The Ascension of the Queen (PG)

By : ami-padme; FernWithy

Archived on: Monday, April 14, 2003

In the sequel to "By the Grace of Lady Vader," the Skywalker family battles the galaxy and one another for ultimate control.


Pain was the world, the galaxy, the universe.

There was no focus to it, no particular injury from which it seemed to emanate. Crushed bones, bruised organs, burned skin, torn muscles... all worked together to play a perfectly balanced symphony of agony, agony that filled sleep and waking equally. Any motion, from the blink of an eye to the grasp of a hand, increased the volume until it became a visible thing, a creature of shimmering white that traced the edges of the world in bright haloes.

Leia was glad of it.

The pain made everything else secondary. When she concentrated on the rough, sharp edges of her bones, she could forget the death of the Rebellion. When she let herself feel the deep heat of the burns on her side, she couldn't see the fire on the Millennium Falcon as it dove to its death over Bespin. When the lacerated muscle of her left thigh sang its high and horrible song, she could no longer hear her brother's voice, saying, over and over again, Han and Chewie were killed in the crash.

But the worst of the pain was in the comfort... in the fact that she needed comfort, and that the hands that gave it - the loved, hated, feared, desired, warm, gentle, cruel hands - were always there now. The hands that had touched her as an infant, the hands that had laid the trap at Bespin.

Mother's hands.

"I can see that you're awake, Leia."

Leia didn't try to move her head. She had done so once out of instinct, and had passed out immediately. "Awake," she whispered.

Mother's face appeared in her field of vision, as she had known it would. The scarlet veils were thrown back now, but they still trailed around her like a cloud, and Leia watched them settle on the pillow beside her like a spreading stain. Mother was smiling brightly, as she always did here. "You're mending, Leia," she said, also as she always did. "You'll be just fine." A hand reached up and brushed hair from Leia's forehead. "The medic said we would have to cut your hair. But I told him to work around it. I knew it would make you unhappy to lose your hair." The hand lingered at her hairline. "My beautiful little girl."

Leia licked her lips. Something seemed to be required of her. "Not... at my best," she managed, fighting with her dry throat.

Mother frowned. She did not like being reminded that Leia was not simply taking an afternoon nap. "You'll be fine," she said again. "You'll see. And we've tracked down the last of Ozzel's army. Your father... Ani resolved that situation this afternoon."

In other words, he executed them without trial. Leia bit down on a response. Arguing with Mother was as pointless as arguing with Vader was fruitless. She lived in her own world.

But it was a world that wasn't completely cut off. Every now and then, a shadow would come over her face, and she would briefly become fully the woman Leia remembered - with all the kindness and all the sadness. Leia loved her achingly in those moments, and that was what she hated most. That look was on her face now, thinking about whatever it was Vader had done to Ozzel's men for their role in the battle of Bespin. She was silent and distant. Then she blinked and the strange, glowing light returned to her face. "Everything Palpatine built has been destroyed. It's over, Leia."

Mother reached across to the night table and picked up a glass of cold water. She tipped it expertly down to Leia's mouth, and smiled sweetly as Leia drank.

Leia twitched her lips in something she thought might resemble a smile. "Thank you."

"You have no need to thank me, Leia. I'm so happy to have you with me. I only wish you hadn't gotten hurt. I wish you had just come to us and let us take care of you."

"And Han... "

Another frown, a momentary shadow. "Yes. Certainly, if you wished it."

I wish it, Leia thought, but refused to say it. The idea of Han being "taken care of" by the Vaders was disgusting. He would rather be dead, and she knew that... dead and free would be better than being kept alive like a half-trained wild animal being held as an exotic pet.

But at least I would have him.

She cut off the thought as quickly as she could. Wishing would not bring Han back, and if it did, she would wish for him to be somewhere that he could be happy.

A soft chime sounded, and Mother turned importantly toward the door, her veils drifting lightly above Leia's face. They carried the scent of a rich perfume that she had taken to wearing now that they were no longer on military property. Leia heard the door slide up, and a few unintelligible words. Mother's voice rose on "Thank you, Lieutenant," then the door slid shut. The scarlet shadow drifted back into Leia's vision; something seemed to float beside her.

"Your father has built something for you," Mother said. "I think it's too soon, but he was under the impression that you would prefer to have the option of activity."

Leia forced her head around, and was surprised to find that it did not cause a dizzy reaction this time. In fact, the pain it caused was significantly less than it had been the last time she'd tried. The medic who had worked around her hair must have repaired whatever was wrong with her neck.

Beside Mother, floating at the level of the bed, was a delicate contraption of plasteel, shaped like a chair. She could hear its hovering mechanism humming, but there was no unpleasant smell of a repulsor field.

"I offer you the option," Mother said. "Your father thought I should. Would you like to face the rest of the galaxy, or would you like to rest a little longer?"

Leia let her eyes roam over the hoverchair. It would hurt to sit in it for any length of time, but it had been constructed carefully for her, with support for each curve in her back, and extra bracing where she estimated the breaks in her legs to be. There was even a support mechanism to go around her torso and support the broken ribs.

She could get out of this room, see someone other than her unwanted family. Anyone would do.

But that was the catch, wasn't it? "What does Vader want of me?" she whispered.

Mother set her jaw. "Leia, I realize that you and Ani have not gotten along well in the past, but I will not tolerate disrespect for him."

Not gotten along well. Oh Mother, oh Maker. Not gotten along well.

She closed her eyes slowly to gain control of the thought - two years of keeping the secret of her parentage to herself had taught her how to swallow her feelings, even when they were poison - then opened them. "Yes, Mother."

Mother's tension disappeared, and the smile returned. She unfolded a few attachments on the chair, then called for the medical droids to move Leia. A moment later, she was transferred from the bed into the hoverchair. She stared at the limp-looking bedclothes she'd been lying on, drenched with the sweat of her pain and somehow gray with her despairing dreams.

"Change those," Mother told the droids, nodding at the bed, and bent to adjust the chair around Leia's hands. "Is it all right? Ani said it would support you as well as the bed, he measured you while you were sleeping, but it looks so much harder -"

The concern and love in her eyes was so real, so complete, that Leia felt guilty for holding on to her hate. She has devoted everything to me. How can I answer her with disdain?

Well, she couldn't control the hate. It seeped up every time she remembered Han's voice in her ears, or the wreck of the Rebellion. But for the sake of the woman Mother had once been - and for the sake of her own sanity in this mad place - she could exercise all the hypocrisy she'd learned as a politician and try to present a civil face.

"It's fine, Mother. It works like this?" She moved her finger only slightly over a scanner on the air, and the chair moved in that direction.

"Yes, dear. Oh, I hope you won't need to be in that thing for long."

"Me, too." She adjusted herself in the chair, found that it moved with her when she wanted to fidget, and found the most comfortable position. "Am I expected somewhere?"

"Yes. Ani wants to see you in the throne room. To begin your training." She grimaced.


Leia almost asked to be taken out of the chair and put back into her bed, but the droids were already working efficiently at the bedclothes, and dammit, she wanted to see something other than these four walls, and breathe air that hadn't made its way through her lungs a thousand times already. She had only been outside for a few brief moments when Mother had brought them all back to Naboo, maybe two minutes from the time the gangplank on the ship lowered to the time the shadows of the Palace swallowed her. She wanted to expand her horizons.

Mother opened the door, taking the decision from her at any rate. They went out into the vaulted marble corridor. The ceiling here was shattered, and there were gaping holes in the wall covered by sheets of cheap flimsiplast. Outside, Leia could see workmen hauling stones and scraping char from the walls. Whatever had happened here had been cataclysmic, but apparently, Mother was determined to erase it.

"Where is the throne room?" Leia asked.

"On the other side of the Palace. We're in the private rooms now." She pointed to a vast arch several meters. "We'll just go through there and around." Her smile became more real, more wistful. "I've walked this corridor so many times, Leia. It's so good to be home. You have no idea."

"I wish I did."

"I know, Leia, I know. And I am working on finding solutions for the Alderaanian refugees. I thought maybe you would have some ideas, when you were feeling stronger."

"I do, actually." Leia bit her lip, not wanting to participate in Mother's schemes, but knowing that her position as Princess of Alderaan gave her some responsibility to do what she could, and at the moment, that would involve working with Mother's government. She didn't have a lot of ideas, but in the years since the Death Star, she had thought from time to time about Ilentas, a human world from which a large group of Alderaanians had long ago emigrated. They had been the ancestors of the hill people. Perhaps Ilentas would still have room for them. It had never become populous, and there were - unfortunately - not many Alderaanians to find room for.

The chair moved smoothly and easily, responding to even a feather-touch from her fingers but not bucking and spinning if she lost control and slammed her hand down. It was a chair engineered for an invalid who didn't want to waste time - or embarrass herself - with awkward maneuvering, and it was designed precisely to maximize comfort of Leia's particular body and support of Leia's particular injuries.

All of Mother's sentimentality seemed insubstantial next to this mute gift of Vader's not inconsiderable skill. Of course he would understand how it felt to lose the use of a body he had always taken for granted, and what practical things she would need to take up an adult role again.

She resisted feeling grateful for it, but couldn't quite stop herself as she glided along the hall beside Mother, talking politics while easily swerving around the many obstacles of Theed's reconstruction. She felt almost herself, almost human.

"It's really an exhilarating time," Mother was saying. "All the things we've accomplished in only six months! The rebuilding of Theed is just the beginning. I wanted to be here for it - Naboo will always be my home - but the same sort of thing is happening in all the places the war decimated."

"Alderaan?" Leia asked dryly.

Mother blinked in a confused way, as if the word were unfamiliar to her. "How I wish," she said when she recovered, and, to her credit, she was able to make it sound sincere. "But we've completely repaired the damage to Bespin, and we have crews working on the Imperial District of Coruscant. I'm using the battle clean-up to go down and rebuild in the lower levels as well. We're getting rid of the Coruscant underworld at last. And I've re-convened the Senate!" She rolled her eyes in a good-natured way, trying to draw on shared experiences. "But don't worry. I've written some new laws and procedures to keep it from becoming bogged down in bureaucracy."

"That's quite a trick, Mother. I have a hard time imagining career politicians knowing what to do without the bureaucracy."

"Oh, that," Mother sniffed. "I didn't appoint any careerists to the Senate. They're mostly young people, very enthusiastic."

Mother's tone of voice had been so casual, so matter-of-fact, that Leia almost didn't catch what she'd said.

I didn't appoint any careerists to the Senate.


Mother opened the throne room door before Leia had fully appreciated the meaning of what she'd heard.

Vader stood in front of the high arched window. Its transparisteel had been shattered and remained unrepaired, so Vader's hulking form was silhouetted by a wild glinting pattern of sunset-colored light that broke through the cracks of the milky pane. His back was to the door, but he turned smartly when Mother said, "We've come, my Lord."

"My lady." He gave her a shallow bow, then nodded to Leia. "You appear stronger, my daughter."

Leia cringed inwardly at the phrase, but she had heard it many times in her initial delirium.

"The hoverchair is adequate?"

"Yes. Thank you for the gift, and for the effort you spent on it. I appreciate it." It tasted sour in her mouth - more so when she saw his posture shift, only slightly, showing that he took pleasure in it - but she had been raised properly by her true parents and she would not allow the gesture to go unthanked, and thereby remain in Vader's debt.

"Has Luke returned yet, Ani?" Mother asked, going to the window herself. She stood staring at the broken pane as though she could see something through it.

"He reported in an hour ago from the Executor, and was planning to take a shuttle down as soon as certain formalities were observed."

Leia had no urge to ask where Luke had gone or what formalities he was observing. The Vaders, she could - to an extent - accept; they were what they were. But Luke's betrayal still stung.

Mother shivered, looking up through the clouded window. "I hope he can bring her. She must understand that we are her natural allies."

"Do not set your heart on it, my love." He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it gently, then turned his attention to Leia. He raised a hand, and the chair floated toward him.

Leia glared at him when she reached him. "You only need to ask me to come over," she said. "You don't need to take the choice out of my hands."

"If you do not wish to be moved by the Force, my daughter, you will need to learn to resist my call."

"I wouldn't even know where to begin."

"And that is what I intend to start teaching you today."

No choice was offered in the matter, and Leia knew she would have chosen to learn anyway. Vader had found the right approach - she did not want to find herself dragged this way and that simply because she didn't understand how to defend herself from it.

It took nearly twenty minutes before she understood the principle of the thing, but in this case, understanding was more than half of execution. By the end of an hour, she was able to call things to herself from all over the room - not that she had much use for the bits of rubble that were the only things left loose in the throne room after Palpatine's thugs had ransacked it. She still couldn't block any whim of Vader's, no matter how mild. She suspected that he had no real intention of teaching her to do so, but understanding how it worked was enough for her to start thinking about how she might accomplish it in the future.

She had just summoned a fist-sized chunk of marble into her hand when the door slid up again. Mother, who had been sitting on the windowsill, got to her feet and opened her arms. "Luke! You're back!"

Leia turned the chair around.

Luke was walking in comfortably, clearly feeling as though he belonged here. He was wearing a black tunic and leggings, and a long blood-red robe. Leia had not seen any of the uniforms of Mother's new order, but she recognized it as such at once. High guard, perhaps?

He stepped aside, revealing a small and silent figure walking behind him, a woman, with short-cropped red hair and a stern, regal face. Her clothes were spotless and crisp, and she carried herself with dignity.

"Mothma," Mother said warmly. "I'm so very glad Luke was able to persuade you to come."

"We have business," Mon Mothma said. Her eyes didn't waver from Mother's.

Mother swept down and sat on the throne, which had been cleared of rubble. The table in front of it had been split into two large pieces, and the chairs that spread around it in a semi-circle were in various stages of decay. "Yes," she said. "We have a great deal of business, Mothma. We have a galaxy to rebuild, and the hands and minds of the former Rebellion would be of great value."

"The Rebellion will not serve as your slaves. Until the Empire has been swept away -"

"You speak unwisely." Father moved forward in a threatening way.

Mon Mothma's gaze shifted, almost involuntarily, and suddenly her eyes widened. "Leia!" she whispered. "But you were... on Bespin... We had been told you were dead."

"Clearly," Mother said, "my daughter is not dead. She is at home with her parents, where she belongs."

Mon Mothma couldn't seem to find an answer to that. She simply stared at Leia.

Leia wanted to scream, I am not here of my own free will! She wanted Mothma to go back to the Rebellion and tell them that whatever they might see in the future, it wasn't true, it wasn't...

Mon Mothma's face grew cold, and she turned back to Mother. "So you have stolen our leadership."

"I have reclaimed my family," Mother said, her voice equally cold. Then the false warmth came back into it. "Oh, Mothma. Don't you see that there's no longer a reason for the Rebellion? Everything we wished for, I can provide now."

"Free elections? Freedom of speech?"

"Mothma, someday, those things will return. But now, people are... uneducated. They don't understand what's needed to administer the galaxy. We're building schools... "

"Indoctrination centers."

"Schools. And in a generation, they will have the tools to vote... "

"For you and your agenda."

"And what do you find so objectionable about my agenda? Standing up to the crime lords? Arresting the slavers in the Outer Rim? Establishing governments on anarchic and chaotic worlds? To what do you object?"

"The disenfranchisement of the populace for starters. The grotesque military build-up -"

"We need to get control. Once control is established -"

"You will never believe you have enough control. You're mad with it!" Mon Mothma made a sudden move, a flick of her arm, and a vibroblade appeared in the air. She flung herself at Mother.

There was a flash of blue light.

Mon Mothma fell to the floor in front of Mother's throne, her clean robes shining against the gray floor like a rebuke. Luke stood over her, lightsaber drawn, face impassive. He raised his hand, and the vibroblade flew into it, then he turned off his lightsaber. "I'm sorry, Mother," he said. "She said she was willing to talk. I had hoped."

"So had I," Mother said. She got up from the throne and knelt beside Mon Mothma's body. "What a pity and a waste. There could have been peace." She shook her head. "Ani, Luke... will you see to it that she is given proper honor in death?"

"Of course, my Lady," Vader said. He gathered up Mon Mothma's limp form and carried her out. Luke followed him.

"She didn't understand," Mother said, turning to Leia with wide, pleading eyes. "But you do, don't you, my Leia? My beautiful girl? You understand."

Leia couldn't find her voice to answer. She glided over to the spot on the floor where Mon Mothma had fallen. A bit of her white robe had floated down when Father had lifted her, and Leia picked it up. She held it tight in her fist.

Oh, yes, Mother. I understand. I understand it all.

She would have had us battle-ready weeks ago. Without even breaking a sweat.

Han heaved a sharp sigh and gestured to his troops. "All right everybody, break off into your groups. Squad leaders, you have your assignments. I want to see everyone on top of things this time." He paused to give them a slight grin. "The last team standing gets out of the remaining drills for the afternoon - and gets the knowledge that in a firefight they're most likely to escape Her Ladyship's forces alive." Some low laughter was heard. "Come on, guys, let's get going."

The squad leaders quickly began giving out instructions, and people started gathering the supplies and weapons needed. Soon, they were heading off in different directions from the Rebel's makeshift base, and into the greenery of the forest.

Han leaned against a tree and nodded at Chewbacca. "Think they'll be able to handle this one?" he asked. Chewie growled an affirmative. "I don't know..." Han replied. "They have been handling the tougher drills so far. They're almost starting to look like an army." He paused. "Better late than never, I guess."

Sure, flyboy. Just take your time.

He could almost hear her say it - he still expected a sarcastic response to nearly anything he said.

"We should watch this one ourselves, Chewie," Han said. The Wookiee was already headed over to their speeder.

Han developed this drill to give himself a better idea of how his Rebels would do in a run-and-gun shootout with enemy forces. The better squads would be role-playing as the Empire, chasing the other squads throughout the thick forest brush until all had either escaped, been captured, or been "killed." Han wasn't big on military planning - and hadn't been even with the old Alliance - but this was necessary if they were ever going to be more than a nuisance to the Empress.

And without Mon Mothma, this was more completely on his shoulders than it was before. Losing her had been a body blow to the Alliance, and they certainly couldn't take many more - any more - of those. Han had decided to deal with the loss the way he had dealt with things before...get back work, and quickly. They all needed the distraction, and needed to know that the Rebellion was going to keep on. He just hoped the results of today's exercise w ould be positive.

She wouldn't be worried about the results. She'd just find a way to make this work. Like she always managed to do.

Han climbed into the two-man speeder, waiting with Chewbacca while the squads got into position and started the exercise. Chewie began talking to him, but Han wasn't listening.

Look, you can't keep comparing every single thing you do to what she might have done.

You can't.

Easier said than done. She was the Rebellion - had been the Rebellion. How could he stop thinking of how she would handle things?

Stop thinking about her? How can -

Chewie snapped at him, annoyed at being ignored. "What? What is it?" Chewie repeated what he had been saying - a question about how Lando was making out on his assignment. "Don't know, pal," Han replied. "I thought we would have heard something else by now, but after what happened to Mothma..." Han trailed off, a sickened frown momentarily creasing his features. "Who knows what's going on in that Palace. I'm not going to worry about it unless we hear he's been captured. And whenever we do hear from him, we'll get more information in one shot than we've been able to gather in months."

After a second, he added sarcastically, "Who knows? Maybe he'll even get in a few shots for us while he's there. Think he could punch Luke right in his face without her Ladyship executing him on the spot?" Chewbacca chuckled. "Oh, come on, it might be worth a try."

Luke. The farmboy traitor. Some people had wondered why Han forgave Lando so quickly after Bespin. What they didn't know was that Han's anger at Luke...hell, he couldn't even deal with it at times, it was so intense. Lando's betrayal, sickening as it was, didn't compare at all to Luke's.

Lando didn't try to con Leia into joining her "family." Lando wasn't just standing there as Vader carried Leia out of the Falcon.

Han grimaced, hating that image and trying to clear it from his head. Leia, so small and lifeless, being taken away by the people she had done everything in her power to escape. It depressed him, and saddened him. And thinking of Leia shouldn't do that.

Chewie got the speeder moving, driving high in the trees so they could watch below. The teams were starting to move, as the "Imperial" squads began trying to close off the obvious avenues of escape. The Rebel squads were loaded up on weaponry, and sending out a handful of soldiers as a diversion.

Come on now, better memories...She's sitting behind me in the Falcon, her hand on my shoulder. She's smiling, laughing with me... quiet and content, in my arms...that's better...

Those were the memories that were with him all the time. Not necessarily Princess Leia, the Rebel Leader, but his Leia, the Leia that only he knew. That he loved and missed and -

Chewie roared his approval at something, and Han refocused on the drill. One of the Rebel groups snuck behind an Imperial squad and opened fire, allowing a second Rebel squad time to regroup. Han smiled. "Not bad, huh? We'll have to deal with Beta Squadron though. They shouldn't have needed that kind of saving to begin with." Their speeder dipped and turned to another part of the battlefield.

I loved her. I'm incomplete without her. Simple.

Painful and awful, but simple. Han had never been a romantic, or given a moment's thought to silly, overwrought fantasy stories about great loves. And even now, after having had and lost that love, he still tried to keep his thoughts as straightforward as he could.

So, after Bespin, he had stayed focused on the Rebellion, which was desperate and foundering. The losses, the defections - there were too many to count. The widespread, almost hysterical hope in the Vaders' "new" Empire meant that most people couldn't abandon the fight fast enough. Only a hardcore group remained, too disheartened to do anything. Han, Lando and Chewie had taken that group and fled to safety while they tried to figure out what came next.

And what came next was rebuilding. More ships, more supplies, more people. Sure, they were still too small and undersupplied, but there had been help, there had been volunteers. Mostly older people, people who had known of Vader and Amidala before the Old Empire. They seemed more able than others to recognize that something was very wrong with them; that the Vaders weren't about to restore the Republic any time soon. They helped recruit younger fighters, and were in large part responsible for keeping the Rebellion operational during its darkest moments. Eventually, the Vaders began bearing out what Han had always known, acting out in ways that Palpatine would have been proud of. The Alliance was definitely on more solid footing now.

Han watched another Rebel group escape and head for the base. The exercise was going well, even better than he had hoped. With a bit more training, many of the squads would be ready for a real battle.

The communicator in the speeder suddenly came to life, and Wedge's voice crackled through. "Han? Han, it's Wedge. We've received something from Lando."

"A transmission?" Han asked.

"No, it's a chip...I think it's a holovid. I haven't watched it yet."

"Well, hang on then. Chewie and I will head back now," he replied, as Chewie turned them back in the direction of the base.

Wedge was waiting for them, and waved them into an office. "Artoo's decoding it now," he said. "I think he's almost done." The droid's head swiveled toward Han, and he rattled off a series of excited beeps. Han gave him a nod of acknowledgement, which was about the extent of communication he was able to have with R2-D2. Luke and Leia had almost been able to talk to the droid, even without Threepio around to translate, but he had never gained that skill.

Han glanced at Wedge, shaking his head in confusion. "Why would Lando risk couriering something all the way from Naboo? Is he crazy?"

"I don't know, sir," replied Wedge. "The person who brought it didn't know anything."

"Wonderful. We need information, so he sends us pictures. Why -"

Artoo suddenly beeped loudly and his holoprojector's light came on. The image of a hallway flashed before them; Han fell silent. Several seconds went by without anyone passing through.

"Good job, Lando," Han muttered.

Finally, a figure appeared at the far end of the hallway. It took Han a second to make out what it was. A person sitting in some sort of floating contraption he had never seen before. The contraption drifted slowly, and the person - a woman - made very little movement as she rode along. Eventually, she passed right by the hidden camera.

"Leia!" Han cried, jerking toward her before he stopped short.

It couldn't be, he must be wrong.

He turned, wild-eyed, to Chewie, who was nodding and yelling. "Was it her? Play it again!"

R2-D2 quickly ran the vid back. Han stared at the empty hallway and waited, holding his breath, trying not to blink. It was her. It had to be her. Why else would Lando risk so much to send a blurry twenty-second vid?

Han felt the moment stretch out...his life was hanging in it. It had to be her.

The woman entered the hallway again and her chair-like thing began moving. Han knew it the second she appeared again, but he waited until she went right by, until he could really see her face - her beautiful face! - before he let himself be sure.

"It is her!" he yelled, reaching his hand out to try and touch her. "Oh, Leia..." Artoo helpfully paused the vid, leaving a still image of her. Without taking his eyes off Leia, Han said, "Wedge, go call off the rest of the exercise, and get all the squad leaders together. We've got a rescue to plan."



Wedge hesitated. "Do you really believe we're ready for an assault on Naboo? We -"

"We'll get ready. We're going after her."

"Sir," Wedge tried again.

"What!" Han snapped, turning sharply to face him.

"Sir, she's been alive all this time, and hasn't left, or even tried to contact us..." Wedge trailed off. "Sir, she...she's been with them for awhile...she might be rescued...she -"

Han raised a finger to him, and silenced him with a murderous look. "Don't even say it, Wedge. Don't even think it. Go get the squad leaders and start planning. Now."

"Yes, sir," Wedge answered. He began to leave but paused to add, "I didn't mean... I'm sorry, Han. I am happy she's alive. And we'll get her back."

Han nodded. Then he ordered Artoo to play the tape again. She looked injured and thin and tired, but seemed all right - or, at least, like she would be all right eventually. He rewound it again. An almost giddy feeling was beginning to grip him. She was so beautiful...and she was alive.

"They can't keep you there, Leia," he whispered as she floated by again. "I'm coming."

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




The reign of Lady Vader has seemingly restored peace, if not liberty, to a war-weary galaxy. Only a small band of Rebels, led by Han Solo, continue to fight against her rule.

Meanwhile, Leia Organa, last in her family to resist the Darkness her mother represents, struggles against her new Imperial life, and the Sith training her father and brother plan for her.

As Solo prepares to rescue his Princess, the Rebellion is led to the Outer Rim, where Lady Vader's increasingly tyrannical rule is compelling planets to join the desperate fight to bring freedom to the Galaxy...

Just after harvest the year Luke Skywalker turned seven, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had brought him to the Sand Fair outside Mos Eisley. There had been acrobats and games, rides and tale-tellers, games and races. Luke had gotten sick from eating some kind of fried food sold to him by a Rodian.

But the thing he remembered most clearly and most often was the holochamber, in which a person could have his head scanned and projected onto all kinds of cheaply rendered bodies. Aunt Beru, with a rare giggle, became a Twi'lek dancing girl, then a gruff Gamorrean guard. She had made funny growling noises at Luke, who was entertaining himself by looking at his boyish head on the shoulders of a burly athlete.

He thought of that holochamber often now, as he put the finishing touches on See-Threepio's new body.

It was still covered with gold-colored plates, but it was more graceful and streamlined than his old one, with smoothly hinged joints and a slender, flexible waist. Luke had adjusted the neck to support the structure of Threepio's original head - it just seemed wrong to take his vocoder and his face from him - but the appearance still struck him as odd and imbalanced, as out of place as Aunt Beru's dancing eyes above Gamorrean tusks.

"Wesa coming up on Malastare, Lord Skywalker."

Luke looked up from the bolt he'd been adjusting at Threepio's hip. "Thank you, Corporal Ailan."

The Gungan nodded somberly and backed out of the room, not turning until after the door had slid shut completely. It had taken a year for Luke to get used to this behavior, but Mother had finally gotten it through his head that they took it as an insult when he wouldn't let them follow the manners they knew when addressing nobility. The title itself hadn't been too difficult, basically because he'd been afraid he'd need to change his name as Father had, and the relief at not needing to do so had overshadowed any discomfort with the small addition.

He turned on the switch in Threepio's neck and, the droid rose smoothly to his full height, now three decimeters taller than Luke. He was capable of carrying arms, should they be needed, but Luke preferred not to have him display weapons right away. That wasn't the message he was conveying. The weapons were only a last resort.

Besides, Luke thought Threepio might well short-circuit at the very idea.

"Master Luke," Threepio chirped. "I must say, this is a vast improvement. It -"

Luke held up his hand. "Threepio, we've nearly arrived at Malastare. I want you to observe and record, and note any discrepancies between what I'm told in Basic and what is said in the native language."

"Why, yes, sir. Of course. I am programmed in etiquette and... "


"Yes, sir."

The ship shuddered out of hyperspace, and Luke gathered a small team to accompany him to the surface. A saboteur's raid had destroyed a minor munitions factory and left some security issues in question, and Father wanted Luke to investigate personally, to judge whether they were truly taken by surprise, or if they had been complicit in the sabotage. It was the sixth such attack by the Rebellion, and both Luke and Father were sure there was something of a pattern.

Three Gran officials met them at the shuttle pad, and took them by speeder to the site of the factory. There was almost no talk in the speeder. Luke sensed only the normal nervousness of soldiers whose defense had been broken.

A tall Gran with one missing eyestalk (the middle one) came out of the burned doors when the party approached. His name, Luke remembered from the briefing, was Tiyyim. He looked genuinely agitated, and Luke felt shame coming from him. His honor had been attacked with the factory. "Lord Skywalker," he said, bowing. "Lord Skywalker, my deepest apologies to you and to Her Majesty. Our security was clearly inadequate and -"

Luke held up a hand. "You were outmatched, and I sense that you did not betray us. You will not be punished."

Tiyyim fell to his knees. "Oh, you are gracious, Lord Skywalker, as is Her Majesty, gracious and generous to a worthless... "

Luke bent down to face him. Sometimes, people did this. They understood, in a way the Rebels did not, how much power Mother had, and how kindly she administered it. But the display was degrading, and it was not in the interest of the New Empire for its loyal citizens to degrade themselves. "You are not worthless, Commander Tiyyim. You will not be demoted. Your need has been heard. The Empress will provide your factory, and your town, with troops for its protection."

"Thank you, my Lord." Tiyyim rose shakily. "We will not fail you again."

"Nor will the Empire fail you again, Commander. I speak in the voice of the Empress, and give you her word. Was anyone injured in the raid?"

Tiyyim started leading Luke into the factory. The Gran guard followed wordlessly, and Threepio clattered along at the rear, his footfalls no less noisy for coming from smoother motions. "Several technicians sustained minor injuries," he said. "Though I in no way sympathize with the Rebellion, I am obliged to say that there was some effort to avoid unnecessary casualties."

"We don't question the honor of the Rebellion," Luke said. "Mother was with them at the beginning, and I served with them when they fought Palpatine" - Tiyyim spit onto the floor of the factory at the Emperor's name - "and I know that they are goodhearted. They're simply... misguided. They've fought a war for so long that they can't accept that it's over, that it's been won."

It has hardly been won, a voice whispered into Luke's mind. It was a voice that had told him a hundred lies, a voice he shut out no matter how often it tried to speak to him now. The voice had nothing to offer him, and had already tried to steal all he had. Obi-Wan would only consider the war won if he could convince Luke to commit patricide, and possibly matricide as well... and all the while, he would be preaching his allegedly higher morality.

Luke gritted his teeth, and waited for the voice to try again. It didn't. He hadn't told Father that Ben - Obi-Wan - still tried to speak to him. It was one more secret between them that Luke no longer knew why he was keeping. The first secret - that Han Solo was alive, or had been at Bespin at any rate - Luke kept because to break it would be to admit to an all-out lie, and Father would not be forgiving of that. But why shouldn't Father know that his old Jedi master was still trying to interfere?

Because it is my problem to deal with, and Father knows far too much about my life as it is.

"Lord Skywalker? Are you well?"

"Yes. Maybe you should show me the rest of the factory."

Tiyyim nodded uncertainly, then went forward into the building. Threepio came forward to walk beside Luke. He kept his silence as he had been instructed. There didn't seem to be a need for him here; everyone was conducting their business openly, in Basic.

As Luke walked, he noticed charred and broken machines, melted doorways, sabotaged conveyor belts... but no cataclysmic damage. The factory would be operational again soon, at least to a degree.

What was the point here, the goal? In the Rebellion, he'd led operations and flown missions, but he had not been in the high strategic command. He didn't know what the aim here might be.

Leia might know, of course. Leia had been privy to high level Rebel strategy.

But Leia, naturally, refused to speak of it.

She had progressed from defiant, fiery refusals to a simple polite silence, and eventually, she would come around. Luke had felt her affection for Mother trying to rise up on more than one occasion, and it would win out in the end. Even Leia's stubbornness had to end somewhere, and now that she was going on missions, being given an opportunity to take part in the rebuilding of the galaxy... well, she couldn't continue to see the Empire as evil when she saw how it could be used to help all the people who needed help - the orphans and the Alderaanians, the widows and the homeless. Mother had cracked down on crime so that they could live in safety, and was even now sending engineers and builders to give them shelter and security. Leia knew this; she was deeply involved in it. That had to convince her, didn't it?

Still, he knew he wouldn't discuss this raid with Leia. She would just stare at him blankly until the subject was changed.

So, what was the aim?

It was the sixth factory hit in the past several months. All had been of low importance in the scheme of things, and none had been permanently disabled. Casualties had been kept low and the intelligence that had been stolen had been haphazard at best. Father had been analyzing all the compromised intelligence, and had found no logical way to make use of it. But it was a pattern, as regular as TIEs in tight formation.

"Were your files violated?" he asked, as they arrived at the administrative offices.

"Some. Data trails show a violation in the shielding technologies."

"We'll need to modulate the shields and re-configure the generator positions." Luke sighed. He sensed nothing at all out of the ordinary. Even the shield plans were hardly a prize to risk lives for. So what was the objective? What was the Rebellion doing?

Low-level plants.

Minimal damage.

Useless intelligence.

It made no sense.

"It seems that I've seen all there is to see," he said. "I thank you for candor, Commander Tiyyim. The Empire's security forces will arrive within the week to create a safer environment."

Tiyyim nodded. "For that, we will all be grateful. Maybe it will cut down on the petty thefts that have been occurring as well."

Luke frowned. That was another part of the pattern. Small thefts, petty crime. That had most definitely not been part of the Rebellion he'd known. Again, the thefts had been of items utterly without value, sentimental or otherwise.


He pulled his cloak around himself and followed the Gran guard outside. A crowd of locals had formed while he was in the factory, and most of them were waving at him, smiling broadly. Crimson banners were waved in honor of Mother. One young member of the crowd held up a holobanner of a heart that read, "Take my love to Her Majesty."

Luke touched the guard's shoulder to signal him to stop, and went to the front of the crowd. It was a small group, but Mother believed in treating all loyalists equally. "They are all our partners in the New Empire," she often said. "We do not respond merely to the powerful. That was the way Palpatine operated."

"I'm glad to see you here," Luke said, and a cheer erupted from the crowd. He signaled to Threepio to translate into the local dialect. Hearing his words in their own language created another cheer, even bigger than the first. Luke grinned at Threepio and winked at him to keep going. When the sound died down, he went on. "The Empress has heard you, and is sending help to Malastare. She sends her love to all of you as well."

Another cheer, first for Luke's Basic, then for Threepio's translation.

Luke bowed to them. "The new Empire will protect you from these raids, and from the surrounding crime. You will be safe."

There was another general cheer, and Luke gave them an open wave. He started back toward the speeder, but he felt a light tug on his robe. He looked down to find a Gran child, perhaps the equivalent of a six-year-old human. She looked both nervous and awestruck, and had one hand held behind her back. He knelt to look her in the eye. "Peace, child," he said. "What troubles you?"

The girl frowned deeply, obviously struggling with Basic. Luke looked to Threepio, who translated it.

The girl smiled broadly and said something in rapid Gran.

Threepio nodded. "She says her name is Asbe, and she believes you to be quite handsome."

Luke grinned at her. "Is that so? Well, it's not every day I get compliments from such a pretty girl."

The giggle at Threepio's translation didn't need to be interpreted. Asbe brought her hidden hand around. In it was a red flower, made of clay. It was quite plainly the work of a child, but it had a kind of crude beauty to it. She struggled for Basic. "For... Mother," she managed, then slipped back into Gran.

"She made this herself," Threepio said, "and wishes to make it a gift to the Great Empress."

Luke took the flower. "Thank you, Asbe. My mother will like this very much."

Threepio translated; Asbe beamed. She spoke again, this time directly to Threepio, who answered her. He seemed to be settling into the conversation - a bad habit for a droid - so Luke cleared his throat. "What is she saying?" he asked.

"Oh. Yes. I forgot. Asbe simply said that she had many more such things, but that some were damaged when the Rebels stole from her father's shop."

Her father's shop.

Another pointless theft.


Luke put his hand on Asbe's face and turned her to look at him again. "What kind of shop does your father have, Asbe?"

She answered at length, and it took Threepio a moment to sort through her words. "He makes stone carvings and clay pictures for big buildings." Threepio cocked his head. "It appears, or at least Asbe believes, that he has been involved in the refurbishing of Theed Palace. She says he has made doors for the Empress, and decorations for the hallways."

"Doors... "

"Master Luke, does this mean something to you?"

Doors. He would have to have measurements. Guides. Plans.


"Threepio, ask her if she saw the thieves."

He asked her.

Again, Asbe became very animated. She didn't look frightened, simply excited, and pleased to be singled out. She spoke for a long time, then looked calmly at Threepio to translate for her.

"Threepio," Luke prompted, "what did she say?"

"She says that there was only one thief, and he was very nice to her. He came when her father was gone, and only broke some of her things by accident. She says he took some things on his way out, but nothing anyone would care about. Broken things, she says."

A picture was beginning to form in Luke's mind. "What did he look like, Asbe?"

Her answer was quick this time. "Very handsome," Threepio translated. "She says he had brown hair and his face was human, and he wore black pants with a red stripe on the side."

There are thousands of men who fit that kind of description. It doesn't have to be...

But it was. Now, with the pieces falling into place, the picture was becoming very clear indeed.


Luke closed his eyes and took a deep breath to center himself. He'd saved Han's life on Bespin, and he'd done so by lying to his own parents... to the Empress and her Chief Minister.

And Han's answer to that was to use that survival to cause mayhem and break the peace Mother was trying to establish... and, for some reason, to obtain the plans to the Palace in Theed.

No, not some reason. There was only one reason for him to do that.

He was on his way, to get Leia.

Luke felt his hand tightening, and stopped himself just before he crushed the clay flower; Mother liked being surrounded by these gifts. But he decided that it was very definitely time to go home.

If it wasn't too late already.

Leia closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply, ignoring the sharp ache in her ribs. As she exhaled slowly, she imagined the Force swirling through her and out of her, carrying her pain and apprehension with it. She inhaled again, trying to shut herself off from her surroundings and re-center her thoughts.

Instead, she found herself listening to the distinctive sounds of the Imperial High Command Center. A high din of officers giving and taking orders, of computers and machines and droids humming and beeping through their work, of incoming messages and outgoing commands. It was a wonder that anyone got anything done here.

Leia smiled softly. It felt much more like a Rebel base than any Imperial outfit she had ever been in before.

The anxiety shot back, tearing the smile from her face and curling her hands into tight fists on her lap. This wasn't a Rebel base, and she wasn't a Rebel. It was blasphemous for her to even make the comparison.

She wasn't a Rebel...yet all of her instincts still screamed at her - she couldn't stop them, and she couldn't ignore them. The best she had managed was to hide them, to keep them buried enough that her family had stopped hounding her.

That had been no small feat. But that voice on the inside was becoming harder for her to deal with.

Leia opened her eyes and stared at the screen in front of her as the reports she had searched for were retrieved and displayed. This was an old Nubian processor that had been upgraded to serve the Imperial military. Nearly everything in here was old or odd in one way or another. This Center had been haphazardly thrown together once Mother decided that she was staying on Naboo permanently. Both long-forgotten machines from the Palace and the most modern versions brought from Coruscant had been tinkered and fiddled with until they created a unique network that somehow managed to work well.

Well enough that one push of a key on this old computer would give Leia access to more Imperial information than she could have dreamed of in her previous life. Without even raising suspicion.

Her hands twitched slightly, wanting to uncurl from their fists and just push that button. But...what good would it do for her to spy when there was no one to give the information to?

"Your Highness?"

The hands re-clenched. Leia turned slowly to High Admiral Piett, standing at attention behind her, but with a look of concern on his face. "At ease, Admiral."

He relaxed his stance. "Perhaps one of my men could retrieve your chair from your quarters. You look as though you're in pain."

"No, no," she said quickly. Leia tried to sit up a little straighter and school her features. "I'm wearing my braces" - she pulled her sleeve up to show him the small metal supports around her upper arm - "and I'm fine, Admiral." She was also wearing a brace around her torso, and one on her left leg. They were stiff and tight and uncomfortable, but they had allowed her to get out of that damned chair, at least for short periods of time. She could stand the pain when it meant even a little more freedom.

"Very well, Your Highness," Piett said. "Have you found the files you needed? I've had my people working constantly to finish the restoration project."

"Yes, the files are more complete than I had hoped for."

"I'm glad, Your Highness," he replied. "Your mother's history on this planet alone made the work worth the effort. People should know what she's done." He gave Leia a kind look. "You and Lord Skywalker should know as well."

Leia tried not to frown, or show her unease. Piett had always impressed her as a decent man, and had always taken a sympathetic interest in her and her recovery. But he was so thoroughly enamored of Mother - it made her uncomfortable and curious. How did decent people serve in this Empire?

Maybe she didn't ever really want to figure out the answer to that one.

"I think it's wonderful that Her Majesty is turning her attention to the Outer Rim," Piett continued. "The situation there has gone on far too long. It is certainly a region in this galaxy that needs her help."

"Indeed," Leia said flatly. "There isn't much in these records though...I had thought there had at least been plans offered to the Old Republic's Senate or the Imperial Senate on how to bring those systems under control. There's very little of substance that I'm finding here."

He didn't appear surprised at all. "The bureaucrats were never ones to actually do anything, if I may say so. They were more likely to simply make declarations or announcements and then never follow them through." He smiled. "We're very lucky to have you working on this problem now, Your Highness." With that, he gave a quick salute and went to speak to one of his officers.

A question rose to Leia's lips, but she managed to bite it back. Why did she send me here then?

What was the point of digging through these files if there wasn't anything of practical use to be found?

Leia knew of Vader's unabashed obsession with all aspects of life on the Outer Rim. And she knew what her Mother's usual manner of "fixing" and "controlling" systems entailed. That was why she hadn't said no when her Mother asked her to get involved. She had to help, somehow, and figure out a way to restrain her parents' impulses and actions. They were both so pleased to see her voluntarily take on an assignment...she was sure they would listen to her if she presented them a workable plan.

But these files Mother had said would be so helpful - they would only be of use for those wonderful events Leia was sure she would be made to attend with Mother on the Rim planets. Where they would announce the Empress's strategies for ending the corruption and poverty and crime with a carefully selected crowd wildly cheering her on. Where promises were made with only a cursory explanation of the ways in which they would be kept.

That's all Leia had found here. The Senate has not forgotten the people of the Rim...The crime rings of the Hutts must be destroyed...Slavery is not allowed and cannot be tolerated... Empty words, which under the Old Republic and Empire had simply served as a prelude to nothing.

Now Leia would have the chance to use the same empty words, but this time they would be disguising the imminent despotism her parents would bring in the name of restoring order.

The stress came back into her hands, and the Rebel again struggled to speak up.

She wasn't here spying, gathering any of the vast information available to her. She wasn't even here to actually help stop her mother from harming the people of the Outer Rim.

She was working for them - for Mother, for her parents, for the Empire. She was giving in.

Leia's hands finally sprung to life. They slammed at a key, and turned her screen off completely. She stared at the blank monitor in disgust.

She couldn't give in. She hadn't given in. She knew what her Mother was, and had never been blind to the things she did. Leia wasn't like Luke. Or even Piett. She still knew the truth. That had to count for something.

And in the end, what could she possibly do here? By herself?

Do something! Do anything!

She shook her head. The exhaustion of careening between despair and defiance was too much.

"Your Highness..."

Leia sighed. "Yes?"

Piett didn't bother maintaining protocol this time, and instead took a seat in the chair next to her. "You'll forgive me if I'm overstepping my bounds, but I believe you should return to your quarters. You appear quite tired."

"I appreciate your concern, Admiral, but really, I'm in very little pain today," she replied.

"I'm glad to hear that. But, I said you looked tired."

"Ah...well, I am," she said, "I am. But I'm afraid that returning to my quarters won't help very much with that."

He said nothing for several moments. "Perhaps not. And this assignment...maybe it's not helping?"

Leia raised her eyebrows, but didn't respond. She wondered if he knew how right he was. She'd done work like this before, and had been on one or two of those propaganda trips with Mother...but she was crossing a line now, and she knew it. And hated herself for it.

"I'd imagine that most Rebels would be reluctant to look to the past for any solutions to today's problems," he explained. "You must all still see the Republic and Empire as the root of all the galaxy's ills. Even now, using it for your Mother, it must feel strange to -"

"Am I still a Rebel in your eyes, Admiral?" she asked.

Piett blinked at her without understanding, then blanched, realizing how she might have construed what he said. He stammered quickly, "Your, Your Highness, please - I certainly did not mean to say - to at all imply that you -"

"I'm just asking," Leia said quietly.

"Your Highness. You are the daughter of the Empress, and I in no way meant to cast doubts upon your loyalties. It is not what I believe and it is certainly not my place to say such things. Please forgive my lapse in judgment."

"I'm not offended," Leia said. "I simply wish to know what you think."

"I think..." he swallowed hard. "I think I understand that this transition would be difficult for anyone," he said carefully.


"Yes, Your Highness. It can be hard to...adjust allegiances, even to a person as easy to follow as your mother." Piett stood from his chair. "Eventually, it won't be so difficult."

He was saying it as a reassurance. He had just spoken Leia's worst fear.

I am a Rebel. I'm terrified of not being one any more.

"Thank you, Admiral," she managed to say. "I think...I think I will head back to my quarters after all."

Leia stood stiffly, wincing as her braces pinched against her skin. Piett motioned for one of the officers to escort her for the short trip back to the Palace. The officer came over quickly and held out his arm to her. She took it, and they began a slow, silent walk.

You can't fight here. You can't fight alone.

That was true, no matter how much she might try to delude herself. She couldn't leave. She couldn't stop her parents.

But there's always a way to fight. You're much stronger now. Your Force training would help you.

She tried to shake off the thought. They were approaching the Palace, and she didn't need to have another mental back and forth when she got there.

They came to a side entrance, the one closest to the family's living quarters. Her officer escort nodded to the guards, and stepped aside to let Leia in the door first.

"Good afternoon, Your Highness."

Leia glanced up in mild surprise - the guards rarely spoke to her when she passed by. She turned to answer him...

...and found herself looking directly into the eyes of Lando Calrissian.

A scream came dangerously close to bursting out of her. But Leia took every bit of her strength and managed to squelch it. She didn't run to him, she didn't say anything. The officer was giving her a quizzical look, wondering why she hadn't yet entered the Palace.

Leia racked her brain, trying desperately to think of a plausible reason why she would have to stay and have a conversation with one of the guards. Maybe she could say that -


She jumped at the voice, and hastily ducked inside the doorframe. Her mother stood at the top of the far staircase, outside of Leia's quarters.

"I'm so glad you're back," her mother was saying. "I was worried - you shouldn't have gone over there by yourself! I would have been happy to go with you. And you're working yourself too hard, Leia. You still need your rest. Perhaps we should have a relaxing lunch together this afternoon."

"Yes," Leia said, forcing her voice to sound steady. "That sounds fine, Mother."

Amidala smiled, waiting at the top of the stairs, while the officer held out his arm to Leia again. She took it. Then she risked one brief, final look back.

Lando nodded to her ever so slightly, then moved a few steps away from the door.

Had he come for her? Would he do that?

Leia had vague, confused memories at Bespin...of Lando offering the Rebels help before the Falcon went down. But did helping the Rebels then mean he was helping them now? Did it mean infiltrating the Palace, did it mean trying to find her?

She almost didn't dare to let herself think it.

"Leia, is something the matter?"

Leia headed up the stairs. She plastered a smile to her face. "No, Mother. Nothing's wrong."

I can't fight her alone?

Maybe I won't have to.

"Ani? Is something wrong?"

Vader looked up from his meditation and smiled at his wife. It was a long-practiced expression. She had let herself into the hyperbaric chamber through a sterile anteroom he'd built for her, and was wearing the Gungan face-shield that allowed her to breathe in this atmosphere without becoming dizzy. Beyond its shimmer, her lovely face had relaxed from its frequent tension, and from its frequent...

Fragility. She is merely fragile.

He could see Leia in the anteroom beyond, looking uncomfortably at the walls. Neither of the twins was comfortable making visits to this place; both seemed more comfortable with the mask. For Luke, it seemed only a mild preference, but Leia...

Leia simply loathed the sight of him.

She could hide many things, but she could not hide that, and barely tried. Her feelings for Amidala were confused and often contradictory, but her feelings for him were quite clear. She endured her training in the hopes of learning to block him, but Vader was quite certain that she was holding back even there.


"I'm sorry, my love. I was considering other matters."

"Is something wrong? You looked disturbed by something."

"Luke is on his way back from Malastare. Something is troubling him, but his mind is otherwise closed to me." Which means, he did not add, that whatever it is, Luke is deliberately hiding it from me.

"Is he all right?"

"He is in good health."

She nodded uncertainly. "Leia and I were going to have a nice lunch. Would you care to come sit with us?"

"My presence at meals is somewhat superfluous."

"Please, Ani. It would mean so much to us."

Over Amidala's shoulder, Vader saw Leia's shoulders stiffen. Her eyes drew together in a mark of irritation, but she erased it quickly, and it became resignation. Clearly, she had agreed to this to make Amidala happy; Vader could certainly do the same. "A moment, my love," he said. "I will attend to the respirator."

She grimaced. "Soon, Ani. Dr. Kei is working on the transplants, and we will have you breathing normally soon."

Vader did not believe this - even if Tinera Kei were to discover a stable transplant, he doubted there was enough of the supporting tissue left to sustain it - but he appreciated her effort, and hoped that it would have positive effects for others with respiratory problems. He also did not point out that the chances of surviving the transplant operation were infinitesimally small. Instead, he just said - truthfully - "I am grateful to have you with me, Amidala."

She smiled brilliantly, then let herself into the antechamber, removed her mask, and led Leia out.

Vader commanded the droids to replace his own mask.


How many more could his family endure? He'd thought they would end when Obi-Wan's original lie was dragged into the light, and the twins brought back to the place they belonged. But the one large lie had splintered into a dozen small ones. Luke's concealment of vital facts, obvious facts - someone had trained him after Obi-Wan, and something... the other thing that kept eluding Vader. And the plotting that he was certain Leia was doing.

And he, who had always hated lies, found himself telling them. There were matters with which Amidala need not concern herself, matters about which it was better to leave her with plausible denials.

Only Amidala, the only member of the family who had actively participated in the original lie, was telling no lies now.

Except the ones she is telling herself.

Vader shut the voice out. Amidala was not lying to herself. She was simply seeing a higher truth than was immediately evident.

She is not well. She needs help.

The droids finished their work, and he unsealed the chamber. Amidala and Leia were waiting beside the door, in Amidala's bedchamber (she had tried to sleep in the hyperbaric chamber for a time, but it had not proven to be a viable approach and she had settled for sleeping in the same room with it).

They walked together to a terrace overlooking the newly replanted Palace gardens. Vader stood quietly by the rail, while Leia and Amidala sat to eat from a tray that the kitchen droids had brought up.

"It's a beautiful day," Amidala said, peeling a red fruit and biting down on it. Juice sluiced down her chin and she laughed at herself, dabbing at it with a napkin. "Clean. New. It makes it seem as though anything is possible."

Leia cast her eyes downward and stirred her soup. "Mother... I've been thinking about this business in the Outer Rim. Something that's more... practically suited to the Rim's culture might be a good approach."

"The Rim's culture," Vader said, "is a bankrupt kleptocracy, enriching crime lords on the backs of slaves. To ally with that culture would demean your mother's reign. It is the Rim's culture which needs to be defeated."

Leia clenched her jaw. "That level of control is impossible."

"With the proper incentive -"

There was a clattering sound, and they both turned to Amidala. She had been holding a small dish, and it had tumbled out of her hand onto the flagstones. She was looking at it with wide, wounded eyes. Her face tipped up and she tried to smile. "I've dropped my lunch," she said. "I'm sorry."

"It is inconsequential," Vader said.

She is not well.

"I'll take care of it, Mother," Leia said. She started to get up, but Amidala stood up and held her firmly in her chair.

"Leia, you are still not strong. I can clean up my own messes. I am not so high and mighty that I can't mop up spilled fruit sauce." She squatted down and started swapping at the sauce with her napkin. A quick motion put the bowl back on the table. "I just don't like it when you fight with each other," she said, not looking up at them. "It troubles me."

"I apologize, my love," Vader said. "Leia and I have had many disagreements in the past."

Leia looked away, clearly resenting this, but playing along. "And maybe there's some value in the conflict. Maybe it can help both of us see different possibilities."

It was a politician's answer. Leia would never consider a possibility other than her own.

There was a sudden surge in the Force, then Luke swept around the corner onto the terrace. "I just got in, Father. The guard told me that you were - Mother, what's wrong?" He knelt down beside her, and took over the cleaning operation, guiding her up to her chair to sit.

"It's really quite all right, Luke," Amidala said. "You don't need to do this."

He finished up and stood. "I wanted to," he said. "I like helping you."

Amidala brushed her hand across his face, then reached up to kiss his cheek. A deep shadow passed over her face. She grasped his hands in hers. "I missed you all those years," she said. "I missed you so very much." She let go with one hand to touch Leia's arm. "Both of you."

The three of them were quiet for a moment. Vader felt some urge to join them, but he could think of no way in which he would fit into this picture, so he simply stood back to enjoy the sight of it.

As soon as it was clear that Amidala was ready to move forward with lunch, Luke rose to his feet. "Father, I've investigated on Malastare. It was the same pattern raid that we saw on Mon Cal and -"

"I will speak to you alone."

He thought about it for less than a second. "Very well."

Amidala looked at him suspiciously, but said nothing as he led Luke back into the Palace. She did not interfere with the twins' training.

"I think I found something useful this time," Luke said. "The petty thefts... we'd been treating them as an aberration, but I think they were the point. During the return trip, I analyzed all of them. Most are random, but on every planet, one of the shops was a contractor who worked here at the Palace. I think the other activity is nothing more than a cover-up for getting hold of the plans."

"What are you concealing from me, Luke? Your feelings betray you. You fear me. Why? What have you done?"

Luke's eyes shifted. "I have no intention of being bullied, Father."

"You will answer me. I told you that my patience was not infinite."

"Really? I never would have noticed that otherwise."

Vader exercised what patience he had left (it was a greater reservoir than he'd implied to Luke, but it was running dry). Luke had spent far too much time talking to Leia. He was developing an unseemly sarcasm. "You left Malastare in great anxiety. I do not wish you to show it to your mother, but you cannot hide it from me."

Luke squared his shoulders. "A local girl saw the Rebels. She described them as Corellian."

"A formidable foe, but hardly worthy of such a reaction from you. You are more than capable of engaging a Corellian-trained soldier."

"I -"

Staccato footsteps echoed in the hall, and the conversation was cut short.

"Lord Vader," the officer said, executing a quick call. He held out one gloved hand, which contained a hologlobe. "We have just intercepted a message meant for your daughter."

A voice rose from the doorway behind them. "You're having my personal communications stopped?"

Vader looked over his shoulder at Leia, who was putting up a pretense of being shocked. She must have heard the officer's approach. "Your loyalties, Leia, are not above question."

Amidala came around her. "That's an awful thing to say. Leia is not disloyal."

The officer - a lieutenant - shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "The communication does not impugn her Highness directly," he said. "It is... "

"Of course it doesn't!" Amidala took the globe. "There is nothing for Leia to have shame at."

She thumbed the activation switch, and a blurred form came into pixilated view. The figure cleared.

A thin man, in a long, duster coat. Black vest. Thin and sharp mouth under a beaklike nose.


Vader looked at Luke, who had assured them that the pirate was dead, who had claimed to have checked the bodies. Luke's eyes were closed.

A gasp from the doorway drew his attention. Leia's hands were at her throat, and she was biting her lip against tears. Relief - blessed relief - was pouring off of her in waves.

The pirate. The filthy, damnable thief. And she shed tears for him that she could not spare for her family.

Solo spoke. "Leia," he said, "I'm gonna bet this gets intercepted, but I have to take the chance. I'm coming for you, Sweetheart."

"Han... " she whispered.

"I don't know how, and I don't know when. But you need to be ready. And whoever else is reading this as it goes through, you can be as ready as you want: I'm still taking her away."

"Turn it off," Amidala said.

Solo's voice became less combative. "Leia, you need to know... we know. We know what's going on there. And we're coming for you."

The holo ended, and Solo disappeared.

Silence held for a moment, then Leia gasped in a sob. "Han," she whispered again. "Han, Han... "

Luke started to leave, but Vader caught him by the upper arm. "You appear to have misdiagnosed Solo's condition."

"I did what I did," Luke said, a hint of Leia's defiance coming into his voice.

Leia sank to her knees and made a grab for the hologlobe. Vader considered snatching it away from her, but the damage had already been done. What kind of suicidal fool was this lover of hers? Issuing a warning? What was his intent? Surely he was not mad enough to have simply sent the message for sheer bravado.

She held the globe to her chest, cradling it like a child.

Vader was trying to decide which of the twins to deal with when a scarlet motion caught his eye behind Leia. Amidala had straightened to her full height - which always seemed taller than it actually was - and she walked across the hall in a determined way, stepping over Leia's outstretched leg with dignity. She stopped in front of Vader. "Ani, no one is taking my daughter away from me again," she said. She said nothing more, only glided into the Palace, her veils trailing their soft perfume behind her.

There were times in the Core Worlds that Han sometimes had a hard time remembering just why he was giving his life to the Rebellion against Lady Vader's Empire.

In the Outer Rim, the crackdown on crime tended to spill over onto law-abiding citizens as well. Her Ladyship's hired thugs - she called them peacekeepers - used the possibility of crime as an excuse to pillage businesses and quarter soldiers in private homes ("for your own protection," they always said). Some were known to swagger into homes and take their pick of belongings, though, to be fair, something that egregious was likely to be punished harshly. One such soldier had been reported to the Empire by a Rodian couple on Tatooine. He had been brought back to Naboo for trial, and the couple had received a note the day he arrived that said, "Your complaint has been answered." A holo had been included showing the soldier's execution.

In the Outer Rim, it was easy to remember why there was a Rebellion.

But in the Core, or here on Naboo, it wasn't easy. Hell, half the time, Her Ladyship had done exactly what Han would have liked to do. Women and non-humans worked in all levels of the Empire, and did those things to which their talents most inclined them. The arts, long suppressed under Palpatine's regime, had re-emerged. The sterile bastions of the Empire had been swept away, and were being replaced by classic architecture, and by large, airy buildings filled with greenery and tapestries. Strangely beautiful, haunting music came across the comm channels. Statues and murals, publicly funded, were appearing in the public areas of most cities. Granted, they were often near-religious icons of Lady Vader... but they didn't have the feel of commissioned propaganda. Instead, they felt like honest outpourings of affection. Scientists were working in fields other than the improvement of military technology, and breakthroughs had been made in many fields. One group of archaeologists was close to tracking down the original settlement on Coruscant.

Like Lady Vader herself, the New Empire looked all right, even beautiful, in each of its separate features... but looked at together, there was something that was just all wrong, something that Han couldn't quite articulate to himself, let alone to anyone else.

He sighed, scanning the horizon with electrobinoculars. Chewie barked and held out his hand, and Han handed him the binocs.

"Yeah, pal, I know. I better get moving if I'm going to do this."

Chewie kept his silence, but Han knew his answer perfectly well: So don't do this. Find some other way. Some way that I'm in there with you.

But there was no other way, not really, and there was definitely no way to get Chewie inside without drawing attention. The Vaders knew Chewie, and so did Luke. Any of them could recognize him trying to sneak in as Lando had, and the route Han was taking was only open to a human.

"Hand me the stuff," he said.

Chewie shook his head, and rummaged in the speeder for a device that looked like a metal vest. Wires connected to nothing laced across it. Under it, the only live wires were attached to a vid-screen that would, when activated, project a false sonar scan of his respiratory cavity, showing both of his lungs collapsed.

He pulled off his shirt and put the metal vest on. Chewie switched on the screen, then let out a series of remonstrative barks.

"I know, I know. It's crazy. Way my luck's been running, they'll decide to cut into me right away."

Chewie reluctantly disagreed. They'd carefully planned the timing so that he would arrive at Lady Vader's laboratory after most of the support staff had gone home, too late for anyone to really examine him. Artoo would come along to report that his condition was stable, if anyone happened to be around to admit him. Of course, if they'd increased security on this end, he'd be in trouble, but hopefully, the message had come. Wedge would have sent it through half a dozen Outer Rim outposts, and, with any luck, the Vaders would be so busy watching the sky that they'd miss the fact that Han and Chewie had already been on Naboo for nearly three days.

"Okay then," Han said. "Get me on the stretcher, and we'll get this thing going."

The stretcher was self-supporting, and a single droid would be enough to get it where it needed to go. Chewie had repainted Artoo with green accents, so that he wouldn't be immediately identified among a group of astromechs; Han hoped that Threepio wouldn't be around to recognize some distinctive series of chirps.

Han lay down on the stretcher and Chewie strapped him onto it tightly. He barked a question.

Han wrinkled his nose. "Yeah. I guess you better. Leave it so I can see, though."

Chewie went back to the speeder, and returned with another metallic contraption. This one had more active wires - one made indicator lights flash, a second would create the sound of a respirator, and a third operated an electronic vocoder that would interpret the movements of his mouth into speech, should it be needed. More importantly, it covered his face, from his chin to the bridge of his nose.

Just in case.

Han made as much of a motion as he could with his head, and Artoo rolled forward to get the stretcher moving to its destination. He couldn't move to look back at Chewie, and he didn't know how long the Wookieee stayed to watch before heading back to the ship (an old Naboo cruiser, one of a series of ships he'd obtained since losing the Falcon, which he hoped wouldn't need to face any serious resistance).

The stretcher didn't move as quickly as the speeder, but they'd come as close to Theed as they dared. Han let himself rest for the hour it took to come into the shadow of the city.

Theed was a microcosm of everything that was right and wrong about the New Empire.

Rising from verdant plains, it was designed to catch the light in ways that made the heart stop for the beauty of it. Each new building was beautiful; each old building had been restored to its ancient grace. Nothing about any individual building was wrong, and from a distance, the city looked fine... but as Han got closer, the sense of disjointedness became more pronounced, as the angles of the streets and the walls became just a little bit too acute in one direction, too obtuse in another. This balcony hung a little too low over the street, making the sky seem heavy; that rooftop peaked just beyond the height that the eye could easily absorb.

As he got closer to Theed Palace, the sense of wrongness was stronger - the graceful old building, with many of its windows still blinded by white cataracts of shattered transparisteel. Still, it wasn't any rational thing he could put a name to, and he wasn't some superstitious kid... but if he hadn't been lashed to a stretcher, he thought even he might have felt a need to turn away.

There was a soft whistle from beside the stretcher, and Han looked slightly over, making sure that the motion was not outside the possible, given his purported injury. Artoo was still rolling along beside him, swiveling here and there, recording the decor and matching it against the plans stolen from Malastare, a second set stolen from Bespin, a third willingly donated by a Rebel artisan on Mon Calamari, and his own stored data from his long-ago service in this place.

A series of beeps answered Artoo's whistle, then there was the scraping sound of metal rising against rock. Medical droids swarmed out, and the stretcher was swallowed by the shadows.

His eyes took a moment to adjust to the lower light, and when he passed out of the blindness, he found himself in a long, narrow ward, in a seemingly endless row of unconscious humans, each wired to a respirator. Tall bacta tanks stood at the foot of each bed, irradiated at different frequencies to tweak the growth of the organic matter inside them.

Organic matter, Han thought to himself. Yeah, right.


Each tank contained human lungs and the cartilage tubes that would connect them to the body, being grown at varying rates, trying to find the ideal pace, the perfect solution for replacement. The patients had injuries that would not permit the kind of donor-lung, one-at-a-time replacements that medicine had been able to do for centuries - that would hardly catch Lady Vader's attention. No, all of the people here had fully destroyed respiratory systems, crushed chest cavities, burned airways... Complete destruction. There were no non-humans here; the research was tightly focused on one species.

One species, nothing. The research is focused on one person. The rest of us are so many samples. If any of these people is healed, it will be an accident. And any one of them could live a perfectly long life with an integrated respirator like Vader's.

There was a flurry of activity at his bedside, and the helper droids scattered.

Great. They aren't all off-duty.

A woman's face came into his field of vision - dark-skinned, like Lando, with violet eyes and long, straight hair. She looked harried, disturbed, and excited at the same time. "I'm Tinera Kei," she said. "Chief of the Imperial Respiratory Lab. Your... brother? ...signed a release form for you to be brought here for experimental therapy. Your paperwork says your lungs were crushed in a construction accident?"

Han moved his mouth around the vocoder. It produced a flat, electronic voice, and it was more awkward to work than he'd imagined. "Yes. Stable now. Need rest."

Kei gave him a fake smile. "Of course you do. If I could just examine... "

"Please... " Han managed. "Tomorrow. Go home. Late here. I'm fine."

"You are most definitely not fine, and -"

Something crashed. Han couldn't see it, but he heard beeps and whistles from the direction Artoo had last been. Tinera Kei stood up suddenly, looking frazzled. "I -"

"I'm fine," Han said again.

She bit her lip and frowned impressively, but apparently, whatever Artoo had done had upset the schedule.

"Apologize for the droid," Han said. "I'll take care. Have restrainer." He squeezed the control in his hand, and Artoo came back.

"All right," Kei said. "Tomorrow morning. I have to take care of this. Keep your droid restrained."

"Yes. Thanks."

She rushed off, and there was a great deal of activity in a far corner of the lab. Han hoped Artoo hadn't hurt any of the patients.

Not that most of them wouldn't be dead soon, anyway. There hadn't been any permanent successes yet reported from the lab. The longest survival had been four months.

After awhile, the lights dimmed and the activity slowed.

Wait. Hold on. Don't rush it.

It wasn't easy. Han had never been much on the waiting game. But every minute he endured here was invested against the possibility of getting caught and shut up for good.

Or executed.

Finally, the ward was as quiet as Han figured it would get. He tapped the droid control remote, and Artoo rolled over. A few beeps sounded reassuring, then some metal attachment was working at the straps on the bed. A moment later, Han's hands were free, and he ripped the mask from his face. A patient in the next bed looked at him questioningly, but there was no time to deal with it.

Deal with it. Get these people free.

Han smiled ruefully to himself as he got out of bed. He didn't think he'd ever catch himself needing to fight some half-baked altruistic impulse. But trying to rescue a wardful of people who weren't able to move for themselves wasn't going to help in rescuing the one person he'd come for. They would have to wait.

He borrowed a hospital garment from a drawer beside the bed, tied it on as a shirt, and slipped into a shadowy hallway. There was little security outside the infirmary at night. That information hadn't been confirmed in the plans, but Han had guessed it. Why stretch an overburdened security force to guard dying men? If he'd been wrong, the effort would have stopped here.

But he wasn't wrong.

With one look behind him, he disappeared into the maze of Theed Palace.

He would stand his ground, without cowering or apologizing. Just as he always had.

Confidence wasn't something new to Luke. Back on Tatooine, he had often rushed headlong into all sorts of situations without concern. But there had always been an undercurrent of na?vet? that had guided his actions - he often wasn't afraid because he didn't know enough to be scared.

His training with Father seemed to have changed that. Now he was bold because he knew what he was doing and knew what he was capable of in a given situation. He had been coming along very quickly - even faster than he had in the short time he had trained with Yoda on Dagobah. The power that Father had guided him into was different than anything Luke had felt before. It was heady and invigorating in ways Obi-Wan would have certainly disapproved of.

And now, as he stood outside the door to his family's common chamber, that sense of power was pushing him, almost egging him on. Not necessarily to confront Father - he knew enough to be scared of that - but to make it clear that he wasn't ready to be demeaned or humbled by Vader, whether as his son or as his apprentice.

Luke moved decisively, sweeping into the room and curtly acknowledging his parents.

They were seated on the far side of the room, past the couches and the fireplace, away from the windows, at a large marble dining table. Mother's face was serious, but she appeared to be composed. She tried to give him a reassuring look as he approached. And Father...

Father. Luke had felt his anger since they left the lunch on the terrace, and it emanated powerfully from him now. Luke swallowed hard. Father's anger was usually cold and detached, sometimes aggravated. But then, Father had never truly been upset with any of the family before, and now he was burning in fury, and betrayal, and frustration. Luke had to admit to himself that he wasn't entirely sure how to handle it.

Father turned his back on Luke, facing Mother without really looking at her. Luke quietly took a seat on the same side of the table as Father, down towards the end. A taut silence followed.

Mother broke it. "Ani, please...we've had enough acrimony in this family for one day." She reached across the table and gently took his hand. "We have to be focused, before this...this...pirate" - her face twisted terribly - "comes and tries to steal my daughter. Please." She looked at both of them. "I'm sure Luke's sorry."

Luke stared at his father intensely. It was clear between the two of them that Luke wasn't at all sorry. Good.

"This may not be the time for fighting," Father finally said to her, "but our children appear determined to do exactly that."

"I lied to you on Bespin. There is nothing to be done about it now," Luke said.

"Were Solo not so reckless, we would have been unprepared for the assault he undoubtedly plans."

"Father, I was about to tell you -"

"Do not lie to me, son." His voice lowered to the menacing rumble he normally reserved for his officers and underlings. "You have done enough already."

Mother paled considerably, but said nothing. Luke pushed on. "I'm not lying. You knew when I returned that I was about to reveal something to you -"

"No, I sensed that you were keeping something from me."

"- and I would have, except Han's message got to you first." Luke sighed. "My real crimes here are an old lie, and not returning from Malastare quickly enough."

Vader pushed his chair back and stood slowly. His long shadow fell across the table.

"Ani! Please!" Mother cried.

"Your lie could have, and might still, cost us your sister. If she is taken from us, will you continue to act as though your betrayal was meaningless?"

Luke recoiled from that accusation. He didn't want to lose Leia any more than his parents did. He still hoped, foolishly or not, that the two of them would again become as close as they were when they were with the Rebellion. Despite her deep-seated resentment of him now, he couldn't help missing their friendship. Losing Leia now was not something he was prepared to deal with.

He gave his Father a helpless look. "What would you have me do?"

"Nothing!" Mother said with a tone of finality. "There is nothing to be done except keeping Leia with us. Don't you see that? Either of you?" Despite the strength in her voice, Mother's hands and lips were trembling slightly.

Father took note of this, but still turned back to Luke as though he were going to continue the argument.

Fear suddenly ran through angry was he? Luke couldn't remember ever seeing his Father ignoring even the slightest indication that Mother was upset.

The door to the chamber swished open at that moment, and all three turned to it - as much to take the focus off one another as anything else - and Leia walked in.

She had clearly recovered from her sobbing hysteria on the terrace earlier. She looked positively serene. Almost regal. Her Force presence was a striking contrast between Father's rage and Mother's distress; she was radiating a supreme confidence that Luke had almost forgotten she was capable of. Leia glided over to the table, sat next to Mother, and let her gaze pass over each of them in turn.

"Should I ask what we're all discussing, or should I simply assume it's me?" she asked.

Father's fury spiked (Luke wondered how Leia always seemed so unaffected by Father's moods), and then he sat abruptly.

Mother also sat. She gave Leia hopeful look. "Leia..." she began cautiously, "I know you have feelings for this man, but I simply can't believe you would betray us for him."

"Be fair, Mother." Leia made a face. "You betrayed quite a lot for him," she replied, not quite looking in Father's direction.

Mother gasped.

"If he could pull you into this, then why can't Han pull me out?"

"Leia!" Luke said sharply. "Stop it."

Leia turned to him with cool eyes. "I suppose I should be grateful you let Han live," she sniffed. "I don't appreciate you lying to me about it for months on end though."

"Well, then, it's unanimous," Luke spat back. "And you can all hate me for what I did. I don't need your gratitude though, Leia - I'm not feeling terribly pleased about letting Han go, whatever you may think about it."

"Leia..." Mother's voice dropped to soft whisper. "Leia, my dear child, I..." She stood and walked over to Leia's chair, kneeling on the floor beside it - then laying her head in Leia's lap, like a child seeking comfort from a parent. Tears shone in her eyes. "You can't hate me that much. You can't." A sob escaped her before she went on. "I can't lose you again, Leia. You can't do that to me. You can't..."

Leia's hands twitched several times before lightly settling in her mother's hair, pulling it back from her face. She almost looked conflicted - at least a little - but Luke couldn't quite tell what she was thinking. "Mother -" she began.

"No, no it's all right." Mother lifted her head and wiped her tears. "I'm sorry." She heaved a deep breath and smiled at her daughter. "You won't do that to me. I know it."

Luke tensed, afraid Leia would make another provocative comment, and send Mother over the edge again. She said nothing.

Instead, Father spoke up. "She won't. She will not be given any such opportunity," he declared. "My son has taught me a valuable lesson about leaving our children to their own devices. It will not happen again."

Luke glowered at his father. Vader acknowledged it only by saying, "Do not test me, Luke."

"Don't speak about me as though I weren't sitting right here," Luke replied. "You cannot continue -"

Vader's fist slammed onto the table with an impact that seemed to shake the entire room. Once the table stopped vibrating, he stood again.

For a charged, panicked second, Luke wanted to pull his saber, and defend himself, and prepare to fight...his father's emotions were that belligerent. Luke waited, suddenly completely unsure of what his father might do next.

Mother apparently knew though. She jumped from her place next to Leia, and all but ran around the table, stopping between her husband and son, standing directly in Father's field of vision.

"Don't, Anakin," she said in a tight, sharp voice he had never heard her use with him. Father didn't move. "I won't allow it."

She moved, completely shielding Luke from his father's field of vision. "He made a mistake. A terrible one, yes, but it was still a mistake. You will notpunish him for a silly impulse of loyalty to an old friend. He didn't do it to hurt us. And he will not make the same mistake again." Her eyes turned fiery. "You will have to go through me, my love."

With that, Vader finally seemed to connect with her again, and Luke felt the anger slowly dissipate somewhat. Vader was looking softly at her now...the strange, dangerous moment passed. Father ran his hand gently down the side of Mother's face. He then bowed quickly to her, and left the room.

Mother turned to Luke, full of relief, and put her arms around him. "It'll be all right. He'll calm down," she whispered.

Luke couldn't find his voice to answer. Mother went to find Father. After a pause, Leia left without saying a word. Luke remained in the room, alone.


It was good to see Leia smile again, no matter what the reason.

Amidala understood, of course. She'd thought Ani was dead once -- granted, not for as long as he'd thought she was - and finding out that he was alive, even though she'd seen him as an enemy, had been too vast a relief to be denied. She had held the infant Leia to her breast then, and wept tears of gratitude to whatever Mercy had spared him, however horrifically it had chosen to do so. He was alive. That had been, in that moment, enough.

And once the tears had passed then, she'd felt her strength return to her. She'd felt so terribly alone and exposed, as though a protective membrane had been ripped away... and then it was suddenly returned to her. She had never stopped to think about how much of her strength came from knowing there was such a person as Anakin, and knowing that he would protect her, until he had been stolen away. Even when he didn't know she was there to protect, the knowledge of his existence had made her feel safe through all those years in Camp One-A.

Leia's tears of relief had passed, and now Amidala could see her daughter's strength come back, the strength she had admired in the many vids she'd watched while she and Ani had been searching for the children. As they walked together to the throne room, Leia's steps had a kind of smooth music that they had lacked since she'd returned.

Amidala wondered idly if she should start preparing new quarters for the pilot. He would have to be guarded at first, of course, but perhaps, in time, he could be persuaded to stay of his own accord. His life made Leia happy. If he could be accommodated here, then perhaps she would feel less need to be elsewhere.

Anakin would not agree. Solo was a pirate as well as a Rebel, and Ani's opinion of him was not high. He would want Solo in prison. But he could be convinced. He wanted the children to be happy. He loved them, though his skill at showing it was somewhat lacking. Amidala had watched him tenderly measure Leia for the hoverchair she so rarely used now. He had treated her with near-reverence, and he had put in many hours making sure that the device was comfortable and perfectly suited to her.

So he could be convinced.

And Luke... why, Luke had saved Solo in the first place. Certainly, he would be happy to see his friend integrated into the family.

Amidala hugged herself. Her family was coming back to her. Ani would be healed. All these rifts... they would take time, but the love was there. She could feel it. And when the love was there, all things were possible. Hadn't she and Ani proved that?

Leia went into the throne room ahead of her and sat down at the smaller seat to the right of Amidala's throne. She didn't especially like being there - she would prefer to be traveling around the galaxy - but, like the hoverchair, this seat had been modified (again, by Ani) to support her injuries, so she could remain in it for long periods without pain.

"Mother," she whispered, "I haven't seen anything on the schedule this morning that requires my presence. Wouldn't my time be better spent at the Command Center?"

Amidala frowned, taking her seat. "I think it's better that you remain with me this morning."

"Keeping an eye on me?"

"That's my job. I'm your mother."

Leia's smile faltered. Amidala wanted it to come back. Ani said that she shouldn't be left alone, and he was right. But it seemed to make her unhappy. A child should not be so unhappy to be in her mother's presence.

She turned away. "I take it Father is keeping an eye on Luke this morning."

"Ani and Luke have gone to train out on the plains." She took Leia's hand. "Leia, I know you're anxious to see your friend. And I promise, I'll make sure he's not hurt."


"Good, then. I think you'll enjoy this morning, anyway. A group of children from the Ostunu Arts School on Ancebe is coming to present a new dance to us. You like dance, don't you?"

"I always used to."

"Then you should again. It's time for you to start enjoying the fine things in life. We were deprived of them for far too long."

Leia seemed to want to say something, but before she could, the staff doors opened, and several of Amidala's advisors came in from their offices for the performance. Each needed to be greeted, and by the time everyone had taken a place, the Gungan guard - Lieutenant Der-Ban Sahl - opened the public doors and sounded the festival trumpet. Beyond him, Amidala could see a group of children and teenagers shifting their feet nervously. She wished that she had thought to have the large window repaired, so they could see Naboo in all its glory, but it seemed to keep slipping her mind.

"Yousa Majesty," Sahl intoned, "the students of the Ostunu Arts School beg permission to enter, and to present you with the gift of dance."

Amidala stood and opened her arms to them. "Please come in, children. I've so looked forward to meeting you all."

They came in as a single entity - small, lithe dancers of several species, more heavily built musicians, three adult teachers. All of them curtsied. A teenage girl with dark hair and brown eyes stepped forward with a blond boy, strong of build and lovely to see. She extended her hands to them, and each kissed one, then backed away.

"Your Majesty," the girl said, "the dance we wish to present to honor you tells the story of your glorious rise, and of the tragedies which befell you. My companion Phenin Ometak will portray your brave husband, and I hope you will not be offended to see a lowly creature such as myself portray you."

"I am honored to be portrayed by such a beautiful child," Amidala said. "What is your name?"

"If it pleases you, Your Majesty, I am called Temodi Meiem."

"It pleases me greatly, Temodi. May I present my daughter, Leia Skywalker."

"Organa," Leia muttered.

"Organa-Skywalker," Amidala agreed. "It would be improper of us to forget the kindness of Bail Organa."

Temodi signaled quickly to the group of children, and a younger girl in white came forward. "Your Highness," she said to Leia, "with your permission, my sister Chella will dance your part, when the time comes."

"Sure," Leia said. "I'd like to see that."

Chella smiled so brightly that Leia had to respond to it.

The three children backed away, and an adult stood forward. The musicians had been arranging themselves while the dancers were speaking. The teacher curtsied deeply, as children in costume, bearing long bolts of silk, took their places in the clear area at the center of the room. "Your Majesty and Your Highness," she said, "the tale which we tell this morning through dance is a love story, and it begins here on Naboo, just before the Clone Wars... "

The younger children with the bolts of green silk spread them out in lovely waves to simulate the plains, then Temodi and Phenin began their tender dance to sweet and gentle music, smiling and happy.

A knife twisted somewhere in Amidala's throat, remembering those days, and she suddenly wanted to go someplace quiet and weep. How innocent they had been! How beautiful! But she couldn't insult these children by leaving, and she wanted to see it come to life again, wanted to believe in those young and sweet days for a time.

The scene played for many minutes, showing them both free and unmasked. Phenin lifted Temodi high in the air, swinging her around so that her gauzy skirt swirled in the wind. She leapt away from him, teasing him, and then they embraced.

Amidala wondered if they were really in love. She hoped so. They were so lovely together.

