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Ascension of the Queen - Part 2
by ami-padme and FernWithy

Vader watched the cruiser disappear into space, feeling Leia's presence wrenched away from the world of Naboo. The sensation was not dissimilar to the loss of a limb. It ripped a fresh wound in his soul, and the poisoned blood of the Dark Side flooded in to cleanse it. The anger was invigorating, the pain empowering. He raised his hand to the sky and pushed the Force through the atmosphere, chasing the sonic boom of Solo's ship with a second, lower-pitched boom. Clouds split open, and one began a lazy swirl as the air pressure changed around it. A funnel dipped down slightly.

A buzz announced the belated coming of the guard. It was as well they had not arrived earlier. They had not seen Luke shamed in combat, which would also have shamed Vader. Authority could not be maintained by leaders who allowed themselves to be made fools of.

"My Lord," the captain of the guard said, jumping out of his speeder as he swerved into the clearing. He bowed. "Wesa begging forgiveness. Yousa daughter... "

"I am aware, Captain," Vader said simply. "I will modify the guards' speeders appropriately in coming days, but my daughter commandeered two vehicles for which your own were no match. You have no blame in this. I know where the responsibility for it lies." He looked across at Luke, who was staring at his feet, his jaw set tightly. "Luke?"

He squared his shoulders and looked up defiantly. "Yes, Father?"

"Return to the Palace with the guard and explain the situation to Her Majesty."

"Yes, Father."

"Remain in the common room. Do not leave her side until I return."

"Yes, Father."

"I will speak to you at that point."

There was a long pause. Luke glared at him. Then he spoke softly and slowly. "Yes, Father."

Luke turned away and went to the guards' convoy, climbing into the captain's speeder without looking to see if he would be followed. Vader watched the guards disappear back toward Theed.

He had no true business in this place, but he would not endure the return with Luke. He wasn't certain that his anger would remain under control, and he recognized it as a killing anger. He had a great deal of experience in gauging this particular mood.

He took a moment to inspect the speeders Leia had stolen, but found nothing of use. Calrissian had left behind the cap from his guard's uniform.

How did I miss his presence in my own house?

His face grew hot beneath the mask, and he tore the leather cap into two pieces. With a surge of the Force, the speeder launched itself into the cliff-face and exploded. The other followed it.

It was foolish, he supposed, to destroy them, but the release of energy spent some of his anger. He needed to teach Luke, and teach him vigorously, but the mistakes had not been entirely unilateral. It would be inappropriate to maintain fury only at Luke.


A boulder flew across the clearing and landed on the wrecked speeders with a satisfying crash of metal.

She lied.

The pile of scrap trembled and rattled, then suddenly burst apart, scattering shrapnel in all directions. Vader repelled all of it that came his way without thinking.

He had known she was hiding something, and her potential as a Force-user was obvious. As a master, the development of her abilities pleased him.

But she had turned them against her own family.

That was... unacceptable.

She had hurt Amidala.

That was unconscionable.

She would pay for it.

He called his speeder down from the place where it was hovering, and returned to the Palace.

The guards in the hangar did not meet his gaze when he landed, and those stationed in the hallways merely saluted as he passed them. He saw no need to approach the administrative areas of the building - the hangers-on waiting for a glimpse of Amidala would be disappointed today, and his own appearance tended to discomfit them somewhat. Instead, he went straight to the family quarters. He began to feel the presence of Luke and Amidala almost immediately.

"She is coming back!" Amidala's voice rose frantically, bouncing against the stone walls. Vader increased his pace.

Luke's reply was quieter and indistinct. Another voice seemed to be present as well, but he could not immediately place it.

"I won't have it! I won't!"

He rounded the corner and came inside. Amidala ran to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "Ani! Oh, Ani, you have to bring her back!"

Vader let her hold on to him, and wrapped an arm over her shoulders to make her feel safe. Luke rose from his place by the hearth, and the figure behind him came forward. It was Piett.

"My Lord," he said, bowing slightly. "I came as soon as news reached me. Do you have orders?"

"I told you already!" Amidala said, not turning toward him. "Bring me my daughter."

Piett frowned. "My Lady, I will need time to formulate a strategy." He looked to Vader. "Do you wish this to be a military operation, my Lord?"

Vader was surprised. It was the closest Piett had ever come to openly disagreeing with Amidala. "Admiral, the order stands. My daughter had access to a great deal of vital Imperial intelligence. She is returning to the Rebellion with it. This will become a military matter."

"Where were your men when this... Solo... was breaking into our home?" Amidala demanded, turning on him.

"I apologize for my failures, Your Majesty."

"And Leia. You spent many hours with her at the command center. Why didn't you stop this?"

Piett took the barrage with patience. "If it had been within my power, my Lady, I would have done so."

Vader squeezed Amidala's shoulder. "Admiral Piett is commander of the Imperial Fleet, my love. Household security is not his responsibility."

She looked at him for a long time, then nodded and pulled away from him to sit down on a small velvet chair by the balcony door. She drew her knees to her chest and wept great, silent tears. Luke knelt before her and took her hands. "It will be all right, Mother."

"She hates me," Amidala whispered, looking up. Her eyes had a far-off, ghost-like look to them. "I made her hate me."

"My Lady," Piett said. He started toward her, seemed to think better of it, and stood straight instead. "If I may comment? I spoke often with Leia, as you said. She does not hate you. She simply couldn't make the adjustment to the end of the war. She was a Rebel for many years. It isn't... Oh, my Lady. How could she hate you?"

It was the right thing to say. Amidala smiled gratefully at him before going back to her tears.

"Admiral," Vader said, "I appreciate your tact, but I require your presence at Command. You are aware of Leia's levels of access, and I need you to analyze that intelligence for any likely targets."

"Yes, my Lord." Piett saluted and left.

Vader waited until his footsteps had faded away entirely before he spoke. Luke's instruction was not a matter for public consumption. "You have failed us, Luke."

Luke's shoulders stiffened and he stood up.

Amidala rose as well, her eyes wide. "Ani, no. Luke didn't fail. He's here. Ani, he's stayed with us. He is a good son." She stroked his cheek. "My good son... "

"I am not commenting on his role in the family," Vader said. "He failed in his duties."

Luke turned around. "Is it necessary to discuss this right now?"

"It is." Vader stepped out onto the balcony. "My love, if you would prefer not to -"

"I'm not leaving, Ani. Don't even think I will."

He nodded, still not looking back at her. "As you wish. But it will have no impact on this conversation."

"Father," Luke said, "Leia escaped on her own. I didn't assist her."

"You concealed Solo's survival from me," Vader said, modulating his voice into an even register in the hope of not upsetting Amidala any further. "You failed to secure him properly, and you failed to guard your sister properly. And you allowed your weapon to be taken from you in combat and used against both of us."

"I'm not the one who was teaching her."

Vader ignored this taunt. The idea of not teaching Leia was absurd. "You showed no more presence of mind than a common stormtrooper. To allow your lightsaber to be -"

The move was sudden, vicious. The boy had learned well. In a movement too quick to see, Vader found himself backed against the balcony rail, his own lightsaber in his son's hand, poised to strike across his throat. He had not even felt it fly from his utility belt.

This, he thought, would be a fitting way to die, at the very least.

But he did not intend to die. Nor would he kill Luke - what would he gain by the destruction of his son and apprentice? If he killed Luke, he would render his life pointless. Leia had chosen treason today, and there would certainly never be another child of his own broken body.

So he merely remained still, not challenging Luke. "Do you intend to strike the blow?" he asked.

Luke's jaw clenched. This close, Vader could see the tendons in his neck standing out. The saber blade trembled.

"I am not a child to be lectured about my decisions, Father. I will make those decisions I see fit to make. When they are wrong, I will make amends. But I won't be lectured or humiliated by you."

Small hands appeared on Luke's shoulders, pulling him back. "Luke, don't. Please. I can't stand this."

Luke rose, not letting the lightsaber go. For the first time since his arrival, he looked fully a warrior, fully Vader's heir. "For your sake, Mother," he said, and turned off the blade.

Vader rose and regarded his son evenly. "You are prepared," he said. "But you are also weak. You do not see the consequences of your decisions. You choose to ignore obvious dangers."

"I know your weakness, too. You'll never kill me, Father, and I'll never fear you again." He held out Vader's lightsaber hilt.

Vader did not take it. Luke was well aware of the insult he was offering, and Vader would not humbly play along with it. "You are in need of a weapon," he said with a dismissive wave. "Keep it. I will construct another."

Luke nodded curtly and left the room.

Amidala took Vader's hands and sat down before him. Her face was somber and frightened, but achingly familiar, nearly


the face of the woman who had once stood beside him on another balcony on this world, overlooking a lake and an island to which she'd swum as a girl. "It isn't a weakness, Ani," she said. "Or if it is, he has the same weakness. He will not kill you, either."

"I am aware of that, my love."

"It's our strength," she said. "All of our strength." The muscles began to tighten around her eyes, the strange glow returned to them. "And that's why we have to have Leia back. The information she has means nothing. Only she matters. We have to be together, Ani. Bring her back."

"I will find her. I promise."

Yoda's eyes opened slowly as he drew out of his meditation.

For the first time in a long, long while, Yoda had seen many things, many images and visions.

The Force was no longer quiet, or in mourning, as it had been since the Skywalker twins had rejoined their parents. It had been stirred and moved, and Yoda felt the inklings of a change about to come.

He had experienced a similar feeling when Luke and Anakin had come before him to begin their training. And the changes that came then were cataclysmic.

If anything, training this one would be worse.

A deep frown creased Yoda's faced and he slouched back, heavy with burden. He thought that maybe he should have been pleased with the knowledge he had gained through the meditation. After all, nothing had yet taken away Yoda's faith or his hope. He still completely believed that the Force was working in intangible ways throughout the galaxy - eventually, those ways would manifest themselves, and the path out of darkness would be revealed.

But now the revelation had come, and Yoda was full of doubts.

Doubts about himself. Yoda was dying. He knew it, and had realized it coming on over the past few months. He was at an advanced age, even for his species, and his small body was slowing and weakening at an increasingly noticeable pace. And he could feel the beginnings of twilight upon him. He no longer wandered far from his hut, and was spending the majority of his days in quiet contemplation or meditation.

His one regret was that he would not live to see the Order restored...that he would not even live to see from where the deliverance might come. But he knew that it was a selfish thought. In the end, no Jedi was so important in the greater scheme, and it was inappropriate for him to think that way. He would accept his path as the Force laid it out before him.

And now...now it was clear that he could not simply die quietly on Dagobah, removed from civilization. Unlikely though it seemed, Yoda would have to remain alive long enough to help Leia, now that she had escaped her parents.

Leia. That's where his other doubts were focused. Her training started even later than the other two Skywalkers...and she had started training under a Sith. That alone made Yoda wonder what kind of an effect he could truly have on her now. She had been strong - staving off despair and resisting most of her family's teachings, but that strength had come out of resentment, and anger, and hatred, and that would not be easy for Leia to overcome. And still, there was within her a spark of love and attachment to her family, especially her mother. Yoda could not be sure which would be more dangerous to her...would she allow the hatred to overwhelm her? Would she let her let her other feelings for her family lead her to follow her parents, as Luke did? Leia was not safe from either path.

Yoda pondered it all for a short moment, before reaching for his cane and pushing himself up onto his feet. He hobbled over to the door, pausing for a brief look back. He was certain this would be the last time he saw it. The Force was compelling him to take action, and his doubts would not stop him from obeying its mandate. Yoda left his home behind, and headed out into the deep forests and swamps of Dagobah.

Leia needed guidance more than anything. Yoda had seen her in one of the visions, and she had clearly learned several Force-skills already, even if she was not proficient at them yet. She would not need him to teach her saber techniques and run through drills - at least, not as much as Luke had. What she needed was to learn the basics of Jedi philosophy, to learn the dangers of the Dark Side, to learn to control her emotions. Studying under Vader had certainly warped her perception of her powers. Yoda hoped it was not too late to try to instill the proper values in her - she had held on to her Rebel values, and that would help, but she knew absolutely nothing about being a Jedi. And her perception of the Order was not likely to be favorable.

Yoda continued making his way through the marsh and plants with great effort. There was a small clearing up ahead, empty except for some brush and a few stray bushes. It would not have stood out to any visitor (not that there had been a visitor beside Luke), and it hid well enough the little technology Yoda had brought with him to Dagobah all those years ago. He had not used it in quite some time - there had only been a few occasions where it was worth the risk to directly contact Obi-Wan on Tatooine - but he believed it would still work well enough for this purpose.

A sudden communication from a Jedi Master might not be what Leia was anticipating, but Yoda suspected she would be more accepting of that than a Force suggestion or dream telling her to come to Dagobah.

He trudged on, closing the last of the distance, ignoring how tired the trip had made him.

Once he reached the bushes, he immediately pulled out the small, old communications device, and activated it. As it gradually came to life, Yoda tried to focus his sense of Leia on coordinates specific enough to put out a message to.

The array beeped and flashed, showing that it was ready, and Yoda began putting in the coordinates, and a brief message requesting Leia's response to the "Jedi Master on Dagobah." He waited patiently, tapping his cane on the ground absent-mindedly and glancing at the speakers, listening to their static.

Finally, a light flashed, and the static gave way to a voice.

"Identify yourself," a female voice ordered sharply. It was Leia.

"Jedi Master Yoda," he replied calmly. "Pleased to finally speak with you, I am."

"No," Leia responded, "That's not possible. There are no Jedi left. I want to know who you are, and why you are trying to reach me."

"Impossible? Answered this call you would not, if you believed that," Yoda pointed out. "Felt - knew - you did, that this was no lie. Trained your brother, I did."

She was quiet for several seconds. "Your message is from Dagobah..."


"Luke once asked me to go to Dagobah with him...I never really knew why. I couldn't figure out what we'd be doing there."

Yoda nodded. "Yes...yes. Asked him to bring you, Obi-Wan did. To begin training for both of you. Unfortunate it was, that you could not come."

"Well, your training didn't seem to help Luke very much," Leia said, and Yoda did not need the Force to sense her irritation. "Perhaps it all worked out for the best. I don't understand why you've contacted me anyway - what is it you want?"

"To help, Your Highness," Yoda said kindly. "Escaped your family, you have, and brave you have been, but prepared for the larger battles, you are not. You do not know what you will face. Continue your training, I will."

"My training?" she gasped. "I have no desire to keep -"

"Tainted your perceptions are. Twisted your training, your father has. But learn the ways of the Jedi, you must." He tapped his cane on the ground for emphasis, though Leia wasn't aware of the gesture. "Fighting with the Rebellion is not enough. Along a different path, does your destiny lie."

Leia sighed, and did not respond for a long while. "Maybe it's not enough for you, but I've just arrived back with the Rebellion, and they need me here now. That is my first priority. I'm not about to pick up and leave, and come all the way to Dagobah. I'm sorry."

Yoda was not deterred. "Then a ship, you will send to me. I will come to you, Your Highness. Know you, in your heart, that the ways of the Force are part of your life. They can be used for good or for evil, but impossible to ignore. Need guidance, you do. Provide it, I can."

Another long silence. "I'll see if the Rebellion can spare a ship."

"Thank you, Your Highness," Yoda said, certain that she would send him transportation. "May the Force be with you."

The connection cut off.

Yoda looked about the forest with a grim determination on his face. It seemed that it wasn't quite time for him to die after all.

There will come a time - and it is not far off - when this gnawing sense of self is at last absorbed fully into the peaceful stream of the Force. There will come a time when I will know no more, when I neither haunt nor am haunted by my failures, by my successes, by my lies, by the truth, by hate, or by love. There will come a time when destiny sets me free.

But that time is not yet, and freedom is a luxury I cannot have.

