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Ascension of the Queen - Part 4
by ami-padme and FernWithy

Luke turned away from the door after Father ran down the hallway and out of sight. He had searched Father's thoughts, and to his surprise - to his pleasure - he had found nothing but trust there. No lingering resentment for the lies or disagreements, no real concerns about leaving him and Mother to fend for themselves. Father had been telling the truth. Luke couldn't help feeling glad of it, even in the midst of these trying circumstances. Because of these trying circumstances, he was glad that something, at least, felt settled.

He planned to move Mother to the main guardpost. It was near the center of the headquarters, which meant that the Rebels would have to make a great deal of inroads to reach them. There would be plenty of officers there to act as a first line of defense, and Luke would be able to get the latest word from the various battlefronts from there. The communications failure meant that the command center was nearly useless in that regard. He'd rather wait for the various guards and officers who might come back from the front lines with reports, than contribute to the hysteria of trying to fix an array that was unsalvageable.

But before leaving, Luke couldn't stop his eyes from wandering over the communications room. Or what was left of it.

The bodies had been cleared out before Father had come here, so Luke had not seen the guards Leia had killed. But the room was still a mess, and his gaze eventually landed on the array itself. He was soon beside it, letting his fingers skate over the misshapen metal and melted wires. His skin was lightly singed and sparks occasionally flew up here and there.

He tried to picture Leia doing this.

Leia, with the lightsaber she had stolen from him, killing Mother's guards, destroying Mother's equipment.

Leia, with the training she had received from him and Father, fighting her own family.

He could almost see it. It shouldn't have been so difficult anyway. Leia had been fighting them in one sense or another since Bespin. And he had seen her, first-hand, when she faced both him and Father to escape from Naboo.

But he still found this hard to grasp for some reason, and thinking about what she had done here and what she was doing elsewhere on Tatooine made him ill.

No, it makes you angry. Genuinely, furiously angry with her.

That wasn't a surprise, or some great revelation, given the circumstances. But being angry at Leia at all - much less this angry - was something that Luke still felt unaccustomed to.

Luke had always denied idolizing Leia, back when she or Han or some other Rebel would tease or joke with him about it. But he knew (and she knew) that he had put her on a pedestal from the first moment he had seen that hologram, begging Ben Kenobi to help her. She had stayed up there during their years together in the Rebellion. Leia had always impressed him as one of the strongest, bravest, smartest people he'd ever met, and it hadn't bothered him to recognize that. So many of the things he'd done during that time were motivated, at least in small part, by a desire to impress her or help her. Maybe he had lost that wide-eyed, farm-boy wonder he used to regard her with, but the way he looked at her had always been colored by his first impressions of her, and by his belief that she was his closest friend.

But now he felt angry. Betrayed. Leia had always railed on and on about how he and their parents had hurt her, betrayed what she believed in...but wasn't she the one who fled Naboo the first chance she got? Hurting Mother and Father so deeply in the process? Wasn't she the one who was destroying his and Father's home as a way of getting back at her family?

Getting back at us for what? For loving her? For taking care of her when she was injured?

Finding out that he and Leia were twins had let everything fall into place for Luke, once the initial shock wore off. The draw and pull between them made perfect sense, and now Leia was family, the sister he hadn't even realized he had been wanting. A missing piece in his life had been found.

And to her, it was nothing more than a reason to ruin the closeness they shared, to rip apart their friendship.

He missed her. He wanted to throttle her.

"Dammit, Leia."

Mother's eyes snapped to him. She was lingering by the door, where she had stood to watch Father leave. Luke wondered if he had ever seen her so tense.

She had heard what he said, and was clearly distressed by whatever she imagined he was thinking. "Don't, Luke. She doesn't realize what she's done."

"Yes, she does. She absolutely does," Luke muttered grimly. He had no desire at all to upset his mother further, but to think that Leia wasn't aware of exactly what she was doing was too much for him to stand.

"Your father never told her what happened with the Tuskens. He's never been able to bring himself to tell that story again. And she's not even from Tatooine, she had no way of knowing the kind of trouble she was asking for." Mother's arms went around her midsection and she held herself tightly. "We should have told her. We should have told you both everything, all of it. Keeping things from one another has only caused this family pain. I guess that's a lesson we still haven't learned yet."

Her eyes were haunted, but not mindlessly so...she appeared thoughtful and reflective, and had an expression on her face that Luke had not seen very often. He gave the console a final touch and then stood before his mother, drawing her away from the door.

"Mother, don't blame yourself -"

"Who else should I blame? Who knows better than I do what lies have done to us?"

"You didn't lie."

"No, I just let Ani keep this secret. And again the secret has come back to us..." She shook her head slowly.

Luke was curious to find out exactly what happened, what it was about the Tuskens that had so frightened and sobered his parents. The Tuskens were certainly feared on the farms when he was growing up, but they were also accepted as a part of the threat of desert life. This kind of reaction confused him. But he could also tell that Mother, despite her protests to the contrary, didn't want to talk about it. He sensed from her the belief that it was Father's story to tell. So he didn't press her. She was agitated enough already.

"Luke, it's almost like it's happening again."

"What is?"

"We're being torn apart again, this family. We're pulling ourselves apart. When I gave you and Leia away -"

"Mother," Luke said seriously, drawing one of her hands into both of his, "this isn't the same. No matter what happens, no matter what Leia thinks, this family has been reunited. We're connected now, and nothing is going to tear us apart again. Leia's stuck with us now. We're all stuck together." He gave the hand a squeeze. "Besides, you did what you felt you had to, you followed the advice of people you trusted. And you did well by Leia and me. Don't feel guilty over the past."

To his surprise, a faint smile touched Mother's lips and she squeezed his hands back. "That, I'm eternally grateful for. Oh Luke, Owen and Beru were so good to your father and me. Whenever we needed them - and it seemed that we never saw them except when we needed them - they were there for us." She sighed. "Sometimes, I have to admit, I was a little jealous of them."


"They lived simple lives, on their own terms. And they were raising my son. I used to think of Anakin and I winding up on Tatooine together, raising our children..."

Luke was startled, and found himself trying to picture his parents tending to a farm outside of Anchorhead. He couldn't make it fit. At all. He couldn't understand why they would want it.

But, he supposed that wasn't entirely fair. He might not have had fond memories of the particular lifestyle he had been raised in on Tatooine, but that was mostly because of boredom, and boredom was not such a terrible thing in a dangerous and violent galaxy.

And Owen and Beru were great parents to him, in their own way. They had loved him, and had wanted to protect him at all costs, something that Luke deeply regretted not having realized until they were gone. Maybe they hadn't always understood him - Luke doubted they had always understood his parents either - but family had always won out in their minds, and they had risked and sacrificed much for him.

Beyond the larger issues though, there were the smaller things, the little things that Luke missed about them. The way Aunt Beru would sing to him and sneak him sweets when he had trouble sleeping...how Uncle Owen would get a kind of gruff pleasure out of Luke fixing one of the speeders or vaporators on his own. How they both tried to indulge his love of flying, how they smiled to themselves when Luke would be chattering on about something or another...how they mussed his hair or clapped his shoulder when they were pleased with something he did. Being back on Tatooine had brought back those thoughts and memories and feelings of home. He was surprised by how forcefully he missed it all.

He wondered what Owen and Beru might think, to see him now, to see their farmboy son ruling the galaxy with his parents.

They would be pleased. And proud.

Of course they would be. They'd have to be.


"I'm sorry, Mother, my mind wandered." Luke slipped an arm around her, and led her out of the door. "We should head to the main guardpost until Father returns."

"Lead the way," she whispered, "my good son."

Together, they made their way through the hectic hallways of the headquarters, to await Father's return.

The Empire was in chaos, though beyond Tatooine it hadn't yet realized it.

The destructive command to the Imperial system was only beginning to work its way outward, causing routine grievances that no Imperial had as yet recognized as a serious threat - garbled images, mangled sounds, messages arriving at unintended destinations or dissipating into the vacuum of space. Within a day, the distortions would be too great to ignore, but by then, it would be too late to make a concerted effort to remove the command.

On Tatooine itself, the comlinks were silenced; the nerves connecting the military body to the Imperial mind were severed and useless. Panic was rising.

In Bestine, the capital of Tatooine, the members of the Guard who had been staffing the base while the majority of the staff marched in what was to have been a triumphant parade were now barricaded behind a rock wall. Not many Rebels had made it to the township proper; the battle had taken place on the road from headquarters, and neither Rebel nor Imperial had arrived to bring news. Commander Arisede Raryth, the temporary commander, had realized immediately when planetside communications went down, because she had been trying desperately to reach her commanding officer, Colonel Nesem, when the empty static she had been able to summon suddenly turned to ominous silence.

Most of the Rebels in Bestine were local recruits, smugglers and gamblers for the most part, to whom the Lady's ascension meant financial ruin at the very least. For some, it would mean execution. They were matched in number by farmers from the outlying provinces, whose vision of life on Tatooine was a clean break from the kind of Core World seediness that they thought the smugglers represented. So the fight was even, and small, and the Guard's only participation so far had been making a few arrests and keeping non-combatants out of the way. The on-duty staff was mostly young and inexperienced - a year in the Rebellion before the Empress had taken control to fix things was Arisede's training, and she was the senior officer - and the near revelry that both sides were taking had swept them into acts of rude defiance. Arisede knew that she should be firing her weapon, but... well, they were...

"We should do something!" Ensign Karso said urgently, looking over the edge of the wall into the fight. She had only recently mastered Basic, and she seemed unable to elaborate on the thought in that language. She slipped back into her native Rodian, her speech patterns becoming higher, more rapid, more panicked as she went. Somewhere in the middle of it, she took off her uniform cap and started pulling nervously at the protrubences on her head. In the end, it degenerated into high-pitched keening.

Arisede grabbed the girl by her shoulders and shook her, hard. There was a great deal more satisfaction in doing so than Arisede wanted to admit to herself. "Shape up, Karso! You're in Her Ladyship's Guard! Act like a sentient!"

Karso fought for self-control, found some, and straightened her shoulders. "We should act," she said. "Her Ladyship wouldn't want us locked away."

"I - " Arisede bit her lower lip, caught herself at it and stopped, then sighed. "I don't know what her Ladyship would want. Should we help the others on the road, or should we try to break up the fighting? They're civilians... "

"But -"

Arisede swallowed. As much as she hated to admit it, Karso was right. "All right. We signed onto the Guard to get Tatooine under control. The rest of the unit can handle the battle. We should... we should try to get Bestine back." She looked around for approval, and was gratified to see some. "Let's go!"

With a determined stride - the best she could muster anyway - she ran at the gate. She'd barely hit the unlock mechanism when she noticed movement on the other side. She never knew whether it was a Rebel, a farmer, or just a kid on a lark. Whoever it was, the timing was better than her own. Something flew into the air in front of her, followed by the blast of a laser, then the air was full of fire and noise and pain. The explosion threw her backward into the broken wall of the Guardpost. There was no more pain when she hit the ground, only an almost pleasant sensation of draining. Darkness came in closing circles around her eyes.

Just before she slipped into unconsciousness, she heard Karso begin to keen again.

"We should do something about the Tuskens in the residential quarter," Lieutenant Birsalit shouted over the blaster fire on the street in Mos Eisley. "This fight isn't going anywhere."

Ter Caldo Maits privately agreed with the assessment. He also selfishly thought it would be nice to move out of the Mos Eisley town square and into the shadowy alleys where the Tuskens were conducting their nasty business. Gungans were not built for Tatooine sun. But their orders were to fight the Rebels, and they were a bigger threat to Her Ladyship than the Tuskens, who were at present more of a threat to their own allies. "Wesa gonna do what wesa ordered to do," he said when a natural pause quieted the battle for a moment.

"But they're monsters!"

Ter Caldo felt the fire flare up in his mind. "Dism what the Naboo be thinking of the Gungans for hundreds of years! Yousa thinkin' these Tatooine people, theysa better than the ones who live away from da spaceports!"

"I think the Tuskens are killing people."

Maybe there's a reason!

Ter Caldo stopped himself from saying that, horrified that he'd even thought it. Her Ladyship didn't believe in that sort of thing. There was no reason why the desert natives couldn't just leave the city and the farmers in peace... which the Gungans had done for the Naboo, no matter what some of the Naboo used to think.

He didn't know what to do.

There was another volley of blaster fire. The Tuskens who were fighting in the street alongside the Rebels punctuated the silence that followed it by striking with their gaffe sticks, but Ter Caldo noticed that they weren't aiming to kill, and their choice of targets wasn't random - they were striking at anyone who was heading for the residential quarter.

Birsalit noticed it, too. She was fuming. "Look at them. They're just keeping us here while the rest of them are looting the place! They're not even really with the Rebels!"

"And dism why wesa fighting here and not there. Wesa got orders to fight the Rebels."

"We also have orders to protect the citizens."

"Desa raiders gonna keep coming, if wesa don't get the Rebels out of here. If wesa beatin' back the Rebels, then mebbe today's gonna be the last time da raids happen. If wesa let the Rebels go, da raids keepin' up forever."

"What do you think the Empress would say?"

"Mesa not knowing," Ter Caldo said, and he realized that his heart was beating too fast and his mouth was even dryer than the desert could account for. The Empress might go either way. It was hard to tell sometimes. And they were cut off from contact. He wanted to run back to headquarters, to set up a chain of command. But there was no time. "Mesa not knowing," he said again. "So wesa stick with what we were being told last."

Another volley of laser fire erupted, and there was no more time to talk.

"What do you mean Tatooine has gone silent?" Piett asked, leaning over the console. "There was some difficulty in the transmissions -"

"Sir, they've gone completely silent. The only way that could happen would be for the central communications console to have been destroyed."

Ice crackled somewhere inside of Piett. The console was far past any reasonable entrance to headquarters, if he recalled the designs properly. To get there... how much had the Rebels needed to go through?

How much... and how many?

"Commander Dihave?" he called.

Dihave, his hair now stringy and hanging in stress-induced clumps, appeared from behind another console. "What is it, sir?"

"We've lost contact with Tatooine."

"I know, sir. I heard."

"Her Majesty is in jeopardy. Perhaps great jeopardy. And we cannot reach her. In your judgment, is this a catastrophic event?"

"My opinion doesn't count."

"I nevertheless would hear it."

Dihave stared at the blank screens and grimaced. "Yeah," he said. "It's catastrophic. And if they've done anything to her... "

"We have no reason to believe that they have," Piett said. It sounded unconvincing to him. "But if they have, then there will be reprisals they will not forget." He took a deep breath. "Commander, I want you to prepare a containment field missile for launch. I will wait twelve standard hours. If we have not made contact with Her Majesty in that time, I will act on her last order. Understood?"

"Understood, Admiral." Dihave stared resentfully at the screens, then left for his lab.

Piett sat before his empty console to watch and wait.

Alpha Squadron was drunk on its victory, Athuli thought. Drunk and out of its mind.

Imperial speeders exploded up into the desert sky like children's fireworks, and laughter followed them. Oily fires smudged the air with black smoke.

"Regroup!" he shouted into his comlink. "Regroup and prepare to retreat!"

For a minute, he had the insane thought that the attack on Imperial communications had shut down Rebel communications as well, because no one - no one at all - responded. A speederbike was revved, the crashed, wild and riderless, into the mesa.

"Regroup!" he called again.

"We hear you!" someone shouted back.

"That's an order, not a request!"

