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The Ascension of the Queen

By ami-padme and FernWithy

Sequel to "By the Grace of Lady Vader."
 
 

PROLOGUE

Pain was the world, the galaxy, the universe.

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

Leia was glad of it.

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

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

Mother's hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And Han... "

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

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

But at least I would have him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training?

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

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

"Where is the throne room?" Leia asked.

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

"I wish I did."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Alderaan?" Leia asked dryly.

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

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

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

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

I didn't appoint any careerists to the Senate.

Appoint?

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

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

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

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

"The hoverchair is adequate?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leia turned the chair around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Free elections? Freedom of speech?"

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

"Indoctrination centers."

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

"For you and your agenda."

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

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

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

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

There was a flash of blue light.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sure, flyboy. Just take your time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can't.

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

Stop thinking about her? How can -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A transmission?" Han asked.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

"Good job, Lando," Han muttered.

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

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

It couldn't be, he must be wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

"Sir?"

"Yeah...What?"

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

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

"Sir," Wedge tried again.

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

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

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

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

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

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



 
 

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

STAR WARS

EPISODE VI:

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 rule.

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

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



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

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

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

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

"Wesa coming up on Malastare, Lord Skywalker."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Threepio."

"Yes, sir."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Lord Skywalker? Are you well?"

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

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

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

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

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

But Leia, naturally, refused to speak of it.

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

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

So, what was the aim?

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

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

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

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

Low-level plants.

Minimal damage.

Useless intelligence.

It made no sense.

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl smiled broadly and said something in rapid Gran.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her father's shop.

Another pointless theft.

Another...

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

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

"Doors... "

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

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

"Sir?"

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

He asked her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Han.

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

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

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

He was on his way, to get Leia.

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

If it wasn't too late already.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Your Highness?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do something! Do anything!

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

"Your Highness..."

Leia sighed. "Yes?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Good afternoon, Your Highness."

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

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

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

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

"Leia!"

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.

"Ani?"

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

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

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

"Is he all right?"

"He is in good health."

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

"My presence at meals is somewhat superfluous."

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

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

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

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

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

Vader commanded the droids to replace his own mask.

Lies.

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

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

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

Except the ones she is telling herself.

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

She is not well. She needs help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"With the proper incentive -"

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

"It is inconsequential," Vader said.

She is not well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I will speak to you alone."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I -"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solo.

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

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

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

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

"Han... " she whispered.

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

"Turn it off," Amidala said.

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

The holo ended, and Solo disappeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hand me the stuff," he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just in case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lungs.

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

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

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

Great. They aren't all off-duty.

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

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

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

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

"You are most definitely not fine, and -"

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

"I'm fine," Han said again.

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

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

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

"Yes. Thanks."

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

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

After awhile, the lights dimmed and the activity slowed.

Wait. Hold on. Don't rush it.

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

Or executed.

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

Deal with it. Get these people free.

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

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

But he wasn't wrong.

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


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

Confidence wasn't something new to Luke. Back on Tatooine, he had often rushed headlong into all sorts of situations without concern. But there had always been an undercurrent of na´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...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Father, I was about to tell you -"

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

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

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

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

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

"Ani! Please!" Mother cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 morning."

"Keeping an eye on me?"

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

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

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

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

"Marvelous."

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

"I always used to."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Organa," Leia muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"These children require my attention as well."

"Permission to approach your Majesty?"

"Granted."

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

"Chewie?" Leia asked.

The guard looked at her, unsure how to proceed.

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, my love?"

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

"Do not approach him."

"The guard is bringing him to me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leia bit her lip, still agitated.

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

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

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

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

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

The Wookieee looked at her suspiciously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Luke will accompany you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It does."

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

Ani didn't bother responding to it.

Luke left the room.

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

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

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

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

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

(clean)

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

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

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

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

Luke and Ani would stop posturing at one another.

Ani would be whole and healthy again.

All would come out well.

Soon.


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

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

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

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

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

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

"Are you injured?" he asked.

