-Onebee droid, his only companion in the room, watched with blinking optical lights as his only patient prepared for his quick departure. Luke brushed off his suit and swung his already packed rucksack over his shoulder, practically jumping up from the hard bed. The droid's arms clicked in a gesture of concern ? Luke sighed inwardly; it seemed everyone here, even the droids now, had been becoming as much of an overworked worrywart as Threepio lately ? which it soon voiced to the young human.

"Sir, it will take quite a while to evacuate the T-47s," the electronically modulated voice began, referring to some of the rather larger bits of medical equipment in the infirmary, large analytical computers that were bolted to the bulkheads ? somewhat valuable equipment; it was understandable there would be some regret over leaving it behind.

"Don't worry about the heavier equipment," Luke told the droid, flashing it a quick smile as he began to walk out the door, tucking his flight helmet under the crook of his arm. "There's plenty of time to get the smaller models into the transports."

The droid's servomotors whirred, perhaps comforted by the reassurances from its superior. "Take care, sir," it said, turning its head to follow Luke to the door.

"Thanks," Luke replied with another quick smile, and was out the door and on his way to the fighter hangar.

Luke had begun searching for Leia as soon as he'd gotten out into the corridor. He even made a few unnecessary detours en route to the main snubfighter hangar, hoping to run into the young woman and hopefully get some kind of a response from her on the whole Dagobah thing...he wished for the umpteenth time that Han hadn't interrupted them when he had when he'd been talking to Leia, but what was done was done.

And there was no Leia in sight anywhere. The discomforting notion that she might actually be trying to avoid him flashed briefly in Luke's mind ? but it was soon overshadowed by the sight of another friendly face not far away. (And she was probably on her way to the command center on the other side of the base at a time like this, he decided.)

"There's got to be another reason for it ? check it at the other end," Han Solo was saying to a small scanning droid, both of them standing atop the front of the main saucer section of the Falcon. The odd droid, which resembled a pair of old macrobinoculars on a set of wheels, chattered and wheeled away to comply. The Corellian smuggler suddenly caught Luke's eye and smiled as the Tatooine man neared the familiar ship. "Wait a second," he gestured to the droid, half-sliding, half-jumping down off the top of the ship to meet Luke, who now stood just under the ship. (There was little sign that Han had ever been trying to repair the ship, only a couple of still-open hatches on the its nose; Luke had heard the fire alarms from the infirmary, but hadn't known it was Han's actions that had set it off.)

It occurred to Luke just then that this could be the last time he ever spoke to Han Solo. His blue eyes flicked around, taking in the details of the ship, Chewbacca not far away from him, and his friend standing in front of him. It seemed only a week ago that he'd first walked into the Mos Eisley Cantina with Ben Kenobi and encountered the gruff, standoffish smuggler.

And now Han was leaving, and Luke was going off into battle, to quite possibly even die ? Luke felt Leia's absence even more keenly at not having said goodbye to her ? they'd been through more together already than most people needed to see in their lifetimes. Three years really was too short a time, he thought, as a mass of fur suddenly surrounded him in a rib-crushing hug.

"Ease off a little, would you Chewie?" Han's voice came down. "I've saved this kid's life enough already."

The Wookiee let out a distinctly amused grumbling, settling to simply ruffle the Tatooine man's slightly shaggy blond mop instead. "I'll miss you too, pal," Luke said genuinely to Chewie, returning the ruffling gesture ? at least as much as he could, considering that he was barely tall enough to even reach the Wookiee's head.

"How you feelin', kid?" Han asked, a flicker of regret in his gaze betraying his otherwise conversational tone.

Luke gave a wan smile. "I'm fine."

It was as if everything they would have said to each other had already been said. Leia might roll her eyes at the two of them and make a remark about how males of a species were so jittery over opening up to one another, but that didn't totally explain the thick silence between Han and Luke. There just simply wasn't a way to resolve three years' worth of memories and emotions in an encounter that only lasted a few seconds. It wasn't like Luke's incredulous, surly reaction of three years prior; he'd grown since then. He'd come to know the idea that Han wasn't always going to be around ? that one way or another he'd wind up leaving ? but somehow, some part of him had turned to what had happened at Yavin as a sign of hope. That if Han did leave, he'd always return, charging in with the sun at his back, to save his friends.

And maybe he would. But he wouldn't be the presence in his friend's life that he had once been. Luke hadn't noticed up till this point how much he had actually looked up to Han, admired his independence and carefree nature. The onetime smuggler had taught Luke any number of invaluable lessons ? but the time for teaching was over, obviously, and graduation was coming sooner than Luke had hoped.

"You're crazy for wanting to fly out there against that invasion force, Junior," Han told him pointedly, "but then it wouldn't be the first time you got into trouble."

"I learned from the best."

"Oh no, kid, that's one thing you definitely can't pin on me. You were getting yourself in too deep long before that crazy old wizard left you with me. I'm the one who winds up cleaning up after your screw-ups.

"It wasn't that long," Luke protested lamely.


Luke bowed and shook his head. "Fine."

"And you know this time I won't be able to come back and shoot the Empire's cronies off your back if you do get into trouble."

Luke blinked at Han once, but otherwise remained motionless. "I know."

"So keep your head out of trouble, you hear me? You've run up too high a tab on me as it is. I'm getting too expensive for you."

"I'll try."

"Great." Han's mouth tugged upward a bit in one corner in the now-famous Solo smirk, his hazel eyes softening ever so slightly for a moment. The two friends stood silently facing one another for several moments, neither of them evidently willing to take the step that would likely lead to the end of their association with each other.

Han decided to take that first step. "Be careful, kid."

Luke's smile was genuine, but not as open as it usually was. "You, too."

"Oh, and another thing, Luke..."

"Anything," Luke promised.

"When you make it back to the Fleet," Han said ? Luke was grateful he hadn't said "if" ? and the smuggler's eyes suddenly turning to fix off on a far distant point, as if perhaps he were looking for someone who wasn't there, then focusing back on Luke as if he were content that that certain someone wasn't there to hear him. His voice became soft, almost conspiratorial. "Promise me you'll say ?" he cut off suddenly, as if maybe he'd changed his mind about something, and smiled enigmatically. "Promise me you'll keep an eye on Her Worship for me."

Luke briefly questioned himself why on Hoth Han would be asking him that ? why couldn't he say goodbye to Leia himself ? then it hit him, leaving him feeling only slightly foolish. He knew Han was probably fond of Leia beyond the visible surface course of their love/hate friendship; he'd seen how they'd acted when they talked to one another, the exchanged glances between them when they thought no one else was looking (who were they fooling, anyway?)...but Luke had usually succeeded in putting it out of his mind. His crush on Leia ? however deep the feelings behind it ran ? was definitely not justification enough for turning his best friend into an unneeded rival ? inside his mind or out. "Of course," Luke said. "You have my word, Han."

All three of them were going to be separated during the battle: Han going off to wherever he was going to go, Leia in the command center, and Luke going off into battle. (Perhaps separated for the last time ever, but Luke didn't dwell on that.) He briefly thought back to after he'd destroyed the Death Star, how the three of them, even then only newfound friends, had paraded through the base together, their arms linked the whole time... were he alone he might have considered shedding a tear or two, but he wasn't about to do that now.

(Maybe Leia was right about the closed-up emotional tendencies of males after all.)

He resolved he would survive this, and he would manage to get himself and Leia to Dagobah somehow ? even if he had to wait to be reunited with her until he arrived at the rendezvous point. But he would, he swore to himself.

Han just nodded at Luke, and clasped him briefly on the shoulder. Silence reigned between them for a few more long moments, and it felt as if the tension were building up to burst ?

Luke deflated the bubble by giving one last half-smile to his friend...and then turning away, not daring to look back.

Now be brave, and don't look back?

General Carlist Rieekan saw the waving hand of the sensor tech from across the command center. His lips tightened almost invisibly as he made his way over to the young man, who was staring wide-eyed at a small grid-style tactical layout of the star system. Hoth was a deceptively peaceful-looking sphere of blue in the center of the grid...and not far away, the group of red dots coming in on just the other side of the asteroid belt...

"Sir," the tech said, looking up slowly at Rieekan, pointing with a stylus to the red dots, "we've got a fleet of Star Destroyers coming out of hyperspace in Sector Four."

Several others in the room looked up in vaguely concealed alarm; most had been preparing for this moment for some time. Rieekan could understand the feeling though ? even if he wouldn't be able to allow himself to be prone to it as well. "Reroute all power to the energy shield," he ordered a lieutenant standing not far behind him. The officer moved to comply.

The muscles in his jaw clenched a bit as he sank into thought for a moment. "We've got to hold them off until all of our transports are safely away," he said, almost to himself ? then moving his blue-gray gaze back to the other officer next to him, issued the obvious and expected mandate of action.

"Prepare for ground assault."

The Empire was here, he thought as the scurrying began around him once more, as he signaled through the comm system for Princess Leia to report to the command center immediately. Now it was only a matter of time before people began to die.

There was a shimmer over the world when she wore the face shield, a shifting pattern of golden light that reminded her of swimming underwater at the lake near her parents' home, coming up into the late afternoon sun to a warm hug from her father. The shield was an unattractive contraption ? she couldn't imagine how Ani could bear the sight of it ? but it did always bring up that brief, pleasant memory.

Not that it didn't have its own pleasant memories now, though they weren't quite as innocent.

She smiled, and ran her hand down the side of Ani's cheek. There had been an instant of revulsion the first time she'd seen him, with the deathly pallor of his skin and the permanent rictus of the scarring. But she had resisted the impulse to shrink away, and when his lips had found the hollow of her neck, the place he'd always kissed her first when he planned to seduce her (not that she'd ever needed much seducing), when his breath and his deep and mesmerizing voice stirred across her skin, her nerve endings had recognized him, and she'd burned with the braided flame of passion, tenderness, and love that had written his name on her soul years ago. After a month, she'd needed his kisses ? real kisses, not brushes of his lips against her hands, or the touch of his two real fingers on her own mouth ? so badly that she'd built this contraption, this Gungan shield that sparked between them and allowed the touch of his lips on her own, even while they were denied the chance to breathe the same air.

His lips moved to the tip of her nose, the flexible shield distorting as his weight moved against it. "Alas," he said, "there is little time, my love."

"I know. But I'll steal my kisses when I can. It's not quite as easy as slipping into the shadows anymore."

He returned her smile as well as he could, then began to reattach the breathing apparatus of the suit. Amidala had learned to replace the mask without the help of the medical droids, and she did so with nimble fingers, sparing one last kiss to his poor head before she sealed him away.

The floor shuddered beneath them, and Ani's shoulders stiffened. "We've come out of lightspeed."

Amidala didn't comment. She didn't like the tone of his voice. It was the low, dangerous tone that preceded his...

The times that he...

"We were to approach from the far side of the planet. We are early."

A soft tone sounded, and a light flashed beside the chamber controls. Someone was petitioning entrance ? it was considered a rare and dangerous task, but Amidala had never actually heard Ani complain about it, at least not any more than any other husband would complain when interrupted from his wife's company. Amidala dashed for the veils, tossing them over her head, shield-mask and all, as the jaws of the chamber opened.

General Veers stood uncertainly in the outer quarters, his hands neatly behind his back. "Lord Vader?" he said.

"Yes, General?"

"We've come out of lightspeed in the Hoth system..."

The tone grew lower, more dangerous. "Yes?"

Veers cleared his throat. "We have found an encampment, but it is heavily fortified, and guarded by an energy shield. Aerial bombardment will be impossible."

"The Rebels are alerted to our presence. Admiral Ozzel came out of lightspeed too soon."

Amidala's hands went cold. This man had refused to believe the information he had been given, he had questioned Ani's judgment, and now he had committed a strategic error that would cost lives. The twins' lives, possibly.

Veers stammered. "Admiral Ozzel thought that surprise was..."

Ani didn't bother letting him finish the sentence. "He is as clumsy as he is stupid."

It was a death sentence. Amidala felt her nails digging into the flesh of her hands. She chanced a glance at Veers. His face was pale and stiff.

Then she heard Ani's voice in her mind, He has cost us our children.

And that was all. The rage rose in her mind as well. She would not see Leia's eyes again, or touch Luke's hand, not today. There would be no arguments, no convincing, no alliance. There would only be a bloody battle, and the twins might not be there at the end of it. Because Admiral Ozzel was clumsy and stupid.

Ani activated the viewscreen to the bridge, ignoring Veers completely. Ozzel was leaning over a console, Piett a few steps behind him. Ozzel looked up and began giving his report, some officious sounding announcement...

Then he stopped. His face went red and he grasped at his throat. Ani looked past him. "Captain Piett?"

Piett stepped forward, sparing Ozzel a horrified glance. "Yes, my Lord?"

"Prepare for ?"

Ozzel stammered forward, reached out with both hands and gagged, "My Lady..." He gasped in a breath, and Amidala knew that Ani had loosened his grip.

She turned to him, glanced at Ozzel nervously, then turned back. She was angry. What was it she was meant to do? There was something. Her role was...she was supposed to...

An old voice fought its way up, arguing laboriously with the instinctive raw anger that wanted her to wring Ozzel's throat herself, and not from a remote location. The voice was calm and cool, like the ocean depths. Her role was not to exact vengeance. Her role was to show the rewards, the advantages, of establishing firm control of the galaxy.

He was looking at her with his head tipped slightly. "What are your wishes, my Lady?"

"My..." Ozzel grabbed at Piett's sleeve ? he was breathing, but in great discomfort ? then lurched forward toward the transmitter again. "...Lady Va... my..."

"There is little point in killing him now," she said. "The damage is done."

"You are quite certain, my Lady?"

"Yes, my Lord."

Ani waved his hand, and Ozzel pulled in a noisy breath. "You are an ignoramus and a coward, Admiral."

"Yes..." Ozzel fell his knees and vomited. "My Lord..."

"Captain Piett?"

Piett looked up again. His eyes had followed Ozzel to the floor. "Yes?"

"Prepare ground troops, and blockade the shipping lane. You are in command now, Admiral Piett."

"Yes, my Lord," Piett said quietly. He didn't look pleased with his promotion, but he went about his duties.

"Ozzel," Ani said, his voice rolling like soft thunder that sent a most inappropriate (and inconveniently timed) wave of desire through Amidala's heart.

Ozzel crawled forward, weeping. "Yes, my Lord?"

"You will accompany General Veers to the surface, and participate in the conflict you have necessitated." He turned to Veers. "Assign him to a front line fighter."

"Yes, my Lord." Veers disappeared.

"We will regret letting him live," Ani said when they were alone. "You have too much compassion."

"You didn't need to ask me."

He didn't answer that. "He is a liability. He will cost lives."

"He sought clemency. Had I refused..."

"I recognize the political necessity, Amidala. But we will come to regret it."

"Your Highness, they've assembled."

Leia turned and nodded, and the young captain returned to the hangar to await the scheduled briefing. A briefing where she would lay out the plans to send a good number of them to their deaths.

Her eyes fluttered shut, and she decided to stay in her small, cold office for a few more minutes to collect her thoughts. She was their leader ? she had to focus on other things. Such as the fact that this plan was their best, and perhaps only, chance to get the majority of these people off the planet.

But the small comforts she used to find had grown increasingly elusive. Before, there was a necessity and inevitableness about what she was doing, about this fight against the Empire. Now? Now she wondered if these people she was sending to die were quite so willing to give their lives to this cause. Or if the cause itself was still quite so noble. What if she were battling her personal demons at the cost of so many people's ?

A loud crash from the hangar snapped her out of her reverie. She knew, without asking, that it had to be Han or Chewie, trying to get the Falcon off the ground before the attack commenced. Leia was rather angry that Han hadn't bothered to say goodbye to her?but it didn't matter. What could she have said to him anyway? "Good luck"? "I'll miss you"?

They're my parents! They're my parents, and I hate them and I don't know what to do about it!

Leia shook her head against the thought, against the curious and recurring impulse to just flat-out run to Han and bare her soul to him. Ludicrous. He would never understand. And she had never been one to do that anyway.

She strode out of her office, careful not to turn in Han's direction as she headed towards the circle of her troops and officers. They were talking in low, suspicious tones to one another; only a few stopped when they noticed her approach.

Leia took her position in the center, stood straight, clasped her hands tightly behind her back, and launched into her orders. "All troops except for the attack squadron and the ground personnel will assemble at the north entrance. The transports are authorized to leave as soon as they've been fully boarded. We will send nearly every available fighter out with the transports, to give you cover during the evacuation. The remaining fighters will attempt to protect our shield generator on the surface, and provide another target for the Empire to center on."

The rumbling began again, louder and more insistent. They knew that the few who had volunteered for surface duty were headed for a suicide mission. And the rest of them might not fare much better. Finally, one of them decided to speak up. "They can't protect the generator. And what are our fighters supposed to do against a Star Destroyer?"

Leia paced in his direction, ignoring the murmurs of assent that followed the question. "Our ion cannon will provide cover. We only need to buy you some time. After clearing the Imperial Fleet, you will immediately head to the rendezvous coordinates."

"There just aren't enough of us to do this," grumbled someone in the back that she couldn't see. "There won't be half of us that get out of here alive."

"And even when we do," said another man, "you know it won't be long before they wind up at the rendezvous ? how hard will it be for one of them to follow one of us?" He narrowed his eyes at her. "We won't survive this. And this madness may only be the beginning."

Leia felt their eyes on her. Accusing. Skeptical. Frightened. She understood ? all those emotions were mirrored in her as she stood there before them.

"I won't lie to you. We're outnumbered and outgunned. This will be a difficult battle. But don't tell me that this effort isn't worth it. I'm not about to sit here and wait to be captured by the Empire. I'm not about to give up just because they think they have us caught.

"We've fought too hard and too long to just give up, to surrender now. We can escape. We can survive this. But I need you." She turned to all of them. "We need each other." She drew up her shoulders and tightened her hands behind her. "If any of you would rather wait here for certain death, you are welcome to."

There was silence.

"Then are you ready to fight for our survival?" she urged loudly.

A roar came up from the group ? not as forceful as she would have liked, but a positive sign nonetheless. She dismissed them, and watched them try to prepare their ship and themselves for what was to come.

They were staring at him. Laughing at him. Maybe not overtly, but he wasn't blind. And he knew what he would have thought if he were one of these ground troops, and saw an Admiral forced to perform such menial and dangerous duties. Being on the front lines of a Rebel assault was not a responsibility that someone of his station should ever have to endure.

But it was either endure their amusement, or return to a certain death at Vader's hand. And he had never heard of someone successfully appealing to Lady Vader's sympathy twice ? usually because Vader made sure they didn't get the chance.

Was this humiliation worse than death? Ozzel, away from the immediate danger of having to make that exact determination, couldn't be sure.

He had dedicated his adult life to the Empire. Part of his adolescence too. The Academy had been the most difficult experience of his life ? but he had been proud the day he graduated. It had taken so long for him to climb through the ranks to the position he was in now. He didn't have the benefit of high connections, and knew that he didn't possess a great deal of natural ability. But he had made it anyway.

Or so he thought. How would his reputation ever recover from this embarrassment? Would Lord Vader even allow him the chance to do so?

Ozzel sighed angrily as the transport disembarked from the Star Destroyer, bringing the forces down to the surface of Hoth. Studiously avoiding the faces of the other men, his eyes fell upon the Imperial insignia. The symbol of everything he believed in and fought for.

Were the Vaders now the embodiment of that symbol? How could that be? How could the glory of this wondrous, galactic Empire now be subject to the whims of a woman ? a woman! ? and her subservient husband?

It sickened him, and it had before?the incident. Ozzel wondered at times what the Emperor could possibly think of what they were doing. It was an idle thought, but sometimes it consumed him. Surely, if the Emperor realized what was happening, he would not stand for it.

If only the Emperor knew?

He wasn't the only one who felt that way. Before coming aboard the Executor, he had been able to speak a little more freely about his opinion on the Vaders. Not much more, but enough to know that not everyone had fallen under her spell, or given in completely to their fear of the husband. That not everyone appreciated the gentler face she had put on the Empire, or the popularity and loyalty she wielded.

For him, for those who thought like him, the Emperor ? the secret and shadowy leader that he was ? had grown immeasurably, into almost a mythic figure. Maybe because he was the only conceivable way to get around, or go above, the Vaders. The only real way to take the Empire back out of their clawing hands, and return true order and respect to the galaxy.

This latest?event was simply the last straw for him. To be forced, on the bridge, in front of everyone, to beg for pity from an indifferent woman, while her husband insulted him and choked him and?

He let the anger roll through him, and felt his cheeks burn. In the end, there was nothing to be done about it. He would just have to live through this torment, and hope that a better day was coming, for him ? and the Empire.

Luke tucked his helmet under his arm, more or less ignoring the piteous glances and sympathetic smiles he got from people as he tried to make his way to his snowspeeder. Under other circumstances, Luke might have found it all amusing ? even when he had left to face the Death Star, he hadn't received this kind of treatment. Maybe they had forgotten, but he knew what it really meant to go on a suicide mission. And he didn't think this was one.

Sure, they would be badly outnumbered. But whatever kind of ships the Empire sent for ground duty, chances were the Rebels would have the faster and more maneuverable crafts. A small advantage, but one that might be enough to give the others the time they needed ? and make this battle more than the Imperial target practice many anticipated. Maybe.

Luke finally reached his speeder and jumped quickly up the ladder. As he was about to swing into his pilot's chair, he froze.

On the co-pilot's chair were Dak's helmet and neatly folded jumpsuit.

Luke's shoulders slumped as he threw his own helmet down with an angry grunt. Another desertion. Another one gone.

That there was a recognizable custom for such an event was disheartening. But Dak wasn't the first person to leave his Rebellion gear neatly and conspicuously tucked somewhere that they were supposed to be themselves. Uniforms, weapons, rations ? they would be found stacked on beds, in chairs at briefings, on tables in what served as the mess hall. Someone would report the new deserter to Leia, she would order that a search be conducted, nothing would be found, and eventually everyone tried to get back to their routines. It was almost a non-event.

Almost. Every person that left took a little more fight out of their spirits. Made their work that much harder. Made it that much easier for another person to think about leaving.

At least there was no evidence yet of any deserter actually turning traitor on them. The Rebellion's secrets had essentially remained safe. Luke couldn't imagine what a grievous blow that would be, if someone were to give them up to the Empire?

Luke sunk into his seat, and looked idly to the other pilots that were preparing to leave. How convenient it would have been if Leia had somehow confused the flight plan and there was an extra person hanging around to come join him. No such luck.

He initialized the engines, put his helmet on, and closed his hands around the controls. For a moment, he tried to call on the Force to center his thoughts and prepare him to go into battle alone. He saw that he was being waved out of the hangar.

It was time to face the Empire.

Dak rode into the sharp crystal sky, clutching his tauntaun's neck and letting her go wherever she would. He had taken his snowgear and his goggles, and they sat heavily on him. He'd once read a story about a man whose penance was to carry a sun from world to world, its burning weight bowing him over for all eternity. He understood what that would feel like now.

The tauntaun paused, sniffed, veered. Dak let it.

Often, in the past, he had looked upon the deserters with contempt. Didn't they have any commitment? He felt no guilt about enjoying Lady Vader's antics because they meant nothing to him. He was a Rebel, a member of the Alliance. The fact that there was one Imperial he liked ? at least marginally ? didn't change that. Those others...obviously, they'd never really meant it, or were cowards or traitors.

The notion of a sudden, drowning despair had never occurred to him. He had never felt it; hence, it did not exist. But this morning, Dak had begun to feel...dizzy? No, not dizzy. But like dizzy. Like he'd been walking across a solid plain, and the ground had suddenly opened, just a crack, just a glimpse of the endless chasm underneath. The sensation was physical, like a thousand tiny feather-dusters working enthusiastically behind his forehead.

There was nothing at all gradual about it. One moment, he had been a half-nervous, half-excited young soldier about to go into battle, less listening to Princess Leia than watching her pretty mouth move in the bright snowlight, and imagining touching those shiny lips...just with his finger, to see what they felt like, if they were as he imagined them...Then the panic, the brief realization that she could die today (his own death did not occur to him immediately), and he saw her lying in the snow, her blood soaking her white uniform a deep scarlet, and the gruesome turn of the image had done it. She would be dead in the snow, dead in the scarlet gown spreading in the ice, and Dak saw Lady Vader standing above her, living in scarlet, and the bottom fell out of his world, because he couldn't tell the difference anymore.

People die here, people die there; people are kind here, people are kind there. We're all dying and killing and there's no difference and who says the Republic was any better?

The next moment, the world around him had become unreal and unlivable. Sounds were mere echoes in the ice, and he had to concentrate to understand what was being said ? it was as if everyone had suddenly started speaking another language, one he knew, but hadn't spoken for many years. He wondered if the others had felt this way. They had dropped out, one after another, and had they taken away the cover that led over the abyss? Unraveled the tarp thread by thread? Pulled supports out from under the floor? The last felt right to Dak ? he felt as if he'd been walking along happily, along a floor that had once been solid, only occasionally annoyed that his friends and partners kept disappearing, and had suddenly plunged through into an unimagined dungeon. Everything had left his mind except for the need to escape it.

"Doesn't matter," he whispered to his tauntaun. "Doesn't matter. One more deserter. War's over."

The tauntaun didn't answer him. She just hopped, and crested a small rise. The tundra spread out before them, a vast plain beyond the range of the Rebel base. In the far western distance, he saw the fuzzy sweep of the nightline shadow falling across the world, and he urged the animal toward it.

The worst part all of this was that it was true. It didn't matter. The war was lost. The others had already deserted, or at least enough to make a dent in the fighting forces, because even if the leaders stayed, you can't fight a war from a control room.

Go back.

He shook his head. Not possible. He'd already deserted. Luke would have found his things already, and they would know he was disloyal. They would know what had gone through his mind. He would not be trusted, or welcome. And they might be dead by now.

Then find the Empire. Kneel before Lady Vader and swear allegiance. She always arranges for amnesty.

That wasn't possible either. He thought of his friends, of the people who had died for the Rebellion. He couldn't spit on their memory like that.

He lifted his head. A fine mist had settled on the inside of his goggles. He took them off thoughtfully, ignoring the blades of icy wind that sliced at his face. They belonged to the Rebellion. He shouldn't have taken them. He tossed them aside, and rode on.

Ten miles later, he tossed aside the parka as well.

The walkers were lined up on the horizon, tiny gray dots from here, but nearby they would be towering, lumbering monstrosities. Heavily armed and armored, but not hard to trip up if you could get past the laser blasts ? lazy, overconfident predators.

In other words, standard Imperial technology.

Luke turned up his forward shielding. The base wouldn't stand long against the AT-ATs if they got there (slow-moving trumps stationary), but there was a pretty good shot at stopping at least half of them. "Wedge?"

"I'm here."

"You have a gunner?"

"Yeah. Jenson?"

Jenson's thin voice piped up. "Here. Something wrong with Dak?"

"Dak decided to skip the party," Luke said briefly.

"Dak! No, there must be some mistake!"

"Cut the chat, Jenson," Wedge said.

"Yeah. Right. Sure." But Luke could hear that Jenson wasn't all right. He wondered if the boy's X-Wing would show up at the rendezvous point on autopilot, with a helmet and gloves in the seat.

No time to think about that now. "We have to scatter their firepower, Wedge. How many of us are there?"

"Twenty fighters, all told."

"How many with gunners?"


"Better than I thought." Luke turned his transmitter to universal, and spoke to the small group. "Pilots, fan out and put forward shields at maximum. We're going straight at them. And when we get there, we go for the legs."

There was general assent to the order. Most of them had gotten used to taking orders from Luke. Leia had gotten in the habit of giving her less pleasant orders through him, because (she claimed) he knew how to make them sound like suggestions.

"Gunners," he went on, "be ready with cables when you get there, but right now, you need to work with your transmitters. Turn up the frequency until you start to get feedback..."

"Aw, come on...That'll hurt...we need to hear..."

"If we're getting feedback, so's the Empire. They'll get it on their bands. More important, their tracking system runs on sound as well as movement. If they're not looking straight at us" (and they never are, he thought with some satisfaction) "we can confuse them by throwing a lot of sound around. It'll bounce on the ice, too. Should have them chasing shadows. Use your comlinks for communication."

"Good thinking, Luke," Wedge said.

"Let's do it."

Luke took his place at the center of the fan, and decided to turn up his own transmitter frequency. It would be distracting, but he didn't have much choice.

Hoth flowed out beneath him. The walkers took shape, then loomed above him.

Then the shooting started.

The sound-shadows were working ? at least marginally; the Empire was shooting between and behind the snowspeeders as often as at them ? but the firepower was intense. A blast hit beside Luke, and a hot rain of melted snow blurred his vision. He spun it off.

His comlink beeped. "Skywalker."

"Jenson and I are going for the first one," Wedge said.

"Don't tell me about it. Do it."

Wedge's speeder suddenly shot across the snowfield ahead, cutting a straight line at the lead walker. Luke watched long enough to see Jenson release a cable that attached itself to the "knee" of the machine, then set about trying to figure out how he was going to take the next one without a gunner.

A blast came straight at him, and he dropped his strategic planning. Small crafts were emerging from the belly of one of the AT-ATs ? they looked like land-bound TIE-fighters of some kind, small and agile, and piloted by real men, with eyes not easily duped by sound-shadows.

"Luke?" someone called into a comlink.

"I see them."

"What are they?"

"I don't know! But they're hostile. Keep low and keeping heading for the walkers. They'll have to shoot at their own stuff to get you there." One of the crafts ? he decided to call them TIE speeders, for lack of a better term ? spun at him, firing, and he had to bank the his snowspeeder sharply to avoid the blast. Where was the intelligence report on these things?

Probably sitting in an empty chair someplace, with someone's folded jumpsuit.

Still, it wasn't Imperial style. The Emperor had always built things bigger and bigger; it was always something you could count on.

Someone else at the top is making strategic decisions.

The thought was his own. He had no illusion of it belonging to an otherworldly visitor. But it was a true thought. He knew it in his bones as soon as it came to him. Not Lady Vader ? she'd made it plain that she had little interest in what she referred to dismissively as "those matters," but maybe...

Another blast hit the wide steel fin that balanced the snowspeeder in the air, and Luke cursed himself. He didn't have time to figure out what these things implied about the structure of the Imperial hierarchy. He just needed to figure out how to get away from them.

He leaned the speeder into the turn forced by the hit, and swung in a one-hundred-eighty degree turn to face his attackers. There were three of them. He could see white stormtrooper armor through the cockpit windows on two of them. The third seemed to be piloted by an officer.

A blast came from the one at Luke's far left, and kicked up a plume of snow and ice. The one at the center would have had a direct hit, except for the heavy shielding at front. Luke watched the laser dissipate against the energy field, knowing that it could have been his death. He fired back, more out of revulsion than any thought of hitting anything, and scored a hit on the fin of the TIE speeder that had shot him. It wasn't as well-shielded as a Rebel craft, and an engine belched out black smoke.

Down to two.

But one was circling behind him, leaving him trapped.

He dove the speeder down toward the snow plain, hoping that they would fire at him and hit another target in the process. One fired (the officer, Luke thought), but nothing at all was hit. He tried to slip under the craft in front of him, but the fire was now steady, and they had him between them like a bead on a string.

A blast came at him, and he pushed the speeder up. To his horror, he was directly under the "head" of one of the walkers, and looking straight into its gun sight. If the Imperial gunner had been glancing out around the gun, Luke would have been dead. But apparently he was using readouts, and this close, the sensors didn't pick Luke up. He dove down again. This couldn't go on forever.

"I'm on it, Luke!" Wedge called through the comlink, and a moment later, the Rebel speeder blasted through, and one of the TIE speeders fell into the snow, trailing fire.

"Thanks, Wedge. Go for the walker. There are more inside. I can handle the last one."

"On it."

Luke turned to face the other TIE speeder, which was retreating rapidly. He chased it almost to the battle line, then it veered toward the slight rise that led to the ice cliffs. Luke aimed, steadied his gun...

Then felt a surge of dizzy unreality wash over him. He looked up to the sky, something there pulling at his mind like a leash. The battle disappeared suddenly, and the only thing he could think of was Aunt Beru. She was making dinner, and he was late, and she would be very worried. He had to go home.

He clenched his teeth. Stop it. Home is gone. Dead is where you're going to be if ?

The speeder rocked as another blast hit it, striking the control fin again. This time, Luke was going faster, and the machine bucked out of his control. He had never in his life lost control of a vehicle he was flying, and he didn't realize what was happening until it was too late to gain it back.

He did the best he could, easing the fighter down into the snow. He popped the cockpit and got out, grabbing a bag of gear before it could turn into a target.

The main battle line was coming toward him ? how far across the horizon did these walkers stretch? ? but it would be a good five minutes before it reached him. The TIE speeder turned toward him aggressively, and he had time to see that it was the one piloted by the officer before it started firing at him.

Not knowing what else to do, he drew his lightsaber and ignited it, hoping that it had the energy to deflect this much power. The first blast hit, almost numbing his wrists with the force of it, then the second. He saw his lightsaber moving, but it had become a part of him, and he had become a part of the Force (he hoped), and it didn't feel like he was doing anything consciously at all.

The fourth blast bounced back at the TIE speeder, knocking it off course. Luke sliced at its engines as it went by, and he had time to register it going down toward the ice cliffs before the shadow of the AT-AT walker fell over him. There was a great crash of steel on steel as it stepped on his disabled snowspeeder and crushed it into scrap metal.

Luke looked over his shoulder. They were too close to the base. They wouldn't be able to stop half the walkers. Only two lay smoking on the tundra. The other Rebel snowspeeders were engaged with their Imperial counterparts. From the distance, Luke could see only a handful of Rebel crafts even trying to attack the walkers. He couldn't tell who they were.

He knew it wouldn't make a difference in the end. How could it? But he had to do something, had to stop at least some of the troops from making it to the base. He rummaged in the gear he'd salvaged, and found the tow-line. There was also a standard grenade. He'd expected the latter; it was standard gear. The former was more than he could have hoped for. He took it, and aimed it at the walker's belly. The line leapt into the bright morning light.

A strange vision entered his mind, a vision of a high stone wall, and people in long coats, and a line fired into a ledge and he is/she is a little frightened of how high it really is here on the wall above the cliff but he/she can't let any of the others know because after all it is his/her Palace...

The hook lodged in the metal of the walker, and Luke towed himself up. What was happening in his mind? What was making these visions come? First Ben, then...then everything. He wanted to get to Dagobah now, had to get there, because someone there would have answers.

He reached the end of the tow-line, and drew his lightsaber. There wouldn't be shielding here, at least not against this kind of assault. The metal sliced easily. He tossed the grenade in, hoping that he was somewhere near a navigational system rather than causing an ineffectual explosion in an empty storeroom. There was no help for it.

He released the cable, and let himself fall.

And fall.

And fall.

He didn't know how high the walkers were, and he was only vaguely aware of hitting the snow. He fell down, dazed.

The battle moved beyond him. The walker he'd sabotaged only made it fifty more yards.

Ozzel sat in the cockpit of the ridiculous leisure craft he'd been sent out in, cursing himself, General Veers, and both Vaders.

He was at the bottom of some sort of ice trench, and he certainly couldn't climb out of it. He would need to call for rescue. As if he hadn't swallowed enough humiliation for one week at their hands.

It would have been better to just die. He should never have begged for his life. Better to die proud than live in this wretched state.

He took out his blaster, thinking that it might be better than the comlink. To be beaten, not only by a Rebel, but by some mere boy waving a...

He lowered the blaster.

A lightsaber.

A Jedi weapon. Or Lord Vader's.

The boy in the snowfield must have gotten that thing and learned to use it somewhere.

The Jedi were supposed to be extinct. What few had remained after the Clone Wars had been rooted out of the holes they had hidden in and killed. They had been seditious from the start, a lying, sneaking fifth column that held too much power for the galaxy's good. And who had been charged with eliminating them?

Why, the Emperor's right hand man, of course. Lord Vader.

It all came back to Vader.

Ozzel could think of two scenarios that would get a Rebel boy a lightsaber.

The first was that a Jedi had lived and trained a successor. It made sense. A Jedi had given him the weapon, taught him to use it. Perhaps the Jedi were secretly gathering again, preparing for a strike against the Empire. Perhaps there were more Rebels with these weapons.

The second possibility was infinitely more disturbing. The Jedi, after all, had been mostly eliminated once, and a good strike would wipe out any chance they had of returning. But there was also the possibility that the boy had gotten the lightsaber from the one person left in the galaxy who still carried one himself. From Lord Vader.

Either way, it came back to Vader. Either he had betrayed the Empire before by allowing the Jedi to live and thrive...or he was plotting betrayal now.

Ozzel put his blaster back in its holster, and tapped the homing beacon. He would be fully in order when they came to get him. He would ask to be taken to the medical frigate on a Star Destroyer other than the Executor, and from there, he would contact the Emperor.

For the first time since his humiliation on the bridge, Ozzel was certain that he had a reason to be alive.

The chair Amidala was sitting in faced a view that brought forth a brief wave of emotion in her heart as she beheld it, bringing back memories of a point in her life to which time's passage had wrought a bittersweet mold.

The massive transparisteel viewport in the sleeping quarters of the Lady Vader offered one of the greatest interstellar vistas on the Executor, spanning a good part of the starboard bulkhead of her spacious sleeping room. It was one of the luxuries the Lord had bestowed on his wife, knowing she had years ago begun to share her husband's love for the starry heavens, and that it was the closest thing she had to beholding a sight of natural beauty. She had grown up on a world full of lush life and color; now she and this room were the sole spot of color remaining from that world, transplanted into a harsh, gray environment, left to thrive almost on their own. The view she beheld now reminded her of a long-ago memory of that world; stark, gray lumbering ships poised against the back drop of the otherwise peaceful vista of a planet. Hoth looked almost nothing like her Naboo, but her mind couldn't help but make the connection nonetheless.

Occasionally the tiny grayish form of a Rebel troop transport would shoot up from the planet, fleeing frantically past the blockade of Destroyers amid a flurry of green fire, much like a silvery Royal transport decades in the past had done.

Even now troops were clashing down there, their blood marring the once virgin white snow. She felt a degree of guilt at not feeling more remorse over those lost lives...she regretted every one of them ? for all were fighting for a cause they believed in ? but they didn't have near the impact they would have had years ago. She prayed the blood of her own flesh and blood was not being spilled, and that was all she prayed for. That they would all live so she could touch them once more. Prisoners would be taken once the base was secured, and her husband would be going down there to oversee the process.

He had promised her he'd bring the twins back to her were he to find them. But Amidala more and more found her desire to go down to the frosty surface of the planet intensifying, the desire to see them. She found herself wondering just how effective Anakin would be, how much force he might potentially need to use in getting them to return (especially Leia) without her there...

Anakin would no doubt protest her intention to accompany him to the planet. She knew of only one way to tell Anakin she was going with him.

Amidala leaned forward in her chair and lightly pressed her fingers against the cold viewport once more, as if to reach out and touch the cold, bleak sphere of the Rebel planet, hanging only a few thousand kilometers away. As if by doing this she could touch it, touch the people on it...

It would be the closest she had been to her children in nearly two decades. And she planned to get even closer, if she could help it.

The chair she was sitting in, a small plush reddish thing, was one of the few pieces of comfortable-looking furniture that existed in the spartanly furnished military quarters; most of them for the comfort of Amidala herself, as Ani's suit precluded any real need for physical comfort. He had allowed her a certain degree of latitude in furnishing this room: it was her own to do with as she chose. He'd even conceded to a bit of retouching of the main room of the quarters itself, to make it feel more like a place that was their home instead of a place he simply stopped by when he was off duty. Right now he was probably on the bridge, in the center of action, as he always liked to be. She had wanted to be up there as well, should any new information on the children arrive, but Anakin had pointed out that a sudden appearance by her on the bridge now would only spark suspicion among those smart enough among the crew; certainly not something that was needed when so many eyes already were on them. It all came down to the heavy stakes that were their children's lives...

Amidala was certain the notion of her wanting to go to the surface would have occurred to Anakin ? after all it was their children they were going after ? but she knew he'd not bring it up on his own. He'd avoid a confrontation on this matter with her if he could help it. She knew he feared for her safety in a potentially hostile environment, and would refuse it if she brought it up. She dearly appreciated his concern ? there was no question they still loved each other, though it was comforting to be reminded ? but her conscience wouldn't let her stay away willingly, knowing her babes were down there, so close to her...

She did have her own methods of persuading him. She just wasn't eager to use them against him, to circumvent his decisions. She had done it to an extent before, such as with the Trika 4 incident, and she remembered the rift that had existed between them (however briefly) afterwards, and had no desire to have something like that come between them now. Too much else already lay in that gap. But then, there hadn't been nearly as big a personal stake there as there remained here now.

She was going, there was no question of that.

Amidala had heard little about the battle. From her quarters she'd that seen a couple of transports had already made it through the blockade ? at the cost of a crippled Star Destroyer ? but that in itself provided very little information as to the situation on the surface. She was certain the twins yet remained on the planet, however. After all, Leia was a central leader of the Alliance, and Luke was one of their best fighters...neither of them would run from the battle before they knew their use had ended, which would not be so until the still-ensuing battle had been ended.

Amidala felt a cold lump collect in her gut at the thought of her son. Luke was a good pilot, she knew (she'd been with Anakin when he'd first read the Intelligence reports of the identity of the pilot that had destroyed the Death Star); he would most certainly have been one of the ones the Rebellion would send out to meet their forces, but it also meant he probably had a better chance of survival than any Rebel flying out there. So surely he was fine...and certainly Anakin would tell her if he sensed anything had happened to Luke...

She closed her eyes against the thoughts, against the image of the white planet. Down there, on that world, a battle was being waged, one that could mean the inevitable rebuilding of their family, or its permanent dissolution...

As always in the blackness, her mind began seeking refuge in a familiar, terrible haven. Memories...

(a finger, firm yet gentle, fingering a damp section of hair away from her cheek so he could look at her...a voice, deep and sensual when spoken in low heated tones, tickling pleasantly at the very ends of her nerves...)

"My Lady."

She sighed and opened her eyes and looked up at her reflection in the viewport just as the armor-clad figure of her husband materialized in it as well, striding through the entryway to her room, dissipating once more her bittersweet recollections.

For a moment she locked eyes with it, as always penetrating through the dark lenses to find the blue that was so long and so often hidden beneath them; the deep, soul-drowning blue that years of concealing behind lenses had not diminished in the slightest. As always when he and his intense presence were near she felt that terrible desire to be with him...

But she shunted it away, even now ashamed of her weakness. (What would Leia think, were she to know of this?) That hadn't happened in decades, a brief glance at the suddenly annoying bed blatantly reminded her, and not even Gungan shield technology could ever allow it to truly happen again.

She smiled weakly and walked towards him, stopping directly in front of him and turning to face the viewport again. Amidala took the monstrous gauntlet of his right hand and placed it on her shoulder; he made no move to remove it, but let it rest there with a tenderness anyone but she might have been surprised at. It had taken her time to become accustomed to his touch; knowing it was him, but still the hand of a machine touching her...but despite the lack of flesh somehow he still managed to come through, the gentleness that had been unmistakably that of the man who had permanently branded himself on her...she reached up and laid her hand on his. He placed his other hand on her left shoulder. It was the hand that still contained a last few mangled remnants of flesh, and Amidala almost fancied she could feel echoes of a long-extinguished warmth in its contact, even through the leather glove.

"What is the situation down there?" she began, her eyes still fixed on the reflection. An odd sight the two of them made; the fearsome, mechanical leviathan and the diminutive, red-clad nymph, the background of the starry void passing through them. (A novice might have made the comparison of them being as unalike as night and day...but it was more like midnight and sunrise, she thought: one coming in subtly behind the other, warming its chill with the barest touches of warmth and light...)

"The Rebel force has mounted a credible resistance to our forces, but the destruction of their shield is imminent," he continued, as Amidala lightly moved her left thumb in circles around the fabric of the back of the glove, caressing it. "I will depart for the surface the moment it is confirmed."

Amidala said nothing, only waited in silence a moment. He mirrored her silence (except for the involuntary breathing of his respirator) and by the sudden thickness in it she knew well why; he knew what she was waiting for him to do. For a little while she just stood there focusing her thoughts on the forever unaltering metronome of his breathing, allowing it to serve as a guide for them to flow along in an equally calm manner, enough so that she could say what she knew she was going to say.

"I'm going with you," she said, dispatching any preamble.

She could almost sense the intensifying in his foreboding nature; he removed his hands from her shoulders and she turned to face him, looking upward into his face mask.

"The Rebels will likely be hostile and not take kindly to our arrival, love," he told her, the reluctance faintly evident in his tone. "I will not allow those under me to unnecessarily endanger themselves in such an environment."

"But I'm not one of your troops, Lord," she replied, her veils swaying slightly as she shook her head. "I am your wife."

"And as such it is still my responsibility to ensure your well-being."

"And as my husband, is it not the same for me?" she shot back quickly.

"It is in my duty to willingly risk my life for the Empire. And you would be in a far more vulnerable position than I would be. Any endangering of your life is a risk I am unwilling to take, my love."

"I'm afraid it isn't your risk to take. I'm not so fragile, love. It is not as if I am unskilled and defenseless, you will remember." Even when he had first known her she had been anything but. Gentle and kind almost to a fault, yes, but not fragile and defenseless.

"I do not consider this cause worthy enough to risk losing you," he told her, looking away from her out the viewport.

Even for our children?

She took his hand again and held it to her face. "Come now. I'd be with you the whole time. Surrounded by you and however many garrisons you think you might need. It would be foolish to take such an inflammatory strike towards the second in command of the Empire with him and his well-known powers so close by."

She had a point. Who better to guard the Lady Vader than the great cunning warrior, her husband himself, with his widely-feared powers and fiercely intense loyalty to his wife? The moment anyone even thought of taking a strike at her, he would act.

"You may well need me if you ever want to persuade them," she pointed out. "I may be able to coax them to our side willingly, and I would think it would be in the Empire's best public interests at this point to attempt to do so with minimal bloodshed." Them could only mean one thing to either of the couple.

"Assuming you will have any influence left at all," Anakin reminded her coolly. "You may have been the woman she remembers, but that is not who she will see when you stand before her."

An imaginary vibroblade sent a cold stab through Amidala's chest. She and Anakin had discussed the notion that Leia would be none too happy to be reunited, particularly once she discovered her ties to Anakin; even worse, her mother's own willing consorting with that very figure and the symbol he embodied which was completely polar to what she embodied. Luke might be willing, even eager, to see her, as he had no memory of his mother that Leia had, but Leia...

I will still be a traitor in her eyes.

Possibly the greatest pain a mother could endure was that of being spurned by the being she'd borne from her own flesh, by her own tears and sweat. And yet Amidala found she was willing to endure it, if it meant even only a brief contact with her babies again. Even if they weren't babies anymore.

"You wouldn't deny me the right to at least see them, would you? After all that's happened?"

One of his hands clenched just noticeably, and she was almost sorry she'd said it. She knew he hadn't forgotten all the trouble and loss he'd inflicted on her in her life, and having it thrown right back at him could be none too comfortable. She didn't like using his guilt against him this way, but for him it was a relatively small price in the scheme of things. So much in her life had been lost because of choices he had made, and were he to fail in bringing them back now ? he would cost her even more.

"You once told me you would not presume to deny me anything unreasonable so long as I was happy in the end," she went on. Those words he had spoken to her before his transformation, and so much was different now from then...but the love that was the foundation of that promise still remained. So many promises he had broken to her, and he would have no desire to break yet another..."I do not consider this to be an utterly unreasonable request, my Lord." She pinned her eyes on his, trying not to let her sympathy for the pain in the blue hidden underneath quell her resolve.

The fire in her eyes and words brooked no room for discussion. Anakin knew when he had lost a battle, but was always reluctant to admit it. He'd never been able to argue with her on any point for long. He continued to stare in silence out the viewport and she knew she'd won, even before he spoke again.

"Very well. You will accompany me. But," he said, turning back to her, raising a finger, "you do not leave my side. Not for anything."

She smiled, wrapping herself in the folds of her scarlet robes. "I wouldn't have it be any other way, my love."

Just then, the communicator on his wrist beeped.

They were down to three.

One technician, a young woman Leia didn't know, sat listening to Imperial communications. General Riekkan was scrambling back and forth among the monitors, shouting ineffectual orders at pilots who had no choice but to fly reactively as they shot into orbit, diving away from Imperial fire.

At least they hadn't lost any transports.


"We have to send them out two at a time," Leia said.

Riekkan shook his head. "No."

"We have no choice. There are still five transports in the hangar. We'll never get everyone off if..."

Riekkan took her shoulders. "Your Highness, we only need one more."

This didn't sink in right away, and when it did, it should have brought relief, but instead, it made Leia want to scream. Each transport held fifty people. That meant that there were at least two hundred fewer people here than there had been when they'd arrived. Instead of screaming, she pressed her lips together, then pushed out a breath in a sharp, plosive sound that seemed very, very loud. "Fine. Just fine."

She could feel the rage beneath her breastbone, a physical thing, a sharp-cornered cage with a small, carnivorous creature beating at the bars. It set her nerves on edge, sending waves of blinding energy through her body, energy that she didn't know what to do with.

Except for her hands. Her hands knew. Hitting and firing a blaster weren't enough for them. They wanted to crush, to tear, to gouge. She felt it as an unbearable itch in her palms.

(the more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers)

Her words echoed back to her and mocked her. She had fought herself until she was weary to the bone to keep from tightening her grip, to beat her demons and not become the enemy she fought...the enemy in her blood. But they were slipping through her fingers anyway. Each day she would come, and a face she expected wouldn't be there, and the creature in the cage would lean through with its sharp little teeth and gnaw at her heart until she thought she might go mad. Didn't it matter to anyone else? Didn't it matter at all?

It matters. Hold on, because it matters immensely.

The voice was an external thing, a soft, lilting man's voice with a cultured Coruscant accent. She had only heard it on old newsvids, but she thought she recognized it. For some reason, she had begun to speak to herself in General Kenobi's voice.

Perfect. Just perfect. Like it wasn't crazy enough before.

The floor rocked, and a fine veil of snow slipped down from the ceiling.

The Empire was approaching.

Han wasn't sure if he was annoyed at Chewie for making mistakes, or if Chewie was making mistakes because Han had been short-tempered with him ever since the Falcon had started being uncooperative.

Probably the latter. Almost definitely.

So, I won't yell at Chewie anymore.

Something sparked, and Han pushed away from the lifter he was working on. "Hey, no! That one goes over there!"

Chewie growled, low in his throat. It wasn't anything that could be translated into Standard, but the message was clear: Get out of my hair.

Han threw his hands in the air in frustration, and stalked off.

Something hit the base, hard enough to shake snow off the ceiling, and Han immediately forgot about the Falcon, about Chewie, and about who was to blame for what. He was across the hangar in three strides, and headed for the command center.

He knew perfectly well that Leia wouldn't have left yet, and if no one took the trouble to actually put her on a transport ? and strap her in if necessary ? she'd wait here for Vader to show up, just for the chance to take a pot shot at him.

By the time he got to the command center, it was a wreck. Snow spills had left drifts across smoking and sparking computers, and monitors lay in shards across the floor. Only Riekkan and Leia were left at their posts.

Well, Riekkan, Leia, and Threepio, who never seemed to leave Leia's side when he could help it. Taking Leia would mean taking Threepio, because ? despite her frequent annoyance ? Leia would jump in front of a blaster to save the irritating droid. Go figure.

Another blast shook the room, and a snowslide dusted Leia's shoulders. She jumped to one side in surprise, and slid on the cluttered floor. Han caught her. "You all right?"

"Why are you still here?"

Good damned question, Han thought, but tried not to snap it at her. "Looked like the command center got hit."

She blinked rapidly, and waved him off with a brief chop of her hand. "You got your clearance. You should have already left. With everyone else."

To hell with you, then. I'll turn around, leave, and never look back. "I'll go as soon as I get you to that transport."

Threepio clattered across to them. "Your Highness, we must leave. It's the last transport."

She turned irritably to Riekkan. "General..."

"I have my own X-Wing to get off-planet, Your Highness. You need to go."

Her brows drew in on each other, and Han could see how tightly her fists were clenched, even under the thick gloves. Her hand hovered at her side for a moment, then she grabbed her blaster decisively and drew it.

"Leia, what do you think you're ?"

She turned the blaster on the main computer, and melted the circuits across the panel, then turned to the backup.

Riekkan was standing in front of it. He looked at her once, and didn't bother to argue before stepping away.

Leia blasted the backup computer. The command center was now a total loss. She looked around the room disdainfully. "But they won't get our records," she said. "Not a chance."

A tremendous shock hit the building, and part of the ceiling caved in. A warning alarm went off at the East entrance, and was suddenly and completely broken off.

"We're going," Han said, and took her elbow. He was maybe the only one who would dare grab her when she was in a mood like this; even Luke would have kept his distance. "Now."

He led her toward the door. She looked back over her shoulder. "Send out the evacuation code signal to whoever is left. And get out of here, General!"

"Come on!"

"Wait for me!" Threepio wailed behind them. "Please!"

Han didn't wait, but didn't need to. He could hear Threepio clacking and complaining only a few yards behind him as he made his way to the south hangar, from which the transports were taking off. Leia shook herself free of his hold on her elbow, but that was all right. She was running with him now.

Another blast hit, rocking the ice corridor. They were inside the base now, and every hit sent shivers of heat and pressure through the structure. A huge chunk of the ceiling shook loose; Han skidded to a stop and pulled Leia back before it could fall on him. He only had time to reach over her and shield her before the avalanche of snow and smaller shards fell after it. He could feel the debris pelting his jacket, and he had a fleeting moment to curse himself for an idiot. He could have been out of here yesterday. Or the day before. Or months ago. He could have gotten out before they blew the Death Star.

There's a reason you never wanted to be a hero and this is it, old buddy. Getting buried in ice until the Empire finds you ain't going to be a pleasant way to go.

Then the ice stopped falling, and there was only a dusting on his back. The main part of the cave-in was a meter ahead of them. Broken ice blocked the corridor from floor to the place where the ceiling had once been. No way he was going to get her over that and get back to the Falcon before the Empire showed up.

He raised the comlink on his wrist. "This is Solo," he said, turning around and heading toward the north hangar. "Take off. We're blocked. I'll get her out on the Falcon."

Leia started to say something, for once thought better of it, and followed him. They nearly ran down Threepio, who was making his way laboriously across the debris. Han heard him wail, "Where are you going?" but didn't answer. Threepio had enough logic circuits somewhere in his processors to figure it out.

As they ran, they could hear the Imperial troops coming in. Sounds carried around the place in a strange and confusing way. The clack-click of stormtroopers' feet seemed to be following them along the ceilings, and the blaster fire in the north hangar sounded like it was coming from the walls around them.

Then the other sound.

He couldn't tell where it was any more than he could tell where the others were. It was faint. It came through twice, disappeared, came through again. Hiss-shush. Hiss-shush.



Not that Han was more bothered by Vader than by a legion of stormtroopers ? he'd heard that Vader had some not-exactly-standard abilities, but he figured that was probably just Imperial propaganda. It was Leia. She'd ?

She was headed back toward the icefall, blaster raised. "Get back here!" he yelled, hoping that the echoes would confuse the Empire, too. "Leia!"


The echo bounced through the corridor and Leia turned on him in fury. "Nice going."

"We're getting to the ship."

"Yes, Your Highness..." Threepio started.

"I've got a shot at Vader."

"Your Highness, this is madness!"

Han didn't much like taking Threepio's side, but dammit, this was crazy. "You've got a wall of ice and a bunch of stormtroopers on the other side of it."

She stood between Han and the icefall, and he could almost see strings tugging her in different ways. Finally, she put her blaster back in her belt. "Fine." She ran back toward him, and they got to the hangar door at last. Han keyed it open and shooed Threepio through. Chewie roared a reprimand for making him wait.

"Get her started!" Han yelled, then looked behind him. "Your Worship!"

Leia was standing in the door again, eyes boring down the corridor.

"You can't do it, Leia."

She shook her head and shot her blaster aimlessly at the wall. It caved.

"Good. Fine. Get on the ship."

She nodded impatiently, and pushed past him. He watched her running up the gangplank, a tiny figure in white with a crown of dark braids, and wondered why the hell he cared.

Leia resisted the urge to scream over her shoulder, Tell her she's nothing to me!

She didn't want to explain it to Han, and she didn't want to take the chance that they were right nearby. She didn't want Han and Chewie paying for her little family drama.

Besides, risking death to yell something nasty to her mother wasn't a very good way of proving how inconsequential she was. Her mind was beginning to cool with the flight. It didn't leave time for aimless anger.

She passed Threepio in the corridor of the Falcon, where he was staring at a flashing light and whistling something.

Chewie was in the cockpit, and Leia didn't need to understand Wookiee to know that the Falcon wasn't in any shape to outrun the Empire. Han brushed past her without a look

(Hey, I'm HERE!)

and took his place at the control panel. She followed and looked over his shoulder, though the ship's systems were such a mixed bag that she almost never knew what she was looking at.

Han started flipping switches. "How's this?" he yelled to Chewie.

Chewie shook his head and barked at length.

Another bank of switches. "This?"

Same reply.

Suddenly, it was too much. All this, and they'd be trapped in this tin can of a ship, waiting for the Empire to pick them off one at a time. Oh, except me. No, they won't kill me. They'll bring me to my adoring parents. But she was too busy to feel rage or fear. It was just annoyance. "Would it help if I got out and pushed?"

Han, unbelievably, flashed her a grin. "It might."

"Captain Solo?" Threepio's voice was less tentative than usual. "Sir, might I suggest that..."

Han punched the control panel (it lit up, miraculously), and gave Threepio a withering look. Chewie ran off toward another part of the ship.

"It can wait," Threepio said.

Leia glanced at the droid, wondering what had prompted him to interrupt Han in this sort of mood. It wasn't normal. She wished she could say that Threepio would never interrupt if it wasn't something of vital importance, but...

Han turned and went into the cockpit. Leia followed. Threepio clicked along behind, fretting to himself in a language Leia didn't know, though she did catch the occasional, "Oh dear, oh dear."

Leia dismissed him from her mind. "This bucket of bolts is never going to get us past that blockade."

"This baby's got a few surprises left in her, sweetheart." Han dropped himself into the pilot's seat.

Leia started to argue, but the ship rocked suddenly, and snow slumped across the viewport. Leia's eyes went to the closed hangar door. It was glowing...and then it wasn't there any more. Stormtroopers began to flow in.

A blast came from one of the Falcon's turret guns, scattering the squad and burning the large cannon they'd been hurrying to assemble. Chewie appeared in the cockpit and took the co-pilot's seat.

"Come on!" Han yelled. "Switch over, and let's hope we don't have a burnout."

