Disclaimers: All things Star Wars belong to Lucasfilm.
BY THE GRACE OF LADY VADER
"Have you ever been here before?" Leia asked as Bespin's thick upper cloud layer rapidly filled the Falcon's entire forward view, surrounding them completely.
Han turned the ship slightly to avoid a small gust of turbulence, breaking through the layer. "It was a long time ago. Before Lando ever got control of the place."
Leia raised an eyebrow, noting the subtle tensing of his jaw. "You're nervous about seeing him, aren't you?"
Han turned his eyes towards her a moment, flashing her a grin. "Sweetheart, if I can handle you, I've got nothing to worry about from Lando."
Leia folded her arms across her chest in an amused parody of her cold death's-head stance. "Looks like someone still doesn't know anything about women."
It wasn't the sardonic, biting tone she would normally have used. It was just simple, wry, amusement, something Leia hadn't freely felt in ages.
It was like an entire planet had fallen off her shoulders when she'd told Han. She was still going to be sore for a long time to come, having consigned herself to carrying the burden of that secret alone for so long... but the worst was gone, she told herself.
Then why did she feel as if she was unwittingly walking towards darkness again?
She looked at the planet once more, marveling briefly how much more beautiful the planet was up close. Sunset tinting the cloud-filled heaven full of oranges, reds, and pinks... they were in the upper atmosphere, she recalled from the brief summary she'd read earlier on the planet: lower down was the actual liquid gas sphere of the planet; the upper atmosphere was the only area of the planet breathable for most humanoid sentient life forms. Where several mining operations had been built in the pre-Empire days... including Cloud City.
An invisible icy finger placed itself between Leia's shoulder blades as she continued watching.
Stop it, she told herself. They'll control you no longer.
Han's laugh brought her out of her thoughts. "With all fairness, Sweetheart, you are far from being the typical woman."
Leia was prepared to crack back a witty retort, but suddenly two odd twin-pod orange craft burst from the clouds and took up escort positions around the Falcon.
As if on cue, a sudden crackling came on their comm system. "Unidentified freighter, this is Cloud City Control. Identify yourself and your business."
Leia tightened a hand on Han's shoulder in a resurgence of her previous fear.
(Or maybe it was a fear of something new altogether? Luke would probably have said it was a prodding from the Force...
She bit her lip. She hadn't really, until now, thought about how much she actually missed Luke...)
"Don't say our actual names," she murmured in his ear. "If the Empire's still after us... " Though Han's friend was in charge of the place, she just wasn't ready to risk that.
Han, thankfully, just took it in stride. "I read you, Sweetheart." He flipped on the comm. "Cloud City, this is the unidentified freighter. I've got a message for Baron Calrissian. Tell him -" Han hesitated here, then suddenly smiled "-tell him that an old friend's here, and that perhaps we might play a few rounds of sabaac for my choice of his stock here. In the meantime we're hoping you'll have some place for us to park our little crate."
Leia stifled the urge to laugh at the cloud car pilot's perplexed reaction. A smile did escape, however. "Say that again, freighter?"
"Just tell Lando," Han said casually. "He'll understand."
"Let's just hope you do actually know this person," Leia muttered.
Chewie let out a few urf-urfs.
"Not you too," Han muttered himself. "Everything'll be fine. Trust me. It's been years, Lando's bound to have forgotten it by now." He didn't elaborate, and Leia didn't ask him to.
"Unidentified freighter, your request has been granted," the escort came back. Awfully quick, Leia thought. "Land on platform 327."
"Thank you," Han said curtly, flipping off the switch, then shooting a reassuring glance at Leia. For myself, or for him? "Don't worry. We go back a long way, Lando and me."
"Who's worried?" she countered calmly.
And then there it was.
Leia completely forgot her mood as the clouds vanished from around them, revealing directly in their path a huge (floating?) shape not unlike one of her childhood spinning top toys, the city's spires glinting the sunlight. As they neared the city she realized just how huge it was, and was duly impressed. Raised on Alderaan she'd learned to develop a higher appreciation for the beauty of nature than for artificially constructed structures... but this was an amazing sight to behold. Flying over the city itself was just as lovely; the entire skyline was filled with smooth spires, flowing together almost organically. Were it not for the frequent glints of metal, it might have been mistaken for a city on Alderaan.
They reached their platform and the cloud cars broke off in different directions, and the Falcon settled smoothly on the landing platform, a small duracrete surface in the middle of the city, adjoining another large spire. Han locked down the ship and quickly made his way to the landing ramp, Chewie, Threepio and Leia following close behind. A crisp cool wind was all that greeted them as they disembarked, stinging Leia's cheeks slightly.
She tried to tell herself that was the only reason she felt cold. Something about this place didn't settle well with her at all.
She briefly flicker her eyes upward, near the top of the spire, several stories above them. She saw, of course, nothing.
"I don't like this," she murmured, almost to herself.
Before Han could respond, or Leia get in a quip about the lack of a greeting party, the doorway to the spire opened, and a tall, elegantly dressed man with dark skin and a hard expression strode out towards them, a small security entourage following. The long cape billowing out behind him reminded her uncomfortably of memories of her... father, and she wished fervently the man had worn something else. But it didn't bother quite as much as it would have several weeks ago.
She guessed this was Lando.
"Why you no good, double-crossing swindler," the man came forth, stopping just a foot from Han's nose. No one moved a bit - except for the security team, which quickly moved into guard positions around their administrator. "You've got a lot of nerve coming here after the stunts you've pulled. "
Han pointed at himself and gave an innocent "who, me?" look, and Lando took one aggressive step closer...
Then let out a rush of laughter as his arms went around Han, clasping them in a familiar hug. "How you doing, you old pirate?" he asked Han, the stony attitude fading completely away. "I never thought I'd see you again! Now what's this about a hand of sabaac?"
"I'll tell you later," Han said.
"He seems very friendly," Threepio remarked, inclining a golden head towards Lando.
"Yes," Leia said slowly, eyeing the exchange between the two men. "Very."
There was more exchange of greetings, Han relaying to Lando the reason for their little impromptu visit. A few more chuckles, then Lando turned to Leia, a suave (or what he thought was) smile plastered on his face. She distrusted it immediately.
"I see at least if nothing else my friend's taste in traveling companions has improved considerably," he said warmly, wide brown eyes sparkling. He was handsome in his own way, Leia thought, and probably (with some basis) considered himself quite the ladies man. She easily caught the boldly confident attitude that was a near-duplicate of Han's, minus the smart-mouthed brashness. "And who might you be?"
If you actually knew the full answer to that, I doubt you'd be so willing to make such shallow passes at me. "Leia," she told him simply, resisting the extremely inviting urge to state her full title and lineage, just to see the look on Calrissian's face. If he entertained any notions about wooing her, that would undoubtedly sober them.
"Then I welcome you, Leia." He brushed a kiss on her gloved hand, and Leia could almost visibly sense Han's sudden air of possessiveness, quickly putting an arm around Leia's shoulders and guiding her towards the door. She smiled at the act; in this aspect the jealousy was in its own way endearing. Chewie, Threepio, Lando and his entourage moved with them.
"We'll get to work on the Falcon right away," Calrissian said as he guided them into the spire, which Leia saw opened out into a lavish marble-laid corridor, with windows lining it all along its curving path. "I'll put her on top of the priority list. She's saved my life quite a few times, and she's definitely worth it. Now we'll see if we can't get you all some decent quarters... "
Leia nodded politely and almost absent-mindedly as they continued down the passage, Han and Lando in front of her, Chewie and Threepio trailing them. Lando almost immediately launched into a whole speech about the wonder and glory of his city and how he'd managed to turn it into a successful gas mining operation... Leia was grateful for all her years of political training Bail Organa had given her; she could deal with politicos like Calrissian in her sleep.
Not that she'd have to worry about that too much, it seemed. Han seemed to be having a high old time of it, chatting and laughing with Lando as if little time had passed at all. And who could blame him: with a Wookiee, a paranoid droid and an uptight princess as his sole companions for the past long weeks in space, he'd be ready for some new companionship. Someone to engage in the casual routine of "guy talk" with once more. So Leia busied herself with studying the sights of the city, something of an art form in itself as they walked by, thinking about how much her father - Bail Organa, not Vader - might have appreciated getting a look at this city. She didn't talk to Chewie or Threepio at all.
So no one - including Leia - noticed as they went around a bend in the corridor, that the golden protocol droid was no longer there, until some time later.
THE DAY OF THE ARRIVAL.
Amidala slipped into the room at the top of the spire. She barely remembered to check for witnesses in the hall outside before she locked herself in and scrambled across to the window, throwing the veils back as she went. She couldn't bear having anything interfere with her vision. The room was spectacular, commanding a view of all Cloud City, but Amidala cared only for one view right now.
She hadn't felt so fully alive since the first time Ani had swept her into his arms. Every color was clear and bright, every sound, musical. She felt as though she could dance above the clouds. She could touch the frozen soil of the gas giant below and send forth a new spring, a wave of brilliant flowers spreading out from her fingertips.
She stood perfectly still, not moving a muscle for fear of revealing her presence too soon.
Far below, the gangplank of the Millennium Falcon lowered and Leia came out. Amidala's eyes passed over the pilot and the Wookiee without acknowledgment.
She was dressed all in white, an almost conscious repudiation of
Ani, but she didn't look pale or dull in the bright colors of Cloud City. She glowed, like a small star.
Her hair had reddish highlights that Amidala had never noticed in the vids. They caught the tone of Bespin's sun. The color was a gift from Winama. The tight, practical braids reminded Amidala of Shmi Skywalker. She couldn't see it from here, but she knew that Leia had her own eyes.
But mainly, it was Ani she saw, Ani as he was before, round-faced, with delicate, inquisitive features. Ani, before the galaxy ripped him in two.
What am I doing?
The question screamed up from the void, the voices of all those she saw in Leia's face, all the loved ones who now walked only on the barren landscape of her own memory. Ani's voice, Winama's, Shmi's... the voice of a young girl with eyes not unlike Leia's, a girl who insisted that there were things she could not do.
What are you doing? Who have you become?
"I've become who I must be," Amidala whispered, her breath fogging the glass. "I do what I must."
On the landing platform, Calrissian swept the pilot into a friendly embrace.
For you, Leia. For Luke. For all those who were betrayed. I, too, will find the strength to do what I detest and become what I loathe, so I can create the galaxy I once believed in, to enforce the order of things as they should be.
Calrissian released the pilot, then whisked the group, and Leia, inside. Amidala was about to turn away - she'd seen what she'd come to see - when a glint of sun on metal caught her eye.
The droid might not have warranted her attention, except for the way it took a step backwards, looking insulted, when Calrissian ignored it. Then it shook its golden head, and began to pick its way up the platform. He was already several meters behind the others.
Amidala clasped her hands together, feeling high and gleeful. It was astounding, really, letting her feelings run free. She wished she could just call out, maybe run down onto the platform.
But that wouldn't do. If she could have done that, she'd have done it in order to get to Leia, not Threepio. But she could work with Threepio. She pulled the veils back over her head, and slipped out of the room.
Ani was standing outside, and she took his hands and kissed the side of his mask (he lifted his head in surprise). "Ani, I have an idea, but I have to go quickly. Don't do anything until I've come back and told you."
"If you wish, my Lady."
"Threepio is still with her."
Amidala smiled, and imagined that Ani was smiling, then ducked into the turbolift and let it plunge down to the platform level. The speed made her lightheaded, but what of it?
This part of the City was solidly under Imperial control - more accurately, it was solidly under Ani's control; he was sending out Destroyers in a rotating schedule to keep an eye out for Ozzel - and she was able to make her way through the stormtroopers and officers without anyone stopping her. A few of the men bowed deeply. One called her "Your Majesty" as he opened a door for her.
The room she was headed for was a temporary barracks for a squadron of stormtroopers. It opened onto the city corridor that led from the platform to the lodgings Calrissian was planning to give to Leia.
The men jumped up at the sight of her, and stood at attention, though several of them were half out-of-uniform. She nodded impatiently to them, and scanned the room for something she could use. "Gentlemen, I need a droid with audio-mimetic capabilities."
One of them saluted, broke rank, and disappeared into an antechamber. He returned with a protocol droid not unlike Threepio himself. "Your Majesty," he said sharply, then handed her the control and marched back into line.
"Very good, soldier. This will do nicely." She called the droid over to her, the plan, such as it was, coming to her in bits and pieces. It seemed a little foolish if she thought of it too closely. But Threepio... well, perhaps foolish plans would work best on him. She glanced up at a monitor above the door, which was focused on the incoming rebels (just in case Calrissian decided to try something stupid). The Wookiee lumbered past, then, at the far edge, Threepio appeared.
Amidala waved at the stormtroopers to stand back, out of the sightline from the door, then she spoke softly to the protocol droid. "Mimic an R2 class astromech droid -"
"Yes, madam. Do you have a preference for the year?"
"I'm not sure of the year. Nothing that wasn't operating thirty-five years ago."
"And what will I say?"
"Something that does not indicate an Imperial presence. Comment on the weather."
"Very well." The droid began to emit a series of beeps and whistles.
Sure enough, Threepio stopped right in front of the door. "That sounds like -"
Amidala hit the control beside the door, then gave the droid a shove. It went out into the passage, leaving her face to face with a disappointed-looking See-Threepio, for the first time in many years. She grabbed his arm and pulled him in, shutting the door silently behind him.
"Hush, Threepio," she said.
"Oh, dear! Lady Vader, oh, if you are here, then... oh, my heavens!" He fretted and tried to get back to the door, but he wasn't very strong, physically, and Amidala was determined.
"Threepio," she whispered, "it's me, Padmé. I see you're still perfect."
"I have no memory... perhaps... "
Amidala looked over her shoulder at the stormtroopers, and raised her voice to a level they would hear. "Leave me with this droid. I will see to it."
"Ma'am, my Lady... your Majesty," one of them stammered, "it will warn the rebels. We should destroy it."
"That was Palpatine's mistake all along. He destroyed too many things that could have been of use to him, if treated properly. Now, leave us."
"Yes, ma'am." The squadron formed up (some still half-dressed), and left the room.
"My Lady Vader," Threepio said, "I am programmed... "
"I know your programming, Threepio. I did quite a bit of it toward the end. Access seven-seven-oh-two-four-Padmé-three-ay."
Threepio's head tilted, and she could hear the microcircuits working as they found the path around at least part of the memory block (much of his memory had been wiped, but some of it, she hadn't been able to bear losing; it would have been too much like killing Ani's firstborn), then he dipped his head a bit. "Queen Amidala."
"Yes. Very good. I need to speak to my daughter."
"I'm sorry, Mistress Amidala, but I have been programmed to protect Mistress Leia's interests from the Empire."
"Programmed." Amidala gritted her teeth. Losing her temper at Threepio wouldn't get her anywhere. "I am not the Empire. I am Leia's mother."
"I simply cannot arrange such a meeting. It would violate my entire protocol structure."
"Her father built your protocol structure! For the Maker's sake, Threepio - for your Maker's sake in particular - you must bring her to me." It was pointless, of course, arguing philosophically with Threepio. He was so close to sentient that she felt a need to convince him she was right, but in the end, his programming would win out. Well, she hadn't come this far to be derailed by her own former naiveté. "Threepio, access the command structure in the file I referred you to. It should contain an override."
"Yes, Mistress Amidala."
"Good. I hereby override intervening protocols. Do not speak of my presence in this city, or the Empire's. Suggest to Leia that a walk in the public gardens on the fourth level would be pleasant. See to it that she is there in two hours."
"Oh, that's a fine idea. Mistress Leia has been very tense of late, and a pleasant garden stroll would be... "
"Yes. But Mistress Leia can be a bit stubborn. She may be unwilling, regardless of your presence."
"So be convincing. If she seems unwilling, tell her you saw something suspicious there, and need her opinion on it. But bring her there."
"Yes, Mistress Amidala."
"Good." She touched his wrist. "I'm happy to see you again, Threepio. I've missed you."
"And I, you, Madam." He gave an electronic sigh. "How I wish Master Anakin were here."
Amidala considered telling him that he had his wish, but decided not to push her luck. "I know, Threepio," she said. "Now, go."
"Yes, my Lady."
He went back through the door, leaving her alone again.
But it was for the last time.
In two hours, she would have her family back.
The vision shattered, but Luke couldn't wake himself up.
It had been a long, exhausting day physically, and when he'd gone into meditation before sleep, he'd sent himself deep. Now, as the vision he'd had over and over - the vision of Han in agony - suddenly fragmented and blew itself out into ether, something more horrible bubbled up from underneath, like noxious swamp gas.
"Luke! Help me!"
He hears her voice, but he can't see her. He is standing in the red fog, his vision obscured by shifting crimson shadows. "Leia!"
"I'm here! Help me!"
He follows the sound of it, crashing through the underbrush, his feet sticking in the mud. Blood seeps up around his boots. At last, he comes to the edge of the swamp. In the waking world, it is mud interspersed with water. Here, it is blood and fire. Far on the other side, he sees her, a tiny white figure, sinking slowly into the mire.
He can't reach her.
"Luke! Han! Someone!"
But no one answers. Luke realizes that he can no longer hear Han screaming, but he can't sense him anywhere else either. Not strange. Han is
(... a blind spot in the Force. He would mean trouble...)
not always easy to see, but wherever he is, Leia isn't finding him. Luke dives into the gore, and tries to swim, but something beneath is pulling at him, dragging him back with gentle, silken threads...
There was a sharp jab at his chest, and he was brought rudely up into the waking world. Yoda stood over him, gimer stick poised to strike again. "Lost, you tend to become, young Skywalker. Focus, you must."
"I can't. Something's wrong, Yoda. Something's very wrong."
"Hmmmph. Wrong has something been for many years. Change it this evening, you cannot."
"I have to go to Bespin. Leia's in trouble." Luke stood up, throwing away his blankets and looking for his bag.
"You must not! Finish your training, you must!"
"Shifting, this vision is. Seeing it clearly, you are not. Help you here, I will. And Obi-Wan. Help you to understand it."
"By the time I understand it, Han and Leia could be dead. I have to go to them." He closed his eyes, and the blood-red water of the swamp seeped across his vision, casting a secret scarlet glow on everything. "Whatever is happening, they're in danger."
"As are you!" Yoda took a few steps forward, and planted his gimer stick firmly between Luke's feet. "Seeking you, the Empire is. Trying to lure you. They know that you -"
Luke shook his head. He wasn't going to let Yoda drag him into another debate about whether or not he was too focused on his friends, and not focused enough on his training. "I can't do this, Yoda. If my going there will get them out of danger, then I have to go."
"Remove Leia from danger, it will not. And if you also fall, all else is lost with you. All."
Something in what he was saying spoke to a deep, cool place in Luke's mind, but it was dull and far off. Closer to the surface, he smelled the burning blood of the vision, saw Leia's small hands clawing at the mud. He shook his head, his lips set tightly, and started to get his things together.
He shouldn't have been able to feel this way.
Yet, Obi-Wan watched Luke carelessly throw his bags into the cockpit of his X-Wing, rushing into the very heart of danger... and Darkness... and he couldn't deny it.
There was a heaviness in his heart. A churning in his stomach. A nervousness in his trembling hands.
If the situation weren't so dire, he knew that Yoda would have taken this opportunity to chastise him - again - for clinging so desperately to his corporeal form. A spirit didn't have a heart or a stomach. A spirit should be beyond apprehension.
And maybe Yoda would be right to say so. Kenobi had always harbored a secret hope that in his death he would find answers. Perhaps not all of them - he wasn't that arrogant - but enough to give him peace; enough to understand, finally, where he could have done things differently with Anakin, to see where he had gone wrong in the end.
Information that, of course, would be quite useful now.
Continue to blame yourself, hmm? Yoda's voice intruded on his thoughts, bringing him back to the current problem. Limited effects, our actions can have. Their own decisions, they will make. ?
A truism, Obi-Wan thought in irritation. One that offered very little comfort to him right now.
"Luke," he began somberly, "You must listen to us."
The boy shook his head impatiently, and ran underneath the craft to see how his droid's repairs were progressing. "I can't, Ben. I keep seeing that vision... she was begging me to help her. I can't just ignore that."
"You must not go, Luke," he replied. "There is more to this than you realize, and if you leave now -"
"If I don't leave, they'll die. There isn't much more to it than that." He tugged at the zippers on his jumpsuit and looked about for his helmet.
"You can't know that for certain. Even Yoda cannot see their fate."
"But I know I can help them! How can you ask me to turn my back on them?"
"I'm not asking you to do that. You don't realize the danger you're exposing yourself to," Obi-Wan glanced at Yoda. "You have little control over your powers, and that will only put both you and your friends at risk."
"Yes!" Yoda interjected. "To Obi-Wan, you listen. Remember your failure at the cave!"
That caused Luke to stop packing and stare thoughtfully at the two of them. "I remember. But you never explained to me what that vision meant." He waited for an answer, and upon receiving none, motioned to the droid to board the little compartment in the back of the ship. "Forget it," he muttered.
"No, wait!" Obi-Wan said. "If you stay, and complete your training, we promise to explain everything to you. But to leave now... "
"You have my word that I will return, and finish what I've begun," Luke replied. Yoda gave him a disappointed look. "I promise, Master Yoda."
"It is you and your abilities that the Vaders want. That is why your friends are made to suffer." Obi-Wan spared another look at Yoda before adding, "Maybe it is best that you understand why they want you, before running off without fully understanding what is -"
"Tell him, you may," Yoda interrupted, "and make things worse, it might. Make him sympathetic to them, you will. Afford that, we cannot."
Kenobi hated to speak about Luke as if he weren't standing right there, but the boy was apparently too frustrated to continue listening to their argument. He was almost ready to leave in any event, and apparently didn't believe that anything they said would change his mind.
"I understand that, Master," he said in a low voice to Yoda. "But perhaps it will buy us time?"
"Determined to leave, he is. And determined to fight them. If leave he does, without the desire to oppose the Vaders... lost all will be."
Luke grabbed a ladder rung to mount the X-Wing. "Do you have anything to tell me, or not? I know there are secrets being kept from me. But right now, Leia is more important."
Obi-Wan tried not to show the panic that was tearing him apart. Instead, he projected a sad, almost lost expression to the boy. "I don't want to lose you the way I lost Vader, Luke. But you leave me in a terrible position. I'm begging you to trust me, and have the patience to work through this."
"The last of the Jedi, you are. On this, all depends," Yoda added solemnly.
"And I'm just supposed to stay here and do nothing? And sacrifice Han and Leia?"
"If you honor what they fight for," Yoda said, poking his stick in the ground for emphasis, "yes."
Luke's eyes bulged and Obi-Wan sighed. Another non-comforting truth from Yoda.
And another Padawan about to slip away from him.
Luke finally climbed the ladder and situated himself in the pilot's seat, and began running the take off sequence.
"Please... don't give in to hatred and fear. No matter how tempting they may be. They always lead to the Dark Side." As the warning lights from the X-Wing bathed the swamp in red, he spared one last comment. "You must remain strong, Luke. Please."
"Mind what you have learned! Save you, it can!" Yoda added as the ship began to hover just above the ground.
"I will," Luke replied, yelling over the roar of the engines. "And I will come back. I promise."
With that, the cover of the cockpit came down, the thrusters ignited, and Luke headed for the stars.
The two Jedi stood silently, watching his ascent until he faded out of sight.
"We should have told him," Obi-Wan said softly.
"Helped, it would not."
Obi-Wan wasn't sure if that was true or not. He could see the wisdom in both approaches. "We can only pray that we're right. That boy is our last hope."
Yoda heaved a deep, heavy sigh, and returned to his hut.
"You see, Your Highness!" Threepio exclaimed, in his oddly realistic imitation of glee. "It's really quite pretty here."
Leia sighed. She'd had a pounding headache for the past two hours, and she couldn't seem to think clearly through it. She'd been glad to leave Han and Lando to their boisterous talk. Her mind felt like crystal, and it was vibrating dangerously. "Yes, I suppose so. But you said you'd seen something questionable."
"I did? Yes, of course. I saw... oh, perhaps it was nothing at all."
"Threepio," Leia said, biting back her impatience, "I know you aren't programmed to lie. Did you see something suspicious or not?"
"Yes, of course. Something very suspicious. It's just a bit further" He clattered on down the path, which was made of metal that was painted to look like stones. About halfway down, he raised his arms. "Oh, yes. I remember. Here."
Leia hurried her pace and looked into the small alcove he was pointing to. There were white flowers, and red flowers, all arranged prettily on trellises. High hedges made it private. There was the soft sound of an artificially created wind, pulling this way and that among the leaves. There was something discomforting about it. In the back, there was a shadowy recess...
She put her hands to her temples, feeling suddenly like a pick was being driven through her skull. "Threepio, what is it? What did you see?"
"He saw me."
The shadows in the recess came to life, and a scarlet breeze drafted out from them. Leia knew what she was seeing - she wasn't insane, not yet - but she refused to acknowledge it. "Threepio," she said. "Why am I here?"
"It's not Threepio's fault," the wind said. "I activated programming that was suppressed in his memory."
At last, she could deny it no longer. When she spoke, her voice was flat and dull. "He was yours first."
"Actually," Lady Vader said, "he was your father's."
Suddenly, Leia understood what was discomforting about the wind. Oh, certainly, there was a fan somewhere, blowing a steady band of wind across the gardens. But here, this close, there was an undercurrent to it - an even, precise rhythm that she'd heard in her worst nightmares. She looked beyond her mother, and saw him standing there, the great shadow that her mother had emerged from.
She turned to run, but she felt a ghostly hand on her shoulder, willing her to stay, pulling her back into the alcove. "Let me go!"
Real hands touched her arms - small, warm hands, grasping at her in a desperate, sickening way. "My Leia, my Leia... we've searched for you for such a long time. Please, don't run. We mean you no harm."
She pulled away from all the hands, physical and ephemeral, jerking herself into the prickly hedge in the process. "Don't touch me!"
