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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.


by Alderaan21 ami-padme, and FernWithy/JediGaladriel

Part Two

Ozzel waited impatiently while the surgeon droid on board the Iron Will examined him for injuries and hypothermia. None would be found. Ozzel had protected himself quite assiduously after his crash on the surface. He had a reason to make sure he survived.

Your Highness, I bring you grave news, but it is, perhaps, not too late to act.

He successfully controlled the urge to smile as he imagined the Emperor's gratitude. That wouldn't do at all. He would need to appear sober and troubled by this.

As, of course, he was.

The danger to the Empire loomed much larger than his delight at the thought of Lord and Lady Vader, stripped of their authority (and possibly of their ludicrous costumes), being humiliated before all the galaxy, driven through the market square on Coruscant in their shame, no longer pristine and untouchable.

No, the danger to the Empire was Ozzel's real concern, of course. The rest was just a pleasant side effect.

He had expected some difficulty with being brought to the Iron Will rather than the Executor, but the worry had been baseless. He'd simply been picked up by the medical crew with the rest of the relatively undamaged field soldiers. They hadn't been able to provide him with officer's quarters on the transport, but it was a small indignity compared to the ones he'd already suffered. He'd just been glad not to be forced to offer an explanation. As a bonus, the commander of the Iron Will was a captain who would never, even in his most terrifying nightmares, contradict an admiral's order.

Your Highness, I bring you grave -

The lights snapped up to high, and the droid retracted its sensor arm. "You are unharmed, Admiral," it said. "You are cleared for duty."

Ozzel put on his uniform and straightened it as well as he could. He did not have a dress uniform here, but sometimes, when the situation called for it, such matters of protocol could be temporarily suspended. This, he thought, was one of those times.

He strode to the bridge. "Captain Sequi?"

"Yes, Admiral, Sir?" The captain turned to him, nose twitching slightly. "Are you well?"

"I've been cleared for duty, and must contact Coruscant immediately." For good measure, he added, "You, of course, will retain command of the vessel, unless a time arises when it becomes necessary for me to have direct authority."

"Yes, Sir."

"I'll require a private place for my communication, Captain."

"Oh, yes. Of course, Sir. I'll show you to my quarters." He looked over his shoulder. "You, Lieutenant, have command until I return."

He led Ozzel up a short flight of stairs and across a narrow hallway. The location of the commanding officer's quarters never changed from Star Destroyer to Star Destroyer, and Ozzel had hardly needed the guidance, just the entrance code, which Sequi keyed in with shaking fingers. "I do apologize," he said. "There was some confusion before the battle, and I'm afraid there is... a bit of disarray."

Ozzel went into the small room. It was hardly a disaster by civilian standards, but it was certainly unkempt by the standards of the Imperial Navy. "Unacceptable, Captain," he said, "but I have neither the time nor the inclination to reprimand you for it."

"Thank you, Sir."

"Return to the bridge."

"Yes, Sir."

Sequi left the room, and Ozzel turned on the communications equipment absently, mentally preparing himself for his first conversation with the Emperor.

Your Highness, I bring you -

Someone appeared over the projector, a housemaster of some sort. Ozzel glanced at him disdainfully. "I must speak with the Emperor," he said, keying in his identification. "It is both classified and of great importance."

"The Emperor chooses to whom he will speak."

Ozzel immediately realized his mistake, and dropped to his knees. "I am a supplicant," he said, following the rote introduction that every officer learned at the Academy, in case such an occasion should arise. "I beg forgiveness for the intrusion, but have urgent need to confer with the Emperor, and obtain his wise counsel."

The housemaster sniffed, and the display went dark for a moment.

Ozzel could hear his heart. It seemed to be in his sinuses. His vision was a little blurry.

The projector came back on, and this time there was no mistaking the figure. Small and bent with years and wisdom, pale white hand grasping a walking stick... oh, but he didn't look good. What would the galaxy do if this frailty were to take him away?

"What do you want?"

Ozzel blinked. The voice was hard and sneering.

"Your Highness? I... "

"Yes, Admiral?"

"I... I come here... I mean, I come to you with... grave news. But maybe we can... I mean, perhaps it isn't too late to act."

The Emperor raised his head slowly, and Ozzel stared into the hologram that represented the action. The eyes were deep, endless shadows, and suddenly Ozzel felt as if ice crystals were forming around the hairs in on his neck. Let me out of here! his mind screamed. Let me not look at him anymore!

The Emperor smiled, revealing pinkish teeth. "You find this uncomfortable, do you not, Admiral?"

There was no point in denying it. "Yes, Your Highness."

"Good. It is well that you are uncomfortable. Do you really believe you have news of which I am unaware?"

It came out quickly and forcefully. "I believe Lord and Lady Vader are plotting against you."

"Yes. Of course they are."

Ozzel's head snapped up. "You... know?"

"Yes. It has been so for many years. I also know they have a son, whom they are seeking."

A son? Ozzel pondered. A son? They have... "You are wise and aware of many things, Your Highness."

"Yes. I am. Have you any other news?"

Ozzel considered his approach carefully. "You say they have been plotting for many years."

"Yes. I do not require you to tell me what I have said."

"I believe that their plans are coming close to actualization. I believe they have developed ties to the Rebellion. And I know that Lord Vader has surrounded himself on board the Executor with those whose allegiance to you is, shall we say, open to question."

"I see. And what has brought you to this conclusion?"

"A boy on the planet where we just fought. Now that you have mentioned a son, clearly, it must be... "

"In what way is it clear?"

"He had a lightsaber. And someone has been training him to use it."

There was silence, and when the Emperor spoke again, his voice was thoughtful. "No... I do not believe that Vader could have trained the boy without my notice. But if he is wielding such a weapon, then you have brought me useful news."

Ozzel relaxed, not having realized how tight and tense he'd been getting. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

"And this question of disloyal officers on board the Executor. You believe they would follow Vader?"

"I believe there are enough loyal to him to commandeer the ship, should he choose to do so. Many are loyal to... to the woman. I don't wish to be vulgar, but I suspect she wields something of an unhealthy attraction for them. Certainly that is true of the Executor's new commanding officer, Piett."

"Then you have been removed from its command?"


"That is certainly grave news to you. I give you the Iron Will."

Ozzel sat back, stunned. "Your Majesty, I am grateful. Would you have me command the Fleet to attack the Executor?"

"No. Vader is still useful to me. He will find his way to his son. Once he does, I will deal with both of them. Meanwhile, Admiral... be prepared to strike, if Vader makes a direct move. I'll not have Vader or his woman undermine my authority."

"Of course not, Your Majesty."

"Be on your guard, Admiral Ozzel."

"As you wish."

He opened his eyes to solid whiteness, and groaned inwardly.

The same hand of fate slaps me twice.

He blinked his eyes against the white wall of snow, which covered his face - or, more accurately, he covered it - then becoming aware he was actually lying down in it.

Luke slowly lifted his face up from the imprint it had made in the hard, cold snow - the sudden burst of chill wind on his not-completely-covered, wet face cut him like a knife, causing him to inhale sharply.

The stench of burning wreckage - and the even sicklier sweet stench of what he knew to be burned flesh - came in just as sharply into his nose, causing his stomach to churn unpleasantly. It was a keen reminder of what had just transpired.

(It all brought forth flashes of a turning point in his life, though not one of the happier ones, and the only memory of his that was anything in comparison to this: beholding the smoldering ruins of his boyhood homestead on Tatooine, the grisly remains of the people he'd called aunt and uncle... )

At that moment he had sworn to himself that the Empire had a lot to answer for... now, as he saw the massive debris field of fragmented ships and bodies all around him, extending almost to the small ridge of mountains in the near distance, the reminder of so much lost, in battleground as well as in friends - he renewed that vow.

The Imperial battle line had moved past; the huge forms of the remaining walkers silhouetted gray against a somewhat lighter gray horizon, now unimpeded: there were no rebel ships remaining to challenge them, having either been destroyed or retreated. Small in comparison, he saw the standing row of half-circles in the snow that was the main shield generator, not far away...

And then they weren't there at all.

Luke dove his face back down and dug himself deeper into the snow, feeling that familiar warning tickle in his mind once more just as the lead walker fired on the generator. The resulting blast was over half a kilometer away, but even so tiny fragments of shield generator landed around him, hot metal sizzling in the snow near him and singing small parts of his parka. (He became acutely appreciative of the pilot's helmet he was wearing; metal shards digging into his scalp wouldn't exactly have been appreciated at that moment.)The orange mushroom cloud shot up into the sky, sending sparks out in a radius across the horizon, their deadly trails stretching out away from the central fireball, making it look like an exploded sunset.

Under extremely different circumstances, Luke might have appreciated the deadly beauty of it. Now he only tightened his jaw in mild anger, knowing that it was the killing blow in this battle. Not that they'd expected to win, of course, but - one hardly appreciated the defeat of your cause smacking you in the face with its white-hot shards.

When the momentary firestorm had subsided, Luke lifted his somewhat dampened form from the ground and turned his gaze towards the thick column of black smoke twisting its way into the heavens, looking for all the world like a huge gnarled finger,

(twisting up from the ruins of the homestead... )

the walkers suddenly insignificant next to it. Soon they would be discharging troops, to claim the base, and capture or kill any Rebels unfortunate enough to have been left behind.

He had no desire to remain here.

He was alone on the battlefield, he saw: anyone else was either already dead or had gotten the hell out of here a long time ago. As he began trudging his way through the snow he passed the blackened hulk of a snowspeeder, the pilot nowhere in sight - probably somewhere in the remains of the ship - and briefly hoped Wedge and Hobbie had made it away from the battle safely.

The stench of burning wreckage - and the sickly sweet odor he knew all too well to be that of charred flesh - was all around him, cutting a queasy sensation in his gut. The dead were his only company.

I'd rather this time not be judged by the company I keep...

Han had probably made it out before the battle had started. But Leia, she would have been in command, right in the very heart of the base...

Luke saw a familiar rise some distance to the west of the generator. Over that rise, he remembered, was the entrance to the base, and some distance across the flat plain, he'd been told, was where the last starfighters were to be prepped for departure. But should he go there now, if Leia was still in the base...

A gust of wind, more chill and knifing than usual, came howling down from the nearby mountains, bringing a stinging cloud of snow into Luke's face. Dark clouds were beginning to gather in the dreary-looking sky. Another blizzard was on its way; he would have no time to go to the base and get back to his fighter before the storm hit. He knew all too well that he had no great love of being stuck out in these things, and this time there would be no bacta tank for him to recover in.

He'd have to settle for somewhat unconventional methods of detection.

He closed his eyes and concentrated hard, but couldn't feel her presence like he normally could. Luke shunted aside the rise in fear that accompanied the notion of her death - maybe she was too far away for him to sense her. After all, he wasn't exactly proficient at this sort of thing yet. Nonetheless he tried to reach out to her, sending probing tendrils of his mind out -

- and almost immediately drawing them back. For when he'd reached out he'd come in very close contact with an unexpected wall of darkness, pervading the area his mind was probing. It sparked a fear in Luke that he couldn't quite explain, and he quickly pulled his mind back. For at the same time he felt as if that darkness was moving, searching of its own accord...

Luke felt a very keen desire to move away from it, and he did so, increasing his pace towards the rise, and his distance from the walkers. He had no desire to be near them when the occupational force began its brutal task.

Even if Leia is there?

Stop the paranoia, another part of him added. She probably wasn't there, he decided: the senior staff would long since have cleared out. The reason he couldn't sense her was likely due to the fact she was already outside the system, safe and sound, and definitely outside his limited range.

So obviously, taking her to Dagobah at this point wasn't a viable option anymore. The best he could hope for now would be to meet her at the rendezvous point, and take it from there.

He finished ascending the rise, and stared out over the plain. The starfighters were directly ahead, small dark pinpricks barely visible in the increasing gusts of snow. He turned to look back in the base, doubt once again fighting to seep its way through his brain. Surely she would have had the sense to get out of there, and not stay behind and fight to the last man, like he knew she, especially in her recent emotional state, might definitely be tempted to do...

The doubt was quelled a moment later, however, when Luke became aware of a familiar hum, rapidly rising in volume, coming from the direction of the hangars. A second later, prompting a feeling of surprise in him, the Millennium Falcon burst from the side of the hill on his right, shooting out from its hangar and climbing into the blackening sky. At the same time he was relieved they had survived the battle, he felt a pang of loss at seeing it go, knowing that most certainly Han and Chewie were aboard it; he could feel the faint wisps of their presences...

But wait. There was something else, Luke thought, as he focused on the disappearing ship; a familiar echo in Luke's mind. He thought he felt it reach out briefly- not towards him, but towards the darkness that felt even closer than before. A short, punctuated burst of anguish aimed at it that Luke could only pick up an echo of, but that was still unmistakably Leia's.

So she was with Han. She was in pain over something, but she was with him. That was about as safe a place as she could be, Luke decided - he wouldn't have trusted anyone more with her care, and Han was a good pilot and fighter. He'd get Leia (and probably Threepio as well, if Leia had anything to say about it, Luke thought) to the rendezvous.

Another burst of wind blew a swirl of snow into Luke's face and howled in his ears; the storms were as good as here. He sped up his pace across the snow to the departure site, becoming more aware of the very real concern of the decrease in temperatures stalling his fighter from being able to take off - or, just as bad, having to try to fly through a solid barrier of white to get off the planet. Crashing into the ground or running into the face of a mountain wouldn't help him or the Alliance any.

The departure site was some distance away from the main bulk of the base, behind yet another rise, allowing for the possibility that the base might likely suffer extensive damage in the battle (which had turned out to be dead on), and that the steep hill might serve as a barrier for any weapons damage, and a shield from sight of any Imperial troops at the base, counting on the hope that no Imperial would want to dare venture out so seemingly unnecessarily far from the base in this climate.

It was much to Luke's relief, still, when he arrived at the departure site and discovered it was still there... however minimal. Which confirmed what he'd already suspected, that many of the rebels were either dead - or in the clutches of the Empire. Only a few snubfighters and pilots remained. Those pilots scurried about towards their ships, not wanting to be caught in those same Imperial clutches. Wedge, Hobbie, and Janson as well, had indeed made it and were among the few (in fact made up the vast majority) there, and the four friends exchanged brief waves before jumping into their already prepped fighters. Luke felt a wash of guilt combined with relief: while he was grateful that as many of his friends had survived as they had, he had a feeling he'd lost a lot fewer friends than most that had escaped from here.

A loud and animated beeping issued from one of the fighters. Luke turned to it and - despite the situation - couldn't help but smile; Artoo-Detoo's dome swiveled around (being the only thing he could move, as he was already in his socket behind the cockpit of the fighter) excitedly at the sight of Luke.

A few moments later Luke was beside his own X-wing, nearly bounding over the side ladder into the cockpit, which hissed mercifully shut after. Artoo let out a reassured beep: he'd been worried, not only for Luke, but that he might be alone. Luke could understand that, given the circumstances, and would just be glad to have some familiar company with him. The fighter's systems were already up and running, thanks to Artoo, and within a few moments Luke was up in the air, his snubfighter pointed towards the heavens. Luke cast one brief look back at the base that had been his home for the past several months, and sighed - it so often seemed that one way or another, the Empire was always chasing him from someplace he'd come to know, even if only grudgingly, as home.

"Artoo?" he asked.

A friendly beep in response.

"I want you to do a sensor sweep for me. How large is the Imperial blockade out there?"

A moment of silence followed, broken by a somewhat dismayed mechanical hoot, the reason behind which soon appeared in translation on Luke's display console. Four Imperial-class Star Destroyers, spaced evenly around their side of the planet - and in the middle of that formation, one extremely huge Super-class vessel... which according to Artoo's readings, was none other than the Executor itself. The flagship of the Imperial fleet, and known to be the personal ship of the Lord and the Lady Vader themselves. Luke counted himself fortunate he'd not been among the ones who were likely captured - he now knew for certain what the earlier darkness he'd sensed had been. But if the Lady Vader herself was indeed down there, maybe she'd serve as a sort of protective buffer for the prisoners against her husband's more... negative actions. Maybe.

Either way, there was no truly safe way for his little ship to make it through that blockade. He might make it, but he was certain there had to be another way than just speeding his way through. There was no longer an active ion cannon to provide cover - not that there were any ships behind large enough to warrant such use of the weapon, nor any allies left to man it - and his little shields couldn't absorb the direct brunt of a Destroyer's turbolaser even for an instant. He'd be gone before he was even aware he'd been hit. Whatever lifted off the planet now was fair game, and the Empire knew it. He might lose more friends yet.

Unless of course, they didn't see you lifting off.

Luke slowed his fighter into a gradual arc and turned it around 180 degrees, and set off across the surface of the planet - low to the ground, hoping the clouds might obscure the Empire's sensors to his presence. He increased his sublight speed to several hundred kph, and it took him several minutes to get to the small planet's other side. This way, he would use the bulk of the ice world as a shield from the enemy's sensors. (And he wouldn't have to fight his way through anything; Luke knew he was a good pilot, but he wasn't certain he was that good a pilot.)

Soon his starfighter burst from the clouds, and the vast star-studded blanket of space opened up before him. Clear, open - and utterly free of Imperial ships. Only a few small moons, and those shouldn't cause him any trouble.

(That's no moon, it's a space station... !)

"Artoo, set a course for the Dagobah system."

The droid responded with a very confused bleep.

"No, we're not regrouping with the others. We're going to Dagobah."

Another moment, another beep, this time one slightly protesting. "It's not on the charts?" Luke asked in response to the translation that appeared in red lettering on his console.

, the droid's response came.

Luke exhaled a sigh. He supposed he should have expected this; after all, if this planet he was supposed to be going to had a Jedi Master hiding on it, it wouldn't likely be a place you could just look up and find. Especially with the Emperor and the Vaders, the orchestrators of the extermination of the Jedi themselves (well, the Lord Vader anyway; Luke somehow couldn't reconcile the image of the supposedly gentle Lady with the idea of her cooperating in some of her husband's more violent acts) running things the way they were...

<> the red letters crawled across the screen.

Luke was tempted to do just that. After all, Ben had asked him to bring Leia to Dagobah - perhaps it would just be best for him to go on to the rendezvous, get her and bring her back to the planet later. (Provided he found where it was, of course.)And after this latest, bitter defeat, the Alliance could use all the power it could muster... and two Jedi would be better for the Alliance's cause than one. And later was better than never.

Unless you were too late, that was.

He sighed again, ready to concede and just allow the little droid to take them to their planned destination.

Then his vision suddenly was obliterated; the brilliant starfield blotted out by an entirely new vision. The change was abrupt enough so that the notion that the Lady Vader, in all her scarlet loveliness, now stood before Luke where empty space had once been, didn't shock him nearly as much as it might have. Even when the darker, horrible death's-head form of her husband formed before her, placing a possessive hand on her shoulder, pulling her gently towards him, disregarding Luke completely.

She was faced away from Luke, but he could still see the same short, slender figure and dark mocha hair, tied up in the same veils of crimson that hid her face. When she, still in the Lord's grasp, turned to face him - causing his breath to catch slightly in his chest - he saw the same hauntingly familiar eyes he'd always seen. Only this time angry and hateful, without the quiet calm she possessed in the newsvids - and as he watched, she moved a small hand, white and delicate, up to part the veils from her face. All else was deathly silent, but for the metronome of the Lord's breathing...

He would have taken a step back, had he been physically able. The veils parted to reveal a sight both beautiful and terrible: Leia, half of her sculpted face unmarred and perfect as always, but the other... the other side, from just below her eye all the way to her throat, was a wretched, horrible mass of scars. Her eyes burned directly at him with despair and accusation, and he didn't know why...

The vision evaporated, leaving Luke gasping for breath. He even blinked his own eyes a few times, looking round the cockpit, to be certain he wasn't still hallucinating.

But that had been no hallucination. The timing was too perfect, too soon after his decision to abandon Dagobah. Besides, it had been far too vivid, and Luke never hallucinated. And why would he hallucinate something like this - Leia consumed with bitterness, maimed... and far worse, in the possession of the Vaders...

And what had been the cause of her looking him that way? It had hurt him, the way her eyes, usually warm, had instead burned him like that... as if she were blaming him.

Was the Force, in its own strange way, trying to warn him of something? Against a potentially harmful decision? Ben had vaguely hinted at such matters in his brief training of Luke, but had never come out directly and said it... but then, there wasn't nearly so much that Ben hadn't in his own way been at least somewhat vague about.

No, he couldn't go to the rendezvous, he realized. He'd had warnings through the Force before, but none so strong as this. But there was only other one location it made sense for him to go, and he didn't even know for sure if the place existed, let alone where it was.

But then, it was as if an invisible, comforting hand suddenly placed itself on Luke's shoulder, relaxing him. Luke found himself opening his mind to the vastness of the Force - something he'd done only a few times before, and never to this extent - and his hands moved smoothly over the controls, inputting an entirely new set of coordinates as if he'd always known them, as if they had been ingrained into him long ago. Artoo let out a very decidedly perplexed raspberry, and Luke shook his head as the display translated the meaning of the sound, and began to bring his ship around in a wide arc to its new course.

"We're going to Dagobah, Artoo," he told the droid firmly. "We aren't going to the rendezvous with the others."

He had to go to the planet. Ben might be annoyed that he'd not brought Leia with him, but for all he knew Ben was the source of this prodding vision in the first place.

If so, I've seriously got to question his methods...

And surely he'd understand why she wasn't there, given the circumstances. It hadn't exactly been something Luke had been able to control.

