September 15, 2000
Category: Star Wars; PG13
Author: FernWithy

[Disclaimer]

Outer Rim

A long time ago, in a galaxy that never was...

It is a time of exile. As the newly declared Emperor Palpatine consolidates his hold on the Core Worlds, the weak and scattered Resistance has been forced into the lawless territories of the Outer Rim, to wait and hope for a chance a chance to fight.

Anakin Skywalker, fleeing the purge of the Jedi knights conducted by Palpatine’s apprentice, has taken refuge with the exiled Amidala and their family on his homeworld of Tatooine. Determined to shield his family from the chaos of war, Anakin has retreated from it as much as he is able.

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi, alone among the survivors of the purge, dares to infiltrate the very heart of the Empire, to rescue the captive rebels, and to keep the Resistance alive, until he can convince the Chosen One to fulfill his destiny.

Your focus determines your reality...


Prologue: Resistance

Coruscant.

Emperor.

It had a certain ring to it, Palpatine thought, even if he had only captured the Core Worlds.

Only!

He smiled to himself. He held in his hand all the jewels of the Old Republic, all the great houses, all the wealth and power. All cowered in fear of him. Those who hadn't cowered quickly enough, who hadn't been shown enough to fear, were dealt with swiftly. Yes, perhaps it was better that he'd declared himself without the full extent of his power behind him -- the resistance had underestimated him, and challenged him openly. Mon Mothma, Madine, Ackbar, Organa... that had been a delightful day, one that he had declared an annual celebration. It pleased him to require their known associates to participate.

Still, he thought he would rest more easily when the ring of hostile barbarians around the Empire was brought under his control. Ships came and went, sometimes struck -- however ineffectually -- at Imperial targets, and disappeared into that ring, never to be seen again. Some of the Jedi still lingered there as well, those few who hadn't been purged in flood of hate he'd drowned their brethren in.

He was patient. The outer rim territories would come soon enough. The Jedi were nearly vanquished, and would completely disappear as soon as they showed themselves to him. The few ill-formed resistance cells that remained were no match for him. All was proceeding as he had foreseen, if a bit more slowly than he might have liked. All was well.

***

This was going to take some flying, Solo thought, diving the Falcon down between the spires of two high buildings. He was far off the approved trafficways, and he knew the Imperial fighters had spotted him. If they boarded him, he was sunk. There was no way he was going to be able to hide his cargo if they had sniffer droids with them. And this wasn't the kind of cargo you could just dump.

"There," the old Jedi said, pointing to a narrow alleyway. "It's tight, but I think you can lose them."

Han didn't bother contradicting him, though he didn't like being given orders on his own ship. He steered into the artificial canyon, like threading a needle, and banked sharply. He could hear startled groans from the cargo bay, and another sound that suggested he'd have some cleaning to do later, if he ever found a world to land on. With another steep bank, he came up from under a bowl-shaped stadium, and found himself behind the Imperial fighters at last. Down in the gun turrets, Chewbacca gave a howl, and opened fire. The fighters disappeared in moments, and Solo blasted up into the atmosphere. It would take a few minutes for the orbitals to know what happened. He could make hyperspace before they knew to look for him.

"Well done," the Jedi told him. "I programmed the coordinates we're seeking into your naviputer -- "

"You want to let me do the flying, old man?"

" -- to save time. Our destination is Tatooine."

"Great," Han muttered. "Just where I need to go." But he didn't have time to reprogram before the orbitals caught on to him, so he just punched the hyperdrive, and watched the stars flow out around him.

"You better have a good reason for going there, old man. There's a Hutt there with a price on my head."

"I don't doubt it. And I'm not as much older than you as you seem to imagine. Events can age a man before his time."

Han had nothing to say to that. He figured watching your entire religion -- however hokey -- get hunted down was bound to give a man a few gray hairs. "So, what's on Tatooine?"

"The beginning of the end for Palpatine. If we can build it."

***

Tatooine.

Anakin Skywalker reached the top of the mesa at noontime, the heat of the two suns baking comfortably into his aching shoulders. He'd been helping Owen Lars all morning, building a low slung shed to keep vaporator maintenance droids in, and he had a feeling he'd be paying for it for awhile. He hadn't worked his body so hard since his padawan days, and it was no longer accustomed to the stress.

Below him, on the relatively sheltered side of the mesa, his own home waited in its usual state of partial chaos. He paused to simply enjoy the sight of it. The twins were in the front yard, engaged in a project of some sort. Anakin always half-expected to find them fighting -- he had a vague idea that close siblings were supposed to do so -- but he honestly couldn't remember them being able to maintain a tiff for more than five minutes at a time. Little Shmi was watching them, sitting quietly on the step, sucking her thumb, a stuffed Wookiee doll clutched tightly under one arm. He could see -- barely -- the flicker of light in the kitchen that told him Amidala was scanning the news again. Two members of her cell had disappeared without a trace.

Anakin wasn't totally uninvolved in the resistance. He'd wielded a lightsaber in defense of more than one rebel refugee who'd found his way into the desert. He knew as well as she did that eventually Palpatine would make his way to the outer rim. But in the meantime, he remembered Qui-Gon's advice: Your focus determines your reality. Anakin's focus was on his family they were his reality. He didn't want to move into a different one until there was no other choice. The days already seemed too short.

Shmi looked up, saw him, and waved vigorously. Anakin waved back. She met him halfway to the house, and he scooped her up from the sand. A bit of her hair flew against his face in a blond cloud when she kissed his cheek.

Kenobi had asked for her to be trained, and Anakin had turned him down as flatly as he'd turned him down with Luke. He'd left the order over that one, but Kenobi hadn't taken the hint. His children were not negotiable commodities, and would not have been even if padawans were as safe as they once had been. He trained them himself, well enough to defend themselves if Palpatine's squads made it this far, but he would not hand them over to be raised by strangers.

Kenobi would undoubtedly come when the new one was born -- a son, Force-sensitive, but that was all Anakin could tell so far -- and he would receive the same response. Leia was the only one he hadn't asked for. Anakin felt absurdly insulted by her omission (and perversely pleased that she took to the training he had given them more quickly than Luke had that would show Kenobi), but of course he said nothing. He would have refused her as well. Shmi pinched his ear and giggled.

"What are your brother and sister so involved in?" he asked, carrying her toward the house.

She shrugged. "Stuff. Speeder-stuff."

"Ah, shall we see if we can give them a hand?"

Shmi nodded enthusiastically, and Anakin deliberately bounced her on his hip as he sped up his pace toward the house. She gave a delighted laugh, and the twins looked up. Leia was in the driver's seat of the speeder Luke was tinkering with the engines. "Hey," Luke said pleasantly. "You back for the day?"

Anakin handed Shmi to him -- Luke thought his baby sister was possibly the best toy ever invented, and immediately took to playing with her -- and squatted next to the engines. "Yes. Owen's new droids are well-sheltered. Now, if only they'd accomplish something with those vaporators, we'd all be much happier."

"Why not reprogram them?" Leia suggested. "I've been working with R2, and I bet -- "

Anakin shook his head. "Owen won't hear of it. They do what he bought them to do. He thinks if I start taking them apart and putting them back together, he won't get them back for a year."

"But if I -- "

She was interrupted by the roar of an engine -- she looked up with an irritated squint Leia Skywalker hated being interrupted more than she hated anything else -- as a disk-shaped ship swooped low over the homestead. It fired its landing rockets just past the hill, and Anakin watched it lower itself with a sinking heart. He rarely reached out into the Force these days, but some things didn't need to be searched for. Some things, he knew at the first touch. This was one of those things.

Kenobi was back.

He had a feeling that the day was about to get very long.

***

Chapter One: Chosen One

Anakin sent the children into the house, putting Leia in charge on the (usually dependable) theory that if she was given authority, she'd stay where she was told to stay. Amidala came running outside. The new baby was starting to show, and the wind pulled her dress tightly against her slightly rounded form. Anakin cursed Palpatine for the thousandth time. She should be somewhere comfortable and lush, with her handmaidens waiting on her, rather than out here in the desert -- his love, not hers -- trying to live in the exile that had been imposed on her.

And in the danger Kenobi was placing her in.

He waited, stone-faced as a Council Master, as the hatch opened, and Kenobi came out. Behind him, a young pilot in a shabby vest started herding out a group of people, all of them looking worse for wear. They came around Kenobi in a slow stream, as the master stood at the top of the ramp, waiting... as stone-faced as his former padawan.

Amidala stepped forward. "Obi-Wan," she said. "You are welcome here."

"Am I?"

Anakin sighed deeply. "Yes. You're welcome here." Obi-Wan smiled faintly, and a flood of old warmth came back. "Get down here, old man," Anakin said. "It's good to see you."