She hadn't said it to strike out; it was just an atavistic loathing of their touch. It made her both cold and feverish.
Lady Vader took a step back, and her hands disappeared beneath the veil. Her shoulders hitched in what could only be a sob.
Leia paused, her shoulders pressed into the sharp leaves, and listened to her mother cry. "I... " she started, but couldn't think how to finish it. She didn't want to be here. She had to -
The black-gloved hand clamped around her wrist with finality, and she looked, almost involuntarily, into the masked face of her father. "Sit down," he said. "You have been sought and found, and you are, at the moment, captured. This need not be unpleasant."
The words stopped there, but she heard the remainder anyway: But it can be if you choose. It can be very unpleasant.
" - stop it." Mother's voice was clear, if a bit thick. She'd said something before "stop it" - "any," maybe, or something in another language - but Leia couldn't make sense of it. She came around, and her fingers again made contact with Leia's wrist. They didn't seek as desperately this time, just rested there, as if she were touching a fragile but beautiful and expensive statue. "Leia," she said, then again, "Leia," and again, until Leia thought she'd be driven mad by the sound of her own name.
"Mother," she finally managed to say.
"Yes." Both hands clasped around hers, and Leia remembered, against her will, the comfort of her nursery. "Oh, Leia. My little girl. How I've longed to see you."
"You knew where I was."
"I was unable to come to you."
"Of course not. Not when you were so busy hunting me down."
"Not hunting. Searching." She moved her hands, then there was a blur of red gauze, and the veils were thrown back. Leia looked into her own eyes. "Things are changing, Leia. We don't have to be at war anymore. We've challenged Palpatine."
"Your father and I."
"Don't call him that."
"Leia," Vader said, "there is little point in refusing to acknowledge the obvious."
She glared at him, then turned back to Mother. To Lady Vader. "I don't fight Palpatine," she said. "I fight all of you."
Lady Vader's face grew cool and set, though Leia had not thought such a thing possible a moment ago. A moment ago, she had been almost disgustingly soft. Now... Oddly, it was a face Leia found more to her liking, though one less likely to placate her. "It's a strange war you fight, Leia, if you don't care who your enemy is."
"My enemy is the Empire and everything it stands for."
"All it has ever stood for is Palpatine. We will make it stand for something else."
Leia resorted to sarcasm, surprised how easily it came to her in this situation. "Oh, so you'll use absolute power and tyranny to accomplish different ends. That makes everything all right."
"And your Rebellion," Mother said, her voice a saw. "What does it stand for? You will fight for anarchy? For the memory of an antiquated and corrupt Republic? Leia, I was there when the Republic still lived. You are fighting for the shadow of a dream. The reality... you have no idea what the reality was."
"I remember one reality," Leia said softly. "I remember that we ran from the Empire. I don't know how long, or where. But I remember you being frightened. I remember that, Mother."
"Everyone is frightened of change."
"Not everyone hides a child in a trunk to avoid change."
Mother's eyes widened in surprise. Good. Then she shook her head, as if she were shaking water out of her ears. "It doesn't matter. I held... certain naive beliefs." She waved her hand impatiently. "I no longer hold them."
"You were supposed to have died. Where were you all those years?"
"I was in prison, if you must know. At Palpatine's hands. Your father had me released when he found out."
"So naturally, you became the face of the new and improved Empire."
"I did what I needed to." Her face softened again. "Oh, Leia, please. I don't want to fight with you."
"I told you this was pointless," Vader said. "I have known this child for many years. She is stubborn and intractable."
Mother's lips twitched in something that was almost a smile, almost pretty. "She came by it naturally, my love."
Leia might have been won at that moment of strangeness. It was one point she simply couldn't deny - she could stand toe to toe with Vader, and she'd always had a sneaking enjoyment of those episodes (at least until he resorted to more arcane methods of trying to make her change her mind) because he never gave in. She stood there, suddenly wanting to ask other questions. She could feel them pushing up, wanting to explode out of her. It would have been easy to justify - you don't need to join them to demand answers to the nagging questions in your heart - and if she had started down that path... the questions, there were so many, and every one would lead to another... She might have been won at that moment, except for the very shared trait that had begun it. She kept firmly to her ground. And Vader continued his own argument.
"Nevertheless," he said, "I do not believe we will accomplish anything. We will return to the ship with Leia, and you can continue this conversation as you please. Meanwhile, we should prepare for Luke's arrival."
The ground opened beneath Leia's feet, and the heavens poured down fire. A great wind buffeted her against hot stone.
She stood still, her hands clenching into fists. "Luke?" she repeated.
"Yes," Mother said. "He's on his way." She smiled again, this time genuinely pretty, but Leia no longer cared. She was too confused to care. "No matter what you may think, I'm glad the two of you found one another at last. When I separated you, I feared you never would, and you were so fond of each other as babies."
"Luke?" Leia said again. It seemed to be both the only word that made sense, and a totally new word, in a tongue she'd never heard before.
Mother was nodding vaguely, her face getting that glazed and ecstatic look again, when something suddenly seemed to occur to her. Her face was pale already, after the years behind the veil, but now it turned the color of curdled milk. "You don't know? You never made the connection? Obi-Wan never told him?"
Leia just stared at her.
"Obi-Wan was supposed to tell him. He was supposed to tell him everything, as soon as it was time. Certainly before he met you."
"That," Vader said, "has always seemed to me a highly unlikely occurrence."
Leia took no notice of him. She was still staring at her mother. When I separated you... You don't know? ... Obi-Wan was supposed to tell him...
"Leia, you haven't... he's not... "
Leia found her voice, and it was a scream. "No! Never! You... how could you do that? How could you risk that?" She backed further into the hedge, not minding - or noticing - the scratches it was tracing on her cheeks.
Mother was starting to come toward her again, perhaps to draw her out, when sharp, quick footsteps broke the noise barrier of the wind and father's labored breathing. An Imperial officer appeared at the gate of the alcove, barely noted Leia with his eyes, and bowed to Mother. "Your Majesty," he said, then bowed slightly to Father, "My Lord." He looked to Mother again. "The operation has begun," he said.
Mother's eyebrows lowered. "What? I'm sorry, I don't... "
"Very good," Father said. "Leave us."
Mother shook her head. "Captain, please -" A glance at Father. She would put up a united front, though she seemed taken by surprise. "What stage of the operation have you reached?" The officer glanced nervously at Leia, so Mother said, "This prisoner is secure, Captain."
"The legion is in place," he said. "And Solo and the Wookiee are being brought to it." He saluted, and left the alcove.
Leia's mind came crashing back into place. Han. Han was in danger. She had to get to him.
She made a mad dive for the gate, though she knew she had no chance. No invisible hands this time. Her father caught her upper arms, his hands more effective than iron binders.
The prisoner was secure.
"No, no, no! That's not the way it went at all!" Han yelled back, laughing uproariously.
"Aw, get off it, Solo," Lando replied, through his own bout of laughter. "You know that if it hadn't been for you being... distracted... we never would have been caught."
"If it wasn't for me, we'd still be sitting in that cell, waiting for that guard - what was his name?"
Chewie roared something from the other side of the room, and both men nodded.
"Yup, that was it. I really thought he was going to kill us," Han said. He shook his head with the memory, and with the myriad of stories and scandals that came to mind with it. Seeing Lando again had lifted a burden from him, bringing back easier times - times when he was probably in a comparable amount of danger, but when he honestly didn't care. When he only had himself to think about, and nothing but his ship and his money to worry about.
A lifetime ago. It had to be.
"Now, that wasn't the worst of it though. Don't you remember the look on that garrison's face when we tried to leave the planet with -"
A beeping noise sounded softly in the room, interrupting Lando's tale. Han was still chuckling to himself as his friend looked to the gadget on his wrist. Lando's face immediately fell, and he stared at the message for a long moment before responding, and shutting off the noise.
"Let me guess," Han said in disappointment. "Responsibility calls."
A long sigh, and an apologetic look. "Afraid so. I'm supposed to meet with a group of investors now, to discuss a lot of boring numbers and projections. "He stood to leave and suddenly a smile broke out on his face. "Why don't you join me? Both of you?"
Chewie laughed, and Han made a face. "Why would we want to sit in on your boring meeting?"
"Well, you might just find it interesting. And I could use a few people sitting on my side of the table."
"I'm supposed to intimidate them for you?"
"I was thinking mostly of Chewbacca. I don't think these guys are used to negotiating with Wookiees." He gave Han a playful hit on the arm. "Come on. At the very least, you'll get to make fun of me later after witnessing my businessman image first hand."
Han shrugged. "Hey, why not?" Chewie grumbled in annoyance. "There's not much else to do around here for now, and who knows where Leia and 3PO went. We may as well keep ourselves occupied."
The trio stepped out into the hallway, and into the general bustle of the city. Han had gotten the feeling earlier that Leia was already tiring of the busy atmosphere in Bespin, but he was mostly bemused by it all, and by the fact that Lando, of all people, had managed to create and maintain it.
"... every day I've got a new thing to worry about," Lando was saying. "You wouldn't believe it. Labor on one side, developers on the other, the law pretty much everywhere -"
"Now that's the Lando I remember!" he interrupted. "I'll bet we both have some interesting stories about avoiding the Empire. You won't believe some of the stuff I could tell you about the last couple of years."
They walked down a long, almost empty hallway. The sounds of people walking and talking slowly faded, until they could only hear their own footsteps.
"The Empire has always been a concern here, but that should be changing soon."
Han and Chewie gave him puzzled looks as they reached the door to the conference room.
"I've just made a deal that should keep the Empire out of here forever."
The time it took the door to rise - seconds, probably less - was just enough for a warning siren to go off in Han's head, as he processed what Lando had said.
The room was filled with stormtroopers... it was all a sea of white. He could hear the klick-klack of armored footsteps coming down the hallway behind them. Chewie yelled.
Han had his blaster out and firing before any of the stormtroopers were able to make a move. He saw two fall forward, and another two thrown back into the wall. He hit another one before he saw them raise their rifles at him and open fire.
Chewie had taken Lando by his forearms and thrown him in the air, toward the oncoming troopers. He took out a good number of them in a loud crash, and they went sliding all over the floor.
Han was in a corner of the dead-end hallway, avoiding the blasts coming through the open door, and shooting down the hallway, trying to give Chewie some cover. He hit a stormtrooper that ventured out into the hallway. The next one out the door turned to Han, and hit him in the head with the back of his rifle.
Han had a few moments that registered before he blacked-out completely. He saw Chewie stunned by a shot, crashing to the floor. He saw Lando pull himself to his feet and walk over.
"I'm sorry, Han," he said quietly. "They got here just before you did. I had no choice."
His eyes closed briefly, but he forced them open, and squinted at Lando. "Where's Leia?"
"I don't know. I -"
"Where is she?"
"I... I'm sorry, Han."
Then, everything went black.
Amidala understood three things simultaneously: first, that Ani had arranged for the capture of the pilot and the Wookiee while she'd been out re-programming Threepio; second, that he had not done so with any thought of subterfuge - he'd simply assumed she would know him well enough to guess (she supposed he was right; she just been too distracted to think about it); and, third, that the pilot was Leia's lover. The notion of Leia having a lover was disturbing, almost beyond tolerance, but she had to tolerate it. She had to tolerate it because she recognized the look on Leia's face. She had felt it on her own face many times. Leia would face danger to herself with some degree of resignation. But danger to the pilot... she would react by fighting, clawing...
Rejecting, utterly, those who had placed him in danger in the first place.
Ani seemed to be reaching the same conclusion - his back had straightened, and he held his head in a position that had always (suit or no suit) shown irritation when his plans were interrupted by an unknown factor.
"Leia," she said, "we were telling the truth. We have no wish to hurt you."
Leia looked pointedly at Ani's hand, which was bending her wrist in what looked like an uncomfortable way. Her hand was beginning to swell, and was already fully immobilized.
"My love," Amidala said, not looking at Ani.
"She will run."
Amidala swallowed. She wasn't used to him contradicting her, any more than he was used to her contradicting him. When they disagreed, they kept it private. But he was right... this wasn't an Imperial matter. It was a family matter, and they shouldn't be giving one another implied orders.
Of course, they should also be communicating with one another about important tactical decisions, but that could wait until later. For now, they had to be on the same side. If Leia found a rift, she would use it to get away.
She's not a prisoner! She's your daughter!
Of course. But she was also a rebel, and as stubborn as Ani had ever been. If Amidala had thought to do this with Ani twenty years ago - just take him and hold him, against his will if necessary, until he saw sense again - then they wouldn't be in the mess they were in now. I will find the strength. She closed her eyes and opened them again. "She won't run as long as the pilot is in our custody and alive."
Ani let go of Leia, as much in surprise as in agreement. Amidala had not generally favored taking hostages. She still didn't, but Ani had created the situation, and she might as well use it. It was better than watching her husband snap her daughter's wristbones without even noticing he was doing it.
Leia pulled her hand away and began to rub the wrist vigorously, but her eyes were focused on Amidala. If she could have shot fire from them, Amidala was quite certain she'd be reduced to a pile of ashes already. "You... " But she stopped. Amidala bit down on any illusions that it was because she didn't want to finish the sentence. Illusions would cost all of them right now, and she couldn't afford any more. Leia didn't finish because she couldn't think of anything cruel enough to say.
"I'm sorry," Amidala whispered.
Ani's comlink beeped, and an officer reported that Solo was indeed in custody. Leia's head fell forward, as if she'd been struck, then she looked up again, her face cold.
That's me in there, Amidala realized. She isn't all Ani after all. She knows how to angry in the cold.
It wasn't a comforting thought, so she set it aside. "Oh, Leia, I'm so sorry. It was never supposed to be like this."
"How, precisely, was it supposed to go?"
Ani stepped forward. "You were to show some gratitude for the sacrifices she made to keep you safe as an infant."
"Safe from you. And now she's handed me to you."
"Safe from Palpatine," Amidala corrected. "You were never in danger from your father."
Mistake. They looked at each other - Leia with anger, Ani with something that began to approach guilt. She had been in plenty of danger from her father.
Amidala tried to fix it. "It was my fault. Had I simply told the truth in the first place the... the more negative experiences wouldn't have occurred."
Leia paused for a moment, several emotions working their way across her face. "You're a master politician, Mother," she said at last. "I'll give you that. But you'll need to do better than that."
Ani leaned in on her. "You have crossed the boundary, Leia. This is no longer tolerable."
Amidala's instinct was to continue to take the blame, to serve as a buffer between them. This wasn't a love of pain on her part; she had simply seen, that, for a moment, Leia had stopped to think about what she'd said. It had made her look at the past differently. Ani's intervention had just steeled her again.
The clacking of hard boots on cobblestones interrupted them for the final time, and Admiral Piett came into the alcove. He bowed deeply to Amidala. "Your Majesty," he said. "Luke Skywalker's fighter has entered the atmosphere."
Leia squeezed her eyes shut. "He'll never come to you any more than I will."
"But Leia," Amidala said, "you're already here."
A platoon of stormtroopers appeared beside Piett, and Amidala understood what they were for. She couldn't stand the thought of it, couldn't bear the idea that Leia - her Leia! - was so far from her at this point. But she recognized necessity. She looked to Ani. Ani would have the strength to do it.
He nodded, and looked at the stormtroopers. "Bring Princess Leia to our quarters and keep her under guard. If she is mistreated, I will hear of it, and I will be most displeased."
Leia, to her credit, was not enough of a fool to challenge his protection. The troopers formed around her, and they led her out.
"I am sorry, my love," Ani said. "I wish it had occurred as you had hoped, rather than as I had feared."
It wouldn't have been effective if she'd believed that he enjoyed being proven right, but it had never given him any pleasure to see others suffer because they had ignored his warnings. He had even grieved for his men on board the Death Star, and not once had he pointed out that, had his advice been heeded, those men would still be alive. Amidala herself hadn't learned of that advice until much later, when one of the few surviving officers - a man who had been injured in Leia's initial escape and shuttled to a nearby world before the battle - told her that Ani had loathed the station from the start. So when he told her that he hoped he'd been wrong about Leia, she knew he meant it, and it comforted her. "I know, Ani. I hate to see her captured like that. Beaten."
"I understand. But Luke is coming in. We must prepare for that meeting."
"Yes, my love?"
"This... this was perhaps not the best approach. We are trying to bring them home, not intimidate them into giving us answers. Perhaps we... I mean, I think we should speak to them separately."
She waited for his outrage, but it didn't appear. "You're right, of course."
"And the pilot... "
Ani made a low, grumbling sound that did Amidala's heart good. It felt almost like the reaction of a normal father in a normal family, when his daughter brought home a man he didn't care for. "Something will be done about him."
"Don't give her an excuse for vengeance."
"It would hardly be an appropriate strategy to achieve our goals."
"I didn't realize until too late that -"
"Of course not. You, my love, are still surprised that she is not a toddler."
"Did you know?"
After a long pause, he said, "No. She blocks me, and he... he is a blind spot. I simply cannot see him at all. I was first aware of that at Yavin. I did not suspect. He is hardly her type."
Ani's breathing cycle went through two-three-four-repetitions. "I suppose he is. But we have no time to discuss this."
With that, they were in full agreement again.
"Hold still, sir!" the doctor ordered in exasperation. "This will only take a second."
Han squirmed anyway, and a bit of the balm - at least, that's what he hoped it was - dripped down the side of his face. He reached up with handcuffed hands to wipe it off. "So, do you always fix up prisoners' scrapes and bruises before they're tortured to death?"
The old man frowned, creasing his already wrinkled face. "I don't particularly care what happens to my patients when I'm done with them."
"Probably a good view for an Imperial medic."
"I just follow my orders, and I was told to make you look presentable." Han felt him dab at the bruise on his face with a medicated pad. "You can't do that with a purple bruise on your forehead. So, stop moving around and let me finish."
"You treated anyone else today?" Han asked. "A female rebel?"
The doctor responded with something that sounded like a snort.
"What does that mean?"
"It means that if I have to treat her for anything, the morgue will be busy today."
Han fell silent, and let the man finish his work. That was the best bit of news he had received since regaining consciousness. Whatever the Vaders had in mind for Leia, they apparently had no intention of physically harming her - at least not yet.
Hell, he and Chewie seemed to be getting some type of royal prisoner treatment themselves. They were in one of Bespin's regular guest suites instead of a cell. Both were handcuffed and restrained, but no one had laid a hand on them. And now a doctor was there, healing the injuries they sustained in the initial capture.
So this was what it was like to be the boyfriend of the daughter of two leaders of the Empire.
"All right, you're all set," the doctor said, removing his gloves and packing up his equipment. "If I were you, I'd try to stay out of the way of any other rifles."
As the doctor walked out the door, he almost ran into two stormtroopers that were entering.
Lando was behind them.
Han hadn't given Lando a second thought once he was captured - he only cared about getting out of there, finding Leia, and leaving Bespin. But now, the fury choked him, and he couldn't even think through what he wanted to say or do to him.
How could you?
No. He didn't care about how, or why. About how Lando could have looked him in the face and called him a friend. Or why he found it so easy to destroy their lives. Or how...
"Get out of here Lando," he growled. He almost didn't recognize his own voice, as tortured and strained as it sounded.
Lando didn't respond, but spoke to the one of the guards. "I have orders from Lord Vader to transport these prisoners."
"Yes sir. We can accompany you -"
"That won't be necessary," Lando interrupted quickly. "I was told to use minimum personnel. Apparently, they still want most of this operation kept quiet."
The guard eyed Chewie warily, and motioned to two other soldiers, who immediately trained their blasters on the prisoners. The foot chains were undone, and Lando's troopers took them both by the arms and led them out of the room.
Han felt his focus return to where it needed to be. Once they got away from the main contingent of guards, he was certain he and Chewie could take care of Lando and his goons, even with their hands bound. As long as Chewie was quick, it wouldn't be a problem.
They walked slowly down the hallway, with Lando nodding to the guards as they went by. Without looking to either side, he muttered under his breath, "Don't try anything. I'm going to get you both out of here."
Han was stunned for a second. "Sure... buddy," he spat back.
They entered one of the larger cargo lifts, and as soon as the doors swished shut, Chewbacca reacted. He brought his arms high over his head, and slammed them down on the stormtrooper next to him, crumpling him to the ground, unconscious.
"No! Chewie wait -"
Lando's words weren't heeded as Han struggled with his own guard, hitting him with his forearms and trying to knock his blaster away. The lift came a sudden, jerking stop, throwing both of them to the floor. Lando had hit the controls, and was still trying to explain something to them.
Chewie shoved the man against one of the walls, and pressed his arms against his neck.
"Wait," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm - I'm," he struggled and tried to wriggle away, "trying to help."
"Help!" Han yelled. "Chewie, just finish him off, we need to find Leia."
Chewie pressed harder, and Lando's eyes began bulging. "No... I... why do you think -" he stopped, his arms struggling in vain to move the Wookiee off him, "- they aren't - firing on you?"
It took a moment for Han to figure out what he meant, and then he turned to the trooper behind him. "What do you mean?"
"They're my... staff. "A deep gasp. "I got you out."
"Fine, you want to help? Tell me where Leia is. Get us back to the Falcon."
Chewie finally relaxed his hold, and Lando collapsed, gasping desperately for air. "I don't know... I don't know where she is. But I'm sure the Vaders have her." He coughed violently before continuing. "You won't be able to get to her by yourself."
"We'll see about that. What was your plan then, anyway?"
"To call for help. You need the Rebels to come. You need a plan."
Han shook his head, but Lando continued. "The Vaders have half a fleet here. And more Imperial ships are heading this way. "Lando, with difficulty, returned to his feet. "You're going to need help."
Chewie nodded to Han, and hit the button to get the lift moving again. "Try anything, and Chewie picks up where he left off."
"Han, I'm sorry, I didn't -"
Han silenced him with a murderous look.
Once they reached the proper floor, Lando led them to a small office. Han initiated a written message to the Rebels - those were harder to track than vocal or visual messages - asking for a back up team to help get them out of there, and warning them about the Imperial presence in the city. Lando remained silent the entire time.
Han finished, and turned to him. "I need weapons, and to see a lay out of the city."
"I'm going after her. Now. Get me the stuff and stay the hell out of my way."
Lando merely nodded.
Hang on Leia, Han thought. I'm coming.
Even through the haze of fear and urgency, Luke saw the beauty of Cloud City. The spires and disks rose above the sun streaked clouds like an artist's dream, the graceful movement of the trafficways called to mind birds on an exotic shore. Luke had always believed that nature's designs were more beautiful than man's, but on Bespin, the two worked together to create a scene that took his breath away.
He drew a breath, concentrated on the stale taste of the recycled air in the X-wing's cabin, and let it out. There was no time to appreciate the power of the place. He could feel Han and Leia nearby, both in imminent danger. Leia's presence in his mind was nearly deafening. She wasn't in physical pain, but her mind was reeling. She was angry and afraid, and hurt in some deep way that he didn't understand.
No escort appeared from the city, which would have made him suspicious if he hadn't already known that things were badly amiss here. There was no hail for landing permits, no automated directive message. He finally had to simply find a landing platform, guide the X-wing onto it, and land.
No one greeted him at the platform, either, but the door slid up soundlessly as soon as he approached it. He was being watched. He drew his blaster and went into the corridors of Cloud City, homing in on the pulsing energy in his mind that was Leia. Artoo followed him.
The city seemed to be deserted here, and a heavy, oppressive chord cut through the silence. He made his way down the empty hallway, certain at each doorway that an enemy would suddenly appear. They were there, naturally, in groups, just in case he chose a different path - he could feel them, like pointed weapons. In his mind, he practiced lightsaber parries from any angle of attack, and he kept his blaster at the ready for more conventional enemies.
If they appear from behind me, through one of the doors I've passed, go low, then draw the lightsaber to deflect fire and then attack.
Artoo whistled something softly, and Luke shushed him. He didn't have a scanner to read what the droid was trying to say.
If they attack from the side, fire as the door opens, before they have a chance to orient themselves to the hallway.
He looked through a window, and saw vast gardens in the center of the city, their beauty unmarred even by the darkness that wafted through them like a cold wind.
If they attack...
Suddenly, he heard the unmistakable sound of stormtroopers on the march, their footfalls in perfect, echoing unison on the metal floors. Leia's presence was suddenly all around him. He ducked into a side corridor.
The platoon came around the corner in formation, and in the center, he saw her, dressed in blue, her hair in a simple braid. Not giving himself a chance to think, he ran out into the corridor and began to fire at the stormtroopers.
The platoon fired back, but they seemed to be aiming at the floor. A wall of smoke rose up.
"Luke!" Leia cried. "Luke, go back! It's a trap! Don't listen to them!" She was whisked around a corner, then suddenly appeared again. "Luke! Please! Don't listen! Whatever they say is a lie!"
She was dragged back into the other hall, and Luke went through the smoke to follow her. By the time he got there, the hallway was empty. It branched in several directions, and her presence was so all-encompassing that he couldn't tell which one she'd taken.
A door rose.
It's a trap.
(It doesn't matter. I am here because they are looking for me, and if I go, then they will let Han and Leia be.)
You know that's not true.
He did know. But there weren't many options. He went through the door.
It slid shut before Artoo could make it, but Luke didn't notice the droid's absence until much later. At that moment, he only noticed that his retreat was blocked. If this had been a mistake, he was stuck with it.
If they attack from the front, the blaster will serve for a small group, but draw the lightsaber as quickly as you can to deflect fire.
The corridor led down, into the working areas of the city, drawing toward the gardens he'd seen, but not along the paths of the citizens. The walls were lined with supplies and chemicals, and a stench rose from a level underneath. The pipes and power lines in the walls stood revealed. One line was smoking, and Luke noticed that a line of lights was out. With no surprise, he realized that the darkened lights led into the only corridor open to him at the next bend.
He followed the path, and, again, the door shut behind him.