A few men made their way back to him. One was a teenage recruit whose mother, a saloon-keeper, had been killed by the Guard on Reabo as a punishment for refusing to obey the curfew they had imposed. The boy's name was Ippoz Something, and he was frantic to take on the Empire. "We're this close!" he cried, gesturing at the gate to headquarters. The Imperial forces had thinned as they formed a communications line, and the Rebellion could take them.

That was the worst of it. They could. All that stood in the way was Princess Leia's order.

"We're not to attack the Empress," Athuli said.

"Oh, come on!" Ippoz gnashed his teeth, almost certainly unconscious of it. "That comes from Organa."

"She's our commanding officer."

"She's loyal to them. Why can't you see that? We should take them out while we can!"

"She's loyal to the Rebellion, Ippoz."

Ippoz spit on the ground. He hadn't been in the Rebellion when Leia had brought back the plans for the Death Star, or when she'd set up the Hoth base. His first sight of her had been in her mother's shadow. "She's one of them."

Athuli hit him. It wasn't planned, and it wasn't the way the Rebellion did things. But this was Princess Leia he was talking about. "She's one of us, and she gave us an order to behave with honor. And you will follow that order."

Ippoz had fallen into the dust from the force of the blow, and he glared up resentfully. "Picking up habits are you?"

"I'm sorry about that."

Athuli offered a hand up. Ippoz slapped it away and pulled himself to his feet. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he didn't.

Alpha Squadron was gathered now, looking anxious and antsy.

The desert shadows were growing long and the suns were growing low. Athuli looked out as his squadron, watched the shadows playing over them, wondered whose orders they would follow now.

Leia had been sensing Vader's presence for nearly an hour. She'd tensed at falling pebbles, jerked her head around to look over her shoulder at every vagary of the wind.

The ability to sense people at a distance was less than useless when the presence was ubiquitous. Where was he? Where wasn't he? He seemed to be the wind and the heat of the suns. That wasn't helpful in trying to figure out where he'd ambush her.

She willed the speederbike to go faster, but it was standard issue, totally unmodified, and when she pushed the speed, it began to shudder and shiver in an alarming way. She needed to reach the Tusken camp quickly, but it would be helpful to actually reach it in one piece. She checked her speed, frustrated.

Impatience is a path to the Dark Side. Anger is a path to the Dark Side... even - perhaps especially - when it is directed inward.

Leia gritted her teeth. Neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan had said such a thing in so many words, though she quoted it to herself in a mixture of their voices. It would certainly do for a summary.

But I have to hurry! And if I'm not angry at myself for this foolish a course of action, what kind of a monster does it make me?

She had barely thought twice about inviting the Tuskens. The whole raid had been aimed at destroying the Imperial presence - at undermining her parents - and they had been an afterthought. During Leia's convalescence, Mother had insisted on hearing the story of how the twins had come to meet, and Luke had reached the point where he was taking the droids to Kenobi. Tuskens had attacked him, he said. Kenobi had frightened them away.

Mother and Father had looked at one another soberly across Leia's bed, then Father, without any explanation, had left the room. Luke had given Mother a puzzled look, and she had simply said quietly, "Your father had a more permanently effective way of dealing with the Tuskens." Then she had urged Luke to go on with his tale, prodding Leia to put in her own as she went (though of course, she would hear nothing of Father's role in her captivity aboard the Death Star... that was in what she considered the "bad past").

Leia's mind had filled briefly with images of the Tuskens as brave natives, probably punished en masse for raiding Imperial supply camps. For food. For children who were starving out there in the desert. They needed only to be set free. She knew better than to engage in such romanticizing, but still... when push came to shove, she'd believed it in her bones, and had simply made the assumption that they would be her allies if she happened to be fighting on Tatooine. She had almost forgotten them - the conversation was long ago - but at the last minute, she'd thought it couldn't hurt to have extra hands on the lines.

It couldn't hurt anything at all.

And so she had invited them.

Maker help me.

But what had he done? And why?

She steered the speederbike into a high walled canyon that might have once been home to a thundering river. It was the straightest route through the Wastes to the Mos Eisley overlook, where Lando was relatively certain the Tuskens had camped. It was also terrible strategy - there was no escape except speed, and, while she could outrun the Tuskens, she would never outrun Father if he was determined to catch her.

She breathed deeply, trying to force her mind onto a steady track. She would go to the chief, offer him... what? She had nothing to offer.

And their actions didn't merit an offer. Rewarding theft and murder was hardly the best way to bring peace the region. They had to be reined in...

Threatened with deadly force.

But we don't do that! The Empire does that!

The speederbike started shuddering, and she realized that she'd been revving it again as her thoughts tightened into circles. There had to be a reasonable way to -

Father's presence suddenly screamed in her mind.

Leia looked over her shoulder, panicked, expecting to see him bearing down on her. She couldn't see him but she could feel -

Her bike swerved abruptly, leaving her control as the hoverchair once had. She had never learned to counter it, despite his promises. She dove for the ground.

She hit hard, a stone jabbing into her elbow, and rolled into a nook against the canyon wall, pulling her blaster as she went. She got her first view of Father when she finally stopped moving.

He was ahead of her.

She'd been looking over her shoulder for a chase, but he had been lying in wait all along.

"Come out, Leia," he said. "Cease this foolishness. There is no time for it if either of us is going to stop this slaughter."

Leia shrank back into the wall, listening to his words but mostly feeling the sense of him around her. She had become so accustomed to it, loathed it so atavistically, that she hadn't noticed that it was different. He was... wasn't...

He wasn't threatening her.

Whatever he thought he was doing here, he didn't seem to be thinking about capturing a political dissident.

Marvelous. He's trying to play Daddy again. I hate it when he does that.

But the edge wasn't on the thought.

Cautiously, slowly, she pulled herself to her feet.

Vader set down the speederbike, trying to control his irritation at Leia for jumping off of it. A waste of time.

And yet, he should have anticipated it.

Twenty meters away, Leia pulled herself out of a small niche and straightened up. She was dressed Tatooine fashion, her hair drawn up in an off-center bun. Her arms were crossed around her waist, one hand cupping the opposite elbow protectively.

The past and the present seemed to join seamlessly as he watched her there. He could almost feel Qui-Gon Jinn behind him, beckoning him to choose. And yet there was no choice now - his family and his duty both called him here, and he could see no future in which the paths were unjoined.

If there was a future, of course.

"Leia, come forward."

Reluctantly, she closed the distance between them. When she stood before him, she looked up once, then cast her eyes downward. "I'm trying to fix it," she said. "I was wrong to bring them in -"

"Then you did bring them."

"Yes. I was wrong. I had assumed... " She shook her head, eyes closed. "I was careless. It's my fault."

"If you are hoping for a refutation of that assessment," Vader said, "your hope is in vain."

She glared up at him defiantly. "I've admitted wrongdoing," she said. "Don't you dare get self-righteous with me. Whatever you did to these people, even you're too ashamed to talk about it -"

Vader grabbed her uninjured arm. "I did not discuss it because I did not care to consider it. I do not care to begin now."

"You, with all your prating about truth, and how Kenobi's lies were worse than your murders -"

"The truth you ask for would have made no difference in your assessment." Vader dismissed her with a wave, but the question she'd asked - implied, at any rate - rose high in his mind. What he had done to these people... Would it have made a difference if he had confessed to Leia as he once confessed to Amidala? No. She would still have assumed that he was solely to blame. She would have devised some way to use that horrible night against him.

And besides, as horrible as it was, it was his own. He had shared it with Amidala, but she shared all of his soul, as he shared hers. The pain did not belong to Leia.

He frowned at her, wishing as he often did now that he could express himself more clearly without speaking. "What are you planning, Leia?"

"I'm going to speak with the Tusken chief, get him to pull back his troops -"

"And you planned to do this alone?"

"I got us into this mess alone."

"Do you know what they do to women?"

"I've heard stories, but Father, surely you can't make a judgment on an entire species -"

He took her by both arms and lifted her from the ground, the anger taking him with unexpected speed. "They tortured my mother for a month!" he said. "They tortured her until she died from internal hemorrhaging. And I made them pay for it. Is that the truth you wanted?"

For once, Leia seemed speechless. He let go of her and she caught herself easily. She was looking at him with something that wanted to be disbelief, but wasn't.

Vader concentrated on the sound of his respirator, trying to calm himself. His mind was sending out some strange message to his nerves, and the electronic connections didn't understand it properly. It left his limbs humming. It wasn't a dangerous thing, but it annoyed him; it had happened often at first, but he thought he had gained more control over the cybernetics over the years.

Leia took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," she said. "I thought they would be angry enough to help fight the Empire."

"They never knew the name I had then. They would not know it now. And there was no one left to tell the story."

"If I'd known why... " Leia started, then stopped. "But this can't be the same tribe if you... I mean, if... Father, it's not right to make a judgment based on -"

"Leia, do you know what is occurring in Mos Eisley as we speak?"

She struggled with this. Vader knew full well the principle upon which she was impaled. "Father... " she began again. "They must have reasons, someplace where we can speak to them. I can't imagine anything that justifies... what they did to your mother... but I'm sure there must be some higher goal, something we can appeal to... "

"There may well be, Leia, but nothing justifies the actions they are taking. They must be stopped."

She smiled bitterly. "That's never something I expected you hear the Empire tell the Rebellion."

"It is not. It is something that I am telling you."

("Anakin, you cannot do this! You must stop!")

(Then the flash of lightsabers, the smell of sulphur, the long fall with his hair and clothing in flames around him. )

("Anakin! No!")


"It is something I am telling you, as someone once tried to tell me. This must be stopped."

"That's what I'm trying to do. That's why I'm going there."

"They will only kill you."

"What do you propose? Just go into Mos Eisley and start slicing them in half?"

"I believe that would be inefficient." Vader thought very carefully - more carefully than he had in years - then turned his back on her to let her decide more freely. "I will accompany you," he said. "Or I will go alone. It is your choice."

Leia's speeder trailed behind her father's in silence as they raced over the remaining distance to the Mos Eisley overlook. They had said nothing to one another since he had issued his ultimatum. Leia's response had been to simply walk away from him, and mount her speeder. He had done the same, and they took off.

There was no chance that she was going to let him meet the Tusken Chief alone. Not that she didn't trust him...well, she didn't, but she wasn't sure that was exactly the issue in this case. She did trust that he was as determined to have the Tuskens leave the city as she was. Maybe she didn't trust the methods he might use to reach their shared goal.

But even then, she couldn't bring herself to fully blame him. What the Tuskens were doing, what they had done...

...When he had grabbed her so suddenly Leia had a picture in her mind. She didn't know what her grandmother had looked like, and couldn't really see her in that brief flash, but the agony - her grandmother's? her father's? both? - screamed in her head.

How many people were feeling that way, right now, in Mos Eisley?

So, no, she couldn't blame him for whatever he was thinking about the Tuskens, or about what she had done. But she felt uneasy about the whole thing. He wasn't about to go alone...she just wanted to keep him in sight.

She knew his modified speeder could have gone at least two full settings faster, but he seemed to sense that it would be futile to do so. She would try to match him for it, whether or not her speeder was equipped to do so, which would only cause more problems, and slow them down. So he maintained a steady speed, right at the maximum she could handle, and led the way.

She watched him. Grim determination dictated his posture as they raced over the desert.

What the hell am I doing?

The thought had been lurking at the edge of her thoughts during the whole trip, but she didn't allow herself to fully entertain it. What she was doing was working with Darth Vader, with her father, as the only possible way to fix a dreadful mistake. It was a simple as that.

They were approaching the overlook now, and in the distance, there was a clear view down into the city.

They were too far away to see exactly what was happening, and Leia decided to accept that as a temporary blessing. What she could see was enough. Mostly smoke - some of it from fires that seemed to be consuming buildings here and there, some of it the leftover haze of the weapon blasts and fighting. There were shots and explosions that could be heard, and the distant echoes of shouts and screams.

All of it was a blur as she dashed by. Leia had seen her share of battles during her time in the Rebellion, and had developed a thick enough skin, a cool enough head, to stay focused on the issue at hand, despite the violence or destruction around her. That ability was serving her now, even as the guilt for that violence and destruction - something she hadn't ever truly had to deal with before - continued to eat away at her.

She shut out the scenes from the city and concentrated on the overlook ahead. She'd find a way to stop them. She'd find a way to fix this.

Leia spotted a cave opening on one of the cliffs of the overlook. She knew they were in there. She knew her father could tell that as well.

Still, he led them past the opening and to a craggy, rocky stretch a couple of kilometers away. They both slowed to a stop, and Vader began stowing his speeder behind and partially beneath some of the rock formations. Leia found a suitable hiding place for hers. He was already on his way to the mouth of the cave when she'd finished.

She rushed to catch up, fiddling with her comlink as she went. It had a translator function on it, and she got it turned on and running. She hoped it would work well enough for this situation.

Leia could hear the Tuskens deep and far down inside the cave as they entered. It didn't sound like a large group, and she sensed that these were a few soldiers and commanders, and those who were not able to fight in Mos Eisley. The cave itself darkened quickly - the path they were walking dipped and turned sharply from the entrance, and nearly all of the sunlight was blocked out. Leia waited for her eyes to adjust, and relied on the Force as they kept moving forward.

Suddenly, Leia's body went on edge, and her father had already stopped moving. The Tuskens knew they were there and -

A chorus of groans and shrieks assaulted her ears. A Tusken appeared on her left, and two more appeared in front of her. She could hear more of them coming and running from the recesses of the cave. The guards were waving their weapons at them as they approached.

Leia pulled her comm up to her mouth and said, "We've come to see your Chief. We do not wish to fight."

After a pause, her comm warbled out a stilted-sounding translation of grunts and yells. It wasn't very loud - Leia wondered if they would hear it over everything - but it seemed to be saying the right thing. They began speaking with one another, gesturing to her repeatedly. They were speaking over each other, and her translator couldn't keep up.

Her father's hand was resting on his saber, and Leia regarded him carefully. She was surprised he hadn't immediately moved to attack. She sensed confusion coming from him. The screams had disoriented him...she found herself thinking that this wasn't easy for him.

Because he'd killed them all.

Because he'd killed them all, and it still shamed him.

A deep, booming voice echoed out from within the cave, and took Leia's mind off trying to figure her father out. Suddenly, the guards surrounding them held back their weapons, and moved aside. Leia took the hint, and marched straight through to the Chief. Her father stayed very close, just behind her.

As she walked, Leia took in the Tuskens for the first time. There were only a couple dozen here. The men, the soldiers were milling about, carrying their arms and speaking to one another. A small number of women and children, and what Leia presumed were elderly men were holed up in a corner around a small fire that warded off the chill of the dark, damp cave. They were all in their masks of course, wrapped cloths and goggles and some mouthpiece thing, none of which left much room for imagining what kind of race they were, or what they looked like underneath their coverings.

Leia thought they looked - or at least felt - threatening. Angry. Defensive. She had no problem picturing them killing and pillaging in the cities.

The Tusken chief was at the very back of the cave. He sat near his own small fire, and had four guards flanking him with their rifles. He watched the two of them approach, and said nothing. He finally stood as they stopped before him.

Leia stepped forward. "I am here as the leader of the Rebellion. I am the one who asked you to join the battle in Mos Eisley. I've come to order your men to withdraw immediately."

The translator slowly repeated her words in their language. The Chief's guards began yelling at her in response. The Chief still said nothing.

She continued, "Your men are committing crimes against the civilians in the city. I cannot allow this to continue."

