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Disclaimers: All things Star Wars belong to Lucasfilm. All non-original dialogue in this story is credited to The Empire Strikes Back script (Script adaptation by Lawrence Kasden and Leigh Brackett, from a story by George Lucas).

Please do not reproduce this story without permission from the authors.



Alderaan21 (padme_skywalker@episodeii.com)


and FernWithy/JediGaladriel (FernWithy@aol.com)


The shot seemed to come from the sun, knocking Vader's TIE fighter into an uncontrolled spin away from the slight gravity around the Death Star. His wingman's fighter exploded against the side of the trench.

"What?" he demanded of no one in particular. But the answer was obvious. As the fighter spun, he saw the smuggling freighter skim over the surface of the station, guarding and clearing the way for the one remaining X-wing - the X-wing piloted by someone who called out to Vader's Force sense like a clarion... or a warning alarm.

My death begins today.

The thought did not trouble him; in fact it seemed something of a relief. What waited could not be worse than the lava, or the suit that had followed it.

But his concern now was with that freighter. He hadn't felt it coming at all, could sense nothing of its pilot. Was it simply that the Other drowned it out?

No... no this one was a blind spot in the Force. He would mean trouble. Vader carefully stabilized the TIE, started to lock his guns on the freighter (a shame; he would have liked to examine the ship more closely, as it was a well put together machine), and prepared to fire.

There was no sound when the Death Star blew, at least not this far out in space. Vader saw a flash of fire, then froze as he felt the deaths of thousands of men he had served with and commanded. He had little sorrow for the upper echelons - Tarkin particularly would have no grief wasted on him - but the pilots and guards, the mechanics and workers... Vader had not cared for their project, but they had served under him, and he was responsible for them. He felt them ripped away as if part of himself had been there with them. For a moment, he was incapable of doing anything other than hold his hands to the crown of his helmet, trying to shut out their dying screams. Then the shockwave hit, and the TIE was thrown clear, spinning off into deep space.

He re-stabilized by instinct before realizing that it was pointless. This TIE was specially designed and could handle somewhat greater distances, but he was far from any Imperial base, and he somehow doubted the Rebels would take kindly to a landing on Yavin IV. And he sensed that he couldn't hide himself, not for long, not with the Other, the-one-who-called, anywhere nearby.

He was dead.

This time, the thought brought no relief. He would die, alone in the cold of space, with no one to even notice his absence. A fitting punishment, perhaps, but unacceptable nonetheless. If he were to die in anonymity, he would at least be warm. He adjusted the navigational controls, and set course for Yavin's sun. The Son of the Suns, he thought (with all the bitterness the phrase always evoked), would return home to die.

A light flashed on his communications board. He almost didn't answer it; he was too focused on deciding how to die. But something... some other sense...

He leaned down, and touched the speaker curiously. "Vader," he said.

Silence. Then, slow surprise. "My Lord?"


"We've lost contact with the Death Star."

"The Death Star was destroyed by the Rebel force on Yavin."

More silence, longer. Finally, the stranger said, "My Lord, this is a grievous blow."

Vader had had enough of the conversation. "Identify yourself, your vessel, and your location."

"I'm sorry, sir. I am Captain Reotti, of Prison Camp 1-A. We were moving several prisoners to the Death Star, under Governor Tarkin's orders. As a shield against Rebel attacks."

The fury rose in Vader. Even dead, Tarkin made his mind burn with it. A foolish, dishonorable, dangerous...

His thoughts stopped abruptly. "Captain Reotti?"


"Please repeat your station."

"Prison Camp 1-A, my Lord. Previously located on Naboo."

The name of the world was enough to send his blood coursing through what was left of his body. Naboo. HER world. And Palpatine had a prison camp there... a prison camp whose existence Vader had been kept ignorant of. He no longer imagined the impossible - that SHE would suddenly appear again, miraculously risen from the ashes of her funeral fire, whole and beautiful - but it was an interesting puzzle. Interesting enough, perhaps, to delay his death. "What is your current location, Captain Reotti?"

"Currently two light days from the position we are tracking you in. But we were attempting to contact the Death Star because we have had an engine malfunction. We will need time to repair our hyperdrive... or we will need to come at sublight speeds. Either way, we're two days distant from you, my Lord."

Vader nodded. "I will find my way to you, Captain. Send your coordinates. It would be wise to have medical personnel on hand."

The coordinates came through, and Vader did the calculations in his head. He would have to lower his metabolism considerably, but that was much easier now than it had been before the machinery. He made the adjustments, then slipped into a deep meditative state, trusting in the Force and Captain Reotti to bring him out when the time came.

Just before he crossed the threshold of consciousness, he felt the strange, inexplicable presence again. But then he was deep under, and knew nothing at all.

Amidala sat quietly in a darkened alcove.

Captain Reotti had seen to it that she was given a full sized stateroom with a porthole - he was a kind man, in his own way, if not terribly perceptive - but she had been unable to sleep in the soft bed, and the streaking of the stars outside had held no charm for her. The ship was dismal. Its destination would undoubtedly be more so. She wanted to return to Naboo, to the cool blue depths where Camp 1-A had been hidden inside Gungan shields. The water held a comforting oblivion that deep space never seemed to carry for her, and she wanted to sink into it.

My Leia. My beautiful little girl.

She lowered her head, pressing her hands against the back of her neck. Palpatine had made a special call just to tell her about Alderaan. He thought he was simply taunting her with the knowledge that her final haven no longer existed, that Ani had stood by and watched it destroyed for the punishment of a rebel spy. She hoped that she had not let on anything else.

She knew that she should be mourning the whole world - the rolling hills, the gentle plains. Millions of souls had been lost. Bail Organa had been taken from the galaxy. But there was only one soul she wept for, one that mattered to her. Leia's little face, round and pixie-ish, so like Ani's that it was a wonder anyone who saw her didn't jump to all the right conclusions... her lisping little voice... the fine brown hair... Leia admiring herself in a pane of transparisteel, Leia chattering away to a bird that had landed on a window beside her crib, Leia playing with her royal makeup and giggling at the sight of herself "all paint-y upped."

She had fought the hysteria successfully, but she was tired and hollow, and when Reotti had chosen fifty prisoners, she'd simply gone along docilely. She wondered in a distant way if this was Palpatine's idea, or if heads would roll. And she wondered if Ani would be waiting at the end of the voyage for her.

She hoped so.

She would trade every ideal she'd ever had right now, just to sink into his embrace and never come out of it. It was a horrible impulse. He had stood there and watched Leia's world destroyed, been a party to it, even if only by inaction. She wanted to kill him for it. But she wanted him to hold her first. Just long enough to feel her whole heart beating for the first time in twenty years.

She was too tired to be confused by it. She felt what she felt. There was little to be gained by analyzing it or chastising herself for it.

The ship shuddered, and suddenly the starlines vanished, replaced by the thick blackness and tiny points of light that marked the eternal midnight of deep space. She felt a vague stirring of puzzlement, maybe even full-fledged curiosity. There had been no effort to organize the prisoners, so they were not approaching their destination. They had simply stopped.

A strange, tickling sensation crept across Amidala's arms, making the tiny hairs stand on end. She could feel it in her scalp as well. It was like walking through thunderstorm, just before the lightning began. She could even almost smell the ozone.

"Ani?" she whispered.

No one answered.

For the next four hours, no one came to her, but her mind was gradually beginning to reassert itself. There was a question to answer, a problem to solve, and she responded to it as naturally as she would respond to a treatment for an illness. She came to the conclusion that they had engine troubles, but that didn't explain all the clacking armor on the floor outside. Stormtroopers were mobilized, and there was a great deal of shouting.

A battle had been lost.

The station Palpatine had bragged to her about, the one that had destroyed Alderaan, the one the prisoners were being brought to shield... it had been destroyed in turn. She didn't know this with absolute certainty, but it made the most sense.

A moment's fierce joy rose up in her, and she quashed it. She didn't want to feel joy so close to Leia's death... especially since Ani had been on that station as well.

That sobered her. Had she lost them both? Was Luke still out there, someplace?

She let the last possibility soothe her as much as it could. Luke, safe on Tatooine, probably bored but certainly protected with Owen and Beru. She pictured him as well as she could - Ani's hair and eyes, her own face. Maybe he would be small, as she was. She went to the bed, and tried to dream it, but succeeded only in bringing back her last moments with Leia. It was still a kind dream, and she didn't know that she'd slept for nearly thirty hours until Captain Reotti was standing beside her, clearing his throat loudly. No Imperial officer would have dared touch Lady Vader; Amidala could at least take comfort in that knowledge, though the extreme aloofness made her feel lonely. When she opened her eyes - noting the time and date in a surprised second - she saw Reotti silhouetted against the porthole. "My Lady," he said. "I think you should come with me."

She followed him out into the corridor, quiet during sleep hours, and into an infirmary. In the middle, a temporary oxygen tent had been set up. Droids worked inside of it, creating an effective wall.

"We retrieved his TIE fighter this morning," Reotti said. "He'd put himself in some kind of stasis for a long voyage without proper life support, and we're reviving him. I thought you might like to be here."

Amidala almost asked, Who? But that would have been absurd. The question was, Who else?

The walls of the oxygen tent collapsed, and the droids parted to begin the cleanup. There, in the middle of the circle they'd left, was Ani... or whatever Ani was hiding behind.

Amidala felt her hand rise to her lips, heard herself gasp. He was encased, head to toe, in some kind of mechanical armor, and his head was covered with a grotesque mask that looked like a skull. The soft sound of the respirator that kept him alive filled the small room.

For a long moment, they simply stared at one another.

Then, in a burst of courage and desperation, she ran to him.


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

It is a dark time for the Rebellion.

The Death Star has been destroyed, but the Empire has grown even more powerful in the three years since. Imperial troops have driven Rebel forces into hiding, and the Rebellion's numbers have dwindled, as the gentler touch of the resurrected Lady Vader has soothed the open wounds of angry citizens.

Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a small band of rebels, held together by Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa, has taken refuge on the remote ice world of Hoth.

Lord and Lady Vader, obsessed with finding the two rebel leaders, have dispatched probe droids into the far reaches of space...

Amidala sat quietly in her spacious quarters aboard the Super Star Destroyer. She waited for her husband to return from the bridge, hopefully with some news that would lead them to the Rebels... and their children. They had been searching fruitlessly for far too long. It was time for things to start happening, and she didn't need to be Force-sensitive to realize that.

She had waited so long for this. So very, very long. The last two decades of her life had been filled with little besides the personal torture of knowing the danger her children lived in, of knowing there was always a chance they would be discovered... of not knowing how they were, or if they were even still alive.

Then there were the thoughts of him. Her Ani, or Vader, or whatever he chose to call himself. She had never shaken the belief that she would have made the difference, if only she had been able to see him or talk to him after he first left... there was no evil so deep that it could have kept him apart from her...

And now - finally, and inexplicably - she had been given that chance.

Amidala had never truly entertained the thought of leaving Anakin again. Every single objection she had eventually fell by the wayside. Some of them were more difficult to swallow than others, but nothing was important enough for her to risk being anywhere else. She had already tried being apart from him, and that had been an abject failure for her family, for the entire galaxy. Never again. Whatever let her be by his side was enough for her.

And if her position helped her find her children, and bring down Palpatine, all the better.

Those were the ultimate goals. That she would find the twins and bring them home, and together, they would dispose of the Emperor. She could finally atone for bringing him to power, and the Galaxy would stop paying for her political and personal mistakes.

She and Anakin had discussed their... plans... for the Emperor on more than one occasion. Amidala had quickly realized how ineffective the Rebellion would be in destroying the Empire. It disheartened her a bit - her children's lives were wrapped up in that cause, and she had lost many friends to it. But despite the victory at Yavin, the simple truth was the Rebellion didn't have the resources or the popular support to create anything more than a minor uprising. Palpatine was too smart and the Imperial military too large for them to ever be victorious.

And even if they were, what then? The Alliance was little more than a rag-tag group of outcasts and criminals - if it weren't for Leia, Mon Mothma and a few others, they'd have no credibility at all. Did they actually expect that they could form a New Republic? That they could unite themselves, much less a fractious galaxy? Though she had great faith in her children's skills, she knew this was beyond them.

She and Anakin were in the proper position to wield real power, to create real change. The military, the regional governments - he could bring most of them under his control with little difficulty. She, of course, had become so popular with the masses that they'd be more than willing to support them when the time arrived.

It was ironic. Anakin had told her on more than one occasion that there was no room for compassion when attempting to take over and run an Empire - yet it had been her compassion that had put her in this position, and forced Palpatine's hand in the process.

Anakin had been furious at her for circumventing his authority when they went to Trika 4. His reason for going there was simple - to restore order to a planet that had fallen into riotous crime after a long famine. Little thought was spent on giving the Trikans any real assistance, and Amidala soon found herself rectifying that oversight.

Shock was the reaction she received from the people when they saw her handing out supplies and food in the camps, expressing sorrow and sympathy for their plight. It was simply unheard of for any Imperial to do such a thing. And she had the nerve to claim to be acting in Lord Vader's name. She still wasn't sure exactly what possessed her to do it (besides a true yearning to help). She had been certain that her transgression would not be tolerated.

But it was. Anakin knew that taking back the supplies or otherwise trying to undermine what she had done would be far more trouble than it was worth. So he grudgingly left her to control the mission, for the sake of simplicity.

By the end of the week, word that "Lady Vader" had saved the people of the planet had spread halfway across the galaxy.

By the next week, Amidala found herself repeating similar feats in as many systems as she could fit in her schedule.

She felt quite wonderful, to be able to make a difference to those who had suffered so long under Palpatine's rule. But it wasn't enough. She knew that the Emperor was not fond of this arrangement - she knew he was using her to his own ends. The minute the risk of keeping her outweighed her usefulness... For now though, she was helping solidify his support - and, he hoped, leading him to new apprentices through her search for her children.

That would never happen though - they would never follow him, she wouldn't lose them the way she lost her husband. Instead, they would be the last piece necessary to destroying him and his Empire. She had no doubt she and Anakin could stay ahead of him long enough to accomplish that - they had so far. He wouldn't even realize what happened before his world came crumbling down around him.

She would finally beat Palpatine at his own game.

The sound of the door opening startled her. She turned and stood to face Anakin as he entered their quarters. "Is there any news?"

"I believe we've found them," he replied. "We are heading for the Hoth system now."

Amidala felt a satisfied smile come to her face. It was just a matter of time.

Her smile lit the gray military quarters, and Vader wished to return it. But they had experimented somewhat with ways for her to live easily in his atmosphere -- the hyperbaric, heavily oxygenated air of his sterile spaces -- and nothing had quite worked yet. He could not simply respond to her without a good deal of rather involved preparation.

A wave of anger at the injustice of it at least served to quell the desire to smile. "We are approaching Hoth at top speeds," he said. "It is my hope to take the base with minimal damage. The troops are under instructions to bring the rebels to us as prisoners."

She nodded. They both knew their quarters were, in all likelihood, bugged. They dared not speak of their plans here. "Soon," she said. "Soon, it will be over."

"Yes, my love. Soon." Their eyes met, hers never faltering to search. She always knew where he was looking, despite the opaque lenses.


When she had returned to him, he had understood his purpose for the first time. He had understood what he was meant to do, and why this path had opened before him. He had understood it as soon as he'd seen the way the people responded to her, the way she wanted to build the galaxy.

He would clear the way for Amidala.

So she could rule without challenge.

And the Maker himself wouldn't be able to help anyone who dared oppose her.

The glare off the snow was blindingly bright, making it impossible to distinguish sky from horizon, or horizon from tundra. Luke stared into it, trying, with no noticeable success, to readjust his goggles to cope with it. The tauntaun he rode seemed to be doing marginally better. She was used to it.

A flash of even brighter light, white on white, broke the afternoon, and Luke drew his electrobinoculars from their loop on his utility belt. It was a neverending job, watching the sky here. Many things fell out of it. It was probably another false alarm, but they couldn't take chances. There weren't enough people here to begin to survive an Imperial assault. He raised his wrist and spoke into the comlink. "Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han, old buddy, do you read me?"

The pirate answered immediately, but irritably. "Yeah, I'm here."

"No lifesigns," Luke said automatically. It was the same every day. He had Han had volunteered for the afternoon patrol, and there wasn't any room for schedule relief.

"No kidding," Han said. "Leia's the only one crazy enough to decide to live here."

Luke rolled his eyes. Han was free to go any time. Han knew it. Luke knew it. Leia knew it, but she seemed bound and determined to annoy him into actually acting on it. Luke didn't understand her at all. At first, all had been well. But then Lady Vader had appeared on Trika, and several rebels had mentioned that she might make a valuable ally on the inside. Leia had gone stiff and pale, and had responded by calling Lady Vader "the worst kind of traitor." Ever since, she'd been thoroughly defiant toward any conciliatory gesture, any chance of making peace with the Empire rather than achieving victory over it. Mon Mothma was as firm in her rejection of Lady Vader, but gentler in her handling of people. Leia seemed to want to dare people to defect... and some had taken her up on it.

Luke had decided two years ago not to brave her wrath by bringing it up, but he himself was not averse to Lady Vader's actions. If she could bring some kindness into the Empire, then maybe part of the war could be avoided, or at least the devastation of it lessened. He'd tried to find information about her, but she was as much a blank slate as Vader himself. She was referred to as his "wife of twenty-three years," but of her whereabouts until Trika, or her identity before she became Lady Vader, nothing at all was mentioned. Luke supposed it was out there to be found, but too much searching would come to Leia's attention.

"You still there, Kid?"

"Yeah. I just saw a meteorite hit. I better check it out before I come in tonight."

"You can add it to the rock collection by the generators." Han cut off the communication, and Luke caught a slight motion on the far horizon.

The tauntaun was twitching its head back and forth nervously, making a clicking noise in its throat. Maybe it would be better to just go back. Get a fresh mount, not so skittish...

The tauntaun reared up, and Luke almost lost his seat. "Hey, girl. What is -?"

But he never finished the sentence. Swimming up from the landscape, like living snow itself, a white creature with red eyes and sharp claws lunged at Luke.

He was knocked from the back of the beast, into hardpacked snow that bit at the exposed parts of his skin.

The creature howled into the sky.

Luke reached for his blaster, but the creature took another swing at him, knocking of his aim and throwing his blaster uselessly into a snowbank.

He saw the third blow coming too late to duck.

He fell unconscious into the snow.

Han stormed through the base, impatiently ripping his goggles and hood away, cursing under his breath as a blast of cold air hit him. Just once, he wished he could come inside and have it be warmer than it was out there.

At least he'd be out of here soon. He was silly - sentimental - for staying as long as he had. The Rebellion's numbers were dropping almost on a daily basis. And none of those deserters had bounty on their heads. No, they had just given up, and bailed out. Got tired of fighting for a galaxy that seemed to care less and less. If people were happy living under a dictatorship as long as Lady Vader shook their hands and smiled at them, who were they to argue? Who were they to risk their lives day in and day out trying to change their minds?

Chewie howled at him loudly, and Han frowned at him. The ship looked like it was in pieces - well, even more than usual. He had hoped that Chewie would have gotten further during his watch. The Wookiee yelled again, this time waving his blowtorch for emphasis.

"Alright! Don't lose your temper. I'll come right back and give you a hand." Chewie just grunted in annoyance.

Han ignored him and continued to the operations center of the base to check in... and to check out. He wasn't exactly looking forward to it. He'd miss the friends he had made in the Rebellion, but he was sure they'd understand. But Leia...


She would scratch his eyes out for certain. Sometimes, he thought his fear of her was what kept his fear of Jabba in check.

But that wasn't entirely true or fair, and he knew it. He hadn't stayed out of fear, or even out of some misguided loyalty to the great Rebel cause.