(Luke questioned his own mental soundness for a moment, wondering at the bizarre concern of reassuring a ghost... )

"At least, I think that's where we're going," he added, more to himself than to Artoo, but the droid's response let him know perfectly well that he was well aware of Luke's additional comment. Luke had no real way of knowing whether the coordinates he'd input would go anywhere, let alone to this mysterious uncharted world he'd been summoned to, a world whose only proof of existence was that of the word of a disembodied Jedi (Albeit one Luke trusted) and one whose only verification of whereabouts was a vague certainty from an equally mysterious Force Luke himself didn't entirely understand. Artoo would probably think him even crazier were he to know this; that his Master had tossed out the coordinates that all but assured them a concrete, safe destination on such seemingly immaterial grounds.

<> the display came up.

Luke smiled. "It'll be all right, Artoo. And let's say we keep this on manual control for a while, okay? You'd get a break - and besides, I feel like doing some flying."

Artoo let out another dry remark, not entirely reassured, as Luke pushed forward the lever, propelling his tiny craft into the dimensions of hyperspace.

To Dagobah, he hoped.

As he settled back into his chair (for this time a restful sleep, he hoped), he wondered what was happening with Han and Leia just then.

Leia hadn't had time to strap in before take-off, so she just held on to the back of the pilot's seat, and hoped that the artificial gravity wouldn't decide to go flaky with everything else.

Han banked the Falcon sharply, and a burst of laser fire exploded in the space where they would have been. Another followed it, coming closer to their current position. Leia tried not to look at the proximity readouts on the control panel, but couldn't quite convince herself that the Star Destroyer follower them wasn't getting closer. She didn't need the readouts to follow the TIE fighters that it had spit out after them; she could see them through the viewport, close enough sometimes to catch a glimpse of the masked and helmeted stormtroopers who piloted them.

Flak from the explosions around them buffeted the Falcon, and Han was engaged in some sort of serious and energetic dance with the controls trying to keep them on course. He flipped switches, checked readouts, checked the viewport, flipped more switches, adjusted the course manually, then started the cycle again. Chewie howled at the top of his lungs, vibrating the whole cockpit, then went into a series of loud barks.

"I saw them!" Han barked back. "I saw them."

Leia cast her eyes down to the readouts. "Saw what?"

Han pointed vaguely at the viewport before moving to shield controls. "Star Destroyers, two of them. Coming right at us."

Leia saw them then, points of light in the dark. One was huge and hulking. A Super Star Destroyer. The other was dwarfed in its shadow. That's where my parents are. In that monster. Or it's where they live. It's...

No. There is no time for that.

Another blip appeared in the corner of the viewport, and steadily grew into a pod-shape that Leia recognized with horror. The last Rebel transport. It was accompanied by two Imperial shuttles and a squad of TIE fighters, and headed straight for the Super Star Destroyer. "Han, they've got one of ours!"

The frenetic dance didn't stop, and he didn't even look at the transport. "They're gonna have us if I don't get us out of here, Sweetheart."

She couldn't think of an argument, but the sight of that last transport being towed into the Empire's hands - the transport that had waited for those who held their ground longest, the most devoted ground staff - was hard to bear. They would be tortured, imprisoned... it would be better for them, more honorable, to die in battle, and

(if the Empire gets their information, we're sunk.)

they would want it that way...

She bit it back. The Rebellion didn't operate that way. The Empire might kill its captured soldiers and defectors. The Rebellion didn't.

(lately, it would be a full time job, anyway)

There was an uneven clanking of metal on metal, which Leia heard but didn't really register until the panicked tug on her sleeve. "Your Highness!"

"Threepio... "

Han reached across the control panel. Threepio threw his golden hands in the air and broke his usual protocol by interrupting him in an urgent tone. "Sir, sir! Might I suggest -"

But Han was having none of it. He'd never had any patience with Threepio. He turned to Leia. "Shut him up or shut him down."

Leia was stunned into silence. He was often pushy and cocky, but he'd never presumed to give her an order before, and it was a cruel one. Threepio was irritating and fearful, but he was hers, dammit, and he was loyal and


and he was a help


to her.

Threepio stopped talking on his own, but shot her a worried glance.

Han didn't notice. Leia understood why he was doing this, and knew she was silly to let it sting. After all, Threepio was a protocol droid. His expertise wasn't likely to be useful here. He probably wanted to advise them on proper forms for surrender.

Han was already talking to Chewie again. "Check the deflector shield!"

Chewie barked something that didn't sound particularly hopeful.

"Great," Han muttered. "Well, we can outmaneuver them."

Without warning, he accelerated into the path of the behemoth Star Destroyer, banking the Falcon to its port. It didn't try to turn, but the smaller Star Destroyer did. Leia briefly saw a red light flashing. A whole section must have gone on alert.

Then Han dove and spun beyond them, and Leia saw, as he curved up again, that the two Destroyers were trying desperately to avoid a collision.

"Good flying," she whispered, hoping that the Rebel transport hadn't gotten caught in the accident, or at least hoping that she was really hoping it.

"Thanks. Count on the Empire to build something that can't turn around."

"We can't count on that forever."

As if to reinforce her point, six TIE fighters came around the floundering giants and began another volley of laser blasts. Han banked and spun again. Leia was beginning to feel queasy. The ship rocked from another hit.

"Prepare to make the jump to light-speed," Han told Chewie, not even looking back at Leia.

"But, sir!" Threepio moaned beside Leia, and she had a sudden, awful, sinking feeling. Threepio had been talking to the Falcon. Threepio did have something to say.

And it was too late for him to say it.

The ship rocked violently as another blast hit. "They're getting closer!"

Han gave her a wicked grin, and she could have cheerfully throttled him. Flirting? At a time like this?

"Oh, yeah?" he said, putting his hand on the hyperdrive lever. "Watch this." He pushed the lever up.

Leia obediently turned to the viewport and stared at the rushing TIE fighters and the star strewn blackness. But she knew perfectly well what was about to happen. Or rather, to not happen. "Watch what?" she asked.

Han's smirk disappeared, and he turned to Chewie in a moment of panic that even Leia could see. He pushed the hyperdrive lever again.


"I think we're in trouble," he muttered.

Threepio let out an exasperated electronic sigh. "As I have been attempting to tell you, the hyperdrive motivator is damaged. It's impossible to go to light speed!"

(that'll teach you to give me orders)

Leia rolled her eyes at herself. They were being chased by half the Imperial Fleet, and she was triumphant that her droid was right about why they couldn't escape.

"We're in trouble," Han said.

Piett's arm stung painfully as he slammed into a console, and then everything spun as he whirled past several of his officers - his officers - before clutching a rail and hanging on desperately. Through a small window, he could see a Star Destroyer pass by... for a moment, he thought he could see the faces of the people in that Destroyer, they were so close.

Please don't hit, please don't hit, please don't hit...

Piett closed his eyes and braced himself for an explosion. Instead, the ship suddenly righted itself, throwing everyone back to the side of the bridge they had started on.

A confused silence reigned for several moments, and Piett used the time to quickly straighten out his jacket and cap, reassuming some sort of command posture, and moving to the head of the bridge. "Status report," he asked of no one in particular.

"We just missed them, sir. The other Star Destroyers also avoided any damage."

His eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Where's the Millennium Falcon?" he snapped. The ensign jumped, then checked the sensors again.

Piett had to admit he had startled himself. His first thought should have been for the safety of his fellow soldiers. And he was glad that no one had been hurt... he shook it off. The moment had passed, and his priorities were now quite clear.

"The Falcon is just out of weapons range," the ensign reported. "The TIE Fighters have continued their pursuit, Admiral."


Admiral Piett. He had thought it would be several years - at least - before he would hear that. A thrill ran through him every time one of his subordinates said it.

But he couldn't show that. He had to start behaving like a commander and earn their respect.

And justify the faith that the Vaders had put in him.

"As soon as we have cleared the path of the other Destroyers, set a course to follow them."

"Yes, sir."

Piett stepped over to the main viewport, staring silently at the ensuing chase. What exactly was he supposed to be doing at moments like this? He no longer had to follow sensor reports or prepare recommendations; now he was the commanding officer. Should he order them to do something? Wait for them to speak up?

He took a deep breath, and tried to clear his mind of doubts. After all, Lord Vader himself had promoted him, and made it seem like the natural course of action after the unfortunate incident with Ozzel. There was no pretense or ceremony to it, just a string of new commands, followed by a warning - "Do not fail me as Ozzel did, Admiral."

He would be a fool to say that Vader's words didn't terrify him... but at least he had been given this chance to prove himself. At least he knew that the Vaders had thought highly of him up to this point (he liked to think that Lady Vader had mentioned his efforts in finding the Rebels on Hoth). For him, dealing with them wasn't simply or solely about fear. He felt, as did many others he spoke to, that they had a purpose to what they were doing.

And purpose was something that was painfully absent from the Empire he loved. As time went on, the Emperor became more distant, and the Empire continued to slip into mediocrity, rote leadership, and inactivity. It was becoming a shell of what it once was - all of the structures and rules were still there, but it felt hollow beneath that surface.

Until the Vaders. Until Piett had seen for himself the way Lady Vader could connect with all types of people. Until he saw the way that Lord Vader had stood beside her (a remarkable action for someone of his rank) and saw the unusual powers he wielded. There was something there worthwhile, even if no one knew the particulars of it. Something that Piett was certain he wanted to be involved with.


"Yes, Captain."

"The ship seems to be headed for an asteroid field. We'll have no chance of following, sir. We will have almost no maneuverability, and will undoubtedly take on a great deal of damage."

Piett frowned deeply, trying to give the appearance of pondering his first real command decision. His mind was already made up however, as he had no intention of telling Lord Vader that he couldn't carry out his orders to pursue and capture the Falcon. "Captain, slow the ship down to one-quarter speed, and have all weapons officers destroy as many asteroids in our path as possible. We will continue on our course."

He noted with pleasure that no one looked surprised or doubtful of his decision. He placed his hands behind his back and turned back to his view of the asteroid field - of the galaxy. It seemed larger, grander now. And so did his place in it.

Han stared at the viewport in disbelief, almost frozen at this new development. Then a blast came from a TIE fighter, and his brain kicked back into gear. They were in trouble, it was his own damned fault, and he had to fix it before he got all of them killed.

Yeah, sure. But what the hell am I supposed to do?

He had to think of something. No way was he showing Leia that he was out of control here. She was already looking at him like she was sure he was the last thing she'd see, and she wasn't happy about it. Worse than that, somewhere, under the annoyance and irritation, Han thought he saw a glimpse of raw, unadulterated fear. From Leia, that bothered him more than anything.

"I'll fix it," he said.


"Don't worry, I'll fix it." He got up, and gestured for Chewie to follow him, then touched Leia's shoulder. "Just keep us straight."

She looked at him blankly, then took the controls. She didn't like to fly (and Han thought the aversion had gotten worse in the last year or so), but she knew what she was doing.

No more time to worry about it, at any rate. Another fighter flew at them. Han ran back to the maintenance pit, Chewie at his heels.

He jumped over the edge and down to the engine room. Everything looked in order, but everything always looked in order. There was some steam coming from a broken stabilizer, but nothing that would account for losing hyperdrive. He decided to tighten it anyway, to feel like he was doing something until he thought of something to do. "Chewie... toss me the hydrospanners."

Chewie handed him the tool he asked for, then lowered himself down to examine other parts of the engines. He growled that it was running too hot to work on, but they didn't exactly have time to let it rest just now, so it was an observation without any practical value.

"I don't know how we're going to get out of this," Han muttered.

Chewie didn't answer.

Han was leaning over to yet another level when the ship rocked violently. It wasn't the trembling shock of a laser blast spreading violently across an energy shield. It was an impact.

Chewie howled.

"Yeah, I noticed," Han said. "Something hit us."

He was already halfway back up when Leia called for him to come to the cockpit, and she was just sliding into the co-pilot's seat when he got there.

"Asteroids," she said, but she didn't need to. The asteroid field spread before them like a porous wall.

Damn. On top of everything else, this sector. Must have been a collision or -

He stopped thinking and slipped into the pilot's seat. Between the Empire and a bunch of rocks, he figured he'd take his chances with the rocks. He didn't need to turn around to know that Chewie had settled into the navigator's seat. "Set two-seven-one."

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that the technobabble hadn't fooled Leia at all. Her face was white and taut, but the fear was gone, replaced with even more irritation than usual... and, Han thought, a little exhilaration. "You're going in?" she asked incredulously.

Han shrugged. "Think they'll follow?"

There was no joking answer. An asteroid flew at them, and Han had to put his concentration into flying around it, but when he glanced at Leia again, she was simply staring thoughtfully at the flying rocks. "Yes," she whispered. "They will."

Han's eyes flickered to her again. He believed her. He had no reason to believe her, but he did. Not that it made a difference. He didn't have a choice. "I gotta go in anyway, Sweetheart," he said.

"But sir," Threepio said, "the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field are three thousand seven hundred twenty to one."

"Never tell me the odds," Han muttered, but didn't try to tell Leia to shut the droid down. If he'd listened to the nattering droid in the first place, he might have gone in a more sensible direction.

Not that he'd ever admit that outside his own head.

The asteroids suddenly became more densely packed, and there was no time at all for talking or thinking, only flying. One asteroid the size of a house bounced off another, and Han had to dive away from it, then bank sharply to avoid another one that was coming up from beneath.

As he turned, he saw that Leia was right: The Empire was following.

A pinprick flash of light caught his eye, and he saw three TIE bombers bursting through the explosion. Behind them, the giant Star Destroyer blasted an asteroid out of its way.

"This could be bad," he said.

"Could be?" Leia's voice had taken back more of its acerbic tone, and Han was glad to hear it.

Another asteroid flew at them, and Han swerved around it. He spared a look back at Leia. "This might not be the best idea I ever had."

Two asteroids collided in front of them, sending out an explosion of smaller rocks, which buffeted the Falcon. Leia shook her head. "We're going to get pulverized if we stay out here."

There was no arguing with it, but Han couldn't think of a way out. It wasn't like he could just land somewhere...

That's it. I have to land.

"I'm getting closer to one of the big ones," he said, and barely heard her protest (though Threepio's was annoyingly loud).

The first big one he saw was jagged and likely to break. He crested it and dropped down behind it.

Think. Don't let the Empire see where you're going, or they'll just pulverize you along with the asteroid they're clearing out.

"Right," he said to himself.

"What are you doing?" Leia asked.

"Fixing this. Hold on." Finally, he saw the one he needed. "There. That'll do."

"Do for what?"

"Yeah." It was almost still, and he could see a gently carved crater, with a deep cave in it. Perfect. Decent hand at last.

"Excuse me ma'am," Threepio said somewhere behind him. "But where are we going?"

"I have no idea."

Han didn't have time to explain, if she hadn't figured it out yet. The landing would be tricky, but he could do it. He checked the scope again to make sure no Imperial ships were in eyeshot, then looped around, and eased the Falcon down across the surface. The mouth of the cave yawned before him. It would be a good fit.

The Millennium Falcon slipped into the shadows, and was swallowed.

Amidala and her husband stood in the lift, listening to it hum as it raced them to the bowels of the Super Star Destroyer. She frowned at him anxiously. "You didn't have to come with me, Anakin. I would much rather have one of us on the bridge overseeing the chase."

"I will return to the bridge as soon as this is over," he replied.

"It's hardly a real interrogation. We know where the children are, we have all the answers we need."

"If that were so, you would have allowed another officer to assume this duty for you." His arms folded in front of him. "Clearly, you have your own agenda here, Amidala, and while I also -"

"My own agenda?" she said, her eyebrow arched. "And here I thought that the children were our agenda. Forgive me."

His head snapped toward her, and Amidala suddenly had the strange feeling that she could see his eyes narrowing at her, his lips pursing in disapproval, his brow furrowing at her. The expression he always used to give her when she exasperated him.

But the moment quickly passed, as her head told her that all she was truly seeing was the mask. She was troubled by it, and she suddenly felt out of sorts. Not because she had thought she could see his face, but because she hated the later realization that all she could really see of him was the mask. Over time, she had managed to accept the necessity of Vader - of why he looked this way, and acted this way - but that was only by knowing in her heart that her Anakin was still there, that she could see him, and reach him. She resented reminders that things weren't always that simple.

The lift slowed to a stop. He stepped forward into the hallway, but she touched his arm to hold him back.

"I'm sorry, Anakin," she whispered, hoping that no one else was in the hallway to hear her. "I've been on edge about all of this. I don't even know what I really want to ask them... but we know that they knew our children... I just want to know what they know."

"As do I," he replied. Then he added, "I know this has been difficult for you, Amidala. But it will be over soon. In the meantime, if you wish to question the Rebels, I understand."

She nodded, and they left the lift and headed toward the interrogation cell.

There were only three Rebels in the room. The rest, she assumed, were still in the medical bay being treated for injuries sustained during the boarding of their transport. Two men and a women were seated on the floor, on the far side of the room, looking exhausted, defeated. Amidala's heart went out to them... these people had risked everything waiting for her children, delaying the departure of the last transport for them. That was not a crime as far as she was concerned, and as long as they were cooperative and helpful, she would personally make sure they didn't pay for trying to save the twins.

All three looked up and gasped when she entered the room - one of the men tried vainly to back away when he saw Vader. That was the reaction they normally received; she and Anakin had a tacit understanding that his presence was helpful to her in trying to win the Rebels clemency. Sometimes, they would all but run into her arms, telling her anything she asked, because Anakin did nothing more than stand behind her and breathe.

Amidala knew first-hand what could happen to some of these prisoners if they didn't let her help them. It was more than worth it to her to have them scared for a few moments if it would spare them imprisonment or torture or worse.

She walked across the gray, bleak cell and crouched in front of the three, meeting them eye-to-eye, hoping her posture and demeanor were calm and welcoming. Anakin stood further back, his shadow cast over her.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked.

The two men nodded slowly. The women gave no answer.

"I'm here to ask you a few questions, and to offer you clemency. I hope you'll listen."

The younger of the two men couldn't take his eyes off Vader. The woman had affixed Amidala with a defiant glare. Both of them were rather young (the other man was considerably older) - they were probably around the twin's age...

"Tell me, did any of you know Luke Skywalker or Leia Organa personally while serving with them at Hoth?"

None of them answered.

"Please, you've been with them at that base for months. Surely, you must be able to tell me something about them."

"Like what?" the older man asked warily.

"Anything," Amidala said with a shrug. "Really... whatever you know about them... anything about what they're like... " Her voice trailed off. She realized how odd her question must have seemed to them, but didn't know how else to phrase it.

The older man was about to speak again, when the woman interrupted. "Don't answer any of her questions," she snapped. "Don't fall for this."

"Fall for what?" Amidala asked. "I'm not trying to fool anyone. If you cooperate, and answer my questions, you'll not be prosecuted. I'll see to it personally."

"And all we have to do is sell out the Alliance? And Luke and Leia?" the woman snorted. "What a generous offer."

Amidala felt her husband move, saw his shadow lengthen as he took several steps forward. "Do not doubt our Lady's intentions." He stared down at the younger man, who shuddered under his glare. "She is giving you far more consideration than you will receive elsewhere."

"Your loyalty to Luke and Leia is admirable," Amidala said, adding softly, "It shows that they are good leaders." She glanced at the woman. "But I don't believe that they would want you to sacrifice yourselves when I'm asking for simple information that will in no way harm the Rebellion."

"That's a lie," she replied through clenched teeth. "Why would you ask us for useless information?"

"Because it's not useless to me," she said simply. "But if you truly do not want to help me... "

Anakin stepped past Amidala then. The woman jerked sharply and was soon struggling to her feet. Actually, she was struggling against being brought to her feet. She kept up a futile fight as Anakin lifted her by shoulders with the Force. "What - what are you doing? Let me go!" The men looked at her in confusion and panic as they tried to figure out what was happening.

"You will come with me," Anakin said. He hit a button on the comlink on his wrist, and several stormtroopers quickly entered the cell. "Take her away," he ordered.

As a trooper grabbed her, Anakin released his grip, and the woman suddenly thrashed about in surprise. Several of the stormtroopers brandished their blasters at her.

"Wait!" the younger man pleaded. "Just wait... you haven't even asked us any real questions yet. How are we supposed to answer? Do you want to know where they are?"

"Don't!" the girl yelled angrily.

"I can tell them where Luke is. What difference does it make now anyway?" he replied.

Amidala shook her head. "We already know where they both are. The Falcon is within range of this Destroyer as we speak."

Both men started a bit at that declaration. Amidala frowned at them. "What? I assure you that they won't be harmed, we're simply trying to -"

"If I told you that you were wrong, and gave you the right information, would you give us all clemency?"

Amidala turned back to Anakin with a quizzical glance, wondering if he could determine if the man was lying. But Anakin hadn't moved, and seemed to be interested in what the prisoner was going to say...

"As long as you tell me the truth, you will all be spared," she said quietly.

"No!" the girl warned again.

"Luke's probably dead anyway," the older man said bitterly. "Do you think anyone survived the surface battle? So how exactly are we betraying anyone at this point?"

Amidala stood abruptly, almost stumbling backwards. "That's a lie," she spat out. "He's on the Falcon. With Leia."

The older man shook his head. "He decided to lead the surface battle to protect the shield generator. I'm sure you know how that wound up. When we left Hoth, we didn't think anyone had survived. Luke would have to be awfully lucky, I think."

"And where is the Princess?" she heard Anakin ask.

He shrugged. "I don't know. We waited for her, she didn't show up. I have no idea what happened to her."

Amidala gave herself a moment to try to process that information before abruptly turning and leaving the room. Her head was spinning. Luke wasn't on the Falcon? He might have been killed...