Something Leia took as a derisive snort came from the Chief, and his guards stopped their yelling. He barked at Leia.

From the comlink came the words, "We continue as we wish."

"The Rebellion will protect the city against your people as our first priority," Leia spat out.

He shook his head. "Too busy. Fighting others."

The translation was stilted, but her father understood it immediately. "You are mistaken if you believe the Empire will allow your actions any more than the Rebels will," he said sharply. "You would be wise to heed her warning, and withdraw immediately."

The Chief glanced at him, certainly more impressed and cowed by Vader's visage than he was by Leia. Still, the next words that came from him were defiant in tone.

"Too late to remove us," intoned the comm. "And we answer to no one. Will do with the settlers as we always have."

Father's anger snapped, and Leia felt it as a physical blow. His hand was around the Chief's neck and he had raised him high up the ground. Vader's other hand waved at the guards, and they flew to the back of the cave, slamming against the wall.

"You will order your men back," he said, his voice twisting into a snarl.

The Chief swore at him, and then struggled to breathe.

"Father!" Leia cried, "This won't help." He didn't answer. "He won't listen, and killing him - fighting them here - won't help the situation in the city." Leia moved over to him and tried to grab his arm and pull it back down. "You...you don't want to do this!"

That got through to him. His hand opened and the Chief fell hard to the ground, gasping and wheezing for air.

"We should leave, Leia. This discussion with them is useless."

Leia blinked at him, nodding. The other Tuskens were staring at her father in confusion and fear, trying to understand what he had done to the guards, and stunned by his display of strength. She wanted to get out of there right now, while they were too afraid to fight and while her father had regained control of his temper. She began running back toward to the opening. He followed. None of the Tuskens did.

She didn't stop running until they got back to where they had hidden their speeders. He had started to pull his out to mount it, but then stopped. He was staring at her hard.

"Yes?" she asked.

"We must decide on a course of action."

Leia shrugged, and pulled her speeder around the rocks. "We go to the city. We fight them back. What else can we do?"

"I am not sure. But -"

"Wait!" Leia said suddenly. "That is what we can do." An idea had come to her, and it was a strange one. She wasn't sure how he'd react to it - or how anyone else would.

What the hell am I doing?

I'm doing what can be done. I'm doing the right thing.

She hoped.

She stood before her father and took a deep breath, exhaling it forcefully. "When we get to the city, we're both going to order our people to expel the Tuskens first. Right?"

"That was what I intended..."

"Then we should cut to the chase. We should order them to stop fighting one another while they do that."

Father's head snapped sharply toward her. "You propose ordering the Rebels to work with our officers?"

"No, I propose that we each order our sides to not waste time with one another while the Tuskens are murdering civilians. If they actively work together, all the better, but we need to make it clear that until the Tuskens are subdued, we're fighting a common enemy."

"And you believe the Rebels will follow such an order?"

"They will as much as your people will. Think how quickly they could deal with the Raiders if they were working together. They would have superior numbers and firepower, and a clear directive...I think it's our best option. Call your people, and I'll call mine."

She gave him a few moments to consider it. He paced back and forth, his hands clamped behind his back. Finally, he said, "It seems that you have already forgotten your actions back at headquarters. Or do you propose I somehow change the officers' orders with no communications?"

Leia looked away and let her eyes close.

I can fix this. I will fix this.

She opened them. "Rebel communications are working fine." She fiddled with her comm until it picked up Lando's frequency. To her relief, he answered right away.

"Lando here!"

"Lando, it's Leia. What's your status?"

"It's still a melee out here, Your Highness...we're driving them out of one of the main residential districts, but..."

"Lando," she broke in, "I have new orders for you. Fighting the Tuskens and protecting the civilians is your first priority."

"That is what I've been trying to do -"

"And you are to work with the Imperial forces in the city to do it."


"Lando, I'm with Lord Vader right now. It's a long story, but we've come to the decision that neither of us wants to fight the other while we leave the city to be destroyed."

"Leia, I -"

"He will be giving the same order to the Imperial troops. You are to act together to expel the Tuskens and bring the city under control. Then we'll go from there."

"Leia, this is the craziest thing I think I've ever heard."

"It's a crazy situation."

"That it is," he replied. "Look, I agree with you, getting the Tuskens out of here is the most important thing. I think this is for the best." A pause. "So... when can we expect those guys to stop shooting at us?"

Leia nodded at her father. "Lando, Imperial communications are down. I need you to take your comm to one of their officers. Lord Vader will give the order to them." Vader nodded back to her, and then put his hand out for the comm. She handed it to him.

"Calrissian, a Gungan named Ter Caldo is commanding the forces in Mos Eisley. Are you able to seek him out?"

"Did you say a Gungan? There's one shooting right at me from the other side of the street. Think he'll be happy to talk to me? Should I come waving a red flag or something?"

Lando's voice was sarcastic, but Vader ignored the tone. "If you do so, he will assume you are coming to surrender. He will cease-fire. That will be long enough for you to hand him the comlink. Then I will speak to him."

"All right... " Lando said, clearly still unconvinced that this plan was going to work. "Just hang on a minute!"

Leia and her father listened to the sounds of the battle and waited. Leia thought it sounded worse than Han had tried to describe.

Finally, they could hear Lando saying, "Hold your fire! Please! Hold your fire!"

"Yousa here to surrender!"

"I have a message for you."

"No message! Unless yousa here to stop fightin' mesa have nothing -"

"Here! Listen to this Commander Caldo! Just listen!"

"Ter Caldo," Vader intoned, "This is Lord Vader. There has been a change in circumstances."

"Lord Vader?"

"Yes, Commander. Your troops are to -"

"This bein' a trick!" Caldo yelled. "Yousa Rebels bombad! How Vader being on Rebel comm, brought here by Rebels?"

"Commander, this is not a trick."

"This not bein' what it sounds. Yousa -"

"This is Lord Vader. Imperial communications are down. I'm using the Rebel frequency, as it is the only one available. I'm speaking to you under command authorization five-gamma-six-alpha. Do you understand?"

The command code seemed to work on Caldo as an acceptable proof. He was quiet for several seconds before saying, "Well... ?"

"You are to stop fighting the Rebels immediately. Your sole priority is to remove the Tuskens from Mos Eisley and bring the city under control. You are ordered to work with the Rebels as necessary to carry out that objective. Is that clear?"

"Y-yes, my Lord. Wesa do that immediately."

"Princess Leia and I will be heading there shortly. Vader out."

He shut the link off, and handed it back to Leia. "You are correct, Leia, it is the wisest course of action. I believe that both our forces will be glad to fight the Tuskens. We can handle their desire to fight one another once we arrive."

She nodded, and glanced out and down into the city. "I hope you're right." She turned back to him. "We should head down there. Let's go fix this."

Those damn Imperials.

Those damn, stupid Imperials.

Couldn't they recognize when a battle was over? Couldn't they be content to take their losses and be grateful they hadn't suffered more of them?

Of course not. And now the whole headquarters was going to go down because of it.

Athuli had felt as though things were going to fall apart during that ugly scene with Ippoz. But now, now he was feeling true panic.

They had gone over the edge. He had lost them.

He had half a mind to simply get up and run out of there. To grab the nearest speeder - to grab the nearest anything - and head for one of the main cities. He could some other squadrons, help them wherever they needed it, and get away from what was happening here, at the headquarters front door. He could leave Alpha Squadron to its own devices. They were acting on their own now anyway.

Athuli's hands were painfully rigid around the handle of his blaster, and his head was starting to buzz. Yes, this was definitely panic.

But he knew that he couldn't leave. He would just have to keep trying to get his people back under control.

After he hitting Ippoz, Athuli had waited through several charged minutes for it all to break loose, for Alpha Squadron to start fighting him, fighting each other, the Imperials, whoever. Instead, things had turned, started to calm almost. Eventually, the squadron had regrouped as he had ordered. Granted, it was because most of them believed they were gathering to discuss a new strategy, one that would get them into the base. None of them were pleased to hear Athuli announce, repeatedly, that his intention was to withdraw as Leia had instructed before she left.

Still, a few - a very few - hadn't gotten completely giddy with their success, and there were more than a few loyal enough to Leia to ignore Ippoz's rantings and consider her orders. It was only the tiniest speck of reason that was returning to them, but Athuli thought it might be enough to get them to pull back to the mesa until Leia finished her business and came back. Maybe.

That was the moment that some Imperial officer thought it a good idea to launch an attack on the idling Rebel group.

Alpha Squadron was caught by surprise, and one of his ensigns was hit squarely in the back, and he fell to the ground in a heap. A captain - an older woman named Arralla - was hit in the shoulder and gave an awful howl of pain.

She was all right, and would be as engaged in the fight as any of them, but the initial shock of seeing her wounded, of seeing the other man dead, had snapped the brittle, tenuous restraint that the squad had left.

The Rebels had charged, blindly, at any Imperial who had the misfortune to get in their sights.

They overran what was left of the guards in the vehicle hangar with dispatch. Those had been essentially defeated anyway, and the rest of the troops had fallen back to protect other strategic areas that led into the headquarters. The large munitions storage area had a bigger contingent there, hunkered down for a fight.

And there had been a fairly decent fight going, at least for the first few minutes. Then, someone had screamed for Alpha Squadron to fall back. For a brief, foolish second Athuli thought someone else had finally taken up his side, and was asking them all to begin a retreat. He should have known better, of course, and almost immediately saw the plan - once they had all gotten to a semi-safe distance a blaster shot was aimed directly at a stash of grenades in a high corner of the room.

The explosion blew all of the Rebels back, took out or injured most of the Imperials, and destroyed a section of the wall. Debris from the ceiling started to reign down. His people barely noticed any of it. As soon as they had recovered from the blast, they were up and running. They made it through the rest of the hangars and supply areas with relative ease.

They hadn't been stopped until they had reached one of the main entrances that led into the heart of the Imperial base. Troops and guards were filing out of the building, ready to fight. Lookouts were sniping at the Rebels from lookout towers high above the corners of the building. Athuli wondered if more troops would try to cut off their escape by coming up on them from behind. He was almost beginning to hope they would.

"Arralla!" he called out in a strangled, frustrated tone. Her shot arm was hanging limply at her side, but she hardly seemed to notice it any more. She was gleefully trying to pick off the lookouts, or at least scare them back off their towers. She turned to him and gave him a wide smile...which quickly faded when she saw the look on his face. Athuli figured he was flashing her a combination of anger and disgust.

"Commander, we're doing all right here. Quit trying to take this and turn it into some kind of noble defeat."

"I need you to help me," he said urgently. "We can't just storm the HQ. Help me tell them to pull back."

She was shaking her head before he could even finish what he was saying. "Come on. Leia couldn't have known we'd be able to get inside. Events on the ground have changed." She paused to shoot at a Gungan who was firing down on them. "I'm with you - Leia's not loyal to them, and I don't think she'd want us to waste an opportunity because we're more worried about following her orders down to the smallest detail."

"We're out of control! You're out of control! Do you realize how many people they could have killed firing like that in the munitions room? Are you all planning to shoot everything that moves when we get inside?" He was getting the urge to hit someone again. "You know this isn't Leia what had in mind. You know better than this. Help me get them back under control. Once they get inside -"

"Once they get inside," Arralla said, with cold finality, "they could bring down the Empire in one fell swoop. We don't need you tagging along, trying to hold us back!"

"I'm still the Commander of the squadron. You're -"

A big explosion sounded in his ears and burned his eyes, effectively ending the conversation. When the fire and smoke cleared, the entrance to the headquarters was fully exposed.

Athuli watched the first of his people run and shoot their way inside.

Vader had been to Mos Eisley once, in the long-ago childhood of a boy named Anakin Skywalker. Watto had heard of a starship wreck that the salvager was auctioning off, and he'd brought seven-year-old Anakin along to judge the usefulness of the parts. Vader remembered that ship well, remembered the hands that had once belonged to him skimming over cracked casings and melted circuitry, their smooth and almost translucent skin covered with engine grime as it always was. He remembered telling Watto that the naviputer would be perfectly fine if he fixed the circuits with some wires he had back in the shop. He remembered saying that the rest was only good for melting down. And he remembered a never-ending line of Jawas, loading the ship in pieces onto a sandcrawler for transport to Mos Espa. They'd sold the scrap metal for a solid year, and made an equal amount on the repaired naviputer in one lucky sale.

He remembered flying over the city, as a reference point, on the way to the Lars farm and the horror beyond it.

Beyond that, he remembered nothing at all about Mos Eisley.

It was a filthy place, seedy and broken even in places where the battle wasn't raging. It made Mos Espa look paradisiacal by comparison. But the layout of the streets was the same: a rough wheel, surrounded by docking bays, working its way in through run down residential neighborhoods. The business district would be at the center, but his duties here would not take him to that level. The Tuskens would already have taken anything worth taking in the business district.

He reached out with his senses, and was immediately flooded with the panic and outrage of the townspeople. They were near. He pulled his speeder to a halt, and waited for Leia to pull up beside him on her speederbike.

"They are nearby," he said. "Can you sense them?"

She nodded and pointed down an alley to the left. "That way, I think. I feel... " She went pale suddenly and leaned heavily over her handlebars. "All the tribesmen who came in have joined the raiding now. Probably when the Rebels turned on them."

"That was to be expected, Leia. They would have little motivation for maintaining the fa?ade of fighting with the Rebellion."

"I know." She slid off her speederbike and turned it to park mode. "The speeders will only be in the way."

"I agree." Vader got out of his own speeder, and drew his lightsaber. "There will not be a command structure as you know it among the Tuskens. This may be somewhat more... complete... than you are accustomed to."

"I understand." She drew her own lightsaber and held it tightly, more a talisman than a weapon.

Vader reached over and corrected her grip without speaking. She frowned, but said nothing, and Vader realized that the correction had been unnecessary; she had merely been gathering herself for battle. He looked down the long narrow street to their right. At the other end, he could see the flickering motions of the battle. A laser blast hit a building, sending a brief red flare into the white sunlight. "Very well," he said. "We should begin."

She reached over suddenly and touched his wrist. "Father... "


"May -" She closed her eyes, breathed deeply, then looked at him steadily. "May the Force be with you, Father."

Her voice was forced and cool, but Vader recognized the effort it had taken to offer the words to him, and was oddly touched by it. A long dormant instinct rose, and he hesitantly squeezed her hand. "And with you, my daughter."

Without another word - a battle was not the place for the kind of long discussion Amidala would have wished for at this juncture, and Vader thought that he was not alone at being relieved by this - they charged down the narrow street, and into battle.

The two armies had engaged the vast majority of the sandpeople, and much of the loot they had been carrying from the homes was lying unattended in the streets. Civilians huddled in their doorways, parents clutching children, other adults clutching at whatever feeble weapons they'd been able to find or fashion. Here and there, dirty children darted out into the fray to rummage through the abandoned treasures. Vader saw Leia pick one of these up and return him to his frantic mother, then the battle took him.

It was fast - no more than ten minutes, surely - but as always, it seemed to be drawn out in time, intense and deep-colored. He fought side by side with men who may have been Rebels or may have been Imperials. He felt two of them fall. Tuskens seemed to emerge from the sand of the street, and there was screaming. There was always screaming.