Did she even know that she was reason he stayed? She certainly didn't act like it. That woman was more difficult, more frustrating than anyone he had known in his life. He couldn't begin to figure out what was going on in her head half the time, and often wished he could find a way to stop caring. But he couldn't, no matter how she acted. He kept thinking that he could get through to her, make her open up...

It wasn't that he didn't understand what she had been through. Han supposed that the destruction of one's planet would be more than enough to drive most people crazy. But Leia had never been most people. She had kept going at full throttle, a feat that he admired greatly. They eventually became very good friends, another thing he appreciated - he hadn't had a real friend besides Chewie in years. Sure, there were always little sparring matches and disagreements, but he thought they had really started to become close.

And then everything changed. Something was driving her crazy - something she refused to share with anyone.

He shook his head, suddenly realizing that he was just standing outside the operations center, doing nothing. He marched in to give his report.

"There's no sign of life out there, General." From the corner of his eye, he saw Leia turn to him. "The sensors are in place, you'll know if anything comes around."

"Commander Skywalker reported in yet?"

"No, he's checking out a meteorite that fell nearby." She was openly staring at him now. He pushed forward. "General, I gotta leave, I can't stay anymore." She turned away in a huff. Wonderful. "If I don't pay off Jabba the Hutt, I'm a dead man."

The General gave him a resigned smile and extended his hand. "A death mark's not an easy thing to live with. You're a good pilot, I hate to lose you." Han shook the man's hand and thanked him.

He headed slowly over to her, bracing himself for a fight. "Well, Princess, I guess this is it."

Her expression was blank. "That's right."

Han was completely taken aback... couldn’t she at least have pretended that she cared? "Well, don't get all mushy on me," he snapped. "So long, Princess." He blew out of the room, angry and confused, the way he always seemed to feel when he was around her these days.

He hadn't gotten two steps down the hall before he heard her calling after him. "Yes, Your Highness?"

Now that she had his attention, she seemed to be at a loss for words. "I thought... I thought you had decided to stay."

He tried to shrug nonchalantly. "I changed my mind."

"Han, we need you here."

He rolled his eyes. "We need?"

"Yes! You know that. We can't afford to lose any more people like you."

"What about you, Leia?"

"Me?" She blinked. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He had had enough of this. "Probably not," he replied, and again tried to get away from her.

But she was still hot on his heels. "And what exactly is it that I'm supposed to know?"

Han stopped and turned around. "Look, Leia, I don't need another one of your lectures on my loyalty to the Rebellion. I've been more than loyal, and definitely more loyal than anyone else here. I stayed years longer than I had to." He heaved a frustrated sigh. "Don't you ever wonder why -"

She didn't hear the question. "Fine. Leave. Far be it for me to hold you back from your life as a smuggler. It doesn't make a difference - whether you leave, or if you all leave."

"What is wrong with you, Leia?" He was shouting now, and several people in the hallway jumped, and then tried to look as though they weren't listening as they walked by. He barely noticed them; his eyes bore into hers.

To his great surprise, she fell silent. Then she looked away.


"You don’t know." Her voice was as low as he had ever heard it. "You don't know what this has been like." She closed her eyes for a moment. "You couldn’t possibly understand. Nobody does."

Han had the vague feeling he should still be angry at her, but his curiosity at her change in demeanor got the better of him. And he did want to know, want to help. "Understand what?" he asked gently. "I wish you would just tell me." Leia stared at him quietly, but seemed unable to say anything more. "You know, whatever this is that's bothering you is eating you alive. You've got to talk to someone." She started shaking her head vehemently. "Is it about... about all that stuff that happened before? I know that Vader -"

Her head snapped up. "You don't know anything," she said sharply. "I don't need your help, and I don't need you to stay. You want to leave? Then go. Don't try to put this off as my problem."

The anger came back at him in a rush. "Fine! Go crazy, I don't care." The words felt hollow - he was still intrigued by whatever had triggered those quiet moments - and she looked a little hurt, which surprised him. But his fury and confusion didn't allow him to sort any of it out. So he just turned and walked away. This time, she didn't follow him.


"Hey, she's back on!"

Dak rolled his chair across to the holoproj, with its scrambled visuals and terrible audio. Still, there was no mistaking Lady Vader, with her flowing red veils and long red gown. There was almost as much speculation about what her face really looked like as there was about her husband. In her case, everyone figured she was a beauty. Little glimpses could be seen... the turn of a cheek, the deep shadow of an eye, the imprint of a full lip. There wasn't a guy Dak knew who didn't have his own idea what she looked like under there, and each of them pictured her as what he perceived as perfect beauty.

Though Dak would never admit it to anyone, half the time including himself, he pictured her as looking just like Princess Leia. Which would be an exceptionally bad idea to express anyway, when he thought about it.

"What's she doing?" he asked.

"Who cares?" one of the other pilots - Terlik - said. He was smiling, and leaning forward eagerly.

"Be careful," Risa Nelva said, giving Terlik a dark look over her shoulder. Women weren't immune to Lady Vader, but they seemed a bit slower to worship her.

Terlik waved it off. "No one's deserting. I don't see why she can't let us enjoy the show."

Risa Nelva paused, her face a mask of disbelief, then laughed aloud. "You're actually more afraid of Princess Leia than you are of Lady Vader's husband?"

"She's actually here; he's actually not."

Dak settled in to watch. The figure of Lady Vader appeared to be kneeling beside a small boy, and through the cracked static, he heard her say, "Peace child, what troubles you?"

Yuruo, a young Deridian pilot with deep blue hair, just shook his head, his eyes never leaving the flickering figure. "How does that work, do you think? The two of 'em?"

Risa rolled her eyes. "I think that's an inappropriate thing to talk about."

They ignored her. "I mean really, can you see them together?" Terlik wrinkled his nose. "Wonder if she gets under that mask of his."

"Guys... " Risa said, her voice a low warning.

They continued ignoring her. "Yeah," Dak said. "Gotta see that homecoming. Surprising him by showing up all indecent... you know, without the veils... "

"Yeah, and he -"

The holoproj was abruptly discontinued, and Dak knew before he turned to the door exactly who he would find there.

Princess Leia stood, white framed in white (Risa had once quipped that she wished Leia's hatred of the Vaders would at least prompt her to stop dressing as monochromatically as they did), her lips a thin, angry line. Her face was as white as her uniform, except for two bright firespots high on her cheekbones. She stared at them for a long moment, her eyes shifting from one to the next. When she caught Dak - and it definitely felt like he was caught, trapped in a tractor beam - he thought laser beams might well shoot out at him and fry him on the spot. Worse, he felt deeply and personally ashamed.

She spoke at last, her voice clipped. "Has anyone seen Commander Skywalker?"

"No, ma'am," Risa said. "He hasn't come in here yet."

Another circuit with those cutting eyes. "Very well. I'll see if he's contacted Captain Solo. If Commander Skywalker does come here, tell him to see me immediately." She turned on her heel and left.

The pilots looked at each other guiltily, and Risa sniffed disdainfully. "Don't look at me," she said. "I told you not to talk about that."

With a flip of her hair, she followed the princess out.

A loud, satisfying crash sounded in Han's ears. Sure, it was childish to be throwing his tools all over the Falcon, but he couldn't think of anything more productive to do at the moment. Except maybe yelling at Chewie. "Why'd you take this apart now?" He got no response. "I'm trying to get us out of here and you - forget it. Just forget it."

"Excuse me, sir, might I have a word with you, please?"

Great. Unlike Chewie, these mindless droids never knew when to shut up or just leave him alone. "What do you want?"

"It's Princess Leia, sir. She's been trying to get you on the communicator."

Han was overcome by annoyance. What could she possibly have to say to him now? "I don't want to talk to her."

"Well, Princess Leia is wondering about Master Luke. He hasn't come back yet. She doesn't know where he is."

"I don't know where he is."

"Nobody knows where he is."

He frowned. "What do you mean nobody knows?" Han tried to figure out how long it had been since he had gotten back to the base... it felt like hours. "Deck Officer!" The droid tried to say something again, but Han quickly shut him up. "Do you know where Commander Skywalker is?"

The man stared shrugged. "I haven't seen him. It's possible he came in through the south entrance."

A sinking feeling settled in Han's stomach. "It's possible? Why don't you find out, it's getting dark out there." The man turned quickly, leaving Han pensive and worried. He was already sure that Luke wasn't on the base - he never missed checking in, and he wouldn't be this hard for Leia to find. The Rebels had all received dire warnings about the nights on Hoth, about not falling into the trap of thinking they had gotten used to the cold. If Luke was still out there...

"Excuse me sir, but might I inquire what going on?"

Han said something dismissive to 3PO, and headed for the main hangar.

The officer soon followed him in with his report. "Sir, Commander Skywalker hasn't come in through the south entrance. He might have forgotten to check in."

Well, that settled it. "Not likely. Are the speeders ready?"

"Not yet, we're having trouble adjusting them to the cold."

Would nothing go his way today? "Then I'll have to go on a tauntaun."

"Sir, the temperature's dropping too rapidly."

"That's right, and my friend's out there in it." He had no intention of listening to any of their warnings anyway. No matter how much they annoyed him, or how ridiculous the situations they got into, Han knew he was always bound to help out the few friends he had.

"Your tauntaun will freeze before the first marker."

"Then I'll see you in hell!" Han spurred his tauntaun, and rode out into the dangerously cold night on Hoth.

It is a pleasant dream that has come to him several times in the last few years, a dream of a voice he knows and loves, a dream where he feels safe and desperately wanted. The voice is gentle and low.

The dream changes suddenly, and he is alone... but he can hear her still, calling out to him. "Luke? Luke? I need to find you! Where are you, my precious son?"

And he wants to run to her, but he feels -no, he knows -that to do so will destroy everything and...

The dream ended and wakefulness returned.

The first thing he was aware of was a painful sense of pressure on the underside of his eyes, and the taut pulling of the muscles in his cheeks. There was a heaviness in the crown of his head, and a warm, frightening tingling in his scalp.

After that, there was a strange sound, neither hum nor buzz, that overlaid the sound of the wind outside. Like an aural veil, it seemed to both interfere with his ability to perceive, and separate him from everything around him.

Finally, Luke noticed his feet... or rather, noticed that he didn't notice them. His legs were stretched and tugged like pull candy, but the pain stopped in a seeping line above his ankles. He couldn't seem to find his feet along the paths of his nerves.

He opened his eyes.

At first, he didn't quite process what he was seeing, but it became clear quickly enough. He was upside down. Everything had a funny, shimmery look, because of the pressure on his eyes.

From the blood rushing up against them. Great. Not going to help my response time.

With a painful effort, he bent his neck and looked up. His feet were still attached to him - thank the Maker - but they were frozen in two or three decimeters of clear ice. He'd need to...

His lightsaber was gone. He hadn't even realized he was reaching for it until his hand came across the empty loop in his belt. He let his head back down, a scanned his surroundings.

The creature who had attacked him was sitting several meters away, eating the tauntaun. Luke felt a moment of grief - it had been a good beast - but he didn't have time to get sentimental. He put the creature out of his mind. His goggles still hung from his jacket by one frayed strap. Nothing seemed to be on the snow...

But there. Poking out of the snow, just out of reach. The black handle of Anakin Skywalker's lightsaber.

For all the good it's doing me, it might as well be back in Ben's house on Tatooine.

But thinking of Ben gave him the answer. Let go your conscious self... Use the Force, Luke.

He hadn't tried this before, but there was little choice. He reached out his hand, and concentrated on the saber.

Nothing happened.

Except that the creature glanced over and noticed that he was awake. It growled and stood. Luke had to get out of here, and now.

It belongs to you. It wants to be in your hand. Call out to it.

It wasn't Ben's voice. It was Luke's own, in some way that he didn't understand. He relaxed, and held out his hand again. He could feel an energy flowing through his arm, a stream that didn't travel along his blood vessels or his nerves, but along some other, elemental pathway that seemed hungry for it. The saber began to shake in the snow, to pull out a few centimeters.

The creature took a step toward him, distracting him, and he lost his hold. He struggled, pushed the advancing creature from his mind. The energy came back into him.

The creature moved more quickly, swung its giant arm again...

Just as the lightsaber flew into Luke's hand and ignited. He arced it quickly through the ice (hoping against hope that he would miss his numb feet), and fell to the ground, swinging the lightsaber on the ice creature in the same motion.

It screamed and stumbled backward, bleeding from the stump of its arm, staining the ground red. Then it fell beside the tauntaun.

Luke tried to stand, but his feet wouldn't hold him properly. He staggered from side to side, no longer focused, no longer thinking, just needing, in the most visceral way, to leave this place of blood and pain, even if it meant his death out on the tundra.

He stumbled out into the frozen sunset.

"My Lord, we are making good time to the Hoth system."

Vader nodded curtly at the young captain (Piett, he believed; a decent man, and therefore a rare commodity in the upper echelons of the military). "I will prepare my shuttle for landing," he said.

Piett didn't even blink at the strange practice, simply saluted and went on his way. Vader had made certain to actually do maintenance on the ships in his private arsenal often enough that he could disappear to the hangar without raising eyebrows. Amidala always smiled and laughed when he gave this reason. "Ani," she would say, and why the name never infuriated him coming from her lips (though she did try to remember) he didn't know, "expect what you like from the men, but don't tell me that's the only reason you come to me covered in engine grease in the evenings."

Vader didn't disabuse her of the notion that he was recapturing childhood memories - it made her happy, and that was his priority - but in fact, he took little pleasure in maintaining the over-specialized, over-centralized technology that Palpatine favored. What pleasures he was able to take from his talent, he took from the captured Rebel ships, which were old and needed maintenance badly, but which were built to be weapons, transportation, and occasionally even living quarters. They were machines that both needed and pleased him. But they were not kept in a place he needed to develop a habit of coming to. The hangar where they were stored was bugged.

He entered the hangar that housed TIE fighters and shuttles, passed his own fighter without a glance - no one would dare check to see if he had actually altered it in any way - and went to a shuttle in the far shadows. It had been in need of repairs to its hyperdrive for some time, but Vader had seen to it that it continued to slip to the bottom of the priority list. He a button on the remote built into his wrist, and the gangplank lowered. He couldn't see into the shadows, but he didn't need to. He went inside.

The first thing he saw was the shimmer of the emergency lights on the deep red veils she wore (all had agreed that it would be unwise to allow anyone to see her - there were still those who remembered Queen Amidala and the Jedi she had married, and that was not a memory that would be useful to their cause), then the smooth turn of her ankle somewhere beneath. The lights came up, and he saw her all at once, the scarlet angel who had won the heart and the soul of the galaxy.

As she had won his, long before they truly knew her.

But this was not a place for tenderness. There were such places, and there were moments of great tenderness between them, when the walls of his chamber rose around them, and she wore the flexible face shield (ironically enough, an application of Gungan technology) that allowed his touch while still allowing her to breathe the air... That she would still accept his kiss - that she had, in fact, made rather elaborate arrangements to accommodate it - both astounded and humbled him, and filled him with deep gratitude. But this was a place for other concerns.

"Have you confirmed that they are there on Hoth?" she asked.

That the Rebels were on Hoth was not in question. "I have sensed Luke there. He used the Force, and his signature is distinctive."

"And Leia? Is Leia there?"

"I find it unlikely that she would be absent." A tense silence fell between them. The lie - the huge, horrible lie she had told - was still a wound between them, and would not be fully salved until they were all together again. He had suspected Luke's existence, so somehow it was not as terrible to discover that secret... but to have a child he never dreamed of, to have Leia taken from him without so much as a whisper in the Force... it was intolerable. But, just as she had laid aside many of her own... disagreements... with him, so had he laid aside his anger at her over this. He waited for the stinging to go away, then went on. "She will not come to us easily, Amidala. Her resistance to any sort of authority is considerable."

"She'll listen," Amidala said softly. The veils shifted, and Vader could tell by her posture that she was biting her lower lip. "She has to."

"Amidala, you must be prepared for certain unpleasant things. The twins have set themselves among our enemies and there will be fighting."

"But An... my Lord... " She stammered on it. She had never called him "Vader," and he didn't think she ever would. "I don't want them hurt. I will protect them, if it comes to that."

"I have no wish to hurt either of them. But if one or the other of them engages us in a fight, we will need to end it."

She turned her face up to him. He could see the vague outlines of her features under the veils, and her eyes were probing his. "I know," she said after awhile. "But if they... if they're hurt badly, it... defeats the purpose of this."

"They will not be hurt badly, or killed. They will return with us. I will see to that."

"And then I'll speak to them." Her eyes moved restlessly around the shuttle. "Maybe I should try to speak to Leia first. Surely, she doesn't want to prolong this war unnecessarily."

"Her behavior thus far doesn't support that assessment. Let me bring them to you, Amidala. Then you can explain the situation to them. You will win their support. And without them, the Alliance will unravel, and we shall have peace at last."

"And then we go after Palpatine," she said firmly. Vader simply prayed that no one had thought to bug this shuttle over the past week. "The four of us, together. He won't be able to stand against us all."


Her eyes became focused, and turned on him. "But I mean it, Ani. I will protect them."

"Of course you will," he said. "I would expect nothing less."


"Any word yet from Commander Skywalker or Captain Solo?" Leia asked the on-duty ensign at the command center comm station, walking up behind him.

The ensign, a fresh-faced pale sort with dark blond hair like Luke’s - Leia suddenly felt a pang at the latter's continued absence - tapped a few keys on his console, then a moment later shook his head at the princess. "We've received no transmission since Captain Solo’s initial report an hour ago. Would you like me to -"

"Contact me immediately if there is any change in the situation," Leia cut in crisply, turning on her boot heel and walking briskly out of command, towards the main entry hangar, leaving the young ensign with an only slightly perplexed expression on his face. After all, this was typical behavior for her of late...

A human lieutenant ran up to her in the corridor, which was empty at this late hour, falling into step with Leia, trying to match her quick, steady pace. "Princess," he said, breathing heavily, not even drawing a glance from Leia as she continued her stride. "I've received word from General Rieekan that it will be time to seal the security doors soon. The blizzard outside is worsening." As per typical evening on Hoth. But, that had no soothing effects on the princess.

"Am I also to understand that Commander Skywalker and Captain Solo have yet to return to base?" she returned coolly, quickening her pace towards the front hangar, still not visually acknowledging the lieutenant.

Undeterred, the lieutenant - Alchar - continued to match her pace - but his voice took on a decidedly more hesitant tone. "That is correct, Your Highness. But despite the unquestioned importance of the Commander and the Captain to the Alliance, the safety of those who currently are here must be taken into consideration... and the General has agreed to send a scouting team out early tomorrow morning, once the blizzard has passed, to conduct a search for them... "

Morning... why not just wait until next week, for all the chances they'll be alive by then...

"That, and the chances of Solo and Skywalker's survival are considered minimal enough to not be worthy of consideration against the safety of those here at the base?" Leia replied, her voice becoming deceptively soft. She stopped suddenly, fixing the lieutenant with a fiery opal gaze, which visibly brought him up short.

"Tell the General this, Lieutenant Alchar," Leia continued in the same tone to the officer, whose face was starting to redden from factors other than the cold. "I am aware of the importance of and intend to ensure the safety of those stationed here; so far, it has not been threatened. Commander Skywalker and Captain Solo have been and are extremely invaluable to the Alliance -" and to me... "- and I will not see their lives lost and have such a potentially damaging blow placed on the Alliance because their comrades were afraid to brave the cold a little longer than necessary... which they themselves have already done to an extended degree tonight out there. The doors will remain open for the time being, until they return - or it has been decreed by myself that the chances of danger to the base outweigh those of their survival." Whichever comes first...