Obi-Wan became aware of himself in the mists of Dagobah, hearing the last of Yoda's words to Leia Organa. He didn't need to make the effort to form himself into an image with Yoda - communication was possible with neither words nor shape - but he did so habitually. It seemed poor manners not to.

He concentrated on his last image and pulled himself into the form. He could choose another era of his life - had, in fact slipped into other eras by accident from time to time at first - but this business was not play, and he saw no need to make cosmetic changes to his appearance.

Yoda felt his presence and looked over his shoulder. His voice was compassionate. "Still here you are, Obi-Wan?"

"Yes, Master. I have... concerns about the girl. I always did."

"But the boy, you convinced me to take in, and fall into the dark, he did."

"Master, Luke is not fully lost. He is confused and in pain -"

"As is your padawan."

Obi-Wan felt the energy of the Force focus and swirl around his consciousness, a whirlwind of energy that felt a slap. "Anakin has chosen to do evil, Master. Luke has simply chosen not to believe in it."

"And less dangerous, you think this is?"

There was no argument to that. In some ways, Luke was more dangerous than Anakin, and Obi-Wan was well aware of it. Anakin knew he was doing wrong and sometimes rose up to stop himself. Luke had convinced himself that he was doing right, as Amidala had, and that left his conscience with no reason to rebel against his urges.

Yoda drew his robe tighter, and coughed into a small fist. "Our last chance, the girl is," he said, his voice strained. "Others sensitive to the Force there may be, but not as strong, and too difficult to find in... limited time."

"And the prophecy..."

"And the prophecy."

They were quiet together for some time, communicating wordless things, then Yoda sighed deeply. "Prepare myself, I must, to teach this difficult one. For nine hundred years have I trained Jedi, but never have I trained one who did not wish to train. Never taken back training from a Sith Lord have I. Broken, she is. Mended she must be, if access her power she will."

"Luke is also broken, Master. Perhaps he can be fixed. He has a good heart."

"As does his mother. As does his father. Somewhere."

"I should have told him the truth. I should not have allowed the lie to stand a moment longer than it needed to. He had the right to know. He -"

"Beginning to follow his thoughts you are, Obi-Wan. And to think as Amidala and Vader think - in the past, you cannot live. Mistakes were made, possibly. But in the past they are, and beyond repair. Think you that you can mend him now?"


"Then try, you must, while you can. But count on it, I will not."

"I've tried speaking to his mind. He will not listen. I have to go to him."

"Go, you must." Yoda raised his ears. "If repair you will, Obi-Wan, then perhaps speak to your padawan, you should. His was the original breaking."

Obi-Wan let the motion of the Force drift through him for a moment before answering. "Anakin had not listened to me for years before he fell," he said. "I see no reason why that would change now."

"Heh. Your approval, the boy sought until the end of all things."

"And I rarely gave it to him. Another failure."

"Remove your mind from the past, you must," Yoda repeated. "Mistakes, you made. Mistakes, I made, and the Council. But the choice, Anakin's was, and he made a choice to become what he became."

"I don't understand what you want of me."

"For you, I want it, Obi-Wan. For your own peace. Love the boy, you do and always did. Try, you must, to reach him. For your own sake."

Obi-Wan made his image shake its head, though the sense that came through him was that of trying to fly backward and away from the idea. He had gone to Anakin once, tried to convince him, tried to save him, and it had ended in fire and unspeakable horror. When he had seen him again, on the Death Star, there had been no acceptance left. "I cannot," he said. "And he will not."

"Then to Luke, you should speak. But little good will it do."

Obi-Wan let his image fade away, let himself slide for a moment into the currents of the Force. His self-awareness did not dissipate, and he experienced even this comfort as disorienting and frightening. He could hear the gentle movement of a Kaminoan infant floating in the glass tank where its parents were growing it, and he could feel the life seeping out of a Tusken who had fallen from a precipice on patrol and torn an artery in his leg on a sharp outcropping of rock. He could feel the weight of the past and the restlessness of the future. He could see the fluttering wings of an insect on La'azum and smell the spices in an expensive dish served in a Coruscantian restaurant.

All of these things, he sensed in an instant, then he found the magnetic pull of Luke Skywalker's presence, and concentrated himself into a place that was a place and a time that was a time.

He was aware first of a high, vaulted ceiling, endless catwalks and forcefields, an apparently bottomless void...

The power station beneath Theed Palace. The strange, dangerous maze where Qui-Gon Jinn had lost his life.

Luke was dueling with a practice droid.

He carried Vader's saber.

The droid cut in low and Luke leapt to avoid it, turning over and landing on the catwalk below. His combat skills had improved exponentially; clearly, that had been the focus of Vader's training regime. The droid started to follow, but suddenly stopped. It was off-balance, and clattered to the floor.

Luke's shoulders tensed. "Who's there?"

"Have your senses deteriorated that far, Luke?" Obi-Wan created his image so that it was standing on the catwalk in front of Luke.

There wasn't a pause. The red saber swung at him.

As he had on the Death Star, he simply stood and waited for it to pass through. This time, there was no alteration in his state of being. "Strike as you will, Luke," he said. "Though it seems to me a waste of energy."

"I don't want to talk to you."

"I've noticed."

"You lied to me, Ben."

Obi-Wan fought an urge to explain himself. Luke would not take well to self-justification. "Yes," he said. "I did."

"You tried to trick me into murdering my own father."

"Anakin turned to the Dark Side of the Force. He has become... lost. And you are headed there."

The muscles in Luke's face tightened, making a deathmask. "Don't judge me. You have no right. Not after everything you did."

"Your mother participated in the subterfuge. She believed it was the right thing to do at the time."

"You brainwashed her. She told me."

"And I believe she believes that now. But it is not true."

"Yeah. I'll bet. She let you take her children away while Vader was betraying and murdering my father, right?"

"Luke, you need to listen."

The blade of the lightsaber was suddenly pointed at the place where Obi-Wan had represented his throat. "No, I don't. Not anymore."

"Luke, things are not right here. You know it. Somewhere in your mind you -m"

There was a surge of power in the Force, a blow of sheer energy. Obi-Wan felt it shatter his image and push at his consciousness.

"You can be struck," Luke said quietly. "And I'll do it."

"Luke, you must -"

The next surge was stronger. Obi-Wan lost coherent form. When he came back to himself, Luke's arm was raised at him, palm out, and the bright blue eyes that had once met his with trust and affection were narrowed, piercing the shadows like focused lasers. "Stay away from me."

"Luke... "

He felt the Force gathering in dark, violent currents around Luke, stronger than any power the boy had handled in the light. He raised his other hand, then Obi-Wan's world seemed to dissipate, fade to fog, break down into meaningless white noise.

He fought for the consciousness he had not wanted for many years, but by the time he found it, he was alone in the power station.

Luke was gone. Obi-Wan could feel him somewhere above, in the Palace proper, but he had made his position quite clear.

If repair you will, Obi-Wan, then perhaps speak to your padawan, you should...

Obi-Wan could feel Vader's presence as well, raging throughout this place like a sandstorm. But Anakin was not within that storm... he could never survive such a tempest. He wouldn't listen any more than Luke would.

Obi-Wan kept his form for awhile anyway, thinking, separating himself from the confusion of the open Force. But no answers came.

Leia had not been able to stop staring at her hand. It had been the focus of her attention almost constantly since Han had first really checked it to see what he could do with the limited medical supplies he had on the ship.

It was hollow. And useless.

The point of Vader's saber had struck her directly in the center of her palm, pushing clear through her hand before it fell back out of the ship and back to the surface. It had left a perfect little hole in her hand, almost completely cauterized. Her two middle fingers had been immobilized since the nerves had been severed from the rest of her arm.

The heat from the blow had also flared outward momentarily, blistering the skin all over her fingers and down to her wrist. The pain would have been tremendous, but compared what she had felt when she first awoke after the Falcon crash...well, this wasn't nothing, but she could handle it. The sight of her hand had been harder to take though - she had held her hand up once and seen through the hole, and nearly fainted. It just looked so warped and distorted...

If Han was bothered by it, he rarely showed it. He treated all of the burns with an ointment, but the skin was too badly damaged to make any sort of recovery. Her hand was being kept in some sort of stasis cast, to hold it over until they could reach a real med center with the Rebels. He was unceasingly gentle when he worked on her hand, even though he knew she had lost the feeling in it pretty quickly. A flash had come to her once while he was trying to fit the cast - that he was giving her the same care and attention that Mother had when she was recovering from the Falcon crash injuries. But she refused to think about that too long. At least with Han she could accept the love behind the actions with any fear or dread shadowing over her.

He was up in the cockpit with Lando now, while Leia sat on the bed in their quarters, legs stretched out and back against the wall, staring at her small cast.

She wanted to look at it again.

She couldn't pin down why exactly - especially after her initial reaction - but she wanted to see it before the med droids took over and did whatever it was they were going to do to try and fix it.

She should see, and understand...and remember. Remember the scars from the Palace and her family.

Leia fiddled with the clasp near her thumb that locked the cast shut. It popped free, but she closed it back. She popped it slightly open again, and tried in vain to wiggle some of her fingers - the thumb, index, and pinky fingers had all worked normally for a short time before her hand went numb. Nothing happened of course, and she could only feel the strain of trying to move in her forearm. Her wrist barely even twitched.

Leia closed the cast with a note of finality. Maybe she would try it later.

She could sense Han coming back to their room. She cradled her arm against her stomach, and waited for him.

There was relief coming from him, and she shared it completely. Of course, they were essentially safe once they had made the jump to hyperspace without anyone on Naboo being able to follow them. But now, they were nearly back with the Rebellion. Where they belonged.

He entered the room, all smiles. "Hey sweetheart, we're almost there. We're about to come out of hyperspace. I'm going to take you straight to the med center when we arrive. I sent them a message telling them to be ready for us." He flopped down on the bed next to her, and took hold of her good hand.

"How are you feeling?"

She leaned her head against the wall and turned toward him. "I'm fine," she said softly.

"I know you aren't looking forward to getting that mechanical hand, but I hear they're not so bad. You'll be good as new in no time. They say you can barely tell the difference once you've had it for a little while."

"I'll always know," she said. "I'll always look at it and know."

A beat followed where they simply looked at each other, and then Han put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in. He looked concerned and agitated. "Han?"

He shrugged. "It's nothing, don't worry about it."


"I've...been...I was wondering..." He stopped abruptly and started over. "When I found out you were alive, I started imagining all sorts of horrible things were happening to you in that Palace. Lando told us otherwise, but I really didn't believe him. I thought he was just trying to keep me from doing something completely insane to spring you out."

"Han -"

"And I saw what was going to happen when we were trying to get to the ship," he continued, his words coming out in a rush. "Vader would have taken your leg off in a second as long as it meant you couldn't run. And this..." His other hand went to her cast, running his fingers over it.

"Are you all right, Leia? I mean, really. What did your parents do? Or that idiot brother of yours?"

"No, no, I am fine...It's just...It's hard to explain what it was like there." She frowned, trying to think of how to describe it. "I wasn't in any real danger until I decided to leave. Up until then, they had their problems - many, many problems - and they were definitely going to make me crazy if I stayed -"

"Problems?" Han said incredulously.

"It's one way to say it. They didn't mean me actual harm before the end. I don't think they knew the harm they were already causing me."

"Leia, I know you're their kid and all, but you were still living with Vader."

She leaned more fully against him and dropped her head to his shoulder. "Yes, and he was still Vader. But I know he wanted to try to be some sort of father to me. And Mother - sometimes I think she needed me so much that she let finding me drive her insane. They just wanted me to play along with their little happy family fantasy. If I had really been able to do that, they would have been thrilled with me." She shrugged. "I know it sounds strange. At least when Vader's trying to slice me up, I know how to react. But trust me, that other stuff was bad enough, in its own way."

"I don't doubt it."

"Which is why it's good to be back."

"Yes...And I think you'll find the Rebellion even better than you left it, Your Highness." His tone had taken on a teasing quality, and she returned it.

"Is that so?" she said. "You actually got everyone to pay attention to you?"

"Are you kidding? I've completely whipped them into shape. Not to say anything about your very fine work with them -"

"Watch it, laserbrain."

"- but I'm actually a great leader. They'll go wherever I say."




"Of course, it helped that I was pretty much doing it all with your authority." His voice lowered and turned serious again. "You don't know how happy everyone's going to be to have you back, Leia. We've been fighting for you this whole time."

"Well, now they can all fight with me," she whispered. "And with all the wonderful Imperial intelligence I managed to see before I left." Leia paused, then rolled her eyes. "And we'll probably even have a Jedi Master with us this time. Wonderful."

Han grimaced. "I'm not going to pretend to know anything about this stuff. I just want to know if you trust this Yoda guy. What's his deal?"

"I don't know. He trained Luke right before we all got to Cloud City. That's all I know about him."

"That doesn't make me feel any better."

"It shouldn't." Leia's good hand tightened into a little fist. "I don't know what he wants. But what else am I going to do? If Vader ever gets me in a saber fight again, I'm going to have to know how to do more than jump out of the way. As confused and crazy as Luke got, he can use the Force. He knows how to fight. I have to know, too."

"You already know how to fight, Leia. You always have." Han reached out and tried to unclench her fist.

"This is different, Han...it's just different. I'd like to think I'll never have to face them again, but we both know that won't happen. So, in the meantime, we send the Master a ship."

"Okay," he said. "But I plan to keep an eye on this Yoda guy while he's here with us doing his Jedi...stuff."

She laughed. "I know you will."

The ship suddenly slowed and shuddered, and they felt it come out of hyperspace.

"Time to go Your Highness." Han stood from his bed and held out his hand to her. She took it, and they left for the cockpit.

The old Naboo cruiser was never going to be the Millennium Falcon, but it steered pretty well, had reasonably good speed (particularly after a few modifications Han had made to its engines), and it was reliable.

Han was never going to love this one, but he liked her fine. He still missed the Falcon, with her temperamental hyperdrive and well-sprung living areas, her amazing speed and unexpected grace. He supposed he'd miss the Falcon for a long time, and no ship was ever going to replace her. He hadn't even bothered to name this one yet.

But she landed sweet.

He had to give her that.

He floated her into the docking bay of the Rebellion's medical frigate, and her gear lowered smoothly and silently. Lando and Chewie kept a check on the readouts, but neither had anything to do as far as thruster corrections went. Leia was standing behind him, unsecured, and didn't even wobble as the ship set down.

The gangplank lowered automatically, and Leia led the way down into the hangar. She was smiling now, her best smile, the relieved smile of a woman coming home after a long and arduous trip. Han squeezed her hand.

The only person in the hangar was a Mon Cal lieutenant whose name Han didn't know. He bowed. "Welcome back, Your Highness. We've missed you."

"Thank you, Lieutenant... ?"

"Temiar, Your Highness. I served under you at Hoth, but you probably don't remember me."

"I'm sure I will once I've had a chance to think."

Temiar shook his head and looked away. "We were going to have a formal welcome for you, but we weren't sure you'd like it." He grinned, an expression that Han thought looked excessively strange on a Mon Cal. "And we figured you'd yell at us for being away from our stations."

Leia laughed. "Good call, Lieutenant. No wasting time on ceremonial silliness. I've had enough to last three lifetimes."

"Yes, ma'am." Temiar looked at Han. "We got word from Commander Antilles just after you put in for docking permission. He says that the mission is accomplished. And that we need to change our databases because - and this is a direct quote - 'It's exactly where she said it was.' Do you know what he means?"

"Yes. Did Wedge give you an E.T.A.?"

"Yes, sir. He's in our quadrant now. Due any minute, so we might want to get back behind the second forcefield."

"Good thinking." Han glanced over at Leia, whose smile had disappeared. So little time, and the other life was already going to intrude on her again.