But she did know how heavy the casualties were down on Hoth. And if Luke had been fighting instead of waiting in the control center...

"He's not dead, Amidala."

She glanced at her husband. "How can you be sure?"

"I would have felt it. I knew he was nearby when we were on Hoth. I didn't realize that he wasn't in the base."

Amidala let herself feel relieved... she did believe him. Still... "Now he could be anywhere. We've lost him."

"We will find him again," her husband replied quietly.


Yoda stood at the center of the stagnant pond, the water pooling around his waist and floating his robe around him in a muddy swirl. His hands were spread flat against the surface, caressing it, and his eyes were closed. That sort of sight wasn't needed for this.

He pulled his focus deep into himself, found the thread of the Force that connected him to all living things, and spread himself out into it. Dangerous, it was these days.

Dangerous because he was alone, but for Obi-Wan, who couldn't help him if he became disoriented.

Dangerous because it made him visible, should anyone cast an eye in his direction.

But mostly, dangerous because the Force was wounded, broken, ill. Living always, and a powerful ally, but bleeding from all the places that the Empire had ripped its allies away from it. And that was why Yoda stayed alive, despite the long years and heartsickness that had fallen on him: to tend and repair it. Around him, the living world of Dagobah breathed and pulsed, and gave him its strength, the strength of many things working together in harmony. He gathered it, and sent out tendrils - gently, always gently - into the fabric of the Force, weaving them together, creating a stronger place, spreading the healing as far as he could.

It responded, as it always did. Growing stronger, it was... Resilient. A moment's euphoria went through the old Master, and the Force seemed to glow around him. He pulled back, sensing the strange, ugly current of the Dark Side seeking out the healing places, its burning hands bent on tearing and destroying what was left. Slowly, Yoda became aware again of the clammy water around his waist, and the progress of a large spider as it crawled up his arm. He set it down on a leaf, and made his way to the shore.

"It cannot die."

"Exiled, it can be. Hurt." Yoda looked at the shimmering form of Obi-Wan Kenobi. "Need to take this form, you do not. Hear you, I can, when you do not speak in words."

Obi-Wan nodded non-committally. "Yes, I suppose. But young Luke needs to see this, and I ought to get some practice."

"Heh." Yoda started making his way back home, leaning on his gimer stick to keep his footing.

"You seem not to approve," Obi-Wan commented, re-forming a few meters up the path.

"Coming alone, he is."

"Are you certain?"

"Difficult to see, he is not."

Obi-Wan kept his image still until Yoda had passed him, then re-formed again, near the door of the hut. "Perhaps it was unnecessary for him to bring Leia. She was never the one we intended to train."

Yoda slammed his gimer stick into the mud. "Changed, things have, Obi-Wan! Changed for the worse!"

"Surely, Amidala will not put Leia in danger -"

"Sure of nothing, I am, with Amidala." Yoda quieted himself, feeling the cold fingers of the Dark Side reaching into him through his fear and anger. "Put her in mortal danger, she will not. But she seeks, always she seeks. Her anger is with us, Obi-Wan."

"She knows we acted to save the children."

"In her mind she knows, but her mind seeks not."

Obi-Wan was silent, and Yoda could feel the eddies of sadness and confusion coming from him. He had been closer to both Anakin and Amidala than anyone, and the idea that they were both lost... it was hard for him.

Yoda knew that, and shared the sadness - he had come to love them both as well - but he knew they couldn't afford the sentiment. "Tell her, Amidala will. Tell her everything. Her family, she seeks, as Anakin did. Cares, she does not, how they come to her. Leia is no longer hidden, so trained, she must be, or stand against them, she will not."

Obi-Wan smiled. "I think you may be underestimating Leia. I watched her as often as I could. She is as stubborn as Anakin ever was, and she has set herself against him."

"But know, she does not, what battle she must fight!" Yoda shook his head, and went past Obi-Wan to go inside. Obi-Wan formed again, beside the small fire, and Yoda went on speaking to him. "She will be a rock to him, and he to her, and seek, they will, to shatter one another. Matter, it will not, which one prevails, unless she understands."

"Perhaps the boy will be strong enough to destroy Vader before it comes to that."

"Vader perhaps. But Vader and his Queen?" Yoda saw Obi-Wan recoil from the phrase, and knew that he hadn't truly faced this yet. "Yes, Obi-Wan. Think, you must, what he will long for. Break away from Palpatine he may. Possibly destroy him, as destined, he was. But there will be another to set in his place, another from whom he will never seek freedom, for it is for her sake that all will be done."

"Surely Amidala is an improvement over Palpatine?"

"Heh. So will they think. But ever will the darkness grow, consume the galaxy, it will. Stopped they must be, Obi-Wan!"

"Can it be done?"

Yoda considered it. "Yes. Together. The boy, the girl. If neither falls, then stand a chance, they do."

Obi-Wan remained in his form, but faded a bit. After a long time, he spoke again. "I cannot conceive of Amidala destroying all our plans. I am heartsick, Yoda."

Yoda offered him compassion through the Force. "Yes, Obi-Wan. Heartsick, you are, as was Amidala. Acting from malice, she is not, though her anger is growing. Respite, she seeks, in the oblivion of the Empire. But afford such a luxury, you and I cannot."

Obi-Wan nodded, and Yoda did not feel the need to speak to him. No words would help.

Outside the rains began.

Well, at least there were no TIE fighters in here.

Leia tried long and hard to find something else positive - after all, there was little else to do - about being stuck in the bowels of a giant space rock on a crate with a defunct hyperdrive, complete with paranoid robot, and excessively arrogant smuggler. (Though to be fair to Chewie, he hadn't been much of a bother.)

There wasn't much to be done. Not that she could think of, anyway.

Her first inclination had been to wander around the ship - but it was bad enough being confined in such a small space for extended periods of time, with her temper as it was, with Han. There were only so many places to wander here without going in circles sooner or later, and she was bound to run into him somewhere. She wasn't going to avoid him, but then she had no plans of seeking him out, either.

(But if he comes here... Which was a possibility, of course... )

She'd even tried holding a conversation with Threepio to alleviate the mud-thick aura of... whatever this was... constantly in the air around her. But even Leia, who liked Threepio, had tired of him quickly, and found a way to discreetly dismiss him - let Han deal with him, she thought. For now, she enjoyed the relative peace of the now-silent, barely lighted cockpit. Even with all the shadows that always accompanied that aforementioned peace...

Leia looked once more out of the viewport she'd been staring out of for the last hour or so, the one that itself stared (rather disturbingly, she thought) only out into pitch-blackness. She thought that, somewhere not far away, she caught a white glimmer of a star interrupting the indefinite expanse of monotone... and another...

It was more pleasant to think about the stars than other things that were out there.

The Vaders' fleet was out there right now, so close she imagined at times she could feel the unchanging metronome of his breath hissing right over her shoulder, him lurking in the shadows just out of her sight - even here on the ship. She resisted the repeated urges to glance over her shoulder to confirm such a phantom's existence, knowing full well what doing so indicated.

Mad. They're driving me mad, and it's only going to get worse...

And she felt as if this whole chase were partly her fault.

They're coming to claim what they see as rightfully theirs, she thought with a chill that went through her like a hot vibroblade sliding through wax. Well, they're welcome to try. She knew such thoughts were somewhat petulant, but it did feel reassuring at times to spite the figures that had spawned her, even in this small manner.

What she wouldn't give to actually face at least one of them now, so she could look into their eyes (or mask) and spit on their tainted feet, daring her father's renowned temper to lash out against her. Would he strike down his own flesh and blood, especially with his


beloved, supplicating nymph so close by? She wondered.

Or if she could just get a shot at him, maybe it would be worth it. For all he'd done to her. For tainting the once happy image she'd had of her life, and taking it away piece by piece as she watched powerlessly.

For taking her away from me. First her, then my innocence... then my life.

She wanted him to die knowing she hated them both. She wanted her to live, to see all the pain she'd caused her offspring on her own. If he meant enough to her to abandon her own child, then it would most certainly cause her pain to lose him.

Luke would tell her these feelings were of the dark side. She wondered where he was right now - hopefully far away from the Imperial fleet, on the other side of the galaxy... she could rest in the comfort that there was one thing dear to her they hadn't taken away. Leia had tried to warm herself with that bit of light, but its job was hard-pressed.

She'd rather do anything than just be sitting here, waiting to either freeze to death or (worse) for the Vaders to come calling... to wait for her fate to be decided by how well others played their hands. Action was always more satisfying than idly pondering on something. Part of why she was so frustrated now - all there was to do was ponder idly.

"Hiya, Sweetheart."

Well, things do have a way of changing, if not always for the better.

Just go away, she thought at him.

She had the feeling those words would have been just as ineffective even if she'd used a Jedi mind trick to enforce them. In a way, though (though she'd never admit it to him) she was relieved by his arrival - her own train of thought before then was one she didn't mind escaping at all. Even if the means were somewhat less desirable than she'd have otherwise liked.

Han, for once without his self-assured cocky grin, strode (well, as much as one could in this confined space) into the cockpit. Without even asking - though Leia didn't know why he would have - he slid himself into the co-pilot's seat, apparently unperturbed by Leia stealing his normal spot. She didn't care one way or the other; she liked this chair. It was, unlike most spots on this ship, actually somewhat comfortable, and it didn't smell like Wookiee fur.

Whether it was because she had seen it so much and was perhaps growing conditioned to it, or because she knew that she had much greater concerns in her life than whether he was uncouth enough to continue flirting with her (though she did find it extremely out of place), she was actually surprised, and even a little concerned, at its absence.

But leave it to him to find a way to compensate for it.

"What, no stinging retort?" he asked, raising an eyebrow in controlled surprise.

"I figured I would let you off one time," Leia said, not looking at him. "I imagine you might need it."

Han laughed and propped his head on his forearm, leaning forward across the seats so his head was bare inches from Leia's. For several long moments his face remained in that proximity with hers, and Leia resisted the urge to flinch away. It wasn't as hard to resist as she would have liked...

"You? Letting me off? Not in a million supernovas. I'm not buying it, Princess."

"Maybe I'm not selling anything," she countered, a bit more acerbically. She eyed him caustically.

Maybe she should make a habit of trying to avoid him. On a ship this size, it would certainly be a feat it might take time to master. Something she was definitely willing to burn...

Among other things, she thought, as the caped form of Vader once more draped its shadow over her thoughts.

The corner of Han's mouth twitched slightly, and much to her relief, he pulled his head away. Leia was surprised he didn't have an immediate retort of his own. For a moment they sat there in silence, their eyes unmoving from each other - Leia had the odd impression of two ruffian types squared off against one another in a wide deserted alley, itching fingers poised over their triggers - each daring the other to be the first one to blink, to make the mistake...

But Leia had met her match in Han Solo, and after a moment she blinked, conceded defeat, gratefully turning her head back towards the blank viewport and slinking just a bit back into her chair. Ever since he'd come in here that view had become far more interesting, though nothing outside had changed that she could see.

"Shouldn't you be working on the hyperdrive?" she went on, when it was clear there would be no rejoinder, not wanting to flat-out tell him to simply buzz off.

"What? And deprive Chewie of his wonderful conversation with your droid?" Han smirked, chucking a thumb towards the rear of the ship. "I wouldn't dream of it."

"Your concern for him is touching," she replied dryly. She dearly wanted to snap at him... but a significant part of her recoiled at the thought of further alienating him, even after all that she'd done without hesitation in that department already. Merely because he was the closest friend she had to her at the moment, she told herself. If it was Luke here instead of Han...

(that's not the same and you know it... )

"Aren't you worried you're depriving something else important by being here?"

His lips tightened; perhaps she'd unsettled him. She didn't know why; she'd put him off plenty of times before with much harsher words. Back at the south passage at the base, for example - that was one instance she actually regretted, but was too prideful to admit. "Evidently not you, Highnessness. If you've got any ideas, please, by all means, do tell me." He gestured expansively, emphasizing the sarcasm in his tone.

"I'd think you'd know better than to let me do that," she said, folding her arms tighter as she turned to look at him, eyebrows raised, jaw set in a firm line. "Why are you in here?"

"I thought you might be lonely in here. I came to talk."

(lonely... you have no idea... )

"And you thought you and your marvelous, winning charms could alleviate that loneliness, is that it?" She affected a bemused expression. Friend or not, she couldn't see him coming in here for any reason that didn't somehow include annoying her.

She really had no desire to talk to him; above all she just wanted him to leave. She glanced briefly up into the hazel eyes, visible as ever even in the dim lighting... as if they possessed their own inner fire, that hinted at the passionate interior beneath. Those eyes unnerved her in more ways than one, and yet again she found herself looking away.

No doubt he's conjured his own reasons and fantasies as to why I'm behaving so. Her own mind, though, offered no original speculation itself either.

"There's only so many ways to avoid me on this ship, sister."

"Why would I need to avoid you?"

"You tell me."

Her eyes narrowed at him, and this time she had no problem looking at him. Odd how it always seem to be the times he irritated her most that she found him easiest to deal with... "What are you insinuating? That you think you're a big enough concern of mine, at a time like this, with the Empire's dragons breathing fire down our bare necks, to go to the effort to avoid you?"

He simply shrugged, as if her last statement hadn't been coated with daggers. "Point conceded. If you'd actually made an effort, I might not have found you by now."

"Is there something you want, Captain Solo?"

The grin showed itself at last. "An attitude change would be a good start, though some adhesive strips for covering a certain someone's smart mouth would probably suffice for the moment."

"I don't know about the attitude change, but I'm certain there must be adhesive somewhere around here," she murmured thoughtfully, a spark of mischievous amusement creeping briefly into her expression. "After all, something has to be holding this rustbucket together."

"I meant for you, and you know it."

Her tension levels began to quickly rise. Oh, no, she knew where this was heading. And she didn't like the smell of it one bit. "Han, if you're just going to lecture me on how you find my attitude self-damaging and a pain in your behind, I can already tell you I don't care to hear it. If you don't like my attitude, go somewhere else."

"On this ship, Your Worship? Isn't that easy."

"I thought Corellians had no use for odds," she turned her chair around to face him. "I'm sure you'll find a way to beat them."

His hazel gaze narrowed at her a moment, stilling her mouth from further action. "You don't know how hard I've tried that," his voice had dropped a level, and its softness was enough to unnerve Leia further. "You know it's not as nice and easy to do that as you seem to think it is? I've tried. Over and over, Princess. And even if it were possible?" He shook his head. "I know you probably hate me now. But we used to be friends, Princess. It's like if Luke was doing this to himself," he said, though for a moment, she could have sworn he sounded like he was trying to convince himself of something " - I couldn't turn my back on him. I couldn't abandon him to something I knew would destroy him. But there's a big difference between you and Luke," he told her, "and that's that Luke wouldn't be content to stew in his own anger until there was nothing left. To try to repel away people who wanted to help him."

"I thought you told me you didn't want to help me."

"What is it you think I've been trying to do?" he shot back, whatever patience he'd carefully crafted beginning to wear through. "You think I keep doing this, coming after you, because I enjoy the exercise? Because it's good for my health?" he rubbed the bridge of his nose, like he tended to do when particularly stressed - she probably saw more of that gesture than any of his other friends. Why does he keep coming back? she thought. "I've seen people talk about Lord Vader with less trepidation than they talk about the possibility of facing you."

It wasn't a comparison she appreciated at all. There was no way Han could no the personal impact that statement had on her, but that knowledge was negligible in waning the surge of familiar, cold fire that rose through her unbidden. Her eyes narrowed, the temperature in the cockpit actually seeming to drop a few degrees. "Never compare me to him," she said slowly, forcing herself to remain steady. "I mean never."

"Doesn't change the truth of it. Doesn't change the fact that you need help," he said, eyeing her suspiciously. Leia cursed herself for her outburst; if she kept this up then he would know...

But, part of her innocently inquired - would there in fact be anything wrong with having someone else know this? To share in her pain?

I am no friend by sharing this sort of pain with them.

"You've gotten soft," she said instead.

"Yeah. And what happened to you?" he reached out and took her gloved hand suddenly, gripping her wrist in a firm yet oddly gentle hold.

(... almost fancied she could feel echoes of a long-extinguished warmth in its contact, even through the leather glove... )

Leia yanked her hand away, suddenly and inexplicably repulsed. She saw the angry fire blaze in his eyes again as she did this, every time she showed an indication of herself yet further alienating herself.

But she saw something else - she saw the genuine concern in them, something she'd never seen - or allowed herself to see - before.

(And what happened to you? )

I wouldn't wish that knowledge on anyone.

She closed her eyes for a long moment and swallowed, staunching a swell of emotion.

"Let's just say my past is catching up with me - far faster than I ever wanted it to," she began, standing to leave, "and when it gets here I'd rather not see those I care for hurt by it." She clenched her fist at her side. "Don't follow me," she ordered him quietly, not offering any more elaboration to alleviate his perplexed expression.

I've already said far too much. But it had been, in a minor way, a relief to even say that. As if an almost imperceptible part of the weight crushing down on her was lifted... but it wasn't enough.

He made no effort to follow her when she stormed out at last. As she glanced over her shoulder, not even the phantom of Vader was there, only the muffled thud issuing from the cockpit, no doubt from Han releasing his anger by smashing his fist into a bulkhead.

He had heeded her wishes and was not following her - but as the shadows that had been dissipated by his presence quickly congregated back around her again, she began wishing rather fervently that he had.

"Once there, you will both find Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me."

The tingling sensation that accompanied the remembrance of those words flitted up and down Luke's spine and out through his fingertips. A Jedi Master. A real, live Jedi Master.

He still regretted not bringing Leia with him as instructed... but he had to admit that a part of him was a little bit glad. He wasn't sure if she would have understood how much all of this meant to him; and while he was usually indulgent of her rather dismissive - or downright hostile - attitude toward things Jedi, he was happy not to have to deal with that now.

Until seeing Ben, Luke hadn't admitted to himself how lonely he had been the past three years since leaving Tatooine. He cared greatly about his friends in the Rebellion, but there was a heavy - if noble - burden he had been forced to shoulder on his own... being the last Skywalker and the last Jedi. On both counts, he hoped desperately that he would be able to do the right thing, and make his father proud somehow.

But it was hard to become a Jedi in a vacuum, and self-teaching (when he was sure he didn't know anything) was completely unsatisfying. Knowing that he would now have a teacher... and it was Ben Kenobi's teacher! He couldn't have ever hoped to be so lucky, and -

R2 began whistling excitedly and Luke glanced out of his X-Wing at the planet quickly approaching just ahead of him. "That's it. Dagobah." The droid gave him a series of agitated beeps. "No, I'm not changing my mind about this." Luke caught himself, and wondered at what point he had begun to sometimes understand and answer R2 without the readouts.

"I'm not picking up any cities," he muttered to himself. He wasn't sure what to make of that, but he figured it could make some sense. After all, Ben had hidden out on Tatooine, so it wasn't surprising that this Jedi had also chosen a backwater planet to live on. As long as he was picking up some life readings - and he was getting plenty - things were fine.

More beeping, and Luke almost ignored it, except that the droid sounded almost worried. He smiled. "Yes, I'm sure this place is perfectly safe for droids." R2 snorted.

Almost as if in answer, the X-Wing entered the planet's atmosphere, and immediately hit turbulence. As his ship shook violently, Luke tried to get it back under control, or at least ascertain where it was headed. "I can't see a thing. Just hang on."

As Luke started his landing cycle, tree branches appeared out of nowhere, hitting his viewscreen and knocking his ship even further off-balance. For a second, Luke panicked, realizing he was much closer to the ground than he had thought, and there was no chance that his X-Wing would be ready to land. He braced for the crash.

Instead, water splashed up and over his hull, as they landed almost softly in a lake. Luke heaved a grateful sigh of relief.

Then he looked around.

Luke had always believed that Tatooine was the most desolate place in the Galaxy. At least until he had lived on Hoth. This place threatened to overtake both of those planets for that honor.

It was an empty, disgusting-looking swamp. No cities? There were no people here at all, and he couldn't imagine why there would be.

In disgust, Luke opened the hatch and stood on top of his ship, trying to figure out if it mattered which way he went. "Just stay here R2, I want to look around."

Before he even finished the sentence, the X-Wing groaned and shifted, settling into the floor of the lake. Luke felt himself wobble slightly, and was just about to turn to his droid when he heard a loud splash behind him.


"R2!" Luke startled himself with how alarmed he sounded, but there was no way he staying here alone. "Where are you? R2!" He stared into the smoky waters, wondering if he should just jump in there after him. "R2?"

A beep, and then the droid's top lens poked out of the water. Luke relaxed, but felt his fear turn quickly into annoyance. "You be more careful," he said sharply. R2 was already humming to himself and rolling away.

Luke hopped off his ship and into the water, climbing up onto a land embankment. What was he supposed to do? Just walk aimlessly across the planet and hope he stumbled across Yoda? He was tempted to leave until he could figure out exactly what was going on, but that would require getting his X-Wing out and running, and there was no chance of that right now.

What if I'm stuck here?

He pushed the thought away, trying not to let the situation get to him. Maybe Yoda would know some people who could help him. "I don't know, R2. What do you think?"

Luke glanced down and gasped in horror as he saw a creature swim quietly behind his unsuspecting friend, and pull R2D2 underneath the water. There was no time to react - by the time he had pulled out his blaster, the water was again still and the swamp was silent. He really was going to have to dive in - and fight a monster! - to save that droid.

He stood at the edge of the water, blaster ready, completely unnerved. Come on, R2, come on. Then, violently - Come on!

Luke jumped at a sudden movement in the water, and watched in amazement as R2 sailed over his head like a rocket, landing with a loud crash within the forest. He found the droid lying on its head.

