As a war rages throughout the Galaxy, the Skywalker twins must embrace their heritage, one as a Jedi, the other as a Sith.
A wind to shake the stars gusted through the swamps of Dagobah. In the dense foliage and stagnant pools, it was rare to encounter even the slightest of breezes. A casual observer might attribute it to meteorological changes.
But those the Force called its own recognized it as the winds of change, the forces of destiny at work.
Master Yoda lifted his chin to the sky and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply of the living Force. A disturbance lingered in its scent, betrayal echoed in its nuances.
"Now," he said, "matters are worse."
Obi-Wan Kenobi nodded grimly. "I think this is the first time anyone turned to the dark out of such devotion to the light."
"Heh," Yoda snorted. "Anticipate this we should have. Safeguarded. Two generations of Skywalkers failed we have. End here this must."
"There is none to save us now, nothing of the Order left. When the Force is at work in the days to come, thousands will have been blinded to it." Obi-Wan followed Yoda's gaze to the stars. "The people will walk in darkness because of our arrogance."
"The Dark Times these may be, but our last hope Skywalker is not."
Obi-Wan settled on a log wearily. "We've gone over this. Leia Organa is not the Chosen One."
Yoda cackled. "So sure are you? For thirty-five years, nothing but the Chosen One have you spoken of. Every time, certain you are. Deaf to the callings of the Force. You took not lightly your stewardship and to shape the future could not see your way. Your downfall it may have been."
Obi-Wan's mouth quirked into a grim smile. "And you are ever the skeptic, so you live."
"Exactly." His ears drooped slightly. "Embrace her heritage she must. Take up her defenses against the times to come or be destroyed she will."
"She will not fight him," Obi-Wan stated. "She is Padm?'s child."
"Alternatives there are to fighting."
"None that she'll survive."
He turned his gaze to a distant white dwarf star and his mind recalled the name--Hoth. "This is a dangerous time, indeed."
"Train her I must," Yoda said with a degree of resignation. "On this all depends."
The bulkhead held no particular fascination, but Leia had been studying it absently for hours.
Curled on her side, she stared unseeing at the walls, forcing herself to take each new breath, to keep living. She feared that if she allowed herself a moment's distraction, she would slip away.
Leia had kept to herself for the six-day journey to the Rebellion's newest base. Refusing all food and company, she had spent the time in introspection, trying to calm her soul and come to terms with what had happened.
Her efforts were on the whole unsuccessful. The heartache was too fresh, the shock too great, and the truth too surreal for her to deal with it with any degree of serenity.
Finally, she succumbed to sleep, but found herself plagued by nightmares and premonitions.
The Force was in turmoil and she was drowning in the resulting vortex.
There was a rap on her cabin's door. Leia reached out to probe the person's mind and sighed wearily.
"Come in," she called, her voice hoarse from disuse.
The door hissed open and booted footsteps followed. "I thought you'd like to know that we'll be landing on Hoth in ten minutes. Mariah's bringing us in right now."
"Thank you," she said detachedly.
Instead of leaving, she felt him sit on the edge of the bed. His left arm embraced her gently while his right hand rubbed along her spine.
"This will pass," he said quietly.
Leia closed her eyes, shuddering deeply. "Not easily. Nothing, not Alderaan, not what Vader did to me on the Death Star, or any other experiences have prepared me for this."
"You've never lost a brother before," Han countered. "And by his own choice."
"Don't remind me," she murmured, her voice cracking.
He tightened his grip slightly and she turned to return the embrace fiercely. "Don't leave," she pleaded. "I can't bear to lose another."
"I'm committed to this Alliance," he assured her. "And to you. Nothing but death will keep me from that, Leia."
It was as haphazard an oath of loyalty as she'd ever heard, but it still brought tears to her eyes and a modicum of peace to her soul.
"I don't know if I'll ever understand why he's doing this. Love does not serve the darkness. What he thinks he's doing is a spiritual impossibility and even if he returns to us, he will not be the same man."
"Nor you the same."
She nodded. "Even now, I am not the same as when he left me. I do not know what it is."
"Humanity," Han suggested.
Her mouth quirked, but she couldn't smile. "Perhaps."
Han released her gently, then helped her to her feet. "What about the war?"
She set her jaw. "It is still a part of my life. I cannot let the Galaxy founder for personal reasons."
"The High Command will want you pulled from active duty," Han commented. "After nearly losing you, they can't afford you anywhere but behind a desk on your own frigate."
"They can't have it," she snapped. "As long as my friends are putting their lives on the line for the cause, I will be beside them making sure they live to tell about it."
"Tell that to Rieekan."
"I intend to." Her eyes softened slightly as the fury abated. "Besides, he'd agree with me."
"I don't doubt it."
They made their way aft, to the storage room. Han searched through a cubicle, then tossed her a package. "It's sub-zero conditions out there with a wind chill of a lot lower. Even if they have your quarters heated, you'll be fighting the cold by then."
Leia unwrapped the package to find a heavy-duty snowsuit. White, it was padded and made out of a fabric that was designed to retain heat. A pair of thick nerfwool socks and knee-high boots completed the picture.
"Why exactly did we choose this ice ball for a base?"
Han winked. "Because even if the Empire found us, we could escape while they were dying of hypothermia."
"Sensible enough," she mused, "but what good is that if we freeze to death first?"
"Not much of an optimist, are you?"
She looked away, a familiar pang returning. "Once upon a lifetime."
Han kissed her forehead gently, then turned to leave. "I'll meet you at the hatch."
Rieekan was waiting at the base of the ramp when she emerged from the ship. Her steps measured, Leia approached him. His face was solemn with his eyes sunken and his mouth drawn; his posture was slightly slumped as well.
Silent, he simply opened his arms and crushed her to him in an embrace once she was within reach. Leia clung to him, her cheek pressed against his chest as he rocked her, his hands cradling her like a child.
"I've been worried," he said softly. "I can't begin to imagine what this is doing to you; I can only be patient and be here."
Leia sighed deeply. "That will suffice."
He pulled away and straightened his posture. "You've had a long journey and your quarters are ready. I'll speak to you in the morning."
"It's early yet," Leia protested, "and there is work to be done. Don't coddle me for one minute, Carlist, because I won't..."
He gripped her shoulder. "Leia, you nearly died," he said hoarsely. "You've been under extenuating circumstances for three months, you just suffered a major personal trauma, and on top of that, you've been in hyperspace for the last six days. For once, let yourself go."
Leia hesitated and his mouth quirked into a smile. "If you don't go willingly, I'll hand you over to the Two-Bees."
"Ample threat," she said. "All right, lead on."
Leia awoke in a cold sweat, the condition not helped by the fact that the thermal heaters on base were not functioning.
The knock that had awakened her was repeated, a little more insistently this time.
Pulling the tangled mess of blankets up to her chin, she resisted the urge to duck under the covers and hide for the rest of the day.
Instead, she stood, moving awkwardly with her legs still in braces, and crossed to the door.
Rieekan stood beyond, his expression concerned, his smile sympathetic.
"I'm sorry to wake you so early, but we have business to attend to."
Leia ran a hand through her hair and blew out her cheeks in mild frustration. "Certainly. Come in and explain while I get dressed."
Rieekan caught her arm as she turned and raised a hand to brush against her brow.
"Are you all right?"
She shook her head. "I've had a very restless night."
Rieekan nodded, but did not release her arm. "Nightmares?"
"Of course," she said wryly. "If it isn't of battling shadows or me and being destroyed because I won't use the dark energy I've harnessed, it's battling Luke and destroying him piece by piece; and with every passing blow, my form becomes altered until I'm Vader."
She scrubbed her hands over her face, wiping away the perspiration. "That's when I can sleep. I can't stop thinking about Luke, about what he's doing to and for me.
"I've been trying to reach him, contact him somehow so that he has a tangible link to those he loves. So that he won't lose himself. I have been for the last seven days since we left him behind on Coruscant, but without success. At first I thought I was too weak or in too much shock to reach him, but that's not it.
"I remember after the assassination attempt at the sentencing, Luke told me that he hadn't been able to sense me at all, that the Emperor's Hand had been blocking me completely from him and I feel that the Emperor is doing the same to him."
Rieekan turned her and drew her into an embrace. There were no words to give her solace, no trite phrases that would begin the healing, so he simply encircled her in love.
Face buried against his shoulder, she sighed. "It's extremely frightening."
"I can't even begin to imagine," he agreed. "I'm sorry I can't do more."
Leia pulled back and forced a smile. "No apologies, no regrets. They are only relics of the past and will inhibit our ability to serve the future.
"Now," she continued. "What is this business you spoke of?"
He released her arms and Leia moved into the refresher, closing the door most of the way so she could attend to her preparations in privacy but still converse with him.
"The High Command knows of the recent events and wishes to debrief you concerning the trial, your relationship with Lord Vader, and of course, Luke's decision."
"Great," Leia grumbled around her toothbrush. "We'll be meeting them on the Headquarters Frigate?"
"Exactly," Rieekan confirmed. "We'll be leaving as soon as you're dressed."
"Give me some good news," Leia pleaded.
"We'll be transported by the Falcon."
Leia's mood brightened a millimeter. "Perhaps you should attend to Han. Undoubtedly, he and the walking carpet are at each other's throats about repairs by now."
Rieekan grinned knowingly. "They've been at it all night."
She crossed to him and stretched up to kiss his cheek. "I'll be there soon, just make sure we can get that rust bucket off of the ground in one piece."
"You'll be all right?"
She nodded fractionally. "For now," she said softly. "These things take time."
Leia was ushered into the conference room in silence and the doors were sealed from the outside by the recently evacuated guards and aides.
Mon Mothma had enough compassion and sense to restrict this tribulation to a small number of people.
Leia was indeed grateful for that foresight, but the atmosphere seemed even more claustrophobic as a result.
"Leia," Mon Mothma said, standing, "thank you for joining us."
Leia bowed slightly. "Mon Mothma, it is a great joy to see you once again."
"May I introduce you to our Fleet Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Ackbar."
Leia bowed to the Mon Calamari gracefully. She knew the legendary tactician by reputation, but had never seen him before, since he had only recently assumed command of the Fleet.
"And of course, you know Generals Madine and Rieekan."
"Yes," she replied.
"These proceedings will be recorded for official purposes," Mon Mothma stated, "but the access will be restricted until a time when you deem appropriate."
"I understand," Leia said automatically.
Mon Mothma keyed in a code, then gestured her to a seat. "This is the testimony of Leia Organa concerning her recent Imperial imprisonment. The evidence at hand, communication from Commander Luke Skywalker, is appended to this record." She cleared her throat, and then looked up. "What were the circumstances of your capture?"
Leia settled into the chair, and then folded her hands. "Commander Skywalker and I were dispatched to Sa Doocha on a diplomatic mission. The contact was a former Imperial snubfighter specialist who was supposedly seeking asylum in return for improving our starfighter capabilities. I was to work out the details while Luke was to evaluate his work.
"Unfortunately, the meeting was a trap. We were stunned and given over into Imperial custody. When Lord Vader arrived, he immediately brought us up on preliminary charges and had us shipped to Coruscant."
"When was it that you two learned of your relation to Vader?"
Leia repressed a shudder. "Luke discovered his heritage the first day of our imprisonment. Vader had been searching him out since the Battle of Yavin and was only too willing to reveal why. He had no idea that I was his daughter as well, despite my resemblance to his late wife.
"In the third week of our imprisonment, we were caught in a riot and I used the Force to defend myself, without thinking about it. It was virtually the first time I'd ever shown an aptitude for it and naturally Vader was alerted. Suspicious, he had a cross-check of my blood sample with Bail Organa's and his own and thus discovered the truth."
"It has come to our attention that you spent a considerable amount of time in Lord Vader's private residence. What was the nature of these meetings?"
"Merely social events of a kind. At their inception, they were at his behest; he would summon us and we would be forced to meet with him. He rarely spoke of anything to do with the Force or the trial. I have the feeling that it was to rewrite our personal dossiers of him."
"Did he succeed?"
Leia raised a hand unconsciously to the japor snippet. "In a way. I came to know the man behind the monster, to realize that he had real capacity for human emotions and had convictions as well. Because I was embittered from our previous...encounters, I initially kept him at a distance to protect myself. But eventually, I was able to see past the bittersweet shadows and forgave him."
She could sense their shock, but continued nevertheless.
"Luke was not so easily dissuaded. To my knowledge, he still cannot forgive him."
"Is that a possible motivation for his turn to the Dark Side?"
Leia gritted her teeth. "It may be something the Emperor is using against him to lure him over to the Dark Side. I do not know. When I last saw him, he showed no disposition to such matters."
"Then how do you explain his actions?"
"I can't," Leia confessed with a degree of frustration and her voice broke. "He tried to explain it, but I can't explain it."
"Do you understand it?"
Leia hesitated, then winced. "On a level."
Leia closed her eyes for a moment, considering the truth, formulating her answers. "After the verdict was issued, we were summoned before the Emperor. He threatened both of us and for a long moment, I was tempted to do whatever he asked in order to save Luke. It was a moment of sheer desperation and one of my darkest. In that, I can understand the logic behind Luke's claims."
"Thank you for your candor," Mon Mothma said gently. "Are there any more questions, gentlemen?"
There were no replies. "Very well. Thank you for your report, Leia. Now to the matter at hand."
Leia straightened, puzzled. Another matter?
Mon Mothma folded her hands and fixed Leia with an intense gaze. "It is our recommendation, for your own safety as well as your emotional well-being that you take a position within the High Command as my civilian second-in-command."
Leia blinked. "You want me to leave the war behind? To leave the cause I am devoted to for a desk job."
"In not so many words, but yes."
Leia did not look at the leader of the Alliance, but pointedly at Rieekan. His expression was apologetic, but she knew that this was his insistence.
"I'm sorry, Mon," she said stiffly. "I cannot do that."
"May I ask why not," Rieekan interjected.
"Because I cannot outlast this war knowing that I risked the lives of others to save my own. I have always taken a hands-on approach to the war because it is the only way to make sure it's done right."
Mon Mothma sucked in her breath, then nodded. "Understood. You will accompany General Rieekan back to Echo Base, then and remain in your unofficial capacity as second-in-command."
"You are dismissed."
Leia stood and left the room as quickly as her still-healing legs would take her. She heard Rieekan excuse himself and follow her out, but she did not acknowledge him.
"I understand your logic, but still do not accept it. Why do you insist on putting yourself at risk? After all you've lost..."
Leia whirled and jabbed a finger in his face, angry with him for the first time in her life. "Do not ever ambush me again," she snapped.
"I didn't ambush you," he replied. "It was the ruling of the High Command..."
"Banthaspit," Leia spat. "The High Command was acting under your attempt to coddle me, to put me out of commission. I won't stand for it from the rest of the Alliance and I sure as Sith won't take it from you.
"It's bad enough that everyone else is walking on eggshells. I can understand compassion or sympathy, but I cannot, will not accept or acknowledge pity, least of all from my friends."
"Don't," she said curtly.
For a long moment, they were both silent--she trying to regain her breath and her composure, he respecting her wish for silence.
As her heart slowed, Leia's anger abated. What am I doing? Hating the closest thing I have to a father for something he did out of love?
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "It's not any fault of yours."
"No," he conceded. "You have a valid point. You're simply overwhelmed with all of this."
She rubbed the bridge of her nose wearily. "That's the understatement of the eon."
He brushed her forehead with a kiss. "Go to Han and rest from all of this. I'll be along as soon as I can."
Han was buried under a panel in the cockpit as usual, 'tweaking.'
"Back so soon," his voice came, muffled.
"There wasn't much to say. They knew all the details of the trial and only needed a few clarifications, not to mention grilling me about Luke's motives. Then, they offered me a desk job, I turned it down, bawled out Rieekan, reconciled, and came back to aggravate you."
He laughed and scooted from under the panel. "An eventful day, I see."
"Quite." She sank wearily into the copilot's chair. "I wish I were like you."
His lips quirked into a smile. "How so?"
"Able to move on without a second thought. Indomitable."
Han reached up to squeeze her fingertips. "I don't know that the first one's a virtue, but you're the most indomitable person I know."
"I don't feel it," she murmured.
"That will pass," he promised. "It always has."
Leia helped him up, but did not release his hand. He dropped into the pilot's seat and she gazed down at their intertwined fingers.
"Do you think Luke is lost?"
He hesitated and Leia could sense his worry, but he shook his head after a moment. "Not at all. Not all who wander are lost."
Vader turned to see a junior officer, a particularly obnoxious lieutenant named Pellaeon, approach.
"The Emperor commands you to contact him."
Vader gave an inward sigh, then nodded. "Route it to my meditation pod."
He turned on his heels and left the bridge, leaving fear and awe in his wake. It was the first time since the commission of the new Super Star Destroyer Executor that the Emperor had contacted him. They were all hoping that perhaps they'd be released from the tedium of the maiden voyage for some authentic action.
His chambers were just three hundred yards from the command center and needlessly spacious. In the center was an enclosed space designated for purposes of meditation and communication, anything that required absolute secrecy.
As he entered the comm circle, he dropped to one knee, then bowed as the Emperor's visage materialized.
"What is thy bidding my master?"
"We have a new ally," Palpatine said and there was no mistaking the smug satisfaction in his cackling voice. "Luke Skywalker has determined to join us in the Dark Side."
Vader's head came up sharply and a heart he didn't remember having ached. After all Luke's promises and protestations, he had succumbed. Vader was not so much surprised as disappointed.
It was strange that, for all his devotion to his Master, Vader was horrified when someone else exhibited the same tendency.
Perhaps it was because Luke was there under duress, the only explanation for his choice to remain on Coruscant. Perhaps it was because another generation of Skywalkers was coming under the control of a psychopathic megalomaniac.
Perhaps it was because his son was making the same mistakes he had, fully knowing what he was doing.
"What of the girl?"
"She is of no consequence," Palpatine said. "Her well-being fuels Skywalker's motivation. She escaped through the efforts of her Rebel friends."
A wave of relief swept over him, but he quashed it quickly, knowing that even his strongest Force barriers could be penetrated by the mind of Palpatine.
"Would you have me train him?"
There was a note of pleading in his voice, a hope.
"No," the Emperor said simply.
Vader did not ask for an explanation, was not to expect one, but the implications were evident.
First, Palpatine wanted the perverse pleasure of corrupting young Skywalker himself. Second, that he knew that there was some degree of Anakin Skywalker left in the armor. If that were true, it would change the course of the training. Luke would not be as deeply enmeshed in the dark arts as he needed to in order to serve such evil as Palpatine and there would even be the possibility of Luke affecting Vader.
Vader nodded. "What would you have of me?"
"Our new ally informs me that the Rebels have established a base in the Hoth system. Seek it out and destroy it. Spare no one. Once that is completed, I will have more to entertain your talents."
"I feel that we should evacuate Echo Base as soon as possible."
Rieekan looked up from his data pad, startled. "Pardon me?"
Leia's lips pressed into a grim line. "Luke knows about our whereabouts. Given his current circumstances, we should not assume that any of our secrets are safe."
"She has a point," Colonel Derlin observed. "As the commander of Rogue Squadron, Commander Skywalker was privy to highly classified information. We should upgrade all of our projects."
"It will be time-consuming," Leia admitted, "but it's the only way."
Rieekan let his stylus fall to the tabletop. "Is this an insight or a premonition, Leia?"
Leia flushed crimson. "I don't know. Perhaps a bit of both."
Derlin snorted. "What good is a Force-strong XO if she can't even distinguish between instinct and reality?"
Rieekan whirled on him, his eyes blazing. "I will thank you to refrain from such words," he said harshly. "You seem to forget who you are speaking of."
"I forget nothing," Derlin countered.
"Leia has had only rudimentary training and she's just been through a massive personal trauma. I don't expect anyone under those circumstances to be clairvoyant."
"Carlist," Leia said softly, touching his arm. "It's all right; I'm frustrated by this as well. But the fact remains that we are all in greater danger now than in a long time and we cannot sit idly by."
"Agreed," Rieekan said. "I'm issuing orders for preliminary evacuation procedures. You are dismissed, Colonel."
Leia remained seated as Derlin left Rieekan's office, then sighed. "Will it always be like this?"
"I don't know," Rieekan confessed. "I can imagine this is how Luke felt when he arrived here."
She shook her head. "No, he had Yavin to his name. Everyone viewed even the slightest nudging of the Force as the harbinger of salvation. I run into suspicion and frustration instead."
"It will pass," he promised. "It's just that this entire affair is a bit of a shock for everyone involved and they want safe, familiar answers to the questions they don't want to ask."
"Such as what's to stop me from doing the same," Leia said quietly.