She squeezed his hand, then looked at Temiar. "Lieutenant, Captain Solo and I can stay to greet Commander Antilles and his... mission."

"If you'd like, ma'am."

"And tell High Command that I have intelligence to share. I'll debrief them later today, and I'd like to call a general meeting tomorrow or the day after."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Why don't you go back to administration and debrief Lando and Chewbacca on what's been going on around here?"

"Yes, ma'am. Right away."

"I can take a dismissal," Lando said, with a mock-hurt expression on his face. "C'mon Chewie. I think they want to be alone."

"I wish," Han muttered.

Lando didn't hear. He just swept off after Temiar, Chewie walking beside him.

"Sorry," Leia said. "I'm just not sure how many people I want to know and... "

"It's okay, Sweetheart. I get it. Are you sure you don't want to go right to the med bay? I can get this Yoda settled in and have him waiting for you."

"The hand is stable," she said. "And he's coming to see me. I'd better be here when he gets in."

"You sure you want to jump back into meetings and debriefings?"

"I want to start putting what I know to use. I've been thinking. There are some weak spots. I'd like to work on exploiting them. I need our strategists and tacticians."

"You need rest, too."

"I've gotten a lot of rest. Now I want to get back to work."

Han went around the control console and glanced at the screen. Wedge was maybe ten minutes out.

Wedge and Yoda.

By the time Han was old enough to pay much attention to the news - well, as much as he ever did - the Empire was in control of the airwaves. There were a few underground broadcasters, but you had to have pretty good equipment to tune them in, so Han hadn't really heard much out of them. But the name Yoda... something about it seemed familiar, like he'd heard it back when he didn't know what he was hearing. Maybe when he was really little. During the Clone Wars.

Han didn't think about that time much. A lot of battles, people dying, buildings falling. He remembered being hungry a lot. But he'd had a thing about Jedi stories back then for some damn reason and he was pretty sure that he'd heard the name Yoda in one or another of them. The news had been skewed already, and most of the stories complained about the Jedi doing this, that, or the other thing wrong, but still, Han Solo, six-year-old pickpocket and all around troublemaker, had thought it would be kind of good to meet one.

Shows what kids know.

A far-off motion beyond the outer forcefield caught his eye. Just a little long-range transport, the sort of thing rich families kept around for occasional planet-hops. How the Rebellion had come across it, Han wasn't sure, but it had come in handy more than once. Apparently, Wedge had chosen it for the trip to Dagobah.

What would a Jedi Master look like?

Han knew that the Order had been multi-species. Imperial-sanctioned holotoons had often portrayed non-human Jedi preying on helpless, innocent human children, so clearly, that had been an issue. But for some reason, all Han could see in his mind was Luke Skywalker, only older and not crazy anymore.

Not a good sign.

Leia drew a sharp breath, and Han felt her good hand tighten around his. He glanced over. She was biting her lip nervously.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Fine. Nervous." She moved to the console. "Better get it over with."

Her timing was uncannily good (Han wondered if he'd have to get used to that or if it was just a fluke). Wedge signaled for permission to land, and she hit the release sequence.

Should have coded that; she would know to put in a security code.

But she didn't say anything about the lapse.

The transport swept in and landed beside Han's cruiser. The outer forcefield closed, the inner one dissipated in a crackle of static.

The gangplank lowered.

At first Han thought it was a trick of the steam that came up from the thrusters, but the steam cleared, and the figure at the top of the gangplank still looked the same. He stood maybe as tall as Han's knees, and was hobbling his way down the ramp with a cane.

Leia sighed and went forward. "Master Yoda?" she asked.

The little creature nodded solemnly, coming to the end of the gangplank. "Your Highness," he said. "Good to see you at last, it is. Watched you for a long time, we have."

"And failed to contact me."

"Asked your brother to bring you to Dagobah, Obi-Wan did. Refused, you did." Yoda coughed suddenly and violently.

Han stepped up. "You need the med center? 'Cause she could use a trip there, and she's just been waiting for you."

Yoda brought the cough under control. When he looked up, Han could see that a lot of years were pressing down on him. "Need medical droids, I do not. What is coming will come."

"Yeah, well, Leia needs them. She's got a hole in her hand thanks to one of you guys."

"Hmmm." Yoda stretched his head up. "Let me look at it."

Footsteps thundered down the ramp, and Wedge appeared. "He needs medical attention," he said. "He's been coughing since Dagobah. And that planet didn't help it any. I doubt he's been dry in twenty years."

"We've been over it already," Han said.

"Yeah. Is he what he says he is?"

Han nodded. "Far as I know. But as far as anyone else knows, he's an Old Republic general that we called in for help."

Wedge nodded and left the hangar.

Yoda had not acknowledged the exchange in any way. He was studying Leia's wound with utmost care, frowning deeply. Han thought maybe he had some magic healing trick up his ragged sleeve, but apparently he didn't, because after the long inspection, he simply said, "A harsh wound, it is, Princess. Need a working hand, you will, before you see your family again."

Leia snapped the cast closed again. "Yes, well, I have other things to attend to. We'll find a place for you close to the treatment rooms. Let the computer know how you like your climate settings. I have a debriefing to plan and -"

Yoda slammed his walking stick down onto the floor of the hanger with a resounding clang. "Concentration you need. Your full attention I need."

"And you'll have it when I'm with you, but -"

"No buts. With your brother, it was always 'I don't believe.' With you, it will be 'Time, I do not have.' Belief, he learned. Time, you will find."

"Hey, whoa," Han said, bending over. He felt kind of low, threatening a sick old guy that much smaller than he was, but enough was enough. "You don't give her orders. You're here at her request."

"Here, I am, because here, the Force needs me to be." Yoda's ears swiveled, and he looked over his shoulder at Leia. "And you, Your Highness, must be trained. Our last hope, you are."

Leia smiled politely. "I recognize your need, Master, and I do need to learn to fight -"

"Need to learn which fight you are in, you do," Yoda said. "Skills you have; you need only practice. But dangerous was Vader's training of your mind. Unlearn what he taught, you must."

"I never took anything he said philosophically seriously."

"Ah, but act on his beliefs, you do. Planning already, you are, to take your revenge for your imprisonment."

Leia stiffened. "I am planning to use intelligence I've obtained to plan a Rebel strike. It is for the good of -"

"For the good of satisfying your anger," Yoda finished. "Need that, you do not."

"You want to watch your mouth," Han said. "Jedi master or not, I'll -"

Yoda was smiling, to Han's surprise. "Brave, you are, Captain Solo. And lucky the Rebellion is to have you. But know, Leia does, where her trial will lie."

"It's going to involve a fight," Leia said. "And I need to be better at it. If all you're going to do is talk philosophy, maybe I need a new hand more." She turned and started to leave.

Yoda spoke softly. "A new hand, you need. But philosophy, you also need. Wait for you I will, Leia Organa. But short, my time grows. Soon, you must come to me in the place where I will be waiting."

Leia's shoulders stiffened, then she nodded without looking back, and swept out of the hangar.

"Like me, you do not, Captain Solo."

Han shrugged. "She's been through a lot already. I don't want you hurting her any more than she's been hurt."

"Heal her I will," Yoda said gently. "But hurt it may, along the way to healing."

"Your Highness?"

Leia turned and smiled at the officer hanging behind her and shook his hand. He said something about it being good to have her back, but was cut off by a young woman to her right, who was absolutely beaming at her.

Leia wanted to ask them their names, but there was no chance. There were people everywhere, milling around her, and she barely had time to register any of them.

"Princess Leia!"

They were happy, most of them, and everyone in the room seemed drawn to her. Trying to catch her eye or shake her hand or to get any kind of attention. She was pleased to oblige.

With very few exceptions, none of the faces that passed by were ones she recognized from her pre-Bespin days. She tried not to linger too long on that thought. She knew how heavy the Rebellion's losses had been in that battle, but had all of those people really died? All of them?

There had been defections as well, many of them, but in recalling the people she felt were missing from this briefing, Leia couldn't figure any of them as being likely to abandon the cause. No matter how desperate things had gotten.

"Your Highness, it is an honor..." Another girl, much younger, so young that she pulled Leia out of her musings completely.

Leia knew she didn't have time to focus on those who were lost, not with the people in this room here and ready to fight. And that was the real story to take from Bespin. That even after Mother's rise to power, there were still people - many people - willing to join the cause.

Most of the newer recruits were watching her with varying degrees of astonishment. Of course, they knew about her former time with the Rebellion, and had been told over and over by Han (and Lando, and Chewie) how she had resisted her parents until the end...and once they knew she was alive, a huge amount of the Rebels' resources were devoted to getting her back. But still, she was Lady Vader's daughter, and there was something bizarre about it all. Leia thought that most of the people clamoring around her were simply trying to reassure themselves that this was all real.

They needed her.

She had spent her few days back at the camp buried in intelligence, trying to get everything she had seen and heard and learned out of her head and into some useful form for the Rebel's officers to turn into plans and strategy. It had been long and exhausting work, and this was essentially her first time out with the rest of the fighters. But it had been worth it. The Rebellion was set with the information, and she thought it might be enough to last them years worth of operations.

But the next operation, the first one since her return...she didn't need help to plan that out. Her mind had been set from the moment she got here. It had been set back in the Imperial Command Center on Naboo.

She shook a few more hands, and gave a few more smiles, and waited as the blur of the crowd continued to move by. The only thing that came through with full clarity was the sensation she got in her hand - her new one - as people grasped it. She had finally gone to have mechanical hand surgically attached a couple of days after she and Han had arrived. A few days had passed since then, and Leia had to admit that Han was right. It wasn't nearly as bad as she had feared. Not quite right, of course, but not hideously unsuitable either. She could live with it.

Han's arm went comfortably around her shoulders, and he began gesturing for everyone to move away from her and take their seats. The buzz in the room eventually died down.

"All right everyone," he said, "we all know why we're here. Normally, I'd be barking out orders and you'd fall all over yourselves trying to carry them out -" some jovial chatter was heard "- but I seem to have been relieved of those duties for now."

"Not relieved," Leia cut in quickly. "You'll just have to learn to share."

He winked at her, then continued. "Leia's back home, where she belongs. And you guys are back in good hands."

With that, he ceded the floor to her and she moved out from under his arm to stand alone and address the group.

"I guess I should have some sort of speech prepared, but...I just hope you all know how wonderful it is to be back. And how proud I am of the Alliance, of all of you, for what you've been able to do in my absence." She paused, feeling she had more to say - much, much more - but she wasn't sure this was the proper time or place for every single thing that was on her mind and in her heart.

They had business to discuss. "I was able to retrieve a great deal of Imperial information during my time at the Palace. All of that information has been given to our officers, but this briefing was called to discuss the Rebellion's next raid."

R2-D2 recognized his cue, and activated the projection screen behind Leia and lowered the lights in the room. An image of Tatooine rose up behind her. The map moved constantly over different areas of the planet, and text information scrolled down the left-hand side of the image.

"We're going to take the fight to them," she declared. "We're going to stop their next phase of 'development' in the Outer Rim before it starts.

"My par- the Vaders have been planning to station a garrison out on Tatooine for quite some time now, and they're nearly ready to deploy the troops and officers all over the planet. I believe we can strike a decisive blow against them before they can prepare for our arrival."

"Your Highness?" ventured one of the officers, "Forgive me, but the Outer Rim has never been of particular strategic importance in the Empire -"

"It is to them," she interrupted bluntly. "There is nothing more important to them. This isn't simply another event where she'll wave to adoring crowds and be whisked away." The scroll behind her paused, highlighting a section on deployment to the planet. "We have to disrupt them before they get a foothold in this section of the galaxy, before they replicate this plan on planets and in systems all over the Empire. The galaxy's mistake will be to think that this will be confined to Tatooine...that it can be confined at all. We know better than that."

The map moved and zoomed again, zeroing in on areas outside several different settlements. "The troops are beginning to move into temporary barracks, where they'll stay until my - the Empress arrives to give them their official orders. Supply ships will be coming to them shortly. Once they have their orders, the troops will be dispersed to several key command centers throughout the planet, centers that are being outfitted as we speak." She looked out to all of them, and then said, "I plan to attack the barracks, the centers and the supply ships. So I'm going to need all of you."

A low murmur rolled through the room, and Leia waited for it to settle. She glanced at Han who nodded and gave her a slight smile. "She'll be there, talking about ending slavery, and restoring order, but what she won't say is that the people who will be jailed and who will...disappear...will outweigh any slaves who are actually freed. Or that order is useless when you can have your property confiscated on a whim...We can't let them hide what they're really doing out there." She turned back to the display and readouts behind her. "They won't be ready for a full battalion assault."

"What about Her Ladyship herself?" asked a voice from the back of the room. Leia wondered idly how many of Han's phrasings the Rebels had picked up. "I know she'll be well-guarded, but we're not going to hit every Imperial on the planet besides her, are we?"

Leia froze.

A tingle danced over her senses and she had the strangest feeling...that Yoda was suddenly watching her, though he had decided not to attend the briefing. She struggled to figure out the answer he was expecting, but it wouldn't come.

"That's not the focus of this mission. I don't want to waste fighters going after Lady Vader when they'll be more productive elsewhere." More murmuring.

"You'll all receive your instructions from your squad leaders," Leia said, finality in her tone. "You're dismissed."

"My love, this is a military matter. There is no need for you to attend to it."

Mother sat down quietly on the austere bench at the front of the briefing room, her face set. "It concerns Leia, Ani. That makes it a family matter, and there is ample need for me to attend to it."

Luke glanced at Father, trying to judge his opinion from the set of his shoulders and the tilt of his head. Father's feelings were often too strong and too contradictory for empathy to be an accurate barometer, but his body language had become distinct over the years, and Luke was getting better at reading it. Right now, his feelings were torn between his desire for her to stay and his concern that she would learn something hurtful. There was also a sneaking impatience, Luke supposed, because Father would want to use methods that he didn't like to talk about in front of Mother, even though she knew about them. They seemed to have an unspoken pact to keep those things... well, unspoken.

His body language was clearer. He placed his large hands on her shoulders for a moment, as though to steady and strengthen her, then stood forward and to the right, the position of a bodyguard.

She would stay. He would protect her from things that would hurt her.

Luke nodded. His own place was clear. He sat down beside Mother and took her left hand to reassure her. She smiled at him brilliantly, a striking contrast to her red-rimmed eyes.

Piett, standing two meters or so away, cleared his throat. "With Your Majesty's leave?" he said.

Mother squeezed Luke's hand and said, "You have leave, Admiral."

Piett took a deep breath, glanced quickly at Father (it was strange, but the military men, while fanatically loyal to Mother, still tended to look to Father first for strength), then pushed a button on a small holoprojector.

Above it, a map of the galaxy floated. It was perhaps three meters to a side, and Luke found himself situated between Gamorr and Barabi. Neither of these planets had been highlighted, but several others in the Outer Rim had been. Ryloth blinked near Piett's hand; Ampinua and La'azum hovered in front of Father's mask. A cluster of highlighted planets was directly above Mother's head. Behind Piett - who was standing roughly at Naboo's position - Tatooine and Geonosis were not flashing, but glowing in an alarming red. Glancing through the map, Luke spotted several other systems marked in that manner.

"High risk areas?" Luke asked, pointing at them.

Piett nodded. "Thankfully, Leia's work was largely on your Outer Rim concerns, and she has little vital knowledge of the strategically important sites in the Core, so much of the damage she can inflict with that knowledge is incidental to the Empire."

Mother's hand tightened. The Outer Rim concerns were not incidental to her.

"The worlds displayed with a flash pattern are worlds which she either was involved with here or has studied independently, but upon which there are no particular targets for her to strike." Piett pointed at Ryloth. "Ryloth, for example, does not have an official Imperial presence, largely because during the Revolution, the Twi'lek slaves were inspired by Her Majesty to overthrow their masters, and have been enthusiastic supporters since."