The officer swallowed and nodded. "Yes, Princess," he said, turning away and running down the corridor.

If only Luke hadn't just had to check that meteorite... a rock from space, which we get every day on Hoth, of all things...! It wasn't the first time Luke's curiosity had gotten him into trouble since Leia had known him. It just hadn't endangered his life - or that of his friends, however indirectly - like this before.

Slowing her pace - suddenly she was no longer in a hurry to arrive at her destination - she arrived at the hangar a few minutes later. Like all hours of the day the cavernous expanse of the main snubfighter hangar was abuzz with the activity of droids and sentient beings alike, all mulling around performing the daily tasks inherent to their existence - the number was smaller at this late hour, but still far from empty. But despite being surrounded by so many, Leia still felt a keen, biting sense of aloneness seeping through her brain like the cold through her gloves. So many here, and she was still at heart as alone as if she were in deep space... even with Luke and Han around it was still like this...

She’d told herself this was the way she wanted it. For a time, she'd masqueraded it as self-reliance, not allowing outside help from anyone - but pragmatism had fizzled that out fairly quickly. This way, no one would pry her about the razor-sharp splinter in her soul that had been plaguing her for the last year - reopening the wound she’d had ever since she’d seen that god-awful transmission intercepted by the Alliance, from the Lady to the Lord Vader... The one she had not told a soul about, the one she still saw unwillingly replayed with razor-sharp clarity in her mind's eye.

The unmistakable mechanical breathing, recognizable even through the initial white fuzz of static. "I have warned you repeatedly not to contact me on this frequency. I cannot guarantee its security, my Lady. "

The static resolving itself into a familiar beautiful red-clad figure, for the first time the face with the familiar full lips, defined chin and delicate cheekbones - and Leia's own eyes - seen unshrouded by its typical red veils... Leia remembered her heart freezing in her chest...

The musical laughter that had responded, reverberating through Leia's soul as it awakened bell-clear memories of lullabies, sung in whispers by that same voice to a little princess in her crib. "You worry about me far too much, my love. When are you expected to arrive in-system?"

She clenched her fists tightly against the memory as she continued walking, much like she had when she'd initially reacted to this revelation of her true and horrific heritage. Only this time the gloves on her hands kept her sharp nails from cutting deep, bleeding wounds into her palms.

You worry about me far too much, my love...

No, it couldn't be bad enough that her own mother had betrayed her, returned to him... she had actually called him, unhesitatingly, "love"... no matter if he was in fact Leia's... was her...

As always, she knew the end to that sentence, even if she never did allow herself to complete it. Even after all this time, was she still fighting the truth?

No, she assured herself. She was fighting the Empire, and they were the Empire, her greatest enemy (no matter what connections they had to her; it wasn’t like she’d asked to be born). She couldn’t afford to spend her effort fighting anything else.

As Leia strode through the hangar, not looking at anyone else, she could still sense the sudden knife-edged silence in areas as she walked past people. She heard the unmistakable increase in heated... gossipy... murmurs that officers and duty techs exchanged the moment they thought she was out of their earshot. She knew it was about her; there was nothing else there could be, particularly now that her temper was now known infamously throughout the Rebellion. Leia felt a heat rise in her cheeks as she experienced this; after some time she’d become somewhat adapted to it, but it still sparked a reaction in her she was too tempted to act on and one she would rather not acknowledge had come from her mind.

Maybe it hadn’t come from her, but from him.

There were a lot of things which - or whose - origin she didn't care to acknowledge, she thought.

She had a very active loathing for gossip of any sort - more often than not Leia found it to be the misguided child of too many idle wandering minds... which the Alliance certainly didn't need. There had been enough wandering as it was.

It had been little wonder, then, that she’d been ready to eat a lightsaber blade when she’d seen a few certain pilots watching a holoreel of a certain popular traitorous... high Lady of the Empire... speculating on certain "special" activities they thought she performed for her husband...

She’d nearly choked on the barely stifled, angry burst that had risen from her core.

Aside from the obvious annoyance a superior might typically have at the sight of his workers engaged in such an unproductive activity during duty hours, the process had struck Leia as thoroughly revolting on more than one front. Or maybe just multiple facets of a larger one - and an extremely personal one at that, which was the main source of her anger at witnessing it. It was bad enough they actually seemed to approve of her, and what she was doing...

How dare they have the gall do that... a part of her, the base central core of her anger, had declared...

The idea that she probably would willingly subject herself to that black monstrosity in such a manner... the idea that something related to that was one of the primary reasons Leia existed...

A familiar chirping gratefully jerked Leia from her unpleasant reverie, for a brief moment prompting a small smile: hers and Luke’s droids. Bless the two of them; they’d been outside for the past hour with Artoo’s small radar dish, sweeping its signal through the blanketing snow. The signal more than likely was not strong enough to penetrate the blizzard, but it was good of them to try.

Leia wondered if they were missing her friends as much as she was.

The squat form of Artoo Detoo trailed in through the still-open base security doors following a muttering See-Threepio, who was lamenting how the water from the snow in his circuits would most certainly impair his higher cognitive functions.

Leia wished she could find as easy an excuse as melted snow.

She leaned back against the fuselage of an X-wing near the base's entrance, flicking her gaze to the thick durasteel doors that would, when closed, shut out both the frigid Hoth weather and the beasts that accompanied it. She could just barely make out the rapidly darkening sky in sporadic bursts between the blowing whiteness, and knew what it meant for the still unreturned Han and Luke. The familiar furry leviathan form of Chewbacca the Wookiee, Han’s copilot - and best friend - for once not working on the Millennium Falcon to stand vigil for his companion, standing near a pile of machine parts not far away, let out a low, mournful growl: he knew what it meant too.

She knew it was time to close the doors. They should have long since been closed, truthfully; the evening blizzards had already started, more intense than usual, and even now various Rebels in the hangar were bundling tighter in their winterized clothing, trying to avoid the swirls of blustering snow that were making their way in.

Was she merely just delaying acceptation of the inevitable with her actions? She briefly wondered. That Luke and Han were not in fact returning?

They’d been through so much, so many scrapes together that to have something like this claim the lives of two of them... it just wasn’t right.

But then a lot of things weren’t.

She wouldn’t accept the possibility they would be gone from her life forever...

And something hit her just then, like a soft yet firm blow to the chest; and then it was as if a burst of clarity had displaced the protective lens she’d kept over her eyes, the one that had shielded her from all the horrifying possibilities she didn’t want to acknowledge. Leia’s lips tightened to the point where they nearly disappeared, as reality finally forced itself to be acknowledged, if at least only temporarily.

Delaying things wouldn’t change the possibility that Han and Luke might not return. That she might be left alone without those she cared about in the universe.

It wouldn’t change the fact that the woman she’d cared about more than anything as a little girl was not with her, instead collaborating with a government Leia’d made it her life’s purpose to destroy, returning to the man who had hurt them all. The man that was Leia’s father.

Briefly moving her eyes to the side, she recognized the gray parka-clad figure of Colonel Bren Derlin several meters away, as one of the on-duty officers jogged up to him, his excited voice carrying over just enough for Leia to overhear.

"Sir, all the patrols are in. But we’ve still not he - " Derlin raised a hand, casting a brief look at Leia, and she heard no more. But she knew what they were talking about.

Leia looked towards the doors once more and tightened her lips for a moment, knowing the decision she had to make.

Artoo and Threepio shuffled their way - well, with Artoo it was more rolling - towards her. Artoo let out a brief series of beeps. "Mistress Leia... Artoo says he’s been unable to pick up any signals," Threepio translated, resting the tips of his gold-plated fingers on Leia’s forearm. "But he is willing to admit that his own signal may not be strong enough to penetrate the storm. Certainly not far enough to abandon all hope."

Colonel Derlin made his way up to her a moment later; Leia forced herself to meet his soft gray eyes. "Your Highness," he said gently, as if perhaps he were concerned he might arouse the princess’s legendary temper. "There is nothing more that can be done tonight. The shield doors must be closed."

She was making the decision that she knew could very well mean the life or death of two men she cared for deeply. Yes, somehow, she felt it a little easier now to admit she actually did care for Han Solo - but she regretted that it took the possibility of his death, his no longer being in her life, for her to admit that.

Derlin and the young officer stood there expectantly, awaiting her decision.

The princess closed her eyes and nodded slowly to Derlin, looking away from them quickly.

"Close the doors," Derlin ordered the officer next to him, who moved quickly to comply.

Leia saw Chewie look at her, surprised at the understanding in his deep brown eyes. Somehow she’d expected it to be a look of betrayal instead, that it was her decision potentially condemning his life friend to a cold, lonely death. (Leia for a heartbroken moment pictured the image of a near-frozen Han and Luke, banging on the closed shield doors in the night... the howling of the night’s winds drowning out the sounds to any who might have heard them. )

But perhaps she’d misjudged the Wookiee code of honor - that Chewbacca would instead acknowledge the fact that it had been Han’s own decision to return outside to search for his comrade, that Han would accept his fate as consequences of his own actions. Leia tried to take comfort from this, and their shared pain over the situation, but after a moment she found she simply just couldn’t look at the Wookiee anymore. Let alone take any comfort from him.

Threepio, of course, could always be counted on...

"Artoo says the chances of Masters Han and Luke’s survival are approximately seven hundred and twenty-five... to one," he told Leia softly.

With a low mechanical rumble, the huge doors began to slowly slide shut.

Leia and Chewie kept their eyes on the diminishing gap between the doors, hoping that in this last moment two familiar figures would suddenly appear in the snow-covered darkness, running through the blizzard.

The doors moved even closer together. Artoo let out a subdued beep, and Chewie averted his gaze from the exit, propping his furred forehead against a nearby bulkhead.

Smaller and smaller the gap became...

Leia never moved her eyes from the gap, even as it disappeared.

The doors came together with a solid steel clang. At that very moment Chewbacca raised his head in a mournful howl, which echoed throughout the hangar, nearly overcoming the clang of the doors themselves.

"Although Artoo has been known to make mistakes... from time to time." Leia looked incredulously at Threepio, but he had already turned away, muttering "oh dear, or dear," to himself.

"Don’t worry about Master Luke," Threepio consoled Artoo. "I’m sure he’ll be all right. He is quite clever, you know. For a human being, anyway."

Despite the vaguely disparaging remark it had included, Leia fervently hoped his sentiments were right.

But, maybe, tonight was a night for accepting the things that hurt you.

He was going to die. Or maybe he was already dead.

Luke couldn’t quite decide which was true. He wasn't even sure if it really mattered.

He couldn't feel anything. His legs had gone completely numb from his experience in the cave... and since he couldn't see move than a step or two ahead of him, he couldn’t tell if he was moving or not. He was trying - but to what end? He couldn’t pretend that he knew which way the base was. So, if he wasn’t dead yet, he would be soon anyway.

Luke felt himself become dizzy, felt himself... fall? The impact never came; there was only a dull awareness that he wasn't standing any more. He started to roll over, mostly as an attempt to settle the spinning in his head. Eventually, he felt like he was right side up again, and started going through the motions of walking.

It wasn't long before he fell once more, straight on his face. This time he felt the impact. This time he didn’t bother to fight it. He would die out here, covered by the snow. The white sheet that appeared before him slowly faded to black, and Luke felt himself slip away.

"Luke... "

His name. Somebody was saying his name. And with the voice came a sudden, if limited, warmth. It didn't really do much to thaw out his body, but it brought back a touch of his awareness, and made him realize that he wasn't alone out there in the snow.


Luke summoned strength from that flicker of warmth, and it was enough for him to lift his head out of the snow. And he saw...

It couldn't be.

"Ben?" The Jedi's spirit almost blended fully into the gray skies behind him. But he was definitely there, looking both somber and concerned as he stared down at Luke.

"You will go to the Dagobah system."

His voice came through so clearly, despite the wind and snow... it was as though he was speaking from within Luke's mind. "Dagobah system," Luke repeated.

"You must bring Leia with you, Luke. Once there, you will both find Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me."

Before Luke could question his directions, the warmth left him, and he was freezing again. No, don't leave. "Ben?" He saw his hand shakily reach out before him, towards a vision that was already fading. "Ben!" Lost and alone again, Luke passed out in the snowy bank.

Han could barely see him, unmoving and quickly becoming covered by the falling snow. He veered wildly between relief and dread - he had found Luke much quicker than he had anticipated, but it could still be too late.

"Luke!" he cried as he impatiently dismounted his tauntaun. "Come on, don't do this." He rolled Luke over, grimly noting the bleeding and bruises that covered his face. "Give me a sign here." He leaned in closely to listen for Luke's breathing. Of course, he couldn’t hear much of anything, what with the wind - and the unceasing mewling of his tauntaun. He stood to stare at his steed in annoyance...

... which turned to disbelief as the animal promptly keeled over and died.

A string of curses sprung to Han's mind, as he wondered for the hundredth time that day what he could have possibly done to deserve all of this nonsense.

"Ahh," he grumbled angrily. He could worry about that once he and Luke survived this mess.

Grabbing Luke roughly by the arms, he dragged him slowly over to the tauntaun. At least he'd get some use out of this animal.

"Ben... Dagobah... Ben... Leia... "

Good, so he was still alive, and even almost conscious. Maybe he had gotten here in time after all. Han unhooked Luke's saber from his belt, and clumsily ignited it.

"Leia... Dagobah... "

He sliced the animal open lengthwise. "Hang on, kid." Luke continued his babbling and Han tried to ignore his own revulsion as he pushed Luke under the animal. "And I thought they smelled bad on the outside," he moaned to himself. With a final shake of his head at his run of bad luck, Han set about building the shelter.

The morning sun washed Hoth with a cold pink light, and the four pilots of Rogue Squadron skimmed off in a widening fan across the ice.

The snowspeeder was a two-man craft, but Zev was in it alone, as he almost always was. They did drill with two-man teams, because it would be necessary if they ever had to go into battle here, but there just weren't enough men to double up on a regular basis.

It wasn't worth it. The numbers were going down so fast, and now... Solo and Skywalker, probably dead. It would be the death blow to the Alliance. Princess Leia could tighten her grip as much as she wanted to, and people loved her and would stay for her sake even if she didn't, but it would take what little morale there was left.

And, on top of it, the Empire was getting more tolerable. Zev's own little sister had gotten a surgery she'd needed for years when Lady Vader had heard of her illness. The streets were cleaned up on Galarn. Crime was down. There was food on every table.

Sure, as long as you know to keep your mouth shut, to look the other way when people disappear, and most important to never ever question anything...

Zev blinked it away. He wasn't going to leave the Rebellion. He knew it. But so many of the guys he knew had just thrown it in. They knew that all would be forgiven, if they just swore loyalty and kept to it. They knew they'd be watched. They didn't plan on doing anything that would get them into trouble.

A light flashed on his comm-panel, and he focused his attention back on the cold morning. His morose mood was broken by a wave of fierce hope. "Echo Base," he said into his transmitter. "I've got something! Not much, but it could be a life form."

He guided the speeder toward the energy source he was tracing. A hunched, snow-covered dome twinkled up out of the tundra. A small figure appeared against the sun glare.

They did it.

They really did it, or at least one of them did.

He switched the channel on his transmitter, to the emergency channel that Solo and Skywalker would most likely be on. "This is Rogue Two. This is Rogue Two. Captain Solo, so you copy? Commander Skywalker, do you copy? This is Rogue Two."

No answer for a second, and he had a minute of wondering if it was an illusion, then a sharp crackle of static filled the cockpit.

"Good morning," Solo said. "Nice of you guys to drop by."

Zev smiled in relief, all thoughts of desertion leaving his mind as if they'd never been there. He switched back to the Command channel. "Echo Base... this is Rogue Two. I found them. Repeat, I found them."

Leia leaned forward slightly, reaching out to brush a section of blond hair away from Luke Skywalker's unscarred cheek.

He'd been removed from the bacta tank some time last night, early on in Hoth's sleep cycle, after spending the entire day in its healing fluids. Han and the droids had disappeared shortly after, leaving Leia alone to keep vigil over Luke's bedside. The medic droid had placed Luke here in an isolated section of the base's cramped infirmary, away from any prying eyes. After being removed from the tank there had still been residual scarring on his face that even bacta could not heal; the 2-1B droid had applied a healing mask to that side his face, the white, plasterlike surface molded perfectly to fit that side of his face. It was to be just worn overnight, so it should be coming off soon.

Leia didn't like the mask at all. The sight of Luke's face half bare, half covered by a mask brought up thoughts of certain people she'd rather not ever think of again in her life. So she sat on his left side, away from the mask. If she sat in just a certain way, she didn't have to see the awful thing - but if she moved even the teensiest bit, or Luke turned his face a bare hint... there it was.

Luke was lucky to have even survived, the on-duty droid had declared when Han had carried Luke's snow-caked, half-frozen form into the infirmary. It wasn't the attack from the wampa itself - Luke had been fortunate the wampa had slashed him where he had; the scarring would probably remain and had been quite gruesome, but the blood loss and nerve damage from the blow had been minimal. The danger had come from lying in a weakened state so long in the deathly cold night blizzards - had Han found him even a few minutes later, Leia might be visiting Luke in the base's cold makeshift morgue instead of here.

Leia's lips tightened. Han.

She just couldn't decide how she felt about him. Every time she thought she finally had him pegged, he went and changed things again. When she'd thought he was going to die, she thought perhaps she'd finally started to feel something more than that of their relatively cool friendship - but when he'd come back, arrogant pride and all, that door had slammed shut again. Leia put aside what she'd felt as that purely situational, panicked attachment which people usually experience when in danger of long term, even permanent separation. At times she kept questioning herself as to why she'd kept pushing so hard for him to stay with the Rebellion - though at this point, the Alliance could use all the leadership it could get. Han Solo was brash, stubborn, prideful to the point of suffocation -

(just like you... )

- but Leia still knew a part of her, beneath all the icy layers (which had, appropriately, earned her among those staffed at the base "the Ice Princess") she'd built up around herself ever since she'd seen that intercepted transmission, there was a layer that Solo sometimes actually seemed to pierce. That admitted its vulnerability to the notion he'd no longer be a constant in her life.

Maybe that was why she had trouble admitting anything. No one liked admitting vulnerability, least of all Leia Organa.

But in any case - after all that talk in the South Passage of having his own life to follow, of him belonging elsewhere - Han had gone out and saved Luke, risking his life on a flimsy chance his friend would still be alive... yet again forcing Leia to alter her perceptions of him...

(I knew there was more to you than money!)

But he was gone again now, leaving not a second after Luke had been given a clean bill of health - as if he had finished his business at last, and there was nothing left to keep him here, and Leia had made no move to stop him.

(Nothing left. Not that you'd willingly admit to him, anyway. )

So she'd come in here to watch Luke - she didn't want him left alone again (it was as if an unseen-before-now motherly tendency had awakened in her at the sight of Luke's scarred, doll-like face). Leia also reveled in the silent companionship he offered: his mere presence was like a calming salve to her emotional wounds and best of all, there was no voice of his playing the role of conscience, trying to tell her to just open up to her problems. There was only peaceful silence. Nothing to preoccupy her thoughts, leaving them free to wander... but like children, idle thoughts tended to wander where you'd just as soon not have them go...

She sighed. Maybe silence wasn't such a good thing.

Leia shifted uncomfortably in her seat - and suddenly, there it was. That wretched healing mask. The mask that served, aside from healing, the additional purpose of hiding a mass of disfigured grotesqueness beneath, something terrible enough that it could not be allowed to behold the light of day...

No. She was thinking of someone else. Not Luke.

Connections rose unbidden in her mind, to figures unbreakably connected to her yet she'd have given her right hand to sever herself from. Images of the Lord and Lady Vader swam through her mind atop a wave of revulsion.