She clasped her hands in her lap and hunched her shoulders in a shrug. "The main problem is that they saw me as Luke's counterpart, so much like him in many ways. And they could identify with him because he came from such simple origins and rose to such greatness. And now he is the antithesis of what we honor and they're terrified that there is a dark side to their souls as well."
"As well they should. This has the potential to destroy us or to reshape the way we fight this war. If our commanders are more conscientious of the implications of their actions, they will be more sensible in preparing for acts of war."
Leia's shoulders slumped. "I only wish there were a way to train me. There is nothing left of the Jedi Order and yet I am supposed to embody it in Luke's stead. I don't know quite what to do."
Rieekan let out his breath. "Nothing for now. We have a war to fight and a base to evacuate. I suggest we worry about smaller matters when we can breathe again."
"There is no evidence of Imperial presence in our system or along our borders, but Intelligence indicates that there is indeed a task force on its way here."
Wedge Antilles consulted his notes, then keyed up a sector map with superimposed images of capital ships and vector traces. Intrigued, Leia keyed a request into her data pad and watched as the computer displayed possible destinations.
The formation was fanned, but the convergence point was all too clear.
"As you can see," Wedge continued, "the Executor task force has been stationed in a nearby sector. It is made up of one Super Star Destroyer, four Imperial Star Destroyers, two Victory-class Star Destroyers, four Carrack-class cruisers, and a full complement of fighters.
"Three days ago, our tracking specialists marked their departure. We reacquired their drive signatures half a sector away and they departed along these vectors. According to tracking, they made this detour in order to shed their light cruisers, eight squadrons, and one Victory-class Star Destroyer."
Rieekan smiled wryly. "At least we can't accuse them of overkill."
Wedge's mouth quirked, but he did not smile. "Given their point and time of departure, the projected speed, and the convergence point, we should be expecting an Imperial blockade within twenty-five hours."
Rieekan nodded. "Colonel Derlin, how close are we to a full evacuation?"
"We're within seventeen hours of full evacuation. There should be no problems in overlapping agendas."
Rieekan let out his breath and nodded to Leia. "Either your insight or your premonition paid off."
"Thankfully," Leia countered. "Where do we go from here?"
Rieekan turned to Wedge. "You may take your seat, unless there is more."
Wedge pulled out a chair and sank into it. "No, sir."
Rieekan keyed up a tri-dimensional map of the charted Galaxy, then stood. "There was a list of nine options in this sort of eventuality. Unfortunately, Commander Skywalker was privy to that information and we run the risk of betrayal.
"However, during his imprisonment, High Command approved another base option of which he has no knowledge."
He highlighted the Derev Sector and it enlarged. "Ierad IX."
Leia squinted at the map, puzzled. "But that's strategically illogical. All of our bases have had relative proximity to major Imperial space in the space. Ierad is in a sector that is, at best under nominal Imperial control and if we were to stage assaults, back-up would be slow in coming."
"There are several primary trade routes and research facilities in its proximity," Rieekan stated. "I concur with your assessment, but it is the most practical for the time being. If there are no further issues to discuss, we are dismissed."
Leia stood, gathering her datacards and pad. Wedge crossed to her side and embraced her gently from behind.
"I heard," he said quietly, "and I'm so sorry."
She reached up to squeeze his forearm. "Thank you. I see command is suiting you well."
He broke off and she turned to face him, saw his wince. "I wish it were under better circumstances."
"As do we all," Leia agreed, "but it is your time to lead and you will do wonderfully."
He grinned in spite of himself. "I wish I had your confidence."
Leia turned to arch an eyebrow at Rieekan. "Something more, General?"
He folded his arms and fixed her with a deadpan expression. "I'd prefer you to be on the first transport out."
Leia's jaw dropped open to protest, but he held up a hand. "Before I get another earful of what you gave me on the Headquarters Frigate, let me explain. We just spent three months without you because you put yourself at risk one time too many. In addition, once we get to Ierad IX, we need someone to coordinate establishing the base."
"Major Ikth could do it just as well," Leia said evenly.
"Yes, but I insist on your involvement," he said simply. "I can make it an order, but I'd rather not."
Leia nodded. "All right, I'll go quietly."
Fifteen hours later, the first group reached the rendezvous point in safety. Leia debriefed the commanders, then ordered everyone except a rotating skeleton crew to get some rest and relaxation before they had to move on.
She returned to her quarters, exhausted, to find a one-sentence message on her comm.
FORWARD TRIANGULATION DECK, LEVEL 39, MIDNIGHT.
Her chrono indicated that it was just three minutes before the appointed hour, so, morbidly curious, she set out for the turbolift.
She entered the triangulation deck to find the lights extinguished. Three candles were the only illumination in the room and music was coming from an unknown source.
"I was wondering when you'd show up."
Leia whirled to see Han standing behind her, grinning. "What's all this about," she demanded.
"Questions later." He offered an arm. "May I escort you to dinner?"
Leia slipped her arm through his warily and he led her to the standard-issue blanket that served as a tablecloth. He helped her sit, then took a seat across from her.
After the wine was poured and the broiled ikali served, she dared to speak up again.
"So, as I said, what is this all about?"
His mouth twitched. "It occurred to me that we have had a first kiss, but not a first date. I don't know much about Alderaanian custom, but that's pretty irregular. Then, you ordered us to engage in rest and relaxation, but I knew that unless you had a valid excuse, you'd spend half the night working. So..."
He gestured expansively. "I created an excuse."
Leia sipped at the wine, then smiled slightly. "There are more conventional ways of acquiring a date, you know. From the nature of the message, I was almost convinced it was a High Command meeting."
"They're not much for clarity, either?"
She nodded. "It's been my experience that I usually am notified of meetings by means of a diplomatic cipher and a simple message listing the time, date, and location. It would be harder to trace should it be intercepted."
He pressed a finger to her lips. "All right," he said quietly. "Two rules."
"First," Leia prompted.
"First, first person to mention the war or work again buys the next dinner. Second, you are to devote yourself wholeheartedly to trying to have a good time."
Leia's mouth spread into an easy grin. "All right, I'll agree to that."
"Good." He gestured awkwardly to the ikali. "We'd better eat or it might get cold."
Leia speared a piece and chewed thoughtfully, her gaze drifting around the surroundings. "This is nice," she remarked.
"Most secluded spot on the ship," he agreed. "And it affords a spectacular view."
She nodded. "I declared R&R an hour ago; you put this together on such short notice?"
She could have sworn he blushed sheepishly. "Actually..."
Leia laughed. "Out with it, Solo."
"I was planning on kidnapping you if you were too busy."
"Where did you manage to get this?"
He straightened his shoulders, grinning. "I am a smuggler; I never reveal my secrets."
"Granted," she conceded.
He sighed, then squinted. "So, Leia Organa, is it?"
She schooled her features into an expressionless mask. "Something like that."
"I don't know much about you. What do you do for a living?"
"Breaking the rules," she countered.
"That's not much of a profession."
"No," she said with a laugh. "You broke the first rule."
"It was inevitable," he said dourly. "All right, what was the best moment of your life?"
Leia's heart constricted. "It was the night I forgave my father. It was the most free I've ever felt and I can't remember being that genuinely overjoyed before." She looked up and smiled. "What about you?"
"My first flight on the Falcon."
Leia nodded. "I suspect that bucket of bolts will still be legendary long after we've passed."
"Thanks to the walking carpet," he admitted with a grin. "He's the technical genius; I simply take advantage of it."
"Thank the Force for that," she said quietly.
The music changed from light instrumental, to what she recognized as "Sweet Lady of Alderaan."
"I think this is appropriate music," he commented, rising. "Would you do me the honor of dancing with me?"
Leia took his hand and rose gracefully. "My pleasure."
Stepping clear of the blanket, he enfolded her in a gentle embrace, swaying to the music. Leia rested her head on his shoulder, for once contented.
"I could get used to this," he murmured against her hair.
Leia simply grinned. "I know what you mean."
He tightened her grip just a little. "You're right--this is nice and I'd like to do it again. And again. As many times as possible."
Leia looked up, saw no jest or deception in his eyes or his easy smile. "Me too."
They danced. Long after the music had stopped and the candles burned low. After the ikali had gone cold and the wine had gone warm.
As an Alliance formed around them, they were simply two people taking a moment away from a Galaxy at war to be falling in love.
Leia had to marvel. Three years of personal conflicts and the madness of the war had somehow forged a deeper bond of friendship and affection than she would have ever expected.
She startled from her reverie to find Rieekan standing in the doorway. Han released her gently and she sent him a deeply apologetic smile.
"I'm sorry to interrupt such a rare moment of cease fire," Rieekan said with a faint smile, "but we have a situation."
Leia's heart sank. "What happened?"
"Nothing catastrophic or particularly bad for that matter," he assured her. "Just...important."
Leia planted hands on her hips. "I'd appreciate some degree of explanation."
Rieekan brought up the lights and surveyed the room. "Twenty-five years ago, I was a hotshot fighter pilot at the age of eighteen. A back injury got me piloting shuttles and navigating light cruisers for five months. It was at the inception of the New Order and the beginning of the Jedi Purges, so the Jedi were still a considerable presence, but a hunted one.
"One day, my services were chartered by a Jedi Master who required transport to a place called Dagobah. The Jedi were organized almost into cells on various sanctuary worlds and this Master was to stage the refugee efforts of his few cells from that world.
"On our inbound vector, we got ambushed. Were it not for his instincts and aid, I would have been dead. Before I left, I promised him that if he ever needed help, I'd do my best to come to his aid."
"A touching story," Han said, "but what does this have to do with us?"
"When I arrived here, there was a message from this Jedi Master, enlisting my help."
Leia's mouth dropped open slightly. "For what?"
"Coming to train you."
Leia paced nervously, trying not to notice the stares of the on-duty officers in the hangar. The Seventh Dawn had been cleared for landing five minutes ago and would be landing within the minute.
"Stand by for docking," a mechanized voice announced.
Leia stopped and watched the shuttle settle gracefully on the deck. There was a hiss of hydraulics as the ramp lowered and a pint-sized humanoid with green skin and outsized ears toddled down.
He's got to be kidding.
Three security officers intercepted him. "Sir, if you will come with us, we just have a few procedural points."
"Jedi Master I am," he said evenly. "Need this I do not."
"Jedi Master or no," the Security man said patiently, "every person to come to this ship is subject to a routine security check."
"Lieutenant," Leia called. "This is not necessary."
"Yes," the man crowed. "You matter not. Her I have come to train."
She stepped forward as the...man? approached. "I am Leia Orga..."
A blow to her legs with his gnarled cane brought her to her knees. "Respect you must learn. Tower over your Master you must not." He seized her chin and looked her over carefully. "Like your mother you look, but with your father's strength."
Leia's eyes widened. "You knew my parents?"
"Heh," he snorted. "Nine hundred I am. A great many of your forefathers have I known."
Leia blinked. "Who are you?"
Her jaw dropped open. Her history lessons had covered little of the Jedi Order because of the Imperial doctrine, but Yoda had been legendary.
"Come," he said abruptly. "Work we have to do."
The life of a Sith apprentice was not easy. Luke supposed part of his difficulty arose from the fact that, while he had surrendered his freedom to the Emperor, he was a long way from surrendering his soul. Not for lack of trying, of course. There were duels with lightSab?rs as well as the curved lanvarok, a wicked implement that the Sith had been using since the inception of the Order. During the days, he would meditate and at night, Palpatine would meet with him. Most of the meetings consisted of goading and mental assaults. It was a childish game and Palpatine came off as nothing more than a schoolyard bully attempting to get a rise out of his weaker opponent before crushing him. Luke did not rise to the challenge, despite the temptation. His attempts to reach Leia were fruitless, but he suspected an externality named Palpatine of being responsible for that. "You might as well give in," Mara commented one day. Luke shook his head adamantly. "Never. I am only here to save those I love." "Ah, yes," she sneered. "The gallant sacrifice. Your naivet? is disgusting. You actually surrendered believing that it was for that reason." "I suppose you came willingly," he countered. Something like sadness flickered in her eyes, but only for a moment before the fire returned. "Questions later," she spat. "Let's see if you've conquered your fears yet." Luke stood and spun the lanvarok in a corkscrew arc that ended with the blade running diagonal to his right. "Go ahead." The first blow came high, arcing towards his left ear. Luke's arm snapped up and he blocked it easily. Pivoting on his forward foot, he twisted the blade clockwise, leaving her face unprotected, then elbowed in. She flinched back to avoid the blow and he pressed his advantage, driving forward in a series of quick thrusts and parries. She struck low, at his solar plexus and Luke caught the blow on the lower ridge of his blade, then snapped the upper ridge forward, slicing her nose open lengthwise. Enraged, she chambered her leg for a kick to drive him back, but he swept his leg through her standing knee and brought her to the floor. Luke grinned. "Had enough?" She rolled backwards into a crouch, then blocked his overhead swing. Exploding from her crouch, she knocked him off-balance and followed with a dizzying series of hacking, abbreviated cuts that seemed more appropriate for demolition than dueling. Her offensive managed to drive him halfway across the arena before he could regain his senses and fight back. He caught her blade against his in an X and they froze for a moment, each struggling to move forward with their momentum, but the resulting pressure making it impossible. "Your problem," she bit out, "is that you have been coddled into thinking that isolated victories will add up to success. You do not think beyond your next step and therefore are unprepared. I hope someday it will get you killed." "The feeling's mutual, I'm sure," Luke said evenly, "but I'll keep that sentiment in mind." She stepped forward with her right foot, her movement placing her even with his right hip, then pivoted and drove the lower end of her lanvarok inward, catching him in the hip, then snapping the upper ridge into his shoulder at the brachial plexus. The lanvarok fell from his hands and he fell to his knees, gritting his teeth. "I win again," she said, her voice even for the first time in the conversation. "You were warned of your weakness and paid it no heed." "As if you gave me a chance," Luke gasped. "Your enemies will not pause for learning experiences as well." She tossed the lanvarok aside and brushed a strand of fiery hair away from her glistening face. "On a more optimistic note, it was harder to defeat you. You are becoming fearless, letting go of your inhibitions. The next step is moving past that to let your anger replace your fear and drive your success." "Like you?" She nodded, then bared her teeth in something like a malicious grin. "I am the Emperor's personal emissary and the most highly-regarded assassin in the Empire. I didn't become that by hesitating." Luke winced and probed his wounds. "I don't imagine you did." "Stop being such a baby," she spat and hauled him up by his injured shoulder. He yanked his arm away. "You may not be Palpatine's brat, but you're certainly his clone." "I'm flattered," she said wryly. "Go, you are of no use to us yet."
"I'm not quite sure how to describe him," Leia admitted. "He's like no one I've ever encountered."
They were atop the base, among the sensor array, leaning against one of the towers. They had taken to watching the stars every night, whether they talked or not, because it was the only constant, the only sense of order in the Galaxy.
"He's nine hundred?" Han asked incredulously.
"Eight hundred and ninety-nine," Leia corrected.
"Stang," Han murmured. "He must have some amazing stories."
"If you can translate them," she countered.
"Ah, yes, me told about that Rieekan did."
Leia grinned and settled back in his arms. "I figured as much. I don't think there are many on this base who haven't heard about him. It's not every day that a legendary Jedi Master shows up on base demanding to turn the second-in-command into a Jedi."
"I'm still recovering from the shock myself," he agreed. "I can't imagine how you must be feeling."
"Unworthy," she confessed. "After everything I've heard about the Jedi, I don't seem the right type."
"Let the Master be the judge of that."
She reached down to rub her sore legs. "I'm sure he will be."
Han sighed. "I suppose this is our last night of privacy for a while, then?"
"I don't know. He doesn't want many distractions and you, my dear, most certainly qualify as a distraction."
He kissed the side of her neck softly, then moved to her shoulder blade. "I know exactly what you mean."
She drew his arms tighter around her, then rested against him. "I think the rest of the base will be relieved that the dangerous Jedi potential is under strict supervision."
"Mmm," Han mumbled against her back. "They're all idiots."
There was a long silence, then he finally spoke. "Did I tell you Rieekan offered me a commission today?"
Leia straightened, startled. "Really?"
"How much of a commission?"
She caught her breath, not daring to hope.
"I'm going to take it."
Leia closed her eyes. "About time."
"I figured that if I'm finally home, I should settle in a bit."
She winced and her shoulders must have tightened because he asked, "What's wrong?"
"A bet Luke and I had," she said. "About when you'd commit. I wagered when Tatooine freezes over."
"Hey," he protested.
"This was six months ago, before I knew better," she soothed. "He said within the year."
"Right as usual," Han mused. "Any other wagers I should know about?"
"Well, Rogue Squadron is counting the days until we fall in love."
Han laughed easily. "Me, too."
Luke set his jaw. "Good morning to you, too."
Palpatine fixed him with an almost normal look, one that suggested that Luke was an impertinent schoolboy and the Emperor was simply a beatific teacher who cringed at the thought of punishing him.
As if both of them didn't know better.
"You still resist your destiny."
"If it were my destiny, I would have been led to it long ago."
"Ah, yes, the skepticism," he snorted. "But you have had delayed destinies for your entire life. The Academy, Jedi training, your sister..."
"That has nothing to do with this," Luke snapped. "This is not my path, so I will not walk it."
The beatific expression dissolved into something far more familiar. "Perhaps you need more convincing."
Luke stiffened, remembering what this monster had done to Leia by way of persuasion. "It will take more than 'convincing.' More than veiled threats and Force storms."
"Undoubtedly." He turned towards the door. "Mara?"
The doors hissed open and she entered with confident strides. She clamped her hand around his wrist, then smirked. "Come. We have a mission for you."
"I have a bad feeling about this."
She snorted. "Bright, aren't you? No questions asked."
"Go, my young apprentice," Palpatine called, "and when we return, we'll see how much persuasion you further require."
Leia hurdled a low-hanging branch, then leapt up, catching a hanging vine to cross the creek. Landing, she sprinted forward, dancing lightly between the rocks on the downward slope.
The exercise wouldn't have been so difficult had Yoda not been strapped to her back, lecturing.
"Tempted you will be. This temptation know you already. Felt it you have. Yes?"
"Yes," Leia panted.
"Stronger it will become with pain."
Leia flipped over a large log, then sidestepped a flight of birds, taking a spur trail through denser foliage. "I have had my due share of pain," she said breathlessly, "and I still have not fallen."
"But complacent you must not become. The downfall of the Order this was. Far greater pain there shall be," he said cryptically. "Encapsulated in the Dark Side you will be."
Leia's brow furrowed. "Will I triumph?"
"Your choice always that is, but here I am to see to it that you do."
Half a kilometer later, he called a halt. Leia sank onto a log, breathing hard, and ran a hand through her damp hair.
"Refresh yourself," he reminded her. "Rely on the Force you must learn to."
Leia closed her eyes, calming herself and drawing on the Force for strength.
"Good, good. Set me down you must; talk we must."
Easing the pack from her shoulders, she turned and lowered her Master to the ground. He extricated himself from its confines, then took a seat next to her.
"Believe in the Force do you?"
Leia nodded. "My brother is a prisoner of its Dark Side; if it means saving him, I'll believe anything."
"No," Yoda snapped. "Not enough this is. Always dependent on your brother matters are. But in your mind only. If you are to be a Jedi, recognize you must that service to the Light Side your brother may sacrifice. And still, serve it you must. Greater faith you must have."
"I can't sacrifice him so easily," Leia said with a touch of impatience in her voice.
"Control," he admonished her. "Sacrifice him you may not have to, but the point this is not. Your war this is not to fight..."
"How can you say that?" Leia demanded.
A sharp crack of his gimer stick across her knuckles brought her to repentance. "I'm sorry," she said with a grimace. "I have not yet learned respect."
"Evidently," he said wryly. "Your war this is not to fight yet. A time there will come for courage and great struggles, but this time it is not."
Somehow what he said made sense. Leia closed her eyes and nodded slightly. "Yes, Master."
"The truth of this you recognize," he observed. "Good. Another headstrong Padawan I need not."
"Padawan." He tapped her on the shoulder. "A Padawan apprentice you are. A humble learner. Call our apprentices this we did, in the old days. From a Dantooinian term meaning 'child of light' it is."
"I'm not a child," Leia protested with a smile.
"A child in the Force we all are," he countered. "Come, night falls and near the base we are."
Leia rose and helped him back into the pack, then shouldered the load and set off at a jog.
"Frightened are you?"
Leia nearly stumbled over a root. "What?"
"Simple query this is. Frightened are you?"
Her brow furrowed and she heard his light laughter. "Good this hesitation is. Means that control you your fears do not."