Luke was nodded. "And it wouldn't look very good for her to attack a native population that's living as it chooses to and has abolished slavery on its own."

"Precisely. The other flashing worlds have similar drawbacks from a Rebel point of view." He looked away nervously. "If Lord Skywalker has a different opinion based on his knowledge of the Rebellion, I would be grateful for the insight."

Mother started to protest - she did not like Luke's past brought up - but Luke gave her hand a squeeze and answered Piett's question. He wondered if someone was going to get around to asking him. Although now it seemed unnecessary... despite the Rebellion's confidence that the Imperial military could not comprehend actions moved by idealism (and that the Rebellion, simply by thinking in terms outside Imperial constructs, was safe), it seemed that Piett did understand the Rebels rather well. "I think you've given an accurate analysis," he said. He glanced at the lesser-alert planets. "I might question La'azum. Few people are... well-disposed toward it. It might be a legitimate target." He frowned. "But it doesn't feel right."

Piett didn't question this. He never questioned such things. He simply keyed a sequence that changed the flashing blue-white of La'azum steady red. "Very well."

"The planets you appear to have chosen as high risk," Father said, "are of greater interest."

"Yes." Piett walked to the first one, far in the Outer Rim. "Mon Cal, of course, has long been a center of Rebel activity. Her Majesty has made some inroads, but sentiment is still rather strongly Rebel. More to the point, the recently opened Imperial consulate in the capital city provides a direct target."

"I will place security on alert," Father said.

"I've already taken the liberty."

"Well done, Admiral," Mother said. "I don't wish our ambassadors to be hurt."

Piett nodded, and moved on to the next. "Kessel is a legitimate positive goal for the Rebels. The supply of both spice and fuel will be attractive."

"Not Leia's style," Luke said. "She won't strike for practicality."

"I was thinking of General Solo."

"Han'll be happy to have Leia back in charge. He's a good leader, but he never wanted to be in the Rebellion in the first place."

Kessel switched from steady red to blinking blue-white.

Piett moved to the area that contained several red planets, one of which, naturally, was Naboo. It also included Geonosis, Tatooine, Rodia, and Indala. "As you can see, we are in the middle of what I would consider something of a 'hot spot. 'Naboo is always a high-risk target, and Leia is very familiar with both the layout of Theed and the security at the Palace. I consider Naboo to be her most likely target."

"It is rather well-guarded for the Rebellion," Father pointed out. "Our intelligence does not report the vast numbers required to attack the capitol."

"I believe we should not take risks with the possibility that our intelligence is incomplete. We've had operatives in the Rebellion since Bespin, but none are highly placed. There may be matters about which they have not been informed."

Father nodded. "Go on, Admiral."

"As a result, I believe that we should increase security here." He looked acutely uncomfortable. "And that Her Majesty should refrain from travel, particularly within the Outer Rim, until this crisis is resolved."

Mother looked up sharply. "I beg your pardon, Admiral?"

"Your Majesty, I beg your forgiveness. But as a strategic analyst, I must point out the possibility that... "

"That my daughter will try to assassinate me?"

"That she may... consider it a sacrifice for the sake of the Rebellion. My Lady, please understand that I must point this out... "

"Leia is not going to try to kill me. It's not in her nature." Mother blanched suddenly, and covered her face with her hands, but did not share whatever thought had gone through her mind. "Leia will not try to assassinate me, and I will not allow the Rebels' foolishness to prevent our work in the Outer Rim. There's still too much to do."

"Yes, Your Majesty," Piett said. "As you wish." He went back to the briefing. "Indala feared Palpatine's Empire after a street riot caused the destruction of an Imperial boarding school, and Her Majesty's government has continued the prosecution of those who seem to bear responsibility."

"As would be expected," Father said. "A crime of that magnitude is not erased by a change of government. Over one hundred boys died."

"My nephew was among them." Piett sighed. "I did not mean to question the decision. I consider it a good one, though of course my opinion is of little interest. I simply meant to point out that the New Empire does not hold the popularity on Indala that it holds elsewhere, and that the tribunal court, like the embassy on Mon Cal, provides a legitimate Rebel target."

Luke shook his head. "No. I don't think so. Leia never said a word about those tribunals. I can't imagine that she would oppose them."

"She will see it as an inroad to the military," Father said. "It is a possibility worth considering."

The status of the planet did not change. Piett moved on to Geonosis and Tatooine, casting baleful red light on one another. "There isn't much left on Geonosis after the Clone Wars, but it is an historically significant site, has many deposits of iron ore, and factories which could be refurbished. More to the point, Imperial control of the prison system there is a favorite propaganda point among the Rebels. They claim hypocrisy at the punishment of Geonosians while the Empire uses Geonosian technology. And... " He sighed. "And - again I beg Her Majesty's forgiveness - it is a place known to be of personal significance to you."

"As a place I loathe."

"It is nevertheless an historical site associated with you. The Ladies' Philanthropic Association has been making a concerted effort to open a museum there. It was delayed for several months by problems within the system, but the opening will occur next month. Your Majesty has seen the reports."

"I do not wish to disappoint the people. But my daughter will know I loathe the world of Geonosis, and if you are determined to assume that she wishes to hurt me, a strike at Geonosis hardly seems the most obvious course."

Piett nodded. The status changed. "Very well, Your Majesty. But you should perhaps not attend the opening of the museum."

"Her Majesty was otherwise occupied in any case," Father said. Mother smiled slightly.

"Which brings us to Tatooine," Piett said. "Again, a world historically tied to all of you, and therefore of high interest to Leia. The garrisons are set to be opened soon. It would be an unusual target for the Rebellion - difficult to attack a full garrison in hostile environmental conditions - but I also consider it a high probability."

There was no argument.

"Finally, Coruscant itself. It is high profile, centrally located, and certainly associated with you both. A symbolic retaking of the Senate and the Old Imperial district could quite easily occur - it has not been well-guarded since the capital was moved to Naboo, and Leia is quite familiar with the world and its inhabitants from her years in the Senate. This would be psychologically devastating. Coruscant was the capital for millennia. The people of the Empire, regardless of the official relocation of the capital, will see the taking of Coruscant as a powerful move, and will look to it for direction. Under no circumstance should we allow the Senate to be taken."

Mother nodded. "Of course. Perhaps I shouldn't have moved back to... "

"The capital will be wherever it pleases you, my love," Father said briefly, then looked up at Piett. "Covering all of these locations may spread our resources more thinly than is optimal. I would concentrate security on Coruscant, Naboo, and Tatooine. The others are possibilities, but I consider them unlikely. Postpone the Geonosis event indefinitely. Put all other likely targets on high alert. An attack is coming. Leia will want to prove herself to the Rebellion by a public repudiation -"

"Ani... "

"It is a fact we must face, my love. Were I in her position, I would do the same."

Luke absurdly found himself wanting to laugh. He had never considered it before, but Father was right: what he would do might well be a good indication of what she would do.

Mother pursed her lips and looked stubbornly away (she seemed to be focusing somewhere near the Kashyyyk system), crossing her arms over her chest in a defensive way. But she didn't argue.

"Lord Skywalker, do you have any tactical hypotheses about how the Rebellion might choose to attack?"

Luke looked at the various planets. "They'll go with the environment when they can," he said. "On the dry planets - Tatooine or Geonosis - they'll dress for the desert and try to draw out troopers in full armor at midday. On forested worlds, they'll keep it in the woods where some of our technology won't work right. And if they go for Coruscant, Han'll be able to get street fighting organized." He shrugged. "You're doing better at making the Imperial military adaptable, but we still have some problems that held over from Palpatine. Leia will know about them. The whole Rebellion knows about them."

"I beg your pardon?"

Luke shrugged. "The old Empire was pretty rigid. The Rebels liked to play on it, snap it where it was brittle. Leia knows we've been working on that, but we're still not quite as likely to be... unconventional."


Luke shook his head. Nothing would be able to be implemented before Leia's attack, because what they really needed was to learn to fight and think like Rebels, and that wasn't going to happen overnight.

"We have thus far avoided attacking the various encampments intelligence has reported," Father said. "Her Majesty has not wished to acknowledge the Rebellion as a threat -"

"I still believe they can be convinced to join us," Mother said from far away. "We can't hit them."

Father waited respectfully for her to finish, then went on. "A direct assault on one of the training facilities or medical bases may well prevent any assault they plan to make."

Piett nodded. He would not formally disagree with Mother, but it was obvious that he agreed with Father here. "Leia was never given access to military research due to lingering -" Mother looked up sharply, and Piett looked away before continuing. "Due to her emotional attachment to her former life," he said. "She is unaware of many weapons under development, some of which do in fact address the environmental issues Lord Skywalker mentioned. Shall I plan an assault?"

"No," Mother said.

"My love... "

"No, you will not plan an assault, Admiral. I will not have the Empire behave as it did under Palpatine. And I will not risk Leia's life. She may choose to risk it herself, though I wish she would not, but I will not instigate the risk." She rose with dignity. "That is my final word on the matter, and it will be respected."

She left the room, veils trailing behind her.

Piett sighed. "My Lord?"

Father didn't look at him. "She is your Empress, and her word is the law."

"Yes, my Lord."

"Prepare a briefing on these matters to senior staff and tacticians. And be prepared for a retaliatory strike, should one become necessary."

"Yes, my Lord." Piett bowed and left.

"Father, do you think she's wrong?"

"I think that she has closed off an avenue which would prevent an assault, but she is better-versed in politics than either of us. I will defer to her judgment."

"Father, she -"

Father cocked his head to one side, a challenge Luke had learned early on. It said, Do not presume to complete that thought. You will regret it if you do.

"I'll start working on her security details," Luke said. "If she's going to go on with her appearances, then she'll need them."

"Very well. I will... review the military research to which Piett is certain Leia had no access." His voice never betrayed sarcasm, but Luke was certain it was present anyway.

"Come to see me, have you, Your Highness?"

Leia pulled a smile up from somewhere. "I promised I would come, Master Yoda. I keep my promises. I've brought my... well, my brother's lightsaber."

"Hmmm." Yoda held out his hand and Leia handed him the lightsaber. "Ah, yes. Your father's, it was, as well." He handed it back. "Good, it is, for such a weapon to be away from the darkness."

"Where would you like to begin training?" Leia stood in the combat pose Father had taught her, and ignited the lightsaber. "I've gotten better at levitation, but my saber skills are nowhere near enough to face Luke, let alone my father."

"Stay and talk, you should. Sit, sit. Tea, I've brewed. A meal, your droids can bring." Yoda sat down on the child's chair that Han had dug up somewhere for him, coughed loudly, then smiled. "My cookfire, I miss, but good it is to have many hands ready to help."

"I really don't have time to sit and talk, Yoda. There's so much to do. We're planning to hit the new garrisons on -"

He banged his cane on the floor. "Your attention I need! Your concentration!"

"To train or to have a chat about the kitchen droids?"

Yoda coughed again, a long and grinding one that alarmed Leia. She went to him and soothed it by rubbing his back, as she remembered her adoptive mother doing when she'd had the Rensilian flu as a child. The fit passed, and he held up a shaky hand. "Thank you," he said. "A kind heart, you have. Like your father once did. Tell you, did he, that he helped sometimes with the children in the Temple? Fond of him, they were. In the before." He sighed, coughed, sighed again. His large eyes closed.

Leia bit her tongue, not sure if it was against her irritation at being compared to Vader or against a laugh that was struggling to escape at the image of Vader - cape, mask, and all - pint-sized and babysitting. "Master Yoda," she said, "while I appreciate your attempt to speak well of my parents, I really do need to attend to several things today."

Yoda opened his eyes and shook his head. "Attend to them, you should then. When present you can be, return."

Leia frowned and resisted responding. She did have a lot to do, assignments to send out, meetings to take with strategists and tacticians. She was happy to help the Jedi Order come back to life if she could, but her first priority was the Rebellion. The Order would have to work around it.

And she did not feel guilty about it.

Han never thought he'd see the day when he wished Threepio were around. The translator droids the Rebellion did have were probably pretty good, probably good enough to send along with Lando and get the job done... but he wasn't sure. That was the thing. Threepio had been an annoyance and a headache, but his language database and processor, Han grudgingly admitted, were really high end.

"Don't worry about it," Lando said for the eighth time. "This one will be fine. Right, Sixotoo?"

The droid, basically a vocoder and processor with six insectile legs, didn't answer.

"Well, at least he won't talk your ears off," Han said. "You sure about this?"

"You assigned me to it."

"That's 'cause you can charm a settler out of his last working vaporator." Han looked over his shoulder. "Leia says the Tuskens are our best friends on Tatooine, but they're dangerous. I've heard stories. I think I'd feel safer in Jabba's court."

Lando grinned. "The way she's making alliances, she'll have you there in a week, trying to get his guard to attack the new garrison. She's good, Han. I'm glad to see her in action."

"I'd forgotten how good." Han shook his head. "I'm not sure I ever knew how good. We were in hiding from Yavin to Hoth. Never had much of a chance to see her do this. She's good."

Lando secured another supply crate to the gravsled at his side, then sent it up the ramp into the transport he and Chewie were taking to Tatooine. "You sending anyone to the settlers?"

"Probably not. Leia thinks they'll sympathize with Luke. The Tuskens are a safer bet."

"She's probably right." He frowned. "But if you do decide to talk to them, you might want to make sure they know I'm dealing with the Tuskens. We don't want them to walk out when we need them, just because they see we're playing both sides."

"I know. Bad enough Chewie's hitting the spaceports to look for spies. The spacers and the farmers don't much like each other, but at least they're not trying to wipe each other out." He sighed. "What a mess."

"That's the Outer Rim. Sooner or later somebody's got to clean it up. Too bad the Vaders are... well, the Vaders."

"No kidding."

A few barks and a short howl - directions to the droid fuelling up the ship - announced Chewie's presence. Han raised a hand that was half wave, half summons, and Chewie loped over.

"You all set?" Han asked when he got there.

Chewie ticked off a list of supplies he'd packed, then shrugged an affirmative.

"Good. You watch yourself, okay, pal?"

The answer was brief and impatient - Chewie wanted to get on with things.

"All right, then." Han put one hand on Lando's shoulder and the other on Chewie's arm. "Send word by code when you get to Tatooine, so we know Her Ladyship didn't grab you along the way. Do what you can. And if you're in trouble, go to the one place they'll never think to look for you - the wreck of Luke's farm. He won't figure anyone else will go there, and I'm betting he won't want to take a tour if he drops by. Other things to think about these days." He grimaced. Maybe a trip by the old homestead Luke had talked about incessantly after Yavin - the place he'd been so glad to get away from that he couldn't stop thinking about it for ten minutes - would do the kid a galaxy of good. But he didn't think it would be a welcome suggestion. "Don't use your comlink there. If we haven't heard from you for two days, we'll come looking for you there."

"Got it. Watch yourself, Han. We'll see you on the other side of the battle."

The idea that there may not be an other side for any of them wasn't brought up. "Good. See you then."

Lando and Chewie were swallowed up by their ship, and the ship was swallowed by space.

Han stayed in the hangar alone for a long time.

"You know, I don't like this."

His voice strained with uneasiness, and Leia tried to give Han her best reassuring look as they drifted to a stop in the hallway outside of the main hangar. She was sure she wasn't pulling it off very well.

"I don't like it much either, Han."

"So then wait awhile," he said quietly. "Give me a little time to straighten things out here, and we can leave for Tatooine together. It won't take all that long."

Leia crossed her arms over her chest and let her eyes drop to the floor. She was tempted - maybe there was someone else she could send out today to take care of things, even though most of the people she really trusted had already left on various assignments. Was anything she planned on doing so important that she had to leave Han?