Kenobi swept down the ramp, and embraced him. Anakin banked his anger at the intrusion, his fear of possible loss. Kenobi had raised him for ten years. No matter how much he tried to deny it, the man was as much his family as Amidala and the children were.

As they separated, Anakin heard the long exhortation of a Wookiee. It was a language he didn't know well, but the look on the pilot's face said it wasn't good news. He turned to Anakin and Amidala. "I don't suppose you two folks have a jani-droid? Seems some of my cargo wasn't up to the flight."

Amidala laughed. It was a beautiful sound, a cross between a bell and a song, and Anakin knew all would be well. "I'm sure we can help you," she said. "Why don't you come in, and we'll see to you and your cargo."

The next hours passed pleasantly enough, Anakin supposed in retrospect. The missing members of Amidala's cell had surfaced in the group of resistance refugees, and the worry lines on her face relaxed away. Luke and Shmi made a mess of dinner, but people were too hungry to care. Leia and the pilot -- Solo, he said his name was -- got into a heated argument about the relative merits of Solo's glued-together ship. Anakin asked if he might have a look at the freighter, now that the droid had cleaned it. He was afraid that in the matter of the argument, he would be taking Solo's side of Leia's. It was a well put together piece of machinery.

"I thought you'd like this ship," Kenobi said, appearing at the hatch. "It seemed your type."

"Solo seems to be a good mechanic. I have some parts lying around that might be able to get her to point-seven past lightspeed. She looks like she'll hit point-five now."

"That's Solo's boast."

"Is he part of the Resistance?"

Obi-Wan laughed. "He claims not to be. It's his position that he's simply being hired for a job. But I learned of him through other Resistance fighters, and it seems he takes such jobs frequently, and often for relatively low fees. Captain Solo is a good man."

Anakin didn't answer this. He had been Kenobi's student long enough to know what was coming next.

He was right. The Master spoke again after a moment. "His position is not terribly different from your own, Anakin. He insists that he is not really a part -- "

"But somehow or other, it always sucks him back in," Anakin shot back, hoping the bitter tone would derail Kenobi, though he couldn't recall ever being given reason to entertain such a hope.

"Anakin, you cannot hide in the desert forever. You are destined to destroy the Sith. You are the Chosen One."

Anakin felt his face flush hotly. Kenobi had a way of making him feel like a coward, a disgrace, a disappointment... yet when he entertained the other thought, that he really was the Chosen One, that all it would take was his own participation to turn the tide of the war, he felt arrogant, imperious, and pompous. "No one person is that important, Obi-Wan. What do you think will happen? I'll wave a lightsaber and the Empire will go away? I have news for you: I've waved the damned thing a few times. Palpatine is still in power."

Kenobi put a hand on his shoulder, turned him around. His eyes were compassionate, but resolute. "Your destiny has never been clear, Anakin. It is bound with Palpatine's, and that clouds it. The prophecy is unfortunately vague -- "

Anakin shook the hand off. "The prophecy is a piece of poetry written a thousand years ago. They didn't know about Palpatine, and they certainly didn't know about me. Do you have any idea how much I hate that prophecy, Obi-Wan? Any idea at all?"

"Hate leads to suffering," Kenobi said quietly.

The anger welled up quickly, and it took some effort to quell it. Anakin had never learned the perfect control over his temper that had been expected of him. Be fair, he reminded himself. Kenobi is at least right. You see the suffering every day.

"The Outer Rim is the key," Kenobi said, somehow sensing the receding of the wave of anger. "We need to solidify the Resistance, then take out the Guardpost."

"You don't want much, do you, old man?"

"Once we control the whole of the outer rim, we can begin to draw it inward. To choke off the Empire at its source."

"You want to organize anything in the Outer Rim? These people don't care what happens on Coruscant they're happy to offer shelter, but to assault the Guardpost? Even if you make it through the remote defense web -- "

" -- a job for skilled pilots -- "

" -- hitting something as heavily defended as the Guardpost is suicide. And even if we took it, we'd never be able to keep momentum long enough to close on Coruscant."

"You seem to have little faith in the rest of the Outer Rim."

"Look at your brother. He's a good man, Obi-Wan, though I know you don't get along well. He'll live and die to protect his farm and the people he loves. But to leave them undefended on an abstract principle?"

"Beru is quite capable of defending the farm. And, at any rate, it is not Owen I am asking to come."

"And Amidala? While she's waiting for the baby? She's good shot, but she's not at her most maneuverable just now. What would she do if the Empire decided to respond to this astounding strategy of yours by invading Tatooine?"

"As you said, Owen will live or die to protect those he loves."
"And if Owen fails?"
It was Kenobi's most irritating habit to answer the question actually being asked, rather than the one posed. "If you fail, Anakin, then no one would succeed. You are the Chosen One."

Anakin shook his head, in frustration, in denial, in negation. "Obi-Wan, I don't even know what that means."

He left the Falcon to return to his family, leaving Obi-Wan standing silently on board.

***

Amidala didn't mind being held. Far from it. She loved the feel of Ani's arms wrapped around her, his hand resting lightly on her belly to feel the movements of the baby. She loved the weight of his head resting on her own. She felt safe, protected, and adored.

But he had been holding her like this for nearly an hour now, silent in the starlight, the breathing of their sleeping guests almost audible outside the door. He'd spoken little since coming in from the ship, and not at all since they had retired to their room. She'd seen Obi-Wan follow him out, and she knew that whatever his old Master had said was troubling him deeply. She wanted him to talk to her.

She turned her head slightly, and kissed his throat. His hand brushed lightly over her stomach. "Are you going to tell me?" she asked.

"I have little doubt as to your response," he said. She could feel him smiling slightly against the top of her hair, then his lips pressed down briefly in a kiss. She lifted her face to get a better one, then waited for him to go on. "Has Kenobi discussed his idea with you?"

Amidala bit her lip. "Actually, I discussed it with him."

Ani's chest shook with soundless laughter. "I should have guessed," he said. "You and your organizing and alliances."

"It was Kenobi's idea to bring you in, though."

"Should I feel slighted that you didn't think of it?"

"No." She rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Ani, there are times I don't know which side of your ego I'm supposed to be stroking." She kissed his jaw, so she could be sure he knew she was kidding -- in fact, Ani rarely asked for reassurance, and thought as little of himself as he had when he was a child -- then sighed and got out of bed to stretch her legs and look out the window. A few shelters had been pitched in the front yard. She turned back to her husband. She knelt beside the bed and took his hand, holding it to her face. "Ani, this needs to end. Luke and Leia and little Shmi don't know what it is not to have to hide all the time. People are dying."

"And I'm ignoring it," he finished for her, looking away.

She kissed his fingers. "You have been doing what you can. I know you're torn, that there's a conflict."

"There is no conflict, Amidala. The problem is that there should be. I know that. I watch you at your terminal, running your cell, and I know I should be doing something. I know it's driving you mad not to be doing more, and I know I should feel like that."

"And I know you do feel like that, Ani. You forget, I know what you dream about."

"I don't dream anymore." He turned his face back to her, and smiled ruefully. "Yes, I do, don't I?"

She nodded. "Almost every night. You just don't remember. My love, don't imagine that I don't want to crawl inside our marriage and never come out. But it's a luxury we can't afford anymore. The people who came today... Ani, they've been burned out of their homes. They've lost their families. One of them is Naboo -- she told me that Eirtaé died defending her village. That's three of my five handmaidens, Ani. I can't sit back and watch. I had to take action. But what you choose to do is your choice."

He pulled his hand away, and glanced bitterly across the room. "And if I say no, you'll never forgive me."

"Ani, I would forgive you anything. Literally anything I can think of that's remotely possible for you to do." She stood up, then sat on the edge of the bed. There were crimes she couldn't forgive from anyone, but Ani was not capable off committing them. "But the question is this: Would you ever forgive yourself? Because Obi-Wan will do this anyway, and if you are not there, he will fail."

"He's seen this?"

"Haven't you?"

It was the kind of question she didn't ask. Since he'd left the order, they'd avoided mentioning the use of any of the Jedi skills he'd picked up (or been born with). He would be a mechanic and a farmer now, and a husband and father. The rest was in a life behind.

He closed his eyes and nodded. "Yes," he said. "I've seen it."

***

Leia ignited her lightsaber as soon as she was sure she was deep enough inside the Millennium Falcon not to be seen from the house. The arrogant pilot and his Wookiee bodyguard had gone off somewhere to pay a debt to a Hutt -- it figured, he was the type to get in trouble with the Hutts -- and Obi-Wan and the prisoners were all either in the house or in shelters. Her saber cast a cool blue glow along the freighter's corridors. Behind her, she could hear Luke's saber humming as he pointed it up toward the ceiling. A weapon, maybe, but not half-bad as a lamp, as long as you weren't trying to see too far.