A laser blast hit the shielding and exploded before Leia's eyes. She looked down at Han's hands, working the switches on the panel, and prayed, Don't let him lose this bet.

The engines hummed, fired, came to life. The Falcon lifted. Han flashed a grin at her. "See?"

"Someday you're going to be wrong ? " Leia started, planning to finish with a sarcastic comment that she didn't really mean, but then the back wall of the hangar fell in, and a phalanx of stormtroopers pushed inside, something large and black following them. As the ice walls sped away, Leia saw something that dried up all her words, might dry them up for a long time.

Maybe she was wrong.

She had to be. After all,

(you worry about me far too much my love)

he wouldn't allow it.

But she could have sworn, in the last moment before the Falcon left the world of white to soar into the black skies above, that she saw a flash of the deep scarlet that marked the line between them.

"Wait here," was the command. "Once the base is secure, I will notify you." The stormtroopers that flanked her gave nods of assent. His head turned to her ever so slightly, but Amidala didn't acknowledge it in any way. He would never bring their argument out in the open, so his hands were tied. Once he walked off the ship, she was going to follow him. She knew that the group assigned to protect her wouldn't dare try to stop her. So they would all head into the base together, whether he liked it or not.

The door rose, blowing in a blast of frigid air and ice. Amidala winced against it, her thin red veils providing little defense. Her husband had almost laughed when she refused to change into something warmer. But these gauzy dresses and coverings were all her children really knew of her, and this was how she meant to face them. Whether or not the familiarity would be a help or a harm was a question she had refused to consider too closely.

Anakin strode purposefully down the ramp, and marched through a door that several troopers had just blasted through. After a calculated pause, she followed.

She could almost feel her guards' surprise, mixed with a touch of horror?Vader would probably be angry with them for ignoring his orders to wait. But no one wanted to be the one to run and grab her, as that probably wouldn't sit well with him either.

Good, let them be confused. It would make it easier for her to catch up.

"My Lady?" a brave soldier ventured. She didn't even pause, stepping high over the rubble and into the base.

She found herself in a cavernous hallway that seemed to stretch and echo endlessly before her. Anakin and his stormtroopers were almost at the end of it; behind her, her troops were scrambling out of the ship to stay by her side. She took a deep breath that chilled her to the core, and determinedly followed her husband.

Vader's pace increased steadily as they made their way through winding passages to the hangar. He knew she was behind him ? he was surprised she had waited at all to ignore his warnings. Perhaps he should have stopped and waited for her, to ensure she didn't get into any serious trouble?but he didn't sense any danger. The Rebels were all but gone now. And what he could sense made it imperative that he hurry, even if it meant leaving her behind.

The children were about to leave.

A strong, almost magnetic Force-presence called out to him. There was no one else that it could be. They were both here. They were both near-by. And they both were trying to figure out how to get off this planet.

He felt nothing more specific than that, but he didn't need to. He could not allow them to escape. He would not fail Amidala again.

His own emotions about the children were worried and ambivalent ? he needed them, but knew they would despise him; wanted to reunite with them, but worried at what he might be required to do if they refused to join him. But Amidala's feelings, as naïve as they might be, were clear and simple and unrelenting. She needed her children. And that was the end of it.

Another set of blasters rang out, another hole opened up. Vader stepped into the hangar and found a sole transport preparing to leave. It had to be the last one left ? the battle was already over, and they had taken an extreme risk of getting caught by waiting this long. On any other day, they would have all been taken prisoner. But Vader was certain that the children weren't on the ship, so he continued to walk past it, ignoring the confusion of his men, who had begun firing on it.

Amidala also slipped past them, and was now directly behind him. He didn't say anything to her; he didn't need to. They both knew that any ship still here would be waiting for the last of the Rebel leaders. With this ship gone, the twins would not be able to escape the base.

Amidala finally reached her husband's side at the far end of the hangar. In her thoughts, she knew that she was starting to get carried away, but she didn't care. She had earned it.

She could see Leia's face in her mind perfectly. Her daughter's status as a monarch and a Senator meant there were many holo-images to be had, and Amidala couldn't get enough of them ? already adoring the beautiful, mature woman her Leia had grown into.

And Luke?well, his face was harder to conjure up. All she had was a blurry picture or two from Imperial spies. Anakin had tried to show her what he had seen of Luke ? a quick glimpse, then the doors closing as Luke fled the Death Star. That had never been close to enough.

Amidala snapped out of her reverie, wondering why they were still standing there. Then she realized that neither of them had a blaster. Annoyance shook her to her core, then a few of the soldiers, realizing that the Vaders showed no interest in the transport, left the small battle and hurried to catch up. Finally, someone shot at the door.

Nothing happened. This door was apparently reinforced.

Three troopers quickly lined up, and fired in unison. The blast seemed to rock the entire hangar for a moment ? she felt Anakin reach out briefly to steady her ? and then a dusty haze of snow seemed to be everywhere. She peered through it, noticing that the door had been destroyed, but part of the hallway just beyond it had completely collapsed.

The troops recovered and lifted their guns to fire again, but Vader raised a hand to stop them. As the rest of the troopers continued their fight with the now damaged transport, he simply stood there, silent.

And then she heard it, clear and ringing, despite the commotion behind them in the hangar.



Her heart leapt into her throat. She reached out to touch the wall of ice that separated them, and whispered, "Leia?"

Her husband took her by the shoulder, and gently but firmly moved her aside. After a curt signal, another larger blast rocked the hangar. And another. And finally, the hallway was free.

And empty.

Vader led the final charge down the hallway that connected the two main hangars, with Amidala nearly matching him stride for stride.

He was so focused on getting to Leia that he almost didn't see a blaster shot fly down the hallway, hitting the side wall meters ahead of them. He quickly moved to shield Amidala, but she was already brushing him off, impatient to get through this latest cave-in and keep going. He was starting to wish that he had brought a blaster of his own, though he never carried one. Waiting for the stormtroopers to react was maddening.

Another blast. Another short run to a sealed door. The sound of a ship gearing for take-off.

"This ship must be stopped," Vader barked as they went to work on the hangar door. He wanted no confusion after letting the transport escape. "All prisoners are to be taken alive."

The door disintegrated, and Vader immediately felt his words were in vain. As they entered firing, the ship came fully to life, and flew out of the hangar.

Amidala knew the feeling too well. She resigned herself to it.

It was the feeling of her heart and soul being forcibly wrenched from her. As her children left Hoth, that was all she was left with. Anguish. Again.

She didn't think she could take it?but just as she thought she was about to go numb, she felt something. A weight on her shoulder.

She turned, and was stunned to see her husband's hand resting there, reassuringly. For him, it was an outrageous breach of the protocol they had established ? comforting her, even in this small way, in front of his subordinates. Such a little thing, but it was enough to pull her out of the despair she was prepared to throw herself into at the thought of losing her children again.

She smiled, and hoped that he could somehow see it, even with the veils.

He gave a final squeeze, then turned to the troops and began snapping orders to them, and then on his comlink to the fleet. All available resources ? Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, everything ? were to disable and capture the Millennium Falcon, and bring the passengers directly to him.

Yes, they can still be captured. She hadn't lost them yet. They wouldn't be able to get past the fleet.

That is what she told herself all the way back to the Imperial transport. For her, at this point, there were no other possibilities.

Ozzel waited impatiently while the surgeon droid on board the Iron Will examined him for injuries and hypothermia. None would be found. Ozzel had protected himself quite assiduously after his crash on the surface. He had a reason to make sure he survived.

Your Highness, I bring you grave news, but it is, perhaps, not too late to act.

He successfully controlled the urge to smile as he imagined the Emperor's gratitude. That wouldn't do at all. He would need to appear sober and troubled by this.

As, of course, he was.

The danger to the Empire loomed much larger than his delight at the thought of Lord and Lady Vader, stripped of their authority (and possibly of their ludicrous costumes), being humiliated before all the galaxy, driven through the market square on Coruscant in their shame, no longer pristine and untouchable.

No, the danger to the Empire was Ozzel's real concern, of course. The rest was just a pleasant side effect.

He had expected some difficulty with being brought to the Iron Will rather than the Executor, but the worry had been baseless. He'd simply been picked up by the medical crew with the rest of the relatively undamaged field soldiers. They hadn't been able to provide him with officer's quarters on the transport, but it was a small indignity compared to the ones he'd already suffered. He'd just been glad not to be forced to offer an explanation. As a bonus, the commander of the Iron Will was a captain who would never, even in his most terrifying nightmares, contradict an admiral's order.

Your Highness, I bring you grave ?

The lights snapped up to high, and the droid retracted its sensor arm. "You are unharmed, Admiral," it said. "You are cleared for duty."

Ozzel put on his uniform and straightened it as well as he could. He did not have a dress uniform here, but sometimes, when the situation called for it, such matters of protocol could be temporarily suspended. This, he thought, was one of those times.

He strode to the bridge. "Captain Sequi?"

"Yes, Admiral, Sir?" The captain turned to him, nose twitching slightly. "Are you well?"

"I've been cleared for duty, and must contact Coruscant immediately." For good measure, he added, "You, of course, will retain command of the vessel, unless a time arises when it becomes necessary for me to have direct authority."

"Yes, Sir."

"I'll require a private place for my communication, Captain."

"Oh, yes. Of course, Sir. I'll show you to my quarters." He looked over his shoulder. "You, Lieutenant, have command until I return."

He led Ozzel up a short flight of stairs and across a narrow hallway. The location of the commanding officer's quarters never changed from Star Destroyer to Star Destroyer, and Ozzel had hardly needed the guidance, just the entrance code, which Sequi keyed in with shaking fingers. "I do apologize," he said. "There was some confusion before the battle, and I'm afraid there is...a bit of disarray."

Ozzel went into the small room. It was hardly a disaster by civilian standards, but it was certainly unkempt by the standards of the Imperial Navy. "Unacceptable, Captain," he said, "but I have neither the time nor the inclination to reprimand you for it."

"Thank you, Sir."

"Return to the bridge."

"Yes, Sir."

Sequi left the room, and Ozzel turned on the communications equipment absently, mentally preparing himself for his first conversation with the Emperor.

Your Highness, I bring you ?

Someone appeared over the projector, a housemaster of some sort. Ozzel glanced at him disdainfully. "I must speak with the Emperor," he said, keying in his identification. "It is both classified and of great importance."

"The Emperor chooses to whom he will speak."

Ozzel immediately realized his mistake, and dropped to his knees. "I am a supplicant," he said, following the rote introduction that every officer learned at the Academy, in case such an occasion should arise. "I beg forgiveness for the intrusion, but have urgent need to confer with the Emperor, and obtain his wise counsel."

The housemaster sniffed, and the display went dark for a moment.

Ozzel could hear his heart. It seemed to be in his sinuses. His vision was a little blurry.

The projector came back on, and this time there was no mistaking the figure. Small and bent with years and wisdom, pale white hand grasping a walking stick...oh, but he didn't look good. What would the galaxy do if this frailty were to take him away?

"What do you want?"

Ozzel blinked. The voice was hard and sneering.

"Your Highness? I..."

"Yes, Admiral?"

"I...I come here...I mean, I come to you with...grave news. But maybe we can...I mean, perhaps it isn't too late to act."

The Emperor raised his head slowly, and Ozzel stared into the hologram that represented the action. The eyes were deep, endless shadows, and suddenly Ozzel felt as if ice crystals were forming around the hairs in on his neck. Let me out of here! his mind screamed. Let me not look at him anymore!

The Emperor smiled, revealing pinkish teeth. "You find this uncomfortable, do you not, Admiral?"

There was no point in denying it. "Yes, Your Highness."

"Good. It is well that you are uncomfortable. Do you really believe you have news of which I am unaware?"

It came out quickly and forcefully. "I believe Lord and Lady Vader are plotting against you."

"Yes. Of course they are."

Ozzel's head snapped up. "You...know?"

"Yes. It has been so for many years. I also know they have a son, whom they are seeking."

A son? Ozzel pondered. A son? They have..."You are wise and aware of many things, Your Highness."

"Yes. I am. Have you any other news?"

Ozzel considered his approach carefully. "You say they have been plotting for many years."

"Yes. I do not require you to tell me what I have said."

"I believe that their plans are coming close to actualization. I believe they have developed ties to the Rebellion. And I know that Lord Vader has surrounded himself on board the Executor with those whose allegiance to you is, shall we say, open to question."

"I see. And what has brought you to this conclusion?"

"A boy on the planet where we just fought. Now that you have mentioned a son, clearly, it must be..."

"In what way is it clear?"

"He had a lightsaber. And someone has been training him to use it."

There was silence, and when the Emperor spoke again, his voice was thoughtful. "No...I do not believe that Vader could have trained the boy without my notice. But if he is wielding such a weapon, then you have brought me useful news."

Ozzel relaxed, not having realized how tight and tense he'd been getting. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

"And this question of disloyal officers on board the Executor. You believe they would follow Vader?"

"I believe there are enough loyal to him to commandeer the ship, should he choose to do so. Many are loyal the woman. I don't wish to be vulgar, but I suspect she wields something of an unhealthy attraction for them. Certainly that is true of the Executor's new commanding officer, Piett."

"Then you have been removed from its command?"


"That is certainly grave news to you. I give you the Iron Will."

Ozzel sat back, stunned. "Your Majesty, I am grateful. Would you have me command the fleet to attack the Executor?"

"No. Vader is still useful to me. He will find his way to his son. Once he does, I will deal with both of them. Meanwhile, prepared to strike, if Vader makes a direct move. I'll not have Vader or his woman undermine my authority."

"Of course not, Your Majesty."

"Be on your guard, Admiral Ozzel."

"As you wish."

He opened his eyes to solid whiteness, and groaned inwardly.

The same hand of fate slaps me twice.

He blinked his eyes against the white wall of snow, which covered his face ? or, more accurately, he covered it ? then becoming aware he was actually lying down in it.

Luke slowly lifted his face up from the imprint it had made in the hard, cold snow ? the sudden burst of chill wind on his not-completely-covered, wet face cut him like a knife, causing him to inhale sharply.

The stench of burning wreckage ? and the even sicklier sweet stench of what he knew to be burned flesh ? came in just as sharply into his nose, causing his stomach to churn unpleasantly. It was a keen reminder of what had just transpired.

(It all brought forth flashes of a turning point in his life, though not one of the happier ones, and the only memory of his that was anything in comparison to this: beholding the smoldering ruins of his boyhood homestead on Tatooine, the grisly remains of the people he'd called Aunt and Uncle...)

At that moment he had sworn to himself that the Empire had a lot to answer, as he saw the massive debris field of fragmented ships and bodies all around him, extending almost to the small ridge of mountains in the near distance, the reminder of so much lost, in battleground as well as in friends ? he renewed that vow.

The Imperial battle line had moved past; the huge forms of the remaining walkers silhouetted gray against a somewhat lighter gray horizon, now unimpeded: there were no Rebel ships remaining to challenge them, having either been destroyed or retreated. Small in comparison, he saw the standing row of half-circles in the snow that was the main shield generator, not far away...

And then they weren't there at all.

Luke dove his face back down and dug himself deeper into the snow, feeling that familiar warning tickle in his mind once more just as the lead walker fired on the generator. The resulting blast was over half a kilometer away, but even so tiny fragments of shield generator landed around him, hot metal sizzling in the snow near him and singing small parts of his parka. (He became acutely appreciative of the pilot's helmet he was wearing; metal shards digging into his scalp wouldn't exactly have been appreciated at that moment.) The orange mushroom cloud shot up into the sky, sending sparks out in a radius across the horizon, their deadly trails stretching out away from the central fireball, making it look like an exploded sunset.

Under extremely different circumstances, Luke might have appreciated the deadly beauty of it. Now he only tightened his jaw in mild anger, knowing that it was the killing blow in this battle. Not that they'd expected to win, of course, but ? one hardly appreciated the defeat of your cause smacking you in the face with its white-hot shards.

When the momentary firestorm had subsided, Luke lifted his somewhat dampened form from the ground and turned his gaze towards the thick column of black smoke twisting its way into the heavens, looking for all the world like a huge gnarled finger,

(twisting up from the ruins of the homestead...)

the walkers suddenly insignificant next to it. Soon they would be discharging troops, to claim the base, and capture or kill any Rebels unfortunate enough to have been left behind.

He had no desire to remain here.

He was alone on the battlefield, he saw: anyone else was either already dead or had gotten the hell out of here a long time ago. As he began trudging his way through the snow he passed the blackened hulk of a snowspeeder, the pilot nowhere in sight ? probably somewhere in the remains of the ship ? and briefly hoped Wedge and Hobbie had made it away from the battle safely.

The smoke of the burning wreckage was all around him, creating a queasy sensation in his gut. The dead were his only company.

I'd rather this time not be judged by the company I keep...

Han had probably made it out before the battle had started. But Leia, she would have been in command, right in the very heart of the base...

Luke saw a familiar rise some distance to the west of the generator. Over that rise, he remembered, was the entrance to the base, and some distance across the flat plain, he'd been told, was where the last starfighters were to be prepped for departure. But should he go there now, if Leia was still in the base...

A gust of wind, more chill and knifing than usual, came howling down from the nearby mountains, bringing a stinging cloud of snow into Luke's face. Dark clouds were beginning to gather in the dreary-looking sky. Another blizzard was on its way; he would have no time to go to the base and get back to his fighter before the storm hit. He knew all too well that he had no great love of being stuck out in these things, and this time there would be no bacta tank for him to recover in.

He'd have to settle for somewhat unconventional methods of detection.

He closed his eyes and concentrated hard, but couldn't feel her presence like he normally could. Luke shunted aside the rise in fear that accompanied the notion of her death ? maybe she was too far away for him to sense her. After all, he wasn't exactly proficient at this sort of thing yet. Nonetheless he tried to reach out to her, sending probing tendrils of his mind out ?

? and almost immediately drawing them back. For when he'd reached out he'd come in very close contact with an unexpected wall of darkness, pervading the area his mind was probing. It sparked a fear in Luke that he couldn't quite explain, and he quickly pulled his mind back. For at the same time he felt as if that darkness was moving, searching of its own accord...

Luke felt a very keen desire to move away from it, and he did so, increasing his pace towards the rise, and his distance from the walkers. He had no desire to be near them when the occupational force began its brutal task.

Even if Leia is there?

Stop the paranoia, another part of him added. She probably wasn't there, he decided: the senior staff would long since have cleared out. The reason he couldn't sense her was likely due to the fact she was already outside the system, safe and sound, and definitely outside his limited range.

So obviously, taking her to Dagobah at this point wasn't a viable option anymore. The best he could hope for now would be to meet her at the rendezvous point, and take it from there.

He finished ascending the rise, and stared out over the plain. The starfighters were directly ahead, small dark pinpricks barely visible in the increasing gusts of snow. He turned to look back in the base, doubt once again fighting to seep its way through his brain. Surely she would have had the sense to get out of there, and not stay behind and fight to the last man, like he knew she, especially in her recent emotional state, might definitely be tempted to do...

The doubt was quelled a moment later, however, when Luke became aware of a familiar hum, rapidly rising in volume, coming from the direction of the hangars. A second later, prompting a feeling of surprise in him, the Millennium Falcon burst from the side of the hill on his right, shooting out from its hangar and climbing into the blackening sky. At the same time he was relieved they had survived the battle, he felt a pang of loss at seeing it go, knowing that most certainly Han and Chewie were aboard it; he could feel the faint wisps of their presences...

But wait. There was something else, Luke thought, as he focused on the disappearing ship; a familiar echo in Luke's mind. He thought he felt it reach out briefly ? not towards him, but towards the darkness that felt even closer than before. A short, punctuated burst of anguish aimed at it that Luke could only pick up an echo of, but that was still unmistakably Leia's.

So she was with Han. She was in pain over something, but she was with him. That was about as safe a place as she could be, Luke decided ? he wouldn't have trusted anyone more with her care, and Han was a good pilot and fighter. He'd get Leia (and probably Threepio as well, if Leia had anything to say about it, Luke thought) to the rendezvous.

Another burst of wind blew a swirl of snow into Luke's face and howled in his ears; the storms were as good as here. He sped up his pace across the snow to the departure site, becoming more aware of the very real concern of the decrease in temperatures stalling his fighter from being able to take off ? or, just as bad, having to try to fly through a solid barrier of white to get off the planet. Crashing into the ground or running into the face of a mountain wouldn't help him or the Alliance any.

The departure site was some distance away from the main bulk of the base, behind yet another rise, allowing for the possibility that the base might likely suffer extensive damage in the battle (which had turned out to be dead on), and that the steep hill might serve as a barrier for any weapons damage, and a shield from sight of any Imperial troops at the base, counting on the hope that no Imperial would want to dare venture out so seemingly unnecessarily far from the base in this climate.

It was much to Luke's relief, still, when he arrived at the departure site and discovered it was still there...however minimal. Which confirmed what he'd already suspected, that many of the Rebels were either dead ? or in the clutches of the Empire. Only a few snubfighters and pilots remained. Those pilots scurried about towards their ships, not wanting to be caught in those same Imperial clutches. Wedge, Hobbie, and Janson as well, had indeed made it and were among the few (in fact made up the vast majority) there, and the four friends exchanged brief waves before jumping into their already prepped fighters. Luke felt a wash of guilt combined with relief: while he was grateful that as many of his friends had survived as they had, he had a feeling he'd lost a lot fewer friends than most that had escaped from here.

A loud and animated beeping issued from one of the fighters. Luke turned to it and ? despite the situation ? couldn't help but smile; Artoo-Detoo's dome swiveled around (being the only thing he could move, as he was already in his socket behind the cockpit of the fighter) excitedly at the sight of Luke.

A few moments later Luke was beside his own X-Wing, nearly bounding over the side ladder into the cockpit, which hissed mercifully shut after. Artoo let out a reassured beep: he'd been worried, not only for Luke, but that he might be alone. Luke could understand that, given the circumstances, and would just be glad to have some familiar company with him. The fighter's systems were already up and running, thanks to Artoo, and within a few moments Luke was up in the air, his snubfighter pointed towards the heavens. Luke cast one brief look back at the base that had been his home for the past several months, and sighed ? it so often seemed that one way or another, the Empire was always chasing him from someplace he'd come to know, even if only grudgingly, as home.

"Artoo?" he asked.

A friendly beep in response.

"I want you to do a sensor sweep for me. How large is the Imperial blockade out there?"

A moment of silence followed, broken by a somewhat dismayed mechanical hoot, the reason behind which soon appeared in translation on Luke's display console. Four Imperial-class Star Destroyers, spaced evenly around their side of the planet ? and in the middle of that formation, one extremely huge Super-class vessel...which according to Artoo's readings, was none other than the Executor itself. The flagship of the Imperial Fleet, and known to be the personal ship of the Lord and the Lady Vader themselves. Luke counted himself fortunate he'd not been among the ones who were likely captured ? he now knew for certain what the earlier darkness he'd sensed had been. But if the Lady Vader herself was indeed down there, maybe she'd serve as a sort of protective buffer for the prisoners against her husband's more...negative actions. Maybe.

Either way, there was no truly safe way for his little ship to make it through that blockade. He might make it, but he was certain there had to be another way than just speeding his way through. There was no longer an active ion cannon to provide cover ? not that there were any ships behind large enough to warrant such use of the weapon, nor any allies left to man it ? and his little shields couldn't absorb the direct brunt of a Destroyer's turbolaser even for an instant. He'd be gone before he was even aware he'd been hit. Whatever lifted off the planet now was fair game, and the Empire knew it. He might lose more friends yet.

Unless of course, they didn't see you lifting off.

Luke slowed his fighter into a gradual arc and turned it around 180 degrees, and set off across the surface of the planet ? low to the ground, hoping the clouds might obscure the Empire's sensors to his presence. He increased his sublight speed to several hundred kph, and it took him several minutes to get to the small planet's other side. This way, he would use the bulk of the ice world as a shield from the enemy's sensors. (And he wouldn't have to fight his way through anything; Luke knew he was a good pilot, but he wasn't certain he was that good a pilot.)

Soon his starfighter burst from the clouds, and the vast star-studded blanket of space opened up before him. Clear, open ? and utterly free of Imperial ships. Only a few small moons, and those shouldn't cause him any trouble.

(That's no moon, it's a space station...!)

"Artoo, set a course for the Dagobah system."

The droid responded with a very confused bleep.

"No, we're not regrouping with the others. We're going to Dagobah."

Another moment, another beep, this time one slightly protesting. "It's not on the charts?" Luke asked in response to the translation that appeared in red lettering on his console.

No, the droid's response came.

Luke exhaled a sigh. He supposed he should have expected this; after all, if this planet he was supposed to be going to had a Jedi Master hiding on it, it wouldn't likely be a place you could just look up and find. Especially with the Emperor and the Vaders, the orchestrators of the extermination of the Jedi themselves (well, the Lord Vader anyway; Luke somehow couldn't reconcile the image of the supposedly gentle Lady with the idea of her cooperating in some of her husband's more violent acts) running things the way they were...

Should we go on to the rendezvous instead? the red letters crawled across the screen.

Luke was tempted to do just that. After all, Ben had asked him to bring Leia to Dagobah ? perhaps it would just be best for him to go on to the rendezvous, get her and bring her back to the planet later. (Provided he found where it was, of course.) And after this latest, bitter defeat, the Alliance could use all the power it could muster...and two Jedi would be better for the Alliance's cause than one. And later was better than never.

Unless you were too late, that was.

He sighed again, ready to concede and just allow the little droid to take them to their planned destination.

Then his vision suddenly was obliterated; the brilliant starfield blotted out by an entirely new vision. The change was abrupt enough so that the notion that the Lady Vader, in all her scarlet loveliness, now stood before Luke where empty space had once been, didn't shock him nearly as much as it might have. Even when the darker, horrible death's-head form of her husband formed before her, placing a possessive hand on her shoulder, pulling her gently towards him, disregarding Luke completely.

She was faced away from Luke, but he could still see the same short, slender figure and dark mocha hair, tied up in the same veils of crimson that hid her face. When she, still in the Lord's grasp, turned to face him ? causing his breath to catch slightly in his chest ? he saw the same hauntingly familiar eyes he'd always seen. Only this time angry and hateful, without the quiet calm she possessed in the newsvids ? and as he watched, she moved a small hand, white and delicate, up to part the veils from her face. All else was deathly silent, but for the metronome of the Lord's breathing...

He would have taken a step back, had he been physically able. The veils parted to reveal a sight both beautiful and terrible: Leia, half of her sculpted face unmarred and perfect as always, but the other...the other side, from just below her eye all the way to her throat, was a wretched, horrible mass of scars. Her eyes burned directly at him with despair and accusation, and he didn't know why...

The vision evaporated, leaving Luke gasping for breath. He even blinked his own eyes a few times, looking round the cockpit, to be certain he wasn't still hallucinating.

But that had been no hallucination. The timing was too perfect, too soon after his decision to abandon Dagobah. Besides, it had been far too vivid, and Luke never hallucinated. And why would he hallucinate something like this ? Leia consumed with bitterness, maimed...and far worse, in the possession of the Vaders...

And what had been the cause of her looking at him that way? It had hurt him, the way her eyes, usually warm, had instead burned him like if she were blaming him.

Was the Force, in its own strange way, trying to warn him of something? Against a potentially harmful decision? Ben had vaguely hinted at such matters in his brief training of Luke, but had never come out directly and said it...but then, there wasn't nearly so much that Ben hadn't in his own way been at least somewhat vague about.

No, he couldn't go to the rendezvous, he realized. He'd had warnings through the Force before, but none so strong as this. But there was only other one location it made sense for him to go, and he didn't even know for sure if the place existed, let alone where it was.

But then, it was as if an invisible, comforting hand suddenly placed itself on Luke's shoulder, relaxing him. Luke found himself opening his mind to the vastness of the Force ? something he'd done only a few times before, and never to this extent ? and his hands moved smoothly over the controls, inputting an entirely new set of coordinates as if he'd always known them, as if they had been ingrained into him long ago. Artoo let out a very decidedly perplexed raspberry, and Luke shook his head as the display translated the meaning of the sound, and began to bring his ship around in a wide arc to its new course.

"We're going to Dagobah, Artoo," he told the droid firmly. "We aren't going to the rendezvous with the others."

He had to go to the planet. Ben might be annoyed that he'd not brought Leia with him, but for all he knew Ben was the source of this prodding vision in the first place.

If so, I've seriously got to question his methods...

And surely he'd understand why she wasn't there, given the circumstances. It hadn't exactly been something Luke had been able to control.

(Luke questioned his own mental soundness for a moment, wondering at the bizarre concern of reassuring a ghost...)

"At least, I think that's where we're going," he added, more to himself than to Artoo, but the droid's response let him know perfectly well that he was well aware of Luke's additional comment. Luke had no real way of knowing whether the coordinates he'd input would go anywhere, let alone to this mysterious uncharted world he'd been summoned to, a world whose only proof of existence was that of the word of a disembodied Jedi (albeit one Luke trusted) and one whose only verification of whereabouts was a vague certainty from an equally mysterious Force Luke himself didn't entirely understand. Artoo would probably think him even crazier were he to know this; that his master had tossed out the coordinates that all but assured them a concrete, safe destination on such seemingly immaterial grounds.

Are you sure about this? the display came up.

Luke smiled. "It'll be all right, Artoo. And let's say we keep this on manual control for a while, okay? You'd get a break ? and besides, I feel like doing some flying."

Artoo let out another dry remark, not entirely reassured, as Luke pushed forward the lever, propelling his tiny craft into the dimensions of hyperspace.

To Dagobah, he hoped.

As he settled back into his chair (for this time a restful sleep, he hoped), he wondered what was happening with Han and Leia just then.

Leia hadn't had time to strap in before take-off, so she just held on to the back of the pilot's seat, and hoped that the artificial gravity wouldn't decide to go flaky with everything else.

Han banked the Falcon sharply, and a burst of laser fire exploded in the space where they would have been. Another followed it, coming closer to their current position. Leia tried not to look at the proximity readouts on the control panel, but couldn't quite convince herself that the Star Destroyer follower them wasn't getting closer. She didn't need the readouts to follow the TIE fighters that it had spit out after them; she could see them through the viewport, close enough sometimes to catch a glimpse of the masked and helmeted stormtroopers who piloted them.

Flak from the explosions around them buffeted the Falcon, and Han was engaged in some sort of serious and energetic dance with the controls trying to keep them on course. He flipped switches, checked readouts, checked the viewport, flipped more switches, adjusted the course manually, then started the cycle again. Chewie howled at the top of his lungs, vibrating the whole cockpit, then went into a series of loud barks.

"I saw them!" Han barked back. "I saw them."

Leia cast her eyes down to the readouts. "Saw what?"

Han pointed vaguely at the viewport before moving to shield controls. "Star Destroyers, two of them. Coming right at us."

Leia saw them then, points of light in the dark. One was huge and hulking. A Super Star Destroyer. The other was dwarfed in its shadow. That's where my parents are. In that monster. Or it's where they live. It's...

No. There is no time for that.

Another blip appeared in the corner of the viewport, and steadily grew into a pod-shape that Leia recognized with horror. The last Rebel transport. It was accompanied by two Imperial shuttles and a squad of TIE fighters, and headed straight for the Super Star Destroyer. "Han, they've got one of ours!"

The frenetic dance didn't stop, and he didn't even look at the transport. "They're gonna have us if I don't get us out of here, Sweetheart."

She couldn't think of an argument, but the sight of that last transport being towed into the Empire's hands ? the transport that had waited for those who held their ground longest, the most devoted ground staff ? was hard to bear. They would be tortured, would be better for them, more honorable, to die in battle, and

(if the Empire gets their information, we're sunk)

they would want it that way...

She bit it back. The Rebellion didn't operate that way. The Empire might kill its captured soldiers and defectors. The Rebellion didn't.

(lately, it would be a full time job, anyway)

There was an uneven clanking of metal on metal, which Leia heard but didn't really register until the panicked tug on her sleeve. "Your Highness!"


Han reached across the control panel. Threepio threw his golden hands in the air and broke his usual protocol by interrupting him in an urgent tone. "Sir, sir! Might I suggest ?"

But Han was having none of it. He'd never had any patience with Threepio. He turned to Leia. "Shut him up or shut him down."

Leia was stunned into silence. He was often pushy and cocky, but he'd never presumed to give her an order before, and it was a cruel one. Threepio was irritating and fearful, but he was hers, dammit, and he was loyal and


and he was a help


to her.

Threepio stopped talking on his own, but shot her a worried glance (of course, all of Threepio's glances looked somewhat worried).

Han didn't notice. Leia understood why he was doing this, and knew she was silly to let it sting. After all, Threepio was a protocol droid. His expertise wasn't likely to be useful here. He probably wanted to advise them on proper forms for surrender.

Han was already talking to Chewie again. "Check the deflector shield!"

Chewie barked something that didn't sound particularly hopeful.

"Great," Han muttered. "Well, we can outmaneuver them."

Without warning, he accelerated into the path of the behemoth Star Destroyer, banking the Falcon to its port. It didn't try to turn, but the smaller Star Destroyer did. Leia briefly saw a red light flashing. A whole section must have gone on alert.

Then Han dove and spun beyond them, and Leia saw, as he curved up again, that the two Destroyers were trying desperately to avoid a collision.

"Good flying," she whispered, hoping that the Rebel transport hadn't gotten caught in the accident, or at least hoping that she was really hoping it.

"Thanks. Count on the Empire to build something that can't turn around."

"We can't count on that forever."

As if to reinforce her point, six TIE fighters came around the floundering giants and began another volley of laser blasts. Han banked and spun again. Leia was beginning to feel queasy. The ship rocked from another hit.

"Prepare to make the jump to light-speed," Han told Chewie, not even looking back at Leia.

"But, sir!" Threepio moaned beside Leia, and she had a sudden, awful, sinking feeling. Threepio had been talking to the Falcon. Threepio did have something to say.

And it was too late for him to say it.

The ship rocked violently as another blast hit. "They're getting closer!"

Han gave her a wicked grin, and she could have cheerfully throttled him. Flirting? At a time like this?

"Oh, yeah?" he said, putting his hand on the hyperdrive lever. "Watch this." He pushed the lever up.

Leia obediently turned to the viewport and stared at the rushing TIE fighters and the star strewn blackness. But she knew perfectly well what was about to happen. Or rather, to not happen. "Watch what?" she asked.

Han's smirk disappeared, and he turned to Chewie in a moment of panic that even Leia could see. He pushed the hyperdrive lever again.


"I think we're in trouble," he muttered.

Threepio let out an exasperated electronic sigh. "As I have been attempting to tell you, the hyperdrive motivator is damaged. It's impossible to go to light speed!"

(that'll teach you to give me orders)

Leia rolled her eyes at herself. They were being chased by half the Imperial Fleet, and she was triumphant that her droid was right about why they couldn't escape.

"We're in trouble," Han said.

Piett's arm stung painfully as he slammed into a console, and then everything spun as he whirled past several of his officers ? his officers ? before clutching a rail and hanging on desperately. Through a small window, he could see a Star Destroyer pass by?for a moment, he thought he could see the faces of the people in that Destroyer, they were so close.

Please don't hit, please don't hit, please don't hit?

Piett closed his eyes and braced himself for an explosion. Instead, the ship suddenly righted itself, throwing everyone back to the side of the bridge they had started on.

A confused silence reigned for several moments, and Piett used the time to quickly straighten out his jacket and cap, reassuming some sort of command posture, and moving to the head of the bridge. "Status report," he asked of no one in particular.

"We just missed them, sir. The other Star Destroyers also avoided any damage."

His eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Where's the Millennium Falcon?" he snapped. The ensign jumped, then checked the sensors again.

Piett had to admit he had startled himself. His first thought should have been for the safety of his fellow soldiers. And he was glad that no one had been hurt?he shook it off. The moment had passed, and his priorities were now quite clear.

"The Falcon is just out of weapons range," the ensign reported. "The TIE Fighters have continued their pursuit, Admiral."


Admiral Piett. He had thought it would be several years ? at least ? before he would hear that. A thrill ran through him every time one of his subordinates said it.

But he couldn't show that. He had to start behaving like a commander and earn their respect.

And justify the faith that the Vaders had put in him.

"As soon as we have cleared the path of the other Destroyers, set a course to follow them."

"Yes, sir."

Piett stepped over to the main viewport, staring silently at the ensuing chase. What exactly was he supposed to be doing at moments like this? He no longer had to follow sensor reports or prepare recommendations; now he was the commanding officer. Should he order them to do something? Wait for them to speak up?

He took a deep breath, and tried to clear his mind of doubts. After all, Lord Vader himself had promoted him, and made it seem like the natural course of action after the unfortunate incident with Ozzel. There was no pretense or ceremony to it, just a string of new commands, followed by a warning ? "Do not fail me as Ozzel did, Admiral."

He would be a fool to say that Vader's words didn't terrify him?but at least he had been given this chance to prove himself. At least he knew that the Vaders had thought highly of him up to this point (he liked to think that Lady Vader had mentioned his efforts in finding the Rebels on Hoth). For him, dealing with them wasn't simply or solely about fear. He felt, as did many others he spoke to, that they had a purpose to what they were doing.

And purpose was something that was painfully absent from the Empire he loved. As time went on, the Emperor became more distant, and the Empire continued to slip into mediocrity, rote leadership, and inactivity. It was becoming a shell of what it once was ? all of the structures and rules were still there, but it felt hollow beneath that surface.

Until the Vaders. Until Piett had seen for himself the way Lady Vader could connect with all types of people. Until he saw the way that Lord Vader had stood beside her (a remarkable action for someone of his rank) and saw the unusual powers he wielded. There was something there worthwhile, even if no one knew the particulars of it. Something that Piett was certain he wanted to be involved with.


"Yes, Captain."

"The ship seems to be headed for an asteroid field. We'll have no chance of following, sir. We will have almost no maneuverability, and will undoubtedly take on a great deal of damage."

Piett frowned deeply, trying to give the appearance of pondering his first real command decision. His mind was already made up however, as he had no intention of telling Lord Vader that he couldn't carry out his orders to pursue and capture the Falcon. "Captain, slow the ship down to one-quarter speed, and have all weapons officers destroy as many asteroids in our path as possible. We will continue on our course."

He noted with pleasure that no one looked surprised or doubtful of his decision. He placed his hands behind his back and turned back to his view of the asteroid field ? of the galaxy. It seemed larger, grander now. And so did his place in it.

Han stared at the viewport in disbelief, almost frozen at this new development. Then a blast came from a TIE fighter, and his brain kicked back into gear. They were in trouble, it was his own damned fault, and he had to fix it before he got all of them killed.

Yeah, sure. But what the hell am I supposed to do?

He had to think of something. No way was he showing Leia that he was out of control here. She was already looking at him like she was sure he was the last thing she'd see, and she wasn't happy about it. Worse than that, somewhere, under the annoyance and irritation, Han thought he saw a glimpse of raw, unadulterated fear. From Leia, that bothered him more than anything.

"I'll fix it," he said.


"Don't worry, I'll fix it." He got up, and gestured for Chewie to follow him, then touched Leia's shoulder. "Just keep us straight."

She looked at him blankly, then took the controls. She didn't like to fly (and Han thought the aversion had gotten worse in the last year or so), but she knew what she was doing.

No more time to worry about it, at any rate. Another fighter flew at them. Han ran back to the maintenance pit, Chewie at his heels.

He jumped over the edge and down to the engine room. Everything looked in order, but everything always looked in order. There was some steam coming from a broken stabilizer, but nothing that would account for losing the hyperdrive. He decided to tighten it anyway, to feel like he was doing something until he thought of something to do. "Chewie...toss me the hydrospanners."

Chewie handed him the tool he asked for, then lowered himself down to examine other parts of the engines. He growled that it was running too hot to work on, but they didn't exactly have time to let it rest just now, so it was an observation without any practical value.

"I don't know how we're going to get out of this," Han muttered.

Chewie didn't answer.

Han was leaning over to yet another level when the ship rocked violently. It wasn't the trembling shock of a laser blast spreading violently across an energy shield. It was an impact.

Chewie howled.

"Yeah, I noticed," Han said. "Something hit us."

He was already halfway back up when Leia called for him to come to the cockpit, and she was just sliding into the co-pilot's seat when he got there.

"Asteroids," she said, but she didn't need to. The asteroid field spread before them like a porous wall.

Damn. On top of everything else, this sector. Must have been a collision or ?

He stopped thinking and slipped into the pilot's seat. Between the Empire and a bunch of rocks, he figured he'd take his chances with the rocks. He didn't need to turn around to know that Chewie had settled into the navigator's seat. "Set two-seven-one."

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that the technobabble hadn't fooled Leia at all. Her face was white and taut, but the fear was gone, replaced with even more irritation than usual...and, Han thought, a little exhilaration. "You're going in?" she asked incredulously.

Han shrugged. "Think they'll follow?"

There was no joking answer. An asteroid flew at them, and Han had to put his concentration into flying around it, but when he glanced at Leia again, she was simply staring thoughtfully at the flying rocks. "Yes," she whispered. "They will."

Han's eyes flickered to her again. He believed her. He had no reason to believe her, but he did. Not that it made a difference. He didn't have a choice. "I gotta go in anyway, Sweetheart," he said.

"But sir," Threepio said, "the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field are three thousand seven hundred twenty to one."

"Never tell me the odds," Han muttered, but didn't try to tell Leia to shut the droid down. If he'd listened to the nattering droid in the first place, he might have gone in a more sensible direction.

Not that he'd ever admit that outside his own head.

The asteroids suddenly became more densely packed, and there was no time at all for talking or thinking, only flying. One asteroid the size of a house bounced off another, and Han had to dive away from it, then bank sharply to avoid another one that was coming up from beneath.

As he turned, he saw that Leia was right: The Empire was following.

A pinprick flash of light caught his eye, and he saw three TIE bombers bursting through the explosion. Behind them, the giant Star Destroyer blasted an asteroid out of its way.

"This could be bad," he said.

"Could be?" Leia's voice had taken back more of its acerbic tone, and Han was glad to hear it.

Another asteroid flew at them, and Han swerved around it. He spared a look back at Leia. "This might not be the best idea I ever had."

Two asteroids collided in front of them, sending out an explosion of smaller rocks, which buffeted the Falcon. Leia shook her head. "We're going to get pulverized if we stay out here."

There was no arguing with it, but Han couldn't think of a way out. It wasn't like he could just land somewhere...

That's it. I have to land.

"I'm getting closer to one of the big ones," he said, and barely heard her protest (though Threepio's was annoyingly loud).

The first big one he saw was jagged and likely to break. He crested it and dropped down behind it.

Think. Don't let the Empire see where you're going, or they'll just pulverize you along with the asteroid they're clearing out.

"Right," he said to himself.

"What are you doing?" Leia asked.

"Fixing this. Hold on." Finally, he saw the one he needed. "There. That'll do."

"Do for what?"

"Yeah." It was almost still, and he could see a gently carved crater, with a deep cave in it. Perfect. Decent hand at last.

"Excuse me ma'am," Threepio said somewhere behind him. "But where are we going?"

"I have no idea."

Han didn't have time to explain, if she hadn't figured it out yet. The landing would be tricky, but he could do it. He checked the scope again to make sure no Imperial ships were in eyeshot, then looped around, and eased the Falcon down across the surface. The mouth of the cave yawned before him. It would be a good fit.

The Millennium Falcon slipped into the shadows, and was swallowed.

Amidala and her husband stood in the lift, listening to it hum as it raced them to the bowels of the Super Star Destroyer. She frowned at him anxiously. "You didn't have to come with me, Anakin. I would much rather have one of us on the bridge overseeing the chase."

"I will return to the bridge as soon as this is over," he replied.

"It's hardly a real interrogation. We know where the children are, we have all the answers we need."

"If that were so, you would have allowed another officer to assume this duty for you." His arms folded in front of him. "Clearly, you have your own agenda here, Amidala, and while I also ?"

"My own agenda?" she said, her eyebrow arched. "And here I thought that the children were our agenda. Forgive me."

His head snapped toward her, and Amidala suddenly had the strange feeling that she could see his eyes narrowing at her, his lips pursing in disapproval, his brow furrowing at her. The expression he always used to give her when she exasperated him.

But the moment quickly passed, as her head told her that all she was truly seeing was the mask. She was troubled by it, and she suddenly felt out of sorts. Not because she had thought she could see his face, but because she hated the later realization that all she could really see of him was the mask. Over time, she had managed to accept the necessity of Vader ? of why he looked this way, and acted this way ? but that was only by knowing in her heart that her Anakin was still there, that she could see him, and reach him. She resented reminders that things weren't always that simple.

The lift slowed to a stop. He stepped forward into the hallway, but she touched his arm to hold him back.

"I'm sorry, Anakin," she whispered, hoping that no one else was in the hallway to hear her. "I've been on edge about all of this. I don't even know what I really want to ask them?but we know that they knew our children...I just want to know what they know."

"As do I," he replied. Then he added, "I know this has been difficult for you, Amidala. But it will be over soon. In the meantime, if you wish to question the Rebels, I understand."

She nodded, and they left the lift and headed toward the interrogation cell.

There were only three Rebels in the room. The rest, she assumed, were still in the medical bay being treated for injuries sustained during the boarding of their transport. Two men and a women were seated on the floor, on the far side of the room, looking exhausted, defeated. Amidala's heart went out to them?these people had risked everything waiting for her children, delaying the departure of the last transport for them. That was not a crime as far as she was concerned, and as long as they were cooperative and helpful , she would personally make sure they didn't pay for trying to save the twins.

All three looked up and gasped when she entered the room ? one of the men tried vainly to back away when he saw Vader. That was the reaction they normally received; she and Anakin had a tacit understanding that his presence was helpful to her in trying to win the Rebels clemency. Sometimes, they would all but run into her arms, telling her anything she asked, because Anakin did nothing more than stand behind her and breathe.

Amidala knew first-hand what could happen to some of these prisoners if they didn't let her help them. It was more than worth it to her to have them scared for a few moments if it would spare them imprisonment or torture or worse.

She walked across the gray, bleak cell and crouched in front of the three, meeting them eye-to-eye, hoping her posture and demeanor were calm and welcoming. Anakin stood further back, his shadow cast over her.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked.

The two men nodded slowly. The woman gave no answer.

"I'm here to ask you a few questions, and to offer you clemency. I hope you'll listen."

The younger of the two men couldn't take his eyes off Vader. The woman had affixed Amidala with a defiant glare. Both of them were rather young (the other man was considerably older) ? they were probably around the twin's age?

"Tell me, did any of you know Luke Skywalker or Leia Organa personally while serving with them at Hoth?"

None of them answered.

"Please, you've been with them at that base for months. Surely, you must be able to tell me something about them."

"Like what?" the older man asked warily.

"Anything," Amidala said with a shrug. "Really?whatever you know about them?anything about what they're like?" Her voice trailed off. She realized how odd her question must have seemed to them, but didn't know how else to phrase it.

The older man was about to speak again, when the woman interrupted. "Don't answer any of her questions," she snapped. "Don't fall for this."

"Fall for what?" Amidala asked. "I'm not trying to fool anyone. If you cooperate, and answer my questions, you'll not be prosecuted. I'll see to it personally."

"And all we have to do is sell out the Alliance? And Luke and Leia?" the woman snorted. "What a generous offer."

Amidala felt her husband move, saw his shadow lengthen as he took several steps forward. "Do not doubt our Lady's intentions." He stared down at the younger man, who shuddered under his glare. "She is giving you far more consideration than you will receive elsewhere."

"Your loyalty to Luke and Leia is admirable," Amidala said, adding softly, "It shows that they are good leaders." She glanced at the woman. "But I don't believe that they would want you to sacrifice yourselves when I'm asking for simple information that will in no way harm the Rebellion."

"That's a lie," she replied through clenched teeth. "Why would you ask us for useless information?"

"Because it's not useless to me," she said simply. "But if you truly do not want to help me?"

Anakin stepped past Amidala then. The woman jerked sharply and was soon struggling to her feet. Actually, she was struggling against being brought to her feet. She kept up a futile fight as Anakin lifted her by shoulders with the Force. "What ? what are you doing? Let me go!" The men looked at her in confusion and panic as they tried to figure out what was happening.

"You will come with me," Anakin said. He hit a button on the comlink on his wrist, and several stormtroopers quickly entered the cell. "Take her away," he ordered.

As a trooper grabbed her, Anakin released his grip, and the woman suddenly thrashed about in surprise. Several of the stormtroopers brandished their blasters at her.

"Wait!" the younger man pleaded. "Just wait?you haven't even asked us any real questions yet. How are we supposed to answer? Do you want to know where they are?"

"Don't!" the girl yelled angrily.

"I can tell them where Luke is. What difference does it make now anyway?" he replied.

Amidala shook her head. "We already know where they both are. The Falcon is within range of this Destroyer as we speak."

Both men started a bit at that declaration. Amidala frowned at them. "What? I assure you that they won't be harmed, we're simply trying to ?"

"If I told you that you were wrong, and gave you the right information, would you give us all clemency?"

Amidala turned back to Anakin with a quizzical glance, wondering if he could determine if the man was lying. But Anakin hadn't moved, and seemed to be interested in what the prisoner was going to say...

"As long as you tell me the truth, you will all be spared," she said quietly.

"No!" the girl warned again.

"Luke's probably dead anyway," the older man said bitterly. "Do you think anyone survived the surface battle? So how exactly are we betraying anyone at this point?"

Amidala stood abruptly, almost stumbling backwards. "That's a lie," she spat out. "He's on the Falcon. With Leia."

The older man shook his head. "He decided to lead the surface battle to protect the shield generator. I'm sure you know how that wound up. When we left Hoth, we didn't think anyone had survived. Luke would have to be awfully lucky, I think."

"And where is the Princess?" she heard Anakin ask.

He shrugged. "I don't know. We waited for her, she didn't show up. I have no idea what happened to her."

Amidala gave herself a moment to try to process that information before abruptly turning and leaving the room. Her head was spinning. Luke wasn't on the Falcon? He might have been killed?


But she did know how heavy the casualties were down on Hoth. And if Luke had been fighting instead of waiting in the control center?

"He's not dead, Amidala."

She glanced at her husband. "How can you be sure?"

"I would have felt it. I knew he was nearby when we were on Hoth. I didn't realize that he wasn't in the base."

Amidala let herself feel relieved?she did believe him. Still?"Now he could be anywhere. We've lost him."

"We will find him again," her husband replied quietly.


Yoda stood at the center of the stagnant pond, the water pooling around his waist and floating his robe around him in a muddy swirl. His hands were spread flat against the surface, caressing it, and his eyes were closed. That sort of sight wasn't needed for this.

He pulled his focus deep into himself, found the thread of the Force that connected him to all living things, and spread himself out into it. Dangerous, it was these days.

Dangerous because he was alone, but for Obi-Wan, who couldn't help him if he became disoriented.

Dangerous because it made him visible, should anyone cast an eye in his direction.

But mostly, dangerous because the Force was wounded, broken, ill. Living always, and a powerful ally, but bleeding from all the places where the Empire had ripped its allies away from it. And that was why Yoda stayed alive, despite the long years and heartsickness that had fallen on him: to tend and repair it. Around him, the living world of Dagobah breathed and pulsed, and gave him its strength, the strength of many things working together in harmony. He gathered it, and sent out tendrils ? gently, always gently ? into the fabric of the Force, weaving them together, creating a stronger place, spreading the healing as far as he could.

It responded, as it always did. Growing stronger, it was...Resilient. A moment's euphoria went through the old Master, and the Force seemed to glow around him. He pulled back, sensing the strange, ugly current of the Dark Side seeking out the healing places, its burning hands bent on tearing and destroying what was left. Slowly, Yoda became aware again of the clammy water around his waist, and the progress of a large spider as it crawled up his arm. He set it down on a leaf, and made his way to the shore.

"It cannot die."

"Exiled, it can be. Hurt." Yoda looked at the shimmering form of Obi-Wan Kenobi. "Need to take this form, you do not. Hear you, I can, when you do not speak in words."

Obi-Wan nodded non-committally. "Yes, I suppose. But young Luke needs to see this, and I ought to get some practice."

"Heh." Yoda starting making his way back home, leaning on his gimer stick to keep his footing.

"You seem not to approve," Obi-Wan commented, re-forming a few meters up the path.

"Coming alone, he is."

"Are you certain?"

"Difficult to see, he is not."

Obi-Wan kept his image still until Yoda had passed him, then re-formed again, near the door of the hut. "Perhaps it was unnecessary for him to bring Leia. She was never the one we intended to train."

Yoda slammed his gimer stick into the mud. "Changed, things have, Obi-Wan! Changed for the worse!"

"Surely, Amidala will not put Leia in danger ?"

"Sure of nothing, I am, with Amidala." Yoda quieted himself, feeling the cold fingers of the Dark Side reaching into him through his fear and anger. "Put her in mortal danger, she will not. But she seeks, always she seeks. Her anger is with us, Obi-Wan."

"She knows we acted to save the children."

"In her mind she knows, but her mind seeks not."

Obi-Wan was silent, and Yoda could feel the eddies of sadness and confusion coming from him. He had been closer to both Anakin and Amidala than anyone, and the idea that they were both was hard for him.

Yoda knew that, and shared the sadness ? he had come to love them both as well ? but he knew they couldn't afford the sentiment. "Tell her, Amidala will. Tell her everything. Her family, she seeks, as Anakin did. Cares, she does not, how they come to her. Leia is no longer hidden, so trained, she must be, or stand against them, she will not."

Obi-Wan smiled. "I think you may be underestimating Leia. I watched her as often as I could. She is as stubborn as Anakin ever was, and she has set herself against him."

"But know she does not, what battle she must fight!" Yoda shook his head, and went past Obi-Wan to go inside. Obi-Wan formed again, beside the small fire, and Yoda went on speaking to him. "She will be a rock to him, and he to her, and seek, they will, to shatter one another. Matter, it will not, which one prevails, unless she understands."

"Perhaps the boy will be strong enough to destroy Vader before it comes to that."

"Vader perhaps. But Vader and his Queen?" Yoda saw Obi-Wan recoil from the phrase, and knew that he hadn't truly faced this yet. "Yes, Obi-Wan. Think, you must, what he will long for. Break away from Palpatine he may. Possibly destroy him, as destined, he was. But there will be another to set in his place, another from whom he will never seek freedom, for it is for her sake that all will be done."

"Surely Amidala is an improvement over Palpatine?"

"Heh. So will they think. But ever will the darkness grow, consume the galaxy, it will. Stopped they must be, Obi-Wan!"

"Can it be done?"

Yoda considered it. "Yes. Together. The boy, the girl. If neither falls, then stand a chance, they do."

Obi-Wan remained in his form, but faded a bit. After a long time, he spoke again. "I cannot conceive of Amidala destroying all our plans. I am heartsick, Yoda."

Yoda offered him compassion through the Force. "Yes, Obi-Wan. Heartsick, you are, as was Amidala. Acting from malice, she is not, though her anger is growing. Respite, she seeks, in the oblivion of the Empire. But afford such a luxury, you and I cannot."

Obi-Wan nodded, and Yoda did not feel the need to speak to him. No words would help.

Outside the rains began.

Well, at least there were no TIE fighters in here.

Leia tried long and hard to find something else positive ? after all, there was little else to do ? about being stuck in the bowels of a giant space rock on a crate with a defunct hyperdrive, complete with paranoid robot, and excessively arrogant smuggler. (Though to be fair to Chewie, he hadn't been much of a bother.)

There wasn't much to be done. Not that she could think of, anyway.

Her first inclination had been to wander around the ship ? but it was bad enough being confined in such a small space for extended periods of time, with her temper as it was, with Han. There were only so many places to wander here without going in circles sooner or later, and she was bound to run into him somewhere. She wasn't going to avoid him, but then she had no plans of seeking him out, either.

(But if he comes here...Which was a possibility, of course...)

She'd even tried holding a conversation with Threepio to alleviate the mud-thick aura of...whatever this was... constantly in the air around her. But even Leia, who liked Threepio, had tired of him quickly, and found a way to discreetly dismiss him ? let Han deal with him, she thought. For now, she enjoyed the relative peace of the now-silent, barely lighted cockpit. Even with all the shadows that always accompanied that aforementioned peace...

Leia looked once more out of the viewport she'd been staring out of for the last hour or so, the one that itself stared (rather disturbingly, she thought) only out into pitch-blackness. She thought that, somewhere not far away, she caught a white glimmer of a star interrupting the indefinite expanse of monotone...and another...

It was more pleasant to think about the stars than other things that were out there.

The Vaders' fleet was out there right now, so close she imagined at times she could feel the unchanging metronome of his breath hissing right over her shoulder, him lurking in the shadows just out of her sight ? even here on the ship. She resisted the repeated urges to glance over her shoulder to confirm such a phantom's existence, knowing full well what doing so indicated.

Mad. They're driving me mad, and it's only going to get worse...

And she felt as if this whole chase were partly her fault.

They're coming to claim what they see as rightfully theirs, she thought with a chill that went through her like a hot vibroblade sliding through wax. Well, they're welcome to try. She knew such thoughts were somewhat petulant, but it did feel reassuring at times to spite the figures that had spawned her, even in this small manner.

What she wouldn't give to actually face at least one of them now, so she could look into their eyes (or mask) and spit on their tainted feet, daring her father's renowned temper to lash out against her. Would he strike down his own flesh and blood, especially with his


beloved, supplicating nymph so close by? She wondered.

Or if she could just get a shot at him, maybe it would be worth it. For all he'd done to her. For tainting the once happy image she'd had of her life, and taking it away piece by piece as she watched powerlessly.

For taking her away from me. First her, then my innocence...then my life.

She wanted him to die knowing she hated them both. She wanted her to live, to see all the pain she'd caused her offspring on her own. If he meant enough to her to abandon her own child, then it would most certainly cause her pain to lose him.

Luke would tell her these feelings were of the dark side. She wondered where he was right now ? hopefully far away from the Imperial Fleet, on the other side of the galaxy...she could rest in the comfort that there was one thing dear to her they hadn't taken away. Leia had tried to warm herself with that bit of light, but its job was hard-pressed.

She'd rather do anything than just be sitting here, waiting to either freeze to death or (worse) for the Vaders to come wait for her fate to be decided by how well others played their hands. Action was always more satisfying than idly pondering on something. Part of why she was so frustrated now ? all there was to do was ponder idly.

"Hiya, Sweetheart."

Well, things did have a way of changing, if not always for the better.

Just go away, she thought at him.

She had the feeling those words would have been just as ineffective even if she'd used a Jedi mind trick to enforce them. In a way, though (though she'd never admit it to him) she was relieved by his arrival ? her own train of thought before then was one she didn't mind escaping at all. Even if the means were somewhat less desirable than she'd have otherwise liked.