Again, the corridor led down, taking him beneath the level of the garden. He could smell something earthy in the air. The machines that drove the artificial wind above were here, and their endless whirr drowned out any sound that might have come from the rest of the city.
If they attack from above...
The other effect of the machines was that the constant backflow of the exhaust filled the room with a cool, swirling breeze. Sight, hearing, and touch... all impaired in this room. Luke had only the Force to lean on, and the energy it brought him was so strong that he nearly staggered. There was a sense of victory in this room, of exaltation, but also of confusion and fear. Beneath it, though, was darkness and despair.
Vader. Vader is here. He is waiting to kill me as he killed my father. The wind covers up the respirator.
Luke drew his lightsaber. The blaster would be useless against Vader. The blade lit up a small area around him - which wasn't very useful, since he still saw nothing.
Something touched the back of his neck, something soft and light, like an insect's wing. He spun, but nothing was there.
He turned again, slowly, into the wind, and again felt the touch, steady now, covering his face. He batted at it with his lightsaber and it fell away.
He was bending to look at it when the low emergency lights came on.
The first thing he saw was the veil on the ground, red, but dark enough to be almost black in the low lighting. The mark of his lightsaber was an insult to its beauty. He stood slowly, suddenly not wanting to meet the eyes of the figure who stood on the catwalk above him, her gown flowing out into the wind, her uncovered hair a river of darkness.
Lady Vader smiled. "Welcome, my son," she said. "I've been waiting for you."
For that attack, Luke knew no parry.
She refused to look at him. She simply directed her gaze out the window, upon the early moonlight silver-washed city that had imprisoned her, her small fists clenched tightly about the windowsill - clenching harder every time she heard the metronome breathing behind her, despite the pain from the sore wrists, which she had refused any treatment for. The swelling had gone down somewhat, and nothing appeared to be broken. In her hands, at least...
Any minute now, Luke will probably be walking right into her hands... damn, you know how headstrong he is. Damn, you know he only listens when he feels like it... !
It hadn't been even a day since she'd found out, and she was already feeling protective of him. She'd always been protective in a way to him, really, but until now it had had no real focus, or reasoning...
She'd tried, earlier, to ignore them when they had both been here and it hadn't worked. Maybe with one of them temporarily gone it would be easier.
Leia tried to ignore the scornful snort a deeply buried part of her conscious mind made at that remark. After all, despite all the hatred she felt for her father... she had a shield, an advantage, against him that she lacked against her mother. Present in her earliest girlhood memories, Amidala had a latch in which she could slip through and get under Leia's weakest skin, the skin of the girl that had loved her mother more than the sun that had shone on both of them.
And perhaps that made it worse, she thought. Her mother had loved her and abandoned her, but Vader had never loved her.
You worry about me far too much, my love...
And now that she knew what his view of love was, she decided that was probably the greatest gift he would ever give her.
She was certain that if he wanted to, Vader could crush those untrained shields of hers to dust - and yet he did not. Nor did he summon that incredible power of the Force she knew he possessed to lash out, to force her to face him.
She couldn't ignore him forever, but maybe she could ignore him long enough to make him go away... something else had to get his attention eventually, after all.
(This time, there was nothing in her head to contradict the scorning.)
"You may try to ignore me all you like, Princess; it will do you little good. I am surprised to see you continuing to waste your energy on such a futile enterprise. "
(And yet you waste energy yourself in your attempts to break me out.)
His deep voice vibrated, almost pleasantly on a surface level, through her brain, making a direct emphasis on the title. She had noted the usage of this instead of her name or simply "daughter." He was little more used to this relationship than she was.
Keeping secrets from you, her beloved, as well? Well, my father, perhaps we have more in common than I thought.
And maybe there is some twisted semblance of justice floating somewhere around here.
If only she could make it show its face completely, not in just fleeting, ghostly wisps. Preferably in some sort of tangible form, one she could shape into a blunt, heavy ended weapon that she could smash this demon aside with, and save her lover and her...
Her sibling. The pieces of the clues of their relationship that floated in her head now were the same ones she'd had before the Vaders came along, and yet somehow, their few well placed phrases had made things come together with such quick clarity that Leia nearly berated herself for not finding out sooner.
Luke. There was hope in Luke. Like her, he was of them... and he was noble and good. (Could such darkness truly beget such pure good? she wondered.) And now he, along with Han, was about to be contaminated by their gloved grip...
She found herself unconsciously rubbing her wrists again. Vader hadn't broken them, but he had come close.
"Leia," the voice boomed more firmly... yet not really angrily. She firmly stilled a flinch.
There had been so much she'd wanted to know from him, about her. So much she'd been denied, so much that he would certainly know...
Like what exactly was so wonderful about him that she abandoned you to him, and now suddenly wants you back?
"I will not force you to face me," he said (which surprised her a bit, she admitted). "But you will speak to me."
Slowly, Leia turned around, meeting the shielded gaze of Vader. Part of her screamed against this (don't succumb to him! don't do his way!), but the part of her that had never allowed anyone to tread or trample on her, especially Darth Vader, told it (in no uncertain terms) to shut up.
One thought rose above all others in her mind, requiring little effort to reach the top of her other thoughts. "You would think that after having such a strong hold on her for so long that you would find a better way to bend me, Lord."
The room became deathly cold, but still she held the stare despite her rapidly rising fear. She finally felt something from Vader, something akin to the first brushes of a hot, surging tide... but it vanished, whether by dissipation (unlikely) or shielding on his own part.
"Any hold I have is there of her own choosing," he said sternly, and Leia stilled another flinch. "That should be fairly clear to you." His voice was cold and despite herself had the effect of making Leia begin to feel as if she were two feet tall. Of all the things she hadn't expected it to sound like, it for all the world reminded her of a father chastising a daughter for some transgression or another. "And she may choose to see whatever she wishes."
"I'm sure that's convenient for you."
She hadn't intended to let it slip out. But it was there, and there was nothing she could do. Calmly as possible, she erected her mental shields to brace for the explosion she knew was coming.
Her wrists throbbed again.
Surprisingly, again, the explosion didn't come. He didn't even look at her; instead coming up beside her on the balcony, the evening light casting an uneasy surreal light on the mask. His fists rested at his sides - but perhaps a little more stiffly than usual.
"I have no intention of establishing a happy family relationship between us," he said, his view still fixed on the dusk. "You need not fear that. Even your mother knows too much has happened for that to happen, particularly this soon. I don't even expect you to accept your position here as permanent. But I will expect you to obey, as will she. It will make things far less difficult for all of us."
Say nothing to him. It was futile to protest, anyway. She would have to find some way to escape from here... and maybe, just maybe Han was still okay. It occurred to her that her safety was secondary in comparison; if Han made it out, then that would almost be worth her imprisonment here.
How she missed his kisses at that moment; the warm arms that had remained open to her even when she'd tried to shut them...
A terrifying thought occurred to her then. Would Han be foolish enough to make an attempt at rescuing her? She put it out of her mind. Whatever happened, she wasn't exactly in a position to deal with it now.
She almost wished Vader had exploded. It was natural for someone to be put off guard occasionally, but he had managed to do it multiple times. It annoyed her.
She wanted him to explode somehow, so she could explode back. She wanted a reason to be able to scream at him... but then he decided he was going to be calm. And then, when she was finally feeling reasonable, he was crushing her wrists...
(Was it her imagination, or were they starting to swell up again? Maybe she should get treatment for them at some point...)
"I do... apologize for my earlier treatment of you," he said quietly into her thoughts, causing her to look up sharply. She'd never heard his voice this soft before, not even when it was the softness that usually was a prelude to a death threat. "I know it matters little to you, but it was never my intent to physically harm you."
A dozen potential responses, all decidedly sarcastic and some that would have certainly earned a lesser person death, flashed on the tip of her tongue so quickly she could almost feel the burning trail they left behind. And burn they did, very fiercely.
She forced herself to ignore him, instead focusing on what she knew should be the most important concern of hers, more so than her putting up with the Vaders. "What about Han and Luke?" she asked, pinning him with her stare, trying to force the field of battle back to her own side.
"Your... companion... has come to no harm, unless it was of his own choosing," her father said, and she almost smiled at the thinly veiled distaste in his tone. He disapproved of Han? Somehow that made their romantic association all that more appealing. But on the other hand, it was potentially a reason for them to inflict harm upon him... would they do such a thing, knowing the response it would surely arise in her? Would they even care? "That case is even more so for your brother, my daughter."
"Don't call me that," she murmured, closing her eyes.
"You would rather hide from the truth?"
She forced down the upsurge from the well of anger, knowing full well he meant to cloud her judgment. But then, that was what she'd always enjoyed about their confrontations. If she could stand up to Lord Vader, she could stand up to any politician.
"I've had to confront it every day for the last three years of my life," she said in an even tone as she could manage. "And if you have your way I'll be confronting it even longer than that. So if I choose to close the shades from it every now and then, I hold that choice as my own. Masks do grow uncomfortable after a time. "
"I do not take well to hypocrisy, daughter," he said quietly, warningly; he'd have been a fool not to notice her jab. She forced down the lump in her throat before it could fully form; it instead reformed in her gut as a ball of slick, solid ice.
"There's a lot of things that fall under that category, I recall. "
He ignored it. "Because your mask is not physical does not mean you've not used one," he replied coldly. "I feel the walls within you, Princess. Walling out any potential thing that causes you pain... even those you love, including your smuggler friend," he added with a thick coat of what could only be bitterness. "Believe me when I say that a thick mask is the quickest way to a thin skin."
"I wouldn't need these walls if it weren't for you," she bit, on each word forcing down the words that she wanted to say to him more than anything, yet was terrified to release them for that was the side of her that was him.
(I hate you, I despise you, I wish you were dead, I wish she'd never come back... !)
"You wouldn't even HAVE them if it weren't for me."(True enough, she surmised darkly. If anything, the Force would certainly have augmented her already strong mental training from Alderaan.)
"Take all the credit you want," she scowled. "It takes plenty of the burden off of my back." And maybe it will go towards breaking yours.
She would have stormed off to her only moderately cramped cell of a room if she hadn't been there already.
"Then perhaps you will have something to show gratitude for," he said, cocking his head slightly to one side in that sardonically amused way of his. "One day you will respect all your mother has gone through at her expense for you, child."
"Respect is fine," Leia said smoothly, putting on her most saccharine smile. "So long as I don't have to appreciate it."
"I think you will find that is one decision you will have little choice in, Daughter."
For a long moment they remained in their fixed places, neither willing to be the one who blinked. Heck, she didn't even know if he did blink. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the details of what was under that mask.
Whether he blinked or not, he was the one to concede defeat. Without another word, he strode out. Leia's smile remained, but it became of a different sort of nature.
"We will see," she said to no one.
Ozzel glowered at the communications array aboard the Iron Will. He was still technically the ranking officer on this ship, and if worse came to worse - correction when it did - he could take command, but for now, Admiral Mahrek had said that his "talents were better used in a different position." Ozzel had protested, but apparently, the Emperor was of the opinion that he had opened fire on Vader too soon. Since neither Mahrek nor the Emperor had been there, Ozzel had been unable to state his case with sufficient strength. He was sure that Vader was plotting high treason, but no one else seemed to take it seriously. So here he was, approaching Bespin and what was sure to be the decisive military strike against Vader and his woman... and he was serving as a communications technician.
Never mind. He would find a way to prove himself.
Captain Sequi was pacing the bridge, looking guiltily over his shoulder at Ozzel. He had been given direct orders to keep command of the ship, and Ozzel would respect them (at least, of course, until he had no choice), but he didn't intend to make it any easier on the man. A captain had no business in command when an admiral was on board.
A light flashed on the comm panel, and Ozzel flipped the switch beneath it. A hazy holoimage of the world of Bespin came into view. Ozzel spoke into his comlink. "Admiral Mahrek, we're getting preliminary surveillance signals from the scout droids."
"Good. Analyze them."
Ozzel clenched his teeth, and concentrated on focusing the images (the post wasn't entirely without precedent; he'd served as a comm-officer for two years and performed quite adequately). The first showed four Star Destroyers and the Executor in orbit over a gas giant. A fifth Destroyer came in from out of frame, and one of the others went back out. "He is aware of our pursuit," Ozzel told Mahrek. "He's sending out Destroyers in a rotating schedule. "
"I see. Any other information?"
I will bide my time.
He focused the second image, the image of Cloud City. The Imperial presence - no, the Vaders' presence - was growing rapidly, and Ozzel thought it looked like they were emerging from hidden posts. Disgusting. Vader had hidden, like a Rebel. But he was coming out now, certainly. TIE fighters flew the traffic patterns, and two more Star Destroyers hung in orbit in this side of the world. Shuttles were coming and going. The Vaders had been quite busy here in this little hive of theirs. He saw something scarlet above the city, and pulled the focus in more tightly.
What he saw made him stand up and nearly demand that command be given back to him. Above the city, a holo-banner of the Emperor had once flown. Ozzel could still see one corner of the deep and dark eyes that appeared over so many outposts. No doubt that not all of them had ever been particularly loyal, but they knew enough to put on a show. Now, the program had changed. Some prankster - either a local or one of Vader's minions - had splashed the banner with pixel tint. Now, in place of the Emperor's watchful care, the city was overlooked by an unseen face, covered with a scarlet veil.
"Admiral Ozzel, have you other information?"
"Cloud City seems to be under the impression that the Empire is under new leadership."
There was a long pause. Good. Mahrek had been certain that Vader's maneuvering would come to nothing, as most maneuvering in the high Imperial circles did. He hadn't seen the way Lady Vader manipulated both her husband and the public. She had probably been plotting this attempt since her unlikely reappearance three years ago. And, unlike the other officials, she bore deep ill will for the Emperor, and it was his place she aimed for. Ozzel was certain of that, though he had no evidence. And her husband was cowed enough by her that he had helped her do it.
"What kind of compliment have you seen?"
"Seven Star Destroyers, and of course, the Executor. With their full compliments of fighters. But our force is superior. We should be able to overcome them easily."
"Thank you for your strategic analysis."
"And since it is clear that we will be going into a battle, it would be appropriate if the ranking officer... "
"I am the ranking officer. You are doing well at communications, Ozzel."
The connection was cut off, and Ozzel fought an urge to fire at the comlink. That would be a pointless gesture. "Captain Sequi?"
"Prepare the ship and crew for battle. We haven't been ordered in yet, but we undoubtedly will be. Vader will fight unfairly if given a chance, so we should be ready to strike quickly, before he has a chance to fight back."
"Admiral, I... well, as I understand it, a person doesn't sneak up on Lord Vader very easily."
"Surely you don't believe such nonsensical fairy tales."
"No, but you've seen how he... "
"Captain, prepare the ship."
If Sequi planned to assert Mahrek's directive, this was the time for it. He could - without much difficulty - send Ozzel to the brig for insubordination.
He did nothing. He just gaped, his mouth opening and closing, then nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Good. Then we are in agreement. Proceed."
Feeling better about the situation, Ozzel found the communications array less irritating. It was time to find out where the Vaders themselves were.
After all, a targeted attack was the only way to restore his good name. He would sweep in, he would destroy these pretenders, and at last, the humiliation of the past weeks would be lifted from his shoulders. Maybe he'd be given a medal. Certainly, he would have a place in the history books - Ozzel, the Emperor's trusted lieutenant, who, alone among the faithful, acted to save the true Empire from its greatest threat.
Dreaming those dreams, he let Sequi arm the Iron Will around him. When they entered the Bespin system, his mind was choosing a new home on Coruscant, and deciding where his statue would be best displayed.
The first blast struck only moments after they came out of lightspeed.
Iima heard her voice echo and bounce around the little communications room, and the other two technicians jumped sharply. She looked at them in triumph.
She could barely contain her glee - she could feel it ready to burst right out of her. A smile stretched her face, and she watched her hands dance over the controls, verifying the code for the incoming message and saving it to a data pad.
"Iima... what is it?" one of the technicians ventured.
She ignored the question and flew from the room, practically sprinting for the bridge. Her hand gripped the data pad tightly, as though she were afraid someone might come down the hallway and snatch it from her. Well, they would certainly get a fight from her if they tried it. The message she was carrying was the best news the Alliance had gotten in weeks. It may well have been the best news ever.
No, it was more than that. Her faith, her purpose, her conviction - it had all been restored.
The Rebellion would survive to fight another day.
She blithely passed several people in the hallway, ignoring their curious stares. Anyone who knew her would figure out why she looked so excited. After all, she had gained quite a bit of notoriety the last few weeks or so... what with the fight in the mess hall, and the screaming match in her quarters. Defending the honor of her Princess - the honor of the Rebellion itself - hadn't won her any new friends, but she didn't mind that. No one was going to suggest that Leia had defected without hearing it from her.
Oh, there had been an appropriate amount of concern when the Princess didn't arrive at the rendezvous point on any of the transports that came from Hoth. And it only increased when Commander Skywalker - who, according to several pilots, had survived the battle and left safely - also failed to show. It didn't help that Captain Solo had apparently left before the battle, to take care of personal business (or some other trite excuse).
Had the Princess and Skywalker been killed? Captured? Would Solo really abandon them at such a desperate hour?
It wasn't until a little time had passed that the rumors began, and twisted. Would they desert the Rebellion?
Would they betray the Rebellion?
The thought was completely untenable to Iima. She was from Alderaan, and though she had never known Princess Leia herself, she felt close to her in a deeply personal way. They were both fighting the same battle - for Alderaan's forgotten and dead, for those sacrificed by Palpatine to make a political point. No matter how difficult it had been recently for the Rebellion, Iima knew that Leia was, like her, still a true believer in the cause. Still bound and determined to destroy the Empire, and restore some measure of justice and freedom to the Galaxy - to ensure that another Alderaan never happened. The thought that she could ever do... the things she was accused of...
Yet, the loss of the Rebels' three most prominent leaders was taking an increasingly heavy toll. For the first time, there were serious whispers from some that the time had come to end their struggle - or as one commander had the nerve to put it, "Move the Alliance into a new decentralized and demilitarized phase." It made her ill. But without any solid news, all she had was faith that things would work themselves out somehow.
Until now. Still clutching the data pad, she entered the bridge and gave General Madine a triumphant smile. "Sir, we've received a communication from Captain Solo."
A murmur rolled through the bridge. Madine nodded, encouraging her to proceed.
"He's on Bespin, with Princess Leia and possibly Commander Skywalker. They've been captured by Empire, but Captain Solo is making an attempt to free them. He's requested a strike team be sent to help them escape the city."
Madine blinked at her. "They're at Bespin?"
"Are you certain?"
Iima frowned. "The message has been verified, sir. Is there a problem?"
"Not exactly," Madine murmured thoughtfully. "In fact, Bespin's probably the most convenient place for them to be."
He sighed heavily, and stood from his chair to address the bridge crew. "I suppose this is as good a time as any to inform you of our next mission. We've already received orders to head for Bespin."
"We?" a captain asked.
"The fleet," Madine responded. "Our intelligence indicates that a strategic strike against the Empire there may prove quite productive."
Iima furrowed her eyebrows skeptically. "I didn't think Bespin was an Imperial stronghold."
"It's not. But, it appears that it will be the site of a major... intra-Imperial skirmish." Iima gasped, as did several others. He noted the shocked looks and added, "Lord and Lady Vader have decided to relieve Palpatine of control of the Empire. The Emperor is not appreciative of their offer. Our orders are to take advantage of the situation - we hope to affect a great deal of damage, on both sides, as long as they are preoccupied with one another." He glanced at Iima. "Organa, Solo, and Skywalker will be welcome to join us, of course. Thank you for your report. You are dismissed."
Iima nodded in salute, and left the bridge, her mind already racing with things she could do to help them prepare for the battle at Bespin. She couldn't even imagine what it would mean for the Rebellion if they could score a big hit at Bespin - it might be as important as the victory at Yavin.
On the other hand, she couldn't imagine what it would be like if it didn't work out. That was a thought she couldn't entertain.
Lando was spending most of his energy getting Han and the six city guards around them through the corridors without attracting notice, but even so, he could see the change that had come over Bespin. It wasn't the stormtroopers. He'd been expecting those. It was the city itself.
As they passed the archways that led into other sections of the city, he found that many of the small figures of the Emperor had been smashed, or draped in red silk. One square actually had a banner reading - if he had read it properly in the instant of passing it - "Bespin: Heart of the New Empire." Written, of course, on a holographically projected crimson banner.
It's happening. She's Empress.
Lando wanted to go back to his office and think about the implications. Lady Vader... Empress. She could be... it might not be...
It was too late. He'd already betrayed them by springing Han and Chewie. If Cloud City wasn't going to go down with him, he'd have to leave it behind, and go back to running scams with Han.
Not that he figured Han would actually keep him around after this.
They reached the corridors that led to his own home, the side the Vaders had moved into. He held up a hand to stop Han. "We'll have to be careful," he whispered. "We're getting close."
"They'll know you in that get-up."
"They know me anyway."
"Are you sure? I don't think they got much of a look at you. Always just called 'the pilot.'" He signaled to one of the city guards, and a moment later, Han had switched into the gray uniform.
Han surveyed the guard, who was uncomfortably wearing the vest and pants. "Lay low," he said. "Don't try to draw fire, 'cause you'll get it. And when we get out of here -"
"On it, man," the guard said.
Lando nodded. "The rest of you, get back into the city. Do what you gotta do."
"We'll wait for the rebels."
"If that's what you gotta do."
They smiled at each other, then the guards slipped back into the corridor, leaving Chewie, Han, and Lando alone.
"What do we have to expect?"
Lando shook his head. "Who knows? Last I knew, they were staying here. If they're questioning Leia, that's where she'll be."
"They could've taken her back to the Star Destroyer."
"I don't think so. They're up to something big. I think they'll keep to the surface. The Star Destroyers are going to be on patrol. They'll want to be someplace stable."
"And, if we get in there, do you know a way out?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I had my little escapes. Can't have the Baron walking right out the front door to go do some of the things that can be done around here."
Chewie grumbled; Lando only caught a little of it. Even Han had to concentrate a minute before he said, "Yeah, right. I don't see a lot of stormtroopers, but I ain't underestimating Vader. Lando, any way to get him out of there?"
Lando was trying to think of some scam to run when the gate suddenly opened, and Han pushed all three of them back into the shadows.
Never mind, then. Vader left the house. Four stormtroopers appeared from the shadows - never count them out, Lando reminded himself - and he conferred with them, then looked over toward the gardens. He seemed to be undecided.
Then an officer ran into the square, and reported something to him, too low for Lando to hear. Whatever it was, it decided him. He turned away from the gardens, and toward the landing platforms.
Han started to move forward, but Lando pushed him back. He might say he wasn't going to underestimate Vader, but that's what he was doing.
Vader stopped at the edge of the square, his cape catching up to him and swirling around his legs. His head turned toward the shadows where Lando was hiding, and he could feel something, something like a powerful magnet, trying to pull him forward. It was overwhelming, and only Chewie's threatening hand on his neck was able to keep him from moving.
If it had gone on any longer, Lando didn't think he would have been able to stop, save for Chewie ripping his head off, which would tip everyone off by the noise anyway. But Vader apparently decided he didn't have time to draw anyone off. He said something into his comlink, then strode off toward the landing platforms. Lando wasn't surprised when another platoon of stormtroopers formed up around the door.
"We're going to have to find another way," Han said. "What else is there?"
Lando shook his head. "Come on. Let's just hope he wasn't telling them that the Administrator was back here. "He stood tall, and signaled for Han to do likewise. "Chewie, you better pull that prisoner act again."
Chewie gave a dispirited moan, but placed his wrists together as if they were bound.
Han caught his arm. "If this is another of your deals, Lando, you're a dead man."
Lando knew he'd earned that, but it was still a fight to keep from lashing back. "No deals," he said. "Let's move."
They crossed the square, looking as officious as they could, with Chewbacca following them. The captain of the platoon held up one hand. "Halt. What is your business?"
If Vader had guessed who he felt in the shadows, Lando was sunk, but there was nothing he could do about that. "Lando Calrissian," he said, and, knowing it was probably the last time he'd say it, added, "administrator of this facility. The guard has captured one of the fugitives, and this is the most secure location at the present time. He's to be kept with the girl."
The troopers looked at each other nervously. Whatever was going on, mention of "the girl" was enough to set all the Imperials on edge. "All right," the captain finally said. "But don't let it bruise or injure her in any way. The Vaders' orders are clear on that account."
"I'll keep an eye on it," Han said, able to get control of almost half the sarcasm in his voice. The troopers were, thankfully, not too bright, and didn't catch it. Their formation opened, and Lando was let into the house.
The stormtroopers who had not been in evidence outside were swarming here. Some were on guard, others were at ease - or as close to at ease as these guys got in uniform - in the lounges. They were posted every few meters in the hallway, and more frequently as they approached the room where Leia was being held (quite obvious, because it was individually guarded, and the others weren't).
"Another prisoner," Lando said.
The guard looked up suspiciously. "In here? I find it unlikely."
"Do you want to contact Lord Vader about it? He looked like he was in a hurry, but if you'd like to disturb him... "
The guard looked around nervously, then hit a control panel on the door. "Perhaps Lady Vader wished to see him... "
Lando's stomach turned. He was afraid of trying to blast through all these soldiers, but he could imagine himself doing it. The thought of aiming at Lady Vader, let alone firing... he knew he couldn't. And he knew Han couldn't.
But it wasn't Lady Vader behind the door.
Leia stood there, blinking into the corridor, for only a brief moment, her face cool and collected. Then she grabbed the stormtrooper's wrist and yanked herself against him, hard, smashing her nose against the corner of his helmet. Blood ran across the white armor, spattering out so that it looked like -
Like he'd hit her.
Oh, not exactly - the spatter pattern would be evident to anyone who had the chance to explain, but Vader would not give him such a chance.
The guard realized it at the same time Lando did, and slipped back into the room with a low moan, beating at his armor, dropping his weapon in the doorway. The other stormtroopers in the hall, who were just beginning to notice, suddenly drew their weapons.