At one point in the battle, Vader saw a Tusken running toward the banthas clustered at the end of the street, a slave-woman slung over his shoulder. Vader threw his lightsaber, counting on the Force only to block the blaster shots that were coming toward him. The lightsaber cut the Tusken's legs out from under him, sending the woman sprawling into the dirt. She took the Tusken's rifle and shot him. Vader called his lightsaber back into his hand. At another point, he saw Leia standing on top of someone's porch rail, her hand outstretched as she used the Force to hurl a rusty speeder at a group of Tuskens.

Beyond that, the repetitive motions of battle melted into one another, and merged into a general drive to push the remaining Tuskens into a circle at the center of the residential area where they were fighting and surround them. There were perhaps thirty Tuskens left when this was accomplished. Vader was starting to move in when Leia's voice boomed across the battlefield, amplified by her comlink.

"Cease fire!"

At first, Vader wasn't certain he could stop. The blood was flowing freely, and there was an intoxication to battle that he had always found difficult to resist. He looked at the now disarmed Tusken a few meters ahead of him, on his knees in the sand with his arms upraised in a warding gesture.

For an eternal instant, something hovered on the edge of Vader's consciousness, some shimmering sense of Otherness, a glimpse of another life, the endless night journey over, the sounds of terror silenced inside his mind. It unnerved and disturbed him on a level far deeper than the simple battle, made the world around him fragile, his very name brittle and ready to break.


(No! )

Ani... my grown-up son...

(I can't. )

Your focus determines your reality.

(It's too late. )

The instant ended, and reality came back to him. He was standing on a dusty street in Mos Eisley, a helpless Tusken kneeling before him in abject surrender. He could still strike. It would be sensible. There was no vast reform of Tusken society on the horizon. He sensed no true remorse in the man before him, only fear.

And yet...

There was something else. The Otherness. The sense of wholeness. He was home again, in the place where choices were made, the place where he created himself.

(But it is necessary to be what I am. If it were not, I would not have chosen or perpetuated it. If it is unnecessary, then my life is without meaning. )

He lowered his lightsaber to a defensive position.

(And they will strike again. To not finish this is to invite repetition. )

He didn't know what he had decided, or if he had decided anything at all. He knew only one thing with any certainty: The screams had gone on long enough.

He looked up and saw that Leia was conferring with Ter Caldo and Calrissian. From his position on the front lines, Vader could see only that her face was grave. Her hands were on her hips, and she was nodding. He touched her through the Force, and felt neither the nervousness he'd rather expected in battle or the shame she had been exhibiting earlier - Leia was still mortified by the consequences of her action, of course, and clearly had no particular liking of battle, but the dominant feeling coming from her was resolve. She was back in her own arena, and she was getting things in order. She had been born to lead, and she was settling into her natural role.

She nodded to the commanders one more time, then made her way around the front lines to Vader. As she drew closer, he saw that she had taken some minor injury to her arm, and bits of her hair had escaped the bun to fly in the desert wind. "Your General Caldo says there is enough prison space in the new Guardhouse to hold all the survivors," she said without preliminaries. "I instructed him to see to it."

"And then what, Leia? Do you plan to try them? Have them serve time and then release them?"

"I don't know. But I don't want them killed while they're clearly surrendering. Neither would Mother, and I guess you'd care more about that."

Vader didn't answer. He had no argument. It was sometimes hard to know what Amidala would do, but on this matter, there was no doubt. Her own Guard was involved, and she would not want them seen murdering men on their knees.

"At any rate," Leia went on, "General Caldo and Lando seem to have some working system. General Caldo is going to see to the prisoners, and I've told them to set up patrols to guard against attack from the camp on the overlook."

"It is populated by old men."

"I don't want to take any more chances." She sighed. "They were going to split on Rebel-Imperial lines, but I ordered them to have mixed patrols. I know it seems like I'm just trying to save the Rebel reputation but -"

"But re-creating the initial schism would lead to later conflict," Vader finished.

Leia looked up at him, surprised. "Yes."

"I am not ignorant of politics, and I am certainly not ignorant of the mindset of war. You need not explain yourself further. It was a wise choice, and one I believe your mother will approve. It is, if you recall, what she originally wished - an alliance with the former Rebels."

"On her terms."

"As you wish it on your own."

"I don't -"

A sudden surge of fear flared up through the Force, cutting off Leia midway through whatever she'd planned to say. Vader felt it like a sudden sandstorm raging through his soul.

"Headquarters," Leia whispered. "Something is happening."

Vader said nothing. He grabbed Leia's arm and led her back down the narrow street they'd come from, to his modified speeder. They both ignored her speederbike.

Together, they set off at top speed, racing against the panic that was flooding the very air around them.

Amidala was in danger.

"Luke, tell me what's going on."

The officers next to Luke hastily cleared away from the station where Luke was trying in vain to monitor the activity outside. Everyone in the guardpost seemed nervous at having Mother right here with them, especially since things were becoming increasingly chaotic and dangerous within the headquarters. Most of the officers had seen Mother in person for the first and only time when she arrived on the planet, and that was at some distance. Now they would look at her, and then quickly turn away as they scurried about, speaking to one another in hushed tones, giving furtive orders to their men. They were almost desperate not to upset her, or to appear incompetent before her, as the Rebels tried to crash into the base.

She noticed the men fleeing, and frowned. Then her gaze settled on him. Luke stared back and realized immediately that his officers' concerns were misplaced. She wasn't fearful or panicking, and she certainly wasn't angry with them. She was grave, and serious - with her mouth pressed into a grim, thin line and her eyebrows knitted - but her concerns for the outside battle were overshadowed by thoughts of a more personal nature.

Luke wanted to offer her comfort. But there was little to be had from what was happening just outside the headquarters. The best answer he could find was, "The Rebels have approached the main entrance of the base. Our people are engaging them."

Her frown redirected itself toward the blank console that Luke was standing in front of. "Can we even give orders? Do we have enough men to send down there?"

He sighed. "We have officers acting as couriers, and they're doing their best to deliver orders and information from place to place in the base. It might not be the most efficient system, but it's the best we can do. I'd rather have everyone gathered in one place until we get a working comlink, but we need people to protect the entrance." He gave her shoulder a squeeze. "We're sending anyone available to protect the entrance, and once they're down there, they can coordinate with each other face-to-face. It'll be all right, Mother."

"No it won't be. I don't care what the Rebels wish to do. This won't be all right until your father returns with your sister, and the four of us are somewhere that's not under attack." She swallowed hard and said, "I'm scared for them."

"We both know that Father won't allow anything to happen to Leia," he responded. "And I'm here to stop anything from happening to you. Just stay strong, Mother. This all will be over soon."

She didn't look convinced, but Luke was beginning to think he was out of words to say. Besides, he very much agreed with her - he needed to see his father and Leia again, and right the turmoil that surrounded them. He needed that more than he needed to give another order to be relayed at foot-speed to his officers, and more than he needed another delayed report about whatever was happening at the entrance.

"Lord Skywalker!"

The cry came from a lieutenant, who had burst into the room wildly, nearly causing an uproar. He didn't bother to collect himself or catch his breath. "The Rebels have entered the base! They've broken through the main entrance!"

Now there was a definite uproar. Luke's hand instinctively reached out, clamping around his mother's wrist like a vice. "They are coming after the Empress," he said through clenched teeth. "I'm taking her out of here before that can happen."

"But sir," the man replied, looking distraught, "there are so many of them."

Luke gestured to three guards nearby. "I'm taking them with me."

"Perhaps the officers at the entrance will stop most of the Rebels before they can reach Her Majesty. And here, we can all try to protect her."

"You have not been able to hold them off at all so far," Luke said sharply. "And if they do find their way in here - which I have little doubt they will, eventually - I doubt such close quarters will be the safest place for the Empress, whether you believe yourself able to fight them or not."

"Luke..." Mother touched the hand that was holding her wrist, and gave him a look of slight reproach.

He understood. He was shaming the man in front of his fellow officers, when he had shown nothing but concern for protecting her. It certainly was not his fault that Luke had to wait for someone to run through the base before finding out the Rebels were already inside.

Luke loosened his grip and said, "Lieutenant, I know you and your people are doing your best under terrible circumstances. But the headquarters have been breached. It is no longer safe for the Empress to remain here."

"Yes, my Lord."

"I know orders are going out slowly, but engage and stall them as much as possible. I will attempt to leave through a less...direct route than the main entrance."

Luke could now faintly hear the sounds of blaster fire. He pulled his mother along gently, and the guards he had picked out stayed close behind her. They stepped out into the hallway and sprinted for the nearest lift.

As they entered, Mother, without ceremony or explanation, put her hand out to one of the guards. "Your weapon, Captain."

He did a double-take, and then stammered, "Your Majesty?"

"I require a weapon," she said simply.

The man looked to Luke for approval, and he gave it with a wave, though he was as surprised by the request as the guard was. Mother had already taken the extra blaster, and was expertly working the controls, re-setting them from stun to kill.

Luke tried to remove the startled look from his face as the lift doors closed behind him. He reminded himself to keep a sharp eye on her if they did run into resistance. She seemed as though she were ready to run headlong into battle, when what she needed was to be protected.

As if she had heard that last thought, Mother's head bent toward him. "I know you can protect me, Luke, and I know you will. But the fight has come to me personally now. And I've never liked going into this type of situation defenseless. I might even be able to help."

Luke punched the button to take them to the basement level, and the lift began to move. "I'm sure you will." He had never even seen his mother handle a weapon before; there had been no reason for her to in the time he had known her. He had heard stories of course, when Father seemed as animated as he ever got, about her considerable skills in battle. Still, actually seeing her now - tense and confident, and ready to fight - was something of a revelation to Luke. She reminded him of Leia a great deal. Luke wondered idly if seeing Father fight as a Jedi, in another lifetime, before the mask, would have reminded him of himself.

The hum of the lift changed pitch as they descended through the main floors. Luke listened to it, and tried to focus more completely on the task at hand. "I'm taking us to the basement, which will put us outside the servants' quarters. The Rebels must have gotten layouts of the base from Leia, so they know that everything of interest to them - the Command Center, the guardpost - is on the higher levels. While they're busy up there, we'll try to get out through one of the back exits."

"The servants usually keep a couple of speeders out there," one of guards said.

"Yes," Luke nodded, "and I doubt the Rebels noticed." His attention returned to his mother. "Stay beside me. Don't wander off, even if it doesn't look like anyone's after us."

"Of course."

The lift slowed to a stop and the doors opened. Luke sensed little down here beside the fear of the servants, who were thankfully in their quarters, confined in them since the Rebels had first attacked. But things were still in flux. He could almost hear his father chastising him to stay aware.

Luke led his mother out of the lift, with the guards in tow behind them. One or two of the servants were defying the order and poking their heads out, or running from room to room, but they cleared out, shocked to see Mother down here.

Luke sunk deep into the Force, letting the path before him show itself. Letting any threats to her be seen in time to stop them.

Something wasn't right. He could feel it.

He slowed down, and Mother matched him for it, looking at him quizzically.

In his mind's eye, Luke saw a bright flash blow past him.

He grabbed her, pulling her into a small corridor, and waited. The guards followed. He heard a lift door open, and a blaster was fired, and the shot sailed down the hallway where they had been standing and impacted on the far wall.

"Surrender to the Rebels, Imperial servants! Come out! Surrender! We have no wish to fight you!"

Another shot was fired. Luke was stunned. Whoever was down here - he could sense maybe four of them - was completely out of control. That they were down here at all was proof of that, claims of not wanting to harm the servants notwithstanding. He knew the Rebels didn't behave this way, and he knew that the rest of them were concentrating on the more legitimate targets elsewhere in the base, as he had anticipated.

But it only took one crazy soldier...it would only take one shot to kill his mother.

Luke whispered to a guard, "Create a distraction. They don't know she's down here. The Empress and I will find another route out of here."

He didn't wait for a response, but merely led his mother down the corridor they had hidden in. As soon as they turned the corner, putting them out of sight of the guards, Luke heard one of them yell, "No one here is surrendering, you Rebel scum!" Then the shooting began.

Luke and his mother broke out into a full-fledged run. He was completely in tune with the Force around her, with any hint that danger was coming to her. When the first attack came, Luke felt himself moving to block it before the woman behind them had even fired. He returned the shot to her, and she barely rolled out of the way in time. She was back up and shooting quickly, but Luke was able to hit her in the shoulder and knock her out.

Then the danger was ahead. Luke leapt over his mother, just in time to block a new barrage of blaster fire. The man, whom Luke did not recognize, screamed, "Traitor!" at him, and continued firing almost blindly. Luke turned his shots against him as well, and now Mother was firing too. The man turned and ran, scrambling and dodging her fire. Luke heard him screech, "Traitor!" one more time, but he was retreating, and no longer a threat to Mother.

A few more Rebels had found their way down here. Luke could also see that he was now within sight of one of the exits.

Two of the Rebels appeared between them and the door. One was clearly stunned to come face-to-face with the Empress. His hesitation cost him, as she fired on him before he could react.

Luke charged the second man, who hadn't waited even those brief moments to take his try at killing her. Luke easily repelled the blasts aimed at Mother, eventually getting close enough to cut the Rebel's blaster in half with his lightsaber. He delivered the killing blow before the man could make any move to defend himself.

Luke turned back and retook his mother's hand. "That's it, we're getting out of here now. Stay behind me once we -"

Luke felt the impact on his chest, which slammed him against a wall, felt the fire blazing in his ribs, before he even realized he had been shot. He looked down at the burn as he slid to the ground.

He saw, in a daze, Mother shoot the Rebel who had shot him. The man went down immediately, but not before he managed to shriek, "Traitor!" at Luke one more time.

Luke took a somewhat useless pleasure out of that. He was trying to figure out how he had missed a threat to his mother. He hadn't. He had missed a threat to himself.

Mother crouched beside him, and the guards rushed in behind her. Luke guessed they had finished dealing with the Rebels for the time being. He couldn't hear any more shooting or fighting. Servants were peaking out of their rooms, and gasping and crying in horror when they saw him. Mother yelled for a medic, and several people ran off to find one.

"Help is coming, Luke," she said, lying him fully on his back and trying to assess his injury. "Just hold on. Be strong...please."

Luke nodded. His hand weakly intertwined with one of hers, which was trembling. They gave each other comfort as they waited for that help to arrive.

The sky was beginning to take on the orange tint of early sunset when Imperial headquarters loomed into view. The sense of hurry was stronger than it had been in Mos Espa, the implication of imminent danger that made Leia feel helpless in its shadow.

Father, too, seemed more troubled as they flew across the desert. The speeder had been pushed to its acceleration limit, but still he leaned forward, trying to will it to go faster. The energy coming through the Force was frantic, intense.

Without warning, something seemed to explode in Leia's chest, burning outward like a thermal detonator charge. She gasped, her mind flying out, flying forward to the mesa whose shadow now loomed over them. "Luke," she whispered. She could feel her eyes wide and her lips drawn back against her teeth. "Father... "

Father didn't answer. He was still at high speed as they approached the wall of the mesa, aiming straight for a small door at ground level. He hooked it around neatly and stopped so abruptly that Leia was thrown forward. She used the momentum to jump out of the speeder, feeling Father a step behind her.

She ran through the door, Luke's presence screaming in her mind as it hadn't since an infancy remembered only by her nerve endings. She couldn't shut it out or deny its impact on her, and couldn't resist its clarion call. Someone was shooting at her from a side corridor. She blocked it with her lightsaber without looking. Something clattered, and Leia registered vaguely that Father had sent several blasters flying at the ceiling.