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

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

"You assume I have any to give you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked to her father for instructions. None came.

"What should I do? Practice stances?"

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

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

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

"I'm trying -"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Chewie barked at length, then howled.

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

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

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

Angry at himself?

For what?

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

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

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

Luke waved it off.

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

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

Chewie said something brief.

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

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

Chewie interrupted her.

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

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

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

"Threepio."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guard didn't move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Dr. Kei?"

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

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

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

"He is here to abduct my sister."

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

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

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

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

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

Luke blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Just a few more minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best window of opportunity was two days later. Han didn't want to wait - he wasn't sure he could wait, but it would be worth it. Maybe it wasn't the greatest plan (he could hear her say, This is some rescue! ), but they could get Leia with only the one guard, and the rest of the family otherwise occupied...they'd have an easy route near one of the 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 arboretum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Of course," Luke answered, unimpressed.

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


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

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

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

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

She had reached them.

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

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

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

"Ani! Stop it!"

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

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

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

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

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

"It was set for stun -"

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

"I know you don't know me."

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

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

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

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

This choice has been placed before you...

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

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

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

Vader looked to his wife. "My love?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, Father?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Leia will hate me."

"Leia has chosen poor companions."

"I want my daughter back, Ani."

"She is here... "

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

"Amidala... "

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

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

There was nothing he could do.

Nothing at all.


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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's not true."

"Oh, really?"

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

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

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

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

"I don't lie."

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

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

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

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

"Mother is insane, Luke."

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

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

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

"I'm sure you do."

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

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

"It's not that simple."

"Isn't it?"

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

"It hardly takes that much time, Luke."

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

He could try again in the morning.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was on her way.


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

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

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

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

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

After that, things had gotten quiet.

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

That was when he started talking again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lando put up his hands in apology.

There was a thud against the door to the room.

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

Han glanced at Chewie. "What the hell?"

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

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

Leia stood in the doorframe, blaster at her side.

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

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

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

"One of the very, very few benefits of being a member of this family," she answered dryly. "But I'm not all that great at it, so we really ought to get moving."

Han nodded, his eyebrows still raised with surprise. He wondered briefly why it had never occurred to him that Leia would have the same powers as Luke, but he shook it off. In the end, it was an advantage. Leia was even stronger than he thought.

She was speeding toward one of the exits, glancing over her shoulder occasionally to make sure they were all close behind. They passed a guard, and then another one, a third - none of them tried to stop them, or even reacted at all. Han repeatedly pulled up his blaster to fire at them and found it wasn't necessary.

"What are you doing to them?" he asked Leia as they continued their sprint.

"They can't see or hear us."

"That's handy."

She did the same to two more guards as they made the last turn down the hallway. They weren't quite to the door when a shot rang out and flew over their heads.

"Stop!" yelled a guard behind them as he continued firing. "Stop right there!"

Leia crouched down and turned sharply to face the guard. She waved her hand at him, but he continued shooting and yelling. Lando threw open the door and Chewie followed him out into the courtyard, with Artoo rolling behind in pursuit.

Han fired at the guard, hitting him in the shoulder and knocking him down. "Come on!" he yelled to Leia, grabbing her by the arm and leading them out the door.

Chewie and Lando had already run the short distance to a speeder and were climbing in. Artoo was using some of his contraptions to pull himself into the second speeder.

Han heard the footsteps behind him - there were still only one or two guards chasing them. He was beginning to think they would get a decent head start.

They dodged two more shots before they got to the speeder. R2-D2 had plugged into the controls and had it ready to go. Lando and Chewie started theirs and took off, flying around the corner of the Palace.

Leia slid past him, but turned to give the pursuing guards one last shot. Then she grabbed the controls and gunned it. They sharply rounded the corner, and Han saw more guards coming out of other exits in the blur as they passed. They wouldn't be far behind for long.

Their speeder raced to catch up with Lando and Chewie, and they headed out to the plains.


