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Ascension of the Queen - Part 5
by ami-padme and FernWithy

Piett finally took his eyes off the chrono on the wall. He had been watching it obsessively for hours. For too many hours. It had been more than long enough since he had last been able to raise anyone on Tatooine, since Imperial communications all over the galaxy had started crashing.

She had said, explicitly, that she would trust his judgment. That he was to act if something catastrophic occurred.

Piett rose, staring at his various senior officers whom he had consulted about this decision. Most seemed eager for something - anything - to be done at this point. His eyes finally rested on Dihave. "Is the weapon prepared for launch?"

He nodded, looking unusually sobered. "Yes, sir."

"Sir," said General Temlik, "may I remind you that the Empress has always placed a high priority on sparing civilian lives."

"You already have reminded me of that," Piett said. "Several times. I must act according to Her Majesty's last orders."

"May I also remind you that it's obvious that the majority of Rebels are on Tatooine fighting, not on the base on Ledaga?" Temlik asked.

"Noted," Piett said. "I am aware of this situation, General. A decision needs to be made. It is my responsibility to make it."

Dihave rose from his chair. "It will take some time for the weapon to reach the base, sir. The propulsion systems are still in development, and it's been outfitted with standard engines. But once it arrives, the destruction should be total."

Piett stood to full attention. It was time. This had to be done. "I order you to launch the weapon against the Rebel base."

Dihave saluted him, and marched resolutely to the control console. It only took a few, quick keystrokes. The missile was launched.

Around the galaxy, the Empire was beginning to awaken to the news coming from Tatooine.


Phenin Ometak heard Temodi's voice, but he didn't want to talk to her right now. They'd hit enough rough patches in the three years they'd been sort-of-dating, sort-of-not that by now she should know better than to try and talk to him right in the middle of one. It was hard enough having to dance together every day, playing Lord Vader and his Empress like they were crazy in love, without having to come up with some deep and meaningful conversation about why their own relationship sometimes hit spots when they couldn't stand the sight of one another. The spots always passed. Phenin figured this one would, too.

He turned his back on her and started the duel routine, trying to imagine Kemizon Vum dancing the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi a meter or so away. Kemizon would be taking over the part next week; Ambris Tagio had managed to break his ankle in their last performance.

But Temodi Meiem was not easy to dissuade, once she had an idea in her head.

He came down from a complex leap that he'd invented for the routine and landed as softly as he could, but before he could move forward, he felt her small hands on his shoulders. She must have climbed onto the stage with her usual grace, completely silent.

He whirled on her. "All right, Temodi. Fine. You want to talk?"

She shook her head, and he noticed now, up close, that she was pale and her dark eyes were wide. She carried a handheld holoprojector. "I... Phenin, something's happening. You'll want to know about it. I want you with me while I know about it."

His irritation with her vanished as quickly as it seemed to have appeared. He sat down on the stage, and pulled her hand to sit down beside him. She did, gratefully, and squeezed his hand once before letting go to turn on the holoproj. She set it down on the floor between them.

Right now, all Phenin could see was a newsperson he didn't recognize - Twi'lek, male, dressed in what looked like an old flight suit. Temodi hadn't turned the sound on.

"The Empress was supposed to initiate a new Guard this morning," she said. "Remember, on Tatooine?"

Phenin nodded, though he remembered nothing of the sort. Playing Lord Vader had not particularly changed his outlook on the political life of the galaxy - he simply didn't care about most of it, though he had a vague liking for Her Majesty and wished the New Empire well. It was certainly an improvement on the old one, and it was good to have non-humans back in the Ostunu School again. But Temodi had adored the Empress since she'd first appeared as Lady Vader. She'd taken to wearing a wisp of a red veil clipped into her hair early on (this had later been dropped) and, like so many other girls, had stylized scars tattooed on her back. Temodi's were decorated with a floral pattern that lit up in gold when Phenin traced it with his fingers, which always delighted him in ways he never entirely understood.

It had been her idea to choreograph the story of the Empress, and going to Theed to perform it had been the highlight of her career. Her adoration of Lady Vader had turned into what Phenin could only call genuine love. He'd discovered it accidentally when he'd made a risqué suggestion about the veils, and she had treated him as though he'd insulted her personally. Ever since then, he'd been careful not to show anything but complete respect for the Empress.

Temodi took his nod at face value. "Her convoy was attacked when it left Naboo yesterday. I heard about that, but they said it was all over and no damage was done."

"That's good, then, right?"

She bit a trembling lip, then tears spilled out of her eyes. "I thought that was it! I thought it was over! But they attacked again this morning, on Tatooine, and... and... "

Phenin put his arms around her, not understanding her grief or needing to. "What is it, Tems? What happened?"

"No one knows, exactly. It was bad. Then we started losing communications everywhere. All the official channels are acting up. Weird things are coming through and nothing's going where it's supposed to be." She gestured at the holoproj. "This is an underground broadcast. The reporter said they're bouncing off Rebel frequencies today. Nothing's come off Tatooine from the Empire for hours. And they're saying it's really bloody." She turned on the sound.

The Twi'lek was nearly gleeful. He was in the midst of a celebratory speech of some kind. "...and it's looking good for everyone who cares about free speech! How do you like this?" He let out a stream of expletives that Phenin hadn't heard away from the Corellian loading docks where he'd spent much of his early childhood, before the scouts from Ostunu had decided to make him a high culture phenomenon. "And no one to stop me from saying it! The Empire can't even get its own business together!" He stood and actually danced - or gave a crude rendition of dancing - then plugged a listening device in his ear and plopped down behind a desk. "I've got someone from Tatooine here. Let me tune him in for you."

A crackle of static, then a voice that sounded drunk came over the frequency. "... Rebels in the Command Center... don't know for sure, but there are rumors that... Skywalker...dead... "

Temodi leaned into Phenin's arms, curling her body against his chest. He held her tighter. "It'll be okay," he said. "It's just a battle."

"She's there, though. What if the Rebels win?"

"It'll be okay," Phenin said, trying to remember his brief contacts with politics back before Ostunu. "Hey, it's still Princess Leia, right? She knows what she's doing."

"Yeah... " Temodi shivered. "I just... I guess it's okay with the Princess, but... the Empress, Phenin. What if -?"

"Shh. Don't say it." He reached for the holoproj to turn it off, but she pushed his hand away.

"Leave it on," she said. "I can't stand not knowing what's happening."

"Okay. But let's see if we can't find some other broadcast, all right? Something that's not so... You know."

Phenin didn't wait for an answer. He picked up the holoproj - not letting go of Temodi - and started scanning for more underground reports.

Temodi just sat, silent and warm in the circle of his arms.

Ingithe Lypsean hadn't realized for nearly an hour that her broadcast wasn't going anywhere. All the indicator lights were working. Her crew hadn't gotten any notices. No calls were coming in, but she'd simply been relieved at the lack of interruption - for once - in the Holonet News studio on Coruscant. It was extremely early morning here in the old Imperial district, but even at this hour, there were usually at least a few rabble-rousers trying to broadcast their unwanted opinions across the Empire. It seemed not to have occurred to them that they would be screened long before they were allowed on the air.

She'd thought the lack of interruption was due to her guest, an archaeologist from the team that was trying to pinpoint the first human settlement on Coruscant... a man who seemed to exude dullness like an overbearing cologne. Ingithe had been wondering just which god she had angered to end up with such a lousy assignment - she had once been a sought-after critic and columnist - when her guest had decided to show footage from the dig that he had stored on a computer at the site. He was still fiddling with the controls when she turned casually around to see whatever mundane thing he meant to show her, and was met instead with a scene from an old vid, with a mad Wookieee rambling around Alderaan (of all places). He had just ripped the head off a young lovely in white.

"Excuse me, sir," Ingithe said, "but you seem to have brought an inappropriate file."

The archaeologist glanced up, saw the vid and knocked his console over. "That's not even on my computer!" he burst out. "I would never show that kind of anti-alien garbage!"

Ingithe noticed that the crew in the broadcast booth had suddenly begun scrambling around. "Sieps!" she called to the Dug who produced the show. "What's happening?"

Sieps scuttled out on his strong arms and kicked a prop desk out of his way. "We're not broadcasting," he said. "Or if we are, it's not going anywhere I can predict. Maybe some kid's picking us up."

"What's happening?" Ingithe repeated, more slowly.

"We're trying to -" He held up one foot, sticking it right in Ingithe's face, and listened to something on his earpiece. "Okay. My techies just switched to a Rebel frequency."

"How would they know... ?"

"I'm not going to ask them." Sieps shook his head. "They got word over the underground that there's a battle going on over on Tatooine. A lot of the Imperial network is down. Someone planted a bug."

Ingithe found herself - for once - with almost nothing to say. The Imperial communications network? How was anyone supposed to report on whatever was going on if the network was down? And what good would it do the Rebels if no one knew?

Oh, but that would be thinking, and the Rebels didn't think. They were probably just trying to put a hydrospanner in the works. "Can we bounce off their signal?" she asked. "Get back an audience?"

Sieps shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not."

"Find out. And find out what's happening on Tatooine." An idea struck Ingithe. "Wait... wasn't that where Her Majesty was going?"

Sieps, who generally considered Her Majesty's movements off Naboo so much socialite trivia, looked surprised, then nodded. "Good call."

"Do we have anyone there?"

"On Tatooine? No."

"Well, find someone. Let's get this going. Keep a scan of the communications and -"

"I'm the producer here, Ingithe."

"And I'm telling you, this is news. It's about time. Let's find a way to get it out there."

"It's a small battle on a minor world... "

"A minor world where the Empress happens to be. We could come out of this small battle with a new government."

Sieps frowned, tapping his toes against a nearby wall. He'd been glad to get back into the business when the New Empire had taken control - that much, Ingithe knew - but she suspected he'd have been a lot happier if the Rebellion had won in the first place. "Guess we'd better cover it then," he said, and scurried off.

The archaeologist was just looking dumbly at all of them.

Ingithe waved him off the stage. "You've been pre-empted," she said. "Go back to work and get some sleep."

On board the Imperial Cruiser Binks, Admiral Calpar knew something was wrong, but so far hadn't found a way around it.

"Whatsa yousa kids doing?" he barked at the ensigns at comm. "Wesa not getting so much as a nav re-direct from da Empire for longo time!"

"Systems being down," one of them said. "Wesa getting lotsa other things. Nothing being useful."

Calpar glowered. He knew all this. "Yousa tryin' da old Gungan codes yet?"


"Yousa not being that young, Ar-Tor. Yousa remembering da exile codes."

"But wesa not needing them anymore. Wesa not being in da exile!"

Calpar pushed him out of the way and sat down at the console, hoping that the old codes weren't among the ones the Empire had blocked to prevent unauthorized transmissions to Imperial vessels. (There had been concern about morale, if the Rebels or Palpatine's remaining forces tried to broadcast propaganda to the fleet. ) Calpar didn't remember reporting them, but he wouldn't have deliberately kept them from Her Majesty, either.

He scanned the rotating frequencies they'd used. Blank, blank, static...

The sound of waves.

Someone was broadcasting.

Calpar breathed a sigh of relief and reconfigured the transmitters. "Whosa-dere?" he asked.

The waves resolved into silence, then someone said, "Dis'm Verkam Res. Whosa dis?"

"Dis'm Admiral Calpar, on Hersa Majesty's ship, Binks. Wesa being cut off."

More silence. "Yousa not being da only ones. Wesa... " He paused. "Wesa opening disn system, wondering about da other Gungans. But wesa not finding nothing."

Calpar rubbed his head. Something had to be working. "Yousa be listening," he said. "Mesa knowin' the Rebels, longo time ago. Deysa used to be using da circulating frequencies - da comm-sats being moving around. Yousa try to be finding them. I'm thinking theysa using the same frequencies as da children which play at making shows."


"Da kids finding da sats and da frequencies. Deysa always getting in da way, but when mesa knowing da Rebels, dism just laughed at. Be looking for them. Then be looking for other things on desa frequencies."

Calpar kept the channel open, waited for what seemed forever, then Verkam Res returned.

"Mesa finding them," he said. "Lotsa stuff coming through. Theres-a a battle on Tatooine. And nothing getting through. Mesa can send you da frequencies."

"No. Yousa can find me here, but wesa an Imperial ship. Wesa no getting outside frequencies. Yousa just keep telling us what's happening. Desa Rebels... theysa trying to block you?"

"No, sir. Deysa keeping it open. Mesa catching someone saying so. Deysa saying deysa no wanting anyone cut off but... well, yousa."


The Binks powered down and waited to hear the news of the galaxy.

In Cloud City on Bespin, the New Empire and the Rebellion had long lived in uneasy knowledge of one another.

Cloud City had been the heart of the New Empire, of course - they had declared for Lady Vader immediately. But in the confusion and devastation of the battle, many of the Rebels had found their way to Lando Calrissian's hastily established medical facility, and had integrated themselves into the life of the colony ever since. The Empress had given orders not to treat the Rebels harshly - she'd never given up hope of winning them - so the local Guard had merely kept them from acting or producing propaganda, and otherwise allowed them to go about their business with no impediment.

The Rebels, for their part, had found it more and more difficult to retain enmity. Those who couldn't abide the New Empire at all had found ways to sneak away; those who remained either joined Her Majesty's supporters or kept their resistance to occasional token objections in public forums. They would serve their time for sedition in relative comfort, and during it, they fraternized with their captors. There had been four Rebel-Imperial marriages (the polite fiction involved a supposed belief that the Rebel involved had reformed), and three children had been born of them so far.

The Twi'lek Chirlin, who ran a tavern in the upper levels, had adjusted to the new life as well as he could. The New Empire had outlawed the dancing girls which had once brought in the miners, so Chirlin had re-focused the business, hiring his girls on as living statues and catering to an artsy culture that had sprung up among the New Imperial hierarchy - one which the rich owners of the mines longed to copy. Even the miners themselves made noises in that direction, but they could no longer afford Chirlin's place. A few of the newly emancipated slaves had made a living statue garden a few levels down, and that was where the miners spent their time.