"Glad to hear it," Leia said wryly. "Why did you ask?"
"Your strength to gauge. If hasty you were or overcome by your fears, futile this all might be. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering."
Leia grimaced. "I know that all too well."
He laughed again. "Indeed you do. Save you it has on many occasions."
She shortened her strides as she reached a downward slope. The dying light made discerning the path virtually impossible, so she would have to be guided by the Force.
As if sensing this, Yoda quieted. Leia stretched out with her senses, jogging in place to keep up the momentum. She could sense the placement of obstacles, and could see them in her mind's eye.
Now to follow that map.
"Calm, sure, be not hasty."
Leia nodded, then set off at a sprint down the hill. Her feet moved in an intricate footwork pattern and she pivoted occasionally, when a more sure footing lay in another direction.
A flash of silver came after the subtle change in the Force. Leia's lightSab?r came up in swift movements and the bar fell in three pieces.
"Improved you have."
She knew that she should feel a rush of pride, but felt only peace and assurance. Quite a change, eh, Your Worship? Han had said.
She broke from the obstacle course into a large clearing and let out her breath, exhilarated.
"Well you did. The bar, in seven pieces it should be, but matter for now that does not. Once said a Jedi Master that the three aspects of the Force and the four noble truths it represented. When accept and adopt them you will, seven pieces there will be."
"But for now, I only have the aspects of the Force or three of the noble truths?"
"Think not on it," he chided. "In meditation, truth you will gain. Learn this we will with practice."
Leia nodded. "Master, why do you think I favor telekinesis?"
"An outlaw leader you are. Comes easily to you faith in the impossible it does."
Padm?'s first pregnancy was not an easy one.
Between vicious morning sickness, raging hormones, swollen ankles, and the "inelegant" swell of her abdomen, she was fluctuating between vindictive misery and unbridled elation at the prospect of being a mother.
To make matters worse, the stress of her duties as a Senator, the ever-present crisis of the Clone Wars, and the political instability had taken its toll by the fifth month and her doctor ordered four weeks of bed rest.
By the third day, her loving, patient husband was ready to put her into a Force-induced coma.
"This one is going to be a Jedi," Padm? informed the ceiling.
Anakin grinned. "How can you tell?"
"All Jedi make me sick," she quipped.
He snorted and settled onto the bed next to her. "Despite the erroneous sentiment, I think you could be right. Our daughter will be strong."
She arched an eyebrow. "Daughter," she said quietly. "Are you sure?"
"Nothing is sure," he replied, "but whoever's in there is certainly active enough to be a daughter."
He drew her under his arm and sighed. "I see her, sometimes, in my dreams. The spitting image of you, with your temperament, nobility, and grace, but with my adorable nose."
"Force help us all," Padm? said, laughing. "Does she have your ego as well?"
"Now, Padm?," he chided. "That would be cheating."
"I know," she murmured softly. "I'm not sure whether I want a Jedi child. To have to give her up so early, watch her grow under the guidance of someone else. Watch her struggle with dark and light, with the burden of following the promptings of something she can't possibly understand."
"She would know dark and light, but never struggle. If she has your strength and your spirit, she would not allow temptation to affect her."
"You expect a child four months from birth to be perfect already?"
He leaned over and kissed her deeply. "She's ours," he said quietly. "Perfection is issued with the surname."
She grinned. "But that's all she would know of us--a surname."
"Maybe not," he replied. "If the Force deems it, I could take her as my Padawan. It's not uncommon."
She sighed heavily. "We can hope."
The panic began in small stages. The cessation of movement from their unborn child came a week into bed rest. Anakin joked half-heartedly that perhaps the new Skycrawler was on bed rest as well, but Padm? was not so easily persuaded.
They waited, hoping each breathless moment for a movement, a kick, a hiccup, anything, but by the third day, even Anakin had to worry.
"We'll go to the doctor's after I meet with the Council this morning," he promised his distraught angel.
He returned to find her collapsed on the dining room floor, surrounded by blood. Panicked, he barely had the presence of mind to call for an ambulance and stayed by her side, holding her limp form until help arrived.
"Miscarriage," the doctor confirmed. "We don't know exactly what caused it, but the fetus was dead four days prior. I'm sorry, but there's nothing we can do."
The silence in her womb and in the moment that followed that grim pronouncement echoed the silence in his mind. The Force had betrayed him.
His arm was around Padm?'s shoulders, stiff as she wept openly against his shoulder. Unable to speak, he gathered her into his arms and cradled her, as he would have his daughter, rocking her gently.
He sent every last bit of comfort he could to her, leaving none for his own tortured soul.
"Lord Vader, we are receiving a communication from the Night Emissary. They are demanding permission to dock."
Vader turned to find the newly-minted Captain Piett standing, rather nervously, behind him. The pronouncement filled Vader with mild apprehension as well. The Night Emissary was one of the Emperor's finest shuttlecraft, reserved only for his journeys and the advent of an apprentice.
"Captain, who is piloting the shuttle?"
"A woman named Arica. She gave all the proper codes."
"As well she should. Permission granted. I will meet her myself."
Arica was, of course, Mara Jade, the Emperor's Hand. This was evidently no social call and the fact that the Emperor had not disclosed the message via the Holonet increased his apprehension.
It was either an assassination or something on the scale of a Death Star.
Either way, the prospects were black.
Crossing to the turbolift, he boarded and immediately began calming his senses and erecting barriers.
Any weakness and he could be doomed.
"Lord Vader himself is meeting us," Mara mused. "How flattering."
"Why have you brought me here," Luke demanded.
She snorted. "I'm going to have to gag you fairly soon if you keep asking that."
"You still haven't answered," he countered sourly.
"You won't be able to answer the true call of destiny if you have a gilt invitation with RSVP on it a month in advance. This will either make you or break you. You will choose your path and we won't return to the Emperor until you have."
"Choose my path under your conditions," he spat. "You can't pretend this isn't manipulation."
"We are simply seeing your way clear to your calling in life. When you step past your stubborn pride and your blind ambitions, you'll recognize that."
"Sith," he said in disgust. "You almost sounded like a light-sider there."
"Don't rub it in," she growled. "You disgust me."
"May I ask why?"
She cut the thrusters with an almost violent jab of her fingers, then maliciously throttled back and set the shuttle down with surprising ease. Unstrapping, she stood and was halfway out of the cockpit before she turned and fixed him with a smoldering glare.
"You're nothing more than a Force-strong farmboy. A nothing from a backwater world who played hero one day and got used to it. You are an imbecile who can't possibly understand the service he should be rendering. And yet my Master is terrified of you because of a semi-mythical superstition."
The vehemence startled him more than the words, but even more sudden was the flash of insight.
His face broke into a grin for the first time in weeks. "You're jealous."
She spun on her heel. "Burn in the hells of the weak, Skywalker."
Unstrapping, he followed her out. She and Vader were halfway across the hangar when his father stopped, his chin raised, as if sensing a change in the atmosphere. Finally, his gaze settled on Luke.
Despite the well-constructed barriers that Luke was used to dealing with, there was no mistaking the unbridled rage that rolled off of his father.
"Him," he bellowed. "What sort of trick is this, Jade?"
"No trick," she said smugly. "Skywalker has nothing to do with my purposes here."
"Why is he here, then," Vader said, his tone easing a little.
"He is on a journey and no one, especially not you, must remove him from the path he treads. Besides," she said, a bit of the gleeful malice returning to her voice, "we have plans for him."
"Take him to AD-27, number 2202. Level 4."
His mind barely registered the code before the stormtrooper bludgeoned him over the head, sending him spiraling into darkness.
It was like nothing he'd ever endured before.
The interrogation drugs, a Level 4 narcotic interrogation regimen, had been injected into his bloodstream while he was unconscious so that by the time he awoke, he was already in their thrall. Had he been conscious at the time of injection, he would have easily fought off the effects, but his mind was too clouded to do anything except wonder what was happening.
The troopers had been given very careful instructions on how to deal with their subject.
A scan grid, on the cutting edge of interrogative device technology, was the weapon of choice today. He was lowered onto it from a diagonal angle, the probes sending agonizing jolts where they met his bare flesh and spreading quickly and acutely through his already weary body. His limbs spasmed futilely against his restraints and his back arched, then straightened as the movement brought more unbearable pain.
He was so spent that he did not even restrain his anguished howls. His throat was raw, nearly bleeding. His eyes stung and his mouth was bleeding freely where he had bit through his tongue in an effort to restrain his cries.
He could have relied on the Force for pain-blocking technique, but it seemed to have abandoned him. He could sense nothing, feel nothing except fear, pain, and an underlying anger for being subjected to this.
At last, it stopped. His restraints snapped and he tumbled forward onto the grid, then fell the rest of the way to the floor. Curled on his side, he had not the strength to move.
"More," the stormtrooper captain ordered calmly.
"Sir, he will not survive further..."
"He is a Jedi. He will survive no matter what we do."
Rough hands seized him under the arms and hauled him into a half-standing position, then hurled him against the wall. He crumpled, breathing hard, completely spent.
A humming alerted him to the presence of an electronic device. Moments later, an interrogation droid floated in, implements primed. The troopers hauled him upright and began positioning him for vertical restraints.
Frantic, Luke lashed out, the flat edge of his hand catching the guard in the neck. The momentum carried him forward and they both went over, Luke's hands clamped around his neck. A sickening crunch alerted him that he had killed the man, but he was too overcome with desperate anger and hatred to much care.
As the second trooper raised his blaster carbine, Luke outstretched his hand and the weapon flew to his hand. In a heartbeat, he had drilled a shot through the eyeplate of the first and another shot through the throat of the captain. Another shot slagged the droid.
Exhausted and overwhelmed, he slumped to the floor and knew no more.
"The Ketaris sector has been engulfed in Civil War for many years, but for the time being, it has subsided. They are calling for instatement as neutral territory."
"As if the Empire will allow that," Leia snorted. "Five minutes into negotiations, they'll execute the leaders and instate martial law instead."
"Standard Imperial procedure," Han said grimly.
"Nevertheless," Mon Mothma continued, "each side is to send a delegation to Ketaris to arrange the terms."
"Can we risk that, given the Imperial penchant for traps," Rieekan asked.
"We'll have to," Leia countered. "Ketaris is essential to our survival because of its strategic placement, exports, as well as factories. If they're willing to supply both sides of the war, we'd be fools not to take the opportunity."
"Perhaps," Ackbar grated, "but think of the risks."
Leia's eyes narrowed. "I am." She turned to Mon Mothma, trying to remain even-toned. "We should put this to a vote."
In the end, the delegation was to be sent to Ketaris by a one-vote margin.
Mon Mothma dismissed the meeting and Leia fell into step with Han. "I suppose you're set on being part of the delegation," he murmured.
Leia nodded grimly. "I'm the best diplomat we have and on the High Command. Ackbar will be sent for the Fleet, Rieekan for Intelligence, and Madine for the Army. They're level-headed and rational, but this will require special skills."
He scowled. "I don't like it. As far as I know, the several death warrants on your head still stand, including the one that very nearly succeeded. There's nothing except diplomatic patience to keep the Imperials from carrying out their orders."
"Diplomatic patience and public relations," she countered. "They don't want to start a massacre at a potentially profitable summit."
"That isn't very reassuring."
"I don't think there's another..."
Her words trailed off as her knees buckled and she collapsed, suddenly unable to breathe. Nausea overwhelmed her as a barrage of emotions rolled over her like the waves of the sea, saturating her. Pain, despair, and above all anger.
The next thing she was aware of was Han supporting her head as she retched, calling for a medic.
"No," she protested weakly. "It's nothing medical."
Leia's eyes lifted to meet his and he was frightened by what he saw there. "Luke," she said quietly. "We have to find Master Yoda."
"No need," the voice called. "Felt it I did."
Leia turned to face the Master. "Has he turned?"
"Turned he has not yet, but on the path to the Dark Side he is." He took her hand in a surprisingly gentle grip. "Come. Little there is we can do. Take its course this must."
"This is madness."
Mara turned a glare on her Master. "The procedure on the Executor was successful, but he is in shock. Sending him to Ketaris will do nothing to further our purposes."
"To the contrary," Palpatine said with the maddening serenity he always adopted when dealing with the foreseen. "It can do more to him than anything we may contrive."
"Or it could destroy him," she countered. "The Rebels are sending Leia Organa herself. You know what influence she has on him."
"I'm counting on it. If something disrupts him, he will simply be returned to us for reconditioning."
Mara nodded sharply. "I will be going, then?"
"No," he said simply. "Lord Vader will more than suffice for our purposes."
"Vader intends to destroy you," she spat. "And with his son at his side..."
"His son will have nothing to do with him, as you well know from their last...encounter. Lord Vader is exactly what we require."
"I'm going with you."
Leia turned to find Han standing against the doorjamb, his arms folded. She offered him a grim smile, then turned back to packing.
"I wouldn't advise that."
"Someone has to protect you," he countered.
"Rieekan is going," she said quietly. "I'd rather not involve you in this."
"You don't trust me," he stated.
She turned a scowl on him. "Don't put words in my mouth, Han, especially when they're inaccurate."
His brows drew together into an equally fierce expression. "I don't see any other explanation. Luke was my friend, too."
"Is," she corrected vehemently. "The explanation is that this is an incredibly tenuous situation as it is and knowing you were being put in danger as well..."
She shook her head. "I have to face this alone."
"Is that why your pint-sized professor is staying behind?"
"The Empire never rescinded its legislation against the Jedi," Leia said simply. "We saw that during the trial. Master Yoda is nine hundred years old and to bring another Jedi to this summit would be considered belligerent."
"And yet you're bringing your lightSab?r."
Leia's hand brushed against the cylinder hanging at her waist. Master Yoda had insisted on its construction and she had only completed it a few days prior.
"It is a symbol of my heritage," she said quietly. "I don't intend to use it."
"Luke may not be so restrained."
"We don't know that," she snapped, her voice cracking a bit. "We don't know anything about his situation. I hope to find out on this mission."
"And you expect to get an answer?"
"Yes." She turned and zipped the duffel bag. "It's the least he can do."
Han caught her by the shoulders as she attempted to pass him. "The least he can do is kill you. I don't know what your feelings on the matter are, but I, very selfishly, do not want you dead."
Leia's throat constricted. "Don't you have any faith in him or me?"
He sighed, then drew her into a tight embrace. "I don't know any more."
Shoulders drooping, she reached around to return the gesture and pressed her cheek to his chest.
"I know what you mean."
"Can I come with you?"
She laughed lightly. "You hate dress uniforms."
"For the woman I love, I'd suffer even that."
She drew back, startled. "The woman you..."
She was surprised to see him blush. "Sorry. I didn't mean to admit it, what with all that you have on your mind right now..."
Her mouth dropped open. "You mean it?"
He grinned. "What, you don't believe me?"
She punched his arm playfully. "I can't be sure if it's real or a ploy to get me to bring you along."
"Both," he admitted.
She stretched up on her toes to kiss him fervently, passionately, and contentedly.
"All right," she said once she came up for air. "But we take your ship."
"Wait a minute," he protested. "You're going to keep me in suspense?"
She stretched up and kissed him quickly on the mouth. "Flyboy, the feeling is whole-heartedly mutual."
"Stop fidgeting. You knew what you were getting into."
Han tugged at the cuff of his dress uniform, scowling. "And I thought the Imperial uniform was uncomfortable."
"You look very professional," she soothed. "They'll barely recognize you out there."
"Good," he grumbled. "I won't have to make small talk, then. I'm here for you and to keep the Skywalker family in line."
She stretched to kiss his cheek. "We're very grateful for the effort, I'm sure."
He took her hands and surveyed the vision before him. "You're not so bad yourself."
She blushed, then glanced over herself. She'd chosen a sweeping, rose gown that added a glow to her cheeks. The bodice was threaded through with iridescent thread, giving it the appearance of a rainbow at dawn, but her arms were bare, save for a light, gauzy stole. The skirt, beginning just above her hips, was full and of a deeper tone, embroidered with flowers. Around her neck was an Alderaanian opal on a silver pendant and her hair was combed back and held in place with elaborately carved silver combs.
It was a bit extravagant for such a short amount of time--the reception for the delegations and planetary leaders would only last three hours--but Rieekan had insisted.
"One must make an impression," she said archly.
He grinned. "I don't think you'll have to worry about that."
He offered an arm and turned towards the grand staircase. "Shall we?"
"Princess Leia Organa of the Royal House of Alderaan, Senator of the Alderaan Sovereignty, second-in-command of the Alliance of Free Peoples, of the Jedi Order."
"Oh, Sith," Leia murmured. "Whose idea was that?"
"You wanted to make an impression," Han countered.
"But not that one."
"Colonel Han Solo, Intelligence Division of the Alliance of Free Peoples, recipient of the Medal of Honor for his role in the Battle of Yavin."
"Well, that didn't take long."
"Hush," she admonished. "Count yourself lucky."
She turned to see Governor Sterhaven, the driving force behind these negotiations, approach. She dipped in courtesy as he took her hand and kissed it gracefully.
"We'd hoped you would be attending," he said.
"Governor, this is my dear friend, Colonel Han Solo."
"So I heard," Sterhaven commented. "An honor to finally meet you, Colonel."
"And Han, this is Governor Esan Sterhaven."
Han extended a hand, a nervous expression on his face. "It's an admirable thing you're doing here, Governor," he said, his voice a bit strained.
Sterhaven didn't seem to notice or chose to ignore it. "Thank you. If you'll excuse me, I must find my wife."
Leia squeezed Han's arm lightly. "Relax," she soothed. "This is merely a social function, not an inspection."
"I wouldn't be so sure," he countered. "We have visitors."
She turned to see Luke approaching. Clad entirely in black, he looked ten years older and a lifetime wearier.
"I'll go find our table," Han murmured in her ear.
Don't leave me, she thought instinctively.
That thought was ridiculous. For all that had happened, Luke was still her brother and she should have nothing to fear.
He stopped just short of her, his eyes searching her features, his mind reaching out to her. She kept her face impassive, but returned the probe, sensing an unusual amount of tension, but still the traces of the man who had been her best friend long before knowing he was family.
"I didn't expect to ever see you again," she said softly.
"Nor I you," he agreed.
"You didn't exactly sound optimistic in your last letter," she countered, her voice steeling a bit at the memory.
He blinked. "You don't understand."
"Not really," she admitted. "I can't imagine why, on the brink of our escape, you would sell yourself to the demons."
He opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment, a chime rang. The hall fell silent and the herald reappeared.
"Dinner will be served following the dancing, which is about to begin, so you may proceed into the dining room."
Luke's jaw clenched slightly, then relaxed and she read frustration in his eyes. At least she was getting to him, so to speak.
"We need to talk," he said stiffly.
"Indeed we do, but not now."
"Right." He offered an arm. "I believe you still owe me a dance?"
She bit her lip, then nodded. "Later."
Han was waiting just inside and Luke relinquished his hold, following them to the table.
Her heart sank as she saw the other occupant--her father.
As if this night weren't going to be hard enough.
"Leia," he greeted.
"Lord Vader," she replied evenly. "I believe you know Colonel Solo."
Han bowed slightly, his face still slightly drawn, then turned to her. "May I have this dance?"
Leia smiled gratefully. "Certainly."
He led her onto the dance floor and took up the position for the Alderaanian waltz that had just begun.
"I figured you might do well to keep this evening in short segments."
"Thank you," she breathed. "This isn't exactly going well."
"Have you talked to him about it?"
She shook her head slightly. "Later. We have a lot to discuss."
"What's your evaluation of him?"
She sighed and stepped out for the ladies' under-arm turn. "I honestly don't know yet. My probe didn't reveal much, but one of the Dark Arts is mind-cloaking."
"So you may never know?"
"I hope not." She returned to the position. "If nothing else, I have to know if there's something I could do."
"Where is Rieekan?"
Han shook his head. "Hasn't arrived yet."
"Blast," she murmured. "I need all the help I can get here."
"Don't worry," he replied.
"Don't worry," she repeated incredulously. "We're at a table with two Sith, both of whom are members of my family and who may want to kill me, and you expect me not to worry?"
He grinned wryly. "I didn't say it would be easy. Besides, I'm not letting anything happen to you."
She kissed him lightly. "Thank you."
"If nothing else, we can just hole up and talk politics with Sterhaven."
She smiled grimly. "No, I have to go through with this."
"Dealing with the Sith or getting yourself killed?" he asked.
"I don't know. Maybe both."
They were halfway through the second course and handling fairly well on non-combatant topics of conversation when a p'qa came on.
Leia stood immediately. "They're playing our song," she said simply.