Leia jumped in front of Han. "Try it," she said. Blood from her nose spattered down onto the carpet.
The hesitation was enough. Han grabbed the guard's blaster and handed it to Leia. "Come on, sweetheart," he said. "We're leaving."
Leia fired first into the hallway, felling a stormtrooper who had ventured toward them. After that, there was no time to lose. Lando led them deeper into the center of the house, hoping the Vaders hadn't thought to block or guard what he thought of as his "sabaac-doors" - the doors he left by when he was planning to play cards in the places where it wouldn't do for him to be seen.
Lando went first, and put himself in danger from any stormtroopers rushing in from the other wing, but there weren't many - most had been guarding the entrance, and were behind them. Leia kept the rearguard, shooting frequently. The stormtroopers occasionally fired, when they thought they could get around her, but their aim was wide in their fear of hitting her. Han and Chewie swept the hallway from side to side, blasting the controls of each door they came to, locking in any troops who were laying in wait.
Three stormtroopers appeared in front of Lando, and he fired reflexively. One went down, then a shot from Han took out another. The third didn't get a chance to draw his blaster - Chewie picked him up and threw him backward into the hallway (barely missing Leia in the process, but she didn't seem to notice - whatever was going on with her, it had made her pretty damned careless of her own safety).
At last, Lando found the door into the conservatory. It was unoccupied; the troops apparently had little taste for fine music and artwork, though at some point, someone had taken the time to add lewd decorations to one of the statues. Lando grimaced. That hadn't been necessary.
He shut the door and blasted the lock from the inside. "I have a way out," he said, before either Han or Leia could say anything. "What are we dealing with, Leia? We saw Vader leave... "
"I don't know why. He wasn't giving me a debriefing."
"Where's Lady Vader?"
Han stepped forward and put a protective hand on Leia's shoulder. She leaned against him and closed her eyes. "She's gone after Luke, I think."
"Honey," Han said, "why is she after Luke? I know why she's after you, but -"
Leia, quite abruptly burst into tears. She put her hands to her face, and gasped in pain when she hit her swollen nose. "The same reason," she managed to get out. "He's my brother. And he's in trouble." She closed her eyes tightly, and swallowed hard, getting the tears under control. "I'm sorry. It's so... I can't... "
"It's okay," Han whispered. "I got you."
Lando didn't understand any of what was going on, except that the door to the conservatory wouldn't hold up long under fire. "Come on," he said, hitting a button on the chess table. A panel in the floor opened, and revealed a ladder that led to the service corridors. "It's time to leave."
Welcome, my son...
Luke staggered back, unsteady in his footing and lost in his soul. He nearly fell back - his mind was swirling so uncontrollably that he couldn't have said his name had he been asked.
But... he could have said that he was her son. He was confused and stunned, but he couldn't escape what she had said.
"There's no need to fear me, Luke," she continued in a soft, lilting voice that would have captivated him, if he could only gather his thoughts.
A voice that did captivate me, back in the cave...
"I know you are confused." She was moving now, a sea of red shifting before him, and he followed the waves until they stopped at the staircase near the end of the catwalk. "I'm here to explain things to you, son."
Luke took a deep breath - not purposely, but his lungs didn't care how troubled he was, and he had apparently been holding his breath for quite a long time. It did help though, more than he expected. So he tried it again. All those times training and meditating with Yoda must have made the difference... he immediately felt himself calm slightly, and his mind clear a bit.
Yes. His training. His training was what he could hold on to, at least until he figured this out enough to know what to do.
Focus. The Force will guide you through this.
"I can almost hear your questions, Luke. If you want the answers, all you have to do is ask."
His eyes narrowed on her, now at the bottom of the staircase, a few feet away from him.
"There's only one question worth asking," he said, pleased with the steady - almost bold - tone of his voice.
"Indeed," she replied with a smile. "Yes, you are my son. And you can't know what it means to me to finally see you again." She stepped toward him. "The last time I saw you... you had just been born. It's been far too long."
He swallowed hard. "Is that why you had to hurt Leia to lure me here? You just couldn't wait any longer?"
"Leia is perfectly fine. So is Han." She took another step at him, her hand straightening out to touch him. He backed away slowly, raising his still-ignited saber between them.
The smile left her face instantly. As her hand dropped to her side, Luke felt the sting of his rejection emanating from her. He did his best to ignore it.
"She's not fine," he replied sharply. "I've felt her pain."
"Leia is confused, and upset, but -"
"Why should I believe anything you say?"
"Because," she answered softly, "I would never harm either of my children. Leia was never in any danger, no matter what distress you may have felt from her."
His eyes widened as the meaning of what she said dawned on him, and he found himself stumbling again. He brought his saber into a defensive position, and almost lost the sight of her in the blue glow of his blade. He had no idea what he was supposed to do with his weapon, but he felt that it gave him sorely needed distance from her, and from what she was saying.
"Oh, Luke, you were supposed to be told -"
"You're lying," he spat out. "Do you think you can say all these things and I'm going to believe you? Listen to you?" Luke shook his head slowly. "I don't know what you're trying to do, but I won't fall for it."
"So you despise me as well?" Her eyes were bright with tears, but there was an anger on her face and a dangerous quality in her voice that took him aback. "What has happened to you? And Leia? You're my children... for Force sake. What nonsense has Obi-Wan filled your head with? Is this how he repaid me for entrusting him with my son? By turning you against me and your father and -"
"My father?" Luke asked, astounded. "You're blaming Obi-Wan for turning me against my father?" The saber hummed as it fell to his side, and he stalked over to her, staring down at her coldly. "Obi-Wan told me about my father. He told me he was a Jedi, and a hero."
"And he was both those things -"
"But you, you take up with the man who killed him. Parading around the galaxy with your husband's murderer. And it's Obi-Wan who you blame?" Luke was furious, which was better than being confused; this was something he could handle. "In fact, where is Vader? Are you going to betray me to him as well?"
Her mouth hung open and she gasped loudly, causing echoes to bounce throughout the room. Several tears slipped down her cheeks. "Luke -"
"Vader is your father."
She said it so simply, without pretense or hesitation. As if she couldn't imagine he had ever believed anything else. She sniffed and wiped her tears before continuing. "He was a Jedi, and a hero. Before Palpatine ruined him. Before Obi-Wan pushed him into a lava pit and nearly killed him."
"Are you... are you saying that Obi-Wan -"
"I'm sure he forgot to mention that little detail as well. What a surprise. How could he have the time to mention it when he was so busy plotting his own agenda and using you and Leia?"
"That's not true!" Luke yelled, but his brain was already clicking away, plugging the pieces into place. And frighteningly, they almost fit.
The connection between his mother and Vader that he saw in the cave...
The pull between him and Leia...
"Luke, you know I'm telling you the truth," she said, her voice suddenly becoming low and gentle. "Can't you tell? Can't you sense it?"
Leia's irrational, personal hostility toward the Vaders...
The dodging and hedging Obi-Wan and Yoda had done so constantly...
"No... " he murmured, speaking much more softly than before.
"Yes. "She put both her hands up in as non-threatening a way as she could manage, and placed them on his forearms. The hand holding his saber twitched, but it remained down near his leg. "Please, Luke, don't you see what's happened here? What they've done to us?" Her voice was a harsh whisper. "How would you have felt if you came here and fought Vader or me and found out later who we were? Don't you think there's a reason they didn't tell you?"
Luke shuddered at the implication, repulsed and revolted - though it was the conclusion he was coming to anyway. He had heard Yoda say that they needed him to leave ready to fight the Vaders. To kill his own parents, without even knowing...
"I don't - I don't know why -"
"Yes, you do." She reached around to his hand and gently pressed down on his thumb, deactivating the blade and allowing her to move closer to him. "You don't have to like it, but there's only one reason why Obi-Wan would do that, and risk what he did, and not feel obligated to tell you."
He pulled his arms away, shaking his head almost violently. "Maybe because he hates the Empire as much as I do?" he asked, desperately. He wished he could stop thinking, stop coming to the conclusions she was laying out for him. "Maybe because he needed me to fight it, and not feel obligated to serve it?"
"He needed you to fight the Empire for him by killing your parents," she replied flatly. "And why did he lie about Leia? No, Luke, he was just trying to get you to serve his own ends."
"And you're not?" he asked, though his mind was now elsewhere. Everything Obi-Wan or Yoda had said about his parents, about Leia, was replaying in his mind, and he seethed at them.
"I won't pretend that I don't want you by my side. You're my child - isn't that reason enough?" She held his hand lightly. "But I don't need to lie to you and trick you. I wouldn't do that to you anyway. This is where you're meant to be. With your family. Fighting Palpatine."
"The true enemy, of us and the galaxy. The man who destroyed the Republic and originally ripped my family apart." Her eyes flashed and became unexpectedly bright with excitement. "Your father and I have decided that the time has come for us to fulfill our plans... even now, our fleet is preparing to fight the Empire, and make our first serious move in ridding the galaxy of its greatest problem." Her lips curved up in an almost triumphant smile. "Do you see, Luke? Do you? It's not us that you hate; it's not us who wronged you. We're not the evil that others would have you believe."
Luke closed his eyes, and took another deep breath. No matter which way his thoughts went, he couldn't get around what Obi-Wan and Yoda had done... how he had trusted them so fully and they had fed him nothing but lies from the beginning. Lies to keep him quiet and docile; lies to make him follow their instructions; lies to mold him into whatever kind of Empire-killer that they felt they needed.
At the risk of the family he had wanted and missed for as long as he could remember.
She stood quietly, watching him and waiting. Finally, she started speaking again. "Luke, just picture it for a minute. Think what it will be like. Our family will finally be back together. No more of their lies... and we'll be in control of the Empire. Think of what that would mean for you... for us... for your friends in the Rebellion... for everyone. We just need you to help us get there. Help us fix this."
She reached up gently to caress the side of his face, and then pulled back, also letting go of his hand. Luke's eyes remained closed. "Please, whatever confusion you're feeling, whatever hurt, and anger and pain... know that it's not at us. Know that we are not your enemy. We just want you and Leia to come home."
Luke sensed, dimly, that the right thing to do would be to say no to her. But he no longer knew why. He wanted his family. He wanted to get rid of Palpatine. And was he wrong to want that? Because the ghost of Kenobi said so?
"Luke, I promise that this is the hardest step. The rest will fall into place almost by itself." She lifted her hand out to take his, and said, "Join me, my son."
Luke opened his eyes slowly, stared at his mother - and felt a connection that had been missing his entire life.
He wasn't going to give that up.
Luke fingers tingled with anticipation, and then he took his mother's hand.
Palpatine tried to suppress the story of Vader's rebellion, but too many outlets of the press were on worlds controlled by the Rebellion, or by those loyal to Lady Vader. Word spread, a dance of light - and shadow - among the stars.
On the world of Tatooine, in the city of Mos Espa, the news came to an exultant crowd in the streets. The New Empire would be their Empire, as it had been promised long ago. Palpatine's protection of Jabba and the Hutt hegemony would exist no longer. Picking up anything that could be used a weapon, the mob marched, singing, into the high desert. In the countryside of the same world, farmers listened with passing interest, but little else - whoever ran the Empire, the vaporators would still break down; whoever won the war, the world would still need water. Most were sympathetic to the Rebellion, but life without the Empire was nothing but the wistful dream of those who could afford such escapism.
Malastare had cared little for the Republic and less for the Empire, though the latter at least had the decency to stay out of its local business. Leaders allied themselves immediately with Palpatine - the odds always favored the incumbent, and besides, they did have something of a history with him, and this Vader... he might not really understand the Malastare economy - but, as non-humans didn't hold positions in any part of the Imperial army, the major activity of the war on Malastare was a sudden rage of betting on the various participants. A few even placed bets on the long shot Rebels.
The informal blockade of Corellia fell that day, though no one would notice it for quite some time. Imperial ships that had been casually "using traffic lanes for transit" - some for up to five years - had suddenly been called to war, and the Corellian traders took advantage of the situation to make some minor modifications to the local surveillance equipment. Henceforth, it would transmit only a randomized sequence of standard communications. Other transmissions that might come from the planet, transmissions not on the short list of recognized types - say, trade agreements and alliances - would slip right by the monitor.
Not all of the Alderaanian exile had found its way into the Rebellion, and many didn't wish to. "We are a people who speak peace and mean it," the old ones said. "We shall stand straight, with our faces resolved to accept whatever comes of this." And in truth, did it matter? The Rebels didn't stand a chance, and of the two Imperial factions, what possible difference would such a cosmetic change effect? The few outside the Rebellion who chose sides chose the Vaders. A rumor had gone around that he had opposed the Death Star, and she certainly took active steps toward helping the less fortunate in the galaxy. That she had started the rumor, or that he enforced the philanthropy, were ideas that had occurred to them, but they were too weary for cynicism.
There were long memories on the world of Melida/Daan, but those memories were vague and confused. They remembered a Jedi apprentice who had rejected the order to help them, but his name was unrecorded or had been lost. Perhaps it had been this Vader who had helped them. Even if it wasn't, a renegade Jedi was someone this world felt it could trust. Had anyone remembered that the helpful Padawan's name had been Obi-Wan Kenobi, or had thought to find out the manner of Kenobi's death, perhaps it would have been different, but no one did. Troops were dedicated to the Vaders' cause, and set course for Bespin. If Palpatine had ever known about Melida/Daan, that knowledge had left him, and the ships went unimpeded.
The Gungans had not disappeared from the galaxy, and they refused steadfastly to do so at any point in the future. Their numbers in the scattered exile were small, and few had dared to oppose Palpatine openly - Tarpals had been in the Rebellion, and might still be for all most of them knew, but he was a rarity - though they had been waiting for a chance to rise up. They had long ago recognized Amidala of the Naboo (only she among humans could be so mesmerizing, to the Gungan way of thinking), and puzzled greatly among themselves about what her presence might mean. Had the Naboo betrayed them again? Few had counted Palpatine's betrayal as Naboo, but Amidala was a different matter. So they had waited, and when the news came to them in their shadowed swamps, they understood and rejoiced. At last, the Naboo were keeping faith with them. It was time to go home. The leaders conferred among themselves, then raised the scarlet banner on what ships they could muster, and set out to the aid of their old allies.
On Coruscant, the upper echelons of the Empire weren't precisely loyal to Palpatine, but they knew that Vader was likely to clamp down on what he termed "corruption" fairly quickly, and the strike would not be merciful. In theory, they put their resources at the Emperor's disposal. In fact, most of them headed for their vacation barges, feeling a sudden urge to travel far from the capitol world. The troops stationed there prepared grimly for battle, but most of the soldiers preferred Vader to Palpatine - when, after all, had the Emperor flown into a battle and risked himself with the front line fighters? So they prepared as ordered, but their hearts weren't set on winning.
"And so it ends," Obi-Wan's form said, glimmering at the edge of the swamp.
"Told you, I did, that we should not train the boy."
"With both, I told you. Too impatient, too reckless."
"And now, all hope is lost."
Yoda's face softened. "No, not all. Always hope there is, though see I cannot from where the light will shine next."
"Perhaps still among them... the love they bear one another is real, and it may... "
But Yoda was shaking his head. "Always real has their love been, but staved off the darkness, it has not. Secure and content in their small world are they, and lost have they become to the greater good, or even the greater truth. A believer, she is. Come to doubt, she will not, unless she is made to see."
"How do we do that?"
Of these things, little news reached Bespin, as the powers of the galaxy converged on it.
"Lord Vader, her Ladyship's shuttle is arriving. I took the liberty of sending a TIE escort; Palpatine's fleet is getting too close."
Vader looked over Piett's shoulder at the viewport from the bridge of the Executor, and saw the tiny speck that was Amidala's shuttle. Luke was with her. Confused and unsure, but there. "Well done, Admiral," he said absently. Piett had earned the praise and his position, but Vader's mind was not on any member of his staff.
He'd felt a lurch in the Force some thirty minutes ago, and he knew that something had gone wrong. Not Luke - Luke was with Amidala, possibly the safest place in the Empire at the moment. Something had gone wrong with Leia. He'd tried to contact the garrison, but no one had answered the summons. Someone would pay for that, but he could not go back to Cloud City now.
Palpatine had moved more slowly than he'd expected after the asteroid field, but the blow was beginning to fall. Already, they'd seen the scout ships. Comm was tracking fifteen Star Destroyers and three troop transports. The battle would be fought here.
"I do not wish to be disturbed, Admiral."
Piett didn't take the implied order. "My lord," he said, "I apologize for disturbing your meditation, but I've received tactical news from... allies."
"Various worlds have pledged support to her Ladyship, and four are sending ships and soldiers."
A strange feeling rose in Vader's mind. It was familiar, but had long lain dormant.
He'd known, to some extent, that word was getting out. Once they'd made their presence in Cloud City public, several of the City guards had let word out. One had heard Piett address Amidala as "Your Majesty," and that had been enough. Much of the galaxy had been indulging in fantasies of Amidala's rule; a whisper of it had been enough to set them to arms. Good. Palpatine would not be counting on that. He had known enough to be threatened by Amidala, but so far, he had still been underestimating her.
The speck that was the shuttle broke the atmosphere, and the speed doubled. A moment later, comm reported that they were requesting permission to dock.
"Permission granted," Vader said. "And Admiral, prepare a High Welcome."
There was dead silence on the bridge, then Piett straightened his shoulders and said, "Yes, my Lord." Then, for the first time in Vader's career in the Empire, the bridge officers broke into spontaneous applause.
The welcome was arranged quickly, but it looked neat enough. All the officers who could be spared were arrayed in straight lines in the docking bay, and Vader and Piett stood at their head as the shuttle glided in. When the gangplank lowered, they knelt.
Vader was not sure he could have remained standing anyway. He could feel Amidala, as always - she was surprised, perhaps bemused - but Luke's presence, so near suddenly, was overwhelming. His feelings were strong. Vader willed himself to raise his head.
His first clear view of his son went like a dagger to his heart. The boy had his own eyes, but Amidala's lithe build and delicate features. He moved lightly and seemed to think deeply.
The edge of Amidala's gown swirled across his knee. "Please rise, my Lord. Admiral."
"As you wish... your Majesty."
The veils had been lifted. He hadn't noticed it before. "Your Majesty, perhaps... "
"I have not chosen yet, my Lord. May I present our son, Luke?"
Vader straightened and looked his son in the eye. "It is my profound honor, my son." Luke swallowed hard, taking in the room full of Imperial officers with obvious trepidation. He had been in the Rebellion for three years. But Vader would not allow him to remain disturbed by the presence of those who were his own people now. He struck a deliberately confrontational tone. "Does something trouble you?"
Luke steadied himself - Vader felt the shift in the Force as he used a Jedi centering technique - and squared his shoulders. "I'm just... disoriented. "He blinked rapidly, swallowed hard, and added, "Father."
Vader was unable to answer for nearly a full minute. The sound of the word on the boy's tongue brought an uncontrollable rush of feeling, and it took time to understand it. This is the role I was born for. The head of my family.
It made him stand even straighter than he normally did.
He looked at Piett. "Admiral, you are dismissed to return to your duties. Assign the officers as you see fit, and continue tracking the progress of Palpatine's fleet. Keep me apprised of developments."
"The fleet?" Amidala asked.
"Yes." Vader slowed, and made room for Luke to walk between them. "I would rather that we could set aside some time to become accustomed to one another, but there is a great deal occurring."
Abruptly, as if to prove his point, a bright light flashed outside the viewport, and a TIE fighter disappeared.
Amidala's eyes widened. "Where is Leia?"
Slowly. Answer slowly.
But Amidala was not interested in slow answers, not when they were this close. "My Lord?"
"I have been unable to contact the garrison."
"Han rescued her."
Luke's voice was soft, but it carried. Both of them looked at him. "How do you know this?" Amidala asked.
"I don't know it. I do, but... "
"Speak clearly, Luke."
"If she was being held against her will, Han would have found a way to rescue her."
Even Vader was not expecting what happened next. He had seen Amidala close to losing her temper several times over the past three years, and each time became just a bit closer than the one before, but when she boiled over, it seemed to sear the very Force around her.
Her hands raised to her veils, and she tore at them. "I will not lose Leia! Not again!"
Luke stepped in, put a hand on her arm. "Mother... "
She shook him off, and started back toward the shuttle. "If your people can't get my daughter back, I will go down and get her myself!"
Vader and Luke glanced at each other. It might be the first time they would act in concert, or it might be the only time. Vader could not sense his future yet. But in this, they were in agreement. They caught up to her, each taking one arm discretely, hoping that the officers were not seeing the drama too clearly. "My love," Vader said, "there are perhaps more effective strategies."
"Yours didn't work very well, Ani," she hissed.
"He'll try to get her off planet on the Falcon," Luke said. "But don't hurt them. Remember, please... he was trying to help her in the only way he knows."
"I won't have my daughter stolen from me again." Her voice was becoming more normal, but they could both feel her tension, both in her body and in the Force. "I will not tolerate it."
"Let me try to contact them in a few days. She'll listen to me."
"Luke," Vader said, "there are matters you are not considering. There will be a battle here. It has already begun. If we do not recapture her promptly, she and anyone she is with are in immediate danger."
Luke took only a second to internalize it, then his face hardened - he became the soldier that Vader guessed he had been in the Rebellion. "How big is Palpatine's fleet?"
"Twice the size of our own, but in transit. We have back up units promised to us, but we should not count on them until they arrive."
"All right. Can we hold them here?"
"Easily. Our numbers may be smaller, but many of the more competent commanders are with us."
Luke snorted a laugh. "Most of the rest are in the Rebellion."
Vader didn't bother to contradict him on this. "Fortunately, the Rebellion is not manning Palpatine's fleet."
Luke smiled at him cautiously. "Guess so."
Amidala was not interested in the upcoming battle. Her eyes were vague and unfocused, and Vader knew that her mind was on Leia, though her words were more general. "We will need you to contact the Rebellion eventually, Luke. They are our natural allies. But they may need to be... convinced of that."
"I know. I just need time."
The staccato of boots on metal interrupted the family one final time. Piett looked harried and worried. "My Lord, your Majesty" he said, offering only a perfunctory bow. "Ships approaching from vector five."
"Additional ships in Palpatine's fleet?"
"No, sir. Their communications just came into range. Sir, it's the Rebellion."
R2 beeped noisily while his little arms and pincers worked furiously to repair the new - and newly damaged - hyperdrive. The Vaders had apparently gotten creative, waiting for Lando to install a replacement system before cutting several small but crucial wires to render it inoperative. The problem was practically unnoticeable - Han knew he had been saved from another embarrassing hyperdrive failure only because R2 was enterprising enough to run a quick diagnostic when they first got on board.
So the droid was welding and rewiring away, while the rest of them sat and waited and watched. The repairs were too precise and delicate for any of them to really help. Their pursuers seemed to have lost interest anyway, leaving them some valuable lead-time before entering the fray above the planet.
"Han... I can't leave Luke here. Please, I know something's wrong with him... We could find him if we went back." Leia had looked ashen and sickly since her breakdown before - but now her eyes bore an almost manic look, as though she would lose her mind if they stayed on Bespin a minute longer than they had to. And yet, she insisted on arguing that they not leave right away.
"We've been through this already, sweetheart -"
"He came here for me, and you want me to abandon him to them!"
"Your Highness," Lando began wearily, "we don't have a clue where is. We were lucky to get out here, let's not tempt fate again."
She turned those wild eyes on him, and Lando shrunk back. "They're all back on their ships, fighting, while we sit here doing nothing. It'd probably be the easiest thing in the world to go looking for him -"
"In that case, Luke's probably escaped already, and we'll catch up with him after the battle," Han said with finality. "I don't care if it looks like the Vaders and every single one of their stormtroopers has left the city, I'm not taking the chance of waltzing you right back into their arms. "Leia opened her mouth to protest, but he stopped her. "Leia, you know that I'm worried about Luke, and that I hope he's alright. But we're no use to him. The Rebels are out there - we'll make contact with them, get reinforcements, and come back. Then we'd have a decent shot at this. Right now, you're safe and I'm going to keep you that way."
She dropped her face into her hands, but didn't protest any further. Chewie yelled at R2 to hurry up - and got a rather rude beep back - and the room fell silent.
"Your Highness?" 3PO ventured nervously. "I don't know if this will help allay your fears, but I believe that Master Luke is quite safe with the Vaders. They won't harm him in any way."
Her head snapped up. "3PO... " she began, her voice trembling with anger. "I should have left you with them." With that, she stood abruptly and left the room.
3PO's head jerked back and forth, and then his head lowered rather dejectedly.
"She doesn't mean it, Goldenrod," Han said, sincerely feeling a pang of sympathy for the droid, despite the silliness of getting sentimental over a robot. He doubted there was anything worse for 3PO than having one of his masters reject him. "She knows you wouldn't have done it on purpose."
"Oh! Never, Captain Solo! But I don't expect that she should understand. I'm only a droid, after all. Humans don't have to deal with conflicts in their programming. It's all very confusing."
"She probably understands that better than you think, 3PO," he replied.
The control consoles suddenly leapt to life and R2 rolled away from the wires. "Alright, time to get the hell out of here. Chewie, get to the cockpit - Lando, I'm going to need you manning the guns for now. Who knows what we're going to find out there."
He and Chewie were nearly out of the room before Lando spoke up softly. "I'm not going."
"What?" Chewie grunted the same question.
"I'm staying here. The city's in chaos, and who knows what the fighting out there could do to us. I have to help."
Han felt a surge of annoyance, and it took a moment before he realized it was directed at himself. What was he doing, assuming that Lando was coming with them? He hadn't entertained any thoughts of forgiving him, but had resigned himself to the fact that they were stuck with one another now. Lando, apparently, found it easier to just walk away.
"That's great, Lando. If you think of any other ways to deceive and betray me on your way out the door, do me a favor and save them until the next time we run into each other."