"Do you see anything?" she asked.

"I don't know what we're looking for."

She rolled her eyes. "You spend too much time in the suns. They've fried your brain."

"And you spent too much time talking to that pilot. You think you're a galactic adventurer now."

Leia recognized a challenge when she heard one, and she swung her saber. He met it, and they went through a few parries before she decided to get back to the point. She hooked his saber, twisted it, and called it to her own hand as soon as he lost his grip. Childish, she knew, but if she went through with this, she might not have a lot more chances to play. Heck, even if she didn't, she was fourteen, and adulthood was staring her in the face anyway. She grinned and tossed her brother's lightsaber back to him. "Maybe next time," she said as he lit it. "We're looking for the panels to the smuggling compartments," she explained. "The pilot and Obi-Wan are going back toward the Resistance, and we're going with them. This one's big. I heard Mother talking about it."

"And I'm sure Mother and Father will be thrilled with us going?"

"That's why I'm looking for the smuggling compartments. You say we're headed into Toshi station, then we loop around, come back, and hide until they blast off."

"Leia... "
"I'm not going to hide on this rock for the rest of my life! I'm supposed to be doing something!" She sighed explosively. "Luke, I know you understand what I'm saying. I've felt it in your mind when we talk that way. I know you want to be a part of the big things in the galaxy. I've seen you looking over Mother's shoulder when she works on her cell."

Luke regarded her calmly -- he looked like Father, but his patience was Mother's -- then shrugged and nodded. "I still think we should ask. Father will know if we're on board."

"Not if he's not looking for us. Why should we stay to see off strangers?"

"What if he goes? It's what Master Obi-Wan wants. And he'll definitely wait for us to come back to see him off."

Leia shook her head in disgust. "Father won't get involved. He's turning into Owen Lars."

"I like Uncle Owen."

"Do you want to be Uncle Owen?" She sent him an imagined view of himself in a few years, wearing a floppy farm hat and spending all day tinkering with vaporators.

He responded with an image of a funeral pyre, and Mother and Father standing beside it crying. "It's not a game, Leia," he said. "There are real people dying."

Leia looked at her feet, feeling shamed. "I know. But don't you understand? I'd rather die fighting for what's right than live here and hide. I've made some connections with Mother's friends, and the pilot Solo told me about more. I want to fight the Empire, Luke. I want you with me, but I won't make you come." She lifted her eyes to meet her brother's, hoping to see some determination to go -- in fact, the idea of taking such an action without her twin seemed unspeakably wrong -- but instead saw only a species of tired wisdom.

"I think we should ask Father," he said after awhile. "I feel like... like this time might be different." He grinned suddenly, a sunny, airy grin that made his weary thoughtfulness seem to disappear. "But just in case... what do smuggling compartments look like?"

Leia smiled back at him, told him she had no idea, and pushed her way further into the ship.

***

Chapter Two: A Larger World

Han found the girl early the next morning, between the sunrises. He wasn't much on long term strategy, but he thought ahead enough to keep himself out of trouble with a half-rogue Jedi, and he'd seen the girl eyeing his ship last night. He and Chewbacca checked each cargo hold carefully before preparing for takeoff. She was in the near corner of the last one, behind the ladder, wrapped in an old tarp. She was asleep, and she looked young. He lowered himself down quietly, and reached out to pick her up and take her back inside, hoping that he could have her back in her own bed before anyone noticed she was gone. Kenobi could vouch that there was nothing weird going on -- the old man knew enough to know that at least -- but Han didn't think he wanted to take his chances with Skywalker anyway.

Before he could touch her, her eyes flew open, and she grabbed his wrist, pulling him hard against the ladder. Her hand clasped behind his neck. "I'm coming with you," she said.

Speaking wasn't easy with his face pulled up against the ladder rungs, but his answer wasn't very complex: "Not a chance, Sweetheart." It came out more as "No'vacha, thweether," but he thought she got the point, because she let go of him in disgust, and sat down to pout.

Teenagers. Great.

He sighed. Truth was, he kind of liked the kid. She had a lot of spirit. She was going to be a spitfire when she grew up. "Come on," he said, holding out a hand to her. "I won't tell on you. But you're not coming along. We're not going on vacation."

"I know where you're going," she said tersely, getting up (ignoring his outstretched hand entirely). She squared her shoulders, and pushed her two long braids back with an irritated motion. They were narrowly spaced, and draped in tight parallel lines along her spine (a thin, smaller braid began behind her right ear, and had been woven into the main braid on that side). The arrangement seemed efficient enough, though if she went off to war, he'd bet those braids would be the first thing cut off. Or maybe not. Han hoped not.

"Look, kiddo," he said, trying to give his voice a big-brotherly drawl. He thought she might have a crush on him, and figured he best kill it quick. "You don't want to head out that way. You got a good life here. Your brother, your mom, your baby sister, your dad... "

"Thank you for the inventory."

Han shook his head, and threw his hands in the air. "I give up. You're not coming. End of story. So put it out of your head. I'm not getting paid enough to babysit."

She narrowed her eyes. "It's all about your money, then?"

"Yeah, in case you missed that part."

"Fine. So you take whoever is coming. My father will be coming with you. And my brother and I will be coming with him. So you may as well get used to it, because it's our mission now."

"Listen, sister -- "

"Don't call me that. My name is Leia."

"It's my ship, and I'll call you what I -- " A howl from Chewie interrupted the conversation. Han looked up sharply.

"What is it?" Leia asked.

"Damn. Trouble. You get inside, right now."

"I'm not going to -- "

"You want to go to the war, you learn to take an order. You get inside and tell your father and Kenobi that we've got company coming. Droids. From the south."

Her stubbornness broke instantly, and she scrambled up the ladder two rungs at a time. She drew a weapon

(Is that a lightsaber? Han had time to think incredulously before she disappeared. On a girl like that?)

from her belt and was down the gangplank before Han made it to the cockpit. Chewie was monitoring a series of flashing lights on the control panel. He barked extensively, and Han only caught part of it -- he had still not entirely mastered Wookiee -- but enough to understand that they were deep in trouble. Imperial probe droids were nothing to mess with by themselves. And Chewie said he was picking up some old style droidekas along with them.

"Why use droids? No stormtroopers?"

Chewie suggested that it was a scouting trip, that the Empire was just trying to see what it could find, and the droids were disposable.

"Yeah, well, I don't have much use for droidekas myself," Han said. "If the Empire wants to throw 'em out, I'll burn the trash for 'em. C'mon, let's get ready to move. We still got a lot of people to get out of here."

***

Father and Kenobi were already on the move when Leia got inside. Luke had his lightsaber in hand, but was standing by tentatively.

"Droids," Leia said quickly. "Solo says they're coming this way."

She thought for a minute that Father would stop, even in the middle of this, to ask what she had been doing in Solo's ship at dawn, but he didn't. He looked at her sadly -- she realized that he knew exactly what she had been up to, and what lies she'd planned to tell, and she felt guilty -- then turned on Kenobi with a hard face. "What have you brought on us, old man?"

Kenobi shrugged with an indifference that Leia wasn't sure was faked. "Droids, it would seem."

Mother came out of the bedroom, blaster in hand, dressed in a loose Naboo battle uniform. "Do we know how many yet?"

"It's not troopers," Kenobi told her. "According to Solo, it's droids. We should have no trouble with them."

"There will be probe droids," Father said. "The troops will come next."

Mother glanced over her shoulder. "Leia, put my trunk on board Solo's ship, if he'll have it. Everything that's important is in it. The rest, we can lose. Luke, get your little sister ready to go. Try not to scare her. But we might need to leave quickly."

"I won't let them get here," Father said.

"I'm going to get the refugees to Owen's place. The jawas can pick them up there. It's probably the ship the droids are centering on."

The group of refugees in the parlor -- most of whom were finally waking up -- began protesting that they would help fight, but Leia didn't see the end of the argument. Mother shot her a dark look, and she followed her own instructions without question, taking Mother's box of treasures (some actual treasures, removed from Naboo so that Palpatine would not have them most simply family property that she would not leave for anyone) from her parents' room, and taking it to the Falcon. From the corner of her eye, she saw Luke going in to take care of Shmi.

"This is coming along," Leia told Solo, navigating around him at the top of the ramp, pulling the trunk on its antigrav sled. "Mother's orders."