The music changed and became violent and passionate. A stylized battle was fought. A dancer who seemed to represent Obi-Wan Kenobi came between them. Then the most horrible moment - "Obi-Wan" came after Phenin, and the children carrying bolts of red silk tossed it upwards, fanning it into make-believe flames with small hand held devices. The fire took Phenin, leaving Temodi alone on stage, dancing with two dolls in her arms to represent the twins. It was a beautiful dance, but Amidala found herself looking away from it over and over. She glanced at Leia, who was watching with rapt attention, though she had heard the story many times by now.

A low theme that Amidala was beginning to recognize as Obi-Wan's appeared, and that dancer stole one of the dolls away from Temodi, who whirled away into a series of stylized adventures. Finally, a dancer in white appeared, and, with regret, Temodi gave him the other doll. A moment later, several dancers with facemasks "captured" her, and flowing blue silk - the ocean - closed over her.

"They're good," Leia whispered. "Are you all right, Mother? You look pale."

Amidala nodded. This was the hardest part. The rest of the story moved upward. She could handle it.

The stage darkened and was cleared, and little Chella entered on one side. A boy her age - Luke, presumably - entered from the other. They danced separately for some time, as various dancers represented time passing in the space between them. Then Phenin entered in black. The three of them danced a strange and violent dance together, then froze in place. The blue silks rose up again from the floor, and from their midst, a red-veiled Temodi arose to dance with Phenin again. Each of them reached out to a twin, and the "family" came together to defeat a dancer who presumably represented Palpatine. When it was over, Phenin and the "twins" each took hold of part of the veil covering Temodi's face, and pushed it back, revealing her face. She looked to the ceiling with an expression of hope, as the rest of the class gathered around her and bowed.

The music ended, and all of them turned together to Amidala, and knelt with their heads bowed, waiting for her blessing.

She stood again. She wouldn't need to feign emotion in her voice. "My children," she said, "you have truly honored me this morning, and turned the humble life of my family into something of great beauty. You have my blessing to perform this piece in whatever venue you so choose."

The children smiled at one another, more comfortable here after their hard exertions.

"Come forward, and I will bless each of you," she said. "Temodi and Phenin, I would bless you first."

She caught the motion to one side as Leia straightened in her chair. She could feel her daughter's eyes on her, wide and surprised.

Surely, Leia had given royal blessings before? Surely, this wasn't strange to her?

Well, the court on Alderaan had been somewhat less formal than the court of Naboo; perhaps she hadn't had this experience yet.

Temodi and Phenin came forward, and Amidala was about to bless them when the staff door opened unceremoniously. A human guard burst through it, saw the crowd, and bowed stiffly. He was breathing hard. "Your Majesty," he said, "we have a situation which requires your attention."

"These children require my attention as well."

"Permission to approach your Majesty?"


He came forward and leaned in. "Your Majesty, we have captured a Wookieee spy. He claims to be called Chewbacca, though our records indicate... "

"Chewie?" Leia asked.

The guard looked at her, unsure how to proceed.

"You may speak directly to my daughter," Amidala told him.

"Very well. Yes, Your Highness. Chewbacca. He was operating surveillance equipment near line of the old forest. He claims to be here alone."

"An advance scout," Amidala guessed. "I suppose we'd best see him, then. Bring him before me." She raised her voice. "Children, I am sorry. You have given me a great gift and I bless you all, but urgent business has come up, and I cannot speak to each of you. I hope you will avail yourself of refreshments available for you in the garden, and hopefully, my family and I will join you there."

Disappointed, the class left. She dismissed her advisors as well, and they returned to their offices.

Amidala picked thumbed the comlink in the arm of the throne. "Ani?"

"Yes, my love?"

"You and Luke need to return to the Palace. Chewbacca has been captured."

"Do not approach him."

"The guard is bringing him to me."

Silence. "My lady, you should give more thought to your safety. We will return immediately."

Something tugged on Amidala's sleeve and she turned to find Leia beside her, eyes wide and terrified.

"Hush, little one," she said. "What is it?"

"Mother, please. Don't let him kill Chewbacca. He means us no harm. He's... loyal to me, and he's my friend. Please, Mother, don't -"

Amidala pursed her lips. What a strange reaction. Certainly, there had been a few executions, but not an abnormally large number. Surely, Leia did not believe that she simply killed her subjects out of hand. Leia couldn't believe that. She simply couldn't.

"If he means no harm, he will not be harmed. I'll see to it that he is kept comfortable and safe."

Leia bit her lip, still agitated.

Amidala went to the only window in the throne room that still allowed a view. It looked out onto the gardens. Temodi was laughing and eating a piece of fruit.

Leia just saw the story. How could she think so badly of me?

Ani and Luke arrived through the front door only seconds before the guards brought Chewbacca through the side. The Wookieee growled low in his throat.

Leia ran to him and stood in front of him. "Chewie, Mother has promised that you won't be harmed."

Ani tilted his head in Amidala's direction, and she nodded, realizing suddenly that her attempt to avoid conflict with Leia was going to lead to conflict with Ani. She tried to express with her eyes how her promise had come about and wished for the millionth time that she could project her thoughts more clearly.

The Wookieee looked at her suspiciously.

She had to say something. "I know you came in the belief that Leia was being harmed," she said, "and I appreciate your concern for my daughter."

Another growl. It had been many years since Amidala had needed to converse with a Wookieee, and she wished that Threepio had come in with Luke and Ani. Undoubtedly, the droid was still working his way up the path - new body or no, he was still fastidious about his footing.

She sighed. There was nothing to be done for it. "You need to learn the truth of the New Empire," she said. "So you will remain as our guest. Guards, please take Chewbacca to the empty suite in the family's wing. I will be there presently to speak with him."

They obeyed immediately, of course. Ani said nothing until they had left the room.

"We will regret letting him live," he said. "You have too much compassion."

The twins simply turned away, embarrassed that they now took such pronouncements as a matter of course, but Amidala felt as though he'd struck her. It was precisely what he had said after she had spared Ozzel's life, and Ozzel had nearly gotten both twins killed. She knew perfectly well that he meant her to remember that.

She raised her chin and stared at him defiantly. She wouldn't be scolded like an underling.

He seemed to accept this, and bowed his head. "My apologies, my love. You made the choice you needed to make."

"Thank you, Ani. And you are, of course, correct. I did not take security fully into my consideration. I will see to it that a guard accompanies me when I speak to Chewbacca."

"Luke will accompany you."

"Father, I need to prepare for the mission to Corellia... "

"That mission is indefinitely postponed, and you will not be sent alone."

Amidala touched his arm. "Ani, it was a single mistake... "

"And one that will not be given a chance to repeat itself."

The air seemed suddenly heavy, as though a thunderhead had descended into the throne room. Amidala turned to Luke, hoping that he would understand. "I will be happy to have you with me. It's preferable to having any other guard."

His eyes still burned with humiliation for a moment, then he smiled at her and kissed her cheek. "If it makes you happy, Mother."

"It does."

"Then I will go prepare for the meeting. If I am, in fact, permitted to groom myself without supervision?" He pointed this at Ani.

Ani didn't bother responding to it.

Luke left the room.

"And, now, daughter," Ani said, "we will discuss the presence of your Rebel friends."

Leia blanched white for a moment, then she gathered herself and spat back, "As long as you leave the mind-probe behind this time."

Ani stiffened, but didn't say anything. He took her by the elbow and led her away.

Amidala stood alone by the window, looking out at the children. Phenin and Temodi were practicing again already, dancing freely, laughing at one another in the morning sun.

Her chest tightened. The girl was still there, still laughing, still


carefree. Amidala wanted suddenly to be Temodi, to feel Phenin's strong hands on her waist and know that nothing more complicated than a performance lay ahead.

She didn't like it when Ani was strict with the twins. But surely, all of this unpleasantness would dissipate soon.

The Rebels would finally realize that the time had come for them to lay down their arms and rest.

The Wookieee and the pilot would become part of Leia's life again, and she would become comfortable here.

Luke and Ani would stop posturing at one another.

Ani would be whole and healthy again.

All would come out well.


Vader stalked through the winding hallways of the Palace, mostly unaware that he was still holding Leia's elbow. She had to work to keep up with him - she felt like a toddler, trying to match her short strides with his long, powerful ones. It was awkward and slightly embarrassing, yet she said nothing. She was glad not to be the focus of his attention and didn't want to do anything to change that.

Her comment about the mind probe hadn't been entirely serious. While her anger was certainly real whenever she thought about the Death Star, she knew he wouldn't do anything like that now. She simply didn't want to deal with his questions - his many, many questions - especially when she was nearly bursting with the one answer that mattered.

Han was already here, on Naboo. About to do...whatever it was he thought he had planned.

Assuming that Chewbacca was acting as the advance made sense - if a peson didn't already know that Lando had been in the Palace, presumably for some time. Han surely had the information he needed. More importantly, Leia knew there was no chance that Han and Chewie would be separated for a mission like this.

She had to be ready, as Han's message said. Things were going to start happening soon.

Leia stumbled, nearly tripping, and that finally caught Vader's notice. His hand briefly tightened on her arm to stop her from falling, but he let go once she regained her balance. She rubbed the spot he had held, mostly for effect.

"Are you injured?" he asked.

"I'm fine," she muttered. She allowed a calculated pause and added, "Will I stay that way? Even during our 'discussion' of my 'friends'?"

His head tilted toward her, which she had learned to take as an expression of annoyance. "I am not accustomed to wasting time, Leia. You may mock me, or my actions, as you wish. However, our...experience on the Death Star taught me that attempting to pull information from you against your will is a futile exercise." Leia made a sound of disgust. "Can I assume that you don't wish to volunteer any information...?"

"You assume I have any to give you."

He dismissively waved that off. "We should not squander the rest of this morning. We missed your training yesterday due to several unfortunate distractions. We should make up for that immediately."

"You want to train now?" Aggravation flitted over her face. "It's not as though those 'distractions' have disappeared."

"The impending arrival of the pirate is no excuse for neglecting your lessons," he said flatly. "At least, not more than you regularly appear to." Vader resumed his walk down the hallway. He moved slower this time, allowing her to keep pace.

"I have attended every session you've requested."

"Yes. But your thoughts are rarely on what I teach you. You make a serious mistake allowing your dislike for me to affect your learning."

They entered one of their regular training areas, an old sitting room for Mother's handmaidens. It had not been restored or even cleared out completely. Leia thought it had been a lovely room once: open and spacious with high ceilings and large windows, with the scattered bits of broken furniture and torn window dressings whole and new. Now, though, the overall sense of the room was colorless and empty.

It made a fitting setting as far as Leia was concerned. Training with her father had never been enjoyable. She had avoided regular lessons as long as she dared, trading on her injuries well beyond them being a real excuse. She hated having to listen to him and follow his commands...she couldn't stand him trying to connect his mind to hers, not matter how faintly it was done. He always acted as though her complaints and excuses were irrelevant, but she knew he wasn't being as hard on her as he had originally planned. He certainly was never as tough with her as he regularly was with Luke.

Still, her unease wasn't a distraction, despite what he thought. Leia knew her Force powers could not be ignored. And she knew they were important.

She would never let her problems with her father stand in the way of developing them.

Vader handed her his lightsaber, shaking it insistently when she didn't take it right away. "You will begin light sparring matches with your brother soon. You need to improve you concentration while fighting."

"I'm not sure I'm ready for that," Leia said. "Even without my injuries, we both know I'm not nearly as skilled or as strong as Luke -"

"You are equally strong in the Force, Leia. That is all that matters."

She reluctantly ignited the saber, wincing against its red glare. Leia knew the significance of this color, and despised it. How she preferred to use Luke's saber when practicing.

She looked to her father for instructions. None came.

"What should I do? Practice stances?"

He just stood there, breathing. Leia brought the saber into a ready stance and stared defiantly at him.

The first attack was easily blocked, as she brought her saber down on a table leg coming in low behind her. She spun back to deflect a small piece of rubble, but was slower in reaching a piece of wood streaking toward her head. She managed to block it, barely.

"You're quicker than that, Leia. Focus."

"I'm trying -"

"You are trying to guess what I'll do next. You should be able to sense the change and movement in your environment instead. Rely on the Force."

She felt a light brush against her mind, and immediately pushed him back. It was instinct that made her do that - at least, that was what she had told him, and it wasn't exactly untrue. She had often driven him off without thinking about, especially when she had first joined the family. The reason she resisted his lessons on controlling and lowering her mind shields was discomfort at having him deep enough in her thoughts to guide them. That was what she had said, and that wasn't completely untrue either. He had come to expect - if not fully accept - it. He thought it was yet another manifestation of her stubbornness, and Leia suspected that in his own strange way he almost understood. Something told her he had never liked anyone (Obi-Wan, Palpatine, whoever) running around in his head.

Besides, if he ever had gotten through her defenses, or picked up on anything...

Well, surely he would have confronted her immediately. And it wouldn't have been pleasant.

Pieces of wood and rubble now flew at her from all over the room, and she struggled to keep up. She ducked and dodged items as often as she blocked and deflected them with the saber - a technique that Vader never appreciated. She reached out with her right hand to Force-push several items away, which worked, but left her with only one hand on her saber. She wasn't able to bring it around quickly enough, and she cringed, waiting for the blow from a chunk of rock.

Instead, it bounced off her softly and fell harmlessly at her feet. The rest of the objects also dropped to the ground.

Vader's arms went behind him, hands clasping at the small of his back as he walked toward her. "I can control the speed, height, and direction of every object in this room, and you still have not mastered simply observing them so you can defend yourself properly.

"You cannot continue to fight the Force...You cannot fight your destiny, Leia."

She let her head fall back dejectedly. "You and Luke may have to accept that I'm not as talented at this as you two are."

"I will not accept that," he said sharply. "You don't know the power you possess, Leia. You don't realize the strength that flows from the Force. Release it."

"I...I..." She brought her head back up slowly. "I can't. All right? Whether you think I'm blocking it or refusing it or...whatever..." She turned the saber off and tossed it to the ground. "Maybe - I should try it again tomorrow?"


Leia gave him the most exhausted look she could muster. "I can't -"

Vader's comlink beeped softly. It beeped two more times before he looked away from Leia and answered it by pushing a button on his wrist. "Vader here."

"My Lord, we finished examining the Wookieee Rebel's surveillance equipment," an officer said. "There's little of use, but I thought you should be informed as to the particulars -"

"One moment, Lieutenant." Vader gave Leia a suspicious look (or whatever it could be called with the mask) and left the room, shutting the door behind him. He stood in the hallway and listened to the report. He wouldn't leave her behind, but he wouldn't let her overhear either.

Leia sighed and turned an appraising eye on the room, on the bits and pieces scattered all over the floor. She raised her eyebrow at the rock that had hit her. It floated swiftly from the ground, coming to a rest in the air at her eye level. She spared a glance at the table leg, and it sprung up as well, joining the rock in front of her.

She closed her eyes, trying to recall Vader's previous instructions and lessons. Seconds later, when she opened them, nearly every piece in the room was flying around her, weaving carefully over and around one another in a pattern that almost left her impressed with herself.

...You make a serious mistake allowing your dislike for me to affect your learning...

Leia calmly settled the pieces back on the ground, in the same spots where Vader had dropped them.

She would never let her dislike for Vader cloud her judgment. Especially since this seemed to be such a useful skill.

Leia wiped the small smile from her face, and went to the door to rejoin her father.

Threepio had just finished picking his way up the stairs on the unfinished side of the Palace.

Luke felt a moment's irritation with the droid - the new body could easily have matched his own pace and father's when they came in, but Threepio's programming seemed to cling stubbornly to his old cautions - but it seemed less likely to waste time if he let it go and just brought Threepio along to Chewie's new quarters, stopping only to straighten his uniform and calm himself mentally to face his old friend. Mother, who was always glad of Threepio's company, hooked her arm through his for the walk when she joined them in the hall.

Four Gungan guards stood outside the door. They parted without asking when Luke led Mother and Threepio through. Mother tried to go past him, but he held her back with one arm. He didn't know what Chewie's mission was, or what his mood would be.

The Wookieee was sitting quietly in the shadows at the back of the room, but he let out a low and threatening rumble when they came in. It needed no translation, and Threepio didn't offer one.

Luke smiled, and spread his arms in Mother's welcoming gesture (though Mother did not, generally speaking, have a weapon in one hand when she did it). "Chewie. I'm glad to see you're all right. I hoped the Alliance would send someone with medical help when I found you on Bespin. You didn't seem to want Imperial help."

Chewie barked at length, then howled.

"Oh, dear," Threepio said, then translated. "Chewbacca says - and please recall that I am merely interpreting -"

"It's all right, Threepio," Mother said, patting his arm. "We know. And we understand Chewbacca's reticence as well. What did he say? I'm afraid my Wookieee is a bit rusty, and I only caught a few words." She smiled mischievously, and waved a pointed finger at Chewie. "It's always so much easier to remember the nasty ones." She winked.

Chewbacca looked at her with narrowed eyes, but Luke felt surprise coming from him. She wasn't what he expected. She was never what Rebels expected. He prodded the Wookieee's feelings deeper - he was uncomfortable, angry at both of them, and...

Angry at himself?

For what?

Just being captured? Surely, they would have recognized the possibility of an advance being...

Han's face came into his mind, across the bond he was trying to establish with Chewie. The self-directed anger wasn't merely for failing an advance mission. Chewie felt that he had directly increased the danger for Han.

"Ah, yes," Threepio was saying. "Well, Chewbacca expressed his belief that the risk of dying on Bespin was preferable to being returned to Coruscant with Her Majesty - I'm dreadfully sorry, Your Majesty, Master Luke, but -"

Luke waved it off.

"Yes, of course. He says you are not to expect thanks, though he is grateful that you recognized his preferences in the matter." Threepio cringed. "But he wonders if Mistress Leia feels the same."

Mother stiffened, then caught herself and nodded in an understanding way. "Yes, I'm sure it must have looked awful to you," she said. "You didn't see the way things were happening within the Empire; surely, you imagined that things would be as they would have under Palpatine. But by now, you must have seen that Wookieees and other non-humans have been re-integrated into the Empire, and that even among war prisoners, no preference was given based upon species."

Chewie said something brief.

Mother looked to Threepio, who shook his head fretfully, then said, "Chewbacca says they knew exactly what was going on. They heard your speech from the Star Destroyer. That is, apparently, why they were attempting to flee the sector when they were shot down."

Mother's eyes dropped to the floor, looking as though Chewie had taken something from her and smashed it there. "You couldn't have really known," she said. "It was new. You hadn't had a chance to see -"

Chewie interrupted her.

For a lesser prisoner, doing so might have warranted punishment. Luke had seared the lips of a Deridian man who had committed the same offense once. But Mother signaled him to keep his lightsaber unignited. Her mild eyes went back to Threepio, who looked like he was in agony. His new limbs allowed more range of motion, and he was actively backing away, crossing his arms over his chest. "Oh, Your Majesty... Chewbacca says... I can't."

"Yes, you can, Threepio," Luke said. "You won't be punished for what Chewie says."

"I... oh, but it's awful."


"Very well. He says that he's seen everything he needs to see, and there's nothing new in the galaxy. He says it was merely a costume change."

Mother's face hardened, and her eyes became fully alien to Luke - fiery rather than warm, intense rather than merely deep, cruel rather than gentle. He could see her jaw working even from here, and feel the sick-hot energy in the air around her.

He had seen Mother lose her temper in the final battle over Bespin. He didn't want to see it again.

He put his hands on her shoulders. "He doesn't know, Mother. He hasn't been here long."

She clicked her tongue against her teeth, making a muffled t sound inside her mouth, then planted her fists on her hips. "He will know," she said. "He'll stay here until he does."

She turned on her heels and left the room. Luke and Threepio trailed in her wake.

They had nearly reached the great entrance hall when she stopped and put her fingers to her temples. She rubbed in small circles, and waited for Luke to come to her side.

"What is it, Mother?" he asked. "Are you ill?"

"I'm upset," she said. "Why does your sister have friends like that?"

"Chewie helped get us through a lot together," he told her. "Han, too. You'll like them, when they come around. I really think you will."

"Perhaps." She took his hands. "Oh, Luke. I wish people weren't so difficult."

He sighed. She was looking up at him with wide, sad eyes, very different from the mask she'd worn just before leaving Chewie's room. These eyes were the eyes he remembered, the only memory he had ever had of her before she had been returned to him. They were lost, but they spoke to him of comfort and kindness. He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "I do, too."

"You shouldn't have continued lying to your father. It shows a lack of trust."

From Father, the accusation would have caused anger and a desire for retribution. From Mother, it made Luke feel deeply ashamed. She seemed disappointed in him, and that was infinitely worse than Father's blustery anger. "It never seemed to be the right time."

"I know." She let go of one of his hands, and drew her fingers down his cheek. "I really do know, Luke. I was terrified to tell him about you and your sister, after lying to him for so long. And that hurt him very deeply. I think he heard your lie, and was reminded of being tricked by someone else he loved, and that made it hurt more than a simple mistake should have."

One of the only things about Mother that always had the power to discomfit Luke greatly was the way she was able to see through Father, and to tell him things that some part of him knew he should have seen for himself. "So what do I do about it?"

"The same thing I did. Put all your energy into fixing it. Show him that you regret it. Earn his trust again."

A petulant part of Luke's mind said, Maybe he should work on earning mine, but he couldn't bear the thought of Mother's eyes if he ever said such a thing. To Father himself, he would have said it. But never to Mother. "All right," he said. "I sensed something from Chewie. I think we may be... misinterpreting something. I'm going to start searching the Palace for security breeches. Something is going on. I'll fix it."

"Thank you, Luke. It means a lot to me, and it will to Ani as well."

He squeezed her hand, and she started to leave, but he called to her. "Mother?"

She turned, a vague smile back on her face. "Yes?"

"He confuses me. I've seen him be so gentle with Leia, and with you. And I've seen him be... not gentle. He always feels so angry now. What's real?"

She blinked slowly, as if confused by the question, then spoke softly. "He's your father and he loves you," she said. "What else needs to be real?"

She disappeared down the hall, and Luke waited for the warmth of her hands to fade from his own. In the end, that much was true. He rarely thought of leaving anymore, but at the beginning, the thoughts had been nearly constant. But they had always crashed and shattered against the simple truth of Mother's words, the truth he sensed in the increasingly rare quiet moments: Father loved him, loved all of them, and everything in their lives was somehow illuminated by that same source. It may not have been the only thing that mattered, but it mattered a great deal, and the thought of living without that simple illumination again hurt badly.

He wasn't just playing for his parents' affections, though he wasn't foolish enough to think that didn't matter to him. Mother's love had drawn him in and Father's had compelled him to stay, but it was the chance to help shape the galaxy that drove him to participate in the New Empire instead of grousing at the sidelines as Leia did. Still, he did love them. And he understood the source of Father's pain now, and the source of his distrust.

Mother had walked away without even suggesting that someone stay and guard him, despite Father's order to the contrary. So she trusted him.

Not that he'd ever given Father any real reason not to.

It didn't matter. If Father needed proof, he'd have it. Chewie had been hiding something, and Luke was sure it meant that Han had already found a way to get past security. If Han could find it, Luke could close it.

It was easier to sense things through the Force while meditating, but he'd found meditation somewhat uncomfortable here. Strange visions intruded on his mind, and the ghostly voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi tried to whisper lies to him. Since Han was what Father called a "blind spot" in the Force anyway, the irritation and waste of time would probably not yield an equal return. So he simply reached aimlessly into the Force as he paced the halls of the Palace, not certain what he was looking for... just some kind of agitation, something off.

A guard he passed who hadn't slept properly was terrified of falling asleep at his post.

Two of Mother's secretaries disappeared furtively into a side room, with the intention of betraying their respective bondmates. Luke opened the door on them and propped it. They looked both disappointed and relieved.

He stopped at a window that looked onto the garden. Mother had joined the dancers, and was speaking quietly with a handsome teenage boy who was fully beguiled by her. His pretty girlfriend, sitting at his side, felt jealous and sullen, but it was underpinned by her own fascination with Mother, which kept trying to resurface.

He reached further out, letting his mind spread throughout the Palace. Small backstabbings, nervousness, the awe and love of Mother. Leia's recalcitrance and Father's frustration with her. People were holding back many things in many ways, and nothing seemed to rise above anything else. The only real spike of agitation seemed to be coming from the respiratory lab; it felt like Tinera Kei. Since no one entered there without being seriously injured, it seemed an unlikely place to look, but it was the only anomaly he could sense, so he turned and headed for the stairs.

A dark-skinned guard stepped out in front of him. "Lord Skywalker," he said. "Is there some way I can help you?"

"I need to visit the Resp Lab," Luke said.

The guard didn't move.

"I'll need to get past you to do it."

Luke caught a sense of something... resignation? ... coming from the man, but he stepped aside, and let Luke descend into the darkness of the laboratory.

There were perhaps forty patients here now, their experimental lungs growing well. A work-board near the door said that two surgeries were scheduled today. One of them was supposed to be going on right now, but he could see Dr. Kei scanning monitors at her desk, looking frantic. He went to her.

She looked up, her startling light eyes panicked, like an eopie trapped in the shadow of a krayt dragon. "Lord Skywalker," she stammered. "I was going to... that is to say, I've only just realized that I can't solve this alone... I... "

He put his hand over hers to calm her. She took a few deep breaths, but her face flushed deeply. Her hand became quite warm. Luke smiled at her and squeezed her hand lightly, hoping to convince her to stop hesitating. He was aware that she found him attractive, and that could be used. He had used it with other subjects. "What is it, Dr. Kei?"

"A patient is missing," she said, looking down at the desk. "He was brought in last night by a droid, with authorization from his brother. He claimed to have been injured in a construction accident, and his records showed that he was too weak to... " She raised her hand quite suddenly and slapped herself across the cheek, a motion that might have been humorous if she hadn't been deadly serious about it. As it was, it was vaguely disturbing. "I should have known. He refused to be examined. His droid caused a distraction. But I was running late and... "

"Dr. Kei?"

"He was missing this morning when I came to check on him."

Luke let go of her hand and stood up. "Why wasn't this reported immediately?"

"I... " She bit her lip. "Lord Skywalker, I'm sorry. I realized my miscalculation, and I'd hoped to find him myself. I planned to turn him in."

"He is here to abduct my sister."

Tinera's eyes grew wide. "Oh, no. I never meant for this to happen."

The anger started to spiral up, and with it the sense of invincible power that seemed to flow through every fiber of Luke's body. "It seems to have happened anyway. You are housed in the Imperial Palace, personal residence of Her Majesty. A lapse in security puts both the Empress and the New Empire in jeopardy."

"I know, I'm sorry, please, I wasn't thinking, it's my fault... " She stopped, her face suddenly rigid, her hands at her throat. "Please... Lord Skywalker... " she stammered through clenched airways. "Please... "

Her face was darkening alarmingly, her breath coming in strangled gasps that matched the tone of the patients she was caring for.

The patients. They need her. She's the only one who really understands what she's doing, and they will die without her.

Luke blinked.

What in the Maker's name are you doing, Luke?

That wasn't Obi-Wan's voice. It was Aunt Beru's. It wasn't a ghost, but a memory. She'd once found him pulling the legs off an insect that had bitten him, and he'd never forgotten the tone of abject horror in her voice. Horror at him.

There was a huge gasp of air as Tinera Kei's breathing passages opened up again. She leaned forward, weeping with relief. "Thank you, my Lord, you are merciful... "

Luke shook his head, not certain what to say. Father was adamant that he not apologize for any "overflows" - Father's word - of his power. Apologies, he said, were a door to demands, and demands could not be tolerated if order were to be maintained in the New Empire.

"I haven't found anything," she said when she recovered, though she didn't look at him, and felt like she was ready to jump away at the first sign of anger. "The guards say he definitely didn't leave the Palace last night. He stole clothes. I'm looking for the devices he used to falsify his medical condition."

Luke nodded. "You go on looking for those. They can serve as evidence later. I'm going to find our uninvited guest."

Han kept his eyes low. Not completely on his feet, which he thought would be a sure sign he was trying to hide. Just on a nondescript point on the floor in front of him. Enough not to make face-to-face contact. There was no reason for anyone to be suspicious of him. He'd get his clearance, and be out of here in a few minutes.

Just a few more minutes.

A few more minutes and he'd see Leia again. And a few minutes after that, they'd be the hell out of this place.

A weary Gungan cleared his throat to address the group. He was pretty much what Lando had described - too old and indifferent to pay much attention to anything but the final results of his men's work. He wouldn't question the orders he was supposed to pass along, or follow any of the workers around. Which made for the lowest security way to have access throughout the Palace.

"Yousa have your training," he was saying to six or seven people in front of him. "Wesa don't put up with bombad work here. Her Majesty expectin' things to look beautiful when done. Otherwise, don't 'spect to be comin' back."

Han was in the group of recently hired construction workers who helped with the smaller aspects of the restoration of Theed Palace. Mostly locals looking for some short-term work and a little money, they helped clear out rooms, restore furniture, and other easy tasks. They filled in the cracks of Lady Vader's whims - there were the big, ambitious project, like building the Command Center months ago, but there were just as often times when she'd suddenly remember a room she used to sit in, or a piece of furniture that had been a cherished gift, or an area that brought back the destruction of her former home too painfully. This Gungan handled those projects. Han was sure that any worker caught acting inappropriately - not working, stealing, whatever - was punished severely and swiftly enough to act as a deterrent. The supervisor checked the work at the end of the day, and that was it.

So, as long as Artoo hadmanaged to input the right instructions a few hours ago, Han would be fine.

"Once yousa assignments are finished, report here." The Gungan began handing out datapads to the workers, who quickly left to start their work. He frowned when he got to Han. "What yousa needin' this droid for?"

Han glanced at R2-D2, who was carrying Han's toolbox on a small tray on top of his dome. He also had several of his little accessories extended. "He's here to help me out," Han said innocently. Artoo gave a cheerful whistle.

"Yousa can't do the work?" the Gungan asked, confused.

"Of course I can. He carries my tools, tosses out the trash, and has some arm...things that come in handy." Han shrugged. "He's just a big tool box, really." Artoo beeped angrily at that. Han ignored him.

The Gungan's eyestalks moved back and forth between the two of them curiously, but eventually he pulled out Han's data pad. "Yousa to clean out the arboretum in the south wing. Your droid best not gettin' into trouble."

"He won't," Han said, hastily reaching out to take the pad. "The place will look good as new, don't worry." The Gungan nodded, and Han and Artoo left.

Artoo began whistling at him once they were in the hall. "Hey, I still don't understand what you're saying," Han told him. Artoo made a snort-like sound. "Give me a break, will you?" Han led them on a route Lando had said would be less busy. "And don't beep again until Lando signals you, all right?" he added quietly. "You're getting me all excited for nothing." The droid beeped an apologetic affirmative and fell silent.

Lando would signal once he had Leia, and was bringing her to Han without any family members coming along uninvited. Then this long, strange day - it hadn't even been a full day yet - in the Palace would be over. He couldn't wait.

Han had met up with Lando as soon as he left the respiratory lab. Lando was waiting for him near some servants' quarters, in another part of the Palace basement. He gave Han a "borrowed" uniform, and led them to the nearest guard station, where Lando was stationed for the evening. The two spent the rest of the night designing the best possible plan, while Artoo worked nonstop on infiltrating the Palace's systems.

The odds weren't good. Artoo needed time for his work, and Lando had received the revised security schedules for the rest of the week...Leia's was very different from what Lando was used to. So much time with her family, having a guard with her when she would be alone in her room...

"It looks like they're on to you, buddy," Lando had said. "I guess they got the message."

The best window of opportunity was two days later. Han didn't want to wait - he wasn't sure he could wait, but it would be worth it. Maybe it wasn't the greatest plan (he could hear her say, This is some rescue! ), but they could get Leia with only the one guard, and the rest of the family otherwise occupied...they'd have an easy route near one of the would give Artoo time to fake on order from Lady Vader that would get Leia to where she needed to be. Han would just have to wait, and hide.

Then Chewie got captured. The very next morning.

Han didn't have time to be angry or upset. He had to get Leia out. That same day. Security was sure to tighten again, and there was no plausible way to get them both out. He was here for Leia, and even though he'd have a Rebel team back for Chewie as fast as he could, his priority hadn't changed.

So, Han found himself headed toward the south wing. This was the sole opening Lando found to get Leia out of her room, and this exit - in a rarely used wing, out of the back of the arboretum, down the stairs, blasting through a long-since sealed off door - was their best bet for exiting unnoticed in the middle of the day. Artoo had done what Lando considered a surprisingly convincing job of faking the necessary orders so quickly.

Han showed his datapad to the few guards in the area, and passed right through. When he finally reached the arboretum, he found it a deserted mess. Plants and flowers were mostly long dead, and scraggly weeds grew unrestrained all over the floor and up the walls. Han turned on the lights, and left the door open so he could hear anyone coming. He was going to check the door to the stairwell when Artoo suddenly let out a string of beeps.

"What? Is that him?" Han whispered harshly. "He's got her? He's coming?" Artoo sounded excited enough for Han to be convinced the answer was yes. He dashed behind a trellis near the backdoor, with Artoo wheeling behind him. He popped open the toolbox and pulled out the two blasters inside. "Guess this is it." Artoo pulled up one of his arms and a small laser beam shot from it. Han couldn't help grinning. "Good to see you're ready." He crouched down low, aiming one of the blasters at the door, and waited. And waited.

Finally, an echo of voice was heard from down the hallway. Then another voice answered. Han couldn't make out the words, but it sounded enough like Lando. He was talking to one of the last guards Han had gotten by...Why was he talking so much? Han tried not to let his nervousness get to him, but they were taking too long. "Come on, come on, come on, Lando," he muttered under his breath.

A few more sentences were exchanged. Then Lando's voice rose as he thanked the guard. Footsteps approached. Han heard Lando say, "Her Majesty will join you in here shortly, Your Highness."

Leia, Lando, and two other guards entered the arboretum.

Han wanted to simply take in the sight of her; she looked so much healthier and more vibrant than in that vid. But there was no time. Lando hit a switch and the door promptly slammed down. He pulled his blaster and opened fire.

Han did the same, hitting the guard closest to him and tossing Leia the other blaster while Lando got the second guard before either fully realized what was happening. Leia snapped into action, training her weapon on the first guard lying on the ground while she disarmed him. She quickly went over to the second one and took his blaster as well. Both men were stunned and would be unconscious for the time being.

Han emerged from his hiding place, and Leia turned to him...tears were starting to shine in her eyes. He closed the few steps between them and swooped her up into his arms - thinking dimly that he should be careful not to hurt her, but unable to keep himself from crushing her to him, reveling the tremendous release that came with holding and touching her again.

He kissed her hair, her neck, her face before hugging her close again. She was crying now. "Leia," he finally said, "If I had known...If I had known you were alive, I would have been here so much sooner. I'm so sorry -"

"No, no," she whispered. "I thought you were dead too. I'm just so glad you're here...Han..."

"Are you okay enough to make a run for it?" he asked, kissing her forehead. "We just need to get to a speeder -"

"I'm fine," she interrupted. "What about Chewie?"

"We're getting you out of here. We'll take care of Chewie later," Han asserted. He stared at her again, and leaned against her, placing soft kisses along her face, tasting her tears as he did so.

"Han, I've missed you so much..."

Lando, who had discreetly watched them up to this point, coughed pointedly. Han pulled away. "He's right, we've got to get you out of here. Come on." He took Leia's hand tightly and led her to the arboretum stairwell. But as they reached the doorway, Han heard a sudden sound at the bottom of the stairs.

He shoved Leia back and waved Artoo and Lando away from the door. His back went flat against the wall, and he drew up his blaster. He wasn't sure if he could hear anything else in the stairwell. He glanced at Leia, who was staring at him with frightened eyes. "What was that?" Han mouthed to her.

"I know that sound," she whispered. Her hand squeezed Han's arm. "We can't get past him."

"Did you really think you could just take her, Han?"


He stepped out of the shadows at the bottom of the stairwell, near the exit. A dark-colored cape flowed behind him, and he looked calm and serious. His saber was ignited - that must have been the sound they heard.

Han, quite without thinking, opened fire, shooting at Luke as many times as he could. Luke blocked every shot with ease as he slowly made his way up the stairs. "Han," he yelled over the blasts, "you're only making this worse for yourself."

"Han! Stop!" Leia cried, trying to pry the blaster from him. "It won't work."

"Even if it did," Luke replied menacingly, "the guards are already on their way."

Han gradually stopped shooting. His mind was racing, trying to think of the next nearest exit, wondering if they could make a break for it before the guards got there.

But Luke waved his hand, and all of their blasters flew threw the air and down the staircase, rendering the question moot. Han's arm dropped in disgust. "This isn't what I had in mind when I let you live on Bespin, Han," Luke said.

"Not all of us turned into sniveling traitors just because you did," Han shot back. "You would have been better off if I had let you freeze to death on Hoth. I know Leia would be."

Luke took a threatening step toward him, and Han matched him for it, staring down his former friend with all the resentment he could marshal. "You don't scare me, Luke. I remember who you are. And na?ve farmboy turncoats don't intimidate me, no matter what kind of regal Imperial they think they've become."

Leia, who was still holding Han's arm, tugged on it, trying to draw Han back. When he wouldn't move, she turned to her brother. "Luke...Luke, just let him leave. I - I'll stay here willingly, I'll stay here forever!" She let go of Han and went to him, but he shrugged her off. "Please," she begged, "I can convince Mother and Father that it was my fault - or that you saved me from him, as he was about to take me! Han can't be stuck here -"

Luke shook his head. "There's no bargain to be made here, Leia. You're staying regardless. And I've already spared him once. He doesn't get another chance."

Han heard footsteps echoing behind him, and knew the guards were approaching. A full unit swarmed into the arboretum, as Luke firmly held Leia beside him. He ordered the guards to take Lando, Han, and Artoo away. Han gave him one last glare as he was roughly led away. "You're gonna regret this, kid," he said.

"Of course," Luke answered, unimpressed.

The long walk back to the main part of the Palace was sullen and silent. Lando was doing a poor job of keeping the despair off his face. Han was sure he wasn't doing a much better job himself. But he had to push past it. Whatever the circumstances, he and Leia were back together again. Which meant this wasn't anything more than a setback. The Vaders couldn't - and wouldn't - break them both.

She was waiting in the throne room, standing before the milky window, a tiny, fragile figure with her back to the door. The white light spilled around her, seeming to pour down the folds of the wide cloak she'd wrapped herself in. It pooled around her hands, which rested lightly at her sides.

When the silence was broken, she only glanced back over her shoulder. Her voice was high and small: "Are they dead yet, Mother? Or are you going to force me to witness it?"

Vader did not pause at Amidala's gasp. Of course, the pilot would be executed - that was no longer even a question - but Leia's accusation that Amidala was doing so for the purpose of causing her pain... that was unconscionable. Amidala had sacrificed her own happiness for twenty years in her effort to keep the twins safe and secure. Vader did not agree with her methods, but he understood her sentiment. To accuse her of deliberately harming her own daughter...

Leia had been testing Vader's limits since she had come out of her coma.

She had reached them.

The guards who had brought her here did not even turn when he strode past them - they had long ago learned not to interfere in the family. Before he knew what he meant to do, he had grabbed her by her upper arms and raised her from the floor, to look her in the face. Her feet were at the level of his knees. "You have betrayed your family for the last time, Leia."

She didn't struggle or show signs of the discomfort she must be feeling. Instead she just raised her head and said, "I have?"

An image pushed its way into Vader's mind - a crude and vicious use of the Force, but a powerful one - of a young woman, free and happy, her belly distended in pregnancy. The man with her was vile and ugly, arrogant. He threw a red veil over her head. She started screaming, and he laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

"Ani! Stop it!"

Vader realized dimly that he was shaking Leia, and Amidala's hands were on his arms, trying to make him stop.

He froze, then set her down carefully, to make sure she didn't stumble from any... disorientation... she might be feeling. If he harmed Leia now, or ever again, it would not be forgiven, not by Amidala and not by himself.

Leia, of course, had not even forgiven its occurrence in the past.

She turned back to the window as soon as he let go of her, and crossed her arms over her chest. Her hands worked at what seemed to be sore spots.

"I did not betray my family," Vader said. "You know your idea is a lie. I searched for you. I sacrificed for you, as did your mother. You answered by plotting your escape, committing treason by firing on your mother's guard -"

"It was set for stun -"

"- in order to leave our care and begin your sedition in earnest. Do you think I don't know you, daughter?"

"I know you don't know me."

The rear door slid up, and Luke came in, flanked by guards. The bright and blinding anger Vader had felt at him yesterday was still there, but he had no time for it, and Luke, to his credit, was at least making an attempt at making amends. "The prisoner has been secured, Father."

Vader nodded an acknowledgment. Luke had opened himself up, and Vader could see that he was telling the truth. There had not been further subterfuge from his son.

He returned his attention to his daughter. With the initial anger defused somewhat, he was unsure what course of action to take with her. Clearly, extreme punishment was required, to show her, and any other would-be traitor, that such behavior would not be tolerated, but she was not simply another traitor. Anyone else who had caused Amidala such pain would have been dead by now. But who else could? And destroying Leia would destroy Amidala as well.

Leia was staring at the broken window, absently rolling her long braid up beside her ear and holding it there, her fingers laced across the back of her neck like a criminal awaiting a shot to the head. Vader glanced to one side and saw her reflected dimly in a column of polished stone - a small, dark-haired woman with her braid twisted into a simple bun. A woman in plain clothing, clean-faced and...

This choice has been placed before you...

Vader pulled her hands away from her neck and the braid tumbled down to her side again. She turned and glared at him in an irritated way. Any inclination to think of her as... as anyone other than Leia... dissipated.

"The pirate and his companions will be executed tomorrow morning," he said. "They have been disturbing any number of worlds in this foolish attempt to infiltrate the Palace, and their deaths should be witnessed by those they have wronged."

Leia drew in a sharp breath. "Mother promised Chewie amnesty, and she told me that Han wouldn't be harmed. And Lando... he shouldn't be harmed either. They were just trying to help me the only way they knew how."

Vader looked to his wife. "My love?"

She was agitated, her shoulders trembling, her eyes closed and clenching. Her long fingers were pressed into her palms, and Vader could see even from here that the nails were breaking the skin. He needed to step in earlier in these matters - she was making promises that would be impossible to keep, but she took her word seriously, and it was disturbing to her when it had to be broken.

"Mother," Leia said, "I told Luke, at the greenhouse. I'll stay willingly. Just let them go."

Amidala's eyes opened. "I will not bribe my daughter with the life of a traitor," she said. "You have chosen to make yourself miserable here, Leia; I can't imagine why. But I will not trade lives, as though you were a hostage in your own home. I made my promises before he attempted to kidnap you. Before he committed high treason. There will be no reprieve."

Leia took a step back, as though Amidala had slapped her.

The child had been coddled far too long, if she believed that such an outlandish wish would be granted simply because she made it.

Vader signaled to the guards. "Take the Princess to her quarters," he said. "I want a full squadron guarding her until tomorrow night. Luke?"

"Yes, Father?"

"Secure your sister's room. She is not to leave it."

Luke bowed. Vader could sense that he had some discomfort with the order - it was fair, Vader had some discomfort giving it - but the overriding feeling was pleasure in having trust restored. Vader did not disabuse him of this notion. He would need Luke's loyalty and willing cooperation. But the boy would be watched, very carefully, for quite a long time.

Luke took a few steps forward, and took Leia's arm to lead her out.

Leia fought against him, and broke away as they passed Amidala. "Mother... please... don't do this. You know you can't do this! Mother, if you ever loved me, I beg you -"

Luke caught her arm again. "You've hurt Mother enough today," he said. "No more. You're coming now, Leia."

He marched her out of the room, and the guards followed.

Vader started to follow, but Amidala put out her hand and rested it on his chest. "Please, Ani," she whispered. "Don't go. I need you here."

He paused. "There is no danger here... "

"Not as my bodyguard. I need you, Ani. Stay with me."

Her voice was soft and her eyes faraway. She leaned against him and wrapped her arms around his chest, resting her cheek against the indicator lights on the respirator. He held her, wishing that he could feel her in his arms as a man would feel a woman, rather than simply registering warmth and relative pressure, but she needed comfort, and he remembered how to give it. He stroked her back, and after a moment, a sob escaped her throat.

"Hush, my love," Vader said. "No one and nothing will hurt you again. I will not allow it."

"Leia will hate me."

"Leia has chosen poor companions."

"I want my daughter back, Ani."

"She is here... "

"No. I want her back. I want her with me. I want her childhood back. I want to braid her hair and fuss over her and have her love me again."

"Amidala... "

"Before I left, she was beginning to talk. Just a few words. But she would come to me, and crawl into my lap and babble to me. And she would kiss me and play with my hair. She loved me then. It was in her eyes, and the way she smiled, and the way she always looked for me first. I want my daughter back, Ani."

The helpless anger rose in Vader's soul. Her life had been stolen, and it was beyond his power to restore it to her. No matter how many broken rooms were replaced, no matter how much of Palpatine's rule was swept away, the years she had lost were still gone. Even if he cloned Leia so that Amidala would be able to raise her again, the child would ultimately be different. He had considered the possibility, and rejected it before bringing it to Amidala's attention.

There was nothing he could do.

Nothing at all.

Leia continued struggling against his grip all the way into the residential areas, though it was obviously causing her more pain than it was causing him. The long cloak had slipped from her shoulders at some point, and was dragging along behind them, held only by Luke's hand above her elbow. The skin just above the fabric was red and chafed from rubbing against it.

She gave one more tug when they arrived at her room, but Luke didn't let her go, even when the door was opened. He went inside with her, and used only the Force to ascertain that the four guards were, in fact, taking their posts.

When the door slid shut, he let go of her.

"Now what? Are you going to booby trap my windows? Set up motion sensors?"

"I don't think that's necessary," Luke said. Leia's windows faced on the cliff side of the city. The walls were flat and the stone outcropping at the bottom was actually undercut; there was no place for her to find footing. He sighed. "Leia, I don't want it to be like this. We were always close. Why should it be different now that we know we're related?"

"This has nothing to do with us being related. I would loathe you for joining them even if you were a complete stranger."

"That's not true."

"Oh, really?"

"Really. You never spent this much anger on the Rebel deserters before Palpatine's fall. You accepted that they disagreed with you. I'm different only because you care about me."

She sniffed disdainfully. "The other deserters didn't become the Empire."

Luke sat down on the low bench of her dressing table. She had thrown the cloak across her bed, and the red welt on her arm was clearly visible. When he had seen her message in Ben's cabin, he had never imagined that he would leave a mark quite like that on her pale skin. "Leia... "

"Don't start, Luke. I don't have the patience for whatever lie you were planning to tell me."

"I don't lie."

"I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. The idea that you actually believe what you say is too sick to think about for long."

"I don't lie," Luke said again. He reached out for her hand; she pulled it away. "Leia, it bothered me when I found out. I won't lie to you. But they love us, and they need us. And they aren't bad people."

She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "They meet the minimal requirement for sentience - they devote attention to their offspring - so naturally, they can't possibly be bad."

"Mother wants only good things for the galaxy. Father wants only to protect her so she can make them happen."

"Mother is insane, Luke."

Luke tensed; that was a lie. It had to be a lie.

But Leia continued it. "You know that, or you should. She wants the galaxy to look the way she envisions it, and won't even consider the concept that anyone else might have a different idea. And Father doesn't care who he serves."

"I wish you wouldn't be so difficult."

"I'm sure you do."

"I used to think like you, Leia. That there was some absolute good and absolute evil. But the people I thought were good... they're the ones who were telling lies. Hiding things. Tearing our family apart. If we'd all been together, things wouldn't be like this."

"Let me see if I've got this straight: you're angry at Obi-Wan Kenobi, so you've decided that there's no such thing as evil."

"It's not that simple."

"Isn't it?"

"I am angry with him, Leia. And with -" He stopped himself. He hadn't told Leia about Yoda any more than he'd told Father (and, given Father's reaction to his last lie, he didn't want to experience the explosion that would come with this one being blown open). "Well, with the whole situation. Obi-Wan told me not to feel it, but what Father has taught me is that I have the right to be angry. Ben had no right to try and take my anger away from me. It makes me stronger. I know you understand that. You spend most of your life trying to find new things to be angry about."

"It hardly takes that much time, Luke."

Luke watched her for a moment, waiting for the welt on her arm to start fading. She looked small and fragile. He didn't want to fight with her - he wanted her fully with the family. He wanted her to believe. But he could think of no new approach, no door into her mind and heart that he hadn't already tried. So instead, he just went to her and kissed her cheek - she permitted this, but did not offer any reaction - and left the room.

He could try again in the morning.

Leia had not expected to sleep at all that night. She never did before something big happened. She had blinked at her ceiling the entire night before her election as Senator, had sat up in bed thinking before her first assignment with the Rebellion. It was an old habit - not one necessarily borne out of nervousness, but more out of the sense of responsibility she felt to be fully prepared. She would plot out every single detail and scenario she could think of, no matter how insignificant they may have seemed. When morning finally came, she would be too ready to feel tired, and simply set off t o carry out the actions she had planned in her head.

Surely, this would be no different. Leia couldn't think of anything she had done that compared in meaning or difficulty to what awaited her. There were countless elements to consider, and any single one of them could mean disaster for her and Han. Questions about the Palace, about the guards, about Luke, about herself had whirled through her mind as she prepared for bed.

But a strange thing had happened. Almost as soon as she had lain down, Leia fell into a heavy sleep that lasted throughout the night. Dreams rose up and fell away in fleeting patterns - some pleasant (with her and Han together and happy and far from her family) and others were disturbing and confusing (featuring her and her mother and too much pain for her to sort through). Images and feelings from those dreams were with her now, as she awoke with a start, blinking into the pre-dawn darkness of her room.

Leia sat up slowly and tried to clear her mind. There was only one dream she needed to think about from last night. The one where she had somehow managed to leave this room. Leia had never been big on Force visions, but she could only hope that she'd had one last night. Without any of her usual overly thought-out plans, she was left only with the hope that it had been more foresight than fantasy.

She threw the covers back, and raced quietly over to her closet. She needed something that would help her hide in the shadows inside and outside the Palace. She rifled through her many ceremonial outfits, finally coming to the more simple clothes. She chose the darkest tunic, shirt, and pants she had, and hurriedly changed into them. None of them were exactly black, but they would do.

Leia tentatively reached out just beyond the walls of her room to the guards Luke had stationed outside. They were all awake and alert, much to her chagrin. Still, they had not noticed that she was up, and likely wouldn't bother to check on her for another hour at least.

Luke, thankfully, was not out there with them. While he was most likely in his quarters, Leia didn't search for him too closely. Her Force skills had improved, but she wasn't completely convinced she could read him without him noticing. Besides, her priority was on shielding her thoughts from Luke and Vader as much as she could.

Leia pulled her boots on with two short tugs. Done dressing, she moved into her closet again. She walked deep into it, pushing clothes aside as she headed toward the small storage bins that were kept in the back near the wall. The top container held the only tool she had available to help her escape - an ascension gun. It was back here with many of Mother's old things, and Leia was certain than no one knew it had been left in the closet. Leia wouldn't have known herself, except for the fact that she had wandered around this closet in her dream last night. She grabbed the gun and stepped back into her room.

She thought briefly about using the Force to knock out the guards outside her room, but decided against it. She would have to use the Force plenty of times between here and Han's room, and starting early would only give her father and brother greater opportunity to catch her. She'd just have to keep quiet.

Leia strode to the room's large window and placed the gun on its sill. She slowly pushed the window upward, careful not to let it squeak or groan. Soft wind gently pushed passed her and filled the room. Leia took several deep breaths.

There was a thin ledge outside the window, and beyond that was a long, straight drop. Above her, as far up as she could see, was flat wall. Nothing for her ascension gun to hit and stick to. There was a window without a ledge up there - far, far up there - that led into the library, which would be a good place to sneak into. If she could get there.

Doubts began gnawing at her. She had never truly tested her Force skills in any real situation. And though she knew she was virtually fully recovered, she still worried about her injuries slowing her down. Her mouth suddenly went dry, and Leia looked above her and below her, above and below. This was her only possible chance.

Leia's eyes shut, and she drew on the Force, trying to recall the details of her dream, and waited to be shown how to proceed. After a long moment, her eyes snapped open.

She leapt from the floor directly out onto the ledge, perfectly keeping her balance. She turned around and faced the window, and with a wave of her hand, it softly slid shut.

Leia pulled the ascension gun up and over her head, aiming it skyward as she visualized the wall in her mind's eye. She almost smiled as the answer came to her. There was a small part of the wall that jutted out, right near the window. It was very small - barely enough for her use for her climb - but it was there. Leia pulled the trigger, and listened as the cord snapped free, extending the distance up the wall before squarely hitting its target. The rope pulled taut, and Leia felt her feet leave the ledge as she raced up the Palace.

As she flew through the air, Leia stretched out to the window above her, undoing its lock and shoving it wide open. She waited until right before she reached the end of the cord, and then swung herself to the left, feeling the gun pop away from the wall as she glided into lightly into the library. She closed the window behind her.

Leia crept stealthily between the rows of books and made her way to the exit. She was now several floors above the family quarters and well above the floor where Han, Chewie, and Lando were being held. She could sense guards spread out throughout the hallways and on each of the floors. She couldn't mind trick them all, at least not without being noticed.

Leia peered out into the hallway. A guard stood at the far end of it. She concentrated on him, hoping that she could create an illusion that would make the hallway continue to appear empty to him. She stepped out, right in front of him. Nothing. Leia put her hand out, and his blaster flew out of its holster and smacked her palm. He still didn't react.

Leia exhaled in relief as she ran passed him. She couldn't exactly go around stunning every guard she ran into either, as that was likely to cause a commotion, but at least now she could mix her approach. Then maybe she could get to Han's quarters unnoticed.

She was on her way.

Han was finding it difficult to stop his thoughts from turning morbid.

He supposed that an impending execution could do that to you.

He, Chewie, and Lando had been up most of the night. They had started off defiant and raucous, cursing Lady Vader and her husband, saving most of their best comments for Luke, sharing their ideas on what would finally bring their Empire crumbling down around them. They had been loud enough to agitate their guards and raise their own spirits, at least temporarily.

Once that had passed, the conversation turned to how they would escape death in the morning. Each of them shouted out plans that became increasingly far-fetched and hysterical as they went along. The guards wouldn't be able to hold on to them, Luke wouldn't be able to catch them, Darth Vader himself would be helpless as they took Leia and ran off, triumphant. Han's useless ship would suddenly be able to maneuver better than the Falcon ever had, and they'd be off this planet so fast...Well, that had lasted for a while.

Then, they were reminiscing. Talking about old times, and old scrapes that they had somehow managed to sneak or fight their way out of. There were plenty of those to remember between the three of them - Artoo kept trying to jump in, to little avail - and they were laughing and sharing for what felt like hours.

After that, things had gotten quiet.

Han couldn't stand that for long. The lapses made him start thinking about things. Like how he had failed Leia. Or what would happen to her after he was gone. She would have to stay here, in this insane Palace, with her insane family, with no chance of escape -

That was when he started talking again.

They were no longer as boisterous and the mood of the room now was thick and heavy. The sun was just barely beginning to peek over the horizon, and it bathed the room in an eerie orange glow. It was their death warrant; there were only a few short hours to go.

But rather than acknowledge that out loud to one another, the conversation turned mundane. Han and Chewie argued about the exact details of the instructions they had given the Rebels before they left for Naboo. Lando told them about labor negotiations he had once conducted on Bespin. They all talked about the quirks and features of the Falcon, chuckling to themselves and shaking their heads. Artoo punctuated the conversation with soft beeping.

Finally, Han looked at them and said dully, "I'm not even worried about me. I just wish we had managed to get her out of here." Sighing, he added, "She deserves better than this. I should have been able to give it to her."

Lando gave him a sad shrug. "I don't know what to say except that I'm sorry it turned out this way, Han." Chewie mewled in agreement. "Leia's strong. She'll hang in there."

"Yeah...she is. I know. I know." Han felt a touch of pride mix in with his sadness and regret. "If anyone can get through this -"

"Hey!" Lando suddenly said. Then he stopped.

Chewie and Han both turned to him and waited. "What? Lando?"

"Didn't you hear that?" he replied.

Chewie growled no and Han frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"I thought I heard something in the hallway...forget it, nevermind."

"Look, Lando, don't go making us all jumpy," Han said irritably. "We'll be able to hear Vader's breathing from floors away. When they're coming for us, we'll know. I don't intend on showing them we're scared when they get here."

Lando put up his hands in apology.

There was a thud against the door to the room.

All three jumped out of the chairs and braced themselves. Whatever hit the door slid slowly against it, down to the ground.

Han glanced at Chewie. "What the hell?"

Blaster shots rang out, at least four or five in rapid succession. More thuds were heard out in the hallway. The blasts stopped, but someone was still moving around on the other side of the door.

One last blast sounded - this one was right at the door, probably on its access panel. The door flew open.

Leia stood in the doorframe, blaster at her side.

Han thought he might explode with the thrill that surged through him. A huge smile spread across his face.

She returned it, radiantly. "We don't have much time, guys," she said. Behind her were several unconscious guards. Their blasters pulled out of their holsters and floated over to Han, Lando and Chewie. "We've got to get outside to the speeders."

Han reached out to grab the blaster closest to him, and looked at it and then at Leia, mystified. "You can do...that? I didn't know -"

"One of the very, very few benefits of being a member of this family," she answered dryly. "But I'm not all that great at it, so we really ought to get moving."

Han nodded, his eyebrows still raised with surprise. He wondered briefly why it had never occurred to him that Leia would have the same powers as Luke, but he shook it off. In the end, it was an advantage. Leia was even stronger than he thought.

She was speeding toward one of the exits, glancing over her shoulder occasionally to make sure they were all close behind. They passed a guard, and then another one, a third - none of them tried to stop them, or even reacted at all. Han repeatedly pulled up his blaster to fire at them and found it wasn't necessary.

"What are you doing to them?" he asked Leia as they continued their sprint.

"They can't see or hear us."

"That's handy."

She did the same to two more guards as they made the last turn down the hallway. They weren't quite to the door when a shot rang out and flew over their heads.

"Stop!" yelled a guard behind them as he continued firing. "Stop right there!"

Leia crouched down and turned sharply to face the guard. She waved her hand at him, but he continued shooting and yelling. Lando threw open the door and Chewie followed him out into the courtyard, with Artoo rolling behind in pursuit.

Han fired at the guard, hitting him in the shoulder and knocking him down. "Come on!" he yelled to Leia, grabbing her by the arm and leading them out the door.

Chewie and Lando had already run the short distance to a speeder and were climbing in. Artoo was using some of his contraptions to pull himself into the second speeder.

Han heard the footsteps behind him - there were still only one or two guards chasing them. He was beginning to think they would get a decent head start.

They dodged two more shots before they got to the speeder. R2-D2 had plugged into the controls and had it ready to go. Lando and Chewie started theirs and took off, flying around the corner of the Palace.

Leia slid past him, but turned to give the pursuing guards one last shot. Then she grabbed the controls and gunned it. They sharply rounded the corner, and Han saw more guards coming out of other exits in the blur as they passed. They wouldn't be far behind for long.

Their speeder raced to catch up with Lando and Chewie, and they headed out to the plains.

"Let's go, Sweetheart, they're on our tail."

Leia didn't bother to look over her shoulder. She couldn't feel Luke and Father yet, but she could hear the guards pouring out of the Palace, and her lead wasn't solid enough to hold them off. The shots they aimed at this speeder were meant to disable, and Leia knew she had nothing to fear from them. Any soldier who intentionally hurt her would forfeit his life, and would know it.

Han brushed past her and started firing from the back of the speeder. Artoo's scanner rose, and he whistled as he pulsed radar over the rapidly decaying plains. From the corner of Leia's eye, she could see Lando and Chewie ahead of them, dodging blasts that were actually meant to kill.

She pulled closer to them, trying to block the fire by her presence.

"Are you crazy?" Han called over his shoulder.

"They won't destroy me."

"That's a real comfort, Your Worship!"

"I won't let them hit you."

"And how do you plan to -"

She felt a shot coming and swerved hard to the left, tilting the speeder sharply. The blast cut through the air and kicked up dirt where the back of the vehicle had been. Han waved his arms to keep his footing, then dropped to one knee and steadied his shooting arm.

"Not bad!" he called.

Leia knew it was inappropriate, given the circumstances, but she felt a wild joy, a kind of invincibility and exhilaration that made her both foolish and strong. She knew to beware of it, but it felt good. She laughed at the sense of freedom. "This is payback for that asteroid field!"


Lando had spent quite a long time in Theed, and he understood Leia's strategy immediately.

It was crazy, but so were her parents, so it could easily work.

Still, he felt pretty low letting the Princess turn herself into a human shield. It didn't seem like the way things were supposed to be somehow.

"Chewie - where's this ship of yours?"

Chewie's answer was mainly lost in the slipstream of the wind, but Lando caught that the ship had been somewhere north of here, and that he "hoped" it still would be.

The doubt was reasonable enough, but the guard hadn't been sent to search, and Lando hadn't heard anything to suggest that an escape ship had been detected. He hoped he'd been deep enough to have gotten wind of it if anything like that had happened.

A blast came from the side, and Chewie swerved upward to miss it. Lando lost his footing and skidded to the front of the speeder, arms flailing. Chewie shoved him away before he could interfere with the controls.

Lando fired up, almost aimlessly, and an explosion lit the sky in burning orange. The guard's speeder that was coming down at them fell in at least five pieces, and Lando tried not to identify the young woman who had been flying it. Another high-flying speeder was caught in the shockwave and thrown to the ground.

Something hit the speeder from the other side, and Lando pulled himself up to see Leia and Han's speeder dangerously close.

"Don't shoot if you don't have to!" Leia yelled over the wind. "She'll use it to score points if you do! Look how violent we are!"

Lando shook his head. "They're shooting at us, Your Highness. I'm firing back."

Another blast came down between them, and Leia had to steer away from it before she could argue with him.

"Luke, be careful," Mother said, grabbing his upper arms and drawing his eyes down to her own. "Don't let your father lose his temper with her."

"I'll try, Mother, but I lost mine hours ago."

"Just bring her back, Luke. Bring her back. Get rid of the others. We don't need them."

Mother's insane, Luke.

"I'll take care of it, Mother."

"Do it yourselves. Don't let the guards drag her. Please. Keep it inside the family. I don't want... " She bit her lip. "Luke, please. Please." She hugged him fiercely. Her body felt too hot, and too strong, as though she had been replaced by a tangle of live wires.

He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. "It will be all right, Mother."

There was a grinding of metal on stone, and the door to the hangar rose. A speeder - aesthetically nondescript, but built for efficient speed, like all of Father's designs - swept through it. It was much faster than the vehicles Leia had commandeered.

Father said nothing to Luke, merely looked at him. Luke leapt into the seat beside him.

Father looked down at Mother. "I am sorry it has come to this, my love. We will retrieve Leia for you."

"Don't hurt her, Ani."

Luke felt a wave of frustration and - shame? - coming from Father, but his posture didn't change. "I have no desire to harm my own child, Amidala."

"Of course. I'm sorry, Ani. I... I'm frightened."

"All will be well. We must leave."

Mother nodded and stepped back.

The speeder took to the air, reaching its upper speeds before it had even left the Palace grounds. The small form of Mother diminished, then disappeared.

Father still did not speak to him.

Luke spotted the guard on the plain, and the two speeders careening dangerously ahead of them, and pointed them out. Father had already steered the speeder toward them.

"There's no reasonable way for her to have escaped," Luke said. "None."

Father regarded him with a cocked head, flying without consulting either the instruments or his physical senses. "And yet," he said, "she seems to have done so."

He turned back to the plain, increased the speed, and started to overtake the stragglers among the guards, then the front line. Then...

To Luke's surprise, he rose above the sightline of the battle, and shot ahead even of Leia and Han.

It wasn't until he saw the ship hidden among the rocks that Luke understood the shape of the battle to come. He programmed the naviputer to run a tight circle of the area, lifted himself onto the edge of the speeder as Father did the same on the other side, and waited.

Lando heard a brief sonic boom, but thought that it was thunder. Naboo had so many damnable rainstorms.

"Chewie, I think we're losing them!"

The shots from the guards were further apart now, and, looking backward toward Theed, Lando could see them falling behind with each second.

Chewie growled at him to not get overconfident.

Lando did not especially believe this to be an idea on which he needed to be lectured.

Leia swerved her speeder close again. "I don't trust it!" she said. "Something's wrong. I feel it. Keep going. Don't let up the speed, and keep your eyes open."


Han fired back into the dust, but didn't hit anything. "We're close," he said. "Over the ridge, according to Artoo."

Their speeder veered away again and pulled ahead. Apparently Leia had decided not to be a human shield anymore.

Either that or...

Lando looked up sharply.

Leia believed that the danger would now come from the front.

"I have a bad feeling about this," he said.

They are here.

Leia could feel them nearby, and she was sure they would come from an unexpected direction. Ahead of them, maybe. But she didn't know.

All she knew was that she wanted to be on board whatever ship Han had brought, and headed out toward the Outer Rim. Right now.

She crested the hill and saw the ship nestled among the boulders. It was, ironically, an old Naboo cruiser, pockmarked and dented with years of abuse.

They are here already.

No. If they had gotten here first, they would have simply destroyed the ship.

It's bait. They want Lando, Han, and Chewie out in the open. Knowing Mother, she'll probably want to make an example of Artoo as well.

Bait or not, she had to take a chance. They needed to get to that ship.

She heard Lando blast over the hill behind her, and the two speeders raced together toward the ship. When they came close to its circle, she swung the speeder to a violent stop and jumped over the edge to run the last twenty yards. Han did the same on the other side, and Artoo boosted himself out using rockets.

Faster, faster...

Lando's speeder nearly crashed into the hatch that was lowering by a remote that either Han or Chewie had activated, but Chewie swerved away in time, and he and Lando dropped out of the vehicle without even bothering to let up on the ignition. It crashed into a large rock with a decisive boom.

Leia ran flat out, eating up the ground between herself and the hatch. Han was behind her, then beside her.

There was a sudden rush of wind and darkness, then the sense of being picked up and tossed backward. Han was thrown backward, as though he'd been caught by a piece of machinery. Leia caught herself on her injured arm, and couldn't fully hold back a scream of frustration and fury.

Before her, Luke and Father straightened from the crouches they'd landed in.

Above them, now that she knew to look, she could see the far-up shape of one of Father's experimental speeders.

"It is finished, Leia," Father said.

Seconds elapsed before Leia could form a coherent thought, one that wasn't focused on the hysteria about to overwhelm her.

They won't take me back.

Not when she was so close - so close!

They won't take me back!

It was a silent declaration, a promise to herself. She wouldn't go. She wouldn't let them take her.

With that decided, Leia found the strength to draw herself up, slowly and deliberately. She let her eyes meet briefly with Luke's - she found disappointment and resentment in them - before settling on Vader's mask and holding his glare.

"No," she said, steadying her voice. "It's not finished yet."

Leia felt Han struggle to his feet and move to stand beside her. To his credit, he did not immediately open fire or make any wildly aggressive moves this time. She glanced at him and he gave her a slight nod. He would follow her lead.

Lando and Chewie stood a ways off, looking back and forth between them all, waiting for someone to make a move.

She returned her attention to her father, who had done nothing to acknowledge what she said. "I'm leaving. And they're all coming with me."

Luke shook his head, maybe with a little astonishment, but he held his tongue. Vader still had not given any indication that he had heard what she said. But she knew he was listening - taking her words in to further feed his anger.

Leia took the moment to wonder if she had, at long last, completely lost her mind. If this was the natural end of all the time she had been forced to spend in the Palace - standing here, on the plains of Naboo, directly challenging her father and brother in a fight for her life.

But if she was crazy to even try this, she was also beyond the point of caring. She was going to get on that ship, or die in the effort.

She raised her voice slightly. "If you insist on trying to stop me -" she continued.

Luke made a sound of disgust, and in a flash of blue, he ignited his lightsaber. Han - and Lando and Chewie - immediately reached for their blasters, but Leia waved them down. They did not fire, and Luke remained where he was. "Leia, you don't want to fight us."

"You don't want to fight me," she retorted. "You don't want to kill me." She paused and looked meaningfully at her father. "And neither do you. But you'll have to. Or you'll have to let me go. You won't get me back to that Palace alive...

"It's your choice."

Leia took a final look at her companions, hoping they would be smart enough to just stay out of the way as much as possible, and let her handle things - even if she wasn't completely sure how she was going to do that. They were at least aware that she could use the Force...

She hoped that would be enough to convince them not to get themselves killed.

The last person Leia saw out of the corner of her eyes was R2-D2. He looked unassuming enough but Leia noticed that his eye was focused on the ship, not the on the rest of them, and some of his lights were flashing. It was probably nothing but -

"The choice," Vader finally spit at her, "can be merely to disable you, Leia." He ignited his saber and advanced on her menacingly. "Your posturing and ultimatums will do you little good if you cannot run."

"You don't frighten me," she replied.

"Your fear is unnecessary. You will return with us and -"

Vader's words cut off sharply, and he abruptly whirled around to face the ship. Leia had sensed it just before he had, and threw herself at Han, pushing them both down to the ground.

The guns on the ship came to life, swerving around to aim directly at Vader and Luke's positions and unleashing a sudden and constant barrage of laser fire. Shots flew all over the place, and several hit the ground, kicking up a violent storm of dirt and grass, fire and smoke. It swirled up around them as they dodged the blasts and rushed to regain their bearings.

Leia was not about to waste her time hoping that either Vader or Luke had been hit - they were both too fast for that. They had been surprised and were at least briefly confused...Leia reached for her blaster as she tried to get up...

Chewie's yell was more than loud enough to be heard over the din, and Leia jumped back shocked as she watched him take a nearly suicidal lunge at Vader, who was on his knees, still facing the ship. He felt Chewie coming at him and brought his saber around hard, but only succeeded in a glancing blow to the midsection before Chewie hit him and knocked him forward to the ground.

Han grabbed Leia roughly and began dragging her forward. "Come on! Get on that ship!"

"No wait!" Leia cried, but he wasn't listening. Vader had quickly recovered, standing and throwing Chewie off him. Another tug from Han turned Leia's attention in front of her, where Lando was shooting wildly at Luke as he tried to move in a wide path around to the ship's ramp.

Luke ducked another shot from the ship, and rolled forward several feet. Lando and Artoo made a break for the ship, running up the ramp and immediately getting its engines started up. Luke came out of his roll and locked eyes with Leia, then deflected the next shot directly at her and Han. They both went flying. Leia saw Vader wave his hand, and Chewie went high into the air before landing with a thump.

Vader and Luke were closing in on them. Leia watched as her father stalked toward her, his saber in ready position to...disable her.

But she was more worried about Han, who realized that shooting at Luke was pointless, and was watching his former friend move in for the kill.

Leia sprang to her feet, hand outstretched, and called on the Force more powerfully than she had ever dared to before.

Luke's saber ripped from his hand as he cried out in surprise. She was able to pull it into her hand just in time to block the low swing Vader had aimed at her leg.

She did not look back at Han as she struggled to bring their locked sabers up into a less dangerous position - she could feel the heat of the blades on her leg. She gritted her teeth and blurted out, "Han, go, you can't help! GO!"

Chewie, who had recovered from his throw now stumbled past Han, and guided him toward the ship. They both fired at the now unarmed Luke to ensure that he didn't try to follow them on board.

Leia's arms were burning with the strain of just keeping the sabers in a stalemate. All of her strength, all of the Force was focused in hands, but she knew she couldn't hold on for long. Vader was surprised - completely surprised - by this and was trying to figure out how to proceed. He had not counted on a real duel with Leia, and was clearly displeased at the notion.

As was she. She knew she wouldn't last long at all. She could hear the ship ready to go, and decided to take the risk.

Leia's saber, which had been pushing up from underneath Vader's suddenly changed direction, dropping down and breaking the deadlock as Leia threw herself in a Force-jump - barely escaping Vader's swing. She landed behind Luke, and all but threw herself onto the ramp of the ship, falling forward on her stomach as the ship began to hover above the ground. She grabbed onto a handle in the ship and tried to pull herself inside.

Han was beside her instantly, helping her stand. "I've got you...Are you all right?"

She didn't see Vader's saber coming - she didn't know you could throw a saber with the blade still on - and it hit her hand squarely, causing Leia to let go of the handle with an anguished scream, and nearly fall right down the ramp as Vader Force-pulled her back. Han grabbed the handle and caught Leia with his other hand, and they both dropped in the ramp, flagging in the wind as the ship continued its slow ascent.

Leia was almost overcome by the pain from her hand, which was horribly burned and felt disfigured. She couldn't concentrate...Vader was going to take her and Han right off the ship.

"Leia!" Han screamed. "You gotta pull yourself up! Come on!"

She tried to push back, but couldn't find the strength to do it. Her hand was slipping from Han's.

"Lando!" he called into the ship. "Use the torpedoes! Now!"

The ship rocked with the release of the weapon, and Leia felt Vader's grip release her as the torpedo impacted the spot where he had stood.

Han jerked her back fully onto the ramp and held her as the ship rolled through the turbulence from the torpedo's shockwave. The ramp began to close up.

Leia blinked up at Han, dazed. "Are we away?"

"Almost," Han said, gently turning over her hand, avoiding the burns. Her hand had gone completely numb.

"Almost?" she whispered. "Han, get us into hyperspace, now. Please...let's just go, I don't care where we're headed."

"We are, we are." He helped her up and they headed for the main cockpit.

They found Chewie sitting at the controls. "Are we ready for hyperspace yet?" Leia asked, her voice taut with agitation. "Get me away from them!"

"With pleasure, Your Highness," Lando said. "We're on our way."

The ship sped into the atmosphere, and then out into the blackness of space. Once they cleared Naboo, Chewie punched the button.

Han and Leia were thrown back slightly as the stars turned to streamlines and they were pulled toward the Outer Rim.

Han regained their balance for them, and squeezed her in a hug again. "Hey, sweetheart," he whispered, "We made it. You're safe."

Leia just blinked at him and then looked around at the ship, and out at the stars flying by.

"Leia," he said gently, "Really, it's all right now." He kissed the top of her head, and then put his forehead to hers.

Leia leaned against him, letting the feeling sink in - the freedom, the relief - and finally just collapsed against him, holding him as close as she could.

Vader watched the cruiser disappear into space, feeling Leia's presence wrenched away from the world of Naboo. The sensation was not dissimilar to the loss of a limb. It ripped a fresh wound in his soul, and the poisoned blood of the Dark Side flooded in to cleanse it. The anger was invigorating, the pain empowering. He raised his hand to the sky and pushed the Force through the atmosphere, chasing the sonic boom of Solo's ship with a second, lower-pitched boom. Clouds split open, and one began a lazy swirl as the air pressure changed around it. A funnel dipped down slightly.

A buzz announced the belated coming of the guard. It was as well they had not arrived earlier. They had not seen Luke shamed in combat, which would also have shamed Vader. Authority could not be maintained by leaders who allowed themselves to be made fools of.

"My Lord," the captain of the guard said, jumping out of his speeder as he swerved into the clearing. He bowed. "Wesa begging forgiveness. Yousa daughter... "

"I am aware, Captain," Vader said simply. "I will modify the guards' speeders appropriately in coming days, but my daughter commandeered two vehicles for which your own were no match. You have no blame in this. I know where the responsibility for it lies." He looked across at Luke, who was staring at his feet, his jaw set tightly. "Luke?"

He squared his shoulders and looked up defiantly. "Yes, Father?"

"Return to the Palace with the guard and explain the situation to Her Majesty."

"Yes, Father."

"Remain in the common room. Do not leave her side until I return."

"Yes, Father."

"I will speak to you at that point."

There was a long pause. Luke glared at him. Then he spoke softly and slowly. "Yes, Father."

Luke turned away and went to the guards' convoy, climbing into the captain's speeder without looking to see if he would be followed. Vader watched the guards disappear back toward Theed.

He had no true business in this place, but he would not endure the return with Luke. He wasn't certain that his anger would remain under control, and he recognized it as a killing anger. He had a great deal of experience in gauging this particular mood.

He took a moment to inspect the speeders Leia had stolen, but found nothing of use. Calrissian had left behind the cap from his guard's uniform.

How did I miss his presence in my own house?

His face grew hot beneath the mask, and he tore the leather cap into two pieces. With a surge of the Force, the speeder launched itself into the cliff-face and exploded. The other followed it.

It was foolish, he supposed, to destroy them, but the release of energy spent some of his anger. He needed to teach Luke, and teach him vigorously, but the mistakes had not been entirely unilateral. It would be inappropriate to maintain fury only at Luke.


A boulder flew across the clearing and landed on the wrecked speeders with a satisfying crash of metal.

She lied.

The pile of scrap trembled and rattled, then suddenly burst apart, scattering shrapnel in all directions. Vader repelled all of it that came his way without thinking.

He had known she was hiding something, and her potential as a Force-user was obvious. As a master, the development of her abilities pleased him.

But she had turned them against her own family.

That was... unacceptable.

She had hurt Amidala.

That was unconscionable.

She would pay for it.

He called his speeder down from the place where it was hovering, and returned to the Palace.

The guards in the hangar did not meet his gaze when he landed, and those stationed in the hallways merely saluted as he passed them. He saw no need to approach the administrative areas of the building - the hangers-on waiting for a glimpse of Amidala would be disappointed today, and his own appearance tended to discomfit them somewhat. Instead, he went straight to the family quarters. He began to feel the presence of Luke and Amidala almost immediately.

"She is coming back!" Amidala's voice rose frantically, bouncing against the stone walls. Vader increased his pace.

Luke's reply was quieter and indistinct. Another voice seemed to be present as well, but he could not immediately place it.

"I won't have it! I won't!"

He rounded the corner and came inside. Amidala ran to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "Ani! Oh, Ani, you have to bring her back!"

Vader let her hold on to him, and wrapped an arm over her shoulders to make her feel safe. Luke rose from his place by the hearth, and the figure behind him came forward. It was Piett.

"My Lord," he said, bowing slightly. "I came as soon as news reached me. Do you have orders?"

"I told you already!" Amidala said, not turning toward him. "Bring me my daughter."

Piett frowned. "My Lady, I will need time to formulate a strategy." He looked to Vader. "Do you wish this to be a military operation, my Lord?"

Vader was surprised. It was the closest Piett had ever come to openly disagreeing with Amidala. "Admiral, the order stands. My daughter had access to a great deal of vital Imperial intelligence. She is returning to the Rebellion with it. This will become a military matter."

"Where were your men when this... Solo... was breaking into our home?" Amidala demanded, turning on him.

"I apologize for my failures, Your Majesty."

"And Leia. You spent many hours with her at the command center. Why didn't you stop this?"

Piett took the barrage with patience. "If it had been within my power, my Lady, I would have done so."

Vader squeezed Amidala's shoulder. "Admiral Piett is commander of the Imperial Fleet, my love. Household security is not his responsibility."

She looked at him for a long time, then nodded and pulled away from him to sit down on a small velvet chair by the balcony door. She drew her knees to her chest and wept great, silent tears. Luke knelt before her and took her hands. "It will be all right, Mother."

"She hates me," Amidala whispered, looking up. Her eyes had a far-off, ghost-like look to them. "I made her hate me."

"My Lady," Piett said. He started toward her, seemed to think better of it, and stood straight instead. "If I may comment? I spoke often with Leia, as you said. She does not hate you. She simply couldn't make the adjustment to the end of the war. She was a Rebel for many years. It isn't... Oh, my Lady. How could she hate you?"

It was the right thing to say. Amidala smiled gratefully at him before going back to her tears.

"Admiral," Vader said, "I appreciate your tact, but I require your presence at Command. You are aware of Leia's levels of access, and I need you to analyze that intelligence for any likely targets."

"Yes, my Lord." Piett saluted and left.

Vader waited until his footsteps had faded away entirely before he spoke. Luke's instruction was not a matter for public consumption. "You have failed us, Luke."

Luke's shoulders stiffened and he stood up.

Amidala rose as well, her eyes wide. "Ani, no. Luke didn't fail. He's here. Ani, he's stayed with us. He is a good son." She stroked his cheek. "My good son... "

"I am not commenting on his role in the family," Vader said. "He failed in his duties."

Luke turned around. "Is it necessary to discuss this right now?"

"It is." Vader stepped out onto the balcony. "My love, if you would prefer not to -"

"I'm not leaving, Ani. Don't even think I will."

He nodded, still not looking back at her. "As you wish. But it will have no impact on this conversation."

"Father," Luke said, "Leia escaped on her own. I didn't assist her."