Here, in the upper levels, the day had begun in its usual glory of golden mist. Chirlin had already set up his holoproj - it was well-known that he got a few more frequencies than were technically permitted, but since he only used them to find underground artists, the Guard looked the other way - but he hadn't noticed yet that the transmission was spottier than usual. The girls had just decided to go with a colonization era theme in their poses and Chirlin was setting up the grill when Captain Lopahin - the head of the Guard - had come rushing in, shouting about downed communications. The New Empire had seized the holoprojector and technicians had been trying to receive signals for nearly an hour before Lieutenant Moge had stood up quietly and suggested that his "former" Rebel wife, Comari, might have a suggestion.

Comari had shown up five minutes later, baby in tow, and had indeed been able to "guess" where news might be found. Then a few of her friends had also "volunteered" to help.

The transfer of power had been completely invisible, and everything was still ostensibly going through the Guard. The fictions were maintained. But Chirlin knew the truth, and he supposed all of them knew it as well: Cloud City was now in the hands of the Rebellion.

Comari sat at ops, scanning the information that was trickling in, trying to make sense of what was essentially senseless. Two separate reports from Tatooine had suggested that Lord Skywalker was dead - there was much grief from the Imperials about this - but the most disturbing report was that Her Majesty had been with him, and none of the Rebels reporting in had seen her since.

"They're all outside," Comari reassured her husband. "The ones who reported about Lord Skywalker had slipped out after that fight. Afraid of Lord Vader's reaction, I bet."

"As well they should be."

She tried to raise anyone in command and got only static. That wasn't surprising - it was a battle, and the leaders would have restricted their communications to those who really would need to contact them. The general frequencies wouldn't be a good choice.

Lopahin asked Chirlin to fix breakfast for the assembled crew - "You will be properly compensated, of course" - so he wasn't actually there when they finally contacted a Rebel who had seen the Empress after the death of her son. There was no cheer, but when Chirlin brought out a tray of hot bread and eggs, the Imperials in the room had slipped into poses of pure relief. Lopahin was weeping with it.

"They're talking," Comari said. Moge put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her head. She twisted her head to kiss his fingers. "Finally, they're talking."

"Who?" Lopahin asked.

"The Empress, Lord Vader, Princess Leia. The man I spoke to thinks that Generals Solo and Calrissian may be there as well. Calrissian did well here. Perhaps he -"

She stopped talking, her eyes going suddenly sharp. Something had flashed across the proj-base, a face, a word...

"Replay," she ordered the machine.

Lopahin was over in a flash. "What is it, Comari?"

She frowned, punching at buttons. "We've been picking up stray Imperial communications all morning. Things that aren't aimed at us. And that was Admiral Piett. I'm sure of it."

"Let me see."

"I'm trying to get it back. He was ordering something."

"Let me try to raise him," Lopahin said, slipping into the seat beside her.

He worked the console for a long time, enlisting the aid of Rebels and Imperials alike, but the message did not recur.

Now, it was the Rebels who looked worried.

Amidala was finished with the negotiations.

She didn't know how long they had been there, sitting in this room - whether it was minutes or hours or days - but at some point, she had stopped caring. She hadn't interrupted the discussions and hadn't jumped into any of Ani and Leia's arguments or showed any outward sign of her distraction. But her mind had gotten her to a certain point, and then refused to cooperate any further.

They were done. Many of the major points of contention had been resolved; some grudgingly, some bitterly, some with a startling ease...but they had been determined one way or another. Senators would be elected by their homeworlds. Governors would be appointed to terms by the Empress. The military would turn over a good portion of their work to planetary police forces, which would be created by local governments. A new Chancellorship would be created to ease the relationship between the Senate and the Empress. Certain legal rights would be restored to galaxy's citizens. New laws would govern the Imperial throne.

And that last point had returned her daughter to her for good. Leia would eventually take over, and until then, she would be a part of the Empire, and a part of the family. Amidala clung to that knowledge fiercely, holding onto it amidst the ruins of the broken dreams she'd had for Luke. They had fixed things in time to salvage Leia's future, and to save what was left of her family.

Amidala would remain Empress and stay in charge, dealing with any of the potential problems some of the more sweeping changes would likely bring. And she would do it with Leia at her side. Beyond that...

Beyond that were minor arguments, like the one Leia and Ani had gotten themselves into now, on some technical questions about the relationship between planetary rulers and the Senate. All details that could be worked through later.

They had accomplished enough in terms of fixing the government and stopping this war that they could afford to turn their attention to other issues.

To Luke.

He was still out there, of course, shrouded and unmoving just beyond the conference room door. The parade of people streaming past him had stopped, and it seemed that everyone, both Imperial and Rebel, had finished paying their proper respects.

Everyone, except for Luke's own family, who were sitting in a room, wrangling over the finer points of taxes and appointments and...

"Enough," she said softly.

Leia and Ani stopped talking instantly, with Leia breaking off in mid-sentence. "Mother - I'm sorry, we can move on to something else and -"



"My son is lying outside that door," she said, "and I'm tired of trying to ignore that. We cannot solve every single issue right now. We should be grateful we've come as far as we have."

Her daughter and husband both looked as though they'd be quite content to keep arguing forever, but Han quickly spoke up. "It might actually help if we stop for a while, and pick this up again later. We could take a fresh look at some of this stuff"

"Besides," Lando added, "we do have multiple pressing issues here, right now. We shouldn't wait much longer to begin implementing the unified command for the guard."

"Yes," Amidala agreed, "and I need to take care of my son. He requested a family ceremony, and we should...we should honor that. He deserves..." She stopped, feeling her throat constrict painfully as her eyes again went to her son outside the conference room. "He deserves to be put to a proper rest. We can't just leave him out there..." And then, she simply couldn't continue.

Her husband reached down to squeeze her hand. Then he walked slowly to the door. "I will make preparations," he said. Then he left. She could hear him giving orders to both the Imperials and the Rebels, and then he picked Luke up, and carried him outside.

Leia watched her father go, and Han put his arm around her, pulling her in against him. She buried her face in his chest. Lando clearly was a little lost, and he glanced uncomfortably between them and Amidala.

"I think...I think I should go check in with Alpha Squadron. Make sure they've gotten into the mindset of accepting a joint command," he said. Han and Leia barely acknowledged him. Amidala nodded, and he took that as a dismissal. He quickly went back out into main part of the headquarters.

"Han," Amidala said, trying not to sound as if she were forcing the words out, "you may join us at the ceremony." He looked surprised, and Leia even pulled away so her mother could she the shock on her face. "You were once a friend of my son, and my daughter considers you family."

"Thank you."

There was little else to say, so they simply waited for Ani to return once the arrangements he had in mind were completed. It took longer than she expected.

When he finally returned, he said nothing. Amidala rose from her chair to join him, and Han and Leia eventually followed. The officers were silent and solemn as they passed, the Imperials saluting, the Rebels standing at attention, watching the family head outside into the Tatooine night.

Away from the base, she saw Luke, resting in a hastily erected funeral pyre, made from an odd assemblage of kindling, from materials gathered from all over the base. She walked right up and touched her son's covered face. She wanted to say her goodbyes, to say anything, but she was blinded by her tears and suddenly felt as though she couldn't breathe, much less talk. She let her fingers trail away, and then she stepped back.

They formed a line in front of the pyre, Amidala standing between Ani on her left, and Leia on her right. Han was on Leia's other side, holding her hand tightly.

After a long, pained silence - Ani and Leia couldn't seem to find the words for their goodbyes either - Ani ignited his lightsaber. With a few short steps, he was next to Luke, and he held his sword to one of the cross sections of kindling, and waited for it to ignite.

Once it did, the fire spread up and down and across almost instantly, and soon consumed her son's body.

Leia took her hand. She took Ani's. Amidala tried to draw on their strength, but all they were sharing was the grief and emptiness, watching as Luke slowly disappeared before their eyes.

The four of them were still standing there silently as the fires began to die out.

Lando crept silently behind the Skywalkers, feeling as though he were sneaking up on them. The last, last thing he wanted to do was interrupt their funeral, and he wouldn't have unless it was something potentially this important.

He couldn't decide whether or not he was hoping that he had misinterpreted the message he heard. Piett couldn't have possibly said what Lando thought he had...then again, Lando couldn't stand the thought of coming all the way out here for a simple misunderstanding.

None of them turned around, even as he was standing directly behind Han and Leia. He waited. Then he cleared his throat.

Leia looked furious. The Vaders still didn't turn around.

"I'm incredibly sorry for interrupting," he began. "I've picked up an Imperial communication that I think you all need to hear."

"Imperial communications are down," Leia said.

"People are still trying to send messages. I was working with a few of the Imperial Officers - bouncing off Rebel frequencies and some underground channels, trying to see if we could pick anything up. We heard a garbled message from Naboo."

Lady Vader, her face tear-streaked, blinked slowly at him. "From Imperial Command?"

"I think so. We think he was trying to send the message to your personal frequency, we can only pick up parts of what he's saying." Lando pulled out his comm, and played back the message. Static almost completely garbled it.

"...Your Majesty...receive this message...communications...down throughout...network..."

"That's Admiral Piett," Lady Vader said softly.

"...launch...base...waited for...before..."

"What is he saying?" Han asked.

"Wait," Lando said. "It'll repeat. It comes through a little clearer."

"...Majesty...hope you receive this...our communications are going down...I've launched...against the base...waited for catastrophic... before acting..."

The message began to repeat the first version, but Lady Vader gasped loudly and covered her mouth with her hand, paling drastically. Lando stopped the playback.

"Oh no..." she whispered. "No...not when we've settled everything..."

"Mother," Leia said cautiously, "what's happened? What has he done?"

The Empress looked away from her daughter, and Lando's heart sank. Whatever happened, it definitely was as bad as he feared.

"He's launched a missile that will destroy your base on Ledaga."

The base on Ledaga.

Han Solo sat down heavily on a boulder. "What kind of missile?"

Leia's parents looked at one another cautiously. Lady Vader's small hand had risen to her lips, and as Han watched, she slowly moved it to brush tears from her cheek. The motion left an ashy smear. "It's a new design," she said. "There's a containment field involved, to keep the damage from spreading beyond the target, but -"

"But destruction of the target is complete," her husband finished.

"If it's contained, we can order an evacuation," Leia said, desperately hopeful. "We can tell them to get clear of the base area... "

Han shook his head. "We can try. But there's a lot of seismic activity. Earthquakes. Big ones. The last time I tried to reach them, they said they weren't getting much through."

"Try," Lady Vader said.

Han pulled out his comlink, and tried to raise the base. Static, a whine of feedback. Someone saying, "... not receiv... any... " Then there was an ominous rumble, and he lost the connection entirely. A droning electronic voice came across the frequency: "No receiver/transmitter is available at the coordinates specified. Please check coordinates."

"Quakes must have taken it out," Lando said.

Lady Vader rubbed her head. "How much of your staff is here?"

"Most of them," Leia said. "But the ones who are left on Ledaga are young kids, the ones we didn't want to put in any danger."

"And civilians," Han added.

Lord Vader turned on him quickly. "You guard your base with civilian shields?"

Han was too busy castigating himself for putting civilians on the base to bother snapping back at Vader. "No," he said. "It's natives. We found them there when we set up. They're burrowers. They wanted shelter there during the quakes. We figured it would be safer than their tunnels."

Lord Vader looked like he was ready to continue berating Han, but his wife put her hand on his shoulder. "I would have done the same," she said.

"What's the navigational system on the missile?" Leia asked. "Maybe we can stop it."

"It's controlled through the communications system."

Leia closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. "Of course. Can we piggyback a signal off a Rebel frequency?"

Reluctantly, Lady Vader shook her head. "I didn't want Rebel propaganda broadcast to the military. All military equipment blocks unsanctioned frequencies."

"So what do we do now?" Lando asked.

"The missile will need to be intercepted." Lord Vader turned and bowed to the pyre where Luke's ashes were smoldering. He said nothing, but turned and led the group inside.

Han's insides cramped up, and he forced them to let go. He followed the family into the command center.

Vader had apparently ordered several officers to leave. Han could see them filing out. Three remained - two Rebels and an Imperial - and they'd brought up a starmap. Vader had highlighted Naboo, Tatooine, and Ledaga. A launch trace appeared as he watched.

Lady Vader crossed her arms over her chest, scanned the red line with her eyes, then looked at her feet.

Leia leaned forward, as though she could put her hand into the map and stop the missile.

Lando drew in a sharp breath.

Vader simply looked at it, impassive, his head cocked to one side. "The missile was never fitted with modified engines. It will travel relatively slowly."

"Could we put something in its path as it gets near Tatooine?" Leia asked.

"Commander Dihave programmed it to avoid all impediments," Vader said. "An intercepting object will have to be steered into it."

Leia's eyes widened, and she turned to her father. "Father, there's no way to do that. The Imperial military equipment can't take orders right now, and our autopilots are programmed not to self-destruct. We didn't want any of our equipment turned against us."

Vader didn't look at her. "Someone will have to pilot a ship."

Lady Vader paled. Leia shook her head. "Father, there has to be another way. And most of the Imperial Fleet here on Tatooine was destroyed in the hangar battle anyway! I didn't see anything that looked like it would still fly."

Han stepped forward. "Look, I'm the one who put the civilians on the base. My ship is nowhere near where the fighting was and -"

"I absolutely forbid it," Leia said, glancing over her shoulder at him.

"There's no reason to. You're necessary in this scheme we worked out. So's your father, I think. I'm just a pilot, Leia."

"You're not just a pilot. You're necessary to me, and if I'm necessary, you're necessary."

"You know that's not true -"

"It is true!"

"Hey!" Lando waved a hand between them. "Look, I think maybe we're jumping the gun. Lord Vader, how much slower are these engines? How much time do you think we have before it passes Tatooine?"

Vader thought for a moment - a much shorter moment than Han had ever seen another human make a complex calculation - then said, "We have two hours at least before it reaches Tatooine. If this trajectory is correct, then the route between Tatooine and Ledaga will take approximately five hours."

Han nodded. "I got an old Naboo cruiser. I modified it a little. It'll be able to -"

"I said no," Leia said.

Lando touched her arm. "Two hours, Leia. We can go out in the desert. Between us, we can re-work the autopilot. We can make it work."