"Fine." He showed her where she could put it safely. By the time she went back outside, she saw Mother herding the refugees over the rise toward the Lars farm. Father had made a treaty with the local jawas (whether it had been his idea or Mother's, Leia couldn't guess, but he spoke their language better than she did) they would load the strangers into a sandcrawler, and let them out in different places around the edge of the Dune Sea.

She registered this in an instant. Closer to her, she heard the clash of lightsabers. Shmi's high-pitched cry rose above it, and she could hear Luke saying something about it not doing anyone any good. She turned to see what was happening.

Father and Kenobi were circling each other like birds of prey, occasionally trading short but deadly serious parries. She ran down the gangplank to join her brother.

"This is not going to change anything, Anakin," Kenobi said. "And your energies are better spent elsewhere."

Father glared at him silently, then lowered his lightsaber and turned away in disgust. Beside Leia, Luke sighed in relief. Shmi was crying. She slithered down and ran to Father, who picked her up wordlessly, and held her. He came to Luke and Leia, knelt beside them, letting Shmi lower herself to the ground, and put his arms around all three of them. "I'm sorry," he said. "Kenobi is right. We need to prepare for this fight. Find someplace safe."

Leia smiled at him. "I'll be right behind you. What's safer?"

He grinned wearily, and kissed her cheek. "Be careful, Leia. And stay behind me. I mean it. And if... if anything happens, run."

"The little one can hide in the Falcon," Solo said suddenly. "No problem. If it looks like they're getting too close, I'll take off and get her away, but I'll get her back to you."

Father looked up. "Thank you."

Solo nodded, and Shmi -- unexpectedly -- allowed him to pick her up and carry her to the ship. A moment later, Solo and the Wookiee reappeared, blasters at the ready.

The first Leia saw of the droids was a glint of the two suns on the huge metal antigrav sled. It was moving quickly over the dunes. She drew her lightsaber, and saw Luke do the same. Then there was a small, flying droid only fifty meters away.

After that, things happened fast.

There weren't a great many droids -- maybe forty, Leia thought later, counting droidekas, probes, and a few odd heaps of metal whose purpose she could only guess at -- but a lot of them were shielded. Father and Kenobi dove into the mass of them as soon as they began to roll off the sled, deflecting fire and cutting down several, and Leia herself managed to take down the flying probe she'd first seen. Luke had engaged a droideka, and was fighting to throw off the blaster fire before it cooked him. He wasn't making much headway against the shield.

Solo and the Wookiee were taking a more practical approach, which Leia admired once she understood it. They waited until the droidekas were atop a sand knoll, then shot the ground out from underneath them. They toppled, and it took them just enough time to regain their stabilizers that the shield flickered. One went down beside Leia like this, and she sliced through the metal skin with a satisfying burst of sparks. She kicked the scrap metal away, and looked for a new opponent.

A blast came from the ridge, and took out another struggling droideka. Leia looked up to see her Mother's round silouhette against the sun, with Owen Lars close behind her. They were running down into the fight. A few refugees seemed to have doggedly followed her, but they weren't very effective.

Leia didn't see the blast that set her house on fire. She didn't think anyone had. But when the battle ended -- almost as suddenly as it had begun -- Mother looked up, and her face drained of all color. Father's eyes followed hers, then Leia slowly glanced over. They could all see the flames through the windows, and the smoke pouring from the doors. There was no mistaking it.

Mother's face continued growing pale, and Luke took a few stumbling steps toward the door before Father caught him and pulled him back. Father himself... Leia didn't recognize what she felt in his mind, a dark, rolling wave of anger and... hate? Was it hate? His eyes were deep and full of embers.

Shmi was the only one who cried. She had wandered out onto the Falcon's gangplank to find out what all the noise was about. Mother ran to her and picked her up. Leia could hear her whispering, "You're okay, you're not in there," over and over.

In the sudden, deafening silence, Kenobi spoke softly. "Anakin, I am sorry." He knelt in front of Father, laid down his lightsaber, and bared his neck. Leia thought it was a bad idea she didn't know the man who was standing in her father's place and wearing his robes, the man with the demon-haunted eyes. She could see his hand on the saber hilt, and the trembling of the beam. Mother, with Shmi in her arms, seemed to feel the change, and stood with a hint of fear in her eyes.

Then Father was back, and the saber was withdrawn. He reached down, and pulled Kenobi up. "I have no wish to kill you, Obi-Wan. I've lost enough today."

***

Amidala stood beside the sandcrawler, her hand resting lightly on Anakin's wrist. He sought out the warmth of her fingers, to guard against the cold that seemed just beyond his ability to control. "I need to go with them," she said, looking over her shoulder at the refugees that were boarding the giant transport. "They won't be safe at Owen and Beru's. Not this close to where the probes went down. They'll send troopers to investigate."

Anakin didn't argue. He didn't want her to go to war. Even if Tatooine was under surveillance, it was safer than jumping into the heart of the Empire. "Owen and Beru should go, too."

"Yes."

"Amidala, I should stay with you."

She shook her head. "No, Ani. You go. Take the twins. Keep them safe. I'll watch over Shmi and the new baby. We'll be all right. I promise. And we'll be together again." She smiled weakly, and moved his hand to her belly, and he felt the baby moving inside of her. "This one is waiting to meet you. So you come back to us."

"I can't promise. But I will promise that the twins will come back to you. Nothing will happen to them." His heart was telling him to leave the twins with her as well, but he knew Leia well enough to know that she would follow with or without permission, and Luke well enough to know that he would accompany her. Better to have them where he could watch them. And not worry that they were scouting Tatooine trying to win fights on their own. Amidala knew how to stay out of battles she didn't need to be in Anakin wasn't as sure about the twins. So he'd agreed to let them come. They had already said their goodbyes. He had also said his goodbye, but he hadn't been able to fight the urge to go back and say it again.

He kissed his wife, held her so close that he couldn't feel any separation between them, then held Shmi for a moment before letting her go. He watched them disappear into the sandcrawler -- urged on by the chief jawa, who was afraid that too long a delay would cast suspicion in his own direction -- then turned back to the Falcon, where his children and the man who was as close to a father as he'd ever known waited quietly for him.

The first leg of the trip was to Sullust -- nothing special about it, except that it was the opposite direction from Naboo, and it seemed wise to go in an unpredictable direction. Anakin used the time to run the twins through their training exercises. Kenobi looked suspiciously at Leia as she easily hooked Luke's saber away from him, but said nothing. He really did feel guilt over the morning's attack. Anakin wanted to tell him to let it go, but somehow couldn't bring himself to do it.

Sullust was an easy victory for the Resistance -- the Empire had never treated it well, and its own disorganized resistance was happy to join with the larger swell of support. They only had five fighters to scrounge up among them, but all of them joined the Falcon, looking like a ragtag royal escort. Leia immediately tagged them "the handmaidens," and gave them the names of Amidala's former bodyguards, who were remembered in a weekly recitation that Leia had always grown up with. (Saché and Yané were still alive, but deeply hidden in the Resistance -- Leia named two quick, darting fighters after them -- but they had been scattered, and Amidala always spoke of them in the past tense. She felt she had put them in danger, and blamed herself for their fates.)

Anoat was a harder sell many there had Imperial sympathies. But the local Resistance was able to sneak six fighters out of orbit. A band of pirates hiding on the ice world of Hoth had tracked communications among "the handmaidens," and approached themselves asking to be included. Anakin would rather not have had them, but Solo welcomed them. Apparently, the leader was an old friend of his.

More of Solo's contacts appeared on his homeworld Corellia. Not all of them were friendly, but they did all hate the Empire. Twenty Corellian ships joined the increasingly odd-looking convoy. Anakin began organizing them into some kind of chain of command. Not many particularly liked the idea, but most submitted to it. The Corellians even remembered Anakin's reputation as a pilot, and gave him a one-man craft -- a strange ship, with wings that locked into an X-shape that reminded Anakin obscurely of Sebulba -- which he locked to the hull of the Falcon, glad to have it for a time when it would be necessary.

Gonjua. Malastare. Ampinua and La'azum.

One world after another, sometimes sending many ships, sometimes sending fighters after the convoy to show the Empire that they were loyalists and could be trusted. Luke improved his saber skills, learning better from Kenobi than he had from Anakin, and actually beat his sister twice. Leia and Solo played chess. Both twins learned to fire the turret guns, and Luke had taken out two ships from an unfriendly world, saving one of the Handmaidens (which had, by some obscure function of seniority, become the official messengers of the small fleet).

Bespin. Toydaria. Gala. Kashyyk.

Anakin longed to contact Amidala, but it wasn't safe. Wherever she was -- he hoped it was Mos Espa, where she knew at least some people who would protect her -- interstellar transmissions would be too easily traced.