The hall turned, and she saw them there, crumpled near another door. Mother cradled Luke in her arms, her drifting veil partially covering the huge scorch mark of a blaster hit that seemed to have engulfed his whole chest. Another blaster lay beside her, in easy reach. Her head came up. "Ani!" she called. "Ani!"

Leia fell to her knees and reached for Luke, not sure what she wanted to do. Her mind couldn't let go of all the bitterness, but her soul was bleeding, reaching for him, needing to -

"Don't you touch him!"

Leia jumped, her eyes rising to meet her mother's. "Mother... "

Mother's eyes were blazing, full of irrational hate and rage. Tears streamed down over her high cheekbones. She was laboring to pull Luke away from Leia, toward herself. She bit her trembling lip. Her hands were shaking badly.

Luke reached up with a weak hand, and let it fall generally in Leia's direction. "Came back," he managed.

Leia grabbed his hand fiercely. "I didn't mean for this to happen. I ordered them not to -"

"I know," he said, then moved his head slightly toward Mother. "We know."

Father bent over him. "The wound is severe," he said. "We need to get you to a cybernetics lab."


"Luke, it is your only chance."

"No." He smiled wearily, and for a heartbreaking instant, he was the boy around whose neck Leia had once placed a medal of recognition, the carefree, innocent boy who still experienced a wonder at the vastness of the galaxy that Leia had lost years before. "Don't think we'll make it," he said. "Don't want to rush... not much time."

"Don't be silly, Luke," Mother cooed, kissing his head. Her tears slipped down across his forehead, mingling with the sweat of his pain. "We'll fix you right up. Ani will fix you. Ani can fix anything."

Luke looked instinctively at Father, almost hopefully, and Leia felt a wave of anguish coming from Father. And she knew, or rather she understood what she had known all along. Luke seemed to sense it as well. "Father," he whispered. "Outside. I want to see... the suns set."

Mother shook her head violently. "No, Luke. We can't move you. It will hurt you."

"My love." Father crouched down and looked across Luke at her. She didn't meet his eyes. Leia could remember no point since her mother had come back into her life that Mother had refused to meet Father's eyes behind the mask. He waited patiently.

Mother's sobs became frantic, her head moving to avoid his gaze. "Ani, we can't move him. It would... destabilize... "

"My love."

The erratic movements of her head slowed, the trembling of her lips and jaw became more pronounced. Finally, she looked at him. Leia didn't know what was passing between them, but Mother leaned away from Luke and let Father gather him up. A low, persistent moan was coming from her throat. Leia didn't think she was even aware of it.

Father stood, lifting Luke easily in his arms, and carried him toward the nearby door. Through it, the sky was beginning to grow red. Leia got to her feet. Mother was still kneeling where she had been, her arms open, as though she expected Luke to appear in them again. She looked desperately sad and lonely... but not trapped in the prison of her madness.

Leia drew in a harsh breath, an ancient memory resurfacing with the power of total recall. She had seen Mother like this before, in the days when Mother had been the biggest person in the galaxy, the one from whom all good things flowed. Leia herself had been very young, barely old enough to speak, and didn't know everything that had led to it. But she remembered awakening in the night to this soft moaning, because it had frightened her badly. Where had they been then, where had their hiding taken them? Had they even been on Alderaan yet? Leia remembered only a dark, anonymous room, and Mother in her white nightdress, kneeling on the floor, her arms open and empty, moaning and speaking a name.

Luke's? Father's? Leia's infant memory had not recorded it, and she didn't hazard a guess now. She remembered only her own terror at seeing those open, empty arms. She had crawled out of some small bed and run to her mother to fill that scary, gaping wound before it ate up the whole galaxy. Those arms had come around her so tightly that she almost couldn't breathe, but that was all right, because Mother would breathe for her, they would breathe together, and everything would be all right.

Without thinking, without remembering Mother's rage at her - or her own rage at Mother - without considering the blaster at Mother's side, Leia leaned forward and threw her arms around her mother's neck, pulling her close, feeling her heart beating.

Slowly, Mother's arms rose from her empty lap and crossed weakly behind Leia's shoulders. The grip tightened. "Leia," she whispered.

Leia nodded, and pulled both of them to their feet. "Come on," she said. "We need to be with them."

By the time the got outside, Father had laid Luke down on the ground, facing west to watch the suns set. He was not cradling Luke, as Mother had, but kneeling beside him, his strength useless, even his power in the Force coming to naught. Mother passed by Leia and went to kneel beside him. She took his hand on one of hers, and Luke's in the other.

Leia knelt on his other side.

Luke's eyes were unfocused, gazing dreamily at the reddening sky. Tatoo I had already sunk halfway down the horizon; Tatoo II was an angry orange flame in the sky. "Father," he whispered, "when it's over... no Imperial funeral. Just... family."

Father nodded, but spoke only after a long pause. "As you wish, my son."

Luke nodded weakly. His gaze drifted to Mother. She caught it and held it. "I missed you so," she said. "I never should have let them take you from my arms. How can I do it again?"

He didn't answer her directly. Instead, he smiled softly up at her, and Leia saw a flicker of motion as he gave her hand a slight squeeze. "You're so beautiful," he said. "I missed you, too. But... everything... was... " He faded for a moment, but Leia could still feel him through their bond; it wasn't time yet. His eyes opened again. "All is well, Mother. We were always... together. And I won't... leave you." He reached up with his free hand and pressed it against her breastbone. "You know that."

Mother nodded, her eyes squeezed shut.

Luke's hand came down, moved across, landed near Leia's knee. She picked it up in both of her own and squeezed it tightly.

"You still think I'm wrong?" he asked, his voice barely more than a breath in the wind.

Leia nodded, but said, "It doesn't matter now."

"Matters." He shuddered with some sudden chill, and Mother wrapped her veil around him. "Leia... it matters. I shouldn't have... there were things... "

"Don't think about that, Luke. That's over."

He nodded, the shudder passing. "Let them in," he said. "You are part... of us."

"I'm so sorry, Luke."

He tried another smile. It didn't get as far as the others, but it touched his eyes. "Missed one," he said. "I wasn't concentrating. I should... " Wince. "... listen to Father better."

"Luke," Father said, "you should not -"

"You're a good teacher," Luke said, letting his eyes take Father in. "I learned. The mistake... was mine."


His eyes came back to Leia. She could feel him slipping away, looking out over a precipice, feeling the hot drafts coming up from below. "I think... I'm going now... " he said.

Leia leaned forward, brushing his hair off his forehead with one hand. She kissed his cheek, as she had over another precipice, and whispered, "For luck."

His smile broadened, became full, and then he was gone.

There was no sensation of being torn away. He was just... gone.

Leia searched for his presence in her mind and heart, frantically combing the Force for him, but he wasn't there where she had always felt him.

His body shimmered for a moment - Leia was certain that she could see through it - then solidified again. Later, Father would carry him back inside to prepare him for burial, and Leia would cleanse his wound while Mother sat in her silent shock, but for now, the three of them were alone, watching the alien suns sink beneath the horizon. Tatoo I had gone; Tatoo II was falling fast.

The world of Tatooine was wrapped in the comfort of shadow.

The suns slipped beneath the horizon without Vader noticing.

He could not tear his eyes away from Luke's face. The last, sad smile had faded shortly after he had passed, and had relaxed into an unreadable look, into something blank and expressionless. It was a very different sight than his mother's face had been - her face had been distorted and grotesque, and when her last breath had left her, the pain was evident in her still-open eyes. Luke was almost peaceful in comparison.

But that made his face no less horrendous to Vader. And yet he knew he could not look away.

When he had looked away from her, the fury had flamed up, shredding through his conscience and his soul. The screams and shrieks of the Tusken camp had begun shortly after that.

The thought of adding the screams of Rebel soldiers to the din made Vader almost light-headed with rage and the need for revenge. And there was the confusion and despair of not knowing what he and the remainder of his family could possibly do next...He did not want to feel or think about any of it. So, he stayed focused on his son's face.

He listened to his wife weep and sob as she continued to hold tightly to Luke's slackened hand. Leia seemed unable to shed her tears, and all Vader sensed from her was an angry, guilty, and jumbled mess that too closely mirrored what he felt in his own heart.

He did not know how long they had been out there before the winds picked up, and a cool gust kicked up the sand around them. Amidala winced against it, but made no move to cover her face or protect herself. Instead, she gently slipped her hand from Luke's, and took the edges of the veil she had used to keep him warm in his final moments. She pulled it up slowly, until his face was covered completely. A sharp sob escaped her as she straightened the pale red linen around her son's body.

Vader did not know what to look at now, or where to turn his eyes to. The energy in the air around him felt sick.

Leia shakily pulled herself to her feet, and stared at the headquarters in a dazed way. "I have to go -"

"No," Vader said flatly. "You are not going in there to confront the Rebels."

"Confront them? That's my squadron in there...I'm going to order them to stop this..." Her voice was as low and weak as Vader had ever heard it. She was still shaking.

"None of us is going to do anything until we've agreed on a workable plan," he replied.

"You want to go to in there every bit as much as I do," she said, her voice taking on an angry, menacing tone. "And I'm responsible for what's happened here. I need to be in there."

"Those facts are beside the point, Leia. I will not allow my - my only child -" he nearly choked on the phrase, but pushed himself to keep going "- to rush into another battle. Please, Leia."

Her response was to close her eyes and turn away from him. Finally, she said, "We need to bring him inside."

The journey back down into the headquarters basement was a blur to him. The servants were out of their rooms, and Vader could feel their eyes on him as he carried the veil-covered body of his son. Some of were crying, some whispered blessings or prayers as he passed. Most simply stared, stunned and horrified at the site of his broken family. The familiarity of the situation - of this particular walk - sickened Vader. By the time he had reached an empty set of quarters and put Luke down on the bed, he was feeling almost dizzy.

He gave Leia a curt order to stay in the room, but it was unnecessary - she was now focused on comforting her mother, who was crying silently. He left the room, and wandered out into the hallway and away from the servants and Imperial officers, half-listening to the muffled sounds of the fighting on the floors above him.


Vader stopped walking - he found himself far from the room where his family was, near a staircase that would take him out of the basement and into the upper floors of the headquarters. Obi-Wan stood at the foot of the stairs, a shimmering, blue vision of his younger self.

"This is not an appropriate time for another lecture, Obi-Wan."

"I have not come to lecture you," he replied. "I have come to tell you how sorry I am."

"Are you?"

"Yes. Anakin, when your mother died, I don't believe I ever adequately expressed my sorrow to you. Or, I did it in a way that you didn't relate to." Vader said nothing. "I think that I have a particular understanding of the pain of losing a son," Obi-Wan said softly. "I am grieved beyond words that you must go through it now."

"Obi-Wan..." Vader didn't know where to begin. He was not prepared to share his grief, and he had never been able to share his anger or his rage with Obi-Wan, at least not in civil conversation. And besides the grief and fury, what else was there to -

"You're also afraid," Obi-Wan said gently. "But then, you never much shared your fears with me either."

"Would it have mattered if I had?"

"I have to believe so, Anakin. Even though I'm still not sure, to this day, what the right thing to say to you after your mother's death would have been. There must have been a better way to do things then, and there must be one now. That is why I am here."

Vader was pacing slowly, back and forth before his old Master, glancing at him occasionally, but generally keeping his eyes low and on the floor. "You cannot tell me to let go of my anger. Not over this. And unless you plan to suggest how to end this fighting without my losing someone else, then I think you have little to say to me."

"Anakin, you've lived so long cultivating your anger and acting on it that you've lost faith that you are able to handle a situation in any other way. You have no real desire to do to the Rebels what you did to the Tuskens. Yet, you'll drive yourself to it anyway, because the thought of doing anything else is so foreign to you."

"I am what I am," Vader said gravely, "I am what I've become. If you cannot accept that -"

"But you have made yourself forget what you were, Anakin," Obi-Wan said insistently. "And you're denying what you truly are."

"And you believe that is...?"

"A father. A husband. As you were once a son. You want to save your family. It cannot be done by avenging Luke's death. You know this, Padawan. Leia will not be helped, nor will she be safe, if you inflame the fighting with the Rebels. And your wife will be brought no closer to peace or sanity by watching her husband and daughter continue a battle on opposite sides." Obi-Wan folded his arms across his chest, and stared hard at Vader. Vader stopped pacing and forced himself to look him in the eyes. Obi-Wan continued, "You're right in thinking that the safety of your family is not guaranteed, no matter which path you choose to follow. But that is not a reason to give in to despair. You can bring peace to your family, and to this world. And to yourself. You must at least try."

"Have you found peace, Obi-Wan?" he asked. "Or have you simply found that you are chasing a futile dream?"

"I continue the chase. But I don't consider it futile. Giving up has not spared you any measure of pain or heartbreak, Anakin. And without that hope, you find yourself where you are now, trapped in your anger and sorrow with no path leading you out of it." Obi-Wan sighed. "I suppose I am telling you to let go of your anger, Padawan. There is no other way."

Vader sensed that Obi-Wan was about to leave him, and realized that he was disappointed. He wanted to talk more, or at least listen a little longer.

"What I've said is enough," Obi-Wan said gently. "I have faith that you will find a proper solution to this. May the Force be with you, Anakin."

Vader watched his Master disappear. After a moment, he decided to return to his family.

Leia had never realized how small Mother actually was.

In her early childhood, of course, Mother had been her whole universe and everything in it. There must have been a time that she'd seen Mother with taller people - almost everyone was taller - but in her memory, Mother had reached up into the sky itself, and everyone else was dwarfed beside her. This impossible goddess had lived in her mind all the years of her childhood, arched over her and protecting her, appearing in half-remembered dreams and gauzy memories.

When an intercepted transmission from Lady Vader to her husband had come into Leia's hands and she'd seen those beloved eyes laughing gaily at the monster the woman called "my love," she'd taken on a whole new illusion of size. The thought of her betrayal had pushed into every aspect of Leia's life, had taken over the way she considered issues and made decisions. The huge crimson shadow of Lady Vader had darkened everything until Han had found a way to make it go away.

After Bespin, Mother had been Empress and Leia had been a powerless invalid. She had looked up from her bed, and there was Mother, leaning down to her, huge again, vast, limitless.

But Mother's limits had been reached.

Her supports had fallen away. Her world was collapsing. Her "good son" lay dead in an anonymous military bed, wrapped in her own veils. Her husband might be going off to commit a massacre. And it was her daughter's fault.

She now wept silently beside Luke, holding his hand again through the linen, her eyes distant and haunted. She didn't answer questions or respond to Leia's presence.

And she was small, so very small and lost.

Are you satisfied now? a mocking part of Leia's mind asked. Isn't that what you were after all along? To make your mother small, so that you could be big?

"No," Leia whispered, feeling her face grow hot.

Mother didn't look up at the sound of her voice.

It wasn't about competing with Mother. She had been in the Rebellion long before Mother appeared as Lady Vader, long before she'd known that she had a connection to Father at all. The Empire under Mother was still the Empire, and if she had ever been tempted to give up on the assumption that she only fought for a personal grudge, she remembered Mon Mothma crumpling to the floor of Theed Palace with a lightsaber wound in her chest.


Mother was so very small.

If there was anything to the idea that she was fighting this battle to diminish Mother, success had brought no satisfaction. Seeing Mother like this felt like someone had ripped a hole in her, and the pain of it bled out into the air around her. She wanted to go to Mother and wrap her in an embrace, help her to her feet, straighten her bent shoulders, bring her eyes up to meet the world again. It wasn't right for Mother to look like this.