"The risk is too great," Vader said. "I will -"

"You most certainly will not," Lady Vader said quietly. "I invited Baron Calrissian to join our discussions because he thinks well. Before any of you rush to martyrdom, we have time to try another path. I suggest that we waste no more time discussing the subject." Her eyes were cast down, and she did not look up as she spoke.

"Yes, ma'am," Han said. "Lando and I will get to work on it."

Vader nodded. "I will assist you."

"Father... " Leia sighed. "I need your help with the Imperial military. And you need mine with the Rebellion." She looked at her mother. "And we should gather Luke's ashes before the wind takes them."

Lady Vader finally looked up, met Leia's eyes, and nodded. Leia put an arm around her shoulders.

"Then that's the plan," Han said. "We'll make it work."

Han turned to leave with Lando. He'd made it most of the way to the door when he heard Leia call his name. He looked back.

She ran to him and threw her arms around his neck. Her lips pressed against his cheek. "Don't... Han, if it doesn't work... Please... come back here. Don't... " She drew away and bit her lips. "Han, please don't."

"We'll make it work," he said again. "And I'll come back here one way or another before we make any decisions. That's a promise."

Leia nodded and let go of him. She looked small and unprotected. Then she straightened her shoulders and lifted her head, became the Princess she had been when he'd first met her. "May the Force be with you," she said.

Han leaned down and kissed her forehead. "It'll be okay, Leia. We'll figure it out. Hold tight and keep a lid on the base. It'll be okay."

She took a few steps back and nodded again. Han hesitated, then followed Lando out into the desert.

He hoped he hadn't lied.

Han and Lando left quickly so they could get to work on their ship adjustments, and try to head off this tragedy without necessitating another one by losing a pilot to the mission. Amidala was dimly aware of their exit, but the main focus of her attention was Leia, whose eyes were filled with apprehension as Han went off. She hated seeing her daughter so afraid, though she couldn't blame Leia for being shaken by Han's offer to pilot the ship. Amidala herself was not pleased with her own husband thinking along similar lines.

"I still can't believe he let practically the whole planet's civilians onto that base," Leia muttered, mostly to herself, "as if being near the Rebels would be safer than being out in an earthquake."

Amidala could almost picture Ani rolling his eyes. "You would not have left them to their own devices in the middle of a natural disaster if you could have helped," he said.

Leia didn't argue that point with him. "Still, for me to be responsible for that... I just... an entire people could be wiped out," she cried in anguish. "All of them. Gone. Just like that. It's... for them, it'd be another Alderaan." She shuddered, as she often did when she thought about what happened to her homeworld. "And we left the kids to watch the base... "

"Leia, this isn't your fault," Amidala said, almost automatically.

"But I command the Rebels -"

"Your mother is correct, Leia," Ani agreed. "It may not have been wise to bring the civilians into your camp, but Solo could not have foreseen these types of problems. He was not expecting an attack, and believed he'd be able to stay in touch with your officers." Leia shrugged, not particularly helped by his words, but at least partially appreciative that he had made an effort to comfort her. Ani continued, "The true question is not why Solo chose to allow the Ledagans on the base, but what Admiral Piett could have hoped to accomplish by taking this action. He must be aware of the fact that the vast majority of the Rebels are here on Tatooine, and not on the base. Even without the knowledge of the civilians staying in the camp, an attack on Ledaga now makes little sense from a strategic standpoint."

"Except to punish us for Tatooine," Leia said. "He couldn't very well fire off that thing here. He's getting us the only way he can. And it could ruin everything. I can't imagine trying to get the Rebels to go along with any of our plans if our base is wiped out like this."

Amidala felt a chill inside her and trembled. She was trying not to remember - the order she had given Piett, the words she had last said to him, the instructions she had left him with...

"My love?"

She wondered how pale she suddenly looked; her face felt completely drained. Then she flushed. "This isn't Piett's fault. And it's certainly not Han's fault, or your fault, Leia. I gave the order."

"What?" Leia whispered harshly. "You did what?"

"It was much earlier, before the communications went down," she tried to explain, "before we were sure what you were... what we were dealing with here. Piett told me that he thought he had found the Rebel base, and he needed guidance on what to do while we were under siege here." It sounded wholly inadequate to her - how could it have made so much sense such a short time ago? "So I... "

"So you told him to destroy the base?" Leia asked incredulously.

"I told him to be prepared to act if the situation here reached a - a critical point. That I would trust his judgment on the appropriate action to take."

The hostility in Leia's eyes diminished a little.

Ani, of course, all but jumped to her defense. "You should not blame yourself, my love. Piett had not shown himself to be unworthy of your trust prior to this. And circumstances demanded that you leave him in command."

"In any event," Leia said wearily, "what we have to worry about now is finding a way to stop the missile before it hits. Let's just hope that something can be figured out."

Amidala was hugging herself tightly, even though it was doing nothing to ward off the chill she was still feeling throughout her body. She wanted to believe them. What she had done was neither unusual nor inexplicable given the situation she had found herself in. And assigning blame would do no good to anyone at this point anyway, and should be put off until later.

She didn't feel comforted by any of that though. "I wish there was something I could do. I want to help."

"There's really nothing that can be done right now, Mother."

"But if I could -"

"Your mother has never been good at leaving these matters to others," Ani said, interrupting her in mid-sentence. "At least, not in all of the time that I have known her."

Usually, that kind of comment from Ani would have spurred a shared smile, and more than a few shared memories, both pleasant and painful. She couldn't find any smile right now, but the memories came quickly enough anyway. Of how they had first met while she was stuck on this awful planet, unable to do anything for her people on Naboo, who were trapped and suffering under the Trade Federation invasion. Ani hadn't known the full story of what she was dealing with until they were on their way to Coruscant later, but he had been perceptive enough to feel her anxiety and urgency. And her frustration.

Now, decades later, here she was again. Stuck on Tatooine while a disaster was in the making elsewhere.

"Perhaps," Ani was saying, "we should give thought to a course of action if the attempt to send an unmanned ship fails. One thing we can do - and must do - is find a way to mitigate this problem with the Rebels."

She had been a child, really, during the invasion. She probably hadn't been ready for the throne, even under normal, peaceful circumstances. Dealing with an attack, with a blockade? It was out of her experience and beyond her training - it wasn't part of the way Naboo was ruled or the way the planet had previously dealt with its neighbors. People knew that. Had things gone differently, or ended badly, she would have been the object of a great deal of pity, and people might have rightly wondered why they voted a young, inexperienced girl into office... but no one had expected her to be able to take charge herself and save the day. Her enduring popularity after she expelled the Trade Federation was a testament to how surprised and impressed people were with what she had been able to accomplish.

Still, she would have blamed herself if she had not been able to save her planet. That was all that had mattered to her at the time.

Leia's brow was furrowed, and she was deep in thought. "I'm sure we have people who would be willing to take on this mission." She sighed. "The fact that the Empire is working with us to stop this might be enough to convince them that this alliance is serious."

"If an Imperial Officer were to volunteer," Vader said gravely, "it might do more to further relations between both sides."

She had been so hard on herself then. Every problem that happened when she was Queen (or Senator) had been her problem, and she had found a way to tackle each of them without retreating in the slightest. How had she been able to do that? Were things really so different then?

Was she really so different?

"I can't believe we're talking about this," Leia said. "To just send someone to do this knowing that they'll never come back... "

"There are honorable people, on each side, who will volunteer."

"Yes, you and Han were certainly out to prove that."

When she had become Mayor and Queen and Senator... each time, she had felt the weight of her position, of what she was about to do. Where had that feeling been when Palpatine had been overthrown, and she had become Empress? She couldn't remember it. There was just a sense that what happened had been inevitable, that the throne was hers, and she was where she was meant to be. The problems of her Empire were Palpatine's fault. Or the Rebels' fault. Or the criminals. Or the bureaucrats. Of course, she had wanted to fix everything, but none of the problems had ever really been hers; she'd never claimed ownership of them as an Empress responsible for a galaxy.

"Let's hope for the best with the autopilot," Leia decided. "In the meantime, I want to take charge of the joint command. We have to start giving directives to the officers in the settlements."

Amazingly, there was no argument, no disagreement. Ani simply began to lead Leia toward the Command Center, where the Rebels and Imperials were working together on the communications and messages. They both turned back when she didn't follow right away.

"Mother? Aren't you coming?"

She nodded absentmindedly, and trailed behind them. It was time for her to remember her forgotten duties. However this impending tragedy resolved itself, Amidala knew that a new era was again beginning for the galaxy. She needed to be ready to guide it.

Lando took the speederbike he'd grabbed in Mos Eisley (Han, with no hint of surprise, identified it as Leia's), and followed Han up and over the mesa. A large opening in the south face caught Lando's eye. "Is that another hangar?" he asked, leaning in toward his comlink to speak over the wind.

"Probably. But if they had another ship in there, I think Her Ladyship might have mentioned it. I'm guessing they were all down in the North Hangar. And they're all scrap."

"Either we're really good," Lando said, "or we're really stupid."

"I'm trying to figure that one out myself, old buddy. Solo out."

The communication cut with a loud burst of static, and Lando pulled back from the comlink.

They went across the desert to the Rebel encampment outside of Anchorhead. It was deserted with the exception of six guards. Leia had wanted to leave more - if they hadn't gotten a leg up on the Empire immediately, a strike here could have stranded the whole damned Rebellion on this dustball - but they couldn't be spared.

"General!" An ensign saluted, snapping to attention beside Han's ship.

"Not now," Han said. "At ease."

The ensign spread his feet and stood at parade rest. "We've been getting strange reports, sir."

"Then you've probably been getting the right ones." Han lowered the gangplank. "We've got work to do, Ensign, and not much time to do it. We'll have to save the debriefing for later."

"Yes, sir!"

Han rubbed his head as he went into the ship. Lando took a deep breath and followed him in.

"What are the odds?" Lando asked, staring at the navigational console.

"When did I ever give odds?" Han switched on the monitor and called up the autopilot routines. "Whose great idea was this?"

"One of the kids. Remember, you wanted them to think of things the Empire might do now that it had some brains in its administration?"

"Oh, yeah."

A holographic command structure appeared in the air, and with a command from Han, displayed a sequence of red lights that formed a thin braid throughout the form.

Lando drew a sharp breath. "It's totally integrated."

"It was that Mon Cal kid," Han said. "He came up with the idea that the Empire could cut into our systems and start turning our ships against us. So he put in lockout on allowing remote or automatic piloting that would actually hit any object. And he made it harder to cut in."

"Makes enough sense in theory."

"Let's pack up and move to Theory, what do you say?" Han waved the comment off. "Okay. We're not going to get in from the top, not in two hours anyway. Let's see if we can wire around the nav console."

Lando hunkered down beside him, and they tried for forty minutes to re-circuit the navigational systems on the old Naboo cruiser.

At first, it looked easy - just strip a few wires, re-direct, maybe send navigation through the communications computers, then put in a quick program. Nothing too complex, nothing they hadn't done before. Lando had wired around a faulty naviputer four times, and Han had never run across a ship he couldn't re-design from the circuits up.

But Naboo technology was stubbornly integrated. A single console was used in communications, navigation, and the ship's log. The same button would bring up starmaps and broadcast messages, depending on how the system was toggled. Wiring around it wasn't a simple matter.

"Should we try wiring it to the defense network?" Lando asked, pulling himself out from under the counter. This corner of the cockpit was a mess, but even Han hadn't been able to make the rest of the cruiser look anything but sleek and luxurious. "They don't have a lot of gunports, so I'm guessing they've got a smart system."

"Oh, it's a great system," Han said, rolling out from the other side with a sneer on his face. "Only problem is, it's housed way back at the other end of the ship." He jerked his thumb aft. "Guess they didn't want to bother the dignitaries with it. You happen to have twenty meters of wire?"

"No way to do it by remote?"

"Naviputer actually needs to be attached to something. Right now, we're the galaxy's biggest paperweight." He stood up. "I can get the defense network plugged in to the propulsion system from where it is. There are plenty of access points for that. But if we're going to get any navigational control, the nav files have to be in the system."

"Can we communicate with the defense system from here? Send the files it needs?"

Han looked at the tangle of wires. "Not until we get this thing hooked back up."

"Let's get back to work then."

Han made no move.

Lando raised an eyebrow. "Are you thinking it's not going to work?"

"I'm thinking we might figure it out in five minutes. Or we might keep trying new things until that missile drops in on Ledaga. We don't know this is going to work."

Well, Leia needs you, Lando tried to hear himself saying, and the Empress seems to want her husband around. I'll go. I'll take the ship and I'll fly it into a missile that will vaporize whatever it hits. I'll do it.

But he couldn't. He didn't think he was a coward - he just hadn't tried all the other options yet. People who decided to bow out of the game before the last hand had been dealt had always struck Lando as not quite right in the head. There was still a chance.

"Come on," he said. "Let's get this back together."

Leia felt curiously comfortable now in the headquarters of the Imperial Command Center.

When she had first walked in the room, she wasn't entirely sure where she was supposed to begin. Her parents stayed back, much to her surprise, trying to give her the space she needed to formulate a real plan for taking charge.

Since intercepting Piett's message, the Rebels had been working frantically to use their comms to pick up any other stray messages of import, and to try repeatedly to raise the base on Ledaga, to no success. The Imperial Officers weren't quite sure how to make use of themselves, and Alpha Squadron still wasn't fully committed to working with them anyway. A few of the more insistent ones had been allowed to help strengthen the Rebels communications system, using some of the stray parts and pieces of the Imperial network. They had occasionally snuck on the system itself, trying to get the Rebels in the various settlements to put Lady Vader's forces on the comm link, so they could at least be updated as to what was going on.

Nothing else in the Command Center was working. Everything in the room had been tied in some way or another to the main Imperial network, and when that went down, everything here was reduced to blank or flashing consoles that would not respond to any command.

So, there was a fury around the Rebels' small, makeshift transmitter. That was what was passing for a command structure. For both sides.

Leia dove into the disarray headlong. This was her first real act of command over Imperial officers, and it was the first true, organized attempt to get them and the Rebels to work together under one authority. She needed this to work - she needed to make a statement about the future of the Empire, and how they had decided things would work from now on.

She didn't even stop to wonder how she had gotten to the point where she was concerned about establishing the future of the Empire. There was just too much to do.