Han, for once without his self-assured cocky grin, strode (well, as much as one could in this confined space) into the cockpit. Without even asking ? though Leia didn't know why he would have ? he slid himself into the co-pilot's seat, apparently unperturbed by Leia stealing his normal spot. She didn't care one way or the other; she liked this chair. It was, unlike most spots on this ship, actually somewhat comfortable, and it didn't smell like Wookiee fur.

Whether it was because she had seen it so much and was perhaps growing conditioned to it, or because she knew that she had much greater concerns in her life than whether he was uncouth enough to continue flirting with her (though she did find it extremely out of place), she was actually surprised, and even a little concerned, at its absence.

But leave it to him to find a way to compensate for it.

"What, no stinging retort?" he asked, raising an eyebrow in controlled surprise.

"I figured I would let you off one time," Leia said, not looking at him. "I imagine you might need it."

Han laughed and propped his head on his forearm, leaning forward across the seats so his head was bare inches from Leia's. For several long moments his face remained in that proximity with hers, and Leia resisted the urge to flinch away. It wasn't as hard to resist as she would have liked...

"You? Letting me off? Not in a million supernovas. I'm not buying it, Princess."

"Maybe I'm not selling anything," she countered, a bit more acerbically. She eyed him caustically.

Maybe she should make a habit of trying to avoid him. On a ship this size, it would certainly be a feat it might take time to master. Something she was definitely willing to burn...

Among other things, she thought, as the caped form of Vader once more draped its shadow over her thoughts.

The corner of Han's mouth twitched slightly, and much to her relief, he pulled his head away. Leia was surprised he didn't have an immediate retort of his own. For a moment they sat there in silence, their eyes unmoving from each other ? Leia had the odd impression of two ruffian types squared off against one another in a wide deserted alley, itching fingers poised over their triggers ? each daring the other to be the first one to blink, to make the mistake...

But Leia had met her match in Han Solo, and after a moment she blinked, conceded defeat, gratefully turning her head back towards the blank viewport and slinking just a bit back into her chair. Ever since he'd come in here that view had become far more interesting, though nothing outside had changed that she could see.

"Shouldn't you be working on the hyperdrive?" she went on, when it was clear there would be no rejoinder, not wanting to flat-out tell him to simply buzz off.

"What? And deprive Chewie of his wonderful conversation with your droid?" Han smirked, chucking a thumb towards the rear of the ship. "I wouldn't dream of it."

"Your concern for him is touching," she replied dryly. She dearly wanted to snap at him...but a significant part of her recoiled at the thought of further alienating him, even after all that she'd done without hesitation in that department already. Merely because he was the closest friend she had to her at the moment, she told herself. If it was Luke here instead of Han...

(that's not the same and you know it...)

"Aren't you worried you're depriving something else important by being here?"

His lips tightened; perhaps she'd unsettled him. She didn't know why; she'd put him off plenty of times before with much harsher words. Back at the south passage at the base, for example ? that was one instance she actually regretted, but was too prideful to admit. "Evidently not you, Highnessness. If you've got any ideas, please, by all means, do tell me." He gestured expansively, emphasizing the sarcasm in his tone.

"I'd think you'd know better than to let me do that," she said, folding her arms tighter as she turned to look at him, eyebrows raised, jaw set in a firm line. "Why are you in here?"

"I thought you might be lonely in here. I came to talk."

( have no idea...)

"And you thought you and your marvelous, winning charms could alleviate that loneliness, is that it?" She affected a bemused expression. Friend or not, she couldn't see him coming in here for any reason that didn't somehow include annoying her.

She really had no desire to talk to him; above all she just wanted him to leave. She glanced briefly up into the hazel eyes, visible as ever even in the dim if they possessed their own inner fire that hinted at the passionate interior beneath. Those eyes unnerved her in more ways than one, and yet again she found herself looking away.

No doubt he's conjured his own reasons and fantasies as to why I'm behaving so. Her own mind, though, offered no original speculation itself either.

"There's only so many ways to avoid me on this ship, sister."

"Why would I need to avoid you?"

"You tell me."

Her eyes narrowed at him, and this time she had no problem looking at him. Odd how it always seemed to be the times he irritated her most that she found him easiest to deal with... "What are you insinuating? That you think you're a big enough concern of mine, at a time like this, with the Empire's dragons breathing fire down our bare necks, to go to the effort to avoid you?"

He simply shrugged, as if her last statement hadn't been coated with daggers. "Point conceded. If you'd actually made an effort, I might not have found you by now."

"Is there something you want, Captain Solo?"

The grin showed itself at last. "An attitude change would be a good start, though some adhesive strips for covering a certain someone's smart mouth would probably suffice for the moment."

"I don't know about the attitude change, but I'm certain there must be adhesive somewhere around here," she murmured thoughtfully, a spark of mischievous amusement creeping briefly into her expression. "After all, something has to be holding this rustbucket together."

"I meant for you, and you know it."

Her tension levels began to quickly rise. Oh, no, she knew where this was heading. And she didn't like the smell of it one bit. "Han, if you're just going to lecture me on how you find my attitude self-damaging and a pain in your behind, I can already tell you I don't care to hear it. If you don't like my attitude, go somewhere else."

"On this ship, Your Worship? Isn't that easy."

"I thought Corellians had no use for odds." She turned her chair around to face him. "I'm sure you'll find a way to beat them."

His hazel gaze narrowed at her a moment, stilling her mouth from further action. "You don't know how hard I've tried that." His voice had dropped a level, and its softness was enough to unnerve Leia further. "You know it's not as nice and easy to do that as you seem to think it is? I've tried. Over and over, Princess. And even if it were possible?" He shook his head. "I know you probably hate me now. But we used to be friends, Princess. It's like if Luke was doing this to himself," he said, though for a moment, she could have sworn he sounded like he was trying to convince himself of something "? I couldn't turn my back on him. I couldn't abandon him to something I knew would destroy him. But there's a big difference between you and Luke," he told her, "and that's that Luke wouldn't be content to stew in his own anger until there was nothing left. To try to repel away people who wanted to help him."

"I thought you told me you didn't want to help me."

"What is it you think I've been trying to do?" he shot back, whatever patience he'd carefully crafted beginning to wear through. "You think I keep doing this, coming after you, because I enjoy the exercise? Because it's good for my health?" He rubbed the bridge of his nose, like he tended to do when particularly stressed ? she probably saw more of that gesture than any of his other friends. Why does he keep coming back? she thought. "I've seen people talk about Lord Vader with less trepidation than they talk about the possibility of facing you."

It wasn't a comparison she appreciated at all. There was no way Han could know the personal impact that statement had on her, but that knowledge was negligible in waning the surge of familiar, cold fire that rose through her unbidden. Her eyes narrowed, the temperature in the cockpit actually seeming to drop a few degrees. "Never compare me to him," she said slowly, forcing herself to remain steady. "I mean never."

"Doesn't change the truth of it. Doesn't change the fact that you need help," he said, eyeing her suspiciously. Leia cursed herself for her outburst; if she kept this up then he would know...

But, part of her innocently inquired ? would there in fact be anything wrong with having someone else know this? To share in her pain?

I am no friend by sharing this sort of pain with them.

"You've gotten soft," she said instead.

"Yeah. And what happened to you?" he reached out and took her gloved hand suddenly, gripping her wrist in a firm yet oddly gentle hold.

(...almost fancied she could feel echoes of a long-extinguished warmth in its contact, even through the leather glove...)

Leia yanked her hand away, suddenly and inexplicably repulsed. She saw the angry fire blaze in his eyes again as she did this, every time she showed an indication of further alienating herself.

But she saw something else ? she saw the genuine concern in them, something she'd never seen ? or allowed herself to see ? before.

(And what happened to you?)

I wouldn't wish that knowledge on anyone.

She closed her eyes for a long moment and swallowed, staunching a swell of emotion.

"Let's just say my past is catching up with me ? far faster than I ever wanted it to," she began, standing to leave, "and when it gets here I'd rather not see those I care for hurt by it." She clenched her fist at her side. "Don't follow me," she ordered him quietly, not offering any more elaboration to alleviate his perplexed expression.

I've already said far too much. But it had been, in a minor way, a relief to even say that. As if an almost imperceptible part of the weight crushing down on her was lifted...but it wasn't enough.

He made no effort to follow her when she stormed out at last. As she glanced over her shoulder, not even the phantom of Vader was there, only the muffled thud issuing from the cockpit, no doubt from Han releasing his anger by smashing his fist into a bulkhead.

He had heeded her wishes and was not following her ? but as the shadows that had been dissipated by his presence quickly congregated back around her again, she began wishing rather fervently that he had.

"Once there, you will both find Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me."

The tingling sensation that accompanied the remembrance of those words flitted up and down Luke's spine and out through his fingertips. A Jedi Master. A real, live Jedi Master.

He still regretted not bringing Leia with him as instructed?but he had to admit that a part of him was a little bit glad. He wasn't sure if she would have understood how much all of this meant to him, and while he was usually indulgent of her rather dismissive ? or downright hostile ? attitude toward things Jedi, he was happy not to have to deal with that now.

Until seeing Ben, Luke hadn't admitted to himself how lonely he had been the past three years since leaving Tatooine. He cared greatly about his friends in the Rebellion, but there was a heavy ? if noble ? burden he had been forced to shoulder on his own?being the last Skywalker and the last Jedi. On both counts, he hoped desperately that he would be able to do the right thing, and make his father proud somehow.

But it was hard to become a Jedi in a vacuum, and self-teaching (when he was sure he didn't know anything) was completely unsatisfying. Knowing that he would now have a teacher?and it was Ben Kenobi's teacher! He couldn't have ever hoped to be so lucky, and ?

Artoo began whistling excitedly and Luke glanced out of his X-Wing at the planet quickly approaching just ahead of him. "That's it. Dagobah." The droid gave him a series of agitated beeps. "No, I'm not changing my mind about this." Luke caught himself, and wondered at what point he had begun to sometimes understand and answer Artoo without the readouts.

"I'm not picking up any cities," he muttered to himself. He wasn't sure what to make of that, but he figured it could make some sense. After all, Ben had hidden out on Tatooine, so it wasn't surprising that this Jedi had also chosen a backwater planet to live on. As long as he was picking up some life readings ? and he was getting plenty ? things were fine.

More beeping, and Luke almost ignored it, except that the droid sounded almost worried. He smiled. "Yes, I'm sure this place is perfectly safe." Artoo snorted.

Almost as if in answer, the X-Wing entered the planet's atmosphere, and immediately hit turbulence. As his ship shook violently, Luke tried to get it back under control, or at least ascertain where it was headed. "I can't see a thing. Just hang on."

As Luke started his landing cycle, tree branches appeared out of nowhere, hitting his viewscreen and knocking his ship even further off-balance. For a second, Luke panicked, realizing he was much closer to the ground than he had thought, and there was no chance that his X-Wing would be ready to land. He braced for the crash.

Instead, water splashed up and over his hull, as they landed almost softly in a lake. Luke heaved a grateful sigh of relief.

Then he looked around.

Luke had always believed that Tatooine was the most desolate place in the galaxy. At least until he had lived on Hoth. This place threatened to overtake both of those planets for that honor.

It was an empty, disgusting-looking swamp. No cities? There were no people here at all, and he couldn't imagine why there would be.

In disgust, Luke opened the hatch and stood on top of his ship, trying to figure out if it mattered which way he went. "Just stay here, Artoo, I want to look around."

Before he even finished the sentence, the X-Wing groaned and shifted, settling into the floor of the lake. Luke felt himself wobble slightly, and was just about to turn to his droid when he heard a loud splash behind him.


"Artoo!" Luke startled himself with how alarmed he sounded, but there was no way he was staying here alone. "Where are you? Artoo!" He stared into the smoky waters, wondering if he should just jump in there after him. "Artoo?"

A beep, and then the droid's top lens poked out of the water. Luke relaxed, but felt his fear turn quickly into annoyance. "You be more careful," he said sharply. Artoo was already humming to himself and rolling away.

Luke hopped off his ship and into the water, climbing up onto a land embankment. What was he supposed to do? Just walk aimlessly across the planet and hope he stumbled across Yoda? He was tempted to leave until he could figure out exactly what was going on, but that would require getting his X-Wing out and running, and there was no chance of that right now.

What if I'm stuck here?

He pushed the thought away, trying not to let the situation get to him. Maybe Yoda would know some people who could help him. "I don't know, Artoo?"

Luke glanced down and gasped in horror as he saw a creature swim quietly behind his unsuspecting friend, and pull Artoo Detoo underneath the water. There was no time to react ? by the time he had pulled out his blaster, the water was again still and the swamp was silent. He really was going to have to dive in ? and fight a monster! ? to save that droid.

He stood at the edge of the water, blaster ready, completely unnerved. Come on, Artoo, come on. Then, violently ? Come on!

Luke jumped at a sudden movement in the water, and watched in amazement as Artoo sailed over his head like a rocket, landing with a loud crash within the forest. He found the droid lying on its head.

"Are you all right?" He was functioning at least, as his non-stop beeping attested to. Luke leaned down to help him back up, and was suddenly glad he hadn't gone after him in the lake. He had forgotten how heavy Artoo actually was. There was no way he would have been able to just grab him and pull him to shore. "You're lucky you don't taste very good," he said wryly. He looked over the droid ? covered in some sort of gunk and a whole lot of mud, but fine otherwise.

With that excitement over, Luke felt the tingling, agitated feeling return. It was much stronger this time, and put his whole body on edge. The way he had felt when that strange vision had come to him earlier. A feeling he thought he might have had at one time or another his whole life, whether or not he knew what it was supposed to mean.

"I don't know," he muttered, squatting down to Artoo Detoo's level. "This has got to be a mistake ?" a loud beep of assent "? but there's something about this place. I feel like I'm dreaming or something."

Artoo's only answer was to spit out some of the mud that was clogging his systems. Luke groaned. What a mess this was.

The cold mist of antiseptic spray was always a shock against his scalp, both revolting and comforting in its sudden, cleansing touch.

Above him, he could see the mechanical arms pulling his helmet upward into its sterilization chamber, as the pincers built into the back of his chair began daubing at the scars on his head. He was impatient with the process ? he always was ? but no matter how good the filtration in the suit, his own exertion always got the better of it eventually, and the smell would begin to work its way into the pneumatics, making him feel filthy. So he endured this procedure, twice a day, without fail, no matter what chase he was involved in.

Amidala had offered to do this, and Vader had thought it would be...pleasant?to replace the cold metal of the droid with his wife's warm hands. But when she had tried it, the image that had come to both of them was of the twins, as infants, in a small tub, as she washed them with a soft cloth. It was an unwelcome image on many, many levels, and since that day, she had simply come into the chamber with him, to talk to him and help pass the time as the droids did their work.

Today, her impatience matched his own. There was no room for pacing in the chamber so she simply stood and tapped her fingers on her crossed arms. Sometimes, she would forget the space limitation and take a step, only to find herself against a wall. Her gown and veils seemed to ripple even in the still air, as if vibrating with her heartbeat. The chamber was closed but not sealed ? Vader used a respirator built into the equipment for this ? so she didn't require her own air supply.

"Where would he have gone, if not with her?"

"It is possible, Amidala, that they do not regularly travel together. They may not have recognized their kinship."

"I know. I never should have let Bail adopt her. Never. I never should have allowed Obi-Wan and ? and others ? to convince me to separate them."

Vader let the silence spin out. He did not wish to discuss her decisions at the time of the twins' birth, nor did he want to open the door on her continued evasion of who the "others" might be. Other Jedi, no doubt. The Jedi had always considered it a wise course of action to shatter his family.

She stopped very suddenly, and turned to him, eyes wide above the veils. Her face was twitching, as if she were struggling mightily with herself. It had looked this way just before she'd said, "Ani, I told you a horrible lie, all those years ago..." He let her fight her battle; if he pushed her over the edge, she would regret it and place the blame on him.

She bit her lip and closed her eyes, then turned away again.

A chime broke the stillness, and she reached for the chamber controls with what appeared to be relief. Vader did not stop her; the cleaning process was finished, and the presence he sensed beyond the door was one whose allegiance he wished to test anyway. He allowed Piett to enter before the droid had finished lowering his helmet. The last thing he felt before he was sealed into his suit was the soft breath of Amidala's veil against his cheek as she passed.

"Yes, Admiral?" she said.

Piett paused a moment ? they all did when she addressed them directly in Vader's presence ? then said, "My Lady. Lord Vader, we are pursuing the Millennium Falcon, but it has entered an asteroid field. We are taking losses in our flight squadrons."

The droids made the last adjustments to the helmet, and Vader turned to face the newly-made admiral. "Asteroids do not concern me, Admiral. I want that ship, not excuses."

Piett looked dubious, but said, "Yes, Lord."

"Are we in a position to minimize losses among the men without risking the Falcon?" Amidala asked abruptly.

Vader raised a hand, to give Piett permission to answer her directly. He considered it an intelligent question. Piett nodded. "My Lady, we have the firepower to destroy asteroids, but both our own men and the crew of the Millennium Falcon would be exposed to greater risk from such a destruction. Our best hope is to simply pursue them through."

And an intelligent answer. Piett should have had command of the Executor in the first place. "You are performing well, Admiral," he said. "See that it continues."

"Yes, Lord." Piett started for the door, then stopped halfway. Vader felt a certain nervousness coming off of him. "My Lord..." He turned to Vader again, then his eyes went to Amidala, and remained there. "My Lady. There is a matter of which I believe you should be aware."

"What is it, Admiral?" Amidala asked.

"Admiral Ozzel has been given command of the Iron Will."

"Unsurprising," Vader said.

"As commander of the flagship, I was tracking communications. He made direct contact with the Emperor's Palace on Coruscant, and was granted his new command by Imperial fiat."

So it begins.

Vader raised his head and met Amidala's eyes. Any traces of disagreement between them evaporated at this. Neither of them had failed to note that Piett had considered the move both threatening and directed against them; there had been no thought that Vader had been consulted, or that Ozzel's presence on the Iron Will was not hostile. Piett was not Force sensitive in any meaningful way, but he was one of the most observant officers in the Fleet. He had noticed. He may not have realized what he was noticing, but he'd known to report this, known it would be of interest.

"And you have taken it upon yourself to question the decisions of the Emperor?" Vader let his voice roll dangerously through the room, and he forced the door into the corridor to slide shut and lock. Beyond Piett, Amidala had stiffened her shoulders and was in a state of high alert. She recognized the rules of this particular engagement. If Piett failed this test, he would not leave the room alive.

"My Lord..."


"I believed that..." Piett swallowed with an audible click. "I believe that Ozzel might pose a danger to yourself and her Ladyship."

"Ozzel is an incompetent fool."

"To speak more precisely, my Lord, I was troubled by the possibility that he has supporters in powerful positions. Supporters who could pose a more credible threat to you both."

"Cleverly spoken," Amidala said softly.

Piett's eyes suddenly flicked away from her, seeking Vader now. Strange. Vader reached out and touched the Force around Piett. His nervousness was spiking around him like a thunderstorm, and it was tied to Amidala somehow. She was reaching him in a way Vader was not.

She was asking Piett to declare himself a traitor.

He let the control of the situation slide over to her. Provisionally.

She took a few steps toward Piett. "Why," she asked, "would those in powerful positions on Coruscant be a danger to my husband?"

"My Lady," Piett choked, not looking at her. "You must realize that you and your husband have...enemies within the Empire."

"And you are offering to side with us against them?"

Piett did not answer. He stood between them, his eyes shifting back and forth. He trusted his guess ? Vader knew that he would not have come this far if he had not trusted it ? but he knew that if he were wrong, to speak the words Amidala was asking him to speak would forfeit his life.

"You were asked a question, Admiral," he said, moving forward, one hand raised.

"Yes," Amidala said, and Vader saw the shadowy motion of her veil being raised. The clear, crystalline lines of her profile glimmered in the room's dim lighting. "You were."

Piett turned for the last time, to face her, and looked into her deep brown eyes as she stepped into the light. Vader felt a rush of emotions coming from him: an unseemly attraction, quickly squashed, a superstitious dread, a puzzled search for meaning, a surge of hope and


loyalty. And then, at last, full recognition.

Piett fell to one knee, and bent his head. "Your Majesty," he said. "I am ever at the service of you and your Lord."

Vader searched Piett's heart, and found no duplicity. "Very well," he said. "You may go. All will continue as it has, until you are instructed otherwise."

Piett rose. "Yes. Of course, my Lord."

Amidala reached over her head, and pulled the veil back down over her face. Piett gave her a smile before he left.

"A bold strategy," Vader said when he was gone.

"Let us hope it has better results than my boldness has had in the past." Her eyes went to the large viewport where rocks were hurtling toward the Star Destroyer, deflected by the shield only meters beyond. "If this was a misstep ?"

"It was not."

She walked to the expanse of transparisteel, and spread her fingers out against it. "It will change, Leia. You'll have no need to fight anymore. Come home to me."

Vader went to stand beside her, and together, they watched the chase.

Han made his way back to the bridge with some trepidation. He had been in the cargo-hold of the ship, scavenging for supplies. He had found quite a bit that would be helpful under normal circumstances, but this wasn't the usual set of repairs. He certainly had never expected his hyperdrive to completely fail the way it had. Something told him that it would need to be replaced?but that wasn't an option right now, so he was just going to have to make the thing work.

He would have thought that should be enough to completely occupy his thoughts. But his mind kept wandering. Wandering to Leia.

"Let's just say my past is catching up with me ? far faster than I ever wanted it to?and when it gets here, I'd rather not see those I care for hurt by it."

Her past? What did that mean?

He didn't believe for a second that she was referring to her life on Alderaan. Or on Coruscant as a Senator. Sure, her family had always had entanglements with the Rebellion, but beyond that, he thought she had led a relatively normal, royal life. And he had asked around on more than one occasion to make sure he hadn't missed a stray rumor or story. So those options didn't make sense to him.

Which meant that whatever happened, whatever had set her off, had occurred in the time they had known each other. Without anyone ? not him, not Luke, not any of the other Rebels ? having an inkling of it.

That thought was strongly (and surprisingly) dismaying to him. How could something so disturbing or painful happen to her without her so-called friends bothering to notice?

Irritation leapt up from the back of his brain. It was an expected voice, and it said, You can only be as good a friend as she lets you. You don't have to let her drive you both crazy about whatever this is.

He had the feeling that voice was right. But...on a level he was reluctant to admit to anyone, he was touched that she included him in the group of people she cared about. Didn't that mean that she was trying to keep him at arm's length for his own protection, not because she was simply trying to be difficult? And didn't that mean something?

He shook his head, trying to get back to more pressing matters. "Shut her down, Chewie," he called loudly as he entered the cockpit. "Let's see what we can do about this." Chewie growled in acknowledgement.

"Sir," Threepio inquired nervously, "I'm almost afraid to ask, but does that mean shutting me down as well?"

Han noted Leia bristling at the question, and he could feel her gearing up for another fight over that droid of hers. Forget it. Wasn't worth it as far as he was concerned. "No, Threepio. I need you to talk to the Falcon for me, figure out what's going on."

Her response was to frown at him. Apparently, she wasn't in a peace-making mood, despite his little overture. Maybe her earlier confession had put her back on the defensive? He hoped not.

But before he could deal with the question, the Falcon lurched forward and back for a few seconds. How strange?he had thought that this asteroid was big enough not to have tremors like this ?

"Sir, it seems this asteroid isn't entirely stable."

Han didn't even bother rolling his eyes. Chewie already had Threepio halfway out the door.

Leia glanced at him furtively, but he caught it. There was a new tension between them because of the little she had managed to tell him earlier, and he didn't like it. His mind scrambled for some sort of joke ? or anything to say ? to break the awkwardness of the moment.

"Han," she began. "I ?"

A new tremor rolled through the ship, stronger this time, throwing him into the captain's chair. Leia completely lost her balance, and Han grabbed her to keep her from falling, pulling her into the chair with him.

What is going on with this cave? he wondered. If this asteroid were completely unstable, they'd be forced to leave before finishing their repairs, something they couldn't afford.

He glanced out of the cockpit, and listened to the continued rumblings from outside. Leia squirmed slightly, and he shushed her without really meaning to. She shoved at his arms. "Let me go, Han."

On the Hoth base, that tone of voice would have noted an order, and everyone in the room would have jumped. But this was his ship, and he merely found it amusing. "Don't go getting all excited, sweetheart."

She rolled her eyes and snapped, "It would take a little more than being held by you to get me excited, Captain."

Han almost laughed out loud ? it was rare for Leia to jump on an innuendo like that. And it opened up way too many easy comebacks for him, several of which would likely get him into huge trouble with her.

Smiling, Han abruptly stood them both up and set her on her feet. "Sorry, sweetheart. We don't have time for anything else." As he left, he could see Leia absolutely seething. Yup, the other responses would have undoubtedly gotten him killed.

Yet, despite all of it, he couldn't help thinking that maybe having her to himself until they got to the rendezvous wouldn't be a bad thing. Despite her reluctance, and his frustration, things suddenly felt as though they were moving between them.

Han knew it was unlikely he'd get a chance like this again. No matter how difficult it proved, he'd have to start making the most of it.

Luke stumbled back slightly as he tried, unsuccessfully, to pull the last emergency package out of the back of his cockpit.

This last piece had decided to make it its mission in life to add another annoyance to Luke's own life, it seemed, and was wedged very firmly in the narrow space between the back of his pilot's chair and the rear of the cockpit. It was his portable power generator, an absolute necessity for his survival here...which might be longer than he liked, considering at the moment he wasn't exactly brimming with ideas on how to get his snubfighter out of the soupy muck it was slowly sinking into. Luke gave one final yank on the generator, and it abruptly popped free ?

? and nearly sent Luke flailing backwards off his precarious perch into the swamp. At the last moment he regained his balance, but not quickly enough to halt the distinctly amused beeping of a certain astromech droid nearby.

"Fine," Luke shook his head in exasperation as he shut the cockpit canopy, "we're even now." He walked down the snub's nose to the somewhat-stable ground on which he and Artoo had set up their camp: an open clearing in the dark, limp jungle filled with various crates of survival materials pulled from the inactive hulk of the X-Wing before it sunk too far down to retrieve anything. Luke set the generator down next to the crate of Alliance standard-issue emergency tools ? the latter seemed extremely insufficient, all of a sudden; there was hardly anything in here that would make lifting his snubfighter out of the mud any easier. But then, who expected to be landing their fighter in a swamp, anyway? Of course there wouldn't be anything designed to help him...

He smoothed out the folded single-layer tarp that served as his makeshift chair, and prepared to relax and seat himself. But then Artoo chittered again, insistently, and Luke glanced at the generator, realizing just how long it had probably been since the droid had recharged. He smiled wanly and flipped on the generator, the minor bit of orange light and heat it provided lifting his mood somewhat. The only other light around him was a foggy gray mist. He doubted this area ever saw that much sunlight. It was its own essential greenhouse, thick and muggy. He stood up and hooked up the generator's outlet cable to Artoo's own power socket; almost immediately the droid twittered in satisfaction. As if in response Luke's own stomach grumbled; he leaned over and picked up the nondescript lap-size metal case across from him and opened it, taking out one of the rank of silver-wrapped ration bars lined up in it. He and Artoo would have their dinner, such as it was, together.

He unwrapped and tore a bite out of the bland bar, wincing slightly at the taste. Ah, field survival gourmet...

He raised the bar to the droid as if in a toast. "Cheers," he said, clinking an imaginary glass, then taking another bite, forcing the dry material down his throat ? wishing he really did have a drink to wash it down with. Artoo moaned sadly and swirled his dome around, surveying the landscape around them. They certainly weren't the only living things in this area, but the things that were probably around them (the whatever-it-was that had tried to make a meal of Artoo, for example) made Luke wish they were.

"I'm beginning to think you're right about coming here, Artoo," Luke said. "If this Yoda of Ben's really does exist, if he was ever here, I can't imagine he'd have lasted long. But if that was the case, why would Ben tell me to..." He shook his head; he was just rambling now, and that wasn't a good sign. "I don't know. But it's almost as if..." He trailed off again, as he took another bite of his bar, taking in his surroundings once more, intrigued by them suddenly. He could swear he'd never seen this place before in his life, yet something about it...the seemed to resound off a chord deep within him, undeniable yet unreadable...

(a low, familiar and soothing voice, a soft maternal hand caressing his cheek, shushing him gently, her warm flesh cradling him...)

"It's like there's something familiar about this place,'s almost like..."

"Almost like what?" a croaking voice interrupted, prompting a shrill squeal from Artoo and nearly causing Luke to jump out of his skin; in a half second he and his blaster were pointed at the source of the voice. A frail-looking, trembling green figure ? short, reaching to about Luke's knee, in tattered robes, his pointy-eared head hiding protectively behind gnarled fingers, stood not five feet from him. Luke wondered how the little guy had gotten so close without him noticing...

"Away put your weapon!" the creature cried, still hiding his head behind his hands, but peering out a corner of it just a bit. "I mean no harm. I ? I simply wonder, for curious I am. Why are you here?"

Luke raised a cautious eyebrow, slowly lowering his blaster. After all, if things did decide to go hostile, the little guy would pretty much be carrying the short end of the stick in the conflict ?literally, Luke saw; a twisted stick seemed to be in the creature's hand, propping him up. "I'm looking for someone," he said slowly.

The creature's timid demeanor evaporated, and it turned suddenly bright green eyes towards him, hobbling its way closer to Luke's camp. "Looking? Found someone you have I would say, mmm?" It laughed. Luke put away his blaster.

"Right," he said with an uncertain laugh. He was beginning to get the distinct impression this creature was going to be more of an annoyance than a threat. He supposed he could handle that...

"Help you I can, yes..."

Luke smiled. "I don't think so. The person I'm looking for is a great warrior." Though the moment he said it he became uncertain; after all, so far, this being was the only sentient being on this planet they'd encountered (and it even spoke Basic, at that); if he knew this Yoda...

"Warrior? Great?" The creature seemed to find this amusing; Luke didn't see why. "Make one great, wars certainly do not," it continued with a sniff, again reversing the normal word order of the sentence ? why was it that he spoke like that? Luke wondered.

At that moment it seemed to find something of interest in the pile of crates; he threw one open and immediately began rummaging. Despite himself Luke felt an unbidden flash of annoyance; yes, Leia had told him all about the necessity of politeness when in contact with a new species (what species was this thing anyway? Not something he recognized...), but when that other species wasn't exactly making its own efforts towards common courtesy ? in this case, respecting one's personal belongings ? it certainly was hard...

"Would you get out of there?" Luke asked, stifling the annoyance and not being entirely successful. The creature ignored him, and continued happily throwing things out of the crate onto the muddy ground. Objects Luke needed if he were ever going to he was irritated. "You're just making a mess," he sighed in exasperation, picking up the tools ? which now were coated in a thin greenish swath of mud ? and gingerly placing them back in the box. The creature continued to pay him no heed.

It was one thing to be curious about a new being, as this fellow evidently seemed to be. But to utterly disregard someone when they were making repeated attempts at communication...

The creature stopped rummaging suddenly, holding up a small object as a trophy in apparent delight. The tip of it flicked on and Luke recognized the small shape of his emergency light. Something he definitely could not afford to lose; especially seeing as it was the only one he had. He reached for it, but the creature yanked it away protectively, eyeing Luke caustically. "Mine!" it declared. "Or help you I will not."

"I don't care. I need my lamp, especially if I'm going to get out of this mudhole."

The creature seemed to take offense at this, its pointy ears drooping slightly. "Mudhole? But my home this ?"

Apparently the being had failed to notice that during this exchange, Artoo had quietly positioned himself not too far behind him, and had slowly extended his grasping arm, ready to seize the glowing light from the creature's hand. At the last second the creature caught the droid's whirring sound, and promptly whirled on Artoo, whacking him with his stick with one hand and fighting for possession of the light with the other ? pretty well; Luke could hear the whirring increase as Artoo strained to get the light. "Mine!" the being shouted repeatedly, "Mine!" It finally yanked the lamp free, thunking Artoo with his stick and hmph-ing triumphantly. Oh, let him have it, Luke thought ? he'd survived on less before, surely he'd find some way to manage without it. And maybe, now that the creature appeared to have what it wanted, it would leave him be...

"No. Stay and help you I will!" the creature declared suddenly as if in response; had Luke been thinking out loud? That wasn't something he usually did. "Find this friend, mmm?"

"I'm not looking for a friend, little fella. If you must know, I'm looking for a Jedi Master."

The ears on the creature suddenly perked up, and the creature's eyes widened as it stared up at Luke. "A Jedi Master, you seek?" it asked in apparent awe. Luke's own curiosity was piqued; judging by its reaction the creature was clearly familiar with or had at least heard of the Jedi. Maybe there was in fact one on this planet somewhere..."Why?"

"I was told I would find him here," Luke replied slowly.

The creature nodded emphatically. "Yoda. It is Yoda you seek, mmm?"

All of Luke's previous annoyance evaporated to the gray mists around him, and he immediately stooped down to the creature. So there was in fact someone named Yoda...and if this creature knew him, then he probably was not too far away..."Do you know Yoda?" Luke asked him eagerly.

The creature nodded even more emphatically. "Yes, yes! Take you to him I will, if you like," it replied, breaking out into a sudden fit of chuckles. "Come. Take you to Yoda I will, but first eat we must. Good food it is, not this gunk." He poked disapprovingly at the remains of Luke's ration bar. It began walking away into the mists, going a little ways before it stopped and turned back to Luke, waving the little lamp.

"Come on!"

Luke glanced at the creature uncertainly, then back at Artoo, who twittered softly. Luke exhaled and put his blaster in his holster, reaching for his father's lightsaber as well. For a moment Luke relished the feel of the cool metal of the hilt in his palm, wondering what his father had been thinking when he had wielded this same weapon?it was the only tangible connection (aside from his own presence, of course) Luke had to his father, but still speaking of a legacy he knew he had the duty to uphold. If not for himself...then for Anakin Skywalker. And if this little creature could lead him to it...

Luke stood up quickly, attaching the saber to his belt and quickly snatching a couple of rations (just to be on the safe side, he told himself). "Stay here and watch the camp, Artoo. I'll be back in a while."

The droid chittered loudly in protest and began wobbling back and forth on his wheels as Luke walked away, and who could blame him? He wouldn't like being alone any more than Luke did.

Any more than Leia, in her seething, closed-off emotional state, probably did...

Shunting his thoughts about how much he suddenly missed her ? and wished she were here with him ? out of his mind, he trudged off through the mud after the little creature, squinting through the gray fog.

Doing some of the work on the ship had seemed like a good idea. For one thing, Leia preferred being a member of the crew to being an unwanted passenger. For another, concentrating on a cracked generator took her mind off many, many other things.

She watched the soldering beam play along the fine crack in the steel, leaving first a bright orange line, then the clean, silvery bandage that was supposed to hold it together. She'd believe that when they jumped into hyperspace and away from the Imperial Fleet.

In the next compartment, she could hear Threepio and the Falcon conversing in a strange combination of whistles and beeps. Threepio made some kind of complaint to Han, who bellowed, "Well, of course I'll have to replace it!" The tone suggested to Leia that Threepio had given him a piece of information he'd never suspected.

She held the beam near the top for a moment, then pulled it away. The crack was as sealed as it was going to get. She pushed the generator back into the wall, and swung the access door shut. Too simple. She needed something that would take ?


She pulled her hand away, wrist hurting. She hadn't even been looking at the locking mechanism as she went to close it, and her hand had turned a fast half of its radius before she noticed that the handle wasn't moving with her. It was frozen in its original position.

Shaking the kinks out of her wrist, she took a tighter grip, and backed it up with her left hand.


Nothing. She might as well have been trying to move the whole bulkhead.

"Come on, come on..."

Another shove at the mechanism did nothing to improve the situation, so she tried a slow, steady push, putting her entire body weight behind it. The strain spread across her chest, drawing her muscles tight and hard across her breastbone, so that she could feel each beat of her heart. The muscles in her abdomen shook, and the back of her neck took on a dull, throbbing ache.

She released her breath and opened her eyes.

It hadn't budged.

The rage flew up out of nowhere. Everything...the Rebellion...the deserters...her parents?and now, on top of everything else, she couldn't finish the simplest part of the only task she'd been assigned in her own rescue. She slammed her fist into the access door, over and over, and kicked the wall beneath it.

Stupid, idiotic, stop this?

But that train of thought only made her angrier. She couldn't even control herself? She was supposed to ?

Large hands closed around her wrists gently, and she felt herself pulled away from the access door. "Hey, watch it, Your Worship," Han said, amiably enough. "We're trying to fix her, not break her."

He moved in front of her, blocking her view of the offending mechanism. Her rage cooled somewhat with it out of sight. "What else could possibly go wrong here?"

He shrugged, not letting go of her wrists, though his thumbs moved up and started to caress her palms. "You're wound up, Your Highnessness."

Leia stared coolly down at their hands, trying to make him see that his attentions were inappropriate (if not exactly unwelcome). "If you're going to stand there fondling my hands, you may as well call me Leia." She tried to spit it out acerbically, but the tone seemed not to have any effect.

Han smiled. "Leia, then. I think I can do that." He let go of her left hand, and used his free hand to pull the glove from her right. The rough skin of his thumb skated across the bowl of her palm, and he leaned in closer. She could feel his breath on her forehead, stirring the stray bits of hair that weren't caught up in her braids. "Leia. You want to calm down? You know you think I'm all right."

"Sometimes. Occasionally. When you're not..."

"Not what?"

"Not acting like a scoundrel."

He just blinked and shook his head at the old-fashioned word. "I like that," he said. "That's good. Scoundrel. Will you tell me what's wrong?"

Instinctively, she tried to pull away, but he held tight to her, and she felt all her mental blocks straining, ready to break. The words were trying to fight their way up past her lips, but she clamped her mouth shut against them. "Let go." She spit the command out in small bites. "Stop that."

"Stop what?"

"Stop that." She looked pointedly at their hands. He ignored her, so she decided to draw his attention more directly. "My hands are dirty."

He laughed, but didn't let go. "My hands are dirty too." His face grew more serious, and he drew still closer to her, and she could feel herself drawing closer to him. "What are you afraid of, Leia?"

"I'm not afraid..."

"You like me because I'm a scoundrel..."

For a moment, Leia was lost in his eyes, in the feel of his hands, but then another image intervened, an image she hated. She saw her mother, standing at her father's side, lulled by whatever was between them into abandoning the galaxy to suit her own needs. Mother, standing on a Star Destroyer, her hands caressed by the leather-clad thumbs of her husband... You need me to protect you, my love...

"NO!" she shouted, pulling her hands away and turning from him. The image didn't fade. She could see them, touching one another, slipping into dark oblivion together. Mother's voice, so high and soft, whispering to him...

There was silence from Han, even after nearly a minute. She turned back to him.

He was standing sullenly beside the access door, watching her with wounded eyes. Abruptly, he reached behind himself, worked the sticky locking mechanism ? the door sealed with a thundering clang ? and stalked off to the cockpit.

Leia felt some part of herself wrenched away and carried with him.

It was better this way. Better not to become...distracted.

(Distracted from what? Your ruminations about your parents? Your unhealthy obsession with them? What exactly is Han distracting you from, Your Worship?)

From, from...

Her head throbbed dully, and the palms of her hands tingled along the paths his thumb had traveled. She could still feel the space he had filled in the air beside her, humming like a loose wire.

I'm not giving my life into anyone else's control.

(Han's got zero interest in controlling you. It would bore him to tears. And for that matter, if you insist on looking at your parents, where do you think the control really is there?)

A shadow moved in the cockpit, and Leia could see Han in her mind, leaning over the controls, then slumping back into the pilot's seat. She thought of his breath on her skin, his voice in her ears.

She wondered, not quite idly, if this was what it felt like to her mother, seeing the man she loved


close enough to touch, feeling him needing her, feeling his hurt at her rejection.

I'm stronger than my mother.

(Oh really? So why is she the only one whose control you'll permit?)

She's not controlling me.

(Then why are you letting her interfere with your decisions?)

Suddenly, her head stopped hurting, and the phantoms around her, clamoring for her attention, dissipated. Why was she letting her parents do this to her?

She'd wanted Han holding her hands. She wanted him to kiss her. She wanted to kiss him back. She hadn't noticed those things until he'd actually touched her, but once she knew them, she couldn't un-know them, anymore than she could lose the knowledge she'd gained when the scarlet veils had dropped from her mother's face. But that had opened a route into hell. This...she didn't know where this route led, but she trusted Han not to let her get hurt.

"To hell with them," she muttered, and, before her resolve could falter, marched into the cockpit.

Han looked around bitterly, but she didn't give him a chance to look away. She bent over him, put her hands on his shoulders, and pressed her lips down on his.

He started to draw away in surprise, but that reaction ended quickly. His arms came up around her, and he started to return her kiss as he stood up, cradling her more securely in his arms. "Leia, what..." he managed.

"I'll tell you. Later. Kiss me now."

He seemed more than happy to oblige.


Somewhere in the distance, Leia could swear she heard Threepio.


Han broke away, with a pained expression on his face that Leia found funny, though she knew it was mirrored on her own. Threepio, oblivious to his etiquette violation (a major flaw in his programming, Leia thought, given his primary function), was waving his arms in an excited way. "Yeah?" Han said.

"I've isolated the reverse power flux coupling!"

Han smiled in a defeated way. "Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome, sir."

"I better work on getting us out of here," Han said. "Hold that thought."

He left the cockpit.

"Sir..." Threepio started.

"Not another word, Goldenrod."

"Well!" Threepio exclaimed to no one in particular. "Impossible man!"

Her hands were clenched so tightly around the armrests of her chair that pain shot up to her elbows. She was leaned forward slightly, her mouth set in a thin line, her brow deeply furrowed. Her eyes were narrowed almost into slits, focused completely on the comm recorder her husband was about to activate. To play back Palpatine's message.


Piett had been nervous when he informed her husband of the recording. Anakin was not surprised ? he had expected that some sort of move would be made soon, and this was far less aggressive than he had anticipated for the opening salvo.

As for herself? She had only one reaction ? fury.

Fury that flamed throughout her chest and set her nerves on edge. And it wasn't because of the message, or the threat that it undoubtedly carried. It was the mere mention of his name. Just the thought of him.

Her husband activated the player, and the frail form of the Emperor shook through the static and emerged before them. His arms crossed, as always, in his smug superiority; his face shrouded by the oversize hood; his tone condescending and mocking.

"My foolish apprentice. Did you really believe that I would be unprepared for this day? I have known of your scheming since the day you 'reunited' with your wife."

She only half-heard the words. Most times, Amidala was able to channel her anger into productive actions ? actions that would eventually lead to Palpatine's dethroning ? but there were moments when she could do little more than seethe.

"By the time you receive this message, significant steps will have been taken to remove the trivial threat that you ? and those blind enough to follow you ? might pose to the Empire."

No injustice or sorrow existed in her life, or in the galaxy, that couldn't be traced to him as the root cause. He took Anakin away. Forced her to give up and separate her children. Ruined her homeworld. Left her to rot in an Imperial prison for decades.

"It is unfortunate that you have so completely overestimated your power and your worth, Lord Vader."

Of course, she had never been blind to the fact that Anakin had chosen to side with him, and help him. That her husband had hurt her in such a way was something she would have to live with for the rest of her life.

"The forces you have managed to assemble are small, and will be easily contained by those still loyal to me."

But, honestly?how could she continue to resent her husband for something she had done herself, in a way? Anakin had argued with her that their situations were not the same, and she knew he was probably correct?but hadn't she gotten Palpatine elected as Chancellor in the first place? Supported his early policies? Fallen for all of his tricks and manipulations when the Wars started?

"And as for your worth to me?I believe it will be quite easy to acquire a new apprentice."

Both of them had been thoroughly used by him, and it left her with a tainted feeling that would never completely disappear until she ? with her family by her side ? rid the galaxy of his evil.

"If you should see your son on Hoth before I find him, let him know I am impressed that he has already acquired some skill?As you know, Lord Vader, I find it easier to begin training those who have had some Jedi instruction."

Amidala snapped out of her reverie, but said nothing. Her husband also bristled sharply.

"In the end, things have occurred as I once warned you they would. You have allowed your feelings for that woman to cloud your judgment, and it has led to the loss of everything I have provided you. But that is no longer my concern. This marks the end of your insurrection."

The imaged crackled and faded away.

"No," she whispered softly. "This marks the beginning." Her posture finally relaxed, and she sat back in the chair. "He won't get his hands on either of them. We'll find Luke before he even has a chance to make a move."

"Leia will be onboard shortly," he replied. "And I believe that once we have her?searching Luke out will become a much easier task."

Before she could ask him to clarify what he meant, a loud crash sounded from the outside. Another meteor had hit ? and they felt the ship slow down even more.

"I should return to the bridge to supervise the pursuit," he said. She nodded, and he quickly left.

Amidala immediately stood and crossed the room to delete the message. The last pretense at a tie between her family and the Emperor was gone. Now, it was finally time to make him pay, and set things right.

Yoda sighed as the young one's complaining came forth again, filling the whole of his tiny home, even with the rain pouring outside.

"I'm sure the stew is fine," Luke Skywalker said from his position across the tiny central chamber of Yoda's home, his voice rippling through the calm core of the Force with which Yoda had surrounded himself. Yoda lifted his eyes to stare into the familiar blue ones tinged with impatience; looking into them was like looking into the eyes of the past. (No doubt Obi-Wan thought this as well; Yoda easily felt the strong, unwavering presence of his long-ago pupil nearby; only he had chosen not to manifest himself visually. Perhaps as heeding Yoda's earlier advice, or simply as a test to observe Luke's actions toward Yoda unbiased by his own presence.)

Only with this Skywalker it was different. The eyes of his father, set in the face of his mother. It was as if both Anakin and Amidala, two old friends now irrevocably lost by their own narrow-minded desires, looked upon him at that moment, though there was no way the boy could have known that.

And he was here alone, which disturbed Yoda more than almost all else. Come without his sister, whom left alone and untrained was even more dangerous than Luke. For she, while of great power like her father, was also filled with a great hatred against the parents whom she perceived as having wronged her; even now, reaching out to the battered and bleeding pulse of the Force, her anger rose out above all the other angry currents...if he could certainly sense them and if her father knew of her, as was unfortunately likely the case with Amidala at his side, no doubt he'd sense her. Angry and powerful, a deadly mixture which had claimed Anakin all those years ago ? and now threatened his offspring.

It was more urgent than ever that the boy should be trained, for he was still possessed of a clean mind regarding his parents, even if it was a stubborn one.

His father's impatience, but his mother's stubbornness and calmly contemplative nature. He was more so like Amidala than any knew, including the Vaders themselves.

"But it's imperative that I speak to Yoda now. More so than you could know."

Presumptuous you are, young one. "How so, hmm? More important than nourishing properly yourself?"

Luke glanced absently down at the small clay bowl of rootleaf stew in his hands, waving just as absently at the mists of steam rising from the dish. "Much more. The lives of my friends depend on my getting in contact with Master Yoda."

"How know you this, young one?"

"Why do you care?" young Skywalker asked him.

"Impolite you are, hmm?" Yoda poked him sharply in the side with his gimer stick, causing the youth to flinch back (though not without shooting him a distinctly annoyed look) then chewed the other end thoughtfully. "No respect for your elders you have."

"I'm sorry," he said quickly and somewhat unconvincingly, shaking his head. "But respect for my elders isn't going to get me any closer to Yoda."

Few things in this dark day and age made Yoda laugh boisterously; but then there were certain things that couldn't help being laughed at.

Which didn't amuse Skywalker a bit; his voice rose directly along with the annoyance he clearly broadcasted through the Force. "What's so funny?"

"So focused you are on one thing. Not think about the little things, you do. Sometimes things that seem little wind up not so little in their accomplishments. Narrow-minded you are."

"Later on doesn't matter now, all right? I need to be able to help them now." The youth slammed down the bowl he'd been picking stew out of and sighed in exasperation. Yoda exhaled a sigh and leaned forward on his gimer stick, seeking out the presence of Obi-Wan once more.

A trial, this one was going to be, he thought, as he looked in regret at the hilt of the saber of the elder, fallen Skywalker hanging from the youth's waist. And he said as much to Obi-Wan.

"No more so than I was," Kenobi responded verbally, sharply drawing young Skywalker's head up in shock; he prepared to stand up but realized too late the lowness of the ceiling, paying for it with a solid thunk on the head.

"Too much like them, he is."

"More so like her he is, Master." Skywalker's ears perked quite noticeably at the use of the title.

"What frightens me most. Most damage her words will cause, on the ears of the ones most willing to listen. Who are like of mind as she. Afford to have him swayed by her, we cannot."

"Perhaps being of her like mind is not so bad as you think. Anger does not fill his heart, and she was always more calm of mind than my student."

"More dangerous the calculating mind...especially when combined with the impatience of his father, it is."

"Does it make it any different that he is the one we need to train, Master?"

"Master," Luke breathed quietly, shaking his head in disbelief. "It can't be...Yoda?"

He turned his gaze once more to the boy. "Impossible nothing is, young Skywalker."

"I'm so sorry," Luke said. "If I had known ?"

"Changed your opinion, it would have?" Yoda pointedly interrupted, jabbing him once more with the gimer stick. "Dangerous your frame of thought is, young one. Hasty you are in making decisions. Narrow of mind. A Jedi cannot afford to be these things. Reckless you are."

"As was I, you recall," Obi-Wan spoke up in the boy's defense.

"As was his father," Yoda reminded him quietly.

"He is not his father, nor is he his mother."

"What about my parents?" young Skywalker piped up, but Yoda spoke on as if the question had never been posed.

"Yet to be seen, that is, Padawan." Yoda closed his eyes and let out a breath, opening them again to face Luke. "But right he is, young Skywalker. No longer choosy can I afford to be in whom I train. Were the Princess here I might afford it. But now her existence, and that of so much else, rests in even more peril than your own."

"I know. And I can help her ? Ben, Master, I can change, if that's what you need, if that's what it takes to be a Jedi. I'll do it," he went on eagerly, passionately ? he recalled another young Skywalker pleading like this so long ago, only this time the voice not so full of anger. "I'll do whatever it takes to help her."

Solemnity crept into the Jedi Master's heart, and into his tone. "Know that I do...and fear it most."

Silence filled the room with its heavy thickness, as Luke could only find a stunned, confused expression as his response.

I did it, Leia thought gleefully. I did it and I'm glad I did.

She sank into the pilot's seat with a smile. Let Chewie or Threepio come in and wonder what she was thinking about. At the moment, she might even be inclined to tell. I did it. I took my life back. It was right there in Han's kiss all along.

"So there," she whispered to her mother, sticking her tongue out playfully. "So there." She even laughed a little, and was still laughing when something wet and heavy plopped onto the transparisteel right in front of her.

She looked at it with vague curiosity. Then something in it pulsed, and she suddenly remembered that they were in unknown territory. And she noticed that the thing was gross. The laugh turned into a little scream, and she pushed away from the control panel. "Han!" she called.


She got up and went into the corridor. Han was closing up one of the maintenance panels. "There's something out there," she said.


"It landed on the cockpit window. I don't know what it is. Some kind of tentacle. It looked like suction."

His face fell. "Come on. We're going out."


"I just got this bucket back together. I'm not going to let something tear it apart."

"Then I'm going with you!"

For a wonder, he didn't argue. He just tossed her a breath mask, and she pulled it on, amazed that she wasn't spending precious moments obsessing over the obvious comparison. Chewie grabbed one as well, and the three of them went down the gangplank even before it finished lowering. Threepio was muttering something about staying behind to guard the ship.

She went out a little too quickly, and almost lost her balance. She'd have to remember that being lighthearted wasn't an excuse for acting lightheaded. She gathered herself and drew her blaster, going further into the cave. It was steamy in here.

Why would a cave on an asteroid be steamy?

She frowned and looked down. There was a light fog or mist around her ankles, and the ground under her feet gave strangely, as if she were walking on sods laid over loose snow. "The ground feels funny," she said to Han, who was picking his way along a meter or so to her left. "It doesn't feel like rock."

He glanced back at her, looking puzzled. She didn't like that. She had traveled widely, but until the last few years, it had been in the rarified atmosphere of diplomatic mutual handwashing. Since the Death Star, she'd depended on Han to be able to size up less-than-optimal surroundings (Luke having had even less experience than she had). She didn't like it at all that he didn't look sure of himself here.

There was a long, soft screech, and Leia looked involuntarily toward the rear of the cave, where Chewie was making his way around the Falcon. Something was descending and moving toward them, moving on the fog on membranous wings. Han raised his blaster, and the flash of the laser illuminated the cave in shades of red and gray. The flying thing fell near Han's feet, and he stooped to examine it.

"That's what I thought," he said. "Mynocks. Probably feeding on the power lines."

"Mynocks?" Leia repeated. There was something wrong with that, something she wasn't quite connecting to. Mynocks lived in a lot of atmospheres...

An asteroid wasn't supposed to have an atmosphere, at least not one this thick.

Panic birds began pecking at her stomach, and she caged them only with difficulty. Panic would not be helpful to her. "Han..."

The floor of the asteroid trembled a bit, and Han stood up, the puzzlement on his face fading into disgust...but disgust that seemed to hold some kind of idea, which was a relief to Leia, whatever the idea happened to be. She didn't have any of her own, except for the odd sense that something was really not what it seemed.

Han pointed his blaster at the cave floor, and she understood what he meant to do only a second before he did it. She only had time to say his name, to hope that he would stop before they irrevocably knew that they had to leave.

But it didn't stop him. He fired.

The response was immediate. The cave started thrashing and undulating. Han grabbed her elbow, and called to Chewie, pulling all of them back up the gangplank. He started to raise it, ripping off his breath mask as her ran toward the cockpit. "We're getting out of here!" he yelled back at her.

The panic birds broke out of their cage. Leia felt her eyes go wide. But she didn't respond to them with the despair or anger that had become her habit since she'd seen her mother's transmission. Instead, she answered as she would have all her life ? by taking command. "I don't think that's wise," she said, catching herself as the ship tossed to one side. "The Empire is still out there ?"

"No time to discuss this in committee!" Han cut her off.

Chewie brushed past her and threw himself into the co-pilot's seat. Threepio clattered up from wherever he'd been and installed himself at her side.

Don't start the engines, she thought. Don't start them. Whatever this is, what's out there is worse. Don't take me back out to them.

But she recognized that for what it was: suicide. She could feel the cave getting ready to go around them. At least against the Empire, there was a chance. And it would be better to die in battle than in hiding.

The engines kicked in, and Han lifted up the landing gear without even waiting for Leia to strap herself in. She grabbed hold of the back of his seat. Threepio grabbed hold of her.

The Falcon turned, and she saw how close they were cutting it. Far ahead, she could see the mouth of the cave, becoming narrower and narrower.

"The cave is collapsing!" Threepio cried.

"This is no cave," Han said.

Then Leia saw everything, and didn't know how she'd missed it. The walls were wet and red, and too perfectly smooth to be natural. There were no outcroppings. At least not until the mouth of the cave.

The mouth.

And those weren't outcroppings that were closing on them.

Han banked the Falcon and shot out between the teeth.

In the future, Leia would wish many times that Han had gone some other direction after escaping the cave. Any other direction, as long as she hadn't gotten a clear view of what they'd just left. She would never like to think about it.

But he didn't go another direction, and she saw it. As they sped away, trying to find a clear path through the asteroids, the impossibly large, eyeless head of the slug pushed its way out of the cave, snapping its giant teeth at them as if the Falcon were just an insect.

It missed them and went back into its lair, but Leia knew exactly how close that had been. There was no way to stay safe there, no way to hide inside that place.

But now, she was back on the outside. In the path of the Empire.

Headed straight into her parents' arms.

There had been a time in Luke's life when he would have considered this much rain nothing short of a miracle. On Tatooine, the occasional violent thunderstorm ? occasional as in about once every eight years ? had about half this volume, for the space of ten minutes. It was a spectacular ten minutes ? he'd been in Anchorhead during the last one, and the lightning had arced across the darkened desert sky, hopping mesas like a demon transport, the rain kicking dust into the air and realigning the landscape of the dunes ? and it had never occurred to him how quickly it could get boring to watch water fall from the sky.

The rain on Dagobah hadn't stopped in the six hours he'd been here. It had presided over the crash of his X-Wing, and droned on through his embarrassing first test before Yoda. It had whispered around the windows when Yoda revealed the truth, and underlain Ben's voice. And still, it poured. It showed no signs of nearing the end.

Luke had traveled enough for rain to lose its wonder and become ordinary; now it threatened to become...well, irritating. He was cold and wet, and his shoulder ached from some long-ago injury.

But he'd embarrassed himself enough tonight. He squatted outside the door of Yoda's hut, the rain soaking through his clothing and running off his hair and eyelashes in small waterfalls, and waited for Master Yoda to finish cleaning his kitchen.

Artoo rolled over to him, making sympathetic beeping noises, and bent forward. Luke had an absurd urge to lean forward himself, and touch his forehead to the droid's, just for the reasonable facsimile of human contact. Instead, he reached out his left hand, and patted Artoo just above the red light.

"I see the little droid is still with you."

Luke looked up. Ben was shimmering a few feet away, untouched by the rain. "We stick together," he said.

"The droid is more familiar to me than he once was." Luke didn't try to make sense of the obscure statement, and Ben went on almost immediately. "You think you've had a failure this evening, don't you?"

"Haven't I?"

"No, I think not. Your father did no better with Yoda on his first try."



Luke bit his lip. "Ben...Yoda mentioned my mother. No one has ever mentioned her to me. Did you know her?"

"Yes, of course I did."

"Am I like her?"

"In some ways, very much."

This bit of non-information almost broke Luke's will to be patient. In all his life, no one had ever spoken of his mother to him. He couldn't remember ever asking about her, of course, but still...someone could have volunteered. "In which ways?" he asked, when the fit of impatience faded back.

Ben looked away from him. "You are a good leader, Luke, a naturally sympathetic commander. You try to solve problems, to make peace among your men. Those are good things, Luke, and they are your mother's legacy to you."

Luke looked down at his hands, and watched the rainwater flow over them. Why hadn't he asked about her? It wasn't that he'd never thought of her at all. To be fair, he'd thought of his father frequently after fights with Uncle Owen ? thinking along the lines of "If it were my father instead..." ? and he'd rarely fought with Aunt Beru, so he'd never needed to pretend that someone else..."What was her name?" he asked.

It must have been drowned out by the rain, because Ben didn't answer. All he said was, "How I miss them."

Luke didn't get a chance to ask again, because the door to Yoda's hut opened, and the old Master hobbled out. He turned his face up to the rain, then looked across at Luke. "Well, young one," he said. "Ready to begin, we are." Incredibly, he smiled.

Ben's image faded into the steam and the rain, and Luke was left squatting beside his new master, not knowing what was supposed to happen, or who he would be when it was over.

Yoda leaned forward. "Ah," he said. "Here, wisdom begins."

"Anger, fear, aggression, the dark side are they," Yoda said from his perch on Luke's shoulder. "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will. As it did Obi-Wan's apprentice."