"You concealed Solo's survival from me," Vader said, modulating his voice into an even register in the hope of not upsetting Amidala any further. "You failed to secure him properly, and you failed to guard your sister properly. And you allowed your weapon to be taken from you in combat and used against both of us."

"I'm not the one who was teaching her."

Vader ignored this taunt. The idea of not teaching Leia was absurd. "You showed no more presence of mind than a common stormtrooper. To allow your lightsaber to be -"

The move was sudden, vicious. The boy had learned well. In a movement too quick to see, Vader found himself backed against the balcony rail, his own lightsaber in his son's hand, poised to strike across his throat. He had not even felt it fly from his utility belt.

This, he thought, would be a fitting way to die, at the very least.

But he did not intend to die. Nor would he kill Luke - what would he gain by the destruction of his son and apprentice? If he killed Luke, he would render his life pointless. Leia had chosen treason today, and there would certainly never be another child of his own broken body.

So he merely remained still, not challenging Luke. "Do you intend to strike the blow?" he asked.

Luke's jaw clenched. This close, Vader could see the tendons in his neck standing out. The saber blade trembled.

"I am not a child to be lectured about my decisions, Father. I will make those decisions I see fit to make. When they are wrong, I will make amends. But I won't be lectured or humiliated by you."

Small hands appeared on Luke's shoulders, pulling him back. "Luke, don't. Please. I can't stand this."

Luke rose, not letting the lightsaber go. For the first time since his arrival, he looked fully a warrior, fully Vader's heir. "For your sake, Mother," he said, and turned off the blade.

Vader rose and regarded his son evenly. "You are prepared," he said. "But you are also weak. You do not see the consequences of your decisions. You choose to ignore obvious dangers."

"I know your weakness, too. You'll never kill me, Father, and I'll never fear you again." He held out Vader's lightsaber hilt.

Vader did not take it. Luke was well aware of the insult he was offering, and Vader would not humbly play along with it. "You are in need of a weapon," he said with a dismissive wave. "Keep it. I will construct another."

Luke nodded curtly and left the room.

Amidala took Vader's hands and sat down before him. Her face was somber and frightened, but achingly familiar, nearly


the face of the woman who had once stood beside him on another balcony on this world, overlooking a lake and an island to which she'd swum as a girl. "It isn't a weakness, Ani," she said. "Or if it is, he has the same weakness. He will not kill you, either."

"I am aware of that, my love."

"It's our strength," she said. "All of our strength." The muscles began to tighten around her eyes, the strange glow returned to them. "And that's why we have to have Leia back. The information she has means nothing. Only she matters. We have to be together, Ani. Bring her back."

"I will find her. I promise."

Yoda's eyes opened slowly as he drew out of his meditation.

For the first time in a long, long while, Yoda had seen many things, many images and visions.

The Force was no longer quiet, or in mourning, as it had been since the Skywalker twins had rejoined their parents. It had been stirred and moved, and Yoda felt the inklings of a change about to come.

He had experienced a similar feeling when Luke and Anakin had come before him to begin their training. And the changes that came then were cataclysmic.

If anything, training this one would be worse.

A deep frown creased Yoda's faced and he slouched back, heavy with burden. He thought that maybe he should have been pleased with the knowledge he had gained through the meditation. After all, nothing had yet taken away Yoda's faith or his hope. He still completely believed that the Force was working in intangible ways throughout the galaxy - eventually, those ways would manifest themselves, and the path out of darkness would be revealed.

But now the revelation had come, and Yoda was full of doubts.

Doubts about himself. Yoda was dying. He knew it, and had realized it coming on over the past few months. He was at an advanced age, even for his species, and his small body was slowing and weakening at an increasingly noticeable pace. And he could feel the beginnings of twilight upon him. He no longer wandered far from his hut, and was spending the majority of his days in quiet contemplation or meditation.

His one regret was that he would not live to see the Order restored...that he would not even live to see from where the deliverance might come. But he knew that it was a selfish thought. In the end, no Jedi was so important in the greater scheme, and it was inappropriate for him to think that way. He would accept his path as the Force laid it out before him.

And it was clear that he could not simply die quietly on Dagobah, removed from civilization. Unlikely though it seemed, Yoda would have to remain alive long enough to help Leia, now that she had escaped her parents.

Leia. That's where his other doubts were focused. Her training started even later than the other two Skywalkers...and she had started training under a Sith. That alone made Yoda wonder what kind of an effect he could truly have on her now. She had been strong - staving off despair and resisting most of her family's teachings, but that strength had come out of resentment, and anger, and hatred, and that would not be easy for Leia to overcome. And still, there was within her a spark of love and attachment to her family, especially her mother. Yoda could not be sure which would be more dangerous to her...would she allow the hatred to overwhelm her? Would she let her let her other feelings for her family lead her to follow her parents, as Luke did? Leia was not safe from either path.

Yoda pondered it all for a short moment, before reaching for his cane and pushing himself up onto his feet. He hobbled over to the door, pausing for a brief look back. He was certain this would be the last time he saw it. The Force was compelling him to take action, and his doubts would not stop him from obeying its mandate. Yoda left his home behind, and headed out into the deep forests and swamps of Dagobah.

Leia needed guidance more than anything. Yoda had seen her in one of the visions, and she had clearly learned several Force-skills already, even if she was not proficient at them yet. She would not need him to teach her saber techniques and run through drills - at least, not as much as Luke had. What she needed was to learn the basics of Jedi philosophy, to learn the dangers of the Dark Side, to learn to control her emotions. Studying under Vader had certainly warped her perception of her powers. Yoda hoped it was not too late to try to instill the proper values in her - she had held on to her Rebel values, and that would help, but she knew absolutely nothing about being a Jedi. And her perception of the Order was not likely to be favorable.

Yoda continued making his way through the marsh and plants with great effort. There was a small clearing up ahead, empty except for some brush and a few stray bushes. It would not have stood out to any visitor (not that there had been a visitor beside Luke), and it hid well enough the little technology Yoda had brought with him to Dagobah all those years ago. He had not used it in quite some time - there had only been a few occasions where it was worth the risk to directly contact Obi-Wan on Tatooine - but he believed it would still work well enough for this purpose.

A sudden communication from a Jedi Master might not be what Leia was anticipating, but Yoda suspected she would be more accepting of that than a Force suggestion or dream telling her to come to Dagobah.

He trudged on, closing the last of the distance, ignoring how tired the trip had made him.

Once he reached the bushes, he immediately pulled out the small, old communications device, and activated it. As it gradually came to life, Yoda tried to focus his sense of Leia on coordinates specific enough to put out a message to.

The array beeped and flashed, showing that it was ready, and Yoda began putting in the coordinates, and a brief message requesting Leia's response to the "Jedi Master on Dagobah." He waited patiently, tapping his cane on the ground absent-mindedly and glancing at the speakers, listening to their static.

Finally, a light flashed, and the static gave way to a voice.

"Identify yourself," a female voice ordered sharply. It was Leia.

"Jedi Master Yoda," he replied calmly. "Pleased to finally speak with you, I am."

"No," Leia responded, "That's not possible. There are no Jedi left. I want to know who you are, and why you are trying to reach me."

"Impossible? Answered this call you would not, if you believed that," Yoda pointed out. "Felt - knew - you did, that this was no lie. Trained your brother, I did."

She was quiet for several seconds. "Your message is from Dagobah..."


"Luke once asked me to go to Dagobah with him...I never really knew why. I couldn't figure out what we'd be doing there."

Yoda nodded. "Yes...yes. Asked him to bring you, Obi-Wan did. To begin training for both of you. Unfortunate it was, that you could not come."

"Well, your training didn't seem to help Luke very much," Leia said, and Yoda did not need the Force to sense her irritation. "Perhaps it all worked out for the best. I don't understand why you've contacted me anyway - what is it you want?"

"To help, Your Highness," Yoda said kindly. "Escaped your family, you have, and brave you have been, but prepared for the larger battles, you are not. You do not know what you will face. Continue your training, I will."

"My training?" she gasped. "I have no desire to keep -"

"Tainted your perceptions are. Twisted your training, your father has. But learn the ways of the Jedi, you must." He tapped his cane on the ground for emphasis, though Leia wasn't aware of the gesture. "Fighting with the Rebellion is not enough. Along a different path, does your destiny lie."

Leia sighed, and did not respond for a long while. "Maybe it's not enough for you, but I've just arrived back with the Rebellion, and they need me here now. That is my first priority. I'm not about to pick up and leave, and come all the way to Dagobah. I'm sorry."

Yoda was not deterred. "Then a ship, you will send to me. I will come to you, Your Highness. Know you, in your heart, that the ways of the Force are part of your life. They can be used for good or for evil, but impossible to ignore. Need guidance, you do. Provide it, I can."

Another long silence. "I'll see if the Rebellion can spare a ship."

"Thank you, Your Highness," Yoda said, certain that she would send him transportation. "May the Force be with you."

The connection cut off.

Yoda looked about the forest with a grim determination on his face. It seemed that it wasn't quite time for him to die after all.

There will come a time - and it is not far off - when this gnawing sense of self is at last absorbed fully into the peaceful stream of the Force. There will come a time when I will know no more, when I neither haunt nor am haunted by my failures, by my successes, by my lies, by the truth, by hate, or by love. There will come a time when destiny sets me free.

But that time is not yet, and freedom is a luxury I cannot have.

Obi-Wan became aware of himself in the mists of Dagobah, hearing the last of Yoda's words to Leia Organa. He didn't need to make the effort to form himself into an image with Yoda - communication was possible with neither words nor shape - but he did so habitually. It seemed poor manners not to.

He concentrated on his last image and pulled himself into the form. He could choose another era of his life - had, in fact slipped into other eras by accident from time to time at first - but this business was not play, and he saw no need to make cosmetic changes to his appearance.

Yoda felt his presence and looked over his shoulder. His voice was compassionate. "Still here you are, Obi-Wan?"

"Yes, Master. I have... concerns about the girl. I always did."

"But the boy, you convinced me to take in, and fall into the dark, he did."

"Master, Luke is not fully lost. He is confused and in pain -"

"As is your padawan."

Obi-Wan felt the energy of the Force focus and swirl around his consciousness, a whirlwind of energy that felt a slap. "Anakin has chosen to do evil, Master. Luke has simply chosen not to believe in it."

"And less dangerous, you think this is?"

There was no argument to that. In some ways, Luke was more dangerous than Anakin, and Obi-Wan was well aware of it. Anakin knew he was doing wrong and sometimes rose up to stop himself. Luke had convinced himself that he was doing right, as Amidala had, and that left his conscience with no reason to rebel against his urges.

Yoda drew his robe tighter, and coughed into a small fist. "Our last chance, the girl is," he said, his voice strained. "Others sensitive to the Force there may be, but not as strong, and too difficult to find in... limited time."

"And the prophecy..."

"And the prophecy."

They were quiet together for some time, communicating wordless things, then Yoda sighed deeply. "Prepare myself, I must, to teach this difficult one. For nine hundred years have I trained Jedi, but never have I trained one who did not wish to train. Never taken back training from a Sith Lord have I. Broken, she is. Mended she must be, if access her power she will."

"Luke is also broken, Master. Perhaps he can be fixed. He has a good heart."

"As does his mother. As does his father. Somewhere."

"I should have told him the truth. I should not have allowed the lie to stand a moment longer than it needed to. He had the right to know. He -"

"Beginning to follow his thoughts you are, Obi-Wan. And to think as Amidala and Vader think - in the past, you cannot live. Mistakes were made, possibly. But in the past they are, and beyond repair. Think you that you can mend him now?"


"Then try, you must, while you can. But count on it, I will not."

"I've tried speaking to his mind. He will not listen. I have to go to him."

"Go, you must." Yoda raised his ears. "If repair you will, Obi-Wan, then perhaps speak to your padawan, you should. His was the original breaking."

Obi-Wan let the motion of the Force drift through him for a moment before answering. "Anakin had not listened to me for years before he fell," he said. "I see no reason why that would change now."

"Heh. Your approval, the boy sought until the end of all things."

"And I rarely gave it to him. Another failure."

"Remove your mind from the past, you must," Yoda repeated. "Mistakes, you made. Mistakes, I made, and the Council. But the choice, Anakin's was, and he made a choice to become what he became."

"I don't understand what you want of me."

"For you, I want it, Obi-Wan. For your own peace. Love the boy, you do and always did. Try, you must, to reach him. For your own sake."

Obi-Wan made his image shake its head, though the sense that came through him was that of trying to fly backward and away from the idea. He had gone to Anakin once, tried to convince him, tried to save him, and it had ended in fire and unspeakable horror. When he had seen him again, on the Death Star, there had been no acceptance left. "I cannot," he said. "And he will not."

"Then to Luke, you should speak. But little good will it do."

Obi-Wan let his image fade away, let himself slide for a moment into the currents of the Force. His self-awareness did not dissipate, and he experienced even this comfort as disorienting and frightening. He could hear the gentle movement of a Kaminoan infant floating in the glass tank where its parents were growing it, and he could feel the life seeping out of a Tusken who had fallen from a precipice on patrol and torn an artery in his leg on a sharp outcropping of rock. He could feel the weight of the past and the restlessness of the future. He could see the fluttering wings of an insect on La'azum and smell the spices in an expensive dish served in a Coruscantian restaurant.

All of these things, he sensed in an instant, then he found the magnetic pull of Luke Skywalker's presence, and concentrated himself into a place that was a place and a time that was a time.

He was aware first of a high, vaulted ceiling, endless catwalks and forcefields, an apparently bottomless void...

The power station beneath Theed Palace. The strange, dangerous maze where Qui-Gon Jinn had lost his life.

Luke was dueling with a practice droid.

He carried Vader's saber.

The droid cut in low and Luke leapt to avoid it, turning over and landing on the catwalk below. His combat skills had improved exponentially; clearly, that had been the focus of Vader's training regime. The droid started to follow, but suddenly stopped. It was off-balance, and clattered to the floor.

Luke's shoulders tensed. "Who's there?"

"Have your senses deteriorated that far, Luke?" Obi-Wan created his image so that it was standing on the catwalk in front of Luke.

There wasn't a pause. The red saber swung at him.

As he had on the Death Star, he simply stood and waited for it to pass through. This time, there was no alteration in his state of being. "Strike as you will, Luke," he said. "Though it seems to me a waste of energy."

"I don't want to talk to you."

"I've noticed."

"You lied to me, Ben."

Obi-Wan fought an urge to explain himself. Luke would not take well to self-justification. "Yes," he said. "I did."

"You tried to trick me into murdering my own father."

"Anakin turned to the Dark Side of the Force. He has become... lost. And you are headed there."

The muscles in Luke's face tightened, making a deathmask. "Don't judge me. You have no right. Not after everything you did."

"Your mother participated in the subterfuge. She believed it was the right thing to do at the time."

"You brainwashed her. She told me."

"And I believe she believes that now. But it is not true."

"Yeah. I'll bet. She let you take her children away while Vader was betraying and murdering my father, right?"

"Luke, you need to listen."

The blade of the lightsaber was suddenly pointed at the place where Obi-Wan had represented his throat. "No, I don't. Not anymore."

"Luke, things are not right here. You know it. Somewhere in your mind you -m"

There was a surge of power in the Force, a blow of sheer energy. Obi-Wan felt it shatter his image and push at his consciousness.

"You can be struck," Luke said quietly. "And I'll do it."

"Luke, you must -"

The next surge was stronger. Obi-Wan lost coherent form. When he came back to himself, Luke's arm was raised at him, palm out, and the bright blue eyes that had once met his with trust and affection were narrowed, piercing the shadows like focused lasers. "Stay away from me."

"Luke... "

He felt the Force gathering in dark, violent currents around Luke, stronger than any power the boy had handled in the light. He raised his other hand, then Obi-Wan's world seemed to dissipate, fade to fog, break down into meaningless white noise.

He fought for the consciousness he had not wanted for many years, but by the time he found it, he was alone in the power station.

Luke was gone. Obi-Wan could feel him somewhere above, in the Palace proper, but he had made his position quite clear.

If repair you will, Obi-Wan, then perhaps speak to your padawan, you should...

Obi-Wan could feel Vader's presence as well, raging throughout this place like a sandstorm. But Anakin was not within that storm... he could never survive such a tempest. He wouldn't listen any more than Luke would.

Obi-Wan kept his form for awhile anyway, thinking, separating himself from the confusion of the open Force. But no answers came.

Leia had not been able to stop staring at her hand. It had been the focus of her attention almost constantly since Han had first really checked it to see what he could do with the limited medical supplies he had on the ship.

It was hollow. And useless.

The point of Vader's saber had struck her directly in the center of her palm, pushing clear through her hand before it fell back out of the ship and back to the surface. It had left a perfect little hole in her hand, almost completely cauterized. Her two middle fingers had been immobilized since the nerves had been severed from the rest of her arm.

The heat from the blow had also flared outward momentarily, blistering the skin all over her fingers and down to her wrist. The pain would have been tremendous, but compared what she had felt when she first awoke after the Falcon crash...well, this wasn't nothing, but she could handle it. The sight of her hand had been harder to take though - she had held her hand up once and seen through the hole, and nearly fainted. It just looked so warped and distorted...

If Han was bothered by it, he rarely showed it. He treated all of the burns with an ointment, but the skin was too badly damaged to make any sort of recovery. Her hand was being kept in some sort of stasis cast, to hold it over until they could reach a real med center with the Rebels. He was unceasingly gentle when he worked on her hand, even though he knew she had lost the feeling in it pretty quickly. A flash had come to her once while he was trying to fit the cast - that he was giving her the same care and attention that Mother had when she was recovering from the Falcon crash injuries. But she refused to think about that too long. At least with Han she could accept the love behind the actions with any fear or dread shadowing over her.

He was up in the cockpit with Lando now, while Leia sat on the bed in their quarters, legs stretched out and back against the wall, staring at her small cast.

She wanted to look at it again.

She couldn't pin down why exactly - especially after her initial reaction - but she wanted to see it before the med droids took over and did whatever it was they were going to do to try and fix it.

She should see, and understand...and remember. Remember the scars from the Palace and her family.

Leia fiddled with the clasp near her thumb that locked the cast shut. It popped free, but she closed it back. She popped it slightly open again, and tried in vain to wiggle some of her fingers - the thumb, index, and pinky fingers had all worked normally for a short time before her hand went numb. Nothing happened of course, and she could only feel the strain of trying to move in her forearm. Her wrist barely even twitched.

Leia closed the cast with a note of finality. Maybe she would try it later.

She could sense Han coming back to their room. She cradled her arm against her stomach, and waited for him.

There was relief coming from him, and she shared it completely. Of course, they were essentially safe once they had made the jump to hyperspace without anyone on Naboo being able to follow them. But now, they were nearly back with the Rebellion. Where they belonged.

He entered the room, all smiles. "Hey sweetheart, we're almost there. We're about to come out of hyperspace. I'm going to take you straight to the med center when we arrive. I sent them a message telling them to be ready for us." He flopped down on the bed next to her, and took hold of her good hand.

"How are you feeling?"

She leaned her head against the wall and turned toward him. "I'm fine," she said softly.

"I know you aren't looking forward to getting that mechanical hand, but I hear they're not so bad. You'll be good as new in no time. They say you can barely tell the difference once you've had it for a little while."

"I'll always know," she said. "I'll always look at it and know."

A beat followed where they simply looked at each other, and then Han put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in. He looked concerned and agitated. "Han?"

He shrugged. "It's nothing, don't worry about it."


"I've...been...I was wondering..." He stopped abruptly and started over. "When I found out you were alive, I started imagining all sorts of horrible things were happening to you in that Palace. Lando told us otherwise, but I really didn't believe him. I thought he was just trying to keep me from doing something completely insane to spring you out."

"Han -"

"And I saw what was going to happen when we were trying to get to the ship," he continued, his words coming out in a rush. "Vader would have taken your leg off in a second as long as it meant you couldn't run. And this..." His other hand went to her cast, running his fingers over it.

"Are you all right, Leia? I mean, really. What did your parents do? Or that idiot brother of yours?"

"No, no, I am fine...It's just...It's hard to explain what it was like there." She frowned, trying to think of how to describe it. "I wasn't in any real danger until I decided to leave. Up until then, they had their problems - many, many problems - and they were definitely going to make me crazy if I stayed -"

"Problems?" Han said incredulously.

"It's one way to say it. They didn't mean me actual harm before the end. I don't think they knew the harm they were already causing me."

"Leia, I know you're their kid and all, but you were still living with Vader."

She leaned more fully against him and dropped her head to his shoulder. "Yes, and he was still Vader. But I know he wanted to try to be some sort of father to me. And Mother - sometimes I think she needed me so much that she let finding me drive her insane. They just wanted me to play along with their little happy family fantasy. If I had really been able to do that, they would have been thrilled with me." She shrugged. "I know it sounds strange. At least when Vader's trying to slice me up, I know how to react. But trust me, that other stuff was bad enough, in its own way."

"I don't doubt it."

"Which is why it's good to be back."

"Yes...And I think you'll find the Rebellion even better than you left it, Your Highness." His tone had taken on a teasing quality, and she returned it.

"Is that so?" she said. "You actually got everyone to pay attention to you?"

"Are you kidding? I've completely whipped them into shape. Not to say anything about your very fine work with them -"

"Watch it, laserbrain."

"- but I'm actually a great leader. They'll go wherever I say."




"Of course, it helped that I was pretty much doing it all with your authority." His voice lowered and turned serious again. "You don't know how happy everyone's going to be to have you back, Leia. We've been fighting for you this whole time."

"Well, now they can all fight with me," she whispered. "And with all the wonderful Imperial intelligence I managed to see before I left." Leia paused, then rolled her eyes. "And we'll probably even have a Jedi Master with us this time. Wonderful."

Han grimaced. "I'm not going to pretend to know anything about this stuff. I just want to know if you trust this Yoda guy. What's his deal?"

"I don't know. He trained Luke right before we all got to Cloud City. That's all I know about him."

"That doesn't make me feel any better."

"It shouldn't." Leia's good hand tightened into a little fist. "I don't know what he wants. But what else am I going to do? If Vader ever gets me in a saber fight again, I'm going to have to know how to do more than jump out of the way. As confused and crazy as Luke got, he can use the Force. He knows how to fight. I have to know, too."

"You already know how to fight, Leia. You always have." Han reached out and tried to unclench her fist.

"This is different,'s just different. I'd like to think I'll never have to face them again, but we both know that won't happen. So, in the meantime, we send the Master a ship."

"Okay," he said. "But I plan to keep an eye on this Yoda guy while he's here with us doing his Jedi...stuff."

She laughed. "I know you will."

The ship suddenly slowed and shuddered, and they felt it come out of hyperspace.

"Time to go Your Highness." Han stood from his bed and held out his hand to her. She took it, and they left for the cockpit.

The old Naboo cruiser was never going to be the Millennium Falcon, but it steered pretty well, had reasonably good speed (particularly after a few modifications Han had made to its engines), and it was reliable.

Han was never going to love this one, but he liked her fine. He still missed the Falcon, with her temperamental hyperdrive and well-sprung living areas, her amazing speed and unexpected grace. He supposed he'd miss the Falcon for a long time, and no ship was ever going to replace her. He hadn't even bothered to name this one yet.

But she landed sweet.

He had to give her that.

He floated her into the docking bay of the Rebellion's medical frigate, and her gear lowered smoothly and silently. Lando and Chewie kept a check on the readouts, but neither had anything to do as far as thruster corrections went. Leia was standing behind him, unsecured, and didn't even wobble as the ship set down.

The gangplank lowered automatically, and Leia led the way down into the hangar. She was smiling now, her best smile, the relieved smile of a woman coming home after a long and arduous trip. Han squeezed her hand.

The only person in the hangar was a Mon Cal lieutenant whose name Han didn't know. He bowed. "Welcome back, Your Highness. We've missed you."

"Thank you, Lieutenant... ?"

"Temiar, Your Highness. I served under you at Hoth, but you probably don't remember me."

"I'm sure I will once I've had a chance to think."

Temiar shook his head and looked away. "We were going to have a formal welcome for you, but we weren't sure you'd like it." He grinned, an expression that Han thought looked excessively strange on a Mon Cal. "And we figured you'd yell at us for being away from our stations."

Leia laughed. "Good call, Lieutenant. No wasting time on ceremonial silliness. I've had enough to last three lifetimes."

"Yes, ma'am." Temiar looked at Han. "We got word from Commander Antilles just after you put in for docking permission. He says that the mission is accomplished. And that we need to change our databases because - and this is a direct quote - 'It's exactly where she said it was.' Do you know what he means?"

"Yes. Did Wedge give you an E.T.A.?"

"Yes, sir. He's in our quadrant now. Due any minute, so we might want to get back behind the second forcefield."

"Good thinking." Han glanced over at Leia, whose smile had disappeared. So little time, and the other life was already going to intrude on her again.

She squeezed his hand, then looked at Temiar. "Lieutenant, Captain Solo and I can stay to greet Commander Antilles and his... mission."

"If you'd like, ma'am."

"And tell High Command that I have intelligence to share. I'll debrief them later today, and I'd like to call a general meeting tomorrow or the day after."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Why don't you go back to administration and debrief Lando and Chewbacca on what's been going on around here?"

"Yes, ma'am. Right away."

"I can take a dismissal," Lando said, with a mock-hurt expression on his face. "C'mon Chewie. I think they want to be alone."

"I wish," Han muttered.

Lando didn't hear. He just swept off after Temiar, Chewie walking beside him.

"Sorry," Leia said. "I'm just not sure how many people I want to know and... "

"It's okay, Sweetheart. I get it. Are you sure you don't want to go right to the med bay? I can get this Yoda settled in and have him waiting for you."

"The hand is stable," she said. "And he's coming to see me. I'd better be here when he gets in."

"You sure you want to jump back into meetings and debriefings?"

"I want to start putting what I know to use. I've been thinking. There are some weak spots. I'd like to work on exploiting them. I need our strategists and tacticians."

"You need rest, too."

"I've gotten a lot of rest. Now I want to get back to work."

Han went around the control console and glanced at the screen. Wedge was maybe ten minutes out.

Wedge and Yoda.

By the time Han was old enough to pay much attention to the news - well, as much as he ever did - the Empire was in control of the airwaves. There were a few underground broadcasters, but you had to have pretty good equipment to tune them in, so Han hadn't really heard much out of them. But the name Yoda... something about it seemed familiar, like he'd heard it back when he didn't know what he was hearing. Maybe when he was really little. During the Clone Wars.

Han didn't think about that time much. A lot of battles, people dying, buildings falling. He remembered being hungry a lot. But he'd had a thing about Jedi stories back then for some damn reason and he was pretty sure that he'd heard the name Yoda in one or another of them. The news had been skewed already, and most of the stories complained about the Jedi doing this, that, or the other thing wrong, but still, Han Solo, six-year-old pickpocket and all around troublemaker, had thought it would be kind of good to meet one.

Shows what kids know.

A far-off motion beyond the outer forcefield caught his eye. Just a little long-range transport, the sort of thing rich families kept around for occasional planet-hops. How the Rebellion had come across it, Han wasn't sure, but it had come in handy more than once. Apparently, Wedge had chosen it for the trip to Dagobah.

What would a Jedi Master look like?

Han knew that the Order had been multi-species. Imperial-sanctioned holotoons had often portrayed non-human Jedi preying on helpless, innocent human children, so clearly, that had been an issue. But for some reason, all Han could see in his mind was Luke Skywalker, only older and not crazy anymore.

Not a good sign.

Leia drew a sharp breath, and Han felt her good hand tighten around his. He glanced over. She was biting her lip nervously.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Fine. Nervous." She moved to the console. "Better get it over with."

Her timing was uncannily good (Han wondered if he'd have to get used to that or if it was just a fluke). Wedge signaled for permission to land, and she hit the release sequence.

Should have coded that; she would know to put in a security code.

But she didn't say anything about the lapse.

The transport swept in and landed beside Han's cruiser. The outer forcefield closed, the inner one dissipated in a crackle of static.

The gangplank lowered.

At first Han thought it was a trick of the steam that came up from the thrusters, but the steam cleared, and the figure at the top of the gangplank still looked the same. He stood maybe as tall as Han's knees, and was hobbling his way down the ramp with a cane.

Leia sighed and went forward. "Master Yoda?" she asked.

The little creature nodded solemnly, coming to the end of the gangplank. "Your Highness," he said. "Good to see you at last, it is. Watched you for a long time, we have."

"And failed to contact me."

"Asked your brother to bring you to Dagobah, Obi-Wan did. Refused, you did." Yoda coughed suddenly and violently.

Han stepped up. "You need the med center? 'Cause she could use a trip there, and she's just been waiting for you."

Yoda brought the cough under control. When he looked up, Han could see that a lot of years were pressing down on him. "Need medical droids, I do not. What is coming will come."

"Yeah, well, Leia needs them. She's got a hole in her hand thanks to one of you guys."

"Hmmm." Yoda stretched his head up. "Let me look at it."

Footsteps thundered down the ramp, and Wedge appeared. "He needs medical attention," he said. "He's been coughing since Dagobah. And that planet didn't help it any. I doubt he's been dry in twenty years."

"We've been over it already," Han said.

"Yeah. Is he what he says he is?"

Han nodded. "Far as I know. But as far as anyone else knows, he's an Old Republic general that we called in for help."

Wedge nodded and left the hangar.

Yoda had not acknowledged the exchange in any way. He was studying Leia's wound with utmost care, frowning deeply. Han thought maybe he had some magic healing trick up his ragged sleeve, but apparently he didn't, because after the long inspection, he simply said, "A harsh wound, it is, Princess. Need a working hand, you will, before you see your family again."

Leia snapped the cast closed again. "Yes, well, I have other things to attend to. We'll find a place for you close to the treatment rooms. Let the computer know how you like your climate settings. I have a debriefing to plan and -"

Yoda slammed his walking stick down onto the floor of the hanger with a resounding clang. "Concentration you need. Your full attention I need."

"And you'll have it when I'm with you, but -"

"No buts. With your brother, it was always 'I don't believe.' With you, it will be 'Time, I do not have.' Belief, he learned. Time, you will find."

"Hey, whoa," Han said, bending over. He felt kind of low, threatening a sick old guy that much smaller than he was, but enough was enough. "You don't give her orders. You're here at her request."

"Here, I am, because here, the Force needs me to be." Yoda's ears swiveled, and he looked over his shoulder at Leia. "And you, Your Highness, must be trained. Our last hope, you are."

Leia smiled politely. "I recognize your need, Master, and I do need to learn to fight -"

"Need to learn which fight you are in, you do," Yoda said. "Skills you have; you need only practice. But dangerous was Vader's training of your mind. Unlearn what he taught, you must."

"I never took anything he said philosophically seriously."

"Ah, but act on his beliefs, you do. Planning already, you are, to take your revenge for your imprisonment."

Leia stiffened. "I am planning to use intelligence I've obtained to plan a Rebel strike. It is for the good of -"

"For the good of satisfying your anger," Yoda finished. "Need that, you do not."

"You want to watch your mouth," Han said. "Jedi master or not, I'll -"

Yoda was smiling, to Han's surprise. "Brave, you are, Captain Solo. And lucky the Rebellion is to have you. But know, Leia does, where her trial will lie."

"It's going to involve a fight," Leia said. "And I need to be better at it. If all you're going to do is talk philosophy, maybe I need a new hand more." She turned and started to leave.

Yoda spoke softly. "A new hand, you need. But philosophy, you also need. Wait for you I will, Leia Organa. But short, my time grows. Soon, you must come to me in the place where I will be waiting."

Leia's shoulders stiffened, then she nodded without looking back, and swept out of the hangar.

"Like me, you do not, Captain Solo."

Han shrugged. "She's been through a lot already. I don't want you hurting her any more than she's been hurt."

"Heal her I will," Yoda said gently. "But hurt it may, along the way to healing."

"Your Highness?"

Leia turned and smiled at the officer hanging behind her and shook his hand. He said something about it being good to have her back, but was cut off by a young woman to her right, who was absolutely beaming at her.

Leia wanted to ask them their names, but there was no chance. There were people everywhere, milling around her, and she barely had time to register any of them.

"Princess Leia!"

They were happy, most of them, and everyone in the room seemed drawn to her. Trying to catch her eye or shake her hand or to get any kind of attention. She was pleased to oblige.

With very few exceptions, none of the faces that passed by were ones she recognized from her pre-Bespin days. She tried not to linger too long on that thought. She knew how heavy the Rebellion's losses had been in that battle, but had all of those people really died? All of them?

There had been defections as well, many of them, but in recalling the people she felt were missing from this briefing, Leia couldn't figure any of them as being likely to abandon the cause. No matter how desperate things had gotten.

"Your Highness, it is an honor..." Another girl, much younger, so young that she pulled Leia out of her musings completely.

Leia knew she didn't have time to focus on those who were lost, not with the people in this room here and ready to fight. And that was the real story to take from Bespin. That even after Mother's rise to power, there were still people - many people - willing to join the cause.

Most of the newer recruits were watching her with varying degrees of astonishment. Of course, they knew about her former time with the Rebellion, and had been told over and over by Han (and Lando, and Chewie) how she had resisted her parents until the end...and once they knew she was alive, a huge amount of the Rebels' resources were devoted to getting her back. But still, she was Lady Vader's daughter, and there was something bizarre about it all. Leia thought that most of the people clamoring around her were simply trying to reassure themselves that this was all real.

They needed her.

She had spent her few days back at the camp buried in intelligence, trying to get everything she had seen and heard and learned out of her head and into some useful form for the Rebel's officers to turn into plans and strategy. It had been long and exhausting work, and this was essentially her first time out with the rest of the fighters. But it had been worth it. The Rebellion was set with the information, and she thought it might be enough to last them years worth of operations.

But the next operation, the first one since her return...she didn't need help to plan that out. Her mind had been set from the moment she got here. It had been set back in the Imperial Command Center on Naboo.

She shook a few more hands, and gave a few more smiles, and waited as the blur of the crowd continued to move by. The only thing that came through with full clarity was the sensation she got in her hand - her new one - as people grasped it. She had finally gone to have mechanical hand surgically attached a couple of days after she and Han had arrived. A few days had passed since then, and Leia had to admit that Han was right. It wasn't nearly as bad as she had feared. Not quite right, of course, but not hideously unsuitable either. She could live with it.

Han's arm went comfortably around her shoulders, and he began gesturing for everyone to move away from her and take their seats. The buzz in the room eventually died down.

"All right everyone," he said, "we all know why we're here. Normally, I'd be barking out orders and you'd fall all over yourselves trying to carry them out -" some jovial chatter was heard "- but I seem to have been relieved of those duties for now."

"Not relieved," Leia cut in quickly. "You'll just have to learn to share."

He winked at her, then continued. "Leia's back home, where she belongs. And you guys are back in good hands."

With that, he ceded the floor to her and she moved out from under his arm to stand alone and address the group.

"I guess I should have some sort of speech prepared, but...I just hope you all know how wonderful it is to be back. And how proud I am of the Alliance, of all of you, for what you've been able to do in my absence." She paused, feeling she had more to say - much, much more - but she wasn't sure this was the proper time or place for every single thing that was on her mind and in her heart.

They had business to discuss. "I was able to retrieve a great deal of Imperial information during my time at the Palace. All of that information has been given to our officers, but this briefing was called to discuss the Rebellion's next raid."

R2-D2 recognized his cue, and activated the projection screen behind Leia and lowered the lights in the room. An image of Tatooine rose up behind her. The map moved constantly over different areas of the planet, and text information scrolled down the left-hand side of the image.

"We're going to take the fight to them," she declared. "We're going to stop their next phase of 'development' in the Outer Rim before it starts.

"My par- the Vaders have been planning to station a garrison out on Tatooine for quite some time now, and they're nearly ready to deploy the troops and officers all over the planet. I believe we can strike a decisive blow against them before they can prepare for our arrival."

"Your Highness?" ventured one of the officers, "Forgive me, but the Outer Rim has never been of particular strategic importance in the Empire -"

"It is to them," she interrupted bluntly. "There is nothing more important to them. This isn't simply another event where she'll wave to adoring crowds and be whisked away." The scroll behind her paused, highlighting a section on deployment to the planet. "We have to disrupt them before they get a foothold in this section of the galaxy, before they replicate this plan on planets and in systems all over the Empire. The galaxy's mistake will be to think that this will be confined to Tatooine...that it can be confined at all. We know better than that."

The map moved and zoomed again, zeroing in on areas outside several different settlements. "The troops are beginning to move into temporary barracks, where they'll stay until my - the Empress arrives to give them their official orders. Supply ships will be coming to them shortly. Once they have their orders, the troops will be dispersed to several key command centers throughout the planet, centers that are being outfitted as we speak." She looked out to all of them, and then said, "I plan to attack the barracks, the centers and the supply ships. So I'm going to need all of you."

A low murmur rolled through the room, and Leia waited for it to settle. She glanced at Han who nodded and gave her a slight smile. "She'll be there, talking about ending slavery, and restoring order, but what she won't say is that the people who will be jailed and who will...disappear...will outweigh any slaves who are actually freed. Or that order is useless when you can have your property confiscated on a whim...We can't let them hide what they're really doing out there." She turned back to the display and readouts behind her. "They won't be ready for a full battalion assault."

"What about Her Ladyship herself?" asked a voice from the back of the room. Leia wondered idly how many of Han's phrasings the Rebels had picked up. "I know she'll be well-guarded, but we're not going to hit every Imperial on the planet besides her, are we?"

Leia froze.

A tingle danced over her senses and she had the strangest feeling...that Yoda was suddenly watching her, though he had decided not to attend the briefing. She struggled to figure out the answer he was expecting, but it wouldn't come.

"That's not the focus of this mission. I don't want to waste fighters going after Lady Vader when they'll be more productive elsewhere." More murmuring.

"You'll all receive your instructions from your squad leaders," Leia said, finality in her tone. "You're dismissed."

"My love, this is a military matter. There is no need for you to attend to it."

Mother sat down quietly on the austere bench at the front of the briefing room, her face set. "It concerns Leia, Ani. That makes it a family matter, and there is ample need for me to attend to it."

Luke glanced at Father, trying to judge his opinion from the set of his shoulders and the tilt of his head. Father's feelings were often too strong and too contradictory for empathy to be an accurate barometer, but his body language had become distinct over the years, and Luke was getting better at reading it. Right now, his feelings were torn between his desire for her to stay and his concern that she would learn something hurtful. There was also a sneaking impatience, Luke supposed, because Father would want to use methods that he didn't like to talk about in front of Mother, even though she knew about them. They seemed to have an unspoken pact to keep those things... well, unspoken.

His body language was clearer. He placed his large hands on her shoulders for a moment, as though to steady and strengthen her, then stood forward and to the right, the position of a bodyguard.

She would stay. He would protect her from things that would hurt her.

Luke nodded. His own place was clear. He sat down beside Mother and took her left hand to reassure her. She smiled at him brilliantly, a striking contrast to her red-rimmed eyes.

Piett, standing two meters or so away, cleared his throat. "With Your Majesty's leave?" he said.

Mother squeezed Luke's hand and said, "You have leave, Admiral."

Piett took a deep breath, glanced quickly at Father (it was strange, but the military men, while fanatically loyal to Mother, still tended to look to Father first for strength), then pushed a button on a small holoprojector.

Above it, a map of the galaxy floated. It was perhaps three meters to a side, and Luke found himself situated between Gamorr and Barabi. Neither of these planets had been highlighted, but several others in the Outer Rim had been. Ryloth blinked near Piett's hand; Ampinua and La'azum hovered in front of Father's mask. A cluster of highlighted planets was directly above Mother's head. Behind Piett - who was standing roughly at Naboo's position - Tatooine and Geonosis were not flashing, but glowing in an alarming red. Glancing through the map, Luke spotted several other systems marked in that manner.

"High risk areas?" Luke asked, pointing at them.

Piett nodded. "Thankfully, Leia's work was largely on your Outer Rim concerns, and she has little vital knowledge of the strategically important sites in the Core, so much of the damage she can inflict with that knowledge is incidental to the Empire."

Mother's hand tightened. The Outer Rim concerns were not incidental to her.

"The worlds displayed with a flash pattern are worlds which she either was involved with here or has studied independently, but upon which there are no particular targets for her to strike." Piett pointed at Ryloth. "Ryloth, for example, does not have an official Imperial presence, largely because during the Revolution, the Twi'lek slaves were inspired by Her Majesty to overthrow their masters, and have been enthusiastic supporters since."

Luke was nodded. "And it wouldn't look very good for her to attack a native population that's living as it chooses to and has abolished slavery on its own."

"Precisely. The other flashing worlds have similar drawbacks from a Rebel point of view." He looked away nervously. "If Lord Skywalker has a different opinion based on his knowledge of the Rebellion, I would be grateful for the insight."

Mother started to protest - she did not like Luke's past brought up - but Luke gave her hand a squeeze and answered Piett's question. He wondered if someone was going to get around to asking him. Although now it seemed unnecessary... despite the Rebellion's confidence that the Imperial military could not comprehend actions moved by idealism (and that the Rebellion, simply by thinking in terms outside Imperial constructs, was safe), it seemed that Piett did understand the Rebels rather well. "I think you've given an accurate analysis," he said. He glanced at the lesser-alert planets. "I might question La'azum. Few people are... well-disposed toward it. It might be a legitimate target." He frowned. "But it doesn't feel right."

Piett didn't question this. He never questioned such things. He simply keyed a sequence that changed the flashing blue-white of La'azum steady red. "Very well."

"The planets you appear to have chosen as high risk," Father said, "are of greater interest."

"Yes." Piett walked to the first one, far in the Outer Rim. "Mon Cal, of course, has long been a center of Rebel activity. Her Majesty has made some inroads, but sentiment is still rather strongly Rebel. More to the point, the recently opened Imperial consulate in the capital city provides a direct target."

"I will place security on alert," Father said.

"I've already taken the liberty."

"Well done, Admiral," Mother said. "I don't wish our ambassadors to be hurt."

Piett nodded, and moved on to the next. "Kessel is a legitimate positive goal for the Rebels. The supply of both spice and fuel will be attractive."

"Not Leia's style," Luke said. "She won't strike for practicality."

"I was thinking of General Solo."

"Han'll be happy to have Leia back in charge. He's a good leader, but he never wanted to be in the Rebellion in the first place."

Kessel switched from steady red to blinking blue-white.

Piett moved to the area that contained several red planets, one of which, naturally, was Naboo. It also included Geonosis, Tatooine, Rodia, and Indala. "As you can see, we are in the middle of what I would consider something of a 'hot spot. 'Naboo is always a high-risk target, and Leia is very familiar with both the layout of Theed and the security at the Palace. I consider Naboo to be her most likely target."

"It is rather well-guarded for the Rebellion," Father pointed out. "Our intelligence does not report the vast numbers required to attack the capitol."

"I believe we should not take risks with the possibility that our intelligence is incomplete. We've had operatives in the Rebellion since Bespin, but none are highly placed. There may be matters about which they have not been informed."

Father nodded. "Go on, Admiral."

"As a result, I believe that we should increase security here." He looked acutely uncomfortable. "And that Her Majesty should refrain from travel, particularly within the Outer Rim, until this crisis is resolved."

Mother looked up sharply. "I beg your pardon, Admiral?"

"Your Majesty, I beg your forgiveness. But as a strategic analyst, I must point out the possibility that... "

"That my daughter will try to assassinate me?"

"That she may... consider it a sacrifice for the sake of the Rebellion. My Lady, please understand that I must point this out... "

"Leia is not going to try to kill me. It's not in her nature." Mother blanched suddenly, and covered her face with her hands, but did not share whatever thought had gone through her mind. "Leia will not try to assassinate me, and I will not allow the Rebels' foolishness to prevent our work in the Outer Rim. There's still too much to do."

"Yes, Your Majesty," Piett said. "As you wish." He went back to the briefing. "Indala feared Palpatine's Empire after a street riot caused the destruction of an Imperial boarding school, and Her Majesty's government has continued the prosecution of those who seem to bear responsibility."

"As would be expected," Father said. "A crime of that magnitude is not erased by a change of government. Over one hundred boys died."

"My nephew was among them." Piett sighed. "I did not mean to question the decision. I consider it a good one, though of course my opinion is of little interest. I simply meant to point out that the New Empire does not hold the popularity on Indala that it holds elsewhere, and that the tribunal court, like the embassy on Mon Cal, provides a legitimate Rebel target."

Luke shook his head. "No. I don't think so. Leia never said a word about those tribunals. I can't imagine that she would oppose them."

"She will see it as an inroad to the military," Father said. "It is a possibility worth considering."

The status of the planet did not change. Piett moved on to Geonosis and Tatooine, casting baleful red light on one another. "There isn't much left on Geonosis after the Clone Wars, but it is an historically significant site, has many deposits of iron ore, and factories which could be refurbished. More to the point, Imperial control of the prison system there is a favorite propaganda point among the Rebels. They claim hypocrisy at the punishment of Geonosians while the Empire uses Geonosian technology. And... " He sighed. "And - again I beg Her Majesty's forgiveness - it is a place known to be of personal significance to you."

"As a place I loathe."

"It is nevertheless an historical site associated with you. The Ladies' Philanthropic Association has been making a concerted effort to open a museum there. It was delayed for several months by problems within the system, but the opening will occur next month. Your Majesty has seen the reports."

"I do not wish to disappoint the people. But my daughter will know I loathe the world of Geonosis, and if you are determined to assume that she wishes to hurt me, a strike at Geonosis hardly seems the most obvious course."

Piett nodded. The status changed. "Very well, Your Majesty. But you should perhaps not attend the opening of the museum."

"Her Majesty was otherwise occupied in any case," Father said. Mother smiled slightly.

"Which brings us to Tatooine," Piett said. "Again, a world historically tied to all of you, and therefore of high interest to Leia. The garrisons are set to be opened soon. It would be an unusual target for the Rebellion - difficult to attack a full garrison in hostile environmental conditions - but I also consider it a high probability."

There was no argument.

"Finally, Coruscant itself. It is high profile, centrally located, and certainly associated with you both. A symbolic retaking of the Senate and the Old Imperial district could quite easily occur - it has not been well-guarded since the capital was moved to Naboo, and Leia is quite familiar with the world and its inhabitants from her years in the Senate. This would be psychologically devastating. Coruscant was the capital for millennia. The people of the Empire, regardless of the official relocation of the capital, will see the taking of Coruscant as a powerful move, and will look to it for direction. Under no circumstance should we allow the Senate to be taken."

Mother nodded. "Of course. Perhaps I shouldn't have moved back to... "

"The capital will be wherever it pleases you, my love," Father said briefly, then looked up at Piett. "Covering all of these locations may spread our resources more thinly than is optimal. I would concentrate security on Coruscant, Naboo, and Tatooine. The others are possibilities, but I consider them unlikely. Postpone the Geonosis event indefinitely. Put all other likely targets on high alert. An attack is coming. Leia will want to prove herself to the Rebellion by a public repudiation -"

"Ani... "

"It is a fact we must face, my love. Were I in her position, I would do the same."

Luke absurdly found himself wanting to laugh. He had never considered it before, but Father was right: what he would do might well be a good indication of what she would do.

Mother pursed her lips and looked stubbornly away (she seemed to be focusing somewhere near the Kashyyyk system), crossing her arms over her chest in a defensive way. But she didn't argue.

"Lord Skywalker, do you have any tactical hypotheses about how the Rebellion might choose to attack?"

Luke looked at the various planets. "They'll go with the environment when they can," he said. "On the dry planets - Tatooine or Geonosis - they'll dress for the desert and try to draw out troopers in full armor at midday. On forested worlds, they'll keep it in the woods where some of our technology won't work right. And if they go for Coruscant, Han'll be able to get street fighting organized." He shrugged. "You're doing better at making the Imperial military adaptable, but we still have some problems that held over from Palpatine. Leia will know about them. The whole Rebellion knows about them."

"I beg your pardon?"

Luke shrugged. "The old Empire was pretty rigid. The Rebels liked to play on it, snap it where it was brittle. Leia knows we've been working on that, but we're still not quite as likely to be... unconventional."


Luke shook his head. Nothing would be able to be implemented before Leia's attack, because what they really needed was to learn to fight and think like Rebels, and that wasn't going to happen overnight.

"We have thus far avoided attacking the various encampments intelligence has reported," Father said. "Her Majesty has not wished to acknowledge the Rebellion as a threat -"

"I still believe they can be convinced to join us," Mother said from far away. "We can't hit them."

Father waited respectfully for her to finish, then went on. "A direct assault on one of the training facilities or medical bases may well prevent any assault they plan to make."

Piett nodded. He would not formally disagree with Mother, but it was obvious that he agreed with Father here. "Leia was never given access to military research due to lingering -" Mother looked up sharply, and Piett looked away before continuing. "Due to her emotional attachment to her former life," he said. "She is unaware of many weapons under development, some of which do in fact address the environmental issues Lord Skywalker mentioned. Shall I plan an assault?"

"No," Mother said.

"My love... "

"No, you will not plan an assault, Admiral. I will not have the Empire behave as it did under Palpatine. And I will not risk Leia's life. She may choose to risk it herself, though I wish she would not, but I will not instigate the risk." She rose with dignity. "That is my final word on the matter, and it will be respected."

She left the room, veils trailing behind her.

Piett sighed. "My Lord?"

Father didn't look at him. "She is your Empress, and her word is the law."

"Yes, my Lord."

"Prepare a briefing on these matters to senior staff and tacticians. And be prepared for a retaliatory strike, should one become necessary."

"Yes, my Lord." Piett bowed and left.

"Father, do you think she's wrong?"

"I think that she has closed off an avenue which would prevent an assault, but she is better-versed in politics than either of us. I will defer to her judgment."

"Father, she -"

Father cocked his head to one side, a challenge Luke had learned early on. It said, Do not presume to complete that thought. You will regret it if you do.

"I'll start working on her security details," Luke said. "If she's going to go on with her appearances, then she'll need them."

"Very well. I will... review the military research to which Piett is certain Leia had no access." His voice never betrayed sarcasm, but Luke was certain it was present anyway.

"Come to see me, have you, Your Highness?"

Leia pulled a smile up from somewhere. "I promised I would come, Master Yoda. I keep my promises. I've brought my... well, my brother's lightsaber."

"Hmmm." Yoda held out his hand and Leia handed him the lightsaber. "Ah, yes. Your father's, it was, as well." He handed it back. "Good, it is, for such a weapon to be away from the darkness."

"Where would you like to begin training?" Leia stood in the combat pose Father had taught her, and ignited the lightsaber. "I've gotten better at levitation, but my saber skills are nowhere near enough to face Luke, let alone my father."

"Stay and talk, you should. Sit, sit. Tea, I've brewed. A meal, your droids can bring." Yoda sat down on the child's chair that Han had dug up somewhere for him, coughed loudly, then smiled. "My cookfire, I miss, but good it is to have many hands ready to help."

"I really don't have time to sit and talk, Yoda. There's so much to do. We're planning to hit the new garrisons on -"

He banged his cane on the floor. "Your attention I need! Your concentration!"

"To train or to have a chat about the kitchen droids?"

Yoda coughed again, a long and grinding one that alarmed Leia. She went to him and soothed it by rubbing his back, as she remembered her adoptive mother doing when she'd had the Rensilian flu as a child. The fit passed, and he held up a shaky hand. "Thank you," he said. "A kind heart, you have. Like your father once did. Tell you, did he, that he helped sometimes with the children in the Temple? Fond of him, they were. In the before." He sighed, coughed, sighed again. His large eyes closed.

Leia bit her tongue, not sure if it was against her irritation at being compared to Vader or against a laugh that was struggling to escape at the image of Vader - cape, mask, and all - pint-sized and babysitting. "Master Yoda," she said, "while I appreciate your attempt to speak well of my parents, I really do need to attend to several things today."

Yoda opened his eyes and shook his head. "Attend to them, you should then. When present you can be, return."

Leia frowned and resisted responding. She did have a lot to do, assignments to send out, meetings to take with strategists and tacticians. She was happy to help the Jedi Order come back to life if she could, but her first priority was the Rebellion. The Order would have to work around it.

And she did not feel guilty about it.

Han never thought he'd see the day when he wished Threepio were around. The translator droids the Rebellion did have were probably pretty good, probably good enough to send along with Lando and get the job done... but he wasn't sure. That was the thing. Threepio had been an annoyance and a headache, but his language database and processor, Han grudgingly admitted, were really high end.

"Don't worry about it," Lando said for the eighth time. "This one will be fine. Right, Sixotoo?"

The droid, basically a vocoder and processor with six insectile legs, didn't answer.

"Well, at least he won't talk your ears off," Han said. "You sure about this?"

"You assigned me to it."

"That's 'cause you can charm a settler out of his last working vaporator." Han looked over his shoulder. "Leia says the Tuskens are our best friends on Tatooine, but they're dangerous. I've heard stories. I think I'd feel safer in Jabba's court."

Lando grinned. "The way she's making alliances, she'll have you there in a week, trying to get his guard to attack the new garrison. She's good, Han. I'm glad to see her in action."

"I'd forgotten how good." Han shook his head. "I'm not sure I ever knew how good. We were in hiding from Yavin to Hoth. Never had much of a chance to see her do this. She's good."

Lando secured another supply crate to the gravsled at his side, then sent it up the ramp into the transport he and Chewie were taking to Tatooine. "You sending anyone to the settlers?"

"Probably not. Leia thinks they'll sympathize with Luke. The Tuskens are a safer bet."

"She's probably right." He frowned. "But if you do decide to talk to them, you might want to make sure they know I'm dealing with the Tuskens. We don't want them to walk out when we need them, just because they see we're playing both sides."

"I know. Bad enough Chewie's hitting the spaceports to look for spies. The spacers and the farmers don't much like each other, but at least they're not trying to wipe each other out." He sighed. "What a mess."

"That's the Outer Rim. Sooner or later somebody's got to clean it up. Too bad the Vaders are... well, the Vaders."

"No kidding."

A few barks and a short howl - directions to the droid fuelling up the ship - announced Chewie's presence. Han raised a hand that was half wave, half summons, and Chewie loped over.

"You all set?" Han asked when he got there.

Chewie ticked off a list of supplies he'd packed, then shrugged an affirmative.

"Good. You watch yourself, okay, pal?"

The answer was brief and impatient - Chewie wanted to get on with things.

"All right, then." Han put one hand on Lando's shoulder and the other on Chewie's arm. "Send word by code when you get to Tatooine, so we know Her Ladyship didn't grab you along the way. Do what you can. And if you're in trouble, go to the one place they'll never think to look for you - the wreck of Luke's farm. He won't figure anyone else will go there, and I'm betting he won't want to take a tour if he drops by. Other things to think about these days." He grimaced. Maybe a trip by the old homestead Luke had talked about incessantly after Yavin - the place he'd been so glad to get away from that he couldn't stop thinking about it for ten minutes - would do the kid a galaxy of good. But he didn't think it would be a welcome suggestion. "Don't use your comlink there. If we haven't heard from you for two days, we'll come looking for you there."

"Got it. Watch yourself, Han. We'll see you on the other side of the battle."

The idea that there may not be an other side for any of them wasn't brought up. "Good. See you then."

Lando and Chewie were swallowed up by their ship, and the ship was swallowed by space.

Han stayed in the hangar alone for a long time.

"You know, I don't like this."

His voice strained with uneasiness, and Leia tried to give Han her best reassuring look as they drifted to a stop in the hallway outside of the main hangar. She was sure she wasn't pulling it off very well.

"I don't like it much either, Han."

"So then wait awhile," he said quietly. "Give me a little time to straighten things out here, and we can leave for Tatooine together. It won't take all that long."

Leia crossed her arms over her chest and let her eyes drop to the floor. She was tempted - maybe there was someone else she could send out today to take care of things, even though most of the people she really trusted had already left on various assignments. Was anything she planned on doing so important that she had to leave Han?


She shook her head abruptly, as much to clear out her thoughts as anything else. This was not the time to start doubting herself. "You know I don't want to leave you...but I have to be there. I probably should have been there earlier. I don't feel like I can wait any longer, honestly."

Almost on cue, the hangar echoed with the sounds of Leia's ship coming to life as the mechanics finished the preparations for her flight. Han sighed and leaned back against the wall, staring across the hallway at her.

"Why?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"Why what?"

"Why do you have to be there?" Han shrugged. "Look, I'm not trying to second-guess you here. And I know I'd want to be there. If they were my parents -"


"If they were my parents," he continued, "I wouldn't want anyone else handling things for me."

"Don't do this," Leia pleaded. "This is the biggest offensive the Rebellion has ever even thought about attempting. There's a lot of legwork we need to do on Tatooine. I'm the leader of this mission..." She stepped across the hallway to him. "I do have legitimate reasons for being there."

"I know, I know." His hands rested on her shoulders and pulled her close. "I just worry about the other reasons."

"They won't even be there. And you forget, I was the Outer Rim point-person for Her Majesty. I'll bet they're having trouble even getting to Tatooine without me around."

"I'm sure they are," he answered. His head ducked down so that his eyes could search hers out. "Be careful, Leia. Don't go and do anything crazy before I get there."

"And make you miss all the fun? Not a chance."

His reply was to simply kiss her cheek. They lingered there in the hallway for some time, with her feeling very comfortable in his arms.

She wasn't happy when Yoda approached.

She tried to ignore him as he entered the far end of the hallway. But she was sensing Yoda more acutely now - he was the first non-family Jedi she had been exposed to, and she was surprised how different his signature was compared to Vader's or Luke's. There was something pure and focused about it that she knew none of them had. She wondered if Vader had ever had it...before. She doubted it.

Yoda's cane was making a tapping noise that bounced off the walls as he struggled toward them. Han heard it and immediately looked up to call out to him. "Hey, should I hope you're here to give her some sage advice about Tatooine?"

Yoda made a funny noise - it almost sounded like a giggle to Leia, and she nearly laughed in response. "Have plenty of advice to give, I do. Yes, yes. But that is not why I am here. Going with you to Tatooine, I am."


"Busy you are, Princess. I know -"

"Master -"

"I must be there. Find time for my teachings, you might." He almost smirked at her. "Miss that, I cannot."

"Master Yoda," Leia began, "I don't mean to difficult, or disrespectful, but I'm going to be busier on Tatooine than I've been here." She withdrew from Han's embrace and knelt before him, looking at his frail form with concern. "And you're in no condition to travel; certainly not to a desert."

"Face your family, will you? Without a single lesson?" His little hands folded on the top of his cane, and his ears pulled down as he frowned at her. "Wish to fight them, you do...but you cannot without learning more."

Leia closed her eyes tightly and bit her lip. She was tired of intimations that she doing all of this merely out of a need for revenge. That wasn't true. It wasn't.

"Coming with you, I am."

"All right, all right," she said, and glanced back in time to catch Han's surprised expression. She rolled her eyes. "You should be happy. I can't get myself into too much trouble with a Jedi looking over my shoulders."

"Sure," Han said. "Just great." He frowned at Yoda and added, "You better at least take a medical droid with you, sweetheart."

Leia nodded, and Han headed into the hangar to take care of it. She smiled at Yoda and stood up, towering over him. "I guess it's time to go." Yoda began ambling along ahead of her.

They found the small transport ship completely ready to go, and a medical droid was rolling up the ramp. Yoda followed it slowly. Han was at the bottom, furrowing his brow at the Jedi. "The two of you will have fun."


"Take care of yourself, Princess," he said before giving her a soft kiss goodbye.

"I will."

She gave his hand a final squeeze before turning away and walking up the ramp.

Yoda was waiting for her in the co-pilot's chair - Leia couldn't figure out how he climbed into it - with his eyes closed as though he were meditating. She decided not to disturb him, and instead got the ship out of the hangar and into the sky, shooting toward space.

He remained perfectly quiet and still as they passed through the orbit. Leia decided that it was a good thing - at least he wasn't coughing or shaking any more. She wasn't convinced that her med droid knew much of anything about treating Yoda's species...whatever that might be. He looked so calm and content; she couldn't help smiling at him.

"Happy with me, you will not be, Princess. There is much to discuss."

"Then go ahead, Master. We have some time before we reach Tatooine."

The eyes flew open, but he did not look at her. "Practical, you wish your training to be. Oblige you, I will."

Leia's eyebrows arched with skepticism.

"For now, at least," Yoda conceded. "Immediate concerns, there are, which you have not yet considered."

"No," Leia shook her head. "You're wrong. You think I'm not worried about them sensing me on the planet? I am. I've learned to block my thoughts from them...but I can't tell how well I'm doing it. I don't think I block my presence completely. I don't want to endanger the mission, and I don't want to face them yet." Yoda's head turned to her then, and his eyes narrowed on her. "Yes, I know, you think I'm on a revenge mission, but I have no desire whatsoever to see my father again. At all."

"Unresolved are your feelings, Your Highness. Angry you are at them - and confused. Dangerous that is." Yoda shifted in his chair to fully face her. "But promise to be practical, I did. Teach you to hide yourself, I shall."

"That is practical," Leia told him, with a grin on her face. "But I feel that they...they know me too well."

"Perhaps. But try, we must. Clear your mind, and draw the Force to you. A protective shield it can be. Let it cover you, conceal your thoughts."

"How?" she said, as she tried to picture the Force enveloping her and hiding her. She couldn't grasp onto the image solidly enough.

"Concentrate," Yoda intoned. "Difficult this is, hard. Control your emotions, or betray you they will."

She felt Yoda guiding her, and she tried to let him as much as she could. But it was still uncomfortable having him floating around in her mind. He was not being intrusive, but her motivation to get him to stop helping her pushed her to follow his direction as best she could, trying to get her shielding to a point where he was blocked out from her.

She heard him sigh sharply and start another coughing fit. "You must stop learning for spite," he said emphatically. "Trust, Princess. Surrender to the Force, you must."

He sounded like Vader, but she didn't say that to him. Instead, she asked, "But did I do it right?"

"The point, that is not."

"Master Yoda...I am trying. I am. I understand what you're saying. But you're asking a lot of me." Leia shrugged. "I am trying."

"And that is the first step, Princess," Yoda said kindly. "But come the rest of the way willingly, you have to. Pull you along, I cannot." Yoda hopped off the chair more nimbly than she would have expected. "Tired, I am. Rest, yes, rest...Leia?"


"When reach Tatooine, we near Mos Eisley. Know it, do you?"

She nodded. "I know that's where Luke grew up. But that wasn't where I was planning to -"

"If trying you are, listen to me, you will. Work, you can do from there. And it is there that your training will begin." The Master turned away, and walked slowly to his quarters.

Han stayed in the hangar until tracking reported that Leia's ship had jumped into hyperspace.

I ought to be there with her. Someone else can close up shop here.

Not true, of course. He'd gotten this base started, and it was his responsibility, just as much as the Tatooine raid was Leia's. Maybe if they were really closing up shop, someone else could handle the actual shut-down, but as it was, most of the combat troops (all of the better-performing squadrons) were headed to Tatooine, leaving the administrative corps of the Rebellion behind with only a few guards. Han wanted to make damned sure that they weren't in danger.

He made his way to the command center first. Most of the people here were young and inexperienced. One or two were teenagers. Han had objected to their enlistment - objected strenuously - but they were orphans, and in the end, they had nowhere else to go. Better to keep them here in administration, relatively safe, then to turn them out into the galaxy to fend for themselves. Han had been there. It was doable, but what the hell... if he could lend a hand to some other kid, why not do it? Better him than Her Ladyship, anyway.

To his surprise, Leia had shrugged it off when she'd gotten here. Apparently, she'd been considerably younger when she started running with the Rebellion, and, while she was concerned for their safety, she didn't see anything unusual in their desire to be in the fight.

"All clear, Captain?" one of them asked, slithering down off a catwalk and landing in an easy crouch. She straightened up and smiled at him. She had been trying to get him to allow her into the combat units for seven months now.

"Everything's a go, Redenou. You're going to break something jumping around the command center like that."

"Oh. Sorry." The girl glanced nervously at a bank of data readers.

"I meant your ankle or something," Han said. "But it wouldn't hurt to look out for the equipment, too."

"It's not too late to get me out of here." Redenou grinned. "Come on, General. I can hitch to Tatooine with you. I'll be great."

"You'll be dead of heat stroke in about thirty minutes. Do you know how hot Tatooine is? It makes Ledaga look comfortable, and you've been complaining about the heat since we got here."

Redenou stuck her tongue out playfully. Wedge had found her on Dhavea, a world just coming out of an ice age, the sole survivor of a human outpost wiped out by plague (she believed, on no evidence Han could ascertain, that the plague had been engineered by Palpatine and tested on her village). Han often found her wandering the food lockers, just trying to cool down.

"Do me a favor and run a comm check," he said.

"Sure thing. I mean, yes, Sir."

"We're taking the battle away from here, but I want to be able to contact you and evacuate you right away if things turn around."

Redenou ran a scan of the comm system. "Everything's up."

"Are you picking up Lando's signal on Tatooine?"

She checked. "Loud and clear."

"Okay. Check my transmitter."

She took small portable transmitter off the table and plugged it into a scanner, then shrugged. "Looking good."

Han picked it up and tucked it under his left arm. "Now, if I call you on this thing from Tatooine and tell you to get the hell out of here, what are you going to do?"

"Get the hell out," Redenou said, frowning and wrinkling her nose. "Bet we could take 'em, though."

"You'd make a lousy gambler, Redenou. That's a bad bet."

She sniffed. "Yeah, well. Anyway, that Ledagan chief is here to see you. I told him I wasn't sure if you were still here. Do you want me to tell him you're gone?"

Han's insides sank a few inches. It wasn't going to be a clean departure, that was for sure. "No, I'll talk to him."

"Okay. He's out in the exercise yard. Didn't want to come inside."

Han nodded and headed out. The Ledagans had been a complete surprise. The Rebellion had always made it a practice to build bases far from civilian populations, and since Alderaan, Leia had been adamant about using worlds that were otherwise altogether uninhabited. Han had done his best to keep to that when he'd found this place, but Ledaga had never been properly surveyed, and since the Ledagans were burrowers, with all their building in vast underground caverns, their civilization hadn't been apparent from surface scans. The base had been built and fully operational for a year before the Rebellion had discovered its sentient neighbors. Leia had been displeased to learn about this, but she knew that moving the base at this point, particularly when she was planning the raid, was more trouble than it was worth. Even Leia was willing to admit that the Vaders weren't likely to build another Death Star.

The chief was standing at the base of a tree, chatting comfortably with a translator droid in the high-pitched, trilling Ledagan language. Han raised an arm in a greeting. "Aziti!" he called. "Good to see you."

Aziti turned toward his voice - Han was almost sure the Ledagans' eyesight was poor to non-existent, though he'd never asked - and made a whistling sound through his long front teeth. His long, thick whiskers rose and fell in a deliberate pattern. Han recognized it as a greeting.

"What can I do for him?" Han asked the translator droid. Experience had taught him that the Ledagans would refuse to treat the translator droid as a tool. They seemed to view it as a semi-divine entity, allowing them to communicate in ways that had been previously impossible.

The droid did not have a head to turn or a face to direct. Like Lando's droid, it was a vaguely arachnid model, just a vocoder on legs. A few red lights indicated that it was working. Its voice was metallic. "Chief Aziti says he has been told by the gods that the planet will shake soon."

Han put on his best smile. "Well, let's hope the gods are just being real careful."

The droid translated, and Aziti went into a long explanation. Han listened - he was picking up a few words, but not enough to keep up - then waited for the translation. The words sounded strange in the techno-centered voice of the droid. "The deep rock cries out from strain, and the god of the hotlands rumbles beneath. The digger god hears a sound like steam."

"Dammit," Han whispered. The droid didn't translate. The seismic monitors had been picking up a few tremors. If the Ledagans lived by the lay of the land, maybe they could sense things on their own. And maybe they knew their world well enough to know when a tremor was just a tremor, and when it was a warm-up for the big show.

Aziti regarded him silently, small, round black eyes expressing nothing. The fur on his face was unruffled and neatly slicked.

"Well, thank him for the warning," Han said to the droid. "I'll get us set up."

Aziti frowned at the translation, and explained something more carefully.

"What is it?" Han asked.

The droid processed it. "Chief Aziti did not come to warn. He says that upper levels are safe. Broken walls, but no drowning in soil, as there will be below. He has come to ask for your help, not offer his own."

"Oh. Well, what can we do for him?"

"He asks leave to take shelter here on the base, if the earthquakes begin."

Han bit his lip. Living nearby was one thing... he worried enough about battles that way. But actually putting civilians on the military base?

Han had military training, but when it came down to it, he was feeling his way around here, based on a few general ideas about how to fight a war, and even more general ideas that he classed under "How to be a good guy," a subject on which he'd never imagined trying to find guidance. One of these ideas, boiled down to its essence, was, Good guys don't hide behind civilians. "I don't know," he said.

Aziti spoke at length, then looked up hopefully.

"The chief says he will harm nothing, and they will not come here until the shaking becomes dangerous. It may not. Sometimes, the god of the hotlands only mumbles in his sleep, then falls silent again. But in the last shaking season, fifty were lost when a tunnel caved in. He wishes only safe haven."

"I... " Han sighed. What was he supposed to say to that? Sorry, but I can't give you a place to shelter against something that's probably going to happen because I'm afraid of exposing you to something that's probably not going to happen?

"What the hell," he muttered. "Okay, tell him that he can bring 'em here if they need to be someplace. But they can't stay afterward. It's not as safe as I want it to be."

The droid relayed the information, and Aziti smiled graciously and touched his palm to his forehead, an action that Han had decided was the Ledagan equivalent of bowing. Han bowed in return, and Aziti slipped back into the woods.

If it was a bad decision, it was a bad decision.

At least they were taking the battle away from Ledaga. It wasn't like the Empire was the one doing the attacking this time.

The air on Tatooine at dusk was cooler and crisper than Yoda had anticipated. The sand was still harsh against his skin every time the wind kicked it up at him, but generally, he found the climate healing to his fragile state.

And the Force - the Force was powerful here. That could only help. He had never been to this planet before, but had suspected that the echoes of Anakin and Luke would still be present. They definitely were.

Leia was clearly picking up on this, and it was agitating her, though she had remained silent since they landed. She had found a small dune surrounded by scraggly rocks to hide the ship in, and now they were making the short trip from there to Obi-Wan's old hovel. Yoda had gotten the sense from her that she wanted to carry him there - she was that worried about him trying to walk through the desert - but she couldn't quite bring herself to ask him if she should. She stayed behind him, walking slowly beside the med droid, musing over him, and over many things about the planet.

Yoda had not told her where they were going or why he had been so insistent on landing outside Mos Eisley. He was pleased that she had accepted his orders with a minimum of questioning and complaint. He knew that in her heart, Leia truly wanted to do the right thing. He could sense that on some level she even wanted to trust him. Yoda wondered if she'd ever be able to unlearn her fears and suspicions.

He thought so. He hoped so.

Yoda stared into the sunset, watching the second of Tatooine's suns lower slowly beneath the horizon. He could see Obi-Wan's home just ahead of him.

Leia frowned, and broke her silence. "That's not Luke's old home."

"No, no," Yoda replied. "Sense, can you, whose home it is?"

Leia furrowed her brow and carefully scrutinized the outside of the hut. She seemed confused. "There isn't another Jedi around, is there?"

Yoda shook his head. "No. Dead for several years has Obi-Wan been. But here, his presence is. That is what you feel."

"This was General Kenobi's home?" she asked incredulously. "You Jedi sure pick interesting places to live out your days." It was a few seconds before the sense of what she said struck her, and she quickly added, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that you were...I know that you're sick, but that doesn't mean..."

"Don't apologize, Princess," Yoda said with a smile. "Old, I am. Know that, I do." She simply sighed.

They arrived at the home and Yoda led them inside, quickly taking a seat in what served as Obi-Wan's common room. The med droid tootled over to a corner and shut itself down for the night. Leia, her curiosity piqued, began roaming throughout the house, combing through piles and picking things out of them.

"What are you looking for, Princess?" Yoda called out to her.

"I don't know," she replied. "I heard about General Kenobi for years, growing parents never really talked about him as a Jedi though. I never did get the chance to meet him..."

"Well, know how he arranged things, I do not. A mess this place is." Leia came out of one of the back rooms and smiled at him. "But sure, I am, that there is plenty here of interest to you."

"Yes," said a third voice, "there is."

Yoda was pleased to see Obi-Wan materialize. He seemed to have recovered from whatever had happened to him when he had tried to speak to Luke.

Leia's eyes widened. But something told her to accept this as normal, and she quietly ventured, "General Kenobi?"

He nodded. "It is a pleasure to meet you properly, Your Highness. It is a shame we could not do so earlier." He gestured toward the room she had just exited from. "There are items in there that I think you should see."

"Can either one of you explain why you insist on me seeing my parents as something as other than what they are?" she said with sharp frustration.

"Because," Obi-Wan said simply, "what they were is just as important. You want to put up barriers and breaks where they do not exist."

Leia gave him an incredulous look. "If I understood correctly, you were the ones who put those 'barriers' up for Luke. Is all this just a result of you both being unable to lie to me the way you did to him? You sent Luke off ready to kill our parents, but with me -"

"Left, Luke did, before able to instruct him properly we were," Yoda interrupted. "Take responsibility for our choices we do, but made under difficult circumstances, they were."

"Jedi history is so intertwined with your family," Obi-Wan said in a resigned, almost wistful tone. "We can no longer afford the luxury of you approaching one without understanding the other."

Leia rubbed her temples and let out a long, tired breath. "I suppose this would fall under 'trying'?" she asked Yoda. He nodded. Leia left the room in a huff, and Yoda and Obi-Wan listened to her rummage around. Eventually, she made a decision, and Obi-Wan's small holoprojector started running.

Yoda couldn't see what she was watching from his seat in the common room. He saw her face, bathed in the blue glow from the holos, and watched her as she viewed a few seconds here and there from each of Obi-Wan's recordings. Surprise was etched on her face throughout, along with concern and uncertainty.

"Good for her it is, to see her parents this way," Yoda murmured to Obi-Wan.

"I wish I had kept more of them...I wish I had more of everything. What's in this house can't explain enough to her."

Yoda didn't answer. They watched Leia for several minutes in silence.

"Do you plan to test her, Master?" Obi-Wan asked.

"Yes. Done, it must be."

Obi-Wan watched Leia for awhile longer, then allowed himself to quietly disappear.

Yoda strained to lower himself from his chair, and went to join Leia in the other room. She was looking at the celebration that followed the Battle of Naboo, watching her parents smiling at one another. She glanced down at Yoda and shrugged. "They're so...young...I've been looking at so many of these and...I don't know. I don't know what to think. I don't know what it is that you want me to think."

Yoda poked at her with his cane. "Meditate on these things, you should." Leia rolled her eyes, but Yoda ignored her and continued. "Go out into dunes, you should. Search out meaning in the images."

Leia looked out the nearest window, into the night that had now almost completely fallen over the desert. She wrapped her arms around herself and shook her head uncertainly. "Something's wrong. That's why you want me to go out there."

"Afraid, are you?" Yoda asked.

"Shouldn't I be?"

"Go, you must, Princess."

Leia wandered out into the Tatooine night, feeling a sense of dread consume her. Yoda and General Kenobi were watching her, that much was clear.

Meditate...well, she could try it, at least.

Leia found herself drawn to a small depression in the sand, and slid down into it. She looked up at the moons and the stars, and wondered if Luke and Vader had once done the same.

With that thought on her mind, Leia let herself fall into a meditative trance. It came very quickly - she usually had trouble calming herself - and soon her surroundings had dropped away completely.

She was back on Naboo, on the plains, running frantically from her family. She was on foot this time, and Han and the others were not with her. Her saber - Luke's saber, her father's saber - was ignited. They were following her, and she could hear her mother's voice trailing behind her.

"Leia! Come back to me!"

She continued to run.

"I need you here, with me!"

She could not listen. Those words were a trap leading her back to the Empire, to the Dark Side...

"My dear, precious daughter! Come back!"

Leia came to a sudden stop and whirled around, slashing wildly with her saber at the air behind her. She needed Mother's voice to stop. Her saber hit nothing, but Leia kept up her fight, swinging as hard as she could, until finally, she was exhausted and panting.

She turned around to continue running forward, to reach the area of the plains where Han's ship had been. She was moving much more slowly now, and Mother's voice still rang in her ears.

Just as on Naboo, Leia did not sense him coming until it was too late.

Vader seemed to materialize directly in her path, and Leia came to a screeching halt. She pulled up her lightsaber between them, and was surprised when he did not do the same in return. She looked up in the sky above him for Luke, but there was no one up there, and Vader's speeder was nowhere to be found.

Her surprise only lasted a moment. Leia reared back to swing at Vader, and took a clear, strong slice...which seemed to go right through him. He looked at her, completely unaffected. Then he stared past her, to where Mother's voice was coming from.

She swung again, and again she hit nothing. He continued to focus on his attention on Mother, refusing to fight her. He barely acknowledged her.

Frustrated, Leia turned from her father and saw Mother approaching, red veils thrown back and trailing softly behind her. Her hands were outstretched, reaching toward them.

"Won't you come back?"

Leia's saber seemed to be buzzing very loudly in her ear. Her arms were nearly shaking with the urge to take another swing. She had the feeling that with her mother, the blow would connect. Vader would try to stop her, of course, but would he be able to do so?

Her mother's face pleaded with her. Vader stood there and waited.

Leia pulled back, and Mother gasped in shock...and Leia watched as her face changed, morphing into the beautiful, younger woman Leia had seen in those holos. She looked so different. She almost looked Leia?

Leia was suddenly shaken with horror, and she forcibly wrenched herself out of the vision. She was instantly back sitting in the sand dune, frightened and shaking. Yoda was standing above her, looking down at her.

Leia ran her hands through her hair, and stared at the sand for several minutes. Questions, so many questions, ran through her mind. She finally managed to focus on one. "Master can I face them?"

"Have within you the strength, Leia," he replied. He frowned deeply. "Control, you must learn."

Vader had not yet visited the new munitions development laboratory.

There was no good reason for it, and as he traveled across the broken plains to the remote, craggy hills where it had been hidden away, the true reason stared blankly at him: He had allowed himself to fall into Amidala's fantasy, as he always did. It pleased her to have him in the Palace, overseeing its repair. It was done under the auspices of security, and he had justified it to himself as a necessary thing, for the sake of the twins' training... but in truth, he had simply fallen into her vision, and the engineering of the Palace had taken precedence over the engineering of the military. He had allowed other men to see to it while he had seen to walls and frescoes.


There was a lie to be told, a comfortable lie, in which he did it only because it pleased Amidala, but Vader loathed lies, even those he was tempted to tell himself. In truth, he did it because it pleased him, deeply, in a way that Imperial munitions did not and never had. He took pleasure in the rebuilding, in seeing the grand arches form again, in seeing the bas relief murals chiseled from stone under his hand. There were times deep in the night, after he had carried Amidala from his chamber to her bed, after she had drifted off to sleep, when he could come to the unfinished world of the shattered hallways and almost forget about the mask and the respirator, almost lose himself in the work. It was the same reason he modified the speeders for his own personal use, though that, at least, had some practical justification, as Leia had proved.

You are weak, the memory of Palpatine's voice whispered into his mind. You have neglected great power for the sake of a mediocre craftsman's pride.

It sounded right - it was certainly what Palpatine would have said. For that matter, it was what Obi-Wan would have said, replacing "great power" with "duty," of course.

And they would both be right. It was a great power, and it was his duty to control it. He had forsaken it for a temporary illusion of normalcy.

He crested the last grassy rise before the desolation, then dove down into the brown ruin. The munitions lab was a low metal box, ugly and utilitarian, and far out of place on Naboo. Amidala had - quite rightly - not wanted it in Theed. It had a cold atmosphere, not like the Dark Side, but like a wound in the Force, where nothing existed.

Vader stopped the speeder outside the door, took a moment to accustom himself to the atmosphere, and went inside.

The man who greeted him was young and wore his uniform uncomfortably, as though he were not used to its shape. His fingers kept tugging at the collar. "Lord Vader," he said. "I was glad to hear you were coming, but it was short notice. I'm afraid that things may not be -"

"May not be what, Commander Dihave?"

"Er, precisely up to regulations. We didn't have time to clean up."

"The regulations are not intended to be observed only upon inspection."

The man didn't have the good sense to show fear. Instead, he simply shrugged, gave what was obviously meant to be an impish smile, and tucked his over-long hair behind his ear. "Sorry." He seemed to remember his manners, and gave a brief bow. "Would you like to inspect our laboratory, Lord Vader?"

"I've come to inquire as to your more recent work. A recent event may have... compromised certain older designs."

Dihave nodded in a distracted way. "No need for most of that, anyway. We got your directive about creating more versatile weapons, and we've been developing much more mobile arrays. And," he said importantly, "as to Her Majesty's directive about collateral damage, we've been developing weaponry that targets a base only, with minimal damage or aftereffects in the surrounding area."