"I have a responsibility to those people -"
"And you know all about responsibility to others, don't you? Give me a break." Han stepped at him menacingly. "In fact, if this is going to be the last time I see you, I ought to punch your lights out right now."
Lando's only response was to spread his arms out wide. "Go ahead. I know I deserve much worse." When Han didn't respond right away, Lando continued, "I'm sorry. I know that probably doesn't mean anything to you, but I wanted you to hear me say it."
"Han, what's going on back there?" Leia yelled. "Are we ready to leave or not?"
"Yeah, we're ready."
Lando began backing out of the room and heading down the ramp. "Good luck, Han. I hope you all get out of this alright."
Han watched him walked down the ramp, and let it begin to close before muttering, almost to himself, "Good luck to you too, Lando."
They were all going to need it.
Han entered the cockpit, took the controls, and led the Falcon into the heart of madness.
Ozzel ignored the command that came over the comm. It wasn't from Admiral Mahrek, at least not directly and not yet, and no one else outranked him.
"Admiral... " Sequi began. "Perhaps... "
Ozzel looked over his shoulder. "Captain, perhaps both you and Admiral Mahrek have failed to notice this, but Vader has control of a Super Star Destroyer. If we do not strike with deadly force immediately, they will have the firepower to overcome our difference in number."
"But, sir, your console... the Emperor's Hammer is getting a communication. I was thinking... that... . "
"What is it, Captain?"
"It could be instructions from Imperial Command."
Ozzel was about to snap back that he would have been contacted, then he remembered that Imperial Command had seen fit to put him on a back burner already. He bit it back, and hailed the Emperor's Hammer.
A harried ensign was manning comm. "Yes, Admiral Ozzel?" His voice was a harsh whisper.
"You are receiving a communication from Coruscant."
"Yes, sir. It is of vital importance, and we cannot risk this interference."
"It is well," another voice said, and Ozzel's jaw seemed to turn to spun ice. The Emperor waited until he was certain he had been recognized, then continued. "This battle will be fought today, and you will destroy this insurgency now, before it has a chance to spread."
"Your Majesty," Mahrek said, "there are rumors of uprisings... "
"Local thugs. We need not be troubled by them. This is the battle that matters."
Ozzel smiled to himself. Mahrek should not have contradicted the Emperor, and it was good to hear him put in his place.
He cleared his throat. "Your Majesty, the Executor is still well-armed, and it is my belief that we should destroy it immediately."
"Vader and the woman are on board that ship."
"All the more reason -"
"I want them alive at the end of this, Ozzel. You may injure him as you please, but I want her healthy. He will be left alive long enough to watch her taken from him, then killed. I will not be betrayed. He will pay more dearly than an anonymous shot from deep space."
"Yes, your Majesty."
"Disable the Executor."
Mahrek finally found his voice. "Our communications are showing indications of Rebel forces arriving, your Majesty."
Naturally, Ozzel thought. The Vaders have forged alliances with the scum of the galaxy.
The Emperor didn't seem at all disturbed by it. His tone was certainly untroubled. "Yes, of course they've come. They undoubtedly see this as an ideal time for one of their puerile raids. Pay no attention to them unless they are a deadly threat. If they are, destroy them immediately."
With that, the connection to Coruscant was cut.
"Admiral Ozzel," Mahrek said, "you will not disobey my orders, direct or implied, again. Captain Sequi, fire on the Executor's weapons systems only."
The Hammer went offline, and on the viewscreen, Ozzel could see it, with the Firestorm beside it, closing in on one of the Destroyers in Vader's fleet. Then the area became a swarm of TIE fighters and laser blasts.
"Fire!" Sequi shouted, and the Iron Will released three volleys against the starboard weaponry of the Executor. There was a satisfying flash as two of the guns disappeared. "Again!"
A shield generator on that side of the ship was taken out, and the weaponry it had protected disintegrated. Sequi, at least, was good at his -
The Iron Will rocked with a blast from the Super Star Destroyer, and the communications panel steamed and sparked under Ozzel's hands. He jumped back from it. "Systems loss!"
"Sir!" an ensign called out, "they've hit the main shield generator!"
Another blast thundered out, and the lights flickered and flared. They finally caught again.
"They're going for life support," Sequi said, his voice actually astonished at this development. "Admiral, you and the senior staff should get to one of the shuttles. There's a battle skiff in the main hangar."
Ozzel did not hesitate. He would do the Empire no good by dying from a loss of oxygen. He clapped his hands. "Attention, all senior staff on the bridge. Follow me to the main hangar."
Several lieutenants and commanders fell into line behind him, though Sequi stayed with the ship, perhaps remembering some foolish holonovel of his youth. The corridors were strewn with debris, but Ozzel made his way across it without difficulty. His officers followed, gathering other staff on the way, and by the time they reached the main hangar, there were perhaps twenty of them. A full staff for a battle skiff.
Ozzel led them into it, and took the command seat. "Ensign," he said to the man at the helm, "take us out."
The skiff emerged into the firefight.
It was buffeted by debris from another Destroyer - it might have been the Hammer itself, for all Ozzel could tell now, or one of Vader's ships - and the helmsman dove it sickeningly beneath the Iron Will. Ozzel regained his composure and snapped, "Try to remain level, ensign!"
Five TIE fighters blew in, each clumsily marked with a scarlet stripe along the bottom, presumably so that they would know not to shoot one anther in deep space. "Fire," Ozzel ordered.
A commander at weapons obeyed the order, and three of the TIEs disappeared. Ozzel was willing to admit that he had made a strategic error or two in his career, but any academy student could understand the strategy here: kill or be killed. He'd become quite adept at not being killed.
The remaining TIEs tried to turn back, but the commander took them out before they finished the arc.
"Admiral, incoming from... " the lieutenant at comm shrugged. "I have no idea."
"Tell, me, lieutenant, is there a red mark involved?"
"Then it doesn't matter where they are from, because they are certainly from the Vaders."
The weapons officer hadn't bothered listening to the exchange. He'd already locked, and was already firing. The strange ship was wiped from the sky.
There were two others behind it. Ozzel thought they looked vaguely familiar, perhaps as trading vehicles from some backwater.
Except that they were returning fire.
"Take us out of here," he ordered. "We should claim the surface, and discover what weaponry and loyal troops might still be there."
"Admiral Ozzel, I think the odds are low." The weapons man fired on another ship and destroyed it. He was getting a bit cocky.
"Do as I say," Ozzel told him. "The laser fire should confuse the sensors on most of these ships."
"We'll be accused of turning tail and running."
This sank in. Ozzel had been accused of such a thing before "Then we will need to do something of value, Commander."
"I'm open to suggestions."
Unfortunately, Ozzel had none. He stared at the viewscreen, waiting for something to occur to him, or appear out of thin air. An easy but strategically important target.
And, miraculously, one appeared.
A saucer shaped ship emerged from the atmosphere, flying erratically and dodging the lasers. "The ship from the asteroid field," Ozzel mused. "They must have been Vader's contact to the Rebellion. Commander, that is your target."
The battle skiff, hidden in the net of laser fire, advanced on the Millennium Falcon.
Amidala watched the rapidly growing conflict with detached interest. She was in a small office, just off the bridge, and could see a good deal of what was going on. But since her fit in the cargo bay, she had remained here with Luke. Away from the action, trying to stay calm despite the hair-ripping frustration of losing Leia again.
Luke hadn't said a word to her. She thought he was a bit uncomfortable at having to essentially baby-sit his mother, but he clearly preferred it to being on the bridge with his father. She wasn't sure that Anakin had said more than two words to his son that weren't directly related to their concern for her. She knew in her heart that she had to give it time... but Leia kept proving to her that she couldn't take for granted that her family would ever truly come together or heal.
Amidala dropped her head to the cool window and let her breath fog it slightly. Her eyes wandered aimlessly over the battle, until...
"Leia?" she whispered harshly.
Luke snapped to attention and searched for the Falcon over her shoulder. It had emerged from the planet and into the thick of the fighting. "Yes, that's them," he muttered. "How do you think you're going to -"
Before he could finish, an Imperial ship came behind her daughter's ship, and opened fire.
"What are they doing?" she asked, suddenly furious.
"Wait!" she cried out uselessly to Leia. The Falcon spun and dove away in a dizzying pattern; one that Amidala recognized all too well from the asteroid field. "They're going to make her run... if she jumps to lightspeed, I'll never find her again!"
Luke shook his head. "She won't leave in the middle of all this. They'll stay as long as the Rebels are here fighting. And I'm sure that... Father... has noticed the situation."
Even as he said it, two TIE fighters spun into range and began firing on the Imperial ship, giving Leia some cover. But Amidala still didn't feel at ease. "Your sister will probably start firing on them, won't she? She's foolish enough to fight us when we try to help her."
A smirk came to Luke's lips."She probably would, you're right. But Han won't. He's never particularly cared where his help comes from. He'll take it until he gets his bearings again."
The frustration gripped her again painfully, forcing her to gasp for air. "Why is she doing this, Luke?"
He gave her a look that clearly said you-know-why.
"Good ahead. Tell me. Tell me how much my daughter hates me."
"It's not that simple," he replied. His voice was reflective. "Yes, she's known the truth for quite some time, but that doesn't mean -"
"The truth? She's never been told the truth." Amidala grabbed her son's hand and clung to it desperately. "When Obi-Wan took you from my arms that final time you cried and shrieked and wailed so loudly it shook Owen's windows. You knew you weren't going to see me again. You were a baby, and far too young to understand, but you knew. And it broke your heart. I heard you crying in my nightmares for years... you and Leia." She paused, breathless, but Luke squeezed her hand to encourage her to go on. "Leia was old enough to call me 'Mommy' when she last saw me... she held on to me, she didn't want me to go.
"It tore all of us apart when we were separated," she whispered. "And it's tearing at us now. That is the truth. It doesn't matter what you were told later by others... it doesn't matter whether or how you remember it. It's the only truth that matters."
Luke hands rested on her shoulders, squeezing them for a moment while he was too moved to speak. Finally, he said, "I know that's the truth, and so does she. But you must know that this is a hard truth. The question isn't whether she accepts it, but whether she chooses to face it. And I think she will. She can't run from this forever."
"I hope you're right, Luke." She reached out and pulled her son into a hug. "And I'm glad that when faced with the decision, you chose not to run."
The door to the office opened, and she knew Anakin had come to check on her. She stepped back from Luke quickly. "Is the Falcon safe?"
"Yes, for the time being. It seems Palpatine himself may have made it a target... we believe the Imperial fleet received a transmission from Coruscant just before Leia fell under attack."
"A coded transmission?"
Amidala raised her eyebrows. She felt an idea coming to her, one that gave her a rush of energy, and allowed her to focus on something other than Leia. "He doesn't realize that the days of secrecy in this Empire are over. There's no more room for hiding or secrets or lies."
Anakin titled his head toward her. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, I think it's time that Palpatine learn a few hard truths of his own." With a significant glance at Luke, she marched out of the office and onto the bridge. They followed her warily and Anakin nodded to the bridge officers, who stood to attention when she entered.
She crossed the bridge to take the command chair and turned it to face the viewscreen. "Admiral Piett?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Open a general communication. Viewer and speaker, on all frequencies, as far as it will reach. I want to send a message to anyone who can receive one."
Luke gave Anakin a worried look. Anakin began to say, "My Lady, perhaps... " but, he trailed off. She had the feeling he was too curious to see what she would do to interrupt or question her. Instead, he moved to stand behind her chair and Luke did the same.
Amidala stared deeply into the viewer - for a second, she thought about putting her veils back over her head, but she decided against it. There was no longer a need for that. Her back straightened and her hands went to the edge of her armrests. It was a pose she struck often as Queen, and she almost smiled at how comfortable it felt.
"Welcome. Welcome to the new era of the Empire."
She allowed a long pause before continuing.
"Even now, my family and I have joined with those loyal to our cause, and have begun the end of Palpatine's reign. Once this battle is over, and we emerge victorious, the Empire will be free of the terror and oppression that has characterized it for so long. Under my leadership, your freedoms, your rights, your citizenship will be returned to you, and will never be taken again.
"I come before you now, to ask your continued support for me. No matter what side you find yourself on now - Imperial, Rebel - join us, and our differences will be forgotten. The time has come for us to restore the greatness and glory of our galaxy."
There was a short pause. "Channel closed, Your Majesty," Piett said.
Amidala swiveled the chair to face her husband and son.
"Impressive," Anakin said.
"Wow," was all Luke managed.
Amidala just smiled in return.
For a moment, Cloud City was silent.
Oh, the machinery buzzed on, and the speeders flitted by outside, but the people stood solemnly in the corridors and watched the broadcast screens that normally showed them the sporting events around the galaxy. They watched as Lady Vader claimed the crown, and they understood - for the first time, Lando thought - that this was for real. They weren't just raising hell to annoy authority figures. They had chosen to side with a traitor, and they stood here at the eye of a storm, waiting to see how the wind would blow.
If it blew against them, they would be destroyed.
Lando knew these people. They didn't want to be in this situation. They were apolitical (and frequently amoral), and until Lady Vader's unveiled face had appeared in the air before them, all of this had been a lark, a defiance of Imperial authority that carried no risk, as the Vaders were the only Imperials present. But now... it would be war. It would be war, and the small outpost, the haven where they came to forget the galaxy's problems, was going to be the first battlefield.
Lando was as silent as they were. His mind was going over the alternatives. Lady Vader might well forgive him for the escape of Leia, if he fought for her now. She might...
Forgive you? Forgive you for rescuing an old friend and a girl from people who laid in wait for them and held them prisoner? Forgive you for not being able to carry through with a betrayal? What business is it of hers to forgive you for being a human being for once in your miserable life?
That was when it hit him - she talked a pretty talk, but she would wield her husband's iron fists as surely as Palpatine did. Having her favor didn't mean you'd done something right - it meant you'd done something she wanted you to. You wouldn't earn her respect by standing up to her, though she might apologize as she had you executed. She might even mean it.
The point was, this society she wanted to form wasn't going to be a government of fair laws any more than Palpatine's was - it would be a government of personality, and all the decisions would always rest in one pair of hands. People would not live and die by justice. They would live and die by the grace of Lady Vader.
It was bad enough with Palpatine, but he was sane. You could count on how he'd act in any given situation. If it didn't get in Palpatine's way, he didn't care about it. If it did, he'd kill you. Not exactly fair, but simple.
Lady Vader was not sane. She was obsessed with Leia, and with the Skywalker boy (and had that been Skywalker, standing beside her?), and her capricious kindness to one world could easily become capricious cruelty to another.
During that silent moment, Cloud City could have gone in any direction. Its most likely course was to choose the status quo - safety in the established - with an alliance with the Vaders a close second. A few were defiant enough to figure it would be an opportunistic time to join the Rebellion. Lando thought he could nudge them in this direction. He just had to think of the right thing to say.
Unfortunately, an old man - a gardener - thought of something to say first, and what he said was, "It's Queen Amidala!" Then he fell to his knees, and clasped his hands together high above his head in ecstatic prayer. "She's come back to us!"
Several others in the crowd whispered assent, and a wild cheer broke out, with declarations of loyalty shouted above it.
Lando's eyes snapped back up to the screen, where the final image had frozen in place. There she sat, flanked by her husband and the boy, gripping the arms of her
chair, brown eyes flashing with dangerous intelligence. Lando had been only a small boy when she'd disappeared from sight, but he remembered that image. He remembered the voice and the way she had made him wish to be a Jedi (like her husband) or a King, and half-believe he was. Fairy tales had risen about her, and it was whispered that she had sworn to bring down Palpatine. And now...
It was her.
Lando had never really felt terror before. It scampered on cold, sharp claws, somewhere in the region just below his ribs, sometimes stopping to nip up at his chest. Palpatine had already lost. The Rebels had already lost. All that was left was the mad queen, and the mad populace who were ready to follow her, like some damned spirit come back from the Other Side to lead the living into paradise.
He wanted to run, but he couldn't think of anywhere to go.
Instead, he made his way to the top of a small staircase that led to a deck overlooking one of Cloud City's many breathtaking vistas. "Listen to me!" he shouted. "Just listen!"
At first, they didn't, but in the end... well, there was just something about people. If you look like you're going to put on a show, they'll always turn around to watch it.
Lando waited until most of them had caught on, then screwed up his courage. "Look, what's going on here... it's not going to end up good for us, whoever wins."
"But that's Queen Amidala," the old gardener said, as if it explained everything... or anything.
"I know who she is. I read history. I was there for the end of it. But whoever she used to be, she's the Empire now."
"That's just politics!" a Twi'lek called. "What do we care what she calls herself?"
"You'll care plenty when she decides she doesn't much like your bar and your dancing girls, Chirlin. And you won't have a soul to turn to, because her word is going to be law."
Chirlin appeared to think about this, and so did many of the others in town. Lady Vader was not known as a friend to the less-high-minded pursuits of the galaxy, which accounted for about ninety percent of Cloud City's business. Not that Lando had any desire to stand up here and use the fact that she'd undoubtedly shut down the illegal, slave-run mines to get them to rebel. He wouldn't mind seeing those shut down himself. But he had to find something.
"You, Tinera Kei!" A human woman looked up, dazed. She was a biologist, and she'd been brought in to try and find a genetic solution to some problems the miners were having after long-term exposure to Tibanna gas. "How do you think Lady Vader - the Empress - is going to deal with your work on the miners' lungs? Do you seriously think she'll let you keep working for the sake of a few unimportant workers, when she has one patient for you who she cares more about than she'll care for the whole galaxy?"
He managed to find a few more to poke and prod at, and by the time he'd finished, the mood had grown sullen and resentful... but the euphoria over Lady Vader had broken. "The Rebellion is coming," Lando said. "They'll make a stand here, maybe their last. Maybe none of you was ever political before, but you damned well have to be today. Make the right choice."
The crowd dispersed in confusion, but Lando had a feeling that most of them would come in on the side of the Rebels, and maybe they would stand a chance.
Of course, if they didn't, he'd just sentenced to death the city he claimed to serve.
It had been a long time since Yavin, and even that near-disaster hadn't prepared the Rebellion for what they would see here.
Many of the crew of the Star Cruiser Liberty had been aware that this day could very well be their day to die. Being part of the Rebellion had made this fact a dictum by which they'd all learned to live by, even if they all hadn't completely accepted it. The ones who hadn't accepted it had left, either to the Lady Vader's promised sanctuary or to some other blissful solace entirely. The departure of these had fueled the doubts of the ones who weren't completely faithful yet still weren't quite ready to succumb, the ones who comprised at least half of the troops that remained on their side.
Including Admiral Ackbar. No, he wasn't as ready to cave as many. But he wasn't a green ensign on custodial duty - he was one of the leaders of the Rebellion, one of the few people looked up to since the in-unison disappearance of General Solo, Commander Skywalker, and Princess Organa. If the remaining leaders were in similar shape, and if the Rebellion didn't fall today, it would eventually.
The sudden appearance and communication from the Falcon had quickly pushed back the oncoming tide of pessimism, the hole quickly filling with a surge of hope that hadn't been felt since the days of Yavin 4. If the response on Ackbar's bridge was any indication, just knowing that General Solo and the Princess, were indeed alive and present at this battle, putting their lives on the line just as much as any of the rest of them, was almost enough to cover for the continued notable absence of Commander Skywalker for the Rebellion.
Every section of space within three thousand kilometers of any side of Bespin was filled with ships of all sizes - some Rebel, but mostly Imperial. As had been expected though, nearly all those ships had been so focused on firing at one another that the Rebels had managed to slip in fairly quickly and unimpeded. A few surprised shots had been fired from one group of Destroyers, but were far enough off target that the only cost had been a solitary unfortunate Y-wing in one of General Madine's squadrons.
In the middle of the chaos, a huge silhouette on the spherical marble tan backdrop of Bespin, was the Executor herself. The Rebels, Admiral Ackbar especially, knew their aging ships (no matter how many there were) had no chance against that monster, and had immediately begun concentrating their fire on some of the more beleaguered-looking Star Destroyers. Besides, the Executor seemed busy enough, warding off attacks from the tinier arrowheads shooting seemingly ineffectual darts at it. It reminded Ackbar of a scene from his boyhood in the oceans of Mon Calamari, and the nightmarish image of a large, tentacled krellis beast, being hopelessly converged on by an ever increasing swarm of black maral parasites.
It didn't really matter to Ackbar. If the Executor was too busy to be firing at them, fine. If the other destroyers actually managed to incapacitate it or even destroy it, fine. Without the Vaders and their Siren-like image of benevolence present, the Empire would seem a far more malevolent enemy than before and maybe the Rebels wouldn't have such doubt on whether the side they were currently fighting on was the right one.
Well, maybe there was a bit of wishful thinking in that, he supposed.
The whole battle seemed like a swarm, really. Lumbering Mon Cal cruisers and Imperial Star Destroyers here and there, smaller cruisers and transports scattered among them, and moving clouds of TIE fighters, exchanging fire with the Rebel X and Y-wings, and the prototype B-wings. General Madine's cruiser was about three hundred kilometers to the Liberty's port side, exchanging fire with three of the Imperial Strike Cruisers, allowing for the Liberty herself to remain relatively unhindered, and able to allow itself more attention to a task many might have considered more important than almost any other going on there right now.
Covering the Millennium Falcon.
It hadn't seemed to need their help so far, though. The little saucer-shaped freighter was dodging hits better than nearly every other ship out there - no surprise considering the oft-displayed considerable skill of her pilot. But nonetheless they remained near the heart of the swarm, driving hard for the perimeter, where the strongest concentrations in the Rebel forces lay but gaining little ground in their attempts to avoid damage.
But even the best pilots couldn't avoid damage forever...
As he watched, one of the massive white Destroyers near the edge of the battle perimeter began turning... bringing its weapons to bear on an area not far from...
Then he saw it, just as the green salvo streaked across space.
"They're firing on the Falcon, sir!"
"I see that, Lieutenant," Admiral Ackbar barked at the offending voice. "Move our third starboard turbolaser battery to bear on that Imperial cruiser, and -"
Suddenly, two TIEs disengaged from the main cloud and swooped towards the freighter.
Ackbar muttered an old Mon Calamari curse under his breath; their batteries, like those of the destroyers, were ill-suited for targeting fighters. "Signal our two nearest fighters to cover the General -"
"Hold that, sir," another official came back. "Those TIEs aren't chasing the Falcon. "
Ackbar stared. Sure enough, the TIEs did not seem to be attacking. They swept past the little ship, pummeling their little lasers into the cruisers surface, melting the laser batteries to slag.
But why would they... ? he wondered Even though, he supposed, he should be thankful for small favors, whatever the motivation may be behind them.
That thankfulness was short-lived.
"There's a transmission coming in, sir. Wide band, all frequencies. It's - it's from the Executor, Admiral. "
"Patch it -"
There was no need. Unbidden, the spectacular fireworks of battle instantly vanished, in its place a vision that caused all on the bridge (and Ackbar was willing to bet most of the rest of those who were receiving this) to halt completely. A vision of scarlet magnificence, set in the poise of royalty. Only this time the veils were absent, revealing a face that, of all things, reminded Ackbar of an aged Princess Leia.
Her very presence nearly eclipsed even that of the two dark-clad figures in the room behind her, both extremely familiar to Rebellion eyes - particularly the smaller, blond, unmasked one.
One member of the bridge, a Gungan of perhaps middle age, managed to gasp.
"Dissen Queen Amidala," he breathed, the sound filling the whole bridge, as the flop-eared creature bowed his head in reverence.
"And Commander Skywalker," another added, even more quietly, making no effort to conceal the bitterness in her tone.
No one bothered to reprimand their breach of protocol. No one else seemed capable of even forming words.
Ackbar stared. Could it be? One of the greatest leaders the galaxy had ever known, in her own way being one of the great founding figures of the rebellion, was the same woman who stood before them? Certainly he'd heard the rumors. But that was all they'd been to him; you couldn't win a war based on rumors.
But here it was. Not only was it she, but now she and her husband were in possession of one of the greatest and most valuable assets the Rebellion had ever known.
How can this be? He seemed such a levelheaded boy...
The perfect face smiled. "Welcome. Welcome to the new era of the Empire."
Ackbar merely blinked at the image, not trusting the smiling face one bit. He knew the history as well as any other man, knew the stories of the once-noble Queen. It was indeed sad to know she had chosen to spend her life with the cause she had for years sworn against, but if she was there under her own volition then she deserved whatever fate befell her.
He strongly suspected this image was meant to placate all who would listen, to seal her claim to the title of Empress a victory at this battle would undoubtedly earn her. But if anything, Ackbar's once wavering resolve was strengthened by this message. If two of the strongest freedom fighters their galaxy had known could be swayed to the side of darkness, then he damn well knew this was no power to be taken lightly, and he'd need all the strength he could muster to resist it.
He knew others might not see it that way: after all, was that not Luke Skywalker before them, standing calmly aside the Lady Vader and her Lord? If Luke Skywalker himself had gone to the side of the Vaders and their Empire, then what chance did any of them have in attempting to resist them?
"Even now, my family and I have joined with those loyal to our cause... "
Ackbar swore under his breath; a crewmember or two not far away weren't as successful. It didn't take an idiot to figure it out, even though few present here were old enough to remember enough of the stories to put the pieces together.
Skywalker was the family of the Lady Vader. A son or nephew, most likely. Lady Vader was Queen Amidala. Amidala... Skywalker...
Holy sea krakens below!
Ackbar didn't truly want to believe that this boy would sell out his own side like his father, a war hero revered as equally as his son had been, apparently had all those years ago. Even if he was not, though, there was little to be done about it now. There was no way to retrieve Skywalker... and he knew that the Commander was resourceful enough to escape even the Lord and Lady Vader if he truly wanted to.