Above all else she'd felt violated... contaminated when she'd learned it was their treacherous blood that flowed through her veins, a filth in her Leia knew no amount of sonic showering would remove. She wanted to smash something every time she saw a clip of an Imperial news story, heard others chattering about the latest great deed the "First Lady of the Empire" had done. But something about that transmission had changed something inside Leia, and she knew outbursts would no longer be effective as a release of her anger, this was something buried away, omnipresent, always eating away at her. She knew she couldn't afford to be prone to outbursts anyway, if she hoped to remain a leader of the Alliance. Even now though, she knew the primary reason she was still commanding was not because those beneath her respected her-- but because they feared her.

A mandate by fear. Like the Empire... Like Vader.

Of all the things to be heir to...

She moved her hand away from Luke's face and clenched her fist, stilling the hot bubble of anger she felt rising from a bitter knot in her stomach.

Luke's eyes opened then, the bright blue in them cloudy for a moment, then clearing as they focused on her. "Leia?"

"I'm here," she said quietly, leaning forward and instinctively stroking his face again. Not a romantic caress; it just felt right to do it.

Luke smiled at her just then, and Leia felt another sense of unease in her gut. She was well aware of Luke's feelings for her; he was too honest to hide them even if he'd wanted to. But as much as Leia loved him - yes, she would admit that much; she found oddly it didn't make her defenses bristle a bit - her heart simply didn't lie with him that way. And the concept of telling him, of hurting him - that did bristle.

There was no denying the bond that had formed between them their three years together, ever since he'd charged bumbling into her detention cell on the Death Star. After spending only a short amount of time with him she'd felt an instinctive connection toward him, and he to her, one she didn't understand to this day - but knew that she would be lost without. She trusted him more than anyone she knew. She just wasn't in love with him.

She forced herself to look at that half-masked face, into those innocent blue eyes that always seemed so familiar to her, like an echo from a past life...

She thought back to last night, when she'd believed she'd never be able to see them again... she was thankful for whatever hand had decreed that was not to happen.

"I heard you," he said quietly.

"Heard me?" She hadn't said a word aloud since she'd come in here.

"When I was unconscious," he explained. "Just now, I heard - " his face scrunched a moment, and he reached up to the mask. "Can we take this off?"

"Well, it's been on there long enough," Leia quipped lightly, prompting a small smile from Luke. "Do you want me to... ?" she trailed off, hoping Luke wouldn't make her fulfill what she'd just unthinkingly volunteered. But Luke nodded.

It's just a mask. Nothing you should fear.

Leia exhaled a slow breath and, reaching out slowly, placed her fingers under the edge of the mask and began to gently pull. A new image blossomed in her mind just then, superimposed over Luke's face: one half of the head the skull-like masked visage of Lord Vader (only incomplete, with blazing blue eyes burning out from where the opaque lenses should have been... ); the other half the naked, familiar face of his devoted wife. It shocked Leia; why in the galaxy should she make that sort of connection? Luke was nothing like those figures. It must be the face mask, she decided. That at least explained Vader.

But why would her mind conjure up any connection between Luke and her own mother, the woman who was a traitor to her own bloodline? Something about Luke's features, the way they -

The flash was gone, as Leia pulled the mask free of Luke's face. She set it aside out of sight, as grateful to be rid of it as Luke apparently was.

"Thank you," Luke said, thankfully rubbing his now free cheek. There was a bit of scarring and probably some soreness there still, but it was hardly grotesque, and would certainly lessen with time.

"You were saying that you heard me," Leia prodded gently. "What did you hear?"

"When I was unconscious," he explained. "I heard you - what you were feeling - "

Leia's lips formed a small smile. "I'm sorry I woke you."

His eyes softened in obvious discomfort. "You were in pain, Leia."

Leia stifled a swallow, but her lips still tightened. She didn't question Luke's new mysterious abilities; he was party to a power she now knew - bitterly - she must also be heir to as well, but she had a justified reason for rejecting what Luke had embraced so fondly. He wanted to be like his father. Leia didn't exactly get to enjoy that notion.

Luke had, in his healing sleep, managed to pick up her tumult of emotions - Leia chided herself for not maintaining her mental shields; with all the tumultuous emotions she'd been feeling, it would have been a surprise if she hadn't been practically sending out her emotions on a wide-band subspace signal. But if he'd managed to pick up something clearer, more definite...

"Who was hurting me?" she asked.

"I don't know," Luke admitted, a sad smile flitting across his lips. "I didn't see anything I understood - I only knew you felt like someone had betrayed you. Someone you cared about. There were some flashes of color, of black and red... " He shook his head. "It's gone now."

Leia grimaced inwardly. "You didn't see anything else?"

"No. I felt you in pain, and that woke me up here. But... but what I saw, Leia... " He looked down and placed his hands on one of Leia's, holding it.

Leia squeezed his hand back, through the contact returning the warmth Luke had given her - as much as she could give, at least. "I'm fine, Luke," she soothed, affording her friend as warm a smile as she could manage. "I'm just fine."

"You're very strong. I've always loved that about you," Luke said, prompting a small smile from the princess. "The Force flows strong in you, Leia."

"I know," she murmured grimly.

"That must be why he asked me to bring you... "

Leia's brow furrowed in inquiry.

"I saw Ben," Luke explained to her.

"Ben? You mean General Kenobi?" There weren't that many Bens she and Luke had encountered in their lives.

Han had told her of how Luke had been mumbling names and words when he'd recovered him... "Ben" had been one of them, then something like "Dagobah"... and her own name. Leia had been tempted to just put it off as the hallucinations of someone in shock - but now, after he'd read her emotions so effectively, without even trying, she wasn't so sure.

"When I was outside... in the snow," Luke continued hesitantly, as if he were in fact concerned Leia might think he had been hallucinating. "I saw him."

"But he's been dead for three years," Leia said gently, disgust rising briefly as she remembered witnessing on the Death Star as Vader's red blade sliced down, through the old man's robes. "Vader killed him, Luke. How could you have seen him?" She was saying it as much for her reassurance as his; she had little doubt of what Luke had seen, and had a vague inkling of what it could mean. After all, Kenobi had taught Vader, long ago... so he probably knew any number of secrets of Leia's dark heritage...

"I saw him," Luke insisted. "He must have been in spirit form; he seemed almost translucent... and he was glowing. He spoke to me. He wanted me to go to this planet... Dagobah, I think," he continued, frowning. Leia sat like a stone statue, waiting for him to continue. "To learn from the Jedi Master who had instructed him."

"Another Jedi? He managed to survive the purge?" Leia felt a sense of guilt at thinking of the terrible Jedi Purge, knowing it was her direct ancestor that had been the main driving hand of it...

No. She should not feel responsible for something he did. There was nothing she could have done about it.

"Don't ask me to explain it," Luke shrugged. "I only know what Ben told me. He told me I was to go to Dagobah... presumably as soon as possible... "

"Are you going to go?"

"I don't see I have any choice."

"But what about the Alliance?" A sharp pang of disbelief went through Leia's chest. Luke couldn't leave them now... he himself was a large rallying point for Alliance morale; the innocent farmboy who'd risen from obscurity to take out the Empire's mightiest superweapon. If he, Luke Skywalker, the Alliance's greatest hero, were to leave the Rebellion - leave me... - what message would that give those in the Alliance who already had their doubts about it? How many more would leave? Han himself had already left, and she was sure wind of that would be spreading through the base soon... "What could you do alone on Dagobah that could possibly help us here?"

"If I'm trained as a Jedi," Luke explained, fixing her with those clear blue eyes of his, "I'll have a better chance to be able to help the Rebellion. I'm doing nothing sitting here hiding on Hoth, Leia... you've seen it, the numbers we're losing. We're losing this war. If I can become a Jedi... that may be enough to turn the tide. It might bring others back to our side again."

"And it will make you a greater target for the Empire," Leia pointed out coldly, her eyes flashing in pain at him.

Luke's lips formed a hard line; he was aware of that perhaps even more than she was. "It may be enough, Leia. If it can it's an opportunity I don't want to risk because I was afraid to risk my own life." Leia stifled a swallow: it was the same thing she'd told the ensign in the corridor two nights ago. Luke wouldn't have known, but it had the same effect nonetheless. "And hopefully," he continued, his gaze at her softening, "I won't have to do it alone."

Leia stared at him uncomprehendingly.

"He told me to bring you with me, Leia," Luke said quietly. "I've felt your power, so I'm certain Ben is aware of it. I assume he means for Yoda - that was the Master's name - to train us both."

Leia was incredulous. It would be folly for Luke alone to leave the Rebellion; but Leia was a leader of the Alliance. For just a moment, she began to allow herself to consider the possibility that the snow had seeped through Luke's brain a bit more than previously thought. Though she was certain Luke would never do it, it was almost as if he were asking her to run away with him... she couldn't dare lead Luke on like that, even under the premise of Jedi training. (Which Leia was none too keen on beginning, anyway.) And she had duties to the Rebellion, however dwindling it may have been. She could hardly -

"How ya feelin', kid?" a cocky, cheerful voice suddenly interrupted, abruptly killing the conversation between the two others in the room. As it turned out, Leia would reflect later, that would be the only positive side effect. She forced herself to look away from those pleading eyes of Luke's, avoiding having to answer him as she pulled away in surprise at the unexpected arrival.

Leia forced herself to keep the shock at his unexpected appearance out of her gaze as she beheld the form of Han Solo - apparently as confident as ever, a brash twinkle in his hazel eyes. Again, he'd turned the tables on Leia's little judgments, upsetting them completely. He strode through the door to Luke's room, trailed by the familiar forms of Chewbacca, Artoo and See-Threepio; where they'd been until now Leia had no inkling. The two droids went over to Luke, congratulating him on his quick recovery.

Han gave an amused smile as he saw Leia pull away from Luke so quickly - there was a flash of something - no, it couldn't have been jealousy - in his eyes, his uncouth mind no doubt conjuring up some twisted fantasy. Well, let it, she thought, as she placed some distance between herself and the new arrival.

"You don't look so bad to me," Han continued, sitting at Luke's bedside, sliding himself into the seat Leia had just vacated moments before. "You look strong enough to pull the ears off a Gundark."

"Thanks to you," Luke said, giving his friend a half-smile.

"That's two you owe me, Junior," Han informed him, knowing full well that nickname annoyed Luke. Han turned to Leia, who now stood against the far wall, her arms crossed in an imposing posture. "Well, Your Worship," he said, his cocky smile widening. "Looks like you managed to keep me around for a while longer."

"I had nothing to do with it," Leia informed him curtly, folding her arms tighter across her torso. "General Rieekan thinks it's dangerous for any ships to leave the system before activating the energy shield around the base."

"That's a good story," Han nodded, leaning back against the wall next to Luke, and folding his hands back behind his head. "I think you just can't bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight."

Even Luke rolled his eyes at that one; Leia stifled the urge to do the same, shaking her head in mock sympathy.

"I hope you washed yourself after sticking your hands in whatever pile of poodoo you pulled that delusion out of, laserbrain."

Chewbacca let out an urf-urf-urf of laughter; Han shot him a betrayed look. "Laugh it up, fuzzball," he said, walking over and putting his arm around Leia, squeezing her shoulder. "You didn't see us alone in the South Passage. She expressed her true feelings for me," Han added to a visibly surprised Luke.

Annoyance shot up like hot magma in the princess, bringing heat and color to her cheeks. She curled her fists into tight little balls, as Han released her, grinning smugly. How dare he have the gall to make such a comment... "Why you... stuck-up, half-witted... "

Han began laughing; Leia immediately went to stand over by Luke's bedside again - cutting a pose that would have made Vader proud, yet only seemed to serve to amuse Han further.

"Half-witted?" Han laughed. "I'm not the one leaving my insults half-finished in the air, Princess. Must have hit pretty close to the mark to get her that riled up, huh, kid?" he added to Luke. To his credit, the Tatooine man kept his silence: any smart man confronted with the Princess's temper would have.

Well... not any smart man.

Leia glared at Han. A vicious idea for revenge came unbidden into her mind; no doubt from her Vaderish side.

She knew it would be unfair to use Luke's feelings for her that way; but at that moment she would have given anything, just to see that smug grin wiped off of Han's face. She nodded slowly, her mouth hanging open ever so slightly, moving her arms out of their crossed position to stand her hands on her hips.

"Then I suppose you don't know everything about women, do you."

And with that Leia gripped Luke's face firmly and pulled it to hers; she gave Han only a cursory glance as she crushed her lips on to Luke's, whose eyes widened at the sudden gesture. Leia held the contact despite the sudden wave of sickness, of plain wrongness that seemed to rise in her the moment their lips made contact...

It appeared to have the desired effect. Han's posture didn't change, but eyes seemed to Leia, watching out of the corner of her eye, to narrow and harden to two opal shards as he witnessed the seemingly passionate exchange. Good. Even Chewie and the droids - Threepio, at least - seemed to be gaping.

A static crackle issued on the room's intercom system. "All command personnel report to command center," the muffled, monotonous voice directed.

Incredibly grateful for the interruption, Leia tore her lips away from Luke's, momentarily meeting his eyes to still the questions she knew were in their depths. Fighting away the bitter taste in her mouth as she shot a caustic look towards Han Solo, she strode coolly out of the room, leaving one flustered young man and four flustered witnesses behind. "Take it easy," she heard Han mutter to Luke as he followed Leia out.

Leia forced herself not meet Luke's gaze one last time before she passed through the exit - and found herself instantly regretting it.

As if some part of her knew, somehow, that it was going to be a very long, troubled time before she would ever see him again.

Han wasn't exactly command staff - hell, he wasn't exactly, technically, in the Alliance - but no one had ordered him out of a meeting so far, or, for that matter, looked surprised to see him at one. So he followed Leia out of the infirmary when the announcement came, glad for the chance to go. Chewie tagged along at his side, the only sane creature in the whole place.

What kind of game was she playing? Luke? After all this time, he was supposed to believe...

Didn't matter. Any idiot could see that she hadn't much been enjoying that little liplock. To Han's great surprise, Luke didn't look like he'd much liked it, either.

He was only a few steps behind her by the time they got to the Command Center. Whatever game she was playing was done. Here, she was in command, and everyone knew it.

Rieekan looked up from a console screen when they came in. The general's face was tired - must have been up all night, after that little stunt of mine, Han figured - and he looked like he could use a year's leave. "Princess," he said. "We have a visitor."

Leia's mouth tightened even more than usual, and she crossed the room in four irritated steps. Han followed, and looked over her shoulder at the blinking green light on the console.

Rieekan pointed to it as if they couldn't see it. "We've picked up something outside the base in zone twelve, moving east. It's metal."

Han didn't think Leia's face could get more despondent, but she must have been entertaining some hope of a quiet day, because her eyes suddenly grew even more sunken, her cheeks ashier. "Then it couldn't be one of those creatures that attacked Luke."

"It could be a speeder," Han tried, hoping to ease her mind. "One of ours."

The communications officer looked at him like he was crazy. Of course - he'd just questioned her ability to do her job. "No. Wait - there's something very weak coming through."

Leia crooked a finger at Threepio, and he obediently clattered over to the comm station and listened to the faint string of beeps. After about fifteen seconds, he looked up. "I am fluent in six million forms of communication." (Han bit his lip; it wasn't time to quip that Threepio needed a new opener.) "This signal is not used by the Alliance. It could be an Imperial code."

Could be? Han shook his head. "It isn't friendly, whatever it is. Come on, Chewie, let's check it out."

Rieekan nodded, and, as Han and Chewie headed out, gave a vague command to a few guards to follow them.

The trip wasn't long - whatever it was, was traveling fast. It had a scent. It was out of zone twelve, and had crossed into zone four, just east of the base, when Han and Chewie caught up with it.

There was no mistaking Imperial technology, Han thought as his heart sank, even with a droid he'd never seen before. It had one possible purpose, and it was built to fulfill it efficiently. Four legs that might have been some use on the floor of a cave hung down like tentacles as it hovered over the snow, but everything else was in action. Sensors spun. Transmitters buzzed. An antenna was trembling. Something was beeping with a regularity that was maddening.

But it was sensitive. Chewie stood slowly, trying not to catch its attention, but it "saw" him immediately, and fired a deadly volley. Chewie dove for cover. Han decided that it was time to disable the thing's sensors.

He took advantage of the momentary distraction of Chewie's predicament, and fired quickly. No one - sentient or not - outdrew Han Solo.

This thing was no exception.

His blast hit squarely at the base of the antenna, and he had time to think, That'll do it, before the whole machine began to tremble and spark. Then it blew itself into pieces.

Just great.

Han put his blaster back, and stared at the pile of scrap metal with more than a little frustration. Imperial technology. Better to self-destruct than compromise the mission. The same thing they expected out of their army. Chewie barked a question, and Han shrugged. He got out his comlink and signaled the base. Nothing about this was going to make Leia happy.

"Afraid there's not much left," he said, without preliminaries.

There was a pause, and he could almost see her there, closing her eyes slowly, then opening them again. "What was it?" she said after a moment.

"Droid of some kind. "Han tried to find a way to word this so that it wouldn't sound like he was trying to wriggle out of responsibility for its destruction, couldn't, and just spit it out. "I didn't hit it that hard. It must have had a self-destruct."

To Han's surprise, Leia didn't sound like she was ready to rip his head off. Her voice simply sounded like she was putting the pieces together to form the puzzle she'd known the solution to before she sent them out. "An Imperial probe droid."

Han agreed. "It's a good bet the Empire knows we're here.

"We'd better start the evacuation," Rieekan said.

Leia looked at him dully. Evacuate? Retreat?


To her horror, there was a part of her that just gave a sigh of relief at this last. Yes, surrender. Give in and let it be. Nothing more you can do. You've lost, it's over.

She wondered briefly if that was her mother's voice, then shut the thought away. Evacuation wasn't surrender; it was the only way to avoid surrender. And Han was right. If it was a probe droid, it had probably had a good idea of where they were since it was in orbit. It would only have come this close for confirmation. The Empire was undoubtedly already on its way.

"Do it, General," she said. "I'll get the rendezvous point set up. "

Piett handed Admiral Ozzel the third maintenance report he had been ordered to do that shift. The man's pettiness was amusing to Piett - Ozzel wasn't pleased that Vader hadn't taken his advice about Hoth, and was making his subordinate pay through a series of mundane and useless tasks. Eventually, Piett thought he might say something, and they could get past this nonsense. He hoped so.

Ozzel barely glanced at the report before handing it back to Piett. "That's fine Captain. Perhaps you could do a weapons check."


"Yes - I know how sure you are that the Rebels are on Hoth, Captain. I want to be certain we are fully prepared for battle if... when we find them."

Piett knew that it would probably be best to just turn away, but found himself saying, "I was simply carrying out my orders to report any unusual findings from the probes, sir."

"And even though there are hundreds of systems left to search, we are now decided on Hoth." Ozzel gave him a barely concealed smirk. "I hope you are prepared for the consequences when Vader realizes he was sent on a fool's errand."

Piett couldn't help but start at that thought. He knew he had followed proper procedure, and that he was right to report his findings... but there was always the chance that the Rebels wouldn't be there. And it was unlikely that Lord Vader would be particularly understanding about it.

But he wasn’t about to admit that Ozzel had gotten to him, though he knew he was starting to tread a thin line in his demeanor toward his superior officer. "Have you been given any reason to believe that they aren't on Hoth, sir?"

"Indeed, Admiral."

Piett and Ozzel whirled around, their argument instantly forgotten. Lady Vader stood before them.

Piett was surprised to see her on the bridge; she only made appearances here on rare occasions. Her presence was most often felt in the less official parts of the ship - in the lounge, in the mess halls - places where she could interact with the officers away from Vader's command. It was awkward at times, since no one knew exactly how to address her (was she their superior? Could she give them orders?), but she never seemed concerned with that.