"Are you alright?" He was functioning at least, as his non-stop beeping attested to. Luke leaned down to help him back up, and was suddenly glad he hadn't gone after him in the lake. He had forgotten how heavy R2 actually was. There was no way he would have been able to just grab him and pull him to shore. "You're lucky you don't taste very good," he said wryly. He looked over the droid - covered in some sort of gunk and a whole lot of mud, but fine otherwise.

With that excitement over, Luke felt the tingling, agitated feeling return. It was much stronger this time, and put his whole body on edge. The way he had felt when that strange vision had come to him earlier. A feeling he thought he might have had at one time or another his whole life, whether or not he knew what it was supposed to mean.

"I don't know," he muttered, squatting down to R2D2's level. "This has got to be a mistake -" a loud beep of assent "- but there's something about this place. I feel like I'm dreaming or something."

R2's only answer was to spit out some of the mud that was clogging his systems. Luke groaned. What a mess this was.

The cold mist of antiseptic spray was always a shock against his scalp, both revolting and comforting in its sudden, cleansing touch.

Above him, he could see the mechanical arms pulling his helmet upward into its sterilization chamber, as the pincers built into the back of his chair began daubing at the scars on his head. He was impatient with the process - he always was - but no matter how good the filtration in the suit, his own exertion always got the better of it eventually, and the smell would begin to work its way into the pneumatics, making him feel filthy. So he endured this procedure, twice a day, without fail, no matter what chase he was involved in.

Amidala had offered to do this, and Vader had thought it would be... pleasant... to replace the cold metal of the droid with his wife's warm hands. But when she had tried it, the image that had come to both of them was of the twins, as infants, in a small tub, as she washed them with a soft cloth. It was an unwelcome image on many, many levels, and since that day, she had simply come into the chamber with him, to talk to him and help pass the time as the droids did their work.

Today, her impatience matched his own. There was no room for pacing in the chamber so she simply stood and tapped her fingers on her crossed arms. Sometimes, she would forget the space limitation and take a step, only to find herself against a wall. Her gown and veils seemed to ripple even in the still air, as if vibrating with her heartbeat. The chamber was closed but not sealed - Vader wore a portable respirator mask for this - so she didn't require her own air supply.

"Where would he have gone, if not with her?"

"It is possible, Amidala, that they do not regularly travel together. They may not have recognized their kinship."

"I know. I never should have let Bail adopt her. Never. I never should have allowed Obi-Wan and - and others - to convince me to separate them."

Vader let the silence spin out. He did not wish to discuss her decisions at the time of the twins' birth, nor did he want to open the door on her continued evasion of who the "others" might be. Other Jedi, no doubt. The Jedi had always considered it a wise course of action to shatter his family.

She stopped very suddenly, and turned to him, eyes wide above the veils. Her face was twitching, as if she were struggling mightily with herself. It had looked this way just before she'd said, "Ani, I told you a horrible lie, all those years ago... " He let her fight her battle; if he pushed her over the edge, she would regret it and place the blame on him.

She bit her lip and closed her eyes, then turned away again.

A chime broke the stillness, and she reached for the chamber controls with what appeared to be relief. Vader did not stop her; the cleaning process was finished, and the presence he sensed beyond the door was one whose allegiance he wished to test anyway. He allowed Piett to enter before the droid had finished lowering his helmet. The last thing he felt before he was sealed into his suit was the soft breath of Amidala's veil against his cheek as she passed.

"Yes, Admiral?" she said.

Piett paused a moment - they all did when she addressed them directly in Vader's presence - then said, "My Lady. Lord Vader, we are pursuing the Millennium Falcon, but it has entered an asteroid field. We are taking losses in our flight squadrons."

The droids made the last adjustments to the helmet, and Vader turned to face the newly-made admiral. "Asteroids do not concern me, Admiral. I want that ship, not excuses."

Piett looked dubious, but said, "Yes, Lord."

"Are we in a position to minimize losses among the men without risking the Falcon?" Amidala asked abruptly.

Vader raised a hand, to give Piett permission to answer her directly. He considered it an intelligent question. Piett nodded. "My Lady, we have the firepower to destroy asteroids, but both our own men and the crew of the Millennium Falcon would be exposed to greater risk from such a destruction. Our best hope is to simply pursue them through."

And an intelligent answer. Piett should have had command of the Executor in the first place. "You are performing well, Admiral," he said. "See that it continues."

"Yes, Lord." Piett started for the door, then stopped halfway. Vader felt a certain nervousness coming off of him. "My Lord... " He turned to Vader again, then his eyes went to Amidala, and remained there. "My Lady. There is a matter of which I believe you should be aware."

"What is it, Admiral?" Amidala asked.

"Admiral Ozzel has been given command of the Iron Will."

"Unsurprising," Vader said.

"As commander of the flagship, I was tracking communications. He made direct contact with the Emperor's palace on Coruscant, and was granted his new command by Imperial fiat."

So it begins.

Vader raised his head and met Amidala's eyes. Any traces of disagreement between them evaporated at this. Neither of them had failed to note that Piett had considered the move both threatening and directed against them; there had been no thought that Vader had been consulted, or that Ozzel's presence on the Iron Will was not hostile. Piett was not Force sensitive in any meaningful way, but he was one of the most observant officers in the Fleet. He had noticed. He may not have realized what he was noticing, but he'd known to report this, known it would be of interest.

"And you have taken it upon yourself to question the decisions of the Emperor?" Vader let his voice roll dangerously through the room, and he forced the door into the corridor to slide shut and lock. Beyond Piett, Amidala had stiffened her shoulders and was in a state of high alert. She recognized the rules of this particular engagement. If Piett failed this test, he would not leave the room alive.

"My Lord... "


"I believed that... " Piett swallowed with an audible click. "I believe that Ozzel might pose a danger to yourself and her Ladyship."

"Ozzel is an incompetent fool."

"To speak more precisely, my Lord, I was troubled by the possibility that he has supporters in powerful positions. Supporters who could pose a more credible threat to you both."

"Cleverly spoken," Amidala said softly.

Piett's eyes suddenly flicked away from her, seeking Vader now. Strange. Vader reached out and touched the Force around Piett. His nervousness was spiking around him like a thunderstorm, and it was tied to Amidala somehow. She was reaching him in a way Vader was not.

She was asking Piett to declare himself a traitor.

He let the control of the situation slide over to her. Provisionally.

She took a few steps toward Piett. "Why," she asked, "would those in powerful positions on Coruscant be a danger to my husband?"

"My Lady," Piett choked, not looking at her. "You must realize that you and your husband have... enemies within the Empire."

"And you are offering to side with us against them?"

Piett did not answer. He stood between them, his eyes shifting back and forth. He trusted his guess - Vader knew that he would not have come this far if he had not trusted it - but he knew that if he were wrong, to speak the words Amidala was asking him to speak would forfeit his life.

"You were asked a question, Admiral," he said, moving forward, one hand raised.

"Yes," Amidala said, and Vader saw the shadowy motion of her veil being raised. The clear, crystal lines of her profile glimmered in the room's dim lighting. "You were."

Piett turned for the last time, to face her, and looked into her deep brown eyes as she stepped into the light. Vader felt a rush of emotions coming from him: an unseemly attraction, quickly squashed, a superstitious dread, a puzzled search for meaning, a surge of hope and


loyalty. And then, at last, full recognition.

Piett fell to one knee, and bent his head. "Your Majesty," he said. "I am ever at the service of you and your lord."

Vader searched Piett's heart, and found no duplicity. "Very well," he said. "You may go. All will continue as it has, until you are instructed otherwise."

Piett rose. "Yes. Of course, my Lord."

Amidala reached over her head, and pulled the veil back down over her face. Piett gave her a smile before he left.

"A bold strategy," Vader said when he was gone.

"Let us hope it has better results than my boldness has had in the past." Her eyes went to the large viewport where rocks were hurtling toward the Star Destroyer, deflected by the shield only meters beyond. "If this was a misstep -"

"It was not."

She walked to the expanse of transparisteel, and spread her fingers out against it. "It will change, Leia. You'll have no need to fight anymore. Come home to me."

Vader went to stand beside her, and together, they watched the chase.

Han made his way back to the bridge with some trepidation. He had been in the cargo-hold of the ship, scavenging for supplies. He had found quite a bit that would be helpful under normal circumstances, but this wasn't the usual set of repairs. He certainly had never expected his hyperdrive to completely fail the way it had. Something told him that it would need to be replaced... but that wasn't an option right now, so he was just going to have to make the stupid thing work.

He would have thought that should be enough to completely occupy his thoughts. But his mind kept wandering. Wandering to Leia.

"Let's just say my past is catching up with me - far faster than I ever wanted it to... and when it gets here, I'd rather not see those I care for hurt by it."

Her past? What did that mean?

He didn't believe for a second that she was referring to her life on Alderaan. Or on Coruscant as a Senator. Sure, her family had always had entanglements with the Rebellion, but beyond that, he thought she had led a relatively normal, royal life. And he had asked around on more than one occasion to make sure he hadn't missed a stray rumor or story. So those options didn't make sense to him.

Which meant that whatever happened, whatever had set her off, had occurred in the time they had known each other. Without anyone - not him, not Luke, not any of the other Rebels - having an inkling of it.

That thought was strongly (and surprisingly) dismaying to him. How could something so disturbing or painful happen to her without her so-called friends bothering to notice?

Irritation leapt from the back of his brain. It was an expected voice, and it said, You can only be as good a friend as she lets you. You don't have to let her drive you both crazy about whatever this is.

He had the feeling that voice was right. But... on a level he was reluctant to admit to anyone, he was touched that she included him in the group of people she cared about. Didn't that mean that she was trying to keep him at arm's length for his own protection, not because she was simply trying to be difficult? And didn't that mean something?

He shook his head, trying to get back to more pressing matters. "Shut her down, Chewie," he called loudly as he entered the cockpit. "Take all the systems off-line, and let's see what we can do about this." Chewie growled in acknowledgement.

"Sir," 3PO inquired nervously, "I'm almost afraid to ask, but does that mean shutting me down as well?"

Han noted that Leia bristled at the question, and Han could feel her gearing up for another fight over that droid of hers. Forget it. Wasn't worth it in the slightest as far as he was concerned. "No, 3PO. I need you to talk to the Falcon for me, figure out what's going on."

Her response was to frown at him. Apparently, she wasn't in a peace-making mood, despite his little overture. Maybe her earlier confession had put her back on the defensive? He hoped not.

But before he could deal with the question, the Falcon lurched forward and back for a few seconds. How strange... he had thought that this asteroid was big enough not to have tremors like this -

"Sir, it seems this asteroid isn't entirely stable."

Han didn't even bother rolling his eyes. Chewie already had 3PO halfway out the door.

Leia glanced at him furtively, but he caught it. There was a new tension between them because of the little she had managed to tell him earlier, and he didn't like it. His mind scrambled for some sort of joke - or anything to say - to break the awkwardness of the moment.

"Han," she began. "I -"

A new tremor rolled through the ship, stronger this time, and throwing him into the captain's chair. Leia completely lost her balance, and Han grabbed her to keep her from falling, pulling her into the chair with him.

What is going on with this cave? he wondered. If this asteroid were completely unstable, they'd be forced to leave before finishing their repairs, something they couldn't begin to afford.

He glanced out the viewscreen, and listened to the continued rumblings from outside. Leia squirmed slightly, and he shushed her without really meaning to. She shoved at his arms. "Let me go, Han."

On the Hoth base, that tone of voice would have noted an order, and everyone in the room would have jumped. But this was his ship, and he merely found it amusing. "Don't go getting all excited, sweetheart."

She rolled her eyes and snapped, "It would take a little more than being held by you to get me excited, Captain."

Han almost laughed out loud - it was rare for Leia to jump on an innuendo like that. And it opened up way too many easy comebacks for him, several of which would likely get him into huge trouble with her.

Smiling, Han abruptly stood them both up and set her on her feet. "Sorry, sweetheart. We don't have time for anything else." As he left, he could see Leia absolutely seething. Yup, the other responses would have undoubtedly gotten him killed.

Yet, despite all of it, he couldn't help thinking that maybe having her to himself until they got to the rendezvous wouldn't be a bad thing. Despite her reluctance, and his frustration, things suddenly felt as though they were moving between them.

Han knew it was unlikely he'd get chance like this again. No matter how difficult it proved, he'd have to start making the most of it.

Luke stumbled back slightly as he tried, unsuccessfully, to pull the last emergency package out of the back of his cockpit.

This last piece had decided to make it its mission in life to add another annoyance to Luke's own life, it seemed, and was wedged very firmly in the narrow space between the back of his pilot's chair and the rear of the cockpit. It was his portable power generator, an absolute necessity for his survival here... which might be longer than he liked, considering at the moment he wasn't exactly brimming with ideas on how to get his snubfighter out of the soupy muck it was slowly sinking into. Luke gave one final yank on the generator, and it abruptly popped free -

- and nearly sent Luke flailing backwards off his precarious perch into the swamp. At the last moment he regained his balance, but not quickly enough to halt the distinctly amused beeping of a certain astromech droid nearby.

"Fine," Luke shook his head in exasperation as he shut the cockpit canopy, "we're even now." He walked down the snub's nose to the somewhat-stable ground on which he and Artoo had set up their camp: an open clearing in the dark, limp jungle filled with various crates of survival materials pulled from the inactive hulk of the X-wing before it sunk too far down to retrieve anything. Luke set the generator down next to the crate of Alliance standard-issue emergency tools - the latter seemed extremely insufficient, all of a sudden; there was hardly anything in here that would make lifting his snubfighter out of the mud any easier. But then, who expected to be landing their fighter in a swamp, anyway? Of course there wouldn't be anything designed to help him...

He smoothed out the folded single layer tarp that served as his makeshift chair, and prepared to relax and seat himself. But then Artoo chittered again, insistently, and Luke glanced at the generator, realizing just how long it had probably been since the droid had recharged. He smiled wanly and flipped on the generator, the minor bit of orange light and heat it provided lifting his mood somewhat: the only other light around him was a foggy gray mist; he doubted this area ever saw that much sunlight: it was its own essential greenhouse, thick and muggy. He stood up and hooked up the generator's outlet cable to Artoo's own power socket; almost immediately the droid twittered in satisfaction. As if in response Luke's own stomach grumbled; he leaned over and picked up the non descript lap-size metal case across from him and opened it, taking out one of the rank of silver-wrapped ration bars lined up in it. He and Artoo would have their dinner, such as it was, together.

He unwrapped and tore a bite out of the bland bar, wincing slightly at the taste. Ah, field survival gourmet...

He raised the bar to the droid as if in a toast. "Cheers," he said, clinking an imaginary glass, then taking another bite, forcing the dry material down his throat - wishing he really did have a drink to wash it down with. Artoo moaned sadly and swirled his dome around, surveying the landscape around them. They certainly weren't the only living things in this area, but the things that were probably around them (the whatever-it-was that had tried to make a meal of Artoo, for example) made Luke wish they were.

"I'm beginning to think you're right about coming here, Artoo," Luke said. "If this Yoda of Ben's really does exist, if he was ever here, I can't imagine he'd have lasted long. Yet if that was the case why would Ben tell me to... " he shook his head; he was just rambling now, and that wasn't a good sign. "I don't know. But it's almost as if... " he trailed off again, as he took another bite of his bar, taking in his surroundings once more, intrigued by it suddenly. He could swear he'd never seen this place before in his life, yet something about it... the feeling... it seemed to resound off a chord deep within him, undeniable yet unreadable...

(a low, familiar and soothing voice, a soft maternal hand caressing his cheek, shushing him gently, her warm flesh cradling him... )

"It's like there's something familiar about this place, Artoo... it's almost like... "

"Almost like what?" a croaking voice interrupted, prompting a shrill squeal from Artoo and nearly causing Luke to jump out of his skin; in a half second he and his blaster were pointed at the source of the voice. A frail-looking, trembling green figure - short, reaching to about Luke's knee, in tattered robes, his pointy-eared head hiding protectively behind gnarled fingers - stood not five feet from him. Luke wondered how the little guy had gotten so close without him noticing...

"Away put your weapon!" the creature cried, still hiding his head behind his hands, but peering out a corner of it just a bit. "I mean no harm. I - I simply wonder, for curious I am. Why are you here?"

Luke raised a cautious eyebrow, slowly lowering his blaster. After all, if things did decide to go hostile, the little guy would pretty much be carrying the short end of the stick in the conflict -literally, Luke saw; a twisted stick seemed to be in the creature's free hand, propping him up. "I'm looking for someone," he said slowly.

The creature's timid demeanor evaporated, and it turned suddenly bright green eyes towards him, hobbling its way closer to Luke's camp. "Looking? Found someone you have I would say, mmm?" it laughed. Luke put away his blaster.

"Right," he said with an uncertain laugh. He was beginning to get the distinct impression this creature was going to be more of an annoyance than a threat. He supposed he could handle that...

"Help you I can, yes... "

Luke smiled. "I don't think so. The person I'm looking for is a great warrior." Though the moment he said it he became uncertain; after all, so far, this being was the only sentient being on this planet they'd encountered (and it even spoke Basic, at that); if he knew this Yoda...

"Warrior? Great?" The creature seemed to find this amusing; Luke didn't see why. "Make one great, wars certainly do not," it continued with a sniff, again reversing the normal word order of the sentence - why was it that he spoke like that? Luke wondered.

At that moment it seemed to find something of interest in the pile of crates; he threw one open and immediately began rummaging. Despite himself Luke felt an unbidden flash of annoyance; yes, Leia had told him all about the necessity of politeness when in contact with a new species (what species was this thing anyway? Not something he recognized... ), but when that other species wasn't exactly making its own efforts towards common courtesy - in this case, respecting one's personal belongings - it certainly was hard...

"Would you get out of there?" Luke asked, stifling the annoyance and not being entirely successful. The creature ignored him, and continued happily throwing things out of the crate onto the muddy ground. Objects Luke needed if he were ever going to survive... now he was irritated. "You're just making a mess," he sighed in exasperation, picking up the tools - which now were coated in a thin greenish swath of mud - and gingerly placing them back in the box. The creature continued to pay him no heed.

It was one thing to be curious about a new being, as this fellow evidently seemed to be. But to utterly disregard someone when they were making repeated attempts at communication...

The creature stopped rummaging suddenly, holding up a small object as a trophy in apparent delight. The tip of it flicked on and Luke recognized the small shape of his emergency light. Something he definitely could not afford to lose; especially seeing as it was the only one he had. He reached for it, but the creature yanked it away protectively, eyeing Luke caustically. "Mine!" it declared. "Or help you I will not."

"I don't care. I need my lamp, especially if I'm going to get out of this mud hole."

The creature seemed to take offense at this, its pointy ears drooping slightly. "Mudhole? But my home this -"

Apparently the being had failed to notice that during this exchange, Artoo had quietly positioned himself not too far behind him, and had slowly extended his grasping arm, ready to seize the glowing light from the creature's hand. At the last second the creature caught the droid's whirring sound, and promptly whirled on Artoo, whacking him with his stick with one hand and fighting for possession of the light with the other - pretty well; Luke could hear the whirring increase as Artoo strained to get the light. "Mine!" the being shouted repeatedly, "Mine!" it finally yanked the lamp free, thunking Artoo with his stick and hmph-ing triumphantly. Oh, let him have it, Luke thought - he'd survived on less before, surely he'd find some way to manage without it. And maybe, now that the creature appeared to have what it wanted, it would leave him be...

"No. Stay and help you I will!" the creature declared suddenly as if in response; had Luke been thinking out loud? That wasn't something he usually did. "Find this friend, mmm?"

"I'm not looking for a friend, little fella. If you must know, I'm looking for a Jedi Master."

The ears on the creature suddenly perked up, and the creature's eyes widened as it stared up at Luke. "A Jedi Master, you seek?" it asked in apparent awe. Luke's own curiosity was piqued; judging by its reaction the creature was clearly familiar or had at least heard of the Jedi, maybe there was in fact one on this planet somewhere... "Why?"

"I was told I would find him here," Luke replied slowly.

The creature nodded emphatically. "Yoda. It is Yoda you seek, mmm?"

All of Luke's previous annoyance evaporated to the gray mists around him, and he immediately stooped down to the creature. So there was in fact someone named Yoda... and if this creature knew him, then he probably was not too far away... "Do you know Yoda?" Luke asked him eagerly.

The creature nodded even more emphatically. "Yes, yes! Take you to him I will, if you like," it replied, breaking out into a sudden fit of chuckles. "Come. Take you to Yoda I will, but first eat we must. Good food it is, not this gunk." He poked disapprovingly at the remains of Luke's ration bar. It began walking away into the mists, going a little ways before it stopped and turned back to Luke, waving the little lamp.

"Come on!"

Luke glanced at the creature uncertainly, then back at Artoo, who twittered softly. Luke exhaled and put his blaster in his holster, reaching for his father's lightsaber as well. For a moment Luke relished the feel of the cool metal of the hilt in his palm, wondering what his father had been thinking when he had wielded this same weapon... it was the only tangible connection (aside from his own presence, of course) Luke had to his father, but still speaking of a legacy he knew he had the duty to uphold. If not for himself... then for Anakin Skywalker. And if this little creature could lead him to it...

Luke stood up quickly, attaching the saber to his belt and quickly snatching a couple of rations (just to be on the safe side, he told himself). "Stay here and watch the camp, Artoo. I'll be back in a while."

The droid chittered loudly in protest and began wobbling back and forth on his wheels as Luke walked away, and who could blame him. He wouldn't like being alone anymore than Luke did.