Leia had quickly grabbed a handful of Imperial Officers and ordered Alpha Squadron to work with them on creating as reliable a system of communication as they could under the circumstances. That meant letting the Imperial engineers get to work on the transmitter. It meant working on a combined list of squadrons and battalions, and their leaders who would need to be kept in contact with headquarters. It meant getting about half the Rebel leaders out in the cities to give up their comlinks to their Imperial counterparts, so one side wasn't completely out of touch, or at the mercy of people they considered their enemies. It meant running Rebels and Imperial officers on foot to various locations to make sure they believed what they were hearing over the comm.

There were difficulties, of course. A very few people who were actually still fighting in random pockets out in the dunes; people on either side who weren't going to listen to anyone if it meant compromising with their enemy; settlers and other parts of the native population who still resented the encroachment on their homes, and blamed one side or the other, or both, and were still trying to stir up trouble.

Still, things had gone more smoothly than Leia had hoped. She realized that both sides had already been working together quite a bit, since she and her father had brought Mos Eisley under control, and Han had apparently worked something out with the Vader sympathizers in Mos Espa. Everyone here in the headquarters had seen the Empress herself sit with the Rebels and talk. There were bridges there to build on, and Leia reached out to those who had bought into the idea of cooperation first, and let them try to convince the others. She sent of few of her own officers to speak directly to townspeople and the farmers and the settlers, to try to bring them in as well. They were being more reluctant, but at least if they were being talked to, they were occupied with something that wasn't firing at Imperials and Rebels.

She wondered idly where her parents had gotten to. She hadn't even noticed them leave.

"Um...Excuse me...?"

Leia found an Imperial ensign staring warily at her. "Yes?"

"Am I supposed to report to you?" he asked, skeptically.

"Yes," was her blunt reply. She decided to ignore his discomfort and get him used to the idea. "You may address me as Princess Leia," she said calmly, "and I will receive your report."

He gave her a half-hearted salute, but his demeanor did become more serious. "Princess Leia, we believe we have all the commanders and captains you requested on the comm system now."

"They've all checked in?"

"Yes," he replied. "We're getting full status checks from each of them."

At least she had everyone listening now, finally. She just had to make sure they followed her as well. "Can I send out a general message? To all of them?"

"I believe so..."

"Then set up the main transmitter," she said. "I need to speak to everyone at once."

"Yes...Your Highness."

It didn't take very long to make the necessary adjustments, and she was holding a small microphone-like device before she knew it.

"Well," Athuli said wryly, "you've got everyone's attention. We don't know how long this system is going to hold up though. I'd say whatever you have to say now, Your Highness."

A fleeting thought passed through her mind right before she began to speak.

Welcome to the new era.

She didn't say it, of course - she would never say that. But she couldn't help thinking that it might have been even more appropriate now that it had been back during the battle at Bespin...since they weren't about to replace one dictatorship with another this time. They were at least trying to bring real change.

She realized that everyone was staring and waiting for her. She took a deep breath.

"This is Princess Leia, speaking to all the forces on Tatooine. You all are aware by now that I've assumed command, and that we will all be working jointly from this point forward.

"I will give you orders that you each are to carry out. We need to maintain peace and control of the settlements, and restore and rebuild what was damaged in the fighting." She paused before launching into her laundry list of items that needed to be acted on. "Ter Caldo, I need you to head to the residential districts in Mos Eisley and make absolutely certain that anyone who needs medical attention is receiving it. I'm sending Rebel medics from Mos Espa to assist you. Lenna, you and your people should help the farmers out in the plains..."

Orders went out to people in every corner of planet that the comm was able to reach. The slow process of healing Tatooine slowly began.

"I should return to the command center," Ani said, looking over his shoulder. "Leia is unaccustomed to Imperial protocol."

"Leia spent several years in the Imperial Senate, and she worked with us in Theed. She'll be fine." Amidala linked her arm around Ani's and leaned against him. They stood together at the top of the mesa, among a litter of stones where Ani and Luke had trained yesterday. "As fine as any of us can be, at any rate."

"We will stop the missile."

"It's been over two hours already, Ani. Han and Lando have made no progress."

"We will stop it," he said again, firmly.

"All those civilians... what have I done?"

"You did what you felt was right."

"I did what seemed most convenient." She sighed. "I need time to think, Ani," she said.

Ani didn't answer, but a gentle motion in the Force - or the wind, Amidala was sometimes not sure - wrapped her in the folds of his dark cape, sheltering her in his shadow.

She breathed deeply, taking in his strength. The smell of the machinery had never become pleasant to her, even with the numerous pleasant memories it now evoked. But it was the smell of Ani now, and it was therefore comforting to her in some obscure way. "You don't need to stay with me," she said after awhile, when the cape lifted and let in the starlight. "You can go to your chamber and take care of the maintenance."

"I would be honored by your company, my love."

"I'd like to stay out here for awhile and think. Maybe we all need time to think, Ani."

He paused. "I do not care to leave you alone tonight, my love. It has been... a troubling day."

"I'm not alone. Luke is with me. He promised he would be, and he is."

"I do not sense... " But he stopped. "Amidala, there is no necessary maintenance."

She looked over her shoulder at him. "It's been a difficult day and you've exposed yourself to many things. Just like Bespin. And I... that infection frightened me, Ani. I don't know what would happen to me if I lost you. So please, take care of yourself."

Her voice was soft, and she was attempting to get some space alone to think, but it wasn't a lie. After the battle of Bespin, when he had gone through the gas and the different toxins and then not taken the time for his usual maintenance routines, he'd had a sepsis infection at the cybernetic juncture point in his neck, and a fever had raged for three days. She had been frightened, and badly.

"You are certain?" Ani asked.

"Yes." She squeezed his hand. She wasn't sure if he could feel such a slight change in pressure, but he would at least see her hand move. "Will you be all right, Ani? You worry about me so much, and I seem never to be there to comfort you."

"Your presence is a comfort to me, Amidala. Even when walls stand between us." He paused. "Even when worlds stand between us. You are a comfort to me."

"And you to me. But I do need to think."

"As you wish." He started away, then turned. "Will you come to me before you retire, Amidala? We could speak of Luke."

She nodded. "I will." She looked toward the pyre, now invisible in the shadows, marked only by the white smoke that still poured a thin line into the sky. "No mourning would seem adequate, would it?"


"And yet we are forced to move forward. We must. It's so hard, Ani. I want to wrap myself in my memories and hide there. But we must push forward."

He said nothing.

She looked at him over her shoulder. The night wind caught her hair and rippled it out toward him, twisting it into meaningless tangles as it went. "Go on, Ani. I will come to you. I promise."

He bowed slightly and went inside.

Slowly, Amidala turned her face back to the open desert. The three moons lit it gently, but the stars were only hard points in the night.

They gave themselves to you for love, and their problems are yours as surely as Ani's are.

Somewhere up there, between those cold stars, death sped through the endless night.

She sat down on a battlement and drew her knees up to her chest. She had never been taught to meditate, never made it a part of her daily routine as Ani did... but she understood it intuitively, and she let herself go deep into her own mind. Her eyes slipped shut.

Somewhere in the darkness, she could feel another presence calling to her, reaching for her. She opened her inner eyes, let them see.

A small boy stood before her, blue eyes wide, right hand outstretched.


He didn't answer, only blinked slowly and continued holding out his hand.

She took it.

As he led her away from the battlement, the sky grew light and the world became the gardens of Theed Palace, lush with summer. Marble statues lined the walk. Luke wordlessly led her to the first one.

The statue moved.

Amidala cried out in shock. The living marble was in the shape of a girl with a crown of braids, with a wide mouth and slightly upturned eyes, always looking forward. Padmé Naberrie.

"You've betrayed me," Padmé intoned.

"I am you."

"You became all I fought against, all I hated in the galaxy. You've become the oppressor and the tyrant, and you've let Ani shelter you from even the knowledge of it."

Amidala saw the worlds suddenly spun out before her, all the dreams she had once had, all the beliefs she had once lived by. "I am you," she said again.

The statue reached out its right hand. "Remember."

Amidala glanced down at the little boy who had to be Luke - with those eyes, he could be no one else. He let go of her hand and nodded.

She reached out, took the marble hand, and grasped tightly.

The statue faded, and Amidala felt something pour into her, a kind of deep, cool well of strength.

Luke led her further down the path to a second figure, this one sparkling in the sunlight. It was made of spun glass. A young woman, her hair tumbling in ringlets over her shoulders, her gown flowing in the wind. Padmé again, older now.

"You've betrayed me," she said.

"I am you."

The glass figure spread her arms, and Amidala could see Ani reflected inside of her, laughing in the Naboo sunshine, professing his love for her in front of a fireplace, drawing her to him in the nameless hangar where he'd lost the first part of his humanity. "You had the power to help him," this Padmé whispered. "Your love could have saved him, but you chose not to. You held his heart, but you did nothing to save him."

Amidala watched the images deep inside of the figure, longing for the days when they had been so young together, but the memories would not come with the immediacy she longed for. More urgent were the memories of the days after they had been reunited, the days when she might have backed away and asked him to come with her... the days when she had instead become so single-minded in her drive for vengeance against Palpatine that it had ceased to matter to her that Ani was destroying his soul every day. She looked up at the glass figure's face. "I am you, as well," she said.

"Remember." The figure nodded and held out its hand. Amidala took it. A warmth seeped into her.

She stood still for a moment, though Luke was tugging at her sleeve. She smiled down at him. "You are here, aren't you?"

He cocked his head in a bemused way, not answering her. Was he Luke, or was he just some part of her own mind? Then he grinned in a sunny way, the bright smile that had been all his own. He took her hand and led her further down the path.

A life-sized hologram stood on the path, clad in white, carrying a child in her emaciated arms. She turned to Amidala with haunted eyes - the eyes that had been her own in the years she had fled through the galaxy to escape from Palpatine, her small, beautiful daughter in her arms. It was the time before Alderaan, before Camp One-A, before she had returned to Ani.

"You've betrayed me," the hologram said, its voice terrified.

Amidala considered not answering, but the compulsion was too strong. "I am you."

"I tried to keep them safe, but you hunted them. I tried to shelter them from the war, but you brought the war to them. I tried to make them happy, but you split Leia from the man she loved, and when Luke wished for your affection above all things, he had to pay for it with his soul."

Amidala wanted to protest. It wasn't my fault - I was tired, I was lonely, I, I, I. But looking into those eyes that she had once seen every day, she found she couldn't do so. Instead, she looked down at her feet. "I betrayed you," she whispered. "And I am you."

The hologram didn't reach out immediately, so Amidala looked up. It was gazing at her with compassion. "And I, you," it said. Then it reached across and whispered, "Remember."

As this Padmé came into her, she felt a deep sadness settle around her heart, but it was a just sadness, a sadness that belonged to her. It was grief for a life that had been stolen against her will.

The light from the hologram faded. The sky darkened. The garden disappeared. Only one figure remained, standing in the middle of a great arched doorway ten meters ahead. Beyond her was a hangar, with only one ship visible, a bright yellow Naboo fighter.

Beside her, the boy who had to be Luke looked up, fear on his small face. She leaned down and kissed him. "It will be all right," she said. "Mother will take care of it."

He nodded uncertainly and led her forward.

The last figure was not another image of herself. It was a great white flower - a lotus - folded up on itself. Amidala could see three petals, each bearing a sketched image of the figures she had seen already. She reached out to touch it, and the petals opened, folding down to form a pedestal. Only one remained upright, behind the figure that had been hidden within the bud.

From deep inside the lotus, Queen Amidala of Naboo arose, her face painted white, her purple gown falling heavily to the white petals at her feet. Luke went to her, and hid himself in the folds of velvet.

Lady Vader knelt. "I know. I have betrayed you."

There was no response from the impassive figure standing in front of her.

She sighed. "I turned my back on my duties to my people. I thought of myself before I thought of those for whom I am responsible. I -"


Lady Vader looked up.

Queen Amidala was smiling slightly. "I am you," she said, and opened her arms.

Lady Vader, Padmé Naberrie, Amidala of the Naboo, rose to her feet, and stepped into those arms, letting herself be embraced. Instead of feeling something flow into her, she felt a wholeness, a sense of transfer and balance. The Queen glowed around her.

Then there was darkness.

Amidala opened her eyes.

She was standing alone at the entrance to the South hangar. The fighter Luke had flown to Naboo sat by itself near the far wall. He had landed it there for some reason that she would never know, even though the rest of the fleet had been in the main hangar on the north side of the Command Center.

Of her vision... dream... whatever it had been, only one thing remained. In front of her was the last tall petal of the lotus, with one last sketched imaged on it.

It was Padmé again, but not the soft and romantic Padmé of meadow or the terrified young mother. It was not the queen in hiding. This Padmé wore a simpler costume, one Amidala only remembered vaguely because Captain Typho had not allowed her to wear it often.

It was the uniform of a Naboo fighter pilot.

The petal faded and disappeared.

Amidala breathed deeply. She had many things to do, and a promise to keep.

"Yousa Majesty?"

Lieutenant Gistra's head snapped up when he heard the voice of the Gungan who had been manning communications while he took a short break. Whatever Princess Leia said, Gistra didn't think that the Empress ought to be too close to the fragile communications system. Every time she gave a speech, the Rebellion ended up losing people. People said the Jedi knew about mind tricks, but the Empress... well, in Gistra's opinion, she could have taught them a thing or two.

But when he turned to block her, she was simply watching quietly, her dark eyes scanning the keys that the Gungan was hitting. She looked up briefly at Gistra. "Has there been any contact with Naboo yet?"

Gistra started to answer, but found himself caught in those eyes. They were a gravitational force. By the ghosts of all the Teachers, she was beautiful.


"No, ma'am," he managed, and fought against what he was certain was some kind of mind control. "They wouldn't be able to hit your missile anyway. Hasn't been a priority."

She raised an eyebrow, but did not reprimand him for his tone. He nevertheless felt ashamed.

"What channels are you scanning?" she asked.

"A few frequencies toward the high end of the spectrum, mainly." He showed her a list, and pointed to one number that glowed brightly. "We're bouncing everything off this. Anything we - that is, anything the Princess decides needs to be broadcast can go out to everyone who's picking anything up at all."