"Such things have existed for many years."

"Nothing this total that doesn't harm the surrounding area." Dihave's manner was becoming less insouciant and more interested in his topic, wanting to display his research. He led Vader into a long gray room full of terminals with holos of machine parts lined on several steel tables. Technicians stood and saluted. Vader offered them a small bow - their work was important, and they had been largely neglected. Perhaps even Dihave could be tolerated, with that in mind.

Dihave moved through the room, looking at each project. "This one isn't functional yet... that one had a problem in a test run, but it's promising; we're fixing the bugs... this is a close range blaster we're developing, would you like to examine it?"

Vader had never had much interest in blasters and handled them only with great distaste, but close infantry weaponry was of importance, should Leia bring the Rebellion's military into direct conflict. "How is it improved?"

"The beam is tighter, for one thing, more able to withstand shielding and easier to aim." He picked up a prototype from under the table, and pointed to a small generator on its underside. "We've also fitted them with a small energy binder, which serves the dual purpose of keeping it attached to a soldier's hand rather securely and providing at least a modicum of protection to the shooting arm, a common target, according to the field soldiers we've spoken to."

Vader was surprised. "You've been speaking to line soldiers?"

For the first time, Dihave blanched. "I'm sorry, my Lord. I thought it would be useful."

"You misinterpret, Commander Dihave. That is the first statement you have made that has inspired confidence. It was a wise choice."

All of Dihave's demeanors faded for a moment, and his face became that of a child, first shocked, then fully pleased with himself. "Thank you, my Lord," he stammered. "I... "

"Perhaps you should continue the inspection of ongoing projects?"

"Yes, of course." Dihave straightened his shoulders (unconsciously, Vader thought) and slicked his hair, then opened a door into a darker room toward the center of the building. They went inside, and Dihave started the holodisplay machinery. A small moon which Vader couldn't identify appeared, floating over the chasm. On its surface were at least twenty Star Destroyers, all of which seemed to be badly damaged. Most were clustered in the center, standing on end and buried nearly half their length, but four were set a narrow distance beyond, forming a square.

"These were decommissioned," Dihave said, pointing to them. "I asked Admiral Piett for use of them in a test."

Again, it was an intelligent idea. It didn't make Vader like Dihave any better, not with his defiant sloppiness and poor manners, but he understood why Piett had put him in this position. "What were you testing, Commander?"

"We haven't come up with a name for it yet." He shrugged. "I like to invent a thing before I name it."

"This seems to be invented."

"Yes. Well, I... " He sighed. "It is a powerful weapon, Lord Vader. Quite honestly, naming it seemed frivolous and disrespectful of what it can do."

"I see."

"On that note, this is what it does."

Dihave hit a button, and a small missile came into view.

Vader could see no ship. "From what distance was it launched?"

"From Naboo. The moon is three systems from here. It's designed to travel distances, and is small and difficult to detect. High impact, low danger for troops."

Cowardly, Vader thought, but shook it off. He was commanding neither battledroids nor clones, and if lives could be spared, they should be. The men were not unaware that sacrifice might be required; that did not mean such sacrifice had to be deliberately sought. "Go on."

The missile made its silent way to the moon. It hit the cluster of decommissioned Star Destroyers, and a bright light shone from their midst. The middle Destroyer glowed for less than a second, then a series of white explosions began to topple the others in a ripple pattern. The flare was immense. Vader's eyeguards barely protected against it, and Dihave covered his own eyes.

The flare blew outward like a violent wind, then -


A crackling energy seemed to mark the wall of light, then the reaction collapsed into itself.

The four Star Destroyers that had formed the perimeter were undisturbed. At the center, where the others had been clustered, there was smooth white dust.

"It goes down fifty meters," Dihave said. "Fine as ash. Well, it is ash. But we set up a perimeter field which will follow Her Majesty's injunction to not deliberately create collateral damage. When intelligence finds a stronghold, this will remove it without causing undue damage to the world in question. There are no lingering effects in the atmosphere, and no biological or chemical agents released."

"I see."

"And the destruction within the impact area is total. There would be no survivors."

Vader thought of Leia, stationed at some Rebel terminal, watching the approach of a missile that would kill her. She would stay. She would stay to spite him. He nodded. "Your work is appreciated. I will discuss the strategic possibilities with Admiral Piett, and he will continue to work with you and with Imperial intelligence."

"Yes, my Lord."

"Commander, how controllable is this weapon?"

"It's simple. The control goes through standard communications equipment."

He took time to recognize the work of the various technicians in the room outside - he should have come here earlier to do so - then left, his mind going over the possibilities as he returned to Theed. A single strike on a Rebel base that would not inflame other would-be Rebels could end the war and restore a permanent peace.

But Leia would be there.

He found that his anger at her grew as this realization was internalized. Leia would be there, and she would die for the sake of making the day of final peace in the galaxy forever hateful to her mother. She would spill her own blood to hurt her family.

Vader would not allow her to do so. There was no strategic purpose to avoiding Rebel casualties - other than Amidala's desperate desire to integrate the Rebellion into the New Empire, which he would have to take into account - but he would not have Amidala destroyed by her own victory, or by Leia's stubbornness.

(she is not well)

He pushed the velocity upward on his speeder, and the city began to leap into view. She was not ill. She was merely fragile. She would learn to accept the pain if it was necessary, as he had after his accident, after he believed her dead, after he believed his only child dead. But there was no need for such acceptance, not as long as he could shield her from the blow, or prevent it from falling.

As to Leia herself, she would be made to pay for her treason, but her death would not serve his purposes.

You think like a Jedi, the memory of Palpatine's voice sneered. Kill them all, if you would not be made a fool of. Kill them all and have done with it. The spoiled girl-child has made her choice.

A spoiled girl-child Leia might be, but she was Vader's girl-child, and more importantly, she was Amidala's. She might force destruction of herself one day, but it would not be at the hands of an impersonal missile.

He would instruct Piett to explore other options, unless circumstances changed.

Wedge's X-Wing sped through space, silently making its way toward Naboo. He switched on his communicator to speak with the other pilots.

"Rogue Squadron, this is Rogue Leader. We are approaching the designated coordinates. Prepare to drop out of hyperspace. We will reach the Ciru Expanse within a few minutes."

Several the pilots each responded with an "Aye, sir," and Wedge began making his own preparations, going over the plans in his head. The next step - hiding the ships from Imperial sensors while waiting for the Empress to leave Naboo for Tatooine - would be the trickiest. The Expanse was a large swath of energy currents just a system away from Naboo. It caused interference with even the most advanced Imperial sensors, and would provide shielding to Wedge's squad.

Unfortunately, the energy was also extremely dangerous to any ship that tried to pass through it. The currents had a tendency to focus on a ship's engines, or weapon's systems, or anything that produced a certain amount of power, drawing to the ship in a powerful, destructive display. There had been many, many stories over the years of ships that never made it out of the Expanse, despite efforts to avoid an energy build-up.

It was a crazy plan, but Wedge figured that it wasn't any more ridiculous than some of the other missions he had gone on. They'd just have to be careful, and hope for the best.

Wedge went back to his communicator. "All right guys, we need to go through the run-down again. We won't be able to talk to each other while we're in the expanse, so we need to make sure that everyone's together on this.

"Once we drop out of hyperspace," Wedge continued, "everyone needs to shut down their engines as soon as is safely possible. You'll begin coasting on manual controls toward the Expanse. Shut down all your systems except for life support. You'll have to keep your eyes open once we're in there - we all should stay a good distance apart from one another. And we should stay away from the edge of the Expanse. Their sensors shouldn't be able to pick us up until we're out and away from it, but I don't want to take any chances of us being exposed early.

"We've got about an hour in there before we need to get out of the Expanse, and move into position to intercept the Empress's procession," he said. "I'm going to leave my ship's chronometer on...the rest of you will just have to follow my lead. When the time comes to go, you must start up your auxiliary engines only on the lowest setting and guide yourself through. We can only go one at a time, so make sure you're paying attention to the order."

"Rouge Leader, this is Rouge Five," came a voice over the comm. "Are we sure that the auxiliary engines will get us out of there?"

"They should," Wedge said. "I know that's not a great comfort, but we should coast a good way through the Expanse initially. We cannot go above those minimal settings."

Wedge made a few adjustments on his console. The hyperspace portion of their trip was very nearly over.

"Once we've all cleared the Expanse, we'll stay near its edge at minimal power to continue to hide our presence. Lady Vader should pass us by shortly after that.

"Remember, this is a diversion. If we can delay them getting to Tatooine, great. If we make them think that the Rebellion is more interested in assassinating the Empress than in actually fighting in battles, even better. They don't think we're prepared for a full-scale attack, and if they see us sending ten X-Wings against the Empress's forces, it will only reinforce that image in their minds. And that will help everyone else.

"But let's be clear about something - even with Leia's intelligence, we're no match for what we're going to be facing."

"Don't worry, Rogue Leader," said Rogue Two. "We'll put on a good show for Her Majesty."

Some of the other pilots chuckled. Wedge smiled, and gave the last of his instructions. "Leia's information on the shields might give us a bit of an edge, but we have to assume everything's been changed. We also know a good amount about their fighting and flying maneuvers, but we still need to stay on our toes here, guys. We'll put up a fight, then make a run for it. We'll meet up at the rendezvous point, and then head back to base.

"Good luck guys."

With that, he closed communications, and pulled his ship out of hyperspace. As soon as the stars around him slipped back from straight lines into small specks, he began shutting down his engines completely.

Wedge heard the rest of his squad coming in behind him, and after a few seconds, an eerie silence filled his cockpit. He put all of his other systems in their off modes, and switched the life support to as low a level as he thought was safe. He glanced at the lightly glowing chronometer, and then grabbed the manual controls.

The Ciru Expanse was just before them. It looked enormous - just a large, pale yellow, milky area hanging in front of them where stars and planets and moons normally would be. Even at a distance, Wedge could see small currents flashing through it, like very quick lightening strikes.

He turned his ship to the left to avoid those charges, and his pilots followed them as they entered the Expanse.

Wedge's cockpit filled with the strange yellow glow as he continued to glide lightly through. He didn't have to do much - he was gliding on a straight path, and could see nothing ahead of him that would cause a problem. He couldn't see the pilots behind him, and had no sensors to know what was happening, but he didn't sense any problems.

The ship felt like it was riding little waves, and Wedge was almost starting to enjoy the ride. It was peaceful and soothing, and there was nothing he could do for the next hour anyway.

Finally, the ship began to slow down considerably, and Wedge knew that his momentum was finished. He thought they had come far enough to get out of the Expanse on minimal power later.

The ship floated in place, and Wedge took the controls and flipped it back over upside down. As he went, he got a look at the rest of his squadron behind him. They had all also stopped, and were waiting.

His ship came back in place right side up, and Wedge then banked to his left, trying to turn around. The ship moved slowly until he was facing the squadron. He could see into the cockpits of the others, and some of them nodded to him.

A few of the small charges were seen around them, but not close enough to cause any immediate danger. Wedge trained an eye on his chronometer, and waited.

"Be aware," Father said. "Do nothing to attract attention, but be aware."

Luke felt his jaw tighten - he didn't need to be lectured on the obvious - but he said nothing. They were standing at the Great Arch of Theed Palace, in view of the crowd, and it wouldn't do to show dissent. He nodded, and stepped out into the sunlight.

"Welcome, Naboo!" he called, giving them a smile that didn't feel right today. "Welcome, Gungans and visitors!"

They cheered wildly for a long time, celebrating the beautiful day, the peace of the Empire, and, most of all, the chance to see their beloved Empress. Mother spent most of her time inside the Palace now, and the Naboo reveled in their chances to see her as an inhabitant of their world.

When the cheer faded enough to speak, Luke raised his hands to get their attention. "Her Majesty will be out in a few moments," he said, then, carried on a giddy wave from the crowd, added with a grin, "She's trying to decide what to wear."

There was fond laughter. Mother's wardrobe, while all in various shades of red with long veils, was always growing, and was a favorite topic of style writers. What cut would she choose? What sort of fabric? Would it reveal the scars on her back, gauzy white lines beneath the floating silks? (It had become quite fashionable in some quarters for young women to have stylized claw marks tattooed onto their backs to match the mark of the Empress.) The frivolous tone bothered Father, as it implied a lack of seriousness in the way people approached her, but Mother herself was delighted by it and played to it as "it makes the people happy."

"She won't have time to speak today - we're headed out to Tatooine to install the new Outer Rim Guard -"

Another cheer. The Guard was a popular movement. There were many refugees from the Rim who had come into Naboo and the Core to escape the kleptocracy, and the thought of putting the Hutts and pirates in their place was always cause for joy.

The first unit of the Guard - instituted not long after Mother had taken power - had been a roving unit devoted to breaking up the slaving rings. Father had allowed a Wookieee slave to conduct the execution of the man who had kidnapped him from Kashyyyk. It was a symbolic act, of course. The rest of them - those not killed in the battles for their ships - had been executed more normally, either by Father or by Luke himself (though Father insisted on being present). The people had felt vindicated. The new Guard units had the more nebulous job of bringing order to the Rim, but the people knew that it was all part of the same grand project, and they cheered every operation.

Luke smiled more normally, the crowd giving him a greater sense of ease. He didn't forget to be aware, but there was no sense of malice in the crowd, only an outpouring of pure affection.

The volume of the delirious shouts jumped suddenly, and Luke needed neither his senses nor the Force to tell him why. He turned and bowed to Mother.

She was radiant in simple clothes, with a translucent ankle-length crimson skirt and a darker overdress that came to her knees. The veil was a single length of synth-silk anchored by a golden circlet. She took Luke's hand and kissed his cheek when he rose.

"It's a glorious morning!" she called to the crowd. When the eruption of clapping ended, she beamed at them. "I hate to make a liar of my son, but I just can't leave without speaking to you, to tell you how it lifts my heart to see you here and feel your affection for me."

The crowd offered another generous outpouring.

"Someone dear to me was taken recently," she said, "but I know, I can feel, that she will come home to me, safe and sound. In the meantime, I will not forsake my duty to the people of the galaxy."

Wild applause.

"Once, I ran from my title, hid from responsibility like the child I was. I do not regret it - perhaps we all need to be children together sometimes - but I will not repeat it. Now I know I have a purpose, a reason to be here among these stars at this time. I will bring justice. I will bring peace and order, to those who have lived without it for too many years. I am Amidala of Naboo, and I will be the Empress I have promised to be."

Whistles and cheers washed over her. Mother leaned her head back and closed her eyes. To Luke, it looked like she was drinking the noise, taking sustenance from it. And when she opened her eyes, it seemed as though she had. They sparkled brilliantly.

She squeezed his hand. "It's time to go," she whispered.

Father slipped into the space in front of her and Luke took up his position behind her. Both held their lightsabers at the ready as the family descended the steps and walked up the aisle through the crowd that was immediately created by the Gungan guard. The royal transport was docked at the far end, flanked by two fighter escorts. The Gungans escorted Mother up the ramp into her ship, and the hatch closed. Father took the fighter to the right; Luke, the fighter on the left. A squadron of six more fighters was already in the air.

The transport lifted off gracefully - Naboo technology was a marvel of maneuverability - and Luke and Father followed it at close range until they had cleared the atmosphere.

Once in deep space, the fighters formed a box around the transport. Father took point at center front; Luke brought up the rear.

Father's voice came across the general comm channel. "Hyperspace coordinates set. On my lead."

But there was no lead.

Out of the darkness and the strange glow of the Ciru Expanse came a volley of laser blasts, then another, then another.

"Protect the Empress!" Father ordered.

The X-Wings themselves leapt into view, executing a complex, shifting attack pattern, darting into range and then darting out again.

Luke knew the strategy.

"It's Rogue Squadron!" he called into the comm channel. "Engage!"

The command had barely left his mouth as Luke watched his father evade a heavy barrage of fire. Every X-Wing fired directly at him as they prepared to fly past him and headed for Mother's transport. The six other Imperial fighters had immediately taken to obey Father's orders, and were collapsing in tight formation around her ship, shooting in the direction of the Rebel ships even before they moved fully in range.

Luke quickly moved his fighter from its position in back of the transport, flying over to the head of the ship. Father was still the focus on nearly all of Rogue Squadron's firepower, and while he was deftly outmaneuvering the blasts, he hadn't yet gotten in position to go on the offensive. The transport ship tried to provide some cover, but the X-Wings were too small and too fast for its gunners to provide any real help.

Most of the X-Wings passed Father and began running a complex weaving pattern over, under, and around the transport. Luke picked out the lead ship - undoubtedly piloted by Wedge - and began pursuit.

Luke had half a mind to simply blast him out of the sky, but he could tell that Rogue Squadron was up to something...they weren't flying circles around the ship for no reason. He wanted an idea of their plans before he began to engage them directly.

Wedge carved a dizzying path straight through to the back of the ship, then jerked his X-Wing around and under, flying upside down along the transport's underside before flipping back up near the front nose of the craft. As Luke came back up, he saw his father relentlessly pursuing one of the Rebel fighters, not letting it out of his sights.

The Imperial fighters seemed more interested in avoiding collision with the wildly flying Rebels than with taking them out - an observation Father had no doubt made, and Luke almost felt sorry for what the pilots would be facing later as a result of their caution (well, cowardice). These were the advantages the Rebels had that the Empire had tried so hard to counteract - speed, fearlessness - and so far, it looked to Luke as if they still had a ways to go.

Luke followed Wedge through another run at the transport's belly. He racked his brains to recollect any information about the ship's design or any flaws...anything that Leia might have noticed and told the squadron to be looking for.

He blew past the landing equipment and went under the quarters and hangars that took up the bulk of the body of the ship. Once they came near the back again, he saw the section that held the life support systems, and the engines.

The engines...

Luke opened his secure comlink and hailed his father, continuing his pursuit of Wedge. "Father, I think I've figured out the aim of this attack."

"The aim of this attack," came the terse reply, "is to kill the Empress." A large explosion was bright in Luke's eyes as he flew over the top of the transport again. Father had caught up with the X-Wing he had been chasing. "Our aim is to stop them, not follow their flying patterns."

Luke hands went tight around his controls, but he bit back the urge to begin a fight with his father. This wasn't the time, and it wouldn't help.

"Agreed," Luke finally said. "I'll be underneath the ship, protecting the weak spot in the shields the Rebels are looking for." He abruptly changed direction and did just that. He saw the remnants of another explosion; Father was definitely on the offensive now. "I think Wedge has seen the engines...he'll order all the fighters to attack there soon. Perhaps you'd care to join me...?"

Father gave no answer, and Luke shut off his comm. He began firing on Wedge, who had indeed returned to the same spot. The engines of Mother's transport gave off a static field that occasionally weakened the shields in that section of the ship. A highly concentrated volley of fire at that point might be enough to penetrate the soft spots.

Wedge began to run from him, and two other X-Wings entered the area, but Luke continued his pursuit, easily dodging the other Rebels and firing until he hit.

The right upper wing of Wedge's craft was momentarily lost in a wave of sparks and debris and fire. Luke waited, but the X-Wing didn't explode. Instead, Wedge limped out of the way of the transport's slower shots, trying to gain full control of his ship and move out of the way of the battle.

Luke watched him for a second, then saw Father, three of the Imperial fighters, and the seven remaining X-Wings fly beneath the transport, and head straight for the engines in the back. He promptly raised the transport.

"Yes, Lord Skywalker," answered the captain.

"The Rebels seem to have found a potential weak point in our shields. Continue your evasive actions, and concentrate your firepower on protecting the engines. And jam the Rebels' communications."

"We've tried, Lord Skywalker, and we can't seem to find the frequency -"

"Then jam all the communications in this immediate area. Send out a dampening field."

"But sir, then we wouldn't be able to contact one another."

"I'm aware of that, Captain. You just fly your ship. My father and I can take care of the rest, and we don't need to speak to each other in the comlinks to do it."

"Yes, Lord Skywalker."

Vader was impressed with the Rebels. He had already learned not to underestimate them - the Death Star battle had certainly taught him that. But these ten were certainly the elite of the Rebel pilots. It was a testament to them that seven had survived, and that the battle had essentially shifted to the territory they desired. Two of the Imperial fighters had also been taken out in the fight above the transport.

But he had the remaining X-Wings in his sight, and Vader could feel his son truly begin to settle down into pitched battle. This would not go on for much longer.

Luke reached out to him with the Force, and with no more direction than that, the two began to move against the remaining seven Rebel fighters.

Vader saw Luke pursuing a ship that had gotten too close to the engines, and driving that ship in his direction.

Vader didn't hesitate, moving swiftly to cut off the X-Wing forcing it into an abrupt change of direction that Luke had been anticipating. Vader saw the flash of Luke's lasers, and another X-Wing was gone.

He and Luke were then flying together, focused on chasing down another Rebel ship. This one managed to go several seconds before being hit, but there was little he could do with the two of them right behind him, firing away.

Part of his X formation was blown clear away, and Vader saw him try to steer his out of control ship directly at the transport. Luke accelerated past Vader and destroyed the X-Wing before its destination was reached.

Vader was already turning around to face the five remaining fighters, certain that Luke would follow, feeling his son anticipate his moves almost effortlessly. It was good, flying and fighting with Luke like this. He felt proud, but also enjoyed the simple pleasure of connecting with his son. His disagreements with Luke had fallen by the wayside, at least for these moments.

Vader refocused his attention on finishing off the squadron.

Wedge's ship had come to a dead stop a short distance from the battle. He was out of range of the transport's weapons, and no one else bothered to pay him any mind. He was trying desperately, over and over to raise his squadron, but was continually met with static. He watched in horror as the half of his fighters who were left were chased by Vader and Luke.

"Rogue Squadron, this is Rogue Leader. Retreat. Retreat. This is an order for full retreat. Disengage immediately and head for the rendezvous coordinates. Retreat, Rogue Squadron."

Nothing, and the fight continued without signs of any of his pilots moving away. Wedge smashed his hand against his console in frustration. Five of the ten were down or killed. What were they waiting for?

He understood their desire - despite the briefing, despite their orders - to try and get the hit in on Lady Vader's ship. They had actually made more headway than they had anticipated, and had gotten a shot or two off on the spot Leia had told them about. It was feasible, if not entirely likely, that one of them could hit that spot and cut the Empire off at its head.

That was something any of them would be willing to die for. And technically, they hadn't received a retreat order, so maybe it was worth the try.

An understandable impulse, but so damnably foolish.

Another X-Wing exploded. Four left.

Three left.

Finally, finally, one of the remaining Rebel ships broke away, flying furiously toward Wedge. Wedge tried to wave him off, and wanted to order him to just jump to hyperspace and not worry about the rest of them.

But the X-Wing kept coming until it was close enough to shoot and hook a towing mechanism to Wedge's craft. He was going to drag Wedge along with him through hyperspace to the rendezvous point, which was only a short trip away.

The last two fighters were also headed Wedge's way, under close pursuit by Vader and Luke. Wedge watched helplessly, trying to will them to make the hyperspace jump before they were destroyed.

The X-Wing he was attached did make the jump then, and Wedge saw nothing but starlines and felt his ship shake violently as it was dragged along.

There was a final, forceful jerk as they withdrew from hyperspace. Wedge immediately turned on his communicator, and found that the signal was no longer jammed.

"Rogue Leader, are you all right?" It was Rogue Four.

"Yes. How's your ship?"

"It looks like we'll both be limping home. I think we -"

He was interrupted by the sound of another ship coming out of hyperspace just behind them. Rogue Nine.

"Is the last fighter coming in after you?" Wedge asked.

"No sir," said Rogue Nine with a weary voice. "He was destroyed right before I made the jump."

Wedge exhaled sharply, dropping his head back against his seat, staring at some nondescript point in his cockpit's ceiling. He stayed that way for several seconds.

"What are your orders, Rogue Leader?"

"My engines are shot, and so are Rogue Four's. It's going to take us some time to get back to base. We'd better get going."

Luke's fighter fell in beside his father's as they returned to Mother's transport. He could see some damage had been done to her ship, but nothing critical had been hit.

Father's voice came through the comm, even though Luke could feel what he wanted to say. "You fought well, son."

Luke didn't bother to fight the pleased impulse that came with the praise. "Thank you, Father." They flew together in amicable silence.

They brought their fighters into the small holding bay on the transport ship. Mother was already running out toward them.

"Ani!" she cried, throwing herself into a hug against his armor as soon as he had disembarked.

"It is all right, my love," he said. "Luke and I were more than able to handle this assault. You were never in any true danger. We should return to Naboo for repairs and -"

"What?" she asked. She didn't pull away from him, but Luke could see that her face was set in a determined frown. "We're not delaying the trip to Tatooine."

"My love -"

"No, Ani. They made their attempt. They failed. That is no reason for me to hide in fear from a few Rebels."

Luke shook his head. "I don't think that was their best shot, Mother."

Her eyes blazed. "You think Leia has something more wretched in mind than trying to kill me the second I leave Naboo?"

"To be honest, Mother, I'm not sure Leia wants to kill you," Luke said. "I don't know what she has planned or how far she'll go, but something about this doesn't feel right."

Father's head turned to him and Luke felt an appraising glance flick over him. "Explain."

"I know that the Rebellion, since Bespin, has taken to running small raids and quick, strategic operations. This attack would seem to fit that pattern. But..."

"But what, Luke?" asked Mother.

"It isn't Leia's style. It's Han's more than anyone. The Rebellion might not be as strong or a numerous as it once was, but sending in ten X-Wings isn't what Leia would do. She wants to make a statement. This isn't the way she'd do it."

His parents looked at one another thoughtfully. "I believe your assessment may be correct. Which would be even more reason to postpone the trip, Amidala."

She was already shaking her head. "No. We will face whatever our daughter has planned when we get to that point. Until then, we have a Guard to set up. The people of Tatooine are waiting for us. Let's go."

Coming out of hyperspace in a radar shadow was an old smugglers' trick, though Han had no idea why it was still effective on Tatooine, where all the smugglers pretty much used the same space between two of the moons. Tatooine was a careless world for the underside of the galaxy.

That sanctuary was going to disappear soon, one way or another.

But it was good at least this one last time. The Naboo cruiser - she needs a name, I can't just keep thinking of her as "the ship" - slipped out of the eerie silence of hyperspace, and her open comm channels began to hum with ghost chattering. He opened the Rebellion's secure channel and sent his hail out to find out just where on this ball of dust Leia had ended up.

The hail was picked up immediately.

"Captain Solo," a young recruit said soberly. "I'm glad you've arrived safely."

Han's guts sank. "Why is that?"

"I... well, maybe you better just come down."

"Where's Leia?"

There was a sound of shuffling feet, then Leia's subdued voice came over the system. "I'm here, Han. You weren't in danger. We just... I'm just glad to hear your voice. We have a camp set up in the desert not far from Anchorhead. There are some rocky overhangs where you could keep the cruiser." She breathed slowly. "There's bad news from Naboo."


"I'll tell you when you come down. Hurry."

She cut off the comm - no reason to keep it open, he had her coordinates. Why risk open channels longer than necessary, just because he wanted to hear her voice for a little longer?

He guided the cruiser down through the atmosphere, putting up the glare shields for the momentary burn, and leaving them in place against the Tatooine sunlight.

Why anyone would settle on this world voluntarily was beyond comprehension.

The Rebel camp blended well into the surroundings. It was set up like an indigenous camp - Han wondered briefly if Lando had suggested it after a meeting - and they'd even rounded up a few banthas for set dressing. He knew to look for the glints of ships in the shadows and found them, but someone else approaching wouldn't have noticed.

A flash of pale skin against the dark rocks caught his eye. Leia was standing near a large opening in the rock wall, the small form of Yoda not far away. Han guessed he was meant to land here. The maw was barely large enough, but Leia knew him well enough to know he could make it.

He was out of the ship before the gangplank had finished lowering, and he ended up jumping off the end of it. Leia met him in an embrace, but said nothing at all. She just clung to him for a moment. She had changed into desert clothes - a long-sleeved homespun dress that felt rough under Han's hand. He knew the style - it would criss-cross over her chest, like most Tatooine clothes did for some reason. High cloth boots protected her feet and lower legs from the sun. Her hair had been pulled into a simple bun that was gathered off-center, under her right ear. She looked as though she might have grown up here, and the weary set of her shoulders only accentuated the effect.

He patted her back. "It's okay. Whatever it is, it's okay."

She took two sharp breaths, then pulled away, becoming crisp and business-like. "It's not okay, Han. Wedge lost seven pilots."

Han drew back. "Seven? From Rogue Squadron?"

"Father and Luke... hunted them. Luke knew the Rogues' tactics. Father... is Father."

Han fought against the urge to let out a river of curses, most aimed at Luke, and just clenched his teeth sharply enough to make a whining sound in his head. "Seven. Out of ten."

Leia nodded. "I shouldn't have sent them. It was careless, and it wasn't necessary. 'Clumsy and stupid,' Father would say. Unless it was Mother giving the order, and she's the only one who -"

"Whoa, hold it right there, Your Worship," Han said, trying to overlook the fact that she was actually thinking about what her father would consider good strategy. "I heard you give the order. You told them not to engage unless they had to. Did they follow that order?"

"I couldn't tell. Wedge and the other two survivors are disabled and we didn't want to keep the comm channel open long enough for tracking in open space."

Han touched her arm. "Leia, did they follow that order?"

She fought with herself, then shook her head miserably. "Probably not."

A long sigh came up from behind her, and it was broken by a cough. Han noticed with alarm that Yoda had lost quite a bit of weight even in the last few days. Water weight probably, but it made him look half-dead. "Risks, there are in a war, Leia. Tragic, this was. Avoidable, possibly. But poor strategy, it was not. Tell you the same would your father, as matter to you, this seems to."

"It doesn't. I just hear his voice in my head."

"Outmatched were your pilots."

Han turned on him. "Rogue Squadron has our best pilots. They -"

Yoda just waved his cane vaguely. "No insult did I intend. Fine pilots, I am certain they were. But against Vader and Luke, joined by the Dark Side of the Force... outmatched they were. Not to blame is Leia's strategy."

"It was only meant as a diversion."

"Mmm. Long before the madness took Amidala, used a similar diversion she did."


"You're not helping much," Han said.

"It's all right, Han," Leia said. "I know what Yoda is doing. I don't like it much, but I understand it now."

They stood quietly together for a long time, then Han took a deep breath and jumped back into business. "Have you heard from Lando or Chewie yet?"

"Chewie reported in from Mos Espa. He's gotten a few ships and a few pilots to join us. I haven't heard one way or another from Lando, but he has an emergency beacon, and he'd have set it off if he'd run into trouble."

"Where do you need me?"

She gave him half-hearted teasing smile. "I have an idea or two, flyboy." The expression, not firmly in place to begin with, faded quickly. "I've got a strategy planned for the attack. Lieutenant Commander Yleof can fill you in on it. Then I need you drilling the squads. You've done a great job training them so far, and I want them ready. No more unnecessary casualties."

"Got it. And thanks for the compliment."

"Just the truth."

"And now," Yoda said, "depart we must. Much have we to study. And little time for it."

Leia nodded. She picked up a device made of cloth and metal tubes, and helped Yoda into it. To Han's surprise, she lifted him, and placed him on her back like a pack. He looked over her shoulder, now a bit closer to Han's eye level. "Careful with her, I will be, Captain. But time, I no longer have."

"I'll be back soon," Leia said. She turned to the open desert, and ran into the Wastes. Han watched her until she disappeared into a heat shimmer.

Lando squinted, his eyes burning from the glare of the suns. He was able to make out the Tusken Camp on the edge of the horizon. He slowed his speeder down considerably, and prepared for his approach.

He had an emergency communicator strapped to his hand, set to alert the closest Rebel unit to come get him on a second's notice. He was armed with blasters both viewable and concealed within his poncho, pants, and boots. His translator droid had also been outfitted with a crude, hidden weapon.

His speeder was filled with items that were valuable on this planet - farming equipment, tools - and there were more hidden in a trick section underneath the craft. He was as prepared as he could possibly be.

Leia had told him to be careful, but she wasn't much more concerned for him than she was for anyone she had sent out on these missions. Both she and Han were convinced that he could talk anyone into anything, and Leia had left no stone unturned in gathering support on the planet for the raid.

But Lando's dread was swelling the closer he got to the camp. One of the other Rebels, a friend of his who had lived briefly on Tatooine, had gone out of his way to warn Lando about this mission before he left. He had never seen a Tusken himself, but had heard stories...stories that had Lando on edge right now. His friend's parting advice was to consider escaping alive a success and not to worry about the rest.

Lando had decided he'd just have to trust Leia. She wasn't blind to...whatever these creatures were, and certainly didn't believe them to be either honorable or harmless people. But she knew they had been wronged by the Vaders, and she knew they could fight. That was enough to make the mission worthwhile to her.

He was close enough now to make out the people in the camp. Adults and children were milling about outside the huts, doing whatever it was they did at midday. Lando had decided that he wasn't going to try this at any time remotely close to night, but arriving now meant there were plenty of people to pick up his ship flying toward their settlement.

Indeed, one of them easily spotted him and began screeching. Tuskens came streaming out of their huts and starting running in his direction. They looked like ogres, with their masks and weapons and that insane noise that passed as a language.

Lando slammed his speeder to an abrupt stop, parking it and jumping out. His translator droid pulled itself out of the speeder as well and crawled over beside him. Lando put his hands up in a peaceful gesture, as the group descended on him.

They were looking about frantically, as if waiting for an ambush. Lando doubted that they often got solo visitors.

He had least half a dozen rifle blasters pointed at his head. He kept his hands up. Two of the Tuskens dashed over to him, and Lando braced himself for an attack, but they pressed the end of their weapons to his chest instead, and continued their search for additional intruders.

The rest were pulling his equipment out of his speeder and inspecting it. Lando nodded to them to go ahead - not that they would have waited for his permission, but he wanted to make it clear that they could have it all as a gesture of goodwill.

The droid also took the nod as his signal, and immediately began talking. He said that Lando meant them no harm, and that he hoped they were pleased with what was in the speeder.

And that he had a proposition for them, one that carried the promise of more equipment if they would listen.

The answer he received was a swift strike to his ribs with one of the rifles. He was knocked to the ground hard, and was kicked twice. The Tuskens nearest him took the two blasters they could see, and one underneath his poncho - but they didn't get the one in his boot or the other tucked in his waistband against his back. The whole group was shrieking and howling, and Lando was beginning to think it was the most horrible sound he'd ever heard.

He was about to draw the blaster in his boot and activate his emergency call when the noise suddenly stopped. There was now only one Tusken talking and he was speaking directly to Lando.

"What? What is he saying?" he snapped at the droid.

"He wants to know where the rest of the equipment you planned to offer him is. He wants it now, and doesn't plan to wait to listen to you."

"Fine, fine," Lando responded, "Tell him where it is."

The droid grunted and squeaked, and a couple of Tuskens rolled under the speeder and let out the bottom. They all began inspecting the rest of the items.

He returned his attention to the droid. "You tell them what I'm saying, even if it looks like they aren't listening," he ordered.

"Tell them that I'm with the Rebellion against the Vaders' Empire, and I'm here to bring them in on a raid we're planning soon."

The droid translated. The Tuskens were taking something apart and didn't acknowledge him. The two near him jabbed him again with their rifles.

"We need their help to keep the Empire from settling here, and destroying their way of life. They don't realize what's coming. Lady and Lord Vader have a vested interest in them, and there won't be anything they can do to save themselves." Lando wished he knew more on this point, but Leia had been purposefully vague...Lando wasn't entirely sure how much of this story - whatever it was - that she knew herself. But there was one thing she did say to mention. "They should know full-well how a Jedi will treat them. This Jedi in particular."

That at least got the attention of the one who had spoken to him before. He didn't quite turn away from the tool he was holding, but he glanced in Lando's general direction.

"Your little settlement here will be wiped out by the end of the day," he continued. "This is your one chance to stop it, and we're not asking you to do much. It'd be easy for you to help. We'll take care of the main attack."

The Tusken barked a short sentence. The droid said, "He wants to know if you're attacking in the main cities and settlements."


Another sentence. "He says they could certainly be helpful with that."


The Raider motioned to the others to quiet down, and they began paying attention to the conversation. He said several things, and it took a second for the droid to understand it. "I think he's saying that they would never allow themselves to be under someone else's authority. But they agree to be involved."

Lando frowned and tried to sit up. The two guarding him allowed it. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Another translation back and forth. "They'll join the attack on their own."

"What? Why?"

He was met with another sharp blow to his ribs. The droid finally translated, "They do as they please."

Lando held his side and looked at them uneasily. "The target of this attack will be the Imperial Forces that are -"

But he was already waving him off and interrupting.

"He says that's the end of it. You'll get your help, and...and they'll get theirs as well."

Lando suddenly had a bad feeling about this.

Something told him they weren't worried about Vader, and they weren't about to just fight and go home with the cities in confusion after the battle.

"He's telling us that we better leave," the droid said.

Lando's friend's voice suddenly rang in his ear, and he decided not to question it now. He slowly gathered himself and walked over to his now completely empty speeder.

He decided to be glad he was still alive. And to leave while he could.

Leia let her feet carry her across the sand. She didn't think about them much. That was one thing that both Father and Yoda had been pleased with in training her - she had always trusted her own surefootedness, and didn't waste their time tripping over debris in the Palace or rocks here in the desert. She rarely missed a step.

Except for the big one at Naboo.

Sending Luke's old squadron against Luke and Father had been -

A sharp tap on her shoulder broke her train of thought. "Feel it, I can, when lose concentration you do," Yoda said. "The past, you cannot change. Going to battle, your men knew they were. And broke orders meant for their safety, they did. Forward, you must bring your mind. Dwell on the past, you cannot."

"The past is only a few hours ago, Master. It's barely the past."

"To the past, one hour is one thousand years. No changes can you bring. Only learn from it, you can."

"What if I didn't learn in time? I have half a dozen other projects going on that are about as dangerous as this was supposed to be."

"Soldiers, are your men," Yoda said. His voice was quiet and sounded sandy. "Know there is danger when agree to fight, they do."

"But -"

"No but." He gave a shaky sigh. "To Obi-Wan's home, we should go. Weary, I am."

Leia frowned, and picked up her speed. She knew in some part of her mind that she was running considerably beyond any previous capacity she'd had for speed, but she wasn't tired. She felt no strain in her limbs or her lungs.

She slowed when she saw Kenobi's hut, and was walking by the time they reached the door. Yoda was breathing heavily in his pack, as though he had been the one running. She moved him carefully and helped him out. "Master?"

He looked up at her weakly. "Inside, we must go. Good for me, this sun is not."

Leia agreed. She opened the door and all but carried him inside. The medical droid was in the corner. She started for it.

"Leave it," Yoda said.

She froze. "Master, you need to be rehydrated. And medication... "

"Already beyond my time am I." He rested himself on a low bench against Obi-Wan's wall and smiled. "Ah. Here, Luke sat once. Feel traces of him, I do. Touch the Force, all things do... shape it and give it texture. All things... all times. Everything we do... remembered in the Force it is. Remembered for good, remembered for evil. Leia... "

Leia realized that she was frightened only when she tried to move and found that her legs were trembling. She held out a hand experimentally and saw that it was trembling. "Master... "

"To me, you must come," Yoda whispered.

She forced her legs forward and knelt beside the small bench. "Master, you were getting stronger. If you'd let the droid -"

Yoda laughed briefly. "Stronger than the Force is your droid, Leia?"

"It's not about the Force. It's... "

"Died long ago, I would have, without the Force. Old, I am, Leia. Old and weak. Nothing can your droid do."

"But I've learned so little."

"Little had you to learn when you came to me." He closed his eyes. "Practice, you need. But a good teacher was your father, in many matters. Benefited you, a master would have, but the skills, you have. And learned, you did in the desert, to see what is beyond what you see with your eyes."

"I don't understand. I saw them as they were. If the past is the past... "

"And learn from it, you can. Know, you do, who they are, who you are. Know, you do, who you can become if careful you are not."

"I haven't had enough practice. Master, please... "

"The Force will be with you. Let it guide you, should you need to fight."

Leia looked away from his wasted body. Questions boiled inside her, sent steam through her blood. But like steam, they would not take solid shape. Images flooded her mind - Mother, as a young woman, hiding her in a trunk. Mother leaning over her sickbed on Naboo. Father teaching Luke. Luke lying injured on Hoth, his face covered by a bacta mask. Father standing outside the circle of the family, looking in from behind his impenetrable mask, his sense of exclusion palpable even to Leia. The faraway look in Mother's eyes, when the madness fell away for its ever briefer interludes. Luke, kissing her cheek gently just before she'd helped Han escape. The images blurred into one another in a rising bubble, a question so huge that there was no way to ask it.

She opened her mouth. A single, unintelligible sound came from her throat, and she bit her lip in frustration.

A warm - hot - hand fell on her wrist. "Love them, you do," Yoda said gently.

Leia shook her head, then nodded, then shook her head again. "I... Mother and Luke, maybe, once, before... "

"Love them, you do," Yoda repeated.

"What do I do with that, Master Yoda?"

"Know, I do not. But breaks the shadows for you, it does." One finger tapped the protruding bone on her wrist in a gesture of comfort. "Defeat them, you must. On this, all depends."

"I know that."

"But no victory will there be if swallowed by the darkness are you. Much anger you have. Hatred."

"I thought we'd decided that I loved them."

"Like your father... love, hate, anger, desire... all in one place they are for you, entangled. Separate them, you must."

"I can't."

"Then all is lost." He sighed, and his body shuddered. His eyes closed.

Leia pulled a blanket over him reflexively. Her hands weren't merely trembling now, but full-out shaking, the nerves jumping. "I'll try, Yoda. Master. But I need your help."

"Help you with this battle, I cannot. Understand it, I do not." He opened his eyes again. "Knew this about your brother I did not when he left me on Dagobah. A mistake, it was. A grave loss to the Force was his desertion."

"I know... "

"The Force... " He struggled for another breath. Leia rubbed his chest to help loosen it. He nodded gratefully. "Know, you do, the truth in your heart, Leia Skywalker."

"Organa," Leia said automatically.

"Past is the time for veils and deceptions. A good man was Bail Organa, and a great kindness he did. For this, you must honor him. But a Skywalker you are, Leia. Seek not comfort behind the veil of your past, or suffer your mother's fate you will. Seek not comfort behind the mask of a future that will not be, or suffer your father's fate you will. Seek not to salve your own wound before the galaxy's... "

"Or suffer my brother's fate I will?" Leia asked, horrified to hear a trace of sarcasm in her voice, now of all times.

But Yoda didn't seem offended. His lips twisted upward in a mild smile. "You are yourself," he whispered. "Your own fate, you will choose. Leia... " His voice trailed away.

"Yoda? Master... " She leaned forward.

The hand on her wrist tapped once, twice. "Leia... Do not let... the Order... disappear. Do not... be the last... "

Something seemed to move through the hut like a warm breeze. Leia felt it tug at the strands of hair that had strayed from her bun. Yoda pulled in a breath, let it out, and did not breathe again.

"Yoda? Oh, come on, not now... " Leia reached to pull the blanket down again, to try and get his heart and lungs going again, but as she did so, her fingers slipped through nothing. Yoda was still there, but she could see through him to the wall of Obi-Wan's house.

And then he was gone.

She was alone.

And she had no idea how to do what she needed to do.

Vader's strides across the length of Amidala's quarters were uneven and rapid, as he paced back and forth, over and over, while the transport finished the last leg of its journey to Tatooine. He was trying to work off his agitation and restlessness and had been for some time now. Nothing seemed to be working.

He was grateful for this time alone. Amidala had matters to attend to before they arrived, and she was currently on the bridge. She didn't need to see him this way, especially after the battle near the Ciru Expanse. She had been afraid for him, and for Luke, and it would do her no good to see him shaken, even though the Rebels were not the cause.

Luke had decided to stay out with the security forces that were protecting the transport. There were only four of the original six Imperial fighters out there with him, but Vader wasn't concerned. It would be up to Luke to take on any other threats, and Vader could be out to help him almost instantly.

So he was here, by himself, trying in vain to sort through his jumbled thoughts.

The simple proximity to Tatooine hung darkly over all his other confusion. He had not returned to the planet after...after his mother...and hadn't allowed himself many thoughts of it after that occurrence. The thought of being back there again was unsettling, no matter how much time had passed, and he was having difficulty unraveling his anxieties.

Still, he had started preparing himself for this as soon as Amidala had first began discussing and planning the idea of the Guard movement. Even in its infant stages, the movement was clearly designed with his old homeworld in mind. The boy he had once been had become a Jedi so many years ago in part because he wanted the power to fix Tatooine for himself, his Mother, for nearly everyone there. Now that he had the power, he knew that no memories or ghosts were going to keep him from being there to wield it, and finally see the changes happen.

Tatooine's past was not the problem. Not the entire problem, at least.

The Force felt splintered around him, pulling him off in many different directions, none of which he fully comprehended. He thought briefly about meditating, but didn't think he'd be able to be still for long enough to make a worthwhile attempt. He continued his pacing, and tried to throw his mind down one of the paths, and wrestle with it until something came to him clearly.

All that came to him eventually was a vague sense of Luke, but he decided to follow it along. He was seeing him out in front of the ship, in his fighter, exuding a bit more confidence and calm than he had been lately. Vader knew that letting their arguments rest since leaving Naboo had contributed to Luke's settled feeling, and if Vader hadn't felt so otherwise agitated, he would have shared that relief. Vader had little desire to restart their disagreements, and knew it would only be a distraction once they arrived.

Vader frowned, his steps slowing slightly. He hoped his apprehension wasn't a sign that something more was going to happen. Luke had been upset with his father, but Vader truly did not believe the boy would do something to further upset things between them.

Maybe something already had happened.

That thought seemed to be the trigger to his being pulled sharply in another direction, as he tried to hold onto the fractious Force around him. He began to feel a strong sense of loss - not a personal one, so much as a loss to the Force itself. It was not a sensation he was unfamiliar with...during the Wars when so many Jedi had died, he had felt this way often, no matter what side he happened to be fighting on at the time. The loss of any powerful Force-user was a blow felt by them all.

A confused fear ran through him as he made certain that he wasn't sensing anything centered around Leia. He just needed to be sure...but it was a foolish concern. Leia's death would have affected him much, much more powerfully.

Who else...?

Someone familiar. He could not make out a face, or a voice, but there was a mixture of strength and power and criticism and reproach that he had immediately and always associated with only one Jedi.


Yoda had died. Just now, it seemed. Vader had assumed that he had died decades ago, but now -

He stopped short. Luke, apparently, had lied again, at least through his silence this time, if nothing else. Perhaps that was what Vader had sensed around his son that was so perplexing. Perhaps. Luke's lies had a way of twisting the Force link between them, and that was likely the answer to his part of the puzzle.

Vader decided he would deal with that later. For now, he allowed himself to drift back toward Yoda, and to the place in the Force that was wounded with his passing. There were many other things there, things tied up with Yoda and his death. Vader's pacing finally came to a stop, and he stood unmoving in the middle of the room.

Tatooine came back to him, but it wasn't thoughts of his mother. Not clearly anyway. Yoda was still at the forefront.

Yoda had been on Tatooine?

Even before the question truly formed, Vader knew the answer. Of course, he had been on Tatooine.

Leia was there.

A familiar burn sparked in him, one that lit every time he thought of the Jedi meddling in his family's they had when he had wanted to save his mother...or, like now, with Leia, as they attempted to turn his family against itself for their own gains. And of all Jedi to be with Leia - Yoda?

Vader's concerns over whatever it was that Leia had planned next only intensified as he considered her taking the Jedi Master's counsel. He was unable to guess what advice she might receive or whether or not she would listen. He did know that he didn't want her under Yoda's influence.

He was suddenly pulled in yet another direction, as the thought occurred to him that Yoda was not his biggest problem at this point.

He didn't want Leia on Tatooine. At all.

It was a visceral reaction, one that had little to do with the trouble she was no doubt plotting for her family upon their arrival. He could almost see her there now, wincing against the glare of the suns and shielding herself against the sand and wind.

She appeared to him clearly for a moment, and it almost looked to him like she belonged there, simply from her dress and hair...

My place is here, my future is here...

No good had ever come to his family on Tatooine, and he could sense nothing good for them there now.

He didn't wish to dwell on the past - on his enslavement, on his mother, on Owen or Beru - especially since this was supposed to be the start of a new time on the planet. And he knew that Amidala was determined to go ahead with her plans in defiance of Leia, and that the sentiment behind that was probably the correct one.

But the sense of dread was there. Too painful to consider and too familiar to ignore.

Vader violently shook his head then, and tried to pull himself out of the throws of the Force. This was all still too puzzling to sort through. For now, he had to focus on the mission.

Almost on cue, his communicator came to life.

"My Lord, we have entered Tatooine's orbit. Her Majesty requests that you join her on the bridge as we approach the main headquarters."

"I will be there shortly," Vader replied. He gave his head a final shake, and then left to join his wife.

Luke had felt a profound sense of peace when he'd come out of hyperspace over the Tatooine system, a sense of anticipation, of impending completion. He had time to think, So this is what it means to come home, then suddenly, the feeling collapsed. He felt as though he'd been rising with the water in a pool, only to have the drain thrust open, sending him swirling down into the blackness.

Out of the shadows, a voice came. Found someone you have I would say, mmm? ... No. Stay and help you I will! ...Yoda. It is Yoda you seek, mmm?

His hand jerked on the controls of the fighter, sending him in an unexpected direction. He swerved to avoid his wingman, drawing in a shaky breath and trying to pull away from the feelings that were coming at him through the Force.


Yoda was here.

Or rather, Yoda had been here.

He had passed into the Force.

And there was no chance at all that Father hadn't felt it.

Luke waited for the blast of anger to come at him. That it did not do so immediately was hardly cause for relief - experience with Father had taught him that anger could easily erupt belatedly, over a seemingly unrelated incident. But no matter what ground he chose to fight the battle on, it would be about this, the last lie.

Why had he perpetuated it? He owed Yoda no allegiance.

It didn't matter. Whatever storm was coming would come. Luke did not believe that Father would destroy him - it would be self-defeating - but life could become very uncomfortable very quickly. He could feel Father's disturbed and distracted presence on the cruiser... it would have to boil into something.

He gritted his teeth and resigned himself to the inevitable fight that would come on the surface, then began the landing sequence.

The sun glare blinded him for a moment when he entered the atmosphere, then the familiar expanse of the Dune Sea swam up before him. There was a group of mesas at the center of the Sea, equidistant from Tatooine's three major spaceports, and it was here that Mother's Guard project had built its headquarters. The sight lines to the cities were clear, and the internal communications system that Mother would ceremonially start up tomorrow would give instant access to the full Guard, to any individual member of the Guard, or to any group of the commanders' choosing, at any time. Receivers and transmitters had been implanted in the men themselves, giving them nearly the power of communication that Luke and Father shared. They could be awakened or recalled from any point to any point, with no time wasted. The central headquarters would be able to keep an eye on cities, settlements, and Tusken camps equally, and its security equipment - also set to trigger the comm system - would alert them to all questionable movements.

The system had proved its effectiveness elsewhere, and Luke thought that it - combined with unbending Imperial law - might well be what could finally tame Tatooine.

He guided the fighter into the hangar, which had been built directly into a mesa, using the natural rock as a cooling mechanism. A regiment of the guard was waiting there, forming up to greet him. Undoubtedly, other regiments were creating a larger honor guard for Mother's arrival.

He popped the hatch and climbed down, giving the captain of the guard a nod. "Her Majesty's ship should be only minutes behind me," he said.

The captain bowed. "Yes, Lord Skywalker. We received word to prepare for her at the North Hangar."

"Thank you. I will join them."

"I... " The captain swallowed hard. "Lord Skywalker... your... ?"

Luke closed his eyes. "My father?" he prompted. It was worse than he thought. Father had neither tried to communicate through the Force nor contacted him directly.

"Er, yes. His Lordship -"

"Suggests I not attend?"

"Yes, sir. He asks you to meet him on the training deck."

"Training deck?"

"We've converted the top of the mesa into a training area for operations carried out in desert extremes. Access is through the turbolift in the rear wall."

"Very well, Captain. You may attend Her Majesty's landing."

The guard turned smartly and marched in unison toward another hangar. Luke divested himself of his flight suit, put his lightsaber on his belt, and headed for the turbolift. It rose quickly, and opened out onto the sun-scorched rock.

Welcome home.

He concentrated on his body, trying to help it adjust more quickly to the environment. It was a trick he'd needed to teach himself, though Father had told him about it - Father's suit took care of such regulatory matters. In this case, it didn't take much. Adjusting his body to Tatooine was rather like turning a computer back to its default settings.

By the time he had finished, he could hear the applause as Mother's ship touched down on the other side of the camp. Father's presence still felt distracted, though Luke caught the idea that he was meant to begin training alone; Father would join him.

He looked around the mesa and found several loose rocks, which would serve for the exercise Father generally insisted on at the Palace. He was far more focused on levitation and non-conventional combat tactics than Yoda had been.

Luke gathered the Force to him, and sent the rocks up into the air, creating patterns of motion in the space over his head. Once they were all going and he had detached himself enough to treat their flight as nearly random, he drew his lightsaber, and began calling them to himself. As each flew at him, he sliced it easily and let it clatter to the ground.

It was pointless as an exercise - no matter how much he tried to fool himself, he knew he was controlling the rocks and he knew which one he was going to call from which angle - but it was physically satisfying in some way, and he kept it going until he felt Father's presence surge as the turbolift doors opened and let him onto the deck.

Four rocks came at him simultaneously. He swung cleanly and got three in one swipe. The fourth, he hit with an upstroke... just as a fifth hit him between his shoulder blades, hard enough to send a sharp tingling along the nerves that spread out from there.

"You are distracted," Father said simply.

"I missed one, Father."

"One is all that is needed in combat, as I have told you repeatedly when you have failed this exercise." Father's voice was electronically modulated, and showed very little variation in tone, but to Luke, it sounded tight and on the verge of breaking control. He let himself dip into Father's feelings, and pulled away quickly - there was something disturbing him deeply.

Yoda. It's Yoda. You've lied, and he knows it.

"You must never have an unguarded side," Father went on. "Be aware of all your surroundings. Be aware -"

"I lied."

Father stopped, cocked his head to one side. "I am well aware of that, my son, and we will discuss it in depth at a later date. There are more pressing concerns than your errors at the moment."

"Yoda trained me. On Dagobah, after Ben... Obi-Wan... died. Obi-Wan also -"

The rock came from his left, and he never sensed its motion before it slammed into his shoulder.

"Father, please, I am trying to tell you -"

Another rock struck him, this one just above his right knee.


"You are distracted," Father said again.

"I'm sorry. I'm trying to tell you that I'm sorry."

He felt a slight disturbance in the air behind him, and spun to send a rock crashing to the ground. Just as quickly, he spun back to face Father -

Only to find Father's ignited lightsaber only inches from his face, too close to have formed a defense if Father's aim had been an actual attack.

For a long time, Luke stared across the laser at him, trying to read his face through the mask, trying to make sense of the strong but nameless feeling that was coming from him.

Father stepped back and sheathed the lightsaber, hooking it onto his belt. "We are not subtle to one another, Luke. You should not have missed that."

"I'm trying to apologize."

"I care for neither your apology nor your regret. Your sister is undoubtedly planning some sort of attack. You cannot afford the weakness of distraction."

"I understand, Father."

"Be alert, Luke, to all things on this world."

"Yes, Father."

"You must not allow yourself to lose track of your surroundings."

"Yes, Father."

"This world is full of hidden dangers."

"I know." Luke waited for the rocks to begin flying again, but they didn't. "Father?"

He turned away. "I was aware that you must have had further training after Obi-Wan's demise. And I was aware that your mother had been concealing some long ago contact with another Jedi master. It was simply the identity of that master which had eluded me. That identity is no longer relevant."

Luke frowned. Father did not seem to be lying. His emotion level was high and his anger was real, but it seemed to genuinely be directed at Luke's failure in the exercise.

Father looked back at him. "When the attack begins, as it undoubtedly will, I want you to remain at your mother's side here at headquarters, whatever else is going on. I want her constantly under your protection."

"Yes, Father. Although I might be able to protect her better from the lines."

"You will remain at headquarters." He squared his shoulders, almost a challenge to argument. "I have lost one of my children to the Rebellion," he added simply, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I will not lose the other, nor will I lose my wife."

Luke nodded dubiously. He was accustomed to Father's possessiveness about the family, but this went far beyond what he had experienced so far. It was more frightening than his rages.

The turbolift doors opened again. "Meditate," Father instructed as he stepped inside. "Learn to sense everything moving near you. Master this lesson, Luke. Today." The doors closed.

Luke stared after him until he could no longer hear the motion of the lift.

With Yoda gone Leia found herself feeling completely untethered, without a sense of direction or a point of reference to center her. She wanted, more than anything, to have him back.

She wanted to ask one more question. She needed to clarify one last confusion. She needed...she wanted...

She had no idea what exactly she would have asked, even if she had somehow been given the chance. It was all just too much.

But then, any question that came to mind would have to be helpful. She was certain she needed every bit of help she could possibly get.

She was annoyed at herself for becoming so attached to someone whom she knew wouldn't be with her long. It was the first thing she had told herself upon seeing Yoda - small, sick, old, Yoda - but in the end it hadn't stopped her from becoming comfortable in his presence, and even glad to have him around. Most times. And now?

Now she was even more acutely aware of the burden that rested on her, and she hadn't thought that possible after leaving Naboo.

Leia pulled her head up out of her hands, and looked at the spot where Yoda had rested one last time. He still wasn't there.

She had been sitting in Kenobi's home for far too long. There was precious little time left before the Rebels' attack and she wasn't doing a thing to help.

Yoda's place had never been in the planning and the fighting anyway. This was something she could still do on her own.

Yoda's last words were ringing in her head, but she also felt that there were things that were simply...bigger than her personal issues with her family.

She snorted to herself. Was anything bigger than her issues with her family?

Well, some things were certainly simpler to deal with. With that, she pulled herself up and moved slowly out of the hovel. She was back in the desert, but she barely registered the heat as she trudged back to where the Rebel's makeshift base had been set up. It was a long and lonely walk.

The first person she was able to make out upon her return was Han. He was surrounded by several officers, explaining things and giving out orders, but was obviously waiting near the edge of the base for her to return.

As soon as he noticed her, he dismissed everyone around and began jogging toward her. His hands went to his shoulders when he reached her, and he almost instinctively looked behind her and to either side of her, a puzzled look on his face. The question he had almost didn't need asking.

"He's gone, Han," she whispered.


"He died shortly after I took him back to the house."

"The med droid couldn't help him?"

Leia glanced up at him, and found him much more surprised than she had anticipated. " was too late. It's probably been too late for a while now. He was sick, and old. It was a matter of time, really."

Han shrugged. "I know. But I guess I don't understand how this Jedi thing works. I guess I thought he'd just be able to hang around as long as he needed to."

Leia bristled as the isolated feeling came back at her and made her feel cold in the desert sun. She looked away from him and tried to regain her composure.

"Are you all right, Leia? Did go well?"

"I think we're going to have to wait and see on that count. Too early to tell," she replied. "He seemed to think that he had done enough, but...we'll see."

Han's face contorted into a look that plainly said that he didn't know how to reassure her or help her. Leia didn't answer, because she didn't know either.

He finally settled for a long, solid hug, and Leia thought that might do for the time being.

The sound of a speeder roared up loudly behind them and Leia pulled away from Han as Lando came up right next to them and jumped out of the driver's seat.

She was feeling pleased that Lando didn't look any worse for wear, but that initial evaluation didn't hold up for very long. His eyes met theirs dismally, and his whole countenance was grim. She checked him over again, and could find no real sign of injury.

"You all right?" Han asked, also looking his friend over. "What happened out there? What'd they do?"

He looked back and forth between the two them, and then shook his head several times as though he were having a silent conversation with himself. He didn't answer Han's questions.

Leia glanced at Han, then ventured, "Lando...?"

"They decided to help us."

He tone was bitter, which only confused Leia more. "That's a positive thing, isn't it? Lando, you're back sooner than we anticipated, you seem to be safe and sound and the Tuskens have signed on to joined us. That's more than I was counting on and the most that anyone could have done." She tried to give him a smile. "I knew we had sent the right man to do the job." His only response was a withering look. "What? What is it? Are you all right? Please, Lando, you need to tell us what happened."

"Your Highness, I did exactly as you asked, but..."

"But what?" Han prodded.

"Leia, how much do know about these Tuskens? Honestly?"

"I know pretty much what I told you before you left." She knitted her eyebrows and stared at him, trying to decipher what he was getting at. "I don't send my people into missions blind when I can help it. You know what I know."

"Please, remind me."

"They are people my father...'dealt with' his own unique way the last time he was on this planet. It was years ago - decades ago, before Luke and I were born, but I doubt it was something any of them would have forgotten. Can you imagine a primitive race having to face Darth Vader? I thought that -"

"Why did he do it?"


"Leia, I know your father doesn't always need a real provocation to do what he does. But the Tuskens strike me as a people who would happily provide a very good reason."

"Lando -"

"Do you know the circumstances?"

"Lando!" she finally snapped, her voice rising with her frustration. "Get to the point."

"These people aren't innocents, Your Highness, not at all, not in any meaningful way that I could see. If the basis for you aligning with them is that you see them as victims of Vader...well, you had better be sure. What did they do? What was the story you heard?"

For the first time, Leia faltered. She searched her memory for any stray piece of information she might have missed, but came up with nothing. "The story came to me in bits in pieces. Neither he nor mother liked to discuss it in any great detail. He was shamed about it, Lando. Can you even imagine what he must have done? To still feel shamed into near silence about it after all this time?"

He looked as if he were about to continue to argue the point, but Leia cut him off. "Enough. What did they say when you went to them? What happened?"

"They said they'll help. But they don't plan on officially joining us, and don't seem to have any intention of following anyone's orders."

Han's reaction came immediately. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"They weren't terribly interested in giving me explanations." Lando's eyes rested on Leia, and he waited for her response.

"They're nomads, Lando, and they're somewhat primitive. I'm sure they don't often join organized military resistance of any type. The fact that they've expressed a willingness to help-"

"Don't they often raid the settlements and farms and cities around here? And they're planning to be there under no one's supervision in the middle of a battle?"

"You made the offer. They accepted. What do you want me to do? We've played our hand to them already, and we can't exactly take back the knowledge they've been given. They're aware of the attack." Leia pulled herself up tall to give Lando a conversation-ending stare. "You forget that they have as much to lose - more! - than almost anyone else on this planet. What's done is done."

Lando was now looking to Han for help, but Leia ignored that and walked away, telling them she had an attack to finish planning. She tried, again, to ignore the wish that Yoda would come again so she could talk to him. She had decisions to make, and she had to make them on her own.

Piett had been somewhat nervous when Lord Vader had decided to meet with Commander Dihave.

It wasn't Dihave's skill as an engineer - Piett had met him during a brief stint he'd done as a professor at the Academy, where he had been a brilliant student... brilliant enough that Piett had covered for him when he was caught tinkering with the check-in droids to make it look like he wasn't coming in four hours past curfew. They had something of an understanding after that; Dihave had steeled himself to put on the right face to finish up his education, and Piett helped smooth over the feathers he ruffled trying to get things done.

Lord Vader would certainly have noticed the ruffled feathers lying around. Piett - whose way Vader had eased more than once - was worried that he would lose the Dark Lord's trust. It could be deadly, but Piett's concern was more personal. He did not wish to lose Vader's good opinion, or that of the Empress.

But Vader had not been angry with him. When they had met shortly after Vader's conversation with Dihave, the Dark Lord had simply complimented Piett on assembling a talented engineering team, and asked him to review Imperial capabilities with Dihave before settling on a strategy. Piett already held Vader in high esteem; this unexpected response raised it considerably.

Even more surprising than Lord Vader's attitude had been Dihave's response to it. Piett had visited the workshop four times in as many days, and Dihave had been in uniform every time. It was even possible that the uniforms were being properly laundered between wearings. Dihave hadn't quite been able to cut his hair, but it had been neatly combed and slicked down.

Of course, he still forgot to stand and salute when Piett came in, choosing instead to look over his shoulder and flash a greeting smile. "Admiral," he said. "I was just wondering if you'd be coming again today."

"I will be here every day, Commander."

"Good. We cleaned up around here, just for you."

Piett glanced around the workshop. There were some streaks on the floor that looked like they may have been made by a janidroid, and several items which had been strewn carelessly on the long tables appeared to have been thrown carelessly into long storage bins. For Dihave, this was a sincere effort. "I applaud the intention," Piett said, trying not to sound too dry.

Dihave nodded proudly. "Yes, well. We were here all night. Not cleaning up, obviously, but getting a few more prototypes built. There should be a few things that Princess Leia is totally unaware of ready to go if she starts anything."

Piett sighed, wishing that there had been a way to avoid telling the engineers what the parameters of their research needed to be. But when he'd given them the time constraints and location constraints, they would have needed to be a good deal more foolish than they were to not deduce who the security threat actually was. Leia had been a bit brusque with the Imperial military while she'd been at the Palace, not actually rude, but edging up to it. The men had often taken notice of it, and she had not been well-liked among them.

Except by Piett. He'd grown to appreciate her sharp tongue and sharper insights, and to look forward to seeing her in the Command Center every day. Once she had grown accustomed to any given officer, the brusqueness faded, and she had been able to work well with many of the people around her. Like her father in the Old Empire, she seemed to detest the overall structure, but to respect various individuals within it. Piett had been honored to be one of those individuals, and he was sorry that it was all going to disappear in the storm of conflict she was determined to trigger.

"Do you have a reliable prototype of the contained destruction missile?"

"We've built two of them."


"Why are you asking that? I never built an unreliable gadget."

"Because if this is your first mistake, it will be a costly one."

Dihave bit his lip, then swung his chair around brought up a diagram on his computer. "We've run several simulations, and so far there has been no error in the navigational systems. Once the missile is launched, it is able to follow its path. Glancing blows from space dust or asteroids shouldn't interfere. It will circumvent ships in its path, but immediately return to its prior heading. Its locator is top notch. We're very much aware of Her Majesty's concern for innocents caught in the violence. And if it seems to be failing, we will still have the communications system to control it manually from here." He let Piett scan the programming codes, which did indeed seem flawless, then cleared his throat and turned his chair around again. "Admiral... we heard rumors that the Empress' entourage was attacked this morning as they left. Is it true?"

"Yes. A small squadron of X-Wings made an attempt on Her Majesty."

Dihave clenched his teeth, and Piett suspected that he was trying to avoid swearing in front of a superior officer. For all his surface rebelliousness, Dihave adored his Empress as much as anyone else in the Empire. "Her own mother," he muttered, then blinked. "Did they learn anything that might impact what we're doing here? Get any strategic insights?"

At least twice a day, Piett was reminded of how grateful he was to be in the New Empire instead of the Old. Under Palpatine, Dihave's question would undoubtedly have been ignored. Under Empress Amidala, Piett had the freedom to address it, and to let Dihave make necessary adjustments. "Lord Vader and Lord Skywalker made rather easy work of the squadron. They dampened all communications fields and relied only on... on the way they are able to communicate with one another."

"A good plan." Dihave looked back at his diagram. "I'll see if there's anything I can do about communications blocks. If the Rebels hadn't thought about them before, they will now."

"Very good."

"Are you going to need these missiles soon?"

"The timetable is not set, but I would request that you move any modifications to the top of your priorities."

"Yes, sir."

"And with that, I will wish you good day." Piett didn't bother waiting for Dihave to remember that he was supposed to stand and salute. He just left the workshop and headed back to Theed. It seemed somehow empty without the Empress, even though most of the usual staff was still present. The heart was out of the city. Piett's father had been among those campaigning to change Naboo's constitution to allow Amidala to remain queen indefinitely, back before the Empire, and Piett could recall no time at which Her Majesty had not been known in his household by her royal title. Her successor had always been a pale imitation, trusted only insofar as she had allowed Amidala to advise and guide her. When Amidala had disappeared, Theed had died. Now, she had returned, and brought life and hope back with her. While she was absent, the activity continued, but Piett could feel her absence acutely.

He pulled into the command center and made his way to his office. Yesterday, he had reassigned several intelligence agents to the exclusive task of locating the Rebel base. The agents within the Rebellion were unreliable on many levels, and, by sheer bad luck, had all been at the periphery, and had not yet been brought back to the Rebel base.

The reports that had been sent to him had little of value, even according to the agents who sent them. One from Anoat reporting seeing a small squad of X-Wings, another near the moon of Endor thought he had traced a cruiser. A young woman who pretended to be a down-on-her-luck singer in the various Outer Rim spaceport lounges reported on what she politely called "casual conversation" that a Rebel officer she'd "spoken with" kept a nine-pointed leaf in his belt pouch, which she judged to be a recent acquisition. It came from a tree that was native to Tandocum, but had been spread to many other planets. The last report came from an agent posing as a journalist doing reports on various out-of-the-way systems. She sent holofootage from Osedi, Meraca, Ledaga, and Aggin, none with commentary on why she'd sent it. Piett had told her not to bother - he could usually tell why something was suspicious. His instincts about such things were generally good, as Lord Vader had noted at Hoth when he'd disagreed with Ozzel.

He settled in to analyze the footage.

Han cut a winding path through the various officers who seemed to be running all over the place to make their last-minute checks, and headed for the large hastily erected tent that was serving as the central meeting place for the senior members of the Rebellion. He was grateful for a chance to escape the glare of the suns - he almost didn't care that it wouldn't be any cooler in the tent's shade. He had gotten as used to the heat as he thought he possibly could (if you didn't adjust to the heat on Tatooine quickly, you'd pay for it dearly) but his eyes were burning and watery, and needed a respite. He'd be glad to focus on a holoprojector for awhile. And on Leia.

He found a couple of the squadron leaders milling outside the tent, discussing their preparations and questions before they went in for the final official briefing. He acknowledged each of them briefly before pulling back the tent's flap and ducking inside.

Blinking, he allowed his eyes a moment to adjust to the darker setting. He saw several of the other leaders walking around and talking, looking both anxious and excited. Most were gesturing toward the holos at the front, which were displaying detailed maps of the Rebels' plans.

He finally settled on Leia, who was standing at the front, alone.

He watched her for several moments, trying to get a solid read on her - trying to figure out where her mind was. Part of him insisted that that wasn't too hard of a task. This was Leia, after all, and her mind would be on the impending attack. Running through all the possible scenarios. Tweaking the plans. Getting her people prepared. Simple.

But even if he thought he could guess where her thoughts were, he couldn't help wondering exactly what she was thinking.

Her response to Lando's report from the Tuskens had surprised him. Somewhat. On a practical level, she was, of course, right - he certainly couldn't think of a viable way to dis-invite the Tuskens now that they knew about the Rebels' plans. And if they were willing to help, they could make a real difference in some of their efforts. While he trusted Lando's unease about what the Tuskens might do, he understood Leia's position that there was little to be done about it at this point.

But there were non-practical points to consider. Whatever news Lando had brought back, Han knew that Leia saw the Tuskens as victims of Vader. To her, that automatically meant that on some level they were on the same side. Or, at least, the Tuskens were on the side that Leia wanted to see herself on.

That didn't mean she was wrong, he reminded himself. Han was pretty damn sure that being against Vader usually was the right side to be on. And Leia had always known her own mind; she could handle this. Maybe she and Yoda had figured something out before he died.

For now, he just needed to support her.

Leia's holoprojector came to life beside her, and Han realized that the rest of the squadron leaders were in the tent and settling down for the meeting. He moved to the front to stand beside her, taking her hand and gave it a quick squeeze before she started talking.

"All right everyone," she said, taking a deep breath. "This is it. Let's review your assignments."

The room fell into complete silence, and she began gesturing to the holos. "The attacks will begin simultaneously during the Empress' speech - all squadron leaders will have communicators set to a frequency where they will receive Han's mark to commence." A list of information streamed beside her. "Mother's... Mother's speech will precede several key developments for the Guard's installation. The new communication system will start up shortly after her speech is finished. Also, battalions of soldiers who haven't yet been deployed will head out from the main headquarters to their barracks in the settlements. Patrols, which have already been positioned in the towns, will begin their first sweeps.

"All of our efforts will be focused on stopping the Empire from establishing a hold here - we're going to destroy their communications capabilities, break up the patrols, and stop the set-up at the barracks, while taking out as much of their housing, equipment, and weaponry as we can."

She gestured to three people to her left. "Red, Blue and Gold Squads will be positioned along the routes leading from the main Imperial HQ to the barracks near and inside the settlements." The routes flashed in each squadron's colors on the holo map, and scattered dots indicated the best hiding places for the squads to lie in wait. "They will intercept and engage as many of the ships as they can."

She paused briefly and glanced at Han before going on. "Lando will lead Gamma Squadron into Mos Eisley, where the soldiers' barracks have been built in the center of town, and where patrols have already started canvassing some of the streets." Han noted the impassive look on Lando's face...but knew right away that he was still unhappy and uneasy about the situation and how it had been dealt with. "The Empire's forces are rather heavily entrenched here, and there's a large civilian population to deal with. We expect help from several indigenous groups who should provide insights on the city itself and assist us in directing the civilians away from the fighting." Lando shook his head slightly, but didn't protest out loud. When Leia's eyes fell on him, he simply gave her a curt nod.

"Han will take Beta Squadron into Mos Espa, where the main ceremony will take place, in the old podracing arena. The Empress will be removed from the area immediately with the start of any trouble, and security will be so focused on protecting her, that I believe it'll gain the squad some time in engaging the soldiers and moving out to the barracks.

"Finally, I'll lead Alpha Squadron to the Imperial headquarters for an assault on the main transmitter of the communications array. If we can take it out, the Imperials on the planet won't be able to communicate with one another, and won't be able to contact any ships in orbit, or stations on other planets."

The holoprojector shut itself down with a dull hum. "That's essentially it. When the time comes, head for the rendezvous point - we'll regroup on the far side of the planet before we disembark completely."

"And that's where we'll celebrate our victory," Han interjected.

"Of course," she replied, with a rare smile. "We're ready for this," she said simply. "We're ready to show the Empire exactly what they're up against."


Winama sits at her loom, and Amidala watches as she always watched. The threads are rich and beautiful, but as soon as they are woven into the warp, the cloth disappears into the crimson shadows. Amidala cannot see the shape of the pattern at all. The relentless noise of the loom sounds more like metal against metal than wood against wood - Amidala is sure she knows that cacophony from somewhere - but it seems not to matter.

"The thread is running short," Winama says, and her voice is strange, hoarse. She passes a pair of vibroshears over her shoulder without looking. "Go, granddaughter, and fetch me a new length."

The air seems thick as Amidala turns toward the corner where the spinning wheel should be. She knows she will not see the familiar, old-fashioned tool at all, and she is right.

In the corner are two figures, standing behind a blood-red screen. Their faces are lost in the shadows, but Amidala knows them. Closest to her, playing out a length of new thread onto an oblong spool, is a woman in a flowing gown. The gown in life was yellow, but now, like all other things, it has taken on the ever-present red hue of her life. Her long ringlets catch the light, as they drape over the distended belly of a pregnancy which will never come to fruition. To her left, spinning the thread with a drop spindle, is a young girl with a crown of braids, her blue peasant costume now in shades of red. The spindle drops, rises, feeds from a cloudy substance behind the screen.

Amidala goes forward with her vibroshears held out in front of her. She approaches the screen and looks down, and barely stifles a scream.

Ani, beautiful Ani with his fine bones and deep eyes, with his golden hair and smooth skin, is laid at the feet of the two women. He has been cut open, and the cloudy substance rises out of him. Each time the spindle drops, a look of agony crosses his face. Neither woman notices.

"Cut it, girl!" Winama calls in her strange, harsh voice, and Amidala dutifully raises the vibroshears toward the spool.

Ani looks up and pleads with her, and she understands that if she does this, it will destroy him.

She looks over her shoulder at Winama, who is now standing beside the loom, her gown a deep hooded black robe, her white hands outstretched. "Do it now!"

The hood falls away, and it is not the face of Winama. It is the face that has been the core of her nightmares for twenty-five years, the face of the man who had once been trusted, once seemed kind and compassionate, but turned out to be a monster. The face is age-riddled and grotesque, with crooked teeth and misshapen eyes. "Listen to me girl! Do it -"

Amidala yanked herself up from the dream, her lips forming the word, "Now" in the darkness of her bedchamber at the Imperial headquarters. The room did not have the reassuring lines of light that she would see on Naboo, the edging lights that marked the contours of Ani's chamber. They had agreed it would be a waste of resources to install a hyperbaric chamber here; he had returned to the royal cruiser for the night. The thought of awakening without him nearby had not occurred to Amidala when that agreement had been struck.

She pushed her covers back and got out of bed, calling for the lights to come on full and drive away all the shadows in the corners. They hurt her eyes, but she didn't care. She considered changing before she went to the hangar, but decided it would take too long. Instead, she simply grabbed the silk robe from her travel wardrobe and slipped it on over her nightdress before going out the door. The hall was dim, but she thought if she hurried, she could abide the shadows. The need to see Ani was too overwhelming to bother with such things.


Amidala stopped abruptly, realizing that she'd nearly been running down the corridor. Luke was coming toward her with a concerned look on his face. She found a smile for him, though her feet and legs were tingling with the desire to keep moving, to get to the hangar, and her eyes were aching for the sight of Ani's face. This was not Luke's concern. "Yes?"

"Mother... " His gaze tipped down, then he turned away, as though it had hurt his eyes. "Mother, you shouldn't run around... like that. I've got security all around here. I need to know if you're going to leave your room."

"I'm sorry, Luke." She put a hand on his strong arm. He was a good boy, a good son. "I wasn't thinking about that. I just was going to see your father."

The bright blush on Luke's cheek was apparent even in the dimness of the hallway. "Yes. Of course. I'll... I'll escort you there."

"It's all right, Luke. You just keep people out of headquarters who don't belong here. I trust the people who do belong here."

"Are you sure you don't want something heavier? The hangar will be cold at night."

"Your father will have the cruiser's heat up. You know that."

He gave another half-glance at her, then nodded. "All right, Mother."

Amidala rose to her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "I love you, Luke. You know that, don't you? My good boy."

"I love you, too, Mother." He kissed her forehead. "I'd better get back to patrolling."

Amidala watched him until he rounded a corner, then continued on to the hangar.

Cool light spilled from the hatch; Ani genuinely slept on only rare occasions, and almost never when she wasn't with him. His nights were taken up by quiet meditation that simulated controlled dreaming. In some ways, Amidala envied him.

Ani had built an intermediate room outside the hyperbaric chamber on board the cruiser much like the one in the Palace, so that she could come and go as she pleased. It took a little preparation, but nowhere near as much as it had when they had been trying to survive in Palpatine's Empire, thank the Maker. She sealed herself inside the small room, put on the Gungan face shield that would protect her from the heavily oxygenated atmosphere, then turned the dials to change the air around her. By the time she had finished, Ani had sensed her presence, and the jaws of his chamber opened.

She ran to him.

His mask and helmet were off, being cleansed by the mechanical arms that were attached to the ceiling. Amidala sought his eyes, found them, held them with her own. The scars didn't matter, the horrible jutting shelf of the vocoder didn't matter, nothing mattered except those eyes, and the hands that wrapped around hers tightly. The rest was ephemeral, a thin veil projected over the man she knew he was, the man she had seen lying in pain in her dream.

"I'm not going to hurt you," she said.

His eyes narrowed in vague puzzlement. "The thought had not occurred to me, my love."

"I just... " She wanted to explain, to try to convey the terror of the nightmare, and the worse terror of waking up alone, but here with him, she could no longer feel fear. She was safe, and her panic seemed silly and insubstantial. "Oh, never mind," she said. "I don't sleep alone well. I wanted to be here. I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"You never disturb me." He led her to the small gilt bench he'd made for her, and she sat down on it. His hand smoothed her hair over her ear and came to rest gently on her cheek, the face shield creating a rather pleasant electricity against her skin. "What is troubling you?"

"Nothing, as long as I'm here. May I have a kiss?"

He smiled. She knew it caused him discomfort. "As you wish, my lady." He leaned forward, dipping his head slightly to keep the vocoder plate from catching on the bottom of her face mask, then pressed his lips against the flexible shielding. The glimmer of it distorted, then Amidala felt his mouth touch hers. She reached into the kiss, locking her hands behind his neck, careful even now to avoid touching his fragile skin with her nails.

He stood away from her after a few moments, then sat down beside her on the bench, holding her hand gently. She leaned against his shoulder. "I was frightened earlier," she said. "When we left Naboo, and the Rebels attacked."