She shook her head abruptly, as much to clear out her thoughts as anything else. This was not the time to start doubting herself. "You know I don't want to leave you...but I have to be there. I probably should have been there earlier. I don't feel like I can wait any longer, honestly."

Almost on cue, the hangar echoed with the sounds of Leia's ship coming to life as the mechanics finished the preparations for her flight. Han sighed and leaned back against the wall, staring across the hallway at her.

"Why?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"Why what?"

"Why do you have to be there?" Han shrugged. "Look, I'm not trying to second-guess you here. And I know I'd want to be there. If they were my parents -"


"If they were my parents," he continued, "I wouldn't want anyone else handling things for me."

"Don't do this," Leia pleaded. "This is the biggest offensive the Rebellion has ever even thought about attempting. There's a lot of legwork we need to do on Tatooine. I'm the leader of this mission..." She stepped across the hallway to him. "I do have legitimate reasons for being there."

"I know, I know." His hands rested on her shoulders and pulled her close. "I just worry about the other reasons."

"They won't even be there. And you forget, I was the Outer Rim point-person for Her Majesty. I'll bet they're having trouble even getting to Tatooine without me around."

"I'm sure they are," he answered. His head ducked down so that his eyes could search hers out. "Be careful, Leia. Don't go and do anything crazy before I get there."

"And make you miss all the fun? Not a chance."

His reply was to simply kiss her cheek. They lingered there in the hallway for some time, with her feeling very comfortable in his arms.

She wasn't happy when Yoda approached.

She tried to ignore him as he entered the far end of the hallway. But she was sensing Yoda more acutely now - he was the first non-family Jedi she had been exposed to, and she was surprised how different his signature was compared to Vader's or Luke's. There was something pure and focused about it that she knew none of them had. She wondered if Vader had ever had it...before. She doubted it.

Yoda's cane was making a tapping noise that bounced off the walls as he struggled toward them. Han heard it and immediately looked up to call out to him. "Hey, should I hope you're here to give her some sage advice about Tatooine?"

Yoda made a funny noise - it almost sounded like a giggle to Leia, and she nearly laughed in response. "Have plenty of advice to give, I do. Yes, yes. But that is not why I am here. Going with you to Tatooine, I am."


"Busy you are, Princess. I know -"

"Master -"

"I must be there. Find time for my teachings, you might." He almost smirked at her. "Miss that, I cannot."

"Master Yoda," Leia began, "I don't mean to difficult, or disrespectful, but I'm going to be busier on Tatooine than I've been here." She withdrew from Han's embrace and knelt before him, looking at his frail form with concern. "And you're in no condition to travel; certainly not to a desert."

"Face your family, will you? Without a single lesson?" His little hands folded on the top of his cane, and his ears pulled down as he frowned at her. "Wish to fight them, you do...but you cannot without learning more."

Leia closed her eyes tightly and bit her lip. She was tired of intimations that she doing all of this merely out of a need for revenge. That wasn't true. It wasn't.

"Coming with you, I am."

"All right, all right," she said, and glanced back in time to catch Han's surprised expression. She rolled her eyes. "You should be happy. I can't get myself into too much trouble with a Jedi looking over my shoulders."

"Sure," Han said. "Just great." He frowned at Yoda and added, "You better at least take a medical droid with you, sweetheart."

Leia nodded, and Han headed into the hangar to take care of it. She smiled at Yoda and stood up, towering over him. "I guess it's time to go." Yoda began ambling along ahead of her.

They found the small transport ship completely ready to go, and a medical droid was rolling up the ramp. Yoda followed it slowly. Han was at the bottom, furrowing his brow at the Jedi. "The two of you will have fun."


"Take care of yourself, Princess," he said before giving her a soft kiss goodbye.

"I will."

She gave his hand a final squeeze before turning away and walking up the ramp.

Yoda was waiting for her in the co-pilot's chair - Leia couldn't figure out how he climbed into it - with his eyes closed as though he were meditating. She decided not to disturb him, and instead got the ship out of the hangar and into the sky, shooting toward space.

He remained perfectly quiet and still as they passed through the orbit. Leia decided that it was a good thing - at least he wasn't coughing or shaking any more. She wasn't convinced that her med droid knew much of anything about treating Yoda's species...whatever that might be. He looked so calm and content; she couldn't help smiling at him.

"Happy with me, you will not be, Princess. There is much to discuss."

"Then go ahead, Master. We have some time before we reach Tatooine."

The eyes flew open, but he did not look at her. "Practical, you wish your training to be. Oblige you, I will."

Leia's eyebrows arched with skepticism.

"For now, at least," Yoda conceded. "Immediate concerns, there are, which you have not yet considered."

"No," Leia shook her head. "You're wrong. You think I'm not worried about them sensing me on the planet? I am. I've learned to block my thoughts from them...but I can't tell how well I'm doing it. I don't think I block my presence completely. I don't want to endanger the mission, and I don't want to face them yet." Yoda's head turned to her then, and his eyes narrowed on her. "Yes, I know, you think I'm on a revenge mission, but I have no desire whatsoever to see my father again. At all."

"Unresolved are your feelings, Your Highness. Angry you are at them - and confused. Dangerous that is." Yoda shifted in his chair to fully face her. "But promise to be practical, I did. Teach you to hide yourself, I shall."

"That is practical," Leia told him, with a grin on her face. "But I feel that they...they know me too well."

"Perhaps. But try, we must. Clear your mind, and draw the Force to you. A protective shield it can be. Let it cover you, conceal your thoughts."

"How?" she said, as she tried to picture the Force enveloping her and hiding her. She couldn't grasp onto the image solidly enough.

"Concentrate," Yoda intoned. "Difficult this is, hard. Control your emotions, or betray you they will."

She felt Yoda guiding her, and she tried to let him as much as she could. But it was still uncomfortable having him floating around in her mind. He was not being intrusive, but her motivation to get him to stop helping her pushed her to follow his direction as best she could, trying to get her shielding to a point where he was blocked out from her.

She heard him sigh sharply and start another coughing fit. "You must stop learning for spite," he said emphatically. "Trust, Princess. Surrender to the Force, you must."

He sounded like Vader, but she didn't say that to him. Instead, she asked, "But did I do it right?"

"The point, that is not."

"Master Yoda...I am trying. I am. I understand what you're saying. But you're asking a lot of me." Leia shrugged. "I am trying."

"And that is the first step, Princess," Yoda said kindly. "But come the rest of the way willingly, you have to. Pull you along, I cannot." Yoda hopped off the chair more nimbly than she would have expected. "Tired, I am. Rest, yes, rest...Leia?"


"When reach Tatooine, we do...land near Mos Eisley. Know it, do you?"

She nodded. "I know that's where Luke grew up. But that wasn't where I was planning to -"

"If trying you are, listen to me, you will. Work, you can do from there. And it is there that your training will begin." The Master turned away, and walked slowly to his quarters.

Han stayed in the hangar until tracking reported that Leia's ship had jumped into hyperspace.

I ought to be there with her. Someone else can close up shop here.

Not true, of course. He'd gotten this base started, and it was his responsibility, just as much as the Tatooine raid was Leia's. Maybe if they were really closing up shop, someone else could handle the actual shut-down, but as it was, most of the combat troops (all of the better-performing squadrons) were headed to Tatooine, leaving the administrative corps of the Rebellion behind with only a few guards. Han wanted to make damned sure that they weren't in danger.

He made his way to the command center first. Most of the people here were young and inexperienced. One or two were teenagers. Han had objected to their enlistment - objected strenuously - but they were orphans, and in the end, they had nowhere else to go. Better to keep them here in administration, relatively safe, then to turn them out into the galaxy to fend for themselves. Han had been there. It was doable, but what the hell... if he could lend a hand to some other kid, why not do it? Better him than Her Ladyship, anyway.

To his surprise, Leia had shrugged it off when she'd gotten here. Apparently, she'd been considerably younger when she started running with the Rebellion, and, while she was concerned for their safety, she didn't see anything unusual in their desire to be in the fight.

"All clear, Captain?" one of them asked, slithering down off a catwalk and landing in an easy crouch. She straightened up and smiled at him. She had been trying to get him to allow her into the combat units for seven months now.

"Everything's a go, Redenou. You're going to break something jumping around the command center like that."

"Oh. Sorry." The girl glanced nervously at a bank of data readers.

"I meant your ankle or something," Han said. "But it wouldn't hurt to look out for the equipment, too."

"It's not too late to get me out of here." Redenou grinned. "Come on, General. I can hitch to Tatooine with you. I'll be great."

"You'll be dead of heat stroke in about thirty minutes. Do you know how hot Tatooine is? It makes Ledaga look comfortable, and you've been complaining about the heat since we got here."

Redenou stuck her tongue out playfully. Wedge had found her on Dhavea, a world just coming out of an ice age, the sole survivor of a human outpost wiped out by plague (she believed, on no evidence Han could ascertain, that the plague had been engineered by Palpatine and tested on her village). Han often found her wandering the food lockers, just trying to cool down.

"Do me a favor and run a comm check," he said.

"Sure thing. I mean, yes, Sir."

"We're taking the battle away from here, but I want to be able to contact you and evacuate you right away if things turn around."

Redenou ran a scan of the comm system. "Everything's up."

"Are you picking up Lando's signal on Tatooine?"

She checked. "Loud and clear."

"Okay. Check my transmitter."

She took small portable transmitter off the table and plugged it into a scanner, then shrugged. "Looking good."

Han picked it up and tucked it under his left arm. "Now, if I call you on this thing from Tatooine and tell you to get the hell out of here, what are you going to do?"

"Get the hell out," Redenou said, frowning and wrinkling her nose. "Bet we could take 'em, though."

"You'd make a lousy gambler, Redenou. That's a bad bet."

She sniffed. "Yeah, well. Anyway, that Ledagan chief is here to see you. I told him I wasn't sure if you were still here. Do you want me to tell him you're gone?"

Han's insides sank a few inches. It wasn't going to be a clean departure, that was for sure. "No, I'll talk to him."

"Okay. He's out in the exercise yard. Didn't want to come inside."

Han nodded and headed out. The Ledagans had been a complete surprise. The Rebellion had always made it a practice to build bases far from civilian populations, and since Alderaan, Leia had been adamant about using worlds that were otherwise altogether uninhabited. Han had done his best to keep to that when he'd found this place, but Ledaga had never been properly surveyed, and since the Ledagans were burrowers, with all their building in vast underground caverns, their civilization hadn't been apparent from surface scans. The base had been built and fully operational for a year before the Rebellion had discovered its sentient neighbors. Leia had been displeased to learn about this, but she knew that moving the base at this point, particularly when she was planning the raid, was more trouble than it was worth. Even Leia was willing to admit that the Vaders weren't likely to build another Death Star.

The chief was standing at the base of a tree, chatting comfortably with a translator droid in the high-pitched, trilling Ledagan language. Han raised an arm in a greeting. "Aziti!" he called. "Good to see you."

Aziti turned toward his voice - Han was almost sure the Ledagans' eyesight was poor to non-existent, though he'd never asked - and made a whistling sound through his long front teeth. His long, thick whiskers rose and fell in a deliberate pattern. Han recognized it as a greeting.

"What can I do for him?" Han asked the translator droid. Experience had taught him that the Ledagans would refuse to treat the translator droid as a tool. They seemed to view it as a semi-divine entity, allowing them to communicate in ways that had been previously impossible.

The droid did not have a head to turn or a face to direct. Like Lando's droid, it was a vaguely arachnid model, just a vocoder on legs. A few red lights indicated that it was working. Its voice was metallic. "Chief Aziti says he has been told by the gods that the planet will shake soon."

Han put on his best smile. "Well, let's hope the gods are just being real careful."

The droid translated, and Aziti went into a long explanation. Han listened - he was picking up a few words, but not enough to keep up - then waited for the translation. The words sounded strange in the techno-centered voice of the droid. "The deep rock cries out from strain, and the god of the hotlands rumbles beneath. The digger god hears a sound like steam."

"Dammit," Han whispered. The droid didn't translate. The seismic monitors had been picking up a few tremors. If the Ledagans lived by the lay of the land, maybe they could sense things on their own. And maybe they knew their world well enough to know when a tremor was just a tremor, and when it was a warm-up for the big show.

Aziti regarded him silently, small, round black eyes expressing nothing. The fur on his face was unruffled and neatly slicked.

"Well, thank him for the warning," Han said to the droid. "I'll get us set up."

Aziti frowned at the translation, and explained something more carefully.

"What is it?" Han asked.

The droid processed it. "Chief Aziti did not come to warn. He says that upper levels are safe. Broken walls, but no drowning in soil, as there will be below. He has come to ask for your help, not offer his own."

"Oh. Well, what can we do for him?"

"He asks leave to take shelter here on the base, if the earthquakes begin."

Han bit his lip. Living nearby was one thing... he worried enough about battles that way. But actually putting civilians on the military base?

Han had military training, but when it came down to it, he was feeling his way around here, based on a few general ideas about how to fight a war, and even more general ideas that he classed under "How to be a good guy," a subject on which he'd never imagined trying to find guidance. One of these ideas, boiled down to its essence, was, Good guys don't hide behind civilians. "I don't know," he said.

Aziti spoke at length, then looked up hopefully.

"The chief says he will harm nothing, and they will not come here until the shaking becomes dangerous. It may not. Sometimes, the god of the hotlands only mumbles in his sleep, then falls silent again. But in the last shaking season, fifty were lost when a tunnel caved in. He wishes only safe haven."

"I... " Han sighed. What was he supposed to say to that? Sorry, but I can't give you a place to shelter against something that's probably going to happen because I'm afraid of exposing you to something that's probably not going to happen?

"What the hell," he muttered. "Okay, tell him that he can bring 'em here if they need to be someplace. But they can't stay afterward. It's not as safe as I want it to be."

The droid relayed the information, and Aziti smiled graciously and touched his palm to his forehead, an action that Han had decided was the Ledagan equivalent of bowing. Han bowed in return, and Aziti slipped back into the woods.

If it was a bad decision, it was a bad decision.

At least they were taking the battle away from Ledaga. It wasn't like the Empire was the one doing the attacking this time.

The air on Tatooine at dusk was cooler and crisper than Yoda had anticipated. The sand was still harsh against his skin every time the wind kicked it up at him, but generally, he found the climate healing to his fragile state.

And the Force - the Force was powerful here. That could only help. He had never been to this planet before, but had suspected that the echoes of Anakin and Luke would still be present. They definitely were.

Leia was clearly picking up on this, and it was agitating her, though she had remained silent since they landed. She had found a small dune surrounded by scraggly rocks to hide the ship in, and now they were making the short trip from there to Obi-Wan's old hovel. Yoda had gotten the sense from her that she wanted to carry him there - she was that worried about him trying to walk through the desert - but she couldn't quite bring herself to ask him if she should. She stayed behind him, walking slowly beside the med droid, musing over him, and over many things about the planet.

Yoda had not told her where they were going or why he had been so insistent on landing outside Mos Eisley. He was pleased that she had accepted his orders with a minimum of questioning and complaint. He knew that in her heart, Leia truly wanted to do the right thing. He could sense that on some level she even wanted to trust him. Yoda wondered if she'd ever be able to unlearn her fears and suspicions.

He thought so. He hoped so.

Yoda stared into the sunset, watching the second of Tatooine's suns lower slowly beneath the horizon. He could see Obi-Wan's home just ahead of him.

Leia frowned, and broke her silence. "That's not Luke's old home."

"No, no," Yoda replied. "Sense, can you, whose home it is?"

Leia furrowed her brow and carefully scrutinized the outside of the hut. She seemed confused. "There isn't another Jedi around, is there?"

Yoda shook his head. "No. Dead for several years has Obi-Wan been. But here, his presence is. That is what you feel."