Luke stood and, taking her hand, led her around the table to the dance floor. Taking the opening position, he waited for a beat, then tore full-throttle into the dance.
Leia kept up with him, despite the cumbersome skirts, but her mind was on other things. The ritual was too familiar, too characteristic of Luke, to suggest that he was as Yoda suspected.
And yet he had changed. There was something fundamentally wrong in his sense.
He led her through a fast spin, then caught her and resumed.
"In the wrong direction again, farmboy," she said quietly.
"I never could get that right," he rejoined.
"At least some things never change."
He released her right arm and they stepped out into the variation, repeated, then spun back into position.
"This is wrong," she stated.
"I'm not going in the wrong direction again, am I?"
"That's not what I mean," she bit out.
"I know exactly what you mean," he retorted.
She snorted. "You couldn't possibly."
"Well, for one thing," he said quietly, "we can't even enjoy this. Enjoy each other. What's happened?"
Her gaze hardened into a full-fledged glare. "You should know better than anyone what's happened."
She stepped out into the spin position and executed it sharply, almost forcefully.
"I can't imagine Han's too happy with me," he said quietly.
"Han's expecting you to kill me. He believes that you've completely betrayed us."
Luke's mouth twitched. "I'll have to disappoint him. I don't even know why I'm here."
"To taunt me," Leia snapped. "Maybe not on your part, but you are not the man I knew and the Emperor knows how much that will hurt me."
"I did not betray you," he protested.
"Oh, no? Three days after I arrived at the Hoth base, we had to evacuate just hours ahead of the Imperials. I suppose that was their military genius at work?"
"I had to," he said, the frustration in his eyes bleeding into his words.
"You didn't have to anything."
The music ended and the room broke into applause. Luke reached up to wipe the perspiration from her brow and she recoiled almost violently.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said.
She broke away, fire in her eyes, lead in her stomach. "You already have."
Leia turned on her heel and stalked past the table to the balcony beyond. Frustrated and bewildered, Luke followed closely.
"Leia, stop," he called.
She whirled and he was stunned to see tears streaming down her face.
"For five weeks," she said in a low, trembling voice, "I have been trying to reach to you, as you taught me. To know that there was still something there, that I hadn't lost you completely. I got nothing, not even a barrier or a rebuke, until two weeks ago. And then all I could sense was something that frightened me intensely. It was what I imagined my experience on the Death Star would have felt like to a Force user, but there was something incredibly wrong beyond any of that."
Luke's jaw dropped a few centimeters. "You sensed that."
"Yes," she spat. "How many, Luke, how many did you destroy that day?"
"Don't give me that," she nearly screamed. "How many?"
"Four that day," he admitted, still stunned.
"That day," she pressed.
His mind flashed through the ensuing days leading to this meeting. He may have taken his first steps on the dark path that day, but in his confused and enraged state, he was setting a steady pace.
"Leading them carefully down to hell," she quoted. "I think the phrase is rather appropriate here."
"I was out of my mind, unable to think," he protested.
"Out of my mind is the closest thing to the truth I've heard from you tonight." She turned and leaned heavily on the railing. "I understand that feeling. I had to endure much worse on the Death Star because of our father. But the difference is, I remembered who I was.
"You once told me that you were not Vader because you stayed true to who you were. That day, you forgot. You only remembered that you were the vessel of great power and unleashed it in any way you could, becoming the enemy.
"That," she hissed, "is why this is wrong. That is what happened."
Speechless, Luke crossed to her and attempted to enfold her in an embrace, but she planted a hand in the center of his chest.
"Are you still out of your mind," she asked, her voice finally quieting. "Have you finally come to your senses?"
His jaw trembling, he shook his head. "No. I don't know if I can. Something died with me that day and I'm not sure what it was."
"It was you, Luke," she said simply. "It may not have died, but it is on the verge. And until you realize what you are doing and how to stop it, it will continue to die. I don't want to stand idly by and watch it happen, but you have given me no choice."
He shook his head. "You forgave Father; why not me?"
"You should have known better," she said.
"You would have died."
"I'd rather that had happened, then allow this." She jabbed a finger into his chest. "Rather die than succumb to the darkness. 'I will not sell my soul to save my life.' You betrayed that promise we made so long ago and you betrayed me. That is why I am having a hard time forgiving you."
Emotionally drained by the force of her anger, he sank onto a bench. He felt a strange antipathy, wanted to deny her words.
But he couldn't.
What he was now was unrecognizable, even to himself. He was losing his grip on what he had been with each passing day. The strength and power his hatred gave him was too seductive to let him step away and recover.
At night, he tried to meditate, to reach what was left of the wet-behind-the-ears farmboy who had left Tatooine three years ago, but it was as if his mind were being smothered. It was frightening and yet addictive.
It was you, Luke.
"I know," he breathed. "I won't deny your assessment, nor will I explain it because I, myself, can't."
She turned away and he could see her shoulders heaving. "I know," she said finally. "But I can't understand."
The anger was gone, replaced by a screaming despair. Luke rose and embraced her from behind and this time, she did not fight back, only sagged back into his arms, weeping.
"Can we not ignore this for the night? I have not seen you, sensed you, for all this time. It's like drowning after crossing a desert."
"I will not make small talk with my own twin brother," she bit out. "Diplomatic patience goes only so far."
Luke tightened his grip, burying his chin in her shoulder. "Not small talk," he said quietly. "I can't spend the rest of my life having betrayed you so deeply, then having simply walked away."
"Why not," she snapped. "It was easy for you the last time."
Luke caught his breath. "You're wrong."
"Am I?" She turned and pulled away. "The least you could have done was tell me to my face. Cowardice is of the Dark Side."
Luke snorted. "How would you know?"
She reached down to her waist and for the first time, Luke saw the cylinder hanging there.
"I have found a Jedi Master," she said quietly. "And he is rather well-acquainted with the Sith."
"Thank the Force one of us will redeem the Skywalker name," he breathed.
"Despite your efforts," she said.
His mouth quirked. "Did he also tell you that anger is of the Dark Side?"
"This is not anger, this is sorrow." She looked down and buried her face in her hand. "I cannot even bring myself to pity you and it frightens me."
Luke turned away to see Han watching from the doorway, his eyes cold, his jaw set. Luke wondered how much he had heard.
"He loves you, doesn't he."
Leia nodded silently.
"I knew it would come," Luke continued. "He is an unwarranted blessing for us all."
"I know," she said quietly.
Straightening, she looked directly into his eyes for the first time that night. "Han suggested that I should keep this evening in short segments. Perhaps we should talk when I have regained myself."
"Whatever you require," he said flatly.
She shuddered at the apathy in his voice. "Luke, you misunderstand me. This is all because I love you too much. I can't reconcile myself to the idea that I've lost you."
His throat tightened. Perhaps I've lost her as well.
Han took her arm at the door without a word, understanding the need for silence. Instead of guiding her back to the table, he led her from the hall and up the grand staircase to the corridors beyond.
"I need to be back there," Leia protested wearily.
"No," he said firmly. "You need to start being selfish for a bit."
Leia glanced over her shoulder at the reception hall. Luke had not followed. "I thought that was what I was doing out there."
He snorted. "I don't know about that."
"How much did everyone hear?"
"Other than the 'Don't give me that,' nothing," he assured her. "And even so, they figured eavesdropping on a Sith and his sister while both were armed would get them killed."
Turning into a side corridor, he palmed the fourth door open and keyed the lights. "Sit down, lay down, flop, whatever, but take off your shoes first."
Leia kicked off the heels and sank onto the long couch, tucking her legs up under her.
It was then that the full impact of what had just happened hit her. A wave of emotion accompanied the nausea and she buried her face in her hands, trying her best to fight past her emotions.
"Why did I let that happen," she moaned.
"Because he was your best friend," Han said simply. "He's your brother. You have that semi-mystical twin thing going on. To have that relationship affected is no small matter."
Leia reached up to her brow with a trembling hand. "When he touched my face, I..." She shuddered. "I haven't done that since Vader did the same on the Death Star. I don't want to associate him with that."
She could see the muscles in his jaw clenching as he himself struggled for control. "Perhaps I should deal with him and you make conversation with Darth Dad."
She made a face, thoroughly dreading the prospect. "Leave your sidearms," she ordered.
He offered a broad grin. "Don't worry; I don't intend to kill him yet."
She let her hands drop into her lap. "No, that's my job," she said quietly. "Behave yourself nonetheless."
He bent down to kiss her lightly. "Only for you, Leia."
She reached up to stroke his cheek, smiled weakly. "I know."
"Will you be all right?"
She nodded. "For now. Thank you."
He tossed her a salute, then helped her to her feet. "My pleasure."
They returned to find the entrees delivered and the dancing at a lull. Han helped her into a chair, then left to find Luke.
"Not exactly a joyful reunion."
Leia speared a piece of ikali and tried without success not to be irked. She attempted to cut it, but her nerves were too shot to concentrate.
Finally, she dropped the utensils with a clatter and turned to glare at her father. "If you had anything to do with..."
"No," he said quietly. "Not in the slightest. I am probably the only man in the Empire who opposes this. And even if I did not, the Emperor fears that my training of Luke would fail as well as endangering my commitments to the Dark Side."
Leia's mouth quirked, then flattened into a grim line. "He knows you well."
"Not well enough," he rumbled. "Else I would have been dead long ago."
"Indeed," Leia mused.
He looked up. "You were surprisingly diplomatic out there."
Leia snorted. "I was five seconds from drawing my lightSab?r. Diplomacy had nothing to do with it."
He was silent for a long moment. "Who is your Master?"
She hesitated, knowing his legendary hatred for the Old Republic Jedi, then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
She thought she heard him utter a vehement curse. "He's still around," he said incredulously.
Leia arched an eyebrow, amused for the first time that night. "I forgot you would have known him."
"He was my Master's teacher," he said simply. "And he nearly succeeded in preventing my training several times. No love lost between us."
"I see," she said.
"Is he as cantankerous as ever?"
"Let's just say that if he's mellowed with age, I pity your generation."
There was a snort. "If he's not mellowed with age, I pity yours. Why is he not with you tonight?"
"You," she said bluntly. "I expect him to actually live through my training."
"Of course," he said mildly, "but I can't imagine your dueling is up to par."
Leia grimaced. "On the contrary. It broadens my skills to face an opponent capable only of cutting me off at the knees."
"Of course, at your height, it wouldn't make much difference anyway."
She straightened, startled by the sudden humor. "Indeed," she said quietly.
She looked up to see Rieekan approaching from the left. Relieved, she stood and embraced him quickly.
"I've been looking for you," he said quietly.
"Things have been hectic," she admitted. "Lord Vader, this is General Carlist Rieekan. General Rieekan, this is my father."
"So I heard," Rieekan said evenly. "I was hoping to steal you for a dance?"
Leia nodded, sending him a relieved smile. "If you'll excuse me..."
Rieekan took her hand, leading her back to the dance floor.
"What, do you and the rest of High Command have a rotating schedule to minimize my chances for assassination?"
Rieekan smiled tightly. "Something like that. Personally, it's entirely selfish."
"Strange," she mused. "That's what Han said, too. I didn't think Alderaanians were capable of selfishness."
"It takes a few extra muscles, but it's often worth it."
He glanced over his shoulder at the balcony, where Han and Luke were shadowed against the stars. "How are you holding up?"
"Not as well as expected," she confessed. "I'm jumping at shadows, bawling out family members in public arenas, and stepping on the feet of everyone I've danced with."
"On the contrary," he said solemnly, "that's a lot better than we expected."
"The night's young, yet," she countered. "It only takes ten seconds to assassinate someone."
He shrugged. "I'll keep that in mind."
She lowered her eyes. "I have to deal with Luke again and I'm not sure I can or want to."
"A necessary evil." He fixed her with a gaze. "Would you like me to come with you?"
"No," she said quietly. "I have to face this myself."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely," she lied.
"We need to talk."
Leia turned to face Luke. "Indeed we do," she said evenly.
Turning back to the assembled dignitaries, she curtsied. "Gentlemen, if you will excuse me..."
Luke seized her elbow in a surprisingly firm grip and steered her back to the balcony.
"This cannot go on," he snapped once the reception was out of earshot.
"I couldn't agree more," Leia said coolly. "You cannot live the rest of your life in the service of something so inherently evil."
"That is not what I mean," he bit out. "You cannot interfere."
"I can and will interfere to the best of my abilities because I know better than to let you languish."
"I have made my choice," he said firmly. "If you attempt to dissuade me, it will get you killed."
"So be it," Leia snapped. "I can't allow you to do this."
The hiss of a lightSab?r activating stopped her dead in her tracks.
"I told you," he said in a low voice, "that it would get you killed."
"Go ahead," Leia said, forcing the tremolo out of her voice. "I have nothing to fear in death."
"Draw," he roared.
"I will not fight you," she stated. "Kill me in your cowardice if you must, but I will not sink that low. I am a Jedi and as such, I know better than this madness."
He lunged towards her, but Leia stood her ground, keeping her eyes focused on his as the blade came with in millimeters of decapitating her.
"The next time we meet," he growled. "I may have to kill you."
"Luke," she said quietly. "What's happening to you?"
"Something beyond your control," he replied harshly.
"That," she rejoined, "goes without saying."
He held her gaze for a long moment and Leia found herself unable to breathe. Finally, the Sab?r deactivated and she let out her breath.
The relief was short-lived, however. With an almost primal yell, he lashed out, striking her across the face with such force that she was sent careening into the railing.
She rebounded and managed to stay on her feet, but not easily.
"Leave me," he spat. "It is the only way to save yourself."
With that, he turned on his heel and stalked away.
Leia slumped to the ground, weeping heavily.
Heavy footsteps alerted her to a new presence, but she did not meet her father's gaze.
"Is this how it was in the end for Mother," she demanded.
"Very much so," he said and she could detect a strong trace of regret.
"No wonder I can only remember her pain," Leia said quietly. "What happened to him tonight?"
"I don't know," Vader admitted. "But the Emperor is constantly influencing his mind, whether he knows it or not. The Dark Side leaves no fingerprints, only gaping wounds."
Leia reached up to touch her broken nose gingerly. "So I noticed."
"When he started breaking, the Emperor undoubtedly broke into his mind. He does it often, even to me, even to his Hand. To keep us in his grip."
Leia buried her face in her hands. "If this is the price of the Darkness, why would anyone not choose the light?"
There was a long silence before he spoke. "That even I cannot answer."
Luke's mind was consuming itself, fluctuating between revulsion at what he had done and righteous fury.
She tried to interfere. Tried to destroy who you are, what you've become. You should have killed her there.
"Get out of my mind," he roared, hurling his lightSab?r across the room.
He could no longer distinguish between his own mind and the twisted thoughts his Master implanted. Maybe there was no longer a difference.
You won't be able to answer the true call of destiny if you have a gilt invitation with RSVP on it a month in advance.
Was that what this was? Destiny?
He shook his head violently, trying to clear his mind.
It cannot be my destiny to kill Leia.
How do you know?
Was any of this fate? Did he have any control over what was happening?
He closed his eyes to block the light, but only found more.
Leia, her eyes red-rimmed, but her gaze intense. The strength that allowed her survive situations like this and people like him.
He loves you?
He had loved her, once upon a lifetime. Perhaps what died that night on the Executor was not him, but his love.
His love would have given him the humility to listen to Leia.
His love would have been able to assure her that he was not lost.
His love would never have allowed him to put a lightSab?r to her throat.
I can't imagine why you would sell yourself to the demons.
No, Leia, you never could. And that's why you will die for your ignorance.
At least some things never change.
I had to.
You didn't have to anything.
I'm not going to hurt you.
You already have.
Leading them carefully down to hell.
You should have known better.
I will not sell my soul to save my life.
I will not sell my soul to save.
Cowardice is of the Dark Side.
How would you know?
Perhaps I've lost her as well.
Either way, the man who had once been Luke Skywalker had died in the hiss of his own lightSab?r.
"What happened out there?"
Leia closed her eyes, trying her best to ignore the pain that seemed to consume her mind and body.
"He snapped. I'm not even sure it was really him."
"It was him, all right," Han growled, dampening a rag to clean the mess under her nose. "Remember, I talked to him."
"What did you say?"
"Mostly asked him what he thought he was doing, if he knew how much he was hurting you, what gave him the right to do this." He shook his head in disgust. "He didn't respond much."
"I can't imagine he did."
She caught his wrist and smiled, despite the pain it sent through her very broken nose.
"Thank you for everything tonight," she said quietly. "I honestly would have never endured it without your aid."
He smiled wryly and kissed her chin, one of the few unbruised parts of her face. "I knew you'd feel that way, but all the same, I'm glad I could help."
She grimaced. "I don't know how I'll handle him for the next five days of the summit."
Han's grin expanded, then shrank into oblivion. "You won't have to. He's been recalled to Coruscant."
"They probably figure he's outlived his purpose here."
"More likely," he countered, "they know that you were getting to him and couldn't risk further exposure."
Leia arched an eyebrow. "When facing a nuclear meltdown, get everyone out and then deal with the radiation?"
"Exactly," he confirmed.
She sighed heavily. "Well, that's one more thing to worry about."
"What is it you said to him on Yavin? 'He's got his own path; no one can choose it for him.'"
She folded her arms, looking endearingly like an impatient six-year-old. "Yes, but I don't want him to choose that path."
Han winced. "I know, but there's nothing we can do about it."
She nodded. "I can't wait to hear what Master Yoda has to say about this," she said wryly.
"Probably something along the lines of 'Lost your temper you should have not. Interfered you should have not. Meditate for the next year you shall. Eat now we shall. Green goop make strong Jedi it does.'"
She had to laugh. "You're a cynic, you know that?"
He kissed her left cheek below the bruising, then her chin again. "That's why you love me, Your Royal Whininess."
She let her eyelids close and smiled slightly. "I thought it was your incorrigible nature."
"And my rugged good looks."
"And your massive ego." She shrugged wearily. "Something along those lines."
He set down the cloth and kissed her forehead, then grinned. "You can make a list during the negotiations."
"And you don't have to," she said around a yawn.
He shrugged. "I've had a list going for three years."
She flopped back against the pillows and drew the blankets up to her chin. "You hopeless romantic."
He stood and shut off the lights, then opened the door. "Guilty as charged."
"Is this all?"
Leia nodded, her eyes fixed on the floor. For thirty minutes, she had been reporting the incidents to her Master and she was waiting for the criticism to start.
It never came.
"Handled yourself well, you did," Yoda said quietly. "Tried to reach him with love you did."
"But I failed," Leia said in absolute frustration.
"Failed you did not; his shortcoming it was. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny."
Leia shot to her feet and began pacing furiously. "I can't believe that is true, that there is no middle ground, no redemption."
"Believe it you may not, but accept it you must."
She stopped, staring at him incredulously. "Accept," she bit out. "Because of my natural father, I lost everything I ever had. Luke and Han, they have been my family, my safeguards, for the last three years. I love them more than I ever thought possible and you expect me to ACCEPT defeat?"
"Not defeat," he said sharply. "The Force."
"This is not the workings of the Force," she said firmly. "This is the product of errant men."
"The Force that is."
"If that is what the Force is, perhaps I should not serve it."
There was a long silence. Fuming, Leia dropped back into the meditative posture, but did not allow herself to back down.
"Know what you are saying you do not," he stated. "Trust the Force you do not yet. This we must correct before worse matters are."
Leia snorted. "How much worse can they get?"
Something flickered in his eyes--the shadows of nine hundred catastrophes. "Know you do not."
Leia's mind quieted without protest and she bowed her head. "Master, I am sorry. This has been a difficult experience."
"Heh," he chortled. "Indeed this has. Tempered you it has. Tested by the Force you were and emerge victorious you did. Now, move on we can."
They had hoped for a spring wedding, but with the aftermath of the Clone Wars and the imminent crumbling of the Republic, the situation was too hectic to allow for that.
So the future Skywalkers awoke on the greatest day of their life to the first blizzard of the season.
"I suppose this negates your plans for outdoor holos," Obi-Wan said wryly.
Anakin scowled at his reflection, attempting to get his nearly-dry hair to behave. "I never thought I'd thank the Force for making me get married in the Council chambers. I don't want to brave that weather for anything."
Obi-Wan looked up to offer him a wry grin. "I'll be sure to relay that sentiment to your fianc?e."
"You know what I mean," Anakin said, returning the grin easily. "How much time?"
"Five minutes before Padm? should arrive."
Anakin smoothed his hair one final time, then adjusted his dress robes to hang straight.
"Good, I'll have some breathing room."
Turning to cross to the sofa, he stopped dead in his tracks at the expression on his Master's face.