"Mother... " she began.

Mother didn't answer, but Leia could see a slight shift in the position of her shoulders, a tilt of her head that said she was hearing.

Leia dropped to her knees beside Mother's chair. Mother's long curly hair, looking bereft without its veil, had dropped down over her face, and Leia tucked it up behind one ear. "Mother, I would take it back if I could. I'll find a way to fix it, no matter how long it takes. I'll -"

Mother's head came around so quickly that it seemed instantaneous. Her eyes were wide with fear for a moment, then they glazed again, and she went back to looking at Luke. "Let it be, Leia. You can't bring him back. You can't fix it. Let it be." She blinked slowly, and when she spoke again, she didn't even seem to be speaking to Leia. "The past is in the past." Then she fell silent again. Leia wasn't sure she knew she had spoken.

They sat together in silence only broken by an occasional hitch in Mother's breath as she reached for another sob. Leia crossed her legs and sat on the floor beside the chair, not having the energy to look for another and bring it over. After awhile, one of Mother's hands drifted listlessly down to rest on her hair. Leia reached up for it and took it, squeezing it almost convulsively, worried that she might be hurting Mother but unable to stop. Mother didn't respond.

From a distance, muffled by stone and metal, Leia could hear the sounds of the ongoing battle. The thought of trying to contact the Rebels with her comlink briefly occurred to her, and she was reaching for it before she realized that they could trace it, and in the mood they were apparently in, they would follow it straight down here, straight to Mother. All the repetitions of the order not to go after the Empress had been in vain before; Leia couldn't imagine that they would be any more effectual now.

You should have realized that. How many times after she appeared again did you wish everyone in the Rebellion would hate her as much as you did? That they would realize she was no more than a charismatic dictator, no more likely to grant their freedom than Palpatine was? You got your wish with the New Rebellion: the ones who loved her stayed in the New Empire, and you got too many of the fanatics, the ones who breathe resentment and drink hate. And now Luke - Luke, who might have been the best of them - has paid the price for your fantasy.

They'd never even really talked about their twinship. It had come on them suddenly, and they'd found out separately. By the time Leia had awakened from her injuries enough to have a conversation, it was an accepted fact of their lives. But now she wished it had been different, that they'd found out from one another instead of separately, from their parents. She would have liked to ask him if he'd ever felt the connection between them, if he'd ever sensed anything strange, as she had when she'd kissed him in the infirmary on Hoth. It might have been nice to compare their childhoods, to find out if they had shared anything on that subconscious level where they'd done so much communicating as adults.

Had Luke been plagued by dreams as she had? Did he sometimes wake up thinking that there was someone else in the room, only to find himself alone? When he had a moment as the center of attention, had he looked around, certain that someone else should be at the celebration? Oh, the moments of attention would have been different in scope, but to a child, the notice of everyone in Anchorhead would have been no different in quality than the notice of every noble on Alderaan and her surrounding worlds. Had he looked over the heads of the people cooing at him, thinking that surely someone was coming through the door, although everyone who was expected was already there? She had been always plagued by that nagging sense that someone was missing. She'd barely noticed its absence over the last four years but now, in the silence left in her mind, she realized that she hadn't felt it once since the door of her cell on the Death Star had opened, and an earnest stranger with untidy blonde hair had said, "I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you."

She had never asked, and she would never know. She'd spent their time together arguing about politics and plotting her escape.

Do you still think I'm wrong? he'd asked as he slipped away, and the question was still in Leia's mind. She did still think he was wrong, they were all wrong... but right now, it seemed like the least important question in the universe.

She rose to her knees and then to her feet. Mother showed no signs of noticing, instead just clutching Luke's hand, rocking slightly.

Leia looked down at the veiled shapes of her brother's face, the ridges and concavities softened by the gentle draping of the cloth, undisturbed by the stirring of breath. It was profoundly unnatural to see a human face covered like this, with no fluttering breath to show life. He was like a statue, waiting to be revealed. Luke shouldn't look like this any more than Mother should look small.

Slowly, carefully, Leia leaned over the bed and pulled the veil down. Luke's glassy eyes stared up at her, bits of sand from the last blast of wind embedded on their surface. There was no other damage to this part of his body at all. He looked like he might grin and make a joke, or look up hopefully through his too-long bangs and ask her to make sense of the universe for him. Like he might -

The tears came suddenly, in a hot flood. They fell on Luke's cheeks, slipping down onto the pillow, darkening the veil. She leaned forward, needing to steady herself, needing to hold on, wrapping her arms around her brother's still body and pressing her face against his poor ruined chest. It smelled of burned flesh and the beginning of decay, even through the veil, but she didn't care. She had done this, she had destroyed him, and she could give him one final embrace without recoiling in disgust.

She registered the warm pressure on the back of her neck before she was capable of making any judgment as to what it was, but as the storm of grief subsided, she realized it was a hand, soft and lightweight, stroking her neck in small circles beneath her hairline.

She opened her eyes.

Mother had stood up. She still held Luke's hand with one of hers, but she had extended the other to Leia, and was looking down at her, arching over her, comforting her. She leaned down and kissed Leia's temple, her soft lips as Leia remembered them from long ago.

"Shh," she said. "Mother's here."

Leia nodded, gulping back a sob. She rose and wrapped her arms around Mother's waist, bending a little to lean on her shoulder. Mother let go of Luke's hand, and put both of her arms around Leia. Her hands made light, comforting motions on Leia's neck and shoulders.

"I'm sorry, Mother."


"Mother... "


Leia shushed, and let herself be small again, and let Mother be what she most needed to be.

Mos Espa had settled into a wary sort of calm. Han was grateful for the quiet.

Amee's people weren't very happy about the situation, but they had limited their expression of that to dirty looks and curses under their breath. Mostly, they went about treating the injured Imperials without causing any problems with the Rebels or the Rebel sympathizers in the city. Cooperation had settled in - an icy, detached cooperation to be sure, but a working one nonetheless. No one really much liked one another, but the time for fighting had clearly passed.

The citizens of Mos Espa were starting to come out of their homes and trickle into the streets again, and Han let them. There wasn't as much need for a total crack-down any more. Any Imperial officers who looked like they might want to cause trouble were being closely guarded on the outskirts of town. The Vader sympathizers in the city saw Amee, Seek, and the rest of the caretakers from the old slave quarters and that seemed to defuse any smart ideas some of them might have gotten. The sight of Rebels and Imperial supporters working together, even on something as simple as providing medical care, was taken as a sign that things might have somehow been worked out.

With that settled, Han found a solitary spot underneath one of makeshift medical tents, and was trying to make contact with the other Rebel squadrons. It had been awhile since he had heard anyone check in, and he wanted to see how the others were doing.

He wanted to know how Leia was doing. Hell, he wanted to know what she was doing.

She hadn't answered any of his hails since that last conversation, when she had decided to "fix" the situation in Mos Eisley. He had no idea where she was, or what had happened with the Tuskens. He had tried her every five minutes - five seconds - or so, and was going to keep trying until he was able to get a hold of her.

He broke up his hails to Leia with checks on the other squadrons. Han hadn't been na?ve enough to hope that they'd all be doing as well he was, but to his surprise, most of the commanders reported that they had things in hand. They were concerned with watching their prisoners, but they had hit the strategic weapons or communications sites they were supposed to, and had eventually won control of their areas and people. A few were still fighting Lady Vader's forces, and Han worried that one of the smaller groups was in serious trouble. He ordered some of his men to go out and help them. Things were going as well as could be hoped.

But he hadn't been able to get a hold of Lando, which only made him more worried about whatever was happening in Mos Eisley. He also couldn't raise Alpha Squadron at Imperial Headquarters.

He sighed, and decided to make one more call before he drove himself crazy trying to get a hold of Leia again. He raised the main Rebel base on Ledaga.

At first, all he got back was static. But, just as he was about to get worried, it cleared, and a young voice answered the hail.

"Ensign Terel here, General Solo."

"Terel?" he asked, surprised. He knew the kid - he had been commissioned as an ensign right before everyone had left for Tatooine. "What are you doing answering the comm?"


"No offense, kid, but I'm pretty sure I left at least a captain or two back there at the base. Why aren't they running command? I could be calling in with some critical orders here."

He had said it jokingly, but Terel sounded put-out when he answered. "If you are, I'll carry them out immediately, General."

"I know you would. You just keep holding down the fort for us."

"Yes, sir!" he replied enthusiastically.

"I do need to know where everyone else is though."

"Oh, well, they're all over the base, trying to deal with the mess from the earthquakes. You're actually lucky that you caught us while everything's working."

Han suddenly felt a lot worse for leaving kids like Terel in charge. And for his orders before he left... "The quakes really started? Are the Ledagans on the base?"

"Yes and yes," he answered, almost cheerfully. "The quakes started not too long after you left. We got the Ledagans in here pretty quickly after that...kind of fun having them...need more translator..." The static had returned.

"What's wrong with the comm?"

"It's the earthquakes, sir. They've disrupted our..." Terel was interrupted again. He seemed to realize it this time, because he waited for it to pass before continuing. "Our receivers were damaged in the first quakes. The rest of the system is touch-and-go. That's one of the things the captains are working on."

"What about the base? It's still holding together, right?"

"So far. I think this is probably the safest place on the planet. We can take a hit from the falling trees, stuff like that. If the Ledagans had been outside, they would have been running and hiding and probably still wouldn't have been safe."

"Listen, tell the Captains that they're right to try to keep the vital systems on the base up and running," Han said. "You guys need to be alert. I know I was the one who said the Ledagans could stay if they had to, but you're still running our headquarters. And now you've got a couple of freighter loads of civilians to worry about."

"It's more like a whole planet of civilians!" he said. "You wouldn't believe how many people we were able to squeeze into this base."

"That's great," Han said flatly. "But you guys need to stay sharp. Got it?"

"Yes, sir. Of course. I'll make sure the Captains get your instructions."

"You can also tell them that things are going well here. Mostly. I hope to get back to them with a full report once I get a hold of a few other people. And then we'll return to Ledaga as victorious heroes."

"I'm sure you will, sir."

"All right. Han out."

Han sighed heavily, flipping his comm between his fingers.


Han jumped, and found Amee just behind him, underneath the tent. "No, of course not." He tried to convince himself of that. He decided there was too much on Tatooine to worry about to be afraid for those far from the battle on Ledaga. "How long were you eavesdropping?"

"I wasn't."


"Somehow I doubt you were going to reveal some crucial information that would let us drive you out of this city." She gave him a smile that almost seemed sincere. "There's nothing else that I'm terribly interested in."

Han rolled his eyes. "At any rate, I did want to thank you for -"

"Don't," she interrupted. "I told you we weren't here for you, and I meant it."

"Whatever. You helped make the city safe."

"After you came and disrupted it in the first place."

Before Han could answer, Lando's voice interrupted.

"Han, you there, buddy? Come in."

Han raised an eyebrow at Amee, which he thought was a fairly plain sign that he wanted to be alone, but she stayed where she was. He had the feeling she'd follow him if he walked away, so he didn't bother. "Han here. Things sound better on your end, Lando. What the hell's happening out there? Where's Leia?"

"You haven't talked to her?"

"Not since I called her about your situation. Why?"

"Well, then you might not believe this..."

In the background, Han thought he was hearing a Gungan say, "Yousa Rebels helpin' the shop owners," or something like that. It was strange; Han couldn't think of a Gungan in the Rebellion, and they certainly weren't native to Tatooine. "Try me, Lando."

"Leia and Vader showed up here together to help us drive the Tuskens out of Mos Eisley. They ordered all of us to work together."

Han found himself staring at his comm as if it were some foreign object he had never seen before. Even Amee, who had been standing nearby straight-faced, could no longer pretend she wasn't listening. She glanced at him, and said, "What the hell does that mean?"

"You took the words right out of my mouth...Lando, what the hell does that mean?"

"I've been working with the Imperial Officers here to get things under control. Those were Leia's orders. And Vader's."

"Put her on."


"Put Leia on," Han snapped. "I need to talk to her."

"Can't do that. She isn't here now." He paused. "She and Vader flew out of here awhile ago. I don't know where they went."

"She left without saying anything?"

"They were gone so fast...I don't know, Han. They were racing out of here."

Han was stunned. Leia, working with Vader? Now? "Are things under control there?"

"They're getting better."

"Fine. I gotta find Leia. Han out."

He barely looked at Amee as he left the tent to head for the center square. She followed him closely. He found Seek with a Rebel commander, and he looked back at Amee. "I'm leaving. Try to keep things the way they are."

"What?" she said in disbelief.

"Keep watching the city, all of you." He looked pointedly at Seek. "Don't start a fight. We still outnumber you, and you'll lose. Keep your city safe."

His commander asked, "But where are you going?"

"I'm going to Imperial HQ. I need to try and figure out what the hell is going on. That seems like a good place to start."

All three looked at each other and nodded their acknowledgement. That was enough for Han. If Leia was crazy enough to work with Vader, this little Imperial-Rebel collaboration would be simple in comparison.

Han found himself a speeder, and sped toward the headquarters.

There wasn't enough moisture on Tatooine for mud to occur naturally, and Lando was momentarily puzzled at the muck on his shoes as he crossed the battle site. Then he looked at the bodies being carried away, realized what the moisture in the sand was, and leaned against the wall until the wave of nausea passed.

I'm not cut out for this, he thought. No way. I make deals and speeches. I'll fly a space battle, where everything is icy and clean. But mud that smells like oxidizing iron and bodies being put under tarps to protect them from the sand? Not my game.

But it had become his game, and he knew it. He'd made one deal too many, betrayed a friend, and now he had to do his time in hell for it.

All of which was great in theory, except that he wasn't one of the bodies under the tarp. What had they done for the privilege of being bit players in his private atonement?

"Yousa not being in the war very long, eh?"

Lando looked up. Ter Caldo was standing beside him, leaning against the wall in a casual way that made him look like a street tough on a corner on Coruscant. "Not long," he answered.

Ter Caldo sniffed and nodded. "Mesa bein' in the Rebellion for fifteen, mebbe twenty years before Hersa Majesty coming to the Empire. Mesa seein' lotsa this."

"Do you get used to it?"

"No. Yousa never getting used to it. When Hersa Majesty comin' to the throne, mesa thinkin' it's all being over. But yousa pickin' a new fight." He sighed. "Mesa muy sorry," he said. "This not being the time. Wesa all bein' tired. And da Vader and yousa Princess wanting us to be working together."

Lando wasn't sure what to say, so he just nodded, leaning his head back against the wall. The nausea was gone, though the nagging thought of what he had all over his shoes wasn't. The fighting was over. Rebels were rebuilding an area around the square. Imperials had taken to counting the survivors and analyzing the damage. As Lando watched, the Rebel medic for the mission, Hatwa, made his presence known to an Imperial guard, then knelt beside a human woman who didn't appear to be injured, but who was weeping uncontrollably and hiding her face. She scuttled away when Hatwa touched her arm.

Ter Caldo was blinking his large protruding eyes, clearly expecting some sort of answer, but Lando was saved by the high-pitched hailing bark of a Wookieee. With relief, Lando waved at him, and gave his best approximation of a Wookieee greeting. Chewbacca rolled his eyes and barked something about humans not trying to do things they weren't suited to do.

He was in the company of several men, some clearly recently recruited smugglers and pirates, whose only concession to the command structure had been tying bright cloths around their arms to identify themselves as combatants. Three young regular Rebels tagged along, looking at the older men with great admiration. When they noticed Ter Caldo in Her Ladyship's uniform, all of them stopped.