"This was General Kenobi's home?" she asked incredulously. "You Jedi sure pick interesting places to live out your days." It was a few seconds before the sense of what she said struck her, and she quickly added, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that you were...I know that you're sick, but that doesn't mean..."

"Don't apologize, Princess," Yoda said with a smile. "Old, I am. Know that, I do." She simply sighed.

They arrived at the home and Yoda led them inside, quickly taking a seat in what served as Obi-Wan's common room. The med droid tootled over to a corner and shut itself down for the night. Leia, her curiosity piqued, began roaming throughout the house, combing through piles and picking things out of them.

"What are you looking for, Princess?" Yoda called out to her.

"I don't know," she replied. "I heard about General Kenobi for years, growing up...my parents never really talked about him as a Jedi though. I never did get the chance to meet him..."

"Well, know how he arranged things, I do not. A mess this place is." Leia came out of one of the back rooms and smiled at him. "But sure, I am, that there is plenty here of interest to you."

"Yes," said a third voice, "there is."

Yoda was pleased to see Obi-Wan materialize. He seemed to have recovered from whatever had happened to him when he had tried to speak to Luke.

Leia's eyes widened. But something told her to accept this as normal, and she quietly ventured, "General Kenobi?"

He nodded. "It is a pleasure to meet you properly, Your Highness. It is a shame we could not do so earlier." He gestured toward the room she had just exited from. "There are items in there that I think you should see."

"Can either one of you explain why you insist on me seeing my parents as something as other than what they are?" she said with sharp frustration.

"Because," Obi-Wan said simply, "what they were is just as important. You want to put up barriers and breaks where they do not exist."

Leia gave him an incredulous look. "If I understood correctly, you were the ones who put those 'barriers' up for Luke. Is all this just a result of you both being unable to lie to me the way you did to him? You sent Luke off ready to kill our parents, but with me -"

"Left, Luke did, before able to instruct him properly we were," Yoda interrupted. "Take responsibility for our choices we do, but made under difficult circumstances, they were."

"Jedi history is so intertwined with your family," Obi-Wan said in a resigned, almost wistful tone. "We can no longer afford the luxury of you approaching one without understanding the other."

Leia rubbed her temples and let out a long, tired breath. "I suppose this would fall under 'trying'?" she asked Yoda. He nodded. Leia left the room in a huff, and Yoda and Obi-Wan listened to her rummage around. Eventually, she made a decision, and Obi-Wan's small holoprojector started running.

Yoda couldn't see what she was watching from his seat in the common room. He saw her face, bathed in the blue glow from the holos, and watched her as she viewed a few seconds here and there from each of Obi-Wan's recordings. Surprise was etched on her face throughout, along with concern and uncertainty.

"Good for her it is, to see her parents this way," Yoda murmured to Obi-Wan.

"I wish I had kept more of them...I wish I had more of everything. What's in this house can't explain enough to her."

Yoda didn't answer. They watched Leia for several minutes in silence.

"Do you plan to test her, Master?" Obi-Wan asked.

"Yes. Done, it must be."

Obi-Wan watched Leia for awhile longer, then allowed himself to quietly disappear.

Yoda strained to lower himself from his chair, and went to join Leia in the other room. She was looking at the celebration that followed the Battle of Naboo, watching her parents smiling at one another. She glanced down at Yoda and shrugged. "They're so...young...I've been looking at so many of these and...I don't know. I don't know what to think. I don't know what it is that you want me to think."

Yoda poked at her with his cane. "Meditate on these things, you should." Leia rolled her eyes, but Yoda ignored her and continued. "Go out into dunes, you should. Search out meaning in the images."

Leia looked out the nearest window, into the night that had now almost completely fallen over the desert. She wrapped her arms around herself and shook her head uncertainly. "Something's wrong. That's why you want me to go out there."

"Afraid, are you?" Yoda asked.

"Shouldn't I be?"

"Go, you must, Princess."

Leia wandered out into the Tatooine night, feeling a sense of dread consume her. Yoda and General Kenobi were watching her, that much was clear.

Meditate...well, she could try it, at least.

Leia found herself drawn to a small depression in the sand, and slid down into it. She looked up at the moons and the stars, and wondered if Luke and Vader had once done the same.

With that thought on her mind, Leia let herself fall into a meditative trance. It came very quickly - she usually had trouble calming herself - and soon her surroundings had dropped away completely.

She was back on Naboo, on the plains, running frantically from her family. She was on foot this time, and Han and the others were not with her. Her saber - Luke's saber, her father's saber - was ignited. They were following her, and she could hear her mother's voice trailing behind her.

"Leia! Come back to me!"

She continued to run.

"I need you here, with me!"

She could not listen. Those words were a trap leading her back to the Empire, to the Dark Side...

"My dear, precious daughter! Come back!"

Leia came to a sudden stop and whirled around, slashing wildly with her saber at the air behind her. She needed Mother's voice to stop. Her saber hit nothing, but Leia kept up her fight, swinging as hard as she could, until finally, she was exhausted and panting.

She turned around to continue running forward, to reach the area of the plains where Han's ship had been. She was moving much more slowly now, and Mother's voice still rang in her ears.

Just as on Naboo, Leia did not sense him coming until it was too late.

Vader seemed to materialize directly in her path, and Leia came to a screeching halt. She pulled up her lightsaber between them, and was surprised when he did not do the same in return. She looked up in the sky above him for Luke, but there was no one up there, and Vader's speeder was nowhere to be found.

Her surprise only lasted a moment. Leia reared back to swing at Vader, and took a clear, strong slice...which seemed to go right through him. He looked at her, completely unaffected. Then he stared past her, to where Mother's voice was coming from.

She swung again, and again she hit nothing. He continued to focus on his attention on Mother, refusing to fight her. He barely acknowledged her.

Frustrated, Leia turned from her father and saw Mother approaching, red veils thrown back and trailing softly behind her. Her hands were outstretched, reaching toward them.

"Won't you come back?"

Leia's saber seemed to be buzzing very loudly in her ear. Her arms were nearly shaking with the urge to take another swing. She had the feeling that with her mother, the blow would connect. Vader would try to stop her, of course, but would he be able to do so?

Her mother's face pleaded with her. Vader stood there and waited.

Leia pulled back, and Mother gasped in shock...and Leia watched as her face changed, morphing into the beautiful, younger woman Leia had seen in those holos. She looked so different. She almost looked like...like Leia?

Leia was suddenly shaken with horror, and she forcibly wrenched herself out of the vision. She was instantly back sitting in the sand dune, frightened and shaking. Yoda was standing above her, looking down at her.

Leia ran her hands through her hair, and stared at the sand for several minutes. Questions, so many questions, ran through her mind. She finally managed to focus on one. "Master Yoda...how can I face them?"

"Have within you the strength, Leia," he replied. He frowned deeply. "Control, you must learn."

Vader had not yet visited the new munitions development laboratory.

There was no good reason for it, and as he traveled across the broken plains to the remote, craggy hills where it had been hidden away, the true reason stared blankly at him: He had allowed himself to fall into Amidala's fantasy, as he always did. It pleased her to have him in the Palace, overseeing its repair. It was done under the auspices of security, and he had justified it to himself as a necessary thing, for the sake of the twins' training... but in truth, he had simply fallen into her vision, and the engineering of the Palace had taken precedence over the engineering of the military. He had allowed other men to see to it while he had seen to walls and frescoes.


There was a lie to be told, a comfortable lie, in which he did it only because it pleased Amidala, but Vader loathed lies, even those he was tempted to tell himself. In truth, he did it because it pleased him, deeply, in a way that Imperial munitions did not and never had. He took pleasure in the rebuilding, in seeing the grand arches form again, in seeing the bas relief murals chiseled from stone under his hand. There were times deep in the night, after he had carried Amidala from his chamber to her bed, after she had drifted off to sleep, when he could come to the unfinished world of the shattered hallways and almost forget about the mask and the respirator, almost lose himself in the work. It was the same reason he modified the speeders for his own personal use, though that, at least, had some practical justification, as Leia had proved.

You are weak, the memory of Palpatine's voice whispered into his mind. You have neglected great power for the sake of a mediocre craftsman's pride.

It sounded right - it was certainly what Palpatine would have said. For that matter, it was what Obi-Wan would have said, replacing "great power" with "duty," of course.

And they would both be right. It was a great power, and it was his duty to control it. He had forsaken it for a temporary illusion of normalcy.

He crested the last grassy rise before the desolation, then dove down into the brown ruin. The munitions lab was a low metal box, ugly and utilitarian, and far out of place on Naboo. Amidala had - quite rightly - not wanted it in Theed. It had a cold atmosphere, not like the Dark Side, but like a wound in the Force, where nothing existed.

Vader stopped the speeder outside the door, took a moment to accustom himself to the atmosphere, and went inside.

The man who greeted him was young and wore his uniform uncomfortably, as though he were not used to its shape. His fingers kept tugging at the collar. "Lord Vader," he said. "I was glad to hear you were coming, but it was short notice. I'm afraid that things may not be -"

"May not be what, Commander Dihave?"

"Er, precisely up to regulations. We didn't have time to clean up."

"The regulations are not intended to be observed only upon inspection."

The man didn't have the good sense to show fear. Instead, he simply shrugged, gave what was obviously meant to be an impish smile, and tucked his over-long hair behind his ear. "Sorry." He seemed to remember his manners, and gave a brief bow. "Would you like to inspect our laboratory, Lord Vader?"

"I've come to inquire as to your more recent work. A recent event may have... compromised certain older designs."

Dihave nodded in a distracted way. "No need for most of that, anyway. We got your directive about creating more versatile weapons, and we've been developing much more mobile arrays. And," he said importantly, "as to Her Majesty's directive about collateral damage, we've been developing weaponry that targets a base only, with minimal damage or aftereffects in the surrounding area."

"Such things have existed for many years."

"Nothing this total that doesn't harm the surrounding area." Dihave's manner was becoming less insouciant and more interested in his topic, wanting to display his research. He led Vader into a long gray room full of terminals with holos of machine parts lined on several steel tables. Technicians stood and saluted. Vader offered them a small bow - their work was important, and they had been largely neglected. Perhaps even Dihave could be tolerated, with that in mind.

Dihave moved through the room, looking at each project. "This one isn't functional yet... that one had a problem in a test run, but it's promising; we're fixing the bugs... this is a close range blaster we're developing, would you like to examine it?"

Vader had never had much interest in blasters and handled them only with great distaste, but close infantry weaponry was of importance, should Leia bring the Rebellion's military into direct conflict. "How is it improved?"

"The beam is tighter, for one thing, more able to withstand shielding and easier to aim." He picked up a prototype from under the table, and pointed to a small generator on its underside. "We've also fitted them with a small energy binder, which serves the dual purpose of keeping it attached to a soldier's hand rather securely and providing at least a modicum of protection to the shooting arm, a common target, according to the field soldiers we've spoken to."

Vader was surprised. "You've been speaking to line soldiers?"

For the first time, Dihave blanched. "I'm sorry, my Lord. I thought it would be useful."

"You misinterpret, Commander Dihave. That is the first statement you have made that has inspired confidence. It was a wise choice."

All of Dihave's demeanors faded for a moment, and his face became that of a child, first shocked, then fully pleased with himself. "Thank you, my Lord," he stammered. "I... "

"Perhaps you should continue the inspection of ongoing projects?"

"Yes, of course." Dihave straightened his shoulders (unconsciously, Vader thought) and slicked his hair, then opened a door into a darker room toward the center of the building. They went inside, and Dihave started the holodisplay machinery. A small moon which Vader couldn't identify appeared, floating over the chasm. On its surface were at least twenty Star Destroyers, all of which seemed to be badly damaged. Most were clustered in the center, standing on end and buried nearly half their length, but four were set a narrow distance beyond, forming a square.

"These were decommissioned," Dihave said, pointing to them. "I asked Admiral Piett for use of them in a test."

Again, it was an intelligent idea. It didn't make Vader like Dihave any better, not with his defiant sloppiness and poor manners, but he understood why Piett had put him in this position. "What were you testing, Commander?"

"We haven't come up with a name for it yet." He shrugged. "I like to invent a thing before I name it."

"This seems to be invented."

"Yes. Well, I... " He sighed. "It is a powerful weapon, Lord Vader. Quite honestly, naming it seemed frivolous and disrespectful of what it can do."

"I see."

"On that note, this is what it does."

Dihave hit a button, and a small missile came into view.

Vader could see no ship. "From what distance was it launched?"

"From Naboo. The moon is three systems from here. It's designed to travel distances, and is small and difficult to detect. High impact, low danger for troops."

Cowardly, Vader thought, but shook it off. He was commanding neither battledroids nor clones, and if lives could be spared, they should be. The men were not unaware that sacrifice might be required; that did not mean such sacrifice had to be deliberately sought. "Go on."

The missile made its silent way to the moon. It hit the cluster of decommissioned Star Destroyers, and a bright light shone from their midst. The middle Destroyer glowed for less than a second, then a series of white explosions began to topple the others in a ripple pattern. The flare was immense. Vader's eyeguards barely protected against it, and Dihave covered his own eyes.

The flare blew outward like a violent wind, then -


A crackling energy seemed to mark the wall of light, then the reaction collapsed into itself.

The four Star Destroyers that had formed the perimeter were undisturbed. At the center, where the others had been clustered, there was smooth white dust.

"It goes down fifty meters," Dihave said. "Fine as ash. Well, it is ash. But we set up a perimeter field which will follow Her Majesty's injunction to not deliberately create collateral damage. When intelligence finds a stronghold, this will remove it without causing undue damage to the world in question. There are no lingering effects in the atmosphere, and no biological or chemical agents released."

"I see."

"And the destruction within the impact area is total. There would be no survivors."

Vader thought of Leia, stationed at some Rebel terminal, watching the approach of a missile that would kill her. She would stay. She would stay to spite him. He nodded. "Your work is appreciated. I will discuss the strategic possibilities with Admiral Piett, and he will continue to work with you and with Imperial intelligence."

"Yes, my Lord."

"Commander, how controllable is this weapon?"

"It's simple. The control goes through standard communications equipment."

He took time to recognize the work of the various technicians in the room outside - he should have come here earlier to do so - then left, his mind going over the possibilities as he returned to Theed. A single strike on a Rebel base that would not inflame other would-be Rebels could end the war and restore a permanent peace.

But Leia would be there.

He found that his anger at her grew as this realization was internalized. Leia would be there, and she would die for the sake of making the day of final peace in the galaxy forever hateful to her mother. She would spill her own blood to hurt her family.

Vader would not allow her to do so. There was no strategic purpose to avoiding Rebel casualties - other than Amidala's desperate desire to integrate the Rebellion into the New Empire, which he would have to take into account - but he would not have Amidala destroyed by her own victory, or by Leia's stubbornness.

(she is not well)

He pushed the velocity upward on his speeder, and the city began to leap into view. She was not ill. She was merely fragile. She would learn to accept the pain if it was necessary, as he had after his accident, after he believed her dead, after he believed his only child dead. But there was no need for such acceptance, not as long as he could shield her from the blow, or prevent it from falling.

As to Leia herself, she would be made to pay for her treason, but her death would not serve his purposes.

You think like a Jedi, the memory of Palpatine's voice sneered. Kill them all, if you would not be made a fool of. Kill them all and have done with it. The spoiled girl-child has made her choice.

A spoiled girl-child Leia might be, but she was Vader's girl-child, and more importantly, she was Amidala's. She might force destruction of herself one day, but it would not be at the hands of an impersonal missile.

He would instruct Piett to explore other options, unless circumstances changed.

Wedge's X-Wing sped through space, silently making its way toward Naboo. He switched on his communicator to speak with the other pilots.