Motibi. Dantooine.

The fleet was eighty-five ships strong, and despite cautions from Anakin and Obi-Wan, the young pilots felt invincible.

Most had only hours to live.

***

Chapter Three: Guardpost

"We're hitting the defense web," Solo said, glancing over his shoulder.

Anakin scanned the communications from the fleet. "Hang back. They need to get a chance to see what we're up against."

"Longer we wait, the more of those remotes will get here."

It was true. The defense web was a marvel of engineering -- Anakin was willing to grant it that. Spread out in a rough sphere around the core worlds and dispatched from a space station known as the Guardpost, the deadly remote guns were equipped with motion sensors and hyperdrive. Ships coming into a sector might be greeted with only one but soon others would begin to materialize.

Two did so.

Theoretically, a massive assault from all sides of the sphere would be able to defeat the web, but there weren't enough ships in the Outer Rim -- let alone ships with owners loyal to the Resistance -- to begin such an assault. Palpatine was aware of this. Their best bet was to make it in and out quickly.

Anakin called on the Handmaidens. "This will require quick and precise flying. Inform your squadrons. I'll fly at point, and cover anyone who seems to need it, but if anyone believes he or she will not make it through, see to it that they feel no shame at leaving."

Nien Nunb, who flew the Sullustian fighter than Leia had tagged the Rabé, didn't sound like he was ready to leave any time soon. The translator rendered his response flatly, but there was little to doubt in, "We'll see you at the Guardpost, Skywalker."

Anakin smiled. Something about this made him feel at peace with himself, for the first time in years, though he couldn't comprehend what it was.

Insane, he thought. That's what it is. Nutzen, as Jar Jar would have said.

"You're flying?" Kenobi asked. He was standing at the cockpit door. "Are you certain?"

"Yes." He looked anxiously at the twins, who were standing in the hallway beyond. He wanted to tell Solo to turn around as soon as his own ship detached, to take them someplace safe until this was over. But he saw the set of Leia's jaw, the confidence in Luke's eyes. They would be in this. "I'd rather be outside to guard them. I'm less than useless in here." He turned to the pilot. "Solo, fly fast and fly well."

"You got it."

Anakin turned to change into a flight suit. He nodded to his Master as he passed. "I need to talk to you."

Obi-Wan nodded and followed. They passed the twins -- Anakin spared a moment to muss Luke's hair and touch Leia's face -- and went down into the hold, where the spare gear was kept.

"Don't let Solo take any more chances than he has to," he said.

Obi-Wan nodded. "I'll see to it."

"If anything happens to me -- "

"I'll make sure they're all right. But nothing will happen to you today, Anakin."

He nodded. "What happened on Tatooine wasn't your fault, Obi-Wan. I know that. Had I done what I knew I should have long ago... "

"Anakin, there's little point in dwelling on 'should have.' Concentrate on the moment."

"Will you let me try to make amends, old man?"

Kenobi laughed. "There are no amends to be made in that direction, Anakin. I was reckless. I brought trouble to you. You need to be mindful of your anger, but if anyone ever earned it, I did."

"I almost did it, you know. When you gave me a chance to kill you."

"I know."

A heavy silence fell between them. Anakin couldn't remove from his mind the image of Kenobi kneeling before him, and the sense of the rising tide of fate that had seemed ready to pull his saber down. He wasn't sure Kenobi really knew how close the fight had been. How terrifyingingly close. The abyss had yawned before him at that moment, and he had almost gone into it of his own free will. But at the last moment, he'd heard Shmi's cry, then the other things had come back -- the twins' bewilderment, Amidala's fear, Kenobi's true feeling of guilt. The life he'd felt stolen had reached out to him, and brought him back.

But it had been far too close.

"I do know," Kenobi said. "Whatever you think, I do know. There was a time I was concerned about you, Anakin. So much anger, so little patience. But your demons are under your control. It's your angels that worry me now."

"What do you mean?"

"Your loyalty to your children is admirable. But you should not have trained Leia."

Anakin took a deep breath, pushed it out with the wave of anger. "I'm not going to have an argument with you, Kenobi. Maybe later. But I don't want to part badly. My choices are my own."

"Very well."

"If something happens to me," Anakin began again, and stepped on Kenobi's assurance that nothing would, "then I want you to give my lightsaber to Amidala, and tell her to give it to the unborn child, so he'll have something of mine."

"Yes, of course." Kenobi looked away. "If I fall... I suppose I have no messages, or anyone to send them to. Tell my brother, I suppose, that I wish things had been different between us. And I want you to have my lightsaber. I named you as my heir long ago."

Anakin nodded, and put a hand on Kenobi's arm. Theirs had never been a friendship of easy embraces, and the touch reached across a large gap. "I'm honored," he said. He tried a smile. "But nothing will happen to you today."

Kenobi looked at him, piercing blue eyes appraising him coolly. The phrase fell flat between them. "We shall see."

***

Chewbacca lifted Leia up the ladder into the gun turret. She could run the ladder herself, perfectly well, but Chewie enjoyed playing with her this way, and she didn't object to it. She liked the big Wookiee, even if she couldn't understand most of what he had to say. "Thanks for the boost!" she said, saluting him over her shoulder. He returned it, then headed for the gun set into the belly of the ship. Far below her, Leia could see Luke arranging himself in his own turret.

"You kids set up?" Solo asked from the hatch that led to the ladders. Leia gave him a wave, and Luke called that he was ready. "Okay. We're flying fast. Don't look for targets, just get rid of the ones that come at you. Everything in the defense web shoots, so don't wait to see if it's hostile. It is."

"Got it."

"Okay then. Two more words and I'm outta here: Strap in."

Leia did as she was told -- probably to Solo's surprise she usually did just the opposite of what she was told if he was the one doing the telling -- then relaxed her hands around the triggers and controls. She reached into the Force, found a strong eddy of power, and dipped into it. Just let them come to you, she reminded herself. Feel, don't think. See, don't aim.

She looked across the top of the hull, saw Father settling himself in his new ship -- an X-wing -- and waved to him. He waved back. A nervous knot tightened in her stomach. She closed her eyes, remembered the exact feel of his arms around her (a warm pressure, usually in two rows wrapped all the way across her back, pulling her tight against him), the exact smell of his clothes after a day at work (pungent, with a hint of desert spice and the vaguely cooked fibers of the fabric), the sound of voice (which was like nothing else she could describe). She could hold her father like this. And that meant she could let him get in the X-Wing and leave. Strange. Only a few weeks ago, she'd thought him a despicable coward.

She heard another familiar voice. Below her, Kenobi was speaking to Luke in a low, serious voice. She couldn't make out the words. The two of them had gotten close. She wondered if Luke would go with him when this was over and train to be a Jedi. That thought was too hard to bear, so she shut it away.

Kenobi suddenly looked up at her, blue eyes catching the overhead light and seeming to flash. "Be mindful, young Leia," he said. "Shoot carefully."

Leia shrugged. Kenobi had never much liked her.

Father's ship detached, and he flew into point position, tilting and spinning as he went -- "to get a feel for the controls," he always said, but no one even pretended to believe it. One of the remote guns sensed his movement and fired, but compared to Father, it was impossibly slow. He dove and spun like he was dancing in space, and the laser beam shot harmlessly overhead.

He gave the signal, and Solo started moving. Leia had no time to think about anything, or to enjoy watching her father flying in deep space.

She took out five remote guns that she counted, and she saw Luke take on three more, but they kept appearing. From the belly gun, Chewie hit at least one, but she couldn't see his position clearly. Solo flew in a quick, darting manner, trying to make the inside of the web. He'd obviously done it before, but the number of ships in this fleet was bringing in the sensor-equipped guns at a rapid pace, and the evasive maneuvering was razor sharp and dizzying. Around them, Leia could see other pilots who weren't quite as lucky. Two of the pirate ships from Hoth were taken out, and one of the Handmaidens (the Eirtaé, Leia thought) was caught in the collision. Several Ampinuan ships went down in her sightline. She had no way of guessing what might be going on beyond that.

Father saved two of the other Handmaidens by diving in at the last moment, and knocking out the gun that had targeted them. He swooped back past the Falcon, close enough that Leia could see his face clearly, the grim set to the chin telling her that all the wonder of flying again had left. She saw the last remote gun just in time, closed her eyes, and used the Force to guide her gun. She caught it before it fired.

Then it was over.

"Get deep inside," Father ordered over the communications system, his voice clipped and hard with suppressed emotion. "Anyone who is left. We're going for the Guardpost."

A smattering of replies came in. From eighty-five ships to forty in five minutes. Leia closed her eyes, and felt the loss of it.