Chewbacca shook his head, gave a few short barks, then launched into a long question that - if Lando remembered his Wookieee right - boiled down to "What's really going on?" There was something in there about Leia and Vader, and Lando thought he could probably reconstruct the rest of the question himself.

"Yeah, they came in together," he said, and was glad to see by Chewie's face that it did, in fact, address the question. "Decided that the Tuskens were a worse problem than the battle, and told us to work things out here."

Chewie's growl was only questioning, but the looks on the faces of the men in his little platoon looked flatly suspicious.

Lando nodded. "Look, you all know how bad it was here. I don't know what made Vader decide to drop in -"

"Deesa people being hurt!" Ter Caldo interjected, standing away from the wall and taking up a defensive stance. "The Empress and hersa Lord aren't standing still while theysa people being murdered!"

"Yeah, right," one of the smugglers said. "Unless 'theysa people' think 'theysa' full of -"

Lando held up a hand to stop him, and it miraculously worked. He gave Ter Caldo a look that he hoped said, "Be a leader and don't start anything." It may have worked, or Ter Caldo may have come to the conclusion on his own.

"Leia and Vader came in together. If two people who disagree that strongly and that frequently can manage to work together, I suppose we can."

The smuggler just waved his hand in an irritated way, but the young Rebel behind him bit a full lip and looked up. Lando realized for the first time that this one was a woman. She was thin and flat-chested, and had worn her hair in a short style... but it was obvious that she'd recently started growing it. It was just at the slightly-out-of-control stage, not long enough to be grabbed by the things ladies used to hold their hair, but not short enough to stay in place by itself. It looked like a mop on her head. A lot of the women on the base had started to grow their hair when Leia had returned. "Sir... " she said hesitantly. "I... That is, we were wondering... "

"Has your Princess dumped us here?" the smuggler asked. "Gone back to Mommy and Daddy like we figured she would?"

The young woman looked miserable, but nodded.

Lando didn't know the right way to answer that, because the fact seemed to be that Leia was with her parents, at Imperial HQ, and probably talking with them, given the way she'd acted in concert with Vader. That she had good reasons wouldn't make much difference to this man.

Chewie growled threateningly.

The young woman pushed her too-long hair back, using a string to keep it away from her face a little. She looked wounded. "Please, General Calrissian... tell us. Is the Princess still with us?"

"That one, I can answer," Lando said, praying that he was right. "The Princess is one of us. She's the first of us. Don't doubt it. Whatever she's doing with her parents, it will be with the interests of the people of the galaxy in mind. Believe it."

I hope.

"What does she say?"

"Her comlink is inactive."

"Did they kill her?"

"I don't know." But thanks for giving me something it hadn't occurred to me to worry about yet.

"When will we know?" one of the other pirates, a taciturn Rodian with a great red scar down his green face, asked.

Lando shrugged. "Look, I'll head up to headquarters. I'm guessing that's where they are. I'll find out what the situation is. Han is already on his way -"

"Great!" the smuggler exclaimed waving his open hand at the sky. "Now they're both just dropping out on -"

He didn't finish the sentence, because Chewbacca had grabbed his neck with both hands and started to crush.

Lando put a hand on the Wookieee's arm. "I think he gets the point, Chewbacca. Let him up."

Chewie didn't obey the order immediately, though Lando could see by the man's face that the grip's intensity had let up. Chewie was going through a long string of curses and insults.

Lando looked at Ter Caldo. "Do you speak Wookieee?"

Ter Caldo shrugged. "Mesa knowin' enough to know hism sayin' things hesa mother not liking much."

"That's about where I am. Good enough." He looked up. "Chewie, let him up and listen to me."

Chewbacca let go of the smuggler and barked an interrogation.

"Can you keep these guys under control?"

Thought. A few affirmative yelps. A shrug.

"Good. Work with Ter Caldo. He sort of understands you."

Chewbacca looked flabbergasted, then barked in a soft way - trying not to be heard - that he wasn't sure how well he understood the Gungan dialect of Basic.

"You'll get the hang of it. I trust you. I'm just going to make a run out to Imperial HQ and see what's happening there. You've got command of the Rebels."

Chewie nodded.

"Try not to strangle them."


Lando grinned. "I'll see you in a couple of hours. Keep them out of trouble 'til then."

With that, he left - avoiding the horrible mud patches - and made his way out of town, looking for a vehicle. He found an abandoned Rebel speederbike at the end of a long alley leading away from the battle, climbed on, and headed out into the desert.

Han leapt off his speeder before it had come to a stop, his sense of trepidation growing with every moment that he didn't know what was happening with Leia.

There were no guards or officers at the main entrance to Imperial Headquarters to take notice of his arrival. He could hear occasional blaster shots and yelled order coming from the inside. It seemed Alpha Squadron had been busy during the time they had ignored his hails.

Han wondered if he had been wrong - if Leia and Vader had dashed off for somewhere else. He couldn't imagine Vader allowing this battle to continue, and Leia hadn't wanted Alpha Squadron to charge the base in the first place. They certainly would have gotten things under control by now, wouldn't they?

He frowned, and then decided that it didn't matter what seemed to be going on inside. He couldn't start searching the whole planet for her, and couldn't think of anywhere else that would be more likely for them to wind up. He readied his blaster, and ran inside.

The hallways rooms he first passed were empty. There were scorch marks on the walls, and occasionally blood on the floor. He decided that would be as good a trail to follow as any, and kept moving to wherever the battle was being waged now.

He had almost reached the main Command Center according to his memory of the layout plans before he began to see Imperial Officers in any great numbers. They were running all over the place, and none of them seemed to take any notice of him. They dragged their injured away and barked orders at each other. They seemed to be trying to regroup.

Now, Han was really worried. There was no chance that Vader was commanding this bunch. Where the hell was he? Where was Leia?

Han ducked, as a blast flew by his head, barely missing him. He was almost at the Center now.

As he closed the last of the distance, he suddenly felt a hand latch onto his arm, and yank him aside. He instinctively struck out at whoever grabbed him, and looked down to see Athuli stumbling to the ground.

Han helped him up quickly, but didn't waste time apologizing. "What the hell is going on?" he asked.

Athuli rubbed the bruise that was forming on his face. Then he said, "I tried to stop them! They don't even know what they're doing any more! They're fighting for no reason now."

"Where's Leia?"

"I don't know," Athuli snapped. "She left. She ordered us not to storm the base, but they want a shot at the Empress. They're not happy that they haven't found her yet. That's the only reason they're keeping this up."

"So, the Empress isn't anywhere on the base? Are you sure?" Han thought this could be the best possible news. Until Alpha Squadron settled down, he didn't want any of them finding Leia with Vader, or with her mother. He just wanted her somewhere safe for now - if he could bring himself to call being with her parents safe.

Athuli shrugged. "I don't know. Most of the squadron is in there -" he gestured to the Command Center " - or in the guard tower. That's where most of the Imperials were when we first got inside. A few others ran off, but I'd think they would have reported back if they had found her.

"She wouldn't exactly be unguarded," Han answered. "Anyone foolish enough to go after her without the rest of the squad might not have had the chance to call back." Han pulled up his blaster again, and waved Athuli forward. "Come on, let's get these guys calmed down."

Athuli gave him an almost comical look of skepticism and aggravation, but he followed.

Han went in yelling instead of firing. "Cease fire! Alpha Squadron, stand down!" Han took a look around the Center, and could immediately see what Athuli had meant - the Imperials that were in the room and not injured were outnumbered, and crouched behind a large console, trying to dodge fire. The Rebels were firing at them blindly, apparently not realizing that they already had control of the room, even with some Imperials left standing. "Cease fire!" He was almost directly in front of the Rebels now, and a few of them were trying to shoot around him. "That's an order, Alpha Squadron!"

Eventually, the blasters were silenced, and the squad's attention focused on Han. The Imperials stared and waited.

"General Solo!" Arralla said, looking too pleased with herself, and too disappointed that the fighting had been interrupted. "Here to help us get the Empress?"

Han's first instinct was to say "No!" and then launch into a tirade about them not following orders, and fighting so foolishly as they made their way through the base. His second instinct was to say, "No!" followed by, "The hell with all of you!" and go find Leia, which was all he really cared about at this point anyway. Luckily, his better thinking managed to overcome his instincts, and he decided on focusing on a way to diffuse the situation instead.

"No," he said, "I'm here to tell you guys to get the base under control."

"But -"

"The Empress isn't here, Arralla. She high-tailed it out of the base the minute you guys got inside. The rest of the planet is relatively...calm. You're fighting for nothing. I need you guys to cut it out, and focus on holding this section of the base."

The lie about the Empress - well, Han wasn't certain it was a lie - had the intended effect. He could almost feel the air go out of the room: the Rebels had lost their driving cause, and the wild look left some of their eyes. The Imperials no longer felt they had to hold the Rebels back from finding Lady Vader, and they were relieved. Han let the moment hang, wanting to allow the let-down to sink in on both sides as much as possible.

Finally, he said, "Secure this part of the base, and then sit tight, okay?"

Arralla frowned. "What about the rest of the base? I'm sure there are still Imperials guarding -"

"Arralla," he said impatiently, "you're still only one squadron. You can't take the entire headquarters, and you know it. Hold the Command Center and the guard tower. That's an order." He gave her his most pointed glare. "Do you think you can handle that until I come back?"

She looked more than a little offended. "Of course we can."

"Good. Make sure the rest of your squad knows what their orders are then. If there's any trouble, I'm holding you personally responsible. I've got other things to take care of, and I don't want to be dragged back here because you all are trigger-happy. Got it?" Han waited for a few mumbled, "Yes, sirs" and then abruptly grabbed Athuli and pulled him out of the center. Once Han felt they were out of earshot, he asked, "The other people you mentioned, do you have any idea where they took off to?"

"The basement maybe," he answered. "They wanted to 'liberate' the servants, I think."

Han nodded, and glanced back at Arralla and her people. They were rounding up the Imperials - probably being rougher than they had to be, but they weren't so eager to shoot at anything in an Imperial uniform any more. "All right, I'll be back soon, with new orders...do what you can to keep things settled."

This time Han didn't even wait for a response. He was running to the nearest lift, and heading down for the basement level.

He found nothing there but servants weeping and consoling one another. Han had no idea what to make of it, but consoled himself with the thought that no one here would shed tears if something happened to Leia.

There were Rebels lying in the hallway, shot dead and left behind. Apparently the few that had come down here had managed to cause some trouble before -


Leia - that was Leia's voice coming from a room that was guarded by several Imperial Officers. She came running past them and flung herself into his arms. He held her tightly for a few seconds, but then tried to push her away so he could see her. She resisted, but Han could see her face was tear-streaked and flushed, and her eyes were bloodshot. She was trembling.

Han wanted nothing more than to get her the hell out of there, no matter what had happened, but she was now pulling him back to the room she had run out of, waving off the guards, who were eyeing him warily. "Leia, what's happened? What's wrong?" She continued to drag him along. "Where's Vader? Are you all right?"

They entered the room and Lady Vader stood, looking as shaky as Leia did. Han barely noticed her. He saw Luke, lying on top of a bed, with one of his mother's veils covering part of his body.

"Luke?" he started to ask. But he already knew. Luke was dead. "Damn," he whispered, curling his arm around Leia and drawing her closer to him.

Han had been so furious at Luke for so long that even now, looking at his old friend's lifeless body, he couldn't quell the first wave of anger that he felt. But it came, and it passed, and Han wondered what good carrying a grudge to the grave would do. Luke had done some terrible, traitorous things, and if Han had been given a real opportunity, he thought he might have wrung the kid's neck without much of a second thought...The kid...that's all Luke was really, even after everything that happened. Just a wide-eyed kid. Whatever he had done, Han couldn't help thinking that Luke didn't deserve to wind up like this.

How had he wound up like this?

"Han?" Leia whispered.

"Damn," was all Han could manage to say in response. He almost asked if Alpha Squadron had done it, but Leia's anguish was so acute that he knew the answer without being explicitly told. Leia's own squadron had killed her brother, in an attempt to kill her mother. Whatever the Vaders were, and whatever they had done - how was Leia supposed to deal with this? "Leia, I'm sorry." She looked away. "What do you want to do now?"

To his surprise, Leia looked to her mother. Han took real notice of Lady Vader for the first time. She was standing next to the bed, looking drained and depressed. When she spoke her words were slow, deliberate. "We have to stop this. This has to end here."

Han wasn't sure what that meant in her mind, though he had to admit that despite what happened, she didn't seem nearly as crazy as Leia had described her. He had thought she'd be hysterical, but she was composed. Han supposed she could be in shock. Some traumas were just too much to deal with.

"Yes," said a voice at the door to the room, and Han and Leia turned to see Vader standing behind them. "We must bring an end to this conflict, Leia."

Han cleared his throat. Vader didn't acknowledge him, or take his eyes off Leia. Han continued anyway. "I think the fighting upstairs has mostly stopped. For now. But the Rebels are in control of several key areas of your base."

Vader still didn't turn his head on Han's direction. His breathing went through several cycles. "I'm not speaking solely of the base, or of Tatooine. I do not intend to end things here, and then fight another day. I am suggesting that we end this."

Leia's eyes were enormously wide, and they looked back and forth between her parents, trying to find understanding. Lady Vader didn't react at all.

"End it?" Han finally said, stunned. "You...you can't be ready to surrender..."

"No," Vader answered.

"Then - then what do you want to talk about?" Han asked. "You want to negotiate for a 'better' Empire?"

Lady Vader rolled her eyes, and for a second, Han thought she was going to swoon. But she pulled herself back, and brought her eyes to rest on Leia. "I can't fight you any more. But I'm not going to abandon the galaxy to anarchy and chaos because you think that's preferable to my rule. So we have to find another way." She sighed. "Really, we want many of the same things -"

"Mother," Leia said.

"We do."

"You have never wanted those things in practice," Leia whispered wearily. "You just want to be the person who talks about doing them eventually. In the meantime, you do almost the exact opposite of what you say you want to do."

"And what have you done here, Leia? Have you done anything for the people of Tatooine that you say you wanted to do?" asked Vader. "Or have you done the opposite?"

"I've fixed what happened in Mos Eisley."

"And will you fix the next planet? Will you do it alone if I am not there to help you?" Vader shook his head slowly. "I am not willing to wait for this family's mistakes to destroy us again."

Leia looked up at Han, and he simply shook his head. He had no idea whether they should be believed. He also didn't know which way would be more dangerous for her - to continue to fight them, or to trust them.

She looked at both parents again, then said, "We at least must decide what is going to happen on Tatooine. Here at the base and out in Mos Eisley. Maybe...maybe from there, there are other things we can discuss."

"Yes," Lady Vader said, "I think that we can do that."

"But," Leia continued, "this has to be done in good faith. Which means that everything is on the table. This can't just be a ploy to keep me out of harm's way, or something done because we all feel...because of...Luke. Our issues with the Empire are fundamental ones. If you honestly think you want to discuss them..."

"We can discuss them," Vader said flatly. "But if you believe you're going to force your mother to abdicate her throne -"

"She cannot keep it in the fashion it exists in now," Leia said. "That is the reason we're fighting."

"That is not -"

"Ani," Lady Vader murmured. "I am not ready to return to the fight. We should begin with Tatooine. Resolve the situation on this base, and in Mos Eisley."