"Rogue Squadron, this is Rogue Leader. We are approaching the designated coordinates. Prepare to drop out of hyperspace. We will reach the Ciru Expanse within a few minutes."

Several the pilots each responded with an "Aye, sir," and Wedge began making his own preparations, going over the plans in his head. The next step - hiding the ships from Imperial sensors while waiting for the Empress to leave Naboo for Tatooine - would be the trickiest. The Expanse was a large swath of energy currents just a system away from Naboo. It caused interference with even the most advanced Imperial sensors, and would provide shielding to Wedge's squad.

Unfortunately, the energy was also extremely dangerous to any ship that tried to pass through it. The currents had a tendency to focus on a ship's engines, or weapon's systems, or anything that produced a certain amount of power, drawing to the ship in a powerful, destructive display. There had been many, many stories over the years of ships that never made it out of the Expanse, despite efforts to avoid an energy build-up.

It was a crazy plan, but Wedge figured that it wasn't any more ridiculous than some of the other missions he had gone on. They'd just have to be careful, and hope for the best.

Wedge went back to his communicator. "All right guys, we need to go through the run-down again. We won't be able to talk to each other while we're in the expanse, so we need to make sure that everyone's together on this.

"Once we drop out of hyperspace," Wedge continued, "everyone needs to shut down their engines as soon as is safely possible. You'll begin coasting on manual controls toward the Expanse. Shut down all your systems except for life support. You'll have to keep your eyes open once we're in there - we all should stay a good distance apart from one another. And we should stay away from the edge of the Expanse. Their sensors shouldn't be able to pick us up until we're out and away from it, but I don't want to take any chances of us being exposed early.

"We've got about an hour in there before we need to get out of the Expanse, and move into position to intercept the Empress's procession," he said. "I'm going to leave my ship's chronometer on...the rest of you will just have to follow my lead. When the time comes to go, you must start up your auxiliary engines only on the lowest setting and guide yourself through. We can only go one at a time, so make sure you're paying attention to the order."

"Rouge Leader, this is Rouge Five," came a voice over the comm. "Are we sure that the auxiliary engines will get us out of there?"

"They should," Wedge said. "I know that's not a great comfort, but we should coast a good way through the Expanse initially. We cannot go above those minimal settings."

Wedge made a few adjustments on his console. The hyperspace portion of their trip was very nearly over.

"Once we've all cleared the Expanse, we'll stay near its edge at minimal power to continue to hide our presence. Lady Vader should pass us by shortly after that.

"Remember, this is a diversion. If we can delay them getting to Tatooine, great. If we make them think that the Rebellion is more interested in assassinating the Empress than in actually fighting in battles, even better. They don't think we're prepared for a full-scale attack, and if they see us sending ten X-Wings against the Empress's forces, it will only reinforce that image in their minds. And that will help everyone else.

"But let's be clear about something - even with Leia's intelligence, we're no match for what we're going to be facing."

"Don't worry, Rogue Leader," said Rogue Two. "We'll put on a good show for Her Majesty."

Some of the other pilots chuckled. Wedge smiled, and gave the last of his instructions. "Leia's information on the shields might give us a bit of an edge, but we have to assume everything's been changed. We also know a good amount about their fighting and flying maneuvers, but we still need to stay on our toes here, guys. We'll put up a fight, then make a run for it. We'll meet up at the rendezvous point, and then head back to base.

"Good luck guys."

With that, he closed communications, and pulled his ship out of hyperspace. As soon as the stars around him slipped back from straight lines into small specks, he began shutting down his engines completely.

Wedge heard the rest of his squad coming in behind him, and after a few seconds, an eerie silence filled his cockpit. He put all of his other systems in their off modes, and switched the life support to as low a level as he thought was safe. He glanced at the lightly glowing chronometer, and then grabbed the manual controls.

The Ciru Expanse was just before them. It looked enormous - just a large, pale yellow, milky area hanging in front of them where stars and planets and moons normally would be. Even at a distance, Wedge could see small currents flashing through it, like very quick lightening strikes.

He turned his ship to the left to avoid those charges, and his pilots followed them as they entered the Expanse.

Wedge's cockpit filled with the strange yellow glow as he continued to glide lightly through. He didn't have to do much - he was gliding on a straight path, and could see nothing ahead of him that would cause a problem. He couldn't see the pilots behind him, and had no sensors to know what was happening, but he didn't sense any problems.

The ship felt like it was riding little waves, and Wedge was almost starting to enjoy the ride. It was peaceful and soothing, and there was nothing he could do for the next hour anyway.

Finally, the ship began to slow down considerably, and Wedge knew that his momentum was finished. He thought they had come far enough to get out of the Expanse on minimal power later.

The ship floated in place, and Wedge took the controls and flipped it back over upside down. As he went, he got a look at the rest of his squadron behind him. They had all also stopped, and were waiting.

His ship came back in place right side up, and Wedge then banked to his left, trying to turn around. The ship moved slowly until he was facing the squadron. He could see into the cockpits of the others, and some of them nodded to him.

A few of the small charges were seen around them, but not close enough to cause any immediate danger. Wedge trained an eye on his chronometer, and waited.

"Be aware," Father said. "Do nothing to attract attention, but be aware."

Luke felt his jaw tighten - he didn't need to be lectured on the obvious - but he said nothing. They were standing at the Great Arch of Theed Palace, in view of the crowd, and it wouldn't do to show dissent. He nodded, and stepped out into the sunlight.

"Welcome, Naboo!" he called, giving them a smile that didn't feel right today. "Welcome, Gungans and visitors!"

They cheered wildly for a long time, celebrating the beautiful day, the peace of the Empire, and, most of all, the chance to see their beloved Empress. Mother spent most of her time inside the Palace now, and the Naboo reveled in their chances to see her as an inhabitant of their world.

When the cheer faded enough to speak, Luke raised his hands to get their attention. "Her Majesty will be out in a few moments," he said, then, carried on a giddy wave from the crowd, added with a grin, "She's trying to decide what to wear."

There was fond laughter. Mother's wardrobe, while all in various shades of red with long veils, was always growing, and was a favorite topic of style writers. What cut would she choose? What sort of fabric? Would it reveal the scars on her back, gauzy white lines beneath the floating silks? (It had become quite fashionable in some quarters for young women to have stylized claw marks tattooed onto their backs to match the mark of the Empress.) The frivolous tone bothered Father, as it implied a lack of seriousness in the way people approached her, but Mother herself was delighted by it and played to it as "it makes the people happy."

"She won't have time to speak today - we're headed out to Tatooine to install the new Outer Rim Guard -"

Another cheer. The Guard was a popular movement. There were many refugees from the Rim who had come into Naboo and the Core to escape the kleptocracy, and the thought of putting the Hutts and pirates in their place was always cause for joy.

The first unit of the Guard - instituted not long after Mother had taken power - had been a roving unit devoted to breaking up the slaving rings. Father had allowed a Wookieee slave to conduct the execution of the man who had kidnapped him from Kashyyyk. It was a symbolic act, of course. The rest of them - those not killed in the battles for their ships - had been executed more normally, either by Father or by Luke himself (though Father insisted on being present). The people had felt vindicated. The new Guard units had the more nebulous job of bringing order to the Rim, but the people knew that it was all part of the same grand project, and they cheered every operation.

Luke smiled more normally, the crowd giving him a greater sense of ease. He didn't forget to be aware, but there was no sense of malice in the crowd, only an outpouring of pure affection.

The volume of the delirious shouts jumped suddenly, and Luke needed neither his senses nor the Force to tell him why. He turned and bowed to Mother.

She was radiant in simple clothes, with a translucent ankle-length crimson skirt and a darker overdress that came to her knees. The veil was a single length of synth-silk anchored by a golden circlet. She took Luke's hand and kissed his cheek when he rose.

"It's a glorious morning!" she called to the crowd. When the eruption of clapping ended, she beamed at them. "I hate to make a liar of my son, but I just can't leave without speaking to you, to tell you how it lifts my heart to see you here and feel your affection for me."

The crowd offered another generous outpouring.

"Someone dear to me was taken recently," she said, "but I know, I can feel, that she will come home to me, safe and sound. In the meantime, I will not forsake my duty to the people of the galaxy."

Wild applause.

"Once, I ran from my title, hid from responsibility like the child I was. I do not regret it - perhaps we all need to be children together sometimes - but I will not repeat it. Now I know I have a purpose, a reason to be here among these stars at this time. I will bring justice. I will bring peace and order, to those who have lived without it for too many years. I am Amidala of Naboo, and I will be the Empress I have promised to be."

Whistles and cheers washed over her. Mother leaned her head back and closed her eyes. To Luke, it looked like she was drinking the noise, taking sustenance from it. And when she opened her eyes, it seemed as though she had. They sparkled brilliantly.

She squeezed his hand. "It's time to go," she whispered.

Father slipped into the space in front of her and Luke took up his position behind her. Both held their lightsabers at the ready as the family descended the steps and walked up the aisle through the crowd that was immediately created by the Gungan guard. The royal transport was docked at the far end, flanked by two fighter escorts. The Gungans escorted Mother up the ramp into her ship, and the hatch closed. Father took the fighter to the right; Luke, the fighter on the left. A squadron of six more fighters was already in the air.

The transport lifted off gracefully - Naboo technology was a marvel of maneuverability - and Luke and Father followed it at close range until they had cleared the atmosphere.

Once in deep space, the fighters formed a box around the transport. Father took point at center front; Luke brought up the rear.

Father's voice came across the general comm channel. "Hyperspace coordinates set. On my lead."

But there was no lead.

Out of the darkness and the strange glow of the Ciru Expanse came a volley of laser blasts, then another, then another.

"Protect the Empress!" Father ordered.

The X-Wings themselves leapt into view, executing a complex, shifting attack pattern, darting into range and then darting out again.

Luke knew the strategy.

"It's Rogue Squadron!" he called into the comm channel. "Engage!"

The command had barely left his mouth as Luke watched his father evade a heavy barrage of fire. Every X-Wing fired directly at him as they prepared to fly past him and headed for Mother's transport. The six other Imperial fighters had immediately taken to obey Father's orders, and were collapsing in tight formation around her ship, shooting in the direction of the Rebel ships even before they moved fully in range.

Luke quickly moved his fighter from its position in back of the transport, flying over to the head of the ship. Father was still the focus on nearly all of Rogue Squadron's firepower, and while he was deftly outmaneuvering the blasts, he hadn't yet gotten in position to go on the offensive. The transport ship tried to provide some cover, but the X-Wings were too small and too fast for its gunners to provide any real help.

Most of the X-Wings passed Father and began running a complex weaving pattern over, under, and around the transport. Luke picked out the lead ship - undoubtedly piloted by Wedge - and began pursuit.

Luke had half a mind to simply blast him out of the sky, but he could tell that Rogue Squadron was up to something...they weren't flying circles around the ship for no reason. He wanted an idea of their plans before he began to engage them directly.

Wedge carved a dizzying path straight through to the back of the ship, then jerked his X-Wing around and under, flying upside down along the transport's underside before flipping back up near the front nose of the craft. As Luke came back up, he saw his father relentlessly pursuing one of the Rebel fighters, not letting it out of his sights.

The Imperial fighters seemed more interested in avoiding collision with the wildly flying Rebels than with taking them out - an observation Father had no doubt made, and Luke almost felt sorry for what the pilots would be facing later as a result of their caution (well, cowardice). These were the advantages the Rebels had that the Empire had tried so hard to counteract - speed, fearlessness - and so far, it looked to Luke as if they still had a ways to go.

Luke followed Wedge through another run at the transport's belly. He racked his brains to recollect any information about the ship's design or any flaws...anything that Leia might have noticed and told the squadron to be looking for.

He blew past the landing equipment and went under the quarters and hangars that took up the bulk of the body of the ship. Once they came near the back again, he saw the section that held the life support systems, and the engines.

The engines...

Luke opened his secure comlink and hailed his father, continuing his pursuit of Wedge. "Father, I think I've figured out the aim of this attack."

"The aim of this attack," came the terse reply, "is to kill the Empress." A large explosion was bright in Luke's eyes as he flew over the top of the transport again. Father had caught up with the X-Wing he had been chasing. "Our aim is to stop them, not follow their flying patterns."

Luke hands went tight around his controls, but he bit back the urge to begin a fight with his father. This wasn't the time, and it wouldn't help.

"Agreed," Luke finally said. "I'll be underneath the ship, protecting the weak spot in the shields the Rebels are looking for." He abruptly changed direction and did just that. He saw the remnants of another explosion; Father was definitely on the offensive now. "I think Wedge has seen the engines...he'll order all the fighters to attack there soon. Perhaps you'd care to join me...?"

Father gave no answer, and Luke shut off his comm. He began firing on Wedge, who had indeed returned to the same spot. The engines of Mother's transport gave off a static field that occasionally weakened the shields in that section of the ship. A highly concentrated volley of fire at that point might be enough to penetrate the soft spots.

Wedge began to run from him, and two other X-Wings entered the area, but Luke continued his pursuit, easily dodging the other Rebels and firing until he hit.

The right upper wing of Wedge's craft was momentarily lost in a wave of sparks and debris and fire. Luke waited, but the X-Wing didn't explode. Instead, Wedge limped out of the way of the transport's slower shots, trying to gain full control of his ship and move out of the way of the battle.

Luke watched him for a second, then saw Father, three of the Imperial fighters, and the seven remaining X-Wings fly beneath the transport, and head straight for the engines in the back. He promptly raised the transport.

"Yes, Lord Skywalker," answered the captain.

"The Rebels seem to have found a potential weak point in our shields. Continue your evasive actions, and concentrate your firepower on protecting the engines. And jam the Rebels' communications."

"We've tried, Lord Skywalker, and we can't seem to find the frequency -"

"Then jam all the communications in this immediate area. Send out a dampening field."

"But sir, then we wouldn't be able to contact one another."

"I'm aware of that, Captain. You just fly your ship. My father and I can take care of the rest, and we don't need to speak to each other in the comlinks to do it."

"Yes, Lord Skywalker."

Vader was impressed with the Rebels. He had already learned not to underestimate them - the Death Star battle had certainly taught him that. But these ten were certainly the elite of the Rebel pilots. It was a testament to them that seven had survived, and that the battle had essentially shifted to the territory they desired. Two of the Imperial fighters had also been taken out in the fight above the transport.

But he had the remaining X-Wings in his sight, and Vader could feel his son truly begin to settle down into pitched battle. This would not go on for much longer.

Luke reached out to him with the Force, and with no more direction than that, the two began to move against the remaining seven Rebel fighters.

Vader saw Luke pursuing a ship that had gotten too close to the engines, and driving that ship in his direction.

Vader didn't hesitate, moving swiftly to cut off the X-Wing forcing it into an abrupt change of direction that Luke had been anticipating. Vader saw the flash of Luke's lasers, and another X-Wing was gone.

He and Luke were then flying together, focused on chasing down another Rebel ship. This one managed to go several seconds before being hit, but there was little he could do with the two of them right behind him, firing away.

Part of his X formation was blown clear away, and Vader saw him try to steer his out of control ship directly at the transport. Luke accelerated past Vader and destroyed the X-Wing before its destination was reached.

Vader was already turning around to face the five remaining fighters, certain that Luke would follow, feeling his son anticipate his moves almost effortlessly. It was good, flying and fighting with Luke like this. He felt proud, but also enjoyed the simple pleasure of connecting with his son. His disagreements with Luke had fallen by the wayside, at least for these moments.

Vader refocused his attention on finishing off the squadron.

Wedge's ship had come to a dead stop a short distance from the battle. He was out of range of the transport's weapons, and no one else bothered to pay him any mind. He was trying desperately, over and over to raise his squadron, but was continually met with static. He watched in horror as the half of his fighters who were left were chased by Vader and Luke.