Suddenly self-conscious, he brushed at something on his robes, wondering what had gone wrong.
"What is it?"
Obi-Wan startled from his reverie and shook his head, his smile disappearing.
"You've always been a lousy liar, Ben," Anakin chided. "Don't attempt to affirm my opinion."
Obi-Wan had to smile, but there was a trace of sadness in his piercing blue eyes. "I was just remembering the nine-year-old boy from Tatooine."
Anakin grinned. "We've come a long way since then."
His Master nodded. "In many ways. I still can't reconcile myself to the fact that it's been ten years since that day. The child prodigy I resented so long ago is now closer than any family I've ever had, Qui-Gon included.
"Despite Qui-Gon's wishes, I fought the idea of being your Master. I didn't believe I could handle the loss as well as gaining a full-time responsibility. I didn't trust myself and I certainly didn't trust you.
"As time went by, I couldn't help but grow to love and respect you. You are more than I ever deserved."
Anakin's mouth twitched. "The feeling is more than mutual, you know."
Obi-Wan nodded. "The last ten years have been a time of unlimited, unwarranted, and unexpected blessings."
He looked up and there was no mistaking the wistful tears in his eyes this time. "The idea that the little boy is getting married to his angel today is staggering."
Anakin's throat constricted and he fought to keep a smile on his face. "I know exactly how you feel."
Unexpectedly, Obi-Wan reached out and embraced him, a rare gesture of affection. Overwhelmed, Anakin buried his face in his Master's shoulder, as he used to when the nightmares or the pressure of being the Chosen One became too much. For a moment, they were both as they had been in the early days.
"There have been many obstacles in your path," Obi-Wan continued softly, "each one seemingly insurmountable. But your perseverance and your love have tempered you and strengthened you so that whatever life sends your way from now on, you will have nothing to fear.
"And if you ever feel reason to doubt that, just look into the face of your angel, the young woman who you have been waiting to marry since that day on Tatooine, and doubt nothing."
Anakin broke away and smiled broadly. "I have nothing to fear, Master, because you are a part of my life. I only have to look to your example and your teachings to know what I should do."
Obi-Wan grinned. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Padawan."
The touching moment was interrupted by the sound of a commlink.
The older man clapped his surrogate son on the shoulder and stood. "She's probably as eager to marry you as you are."
"Never," Anakin said firmly. "No one could ever be this eager."
He sighed and thumbed on his commlink. "Skywalker here. How may I love you?"
"Preferably not," Sab? replied, eliciting a blush. "We have someone down here who would be distraught if you happened to."
Anakin grinned. "Tell her she has nothing to worry about. We'll be right down."
They arrived at the visitors' atrium to find Padm? pacing impatiently.
As they approached, she swept off her hooded cape and Anakin caught his breath, his mind incapable of any coherent thought.
The gown was deceptively simple in design, a sweeping, cream shimmersilk affair with bodice and sleeves fitted close to her slim form. The skirt trailed three feet behind her and was in two layers, the inner layer the same material as the bodice, the outer intricately embroidered with a floral pattern with miniscule Corusca gems at the center of each flower.
Her hair was caught back at the temples in two thick corkscrew braids threaded through with cream ribbons and pearls. The rest fell in loose waves to her waist.
Her jewelry was simple, Nubian sapphire and silver earrings, with a delicate pendant of sapphire on a silver chain around her neck.
She crossed to him and, taking his hands, kissed him with a sweet intensity.
"So eloquent," she teased.
"I was afraid to destroy the moment," he admitted. "Some things are so beautiful, so breathtakingly perfect that to disgrace it with commentary would be heresy."
She blushed. "I see Obi-Wan's been giving you lessons."
He scowled in mock indignation. "Obi-Wan says things like that to you?"
She shrugged, struggling to keep the amusement from her features. "You have no need to worry. It was once upon a lifetime and I love only you, for now, forever.
"Besides," she quipped, "if this doesn't work out, you and Sab? can live happily ever after."
Anakin took her face in his hands and gazed deep into her eyes, smiling. "Never, my angel."
They sealed the sentiment with a kiss, then turned to face destiny.
Anakin returned from checking in with the Council aide to find the two most important people in his life deep in conversation. Padm? turned to smile at him, then said something he couldn't hear to Obi-Wan.
"They're ready for us."
She leaned forward to kiss Obi-Wan's cheek. "Thank you for everything, Ben."
"My honor," he said quietly.
Obi-Wan helped her to her feet, then led her to his Padawan and placed her hand in his.
"Go on. You've kept fate waiting long enough."
His throat too tight to speak, Anakin led his angel through the doors and into the speaker's circle.
The ceremony itself was simple, with few words exchanged before the actual bonding. Padm?, aided by a link to Obi-Wan, was able to sense the effect and import of the bonding.
Anakin felt their hearts racing in perfect tandem, their minds completely linked. He could hear Padm? catch her breath, then release it in an awestruck sob.
Anakin squeezed her hand, understanding exactly how she felt.
"Padm?," Mace Windu said gravely. "You may never fully understand what has gone on here today, as your husband may not, but know this. You will never carry the burden of life alone after this day."
Padm? turned to smile through her tears at Anakin. "I never have," she said quietly.
Anakin awoke, his arms reaching for her, only to remember that he had let her slip from his grasp twenty-four years ago.
Had his lacrimal glands not been damaged, he would have wept.
For the son who was on the path to destruction despite knowing better.
For the daughter who would never understand.
Instead, he could only suffer in silence and hope that the balance in the Force the Jedi had so long awaited would come before it was too late.
At seventeen, Leia was wise beyond her years, but often had the temperament of a three-year-old.
It amused her father, frustrated her well-meaning tutors, and enraged her aunts.
Leia, for her part, was trying to keep that personality quirk in check. Tomorrow, on her eighteenth birthday, she would leave Alderaan to become the youngest human Senator in its history. If she were to make her father proud, such immaturity would not do.
The next time she came to Alderaan would be for her Ascension at the age of twenty. She would leave a Senator and return a queen.
The knock on her door came late that night, while her mother was brushing her hair as she had every night for sixteen years.
"Come in," Leia called sleepily, hugging her knees to her chest.
The door opened to admit her father. Leia reached out to take his hand and smiled genuinely.
"You didn't have to come here," she said. "I was about to come and find you."
"That's not what I'm here for."
She straightened at the note of resignation in his voice and turned to look at her mother.
"What is this?"
Sach? Organa straightened her head and continued brushing. "There are some things you need to know."
Bail sank onto the bed next to her and sighed. "I know that I trust your judgment enough to let you choose your friends and allies, but I must warn you in one respect.
"There is more corruption now in the hearts of your colleagues than ever before. While you may be a steadying influence, choose your battles carefully and choose your enemies even more so.
"You have a great capacity for love, service, and justice, but you also have a certain degree of naivet?. There are those who would destroy you and what you work for."
"Father," Leia protested, "I may be seventeen, but I'm not stupid."
He smiled and kissed her gently on the forehead. "I know, but as your father, I worry whether I have to or not."
"Whatever you do," Sach? interjected, "do not allow yourself relations with Darth Vader."
Leia shuddered. She could remember little of the Dark Lord except fears and countless tales of atrocities. Vader was practically an urban legend in the Core Worlds.
"I'd rather consort with demons," she stated.
His eyebrows drew together in a gesture of exasperation. "Do not make light of this," Bail said firmly. "He is a great danger to you and this family."
"I know," she countered.
Sach? rested her hands on her daughter's shoulders, her hands trembling. "Bear in mind that he once loved your natural mother and yet he killed her. If he is capable of doing that to his friends, just think what he would do to his enemies."
Leia's breath caught in her throat, then came out in a shuddering sigh. "But how can you be sure that he will seek me out?"
"Because you may not be a Jedi, but you have a great power of your own, a strength that those he serves would use to their advantage. You have a great deal of the inner light that the Jedi once cherished and Vader spent almost half of his life extinguishing it. It is said that 'bad company corrupts good character.' Do not allow him to dim your light."
"Sometimes I wonder if my parents knew."
"About Vader most certainly," Yoda said simply.
"No," Leia said. "About the gift. I dreamed of the night before I became a Senator and they were speaking of the light the Jedi cherished that I had within me. As if they knew there was some measure of the Force in their child. The way they were talking, they were nearly begging me not to turn to the Dark Side as he had."
"Know your heritage they did," he stated. "Know your gift they did not. See to that we did. Only feared for your soul they did. As should you."
He handed her a bowl of some meaty stew and sank into a sitting position opposite her.
"Faced your shadows many times you have. On Ketaris, faced your greatest one you did. Drawn your Sab?r you could have, fought back. Yet serve your dark instincts you did not and never have. And yet fail you did not. Minded what you learned and what you in your heart knew you did. Save you it did and save you it can. But only if constant vigilance you keep. Allow yourself false security you must not."
Leia nodded, chewing thoughtfully. "Fear is of the Dark Side, but I am to fear myself?"
"Fear the right word is not, perhaps," he mused. "Be mindful of yourself you should. Assume that you have nothing to fear you should never."
Leia's mind flashed to Vader, instinctively. "I don't think that will be an issue."
Leia was awakened late in the night by the insistent buzzing of her comm.
Rolling over, she slapped in its general direction and fought back a yawn.
"Sorry to disturb your beauty rest," Rieekan said, "but we've got an Imperial task force inbound. Drive signatures match those of the Executor and her horde."
"Sith," Leia breathed. "I'll be right there."
She slapped off the comm and threw the covers back, standing quickly. Stripping off her nightgown, she dressed quickly in a pair of brown slacks and a khaki button-down shirt, matched with knee-high boots.
Evacuation was not something to be carried out in a state of undress.
"A problem there is?"
Leia turned to see Yoda standing in the doorway connecting their rooms.
"The Executor task force is insystem," she said simply. "We have to evacuate under their noses, then expect to be able to sneak past them."
"Come with you I shall."
"No." She held up a hand. "No disrespect intended, Master, but you're far too valuable to risk in a battle zone. I want you on the first transport out and I'll have you sedated if necessary."
"My Padawan you are," he said sharply.
"Yes, but I am the second-in-command of this base. I have duties as well."
"Come with me you shall," he continued in the same tone.
"I shall not," Leia said firmly. "I will meet you at the rendezvous, no sooner."
She took a deep breath, ignoring for a moment the klaxons. "May the Force be with you, Master."
Without waiting for an answer, she turned and headed for the command center.
Rieekan looked up as she entered and beckoned her over. "They're in the outer system and they're not even going for a surprise attack. The ground assault should be commencing within three hours."
"Sithspawn," Leia said quietly.
The door hissed open to admit Han. He crossed over and took in the displays in a single glance.
"I've got a bad feeling about this," he said wryly.
"What's our best option for evacuation," Leia asked.
"If we leave behind the ground-based weapons and begin evacuating as soon as transports are filled to capacity, five hours."
Han shook his head. "We don't have that much time."
"And if we evacuate the ground troops, we'll have no chance of stalling them," Leia added. "With a group holding off the ground assault with aerial support, we could get more transports outbound as well as using the ground-based weaponry to provide cover for the transports."
"All right," Rieekan said wearily. "No packing, no ground-based weaponry or the dirtside transports. That'll cut us down to the necessary timeframe."
"I'll issue the evacuation orders," Han stated.
"Leia, summon the pilots for an emergency briefing. They'll need to scramble, two fighters to each transport, and a rendezvous at Vielre in the Corporate Sector. We'll head Rimward from there."
Leia nodded, then turned to Han. "Master Yoda has to get out on an early transport. I refuse to find him missing at the rendezvous and I don't want to risk him in the end-stages of evacuation."
"I'll see to it," he promised.
Leia scrubbed her hands over her face, then turned back to Rieekan. "We've got a base to evacuate. Let's get to work."
"The first transport is away."
Leia sagged in relief as the Eridan made the jump to lightspeed.
"One down, too many to go," she said wryly to Rieekan.
"The Corulag task force is just two systems over," he reminded her. "They'll be able to flank the Imperials, buying us some time."
"Estimated time of arrival?"
They both turned to see a Lieutenant approaching. "Signal from the Corulag: The cavalry has arrived."
Leia let out her breath and turned to the weaponry specialist directing the ion cannons. "Keep the fire up on ships in range, but conserve what energy you can. We don't want some of our friends to get the short end of the proverbial stick."
"Yes, Princess," she said dutifully.
"What's the status on the ground assault?"
Rieekan winced. "They seem to be going for it, if nothing else to capture the base and its weaponry after the fact."
"We may have to blast our way out of here," Han said quietly.
"Then we will," Leia replied firmly. "What about the Falcon?"
"Chewie has it on standby. We're not leaving it behind."
"Room for one more," she said hopefully.
He nodded curtly. "As always."
"Fifth transport is away," the flight controller called.
"I wish we could get more than one out at a time," Rieekan said.
Leia nodded. "What is the situation of the Corulag offensive?"
"They're keeping them fairly busy. We've only taken minor damage to one of the transports."
"Perhaps we should sneak a few more out while their backs are turned," Rieekan murmured.
He leaned over and keyed the comm. "Rieekan to transports. Proceed through the lift slots doubled up until further notice."
"I hope this works," Han interjected.
Leia tossed a grin over her shoulder. "So do I."
"Sithspit," an officer bellowed. "TIE bombers inbound. A weakening phase before the ground troops head in."
"Great," Leia spat. "Now we have to have a running lightfight and an evacuation. Ion and base artillery, any chance of targeting the bombers instead?"
"Not without letting them and their missile payload crash headlong into us."
"At least they didn't bring an Interdictor."
Leia shook her head in disgust. "How many transports are outbound?"
"All but three."
She turned to Rieekan. "I think we can effectively evacuate the command staff now. Get to your ships."
Nodding, he keyed the comm. "Rieekan to transports. Seven more coming for the last transport."
"Better hurry, General," the transport pilot called. "It's going to be a tight squeeze as it is."
"Copy that, we're not exactly taking a leisurely stroll. Zeta Control out."
He brushed her cheek with a kiss, then turned to head from the command center for the last time.
"This way," Han said impatiently. "We don't want to become permanent residents."
Leia sprinted after him, the path taking them through corridor after corridor. She couldn't remember the way to the auxiliary hangars being this long, but the stress of the situation was undoubtedly escalating it.
Her thoughts were cut off as an explosion rocked the corridor. The ceiling collapsed, hammering her to the floor and bringing darkness.
Han coughed violently and blood from his bleeding tongue spattered on the decking. Rising, he turned to find Leia half-buried in rubble and unconscious.
"Sithspawn," he growled.
Moving what he could, he dragged her from the ruins and, not having time to assess either her injuries or his own, scooped her into his arms.
Chewie howled impatiently as he entered and Han waved him into the ship. "Sorry, but we ran into a ceiling on our way here. Let's get moving."
[Fighters giving pursuit,] Chewbacca howled.
"So I noticed," Han grunted. "I'll be right there."
He ensured that Leia was safely strapped into the medbunk, then sprinted to the cockpit.
He'd barely sunk into the pilot's couch when the first blasts hit.
[Those are disabling shots,] his partner observed. [That's a first.]
Han jabbed a finger at the Super Star Destroyer looming in the viewport. "That's Vader up there," he bit out. "He wants to take Leia alive."
[That's not an acceptable alternative.]
"You're telling me."
Reaching behind him, he strapped in, then reached for the control yoke. "Strap in, fuzzball, we're going to do some flying."
Without further warning, he snapped the Falcon up on her port side, angling at full throttle through the gap between two cruisers. Two of the fighters, cursed by their maneuverability deficiency, met a fiery death immediately. Two others knew better and managed to maintain their course.
Bursting from the strait, he rolled to port, sideslipping so that the bombers who had hoped to catch him in a crossfire were now firing on each other.
[So, you did learn something at the Academy.]
Han grinned. "Cut the humor and get me a jump calculated."
He jabbed a finger straight at the Executor. "There."
Gritting his teeth, he leveled out, then dove sharply, hoping the wretched maneuverability of capital ships would buy them the time they needed to escape.
The Executor's bulk flashed by as they plummeted towards the upper atmosphere. Finally, he inverted and leveled out, racing along its vulnerable underside. He pushed the throttle forward to full, trying once more to outrun death.
Finally, there were clear skies and an escape vector.
He let out his breath and checked the diagnostics once more. "Coordinates set?"
Chewie roared an affirmative.
"Here goes nothing."
He pulled the lever back and for a moment, nothing happened. Then the stars elongated and then dissolved into the mottled sky of hyperspace.
He turned a grin on his partner, who was mustering what passed for the Wookiee expression of disgust without much success. "Close enough for you? I'm going to check on Leia."
Unstrapping, he grabbed the medkit and scanner, then headed aft to the crew medbunk.
Leia was conscious, but barely. "If I had the energy," she murmured, "I would have lost my lunch."
Han grinned and keyed up the scanner. "Sometimes I amaze even myself."
Her eyes rolled, but she remained conscious. "I assume we made it out and this isn't just a social call on the way to the upper turret?"
"For now." He ran the scanner over her prone form, then chewed his lip as the results were tabulated. "I hate to be the one to tell you this, Leia, but you're going to live."
She laughed, the pain of the movement evident in her eyes. Han held up a hand. "I wouldn't recommend that. You have three cracked ribs, a broken radius, and a mild concussion. And you'll have a nasty set of bruises to show for it."
"If these are badges of courage," she quipped, "I'm the most decorated civilian in the history of the Alliance."
He unlatched the medkit and located bone-knitters and an appropriate hypodermic, then prepared the injection.
"I trust you remember this?"
She nodded wearily. "I'm too tired to resist, anyway."
Finding a vein at her elbow, he injected the bone-knitters. The sensors would target a fracture and direct each microscopic bridge to the site through the bloodstream.
"Can I have some Perfadin?"
He shook his head. "It's not allowed with a concussion. You'll have to settle for cadine."
She groaned in whole-hearted protest, but swallowed the tablets he gave her nonetheless.
"We'll be at the rendezvous in four hours and I don't want to see you awake before then."
She smiled wearily. "Yes, Father. Whatever you say."
He leaned down to kiss her lips softly, quickly. "Sleep," he said quietly. "Reality will intrude too soon as it is."
Seven hours out from the base, the hyperdrive failed them.
"Looks like a slow leak," Han said grimly. "I'd say we could fix it manually and move on were it not for the other damage we sustained."
Leia rubbed weariness from her eyes and frowned at the diagnostic screen. "How far are we from civilization?"
"If you mean Hutt-equivalent, a few days at subspace. If you mean Imperial civilization, a week and a half. To Alliance territory, at least a month."
"Sithspawn," Leia growled. "What's the status of the comm?"
He shook his head. "Not good enough. If we attempted to send out a distress signal, it would most likely be intercepted by the wrong people. If it did not make it to the Alliance, we would have wasted that power and wouldn't have enough for several of the ship's systems."
"Shields, sanitation, life support." He shrugged his shoulders. "There's not much of a choice. It's either Hutt or long-haul."
Leia closed her eyes, calming her senses, and nodded. "Long-haul. I don't think we can chance being in range of Hutt greed."
He nodded. "There's another alternative."
Leia arched an eyebrow. "Why didn't you say so before?"
He hesitated, clearly unsure. "It's in the Anoat system."
"Not much there," Leia said warily.
"Yes," he countered, "but there are prime mining opportunities."
"So, what," Leia asked. "We set up a corporation to fund the war and our rescue efforts, then find the rest of the Alliance?"
He grinned. "Come on, give me a little credit. I have an old friend who is now a Baron-Administrator at Bespin. He's not one to take sides, but he has no love for the Empire and he'd be more than happy to see the Falcon."
Chewie roared something that Leia wasn't sure she liked. "What about the Falcon?"
Han shot Chewie a dark look. "It was a long time ago. Lando, my friend, lost a high-stakes sabacc game to me and offered me the choice of any ship on the lot. I could have had the finest yacht Rendilii was putting out..."
Leia laughed. "And instead, you chose the fastest hunk of junk in the Galaxy."
He grinned back. "I had to have a ship that fit my personality. The Falcon was it. It was, unfortunately, also the one Lando had been fixing up for his personal use for well over four years."
She nodded, finally understanding. "So that's why you didn't mention it before."
"I don't like taking you into an unsecure situation," he confessed, "but the longer we're limping along, the greater chance for being ambushed or captured or worse. Besides, you need medical attention and I don't trust this ship to hold together for a month in subspace."
Leia shuddered. "How long?"
"Nine days, give or take a few hours and providing we don't run into any Imperial entanglements."
Burying her forehead in her hands, she sighed. "Master Yoda is not going to be happy about this."