Luke stopped running. "Vader," he said.

Yoda nodded as Luke lowered him to the ground.

"Is the dark side stronger?" Luke asked.

"No. Quicker, easier. More seductive."

"How will I know the good side from the bad?"

Yoda sighed. "You will know. You must know."

"But how?"

"Hard to see, it is," Yoda admitted. "Judged by intent, it cannot be. Judged by appearance, it cannot be."

"I don't understand."

"Think, you do, that you can see the dark side in the Empire's ugliness. But beautiful can evil be! Seductive! Think, you do, that you can look at the ends they mean to accomplish and judge fairly. But the way of the dark side it is to corrupt what is good. Feel it, you must, padawan! Feel the chill of the dark side when it touches you. Know where the boundary lies, you must, or all is lost."

Luke, his body cooling from the exercise, opened his mind. And suddenly he could feel the chill. It wasn't a general sense, it was...directed somehow. Aimed at him. He looked toward it, and saw a gnarled tree, with roots that arched over the rocky entrance to a cave. "That tree," he said.

Yoda nodded, looking unhappy. "Strong it is with the dark side of the Force. Into it you must go."

Luke stared at it frankly now, his feet unwilling to carry him to a place where the Force was so twisted and threatening. "What's in there?" he asked, pulling his weapons belt on.

"Only what you bring with you." Yoda examined him carefully. "Your weapons. You will need them not."

That didn't feel true. Something was there, something strange and alien. Luke didn't want to be unarmed against it. He shook his head, and forced his feet to move him forward. He had to duck as he entered the cave.

It didn't look much different from other caves he'd been in (with the exception of the ice cave on Hoth). The smooth rock floor was littered with the debris of animals, and outcroppings of stone interrupted the various surfaces at irregular intervals. Small reptiles and rodents appeared to den here. But there was something about the cave. It was just all wrong.

He descended through the mossy tendrils, pushing lizards and other small creatures out of the way as he went. His blaster sat heavily on his hip; his lightsaber was lighter in his hand. There was nothing overtly threatening in the cave but...

But there was something. It hovered in the air around him. He was being watched by the eyes of infinity, and they caressed his skin like reptilian claws. He was glad of the reassuring weight of his weapons, no matter what Yoda said. He didn't want to be alone in here.

He didn't know how long he'd been hearing the sound before he really registered it. It was so out of place, but still somehow so familiar, that the surreal combination made it seem part of the dream he was walking through. But as he drew closer, he began to notice it. Soft, quiet, gentle...


Luke drew up, hooking his lightsaber onto his belt. He felt puzzlement, of course, but underlying it was a deep sadness and an impenetrable sense of loss.

He came around a natural turn in the cave and saw her there. Her back was to him, and she was bending over something. A crib. He could see the rounded corners. She wore a blue dress, and her long, dark hair waved down her back. A single, shimmering sheath had draped down around her ear, hiding her profile, and the ends rested on the edges of the crib. Her voice was high and pure, and wordless lullaby was one that Luke remembered in his bones.

Mother, he tried to say, but nothing came out.

She seemed to sense him suddenly. Her shoulders went stiff, and her head tilted, just a little bit. She stopped singing, and seemed to listen.

"Mother," Luke managed to whisper. He didn't understand what he was seeing, but didn't care. He hadn't forgotten that this cave was a test of some sort, and he hadn't forgotten the sense of being watched. But it all seemed somehow unimportant.

His mother relaxed her posture, but didn't turn around. Instead, she seemed to forget that he was here. She started humming again.

"Please turn around..."

But she didn't. Luke tried to walk around her, to see her face. He didn't remember it, but he believed it would be beautiful, beautiful beyond all things. But as he walked, the scene before him turned along with him, so her back was always to him as she sang.

The humming slipped back into words. He didn't understand the language, but he seemed to get the idea that she wished him peace and solace, an end to the horrible conflicts that were pulling them apart. All he wanted, at that moment, was to sit in the shadows, and listen, and believe.

Maybe his eyes were closed, or maybe he wasn't looking when the shadow fell. Either way, quite suddenly, the sound of his mother's voice was covered with another sound, a horrible, gasping sound that Luke had heard in his nightmares since the Death Star. He had never heard it face to face in his waking life ? Vader had been too far away to hear it in the docking bay ? but he'd heard it in intercepted communications and security tapes, and he heard it always in the darkest part of night. The even, mechanical respiration slowly drowned out the melody of his mother's voice.

A rush of hate surged through Luke's body. Vader had already stolen his father, now he was stealing the first vision he'd ever had of his mother. It wasn't fair. It was intolerable. He rose from the shadows and ignited his lightsaber, turning toward the sound of labored breathing without looking.

Laser met laser in a loud and violent repulsion, and Vader advanced into the cave. Mother had stopped singing. Luke parried two blows from Vader, driving him back in anger and disgust. All he could think about was avenging his father, and saving his mother from whatever horror Vader had in mind for her.

Somehow, Vader was backed against a wall. He had a moment of distraction, and Luke took advantage of it. He swung his saber, full-force, at the armored monster. Sparks flew across the black chest as the control box erupted, and a moment later, Vader fell at Luke's feet. Triumph replaced rage, then worry replaced triumph. Mother had still not spoken.

Luke turned back to her. The crib was still standing in a strange green light, the babies inside of it


reaching helplessly into the air. Mother was sprawled out across the floor of the cave, her hands reaching out toward Luke.

Toward Vader.

Luke was just standing between them. He knelt beside her, and picked her up. Her hair still draped across her face somehow, but it didn't matter. A burned and blackened rip crossed her chest diagonally, the mirror of the wound Luke had dealt to Vader. She had stopped breathing, and lay completely motionless in his arms. " Mother..." he whispered. "Mother, no..."

Something thudded against his foot, and he saw the edge of Vader's helmet. A burst of fire exploded up from the faceplate, revealing the face under it, but Luke had no interest in looking. He saw only a blue eye before ignoring it again. It looked familiar, but what did that matter?

He let the helmet lie there beside him unnoticed, cradled his mother's body in his arms, and wept.

"My lord?"

Vader glanced over Piett's shoulder to the row of ensigns and petty officers that were standing at attention in a line on the far side of the bridge. He had instructed Piett to find a number of lower-level officers to carry out a new assignment, and only hoped that these dozen or so that were selected were competent enough to fulfill their mission.

Competent enough ? and loyal enough.

A new consideration to be sure; one that he realized would effect every decision he made from now on. Every time he asked anyone to do anything, there was now an unstated, but paramount, question behind it ? was the person willing to risk his life for this?

Vader strode purposefully to the men, and looked them over silently. They all seemed to feel the usual level of intimidation at his presence, but he didn't sense any true confusion about their purpose here, or about him as their commanding officer. That would do for now.

"Your orders are to capture the Millennium Falcon and bring its crew ? alive and unharmed ? before me. Whoever does so will be rewarded appropriately."

Just off to the side, Vader noticed Piett raise his eyebrows, a reaction that was quickly covered up. Apparently, he was worried at the implicit assumption that the Falcon would escape the Executor and this secondary plan would be necessary.

But this wasn't meant as a condemnation of Piett's performance to this point, no matter how the Admiral was taking it now. Vader had always made it a habit to have?other options?at his disposal whenever an important issue arose. And that was long before he had ever seriously contemplated moving against Palpatine.

At least now he had afforded himself the luxury of relying on other officers instead of the more unsavory types he had previously used. Having a portion of the fleet completely at his own disposal was a great benefit.

He turned his attention back to the officers. "You may use any methods you deem necessary, aside from deadly force. Dismissed."

The men nodded, and quickly left, heading off to implement whatever individual plans they had to capture the Falcon.

"My lord?" Piett began.

"Yes, Admiral."

"If the Falcon wishes to escape the fleet, they will be forced to leave the asteroid field eventually in order to find a clear path?once they do, I will not allow them to escape, my lord."

Vader nodded, indicating his approval of Piett's words. And then, as if to prove what the Admiral had said, another officer on the bridge spoke up.

"Admiral, my Lord ? we have them."

Han didn't harbor any illusions about an easy getaway. Once he was clear of the questionable protection of the asteroid field, it would be a race for enough open space to jump to hyperspace. If he could make it that far without the Empire blowing them out of the sky, they had a fair chance of making it out of this. But it was iffy. Maneuverability and speed were his assets, but even he wasn't sure how far they'd go against half of the Imperial Fleet.

The fact that so many Star Destroyers were after him, rather than chasing the other Rebels to the rendezvous point, was a curiosity that he would have to consider at a later time. Better for the Rebellion, but that wasn't going to help the Falcon.

He could see the beginning of open space not far away, but the storm of rock in the asteroid field became more and more agitated as he approached it. A large rock careened toward him, and he barely had time to duck under it before it hit. It went on toward the Star Destroyer (Avenger, the readout on the control panel told him uselessly), only to shatter harmlessly on the hull of the behemoth. Imperial technology did what it was designed to do, Han had to give it that.

"Oh, thank goodness!" Threepio said from his perch behind Leia. "We're coming out of the asteroid field!"

Han bit back a remark. Threepio would surrender to the Empire without thinking twice, and it would never occur to him that they'd break him down for spare parts, or at the very least, completely erase his memory. Threepio irritated Han to no end, but even he didn't deserve that.

A bark from Chewie ? no words, just a sound of desperation ? told Han that they'd cleared the asteroid field, and the next hit to rock the ship was the sharp vibration of a laser bolt. It jolted to one side, and Han had to fight with the controls to keep on course.

No more time to waste. Space wasn't as clear as he'd like it for the jump, but it had to be done. "Ready for light-speed?" he asked Chewie.

There was wholehearted agreement.

Han pulled down firmly on the lever...

...and the engine made a wheezing, squeaking sound, then all but quit.

No time to panic.

He cut the sub-lights back in, only giving in to the panic long enough to shout, "It's not fair!"

Chewie banged on the control panel.

Leia sighed, and sank into her seat.

"It's not my fault," Han muttered, but he felt like it was. Somehow or other, it undoubtedly added up to being his fault.

Another blast shook the ship, harder than before.

Threepio was the only one watching the readouts. "Sir! We've lost our rear deflector shields!"

Damn. One more hit...

There was a flare of light suddenly, and Han's eyes were drawn to it, even in the middle of this. Two canons on the side of the Avenger were left in ruins.

A third cannon fired again, and this time, Han saw the whole thing, but didn't understand it at all. The Super Star Destroyer turned its guns on the Avenger and blasted the entire starboard armory. Another Star Destroyer swooped in, firing at the Super Star Destroyer...

"What the ?"

Leia moaned, deep in her throat, and fell back into her chair, eyes wide, staring at the Super Star Destroyer.

It didn't matter what was going on. All that mattered was that the Empire was distracted. Han swooped around and moved into attack position. "Chewie! Put all power on the front shield!"

Leia got it first. "Han, don't try to attack, please, just..."

But there was only one chance, and Han had to take it. He had to get in the radar shadows, and the distraction would let him do it.

Another blast went out of the Super Star Destroyer, taking out another weapons array on the Avenger. The window wouldn't be very big.

Threepio piped up. "Sir, the odds of surviving..."

"Shut up!" Leia sounded more miserable than scared, and Han could see, from the corner of his eye, that her eyes were wide, and she was biting her lip. Her hand landed on his shoulder like an iron vice.

"This is it, Sweetheart," he said.

"I can't, Han?don't, please...if they capture us...please, don't let them take me away."

Even in the middle of this, Han heard her words, and recoiled from them. He knew she'd had it bad on the Death Star, but to just...

He didn't know what was terrifying her, but he knew that she was strong enough to get through it. He'd do everything he could to get them out of this in one piece, but he wasn't going to let her die, and he sure as hell wasn't going to help her do it. She might hate him for it, but she'd be alive to do it.

He looked at her, then leaned over and kissed her quickly. "It's the only way."

Then he turned away, and accelerated toward the Avenger.

Captain Needa was lost, utterly unsure of the situation.

Admiral Ozzel had given orders from the Iron Will, to fire at the Rebel ship on sight, with deadly force. His orders had come straight from Coruscant. "Enough gentle handling of this scum," had been the exact phrase. But as soon as he'd begun, the warning shot had come from the Executor, from Lord Vader. Needa gathered quickly enough that Vader disagreed with Ozzel. Perhaps he hadn't gotten word from the Emperor yet. Perhaps there was a communications problem.

He'd fired at the Rebel freighter again.

And the Executor had turned on him, fired against him.

He stared out at the edge of the asteroid field, where the freighter danced in the black of space.

"Sir!" an aide called. He turned. The aide saluted. "Sir, orders from the Executor. Take them alive."


Needa turned back to the viewport, then looked at the Executor. It was firing on the Iron Will now. What in the name of the Imperium was happening?

An alarm sounded insistently, and Needa turned again, in time to see the freighter moving into attack position.

"What are they doing?" But that wasn't an order. "Shields up!" he shouted. "Shields!"

The freighter grew quickly in the viewport, a suicide run that Needa could think of no way to defend, even if he'd had his guns.

Then it veered up and out of sight.

The bridge was silent.

Finally, a technician spoke up. "They no longer appear on our scopes, Captain."

It took a moment for it to sink in. No matter what happened from now on with that ship, Needa was in deep trouble. Either it was destroyed, or it had escaped. Either was unacceptable. "They can't have disappeared," he said, hoping that his voice sounded surer than he felt. "They're too small for a..."

Another blast from the Executor rocked the Avenger, and the comm signal started to blink.

Well, there was one thing Needa still had control of, and responsibility for. He wouldn't let his crew suffer for this.

"Prepare my shuttle," he said. "I will take responsibility for this. And...discuss this situation with Lord Vader. Perhaps it can still be saved."

No one really believed it, but Needa went forward nonetheless.

Ozzel wondered morbidly just how far Vader's grip could possibly reach. In the short time they had served together, no distance had been far enough for his comfort. He would never admit it to anyone, but a large part of his relief in coming to the Iron Will was the knowledge that he no longer had to command under a cloud of terror. This was his vessel. He was in charge. He was safe. After all, whatever strange powers Vader had at his disposal couldn't possibly be felt from ship to ship.

At least he hoped not. But he couldn't continue to deny the shadowy feeling of a hand tightening around his throat. It was oddly painless, but his skin tingled and he had to take a deep breath or two to reassure himself that he was fine.

Besides, if Lord Vader were truly capable of such a thing, Ozzel had no doubt that he would be dead already.

That thought was strangely comforting. He stuck his fingers down his collar and tugged at it, convinced that he felt a little better.

He's not here.

He can't threaten you now.

Unless, perhaps, you counted firing on the Iron Will. Or, perhaps, starting an Imperial civil war.


Ozzel's eyes shifted warily to the Captain before him.

"Your orders, sir?"

His orders.

Where had that Rebel ship gone anyway? He didn't care one way or the other about it, or who was on it, or why the Vaders would take such a patently aggressive move to protect it. He just needed that ship to reappear again, to at least give him the pretense of something to focus on.

Whether or not he fired on it again, or attempted to disable and board it, or simply pursued it?it didn't matter. As long as he had something to do that didn't involve directly dealing with the Vaders, he would be fine.

But the ship was completely gone. Not even a radar trace.


"You will await my orders, Captain," he snapped in a panicked irritation. His eyes shifted to the Executor.

He should attack. Now. The Emperor had given him permission to do so if the Vaders made their traitorous intentions known. He could not let such a naked act of aggression against the Empire stand. The time had come for him to act.

"Captain, what is the status of the other ships?"

"Both the Avenger and Executor are on standby."

Ozzel swallowed hard, and the tickling sensation returned, almost causing him to gag. Perhaps the Vaders were not ready for a full-out conflict just yet. Maybe they were still waiting, and trying to feel him out.

Well, he certainly would not give the Empire's new enemies the chance to score an early victory. Ozzel knew that he could not prevail against a Super Star Destroyer ? he would be easily outgunned and overwhelmed. If he could count on Needa and the Avenger to come to his defense, they might stand a chance?but how was he to know where their loyalties lay at this point?

"Stand down, Captain, all weapons."

A strategic retreat was the wisest option, once he determined what Vader had planned. Then he could make contact with the Emperor again, their forces could regroup, and they would properly deal with the threat presented.

He was sure that the Emperor, in his great wisdom, would understand his decision in this situation.

With another tug at his collar, Ozzel waited for Vader to make the next move.

Ani was in a rage.

Amidala avoided him, though she knew it would never turn on her ? he would turn his anger on himself long before he turned it on her. She just didn't like seeing this side of him.

His rages had stopped being fiery years ago. There were no maddened cries, no bloody, impulsive massacres. No. Ani's rage was ice now, and as implacable as a glacier. It disturbed her.

She was disturbed enough. The Falcon had disappeared again.

She stood at the viewport, her hands splayed against it. So close! Again!

What if they were destroyed? What if Ozzel destroyed them? What if you saved his life only so he could kill your daughter?

It wasn't true. She knew it wasn't true. But what if?

A hatch opened, and four stormtroopers led an officer in. She didn't recognize him, and had no business with him. He went toward Ani.

What if they were simply destroyed trying to escape us? Then it would be our fault. Leia's blood would be on my hands.

She looked down at her hands, softly red in the secret space under the veil. Neatly polished fingernails (kept short to make sure she never tore Ani's thin skin), long fingers, lines beginning to creep along the surface. If I have killed my own daughter...

She heard a gasp, and turned. Too late.

The officer was on his hands and knees on the ground, his face strained with exertion. He fell forward and all movement stopped.

She felt her eyes go wide. What was I doing? Why didn't I stop that? Where was I...? But it all faded into a dumbstruck hum. "My Lord?" she said.

Ani didn't pay attention. "Apology accepted, Captain Needa," he said.

Her stomach seemed suddenly cold and slimy inside her body, and she thought she might be ill. "My Lord, I..."

But she was interrupted by Captain ? by Admiral Piett. "My Lord, we've completed our scan. There's no trace of the ship."

"I see," Ani said, stepping toward him threateningly.

Don't just stand back!

Amidala forced her feet to move, and she stepped into Ani's circle, to a place where she knew he would both see and feel her. She said nothing, but she could see the nearly imperceptible shift in his stance.

Piett must have sensed the same thing, because he began to speak again, looking down. "If they made the jump into hyperspace, they could be halfway across the galaxy by now."

Amidala felt a moment of dizziness ? despair. It had to be despair.

She could feel Ani pulling his rage in, as if it were an unruly pet on a tether. "Track every destination along their last known trajectory," he said, though Amidala knew as well as he did that it was an exercise in futility. "Admiral Ozzel appears to be departing. I suggest we do likewise. All commands loyal to us are to deploy." He turned to the pilots and officers he'd gathered earlier, who had been shifting uncomfortably since the ship was lost. "You will act individually. Learn all you can about Captain Han Solo. Try to discern his most likely course of action."

They all nodded smartly. Amidala sighed with some relief. The rage was coming under control. She'd been afraid that mention of Solo might set him off. The man was what Ani called "a blind spot," and it bothered him that he couldn't just read him.

"Yes, my Lord," Piett said. "We'll find them."

Ani turned on him, stared for a moment, then simply said, "Do not fail me again, Admiral."

Amidala's eyes fell to the still form of Needa on the floor. Ani caught it, and made a sudden motion with his hand. The troopers who had escorted Needa in now escorted him out. Ani looked away from her quickly.

She was glad. She didn't want to see his eyes right now.

Yoda balanced himself easily on the soles of Luke's feet, and waited for the boy to begin his full exercise. Beneath him, Luke struggled to maintain his handstand, wobbling occasionally, revealing lapses in his concentration.

Then, Luke settled down considerably, focusing and clearing his mind as he had been taught. The feet were now perfectly still. Good. He was beginning to truly grasp his lessons and instructions now.

Yoda silently shifted so that he was standing on one of Luke's feet instead of both. He had told Luke ahead of time not to expect much oral direction this time around ? Yoda needed to see what his student was capable of figuring out on his own. Luke noticed that Yoda had moved, and began stretching his free leg out and away from the rest of his body. There was a pause, and Yoda tried to offer him encouragement. "Feel the Force, guide you it will."

Very slowly, Luke lifted a hand from the ground. "Yes, good," Yoda said. His arm shook for several moments before he regained his confidence. Once his arm was almost parallel to the ground, Yoda waited for him to choose other objects to levitate or balance. He found himself waiting for quite some time.

Yoda sighed deeply. Luke was at the most tenuous part of his training, right before he truly realized the power he had at his disposal. Most initiates at this stage of development became wildly erratic in the way they performed various skills. Sometimes things came so easily they were shocked and frightened, and then the very next task would prove overwhelmingly difficult. Frustration and confusion ruled for a period, and how the student handled those pressures was often a good indicator of what kind of Jedi he would be.

And perhaps, it was the biggest sign of a difference in the training of Luke and his father. Anakin had practically started his training in that awkward stage. He knew too early how powerful he was; he had used those powers with little effort for years before the Jedi found him. Though Yoda knew that Anakin had tried to fully trust his Master and his teachings, he was unable to shake himself of the notion that everything should have been easier, that instinct and impulse would carry him over. And that had made him impatient.

But Luke?this boy seemed to be on the other end of the spectrum. He still went into every training session thinking that he was practicing things that he shouldn't be able to do in the first place. He had still accomplished much, in an extremely short time, but he made tasks like these harder on himself because of his hesitations and doubts.

The boy was piling large stones on top of one another. This was a basic task that should have been very simple for someone of his potential. Or was Yoda asking too much of him?

Yoda shook his head. The father's overconfidence versus the son's doubt. Which was worse? Which was easier to correct? And what if Luke still wasn't immune to his father's mistake? Would convincing him to trust the power of the Force lead to the same temptation to use it improperly?

Luke now had three large stones carefully situated on one another; a fourth shook its way slowly above them.

"Guide your efforts, the Force will, if you allow it. Naturally, it must flow."

A buzzing and beeping suddenly came from the droid. Luke ignored him, and the last rock joined the pile. But Artoo apparently wasn't about to go unnoticed. His beeping became louder and more insistent, and he rolled over in front of Luke for emphasis.

Yoda had assumed that Luke would continue to disregard the noise and finish his exercise, and didn't feel the trembling until it was too late. "Concentrate, you must!" he admonished. "Concen?"

The rest of the word was lost in a yelp, and the master, his student, and the rocks fell unceremoniously to the ground in a jumbled heap. Yoda already knew that the boy's craft was finally settling at the bottom of the lake.

"Great," Luke muttered in disgust. "Now I'll never get it out."

Yoda shook his head sadly. Luke couldn't even see that he held the key to fixing the problem himself. "Always with you it cannot be done." Luke shot him an incredulous look. "Hear you nothing that I say?"

"Master Yoda. This is ?" he gestured helplessly "? it's totally different."

"No!" he corrected sharply. "Only in your mind. Get past this hesitation, you must."

Luke stared into the murky waters of the swamp. "Okay," he muttered. "I'll try."

"Try? There is no try. Either do, or do not."

Luke nodded and Yoda watched his student intently. He felt Luke gather the Force around him, felt him direct it out towards the craft, felt it slowly begin to rise?

?and felt Luke allow the ship to essentially slip through his fingers, as he slumped over breathless, the picture of defeat.

Luke collapsed to the ground in front of Yoda. Sitting quietly, he murmured, "I just can't do it. It's too big?I can't."

"Size matters not," Yoda replied. "To the Force, insignificant, such things are. The Force is a powerful ally, if learn to use it correctly, you can." He directed Luke's attention to the forest behind them. "Present, the Force is, in all things. Between you and me, between you and the rock, between the water and the ship. Learn to listen to it, and feel its Light, you must."

Luke frowned and ran his hand through his hair. "You want the impossible from me." With that, he stood and walked away sullenly. Yoda watched him go.

Perhaps this wouldn't be a test of Luke's trust or faith in the Force, since it was never hard to believe what one saw with his own eyes. But Yoda knew that this doubt could not be allowed to continue. He only hoped and prayed that after this, he would be able to keep his student from going too far in the other direction, on the road of impatience and overconfidence that his father tread so often.

Yoda closed his eyes, stretched out his hand, and beckoned the craft to come to him. And it did, slowly. The water bubbled and spread, revealing a wing, then the cockpit, and finally the landing gears. Water ran down it, and plants hung off of it as it flew over the lake to safe ground.

He guided it carefully, purposely positioning it to land next to a dumbstruck Luke, who simply stood there with his mouth agape.

Finally, Luke stumbled over to him, attempting to start a sentence several times before managing to utter, "I can't ? I ? I can't believe it."

"That," Yoda replied gravely, "is why you fail."

"If you won't mind my saying it again, I do have a dreadful feeling about this," Threepio's voice came from behind Chewie.

Staring out the cockpit viewport, for hundreds of meters in front of (or rather, "below" was probably a more accurate term) them, stretched the metal-white expanse of the back of the Star Destroyer's command structure. The Falcon rested there like a mushk tick on a bantha, its tiny metal structure hopefully inconspicuous against the tower's own infinitely larger one. It was a trick Han had heard about any number of times in smuggler circles but hadn't ever practiced: piggybacking on a much larger object, completely obscured from other pursuers by that object's massive sensor shadow. Best-case scenario, the Imperials probably thought the Falcon had long since made the jump to hyperspace and was long gone from here. Things had worked out about as well as could be hoped for, given the circumstances.

Threepio stood behind Chewie's seat, but the Falcon's perpendicular tilt made it so that he was really above him; Leia was in the small seat behind Han, leaned forward to watch the Imperial task force outside.

Of all the things that had malfunctioned on this ship, Han was grateful the artificial gravity generators had not been one of them; the idea of hearing a fallen Threepio and Chewbacca complaining about colliding with each other wasn't exactly the most fun thing he could envision happening. (Even though he certainly wouldn't have minded having to catch Leia if she happened to fall onto him again...)

As it was, the droid's pessimistic nattering was already wearing on Han's nerves, but he kept his mouth clamped shut for Leia's sake. Even if he didn't know she was sort of partial towards the robot, the look on her face at that moment ? and the memory of fear etched upon it not long ago ?

Please...please don't let them get me...

?it was enough to make him sit quiet and think for a while. The look on her face was still there, her eyes staring fixedly ahead. Who was out to get her? The Empire? The Empire had chased them any number of times before, and he'd never seen her get that painfully terrified look on her face. If anything the idea of facing the Empire usually bolstered the fiery spirit that had made her one of the most prominent leaders of the Rebellion; certainly not this. It was moments like these that coolly reminded Han that despite her newfound boldness, whatever was bothering Leia was far from being over and done with. He'd been spending time thinking over whether he should approach her and potentially threaten the new relationship they had...and if he should do it, how to go about doing it without making her angry again. He didn't want to see her angry at him ? or angry at all period ? but he didn't think she should be hiding from it either. That could be even more damaging than what she was going through now, and he wasn't sure he liked the idea of her doing that for the sake of him, of putting on a brave face for him. He wasn't sure he wanted that on his shoulders.

But he said nothing, and kept silent, trying to think of the obstacles that lay ahead. Not exactly pleasant musings, but he might as well attempt to do something constructive while he was otherwise just sitting.

Chewie, on the other hand, didn't seem so politely inclined.

He let out a distinctly annoyed braying sound in reply to the droid, which even to ears untrained in Wookiee-speak could only be translated as one meaning.

"I will not shut up, Chewbacca," the golden droid informed the Wookie crossly, throwing (as much as was possible) his stiff arms up in exasperation. "And I won't until someone listens to me ?"

A flicker of movement in the Star Destroyer-infested starfield outside caught Han's eye, and he raised a hand to silence the droid ? for once, surprisingly, it worked. As he watched one of the white forms of the other massive vessels began to slowly turn on its axis, and began slowly gliding across their field of vision. Even the monstrous green-gray hulk of the larger Super Star Destroyer, on which Leia's eyes seemed disturbingly and unchangingly fixated, seemed to begin signs of movement itself.

"Looks like the Fleet's beginning to break up again," he said, flipping on the auxiliary power systems. If the Imperials were about to start their little flame-fest again, Han didn't want to have to spend potentially well-used escape time warming the engines from a completely cold start. "Go back and get ready to release the landing claw, Chewie," Han chucked his thumb towards the back of the ship, flipping a few more switches on his console. "If the Imperials decide to take a little bit of target practice again I don't want to have a front row seat."

"You think they'll start firing on each other again?" Leia asked as the Wookiee moved to the back of the ship, shouldering his way past an insolent Threepio.

"I don't know what to think, sweetheart," Han told her, casting a semi-genuine half-smile up at her. "What I do know is that I want to be moving away from here if it happens again."

"I don't see how that will help anything at all; even if they did leave us alone we're stranded out here," Threepio's prissy, worried voice chimed in, finally drawing an annoyed (and completely ineffective) glance from both Han and Leia. "If we surrender at least the Lady Vader may be gracious enough ?"

The immediate change in Leia's expression was too abrupt and huge not to notice.

Before Han could even ask, Leia's hand was at the switch on the droid's neck, and the lights in his optical circuits went dim, the droid's form slinking against the co-pilot's chair. For a moment she stared coldly at the robot, a coldness that seemed to evaporate as she turned back to Han.

It did, he admitted, give him a certain measure of pride to know that he was the first one to be able to crack through that first layer of ice that had covered her for so long, the one that actually managed to witness a bit of warmth from her ? it was too beautiful to remain hidden like that. But he didn't want her to hide her feelings for his sake, either. He'd taken a lot of flak in his life, and that type of flak he certainly didn't mind shouldering for her.

"What did you have in mind next?" she asked, leaning her small frame further over the back of his seat, propping her porcelain face on her white-gloved hands. Her breath was close enough to rustle the hair by his temples, tickle his earlobe, and for one of the first times in his life he felt a renewed genuine affection at being a part of something special. Amazing how something so cold could so quickly become the biggest source of warmth in his life. His other smuggler associates, the ones who'd devoutly sworn to a life of solitude, didn't know what they were missing. However tenuous this bond-thing they had might have been, it was enough to start to sway Han Solo. (But he knew if he ever admitted that outside his head to anyone, he would never hear the end of it.)

If only he didn't feel that warmth coming at the cost of potentially hiding something else. Ice did melt, even on ice princesses, but it also had the likelihood of freezing over again if the circumstances were to change...

"Assuming the Imperials don't decide to start things up again ? in which case we just flat break loose and get the hell out of here ? it looks more like they're beginning to break up. Which means our chance to get out of here quietly has increased."

"How do you figure?"

"It means more than likely they're about to go to lightspeed, which means they'll be far away from here."

"You think they're searching for us?" she prompted quickly, perhaps a little more quickly than wouldn't have otherwise possibly been suspicious. Her eyes widened for a moment, but reverted again before Han could really contemplate the full meaning why.

"You're important, but important enough to send a whole fleet of Destroyers out all over the galaxy for? I doubt it. There's easier ways to do that, though I've never known the Empire to take the easier route." He didn't really believe all he said; the fact that the Empire had pursued them this far ? charging through an asteroid field even ? if they were willing to do that, they would most certainly continue to chase them. Whoever was leading this fleet was nuts...or there was something more about Leia than he knew; they certainly wouldn't be going to all this trouble just to get someone like Han himself. He was willing to bet the source of her continued ice princess charade was related somehow to the Empire and her fear of them pursuing her ? but in what way? "Unless you can come up with a reason why they might go to so much trouble," he added, in as offhand a manner as could be collected.

Her lips tightened just visibly for a moment as he spoke, but she said not a word, still focusing on the huge ship. What was it that drew her attention so strongly to it? Shrugging inwardly in defeat, he continued. "It's possible they are still searching for us, I'll concede that ? after all, they've spent the last several days doing it. But frankly, I don't care what they're doing or where they're going. If they want to scour all over the galaxy for us, at least they'll be doing it far away from us."

His combined attempts at being comforting and subtly prying didn't come off as smoothly as he hoped, but that was as far as he would go. He'd vaguely hoped this would be the clincher, that this would push things enough that she might finally tell him once and for all what had threatened almost constantly over the last three years to overwhelm her life. True, she did seem to be making progress against it, but if she kept this up she'd just slide back to where she was before. Maybe, in their newfound status whatever they were, at some point she'd feel confident enough to tell him.

Fat chance, that, he snorted to himself.

Leia just nodded in response, briefly flicking her eyes towards his. "And then what do you plan to do?"

"Play the role, sweetheart."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean standard Imperial procedure," he explained, recalling a bit of information he remembered during his brief stint in the Imperial Academy. "If they follow it, they'll dump their garbage before they go to lightspeed. We detach, and just float away..."

"Like the rest of the garbage," Leia nodded, catching on; the flicker of amusement on her face was enough for Han to let the light verbal jab at his ship slide for now. "And then?"

"And then we find a safe port to hole up in and lay low for a while."

"Not too long," Leia reminded him. "I need to get back to the Alliance."

"I'm sure the Alliance won't mind you being a little late instead of not getting there at all ? it's going to take a long time as it is to get anywhere without a hyperdrive, sweetheart," he pointed out. "I suggest you get used to being here for a while."

Obviously that didn't sit well with her; the flitting of annoyance across her features was noticeable. But to her credit she said nothing about it. "So what safe port did you have in mind?"

"That depends," he said, flicking the small nav display on. A tiny rough map of the sector appeared in front of them, casting a pale blue light on both their faces. Leia leaned in closer, squinting at the map's less-than-ideal resolution. Han frowned, moving his finger along the map. "It looks like we're in the Anoat system right now."

"Anoat. Not much there," she commented. Just a small Imperial colony, definitely not where they wanted to go; even if it was not Imperial, this far out into space it was highly unlikely they'd even have the facilities needed to replace an entire hyperdrive.

"No kidding," he muttered dryly, flipping a switch so a different version of the map appeared, with systems even further away from them, but still somewhat in the possibility for them to reach. There was of course Anoat, then Hoth, then Ison ? another Imperial stronghold, with wanted photos of him, Leia, and the Falcon probably circulating everywhere in it; also out of the question. But a little further out from there...

Han smiled as an idea struck him. He zoomed in on the map, highlighting the system of Bespin, bringing up an only semi-up-to-date profile of it. "Lando," he said, remembering the old business associate of his from years before his association with the Rebellion. Tall and dark with a past to perfectly match, he and Han had been almost perfect business associates. Han stroked a thumb idly over the Falcon's main console and looked around the cockpit, remembering the primary source of the long silence between them. He and Lando hadn't exactly parted as bitter bloody rivals, but they certainly weren't the best of friends either.

He hoped whatever was left was enough to help him and Leia.

Bespin was technically under Imperial rule, as was nearly every known planet in the galaxy to some extent, but unlike those other planets, Bespin was under the governorship of someone who was willing to let those Imperial laws slide just a tad if he thought it would work in his favor. If somehow Lando could be convinced helping them was in their best interests...

"Lando system?" Leia asked, frowning at the absence of such a dot on the map, bringing Han quickly out of his musings. "Interesting name."

"No, a man. Lando Calrissian. An old friend ? trouble maker, gambler, scoundrel. You'd like him."

"Thanks for the sentiment," Leia muttered.

"Don't take it personally, doll," he replied casually, throwing her a wink. "Bespin's pretty far," he continued thoughtfully, "but if you're willing to wait the extra time, I think we can make it."

Another flicker of movement outside; the Super Star Destroyer vanished in a wink of light into hyperspace, leaving a kilometers-long trail of garbage-debris in its wake. The relief in Leia's expression was almost palpable. Han felt a degree of relief himself (though doubted it was for the same causes as Leia's) ? it looked as if they were breaking up after all. No more firefights for now; he wouldn't miss them. Even if it had been a pretty incredible show from their vantage point.

Leia focused in on a small part of the profile. "It's a mining colony?" she asked doubtfully. Han guessed she'd heard the stories about the colonies that sprung up around mining areas, the ones usually filled with gruff, unsanitary ruffian types you wouldn't trust as far as you could levitate them...but Bespin was certainly far from that, if the latest rumors Han had heard were any indication.

He nodded. "Tibanna gas mine. Lando conned someone out of it a while back," Han told her, not exactly prepared to give Leia the grittier details behind that particular acquisition; it would be hard enough to get Leia to willingly go along with this as it was. It had been years ago..."We go back a long way, Lando and me."

"Do you trust him?" Leia asked pointedly.

"No," Han shrugged, only slightly sheepishly. "But would I take him over the Empire? In a heartbeat."

She looked about to give another sly retort, but a sudden slow rumbling from outside killed it before it could get out of her mouth. As the two humans watched, a huge port seemed to grind open on the back of their Star Destroyer, releasing junk into space. Some of the pieces of machinery were small, others were huge enough they could probably easily have disintegrated the Falcon were they to collide with it, surviving the impact just fine.

Show time.

"All right Chewie, standby...detach," he said ? and with almost perfect timing the fixed horizon of space was then spinning slowly about them, the Falcon floating free, hopefully still indistinguishable from the other space debris, the stream of which they were trailing the very end of, so to avoid possible collision. The star-speckled vista slowly spun around them as they drifted, further and further away from the Star Destroyer, now alone in space ? the last other destroyer went to lightspeed as they watched. From here they could see the blackened spots on the hull, where the Executor's turbolasers had efficiently scored it. Han counted himself glad they hadn't been aiming for the engines...for now, they were home free.

"For now" being the operative words in that sentiment, of course.

It was evidently enough for Leia, though, as became evident when the now familiar (yet still new enough to be intriguing) touch of her lips pressed firmly and quickly on his cheek. Han couldn't help but smile a little bit at that, no matter how silly he probably looked.

"You've got your moments," she murmured softly in his ear, as Chewie returned from the back and seated himself in his proper place beside Han. "Not many of them, but you do have them."

Han cast another glance at her, a moment of bittersweetness in his heart. He didn't want to risk what he had with her, particularly not so soon after finding it in the first place. But maybe it was time to put his own selfishness aside and purposely dig deeper, if not for his benefit then hers. He would be doing her no good by helping her stay in her new and pleasant cocoon, especially one built of such fragile material as this.

Chances were she wouldn't like the outcome and neither would he. But he would find some way to do it, he decided, tightening his lips. And who knew. Maybe she would still want to continue with things afterwards, and with the possibility they'd be even stronger than before.

Han pushed forward the thruster levers, bringing the Falcon out around the edge of the debris field. When he'd set the sublight engines on autopilot on direct course for Bespin, he left the cockpit with the intent of going to his quarters, but not without meeting eyes with Leia again.

It would be a long time before they reached Bespin, and he had a lot of thinking to do in the meantime.

Luke left Artoo to clean up the X-Wing. He supposed Yoda would know that he was no longer where he said he would be ? Yoda seemed to know everything he was planning to do almost before he did it ? but he intended to go anyway. He had to return to the cave. The first of several failures here...he felt that if he could just go back and

(hear her voice again)

face the Dark Side again, this time with some understanding...

But I have no understanding! Why should I see my mother there? Why should she weep for Vader, reach for him even in death?

(Darth Vader...betrayed and murdered your father...)


Luke stopped, halfway through a step. Had that been the betrayal, not some backstabbing scheme to grab power? Had Vader betrayed his father by seducing his mother?

The thought seemed both true and false, and Luke felt as if he'd walked into a cloud of swampflies. Skittering energy spread over his skin, and he couldn't focus his eyes. It wasn't true. But it was approaching truth.

He put his foot down carefully. He no longer wanted to go to the cave, but now he could see that he was already here. He must have been moving all along. His feet carried him toward the maw.

"Thought you'd come here, I did."

He stopped and turned away. Yoda was sitting on a log, his gimer stick dangling from his hand.

Luke drew himself up. "I'm sorry, Master. I know I should have asked."

"Hmmmph. Knew the answer already, you did, and planned not to heed it."

"Master..." Luke found it easier to walk away from the tree than he'd thought. He sat on a rock not far from Yoda. "Master, when I was there before, I saw...I saw things I didn't understand."

Maybe it was Luke's imagination, but it seemed like the old Master's face softened a bit. "Yes, yes. Often like that, visions are."

Luke almost blurted out the question he wanted answered. Yoda knew his parents, and he knew Vader. He would know. But if it wasn't true...what insult was he delivering to his mother, even to wonder such a thing? Instead, he stepped onto safer ground. "What are visions really, Master? Are they real? Symbolic?"

"Many things, visions are. The past, the future. Old friends and old love. New dangers. But always in motion, visions. See more, you will, if you look again. And less." Yoda slid down off his perch, and touched Luke's forehead. "Try, padawan. Let yourself feel the Force. What you need to see, it will show you."

Luke was irritated by Yoda's enigmatic speech, but felt a good deal safer seeking a vision in Yoda's presence than out of it. He closed his eyes, and began meditative breathing.

The first sensation, as always, was a heightening of his hearing and sense of smell. A small insect was chewing at a fallen log, and far away, a bird was flapping its wings against the mist. The ground smelled rich and dark. He could sense a current flowing around him, smooth and deep in some places, agitated in others. Yoda appeared here not as an obstruction or a creature of any kind. He was a whirl of energy, a magnet.

"Look past, you must."

Luke nodded, drawing himself away from that source of power. He was far into the Force now.

The mists began to grow brighter, then to part, just a little. He saw...spires and disks...

He must have frowned, because Yoda spoke up, "Seeing, you are. Do not pull away."

Luke took the advice, and went further ahead. He didn't know what this place was. As it became clearer, he could see speeders and ships, and the gaseous surface of a planet far below. It was beautiful. The clouds glimmered in gold and pink, and the city rose up like a vision of heaven.

Suddenly, a scarlet veil fell across it, seeming to drench everything in blood. The vision shifted, and instead of heaven, Luke saw a steaming hell. And...faces...

Chewbacca the Wookiee, grasping at his head.

Han Solo...Luke couldn't see what was happening to Han, but he could hear a scream of agony.

And he felt...he couldn't quite grasp, couldn't quite see, but he knew Leia's presence deep in his blood. She was there, and she was frightened and angry and in danger.

He rushed forward, but the mists dissolved, and when he burst through the veil, he was on Dagobah again, Yoda's hand pressed firmly against his arm. The Master's face held no condescension, no doubt. For the moment, it wasn't even the face of a teacher ? it was the face of a colleague. "What saw you?"

"I saw a city in the clouds."

Yoda nodded. "Friends you have there?"

Luke almost answered using his "normal" knowledge ? Not that I know of ? but that would have been a lie. He did know they were there. "They were in danger. Han and Leia."

Yoda blinked, and the teacher returned. "Knew she should have been brought here, I did."

"I'm sorry, Master. But...Master, they were in pain."

"It is the future you see."

"Will they die?"

"Always in motion, the future." Yoda appeared distinctly agitated, though he was asserting control much more quickly than anyone Luke had ever seen. "Not all. Not any, perhaps. Difficult to see."

"The Empire is there."


Something else came to Luke. "But, the veil. The scarlet veil. It's Lady Vader. She might be able to help them."

"Faith, you put in her, young Skywalker? Angel to you as well, is she?"

"No, not an angel, but...she's different."

"Different, yes. Less dangerous, she is not."

"Then I have to go to them."

Yoda turned away, hobbled a few steps toward the tree. Finally, he looked back at Luke. "Decide, you must, how to serve them best. But if you go, you will destroy all for which they suffer."

Luke didn't ask for an explanation. He didn't really need one.

"Come on, Princess, take a break." Han came up behind Leia, who was hunched over in the pilot's chair, going over sensor readouts and systems maps. "Chewie can take over for a while, and you need to get some rest."

Leia gazed at him sleepily before nodding. She had volunteered to take two straight turns at watch, and had been up for hours. She sought out Han's offered hand and pulled herself to her feet, stretching and yawning. "Are you sure Chewie doesn't mind?"

Han just rolled his eyes and laughed. "I think he can handle it for a couple of hours. Don't tell me you've been enjoying counting the stars as they go by."

"Actually, you have no idea how nice it is to have things quiet for awhile," she replied, her eyes dropping momentarily. Han silently disagreed ? he knew exactly how nice that could be. Since leaving the wild scene outside the asteroid field absolutely nothing of note had happened to them. His sole desire was for the situation to remain that way until they finished their slow crawl to Bespin.

"At any rate," Leia continued, forcing a smile to her face, "care to keep me company for a little while? There's no chance of me going to sleep anyway."

"Of course, Your Highness," he said. "Lead the way."

She retook his hand, guiding him out of the cockpit and into the small lounge at the other end of the hallway. She walked through the doorway without reaching for the light switch, and headed toward a couch in the corner. He expected her to let go of his hand and collapse into it. Whatever her reasons were for not wanting to sleep, she couldn't continue to ignore the fact that she was physically exhausted. If she needed him by her side to get a little rest, he'd be happy to help.

But Leia came to a sudden stop, and simply stood there, a few steps in front of him, her fingers still intertwined with his. He watched her, waiting for her to say something?

Instead, she tentatively moved toward him, wrapped her arms around his waist, and leaned against him, her eyelids fluttering shut.

Han was (pleasantly) taken aback by the gesture, and it was a few seconds before he thought to pull her closer. "Are you all right, Leia?"

She paused, then whispered, "I'm so tired, Han. I'm so?this is so hard sometimes."

He stroked her soft hair and kissed the top of her head. Han hoped that he wouldn't have to press her, that she would continue and open up on her own ? but they continued to stand there, holding each other in the dark, listening to each other breathe in the otherwise silent room, and he knew she was still reluctant to talk.

"Leia?Leia, please, tell me. It'll be all right," he whispered into her ear.

He couldn't actually see her face because of the way he was holding her, but he could feel her reaction. Her face was scrunched up, contorted ? he imagined her expression, and she was struggling, attempting to make up her mind. Her hands tightened on his back, clutching his shirt and squeezing him closer. Her breath tickled his neck, and he thought she was trying to speak?

"Leia, come on. Trust me. I got you off the Death Star. I got you off Hoth. I can get you through this, whatever is. Let me help. Please."

Her fingers clawed more urgently, her nails beginning to pinch his skin through the shirt, and he could sense her brow furrowing deeply.

"They're my parents."

He barely heard her say it, she had spoken so softly. It took him a minute to realize that she had said anything at all.

Han had been building himself up to say the right words and give her the comfort and reassurance he knew she'd need ? and now he couldn't even figure out what she meant.

As gently as possible, he asked, "Who are your parents?"

"They're my parents." Quieter this time, barely above a whisper.

"I ? I don't understand. What do you ?"

"They're my parents. That's why they've been chasing us."

"Chasing us?" he repeated. Then, all at once, it hit him, almost like a physical blow, seeming to knock him off-balance. "Chasing us! Leia?" He took her by the shoulders and pulled her back enough for him to see her. "Leia, are they, I mean, the Vad?"

"Don't!" she ordered. "Yes, yes, you're right." Her face was heavy with misery. "You're right. They're my parents."

Han tried to control his shock and disbelief, but doubted he was succeeding. All of the scenarios he had thought of hadn't even come close. There was no way to guess something like this. "But, how is that possible?" he managed.

"I'm adopted?" she began, her hands loosening their grip on his back and moving to rest lightly on his chest. "I've always known that. My ? birth mother ? I knew her when I was small, until she?disappeared. All that time, I thought she was dead. Then I saw a tape?She was talking to ? to him. Her veils were off. I saw her face, and I knew. I knew right away it was her."

"I can't believe you've never told anyone this," he whispered.

"I'm sorry, Han. I should have done something about it sooner ? I should have told you as soon as we left Hoth. I've put so many people at such a high risk, and they didn't even know what the situation was. That was unfair, and I know ?"

"That's not what I meant, Leia. I only meant that it must have been hell for you to keep a secret like that for this long." He shook his head to himself, thinking of the personal fear she'd lived with during that time, and how she had managed to hold herself, and most everyone else, together despite it. Unbelievable. "Well, at least we've lost them for the time being?what exactly do they want with you? What are they going to do?"

She shuddered in his arms and didn't speak. That was enough answer for him.

"Okay, it's okay. Never mind. I said I'd get you through this, and I will. And really, it doesn't matter much to me why anyone is after you. They won't get near you if I have anything to say about it."

"So?" she whispered nervously, "this doesn't change how you?what you think about me?"

"I think," he replied gently, "that you are incredibly brave, and strong, and I want to keep you safe. So, no, nothing much is different."

She smiled ? her first genuine smile in who knew how long ? and buried her face in his neck, pulling herself close to him. "I've been so scared of anyone finding out?I didn't know what to do. I'm so glad I told you."

"I'm glad you told me too. Once we get to Bespin, everything will work itself out."

Han wanted to believe that ? a good part of him did believe it. But he also knew that the stakes had just been raised to unbelievable heights. They were no longer two Rebel fugitives on the run; he was now trying to keep the Vaders from their daughter. How could he possibly do such a thing by himself?

Leia smiled at him again, and leaned in for a kiss.

The "how" didn't matter. He would get them to Bespin, fix his ship, and they'd be long gone before the Empire knew which way to even start looking for them. He would keep her safe. No matter what.

Their arrival to the planet had been unexpected, but then Vader had seen no reason to give them prior warning.

Amidala was used to the looks of awe and wonder she received from the citizens of Cloud City as she strolled by them, no doubt, Vader thought as he strolled along just behind her ? and to the side, like any decent bodyguard would ? down the shuttle ramp and into the city. He had no problem being delegated to the position of a mere guard if it was for her; she was well worth that minor displacement of position, and certainly no one would question it.

Yes, after years of serving as a Queen, then Senator, of a small world and with a beauty that even now after all these years had not faded in the slightest, perhaps even grown, she would certainly be accustomed to the looks of awe and respect she was garnering...From people all over the galaxy as well as the throngs of people of the now evening sunset-tinted metropolis of Cloud City who had gathered in only vaguely subtle but respectively distant rows, definitely keeping their distance from her...and him, of course.

Respect was not the only thing that shone in their eyes. When those same eyes that remained awestruck by her supernatural beauty fell on him, awe of a different sort materialized there. After years he had become accustomed to it, but doubted she ever would become truly be comfortable with this. Fear towards her she would never become accustomed to, fear that always flowered when they received the cold reminder of his own presence, the reminder of who she really was?his wife, the wife of a monster. He felt guilty of this, knowing that were it not for his presence they would not have the same fear towards her that she had in no way earned.

(No way? She did choose your companionship of her own free will.)

(? and Vader was extremely glad of that.)

Years ago, or if things had gone differently, they might not have looked on him with such fear and revulsion now ? even his beloved had done so the first moment she beheld his scarred form in this state. There had been a time that such wouldn't have even been a consideration, when others, (perhaps particularly females) might have envied Amidala's position at his side instead of feared it, when only a casual smile and a wink of Anakin Skywalker's once trusted, unmasked blue eyes instead of the cold strangling fist of fear was needed to cajole people over to their side...a side that, fortunately, his wife had no need to use such means to persuade people over to. She was still in their eyes whole, beautiful, and gentle...not in the least bit monstrous.

A flicker of motion ? the swirl of a cape on the form of the person sent to greet them ? from before them thankfully drew Vader from his reverie.

The man who stood before them, respectfully distant from the end of the twin ranks of stormtroopers that protectively flanked the path the Lord Vader and his Lady had used to enter the city on disembarking from their surprisingly unregal-appearing shuttle, was dark-skinned, well-dressed, and of a height roughly a head shorter than Vader's own. The same fear that glittered in the eyes of his citizens did not appear to be present in the dark eyes of Baron-Administrator Lando Calrissian; he did remarkably well at concealing that which Vader could easily feel emanating from him. He also seemed fairly impeccably groomed for someone who had had almost no warning of the Vaders' trip here; Calrissian was probably one of those types that enjoyed reveling their entire lives in their material finery, even when it was completely unnecessary to do so.

Almost immediately he was distrustful of the man; he could easily see him as the type that Han Solo might have at one time associated with and would seek out for aid again, even if he weren't already aware of that fact from the detailed profile Imperial Intelligence had collected on him. Any number of Imperial laws had been broken by this man, but that wasn't what disgusted Vader.

Former smuggler, dealer in illegal substance trafficking, and ? what most truly raised the hackles of disgust inside Vader's core ? slave trafficking as well. Cheap labor to use for running the less-than-legal lower levels of his Tibanna mining operation, no doubt. But that would have to be overlooked for now (though perhaps could be used later as a potential bargaining chip in their favor) and was not why the Empire was here...

And he wasn't in charge of speaking to Calrissian anyway. Amidala had insisted she be the one to negotiate with Calrissian, as one politician speaking to another (and perhaps thinking of his own less-than-diplomatic means of "negotiating"). She wasn't about to use force when she believed what they needed accomplished could be accomplished by lesser means ? means which were less likely to potentially threaten what they hoped to accomplish. Having prior evidence to support this, Vader of course had deferred to his wife in this case. (And even were not this planet useful in obtaining their children, its vast repositories of Tibanna gas ? the primary source of fuel in turbolasers and blasters ? would be useful to the Vaders' side of the new Imperial civil conflict.)

But the twins were what mattered. Like it or not, this man was another necessary channel to take in the route to reuniting their family.

There had originally been some doubt as to whether the Millennium Falcon would come here ? but once it was determined there were no other logical places for them to go in the quite limited range a lack of hyperdrive offered, especially ones where the captain of the ship in question had strong former personal ties, the Vaders' departure for the planet had been almost immediate.

Not that there was any real need for hurry, of course. As it was it might take the Falcon any number of weeks ? perhaps even months ? to arrive here. But the time spent here would not be time wasted; he and Amidala had things to accomplish here, threads of their plan that needed to be laid out in advance, before Leia arrived. This was their biggest chance yet and they would certainly not waste the advantage they had now.

Amidala stopped before Calrissian and the man instantly kneeled before her, hesitantly placing a light kiss on her proffered hand, his eyes momentarily flicking to her husband, who merely stared impassively at the exchange. He knew that if a lava pit hadn't failed to take Amidala from him, he certainly had nothing to fear here.

(And of course that thought, coming from someone like the Lord Vader, definitely carried a twin-edged connotation to its blade.)

"On behalf of Cloud City and the citizens of Bespin I welcome you and your Lord to our humble city, my Lady," Calrissian said with the appropriate degree of deference. "Anything you require of us that we are able to provide is instantly at your service."

Amidala, indicating for him to rise once more, bowed her head lightly to Calrissian, the light breezes of the planet's upper atmosphere rustling the waves of scarlet veils she perpetually wore. "I thank you for your generosity and hospitality on such short notice, Baron Calrissian. It is my hope that our transactions here will be of benefit to both our sides."

"As do I, my Lady. I consider it a great honor that you and your Lord have chosen to bestow your attention on a planet as lowly as ours."

"Perhaps the Empire under Palpatine ?" Vader noted the distinct choice of her words in approval "? would have considered you lowly, but I assure you, Baron, my husband and I see each and every planet of the Empire as an invaluable resource in and of itself."

Vader permitted himself a small (and as always painful ? and therefore brief) smile under the mask. As gifted in oratory as she was beautiful and beloved to him. As she had always been; it was a wonder the Empire had survived this long without her contributions.

"As expected the kindness and graciousness of the Lady Vader are exceptional to say the least."

The pattern of her facial veils shifted ever so slightly and Vader was certain his wife was smiling beneath them politely, though Calrissian had no way of seeing it. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Baron, though the kind words are indeed appreciated. However, my husband and I do have much business to attend to on your fair world, and it would also be appreciated if you would personally accompany us to where we may be allowed to begin."

"Our most advanced facilities have been indefinitely placed at your disposal, my Lady."

Amidala barely nodded and the three slowly began their procession ? Amidala and Calrissian side by side, Vader himself directly behind his Queen ? to the row of armored transports that awaited them, ready to carry them to their destination.

Where they would, at last, lay the final stone in the pathway that would bring their children to them.

Lando headed for Lady Vader's office with apprehension, and that annoyed him deeply. It had for the entire time the Vaders had been on Bespin. He hoped that he was still able to maintain the outward appearance of composure and ease, but the longer they stayed, the harder that became.

If they had come to shut him down, or arrest him, he wished they'd just hurry up and get to it already.

Instead, they seemed to sit around, doing nothing but make him nervous. After their initial arrival, they had requested living space for themselves and their entourage of stormtroopers, made some cursory inquiries about the city's layout and communications system, and then simply disappeared. Barely a word had been heard from either of them ? the residents of Bespin who hadn't seen their arrival doubted that they were actually here.

Lando couldn't figure it out for the life of him. He had racked his brain continuously for anything ? anything ? that would attract this kind of attention from people this high up. He had carefully avoided such notice for most of his life. The only feasible conclusion that he had come to was that the Empire was about to start a major crackdown, the likes of which had never been seen before, anywhere. The illegal activity that went on in this city was so utterly insignificant?he didn't believe that he would make a particularly effective example to anyone, even with Lord Vader himself wringing his neck and shutting Bespin down.

But, they were here. So apparently his assessment was completely off base. And there was nothing he could do about it.

That was the worst of it, the part that really aggravated him. He couldn't remember the last problem he couldn't angle his way out of. But now, he couldn't picture such an effort being made on Lord Vader. Hedging around low-level investigators was one thing ? facing the Empire itself was another thing completely.

So, Lady Vader had summoned him to her makeshift office, and he knew what was coming. He supposed it was a good thing that this would be coming from her and not her husband. Bad news from a pretty face ? well, from what he assumed must be a pretty face ? had to be better than quaking in fear of Lord Vader.

He buzzed for entrance, put his face into its normal, smiling façade, and hoped it would hold.

The door slid up quickly, and he found Lady Vader standing on the opposite side of the room. She was staring silently out the window at the clouds and traffic. "Come in, Baron Calrissian. We have much to discuss."

He stepped inside the door, and heard it shut. "I do hope you've found everything here to your satisfaction, my Lady. My staff is under strict instructions to cater to your every desire."

"Actually, I have quite enjoyed myself here," she replied. "This city offers much that is different from the usual Imperial accommodations."

Hmm. She sounded like she was smiling; he wished he could see how she was reacting to things. "I'm sure it does. Of course, we can't provide the kind of luxuries ?"

"This place has color, and civilians, and a?life to it that I've never seen on a Star Destroyer. You don't have to worry about things you think you can't provide."

"Thank you," he said, frowning in confusion. "Then?what can I assist you with? I'm at your disposal."

"Actually, I only need to talk to you. I know you're waiting for me to do something terrible, but I have no such plans." She turned from her window and took a seat on a nearby couch.

He remained standing. "I'm glad to hear that," he replied unconvincingly.

"I've heard that you've done great things with this city ? I know what it was like before you turned it around. You must be very proud of what you've built here."

"Yes ?" Lando caught himself staring at those veils "? as you must be of what you and your husband have built in the Empire."

She sat up a little straighter, and let out an amused chuckle. "We haven't built what you think of as the Empire. We've only served it. And I'm sure you'd agree that there's a difference?I know what it's like to be responsible for something; I know how difficult that is. It's an enormous amount of work ? and a ridiculous balancing act, from what I recall."