Anymore than Leia, in her seething, closed-off emotional state, probably did...

Shunting his thoughts about how much he suddenly missed her - and wished she were here with him - out of his mind, he trudged off through the mud after the little creature, squinting through the gray fog.

Doing some of the work on the ship had seemed like a good idea. For one thing, Leia preferred being a member of the crew to being an unwanted passenger. For another, concentrating on a cracked generator took her mind of many, many other things.

She watched the soldering beam play along the fine crack in the steel, leaving first a bright orange line, then the clean, silvery bandage that was supposed to hold it together. She'd believe that when they jumped into hyperspace and away from the Imperial fleet.

In the next compartment, she could hear Threepio and the Falcon conversing in a strange combination of whistles and beeps. Threepio made some kind of complaint to Han, who bellowed, "Well, of course I'll have to replace it!" The tone suggested to Leia that Threepio had given him a piece of information he'd never suspected.

She held the beam near the top for a moment, then pulled it away. The crack was as sealed as it was going to get. She pushed the generator back into the wall, and swung the access door shut. Too simple. She needed something that would take -


She pulled her hand away, wrist hurting. She hadn't even been looking at the locking mechanism as she went to close it, and her hand had turned a fast half of its radius before she noticed that the handle wasn't moving with her. It was frozen in its original position.

Shaking the kinks out of her wrist, she took a tighter grip, and backed it up with her left hand.


Nothing. She might as well have been trying to move the whole bulkhead.

"Come on, come on... "

Another shove at the mechanism did nothing to improve the situation, so she tried a slow, steady push, putting her entire body weight behind it. The strain spread across her chest, drawing her muscles tight and hard across her breastbone, so that she could feel each beat of her heart. The muscles in her abdomen shook, and the back of her neck took on a dull, throbbing ache.

She released her breath and opened her eyes.

It hadn't budged.

The rage flew up out of nowhere. Everything... the rebellion... the deserters... her parents. . and now, on top of everything else, she couldn't finish the simplest part of the only task she'd been assigned in her own rescue. She slammed her fist into the access door, over and over, and kicked the wall beneath it.

Stupid, idiotic, stop this...

But that train of thought only made her angrier. She couldn't even control herself? She was supposed to -

Large hands closed around her wrists gently, and she felt herself pulled away from the access door. "Hey, watch it, Your Worship," Han said, amiably enough. "We're trying to fix her, not break her."

He moved in front of her, blocking her view of the offending mechanism. Her rage cooled somewhat with it out of sight. "What else could possibly go wrong here?"

He shrugged, not letting go of her wrists, though his thumbs moved up and started to caress her palms. "You're wound up, Your Highnessness."

Leia stared coolly down at their hands, trying to make him see that his attentions were inappropriate (if not exactly unwelcome). "If you're going to stand there fondling my hands, you may as well call me Leia." She tried to spit it out acerbically, but the tone seemed not to have any effect.

Han smiled. "Leia, then. I think I can do that." He let go of her left hand, and used his free hand to pull the glove from her right. The rough skin of his thumb skated across the bowl of her palm, and he leaned in closer. She could feel his breath on her forehead, stirring the stray bits of hair that weren't caught up in her braids. "Leia. You want to calm down? You know you think I'm all right."

"Sometimes. Occasionally. When you're not... "

"Not what?"

"Not acting like a scoundrel."

He just blinked and shook his head at the old-fashioned word. "I like that," he said. "That's good. Scoundrel. Will you tell me what's wrong?"

Instinctively, she tried to pull away, but he held tight to her, and she felt all her mental blocks straining, ready to break. The words were trying to fight their way up past her lips, but she clamped her mouth shut against them. "Let go." She spit the command out in small bites. "Stop that."

"Stop what?"

"Stop that." She looked pointedly at their hands. He ignored her, so she decided to draw his attention more directly. "My hands are dirty."

He laughed, but didn't let go. "My hands are dirty too." His face grew more serious, and he drew still closer to her, and she could feel herself drawing closer to him. "What are you afraid of, Leia?"

"I'm not afraid... "

"You like me because I'm a scoundrel... "

For a moment, Leia was lost in his eyes, in the feel of his hands, but then another image intervened, an image she hated. She saw her mother, standing at her father's side, lulled by whatever was between them into abandoning the galaxy to suit her own needs. Mother, standing on a Star Destroyer, her hands caressed by the leather-clad thumbs of her husband... You need me to protect you, my love...

"NO!" she shouted, pulling her hands away and turning from him. The image didn't fade. She could see them, touching one another, slipping into dark oblivion together. Mother's voice, so high and soft, whispering to him...

There was silence from Han, even after nearly a minute. She turned back to him.

He was standing sullenly beside the access door, watching her with wounded eyes. Abruptly, he reached behind himself, worked the sticky locking mechanism - the door sealed with a thundering clang - and stalked off to the cockpit.

Leia felt some part of herself wrenched away and carried with him.

It was better this way. Better not to become... distracted.

(Distracted from what? Your ruminations about your parents? Your unhealthy obsession with them? What exactly is Han distracting you from, Your Worship?)

From, from...

Her head throbbed dully, and the palms of her hands tingled along the paths his thumb had traveled. She could still feel the space he had filled in the air beside her, humming like a loose wire.

I'm not giving my life into anyone else's control.

(Han's got zero interest in controlling you. It would bore him to tears. And for that matter, if you insist on looking at your parents, where do you think the control really is there?)

A shadow moved in the cockpit, and Leia could see Han in her mind, leaning over the controls, then slumping back into the pilot's seat. She thought of his breath on her skin, his voice in her ears.

She wondered, not quite idly, if this was what it felt like to her mother, seeing the man she loved


close enough to touch, feeling him needing her, feeling his hurt at her rejection.

I'm stronger than my mother.

(Oh really? So why is she the only one whose control you'll permit?)

She's not controlling me.

(Then why are you letting her interfere with your decisions?)

Suddenly, her head stopped hurting, and the phantoms around her, clamoring for her attention, dissipated. Why was she letting her parents do this to her?

She'd wanted Han holding her hands. She wanted him to kiss her. She wanted to kiss him back. She hadn't noticed those things until he'd actually touched her, but once she knew them, she couldn't un-know them, anymore than she could lose the knowledge she'd gained when the scarlet veils had dropped from her mother's face. But that had opened a route into hell. This... she didn't know where this route led, but she trusted Han not to let her get hurt.

"To hell with them," she muttered, and, before her resolve could falter, marched into the cockpit.

Han looked around bitterly, but she didn't give him a chance to look away and not stand up. She bent over him, put her hands on his shoulders, and pressed her lips down on his.

He started to draw away in surprise, but that reaction ended quickly. His arms came up around her, and he started to return her kiss as he stood up, cradling her more securely in his arms. "Leia, what... " he managed.

"I'll tell you. Later. Kiss me now."

He seemed more than happy to oblige.


Somewhere in the distance, Leia could swear she heard Threepio.


Han broke away, with a pained expression on his face that Leia found funny, though she knew it was mirrored on her own. Threepio, oblivious to his etiquette violation (a major flaw in his programming, Leia thought, given his primary function), was waving his arms in an excited way. "Yeah?" Han said.

"I've isolated the reverse power flux coupling!"

Han smiled in a defeated way. "Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome, sir."

"I better work on getting us out of here," Han said. "Hold that thought."

He left the cockpit.

"Sir... "Threepio started.

"Not another word, Goldenrod."

"Well!" Threepio exclaimed to no one in particular. "Impossible man!"

Her hands were clenched so tightly around the armrests of her chair that pain shot up to her elbows. She was leaned forward slightly, her mouth set in a thin line, her brow deeply furrowed. Her eyes were narrowed almost into slits, focused completely on the comm recorder her husband was about to activate. To playback Palpatine's message.


Piett had been nervous when he informed her husband of the recording. Anakin was not surprised - he had expected that some sort of move would be made soon, and this was less far aggressive than he had anticipated for the opening salvo.

As for herself? She had only one reaction - fury.

Fury that flamed throughout her chest and set her nerves on edge. And it wasn't because of the message, or the threat that it undoubtedly carried. It was the mere mention of his name. Just the thought of him.

Her husband activated the player, and the frail form of the Emperor shook through the static and emerged before them. His arms crossed, as always, in his smug superiority; his face shrouded by the oversize hood; his tone condescending and mocking.

"My foolish apprentice. Did you really believe that I would be unprepared for this day? I have known of your scheming since the day you 'reunited' with your wife."

She only half-heard the words. Most times, Amidala was able to channel her anger into productive actions - actions that would eventually lead to Palpatine's dethroning - but there were moments when she could do little more than seethe.

"By the time you receive this message, significant steps will have been taken to remove the trivial threat that you - and those blind enough to follow you - might pose to the Empire."

No injustice or sorrow existed in her life, or in the Galaxy, that couldn't be traced to him as the root cause. He took Anakin away. Forced her to give up and separate her children. Ruined her homeworld. Left her to rot in an Imperial prison for decades.

"It is unfortunate that you have so completely overestimated your power and your worth, Lord Vader."

Of course, she had never been blind to the fact that Anakin had chosen to side with him, and help him. That her husband had hurt her in such a way was something she would have to live with for the rest of her life.

"The forces you have managed to assembled are small, and will be easily contained by those still loyal to me."

But, honestly... how could she continue to resent her husband for something she had done herself, in a way? Anakin had argued with her that their situations were not the same, and she knew he was probably correct... but hadn't she gotten Palpatine elected as Chancellor in the first place? Supported his early policies? Fallen for all of his tricks and manipulations when the Wars started?

"And as for your worth to me... I believe it will be quite easy to acquire a new apprentice. "

Both of them had been thoroughly used by him, and it left her with a tainted feeling that would never completely disappear until she - with her family by her side - rid the Galaxy of his evil.

"If you should see your son on Hoth before I find him, let him know I am impressed that he has already acquired some skill... As you know, Lord Vader, I find it easier to begin training those who have had some Jedi instruction."

Amidala snapped out of reverie, but said nothing. Her husband also bristled sharply.

"In the end, things have occurred as I once warned you they would. You have allowed your feelings for that woman to cloud your judgment, and it has led to the loss of everything I have provided you. But that is no longer my concern. This marks the end of your insurrection."

The imaged crackled and faded away.

"No," she whispered softly. "This marks the beginning." Her posture finally relaxed, and she sat back in the chair. "He won't get his hands on either of them. We'll find Luke before he even has a chance to make a move."

"Leia will be onboard shortly," he replied. "And I believe that once we have her... searching Luke out will become a much easier task."

Before she could ask him to clarify what he meant, a loud crash sounded from the outside. Another meteor had hit - and they felt the ship slow down even more.

"I should return to the bridge to supervise the pursuit," he said. She nodded, and he quickly left.

Amidala immediately stood and crossed the room to delete the message. The last pretense at a tie between her family and the Emperor was gone. Now, it was finally time to make him pay, and set things right.

Yoda sighed as the young one's complaining came forth again, filling the whole of his tiny home, even with the rain pouring outside.

"I'm sure the stew is fine," Luke Skywalker said from his position across the tiny central chamber of Yoda's home, his voice rippling through the calm core of the Force Yoda had surrounded himself with. Yoda lifted his eyes to stare into the familiar blue ones tinged with impatience; looking into them was like looking into the eyes of the past. (No doubt Obi-Wan thought this as well; Yoda easily felt the strong, unwavering presence of his long-ago pupil nearby; only he had chosen not to manifest himself visually. Perhaps as heeding Yoda's earlier advice, or simply as a test to observe Luke's actions toward Yoda unbiased by his own presence.)

Only with this Skywalker it was different. The eyes of his father, set in the face of his mother. It was as if both Anakin and Amidala, two old friends now irrevocably lost by their own narrow-minded desires, looked upon him at that moment, though there was no way the boy could have known that.

And he was here alone, which disturbed Yoda more than almost all else. Come without his sister, whom left alone and untrained was even more dangerous than Luke. For she, while of great power like her father, was also filled with a great hatred against the parents who she perceived at having wronged her; even now, reaching out to the battered and bleeding pulse of the Force, her anger rose out above all the other angry currents... if he could certainly sense them and if her father knew of her, as was unfortunately likely the case with Amidala at his side, no doubt he'd sense her. Angry and powerful, a deadly mixture which had claimed Anakin all those years ago - and now threatened his offspring.

It was more urgent than ever that the boy should be trained, for he was still possessed of a clean mind regarding his parents, even if it was a stubborn one.

His father's impatience, but his mother's stubbornness and calmly contemplative nature. He was more so like Amidala than any knew, including the Vaders themselves.

"But it's imperative that I speak to Yoda now. More so than you could know."

Presumptuous you are, young one. "How so, hmm? More important than nourishing properly yourself?"

Luke glanced absently down at the small clay bowl of rootleaf stew in his hands, waving just as absently at the mists of steam rising from the dish. "Much more. The lives of my friends depend on my getting in contact with Master Yoda. "

"How know you this, young one?"

"Why do you care?" young Skywalker asked him.

"Impolite you are, hmm?" Yoda poked him sharply in the side with his gimer stick, causing the youth to flinch back (though not without shooting him a distinctly annoyed look) then chewed the other end thoughtfully. "No respect for your elders you have."

"I'm sorry," he said quickly and somewhat unconvincingly, shaking his head. "But respect for my elders isn't going to get me any closer to Yoda."

Few things in this dark day and age made Yoda laugh boisterously; but then there were certain things that couldn't help being laughed at.

Which didn't amuse Skywalker a bit; his voice rose directly along with the annoyance he clearly broadcasted through the Force. "What's so funny?"

"So focused you are on one thing. Not think about the little things, you do. Sometimes things that seem little wind up not so little in their accomplishments. Narrow-minded you are."

"Later on doesn't matter now, all right? I need to be able to help them now." The youth slammed down the bowl he'd been picking stew out of and sighed in exasperation. Yoda exhaled a sigh and leaned forward on his gimer stick, seeking out the presence of Obi-Wan once more.

A trial, this one was going to be, he thought, as he looked in regret at the hilt of the saber of the elder, fallen Skywalker hanging from the youth's waist. And he said as much to Obi-Wan.

"No more so than I was," Kenobi responded verbally, sharply drawing young Skywalker's head up in shock; he prepared to stand up but realized too late the lowness of the ceiling, paying for it with a solid thunk on the head.

"Too much like them, he is."

"More so like her he is, Master." Skywalker's ears perked quite noticeably at the use of the title.

"What frightens me most. Most damage her words will cause, on the ears of the ones most willing to listen. Who are like of mind as she. Afford to have him swayed by her, we cannot."

"Perhaps being of her like mind is not so bad as you think. Anger does not fill his heart, and she was always more calm of mind than my student."

"More dangerous, that calculating mind... especially when combined with the impatience of his father, it is."

"Does it make it any different that he is the one we need to train, Master?"

"Master," Luke breathed quietly, shaking his head in disbelief. "It can't be... Yoda?"

He turned his gaze once more to the boy. "Impossible nothing is, young Skywalker."

"I'm so sorry," Luke said. "If I had known -"

"Changed your opinion, it would have?" Yoda pointedly interrupted, jabbing him once more with the gimer stick. "Dangerous your frame of thought is, young one. Hasty you are in making decisions. Narrow of mind. A Jedi cannot afford to be these things. Reckless you are."

"As was I, you recall," Obi-Wan spoke up in the boy's defense.

"As was his father," Yoda reminded him quietly.

"He is not his father, or his mother."

"What about my parents?" young Skywalker piped up, but Yoda spoke on as if the question had never been posed.

"Yet to be seen, that is, Padawan." Yoda closed his eyes and let out a breath, opening them again to face Luke. "But right he is, young Skywalker. No longer choosy can I afford to be in whom I train. Were the princess here I might afford it. But now her existence, and that of so much else, rests in even more peril than your own."

"I know. And I can help her - Ben, Master, I can change, if that's what you need, if that's what it takes to be a Jedi. I'll do it," he went on eagerly, passionately - he recalled another young Skywalker pleading like this so long ago, only this time the voice not so full of anger. "I'll do whatever it takes to help her."

Solemnity crept into the Jedi Master's heart, and into his tone. "Know that I do... and fear it most."

Silence filled the room with its heavy thickness, as Luke could only find a stunned, confused expression as his response.

I did it, Leia thought gleefully. I did it and I'm glad I did.

She sank into the pilot's seat with a smile. Let Chewie or Threepio come in and wonder what she was thinking about. At the moment, she might even be inclined to tell. I did it. I took my life back. It was right there in Han's kiss all along.

"So there," she whispered to her mother, sticking her tongue out playfully. "So there." She even laughed a little, and was still laughing when something wet and heavy plopped onto the transparisteel right in front of her.

She looked at it with vague curiosity. Then something in it pulsed, and she suddenly remembered that they were in unknown territory. And she noticed that the thing was gross. The laugh turned into a little scream, and she pushed away from the control panel. "Han!" she called.


She got up and went into the corridor. Han was closing up one of the maintenance panels. "There's something out there," she said.


"It landed on the cockpit window. I don't know what it is. Some kind of tentacle. It looked like suction."

His face fell. "Come on. We're going out."


"I just got this bucket back together. I'm not going to let something tear it apart."

"Then I'm going with you!"

For a wonder, he didn't argue. He just tossed her a breath mask, and she pulled it on, amazed that she wasn't spending precious moments obsessing over the obvious comparison. Chewie grabbed one as well, and the three of them went down the gangplank even before it finished lowering. Threepio was muttering something about staying behind to guard the ship.

She went out a little too quickly, and almost lost her balance. She'd have to remember that being lighthearted wasn't an excuse for acting lightheaded. She gathered herself and drew her blaster, going further into the cave. It was steamy in here.

Why would a cave on an asteroid be steamy?

She frowned and looked down. There was a light fog or mist around her ankles, and the ground under her feet gave strangely, as if she were walking on sods laid over loose snow. "The ground feels funny," she said to Han, who was picking his way along a meter or so to her left. "It doesn't feel like rock."

He glanced back at her, looking puzzled. She didn't like that. She had traveled widely, but until the last few years, it had been in the rarified atmosphere of diplomatic mutual hand washing. Since the Death Star, she'd depended on Han to be able to size up less-than-optimal surroundings (Luke having had even less experience than she had). She didn't like it at all that he didn't look sure of himself here.

There was a long, soft screech, and Leia looked involuntarily toward the rear of the cave, where Chewie was making his way around the Falcon. Something was descending and moving toward them, moving on the fog on membranous wings. Han raised his blaster, and the flash of the laser illuminated the cave in shades of red and gray. The flying thing fell near Han's feet, and he stooped to examine it.

"That's what I thought," he said. "Mynocks. Probably feeding on the power lines."

"Mynocks... " Leia repeated. There was something wrong with that, something she wasn't quite connecting to. Mynocks lived in a lot of atmospheres...

An asteroid wasn't supposed to have an atmosphere, at least not one this thick.

Panic birds began pecking at her stomach, and she caged them only with difficulty. Panic would not be helpful to her. "Han... "

The floor of the asteroid trembled a bit, and Han stood up, the puzzlement on his face fading into disgust... but disgust that seemed to hold some kind of idea, which was a relief to Leia, whatever the idea happened to be. She didn't have any of her own, except for the odd sense that something was really not what it seemed.

Han pointed his blaster at the cave floor, and she understood what he meant to do only a second before he did it. She only had time to say his name, to hope that he would stop before they irrevocably knew that they had to leave.

But it didn't stop him. He fired.

The response was immediate. The cave started thrashing and undulating. Han grabbed her elbow, and called to Chewie, pulling all of them back up the gangplank. He started to raise it, ripping off his breath mask as her ran toward the cockpit. "We're getting out of here!" he yelled back at her.

The panic birds broke out of their cage. Leia felt her eyes go wide. But she didn't respond to them with the despair or anger that had become her habit since she'd seen her mother's transmission. Instead, she answered as she would have all her life - by taking command. "I don't think that's wise," she said, catching herself as the ship tossed to one side. "The Empire is still out there -"

"No time to discuss this in committee!" Han cut her off.

Chewie brushed past her and threw himself into the co-pilot's seat. Threepio clattered up from wherever he'd been and installed himself at her side.

Don't start the engines, she thought. Don't start them. Whatever this is, what's out there is worse. Don't take me back out to them.

But she recognized that for what it was: suicide. She could feel the cave getting ready to go around them. At least against the Empire, there was a chance. And it would be better to die in battle than in hiding.

The engines kicked in, and Han lifted up the landing gear without even waiting for Leia to strap herself in. She grabbed hold of the back of his seat. Threepio grabbed hold of her.

The Falcon turned, and she saw how close they were cutting it. Far ahead, she could see the mouth of the cave, becoming narrower and narrower.

"The cave is collapsing!" Threepio cried.

"This is no cave," Han said.

Then Leia saw everything, and didn't know how she'd missed it. The walls were wet and red, and too perfectly smooth to be natural. There were no outcroppings. At least not until the mouth of the cave.

The mouth.

And those weren't outcroppings that were closing on them.

Han banked the Falcon and shot out between the teeth.

In the future, Leia would wish many times that Han had gone some other direction after escaping the cave. Any other direction, as long as she hadn't gotten a clear view of what they'd just left. She would never like to think about it.

But he didn't go another direction, and she saw it. As they sped away, trying to find a clear path through the asteroids, the impossibly large, eyeless head of the slug pushed its way out of the cave, snapping its giant teeth at them as if the Falcon were just an insect.

It missed them and went back into its lair, but Leia knew exactly how close that had been. There was no way to stay safe there, no way to hide inside that place.

But now, she was back on the outside. In the path of the Empire.

Headed straight into her parents' arms.