"All ships accounted for," Rieekan reported. "Except the Falcon."
"Madness this is," Yoda said sternly. "Left her there you should have not."
Rieekan's jaw clenched, but he couldn't deny the sick dread settling in the pit of his stomach. "They lifted off bare minutes after our departure. There should have been no problems."
"A light freighter against an Imperial task force," Yoda scoffed. "No problems indeed."
"Task force or no, Colonel Solo is an exceptional pilot."
A cryptic frown came over the diminutive Master's face. "Dead they are not," he said firmly, "but in great danger they are."
"We haven't the slightest idea where to begin looking,"
The frown turned into an irritating smirk. "Meditate I shall. Where to find them you soon shall know."
"I only hope it's not too late."
"The Rebels were taken completely by surprise," Vader reported. "They were able to evacuate, but not fully. Preliminary reports show that they left all of their ground-based weaponry, heavy machinery, and all droids, which weren't on active duty at the moment the omega signal was issued. They also left the command center intact and though the central computer was purged, their sensor and communication records were left behind.
"It appears that they left behind anything that couldn't be packed within five minutes. As a result, by the time our task force achieved orbit, five transports had gone into hyperspace.
"We set up the standard blockade formation and launched TIE bombers to begin weakening the base for the capture. The ground-based ion cannon, since it was not being evacuated, was able to disable several of our capital ships and about a third of the starfighter force.
"Concurrent to this, a Rebel task force, headed by the Corulag arrived insystem and commenced with a flanking assault. The Imperial Star Destroyer Avenger was destroyed and the Devastator's primary drives were damaged."
"What of Leia Organa," the Emperor interrupted, unconcerned as always by the loss of his subjects.
Vader gritted his teeth. "The Millennium Falcon was the last ship to evacuate. She was on board."
"Naturally," Luke said evenly. "Leia would not leave until everyone else was assured of a safe escape and Han would not leave her there."
"We did everything possible to prevent their escape," Vader continued, "but this Solo is a superior pilot and he was able to outrun our fighters, outmaneuver our cruisers, and escape.
"However, it was not unscathed. Battle damage to their ship indicates that they should have experienced hyperdrive malfunction within ten hours of making the jump to lightspeed."
Palpatine smirked. "So what remains is to extrapolate their destination and arrange an official reception for them."
"Yes, my Master..."
"Wait," Luke burst out, shooting to his feet. "I am here on the condition that you leave her alone."
"She may not be turned," Palpatine said evenly, "but the death sentence still stands for the both of you. The people must have their vengeance, my young apprentice."
"I will not allow this..."
"You may not wish it, but it is only destiny." He waved a hand, dismissing the thought. "If, as she claims, she is being trained by Yoda himself, the apprenticeship must be terminated. She was too much of a threat as a politician and Rebel leader and she is now even a greater threat."
"To whom," Luke snorted. "Certainly not to Lord Vader or Mara Jade or even to you."
"To you, young Skywalker," Palpatine countered. "I am not ignorant of your actions on Ketaris, of your weakening. It is why I was forced to remind you of your priorities..."
"Priorities? I nearly killed her."
"As well you should have," Mara Jade cut in. "She wants only your destruction, acts out of selfish ambition to decimate the man you are."
"She wants to save me," Luke bit out. "What crime is that?"
What crime indeed? Vader thought. How can destruction be yielded from such an unselfish act of love? Is the crime nothing more than the opposition of evil?
"The daughter of Skywalker must not become a Jedi," the Emperor stated firmly. "She will not be turned and she will not be forgiven her crimes against the Empire. She will be held accountable and punished accordingly."
Turning to Luke, his smirk broadened into almost a leer. "And you, my young apprentice, will see personally to it or you will be destroyed."
Something flickered in Luke's sense, a memory of Leia's position on that, perhaps.
I will not sell my soul to save my life.
A fear gripped him. Leia had indeed weakened her brother's strength in the Dark Side on Ketaris. She had resurrected for a few moments the naive farmboy who had been her best friend and planted the seeds of love in Luke's heart.
It was a dangerous thing, Vader knew. Palpatine had retaliated viciously for the moment of weakness, torturing Luke's mind where bodily harm could not. It had returned him floundering in darkness, just as his Master intended.
But if Luke hesitated now, remembered the great love his sister had, he could be doomed. Leia would die, of that they were all certain, but Luke would be lost as well.
He could not allow that.
"You, Lord Vader."
Palpatine's voice broke through his reverie and he lifted his head. "Yes, my Master."
"You will go with young Skywalker, ensure his progression in this task."
A wave of relief was carefully dampened. "Yes, my Master."
Meditation was rarely interrupted for anything less than a catastrophe, but Vader imposed upon Luke's time for introspection nonetheless.
Luke sensed his father entering, could not quash the wave of anger that his presence inspired. If he were to remain in the service of the Emperor, in the strength of the Dark Side, he could not allow Vader's emerging spiritual ambiguity to influence him.
"You've come to disturb me," he observed.
"No, I have come to save you from yourself."
Opening his eyes, he met Vader's gaze with cold intensity. "I thought that's what Leia was trying to do."
There was an electronic snort. "Unfortunately, she began to succeed, as you well know. It is why you were tormented by your encounter on Ketaris, why you sought to destroy her instead. And even now, she has tainted your existence. You have doubts in your mind."
Another flash of anger. "Of course," Luke snapped. "I came here to enslave myself for love of a sister and my reasons are not clear any more. I have found strength in the Dark Side and am unable to abandon it, but I still have the heart of a Tatooine farmboy beating in my Sith ribcage."
"Indeed," Vader said with a touch of what seemed to be remorse, "but your farmboy heart is not only ineffectual but dangerous. Your power as a scapegoat has dwindled; Leia will be destroyed whether you stand beside her or do it yourself, but by your idiocy, you will destroy yourself as well."
"Perhaps it is for the best."
Luke drew back, startled.
"The Jedi hoped for a savior, for a Chosen One who would balance the Force. Foolishly, they realized too late that it was not I who would bring this balance. But you are he and you cannot bring the Galaxy to salvation by becoming a martyr."
Not waiting for a reply, he turned and stalked to the door.
"We leave in five hours. Take care that you leave the Tatooine farmboy imprisoned here."
The remote fired a series of shots, rotating on an unseen axis, its programming directing it to fire at random.
Leia moved quickly, smoothly, intercepting each of the bolts with a neat parry. Pivoting on one foot, she held the Sab?r in a high guard stance, waiting for the next onslaught.
Her danger sense flickered and she swung her Sab?r so that the blade extended parallel to her spine, an overhead reverse parry, her wrists angled slightly to prevent her from missing. She rotated her wrists counterclockwise, catching another bolt that would have singed her right flank, then twisted to the right, bringing her arms around to a more natural position to catch the next two bolts over her shoulder.
The moment's distraction earned her a sting in the small of her back and she let out an aggravated yell. Reaching out with the Force, she shut the remote off and extinguished her Sab?r.
"Sith, Solo," she breathed, "don't you ever knock?"
Han grinned apologetically. "Sorry to break your concentration, but I finally have dinner ready and, since it's Chewie's watch, figured you might like something other than ration bars to eat."
Leia hooked her Sab?r to her belt, then returned the smile. "Thank you. That would be nice."
He gestured to her Sab?r. "Weapons not allowed."
"Not even for hacking through whatever over-cooked carcass you have waiting for me," she teased gently, running her hands through her hair.
He laughed easily, despite the jibe. "Not even."
She unhooked it and tossed it onto the crew bunk she inhabited. "Lead on, good sir."
He proffered an arm, which she took, and led her to the cramped galley. Leia settled onto one of the benches around the circular table and stripped off the light jacket she wore during sessions. Her bare arms glistened with perspiration and she could only imagine what her hair looked like.
"You're getting better," Han observed from the stove. "How long were you working today?"
She shrugged. "Perhaps two hours."
He returned to the table, carrying two steaming plates of something suited for carnivores and bearing a spicy aroma.
"What are you fighting?"
Leia looked up, startled by the question. "What?"
"Is this a part of the daily regimen," he inquired gently, "or something you've imposed on yourself?"
Leia's brow furrowed. "I feel that sometime soon, I'll need to be able to do more than shadowboxing."
His eyes widened. "Have you sensed something about Bespin?"
"No," she said firmly. "I could be fighting ghosts, but it's not just that. I am one inept warrior against all that the Dark Side has to offer."
"The odds are certainly stacked against you," he agreed, "but when has that ever stopped you?"
She shuddered. "It's not a machine I'm fighting," she said softly, "or a faceless enemy. It's Luke and if I ever raise a hand against him, I would rather die. I love him too much for that."
"You may have to," Han countered. "He's not likely to have your diplomatic patience."
Leia nodded. "I have the feeling that this is not a war I can fight alone."
"You won't be alone," he countered. "I'm with you."
She smiled wryly. "That's right, but I'm not sure that's enough."
He reached across to take her hand. "Nevertheless, I offer all I have if it means keeping you safe."
"You wretched sentimentalist," she said quietly, fondly.
His mouth quirked into a smile. "Now and forever."
She averted her gaze. "As I said before, I don't want you involved in this."
"You may not have a choice."
She nodded. "Nevertheless, if it comes to it, I will die before I let anyone harm you."
"Let's not talk about that," he nearly pleaded. "We'll deal with that when we reach the point, but hope that it does not come to that."
Leia's smile vanished. "There is no avoiding it. Not now."
"He has been plagued by nightmares every night since returning from Ketaris."
Palpatine steepled his fingers and pressed them to his lips. "Do you know the nature of these dreams?"
"No, my master. He often calls out for Leia, but that it is all I am able to discern."
His Master's eyes hardened and his hands dropped to his lap. "You must intervene. Discover their origin and block that sense."
Vader blanched in spite of himself. Mind manipulation was not unfamiliar to him, not even unusual, but it was not something he favored. Especially for someone so close to him.
"Yes, my Master."
"You will leave within the next three hours, yes?"
"How do you intend to proceed?"
"We will proceed from the Executor," he said evenly, "where the resources and intelligence efforts are better organized."
"Wise. And then?"
"There is an extremely limited number of places they would go, given the number of Imperial-controlled worlds. We will have little trouble locating them."
"Very well." He waved a hand dismissively. "Go, dispose of this menace and then return him to us."
Luke was still sleeping when Vader returned to the quarters they now shared.
The fitful thrashing that he observed indicated that the nightmares were still going on.
Placing a hand on his son's forehead, he opened a link.
Fear, anger, and confusion blasted his senses, but he delved deeper, letting his mind run in parallel with his son's thoughts.
Leia stood, her face half-shadowed. Her lightSab?r was in her hand, but not ignited.
"I will not fight you," she said quietly. "And you'll be forced to destroy me."
"You destroy yourself," Luke snapped. "By succumbing to your weakness, by pretending virtue while perpetuating vice."
Leia's eyes closed as if she were impatient, but it was evident that she was drawing on the Force for strength and guidance.
Hooking her lightSab?r to her belt, she extended her arms, her clenched fists supinated.
"One of these is a consumer. It engulfs, smothers, suffocates. The other envelops, gives life. The question to be answered is simple."
As her fingers uncurled, he could see that in her left hand, she held the dark energy, crackling, pulsating, seductive. In her right hand, there was a warm glow so pure and beautiful that even Vader had to catch his breath.
"Which one of these does the most damage?"
Clenching her left hand, she quashed the darkness. Her right hand straightened fully and the light grew to enfold her in a brilliant glow.
It was then that she took up defenses.
Vader started from the reverie, more shaken than he could afford to be. Reopening the link, he relocated the sensations causing the dream and wiped them away. Delving carefully, he erected a barrier to prevent a recurrence of the problem.
This weakness could not be allowed.
"Are you ever afraid?"
Han looked up and offered a wry grin. "I'm afraid of where this conversation will go, yes."
She reached across to whack him playfully on the arm. "I'm serious."
He caught her hand, studied her fingers carefully. "I'm afraid a lot," he admitted. "I'm afraid of losing you, of what's waiting for us, of what will happen in the days and weeks to come. I'm afraid that when the time comes, I won't be able to protect you."
He looked up, his mouth in a grim line. "Mostly, I'm afraid of hurting you."
Leia looked away but not before he caught the tears in her eyes.
"What about you," he probed gently. "Other than a fear of relaxation, that is."
She looked as though she were attempting to smile, but failing miserably. "Too little and too much," she said quietly. "I'm afraid that I love too much, that it leaves me vulnerable and devoid of the compassion needed. I fear who I was, who I am, and what I could become. My greatest fear, however, is that all of this may be betraying those I cherish most."
Han frowned thoughtfully. "How could we possibly be betrayed by love?"
"I don't know," she returned, her voice cracking almost imperceptibly.
He moved around the table to sit next to her and enfolded her in a gentle side embrace. "Why are you so concerned with fear?"
"Because I think I give it too much power, that it will consume me." She looked down at their intertwined fingers and he felt a tear drop onto his hand. "Master Yoda is fond of saying, 'fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.' It's what he calls the Cycle of Evils.
"I can't help but think he's right. Fear makes us feel impotent, that we have no power to stop it. We are angry with ourselves as well as what we fear because it is so overwhelming sometimes."
"And of course, we cannot help but either hate ourselves for fearing or for not acting against it," Han agreed. "I can see where that makes sense."
She leaned her head against the side of his neck, sighing deeply. "I can't help but think that disaster is waiting for us at Bespin. Vader won't let us escape and they're sure to track us somehow."
"I know," he murmured, "but there's no other choice."
"I don't want to face them," she said, almost desperately. "Not again, not after what happened on Ketaris."
Han tightened his grip, mostly out of reflexive anger inspired by the mention of that night on Ketaris. He remembered all too well her near-hysteria, the pain that was too great for her to even conceal, and of course, the physical evidences of the abuse. He had barely restrained himself as he saw his best friend put a lightSab?r to the throat of the woman Han loved. Her nose had been healed and her blackened eye was fading, but the memory was still there.
"I realized something on Ketaris," she said softly.
Han fixed her with a gaze. "What was that?"
Her brow furrowed. "I can't do it," she stated. "I can't kill my own family. And in that, I may have escaped the Dark Side, but I have allowed the Emperor to win and I don't know if I can accept that."
"And we know that they both have no hesitations about killing you," Han said wryly.
"I know," she said with a touch of resignation. "And I may have to let them."
"No," Han burst out. "I'd get myself killed before I let either of them..."
"I know," she interjected. "But it still wouldn't stop them."
He kissed her, fervently, sweetly, as if to give her an anchor. She returned it with heartfelt intensity, but he could feel her shoulders heaving, feel the salty taste of her tears on his lips.
"I can't lose you," he said hoarsely. "Even if I can only be with you in death, I will allow nothing to come between us."
She reached up to cup his cheek, smiling. "I know."
"When do you think we'll be ambushed?"
Leia gritted her teeth and stretched her arms upward, working out the cramps in her shoulder muscles.
"We won't," she said simply. "The Empire thrives on false securities."
Han arched an eyebrow at the panel he'd been rewiring. "So, we'll be lured into a trap?"
She looked up to favor him with a bemused grin. "I think there's little doubt of that now," she replied.
Han extended a hand and, bracing herself against the bulkhead, she clasped it, using the leverage to haul herself up out of the confines of the engine compartment.
"Then, what's to stop us from stopping off at the nearest spaceport and leaving them waiting?"
She shrugged with feigned nonchalance. "The chance of getting stranded or incarcerated."
Han grinned. "I thought that was a given at this point."
She nodded. "Yes, but it won't be in Imperial territory."
Han frowned. "I usually look on that as an added bonus. You're treating it as an annoyance."
Her brow furrowed. "Not an annoyance, a diversion from what needs to be done."
His eyes widened. "So, you've decided to..."
"I haven't decided anything," she said sharply, "but there are things I must do."
He sighed, looking suddenly ten years older. "Are you sure?" he asked gently.
"Of myself, no," she admitted. "Of what the Force asks of me, yes."
He let out his breath in one exasperated sigh. "You're starting to sound like Luke used to."
Leia felt a familiar pang in the pit of her stomach and was sure that the gesture reached her eyes, but smiled nonetheless. "Thank you."
She sank onto a workbench and released her hair from the short ponytail that she'd kept it in while she worked.
"The difference is," she commented, "that Luke spoke of noble aims, to die for the strength of the Light Side, to avoid succumbing to personal darkness at all costs. He didn't quite believe he could, though."
Han nodded grimly. "And you do?"
"Now?" She nodded. "More than ever. I will not say that I am immune to what is destroying my family, but I exercise constant vigilance. I will not, cannot allow myself the luxury of tempting fate."
He leaned over and kissed her grime-streaked brow gently. "I know."
She turned to smile at him. "No more talk of such things today. I can't afford melancholia at a time like this. Too distracting."
He grinned accommodatingly. "I don't suppose you want to play sabacc."
She laughed easily. "You're on, flyboy."
Leia had succumbed to weariness after the fourth round and would have spent the time between shifts dozing at the gaming table had Han not taken pity on her and carried her back to her bunk.
With her safely tucked in and buried under a pile of blankets, Han returned to the cockpit.
[Escaped, have you?]
Han chuckled and settled into the pilot's seat, letting his feet rest on the display of the navicomputer. "I nearly bored her to death, but she instead opted for a coma.
Chewie chortled easily. [How do you think she's doing?]
Han frowned thoughtfully. "I'm worried about her," he confessed. "What we could be facing is more than I'd expect her to be able to handle, but she's insistent that it happen."
[The Jedi follow the will of the Force, no matter what danger befalls them.]
"That's what I'm afraid of," he said wryly. "I can't lose her, Chewie, not after all of this, and if it means facing the Sith myself, I'll do it."
[Are you sure you know what you're doing?]
"Maybe not, but I'm doing it for the woman I love. Nothing else matters."
Chewie was silent for a long minute, then shook his head slowly. [I have a bad feeling about this.]
It took Luke seventeen hours and nine assets tracking analysts, but on the morning of the third day since the Falcon's disappearance, the search yielded a name.
He knew he should feel a kind of elation at completing the task or smug satisfaction at the fact that they would not elude him. At the very least, he should have looked forward to eradicating the enemy.
Instead, he felt absolutely empty.
He was going to have to kill her, the woman he had loved from the moment her terrified face had materialized in his garage on Tatooine.
There was no evading it now. If he failed, they would both die at the hands of the Emperor or, worse, by the hand of their own father.
This had to end at Bespin, one way or another.
The door to his chambers slid open and Luke turned a weary glare on his father.
"Don't you ever knock?"
"Had you not been wrapped up in thought, you would have sensed my approach," he countered. "The fault is not mine. What news?"
"Bespin," Luke stated. "A mining colony in the Anoat system, run by one of Han Solo's old smuggling friends. Given their sublight velocity, trajectory, and ruling out other worlds for obvious factors, it's the most logical place within range."
"Good," he said curtly. "We will have a shuttle readied within the hour. What will the traveling time be?"
"Five days. We should get there in plenty of time to lay a trap."
"A trap will not be necessary. Leia knows we will intercept her and what must be done. Moreover, she accepts it and is coming to Bespin to duel."
"The fool," Luke murmured. "She seems bent on her own destruction."
"She recognizes the forces of destiny and the will of the Force. Even if she dies, she has much to learn in the coming conflict."
"If," Luke repeated skeptically. "You doubt my abilities?"
"No. I doubt the Emperor's prescience in this matter. He often foresees things as he wishes, rather than as they will be. You wish her to die at Bespin so that this matter can end, so that you do not have to face her in your nightmares."
"I face her in my nightmares whether she lives or dies," Luke snapped. "I wish her to die by my hand rather than yours, nothing more."
"Are you so sure of that?"
Luke hesitated, hating the transparency of his mind. "No," he admitted.
"One hour," Vader said sharply. "We will deal with this later."
"Get home, Leia. Take the longest route you can and keep your eyes open. We'll take care of this."
Take care of this.
The last words she would ever hear her mother speak.
Vader had been the one to appear on her doorstep, armor smoking, breathing slightly labored. Her mother was cradled in his arms.
Leia rushed to him, desperate to help, to thank him for rescuing her mother, but he stepped away and shook his head. Puzzled, Leia started forward again.
It was then that her mother's head lolled to the side and Leia could not restrain the strangled cry that was ripped from her throat.
Half of Sach?'s face had been burned away, leaving nothing but charred flesh and oozing wounds. Shattered bone and burst blood vessels were all that remained. The other half was deceptively intact, the eye closed.
Vader reached out and placed Sach? into Leia's arms. Throat tight, eyes stinging from unshed tears, Leia cradled her, her head bowed.