"Let's go, Sweetheart, they're on our tail."

Leia didn't bother to look over her shoulder. She couldn't feel Luke and Father yet, but she could hear the guards pouring out of the Palace, and her lead wasn't solid enough to hold them off. The shots they aimed at this speeder were meant to disable, and Leia knew she had nothing to fear from them. Any soldier who intentionally hurt her would forfeit his life, and would know it.

Han brushed past her and started firing from the back of the speeder. Artoo's scanner rose, and he whistled as he pulsed radar over the rapidly decaying plains. From the corner of Leia's eye, she could see Lando and Chewie ahead of them, dodging blasts that were actually meant to kill.

She pulled closer to them, trying to block the fire by her presence.

"Are you crazy?" Han called over his shoulder.

"They won't destroy me."

"That's a real comfort, Your Worship!"

"I won't let them hit you."

"And how do you plan to -"

She felt a shot coming and swerved hard to the left, tilting the speeder sharply. The blast cut through the air and kicked up dirt where the back of the vehicle had been. Han waved his arms to keep his footing, then dropped to one knee and steadied his shooting arm.

"Not bad!" he called.

Leia knew it was inappropriate, given the circumstances, but she felt a wild joy, a kind of invincibility and exhilaration that made her both foolish and strong. She knew to beware of it, but it felt good. She laughed at the sense of freedom. "This is payback for that asteroid field!"

"Great."


Lando had spent quite a long time in Theed, and he understood Leia's strategy immediately.

It was crazy, but so were her parents, so it could easily work.

Still, he felt pretty low letting the Princess turn herself into a human shield. It didn't seem like the way things were supposed to be somehow.

"Chewie - where's this ship of yours?"

Chewie's answer was mainly lost in the slipstream of the wind, but Lando caught that the ship had been somewhere north of here, and that he "hoped" it still would be.

The doubt was reasonable enough, but the guard hadn't been sent to search, and Lando hadn't heard anything to suggest that an escape ship had been detected. He hoped he'd been deep enough to have gotten wind of it if anything like that had happened.

A blast came from the side, and Chewie swerved upward to miss it. Lando lost his footing and skidded to the front of the speeder, arms flailing. Chewie shoved him away before he could interfere with the controls.

Lando fired up, almost aimlessly, and an explosion lit the sky in burning orange. The guard's speeder that was coming down at them fell in at least five pieces, and Lando tried not to identify the young woman who had been flying it. Another high-flying speeder was caught in the shockwave and thrown to the ground.

Something hit the speeder from the other side, and Lando pulled himself up to see Leia and Han's speeder dangerously close.

"Don't shoot if you don't have to!" Leia yelled over the wind. "She'll use it to score points if you do! Look how violent we are!"

Lando shook his head. "They're shooting at us, Your Highness. I'm firing back."

Another blast came down between them, and Leia had to steer away from it before she could argue with him.


"Luke, be careful," Mother said, grabbing his upper arms and drawing his eyes down to her own. "Don't let your father lose his temper with her."

"I'll try, Mother, but I lost mine hours ago."

"Just bring her back, Luke. Bring her back. Get rid of the others. We don't need them."

Mother's insane, Luke.

"I'll take care of it, Mother."

"Do it yourselves. Don't let the guards drag her. Please. Keep it inside the family. I don't want... " She bit her lip. "Luke, please. Please." She hugged him fiercely. Her body felt too hot, and too strong, as though she had been replaced by a tangle of live wires.

He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. "It will be all right, Mother."

There was a grinding of metal on stone, and the door to the hangar rose. A speeder - aesthetically nondescript, but built for efficient speed, like all of Father's designs - swept through it. It was much faster than the vehicles Leia had commandeered.

Father said nothing to Luke, merely looked at him. Luke leapt into the seat beside him.

Father looked down at Mother. "I am sorry it has come to this, my love. We will retrieve Leia for you."

"Don't hurt her, Ani."