There had been a time in Luke's life when he would have considered this much rain nothing short of a miracle. On Tatooine, the occasional violent thunderstorm - occasional as in about once every eight years - had about half this volume, for the space of ten minutes. It was a spectacular ten minutes - he'd been in Anchorhead during the last one, and the lightning had arced across the darkened desert sky, hopping mesas like a demon transport, the rain kicking dust into the air and realigning the landscape of the dunes - and it had never occurred to him how quickly it could get boring to watch water fall from the sky.

The rain on Dagobah hadn't stopped in the six hours he'd been here. It had presided over the crash of his X-wing, and droned on through his embarrassing first test before Yoda. It had whispered around the windows when Yoda revealed the truth, and underlaid Ben's voice when he'd appeared. And still, it poured. It showed no signs of nearing the end.

Luke had traveled enough for rain to lose its wonder and become ordinary; now it threatened to become... well, irritating. He was cold and wet, and his shoulder ached from some long-ago injury.

But he'd embarrassed himself enough tonight. He squatted outside the door of Yoda's hut, the rain soaking through his clothing and running off his hair and eyelashes in small waterfalls, and waited for Master Yoda to finish cleaning his kitchen.

Artoo rolled over to him, making sympathetic beeping noises, and bent forward. Luke had an absurd urge to lean forward himself, and touch his forehead to the droid's, just for the reasonable facsimile of human contact. Instead, he reached out his left hand, and patted Artoo just above the red light.

"I see the little droid is still with you."

Luke looked up. Ben was shimmering a few feet away, untouched by the rain. "We stick together," he said.

"The droid is more familiar to me than he once was." Luke didn't try to make sense of the obscure statement, and Ben went on almost immediately. "You think you've had a failure this evening, don't you?"

"Haven't I?"

"No, I think not. Your father did no better with Yoda on his first try."



Luke bit his lip. "Ben... Yoda mentioned my mother. No one has ever mentioned her to me. Did you know her?"

"Yes, of course I did."

"Am I like her?"

"In some ways, very much."

This bit of non-information almost broke Luke's will to be patient. In all his life, no one had ever spoken of his mother to him. He couldn't remember ever asking about her, of course, but still... someone could have volunteered... "In which ways?" he asked, when the fit of impatience faded back.

Ben looked away from him. "You are a good leader, Luke, a naturally sympathetic commander. You try to solve problems, to make peace among your men. Those are good things, Luke, and they are your mother's legacy to you."

Luke looked down at his hands, and watched the rainwater flow over them. Why hadn't he asked about her? It wasn't that he'd never thought of her at all. To be fair, he'd thought of his father frequently after fights with Uncle Owen - thinking along the lines of "If it were my father instead... " - and he'd rarely fought with Aunt Beru, so he'd never needed to pretend that someone else... "What was her name?" he asked.

It must have been drowned out by the rain, because Ben didn't answer. All he said was, "How I miss them."

Luke didn't get a chance to ask again, because the door to Yoda's hut opened, and the old Master hobbled out. He turned his face up to the rain, then looked across at Luke. "Well, young one," he said. "Ready to begin, we are." Incredibly, he smiled.

Ben's image faded into the steam and the rain, and Luke was left squatting beside his new master, not knowing what was supposed to happen, or who he would be when it was over.

Yoda leaned forward. "Ah," he said. "Here, wisdom begins."

"Anger, fear, aggression, the dark side are they," Yoda said from his perch on Luke's shoulder. "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will. As it did Obi-Wan's apprentice."

Luke stopped running. "Vader," he said.

Yoda nodded as Luke lowered him to the ground.

"Is the dark side stronger?" Luke asked.

"No. Quicker, easier. More seductive."

"How will I know the good side from the bad?"

Yoda sighed. "You will know. You must know."

"But how?"

"Hard to see, it is," Yoda admitted. "Judged by intent, it cannot be. Judged by appearance, it cannot be."

"I don't understand."

"Think, you do, that you can see the dark side in the Empire's ugliness. But beautiful can evil be! Seductive! Think, you do, that you can look at the ends they mean to accomplish and judge fairly. But the way of the dark side it is to corrupt what is good. Feel it, you must, padawan! Feel the chill of the dark side when it touches you. Know where the boundary lies, you must, or all is lost."

Luke, his body cooling from the exercise, opened his mind. And suddenly he could feel the chill. It wasn't a general sense, it was... directed somehow. Aimed at him. He looked toward it, and saw a gnarled tree, with roots that arched over the rocky entrance to a cave. "That tree," he said.

Yoda nodded, looking unhappy. "Strong it is with the dark side of the Force Into it you must go."

Luke stared at it frankly now, his feet unwilling to carry him to a place where the Force was so twisted and threatening. "What's in there?" he asked, pulling his weapons belt on.

"Only what you bring with you." Yoda examined him carefully. "Your weapons. You will need them not."

That didn't feel true. Something was there, something strange and alien. Luke didn't want to be unarmed against it. He shook his head, and forced his feet to move him forward. He had to duck as he entered the cave.

It didn't look much different from other caves he'd been in (with the exception of the ice cave on Hoth). The smooth rock floor was littered with the debris of animals, and outcroppings of stone interrupted the various surfaces at irregular intervals. Small reptiles and rodents appeared to den here. But there was something about the cave. It was just all wrong.

He descended through the mossy tendrils, pushing lizards and other small creatures out of the way as he went. His blaster sat heavily on his hip; his lightsaber was lighter in his hand. There was nothing overtly threatening in the cave but...

But there was something. It hovered in the air around him. He was being watched by the eyes of infinity, and they caressed his skin with reptilian claws. He was glad of the reassuring weight of his weapons, no matter what Yoda said. He didn't want to be alone in here.

He didn't know how long he'd been hearing the sound before he really registered it. It was so out of place, but still somehow so familiar, that the surreal combination made it seem part of the dream he was walking through. But as he drew closer, he began to notice it. Soft, quiet, gentle...


Luke drew up, hooking his lightsaber onto his belt. He felt puzzlement, of course, but underlying it was a deep sadness and an impenetrable sense of loss.

He came around a natural turn in the cave and saw her there. Her back was to him, and she was bending over something. A crib. He could see the rounded corners. She wore a blue dress, and her long, dark hair waved down her back. A single, shimmering sheath had draped down around her ear, hiding her profile, and the ends rested on the edges of the crib. Her voice was high and pure, and wordless lullaby was one that Luke remembered in his bones.

Mother, he tried to say, but nothing came out.

She seemed to sense him suddenly. Her shoulders went stiff, and her head tilted, just a little bit. She stopped singing, and seemed to listen.

"Mother," Luke managed to whisper. He didn't understand what he was seeing, but didn't care. He hadn't forgotten that this cave was a test of some sort, and he hadn't forgotten the sense of being watched. But it all seemed somehow unimportant.

His mother relaxed her posture, but didn't turn around. Instead, she seemed to forget that he was here. She started humming again.

"Please turn around... "

But she didn't. Luke tried to walk around her, to see her face. He didn't remember it, but he believed it would be beautiful, beautiful beyond all things. But as he walked, the scene before him turned along with him, so her back was always to him as she sang.

The humming slipped back into words. He didn't understand the language, but he seemed to get the idea that she wished him peace and solace, an end to the horrible conflicts that were pulling them apart. All he wanted, at that moment, was to sit in the shadows, and listen, and believe.

Maybe his eyes were closed, or maybe he wasn't looking when the shadow fell. Either way, quite suddenly, the sound of his mother's voice was covered with another sound, a horrible, gasping sound that Luke had heard in his nightmares since the Death Star. He had never heard it face to face in his waking life - Vader had been too far away to hear it in the docking bay - but he'd heard it in intercepted communications and security tapes, and he heard it always in the darkest part of night. The even, mechanical respiration slowly drowned out the melody of his mother's voice.

A rush of hate surged through Luke's body. Vader had already stolen his father, now he was stealing the first vision he'd ever had of his mother. It wasn't fair. It was intolerable. He rose from the shadows and ignited his lightsaber, turning toward the sound of labored breathing without looking.

Laser met laser in a loud and violent repulsion, and Vader advanced into the cave. Mother had stopped singing. Luke parried two blows from Vader, driving him back in anger and disgust. All he could think about was avenging his father, and saving his mother from whatever horror Vader had in mind for her.

Somehow, Vader was backed against a wall. He had a moment of distraction, and Luke took advantage of it. He swung his saber, full-force, at the armored monster. Sparks flew across the black chest as the control box erupted, and a moment later, Vader fell at Luke's feet. Triumph replaced rage, then worry replaced triumph. Mother had still not spoken.

Luke turned back to her. The crib was still standing in a strange green light, the babies inside of it

(babies? )

reaching helplessly into the air. Mother was sprawled out across the floor of the cave, her hands reaching out toward Luke.

Toward Vader.

Luke was just standing between them. He knelt beside her, and picked her up. Her hair still draped across her face somehow, but it didn't matter. A burned and blackened rip crossed her chest diagonally, the mirror of the wound Luke had dealt to Vader. She had stopped breathing, and lay completely motionless in his arms. "Mother... " he whispered. "Mother, no... "

Something thudded against his foot, and he saw the edge of Vader's helmet. A burst of fire exploded up from the faceplate, revealing the face under it, but Luke had no interest in looking. He saw only a blue eye before ignoring it again. It looked familiar, but what did that matter?

He let the helmet lie there beside him unnoticed, cradled his mother's body in his arms, and wept.

"My lord?"

Vader glanced over Piett's shoulder to the row of ensigns and petty officers that were standing at attention in a line on the far side of the bridge. He had instructed Piett to find a number of lower-level officers to carry out a new assignment, and only hoped that these dozen or so that were selected were competent enough to fulfill their mission.

Competent enough - and loyal enough.

A new consideration to be sure; one that he realized would effect every decision he made from now on. Every time he asked anyone to do anything, there was now an unstated, but paramount, question behind it - was the person willing to risk his life for this?

Vader strode purposefully to the men, and looked them over silently. They all seemed to feel the usual level of intimidation at his presence, but he didn't sense any true confusion about their purpose here, or about him as their commanding officer. That would do for now.

"Your orders are to capture the Millennium Falcon and bring its crew - alive and unharmed - before me. Whoever does so will be rewarded appropriately."

Just off to the side, Vader noticed Piett raise his eyebrows, a reaction that was quickly covered up. Apparently, he was worried at the implicit assumption that the Falcon would escape the Executor and this secondary plan would be necessary.

But this wasn't meant as a condemnation of Piett's performance to this point, no matter how the Admiral was taking it now. Vader had always made it a habit to have... other options... at his disposal whenever an important issue arose. And that was long before he had ever seriously contemplated moving against Palpatine. He had never trusted others to carry out what he needed done.

At least now he had afforded himself the luxury of relying on other officers instead of the more unsavory types he had previously used. Having his own portion of the fleet completely at his own disposal was a great benefit.

He turned his attention back to the officers. "You may use any methods you deem necessary, aside from deadly force. Dismissed."

The men nodded, and quickly left, heading off to implement whatever individual plans they had to capture the Falcon.

"My lord?" Piett began.

"Yes, Admiral."

"If the Falcon wishes to escape the fleet, they will be forced to leave the asteroid field eventually in order to find a clear path... once they do, I will not allow them to escape, my lord."

Vader nodded, indicating his approval of Piett's words. And then, as if to prove what the Admiral had said, another officer on the bridge spoke up.

"Admiral, my Lord - we have them."

Han didn't harbor any illusions about an easy getaway. Once he was clear of the questionable protection of the asteroid field, it would be a race for enough open space to jump to hyperspace. If he could make it that far without the Empire blowing them out of the sky, they had a fair chance of making it out of this. But it was iffy. Maneuverability and speed were his assets, but even he wasn't sure how far they'd go against half of the Imperial fleet.

The fact that so many Star Destroyers were after him, rather than chasing the other Rebels to the rendezvous point, was a curiosity that he would have to consider at a later time. Better for the Rebellion, but that wasn't going to help the Falcon.

He could see the beginning of open space not far away, but the storm of rock in the asteroid field became more and more agitated as he approached it. A large rock careened toward him, and he barely had time to duck under it before it hit. It went on toward the Star Destroyer (Avenger, the readout on the control panel told him uselessly), only to shatter harmlessly on the hull of the behemoth. Imperial technology did what it was designed to do, Han had to give it that.

"Oh thank goodness!" Threepio said from his perch behind Leia. "We're coming out of the asteroid field!"

Han bit back a remark. Threepio would surrender to the Empire without thinking twice, and it would never occur to him that they'd break him down for spare parts, or at the very least, completely erase his memory. Threepio irritated Han to no end, but even he didn't deserve that.

A bark from Chewie - no words, just a sound of desperation - told Han that they'd cleared the asteroid field, and the next hit to rock the ship was the sharp vibration of a laser bolt. It jolted to one side, and Han had to fight with the controls to keep on course.

No more time to waste. Space wasn't as clear as he'd like it for the jump, but it had to be done. "Ready for light-speed?" he asked Chewie.

There was wholehearted agreement.

Han pulled down firmly on the lever...

... and the engine made a wheezing, squeaking sound, then all but quit.

No time to panic.

He cut the sub-lights back in, only giving in to the panic long enough to shout, "It's not fair!"

Chewie banged on the control panel.

Leia sighed, and sank into her seat.

"It's not my fault," Han muttered, but he felt like it was. Somehow or other, it undoubtedly added up to being his fault.

Another blast shook the ship, harder than before.

Threepio was the only one watching the readouts. "Sir! We've lost our rear deflector shields!"

Damn. One more hit...

There was a flare of light suddenly, and Han's eyes were drawn to it, even in the middle of this. Two canons on the side of the Avenger were left in ruins.

A third cannon fired again, and this time, Han saw the whole thing, but didn't understand it at all. The Super Star Destroyer turned its guns on the Avenger and blasted entire starboard armory. Another Star Destroyer swooped in, firing at the Super Star Destroyer...

"What the -"

Leia moaned, deep in her throat, and fell back into her chair, eyes wide, staring at the Super Star Destroyer.

It didn't matter what was going on. All that mattered was that the Empire was distracted. Han swooped around and moved into attack position. "Chewie! Put all power on the front shield!"

Leia got it first. "Han, don't try to attack, please, just... "

But there was only one chance, and Han had to take it. He had to get in the radar shadows, and the distraction would let him do it.

Another blast went out of the Super Star Destroyer, taking out another weapons array on the Avenger. The window wouldn't be very big.

Threepio piped up. "Sir, the odds of surviving... "

"Shut up!" Leia sounded more miserable than scared, and Han could see, from the corner of his eye, that her eyes were wide, and she was biting her lip. Her hand landed on his shoulder like an iron vice.

"This is it, Sweetheart," he said.

"I can't, Han... don't, please... if they capture us... please, don't let them take me away."

Even in the middle of this, Han heard her words, and recoiled from them. He knew she'd had it bad on the Death Star, but to just...

He didn't know what was terrifying her, but he knew that she was strong enough to get through it. He'd do everything he could to get them out of this in one piece, but he wasn't going to let her die, and he sure as hell wasn't going to help her do it. She might hate him for it, but she'd be alive to do it.

He looked at her, then leaned over and kissed her quickly. "It's the only way."

Then he turned away, and accelerated toward the Avenger.

Captain Needa was lost, utterly unsure of the situation.

Admiral Ozzel had given orders from the Iron Will, to fire at the Rebel ship on sight, with deadly force. His orders had come straight from Coruscant. "Enough gentle handling of this scum," had been the exact phrase. But as soon as he'd begun, the warning shot had come from the Executor, from Lord Vader. Needa gathered quickly enough that Vader disagreed with Ozzel. Perhaps he hadn't gotten word from the Emperor yet. Perhaps there was a communications problem.

He'd fired at the Rebel freighter again.

And the Executor had turned on him, fired against him.

He stared out at the edge of the asteroid field, where the freighter danced in the black of space.

"Sir!" an aide called. He turned. The aide saluted. "Sir, orders from the Executor. Take them alive."

"I... "

Needa turned back to the viewport, then looked at the Executor. It was firing on the Iron Will now. What in the name of the Imperium was happening?

An alarm sounded insistently, and Needa turned again, in time to see the freighter moving into attack position.

"What are they doing?" But that wasn't an order. "Shields up!" he shouted. "Shields!"

The freighter grew quickly in the viewport, a suicide run that Needa could think of no way to defend, even if he'd had his guns.

Then it veered up and out of sight.

The bridge was silent.

Finally, a technician spoke up. "They no longer appear on our scopes, Captain."

It took a moment for it to sink in. No matter what happened from now on with that ship, Needa was in deep trouble. Either it was destroyed, or it had escaped. Either was unacceptable. "They can't have disappeared," he said, hoping that his voice sounded surer than he felt. "They're too small for a... "

Another blast from the Executor rocked the Avenger, and the comm-signal started to blink.

Well, there was one thing Needa still had control of, and responsibility for. He wouldn't let his crew suffer for this.

"Prepare my shuttle," he said. "I will take responsibility for this. And... discuss this situation with Lord Vader. Perhaps it can still be saved."

No one really believed it, but Needa went forward nonetheless.

Ozzel wondered morbidly just how far Vader's grip could possibly reach. In the short time they had served together, no distance had been far enough for his comfort. He would never admit it to anyone, but a large part of his relief in coming to the Iron Will was the knowledge that he no longer had to command under a cloud of terror. This was his vessel. He was in charge. He was safe. After all, whatever strange powers Vader had at his disposal couldn't possibly be felt from ship to ship.

At least he hoped not. But he couldn't continue to deny the shadowy feeling of a hand tightening around his throat. It was oddly painless, but his skin tingled and he had to take a deep breath or two to reassure himself that he was fine.

Besides, if Lord Vader were truly capable of such a thing, Ozzel had no doubt that he would be dead already.

That thought was strangely comforting. He stuck his fingers down his collar and tugged at it, convinced that he felt a little better.

He's not here.

He can't threaten you now.

Unless, perhaps, you counted firing on the Iron Will. Or, perhaps, starting an Imperial civil war.


Ozzel's eyes shifted warily to the Captain before him.

"Your orders, sir?"

His orders.

Where had that Rebel ship gone anyway? He didn't care one way or the other about it, or who was on it, or why the Vaders would take such a patently aggressive move to protect it. He just needed that ship to reappear again, to at least give him the pretense of something to focus on.

Whether or not he fired on it again, or attempted to disable and board it, or simply pursued it... it didn't matter. As long as he had something to do that didn't involve directly dealing with the Vaders, he would be fine.

But the ship was completely gone. Not even a radar trace.


"You will await my orders, Captain," he snapped in a panicked irritation. His eyes shifted to the Executor.

He should attack. Now. The Emperor had given him permission to do so if the Vaders made their traitorous intentions known. He could not let such a naked act of aggression against the Empire stand. The time had come for to act.

"Captain, what is the status of the other ships?"

"Both the Avenger and Executor are on standby."

Ozzel swallowed hard, and the tickling sensation returned, almost causing him to gag. Perhaps the Vaders were not ready for a full-out conflict just yet. Maybe they were still waiting, and trying to feel him out.

Well, he certainly would not give the Empire's new enemies the chance to score an early victory. Ozzel knew that he could not prevail against a Super Star Destroyer - he would be easily outgunned and overwhelmed. If he could count on Needa and the Avenger to come to his defense, they might stand a chance... but how was he to know where their loyalties lay at this point?

"Stand down, Captain, all weapons."

A strategic retreat was the wisest option, once he determined what Vader had planned. Then he could make contact with the Emperor again, their forces could regroup, and they would properly deal with the threat presented.

He was sure that the Emperor, in his great wisdom, would understand his decision in this situation.

With another tug at his collar, Ozzel waited for Vader to make the next move.

Ani was in a rage.

Amidala avoided him, though she knew it would never turn on her - he would turn his anger on himself long before he turned it on her. She just didn't like seeing this side of him.

His rages had stopped being fiery years ago. There were no maddened cries, no soldiers thrown off around her. No. Ani's rage was ice now, and as implacable as a glacier. It disturbed her.

She was disturbed enough. The Falcon had disappeared again.

She stood at the viewport, her hands splayed against it. So close! Again!

What if they were destroyed? What if Ozzel destroyed them? What if you saved his life only so he could kill your daughter?

It wasn't true. She knew it wasn't true. But what if?

A hatch opened, and four stormtroopers led an officer in. She didn't recognize him, and had no business with him. He went toward Ani.

What if they were simply destroyed trying to escape us? Then it would be our fault. Leia's blood would be on my hands.

She looked down at her hands, softly red in the secret space under the veil. Neatly polished fingernails (kept short to make sure she never tore Ani's thin skin), long fingers, lines beginning to creep along the surface. If I have killed my own daughter...

She heard a gasp, and turned. Too late.

The officer was on his hands and knees on the ground, his face strained with exertion. He fell forward and all movement stopped.

She felt her eyes go wide. What was I doing? Why didn't I stop that? Where was I... ? But it all faded into a dumbstruck hum. "My Lord?" she said.

Ani didn't pay attention. "Apology accepted, Captain Needa," he said.

Her stomach seemed suddenly cold and slimy inside her body, and she thought she might be ill. "My Lord, I... "

But she was interrupted by Captain - by Admiral Piett. "My Lord, we've completed our scan. There's no trace of the ship."

"I see," Ani said, stepping toward him threateningly.

Don't just stand back!

Amidala forced her feet to move, and she stepped into Ani's circle, to a place where she knew he would both see and feel her. She said nothing, but she could see the nearly imperceptible shift in his stance.