She could not let him see weakness, could not allow herself the luxury of emotion now. If she did, she would have to give in to her anger and sorrow, let it consume her, engulf her.
She could not permit herself to hate Vader.
"This was not to be," he said, his voice eerily quiet. "I did not intend..."
"Get out," Leia bit out, her voice trembling, whether from anger or desperation, she was not sure.
He did not move and she had to resist the urge to hurl her burden back at him. "GET OUT," she roared.
Wordlessly, he backed away, then whirled on his heel and left the apartment.
Leia moved to the sofa and sank onto it, rocking back and forth, eyes closed.
There was a tone from the door and it slid open, permitting Tars Ital, a minor functionary in the Alliance, entrance.
His face betrayed the emotion she was fighting to quash.
Practicality overriding all other matters, he closed the door and darkened the viewports.
Leia stared straight ahead, not trusting herself to speak or even breathe.
"What happened," she finally croaked through a tight throat.
"Raid," Ital said quietly. "Vader and his stormtroopers burst in, cutting down anything in their path. Your mother was one of the first to..."
He shook his head. "Tral, Mati, Bishapi, they're all dead. I tried to stop him, attacked him from the side, but he..."
"Go on," Leia said gently.
"He tried to remove Sach? himself, but what few of us remained could not allow that. We managed to hit hard enough that he had to abandon her."
"She wasn't supposed to be there," Leia cried. "She opposed my involvement with the Alliance with every fiber of her being and they killed her for it."
Ital's jaw trembled. "The authorities will be coming. They'll want to know what happened, what your role in it was. You have nothing to fear, Your Highness. You were here tonight, as your dinner companion can testify. You went shopping with your mother, then returned home while she attended to private matters in the city. Lord Vader returned her to you in this condition. You do not know how it happened or why it happened."
Leia nodded, unable to do anything else.
"Do not give in to whatever you feel," he advised. "You have a right to be angry. Your mother is dead and you do not know why or by whose hand. Leave it at that."
Leia let out her breath in a shuddering sigh. "All right."
He gestured to her comm unit. "We should contact your father."
"No," Leia mumbled. "You need to get out of here before the Empire arrives. I will not have your blood on my hands as well."
Ital took her gently by the shoulders. "He needs to know."
"Later," she replied. "We can't risk it now."
He hesitated, then nodded and released her shoulders. "May the Force be with you now, Your Highness."
And then he was gone.
Leia returned to her apartment hours later, heartsick and bone-weary.
Without a second thought, she crossed to the comm unit and opened a channel of communication to Alderaan.
Tarrick appeared on the screen. "Your Highness, this is quite a surprise."
"Tarrick," she choked out. "Is my father there? It's urgent."
Concern washing over his features, he nodded. "I'll put you through."
Moments later, her father appeared and all her composure dissolved.
"Mother's been murdered."
Bail looked as though he'd taken a blaster shot to the gut. "What? How?"
"Vader," she sobbed. "We were summoned to the Alliance and Vader raided the location. He brought her to me himself."
His shoulders slumped visibly and he sank back in the chair before the comm unit. "Where is she now?"
"The authorities had to take her to the Palace morgue."
"Leia," he said gently, "I need you to be strong now, as you've always been. Never let the enemy see what lies beneath."
"The Tantive will be ready for liftoff in four hours. I will contact the Palace morgue myself and arrange for her release."
"What will we tell the people," she whispered.
"I don't know," he admitted. "But we can't allow ourselves time to mourn now. We have enough troubles already."
"What do you mean?"
He shook his head. "We'll discuss it on your return to Alderaan." He reached out to touch the screen. "Leia, this is not your fault. Do not allow yourself to think that it is, even for one moment."
She stood at the edge of the mourners' circle, not daring to weep for her mother. Her jaw set, her eyes focused, she watched the cremation with feigned equanimity.
They held the service on Naboo, a world as shattered and desolate as her own soul. It had been her mother's homeworld once upon a lifetime.
Bail stood by her side, equally impassive. His hand was curled around hers tightly, the only sign of emotion she could find.
Vader had the audacity to come, stood on the opposite side of the pyre, as emotionless and imposing as ever. Leia refused to even look at him for fear that she might have to kill him.
Bail released her hand, moved to greet another friend, then returned to stand behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders.
"It is not your fault, Leia," he repeated quietly. "It's a danger we all know. We all live with it. Your mother knew this could happen."
"I didn't distrust him enough. She said so."
Finally, the pyre collapsed, but Leia did not. Stalwart, she stood in quiet elegance as the mourners passed by to offer their sympathies.
Finally, they came to the last mourner, a woman guarded by stormtroopers, who had been a handmaiden as her mother had.
Leia wished she could see the woman's eyes, discern that there was something of hope to be gained from this situation, but the hooded gown completely obscured the woman's face. Leia caught a flash of golden hair as the woman turned to her.
Placing a small, trembling hand on Leia's shoulder, she squeezed gently. "Be mindful of your anger, Leia. I see it in your eyes. It will have you."
The anger she had been suppressing threatened to overwhelm her. "I have a right to be angry! That's my mother!"
"Take care not to buy your rights with your soul. Your mother wouldn't want that."
Leia awoke from deep meditation to find Han watching her curiously.
She smiled wearily and brushed her hair back from her face. "Have you been watching me all this time?"
He shook his head vigorously. "Even I have to sleep sometimes."
"How long have I been out?"
He checked his chrono. "If I'm not mistaken, over four days."
"Four..." She yawned, then frowned. "Four days?"
Han nodded. "I was trying to determine how to break you out of your trance because we're on approach to Bespin."
Her breath left her in a soft hiss. "Oh, Sith," she murmured.
He crossed to her side and, taking her by the arms, hauled her upright. Leia swayed for a moment, then steadied herself.
"Did you get the answers you required?"
She nodded pensively. "I was just hoping I'd have more time to get used to the idea."
Han's jaw tightened visibly and she felt a wave of fear roll off of him. Curiously, she no longer felt any fear about the day to come.
She met his gaze steadily. "I'm going to face him," she stated. "I will duel him and should I die, so be it."
She expected an outburst, a furious argument, anything except the gentle embrace in which he enfolded her. Clasping her to him, he rested his chin on top of her head, not bothering to ask questions, not expecting any explanations.
"I love you," he said quietly. "More than you can possibly imagine. And that is why I will respect what you feel needs to be done."
Leia smiled against his chest. "Thank you."
His grip tightened slightly, as though he were afraid that she would slip out of existence as he held her.
"Just do me one favor," he continued.
Leia sighed. "What?"
He pulled back and kissed her gently, sweetly. "Return to me."
"She will come to me."
Vader turned to see Luke approaching with determined strides, his expression set in grim amusement.
"She expects to live through another encounter," he sneered.
Vader had to smile. "Perhaps she will. Perhaps you underestimate her."
"Not likely." He tucked his hands into his sleeves and set his jaw. "She is afraid and reticent. I fear nothing from her and will do whatever necessary. With those circumstances, how can she possibly survive?"
"You look forward to killing her."
He could have sworn something of the old Luke appeared in his son's eyes. "Only to putting an end to this."
Vader gestured for silence as a dark-skinned, somber man approached hesitantly. "Come, Calrissian."
"I do not approve of this," Calrissian bit out. "Bespin is a haven, not a trapping ground."
"On the contrary," Vader said evenly, "we are trapping no one. This has nothing to do with your friend. It will soon be over."
"As long as we're clear," the other man snapped. "Any further Imperial entanglements and we fight back."
"I'm sure you will," Luke countered, "for all the good it will do you. Sleep easy. We are not here for you."
"So, what's the procedure?"
Leia sucked in her breath, frowning. "I don't know. They will be waiting for us. I will surrender myself to whatever guards there are and brought before the rest of my family."
Her trembling fingers fumbled with the buckle of her utility belt and Han placed his hands over hers, steadying them.
"Are you sure about this," he asked quietly. "I won't intervene if this is what you need to do, but if there is any doubt, I will protect you with all that I am."
"I know," she replied in kind.
Her fingers cinched the belt about her waist and she straightened to look him in the eyes, hoping he could not see the underlying fear that traced through her veins.
"I have to. You cannot fire shots, blunder in with blasters charged, or even attempt to intervene in the events to come. It's a danger to you and, despite your good intentions, a waste of your life.
"Do not fear for me. What happens will be necessary, one way or another."
"All right," he said.
There was a gentle thud as Chewie set the Falcon down and Han moved to embrace her one last time. Placing a hand on his chest, she shook her head.
"Please," she said quietly. "Don't make this any harder than it already is. Just know I love you."
Without another word, she keyed the hatch and descended the ramp with steady pace.
Without speaking, six stormtroopers came into formation around her, obviously herding her towards a destination.
She did not look back, could not risk it.
Instead, she kept her eyes focused on the path that lay before her, keeping her mind clear as Yoda had instructed.
Night had not yet fallen on Cloud City, so Luke faced her once more haloed in the fiery heavens that were the limbo between light and darkness.
"So," he said. "You have come."
Leia stepped away from the door and drew herself up to her full height. "This must end here, brother. One way or another."
"There is only one way," he bit out. "You knew it at Ketaris and you shall take it now."
Leia shook her head. "No."
For once, he looked surprised. "No?"
"You expect me to die."
She swept her lightSab?r up and ignited it, driving the shadows away with an amber beam. "I expect to die fighting."
The first blow came high, predictably. Leia did not simply parry it, but leaned into her swing, pressing forward rather than succumbing to the attack.
Something like amusement flashed through Luke's eyes, as though he were pleased to see her making an attempt at defense.
"Good," he murmured. "A challenge."
"I am not here for your amusement," Leia said evenly. "I'm here to put an end to this madness."
"In one way or another," he countered.
Leia twisted her wrists counter-clockwise, driving his next blow to the side, then snapping her wrists back to a vertical position to lunge forward towards his chest.
He parried, but not easily. Instinctively, he backed up a step and Leia did not press the advantage for the moment.
"You've certainly improved."
She threw him a mock salute with her Sab?r, then moved forward. "I serve the light; it strengthens me and will not let you prevail."
She moved to parry his low slash, but at the last moment, the direction of his swing changed and he carved a shallow gash from her navel to ribs.
Her breath left her in an agonized gasp and he pressed the advantage, driving her back and to her knees.
She started to rise, but the point of a lightSab?r at the hollow of her throat stayed her.
Luke's eyes were cold, but not impassive. There was a grim intensity to them that threatened to enrage her.
"That is where you are wrong," he bit out. "You rely on the strength of the light because you have too little strength of your own. Where you will fail is that the light can only be consumed by the darkness. Prevailing is not only an option, but an inevitability."
She sucked in her breath, then plunged forward, exploding from a crouch. Her Sab?r came within centimeters of running him through and, despite his efforts to hold his ground, he was driven back under a series of quick cuts and parries.
When he finally regained his ground, he was considerably less confident and Leia was a little more assured of her survival rate.
"We shall see."
Despite Leia's wishes, Han made every effort to follow her. Keeping back a few hundred yards, he trailed her on a winding path through the city to a place where no one could logically blunder in.
He would have succeeded in his quest, were it not for the disgruntled Sith Lord meditating a hole in the floor.
"Do not pass," Vader growled at him.
Given the lack of threat in the order, Han suspected that the utterance was more out of frustrated anxiety than any real animosity.
The greatest evil in the Galaxy was just as nervous about this confrontation as he.
"You don't expect me to stand back and let this happen, do you?"
"Of course," he stated. "As I am."
Han snorted. "You aren't going to get involved in this?"
"I will not interfere with destiny," Vader said in a slightly strained voice. "And this is not my fight. I refuse to let it involve me."
"They're your children," he burst out. "How can you allow this?"
There was a hiss, an electronic sigh. "How can I not?" He turned on his heel. "If you respect my daughter and what she is fighting for, who she is, you will leave her to this."
"You may not like it or understand it or even accept it," Vader interrupted, "but it is what is necessary."
His gorge was rising with his anger. "And if she dies?"
Vader hesitated. "You underestimate her. I wouldn't have expected it of you."
Han turned and followed him, walking quickly to keep pace. "I underestimate nothing; I only fear for the woman I love."
"As well you should." He stopped and turned to face Han. "Stay at your landing platform. Force willing, this will all end soon."
Things were not going well.
Despite her efforts to stay on the offensive, to not let herself be overwhelmed, Leia found herself on the retreat.
Luke's tactics were becoming more and more unconventional. He was resorting to everything from mind manipulation to telekinesis.
Either way, her guards were slipping.
She needed desperately to step back, use the calming influence of the Force to strengthen and heal herself, but as with all wars, there was no time for breathing room.
Their arena was limited, for the most part in a circular area surrounded by stairs or space.
Luke lashed out suddenly, landing a hook kick that drove her back and off the edge of the platform.
Leia landed hard on her back, but could not allow herself the luxury of a strengthening exercise.
Luke, fully aware of her limits, was driving hard and fast, not allowing her any reprieve.
They were past words now, only able to focus on enforcing or evading destruction.
She rolled backwards into a crouch and parried the vicious swing that cut in towards her head. Shifting her weight partially onto her rear foot, she caught the next blow in a side parry, then shifted forward, letting the momentum carry her upward.
Luke grunted and shifted his weight forward, placing them in a gridlock. Leia settled deeper into the Force, attempting to find a weak spot, but finding only anger and determination.
He broke back and she stepped forward, ready to press on, but in her moment of movement, with her senses geared for an attack rather than a defense, he struck.
The blade bit deep, cleaving the flesh of her shoulder and driving across her collarbones to the sternum.
She instinctively shunted the pain away. It would only distract her and, as just evidenced, the last thing she needed was a moment of distraction.
Dropping to one knee, she pivoted and angled the blade back towards herself in a violent tug.
She did not realize what had happened, only heard a primal, anguished howl. Luke was staggering away, his arm cradled against his chest.
It was then that she turned to see a hand--Luke's hand, still clutching the now-deactivated lightSab?r--on the floor beyond.
His eyes blazing, his jaw set, he raised his remaining hand and let loose with a blast of all-too-familiar Force lightning.
Leia barely had the presence of mind to shut off her lightSab?r before collapsing under the barrage.
She bit her lip until blood flowed, not allowing herself the luxury of weakness.
Finally, it stopped. Levering herself up on one elbow, Leia looked with an even gaze on her brother.
"You will die for this," he stated.
"Then let it be done," she returned in kind.
"Not today," he countered. "You will suffer far worse before you enjoy the luxury of death."
And then he was gone.
Han stood on the landing platform, his gaze fixed on the skies, his jaw set.
Vader and Luke had left, which could only mean that they had accomplished their purposes and that only meant one thing.
The woman he had loved was dead.
He expected fury or deep-seated anger, something of a vindictive nature to emerge from the depths of his soul. He at least expected to feel a righteous need for vengeance.
Instead, he was hollow, could not bring himself to acknowledge that she had died and he had done nothing to stop it.
Chewie had the good sense to leave him alone. Lando apparently had not the same intuition.
Han whirled to glare half-heartedly at his friend. "You don't need to tell me," he stated in a voice that trembled. "I saw them leave."
"She's alive," Lando burst out. "Worse for the wear, but she drove Skywalker back and still managed to survive."
Overcome with emotion, Han swayed for a moment, then steadied himself against Lando. "Where," he croaked.
"I'll show you."
They sprinted through the city, ignoring the inquiring stares or averted gazes of the citizens. It couldn't have been more than a half-mile to the medcenter, but it felt like an eternity.
"She's conscious," Lando reported. "The wounds are severe enough that they have her torso in bacta wraps and she's being treated for burns, but nothing on the scale of needing a bacta immersion."
Han let out his breath in a sigh and nodded. "When can we get her out of here?"
"As soon as the hyperdrive's fixed," Lando assured him.
A medic approached. "Who are you looking for?"
She nodded. "Family members only are allowed at this time..."
Lando fixed the medic with a glare. "That woman is in here because of family members. Colonel Solo here is the closest thing she has otherwise."
Han pushed past her and checked the list, then headed down the hallway to Leia's room.
She was conscious and sitting up, but obviously distracted. She didn't even seem to notice the pain her injuries must have been causing her.
Wary, Han took a seat next to her and took her hand in his. She did not respond or even meet his gaze.
"I did it," she said finally, her voice low and hoarse. "I took up arms against my own brother."
Han squeezed her hand. "Only in defense."
She shook her head wearily. "In the beginning, perhaps, but by the end it was something entirely different. I'm not sure I like what I did."
"You survived," Han countered. "That's what is important."
She turned to finally meet his gaze and what he saw there made his blood run cold.
"I returned to you as promised," she bit out, "but at what cost?"
Han's mouth twitched. He had no answer for the truth.
"You faced those who would destroy you and emerged victorious."
Her jaw clenched and her eyes drifted shut. "If I were victorious, Luke would still be here."
"You cannot expect to win him back in..."
"I cost him his hand," she snapped. "That's not something he's likely to ever forgive."
She turned her face away, but not before he saw the tears finally escape her eyes. "I will never be safe again; I will never be able to face him on neutral ground as I did at Ketaris. The next time I see a member of my family, I will take my last breaths."
Han was tempted to encourage optimism, but knew better.
Reaching out, he drew her into a gentle embrace, careful of her injuries, but needing to offer what comfort he could.
"Whatever it takes, please, let me help," he pleaded.
She rested her head against his chest. "All right."
"Whatever happens, you'll not have to face it alone. I'll see to that."
The night winds were biting, but Leia took no notice of them.
Arms wrapped tightly around herself, she simply remained at the edge of the landing platform, her eyes focused on the distant stars.
As a child, she would often find solace in the constancy of the night skies, but now they only held an emptiness for her that drove her further into the despair that threatened to overwhelm her.
Strong arms encircled her from behind and she leaned back to rest against Han.
"You'll want to watch that first step," he said.
"I wasn't planning on it," she assured him.
He sighed wearily, then tightened his grip. "I know."
She shivered, more out of sheer exhaustion than anything temperature related, but he released her nonetheless and handed her a pair of gloves. Leia turned to smile gratefully at him, then pulled the right glove on.
He was draping his jacket over her shoulders when her left hand encountered something solid in the glove.
Puzzled, she held the glove by the fingertip and shook it out. Suddenly unable to breathe or think coherent thoughts, she simply stared.
Luckily, Han was more levelheaded. Taking that hand, he dropped to one knee and took a deep breath.
Leia took that opportunity to dissolve into tears.
"Don't do that," he admonished her quietly.
"Sorry," she sniffed. "Tears of joy."
His nervous expression dissolved into a grin. "All right, now that we've got that resolved..."
She bit her lip, then smiled. "All right, Solo, I'm waiting."
He sent her a wry grin, then kissed her hand gently. "I'm going to do this right, but it'll take some diplomatic patience on your part."
Leia nodded. "You may proceed."
Reaching up, he took both of her hands and met her gaze steadily.
"I've been a fool," he said quietly. "I spent too much of our friendship unable to realize what you are to me. It took me a lifetime to realize that you are the one I love.
"Fortunately, I realized it before it was too late. I may not always know how to express it, but I want to spend the rest of my life making sure you never doubt it again."
Turning over her right hand, he released her other and lifted the simple gold band with a solitaire Corusca and scrolling Taiald script.
"This is a mere imitation, an inadequate symbol of the deep, eternal love I have for you. However, I hope you will accept it for now."
Leia opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a hand.
"Don't answer the question before I ask it," he chided.
"Yes, sir," she replied.
His smile broadened. "Leia Organa, will you do me the great honor and joy of being my wife?"
Unable to speak, she nodded once, then dropped to her knees, sealing the deal with a kiss.
"You did not kill her."
Luke clenched his fist, his jaw set. They'd been over this too many times.
"No, Master, I did not. She was not to..."
"You left an enemy at your back," Palpatine snapped.
"At all our backs," Mara interjected. "She will be emboldened by your failure."
"She will not," Luke protested. "She will fear what she has done and in those moments of hesitation, we will triumph."
"That's what you thought after Ketaris," she scoffed. "And look what it cost you."
Luke's mechanical hand clenched as well. The emotional wound was still as real as the phantom pains from his severed limb.
He had spent the hours following the confrontation in a fury, destroying much, killing those who would interfere. The power his rage had given him assuaged his bruised ego, reminded him that despite this minor setback, he was still the one in control.
That was the power of the Dark Side.
"It is an arrogance she will pay for with her life," he assured his Master.
"Perhaps not," Palpatine countered, his voice grown pensive.
Something flashed in Luke's senses, a warning bell. "Master?"
"We have underestimated the child," he continued. "We thought her weak, ineffectual, hesitant to do what was necessary. The events at Bespin have caused me to perhaps rethink my evaluation of her.