The Empress merely nodded. "Then you are doing all you can. The Princess will lead you well."

With that, she disappeared as abruptly as she had come.

The Command Center was no longer one crisis after another, but it was still hectic, and Leia had not been off her feet for an hour or more. Most of the problems were technical now, and things were running smoothly. She thanked the Maker for engineers and their single-minded devotion to technology... none of them seemed to care who was an Imperial and who was a Rebel, unlike the military leaders who sometimes only worked together grudgingly. The engineers were surly and didn't like taking any orders from anyone, but at least they didn't care which commander they were scowling at.

She checked her chrono. Why no word from Han? He had promised not to do anything foolish without coming back here first to check in with her, and she trusted him. But why hadn't he gotten back to her about the cruiser yet?

A tech cursed loudly in a far corner, and Leia stood and turned to go see what was happening. As she did, she saw Mother standing in the arched doorway of the room, her simple red gown fading into the shadows of the hall. But her face was clear.


She didn't answer. She just smiled sadly.

Leia was going to go to her - she had to; there was something about that smile that was wrong - but a console overheated, spraying sparks into the air and shorting out several other terminals around it. The tech got up - still cursing - and called her over to see what needed to be done.

When she finished sorting it out, Mother had gone.

In the quarters of the Empress, the door stood open. A traveling wardrobe was flung wide, its contents scattered as though they had been rifled quickly in a desperate search. Expensive gowns and veils, in varying shades of red, lay across the floor. One veil had fallen into the remains of a jar of facial cream that had been knocked off the bureau in haste.

The destruction stopped at the second drawer of the bureau, where the lost item had apparently been found. It had been carried ceremonially to the bed and placed on the pillow.

The box was exquisite, made of tiral, a rare pliable metal that reflected all surrounding colors perfectly. It had been shaped and decorated with loving care by Lord Vader's hands, its shape suggesting the wings of the birds of Naboo - or the feathers of a white cape worn long ago by a girl he had loved. Its top had been opened, to reveal its soft lining, made from a gown rescued from an Imperial museum - an orange, yellow, and red gown whose pattern had been designed to resemble flames. This cloth had been stuffed to cushion the one item that the box held, the one possession Amidala had never relinquished in the years since her childhood, though she had often had to keep it hidden.

Amid all the luxury, the japor snippet would have looked dull and dreary to any other eye - it was beaten and weathered, its arcane symbols faded over time. But its place alone was enough to tell the owner of that theoretical eye that it was the most important possession in the room.

The droids had finished the first and second levels of disconnection, and Vader wished, as he always did when he reached this point, that he had simply allowed himself to be swallowed by the fire. His limbs were totally inaccessible to him, a hulking, non-functional life-size droid that happened to be attached to what was left of his body. The sensory equipment in the helmet was high above him - his natural hearing had been dulled in the... the accident... and his vision had naturally deteriorated with age. It was still passable, but it put a soft blur around everything that was disconcerting with everything else gone as well. His vocoder had separated and opened, the microphones that caught his subvocalizations going off to either side for their antiseptic cleaning.

Why had he, with so little left of himself, survived today, while his son, the boy who carried all of their hopes, had perished?

Luke did not exist to carry your shattered hopes. Do not dishonor his memory by considering him nothing more than a replacement for your broken body.

Vader closed his eyes, losing himself in the void of nearly total sensory deprivation. He had not taken the time to know Luke as a man in his own right, not really. He had been a student, a son, a military leader. He had been Amidala's confidante - she would be able to tell him more - but he had not known Luke, not really. For so many years, he had simply relied on the Force to tell him the things he needed to know immediately that the simpler things, the conversations they might have had, just never occurred to him, or when they had, they had been distant concerns. There would be time After. There was always an After somewhere.

And yet, he had known Luke in ways that Amidala never would. He had felt Luke's mind and soul for years, had battled him and taught him and...

Loved him.

Vader had never fooled himself about this last, though he had never known how it fit into his life. He loved his family. He had managed to love Luke onto a funeral pyre.

He sensed the change in the Force when Amidala came into the antechamber, but he couldn't hear her yet, and he knew his eyes wouldn't focus on her until she was closer than the door. At this stage in the process, it was certainly impossible to greet her.

He opened his eyes, expecting to see a hazy red form somewhere beyond the barrier, making blurred motions as she adjusted her breath mask.

Instead, she stood before him, close to him, her uncovered face lovelier than he had remembered. The mask cleared his vision, but it stole warmth from the colors of the world. It -

"Your mask," he tried to say, then remembered that the vocoder was still cleaning.

She read his lips. "It's all right, Ani. I can't stay long."

"What do you... " But no sound came out. He shifted his eyes to the two microphones then looked at her significantly, but she didn't notice.

She leaned forward and kissed his mouth, her lips pressing softly against his, no barrier between them for the first time in more years than Vader was willing to remember. Her hands stroked the sides of his face, clear of machinery. She let her lips linger on his for a moment, then kissed his nose and his head. "Oh, Ani," she whispered. "Loving you is the most important thing I've done with my life. The best thing."

He tried to answer. She noticed the microphones and moved them in. "Thank you," he said. "Amidala, you should not breathe this air. The oxygen... "

"... will make me dizzy in a few minutes, I know." She brushed her finger along the microphones. "I'm sorry I waited, Ani. I did see you ask. But I needed to kiss you like that. I needed to touch you without all that in the way."

Vader considered saying something light, but he was troubled by her mood. A deep sadness was seeping out of her, grief beyond what she'd felt earlier. But it was tinged with peace.

Vader did not trust the combination. "My love, you need rest."

"I'll rest soon," she said. "But I promised I would come to you first."

"Amidala... "

"I know who you are, Ani," she said. "I have always known, from the moment we met. Stop hiding. Please promise me you'll stop hiding."

"Amidala... "

"Promise. I beg you, Ani. Stop this. All of it. Come back. Be Leia's father and my husband. Promise me you'll stop hiding."

"Amidala, your mood is... "

"Promise me."

"I will promise, but you must -"

"I will do what I must," she said.

Vader tried not to understand, tried to will it away from himself. But the truth was written in her eyes. "Amidala, no. Please... "

She kissed him again, deeply, and leaned her forehead against his. "I have to, Ani. I did this. I've spent too long pretending not to be myself. And I can't go back to pretending again."

"Padmé, please... "

Her eyes roamed over his face; he could almost feel them tracing his scars. "Stop hiding, Ani," she said again. "Stop pretending. You've done horrible things. I know that, and you know it. But you're still here. The same Anakin Skywalker who saved me and my world, the same Anakin Skywalker... Shmi's son. Obi-Wan's padawan. My husband. The children's father. You're still there, Ani. And you don't have to drown in what's happened."

She stood back. She was crying, he saw now, her lips trembling.

"Amidala, Padmé... "

"Amidala," she corrected softly. "I have to be Amidala now. Padmé could never leave you. And I have to." The trembling lips gave way to shuddering muscles in her cheeks, and the gentle crying became a sob. "Oh, Ani. I wish I'd done it all differently. But I didn't. And now... "

"Padmé... "

"It was cruel to come here. But I couldn't leave without saying goodbye, without seeing your eyes one more time... "

"Don't do this... "

But she turned and ran.

Vader reached out with the Force, but he was too late to close the complicated valve system before she was in the antechamber, and she left only the outer door to seal him inside.


But she was gone.

The droids went on with their work.

Leia's eyes roamed over the Command Center. It was operating under a sort of controlled chaos, which she was guiding and directing. A great deal of headway had been made in restoring order to the cities, but there still seemed to be so much left that needed to be done.

But she was pulling away from it. The Center was increasingly becoming a low, dull hum in the back of her mind.

Something in the Force was calling to her, was demanding her attention. She had tried to ignore it at first - there were too many things here she needed to deal with - but that hadn't lasted very long. She was being drawn to one or both of her parents, but her attempts to follow the trail of whatever this was tugging at her consciousness got lost and confused when she got close to either one of them.

She hadn't gone off to find Mother because she wasn't convinced that something was truly wrong with her. The sense Leia got from her now...she felt the same way she had looked a little while ago when she had made her wordless visit to the Command Center. Sad and smiling at once. Grieving and distressed, but peaceful. Purposeful.

It was the first time she had sensed that from her mother since...well, she wasn't sure she had ever sensed her mother feeling this centered before. She found it hard to believe that this was an indication that something was wrong.

So she turned to her father. But she couldn't get a proper read on him at all. She had never tried to before; she had spent so much of her time trying to close herself off from him that she wasn't sure where to begin trying to sense where his heart and mind were. She couldn't break through to get a clear impression, and she was left with a confused jumble.

Leia's feet were moving now, stumbling in an uncertain way toward one of the Command Center's exits. Several people called to her, some asked her if she was all right, data pads were thrust in front of her by officers trying to get her to approve this or that order. Many of them didn't register with her at all, and she ignored the rest.

She made it out into a hallway, and heading blindly in the direction where she believed her father's quarters to be.

He was feeling...trapped...hopeless? What was happening?

She still got nothing from her mother besides that strange calm.


Where was she?


Her feet were beginning to feel heavy, like they couldn't decide which way to carry her. She was slowing down.

And someone was grabbing her arm.

"Leia! Leia, what's going on?"

She gazed up at Han, blinking slowly. He gently turned her around so that she was facing him, and touched her face. He was clearly concerned. She tried to bring her mind around and focus on him and on what he was saying to her.

"Sweetheart, are you okay?"

She shook her head no in a slow, deliberate motion. "I - I need to find my parents, Han. I think something's wrong."

"Like what? What's happened?"

"I don't know yet," she said.

"Okay, okay, let's find them," he replied. "We need to talk with them anyway." He glanced back over his shoulder at Lando, whom Leia noticed for the first time, and they shared resigned expressions. Her heart sank. "We couldn't find a way to get around the auto-pilot. I really don't think there is a way around it. We need to sit down with them and discuss what we want to do next."

That was finally enough to pull Leia out of her stupor, and give Han her complete attention. "Are you sure there's nothing left to try? What about -"

"I'm sorry, Leia," Lando said, "but we've done everything we could think of, and tried a few other things I can't believe we even came up with. We dragged Artoo in there to take a look at it, and he knows the systems better than we do. We can't get to the root commands, and there was no way to get at it through other systems."

"Besides," Han added, "time's running out. If we're going to stop this thing, we've got to make a decision now."

The hopelessness of the situation hit Leia, as she thought about the limited and dreadful options they were left with. She locked her eyes with Han's and said coldly, "You can't do this. Don't even think about volunteering again."

"Leia, someone's got to go. I'm not saying it has to be me. But there's no reason I can't...be considered. I'm the reason so many people are going to be killed by this."

"Han -" she began. She didn't want to think what it would be like to watch Han fly off, heading toward his certain death. "I won't let you do it." To lose him at all, no matter how noble the cause might be...

Tears stung her eyes, and she almost couldn't breathe. She was surprised by how strongly the emotions came to her. After all, she had meant what she said. Han was not going to be the one to go. So why was she so affected by the thought of it?

She felt hopeless. Trapped.

"Father?" she whispered harshly.

Han and Lando looked at her blankly, but she had already freed her arm from Han's grasp, and was flying down the hallway, resuming her interrupted trip to her parents' quarters. She didn't pause to check if the other two were following her.

The feelings were so strong because that was the way he was feeling now. With that realization she was suddenly reading him easily, and almost becoming overwhelmed his panic and despair.

Why would he feel this way? She didn't want to consider the possibilities, she didn't want to know.

She rounded a corner, and to her surprise, her father was there, in the hallway, running toward her.

She barely had time to register the way he looked - out of sorts, almost disheveled - before he reached her, and grabbed her roughly by her shoulders. "Your mother, where is she?"

And that's when Leia understood.

She understood her mother's odd moods, and why her father's feelings had mirrored her own about Han possibly taking on this mission.

She paled, and beseeched him. "Father...she's not going to...she hasn't..."

"Have you seen her in the last few minutes?"

"No," she gasped. "Please, she hasn't gone, has she? She wouldn't - she couldn't! Where would she even find a ship? I thought all the ones on the base were destroyed."

That triggered something in her father's mind. He abruptly let her go, and broke into a run. Leia did her best to keep up with him, as Han and Lando trailed behind them.

He was leading them to the south hangar, a hangar that Leia had believed held ships and vehicles for traveling on the surface of the planet, from city to city. She didn't think it had any of the Imperial space vehicles.

But, even as they approached the hangar, Leia could hear the sound of engines starting up, of a ship preparing for launch. The sound tore at Leia's heart.

Mother, no!

She and Father reached an entrance at the instant Luke's Naboo fighter left the hangar. It soared for the atmosphere, and was out of sight within seconds.

The two of them stood there, perfectly still, watching the sky - as if she would simply reappear, as if they could do something to bring her back.

A loud crash startled Leia, and she took her eyes from the sky. Her father had smashed his hand into the wall in utter anguish, shorting out the mechanics in his arm. Sparks briefly flew up from his wrist. He cried out, and brought his hand back for another slam.

"Father!" Leia grabbed his arm, and felt the slight burns of the sparks. "Father, please."

He easily removed his arm from her hands, but she reached up to catch it again. She wasn't worried about him hitting the wall again - now she was scared that he would take that arm and pull out his power packs from his chest, or disconnect his respirator...he knew Amidala could not be stopped, he knew that she was gone. The grief of it was making him crazy.

"Father, don't! She wouldn't have wanted you to do this, you know that." She continued struggling with him. "Please, I can't lose you too!" Her voice dropped, and she whispered, "Please!"

He kept fighting her, and fighting himself, but Leia stayed beside him, steadfast and firm, while still pleading with him, begging him to come back to her, to stay with her.

Finally, his arm went limp, and then awkwardly went around her. Leia accepted his embrace and moved into her father's arms.

Amidala didn't bother trying to judge the missile's trajectory, or use the unreliable communications equipment to pick up its signal. It might take any number of routes through deep space, and an object less than two meters long and half a meter wide would be easy to miss in all the black emptiness.

But she knew where it was going, the one place where it would have to be. There was nothing wrong with the fighter's sensor arrays; she would see it coming.

She set course at top speed for Ledaga, to wait for the missile she had ordered Piett to launch.