Of course, being the wife of Darth Vader basically gave her the run of the ship. The general consensus was to do whatever she said, treat her with the utmost respect, and hope and pray that she didn't speak ill of you to her husband. Over the last few years, the infamous stories of Vader's temper had focused on two categories of unfortunate officers - those who annoyed him, and those who dared to do anything that upset his wife.

Ozzel recovered first, and managed to stammer, "L-Lady Vader. I apologize for not noticing you earlier. Is there anything I can assist you with?"

Piett was certain he could see her smile, though making out anything underneath those veils was nearly impossible. "Yes, Admiral, I believe you can. I couldn't help but overhear your conversation, and I would like to understand your concerns about Hoth."

Her voice was kind - it was almost a request instead of an order. Ozzel scrambled for an answer. "My Lady, I was simply relaying the fact that our droids have not yet finished their extensive search... we may yet find something else... "

She nodded. "A sensible concern." She turned to Piett. "Yet, you are more certain that they are there?"

Piett swallowed hard. "I believe our findings are indicative of a military base. And Hoth is a remote system, which would make it more appealing to the Alliance."

Again, he thought he caught the shadow of a smile. He hoped he wasn't staring too hard. Unlike Vader, who didn't even want people to imagine there was anything under his mask, Lady Vader seemed to invite curiosity. Seemed to want to draw people in.

Finally, she said, "Captain, I appreciate your efforts." Piett nodded. "And Admiral, your caution is reasonable, but we must be prepared to act when an opportunity presents itself. It is critical that we find the Rebels and reach them before they move on to another location." After a short pause, she added, "It would be most unfortunate if we were to lose them because the correct information was withheld or not listened to." Her voice had hardened slightly, leaving an implication hanging in the sentence's wake that made both men cringe. "Do you understand, Admiral?"

"Yes, My Lady," Ozzel replied. A moment of strained silence followed. "Do you require anything else?"

"No," she said, and her warm personality came through again. "I simply came up here to observe the goings-on, and perhaps see how our officers are holding up. Idle curiosity."

Both men bowed slightly as she turned to walk away. She soon had an ensign explaining something to her about the sensors, while the rest of the bridge watched anxiously, also hoping for a chance to show off.

Ozzel turned to Piett, and the two stared at one another without saying a word. Neither could tell what Lady Vader had thought of their conversation, or what would get back to Darth Vader. It was strange to fear such heavy retribution from so kind a woman. It was a powerful combination - no wonder she was held such a high position in the Empire.

Finally, Ozzel dismissed him. Piett spent his time off-shift reading every report that came from Hoth.


Barely controlled excited scurrying seemed to be the activity of choice at the small linked connection of snow-coated caverns and tunnels that served as the central hiding place of the Rebel Alliance. Parka-clad humans and non-humans alike, as well as various models of droids, hurrying about: performing last-minute repairs on starfighters, troop transports; preparing weapons emplacements, loading up anything in the base that wasn’t bolted down into the nearest ship large enough.

Much scurrying, indeed. If one did not bother to look closer and observe the expressions on those running about, one might have thought the excitement to be just that: the adrenaline surge, the high emotional rush that most sentient beings experience when they’re about to experience battle. And not have noticed the thick, almost palpable sense of apprehension that pervaded the atmosphere.

The Empire was coming. This base had a particularly efficient grapevine, so everyone on the base had become aware of this fairly quickly after the probe droid's discovery. T hey also knew that in the inevitable battle that was to come that whatever force they managed to muster here against the Empire - in this case, a small group of volunteer fighter pilots -would be essentially self-sacrifice, a suicide mission for those involved. A diversion, in hopes that the Empire’s death messengers would be focused enough on it - and taking the base - that there was a chance that the majority of the Rebels stationed here could make their escape towards the main Fleet's planned rendezvous point, sectors away in space somewhere. (Wherever that turned out to be; the senior staff was understandingly keeping mum about that particular point. )The rebels here didn’t have the means here to fight off a full-fledged Imperial assault - it hardly made sense to store all a krayt dragon's eggs in one chamber; only part of the Alliance's forces were stationed here. So they were going to have to do what they’d done three years earlier when the base on Yavin had been discovered - pack up, fast, and get the hell away from it as quickly as you could. Only this time, there was no afterglow of intense triumph to boost the morals of the beings here.

The mood, under other circumstances, might have been different. They might have been excited. They might have been ready to fight. But many simply were in doubt. If the Rebels hadn’t been losing so many numbers; so many of their ranks discreetly making their way over to the Empire to congregate at the sound of the beautiful Lady Vader’s deceptively comforting words like they would a siren, seeking solace from the conflicts of the civil war under her protective scarlet wing... If their own leaders had not been so distracted... Even the Princess herself, once a stalwart figure of stability, the mouth that once spilled forth words that became a rallying point for so many oppressed beings alike was now barely speaking at all, and when it did it was like a bitter tonic, daring people to face it and stay or go.

And many went. Even now many wanted to leave - and would have, were it not for the imminent conflict. Some tumulted minds wondered briefly if the Lady Vader would be part of the force that was undoubtedly en route to Hoth, and what decision they would make were they to ever face her... If she were to hold out that small white hand of hers - would they spit on it and thrust it away, like the Princess had ordered them to do, or would they reverently grasp it, following it to a new life under the government they'd once fought against...

One man, who’d had little care in his life for whoever controlled the galaxy or the conflict being waged for that cause, and therefore little care for the Vaders themselves, had decided to spite the conflict and leave nonetheless.

Han Solo stood atop the twin sensor prongs that made the nose of the Millennium Falcon, frowning at the open panel of circuits at his feet, tapping the visibly well-used hydrospanner in his hand against his hip. A technician might have been able to pinpoint the problem that currently plagued his ship and even perform the operation necessary to rectify it, but Han wasn’t interested. Even if there had been technicians available that weren’t already working on "more critical tasks," he’d not have let any of them lay a finger on his vessel. So he and Chewbacca, who was currently running repeat ship diagnostics in the freighter’s side cockpit, seeing if he could locate the snag from that end, were the only ones working on the spacefaring junk heap.

Actually, they knew what the problem was. But for the first time, perhaps because it had amazingly never managed to occur before, or because there were other certain things weighing rather heavily on his mind, Han wasn’t entirely sure how to solve it.

The sublight drive didn’t work. Actually, it did work... but the computer in the cockpit just simply refused to communicate with it. A connection had failed somewhere along the route from the engines to their corresponding operations consoles in the cockpit. Either way, left unmaintained it meant Han’s continued stay here, which he had no desire to do even if it weren’t for the Empire breathing down their necks.

Not for the first time Han cursed the weather of this dismal planet. If the cold weather had caused failures in the running of the Rebels’ frequently maintained snowspeeders, then it shouldn’t have been surprising that the Falcon’s hodgepodge collection of seldom-inspected parts would succumb to the frigid temperatures and snow and leave Han stranded here. Through a series of trial and errors whose proof of existence was in the newly scored burn marks on his hands - the mark of temperamental circuits blowing in his face - the human and his Wookiee copilot had determined the kink in the circuit pathway from the sublight to the cockpit was somewhere in the bulkhead near the nose of the vessel. Only they weren’t certain exactly where.

Han was only grateful the hyperdrive had - so far, apparently - escaped any damage. He didn’t plan on being on this planet when the Imperials arrived, in fact hopefully several parsecs away and in the process of moving even further. But if the sublight didn’t work, he wouldn’t even manage to break Hoth’s orbit.

He bit his lip as he bent down to adjust one of the loose connections in the open panel, trying not to think of a certain pair of bright, haunting sable orbs that appeared in his mind every time he'd hoped he'd found any solace in thinking of leaving this godforsaken place.

Leia. The one pillar of uncertainty in his single-minded determination to leave the Rebellion and never look back. Even his friendship with Luke wasn’t truly reason enough for him to stay - he genuinely liked the kid, and would miss the idealistic na´vetÚ that hadn’t existed in Han’s life till he’d met Luke - but if there was one thing Han had learned in life, it was that you couldn’t always afford to keep the friends you might happen to make (in his case, though, there really hadn’t been that many). If the time came to leave them behind, you couldn’t afford a wave of regret coming up and clouding your judgment.

You don’t think I’m fool enough to stick around here, do you?

Besides, the kid was smart, Han had assured himself. He could make it without Han’s help - even if he had just saved his life out there in the snow. But Luke had a good solid mind, and Han had no doubt he would be able to learn on his own.

But Leia... Han genuinely worried for her, however much the tough smuggler self in him had scorned that self-admission. Her growth over the last few years had been almost the exact inverse of Luke’s: while Luke had developed from an uncertain, lonely boy into a maturing young man, Leia had over time begun to lose the smart-tempered fire Han had grown to love to a bitter, pained and increasingly isolated nature. He sensed she would only get worse as this war continued on - that if someone didn’t stop her, she’d spiral herself down into a pit of self-destruction worse than any Imperial battle station garbage chute. And that, probably no one would be able to help her out of.

He wished to hell he knew what in smeg was eating at her, he thought as he picked up a welder and melted two wires in the open panel together to complete a severed connection; the one he believed to be the missing link between the engine and the cockpit. But no, Leia seemed perfectly content to alienate herself from her few remaining friends and comrades, bottling whatever acid flowed boilingly in her away, refusing to tell anyone what it might be. She hadn’t even told Luke this, and she was closer to him than anyone. Han admired Leia for her strong willed self-reliance, but this was getting ridiculous.

Three years ago he wouldn’t have turned a second look at the obviously despaired princess - her problems were not his to deal with. But something in him had changed, and now, whenever he looked at her, it became increasingly difficult to look away from her again. Her problems, somewhere along the line, had become his problems.

I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m certainly not in it for you, Princess.

But if she didn’t want his help... well, you definitely couldn’t give something to Leia Organa if she didn’t want it. Luke wasn’t the only one who’d learned anything in the past three years.

And anyway, his life was on the line here. Even now Han was certain Jabba’s minions were scouring the galaxy, searching out for the well-recognized saucer-shaped freighter, which would make whoever brought it in to the crime lord instantly wealthy.

So he’d forced himself to look away from her yet again, shunting the haunting image of those suddenly beautiful brown eyes out of his mind. And, unlike Yavin, he truly was going to leave this time.

Han finished his welding job and flipped the panel shut. He gestured to Chewbacca to turn the lever to feed power into the new circuit. "All right, that should do it," he shouted. "Try it... " he leaned forward...

And leapt straight back as the top of the panel exploded in a flurry of bright blue sparks that suddenly leapt upward, burning Han’s face and jacket and adding to the burns already on his hands. Han let out a loose string of Corellian swear words under his breath, futilely trying to wave the sparks away.

"Turn it off!" he shouted frantically to Chewbacca, who moved his furry paws in a flurry to comply - but the sparks continued to fly, and to make things better, the hangar’s fire alarm had started to go off, its punctuated shrieks drawing attention from everyone in the vicinity. "Turn it off!" Han yelled again.

The sparks continued, and Han’s face grew redder, not just from the sparks. That was the last time, he decided firmly, that he would allow himself to get distracted by thoughts of stubborn princesses (of all things... ) when his freedom and life lay on the line.

This definitely was not his day. Next time, he would be the one in the cockpit, and would leave the welding to Chewie.

Luke shook out his blond hair and zipped up the orange pilot suit, casting a final look around the infirmary that had been his home for the last several days.

He wouldn’t miss it, he thought, as he hurriedly zipped up the heavily insulated and garishly bright orange pilot suit. In a little while, not long after he left this place, he would be flying with Rogue Squadron in the upcoming battle, this time as their leader. He felt a sense of excitement course through him at the thought of piloting again after being snowbound and grounded for so long - judging from the incredulous looks from other rebels in the briefing room as he’d unhesitatingly volunteered to be one of those few that would see battle, he was probably one of a very few on base that actually looked forward any to the impending conflict. But what he’d told Leia in the infirmary still held true: he’d spent too much time sitting on his duff (Luke smiled inwardly at the unintentional Han Solo mannerism) at the base as it was, and now he had a chance to actually be useful to the Rebellion again. Luke knew he was a good pilot, probably the best the Alliance had - he may as well put those skills to use for a greater good than simply preserving his own life.

The bulky 2-1-B droid, his only companion in the room, watched with blinking optical lights as his only patient prepared for his quick departure. Luke brushed off his suit and swung his already packed rucksack over his shoulder, practically jumping up from the hard bed. The droid’s arms clicked in a gesture of concern - Luke sighed inwardly; it seemed everyone here, even the droids now, had been becoming as much of an overworked worrywart as Threepio lately - which it soon voiced to the young human.

"Sir, it will take quite a while to evacuate the T-47s," the electronically modulated voice began, referring to some of the rather larger bits of medical equipment in the infirmary, large analytical computers that were bolted to the bulkheads - somewhat valuable equipment; it was understandable there would be some regret over leaving it behind.

"Don’t worry about the heavier equipment," Luke told the droid, flashing it a quick smile as he began to walk out the door, tucking his flight helmet under the crook of his arm. "There's plenty of time to get the smaller models into the transports."

The droid’s servomotors whirred, perhaps comforted by the reassurances from its superior. "Take care sir," it said, turning its head to follow Luke to the door.

"Thanks," Luke replied with another quick smile, and was out the door and on his way to the fighter hangar.

Luke had immediately begun searching for Leia as soon as he’d gotten out into the corridor. He even made a few unnecessary detours en route to the main snubfighter hangar, hoping to run into the young woman and hopefully get some kind of a response from her on the whole Dagobah thing... he wished for the umpteenth time that Han hadn’t interrupted them when he had when he’d been talking to Leia, but what was done was done.

And there was no Leia in sight anywhere. The discomforting notion that she might actually be trying to avoid him flashed briefly in Luke’s mind - but it was soon overshadowed by the sight of another friendly face not far away. (And she was probably on her way to the command center on the other side of the base at a time like this, he decided. )

"There’s got to be another reason for it - check it at the other end," Han Solo was saying to a small scanning droid, both of them standing atop the front of the main saucer section of the Falcon. The odd droid, which resembled a pair of old macrobinoculars on a set of wheels, chattered and wheeled away to comply. The Corellian smuggler suddenly caught Luke’s eye and smiled as the Tatooine man neared the familiar ship. "Wait a second," he gestured to the droid, half sliding, half jumping down off the top of the ship to meet Luke, who now stood just under the ship. (There was little sign that Han had ever been trying to repair the ship, only a couple of still open hatches on the its nose; Luke had heard the fire alarms from the infirmary, but hadn’t known it was Han’s actions that had set it off. )

It occurred to Luke just then that he realized this could be the last time he might ever speak to Han Solo. His blue eyes flicked around, taking in the details of the ship, Chewbacca not far away from him, and his friend standing in front of him. It seemed only a week ago that he’d first walked into the Mos Eisley Cantina with Ben Kenobi and encountered the gruff, standoffish smuggler.

And now Han was leaving, and Luke was going off into battle, to quite possibly even die - Luke felt Leia’s absence even more keenly at not having said goodbye to her - they’d been through more together already than most people needed to see in their lifetimes. Three years really was too short a time, he thought, as a mass of fur suddenly surrounded him in a rib-crushing hug.

"Ease off a little, would you Chewie?" Han’s voice came down. "I've saved this kid’s life enough already."

The Wookiee let out a distinctly amused grumbling, settling to simply ruffle the Tatooine man’s slightly shaggy blond mop instead. "I'll miss you too pal," Luke said genuinely to Chewie, returning the ruffling gesture - at least as much as he could, considering that he was barely tall enough to even reach the Wookiee’s head.

"How you feelin’, kid?" Han asked, a flicker of regret in his gaze betraying his otherwise conversational tone.

Luke gave a wan smile. "I'm fine."

It was as if everything they would have said to each other had already been said. Leia might roll her eyes at the two of them and make a remark about how males of a species were so jittery over opening up to one another, but that didn’t totally explain the thick silence between Han and Luke. There just simply wasn’t a way to resolve three years’ worth of memories and emotions in an encounter that only lasted a few seconds. It wasn’t like Luke’s incredulous, surly reaction of three years prior; he’d grown since then. He’d come to know the idea that Han wasn’t always going to be around - that one way or another he’d wind up leaving - but somehow, some part of him had turned to what had happened at Yavin as a sign of hope. That if Han did leave, he’d always return, charging in with the sun at his back, to save his friends.

And maybe he would. But he wouldn’t be the presence in his friend’s life that he had once been. Luke hadn’t noticed up till this point how much he had actually looked up to Han, admired his independence and carefree nature. The onetime smuggler had taught Luke any number of invaluable lessons - but the time for teaching was over, obviously, and graduation was coming sooner than Luke had hoped.

"You’re crazy for wanting to fly out there against that invasion force, Junior," Han told him pointedly, "but then it wouldn’t be the first time you got into trouble."

"I learned from the best."

"Oh no kid, that’s one thing you definitely can’t pin on me. You were getting yourself in too deep long before that crazy old wizard left you with me. I’m the one who winds up cleaning up after your screw-ups."

"It wasn’t that long," Luke protested lamely.


Luke bowed and shook his head. "Fine."

"And you know this time I won’t be able to come back and shoot the Empire’s cronies off your back if you do get into trouble."

Luke blinked at Han once, but otherwise remained motionless. "I know."

"So keep your head out of trouble, you hear me? You’ve run up too high a tab on me as it is. I’m getting too expensive for you."

"I’ll try."

"Great." Han's mouth tugged upward a bit in one corner in the now-famous Solo smirk, his hazel eyes softening ever so slightly for a moment. The two friends stood silently facing one another for several moments, neither of them evidently willing to take the step that would likely lead to the end of their association with each other.

Han decided to take that first step. "Be careful, kid."

Luke’s smile was genuine, but not as open as it usually was. "You too."

"Oh, and another thing, Luke... "

"Anything," Luke promised.

"When you make it back to the Fleet," Han said - Luke was grateful he hadn’t said "if" - and the smuggler’s eyes suddenly turning to fix off on a far distant point, as if perhaps he were looking for someone who wasn’t there, then focusing back on Luke as if he were content that that certain someone wasn’t there to hear him. His voice became soft, almost conspiratorial. "Promise me you’ll say -" he cut off suddenly, as if maybe he’d changed his mind about something, and smiled enigmatically. "Promise me you’ll keep an eye on Her Worship for me."

Luke briefly questioned himself why on Hoth Han would be asking him that - why couldn’t he say goodbye to Leia himself - then it hit him, leaving him feeling only slightly foolish. He knew Han was probably fond of Leia beyond the visible surface course of their love/hate friendship; he’d seen how they’d acted when they talked to one another, the exchanged glances between them when they thought no one else was looking (who were they fooling, anyway?)... but Luke had usually succeeded in putting it out of his mind. His crush on Leia - however deep the feelings behind it ran - was definitely not justification enough for turning his best friend into an unneeded rival - inside his mind or out. "Of course," Luke said. "You have my word, Han."

All three of them were going to be separated during the battle: Han going off to wherever he was going to go, Leia in the command center, and Luke going off into battle. (Perhaps separated for the last time ever, but Luke didn’t dwell on that. )He briefly thought back to after he’d destroyed the Death Star, how the three of them, even then only newfound friends, had paraded through the base together, their arms linked the whole time... were he alone he might have considered shedding a tear or two, but he wasn’t about to do that now.

(Maybe Leia was right about the closed-up emotional tendencies of males after all. )

He resolved he would survive this, and he would manage to get himself and Leia to Dagobah somehow - even if he had to wait to be reunited with her until he arrived at the rendezvous point. But he would, he swore to himself.