Luke felt a wave of frustration and - shame? - coming from Father, but his posture didn't change. "I have no desire to harm my own child, Amidala."

"Of course. I'm sorry, Ani. I... I'm frightened."

"All will be well. We must leave."

Mother nodded and stepped back.

The speeder took to the air, reaching its upper speeds before it had even left the Palace grounds. The small form of Mother diminished, then disappeared.

Father still did not speak to him.

Luke spotted the guard on the plain, and the two speeders careening dangerously ahead of them, and pointed them out. Father had already steered the speeder toward them.

"There's no reasonable way for her to have escaped," Luke said. "None."

Father regarded him with a cocked head, flying without consulting either the instruments or his physical senses. "And yet," he said, "she seems to have done so."

He turned back to the plain, increased the speed, and started to overtake the stragglers among the guards, then the front line. Then...

To Luke's surprise, he rose above the sightline of the battle, and shot ahead even of Leia and Han.

It wasn't until he saw the ship hidden among the rocks that Luke understood the shape of the battle to come. He programmed the naviputer to run a tight circle of the area, lifted himself onto the edge of the speeder as Father did the same on the other side, and waited.


Lando heard a brief sonic boom, but thought that it was thunder. Naboo had so many damnable rainstorms.

"Chewie, I think we're losing them!"

The shots from the guards were further apart now, and, looking backward toward Theed, Lando could see them falling behind with each second.

Chewie growled at him to not get overconfident.

Lando did not especially believe this to be an idea on which he needed to be lectured.

Leia swerved her speeder close again. "I don't trust it!" she said. "Something's wrong. I feel it. Keep going. Don't let up the speed, and keep your eyes open."

"Gotcha."

Han fired back into the dust, but didn't hit anything. "We're close," he said. "Over the ridge, according to Artoo."

Their speeder veered away again and pulled ahead. Apparently Leia had decided not to be a human shield anymore.

Either that or...

Lando looked up sharply.

Leia believed that the danger would now come from the front.

"I have a bad feeling about this," he said.


They are here.

Leia could feel them nearby, and she was sure they would come from an unexpected direction. Ahead of them, maybe. But she didn't know.

All she knew was that she wanted to be on board whatever ship Han had brought, and headed out toward the Outer Rim. Right now.

She crested the hill and saw the ship nestled among the boulders. It was, ironically, an old Naboo cruiser, pockmarked and dented with years of abuse.

They are here already.

No. If they had gotten here first, they would have simply destroyed the ship.

It's bait. They want Lando, Han, and Chewie out in the open. Knowing Mother, she'll probably want to make an example of Artoo as well.

Bait or not, she had to take a chance. They needed to get to that ship.

She heard Lando blast over the hill behind her, and the two speeders raced together toward the ship. When they came close to its circle, she swung the speeder to a violent stop and jumped over the edge to run the last twenty yards. Han did the same on the other side, and Artoo boosted himself out using rockets.

Faster, faster...

Lando's speeder nearly crashed into the hatch that was lowering by a remote that either Han or Chewie had activated, but Chewie swerved away in time, and he and Lando dropped out of the vehicle without even bothering to let up on the ignition. It crashed into a large rock with a decisive boom.

Leia ran flat out, eating up the ground between herself and the hatch. Han was behind her, then beside her.

There was a sudden rush of wind and darkness, then the sense of being picked up and tossed backward. Han was thrown backward, as though he'd been caught by a piece of machinery. Leia caught herself on her injured arm, and couldn't fully hold back a scream of frustration and fury.

Before her, Luke and Father straightened from the crouches they'd landed in.

Above them, now that she knew to look, she could see the far-up shape of one of Father's experimental speeders.

"It is finished, Leia," Father said.


Seconds elapsed before Leia could form a coherent thought, one that wasn't focused on the hysteria about to overwhelm her.

They won't take me back.

Not when she was so close - so close!

They won't take me back!

It was a silent declaration, a promise to herself. She wouldn't go. She wouldn't let them take her.