Then the ship was on the move again, and going toward an enemy base. She needed to be alert for it.

***

The Guardpost was bored into the core of a large asteroid, its defenses secure against any but the most catastrophic outside attack. It couldn't be destroyed from space -- and the battle would be hand to hand in enemy territory.

Han Solo didn't much like the looks of it.

The surface guns fired early, but not very accurately, and no ships were hit. The landing platforms began to lower, but Skywalker fired two deadly accurate volleys at the controls and froze them in place. Han saw his strategy immediately... or what passed for strategy in the mind of a Jedi: if the odds are impossible, just go in and fight.

As if to confirm it, Kenobi appeared, ready for battle, his lightsaber drawn. "You remain with the ship and guard the entrance for the other fighters. Do not let the children go deeply into this."

"I ain't going in too deep myself, old man."

Kenobi smirked. "You're in quite as deep as the rest of us Solo. Don't you think it's time you stopped pretending not to be?"

Han shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Get ready. We're going in."

He followed Skywalker toward the landing platforms, then saw the X-wing dive into the hatch. Lights flashed as the defenses shot at him, but Han was in right after him, and could see that none of them came close. Skywalker aimed almost casually, taking out the mounted guns with unerring accuracy. The hatch opened out, and they passed the pressurized forcefield. Soldiers fired hand weapons. Skywalker took out a row of power couplings, sending fragments out into the bay. Some of the soldiers were caught. Many others wisely ran.

By the time Han landed the Falcon, Skywalker was out of his X-Wing, lightsaber raised. Kenobi ran to join him -- the crazy old fool must have gone out the top hatch and jumped while Han was lowering the landing gear. He called to Chewie. "You're on babysitting duty! Neither of the kids is leaving!"

"Think again!" Leia had slid down the ladder from her turret, and she ran for the hatch.

Han caught her. "Stand a guard, Leia. I mean it. I promised your dad. And you don't want him losing concentration out there, do you?"

Her eyes widened she apparently hadn't thought about it that way. She went back up the turret -- just in time. The rest of the fleet was coming through the field into the landing bay, and the Imperial defenses were starting to kick in. Leia took out two large guns (and two marksmen) in an upper balcony, and Luke got a droideka that had rolled in.

Chewie barked that they were trying to get into the forcefield control room, to open the hangar up to the vacuum of space. "Well, stop 'em!" Han yelled.

Chewie said he didn't have a clean shot. A blast came from Leia's gun, and collapsed the hallway leading to the control room.

"Good thinking, sweetheart!" Han yelled, privately glad she hadn't missed by a foot and hit the controls themselves, which would have pickled all of them.

Guarding the hangar wasn't going to be a walk in the park.

***

The general atmosphere in the Guardpost seemed to be a deep, slow-moving shock. Anakin led the way toward the center, following a pattern of hallways that he knew in his bones, though he'd never walked it before. Beside him, Kenobi was travelling with his face turned backward, to guard from rear attacks. It was as if they had never stopped fighting together.

Behind them, the Resistance fighters were beginning to appear. Most of them, Anakin had never met in person, but he knew many by sight from their holos. There were also many that he'd never seen -- apparently, some of the ships held more people than he'd believed.

Half a dozen stormtroopers came around the corner firing. Anakin felt a moment's pain -- it had been many years since he'd used his saber to kill a sentient creature hand to hand, and he didn't relish beginning again -- but he did what he had to, as did Kenobi. Two fell, three were injured. The last surrendered. Anakin put him in the custody of Nunb, who was directly behind him by now.

They went further in. Fighters made their way into the side passages, to secure them from counter-attack. The army was dwindling by the time they reached the control center, but Anakin wasn't weary. The Force flowed through him, and he had ceased to be a separate thing from it. It drove him through the last guards, to the door. Kenobi stood beside him, facing backward.

"This is it," he said. "Be careful. Do not underestimate, padawan."

Anakin smiled. "I haven't been a padawan for a long time."

"Old habit." He smiled. "Shall we?"

Anakin nodded, and began cutting open the door. Soldiers poured out from a nearby room. Kenobi deflected their fire. The small group of fighters engaged them. Anakin could feel the conflict around him, but he had to concentrate.

The door fell in, and blaster fire poured out. He moved quickly to block it, but one round struck his shoulder. He heard someone behind him gasp, but he couldn't stop now. He pushed into the control center.

The defenses were largely exterior, and only the command staff -- the usual group of cowardly politicos -- was here. Easy. He deflected two rounds, then approached the commander, who was standing slowly. He almost missed the slight nod, the tiny motion of the hand.

A squad of stormtroopers had been poised beside the door, and they opened fire. Anakin dove, deflecting the unexpected volley of laser fire, then he heard the hum of Kenobi's lightsaber. The Master cut down three of the troopers, and gave Anakin and the Resistance enough time to react. There was something strange about his movements, but Anakin didn't have time to think about it.

The battle didn't take long after that. The Resistance poured into the control room of the Guardpost.

Anakin turned to catch Kenobi's eye, and saw the Master leaning against the wall.

Then sliding down it.

***

Chapter Four: Master

The battle was over, and they'd won it. Leia wasn't sure what she was supposed to do now.

Out in the bay, she could see the few remaining troopers being arrested by the Resistance. The Yané was docked across the main entrance, and its guns were trained into the hallway, just in case. The Sullustians were handling the administration of the victory. The pirates from Hoth -- those who hadn't been lost in the run through the defense web -- were largely responsible for the capture of the troops. Most of the other fighters had gone deeper into the Guardpost after Father and Kenobi.

"We did it!" Luke called, scrambling up the ladder to the main level of the ship, and looking up at her. "We did it!"

She climbed out of her turret, and slid down the ladder to him. He caught her in an embrace and spun her around. Luke wasn't very big yet, but he was strong from working in the fields, and from training with Father. She kissed his cheek. "You better believe we did, little brother."

"A five minute difference doesn't make me your 'little brother.'"

"Ten."

They grinned at each other. Leia felt lightheaded and dizzy the battle had fired her nerves to their maximum capacity, and sparks of energy were dancing inside her cells. She reached into Luke's mind, found he was feeling the same, and hugged him again.

"You kids want to drop the adrenaline party?" Solo said, appearing from the cockpit. "There's a lot of work left to do."

Luke nodded. "Yes, I know, we were just -- "

That was when everything changed. Leia felt it in the Force around her, the sudden, awful shift of energy, like the ground opening beneath her feet. But Luke was hit harder. The color drained from his face, and he stood stock-still and silent.

"What is it?" Solo asked.

Leia shook her head, suddenly terrified. "I don't know." She touched Luke's hand. "Is it Father? Luke, was that Father?"

She didn't think he 'd answered at first, then she saw his lips forming the word "No."

Leia reached out into the Force, looking for whatever was the cause of the change. Despite Luke's reassurance, she sought out Father first. He was a beacon and easy to find and all right thank the Maker he's all right and he's on his way back here and he's --

The weariness came into her arms, as she felt the weight in her father's. All the fighting, and now carrying... Carrying....

It hit her. "Kenobi."
Luke nodded, then ran for the hatch. Solo didn't try to stop him. He handed Leia a blaster -- "Just in case" -- before he let her follow. Luke was running across the hangar when she emerged from the Falcon, but he stopped abruptly and put a hand over his eyes.

Father came around the Yané.

Kenobi was still alive -- Leia could feel the Master's presence -- but he was weakening quickly. Father was carrying him, his face a mask of controlled pain. Leia ran to them, then Luke was also there. They each helped bear Kenobi's weight to the Falcon, and Solo cleared off the medical platform for them. He started to go back to the cockpit when he finished, but Kenobi held up one hand, only an inch or so, and spoke weakly. "No, Solo. Stay. You belong with them."

Solo looked over his shoulder. "Chewie, watch the ship." He joined Leia's family around Kenobi, though he looked uncomfortable doing so. She could feel his hands on her shoulders, steadying her.

Father was crying openly now it was the first time Leia remembered seeing such a thing, and it disturbed her as much as his anger after their home had burned. He took Kenobi's raised hand, and wrapped both of his own around it. "Don't leave me, Master."

Kenobi's mouth twitched slightly, the shadow of a grin. "You'll be all right, padawan," he said. "It is merely... another long journey for me."

"Yes, Master... Master, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't guard you better. I'm sorry it came to this. I'm sorry I let you down."

"Never did... "

"I shouldn't have let that shot through."

"Can't stop them all." He moistened his lips, looked blindly toward the top of the ship. "Palpatine..." he said.

"Not now..."

"Yes... Ani, do not forget. There are always... t... " Kenobi drifted off, and Leia thought he might have spoken his last. Then, just a whisper. "Young Luke?"