Han just nodded at Luke, and clasped him briefly on the shoulder. Silence reigned between them for a few more long moments, and it felt as if the tension were building up to burst -

Luke deflated the bubble by giving one last half-smile to his friend... and then turning away, not daring to look back.

Now be brave, and don’t look back...

General Carlist Rieekan saw the waving hand of the sensor tech from across the command center. His lips tightened almost invisibly as he made his way over to the young man, who was staring wide-eyed at a small grid-style tactical layout of the star system. Hoth was a deceptively peaceful-looking sphere of blue in the center of the grid... and not far away, the group of red dots coming in on just the other side of the asteroid belt...

"Sir," the tech said, looking up slowly at Rieekan, pointing with a stylus to the red dots, "we’ve got a Fleet of Star Destroyers coming out of hyperspace in Sector Four."

Several others in the room looked up in vaguely concealed alarm; most had been preparing for this moment for some time. Rieekan could understand the feeling though - even if he wouldn’t be able to allow himself to be prone to it as well. "Reroute all power to the energy shield," he ordered a lieutenant standing not far behind him. The officer moved to comply.

The muscles in his jaw clenched a bit as he sank into thought for a moment. "We've got to hold them off until all of our transports are safely away," he said, almost to himself - then moving his blue-gray gaze back to the other officer next to him, issued the obvious and expected mandate of action.

"Prepare for ground assault."

The Empire was here, he thought as the scurrying around him once more, as he signaled through the comm system for Princess Leia to report to the command center immediately. Now it was only a matter of time before people began to die.

There was a shimmer over the world when she wore the face shield, a shifting pattern of golden light that reminded her of swimming underwater at the lake near her parents' farm, coming up into the late afternoon sun to a warm hug from her father. The shield was an unattractive contraption - she couldn't imagine how Ani could bear the sight of it - but it did always bring up that brief, pleasant memory.

Not that it didn't have its own pleasant memories now, though they weren't quite as innocent.

She smiled, and ran her hand down the side of Ani's cheek. There had been an instant of revulsion the first time she'd seen him, with the deathly pallor of his skin and the permanent rictus of the scarring. But she had resisted the impulse to shrink away, and when his lips had found the hollow of her neck, the place he'd always kissed her first when he planned to seduce her (not that she'd ever needed much seducing), when his breath and his deep and mesmerizing voice stirred across her skin, her nerve endings had recognized him, and she'd burned with the braided flame of passion, tenderness, and love that had written his name on her soul years ago. After a month, she'd needed his kisses - real kisses, not brushes of his lips against her hands, or the touch of his two real fingers on her own mouth - so badly that she'd built this contraption, this Gungan shield that sparked between them and allowed the touch of his lips on her own, even while they were denied the chance to breathe the same air.

His lips moved to the tip of her nose, the flexible shield distorting as his weight moved against it. "Alas," he said, "there is little time, my love."

"I know. But I'll steal my kisses when I can. It's not quite as easy as slipping into the shadows anymore."

He returned her smile as well as he could, then began to reattach the breathing apparatus of the suit. Amidala had learned to replace the mask without the help of the medical droids, and she did so with nimble fingers, sparing one last kiss to his poor head before she sealed him away.

The floor shuddered beneath them, and Ani's shoulders stiffened. "We've come out of lightspeed."

Amidala didn't comment. She didn't like the tone of his voice. It was the low, dangerous tone that preceded his...

The times that he...

"We were to approach from the far side of the planet. We are early."

A soft tone sounded, and a light flashed beside the chamber controls. Someone was petitioning entrance - it was considered a rare and dangerous task, but Amidala had never actually heard Ani complain about it, at least not any more than any other husband would complain when interrupted from his wife's company. Amidala dashed for the veils, tossing them over her head, shield-mask and all, as the jaws of the chamber opened.

General Veers stood uncertainly in the outer quarters, his hands neatly behind his back. "Lord Vader?" he said.

"Yes, General?"

"We've come out of lightspeed in the Hoth system... "

The tone grew lower, more dangerous. "Yes?"

Veers cleared his throat. "We have found an encampment, but it is heavily fortified, and guarded by an energy shield. Aerial bombardment will be impossible."

"The Rebels are alerted to our presence. Admiral Ozzel came out of lightspeed too soon."

Amidala's hands went cold. This man had refused to believe the information he had been given, he had questioned Ani's judgment, and now he had committed a strategic error that would cost lives. The twins' lives, possibly.

Veers stammered. "Admiral Ozzel thought that surprise was... "

Ani didn't bother letting him finish the sentence. "He is as clumsy as he is stupid."

It was a death sentence. Amidala felt her nails digging into the flesh of her hands. She chanced a glance at Veers. His face was pale and stiff.

Then she heard Ani's voice in her mind, He has cost us our children.

And that was all. The rage rose in her mind as well. She would not see Leia's eyes again, or touch Luke's hand, not today. There would be no arguments, no convincing, no alliance. There would only be a bloody battle, and the twins might not be there at the end of it. Because Admiral Ozzel was clumsy and stupid.

Ani activated the viewscreen to the bridge, ignoring Veers completely. Ozzel was leaning over a console, Piett a few steps behind him. Ozzel looked up and began giving his report, some officious sounding announcement...

Then he stopped. His face went red and he grasped at his throat. Ani looked past him. "Captain Piett?"

Piett stepped forward, sparing Ozzel a horrified glance. "Yes, my Lord?"

"Prepare for -"

Ozzel stammered forward, reached out with both hands and gagged, "My Lady... Cle... men... cy... " He gasped in a breath, and Amidala knew that Ani had loosened his grip.

She turned to him, glanced at Ozzel nervously, then turned back. She was angry. What was it she was meant to do? There was something. Her role was... she was supposed to...

An old voice fought its way up, arguing laboriously with the instinctive raw anger that wanted her to wring Ozzel's throat herself, and not from a remote location. The voice was calm and cool, like the ocean depths. Her role was not to exact vengeance. Her role was to show the rewards, the advantages, of establishing firm control of the galaxy.

He was looking at her with his head tipped slightly. "What are your wishes, my Lady?"

"My... " Ozzel grabbed at Piett's sleeve - he was breathing, but in great discomfort - then lurched forward toward the transmitter again. "... Lady Va... my... "

"There is little point in killing him now," she said. "The damage is done."

"You are quite certain, my Lady?"

"Yes, my Lord."

Ani waved his hand, and Ozzel pulled in a noisy breath. "You are an ignoramus and a coward, Admiral."

"Yes... " Ozzel fell his knees and vomited. "My Lord... "

"Captain Piett?"

Piett looked up again. His eyes had followed Ozzel to the floor. "Yes?"

"Prepare ground troops, and blockade the shipping lane. You are in command now, Admiral Piett."

"Yes, my Lord," Piett said quietly. He didn't look pleased with his promotion, but he went about his duties.

"Ozzel," Ani said, his voice rolling like soft thunder that sent a most inappropriate (and inconveniently timed) wave of desire through Amidala's heart.

Ozzel crawled forward, weeping. "Yes, my Lord?"

"You will accompany General Veers to the surface, and participate in the conflict you have necessitated." He turned to Veers. "Assign him to a front line fighter."

"Yes, my Lord." Veers disappeared.

"We will regret letting him live," Ani said when they were alone. "You have too much compassion."

"You didn't need to ask me."

He didn't answer that. "He is a liability. He will cost lives."

"He sought clemency. Had I refused... "

"I recognize the political necessity, Amidala. But we will come to regret it."

"Your Highness, they've assembled."

Leia turned and nodded, and the young captain returned to the hangar to await the scheduled briefing. A briefing where she would lay out the plans to send a good number of them to their deaths.

Her eyes fluttered shut, and she decided to stay in her small, cold office for a few more minutes to collect her thoughts. She was their leader - she had to focus on other things. Such as the fact that this plan was their best, and perhaps only, chance to get the majority of these people off the planet.

But the small comforts she used to find had grown increasingly elusive. Before, there was a necessity and inevitableness about what she was doing, about this fight against the Empire. Now? Now she wondered if these people she was sending to die were quite so willing to give their lives to this cause. Or if the cause itself was still quite so noble. What if she were battling her personal demons at the cost of so many people's -

A loud crash from the hangar snapped her out of her reverie. She knew, without asking, that it had to be Han or Chewie, trying to get the Falcon off the ground before the attack commenced. Leia was rather angry that Han hadn't bothered to say goodbye to her... but it didn't matter. What could she have said to him anyway? "Good luck"? "I'll miss you"?

They're my parents! They're my parents, and I hate them and I don't know what to do about it!

Leia shook her head against the thought, against the curious and recurring impulse to just flat-out run to Han and bare her soul to him. Ludicrous. He would never understand. And she had never been one to do that anyway.

She strode out of her office, careful not to turn in Han's direction as she headed towards the circle of her troops and officers. They were talking in low, suspicious tones to one another; only a few stopped when they noticed her approach.

Leia took her position in the center, stood straight, clasped her hands tightly behind her back, and launched into her orders. "All troops except for the attack squadron and the ground personnel will assemble at the north entrance. The transports are authorized to leave as soon as they've been fully boarded. We will send nearly every available fighter out with the transports, to give you cover during the evacuation. The remaining fighters will attempt to protect our shield generator on the surface, and provide another target for the Empire to center on."

The rumbling began again, louder and more insistent. They knew that the few who had volunteered for surface duty were headed for a suicide mission. And the rest of them might not fare much better. Finally, one of them decided to speak up. "They can't protect the generator. And what are our fighters supposed to do against a Star Destroyer?"

Leia paced in his direction, ignoring the murmurs of assent that followed the question. "Our ion cannon will provide cover. We only need to buy you some time. After clearing the Imperial fleet, you will immediately head to the rendezvous coordinates."

"There just aren't enough of us to do this," grumbled someone in the back that she couldn't see. "There won't be half of us that get out of here alive."

"And even when we do," said another man, "you know it won't be long before they wind up at the rendezvous - how hard will it be for one of them to follow one of us?" He narrowed his eyes at her. "We won't survive this. And this madness may only be the beginning."

Leia felt their eyes on her. Accusing. Skeptical. Frightened. She understood - all those emotions were mirrored in her as she stood there before them.

"I won't lie to you. We're outnumbered and outgunned. This will be a difficult battle. But don't tell me that this effort isn't worth it. I'm not about to sit here and wait to be captured by the Empire. I'm not about to give up just because they think they have us caught.

"We've fought too hard and too long to just give up, to surrender now. We can escape. We can survive this. But I need you." She turned to all of them. "We need each other." She drew up her shoulders and tightened her hands behind her. "If any are you would rather wait here for certain death, you are welcome to."

There was silence.

"Then are you ready to fight for our survival!" she urged loudly.

A roar came up from the group - not as forceful as she would have liked, but a positive sign nonetheless. She dismissed them, and watched them try to prepare their ship and themselves for what was to come.

They were staring at him. Laughing at him. Maybe not overtly, but he wasn't blind. And he knew what he would have thought if he were one of these ground troops, and saw an Admiral forced to perform such menial and dangerous duties. Being on the front lines of a Rebel assault was not a responsibility that someone of his station should ever have to endure.

But it was either endure their amusement, or return to a certain death at Vader's hand. And he had never heard of someone successfully appealing to her Ladyship's sympathy twice - usually because Vader made sure they didn't get the chance.

Was this humiliation worse than death? Ozzel, away from the immediate danger of having to make that exact determination, couldn't be sure.

He had dedicated his adult life to the Empire. Part of his adolescence too. The Academy had been the most difficult experience of his life - but he had been proud the day he graduated. It had taken so long for him to climb through the ranks to the position he was in now. He didn't have the benefit of high connections, and knew that he didn't possess a great deal of natural ability. But he had made it anyway.

Or so he thought. How would his reputation ever recover from this embarrassment? Would Lord Vader even allow him the chance to do so?

Ozzel sighed angrily as the transport disembarked from the Star Destroyer, bringing the forces down to the surface of Hoth. Studiously avoiding the faces of the other men, his eyes fell upon the Imperial insignia. The symbol of everything he believed in and fought for.

Were the Vaders now the embodiment of that symbol? How could that be? How could the glory of this wondrous, galactic Empire now be subject to the whims of a woman - a woman! - and her subservient husband?

It sickened him, and it had before... the incident. Ozzel wondered at times what the Emperor could possibly think of what they were doing. It was an idle thought, but sometimes it consumed him. Surely, if the Emperor realized what was happening, he would not stand for it.

If only the Emperor knew...

He wasn't the only one who felt that way. Before coming aboard the Executor, he had been able to speak a little more freely about his opinion on the Vaders. Not much more, but enough to know that not everyone had fallen under her spell, or given in completely to their fear of the husband. That not everyone appreciated the gentler face she had put on the Empire, or the popularity and loyalty she wielded.

For him, for those who thought like him, the Emperor - the secret and shadowy leader that he was - had grown immeasurably, into almost a mythic figure. Maybe because he was the only conceivable way to get around, or go above, the Vaders. The only real way to take the Empire back out of their clawing hands, and return true order and respect to the galaxy.

This latest... event was simply the last straw for him. To be forced, on the bridge, in front of everyone, to beg for pity from an indifferent woman, while her husband insulted him and choked him and...

He let the anger roll through him, and felt his cheeks burn. In the end, there was nothing to be done about it. He would just have to live through this torment, and hope that a better day was coming, for him - and the Empire.

Luke grabbed his helmet and tucked it under his arm, more or less ignoring the piteous glances and sympathetic smiles he got from people as he tried to make his way to his snowspeeder. Under other circumstances, Luke might have found it all amusing - even when he had left to face the Death Star, he hadn't received this kind of treatment. Maybe they had forgotten, but he knew what it really meant to go on a suicide mission. And he didn't think this was one.

Sure, there would be badly outnumbered. But whatever kind of ships the Empire sent for ground duty, chances were the Rebels would have the faster and more maneuverable crafts. A small advantage, but one that might be enough to give the others the time they needed - and make this battle more than the Imperial target practice many anticipated. Maybe.

Luke finally reached his speeder and jumped quickly up the ladder. As he was about to swing into his pilot's chair, he froze.

On the co-pilot's chair were Dak's helmet and neatly folded jumpsuit.

Luke's shoulders slumped as he threw his own helmet down with an angry grunt. Another desertion. Another one gone.

That there was a recognizable custom for such an event was disheartening. But Dak wasn't the first person to leave his Rebellion gear neatly and conspicuously tucked somewhere that they were supposed to be themselves. Uniforms, weapons, rations - they would be found stacked on beds, in chairs at briefings, on tables in what served as the mess hall. Someone would report the new deserter to Leia, she would order that a search be conducted, nothing would be found, and eventually everyone tried to get back to their routines. It was almost a non-event.

Almost. Every person that left took a little more fight out of their spirits. Made their work that much harder. Made it that much easier for another person to think about leaving.

At least there was no evidence yet of any deserter actually turning traitor on them. The Rebellion's secrets had essentially remained safe. Luke couldn't imagine what a grievous blow that would be, if someone were to give them up to the Empire...

Luke sunk into his seat, and looked idly to the other pilots that were preparing to leave. How convenient it would have been if Leia had somehow confused the flight plan and there was an extra person hanging around to come join him. No such luck.

He initialized the engines, put his helmet on, and closed his hands around the controls. For a moment, he tried to call on the Force to center his thoughts and prepare him to go into battle alone. He saw that he was being waved out of the hangar.

It was time to face the Empire.

Dak rode into the sharp crystal sky, clutching his tauntaun's neck and letting her go wherever she would. He had taken his snow gear and his goggles, and they sat heavily on him. He'd once read a story about a man whose penance was to carry a sun from world to world, its burning weight bowing him over for all eternity. He understood what that would feel like now.

The tauntaun paused, sniffed, veered. Dak let it.

Often, in the past, he had looked upon the deserters with contempt. Didn't they have any commitment? He felt no guilt about enjoying Lady Vader's antics because they meant nothing to him. He was a rebel, a member of the alliance. The fact that there was one Imperial he liked - at least marginally - didn't change that. Those others... obviously, they'd never really meant it, or were cowards or traitors.

The notion of a sudden, drowning despair had never occurred to him. He had never felt it; hence, it did not exist. But this morning, Dak had begun to feel... dizzy? No, not dizzy. But like dizzy. Like he'd been walking across a solid plain, and the ground had suddenly opened, just a crack, just a glimpse of the endless chasm underneath. The sensation was physical, like a thousand tiny feather-dusters working enthusiastically behind his forehead.

There was nothing at all gradual about it. One moment, he had been a half-nervous, half-excited young soldier about to go into battle, less listening to Princess Leia than watching her pretty mouth move in the bright snowlight, and imagining touching those shiny lips... just with his finger, to see what they felt like, if they were as he imagined them... Then the panic, the brief realization that she could die today (his own death did not occur to him immediately), and he saw her lying in the snow, her blood soaking her white uniform a deep scarlet, and the gruesome turn of the image had done it. She would be dead in the snow, dead in the scarlet gown spreading in the ice, and Dak saw Lady Vader standing above her, living in scarlet, and the bottom fell out of his world, because he couldn't tell the difference anymore.

People die here, people die there; people are kind here, people are kind there. We're all dying and killing and there's no difference and who says the Republic was any better?

The next moment, the world around him had become unreal and unlivable. Sounds were mere echoes in the ice, and he had to concentrate to understand what was being said - it was as if everyone had suddenly started speaking another language, one he knew, but hadn't spoken for many years. He wondered if the others had felt this way. They had dropped out, one after another, and had they taken away the cover that led over the abyss? Unraveled the tarp thread by thread? Pulled supports out from under the floor? The last felt right to Dak - he felt as if he'd been walking along happily, along a floor that had once been solid, only occasionally annoyed that his friends and partners kept disappearing, and had suddenly plunged through into an unimagined dungeon. Everything had left his mind except for the need to escape it.

"Doesn't matter," he whispered to his tauntaun. "Doesn't matter. One more deserter. War's over."

The tauntaun didn't answer him. She just hopped, and crested a small rise. The tundra spread out before them, a vast plain beyond the range of the Rebel base. In the far western distance, he saw the fuzzy sweep of the nightline shadow falling across the world, and he urged the animal toward it.

The worst part all of this was that it was true. It didn't matter. The war was lost. The others had already deserted, or at least enough to make a dent in the fighting forces, because even if the leaders stayed, you can't fight a war from a control room alone.

Go back.

He shook his head. Not possible. He'd already deserted. Luke would have found his things already, and they would know he was disloyal. They would know what had gone through his mind. He would not be trusted, or welcome. And they might be dead by now.

Then find the Empire. Kneel before Lady Vader and swear allegiance. She always arranges for amnesty.

That wasn't possible either. He thought of his friends, of the people who had died for the Rebellion. He couldn't spit on their memory like that.

He lifted his head. A fine mist had settled on the inside of his goggles. He took them off thoughtfully, ignoring the blades of icy wind that sliced at his face. They belonged to the Rebellion. He shouldn't have taken them. He tossed them aside, and rode on.

Ten miles later, he tossed aside the parka as well.

The walkers were lined up on the horizon, tiny gray dots from here, but nearby they would be towering, lumbering monstrosities. Heavily armed and armored, but not hard to trip up if you could get past the laser blasts - lazy, overconfident predators.

In other words, standard Imperial technology.

Luke turned up his forward shielding. The base wouldn't stand long against the AT-ATs if they got there (slow-moving trumps stationary), but there was a pretty good shot at stopping at least half of them. "Wedge?"

"I'm here."

"You have a gunner?"

"Yeah. Jenson?"

Jenson's thin voice piped up. "Here. Something wrong with Dak?"

"Dak decided to skip the party," Luke said briefly.

"Dak! No, there must be some mistake!"

"Cut the chat, Jenson," Wedge said.