Piett must have sensed the same thing, because he began to speak again, looking down. "If they made the jump into hyperspace, they could be halfway across the galaxy by now."

Amidala felt a moment of dizziness - despair. It had to be despair.

She could feel Ani pulling his rage in, as if it were an unruly pet on a tether. "Track every destination along their last known trajectory," he said, though Amidala knew as well as he did that it was an exercise in futility. "Admiral Ozzel appears to be departing. I suggest we do likewise. All commands loyal to us are to deploy." He turned to the pilots and officers he'd gathered earlier, who had been shifting uncomfortably since the ship was lost. "You will act individually. Learn all you can about Captain Han Solo. Try to discern his most likely course of action."

They all nodded smartly. Amidala sighed with some relief. The rage was coming under control. She'd been afraid that mention of Solo might set him off. The man was what Ani called "a blind spot," and it bothered him that he couldn't just read him.

"Yes, my Lord," Piett said. "We'll find them."

Ani turned on him, stared for a moment, then simply said, "Do not fail me again, Admiral."

Amidala's eyes fell to the still form of Needa on the floor. Ani caught it, and made a sudden motion with his hand. The troopers who had escorted Needa in now escorted him out. Ani looked away from her quickly.

She was glad. She didn't want to see his eyes right now.

Yoda balanced himself easily on the soles of Luke's feet, and waited for the boy to begin his full exercise. Beneath him, Luke struggled to maintain his handstand, wobbling occasionally, revealing lapses in his concentration.

Then, Luke settled down considerably, focusing and clearing his mind as he had been taught. The feet were now perfectly still. Good. He was beginning to truly grasp his lessons and instructions now.

Yoda silently shifted so that he was standing on one of Luke's feet instead of both. He had told Luke ahead of time not to expect much oral direction this time around - Yoda needed to see what his student was capable of figuring out on his own. Luke noticed that Yoda had moved, and began stretching his free leg out and away from the rest of his body. There was a pause, and Yoda tried to offer him encouragement. "Feel the Force, guide you it will."

Very slowly, Luke lifted a hand from the ground. "Yes, good," Yoda said. His arm shook for several moments before he regained his confidence. Once his arm was almost parallel to the ground, Yoda waited for him to choose other objects to levitate or balance. He found himself waiting for quite some time.

Yoda sighed deeply. Luke was at the most tenuous part of his training, right before he truly realized the power he had at his disposal. Most initiates at this stage of development became wildly erratic in the way they performed various skills. Sometimes things came so easily they were shocked and frightened, and then the very next task would prove overwhelmingly difficult. Frustration and confusion ruled for a period, and how the student handled those pressures was often a good indicator of what kind of Jedi he would be.

And perhaps, it was the biggest sign of a difference in the training of Luke and his father. Anakin had practically started his training in that awkward stage. He knew too early how powerful he was; he had used those powers with little effort for years before the Jedi found him. Though Yoda knew that Anakin had tried to fully trust his Master and his teachings, he was unable to shake himself of the notion that everything should have been easier, that instinct and impulse would carry him over. And that had made him impatient.

But Luke... this boy seemed to be on the other end of the spectrum. He still went into every training session thinking that he was practicing things that he shouldn't be able to do in the first place. He had still accomplished much, in an extremely short time, but he made tasks like these harder on himself because of his hesitations and doubts.

The boy was piling large stones on top of one another. This was a basic task that should have been very simple for someone of his potential. Or was Yoda asking too much of him?

Yoda shook his head. The father's overconfidence versus the son's doubt. Which was worse? Which was easier to correct? And what if Luke still wasn't immune to his father's mistake? Would convincing him to trust the power of the Force lead to the same temptation to use it improperly?

Luke now had three large stones carefully situated on one another; a fourth shook its way slowly above them.

"Guide your efforts, the Force will, if you allow it. Naturally, it must flow."

A buzzing and beeping suddenly came from the droid. Luke ignored him, and the last rock joined the pile. But R2 apparently wasn't about to go unnoticed. His beeping became louder and more insistent, and he rolled over in front of Luke for emphasis.

Yoda had assumed that Luke would continue to disregard the noise and finish his exercise, and didn't feel the trembling until it was too late. "Concentrate, you must!" he admonished. "Concen-"

The rest of the word was lost in a yelp, and the Master, his student, and the rocks fell unceremoniously to the ground in a jumbled heap. Yoda already knew that the boy's craft was finally settling at the bottom of the lake.

"Great," Luke muttered in disgust. "Now I'll never get it out."

Yoda shook his head sadly. Luke couldn't even see that he held the key to fixing the problem himself. "Always with you it cannot be done." Luke shot him an incredulous look. "Hear you nothing that I say?"

"Those were rocks, Master Yoda. This is -" he gestured helplessly "- it's totally different. "

"No!" he corrected sharply. "Only in your mind. Get passt this hesitation, you must."

Luke stared into the murky waters of the swamp. "Okay," he muttered. "I'll try."

"Try? There is no try. Either do, or do not."

Luke nodded and Yoda watched his student intently. He felt Luke gather the Force around him, felt him direct it out towards the craft, felt it slowly begin to rise...

... and felt Luke allow the ship to essentially slip through his fingers, as he slumped over breathless, the picture of defeat.

Luke collapsed to the ground in front of Yoda. Sitting quietly, he murmured, "I just can't do it. It's too big... I can't."

"Size matters not," Yoda replied. "To the Force, insignificant, such things are. The Force is a powerful ally, if learn to use it correctly, you can." He directed Luke's attention to the forest behind them. "Present, the Force is, in all things. Between you and me, between you and the rock, between the water and the ship. Learn to listen to it, and feel its Light, you must."

Luke frowned and ran his hand through his hair. "You want the impossible from me." With that, he stood and walked away sullenly. Yoda watched him go.

Perhaps this wouldn't be a test of Luke's trust or faith in the Force, since it was never hard to believe what one saw with his own eyes. But Yoda knew that this doubt could not be allowed to continue. He only hoped and prayed that after this, he would be able to keep his student from going too far in the other direction, on the road of impatience and overconfidence that his father tread so often.

Yoda closed his eyes, stretched out his hand, and beckoned the craft to come to him. And it did, slowly. The water bubbled and spread, revealing a wing, then the cockpit, and finally the landing gears. Water ran down it, and plants hung off of it as it flew over the lake to safe ground.

He guided it carefully, purposely positioning it to land next to a dumbstruck Luke, who simply stood there with his mouth agape.

Finally, Luke stumbled over to him, attempting to start a sentence several times before managing to utter, "I can't - I - I can't believe it."

"That," Yoda replied gravely, "is why you fail."

"If you won't mind my saying it again, I do have a dreadful feeling about this," Threepio's voice came from behind Chewie.

Staring out the cockpit viewport, for hundreds of meters in front of (or rather, 'below' was probably a more accurate term) them, stretched the metal-white expanse of the back of the Star Destroyer's command structure. The Falcon rested there like a mushk tick on a bantha, its tiny metal structure hopefully inconspicuous against the tower's own infinitely larger one. It was a trick Han had heard about any number of times in smuggler circles but hadn't ever practiced: piggybacking on a much larger object, completely obscured from other pursuers by that object's massive sensor shadow. Best case scenario, the Imperials probably thought the Falcon had long since made the jump to hyperspace and was long gone from here. Things had worked out about as well as could be hoped for, given the circumstances.

Threepio stood behind Chewie's seat, but the Falcon's perpendicular tilt made it so that he was really above him; Leia was in the small seat behind Han, leaned forward to watch the Imperial task force outside.

Of all the things that had malfunctioned on this ship Han was grateful the artificial gravity generators had not been one of them; the idea of hearing a fallen Threepio and Chewbacca complaining about colliding with each other wasn't exactly the most fun thing he could envision happening. (Even though he certainly wouldn't have minded having to catch Leia if she happened to fall onto him again... )

As it was the droid's pessimistic nattering was already wearing on Han's nerves, but he kept his mouth clamped shut for Leia's sake. Even if he didn't know she was sort of partial towards the robot, the look on her face at that moment - and the memory of fear etched upon it not long ago -

Please... please don't let them get me...

-it was enough to make him sit quiet and think for a while. The look on her face was still there, her eyes staring fixedly ahead. Who was out to get her? The Empire? The Empire had chased them any number of times before, and he'd never seen her get that painfully terrified look on her face. If anything the idea of facing the Empire usually bolstered the fiery spirit that had made her one of the most prominent leaders of the Rebellion; certainly not this. It was moments like these that coolly reminded Han that despite her newfound boldness, whatever was bothering Leia was far from being over and done with. He'd been spending time thinking over whether he should approach her and potentially threaten the new relationship they had... and if he should do it, how to go about doing it without making her angry again. He didn't want to see her angry at him - or angry at all period - but he didn't think she should be hiding from it either. That could be even more damaging than what she was going through now, and he wasn't sure he liked the idea of her doing that for the sake of him, of putting on a brave face for him. He wasn't sure he wanted that on his shoulders.

But he said nothing, and kept silent, trying to think of the obstacles that lay ahead. Not exactly pleasant musings, but he may as well attempt to do something constructive while he was otherwise just sitting.

Chewie, on the other hand, didn't seem so politely inclined.

He let out a distinctly annoyed braying sound in reply to the droid, which even to ears untrained in Wookiee-speak could only be translated as one meaning.

"I will not shut up, Chewbacca," the golden droid informed the Wookiee crossly, throwing (as much as was possible) his stiff arms up in exasperation. "And I won't until someone listens to me -"

A flicker of movement in the Star Destroyer-infested starfield outside caught Han's eye, and he raised a hand to silence the droid - for once, surprisingly, it worked. As he watched one of the white forms of the other massive vessels began to slowly turn on its axis, and began slowly gliding across their field of vision. Even the monstrous green-gray hulk of the larger Super Star Destroyer, on which Leia's eyes seemed disturbingly and unchangingly fixated upon, seemed to begin signs of movement itself.

"Looks like the Fleet's beginning to break up again," he said, flipping on the auxiliary power systems. If the Imperials were about to start their little flame-fest again, Han didn't want to have to spend potentially well-used escape time warming the engines from a completely cold start. "Go back and get ready to release the landing claw, Chewie," Han chucked his thumb towards the back of the ship, flipping a few more switches on his console. "If the Imperials decide to take a little bit of target practice again I don't want to have a front row seat."

"You think they'll start firing on each other again?" Leia asked as the Wookiee moved to the back of the ship, shouldering his way past an insolent Threepio.

"I don't know what to think, Sweetheart," Han told her, casting a semi-genuine half-smile up at her. "What I do know is that I want to be moving away from here if it happens again."

"I don't see how that will help anything at all; even if they did leave us alone we're stranded out here," Threepio's prissy worried voice chimed in, finally drawing an annoyed (and completely ineffective) glance from both Han and Leia. "If we surrender at least the Lady Vader may be gracious enough -"

The immediate change in Leia's expression was too abrupt and huge not to notice.

Before Han could even ask, Leia's hand was at the switch on the droid's neck, and the lights in his optical circuits went dim, the droid's form slinking against the co-pilot's chair. For a moment she stared coldly at the robot, a coldness that seemed to evaporate as she turned back to Han.

It did, he admitted, give him a certain measure of pride to know that he was the first one to be able to crack through that first layer of ice that had covered her for so long, the one that actually managed to witness a bit of warmth from her - it was too beautiful to remain hidden like that. But he didn't want her to hide her feelings for his sake, either. He'd taken a lot of flak in his life, and that type of flak he certainly didn't mind shouldering for her.

"What did you have in mind next?" she asked, leaning her small frame further over the back of his seat, propping her porcelain face on her white-gloved hands. Her breath was close enough to rustle the hair by his temples, tickle his earlobe, and for one of the first times in his life he felt a renewed genuine affection at being a part of something special. Amazing how something so cold could so quickly become the biggest source of warmth in his life. His other smuggler associates, the ones who'd devoutly sworn to a life of solitude, didn't know what they were missing. However tenuous this bond-thing they had might have been, it was enough to start to sway Han Solo. (But he knew if he ever admitted that outside his head to anyone, he would never hear the end of it.)

If only he didn't feel that warmth coming at the cost of potentially hiding something else. Ice did melt, even on ice princesses, but it also had the likelihood of freezing over again if the circumstances were to change...

"Assuming the Imperials don't decide to start things up again - in which case we just flat break loose and get the hell out of here - it looks more like they're beginning to break up. Which means our chance to get out of here quietly."

"How do you figure?"

"It means more than likely they're about to go to lightspeed, which means they'll be far away from here."

"You think they're searching for us?" she prompted quickly, perhaps a little more quickly than wouldn't have otherwise possibly been suspicious. Her eyes widened for a moment, but reverted again before Han could really contemplate the full meaning why.

"You're important, but important enough to send a whole fleet of Destroyers out all over the galaxy for? I doubt it. There's easier ways to do that, though I've never known the Empire to take the easier route." He didn't really believe all he said; the fact that the Empire had pursued them this far - charging through an asteroid field even - if they were willing to do that, they would most certainly continue to chase them. Whoever was leading this fleet was nuts... or there was something more about Leia than he knew; they certainly wouldn't be going to all this trouble just to get someone like Han himself. He was willing to bet the source of her continued Ice Princess charade was related somehow to the Empire and her fear of them pursuing her - but in what way? "Unless you can come up with a reason why they might go to so much trouble," he added, in as offhand a manner as could be collected.

Her lips tightened just visibly for a moment as he spoke, but she said not a word, still focusing on the huge ship. What was it that drew her attention so strongly to it? Shrugging inwardly in defeat, he continued. "It's possible they are still searching for us, I'll concede that - after all, they've spent the last several days doing it. But frankly, I don't care what they're doing or where they're going. If they want to scour all over the galaxy for us, at least they'll be doing it far away from us."

His combined attempts at being comforting and subtly prying didn't come off as smoothly as he hoped; but that was as far as he would go. He'd vaguely hoped this would be the cincher, that this would push things enough she might finally tell him once and for all what had threatened almost constantly over the last three years to overwhelm her life. True, she did seem to be making progress against it, but if she kept this up she'd just slide back to where she was before. Maybe, in their newfound status as... as whatever they were, at some point she'd feel confident enough to tell him.

Fat chance, that, he snorted to himself.

Leia just nodded in response, briefly flicking her eyes towards his. "And then what do you plan to do?"

"Play the role, sweetheart."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean standard Imperial procedure," he explained, recalling a bit of information he remembered during his brief stint in the Imperial Academy. "If they follow it, they'll dump their garbage before the go to lightspeed. We detach, and just float away... "

"Like the rest of the garbage," Leia nodded, catching on; the flicker of amusement on her face was enough for Han to let the light verbal jab at his ship slide for now. "And then?"

"And then we find a safe port to hole up in and lay low for a while."

"Not too long," Leia reminded him. "I need to get back to the Alliance."

"I'm sure the Alliance won't mind you being a little late instead of not getting there at all - it's going to take a long time as it is to get anywhere without a hyperdrive, sweetheart," he pointed out. "I suggest you get used to being here for a while."

Obviously that didn't sit well with her; the flitting of annoyance across her features was noticeable. But to her credit she said nothing about it. "So what safe port did you have in mind?"

"That depends," he said, flicking the small nav display on. A tiny rough map of the sector appeared in front of them, casting a pale blue light on both their faces. Leia leaned in closer, squinting at the map's less-than-ideal resolution. Han frowned, moving his finger along the map. "It looks like we're in the Anoat system right now. "

"Anoat. Not much there," she commented. Just a small Imperial colony, definitely not where they wanted to go; even if it was not Imperial, this far out into space it was highly unlikely they'd even have the facilities needed to replace an entire hyperdrive.

"No kidding," he muttered dryly, flipping a switch so a different version of the map appeared, with systems even further away from them, but still somewhat in the possibility for them to reach. There was of course Anoat, then Hoth, then Ison - another Imperial stronghold, with wanted photos of him, Leia, and the Falcon probably circulating everywhere in it; also out of the question. But a little further out from there...

Han smiled as an idea struck him. He zoomed in on the map, highlighting the system of Bespin, bringing up an only semi-up-to-date profile of it. "Lando," he said, remembering the old business associate of his from years before his association with the Rebellion. Tall and dark with a past to perfectly match, he and Han had been almost perfect business associates. Han stroked a thumb idly over the Falcon's main console and looked around the cockpit, remembering the primary source of the long silence between them. He and Lando hadn't exactly parted as bitter bloody rivals, but they certainly weren't the best of friends either.

He hoped whatever was left was enough to help him and Leia.

Bespin was technically under Imperial rule, as was nearly every known planet in the galaxy to some extent, but unlike those other planets, Bespin was under the governorship of someone who was willing to let those Imperial laws slide just a tad if he thought it would work in his favor. If somehow Lando could be convinced helping them was in their best interests...

"Lando system?" Leia asked, frowning at the absence of such a dot on the map, bringing Han quickly out of his musings. "Interesting name. "

"No, a man. Lando Calrissian. An old friend - trouble maker, gambler, scoundrel. You'd like him."

"Thanks for the sentiment," Leia muttered.

"Don't take it personally, doll," he replied casually, throwing her a wink. "Bespin's pretty far," he continued thoughtfully, "but if you're willing to wait the extra time, I think we can make it."

Another flicker of movement outside; the Super Star Destroyer vanished in a wink of light into hyperspace, leaving a kilometers-long trail of garbage-debris in its wake. The relief in Leia's expression was almost palpable. Han felt a degree of relief himself (though doubted it was for the same causes as Leia's) - it looked as if they were breaking up after all. No more firefights for now; he wouldn't miss them. Even if it had been a pretty incredible show from their vantage point.

Leia focused in on a small part of the profile. "It's a mining colony?" she asked doubtfully. Han guessed she'd heard the stories about the colonies that sprung up around mining areas, the ones usually filled with gruff, unsanitary ruffian types you wouldn't trust as far as you could levitate them... but Bespin was certainly far from that, if the latest rumors Han had heard were any indication.

He nodded. "Tibanna gas mine. Lando conned someone out of it a while back," Han told her, not exactly prepared to give Leia the grittier details behind that particular acquisition; it would be hard enough to get Leia to willingly go along with this as it was. It had been years ago... "We go back a long way, Lando and me."

"Do you trust him?" Leia asked pointedly.

"No," Han shrugged, only slightly sheepishly. "But would I take him over the Empire? In a heartbeat."

She looked about to give another sly retort, but a sudden slow rumbling from outside killed it before it could get out of her mouth. As the two humans watched, a huge port seemed to grind open on the back of their Star Destroyer, releasing junk into space. Some of the pieces of machinery were small, others were huge enough they could probably easily have disintegrated the Falcon were they to collide with it, surviving the impact just fine.

Show time.

"All right Chewie, standby... detach," he said - and with almost perfect timing the fixed horizon of space was then spinning slowly about them, the Falcon floating free, hopefully still indistinguishable from the other space debris, the stream of which they were trailing the very end of, so to avoid possible collision. The star-speckled vista slowly spun around them as they drifted, further and further away from the Star Destroyer, now alone in space - the last other destroyer went to lightspeed as they watched. From here they could see the blackened spots on the hull, where the Executor's turbolasers had efficiently scored it. Han counted himself glad they hadn't been aiming for the engines... for now, they were home free.

"For now" being the operative words in that sentiment, of course.

It was evidently enough for Leia, though, as became evident when the now familiar (yet still new enough to be intriguing) touch of her lips pressed firmly and quickly on his cheek. Han couldn't help but smile a little bit at that, no matter how silly he probably looked.

"You've got your moments," she murmured softly in his ear, as Chewie returned from the back and seated himself in his proper place beside Han. "Not many of them, but you do have them."

Han cast another glance at her, a moment of bittersweetness in his heart. He didn't want to risk what he had with her, particularly not so soon after finding it in the first place. But maybe it was time to put his own selfishness aside and purposely dig deeper, if not for his benefit then hers. He would be doing her no good by helping her stay in her new and pleasant cocoon, especially one built of such fragile material as this.

Chances are she wouldn't like the outcome and neither would he. But he would find some way to do it, he decided, tightening his lips. And who knew. Maybe she would still want to continue with things afterwards, and with the possibility they'd be even stronger than before.

At that moment, the last Destroyer jumped into hyperspace.

With that Han pushed forward the thruster levers, bringing the Falcon out around the edge of the debris field. When he'd set the sublight engines on autopilot on direct course for Bespin, he left the cockpit with the intent of going to his quarters, but not without meeting eyes with Leia again.

It would be a long time before they reached Bespin, and he had a lot of thinking to do in the meantime.

Luke left Artoo to clean up the X-Wing. He supposed Yoda would know that he was no longer where he said he would be - Yoda seemed to know everything he was planning to do almost before he did it - but he intended to go anyway. He had to return to the cave. The first of several failures here... he felt that if he could just go back and

(hear her voice again)

face the Dark Side again, this time with some understanding...

But I have no understanding! Why should I see my mother there? Why should she weep for Vader, reach for him even in death?

(Darth Vader... betrayed and murdered your father... )


Luke stopped, halfway through a step. Had that been the betrayal, not some back stabbing scheme to grab power? Had Vader betrayed his father by seducing his mother?

The thought seemed both true and false, and Luke felt as if he'd walked into a cloud of swampflies. Skittering energy spread over his skin, and he couldn't focus his eyes. It wasn't true. But it was approaching truth.

He put his foot down carefully. He no longer wanted to go to the cave, but now he could see that he was already here. He must have been moving all along. His feet carried him toward the maw.

"Thought you'd come here, I did."

He stopped and turned away. Yoda was sitting on a log, his gimer stick dangling from his hand.

Luke drew himself up. "I'm sorry, Master. I know I should have asked."