"You were not in danger, Amidala. Neither Luke nor I would have allowed them to harm you."

"I wasn't afraid for myself, Ani. You were the one they were all firing at. I saw that on the viewscreen." She squeezed his gloved hand, brought it to her mouth, kissed it through the shield. "What would I do if I lost you? I couldn't keep going."

"Of course you could."

"I don't think so. I'm afraid when you're not with me. I feel lost. Unprotected."

"Amidala... "

"Promise you won't leave me, Ani."

"Amidala, I -"

"Promise." Amidala shifted on the bench, rose a bit, and tried to kiss him. The edge of her mask hit the vocoder plate and sent a spark of static electricity scurrying over her shield. It had happened before, and she had laughed about it once, but this time it just seemed unfair, a cheat, the apotheosis of all the kisses that had been taken from her, never to be returned. The chamber blurred, and she felt tears of impotent rage spill out of her eyes. "I hate it, Ani! I hate that mask! I hate everything about it!"

"Amidala... "

"If you can't promise me that you'll try to stay safe, will you at least promise me that after all this is over, you'll go to Dr. Kei and see if she can help you find... some other way? Any other way?" She reached under her mask carefully, taking shallow breaths while it was open, and wiped the tears savagely away then raised her wet fingertips to his exposed face. He closed his eyes, seeming to meditate on the feel of it. "Promise me."

His lips captured one of her fingers and kissed gently. "I promise. I will speak to Dr. Kei."

Amidala nodded. Ani crooked his arm, and she slid back into it, as she had so often in the past. It was a comfortable place to be. The nightmare was nothing, just shifting mists in her mind. Her heartbeat slowed and she took deeper breaths.

Sleep was at the edges of her consciousness again when Ani spoke, and it seemed to come from a great distance: "Are you well, my love?"

Amidala snuggled deeper into his embrace. "I am safe," she whispered. "As long as I'm with you." Sleep made a sudden and unexpected advance, and she yawned. "My Jedi protector," she teased.

Her eyes were closed before she finished speaking, and she did not see the pain that crossed his scarred face at the memory, or the tenderness that followed it as he gently stood and moved her into a more comfortable position to sleep. She didn't see those things, but she felt them as she drifted, and she felt his hand on the curve of her hip, a warm, solid presence that was still there when consciousness slipped away.

She was safe. And as she slid into her dreamworld and heard the strangely metallic workings of a loom, she knew that she did not need to open that door. Whatever was behind it, Ani would protect her from it.

Vader knelt beside the bench where Amidala was curled up, her hair cascading to the floor in dark ringlets. A few strands of white had threaded their way in over the years, but they were striking and attractive. Her presence in the Force was still jumpy, but it was calming as she drifted into deeper sleep. He watched over her as O... as he had once been watched over as he went into deep meditation, to meet the monsters that had often waited for him there.

When she had first returned to him, he had tried frequently to read her, to catch the flavor of her thoughts, even to hear them directly. There had been some successes, although she was difficult to read... but he had drawn back as he grew to trust her again, given her the privacy of her mind. At some point, he had realized that he had no more right to be in her mind without her consent than he had to be... well, to touch her body without consent.

But now, he wondered. What was she dreaming? What strange turns had her mind taken to bring her here tonight? Something was hunting her from inside her soul, and if he was going to protect her from it, he needed to know what it was. Tentatively, he reached out to her, touched, drew back.

"It's not an intrusion if you mean to protect her."

Vader froze, his senses filling suddenly with a third presence. "You are unwelcome here, Obi-Wan," he said.

"Yes, well, if you'd like to banish me, Padawan, I ask only that you do it now and save both of us time."

"It is not a skill I had thought to acquire." Vader turned and rose to his feet. A meter behind him, in front of his meditation chair, was the image of Obi-Wan Kenobi, edged in a slight blue glow that was almost lost in the bright white light of the chamber. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties. Vader could see the opposite wall through him. He realized dimly that he was not entirely surprised by the visit. "So I will merely remind you that you are unwelcome."

"You should speak with Luke. It appears that he's been acquiring some skills without your guidance." Obi-Wan glanced casually around the hyperbaric chamber. "As a fellow master, I must encourage you to find out where he's learning these things. Not knowing may prove hazardous to you."

Vader ignored Obi-Wan's attempt at dark humor. Only one thing he had said mattered. "So. You're still trying to interfere with my son."

"No. You've broken Luke beyond my ability to repair."

Vader might have lost his temper then - he had not destroyed Luke, he had been more patient with Luke than any Jedi Master had ever been with him - but his eyes fell on Amidala, sleeping peacefully, unmindful of what was going on nearby. He didn't want to wake her. So he kept his voice low. "And my daughter? Are you responsible for this affront from her as well? Did you perhaps suggest that she order a strike at her mother?"

Obi-Wan finished his cursory exploration of the room and looked back at Vader. "I feel your anger at me, Anakin. Yet I also feel your restraint."

"That name is not mine."

"I have no interest in helping you continue this deception, Padawan."

"How dare you speak to me of deceptions?"

Obi-Wan did not answer. He crossed his arms and looked at Amidala instead. "I'm approaching this matter poorly," he said thoughtfully.

Vader said nothing.

"She is ill, you know," Obi-Wan said. "I know you've considered the possibility, Anakin."

"She is not ill. She is... "

"Ill. And you know why."

Vader turned away from both Obi-Wan and Amidala. "She has been through a great deal. She's tired. She works too hard."

"Anakin, when you chose this life, you knew what you were choosing. I will be generous and assume you saw yourself serving a greater good. But you knew that the things you chose to do were not, shall we say, manifestations of your best self."

Vader tried to work up a rage. Obi-Wan was intruding in his space, speaking of things he knew nothing about, and chastising him as though he were still a padawan fresh from Mos Espa. In the end, all he could find was a resigned familiarity. This disturbed him, but he was not in the habit of falsifying his emotions, so he did not try to project anger. He simply turned back to Obi-Wan and sighed (here in the chamber, it was possible to at least simulate that). "Is there some point to this, old man?"

Obi-Wan smiled. "I've missed you, Anakin."

Vader waited; he knew well that Obi-Wan would go on. Obi-Wan never left a lesson unfinished, and it was becoming increasingly clear that he meant to teach a lesson of some sort.

Obi-Wan looked again at Amidala. "Padm? never chose this life. She has allowed it to seduce her, but she can't reconcile herself to it. Look at her and listen to her, Padawan. Listen to yourself, wanting to protect her from any knowledge of your actions. And even so, you can't pretend that she hasn't gained that knowledge. She has simply built walls in her mind to keep herself from understanding, and the walls are shaping who she is now. She can no longer see even her own actions for what they are." He looked over his shoulder. "And that brings me to the oddest thing of all, Anakin: you have very little to hide from her now. She is hiding far more from herself than you are hiding from her. Do you have an explanation?"

"There is less need for such behavior in the New Empire."


Obi-Wan clearly had an alternative theory, but Vader was not interested in hearing it. "Do you mean to offer a cure for her alleged illness, or merely to comment on it?"

"She needs to face the truth about what she's doing here, Anakin. You need to stop protecting her from it... you need to protect her from her own delusions instead."

"She is bringing order to a broken world," Vader said. "I know that matters little to you, but it matters to her, and to me."

"All these years, Anakin, and you still see only the surface." Obi-Wan shook his head. "You will need to see beyond the surface, and soon, if you are going to save your family."

"What do you care about my family?"

"I care."

"Because they are powerful."

"Because you love them. Understanding that is a lesson I believe I have finally learned." With that, he faded, then disappeared.

Vader stared at the spot where he had been for a long time, then knelt beside the bench and took Amidala's dangling hand in his own.

This was why she had entered politics.

This was what made all the meetings, all the stress, all the frustrations worth it. It even covered some of the personal pain she had endured because of her various positions in various governments. Not all of it - Leia wasn't here, and nothing could quite take care of that - but she couldn't help but revel in a moment like this one, where everything finally came together.

She had felt it when she had first woken up early that morning. She had enjoyed a long, heavy, dreamless sleep after joining Ani in his chambers, and had risen feeling calm and refreshed. She had opened her eyes to find him watching her quietly, and lightly holding her hand. He was concerned - she wished she hadn't worried him the night before, and decided that she would plan out their living arrangements in advance of these trips from now on - but he soon saw that she was fine, and ready for the day's event. The two of them had breakfast with Luke, and she had chatted happily with them about the Guard's installation, about making last-minute changes to her speech, about returning to the pod arena. She told Luke an animated version of Anakin's triumph at the race, and both of them enjoyed the hearing the story again, and looked pleased to see her happy.

They had left for the arena shortly after their meal, and had stayed in the staging area in the back with her guards and handlers while the crowds gathered and final preparations were made.

She could hear the people out there. She felt as though she could touch every one of them - as though she could touch every person on Tatooine, and effect some change that would better their lives.

When she was younger, and more na?ve, she had thought that most of her work in politics would be like this. She was disabused of that notion with an almost cruel swiftness, of course. But that didn't make it any less rewarding to think of those people filling the stadium, to think of those people throughout the Outer Rim that she was helping.

And to think of those closest to her...of Ani and Luke. After everything that had happened to them here, they were now experiencing the triumph of returning to fix their broken home. She thought it was a great gift, for her to be able to give that to them.

She looked in the mirror and smiled at herself. If she could fix Tatooine, there wouldn't be a place in the galaxy that she couldn't handle. And that knowledge would give people hope.

What more could she ask for than that?

The buzz in the arena was increasing, and the crowd - which seemed like the full population of Mos Espa - knew she would be out there soon. There was also a charge that came from the arena itself. The entire place had received an upgrade, and the improvements could be seen all over the stadium. The crumbling and damaged walls and stands had been rebuilt or shellacked over. The remnants of the racing days - pods, spare pots, pit droids, had been cleared out completely (she suspected that Ani might be hiding an interest in where it all went). Flowers were placed throughout the stadium, and scarlet decorations adorned the stage and the stands. It was a fairly remarkable transformation from the place she visited all those years ago.

Her attendants began fussing at her again, straightening her dress and touching up her hair. For a second, Amidala felt a pang tug at her heart.

She should be here.

Why couldn't Leia be here, helping her? Sitting with her before the speech?

Tatooine wasn't as important to Leia as it was to the rest of the family, but she could have shared this with them. And after this, Amidala did plan to do something equally as significant for the Alderaanian refugees. Would she be forced to do that without her daughter there?

Why couldn't Leia see that they were on the same side, fighting for the same things? Did it matter if their methods were different? Just because Leia wouldn't necessarily choose to set up a Guard, or give them the power to do what was needed to restore order...

Amidala shook herself from that thought. They wanted the same things. They were family. No other...disagreements mattered in the face of that.

And none of it mattered now. "It'll be fine," she whispered to herself. She waved off her attendants, and they left her alone.

Ani saw this and made his way over to her. She gave him a radiant smile.

"Are you ready, My Lady?" he asked. "It's nearly time."

"Absolutely," she replied.

He signaled to Luke, who was standing several yards away, speaking quietly with her personal guard contingent. He left them to join his parents, and Amidala rose from her chair. "If you're ready, Mother, we will escort you out to the stage." She nodded, and Luke turned to lead the way. Her husband stayed closed behind her. The guards flanked her, moving ahead and behind her, and along both her sides.

Eventually, they came out into the suns and into the clamor of the crowd, which increased greatly once they noticed her standing just off the stage. It was a bright, clear day out, and Amidala squinted against the sunlight as she looked to the sea of people in the stands.

Her guards walked past her, spreading out into their positions behind her podium. Anakin and Luke waited beside her.

She took a deep breath, and pulled herself up into her most regal posture, and then moved toward the podium. Her son and husband followed, and stood beside one another, a few feet directly behind her.

The crowd's cheering hadn't let up. Amidala wondered briefly if the sound system would even let her be heard above it.

"Thank you," she finally called out. Her voiced echoed through the arena, and seemed to carry out into the desert. "Thank you."

The crowd slowly began to quiet, and she waited for the volume to go down enough for her to start her formal speech.

"Citizens of Tatooine, your day has finally come."

Another cheer went up, and she happily waited it out.

"Never again will you be ignored. Never again will you be denied your rightful place in galactic affairs." A constant undercurrent of applause was accompanying her words now. "From this point forward, Tatooine will receive the full protections and rights that any planet should expect as a member of the Empire.

"The criminals and slavers and raiders who have terrorized you will now pay the price for their lawlessness, and will no longer be allowed to lord over you with impunity. The Guard being established here is the largest one I've ever created, and has every means at my disposal to serve each city, each settlement, and each farm on this planet. They will be both visible and vigilant, working each and every day on my behalf to give your lives the order you have longed for and that each of you deserve."

She let the echo of her voice play out, and gave a couple of seconds for the applause to slow. It became as quiet as it probably could in the stadium. Then she continued. "As you all know, my family has a long history with this world. We have not forgotten it. And we have not forgotten you. We will never forget. We join you in rescuing this world.

"Right now, troops all over the planet are receiving my deployment orders. They will begin their patrols as soon as I -"

She cut herself off abruptly as she felt Ani's hand, heavy on her shoulder. She barely had an instant to turn around to look at him before his hand tightened painfully on her and she was yanked back from the podium and nearly thrown to the ground.

She could see the shot, a flash streaking well over her head and sailing behind her. Then came the explosion.

It was loud and bright and close...even with Ani crouched over, protecting her, she could still feel the flames and smell the smoke coming from the back of the stage. She could see security people running into the stands, trying to settle the crowd and go after the shooter. Blaster shots rang out.

Amidala had a sudden desire to break free of her husband and retake the podium, and tell everyone to stay calm and remain where they were. No assassin, no Rebel would disrupt this event. Not like this.

But Anakin was already barking out orders to protect her and control the crowd, and was pulling her quickly off the stage. She scrambled to keep up with him and stay on her feet. She could see people in the crowd firing blasters, but they were no longer aimed at her or the stage. A firefight with the guards was on now. Some in the crowd were trying to help the guards and were fighting the troublemakers. The rest of the people were fleeing the arena.

"Luke!" she cried out. He was already following them out.

Anakin headed through the preparation area and out of the stadium toward her small, private ship. She tried to get a last look in at the growing chaos behind her, but her husband impatiently nudged her inside the vehicle. He and Luke joined her inside, and Anakin immediately sped them away, back toward the headquarters.

"Anakin -"

"We must protect you, my love," he said abruptly. "We will deal with this problem once your safety is assured."

She decided not to waste her time arguing. Instead, she turned around in her seat, and watched the arena shrink behind her as she was hurried away.

"Keep away from the stands!" Han yelled into his communicator as the motley collection of armed speeders, swoops, and speederbikes swarmed into the arena, providing cover for the foot soldiers who had first broken the line. All of them were wearing patched together uniforms, with Beta Squadron's symbol drawn clumsily on handmade armbands. Leia insisted on uniforms for anyone who was going to be fighting in civilian areas, to make sure the Empire didn't start shooting randomly. Han didn't know how much good the precaution was going to do today - who knew how the Empire was going to respond to anything these days? - but he reinforced it anyway. "They're civilians up there, no matter whose side they're on."

"Gotcha, General," someone responded, almost cheerfully. They were all cheerful. The atmosphere at the makeshift base this morning had been nervous but upbeat, as though they were athletes preparing for a major competition.

Han didn't like it. He didn't want them losing their morale, but he didn't like this at all. "Don't shoot anyone who hasn't started fighting," he said.

"We got it!"

The Empress' guard was pouring into the arena now, firing indiscriminately at the Rebels. To Han's dismay, members of the crowd were joining in - on the Imperial side. As he watched, a civilian grabbed a blaster from the hand of a fallen soldier, and blasted a speederbike out of the sky. It was too far away to see who was on it. Whoever it was jumped, but the fall was from nearly five meters up. He lay on the ground, dazed, and the civilian shooter lowered the blaster and shot him at point blank range.

A speeder - it was one of the modified snowspeeders rescued from Hoth, so it had to be one the Rogues who hadn't accompanied Wedge's doomed mission - swooped down and fired. The shooter fell.

It was time to join the party.

Han revved the swoop he'd bought in Mos Espa, and flew down into the arena, shooting at the small fleet of Imperial guard vehicles that had been brought in, mainly for show. Two of them exploded beneath him - and then seemed to explode further in laser blasts coming from within the debris cloud.

Han dodged them and dove again. Four figures, all wearing the thigh-length red tunics of Amidala's high guard, had been hiding among the vehicles, and had used their destruction as cover for a fierce counterattack. Han had dodged the bolts, and simply assumed they were meant for him, but apparently the attack hadn't been quite so focused. Three Rebel speederbikes had fallen from the sky.


Han's head snapped around. Beside him in the air, a young Mon Cal recruit was gesturing in a panicked way toward the staging area.

"What is it?" Han asked.

"Mobilizing," the Mon Cal got out between sharp breaths. "They're coming in."

As he said it, the entrance to what had once been the garage exploded with TIE speeders and stormtroopers, all firing into the mass of Rebels.

Han did the math. They weren't going to hold the arena, and that had never been the object. They were supposed to cause enough confusion to give the other squads time for their assaults.

How long, Leia?

He didn't know if they'd been fighting long enough. Time was funny in a battle - every second seemed longer than it was, but there was never enough time to get things done.

He flipped his communicator to long range, and hoped that the other attacks were far enough underway that he wasn't giving anything away.

"Yeah, we're underway all right," Lando muttered into his communicator. "If you decide to dump the arena, bring anyone you can get here. I need you."

"No can do, Lando. We have to hold Mos Espa."

Lando fought an urge to curse. "You do that. Calrissian out." He snapped off his comlink, madder than he had a right to be at Han. Han had his own nexu to declaw. But no way was Gamma Squadron going to be able to do this alone.

Oh, sure... the Guard facilities themselves had gone down already. More than half of their staff hadn't arrived yet. Lando had ordered Gamma Squadron to attack when Leia's order had gone out - at the beginning of the Empress' speech, he guessed - and the Mos Eisley Guardpost had fallen within a few minutes.

The problem was everything else in Mos Eisley.

The Tuskens hadn't appeared at the camp at the appointed time. Lando felt relieved about it at first - he really hoped they would opt out of the invitation on their own - but the more he thought about it, the less relieved he felt. They were a wild card. They knew what was happening. And he had a feeling that if they did show up, it wasn't going to be easy giving them orders.

Chewie, good as his word, had gathered up the smugglers and pirates gotten them to put down the few other Imperial holds that had managed to take root.

But Mos Eisley wasn't just spicers and spacers, gamblers and rogues. Mos Eisley was also slaves and farmers left homeless by raids, living destitute in the city's slums. Mos Eisley was war orphans and war widows who could no longer afford to go elsewhere. Among these, the only ones who did not love the Vaders were those who had been loyal to Palpatine, and they would rather spit on a dying Rebel than help him. The rest had joined the battle, and they weren't on Lando's side. Amidala had already provided them with some relief, and promised them more. And the damning thing was, she meant it. As long as they worshipped her, they'd never have to starve another day.

Is that such a bad deal, really?

Lando shut the voice out of his mind. He couldn't listen to it anymore. Dictatorship was never a good thing. No matter what it accomplished, no matter that it did it more efficiently than -

Stop it. Don't do this to yourself in the middle of a battle.

There was an almighty roar to Lando's left, and the wall of a building blew outward in a rain of yellow stone and yellow dust. The small group of Rebel soldiers who had been guarding the intersection disappeared under the rubble. Six teenage boys scrabbled to the top of it and started throwing chunks of rocks at Lando.

"We don't want you here, Rebel! You and your scum are done in Mos Eisley! It's ours now!"

Lando backed into an alley and dashed onto another street. He wasn't going to start shooting at kids with rocks, but he wasn't going stay there until they killed him, either. "Chewie!" he called into his comlink. No answer. That's right. He'd turned it off. He flipped it back on. "Chewie, we lost the safe area. Get your part of the squad out onto the road. Meet the Guard before it gets into town!"

Chewie barked something. Lando only caught the gist of it, but his impression was that Chewie's group was involved in a skirmish.

Please, let it be with some big, tough farmers, Lando prayed vaguely. And let them be armed farmers, he amended. With blasters.

"Get out of here, Rebel!"

Lando looked back at the alley mouth as a rock blasted into the wall beside him. The boys had made their way down and were chasing him.

I am not drawing my blaster.

Another rock came hurling at him. This one grazed his shoulder. A sharp edge drew blood. He turned to try and find cover.

The wind suddenly picked up.

Something clattered behind him. A rock. Dropped onto the street.

One of the boys cursed softly in Huttese.

Lando looked up.

From here, he could see the forbidding rise of rock that overlooked the valley where Mos Eisley had been built. A sandstorm seemed to be coming down from it, unforgiving, implacable.

As it drew closer, Lando could see the figures inside of it, like demons made of the sand itself.

The boys ran.

Somewhere in the city, an alarm began to sound.

Red Squad was stationed alongside the road to Mos Eisley, but no one really noticed the passing sandstorm half a klick to the east. Fighting was fierce and bloody, and the Imperials were a better match than they'd been anticipating. Some of them were Rebel trained.

Senber Tof and three of his squadmates had taken cover behind a boulder, and were exchanging blasts with a group of the Guard who had disappeared behind a standing rock formation on the other side of the road. The rest of the battle raged - it looked almost hand-to-hand from here - about fifty meters back on the road.

"I like space battles better," Isa Verhi grumbled, rolling back after taking a shot. Her short blond hair was matted with sand. "Cleaner."

"No joke, little girl," Senber said. "I got sand in places I'm never going to get it out of."

She laughed, but they both knew it wasn't the sand, and it wasn't the heat. It was the bodies. In space, you didn't have to worry about the bodies. They blew apart from decompression, usually, if they weren't incinerated in their ships. There was nothing left that you could recognize when you saw it lying there. Nothing that you could wonder about... was it part of a guy who used to sit in the mess hall with you? Or maybe a girl you'd stolen a kiss from at one unsanctioned party or another?

Then a blast shivered the rock, sending pebbles tumbling down. The firefight started again, and there was no time to think about it.

Gold Squad had executed a perfect ambush, and the fighting was over in less than an hour. About half the Imperial Guard was dead, and the other half was in custody.

Kinlo Tems was suspicious of the easy victory, but there didn't seem to be any subterfuge in the prisoners. Red and Blue squads were reporting full engagement - Red actually seemed to be having trouble. Blue Squad, on the way to Mos Espa, had lost communications while he was speaking to them. He hoped the rest of their battle was going better.

But here, in the open desert, he had only forty Imperial soldiers, immaculately dressed for the ceremonial parade, sitting slumped in the sand with binders on their wrists.

He had no idea what he was supposed to do with them, and neither did any of his squadmates.

"Hey," a Guard leader called. "You, Rebel!"

Kinlo turned, trying to assume the air of a winning commander. "What?"

"I'm local," the Imperial said. "There are caves. If you're holding my people, maybe we'd all be a lot more comfortable in there. There's water in them."

"And maybe you have a back-up arsenal?"

"In caves where the Tuskens can pick it up? Not likely."

"I don't know... "

"Look, if you're going to kill us, do it with blasters. But leaving us tied up out here is a lousy thing to do. And if you're planning on staying, you might have a long wait right here with us. I can tell by looking at you that you're not ready for desert camping."

Kinlo was suspicious, but couldn't think of any other reason not to get out of the suns. Gold Squad outnumbered the prisoners significantly, if they tried anything. "All right," he said. "People! We're moving into the shade."

A muted cheer went up, and the assorted troops moved away from the road.

Blue Squad had chosen a spot just beyond sight of Imperial headquarters, as far from Mos Espa as they could get, to avoid drawing attention before the strike on the arena. Princess Leia and Alpha Squadron were camped out with them, but hadn't taken part in the ambush. They were needed for another battle.

This was easily the biggest operation that Ordo Ryn had participated in, and it was exhilarating in some sick way.

A lot of the Mos Espa Guard had gone in early, to help the city guards with the Empress' security. But those who were left for the ceremonial entrance were fighting well. Whatever else had happened since the Empire had changed its face, it seemed that military training had gotten a very quick overhaul.

All the deserters, Ordo thought, remembering empty stations, belongings left on chairs or in ships, as the Rebellion had slowly bled to death before Palpatine fell. Now we know where they are. Must've decided that joining up with Lady Vader wasn't really treason, not like joining up with Palpatine was.

Traitors. Filthy traitors.

It didn't matter. Ordo and Blue Squad weren't there to take revenge. They were there to disrupt this Guard unit, and if they could finish this battle early, maybe they could go in and help General Solo hold Mos Espa.

"Commander!" A young lieutenant scrambled over to Ordo, looking winded. She saluted. "Alpha Squadron has launched. They're on their way to headquarters."

"Great. Put a local dampening field out. I don't want any of our Imperial friends putting word out on them."

There was a flash of something, brighter than the suns, then someone yelled, "Watch out!"

A towering rock formation shivered, then, with a terrible grinding sound, began to crumble in a dusty landslide.

There was no time to watch out. Ordo jumped as far as he could, but the falling rock was too fast to outrun and too large to escape.

The last word to cross his mind before the sky went dark and solid was, Traitors.

The alarm signal sent from one the Guard's captains had gone off less than ten minutes ago. The communications had started breaking up nearly five minutes ago. In Piett's mind, those minutes had stretched out into a taut tension. It filled the Command Center, and he knew that everyone there felt it.

He, along with nearly all the Command Staff, had gathered in Imperial Headquarters just off the Palace to watch the Empress give her speech. On their largest projector, they saw the Tatooine crowds and the Empress' procession as she arrived at the arena. As they waited for her speech, other officers kept regular contact with the Tatooine headquarters, and received updates from the commanders of the Guard units. Lord Vader had sent a brief message that morning, confirming that everything was going according to expectations. They were only awaiting the new communications system, which would go online within seconds of Her Majesty announcing it in her speech. The Command Center was ready for the enormous amount of information they would receive at that point. Piett was looking forward to seeing the system work for himself. It was quite an achievement, to have even individual soldiers linked up to the Imperial network.

The Empress had come out to the adoring crowd and begun her speech. Everyone was watching her now. Piett thought she was doing wonderfully.

He almost didn't believe it when he saw the explosion flare up behind her. He even had asked a nearby lieutenant whether she had seen the same thing. The picture became fuzzy and pixilated shortly after that. The sound was intermittent.

From all over the Command Center came sounds of battle, reports of down comlinks, shouted orders, and general confusion and fighting from nearly every location of consequence on Tatooine.

Piett ordered someone to focus exclusively on trying to raise the royal family or a member of the Empress' personal guard. She was his first concern, and the last pictures on the planet had not made her personal situation clear.

"Sir, our communications with the planet are sporadic. Her Majesty's channel is operating and open, but there's no response. I have been unable to raise her guards."

Piett nodded. He would assume that meant that they were too occupied to respond. He hoped they had moved her to a safe position.

"Admiral," the captain continued, "there's been no clear indication of what's happened on the planet."

"Continue to speak to anyone you can raise. Find out what's going on."

"Yes, sir."

"Raise the Imperial ships and bases closest to Tatooine. Make sure they are aware of the situation and are monitoring it. Tell them to be prepared, and await orders from the Empress on the planet."

"I will contact as many ships as I can, sir."

Piett frowned, worried. The new communications system had not gone online yet, and it seemed the Rebels were already making headway in disrupting their normal communications. He needed to speak with the Empress.

He relieved an ensign at the nearest station, and began trying her personal frequency himself. He was still met by an open, but silent, link. He kept trying.

As he waited for a response, Piett found himself hoping - against both his good and his common sense - that this problem wasn't the result of Leia doing something terrible. That it was something, anything else...perhaps one of the many problems on Tatooine that had necessitated the establishment of the Guard in the first place.

Piett wished, yet again, that he had been better able to make Leia understand, make her feel as though she did fit in here. It might not have been his place to do so, but he felt responsible for what he assumed must be happening on the planet now.

A crackle snapped from the terminal. It could have simply been more of the static he had been getting anyway, but Piett jumped on it, convincing himself it sounded different. He began adjusting his frequencies, chasing it. "Ensign, boost the signal on this console immediately. Raise it to the full limit."

"Yes, sir!"

Suddenly, the signal from Tatooine came in fully, and the comm screeched from the overcompensation of his adjustments and the signal boost. Piett scrambled to fix the problem, and soon the noise was replace with the Empress's voice.

Piett was utterly grateful to hear her speak.

"High Admiral Piett, please respond."

"Your Majesty, it is a joy to hear your voice. Our communication with Tatooine has been intermittent at best since you were attacked during your speech. May I inquire as to your status, Empress?"

"I've been returned to the Main Headquarters. I'm fine," she said tersely. Piett could hear orders being given in the background, including several being called out by Lord Vader. "The Rebels have been attempting to put out a dampening field, but we've been working around it." Piett's heart sank with the confirmation of what had happened, and who was behind it, but he chastised himself for the reaction. He had known it was Leia all along. "It appears as though all of our interests are under attack. We are trying to ascertain the size of the Rebel forces, and organize a counter-attack as quickly as possible."

"Your Majesty, I have reason to believe that nearly the full Rebel force is on Tatooine."


Piett sighed and reluctantly launched into what he had found. "In the past few days, I have been reading reports from our scouts on the possible locations of the Rebel base. None of the information is definitive, or wholly reliable, but I think I've found the most likely location of their base."

"Yes, Admiral?"

"Ledaga," he said. "A planet in the Outer Rim."

"I'm not fully familiar with that world, Piett."

"It does not fall within the Empire," he explained, "and the native population is small, and not technologically advanced. The information I received points to members of that population taking over a nearly abandoned military base."

"Then why do you believe the Rebels are still using it as their active base of operations?"

"It's the largest base that's been reported on, and an underpopulated, far-off world would be an attractive spot for the Rebels. Their low numbers on the planet are simply an indication of the attack they were planning against you, Your Majesty."

She didn't answer right away, and Piett could almost see the expression on her face. Thoughtful. And worried. Perhaps a bit sad. "She wouldn't hide behind civilians, High Admiral. My daughter would not do that." Her voice didn't leave room for discussion of the subject. Piett agreed with her on the point anyway.

Still... "Your Majesty, the fact remains that this is the best lead we have on the Rebels. If we were to act now, we could cripple their ability to wreak this kind havoc against you in the future." He waited for her response. Then, he cautiously added, "Also, Your Highness, it seems certain that Princess Leia is on Tatooine. Attacking now would allow us to avoid...certain dangers that would otherwise be inherent in any assault on the Rebels."

He hoped he had been tactful enough to get his point across with upsetting her or angering her. She responded guardedly. "Admiral, I have gone great lengths to avoid the unnecessary deaths of civilians. This would nullify everything I've had our military work toward since I came into power. And while I do trust your analysis, the information isn't certain."

"With all due respect, Your Majesty, we may not be able to get certain information before the Rebels switch camps again. It is unlikely they will stay in the same place after committing an assault of this size. I share your concerns, Your Majesty. But I believe this may be our best chance."

The silence was longer this time. Much longer. He could sense that she was close to giving him the order he needed, the one that could truly, finally, end this war - and would do it without costing her the daughter she loved so dearly. He was being honest about worrying for the civilians - he had no desire to kill any innocents, and was feeling repulsed by the circumstances the Empress found herself in. But his job was to give the best tactical analysis he had, even when that left few options, and no good ones.

"I will wait to see the outcome of the situation here, first, Admiral."

"Your Majesty?"

"Wait for my orders before taking any action." A pause. "If, for some reason, the situation here becomes so...catastrophic...that you feel action is warranted, I'll trust your judgment, Admiral Piett. But I have no real desire to see things happen this way."

"I understand, Empress."

Something that sounded like an explosion cut off whatever she was going to say next. A general proximity alarm added to the noise.

"I must go, Admiral."

"Understood. Be safe, Your Majesty. Piett out."

They know.

Leia guided her speederbike behind a tall rock formation, her breathing quick and shallow. Almost fifty meters below, as small as insects, her family ducked into the shadows of the Imperial headquarters. Mother and Father were easily identifiable, Force or no Force, from any distance. And Luke... Oh, Leia knew his presence. He might dress like a member of the high guard, but she could feel him, like an echo in her nerves. And did he glance up? Did he sense something?

No. He just continued walking.

To her surprise, she was overcome by neither anger nor hate, but by a deep sadness that seemed to resonate in the marrow of her bones, making her limbs heavy and her head throb. And, though it shamed her to admit it even privately, it stirred a sense of longing in her. She didn't want to join the Empire, not even in her most secret mind... but she longed to see Mother's face, or feel Luke's hand on her arm, or hear Father's carefully modulated voice. Just for a moment. Just to remember who she was.

But I am not that person. I am not a daughter of that family, to be petted and prodded as they wish, and trained to attack over the causes they fight for.


But still.

Mother's face. Luke's touch. Father's voice.

I am a part of them. I wonder if they think of me and miss "Leia's tongue."

"Princess Leia?"

Leia pulled herself out of her thoughts as her family disappeared into the vast Imperial base so far below. A high altitude landspeeder hovered beside her speederbike, piloted by an adolescent Dug named Revanik. He wore the makeshift uniform of Alpha squadron, which was no more than standard Tatooine gear with a handmade armband. She hoped that would be enough - the Rebellion had very little financial support, and there was certainly not enough discretionary income to support such niceties as uniforms... but Leia would not allow the Rebellion to go to war in the guise of civilians. Ever. She needed neither Obi-Wan nor Yoda to tell her that such a thing was cowardly and unfit for a sentient being, let alone one with Jedi training.

She hadn't even needed Father to tell her that, though he had repeated it often enough during their training sessions (he had, in fact, been almost obsessive about the subject, for reasons he had never clarified and she had never inquired about). And Leia had decided long ago that she would rather sleep on a bed of spikes over a pit of flesheaters than fight dirtier than Vader.

For her own part, she had kept the wrap-around top of her desert wear and wound her hair into a common fashion, but she had done so out of practicality - both fashions made sense in the environment. She had exchanged the drab skirt for drab leggings tucked carefully into her boots, but to her own mind, she still looked too much like a civilian for comfort. Her armband seemed insanely small. But at least she could count on being recognized. No one would mistake her.

She manufactured a greeting smile. "Yes, Ensign?"

Revanik circled her playfully. "We're all in place, Your Highness. Waiting for your orders to take out the comm system. And anything else we can."

Leia's jaw tightened. "Your orders are to take out the comm system. We're not assassins."

To Revanik's credit, he looked genuinely shamed. "Yes, Your Highness. I'm sorry." One long toe circled aimlessly in what appeared to be a nervous way. "Your Highness?"

"What is it, Revanik?"

"You were meeting with Ryn when the battle started in the arena... "


"Well, we were tracking and... "

Leia tried to control her frustration, using a calming technique that Yoda had taught her. "What do you need to tell me, Ensign?"

He closed his eyes. "Someone took a shot at the Empress herself."

Leia managed to control the swing of her temper enough that she didn't explode, didn't scream, didn't hit anyone or anything (which was a good thing, given that she was so far up on a lightweight machine). But she couldn't control her face, and she felt her eyes pull open to their widest point, and her lips draw back into what felt like a snarl. "They had explicit orders not to-"

"I know, Your Highness. But a shot at the Empress herself... If we could... "

"We aren't assassins," Leia said again, keeping her voice cool. She could hardly get control of frayed Rebel tempers if she couldn't keep control of her own. She would not use her temper as Father did, as a cudgel to keep her subordinates in line. "All right, Ensign. What's done is done. Let's go."

Revanik sighed with relief, and looped his speeder around toward the ground. Leia followed him.

Alpha Squadron was gathered at the base of a mesa, waiting quietly in the shadows. Leia glided the speederbike down to them and took up a position near the center in front of them. "Our main objective is the communications system," she said, though they didn't need to be reminded. "We've been sending out low-level dampening fields, and it is my hope that they've assumed we're mimicking their tactics from Naboo."

Steely silence from the troops. The Naboo attack was fresh in their minds. They didn't seem to blame Leia for it - yet - but they wanted to avenge the fallen Rogues. Shouldn't have brought that up.

It was too late to take it back, so she just went on. "So far, it seems to be the way it's interpreted. I've been watching the base for an hour, and no one has stepped up security on the main comm station. I want to keep it that way. I'm going to go in and do it myself. The rest of you - I want you to make it look like our main objective is their mobility. Take out all the vehicles you can, and if that's drawn enough guards away from the arsenal, hit that. Don't take unnecessary casualties. That's an order. Don't inflict unnecessary casualties. That is also an order. You're a diversion."

Commander Athuli, a scarred veteran with only thin remains of blonde hair on his sunburned head, cleared his throat. "Your Highness, perhaps someone else would be more expendable... "

Leia frowned at him. "Commander, no one is expendable. I am going to the comm system because I worked with it. I know it well. When I destroy the mainframe, that will disrupt Imperial communications throughout the Tatooine system. But before I do that, I'm going to send out a small disruptive program. There's a back door that it will work through, and I know about it - but I don't think they know I do. The disruptive program will work its way through the Imperial network and cut off all communications that piggyback off of it."

"That sounds like Imperial technology," Athuli said. "Centralized to death."

She started to say, Luke's been meaning to get to that, but hasn't had a chance with all his public appearances, but decided that it would be better not to mention Luke at all.

"All right then," she said. "Commence attack."

She watched the Squadron lift off on their various vehicles, then zip out of sight around the mesa. A moment later, the shooting began.

She waited only long enough to be certain that the Empire was engaged, then flew low and fast around the other side of the mesa. She stowed the speederbike in a crevice at the bottom of the mesa, several stories beneath a small arched window.

Was someone in that room? Waiting? Did she have the element of surprise, or would Father see this coming?

Use the Force.

She frowned at nothing, knowing perfectly well that either Kenobi or Yoda was somewhere nearby. Using the Force was well and good in theory, but risked drawing attention to her actions as surely as would announcing herself at the front door.

Then again, leaping headlong into a room that might well be full of soldiers was a pretty bad idea, too.

Yoda had taught her several blocking techniques, and she reached for the ones she had learned best. He'd told her that she had a natural ability for it... she could even hide from him. So maybe...

But Father. Father would know she was here.

You hid from Vader for the first twenty years of your life. He is not a demigod. He is just a man, just part of a man at that. Part of a man named Anakin Skywalker who is no more omniscient than you are.

It had to be done.

Leia reached into the Force for strength, then quickly used the blocking technique, hoping against hope that it would hide her. Then she felt her way up through the rock, toward the window. There were few soldiers on this side. She had not been spotted. Luke and Father were elsewhere in the base, with Mother. There were two... three? ... soldiers on duty at the comm station. Nothing she couldn't handle.

Opening her eyes and coming back to herself, she drew the blaster she had found on Naboo, aimed it at a ledge two meters above the window, and fired the tow cable.

The harsh side of the mesa flew by her, then the momentary flash of the window. Then she was stopped, a few inches beneath the overhanging shelf of rock where her cable was secured. She let herself sway in the wind for a moment, getting her bearings, then swung to an even smaller ledge off to one side. She dislodged the tow cable and put the blaster back on her belt.

For a moment, she felt like laughing. All that worry about using the Force to check for guards, and she'd never thought about the fact that her plan was flatly impossible without the assistance of the Force at all. She was going to have to risk it. She'd planned this little raid with the assumptions of a Jedi rather than the assumptions of a field commander. She couldn't back off from those assumptions now.

It was time.

Using only the Force to navigate, she made her way down the nearly sheer rockface of the mesa. The window had been overhung with a flat plate of duracrete to keep the suns off the delicate equipment. Her feet found it, and she crouched there, taking one last moment to breathe cleanly. Then she drew her lightsaber with her natural hand, gripped the edge of the duracrete with the mechanical one, and flipped backward into space.

At the arc of her turn, she changed the tension in her arm to shoot herself through the window. She ignited her lightsaber as she drop-rolled into the room.

The first guard to stand never had a chance - the lightsaber cut through his midsection in a sickeningly easy way. Leia had never used this sort of weapon in combat before, and there was something about the closeness of it that just... how was this more civilized?

The second guard came at her, blaster drawn, and she sliced the weapon from his hand. While he was still surprised, she raised her empty hand and pushed him with the Force, hard. He was thrown across the room, where he crashed into the wall near the ceiling, then fell to the floor, stunned.

The third was reaching for his comlink. Leia called it to her with the Force, and sliced it into two small pieces in the air.

Five seconds had passed since she'd come through the window.

Blaster fire came at her furiously as she advanced toward him. She missed one block and a burn etched itself along her upper arm, but that didn't matter now.

The guard didn't back down and he didn't try to run. He kept coming.

Her only option was to strike.

She did.

He fell.

She was alone with the stunned guard now, listening to his shallow breathing as it counterpointed the hum of the communications equipment.

In the Force, she could feel that there was a dim awareness of her presence now. She'd used too much power to keep her shields up. She needed to work quickly.

The mainframe was, as she'd known it would be, the same make as the model she'd used in Theed, on her endless and ridiculous quests to find Mother's old propaganda. She hadn't been perfectly honest with Athuli - she didn't just know about the back door. She'd put it in herself, tired of going through the labyrinthine security systems every morning just to hear Mother's speech before Chancellor Valorum, or Mother's second coronation address on Naboo, or Mother's installation as Senator. It wouldn't have been removed because she had neglected to tell anyone that she was using it.

She entered the code quickly, and the system opened up to her. A quick command was all it would take. It would take maybe twelve hours, but the entire communications structure within the New Empire would go down, and it would take at least a week to fix it.

She gave the command.

As soon as it was accepted and forwarded through the system, she drew her lightsaber, raised it high, then brought it down across the front of the mainframe. Circuits fried, flames erupted, acrid smoke blew through the room. A second thrust melted wires in the heart of the machine, and a third, sustained one sent molten metal streaming down the side.

She stepped back. Even Father wouldn't be able to fix that one, at least not right away.

The bodies of the two guards she'd killed were becoming lost in the smoke, and the breathing of the third was getting harsher.

Leia looked around the small room, surprised and a little ill at how much damaged she'd done this quickly by herself.

It needed to be done.

The Empire couldn't get a foothold in the Rim. It had too many footholds already.

Her heart heavy, she went back to the window, lowered herself with the tow cable, and picked her way back to her speeder bike.

She'd done her part as a Jedi.

Now, she had a battle to command as a soldier, and if Revanik was telling truth, it was already starting to get out of hand.

Redenou was beaming as she handed out rations to Rebels and Ledagans alike as they converged on the camp's mess hall. They took their food with a nod and a thank you (thank you - at least she had finally learned two words in their language, finally), and moved to the next table, where a cheerful Ledagan woman was handing out some orange, leafy vegetable that grew in their burrows underground. Redenou had tried them, and thought they were all right, but knew that anything was better than another ration pack. The Rebels took the leaves gratefully before trying to work their way to an unoccupied table or chair - that was no easy task now. And Redenou thought she might be the only Rebel on the base that was honestly glad of that fact. The rest had understood that the Ledagans had needed a place to go, and that Han had left instructions to help them, but Redenou wasn't bothered or put out by the arrival of their guests, and couldn't pretend to be. In the last two days, she had found herself in the center of activities on the base, and was now living in a place filled to capacity with people, aliens, creatures, and who-knew-what-else. How could she complain? Instead, she gave out more rations and continued to beam, meeting every quizzical glance from a stressed Rebel with a smile.

She was glad that there were no - well, almost no - adults or officers left hanging around to supervise her, and try to "protect" her. She loved the Rebels and the Rebellion, but since Han left, she had gotten her first taste of true involvement and of true freedom. She had been careful to put it to good use, sticking herself into situations where she knew she could really be of help to everyone. Like now, when even the standard dinner hour had become an adventure.

The Ledagans had been in the camp for barely two days. They had quickly insisted on adapting to the Rebel's schedules and habits as a sign of respect and gratitude. It was a gesture that Redenou could appreciate, but one that had caused unexpected issues to pop-up throughout the base. The Rebels had expected their guests to essentially keep to themselves in the barracks they had been assigned. But now, they had a planet's population trying to get into the mess hall. The Ledagan leaders had been showing up at the command rooms, offering their help, limited as it might be. Some of the children had gotten wind of the fact that the Rebels were in need of clothing and uniforms, and had immediately pulled out their supplies and fashioned crude versions of the garments they had seen worn on the base, taking very seriously any suggestion or correction made, and leaving the clothing in the bunkers with the rest of the clothes and supplies.

Kind gestures, all of them, but they had still caught the command staff here - such as it was - unprepared. Redenou had appointed herself an unofficial liaison between the Rebels and the Ledagans...she had taken one of the few translator droids around and kept it by her side at all times, and had run back and forth between the leaders in each groups, explaining (and occasionally...suggesting) what each side needed or wanted done, trying to help things run smoothly. The Ledagans had liked her right away, and the officers had even started taking her seriously, figuring that she was the path of least resistance when it came to keeping things running smoothly, so they could focus on whatever was happening on Tatooine.

So here she was, in the mess hall, staring at the Ledagan men, women, and children, wondering at the small pets they seemed to bring with them everywhere (they were clearly domesticated, but were small, and fanged, and vicious-looking, and they made her nervous, despite their gentle demeanor), and speaking with other young and low-ranking Rebels. She was already formulating a plan on taking inventory of any food or supplies the Ledagans had brought with them from their underground lairs. They were obviously willing and eager to share what they had, and the Rebels would be smart to be thinking of ways to combine it with their own supplies, and find ways to organize and maximize everything.

She couldn't wait for General Solo to return, and to see how much she had done, how big a help she had been. Maybe even the Princess would be impressed.

Two Ledagan children trilled at her as they took her food, and they handed her a not entirely bad shirt. They were beginning to get human measurements right - they had had an easier time with other alien species - and Redenou tried to mimic the thank you she had heard dozens of times from people in the line. They twitched their whiskers at her, and approximated a smile through their fur.

Redenou thought about ordering one of her friends to take the shirt to the rest of the new clothes and begin the inventory, but changed her mind. She might have the ideas, but she hadn't exactly earned the authority to order anyone to do anything. She had tried it once, sort of, as a way of trying to get information on what was happening on Tatooine. She'd been summarily dismissed. She had the feeling things had gotten started, and were going well though. She hoped she was right. Redenou decided to start the inventory herself, later.

She gave a friendly smile to the Ledagan woman next to her. She gave a wave or salute back, but stopped abruptly. She looked at the ground. Redenou saw the other Ledagans nearby do the same.

Her heart sank. As the native population, the Ledagans were much more in tune with what was happening, and had sensed the first big earthquake and all the aftershocks just before the Rebels' seismic sensors were able to pick up on the signs that they were coming.

She didn't waste time, and didn't worry about orders she wasn't supposed to be giving. She jumped up on her table and yelled, "Get into position! I think another one's coming guys!"

The Rebels quickly moved away from the windows, and several of them went back to the command rooms to protect the equipment and the comm. The Ledagans were already scurrying underneath the tables, bringing nearby Rebels with them. Redenou turned on her translator droid, who had wandered off a short distance from her as she'd handed out the food. He answered before she could say anything.

"She says that the gods beneath are again coming forth, and that their cries will shake the land."

Almost on cue, a low rumble began under her feet, and she took cover under her table and the shaking began. Utensils clinked and clanged as they banged against each other and fell to the ground. Ration boxes rained down noisily. As had happened with the first real earthquake two days ago, consoles shorted out and sparked up, and the comm system screeched and cackled over the mess hall's speakers.

Redenou covered her head and waited for it to stop, hoping that nothing would be damaged so badly that she wouldn't be able to get a sneak report on the Tatooine fighting whenever they got an update from everyone out there. Redenou was looking forward to the base celebration whenever they got word that the raid was successful. She had a feeling the Ledagans would make good party companions, even if they didn't full understand what they were celebrating. The kids would have a good time, definitely

The shaking let up a little, and the aftershock continued at a more manageable rate. Ledagans were already starting to poke their heads out from under the tables, and cleaning up the mess. There might be too many of them at the camp, but Redenou knew they were good people to have around. She pulled herself up and began to help, smiling again at her Ledagan friend at the next table.

She couldn't wait for that celebration.

After the chaos in the arena, Han had expected Mos Espa to be a rough battle, maybe even a losing one, but it seemed that, once the novelty of being in a war had worn off (and novelties wore off quickly in Mos Espa) most of the people had opted not to fight. The Imperial Guard was largely engaged in the fighting outside of town - out where Leia is, Han couldn't help thinking miserably - so the Rebels had been able to sweep into town and establish control within two hours of leaving the arena.

Of course, "control" was about the best it could be called.

Han Solo - smuggler, rogue, outlaw, and general anti-authoritarian - found himself administering martial law.

And no matter how he worked it around in his mind, he couldn't think of what else he could possibly be doing.

He'd split Beta Squadron into six teams. Four of them were doing security patrols. Once everyone got inside, their main job had been catching frantic people running out of their houses to find loved ones, sending them back inside, then finding the loved ones and escorting them back to the one who'd been worried. There were still a few energetic teenagers fighting the good fight for Her Ladyship with rocks and kitchen knives, but the security squads were able to capture them uninjured for the most part, and separating them from their little gangs did wonders for their attitudes.

Han wondered, in a not-quite-disinterested way, if he would have been one of them, if this thing had happened ten years ago. He could see himself through their eyes easy enough - blustering around and giving orders to people he'd never seen before. Would he have really ended up under Amidala's spell, if he hadn't met Leia first?

He wanted to say no, but if all he'd seen was today...

He wasn't sure. He really wasn't. The Empire wasn't exactly distinguishing itself, running out to defend HQ while the bad guys were left to sack the cities, of course, which Han suspected was part of the easy capitulation. The Empire, if nothing else, promised protection to Loyalists, and it wasn't coming through.

The problem was, they still saw the Rebels as someone they needed to be protected from. That was why the security teams were under strict orders to keep the fighting clean and help civilians whenever they could. That, and the fact that it was the right thing to do.

One of the remaining squads was on repair detail. Only one building - an open-air restaurant - had been demolished entirely. Others had sustained various degrees of damage, most easily fixed. Across the dusty street from the demolished restaurant, four members of the repair team were taking orders from the oldest Toydarian Han had ever seen. One of the soldiers looked over at Han with a Get-me-outta-here-please expression that might have been comical under other circumstances as he re-mortared the bricks in the walls of the old junk shop.

Han shrugged at him. Given the general condition of the wall, the damage most likely pre-dated the battle, but it was a chance for the Rebellion to be seen doing something constructive, and they might as well do it.

The last and most important team was overseeing the temporary hospital that had been set up in a wide square in the middle of the business district. Small tents made of poles and blankets held two or three patients each, and everyone in Beta Squadron with any medical experience was rushing around with bacta and bandages, tending everyone who had been hurt in the battle, whether they were on the Rebel side, on the Imperial side, or just bystanders.

His inspection circuit of the city mostly finished, Han headed over there.

He could hear a good deal of moaning and yelling before he actually saw the hospital, most of it too robust to be coming from people who were seriously injured, which was a relief. Monsha Rooklin, his head medic, had told him that most of the injuries were superficial, but it was good to know she was right.

Beta Squadron's medical team was still hurried and harried, running from tent to tent when he got there. Monsha looked up sharply from her patient - a more serious injury than most; this was a woman who seemed to have several shattered bones from a fall - and blew a stray hair off her forehead. "This is hardly a sanitary environment," she quipped.

Han shook his head. "You're not going to get much better at the base. If you were, I'd tell you to take them back there."

"I know. I'm just grousing."

"I know. I'm just telling you not to. This is the best we can do."

Something clattered on the stone across the square, and Monsha grimaced. "I've about had it with them."

Before Han could ask what she meant, he found out for himself. A bleary yell rose over the general din: "Get your filthy Rebel hands off me! I don't need your help!"

Han looked at Monsha. "It's been like that for awhile?"

"Almost long enough that I'm tempted to respect their wishes." Her patient groaned, and she made a liar of herself by immediately bending over and trying to ease the position of the broken bone she was working on. There was no chance of Monsha Rooklin walking away from her patients.

Han went toward the tent that housed the complaining patient. A young human with a tight jaw was picking up instruments and bandages from the ground. "These are going to have to be sterilized," he said. "That's going to take time."

"I know." Han glanced around. "You guys could use some help. I'll see who I can dig up."

"They won't take it."

"I'll find someone without filthy Rebel hands."

"Great." The boy went back to picking up the instruments, cursing under his breath as he did it.

Han shook his head. This was beyond ridiculous.

He picked his way back to the wrecked junk shop, figuring that its owner was probably old enough to know who did what in this asylum of a town. The work team was just finishing up with the re-mortaring.

"Aagh," the Toydarian said, "kids today don't do nothing right." He shook his head mournfully at the wall. "Everything's wrecked."

Han cleared his throat. "It's less wrecked than it was when we came."

"Bah. You people break things like they grow back on their own."

"That's why we're trying to fix things up, make it better." The Toydarian didn't turn around. Han grabbed his shoulder and turned him. "Look, we got your wall fixed, and it's staying fixed. I need your help. Who do you know who knows anything about healing? And isn't a Rebel?"

The ancient wrinkled face twisted. Resentment? Or was he just thinking? Finally, he gave an approximation of a sigh. "Oh, all right. Look for Amee and Seek. They've been watching out for the slaves since they were freed. For free, if you can believe it." He shook his head, as though he'd never heard of anything so crazy. "They're still staying in the slave quarters. They actually bought one of the places from me. I had no use for it," he finished quickly, as if Han were about to accuse him of sentimentality.

"And they're not Rebels?"

"Rebels? Nah. They're not Rebels. They were with Vader before the Empress came back." His grin widened, and it wasn't entirely unfriendly. "The Queen's been in my shop," he said. "Stood right where you're standing now, too."

Han took an involuntary step back, cursing himself for superstition even as he acted on it. This was Vader's home. He was bound to run into someone who knew them. He had no interest in following up on Leia's family history. She was obsessed enough with it for both of them. He turned back to the subject at hand. "Where are their quarters?"

"They might not like helping you."

"They're not helping me. They're helping the same people they've been helping."

"All right." The Toydarian waved vaguely down the street. "Take the first left. Their building's third on the right. They're on the second floor. Only door without a Master's key slot. They had that taken right off, you better believe."

Han thanked him and headed off in the direction he'd indicated. The apartment wasn't hard to find. The door was open. There was a crowd already there, mixed humans and aliens, speaking softly. Han caught a few words about fighting and making stands. Great. But they seemed to be in the talking stage, not the fighting stage.

A skinny middle-aged man with thick red hair was sitting on a high stool, a blaster over his knees. He raised it as soon as he saw Han, and the conversation died immediately. "What do you want, Rebel?"

Han raised his hands in a gesture of good faith, hoping that if shooting started, their reflexes were considerably slower than his own. "You've got injured people in the town square," he said. "If you're Seek, an old Toydarian told me you knew about healing."

The man's eyes narrowed. "I'm Seek," he said. "How many did you shoot?"

"No one who wasn't shooting at us. Look, they don't want help from Rebels, but they need help. We've got supplies and equipment. We just need extra hands. Preferably ones they won't refuse."

There was silence.

A woman worked her way through the crowd. Her hair was prematurely white, and rolled in thin braids at her temples, and a thick braid at the base of her neck. "I'm Amee," she said. "You realize that we're not Rebels?"

"That's most of the point, ma'am. I don't care if you're Palpatine Imperials or Hutt loyalists. There are people who need help."

She laughed softly. "We're not Hutt loyalists," she said. "You can be assured of that." She turned to Seek. "I'm going," she told him. "Whatever the politics are, I have sworn to look after the people of Mos Espa. We can argue later about whose fault it was."

Seek grunted. "That's not an argument, Amee. That's just a fact." He stood up, blaster still in his hands, but not pointed at Han anymore. "You're right. We'll all go."

"Thank you," Han said as he passed.

"Don't you ever thank me, Rebel. I'm not doing it for you, and if the shooting starts again, the last thing you're going to see is the muzzle of this blaster pointed right at your eye. Got it?"

Han nodded. He led the group back to the tents and got them started on it. It was tense, but it was workable.

Mos Espa was under control. It was time to check up on the rest of the battle.

Leia's comlink was still on silent - he guessed she was somewhere she didn't want to be called. Chewie only growled a harried acknowledgment that he was still alive. Han could hear a vicious battle in the background. He switched over to Lando's frequency.

The battle was louder. "Calrissian here!"

The abrupt shout took Han by surprise. He'd heard the battle, but he really absorbed it now. Things sounded out of control. "Lando? What's going on here?"

"All hell's broken loose," Lando said. "The Tuskens dropped by for the party."

"What's happening?"

"They're raiding the shops and the houses. They're killing people. We're fighting against them, but somehow it's gotten out that we called them. You have to get Leia. Tell her what's happening. We need to know what she wants us to do. This isn't what she had in mind!"

"I can't reach her on the comlink. It's on silent."

"Override it. She needs to know about this, Han. And if you can't override it, go get her!"

Something near Lando's comlink exploded, causing a whistle of static. "I have to go," he said. "Get Leia. Calrissian out."

The comlink fell silent.

Han stared at it for what seemed like a long time.

Lando shut off his comlink and looked around, almost in a panic, for a place that would give him some cover. Of course, the alleyway he was eyeing had just exploded, and there didn't seem to be a corner that wasn't being shot at, so...

His blaster was firing, almost automatically, at any Tusken or Imperial he could make out in the melee happening just ahead of him in what passed for Mos Eisley's town center. He wasn't having much effect - the entire squadron wasn't having much effect. Lando felt that everybody with a weapon was attacking the Rebels, but in all honesty, everyone just seemed to be attacking one another at this point, going after the person next to him if they weren't immediately recognizable.

Lando suddenly spied a junkshop that seemed to be both abandoned and ignored, and he dove for it, rolling behind several old speeders and pieces of transports. The fight wasn't far enough away for Lando's tastes - he thought he could have boarded a ship right now for the other side of the galaxy and it wouldn't have been far enough - but he wasn't in immediate danger, and that gave him a few minutes to think, and to observe the battle.

One of his captains saw him, and ran to join him. Three others followed, and they crouched from their hiding places, shooting into the crowd when they thought they could provide cover to the Rebels and the civilians.

Lando cursed under his breath with every shot. What the hell was he supposed to do?

"Sir!" said a young man next to him. Lando thought his name was Kimani. "There are civilians attacking us out there. They don't want our help. There's no way we're going to take or hold Mos Eisley... Sir, you need to order a retreat!"

Lando wasn't quite listening. He was watching the fighting.

There were a large number of Tuskens in the square. They had dismounted their banthas near the edge of the settlement, and had all but thrown themselves into the thick of the battle. The Imperials, who had their hands full with the Rebels anyway, had panicked. So had the settlers, who were having a hard time amongst themselves deciding who it was they hated most - the Imperials (though a large number were Vader sympathizers), the Rebels, or the Tuskens. Pure, utter chaos.

"We can't just leave!" yelled a woman whom Lando only knew slightly. He couldn't think of her name. "We did this, we have to help!"

"Do you know how long they've been fighting the Tuskens?"

"Do you know that we asked the Tuskens to come?" That was Captain Micha.

Lando frowned suddenly, knitting his brow, still only giving half an ear to the discussion.

Yes, the Tuskens were here, and yes they were fighting fiercely. But that was wrong on its face somehow. The Tuskens wouldn't care about mixing it up with the settlers, or the Rebels, or Lady Vader's forces. That wasn't what they were here for, and the battle in the square couldn't be anything more than a distraction to them.

The settlement was near anarchy. Their opportunity to raid and...and whatever else...was better than it had ever been. So why bother with a pitched battle out in the center of town?

Lando tried to give a quick count of how many Tuskens he could see. There were a lot of them, almost enough to account for the size of the camp he had visited. Almost.

It wouldn't take many Tuskens to make a few runs through the rest of the settlement. Especially if the majority of the armed settlers were occupied here.

"Dammit!" He whipped his head around to the officers behind him. "We're not retreating, it's not even an option, and we don't have time to argue about it." Only Kimani looked annoyed. The other three wore expressions on their faces that wavered between relief and determination. They understood, and they knew that they had to help.

"When we get back out there, I want you each to round up as many Rebels as you can. Leave the square and head for the other parts of town. The homes, the slave quarters, the shops and businesses. We need to get out there."

"Sir," the woman said, "you want us to just leave the battle? The Imperials aren't going to just let us take off."

"And the civilians don't seem to like us much either," said Colin, one of the youngest officers that had been allowed to come to Tatooine. "Shouldn't we stay here and try to fight the Tuskens anyway?"

"I'm telling you, there are more problems with Tuskens in other places," Lando said tersely. "Now go!"

The four officers took off immediately, and began calling out to their fellow comrades as they ran firing into the fray. Lando pulled out his comlink, and opened it to Gamma Squadron. "This is Lando - everyone who can break away, get a group and move into the other sections of Mos Eisley. Protect the citizens and civilians first. Whether they want it or not. That's our priority."

Kimani, for his part, had gotten a few people together and was focusing on attacking Imperial troops who were about to join the fighting. Colin was giving orders left and right - Lando had to admit, he was impressed with the kid - and was fighting his way through in the direction of the shops. The woman was headed for the slave quarters with a fairly large group. Micha was still trying to hold things together in the square.

Lando moved quickly around the edges of the battle, ducking and shooting the whole way. He barked, "You're with me!" to five men with armbands as he went by, and didn't even bother to look back to see who they were or even if they had followed him as ordered. He wanted to get to the nearest living quarters - a small, tightly packed neighborhood where the houses were nearly on top of one another up and down a slew of long, narrow streets.

He rounded a corner, and came to the first of the streets. He could already see some houses burning - all the houses would be on fire soon - and there were already bodies in the street. Ransacked homes pointed the way ahead of him. Windows broken and doors swinging off their hinges, clothes and furniture and other property trailing out.

The Tuskens were ahead of him, nearly at the opposite end of the street, about ready to move up the next street of homes. Their banthas trailed behind them, and several of them were already overloaded with the loot that had been stolen. It was a small group, as Lando had suspected, but they would be a handful for six men to stop.

Lando raised his blaster and shot straight down the street. He hit the ground just behind one of the banthas. It barely budged - the beasts were used to Tusken raids, and it took a lot to rile them - but the blast was enough to get the attention of several of the raiders, who turned sharply and gave that awful shriek.

But they didn't try to attack or make any aggressive moves up the street. They stayed focused on their looting, passing along bags and slinging them upon the banthas. They were finishing up the last houses.


The scream was so loud and close that it literally hurt Lando's ears. He barely had time to register it and turn around before a pair of hands grabbed him by the shoulders so tightly that he stopped running dead in his tracks. Then he was being shaken.

" daughter, my daughter is hurt, you have to help...she's dying, help her, please!"

She was an older woman, and was hurt badly herself. A cut somewhere on her head was bleeding down over her face and into her eyes. There were bruises on her face and arms...almost anywhere that Lando could see. She was hysterical and shaking. Lando didn't want to think about the kind of shape her daughter must be in.

"Ma'am," he began, trying to gently pull her hands off his arms, "ma'am please -"

"Help her! Please!"

Lando came close to ordering one of his men to go with her, but his eyes were still on the Tuskens. He couldn't take them on with less people, he probably didn't have enough as it was. And they needed to keep moving, to hurry before the Tuskens got to the next homes.

"Ma'am, I'll radio for someone to come help you. I have to try to protect -"

"No! No!"

"I -"

Before he could finish, the woman suddenly swayed, and jerked, and then collapsed.

She was still alive, and Lando could see her still mouthing the word "help" to herself.


Lando forced himself to look away from her. "Radio for help. Tell any medics we've got to get down here." His voice sounded strange in his ears, but he tried to ignore it. He motioned to the rest of the men and resumed his pursuit. They fired constantly, eventually hitting a bantha and causing it to buck up wildly. The Tuskens cut around a bend, onto the neighboring street.

Over one of the men's radio, Lando could hear the sounds of other battles happening in the city. The Rebels had gotten some help from the shop owners, the slaves had mostly joined up with the Imperials, which at least meant they had some protection from the Tuskens. The rest of the reports were harried and erratic, and Lando couldn't guess how things were going.

He wasn't sure what to tell people about what was happening on his end. He was trying not to know, not to look. Lando was beginning to feel detached. He had heard many horror stories since joining the Rebellion - those were the most common reason people signed up, and were willing to risk their lives in the hope of bringing down an Empire. Some of those stories, he couldn't even really picture, and others had stayed with him permanently. But he knew that his own life hadn't been terribly hard, especially for someone who found himself on the wrong side of the law so often. Smuggling and other crimes had provided him with a life that suited his personality and taste. Once its appeal had faded, he had wound up living a fairly respectable life on Bespin. He was always surrounded by the finer things, and he always enjoyed them, no matter what kind of life he was leading.

Still, he had never really thought of himself as having led a privileged life, even after hearing those stories from the other Rebels. But now that he was seeing one of those stories himself? Living one? He had lived a privileged life, he knew that now. He had never been in a situation like this before.

It was only one street. But the burning buildings - the burning people - the destruction and death, the injuries and the pain...he couldn't even look in the direction of anything that resembled a child and he saw women in far worse shape than the first one who grabbed him...and men with their blasters still in their hands...

Why couldn't they have just stolen what they wanted and then left?

Lando forced himself back to reality, and decided he couldn't fight in a cloud of anger and revulsion. And he had decided that one street would be the end of it. The Tuskens would get any further, no matter what he had to do to stop them.

He led his men into a sharp turn and through a small sliver of space between two houses. The came out in front of the Tusken group, cutting them off.

Lando looked at his men, and nodded.

They charged.

Leia's here.

Luke felt the muscles in his back stiffen as he blocked a laser blast from the Rebel troops fighting in the motor pool.

Leia's here, but she's not with them.

The harsh sound of energy deflected exploded right behind him, and he whipped his head around to find Father, his lightsaber still raised from the block. The mask, of course, made his expression unreadable, and his presence in the Force was too dominated by combat to give a good indication, but Luke could guess what he was feeling well enough - the same irritation he'd felt earlier. Another missed observation. There would be another lesson. A painful one, no doubt. But he had blocked the shot. Luke nodded an acknowledgement. "Thank you," he said.

"Be aware of your surroundings," Father said, then whirled to face an oncoming Rebel on a speederbike. The bike veered off, steering column smoking, and crashed into the solid wall. He stopped. "Your sister is here."

"That's what I felt."

Father nodded, and gestured to Colonel Ellsov, who ran over, firing his blaster into the mass of Rebels as he ran. "Yes, m'lord?"

"You are in command, Colonel. Lord Skywalker and I must return to the command center."

"Yes, m'lord."

Father waved at the small access door behind them in an impatient way, and they ran back inside as soon as it opened. Luke waved it shut behind them.

When they had gone out to join the battle, Mother's command center had been on high alert, but relatively stable. It had seemed the safest place for her. Now officers were running from console to console, shouting across the room to one another, looking panicked. Mother herself was on her feet, pounding desperately at a holotransmitter. She looked up when they came in. "Communications are down," she said. "There's no dampening field. They're just gone. We're cut off."

"Everything planetside?" Luke asked, going to her side. The control panel on the transmitter showed red lights across the board.

"Everything everywhere," she said. She took a series of deep, sharp breaths. "We've lost our entire array."

An ensign ran into the control center, bent double, breathing hard. He pulled himself to a stop and bowed to Mother. "Your... Majesty..."

"Get your breath," Mother said kindly.

He nodded. "Yes... " He bent at the waist, put his hands on his knees and took several deep breaths, then straightened. "Your Majesty, I went to the communications control room as you ordered. Two technicians are dead. The third is badly injured. The central communications console has been completely destroyed."

"Is there no backup?"

"No, your Majesty. The backup equipment was scheduled to arrive later this week. It was deemed sufficient to have the primary console in operation." He looked down at his shiny boots. "Your Majesty, one of the dead guards... They appear to have been... cut." He glanced nervously at Luke and pointed at the lightsaber still in his hand. "With one of those."

Luke felt Mother's tension rise, and felt Father's anger well up. For himself, he felt only a dull sense of resignation. Leia. Of course. She had used the other battle as a diversion. Her strategy was to cripple the Guard on Tatooine. Better to abandon the planet to anarchy than let the Empire get a stronghold.

No one in the family spoke. Mother dismissed the ensign with a wave of her hand. As soon as he was gone, she turned on her heel and stalked out of the room, her veils flying behind her in a scarlet slipstream. Luke and Father followed her.

She didn't head for the communications room, as Luke had half-expected - of course not; Leia was long gone from there - but instead punched a sequence of buttons on the turbolift. The doors opened. All three of them went inside, still not speaking. It began to rise.

"Leia," Mother whispered.

"Yes," Father said. "I believe so."

The turbolift reached its destination, and released them onto the observation tower, an open-air rise that gave a wide view around headquarters. From here, Luke could see not only the battle raging in the motor pool, but the battle on the road to Mos Espa, and another, much further away, sending up a cloud of sand on the road to Mos Eisley. A plume of dust marked the passage of a vehicle coming toward headquarters, but Luke paid no attention to it. It wasn't Leia. The cities were also fighting.

How much of the Rebellion had she brought here?

Somewhere, in that chaos, Leia was hiding behind her shields. Was she with the troops at the motor pool? Had she headed back to the cities? Where was Han?

Mother was standing at the edge of the lookout, her hand shading her eyes, squinting down at the battles as though she could will Leia into visibility. "Where is she?"

Father put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her away from her vulnerable position. "She is undoubtedly nearby."

"How could she do this to me? And to the whole planet? She knows better. She is my daughter. And she was raised by Bail Organa, for the Maker's sake. Where would she learn such carelessness?"

Father did not tense, as he usually did when Luke's guardians or Leia's were mentioned. In fact, he didn't seem to hear her. His edgy presence was deepened in a way Luke had come to identify with his use of the Force. He was looking for her. Relentlessly.

Luke himself couldn't sense her anywhere anymore. The chaotic feelings from the battles kept a cloud in the air as surely as the loose sand did. He just let his eyes roam over the desert, hoping to see a flicker of movement that he would recognize clearly as Leia. His gaze fell back on the road to Mos Eisley.

The plume of dust from the single vehicle was much closer, and Luke realized that it was a speeder, traveling at dangerous, breakneck speeds. As he watched, it thundered into camp. The driver was slumped over the steering column, not seeming to pay any attention to the battle he was headed for.

He was unconscious.

And the speeder was headed straight for a concentration of soldiers.

Luke didn't hesitate. He ran to the edge of the lookout and leapt into nothingness. He heard Mother yell after him. There wasn't time to explain it to her.

He used the Force to control his fall as much as he could, but gravity gave him speed as he flew downward. It was going to be a hard landing any way he looked at it.

Then the speeder was below him, and he tucked himself into a midair roll to change direction just slightly. With a bone-jarring crash, he landed in the cargo box at the back of the vehicle. He wasted no time there.

The driver's body was heavy and entangled with the controls, so Luke just pushed him away from the steering column without ceremony and took the handles himself, standing and bending over the seat.

The driver groaned. He was alive.

Luke pulled back on the column, bringing the speeder into a steep climb. It wasn't particularly safe to operate the machines up high, but he'd done so many times in the past. The rocks provided good surfaces for repulsors, as long as you were going fast enough. He guided the speeder up the observation tower using the Force to slow it when he reached the top, and bringing it to a stop in front of his parents.

Mother ran over. "Luke, you frightened me!" She looked down and noticed the driver for the first time. He was covered with blood from a large cut at his hairline. "Who is this?"

"I don't know," Luke said. "The speeder-" He got out, and Father helped him pull the man from the driver's seat. "It was going to crash. I had to do something about it."

"You did well," Father said calmly, not looking at him. "Exceptionally well."

They put the man down gently, laying him carefully on the warm rock of the lookout. Mother knelt beside him and touched his face.

The eyes, surrounded by streaks of blood, fluttered open. At first he looked confused, then he caught sight of Mother. He grabbed her wrist. "Your Majesty," he gasped.

Father was starting to reach for the man's hand, to remove it, but Mother shook her head minutely. "What is it?" she asked. "You've made it to me. What has troubled you?"

"Majesty... Mos Eisley... Rebels."

"We are aware of the situation," Father told him. "We are -"

The man was shaking his head, and a gout of blood seemed to erupt from his nose. It soaked into Mother's dress, where it simply looked like a deep shadow. "Rebels... allied with... " A cough. "Tusken Raiders. Everywhere. Stealing. Looting." Those wide eyes squeezed shut. "Killing and... and worse... my daughter... "

Luke's mind reeled. The Tuskens? Why would Leia ally with them? What did she even know about them? He hadn't ever found a reason to discuss them with her, and Father had told them nothing. He would not speak of Tatooine, even now that they stood here together. Mother had told them only that they feared Father, that he had dealt with them severely for their crimes in the past...

And Leia sees them as his victims only.

"Help us... " the stranger gasped. "Majesty... We need you... help... us... " He drew in a rattling breath and let it out. The next breath never came.

Luke looked up from the man's face. His parents were staring at one another over the body.

"Ani?" Mother said. To Luke's surprise, her voice didn't sound panicked or urgent. She sounded frightened, but it was a different kind of fear than he would expect - it was a deep, ancient fear, tinged with regret and grief. "Ani, are you... ?"

Father stood. "We have no army to send to them," he said.

"Ani... Leia doesn't know."

Father said nothing.

Luke reached forward and closed the stranger's eyes. "I don't think she intended this, Father. She doesn't know anything about the Tuskens."

Father still said nothing. He headed for the turbolift.

"Where are you going?" Mother called after him.

"To meditate," he said. "To go deeply enough into the Force that I can get past Leia's barriers. She has gone too far, Amidala. I'm going to find her."

"Ani... "

"I'm going to find her and bring her back."

The doors of the lift opened, and he disappeared into it. The sound of its passage was grating. Luke and Mother stood up and moved closer to one another instinctively.

Mother looked at Luke, her fear settling deeply into her face. That disturbing, distant look was back on her face, the deep unhappiness that Luke wanted to see banished forever. "Why is this happening?" she whispered. "Why did we ever come back to this awful place? It tears him apart."

Luke put his arms around her and held her. "We came to fix it, Mother. And we will."

"I know... " Her arms wrapped around his waist, and he felt her shoulders hitch once in a quiet sob. "Oh, Luke. What a mess this all is. I want it to be yesterday. Or last week. Or twenty-five years ago. I don't want this. I never wanted this."

"I know that, Mother. You want to do something good. The Rebellion is trying to stop you. I don't know why. But they're not going to do it. We'll stop them."

She nodded and stood back, the light struggling to come back to her features as she spoke. "Yes. We will. We will stop them, and we will establish control of this hellish world once and for all. I will turn Tatooine into a garden and those monsters... " She shuddered. "We'll succeed, Luke. But I want it to be yesterday again. I want none of this to have happened."

"I know, Mother. I know."

Mother crossed her arms over her chest and looked out across the desert again. "She really doesn't know what she's done, does she?"

"No. She knows Father thinks of them as enemies. And she thinks that means they'll be friends of the Rebellion. At least that's as close as I can guess."

"It's probably true." She sighed deeply, and spoke to the sands. "They were his first true hate, just as I was his first love. Oh, Leia... what have you done? What have you let loose?"


She looked over her shoulder. "He won't hurt her, will he? Not even over this?"

It took a moment for Luke to understand what she was asking of him, then he nodded. He reached into the Force to find Father's presence, to look into it as he lowered himself into meditation. It wasn't always safe, but this time Father seemed to be paying no attention to the intrusion.

There was anger at Leia of course, and anger at the Tuskens. There was a deep wellspring of frustration. But the hate of which Mother spoke was very deeply buried, barely registering under the larger feeling that emanated from it and enveloped everything within itself. And it was the last feeling Luke had ever expected to pick up from his father.

"He's terrified," he said, not able to stop the wonder in his voice. "He's not going to hurt her. He's scared for her."

But Mother didn't even seem surprised. She just nodded, as if nothing could have been more predictable. "I am too," she said.

Leia reached her speederbike, and immediately mounted it and took off. She stayed close to the mesa, hugging it around the bend, and hoping she blended in enough to make her hard to spot. She wondered how long it would take Imperial security - or just an officer that happened to walk by - to see what she had done to that room.

An image of its destruction sprung up in her mind, and Leia quashed it. She needed to focus on Alpha Squadron's battle now.

She brought her speeder up high again - nearly as high as it had been when she was scouting the headquarters - and flew around the base, heading for the side where the Rebels were engaging the Imperial troops. She would need to see if the fight should be continued. She hoped to get there and find that they had already gone through the vehicles and transports and had taken out the weapons caches, and they could simply leave.

Nothing like wishful thinking, Leia supposed. But even if everything had gone well, she still worried that things might become...needlessly complicated when she tried to get her squadron to withdraw. There was always the confusion of battle, which made giving and following orders difficult...

But that wouldn't be the problem, and she knew it.

Alpha Squadron was so close to the Empress they could taste it, they could reach out and grab it. Grab what they thought would be the ultimate victory for the Rebellion. And they were eager - too eager - to give it a try.

Leia shivered against a tendril of fear that snaked its way around her heart. She would just have to trust her people.

Or, she'd have to get back to the battle a little faster.

She was almost there now, and from her vantage point, could see now see the fighting and make out some members of Alpha Squadron. She could clearly see the troops and guards that were defending the headquarters. And they -

"Leia? Leia, this is Han, come in!"

His voice took her completely by surprise, and her speeder wobbled momentarily. She pulled out her comlink and stared at the little red light shining back at her. She had silenced it - she couldn't imagine that she would have been foolish enough to try and infiltrate the base without doing so - but Han had used his codes to override that command. She quickly undid the silencer and answered the hail.

"Han! What are you doing? If you had been yelling into my comm like this a minute ago, every guard in the base would have known I was there. I put it to silent -"

"I'm sorry, Leia, I know it was a risk. Are you safe? Where are you? Did you get the array?"

Leia eased her bike to a stop, hovering above and just behind the fighting below. She could see the smoke of destroyed Imperial vehicles...the battle seemed to be going well, even though they hadn't been able to move on to the arsenal yet. "Yes, all their communications are down, and they won't be getting them back any time soon. I just left the array. Alpha Squadron looks like they're doing all right and I was about to -"

"Look, sweetheart, I'm sorry, but we've got some major problems happening. That's why I overrode your silent command."

"What?" she asked sharply. "Han, what is it? Are you all right? What's happening in Mos Espa?"

"It's not me. We're fine, and we've pretty much got the city under control right now. It's Lando. I checked in with him a minute ago. Leia, things are bad in Mos Eisley. Real bad, and I think they're only going to get worse. The Tuskens showed up, and they are out of control. Lando didn't know what to do - he told me to get you and get your orders. I haven't heard from him since."

The fear that snaked through Leia suddenly grew into a fist and grabbed her heart fiercely. "What...what are they doing? What's happened?"

"He didn't have much time to explain..."

"What did he say? What did you hear?"

She listened to Han sigh. "He said all hell had broken loose after the Tuskens arrived. That they were raiding shops, and killing people...he told me to get you right away. Then he had to go." He stopped, but Leia could tell he wasn't finished. She waited. "I could hear the fighting and everything else going on in the background. It sounded ugly, Leia. And..."

"And what?"

"I don't think I've heard Lando sound like that before. I don't think I can describe it to you. You didn't hear him."

Leia swallowed hard. "I can hear it in your voice now, Han," she said quietly. "Was there...was there anything else? Have you heard anything more?"

"Not much," Han said flatly. "The settlers aren't making things any easier for them, and they still have the Imperials to deal with. I've got people trying to stay in contact with Gamma Squadron, but they're too busy fighting to keep us up to speed."

A pause. "We heard the stories, Leia. We can guess what those Raiders are doing to the settlement."

But Leia didn't need to guess. She was suddenly pulled out of her conversation with Han and into the mists and currents of what was happening in Mos Eisley, and visions came to her forcefully.

The sand was everywhere. Kicked up, blasted up, whipping all around in a storm that threatened to blind her. Yet, Leia could feel what she couldn't make out clearly.

Terror, violence, and death.

She knew there were people in the settlement who were ready to fight and were capable of holding their own against anyone. And they were doing so. It wasn't their fear that Leia was suffering through.

The fear was from the slaves, many of whom had lived their entire lives with no means of self-defense, so they wouldn't be able to challenge their owners. It was from the poor city dwellers, who had only ever known their slums, too busy trying to eke out an existence to have ever spared time worrying about preparing for some outside attack. It was from the shopkeepers, who were trying their best, and who had learned to protect their wares from thieves and smugglers, but were caught unprepared for the viciousness of Raiders who normally didn't venture in far enough to bother the businesses in town.

The fathers and husbands. The women and children.

The destruction.

Leia hoped desperately that not all of these images had occurred - that she still had a chance to stop some of it from happening.

"Leia! Are you there!"