"She has great power, of that I am certain, and she is no longer afraid of it."
"She could be a powerful ally," Mara mused.
"Instead of an equally powerful enemy," Luke countered. "I don't like it."
Mara sneered. "It is not up for debate, Skywalker. It is as it has always been. She will join us or die."
Luke drew himself up to his full height and met her emerald gaze with a glare. "If it is as it has always been, how do you propose to succeed?"
Palpatine smirked. "Your sister assessed our plans as 'leading them carefully down to hell.' The exact phrase is 'cheating their souls and leading them carefully down to hell.'"
He turned to Mara. "I think it a rather appropriate description, don't you?"
She nodded. "We have plans for Organa."
"Ambitious words, but how do you think you'll do it?"
Something dangerous sparkled in her eyes, chilling him to the core. "Patience, farmboy. All will be revealed in time."
Leia awoke from her meditation to find Master Yoda watching her closely.
"Much has happened," he observed.
Leia let out her breath in a soft hiss, then nodded. "How did you get here?"
"Intercept your ship we did," he explained. "Concerned for your well-being we were."
Leia winced. "How did you know?"
"All things the Force may reveal." His mouth quirked. "And contact us Colonel Solo did."
Leia smiled. "I should have known."
Yoda settled into a sitting position on the floor opposite her and set down his gimer stick.
"Explain you must why allow yourself to be captured you did."
It all came out then, from the visions to her meditations, to the promptings of the Force. She spoke of the duel at length, of her intentions and instincts, what had driven her to take up arms, what had possessed her to maim her own flesh and blood.
It was almost a relief to put it all into words. The pressure that had been suffocating her since that moment on Bespin was beginning to dissipate finally.
Yoda regarded her in silence for a long moment, then sighed wearily and got to his feet, pacing.
"A dangerous time this is," he said finally. "Faced your fears, your foes, and the brother of your flesh you have, and emerged without allowing yourself to be destroyed.
"However, know yourself you do and wary you are. All well this is, for mindful you must be always. Fear you feel, for your safeguard it was on Bespin. Fear you must not. Destroy you it can."
"But must I not fear myself, what I could be?" Her hand dropped to her lightSab?r. "I am in danger of becoming what they are. That's not something to be taken lightly."
"A difference there is between respect and fear," he countered.
Startled, Leia sucked in her breath, then nodded. "Yes, Master. I should have realized that."
"Omniscient you are not expected to be," he said wryly. "What I am here for that is."
Leia had to smile. "Yes, Master."
He nodded, then resumed his sitting position. "Another matter there is."
He rapped her left hand gently with the gimer stick. "That."
She blushed, then smiled. "Yes, about that."
"Forbidden it is not," he assured her.
"But," she prompted.
His mouth drooped. "Perhaps wait you should until completed your training is."
"I see," Leia said quietly.
"Heh," he chuckled. "Disagree you do. Diplomatic you are being. Need this I do not."
Leia bit her lip, her brow furrowing. "I love him," she stated. "More than I've ever loved anyone, even my father. I do not wish to lose him, to let him slip from my grasp. Moreover, I do not wish to spend one day more than necessary without being his wife."
He nodded. "Anticipated this from you I did. Forbid this I will not, but advise against it I must."
"A bond of marriage for a Jedi very serious is," he explained. "Even if married to a Force-blind she is. Connected you will be on a deep level of the Force. If destroyed that bond is, by death or circumstance, greatly endangered your soul will be."
Leia's throat tightened. "I'm more than willing to take that risk."
"Thought I so," he said grimly. "Doubt you I do not, but dangerous this will always be. Be mindful you must."
Leia nodded. "Yes, Master."
"I insisted on coming along," Rieekan explained. "It seems that every time you're in mortal danger, I'm the last to see you. No longer."
Leia smiled wearily and sank onto the semi-circular bench at the gaming table.
"I'm glad to see a friendly face," she admitted. "Master Yoda was not exactly thrilled with my sudden disappearance."
"We were all a bit apprehensive," Rieekan countered. "We've come so close to losing you many times. First the Death Star, the capture, the trial, and now..."
He shook his head. "As I said in my testimony, you're aggravating as anything."
"I know," Leia said mournfully. "Congenital defect, I'm afraid."
Rieekan shook his head, his mouth quirking into a sad smile. "They say lightning never strikes twice, but fate seems to be trying to prove common sense wrong."
"Just lucky, I guess," Leia teased.
"Speaking of luck, what is the status of your situation with Han?"
She laughed. "Not only is that an inane segue, but my status is not a military matter, General."
She reached over to take his hand. "Look for yourself."
As soon as his shock wore off, she found herself crushed in a suffocating embrace.
"When," he breathed.
She pulled back and smiled. "Just before we left Bespin."
"I hope he did it appropriately," he said darkly.
"Of course. I said yes, didn't I?"
He squeezed her fingertips, smiling. "I never thought you'd be a war bride, Leia Organa."
She laughed for the first time since before Bespin. "I never thought I'd be many things, Carlist. This is just an added bonus."
"I'm happy for you," he said genuinely. "It's about time you had some unadulterated happiness in your life."
"I'm glad," she rejoined, "because you're giving me away."
An eyebrow arched, half in amusement, half in surprise. "Me?"
She nodded. "I can't exactly ask my biological father to take over that duty."
Rieekan snorted. "Not while there's still a distinction between Empire and Alliance."
"Exactly. Bail is dead, and you're the next best thing."
His mouth quirked. "Glad to know I'm in the top five. When do you propose to do this?"
"As soon as possible."
Leia looked up to see Han enter the galley. He sank onto the bench next to her and rested his hand on top of theirs.
"We've wasted enough time already," he continued.
Leia stretched up to kiss him lightly on the mouth. "Indeed."
"Have you spoken to the guru yet?"
Leia nodded. "He advised against doing it so soon because of the current situation, but we know what we're doing and he permits it."
Han grinned easily. "That's a relief. For a moment, I thought we'd have to wait another nine hundred years to have his approval."
"Nothing so complicated," Leia assured him. "The eternity I've waited for this will end soon."
"You've done well here, considering the lack of anything we had to start with."
Rieekan gestured Leia to a chair at the sensor boards. "We had them hold your old post for you."
Leia sank into the chair, then surveyed the command center. "It's more reminiscent of the Dantooine base when we had little supplies and even a shorter supply of credits, but it will suffice."
"Glad to know you approve," Rieekan said wryly. "I think you know everyone, except Ensign Emal."
Leia turned to offer a hand to the woman seated next to her and drew up short.
Something in the eyes, the posture, or the sense seemed wrong.
She'd never met Emal before, of that she was certain, but there was something distinctly familiar.
Her mind's eye flashed with red hair and intense green eyes.
But there was no visible connection. The brown eyes were set in a fuller face, the blonde hair cut just above her shoulders.
A quick Force-probe revealed nothing, but that did not necessarily mean anything.
Sith, she thought. Two months of nightmares and phantom pain have me jumping at shadows.
"Leia Organa," she finally said.
"I know," Emal responded. "I grew up on Alderaan so yours is a familiar face to be certain."
The accent was distinctly Alderaanian, a dialect of the southern continent. Leia had to smile.
"Glad to have a fellow pacifist in the war room," she said evenly, shaking the other woman's hand.
Rieekan rested a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?"
Leia shuddered. "Yes, General. I'm just wearied by the events of the past weeks."
He glanced between the two of them, but clearly suspected nothing. "I understand."
Extending a hand, he helped her up. "I think it best if you see the rest of what we've done here and then get acquainted with your bed."
Knowing better than to argue, Leia nodded. "Lead on. I follow."
"I don't want a big wedding, or even what passes for one on the run."
Han arched an eyebrow at Leia. "After twenty years in the high courts of Alderaan, I would have guessed otherwise," he teased.
Leia drew her knees up to her chest and smiled wryly. "It's those twenty years in the high courts of Alderaan that have me converted to the idea of simplicity."
Han grinned. "Are you sure you don't want to invite the entire base and whatever Imperial task force happens to show up in the meantime?"
She laughed easily, tossing a tuber at him. "Don't tell anyone, especially Rieekan, but I am sorely tempted to elope."
His jaw dropped in mock horror. "Stars forbid, Your Highness."
She sighed and rested her chin on top of her knees, her expression despondent. "I know."
"I don't know about the rest of our compatriots," Han interjected, "but I am in full support of the idea."
Her face broke into a smile. "Really?"
He leaned over to kiss her gently. "What do you think?"
She sighed contentedly and rested her head against his chest.
"Thank the Force. I was afraid the happiest day of my life would have a five-hundred-person guest list."
"We can have a party afterwards," Han countered, "but it is our day, not theirs and everything will be according to our wishes."
Leia straightened and offered a wry grin. "You're a bad influence, you know that?"
"As always," he agreed. "What have I done now?"
"Turned me into an entirely selfish child."
He laughed. "About time."
"The guest list should be short," she continued. "Master Yoda, General Rieekan, and Chewbacca?"
"The perfect length."
"It'll be difficult to find a gown while in hiding," she murmured.
"Leave that to me," he returned.
She turned to rest comfortably against his chest, drawing his arms around her shoulders.
"I can't wait."
He sighed. "Me, either."
An urgent supply run to the Mid Rim forestalled immediate action, but Han made contact from Ord Mantell to assure his impatient fianc?e that they'd be married within the week.
The war progressed as usual, with false alarms, staged attacks, and diplomatic contacts, all interspersed with sheer boredom.
Leia found it impossible to concentrate on anything for very long. Her heart ached, the long wait being at the forefront of every thought.
She'd been trained for years to exercise diplomatic patience, but when it came to love, she disregarded all efforts to that effect.
She awoke on the ninth day after Han's departure to find a package on the chair nearest her bed. There was no indication of how it had gotten there, though she suspected a diminutive Jedi Master of involvement.
Rising, she picked up the package and turned over the card attached to the top, immediately recognizing Han's haphazard handwriting.
Happy anniversary. I hope you don't have a war planned for today because I intend to wed you before the day is out.
These are a few things I managed to find because despite what the rest of the Galaxy may think, you are now and forever my princess.
I will be waiting for you on the roof at 1300.
All my love and devotion,
Leia set the package down, then headed to the refresher to prepare for her wedding day.
Han paced nervously, fiddling with the cuff of his dress uniform.
"She'll be here," Rieekan assured him. "It's only 1256."
"I'm not nervous," Han protested.
Rieekan offered a wry grin. "Could have fooled me."
"There's a difference between nerves and excitement. I don't expect you've ever experienced either of them."
Rieekan laughed. "You underestimate me, Solo. I haven't always been the level-headed genius you see before you."
Han shrugged. "I only know a few other Alderaanians and you fit the mold."
Rieekan was silent for a long moment, then finally spoke up. "You love her, don't you?"
Startled, Han turned to grin at his surrogate-father-in-law. "More than anything before, now, or forever."
Rieekan nodded approvingly. "I suspected as much, but because Leia is very much like a daughter to me, I had to make sure you weren't in it for the money."
Han laughed. "Not any more. I know better than that."
Rieekan rested a hand on his shoulder. "I know you wouldn't hurt her for anything, but whatever you do, treat her much better than you think she'll ever deserve. That's the only way to treat her right."
He nodded. "I'll keep that in mind."
Rieekan sighed, his gaze focused on something unseen. "I was thrilled when you two became involved. You are her other half, her completion. You balance each other perfectly and I know that you will never do anything to disrupt that balance intentionally."
"Never," Han said fervently.
The older man nodded. "I believe it."
"Anything else I need to know?"
Rieekan's mouth twitched. "Only that here she comes."
Han turned to see Leia ascending the final stairs to the roof. He caught his breath, mesmerized, and let it out in a shuddering sigh.
She loves me. How in the name of the Force did I ever get this lucky?
Somehow, in all the times he'd looked at the gown he'd found on Ord Mantell, it hadn't had the same effect. A simple Alderaanian design of cream loveti mothsilk, it fit snugly to her torso and left both shoulders bare, but sheathed her slender arms to the elbow. The skirt started at her waist and was full, embroidered with small flowers and threaded through with gold thread.
Beneath the simple veil and diadem, her hair was caught back from the temples, held back with the gold and opal combs he'd procured. Around her delicate neck was the japor snippet.
If there were such things as goddesses, she must have sprung from their image.
"Stang," he breathed, awestruck.
She blushed and crossed to his side, taking his hand. "I hope I'm not late. It's taken me a lifetime to get here."
Han grinned. "I know what you mean."
"Who this woman gives in marriage?"
Rieekan squeezed Leia's hand, then responded. "I do."
A rush of adrenaline flooded through her veins. It was actually happening, after an eternity.
She exchanged a glance with her husband-to-be, found him unable to keep a grin from his face.
"Because a union of Jedi and Force-blind this is, combined the traditional ceremonies will be," Yoda explained. "The vows of Corellia used will be, but sealed this will be by the Force."
Han took her hand and they stepped forward, kneeling in unison.
"Princess Leia Organa," Yoda continued. "commit do you to this man take into the bonds of marriage, to love and cherish, honor and protect, and the burden of life to carry alongside him for as long endures love and life?"
Leia worked the heartfelt words of "I do" past a throat thick with emotion.
She felt a wave of relief and pure elation roll off of Han. He squeezed her fingertips with an almost vicious intensity as he repeated the vows.
Chewbacca bent over to hand the rings to Han. His hands trembling slightly, Han placed the ring on her finger, then handed her the simple gold band meant for him. Leia squeezed his hand, then slipped it onto his finger.
His breath left him in an explosive sigh and she smiled, knowing exactly how he felt.
Turning to Master Yoda, they found him offering a rare smile.
"Bonded through the Force you will be now," he reported. "Colonel Solo, understand this you may not, but keep your mind clear of thought you must."
"Yes, Master," Han said obediently.
"Leia, open your mind to me and Han," he instructed.
Leia closed her eyes, opening herself to the influence of the Force. She felt the gentle probe of Master Yoda's mind, drawing her senses into tandem with Han's and binding them together, bringing their souls into perfect tandem.
It was a humbling and perfect sensation and one that she wished fervently Han could understand.
"Now," Yoda said finally, "by the power invested in me by the Jedi Order as well as the leaders of the Alliance of Free Peoples, pronounce you man and wife I do. Kiss the bride you may."
Han lifted the veil took her face in his hands, his eyes searching her features for a moment as though to memorize how she looked at that exact moment.
Then, he kissed her deeply, lingeringly, with a sweet intensity that brought tears to her eyes.
Her arms came up to encircle his neck as she returned the kiss, then pulled gently away.
"Wow," he breathed.
Leia smiled genuinely. "I know exactly how you feel."
Leia awoke, contented and filled with a strange warmth that nearly smothered her. Sighing deeply, she opened her eyes to find her husband gazing intently at her.
"Good morning, Leia Organa Solo," he said quietly.
She smiled genuinely. "I like the sound of that."
She kissed him lightly, then drew back, her brows furrowed. "Why are you in our bed fully clothed?"
"I've been called to duty," he explained. "I'm not sure what the details are, but I have to leave soon."
His hand traced along her jaw line and down her neck to her shoulder. "The reason for my situation is that I wanted to be the first thing you saw on the first morning of married life, but if I waited until you awoke, I'd not have time left."
Leia laughed. "The perfect blend of practicality and wretched sentimentalism."
"I aim to please," he countered.
She sighed and pushed up on her elbow, clutching the blankets to her chest. Taking him by the lapel of his jacket, she deepened the previous kiss.
"Now, now," he chided. "If you keep this up, I'll never make it out of the door."
Leia grinned. "That's the idea, flyboy."
He kissed her cheek, then pulled away and stood. "I'm surprised at you. I'd have thought you the strictest enforcer of duty."
"Extenuating circumstances," she murmured.
She stood, letting the sheet wind about her form, and followed him to the door.
"They'll see you," he commented.
He turned at the door and kissed her once more, lingering longer than he should have, but not wanting to end the moment.
"I love you," he said frankly.
Leia smiled broadly. "I know."
Leia rubbed the bridge of her nose, attempting to drive away the headache that had been plaguing her all morning. It had awakened her, throbbing behind her eye sockets and clouding her thoughts.
"This is the last thing I need right now," she murmured.
Emal turned to arch an eyebrow at her. "Not feeling well?"
"That's putting it mildly," Leia countered. "I was unable to keep anything down this morning and now I have a throbbing headache."
"How pleasant," Emal said wryly. "How long until you're off of your shift?"
"Three hours. Then I have training with Master Yoda."
The other woman winced. "Have you heard anything from your husband?"
A familiar ache flashed through her heart. "Not in three weeks. I suppose I should be used to being cut off, since he is a Colonel in Alliance Intelligence, but it doesn't make this any easier."
Leia turned to see Rieekan standing with a grim expression on his face. "I think you need to come with me," he said quietly.
A cold fist of dread clenched her heart, but she stood and followed him from the command center.
"Where are we going," she asked.
"Medcenter," he said simply. "There's been a development."
She seized his arm, not daring to hope. "Han?"
He shook his head solemnly. "You'll find out soon."
They entered the medcenter five minutes later to find Alliance Security in abundance.
"What is this?"
He shook his head. "It's just a precaution. We don't want the agents to have contact with anyone until after debriefing. You're an exception as it is."
Leia's throat constricted. Any such summoning by Rieekan meant ill fortune and obviously, the agents had come from an extremely dangerous situation.
A pair of guards parted as they entered the room, revealing an older man. She recognized him as the demolitions expert in Han's unit.
The man was obviously badly injured, swathed in bandages and heavily sedated.
"The injuries are too severe for bacta," a medic said quietly. "He won't last another hour, but he insisted on seeing you."
Rieekan moved to the man's side. "Major Tzak, we have brought Leia Organa Solo as you requested."
The man's green eyes flickered open and focused on her face, then closed again. Exchanging a glance with Rieekan, Leia leaned in.
"I'm sorry," he croaked. "We couldn't save everyone. The mission was...compromised. Those they didn't kill, they captured."
Leia felt the bitter sting of bile in her throat. "Where is my husband?"
"Captured," he said quietly.
Leia's knees buckled and she didn't even bother to steady herself against the bed. Rieekan caught her under the arm, keeping her from falling over.
"I'm sorry," Tzak repeated quietly.
He drifted into unconsciousness. "I'm not sure he can be of any more help to you," the medic said. "There are others who will be able to complete the debriefing."
"It's all right," Rieekan interjected. "Do what you can for him."
Leia was still kneeling, her arms wrapped about herself. Rieekan wrapped an arm around her shoulders as she fought back terrified tears. "Perhaps we should see Master Yoda."
She nodded vigorously and he helped her to her feet. Stumbling from the medcenter, she somehow found her way to Master Yoda's quarters.
The door opened without prompting. "Captured Han is."
Leia nodded mutely and Yoda shook his head grimly. "Anticipated something of this magnitude I did. No doubt there is that this is meant to lure you. He will be made to suffer to draw you."
"I can't," Leia said in broken tones. "I love him too much to lose him, but he will not forgive me for sacrificing myself to save him."
"The great dilemma this is," Yoda stated. "Destroy you this can. Mindful you must be. Sacrifice him you may need to."
"I cannot," Leia choked out. "He has to see his child born."
Rieekan's head snapped up in shock at the revelation, but Master Yoda's expression did not change. He probably suspected it long before she had.
"Another generation into darkness cannot be born," Yoda countered. "Meditate on this we all must. Much is at stake."
Han regained consciousness bare-chested and in chains.
His left eye was swollen shut, his lip split, his wrists fractured from the feel of them.
He could vaguely remember being conscious before, enduring some of the Empire's delicate inquisition. It gave him a whole new perspective on the strength Leia held within herself.
But he could not afford to show weakness. Not now.
The lights flickered on and Luke entered, his expression dark.
"You monster," Han spat. "You will stop at nothing to destroy her, will you?"
"She would do the same to me," Luke countered. "I intend to use that to our advantage."
"Advantage," he snorted. "This abomination you intend cannot possibly be for the good of the Galaxy."
"You have no idea what you speak of," Luke snapped. "You are a fool and a pawn at that. You will not understand how, but someday you will understand why."
Han snorted painfully through his broken nose. "I bet."
He remembered little of what happened next, only the burning of his throat, raw with screams and bile.
He called to his wife, unable to know if she would ever hear him, and fell into darkness.
Author's Note: Whereas most authors can cite any number of sources of inspiration and helps, I have to acknowledge JediGaladriel/FernWithy in this case. Much of my backstory and references (i.e. young Leia scenes and the matter of Sache Organa as a foster mother) can be attributed to her, via the "Father's Heart" series. Much thanks and kudos to her.
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