"- and have begun the end of Palpatine's reign. Once this battle is over, and we emerge victorious, the Empire will be free of the terror and oppression that has characterized it for so long. Under my leadership, your freedoms, your rights, your citizenship will be returned to you, and will never be taken again. "
Out of the corner of his eye Ackbar saw a few of the younger officers and crewers tense their postures - lean forward a bit, grip the console of their station a little tighter. The voice who said those words may have been in a gentle, maternal tone belying malignance, but the words were little changed from the smooth promises spoken by any number of rising leaders in the past, not long before a tyrannical government soon rose in that person's very name.
"I come before you now, to ask your continued support for me," she continued, and Ackbar suppressed the crawling, slimy worm inside him as he caught the hazy cloud of pleading, of almost manic desperation in her eyes. Mad, this woman was truly mad... and she was this close to gaining unquestioned, uncontested leadership of the known galaxy. "No matter what side you find yourself on now - Imperial, Rebel - join us, and our differences will be forgotten. The time has come for us to restore the greatness and glory of our galaxy."
The image winked out, the backdrop of space - far diminished in activity from the time he had beheld it but a few minutes before - replacing it once more. It was as if the entire Bespin star system was holding its breath, waiting for the other person to blink, just to have some, any indication they were supposed to resume fighting again.
"What now, Admiral?" one of the officers ventured at last.
Ackbar would have tightened his lips, were he human and had any. As it was he simply tightened his cheeks, the inside gills chafing slightly against his teeth. Part of him felt anger at Skywalker's apparent defection (if it was in fact that), and an even deeper sense of loss at perhaps loss of such a prominent source of morale and hope for the Rebellion. Ackbar might have seen a chance that things may not have been completely as they seemed for Skywalker, but not everyone would necessarily see things that same way.
Victory or no, this would be marked as, probably, one of the saddest days in Rebellion memory.
"We continue," he said simply. "Commander Skywalker's current position should have no bearing on how we do today. We fought before we were aware where he was, and he is no less absent to us now." A single long blink of his eyes was the only thing that betrayed the feeling that his very stomach was being twisted in protest of the words in the last half of that last sentence.
It wasn't a complete lie, after all. They would continue.
Leia's glared at her hands, which had been shaking since she had seen Lady Vader's pronouncement.
Since she had seen Luke standing there during Lady Vader's pronouncement.
Her mother declaring herself Empress had rolled off her back with little trouble - Leia had expected no less after the encounter in the gardens. This is what her parents had planned for years, and they were probably annoyed that it had taken this long to accomplish.
"Luke... " she whispered, feeling sick. For him, of all people, to betray her in such way...
But she didn't feel betrayed. Not really. Not the way she felt toward Lando, not even the way she had felt earlier toward 3PO. Because she knew, almost instinctively, that Luke wouldn't do that to her. He just wouldn't. No matter what was offered or told to him, he would never simply turn on her for his own gain, and couldn't be reprogrammed as easily as 3PO.
Yet, there he was, standing behind her and next to... him... as if it were the most natural thing he could do. Which meant, that he must - must - really believe them. He must really think that what he was doing was for the best, for him, for her, for everyone.
How could he think that?
She shook her head, and clasped her shaking hands tightly in her lap. She had no idea how to answer that question... she didn't want to answer it. She couldn't possibly understand -
A blaster shot impacted the back of the ship, rocking them violently. The sound of something blowing a fuse was heard, and Han swore under his breath.
"Chewie! What the hell is going on down there?" Han smacked several buttons on the console, then turned to her urgently, grasping her clenched hands. "Leia, I've got the autopilot set for evasive maneuvers, but I need you to be ready to take over if need be. I've gotta check this out. I'll be back up as soon as I can. Okay?"
"Are you sure?"
"I'm fine, Han, go fix whatever needs fixing."
He grabbed a sack of tools by the door, and ran down into the lower cargo hold. Leia tried to focus on the battle around them. Han's idea of an autopilot program was to spin and turn and roll the ship as much as possible. It was dizzying, but did an adequate job of holding off the only ship firing on them. The TIE fighters were also in a better position to give them cover now, and for the moment, the Falcon appeared safe enough.
Leia was about to refocus on calming her hands, when a clicking and static sounded throughout the cockpit. After a few seconds, the noise cleared.
She stared at the comm system in dread, recognizing his voice immediately.
"Leia, it's me. I know you can hear me."
Her first instinct was to turn it off - to shut the comm system down completely, or to turn the volume off. She couldn't have this conversation, she didn't want to talk to him...
"I need to talk to you. Please."
She felt frozen - her fingers hovered over the audio switch, but wouldn't move.
"I know you're angry with me, I know you don't understand why I'm doing this. I want to explain it to you." She heard him sigh heavily. "We need you here, Leia." A short pause followed. "Are you there?"
He pressed on. "I don't blame you for running from them. I don't blame you for the way you feel, you have to know that. But... Leia, I know they aren't the family either of us would have wanted or chosen, but I don't want to watch make you make a panicked decision that you'll come to regret later. There isn't time for you go back and change things. This is it."
This had to be a nightmare. This couldn't be real.
"Luke, you have to listen to me! Whatever they've told you, whatever they've done, you can't believe them. You can't!" Her hand slammed on the console for emphasis. "You were fighting these people... weeks ago. And nothing's changed. Don't let them convince you that anything is different now."
"Things are different. Everything I had been told was a lie, Leia. Everything."
"So?" Leia snapped, not caring that she sounded like a petulant child. "Now you know the truth. And the truth is worse then any story people made up to protect you."
"I don't feel worse off knowing that you're my sister."
She had no response for that. Leia loved Luke, and under other circumstances, might have been thrilled to find out that he was family...
But she wasn't going to let him use that against her.
"Leia, you once told me about your mother -"
"I was a toddler when she left, Luke! She's not that person any more."
"Of course not. That was a lifetime ago. But she still loves you. She's still your mother." Another sigh. "You can say whatever you like now, but I know some part of you felt the loss when you believed she was dead. Are you just over that?"
Tears were beginning to prick the corners of her eyes. She angrily squeezed her eyelids shut until the feeling passed. When she opened them again, she answered, "Yes, I'm over it. The same way you're apparently over your time with the Rebellion, the same way you've apparently forgotten all those lovely Jedi ideals you've been following for the last three years." Her hands went to her hips in a defiant gesture, which he couldn't see, but made her feel a little bolder. "I also notice you've been very careful not to mention our father. Don't you have any words of wisdom to give me as far as he's concerned?"
Luke didn't answer for a long time... she was beginning to think he might have cut off their connection. At least she managed to make a point with him, maybe it would get him to think about -
"I haven't forgotten or gotten over any of it... But those Jedi ideals were used against me, as a smokescreen to keep me from the truth, and to get me to do what they wanted. If nothing else... it proves that accepting them blindly wasn't the best thing I could have done.
"And the Rebels will be given clemency. However you want to look at it, we're fighting on the same side. Mother sees that."
"And if you want to discuss Father... I really don't know how I feel about that yet. This hasn't been as easy for me as you'd like to think. But I need to figure it out for myself, and not just see him the way others want me to. Is that really so hard for you to understand? Is that really so unreasonable?"
She wanted to shout that it was totally unreasonable, that he was crazy, but the words stuck in her throat.
"Leia, what's going on in here? I thought I heard you talking -" Han was back in the cockpit, and looking at her worriedly.
"Leia, please... all I'm asking you to do is -"
"Is that Luke?" Han asked. "Luke, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Leia, we need you -"
Han snapped the audio receiver off. "What did he say to you?"
"Nothing," she whispered.
She looked at him miserably. "Leave me alone, Han. I'll be fine."
Han pulled her into his arms and held her quietly. Leia clung to him desperately.
Piett stood on the battle bridge of the Executor, watching the battle through the huge viewport. It had been even at first, but Palpatine's fleet was making so many foolish mistakes that Piett had at first been convinced that they were playing a ruse. He'd taken advantage of their mistakes with great caution, expecting an ambush at every turn.
Gradually, he had come to the realization that they were simply fighting stupidly.
Star Destroyers were engaging other Star Destroyers, while sending TIEs out after rebel ships and small Imperial ships. One battle skiff had dedicated itself to chasing the Millennium Falcon, an insane pursuit even without Vader's instructions to protect that ship at all costs. If nothing else, Solo had proven that the Falcon would be taken only at a cost greater than anything a sane man was willing to pay.
The only advantage Palpatine's troops had was in numbers, and they were wasting it. It would be gone soon, if they kept taking hits.
Unfortunately, the Rebels were a bit smarter. They seemed to know who had which ships, and that Palpatine's ships were well under control. Their sharp, stinging attacks were all directed at the ships that flew under the banner of the Empress.
Piett smiled, despite the battle.
For the first time, he was unabashedly proud of serving the Empire.
He turned smartly. "Yes, my Lord?"
"Send a squad to take that battle skiff, and see to it that the Millennium Falcon does not leave the system."
"If you are unable to engage a tractor beam on that ship, then you must encourage it to either land or come into range of the beam."
Piett nodded. "Of course, my Lord."
"Once you have sent the squad, destroy the remains of the Iron Will. It is impeding operations. Then concentrate your fire on the three Star Destroyers that are attempting to take out our shields."
"And the Rebels, my Lord?"
"Only strike Rebel ships if they are presenting an immediate danger. Her Majesty hopes to make an alliance, and she believes it would be impolitic to engage them."
"Yes, my Lord."
"Admiral, the judgment of what constitutes 'immediate danger' is your own."
Piett froze. There were a thousand missteps to be made, and he knew that following the direct order - not to fire - would go against Lord Vader's personal strategies. But to take the implied promise that his judgment would be accepted in questionable cases... that stood a good chance of crossing the Empress.
Piett decided that, should the situation arise, he would err on the side of caution.
Aboard the Rebel command ship, Mon Mothma was frustrated. The Vaders' ships were easy to spot. TIEs had been hastily decorated with a spray of red paint, and Star Destroyers had their red tracking lights on. No subtlety here. She was concentrating on Amidala's fleet because...
Because it was an insult to everything the Alliance stood for. A deserter, not only leaving the Rebellion, but joining and becoming the Empire.
"Fire back," she muttered to no one, or at least no one who could hear.
No fire was returned from the Red Fleet. Palpatine's troops - the Iron Fleet, as most of the gunners were calling them - were firing badly but frequently. Mothma was obliged to send a squad of Y-wings in their direction.
Once she'd seen Amidala's face, she'd known everything. She could not claim surprise that Luke Skywalker was with them.
She opened a comm channel. "Rieekan? Ackbar?"
"Orders?" Rieekan asked, not bothering with preliminaries.
"Take out their support ships. Don't worry about the Destroyers until the defenders are gone. Palpatine's ships seem to be keeping them busy anyway."
"It won't last long," Ackbar warned her. "They've got a handle on it."
"Maybe long enough. Just get rid of the little ships."
"What about the ones defending the Falcon?"
"General Rieekan, we can defend our own ships."
"Are you sure the Falcon's still ours?"
His question hung in the overcharged air.
"Captain Solo contacted us himself," she said. "We have no reason to believe they have any interest in joining the Vaders."
"Except that they are being protected by crimson guard."
"Our new Empress may have reasons of her own," Mon Mothma said.
Admiral Mahrek felt like he was drowning in fire. The Star Destroyer had taken hits... oh, hits and hits again... but it wasn't fatally damaged.
It just stunk of fried wires and melted plastic.
And bodies. There were bodies strewn around, and the smell of blood on metal was overpowering.
The climate controls were gone, and as the Star Destroyer moved to the solar side of Bespin, the temperature was rising, creating an oven on the bridge. The helmsman was swaying dangerously.
"Lieutenant!" Mahrek yelled. "Set course for the nightline! Get us away from the sun!"
"Yes... sir. ."The helmsman leaned forward and made adjustments. The Destroyer began to veer around the planet, in a slow and lazy arc. "Get the droids on climate control. Now!"
No response. The helmsman had fainted at his station.
Mahrek staggered across the bridge, trying not to step on anyone's limbs, and made his way into the corridor outside. It was full of smoke and small fires, but passable and free of bodies. It was better out here. The ship was on autopilot. Someone needed to get it back into fighting shape, and the droids' central comm system was malfunctioning.
He'd made it halfway to the control room when the Destroyer came around the nightline, and re-entered the wild battle. No one on the bridge was there to see it, no one to note where the autoresponse guns were firing.
So it was really no one's decision for the Destroyer to fire on the Falcon.
The Falcon escaped unscathed, diving deep under the crossfire, but her crimson guard saw the attack, and swarmed in on the hobbling Star Destroyer.
Mahrek wasn't aware of the hull breach until the corridor decompressed around him.
Lando had no idea what frequencies the Rebels used, and he sure as hell didn't want to advertise himself to either Empire, so he sent out a call on a private channel as soon as he found a working transmitter. It wouldn't carry much or be stable for long, but he and Han had used it for quick communication on scams in the past.
Here's hoping he's paying attention, 'cause I've got one shot here.
Then the welcome growl of a Wookiee, saying that they were a little busy for games just now.
"I know, I know," Lando said. "Get it to the Rebellion. We've got safe havens in the east sector. We're holding them for now. Damaged ships can land. Repeat. Just do it carefully." He fed the coordinates of the secured platforms into the machine.
The ironic thing, Lando thought, was that he was serious, but they'd have to be damned fools to trust him... damned fools or desperate. He had a feeling the east sector would be seeing some traffic soon.
The first red banner rose in the Imperial Center just before noon.
It was torn down, and the Vader-loyalist who had raised it killed publicly and immediately. But it wasn't the last banner to go up. Many flew from windows of private homes, and as the day and the battle wore on, more troops were committed to smoking these snakes out of their holes. A great bonfire of banners burned in the marketplace, but there always seemed to be another one.
The Imperial military seemed to be scrounging for men, as it suddenly found posts abandoned and barracks mysteriously empty. It was unheard of, and yet it was happening. Stormtroopers were deserting, and there was no time to round them up, not with battles to be fought.
Lawlessness began to sweep around Coruscant as the military police forces were stretched thinner and thinner. Stores were looted and libraries sacked by roaming bands of thugs who were loyal to no faction.
Deep in the Imperial Palace, Palpatine felt the first tremor of fear...
The Gungan ship Nass was coming from Rodia to Bespin. It was an old ship, and probably wouldn't survive long in a space battle, but it held a huge crew, and all had expressed a desire to be in the fight, even it meant almost certain death.
"Wesa gonna fight for Queen Amidoll!" was the general, excited sentiment. There was a general feeling that, once she was in firm control, she would take back Naboo, and give them back their wrecked lands to repair.
Captain Meja-Dur Calpar wasn't sure it would happen, but he knew that he had to try. It was their only chance.
"Dis battle's going to be over before we get there!" the comm officer cried out, disappointed (he was a young boy, who had never even lived on Naboo, but treated the Ultimate Alliance as a sacred relic).
"Then wesa should be glad of it," Calpar said. "Dissem not our kind of battle, up here in the sky. If this is where we fight, then we fight and die well. But maybe shesa got something where wesa can help her more."
As if in answer, a light flashed on the comm panel. The young officer answered it. "Captain Calpar, sir," he said, "It's from the Executor. "
Vader saw his son return to the bridge, and knew immediately that the talk with Leia had not gone well. Amidala realized it too, and turned away in anguish. Luke moved to stand beside them without saying a word.
Vader had known that Luke would not be successful. His wife and son were so certain that Leia would be as easy to convince as they would be in a similar situation, but he knew better.
She would be no easier to convince than he himself would be.
That thought pain and concerned him. He knew, better than Luke or Amidala ever could, where this was likely headed for her. He felt that she would be with them in the end - or, at least, he hadn't closely considered any other alternatives - but there would be a price to pay. Leia's stubbornness would not be broken by a few tearful conversations with her brother and mother. It was going to take something far more drastic to move her, and he wasn't sure that his family was prepared for that.
The Falcon was still on the main viewer, still out of their reach, and just barely avoiding the fire of the Imperials. Vader couldn't help thinking that the circumstances were ripe for disaster.
"Her refusal to listen is not surprising, Luke," he said. "We will better be able to deal with it once she's brought back on board."
"Do you really think it will make a difference where she is? She's too upset to handle any of this."
"That is not my concern right now," Vader replied. "She must be kept safe, and the only way to truly do that is to have her here. The details of the arrangement can be worked out later."
Luke frowned deeply, and Vader caught him giving Amidala a concerned look.
"What troubles you, son?" Vader immediately asked.
"Everything," Luke replied with a sigh.
Vader was surprised by the answer, but found it to his liking. "Good. Given all that's happened, you should not expect otherwise."
"And you, are you troubled?" Luke asked.
"Always," Vader replied.
Amidala shook her head, impatient with the turn of the conversation. "The troubles are nearly over now. For both of you, for all of us."
Amidala turned to Piett. "Yes, Admiral?"
"We're receiving transmissions from those that have pledged to help us. Many of them are asking us for orders... shall I tell them all to come to Bespin?"
Amidala glanced at the display on the console in front of her. "No, we should begin thinking a little more broadly. There are other places in the Galaxy we need to worry about."
Vader stood behind her, and looked over the list. It was an impressive force, considering how hastily it had been arranged. They would have much more manpower than they had anticipated, and several of the groups had modern ships and weapons at their disposal.
It was then that a particular item on the list caught his eye. "The Nass?" he asked. "The Gungans?"
His wife's face spread into an exultant grin. "Yes, it is. Amazing. Admiral, hail that ship."
It took several minutes for a response to come back, but when it did, the audio picked up a joyful Gungan yelling, "Queen Amidoll!" There were several other Gungans cheering and shouting in the background. Over the noise, the commander spoke. "Mesa Cap'n Calpar, yousa Highness. Wesa coming to help you!"
Luke gave his mother a confused look - Vader was sure he had never even heard of a Gungan - but she just kept smiling and replied to the hail. "Captain, you can't know what good it does to hear from you. I know how the Gungans and the Naboo have suffered over the years... one of the first things I'll do is return to Naboo and restore our home. You have my word on that."
"Yes, Queen Amidoll, wesa know yousa fixen everything. Yousa real Naboo, not like bombad Emperor."
Vader squeezed Amidala's shoulder, happy for her that her people were supporting her. He knew that probably meant more to her than any of the others that had decided to help.
"Captain, perhaps it would be better for you not to come directly to Bespin. We need to start solidifying our position in other systems."
"Mmm-hmmm. Where yousa wantin' us to go?"
She paused thoughtfully. "Perhaps you should be the first unit to move on Coruscant. We will send others, of course, and will be there ourselves eventually, but we need to bring the capital under control."
"Yes!" the Gungan replied enthusiastically. "Wesa crunch the Emperor!"
Vader had the strangest urge to laugh, despite the dire seriousness of what was being proposed. "I'm not sure that's the wisest course of action."
"Oh, it is! Wesa ready for the fight."
"I'm sure you are," Amidala said. "But we need to secure the city first. Palpatine can be dealt with later, when we have a greater number of reinforcements."
"Queen Amidoll, wesa ready to do whatever yousa sayin'. But wesa want to do this for you. For all Naboo."
Amidala was shaking her head no, but Vader interrupted. "If, perhaps, they receive help on Coruscant... it might be worthwhile."
"We have our supporters there, Anakin, but I'm not sure that would be enough."
"If the opportunity presents itself, they should take it."
"That's what wesa do. Wesa make the city safe, and then seein' about the Emperor."
Amidala nodded. "That sounds fine. Hopefully, we'll finish here and be able to join you soon. Good luck, Captain."
"Wesa no need luck. Wesa see you when wesa make you Empress, Queen Amidoll."
Amidala shut off the comm while Vader turned sharply at the panicked sound in Piett's voice. The Falcon was under renewed attack by the skiff that had come from the Iron Will.
"We may not be able to leave as early as you hope, my Lady," he said to Amidala.
The Executor moved deeper into the fray.
There were still many non-humans on Coruscant, if you knew where to look for them. Calpar did. And he knew that almost all of them would be more than happy to fight Palpatine.
And that would be justice.
Landing the Nass was the hardest part. Comm had picked up a coded signal, a constant beacon sent up from Gungan exile communities that sounded to most receivers like static, but came across as lapping waves on Gungan receivers. That was the window. Calpar sent a message on the frequency.
The comm station was already manned. "Wesa got big things happening here," the staffer said.
"Are yousa being ready for something bigger?" Calpar had asked, and only thirty minutes later, the Nass had slipped under a radar shadow and landed in a decrepit part of the old city. About ten Gungans joined them. "Whatsa happening here?" Calpar asked before taking names.
"Da red flags," a native said, with a big grin. "And lotsa trouble. Deysa no got enough troopers to be keeping it down now."
"Yousa been shooting them?"
"No. Theysa been dropping out, or going to da Lady. Theysa having fights with each other, some places."
"Whosa leading these?"
The native Gungan shrugged, obviously neither knowing nor caring about stormtroopers no matter who their allegiance was to.
"Well then," Calpar said, "first things going first. Wheresa da most people we can be getting to?"
The Gungans took him to the square of the slum, where people of all sorts seemed to be having an ongoing party. There were Toydarians fluttering outside windows, Malastarians goggling at dancing Twi'leks, Wookiees tossing and batting at large steel barrels. Calpar thought he even saw the eyes of a Hutt, back in the darkness of one of the hollow buildings. There were humans too - maybe even some of the deserting stormtroopers; you couldn't tell without the armor - and Calpar was perfectly happy to let them take part in this section of the operation. It was only the other part that he wanted to keep strictly among the Gungans.
Torn pieces of red cloth hung from the rusty walls, and one of the Twi'leks was wrapped in red lace (and nothing else). Calpar snorted. These folk were going to need to stop playing at it and actually do something.
"Yousa people!" A few paid attention. "Wesa coming from Queen Amidoll, at the top of da new Empire!"
A spontaneous cheer went up and the Twi'lek in lace unwound it and waved it like a flag. She got some appreciative stares, then seemed to notice that she was naked. She put the lace back on.
But at least their attention was directed to issue at hand now. Calpar spoke again. "Wesa got work to do before the party starts."
"Party's already started!" someone called, sounding good-natured.
"Yousa starting too fast. Da city's got to get calmed down, so Hersa Majesty can be coming here. Then, we having da biggest party ever on Coruscant, because shesa going to give everything the Emp'ror took away from us back."
Dead quiet. Many of these people had slid into a boisterous life when everything that had mattered to them had been taken. There was still a chance.
Of course, some of them were doing the same thing they'd done in the Old Republic, and the Empress wasn't likely to be generous to them, but what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them.
Calpar pointed to the Hutt. "Yousa back there, I see you! I know yousa got people to send. Yousa need to be sending them to the market to get it calmed down. You humans - yousa gonna do better in the government part. Da rest of you, go out, and find all the folks dat are hiding and can be coming out. You get dem, and yousa go together, and get da fires out."
"And what about you?" a human called.
Calpar looked from side to side, at the eighty-odd Gungans who flanked him. "Wesa got business to be doing at the Imperial Palace."
Palpatine called his guard into the center of the palace, leaving a squad of twenty elite scarlet-clad soldiers at the door of the throne room. Forty more soldiers barred the way to the door. But he was unable to recall the majority of the troops.
He was losing hold.
The fear that had begun to nip at him was growing, and he had no liking for it. This was not proceeding as he had foreseen.
He should have killed Amidala years ago, when he'd first captured her. But he'd thought she might prove useful someday, in controlling Vader, should his occasional lapses into Jedi thinking start to become more frequent. She could be brought out then, and used as leverage. Or killed before him, to draw out his anger and pull him back to the Dark Side. But he had miscalculated where the true control was. He had not taken Amidala's own pernicious influence into account, and it had certainly never occurred to him that they would find one another without his arranging it.
Then perhaps he should have killed her when she first re-appeared.
It was pointless.
He cast into the Force, swirling around him like a maelstrom. Paths opened, but he couldn't grasp them.
He ground his teeth together. Something would open. He was destined to this position, for eternity. He planned to defeat his own death. But he felt both his future and his life slipping out between his fingers, in a flow that wasn't blood, but a veil of red silk.
A flash of a shadow, and a path opened. He would need to leave the palace, but he would reveal Vader for who he was, and reveal Amidala's compliance in Vader's acts. His own hands had been quite deliberately clean for many years; Vader's dripped with blood.
He just needed to -
A great explosion shook the palace, and Palpatine smelled the smoke of burning wires. Shouting voices burst in.
His guard answered fire - he could hear it, like a stringed instrument being sliced. Some of the guards were running.
Palpatine seized their minds, and thrust them back into the fray. He drew their weapons, and fired at...
He saw the first grotesquely misshapen shadow less than a minute later. Wide ankles, long necks, eyes bobbing on ugly stalks. The shadows loomed up in the smoke.
Fear was replaced by loathing. Palpatine raised his arms, and called on the power of the Dark Side.
The lighting came out of the darkness of the throne room, and struck down the first three Gungans to break through the door. The battle with the guard had been bloody, and many Gungans lay in deadly embrace with their enemies.
Calpar didn't need to keep pushing them forward. He didn't think he could stop them even if he wanted to. The battle-madness had taken them. They charged forward, streaming around the bodies of their fallen comrades.
The lightning threw more of them backward, pushing them into metal walls and reaching through their hearts. But even after the fight with the guards, there were forty left.
Calpar had reached the door of the throne room a victory whoop rose above the angry scream of a cheated man. In the shadow projected on a screen of smoke, he saw a knife drawn.
Han would have been content to continue sheltering Leia in his embrace, to just sit and let the battle fight itself, the outcome be damned. At that moment, even though continuing that way would have been certain death, having his last moment be at least some attempt to directly protect her would almost be worth it. The only thing that didn't make it worth it was that it would mean she would die too.
But life, or fate (perhaps in this case conspiring with the Empire) as always, had plans - which at this point, was, apparently, the Empire taking all the shots at the Falcon they could get - and seemed to preclude any sort of plans on the part of Han or Leia. And had done so for as long as long as either could remember, he thought as he leapt back into his seat, disengaging the autopilot. Autopilot was nothing compared to the (if only barely at this point) thinking mind of a living pilot.
