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.
"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 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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"If you do not wish to be moved by the Force,
my daughter, you will need to learn to resist my
"I wouldn't even know where to begin."
"And that is what I intend to start teaching
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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... "
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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.
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
"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
"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
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
"Sir," Wedge tried again.
"What!" Han snapped, turning sharply to
"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 not...want...to be
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
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
A long time ago, in a galaxy
far, far away...
THE ASCENSION OF THE QUEEN
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
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
Luke looked up from the bolt he'd been adjusting
at Threepio's hip. "Thank you, Corporal
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
"Why, yes, sir. Of course. I am programmed in
etiquette and... "
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
The girl frowned deeply, obviously struggling with
Basic. Luke looked to Threepio, who translated it.
The girl smiled broadly and said something in
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
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
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."
"Master Luke, does this mean something to
Doors. He would have to have measurements. Guides.
"Threepio, ask her if she saw the
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
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
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
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?
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,
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
"Yes, the files are more complete than I had
"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
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
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
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?
Do something! Do anything!
She shook her head. The exhaustion of careening
between despair and defiance was too much.
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
"I'm glad to hear that. But, I said you
"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
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
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,
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
...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
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
"Is something wrong? You looked disturbed by
"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
"Please, Ani. It would mean so much to
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
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,
She smiled brilliantly, then let herself into the
antechamber, removed her mask, and led Leia out.
Vader commanded the droids to replace his own
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
"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
"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
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
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.
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
"What are you concealing from me, Luke? Your
feelings betray you. You fear me. Why? What have you
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
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."
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
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
"Of course it doesn't!" Amidala took the
globe. "There is nothing for Leia to have shame
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
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,
Luke started to leave, but Vader caught him by the
upper arm. "You appear to have misdiagnosed
"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
She held the globe to her chest, cradling it like
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
"Apologize for the droid," Han said.
"I'll take care. Have restrainer." He
squeezed the control in his hand, and Artoo came
"All right," Kei said. "Tomorrow
morning. I have to take care of this. Keep your droid
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
After awhile, the lights dimmed and the activity
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.
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´vetÚ 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. 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
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
"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
"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
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
"- 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
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
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
Fear suddenly ran through Luke...how angry was
he? Luke couldn't remember ever seeing his Father
ignoring even the slightest indication that Mother
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
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
"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.
"If he could pull you into this, then why
can't Han pull me out?"
"Leia!" Luke said sharply. "Stop
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.
THE NEXT MORNING
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
"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
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
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
"I am honored to be portrayed by such a
beautiful child," Amidala said. "What is
"If it pleases you, Your Majesty, I am called
"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
Chella smiled so brightly that Leia had to respond
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
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
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
"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
Something tugged on Amidala's sleeve and she
turned to find Leia beside her, eyes wide and
"Hush, little one," she said. "What
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."
"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
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
She didn't like it when Ani was strict with the
twins. But surely, all of this unpleasantness would
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"I have attended every session you've
"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
"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
"What should I do? Practice stances?"
He just stood there, breathing. Leia brought the
saber into a ready stance and stared defiantly at
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,
"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
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
"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
"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
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?
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
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
"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
"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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
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... "
"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
"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
"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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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 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
exits...it 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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"Did you really think you could just take
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
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
"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
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
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
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,"
"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
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
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.
"Ani! Stop it!"
Vader realized dimly that he was shaking Leia, and
Amidala's hands were on his arms, trying to make him
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,
"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
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...
"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
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
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
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
Leia took a step back, as though Amidala had
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.
"Secure your sister's room. She is not to
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
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
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
He paused. "There is no danger here... "
"Not as my bodyguard. I need you, Ani. Stay
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
"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."
"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,
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
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
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
"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."
"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."
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Chewie and Han both turned to him and waited.
"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
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
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
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
"What are you doing to them?" he asked
Leia as they continued their sprint.
"They can't see or hear us."
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
Something hit the speeder from the other side, and
Lando pulled himself up to see Leia and Han's speeder
"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
"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
"I'll try, Mother, but I lost mine hours
"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
"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,
"Of course. I'm sorry, Ani. I... I'm
"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
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,
Lando heard a brief sonic boom, but thought that
it was thunder. Naboo had so many damnable
"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
Either that or...
Lando looked up sharply.
Leia believed that the danger would now come from
"I have a bad feeling about this," he
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"Almost," Han said, gently turning over
her hand, avoiding the burns. Her hand had gone
"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