I will never see Ani or Leia again.

She squeezed her eyes shut against the thought and punched the hyperspace key. The fighter shuddered, then slipped into lightspeed. When she opened her eyes, white starlines streamed around her.

Being here in Luke's fighter was the only comfort she had here in the dark. He always made the places he lived and worked his own. The music he had enjoyed on long flights was available to her at the touch of a key, the food he kept on hand was in the small compartments at her right. The smell of the soap he used still hung in the air. Amidala didn't feel completely alone here, with so much of him surrounding her.

But I will never see Leia and Ani again. Or Theed in the summer. Or anything but deep space. I will never dance at my daughter's wedding, or hear my grandchildren laugh.

She took a sharp breath.

There was nothing to be done about it. She had grasped at those visions so desperately that they'd broken under her clumsy touch, and now they were gone for her. Maybe they would still be there for Ani.

That goodbye had been painful, and it had been cruel, so cruel to do it as she had. Nothing she had done in the mad years she was leaving behind had been so wretched as waiting to go to him until he was helpless to stop her - but she knew she'd had to do it. Ani had never laid a hand on her in anger, but she knew well that if it had come to a physical struggle, she would have no more chance against Ani than she would have trying to catch the missile with her bare hands.

So she had gone.

Maker help her.

But it would have been as cruel - maybe more cruel - to leave with no goodbye, to let him think she had forgotten him or dismissed his importance. And she couldn't have done it. She'd had to see him, touch him, one last time.

Her mind circled around what she'd said to him. Had it been everything she'd meant? Had she told him she loved him? She'd said something about loving him being important, but had she actually given him one last I love you? She couldn't remember.

And Leia...

She had been so busy, doing what she was meant to do, and there had been no way to interrupt her. Was it better to leave as she had?

There were so many things left to say, but they never would have formed themselves in time. They barely formed themselves now, when she knew it was her last chance... or that her last chance had passed. She would use the frequencies that she'd gotten from Lieutenant Gistra - she had them programmed into the fighter's transmitter already - but the things she wanted to say to her husband and her daughter would not be broadcast to everyone who could hear. They did not belong to the galaxy; they belonged to her family.

Nothing would remain of the fighter. There was no message she could leave behind other than the japor snippet she'd left on her pillow. She hoped that Ani would know that it meant she would stay with him if it turned out there was anything beyond what she was about to do. She hoped he wouldn't see it as symbolically leaving him behind.

She hoped that Leia wouldn't take this as a second abandonment, a re-opening of the wound she'd left so long ago, when she'd left her on Alderaan to be raised without so much as her own true name.

If she could only reach them, privately, long enough to say all the things that were left...

Ani, my love will always remain with you, as it did when you believed me dead before. There is a place in your heart that is clean and strong, and you can look for me inside it whenever you need me. Let that place grow, let it overtake all the shadows. And don't forget me, please don't forget me. I live in you. I love you. Take care of Leia - she will carry us forward, and the galaxy with us. And she needs you more than she will admit.

No, even that might not have been enough, even if she could have gotten all of it out with Ani straining to convince her to stop. There would never be enough words, enough caresses, enough time, even if they spent the next century together. The galaxy had been brutal and unfair to them - that had not been a delusion of her madness. But they had made what they could of the time they had, and Amidala would not allow herself to waste the last hour of her life seething in anger about what could not be changed.

Leia, the memory of you - of your smile and eyes - carried me through twenty years in hell, and I repaid you by making you a captive and allowing you to be desperately unhappy. There is no way to say how sorry I am. But the love was real, the need was real. Please never doubt that. I will love you now as I should have all along, sheltering you and protecting you. That was my responsibility, and I failed it. Please accept my love, and let it no longer be painful to you. Take care of Ani - he is hurt and fragile, and has let the truth of himself be hidden in shadows for so long that he fears the light. And he needs you more than he will admit.

How inadequate, how weak.

No. Perhaps it was best - perhaps it was fitting - that her final words would go out to strangers, a political message of the sort that had always been her strength, her downfall, and her duty.

The fighter shuddered out of hyperspace above a small green world. Amidala scanned the surface for the location of the base and found it easily - it was the only concentration of technology on Ledaga. A few bursts of energy seemed to come from it sporadically, but the ship's sensors detected massive seismic activity throughout the region.

Without much hope, Amidala hailed the surface, opening several Rebel frequencies. "This is the Empress. You must evacuate this base immediately. You are... "

A harsh crackle of feedback and static burst into the earpiece of her comm equipment and she cut off the connection. They had not gotten their comm systems back online. It was the last chance.

She took up a stationary orbit above the base, and turned her scanners outward to find incoming objects. She didn't think she would have long to wait.

In the momentary silence, she arranged her dress and her veils so that she would be recognizable, recorded a short message and double-checked to make sure it said what she wanted, then prepared it for mass transmission. It was the last thing she would do to serve the galaxy, and it was the best she could do.

A blinking light appeared on the sensor screen, coming in toward Ledaga quickly. The size was right. The trajectory was right.

Amidala looked up.

The missile was visible now, a small silver speck in the endless night. Panic gripped her, the voices of desperation and the will to live at all costs screaming in her mind.

She forced herself to be deaf to them. The people below her were innocent of this. She was not.

With a trembling hand, she hit the transmit button, sending her final message across the galaxy. Then she unlocked herself from orbit, and launched the fighter at the incoming missile.

It swerved around her first pass - its systems were good - and she looped around it from underneath. There would only be one more chance.

She brought the nose of the fighter up, only meters in front of the careening missile. The impact was immediate and cacophonous, metal screaming against metal, the transparisteel of the cockpit cracking around her. Her body was yanked upward toward the dome by the vacuum effect, the cold of space freezing her skin and the pull of the vacuum tearing at her flesh.

She tried to scream in fear and pain, but there was no air left.

And then fear was gone, and pain was gone, and the universe was filled with white light and silence.

Tucked away, in a corner of the basement of the Imperial Command Center on Naboo, a couple of ensigns were tooling around with a few of the lesser-used frequencies on the comlink. Their commanding officers were locked in the conference rooms above them, having left behind strict orders to interrupt only for the most pressing and urgent issues. The missile should have hit by now, and there was nothing to do but sit and wait.

Except down here. Rebel defectors had always been welcomed in Lady Vader's armed forces, but not many of them had risen to the upper echelons of the military yet. So while the commanders and admirals sat around and waited for the ruined Imperial systems to come back online - which they were doing, in completely unpredictable fits and starts - a few ensigns were trying to put their knowledge of Rebel tactics and communications to use.

Of course, their information was fairly outdated, since nearly all of them had abandoned the Rebellion after Bespin. But after a few tries, they were hitting the right frequencies, and were receiving all sorts of random messages. Bits of underground news channels, some actual Rebel communications (someone thought they heard a Rebel reporting to an Imperial captain, but everyone decided that he must have heard wrong), random people on both sides from all over the galaxy who had also stumbled on the Rebels' working channels trying desperately to raise anyone else...nothing useful or informative, and nothing to justify the effort that had put in so far. But they kept trying.

And then...Someone thought they heard her voice. Someone else tried to strengthen the signal. Someone realized there was a visual with this message. Soon, everyone was crowded around one of the small viewscreens, looking at a frozen image of their Empress and waiting. As the playback began, one of the more technically gifted ensigns quickly overrode the viewscreens in the commanders' conference room, so they would see the message as well.

The last time I came before you, I ushered in my ascension as your Empress. Today, I come before you to tell you that I have failed. I have failed you in my years in the public realm as Lady and Empress Vader.

You gave me your faith, your hopes, and your dreams. And I answered your gifts with betrayal.

In Mos Espa, Amee and Seek looked at one another in utter confusion, while their Imperial patients strained up from their cots to get a better view of Lady Vader on the viewer stationed near the front of their tent. The Rebels had their own viewscreen on a few yards away. The townspeople were watching in a nearby store. There was a slight echo effect from all the different comms tuned to her speech.

"What is she talking about?" Amee whispered, feeling a sudden fear that she couldn't explain.

"Where is she?" Seek replied. "I thought she was here on Tatooine. Does that look like Tatooine to you?" Amee shrugged distractedly.

You placed your faith in me to bring you peace. You believed I would restore order. You trusted that I would not be the same ruler as Palpatine was.

And perhaps I was able to do some of that.

But the methods I used to fulfill those promises were shameful, and corrupted the good I tried to do for you.

The platforms on Coruscant were packed with people, on every level, from the highest spires to the lowest ghettos. Humans and aliens of all kinds watched as an eerie silence held the city, broken only by her voice, and the buzz of engines in the flying lanes.

The Empress was truly loved here, and Coruscant had never really been the same after she decided to move the capital to Naboo. They missed her, especially the alien population of the lower levels that had flourished under her rule after years of the harshest oppression from Palpatine. They supported her strongly, but had to do so at a distance, and it wasn't the same.

Now, she was apologizing for failing them, for letting them down. To the Grans and Wookieees and Twi'leks listening, none of it made any sense. She had never failed them. She couldn't.

You offered me your hope that the hostility and wars could end. You wanted me to bring together the fighting factions, to calm the troubled regions, to end the hostilities that have plagued the Republic and Empire for generations now.

And I tried to do that. But I mistook stifling dissent for bringing consensus, and believed that total control was the only condition under which peace could flourish.

The Rebels in Mos Eisley should have been more surprised by Lady Vader's words than they actually were. But too much had happened for them to feel shocked by anything, including hearing the leader of the Empire essentially admit to every accusation the Rebellion had ever hurled at her.

They had already worked with Imperials to expel the Tuskens. They had seen Leia come into the settlement with Lord Vader at her side. They had watched Lando leave for Imperial headquarters, to join Han and Leia there.

A few of them were suspicious, thinking that the transmission was fake, was a trick of some kind. Why would the Empress send out such a message? From the cramped cockpit of a fighter? It made no sense.

But then, nothing had made sense since the battle had started. And who knew what had gone on at the headquarters? Maybe Leia had managed to talk some kind of sense into her mother after all.

It was possible, at least. So they stood back and listened.

You gave me your dreams for a new galaxy. One that would not fall into the morass of the Republic or the oppression of the Old Empire.

You gave me all of this, and I failed you, giving you many of the same problems, and subjecting you to much of the same tyranny as you lived through before.

I apologize. And now, I will do as I should have done from the beginning.

There were still resistance cells in the less populated sections of Coruscant. No more than a handful were active throughout the whole planet, but they existed. Many of them were older people who had served under the Old Republic before it fell. Some were the children of former Senators and governors. They had despised the Empire in any form, and took Amidala's rise to power as a direct betrayal. A Senator, one of their own, overthrowing Palpatine to set up another Empire? They could hardly fathom it.

There were only one or two left who had actually served with her when she represented Naboo. They didn't share this sentiment with the others, but they thought they saw something of that young, fiery Senator in the older woman who spoke over the skittish comlinks now.

By the time this message is received...I will have died. I am dying to save the Rebels and civilians on the planet Ledaga, where a missile was sent, on my orders, to destroy their base.

The choice to do this was mine and mine alone. I have realized what the right path is for me to take as a leader - and the deaths of more civilians, of more Rebels, of more of my citizens is unacceptable. With no other options remaining, I have chosen to stop the missile with this ship, and take responsibility for what I've done. It was the only thing I could do.

Piett felt dizzy, and had to lean against a table to stop himself from falling over completely.

He gasped for air. "What does - what has she -"

No one answered, as they were to busy staring in horror at the viewscreen one of the ensigns had set up in the main conference room. The same realization was coming to them, and a terrible understanding began hitting the officers all at once.

"She's dead?"

"That can't be, Lord Vader would never let her do -"

"Has it already happened? She's already gone?"

"How could she have changed her mind? Why would she do this?"

"Our own missile. Our own missile killed her. Our own..."

The last was said in a whisper, by Dihave, who sat in a chair, staring at nothing, pale and ashen.

Piett still hadn't found enough air to speak, and didn't know what he could possibly say regardless.

He had killed her.


A captain was looking to him, hoping for some sort of command in the midst of the growing panic that was sweeping their ranks. He was looking to him for orders. After his last order had killed...

"I am relieved of command, Captain," Piett said abruptly. He pushed pass the man and through the crowd at the front of the room. He didn't know where he was going, and he didn't care.

He had killed her.

How was he was supposed to live with that? By giving more orders to his men? He couldn't. He had to leave.

He was dimly aware of the fact that her message continued, and that she was still speaking. He glanced back at her beautiful face, and listened briefly to her voice as she spoke her last words to the galaxy. Then he stumbled away, eventually winding up inside her office, sitting at her desk, numb and oblivious and drowning in guilt. He would not get back up to face anyone else again for many long hours.

Do not grieve for me, because I have finally left you the galaxy you deserve. My husband, daughter, and I worked together on Tatooine, and found a real solution to the problems that have plagued this government. Reforms have been agreed to and changes are in place. Your rights and freedoms will be returned to you, and the government will serve you as it was meant to.

The changes will be seen most clearly on your homeworlds, and in the Imperial Senate. The royal throne of the Empress will remain. With my death, the throne will pass to my daughter. I pray that you will accept her in this role as willingly as you accepted me. Leia will not fail you in this position. She is more than ready to take up my crown.

In the Imperial Headquarters on Tatooine, no one had noticed that Lady Vader was not in the building with them any more, not until the message had started playing. Only a few of them had even noticed that Leia was no longer giving orders in the Command Center, or that Vader had not returned from his usual nightly personal time. No one had any idea where they were now.

Word of the attack on the Rebel base had spread quickly, but they had all assumed that something had been figured out by someone, that by some means or another, the danger had been dealt with, and had passed.

The Rebels - all of them, even the wilder ones from Alpha Squadron - were sobered completely by the realization that the Empress had gone off to stop the weapon personally. A sense of shame hung over them, as they watched the woman they had gleefully tried to kill make the ultimate sacrifice...a sacrifice that none of them were sure they'd be so willing to make if they had been in her position.

The news that Leia was going to take over surprised the Imperial officers. Some of them knew her personally from her time in the Palace, but most found her a confusing figure, someone connected directly to the Empress but unable to stay on one side of the fight. But now, she had come to enough of an understanding with her mother to accept the throne, to accept the existence of an Empire at all?