"Yeah. Right. Sure." But Luke could hear that Jenson wasn't all right. He wondered if the boy's X-wing would show up at the rendezvous point on autopilot, with a helmet and gloves in the seat.

No time to think about that now. "We have to scatter their firepower, Wedge. How many of us are there?"

"Twenty fighters, all told."

"How many with gunners?"


"Better than I thought." Luke turned his transmitter to universal, and spoke to the small group. "Pilots, fan out and put forward shields at maximum. We're going straight at them. And when we get there, we go for the legs."

There was general assent to the order. Most of them had gotten used to taking orders from Luke. Leia had gotten in the habit of giving her less pleasant orders through him, because (she claimed) he knew how to make them sound like suggestions.

"Gunners," he went on. "Be ready with cables when you get there, but right now, you need to work with your transmitters. Turn up the frequency until you start to get feedback... "

"Aw, come on... That'll hurt... we need to hear... "

"If we're getting feedback, so's the Empire. They'll get it on their bands. More important, their tracking system runs on sound as well as movement. If they're not looking straight at us" (and they never are, he thought with some satisfaction) "we can confuse them by throwing a lot of sound around. It'll bounce on the ice, too. Should have them chasing shadows. Use your comlinks for communication."

"Good thinking, Luke," Wedge said.

"Let's do it."

Luke took his place at the center of the fan, and decided to turn up his own transmitter frequency. It would be distracting, but he didn't have much choice.

Hoth flowed out beneath him. The walkers took shape, then loomed above him.

Then the shooting started.

The sound-shadows were working - at least marginally; the Empire was shooting between and behind the snowspeeders as often as at them - but the fire power was intense. A blast hit beside Luke, and a hot rain of melted snow blurred his vision. He spun it off.

His comlink beeped. "Skywalker."

"Jenson and I are going for the first one," Wedge said.

"Don't tell me about it. Do it."

Wedge's speeder suddenly shot across the snowfield ahead, cutting a straight line at the lead walker. Luke watched long enough to see Jenson release a cable that attached itself to the "knee" if the machine, then set about trying to figure out how he was going to take the next one without a gunner.

A blast came straight at him, and he dropped his strategic planning. Small crafts were emerging from the belly of one of the AT-ATs - they looked like land-bound TIE-fighters of some kind, small and agile, and piloted by real men, with eyes not easily duped by sound-shadows.

"Luke?" someone called into a comlink.

"I see them."

"What are they?"

"I don't know! But they're hostile. Keep low and keeping heading for the walkers. They'll have to shoot at their own stuff to get you there." One of the crafts - he decided to call them TIE speeders, for lack of a better term - spun at him, firing, and he had to bank the his snowspeeder sharply to avoid the blast. Where was the intelligence report on these things?

Probably sitting in an empty chair someplace, with someone's folded jumpsuit.

Still, it wasn't Imperial style. The Emperor had always built things bigger and bigger; it was always something you could count on.

Someone else at the top is making strategic decisions.

The thought was his own. He had no illusion of it belonging to an otherworldly visitor. But it was a true thought. He knew it in his bones as soon as it came to him. Not Lady Vader - she'd made it plain that she had little interest in what she referred to dismissively as "those matters," but maybe...

Another blast hit the wide steel fin that balanced the snowspeeder in the air, and Luke cursed himself. He didn't have time to figure out what these things implied about the structure of the Imperial hierarchy. He just needed to figure out how to get away from them.

He leaned the speeder into the turn forced by the hit, and swung in one-hundred-eighty degree turn to face his attackers. There were three of them. He could see white stormtrooper armor through the cockpit windows on two of them. The third seemed to be piloted by an officer.

A blast came from the one at Luke's far left, and kicked up a plume of snow and ice. The one at the center would have had a direct hit, except for the heavy shielding at front. Luke watched the laser dissipate against the energy field, knowing that it could have been his death. He fired back, more out of revulsion than any thought of hitting anything, and scored a hit on the fin of the TIE speeder that had shot him. It wasn't as well-shielded as a rebel craft, and an engine belched out black smoke.

Down to two.

But one was circling behind him, leaving him trapped.

He dove the speeder down toward the snow plain, hoping that they would fire at him and hit another target in the process. One fired (the officer, Luke thought), but nothing at all was hit. He tried to slip under the craft in front of him, but the fire was now steady, and they had him between them like a bead on a string.

A blast came at him, and he pushed the speeder up. To his horror, he was directly under the "head" of one of the walkers, and looking straight into its gun sight. If the Imperial gunner had been glancing out around the gun, Luke would have been dead. But apparently he was using readouts, and this close, the sensors didn't pick Luke up. He dove down again. This couldn't go on forever.

"I'm on it, Luke!" Wedge called through the comlink, and a moment later, the rebel speeder blasted through, and one of the TIE speeders fell into the snow, trailing fire.

"Thanks, Wedge. Go for the walker. There are more inside. I can handle the last one."

"On it."

Luke turned to face the other TIE speeder, which was retreating rapidly. He chased it almost to the battle line, then it veered toward the slight rise that led to the ice cliffs. Luke aimed, steadied his gun...

Then felt a surge of dizzy unreality wash over him. He looked up to the sky, something there pulling at his mind like a leash. The battle disappeared suddenly, and the only thing he could think of was Aunt Beru. She was making dinner, and he was late, and she would be very worried. He had to go home.

He clenched his teeth. Stop it. Home is gone. Dead is where you're going to be if -

The speeder rocked as another blast hit it, striking the control fin again. This time, Luke was going faster, and the machine bucked out of his control. He had never in his life lost control of a vehicle he was flying, and he didn't realize what was happening until it was too late to gain it back.

He did the best he could, easing the fighter down into the snow. He popped the cockpit and got out, grabbing a bag of gear, before it could turn into a target.

The main battle line was coming toward him - how far across the horizon did these walkers stretch? - but it would be a good five minutes before it reached him. The TIE speeder turned toward him aggressively, and he had time to see that it was the one piloted by the officer before it started firing at him.

Not knowing what else to do, he drew his lightsaber and ignited it, hoping that it had the energy to deflect this much power. The first blast hit, almost numbing his wrists with the force of it, then the second. He saw his lightsaber moving, but it had become a part of him, and he had become a part of the Force (he hoped), and it didn't feel like he was doing anything consciously at all.

The fourth blast bounced back at the TIE speeder, knocking it off course. Luke sliced at its engines as it went by, and he had time to register it going down toward the ice cliffs before the shadow of the AT-AT walker fell over him. There was a great crash of steel on steel as it stepped on his disabled snowspeeder and crushed it into scrap metal.

Luke looked over his shoulder. They were too close to the base. They wouldn't be able to stop half the walkers. Only two lay smoking on the tundra. The other Rebel snowspeeders were engaged with their Imperial counterparts. From the distance, Luke could see only Rebel crafts even trying to attack the walkers. He couldn't tell who they were.

He knew it wouldn't make a difference in the end. How could it? But he had to do something, had to stop at least some of the troops from making it to the base. He rummaged in the gear he'd salvaged, and found the tow-line. There was also a standard grenade. He'd expected the latter; it was standard gear. The former was more than he could have hoped for. He took it, and aimed it at the walker's belly. The line leapt into the bright morning light.

A strange vision entered his mind, a vision of a high stone wall, and people in long coats, and a line fired into a ledge and he is/she is a little frightened of how high it really is here on the wall above the cliff but he/she can't let any of the others know because after all it is his/her palace...

The hook lodged in the metal of the walker, and Luke towed himself up. What was happening in his mind? What was making these visions come? First Ben, then... then everything. He wanted to get to Dagobah now, had to get there, because someone there would have answers.

He reached the end of the tow-line, and drew his lightsaber. There wouldn't be shielding here, at least not against this kind of assault. The metal sliced easily. He tossed the grenade in, hoping that he was somewhere near a navigational system rather than causing an ineffectual explosion in an empty storeroom. There was no help for it.

He released the cable, and let himself fall.

And fall.

And fall.

He didn't know how high the walkers were, and he was only vaguely aware of hitting the snow. He fell down, dazed.

The battle moved beyond him. The walker he'd sabotaged only made it fifty more yards.

Ozzel sat in the cockpit of the ridiculous leisure craft he'd been sent out in, cursing himself, General Veers, and both Vaders.

He was at the bottom of some sort of ice trench, and he certainly couldn't climb out of it. He would need to call for rescue. As if he hadn't swallowed enough humiliation for one week at their hands.

It would have been better to just die. He should never have begged for his life. Better to die proud than live in this wretched state.

He took out his blaster, thinking that it might be better than the comlink. To be beaten, not only by a rebel, but by some mere boy waving a...

He lowered the blaster.

A lightsaber.

A Jedi weapon. Or Lord Vader's.

The boy in the snow field must have gotten that thing and learned to use it somewhere.

The Jedi were supposed to be extinct. What few had remained after the Clone Wars had been rooted out of the holes they had hidden in and killed. They had been seditious from the start, a lying, sneaking fifth column that held too much power for the galaxy's good. And who had been charged with eliminating them?

Why, the Emperor's right hand man, of course. Lord Vader.

It all came back to Vader.

Ozzel could think of two scenarios that would get a rebel boy a lightsaber.

The first was the fact that a Jedi had lived and trained a successor. It made sense. A Jedi had given him the weapon, taught him to use it. Perhaps the Jedi were secretly gathering again, preparing for a strike against the Empire. Perhaps there were more rebels with these weapons.

The second possibility was infinitely more disturbing. The Jedi, after all, had been mostly eliminated once, and a good strike would wipe out any chance they had of returning. But there was also the possibility that the boy had gotten the lightsaber from the one person left in the galaxy who still carried one himself. From Lord Vader.

Either way, it came back to Vader. Either he had betrayed the Empire before by allowing the Jedi to live and thrive... or he was plotting betrayal now.

Ozzel put his blaster back in its holster, and tapped the homing beacon. He would be fully in order when they came to get him. He would ask to be taken to the medical frigate on a Star Destroyer other than the Executor, and from there, he would contact the Emperor.

For the first time since his humiliation on the bridge, Ozzel was certain that he had a reason to be alive.

The chair Amidala was sitting in faced a view that brought forth a brief wave of emotion in her heart as she beheld it, bringing back memories of a point in her life to which time’s passage had wrought a bittersweet mold.

The massive transparisteel viewport in the sleeping quarters of the Lady Vader offered one of the greatest interstellar vistas on the Executor, spanning a good part of the starboard bulkhead of her spacious sleeping room. It was one of the luxuries the Lord had bestowed on his wife, knowing she had years ago begun to share her husband’s love for the starry heavens, and that it was the closest thing she had to beholding a sight of natural beauty. She had grown up on a world full of lush life and color; now she and this room were the sole spot of color remaining from that world, transplanted into a harsh, gray environment, left to thrive almost on their own. The view she beheld now reminded her of a long-ago memory of that world; stark, gray lumbering ships poised against the back drop of the otherwise peaceful vista of a planet. Hoth looked almost nothing like her Naboo, but her mind couldn’t help but make the connection nonetheless.

Occasionally the tiny grayish form of a Rebel troop transport would shoot up from the planet, fleeing frantically past the blockade of Destroyers amid a flurry of green fire, much like a silvery Royal transport decades in the past had done.

Even now troops were clashing down there, their blood marring the once virgin white snow. She felt a degree of guilt at not feeling more remorse over those lost lives... she regretted every one of them - for all were fighting for a cause they believed in - but they didn’t have near the impact they would have had years ago. She prayed the blood of her own flesh and blood was not being spilled, and that was all she prayed for. That they would all live so she could touch them once more. Prisoners would be taken once the base was secured, and her husband would be going down there to oversee the process.

He had promised her he’d bring the twins back to her were he to find them. But Amidala more and more found her desire to go down to the frosty surface of the planet intensifying, the desire to see them. She found herself wondering just how effective Anakin would be, how much force he might potentially need to use in getting them to return (especially Leia) without her there...

Anakin would no doubt protest her assertions to accompany him to the planet. She knew of only one way to tell Anakin she was going with him.

Amidala leaned forward in her chair and lightly pressed her fingers against the cold viewport once more, as if to reach out and touch the cold, bleak sphere of the Rebel planet, hanging only a few thousand kilometers away. As if by doing this she could touch it, touch the people on it...

It would be the closest she had been to her children in nearly two decades. And she planned to get even closer, if she could help it.

The chair she was sitting in, a small plush reddish thing, was one of the few pieces of comfortable-looking furniture that existed in the spartanly furnished military quarters; most of them for the comfort of Amidala herself, as Ani’s suit precluded any real need for physical comfort. He had allowed her a certain degree of latitude in furnishing this room: it was her own to do with as she chose. He’d even conceded to a bit of retouching of the main room of the quarters itself, to make it feel more like a place that was their home instead of a place he simply stopped by when he was off duty. Right now he was probably on the bridge, in the center of action, as he always liked to be. She had wanted to be up there as well, should any new information on the children arrive, but Anakin had pointed out that a sudden appearance by her on the bridge now would only spark suspicion among those smart enough among the crew; certainly not something that was needed when so many eyes already were on them. It all came down to the heavy stakes that were their children’s lives...

Amidala was certain the notion of her wanting to go to the surface would have occurred to Anakin - after all it was their children they were going after - but she knew he’d not bring it up on his own. He'd avoid a confrontation on this matter with her if he could help it. She knew he feared for her safety in a potentially hostile environment, and would refuse it if she brought it up. She dearly appreciated his concern - there was no question they still loved each other, though it was comforting to be reminded - but her conscience wouldn't let her stay away willingly, knowing her babes were down there, so close to her...

She did have her own methods of persuading him. She just wasn't eager to use them against him, to circumvent his decisions. She had done it to an extent before, such as with the Trika 4 incident, and she remembered the rift that had existed between them (however briefly) afterwards, and had no desire to have something like that come between them now. Too much else already lay in that gap. But then, there hadn't been nearly as big a personal stake there as there remained here now.

She was going, there was no question of that.

Amidala had heard little about the battle. From her quarters she’d that seen a couple of transports had already made it through the blockade - at the cost of a crippled Star Destroyer - but that in itself provided very little information as to the situation on the surface. She was certain the twins still yet remained on the planet, however. After all, Leia was a central leader of the Alliance, and Luke was one of their best fighters... neither of them would run from the battle before they knew their use had ended, which would not be so until the still-ensuing battle had been ended.

Amidala felt a cold lump collect in her gut at the thought of her son. Luke was a good pilot, she knew (she'd been with Anakin when he'd first read the Intelligence reports of the identity of the pilot that had destroyed the Death Star); he would most certainly have been one of the ones the Rebellion would send out to meet their forces, but it also meant he probably had a better chance of survival than any Rebel flying out there. So surely he was fine... and certainly Anakin would tell her if he sensed anything had happened to Luke...

She closed her eyes against the thoughts, against the image of the white planet. Down there, on that world a battle was being waged, one that could mean the inevitable rebuilding of their family, or its permanent dissolution...

As always in the blackness, her mind began seeking refuge in a familiar, terrible haven. Memories...

(a finger, firm yet gentle, fingering a damp section of hair away from her cheek so he could look at her... a voice, deep and sensual when spoken in low heated tones, tickling pleasantly at the very ends of her nerves... )

"My Lady."

She sighed and opened her eyes and looked up at her reflection in the viewport just as the armor-clad figure of her husband materialized in it as well, striding through the entryway to her room, dissipating once more her bittersweet recollections.

For a moment she locked eyes with it, as always penetrating through the dark lenses to find the blue that was so long and so often hidden beneath them; the deep, soul-drowning blue that years of concealing behind lenses had not diminished in the slightest. As always when he and his intense presence were near she felt that terrible desire to be with him...

But she shunted it away, even now ashamed of her weakness. (What would Leia think, were she to know of this? )That hadn't happened in decades, a brief glance at the suddenly annoying bed blatantly reminded her, and not even Gungan shield technology could ever allow it to truly happen again.

She smiled weakly and walked towards him, stopping directly in front of him and turning to face the viewport again. Amidala took the monstrous gauntlet of his right hand and placed it on her shoulder; he made no move to remove it, but let it rest there with a tenderness anyone but she might have been surprised at. It had taken her time to become accustomed to his touch; knowing it was him, but still the hand of a machine touching her... but despite the lack of flesh somehow he still managed to come through, the gentleness that had been unmistakably that of the man who had permanently branded himself on her... she reached up and laid her hand on his. He placed his other hand on her left shoulder. It was the hand that still contained a last few mangled remnants of flesh, and Amidala almost fancied she could feel echoes of a long-extinguished warmth in its contact, even through the leather glove.

"What is the situation down there?" she began, her eyes still fixed on the reflection. An odd sight the two of them made; the fearsome, mechanical leviathan and the diminutive, red-clad nymph, the background of the starry void passing through them. (A novice might have made the comparison of them being as unalike as night and day... but it was more like midnight and sunrise, she thought: one coming in subtly behind the other, warming its chill with the barest touches of warmth and light... )

"The Rebel force has mounted a credible resistance to our forces, but the destruction of their shield is imminent," he continued, as Amidala lightly moved her left thumb in circles around the fabric of the back of the glove, caressing it. "I will depart for the surface the moment it is confirmed."

Amidala said nothing, only waited in silence a moment. He mirrored her silence (except for the involuntary breathing of his respirator) and by the sudden thickness in it she knew well why; he knew what she was waiting for him to do. For a little while she just stood there focusing her thoughts on the forever unaltering metronome of his breathing, allowing it to serve as a guide for them to flow along in an equally calm manner, enough so that she could say what she knew she was going to say.

"I’m going with you," she said, dispatching any preamble.

She could almost sense the intensifying in his foreboding nature; he removed his hands from her shoulders and she turned to face him, looking upward into his face mask.

"The Rebels will likely be hostile and not take kindly to our arrival, love," he told her, the reluctance faintly evident in his tone. "I will not allow those under me to unnecessarily endanger themselves in such an environment."

"But I’m not one of your troops, Lord," she replied, her veils swaying slightly as she shook her head. "I am your wife."

"And as such it is still my responsibility to ensure your well-being."

"And as my husband, is it not the same for me?" she shot back quickly.

"It is in my duty to willingly risk my life for the Empire. And you would be in a far more vulnerable position than mine would be. Any endangering to your life is a risk I am unwilling to take, my love."

"I’m afraid it isn’t your risk to take. I’m not so fragile, love. It is not as if I am unskilled and defenseless, you will remember." Even when he had first known her she had been anything but. Gentle and kind almost to a fault, yes, but not fragile and defenseless.

"I do not consider this cause worthy enough to risk losing you," he told her, looking away from her out the viewport.

Even for our children?

She took his hand again and held it to her face. "Come now. I’d be with you the whole time. Surrounded by you and however many garrisons you think you might need. It would be foolish to take such an inflammatory strike towards the second in command of the Empire with him and his well-known powers so close by."

She had a point. Who better to guard the Lady Vader than the great cunning warrior, her husband himself, with his widely-feared powers and fiercely intense loyalty to his wife? The moment anyone even thought of taking a strike at her, he would act.

"You may well need me if you ever want to persuade them," she pointed out. "I may be able to coax them to our side willingly, and I would think it would be in the Empire’s best public interests at this point to attempt to do so with minimal bloodshed." Them could only mean one thing to either of the couple.

"Assuming you will have any influence left at all," Anakin reminded her coolly. "You may have been the woman she remembers, but that is not who she will see when you stand before her."

An imaginary vibroblade sent a cold stab through Amidala’s chest. She and Anakin had discussed the notion that Leia would be none too happy to be reunited, particularly once she discovered her ties to Anakin; even worse, her mother's own willing consorting with that very figure and the symbol he embodied which was completely polar to what she embodied. Luke might be willing, even eager, to see her, as he had no memory of his mother that Leia had, but Leia...