"Hmmmph. Knew the answer already, you did, and planned not to heed it."

"Master... " Luke found it easier to walk away from the tree than he'd thought. He sat on a rock not far from Yoda. "Master, when I was there before, I saw... I saw things I didn't understand."

Maybe it was Luke's imagination, but it seemed like the old Master's face softened a bit. "Yes, yes. Often like that, visions are."

Luke almost blurted out the question he wanted answered. Yoda knew his parents, and he knew Vader. He would know. But if it wasn't true... what insult was he delivering to his mother, even to wonder such a thing? Instead, he stepped onto safer ground. "What are visions really, Master? Are they real? Symbolic?"

"Many things, visions are. The past, the future. Old friends and old love. New dangers. But always in motion, visions. See more, you will, if you look again. And less." Yoda slid down off his perch, and touched Luke's forehead. "Try, padawan. Let yourself feel the Force. What you need to see, it will show you."

Luke was irritated by Yoda's enigmatic speech, but felt a good deal safer seeking a vision in Yoda's presence than out of it. He closed his eyes, and began meditative breathing.

The first sensation, as always, was a heightening of his hearing and smell. A small insect was chewing at a fallen log, and far away, a bird was flapping its wings against the mist. The ground smelled rich and dark. He could sense a current flowing around him, smooth and deep in some places, agitated in others. Yoda appeared here not as an obstruction or a creature of any kind. He was a whirl of energy, a magnet.

"Look past, you must."

Luke nodded, drawing himself away from that source of power. He was far into the Force now.

The mists began to grow brighter, then to part, just a little. He saw... spires and disks...

He must have frowned, because Yoda spoke up, "Seeing, you are. Do not pull away."

Luke took the advice, and went further ahead. He didn't know what this place was. As it became clearer, he could see speeders and ships, and the gaseous surface of a planet far below. It was beautiful. The clouds glimmered in gold and pink, and the city rose up like a vision of heaven.

Suddenly, a scarlet veil fell across it, seeming to drench everything in blood. The vision shifted, and instead of heaven, Luke saw a steaming hell. And... faces...

Chewbacca the Wookiee, grasping at his head.

Han Solo... Luke couldn't see what was happening to Han, but he could hear a scream of agony.

And he felt... he couldn't quite grasp, couldn't quite see, but he knew Leia's presence deep in his blood. She was there, and she was frightened and angry and in danger.

He rushed forward, but the mists dissolved, and when he burst through the veil, he was on Dagobah again, Yoda's hand pressed firmly against his arm. The Master's face held no condescension, no doubt. For the moment, it wasn't even the face of a teacher - it was the face of a colleague. "What saw you?"

"I saw a city in the clouds."

Yoda nodded. "Friends you have there?"

Luke almost answered using his "normal" knowledge - Not that I know of - but that would have been a lie. He did know they were there. "They were in danger. Han and Leia."

Yoda blinked, and the teacher returned. "Knew she should have been brought here, I did."

"I'm sorry, Master. But... Master, they were in pain."

"It is the future you see."

"Will they die?"

"Always in motion, the future." Yoda appeared distinctly agitated, though he was asserting control much more quickly than anyone Luke had ever seen. "Not all. Not any, perhaps. Difficult to see."

"The Empire is there."


Something else came to Luke. "But, the veil. The scarlet veil. It's Lady Vader. She might be able to help them."

"Faith, you put in her, young Skywalker? Angel to you as well, is she?"

"No, not an angel, but... she's different."

"Different, yes. Less dangerous, she is not."

"Then I have to go to them."

Yoda turned away, hobbled a few steps toward the tree. Finally, he looked back at Luke. "Decide, you must, how to serve them best. But if you go, you will destroy all for which they suffer."

Luke didn't ask for an explanation. He didn't really need one.

"Come on, Princess, take a break." Han came up behind Leia, who was hunched over in the pilot's chair, going over sensor readouts and systems maps. "Chewie can take over for a while, and you need to get some rest."

Leia gazed at him sleepily before nodding. She had volunteered to take two straight turns at watch, and had been up for hours. She sought out Han's offered hand and pulled herself to her feet, stretching and yawning. "Are you sure Chewie doesn't mind?"

Han just rolled his eyes and laughed. "I think he can handle it for a couple of hours. Don't tell me you've been enjoying counting the stars as they go by."

"Actually, you have no idea how nice it is to have things quiet for awhile," she replied, her eyes dropping momentarily. Han silently disagreed - he knew exactly how nice that could be. Since leaving the wild scene outside the asteroid field absolutely nothing of note had happened to them. His sole desire was for the situation to remain that way until they finished their slow crawl to Bespin.

"At any rate," Leia continued, forcing a smile to her face, "care to keep me company for a little while? There's no chance of me going to sleep anyway."

"Of course, Your Highness," he said. "Lead the way."

She retook his hand, guiding him out of the cockpit and into the small lounge at the other end of the hallway. She walked through the doorway without reaching for the light switch, and headed toward a couch in the corner. He expected her to let go of his hand and collapse into it. Whatever her reasons were for not wanting to sleep, she couldn't continue to ignore the fact that she was physically exhausted. If she needed him by her side to get a little rest, he'd be happy to help.

But Leia came to a sudden stop, and simply stood there, a few steps in front of him, her fingers still intertwined with his. He watched her, waiting for her to say something...

Instead, she tentatively moved toward him, wrapped her arms around his waist, and leaned against him, her eyelids fluttering shut.

Han was (pleasantly) taken aback by the gesture, and it was a few seconds before he thought to pull her closer. "Are you alright, Leia?"

She paused, then whispered, "I'm so tired, Han. I'm so... this is just hard sometimes."

He stroked her soft hair and kissed the top of her head. Han hoped that he wouldn't have to press her, that she would continue and open up on her own - but they continued to stand there, holding each other in the dark, listening to each other breathe in the otherwise silent room, and he knew she still reluctant to talk.

"Leia... Leia, please, tell me. It'll be alright," he whispered into her ear.

He couldn't actually see her face because of the way he was holding her, but he could feel her reaction. Her face was scrunched up, contorted - he imagined her expression, and she was struggling, attempting to make up her mind. Her hands tightened on his back, clutching his shirt and squeezing him closer. Her breath tickled his neck, and he thought she was trying to speak...

"Leia, come on. Trust me. I got you off the Death Star. I got you off Hoth. I can get you through this, whatever is. Let me help. Please."

Her fingers clawed more urgently, her nails beginning to pinch his skin through the shirt, and he could sense her brow furrowing deeply.

"They're my parents."

He barely heard her say it, she had spoken so softly. It took him a minute to realize that she had said anything at all.

Han had been building himself up to say the right words and give her the comfort and reassurance he knew she'd need - and now he couldn't even figure out what she meant.

As gently as possible, he asked, "Who are your parents?"

"They're my parents." Quieter this time, barely above a whisper.

"I - I don't understand. What do you -"

"They're my parents. That's why they've been chasing us. "

"Chasing us?" he repeated. Then, all at once, it hit him, almost like a physical blow, seeming to knock him off-balance. "Chasing us! Leia?" He took her by the shoulders and pulled her back enough for him to see her. "Leia, are they, I mean, the Vad-"

"Don't!" she ordered. "Yes, yes, you're right." Her face was heavy with misery. "You're right. They're my parents."

Han tried to control his shock and disbelief, but doubted he was succeeding. All of the scenarios he had thought of hadn't even come close. There was no way to guess something like this. "But, how is that possible?" he managed.

"I'm adopted... " she began, her hands loosening their grip on his back and moving to rest lightly on his chest. "I've always known that. My - birth mother - I knew her when I was small, until she... disappeared. I thought she was dead for the longest time. Then I saw a tape... She was talking to - to him. Her veils were off. I saw her face, and I knew. I knew right away it was her."

"I can't believe you've never told anyone this," he whispered.

"I'm sorry, Han. I should have done something about it sooner - I should have told you as soon as we left Hoth. I've put so many people at such a high risk, and they didn't even know what the situation was. That was unfair, and I know -"

"That's not what I meant Leia. I only meant that it must have been hell for you to keep a secret like that for this long." He shook his head to himself, thinking of the personal fear she'd lived with during that time, and how she had managed to hold herself, and most everyone else, together despite it. Unbelievable. "Well, at least we've lost them for the time being... what exactly do they want with you? What are they going to do?"

She shuddered in his arms and didn't speak. That was enough answer for him.

"Okay, it's okay. Never mind. I said I'd get you through this, and I will. And really, it doesn't matter much to me why anyone is after you. They won't get near you if I have anything to say about it."

"So... so this doesn't change how you... what you think about me?"

"I think," he replied gently, "that you are incredibly brave, and strong, and I want to keep you safe. So, no, nothing much is different."

She smiled - her first genuine smile in who knew how long - and buried her face in his neck. "I've been so scared of anyone finding out... I didn't know what to do. I'm so glad I told you."

"I'm glad you told me too. Once we get to Bespin, everything will work itself out."

Han wanted to believe that - a good part of him did believe it. But he also knew that the stakes had just been raised to unbelievable heights. They were no longer two Rebel fugitives on the run; he was now trying to keep the Vaders from their daughter. How could he possibly do such a thing by himself?

Leia smiled at him again, and pulled him in for a kiss.

The "how" didn't matter. He would get them to Bespin, fix his ship, and they'd be long gone before the Empire knew which way to even start looking for them. He would keep her safe. No matter what.

Their arrival to the planet had been unexpected, but then Vader had seen no reason to give them prior warning.

Amidala was used to the looks of awe and wonder she received from the citizens of Cloud City as she strolled by them, no doubt, Vader thought as he strolled along just behind her - and to the side, like any decent bodyguard would - down the shuttle ramp and into the city. He had no problem being delegated to the position of a mere guard if it was for her; she was well worth that minor displacement of position, and certainly no one would question it.

Yes, after years of serving as a Queen of a small world and with a beauty that even now after all these years had not faded in the slightest, perhaps even grown, she would certainly be accustomed to the looks of awe and respect she was garnering... From people all over the galaxy as well as the throngs of people of the now evening sunset-tinted metropolis of Cloud City who had gathered in only vaguely subtle but respectively distant rows, definitely keeping their distance from her... and him, of course.

Respect was not the only thing that shone in their eyes. When those same eyes that remained awestruck by her supernatural beauty fell on him, awe of a different sort materialized there. After years he had become accustomed to it, but doubted she ever would become truly be comfortable with this. Fear towards her she would never become accustomed to, fear that always flowered when they received the cold reminder of his own presence, the reminder of who she really was... his wife, the wife of a monster. He felt guilty of this, knowing that were it not for his presence they would not have the same fear towards her that she had in no way earned.

(No way? She did choose your companionship of her own free will.)

(-and Vader was extremely glad of that.)

Years ago, or if things had gone differently, they might not have looked on him with such fear and revulsion now - even his beloved had done so the first moment she beheld his scarred form in this state. There had been a time that such wouldn't have even been a consideration, when others, (perhaps particularly females) might have envied Amidala's position at his side instead of feared it, when only a casual smile and a wink of Anakin Skywalker's once trusted, unmasked blue eyes instead of the cold strangling fist of fear was needed to console people over to their side... a side that, fortunately, his wife had no need to use such means to persuade people over to. She was still in their eyes whole, beautiful, and gentle... not in the least bit monstrous.

A flicker of motion - the swirl of a cape on the form of the person sent to greet them - from before them thankfully drew Vader from his reverie.

The man who stood before them, respectively distant from the end of the twin ranks of stormtroopers that protectively flanked the path the Lord Vader and his Lady had used to enter the city on disembarking from their surprisingly unregal-appearing shuttle, was dark-skinned, well-dressed, and of a height roughly a head shorter than Vader's own. The same fear that glittered in the eyes of his citizens did not appear to be present in the dark eyes of Baron-Administrator Lando Calrissian; he did remarkably well at concealing that which Vader could easily feel emanating from him. He also seemed fairly impeccably groomed for someone who had had almost no warning of the Vaders' trip here; Calrissian was probably one of those types that enjoyed reveling their entire lives in their material finery, even when it was completely unnecessary to do so.

Almost immediately he was distrustful of the man; he could easily see him as the type that Han Solo might have one time associated with and would seek out for aid again, even if he weren't already aware of that fact from the detailed profile Imperial Intelligence had collected on him. Any number of Imperial laws had been broken by this man, but that wasn't what disgusted Vader.

Former smuggler, dealer in illegal substance trafficking, and - what most truly raised the hackles of disgust inside Vader's core - slave trafficking as well. Cheap labor to use for running the less than legal lower levels of his Tibanna mining operation, no doubt. But that would have to be overlooked for now (though perhaps could be used later as a potential bargaining chip in their favor) and was not why the Empire was here...

And he wasn't in charge of speaking to Calrissian anyway. Amidala had insisted she be the one to negotiate with Calrissian, as one politician speaking to another (and perhaps thinking of his own less than diplomatic means of "negotiating"). She wasn't about to use force when she believed what they needed accomplished could be accomplished by lesser means - means which were less likely to potentially threaten what they hoped to accomplish. Having prior evidence to support this, Vader of course had deferred to his wife in this case. (And even were not this planet useful in obtaining their children, its vast repositories of Tibanna gas - the primary source of fuel in turbolasers and blasters - would be useful to the Vaders' side of the new Imperial civil conflict.)

But the twins were what mattered. Like it or not this man was another necessary channel to take in the route to reuniting their family.

There had originally been some doubt as to whether the Millennium Falcon would come here - but once it was determined there were no other logical places for them to go in the quite limited range a lack of hyperdrive offered, especially ones where the captain of the ship in question had strong former personal ties, the Vaders' departure for the planet had been almost immediate.

Not that there was any real need for hurry, of course. As it was it might take the Falcon any number of weeks - perhaps even months - to arrive here. But the time spent here would not be time wasted; he and Amidala had things to accomplish here, threads of their plan that needed to be laid out in advance, before Leia arrived. This was their biggest chance yet and they would certainly not waste the advantage they had now.

Amidala stopped before Calrissian and the man instantly kneeled before her, hesitantly placing a light kiss on her proffered hand, his eyes momentarily flicking to her husband, who merely stared impassively at the exchange. He knew that if a lava pit hadn't failed to take Amidala from him, he certainly had nothing to fear here.

(And of course that thought, coming from someone like the Lord Vader, definitely carried a twin-edged connotation to its blade.)

"On behalf of Cloud City and the citizens of Bespin I welcome you and your Lord to our humble city, my Lady," Calrissian said with the appropriate degree of deference. "Anything you require of us we are able to provide is instantly at your service."

Amidala, indicating for him to rise once more, bowed her head lightly to Calrissian, the light breezes of the planet's upper atmosphere rustling the waves of scarlet veils she perpetually wore. "I thank you for your generosity and hospitality on such short notice, Baron Calrissian. It is my hope that our transactions here will be of benefit to both our sides."

"As do I, my Lady. I consider it a great honor that you and your Lord have chosen to bestow your attention on a planet as lowly as ourselves."

"Perhaps the Empire under Palpatine -" Vader noted the distinct choice of her words in approval "- would have considered you lowly, but I assure you Baron, my husband and I see each and every planet of the Empire as an invaluable resource in and of itself."

Vader permitted himself a small (and as always painful - and therefore brief) smile under the mask. As gifted in oratory as she was beautiful and beloved to him. As she had always been; it was a wonder the Empire had survived this long without her contributions.

"As expected the kindness and graciousness of the Lady Vader are exceptional to say the least."

The pattern of her facial veils shifted ever so slightly and Vader was certain his wife was smiling beneath them politely, though Calrissian had no way of seeing it. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Baron, though the kind words are indeed appreciated. However my husband and I do have much business to attend to on your fair world, and it would also be appreciated if you would personally accompany us to where we may be allowed to begin."

"Our most advanced facilities have been indefinitely placed at your disposal, my Lady."

Amidala barely nodded and the three slowly began their procession - Amidala and Calrissian side by side, Vader himself directly behind his Queen - to the row of armored transports that awaited them, ready to carry them to their destination.

Where they would, at last, lay the final stone in the pathway that would bring their children to them.

Lando headed for Lady Vader's office with apprehension, and that annoyed him deeply. It had for the entire time the Vaders had been on Bespin. He hoped that he was still able to maintain the outward appearance of composure and ease, but they longer they stayed, the harder that became.

If they had come to shut him down, or arrest him, he wished they'd just hurry up and get to it already.

Instead, they seemed to sit around, doing nothing but make him nervous. After their initial arrival, they had requested living space for themselves and their entourage of stormtroopers, made some cursory inquiries about the city's layout and communications system, and then simply disappeared. Barely a word had been heard from either of them - the residents of Bespin who hadn't seen their arrival doubted that they were even really there.

Lando couldn't figure it out for the life of him. He had racked his brain continuously for anything - anything - that would attract this kind of attention from people this high up. He had carefully avoided such notice for most of his life. The only feasible conclusion that he had come to was that the Empire was about to start a major crackdown, the likes of which had never been seen before, anywhere. The illegal activity that went on in this city was so utterly insignificant... he didn't believe that he would make a particularly effective example to anyone, even with Lord Vader himself ringing his neck and shutting Bespin down.

But, they were here. So apparently his assessment was completely off base. And there was nothing he could do about it.

That was the worst of it, the part that really aggravated him. He couldn't remember the last problem he couldn't angle his way out of. But now, he couldn't picture such an effort being made on Lord Vader. Hedging around low-level investigators was one thing - facing the Empire itself was another thing completely.

So, Lady Vader had summoned him to her makeshift office, and he knew what was coming. He supposed it was a good thing that this would be coming from her and not her husband. Bad news from a pretty face - well, from what he assumed must be a pretty face - had to be better than quaking in fear of Lord Vader.

He buzzed for entrance, put his face into its normal, smiling facade, and hoped it would hold.

The door slid up quickly, and he found Lady Vader standing on the opposite side of the room. She was staring silently out the window at the clouds and traffic. "Come in, Baron Calrissian. We have much to discuss."

He stepped inside the door, and heard it shut. "I do hope you've found everything here to your satisfaction, my Lady. My staff is under strict instructions to cater to every desire."

"Actually, I have quite enjoyed myself here," she replied. "This city offers much that's different from the usual Imperial accommodations."

Hmm. She sounded like she was smiling; he wished he could see how she was reacting to things. "I'm sure it does. Of course, we can't provide the kind of luxuries -"

"This place has color, and civilians, and a... life to it that I've never seen on a Star Destroyer. You don't have to worry about things you think you can't provide."

"Thank you," he said, frowning in confusion. "Then... what can I assist you with? I'm at your disposal."

"Actually, I only need to talk to you. I know you're waiting for me to do something terrible, but I have no such plans." She turned from her window and took a seat on a nearby couch.

He remained standing. "I'm glad to hear that," he replied unconvincingly.

"I've heard that you've done great things with this city - I know what it was like before you turned it around. You must be very proud of what you've built here."

"Yes -" Lando caught himself staring at those veils "- as you must be of what you and your husband have built in the Empire."

She sat up a little straighter, and let out an amused chuckle. "We haven't built what you think of as the Empire. We've only served it. And I'm sure you'd agree that there's a difference... I know what it's like to be responsible for something; I know how difficult that is. It's an enormous amount of work - and a ridiculous balancing act, from what I recall."

Lando smiled - a real smile - and sat on the edge of the couch. Maybe this was a more approachable situation than he had hoped for. "You know it is. There's always some problem or emergency I have to take care of... but in the end it's worth it. It's more than worth it."

"Of course. "Her hands folded in front of her, and she took on a more thoughtful pose. "Which, finally, is the reason I brought you here. You must know that the Empire would not look kindly on what you have here, Baron."

"But you do?" he asked.

"I understand it. I appreciate it."

"Then... you're not here speaking for the Empire?"

"No. My interests here are strictly personal. But I would hate for my official position - or my husband's particular distaste for many of your 'practices' - to hurt Bespin unnecessarily. As long as you don't interfere with what I'm trying to accomplish, I'll be more than happy to extend you the same courtesy."

Now it was Lando's turn to laugh, though he didn't think it would help his situation. Was he really going to get a pass from the Vaders? What a bizarre notion. "Trust me, my Lady, I would never wish to get in your way."

"You don't believe me," she said, shaking her head a little. "When Captain Solo arrives, simply don't get involved. I can easily handle the rest."

"Han? Han's coming here?" This was getting stranger by the second. "I haven't seen him in years. What does he want?"

"Not your concern, Baron. In fact, Solo himself may not be of much concern to us. But those he travels with, his companions in the Rebellion - their importance to me cannot be overstated. Solo is my key to reaching those people, and he is coming to you, soon, to seek asylum." She stood from her seat, and retook her position by the window. "Grant his request, then stay out of the way. And once we leave, all of us will have gotten what we wanted."

Lando felt a small, but gnawing, sense of guilt growing in his stomach. Han was an old friend of his, one he had been in a lot of scrapes with. And Han was trusting him to help with the Empire breathing down his neck.

But, gradually, Lando felt his guilt giving way to logic. He had to protect his interests here, and he was being given a ridiculously easy way to do so. And Han wasn't even the focus of whatever was going on... Lando wasn't about to risk his city for a few Rebels he'd never met.

"My Lady, I said I was at your disposal, and I meant it. You won't have to worry about my interference with any of your business here."

She turned to look at him, and said quietly, "Well I suppose Solo's... curious... choice of friends is our gain then. You're dismissed, Baron."

Lando was taken aback at the sting of disapproval he heard in her voice, and almost said something to defend his decision, and stop the gnawing of his conscience.

Instead, he merely gave her a curt nod, and left the room.

Part 3

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