Lando smiled ? a real smile ? and sat on the edge of the couch. Maybe this was a more approachable situation than he had hoped for. "You know it is. There's always some problem or emergency I have to take care of?but in the end it's worth it. It's more than worth it."

"Of course." Her hands folded in front of her, and she took on a more thoughtful pose. "Which, finally, is the reason I brought you here. You must know that the Empire would not look kindly on what you have here, Baron."

"But you do?" he asked.

"I understand it. I appreciate it."

"Then?you're not here speaking for the Empire?"

"No. My interests here are strictly personal. But I would hate for my official position ? or my husband's particular distaste for many of your 'practices' ? to hurt Bespin unnecessarily. As long as you don't interfere with what I'm trying to accomplish, I'll be more than happy to extend you the same courtesy."

Now it was Lando's turn to laugh, though he didn't think it would help his situation. Was he really going to get a pass from the Vaders? What a bizarre notion. "Trust me, my Lady, I would never wish to get in your way."

"You don't believe me," she said, shaking her head a little. "When Captain Solo arrives, simply don't get involved. I can easily handle the rest."

"Han? Han's coming here?" This was getting stranger by the second. "I haven't seen him in years. What does he want?"

"Not your concern, Baron. In fact, Solo himself may not be of much concern to us. But those he travels with, his companions in the Rebellion ? their importance to me cannot be overstated. Solo is my key to reaching those people, and he is coming to you, soon, to seek asylum." She stood from her seat, and retook her position by the window. "Grant his request, then stay out of the way. And once we leave, all of us will have gotten what we wanted."

Lando felt a small, but gnawing, sense of guilt growing in his stomach. Han was an old friend of his, one he had been in a lot of scrapes with. And Han was trusting him to help with the Empire breathing down his neck.

But, gradually, Lando felt his guilt giving way to logic. He had to protect his interests here, and he was being given a ridiculously easy way to do so. And Han wasn't even the focus of whatever was going on?Lando wasn't about to risk his city for a few Rebels he'd never met.

"My Lady, I said I was at your disposal, and I meant it. You won't have to worry about my interference with any of your business here."

She turned to look at him, and said quietly, "Well I suppose Solo's?curious?choice of friends is our gain then. You're dismissed, Baron."

Lando was taken aback at the sting of disapproval he heard in her voice, and almost said something to defend his decision, and stop the gnawing of his conscience.

Instead, he merely gave her a curt nod, and left the room.

"Have you ever been here before?" Leia asked as Bespin's thick upper cloud layer rapidly filled the Falcon's entire forward view, surrounding them completely.

Han turned the ship slightly to avoid a small gust of turbulence, breaking through the layer. "It was a long time ago. Before Lando ever got control of the place."

Leia raised an eyebrow, noting the subtle tensing of his jaw. "You're nervous about seeing him, aren't you?"

Han turned his eyes towards her a moment, flashing her a grin. "Sweetheart, if I can handle you, I've got nothing to worry about from Lando."

Leia folded her arms across her chest in an amused parody of her cold death's-head stance. "Looks like someone still doesn't know anything about women."

It wasn't the sardonic, biting tone she would normally have used. It was just simple, wry, amusement, something Leia hadn't freely felt in ages.

It was like an entire planet had fallen off her shoulders when she'd told Han. She was still going to be sore for a long time to come, having consigned herself to carrying the burden of that secret alone for so long...but the worst was gone, she told herself.

Then why did she feel as if she was unwittingly walking towards darkness again?

She looked at the planet once more, marveling briefly how much more beautiful it was up close. Sunset tinting the cloud-filled heaven full of oranges, reds, and pinks...they were in the upper atmosphere, she recalled from the brief summary she'd read earlier on the planet: lower down was the actual liquid gas sphere of the planet; the upper atmosphere was the only area of the planet breathable for most humanoid sentient life forms. Where several mining operations had been built in the pre-Empire days...including Cloud City.

An invisible icy finger placed itself between Leia's shoulder blades as she continued watching.

Stop it, she told herself. They'll control you no longer.

No longer.

Han's laugh brought her out of her thoughts. "With all fairness, Sweetheart, you are far from being the typical woman."

Leia was prepared to crack back a witty retort, but suddenly two odd twin-pod orange craft burst from the clouds and took up escort positions around the Falcon.

As if on cue, a sudden crackling came on their comm system. "Unidentified freighter, this is Cloud City Control. Identify yourself and your business."

Leia tightened a hand on Han's shoulder in a resurgence of her previous fear.

(Or maybe it was a fear of something new altogether? Luke would probably have said it was a prodding from the Force...

She bit her lip. She hadn't really, until now, thought about how much she actually missed Luke...)

"Don't say our actual names," she murmured in his ear. "If the Empire's still after us..." Though Han's friend was in charge of the place, she just wasn't ready to risk that.

Han, thankfully, just took it in stride. "I read you, Sweetheart." He flipped on the comm. "Cloud City, this is the unidentified freighter. I've got a message for Baron Calrissian. Tell him ?" Han hesitated here, then suddenly smiled "?tell him that an old friend's here, and that perhaps we might play a few rounds of sabaac for my choice of his stock here. In the meantime we're hoping you'll have some place for us to park our little crate."

Leia stifled the urge to laugh at the cloud car pilot's perplexed reaction. A smile did escape, however. "Say that again, freighter?"

"Just tell Lando," Han said casually. "He'll understand."

"Let's just hope you do actually know this person," Leia muttered.

Chewie let out a few urf-urfs.

"Not you too," Han muttered himself. "Everything'll be fine. Trust me. It's been years, Lando's bound to have forgotten it by now." He didn't elaborate, and Leia didn't ask him to.

"Unidentified freighter, your request has been granted," the escort came back. Awfully quick, Leia thought. "Land on platform 327."

"Thank you," Han said curtly, flipping off the switch, then shooting a reassuring glance at Leia. For myself, or for him? "Don't worry. We go back a long way, Lando and me."

"Who's worried?" she countered calmly.

And then there it was.

Leia completely forgot her mood as the clouds vanished from around them, revealing directly in their path a huge (floating?) shape not unlike one of her childhood spinning top toys, the city's spires glinting the sunlight. As they neared the city she realized just how huge it was, and was duly impressed. Raised on Alderaan she'd learned to develop a higher appreciation for the beauty of nature than for artificially constructed structures...but this was an amazing sight to behold. Flying over the city itself was just as lovely; the entire skyline was filled with smooth spires, flowing together almost organically. Were it not for the frequent glints of metal, it might have been mistaken for a city on Alderaan.

They reached their platform and the cloud cars broke off in different directions, and the Falcon settled smoothly on the landing platform, a small duracrete surface in the middle of the city, adjoining another large spire. Han locked down the ship and quickly made his way to the landing ramp, with Chewie, Threepio and Leia following close behind. A crisp cool wind was all that greeted them as they disembarked, stinging Leia's cheeks slightly.

She tried to tell herself that was the only reason she felt cold. Something about this place didn't settle well with her at all.

She briefly flickered her eyes upward, near the top of the spire, several stories above them. She saw, of course, nothing.

"I don't like this," she murmured, almost to herself.

Before Han could respond, or Leia get in a quip about the lack of a greeting party, the doorway to the spire opened, and a tall, elegantly dressed man with dark skin and a hard expression strode out towards them, a small security entourage following. The long cape billowing out behind him reminded her uncomfortably of memories of her?father, and she wished fervently the man had worn something else. But it didn't bother her quite as much as it would have several weeks ago.

She guessed this was Lando.

"Why you no good, double-crossing swindler," the man came forth, stopping just a foot from Han's nose. No one moved a bit ? except for the security team, which quickly moved into guard positions around their administrator. "You've got a lot of nerve coming here after the stunts you've pulled."

Han pointed at himself and gave an innocent "Who, me?" look, and Lando took one aggressive step closer...

Then let out a rush of laughter as his arms went around Han, clasping them in a familiar hug. "How you doing, you old pirate?" he asked Han, the stony attitude fading completely away. "I never thought I'd see you again! Now what's this about a hand of sabaac?"

"I'll tell you later," Han said.

"He seems very friendly," Threepio remarked, inclining a golden head towards Lando.

"Yes," Leia said slowly, eyeing the exchange between the two men. "Very."

There was more exchange of greetings, Han relaying to Lando the reason for their little impromptu visit. A few more chuckles, then Lando turned to Leia, a suave (or what he thought was suave) smile plastered on his face. She distrusted it immediately.

"I see at least if nothing else my friend's taste in traveling companions has improved considerably," he said warmly, wide brown eyes sparkling. He was handsome in his own way, Leia thought, and probably (with some basis) considered himself quite the ladies' man. She easily caught the boldly confident attitude that was a near-duplicate of Han's, minus the smart-mouthed brashness. "And who might you be?"

If you actually knew the full answer to that, I doubt you'd be so willing to make such shallow passes at me. "Leia," she told him simply, resisting the extremely inviting urge to state her full title and lineage, just to see the look on Calrissian's face. If he entertained any notions about wooing her, that would undoubtedly sober them.

"Then I welcome you, Leia." He brushed a kiss on her gloved hand, and Leia could almost visibly sense Han's sudden air of possessiveness, quickly putting an arm around Leia's shoulders and guiding her towards the door. She smiled at the act; in this aspect the jealousy was in its own way endearing. Chewie, Threepio, Lando and his entourage moved with them.

"We'll get to work on the Falcon right away," Calrissian said as he guided them into the spire, which Leia saw opened out into a lavish marble-laid corridor, with windows lining it all along its curving path. "I'll put her on top of the priority list. She's saved my life quite a few times, and she's definitely worth it. Now we'll see if we can't get you all some decent quarters..."

Leia nodded politely and almost absent-mindedly as they continued down the passage, Han and Lando in front of her, Chewie and Threepio trailing them. Lando almost immediately launched into a whole speech about the wonder and glory of his city and how he'd managed to turn it into a successful gas mining operation... Leia was grateful for all the years of political training Bail Organa had given her; she could deal with politicos like Calrissian in her sleep.

Not that she'd have to worry about that too much, it seemed. Han seemed to be having a high old time of it, chatting and laughing with Lando as if little time had passed at all. And who could blame him? With a Wookiee, a paranoid droid and an uptight Princess as his sole companions for the past long weeks in space, he'd be ready for some new companionship. Someone to engage in the casual routine of "guy talk" with once more. So Leia busied herself with studying the sights of the city, something of an art form in itself as they walked by, thinking about how much her father ? Bail Organa, not Vader ? might have appreciated getting a look at this city. She didn't talk to Chewie or Threepio at all.

So no one ? including Leia ? noticed as they went around a bend in the corridor, that the golden protocol droid was no longer there, until some time later.

Amidala slipped into the room at the top of the spire. She barely remembered to check for witnesses in the hall outside before she locked herself in and scrambled across to the window, throwing the veils back as she went. She couldn't bear having anything interfere with her vision. The room was spectacular, commanding a view of all Cloud City, but Amidala cared only for one view right now.

She hadn't felt so fully alive since the first time Ani had brushed his long fingers across her back, since the moment he had first bent down to her and given a shy and gentle kiss. The sensation had frightened her then, had been too much sensory input when she had been completely unprepared; now it exhilarated her. Every color was clear and bright, every sound, musical. She felt as though she could dance above the clouds. She could touch the frozen soil of the gas giant below and send forth a new spring, a wave of brilliant flowers spreading out from her fingertips.

She stood perfectly still, not moving a muscle for fear of revealing her presence too soon.

Far below, the gangplank of the Millennium Falcon lowered and Leia came out. Amidala's eyes passed over the pilot and the Wookie without acknowledgment.


She was dressed all in white, an almost conscious repudiation of


Ani, but she didn't look pale or dull in the bright colors of Cloud City. She glowed, like a small star.

Her hair had reddish highlights that Amidala had never noticed in the vids. They caught the tone of Bespin's sun. The color was a gift from Winama. The tight, practical braids reminded Amidala of Shmi Skywalker. She couldn't see it from here, but she knew that Leia had her own eyes.

But mainly, it was Ani she saw, Ani as a child, round-faced, with delicate, inquisitive features. Ani, before the galaxy ripped him in two.

What am I doing?

The question screamed up from the void, the voices of all those she saw in Leia's face, all the loved ones who now walked only on the barren landscape of her own memory. Ani's voice, Winama's, Shmi's...the voice of a young girl with eyes not unlike Leia's, a girl who insisted that there were things she could not do.

What are you doing? Who have you become?

"I've become who I must be," Amidala whispered, her breath fogging the glass. "I do what I must."

On the landing platform, Calrissian swept the pilot into a friendly embrace.

For you, Leia. For Luke. For all those who were betrayed. I, too, will find the strength to do what I detest and become what I loathe, so I can create the galaxy I once believed in, to enforce the order of things as they should be.

Calrissian released the pilot, then whisked the group, and Leia, inside. Amidala was about to turn away ? she'd seen what she'd come to see ? when a glint of sun on metal caught her eye.

The droid might not have warranted her attention, except for the way it took a step backwards, looking insulted, when Calrissian ignored it. Then it shook its golden head, and began to pick its way up the platform. He was already several meters behind the others.

Amidala clasped her hands together, feeling high and gleeful. It was astounding, really, letting her feelings run free. She wished she could just call out, maybe run down onto the platform.

But that wouldn't do. If she could have done that, she'd have done it in order to get to Leia, not Threepio. But she could work with Threepio. She pulled the veils back over her head, and slipped out of the room.

Ani was standing outside, and she took his hands and kissed the side of his mask (he lifted his head in surprise). "Ani, I have an idea, but I have to go quickly. Don't do anything until I've come back and told you."

"If you wish, my Lady."

"Threepio is still with her."

"I see."

Amidala smiled, and imagined that Ani was smiling, then ducked into the turbolift and let it plunge down to the platform level. The speed made her lightheaded, but what of it?

This part of the City was solidly under Imperial control ? more accurately, it was solidly under Ani's control; he was sending out Destroyers in a rotating schedule to keep an eye out for Ozzel ? and she was able to make her way through the stormtroopers and officers without anyone stopping her. A few of the men bowed deeply. One called her "Your Majesty" as he opened a door for her.

The room she was headed for was a temporary barracks for a squadron of stormtroopers. It opened onto the city corridor that led from the platform to the lodgings Calrissian was planning to give to Leia.

The men jumped up at the sight of her, and stood at attention, though several of them were half out-of-uniform. She nodded impatiently to them, and scanned the room for something she could use. "Gentlemen, I need a droid with audio-mimetic capabilities."

One of them saluted, broke rank, and disappeared into an antechamber. He returned with a protocol droid not unlike Threepio himself. "Your Majesty," he said sharply, then handed her the control and marched back into line.

"Very good, soldier. This will do nicely." She called the droid over to her, the plan, such as it was, coming to her in bits and pieces. It seemed a little foolish if she thought of it too closely. But Threepio...well, perhaps foolish plans would work best on him. She glanced up at a monitor above the door, which was focused on the incoming Rebels (just in case Calrissian decided to try something stupid). The Wookiee lumbered past, then, at the far edge, Threepio appeared.

Amidala waved at the stormtroopers to stand back, out of the sightline from the door, then she spoke softly to the protocol droid. "Mimic an Artoo class astromech droid ?"

"Yes, madam. Do you have a preference for the year?"

"I'm not sure of the year. Nothing that wasn't operating thirty-five years ago."

"And what will I say?"

"Something that does not indicate an Imperial presence. Comment on the weather."

"Very well." The droid began to emit a series of beeps and whistles.

Sure enough, Threepio stopped right in front of the door. "That sounds like ?"

Amidala hit the control beside the door, then gave the droid a shove. It went out into the passage, leaving her face to face with a disappointed-looking See-Threepio, for the first time in many years. She grabbed his arm and pulled him in, shutting the door silently behind him.

"Hush, Threepio," she said.

"Oh, dear! Lady Vader, oh, if you are here, then...oh, my heavens!" He fretted and tried to get back to the door, but he wasn't very strong, physically, and Amidala was determined.

"Threepio," she whispered, "it's me, Padmé. I see you're still perfect."

"I have no memory...perhaps..."

Amidala looked over her shoulder at the stormtroopers, and raised her voice to a level they would hear. "Leave me with this droid. I will see to it."

"Ma'am, my Lady...your Majesty," one of them stammered, "it will warn the Rebels. We should destroy it."

"That was Palpatine's mistake all along. He destroyed too many things that could have been of use to him, if treated properly. Now, leave us."

"Yes, ma'am." The squadron formed up (some still half-dressed), and left the room.

"My Lady Vader," Threepio said, "I am programmed..."

"I know your programming, Threepio. I did quite a bit of it toward the end. Access seven-seven-oh-two-four-Padmé-three-ay."

Threepio's head tilted, and she could hear the microcircuits working as they found the path around at least part of the memory block (much of his memory had been wiped, but some of it, she hadn't been able to bear losing; it would have been too much like killing Ani's firstborn), then he dipped his head a bit. "Queen Amidala."

"Yes. Very good. I need to speak to my daughter."

"I'm sorry, Mistress Amidala, but I have been programmed to protect Mistress Leia's interests from the Empire."

"Programmed." Amidala gritted her teeth. Losing her temper at Threepio wouldn't get her anywhere. "I am not the Empire. I am Leia's mother."

"I simply cannot arrange such a meeting. It would violate my entire protocol structure."

"Her father built your protocol structure! For the Maker's sake, Threepio ? for your Maker's sake in particular ? you must bring her to me." It was pointless, of course, arguing philosophically with Threepio. He was so close to sentient that she felt a need to convince him she was right, but in the end, his programming would win out. Well, she hadn't come this far to be derailed by her own former naiveté. "Threepio, access the command structure in the file I referred you to. It should contain an override."

"Yes, Mistress Amidala."

"Good. I hereby override intervening protocols. Do not speak of my presence in this city, or the Empire's. Suggest to Leia that a walk in the public gardens on the fourth level would be pleasant. See to it that she is there in two hours."

"Oh, that's a fine idea. Mistress Leia has been very tense of late, and a pleasant garden stroll would be..."


"Yes. But Mistress Leia can be a bit stubborn. She may be unwilling, regardless of your presence."

"So be convincing. If she seems unwilling, tell her you saw something suspicious there, and need her opinion on it. But bring her there."

"Yes, Mistress Amidala."

"Good." She touched his wrist. "I'm happy to see you again, Threepio. I've missed you."

"And I, you, Madam." He gave an electronic sigh. "How I wish Master Anakin were here."

Amidala considered telling him that he had his wish, but decided not to push her luck. "I know, Threepio," she said. "Now, go."

"Yes, my Lady."

He went back through the door, leaving her alone again.

But it was for the last time.

In two hours, she would have her family back.

The vision shattered, but Luke couldn't wake himself up.

It had been a long, exhausting day physically, and when he'd gone into meditation before sleep, he'd sent himself deep. Now, as the vision he'd had over and over ? the vision of Han in agony ? suddenly fragmented and blew itself out into ether, something more horrible bubbled up from underneath, like noxious swamp gas.

"Luke! Help me!"

He hears her voice, but he can't see her. He is standing in the red fog, his vision obscured by shifting crimson shadows. "Leia!"

"I'm here! Help me!"

He follows the sound of it, crashing through the underbrush, his feet sticking in the mud. Blood seeps up around his boots. At last, he comes to the edge of the swamp. In the waking world, it is mud interspersed with water. Here, it is blood and fire. Far on the other side, he sees her, a tiny white figure, sinking slowly into the mire.

He can't reach her.

"Luke! Han! Someone!"

But no one answers. Luke realizes that he can no longer hear Han screaming, but he can't sense him anywhere else either. Not strange. Han is

(...a blind spot in the Force. He would mean trouble...)

not always easy to see, but wherever he is, Leia isn't finding him. Luke dives into the gore, and tries to swim, but something beneath is pulling at him, dragging him back with gentle, silken threads...

There was a sharp jab at his chest, and he was brought rudely up into the waking world. Yoda stood over him, gimer stick poised to strike again. "Lost, you tend to become, young Skywalker. Focus, you must."

"I can't. Something's wrong, Yoda. Something's very wrong."

"Hmmmph. Wrong has something been for many years. Change it this evening, you cannot."

"I have to go to Bespin. Leia's in trouble." Luke stood up, throwing away his blankets and looking for his bag.

"You must not! Finish your training, you must!"

"I can't."

"Shifting, this vision is. Seeing it clearly, you are not. Help you here, I will. And Obi-Wan. Help you to understand it."

"By the time I understand it, Han and Leia could be dead. I have to go to them." He closed his eyes, and the blood-red water of the swamp seeped across his vision, casting a secret scarlet glow on everything. "Whatever is happening, they're in danger."

"As are you!" Yoda took a few steps forward, and planted his gimer stick firmly between Luke's feet. "Seeking you, the Empire is. Trying to lure you. They know that you ?"

Luke shook his head. He wasn't going to let Yoda drag him into another debate about whether or not he was too focused on his friends, and not focused enough on his training. "I can't do this, Yoda. If my going there will get them out of danger, then I have to go."

"Remove Leia from danger, it will not. And if you also fall, all else is lost with you. All."

Something in what he was saying spoke to a deep, cool place in Luke's mind, but it was dull and far off. Closer to the surface, he smelled the burning blood of the vision, saw Leia's small hands clawing at the mud. He shook his head, his lips set tightly, and started to get his things together.

He shouldn't have been able to feel this way.

Yet, Obi-Wan watched Luke carelessly throw his bags into the cockpit of his X-Wing, rushing into the very heart of danger?and Darkness?and he couldn't deny it.

There was a heaviness in his heart. A churning in his stomach. A nervousness in his trembling hands.

If the situation weren't so dire, he knew that Yoda would have taken this opportunity to chastise him ? again ? for clinging so desperately to his corporeal form. A spirit didn't have a heart or a stomach. A spirit should be beyond apprehension.

And maybe Yoda would be right to say so. Kenobi had always harbored a secret hope that in his death he would find answers. Perhaps not all of them ? he wasn't that arrogant ? but enough to give him peace; enough to understand, finally, where he could have done things differently with Anakin, to see where he had gone wrong in the end.

Information that, of course, would be quite useful now.

/Continue to blame yourself, hmm?/ Yoda's voice intruded on his thoughts, bringing him back to the current problem. /Limited effects, our actions can have. Their own decisions, they will make./

A truism, Obi-Wan thought in irritation. One that offered very little comfort to him right now.

"Luke," he began somberly, "You must listen to us."

The boy shook his head impatiently, and ran underneath the craft to see how his droid's repairs were progressing. "I can't, Ben. I keep seeing that vision?she was begging me to help her. I can't just ignore that."

"You must not go, Luke," he replied. "There is more to this than you realize, and if you leave now ?"

"If I don't leave, they'll die. There isn't much more to it than that." He tugged at the zippers on his jumpsuit and looked about for his helmet.

"You can't know that for certain. Even Yoda cannot see their fate."

"But I know I can help them! How can you ask me to turn my back on them?"

"I'm not asking you to do that. You don't realize the danger you're exposing yourself to," Obi-Wan glanced at Yoda. "You have little control over your powers, and that will only put both you and your friends at risk."

"Yes!" Yoda interjected. "To Obi-Wan, you listen. Remember your failure at the cave!"

That caused Luke to stop packing and stare thoughtfully at the two of them. "I remember. But you never explained to me what that vision meant." He waited for an answer, and upon receiving none, motioned to the droid to board the little compartment in the back of the ship. "Forget it," he muttered.

"No, wait!" Obi-Wan said. "If you stay, and complete your training, we promise to explain everything to you. But to leave now?"

"You have my word that I will return, and finish what I've begun," Luke replied. Yoda gave him a disappointed look. "I promise, Master Yoda."

"It is you and your abilities that the Vaders want. That is why your friends are made to suffer." Obi-Wan spared another look at Yoda before adding, "Maybe it is best that you understand why they want you, before running off without fully understanding what is ?"

"Tell him, you may," Yoda interrupted, "and make things worse, it might. Make him sympathetic to them, you will. Afford that, we cannot."

Kenobi hated to speak about Luke as if he weren't standing right there, but the boy was apparently too frustrated to continue listening to their argument. He was almost ready to leave in any event, and apparently didn't believe that anything they said would change his mind.

"I understand that, Master," he said in a low voice to Yoda. "But perhaps it will buy us time?"

"Determined to leave, he is. And determined to fight them. If leave he does, without the desire to oppose the Vaders?lost all will be."

Luke grabbed a ladder rung to mount the X-Wing. "Do you have anything to tell me, or not? I know there are secrets being kept from me. But right now, Leia is more important."

Obi-Wan tried not to show the panic that was tearing him apart. Instead, he projected a sad, almost lost expression to the boy. "I don't want to lose you the way I lost Vader, Luke. But you leave me in a terrible position. I'm begging you to trust me, and have the patience to work through this."

"The last of the Jedi, you are. On this, all depends," Yoda added solemnly.

"And I'm just supposed to stay here and do nothing? And sacrifice Han and Leia?"

"If you honor what they fight for," Yoda said, poking his stick in the ground for emphasis, "yes."

Luke's eyes bulged and Obi-Wan sighed. Another non-comforting truth from Yoda.

And another Padawan about to slip away from him.

Luke finally climbed the ladder and situated himself in the pilot's seat, and began running the take off sequence.

"Please?don't give in to hatred and fear. No matter how tempting they may be. They always lead to the Dark Side." As the warning lights from the X-Wing bathed the swamp in red, he spared one last comment. "You must remain strong, Luke. Please."

"Mind what you have learned! Save you, it can!" Yoda added as the ship began to hover just above the ground.

"I will," Luke replied, yelling over the roar of the engines. "And I will come back. I promise."

With that, the cover of the cockpit came down, the thrusters ignited, and Luke headed for the stars.

The two Jedi stood silently, watching his ascent until he faded out of sight.

"We should have told him," Obi-Wan said softly.

"Helped, it would not have."

Obi-Wan wasn't sure if that was true or not. He could see the wisdom in both approaches. "We can only pray that we're right. That boy is our last hope."

Yoda heaved a deep, heavy sigh, and returned to his hut.

"You see, Your Highness!" Threepio exclaimed, in his oddly realistic imitation of glee. "It's really quite pretty here."

Leia sighed. She'd had a pounding headache for the past two hours, and she couldn't seem to think clearly through it. She'd been glad to leave Han and Lando to their boisterous talk. Her mind felt like crystal, and it was vibrating dangerously. "Yes, I suppose so. But you said you'd seen something questionable."

"I did? Yes, of course. I saw...oh, perhaps it was nothing at all."

"Threepio," Leia said, biting back her impatience, "I know you aren't programmed to lie. Did you see something suspicious or not?"

"Yes, of course. Something very suspicious. It's just a bit further." He clattered on down the path, which was made of metal that was painted to look like stones. About halfway down, he raised his arms. "Oh, yes. I remember. Here."

Leia hurried her pace and looked into the small alcove he was pointing to. There were white flowers, and red flowers, all arranged prettily on trellises. High hedges made it private. There was the soft sound of an artificially created wind, pulling this way and that among the leaves. There was something discomforting about it. In the back, there was a shadowy recess...

She put her hands to her temples, feeling suddenly like a pick was being driven through her skull. "Threepio, what is it? What did you see?"

"He saw me."

The shadows in the recess came to life, and a scarlet breeze drafted out from them. Leia knew what she was seeing ? she wasn't insane, not yet ? but she refused to acknowledge it. "Threepio," she said. "Why am I here?"

"It's not Threepio's fault," the wind said. "I activated programming that was suppressed in his memory."

At last, she could deny it no longer. When she spoke, her voice was flat and dull. "He was yours first."

"Actually," Lady Vader said, "he was your father's."

Suddenly, Leia understood what was discomforting about the wind. Oh, certainly, there was a fan somewhere, blowing a steady band of wind across the gardens. But here, this close, there was an undercurrent to it ? an even, precise rhythm that she'd heard in her worst nightmares. She looked beyond her mother, and saw him standing there, the great shadow that her mother had emerged from.

She turned to run, but she felt a ghostly hand on her shoulder, willing her to stay, pulling her back into the alcove. "Let me go!"

Real hands touched her arms ? small, warm hands, grasping at her in a desperate, sickening way. "My Leia, my Leia...we've searched for you for such a long time. Please, don't run. We mean you no harm."

She pulled away from all the hands, physical and ephemeral, jerking herself into the prickly hedge in the process. "Don't touch me!"

She hadn't said it to strike out; it was just an atavistic loathing of their touch. It made her both cold and feverish.

Lady Vader took a step back, and her hands disappeared beneath the veil. Her shoulders hitched in what could only be a sob.

Leia paused, her shoulders pressed into the sharp leaves, and listened to her mother cry. "I..." she started, but couldn't think how to finish it. She didn't want to be here. She had to ?

The black-gloved hand clamped around her wrist with finality, and she looked, almost involuntarily, into the masked face of her father. "Sit down," he said. "You have been sought and found, and you are, at the moment, captured. This need not be unpleasant."

The words stopped there, but she heard the remainder anyway: But it can be if you choose. It can be very unpleasant.

"? stop it." Mother's voice was clear, if a bit thick. She'd said something before "stop it" ? "any," maybe, or something in another language ? but Leia couldn't make sense of it. She came around, and her fingers again made contact with Leia's wrist. They didn't seek as desperately this time, just rested there, as if she were touching a fragile but beautiful and expensive statue. "Leia," she said, then again, "Leia," and again, until Leia thought she'd be driven mad by the sound of her own name.

"Mother," she finally managed to say.

"Yes." Both hands clasped around hers, and Leia remembered, against her will, the comfort of her nursery. "Oh, Leia. My little girl. How I've longed to see you."

"You knew where I was."

"I was unable to come to you."

"Of course not. Not when you were so busy hunting me down."

"Not hunting. Searching." She moved her hands, then there was a blur of red gauze, and the veils were thrown back. Leia looked into her own eyes. "Things are changing, Leia. We don't have to be at war anymore. We've challenged Palpatine."


"Your father and I."

"Don't call him that."

"Leia," Vader said, "there is little point in refusing to acknowledge the obvious."

She glared at him, then turned back to Mother. To Lady Vader. "I don't fight Palpatine," she said. "I fight all of you."

Lady Vader's face grew cool and set, though Leia had not thought such a thing possible a moment ago. A moment ago, she had been almost disgustingly soft. Now...Oddly, it was a face Leia found more to her liking, though one less likely to placate her. "It's a strange war you fight, Leia, if you don't care who your enemy is."

"My enemy is the Empire and everything it stands for."

"All it has ever stood for is Palpatine. We will make it stand for something else."

Leia resorted to sarcasm, surprised how easily it came to her in this situation. "Oh, so you'll use absolute power and tyranny to accomplish different ends. That makes everything all right."

"And your Rebellion," Mother said, her voice a saw. "What does it stand for? You will fight for anarchy? For the memory of an antiquated and corrupt Republic? Leia, I was there when the Republic still lived. You are fighting for the shadow of a dream. The have no idea what the reality was."

"I remember one reality," Leia said softly. "I remember that we ran from the Empire. I don't know how long, or where. But I remember you being frightened. I remember that, Mother."

"Everyone is frightened of change."

"Not everyone hides a child in a trunk to avoid change."

Mother's eyes widened in surprise. Good. Then she shook her head, as if she were shaking water out of her ears. "It doesn't matter. I held...certain naive beliefs." She waved her hand impatiently. "I no longer hold them."

"You were supposed to have died. Where were you all those years?"

"I was in prison, if you must know. At Palpatine's hands. Your father had me released when he found out."

"So naturally, you became the face of the new and improved Empire."

"I did what I needed to." Her face softened again. "Oh, Leia, please. I don't want to fight with you."

"I told you this was pointless," Vader said. "I have known this child for many years. She is stubborn and intractable."

Mother's lips twitched in something that was almost a smile, almost pretty. "She came by it naturally, my love."

Leia might have been won at that moment of strangeness. It was one point she simply couldn't deny ? she could stand toe to toe with Vader, and she'd always had a sneaking enjoyment of those episodes (at least until he resorted to more arcane methods of trying to make her change her mind) because he never gave in. She stood there, suddenly wanting to ask other questions. She could feel them pushing up, wanting to explode out of her. It would have been easy to justify ? you don't need to join them to demand answers to the nagging questions in your heart ? and if she had started down that path...the questions, there were so many, and every one would lead to another... She might have been won at that moment, except for the very shared trait that had begun it. She kept firmly to her ground. And Vader continued his own argument.

"Nevertheless," he said, "I do not believe we will accomplish anything. We will return to the ship with Leia, and you can continue this conversation as you please. Meanwhile, we should prepare for Luke's arrival."

The ground opened beneath Leia's feet, and the heavens poured down fire. A great wind buffeted her against hot stone.

She was still, her hands clenching into fists. "Luke?" she repeated.

"Yes," Mother said. "He's on his way." She smiled again, this time genuinely pretty, but Leia no longer cared. She was too confused to care. "No matter what you may think, I'm glad the two of you found one another at last. When I separated you, I feared you never would, and you were so fond of each other as babies."

"Luke?" Leia said again. It seemed to be both the only word that made sense, and a totally new word, in a tongue she'd never heard before.

Mother was nodding vaguely, her face getting that glazed and ecstatic look again, when something suddenly seemed to occur to her. Her face was pale already, after the years behind the veil, but now it turned the color of curdled milk. "You don't know? You never made the connection? Obi-Wan never told him?"

Leia just stared at her.

"Obi-Wan was supposed to tell him. He was supposed to tell him everything, as soon as it was time. Certainly before he met you."

"That," Vader said, "has always seemed to me a highly unlikely occurrence."

Leia took no notice of him. She was still staring at her mother. When I separated you...You don't know?...Obi-Wan was supposed to tell him...

"Leia, you haven't...he's not..."

Leia found her voice, and it was a scream. "No! Never! could you do that? How could you risk that?" She backed further into the hedge, not minding ? or noticing ? the scratches it was tracing on her cheeks.

Mother was starting to come toward her again, perhaps to draw her out, when sharp, quick footsteps broke the noise barrier of the wind and father's labored breathing. An Imperial officer appeared at the gate of the alcove, barely noted Leia with his eyes, and bowed to Mother. "Your Majesty," he said, then bowed slightly to Father, "My Lord." He looked to Mother again. "The operation has begun," he said.

Mother's eyebrows lowered. "What? I'm sorry, I don't..."

"Very good," Father said. "Leave us."

Mother shook her head. "Captain, please ?" A glance at Father. She would put up a united front, though she seemed taken by surprise. "What stage of the operation have you reached?" The officer glanced nervously at Leia, so Mother said, "This prisoner is secure, Captain."

"The legion is in place," he said. "And Solo and the Wookiee are being brought to it." He saluted, and left the alcove.

Leia's mind came crashing back into place. Han. Han was in danger. She had to get to him.

She made a mad dive for the gate, though she knew she had no chance. No invisible hands this time. Her father caught her upper arms, his hands more effective than iron binders.

The prisoner was secure.

"No, no, no! That's not the way it went at all!" Han yelled back, laughing uproariously.

"Aw, get off it, Solo," Lando replied, through his own bout of laughter. "You know that if it hadn't been for you being?distracted?we never would have been caught."

"If it wasn't for me, we'd still be sitting in that cell, waiting for that guard ? what was his name?"

Chewie roared something from the other side of the room, and both men nodded.

"Yup, that was it. I really thought he was going to kill us," Han said. He shook his head with the memory, and with the myriad of stories and scandals that came to mind with it. Seeing Lando again had lifted a burden from him, bringing back easier times ? times when he was probably in a comparable amount of danger, but when he honestly didn't care. When he only had himself to think about, and nothing but his ship and his money to worry about.

A lifetime ago. It had to be.

"That wasn't the worst of it, though. Don't you remember the look on that garrison's face when we tried to leave the planet with ?"

A beeping noise sounded softly in the room, interrupting Lando's tale. Han was still chuckling to himself as his friend looked to the gadget on his wrist. Lando's face immediately fell, and he stared at the message for a long moment before responding, and shutting off the noise.

"Let me guess," Han said in disappointment. "Responsibility calls."

A long sigh, and an apologetic look. "Afraid so. I'm supposed to meet with a group of investors now, to discuss a lot of boring numbers and projections." He stood to leave and suddenly a smile broke out on his face. "Why don't you join me? Both of you?"

Chewie laughed, and Han made a face. "Why would we want to sit in on your boring meeting?"

"Well, you might just find it interesting. And I could use a few people sitting on my side of the table."

"I'm supposed to intimidate them for you?"

"I was thinking mostly of Chewbacca. I don't think these guys are used to negotiating with Wookiees." He gave Han a playful hit on the arm. "Come on. At the very least, you'll get to make fun of me later after witnessing my businessman image firsthand."

Han shrugged. "Hey, why not?" Chewie grumbled in annoyance. "There's not much else to do around here for now, and who knows where Leia and Threepio went. We may as well keep ourselves occupied."

The trio stepped out into the hallway, and into the general bustle of the city. Han had gotten the feeling earlier that Leia was already tiring of the busy atmosphere in Bespin, but he was mostly bemused by it all, and by the fact that Lando, of all people, had managed to create and maintain it.

"?every day I've got a new thing to worry about," Lando was saying. "You wouldn't believe it. Labor on one side, developers on the other, the law pretty much everywhere ?"

"Now that's the Lando I remember!" he interrupted. "I'll bet we both have some interesting stories about avoiding the Empire. You won't believe some of the stuff I could tell you about the last couple of years."

"I'll bet."

They walked down a long, almost empty hallway. The sounds of people walking and talking slowly faded, until they could only hear their own footsteps.

"The Empire has always been a concern here, but that should be changing soon."

Han and Chewie gave him puzzled looks as they reached the door to the conference room.

"I've just made a deal that should keep the Empire out of here forever."

The time it took the door to rise ? seconds, probably less ? was just enough for a warning siren to go off in Han's head, as he processed what Lando had said.

The room was filled with stormtroopers?it was all a sea of white. He could hear the klick-klack of armored footsteps coming down the hallway behind them. Chewie yelled.

Han had his blaster out and firing before any of the stormtroopers were able to make a move. He saw two fall forward, and another two thrown back into the wall. He hit another one before he saw them raise their rifles at him and open fire.

Chewie had taken Lando by his forearms and thrown him in the air, toward the oncoming troopers. He took out a good number of them in a loud crash, and they went sliding all over the floor.

Han was in a corner of the dead-end hallway, avoiding the blasts coming through the open door, and shooting down the hallway, trying to give Chewie some cover. He hit a stormtrooper that ventured out into the hallway. The next one out the door turned to Han, and hit him in the head with the back of his rifle.

Han had a few moments that registered before he blacked-out completely. He saw Chewie stunned by a shot, crashing to the floor. He saw Lando pull himself to his feet and walk over.

"I'm sorry, Han," he said quietly. "They got here just before you did. I had no choice."

His eyes closed briefly, but he forced them open, and squinted at Lando. "Where's Leia?"

"I don't know. I ?"

"Where is she?"

"I?I'm sorry, Han."

Then, everything went black.

Amidala understood three things simultaneously: first, that Ani had arranged for the capture of the pilot and the Wookiee while she'd been out re-programming Threepio; second, that he had not done so with any thought of subterfuge ? he'd simply assumed she would know him well enough to guess (she supposed he was right; she just been too distracted to think about it); and, third, that the pilot was Leia's lover. The notion of Leia having a lover was disturbing, almost beyond tolerance, but she had to tolerate it. She had to tolerate it because she recognized the look on Leia's face. She had felt it on her own face many times. Leia would face danger to herself with some degree of resignation. But danger to the pilot...she would react by fighting, clawing...

Rejecting, utterly, those who had placed him in danger in the first place.

Ani seemed to be reaching the same conclusion ? his back had straightened, and he held his head in a position that had always (suit or no suit) shown irritation when his plans were interrupted by an unknown factor.

"Leia," she said, "we were telling the truth. We have no wish to hurt you."

Leia looked pointedly at Ani's hand, which was bending her wrist in what looked like an uncomfortable way. Her hand was beginning to swell, and was already fully immobilized.

"My love," Amidala said, not looking at Ani.

"She will run."

Amidala swallowed. She wasn't used to him contradicting her, any more than he was used to her contradicting him. When they disagreed, they kept it private. But he was right...this wasn't an Imperial matter. It was a family matter, and they shouldn't be giving one another implied orders.

Of course, they should also be communicating with one another about important tactical decisions, but that could wait until later. For now, they had to be on the same side. If Leia found a rift, she would use it to get away.

She's not a prisoner! She's your daughter!

Of course. But she was also a Rebel, and as stubborn as Ani had ever been. If Amidala had thought to do this with Ani twenty years ago ? just take him and hold him, against his will if necessary, until he saw sense again ? then they wouldn't be in the mess they were in now. I will find the strength. She closed her eyes and opened them again. "She won't run as long as the pilot is in our custody and alive."

Ani let go of Leia, as much in surprise as in agreement. Amidala had not generally favored taking hostages. She still didn't, but Ani had created the situation, and she might as well use it. It was better than watching her husband snap her daughter's wrist bones without even noticing he was doing it.

Leia pulled her hand away and began to rub the wrist vigorously, but her eyes were focused on Amidala. If she could have shot fire from them, Amidala was quite certain she'd be reduced to a pile of ashes already. "You..." But she stopped. Amidala bit down on any illusions that it was because she didn't want to finish the sentence. Illusions would cost all of them right now, and she couldn't afford any more. Leia didn't finish because she couldn't think of anything cruel enough to say.

"I'm sorry," Amidala whispered.

Ani's comlink beeped, and an officer reported that Solo was indeed in custody. Leia's head fell forward, as if she'd been struck, then she looked up again, her face cold.

That's me in there, Amidala realized. She isn't all Ani after all. She knows how to be angry in the cold.

It wasn't a comforting thought, so she set it aside. "Oh, Leia, I'm so sorry. It was never supposed to be like this."

"How, precisely, was it supposed to go?"

Ani stepped forward. "You were to show some gratitude for the sacrifices she made to keep you safe as an infant."

"Safe from you. And now she's handed me to you."

"Safe from Palpatine," Amidala corrected. "You were never in danger from your father."

Mistake. They looked at each other ? Leia with anger, Ani with something that began to approach guilt. She had been in plenty of danger from her father.

Amidala tried to fix it. "It was my fault. Had I simply told the truth in the first place the...the more negative experiences wouldn't have occurred."

Leia paused for a moment, several emotions working their way across her face. "You're a master politician, Mother," she said at last. "I'll give you that. But you'll need to do better than that."

Ani leaned in on her. "You have crossed the boundary, Leia. This is no longer tolerable."

Amidala's instinct was to continue to take the blame, to serve as a buffer between them. This wasn't a love of pain on her part; she had simply seen, that, for a moment, Leia had stopped to think about what she'd said. It had made her look at the past differently. Ani's intervention had just steeled her again.

The clacking of hard boots on metallic cobblestones interrupted them for the final time, and Admiral Piett came into the alcove. He bowed deeply to Amidala. "Your Majesty," he said. "Luke Skywalker's fighter has entered the atmosphere."

Leia squeezed her eyes shut. "He'll never come to you any more than I will."

"But Leia," Amidala said, "you're already here."

A platoon of stormtroopers appeared beside Piett, and Amidala understood what they were for. She couldn't stand the thought of it, couldn't bear the idea that Leia ? her Leia! ? was so far from her at this point. But she recognized necessity. She looked to Ani. Ani would have the strength to do it.

He nodded, and looked at the stormtroopers. "Bring Princess Leia to our quarters and keep her under guard. If she is mistreated, I will hear of it, and I will be most displeased."

Leia, to her credit, was not enough of a fool to challenge his protection. The troopers formed around her, and they led her out.

"I am sorry, my love," Ani said. "I wish it had occurred as you had hoped, rather than as I had feared."

It wouldn't have been effective if she'd believed that he enjoyed being proven right, but it had never given him any pleasure to see others suffer because they had ignored his warnings. He had even grieved for his men on board the Death Star, and not once had he pointed out that, had his advice been heeded, those men would still be alive. Amidala herself hadn't learned of that advice until much later, when one of the few surviving officers ? a man who had been injured in Leia's initial escape and shuttled to a nearby world before the battle ? told her that Ani had loathed the station from the start. So when he told her that he hoped he'd been wrong about Leia, she knew he meant it, and it comforted her. "I know, Ani. I hate to see her captured like that. Beaten."

"I understand. But Luke is coming in. We must prepare for that meeting."


"Yes, my love?"

"This...this was perhaps not the best approach. We are trying to bring them home, not intimidate them into giving us answers. Perhaps we...I mean, I think we should speak to them separately."

She waited for his outrage, but it didn't appear. "You're right, of course."

"And the pilot..."

Ani made a low, grumbling sound that did Amidala's heart good. It felt almost like the reaction of a normal father in a normal family, when his daughter brought home a man he didn't care for. "Something will be done about him."

"Don't give her an excuse for vengeance."

"It would hardly be an appropriate strategy to achieve our goals."

"I didn't realize until too late that ?"

"Of course not. You, my love, are still surprised that she is not a toddler."

"Did you know?"

After a long pause, he said, "No. She blocks me, and he...he is a blind spot. I simply cannot see him at all. I was first aware of that at Yavin. I did not suspect. He is hardly her type."

"Is anyone?"

Ani's breathing cycle went through two-three-four-repetitions. "I suppose he is. But we have no time to discuss this."

With that, they were in full agreement again.

"Hold still, sir!" the doctor ordered in exasperation. "This will only take a second."

Han squirmed anyway, and a bit of the balm ? at least, that's what he hoped it was ? dripped down the side of his face. He reached up with handcuffed hands to wipe it off. "So, do you always fix up prisoners' scrapes and bruises before they're tortured to death?"

The old man frowned, creasing his already wrinkled face. "I don't particularly care what happens to my patients when I'm done with them."

"Probably a good view for an Imperial medic."

"I just follow my orders, and I was told to make you look presentable." Han felt him dab at the bruise on his face with a medicated pad. "You can't do that with a purple bruise on your forehead. So, stop moving around and let me finish."

"You treated anyone else today?" Han asked. "A female Rebel?"

The doctor responded with something that sounded like a snort.

"What does that mean?"

"It means that if I have to treat her for anything, the morgue will be busy today."

Han fell silent, and let the man finish his work. That was the best bit of news he had received since regaining consciousness. Whatever the Vaders had in mind for Leia, they apparently had no intention of physically harming her ? at least not yet.

Hell, he and Chewie seemed to be getting some type of royal treatment themselves. They were in one of Bespin's regular guest suites instead of a cell. Both were handcuffed and restrained, but no one had laid a hand on them. And now a doctor was there, healing the injuries they had sustained in the initial capture.

So this was what it was like to be the boyfriend of the daughter of two leaders of the Empire.

"All right, you're all set," the doctor said, removing his gloves and packing up his equipment. "If I were you, I'd try to stay out of the way of any other rifles."

As the doctor walked out the door, he almost ran into two stormtroopers that were entering.

Lando was behind them.

Han hadn't given Lando a second thought once he was captured ? he only cared about getting out of there, finding Leia, and leaving Bespin. But now, the fury choked him, and he couldn't even think through what he wanted to say or do to him.

How could you?


No. He didn't care about how, or why. About how Lando could have looked him in the face and called him a friend. Or why he found it so easy to destroy their lives. Or how?

"Get out of here, Lando," he growled. He almost didn't recognize his own voice, as tortured and strained as it sounded.

Lando didn't respond, but spoke to the one of the guards. "I have orders from Lord Vader to transport these prisoners."

"Yes, sir. We can accompany you ?"

"That won't be necessary," Lando interrupted quickly. "I was told to use minimum personnel. Apparently, they still want most of this operation kept quiet."

The guard eyed Chewie warily, and motioned to two other soldiers, who immediately trained their blasters on the prisoners. The foot chains were undone, and Lando's troopers took them both by the arms and led them out of the room.

Han felt his focus return to where it needed to be. Once they got away from the main contingent of guards, he was certain he and Chewie could take care of Lando and his goons, even with their hands bound. As long as Chewie was quick, it wouldn't be a problem.

They walked slowly down the hallway, with Lando nodding to the guards as they went by. Without looking to either side, he muttered under his breath, "Don't try anything. I'm going to get you both out of here."

Han was stunned for a second. "Sure...buddy," he spat back.

They entered one of the larger cargo lifts, and as soon as the doors swished shut, Chewbacca reacted. He brought his arms high over his head, and slammed them down on the stormtrooper next to him, crumpling him to the ground, unconscious.

"No! Chewie wait ?"

Lando's words weren't heeded as Han struggled with his own guard, hitting him with his forearms and trying to knock his blaster away. The lift came to a sudden, jerking stop, throwing both of them to the floor. Lando had hit the controls, and was still trying to explain something to them.

Chewie shoved the man against one of the walls, and pressed his arms against his neck.

"Wait," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm ? I'm," he struggled and tried to wriggle away, "trying to help."

"Help!" Han yelled. "Chewie, just finish him off, we need to find Leia."

Chewie pressed harder, and Lando's eyes began bulging. "No?I?why do you think ?" he stopped, his arms struggling in vain to move the Wookiee off him, "? they aren't ? firing on you?"

It took a moment for Han to figure out what he meant, and then he turned to the trooper behind him. "What do you mean?"

"They're my?staff." A deep gasp. "I got you out."

"Fine, you want to help? Tell me where Leia is. Get us back to the Falcon."

Chewie finally relaxed his hold, and Lando collapsed, gasping desperately for air. "I don't know?I don't know where she is. But I'm sure the Vaders have her." He coughed violently before continuing. "You won't be able to get to her by yourself."

"We'll see about that. What was your plan then, anyway?"

"To call for help. You need the Rebels to come. You need a plan."

Han shook his head, but Lando continued. "The Vaders have half a fleet here. And more Imperial ships are heading this way." Lando, with difficulty, returned to his feet. "You're going to need help."

Chewie nodded to Han, and hit the button to get the lift moving again. "Try anything, and Chewie picks up where he left off."

"Han, I'm sorry, I didn't ?"

Han silenced him with a murderous look.

Once they reached the proper floor, Lando led them to a small office. Han initiated a written message to the Rebels ? those were harder to track than vocal or visual messages ? asking for a backup team to help get them out of there, and warning them about the Imperial presence in the city. Lando remained silent the entire time.

Han finished, and turned to him. "I need weapons, and to see a layout of the city."

"Han ?"

"I'm going after her. Now. Get me the stuff and stay the hell out of my way."

Lando merely nodded.

Hang on, Leia, Han thought. I'm coming.

Even through the haze of fear and urgency, Luke saw the beauty of Cloud City. The spires and disks rose above the sun-streaked clouds like an artist's dream, the graceful movement of the trafficways called to mind birds on an exotic shore. Luke had always believed that nature's designs were more beautiful than man's, but on Bespin, the two worked together to create a scene that took his breath away.


He drew a breath, concentrated on the stale taste of the recycled air in the X-Wing's cabin, and let it out. There was no time to appreciate the power of the place. He could feel Han and Leia nearby, both in imminent danger. Leia's presence in his mind was nearly deafening. She wasn't in physical pain, but her mind was reeling. She was angry and afraid, and hurt in some deep way that he didn't understand.

No escort appeared from the city, which would have made him suspicious if he hadn't already known that things were badly amiss here. There was no hail for landing permits, no automated directive message. He finally had to simply find a landing platform, guide the X-Wing onto it, and land.

No one greeted him at the platform, either, but the door slid up soundlessly as soon as he approached it. He was being watched. He drew his blaster and went into the corridors of Cloud City, homing in on the pulsing energy in his mind that was Leia. Artoo followed him.

The city seemed to be deserted here, and a heavy, oppressive chord cut through the silence. He made his way down the empty hallway, certain at each doorway that an enemy would suddenly appear. They were there, naturally, in groups, just in case he chose a different path ? he could feel them, like pointed weapons. In his mind, he practiced lightsaber parries from any angle of attack, and he kept his blaster at the ready for more conventional enemies.

If they appear from behind me, through one of the doors I've passed, go low, then draw the lightsaber to deflect fire and then attack.

Artoo whistled something softly, and Luke shushed him. He didn't have a scanner to read what the droid was trying to say.

If they attack from the side, fire as the door opens, before they have a chance to orient themselves to the hallway.

He looked through a window, and saw vast gardens in the center of the city, their beauty unmarred even by the darkness that wafted through them like a cold wind.

If they attack...

Suddenly, he heard the unmistakable sound of stormtroopers on the march, their footfalls in perfect, echoing unison on the metal floors. Leia's presence was suddenly all around him. He ducked into a side corridor.

The platoon came around the corner in formation, and in the center, he saw her, dressed in blue, her hair in a simple braid. Not giving himself a chance to think, he ran out into the corridor and began to fire at the stormtroopers.

The platoon fired back, but they seemed to be aiming at the floor. A wall of smoke rose up.

"Luke!" Leia cried. "Luke, go back! It's a trap! Don't listen to them!" She was whisked around a corner, then suddenly appeared again. "Luke! Please! Don't listen! Whatever they say is a lie!"

She was dragged back into the other hall, and Luke went through the smoke to follow her. By the time he got there, the hallway was empty. It branched in several directions, and her presence was so all-encompassing that he couldn't tell which one she'd taken.

A door rose.

It's a trap.

(It doesn't matter. I am here because they are looking for me, and if I go, then they will let Han and Leia be.)

You know that's not true.

He did know. But there weren't many options. He went through the door.

It slid shut before Artoo could make it, but Luke didn't notice the droid's absence until much later. At that moment, he only noticed that his retreat was blocked. If this had been a mistake, he was stuck with it.

If they attack from the front, the blaster will serve for a small group, but draw the lightsaber as quickly as you can to deflect fire.

The corridor led down, into the working areas of the city, drawing toward the gardens he'd seen, but not along the paths of the citizens. The walls were lined with supplies and chemicals, and a stench rose from a level underneath. The pipes and power lines in the walls stood revealed. One line was smoking, and Luke noticed that a line of lights was out. With no surprise, he realized that the darkened lights led into the only corridor open to him at the next bend.

He followed the path, and, again, the door shut behind him.

Again, the corridor led down, taking him beneath the level of the garden. He could smell something earthy in the air. The machines that drove the artificial wind above were here, and their endless whirr drowned out any sound that might have come from the rest of the city.

If they attack from above...

The other effect of the machines was that the constant backflow of the exhaust filled the room with a cool, swirling breeze. Sight, hearing, and touch...all impaired in this room. Luke had only the Force to lean on, and the energy it brought him was so strong that he nearly staggered. There was a sense of victory in this room, of exaltation, but also of confusion and fear. Beneath it, though, was darkness and despair.

Vader. Vader is here. He is waiting to kill me as he killed my father. The wind covers up the respirator.

Luke drew his lightsaber. The blaster would be useless against Vader. The blade lit up a small area around him ? which wasn't very useful, since he still saw nothing.

Something touched the back of his neck, something soft and light, like an insect's wing. He spun, but nothing was there.

He turned again, slowly, into the wind, and again felt the touch, steady now, covering his face. He batted at it with his lightsaber and it fell away.

He was bending to look at it when the low emergency lights came on.

The first thing he saw was the veil on the ground, red, but dark enough to be almost black in the low lighting. The mark of his lightsaber was an insult to its beauty. He stood slowly, suddenly not wanting to meet the eyes of the figure who stood on the catwalk above him, her gown flowing out into the wind, her uncovered hair a river of darkness.

Lady Vader smiled. "Welcome, my son," she said. "I've been waiting for you."

For that attack, Luke knew no parry.

She refused to look at him. She simply directed her gaze out the window, upon the early moonlight silver-washed city that had imprisoned her, her small fists clenched tightly about the windowsill ? clenching harder every time she heard the metronome breathing behind her, despite the pain from the sore wrists, which she had refused any treatment for. The swelling had gone down somewhat, and nothing appeared to be broken. In her hands, at least...

Any minute now, Luke will probably be walking right into her hands...damn, you know how headstrong he is. Damn, you know he only listens when he feels like it...!

It hadn't been even a day since she'd found out, and she was already feeling protective of him. She'd always been protective in a way to him, really, but until now it had had no real focus, or reasoning...

She'd tried, earlier, to ignore them when they had both been here and it hadn't worked. Maybe with one of them temporarily gone it would be easier.

Leia tried to ignore the scornful snort a deeply buried part of her conscious mind made at that remark. After all, despite all the hatred she felt for her father...she had a shield, an advantage, against him that she lacked against her mother. Present in her earliest girlhood memories, Amidala had a latch through which she could slip and get under Leia's weakest skin, the skin of the girl that had loved her mother more than the sun that had shone on both of them.

And perhaps that made it worse, she thought. Her mother had loved her and abandoned her, but Vader had never loved her.

You worry about me far too much, my love...

And now that she knew what his view of love was, she decided that was probably the greatest gift he would ever give her.

She was certain that if he wanted to, Vader could crush those untrained shields of hers to dust ?and yet he did not. Nor did he summon that incredible power of the Force she knew he possessed to lash out, to force her to face him.

She couldn't ignore him forever, but maybe she could ignore him long enough to make him go away...something else had to get his attention eventually, after all.

(This time, there was nothing in her head to contradict the scorning.)

"You may try to ignore me all you like, Princess; it will do you little good. I am surprised to see you continuing to waste your energy on such a futile enterprise."

(And yet you waste energy yourself in your attempts to break me out.)

His deep voice vibrated, almost pleasantly on a surface level, through her brain, making a direct emphasis on the title. She had noted the usage of this instead of her name or simply "daughter." He was little more used to this relationship than she was.

Keeping secrets from you, her beloved, as well? Well, my father, perhaps we have more in common than I thought.

And maybe there is some twisted semblance of justice floating somewhere around here.

If only she could make it show its face completely, not in just fleeting, ghostly wisps. Preferably in some sort of tangible form, one she could shape into a blunt, heavy ended weapon that she could smash this demon aside with, and save her lover and her...

Her sibling. The pieces of the clues of their relationship that floated in her head now were the same ones she'd had before the Vaders came along, and yet somehow, their few well placed phrases had made things come together with such quick clarity that Leia nearly berated herself for not finding out sooner.

Luke. There was hope in Luke. Like her, he was of them... and he was noble and good. (Could such darkness truly beget such pure good? she wondered.) And now he, along with Han, was about to be contaminated by their gloved grip...

She found herself unconsciously rubbing her wrists again. Vader hadn't broken them, but he had come close.

"Leia," the voice boomed more firmly...yet not really angrily. She firmly stilled a flinch.

There had been so much she'd wanted to know from him, about her. So much she'd been denied, so much that he would certainly know...

Like what exactly was so wonderful about him that she abandoned you to him, and now suddenly wants you back?

"I will not force you to face me," he said (which surprised her a bit, she admitted). "But you will speak to me."

Slowly, Leia turned around, meeting the shielded gaze of Vader. Part of her screamed against this (Don't succumb to him! Don't do things his way!), but the part of her that had never allowed anyone to tread or trample on her, especially Darth Vader, told it (in no uncertain terms) to shut up.