They all listened together, each side truly beginning to see the other's leader in a new light.

With my daughter leading the new government, and my husband...working to restore...his Order, you should rest assured that you are in good hands. And now, I have fulfilled my obligations to you.


With that, viewscreens across the galaxy went blank, and the message ended.

The desert night was cold and unforgiving.

Vader and Leia might not have noticed it as they stood in the hangar, their arms folded around one another in an embrace that should have seemed surreal but didn't. They didn't seem to take note of anything but the absence of the ship that had just launched.

But Lando noticed. He also saw that Han was rubbing his arms sharply, taking small steps back toward the base. They couldn't stay here all night. Lando guessed that Han didn't want to risk stepping into the moment Vader and Leia were sharing - he had something to lose if they resented it - so Lando decided to do it himself. He took a deep breath, then reached out to touch Leia's small shoulder.

She didn't respond at first, but after a few seconds, she looked up, turning her face away from Vader's chestplate.

"We should go inside," Lando said. "We need to know what's happening."

"We do know," Leia said.

But Vader nodded and released her from the embrace (she merely turned and wrapped her arm around him from the side, not letting her touch leave him). "Amidala will speak again," he said. "I would hear it. I must hear it."

In silence, they made their way back to the small conference room where they had spoken earlier, adjacent to the command center. Lando quietly broke away from the group, arranged to take a small holoprojector from the Rebel commander, and double-checked the comm settings that were being used. Gistra looked mildly surprised, and mentioned that the Empress had asked for the same information. Lando couldn't think of any answer for that, so he said nothing.

When he got back to the conference room, Vader was sitting at the head of the table, leaning forward with his helmeted head in his hands. Lando had never seen anyone look so miserable. Leia, sitting beside him, had placed her hands on the upper part of left arm. Han was standing behind her, his hands resting lightly on her shoulders.

Leia looked up when Lando came in with the holoprojector. "Just put it on the table," she said. "No sound until... " She took a shaky breath. "Thank you for bringing it, Lando."

"No problem." He set it up where they could all see it, and tuned it to the frequency Gistra had said was the central one, the one he had given the Empress before she left. Random images flickered in an out of it, views of a galaxy that was about to disappear forever.

Quite suddenly, Leia screamed, putting her hands to her ears like she was trying to block out a horrible sound.

Han knelt beside her. "Leia... what is it? Leia... "

Leia let him hold her, but said nothing. She just rocked against his chest, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. It was uncomfortable to watch, and Lando found his eyes shifting to Vader himself. One black-gloved hand had reached up to something at his neck.

Lando realized in time what he was doing. "Lord Vader!" he called, not sure what good it would do.

Leia jumped and threw herself at her father. His hand moved away from the circuit he'd been touching. They embraced awkwardly in the chairs. "Father," she whispered. "Don't. She's gone, isn't she?"

Vader nodded.

"Don't leave me, Father. Please."

Lando glanced at Han, who shook his head in bewilderment.

Then there was a burst of static from the holoproj, and when it cleared, the red-clad form of Lady Vader, the Empress, hovered above the conference room table.

Lando hit the sound.

"The last time I came before you, I ushered in my ascension as your Empress. Today, I come before you to tell you that I have failed."

Vader shook his head in negation, pulling away from Leia, though her hands remained on his arm. He reached one gloved hand toward the image. It flickered when he touched it, and he drew the hand away quickly, as though afraid it would disappear. He leaned forward, as if he could will her back.

Lando could see Leia's hands tightening on her father's arm. As her mother went on, accusing herself of crime after crime - the crimes of which Leia had always accused her in the past - her eyes slipped shut. Tears slipped silently down her cheeks, cutting tracks in the dust that had accumulated over the course of the day. Vader just continued to shake his head. His hands were now around the base of the holoprojector, trying to hold the image to him without actually touching it.

"... I mistook stifling dissent for bringing consensus, and believed that total control was the only condition under which peace could flourish... ."

Lando slipped back to stand beside Han, and whispered, "What happens now?"

Han's reply was barely louder than a breath. "We start over."

"If it happened while she was recording... "

"I don't think she'd do that to them."

Lando wanted to continue the conversation, wanted to talk about anything other than what he was seeing, but Han wasn't listening anymore, and words wouldn't come anyway, at least not words that mattered. Instead, he turned back to the Empress and her ravaged family.

"... By the time this message is received...I will have died. I am dying to save the Rebels and civilians on the planet Ledaga, where a missile was sent, on my orders, to destroy their base. The choice to do this was mine and mine alone... "

Leia made a tight, strangled sound, and resumed the rocking motion she'd been making before the speech had begun. Han soothed her with his hands, and she quieted. Vader's hand moved slowly to rest on her shoulder, though his face never turned from the last image of his wife.

"Do not grieve for me, because I have finally left you the galaxy you deserve... "

As the Empress sketched out the compromises they'd made together here a few hours ago, Lando had the distinct impression that neither Leia nor Vader was even listening anymore, at least not to the words. They responded to the tone of her voice and watched with rapt attention, but there was little reaction to the words themselves. Leia didn't react at all when her mother passed on the crown of the highest power in the galaxy.

"With my daughter leading the new government, and my husband...working to restore...his Order" - neither Vader nor Leia responded to this, but Lando gave a start; had she actually left that instruction? - "you should rest assured that you are in good hands. And now, I have fulfilled my obligations to you. Goodbye."

The transmission ended and static hung in the air.

Leia made the strangled sound again, then began to weep. "Mother," she whispered. "Mother, Mother... "

Vader pulled the holoprojector to him, and began to play the message again. Leia gathered herself and looked across at him. "Father, don't. Don't do it. That wasn't for us. It was for everyone else."

"But we have nothing else," Vader said. His voice was soft and sounded almost lost. "It is all we have left, Leia."

"It's not ours. Maybe as Princess... Empress... and Lord Vader. Instructions. But as Leia and Anakin... she wasn't talking to us, Father. She said goodbye to us earlier. Didn't you feel it, Father? She said goodbye to us before she started speaking."

"Then we have nothing."

"We have each other," Leia said. "And we have jobs to do."

Vader shook his head. "I cannot, Leia."

She started to say something, then shook her head and leaned on his shoulder. They stayed like that for a long time - nearly an hour, Lando guessed later, though there was no sense of time at all while it was passing - with Lando and Han moving aimlessly and wordlessly about the room, then Vader sat back and gently plucked Leia's hands from his arm. "You are tired, my daughter. You should rest."

"I'm not going to leave you here alone, Father."

"I do not require sleep. You do. So do your friends."

"I don't want you to be alone."

"We'll stay with him."

Lando turned to the door; they all did.

Two middle-aged humans stood there, dressed in desert clothes. The man had a medical case. The woman carried nothing, but her face held great compassion.

"Who are you?" Leia demanded.

"They're from Mos Espa," Han said. "They were helping at the medical center."

Vader only looked at them, his head cocked slightly.

The woman spoke to Han, but her eyes didn't leave Vader. "We came to tell you that things have been properly arranged and all is in order. I'm sorry to disturb you at a time like this. But we also came for Anakin."

Vader stood. "It is unnecessary, Amee," he said. "You also need rest."

"We've rested," the man said.

"I can stay with my father," Leia told them. "I -"

"Leia, you must rest," Vader said. "You will have many duties after sunrise, and you will not have an opportunity again. It is unnecessary for any of you to watch over me."

The woman - Amee - knelt on Vader's other side. "Anakin, when my mother was taken, your mother came and sat with my father and me. Let me return the kindness, for her sake."

Vader was quiet for a moment, then nodded. "For her sake." He looked at the man. "Seek, will you do the kindness of examining my daughter and her companions for injuries, then seeing to it that they get rest?"

The man nodded solemnly. "Yes. And then I'll check on you."

"Father -" Leia began, but Vader raised his hand, and she fell silent.

"I will... You need not concern yourself with me, Leia. I will not leave you."

Leia looked at him doubtfully.

"Leia, rest. I regret frightening you, and... will not do so again."

After a long moment, Leia nodded. The exhaustion of the day was obviously pressing in on her, and, with a last prompt from her father, she let Seek lead her out of the conference room. Han and Lando followed her. Lando spared one last glance back at Lord Vader - the man who was being called "Anakin" - and saw him sitting quietly, his childhood friend at his side, looking alone and defeated.

Then he followed his own companions further into the base. Seek examined each of them gently, cleaning and re-bandaging cuts, checking bone and joint injuries, scanning them for incipient infections. When he had finished, he brought out a hypospray, and pressed it to each of their arms in turn.

The effect was quick and soothing. Lando felt sleep steal over him, saw it stealing over Han and Leia. He stretched out on a small, uncomfortable cot, and let weariness take him, as the long desert night finally drew to its end.

When he awoke, Tatoo I had risen, and Tatoo II was on the ascent.



Naboo was not a planet that had strictly defined seasons.

That was part of its appeal, of course, part of its wonderful and near-idyllic nature. There was almost never a need for layers of clothing to ward of a chill, and the sun was never hidden by clouds long enough for people to miss its rays. You could almost become unaware of the passage of time here, as days and weeks went by against a barely changing backdrop. It was beautiful, peaceful, and comforting, with very little interruption.

Leia realized now that she had allowed herself to be lulled into Naboo's calm, at least a little bit. That surprised her. Her time on Naboo had begun with her confined to her bed all day as she slowly recovered from the injuries she had sustained from the Falcon's crash. Lying in that same room every day, seeing the same people - she was nearly driven mad from the sheer repetition of her existence. Eventually, she latched on to the large window that provided her only contact with the world beyond the Palace, and gave her the only chance to see something change on a daily basis. She had figured out certain patterns, some focusing on the most minute of details. She watched the wind pick up slightly and flutter the leaves of a tree with great interest. Cloudy skies were an event. A five-minute change in when the sun went down never escaped her notice.

She knew the rhythms of Naboo very well, and the fact that it had not rained today - that it didn't even look like rain as she stared out at Theed from the Palace throne room - meant that the wet season was nearly over. And that meant she had been on the planet for...for quite a long time. Months now.

Tatooine was practically a lifetime ago.

The grief was still there, a part of her, and who she was. The sense of loss had never gone away, and she knew it wouldn't. But at some point after Mother's death she had learned to pick up, and do the work she needed to do, in spite of the way she felt. Or maybe because of the way she felt. She could not abide the thought that Luke's and Mother's deaths had been meaningless, and had an insatiable urge to do whatever she could to create the kind of galaxy where Luke would not have been so senselessly killed, the kind of galaxy that she and her mother had imagined and crafted.

It hadn't been easy, though Leia preferred to focus on her blessings, because she knew things could have been much worse. The general reaction of the galaxy to Mother's message and death had been pure shock. There had been no organized opposition to Leia's ascension to the throne, mostly because none of the factions or groups could come to a decision about what exactly had occurred. And the plain fact of it was that the vast majority of people in the galaxy were either followers of Mother's Empire or sympathetic to Leia's Rebellion, and neither side felt they could mount a serious objection when the Empress willingly turned over control to the leader of the Rebellion.

Leia had done her best to cut through the confusion and malaise as she began implementing the reforms that would give birth to her new Empire. The work was slow and at times tedious - each governmental change seemed to affect a hundred other smaller things, and decentralizing certain facets of the Empire without having them fall apart was a tricky business. Leia moved deliberately, not introducing a new reform until the last was working reasonably well. Her caution had paid off so far, as no crisis had come up, and her wary citizens were relieved to see her dedication to making things truly work, and to leaving the old divisions behind.

A few of the biggest reforms would be coming up very soon - her appointment of regional governors, and the popular election of a new Senate. After that, Leia was certain the rest would begin to fall into place, and Coruscant would be home to a truly free government again after decades of oppressive rule.

The time had come for the Empress to leave Theed. It was past time.

"You're going to miss it here, aren't you, Sweetheart?"

Leia could see Han's wavy reflection in the plasteel, and had sensed him approaching before he had reached the door. She didn't turn around. "Are you sure you aren't a Jedi?" she asked.

"Quite," he replied as he crossed the room.

"I don't know. I think I'll miss her more than I'll ever specifically miss here." He was behind her now, and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest. They watched the city in silence for several moments. "Sometimes it's hard to separate the two. It's hard to tell the difference."

"I know. That's why you decided to move."

She nodded. "Part of me still wonders at times if I'm doing this as some sort of...repudiation of her."

He pulled her closer, and shook his head. "You know better than that. You've thought this through. The galaxy needs a fresh start. It would be too hard to do that from here."

That was what he had said to her before, when she was still trying to sort out her feelings on why she felt it necessary to leave Naboo. He was still right. Even her father had eventually agreed with her reasoning. This wasn't a slight against Mother - against the woman who had carried and borne her, who had raised her those first few years, who had held and comforted her after Luke's death, who had given her life once she realized what was right...No, this was a way of breaking off from the Empress Vader, the one whose cult of personality had twisted the Empire into a false and repressive regime. That cult was strongest here, on Naboo, and the new government needed to disassociate itself from that, just as Mother herself had done in that final message. A return to Coruscant was necessary.

"It's the right thing to do," she finally said to Han. "But, like everything else, being right doesn't make it easy."

"No," he agreed, "but if it helps, most of the officers I've talked to understand why we all have to leave."

"Do they?"

"I think so. They're disappointed that they have to go back to jammed-up sky-lanes and durasteel buildings, but I told them that missing the cushy life here on Naboo wasn't a good enough reason to doubt your orders to get back to Coruscant."

She couldn't help grinning at his tone, and she twisted her head around to give him a teasing look. "And I have no doubt that when High Admiral Solo gives an order -" he groaned and rolled his eyes "- the officers are quick to obey."

"Leia, would you please stop calling me that?" he asked with an irritation that sounded half-mocking.

"What would you call yourself then?"

"I don't know," he said. "But I didn't even like being called General by the Rebels. And I don't remember getting a commission yet, Your Majesty."

"A formality, which will be taken care of once we reach Coruscant," she said simply. "I don't know why you bother pretending to fight this."


"You chose it!" His response was a blank stare. "I'm afraid you got so used to running the Rebellion in my absence that you can't help but put yourself in charge any time a group of two or three officers get together," she explained. "I never asked you to start integrating the armies or implementing the military reforms - but I didn't have to. I just looked up, and there you were giving orders and running things."