Not the least of those plans being the Vaders' plans for Leia, which Han had no desire to think about - nor had the luxury of doing anyway, not with this attack skiff, from the Star Destroyer that had first fired on them, now seeming to get its second wind and bearing down on them. The Imperial fighters that had been providing cover for the Falcon - for reasons Han just as soon didn't think about - wouldn't hold out forever, and not against something more than marginally better armed than they were, like this battle-tank of a skiff.
Second winds had a tendency of blowing out quickly though, and Han decided he would see if he could make it happen any quicker. He and Chewie deftly piloted the Falcon among the crisscrossing maze of laser fire and ships, not avoiding the edges of that maze with as much a berth as he always hoped, but still avoiding it.
But he knew that even as good a pilot as he or even Chewie were, they wouldn't be able to run forever, either. And the margins by which the Falcon was escaping certain death seemed to be diminishing with each passing minute...
They had to get out of this star system, away from Bespin completely, even if it meant leaving the Rebels - and Luke, he winced internally - behind. Leia was strong, but enough was enough - she'd been under constant psychological fire ever since that blasted intercepted transmission from Lady Vader, and to Han getting her out and away from the worst of that was more important than any battle the Rebels were fighting, even if his best friend was on the wrong side of that battle.
Knowing Luke was there at the side of the Vaders (and even worse, trying to get Leia there as well) had unnerved and angered Han in more ways than one, once the shock had dispersed somewhat. Back when he'd last seen the kid, before the Battle of Hoth, he'd had little worry for him - he'd thought Luke to have a strong head on his shoulders. Han still believed, no matter what, that that was still the case, even though he didn't discount the possibility that something rather large and hard had impacted Luke's skull - and if someone with that strength could so quickly be swayed by the Vaders - what chance did Leia, even with her new strength, have against them? The way they kept directing shots at her it was a wonder she'd rebuilt anything in her at all, and they would just tear it back down again.
And damned if he was going to see anyone, even if that anyone included Luke, do that to her.
This was one of the reasons one stayed a smuggler - you would never have to feel the gut-twisting guilt at being forced to trade one friend's fate for another. Even though the kid had been strong enough to make this decision consciously, on his own.
Han just never imagined the next time he found Luke again it would be with Luke willingly at the side of their worst enemies, the same ones that had caused Leia, his own friend and blood, such unnecessary pain. Parents or not.
One of the crimson-splashed TIEs covering them vanished in an even brighter crimson flash, the skiff moving in closer to take advantage of the gap it had created. It was, while getting steadily closer, still barely outside the range where it could get a clear weapons lock on the Falcon, but that hadn't stopped them from taking all the blind shots it could - and in many ways, an enraged blind man was more frightening than one who was taking calculated shots: with the calculated man, at least there was some chance of a pattern you could detect and take advantage of.
There was a sudden rumbling from Chewie, and Han sharply directed his gaze to another part of space, not far from the edge of Bespin's gravity well... which was rapidly filling with a blossom of red-orange fire as one of the Empire's Star Destroyers, overcome by damage from both sides, was finally overcome by it.
Leaving a gap in the enemy perimeter.
Han wasted little time. He shot a glance back at Leia in the seat behind him, his insides tightening at the carved-ice expression of pain on her face, and was immediately reminded of Luke once more. "Tighten your seatbelt, sweetheart," he warned. "I've grown rather fond of you and I'd rather not have to peel you off the back of the cockpit if we make it through this. "
Leia's face was incredulous; at least it wasn't icy anymore. "What do you mean -"
The last word took on a sudden and sharp increase in pitch, with an equally high-pitched response from Threepio (Han couldn't believe he'd forgotten to turn the droid off) as Han suddenly broke the Falcon hard left, losing their escorts and pursuers alike and breaking hard for the new gap. Their escape, hopefully...
"Warn me next time," Leia muttered, the color coming back into her face.
"That was your warning, doll." He pushed the sublight drive lever forward, pushing all four crewmembers back against their seats. They were six thousand kilometers from the debris-littered gap, and closing... but they weren't closing fast enough, it seemed...
"Get me more speed, Chewie. "
The Wookiee moved quickly to comply, flipping levers and switches near him - but suddenly the ship jerked explosively, as if hit by a small meteorite (Han shunted away THAT memory) - but no impact registered on the sensors.
"Let me guess," Leia muttered, shifting her grip on the back of Han's seat. "Now's the time when one of us should say 'I have a bad feeling about this'?"
"Complain all you want later. Right now I'm trying not to kill us."
The Wookiee growled a quick, angry response - which caused the blood to freeze red in Han's face. "What did you say?"
"I believe he said, sir, that the -" Threepio began helpfully...
"Can it, Goldenrod," Han shot back, swearing internally, running any number of possible solutions in his head, hoping for a feasible one. He tightened his lips in a grim line - a lot of those possibilities weren't possibilities if you were minus one sublight engine. "I know what it means when the casing on one of our sublight engines is fractured."
The old Leia would have made some crack about how all the parts of this ship, particularly the engines, seemed to share a symbiotic tendency towards malfunction - instead, her eyes widened in an expression that to Han still, despite its frequent presence in the past months, looked alien on a face like Leia's: fear. With a fractured casing the engine was as good as nonexistent now; if he tried to use it, there wouldn't be a Falcon left to save. And with it gone, it was a definite detriment to gaining additional speed. Of course, it seemed to have little trouble in being a loss of speed...
"Sorry sweetheart," Han muttered. "Looks like you get to tighten your seatbelt again. We've got some flying to do if we're going to make that gap." Even now the debris cloud was dissipating, which would mean any sort of cover the Falcon would have in that area would be gone... already, it looked as if one of the Destroyers, exchanging fire with the Liberty, was trying for the position already. Han flipped a couple of switches, draining power from the life support and atmospheric thrusters into the remaining engines - if they didn't make it out of here, those functions were useless anyway.
By this point their Imperial escort, and their pursuers as well, had compensated for their previous loss of target lock... and were closing in fast, faster than the Falcon was on their gap. The skiff was firing again, its shots coming closer and closer to being accurate as they skirted the very edge of the maximum weapons range.
"Concentrate power on the rear shields, Chewie," Han ordered. "It won't do us any good if they blow off another sublight or our hyperdrive." It would also gain them that much more speed - without the energy drain from the forward shields, it would gain them at least a few more kilometers per second. At least with debris field clearing, the risk of them getting hit by that was minimal... but there was still the possibility they'd be hit by one of their pursuers, but their unasked-for escort could probably function in that capability long enough for them to get out.
Suddenly one of the fighters swooped in front of the Falcon, and Han jerked the ship and missed the fighter by a handful of meters. "What the -" but then he knew, as the other fighters moved in front of the freighter as well.
"So much for the escort," he muttered. "Looks like they're not any more keen on us leaving than the ones trying to kill us. "
Their passage out of here was blocked... and their cover from the skiff was gone. Briefly, Han considered taking the Falcon to dock in one of the Mon Cal cruisers - but that would mean the cruiser lowering its shields to let them in, and they were all occupied by the Destroyers anyway, even though the Rebels themselves seemed to be faring unusually well. But if the Vaders still thought this assistance could sway the Rebellion over to their side, he could think of at least three (four, if you counted Threepio) that wouldn't be joining them.
He couldn't afford to waste time dodging these crimson gnats. "I know you enjoy the view from back there, Highnessness, but we need someone in the lower gunnery turret. We're going to have to blow past our own escort if we want out of here, and I want to make sure our tail's still covered."
He ignored the cold look he received in return from the Princess, as she made her way to the turret from where, not too many years ago, an eager young Tatooine farmboy had giddily blown TIEs away into space dust as they fled away from what had been, until the appearance of Lady Vader, been the greatest instrument of mass destruction the galaxy had known.
He would miss the kid. Even if he had turned against his own friends.
The Falcon charged gamely forth like a battered steed getting its own second wind, firing its red laser cannons at the fighters. Not expecting fire from that quarter, two out of the five fighters quickly sustained damage, one spinning off hopelessly to burn up in Bespin's nearby atmosphere. The other three scrambled to reform - leaving Han his gap again. From in the back he could hear the satisfying thum thum of the gun turret as it was fired. At least back there Leia was doing some good, and it would get her mind off the -
Chewie's loud and sudden roar was the only warning as, a split-moment later, a green flash seemingly a kilometer wide blinded them and the Falcon suddenly careened off course into space, an explosion of blue sparks from his console dancing into Han's face. As the ship spun he saw Chewie lurch hard to grab onto his arm rest, barely managing to stay in his seat; Threepio's startled scream as he slammed into the rear side of the cockpit - which was abruptly cut short. The huge Wookiee broke Han's fall, keeping him from meeting the same fate as the droid and allowing him to fight his way back into his pilot seat.
Han knew they'd been hit; his immediate instinct was to run for Leia, in the gun turret. There was very little protection in there, and if it had been her area that was hit - but there was nothing he could do, he unsatisfyingly assured himself; no time to curse the tunnel vision that had caused him to briefly lose sight of the destroyer, or the fact that his piloting skills hadn't kept them any longer. He had to regain control of the ship - if that was possible, with his console fried.
They hadn't been directly hit by the fire of the Star Destroyer, he soon discovered - whether it was the one that had first fired on them, he didn't know - otherwise, he wouldn't be around to be thinking this. But they had been grazed by the massive laser beam, the force of that energy impacting them slamming through the port side of the tiny ship and throwing it into a spiral... and vaporizing any circuitry essential to navigation (including Han and Chewie's consoles). Fighting against vertigo and the bile rising in his throat, Han pulled on the steering controls, barking at Chewie to do the same, trying to put an equal counterforce on the force that kept the ship spinning, trying to slow the spin or at least gain some semblance of a clear heading. But it was to no avail; they were in the same situation as that fighter they'd hit... no engines left to fight the gravity, they were sinking right into the gravity well around Bespin, heading straight for the planet. Not far away, just coming around the edge of the planet's bulk lurked the bulk of the Executor, suddenly not looking as beleaguered as it had before.
The vertigo was fast pulling at him, pushing (pulling?) Han ceaselessly towards the sorely tempting, pain-free avenues of unconsciousness. As the gravitational pull grew stronger the speed of the ship's spin increased as well, and soon the ability to fight was no longer within Han's grasp.
Han's last thought before the black zoomed in on his consciousness, as the tannish sphere of Bespin spiraled ever larger in the viewport, was that he had failed Leia. He hadn't saved her... and now they would die. Even worse, the last thing he was going to behold was an ugly planet... and not her tiny, perfect face.
As consciousness vanished, and Chewie's pained howl began to die away, Han found himself for the first time in his life, and his last now, apparently, praying - that she was unconscious now... and would feel no pain.
Amidala was frozen.
Frozen because she couldn't move. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't form a coherent thought. She was stuck in place, as surely as if her feet had been tied down to that spot on the floor.
Frozen because she was almost numb with cold. Her fingertips were actually tingling, her skin was covered in goose bumps, and her teeth were faintly chattering.
Before her, on the other side of the bridge window, the Millennium Falcon's surface flashed up in sparks and flames.
They seemed so close... she thought she should feel the heat of the fire against her. Indeed, Amidala slowly became aware of the chill in her body giving way to a burning sensation. First in her chest, which was constricting and twisting agonizingly, then in her eyes, where tears were pricked at her eyelids.
The Falcon turned over, and it became clear that the ship had not been destroyed. Still, the damage was irreparable - she knew immediately there was nothing the pilot would be able to do to save her daughter. He wouldn't even be able to regain control of the ship, and Leia was headed for the planet's surface...
Amidala tried to order Piett to get a tractor beam on the Falcon, but all she heard come out of her mouth was a strangled, incoherent scream.
The bridge crew was stunned, but she didn't waste time noticing. Now, she was breathing and moving again, and she had to do something.
"Get a tractor beam on them!" she said, running across the bridge to Piett. "You have to help her!"
"Your Majesty," Piett began, his voice trembling, "they are still out of range -"
"No! You have to do something!"
"Your Majesty, we can send a recovery team to the surface, and we can stop the Imperials from their continued pursuit, but -"
"What?" Amidala turned her attention back to the battle, and saw the skiff. It was still firing on her daughter, trying to get one last hit on the Falcon, and destroy it before it went down.
Anakin nodded to the Admiral. "Tell the fleet to concentrate all fire power on that skiff. Assemble a surface team immediately. I will accompany them down to the surface."
Piett swallowed hard, and said, "Yes, my Lord. Your Majesty," her head snapped, and her eyes narrowed on him dangerously, "we will do everything we can to protect the Falcon."
"Admiral," she replied, "you must destroy that skiff."
"We are moving into range -"
"No," she snapped. "I want you to fire. Now."
Her husband shook his head. "We have other ships in better position."
Amidala spun away from him and marched over to the weapons officer. "Find the coordinates for that skiff and fire," she ordered, her voice trembling.
"But, Your Majesty -"
"Mother," Luke said. "There are Rebel ships -"
She ignored them both. "Fire, now! Or I'll relieve you and do it myself."
The young officer, clearly shaken, punched in the coordinates and fired.
The laser blast emerged from the Executor's cannon, barely missed several of their own TIE fighters, and hit the very edge of the Imperial ship.
"Fire again," she hissed. "Fire until that ship is gone. Do you understand?"
"Amidala -" she heard Anakin say.
The weapons officer made the adjustments and fired again.
A small Rebel cruiser suffered a direct hit, and exploded spectacularly. Luke turned to her in horror.
The look on his face might have been enough to bring her out of her fury - she did begin to get an inkling that she was going too far, especially since the last shot had stopped the skiff from pursuing the Falcon.
But, another officer spoke up then. "Your Majesty, Admiral Ozzel's ship has been disabled. He is no longer in pursuit."
"Ozzel?" she whispered harshly.
The last thing Amidala heard clearly after that was Anakin asking Luke to accompany him to the shuttle. She saw them leave the bridge.
After that, everything was a blur.
She ordered continuous fire on the skiff, renewing the command every time there was a pause in the shooting.
Other Imperial ships began firing on the Executor, but she ignored it.
Several Rebel X-Wings were destroyed.
A crimson-striped ship was hit, and spun wildly until it was out of her view.
A large Imperial cruiser exploded, and began a slow fall into the surface. Amidala had a fleeting thought as she watched it drop - it was big enough to seriously damage a city disk, were it to crash into to one of them on the way down - before she refocused her attention on Ozzel.
She had no doubt that her anger would burn just as furiously at any Imperial who would hurt her daughter. But this man, this man who took such terrible advantage of her kindness, who used her clemency to plot against her, to destroy her and her family... there would be no mercy for him.
Finally, finally, Amidala had a clear view of the damaged skiff. The officer didn't hesitate. A concluding, satisfying explosion followed.
There was absolute silence on the bridge. Amidala took a deep cleansing breath, and turned to Piett.
"Has the surface team left yet?"
"No, Your Majesty. Shall I ask them to wait?"
"Yes," she responded. Her body began to feel normal again - the cold was nearly gone, as was the numbness, and the clamping around her chest. "Once we've recovered Leia, we will return here immediately."
Piett nodded. "Do you have any other orders in the meantime?"
"No, Admiral. I trust your judgment. Continue to press our advantage against the Imperials, this battle should be over quickly."
He nodded, and Amidala left the bridge.
She boarded the shuttle and Anakin immediately ordered the pilot to undock from the Executor. Not caring who saw, Amidala buried herself in her husband's arms, leaning her face against the armor of his breastplate. He wrapped his arms around her.
"Tell me she's okay, Ani, please. Tell me we'll find her, and she'll be okay."
"I've spoken to Luke... we agree that it's... unlikely that she's dead."
Amidala pulled back to look at him. "Unlikely? Can't you tell? Can't you sense it?"
"No. If she's alive, she's probably badly injured. We simply cannot be sure of what happened."
"We'll find her, and she'll be alright," Amidala murmured. She suddenly glanced around the cockpit. "Where's Luke?"
"He asked for some time alone. He is in another part of the shuttle."
"He must be upset about what happened on the bridge... I should talk to him."
"No, Amidala," he replied. He led her over to the passenger chairs, and they sat. "He needs some time alone."
"But what if he's beginning to doubt -"
"He will have doubts for quite some time. Amidala. As will Leia. You must accept that. We should simply be grateful to have them with us."
She heaved a sigh. "This isn't the way I wanted things to happen."
"That is not our concern. We have our children, and we have the Empire."
"And we have each other," she whispered.
"We have everything we've wanted and worked for, Amidala. This is not the time for regrets."
Amidala nodded. "You're right, Anakin, you're right." She stared deeply at him, clearly imagining his face and his expression under his mask. "Finally, we've set things right."
He pulled her back into an embrace, and Amidala leaned against him as their shuttle made its way to the surface.
I can't stay here.
Luke sank into a dark corner of the cargo hold, drawing his knees up against his chest. He had meant to meditate, but when he tried to reach out into the Force, he found darkness and turbulence. It was all he could do to hold on. He didn't have the strength to break away now.
But I can't stay here. I can't.
He had seen Vader - Father - commit murder, on board the Death Star, but somehow he'd found that he could wrap his mind around that. It was a duel, and he'd expected Kenobi to fight. Kenobi had lied to him, about a very important thing. Kenobi had caused his imprisonment in the mechanical suit. It had been... well, if not precisely normal, certainly understandable on some level. It was bad, but when they'd looked at one another, Luke had known, on some level deep inside, that he could come to terms with it, and maybe, just maybe, help steer him in a better direction.
He couldn't come to terms with what had happened on the bridge. Maybe it was more understandable in some ways - Luke was at the edge of his sanity after watching what happened to the Falcon himself - but there was something beyond fear in Mother's reaction. Behind her carefully built persona, she was... it was like a dark curtain had been drawn across her eyes, blocking whatever light was inside.
Maybe smothering it.
I can't stay here.
But he couldn't go back, either. Not after appearing with them before the Rebellion, not after the call to Leia. No one would take him.
It was more than the frightening, rootless feeling of having disconnected himself from his past. It was more than lethargy. He simply couldn't leave.
Not now that he had them.
He had never felt so desperately loved and wanted in his life. Mother's touch on his wrist, Father's... what was it about Vader? Luke couldn't put his finger on just what it was that made him feel that Vader valued him. Love might be beyond the Dark Lord, but...
No. He loves her. And if he can love her, he can love you.
It wasn't a logical conclusion, but it felt true to Luke's nerve endings. His parents loved him, and that simple truth was the strongest shackle they could have put on him. He couldn't desert them, and he couldn't let go of them. Vader was... there was something about him that Luke didn't understand, and wanted to. And Mother was lost. She needed help, and Father couldn't offer it. He was too disoriented himself.
But I can't stay here. I can't watch that again.
Luke felt Vader's presence a moment before the door to the hold opened. He fought the instinct to hide.
"We are approaching the surface. You will need to wear a gas mask if you plan to accompany us to the crash site."
Luke took the proffered mask. His innards all felt cold, as if they'd just been returned to him after a long period in cryogenic storage. There was a vague possibility that the Falcon would have survived the crash, but could they possibly have had time to brace themselves against Bespin's toxic surface atmosphere?
"Father," he began.
Vader watched him impassively, but Luke felt/sensed/wished for an expression beneath the mask. Concern, maybe. When Vader spoke, certainly it sounded as if there was some feeling. "Your mother has had a difficult life," he said. "And we must make allowances."
"But Father -"
"You have witnessed an oddity. That is all. When all is set to rights, you will not see such a thing again."
Luke considered arguing, but Vader's patience was unlikely to be infinite. Instead, he put his mask on and followed his father out of the hold.
Mother was waiting at the hatch, her mask on and her arms crossed nervously over her chest. Her haunted eyes found Luke's and lingered there. He couldn't walk away from her.
But I can't stay.
The problem was, he could. He knew that. He would stay, and there would always be a reason not to argue with them, to wait for a better time. And maybe a better time would come. Maybe Vader was right, and it had not been a sign of her general behavior. He, after all, knew her better, and ought to have some idea what she was normally like.
Still, something told him that Vader was wrong. Mother had lost hold of herself somewhere, and what happened on the bridge was just the beginning. If he stayed, he would be a party to her actions. If he left...
He closed his eyes, as the shuttle thumped to a stop on the planet surface. If he left, he would be what Leia was now - the cause of her actions. He had to stay, whatever happened, because he couldn't risk the mad chase she would put after him.
And besides, when she had touched his hand, he had known who he was and where he came from.
And he could bring her back.
The thought occurred to him with the relief of a sudden cool shadow in the open desert. He would stay, he would get close to them, and he would... bring them back.
Obi-Wan's voice came into his mind quite abruptly. No, Luke, don't. Your compassion for them is the trap that will hold you, as your mother's compassion for your father held her, until the darkness comes to take you -
Luke shut himself off from Obi-Wan's voice. Obi-Wan had shown nothing but contempt for his family, and his advice had already caused this destruction. If he hadn't shattered the family in the first place, breaking the bonds of compassion and pity, then none of this would be happening.
He stepped up to stand with his parents.
The hatch opened, and the perpetual yellowish clouds of Bespin's surface drifted across his field of vision. There was a burning greenish shadow about ten yards away. The Falcon. They made their way to it.
There was no need to find the hatch. The ship was split open in many places. Enough systems were still functional that a forcefield had gone up around what little atmosphere the ship still held, so the air might still be breathable in there. Luke could feel life energies inside - Leia was here. He could feel her like the gravity of a fading star.
Vader also felt her. He strode toward a section of the wreckage that had fallen slightly to the side. The gun turret, Luke realized. She'd been firing when they went down.
The forcefields were permeable by large, slow moving objects (it would have been a poor emergency system if rescuers couldn't get in) and Luke and the Vaders pushed their way into the ship at three different points. Mother ran to join Vader, knowing that he was homing in on Leia. Luke was tempted to do the same, but managed to exert enough control to keep himself from it. There were other people aboard this ship, other people who mattered to him. His parents would find and care for Leia. They wouldn't bother with Han and Chewbacca.
He made his way down the smashed corridor beside the chess table, absently drawing two gas masks from their hooks as he went. Above him, the hull breach showed the swirling atmosphere, and the strange, milky light of Bespin's surface. Ahead, he could see bits of golden droid covering, then a head, then an arm. He picked up Threepio's head; his main circuitry was housed there; it was possible to save him.
Am I worrying about a droid?
Well, he was, and there was nothing to be done about it.
The cockpit was a smoky shambles when he reached it, and he could see almost nothing. He couldn't feel anything, either, but then Han and Chewie were difficult to see in the Force even when they were healthy.
He heard a low growl, and turned toward it. Chewbacca was crouched against the bulkhead, his face lacerated and one arm clearly broken - the bone stuck out through his fur at an alarming angle. Han Solo had rolled to one side, unconscious but obviously breathing. Luke took a few more steps toward them, and Chewie's threatening growl came again, low and barely audible even this close.
"Luke?" Mother called, her voice tinny through the mask's transmitter. "Luke, have you found anything?"
"Yes," he said.
Chewie's eyes blazed and he tried to swing with his injured arm.
Luke dropped the two extra gas masks on the floor in front of them, then turned and went back to his parents. Mother looked terrified. Father was still next to the turret, from which he'd pulled Leia's limp form. She lay like a rag doll in front of him.
Mother kept glancing over her shoulder. "What did you find? We should take them into protective custody."
Luke held out Threepio's head. "Only this," he said. "Han and Chewie... " His voice caught in his throat. "They died in the crash."
Mother put a comforting hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, Luke. It wasn't supposed to happen like this."
"I know, Mother. How is Leia?"
Mother's eyes filled with sudden, terrified tears. Luke wrapped his arms around her, and led her back to the rest of her family.
For a time, there had been unbearable physical pain. How her head had hurt... and then, she'd come here.
Not since her girlhood memories of summers with her adoptive parents on Alderaan had she felt such a peace in her, a lightness, no burden turning her heart and feet to lead...
... a lightness which had still been false in its creations. For that light had not come from a true absence of darkness to penetrate it, but of a wall shielding that darkness away, before the young princess could ever know it was even there. Most of the time, she hadn't even seen the wall... but it had been there. It had been there the whole time. Just as it had been there for Luke, and now look where he was.
It was at this point she'd sadly realized this peace was not any sort of post-death realm... at least not any one she'd heard of. What sort of afterlife had such pure happiness, which was so easily fractured by one mere stray train of unwelcome thought... ?
She was pulled away from the happy realm, and for a time she fought it, fought the connection to her body that, apparently, after catching a glimpse of its hiding consciousness, decided to reaffirm its claim to it...
The shock of the word, and the recognition of the voice speaking it, was enough to make her abandon her struggle entirely while her consciousness was still in mid-transit, after achieving a certain degree of success - but the state she was now in as a result, that awful draining limbo between consciousness and oblivion - was far less preferable. (Even in unconsciousness, Luke was still betraying her, it seemed.) A single tenuous gray layer was all that existed between herself and complete consciousness, and she refused to loose her grip on this one last, frail shield from the world around her.
Lurking on just the other side of that layer, came the awful metronome of his breathing...
The last layer vanished, revealing a scarlet curtain draped over her vision.
Had she the energy, it would have been necessary to fight the impossible urge to scream. As it was, she didn't even have the energy to succumb to it. No! She, of all people, was not going to wrest her from her long sought peace...
Strong hands gripped her limp form, pulling it with surprising care from where it had been wedged discomfitingly under part of the gunnery chair - thanks to the impact. She couldn't have fought, even if she had wanted to, even though the act of moving her so suddenly obviously exposed a flesh wound that had been previously shielded, the toxic air burning at the injury... injury. Her head was bleeding. That was the scarlet she saw. Her gaze moved groggily around the shattered remains of the turret, glimpsing glinting shards of plasteel, glass... the blurred scarlet and scattered ivory form, which was certainly her mother.
She found her eyes rested most comfortably out of focus instead of in, so she just let them stay that way. Her mind seemed to operate on a similar principle at the moment. There was probably neural damage of some sort, which explained her inability to focus...