One thought rose above all others in her mind, requiring little effort to reach the top of her other thoughts. "You would think that after having such a strong hold on her for so long that you would find a better way to bend me, Lord."

The room became deathly cold, but still she held the stare despite her rapidly rising fear. She finally felt something from Vader, something akin to the first brushes of a hot, surging tide...but it vanished, whether by dissipation (unlikely) or shielding on his own part.

"Any hold I have is there of her own choosing," he said sternly, and Leia stilled another flinch. "That should be fairly clear to you." His voice was cold and despite herself had the effect of making Leia begin to feel as if she were two feet tall. Of all the things she hadn't expected it to sound like, it for all the world reminded her of a father chastising a daughter for some transgression or another. "And she may choose to see whatever she wishes."

"I'm sure that's convenient for you."

She hadn't intended to let it slip out. But it was there, and there was nothing she could do. Calmly as possible, she erected her mental shields to brace for the explosion she knew was coming.

Her wrists throbbed again.

Surprisingly, again, the explosion didn't come. He didn't even look at her; instead coming up beside her on the balcony, the evening light casting an uneasy surreal light on the mask. His fists rested at his sides ? but perhaps a little more stiffly than usual.

"I have no intention of establishing a happy family relationship between us," he said, his view still fixed on the dusk. "You need not fear that. Even your mother knows too much has occurred for that to happen, particularly this soon. I don't even expect you to accept your position here as permanent. But I will expect you to obey, as will she. It will make things far less difficult for all of us."

Say nothing to him. It was futile to protest, anyway. She would have to find some way to escape from here...and maybe, just maybe Han was still okay. It occurred to her that her safety was secondary in comparison; if Han made it out, then that would almost be worth her imprisonment here.

How she missed his kisses at that moment; the warm arms that had remained open to her even when she'd tried to shut them...

A terrifying thought occurred to her then. Would Han be foolish enough to make an attempt at rescuing her? She put it out of her mind. Whatever happened, she wasn't exactly in a position to deal with it now.

She almost wished Vader had exploded. It was natural for someone to be put off guard occasionally, but he had managed to do it multiple times. It annoyed her.

She wanted him to explode somehow, so she could explode back. She wanted a reason to be able to scream at him...but then he decided he was going to be calm. And then, when she was finally feeling reasonable, he was crushing her wrists...

(Was it her imagination, or were they starting to swell up again? Maybe she should get treatment for them at some point...)

"I do...apologize for my earlier treatment of you," he said quietly into her thoughts, causing her to look up sharply. She'd never heard his voice this soft before, not even when it was the softness that usually was a prelude to a death threat. "I know it matters little to you, but it was never my intent to physically harm you."

A dozen potential responses, all decidedly sarcastic and some that would have certainly earned a lesser person death, flashed on the tip of her tongue so quickly she could almost feel the burning trail they left behind. And burn they did, very fiercely.

She forced herself to ignore him, instead focusing on what she knew should be the most important concern of hers, more so than her putting up with the Vaders. "What about Han and Luke?" she asked, pinning him with her stare, trying to force the field of battle back to her own side.

"Your...companion?has come to no harm, unless it was of his own choosing," her father said, and she almost smiled at the thinly veiled distaste in his tone. He disapproved of Han? Somehow that made their romantic association all that more appealing. But on the other hand, it was potentially a reason for them to inflict harm upon him...would they do such a thing, knowing the response it would surely arise in her? Would they even care? "That case is even more so for your brother, my daughter."

"Don't call me that," she murmured, closing her eyes.

"You would rather hide from the truth?"

She forced down the upsurge from the well of anger, knowing full well he meant to cloud her judgment. But then, that was what she'd always enjoyed about their confrontations. If she could stand up to Lord Vader, she could stand up to any politician.

"I've had to confront it every day for the last three years of my life," she said in an even tone as she could manage. "And if you have your way I'll be confronting it even longer than that. So if I choose to close the shades from it every now and then, I hold that choice as my own. Masks do grow uncomfortable after a time."

"I do not take well to hypocrisy, daughter," he said quietly, warningly; he'd have been a fool not to notice her jab. She forced down the lump in her throat before it could fully form; it instead reformed in her gut as a ball of slick, solid ice.

"There are a lot of things that fall under that category, I recall."

He ignored it. "Because your mask is not physical does not mean you've not used one," he replied coldly. "I feel the walls within you, Princess. Walling out any potential thing that causes you pain...even those you love, including your smuggler friend," he added with a thick coat of what could only be bitterness. "Believe me when I say that a thick mask is the quickest way to a thin skin."

"I wouldn't need these walls if it weren't for you," she bit, on each word forcing down the words that she wanted to say to him more than anything, yet was terrified to release them for that was the side of her that was him.

(I hate you, I despise you, I wish you were dead, I wish she'd never come back...!)

"You wouldn't even have them if it weren't for me."

(True enough, she surmised darkly. If anything, the Force would certainly have augmented her already strong mental training from Alderaan.)

"Take all the credit you want," she scowled. "It takes plenty of the burden off of my back." And maybe it will go towards breaking yours.

She would have stormed off to her only moderately cramped cell of a room if she hadn't been there already.

"Then perhaps you will have something to show gratitude for," he said, cocking his head slightly to one side in that sardonically amused way of his. "One day you will respect all your mother has gone through at her expense for you, child."

"Respect is fine," Leia said smoothly, putting on her most saccharine smile. "So long as I don't have to appreciate it."

"I think you will find that is one decision you will have little choice in, daughter."

For a long moment they remained in their fixed places, neither willing to be the one who blinked. Heck, she didn't even know if he did blink. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the details of what was under that mask.

Whether he blinked or not, he was the one to concede defeat. Without another word, he strode out. Leia's smile remained, but it became of a different nature.

"We will see," she said to no one.

Ozzel glowered at the communications array aboard the Iron Will. He was still technically the ranking officer on this ship, and if worse came to worse ? correction, when it did ? he could take command, but for now, Admiral Mahrek had said that his "talents were better used in a different position." Ozzel had protested, but apparently, the Emperor was of the opinion that he had opened fire on Vader too soon. Since neither Mahrek nor the Emperor had been there, Ozzel had been unable to state his case with sufficient strength. He was sure that Vader was plotting high treason, but no one else seemed to take it seriously. So here he was, approaching Bespin and what was sure to be the decisive military strike against Vader and his woman...and he was serving as a communications technician.

Never mind. He would find a way to prove himself.

Captain Sequi was pacing the bridge, looking guiltily over his shoulder at Ozzel. He had been given direct orders to keep command of the ship, and Ozzel would respect them (at least, of course, until he had no choice), but he didn't intend to make it any easier on the man. A captain had no business in command when an admiral was on board.

A light flashed on the comm panel, and Ozzel flipped the switch beneath it. A hazy holoimage of the world of Bespin came into view. Ozzel spoke into his comlink. "Admiral Mahrek, we're getting preliminary surveillance signals from the scout droids."

"Good. Analyze them."

Ozzel clenched his teeth, and concentrated on focusing the images (the post wasn't entirely without precedent; he'd served as a comm officer for two years and performed quite adequately). The first showed four Star Destroyers and the Executor in orbit over a gas giant. A fifth Destoyer came in from out of frame, and one of the others went back out. "He is aware of our pursuit," Ozzel told Mahrek. "He's sending out Destroyers in a rotating schedule."

"I see. Any other information?"

I will bide my time.

He focused the second image, the image of Cloud City. The Imperial presence ? no, the Vaders' presence ? was growing rapidly, and Ozzel thought it looked like they were emerging from hidden posts. Disgusting. Vader had hidden, like a Rebel. But he was coming out now, certainly. TIE fighters flew the traffic patterns, and two more Star Destroyers hung in orbit in this side of the world. Shuttles were coming and going. The Vaders had been quite busy here in this little hive of theirs. He saw something scarlet above the city, and pulled the focus in more tightly.

What he saw made him stand up and nearly demand that command be given back to him. Above the city, a holo-banner of the Emperor had once flown. Ozzel could still see one corner of the deep and dark eyes that appeared over so many outposts. No doubt that not all of them had ever been particularly loyal, but they knew enough to put on a show. Now, the program had changed. Some prankster ? either a local or one of Vader's minions ? had splashed the banner with pixel tint. Now, in place of the Emperor's watchful care, the city was overlooked by an unseen face, covered with a scarlet veil.

"Admiral Ozzel, have you other information?"

"Cloud City seems to be under the impression that the Empire is under new leadership."

There was a long pause. Good. Mahrek had been certain that Vader's maneuvering would come to nothing, as most maneuvering in the high Imperial circles did. He hadn't seen the way Lady Vader manipulated both her husband and the public. She had probably been plotting this attempt since her unlikely reappearance three years ago. And, unlike the other officials, she bore deep ill will for the Emperor, and it was his place she aimed for. Ozzel was certain of that, though he had no evidence. And her husband was cowed enough by her that he had helped her do it.

"What kind of compliment have you seen?"

"Seven Star Destroyers, and of course, the Executor. With their full compliments of fighters. But our force is superior. We should be able to overcome them easily."

"Thank you for your strategic analysis."

"And since it is clear that we will be going into a battle, it would be appropriate if the ranking officer..."

"I am the ranking officer. You are doing well at communications, Ozzel."

The connection was cut off, and Ozzel fought an urge to fire at the comlink. That would be a pointless gesture. "Captain Sequi?"


"Prepare the ship and crew for battle. We haven't been ordered in yet, but we undoubtedly will be. Vader will fight unfairly if given a chance, so we should be ready to strike quickly, before he has a chance to fight back."

"Admiral, I...well, as I understand it, a person doesn't sneak up on Lord Vader very easily."

"Surely you don't believe such nonsensical fairy tales."

"No, but you've seen how he..."

"Captain, prepare the ship."

If Sequi planned to assert Mahrek's directive, this was the time for it. He could ? without much difficulty ? send Ozzel to the brig for insubordination.

He did nothing. He just gaped, his mouth opening and closing, then nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Then we are in agreement. Proceed."

Feeling better about the situation, Ozzel found the communications array less irritating. It was time to find out where the Vaders themselves were.

After all, a targeted attack was the only way to restore his good name. He would sweep in, he would destroy these pretenders, and at last, the humiliation of the past weeks would be lifted from his shoulders. Maybe he'd be given a medal. Certainly, he would have a place in the history books ? Ozzel, the Emperor's trusted lieutenant, who, alone among the faithful, acted to save the true Empire from its greatest threat.

Dreaming those dreams, he let Sequi arm the Iron Will around him. When they entered the Bespin system, his mind was choosing a new home on Coruscant, and deciding where his statue would be best displayed.

The first blast struck only moments after they came out of lightspeed.


Iima heard her voice echo and bounce around the little communications room, and the other two technicians jumped sharply. She looked at them in triumph.


She could barely contain her glee ? she could feel it ready to burst right out of her. A smile stretched her face, and she watched her hands dance over the controls, verifying the code for the incoming message and saving it to a data pad.

"Iima?what is it?" one of the technicians ventured.

She ignored the question and flew from the room, practically sprinting for the bridge. Her hand gripped the data pad tightly, as though she were afraid someone might come down the hallway and snatch it from her. Well, they would certainly get a fight from her if they tried it. The message she was carrying was the best news the Alliance had gotten in weeks. It might well be the best news ever.

No, it was more than that. Her faith, her purpose, her conviction ? it had all been restored.

The Rebellion would survive to fight another day.

She blithely passed several people in the hallway, ignoring their curious stares. Anyone who knew her would figure out why she looked so excited. After all, she had gained quite a bit of notoriety the last few weeks or so?what with the fight in the mess hall, and the screaming match in her quarters. Defending the honor of her Princess ? the honor of the Rebellion itself ? hadn't won her any new friends, but she didn't mind that. No one was going to suggest that Leia had defected without hearing it from her.

Oh, there had been an appropriate amount of concern when the Princess didn't arrive at the rendezvous point on any of the transports that came from Hoth. And it only increased when Commander Skywalker ? who, according to several pilots, had survived the battle and left safely ? also failed to show. It didn't help that Captain Solo had apparently left before the battle, to take care of personal business (or some other trite excuse).

Had the Princess and Skywalker been killed? Captured? Would Solo really abandon them at such a desperate hour?

It wasn't until a little time had passed that the rumors began, and twisted. Would they desert the Rebellion?

Would they betray the Rebellion?

The thought was completely untenable to Iima. She was from Alderaan, and though she had never known Princess Leia herself, she felt close to her in a deeply personal way. They were both fighting the same battle ? for Alderaan's forgotten and dead, for those sacrificed by Palpatine to make a political point. No matter how difficult it had been recently for the Rebellion, Iima knew that Leia was, like her, still a true believer in the cause. Still bound and determined to destroy the Empire, and restore some measure of justice and freedom to the galaxy ? to ensure that another Alderaan never happened. The thought that she could ever do?the things she was accused of?

Yet, the loss of the Rebels' three most prominent leaders was taking an increasingly heavy toll. For the first time, there were serious whispers from some that the time had come to end their struggle ? or as one commander had the nerve to put it, "Move the Alliance into a new decentralized and demilitarized phase." It made her ill. But without any solid news, all she had was faith that things would work themselves out somehow.

Until now. Still clutching the data pad, she entered the bridge and gave General Madine a triumphant smile. "Sir, we've received a communication from Captain Solo."

A murmur rolled through the bridge. Madine nodded, encouraging her to proceed.

"He's on Bespin, with Princess Leia and possibly Commander Skywalker. They've been captured by the Empire, but Captain Solo is making an attempt to free them. He's requested a strike team be sent to help them escape the city."

Madine blinked at her. "They're at Bespin?"


"Are you certain?"

Iima frowned. "The message has been verified, sir. Is there a problem?"

"Not exactly," Madine murmured thoughtfully. "In fact, Bespin's probably the most convenient place for them to be."


He sighed heavily, and stood from his chair to address the bridge crew. "I suppose this is as good a time as any to inform you of our next mission. We've already received orders to head for Bespin."

"We?" a captain asked.

"The fleet," Madine responded. "Our intelligence indicates that a strategic strike against the Empire there may prove quite productive."

Iima furrowed her eyebrows skeptically. "I didn't think Bespin was an Imperial stronghold."

"It's not. But, it appears that it will be the site of a major?intra-Imperial skirmish." Iima gasped, as did several others. He noted the shocked looks and added, "Lord and Lady Vader have decided to relieve Palpatine of control of the Empire. The Emperor is not appreciative of their offer. Our orders are to take advantage of the situation ? we hope to effect a great deal of damage, on both sides, as long as they are preoccupied with one another." He glanced at Iima. "Organa, Solo, and Skywalker will be welcome to join us, of course. Thank you for your report. You are dismissed."

Iima nodded in salute, and left the bridge, her mind already racing with things she could do to help them prepare for the battle at Bespin. She couldn't even imagine what it would mean for the Rebellion if they could score a big hit at Bespin ? it might be as important as the victory at Yavin.

On the other hand, she couldn't imagine what it would be like if it didn't work out. That was a thought she couldn't entertain.

Lando was spending most of his energy getting Han and the six city guards around them through the corridors without attracting notice, but even so, he could see the change that had come over Bespin. It wasn't the stormtroopers. He'd been expecting those. It was the city itself.

As they passed the archways that led into other sections of the city, he found that many of the small figures of the Emperor had been smashed, or draped in red silk. One square actually had a banner reading ? if he had read it properly in the instant of passing it ? "Bespin: Heart of the New Empire." Written, of course, on a holographically projected crimson banner.

It's happening. She's Empress.

Lando wanted to go back to his office and think about the implications. Lady Vader...Empress. She could might not be...

It was too late. He'd already betrayed them by springing Han and Chewie. If Cloud City wasn't going to go down with him, he'd have to leave it behind, and go back to running scams with Han.

Not that he figured Han would actually keep him around after this.

They reached the corridors that led to his own home, the side the Vaders had moved into. He held up a hand to stop Han. "We'll have to be careful," he whispered. "We're getting close."

"Any ideas?"

"They'll know you in that get-up."

"They know me anyway."

"Are you sure? I don't think they got much of a look at you. Always just called you 'the pilot.'" He signaled to one of the city guards, and a moment later, Han had switched into the gray uniform.

Han surveyed the guard, who was uncomfortably wearing the vest and pants. "Lay low," he said. "Don't try to draw fire, 'cause you'll get it. And when we get out of here ?"

"On it, man," the guard said.

Lando nodded. "The rest of you, get back into the city. Do what you gotta do."

"We'll wait for the Rebels."

"If that's what you gotta do."

They smiled at each other, then the guards slipped back into the corridor, leaving Chewie, Han, and Lando alone.

"What do we have to expect?"

Lando shook his head. "Who knows? Last I knew, they were staying here. If they're questioning Leia, that's where she'll be."

"They could've taken her back to the Star Destroyer."

"I don't think so. They're up to something big. I think they'll keep to the surface. The Star Destroyers are going to be on patrol. They'll want to be someplace stable."

"And, if we get in there, do you know a way out?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I had my little escapes. Can't have the Baron walking right out the front door to go do some of the things that can be done around here."

Chewie grumbled; Lando only caught a little of it. Even Han had to concentrate a minute before he said, "Yeah, right. I don't see a lot of stormtroopers, but I ain't underestimating Vader. Lando, any way to get him out of there?"

Lando was trying to think of some scam to run when the gate suddenly opened, and Han pushed all three of them back into the shadows.

Never mind, then. Vader left the house. Four stormtroopers appeared from the shadows ? never count them out, Lando reminded himself ? and he conferred with them, then looked over toward the gardens. He seemed to be undecided.

Then an officer ran into the square, and reported something to him, too low for Lando to hear. Whatever it was, it decided him. He turned away from the gardens, and toward the landing platforms.

Han started to move forward, but Lando pushed him back. He might say he wasn't going to underestimate Vader, but that's what he was doing.

Vader stopped at the edge of the square, his cape catching up to him and swirling around his legs. His head turned toward the shadows where Lando was hiding, and he could feel something, something like a powerful magnet, trying to pull him forward. It was overwhelming, and only Chewie's threatening hand on his neck was able to keep him from moving.

If it had gone on any longer, Lando didn't think he would have been able to stop, save for Chewie ripping his head off, which would tip everyone off by the noise anyway. But Vader apparently decided he didn't have time to draw anyone off. He said something into his comlink, then strode off toward the landing platforms. Lando wasn't surprised when another platoon of stormtroopers formed up around the door.


"We're going to have to find another way," Han said. "What else is there?"

Lando shook his head. "Come on. Let's just hope he wasn't telling them that the Administrator was back here." He stood tall, and signaled for Han to do likewise. "Chewie, you better pull that prisoner act again."

Chewie gave a dispirited moan, but placed his wrists together as if they were bound.

Han caught his arm. "If this is another of your deals, Lando, you're a dead man."

Lando knew he'd earned that, but it was still a fight to keep from lashing back. "No deals," he said. "Let's move."

They crossed the square, looking as officious as they could, with Chewbacca following them. The captain of the platoon held up one hand. "Halt. What is your business?"

If Vader had guessed who he felt in the shadows, Lando was sunk, but there was nothing he could do about that. "Lando Calrissian," he said, and, knowing it was probably the last time he'd say it, added, "administrator of this facility. The guard has captured one of the fugitives, and this is the most secure location at the present time. He's to be kept with the girl."

The troopers looked at each other nervously. Whatever was going on, mention of "the girl" was enough to set all the Imperials on edge. "All right," the captain finally said. "But don't let it bruise or injure her in any way. The Vaders' orders are clear on that account."

"I'll keep an eye on it," Han said, able to get control of almost half the sarcasm in his voice. The troopers were, thankfully, not too bright, and didn't catch it. Their formation opened, and Lando was let into the house.

The stormtroopers who had not been in evidence outside were swarming here. Some were on guard, others were at ease ? or as close to at ease as these guys got in uniform ? in the lounges. They were posted every few meters in the hallway, and more frequently as they approached the room where Leia was being held (quite obvious, because it was individually guarded, and the others weren't).

"Another prisoner," Lando said.

The guard looked up suspiciously. "In here? I find it unlikely."

"Do you want to contact Lord Vader about it? He looked like he was in a hurry, but if you'd like to disturb him..."

The guard looked around nervously, then hit a control panel on the door. "Perhaps Lady Vader wished to see him..."

Lando's stomach turned. He was afraid of trying to blast through all these soldiers, but he could imagine himself doing it. The thought of aiming at Lady Vader, let alone firing...he knew he couldn't. And he knew Han couldn't.

But it wasn't Lady Vader behind the door.

Leia stood there, blinking into the corridor, for only a brief moment, her face cool and collected. Then she grabbed the stormtrooper's wrist and yanked herself against him, hard, smashing her nose against the corner of his helmet. Blood ran across the white armor, spattering out so that it looked like ?

Like he'd hit her.

Oh, not exactly ? the spatter pattern would be evident to anyone who had the chance to explain, but Vader would not give him such a chance.

The guard realized it at the same time Lando did, and slipped back into the room with a low moan, beating at his armor, dropping his weapon in the doorway. The other stormtroopers in the hall, who were just beginning to notice, suddenly drew their weapons.

Leia jumped in front of Han. "Try it," she said. Blood from her nose spattered down onto the carpet.

The hesitation was enough. Han grabbed the guard's blaster and handed it to Leia. "Come on, sweetheart," he said. "We're leaving."

Leia fired first into the hallway, felling a stormtrooper who had ventured toward them. After that, there was no time to lose. Lando led them deeper into the center of the house, hoping the Vaders hadn't thought to block or guard what he thought of as his "sabaac-doors" ? the doors he left by when he was planning to play cards in the places where it wouldn't do for him to be seen.

Lando went first, and put himself in danger from any stormtroopers rushing in from the other wing, but there weren't many ? most had been guarding the entrance, and were behind them. Leia kept the rearguard, shooting frequently. The stormtroopers occasionally fired, when they thought they could get around her, but their aim was wide in their fear of hitting her. Han and Chewie swept the hallway from side to side, blasting the controls of each door they came to, locking in any troops who were laying in wait.

Three stormtroopers appeared in front of Lando, and he fired reflexively. One went down, then a shot from Han took out another. The third didn't get a chance to draw his blaster ? Chewie picked him up and threw him backward into the hallway (barely missing Leia in the process, but she didn't seem to notice ? whatever was going on with her, it had made her pretty damned careless of her own safety).

At last, Lando found the door into the conservatory. It was unoccupied; the troops apparently had little taste for fine music and artwork, though at some point, someone had taken the time to add lewd decorations to one of the statues. Lando grimaced. That hadn't been necessary.

He shut the door and blasted the lock from the inside. "I have a way out," he said, before either Han or Leia could say anything. "What are we dealing with, Leia? We saw Vader leave..."

"I don't know why. He wasn't giving me a debriefing."

"Where's Lady Vader?"

Han stepped forward and put a protective hand on Leia's shoulder. She leaned against him and closed her eyes. "She's gone after Luke, I think."

"Honey," Han said, "why is she after Luke? I know why she's after you, but ?"

Leia, quite abruptly burst into tears. She put her hands to her face, and gasped in pain when she hit her swollen nose. "The same reason," she managed to get out. "He's my brother. And he's in trouble." She closed her eyes tightly, and swallowed hard, getting the tears under control. "I'm sorry. It's so...I can't..."

"It's okay," Han whispered. "I got you."

Lando didn't understand any of what was going on, except that the door to the conservatory wouldn't hold up long under fire. "Come on," he said, hitting a button on the chess table. A panel in the floor opened, and revealed a ladder that led to the service corridors. "It's time to leave."

Welcome, my son?

Luke staggered back, unsteady in his footing and lost in his soul. He nearly fell back ? his mind was swirling so uncontrollably that he couldn't have said his name had he been asked.

But?he could have said that he was her son. He was confused and stunned, but he couldn't escape what she had said.

"There's no need to fear me, Luke," she continued in a soft, lilting voice that would have captivated him, if he could only gather his thoughts.

A voice that did captivate me, back in the cave?

"I know you are confused." She was moving now, a sea of red shifting before him, and he followed the waves until they stopped at the staircase near the end of the catwalk. "I'm here to explain things to you, son."

Luke took a deep breath ? not purposely, but his lungs didn't care how troubled he was, and he had apparently been holding his breath for quite a long time. It did help, though, more than he expected. So he tried it again. All those times training and meditating with Yoda must have made the difference?he immediately felt himself calm slightly, and his mind clear a bit.

Yes. His training. His training was what he could hold on to, at least until he figured this out enough to know what to do.

Focus. The Force will guide you through this.

"I can almost hear your questions, Luke. If you want the answers, all you have to do is ask."

His eyes narrowed on her, now at the bottom of the staircase, a few feet away from him.

"There's only one question worth asking," he said, pleased with the steady ? almost bold ? tone of his voice.

"Indeed," she replied with a smile. "Yes, you are my son. And you can't know what it means to me to finally see you again." She stepped toward him. "The last time I saw you?you had just been born. It's been far too long."

He swallowed hard. "Is that why you had to hurt Leia to lure me here? You just couldn't wait any longer?"

"Leia is perfectly fine. So is Han." She took another step at him, her hand straightening out to touch him. He backed away slowly, raising his still-ignited saber between them.

The smile left her face instantly. As her hand dropped to her side, Luke felt the sting of his rejection emanating from her. He did his best to ignore it.

"She's not fine," he replied sharply. "I've felt her pain."

"Leia is confused, and upset, but ?"

"Why should I believe anything you say?"

"Because," she answered softly, "I would never harm either of my children. Leia was never in any danger, no matter what distress you may have felt from her."

His eyes widened as the meaning of what she said dawned on him, and he found himself stumbling again. He brought his saber into a defensive position, and almost lost the sight of her in the blue glow of his blade. He had no idea what he was supposed to do with his weapon, but he felt that it gave him sorely needed distance from her, and from what she was saying.

"Oh, Luke, you were supposed to be told ?"

"You're lying," he spat out. "Do you think you can say all these things and I'm going to believe you? Listen to you?" Luke shook his head slowly. "I don't know what you're trying to do, but I won't fall for it."

"So you despise me as well?" Her eyes were bright with tears, but there was an anger on her face and a dangerous quality in her voice that took him aback. "What has happened to you? And Leia? You're my children?for Force sake. What nonsense has Obi-Wan filled your head with? Is this how he repaid me for entrusting him with my son? By turning you against me and your father and ?"

"My father?" Luke asked, astounded. "You're blaming Obi-Wan for turning me against my father?" The saber hummed as it fell to his side, and he stalked over to her, staring down at her coldly. "Obi-Wan told me about my father. He told me he was a Jedi, and a hero."

"And he was both those things ?"

"But you, you take up with the man who killed him. Parading around the galaxy with your husband's murderer. And it's Obi-Wan who you blame?" Luke was furious, which was better than being confused; this was something he could handle. "In fact, where is Vader? Are you going to betray me to him as well?"

Her mouth hung open and she gasped loudly, causing echoes to bounce throughout the room. Several tears slipped down her cheeks. "Luke ?"


"Vader is your father."

She said it so simply, without pretense or hesitation. As if she couldn't imagine he had ever believed anything else. She sniffed and wiped her tears before continuing. "He was a Jedi, and a hero. Before Palpatine ruined him. Before Obi-Wan pushed him into a lava pit and nearly killed him."

"Are you?are you saying that Obi-Wan ?"

"I'm sure he forgot to mention that little detail as well. What a surprise. How could he have the time to mention it when he was so busy plotting his own agenda and using you and Leia?"

"That's not true!" Luke yelled, but his brain was already clicking away, plugging the pieces into place. And frighteningly, they were starting to fit.

The connection between his mother and Vader that he saw in the cave?

The constant pull between him and Leia?

Leia's own Force abilities?

"Luke, you know I'm telling you the truth," she said, her voice suddenly becoming low and gentle. "Can't you tell? Can't you sense it?"

Leia's irrational, personal hostility toward the Vaders?

The dodging and hedging Obi-Wan and Yoda had done so constantly?

The conversation he'd had with his masters before he left Dagobah?

"No?" he murmured, speaking much more softly than before.

"Yes." She put both her hands up in as non-threatening a way as she could manage, and placed them on his forearms. The hand holding his saber twitched, but it remained down near his leg. "Please, Luke, don't you see what's happened here? What they've done to us?" Her voice was a harsh whisper. "How would you have felt if you came here and fought Vader or me and found out later who we were? Don't you think there's a reason they didn't tell you?"

Luke shuddered at the implication, repulsed and revolted ? though it was the conclusion he was coming to anyway, as all the other pieces, all the unresolved issues from the past three years crystallized in his mind.

He had heard Yoda say that they needed him to leave ready to fight the Vaders. To kill his own parents, without even knowing?"No, I don't ? I don't know why they would ?"

"Yes, you do." She reached around to his hand and gently pressed down on his thumb, deactivating the blade and allowing her to move closer to him. "You don't have to like it, but there's only one reason why Obi-Wan would do that, and risk what he did, and not feel obligated to tell you."

He pulled his arms away, shaking his head almost violently. "Maybe because he hates the Empire as much as I do?" he asked, desperately. He wished he could stop thinking, stop coming to the conclusions she was laying out for him. "Maybe because he needed me to fight it, and not feel obligated to serve it?"

"He needed you to fight the Empire for him by killing your parents," she replied flatly. "And why did he lie about Leia? No, Luke, he was just trying to get you to serve his own ends."

"And you're not?" he asked, though his mind was now elsewhere. Everything Obi-Wan or Yoda had said about his parents, about Leia, was replaying in his mind, and he seethed at them.

"I won't pretend that I don't want you by my side. You're my child ? isn't that reason enough?" She held his hand lightly. "But I don't need to lie to you and trick you. I wouldn't do that to you anyway. This is where you're meant to be. With your family. Fighting Palpatine."


"The true enemy. The man who destroyed the Republic and originally ripped my family apart." Her eyes flashed and became unexpectedly bright with excitement. "Your father and I have decided that the time has come for us to fulfill our plans?even now, our fleet is preparing to fight the Empire, and make our first serious move in ridding the galaxy of its greatest problem." Her lips curved up in an almost triumphant smile. "Do you see, Luke? Do you? It's not us that you hate; it's not us who wronged you. We're not the evil that others would have you believe."

Luke closed his eyes, and took another deep breath. No matter which way his thoughts went, he couldn't get around what Obi-Wan and Yoda had done?how he had trusted them so fully and they had fed him nothing but lies from the beginning. Lies to keep him quiet and docile; lies to make him follow their instructions; lies to mold him into whatever kind of Empire-killer that they felt they needed.

At the risk of the family he had wanted and missed for as long as he could remember.

She stood quietly, watching him and waiting. Finally, she started speaking again. "Luke, just picture it for a minute. Think what it will be like. Our family will finally be back together. No more of their lies?and we'll be in control of the Empire. Think of what that would mean for you?for us?for your friends in the Rebellion?for everyone. We just need you to help us get there. Help us fix this."

She reached up gently to caress the side of his face, and then pulled back, also letting go of his hand. Luke's eyes remained closed. "Please, whatever confusion you're feeling, whatever hurt, and anger and pain?know that it's not at us. Know that we are not your enemy. We just want you and Leia to come home."

Luke sensed, dimly, that the right thing to do would be to say no to her. But he no longer knew why. He wanted his family. He wanted to get rid of Palpatine. And was he wrong to want that? Because the ghost of Kenobi said so?

"Luke, I promise that this is the hardest step. The rest will fall into place almost by itself." She lifted her hand out to take his, and said, "Join me, my son."

Luke opened his eyes slowly, stared at his mother ? and felt a connection that had been missing his entire life.

He wasn't going to give that up.

Luke's fingers tingled with anticipation, and then he took his mother's hand.

Palpatine tried to suppress the story of the Vaders' rebellion, but too many outlets of the press were on worlds controlled by the Rebellion, or by those loyal to Lady Vader. Word spread, a dance of light ? and shadow ? among the stars.

On the world of Tatooine, in the city of Mos Espa, the news came to an exultant crowd in the streets. The New Empire would be their Empire, as it had been promised long ago. Palpatine's protection of Jabba and the Hutt hegemony would exist no longer. Picking up anything that could be used a weapon, the mob marched, singing, into the high desert. In the countryside of the same world, farmers listened with passing interest, but little else ? whoever ran the Empire, the vaporators would still break down; whoever won the war, the world would still need water. Most were sympathetic to the Rebellion, but life without the Empire was nothing but the wistful dream of those who could afford such escapism.

Malastare had cared little for the Republic and less for the Empire, though the latter at least had the decency to stay out of its local business. Leaders allied themselves immediately with Palpatine ? the odds always favored the incumbent, and besides, they did have something of a history with him, and this Vader...he might not really understand the Malastare economy ? but, as non-humans didn't hold positions in any part of the Imperial army, the major activity of the war on Malastare was a sudden rage of betting on the various participants. A few even placed bets on the long shot Rebels.

The informal blockade of Corellia fell that day, though no one would notice it for quite some time. Imperial ships that had been casually "using traffic lanes for transit" ? some for up to five years ? had suddenly been called to war, and the Corellian traders took advantage of the situation to make some minor modifications to the local surveillance equipment. Henceforth, it would transmit only a randomized sequence of standard communications. Other transmissions that might come from the planet, transmissions not on the short list of recognized types ? say, trade agreements and alliances ? would slip right by the monitor.

Not all of the Alderaanian exile had found its way into the Rebellion, and many didn't wish to. "We are a people who speak peace and mean it," the old ones said. "We shall stand straight, with our faces resolved to accept whatever comes of this." And in truth, did it matter? The Rebels didn't stand a chance, and of the two Imperial factions, what possible difference would such a cosmetic change effect? The few outside the Rebellion who chose sides chose the Vaders. A rumor had gone around that he had opposed the Death Star, and she certainly took active steps toward helping the less fortunate in the galaxy. That she had started the rumor, or that he enforced the philanthropy, were ideas that had occurred to them, but they were too weary for cynicism.

There were long memories on the world of Melida/Daan, but those memories were vague and confused. They remembered a Jedi apprentice who had rejected the Order to help them, but his name was unrecorded or had been lost. Perhaps it had been this Vader who had helped them. Even if it wasn't, a renegade Jedi was someone this world felt it could trust. Had anyone remembered that the helpful Padawan's name had been Obi-Wan Kenobi, or had thought to find out the manner of Kenobi's death, perhaps it would have been different, but no one did. Troops were dedicated to the Vaders' cause, and set course for Bespin. If Palpatine had ever known about Melida/Daan, that knowledge had left him, and the ships went unimpeded.

The Gungans had not disappeared from the galaxy, and they refused steadfastly to do so at any point in the future. Their numbers in the scattered exile were small, and few had dared to oppose Palpatine openly ? Tarpals had been in the Rebellion, and might still be for all most of them knew, but he was a rarity ? though they had been waiting for a chance to rise up. They had long ago recognized Amidala of the Naboo (only she among humans could be so mesmerizing, to the Gungan way of thinking), and puzzled greatly among themselves about what her presence might mean. Had the Naboo betrayed them again? Few had counted Palpatine's betrayal as Naboo, but Amidala was a different matter. They had never recognized the end of her reign in Theed, or the coronation of Queen Jamillia. Naboo political systems were irrelevant to them; their treaty had been with Queen Amidala, and it was Amidala to whom they considered themselves loyal. Where her interests had coincided with Naboo's, they sided with Naboo, but if her interests had shifted, then they would shift with her... unless she played them false.

So they had waited, and when the news came to them in their shadowed swamps, they understood and rejoiced. At last, the Queen was keeping faith with them. It was time to go home. The leaders conferred among themselves, then raised the scarlet banner on what ships they could muster, and set out to the aid of their old ally.

On Coruscant, the upper echelons of the Empire weren't precisely loyal to Palpatine, but they knew that Vader was likely to clamp down on what he termed "corruption" fairly quickly, and the strike would not be merciful. In theory, they put their resources at the Emperor's disposal. In fact, most of them headed for their vacation barges, feeling a sudden urge to travel far from the capital world. The troops stationed there prepared grimly for battle, but most of the soldiers preferred Vader to Palpatine ? when, after all, had the Emperor flown into a battle and risked himself with the front line fighters? So they prepared as ordered, but their hearts weren't set on winning.

"And so it ends," Obi-Wan's form said, glimmering at the edge of the swamp.

"Told you, I did, that we should not train the boy."

"Which one?"

"With both, I told you. Too impatient, too reckless."

"And now, all hope is lost."

Yoda's face softened. "No, not all. Always hope there is, though see I cannot from where the light will shine next."

"Perhaps still among them... the love they bear one another is real, and it may..."

But Yoda was shaking his head. "Always real has their love been, but staved off the darkness, it has not. Secure and content in their small world are they, and lost have they become to the greater good, or even the greater truth. A believer, she is. Come to doubt, she will not, unless she is made to see."

"How do we do that?"

"We cannot."

Of these things, little news reached Bespin, as the powers of the galaxy converged on it.

"Lord Vader, her Ladyship's shuttle is arriving. I took the liberty of sending a TIE escort; Palpatine's fleet is getting too close."

Vader looked over Piett's shoulder at the viewport from the bridge of the Executor, and saw the tiny speck that was Amidala's shuttle. Luke was with her. Confused and unsure, but there. "Well done, Admiral," he said absently. Piett had earned the praise and his position, but Vader's mind was not on any member of his staff.

He'd felt a lurch in the Force some thirty minutes ago, and he knew that something had gone wrong. Not Luke ? Luke was with Amidala, possibly the safest place in the Empire at the moment. Something had gone wrong with Leia. He'd tried to contact the garrison, but no one had answered the summons. Someone would pay for that, but he could not go back to Cloud City now.

Palpatine had moved more slowly than he'd expected after the asteroid field, but the blow was beginning to fall. Already, they'd seen the scout ships. Comm was tracking fifteen Star Destroyers and three troop transports. The battle would be fought here.

"Lord Vader?"

"I do not wish to be disturbed, Admiral."

Piett didn't take the implied order. "My lord," he said, "I apologize for disturbing your meditation, but I've received tactical news from...allies."


"Various worlds have pledged support to her Ladyship, and four are sending ships and soldiers."

A strange feeling rose in Vader's mind. It was familiar, but had long lain dormant.


He'd known, to some extent, that word was getting out. Once they'd made their presence in Cloud City public, several of the City guards had let word out. One had heard Piett address Amidala as "Your Majesty," and that had been enough. Much of the galaxy had been indulging in fantasies of Amidala's rule; a whisper of it had been enough to set them to arms. Good. Palpatine would not be counting on that. He had known enough to be threatened by Amidala, but so far, he had still been underestimating her.

The speck that was the shuttle broke the atmosphere, and the speed doubled. A moment later, comm reported that they were requesting permission to dock.

"Permission granted," Vader said. "And Admiral, prepare a High Welcome."

There was dead silence on the bridge, then Piett straightened his shoulders and said, "Yes, my Lord." Then, for the first time in Vader's career in the Empire, the bridge officers broke into spontaneous applause.

The welcome was arranged quickly, but it looked neat enough. All the officers who could be spared were arrayed in straight lines in the docking bay, and Vader and Piett stood at their head as the shuttle glided in. When the gangplank lowered, they knelt.

Vader was not sure he could have remained standing anyway. He could feel Amidala, as always ? she was surprised, perhaps bemused ? but Luke's presence, so near suddenly, was overwhelming. His feelings were strong. Vader willed himself to raise his head.

His first clear view of his son went like a dagger to his heart. The boy had his own eyes, but Amidala's lithe build and delicate features. He moved lightly and seemed to think deeply.

The edge of Amidala's gown swirled across his knee. "Please rise, my Lord. Admiral."

"As you wish...your Majesty."

She smiled.

The veils had been lifted. He hadn't noticed it before. "Your Majesty, perhaps..."

"I have not chosen yet, my Lord. May I present our son, Luke?"

Vader straightened and looked his son in the eye. "It is my profound honor, my son." Luke swallowed hard, taking in the room full of Imperial officers with obvious trepidation. He had been in the Rebellion for three years. But Vader would not allow him to remain disturbed by the presence of those who were his own people now. He struck a deliberately confrontational tone. "Does something trouble you?"

Luke steadied himself ? Vader felt the shift in the Force as he used a Jedi centering technique ? and squared his shoulders. "I'm just...disoriented." He blinked rapidly, swallowed hard, and added, "Father."

Vader was unable to answer for nearly a full minute. The sound of the word on the boy's tongue brought an uncontrollable rush of feeling, and it took time to understand it. This is the role I was born for. The head of my family.

It made him stand even straighter than he normally did.

He looked at Piett. "Admiral, you are dismissed to return to your duties. Assign the officers as you see fit, and continue tracking the progress of Palpatine's fleet. Keep me apprised of developments."

"The fleet?" Amidala asked.

"Yes." Vader slowed, and made room for Luke to walk between them. "I would rather that we could set aside some time to become accustomed to one another, but there is a great deal occurring."

Abruptly, as if to prove his point, a bright light flashed outside the viewport, and a TIE fighter disappeared.

Amidala's eyes widened. "Where is Leia?"

Slowly. Answer slowly.

But Amidala was not interested in slow answers, not when they were this close. "My Lord?"

"I have been unable to contact the garrison."


"Han rescued her."

Luke's voice was soft, but it carried. Both of them looked at him. "How do you know this?" Amidala asked.

"I don't know it. I do, but..."

"Speak clearly, Luke."

"If she was being held against her will, Han would have found a way to rescue her."

Even Vader was not expecting what happened next. He had seen Amidala close to losing her temper several times over the past three years, and each time became just a bit closer than the one before, but when she boiled over, it seemed to sear the very Force around her.

Her hands rose to her veils, and she tore at them. "I will not lose Leia! Not again!"

Luke stepped in, put a hand on her arm. "Mother... "

She shook him off, and started back toward the shuttle. "If your people can't get my daughter back, I will go down and get her myself!"

Vader and Luke glanced at each other. It might be the first time they would act in concert, or it might be the only time. Vader could not sense his future yet. But in this, they were in agreement. They caught up to her, each taking one arm discretely, hoping that the officers were not seeing the drama too clearly. "My love," Vader said, "there are perhaps more effective strategies."

"Yours didn't work very well, Ani," she hissed.

"He'll try to get her off planet on the Falcon," Luke said. "But don't hurt them. Remember, please...he was trying to help her in the only way he knows."

"I won't have my daughter stolen from me again." Her voice was becoming more normal, but they could both feel her tension, both in her body and in the Force. "I will not tolerate it."

"Let me try to contact them in a few days. She'll listen to me."

"Luke," Vader said, "there are matters you are not considering. There will be a battle here. It has already begun. If we do not recapture her promptly, she and anyone she is with are in immediate danger."

Luke took only a second to internalize it, then his face hardened ? he became the soldier that Vader guessed he had been in the Rebellion. "How big is Palpatine's fleet?"

"Twice the size of our own, but in transit. We have backup units promised to us, but we should not count on them until they arrive."

"All right. Can we hold them here?"

"Easily. Our numbers may be smaller, but many of the more competent commanders are with us."

Luke snorted a laugh. "Most of the rest are in the Rebellion."

Vader didn't bother to contradict him on this. "Fortunately, the Rebellion is not manning Palpatine's fleet."

Luke smiled at him cautiously. "Guess so."

Amidala was not interested in the upcoming battle. Her eyes were vague and unfocused, and Vader knew that her mind was on Leia, though her words were more general. "We will need you to contact the Rebellion eventually, Luke. They are our natural allies. But they may need to be...convinced of that."

"I know. I just need time."

The staccato of boots on metal interrupted the family one final time. Piett looked harried and worried. "My Lord, your Majesty" he said, offering only a perfunctory bow. "Ships approaching from vector five."

"Additional ships in Palpatine's fleet?"

"No, sir. Their communications just came into range. Sir, it's the Rebellion."

Artoo had found them in the complex maze of Cloud City. Han didn't know how and didn't care; there would be time to solve mysteries later. After all of the day's shocks, when the little astromech had rolled around a corner, chirping madly at Threepio about sabotage, no one in Han's party had even been surprised.

The droid beeped noisily while his little arms and pincers worked furiously to repair the new ? and newly damaged ? hyperdrive. The Vaders had apparently gotten creative, waiting for Lando to install a replacement system before cutting several small but crucial wires to render it inoperative. The problem was practically unnoticeable ? Han knew he had been saved from another embarrassing hyperdrive failure only because Artoo was enterprising enough to run a quick diagnostic when they first got on board.

So the droid was welding and rewiring away, while the rest of them sat and waited and watched. The repairs were too precise and delicate for any of them to really help. Their pursuers seemed to have lost interest anyway, leaving them some valuable lead-time before entering the fray above the planet.

"Han?I can't leave Luke here. Please, I know something's wrong with him? We could find him if we went back." Leia had looked ashen and sickly since her breakdown before ? but now her eyes bore an almost manic look, as though she would lose her mind if they stayed on Bespin a minute longer than they had to. And yet, she insisted on arguing that they not leave right away.

"We've been through this already, sweetheart ?"

"He came here for me, and you want me to abandon him to them!"

"Your Highness," Lando began wearily, "we don't have a clue where he is. We were lucky to get out here, let's not tempt fate again."

She turned those wild eyes on him, and Lando shrunk back. "They're all back on their ships, fighting, while we sit here doing nothing. It'd probably be the easiest thing in the world to go looking for him ?"

"In that case, Luke's probably escaped already, and we'll catch up with him after the battle," Han said with finality. "I don't care if it looks like the Vaders and every single one of their stormtroopers has left the city, I'm not taking the chance of waltzing you right back into their arms." Leia opened her mouth to protest, but he stopped her. "Leia, you know that I'm worried about Luke, and that I hope he's all right. But we're no use to him. The Rebels are out there ? we'll make contact with them, get reinforcements, and come back. Then we'd have a decent shot at this. Right now, you're safe and I'm going to keep you that way."

She dropped her face into her hands, but didn't protest any further. Chewie yelled at Artoo to hurry up ? and got a rather rude beep back ? and the room fell silent.

"Your Highness?" Threepio ventured nervously. "I don't know if this will help allay your fears, but I believe that Master Luke is quite safe with the Vaders. They won't harm him in any way."

Her head snapped up. "Threepio?" she began, her voice trembling with anger. "I should have left you with them." With that, she stood abruptly and left the room.

Threepio's head jerked back and forth, and then lowered rather dejectedly.

"She doesn't mean it, Goldenrod," Han said, sincerely feeling a pang of sympathy for the droid, despite the silliness of getting sentimental over a robot. He doubted there was anything worse for Threepio than having one of his masters reject him. "She knows you wouldn't have done it on purpose."

"Oh! Never, Captain Solo! But I don't expect that she should understand. I'm only a droid, after all. Humans don't have to deal with conflicts in their programming. It's all very confusing."

"She probably understands that better than you think, Threepio," he replied.

The control consoles suddenly leapt to life and Artoo rolled away from the wires. "All right, time to get the hell out of here. Chewie, get to the cockpit ? Lando, I'm going to need you manning the guns for now. Who knows what we're going to find out there."

He and Chewie were nearly out of the room before Lando spoke up softly. "I'm not going."

"What?" Chewie grunted the same question.

"I'm staying here. The city's in chaos, and who knows what the fighting out there could do to us. I have to help."

Han felt a surge of annoyance, and it took a moment before he realized it was directed at himself. What was he doing, assuming that Lando was coming with them? He hadn't entertained any thoughts of forgiving him, but had resigned himself to the fact that they were stuck with one another now. Lando, apparently, found it easier to just walk away.

"That's great, Lando. If you think of any other ways to deceive and betray me on your way out the door, do me a favor and save them until the next time we run into each other."

"I have a responsibility to those people ?"

"And you know all about responsibility to others, don't you? Give me a break." Han stepped at him menacingly. "In fact, if this is going to be the last time I see you, I ought to punch your lights out right now."

Lando's only response was to spread his arms out wide. "Go ahead. I know I deserve much worse." When Han didn't respond right away, Lando continued, "I'm sorry. I know that probably doesn't mean anything to you, but I wanted you to hear me say it."

"Han, what's going on back there?" Leia yelled. "Are we ready to leave or not?"

"Yeah, we're ready."

Lando began backing out of the room and heading down the ramp. "Good luck, Han. I hope you all get out of this all right."

Han watched him walked down the ramp, and let it begin to close before muttering, almost to himself, "Good luck to you too, Lando."

They were all going to need it.

Han entered the cockpit, took the controls, and led the Falcon into the heart of madness.

"Cease fire!"

Ozzel ignored the command that came over the comm. It wasn't from Admiral Mahrek, at least not directly and not yet, and no one else outranked him.

"Admiral... " Sequi began. "Perhaps... "

Ozzel looked over his shoulder. "Captain, perhaps both you and the Admiral Mahrek have failed to notice this, but Vader has control of a Super Star Destroyer. If we do not strike with deadly force immediately, they will have the firepower to overcome our difference in number."

"But, sir, your console...the Emperor's Hammer is getting a communication. I was thinking...that...."

"What is it, Captain?"

"It could be instructions from Imperial Command."

Ozzel was about to snap back that he would have been contacted, then he remembered that Imperial Command had seen fit to put him on a back burner already. He bit it back, and hailed the Emperor's Hammer.

A harried ensign was manning comm. "Yes, Admiral Ozzel?" His voice was a harsh whisper.

"You are receiving a communication from Coruscant."

"Yes, sir. It is of vital importance, and we cannot risk this interference."

"It is well," another voice said, and Ozzel's jaw seemed to turn to spun ice. The Emperor waited until he was certain he had been recognized, then continued. "This battle will be fought today, and you will destroy this insurgency now, before it has a chance to spread."

"Your Majesty," Mahrek said, "there are rumors of uprisings..."

"Local thugs. We need not be troubled by them. This is the battle that matters."

"Yes, sir."

Ozzel smiled to himself. Mahrek should not have contradicted the Emperor, and it was good to hear him put in his place.

He cleared his throat. "Your Majesty, the Executor is still well-armed, and it is my belief that we should destroy it immediately."

"Vader and the woman are on board that ship."

"All the more reason ?"

"I want them alive at the end of this, Ozzel. You may injure him as you please, but I want her healthy. He will be left alive long enough to watch her taken from him, then killed. I will not be betrayed. He will pay more dearly than an anonymous shot from deep space."

"Yes, your Majesty."

"Disable the Executor."

Mahrek finally found his voice. "Our communications are showing indications of Rebel forces arriving, your Majesty."

Naturally, Ozzel thought. The Vaders have forged alliances with the scum of the galaxy.

The Emperor didn't seem at all disturbed by it. His tone was certainly untroubled. "Yes, of course they've come. They undoubtedly see this as an ideal time for one of their puerile raids. Pay no attention to them unless they are a deadly threat. If they are, destroy them immediately."

With that, the connection to Coruscant was cut.

"Admiral Ozzel," Mahrek said, "you will not disobey my orders, direct or implied, again. Captain Sequi, fire on the Executor's weapons systems only."

"Yes, sir."

The Hammer went offline, and on the viewscreen, Ozzel could see it, with the Firestorm beside it, closing in on one of the Destroyers in Vader's fleet. Then the area became a swarm of TIE fighters and laser blasts.

"Fire!" Sequi shouted, and the Iron Will released three volleys against the starboard weaponry of the Executor. There was a satisfying flash as two of the guns disappeared. "Again!"

A shield generator on that side of the ship was taken out, and the weaponry it had protected disintegrated. Sequi, at least, was good at his ?


The Iron Will rocked with a blast from the Super Star Destroyer, and the communications panel steamed and sparked under Ozzel's hands. He jumped back from it. "Systems loss!"

"Sir!" an ensign called out, "they've hit the main shield generator!"

Another blast thundered out, and the lights flickered and flared. They finally caught again.

"They're going for life support," Sequi said, his voice actually astonished at this development. "Admiral, you and the senior staff should get to one of the shuttles. There's a battle skiff in the main hangar."

Ozzel did not hesitate. He would do the Empire no good by dying from a loss of oxygen. He clapped his hands. "Attention, all senior staff on the bridge. Follow me to the main hangar."

Several lieutenants and commanders fell into line behind him, though Sequi stayed with the ship, perhaps remembering some foolish holonovel of his youth. The corridors were strewn with debris, but Ozzel made his way across it without difficulty. His officers followed, gathering other staff on the way, and by the time they reached the main hangar, there were perhaps twenty of them. A full staff for a battle skiff.

Ozzel led them into it, and took the command seat. "Ensign," he said to the man at the helm, "take us out."

The skiff emerged into the firefight.

It was buffeted by debris from another Destroyer ? it might have been the Hammer itself, for all Ozzel could tell now, or one of Vader's ships ? and the helmsman dove it sickeningly beneath the Iron Will. Ozzel regained his composure and snapped, "Try to remain level, ensign!"

"Yes, sir."

Five TIE fighters blew in, each clumsily marked with a scarlet stripe along the bottom, presumably so that they would know not to shoot one anther in deep space. "Fire," Ozzel ordered.

A commander at weapons obeyed the order, and three of the TIEs disappeared. Ozzel was willing to admit that he had made a strategic error or two in his career, but any academy student could understand the strategy here: kill or be killed. He'd become quite adept at not being killed.

The remaining TIEs tried to turn back, but the commander took them out before they finished the arc.

"Admiral, incoming from..." the lieutenant at comm shrugged. "I have no idea."

"Tell, me, lieutenant, is there a red mark involved?"

"Yes sir."

"Then it doesn't matter where they are from, because they are certainly from the Vaders."

"Yes, sir."

The weapons officer hadn't bothered listening to the exchange. He'd already locked, and was already firing. The strange ship was wiped from the sky.

There were two others behind it. Ozzel thought they looked vaguely familiar, perhaps as trading vehicles from some backwater.

Except that they were returning fire.

"Take us out of here," he ordered. "We should claim the surface, and discover what weaponry and loyal troops might still be there."

"Admiral Ozzel, I think the odds are low." The weapons man fired on another ship and destroyed it. He was getting a bit cocky.

"Do as I say," Ozzel told him. "The laser fire should confuse the sensors on most of these ships."

"We'll be accused of turning tail and running."

This sank in. Ozzel had been accused of such a thing before "Then we will need to do something of value, Commander."

"I'm open to suggestions."

Unfortunately, Ozzel had none. He stared at the viewscreen, waiting for something to occur to him, or appear out of thin air. An easy but strategically important target.

And, miraculously, one appeared.

A saucer shaped ship emerged from the atmosphere, flying erratically and dodging the lasers. "The ship from the asteroid field," Ozzel mused. "They must have been Vader's contact to the Rebellion. Commander, that is your target."

"Yes, sir."

The battle skiff, hidden in the net of laser fire, advanced on the Millennium Falcon.

Amidala watched the rapidly growing conflict with detached interest. She was in a small office, just off the bridge, and could see a good deal of what was going on. But since her fit in the cargo bay, she had remained here with Luke. Away from the action, trying to stay calm despite the hair-ripping frustration of losing Leia again.

Luke hadn't said a word to her. She thought he was a bit uncomfortable at having to essentially baby-sit his mother, but he clearly preferred it to being on the bridge with his father. She wasn't sure that Anakin had said more than two words to his son that weren't directly related to their concern for her. She knew in her heart that she had to give it time?but Leia kept proving to her that she couldn't take for granted that her family would ever truly come together or heal.

Amidala dropped her head to the cool window and let her breath fog it slightly. Her eyes wandered aimlessly over the battle, until?

"Leia?" she whispered harshly.

Luke snapped to attention and searched for the Falcon over her shoulder. It had emerged from the planet and into the thick of the fighting. "Yes, that's them," he muttered. "How do you think you're going to ?"

Before he could finish, an Imperial ship came behind her daughter's ship, and opened fire.

"What are they doing?" she asked, suddenly furious.

"Mother ?"

"Wait!" she cried out uselessly to Leia. The Falcon spun and dove away in a dizzying pattern; one that Amidala recognized all too well from the asteroid field. "They're going to make her run?if she jumps to lightspeed, I'll never find her again!"

Luke shook his head. "She won't leave in the middle of all this. They'll stay as long as the Rebels are here fighting. And I'm sure that?Father?has noticed the situation."

Even as he said it, two TIE fighters spun into range and began firing on the Imperial ship, giving Leia some cover. But Amidala still didn't feel at ease. "Your sister will probably start firing on them, won't she? She's foolish enough to fight us when we try to help her."

A smirk came to Luke's lips. "She probably would, you're right. But Han won't. He's never particularly cared where his help comes from. He'll take it until he gets his bearings again."

The frustration gripped her again painfully, forcing her to gasp for air. "Why is she doing this, Luke?"

He gave her a look that clearly said you-know-why.

"Go ahead. Tell me. Tell me how much my daughter hates me."

"It's not that simple," he replied. His voice was reflective. "Yes, she's known the truth for quite some time, but that doesn't mean ?"

"The truth? She's never been told the truth." Amidala grabbed her son's hand and clung to it desperately. "When Obi-Wan took you from my arms that final time you cried and shrieked and wailed so loudly it shook Owen's windows. You knew you weren't going to see me again. You were a baby, and far too young to understand, but you knew. And it broke your heart. I heard you crying in my nightmares for years?you and Leia." She paused, breathless, but Luke squeezed her hand to encourage her to go on. "Leia was old enough to call me 'Mommy' when she last saw me?she held on to me, she didn't want me to go.

"It tore all of us apart when we were separated," she whispered. "And it's tearing at us now. That is the truth. It doesn't matter what you were told later by others?it doesn't matter whether or how you remember it. It's the only truth that matters."

Luke's hands rested on her shoulders, squeezing them for a moment while he was too moved to speak. Finally, he said, "I know that's the truth, and so does she. But you must know that this is a hard truth. The question isn't whether she accepts it, but whether she chooses to face it. And I think she will. She can't run from this forever."

"I hope you're right, Luke." She reached out and pulled her son into a hug. "And I'm glad that when faced with the decision, you chose not to run."

The door to the office opened, and she knew Anakin had come to check on her. She stepped back from Luke quickly. "Is the Falcon safe?"

"Yes, for the time being. It seems Palpatine himself may have made it a target?we believe the Imperial Fleet received a transmission from Coruscant just before Leia fell under attack."

"A coded transmission?"

"Of course."

Amidala raised her eyebrows. She felt an idea coming to her, one that gave her a rush of energy, and allowed her to focus on something other than Leia. "He doesn't realize that the days of secrecy in this Empire are over. There's no more room for hiding or lies."

Anakin titled his head toward her. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, I think it's time that Palpatine learn a few hard truths of his own." With a significant glance at Luke, she marched out of the office and onto the bridge. They followed her warily and Anakin nodded to the bridge officers, who stood to attention when she entered.

She crossed the bridge to take the command chair and turned it to face the viewscreen. "Admiral Piett?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"Open a general communication. Viewer and speaker, on all frequencies, as far as it will reach. I want to send a message to anyone who can receive one."