Luke bent down and kissed his forehead. "Yes?"

"Study from your Father. He is... a great Jedi knight. And now, a Master, by... my... declaration... You... will be his padawan. If he agrees."

"Yes," Father said immediately. "Yes, of course... "

Kenobi's eyes flared triumphant life for a moment, and Leia sensed what was coming next without needed to seek it through the Force. Kenobi looked to Father. "You cannot take more than one padawan, Master Anakin. The Code forbids it. Do not... train the girl.... " His voice trailed off on the last word, and then he was gone.

Leia swayed backward, and felt Solo catch her. He smoothed her hair back and said something like, "Hey, kid. Hey." She felt as if she'd been hit in the solar plexus -- the one thing he needed to say before he died was that she was to be excluded from training? She might not have felt Kenobi's death as deeply as Father and Luke did, but she was stunned and hurt into a silence just as profound. Father looked up at her, then looked away. He would obey his Master.

Luke was weeping. That cut through Leia's selfish thoughts she could feel the pain he was in. Kenobi had been his mentor, his friend, the first teacher who could really speak to him. Reaching into his mind was like touching her own open wound. She pulled herself out of Solo's comforting embrace and put an arm around her brother. He turned to cling to her. Then Father held both of them, and they held him, and somewhere in the galaxy, the minutes moved on.

***

Shmi started crying shortly after noon, and a hot fear tangled itself around Amidala's throat as she tried to comfort her. Nothing had happened here on Tatooine to start this. And the only words she could get out of the girl were "Fada's hurting." Her little hands had gone to her heart, then the sobs began again.

Amidala had drawn her close and kissed her head and whispered comforting nonsense to her, but she couldn't comfort herself. Had Ani been hurt? Or the twins?

The rumors began trickling in over the Resistance comm-links that afternoon. The battle at the defense web. The taking of the Guardpost. But nothing specific. And if it wasn't true, no one dared contact the fleet to risk giving it away. They had to wait.

But the wait wasn't idle.

The Resistance refugees that had made it into Mos Espa -- many had been placed in other towns -- had found their way into the long-abandoned shop where Ani had once worked, and Amidala installed herself at the terminal that had been set up there years ago. She let Shmi cling docilely to her skirts, as she pushed herself to complete her own part of the task. The comm-link net was slow and inefficient, but she had used it so long that she couldn't imagine not needing to reserve an hour or to start a simple message on its voyage around the Outer Rim.

The message she sent was simple: The time has come. She hoped the rumors were true -- she was betting many lives on them. The Resistance would take the fight into the open in the Outer Rim, take control of the worlds where they could, and begin the process of closing in on the Core Worlds, to choke off Palpatine's escape route. If the Guardpost hadn't fallen, many would be lost.

Shmi reached up, and Amidala pulled her onto her lap absently and kissed her cheeks. No response.

Then the door burst open. "It's true!" The young man's smile was wide and eager. He was Naboo. "It's true, your Highness! The Guardpost has fallen! And a transmission is coming in from your husband."

"Ani?" The fear released her. She hadn't realized until now that, somewhere inside, she'd given him up for dead, and was just waiting for the news. Little Shmi smiled, too, and slid off of her lap to go to the back room, where the holotransmitter was set up.

Amidala's spirits sank as soon as she saw him. The smile which had risen to her lips dried up, and her greeting fell into silence. Ani was unharmed... but his face was drawn and thin, his cheeks tearstreaked. The twins were with him, one tucked under each arm so that she could see them, and Luke looked as bad as Ani did. Leia looked tired and disturbed. Amidala closed her eyes slowly, then opened them again. "Will you hate me for being glad you're all right first?" she asked.

Ani shook his head. "No, my love. I wouldn't hate you for anything." He tried to give her a smile, but it couldn't find its way out of him.

She bit her lip. "Obi-Wan?"

He nodded, tried to speak. Couldn't.

"General Kenobi fell," Leia said simply.

"I'm so sorry... " She reached out toward the laser projection, almost burning her hand before she remembered that it wasn't real. Only the safety wall around the base had kept Shmi from running in immediately. Kenobi, lost. May the Maker help us all.

"I am responsible," Ani said. "I let it happen." Haltingly, he told her the story, often tightening his arms slightly around the twins for strength.

"Obi-Wan was a Jedi Master, Anakin," Amidala reminded him, her voice cooler than she intended it to be. "He chose his own paths, and was capable of defending himself. He knew what might happen. He knew what your mission was. You had to get through that door -- you couldn't stop every blast that came at you."

"It's over now," he said after awhile, not arguing with her. "We've taken the Guardpost. Now we need to plan our next move."

Amidala's instinct was to soothe him, tell him that she would go to the Guardpost to be with him, let him rest his heart. But she couldn't. The wheels of destiny were beginning to move, and they were all caught up on the gears. "Ani, you know your next move. You've always known it."

"I can't."

"Yes, you can." She picked up Shmi, held her out. "Ani, it's time to end this. That's why Kenobi came for you. He knew that."

No answer.

Luke looked up and across at her. Something had changed in him, some deep, quiet reservoir had been opened. "We'll go," he said.

"No!" Ani's eyes came alive. "You will not go."

"I'm your padawan now," he said. "Obi-Wan said so. Where you go, I go, Father."

Leia looked across. "And I'm going with you. Padawan or not."

Anakin shook his head in negation, then looked to her for support. "Amidala?

I die every time you do it, Shmi had once said of Ani's penchant for putting himself in danger. Amidala had thought at the time that she was being melodramatic. But the thought of her children battling Palpatine... it was a small death. Things had a way of coming back to her in spades -- she'd allowed Ani to help her now the same was being asked of her. She wanted to tell Ani to send the children back to her right now, whatever this business about padawans was about. But something inside her, some deep knowledge that she didn't understand, held her back.

She smiled ruefully. "I may not like it," she said. "But they can help you."

Ani didn't ask what she meant. He knew.

There was silence, and the last of Ani's escape melted away into it. He drew the twins close. "They'll be all right," he said.

"I know."

"Then it's time. The Son of the Suns, Ani. It's time to take down Palpatine. The Outer Rim is allied behind you." She held Shmi up again, and put her hand on her belly (now much larger than it had been when he'd left). "We're waiting for you. All of you."

***

Coruscant.

Palpatine took the news of the defeat at the Guardpost calmly, rationally. There was little to be gained by disturbing the peace of the Empire over an insurrection that would soon be quelled. He cut the story out of the news broadcasts, then retreated to his quarters and waited.

They would be coming here.

He was glad of it. He had not done battle himself for many years, and the idea thrilled him in its own way. His apprentice was far from here, tracking Jedi deep into the Rim itself. There was even a lead on Master Yoda, which was certainly of more concern to Palpatine than a minor insurgency at the perimeter. The Outer Rim Resistance was ill-formed and no threat to him. He saw no need to recall his apprentice at this time.

He attended the theater that evening, the opening of an opera about a warrior queen and her most loyal subject coming to blows. He didn't care for it. It closed before the second act, and the director was arrested for sedition.

The rumors of the Jedi began to come in that night, when a wild-eyed officer from the Guardpost arrived in a single-man fighter, raving about two robed men who had killed everyone they saw. He was sedated, and declared insane to anyone who happened to have heard him, but the whispers began anyway. By morning, they had spread throughout the great city.

Jedi.

Palpatine smiled when the news came to him. He searched the Force, and found the remaining knight easily enough. Kenobi, at long last, seemed to have died. But Skywalker lived, and he was on his way. Delightful. A strong Jedi, but never in control of himself. It would be amusing to defeat him. He had rather envied his apprentice from time to time, and this would even it up somewhat.

He called a few extra guards to the Palace, but not many, and only posted at a few obvious entrances. Nothing a first year padawan couldn't find his way around.

After all, why spoil the game before he even got here?

Palpatine looked across his world, the brick and metal heart of the Empire. And it was good.

***

Chapter Five: The Best Laid Plans

The plans for the Imperial palace floated in front of him in an uneven flickering of pixel points, distorting Leia's face as she stared through the holo at him. Her eyes were deep and hurt, but she wasn't saying anything.

Anakin was beginning to come up out of his grief and think again -- it was so hard sometimes -- and to regret the promise he'd made. In front of her, no less! He'd never understood Kenobi's ban on training Leia. And yet, the choice had to be made. Luke stood beside him, studiously training his emotions, keeping his grief in check as Kenobi had begun to teach him. He was a good choice.

Anakin reached around the holo, and offered his hand to Leia. She took it and squeezed cursorily, giving him a tense smile. This would not be easily healed.