I will still be a traitor in her eyes.

Possibly the greatest pain a mother could endure was that of being spurned by the being she'd borne from her from her own flesh, by her own tears and sweat. And yet Amidala found she was willing to endure it, if it meant even only a brief contact with her babies again. Even if they weren’t babies anymore.

"You wouldn’t deny me the right to at least see them, would you? After all that’s happened?"

One of his hands clenched just noticeably, and she was almost sorry she’d said it. She knew he hadn’t forgotten all the trouble and loss he’d inflicted on her in her life, and having it thrown right back at him could be none too comfortable. She didn’t like using his guilt against him this way, but for him it was a relatively small price in the scheme of things. So much in her life had been lost because of choices he had made, and were he to fail in bringing them back now - he would cost her even more.

"You once told me you would not presume to deny me anything unreasonable so long as I was happy in the end," she went on. Those words he had spoken to her before his transformation, and so much was different now from then... but the love that was the foundation of that promise still yet remained. So many promises he had broken to her, and he would have no desire to break yet another... "I do not consider this to be an utterly unreasonable request, my Lord." She pinned her eyes on his, trying not to let her sympathy for the pain in the blue hidden underneath quell her resolve.

The fire in her eyes and words brooked no room for discussion. Anakin knew when he had lost a battle, but was always reluctant to admit it. He’d never been able to argue with her on any point for long. He continued to stare in silence out the viewport and she knew she’d won, even before he spoke again.

"Very well. You will accompany me. But," he said, turning back to her, raising a finger. "You do not leave my side. Not for anything."

She smiled, wrapping herself in the folds of her scarlet robes. "I wouldn’t have it be any other way, my love."

Just then, the communicator on his wrist beeped.

They were down to three.

One technician, a young woman Leia didn't know, sat listening to Imperial communications. General Rieekan was scrambling back and forth among the monitors, shouting ineffectual orders at pilots who had no choice but to fly reactively as they shot into orbit, diving away from Imperial fire.

At least they hadn't lost any transports.


"We have to send them out two at a time," Leia said.

Rieekan shook his head. "No."

"We have no choice. There are still five transports in the hangar. We'll never get everyone off if... "

Rieekan took her shoulders. "Your Highness, we only need one more."

This didn't sink in right away, and when it did, it should have brought relief, but instead, it made Leia want to scream. Each transport held fifty people. That meant that there were at least two hundred fewer people here than there had been when they'd arrived. Instead of screaming, she pressed her lips together, then pushed out a breath in a sharp, plosive sound that seemed very, very loud. "Fine. Just fine."

She could feel the rage beneath her breastbone, a physical thing, a sharp-cornered cage with a small, carnivorous creature beating at the bars. It set her nerves on edge, sending waves of blinding energy through her body, energy that she didn't know what to do with.

Except for her hands. Her hands knew. Hitting and firing a blaster weren't enough for them. They wanted to crush, to tear, to gouge. She felt it as an unbearable itch in her palms.

(the more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers)

Her words echoed back to her and mocked her. She had fought herself until she was weary to the bone to keep from tightening her grip, to beat her demons and not become the enemy she fought... the enemy in her blood. But they were slipping through her fingers anyway. Each day she would come, and a face she expected wouldn't be there, and the creature in the cage would lean through its sharp little teeth and gnaw at her heart until she thought she might go mad. Didn't it matter to anyone else? Didn't it matter at all?

It matters. Hold on, because it matters immensely.

The voice was an external thing, a soft, lilting man's voice with a cultured Coruscant accent. She had only heard it on old newsvids, but she thought she recognized it. For some reason, she had begun to speak to herself in General Kenobi's voice.

Perfect. Just perfect. Like it wasn't crazy enough before.

The floor rocked, and a fine veil of snow slipped down from the ceiling.

The Empire was approaching.

Han wasn't sure if he was annoyed at Chewie for making mistakes, or if Chewie was making mistakes because Han had been short-tempered with him ever since the Falcon had started being uncooperative.

Probably the latter. Almost definitely.

So, I won't yell at Chewie anymore.

Something sparked, and Han pushed away from the lifter he was working on. "Hey, no! That one goes over there!"

Chewie growled, low in his throat. It wasn't anything that could be translated into Standard, but the message was clear: Get out of my hair.

Han threw his hands in the air in frustration, and stalked off.

Something hit the base, hard enough to shake snow off the ceiling, and Han immediately forgot about the Falcon, about Chewie, and about who was to blame for what. He was across the hangar in three strides, and headed for the command center.

He knew perfectly well that Leia wouldn't have left yet, and if no one took the trouble to actually put her on a transport - and strap her in if necessary - she'd wait here for Vader to show up, just for the chance to take a pot shot at him.

By the time he got to the command center, it was a wreck. Snowspills had left drifts across smoking and sparking computers, and monitors lay in shards across the floor. Only Rieekan and Leia were left at their posts.

Well, Rieekan, Leia, and Threepio, who never seemed to leave Leia's side when he could help it. Taking Leia would mean taking Threepio, because - despite her frequent annoyance - Leia would jump in front of a blaster to save the irritating droid. Go figure.

Another blast shook the room, and a snowslide dusted Leia's shoulders. She jumped to one side in surprise, and slid on the cluttered floor. Han caught her. "You all right?"

"Why are you still here?"

Good damned question, Han thought, but tried not to snap it at her. "Looked like the command center got hit."

She blinked rapidly, and waved him off with a brief chop of her hand. "You got your clearance. You should have already left. With everyone else."

To hell with you, then. I'll turn around, leave, and never look back. "I'll go as soon as I get you to that transport."

Threepio clattered across to them. "Your Highness, we must leave. It's the last transport."

She turned irritably to Rieekan. "General... "

"I have my own X-wing to get off-planet, Your Highness. You need to go."

Her brows drew in on each other, and Han could see how tightly her fists were clenched, even under the thick gloves. Her hand hovered at her side for a moment, then she grabbed her blaster decisively and drew it.

"Leia, what do you think you're -"

She turned the blaster on the main computer, and melted the circuits across the panel, then turned to the backup.

Rieekan was standing in front of it. He looked at her once, and didn't bother to argue before stepping away.

Leia blasted the backup computer. The command center was now a total loss. She looked around the room disdainfully. "But they won't get our records," she said. "Not a chance."

A tremendous shock hit the building, and part of the ceiling caved in. A warning alarm went off at the East entrance, and was suddenly and completely broken off.

"We're going," Han said, and took her elbow. He was maybe the only one who would dare grab her when she was in a mood like this; even Luke would have kept his distance. "Now."

He led her toward the door. She looked back over her shoulder. "Send out the evacuation code signal to whoever is left. And get out of here, General!"

"Come on!"

"Wait for me!" Threepio wailed behind them. "Please!"

Han didn't wait, but didn't need to. He could hear Threepio clacking and complaining only a few yards behind him as he made his way to the south hangar, from which the transports were taking off. Leia shook herself free of his hold on her elbow, but that was all right. She was running with him now.

Another blast hit, rocking the ice corridor. They were inside the base now, and every hit sent shivers of heat and pressure through the structure. A huge chunk of the ceiling shook loose; Han skidded to a stop and pulled Leia back before it could fall on him. He only had time to reach over her and shield her before the avalanche of snow and smaller shards fell after it. He could feel the debris pelting his jacket, and he had a fleeting moment to curse himself for an idiot. He could have been out of here yesterday. Or the day before. Or months ago. He could have gotten out before they blew the Death Star.

There's a reason you never wanted to be a hero and this is it, old buddy. Getting buried in ice until the Empire finds you ain't going to be a pleasant way to go.

Then the ice stopped falling, and there was only a dusting on his back. The main part of the cave-in was a meter ahead of them. Broken ice blocked the corridor from floor to the place where the ceiling had once been. No way he was going to get her over that and get back to the Falcon before the Empire showed up.

He raised the comlink on his wrist. "This is Solo," he said, turning around and heading toward the north hangar. "Take off. We're blocked. I'll get her out on the Falcon."

Leia started to say something, for once thought better of it, and followed him. They nearly ran down Threepio, who was making his way laboriously across the debris. Han heard him wail, "Where are you going?" but didn't answer. Threepio had enough logic circuits somewhere in his processors to figure it out.

As they ran, they could hear the Imperial troops coming in. Sounds carried around the place in a strange and confusing way. The clack-click of stormtroopers' feet seemed to be following them along the ceilings, and the blaster fire in the north hangar sounded like it was coming from the walls around them.

Then the other sound.

He couldn't tell where it was any more than he could tell where the others were. It was faint. It came through twice, disappeared, came through again. Hiss-shush. Hiss-shush.



Not that Han was more bothered by Vader than by a legion of stormtroopers - he'd heard that Vader had some not-exactly-standard abilities, but he figured that was probably just Imperial propaganda. It was Leia. She'd -

She was headed back toward the icefall, blaster raised. "Get back here!" he yelled, hoping that the echoes would confuse the Empire, too. "Leia!"

... ei. . a... ei... a...

The echo bounced through the corridor and Leia turned on him in fury. "Nice going."

"We're getting to the ship."

"Yes, Your Highness... " Threepio started.

"I've got a shot at Vader."

"Your Highness, this is madness!"

Han didn't much like taking Threepio's side, but dammit, this was crazy. "You've got a wall of ice and a bunch of stormtroopers on the other side of it."

She stood between Han and the icefall, and he could almost see strings tugging her in different ways. Finally, she put her blaster back in her belt. "Fine." She ran back toward him, and they got to the hangar door at last. Han keyed it open and shooed Threepio through. Chewie roared a reprimand for making him wait.

"Get her started!" Han yelled, then looked behind him. "Your Worship!"

Leia was standing in the door again, eyes boring down the corridor.

"You can't do it, Leia."

She shook her head and shot her blaster aimlessly at the wall. It caved.

"Good. Fine. Get on the ship."

She nodded impatiently, and pushed past him. He watched her running up the gangplank, a tiny figure in white with a crown of dark braids, and wondered why the hell he cared.

Leia resisted the urge to scream over her shoulder, Tell her she's nothing to me!

She didn't want to explain it to Han, and she didn't want to take the chance that they were right nearby. She didn't want Han and Chewie paying for her little family drama.

Besides, risking death to yell something nasty to her mother wasn't a very good way of proving how inconsequential she was. Her mind was beginning to cool with the flight. It didn't leave time for aimless anger.

She passed Threepio in the corridor of the Falcon, where he was staring at a flashing light and whistling something.

Chewie was in the cockpit, and Leia didn't need to understand Wookiee to know that the Falcon wasn't in any shape to outrun the Empire. Han brushed past her without a look

(Hey, I'm HERE!)

and took his place at the control panel. She followed and looked over his shoulder, though the ship's systems were such a mixed bag that she almost never knew what she was looking at.

Han started flipping switches. "How's this?" he yelled to Chewie.

Chewie shook his head and barked at length.

Another bank of switches. "This?"

Same reply.

Suddenly, it was too much. All this, and they'd be trapped in this tin can of a ship, waiting for the Empire to pick them off one at a time. Oh, except me. No, they won't kill me. They'll bring me to my adoring parents. But she was too busy to feel rage or fear. It was just annoyance. "Would it help if I got out and pushed?"

Han, unbelievably, flashed her a grin. "It might."

"Captain Solo?" Threepio's voice was less tentative than usual. "Sir, might I suggest that... "

Han punched the control panel (it lit up, miraculously), and gave Threepio a withering look. Chewie ran off toward another part of the ship.

"It can wait," Threepio said.

Leia glanced at the droid, wondering what had prompted him to interrupt Han in this sort of mood. It wasn't normal. She wished she could say that Threepio would never interrupt if it wasn't something of vital importance, but...

Han turned and went into the cockpit. Leia followed. Threepio clicked along behind, fretting to himself in a language Leia didn't know, though she did catch the occasional, "Oh dear, oh dear."

Leia dismissed him from her mind. "This bucket of bolts is never going to get us past that blockade."

"This baby's got a few surprises left in her, sweetheart." Han dropped himself into the pilot's seat.

Leia started to argue, but the ship rocked suddenly, and snow slumped across the viewport. Leia's eyes went to the closed hangar door. It was glowing... and then it wasn't there any more. Stormtroopers began to flow in.

A blast came from one of the Falcon's turret guns, scattering the squad and burning the large cannon they'd been hurrying to assemble. Chewie appeared in the cockpit and took the co-pilot's seat.

"Come on!" Han yelled. "Switch over, and let's hope we don't have a burnout."

A laser blast hit the shielding and exploded before Leia's eyes. She looked down at Han's hands, working the switches on the panel, and prayed, Don't let him lose this bet.

The engines hummed, fired, came to life. The Falcon lifted. Han flashed a grin at her. "See?"

"Someday you're going to be wrong - " Leia started, planning to finish with a sarcastic comment that she didn't really mean, but then the back wall of the hangar fell in, and a phalanx of stormtroopers pushed inside, something large and black following them. As the ice walls sped away, Leia saw something that dried up all her words, might dry them up for a long time.

Maybe she was wrong.

She had to be. After all,

(you worry about me far too much my love)

he wouldn't allow it.

But she could have sworn, in the last moment before the Falcon left the world of white to soar into the black skies above, that she saw a flash of the deep scarlet that marked the line between them.

"Wait here," was the command. "Once the base is secure, I will notify you." The stormtroopers that flanked her gave nods of assent. His head turned to her ever so slightly, but Amidala didn’t acknowledge it in any way. He would never bring their argument out in the open, so his hands were tied. Once he walked off the ship, she was going to follow him. She knew that the group assigned to protect her wouldn’t dare try to stop her. So they would all head into the base together, whether he liked it or not.

The door rose, blowing in a blast of frigid air and ice. Amidala winced against it, her thin red veils providing little defense. Her husband had almost laughed when she refused to change into something warmer. But these gauzy dresses and coverings were all her children really knew of her, and this was how she meant to face them. Whether or not the familiarity would be a help or a harm was a question she had refused to consider too closely.

Anakin strode purposefully down the ramp, and marched through a door that several troopers had just blasted through. After a calculated pause, she followed.

She could almost feel her guards' surprise, mixed with a touch of horror... Vader would probably be angry with them for ignoring his orders to wait. But no one wanted to be the one to run and grab her, as that probably wouldn't sit well with him either.

Good, let them be confused. It would make it easier for her to catch up.

"My Lady?" a brave soldier ventured. She didn't even pause, stepping high over the rubble and into the base.

She found herself in a cavernous hallway that seemed to stretch and echo endlessly before her. Anakin and his stormtroopers were almost at the end of it; behind her, her troops were scrambling out of the ship to stay by her side. She took a deep breath that chilled her to the core, and determinedly followed her husband.

Vader's pace increased steadily as they made their way through winding passages to the hangar. He knew she was behind him - he was surprised she had waited at all to ignore his warnings. Perhaps he should have stopped and waited for her, to ensure she didn’t get into any serious trouble... but he didn't sense any danger. The Rebels were all but gone now. And what he could sense made it imperative that he hurry, even if it meant leaving her behind.

The children were about to leave.

A strong, almost magnetic Force-presence called out to him. There was no one else that it could be. They were both here. They were both near-by. And they both were trying to figure out how to get off this planet.

He felt nothing more specific than that, but he didn't need to. He could not allow them to escape. He would not fail Amidala again.

His own emotions about the children were worried and ambivalent - he needed them, but knew they would despise him; was thrilled at the thought of being reunited with them, but worried at what he might be required to do if they refused to join him. But Amidala's feelings, as na´ve as they might be, were clear and simple and unrelenting. She needed her children. And that was the end of it.

Another set of blasters rang out, another hole opened up. Vader stepped into the hangar and found a sole transport preparing to leave. It had to be the last one left - the battle was already over, and they had taken an extreme risk of getting caught by waiting this long. On any other day, they would have all been taken prisoner. But Vader was certain that the children weren't on the ship, so he continued to walk past it, ignoring the confusion of his men, who had begun firing on it.

Amidala also slipped past them, and was now directly behind him. He didn't say anything to her; he didn’t need to. They both knew that any ship still here would be waiting for the last of the Rebel leaders. With this ship gone, the twins would not be able to escape the base.

Amidala finally reached her husband's side at the far end of the hangar. In her thoughts, she knew that she was starting to get carried away, but she didn't care. She had earned it.

She could see Leia's face in her mind perfectly. Her daughter's status as a monarch and a Senator meant there were many holo-images to be had, and Amidala couldn't get enough of them - already adoring the beautiful, mature woman her Leia had grown into.

And Luke... well, his face was harder to conjure up. All she had was a blurry picture or two from Imperial spies. Anakin had tried to show her what he had seen of Luke - a quick glimpse, then the doors closing as Luke fled the Death Star. That had never been close to enough.

Amidala snapped out of her reverie, wondering why they were still standing there. Then she realized that neither of them had a blaster. Annoyance shook her to her core, then a few of the soldiers, realizing that the Vaders showed no interest in the transport, left the small battle and hurried to catch up. Finally, someone shot at the door.

Nothing happened. This door was apparently reinforced.

Three troopers quickly lined up, and fired in unison. The blast seemed to rock the entire hangar for a moment - she felt Anakin reach out briefly to steady her - and then a dusty haze of snow seemed to be everywhere. She peered through it, noticing that the door had been destroyed, but part of the hallway just beyond it had completely collapsed.

The troops recovered and lifted their guns to fire again, but Vader raised a hand to stop them. As the rest of the troopers continued their fight with the now damaged transport, he simply stood there, silent.

And then she heard it, clear and ringing, despite the commotion behind them in the hangar.


"... ei... a... ei... a... "

Her heart leapt into her throat. She reached out to touch the wall of ice that separated them, and whispered, "Leia?"

Her husband took her by the shoulder, and gently but firmly moved her aside. After a curt signal, another larger blast rocked the hangar. And another. And finally, the hallway was free.

And empty.

Vader led the final charge down the hallway that connected the two main hangars, with Amidala nearly matching him stride for stride.

He was so focused on getting to Leia that he almost didn't see a blaster shot fly down the hallway, hitting the side wall meters ahead of them. He quickly moved to shield Amidala, but she was already brushing him off, impatient to get through this latest cave-in and keep going. He was starting to wish that he had brought a blaster of his own, though he never carried one. Waiting for the stormtroopers to react was maddening.

Another blast. Another short run to a sealed door. The sound of a ship gearing for take-off.

"This ship must be stopped," Vader barked as they went to work on the hangar door. He wanted no confusion after letting the transport escape. "All prisoners are to be taken alive."

The door disintegrated, and Vader immediately felt his words were in vain. As they entered firing, the ship came fully to life, and flew out of the hangar.

Amidala knew the feeling too well. She resigned herself to it.

It was the feeling of her heart and soul being forcibly wrenched from her. As her children left Hoth, that was all she was left with. Anguish. Again.

She didn’t think she could take it... but just as she thought she was about to go numb, she felt something. A weight on her shoulder.

She turned, and was stunned to see her husband's hand resting there, reassuringly. For him, it was an outrageous breach of the protocol they had established - comforting her, even in this small way, in front of his subordinates. Such a little thing, but it was enough to pull her out of the despair she was prepared to throw herself into at the thought of losing her children again.

She smiled, and hoped that he could somehow see it, even with the veils.

He gave a final squeeze, then turned to the troops and began snapping orders to them, and then on his comlink to the fleet. All available resources - Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, everything - were to disable and capture the Millennium Falcon, and bring the passengers directly to him.

Yes, they can still be captured. She hadn't lost them yet. They wouldn't be able to get past the fleet.

That is what she told herself all the way back to the Imperial transport. For her, at this point, there were no other possibilities.

Part 2

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