She pulled out of her vision completely - it had only take a couple of seconds - and answered him.

"I'm here. Try to get back through to Lando. I'm sure he's doing what he can to protect the civilians. Tell him to keep doing that until I get there."

"Until you get there?"


"Leia, Alpha Squadron needs you at Headquarters. You can't just leave them in the middle of a battle."

"They're doing fine here, Han -"

"They need your direction. What are they supposed to do if they realize they've been left with no one to command them -"

"They have their orders," she said. "And besides, they're attacking a fully armed and protected military base in open battle. There's no comparison. No matter what happens here, the real trouble is in Mos Eisley. I have to fix this, Han."

"Look, I'm sending people out to help Lando now." Han's voice was sharp. "Mos Espa's under control, we can spare the people. Stay where you are."

"Send your people, I'll need the help. Why are you so against me going?"

"Because you can't fix this on your own, and don't tell me that's not what you're thinking you're going to do. You're out of your mind to even consider it."

"I created this problem on my own," she replied, "and everything we've done on Tatooine is in jeopardy because of it. Besides, having a Jedi there has got to make a difference."

"Leia -"

"Get Lando and tell him I'm coming, Han. Leia out." She switched him off, took a deep breath, and then switched over to Alpha Squadron's channel. Commander Athuli answered.

"Your Highness?"

"Commander, a situation has arisen and I'm needed elsewhere. What is the situation down there?"

"We've hit most of the ships and transports they had stationed here. We're moving on to their ammunitions. We're gaining the upper hand."

"Good. Hit their weapons, and then get out of there as ordered. Check in with Han once you do that."

"But we could -"

"Commander, those are your orders. I trust you as my officer to follow them. Once you've destroyed your intended targets, gather your people and leave. Is that understood?"

"...Yes Ma'am. Athuli out."

With that, Leia immediately pushed her bike to its top speed - pushed it beyond the top speed. She blazed a path directly toward Mos Eisley.

The communications array was not merely disabled; it was utterly destroyed. Its circuits were melted and its console fused. Vader surveyed it by long habit for usable parts. He found none. Leia had aimed the destruction at him personally - it was deliberately damaged in a manner that no amount of mechanical tinkering would repair.

Leia, what have you done?

Thoughts of the past tried to flood his mind. Images. Sounds. Smells.

I will come back and free you, Mom, I promise.

(Don't look back. )

Dreams pass in time.

(Don't look back. )

You had another nightmare last night.

(Don't look back. )

It was just before dawn...

Mom. Her voice, as clear as it had been so long ago: Don't look back.

A woman bound to crossed wooden stakes, blood from some unseen wound making her face a death mask. The pressure of more blood seeping under her flesh, making her feel almost rigid. The smell of the tent. The warm touch of her hand on his face.

And then the fire in his mind, and the screams. The screams never completely left him. Even when his victims were silent - as they usually were now, trying to die with dignity - he heard the echoes of those ancient screams, felt the horrible energy come into him, the desire to punish, to destroy, to hurt. That shame would come later was something he had come to accept as a fact of his life, the natural consequence of exacting... justice? Vengeance? Was there a difference, really?

(Don't look back. )

But he needed to look back. He needed to look back because Leia had brought the nightmare forward, and he had to find her. This time, he would find her before she was tied to the crossed wood rack and beaten until her own blood turned against her. She would answer for this outrage - it was far beyond what he was willing to indulge - but he would find her first, and they would have a long conversation, about a great many things.

The sound of metal crushing metal brought him out of his angry reverie, and he realized that he'd crumpled a small component of the communications array in the palm of his right hand. Obi-Wan would undoubtedly tell him that he was allowing his anger to cloud his judgment, and that clouding his judgment would only impede his progress...

It would be true, Anakin...

Vader looked up sharply, but the voice was just a memory, like the others. Obi-Wan might come to lecture him about Amidala's political affiliations, but he would surely not trouble himself over the minor matter of Leia's safety, certainly not with the sure knowledge that his new pet Jedi would be immediately returned to the Empire and her training with her father.

Still, the memory was right. Anger at Leia and ancient screams would not help meditation, would not help him find her.

He let the smoke from the destruction swirl around him, closing off the vision through the eyeguards in his mask. Behind the eyeguards, he closed his natural eyes as well, though their input in this state was negligible. It took effort to get past the anger and past... past that which lay beyond the anger... but he forced his mind to cool, and finally, beaten into submission, his instinct bowed to his conscious will.

Vader reached for the Force, took hold of it, let it take hold of him.

At first, all he could feel was the pain of the battle at the motor pool - men and women dying as laser burns cut through their hearts, seared their lungs, filled their bodies with fire. There was anger, rage at their loss, at the Empire, at Amidala herself, though their reasons were no more than nebulous clouds of ideology. And terror as they looked up into the alien sky, understanding that this was for real...

He pulled himself away from the energy of the fighting, letting its pain pass through him. He had been in battles, many battles - if you couldn't shut out the pain and terror, you couldn't function. And if you couldn't function, the battle would go on forever.

He went deeper. Leia flickered at the edge of his consciousness, in motion, trying to hide.

Sands shifting, blowing, stinging his face/her face. The suns are too hot. The city is too far.

She became aware of him, and he was pushed back into himself with the strength of a desert whirlwind.

The communications room came back into view for a short moment, then Vader pushed himself back down to a meditative state. She was traveling, rushing to one of the cities. Was it to Mos Eisley itself, into the arms of the Tuskens? Or was it to Mos Espa or Bestine? He couldn't waste time choosing the wrong route.

Sand, again.

Swirling in clouds that reached to the sky, hiding and revealing like a veil blown in the wind.

A figure on a road, her arms wrapped around her waist, watching as he walks away.

No, as he comes to her. He is coming home.

Then she turns away and disappears behind the sand.

Vader follows her.

Shifting sand, shadows. Leia - or is it Mom? - appears in a canyon, on a hilltop, going down into--

"No," Vader whispered, unaware that he was speaking aloud.

The sands part, and the small village of tents comes into view. Vader

(I am Anakin, I am a person and my name is Anakin)

goes down after her, unable to stop his motion. He comes close to her.

She turns.

It is Leia, but it is also Shmi Skywalker. He can tell the difference, but the woman before him is both mother and daughter. Her face changes depending on the angle of the sun.

And she is bleeding. A red mask of blood covers her, and her wrists are raw from binding that has not occurred yet.

"This is my fault," she says as Leia. "And I must go and try to repair the damage. I'll go to them. Surely they will see reason."

Vader tries to speak, but finds himself silenced.

"The people in Mos Eisley," the Woman says as Mom, in her soft, lilting accent. "Ani, no one is helping them. She has to go. You know she won't forsake them."


Vader opened his eyes. The smoke had cleared and his eyeguard vision enhancers were unimpaired. Luke was standing beside him, Amidala at his shoulder.

"She is alone," he said. "Alone and planning to speak to the Tusken chief. I believe they are camped on the rise over Mos Eisley. If I leave immediately, I can arrive before she does. She is on a speederbike."

"I'm going with you," Luke said. "I'll get two of our speeders ready, the modified ones and -"


"Father, I'm capable of fighting Tuskens. I grew up on a farm on the edge of the Wastes. I -"

"I said no, Luke. I say it as your father, as your Master, and as your superior officer. You will stay here and guard your mother."

"Father -"

"Please, Luke," Amidala said, her hand grasping frantically at the boy's shoulder. "Please do as your father asks. Please. I trust you to allow nothing to happen to me, and I... Oh, Luke, I can't stand the thought of all of you being away from me again. Don't leave me alone."

Luke's jaw tightened. Amidala knew him well, and had chosen the argument he never countered. But he was taking their position as an insult, a lack of faith.

Vader stood. "I trust you, my son," he said. "Do not assume otherwise. But your mother requires protection here. I must retrieve your sister, and... " He stopped, unsure how he'd planned to end the sentence. "You will remain at headquarters," he said. "Do not argue with me."

He suddenly felt Luke's mind on his own, tasting his emotional state, seeing what his motives were. It was a discomforting sensation and Vader usually discouraged it as strongly as he could, but whatever Luke had sensed there - and Vader was never quite sure what Luke believed he was sensing - made him take a step back and bow graciously.

Luke nodded, a puzzled but almost warm look in his eyes. "As you wish, Father."

"My good son," Amidala said, and squeezed his hand.

Vader looked at them together, at their fine-featured faces and broad mouths. They were lovely.

It was not a time to share that sentiment. Instead, he nodded briefly to Luke, ran a finger down Amidala's cheek (she caught it on her lips to press a kiss against it), and ran for the motor pool.

The battle was beginning to wind down, but it was hard to determine who had won at this point. Many vehicles lay in ruins, but the main entrances hadn't been breached. Somehow, a modified speeder had remained, improbably sitting in the midst of a scrap pile that had once been six others. Vader jumped into it, hit the acceleration keys, and steered off toward Mos Eisley.

Luke turned away from the door after Father ran down the hallway and out of sight. He had searched Father's thoughts, and to his surprise - to his pleasure - he had found nothing but trust there. No lingering resentment for the lies or disagreements, no real concerns about leaving him and Mother to fend for themselves. Father had been telling the truth. Luke couldn't help feeling glad of it, even in the midst of these trying circumstances. Because of these trying circumstances, he was glad that something, at least, felt settled.

He planned to move Mother to the main guardpost. It was near the center of the headquarters, which meant that the Rebels would have to make a great deal of inroads to reach them. There would be plenty of officers there to act as a first line of defense, and Luke would be able to get the latest word from the various battlefronts from there. The communications failure meant that the command center was nearly useless in that regard. He'd rather wait for the various guards and officers who might come back from the front lines with reports, than contribute to the hysteria of trying to fix an array that was unsalvageable.

But before leaving, Luke couldn't stop his eyes from wandering over the communications room. Or what was left of it.

The bodies had been cleared out before Father had come here, so Luke had not seen the guards Leia had killed. But the room was still a mess, and his gaze eventually landed on the array itself. He was soon beside it, letting his fingers skate over the misshapen metal and melted wires. His skin was lightly singed and sparks occasionally flew up here and there.

He tried to picture Leia doing this.

Leia, with the lightsaber she had stolen from him, killing Mother's guards, destroying Mother's equipment.

Leia, with the training she had received from him and Father, fighting her own family.

He could almost see it. It shouldn't have been so difficult anyway. Leia had been fighting them in one sense or another since Bespin. And he had seen her, first-hand, when she faced both him and Father to escape from Naboo.

But he still found this hard to grasp for some reason, and thinking about what she had done here and what she was doing elsewhere on Tatooine made him ill.

No, it makes you angry. Genuinely, furiously angry with her.

That wasn't a surprise, or some great revelation, given the circumstances. But being angry at Leia at all - much less this angry - was something that Luke still felt unaccustomed to.

Luke had always denied idolizing Leia, back when she or Han or some other Rebel would tease or joke with him about it. But he knew (and she knew) that he had put her on a pedestal from the first moment he had seen that hologram, begging Ben Kenobi to help her. She had stayed up there during their years together in the Rebellion. Leia had always impressed him as one of the strongest, bravest, smartest people he'd ever met, and it hadn't bothered him to recognize that. So many of the things he'd done during that time were motivated, at least in small part, by a desire to impress her or help her. Maybe he had lost that wide-eyed, farm-boy wonder he used to regard her with, but the way he looked at her had always been colored by his first impressions of her, and by his belief that she was his closest friend.

But now he felt angry. Betrayed. Leia had always railed on and on about how he and their parents had hurt her, betrayed what she believed in...but wasn't she the one who fled Naboo the first chance she got? Hurting Mother and Father so deeply in the process? Wasn't she the one who was destroying his and Father's home as a way of getting back at her family?

Getting back at us for what? For loving her? For taking care of her when she was injured?

Finding out that he and Leia were twins had let everything fall into place for Luke, once the initial shock wore off. The draw and pull between them made perfect sense, and now Leia was family, the sister he hadn't even realized he had been wanting. A missing piece in his life had been found.

And to her, it was nothing more than a reason to ruin the closeness they shared, to rip apart their friendship.

He missed her. He wanted to throttle her.

"Dammit, Leia."

Mother's eyes snapped to him. She was lingering by the door, where she had stood to watch Father leave. Luke wondered if he had ever seen her so tense.

She had heard what he said, and was clearly distressed by whatever she imagined he was thinking. "Don't, Luke. She doesn't realize what she's done."

"Yes, she does. She absolutely does," Luke muttered grimly. He had no desire at all to upset his mother further, but to think that Leia wasn't aware of exactly what she was doing was too much for him to stand.

"Your father never told her what happened with the Tuskens. He's never been able to bring himself to tell that story again. And she's not even from Tatooine, she had no way of knowing the kind of trouble she was asking for." Mother's arms went around her midsection and she held herself tightly. "We should have told her. We should have told you both everything, all of it. Keeping things from one another has only caused this family pain. I guess that's a lesson we still haven't learned yet."

Her eyes were haunted, but not mindlessly so...she appeared thoughtful and reflective, and had an expression on her face that Luke had not seen very often. He gave the console a final touch and then stood before his mother, drawing her away from the door.

"Mother, don't blame yourself -"

"Who else should I blame? Who knows better than I do what lies have done to us?"

"You didn't lie."

"No, I just let Ani keep this secret. And again the secret has come back to us..." She shook her head slowly.

Luke was curious to find out exactly what happened, what it was about the Tuskens that had so frightened and sobered his parents. The Tuskens were certainly feared on the farms when he was growing up, but they were also accepted as a part of the threat of desert life. This kind of reaction confused him. But he could also tell that Mother, despite her protests to the contrary, didn't want to talk about it. He sensed from her the belief that it was Father's story to tell. So he didn't press her. She was agitated enough already.

"Luke, it's almost like it's happening again."

"What is?"

"We're being torn apart again, this family. We're pulling ourselves apart. When I gave you and Leia away -"

"Mother," Luke said seriously, drawing one of her hands into both of his, "this isn't the same. No matter what happens, no matter what Leia thinks, this family has been reunited. We're connected now, and nothing is going to tear us apart again. Leia's stuck with us now. We're all stuck together." He gave the hand a squeeze. "Besides, you did what you felt you had to, you followed the advice of people you trusted. And you did well by Leia and me. Don't feel guilty over the past."

To his surprise, a faint smile touched Mother's lips and she squeezed his hands back. "That, I'm eternally grateful for. Oh Luke, Owen and Beru were so good to your father and me. Whenever we needed them - and it seemed that we never saw them except when we needed them - they were there for us." She sighed. "Sometimes, I have to admit, I was a little jealous of them."


"They lived simple lives, on their own terms. And they were raising my son. I used to think of Anakin and I winding up on Tatooine together, raising our children..."

Luke was startled, and found himself trying to picture his parents tending to a farm outside of Anchorhead. He couldn't make it fit. At all. He couldn't understand why they would want it.

But, he supposed that wasn't entirely fair. He might not have had fond memories of the particular lifestyle he had been raised in on Tatooine, but that was mostly because of boredom, and boredom was not such a terrible thing in a dangerous and violent galaxy.

And Owen and Beru were great parents to him, in their own way. They had loved him, and had wanted to protect him at all costs, something that Luke deeply regretted not having realized until they were gone. Maybe they hadn't always understood him - Luke doubted they had always understood his parents either - but family had always won out in their minds, and they had risked and sacrificed much for him.

Beyond the larger issues though, there were the smaller things, the little things that Luke missed about them. The way Aunt Beru would sing to him and sneak him sweets when he had trouble Uncle Owen would get a kind of gruff pleasure out of Luke fixing one of the speeders or vaporators on his own. How they both tried to indulge his love of flying, how they smiled to themselves when Luke would be chattering on about something or they mussed his hair or clapped his shoulder when they were pleased with something he did. Being back on Tatooine had brought back those thoughts and memories and feelings of home. He was surprised by how forcefully he missed it all.

He wondered what Owen and Beru might think, to see him now, to see their farmboy son ruling the galaxy with his parents.

They would be pleased. And proud.

Of course they would be. They'd have to be.


"I'm sorry, Mother, my mind wandered." Luke slipped an arm around her, and led her out of the door. "We should head to the main guardpost until Father returns."

"Lead the way," she whispered, "my good son."

Together, they made their way through the hectic hallways of the headquarters, to await Father's return.

The Empire was in chaos, though beyond Tatooine it hadn't yet realized it.

The destructive command to the Imperial system was only beginning to work its way outward, causing routine grievances that no Imperial had as yet recognized as a serious threat - garbled images, mangled sounds, messages arriving at unintended destinations or dissipating into the vacuum of space. Within a day, the distortions would be too great to ignore, but by then, it would be too late to make a concerted effort to remove the command.

On Tatooine itself, the comlinks were silenced; the nerves connecting the military body to the Imperial mind were severed and useless. Panic was rising.

In Bestine, the capital of Tatooine, the members of the Guard who had been staffing the base while the majority of the staff marched in what was to have been a triumphant parade were now barricaded behind a rock wall. Not many Rebels had made it to the township proper; the battle had taken place on the road from headquarters, and neither Rebel nor Imperial had arrived to bring news. Commander Arisede Raryth, the temporary commander, had realized immediately when planetside communications went down, because she had been trying desperately to reach her commanding officer, Colonel Nesem, when the empty static she had been able to summon suddenly turned to ominous silence.

Most of the Rebels in Bestine were local recruits, smugglers and gamblers for the most part, to whom the Lady's ascension meant financial ruin at the very least. For some, it would mean execution. They were matched in number by farmers from the outlying provinces, whose vision of life on Tatooine was a clean break from the kind of Core World seediness that they thought the smugglers represented. So the fight was even, and small, and the Guard's only participation so far had been making a few arrests and keeping non-combatants out of the way. The on-duty staff was mostly young and inexperienced - a year in the Rebellion before the Empress had taken control to fix things was Arisede's training, and she was the senior officer - and the near revelry that both sides were taking had swept them into acts of rude defiance. Arisede knew that she should be firing her weapon, but... well, they were...

"We should do something!" Ensign Karso said urgently, looking over the edge of the wall into the fight. She had only recently mastered Basic, and she seemed unable to elaborate on the thought in that language. She slipped back into her native Rodian, her speech patterns becoming higher, more rapid, more panicked as she went. Somewhere in the middle of it, she took off her uniform cap and started pulling nervously at the protrubences on her head. In the end, it degenerated into high-pitched keening.

Arisede grabbed the girl by her shoulders and shook her, hard. There was a great deal more satisfaction in doing so than Arisede wanted to admit to herself. "Shape up, Karso! You're in Her Ladyship's Guard! Act like a sentient!"

Karso fought for self-control, found some, and straightened her shoulders. "We should act," she said. "Her Ladyship wouldn't want us locked away."

"I - " Arisede bit her lower lip, caught herself at it and stopped, then sighed. "I don't know what her Ladyship would want. Should we help the others on the road, or should we try to break up the fighting? They're civilians... "

"But -"

Arisede swallowed. As much as she hated to admit it, Karso was right. "All right. We signed onto the Guard to get Tatooine under control. The rest of the unit can handle the battle. We should... we should try to get Bestine back." She looked around for approval, and was gratified to see some. "Let's go!"

With a determined stride - the best she could muster anyway - she ran at the gate. She'd barely hit the unlock mechanism when she noticed movement on the other side. She never knew whether it was a Rebel, a farmer, or just a kid on a lark. Whoever it was, the timing was better than her own. Something flew into the air in front of her, followed by the blast of a laser, then the air was full of fire and noise and pain. The explosion threw her backward into the broken wall of the Guardpost. There was no more pain when she hit the ground, only an almost pleasant sensation of draining. Darkness came in closing circles around her eyes.

Just before she slipped into unconsciousness, she heard Karso begin to keen again.

"We should do something about the Tuskens in the residential quarter," Lieutenant Birsalit shouted over the blaster fire on the street in Mos Eisley. "This fight isn't going anywhere."

Ter Caldo Maits privately agreed with the assessment. He also selfishly thought it would be nice to move out of the Mos Eisley town square and into the shadowy alleys where the Tuskens were conducting their nasty business. Gungans were not built for Tatooine sun. But their orders were to fight the Rebels, and they were a bigger threat to Her Ladyship than the Tuskens, who were at present more of a threat to their own allies. "Wesa gonna do what wesa ordered to do," he said when a natural pause quieted the battle for a moment.

"But they're monsters!"

Ter Caldo felt the fire flare up in his mind. "Dism what the Naboo be thinking of the Gungans for hundreds of years! Yousa thinkin' these Tatooine people, theysa better than the ones who live away from da spaceports!"

"I think the Tuskens are killing people."

Maybe there's a reason!

Ter Caldo stopped himself from saying that, horrified that he'd even thought it. Her Ladyship didn't believe in that sort of thing. There was no reason why the desert natives couldn't just leave the city and the farmers in peace... which the Gungans had done for the Naboo, no matter what some of the Naboo used to think.

He didn't know what to do.

There was another volley of blaster fire. The Tuskens who were fighting in the street alongside the Rebels punctuated the silence that followed it by striking with their gaffe sticks, but Ter Caldo noticed that they weren't aiming to kill, and their choice of targets wasn't random - they were striking at anyone who was heading for the residential quarter.

Birsalit noticed it, too. She was fuming. "Look at them. They're just keeping us here while the rest of them are looting the place! They're not even really with the Rebels!"

"And dism why wesa fighting here and not there. Wesa got orders to fight the Rebels."

"We also have orders to protect the citizens."

"Desa raiders gonna keep coming, if wesa don't get the Rebels out of here. If wesa beatin' back the Rebels, then mebbe today's gonna be the last time da raids happen. If wesa let the Rebels go, da raids keepin' up forever."

"What do you think the Empress would say?"

"Mesa not knowing," Ter Caldo said, and he realized that his heart was beating too fast and his mouth was even dryer than the desert could account for. The Empress might go either way. It was hard to tell sometimes. And they were cut off from contact. He wanted to run back to headquarters, to set up a chain of command. But there was no time. "Mesa not knowing," he said again. "So wesa stick with what we were being told last."

Another volley of laser fire erupted, and there was no more time to talk.

"What do you mean Tatooine has gone silent?" Piett asked, leaning over the console. "There was some difficulty in the transmissions -"

"Sir, they've gone completely silent. The only way that could happen would be for the central communications console to have been destroyed."

Ice crackled somewhere inside of Piett. The console was far past any reasonable entrance to headquarters, if he recalled the designs properly. To get there... how much had the Rebels needed to go through?

How much... and how many?

"Commander Dihave?" he called.

Dihave, his hair now stringy and hanging in stress-induced clumps, appeared from behind another console. "What is it, sir?"

"We've lost contact with Tatooine."

"I know, sir. I heard."

"Her Majesty is in jeopardy. Perhaps great jeopardy. And we cannot reach her. In your judgment, is this a catastrophic event?"

"My opinion doesn't count."

"I nevertheless would hear it."

Dihave stared at the blank screens and grimaced. "Yeah," he said. "It's catastrophic. And if they've done anything to her... "

"We have no reason to believe that they have," Piett said. It sounded unconvincing to him. "But if they have, then there will be reprisals they will not forget." He took a deep breath. "Commander, I want you to prepare a containment field missile for launch. I will wait twelve standard hours. If we have not made contact with Her Majesty in that time, I will act on her last order. Understood?"

"Understood, Admiral." Dihave stared resentfully at the screens, then left for his lab.

Piett sat before his empty console to watch and wait.

Alpha Squadron was drunk on its victory, Athuli thought. Drunk and out of its mind.

Imperial speeders exploded up into the desert sky like children's fireworks, and laughter followed them. Oily fires smudged the air with black smoke.

"Regroup!" he shouted into his comlink. "Regroup and prepare to retreat!"

For a minute, he had the insane thought that the attack on Imperial communications had shut down Rebel communications as well, because no one - no one at all - responded. A speederbike was revved, the crashed, wild and riderless, into the mesa.

"Regroup!" he called again.

"We hear you!" someone shouted back.

"That's an order, not a request!"

A few men made their way back to him. One was a teenage recruit whose mother, a saloon-keeper, had been killed by the Guard on Reabo as a punishment for refusing to obey the curfew they had imposed. The boy's name was Ippoz Something, and he was frantic to take on the Empire. "We're this close!" he cried, gesturing at the gate to headquarters. The Imperial forces had thinned as they formed a communications line, and the Rebellion could take them.

That was the worst of it. They could. All that stood in the way was Princess Leia's order.

"We're not to attack the Empress," Athuli said.

"Oh, come on!" Ippoz gnashed his teeth, almost certainly unconscious of it. "That comes from Organa."

"She's our commanding officer."

"She's loyal to them. Why can't you see that? We should take them out while we can!"

"She's loyal to the Rebellion, Ippoz."

Ippoz spit on the ground. He hadn't been in the Rebellion when Leia had brought back the plans for the Death Star, or when she'd set up the Hoth base. His first sight of her had been in her mother's shadow. "She's one of them."

Athuli hit him. It wasn't planned, and it wasn't the way the Rebellion did things. But this was Princess Leia he was talking about. "She's one of us, and she gave us an order to behave with honor. And you will follow that order."

Ippoz had fallen into the dust from the force of the blow, and he glared up resentfully. "Picking up habits are you?"

"I'm sorry about that."

Athuli offered a hand up. Ippoz slapped it away and pulled himself to his feet. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he didn't.

Alpha Squadron was gathered now, looking anxious and antsy.

The desert shadows were growing long and the suns were growing low. Athuli looked out as his squadron, watched the shadows playing over them, wondered whose orders they would follow now.

Leia had been sensing Vader's presence for nearly an hour. She'd tensed at falling pebbles, jerked her head around to look over her shoulder at every vagary of the wind.

The ability to sense people at a distance was less than useless when the presence was ubiquitous. Where was he? Where wasn't he? He seemed to be the wind and the heat of the suns. That wasn't helpful in trying to figure out where he'd ambush her.

She willed the speederbike to go faster, but it was standard issue, totally unmodified, and when she pushed the speed, it began to shudder and shiver in an alarming way. She needed to reach the Tusken camp quickly, but it would be helpful to actually reach it in one piece. She checked her speed, frustrated.

Impatience is a path to the Dark Side. Anger is a path to the Dark Side... even - perhaps especially - when it is directed inward.

Leia gritted her teeth. Neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan had said such a thing in so many words, though she quoted it to herself in a mixture of their voices. It would certainly do for a summary.

But I have to hurry! And if I'm not angry at myself for this foolish a course of action, what kind of a monster does it make me?

She had barely thought twice about inviting the Tuskens. The whole raid had been aimed at destroying the Imperial presence - at undermining her parents - and they had been an afterthought. During Leia's convalescence, Mother had insisted on hearing the story of how the twins had come to meet, and Luke had reached the point where he was taking the droids to Kenobi. Tuskens had attacked him, he said. Kenobi had frightened them away.

Mother and Father had looked at one another soberly across Leia's bed, then Father, without any explanation, had left the room. Luke had given Mother a puzzled look, and she had simply said quietly, "Your father had a more permanently effective way of dealing with the Tuskens." Then she had urged Luke to go on with his tale, prodding Leia to put in her own as she went (though of course, she would hear nothing of Father's role in her captivity aboard the Death Star... that was in what she considered the "bad past").

Leia's mind had filled briefly with images of the Tuskens as brave natives, probably punished en masse for raiding Imperial supply camps. For food. For children who were starving out there in the desert. They needed only to be set free. She knew better than to engage in such romanticizing, but still... when push came to shove, she'd believed it in her bones, and had simply made the assumption that they would be her allies if she happened to be fighting on Tatooine. She had almost forgotten them - the conversation was long ago - but at the last minute, she'd thought it couldn't hurt to have extra hands on the lines.

It couldn't hurt anything at all.

And so she had invited them.

Maker help me.

But what had he done? And why?

She steered the speederbike into a high walled canyon that might have once been home to a thundering river. It was the straightest route through the Wastes to the Mos Eisley overlook, where Lando was relatively certain the Tuskens had camped. It was also terrible strategy - there was no escape except speed, and, while she could outrun the Tuskens, she would never outrun Father if he was determined to catch her.

She breathed deeply, trying to force her mind onto a steady track. She would go to the chief, offer him... what? She had nothing to offer.

And their actions didn't merit an offer. Rewarding theft and murder was hardly the best way to bring peace the region. They had to be reined in...

Threatened with deadly force.

But we don't do that! The Empire does that!

The speederbike started shuddering, and she realized that she'd been revving it again as her thoughts tightened into circles. There had to be a reasonable way to -

Father's presence suddenly screamed in her mind.

Leia looked over her shoulder, panicked, expecting to see him bearing down on her. She couldn't see him but she could feel -

Her bike swerved abruptly, leaving her control as the hoverchair once had. She had never learned to counter it, despite his promises. She dove for the ground.

She hit hard, a stone jabbing into her elbow, and rolled into a nook against the canyon wall, pulling her blaster as she went. She got her first view of Father when she finally stopped moving.

He was ahead of her.

She'd been looking over her shoulder for a chase, but he had been lying in wait all along.

"Come out, Leia," he said. "Cease this foolishness. There is no time for it if either of us is going to stop this slaughter."

Leia shrank back into the wall, listening to his words but mostly feeling the sense of him around her. She had become so accustomed to it, loathed it so atavistically, that she hadn't noticed that it was different. He was... wasn't...

He wasn't threatening her.

Whatever he thought he was doing here, he didn't seem to be thinking about capturing a political dissident.

Marvelous. He's trying to play Daddy again. I hate it when he does that.

But the edge wasn't on the thought.

Cautiously, slowly, she pulled herself to her feet.

Vader set down the speederbike, trying to control his irritation at Leia for jumping off of it. A waste of time.

And yet, he should have anticipated it.

Twenty meters away, Leia pulled herself out of a small niche and straightened up. She was dressed Tatooine fashion, her hair drawn up in an off-center bun. Her arms were crossed around her waist, one hand cupping the opposite elbow protectively.

The past and the present seemed to join seamlessly as he watched her there. He could almost feel Qui-Gon Jinn behind him, beckoning him to choose. And yet there was no choice now - his family and his duty both called him here, and he could see no future in which the paths were unjoined.

If there was a future, of course.

"Leia, come forward."

Reluctantly, she closed the distance between them. When she stood before him, she looked up once, then cast her eyes downward. "I'm trying to fix it," she said. "I was wrong to bring them in -"

"Then you did bring them."

"Yes. I was wrong. I had assumed... " She shook her head, eyes closed. "I was careless. It's my fault."

"If you are hoping for a refutation of that assessment," Vader said, "your hope is in vain."

She glared up at him defiantly. "I've admitted wrongdoing," she said. "Don't you dare get self-righteous with me. Whatever you did to these people, even you're too ashamed to talk about it -"

Vader grabbed her uninjured arm. "I did not discuss it because I did not care to consider it. I do not care to begin now."

"You, with all your prating about truth, and how Kenobi's lies were worse than your murders -"

"The truth you ask for would have made no difference in your assessment." Vader dismissed her with a wave, but the question she'd asked - implied, at any rate - rose high in his mind. What he had done to these people... Would it have made a difference if he had confessed to Leia as he once confessed to Amidala? No. She would still have assumed that he was solely to blame. She would have devised some way to use that horrible night against him.

And besides, as horrible as it was, it was his own. He had shared it with Amidala, but she shared all of his soul, as he shared hers. The pain did not belong to Leia.

He frowned at her, wishing as he often did now that he could express himself more clearly without speaking. "What are you planning, Leia?"

"I'm going to speak with the Tusken chief, get him to pull back his troops -"

"And you planned to do this alone?"

"I got us into this mess alone."

"Do you know what they do to women?"

"I've heard stories, but Father, surely you can't make a judgment on an entire species -"

He took her by both arms and lifted her from the ground, the anger taking him with unexpected speed. "They tortured my mother for a month!" he said. "They tortured her until she died from internal hemorrhaging. And I made them pay for it. Is that the truth you wanted?"

For once, Leia seemed speechless. He let go of her and she caught herself easily. She was looking at him with something that wanted to be disbelief, but wasn't.

Vader concentrated on the sound of his respirator, trying to calm himself. His mind was sending out some strange message to his nerves, and the electronic connections didn't understand it properly. It left his limbs humming. It wasn't a dangerous thing, but it annoyed him; it had happened often at first, but he thought he had gained more control over the cybernetics over the years.

Leia took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," she said. "I thought they would be angry enough to help fight the Empire."

"They never knew the name I had then. They would not know it now. And there was no one left to tell the story."

"If I'd known why... " Leia started, then stopped. "But this can't be the same tribe if you... I mean, if... Father, it's not right to make a judgment based on -"

"Leia, do you know what is occurring in Mos Eisley as we speak?"

She struggled with this. Vader knew full well the principle upon which she was impaled. "Father... " she began again. "They must have reasons, someplace where we can speak to them. I can't imagine anything that justifies... what they did to your mother... but I'm sure there must be some higher goal, something we can appeal to... "

"There may well be, Leia, but nothing justifies the actions they are taking. They must be stopped."

She smiled bitterly. "That's never something I expected you hear the Empire tell the Rebellion."

"It is not. It is something that I am telling you."

("Anakin, you cannot do this! You must stop!")

(Then the flash of lightsabers, the smell of sulphur, the long fall with his hair and clothing in flames around him. )

("Anakin! No!")


"It is something I am telling you, as someone once tried to tell me. This must be stopped."

"That's what I'm trying to do. That's why I'm going there."

"They will only kill you."

"What do you propose? Just go into Mos Eisley and start slicing them in half?"

"I believe that would be inefficient." Vader thought very carefully - more carefully than he had in years - then turned his back on her to let her decide more freely. "I will accompany you," he said. "Or I will go alone. It is your choice."

Leia's speeder trailed behind her father's in silence as they raced over the remaining distance to the Mos Eisley overlook. They had said nothing to one another since he had issued his ultimatum. Leia's response had been to simply walk away from him, and mount her speeder. He had done the same, and they took off.

There was no chance that she was going to let him meet the Tusken Chief alone. Not that she didn't trust him...well, she didn't, but she wasn't sure that was exactly the issue in this case. She did trust that he was as determined to have the Tuskens leave the city as she was. Maybe she didn't trust the methods he might use to reach their shared goal.

But even then, she couldn't bring herself to fully blame him. What the Tuskens were doing, what they had done...

...When he had grabbed her so suddenly Leia had a picture in her mind. She didn't know what her grandmother had looked like, and couldn't really see her in that brief flash, but the agony - her grandmother's? her father's? both? - screamed in her head.

How many people were feeling that way, right now, in Mos Eisley?

So, no, she couldn't blame him for whatever he was thinking about the Tuskens, or about what she had done. But she felt uneasy about the whole thing. He wasn't about to go alone...she just wanted to keep him in sight.

She knew his modified speeder could have gone at least two full settings faster, but he seemed to sense that it would be futile to do so. She would try to match him for it, whether or not her speeder was equipped to do so, which would only cause more problems, and slow them down. So he maintained a steady speed, right at the maximum she could handle, and led the way.

She watched him. Grim determination dictated his posture as they raced over the desert.

What the hell am I doing?

The thought had been lurking at the edge of her thoughts during the whole trip, but she didn't allow herself to fully entertain it. What she was doing was working with Darth Vader, with her father, as the only possible way to fix a dreadful mistake. It was a simple as that.

They were approaching the overlook now, and in the distance, there was a clear view down into the city.

They were too far away to see exactly what was happening, and Leia decided to accept that as a temporary blessing. What she could see was enough. Mostly smoke - some of it from fires that seemed to be consuming buildings here and there, some of it the leftover haze of the weapon blasts and fighting. There were shots and explosions that could be heard, and the distant echoes of shouts and screams.

All of it was a blur as she dashed by. Leia had seen her share of battles during her time in the Rebellion, and had developed a thick enough skin, a cool enough head, to stay focused on the issue at hand, despite the violence or destruction around her. That ability was serving her now, even as the guilt for that violence and destruction - something she hadn't ever truly had to deal with before - continued to eat away at her.

She shut out the scenes from the city and concentrated on the overlook ahead. She'd find a way to stop them. She'd find a way to fix this.

Leia spotted a cave opening on one of the cliffs of the overlook. She knew they were in there. She knew her father could tell that as well.

Still, he led them past the opening and to a craggy, rocky stretch a couple of kilometers away. They both slowed to a stop, and Vader began stowing his speeder behind and partially beneath some of the rock formations. Leia found a suitable hiding place for hers. He was already on his way to the mouth of the cave when she'd finished.

She rushed to catch up, fiddling with her comlink as she went. It had a translator function on it, and she got it turned on and running. She hoped it would work well enough for this situation.

Leia could hear the Tuskens deep and far down inside the cave as they entered. It didn't sound like a large group, and she sensed that these were a few soldiers and commanders, and those who were not able to fight in Mos Eisley. The cave itself darkened quickly - the path they were walking dipped and turned sharply from the entrance, and nearly all of the sunlight was blocked out. Leia waited for her eyes to adjust, and relied on the Force as they kept moving forward.

Suddenly, Leia's body went on edge, and her father had already stopped moving. The Tuskens knew they were there and -

A chorus of groans and shrieks assaulted her ears. A Tusken appeared on her left, and two more appeared in front of her. She could hear more of them coming and running from the recesses of the cave. The guards were waving their weapons at them as they approached.

Leia pulled her comm up to her mouth and said, "We've come to see your Chief. We do not wish to fight."

After a pause, her comm warbled out a stilted-sounding translation of grunts and yells. It wasn't very loud - Leia wondered if they would hear it over everything - but it seemed to be saying the right thing. They began speaking with one another, gesturing to her repeatedly. They were speaking over each other, and her translator couldn't keep up.

Her father's hand was resting on his saber, and Leia regarded him carefully. She was surprised he hadn't immediately moved to attack. She sensed confusion coming from him. The screams had disoriented him...she found herself thinking that this wasn't easy for him.

Because he'd killed them all.

Because he'd killed them all, and it still shamed him.

A deep, booming voice echoed out from within the cave, and took Leia's mind off trying to figure her father out. Suddenly, the guards surrounding them held back their weapons, and moved aside. Leia took the hint, and marched straight through to the Chief. Her father stayed very close, just behind her.

As she walked, Leia took in the Tuskens for the first time. There were only a couple dozen here. The men, the soldiers were milling about, carrying their arms and speaking to one another. A small number of women and children, and what Leia presumed were elderly men were holed up in a corner around a small fire that warded off the chill of the dark, damp cave. They were all in their masks of course, wrapped cloths and goggles and some mouthpiece thing, none of which left much room for imagining what kind of race they were, or what they looked like underneath their coverings.

Leia thought they looked - or at least felt - threatening. Angry. Defensive. She had no problem picturing them killing and pillaging in the cities.

The Tusken chief was at the very back of the cave. He sat near his own small fire, and had four guards flanking him with their rifles. He watched the two of them approach, and said nothing. He finally stood as they stopped before him.

Leia stepped forward. "I am here as the leader of the Rebellion. I am the one who asked you to join the battle in Mos Eisley. I've come to order your men to withdraw immediately."

The translator slowly repeated her words in their language. The Chief's guards began yelling at her in response. The Chief still said nothing.

She continued, "Your men are committing crimes against the civilians in the city. I cannot allow this to continue."

Something Leia took as a derisive snort came from the Chief, and his guards stopped their yelling. He barked at Leia.

From the comlink came the words, "We continue as we wish."

"The Rebellion will protect the city against your people as our first priority," Leia spat out.

He shook his head. "Too busy. Fighting others."

The translation was stilted, but her father understood it immediately. "You are mistaken if you believe the Empire will allow your actions any more than the Rebels will," he said sharply. "You would be wise to heed her warning, and withdraw immediately."

The Chief glanced at him, certainly more impressed and cowed by Vader's visage than he was by Leia. Still, the next words that came from him were defiant in tone.

"Too late to remove us," intoned the comm. "And we answer to no one. Will do with the settlers as we always have."

Father's anger snapped, and Leia felt it as a physical blow. His hand was around the Chief's neck and he had raised him high up the ground. Vader's other hand waved at the guards, and they flew to the back of the cave, slamming against the wall.

"You will order your men back," he said, his voice twisting into a snarl.

The Chief swore at him, and then struggled to breathe.

"Father!" Leia cried, "This won't help." He didn't answer. "He won't listen, and killing him - fighting them here - won't help the situation in the city." Leia moved over to him and tried to grab his arm and pull it back down. " don't want to do this!"

That got through to him. His hand opened and the Chief fell hard to the ground, gasping and wheezing for air.

"We should leave, Leia. This discussion with them is useless."

Leia blinked at him, nodding. The other Tuskens were staring at her father in confusion and fear, trying to understand what he had done to the guards, and stunned by his display of strength. She wanted to get out of there right now, while they were too afraid to fight and while her father had regained control of his temper. She began running back toward to the opening. He followed. None of the Tuskens did.

She didn't stop running until they got back to where they had hidden their speeders. He had started to pull his out to mount it, but then stopped. He was staring at her hard.

"Yes?" she asked.

"We must decide on a course of action."

Leia shrugged, and pulled her speeder around the rocks. "We go to the city. We fight them back. What else can we do?"

"I am not sure. But -"

"Wait!" Leia said suddenly. "That is what we can do." An idea had come to her, and it was a strange one. She wasn't sure how he'd react to it - or how anyone else would.

What the hell am I doing?

I'm doing what can be done. I'm doing the right thing.

She hoped.

She stood before her father and took a deep breath, exhaling it forcefully. "When we get to the city, we're both going to order our people to expel the Tuskens first. Right?"

"That was what I intended..."

"Then we should cut to the chase. We should order them to stop fighting one another while they do that."

Father's head snapped sharply toward her. "You propose ordering the Rebels to work with our officers?"

"No, I propose that we each order our sides to not waste time with one another while the Tuskens are murdering civilians. If they actively work together, all the better, but we need to make it clear that until the Tuskens are subdued, we're fighting a common enemy."

"And you believe the Rebels will follow such an order?"

"They will as much as your people will. Think how quickly they could deal with the Raiders if they were working together. They would have superior numbers and firepower, and a clear directive...I think it's our best option. Call your people, and I'll call mine."

She gave him a few moments to consider it. He paced back and forth, his hands clamped behind his back. Finally, he said, "It seems that you have already forgotten your actions back at headquarters. Or do you propose I somehow change the officers' orders with no communications?"

Leia looked away and let her eyes close.

I can fix this. I will fix this.

She opened them. "Rebel communications are working fine." She fiddled with her comm until it picked up Lando's frequency. To her relief, he answered right away.

"Lando here!"

"Lando, it's Leia. What's your status?"

"It's still a melee out here, Your Highness...we're driving them out of one of the main residential districts, but..."

"Lando," she broke in, "I have new orders for you. Fighting the Tuskens and protecting the civilians is your first priority."

"That is what I've been trying to do -"

"And you are to work with the Imperial forces in the city to do it."


"Lando, I'm with Lord Vader right now. It's a long story, but we've come to the decision that neither of us wants to fight the other while we leave the city to be destroyed."

"Leia, I -"

"He will be giving the same order to the Imperial troops. You are to act together to expel the Tuskens and bring the city under control. Then we'll go from there."

"Leia, this is the craziest thing I think I've ever heard."

"It's a crazy situation."

"That it is," he replied. "Look, I agree with you, getting the Tuskens out of here is the most important thing. I think this is for the best." A pause. "So... when can we expect those guys to stop shooting at us?"

Leia nodded at her father. "Lando, Imperial communications are down. I need you to take your comm to one of their officers. Lord Vader will give the order to them." Vader nodded back to her, and then put his hand out for the comm. She handed it to him.

"Calrissian, a Gungan named Ter Caldo is commanding the forces in Mos Eisley. Are you able to seek him out?"

"Did you say a Gungan? There's one shooting right at me from the other side of the street. Think he'll be happy to talk to me? Should I come waving a red flag or something?"

Lando's voice was sarcastic, but Vader ignored the tone. "If you do so, he will assume you are coming to surrender. He will cease-fire. That will be long enough for you to hand him the comlink. Then I will speak to him."

"All right... " Lando said, clearly still unconvinced that this plan was going to work. "Just hang on a minute!"

Leia and her father listened to the sounds of the battle and waited. Leia thought it sounded worse than Han had tried to describe.

Finally, they could hear Lando saying, "Hold your fire! Please! Hold your fire!"

"Yousa here to surrender!"

"I have a message for you."

"No message! Unless yousa here to stop fightin' mesa have nothing -"

"Here! Listen to this Commander Caldo! Just listen!"

"Ter Caldo," Vader intoned, "This is Lord Vader. There has been a change in circumstances."

"Lord Vader?"

"Yes, Commander. Your troops are to -"

"This bein' a trick!" Caldo yelled. "Yousa Rebels bombad! How Vader being on Rebel comm, brought here by Rebels?"

"Commander, this is not a trick."

"This not bein' what it sounds. Yousa -"

"This is Lord Vader. Imperial communications are down. I'm using the Rebel frequency, as it is the only one available. I'm speaking to you under command authorization five-gamma-six-alpha. Do you understand?"

The command code seemed to work on Caldo as an acceptable proof. He was quiet for several seconds before saying, "Well... ?"

"You are to stop fighting the Rebels immediately. Your sole priority is to remove the Tuskens from Mos Eisley and bring the city under control. You are ordered to work with the Rebels as necessary to carry out that objective. Is that clear?"

"Y-yes, my Lord. Wesa do that immediately."

"Princess Leia and I will be heading there shortly. Vader out."

He shut the link off, and handed it back to Leia. "You are correct, Leia, it is the wisest course of action. I believe that both our forces will be glad to fight the Tuskens. We can handle their desire to fight one another once we arrive."

She nodded, and glanced out and down into the city. "I hope you're right." She turned back to him. "We should head down there. Let's go fix this."

Those damn Imperials.

Those damn, stupid Imperials.

Couldn't they recognize when a battle was over? Couldn't they be content to take their losses and be grateful they hadn't suffered more of them?

Of course not. And now the whole headquarters was going to go down because of it.

Athuli had felt as though things were going to fall apart during that ugly scene with Ippoz. But now, now he was feeling true panic.

They had gone over the edge. He had lost them.

He had half a mind to simply get up and run out of there. To grab the nearest speeder - to grab the nearest anything - and head for one of the main cities. He could some other squadrons, help them wherever they needed it, and get away from what was happening here, at the headquarters front door. He could leave Alpha Squadron to its own devices. They were acting on their own now anyway.

Athuli's hands were painfully rigid around the handle of his blaster, and his head was starting to buzz. Yes, this was definitely panic.

But he knew that he couldn't leave. He would just have to keep trying to get his people back under control.

After he hitting Ippoz, Athuli had waited through several charged minutes for it all to break loose, for Alpha Squadron to start fighting him, fighting each other, the Imperials, whoever. Instead, things had turned, started to calm almost. Eventually, the squadron had regrouped as he had ordered. Granted, it was because most of them believed they were gathering to discuss a new strategy, one that would get them into the base. None of them were pleased to hear Athuli announce, repeatedly, that his intention was to withdraw as Leia had instructed before she left.

Still, a few - a very few - hadn't gotten completely giddy with their success, and there were more than a few loyal enough to Leia to ignore Ippoz's rantings and consider her orders. It was only the tiniest speck of reason that was returning to them, but Athuli thought it might be enough to get them to pull back to the mesa until Leia finished her business and came back. Maybe.

That was the moment that some Imperial officer thought it a good idea to launch an attack on the idling Rebel group.

Alpha Squadron was caught by surprise, and one of his ensigns was hit squarely in the back, and he fell to the ground in a heap. A captain - an older woman named Arralla - was hit in the shoulder and gave an awful howl of pain.

She was all right, and would be as engaged in the fight as any of them, but the initial shock of seeing her wounded, of seeing the other man dead, had snapped the brittle, tenuous restraint that the squad had left.

The Rebels had charged, blindly, at any Imperial who had the misfortune to get in their sights.

They overran what was left of the guards in the vehicle hangar with dispatch. Those had been essentially defeated anyway, and the rest of the troops had fallen back to protect other strategic areas that led into the headquarters. The large munitions storage area had a bigger contingent there, hunkered down for a fight.

And there had been a fairly decent fight going, at least for the first few minutes. Then, someone had screamed for Alpha Squadron to fall back. For a brief, foolish second Athuli thought someone else had finally taken up his side, and was asking them all to begin a retreat. He should have known better, of course, and almost immediately saw the plan - once they had all gotten to a semi-safe distance a blaster shot was aimed directly at a stash of grenades in a high corner of the room.

The explosion blew all of the Rebels back, took out or injured most of the Imperials, and destroyed a section of the wall. Debris from the ceiling started to reign down. His people barely noticed any of it. As soon as they had recovered from the blast, they were up and running. They made it through the rest of the hangars and supply areas with relative ease.

They hadn't been stopped until they had reached one of the main entrances that led into the heart of the Imperial base. Troops and guards were filing out of the building, ready to fight. Lookouts were sniping at the Rebels from lookout towers high above the corners of the building. Athuli wondered if more troops would try to cut off their escape by coming up on them from behind. He was almost beginning to hope they would.

"Arralla!" he called out in a strangled, frustrated tone. Her shot arm was hanging limply at her side, but she hardly seemed to notice it any more. She was gleefully trying to pick off the lookouts, or at least scare them back off their towers. She turned to him and gave him a wide smile...which quickly faded when she saw the look on his face. Athuli figured he was flashing her a combination of anger and disgust.

"Commander, we're doing all right here. Quit trying to take this and turn it into some kind of noble defeat."

"I need you to help me," he said urgently. "We can't just storm the HQ. Help me tell them to pull back."

She was shaking her head before he could even finish what he was saying. "Come on. Leia couldn't have known we'd be able to get inside. Events on the ground have changed." She paused to shoot at a Gungan who was firing down on them. "I'm with you - Leia's not loyal to them, and I don't think she'd want us to waste an opportunity because we're more worried about following her orders down to the smallest detail."

"We're out of control! You're out of control! Do you realize how many people they could have killed firing like that in the munitions room? Are you all planning to shoot everything that moves when we get inside?" He was getting the urge to hit someone again. "You know this isn't Leia what had in mind. You know better than this. Help me get them back under control. Once they get inside -"

"Once they get inside," Arralla said, with cold finality, "they could bring down the Empire in one fell swoop. We don't need you tagging along, trying to hold us back!"

"I'm still the Commander of the squadron. You're -"

A big explosion sounded in his ears and burned his eyes, effectively ending the conversation. When the fire and smoke cleared, the entrance to the headquarters was fully exposed.

Athuli watched the first of his people run and shoot their way inside.

Vader had been to Mos Eisley once, in the long-ago childhood of a boy named Anakin Skywalker. Watto had heard of a starship wreck that the salvager was auctioning off, and he'd brought seven-year-old Anakin along to judge the usefulness of the parts. Vader remembered that ship well, remembered the hands that had once belonged to him skimming over cracked casings and melted circuitry, their smooth and almost translucent skin covered with engine grime as it always was. He remembered telling Watto that the naviputer would be perfectly fine if he fixed the circuits with some wires he had back in the shop. He remembered saying that the rest was only good for melting down. And he remembered a never-ending line of Jawas, loading the ship in pieces onto a sandcrawler for transport to Mos Espa. They'd sold the scrap metal for a solid year, and made an equal amount on the repaired naviputer in one lucky sale.

He remembered flying over the city, as a reference point, on the way to the Lars farm and the horror beyond it.

Beyond that, he remembered nothing at all about Mos Eisley.

It was a filthy place, seedy and broken even in places where the battle wasn't raging. It made Mos Espa look paradisiacal by comparison. But the layout of the streets was the same: a rough wheel, surrounded by docking bays, working its way in through run down residential neighborhoods. The business district would be at the center, but his duties here would not take him to that level. The Tuskens would already have taken anything worth taking in the business district.

He reached out with his senses, and was immediately flooded with the panic and outrage of the townspeople. They were near. He pulled his speeder to a halt, and waited for Leia to pull up beside him on her speederbike.

"They are nearby," he said. "Can you sense them?"

She nodded and pointed down an alley to the left. "That way, I think. I feel... " She went pale suddenly and leaned heavily over her handlebars. "All the tribesmen who came in have joined the raiding now. Probably when the Rebels turned on them."

"That was to be expected, Leia. They would have little motivation for maintaining the fa?ade of fighting with the Rebellion."

"I know." She slid off her speederbike and turned it to park mode. "The speeders will only be in the way."

"I agree." Vader got out of his own speeder, and drew his lightsaber. "There will not be a command structure as you know it among the Tuskens. This may be somewhat more... complete... than you are accustomed to."

"I understand." She drew her own lightsaber and held it tightly, more a talisman than a weapon.

Vader reached over and corrected her grip without speaking. She frowned, but said nothing, and Vader realized that the correction had been unnecessary; she had merely been gathering herself for battle. He looked down the long narrow street to their right. At the other end, he could see the flickering motions of the battle. A laser blast hit a building, sending a brief red flare into the white sunlight. "Very well," he said. "We should begin."

She reached over suddenly and touched his wrist. "Father... "


"May -" She closed her eyes, breathed deeply, then looked at him steadily. "May the Force be with you, Father."

Her voice was forced and cool, but Vader recognized the effort it had taken to offer the words to him, and was oddly touched by it. A long dormant instinct rose, and he hesitantly squeezed her hand. "And with you, my daughter."

Without another word - a battle was not the place for the kind of long discussion Amidala would have wished for at this juncture, and Vader thought that he was not alone at being relieved by this - they charged down the narrow street, and into battle.

The two armies had engaged the vast majority of the sandpeople, and much of the loot they had been carrying from the homes was lying unattended in the streets. Civilians huddled in their doorways, parents clutching children, other adults clutching at whatever feeble weapons they'd been able to find or fashion. Here and there, dirty children darted out into the fray to rummage through the abandoned treasures. Vader saw Leia pick one of these up and return him to his frantic mother, then the battle took him.

It was fast - no more than ten minutes, surely - but as always, it seemed to be drawn out in time, intense and deep-colored. He fought side by side with men who may have been Rebels or may have been Imperials. He felt two of them fall. Tuskens seemed to emerge from the sand of the street, and there was screaming. There was always screaming.

At one point in the battle, Vader saw a Tusken running toward the banthas clustered at the end of the street, a slave-woman slung over his shoulder. Vader threw his lightsaber, counting on the Force only to block the blaster shots that were coming toward him. The lightsaber cut the Tusken's legs out from under him, sending the woman sprawling into the dirt. She took the Tusken's rifle and shot him. Vader called his lightsaber back into his hand. At another point, he saw Leia standing on top of someone's porch rail, her hand outstretched as she used the Force to hurl a rusty speeder at a group of Tuskens.

Beyond that, the repetitive motions of battle melted into one another, and merged into a general drive to push the remaining Tuskens into a circle at the center of the residential area where they were fighting and surround them. There were perhaps thirty Tuskens left when this was accomplished. Vader was starting to move in when Leia's voice boomed across the battlefield, amplified by her comlink.

"Cease fire!"

At first, Vader wasn't certain he could stop. The blood was flowing freely, and there was an intoxication to battle that he had always found difficult to resist. He looked at the now disarmed Tusken a few meters ahead of him, on his knees in the sand with his arms upraised in a warding gesture.

For an eternal instant, something hovered on the edge of Vader's consciousness, some shimmering sense of Otherness, a glimpse of another life, the endless night journey over, the sounds of terror silenced inside his mind. It unnerved and disturbed him on a level far deeper than the simple battle, made the world around him fragile, his very name brittle and ready to break.


(No! )

Ani... my grown-up son...

(I can't. )

Your focus determines your reality.

(It's too late. )

The instant ended, and reality came back to him. He was standing on a dusty street in Mos Eisley, a helpless Tusken kneeling before him in abject surrender. He could still strike. It would be sensible. There was no vast reform of Tusken society on the horizon. He sensed no true remorse in the man before him, only fear.

And yet...

There was something else. The Otherness. The sense of wholeness. He was home again, in the place where choices were made, the place where he created himself.

(But it is necessary to be what I am. If it were not, I would not have chosen or perpetuated it. If it is unnecessary, then my life is without meaning. )

He lowered his lightsaber to a defensive position.

(And they will strike again. To not finish this is to invite repetition. )

He didn't know what he had decided, or if he had decided anything at all. He knew only one thing with any certainty: The screams had gone on long enough.

He looked up and saw that Leia was conferring with Ter Caldo and Calrissian. From his position on the front lines, Vader could see only that her face was grave. Her hands were on her hips, and she was nodding. He touched her through the Force, and felt neither the nervousness he'd rather expected in battle or the shame she had been exhibiting earlier - Leia was still mortified by the consequences of her action, of course, and clearly had no particular liking of battle, but the dominant feeling coming from her was resolve. She was back in her own arena, and she was getting things in order. She had been born to lead, and she was settling into her natural role.

She nodded to the commanders one more time, then made her way around the front lines to Vader. As she drew closer, he saw that she had taken some minor injury to her arm, and bits of her hair had escaped the bun to fly in the desert wind. "Your General Caldo says there is enough prison space in the new Guardhouse to hold all the survivors," she said without preliminaries. "I instructed him to see to it."

"And then what, Leia? Do you plan to try them? Have them serve time and then release them?"

"I don't know. But I don't want them killed while they're clearly surrendering. Neither would Mother, and I guess you'd care more about that."

Vader didn't answer. He had no argument. It was sometimes hard to know what Amidala would do, but on this matter, there was no doubt. Her own Guard was involved, and she would not want them seen murdering men on their knees.

"At any rate," Leia went on, "General Caldo and Lando seem to have some working system. General Caldo is going to see to the prisoners, and I've told them to set up patrols to guard against attack from the camp on the overlook."

"It is populated by old men."

"I don't want to take any more chances." She sighed. "They were going to split on Rebel-Imperial lines, but I ordered them to have mixed patrols. I know it seems like I'm just trying to save the Rebel reputation but -"

"But re-creating the initial schism would lead to later conflict," Vader finished.

Leia looked up at him, surprised. "Yes."

"I am not ignorant of politics, and I am certainly not ignorant of the mindset of war. You need not explain yourself further. It was a wise choice, and one I believe your mother will approve. It is, if you recall, what she originally wished - an alliance with the former Rebels."

"On her terms."

"As you wish it on your own."

"I don't -"

A sudden surge of fear flared up through the Force, cutting off Leia midway through whatever she'd planned to say. Vader felt it like a sudden sandstorm raging through his soul.

"Headquarters," Leia whispered. "Something is happening."

Vader said nothing. He grabbed Leia's arm and led her back down the narrow street they'd come from, to his modified speeder. They both ignored her speederbike.

Together, they set off at top speed, racing against the panic that was flooding the very air around them.

Amidala was in danger.

"Luke, tell me what's going on."

The officers next to Luke hastily cleared away from the station where Luke was trying in vain to monitor the activity outside. Everyone in the guardpost seemed nervous at having Mother right here with them, especially since things were becoming increasingly chaotic and dangerous within the headquarters. Most of the officers had seen Mother in person for the first and only time when she arrived on the planet, and that was at some distance. Now they would look at her, and then quickly turn away as they scurried about, speaking to one another in hushed tones, giving furtive orders to their men. They were almost desperate not to upset her, or to appear incompetent before her, as the Rebels tried to crash into the base.

She noticed the men fleeing, and frowned. Then her gaze settled on him. Luke stared back and realized immediately that his officers' concerns were misplaced. She wasn't fearful or panicking, and she certainly wasn't angry with them. She was grave, and serious - with her mouth pressed into a grim, thin line and her eyebrows knitted - but her concerns for the outside battle were overshadowed by thoughts of a more personal nature.

Luke wanted to offer her comfort. But there was little to be had from what was happening just outside the headquarters. The best answer he could find was, "The Rebels have approached the main entrance of the base. Our people are engaging them."

Her frown redirected itself toward the blank console that Luke was standing in front of. "Can we even give orders? Do we have enough men to send down there?"

He sighed. "We have officers acting as couriers, and they're doing their best to deliver orders and information from place to place in the base. It might not be the most efficient system, but it's the best we can do. I'd rather have everyone gathered in one place until we get a working comlink, but we need people to protect the entrance." He gave her shoulder a squeeze. "We're sending anyone available to protect the entrance, and once they're down there, they can coordinate with each other face-to-face. It'll be all right, Mother."

"No it won't be. I don't care what the Rebels wish to do. This won't be all right until your father returns with your sister, and the four of us are somewhere that's not under attack." She swallowed hard and said, "I'm scared for them."

"We both know that Father won't allow anything to happen to Leia," he responded. "And I'm here to stop anything from happening to you. Just stay strong, Mother. This all will be over soon."

She didn't look convinced, but Luke was beginning to think he was out of words to say. Besides, he very much agreed with her - he needed to see his father and Leia again, and right the turmoil that surrounded them. He needed that more than he needed to give another order to be relayed at foot-speed to his officers, and more than he needed another delayed report about whatever was happening at the entrance.

"Lord Skywalker!"

The cry came from a lieutenant, who had burst into the room wildly, nearly causing an uproar. He didn't bother to collect himself or catch his breath. "The Rebels have entered the base! They've broken through the main entrance!"

Now there was a definite uproar. Luke's hand instinctively reached out, clamping around his mother's wrist like a vice. "They are coming after the Empress," he said through clenched teeth. "I'm taking her out of here before that can happen."

"But sir," the man replied, looking distraught, "there are so many of them."

Luke gestured to three guards nearby. "I'm taking them with me."

"Perhaps the officers at the entrance will stop most of the Rebels before they can reach Her Majesty. And here, we can all try to protect her."

"You have not been able to hold them off at all so far," Luke said sharply. "And if they do find their way in here - which I have little doubt they will, eventually - I doubt such close quarters will be the safest place for the Empress, whether you believe yourself able to fight them or not."

"Luke..." Mother touched the hand that was holding her wrist, and gave him a look of slight reproach.

He understood. He was shaming the man in front of his fellow officers, when he had shown nothing but concern for protecting her. It certainly was not his fault that Luke had to wait for someone to run through the base before finding out the Rebels were already inside.

Luke loosened his grip and said, "Lieutenant, I know you and your people are doing your best under terrible circumstances. But the headquarters have been breached. It is no longer safe for the Empress to remain here."

"Yes, my Lord."

"I know orders are going out slowly, but engage and stall them as much as possible. I will attempt to leave through a route than the main entrance."

Luke could now faintly hear the sounds of blaster fire. He pulled his mother along gently, and the guards he had picked out stayed close behind her. They stepped out into the hallway and sprinted for the nearest lift.

As they entered, Mother, without ceremony or explanation, put her hand out to one of the guards. "Your weapon, Captain."

He did a double-take, and then stammered, "Your Majesty?"

"I require a weapon," she said simply.

The man looked to Luke for approval, and he gave it with a wave, though he was as surprised by the request as the guard was. Mother had already taken the extra blaster, and was expertly working the controls, re-setting them from stun to kill.

Luke tried to remove the startled look from his face as the lift doors closed behind him. He reminded himself to keep a sharp eye on her if they did run into resistance. She seemed as though she were ready to run headlong into battle, when what she needed was to be protected.

As if she had heard that last thought, Mother's head bent toward him. "I know you can protect me, Luke, and I know you will. But the fight has come to me personally now. And I've never liked going into this type of situation defenseless. I might even be able to help."

Luke punched the button to take them to the basement level, and the lift began to move. "I'm sure you will." He had never even seen his mother handle a weapon before; there had been no reason for her to in the time he had known her. He had heard stories of course, when Father seemed as animated as he ever got, about her considerable skills in battle. Still, actually seeing her now - tense and confident, and ready to fight - was something of a revelation to Luke. She reminded him of Leia a great deal. Luke wondered idly if seeing Father fight as a Jedi, in another lifetime, before the mask, would have reminded him of himself.

The hum of the lift changed pitch as they descended through the main floors. Luke listened to it, and tried to focus more completely on the task at hand. "I'm taking us to the basement, which will put us outside the servants' quarters. The Rebels must have gotten layouts of the base from Leia, so they know that everything of interest to them - the Command Center, the guardpost - is on the higher levels. While they're busy up there, we'll try to get out through one of the back exits."

"The servants usually keep a couple of speeders out there," one of guards said.

"Yes," Luke nodded, "and I doubt the Rebels noticed." His attention returned to his mother. "Stay beside me. Don't wander off, even if it doesn't look like anyone's after us."

"Of course."

The lift slowed to a stop and the doors opened. Luke sensed little down here beside the fear of the servants, who were thankfully in their quarters, confined in them since the Rebels had first attacked. But things were still in flux. He could almost hear his father chastising him to stay aware.

Luke led his mother out of the lift, with the guards in tow behind them. One or two of the servants were defying the order and poking their heads out, or running from room to room, but they cleared out, shocked to see Mother down here.

Luke sunk deep into the Force, letting the path before him show itself. Letting any threats to her be seen in time to stop them.

Something wasn't right. He could feel it.

He slowed down, and Mother matched him for it, looking at him quizzically.

In his mind's eye, Luke saw a bright flash blow past him.

He grabbed her, pulling her into a small corridor, and waited. The guards followed. He heard a lift door open, and a blaster was fired, and the shot sailed down the hallway where they had been standing and impacted on the far wall.

"Surrender to the Rebels, Imperial servants! Come out! Surrender! We have no wish to fight you!"

Another shot was fired. Luke was stunned. Whoever was down here - he could sense maybe four of them - was completely out of control. That they were down here at all was proof of that, claims of not wanting to harm the servants notwithstanding. He knew the Rebels didn't behave this way, and he knew that the rest of them were concentrating on the more legitimate targets elsewhere in the base, as he had anticipated.

But it only took one crazy would only take one shot to kill his mother.

Luke whispered to a guard, "Create a distraction. They don't know she's down here. The Empress and I will find another route out of here."

He didn't wait for a response, but merely led his mother down the corridor they had hidden in. As soon as they turned the corner, putting them out of sight of the guards, Luke heard one of them yell, "No one here is surrendering, you Rebel scum!" Then the shooting began.

Luke and his mother broke out into a full-fledged run. He was completely in tune with the Force around her, with any hint that danger was coming to her. When the first attack came, Luke felt himself moving to block it before the woman behind them had even fired. He returned the shot to her, and she barely rolled out of the way in time. She was back up and shooting quickly, but Luke was able to hit her in the shoulder and knock her out.

Then the danger was ahead. Luke leapt over his mother, just in time to block a new barrage of blaster fire. The man, whom Luke did not recognize, screamed, "Traitor!" at him, and continued firing almost blindly. Luke turned his shots against him as well, and now Mother was firing too. The man turned and ran, scrambling and dodging her fire. Luke heard him screech, "Traitor!" one more time, but he was retreating, and no longer a threat to Mother.

A few more Rebels had found their way down here. Luke could also see that he was now within sight of one of the exits.

Two of the Rebels appeared between them and the door. One was clearly stunned to come face-to-face with the Empress. His hesitation cost him, as she fired on him before he could react.

Luke charged the second man, who hadn't waited even those brief moments to take his try at killing her. Luke easily repelled the blasts aimed at Mother, eventually getting close enough to cut the Rebel's blaster in half with his lightsaber. He delivered the killing blow before the man could make any move to defend himself.

Luke turned back and retook his mother's hand. "That's it, we're getting out of here now. Stay behind me once we -"

Luke felt the impact on his chest, which slammed him against a wall, felt the fire blazing in his ribs, before he even realized he had been shot. He looked down at the burn as he slid to the ground.

He saw, in a daze, Mother shoot the Rebel who had shot him. The man went down immediately, but not before he managed to shriek, "Traitor!" at Luke one more time.

Luke took a somewhat useless pleasure out of that. He was trying to figure out how he had missed a threat to his mother. He hadn't. He had missed a threat to himself.

Mother crouched beside him, and the guards rushed in behind her. Luke guessed they had finished dealing with the Rebels for the time being. He couldn't hear any more shooting or fighting. Servants were peaking out of their rooms, and gasping and crying in horror when they saw him. Mother yelled for a medic, and several people ran off to find one.

"Help is coming, Luke," she said, lying him fully on his back and trying to assess his injury. "Just hold on. Be strong...please."

Luke nodded. His hand weakly intertwined with one of hers, which was trembling. They gave each other comfort as they waited for that help to arrive.

The sky was beginning to take on the orange tint of early sunset when Imperial headquarters loomed into view. The sense of hurry was stronger than it had been in Mos Espa, the implication of imminent danger that made Leia feel helpless in its shadow.

Father, too, seemed more troubled as they flew across the desert. The speeder had been pushed to its acceleration limit, but still he leaned forward, trying to will it to go faster. The energy coming through the Force was frantic, intense.

Without warning, something seemed to explode in Leia's chest, burning outward like a thermal detonator charge. She gasped, her mind flying out, flying forward to the mesa whose shadow now loomed over them. "Luke," she whispered. She could feel her eyes wide and her lips drawn back against her teeth. "Father... "

Father didn't answer. He was still at high speed as they approached the wall of the mesa, aiming straight for a small door at ground level. He hooked it around neatly and stopped so abruptly that Leia was thrown forward. She used the momentum to jump out of the speeder, feeling Father a step behind her.

She ran through the door, Luke's presence screaming in her mind as it hadn't since an infancy remembered only by her nerve endings. She couldn't shut it out or deny its impact on her, and couldn't resist its clarion call. Someone was shooting at her from a side corridor. She blocked it with her lightsaber without looking. Something clattered, and Leia registered vaguely that Father had sent several blasters flying at the ceiling.

The hall turned, and she saw them there, crumpled near another door. Mother cradled Luke in her arms, her drifting veil partially covering the huge scorch mark of a blaster hit that seemed to have engulfed his whole chest. Another blaster lay beside her, in easy reach. Her head came up. "Ani!" she called. "Ani!"

Leia fell to her knees and reached for Luke, not sure what she wanted to do. Her mind couldn't let go of all the bitterness, but her soul was bleeding, reaching for him, needing to -

"Don't you touch him!"

Leia jumped, her eyes rising to meet her mother's. "Mother... "

Mother's eyes were blazing, full of irrational hate and rage. Tears streamed down over her high cheekbones. She was laboring to pull Luke away from Leia, toward herself. She bit her trembling lip. Her hands were shaking badly.

Luke reached up with a weak hand, and let it fall generally in Leia's direction. "Came back," he managed.

Leia grabbed his hand fiercely. "I didn't mean for this to happen. I ordered them not to -"

"I know," he said, then moved his head slightly toward Mother. "We know."

Father bent over him. "The wound is severe," he said. "We need to get you to a cybernetics lab."


"Luke, it is your only chance."

"No." He smiled wearily, and for a heartbreaking instant, he was the boy around whose neck Leia had once placed a medal of recognition, the carefree, innocent boy who still experienced a wonder at the vastness of the galaxy that Leia had lost years before. "Don't think we'll make it," he said. "Don't want to rush... not much time."

"Don't be silly, Luke," Mother cooed, kissing his head. Her tears slipped down across his forehead, mingling with the sweat of his pain. "We'll fix you right up. Ani will fix you. Ani can fix anything."

Luke looked instinctively at Father, almost hopefully, and Leia felt a wave of anguish coming from Father. And she knew, or rather she understood what she had known all along. Luke seemed to sense it as well. "Father," he whispered. "Outside. I want to see... the suns set."

Mother shook her head violently. "No, Luke. We can't move you. It will hurt you."

"My love." Father crouched down and looked across Luke at her. She didn't meet his eyes. Leia could remember no point since her mother had come back into her life that Mother had refused to meet Father's eyes behind the mask. He waited patiently.

Mother's sobs became frantic, her head moving to avoid his gaze. "Ani, we can't move him. It would... destabilize... "

"My love."

The erratic movements of her head slowed, the trembling of her lips and jaw became more pronounced. Finally, she looked at him. Leia didn't know what was passing between them, but Mother leaned away from Luke and let Father gather him up. A low, persistent moan was coming from her throat. Leia didn't think she was even aware of it.

Father stood, lifting Luke easily in his arms, and carried him toward the nearby door. Through it, the sky was beginning to grow red. Leia got to her feet. Mother was still kneeling where she had been, her arms open, as though she expected Luke to appear in them again. She looked desperately sad and lonely... but not trapped in the prison of her madness.

Leia drew in a harsh breath, an ancient memory resurfacing with the power of total recall. She had seen Mother like this before, in the days when Mother had been the biggest person in the galaxy, the one from whom all good things flowed. Leia herself had been very young, barely old enough to speak, and didn't know everything that had led to it. But she remembered awakening in the night to this soft moaning, because it had frightened her badly. Where had they been then, where had their hiding taken them? Had they even been on Alderaan yet? Leia remembered only a dark, anonymous room, and Mother in her white nightdress, kneeling on the floor, her arms open and empty, moaning and speaking a name.

Luke's? Father's? Leia's infant memory had not recorded it, and she didn't hazard a guess now. She remembered only her own terror at seeing those open, empty arms. She had crawled out of some small bed and run to her mother to fill that scary, gaping wound before it ate up the whole galaxy. Those arms had come around her so tightly that she almost couldn't breathe, but that was all right, because Mother would breathe for her, they would breathe together, and everything would be all right.

Without thinking, without remembering Mother's rage at her - or her own rage at Mother - without considering the blaster at Mother's side, Leia leaned forward and threw her arms around her mother's neck, pulling her close, feeling her heart beating.

Slowly, Mother's arms rose from her empty lap and crossed weakly behind Leia's shoulders. The grip tightened. "Leia," she whispered.

Leia nodded, and pulled both of them to their feet. "Come on," she said. "We need to be with them."

By the time the got outside, Father had laid Luke down on the ground, facing west to watch the suns set. He was not cradling Luke, as Mother had, but kneeling beside him, his strength useless, even his power in the Force coming to naught. Mother passed by Leia and went to kneel beside him. She took his hand on one of hers, and Luke's in the other.

Leia knelt on his other side.

Luke's eyes were unfocused, gazing dreamily at the reddening sky. Tatoo I had already sunk halfway down the horizon; Tatoo II was an angry orange flame in the sky. "Father," he whispered, "when it's over... no Imperial funeral. Just... family."

Father nodded, but spoke only after a long pause. "As you wish, my son."

Luke nodded weakly. His gaze drifted to Mother. She caught it and held it. "I missed you so," she said. "I never should have let them take you from my arms. How can I do it again?"

He didn't answer her directly. Instead, he smiled softly up at her, and Leia saw a flicker of motion as he gave her hand a slight squeeze. "You're so beautiful," he said. "I missed you, too. But... everything... was... " He faded for a moment, but Leia could still feel him through their bond; it wasn't time yet. His eyes opened again. "All is well, Mother. We were always... together. And I won't... leave you." He reached up with his free hand and pressed it against her breastbone. "You know that."

Mother nodded, her eyes squeezed shut.

Luke's hand came down, moved across, landed near Leia's knee. She picked it up in both of her own and squeezed it tightly.

"You still think I'm wrong?" he asked, his voice barely more than a breath in the wind.

Leia nodded, but said, "It doesn't matter now."

"Matters." He shuddered with some sudden chill, and Mother wrapped her veil around him. "Leia... it matters. I shouldn't have... there were things... "

"Don't think about that, Luke. That's over."

He nodded, the shudder passing. "Let them in," he said. "You are part... of us."

"I'm so sorry, Luke."

He tried another smile. It didn't get as far as the others, but it touched his eyes. "Missed one," he said. "I wasn't concentrating. I should... " Wince. "... listen to Father better."

"Luke," Father said, "you should not -"

"You're a good teacher," Luke said, letting his eyes take Father in. "I learned. The mistake... was mine."


His eyes came back to Leia. She could feel him slipping away, looking out over a precipice, feeling the hot drafts coming up from below. "I think... I'm going now... " he said.

Leia leaned forward, brushing his hair off his forehead with one hand. She kissed his cheek, as she had over another precipice, and whispered, "For luck."

His smile broadened, became full, and then he was gone.

There was no sensation of being torn away. He was just... gone.

Leia searched for his presence in her mind and heart, frantically combing the Force for him, but he wasn't there where she had always felt him.

His body shimmered for a moment - Leia was certain that she could see through it - then solidified again. Later, Father would carry him back inside to prepare him for burial, and Leia would cleanse his wound while Mother sat in her silent shock, but for now, the three of them were alone, watching the alien suns sink beneath the horizon. Tatoo I had gone; Tatoo II was falling fast.

The world of Tatooine was wrapped in the comfort of shadow.

The suns slipped beneath the horizon without Vader noticing.

He could not tear his eyes away from Luke's face. The last, sad smile had faded shortly after he had passed, and had relaxed into an unreadable look, into something blank and expressionless. It was a very different sight than his mother's face had been - her face had been distorted and grotesque, and when her last breath had left her, the pain was evident in her still-open eyes. Luke was almost peaceful in comparison.

But that made his face no less horrendous to Vader. And yet he knew he could not look away.

When he had looked away from her, the fury had flamed up, shredding through his conscience and his soul. The screams and shrieks of the Tusken camp had begun shortly after that.

The thought of adding the screams of Rebel soldiers to the din made Vader almost light-headed with rage and the need for revenge. And there was the confusion and despair of not knowing what he and the remainder of his family could possibly do next...He did not want to feel or think about any of it. So, he stayed focused on his son's face.

He listened to his wife weep and sob as she continued to hold tightly to Luke's slackened hand. Leia seemed unable to shed her tears, and all Vader sensed from her was an angry, guilty, and jumbled mess that too closely mirrored what he felt in his own heart.

He did not know how long they had been out there before the winds picked up, and a cool gust kicked up the sand around them. Amidala winced against it, but made no move to cover her face or protect herself. Instead, she gently slipped her hand from Luke's, and took the edges of the veil she had used to keep him warm in his final moments. She pulled it up slowly, until his face was covered completely. A sharp sob escaped her as she straightened the pale red linen around her son's body.

Vader did not know what to look at now, or where to turn his eyes to. The energy in the air around him felt sick.

Leia shakily pulled herself to her feet, and stared at the headquarters in a dazed way. "I have to go -"

"No," Vader said flatly. "You are not going in there to confront the Rebels."

"Confront them? That's my squadron in there...I'm going to order them to stop this..." Her voice was as low and weak as Vader had ever heard it. She was still shaking.

"None of us is going to do anything until we've agreed on a workable plan," he replied.

"You want to go to in there every bit as much as I do," she said, her voice taking on an angry, menacing tone. "And I'm responsible for what's happened here. I need to be in there."

"Those facts are beside the point, Leia. I will not allow my - my only child -" he nearly choked on the phrase, but pushed himself to keep going "- to rush into another battle. Please, Leia."

Her response was to close her eyes and turn away from him. Finally, she said, "We need to bring him inside."

The journey back down into the headquarters basement was a blur to him. The servants were out of their rooms, and Vader could feel their eyes on him as he carried the veil-covered body of his son. Some of were crying, some whispered blessings or prayers as he passed. Most simply stared, stunned and horrified at the site of his broken family. The familiarity of the situation - of this particular walk - sickened Vader. By the time he had reached an empty set of quarters and put Luke down on the bed, he was feeling almost dizzy.

He gave Leia a curt order to stay in the room, but it was unnecessary - she was now focused on comforting her mother, who was crying silently. He left the room, and wandered out into the hallway and away from the servants and Imperial officers, half-listening to the muffled sounds of the fighting on the floors above him.


Vader stopped walking - he found himself far from the room where his family was, near a staircase that would take him out of the basement and into the upper floors of the headquarters. Obi-Wan stood at the foot of the stairs, a shimmering, blue vision of his younger self.

"This is not an appropriate time for another lecture, Obi-Wan."

"I have not come to lecture you," he replied. "I have come to tell you how sorry I am."

"Are you?"

"Yes. Anakin, when your mother died, I don't believe I ever adequately expressed my sorrow to you. Or, I did it in a way that you didn't relate to." Vader said nothing. "I think that I have a particular understanding of the pain of losing a son," Obi-Wan said softly. "I am grieved beyond words that you must go through it now."

"Obi-Wan..." Vader didn't know where to begin. He was not prepared to share his grief, and he had never been able to share his anger or his rage with Obi-Wan, at least not in civil conversation. And besides the grief and fury, what else was there to -

"You're also afraid," Obi-Wan said gently. "But then, you never much shared your fears with me either."

"Would it have mattered if I had?"

"I have to believe so, Anakin. Even though I'm still not sure, to this day, what the right thing to say to you after your mother's death would have been. There must have been a better way to do things then, and there must be one now. That is why I am here."

Vader was pacing slowly, back and forth before his old Master, glancing at him occasionally, but generally keeping his eyes low and on the floor. "You cannot tell me to let go of my anger. Not over this. And unless you plan to suggest how to end this fighting without my losing someone else, then I think you have little to say to me."