Luke gave Anakin a worried look. Anakin began to say, "My Lady, perhaps?" but, he trailed off. She had the feeling he was too curious to see what she would do to interrupt or question her. Instead, he moved to stand behind her chair and Luke did the same.

"Channel open."

Amidala stared deeply into the viewer ? for a second, she thought about pulling the veils over her head, but she decided against it. There was no longer a need for that. Her back straightened and her hands went to the edge of her armrests. It was a pose she had struck often as Queen, and she almost smiled at how comfortable it felt.

"Welcome. Welcome to the new era of the Empire."

She allowed a long pause before continuing.

"Even now, my family and I have joined with those loyal to our cause, and have begun the end of Palpatine's reign. Once this battle is over, and we emerge victorious, the Empire will be free of the terror and oppression that has characterized it for so long. Under my leadership, your freedoms, your rights, your citizenship will be returned to you, and will never be taken again.

"I come before you now, to ask your continued support for me. No matter what side you find yourself on now ? Imperial or Rebel ? join us, and our differences will be forgotten. The time has come for us to restore the greatness and glory of our galaxy."

There was a short pause. "Channel closed, Your Majesty," Piett said.

Amidala swiveled the chair to face her husband and son.

"Impressive," Anakin said.

"Wow," was all Luke managed.

Amidala just smiled in return.

For a moment, Cloud City was silent.

Oh, the machinery buzzed on, and the speeders flitted by outside, but the people stood solemnly in the corridors and watched the broadcast screens that normally showed them the sporting events around the galaxy. They watched as Lady Vader claimed the crown, and they understood ? for the first time, Lando thought ? that this was for real. They weren't just raising hell to annoy authority figures. They had chosen to side with a traitor, and they stood here at the eye of a storm, waiting to see how the wind would blow.

If it blew against them, they would be destroyed.

Lando knew these people. They didn't want to be in this situation. They were apolitical (and frequently amoral), and until Lady Vader's unveiled face had appeared in the air before them, all of this had been a lark, a defiance of Imperial authority that carried no risk, as the Vaders were the only Imperials present. But would be war. It would be war, and the small outpost, the haven where they came to forget the galaxy's problems, was going to be the first battlefield.

Lando was as silent as they were. His mind was going over the alternatives. Lady Vader might well forgive him for the escape of Leia, if he fought for her now. She might...

Forgive you? Forgive you for rescuing an old friend and a girl from people who laid in wait for them and held them prisoner? Forgive you for not being able to carry through with a betrayal? What business is it of hers to forgive you for being a human being for once in your miserable life?

That was when it hit him ? she talked a pretty talk, but she would wield her husband's iron fists as surely as Palpatine did. Having her favor didn't mean you'd done something right ? it meant you'd done something she wanted you to. You wouldn't earn her respect by standing up to her, though she might apologize as she had you executed. She might even mean it.

The point was, this society she wanted to form wasn't going to be a government of fair laws any more than Palpatine's was ? it would be a government of personality, and all the decisions would always rest in one pair of hands. People would not live and die by justice. They would live and die by the grace of Lady Vader.

It was bad enough with Palpatine, but he was sane. You could count on how he'd act in any given situation. If it didn't get in Palpatine's way, he didn't care about it. If it did, he'd kill you. Not exactly fair, but simple.

Lady Vader was not sane. She was obsessed with Leia, and with the Skywalker boy (and had that been Skywalker, standing beside her?), and her capricious kindness to one world could easily become capricious cruelty to another.

During that silent moment, Cloud City could have gone in any direction. Its most likely course was to choose the status quo ? safety in the established ? with an alliance with the Vaders a close second. A few were defiant enough to figure it would be an opportunistic time to join the Rebellion. Lando thought he could nudge them in this direction. He just had to think of the right thing to say.

Unfortunately, an old man ? a gardener ? thought of something to say first, and what he said was, "It's Queen Amidala!" Then he fell to his knees, and clasped his hands together high above his head in ecstatic prayer. "She's come back to us!"

Several others in the crowd whispered assent, and a wild cheer broke out, with declarations of loyalty shouted above it.

Lando's eyes snapped back up to the screen, where the final image had frozen in place. There she sat, flanked by her husband and the boy, gripping the arms of her


chair, brown eyes flashing with dangerous intelligence. Lando had been only a small boy when she'd disappeared from sight, but he remembered that image. She had been a popular leader, and when she'd left the throne of Naboo, the major news organs had carried the speech, and she had been there, like this, and Lando, at seven years old, had thought she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He remembered the voice and the way she had made him wish to be a King, and half-believe he was. She'd disappeared, as so many others had when the Empire rose, but fairy tales had risen about her, and it was whispered that she had sworn to bring down Palpatine. And now...

It was her.

She was as lovely as she had been on that long-ago day, but her beauty had been twisted, and somehow warped. It hurt his heart to look at her.

Lando had never really felt terror before. It scampered on cold, sharp claws, somewhere in the region just below his ribs, sometimes stopping to nip up at his chest. Palpatine had already lost. The Rebels had already lost. All the was left was the mad queen, and the mad populace who were ready to follow her, like some damned spirit come back from the Other Side to lead the living into paradise.

He wanted to run, but he couldn't think of anywhere to go.

Instead, he made his way to the top of a small staircase that led to a deck overlooking one of Cloud City's many breathtaking vistas. "Listen to me!" he shouted. "Just listen!"

At first, they didn't, but in the end...well, there was just something about people. If you look like you're going to put on a show, they'll always turn around to watch it.

Lando waited until most of them had caught on, then screwed up his courage. "Look, what's going on's not going to end up good for us, whoever wins."

"But that's Queen Amidala," the old gardener said, as if it explained everything...or anything.

"I know who she is. I read history. I was there for the end of it. But whoever she used to be, she's the Empire now."

"That's just politics!" a Twi'lek called. "What do we care what she calls herself?"

"You'll care plenty when she decides she doesn't much like your bar and your dancing girls, Chirlin. And you won't have a soul to turn to, because her word is going to be law."

Chirlin appeared to think about this, and so did many of the others in town. Lady Vader was not known as a friend to the less-high-minded pursuits of the galaxy, which accounted for about ninety percent of Cloud City's business. Not that Lando had any desire to stand up here and use the fact that she'd undoubtedly shut down the illegal, slave-run mines to get them to rebel. He wouldn't mind seeing those shut down himself. But he had to find something.

"You, Tinera Kei!" A human woman looked up, dazed. She was a biologist, and she'd been brought in to try and find a genetic solution to some problems the miners were having after long-term exposure to Tibanna gas. "How do you think Lady Vader ? the Empress ? is going to deal with your work on the miners' lungs? Do you seriously think she'll let you keep working for the sake of a few unimportant workers, when she has one patient for you who she cares more about than she'll care for the whole galaxy?"

He managed to find a few more to poke and prod at, and by the time he'd finished, the mood had grown sullen and resentful...but the euphoria over Lady Vader had broken. "The Rebellion is coming," Lando said. "They'll make a stand here, maybe their last. Maybe none of you were ever political before, but you damned well have to be today. Make the right choice."

The crowd dispersed in confusion, but Lando had a feeling that most of them would come in on the side of the Rebels, and maybe they would stand a chance.

Of course, if they didn't, he'd just sentenced to death the city he claimed to serve.

It had been a long time since Yavin, and even that near-disaster hadn't prepared the Rebellion for what they would see here.

Many of the crew of the Star Cruiser Liberty had been aware that this day could very well be their day to die. Being part of the Rebellion had made this fact a dictum by which they'd all learned to live, even if they all hadn't completely accepted it. The ones who hadn't accepted it had left, either to the Lady Vader's promised sanctuary or to some other blissful solace entirely. The departure of these had fueled the doubts of the ones who weren't completely faithful yet still weren't quite ready to succumb, the ones who comprised at least half of the troops that remained on their side.

Including Admiral Ackbar. No, he wasn't as ready to cave as many. But he wasn't a green ensign on custodial duty ? he was one of the leaders of the Rebellion, one of the few people looked up to since the in-unison disappearance of General Solo, Commander Skywalker, and Princess Organa. If the remaining leaders were in similar shape, and if the Rebellion didn't fall today, it would eventually.

The sudden appearance and communication from the Falcon had quickly pushed back the oncoming tide of pessimism, the hole quickly filling with a surge of hope that hadn't been felt since the days of Yavin 4. If the response on Ackbar's bridge was any indication, just knowing that General Solo and the Princess, were indeed alive and present at this battle, putting their lives on the line just as much as any of the rest of them, was almost enough to cover for the continued notable absence of Commander Skywalker for the Rebellion.

Every section of space within three thousand kilometers of any side of Bespin was filled with ships of all sizes ? some Rebel, but mostly Imperial. As had been expected, though, nearly all those ships had been so focused on firing at one another that the Rebels had managed to slip in fairly quickly and unimpeded. A few surprised shots had been fired from one group of Destroyers, but were far enough off target that the only cost had been a solitary unfortunate Y-wing in one of General Madine's squadrons.

In the middle of the chaos, a huge silhouette on the spherical marble tan backdrop of Bespin, was the Executor herself. The Rebels, Admiral Ackbar especially, knew their aging ships (no matter how many there were) had no chance against that monster, and had immediately begun concentrating their fire on some of the more beleaguered-looking Star Destroyers. Besides, the Executor seemed busy enough, warding off attacks from the tinier arrowheads shooting seemingly ineffectual darts at it. It reminded Ackbar of a scene from his boyhood in the oceans of Mon Calamari, and the nightmarish image of a large, tentacled krellis beast, being hopelessly converged on by an ever increasing swarm of black maral parasites.

It didn't really matter to Ackbar. If the Executor was too busy to be firing at them, fine. If the other destroyers actually managed to incapacitate it or even destroy it, fine. Without the Vaders and their Siren-like image of benevolence present, the Empire would seem a far more malevolent enemy than before and maybe the Rebels wouldn't have such doubt on whether the side they were currently fighting on was the right one.

Well, maybe there was a bit of wishful thinking in that, he supposed.

The whole battle seemed like a swarm, really. Lumbering Mon Cal cruisers and Imperial Star Destroyers here and there, smaller cruisers and transports scattered among them, and moving clouds of TIE fighters, exchanging fire with the Rebel X and Y-wings, and the prototype B-wings. General Madine's cruiser was about three hundred kilometers to the Liberty's port side, exchanging fire with three of the Imperial Strike Cruisers, allowing for the Liberty herself to remain relatively unhindered, and able to allow itself more attention to a task many might have considered more important than almost any other going on there right now.

Covering the Millennium Falcon.

It hadn't seemed to need their help so far, though. The little saucer-shaped freighter was dodging hits better than nearly every other ship out there ? no surprise considering the oft-displayed considerable skill of her pilot. But nonetheless they remained near the heart of the swarm, driving hard for the perimeter, where the strongest concentrations in the Rebel forces lay but gaining little ground in their attempts to avoid damage.

But even the best pilots couldn't avoid damage forever...

As he watched, one of the massive white Destroyers near the edge of the battle perimeter began turning... bringing its weapons to bear on an area not far from...

Then he saw it, just as the green salvo streaked across space.

"They're firing on the Falcon, sir!"

"I see that, Lieutenant," Admiral Ackbar barked at the offending voice. "Move our third starboard turbolaser battery to bear on that Imperial cruiser, and ?"

Suddenly, two TIEs disengaged from the main cloud and swooped towards the freighter.

Ackbar muttered an old Mon Calamari curse under his breath; their batteries, like those of the destroyers, were ill-suited for targeting fighters. "Signal our two nearest fighters to cover the General ?"

"Hold that, sir," another official came back. "Those TIEs aren't chasing the Falcon."

Ackbar stared. Sure enough, the TIEs did not seem to be attacking. They swept past the little ship, pummeling their little lasers into the cruiser's surface, melting the laser batteries to slag.

But why would they...? he wondered. Even though, he supposed, he should be thankful for small favors, whatever the motivation may be behind them.

That thankfulness was short-lived.

"There's a transmission coming in, sir. Wide band, all frequencies. It's ? it's from the Executor, Admiral."

"Patch it ?"

There was no need. Unbidden, the spectacular fireworks of battle instantly vanished, in its place a vision that caused all on the bridge (and Ackbar was willing to bet most of the rest of those who were receiving this) to halt completely. A vision of scarlet magnificence set in the poise of royalty. Only this time the veils were absent, revealing a face that, of all things, reminded Ackbar of an aged Princess Leia.

Her very presence nearly eclipsed even that of the two dark-clad figures in the room behind her, both extremely familiar to Rebellion eyes ? particularly the smaller, blond, unmasked one.

One member of the bridge, a Gungan of perhaps middle age, managed to gasp.

"Dissen Queen Amidala," he breathed, the sound filling the whole bridge, as the flop-eared creature bowed his head in reverence.

"And Commander Skywalker," another added, even more quietly, making no effort to conceal the bitterness in her tone.

No one bothered to reprimand their breach of protocol. No one else seemed capable of even forming words.

Ackbar stared. Could it be? One of the greatest leaders the galaxy had ever known, in her own way being one of the great founding figures of the Rebellion, was the same woman who sat before them? Certainly he'd heard the rumors. But that was all they'd been to him; you couldn't win a war based on rumors.

But here it was. Not only was it she, but now she and her husband were in possession of one of the greatest and most valuable assets the Rebellion had ever known.

How can this be? He seemed such a levelheaded boy...

The perfect face smiled. "Welcome. Welcome to the new era of the Empire."

Ackbar merely blinked at the image, not trusting the smiling face one bit. He knew the history as well as any other man, knew the stories of the once-noble Queen and Senator. It was indeed sad to know she had chosen to spend her life with the cause she had for years sworn against, but if she was there under her own volition then she deserved whatever fate befell her.

He strongly suspected this image was meant to placate all who would listen, to seal the claim to the title of Empress a victory at this battle would undoubtedly earn her. But if anything, Ackbar's once wavering resolve was strengthened by this message. If two of the strongest freedom fighters their galaxy had known could be swayed to the side of darkness, then he damn well knew this was no power to be taken lightly, and he'd need all the strength he could muster to resist it.

He knew others might not see it that way: after all, was that not Luke Skywalker before them, standing calmly beside the Lady Vader and her Lord? If Luke Skywalker himself had gone to the side of the Vaders and their Empire, then what chance did any of them have in attempting to resist them?

"Even now, my family and I have joined with those loyal to our cause..."

Ackbar swore under his breath; a crewmember or two not far away weren't as successful. It didn't take an idiot to figure it out, even though few present here were old enough to remember enough of the stories to put the pieces together.

Skywalker was the family of the Lady Vader. A son or nephew, most likely. Lady Vader was Queen Amidala. Amidala...Skywalker...

Lord Vader.

Holy sea krakens below!

Ackbar didn't truly want to believe that this boy would sell out his own side like his father, a war hero revered as equally as his son had been, apparently had all those years ago. Even if he was not, though, there was little to be done about it now. There was no way to retrieve Skywalker...and he knew that the Commander was resourceful enough to escape even the Lord and Lady Vader if he truly wanted to.

"? and have begun the end of Palpatine's reign. Once this battle is over, and we emerge victorious, the Empire will be free of the terror and oppression that has characterized it for so long. Under my leadership, your freedoms, your rights, your citizenship will be returned to you, and will never be taken again."

Out of the corner of his eye Ackbar saw a few of the younger officers and crewmen tense their postures ? lean forward a bit, grip the console of their station a little tighter. The voice who said those words may have been in a gentle, maternal tone belying malignance, but the words were little changed from the smooth promises spoken by any number of rising leaders in the past, not long before a tyrannical government soon rose in that person's very name.

"I come before you now, to ask your continued support for me," she continued, and Ackbar suppressed the crawling, slimy worm inside him as he caught the hazy cloud of pleading, of almost manic desperation in her eyes. Mad, this woman was truly mad...and she was this close to gaining unquestioned, uncontested leadership of the known galaxy. "No matter what side you find yourself on now ? Imperial or Rebel ? join us, and our differences will be forgotten. The time has come for us to restore the greatness and glory of our galaxy."

The image winked out, the backdrop of space ? far diminished in activity from the time he had beheld it but a few minutes before ? replacing it once more. It was as if the entire Bespin star system was holding its breath, waiting for the other person to blink, just to have some, any indication they were supposed to resume fighting again.

"What now, Admiral?" one of the officers ventured at last.

Ackbar would have tightened his lips, were he human and had any. As it was he simply tightened his cheeks, the inside gills chafing slightly against his teeth. Part of him felt anger at Skywalker's apparent defection (if it was in fact that), and an even deeper sense of grief at possible loss of such a prominent source of morale and hope for the Rebellion. Ackbar might have seen a chance that things might not have been completely as they seemed for Skywalker, but not everyone would necessarily see things that same way.

Victory or no, this would be marked as, probably, one of the saddest days in Rebellion memory.


"We continue," he said simply. "Commander Skywalker's current position should have no bearing on how we do today. We fought before we were aware where he was, and he is no less absent to us now." A single long blink of his eyes was the only thing that betrayed the feeling that his very stomach was being twisted in protest of the words in the last half of that last sentence.

It wasn't a complete lie, after all. They would continue.

Leia glared at her hands, which had been shaking since she had seen Lady Vader's pronouncement.

Since she had seen Luke standing there during Lady Vader's pronouncement.

Her mother declaring herself Empress had rolled off her back with little trouble ? Leia had expected no less after the encounter in the gardens. This was what her parents had planned for years, and they were probably annoyed that it had taken this long to accomplish.

But Luke?

"Luke?" she whispered, feeling sick. For him, of all people, to betray her in such a way?

But she didn't feel betrayed. Not really. Not the way she felt toward Lando, not even the way she had felt earlier toward Threepio. Because she knew, almost instinctively, that Luke wouldn't do that to her. He just wouldn't. No matter what was offered or told to him, he would never simply turn on her for his own gain, and couldn't be reprogrammed as easily as Threepio.

Yet, there he was, standing behind her and next to?him?as if it were the most natural thing he could do. Which meant, that he must ? must ? really believe them. He must really think that what he was doing was for the best, for him, for her, for everyone.

How could he think that?

She shook her head, and clasped her shaking hands tightly in her lap. She had no idea how to answer that question?she didn't want to answer it. She couldn't possibly understand ?

A blaster shot impacted the back of the ship, rocking them violently. The sound of something blowing a fuse was heard, and Han swore under his breath.

"Chewie! What the hell is going on down there?" Han smacked several buttons on the console, then turned to her urgently, grasping her clenched hands. "Leia, I've got the autopilot set for evasive maneuvers, but I need you to be ready to take over if need be. I've gotta check this out. I'll be back up as soon as I can. Okay?"

She nodded.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm fine, Han, go fix whatever needs fixing."

He grabbed a sack of tools by the door, and ran down into the lower cargo hold. Leia tried to focus on the battle around them. Han's idea of an autopilot program was to spin and turn and roll the ship as much as possible. It was dizzying, but did an adequate job of holding off the only ship firing on them. The TIE fighters were also in a better position to give them cover now, and for the moment, the Falcon appeared safe enough.

Leia was about to refocus on calming her hands, when a clicking and static sounded throughout the cockpit. After a few seconds, the noise cleared.


She stared at the comm system in dread, recognizing his voice immediately.

"Leia, it's me. I know you can hear me."

Her first instinct was to turn it off ? to shut the comm system down completely, or to turn the volume off. She couldn't have this conversation; she didn't want to talk to him?

"I need to talk to you. Please."

She felt frozen ? her fingers hovered over the audio switch, but wouldn't move.

"I know you're angry with me, I know you don't understand why I'm doing this. I want to explain it to you." She heard him sigh heavily. "We need you here, Leia." A short pause followed. "Are you there?"

He pressed on. "I don't blame you for running from them. I don't blame you for the way you feel, you have to know that. But?Leia, I know they aren't the family either of us would have wanted or chosen, but I don't want to watch make you make a panicked decision that you'll come to regret later. There isn't time for you go back and change things. This is it."

This had to be a nightmare. This couldn't be real.

"Leia ?"

"Luke, you have to listen to me! Whatever they've told you, whatever they've done, you can't believe them. You can't!" Her hand slammed on the console for emphasis. "You were fighting these people?weeks ago. And nothing's changed. Don't let them convince you that anything is different now."

"Things are different. Everything I had been told was a lie, Leia. Everything."

"So?" Leia snapped, not caring that she sounded like a petulant child. "Now you know the truth. And the truth is worse then any story people made up to protect you."

"I don't feel worse off knowing that you're my sister."

She had no response for that. Leia loved Luke, and under other circumstances, might have been thrilled to find out that he was family?

But she wasn't going to let him use that against her.

"Leia, you once told me about your mother ?"

"I was a toddler when she left, Luke! She's not that person any more."

"Of course not. That was a lifetime ago. But she still loves you. She's still your mother." Another sigh. "You can say whatever you like now, but I know some part of you felt the loss when you believed she was dead. Are you just over that?"

Tears were beginning to prick the corners of her eyes. She angrily squeezed her eyelids shut until the feeling passed. When she opened them again, she answered, "Yes, I'm over it. The same way you're apparently over your time with the Rebellion, the same way you've apparently forgotten all those lovely Jedi ideals you've been following for the last three years." Her hands went to her hips in a defiant gesture, which he couldn't see, but made her feel a little bolder. "I also notice you've been very careful not to mention our father. Don't you have any words of wisdom to give me as far as he's concerned?"

Luke didn't answer for a long time?she was beginning to think he might have cut off their connection. At least she managed to make a point with him, maybe it would get him to think about ?

"I haven't forgotten or gotten over any of it?But those Jedi ideals were used against me, as a smokescreen to keep me from the truth, and to get me to do what they wanted. If nothing else?it proves that accepting them blindly wasn't the best thing I could have done.

"And the Rebels will be given clemency. However you want to look at it, we're fighting on the same side. Mother sees that."

"Luke ?"

"And if you want to discuss Father?I really don't know how I feel about that yet. This hasn't been as easy for me as you'd like to think. But I need to figure it out for myself, and not just see him the way others want me to. Is that really so hard for you to understand? Is that really so unreasonable?"

She wanted to shout that it was totally unreasonable, that he was crazy, but the words stuck in her throat.

"Leia, what's going on in here? I thought I heard you talking ?" Han was back in the cockpit, and looking at her worriedly.

"Leia, please?all I'm asking you to do is ?"

"Is that Luke?" Han asked. "Luke, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Leia, we need you ?"

Han snapped the audio receiver off. "What did he say to you?"

"Nothing," she whispered.


She looked at him miserably. "Leave me alone, Han. I'll be fine."

Han pulled her into his arms and held her quietly. Leia clung to him desperately.

Piett stood on the battle bridge of the Executor, watching the battle through the huge viewport. It had been even at first, but Palpatine's fleet was making so many foolish mistakes that Piett had at first been convinced that they were playing a ruse. He'd taken advantage of their mistakes with great caution, expecting an ambush at every turn.

Gradually, he had come to the realization that they were simply fighting stupidly.

Star Destroyers were engaging other Star Destroyers, while sending TIEs out after Rebel ships and small Imperial ships. One battle skiff had dedicated itself to chasing the Millennium Falcon, an insane pursuit even without Vader's instructions to protect that ship at all costs. If nothing else, Solo had proven that the Falcon would be taken only at a cost greater than anything a sane man was willing to pay.

The only advantage Palpatine's troops had was in numbers, and they were wasting it. It would be gone soon, if they kept taking hits.

Unfortunately, the Rebels were a bit smarter. They seemed to know who had which ships, and that Palpatine's ships were well under control. Their sharp, stinging attacks were all directed at the ships that flew under the banner of the Empress.

Piett smiled, despite the battle.

The Empress.

For the first time, he was unabashedly proud of serving the Empire.


He turned smartly. "Yes, my Lord?"

"Send a squad to take that battle skiff, and see to it that the Millennium Falcon does not leave the system."

"My Lord?"

"If you are unable to engage a tractor beam on that ship, then you must encourage it to either land or come into range of the beam."

Piett nodded. "Of course, my Lord."

"Once you have sent the squad, destroy the remains of the Iron Will. It is impeding operations. Then concentrate your fire on the three Star Destroyers that are attempting to take out our shields."

"And the Rebels, my Lord?"

"Only strike Rebel ships if they are presenting an immediate danger. Her Majesty hopes to make an alliance, and she believes it would be impolitic to engage them."

"Yes, my Lord."

"Admiral, the judgment of what constitutes 'immediate danger' is your own."

Piett froze. There were a thousand missteps to be made, and he knew that following the direct order ? not to fire ? would go against Lord Vader's personal strategies. But to take the implied promise that his judgment would be accepted in questionable cases...that stood a good chance of crossing the Empress.

Piett decided that, should the situation arise, he would err on the side of caution.

Aboard the Rebel command ship, Mon Mothma was frustrated. The Vaders' ships were easy to spot. TIEs had been hastily decorated with a spray of red paint, and Star Destroyers had their red tracking lights on. No subtlety here. She was concentrating on Amidala's fleet because...


Because it was an insult to everything the Alliance stood for. A deserter, not only leaving the Rebellion, but joining and becoming the Empire.

"Fire back," she muttered to no one, or at least no one who could hear.

No fire was returned from the Red Fleet. Palpatine's troops ? the Iron Fleet, as most of the gunners were calling them ? were firing badly but frequently. Mothma was obliged to send a squad of Y-wings in their direction.

Once she'd seen Amidala's face, she'd known everything. She could not claim surprise that Luke Skywalker was with them.

She opened a comm channel. "Riekkan? Ackbar?"

"Orders?" Riekkan asked, not bothering with preliminaries.

"Take out their support ships. Don't worry about the Destroyers until the defenders are gone. Palpatine's ships seem to be keeping them busy anyway."

"It won't last long," Ackbar warned her. "They've got a handle on it."

"Maybe long enough. Just get rid of the little ships."

"What about the ones defending the Falcon?"

"General Riekkan, we can defend our own ships."

"Are you sure the Falcon's still ours?"

His question hung in the overcharged air.

"Captain Solo contacted us himself," she said. "We have no reason to believe they have any interest in joining the Vaders."

"Except that they are being protected by crimson guard."

"Our new Empress may have reasons of her own," Mon Mothma said.

Admiral Mahrek felt like he was drowning in fire. The Star Destroyer had taken hits...oh, hits and hits again...but it wasn't fatally damaged.


It just stunk of fried wires and melted plastic.

And bodies. There were bodies strewn around, and the smell of blood on metal was overpowering.

The climate controls were gone, and as the Star Destroyer moved to the solar side of Bespin, the temperature was rising, creating an oven on the bridge. The helmsman was swaying dangerously.

"Lieutenant!" Mahrek yelled. "Set course for the nightline! Get us away from the sun!"

"Yes...sir?" The helmsman leaned forward and made adjustments. The Destroyer began to veer around the planet, in a slow and lazy arc. "Get the droids on climate control. Now!"

No response. The helmsman had fainted at his station.

Mahrek staggered across the bridge, trying not to step on anyone's limbs, and made his way into the corridor outside. It was full of smoke and small fires, but passable and free of bodies. It was better out here. The ship was on autopilot. Someone needed to get it back into fighting shape, and the droids' central comm system was malfunctioning.

He'd made it halfway to the control room when the Destroyer came around the nightline, and re-entered the wild battle. No one on the bridge was there to see it, no one to note where the autoresponse guns were firing.

So it was really no one's decision for the Destroyer to fire on the Falcon.

The Falcon escaped unscathed, diving deep under the crossfire, but her crimson guard saw the attack, and swarmed in on the hobbling Star Destroyer.

Mahrek wasn't aware of the hull breach until the corridor decompressed around him.

Lando had no idea what frequencies the Rebels used, and he sure as hell didn't want to advertise himself to either Empire, so he sent out a call on a private channel as soon as he found a working transmitter. It wouldn't carry much or be stable for long, but he and Han had used it for quick communication on scams in the past.

Here's hoping he's paying attention, 'cause I've got one shot here.

Static. Static.

Then the welcome growl of a Wookiee, saying that they were a little busy for games just now.

"I know, I know," Lando said. "Get it to the Rebellion. We've got safe havens in the east sector. We're holding them for now. Damaged ships can land. Just do it carefully." He fed the coordinates of the secured platforms into the machine.

The ironic thing, Lando thought, was that he was serious, but they'd have to be damned fools to trust him...damned fools or desperate. He had a feeling the east sector would be seeing some traffic soon.

The first red banner rose in the Imperial Center just before noon.

It was torn down, and the Vader-loyalist who had raised it killed publicly and immediately. But it wasn't the last banner to go up. Many flew from windows of private homes, and as the day and the battle wore on, more troops were committed to smoking these snakes out of their holes. A great bonfire of banners burned in the marketplace, but there always seemed to be another one.

The Imperial military seemed to be scrounging for men, as it suddenly found posts abandoned and barracks mysteriously empty. It was unheard of, and yet it was happening. Stormtroopers were deserting, their genetically programmed obedience short-circuited by the battle of wills between two to whom they were committed, and there was no time to round them up, not with battles to be fought.

Lawlessness began to sweep around Coruscant as the military police forces were stretched thinner and thinner. Stores were looted and libraries sacked by roaming bands of thugs who were loyal to no faction.

Deep in the Imperial Palace, Palpatine felt the first tremor of fear?

The Gungan ship Nass was coming from Rodia to Bespin. It was an old ship, and probably wouldn't survive long in a space battle, but it held a huge crew, and all had expressed a desire to be in the fight, even it meant almost certain death.

"Wesa gonna fight for Queen Amidoll!" was the general, excited sentiment. There was a general feeling that, once she was in firm control, she would take back Naboo, and give them back their wrecked lands to repair.

Captain Meja-Dur Calpar wasn't sure it would happen, but he knew that he had to try. It was their only chance.

"Dis battle's going to be over before we get there!" the comm officer cried out, disappointed (he was a young boy, who had never even lived on Naboo, but treated the Ultimate Alliance as a sacred relic).

"Then wesa should be glad of it," Calpar said. "Dissem not our kind of battle, up here in the sky. If this is where we fight, then we fight and die well. But maybe shesa got something where wesa can help her more."

As if in answer, a light flashed on the comm panel. The young officer answered it. "Captain Calpar, sir," he said, "It's from the Executor."

Vader saw his son return to the bridge, and knew immediately that the talk with Leia had not gone well. Amidala realized it too, and turned away in anguish. Luke moved to stand beside them without saying a word.

Vader had known that Luke would not be successful. His wife and son were so certain that Leia would be as easy to convince as they would be in a similar situation, but he knew better.

She would be no easier to convince than he himself would be.

That thought pained and concerned him. He knew, better than Luke or Amidala ever could, where this was likely headed for her. He felt that she would be with them in the end ? or, at least, he hadn't closely considered any other alternatives ? but there would be a price to pay. Leia's stubbornness would not be broken by a few tearful conversations with her brother and mother. It was going to take something far more drastic to move her, and he wasn't sure that his family was prepared for that.

The Falcon was still on the main viewer, still out of their reach, and just barely avoiding the fire of the Imperials. Vader couldn't help thinking that the circumstances were ripe for disaster.

"Her refusal to listen is not surprising, Luke," he said. "We will better be able to deal with it once she's brought back on board."

"Do you really think it will make a difference where she is? She's too upset to handle any of this."

"That is not my concern right now," Vader replied. "She must be kept safe, and the only way to truly do that is to have her here. The details of the arrangement can be worked out later."

Luke frowned deeply, and Vader caught him giving Amidala a concerned look.

"What troubles you, son?" Vader immediately asked.

"Everything," Luke replied with a sigh.

Vader was surprised by the answer, but found it to his liking. "Good. Given all that's happened, you should not expect otherwise."

"And you, are you troubled?" Luke asked.

"Always," Vader replied.

Amidala shook her head, impatient with the turn of the conversation. "The troubles are nearly over now. For both of you, for all of us."

"Your Majesty?"

Amidala turned to Piett. "Yes, Admiral?"

"We're receiving transmissions from those that have pledged to help us. Many of them are asking us for orders?shall I tell them all to come to Bespin?"

Amidala glanced at the display on the console in front of her. "No, we should begin thinking a little more broadly. There are other places in the galaxy we need to worry about."

Vader stood behind her, and looked over the list. It was an impressive force, considering how hastily it had been arranged. They would have much more manpower than they had anticipated, and several of the groups had modern ships and weapons at their disposal.

It was then that a particular item on the list caught his eye. "The Nass?" he asked. "The Gungans?"

His wife's face spread into an exultant grin. "Yes, it is. Amazing. Admiral, hail that ship."

It took several minutes for a response to come back, but when it did, the audio picked up a joyful Gungan yelling, "Queen Amidoll!" There were several other Gungans cheering and shouting in the background. Over the noise, the commander spoke. "Mesa Cap'n Calpar, yousa Highness. Wesa coming to help you!"

Luke gave his mother a confused look ? Vader was sure he had never even heard of a Gungan ? but she just kept smiling and replied to the hail. "Captain, you can't know what good it does me to hear from you. I know how the Gungans and the Naboo have suffered over the years?one of the first things I'll do is return to Naboo and restore our home. You have my word on that."

"Yes, Queen Amidoll, wesa know yousa fixen everything. Yousa real Naboo, not like bombad Emperor."

Vader squeezed Amidala's shoulder, happy for her that her people were supporting her. He knew that probably meant more to her than any of the others that had decided to help.

"Captain, perhaps it would be better for you not to come directly to Bespin. We need to start solidifying our position in other systems."

"Mmm-hmmm. Where yousa wantin' us to go?"

She paused thoughtfully. "Perhaps you should be the first unit to move on Coruscant. We will send others, of course, and will be there ourselves eventually, but we need to bring the capital under control."

"Yes!" the Gungan replied enthusiastically. "Wesa crunch the Emperor!"

Vader had the strangest urge to laugh, despite the dire seriousness of what was being proposed. "I'm not sure that's the wisest course of action."

"Oh, it is! Wesa ready for the fight."

"I'm sure you are," Amidala said. "But we need to secure the city first. Palpatine can be dealt with later, when we have a greater number of reinforcements."

"Queen Amidoll, wesa ready to do whatever yousa sayin'. But wesa want to do this for you. For all Naboo."

Amidala was shaking her head no, but Vader interrupted. "If, perhaps, they receive help on Coruscant?it might be worthwhile."

"We have our supporters there, Anakin, but I'm not sure that would be enough."

"If the opportunity presents itself, they should take it."

"That's what wesa do. Wesa make the city safe, and then seein' about the Emperor."

Amidala nodded. "That sounds fine. Hopefully, we'll finish here and be able to join you soon. Good luck, Captain."

"Wesa no need luck. Wesa see you when wesa make you Empress, Queen Amidoll."

"Your Majesty!"

Amidala shut off the comm while Vader turned sharply at the panicked sound in Piett's voice. The Falcon was under renewed attack by the skiff that had come from the Iron Will.

"We may not be able to leave as early as you hope, my Lady," he said to Amidala.

The Executor moved deeper into the fray.

There were still many non-humans on Coruscant, if you knew where to look for them. Calpar did. And he knew that almost all of them would be more than happy to fight Palpatine.

And that would be justice.

Landing the Nass was the hardest part. Comm had picked up a coded signal, a constant beacon sent up from Gungan exile communities that sounded to most receivers like static, but came across as lapping waves on Gungan receivers. That was the window. Calpar sent a message on the frequency.

The comm station was already manned. "Wesa got big things happening here," the staffer said.

"Are yousa being ready for something bigger?" Calpar had asked, and only thirty minutes later, the Nass had slipped under a radar shadow and landed in a decrepit part of the old city. About ten Gungans joined them. "Whatsa happening here?" Calpar asked before taking names.

"Da red flags," a native said, with a big grin. "And lotsa trouble. Deysa no got enough troopers to be keeping it down now."

"Yousa been shooting them?"

"No. Theysa been dropping out, or going to da Lady. Theysa having fights with each other, some places."

"Whosa leading these?"

The native Gungan shrugged, obviously neither knowing nor caring about stormtroopers no matter who their allegiance was to.

"Well then," Calpar said, "first things going first. Wheresa da most people we can be getting to?"

The Gungans took him to the square of the slum, where people of all sorts seemed to be having an ongoing party. There were Toydarians fluttering outside windows, Malastarians goggling at dancing Twi'leks, Wookiees tossing and batting at large steel barrels. Calpar thought he even saw the eyes of a Hutt, back in the darkness of one of the hollow buildings. There were humans too ? maybe even some of the deserting stormtroopers; you couldn't tell without the armour ? and Calpar was perfectly happy to let them take part in this section of the operation. It was only the other part that he wanted to keep strictly among the Gungans.

Torn pieces of red cloth hung from the rusty walls, and one of the Twi'leks was wrapped in red lace (and nothing else). Calpar snorted. These folk were going to need to stop playing at it and actually do something.

"Yousa people!" A few paid attention. "Wesa coming from Queen Amidoll, at the top of da new Empire!"

A spontaneous cheer went up and the Twi'lek in lace unwound it and waved it like a flag. She got some appreciative stares, then seemed to notice that she was naked. She put the lace back on.

But at least their attention was directed to issue at hand now. Calpar spoke again. "Wesa got work to do before the party starts."

"Party's already started!" someone called, sounding good-natured.

"Yousa starting too fast. Da city's got to get calmed down, so Hersa Majesty can be coming here. Then, we having da biggest party ever on Coruscant, because shesa going to give everything the Emp'ror took away from us back."

Dead quiet. Many of these people had slid into a boisterous life when everything that had mattered to them had been taken. There was still a chance.

Of course, some of them were doing the same thing they'd done in the Old Republic, and the Empress wasn't likely to be generous to them, but what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them.

Calpar pointed to the Hutt. "Yousa back there, I see you! I know yousa got people to send. Yousa need to be sending them to the market to get it calmed down. You humans ? yousa gonna do better in the government part. Da rest of you, go out, and find all the folks dat are hiding and can be coming out. You get dem, and yousa go together, and get da fires out."

"And what about you?" a human called.

Calpar looked from side to side, at the eighty-odd Gungans who flanked him. "Wesa got business to be doing at the Imperial Palace."

Palpatine called his guard into the center of the Palace, leaving a squad of twenty elite scarlet-clad soldiers at the door of the throne room. Forty more soldiers barred the way to the door. But he was unable to recall the majority of the troops.

He was losing hold.

The fear that had begun to nip at him was growing, and he had no liking for it. This was not proceeding as he had foreseen.

He should have killed Amidala years ago, when he'd first captured her. But he'd thought she might prove useful someday, in controlling Vader, should his occasional lapses into Jedi thinking start to become more frequent. She could be brought out then, and used as leverage. Or killed before him, to draw out his anger and pull him back to the Dark Side. But he had miscalculated where the true control was. He had not taken Amidala's own pernicious influence into account, and it had certainly never occurred to him that they would find one another without his arranging it.

Then perhaps he should have killed her when she first re-appeared.

It was pointless.

He cast into the Force, swirling around him like a maelstrom. Paths opened, but he couldn't grasp them.

He ground his teeth together. Something would open. He was destined to this position, for eternity. He planned to defeat his own death. But he felt both his future and his life slipping out between his fingers, in a flow that wasn't blood, but a veil of red silk.

A flash of a shadow, and a path opened. He would need to leave the Palace, but he would reveal Vader for who he was, and reveal Amidala's compliance in Vader's acts. His own hands had been quite deliberately clean for many years; Vader's dripped with blood.

He just needed to ?

A great explosion shook the Palace, and Palpatine smelled the smoke of burning wires. Shouting voices burst in.

His guard answered fire ? he could hear it, like a stringed instrument being sliced. Some of the guards were running.

Palpatine seized their minds, and thrust them back into the fray. He drew their weapons, and fired at...


He saw the first grotesquely misshapen shadow less than a minute later. Wide ankles, long necks, eyes bobbing on ugly stalks. The shadows loomed up in the smoke.

Fear was replaced by loathing. Palpatine raised his arms, and called on the power of the Dark Side.

The lighting came out of the darkness of the throne room, and struck down the first three Gungans to break through the door. The battle with the guard had been bloody, and many Gungans lay in deadly embrace with their enemies.

Calpar didn't need to keep pushing them forward. He didn't think he could stop them even if he wanted to. The battle-madness had taken them. They charged forward, streaming around the bodies of their fallen comrades.

The lightning threw more of them backward, pushing them into metal walls and reaching through their hearts. But even after the fight with the guards, there were forty left.





Calpar had reached the door of the throne room when a victory whoop rose above the angry scream of a cheated man. In the shadow projected on a screen of smoke, he saw a knife drawn.

Han would have been content to continue sheltering Leia in his embrace, to just sit and let the battle fight itself, the outcome be damned. At that moment, even though continuing that way would have been certain death, having his last moment be at least some attempt to directly protect her would almost be worth it. The only thing that didn't make it worth it was that it would mean she would die too.

But life, or fate (perhaps in this case conspiring with the Empire) as always, had plans ? which at this point, was, apparently, the Empire taking all the shots at the Falcon they could get ? and seemed to preclude any sort of plans on the part of Han or Leia. And had done so for as long as either could remember, he thought as he leapt back into his seat, disengaging the autopilot. Autopilot was nothing compared to the (if only barely at this point) thinking mind of a living pilot.

Not the least of those plans being the Vaders' plans for Leia, which Han had no desire to think about ? nor had the luxury of doing anyway, not with this attack skiff, from the Star Destroyer that had first fired on them, now seeming to get its second wind and bearing down on them. The Imperial fighters that had been providing cover for the Falcon ? for reasons Han just as soon didn't think about ? wouldn't hold out forever, and not against something more than marginally better armed than they were, like this battle-tank of a skiff.

Second winds had a tendency of blowing out quickly, though, and Han decided he would see if he could make it happen any quicker. He and Chewie deftly piloted the Falcon between the crisscrossing maze of laser fire and ships, not avoiding the edges of that maze with as much a berth as he always hoped, but still avoiding it.

But he knew that even as good a pilot as he or even Chewie was, they wouldn't be able to run forever, either. And the margins by which the Falcon was escaping certain death seemed to be diminishing with each passing minute...

They had to get out of this star system, away from Bespin completely, even if it meant leaving the Rebels ? and Luke, he winced internally ? behind. Leia was strong, but enough was enough ? she'd been under constant psychological fire ever since that blasted intercepted transmission from Lady Vader, and to Han getting her out and away from the worst of that was more important than any battle the Rebels were fighting, even if his best friend was on the wrong side of that battle.

Knowing Luke was there at the side of the Vaders (and even worse, trying to get Leia there as well) had unnerved and angered Han in more ways than one, once the shock had dispersed somewhat. Back when he'd last seen the kid, before the Battle of Hoth, he'd had little worry for him ? he'd thought Luke to have a strong head on his shoulders. Han still believed, no matter what, that that was still the case, even though he didn't discount the possibility that something rather large and hard had impacted Luke's skull ? and if someone with that strength could so quickly be swayed by the Vaders ? what chance did Leia, even with her new strength, have against them? The way they kept directing shots at her it was a wonder she'd rebuilt anything in her at all, and they would just tear it back down again.

And damned if he was going to see anyone, even if that anyone included Luke, do that to her.

This was one of the reasons one stayed a smuggler ? you would never have to feel the gut-twisting guilt at being forced to trade one friend's fate for another. Even though the kid had been strong enough to make this decision consciously, on his own.

Han had just never imagined the next time he found Luke again it would be with Luke willingly at the side of their worst enemies, the same ones that had caused Leia, his own friend and blood, such unnecessary pain. Parents or not.

One of the crimson-splashed TIEs covering them vanished in an even brighter crimson flash, the skiff moving in closer to take advantage of the gap it had created. It was, while getting steadily closer, still barely outside the range where it could get a clear weapons lock on the Falcon, but that hadn't stopped them from taking all the blind shots it could ? and in many ways, an enraged blind man was more frightening than one who was taking calculated shots: with the calculated man, at least there was some chance of a pattern you could detect and take advantage of.

There was a sudden rumbling from Chewie, and Han sharply directed his gaze to another part of space, not far from the edge of Bespin's gravity well...which was rapidly filling with a blossom of red-orange fire as one of the Empire's Star Destroyers, overcome by damage from both sides, was finally overcome by it.

Leaving a gap in the enemy perimeter.

Han wasted little time. He shot a glance back at Leia in the seat behind him, his insides tightening at the carved-ice expression of pain on her face, and was immediately reminded of Luke once more. "Tighten your seatbelt, sweetheart," he warned. "I've grown rather fond of you and I'd rather not have to peel you off the back of the cockpit if we make it through this."

Leia's face was incredulous; at least it wasn't icy anymore. "What do you mean ?"

The last word took on a sudden and sharp increase in pitch, with an equally high-pitched response from Threepio (Han couldn't believe he'd forgotten to turn the droid off) as Han suddenly broke the Falcon hard left, losing their escorts and pursuers alike and breaking hard for the new gap. Their escape, hopefully...

"Warn me next time," Leia muttered, the color coming back into her face.

"That was your warning, doll." He pushed the sublight drive lever forward, pushing all four crewmembers back against their seats. They were six thousand kilometers from the debris-littered gap, and closing...but they weren't closing fast enough, it seemed...

"Get me more speed, Chewie."

The Wookiee moved quickly to comply, flipping levers and switches near him ? but suddenly the ship jerked explosively, as if hit by a small meteorite (Han shunted away THAT memory) ? but no impact registered on the sensors.

"Let me guess," Leia muttered, shifting her grip on the back of Han's seat. "Now's the time when one of us should say 'I have a bad feeling about this'?"

"Complain all you want later. Right now I'm trying not to kill us."

The Wookiee growled a quick, angry response ? which caused the blood to freeze red in Han's face. "What did you say?"

"I believe he said, sir, that the ?" Threepio began helpfully...

"Can it, Goldenrod," Han shot back, swearing internally, running any number of possible solutions in his head, hoping for a feasible one. He tightened his lips in a grim line ? a lot of those possibilities weren't possibilities if you were minus one sublight engine. "I know what it means when the casing on one of our sublight engines is fractured."

The old Leia would have made some crack about how all the parts of this ship, particularly the engines, seemed to share a symbiotic tendency towards malfunction ? instead, her eyes widened in an expression that to Han still, despite its frequent presence in the past months, looked alien on a face like Leia's: fear. With a fractured casing the engine was as good as nonexistent now; if he tried to use it, there wouldn't be a Falcon left to save. And with it gone, it was a definite detriment to gaining additional speed. Of course, it seemed to have little trouble in being a loss of speed...

"Sorry, sweetheart," Han muttered. "Looks like you get to tighten your seatbelt again. We've got some flying to do if we're going to make that gap." Even now the debris cloud was dissipating, which would mean any sort of cover the Falcon would have in that area would be gone...already, it looked as if one of the Destroyers, exchanging fire with the Liberty, was trying for the position already. Han flipped a couple of switches, draining power from the life support and atmospheric thrusters into the remaining engines ? if they didn't make it out of here, those functions were useless anyway.

By this point their Imperial escort, and their pursuers as well, had compensated for their previous loss of target lock...and were closing in fast, faster than the Falcon was on their gap. The skiff was firing again, its shots coming closer and closer to being accurate as they skirted the very edge of the maximum weapons range.

"Concentrate power on the rear shields, Chewie," Han ordered. "It won't do us any good if they blow off another sublight or our hyperdrive." It would also gain them that much more speed ? without the energy drain from the forward shields, it would gain them at least a few more kilometers per second. At least with debris field clearing, the risk of them getting hit by that was minimal...but there was still the possibility they'd be hit by one of their pursuers, but their unasked-for escort could probably function in that capability long enough for them to get out.

Suddenly one of the fighters swooped in front of the Falcon, and Han jerked the ship and missed the fighter by a handful of meters. "What the ?" but then he knew, as the other fighters moved in front of the freighter as well.

"So much for the escort," he muttered. "Looks like they're not any more keen on us leaving than the ones trying to kill us."

Their passage out of here was blocked...and their cover from the skiff was gone. Briefly, Han considered taking the Falcon to dock in one of the Mon Cal cruisers ? but that would mean the cruiser lowering its shields to let them in, and they were all occupied by the Destroyers anyway, even though the Rebels themselves seemed to be faring unusually well. But if the Vaders still thought this assistance could sway the Rebellion over to their side, he could think of at least three (four, if you counted Threepio) that wouldn't be joining them.

He couldn't afford to waste time dodging these crimson gnats. "I know you enjoy the view from back there, Highness, but we need someone in the lower gunnery turret. We're going to have to blow past our own escort if we want out of here, and I want to make sure our tail's still covered."

He ignored the cold look he received in return from the Princess, as she made her way to the turret from where, not too many years ago, an eager young Tatooine farmboy had giddily blown TIEs away into space dust as they fled away from what had been, until the appearance of Lady Vader, the greatest instrument of mass destruction the galaxy had known.

He would miss the kid. Even if he had turned against his own friends.

The Falcon charged gamely forth like a battered steed getting its own second wind, firing its red laser cannons at the fighters. Not expecting fire from that quarter, two out of the five fighters quickly sustained damage, one spinning off hopelessly to burn up in Bespin's nearby atmosphere. The other three scrambled to reform ? leaving Han his gap again. From in the back he could hear the satisfying thum-thum of the gun turret as it was fired. At least back there Leia was doing some good, and it would get her mind off the ?

Chewie's loud and sudden roar was the only warning as, a split-moment later, a green flash seemingly a kilometer wide blinded them and the Falcon suddenly careened off course into space, an explosion of blue sparks from his console dancing into Han's face. As the ship spun he saw Chewie lurch hard to grab onto his arm rest, barely managing to stay in his seat; Threepio's startled scream as he slammed into the rear side of the cockpit ? which was abruptly cut short. The huge Wookiee broke Han's fall, keeping him from meeting the same fate as the droid and allowing him to fight his way back into his pilot seat.

Han knew they'd been hit; his immediate instinct was to run for Leia, in the gun turret. There was very little protection in there, and if it had been her area that was hit ? but there was nothing he could do, he unsatisfyingly assured himself; no time to curse the tunnel vision that had caused him to briefly lose sight of the destroyer, or the fact that his piloting skills hadn't kept them any longer. He had to regain control of the ship ? if that was possible, with his console fried.

They hadn't been directly hit by the fire of the Star Destroyer, he soon discovered ? whether it was the one that had first fired on them, he didn't know ? otherwise, he wouldn't be around to be thinking this. But they had been grazed by the massive laser beam, the force of that energy impacting them slamming through the port side of the tiny ship and throwing it into a spiral...and vaporizing any circuitry essential to navigation (including Han and Chewie's consoles). Fighting against vertigo and the bile rising in his throat, Han pulled on the steering controls, barking at Chewie to do the same, trying to put an equal counterforce on the force that kept the ship spinning, trying to slow the spin or at least gain some semblance of a clear heading. But it was to no avail; they were in the same situation as that fighter they'd engines left to fight the gravity, they were sinking right into the gravity well around Bespin, heading straight for the planet. Not far away, just coming around the edge of the planet's bulk lurked the bulk of the Executor, suddenly not looking as beleaguered as it had before.

The vertigo was fast pulling at him, pushing (pulling?) Han ceaselessly towards the sorely tempting, pain-free avenues of unconsciousness. As the gravitational pull grew stronger the speed of the ship's spin increased as well, and soon the ability to fight was no longer within Han's grasp.

Han's last thought before the black zoomed in on his consciousness, as the tannish sphere of Bespin spiraled ever larger in the viewport, was that he had failed Leia. He hadn't saved her...and now they would die. Even worse, the last thing he was going to behold was an ugly planet...and not her tiny, perfect face.

As consciousness vanished, and Chewie's pained howl began to die away, Han found himself for the first time in his life, and his last now, apparently, praying ? that she was unconscious now...and would feel no pain.

Amidala was frozen.

She couldn't move. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't form a coherent thought. She was stuck in place, as surely as if her feet had been tied down to that spot on the floor. Her fingertips were tingling, and her skin was covered in goose bumps.

Before her, on the other side of the bridge window, the Millennium Falcon's hull flashed up in sparks and flames.

They seemed so close?she thought she should feel the heat of the fire against her. Indeed, Amidala slowly became aware of the chill in her body giving way to a burning sensation. First in her chest, which was constricting and twisting agonizingly, then in her eyes, where tears were pricked at her eyelids.

The Falcon turned over, and it became clear that the ship had not been destroyed. Still, the damage was irreparable ? she knew immediately there was nothing the pilot would be able to do to save her daughter. He wouldn't even be able to regain control of the ship, and Leia was headed for the planet's surface?

Amidala tried to order Piett to get a tractor beam on the Falcon, but all she heard come out of her mouth was a strangled, incoherent scream.

The bridge crew was stunned, but she didn't waste time noticing. Now, she was breathing and moving again, and she had to do something.

"Get a tractor beam on them!" she said, running across the bridge to Piett. "You have to help her!"

"Your Majesty," Piett began, his voice trembling, "they are still out of range ?"

"No! You have to do something!"

"Your Majesty, we can send a recovery team to the surface, and we can stop the Imperials from their continued pursuit, but ?"

"What?" Amidala turned her attention back to the battle, and saw the skiff. It was still firing on her daughter, trying to get one last hit on the Falcon, and destroy it before it went down.

Anakin nodded to the Admiral. "Tell the fleet to concentrate all fire power on that skiff. Assemble a surface team immediately. I will accompany them down to the surface."

Piett swallowed hard, and said, "Yes, my Lord." He glanced at Amidala. "Your Majesty ?" Her head snapped, and her eyes narrowed on him dangerously. "We will do everything we can to protect the Falcon."

"Admiral," she replied, "you must destroy that skiff."

"We are moving into range ?"

"No," she snapped. "I want you to fire. Now."

Her husband shook his head. "We have other ships in better position."

Amidala spun away from him and marched over to the weapons officer. "Find the coordinates for that skiff and fire," she ordered, her voice trembling.

"But, Your Majesty ?"

"Mother," Luke said. "There are Rebel ships ?"

She ignored them both. "Fire, now! Or I'll relieve you and do it myself."

The young officer, clearly shaken, punched in the coordinates and fired.

The laser blast emerged from the Executor's cannon, barely missed several of their own TIE fighters, and hit the very edge of the Imperial ship.

"Fire again," she hissed. "Fire until that ship is gone. Do you understand?"

"Amidala ?" she heard Anakin say.


The weapons officer made the adjustments and fired again.

A small Rebel cruiser suffered a direct hit, and exploded spectacularly. Luke turned to her in horror.

The look on his face might have been enough to bring her out of her fury ? she did begin to get an inkling that she was going too far, especially since the last shot had stopped the skiff from pursuing the Falcon.

But, another officer spoke up then. "Your Majesty, Admiral Ozzel's ship has been disabled. He is no longer in pursuit."

"Ozzel?" she whispered harshly.

The last thing Amidala heard clearly after that was Anakin asking Luke to accompany him to the shuttle. She saw them leave the bridge.

After that, everything was a blur.

She ordered continuous fire on the skiff, renewing the command every time there was a pause in the shooting.

Other Imperial ships began firing on the Executor, but she ignored it.

Several Rebel X-Wings were destroyed.

A crimson-striped ship was hit, and spun wildly until it was out of her view.

A large Imperial cruiser exploded, and began a slow fall into the surface. Amidala had a fleeting thought as she watched it drop ? it was big enough to seriously damage a city disk, were it to crash into to one of them on the way down ? before she refocused her attention on Ozzel.


She had no doubt that her anger would burn just as furiously at any Imperial who would hurt her daughter. But this man, this man who took such terrible advantage of her kindness, who used her clemency to plot against her, to destroy her and her family?there would be no mercy for him.

Finally, finally, Amidala had a clear view of the damaged skiff. The officer didn't hesitate. A concluding, satisfying explosion followed.

There was absolute silence on the bridge. Amidala took a deep cleansing breath, and turned to Piett.

"Has the surface team left yet?"

"No, Your Majesty. Shall I ask them to wait?"

"Yes," she responded. Her body began to feel normal again ? the cold was nearly gone, as was the numbness, and the clamping around her chest. "Once we've recovered Leia, we will return here immediately."

Piett nodded. "Do you have any other orders in the meantime?"

"No, Admiral. I trust your judgment. Continue to press our advantage against the Imperials, this battle should be over quickly."

He nodded, and Amidala left the bridge.

She boarded the shuttle and Anakin immediately ordered the pilot to undock from the Executor. Not caring who saw, Amidala buried herself in her husband's arms, leaning her face against the armor of his breastplate. He wrapped his arms around her.

"Tell me she's okay, Ani, please. Tell me we'll find her, and she'll be okay."

"I've spoken to Luke?we agree that it's?unlikely that she's dead."

Amidala pulled back to look at him. "Unlikely? Can't you tell? Can't you sense it?"

"No. If she's alive, she's probably badly injured. We simply cannot be sure of what happened."

"We'll find her, and she'll be all right," Amidala murmured. She suddenly glanced around the cockpit. "Where's Luke?"

"He asked for some time alone. He is in another part of the shuttle."

"He must be upset about what happened on the bridge?I should talk to him."

"No, Amidala," he replied. He led her over to the passenger chairs, and they sat. "He needs some time alone."

"But what if he's beginning to doubt ?"

"He will have doubts for quite some time. Amidala. As will Leia. You must accept that. We should simply be grateful to have them with us."

She heaved a sigh. "This isn't the way I wanted things to happen."

"That is not our concern. We have our children, and we have the Empire."

"And we have each other," she whispered.

"We have everything we've wanted and worked for, Amidala. This is not the time for regrets."

Amidala nodded. "You're right, Anakin, you're right." She stared deeply at him, clearly imagining his face and his expression under his mask. "Finally, we've set things right."

He pulled her back into an embrace, and Amidala leaned against him as their shuttle made its way to the surface.

I can't stay here.

Luke sank into a dark corner of the cargo hold, drawing his knees up against his chest. He had meant to meditate, but when he tried to reach out into the Force, he found darkness and turbulence. It was all he could do to hold on. He didn't have the strength to break away now.

But I can't stay here. I can't.

He had seen Vader ? Father ? commit murder, on board the Death Star, but somehow he'd found that he could wrap his mind around that. It was a duel, and he'd expected Kenobi to fight. Kenobi had lied to him, about a very important thing. Kenobi had caused his imprisonment in the mechanical suit. It had been...well, if not precisely normal, certainly understandable on some level. It was bad, but when they'd looked at one another, Luke had known, on some level deep inside, that he could come to terms with it, and maybe, just maybe, help steer him in a better direction.

But Mother...

He couldn't come to terms with what had happened on the bridge. Maybe it was more understandable in some ways ? Luke was at the edge of his sanity after watching what happened to the Falcon himself ? but there was something beyond fear in Mother's reaction. Behind her carefully built persona, she was like a dark curtain had been drawn across her eyes, blocking whatever light was inside.

Maybe smothering it.

I can't stay here.