He sighed heavily, apparently realizing that he was beaten. "Well...someone had to do it."

"You've done a wonderful job, Han. We could have never gotten everyone working together so smoothly if you hadn't made it your top priority."

"You were so busy with the political stuff, and Lando doesn't have much interest in military work when he can be off doing something else. I didn't want this to get ignored by accident or anything like that, and the Rebels still listen to me, and the Imperials were mostly willing to work with me since I wasn't looking to arrest them or strip them of their command - and Chewie offered to help..."

"So, naturally, you stepped in, and everything is sort of falling into place?" Leia finished. "You should give yourself more credit."

"Maybe," he said, "but I don't know how I feel about this 'High Admiral' thing. In a legitimate army? That's outside of my experience." Leia laughed and Han joined in.

She sobered suddenly, and asked, "Has Piett been up to helping you at all?"

"A little. Not much. He's so reluctant." Han shrugged. "He's afraid of himself, he doesn't want to do anything. He thinks if he tells me how to do anything, or tells me anything about how things work -"

"- someone else will have to die," Leia whispered.

Han rubbed her arms gently. "Yes. I asked your father to talk to him about coming to Coruscant when we leave. Maybe he can convince him."

"I hope so." Leia gave Han a significant look. "Of course, I've been trying to do my share of convincing with Father himself..."

"Are you still trying to get him to see that boy?" Han asked. "I didn't think he was willing to do that yet."

"Maybe he's not. But I think he's waited long enough, Han. This is his - his calling. It's time he got started. Rebuilding the Order is not going to be simple."

A family out in the farm country had contacted Leia a few days ago - their youngest son seemed to exhibit Force-sensitivity and powers, and after Mother's message, they thought someone in the Palace might know what they should do. Leia knew what a huge first step a visit would be for her father, and she hoped he'd take it. There had been no additional suicide scares after Tatooine, and Father had been a huge help to her on any number of issues. He had claimed to be perfectly content in supporting and protecting Leia, just as he had done with her mother. But, he was a Jedi at heart, and she no longer wanted him to deny that. They occasionally meditated together and Leia knew he was looking for guidance in the Force for what he should do next.

"If he's interested," Han was saying, "I think the Jedi Temple could be restored. I've spoken to people who have some ideas about what to do with it."

She nodded absentmindedly.

"The officers on Coruscant say they're ready for our arrival," he continued. "Lando's already working on preparations for the new Senate, getting everything set up for them so they can get to work as soon as they're all elected."

Leia smiled. "Good for him. I think Lando will make a great Chancellor once the Senate is ready to elect one."

"He definitely thinks so!" Han said, and they both laughed again.

Leia finally turned away from her view of Theed, and looked at the throne room, which was completely cleaned out and packed up. The throne itself sat in the middle of the nearly empty room. It would remain here after she left, as would several of Mother's things. The Palace would stand as a testament to her, as a reminder of her sacrifice.

Leia swallowed back her grief as she walked through the room, and eventually stopped to touch the throne. She would miss Naboo, because she and her family were tied so deeply to it. But she knew that Mother and Luke were with her and Father, and would continue to be, as they started the next phase of their lives.

She reached back for Han's hand, and pulled him to her. "Let's go, Han."

They left the throne room together.

The clothes had belonged to Kenobi.

Leia had asked Seek and Amee to go out to Kenobi's hut and have his things packed and sent to Theed. She had wanted his datapads and books, his holos and his artifacts from the Temple. Amee - at least Vader assumed it was Amee - had decided that the clothes should come as well, and she had altered them herself to fit Vader's larger frame.

For a long time, Vader had not opened the parcel in which she had bound them, though Leia had encouraged him to. There had been little point to it until today. The most disturbing parts of his armor were the ones that were integrated into his cybernetic respiratory system, the ones he could not remove.

Until today.

Tinera Kei had been overjoyed to declare her lung cloning experiments a failure and clear them out of the resp lab. Before coming to Theed, she had worked with the miners on Bespin to develop cybernetic replacements for lungs damaged by the gas, and she had a viable prototype nearly ready, though ignored for three years while she worked with biotechnology. Commander Dihave had asked to be reassigned to her, to offer his technical assistance. (Palace gossip, of which Vader had become morbidly aware in the long and empty days since Tatooine, held that he had offered her more than technical assistance, but Vader had seen no evidence of it. )Between them, they had been able to complete the prototype, test it on four willing patients, and take it into mass production.

Vader had not initially planned to make use of the new technology himself. He had a working respirator, and there were certainly those who would need the new machinery more. There were certain cosmetic improvements - the filtration system was built into the neck gear, leaving the face free - but they seemed unimportant. But

(Stop hiding, Ani... Stop pretending. )

her voice had recurred to him more and more often as the months went on. He could get out of the suit, out from behind the mask - stop hiding behind the symbols she had hated. He remembered her frustrated tears when she'd come to him after her nightmare, and her pleas just before she...

Just Before.

Stop hiding, Ani.

There was one other thing he had taken note of as he observed her patients coming up from their convalescence: Tinera's system had several redundancies, and independently functioning parts. He would never have to be fully helpless during maintenance again.

So he had come here, to the laboratory. He was the last patient, and he had taken pains to assure Tinera that she was not obligated to perform this service. She had nodded soberly, then begun her examination.

It wasn't just the respirator. The structure of the suit had been unified, and other adjustments needed to be made. She covered his legs with a faux skin - he had objected to it as a mere cosmetic touch, but she insisted that it was protective - and re-wired his vocoder to respond to a working flow of air, more akin to a natural voice. Implants had needed to be placed in his ears, and corrective surgery had to be performed on his eyes. She wanted to re-cover his arms, but he felt reticent about it. They would be largely protected by sleeves, and he felt that he was being greedy with her time already. Nor would he allow her to cosmetically remove the scarring on his face and head.

He was who he was.

The final implantation - the lungs themselves - had been last night, and when he'd awakened from the anesthetic, he had drawn breath through his nose and mouth, and felt it pass into his body for processing, and he had nearly wept at the sensation.

But the clothes... the clothes were a different story. They meant something. He had rejected the traditional garb even before he'd left the Temple. To take it on now? It was a decision of somewhat more importance than what sort of covering Dr. Kei had chosen to stretch over the cybernetics.

But in the end, it was all that was left to him.

He put them on carefully. The boots were new, and the trousers non-descript beige ones that Leia had obtained for him. The tunic was one of the long ones that Obi-Wan had apparently favored in his later years, layers of heavy, warm fabric, the color of the desert sand. Vader's hands shook as he remembered the wrapping pattern that had once been second nature to him. And the cloak. He held it in his hands, unable to draw it onto his body.

"My Lord?"

He turned. Piett was standing in the doorway, bowing slightly. He did not raise his eyes. "Dr. Kei has asked me to remind you that you must wear the hooded robe. Your skin is not prepared for the sunlight. I'm sorry, my Lord. It is not my place -"

"To relay my physician's instructions as she asked?"

"To intrude at all."

"My daughter asked me to speak to you, Admiral. You are not performing the duties of your rank."

"My Lord... "

"My wife had great faith in you, Admiral, and I would not have you suggest that she misplaced it."

Piett was surprised into looking up, and Vader saw for the first time how miserable the man was. "My Lord, I -"

A rusty instinct came to him, to comfort the man in front of him as wished often now that he had comforted Luke in his distress. But Piett was not Luke, and his expectations were not familial. He was speaking to Lord Vader, or whatever shadow remained of him. "You are not relieved of your commission, Admiral," Vader said. "Mistakes were made. They do not absolve you of future responsibility."

Piett straightened, almost imperceptibly. "Yes, my Lord."

"Report to High Admiral Solo and assist him in all matters he requires of you."

Piett bowed, muttered, "Yes, my Lord," and left. Vader didn't know whether he'd managed any more good than Leia's cajoling or Han's camaraderie, but he had done what he could.

His business with the Imperial military was finished.

Slowly, deliberately, he drew Obi-Wan's cloak around his shoulders, and raised the hood over his head.

It was warm.

He pulled it around himself tightly, suddenly unable to feel it clearly enough to satisfy him. His sense of smell was still dulled, so it had to be his imagination that he could still pick up the misty scent of the Temple gardens in the fabric.

I've come home, Master. I've finally come home.

"And you are welcome, Padawan."

Vader spun around toward the voice, but the room was empty of visions.

My work is done, Anakin, the voice whispered into his mind. I can rest at last... if you will allow it.

Vader didn't answer. He didn't know how. Instead, he made his way out into the main laboratory. Tinera was packing up the last of her files; Dihave was collapsing the machinery. Tinera quickly checked his robe to make sure it would keep him safe from the sun, then let him go about his business, as she had after every stage of the medical process.

He took the stairs up into the Palace courtyard.

During the first awful month after Tatooine, he had devoted himself to creating this space for Amidala and Luke. It was lush with the Naboo flowers that Amidala had loved, interspersed with the kinds of rock gardens Luke had grown up with. Two urns sat in niches on the wall. One held Luke's remains. The other held only an ancient piece of japor, carved with arcane symbols of a shattered past. He had carved a bench from a block Naboo marble, and he sat down on it now, in his accustomed spot, meditating on the urns and the green vines that were already beginning to grow around them. A groundskeeper had tried to move those vines once, but Vader had asked him to refrain - Amidala would have liked to be surrounded by something living.

"It is finished, my love," he said quietly. "The mask is gone. I'm not hiding anymore."

There was no answer from her. There never had been, nor had there been an answer from Luke. But he could sense them both around him, as close as the air and the sunlight. They were not lost. If there was anything he could hold onto, it was that certainty: they were not lost, not fully. Death was powerless over the bond that held them together.

If only he had understood that simple truth twenty-five years ago.

He felt Leia's presence long before he heard her, but he didn't look away from the urns. She came to him and sat beside him.

"Father, we're almost ready to go."

"I know."

"I wasn't expecting you to be up yet. I had wanted to be there with you."

Vader smiled slightly, the most his damaged facial muscles would allow. "There was no reason for you to be there, Leia."

"I wanted to be there."

"I apologize. It did not occur to me."

A small, warm hand rested briefly on his shoulder, then rose to the edge of the hood. She started to pull it aside, but Vader turned with the cloth, turned until he could look his daughter in the eye. She was lovely. He took her hand. "Dr. Kei recommends that my face remain shaded."

Leia nodded. She pulled her hand away from his gently, and let it rest on his cheek for a moment. "You were right not to have her fix the scars," she said. "I questioned it. But you were right."

Vader drew the cloak close again as Leia moved her hand back to her lap. "I spoke to Piett. I ordered him to work with Han."

"Thank you. I really don't blame him, you know. He's a good officer. I want to see him make something of his life." She bit her lip. "Which brings me to you."

Vader laughed softly, marveling at the ability to do so. He had not had it for many years. "To me," he repeated. "The boy?"

"Yes, Father," Leia said, her voice only beginning to be edged with impatience. "The boy. Mother wanted you to re-establish the Jedi Order. You have to start somewhere."

"I can't, Leia. Don't you understand?"

Leia closed her eyes, then turned her face to look at the urns. "I never thought I would see you refuse her wish."

"Nor did I."

They were silent for several minutes. Vader was well aware that he was denying Amidala's wish, and Leia's. He was denying something in himself - the idea of meeting the child interested him, fascinated him. The idea of rebuilding the destroyed Temple, of cleaning the sacred spaces and bringing the garden back, of taking in students and seeing the Order first return to life then thrive... and it could all begin with this boy in the farm country. It was a path that was laid out before him and he longed to take it.

But he had murdered Jedi, he had joined their deadliest enemy, he had taken part in the very destruction he now sought to undo. The thought of suddenly having his name attached to the restoration, to some glorious new order... it stank of whitewashing and hypocrisy. "I am Lord Vader," he said at last. "I can't do what she asked, what you're asking. It would be... obscene."

"Father, you've given up the mask. When will you give up the false name?"

"When I've earned another."

"You're not going to do that sitting at her grave. She knew that. That's why she asked you to do something. She knew who you are on the inside. So do I, Father."

"What kind of teacher would I be? I got every lesson wrong."

"The kind who knows where the real danger lies. And the kind who will understand and love his students, even when they stumble." She looked at him again. "Father, Luke and I both learned from you. You were a good teacher to us. It's one of the last things Luke said - 'You taught me well.' And he was right. You had the wrong philosophy, but you know how to guide a student. And you won't be teaching that philosophy anymore."

Vader could think of no good counterargument. There had been rough moments in their training - particularly Luke's - but he had not, in truth, trained them terribly differently than he had been trained. Jedi training was not all soothing meditation. He shook his head. "Leia, what if I stumble again?"

"Then I'll catch you," she said simply. "Will you do the same for me?"

Vader nodded. He looked up at the sky. The sun was hot on his face and he turned away from it quickly, but the warmth of it lingered. "I'm frightened, Leia."

"So am I." She stood and held out her hand. "I have the speeder waiting. I can take you out to meet the boy, and if he's as strong as his parents think - and if they consent - maybe we can all go back to Coruscant together."

Slowly, he reached up and took her hand. He didn't want to stand, to leave this place where Amidala's presence was so clear and strong. He didn't want to leave the dust and ashes that remained of his only son.

He gathered his strength and rose from the bench. Leia smiled at him, and slipped her small arm around his waist. He put his own arm across her shoulders. She led him away from the garden, through the sun-dappled shadows of the path that led to the world beyond.

As they reached the gate, he was overcome by a sense of being watched by kind and gentle eyes - Amidala's, Luke's, Kenobi's, his mother's... all of them.

If I could only look back, one last time, I would see them there, could join them and be with them all again. I would feel their embraces, and hear their laughter. I could be with all of them forever. If I could only look back, one last time.

Leia leaned against him. "Don't look back," she whispered. "Don't look back."

Vader took a deep and shaky breath, and did not look back. As he passed through the gate, the urge to look back faded, and he understood that he didn't need to look back at all - they were with him still, inside him and a part of him. Death hadn't won.

He let Leia lead him out of the garden, to the waiting speeder, to the uncertain paths of the future.


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