"Anakin, you've lived so long cultivating your anger and acting on it that you've lost faith that you are able to handle a situation in any other way. You have no real desire to do to the Rebels what you did to the Tuskens. Yet, you'll drive yourself to it anyway, because the thought of doing anything else is so foreign to you."

"I am what I am," Vader said gravely, "I am what I've become. If you cannot accept that -"

"But you have made yourself forget what you were, Anakin," Obi-Wan said insistently. "And you're denying what you truly are."

"And you believe that is...?"

"A father. A husband. As you were once a son. You want to save your family. It cannot be done by avenging Luke's death. You know this, Padawan. Leia will not be helped, nor will she be safe, if you inflame the fighting with the Rebels. And your wife will be brought no closer to peace or sanity by watching her husband and daughter continue a battle on opposite sides." Obi-Wan folded his arms across his chest, and stared hard at Vader. Vader stopped pacing and forced himself to look him in the eyes. Obi-Wan continued, "You're right in thinking that the safety of your family is not guaranteed, no matter which path you choose to follow. But that is not a reason to give in to despair. You can bring peace to your family, and to this world. And to yourself. You must at least try."

"Have you found peace, Obi-Wan?" he asked. "Or have you simply found that you are chasing a futile dream?"

"I continue the chase. But I don't consider it futile. Giving up has not spared you any measure of pain or heartbreak, Anakin. And without that hope, you find yourself where you are now, trapped in your anger and sorrow with no path leading you out of it." Obi-Wan sighed. "I suppose I am telling you to let go of your anger, Padawan. There is no other way."

Vader sensed that Obi-Wan was about to leave him, and realized that he was disappointed. He wanted to talk more, or at least listen a little longer.

"What I've said is enough," Obi-Wan said gently. "I have faith that you will find a proper solution to this. May the Force be with you, Anakin."

Vader watched his Master disappear. After a moment, he decided to return to his family.

Leia had never realized how small Mother actually was.

In her early childhood, of course, Mother had been her whole universe and everything in it. There must have been a time that she'd seen Mother with taller people - almost everyone was taller - but in her memory, Mother had reached up into the sky itself, and everyone else was dwarfed beside her. This impossible goddess had lived in her mind all the years of her childhood, arched over her and protecting her, appearing in half-remembered dreams and gauzy memories.

When an intercepted transmission from Lady Vader to her husband had come into Leia's hands and she'd seen those beloved eyes laughing gaily at the monster the woman called "my love," she'd taken on a whole new illusion of size. The thought of her betrayal had pushed into every aspect of Leia's life, had taken over the way she considered issues and made decisions. The huge crimson shadow of Lady Vader had darkened everything until Han had found a way to make it go away.

After Bespin, Mother had been Empress and Leia had been a powerless invalid. She had looked up from her bed, and there was Mother, leaning down to her, huge again, vast, limitless.

But Mother's limits had been reached.

Her supports had fallen away. Her world was collapsing. Her "good son" lay dead in an anonymous military bed, wrapped in her own veils. Her husband might be going off to commit a massacre. And it was her daughter's fault.

She now wept silently beside Luke, holding his hand again through the linen, her eyes distant and haunted. She didn't answer questions or respond to Leia's presence.

And she was small, so very small and lost.

Are you satisfied now? a mocking part of Leia's mind asked. Isn't that what you were after all along? To make your mother small, so that you could be big?

"No," Leia whispered, feeling her face grow hot.

Mother didn't look up at the sound of her voice.

It wasn't about competing with Mother. She had been in the Rebellion long before Mother appeared as Lady Vader, long before she'd known that she had a connection to Father at all. The Empire under Mother was still the Empire, and if she had ever been tempted to give up on the assumption that she only fought for a personal grudge, she remembered Mon Mothma crumpling to the floor of Theed Palace with a lightsaber wound in her chest.


Mother was so very small.

If there was anything to the idea that she was fighting this battle to diminish Mother, success had brought no satisfaction. Seeing Mother like this felt like someone had ripped a hole in her, and the pain of it bled out into the air around her. She wanted to go to Mother and wrap her in an embrace, help her to her feet, straighten her bent shoulders, bring her eyes up to meet the world again. It wasn't right for Mother to look like this.

"Mother... " she began.

Mother didn't answer, but Leia could see a slight shift in the position of her shoulders, a tilt of her head that said she was hearing.

Leia dropped to her knees beside Mother's chair. Mother's long curly hair, looking bereft without its veil, had dropped down over her face, and Leia tucked it up behind one ear. "Mother, I would take it back if I could. I'll find a way to fix it, no matter how long it takes. I'll -"

Mother's head came around so quickly that it seemed instantaneous. Her eyes were wide with fear for a moment, then they glazed again, and she went back to looking at Luke. "Let it be, Leia. You can't bring him back. You can't fix it. Let it be." She blinked slowly, and when she spoke again, she didn't even seem to be speaking to Leia. "The past is in the past." Then she fell silent again. Leia wasn't sure she knew she had spoken.

They sat together in silence only broken by an occasional hitch in Mother's breath as she reached for another sob. Leia crossed her legs and sat on the floor beside the chair, not having the energy to look for another and bring it over. After awhile, one of Mother's hands drifted listlessly down to rest on her hair. Leia reached up for it and took it, squeezing it almost convulsively, worried that she might be hurting Mother but unable to stop. Mother didn't respond.

From a distance, muffled by stone and metal, Leia could hear the sounds of the ongoing battle. The thought of trying to contact the Rebels with her comlink briefly occurred to her, and she was reaching for it before she realized that they could trace it, and in the mood they were apparently in, they would follow it straight down here, straight to Mother. All the repetitions of the order not to go after the Empress had been in vain before; Leia couldn't imagine that they would be any more effectual now.

You should have realized that. How many times after she appeared again did you wish everyone in the Rebellion would hate her as much as you did? That they would realize she was no more than a charismatic dictator, no more likely to grant their freedom than Palpatine was? You got your wish with the New Rebellion: the ones who loved her stayed in the New Empire, and you got too many of the fanatics, the ones who breathe resentment and drink hate. And now Luke - Luke, who might have been the best of them - has paid the price for your fantasy.

They'd never even really talked about their twinship. It had come on them suddenly, and they'd found out separately. By the time Leia had awakened from her injuries enough to have a conversation, it was an accepted fact of their lives. But now she wished it had been different, that they'd found out from one another instead of separately, from their parents. She would have liked to ask him if he'd ever felt the connection between them, if he'd ever sensed anything strange, as she had when she'd kissed him in the infirmary on Hoth. It might have been nice to compare their childhoods, to find out if they had shared anything on that subconscious level where they'd done so much communicating as adults.

Had Luke been plagued by dreams as she had? Did he sometimes wake up thinking that there was someone else in the room, only to find himself alone? When he had a moment as the center of attention, had he looked around, certain that someone else should be at the celebration? Oh, the moments of attention would have been different in scope, but to a child, the notice of everyone in Anchorhead would have been no different in quality than the notice of every noble on Alderaan and her surrounding worlds. Had he looked over the heads of the people cooing at him, thinking that surely someone was coming through the door, although everyone who was expected was already there? She had been always plagued by that nagging sense that someone was missing. She'd barely noticed its absence over the last four years but now, in the silence left in her mind, she realized that she hadn't felt it once since the door of her cell on the Death Star had opened, and an earnest stranger with untidy blonde hair had said, "I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you."

She had never asked, and she would never know. She'd spent their time together arguing about politics and plotting her escape.

Do you still think I'm wrong? he'd asked as he slipped away, and the question was still in Leia's mind. She did still think he was wrong, they were all wrong... but right now, it seemed like the least important question in the universe.

She rose to her knees and then to her feet. Mother showed no signs of noticing, instead just clutching Luke's hand, rocking slightly.

Leia looked down at the veiled shapes of her brother's face, the ridges and concavities softened by the gentle draping of the cloth, undisturbed by the stirring of breath. It was profoundly unnatural to see a human face covered like this, with no fluttering breath to show life. He was like a statue, waiting to be revealed. Luke shouldn't look like this any more than Mother should look small.

Slowly, carefully, Leia leaned over the bed and pulled the veil down. Luke's glassy eyes stared up at her, bits of sand from the last blast of wind embedded on their surface. There was no other damage to this part of his body at all. He looked like he might grin and make a joke, or look up hopefully through his too-long bangs and ask her to make sense of the universe for him. Like he might -

The tears came suddenly, in a hot flood. They fell on Luke's cheeks, slipping down onto the pillow, darkening the veil. She leaned forward, needing to steady herself, needing to hold on, wrapping her arms around her brother's still body and pressing her face against his poor ruined chest. It smelled of burned flesh and the beginning of decay, even through the veil, but she didn't care. She had done this, she had destroyed him, and she could give him one final embrace without recoiling in disgust.

She registered the warm pressure on the back of her neck before she was capable of making any judgment as to what it was, but as the storm of grief subsided, she realized it was a hand, soft and lightweight, stroking her neck in small circles beneath her hairline.

She opened her eyes.

Mother had stood up. She still held Luke's hand with one of hers, but she had extended the other to Leia, and was looking down at her, arching over her, comforting her. She leaned down and kissed Leia's temple, her soft lips as Leia remembered them from long ago.

"Shh," she said. "Mother's here."

Leia nodded, gulping back a sob. She rose and wrapped her arms around Mother's waist, bending a little to lean on her shoulder. Mother let go of Luke's hand, and put both of her arms around Leia. Her hands made light, comforting motions on Leia's neck and shoulders.

"I'm sorry, Mother."


"Mother... "


Leia shushed, and let herself be small again, and let Mother be what she most needed to be.

Mos Espa had settled into a wary sort of calm. Han was grateful for the quiet.

Amee's people weren't very happy about the situation, but they had limited their expression of that to dirty looks and curses under their breath. Mostly, they went about treating the injured Imperials without causing any problems with the Rebels or the Rebel sympathizers in the city. Cooperation had settled in - an icy, detached cooperation to be sure, but a working one nonetheless. No one really much liked one another, but the time for fighting had clearly passed.

The citizens of Mos Espa were starting to come out of their homes and trickle into the streets again, and Han let them. There wasn't as much need for a total crack-down any more. Any Imperial officers who looked like they might want to cause trouble were being closely guarded on the outskirts of town. The Vader sympathizers in the city saw Amee, Seek, and the rest of the caretakers from the old slave quarters and that seemed to defuse any smart ideas some of them might have gotten. The sight of Rebels and Imperial supporters working together, even on something as simple as providing medical care, was taken as a sign that things might have somehow been worked out.

With that settled, Han found a solitary spot underneath one of makeshift medical tents, and was trying to make contact with the other Rebel squadrons. It had been awhile since he had heard anyone check in, and he wanted to see how the others were doing.

He wanted to know how Leia was doing. Hell, he wanted to know what she was doing.

She hadn't answered any of his hails since that last conversation, when she had decided to "fix" the situation in Mos Eisley. He had no idea where she was, or what had happened with the Tuskens. He had tried her every five minutes - five seconds - or so, and was going to keep trying until he was able to get a hold of her.

He broke up his hails to Leia with checks on the other squadrons. Han hadn't been na?ve enough to hope that they'd all be doing as well he was, but to his surprise, most of the commanders reported that they had things in hand. They were concerned with watching their prisoners, but they had hit the strategic weapons or communications sites they were supposed to, and had eventually won control of their areas and people. A few were still fighting Lady Vader's forces, and Han worried that one of the smaller groups was in serious trouble. He ordered some of his men to go out and help them. Things were going as well as could be hoped.

But he hadn't been able to get a hold of Lando, which only made him more worried about whatever was happening in Mos Eisley. He also couldn't raise Alpha Squadron at Imperial Headquarters.

He sighed, and decided to make one more call before he drove himself crazy trying to get a hold of Leia again. He raised the main Rebel base on Ledaga.

At first, all he got back was static. But, just as he was about to get worried, it cleared, and a young voice answered the hail.

"Ensign Terel here, General Solo."

"Terel?" he asked, surprised. He knew the kid - he had been commissioned as an ensign right before everyone had left for Tatooine. "What are you doing answering the comm?"


"No offense, kid, but I'm pretty sure I left at least a captain or two back there at the base. Why aren't they running command? I could be calling in with some critical orders here."

He had said it jokingly, but Terel sounded put-out when he answered. "If you are, I'll carry them out immediately, General."

"I know you would. You just keep holding down the fort for us."

"Yes, sir!" he replied enthusiastically.

"I do need to know where everyone else is though."

"Oh, well, they're all over the base, trying to deal with the mess from the earthquakes. You're actually lucky that you caught us while everything's working."

Han suddenly felt a lot worse for leaving kids like Terel in charge. And for his orders before he left... "The quakes really started? Are the Ledagans on the base?"

"Yes and yes," he answered, almost cheerfully. "The quakes started not too long after you left. We got the Ledagans in here pretty quickly after that...kind of fun having them...need more translator..." The static had returned.

"What's wrong with the comm?"

"It's the earthquakes, sir. They've disrupted our..." Terel was interrupted again. He seemed to realize it this time, because he waited for it to pass before continuing. "Our receivers were damaged in the first quakes. The rest of the system is touch-and-go. That's one of the things the captains are working on."

"What about the base? It's still holding together, right?"

"So far. I think this is probably the safest place on the planet. We can take a hit from the falling trees, stuff like that. If the Ledagans had been outside, they would have been running and hiding and probably still wouldn't have been safe."

"Listen, tell the Captains that they're right to try to keep the vital systems on the base up and running," Han said. "You guys need to be alert. I know I was the one who said the Ledagans could stay if they had to, but you're still running our headquarters. And now you've got a couple of freighter loads of civilians to worry about."

"It's more like a whole planet of civilians!" he said. "You wouldn't believe how many people we were able to squeeze into this base."

"That's great," Han said flatly. "But you guys need to stay sharp. Got it?"

"Yes, sir. Of course. I'll make sure the Captains get your instructions."

"You can also tell them that things are going well here. Mostly. I hope to get back to them with a full report once I get a hold of a few other people. And then we'll return to Ledaga as victorious heroes."

"I'm sure you will, sir."

"All right. Han out."

Han sighed heavily, flipping his comm between his fingers.


Han jumped, and found Amee just behind him, underneath the tent. "No, of course not." He tried to convince himself of that. He decided there was too much on Tatooine to worry about to be afraid for those far from the battle on Ledaga. "How long were you eavesdropping?"

"I wasn't."


"Somehow I doubt you were going to reveal some crucial information that would let us drive you out of this city." She gave him a smile that almost seemed sincere. "There's nothing else that I'm terribly interested in."

Han rolled his eyes. "At any rate, I did want to thank you for -"

"Don't," she interrupted. "I told you we weren't here for you, and I meant it."

"Whatever. You helped make the city safe."

"After you came and disrupted it in the first place."

Before Han could answer, Lando's voice interrupted.

"Han, you there, buddy? Come in."

Han raised an eyebrow at Amee, which he thought was a fairly plain sign that he wanted to be alone, but she stayed where she was. He had the feeling she'd follow him if he walked away, so he didn't bother. "Han here. Things sound better on your end, Lando. What the hell's happening out there? Where's Leia?"

"You haven't talked to her?"

"Not since I called her about your situation. Why?"

"Well, then you might not believe this..."

In the background, Han thought he was hearing a Gungan say, "Yousa Rebels helpin' the shop owners," or something like that. It was strange; Han couldn't think of a Gungan in the Rebellion, and they certainly weren't native to Tatooine. "Try me, Lando."

"Leia and Vader showed up here together to help us drive the Tuskens out of Mos Eisley. They ordered all of us to work together."

Han found himself staring at his comm as if it were some foreign object he had never seen before. Even Amee, who had been standing nearby straight-faced, could no longer pretend she wasn't listening. She glanced at him, and said, "What the hell does that mean?"

"You took the words right out of my mouth...Lando, what the hell does that mean?"

"I've been working with the Imperial Officers here to get things under control. Those were Leia's orders. And Vader's."

"Put her on."


"Put Leia on," Han snapped. "I need to talk to her."

"Can't do that. She isn't here now." He paused. "She and Vader flew out of here awhile ago. I don't know where they went."

"She left without saying anything?"

"They were gone so fast...I don't know, Han. They were racing out of here."

Han was stunned. Leia, working with Vader? Now? "Are things under control there?"

"They're getting better."

"Fine. I gotta find Leia. Han out."

He barely looked at Amee as he left the tent to head for the center square. She followed him closely. He found Seek with a Rebel commander, and he looked back at Amee. "I'm leaving. Try to keep things the way they are."

"What?" she said in disbelief.

"Keep watching the city, all of you." He looked pointedly at Seek. "Don't start a fight. We still outnumber you, and you'll lose. Keep your city safe."

His commander asked, "But where are you going?"

"I'm going to Imperial HQ. I need to try and figure out what the hell is going on. That seems like a good place to start."

All three looked at each other and nodded their acknowledgement. That was enough for Han. If Leia was crazy enough to work with Vader, this little Imperial-Rebel collaboration would be simple in comparison.

Han found himself a speeder, and sped toward the headquarters.

There wasn't enough moisture on Tatooine for mud to occur naturally, and Lando was momentarily puzzled at the muck on his shoes as he crossed the battle site. Then he looked at the bodies being carried away, realized what the moisture in the sand was, and leaned against the wall until the wave of nausea passed.

I'm not cut out for this, he thought. No way. I make deals and speeches. I'll fly a space battle, where everything is icy and clean. But mud that smells like oxidizing iron and bodies being put under tarps to protect them from the sand? Not my game.

But it had become his game, and he knew it. He'd made one deal too many, betrayed a friend, and now he had to do his time in hell for it.

All of which was great in theory, except that he wasn't one of the bodies under the tarp. What had they done for the privilege of being bit players in his private atonement?

"Yousa not being in the war very long, eh?"

Lando looked up. Ter Caldo was standing beside him, leaning against the wall in a casual way that made him look like a street tough on a corner on Coruscant. "Not long," he answered.

Ter Caldo sniffed and nodded. "Mesa bein' in the Rebellion for fifteen, mebbe twenty years before Hersa Majesty coming to the Empire. Mesa seein' lotsa this."

"Do you get used to it?"

"No. Yousa never getting used to it. When Hersa Majesty comin' to the throne, mesa thinkin' it's all being over. But yousa pickin' a new fight." He sighed. "Mesa muy sorry," he said. "This not being the time. Wesa all bein' tired. And da Vader and yousa Princess wanting us to be working together."

Lando wasn't sure what to say, so he just nodded, leaning his head back against the wall. The nausea was gone, though the nagging thought of what he had all over his shoes wasn't. The fighting was over. Rebels were rebuilding an area around the square. Imperials had taken to counting the survivors and analyzing the damage. As Lando watched, the Rebel medic for the mission, Hatwa, made his presence known to an Imperial guard, then knelt beside a human woman who didn't appear to be injured, but who was weeping uncontrollably and hiding her face. She scuttled away when Hatwa touched her arm.

Ter Caldo was blinking his large protruding eyes, clearly expecting some sort of answer, but Lando was saved by the high-pitched hailing bark of a Wookieee. With relief, Lando waved at him, and gave his best approximation of a Wookieee greeting. Chewbacca rolled his eyes and barked something about humans not trying to do things they weren't suited to do.

He was in the company of several men, some clearly recently recruited smugglers and pirates, whose only concession to the command structure had been tying bright cloths around their arms to identify themselves as combatants. Three young regular Rebels tagged along, looking at the older men with great admiration. When they noticed Ter Caldo in Her Ladyship's uniform, all of them stopped.

Chewbacca shook his head, gave a few short barks, then launched into a long question that - if Lando remembered his Wookieee right - boiled down to "What's really going on?" There was something in there about Leia and Vader, and Lando thought he could probably reconstruct the rest of the question himself.

"Yeah, they came in together," he said, and was glad to see by Chewie's face that it did, in fact, address the question. "Decided that the Tuskens were a worse problem than the battle, and told us to work things out here."

Chewie's growl was only questioning, but the looks on the faces of the men in his little platoon looked flatly suspicious.

Lando nodded. "Look, you all know how bad it was here. I don't know what made Vader decide to drop in -"

"Deesa people being hurt!" Ter Caldo interjected, standing away from the wall and taking up a defensive stance. "The Empress and hersa Lord aren't standing still while theysa people being murdered!"

"Yeah, right," one of the smugglers said. "Unless 'theysa people' think 'theysa' full of -"

Lando held up a hand to stop him, and it miraculously worked. He gave Ter Caldo a look that he hoped said, "Be a leader and don't start anything." It may have worked, or Ter Caldo may have come to the conclusion on his own.

"Leia and Vader came in together. If two people who disagree that strongly and that frequently can manage to work together, I suppose we can."

The smuggler just waved his hand in an irritated way, but the young Rebel behind him bit a full lip and looked up. Lando realized for the first time that this one was a woman. She was thin and flat-chested, and had worn her hair in a short style... but it was obvious that she'd recently started growing it. It was just at the slightly-out-of-control stage, not long enough to be grabbed by the things ladies used to hold their hair, but not short enough to stay in place by itself. It looked like a mop on her head. A lot of the women on the base had started to grow their hair when Leia had returned. "Sir... " she said hesitantly. "I... That is, we were wondering... "

"Has your Princess dumped us here?" the smuggler asked. "Gone back to Mommy and Daddy like we figured she would?"

The young woman looked miserable, but nodded.

Lando didn't know the right way to answer that, because the fact seemed to be that Leia was with her parents, at Imperial HQ, and probably talking with them, given the way she'd acted in concert with Vader. That she had good reasons wouldn't make much difference to this man.

Chewie growled threateningly.

The young woman pushed her too-long hair back, using a string to keep it away from her face a little. She looked wounded. "Please, General Calrissian... tell us. Is the Princess still with us?"

"That one, I can answer," Lando said, praying that he was right. "The Princess is one of us. She's the first of us. Don't doubt it. Whatever she's doing with her parents, it will be with the interests of the people of the galaxy in mind. Believe it."

I hope.

"What does she say?"

"Her comlink is inactive."

"Did they kill her?"

"I don't know." But thanks for giving me something it hadn't occurred to me to worry about yet.

"When will we know?" one of the other pirates, a taciturn Rodian with a great red scar down his green face, asked.

Lando shrugged. "Look, I'll head up to headquarters. I'm guessing that's where they are. I'll find out what the situation is. Han is already on his way -"

"Great!" the smuggler exclaimed waving his open hand at the sky. "Now they're both just dropping out on -"

He didn't finish the sentence, because Chewbacca had grabbed his neck with both hands and started to crush.

Lando put a hand on the Wookieee's arm. "I think he gets the point, Chewbacca. Let him up."

Chewie didn't obey the order immediately, though Lando could see by the man's face that the grip's intensity had let up. Chewie was going through a long string of curses and insults.

Lando looked at Ter Caldo. "Do you speak Wookieee?"

Ter Caldo shrugged. "Mesa knowin' enough to know hism sayin' things hesa mother not liking much."

"That's about where I am. Good enough." He looked up. "Chewie, let him up and listen to me."

Chewbacca let go of the smuggler and barked an interrogation.

"Can you keep these guys under control?"

Thought. A few affirmative yelps. A shrug.

"Good. Work with Ter Caldo. He sort of understands you."

Chewbacca looked flabbergasted, then barked in a soft way - trying not to be heard - that he wasn't sure how well he understood the Gungan dialect of Basic.

"You'll get the hang of it. I trust you. I'm just going to make a run out to Imperial HQ and see what's happening there. You've got command of the Rebels."

Chewie nodded.

"Try not to strangle them."


Lando grinned. "I'll see you in a couple of hours. Keep them out of trouble 'til then."

With that, he left - avoiding the horrible mud patches - and made his way out of town, looking for a vehicle. He found an abandoned Rebel speederbike at the end of a long alley leading away from the battle, climbed on, and headed out into the desert.

Han leapt off his speeder before it had come to a stop, his sense of trepidation growing with every moment that he didn't know what was happening with Leia.

There were no guards or officers at the main entrance to Imperial Headquarters to take notice of his arrival. He could hear occasional blaster shots and yelled order coming from the inside. It seemed Alpha Squadron had been busy during the time they had ignored his hails.

Han wondered if he had been wrong - if Leia and Vader had dashed off for somewhere else. He couldn't imagine Vader allowing this battle to continue, and Leia hadn't wanted Alpha Squadron to charge the base in the first place. They certainly would have gotten things under control by now, wouldn't they?

He frowned, and then decided that it didn't matter what seemed to be going on inside. He couldn't start searching the whole planet for her, and couldn't think of anywhere else that would be more likely for them to wind up. He readied his blaster, and ran inside.

The hallways rooms he first passed were empty. There were scorch marks on the walls, and occasionally blood on the floor. He decided that would be as good a trail to follow as any, and kept moving to wherever the battle was being waged now.

He had almost reached the main Command Center according to his memory of the layout plans before he began to see Imperial Officers in any great numbers. They were running all over the place, and none of them seemed to take any notice of him. They dragged their injured away and barked orders at each other. They seemed to be trying to regroup.

Now, Han was really worried. There was no chance that Vader was commanding this bunch. Where the hell was he? Where was Leia?

Han ducked, as a blast flew by his head, barely missing him. He was almost at the Center now.

As he closed the last of the distance, he suddenly felt a hand latch onto his arm, and yank him aside. He instinctively struck out at whoever grabbed him, and looked down to see Athuli stumbling to the ground.

Han helped him up quickly, but didn't waste time apologizing. "What the hell is going on?" he asked.

Athuli rubbed the bruise that was forming on his face. Then he said, "I tried to stop them! They don't even know what they're doing any more! They're fighting for no reason now."

"Where's Leia?"

"I don't know," Athuli snapped. "She left. She ordered us not to storm the base, but they want a shot at the Empress. They're not happy that they haven't found her yet. That's the only reason they're keeping this up."

"So, the Empress isn't anywhere on the base? Are you sure?" Han thought this could be the best possible news. Until Alpha Squadron settled down, he didn't want any of them finding Leia with Vader, or with her mother. He just wanted her somewhere safe for now - if he could bring himself to call being with her parents safe.

Athuli shrugged. "I don't know. Most of the squadron is in there -" he gestured to the Command Center " - or in the guard tower. That's where most of the Imperials were when we first got inside. A few others ran off, but I'd think they would have reported back if they had found her.

"She wouldn't exactly be unguarded," Han answered. "Anyone foolish enough to go after her without the rest of the squad might not have had the chance to call back." Han pulled up his blaster again, and waved Athuli forward. "Come on, let's get these guys calmed down."

Athuli gave him an almost comical look of skepticism and aggravation, but he followed.

Han went in yelling instead of firing. "Cease fire! Alpha Squadron, stand down!" Han took a look around the Center, and could immediately see what Athuli had meant - the Imperials that were in the room and not injured were outnumbered, and crouched behind a large console, trying to dodge fire. The Rebels were firing at them blindly, apparently not realizing that they already had control of the room, even with some Imperials left standing. "Cease fire!" He was almost directly in front of the Rebels now, and a few of them were trying to shoot around him. "That's an order, Alpha Squadron!"

Eventually, the blasters were silenced, and the squad's attention focused on Han. The Imperials stared and waited.

"General Solo!" Arralla said, looking too pleased with herself, and too disappointed that the fighting had been interrupted. "Here to help us get the Empress?"

Han's first instinct was to say "No!" and then launch into a tirade about them not following orders, and fighting so foolishly as they made their way through the base. His second instinct was to say, "No!" followed by, "The hell with all of you!" and go find Leia, which was all he really cared about at this point anyway. Luckily, his better thinking managed to overcome his instincts, and he decided on focusing on a way to diffuse the situation instead.

"No," he said, "I'm here to tell you guys to get the base under control."

"But -"

"The Empress isn't here, Arralla. She high-tailed it out of the base the minute you guys got inside. The rest of the planet is relatively...calm. You're fighting for nothing. I need you guys to cut it out, and focus on holding this section of the base."

The lie about the Empress - well, Han wasn't certain it was a lie - had the intended effect. He could almost feel the air go out of the room: the Rebels had lost their driving cause, and the wild look left some of their eyes. The Imperials no longer felt they had to hold the Rebels back from finding Lady Vader, and they were relieved. Han let the moment hang, wanting to allow the let-down to sink in on both sides as much as possible.

Finally, he said, "Secure this part of the base, and then sit tight, okay?"

Arralla frowned. "What about the rest of the base? I'm sure there are still Imperials guarding -"

"Arralla," he said impatiently, "you're still only one squadron. You can't take the entire headquarters, and you know it. Hold the Command Center and the guard tower. That's an order." He gave her his most pointed glare. "Do you think you can handle that until I come back?"

She looked more than a little offended. "Of course we can."

"Good. Make sure the rest of your squad knows what their orders are then. If there's any trouble, I'm holding you personally responsible. I've got other things to take care of, and I don't want to be dragged back here because you all are trigger-happy. Got it?" Han waited for a few mumbled, "Yes, sirs" and then abruptly grabbed Athuli and pulled him out of the center. Once Han felt they were out of earshot, he asked, "The other people you mentioned, do you have any idea where they took off to?"

"The basement maybe," he answered. "They wanted to 'liberate' the servants, I think."

Han nodded, and glanced back at Arralla and her people. They were rounding up the Imperials - probably being rougher than they had to be, but they weren't so eager to shoot at anything in an Imperial uniform any more. "All right, I'll be back soon, with new what you can to keep things settled."

This time Han didn't even wait for a response. He was running to the nearest lift, and heading down for the basement level.

He found nothing there but servants weeping and consoling one another. Han had no idea what to make of it, but consoled himself with the thought that no one here would shed tears if something happened to Leia.

There were Rebels lying in the hallway, shot dead and left behind. Apparently the few that had come down here had managed to cause some trouble before -


Leia - that was Leia's voice coming from a room that was guarded by several Imperial Officers. She came running past them and flung herself into his arms. He held her tightly for a few seconds, but then tried to push her away so he could see her. She resisted, but Han could see her face was tear-streaked and flushed, and her eyes were bloodshot. She was trembling.

Han wanted nothing more than to get her the hell out of there, no matter what had happened, but she was now pulling him back to the room she had run out of, waving off the guards, who were eyeing him warily. "Leia, what's happened? What's wrong?" She continued to drag him along. "Where's Vader? Are you all right?"

They entered the room and Lady Vader stood, looking as shaky as Leia did. Han barely noticed her. He saw Luke, lying on top of a bed, with one of his mother's veils covering part of his body.

"Luke?" he started to ask. But he already knew. Luke was dead. "Damn," he whispered, curling his arm around Leia and drawing her closer to him.

Han had been so furious at Luke for so long that even now, looking at his old friend's lifeless body, he couldn't quell the first wave of anger that he felt. But it came, and it passed, and Han wondered what good carrying a grudge to the grave would do. Luke had done some terrible, traitorous things, and if Han had been given a real opportunity, he thought he might have wrung the kid's neck without much of a second thought...The kid...that's all Luke was really, even after everything that happened. Just a wide-eyed kid. Whatever he had done, Han couldn't help thinking that Luke didn't deserve to wind up like this.

How had he wound up like this?

"Han?" Leia whispered.

"Damn," was all Han could manage to say in response. He almost asked if Alpha Squadron had done it, but Leia's anguish was so acute that he knew the answer without being explicitly told. Leia's own squadron had killed her brother, in an attempt to kill her mother. Whatever the Vaders were, and whatever they had done - how was Leia supposed to deal with this? "Leia, I'm sorry." She looked away. "What do you want to do now?"

To his surprise, Leia looked to her mother. Han took real notice of Lady Vader for the first time. She was standing next to the bed, looking drained and depressed. When she spoke her words were slow, deliberate. "We have to stop this. This has to end here."

Han wasn't sure what that meant in her mind, though he had to admit that despite what happened, she didn't seem nearly as crazy as Leia had described her. He had thought she'd be hysterical, but she was composed. Han supposed she could be in shock. Some traumas were just too much to deal with.

"Yes," said a voice at the door to the room, and Han and Leia turned to see Vader standing behind them. "We must bring an end to this conflict, Leia."

Han cleared his throat. Vader didn't acknowledge him, or take his eyes off Leia. Han continued anyway. "I think the fighting upstairs has mostly stopped. For now. But the Rebels are in control of several key areas of your base."

Vader still didn't turn his head on Han's direction. His breathing went through several cycles. "I'm not speaking solely of the base, or of Tatooine. I do not intend to end things here, and then fight another day. I am suggesting that we end this."

Leia's eyes were enormously wide, and they looked back and forth between her parents, trying to find understanding. Lady Vader didn't react at all.

"End it?" Han finally said, stunned. " can't be ready to surrender..."

"No," Vader answered.

"Then - then what do you want to talk about?" Han asked. "You want to negotiate for a 'better' Empire?"

Lady Vader rolled her eyes, and for a second, Han thought she was going to swoon. But she pulled herself back, and brought her eyes to rest on Leia. "I can't fight you any more. But I'm not going to abandon the galaxy to anarchy and chaos because you think that's preferable to my rule. So we have to find another way." She sighed. "Really, we want many of the same things -"

"Mother," Leia said.

"We do."

"You have never wanted those things in practice," Leia whispered wearily. "You just want to be the person who talks about doing them eventually. In the meantime, you do almost the exact opposite of what you say you want to do."

"And what have you done here, Leia? Have you done anything for the people of Tatooine that you say you wanted to do?" asked Vader. "Or have you done the opposite?"

"I've fixed what happened in Mos Eisley."

"And will you fix the next planet? Will you do it alone if I am not there to help you?" Vader shook his head slowly. "I am not willing to wait for this family's mistakes to destroy us again."

Leia looked up at Han, and he simply shook his head. He had no idea whether they should be believed. He also didn't know which way would be more dangerous for her - to continue to fight them, or to trust them.

She looked at both parents again, then said, "We at least must decide what is going to happen on Tatooine. Here at the base and out in Mos Eisley. Maybe...maybe from there, there are other things we can discuss."

"Yes," Lady Vader said, "I think that we can do that."

"But," Leia continued, "this has to be done in good faith. Which means that everything is on the table. This can't just be a ploy to keep me out of harm's way, or something done because we all feel...because of...Luke. Our issues with the Empire are fundamental ones. If you honestly think you want to discuss them..."

"We can discuss them," Vader said flatly. "But if you believe you're going to force your mother to abdicate her throne -"

"She cannot keep it in the fashion it exists in now," Leia said. "That is the reason we're fighting."

"That is not -"

"Ani," Lady Vader murmured. "I am not ready to return to the fight. We should begin with Tatooine. Resolve the situation on this base, and in Mos Eisley."

"Very well," Vader said. "We should all go back into the main section of the base, and bring our people under control. We can continue from there."

Han felt Leia take his hand, and squeeze it fiercely. She nodded to her father. Vader went to the bed, and picked Luke up. Lady Vader led them all out of the room and back upstairs. The fighting would be stopped for good, and Luke would be properly tended to. Then the four of them would continue their talks.

Amidala leaned on Leia as the turbolift carried them into the upper levels, toward the command center. Leia's lover - Han, his name was Han - stood awkwardly to one side. Amidala felt some instinct to tell him not to be afraid, but she was unable to act on it. A kind of paralysis seemed to have come over her. Words came only with difficulty, and when she moved, it felt like she was fighting a rough current.

In front of her, Ani stood stock still, his mechanical arms supporting Luke's limp form easily. He was still wrapped in the veil, which kept his poor arms from dangling, but his face was uncovered, and her eyes traced his profile, recording it. It would be gone soon.

Only this morning, when he had laughed and smiled as they shared stories over breakfast, she had been able to think of him as a baby, as a child... she could feel the potential of the life they had missed together hovering everywhere.

But now?

It was gone. All of the fantasies, all of the half-memories... just gone. Reality was the still, limp form in Ani's arms.

The door of the turbolift opened, and Ani led them out into the base. Imperial officers stood to attention. Rebel officers who were ostensibly guarding them simply gaped. Amidala didn't react. She felt Leia straighten up beside her. The Rebels moved to attention.

Ani laid Luke down on top of a natural stone bier which had been left as an architectural feature of the command center, then rearranged the veil into something better approximating a shroud, although he folded it down to continue exposing Luke's face. Slowly, he closed the bright blue eyes.

I'll never see them again, Amidala thought.

She tried to remember those eyes on the night he was born. She could see them, far away and small... she'd thought they were so like Ani's, except lighter and clearer. But she couldn't make the memory live, as she had been able to for so long. The veil of time had been drawn across it.

Ani set up Imperial guards to stand beside Luke's body while he lay in state; Han insisted that the Rebels provide one guard as well. To them, he said it was because Luke had served honorably in the Rebellion. To the family, he said quietly that he didn't want a war around "the kid's body." Amidala registered this, but didn't respond to it. It seemed sensible, and she had nothing to add.

When it was done, Han looked at her. "Ma'am," he said, "are you up to talks?"

Amidala glanced at Leia and Ani and noticed for the first time that both of them had oriented themselves toward her in a protective way, as though they were afraid she would break at Han's question. Leia's face was a study in miserable conflict. Amidala touched her arm. "The last thing I want to think about right now is the war," she said. "But there is no choice." She took a deep breath, then stepped away from Luke's body and went into an empty conference room off the command center. It had been richly appointed, meant for high-level meetings between the Guard and Imperial High Command.

Amidala looked carefully at the high-backed chair created to be a throne. If she didn't take it, the symbolism would be clear: she was willing to negotiate the tenuous hold the Empire had on the galaxy. If she did take it, the meaning would be equally clear: she meant to retain her throne even against her daughter, at this of all times.

She took it.

Whatever Leia thought, the galaxy was not ready to go back to the Republic. Too much had happened; the paths had split too far.

Leia understood immediately, and sighed heavily, pulling out a chair to Amidala's right. Han sat beside her. Ani remained standing.

"This is not a family meeting," Amidala said. "Except by coincidence. We're here to solve problems. And I don't know the answers."

She let the silence build. Through the still open door, she could see Luke's head and shoulders on the bier. She wanted to spin a fantasy, bring him back to life, wonder where they might be right now if things were different. But the reality simply lay there, unmoving, unyielding, and her mind would not cooperate.

Han spoke first. "Do you know why they're crazy out there? Do you know what your Guards have been up to?"

Ani stepped forward threateningly. "Reconsider the tone with which you address your Empress."

Amidala held up a hand.

"They killed a woman for not closing her saloon at curfew."

"The law is the law," Ani said. "It was a regrettable overreaction, but the curfew is intended to protect citizens from criminal behavior -"

"Father!" Leia moved her hand as if she meant to strike the table, then set it deliberately down beside her comlink instead. "Don't you understand, that's the problem? You can't manage people the way you set out to. They won't cooperate. And because your laws are absolute and no appeal is permitted, you're always going to end up with 'regrettable overreactions.' And the Empire ends up being the criminal."

"Perhaps better training of the Guard in matters of -"

Leia let out an explosive breath. "It's not going to work."

"You have yet to provide acceptable reasoning of that premise," Ani said. "You take on faith that your republican ideal is preferable to the government taking some responsibility for the safety of its citizens -"

"The Republic I have in mind would do so -"

"As it did when it allowed Palpatine to rise in the first place?"

"Please," Amidala whispered. "This is not productive."

Ani and Leia both stopped talking. They had each heard the other's position many times.

Han Solo spoke first again. "We need to get Tatooine settled once and for all," he said. "Before you say it, we know it's a mess we made. One of your loyalists in Mos Espa reminded me about that before I left, just in case I forgot. But the mess is here, and we have to do something about it."

"On that matter, there is little disagreement."

Amidala wished Ani would sit down if he planned to join the discussion, but knew he wouldn't. He had no wish to be a politician, only the champion of what he had once called "someone wise." She took a deep breath. She wanted to go to sleep, to find a dark room and wrap herself in shadows and shame. But she had a job to do. She reached deliberately into her mind for language, found it, forced it out. "We have accomplished a temporary truce here, and it has been done very quickly. We should reinforce it."

"What do you have in mind?"

Quiet, Amidala thought. Calm. Just go back to the beginning and start again. But she looked again at Luke, still unmoving, and the fantasies still wouldn't come. "I don't know."

"We got everyone mostly on the same page in Mos Espa," Han said. "And it sounded like you guys actually got the armies working together in Mos Eisley -"

"For now," Leia said. "But if we don't come up with some kind of workable joint command, it's going to collapse as soon as they figure out that the Tuskens are back in their camps."

"Then setting up a joint command is where we better start." Han looked over Amidala's shoulder. "Think we can work that out with the military, Lord Vader?"

"The Imperial military will follow orders. Can you say the same for your Rebels?"

Amidala, who had very little contact with the military, felt her mind begin to drift. Luke was dead. It seemed to keep coming to that inscrutable truth. Luke, whose terrified cries when Obi-Wan had taken him from her had followed her down through the years, was lying on a cold stone with his eyes closed forever. He shouldn't be there. He should be...

But she couldn't create the story of where he should be.

She pulled herself back up. She needed to know what was being planned.

Han was thinking hard about Ani's question. Amidala wasn't sure if he'd given an answer or not - he might have, while she'd drifted - but if he had, it had apparently not been accepted. Which was fair enough... if Leia was telling the truth, the Rebel army was close to full scale mutiny, in which case peace talks might prove useless.

At last, Han looked up. "I think that the ones who... who did this... are pretty much in the minority. Most of them have their problems, but I think that they'll try it if we order them to."

"And those who will not?"

Han didn't answer. Leia did. "Those who won't, Father, will find out that military discipline isn't unique to the Empire. I won't have my people turning into nothing more than vigilantes."

Beside her hand, her comlink suddenly came to life. She stared at it. "It could be an emergency," she said. "We have a lot of people in battle, and that's a command code from Alpha Squadron. The one that's here."

"Take it," Amidala told her.

Leia nodded and picked it up. "Organa."

"This is Athuli, Ma'am," someone said. "General Calrissian has just arrived from Mos Eisley. Says he wants to see you and General Solo. I told him you were in a meeting."

Calrissian. It took Amidala a moment to place the name, but when she did, she was astounded. All Leia's talk of betrayal, and she had accepted as an ally the man who had sold her to the Empire in the first place?

Whatever Leia's motives, though, Amidala wanted Calrissian here. She had found him to be a capable administrator on Bespin, and maybe he could help them sort out this local mess.

And then they could move on to the rest of it.

"Have him join us," she said.

Leia raised an eyebrow, but didn't argue.

Lando stepped into the conference room, and felt like he had entered some other reality. There they were, the Empress and Vader, Leia and Han, sitting around a conference table, as though this were just another meeting, or some perfectly reasonable occurrence. They all looked weary - well, Vader looked like Vader, and stood there and breathed - and the grief from Luke's death was written over all their faces. Still, they were together, and didn't seem particularly shocked or troubled by that fact. He had led the Rebels and Imperials officers in Mos Eisley, and had seen them work together, and thought it was a remarkable thing. This was honestly unbelievable.

Leia gestured toward one of the chairs, and Lando slowly took a seat.

"So," Han finally said, "you ask to be in on this..."

"And what, exactly, is this?" Lando asked, unable to hide his confusion. He couldn't remember his voice ever sounding quite this incredulous.

Leia looked like she understood what he was feeling. "This attempt," she began, "to reach an agreement. Between our two sides."

"I see," Lando said. "And what exactly has been agreed to so far?"

"Not much," Han said bluntly.

"We were hoping for your help, Baron," the Empress said, her voice cool and distant. "Since you've worked for all of us, on both sides at various times, we assumed you could provide us with some needed insight."

Her words hit their mark, and Lando couldn't help feeling stung at essentially being called a traitor once again.

But Han and Leia hadn't reacted at all, and Lando realized he shouldn't take the bait. There were real questions that needed to be addressed here, and getting upset about old betrayals - on either side, on anyone's side - would only be counter-productive. "I'd be happy to help, Your Majesty."

"We have decided to bring both Rebel and Imperial troops on Tatooine under a central command," Vader declared.

"And we haven't figured out exactly how that's going to work," Han added.

Vader straightened his back, making him appear even taller than he already was. "You claimed that the Rebels would listen to orders."

"Who's going to be giving them?" Han asked. "Who will they report to? Who's running things here? Us?"

"I thought the wisest course of action would be -"

"- to let you run everything, while we go along with it," Leia finished for him. "If this is a joint, equal command, it shouldn't matter if it's us giving out the orders. You still don't trust us enough to work with us. You want us to turn everything over to you."

"Leia," the Empress said, her voice a near whisper, "this isn't a simple matter of trust. If you say your men will work with ours, we believe you. But the fact of the matter is you lead a renegade, revolutionary group, one that is willing to fight and kill for the so-called ideals of a failed Republic." She sighed. "We have no desire to turn everything over to you either."

"And that puts us back at our impasse, doesn't it?" Leia sat back in chair and glanced at Han, and then she turned her gaze on Lando. She was curious to see if either of them could find a way out. "We can't seem to deal with Tatooine unless we deal with the larger issues."

Vader shook his head, and he paced his way over behind his wife's throne. "She will not abdicate, Leia."

"The strength of the Empire, the strength of my position, is needed," Lady Vader added.

"Maybe she's right."

The words were out so quickly, that Lando had no chance to stop them, or even think them all the way through. He wanted to take them back, or correct them or clarify them, but Han and Leia were glaring at him furiously, and he wasn't sure what to say. He wasn't yet fully sure of what he meant.

He tried though, "That isn't what I meant...I mean...what I think is..."

"Lando!" Han snapped.

"All right, all right," he said. He took a deep breath. "What I mean, is that the position of Empress is not the problem. We're not arguing about a title. It's that she has all the power. It's that everything is completely centralized under her authority, and -"

"No offense, Lando, but you do realize that that's pretty much the definition of an Empress," Han said, cutting him off. "That's what they do. They control everything. They rule everyone. So what the hell are you talking about?"

"We're arguing about the power. That's what I'm trying to say." He threw up his hands in frustration. "Why does her power have to be absolute?"

Lando fully expected that the answer he'd get would be Han yelling, "Because she's the Empress!" But before he could get out a reply, Leia's face changed completely, and she leaned forward over the table. Lando could practically see an idea - or several - forming in her head, and he hoped she'd be more coherent in explaining herself than he had been about his ideas. The attention of the room was now focused on her, as she silently thought about, and reconsidered what she should say.

"Leia?" Han said, "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking...I'm thinking that I've never heard of this being done with someone called 'Empress' - but that Lando might be right. There are democratic monarchies. I'm part of one, I was part of one. So were you," she added, staring pointedly at her mother. "On Alderaan, we had a royal family to lead the planet, because of our traditions and history. But outside our family, in other parts of the government, there were elected officers and leaders, and a binding law. We were always aware of our place in the way things were supposed to work." She was still staring at the Empress. "Maybe what we should be focused on is making you more aware."

Lando nodded to himself, relieved that Leia had picked up his unfinished thought and run with it, turning it into what sounded like a workable premise. To him, at least.

Han looked skeptical, but said nothing. Lady Vader gripped her armrests tightly, and her husband paced slowly behind her. He was sharp when he spoke. "I am still unclear as to what you're actually suggesting, Leia."

"Mother has advisors, and governors and Senators - she's kept up the appearance of a normal, functioning government. If things were changed, so that the Senators, or the regional governors were legitimately elected by the people of those systems..."

"...and those positions were given their own powers," Han said, "and were sharing some of the control over the military and the rest of the infrastructure..."

"You'd have a real, working government," Lando finished.

Leia was nodding along with what they were saying. "With Mother still at the head of it. And that would allay many of your concerns about maintaining stability through the change, wouldn't it?"

Lady Vader was shaking her head as if she were trying to clear it of something. "It's the Republic with a different name. You want to make me an ineffective Chancellor, dealing with corruption and bureaucrats. You just hope the galaxy won't notice because they trust me, and because I'm already the Empress."

"That would be part of it," Lando conceded. "If it's a change instead of an outright overthrow, people will certainly be more accepting of whatever's decided."

"But it doesn't have to be the Old Republic," Leia said. "The two of you need to let go of that time as much as we should remember it in trying to avoid making the same mistakes. We'll help you move on, and you help us avoid the pitfalls of the past. It doesn't have to be the same as the Chancellorship was. We can work something else out."

"I don't understand - you want the Emperor or Empress elected? To terms? By this new Senate of yours? To leave me or whoever at the whim of political factions and alliances again?" Lady Vader asked in disbelief.

"What's the alternative?" Han asked. "Heredity?"

Lando knew the tone Han had used, and that he had meant for the suggestion to be taken in a flippant way. But the Empress and Leia snapped to attention, looking at Han, and then at each other.

The idea clearly hit close to Lady Vader's heart. Her whole demeanor softened. "I could hardly oppose that," she whispered.

Leia looked like she wanted to protest, but saw that her mother was considering a compromise, if only because the hope existed that she would be able to pass the reins on to her daughter after all. And Leia did not want to stop her from thinking along those lines. She said, carefully, "I wouldn't accept the position the way it is now, Mother."

Her mother swallowed hard, and looked up into her husband's mask. Lando couldn't begin to guess what passed between them, or what is was she could possibly see when she looked at him. After a moment, she closed her eyes. She didn't reopen them when she started to speak.

"Appointment of the regional governors is critical," she said. "There is no way for a leader to maintain contact and control over the further reaches of the galaxy without having trusted people in those positions. They must be selected."

Leia face relaxed ever so slightly, and an expression of hope came through. "The Senate, though, must be elected. All of them. Perhaps a Chancellor can be chosen by them to work with you - with the Empress. Or maybe the Empress and the Senate can choose one together, somehow. That might help with the day-to-day running of the government."

The Empress opened her eyes. "Perhaps."

Lando caught Han's eye, and they both quietly sat back in their seats. Vader had also seemed to step back from the throne. They mostly watched as Leia and her mother worked together, trying to find a way to fix the galaxy.

Piett finally took his eyes off the chrono on the wall. He had been watching it obsessively for hours. For too many hours. It had been more than long enough since he had last been able to raise anyone on Tatooine, since Imperial communications all over the galaxy had started crashing.

She had said, explicitly, that she would trust his judgment. That he was to act if something catastrophic occurred.

Piett rose, staring at his various senior officers whom he had consulted about this decision. Most seemed eager for something - anything - to be done at this point. His eyes finally rested on Dihave. "Is the weapon prepared for launch?"

He nodded, looking unusually sobered. "Yes, sir."

"Sir," said General Temlik, "may I remind you that the Empress has always placed a high priority on sparing civilian lives."

"You already have reminded me of that," Piett said. "Several times. I must act according to Her Majesty's last orders."

"May I also remind you that it's obvious that the majority of Rebels are on Tatooine fighting, not on the base on Ledaga?" Temlik asked.

"Noted," Piett said. "I am aware of this situation, General. A decision needs to be made. It is my responsibility to make it."

Dihave rose from his chair. "It will take some time for the weapon to reach the base, sir. The propulsion systems are still in development, and it's been outfitted with standard engines. But once it arrives, the destruction should be total."

Piett stood to full attention. It was time. This had to be done. "I order you to launch the weapon against the Rebel base."

Dihave saluted him, and marched resolutely to the control console. It only took a few, quick keystrokes. The missile was launched.

Around the galaxy, the Empire was beginning to awaken to the news coming from Tatooine.


Phenin Ometak heard Temodi's voice, but he didn't want to talk to her right now. They'd hit enough rough patches in the three years they'd been sort-of-dating, sort-of-not that by now she should know better than to try and talk to him right in the middle of one. It was hard enough having to dance together every day, playing Lord Vader and his Empress like they were crazy in love, without having to come up with some deep and meaningful conversation about why their own relationship sometimes hit spots when they couldn't stand the sight of one another. The spots always passed. Phenin figured this one would, too.

He turned his back on her and started the duel routine, trying to imagine Kemizon Vum dancing the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi a meter or so away. Kemizon would be taking over the part next week; Ambris Tagio had managed to break his ankle in their last performance.

But Temodi Meiem was not easy to dissuade, once she had an idea in her head.

He came down from a complex leap that he'd invented for the routine and landed as softly as he could, but before he could move forward, he felt her small hands on his shoulders. She must have climbed onto the stage with her usual grace, completely silent.

He whirled on her. "All right, Temodi. Fine. You want to talk?"

She shook her head, and he noticed now, up close, that she was pale and her dark eyes were wide. She carried a handheld holoprojector. "I... Phenin, something's happening. You'll want to know about it. I want you with me while I know about it."

His irritation with her vanished as quickly as it seemed to have appeared. He sat down on the stage, and pulled her hand to sit down beside him. She did, gratefully, and squeezed his hand once before letting go to turn on the holoproj. She set it down on the floor between them.

Right now, all Phenin could see was a newsperson he didn't recognize - Twi'lek, male, dressed in what looked like an old flight suit. Temodi hadn't turned the sound on.

"The Empress was supposed to initiate a new Guard this morning," she said. "Remember, on Tatooine?"

Phenin nodded, though he remembered nothing of the sort. Playing Lord Vader had not particularly changed his outlook on the political life of the galaxy - he simply didn't care about most of it, though he had a vague liking for Her Majesty and wished the New Empire well. It was certainly an improvement on the old one, and it was good to have non-humans back in the Ostunu School again. But Temodi had adored the Empress since she'd first appeared as Lady Vader. She'd taken to wearing a wisp of a red veil clipped into her hair early on (this had later been dropped) and, like so many other girls, had stylized scars tattooed on her back. Temodi's were decorated with a floral pattern that lit up in gold when Phenin traced it with his fingers, which always delighted him in ways he never entirely understood.

It had been her idea to choreograph the story of the Empress, and going to Theed to perform it had been the highlight of her career. Her adoration of Lady Vader had turned into what Phenin could only call genuine love. He'd discovered it accidentally when he'd made a risqu? suggestion about the veils, and she had treated him as though he'd insulted her personally. Ever since then, he'd been careful not to show anything but complete respect for the Empress.

Temodi took his nod at face value. "Her convoy was attacked when it left Naboo yesterday. I heard about that, but they said it was all over and no damage was done."

"That's good, then, right?"

She bit a trembling lip, then tears spilled out of her eyes. "I thought that was it! I thought it was over! But they attacked again this morning, on Tatooine, and... and... "

Phenin put his arms around her, not understanding her grief or needing to. "What is it, Tems? What happened?"

"No one knows, exactly. It was bad. Then we started losing communications everywhere. All the official channels are acting up. Weird things are coming through and nothing's going where it's supposed to be." She gestured at the holoproj. "This is an underground broadcast. The reporter said they're bouncing off Rebel frequencies today. Nothing's come off Tatooine from the Empire for hours. And they're saying it's really bloody." She turned on the sound.

The Twi'lek was nearly gleeful. He was in the midst of a celebratory speech of some kind. "...and it's looking good for everyone who cares about free speech! How do you like this?" He let out a stream of expletives that Phenin hadn't heard away from the Corellian loading docks where he'd spent much of his early childhood, before the scouts from Ostunu had decided to make him a high culture phenomenon. "And no one to stop me from saying it! The Empire can't even get its own business together!" He stood and actually danced - or gave a crude rendition of dancing - then plugged a listening device in his ear and plopped down behind a desk. "I've got someone from Tatooine here. Let me tune him in for you."

A crackle of static, then a voice that sounded drunk came over the frequency. "... Rebels in the Command Center... don't know for sure, but there are rumors that... Skywalker...dead... "

Temodi leaned into Phenin's arms, curling her body against his chest. He held her tighter. "It'll be okay," he said. "It's just a battle."

"She's there, though. What if the Rebels win?"

"It'll be okay," Phenin said, trying to remember his brief contacts with politics back before Ostunu. "Hey, it's still Princess Leia, right? She knows what she's doing."

"Yeah... " Temodi shivered. "I just... I guess it's okay with the Princess, but... the Empress, Phenin. What if -?"

"Shh. Don't say it." He reached for the holoproj to turn it off, but she pushed his hand away.

"Leave it on," she said. "I can't stand not knowing what's happening."

"Okay. But let's see if we can't find some other broadcast, all right? Something that's not so... You know."

Phenin didn't wait for an answer. He picked up the holoproj - not letting go of Temodi - and started scanning for more underground reports.

Temodi just sat, silent and warm in the circle of his arms.

Ingithe Lypsean hadn't realized for nearly an hour that her broadcast wasn't going anywhere. All the indicator lights were working. Her crew hadn't gotten any notices. No calls were coming in, but she'd simply been relieved at the lack of interruption - for once - in the Holonet News studio on Coruscant. It was extremely early morning here in the old Imperial district, but even at this hour, there were usually at least a few rabble-rousers trying to broadcast their unwanted opinions across the Empire. It seemed not to have occurred to them that they would be screened long before they were allowed on the air.

She'd thought the lack of interruption was due to her guest, an archaeologist from the team that was trying to pinpoint the first human settlement on Coruscant... a man who seemed to exude dullness like an overbearing cologne. Ingithe had been wondering just which god she had angered to end up with such a lousy assignment - she had once been a sought-after critic and columnist - when her guest had decided to show footage from the dig that he had stored on a computer at the site. He was still fiddling with the controls when she turned casually around to see whatever mundane thing he meant to show her, and was met instead with a scene from an old vid, with a mad Wookieee rambling around Alderaan (of all places). He had just ripped the head off a young lovely in white.

"Excuse me, sir," Ingithe said, "but you seem to have brought an inappropriate file."

The archaeologist glanced up, saw the vid and knocked his console over. "That's not even on my computer!" he burst out. "I would never show that kind of anti-alien garbage!"

Ingithe noticed that the crew in the broadcast booth had suddenly begun scrambling around. "Sieps!" she called to the Dug who produced the show. "What's happening?"

Sieps scuttled out on his strong arms and kicked a prop desk out of his way. "We're not broadcasting," he said. "Or if we are, it's not going anywhere I can predict. Maybe some kid's picking us up."

"What's happening?" Ingithe repeated, more slowly.

"We're trying to -" He held up one foot, sticking it right in Ingithe's face, and listened to something on his earpiece. "Okay. My techies just switched to a Rebel frequency."

"How would they know... ?"

"I'm not going to ask them." Sieps shook his head. "They got word over the underground that there's a battle going on over on Tatooine. A lot of the Imperial network is down. Someone planted a bug."

Ingithe found herself - for once - with almost nothing to say. The Imperial communications network? How was anyone supposed to report on whatever was going on if the network was down? And what good would it do the Rebels if no one knew?

Oh, but that would be thinking, and the Rebels didn't think. They were probably just trying to put a hydrospanner in the works. "Can we bounce off their signal?" she asked. "Get back an audience?"

Sieps shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not."

"Find out. And find out what's happening on Tatooine." An idea struck Ingithe. "Wait... wasn't that where Her Majesty was going?"

Sieps, who generally considered Her Majesty's movements off Naboo so much socialite trivia, looked surprised, then nodded. "Good call."

"Do we have anyone there?"

"On Tatooine? No."

"Well, find someone. Let's get this going. Keep a scan of the communications and -"

"I'm the producer here, Ingithe."

"And I'm telling you, this is news. It's about time. Let's find a way to get it out there."

"It's a small battle on a minor world... "

"A minor world where the Empress happens to be. We could come out of this small battle with a new government."

Sieps frowned, tapping his toes against a nearby wall. He'd been glad to get back into the business when the New Empire had taken control - that much, Ingithe knew - but she suspected he'd have been a lot happier if the Rebellion had won in the first place. "Guess we'd better cover it then," he said, and scurried off.

The archaeologist was just looking dumbly at all of them.

Ingithe waved him off the stage. "You've been pre-empted," she said. "Go back to work and get some sleep."

On board the Imperial Cruiser Binks, Admiral Calpar knew something was wrong, but so far hadn't found a way around it.

"Whatsa yousa kids doing?" he barked at the ensigns at comm. "Wesa not getting so much as a nav re-direct from da Empire for longo time!"

"Systems being down," one of them said. "Wesa getting lotsa other things. Nothing being useful."

Calpar glowered. He knew all this. "Yousa tryin' da old Gungan codes yet?"


"Yousa not being that young, Ar-Tor. Yousa remembering da exile codes."

"But wesa not needing them anymore. Wesa not being in da exile!"

Calpar pushed him out of the way and sat down at the console, hoping that the old codes weren't among the ones the Empire had blocked to prevent unauthorized transmissions to Imperial vessels. (There had been concern about morale, if the Rebels or Palpatine's remaining forces tried to broadcast propaganda to the fleet. ) Calpar didn't remember reporting them, but he wouldn't have deliberately kept them from Her Majesty, either.

He scanned the rotating frequencies they'd used. Blank, blank, static...

The sound of waves.

Someone was broadcasting.

Calpar breathed a sigh of relief and reconfigured the transmitters. "Whosa-dere?" he asked.

The waves resolved into silence, then someone said, "Dis'm Verkam Res. Whosa dis?"

"Dis'm Admiral Calpar, on Hersa Majesty's ship, Binks. Wesa being cut off."

More silence. "Yousa not being da only ones. Wesa... " He paused. "Wesa opening disn system, wondering about da other Gungans. But wesa not finding nothing."

Calpar rubbed his head. Something had to be working. "Yousa be listening," he said. "Mesa knowin' the Rebels, longo time ago. Deysa used to be using da circulating frequencies - da comm-sats being moving around. Yousa try to be finding them. I'm thinking theysa using the same frequencies as da children which play at making shows."


"Da kids finding da sats and da frequencies. Deysa always getting in da way, but when mesa knowing da Rebels, dism just laughed at. Be looking for them. Then be looking for other things on desa frequencies."

Calpar kept the channel open, waited for what seemed forever, then Verkam Res returned.

"Mesa finding them," he said. "Lotsa stuff coming through. Theres-a a battle on Tatooine. And nothing getting through. Mesa can send you da frequencies."

"No. Yousa can find me here, but wesa an Imperial ship. Wesa no getting outside frequencies. Yousa just keep telling us what's happening. Desa Rebels... theysa trying to block you?"

"No, sir. Deysa keeping it open. Mesa catching someone saying so. Deysa saying deysa no wanting anyone cut off but... well, yousa."


The Binks powered down and waited to hear the news of the galaxy.

In Cloud City on Bespin, the New Empire and the Rebellion had long lived in uneasy knowledge of one another.

Cloud City had been the heart of the New Empire, of course - they had declared for Lady Vader immediately. But in the confusion and devastation of the battle, many of the Rebels had found their way to Lando Calrissian's hastily established medical facility, and had integrated themselves into the life of the colony ever since. The Empress had given orders not to treat the Rebels harshly - she'd never given up hope of winning them - so the local Guard had merely kept them from acting or producing propaganda, and otherwise allowed them to go about their business with no impediment.

The Rebels, for their part, had found it more and more difficult to retain enmity. Those who couldn't abide the New Empire at all had found ways to sneak away; those who remained either joined Her Majesty's supporters or kept their resistance to occasional token objections in public forums. They would serve their time for sedition in relative comfort, and during it, they fraternized with their captors. There had been four Rebel-Imperial marriages (the polite fiction involved a supposed belief that the Rebel involved had reformed), and three children had been born of them so far.

The Twi'lek Chirlin, who ran a tavern in the upper levels, had adjusted to the new life as well as he could. The New Empire had outlawed the dancing girls which had once brought in the miners, so Chirlin had re-focused the business, hiring his girls on as living statues and catering to an artsy culture that had sprung up among the New Imperial hierarchy - one which the rich owners of the mines longed to copy. Even the miners themselves made noises in that direction, but they could no longer afford Chirlin's place. A few of the newly emancipated slaves had made a living statue garden a few levels down, and that was where the miners spent their time.

Here, in the upper levels, the day had begun in its usual glory of golden mist. Chirlin had already set up his holoproj - it was well-known that he got a few more frequencies than were technically permitted, but since he only used them to find underground artists, the Guard looked the other way - but he hadn't noticed yet that the transmission was spottier than usual. The girls had just decided to go with a colonization era theme in their poses and Chirlin was setting up the grill when Captain Lopahin - the head of the Guard - had come rushing in, shouting about downed communications. The New Empire had seized the holoprojector and technicians had been trying to receive signals for nearly an hour before Lieutenant Moge had stood up quietly and suggested that his "former" Rebel wife, Comari, might have a suggestion.

Comari had shown up five minutes later, baby in tow, and had indeed been able to "guess" where news might be found. Then a few of her friends had also "volunteered" to help.

The transfer of power had been completely invisible, and everything was still ostensibly going through the Guard. The fictions were maintained. But Chirlin knew the truth, and he supposed all of them knew it as well: Cloud City was now in the hands of the Rebellion.

Comari sat at ops, scanning the information that was trickling in, trying to make sense of what was essentially senseless. Two separate reports from Tatooine had suggested that Lord Skywalker was dead - there was much grief from the Imperials about this - but the most disturbing report was that Her Majesty had been with him, and none of the Rebels reporting in had seen her since.

"They're all outside," Comari reassured her husband. "The ones who reported about Lord Skywalker had slipped out after that fight. Afraid of Lord Vader's reaction, I bet."

"As well they should be."

She tried to raise anyone in command and got only static. That wasn't surprising - it was a battle, and the leaders would have restricted their communications to those who really would need to contact them. The general frequencies wouldn't be a good choice.

Lopahin asked Chirlin to fix breakfast for the assembled crew - "You will be properly compensated, of course" - so he wasn't actually there when they finally contacted a Rebel who had seen the Empress after the death of her son. There was no cheer, but when Chirlin brought out a tray of hot bread and eggs, the Imperials in the room had slipped into poses of pure relief. Lopahin was weeping with it.

"They're talking," Comari said. Moge put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her head. She twisted her head to kiss his fingers. "Finally, they're talking."

"Who?" Lopahin asked.

"The Empress, Lord Vader, Princess Leia. The man I spoke to thinks that Generals Solo and Calrissian may be there as well. Calrissian did well here. Perhaps he -"

She stopped talking, her eyes going suddenly sharp. Something had flashed across the proj-base, a face, a word...

"Replay," she ordered the machine.

Lopahin was over in a flash. "What is it, Comari?"

She frowned, punching at buttons. "We've been picking up stray Imperial communications all morning. Things that aren't aimed at us. And that was Admiral Piett. I'm sure of it."

"Let me see."

"I'm trying to get it back. He was ordering something."

"Let me try to raise him," Lopahin said, slipping into the seat beside her.

He worked the console for a long time, enlisting the aid of Rebels and Imperials alike, but the message did not recur.

Now, it was the Rebels who looked worried.

Amidala was finished with the negotiations.

She didn't know how long they had been there, sitting in this room - whether it was minutes or hours or days - but at some point, she had stopped caring. She hadn't interrupted the discussions and hadn't jumped into any of Ani and Leia's arguments or showed any outward sign of her distraction. But her mind had gotten her to a certain point, and then refused to cooperate any further.

They were done. Many of the major points of contention had been resolved; some grudgingly, some bitterly, some with a startling ease...but they had been determined one way or another. Senators would be elected by their homeworlds. Governors would be appointed to terms by the Empress. The military would turn over a good portion of their work to planetary police forces, which would be created by local governments. A new Chancellorship would be created to ease the relationship between the Senate and the Empress. Certain legal rights would be restored to galaxy's citizens. New laws would govern the Imperial throne.

And that last point had returned her daughter to her for good. Leia would eventually take over, and until then, she would be a part of the Empire, and a part of the family. Amidala clung to that knowledge fiercely, holding onto it amidst the ruins of the broken dreams she'd had for Luke. They had fixed things in time to salvage Leia's future, and to save what was left of her family.

Amidala would remain Empress and stay in charge, dealing with any of the potential problems some of the more sweeping changes would likely bring. And she would do it with Leia at her side. Beyond that...

Beyond that were minor arguments, like the one Leia and Ani had gotten themselves into now, on some technical questions about the relationship between planetary rulers and the Senate. All details that could be worked through later.

They had accomplished enough in terms of fixing the government and stopping this war that they could afford to turn their attention to other issues.

To Luke.

He was still out there, of course, shrouded and unmoving just beyond the conference room door. The parade of people streaming past him had stopped, and it seemed that everyone, both Imperial and Rebel, had finished paying their proper respects.

Everyone, except for Luke's own family, who were sitting in a room, wrangling over the finer points of taxes and appointments and...

"Enough," she said softly.

Leia and Ani stopped talking instantly, with Leia breaking off in mid-sentence. "Mother - I'm sorry, we can move on to something else and -"



"My son is lying outside that door," she said, "and I'm tired of trying to ignore that. We cannot solve every single issue right now. We should be grateful we've come as far as we have."

Her daughter and husband both looked as though they'd be quite content to keep arguing forever, but Han quickly spoke up. "It might actually help if we stop for a while, and pick this up again later. We could take a fresh look at some of this stuff"

"Besides," Lando added, "we do have multiple pressing issues here, right now. We shouldn't wait much longer to begin implementing the unified command for the guard."

"Yes," Amidala agreed, "and I need to take care of my son. He requested a family ceremony, and we should...we should honor that. He deserves..." She stopped, feeling her throat constrict painfully as her eyes again went to her son outside the conference room. "He deserves to be put to a proper rest. We can't just leave him out there..." And then, she simply couldn't continue.

Her husband reached down to squeeze her hand. Then he walked slowly to the door. "I will make preparations," he said. Then he left. She could hear him giving orders to both the Imperials and the Rebels, and then he picked Luke up, and carried him outside.

Leia watched her father go, and Han put his arm around her, pulling her in against him. She buried her face in his chest. Lando clearly was a little lost, and he glanced uncomfortably between them and Amidala.

"I think...I think I should go check in with Alpha Squadron. Make sure they've gotten into the mindset of accepting a joint command," he said. Han and Leia barely acknowledged him. Amidala nodded, and he took that as a dismissal. He quickly went back out into main part of the headquarters.

"Han," Amidala said, trying not to sound as if she were forcing the words out, "you may join us at the ceremony." He looked surprised, and Leia even pulled away so her mother could she the shock on her face. "You were once a friend of my son, and my daughter considers you family."

"Thank you."

There was little else to say, so they simply waited for Ani to return once the arrangements he had in mind were completed. It took longer than she expected.

When he finally returned, he said nothing. Amidala rose from her chair to join him, and Han and Leia eventually followed. The officers were silent and solemn as they passed, the Imperials saluting, the Rebels standing at attention, watching the family head outside into the Tatooine night.

Away from the base, she saw Luke, resting in a hastily erected funeral pyre, made from an odd assemblage of kindling, from materials gathered from all over the base. She walked right up and touched her son's covered face. She wanted to say her goodbyes, to say anything, but she was blinded by her tears and suddenly felt as though she couldn't breathe, much less talk. She let her fingers trail away, and then she stepped back.

They formed a line in front of the pyre, Amidala standing between Ani on her left, and Leia on her right. Han was on Leia's other side, holding her hand tightly.

After a long, pained silence - Ani and Leia couldn't seem to find the words for their goodbyes either - Ani ignited his lightsaber. With a few short steps, he was next to Luke, and he held his sword to one of the cross sections of kindling, and waited for it to ignite.

Once it did, the fire spread up and down and across almost instantly, and soon consumed her son's body.

Leia took her hand. She took Ani's. Amidala tried to draw on their strength, but all they were sharing was the grief and emptiness, watching as Luke slowly disappeared before their eyes.

The four of them were still standing there silently as the fires began to die out.

Lando crept silently behind the Skywalkers, feeling as though he were sneaking up on them. The last, last thing he wanted to do was interrupt their funeral, and he wouldn't have unless it was something potentially this important.

He couldn't decide whether or not he was hoping that he had misinterpreted the message he heard. Piett couldn't have possibly said what Lando thought he had...then again, Lando couldn't stand the thought of coming all the way out here for a simple misunderstanding.

None of them turned around, even as he was standing directly behind Han and Leia. He waited. Then he cleared his throat.

Leia looked furious. The Vaders still didn't turn around.

"I'm incredibly sorry for interrupting," he began. "I've picked up an Imperial communication that I think you all need to hear."

"Imperial communications are down," Leia said.

"People are still trying to send messages. I was working with a few of the Imperial Officers - bouncing off Rebel frequencies and some underground channels, trying to see if we could pick anything up. We heard a garbled message from Naboo."

Lady Vader, her face tear-streaked, blinked slowly at him. "From Imperial Command?"

"I think so. We think he was trying to send the message to your personal frequency, we can only pick up parts of what he's saying." Lando pulled out his comm, and played back the message. Static almost completely garbled it.

"...Your Majesty...receive this message...communications...down"

"That's Admiral Piett," Lady Vader said softly.

"...launch...base...waited for...before..."

"What is he saying?" Han asked.

"Wait," Lando said. "It'll repeat. It comes through a little clearer."

"...Majesty...hope you receive this...our communications are going down...I've launched...against the base...waited for catastrophic... before acting..."

The message began to repeat the first version, but Lady Vader gasped loudly and covered her mouth with her hand, paling drastically. Lando stopped the playback.

"Oh no..." she whispered. "No...not when we've settled everything..."

"Mother," Leia said cautiously, "what's happened? What has he done?"

The Empress looked away from her daughter, and Lando's heart sank. Whatever happened, it definitely was as bad as he feared.

"He's launched a missile that will destroy your base on Ledaga."

The base on Ledaga.

Han Solo sat down heavily on a boulder. "What kind of missile?"

Leia's parents looked at one another cautiously. Lady Vader's small hand had risen to her lips, and as Han watched, she slowly moved it to brush tears from her cheek. The motion left an ashy smear. "It's a new design," she said. "There's a containment field involved, to keep the damage from spreading beyond the target, but -"

"But destruction of the target is complete," her husband finished.

"If it's contained, we can order an evacuation," Leia said, desperately hopeful. "We can tell them to get clear of the base area... "

Han shook his head. "We can try. But there's a lot of seismic activity. Earthquakes. Big ones. The last time I tried to reach them, they said they weren't getting much through."

"Try," Lady Vader said.

Han pulled out his comlink, and tried to raise the base. Static, a whine of feedback. Someone saying, "... not receiv... any... " Then there was an ominous rumble, and he lost the connection entirely. A droning electronic voice came across the frequency: "No receiver/transmitter is available at the coordinates specified. Please check coordinates."

"Quakes must have taken it out," Lando said.

Lady Vader rubbed her head. "How much of your staff is here?"

"Most of them," Leia said. "But the ones who are left on Ledaga are young kids, the ones we didn't want to put in any danger."

"And civilians," Han added.

Lord Vader turned on him quickly. "You guard your base with civilian shields?"

Han was too busy castigating himself for putting civilians on the base to bother snapping back at Vader. "No," he said. "It's natives. We found them there when we set up. They're burrowers. They wanted shelter there during the quakes. We figured it would be safer than their tunnels."

Lord Vader looked like he was ready to continue berating Han, but his wife put her hand on his shoulder. "I would have done the same," she said.

"What's the navigational system on the missile?" Leia asked. "Maybe we can stop it."

"It's controlled through the communications system."

Leia closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. "Of course. Can we piggyback a signal off a Rebel frequency?"

Reluctantly, Lady Vader shook her head. "I didn't want Rebel propaganda broadcast to the military. All military equipment blocks unsanctioned frequencies."

"So what do we do now?" Lando asked.

"The missile will need to be intercepted." Lord Vader turned and bowed to the pyre where Luke's ashes were smoldering. He said nothing, but turned and led the group inside.

Han's insides cramped up, and he forced them to let go. He followed the family into the command center.

Vader had apparently ordered several officers to leave. Han could see them filing out. Three remained - two Rebels and an Imperial - and they'd brought up a starmap. Vader had highlighted Naboo, Tatooine, and Ledaga. A launch trace appeared as he watched.

Lady Vader crossed her arms over her chest, scanned the red line with her eyes, then looked at her feet.

Leia leaned forward, as though she could put her hand into the map and stop the missile.

Lando drew in a sharp breath.

Vader simply looked at it, impassive, his head cocked to one side. "The missile was never fitted with modified engines. It will travel relatively slowly."

"Could we put something in its path as it gets near Tatooine?" Leia asked.

"Commander Dihave programmed it to avoid all impediments," Vader said. "An intercepting object will have to be steered into it."

Leia's eyes widened, and she turned to her father. "Father, there's no way to do that. The Imperial military equipment can't take orders right now, and our autopilots are programmed not to self-destruct. We didn't want any of our equipment turned against us."

Vader didn't look at her. "Someone will have to pilot a ship."

Lady Vader paled. Leia shook her head. "Father, there has to be another way. And most of the Imperial Fleet here on Tatooine was destroyed in the hangar battle anyway! I didn't see anything that looked like it would still fly."

Han stepped forward. "Look, I'm the one who put the civilians on the base. My ship is nowhere near where the fighting was and -"

"I absolutely forbid it," Leia said, glancing over her shoulder at him.

"There's no reason to. You're necessary in this scheme we worked out. So's your father, I think. I'm just a pilot, Leia."

"You're not just a pilot. You're necessary to me, and if I'm necessary, you're necessary."

"You know that's not true -"

"It is true!"

"Hey!" Lando waved a hand between them. "Look, I think maybe we're jumping the gun. Lord Vader, how much slower are these engines? How much time do you think we have before it passes Tatooine?"

Vader thought for a moment - a much shorter moment than Han had ever seen another human make a complex calculation - then said, "We have two hours at least before it reaches Tatooine. If this trajectory is correct, then the route between Tatooine and Ledaga will take approximately five hours."

Han nodded. "I got an old Naboo cruiser. I modified it a little. It'll be able to -"

"I said no," Leia said.

Lando touched her arm. "Two hours, Leia. We can go out in the desert. Between us, we can re-work the autopilot. We can make it work."

"The risk is too great," Vader said. "I will -"

"You most certainly will not," Lady Vader said quietly. "I invited Baron Calrissian to join our discussions because he thinks well. Before any of you rush to martyrdom, we have time to try another path. I suggest that we waste no more time discussing the subject." Her eyes were cast down, and she did not look up as she spoke.

"Yes, ma'am," Han said. "Lando and I will get to work on it."

Vader nodded. "I will assist you."

"Father... " Leia sighed. "I need your help with the Imperial military. And you need mine with the Rebellion." She looked at her mother. "And we should gather Luke's ashes before the wind takes them."

Lady Vader finally looked up, met Leia's eyes, and nodded. Leia put an arm around her shoulders.

"Then that's the plan," Han said. "We'll make it work."

Han turned to leave with Lando. He'd made it most of the way to the door when he heard Leia call his name. He looked back.

She ran to him and threw her arms around his neck. Her lips pressed against his cheek. "Don't... Han, if it doesn't work... Please... come back here. Don't... " She drew away and bit her lips. "Han, please don't."

"We'll make it work," he said again. "And I'll come back here one way or another before we make any decisions. That's a promise."

Leia nodded and let go of him. She looked small and unprotected. Then she straightened her shoulders and lifted her head, became the Princess she had been when he'd first met her. "May the Force be with you," she said.

Han leaned down and kissed her forehead. "It'll be okay, Leia. We'll figure it out. Hold tight and keep a lid on the base. It'll be okay."

She took a few steps back and nodded again. Han hesitated, then followed Lando out into the desert.

He hoped he hadn't lied.

Han and Lando left quickly so they could get to work on their ship adjustments, and try to head off this tragedy without necessitating another one by losing a pilot to the mission. Amidala was dimly aware of their exit, but the main focus of her attention was Leia, whose eyes were filled with apprehension as Han went off. She hated seeing her daughter so afraid, though she couldn't blame Leia for being shaken by Han's offer to pilot the ship. Amidala herself was not pleased with her own husband thinking along similar lines.

"I still can't believe he let practically the whole planet's civilians onto that base," Leia muttered, mostly to herself, "as if being near the Rebels would be safer than being out in an earthquake."

Amidala could almost picture Ani rolling his eyes. "You would not have left them to their own devices in the middle of a natural disaster if you could have helped," he said.

Leia didn't argue that point with him. "Still, for me to be responsible for that... I just... an entire people could be wiped out," she cried in anguish. "All of them. Gone. Just like that. It's... for them, it'd be another Alderaan." She shuddered, as she often did when she thought about what happened to her homeworld. "And we left the kids to watch the base... "

"Leia, this isn't your fault," Amidala said, almost automatically.

"But I command the Rebels -"

"Your mother is correct, Leia," Ani agreed. "It may not have been wise to bring the civilians into your camp, but Solo could not have foreseen these types of problems. He was not expecting an attack, and believed he'd be able to stay in touch with your officers." Leia shrugged, not particularly helped by his words, but at least partially appreciative that he had made an effort to comfort her. Ani continued, "The true question is not why Solo chose to allow the Ledagans on the base, but what Admiral Piett could have hoped to accomplish by taking this action. He must be aware of the fact that the vast majority of the Rebels are here on Tatooine, and not on the base. Even without the knowledge of the civilians staying in the camp, an attack on Ledaga now makes little sense from a strategic standpoint."