With that decided, Leia found the strength to draw herself up, slowly and deliberately. She let her eyes meet briefly with Luke's - she found disappointment and resentment in them - before settling on Vader's mask and holding his glare.

"No," she said, steadying her voice. "It's not finished yet."

Leia felt Han struggle to his feet and move to stand beside her. To his credit, he did not immediately open fire or make any wildly aggressive moves this time. She glanced at him and he gave her a slight nod. He would follow her lead.

Lando and Chewie stood a ways off, looking back and forth between them all, waiting for someone to make a move.

She returned her attention to her father, who had done nothing to acknowledge what she said. "I'm leaving. And they're all coming with me."

Luke shook his head, maybe with a little astonishment, but he held his tongue. Vader still had not given any indication that he had heard what she said. But she knew he was listening - taking her words in to further feed his anger.

Leia took the moment to wonder if she had, at long last, completely lost her mind. If this was the natural end of all the time she had been forced to spend in the Palace - standing here, on the plains of Naboo, directly challenging her father and brother in a fight for her life.

But if she was crazy to even try this, she was also beyond the point of caring. She was going to get on that ship, or die in the effort.

She raised her voice slightly. "If you insist on trying to stop me -" she continued.

Luke made a sound of disgust, and in a flash of blue, he ignited his lightsaber. Han - and Lando and Chewie - immediately reached for their blasters, but Leia waved them down. They did not fire, and Luke remained where he was. "Leia, you don't want to fight us."

"You don't want to fight me," she retorted. "You don't want to kill me." She paused and looked meaningfully at her father. "And neither do you. But you'll have to. Or you'll have to let me go. You won't get me back to that Palace alive...

"It's your choice."

Leia took a final look at her companions, hoping they would be smart enough to just stay out of the way as much as possible, and let her handle things - even if she wasn't completely sure how she was going to do that. They were at least aware that she could use the Force...

She hoped that would be enough to convince them not to get themselves killed.

The last person Leia saw out of the corner of her eyes was R2-D2. He looked unassuming enough but Leia noticed that his eye was focused on the ship, not the on the rest of them, and some of his lights were flashing. It was probably nothing but -

"The choice," Vader finally spit at her, "can be merely to disable you, Leia." He ignited his saber and advanced on her menacingly. "Your posturing and ultimatums will do you little good if you cannot run."

"You don't frighten me," she replied.

"Your fear is unnecessary. You will return with us and -"

Vader's words cut off sharply, and he abruptly whirled around to face the ship. Leia had sensed it just before he had, and threw herself at Han, pushing them both down to the ground.

The guns on the ship came to life, swerving around to aim directly at Vader and Luke's positions and unleashing a sudden and constant barrage of laser fire. Shots flew all over the place, and several hit the ground, kicking up a violent storm of dirt and grass, fire and smoke. It swirled up around them as they dodged the blasts and rushed to regain their bearings.

Leia was not about to waste her time hoping that either Vader or Luke had been hit - they were both too fast for that. They had been surprised and were at least briefly confused...Leia reached for her blaster as she tried to get up...

Chewie's yell was more than loud enough to be heard over the din, and Leia jumped back shocked as she watched him take a nearly suicidal lunge at Vader, who was on his knees, still facing the ship. He felt Chewie coming at him and brought his saber around hard, but only succeeded in a glancing blow to the midsection before Chewie hit him and knocked him forward to the ground.

Han grabbed Leia roughly and began dragging her forward. "Come on! Get on that ship!"

"No wait!" Leia cried, but he wasn't listening. Vader had quickly recovered, standing and throwing Chewie off him. Another tug from Han turned Leia's attention in front of her, where Lando was shooting wildly at Luke as he tried to move in a wide path around to the ship's ramp.

Luke ducked another shot from the ship, and rolled forward several feet. Lando and Artoo made a break for the ship, running up the ramp and immediately getting its engines started up. Luke came out of his roll and locked eyes with Leia, then deflected the next shot directly at her and Han. They both went flying. Leia saw Vader wave his hand, and Chewie went high into the air before landing with a thump.