"Very well," Vader said. "We should all go back into the main section of the base, and bring our people under control. We can continue from there."

Han felt Leia take his hand, and squeeze it fiercely. She nodded to her father. Vader went to the bed, and picked Luke up. Lady Vader led them all out of the room and back upstairs. The fighting would be stopped for good, and Luke would be properly tended to. Then the four of them would continue their talks.

Amidala leaned on Leia as the turbolift carried them into the upper levels, toward the command center. Leia's lover - Han, his name was Han - stood awkwardly to one side. Amidala felt some instinct to tell him not to be afraid, but she was unable to act on it. A kind of paralysis seemed to have come over her. Words came only with difficulty, and when she moved, it felt like she was fighting a rough current.

In front of her, Ani stood stock still, his mechanical arms supporting Luke's limp form easily. He was still wrapped in the veil, which kept his poor arms from dangling, but his face was uncovered, and her eyes traced his profile, recording it. It would be gone soon.

Only this morning, when he had laughed and smiled as they shared stories over breakfast, she had been able to think of him as a baby, as a child... she could feel the potential of the life they had missed together hovering everywhere.

But now?

It was gone. All of the fantasies, all of the half-memories... just gone. Reality was the still, limp form in Ani's arms.

The door of the turbolift opened, and Ani led them out into the base. Imperial officers stood to attention. Rebel officers who were ostensibly guarding them simply gaped. Amidala didn't react. She felt Leia straighten up beside her. The Rebels moved to attention.

Ani laid Luke down on top of a natural stone bier which had been left as an architectural feature of the command center, then rearranged the veil into something better approximating a shroud, although he folded it down to continue exposing Luke's face. Slowly, he closed the bright blue eyes.

I'll never see them again, Amidala thought.

She tried to remember those eyes on the night he was born. She could see them, far away and small... she'd thought they were so like Ani's, except lighter and clearer. But she couldn't make the memory live, as she had been able to for so long. The veil of time had been drawn across it.

Ani set up Imperial guards to stand beside Luke's body while he lay in state; Han insisted that the Rebels provide one guard as well. To them, he said it was because Luke had served honorably in the Rebellion. To the family, he said quietly that he didn't want a war around "the kid's body." Amidala registered this, but didn't respond to it. It seemed sensible, and she had nothing to add.

When it was done, Han looked at her. "Ma'am," he said, "are you up to talks?"

Amidala glanced at Leia and Ani and noticed for the first time that both of them had oriented themselves toward her in a protective way, as though they were afraid she would break at Han's question. Leia's face was a study in miserable conflict. Amidala touched her arm. "The last thing I want to think about right now is the war," she said. "But there is no choice." She took a deep breath, then stepped away from Luke's body and went into an empty conference room off the command center. It had been richly appointed, meant for high-level meetings between the Guard and Imperial High Command.

Amidala looked carefully at the high-backed chair created to be a throne. If she didn't take it, the symbolism would be clear: she was willing to negotiate the tenuous hold the Empire had on the galaxy. If she did take it, the meaning would be equally clear: she meant to retain her throne even against her daughter, at this of all times.

She took it.

Whatever Leia thought, the galaxy was not ready to go back to the Republic. Too much had happened; the paths had split too far.

Leia understood immediately, and sighed heavily, pulling out a chair to Amidala's right. Han sat beside her. Ani remained standing.

"This is not a family meeting," Amidala said. "Except by coincidence. We're here to solve problems. And I don't know the answers."

She let the silence build. Through the still open door, she could see Luke's head and shoulders on the bier. She wanted to spin a fantasy, bring him back to life, wonder where they might be right now if things were different. But the reality simply lay there, unmoving, unyielding, and her mind would not cooperate.

Han spoke first. "Do you know why they're crazy out there? Do you know what your Guards have been up to?"

Ani stepped forward threateningly. "Reconsider the tone with which you address your Empress."

Amidala held up a hand.

"They killed a woman for not closing her saloon at curfew."

"The law is the law," Ani said. "It was a regrettable overreaction, but the curfew is intended to protect citizens from criminal behavior -"

"Father!" Leia moved her hand as if she meant to strike the table, then set it deliberately down beside her comlink instead. "Don't you understand, that's the problem? You can't manage people the way you set out to. They won't cooperate. And because your laws are absolute and no appeal is permitted, you're always going to end up with 'regrettable overreactions.' And the Empire ends up being the criminal."

"Perhaps better training of the Guard in matters of -"

Leia let out an explosive breath. "It's not going to work."

"You have yet to provide acceptable reasoning of that premise," Ani said. "You take on faith that your republican ideal is preferable to the government taking some responsibility for the safety of its citizens -"

"The Republic I have in mind would do so -"

"As it did when it allowed Palpatine to rise in the first place?"

"Please," Amidala whispered. "This is not productive."

Ani and Leia both stopped talking. They had each heard the other's position many times.

Han Solo spoke first again. "We need to get Tatooine settled once and for all," he said. "Before you say it, we know it's a mess we made. One of your loyalists in Mos Espa reminded me about that before I left, just in case I forgot. But the mess is here, and we have to do something about it."

"On that matter, there is little disagreement."

Amidala wished Ani would sit down if he planned to join the discussion, but knew he wouldn't. He had no wish to be a politician, only the champion of what he had once called "someone wise." She took a deep breath. She wanted to go to sleep, to find a dark room and wrap herself in shadows and shame. But she had a job to do. She reached deliberately into her mind for language, found it, forced it out. "We have accomplished a temporary truce here, and it has been done very quickly. We should reinforce it."

"What do you have in mind?"

Quiet, Amidala thought. Calm. Just go back to the beginning and start again. But she looked again at Luke, still unmoving, and the fantasies still wouldn't come. "I don't know."

"We got everyone mostly on the same page in Mos Espa," Han said. "And it sounded like you guys actually got the armies working together in Mos Eisley -"

"For now," Leia said. "But if we don't come up with some kind of workable joint command, it's going to collapse as soon as they figure out that the Tuskens are back in their camps."

"Then setting up a joint command is where we better start." Han looked over Amidala's shoulder. "Think we can work that out with the military, Lord Vader?"

"The Imperial military will follow orders. Can you say the same for your Rebels?"

Amidala, who had very little contact with the military, felt her mind begin to drift. Luke was dead. It seemed to keep coming to that inscrutable truth. Luke, whose terrified cries when Obi-Wan had taken him from her had followed her down through the years, was lying on a cold stone with his eyes closed forever. He shouldn't be there. He should be...

But she couldn't create the story of where he should be.

She pulled herself back up. She needed to know what was being planned.

Han was thinking hard about Ani's question. Amidala wasn't sure if he'd given an answer or not - he might have, while she'd drifted - but if he had, it had apparently not been accepted. Which was fair enough... if Leia was telling the truth, the Rebel army was close to full scale mutiny, in which case peace talks might prove useless.

At last, Han looked up. "I think that the ones who... who did this... are pretty much in the minority. Most of them have their problems, but I think that they'll try it if we order them to."

"And those who will not?"

Han didn't answer. Leia did. "Those who won't, Father, will find out that military discipline isn't unique to the Empire. I won't have my people turning into nothing more than vigilantes."

Beside her hand, her comlink suddenly came to life. She stared at it. "It could be an emergency," she said. "We have a lot of people in battle, and that's a command code from Alpha Squadron. The one that's here."

"Take it," Amidala told her.

Leia nodded and picked it up. "Organa."

"This is Athuli, Ma'am," someone said. "General Calrissian has just arrived from Mos Eisley. Says he wants to see you and General Solo. I told him you were in a meeting."

Calrissian. It took Amidala a moment to place the name, but when she did, she was astounded. All Leia's talk of betrayal, and she had accepted as an ally the man who had sold her to the Empire in the first place?

Whatever Leia's motives, though, Amidala wanted Calrissian here. She had found him to be a capable administrator on Bespin, and maybe he could help them sort out this local mess.

And then they could move on to the rest of it.

"Have him join us," she said.

Leia raised an eyebrow, but didn't argue.

Lando stepped into the conference room, and felt like he had entered some other reality. There they were, the Empress and Vader, Leia and Han, sitting around a conference table, as though this were just another meeting, or some perfectly reasonable occurrence. They all looked weary - well, Vader looked like Vader, and stood there and breathed - and the grief from Luke's death was written over all their faces. Still, they were together, and didn't seem particularly shocked or troubled by that fact. He had led the Rebels and Imperials officers in Mos Eisley, and had seen them work together, and thought it was a remarkable thing. This was honestly unbelievable.

Leia gestured toward one of the chairs, and Lando slowly took a seat.

"So," Han finally said, "you ask to be in on this..."

"And what, exactly, is this?" Lando asked, unable to hide his confusion. He couldn't remember his voice ever sounding quite this incredulous.

Leia looked like she understood what he was feeling. "This is...an attempt," she began, "to reach an agreement. Between our two sides."

"I see," Lando said. "And what exactly has been agreed to so far?"

"Not much," Han said bluntly.

"We were hoping for your help, Baron," the Empress said, her voice cool and distant. "Since you've worked for all of us, on both sides at various times, we assumed you could provide us with some needed insight."

Her words hit their mark, and Lando couldn't help feeling stung at essentially being called a traitor once again.

But Han and Leia hadn't reacted at all, and Lando realized he shouldn't take the bait. There were real questions that needed to be addressed here, and getting upset about old betrayals - on either side, on anyone's side - would only be counter-productive. "I'd be happy to help, Your Majesty."

"We have decided to bring both Rebel and Imperial troops on Tatooine under a central command," Vader declared.

"And we haven't figured out exactly how that's going to work," Han added.

Vader straightened his back, making him appear even taller than he already was. "You claimed that the Rebels would listen to orders."

"Who's going to be giving them?" Han asked. "Who will they report to? Who's running things here? Us?"

"I thought the wisest course of action would be -"

"- to let you run everything, while we go along with it," Leia finished for him. "If this is a joint, equal command, it shouldn't matter if it's us giving out the orders. You still don't trust us enough to work with us. You want us to turn everything over to you."

"Leia," the Empress said, her voice a near whisper, "this isn't a simple matter of trust. If you say your men will work with ours, we believe you. But the fact of the matter is you lead a renegade, revolutionary group, one that is willing to fight and kill for the so-called ideals of a failed Republic." She sighed. "We have no desire to turn everything over to you either."

"And that puts us back at our impasse, doesn't it?" Leia sat back in chair and glanced at Han, and then she turned her gaze on Lando. She was curious to see if either of them could find a way out. "We can't seem to deal with Tatooine unless we deal with the larger issues."

Vader shook his head, and he paced his way over behind his wife's throne. "She will not abdicate, Leia."

"The strength of the Empire, the strength of my position, is needed," Lady Vader added.

"Maybe she's right."

The words were out so quickly, that Lando had no chance to stop them, or even think them all the way through. He wanted to take them back, or correct them or clarify them, but Han and Leia were glaring at him furiously, and he wasn't sure what to say. He wasn't yet fully sure of what he meant.

He tried though, "That isn't what I meant...I mean...what I think is..."

"Lando!" Han snapped.

"All right, all right," he said. He took a deep breath. "What I mean, is that the position of Empress is not the problem. We're not arguing about a title. It's that she has all the power. It's that everything is completely centralized under her authority, and -"

"No offense, Lando, but you do realize that that's pretty much the definition of an Empress," Han said, cutting him off. "That's what they do. They control everything. They rule everyone. So what the hell are you talking about?"

"We're arguing about the power. That's what I'm trying to say." He threw up his hands in frustration. "Why does her power have to be absolute?"

Lando fully expected that the answer he'd get would be Han yelling, "Because she's the Empress!" But before he could get out a reply, Leia's face changed completely, and she leaned forward over the table. Lando could practically see an idea - or several - forming in her head, and he hoped she'd be more coherent in explaining herself than he had been about his ideas. The attention of the room was now focused on her, as she silently thought about, and reconsidered what she should say.

"Leia?" Han said, "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking...I'm thinking that I've never heard of this being done with someone called 'Empress' - but that Lando might be right. There are democratic monarchies. I'm part of one, I was part of one. So were you," she added, staring pointedly at her mother. "On Alderaan, we had a royal family to lead the planet, because of our traditions and history. But outside our family, in other parts of the government, there were elected officers and leaders, and a binding law. We were always aware of our place in the way things were supposed to work." She was still staring at the Empress. "Maybe what we should be focused on is making you more aware."

Lando nodded to himself, relieved that Leia had picked up his unfinished thought and run with it, turning it into what sounded like a workable premise. To him, at least.

Han looked skeptical, but said nothing. Lady Vader gripped her armrests tightly, and her husband paced slowly behind her. He was sharp when he spoke. "I am still unclear as to what you're actually suggesting, Leia."

"Mother has advisors, and governors and Senators - she's kept up the appearance of a normal, functioning government. If things were changed, so that the Senators, or the regional governors were legitimately elected by the people of those systems..."

"...and those positions were given their own powers," Han said, "and were sharing some of the control over the military and the rest of the infrastructure..."

"You'd have a real, working government," Lando finished.

Leia was nodding along with what they were saying. "With Mother still at the head of it. And that would allay many of your concerns about maintaining stability through the change, wouldn't it?"

Lady Vader was shaking her head as if she were trying to clear it of something. "It's the Republic with a different name. You want to make me an ineffective Chancellor, dealing with corruption and bureaucrats. You just hope the galaxy won't notice because they trust me, and because I'm already the Empress."

"That would be part of it," Lando conceded. "If it's a change instead of an outright overthrow, people will certainly be more accepting of whatever's decided."

"But it doesn't have to be the Old Republic," Leia said. "The two of you need to let go of that time as much as we should remember it in trying to avoid making the same mistakes. We'll help you move on, and you help us avoid the pitfalls of the past. It doesn't have to be the same as the Chancellorship was. We can work something else out."

"I don't understand - you want the Emperor or Empress elected? To terms? By this new Senate of yours? To leave me or whoever at the whim of political factions and alliances again?" Lady Vader asked in disbelief.

"What's the alternative?" Han asked. "Heredity?"

Lando knew the tone Han had used, and that he had meant for the suggestion to be taken in a flippant way. But the Empress and Leia snapped to attention, looking at Han, and then at each other.

The idea clearly hit close to Lady Vader's heart. Her whole demeanor softened. "I could hardly oppose that," she whispered.

Leia looked like she wanted to protest, but saw that her mother was considering a compromise, if only because the hope existed that she would be able to pass the reins on to her daughter after all. And Leia did not want to stop her from thinking along those lines. She said, carefully, "I wouldn't accept the position the way it is now, Mother."

Her mother swallowed hard, and looked up into her husband's mask. Lando couldn't begin to guess what passed between them, or what is was she could possibly see when she looked at him. After a moment, she closed her eyes. She didn't reopen them when she started to speak.

"Appointment of the regional governors is critical," she said. "There is no way for a leader to maintain contact and control over the further reaches of the galaxy without having trusted people in those positions. They must be selected."

Leia face relaxed ever so slightly, and an expression of hope came through. "The Senate, though, must be elected. All of them. Perhaps a Chancellor can be chosen by them to work with you - with the Empress. Or maybe the Empress and the Senate can choose one together, somehow. That might help with the day-to-day running of the government."

The Empress opened her eyes. "Perhaps."

Lando caught Han's eye, and they both quietly sat back in their seats. Vader had also seemed to step back from the throne. They mostly watched as Leia and her mother worked together, trying to find a way to fix the galaxy.  

Part 5

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