"Rogue Squadron, this is Rogue Leader. Retreat. Retreat. This is an order for full retreat. Disengage immediately and head for the rendezvous coordinates. Retreat, Rogue Squadron."

Nothing, and the fight continued without signs of any of his pilots moving away. Wedge smashed his hand against his console in frustration. Five of the ten were down or killed. What were they waiting for?

He understood their desire - despite the briefing, despite their orders - to try and get the hit in on Lady Vader's ship. They had actually made more headway than they had anticipated, and had gotten a shot or two off on the spot Leia had told them about. It was feasible, if not entirely likely, that one of them could hit that spot and cut the Empire off at its head.

That was something any of them would be willing to die for. And technically, they hadn't received a retreat order, so maybe it was worth the try.

An understandable impulse, but so damnably foolish.

Another X-Wing exploded. Four left.

Three left.

Finally, finally, one of the remaining Rebel ships broke away, flying furiously toward Wedge. Wedge tried to wave him off, and wanted to order him to just jump to hyperspace and not worry about the rest of them.

But the X-Wing kept coming until it was close enough to shoot and hook a towing mechanism to Wedge's craft. He was going to drag Wedge along with him through hyperspace to the rendezvous point, which was only a short trip away.

The last two fighters were also headed Wedge's way, under close pursuit by Vader and Luke. Wedge watched helplessly, trying to will them to make the hyperspace jump before they were destroyed.

The X-Wing he was attached did make the jump then, and Wedge saw nothing but starlines and felt his ship shake violently as it was dragged along.

There was a final, forceful jerk as they withdrew from hyperspace. Wedge immediately turned on his communicator, and found that the signal was no longer jammed.

"Rogue Leader, are you all right?" It was Rogue Four.

"Yes. How's your ship?"

"It looks like we'll both be limping home. I think we -"

He was interrupted by the sound of another ship coming out of hyperspace just behind them. Rogue Nine.

"Is the last fighter coming in after you?" Wedge asked.

"No sir," said Rogue Nine with a weary voice. "He was destroyed right before I made the jump."

Wedge exhaled sharply, dropping his head back against his seat, staring at some nondescript point in his cockpit's ceiling. He stayed that way for several seconds.

"What are your orders, Rogue Leader?"

"My engines are shot, and so are Rogue Four's. It's going to take us some time to get back to base. We'd better get going."

Luke's fighter fell in beside his father's as they returned to Mother's transport. He could see some damage had been done to her ship, but nothing critical had been hit.

Father's voice came through the comm, even though Luke could feel what he wanted to say. "You fought well, son."

Luke didn't bother to fight the pleased impulse that came with the praise. "Thank you, Father." They flew together in amicable silence.

They brought their fighters into the small holding bay on the transport ship. Mother was already running out toward them.

"Ani!" she cried, throwing herself into a hug against his armor as soon as he had disembarked.

"It is all right, my love," he said. "Luke and I were more than able to handle this assault. You were never in any true danger. We should return to Naboo for repairs and -"

"What?" she asked. She didn't pull away from him, but Luke could see that her face was set in a determined frown. "We're not delaying the trip to Tatooine."

"My love -"

"No, Ani. They made their attempt. They failed. That is no reason for me to hide in fear from a few Rebels."

Luke shook his head. "I don't think that was their best shot, Mother."

Her eyes blazed. "You think Leia has something more wretched in mind than trying to kill me the second I leave Naboo?"

"To be honest, Mother, I'm not sure Leia wants to kill you," Luke said. "I don't know what she has planned or how far she'll go, but something about this doesn't feel right."

Father's head turned to him and Luke felt an appraising glance flick over him. "Explain."

"I know that the Rebellion, since Bespin, has taken to running small raids and quick, strategic operations. This attack would seem to fit that pattern. But..."

"But what, Luke?" asked Mother.

"It isn't Leia's style. It's Han's more than anyone. The Rebellion might not be as strong or a numerous as it once was, but sending in ten X-Wings isn't what Leia would do. She wants to make a statement. This isn't the way she'd do it."

His parents looked at one another thoughtfully. "I believe your assessment may be correct. Which would be even more reason to postpone the trip, Amidala."

She was already shaking her head. "No. We will face whatever our daughter has planned when we get to that point. Until then, we have a Guard to set up. The people of Tatooine are waiting for us. Let's go."

Coming out of hyperspace in a radar shadow was an old smugglers' trick, though Han had no idea why it was still effective on Tatooine, where all the smugglers pretty much used the same space between two of the moons. Tatooine was a careless world for the underside of the galaxy.

That sanctuary was going to disappear soon, one way or another.

But it was good at least this one last time. The Naboo cruiser - she needs a name, I can't just keep thinking of her as "the ship" - slipped out of the eerie silence of hyperspace, and her open comm channels began to hum with ghost chattering. He opened the Rebellion's secure channel and sent his hail out to find out just where on this ball of dust Leia had ended up.

The hail was picked up immediately.

"Captain Solo," a young recruit said soberly. "I'm glad you've arrived safely."

Han's guts sank. "Why is that?"

"I... well, maybe you better just come down."

"Where's Leia?"

There was a sound of shuffling feet, then Leia's subdued voice came over the system. "I'm here, Han. You weren't in danger. We just... I'm just glad to hear your voice. We have a camp set up in the desert not far from Anchorhead. There are some rocky overhangs where you could keep the cruiser." She breathed slowly. "There's bad news from Naboo."


"I'll tell you when you come down. Hurry."

She cut off the comm - no reason to keep it open, he had her coordinates. Why risk open channels longer than necessary, just because he wanted to hear her voice for a little longer?

He guided the cruiser down through the atmosphere, putting up the glare shields for the momentary burn, and leaving them in place against the Tatooine sunlight.

Why anyone would settle on this world voluntarily was beyond comprehension.

The Rebel camp blended well into the surroundings. It was set up like an indigenous camp - Han wondered briefly if Lando had suggested it after a meeting - and they'd even rounded up a few banthas for set dressing. He knew to look for the glints of ships in the shadows and found them, but someone else approaching wouldn't have noticed.

A flash of pale skin against the dark rocks caught his eye. Leia was standing near a large opening in the rock wall, the small form of Yoda not far away. Han guessed he was meant to land here. The maw was barely large enough, but Leia knew him well enough to know he could make it.

He was out of the ship before the gangplank had finished lowering, and he ended up jumping off the end of it. Leia met him in an embrace, but said nothing at all. She just clung to him for a moment. She had changed into desert clothes - a long-sleeved homespun dress that felt rough under Han's hand. He knew the style - it would criss-cross over her chest, like most Tatooine clothes did for some reason. High cloth boots protected her feet and lower legs from the sun. Her hair had been pulled into a simple bun that was gathered off-center, under her right ear. She looked as though she might have grown up here, and the weary set of her shoulders only accentuated the effect.

He patted her back. "It's okay. Whatever it is, it's okay."

She took two sharp breaths, then pulled away, becoming crisp and business-like. "It's not okay, Han. Wedge lost seven pilots."

Han drew back. "Seven? From Rogue Squadron?"

"Father and Luke... hunted them. Luke knew the Rogues' tactics. Father... is Father."

Han fought against the urge to let out a river of curses, most aimed at Luke, and just clenched his teeth sharply enough to make a whining sound in his head. "Seven. Out of ten."

Leia nodded. "I shouldn't have sent them. It was careless, and it wasn't necessary. 'Clumsy and stupid,' Father would say. Unless it was Mother giving the order, and she's the only one who -"

"Whoa, hold it right there, Your Worship," Han said, trying to overlook the fact that she was actually thinking about what her father would consider good strategy. "I heard you give the order. You told them not to engage unless they had to. Did they follow that order?"

"I couldn't tell. Wedge and the other two survivors are disabled and we didn't want to keep the comm channel open long enough for tracking in open space."

Han touched her arm. "Leia, did they follow that order?"

She fought with herself, then shook her head miserably. "Probably not."

A long sigh came up from behind her, and it was broken by a cough. Han noticed with alarm that Yoda had lost quite a bit of weight even in the last few days. Water weight probably, but it made him look half-dead. "Risks, there are in a war, Leia. Tragic, this was. Avoidable, possibly. But poor strategy, it was not. Tell you the same would your father, as matter to you, this seems to."

"It doesn't. I just hear his voice in my head."

"Outmatched were your pilots."

Han turned on him. "Rogue Squadron has our best pilots. They -"

Yoda just waved his cane vaguely. "No insult did I intend. Fine pilots, I am certain they were. But against Vader and Luke, joined by the Dark Side of the Force... outmatched they were. Not to blame is Leia's strategy."

"It was only meant as a diversion."

"Mmm. Long before the madness took Amidala, used a similar diversion she did."


"You're not helping much," Han said.

"It's all right, Han," Leia said. "I know what Yoda is doing. I don't like it much, but I understand it now."

They stood quietly together for a long time, then Han took a deep breath and jumped back into business. "Have you heard from Lando or Chewie yet?"

"Chewie reported in from Mos Espa. He's gotten a few ships and a few pilots to join us. I haven't heard one way or another from Lando, but he has an emergency beacon, and he'd have set it off if he'd run into trouble."

"Where do you need me?"

She gave him half-hearted teasing smile. "I have an idea or two, flyboy." The expression, not firmly in place to begin with, faded quickly. "I've got a strategy planned for the attack. Lieutenant Commander Yleof can fill you in on it. Then I need you drilling the squads. You've done a great job training them so far, and I want them ready. No more unnecessary casualties."

"Got it. And thanks for the compliment."

"Just the truth."

"And now," Yoda said, "depart we must. Much have we to study. And little time for it."

Leia nodded. She picked up a device made of cloth and metal tubes, and helped Yoda into it. To Han's surprise, she lifted him, and placed him on her back like a pack. He looked over her shoulder, now a bit closer to Han's eye level. "Careful with her, I will be, Captain. But time, I no longer have."

"I'll be back soon," Leia said. She turned to the open desert, and ran into the Wastes. Han watched her until she disappeared into a heat shimmer.

Lando squinted, his eyes burning from the glare of the suns. He was able to make out the Tusken Camp on the edge of the horizon. He slowed his speeder down considerably, and prepared for his approach.

He had an emergency communicator strapped to his hand, set to alert the closest Rebel unit to come get him on a second's notice. He was armed with blasters both viewable and concealed within his poncho, pants, and boots. His translator droid had also been outfitted with a crude, hidden weapon.

His speeder was filled with items that were valuable on this planet - farming equipment, tools - and there were more hidden in a trick section underneath the craft. He was as prepared as he could possibly be.

Leia had told him to be careful, but she wasn't much more concerned for him than she was for anyone she had sent out on these missions. Both she and Han were convinced that he could talk anyone into anything, and Leia had left no stone unturned in gathering support on the planet for the raid.

But Lando's dread was swelling the closer he got to the camp. One of the other Rebels, a friend of his who had lived briefly on Tatooine, had gone out of his way to warn Lando about this mission before he left. He had never seen a Tusken himself, but had heard stories...stories that had Lando on edge right now. His friend's parting advice was to consider escaping alive a success and not to worry about the rest.

Lando had decided he'd just have to trust Leia. She wasn't blind to...whatever these creatures were, and certainly didn't believe them to be either honorable or harmless people. But she knew they had been wronged by the Vaders, and she knew they could fight. That was enough to make the mission worthwhile to her.

He was close enough now to make out the people in the camp. Adults and children were milling about outside the huts, doing whatever it was they did at midday. Lando had decided that he wasn't going to try this at any time remotely close to night, but arriving now meant there were plenty of people to pick up his ship flying toward their settlement.

Indeed, one of them easily spotted him and began screeching. Tuskens came streaming out of their huts and starting running in his direction. They looked like ogres, with their masks and weapons and that insane noise that passed as a language.

Lando slammed his speeder to an abrupt stop, parking it and jumping out. His translator droid pulled itself out of the speeder as well and crawled over beside him. Lando put his hands up in a peaceful gesture, as the group descended on him.

They were looking about frantically, as if waiting for an ambush. Lando doubted that they often got solo visitors.

He had least half a dozen rifle blasters pointed at his head. He kept his hands up. Two of the Tuskens dashed over to him, and Lando braced himself for an attack, but they pressed the end of their weapons to his chest instead, and continued their search for additional intruders.

The rest were pulling his equipment out of his speeder and inspecting it. Lando nodded to them to go ahead - not that they would have waited for his permission, but he wanted to make it clear that they could have it all as a gesture of goodwill.

The droid also took the nod as his signal, and immediately began talking. He said that Lando meant them no harm, and that he hoped they were pleased with what was in the speeder.

And that he had a proposition for them, one that carried the promise of more equipment if they would listen.

The answer he received was a swift strike to his ribs with one of the rifles. He was knocked to the ground hard, and was kicked twice. The Tuskens nearest him took the two blasters they could see, and one underneath his poncho - but they didn't get the one in his boot or the other tucked in his waistband against his back. The whole group was shrieking and howling, and Lando was beginning to think it was the most horrible sound he'd ever heard.

He was about to draw the blaster in his boot and activate his emergency call when the noise suddenly stopped. There was now only one Tusken talking and he was speaking directly to Lando.

"What? What is he saying?" he snapped at the droid.

"He wants to know where the rest of the equipment you planned to offer him is. He wants it now, and doesn't plan to wait to listen to you."

"Fine, fine," Lando responded, "Tell him where it is."

The droid grunted and squeaked, and a couple of Tuskens rolled under the speeder and let out the bottom. They all began inspecting the rest of the items.

He returned his attention to the droid. "You tell them what I'm saying, even if it looks like they aren't listening," he ordered.

"Tell them that I'm with the Rebellion against the Vaders' Empire, and I'm here to bring them in on a raid we're planning soon."

The droid translated. The Tuskens were taking something apart and didn't acknowledge him. The two near him jabbed him again with their rifles.

"We need their help to keep the Empire from settling here, and destroying their way of life. They don't realize what's coming. Lady and Lord Vader have a vested interest in them, and there won't be anything they can do to save themselves." Lando wished he knew more on this point, but Leia had been purposefully vague...Lando wasn't entirely sure how much of this story - whatever it was - that she knew herself. But there was one thing she did say to mention. "They should know full-well how a Jedi will treat them. This Jedi in particular."

That at least got the attention of the one who had spoken to him before. He didn't quite turn away from the tool he was holding, but he glanced in Lando's general direction.

"Your little settlement here will be wiped out by the end of the day," he continued. "This is your one chance to stop it, and we're not asking you to do much. It'd be easy for you to help. We'll take care of the main attack."

The Tusken barked a short sentence. The droid said, "He wants to know if you're attacking in the main cities and settlements."


Another sentence. "He says they could certainly be helpful with that."


The Raider motioned to the others to quiet down, and they began paying attention to the conversation. He said several things, and it took a second for the droid to understand it. "I think he's saying that they would never allow themselves to be under someone else's authority. But they agree to be involved."

Lando frowned and tried to sit up. The two guarding him allowed it. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Another translation back and forth. "They'll join the attack on their own."

"What? Why?"

He was met with another sharp blow to his ribs. The droid finally translated, "They do as they please."

Lando held his side and looked at them uneasily. "The target of this attack will be the Imperial Forces that are -"

But he was already waving him off and interrupting.

"He says that's the end of it. You'll get your help, and...and they'll get theirs as well."

Lando suddenly had a bad feeling about this.

Something told him they weren't worried about Vader, and they weren't about to just fight and go home with the cities in confusion after the battle.

"He's telling us that we better leave," the droid said.

Lando's friend's voice suddenly rang in his ear, and he decided not to question it now. He slowly gathered himself and walked over to his now completely empty speeder.

He decided to be glad he was still alive. And to leave while he could.

Part 3

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