Vader and Luke were closing in on them. Leia watched as her father stalked toward her, his saber in ready position to...disable her.

But she was more worried about Han, who realized that shooting at Luke was pointless, and was watching his former friend move in for the kill.

Leia sprang to her feet, hand outstretched, and called on the Force more powerfully than she had ever dared to before.

Luke's saber ripped from his hand as he cried out in surprise. She was able to pull it into her hand just in time to block the low swing Vader had aimed at her leg.

She did not look back at Han as she struggled to bring their locked sabers up into a less dangerous position - she could feel the heat of the blades on her leg. She gritted her teeth and blurted out, "Han, go, you can't help! GO!"

Chewie, who had recovered from his throw now stumbled past Han, and guided him toward the ship. They both fired at the now unarmed Luke to ensure that he didn't try to follow them on board.

Leia's arms were burning with the strain of just keeping the sabers in a stalemate. All of her strength, all of the Force was focused in hands, but she knew she couldn't hold on for long. Vader was surprised - completely surprised - by this and was trying to figure out how to proceed. He had not counted on a real duel with Leia, and was clearly displeased at the notion.

As was she. She knew she wouldn't last long at all. She could hear the ship ready to go, and decided to take the risk.

Leia's saber, which had been pushing up from underneath Vader's suddenly changed direction, dropping down and breaking the deadlock as Leia threw herself in a Force-jump - barely escaping Vader's swing. She landed behind Luke, and all but threw herself onto the ramp of the ship, falling forward on her stomach as the ship began to hover above the ground. She grabbed onto a handle in the ship and tried to pull herself inside.

Han was beside her instantly, helping her stand. "I've got you...Are you all right?"

She didn't see Vader's saber coming - she didn't know you could throw a saber with the blade still on - and it hit her hand squarely, causing Leia to let go of the handle with an anguished scream, and nearly fall right down the ramp as Vader Force-pulled her back. Han grabbed the handle and caught Leia with his other hand, and they both dropped in the ramp, flagging in the wind as the ship continued its slow ascent.

Leia was almost overcome by the pain from her hand, which was horribly burned and felt disfigured. She couldn't concentrate...Vader was going to take her and Han right off the ship.

"Leia!" Han screamed. "You gotta pull yourself up! Come on!"

She tried to push back, but couldn't find the strength to do it. Her hand was slipping from Han's.

"Lando!" he called into the ship. "Use the torpedoes! Now!"

The ship rocked with the release of the weapon, and Leia felt Vader's grip release her as the torpedo impacted the spot where he had stood.

Han jerked her back fully onto the ramp and held her as the ship rolled through the turbulence from the torpedo's shockwave. The ramp began to close up.

Leia blinked up at Han, dazed. "Are we away?"

"Almost," Han said, gently turning over her hand, avoiding the burns. Her hand had gone completely numb.

"Almost?" she whispered. "Han, get us into hyperspace, now. Please...let's just go, I don't care where we're headed."

"We are, we are." He helped her up and they headed for the main cockpit.

They found Chewie sitting at the controls. "Are we ready for hyperspace yet?" Leia asked, her voice taut with agitation. "Get me away from them!"

"With pleasure, Your Highness," Lando said. "We're on our way."

The ship sped into the atmosphere, and then out into the blackness of space. Once they cleared Naboo, Chewie punched the button.

Han and Leia were thrown back slightly as the stars turned to streamlines and they were pulled toward the Outer Rim.

Han regained their balance for them, and squeezed her in a hug again. "Hey, sweetheart," he whispered, "We made it. You're safe."

Leia just blinked at him and then looked around at the ship, and out at the stars flying by.

"Leia," he said gently, "Really, it's all right now." He kissed the top of her head, and then put his forehead to hers.

Leia leaned against him, letting the feeling sink in - the freedom, the relief - and finally just collapsed against him, holding him as close as she could.  


Part 2

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