But he couldn't go back, either. Not after appearing with them before the Rebellion, not after the call to Leia. No one would take him.


It was more than the frightening, rootless feeling of having disconnected himself from his past. It was more than lethargy. He simply couldn't leave.

Not now that he had them.

He had never felt so desperately loved and wanted in his life. Mother's touch on his wrist, Father's...what was it about Vader? Luke couldn't put his finger on just what it was that made him feel that Vader valued him. Love might be beyond the Dark Lord, but...

No. He loves her. And if he can love her, he can love you.

It wasn't a logical conclusion, but it felt true to Luke's nerve endings. His parents loved him, and that simple truth was the strongest shackle they could have put on him. He couldn't desert them, and he couldn't let go of them. Vader was...there was something about him that Luke didn't understand, and wanted to. And Mother was lost. She needed help, and Father couldn't offer it. He was too disoriented himself.

But I can't stay here. I can't watch that again.

Luke felt Vader's presence a moment before the door to the hold opened. He fought the instinct to hide.

"We are approaching the surface. You will need to wear a gas mask if you plan to accompany us to the crash site."

Luke took the proffered mask. His innards all felt cold, as if they'd just been returned to him after a long period in cryogenic storage. There was a vague possibility that the Falcon would have survived the crash, but could they possibly have had time to brace themselves against Bespin's toxic surface atmosphere?

"Father," he began.

Vader watched him impassively, but Luke felt/sensed/wished for an expression beneath the mask. Concern, maybe. When Vader spoke, certainly it sounded as if there was some feeling. "Your mother has had a difficult life," he said. "And we must make allowances."

"But Father ?"

"You have witnessed an oddity. That is all. When all is set to rights, you will not see such a thing again."

Luke considered arguing, but Vader's patience was unlikely to be infinite. Instead, he put his mask on and followed his father out of the hold.

Mother was waiting at the hatch, her mask on and her arms crossed nervously over her chest. Her haunted eyes found Luke's and lingered there. He couldn't walk away from her.

But I can't stay.

The problem was, he could. He knew that. He would stay, and there would always be a reason not to argue with them, to wait for a better time. And maybe a better time would come. Maybe Vader was right, and it had not been a sign of her general behavior. He, after all, knew her better, and ought to have some idea what she was normally like.

Still, something told him that Vader was wrong. Mother had lost hold of herself somewhere, and what happened on the bridge was just the beginning. If he stayed, he would be a party to her actions. If he left...

He closed his eyes, as the shuttle thumped to a stop on the planet surface. If he left, he would be what Leia was now ? the cause of her actions. He had to stay, whatever happened, because he couldn't risk the mad chase she would put after him.

And besides, when she had touched his hand, he had known who he was and where he came from.

And he could bring her back.

The thought occurred to him with the relief of a sudden cool shadow in the open desert. He would stay, he would get close to them, and he would...bring them back.

Obi-Wan's voice came into his mind quite abruptly. No, Luke, don't. Your compassion for them is the trap that will hold you, as your mother's compassion for your father held her, until the darkness comes to take you ?

Luke shut himself off from Obi-Wan's voice. Obi-Wan had shown nothing but contempt for his family, and his advice had already caused this destruction. If he hadn't shattered the family in the first place, breaking the bonds of compassion and pity, then none of this would be happening.

He stepped up to stand with his parents.

The hatch opened, and the perpetual yellowish clouds of Bespin's surface drifted across his field of vision. There was a burning greenish shadow about ten yards away. The Falcon. They made their way to it.

There was no need to find the hatch. The ship was split open in many places. Enough systems were still functional that a forcefield had gone up around what little atmosphere the ship still held, so the air might still be breathable in there. Luke could feel life energies inside ? Leia was here. He could feel her like the gravity of a fading star.

Vader also felt her. He strode toward a section of the wreckage that had fallen slightly to the side. The gun turret, Luke realized. She'd been firing when they went down.

The forcefields were permeable by large, slow moving objects (it would have been a poor emergency system if rescuers couldn't get in) and Luke and the Vaders pushed their way into the ship at three different points. Mother ran to join Vader, knowing that he was homing in on Leia. Luke was tempted to do the same, but managed to exert enough control to keep himself from it. There were other people aboard this ship, other people who mattered to him. His parents would find and care for Leia. They wouldn't bother with Han and Chewbacca.

He made his way down the smashed corridor beside the chess table, absently drawing two gas masks from their hooks as he went. Above him, the hull breach showed the swirling atmosphere, and the strange, milky light of Bespin's surface. Ahead, he could see bits of golden droid covering, then a head, then an arm. He picked up Threepio's head; his main circuitry was housed there; it was possible to save him.

Am I worrying about a droid?

Well, he was, and there was nothing to be done about it.

The cockpit was a smoky shambles when he reached it, and he could see almost nothing. He couldn't feel anything, either, but then Han and Chewie were difficult to see in the Force even when they were healthy.

He heard a low growl, and turned toward it. Chewbacca was crouched against the bulkhead, his face lacerated and one arm clearly broken ? the bone stuck out through his fur at an alarming angle. Han Solo had rolled to one side, unconscious but obviously breathing. Luke took a few more steps toward them, and Chewie's threatening growl came again, low and barely audible even this close.

"Luke?" Mother called, her voice tinny through the mask's transmitter. "Luke, have you found anything?"

"Yes," he said.

Chewie's eyes blazed and he tried to swing with his injured arm.

Luke dropped the two extra gas masks on the floor in front of them, then turned and went back to his parents. Mother looked terrified. Father was still next to the turret, from which he'd pulled Leia's limp form. She lay like a rag doll in front of him.

Mother kept glancing over her shoulder. "What did you find? We should take them into protective custody."

Luke held out Threepio's head. "Only this," he said. "Han and Chewie..." His voice caught in his throat. "They died in the crash."

Mother put a comforting hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, Luke. It wasn't supposed to happen like this."

"I know, Mother. How is Leia?"

Mother's eyes filled with sudden, terrified tears. Luke wrapped his arms around her, and led her back to the rest of her family.

For a time, there had been unbearable physical pain. How her head had hurt...and then, she'd come here.

Not since her girlhood memories of summers with her adoptive parents on Alderaan had she felt such a peace in her, a lightness, no burden turning her heart and feet to lead...

...a lightness which had still been false in its creations. For that light had not come from a true absence of darkness to penetrate it, but of a wall shielding that darkness away, before the young Princess could ever know it was even there. Most of the time, she hadn't even seen the wall...but it had been there. It had been there the whole time. Just as it had been there for Luke, and now look where he was.

It was at this point she'd sadly realized this peace was not any sort of post-death least not any one she'd heard of. What sort of afterlife had such pure happiness, which was so easily fractured by one mere stray train of unwelcome thought...?

She was pulled away from the happy realm, and for a time she fought it, fought the connection to her body that, apparently, after catching a glimpse of its hiding consciousness, decided to reaffirm its claim to it...


The shock of the word, and the recognition of the voice speaking it, was enough to make her abandon her struggle entirely while her consciousness was still in mid-transit, after achieving a certain degree of success ? but the state she was now in as a result, that awful draining limbo between consciousness and oblivion ? was far less preferable. (Even in unconsciousness, Luke was still betraying her, it seemed.) A single tenuous gray layer was all that existed between herself and complete consciousness, and she refused to loose her grip on this one last, frail shield from the world around her.

Lurking on just the other side of that layer, came the awful metronome of his breathing...

The last layer vanished, revealing a scarlet curtain draped over her vision.

Had she the energy, it would have been necessary to fight the impossible urge to scream. As it was, she didn't even have the energy to succumb to it. No! She, of all people, was not going to wrest her from her long sought peace...

Strong hands gripped her limp form, pulling it with surprising care from where it had been wedged discomfortingly under part of the gunnery chair ? thanks to the impact. She couldn't have fought, even if she had wanted to, even though the act of moving her so suddenly obviously exposed a flesh wound that had been previously shielded, the toxic air burning at the injury...injury. Her head was bleeding. That was the scarlet she saw. Her gaze moved groggily around the shattered remains of the turret, glimpsing glinting shards of plasteel, glass...the blurred scarlet and scattered ivory form which was certainly her mother.

She found her eyes rested most comfortably out of focus instead of in, so she just let them stay that way. Her mind seemed to operate on a similar principle at the moment. There was probably neural damage of some sort, which explained her inability to focus...

My head. My head was injured in the crash.

The crash. She remembered the brilliant green flash, the ship spinning out of control. She remembered being yanked as if by a giant hand from the gunnery chair as Bespin loomed ever closer...the blackness swirling around her before she'd even realized she'd slammed into anything...she remembered Han's frantic yelling, combined with Chewie's growling, coming from the cockpit...

Han. Gods, he was still in the cockpit, she had to get to him! she thought dully ? but common sense, and her drained body, reminded her that such a feat was impossible. In the reposes of her mind, the most secure place she had at the moment, Leia allowed herself to ache for him, for that last embrace before things had gone completely to hell in a Sarlaac pit.

Because even if he was alive, he would only remain so at the grace of the Lord and Lady Vader. And were he to be privileged so, he wouldn't be doing it near Leia.

"Luke," her mother said again, "have you found anything?" There was a reply, but Leia was too weakened to make it out. It was as if a translucent shield had been draped over her consciousness, keeping it from completely surfacing, yet still thin enough for Leia to know what was going on around her. A not-quite coma.

"She is alive," her father's low mechanical voice reverberated through her then. She felt herself being lowered, her body coming into contact with the cool metal of the bulkhead. It was terrible, wretched ? but Leia knew part of her would gladly have remained cradled in her father's arms...the soft leather was preferable to the bare metal, and there was no denying the security in knowing he'd allow no harm to come to her... "I do not know for how long. It's a testament to her strength she even survived the crash."

Slowly, fading once more, Leia closed her eyes again, allowing her head to loll off to one side. As she did so, she heard a soft gasp, and the air in the turret was so deathly still (except for HIS breathing) that Leia could almost hear the muted slap that could easily have been someone's hand coming quickly in contact with the flesh of their mouth. She didn't have the ability at the moment to appreciate causing her mother that one moment of terror (where Leia had experienced countless ones), at watching her child display such frightening frailty.

A brief hope flickered in the blurred mind, then died just as quickly: Maybe they'll think I'm dead.

But even if they did leave her here, she was still as good as dead. Unconsciousness was probably the healthiest thing she could have done: in that state, her body was operating on a lower level of necessity, and would inhale far less of the toxic gases that made up the odd murky green around here, which would gradually clog her lungs completely.

In an ideal world, they would have left her body be. Then she'd find Han, assuming he'd lived, and they'd find a way to get off of this ball...but that notion was foolish to even harbor, and she knew it.

Any way, shape or form, she was still dead.

She wished she'd never woken up after the impact ? that, whatever awaited her on the other side, be it endless peace or simple oblivion, would be granted to her once more. Between the choices of being suffocated slowly by the poison atmosphere or being the captive of her family (including her newly traitor twin), any chance at a happy existence was over. She found this did not overwhelm her as much as it normally would have...but not due to any newfound reservoir of hope, she noted. Rather, the fact that once you've reached the lowest point you can possibly go, you know you can't get any worse. It wasn't a comforting notion.

Punctuated vibrations in the floor she was resting on ? footsteps. Luke; it had to be. "What did you find?" her mother asked, traces of hope unmistakable in her voice. "We should take them into protective custody."

No!! Leia hurled weakly at her; even if thoughts could be used as projectile weapons, this would have barely been an audible thud against Vader's plasteel helmet. This time Leia fought (however futilely) to gain full consciousness, to be able to scream at them, I'll die before I let you ?

She blacked out then, missing the beginning of Luke's response...but when she heard the rest, she found herself wishing this latest blackout, as with the ones previous, would quit teasing her and just let her remain unconscious permanently.

"...Han and Chewie...they died in the crash."

Any will for attempting continued consciousness completely severed itself from Leia in that moment. Her mind seemed to explode inward. In the shrinking burst of light was encapsulated any warm moment she and Han had shared; the shared looks and caresses...the all too few kisses that would be no more.

She should feel guilt at Chewie's death, too, she knew...but all she could think about was the last exchange between her and Han: his barked words ordering her to the turret, her selfishly indignant glare in response. Oh, how she would have given anything to change that!

If he had lived and she was captured, at least Leia might have had the assurance that he would have something of a chance at a life...just knowing he would be out there, away from the Vaders' clutches, would be just enough to sustain her.

But now she was being denied even that. Selfish, she knew... but she didn't particularly care.

Han, she thought once more, mind flicking to one of the few comforting notions there had been in her life...snatched away, as everything else had been. Any object of her love had either betrayed her...or been stolen away. With Han gone, the last straw finally broke.

The imploding light winked to nothing, and unconsciousness seduced her to its arms once more...where what had just transpired would haunt her as little more than a bad dream...and she'd had enough of those to last a lifetime.

Consciousness returned to Han with a searing, painful jolt. One second, he felt nothing, and in the next, his nerves began screaming out in agony. His head was throbbing fiercely ? he couldn't hear anything besides the sound of his pulse shooting past his temple and down through his ears.

What ?? Where?

Something touched and lifted his head. Then his face was covered?

The clean air forced in through the mask startled Han enough to fully bring him out of his stupor. Several hacking coughs escaped him before Chewie shook him by his shoulders, urging him to quiet down.

Han did his best to cough as silently as possible. His ribs shook and he was sure that several of them were broken?maybe one of his legs was as well. He squinted his eyes at Chewie ? the Wookiee was injured, but not critically, though his arm looked terrible. Han turned his head to see how badly hurt Leia was ?


Han immediately sat up, but was only halfway before the pain in his chest forced him to lie down again with a grunt. She wasn't in the passenger seat?where she always was when they traveled together. Before the crash, she had been ?

Chewie shook his head vehemently, and tried to keep Han down. He waved his good arm at the other end of the cockpit. When Han turned to look, he realized for the first time that the Falcon was split into pieces ? the surface of Bespin was at the end of the hallway, and the emergency shielding was up.

And she had been?the turrets were unprotected?she couldn't have?

"Leia," he whispered. Cursing silently, Han pulled himself up slowly, pushing past the crushing sensation in his chest. Chewie mewled at him at him softly, telling him to be quiet.

Because the Vaders were out there.

All the more reason he needed to get moving. Han didn't bother trying to get his legs under him to stand up ? one of them was definitely broken, and wasn't about to bend as he needed ? but he thought that if he could flip himself over, he could crawl out, dragging his leg behind him.

If he and Chewie survived, maybe she did too. Maybe she had been able to get out of the turret once she realized the Falcon was going down.

But what if she had decided to go down firing? Or what if she just couldn't get out of there?

Han's eyes were blurring now, and he was having considerable trouble breathing. He was on his side, trying to finish rolling over onto his chest so he could start moving. But he simply couldn't do it. He was cold and shivering, and was becoming dizzy?

Chewie gently rolled him down so he was lying on his back again. Immediately, he could breathe again, and the pain subsided a little.

"Go find her," he said quietly. "Now."

A few growls, and Han shook his head. "No, don't worry about me. You can't really help me now. You've got to take care of her."

Chewie made a low, sad noise, and then left Han in search of Leia.

He lay there, terribly alone, trying to picture a scenario in which both he and Leia would get out of this alive, and together.

Han wasn't sure how much time had passed before his breathing became labored again, and the room blurred. He slipped quietly back into unconsciousness.

"Han? Come on, buddy, wake up. The doctors say you should be fine now."

After a pause, Chewie barked at him, telling him to open his eyes.

Han did, slowly. Lando and Chewie were leaning over him. He was in a bed?in some sort of infirmary?"Where am I?"

"You're at the medical center on Bespin," Lando replied. "You've been here for nearly two days."

"But how?I was on the Falcon?how ?"

"I was tracking you during the battle, and I saw you get hit and go down. I had every available hand trying to help the Rebels, and it took some time to get people to come with me to find you." Lando took a seat next to the bed, shaking his head as he spoke. "You were in pretty bad shape when we found you, buddy. Broken ribs, a collapsed lung, your leg was a mess ? we brought you and Chewie straight back here, and got you into a Bacta tank. You should be almost completely healed now, but it'll be awhile before you're up and about again."

Han's eyes went to the ceiling. Dread began creeping and tingling up his spine. "You brought me and Chewie back?"

Lando didn't answer. Neither did Chewie.

His eyes fluttered shut. "What happened to her? Did?did the Vaders get her?"


"Dammit!" Han shouted. He quickly sat up ? he was sore, but the discomfort was minor ? and glared angrily at the two of them. "Chewie, I told you to go after her. I told you not to leave her behind. What the hell happened?"

Chewie looked as burdened as Han had ever seen him, but his hesitation was making Han crazy. "Would you just tell me?"

Finally, Chewie launched into his story.

He had gone to find Leia in the turret, as Han had ordered him to do. He had hidden at the end of the hallway, where the Falcon was split in two. Vader emerged from what was left of the turret (it had been crushed and twisted horribly), carrying the limp, pale?broken body of Leia. Lady Vader was hysterical; Luke was trying vainly to calm her, but even he looked distraught. They all headed for their shuttle, and quickly returned to space.

Han sank back against the headboard of his bed. His mind swirled in despair as he tried to process what Chewie had told him. "I shouldn't have survived," he managed to choke out. "Not if she wasn't going to."

"Han, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Lando said.

"And they took her?" Han winced at the image. "That's the last thing she would have wanted. She ? she ?" His voice faltered, and he buried his face in his hands. Lando and Chewie tried to offer him words of condolence, but he didn't hear them.

A part of his soul had collapsed.

Han stayed in that position ? face hidden, grief-stricken ? for a long time before he noticed that there was another voice in the room.

He looked up to see Mon Mothma speaking quietly with Lando.

She saw him staring and quickly moved beside his bed. "Han, I'm sorry. We've heard about Leia ?"

Han shook his head, jerking sharply back and forth. He couldn't hear it now. He couldn't.

"Okay," she said gently. "I'm sorry. These are hard times for all of us."

His hands clawed into his hair?he was tempted to pull it out. "What's happened to the rest of the Rebellion? Is the battle over?"

Mothma looked away, pained. "Yes. It's over. It's all over."

"No," Lando interrupted. "Don't talk that way. Just because we lost today ?"

"The losses are devastating, Lando. Losses of people killed, losses of people defecting?a loss of the cause." Han thought she looked pale and ill?defeated. "We can't pretend that this is a minor thing that has occurred, and pick ourselves up to continue our fight against the Empire. The Empire's changed, we've changed."

Han frowned in disgust. "So, what? That's it? We quit and let them run the Empire?"

"I'm just saying ?"

"No," Han snapped. "No. This isn't the end. Are you telling me that all of those people died in that battle for nothing? That they fought against the Empire for no reason?"

"Han ?"

"They would have wanted us to keep fighting. Leia wants that ?" he stumbled "? would have wanted that." He swallowed painfully, and tried to clear his head. "No. We're not finished yet."

"Look," Lando began, "We can discuss ?"

"No discussing," Han replied. "If I have to get out of this bed and fight the Vaders by myself, I will. If I have to convince every person I meet to join me, I will." He sat up straight again and pointed at Mothma. "Leia knows better than anyone why the Vaders needed to be stopped, and she suffered personally for it in ways you can't even imagine. If she could do that, against her parents, against her family?she would never want us to stop fighting for her. I'm not going to fail her again. We can do this?we have to do this."

"Han's right," Lando said firmly. "The Rebels need to regroup, but once they do, we need to pick up where we left off." Chewie roared his approval.

Mon Mothma gave them sad, almost piteous looks. "I'm glad you feel that way. We'll need people like you. I'm just worried there aren't enough like you left." Head bowed, she left the room.

Han turned to Lando, and then to Chewie. "I meant what I said," he muttered, his voice thick. "The Vaders have to be stopped?for Leia, if nothing else?and I'll do it alone if I have to."

Lando rested a hand on his friend's shoulder while Chewie growled loudly. "You'll never have to do it alone, Han."

Satisfied with that response, Han lay back down in his bed, and let himself feel his despair.

He wouldn't leave his bed for a long time.

But when he did, he was ready to pick up the mantle for the Alliance.

In previously Rebel-loyal factions of Coruscant as well as Imperial, crimson banners were slowly raised, looking for all the galaxy like blood-soaked flags of surrender.

In more ways than one, that analogy was appropriate, Covert Rebel Operative S'reya Melokt thought as she stared from her upper-level balcony out at the skyline, drenched vermilion by the dying red sun. Between the sunset, the forever increasing number of banners, and the increasing number of protest bonfires (though in the past hour, the banners certainly seemed to be outnumbering any fires), the entire city was if a giant scarlet veil itself had been draped over the skyline.

It was impossible for the young Bothan woman to tell from this distance whether they were all in fact final surrenders to the power of the Vaders by members of the Rebellion, or banners of victory raised by the increasing number of Vader loyalists on the planet. Either way, the meaning was the same to S'reya, and most of the rest of the Rebellion as well.

The Vaders had won. Even if Palpatine hadn't been murdered (murdered ? but that implied to S'reya a sort of innocence on the part of the victim...and she thought Palpatine fully deserved what he had gotten), there was no question where Coruscant's allegiance lay now, whether it be by choice or concession.

Even S'reya, whose own kin had fought and died for the Rebellion for decades and had patriotism flowing through her veins, knew when the fight was over. They had fought ? the Rebels had fought valiantly ? but their numbers were too few now.

She would not insult her clan's memory by continuing to fight hopelessly for a cause that was dying. While they had lived, the Rebellion and what it stood for had still been something worth fighting for, so their deaths had not been in vain.

As for her own death, she couldn't say one way or the other.

In her position as a Rebel spy on the Imperial homeworld, she'd still had fairly open access to updated status reports from the Rebellion...she'd known of their dwindling numbers; she'd known of the disastrous loss at Hoth...the disaster at Bespin...but until today, S'reya, being far away from the center of the real fighting, had thought of them as little more than that: statistics. She had never had a face to place with them.

Now she did have a face ? and it was that of the Lady Vader. Or Empress. Whatever she called herself, it didn't matter to S'reya. She would not live under her, not when she had lived so long opposing everything she stood for. Soon, Coruscant would completely be under the control of the Vader loyalists, which meant she was stranded from whatever remained of the Alliance. The small vial of amber liquid on the railing before her promised a peace that even Lady Vader herself could not destroy, or sway S'reya back from...and that peace S'reya would take, soon. She didn't fear it ? she would rather be free that way than live her years under a masquerade of peace. The Empire under Palpatine may not have been peaceful, but at least it had never pretended to be something otherwise.

Even now, when the streets were rapidly filling with throngs of Vader loyalists and opposers alike, S'reya felt no desire for fighting. When the giant display screen across the plaza from her building had displayed the Lady Vader's galaxy-wide transmission, followed soon after by the Gungans' successful invasion and decimation of the Imperial Palace (how the Gungans had managed to do that, and slice their way into the planetwide comm systems to transmit that video, S'reya wasn't sure ? they must have loyalists in high places ? of course they would, especially with Lady Vader herself as their former sovereign) ? when that had happened, she'd known it was over. With the death of Palpatine went the one united front all the Rebels could be certain they were fighting against...and rising now in his place, was the one that had divided them.

An old Bothan axiom came to her mind then as she contemplated the sinking orb of Coruscant's star, and she found it oddly appropriate, she thought, as she downed the liquid in one gulp. United we stand...divided we fall.

Several hours later a housekeeper found S'reya collapsed on her balcony, a vial of what smelled like poison on the floor not far from one hand...and a Rebel insignia clutched in the other.

Soon after, a red banner flew above S'reya's building as well.

The celebration in the capital of the dead, scarred, and until this point abandoned world of Naboo brought back recollections of one like it more than thirty years faded into the past, though few alive now had been around to see that celebration. There had not been so many people in Theed in years, not since Palpatine's decimation that had made the planet virtually uninhabitable.

The celebration three decades ago had been celebrating the Naboo's successful attempt in overthrowing a tyrannical force that had threatened to strangle the Naboo with its iron hold. In this one, Naboo was celebrating its liberation once more ? but this time, it wasn't the only world celebrating.

In many ways, this one was seen as a brighter celebration ? the last one had heralded Palpatine's rise; this one would herald his fall.

Any world with populations having loyalties to the Lord and Lady Vader possessed some degree of rejoicing, particularly worlds containing survivors of Naboo, and their descendants. Even certain factions of the lower income bracket on Tatooine, recognizing the Queen Amidala and therefore her husband ? one of their sons and a hero of the Clone Wars ? and now promising liberation for them at last ? raised their arms up, crowding the central plazas of Mos Eisley and Mos Espa, despite repeated and deadly attempts on the part of the waning Imperial governor to dissipate the mobs.

To the Gungans orchestrating the celebration on Naboo, it was remarkably fitting that the ones most responsible for both liberations were in fact the very same: Queen Amidala and her bondmate. The Gungans had followed them once to freedom, and they would eagerly do so again.

Looking up at one of the ragged crimson banners being draped in front of the dilapidated ruins of what was once Theed Palace, an elderly Gungan smiled, clasping a hand on the shoulder of another Gungan.

"Wesa coming home."

And on a lone, isolated, swampy world, with his gimer stick a solitary Jedi Master sadly prodded the reflection in one of one of the few less murky patches of water, watching it dissipate, then reform again. Not even his long-dead apprentice, standing just over his shoulder, could see what Master Yoda beheld in the water's depths, though certainly he had an inkling.

As Yoda watched, the face of Luke Skywalker, bright and youthful, faded into the darkness.

"All things happen for a reason," Obi-Wan Kenobi's ethereal form said quietly. "Though a reason for this, I cannot see."

"A lesson there was to be learned, Obi-Wan. And now we a costly price."

"Little help this lesson has for anyone now, Master, if you'll forgive me."

The face of Luke completely disappeared, as if behind some unseen cloud. "My place it is not to forgive, Obi-Wan."

Yoda forcefully drove the stick into the puddle's water, in probably the closest any would ever see him get to a display of anger. "Warned you I did, against this. Years ago, warned all of you I did." He turned his sad head, ears drooping, towards the glowing form of his former pupil ? dimmer than usual. "But well as I you know, Obi-Wan, that written in stone the past is, and cannot be erased."

"So much has been lost in vain," Obi-Wan continued.

"Content ourselves we cannot on has-beens. Lesson you and I have both learned, Obi-Wan...but far too late."

Both had felt the expanding cold explosion of darkness as Palpatine died, fading out in its final attempts to latch on to the physical world. But even as that darkness faded, another one had intensified ? not as black as Palpatine himself, but far more quickly multiplying.

"Luke is far too trusting," Obi-Wan sighed. "Love blinds him to the true darkness which holds him."

"As it did his mother," Yoda reminded him. "And both will remain so."

"And the Princess, Master?"

Yoda closed his eyes, reaching out...but even he could not penetrate the black cloud expanding in the wake of the rise of Lady Vader, a cloud with Bespin at its very core.

"See her I cannot. Possible it is that escaped, she has..."

"Or that the Vaders have her in their clutches...with Luke." One family together...though happy it will not be.

"In case which, our time and usefulness have expired." Yoda snorted lightly. "Though such usefulness, I now question."

With that he turned his back on Obi-Wan, disappearing with a distinct air of finality into his hut, leaving the ghost standing in the grayness alone.


The ship seemed to block out the sun, throwing a shadow over Luke's field of vision as the shuttle dropped into the gravity well around Coruscant. Beside him, Darth Vader surveyed the view of the world his wife would claim tomorrow. Luke sensed a deep satisfaction in him, edged with malignant triumph.

My life begins today.

The thought brought no feeling with it. Luke knew that he couldn't go back, but he couldn't imagine the future that lay ahead of him now.

"Your thoughts are clouded, Luke," Father said. "You should not try to shut me out."

"I'm not trying to shut you out...Father. My thoughts are unformed." This was true, as far as it went. That he was deliberately keeping his cloudy, unformed thoughts at the top of his mind, while images of Han and Chewie, and of Yoda on Dagobah, kept trying to peer up through them, was his own business. He didn't think it would be a good idea to let his father see those things, at least not yet. Maybe someday, when things were better, and they'd all become more used to one another.

"I see."

"What will you do now, with the war over?"

"I will defend her position, against those who are envious of it."

"And the Rebellion?"

"Your mother wishes to offer forgiveness to all who come before her and swear loyalty."

"I see."

"One of us, of course, will be required to search their hearts, and be certain such avowals are sincere."

"Oh," Luke said, because he couldn't think of anything else. He turned away from his father, and watched the gray surface of the planet draw nearer. "And Leia? If she recovers?"

"She will recover."

"She is hurt badly, Father."

"She will recover."

"And if she does, will she remain your prisoner?"

Father just turned his head, very slightly, and Luke could feel the piercing eyes on him. He had asked if he might see his father's face someday, and it had been promised, but the eyes...the eyes, he thought, wouldn't be a surprise. They would be blue and cold and sharp, impossible to escape. Luke wanted to see them anyway.

The shuttle docked on a huge landing platform near the Imperial center. Crowds waved red flags and confetti flew through the air so heavily that Luke felt like he was in a sandstorm. Father cleared the path to the transport that was waiting for them, and an honor guard flanked the passageway.

Mother paid no heed to any of it as she walked beside the small floating platform, on which a broken body lay. Luke fell in behind them, and Father swept in last, his cape twitching like a dragon's tail. Then they were shut inside the transport, and the crowd was closed away from them. Luke could feel their collective disappointment.

What did they expect? That she would break away from her injured daughter to give a political speech?

That train of thought sounded all right to Luke's mind, but there was something skewed about it. It took him a moment to understand: she had used their instinctive love for her to build her career, then to take power, and now, when they had won a great prize for her, she turned her back on them without so much as a word of thanks, and he knew that she would fly into a rage if anyone suggested she do otherwise.

"She is distracted," Father said, picking up on the thought (that would take some getting used to). "She cannot be asked to attend to such things now."

"Of course."

"Luke, you are hiding something. Do not imagine that I cannot sense it. It would be unwise to imagine that."

Luke tried not to wince, and mostly succeeded. "Father," he said, "there are things I have not shared. But they will come in their own time." He squeezed his hands into fists and dared himself to go on. "When I decide they will come, and not before."

He waited to see whether or not his father would kill him for that, but after a tense moment of stormy flickering in the Force, Father merely drew himself away from Luke's mind. "My patience will not be infinite, Luke," he said, and left for the rear of the transport.

Luke just watched the viewscreen of the transport, as the city flowed beneath him. He couldn't find any wonder in it. It occurred to him that he should go back to Leia, but his feet didn't seem to want to move. A great hangar opened before them, and the transport headed toward it.

Just before he crossed the threshold, a wrenching wave of doubt and self-loathing flowed through him. But then he was inside, and he felt nothing at all.

Leia rested silently on a pillow of darkness.

Someone had seen to it that she was comfortable, sedated against a break she could feel in her ribs like a distant storm, and against Maker knew what else. There were voices, unintelligible, foreign. And there were small, warm hands, which grasped hers frequently and tightly. She could see nothing, and she wanted to see nothing. Blind, she could be anywhere, and the hands could belong to anyone. She could be on Alderaan, and the voice that sometimes whispered through the fog to say, "Hush, Leia, Mother's here" really belonged to her mother ? her real mother ? who would tell her that all of this was a bad dream. Han could be in the next room.

Han. My love. The keeper of my heart.

Some sense, some whispered secret floated across her mind, a kind, furtive whisper that she couldn't understand. It was Luke. She knew it was Luke. She didn't try to comprehend what he meant. She had understood far too many words from him lately.

She let herself slip back into blessed unconsciousness. Her dreams were untroubled by the memory of Luke's voice saying, over and over, "Han and Chewie died in the crash." Something else awful had happened. She knew it. Something about

(the Rebellion?)

a fight, but it was faraway and unimportant. Only that one sentence had made sense to her, and she would give everything to unhear it. And if she couldn't unhear it, she could stay here in the dark, and not think about it.

The warm hands came again, and wiped a cool cloth across her forehead. She found herself wishing they would linger, and hating herself for wishing it, because somewhere in her mind, she knew to whom those hands really belonged.

But what a comfort they were in the cold!

She had no way of knowing how long she'd been sleeping when she finally woke up. She knew only that she'd been wandering in the emptiness for a long time, and had come to a fork in the road ? either she had to wake up now, or choose to never wake up.

It was not an easy decision, but in the end, she knew that she didn't want to let go of her life. She swam up toward consciousness, and found herself alone, except for the ever-present medical droids.

Her vision was blurred and shadowy ? still useless, but better than it had been. "Time?" she whispered, and her voice sounded like a death rattle. She coughed ? it was agony on her ribs, but it cut through any remaining drowsiness ? and tried again. It sounded marginally better.

The droid didn't answer either version. It just leaned over her, a presence both gleaming and shadowy, with long pincers that reached toward her. It spoke with a mechanical voice that no one had bothered trying to modulate to human tones. "I will inform your parents that you have awakened."

My parents. A deep dread gripped at Leia. "No, I..."

But the droid was gone. It was not programmed to take her orders.

She sank back into the bed as the lights in the room came up gradually. The walls were gray, the bed sheets sterile white. She could see standing machinery casting grasping shadows where it blocked the light.

The door opened, and three shadows came in, one after another. The smallest came first ? an unformed, shifting mass of red that came to her bedside and hovered like a nervous bird. She reached out for Leia's hand, but Leia pulled it away.

Behind her, Luke was small and lithe, a black silhouette against the growing light. She could see his eyes, somehow, glowing from the depths of night. He was reaching to her with his mind. She looked away from him.

On her other side was Vader, standing still and impassive as always, the solid, unchanging darkness that had shaped her life in the light. Only the sound of his respirator separated him from the droids.

"Leia," Mother whispered from within her scarlet cloud. "Leia, come back to us."

Leia could feel her hand, still casting a welcoming warmth across the covers, could see the desperate need in her eyes.

Turn away!

But there was nothing to turn away toward. Han was dead. The Rebellion was defeated. Alderaan had been blasted from the sky. All that was left was a heart that grieved as her own did, a voice beloved above all others, a hand that longed for her own.

For a long moment, she simply looked at that hand, lying there beside her own on the coverlet.

Then, in a rush of loneliness and despair, she grasped it.


Original cover by Julie. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.

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Author: Darth Pipes  (signed)
Date posted: 4/7/2003 9:12:08 PM
Darth Pipes's Comments:

This is easily my favorite fanfic of all time. An epic, wonderful story by the three best and most talented writers on the net. It does the impossible and improves on The Empire Strikes Back. Just a great story and a crown jewel for the Fan Fiction Archive to have.

Author: Leah bee
Date posted: 4/8/2003 11:09:32 AM
Leah bee's Comments:

Wow! This was a painfully long read, but worth the time. Definitely an interesting twist on a story I already feel I know so well. Great job!

Author: Siri Ruane
Date posted: 4/8/2003 11:40:48 AM
Siri Ruane's Comments:

So I guess she's not Mon Mothma after all :-P
Oh well.
Good stroy, and keep up the good work.
Rock on.

Author: SoloGirl
Date posted: 4/8/2003 4:52:20 PM
SoloGirl's Comments:

I read this story last summer on the fan fic boards and as soon as I get the time I plan to read it's absolutely beautiful, and you guys are master writers- keep up the good work and I *definitely* hope to see more of your stuff up here!

Author: Chas
Date posted: 4/8/2003 6:26:24 PM
Chas's Comments:

I've only gotten partway through (It's going to take me a few days to read through this), but this is a story that would make a great Infinities adaptation. What's the 411 on the writers, anyway? Are they pros that just wanted to do an unemcumbered SW story? Either way, it's some excelent writing. Most of the time, I'm forgetting I'm reading fan fiction. This feels like I'm reading a published novel (even better than some of the expanded universe novels I've read).

Author: SeverRain
Date posted: 4/8/2003 8:51:24 PM
SeverRain's Comments:

Great story! took me a while to read, but its not like i have anything to do at work :-)

Author: SeverRain
Date posted: 4/8/2003 8:51:42 PM
SeverRain's Comments:

Great story! took me a while to read, but its not like i have anything importent to do at work :-)

Author: Force-Wielder
Date posted: 4/8/2003 9:17:18 PM
Force-Wielder's Comments:

Glad to see the archive is adding more stories by multiple authors. Keep up the good work all of the authors out there. This is an interesting twist on TESB. Padme is Lady Vader...I'll buy it.

Author: leandar
Date posted: 4/8/2003 9:57:35 PM
leandar's Comments:

This was the most spellbinding and captivating fan fiction I have ever read. I loved this, even though it took 2-3 hrs. to read. I hope that the author does a sequel telling what happens next. I'd be first in line to read it.

Author: Admiral_Drake
Date posted: 4/8/2003 11:26:35 PM
Admiral_Drake's Comments:

Damn....thats all i can say...its it wasn't ment to be.

Such a great peice of writing but i can't help but feel a little sick to see how it went so the bad guys won..
sorry to the ones who wrote it but i am to much of a lucasfanboy to see it any other way.
still a great fic to those who can't feel but a twinge in their stomach at how it was so wrong compared to what we know.

Author: FernWithy
Date posted: 4/9/2003 4:50:24 AM
FernWithy's Comments:

Thanks everyone! Leander, yes, there's a sequel--"The Ascension of the Queen"--and it's coming very, very soon. And Admiral Drake, it may address some of your concerns as well. :)

Author: Just_some_reader
Date posted: 4/9/2003 10:08:04 AM
Just_some_reader's Comments:

Simply the best AU story I have read. It is completely believable and characterized. Congratulations to the authors, you all did a superb job.

Admiral Drake, I respect your thoughts. But for me, it is refreshing to see new takes at the classic story via excellent Alternate Universe stories like this one; and no, I don't get a stomach-ache because the bad guys won, it didn't feel that way to me. Perhaps because I'm used to not see everything black or white.

Anyway, great story; I will be eagerly waiting for the sequel.

Author: Tycalibur  (signed)
Date posted: 4/9/2003 4:06:50 PM
Tycalibur's Comments:

This story is wonderfully done, and masterfully written. I've always wondered in the 'what if' scenario -- where Padme didn't actually die -- if she herself would be more obsessed than Vader. You captured the personalities of all the characters very well. Poor Leia.

I really enjoyed this piece. I'm glad to see it finally get into the Archives.


Author: Rabid Rob  (signed)
Date posted: 4/9/2003 7:36:56 PM
Rabid Rob's Comments:

Astonishing! I could see every part of this in my head as if it were on the silver screen. An absolutely brilliant piece of work. I can't wait for the sequel!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Author: Bride of Jango
Date posted: 4/9/2003 7:46:40 PM
Bride of Jango's Comments:

Wow, the authors are talented. I couldn't stop reading...

However, I was bothered by the way Lady Vader stood by when her husband insulted or hurt people. I just thought it was out of character for Padme...

Author: arielthalandra
Date posted: 4/9/2003 9:47:34 PM
arielthalandra's Comments:

Woooow... Even though I don't really buy the premise, this makes my fanfics read like a submission to "Highlights for Children"...absolutely gripping, convincing, and the quality of the writing is superb. The characterizations remain true to the template from which they have been drawn. You guys rock, keep writing! Are you pros, or what???

Author: Jedi_Alea
Date posted: 4/10/2003 9:38:16 AM
Jedi_Alea's Comments:

Long but really cool read! Will there be a "Return of the Jedi" like installment? I'll look for it!

Author: Jedi-Jae
Date posted: 4/10/2003 12:42:19 PM
Jedi-Jae's Comments:

It's fantastic to finally see this story in here! It was one of the first fanfics I ever read. Thought-provoking, with vivid characters, this is one of the gold standards of the genre. Thank you, Fern, a-p, and A21.

Author: JediChrono
Date posted: 4/10/2003 3:09:59 PM
JediChrono's Comments:

WOW! I can't believe this. I spent much time reading it, but the best part was that I couldn't stop. It's such an interesting perspective to see how something that is intended to be good, can really destory everything.
I really felt that this was more a tale of knights, which is exactly what the Star Wars universe is supposed to be about. The family battle element brought out that tone and it worked perfectly.
I would love to see the next chapter in your saga!

Author: Danielle
Date posted: 4/10/2003 4:02:54 PM
Danielle's Comments:

this is one of the best stories i have ever read! I kept reading it half through the night. Is the sequel coming soon, I can barely wait! Great job on this story!

Author: Brandinious
Date posted: 4/10/2003 8:26:16 PM
Brandinious's Comments:

This was by far the BEST EVER fan fic that I have read. This stunning reinvention of ESB was truly amazing in its originality as well as its faithfulness to the Star Wars ideal. The authors did an astounding job!

Author: Darth SERIOUS
Date posted: 4/10/2003 11:16:43 PM
Darth SERIOUS's Comments:


I am really surprised how good this was. I usually dont get nervous watching movies, but I was nervous reading this story, wondering what would happen next. A very neat concept: re-writing episode V into a great "What if...?" Tale. Great suspense all the way through, GREAT! This is one I'm going to remember for some time.

Author: Arioch
Date posted: 4/11/2003 7:53:14 AM
Arioch's Comments:

Quite the tour de force that captures the tragedy of the blindness of love! I would have much rather seen this in the the theaters rather than TPM! I am salivating for the sequel!

Author: Nerfherder
Date posted: 4/11/2003 4:53:47 PM
Nerfherder's Comments:

This is quite possibly the best fanfic I've read to date. ESB is my favorite of the series so far, and seeing this twist to it makes it that much better. I completely agree with the earlier comment about being able to visualize it entirely. I'll be anxiously awaiting the sequel.

Author: DaRk_ShErV  (signed)
Date posted: 4/12/2003 7:27:55 AM
DaRk_ShErV's Comments:

I Havent Read It YET! But I will. But, do ya know wat sux, I am writing a "What If" story! It's called 'Empress Padmé', I think this kinda ruins it as its also a what if. Will anyone here still be interested in another version of a "What If" or should I stop writing it now that this has come up? Anyways, I am gonna start to read this, probably a great story, I will check back here when I am done! oops, gotta go, I will read it when I get back, probably a great story...

Author: shadesaw
Date posted: 4/13/2003 10:47:39 PM
shadesaw's Comments:

Great fan fic. I twas the longest I have read but it was worth it. keep up the good work.

Author: Chewy  (signed)
Date posted: 4/14/2003 6:47:46 AM
Chewy's Comments:

Great Story!

Author: Bundy397
Date posted: 4/14/2003 8:00:19 AM
Bundy397's Comments:

Wow, Easily in my top three favorite fan fics yet! To the authors. Great job! It was a compelling twist on the ending of ANH and all of ESB. I hope to read the sequel soon! Great job again. One question though; Will Boba Fett ever show up?

Author: FernWithy  (signed)
Date posted: 4/14/2003 11:15:40 AM
FernWithy's Comments:

Since he doesn't, it's not much of a spoiler to say no. No animus; he just didn't make it in. :)

Thanks again! (And DaRk_ShErV, I'm sure there are plenty of takes on the idea of Padme joining the Empire. This is just one of them; yours could be another. Go ahead!)

Author: Darth Bane Kronos
Date posted: 4/15/2003 12:57:47 AM
Darth Bane Kronos's Comments:

WOW the end spooked me I just love these three authors and am glad they did this story toghter cant wait for the sequil

Author: Mr.Spotty
Date posted: 4/15/2003 7:06:02 PM
Mr.Spotty's Comments:

Lord that was long, but in the long run it was worth it. Started reading this four days ago. Man it took a long time. Great plot line, and all the emotions of the charaters was amazing, can't wait to read the sequal. On my scale of 1-10 ita a 21, the highs I gave until now was 5.

Author: Destiny  (signed)
Date posted: 4/16/2003 12:15:04 PM
Destiny's Comments:

I MEANT to comment on this a while ago, but my computer was acting up! :p But...Wow. This story was so emotionally charged - so gripping, so right and so wrong! This wasn't the way it was supposed to be! :p I kept praying for a happy ending, but there was none in the offing, and now it would appear that things are worse than they were in the beginning, with poor Luke thinking he can bring his parents from the darkness that consumes them even as Padme thought she could rescue Ani. :( It's so sad...

You did a phenomenal job, you guys! Keep writing! (Hi, Fernwithy! :p)

Author: Darth Eowyn
Date posted: 4/16/2003 8:19:52 PM
Darth Eowyn's Comments:

I think that this is the first time that I have ever been glad that Padme probably didn't survive. Having her go insane was something that I'd never really considered. Please have the sequel come out soon?

Author: NatJadeSkywalker
Date posted: 4/17/2003 7:46:23 AM
NatJadeSkywalker's Comments:

I don't usually read AU, but I'm so glad I read this one. It was so wonderfully written, and sent chills down my spine. Haven't read anything this great for a while. I'm heading straight to read Ascension of the Queen.

Author: Darth Swanny
Date posted: 4/17/2003 11:03:25 AM
Darth Swanny's Comments:

wow, this was amazing to the point where i would much rather the movie stories went along with this fiction - very character driven, especially the ani & padme portion with a great "anti-hero" ending that was more than satisfying, a great take on the "what if" in terms of changing my view to a "i wish it went..." Great Job!

Author: Jaya Solo
Date posted: 4/22/2003 9:17:04 PM
Jaya Solo's Comments:

Wow. That was a great story! Very long read, but worth it. Agai, Wow.

Author: StlFan
Date posted: 4/23/2003 11:27:05 AM
StlFan's Comments:

Excellent Story! What happened to Han? Write more!

Author: Darth Sing (Aurra Sing)
Date posted: 4/29/2003 12:10:33 PM
Darth Sing (Aurra Sing)'s Comments:

I think it was a great story, but I got a little... confused probaly with padame coming and luke going Empire on us it is just a tad bit confusing. But any way great FFS. I'll look for the next one! Keep the good work!!!;)

Darth Sing (Aurra Sing)

Author: anonomus
Date posted: 6/13/2003 12:53:11 PM
anonomus's Comments:

Good story but the part about Luke in the middle was monotonus. The ending was really sad (at least for me) because Leia finally gave in and had nothing to fight for and kept wishing to die.

Author: Senator Leia  (signed)
Date posted: 6/15/2003 9:15:14 PM
Senator Leia's Comments:

Wow great story you could make a movie about this one. I liked it alot. It was along but it was still very good. I give it a 9.9!!!!!!

Author: Safire Ranmako  (signed)
Date posted: 8/23/2003 5:32:00 PM
Safire Ranmako's Comments:

This was sooo good that didn't wanmt the story to end. I hope you get the Sequal out soon.

Author: meli20
Date posted: 10/23/2003 11:16:05 PM
meli20's Comments:

great awesome

Author: Lehni
Date posted: 1/26/2004 6:30:50 PM
Lehni's Comments:

omg, I haven't read an epic for so long! On a formatting note, labelled chapters would be nice because finding a place to return to can be tricky between readings... but other than that, *wow*. I so wanted the Vaders to 'win', and they sort of did, so this was pleasantly different. Though I still feel sorry for Yoda and Ben... I love it how Amidala is still the one controlling Ani and not the other way around; that image of the Vaders together with the red and black is really interesting.

Author: Andrea Jade  (signed)
Date posted: 4/6/2004 7:23:28 AM
Andrea Jade's Comments:

Fabulous story. I can't believe this hasn't been published. I can hardly wait for the next part.

Author: Kehleyr
Date posted: 6/29/2004 2:04:33 AM
Kehleyr's Comments:

Well, I appreciate this story for its complexity, intensity, and style. It was interesting to see a new take on a known story, and as a matter of style, I liked the flashbacks of the characters into the minds of others (like Luke "thinking" his father's thoughts etc.)

But let me say that with the exception of Han, Lamdo and to some degree, Leia, none of the characters resemble or stay true to their original counterparts. I don't think that their evolution as characters is plausible in any way. Padme's especially, she was much too strong to succumb to irrationality, much too honest to accept a dictatorship in any way. Vader - even given his fascination and obsession with Amidala, he would never grow so weak and soft as he is pictured here. And Luke -- he was the biggest disappointment of all. His very easy surrender to his parents is not plausible in any way. Obi-wan and Yoda hide the truth from him even in the OT, and still he does not renounce his Jedi ways. Never, ever would he do such a thing.

Anyway, that's just my two cents.

Author: Ani-maniac
Date posted: 11/14/2004 12:48:09 AM
Ani-maniac's Comments:

This story has just become my favorite twist on Star Wars yet!!!!!!! As Jar Jar would say, "It's a longo tello, but mesa likea dis!" It took me two days to read but what held my attention, besides the incredible plot twists, was the wonderful way it was written. I felt like I was reading a professional novel. My favorite part was the comparison Padme' makes of herself to Anakin, not as night to day, but as midnight to sunrise. It showed that she understood Anakin was still in darkness, and that she admited that she herself was not perfectly innocent. It was an amazing take on what could have happened had Pamde' been in the picture. It was almost as if she had to give up some of the goodness in herself, to maintain at least a small part of the good in Anakin. This story is the kind that inspires you to speculate and debate on what is going to happen next. I really enjoyed it a lot, and look forward to reading the sequel. Keep writing such awsome stories!!!!

Author: Pupp
Date posted: 12/25/2004 9:40:43 AM
Pupp's Comments:

Well, I must say. That was quite the story; the words 'very good' can't even begin to describe how I felt at the end. As others have said, it DID take a long time to read, but the time spent was well worth it.

Of course, the ending was a little bit of a disappointment. Just to me, though, because I would have preferred to see Leia and Luke rejoin the Rebellion; as well as see Leia and Han see each other again. But, as one says, you take what you get.

Author: Allison
Date posted: 12/31/2004 12:39:29 AM
Allison's Comments:


So much of me HATED this fic but I was compelled to keep reading. I really didn't like the dark!Amidala, but she was written so well, that I didn't realize how much I didn't like her until I half wanted to hug her.

It killed me when Luke defected, he's my SW w00bie, has been since I was 6, so I hated to see him go over to ze Dark Side. But I can't blame him, he didn't feel as betrayed as Leia did over his parents' positions, because he'd never know the mother that Lady Vader destroyed. Still I wanted him to be a good little Jedi and was holding out hope right until the end there.

It was fantastically written, there was one line that really killed me, I can't remember exactly what it was but oh it made me just stop and stare for a moment.

Great writing, you made the characterizations logical, even within the confines of the AU and just a thumbs up in general for sucking away 4+ hours of my time. :D

Author: han solo fan
Date posted: 3/22/2005 6:21:43 PM
han solo fan's Comments:

this is a wonderful read! though it seems somewhat unlikely to happen in the world of star wars, it's worth the time taken to read it.

Author: Lady MR
Date posted: 3/30/2005 2:01:14 AM
Lady MR's Comments:

It was gut wrenching. They are all lost, all confused, and it’s all because of love. It's the biggest irony - like destiny is having a big laugh at your expense - that love DOES NOT conquer all. This is my second read through and it still leaves me feeling feverish and ready to hurt them all. The saddest thing is that I understand their decisions; I just wish it could be different. The best stories are those where the audience feels that it couldn't have gone any other way and that is certainly how I feel, much to my displeasure.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that I don't want Padme to be evil and it takes reading Lando's and Anchro's points of view to really show that she is not sane and that she is the harbinger of death. Evil comes in many forms, evil sweet loving mothers. That disturbed me.

Giving up two children to save them takes a strength that I have always admired in Padme. To know that she is doing it to protect them from the man that she loves is even more admirable. All she ever wanted was a family, and to give it away must have been excruciating. Add twenty years of living in prison spent nothing but analyzing her decision... I can see how a person can and will go mad. It's entirely believable and the fact that she did not give a speech after her victory just cements her madness. Dare I say her evilness/darkness?

About Luke, he is like Yoda said, too narrow-minded. He loves them because they’re his parents just like he respected Yoda when he knew Yoda was a Jedi. The parallelism stood out, the second time...

For 258 pages you have captivated my interest. It is almost four in the morning, and I think I'll go to sleep now. I'll read the sequel tomorrow.

Author: elven moth
Date posted: 4/19/2005 2:39:16 AM
elven moth's Comments:

I ve read both the online novels. I printed them out to read (300 pages using my college printer oops). Wonderful writing better than te official novelisations. You inspired me to write my own until i relised you had the same ideas as me (sigh). I challenge anyone not to cry at the end of the sequel.(sobs at the memory). It must take you ages to write one of these it's takenme 10 minutes to write this post.(bestows unweilding praise)cheers! Any ideas for my own fiction people

Author: han solo fan
Date posted: 5/16/2005 6:18:34 AM
han solo fan's Comments:

this is the second time i'm reading this, and i must say the magic of it all has not been extinguished. as a mere child of eleven, i did find the text a bit complex at times, but on the whole, wonderful!

Author: Darth Rekcus Fo' Kcid
Date posted: 5/26/2005 3:12:18 PM
Darth Rekcus Fo' Kcid's Comments:

I liked this story alot. It really impressed me how much I read it. I read it so much that it was a story to me that felt very good. The hope inside of me from this story was like a warmth and that heat was from my reading of the book. Which made me pretty good. I like how Darth Vader is in this story. I like that he still has he armor and then later he gets skin in the next story. But for now he has his armor and thats what I like. I like how he just gives luke his lightsaber because if I had a son that was a jedi and his sister took his saber I would just give him my saber just like that. I give this story a 10 because of the warmth and because of the armor and also because of the sabers. But I give it another 2 points to make 12 because it is also written well and that should be worth something. So I think thats a total of 12 which is more then 10 because this story is better then perfect. Because of the warmth

Author: Rhaya  (signed)
Date posted: 6/1/2005 7:29:10 AM
Rhaya's Comments:

Absolutely beautifully written. It took a few hours to read but I enjoyed every moment, honestly the best fanfic I have ever seen in any genre. So good in fact that I am going to search for more fics written by the same authors. :P

Author: Genna  (signed)
Date posted: 6/2/2005 12:07:35 AM
Genna's Comments:

I was unsure throughout the story whether I was going to be able to accept this alternate universe for several reasons 1) SPOILER FROM REVENGE OF THE SITH Even if Amidala lived past her broken heart in Episode 3, she never struck me as mad, 2) Obi Wan and Yoda would never be left to darkness without having the light --- it seems to me the whole idea of the Force is that light and dark must be balanced and light nor dark can be displaced, 3) all the negative and distracting portions of human nature rarely work together to destroy a capable and resourceful person like Leia from charging forward into her destiny.

I have read on despite my disbelief. I give you credit for giving Vader the family his choices denied him. I also commend you for letting it be known that the family would be locked into the choices he made.

After having remained until the end, I can honestly say I never overcame my initial problems with the characters. Han was not in rare form as was his custom. Leia was out character: too rash, too uncertain, bitingly inept. Luke's ascendent personality ruled out.

Last but not least the good part of the Force being stymied without a champion. If it came together to birth Anakin in the first place, it can come together to do less. These things made it improbable and hard for me to accept.


Author: Marjory
Date posted: 7/13/2005 7:22:52 AM
Marjory's Comments:

Hi there, not a big fan of fan fiction but i must admit i started reading this story this morning, and been reading it all morning. Totally gripped. A Big Well Done. 10 out of 10.

Author: Darth Slaya
Date posted: 8/14/2005 3:38:09 PM
Darth Slaya's Comments:

Wow this story is just wow there is just no other words to discribe how good this story is. It is easily my favorite fan fic of all time I mean no one can out write Lucas but these people easily mached his talant!They should make a seqil if they already havent!

Author: AnakinsBarber
Date posted: 11/3/2005 1:18:49 PM
AnakinsBarber's Comments:

This was one fantastic story! I'm ashamed that I never took the time to read it before. The author's grasp on writing battles is one that surpasses some of the published EU novels.

I did have a problem with some of the characters, Leia, in particular. She seemed almost...mentally unbalanced. Han was nearly the same way. Their willingness to shoot "the bad guys" even when they weren't being shot at appalled me. The real characters wouldn't have acted like that. In some instances the Rebels seemed more in line with the dark side than the Vaders. But other than that, a terrific story and one that should be recommended to all that come here. Thank you very much for your efforts.

Author: Narrys
Date posted: 11/26/2005 3:46:19 PM
Narrys's Comments:

This fic was an incredible undertaking and for that I give you many kudos. It was a mammoth project, especially for a collaborative work.

There are so many things I enjoyed about this fic. I thought the love between Amidala and Anakin was incredibly touching and handled very respectfully. I think the characters of Leia and Vader were brilliantly rendered.

That said and perhaps because it was a collaborative work, this story seems to have no heart. There seems to be no driving force with it. Every character is suspect, every motive and every point of view is suspect. You're left with this contradictory mess of viewpoints.

I know much of this story was written before the character of Padme Amidala was fully fleshed out, but it really doesn't work for me. She's alternately the victim and the aggressor and personally the story didn't convince me that her character could have undergone such a radical and nefarious shift. She's simultaneously the grieving, concerned mother and the villain of the piece. While I think this particular set of contradictions works well with Vader, I don't think you've convinced me that it works for her.

I don't mean to belittle this work. It's an epic and it was enjoyable to read, even when I wasn't convinced of the path you chose to tread.

Author: JorakUln
Date posted: 11/11/2007 10:08:07 PM
JorakUln's Comments:

The beautiful thing about this story is that in a very, very sick way, mother, father, son and daughter are all re-united at the end. It's something that when we watch the six films we would think would be ideal.

But after reading your characterization of the four Skywalkers one can only conclude that their love for each other, when amplified to the degree that you amplified it, will actually cause them to destroy everything else but their familial love.

Excellent work. Gripping and powerful. Am I right in thinking that you leaving Yoda, Han, and Lando alive leaves open the possibility of a sequel?

Author: Clcarter1
Date posted: 8/28/2008 7:47:08 AM
Clcarter1's Comments:

I have become a big fan of all these authors, and I have read both this story and the sequel, several times. Even though I agree with some of the comments about certain things being a bit "unreal," (eg. Leia being so full of hate, Luke being a mamma's boy, etc.), isn't that the whole point of AU?? To view the SW universe in a totally new light? I may be ignorant here, as it has been years since I have truly written, but to me, considering that this is meant to be AU, everything holds up beautifully. Take these 2 stories alone, with just the basic tenets of SW (IMHO, the authors started with this thought), and it is amazing. Writing style is in a class of its own; characters are deeper than Lucas ever made them; and the very thought of love leading to darkness, instead of light, always chilled me to the bone. Fantastic work, all of you! But you probably knew that already, huh? :)

One more thing...someone above, said this: "In some instances the Rebels seemed more in line with the dark side than the Vaders." Again, I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that this was the whole point, to show that even truly good people, like the Rebels, fighting the good fight, can be taken by revenge & hatred, like Anakin was. Though a bit un-true to the original characters, it works perfectly here.

So, kudos to all these writers!! I love your work, I would pay for it, and I pray you keep them coming!!

Author: Domm
Date posted: 1/24/2010 2:19:35 PM
Domm's Comments:

This was a great read. I couldn't put it down. I hope there are plans to publish this, it would be a real treat for those who love the Star Wars universe.

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Archived: Monday, April 7, 2003

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