My head. My head was injured in the crash.
The crash. She remembered the brilliant green flash, the ship spinning out of control. She remembered being yanked as if by a giant hand from the gunnery chair as Bespin loomed ever closer... the blackness swirling around her before she'd even realized she'd slammed into anything... she remembered Han's frantic yelling, combined with Chewie's growling, coming from the cockpit...
Han. Gods, he was still in the cockpit, she had to get to him!, she thought dully - but common sense, and her drained body, reminded her that such a feat was impossible. In the reposes of her mind, the most secure place she had at the moment, Leia allowed herself to ache for him, for that last embrace before things had gone completely to hell in a Sarlaac pit.
Because even if he was alive, he would only remain so at the grace of the Lord and Lady Vader. And were he to be privileged so, he wouldn't be doing it near Leia.
"Luke," her mother said again, "have you found anything?" There was a reply, but Leia was too weakened to make it out. It was as if a translucent shield had been draped over her consciousness, keeping it from completely surfacing, yet still thin enough for Leia to know what was going on around her. A not-quite coma.
"She is alive," her father's low mechanical voice reverberated through her then. She felt herself being lowered, her body coming into contact with the cool metal of the bulkhead. It was terrible, wretched - but Leia knew part of her would gladly have remained cradled in her father's arms... the soft leather was preferable to the bare metal, and there was no denying the security in knowing he'd allow no harm to come to her... "I do not know for how long. It's a testament to her strength she even survived the crash."
Slowly, fading once more, Leia closed her eyes again, allowing her head to loll off to one side. As she did so, she heard a soft gasp, and the air in the turret was so deathly still (except for HIS breathing) that Leia could almost hear the muted slap that could easily have been someone's hand coming quickly in contact with the flesh of their mouth. She didn't have the ability at the moment to appreciate causing her mother that one moment of terror (where Leia had experienced countless ones), at watching her child display such frightening frailty.
A brief hope flickered in the blurred mind, then died just as quickly: Maybe they'll think I'm dead.
But even if they did leave her here, she was still as good as dead. Unconsciousness was probably the healthiest thing she could have done: in that state, her body was operating on a lower level of necessity, and would inhale far less of the toxic gases that made up the odd murky green around here, which would gradually clog her lungs completely.
In an ideal world, they would have left her body be. Then she'd find Han, assuming he'd lived, and they'd find a way to get off of this ball... but that notion was foolish to even harbor, and she knew it.
Any way, shape or form, she was still dead.
She wished she'd never woken up after the impact - that, whatever awaited her on the other side, be it endless peace or simple oblivion, would be granted to her once more. Between the choices of being suffocated slowly by the poison atmosphere or being the captive of her family (including her newly traitor twin), any chance at a happy existence was over. She found this did not overwhelm her as much as it normally would have... but not due to any newfound reservoir of hope, she noted. But rather, the fact that once you've reached the lowest point you can possibly go, you know you can't get any worse. It wasn't a comforting notion.
Punctuated vibrations in the floor she was resting on - footsteps. Luke; it had to be. "What did you find?" her mother asked, traces of hope unmistakable in her voice. "We should take them into protective custody."
No!! Leia hurled weakly at her; even if thoughts could be used as projectile weapons, this would have barely been an audible thud against Vader's plasteel helmet. This time Leia fought (however futilely) to gain full consciousness, to be able to scream at them, I'll die before I let you -
She blacked out then, missing the beginning of Luke's response... but when she heard the rest, she found herself wishing this latest blackout, as with the ones previous, would quit teasing her and just let her remain unconscious permanently.
"... Han and Chewie... they died in the crash."
Any will for attempting at continued consciousness completely severed himself from Leia in that moment. Her mind seemed to explode inward. In the shrinking burst of light was encapsulated any warm moment she and Han had shared; the shared looks and caresses... the all too few kisses that would be no more.
She should feel guilt at Chewie's death, too, she knew... but all she could think about was the last exchange between her and Han: his barked words ordering her to the turret, her selfishly indignant glare in response. Oh, how she would have given anything to change that!
If he had lived and she was captured, at least Leia might have had the assurance that he would have something of a chance at a life... just knowing he would be out there, away from the Vaders' clutches, would be just enough to sustain her.
But now she was being denied even that. Selfish, she knew... but she didn't particularly care.
Han, she thought once more, mind flicking to one of the few comforting notions there had been in her life... snatched away, as everything else had been. Any object of her love had either betrayed her... or been stolen away. With Han gone, the last straw finally broke.
The imploding light winked to nothing, and unconsciousness seduced her to its arms once more... where what had just transpired would haunt her as little more than a bad dream... and she'd had enough of those to last a lifetime.
Consciousness returned to Han with a searing, painful jolt. One second, he felt nothing, and in the next, his nerves began screaming out in agony. His head was throbbing fiercely - he couldn't hear anything besides the sound of his pulse shooting past his temple and down through his ears.
What -? Where?
Something touched and lifted his head. Then his face was covered...
The clean air forced in through the mask startled Han enough to fully bring him out of his stupor. Several hacking coughs escaped him before Chewie shook him by his shoulders, urging him to quiet down.
Han did his best to cough as silently as possible. His ribs shook and he was sure that several of them were broken... maybe one of his legs was as well. He squinted his eyes at Chewie - the Wookiee was injured, but not critically, though his arm looked terrible. Han turned his head to see how badly hurt Leia was -
Han immediately sat up, but was only halfway before the pain in his chest forced him to lie down again with a grunt. She wasn't in the passenger seat... where she always was when they traveled together. Before the crash, she had been -
Chewie shook his head vehemently, and tried to keep Han down. He waved his good arm at the other end of the cockpit. When Han turned to look, he realized for the first time that the Falcon was split into pieces - the surface of Bespin was at the end of the hallway, and the emergency shielding was up.
And she had been... the turrets were unprotected... she couldn't have...
"Leia," he whispered. Cursing silently, Han pulled himself up slowly, pushing past the crushing sensation in his chest. Chewie mewled at him at him softly, telling him to be quiet.
Because the Vaders were out there.
All the more reason he needed to get moving. Han didn't bother trying to get his legs under him to stand up - one of them was definitely broken, and wasn't about to bend as he needed - but he thought that if he could flip himself over, he could crawl out, dragging his leg behind him.
If he and Chewie survived, maybe she did too. Maybe she had been able to get out of the turret once she realized the Falcon was going down.
But what if she had decided to go down firing? Or what if she just couldn't get out of there?
Han's eyes were blurring now, and he was having considerable trouble breathing. He was on his side, trying to finish rolling over onto his chest so he could start moving. But he simply couldn't do it. He was cold and shivering, and was becoming dizzy...
Chewie gently rolled him down so he was lying on his back again. Immediately, he could breathe again, and the pain subsided a little.
"Go find her," he said quietly. "Now."
A few growls, and Han shook his head. "No, don't worry about me. You can't really help me now. You've got to take care of her."
Chewie made a low, sad noise, and then left Han in search of Leia.
He lay there, terribly alone, trying to picture a scenario in which both he and Leia would get out of this alive, and together.
Han wasn't sure how much time had passed before his breathing became labored again, and the room blurred. He slipped quietly back into unconsciousness.
"Han? Come on, buddy, wake up. The doctors say you should be fine now."
After a pause, Chewie barked at him, telling him to open his eyes.
Han did, slowly. Lando and Chewie were leaning over him. He was in a bed... in some sort of infirmary... "Where am I?"
"You're at the medical center on Bespin," Lando replied. "You've been here for nearly two days."
"But how... I was on the Falcon... how -"
"I was tracking you during the battle, and I saw you get hit and go down. I had every available hand trying to help the Rebels, and it took some time to get people to come with me to find you. "Lando took a seat next to the bed, shaking his head as he spoke. "You were in pretty bad shape when we found you, buddy. Broken ribs, a collapsed lung, your leg was a mess - we brought you and Chewie straight back here, and got you into a Bacta tank. You should be almost completely healed now, but it'll be awhile before you're up and about again."
Han's eyes went to the ceiling. Dread began creeping and tingling up his spine. "You brought me and Chewie back?"
Lando didn't answer. Neither did Chewie.
His eyes fluttered shut. "What happened to her? Did... did the Vaders get her?"
"Dammit!" Han shouted. He quickly sat up - he was sore, but the discomfort was minor - and glared angrily at the two of them. "Chewie, I told you to go after her. I told you not to leave her behind. What the hell happened?"
Chewie looked as burdened as Han had ever seen him, but his hesitation was making Han crazy. "Would you just tell me?"
Finally, Chewie launched into his story.
He had gone to find Leia in the turret, as Han had ordered him to do. He had hidden at the end of the hallway, where the Falcon was split in two. Vader emerged from what was left of the turret (it had been crushed and twisted horribly), carrying the limp, pale... broken body of Leia. Lady Vader was hysterical; Luke was trying vainly to calm her, but even he looked distraught. They all headed for their shuttle, and quickly returned to space.
Han sank back against the headboard of his bed. His mind swirled in despair as he tried to process what Chewie had told him. "I shouldn't have survived," he managed to choke out. "Not if she wasn't going to."
"Han, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Lando said.
"And they took her... " Han winced at the image. "That's the last thing she would have wanted. She - she -" His voice faltered, and he buried his face in his hands. Lando and Chewie tried to offer him words of condolence, but he didn't hear them.
A part of his soul had collapsed.
Han stayed in that position - face hidden, grief-stricken - for a long time before he noticed that there was another voice in the room.
He looked up to see Mon Mothma speaking quietly with Lando.
She saw him staring and quickly moved beside his bed. "Han, I'm sorry. We've heard about Leia -"
Han shook his head, jerking sharply back and forth. He couldn't hear it now. He couldn't.
"Okay," she said gently. "I'm sorry. These are hard times for all of us."
His hands clawed into his hair... he was tempted to pull it out. "What's happened to the rest of the Rebellion? Is the battle over?"
Mothma looked away, pained. "Yes. It's over. It's all over."
"No," Lando interrupted. "Don't talk that way. Just because we lost today -"
"The losses are devastating, Lando. Losses of people killed, losses of people defecting... a loss of the cause." Han thought she looked pale and ill... defeated. "We can't pretend that this is a minor thing that has occurred, and pick ourselves up to continue our fight against the Empire. The Empire's changed, we've changed."
Han frowned in disgust. "So, what? That's it? We quit and let them run the Empire?"
"I'm just saying -"
"No," Han snapped. "No. This isn't the end. Are you telling me that all of those people died in that battle for nothing? That they fought against the Empire for no reason?"
"They would have wanted us to keep fighting. Leia wants that -" he stumbled "- would have wanted that." He swallowed painfully, and tried to clear his head. "No. We're not finished yet."
"Look," Lando began, "We can discuss -"
"No discussing," Han replied. "If I have to get out of this bed and fight the Vaders by myself, I will. If I have to convince every person I meet to join me, I will." He sat up straight again and pointed at Mothma. "Leia knows better than anyone why the Vaders needed to be stopped, and she suffered personally for it in ways you can't even imagine. If she could do that, against her parents, against her family... she would never want us to stop fighting for her. I'm not going to fail her again. We can do this... we have to do this."
"Han's right," Lando said firmly. "The Rebels need to regroup, but once they do, we need to pick up where we left off." Chewie roared his approval.
Mon Mothma gave them sad, almost piteous looks. "I'm glad you feel that way. We'll need people like you. I'm just worried there aren't enough like you left." Head bowed, she left the room.
Han turned to Lando, and then to Chewie. "I meant what I said," he muttered, his voice thick. "The Vaders have to be stopped... for Leia, if nothing else... and I'll do it alone if I have to."
Lando rested a hand on his friend's shoulder while Chewie growled loudly. "You'll never have to do it alone, Han."
Satisfied with that response, Han lay back down in his bed, and let himself feel his despair.
He wouldn't leave his bed for a long time.
But when he did, he was ready to pick up the mantle for the Alliance.
In previously Rebel-loyal factions of Coruscant as well as Imperial, crimson banners were slowly raised, looking all the galaxy like blood-soaked flags of surrender.
In more ways than one, that analogy was appropriate, Covert Rebel Operative S'reya Melokt thought, as she stared from her upper-level balcony out at the skyline, drenched vermilion by the dying red sun. Between the sunset, the forever increasing number of banners, and the increasing number of protest bonfires (though in the past hour, the banners certainly seemed to be outnumbering any fires), the entire city was red... as if a giant scarlet veil itself had been draped over the skyline.
It was impossible for the young Bothan woman to tell from this distance whether they were all in fact final surrenders to the power of the Vaders by members of the Rebellion, or banners of victory raised by the increasing number of Vader loyalists on the planet. Either way, the meaning was the same to S'reya, and most of the rest of the Rebellion as well.
The Vaders had won. Even if Palpatine hadn't been murdered (murdered-but that implied to S'reya a sort of innocence on the part of the victim... and she thought Palpatine fully deserved what he had gotten), there was no question where Coruscant's allegiance lay now, whether it be by choice or concession.
Even S'reya, whose own kin had fought and died for the Rebellion for decades and had patriotism flowing through her veins, knew when the fight was over. They had fought-the Rebels had fought valiantly-but their numbers were too few now.
She would not insult her clan's memory by continuing to fight hopelessly for a cause that was dying. While they had lived, the Rebellion and what it stood for had still been something worth fighting for, so their deaths had not been in vain.
As for her own death, she couldn't say one way or the other.
In her position as a Rebel spy on the Imperial homeworld, she'd still had fairly open access to updated status reports from the Rebellion... she'd known of their dwindling numbers; she'd known of the disastrous loss at Hoth... the disaster at Bespin... but until today, S'reya, being far away from the center of the real fighting, had thought of them as little more than that: statistics. She had never had a face to place with them.
Now she did have a face - and it was that of the Lady Vader. Or Empress. Whatever she called herself, it didn't matter to S'reya. She would not live under her, not when she had lived so long opposing everything she stood for. Soon, Coruscant would completely be under the control of the Vader loyalists, which meant she was stranded from whatever remained of the Alliance. The small vial of amber liquid on the railing before her promised a peace that even Lady Vader herself could not destroy, or sway S'reya back from... and that peace S'reya would take, soon. She didn't fear it - she would rather be free that way than live her years under a masquerade of peace. The Empire under Palpatine may not have been peaceful, but at least it had never pretended to be something otherwise.
Even now, when the streets were rapidly filling with throngs of Vader loyalists and opposers alike, S'reya felt no desire for fighting. When the giant display screen across the plaza from her building had displayed the Lady Vader's galaxy-wide transmission, followed soon after by the Gungans' successful invasion and decimation of the Imperial Palace (how the Gungans had managed to do that, and slice their way into the planetwide comm systems to transmit that video, S'reya wasn't sure - they must have loyalists in high places - of course they would, especially with Lady Vader herself as their former sovereign) - when that had happened, she'd known it was over. With the death of Palpatine went the one united front all the Rebels could be certain they were fighting against... and rising now in his place, was the one that had divided them.
An old Bothan axiom came to her mind then as she contemplated the sinking orb of Coruscant's star, and she found it oddly appropriate, she thought, as she downed the liquid in one gulp. United we stand... divided we fall.
Several hours later a housekeeper found S'reya collapsed on her balcony, a vial of what smelled like poison on the floor not far from one hand... and a Rebel insignia clutched in the other.
Soon after, a red banner flew above S'reya's building as well.
The celebration in the capital of the dead, scarred, and until this point abandoned world of Naboo brought back recollections of one like it more than thirty years faded into the past, though few alive now had been around to see that celebration. There had not been so many people in Theed in years, not since Palpatine's decimation that had made the planet virtually uninhabitable.
The celebration three decades ago had been celebrating the Naboo's successful attempt in overthrowing a tyrannical force that had threatened to strangle the Naboo with its iron hold. In this one, Naboo was celebrating its liberation once more - but this time, it wasn't the only world celebrating.
In many ways, this one was seen as a brighter celebration - the last one had heralded Palpatine's rise; this one would herald his fall.
Any world with populations having loyalties to the Lord and Lady Vader possessed some degree of rejoicing, particularly worlds containing survivors of Naboo, and their descendants. Even certain factions of the lower income bracket on Tatooine, recognizing the Queen Amidala and therefore her husband - one of their sons and a hero of the Clone Wars - and now promising liberation for them at last - raised their arms up, crowding the central plazas of Mos Eisley and Mos Espa, despite repeated and deadly attempts on the part of the waning Imperial governor to dissipate the mobs.
To the Gungans orchestrating the celebration on Naboo, it was remarkably fitting that the ones most responsible for both liberations were in fact the very same: Queen Amidala and her bondmate. The Gungans had followed them once to freedom, and they would eagerly do so again.
Looking up at one of the ragged crimson banners being draped in front of the dilapidated ruins of what was once Theed Palace, an elderly Gungan smiled, clasping a hand on the shoulder of another Gungan.
"Wesa coming home."
And on a lone, isolated, swampy world, with his gimer stick a solitary Jedi Master sadly prodded the reflection in one of one of the few less murky patches of water, watching it dissipate, then reform again. Not even his long-dead apprentice, standing just over his shoulder, could see what Master Yoda beheld in the water's depths, though certainly he had an inkling.
As Yoda watched, the face of Luke Skywalker, bright and youthful, faded into the darkness.
"All things happen for a reason," Obi-Wan Kenobi's ethereal form said quietly. "Though a reason for this, I cannot see."
"A lesson there was to be learned, Obi-Wan. And now we have... at a costly price."
"Little help this lesson has for anyone now, Master, if you'll forgive me."
The face of Luke completely disappeared, as if behind some unseen cloud. "My place it is not to forgive, Obi-Wan."
Yoda forcefully drove the stick into the puddle's water, in probably the closest any would ever seem him get to a display of anger. "Warned you I did, against this. Years ago, warned all of you I did." He turned his sad head, ears drooping, towards the glowing form of his former pupil - dimmer than usual. "But well as I you know, Obi-Wan, that written in stone the past is, and cannot be erased."
"So much has been lost in vain," Obi-Wan continued.
"Content ourselves we cannot on has-beens. Lesson you and I have both learned, Obi-Wan... but far too late."
Both had felt the expanding cold explosion of darkness as Palpatine died, fading out in its final attempts to latch to the physical world. But even as that darkness faded, another one had intensified - not as black as Palpatine himself, but far more quickly multiplying.
"Luke is far too trusting," Obi-Wan sighed. "Love blinds him to the true darkness which holds him."
"As it did his mother," Yoda reminded him. "And both will remain so."
"And the Princess, Master?"
Yoda closed his eyes, reaching out... but even he could not penetrate the black Cloud expanding in the wake of the rise of Lady Vader, a cloud with Bespin at its very core.
"See her I cannot. Possible it is that escaped, she has... "
"Or that the Vaders have her in their clutches... with Luke." One family together... though happy it will not be.
"In case which, our time and usefulness have expired." Yoda snorted lightly. "Though such usefulness, I now question."
With that he turned his back on Obi-Wan, disappearing with a distinct air of finality into his hut, leaving the ghost standing in the grayness alone.
The ship seemed to block out the sun, throwing a shadow over Luke's field of vision as the shuttle dropped into the gravity well around Coruscant. Beside him, Darth Vader surveyed the view of the world his wife would claim tomorrow. Luke sensed a deep satisfaction in him, edged with malignant triumph.
My life begins today.
The thought brought no feeling with it. Luke knew that he couldn't go back, but he couldn't imagine the future that lay ahead of him now.
"Your thoughts are clouded, Luke," Father said. "You should not try to shut me out."
"I'm not trying to shut you out... Father. My thoughts are unformed." This was true, as far as it went. That he was deliberately keeping his cloudy, unformed thoughts at the top of his mind, while images of Han and Chewie, and of Yoda on Dagobah, kept trying to peer up through them, was his own business. He didn't think it would be a good idea to let his father see those things, at least not yet. Maybe someday, when things were better, and they'd all become more used to one another.
"What will you do now, with the war over?"
"I will defend her position, against those who are envious of it. "
"And the Rebellion?"
"Your mother wishes to offer forgiveness to all who come before her and swear loyalty."
"One of us, of course, will be required to search their hearts, and be certain such avowals are sincere."
"Oh," Luke said, because he couldn't think of anything else. He turned away from his father, and watched the gray surface of the planet draw nearer. "And Leia? If she recovers?"
"She will recover."
"She is hurt badly, Father."
"She will recover."
"And if she does, will she remain your prisoner?"
Father just turned his head, very slightly, and Luke could feel the piercing eyes on him. He had asked if he might see his father's face someday, and it had been promised, but the eyes... the eyes, he thought, wouldn't be a surprise. They would be blue and cold and sharp, impossible to escape. Luke wanted to see them anyway.
The shuttle docked on a huge landing platform near the Imperial center. Crowds waved red flags and confetti flew through the air so heavily that Luke felt like he was in a sandstorm. Father cleared the path to the transport that was waiting for them, and an honor guard flanked the passageway.
Mother paid no heed to any of it as she walked beside the small floating platform, on which a broken body lay. Luke fell in behind them, and Father swept in last, his cape twitching like a dragon's tail. Then they were shut inside the transport, and the crowd was closed away from them. Luke could feel their collective disappointment.
What did they expect? That she would break away from her injured daughter to give a political speech?
That train of thought sounded all right to Luke's mind, but there was something skewed about it. It took him a moment to understand: she had used their instinctive love for her to build her career, then to take power, and now, when they had won a great prize for her, she turned her back on them without so much as a word of thanks, and he knew that she would fly into a rage if anyone suggested she do otherwise.
"She is distracted," Father said, picking up on the thought (that would take some getting used to). "She cannot be asked to attend to such things now."
"Luke, you are hiding something. Do not imagine that I cannot sense it. It would be unwise to imagine that."
Luke tried not to wince, and mostly succeeded. "Father," he said, "there are things I have not shared. But they will come in their own time." He squeezed his hands into fists and dared himself to go on. "When I decide they will come, and not before."
He waited to see whether or not his father would kill him for that, but after a tense moment of stormy flickering in the Force, Father merely drew himself away from Luke's mind. "My patience will not be indefinite, Luke," he said, and left for the rear of the transport.
Luke just watched the viewscreen of the transport, as the city flowed beneath him. He couldn't find any wonder in it. It occurred to him that he should go back to Leia, but his feet didn't seem to want to move. A great hangar opened before them, and the transport headed toward it.
Just before he crossed the threshold, a wrenching wave of doubt and self-loathing flowed through him. But then he was inside, and he felt nothing at all.
Leia rested silently on a pillow of darkness.
Someone had seen to it that she was comfortable, sedated against a break she could feel in her ribs like a distant storm, and against Maker knew what else. There were voices, unintelligible, foreign. And there were small, warm hands, which grasped hers frequently and tightly. She could see nothing, and she wanted to see nothing. Blind, she could be anywhere, and the hands could belong to anyone. She could be on Alderaan, and the voice that sometimes whispered through the fog to say, "Hush, Leia, Mother's here" really belonged to her mother - her real mother - who would tell her that all of this was a bad dream. Han could be in the next room.
Han. My love. The keeper of my heart.
Some sense, some whispered secret floated across her mind, a kind, furtive whisper that she couldn't understand. It was Luke. She knew it was Luke. She didn't try to comprehend what he meant. She had understood far too many words from him lately.
She let herself slip back into blessed unconsciousness. Her dreams were untroubled by the memory of Luke's voice saying, over and over, "Han and Chewie died in the crash. "Something else awful had happened. She knew it. Something about
a fight, but it was faraway and unimportant. Only that one sentence had made sense to her, and she would give everything to unhear it. And if she couldn't unhear it, she could stay here in the dark, and not think about it.
The warm hands came again, and wiped a cool cloth across her forehead. She found herself wishing they would linger, and hating herself for wishing it, because somewhere in her mind, she knew to whom those hands really belonged.
But what a comfort they were in the cold!
She had no way of knowing how long she'd been sleeping when she finally woke up. She knew only that she'd been wandering in the emptiness for a long time, and had come to a fork in the road - either she had to wake up now, or choose to never wake up.
It was not an easy decision, but in the end, she knew that she didn't want to let go of her life. She swam up toward consciousness, and found herself alone, except for the ever-present medical droids.
Her vision was blurred and shadowy - still useless, but better than it had been. "Time?" she whispered, and her voice sounded like a death rattle. She coughed - it was agony on her ribs, but it cut through any remaining drowsiness - and tried again. It sounded marginally better.
The droid didn't answer either version. It just leaned over her, a presence both gleaming and shadowy, with long pincers that reached toward her. It spoke with a mechanical voice that no one had bothered trying to modulate to human tones. "I will inform your parents that you have awakened."
My parents. A deep dread gripped at Leia. "No, I... "
But the droid was gone. It was not programmed to take her orders.
She sank back into the bed as the lights in the room came up gradually. The walls were gray, the bed sheets sterile white. She could see standing machinery casting grasping shadows where it blocked the light.
The door opened, and three shadows came in, one after another. The smallest came first - an unformed, shifting mass of red that came to her bedside and hovered like a nervous bird. She reached out for Leia's hand, but Leia pulled it away.
Behind her, Luke was small and lithe, a black silhouette against the growing light. She could see his eyes, somehow, glowing from the depths of night. He was reaching to her with his mind. She looked away from him.
On her other side was Vader, standing still and impassive as always, the solid, unchanging darkness that had shaped her life in the light. Only the sound of his respirator separated him from the droids.
"Leia," Mother whispered from within her scarlet cloud. "Leia, come back to us."
Leia could feel her hand, still casting a welcoming warmth across the covers, could see the desperate need in her eyes.
But there was nothing to turn away toward. Han was dead. The Rebellion was defeated. Alderaan had been blasted from the sky. All that was left was a heart that grieved as her own did, a voice beloved above all others, a hand that longed for her own.
For a long moment, she simply looked at that hand, lying there beside her own on the coverlet.
Then, in a rush of loneliness and despair, she grasped it.