"Except to punish us for Tatooine," Leia said. "He couldn't very well fire off that thing here. He's getting us the only way he can. And it could ruin everything. I can't imagine trying to get the Rebels to go along with any of our plans if our base is wiped out like this."

Amidala felt a chill inside her and trembled. She was trying not to remember - the order she had given Piett, the words she had last said to him, the instructions she had left him with...

"My love?"

She wondered how pale she suddenly looked; her face felt completely drained. Then she flushed. "This isn't Piett's fault. And it's certainly not Han's fault, or your fault, Leia. I gave the order."

"What?" Leia whispered harshly. "You did what?"

"It was much earlier, before the communications went down," she tried to explain, "before we were sure what you were... what we were dealing with here. Piett told me that he thought he had found the Rebel base, and he needed guidance on what to do while we were under siege here." It sounded wholly inadequate to her - how could it have made so much sense such a short time ago? "So I... "

"So you told him to destroy the base?" Leia asked incredulously.

"I told him to be prepared to act if the situation here reached a - a critical point. That I would trust his judgment on the appropriate action to take."

The hostility in Leia's eyes diminished a little.

Ani, of course, all but jumped to her defense. "You should not blame yourself, my love. Piett had not shown himself to be unworthy of your trust prior to this. And circumstances demanded that you leave him in command."

"In any event," Leia said wearily, "what we have to worry about now is finding a way to stop the missile before it hits. Let's just hope that something can be figured out."

Amidala was hugging herself tightly, even though it was doing nothing to ward off the chill she was still feeling throughout her body. She wanted to believe them. What she had done was neither unusual nor inexplicable given the situation she had found herself in. And assigning blame would do no good to anyone at this point anyway, and should be put off until later.

She didn't feel comforted by any of that though. "I wish there was something I could do. I want to help."

"There's really nothing that can be done right now, Mother."

"But if I could -"

"Your mother has never been good at leaving these matters to others," Ani said, interrupting her in mid-sentence. "At least, not in all of the time that I have known her."

Usually, that kind of comment from Ani would have spurred a shared smile, and more than a few shared memories, both pleasant and painful. She couldn't find any smile right now, but the memories came quickly enough anyway. Of how they had first met while she was stuck on this awful planet, unable to do anything for her people on Naboo, who were trapped and suffering under the Trade Federation invasion. Ani hadn't known the full story of what she was dealing with until they were on their way to Coruscant later, but he had been perceptive enough to feel her anxiety and urgency. And her frustration.

Now, decades later, here she was again. Stuck on Tatooine while a disaster was in the making elsewhere.

"Perhaps," Ani was saying, "we should give thought to a course of action if the attempt to send an unmanned ship fails. One thing we can do - and must do - is find a way to mitigate this problem with the Rebels."

She had been a child, really, during the invasion. She probably hadn't been ready for the throne, even under normal, peaceful circumstances. Dealing with an attack, with a blockade? It was out of her experience and beyond her training - it wasn't part of the way Naboo was ruled or the way the planet had previously dealt with its neighbors. People knew that. Had things gone differently, or ended badly, she would have been the object of a great deal of pity, and people might have rightly wondered why they voted a young, inexperienced girl into office... but no one had expected her to be able to take charge herself and save the day. Her enduring popularity after she expelled the Trade Federation was a testament to how surprised and impressed people were with what she had been able to accomplish.

Still, she would have blamed herself if she had not been able to save her planet. That was all that had mattered to her at the time.

Leia's brow was furrowed, and she was deep in thought. "I'm sure we have people who would be willing to take on this mission." She sighed. "The fact that the Empire is working with us to stop this might be enough to convince them that this alliance is serious."

"If an Imperial Officer were to volunteer," Vader said gravely, "it might do more to further relations between both sides."

She had been so hard on herself then. Every problem that happened when she was Queen (or Senator) had been her problem, and she had found a way to tackle each of them without retreating in the slightest. How had she been able to do that? Were things really so different then?

Was she really so different?

"I can't believe we're talking about this," Leia said. "To just send someone to do this knowing that they'll never come back... "

"There are honorable people, on each side, who will volunteer."

"Yes, you and Han were certainly out to prove that."

When she had become Mayor and Queen and Senator... each time, she had felt the weight of her position, of what she was about to do. Where had that feeling been when Palpatine had been overthrown, and she had become Empress? She couldn't remember it. There was just a sense that what happened had been inevitable, that the throne was hers, and she was where she was meant to be. The problems of her Empire were Palpatine's fault. Or the Rebels' fault. Or the criminals. Or the bureaucrats. Of course, she had wanted to fix everything, but none of the problems had ever really been hers; she'd never claimed ownership of them as an Empress responsible for a galaxy.

"Let's hope for the best with the autopilot," Leia decided. "In the meantime, I want to take charge of the joint command. We have to start giving directives to the officers in the settlements."

Amazingly, there was no argument, no disagreement. Ani simply began to lead Leia toward the Command Center, where the Rebels and Imperials were working together on the communications and messages. They both turned back when she didn't follow right away.

"Mother? Aren't you coming?"

She nodded absentmindedly, and trailed behind them. It was time for her to remember her forgotten duties. However this impending tragedy resolved itself, Amidala knew that a new era was again beginning for the galaxy. She needed to be ready to guide it.

Lando took the speederbike he'd grabbed in Mos Eisley (Han, with no hint of surprise, identified it as Leia's), and followed Han up and over the mesa. A large opening in the south face caught Lando's eye. "Is that another hangar?" he asked, leaning in toward his comlink to speak over the wind.

"Probably. But if they had another ship in there, I think Her Ladyship might have mentioned it. I'm guessing they were all down in the North Hangar. And they're all scrap."

"Either we're really good," Lando said, "or we're really stupid."

"I'm trying to figure that one out myself, old buddy. Solo out."

The communication cut with a loud burst of static, and Lando pulled back from the comlink.

They went across the desert to the Rebel encampment outside of Anchorhead. It was deserted with the exception of six guards. Leia had wanted to leave more - if they hadn't gotten a leg up on the Empire immediately, a strike here could have stranded the whole damned Rebellion on this dustball - but they couldn't be spared.

"General!" An ensign saluted, snapping to attention beside Han's ship.

"Not now," Han said. "At ease."

The ensign spread his feet and stood at parade rest. "We've been getting strange reports, sir."

"Then you've probably been getting the right ones." Han lowered the gangplank. "We've got work to do, Ensign, and not much time to do it. We'll have to save the debriefing for later."

"Yes, sir!"

Han rubbed his head as he went into the ship. Lando took a deep breath and followed him in.

"What are the odds?" Lando asked, staring at the navigational console.

"When did I ever give odds?" Han switched on the monitor and called up the autopilot routines. "Whose great idea was this?"

"One of the kids. Remember, you wanted them to think of things the Empire might do now that it had some brains in its administration?"

"Oh, yeah."

A holographic command structure appeared in the air, and with a command from Han, displayed a sequence of red lights that formed a thin braid throughout the form.

Lando drew a sharp breath. "It's totally integrated."

"It was that Mon Cal kid," Han said. "He came up with the idea that the Empire could cut into our systems and start turning our ships against us. So he put in lockout on allowing remote or automatic piloting that would actually hit any object. And he made it harder to cut in."

"Makes enough sense in theory."

"Let's pack up and move to Theory, what do you say?" Han waved the comment off. "Okay. We're not going to get in from the top, not in two hours anyway. Let's see if we can wire around the nav console."

Lando hunkered down beside him, and they tried for forty minutes to re-circuit the navigational systems on the old Naboo cruiser.

At first, it looked easy - just strip a few wires, re-direct, maybe send navigation through the communications computers, then put in a quick program. Nothing too complex, nothing they hadn't done before. Lando had wired around a faulty naviputer four times, and Han had never run across a ship he couldn't re-design from the circuits up.

But Naboo technology was stubbornly integrated. A single console was used in communications, navigation, and the ship's log. The same button would bring up starmaps and broadcast messages, depending on how the system was toggled. Wiring around it wasn't a simple matter.

"Should we try wiring it to the defense network?" Lando asked, pulling himself out from under the counter. This corner of the cockpit was a mess, but even Han hadn't been able to make the rest of the cruiser look anything but sleek and luxurious. "They don't have a lot of gunports, so I'm guessing they've got a smart system."

"Oh, it's a great system," Han said, rolling out from the other side with a sneer on his face. "Only problem is, it's housed way back at the other end of the ship." He jerked his thumb aft. "Guess they didn't want to bother the dignitaries with it. You happen to have twenty meters of wire?"

"No way to do it by remote?"

"Naviputer actually needs to be attached to something. Right now, we're the galaxy's biggest paperweight." He stood up. "I can get the defense network plugged in to the propulsion system from where it is. There are plenty of access points for that. But if we're going to get any navigational control, the nav files have to be in the system."

"Can we communicate with the defense system from here? Send the files it needs?"

Han looked at the tangle of wires. "Not until we get this thing hooked back up."

"Let's get back to work then."

Han made no move.

Lando raised an eyebrow. "Are you thinking it's not going to work?"

"I'm thinking we might figure it out in five minutes. Or we might keep trying new things until that missile drops in on Ledaga. We don't know this is going to work."

Well, Leia needs you, Lando tried to hear himself saying, and the Empress seems to want her husband around. I'll go. I'll take the ship and I'll fly it into a missile that will vaporize whatever it hits. I'll do it.

But he couldn't. He didn't think he was a coward - he just hadn't tried all the other options yet. People who decided to bow out of the game before the last hand had been dealt had always struck Lando as not quite right in the head. There was still a chance.

"Come on," he said. "Let's get this back together."

Leia felt curiously comfortable now in the headquarters of the Imperial Command Center.

When she had first walked in the room, she wasn't entirely sure where she was supposed to begin. Her parents stayed back, much to her surprise, trying to give her the space she needed to formulate a real plan for taking charge.

Since intercepting Piett's message, the Rebels had been working frantically to use their comms to pick up any other stray messages of import, and to try repeatedly to raise the base on Ledaga, to no success. The Imperial Officers weren't quite sure how to make use of themselves, and Alpha Squadron still wasn't fully committed to working with them anyway. A few of the more insistent ones had been allowed to help strengthen the Rebels communications system, using some of the stray parts and pieces of the Imperial network. They had occasionally snuck on the system itself, trying to get the Rebels in the various settlements to put Lady Vader's forces on the comm link, so they could at least be updated as to what was going on.

Nothing else in the Command Center was working. Everything in the room had been tied in some way or another to the main Imperial network, and when that went down, everything here was reduced to blank or flashing consoles that would not respond to any command.

So, there was a fury around the Rebels' small, makeshift transmitter. That was what was passing for a command structure. For both sides.

Leia dove into the disarray headlong. This was her first real act of command over Imperial officers, and it was the first true, organized attempt to get them and the Rebels to work together under one authority. She needed this to work - she needed to make a statement about the future of the Empire, and how they had decided things would work from now on.

She didn't even stop to wonder how she had gotten to the point where she was concerned about establishing the future of the Empire. There was just too much to do.

Leia had quickly grabbed a handful of Imperial Officers and ordered Alpha Squadron to work with them on creating as reliable a system of communication as they could under the circumstances. That meant letting the Imperial engineers get to work on the transmitter. It meant working on a combined list of squadrons and battalions, and their leaders who would need to be kept in contact with headquarters. It meant getting about half the Rebel leaders out in the cities to give up their comlinks to their Imperial counterparts, so one side wasn't completely out of touch, or at the mercy of people they considered their enemies. It meant running Rebels and Imperial officers on foot to various locations to make sure they believed what they were hearing over the comm.

There were difficulties, of course. A very few people who were actually still fighting in random pockets out in the dunes; people on either side who weren't going to listen to anyone if it meant compromising with their enemy; settlers and other parts of the native population who still resented the encroachment on their homes, and blamed one side or the other, or both, and were still trying to stir up trouble.

Still, things had gone more smoothly than Leia had hoped. She realized that both sides had already been working together quite a bit, since she and her father had brought Mos Eisley under control, and Han had apparently worked something out with the Vader sympathizers in Mos Espa. Everyone here in the headquarters had seen the Empress herself sit with the Rebels and talk. There were bridges there to build on, and Leia reached out to those who had bought into the idea of cooperation first, and let them try to convince the others. She sent of few of her own officers to speak directly to townspeople and the farmers and the settlers, to try to bring them in as well. They were being more reluctant, but at least if they were being talked to, they were occupied with something that wasn't firing at Imperials and Rebels.

She wondered idly where her parents had gotten to. She hadn't even noticed them leave.

"Um...Excuse me...?"

Leia found an Imperial ensign staring warily at her. "Yes?"

"Am I supposed to report to you?" he asked, skeptically.

"Yes," was her blunt reply. She decided to ignore his discomfort and get him used to the idea. "You may address me as Princess Leia," she said calmly, "and I will receive your report."

He gave her a half-hearted salute, but his demeanor did become more serious. "Princess Leia, we believe we have all the commanders and captains you requested on the comm system now."

"They've all checked in?"

"Yes," he replied. "We're getting full status checks from each of them."

At least she had everyone listening now, finally. She just had to make sure they followed her as well. "Can I send out a general message? To all of them?"

"I believe so..."

"Then set up the main transmitter," she said. "I need to speak to everyone at once."

"Yes...Your Highness."

It didn't take very long to make the necessary adjustments, and she was holding a small microphone-like device before she knew it.

"Well," Athuli said wryly, "you've got everyone's attention. We don't know how long this system is going to hold up though. I'd say whatever you have to say now, Your Highness."

A fleeting thought passed through her mind right before she began to speak.

Welcome to the new era.

She didn't say it, of course - she would never say that. But she couldn't help thinking that it might have been even more appropriate now that it had been back during the battle at Bespin...since they weren't about to replace one dictatorship with another this time. They were at least trying to bring real change.

She realized that everyone was staring and waiting for her. She took a deep breath.

"This is Princess Leia, speaking to all the forces on Tatooine. You all are aware by now that I've assumed command, and that we will all be working jointly from this point forward.

"I will give you orders that you each are to carry out. We need to maintain peace and control of the settlements, and restore and rebuild what was damaged in the fighting." She paused before launching into her laundry list of items that needed to be acted on. "Ter Caldo, I need you to head to the residential districts in Mos Eisley and make absolutely certain that anyone who needs medical attention is receiving it. I'm sending Rebel medics from Mos Espa to assist you. Lenna, you and your people should help the farmers out in the plains..."

Orders went out to people in every corner of planet that the comm was able to reach. The slow process of healing Tatooine slowly began.

"I should return to the command center," Ani said, looking over his shoulder. "Leia is unaccustomed to Imperial protocol."

"Leia spent several years in the Imperial Senate, and she worked with us in Theed. She'll be fine." Amidala linked her arm around Ani's and leaned against him. They stood together at the top of the mesa, among a litter of stones where Ani and Luke had trained yesterday. "As fine as any of us can be, at any rate."

"We will stop the missile."

"It's been over two hours already, Ani. Han and Lando have made no progress."

"We will stop it," he said again, firmly.

"All those civilians... what have I done?"

"You did what you felt was right."

"I did what seemed most convenient." She sighed. "I need time to think, Ani," she said.

Ani didn't answer, but a gentle motion in the Force - or the wind, Amidala was sometimes not sure - wrapped her in the folds of his dark cape, sheltering her in his shadow.

She breathed deeply, taking in his strength. The smell of the machinery had never become pleasant to her, even with the numerous pleasant memories it now evoked. But it was the smell of Ani now, and it was therefore comforting to her in some obscure way. "You don't need to stay with me," she said after awhile, when the cape lifted and let in the starlight. "You can go to your chamber and take care of the maintenance."

"I would be honored by your company, my love."

"I'd like to stay out here for awhile and think. Maybe we all need time to think, Ani."

He paused. "I do not care to leave you alone tonight, my love. It has been... a troubling day."

"I'm not alone. Luke is with me. He promised he would be, and he is."

"I do not sense... " But he stopped. "Amidala, there is no necessary maintenance."

She looked over her shoulder at him. "It's been a difficult day and you've exposed yourself to many things. Just like Bespin. And I... that infection frightened me, Ani. I don't know what would happen to me if I lost you. So please, take care of yourself."

Her voice was soft, and she was attempting to get some space alone to think, but it wasn't a lie. After the battle of Bespin, when he had gone through the gas and the different toxins and then not taken the time for his usual maintenance routines, he'd had a sepsis infection at the cybernetic juncture point in his neck, and a fever had raged for three days. She had been frightened, and badly.

"You are certain?" Ani asked.

"Yes." She squeezed his hand. She wasn't sure if he could feel such a slight change in pressure, but he would at least see her hand move. "Will you be all right, Ani? You worry about me so much, and I seem never to be there to comfort you."

"Your presence is a comfort to me, Amidala. Even when walls stand between us." He paused. "Even when worlds stand between us. You are a comfort to me."

"And you to me. But I do need to think."

"As you wish." He started away, then turned. "Will you come to me before you retire, Amidala? We could speak of Luke."

She nodded. "I will." She looked toward the pyre, now invisible in the shadows, marked only by the white smoke that still poured a thin line into the sky. "No mourning would seem adequate, would it?"


"And yet we are forced to move forward. We must. It's so hard, Ani. I want to wrap myself in my memories and hide there. But we must push forward."

He said nothing.

She looked at him over her shoulder. The night wind caught her hair and rippled it out toward him, twisting it into meaningless tangles as it went. "Go on, Ani. I will come to you. I promise."

He bowed slightly and went inside.

Slowly, Amidala turned her face back to the open desert. The three moons lit it gently, but the stars were only hard points in the night.

They gave themselves to you for love, and their problems are yours as surely as Ani's are.

Somewhere up there, between those cold stars, death sped through the endless night.

She sat down on a battlement and drew her knees up to her chest. She had never been taught to meditate, never made it a part of her daily routine as Ani did... but she understood it intuitively, and she let herself go deep into her own mind. Her eyes slipped shut.

Somewhere in the darkness, she could feel another presence calling to her, reaching for her. She opened her inner eyes, let them see.

A small boy stood before her, blue eyes wide, right hand outstretched.


He didn't answer, only blinked slowly and continued holding out his hand.

She took it.

As he led her away from the battlement, the sky grew light and the world became the gardens of Theed Palace, lush with summer. Marble statues lined the walk. Luke wordlessly led her to the first one.

The statue moved.

Amidala cried out in shock. The living marble was in the shape of a girl with a crown of braids, with a wide mouth and slightly upturned eyes, always looking forward. Padm? Naberrie.

"You've betrayed me," Padm? intoned.

"I am you."

"You became all I fought against, all I hated in the galaxy. You've become the oppressor and the tyrant, and you've let Ani shelter you from even the knowledge of it."

Amidala saw the worlds suddenly spun out before her, all the dreams she had once had, all the beliefs she had once lived by. "I am you," she said again.

The statue reached out its right hand. "Remember."

Amidala glanced down at the little boy who had to be Luke - with those eyes, he could be no one else. He let go of her hand and nodded.

She reached out, took the marble hand, and grasped tightly.

The statue faded, and Amidala felt something pour into her, a kind of deep, cool well of strength.

Luke led her further down the path to a second figure, this one sparkling in the sunlight. It was made of spun glass. A young woman, her hair tumbling in ringlets over her shoulders, her gown flowing in the wind. Padm? again, older now.

"You've betrayed me," she said.

"I am you."

The glass figure spread her arms, and Amidala could see Ani reflected inside of her, laughing in the Naboo sunshine, professing his love for her in front of a fireplace, drawing her to him in the nameless hangar where he'd lost the first part of his humanity. "You had the power to help him," this Padm? whispered. "Your love could have saved him, but you chose not to. You held his heart, but you did nothing to save him."

Amidala watched the images deep inside of the figure, longing for the days when they had been so young together, but the memories would not come with the immediacy she longed for. More urgent were the memories of the days after they had been reunited, the days when she might have backed away and asked him to come with her... the days when she had instead become so single-minded in her drive for vengeance against Palpatine that it had ceased to matter to her that Ani was destroying his soul every day. She looked up at the glass figure's face. "I am you, as well," she said.

"Remember." The figure nodded and held out its hand. Amidala took it. A warmth seeped into her.

She stood still for a moment, though Luke was tugging at her sleeve. She smiled down at him. "You are here, aren't you?"

He cocked his head in a bemused way, not answering her. Was he Luke, or was he just some part of her own mind? Then he grinned in a sunny way, the bright smile that had been all his own. He took her hand and led her further down the path.

A life-sized hologram stood on the path, clad in white, carrying a child in her emaciated arms. She turned to Amidala with haunted eyes - the eyes that had been her own in the years she had fled through the galaxy to escape from Palpatine, her small, beautiful daughter in her arms. It was the time before Alderaan, before Camp One-A, before she had returned to Ani.

"You've betrayed me," the hologram said, its voice terrified.

Amidala considered not answering, but the compulsion was too strong. "I am you."

"I tried to keep them safe, but you hunted them. I tried to shelter them from the war, but you brought the war to them. I tried to make them happy, but you split Leia from the man she loved, and when Luke wished for your affection above all things, he had to pay for it with his soul."

Amidala wanted to protest. It wasn't my fault - I was tired, I was lonely, I, I, I. But looking into those eyes that she had once seen every day, she found she couldn't do so. Instead, she looked down at her feet. "I betrayed you," she whispered. "And I am you."

The hologram didn't reach out immediately, so Amidala looked up. It was gazing at her with compassion. "And I, you," it said. Then it reached across and whispered, "Remember."

As this Padm? came into her, she felt a deep sadness settle around her heart, but it was a just sadness, a sadness that belonged to her. It was grief for a life that had been stolen against her will.

The light from the hologram faded. The sky darkened. The garden disappeared. Only one figure remained, standing in the middle of a great arched doorway ten meters ahead. Beyond her was a hangar, with only one ship visible, a bright yellow Naboo fighter.

Beside her, the boy who had to be Luke looked up, fear on his small face. She leaned down and kissed him. "It will be all right," she said. "Mother will take care of it."

He nodded uncertainly and led her forward.

The last figure was not another image of herself. It was a great white flower - a lotus - folded up on itself. Amidala could see three petals, each bearing a sketched image of the figures she had seen already. She reached out to touch it, and the petals opened, folding down to form a pedestal. Only one remained upright, behind the figure that had been hidden within the bud.

From deep inside the lotus, Queen Amidala of Naboo arose, her face painted white, her purple gown falling heavily to the white petals at her feet. Luke went to her, and hid himself in the folds of velvet.

Lady Vader knelt. "I know. I have betrayed you."

There was no response from the impassive figure standing in front of her.

She sighed. "I turned my back on my duties to my people. I thought of myself before I thought of those for whom I am responsible. I -"


Lady Vader looked up.

Queen Amidala was smiling slightly. "I am you," she said, and opened her arms.

Lady Vader, Padm? Naberrie, Amidala of the Naboo, rose to her feet, and stepped into those arms, letting herself be embraced. Instead of feeling something flow into her, she felt a wholeness, a sense of transfer and balance. The Queen glowed around her.

Then there was darkness.

Amidala opened her eyes.

She was standing alone at the entrance to the South hangar. The fighter Luke had flown to Naboo sat by itself near the far wall. He had landed it there for some reason that she would never know, even though the rest of the fleet had been in the main hangar on the north side of the Command Center.

Of her vision... dream... whatever it had been, only one thing remained. In front of her was the last tall petal of the lotus, with one last sketched imaged on it.

It was Padm? again, but not the soft and romantic Padm? of meadow or the terrified young mother. It was not the queen in hiding. This Padm? wore a simpler costume, one Amidala only remembered vaguely because Captain Typho had not allowed her to wear it often.

It was the uniform of a Naboo fighter pilot.

The petal faded and disappeared.

Amidala breathed deeply. She had many things to do, and a promise to keep.

"Yousa Majesty?"

Lieutenant Gistra's head snapped up when he heard the voice of the Gungan who had been manning communications while he took a short break. Whatever Princess Leia said, Gistra didn't think that the Empress ought to be too close to the fragile communications system. Every time she gave a speech, the Rebellion ended up losing people. People said the Jedi knew about mind tricks, but the Empress... well, in Gistra's opinion, she could have taught them a thing or two.

But when he turned to block her, she was simply watching quietly, her dark eyes scanning the keys that the Gungan was hitting. She looked up briefly at Gistra. "Has there been any contact with Naboo yet?"

Gistra started to answer, but found himself caught in those eyes. They were a gravitational force. By the ghosts of all the Teachers, she was beautiful.


"No, ma'am," he managed, and fought against what he was certain was some kind of mind control. "They wouldn't be able to hit your missile anyway. Hasn't been a priority."

She raised an eyebrow, but did not reprimand him for his tone. He nevertheless felt ashamed.

"What channels are you scanning?" she asked.

"A few frequencies toward the high end of the spectrum, mainly." He showed her a list, and pointed to one number that glowed brightly. "We're bouncing everything off this. Anything we - that is, anything the Princess decides needs to be broadcast can go out to everyone who's picking anything up at all."

The Empress merely nodded. "Then you are doing all you can. The Princess will lead you well."

With that, she disappeared as abruptly as she had come.

The Command Center was no longer one crisis after another, but it was still hectic, and Leia had not been off her feet for an hour or more. Most of the problems were technical now, and things were running smoothly. She thanked the Maker for engineers and their single-minded devotion to technology... none of them seemed to care who was an Imperial and who was a Rebel, unlike the military leaders who sometimes only worked together grudgingly. The engineers were surly and didn't like taking any orders from anyone, but at least they didn't care which commander they were scowling at.

She checked her chrono. Why no word from Han? He had promised not to do anything foolish without coming back here first to check in with her, and she trusted him. But why hadn't he gotten back to her about the cruiser yet?

A tech cursed loudly in a far corner, and Leia stood and turned to go see what was happening. As she did, she saw Mother standing in the arched doorway of the room, her simple red gown fading into the shadows of the hall. But her face was clear.


She didn't answer. She just smiled sadly.

Leia was going to go to her - she had to; there was something about that smile that was wrong - but a console overheated, spraying sparks into the air and shorting out several other terminals around it. The tech got up - still cursing - and called her over to see what needed to be done.

When she finished sorting it out, Mother had gone.

In the quarters of the Empress, the door stood open. A traveling wardrobe was flung wide, its contents scattered as though they had been rifled quickly in a desperate search. Expensive gowns and veils, in varying shades of red, lay across the floor. One veil had fallen into the remains of a jar of facial cream that had been knocked off the bureau in haste.

The destruction stopped at the second drawer of the bureau, where the lost item had apparently been found. It had been carried ceremonially to the bed and placed on the pillow.

The box was exquisite, made of tiral, a rare pliable metal that reflected all surrounding colors perfectly. It had been shaped and decorated with loving care by Lord Vader's hands, its shape suggesting the wings of the birds of Naboo - or the feathers of a white cape worn long ago by a girl he had loved. Its top had been opened, to reveal its soft lining, made from a gown rescued from an Imperial museum - an orange, yellow, and red gown whose pattern had been designed to resemble flames. This cloth had been stuffed to cushion the one item that the box held, the one possession Amidala had never relinquished in the years since her childhood, though she had often had to keep it hidden.

Amid all the luxury, the japor snippet would have looked dull and dreary to any other eye - it was beaten and weathered, its arcane symbols faded over time. But its place alone was enough to tell the owner of that theoretical eye that it was the most important possession in the room.

The droids had finished the first and second levels of disconnection, and Vader wished, as he always did when he reached this point, that he had simply allowed himself to be swallowed by the fire. His limbs were totally inaccessible to him, a hulking, non-functional life-size droid that happened to be attached to what was left of his body. The sensory equipment in the helmet was high above him - his natural hearing had been dulled in the... the accident... and his vision had naturally deteriorated with age. It was still passable, but it put a soft blur around everything that was disconcerting with everything else gone as well. His vocoder had separated and opened, the microphones that caught his subvocalizations going off to either side for their antiseptic cleaning.

Why had he, with so little left of himself, survived today, while his son, the boy who carried all of their hopes, had perished?

Luke did not exist to carry your shattered hopes. Do not dishonor his memory by considering him nothing more than a replacement for your broken body.

Vader closed his eyes, losing himself in the void of nearly total sensory deprivation. He had not taken the time to know Luke as a man in his own right, not really. He had been a student, a son, a military leader. He had been Amidala's confidante - she would be able to tell him more - but he had not known Luke, not really. For so many years, he had simply relied on the Force to tell him the things he needed to know immediately that the simpler things, the conversations they might have had, just never occurred to him, or when they had, they had been distant concerns. There would be time After. There was always an After somewhere.

And yet, he had known Luke in ways that Amidala never would. He had felt Luke's mind and soul for years, had battled him and taught him and...

Loved him.

Vader had never fooled himself about this last, though he had never known how it fit into his life. He loved his family. He had managed to love Luke onto a funeral pyre.

He sensed the change in the Force when Amidala came into the antechamber, but he couldn't hear her yet, and he knew his eyes wouldn't focus on her until she was closer than the door. At this stage in the process, it was certainly impossible to greet her.

He opened his eyes, expecting to see a hazy red form somewhere beyond the barrier, making blurred motions as she adjusted her breath mask.

Instead, she stood before him, close to him, her uncovered face lovelier than he had remembered. The mask cleared his vision, but it stole warmth from the colors of the world. It -

"Your mask," he tried to say, then remembered that the vocoder was still cleaning.

She read his lips. "It's all right, Ani. I can't stay long."

"What do you... " But no sound came out. He shifted his eyes to the two microphones then looked at her significantly, but she didn't notice.

She leaned forward and kissed his mouth, her lips pressing softly against his, no barrier between them for the first time in more years than Vader was willing to remember. Her hands stroked the sides of his face, clear of machinery. She let her lips linger on his for a moment, then kissed his nose and his head. "Oh, Ani," she whispered. "Loving you is the most important thing I've done with my life. The best thing."

He tried to answer. She noticed the microphones and moved them in. "Thank you," he said. "Amidala, you should not breathe this air. The oxygen... "

"... will make me dizzy in a few minutes, I know." She brushed her finger along the microphones. "I'm sorry I waited, Ani. I did see you ask. But I needed to kiss you like that. I needed to touch you without all that in the way."

Vader considered saying something light, but he was troubled by her mood. A deep sadness was seeping out of her, grief beyond what she'd felt earlier. But it was tinged with peace.

Vader did not trust the combination. "My love, you need rest."

"I'll rest soon," she said. "But I promised I would come to you first."

"Amidala... "

"I know who you are, Ani," she said. "I have always known, from the moment we met. Stop hiding. Please promise me you'll stop hiding."

"Amidala... "

"Promise. I beg you, Ani. Stop this. All of it. Come back. Be Leia's father and my husband. Promise me you'll stop hiding."

"Amidala, your mood is... "

"Promise me."

"I will promise, but you must -"

"I will do what I must," she said.

Vader tried not to understand, tried to will it away from himself. But the truth was written in her eyes. "Amidala, no. Please... "

She kissed him again, deeply, and leaned her forehead against his. "I have to, Ani. I did this. I've spent too long pretending not to be myself. And I can't go back to pretending again."

"Padm?, please... "

Her eyes roamed over his face; he could almost feel them tracing his scars. "Stop hiding, Ani," she said again. "Stop pretending. You've done horrible things. I know that, and you know it. But you're still here. The same Anakin Skywalker who saved me and my world, the same Anakin Skywalker... Shmi's son. Obi-Wan's padawan. My husband. The children's father. You're still there, Ani. And you don't have to drown in what's happened."

She stood back. She was crying, he saw now, her lips trembling.

"Amidala, Padm?... "

"Amidala," she corrected softly. "I have to be Amidala now. Padm? could never leave you. And I have to." The trembling lips gave way to shuddering muscles in her cheeks, and the gentle crying became a sob. "Oh, Ani. I wish I'd done it all differently. But I didn't. And now... "

"Padm?... "

"It was cruel to come here. But I couldn't leave without saying goodbye, without seeing your eyes one more time... "

"Don't do this... "

But she turned and ran.

Vader reached out with the Force, but he was too late to close the complicated valve system before she was in the antechamber, and she left only the outer door to seal him inside.


But she was gone.

The droids went on with their work.

Leia's eyes roamed over the Command Center. It was operating under a sort of controlled chaos, which she was guiding and directing. A great deal of headway had been made in restoring order to the cities, but there still seemed to be so much left that needed to be done.

But she was pulling away from it. The Center was increasingly becoming a low, dull hum in the back of her mind.

Something in the Force was calling to her, was demanding her attention. She had tried to ignore it at first - there were too many things here she needed to deal with - but that hadn't lasted very long. She was being drawn to one or both of her parents, but her attempts to follow the trail of whatever this was tugging at her consciousness got lost and confused when she got close to either one of them.

She hadn't gone off to find Mother because she wasn't convinced that something was truly wrong with her. The sense Leia got from her now...she felt the same way she had looked a little while ago when she had made her wordless visit to the Command Center. Sad and smiling at once. Grieving and distressed, but peaceful. Purposeful.

It was the first time she had sensed that from her mother since...well, she wasn't sure she had ever sensed her mother feeling this centered before. She found it hard to believe that this was an indication that something was wrong.

So she turned to her father. But she couldn't get a proper read on him at all. She had never tried to before; she had spent so much of her time trying to close herself off from him that she wasn't sure where to begin trying to sense where his heart and mind were. She couldn't break through to get a clear impression, and she was left with a confused jumble.

Leia's feet were moving now, stumbling in an uncertain way toward one of the Command Center's exits. Several people called to her, some asked her if she was all right, data pads were thrust in front of her by officers trying to get her to approve this or that order. Many of them didn't register with her at all, and she ignored the rest.

She made it out into a hallway, and heading blindly in the direction where she believed her father's quarters to be.

He was feeling...trapped...hopeless? What was happening?

She still got nothing from her mother besides that strange calm.


Where was she?


Her feet were beginning to feel heavy, like they couldn't decide which way to carry her. She was slowing down.

And someone was grabbing her arm.

"Leia! Leia, what's going on?"

She gazed up at Han, blinking slowly. He gently turned her around so that she was facing him, and touched her face. He was clearly concerned. She tried to bring her mind around and focus on him and on what he was saying to her.

"Sweetheart, are you okay?"

She shook her head no in a slow, deliberate motion. "I - I need to find my parents, Han. I think something's wrong."

"Like what? What's happened?"

"I don't know yet," she said.

"Okay, okay, let's find them," he replied. "We need to talk with them anyway." He glanced back over his shoulder at Lando, whom Leia noticed for the first time, and they shared resigned expressions. Her heart sank. "We couldn't find a way to get around the auto-pilot. I really don't think there is a way around it. We need to sit down with them and discuss what we want to do next."

That was finally enough to pull Leia out of her stupor, and give Han her complete attention. "Are you sure there's nothing left to try? What about -"

"I'm sorry, Leia," Lando said, "but we've done everything we could think of, and tried a few other things I can't believe we even came up with. We dragged Artoo in there to take a look at it, and he knows the systems better than we do. We can't get to the root commands, and there was no way to get at it through other systems."

"Besides," Han added, "time's running out. If we're going to stop this thing, we've got to make a decision now."

The hopelessness of the situation hit Leia, as she thought about the limited and dreadful options they were left with. She locked her eyes with Han's and said coldly, "You can't do this. Don't even think about volunteering again."

"Leia, someone's got to go. I'm not saying it has to be me. But there's no reason I can' considered. I'm the reason so many people are going to be killed by this."

"Han -" she began. She didn't want to think what it would be like to watch Han fly off, heading toward his certain death. "I won't let you do it." To lose him at all, no matter how noble the cause might be...

Tears stung her eyes, and she almost couldn't breathe. She was surprised by how strongly the emotions came to her. After all, she had meant what she said. Han was not going to be the one to go. So why was she so affected by the thought of it?

She felt hopeless. Trapped.

"Father?" she whispered harshly.

Han and Lando looked at her blankly, but she had already freed her arm from Han's grasp, and was flying down the hallway, resuming her interrupted trip to her parents' quarters. She didn't pause to check if the other two were following her.

The feelings were so strong because that was the way he was feeling now. With that realization she was suddenly reading him easily, and almost becoming overwhelmed his panic and despair.

Why would he feel this way? She didn't want to consider the possibilities, she didn't want to know.

She rounded a corner, and to her surprise, her father was there, in the hallway, running toward her.

She barely had time to register the way he looked - out of sorts, almost disheveled - before he reached her, and grabbed her roughly by her shoulders. "Your mother, where is she?"

And that's when Leia understood.

She understood her mother's odd moods, and why her father's feelings had mirrored her own about Han possibly taking on this mission.

She paled, and beseeched him. "Father...she's not going to...she hasn't..."

"Have you seen her in the last few minutes?"

"No," she gasped. "Please, she hasn't gone, has she? She wouldn't - she couldn't! Where would she even find a ship? I thought all the ones on the base were destroyed."

That triggered something in her father's mind. He abruptly let her go, and broke into a run. Leia did her best to keep up with him, as Han and Lando trailed behind them.

He was leading them to the south hangar, a hangar that Leia had believed held ships and vehicles for traveling on the surface of the planet, from city to city. She didn't think it had any of the Imperial space vehicles.

But, even as they approached the hangar, Leia could hear the sound of engines starting up, of a ship preparing for launch. The sound tore at Leia's heart.

Mother, no!

She and Father reached an entrance at the instant Luke's Naboo fighter left the hangar. It soared for the atmosphere, and was out of sight within seconds.

The two of them stood there, perfectly still, watching the sky - as if she would simply reappear, as if they could do something to bring her back.

A loud crash startled Leia, and she took her eyes from the sky. Her father had smashed his hand into the wall in utter anguish, shorting out the mechanics in his arm. Sparks briefly flew up from his wrist. He cried out, and brought his hand back for another slam.

"Father!" Leia grabbed his arm, and felt the slight burns of the sparks. "Father, please."

He easily removed his arm from her hands, but she reached up to catch it again. She wasn't worried about him hitting the wall again - now she was scared that he would take that arm and pull out his power packs from his chest, or disconnect his respirator...he knew Amidala could not be stopped, he knew that she was gone. The grief of it was making him crazy.

"Father, don't! She wouldn't have wanted you to do this, you know that." She continued struggling with him. "Please, I can't lose you too!" Her voice dropped, and she whispered, "Please!"

He kept fighting her, and fighting himself, but Leia stayed beside him, steadfast and firm, while still pleading with him, begging him to come back to her, to stay with her.

Finally, his arm went limp, and then awkwardly went around her. Leia accepted his embrace and moved into her father's arms.

Amidala didn't bother trying to judge the missile's trajectory, or use the unreliable communications equipment to pick up its signal. It might take any number of routes through deep space, and an object less than two meters long and half a meter wide would be easy to miss in all the black emptiness.

But she knew where it was going, the one place where it would have to be. There was nothing wrong with the fighter's sensor arrays; she would see it coming.

She set course at top speed for Ledaga, to wait for the missile she had ordered Piett to launch.

I will never see Ani or Leia again.

She squeezed her eyes shut against the thought and punched the hyperspace key. The fighter shuddered, then slipped into lightspeed. When she opened her eyes, white starlines streamed around her.

Being here in Luke's fighter was the only comfort she had here in the dark. He always made the places he lived and worked his own. The music he had enjoyed on long flights was available to her at the touch of a key, the food he kept on hand was in the small compartments at her right. The smell of the soap he used still hung in the air. Amidala didn't feel completely alone here, with so much of him surrounding her.

But I will never see Leia and Ani again. Or Theed in the summer. Or anything but deep space. I will never dance at my daughter's wedding, or hear my grandchildren laugh.

She took a sharp breath.

There was nothing to be done about it. She had grasped at those visions so desperately that they'd broken under her clumsy touch, and now they were gone for her. Maybe they would still be there for Ani.

That goodbye had been painful, and it had been cruel, so cruel to do it as she had. Nothing she had done in the mad years she was leaving behind had been so wretched as waiting to go to him until he was helpless to stop her - but she knew she'd had to do it. Ani had never laid a hand on her in anger, but she knew well that if it had come to a physical struggle, she would have no more chance against Ani than she would have trying to catch the missile with her bare hands.

So she had gone.

Maker help her.

But it would have been as cruel - maybe more cruel - to leave with no goodbye, to let him think she had forgotten him or dismissed his importance. And she couldn't have done it. She'd had to see him, touch him, one last time.

Her mind circled around what she'd said to him. Had it been everything she'd meant? Had she told him she loved him? She'd said something about loving him being important, but had she actually given him one last I love you? She couldn't remember.

And Leia...

She had been so busy, doing what she was meant to do, and there had been no way to interrupt her. Was it better to leave as she had?

There were so many things left to say, but they never would have formed themselves in time. They barely formed themselves now, when she knew it was her last chance... or that her last chance had passed. She would use the frequencies that she'd gotten from Lieutenant Gistra - she had them programmed into the fighter's transmitter already - but the things she wanted to say to her husband and her daughter would not be broadcast to everyone who could hear. They did not belong to the galaxy; they belonged to her family.

Nothing would remain of the fighter. There was no message she could leave behind other than the japor snippet she'd left on her pillow. She hoped that Ani would know that it meant she would stay with him if it turned out there was anything beyond what she was about to do. She hoped he wouldn't see it as symbolically leaving him behind.

She hoped that Leia wouldn't take this as a second abandonment, a re-opening of the wound she'd left so long ago, when she'd left her on Alderaan to be raised without so much as her own true name.

If she could only reach them, privately, long enough to say all the things that were left...

Ani, my love will always remain with you, as it did when you believed me dead before. There is a place in your heart that is clean and strong, and you can look for me inside it whenever you need me. Let that place grow, let it overtake all the shadows. And don't forget me, please don't forget me. I live in you. I love you. Take care of Leia - she will carry us forward, and the galaxy with us. And she needs you more than she will admit.

No, even that might not have been enough, even if she could have gotten all of it out with Ani straining to convince her to stop. There would never be enough words, enough caresses, enough time, even if they spent the next century together. The galaxy had been brutal and unfair to them - that had not been a delusion of her madness. But they had made what they could of the time they had, and Amidala would not allow herself to waste the last hour of her life seething in anger about what could not be changed.

Leia, the memory of you - of your smile and eyes - carried me through twenty years in hell, and I repaid you by making you a captive and allowing you to be desperately unhappy. There is no way to say how sorry I am. But the love was real, the need was real. Please never doubt that. I will love you now as I should have all along, sheltering you and protecting you. That was my responsibility, and I failed it. Please accept my love, and let it no longer be painful to you. Take care of Ani - he is hurt and fragile, and has let the truth of himself be hidden in shadows for so long that he fears the light. And he needs you more than he will admit.

How inadequate, how weak.

No. Perhaps it was best - perhaps it was fitting - that her final words would go out to strangers, a political message of the sort that had always been her strength, her downfall, and her duty.

The fighter shuddered out of hyperspace above a small green world. Amidala scanned the surface for the location of the base and found it easily - it was the only concentration of technology on Ledaga. A few bursts of energy seemed to come from it sporadically, but the ship's sensors detected massive seismic activity throughout the region.

Without much hope, Amidala hailed the surface, opening several Rebel frequencies. "This is the Empress. You must evacuate this base immediately. You are... "

A harsh crackle of feedback and static burst into the earpiece of her comm equipment and she cut off the connection. They had not gotten their comm systems back online. It was the last chance.

She took up a stationary orbit above the base, and turned her scanners outward to find incoming objects. She didn't think she would have long to wait.

In the momentary silence, she arranged her dress and her veils so that she would be recognizable, recorded a short message and double-checked to make sure it said what she wanted, then prepared it for mass transmission. It was the last thing she would do to serve the galaxy, and it was the best she could do.

A blinking light appeared on the sensor screen, coming in toward Ledaga quickly. The size was right. The trajectory was right.

Amidala looked up.

The missile was visible now, a small silver speck in the endless night. Panic gripped her, the voices of desperation and the will to live at all costs screaming in her mind.

She forced herself to be deaf to them. The people below her were innocent of this. She was not.

With a trembling hand, she hit the transmit button, sending her final message across the galaxy. Then she unlocked herself from orbit, and launched the fighter at the incoming missile.

It swerved around her first pass - its systems were good - and she looped around it from underneath. There would only be one more chance.

She brought the nose of the fighter up, only meters in front of the careening missile. The impact was immediate and cacophonous, metal screaming against metal, the transparisteel of the cockpit cracking around her. Her body was yanked upward toward the dome by the vacuum effect, the cold of space freezing her skin and the pull of the vacuum tearing at her flesh.

She tried to scream in fear and pain, but there was no air left.

And then fear was gone, and pain was gone, and the universe was filled with white light and silence.

Tucked away, in a corner of the basement of the Imperial Command Center on Naboo, a couple of ensigns were tooling around with a few of the lesser-used frequencies on the comlink. Their commanding officers were locked in the conference rooms above them, having left behind strict orders to interrupt only for the most pressing and urgent issues. The missile should have hit by now, and there was nothing to do but sit and wait.

Except down here. Rebel defectors had always been welcomed in Lady Vader's armed forces, but not many of them had risen to the upper echelons of the military yet. So while the commanders and admirals sat around and waited for the ruined Imperial systems to come back online - which they were doing, in completely unpredictable fits and starts - a few ensigns were trying to put their knowledge of Rebel tactics and communications to use.

Of course, their information was fairly outdated, since nearly all of them had abandoned the Rebellion after Bespin. But after a few tries, they were hitting the right frequencies, and were receiving all sorts of random messages. Bits of underground news channels, some actual Rebel communications (someone thought they heard a Rebel reporting to an Imperial captain, but everyone decided that he must have heard wrong), random people on both sides from all over the galaxy who had also stumbled on the Rebels' working channels trying desperately to raise anyone else...nothing useful or informative, and nothing to justify the effort that had put in so far. But they kept trying.

And then...Someone thought they heard her voice. Someone else tried to strengthen the signal. Someone realized there was a visual with this message. Soon, everyone was crowded around one of the small viewscreens, looking at a frozen image of their Empress and waiting. As the playback began, one of the more technically gifted ensigns quickly overrode the viewscreens in the commanders' conference room, so they would see the message as well.

The last time I came before you, I ushered in my ascension as your Empress. Today, I come before you to tell you that I have failed. I have failed you in my years in the public realm as Lady and Empress Vader.

You gave me your faith, your hopes, and your dreams. And I answered your gifts with betrayal.

In Mos Espa, Amee and Seek looked at one another in utter confusion, while their Imperial patients strained up from their cots to get a better view of Lady Vader on the viewer stationed near the front of their tent. The Rebels had their own viewscreen on a few yards away. The townspeople were watching in a nearby store. There was a slight echo effect from all the different comms tuned to her speech.

"What is she talking about?" Amee whispered, feeling a sudden fear that she couldn't explain.

"Where is she?" Seek replied. "I thought she was here on Tatooine. Does that look like Tatooine to you?" Amee shrugged distractedly.

You placed your faith in me to bring you peace. You believed I would restore order. You trusted that I would not be the same ruler as Palpatine was.

And perhaps I was able to do some of that.

But the methods I used to fulfill those promises were shameful, and corrupted the good I tried to do for you.

The platforms on Coruscant were packed with people, on every level, from the highest spires to the lowest ghettos. Humans and aliens of all kinds watched as an eerie silence held the city, broken only by her voice, and the buzz of engines in the flying lanes.

The Empress was truly loved here, and Coruscant had never really been the same after she decided to move the capital to Naboo. They missed her, especially the alien population of the lower levels that had flourished under her rule after years of the harshest oppression from Palpatine. They supported her strongly, but had to do so at a distance, and it wasn't the same.

Now, she was apologizing for failing them, for letting them down. To the Grans and Wookieees and Twi'leks listening, none of it made any sense. She had never failed them. She couldn't.

You offered me your hope that the hostility and wars could end. You wanted me to bring together the fighting factions, to calm the troubled regions, to end the hostilities that have plagued the Republic and Empire for generations now.

And I tried to do that. But I mistook stifling dissent for bringing consensus, and believed that total control was the only condition under which peace could flourish.

The Rebels in Mos Eisley should have been more surprised by Lady Vader's words than they actually were. But too much had happened for them to feel shocked by anything, including hearing the leader of the Empire essentially admit to every accusation the Rebellion had ever hurled at her.

They had already worked with Imperials to expel the Tuskens. They had seen Leia come into the settlement with Lord Vader at her side. They had watched Lando leave for Imperial headquarters, to join Han and Leia there.

A few of them were suspicious, thinking that the transmission was fake, was a trick of some kind. Why would the Empress send out such a message? From the cramped cockpit of a fighter? It made no sense.

But then, nothing had made sense since the battle had started. And who knew what had gone on at the headquarters? Maybe Leia had managed to talk some kind of sense into her mother after all.

It was possible, at least. So they stood back and listened.

You gave me your dreams for a new galaxy. One that would not fall into the morass of the Republic or the oppression of the Old Empire.

You gave me all of this, and I failed you, giving you many of the same problems, and subjecting you to much of the same tyranny as you lived through before.

I apologize. And now, I will do as I should have done from the beginning.

There were still resistance cells in the less populated sections of Coruscant. No more than a handful were active throughout the whole planet, but they existed. Many of them were older people who had served under the Old Republic before it fell. Some were the children of former Senators and governors. They had despised the Empire in any form, and took Amidala's rise to power as a direct betrayal. A Senator, one of their own, overthrowing Palpatine to set up another Empire? They could hardly fathom it.

There were only one or two left who had actually served with her when she represented Naboo. They didn't share this sentiment with the others, but they thought they saw something of that young, fiery Senator in the older woman who spoke over the skittish comlinks now.

By the time this message is received...I will have died. I am dying to save the Rebels and civilians on the planet Ledaga, where a missile was sent, on my orders, to destroy their base.

The choice to do this was mine and mine alone. I have realized what the right path is for me to take as a leader - and the deaths of more civilians, of more Rebels, of more of my citizens is unacceptable. With no other options remaining, I have chosen to stop the missile with this ship, and take responsibility for what I've done. It was the only thing I could do.

Piett felt dizzy, and had to lean against a table to stop himself from falling over completely.

He gasped for air. "What does - what has she -"

No one answered, as they were to busy staring in horror at the viewscreen one of the ensigns had set up in the main conference room. The same realization was coming to them, and a terrible understanding began hitting the officers all at once.

"She's dead?"

"That can't be, Lord Vader would never let her do -"

"Has it already happened? She's already gone?"

"How could she have changed her mind? Why would she do this?"

"Our own missile. Our own missile killed her. Our own..."

The last was said in a whisper, by Dihave, who sat in a chair, staring at nothing, pale and ashen.

Piett still hadn't found enough air to speak, and didn't know what he could possibly say regardless.

He had killed her.


A captain was looking to him, hoping for some sort of command in the midst of the growing panic that was sweeping their ranks. He was looking to him for orders. After his last order had killed...

"I am relieved of command, Captain," Piett said abruptly. He pushed pass the man and through the crowd at the front of the room. He didn't know where he was going, and he didn't care.

He had killed her.

How was he was supposed to live with that? By giving more orders to his men? He couldn't. He had to leave.

He was dimly aware of the fact that her message continued, and that she was still speaking. He glanced back at her beautiful face, and listened briefly to her voice as she spoke her last words to the galaxy. Then he stumbled away, eventually winding up inside her office, sitting at her desk, numb and oblivious and drowning in guilt. He would not get back up to face anyone else again for many long hours.

Do not grieve for me, because I have finally left you the galaxy you deserve. My husband, daughter, and I worked together on Tatooine, and found a real solution to the problems that have plagued this government. Reforms have been agreed to and changes are in place. Your rights and freedoms will be returned to you, and the government will serve you as it was meant to.

The changes will be seen most clearly on your homeworlds, and in the Imperial Senate. The royal throne of the Empress will remain. With my death, the throne will pass to my daughter. I pray that you will accept her in this role as willingly as you accepted me. Leia will not fail you in this position. She is more than ready to take up my crown.

In the Imperial Headquarters on Tatooine, no one had noticed that Lady Vader was not in the building with them any more, not until the message had started playing. Only a few of them had even noticed that Leia was no longer giving orders in the Command Center, or that Vader had not returned from his usual nightly personal time. No one had any idea where they were now.

Word of the attack on the Rebel base had spread quickly, but they had all assumed that something had been figured out by someone, that by some means or another, the danger had been dealt with, and had passed.

The Rebels - all of them, even the wilder ones from Alpha Squadron - were sobered completely by the realization that the Empress had gone off to stop the weapon personally. A sense of shame hung over them, as they watched the woman they had gleefully tried to kill make the ultimate sacrifice...a sacrifice that none of them were sure they'd be so willing to make if they had been in her position.

The news that Leia was going to take over surprised the Imperial officers. Some of them knew her personally from her time in the Palace, but most found her a confusing figure, someone connected directly to the Empress but unable to stay on one side of the fight. But now, she had come to enough of an understanding with her mother to accept the throne, to accept the existence of an Empire at all?

They all listened together, each side truly beginning to see the other's leader in a new light.

With my daughter leading the new government, and my husband...working to restore...his Order, you should rest assured that you are in good hands. And now, I have fulfilled my obligations to you.


With that, viewscreens across the galaxy went blank, and the message ended.

The desert night was cold and unforgiving.

Vader and Leia might not have noticed it as they stood in the hangar, their arms folded around one another in an embrace that should have seemed surreal but didn't. They didn't seem to take note of anything but the absence of the ship that had just launched.

But Lando noticed. He also saw that Han was rubbing his arms sharply, taking small steps back toward the base. They couldn't stay here all night. Lando guessed that Han didn't want to risk stepping into the moment Vader and Leia were sharing - he had something to lose if they resented it - so Lando decided to do it himself. He took a deep breath, then reached out to touch Leia's small shoulder.

She didn't respond at first, but after a few seconds, she looked up, turning her face away from Vader's chestplate.

"We should go inside," Lando said. "We need to know what's happening."

"We do know," Leia said.

But Vader nodded and released her from the embrace (she merely turned and wrapped her arm around him from the side, not letting her touch leave him). "Amidala will speak again," he said. "I would hear it. I must hear it."

In silence, they made their way back to the small conference room where they had spoken earlier, adjacent to the command center. Lando quietly broke away from the group, arranged to take a small holoprojector from the Rebel commander, and double-checked the comm settings that were being used. Gistra looked mildly surprised, and mentioned that the Empress had asked for the same information. Lando couldn't think of any answer for that, so he said nothing.

When he got back to the conference room, Vader was sitting at the head of the table, leaning forward with his helmeted head in his hands. Lando had never seen anyone look so miserable. Leia, sitting beside him, had placed her hands on the upper part of left arm. Han was standing behind her, his hands resting lightly on her shoulders.

Leia looked up when Lando came in with the holoprojector. "Just put it on the table," she said. "No sound until... " She took a shaky breath. "Thank you for bringing it, Lando."

"No problem." He set it up where they could all see it, and tuned it to the frequency Gistra had said was the central one, the one he had given the Empress before she left. Random images flickered in an out of it, views of a galaxy that was about to disappear forever.

Quite suddenly, Leia screamed, putting her hands to her ears like she was trying to block out a horrible sound.

Han knelt beside her. "Leia... what is it? Leia... "

Leia let him hold her, but said nothing. She just rocked against his chest, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. It was uncomfortable to watch, and Lando found his eyes shifting to Vader himself. One black-gloved hand had reached up to something at his neck.

Lando realized in time what he was doing. "Lord Vader!" he called, not sure what good it would do.

Leia jumped and threw herself at her father. His hand moved away from the circuit he'd been touching. They embraced awkwardly in the chairs. "Father," she whispered. "Don't. She's gone, isn't she?"

Vader nodded.

"Don't leave me, Father. Please."

Lando glanced at Han, who shook his head in bewilderment.

Then there was a burst of static from the holoproj, and when it cleared, the red-clad form of Lady Vader, the Empress, hovered above the conference room table.

Lando hit the sound.

"The last time I came before you, I ushered in my ascension as your Empress. Today, I come before you to tell you that I have failed."

Vader shook his head in negation, pulling away from Leia, though her hands remained on his arm. He reached one gloved hand toward the image. It flickered when he touched it, and he drew the hand away quickly, as though afraid it would disappear. He leaned forward, as if he could will her back.

Lando could see Leia's hands tightening on her father's arm. As her mother went on, accusing herself of crime after crime - the crimes of which Leia had always accused her in the past - her eyes slipped shut. Tears slipped silently down her cheeks, cutting tracks in the dust that had accumulated over the course of the day. Vader just continued to shake his head. His hands were now around the base of the holoprojector, trying to hold the image to him without actually touching it.

"... I mistook stifling dissent for bringing consensus, and believed that total control was the only condition under which peace could flourish... ."

Lando slipped back to stand beside Han, and whispered, "What happens now?"

Han's reply was barely louder than a breath. "We start over."

"If it happened while she was recording... "

"I don't think she'd do that to them."

Lando wanted to continue the conversation, wanted to talk about anything other than what he was seeing, but Han wasn't listening anymore, and words wouldn't come anyway, at least not words that mattered. Instead, he turned back to the Empress and her ravaged family.

"... By the time this message is received...I will have died. I am dying to save the Rebels and civilians on the planet Ledaga, where a missile was sent, on my orders, to destroy their base. The choice to do this was mine and mine alone... "

Leia made a tight, strangled sound, and resumed the rocking motion she'd been making before the speech had begun. Han soothed her with his hands, and she quieted. Vader's hand moved slowly to rest on her shoulder, though his face never turned from the last image of his wife.

"Do not grieve for me, because I have finally left you the galaxy you deserve... "

As the Empress sketched out the compromises they'd made together here a few hours ago, Lando had the distinct impression that neither Leia nor Vader was even listening anymore, at least not to the words. They responded to the tone of her voice and watched with rapt attention, but there was little reaction to the words themselves. Leia didn't react at all when her mother passed on the crown of the highest power in the galaxy.

"With my daughter leading the new government, and my husband...working to restore...his Order" - neither Vader nor Leia responded to this, but Lando gave a start; had she actually left that instruction? - "you should rest assured that you are in good hands. And now, I have fulfilled my obligations to you. Goodbye."

The transmission ended and static hung in the air.

Leia made the strangled sound again, then began to weep. "Mother," she whispered. "Mother, Mother... "

Vader pulled the holoprojector to him, and began to play the message again. Leia gathered herself and looked across at him. "Father, don't. Don't do it. That wasn't for us. It was for everyone else."

"But we have nothing else," Vader said. His voice was soft and sounded almost lost. "It is all we have left, Leia."

"It's not ours. Maybe as Princess... Empress... and Lord Vader. Instructions. But as Leia and Anakin... she wasn't talking to us, Father. She said goodbye to us earlier. Didn't you feel it, Father? She said goodbye to us before she started speaking."

"Then we have nothing."

"We have each other," Leia said. "And we have jobs to do."

Vader shook his head. "I cannot, Leia."

She started to say something, then shook her head and leaned on his shoulder. They stayed like that for a long time - nearly an hour, Lando guessed later, though there was no sense of time at all while it was passing - with Lando and Han moving aimlessly and wordlessly about the room, then Vader sat back and gently plucked Leia's hands from his arm. "You are tired, my daughter. You should rest."

"I'm not going to leave you here alone, Father."

"I do not require sleep. You do. So do your friends."

"I don't want you to be alone."

"We'll stay with him."

Lando turned to the door; they all did.

Two middle-aged humans stood there, dressed in desert clothes. The man had a medical case. The woman carried nothing, but her face held great compassion.

"Who are you?" Leia demanded.

"They're from Mos Espa," Han said. "They were helping at the medical center."

Vader only looked at them, his head cocked slightly.

The woman spoke to Han, but her eyes didn't leave Vader. "We came to tell you that things have been properly arranged and all is in order. I'm sorry to disturb you at a time like this. But we also came for Anakin."

Vader stood. "It is unnecessary, Amee," he said. "You also need rest."

"We've rested," the man said.

"I can stay with my father," Leia told them. "I -"

"Leia, you must rest," Vader said. "You will have many duties after sunrise, and you will not have an opportunity again. It is unnecessary for any of you to watch over me."

The woman - Amee - knelt on Vader's other side. "Anakin, when my mother was taken, your mother came and sat with my father and me. Let me return the kindness, for her sake."

Vader was quiet for a moment, then nodded. "For her sake." He looked at the man. "Seek, will you do the kindness of examining my daughter and her companions for injuries, then seeing to it that they get rest?"

The man nodded solemnly. "Yes. And then I'll check on you."

"Father -" Leia began, but Vader raised his hand, and she fell silent.

"I will... You need not concern yourself with me, Leia. I will not leave you."

Leia looked at him doubtfully.

"Leia, rest. I regret frightening you, and... will not do so again."

After a long moment, Leia nodded. The exhaustion of the day was obviously pressing in on her, and, with a last prompt from her father, she let Seek lead her out of the conference room. Han and Lando followed her. Lando spared one last glance back at Lord Vader - the man who was being called "Anakin" - and saw him sitting quietly, his childhood friend at his side, looking alone and defeated.

Then he followed his own companions further into the base. Seek examined each of them gently, cleaning and re-bandaging cuts, checking bone and joint injuries, scanning them for incipient infections. When he had finished, he brought out a hypospray, and pressed it to each of their arms in turn.

The effect was quick and soothing. Lando felt sleep steal over him, saw it stealing over Han and Leia. He stretched out on a small, uncomfortable cot, and let weariness take him, as the long desert night finally drew to its end.

When he awoke, Tatoo I had risen, and Tatoo II was on the ascent.


Naboo was not a planet that had strictly defined seasons.

That was part of its appeal, of course, part of its wonderful and near-idyllic nature. There was almost never a need for layers of clothing to ward of a chill, and the sun was never hidden by clouds long enough for people to miss its rays. You could almost become unaware of the passage of time here, as days and weeks went by against a barely changing backdrop. It was beautiful, peaceful, and comforting, with very little interruption.

Leia realized now that she had allowed herself to be lulled into Naboo's calm, at least a little bit. That surprised her. Her time on Naboo had begun with her confined to her bed all day as she slowly recovered from the injuries she had sustained from the Falcon's crash. Lying in that same room every day, seeing the same people - she was nearly driven mad from the sheer repetition of her existence. Eventually, she latched on to the large window that provided her only contact with the world beyond the Palace, and gave her the only chance to see something change on a daily basis. She had figured out certain patterns, some focusing on the most minute of details. She watched the wind pick up slightly and flutter the leaves of a tree with great interest. Cloudy skies were an event. A five-minute change in when the sun went down never escaped her notice.

She knew the rhythms of Naboo very well, and the fact that it had not rained today - that it didn't even look like rain as she stared out at Theed from the Palace throne room - meant that the wet season was nearly over. And that meant she had been on the planet for...for quite a long time. Months now.

Tatooine was practically a lifetime ago.

The grief was still there, a part of her, and who she was. The sense of loss had never gone away, and she knew it wouldn't. But at some point after Mother's death she had learned to pick up, and do the work she needed to do, in spite of the way she felt. Or maybe because of the way she felt. She could not abide the thought that Luke's and Mother's deaths had been meaningless, and had an insatiable urge to do whatever she could to create the kind of galaxy where Luke would not have been so senselessly killed, the kind of galaxy that she and her mother had imagined and crafted.

It hadn't been easy, though Leia preferred to focus on her blessings, because she knew things could have been much worse. The general reaction of the galaxy to Mother's message and death had been pure shock. There had been no organized opposition to Leia's ascension to the throne, mostly because none of the factions or groups could come to a decision about what exactly had occurred. And the plain fact of it was that the vast majority of people in the galaxy were either followers of Mother's Empire or sympathetic to Leia's Rebellion, and neither side felt they could mount a serious objection when the Empress willingly turned over control to the leader of the Rebellion.

Leia had done her best to cut through the confusion and malaise as she began implementing the reforms that would give birth to her new Empire. The work was slow and at times tedious - each governmental change seemed to affect a hundred other smaller things, and decentralizing certain facets of the Empire without having them fall apart was a tricky business. Leia moved deliberately, not introducing a new reform until the last was working reasonably well. Her caution had paid off so far, as no crisis had come up, and her wary citizens were relieved to see her dedication to making things truly work, and to leaving the old divisions behind.

A few of the biggest reforms would be coming up very soon - her appointment of regional governors, and the popular election of a new Senate. After that, Leia was certain the rest would begin to fall into place, and Coruscant would be home to a truly free government again after decades of oppressive rule.

The time had come for the Empress to leave Theed. It was past time.

"You're going to miss it here, aren't you, Sweetheart?"

Leia could see Han's wavy reflection in the plasteel, and had sensed him approaching before he had reached the door. She didn't turn around. "Are you sure you aren't a Jedi?" she asked.

"Quite," he replied as he crossed the room.

"I don't know. I think I'll miss her more than I'll ever specifically miss here." He was behind her now, and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest. They watched the city in silence for several moments. "Sometimes it's hard to separate the two. It's hard to tell the difference."

"I know. That's why you decided to move."

She nodded. "Part of me still wonders at times if I'm doing this as some sort of...repudiation of her."

He pulled her closer, and shook his head. "You know better than that. You've thought this through. The galaxy needs a fresh start. It would be too hard to do that from here."

That was what he had said to her before, when she was still trying to sort out her feelings on why she felt it necessary to leave Naboo. He was still right. Even her father had eventually agreed with her reasoning. This wasn't a slight against Mother - against the woman who had carried and borne her, who had raised her those first few years, who had held and comforted her after Luke's death, who had given her life once she realized what was right...No, this was a way of breaking off from the Empress Vader, the one whose cult of personality had twisted the Empire into a false and repressive regime. That cult was strongest here, on Naboo, and the new government needed to disassociate itself from that, just as Mother herself had done in that final message. A return to Coruscant was necessary.

"It's the right thing to do," she finally said to Han. "But, like everything else, being right doesn't make it easy."

"No," he agreed, "but if it helps, most of the officers I've talked to understand why we all have to leave."

"Do they?"

"I think so. They're disappointed that they have to go back to jammed-up sky-lanes and durasteel buildings, but I told them that missing the cushy life here on Naboo wasn't a good enough reason to doubt your orders to get back to Coruscant."

She couldn't help grinning at his tone, and she twisted her head around to give him a teasing look. "And I have no doubt that when High Admiral Solo gives an order -" he groaned and rolled his eyes "- the officers are quick to obey."

"Leia, would you please stop calling me that?" he asked with an irritation that sounded half-mocking.

"What would you call yourself then?"

"I don't know," he said. "But I didn't even like being called General by the Rebels. And I don't remember getting a commission yet, Your Majesty."

"A formality, which will be taken care of once we reach Coruscant," she said simply. "I don't know why you bother pretending to fight this."


"You chose it!" His response was a blank stare. "I'm afraid you got so used to running the Rebellion in my absence that you can't help but put yourself in charge any time a group of two or three officers get together," she explained. "I never asked you to start integrating the armies or implementing the military reforms - but I didn't have to. I just looked up, and there you were giving orders and running things."

He sighed heavily, apparently realizing that he was beaten. "Well...someone had to do it."

"You've done a wonderful job, Han. We could have never gotten everyone working together so smoothly if you hadn't made it your top priority."

"You were so busy with the political stuff, and Lando doesn't have much interest in military work when he can be off doing something else. I didn't want this to get ignored by accident or anything like that, and the Rebels still listen to me, and the Imperials were mostly willing to work with me since I wasn't looking to arrest them or strip them of their command - and Chewie offered to help..."

"So, naturally, you stepped in, and everything is sort of falling into place?" Leia finished. "You should give yourself more credit."

"Maybe," he said, "but I don't know how I feel about this 'High Admiral' thing. In a legitimate army? That's outside of my experience." Leia laughed and Han joined in.

She sobered suddenly, and asked, "Has Piett been up to helping you at all?"

"A little. Not much. He's so reluctant." Han shrugged. "He's afraid of himself, he doesn't want to do anything. He thinks if he tells me how to do anything, or tells me anything about how things work -"

"- someone else will have to die," Leia whispered.

Han rubbed her arms gently. "Yes. I asked your father to talk to him about coming to Coruscant when we leave. Maybe he can convince him."

"I hope so." Leia gave Han a significant look. "Of course, I've been trying to do my share of convincing with Father himself..."

"Are you still trying to get him to see that boy?" Han asked. "I didn't think he was willing to do that yet."

"Maybe he's not. But I think he's waited long enough, Han. This is his - his calling. It's time he got started. Rebuilding the Order is not going to be simple."

A family out in the farm country had contacted Leia a few days ago - their youngest son seemed to exhibit Force-sensitivity and powers, and after Mother's message, they thought someone in the Palace might know what they should do. Leia knew what a huge first step a visit would be for her father, and she hoped he'd take it. There had been no additional suicide scares after Tatooine, and Father had been a huge help to her on any number of issues. He had claimed to be perfectly content in supporting and protecting Leia, just as he had done with her mother. But, he was a Jedi at heart, and she no longer wanted him to deny that. They occasionally meditated together and Leia knew he was looking for guidance in the Force for what he should do next.

"If he's interested," Han was saying, "I think the Jedi Temple could be restored. I've spoken to people who have some ideas about what to do with it."

She nodded absentmindedly.

"The officers on Coruscant say they're ready for our arrival," he continued. "Lando's already working on preparations for the new Senate, getting everything set up for them so they can get to work as soon as they're all elected."

Leia smiled. "Good for him. I think Lando will make a great Chancellor once the Senate is ready to elect one."

"He definitely thinks so!" Han said, and they both laughed again.

Leia finally turned away from her view of Theed, and looked at the throne room, which was completely cleaned out and packed up. The throne itself sat in the middle of the nearly empty room. It would remain here after she left, as would several of Mother's things. The Palace would stand as a testament to her, as a reminder of her sacrifice.

Leia swallowed back her grief as she walked through the room, and eventually stopped to touch the throne. She would miss Naboo, because she and her family were tied so deeply to it. But she knew that Mother and Luke were with her and Father, and would continue to be, as they started the next phase of their lives.

She reached back for Han's hand, and pulled him to her. "Let's go, Han."

They left the throne room together.

The clothes had belonged to Kenobi.

Leia had asked Seek and Amee to go out to Kenobi's hut and have his things packed and sent to Theed. She had wanted his datapads and books, his holos and his artifacts from the Temple. Amee - at least Vader assumed it was Amee - had decided that the clothes should come as well, and she had altered them herself to fit Vader's larger frame.

For a long time, Vader had not opened the parcel in which she had bound them, though Leia had encouraged him to. There had been little point to it until today. The most disturbing parts of his armor were the ones that were integrated into his cybernetic respiratory system, the ones he could not remove.

Until today.

Tinera Kei had been overjoyed to declare her lung cloning experiments a failure and clear them out of the resp lab. Before coming to Theed, she had worked with the miners on Bespin to develop cybernetic replacements for lungs damaged by the gas, and she had a viable prototype nearly ready, though ignored for three years while she worked with biotechnology. Commander Dihave had asked to be reassigned to her, to offer his technical assistance. (Palace gossip, of which Vader had become morbidly aware in the long and empty days since Tatooine, held that he had offered her more than technical assistance, but Vader had seen no evidence of it. )Between them, they had been able to complete the prototype, test it on four willing patients, and take it into mass production.

Vader had not initially planned to make use of the new technology himself. He had a working respirator, and there were certainly those who would need the new machinery more. There were certain cosmetic improvements - the filtration system was built into the neck gear, leaving the face free - but they seemed unimportant. But

(Stop hiding, Ani... Stop pretending. )

her voice had recurred to him more and more often as the months went on. He could get out of the suit, out from behind the mask - stop hiding behind the symbols she had hated. He remembered her frustrated tears when she'd come to him after her nightmare, and her pleas just before she...

Just Before.

Stop hiding, Ani.

There was one other thing he had taken note of as he observed her patients coming up from their convalescence: Tinera's system had several redundancies, and independently functioning parts. He would never have to be fully helpless during maintenance again.

So he had come here, to the laboratory. He was the last patient, and he had taken pains to assure Tinera that she was not obligated to perform this service. She had nodded soberly, then begun her examination.

It wasn't just the respirator. The structure of the suit had been unified, and other adjustments needed to be made. She covered his legs with a faux skin - he had objected to it as a mere cosmetic touch, but she insisted that it was protective - and re-wired his vocoder to respond to a working flow of air, more akin to a natural voice. Implants had needed to be placed in his ears, and corrective surgery had to be performed on his eyes. She wanted to re-cover his arms, but he felt reticent about it. They would be largely protected by sleeves, and he felt that he was being greedy with her time already. Nor would he allow her to cosmetically remove the scarring on his face and head.

He was who he was.

The final implantation - the lungs themselves - had been last night, and when he'd awakened from the anesthetic, he had drawn breath through his nose and mouth, and felt it pass into his body for processing, and he had nearly wept at the sensation.

But the clothes... the clothes were a different story. They meant something. He had rejected the traditional garb even before he'd left the Temple. To take it on now? It was a decision of somewhat more importance than what sort of covering Dr. Kei had chosen to stretch over the cybernetics.

But in the end, it was all that was left to him.

He put them on carefully. The boots were new, and the trousers non-descript beige ones that Leia had obtained for him. The tunic was one of the long ones that Obi-Wan had apparently favored in his later years, layers of heavy, warm fabric, the color of the desert sand. Vader's hands shook as he remembered the wrapping pattern that had once been second nature to him. And the cloak. He held it in his hands, unable to draw it onto his body.

"My Lord?"

He turned. Piett was standing in the doorway, bowing slightly. He did not raise his eyes. "Dr. Kei has asked me to remind you that you must wear the hooded robe. Your skin is not prepared for the sunlight. I'm sorry, my Lord. It is not my place -"

"To relay my physician's instructions as she asked?"

"To intrude at all."

"My daughter asked me to speak to you, Admiral. You are not performing the duties of your rank."

"My Lord... "

"My wife had great faith in you, Admiral, and I would not have you suggest that she misplaced it."

Piett was surprised into looking up, and Vader saw for the first time how miserable the man was. "My Lord, I -"

A rusty instinct came to him, to comfort the man in front of him as wished often now that he had comforted Luke in his distress. But Piett was not Luke, and his expectations were not familial. He was speaking to Lord Vader, or whatever shadow remained of him. "You are not relieved of your commission, Admiral," Vader said. "Mistakes were made. They do not absolve you of future responsibility."

Piett straightened, almost imperceptibly. "Yes, my Lord."

"Report to High Admiral Solo and assist him in all matters he requires of you."

Piett bowed, muttered, "Yes, my Lord," and left. Vader didn't know whether he'd managed any more good than Leia's cajoling or Han's camaraderie, but he had done what he could.

His business with the Imperial military was finished.

Slowly, deliberately, he drew Obi-Wan's cloak around his shoulders, and raised the hood over his head.

It was warm.

He pulled it around himself tightly, suddenly unable to feel it clearly enough to satisfy him. His sense of smell was still dulled, so it had to be his imagination that he could still pick up the misty scent of the Temple gardens in the fabric.

I've come home, Master. I've finally come home.

"And you are welcome, Padawan."

Vader spun around toward the voice, but the room was empty of visions.

My work is done, Anakin, the voice whispered into his mind. I can rest at last... if you will allow it.

Vader didn't answer. He didn't know how. Instead, he made his way out into the main laboratory. Tinera was packing up the last of her files; Dihave was collapsing the machinery. Tinera quickly checked his robe to make sure it would keep him safe from the sun, then let him go about his business, as she had after every stage of the medical process.

He took the stairs up into the Palace courtyard.

During the first awful month after Tatooine, he had devoted himself to creating this space for Amidala and Luke. It was lush with the Naboo flowers that Amidala had loved, interspersed with the kinds of rock gardens Luke had grown up with. Two urns sat in niches on the wall. One held Luke's remains. The other held only an ancient piece of japor, carved with arcane symbols of a shattered past. He had carved a bench from a block Naboo marble, and he sat down on it now, in his accustomed spot, meditating on the urns and the green vines that were already beginning to grow around them. A groundskeeper had tried to move those vines once, but Vader had asked him to refrain - Amidala would have liked to be surrounded by something living.

"It is finished, my love," he said quietly. "The mask is gone. I'm not hiding anymore."

There was no answer from her. There never had been, nor had there been an answer from Luke. But he could sense them both around him, as close as the air and the sunlight. They were not lost. If there was anything he could hold onto, it was that certainty: they were not lost, not fully. Death was powerless over the bond that held them together.

If only he had understood that simple truth twenty-five years ago.

He felt Leia's presence long before he heard her, but he didn't look away from the urns. She came to him and sat beside him.

"Father, we're almost ready to go."

"I know."

"I wasn't expecting you to be up yet. I had wanted to be there with you."

Vader smiled slightly, the most his damaged facial muscles would allow. "There was no reason for you to be there, Leia."

"I wanted to be there."

"I apologize. It did not occur to me."

A small, warm hand rested briefly on his shoulder, then rose to the edge of the hood. She started to pull it aside, but Vader turned with the cloth, turned until he could look his daughter in the eye. She was lovely. He took her hand. "Dr. Kei recommends that my face remain shaded."

Leia nodded. She pulled her hand away from his gently, and let it rest on his cheek for a moment. "You were right not to have her fix the scars," she said. "I questioned it. But you were right."

Vader drew the cloak close again as Leia moved her hand back to her lap. "I spoke to Piett. I ordered him to work with Han."

"Thank you. I really don't blame him, you know. He's a good officer. I want to see him make something of his life." She bit her lip. "Which brings me to you."

Vader laughed softly, marveling at the ability to do so. He had not had it for many years. "To me," he repeated. "The boy?"

"Yes, Father," Leia said, her voice only beginning to be edged with impatience. "The boy. Mother wanted you to re-establish the Jedi Order. You have to start somewhere."

"I can't, Leia. Don't you understand?"

Leia closed her eyes, then turned her face to look at the urns. "I never thought I would see you refuse her wish."

"Nor did I."

They were silent for several minutes. Vader was well aware that he was denying Amidala's wish, and Leia's. He was denying something in himself - the idea of meeting the child interested him, fascinated him. The idea of rebuilding the destroyed Temple, of cleaning the sacred spaces and bringing the garden back, of taking in students and seeing the Order first return to life then thrive... and it could all begin with this boy in the farm country. It was a path that was laid out before him and he longed to take it.

But he had murdered Jedi, he had joined their deadliest enemy, he had taken part in the very destruction he now sought to undo. The thought of suddenly having his name attached to the restoration, to some glorious new order... it stank of whitewashing and hypocrisy. "I am Lord Vader," he said at last. "I can't do what she asked, what you're asking. It would be... obscene."

"Father, you've given up the mask. When will you give up the false name?"

"When I've earned another."

"You're not going to do that sitting at her grave. She knew that. That's why she asked you to do something. She knew who you are on the inside. So do I, Father."

"What kind of teacher would I be? I got every lesson wrong."

"The kind who knows where the real danger lies. And the kind who will understand and love his students, even when they stumble." She looked at him again. "Father, Luke and I both learned from you. You were a good teacher to us. It's one of the last things Luke said - 'You taught me well.' And he was right. You had the wrong philosophy, but you know how to guide a student. And you won't be teaching that philosophy anymore."

Vader could think of no good counterargument. There had been rough moments in their training - particularly Luke's - but he had not, in truth, trained them terribly differently than he had been trained. Jedi training was not all soothing meditation. He shook his head. "Leia, what if I stumble again?"

"Then I'll catch you," she said simply. "Will you do the same for me?"

Vader nodded. He looked up at the sky. The sun was hot on his face and he turned away from it quickly, but the warmth of it lingered. "I'm frightened, Leia."

"So am I." She stood and held out her hand. "I have the speeder waiting. I can take you out to meet the boy, and if he's as strong as his parents think - and if they consent - maybe we can all go back to Coruscant together."

Slowly, he reached up and took her hand. He didn't want to stand, to leave this place where Amidala's presence was so clear and strong. He didn't want to leave the dust and ashes that remained of his only son.

He gathered his strength and rose from the bench. Leia smiled at him, and slipped her small arm around his waist. He put his own arm across her shoulders. She led him away from the garden, through the sun-dappled shadows of the path that led to the world beyond.

As they reached the gate, he was overcome by a sense of being watched by kind and gentle eyes - Amidala's, Luke's, Kenobi's, his mother's... all of them.

If I could only look back, one last time, I would see them there, could join them and be with them all again. I would feel their embraces, and hear their laughter. I could be with all of them forever. If I could only look back, one last time.

Leia leaned against him. "Don't look back," she whispered. "Don't look back."

Vader took a deep and shaky breath, and did not look back. As he passed through the gate, the urge to look back faded, and he understood that he didn't need to look back at all - they were with him still, inside him and a part of him. Death hadn't won.

He let Leia lead him out of the garden, to the waiting speeder, to the uncertain paths of the future.


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