Solo loped in from the cockpit, and sank into a chair across the room. "We'll be at Corusant in four hours. The defenses will be tight after that little maneuver at the Guardpost."

Anakin nodded. "There will be more fighting, and we're down to thirty ships. I need to get to the Imperial palace."

"You're serious about doing this?"

Anakin gave him no answer other than a raised eyebrow. He turned back to the holo, an idea dawning on him to keep the twins out of it. "I'll take the X-Wing in," he said. "I should be able to slip it through the lines if they engage us."

Luke didn't miss the attempt. "That's a one-man fighter."

"Yes, it is."

"Your dad's right," Solo put in. "I'll get you through the lines. Then you can lay low on Coruscant until it's over."

"Thank you, Captain Solo."

He shrugged.

Leia picked up a tracer pen, and let it hover over the hologram for a moment. Then, with a decisive movement, she began drawing, speaking as she went. "They'll have the obvious 'secret' entrances guarded -- garbage dumps, exhaust ports, sewage systems. Palpatine will expect it." She x-ed out several areas Anakin had previously highlighted. He agreed with her judgment. "The front door and back door, I think, won't be left open for us, either." Two more x's. "That leaves windows and the roof."

"An aerial approach," Luke guessed. He moved around the table to join her. "Descent onto the roof would be the easiest way in. Then through the skylight into the hydroponic gardens."

"No," Anakin said. "The X-wing's autopilot isn't sufficient for it to find a landing place on Coruscant without a pilot, and R2 unfortunately is on Tatooine with your Mother. I didn't know I would have a fighter assigned to me."

"Then you can't take the X-wing," Leia said simply. She grinned. "Sorry. I know how much you want to be flying."

Anakin realized a second too late that they'd backed him into a corner. The time to object to Leia's observations was past, and there wasn't a logical reason to ignore them. "Very well," he said. He looked to Solo. "Can you make a close enough approach for me to jump?"

"No problem."

"Luke, Leia, I'll need you in the turrets, watching for enemy guardships."

"Yes, Father," Leia said immediately, much to Anakin's suspicion. Leia was not likely to acquiesce so quickly. He wondered what she was planning.

Luke's face was set in a stubborn frown. "Father, I should be with you. I can't leave you to fight alone."

"You're my padawan, Luke. That means you will go where I tell you to go, and remain where I tell you to remain." Anakin wondered briefly if there had ever been a padawan who had taken that admonition seriously, but prayed that Luke had had little enough exposure to the system to realize that he was almost honor-bound to disobey.

"Father... "

"I'll be all right, Luke."

Leia cleared her throat, and directed their attention back to the hologram. She put on a protective glove, and reached into it with the tracer pen. "From the garden," she said, "you'll need to go through the gardener's quarters, and then drop down into the ballroom. They'll probably know you're there by then, so go for the ventilation shafts."

"No," Luke said suddenly. "Not the vents." He blinked quickly. Anakin could feel him reaching into the Force. "There's something wrong in the vents... he's expecting it." He closed his eyes, went deep into his vision. "Gas. He's going to flood the vents with dioxin. Or sulfur. Something yellow that burns." His eyes opened, and he looked to Anakin for approval.

Anakin was glad to give it. "The future is in motion, Luke, and what you see may not happen. But I will heed the warning and take another route. Leia?"

She was scanning the hologram, and finally pointed with the tracer. "Here," she said. "The servants corridors. They won't be as easy to hide in, but there's a lot of activity. You might be able to mask yourself with it, at least from remote security."

Solo leaned in hesitantly, and Anakin waved for his input. He cleared his throat. "Look, if you can make the jump quick enough, I can make it look like you're trying to get in somewhere else. Like we tried the roof and opted against it. I can keep security busy on the other side of the palace."

Anakin glanced at the twins. "Don't stay in range any longer than you need to."

"You ain't paying me enough to stay longer than I need to, Skywalker."

"You don't imagine that any of us believe that attitude, do you?"

"I'll get 'em out," Solo said, his voice low. "You have my word on that."

Luke looked across the hologram at him, deep disappointment in his eyes. Leia didn't acknowledge either of them she was tracing alternative routes. Anakin noted them... it would be handy to have a backup plan. "Then it begins," he said.

***

There was a time in Amidala's life when she might have been disappointed at the ease with which Tatooine was taken, but that time was long past. At nearly eight months pregnant, she was in no shape to fight a battle, and when the Imperial governor in Mos Espa surrendered to the throng she'd gathered outside the palace without so much as a shot fired, her sole reaction was relief.

She directed her lieutenants to take up positions at the doors, in case the small Imperial contingent decided to mutiny, and followed the young governor -- the boy could hardly be out of the Academy, she thought -- into the communications room. "You shouldn't be doing this, Your Highness," he said.

"So you do know who I am."

"Your Highness," he said, "I was born Naboo. I will die Naboo."

She smiled at him. "Thank you, Governor... "

"Piett."

"Governor Piett."

He nodded, and accessed the comm system. To send the message in this way was not only quicker, but an efficient way of confirming that the Resistance was now genuinely taking control. Amidala was not naive enough to blindly trust Piett's assertion of Naboo loyalty, but there was nothing amiss in his setup. She reset the frequencies to the Resistance cells, and began the battle in earnest.

***

On Sullust, the Resistance rose up like a draigon, coiled itself around the planet, and burned out the few Imperial bastions that had tried to take root there. Resources were commandeered, and the Sullustian pilots who had not been able to leave with the Handmaidens took TIE fighters into the skies to do battle with the hated surveillance satellites.

Governor Wila Prammi of Gala sent a coded message to Elan Tallah of the hill people, and city and country came together to destroy the string of Imperial arsenals that had spread across the land.

Ampinua was still shaking from the last quake to strike the heartland, still bleeding saltwater from the devastating tsunamis that had swept across Fazon. But their arsenal had been built in secret, the components hidden safely by the engineer Rejuo, who took Queen Amidala's orders with great satisfaction. Like many Resistance fighters, she had come and gone through the Skywalker home in Anchorhead, and the queen's husband had saved her life. She held the whole family in great esteem. Rejuo distributed the weapons efficiently, and the shattered cities were safely under the control of the Resistance before sunset.

The battle for La'azum raged for many days, and was not decided until the war was over. Imperial sympathies ran strong here, where Palpatine's industry had brought life back to the drought-ravaged agricultural economy. Jelon Laryhi, a religious leader who traced his lineage back to the early days of the Sith -- it wasn't common knowledge, but it was why he had strong suspicions that he did not want to oppose Palpatine too directly he had the papers of his ancient ancestress, and he was fairly certain what he was dealing with -- urged restraint on all sides. But Nizy Lummuo, a Resistance firebrand only marginally loyal to Amidala's cell, carried the day, and began the single bloodiest battle of the War of the Outer Rim. For many years, the galaxy would believe that the Ihivizi River still ran red.

There barely was a formal Imperial presence on Corellia, and what there was of it was dispatched quickly. The Corellians -- in the name of Madine (suddenly remembered after many years in obscurity) -- commandered a Star Destroyer, and with it, solidified the Resistance in their quadrant.

The Resistance on Malastare met more apathy than conflict when Amidala's orders came through. Aks Mo was able to take the capital, but most of the world didn't get the news until they checked the holoproj that night. The races had been good that day.

Anoat was impossible, and Amidala knew it. She gave orders to the tiny cell there to get off planet before a counter strike began, and find their way to Bespin, where they could join forces with the much larger group there. She wasn't sure she could trust the new young leader of Cloud City, so she bypassed him and arranged things with Ivva Japui, an Alderaanian school girl who had single-handedly begun the Bespin cell from her dormitory room at the Cloud City Academy. Amidala told her to use her judgment about young Calrissian.

On the remote world of world Dagobah, no Resistance communiqué was needed. The Jedi Master Yoda emerged from his home, called out into the Force, and the living things of the world bore the message around the equator, to the night-veiled swamp where a colony of Gungans had taken refuge after the Desolation on Naboo. Captain Tarpals readied what troops he had for space combat, and they launched into the fray.

Alderaan, deep in the Core Worlds, kept vigil in silence. Imperial troops came and went like hellish whirlwinds throughout the day. Saché Organa received the message from Her Highness only after it had leapfrogged over many other transmissions. Yané had been unable to retrieve it in its entirety. But it was enough. Bail's death would at last be avenged. Saché rose up from her hiding place, and began to organize the Core.

The ring of the Outer Rim began to close.

***

None of this reached the Falcon.

The approach to Coruscant was mined and treacherous, bristling with enemy ships on the alert. Even the small force Anakin had mustered was too large to slip by unnoticed, and he ordered them back to their homeworlds, blindly trusting that Amidala's part of the plan had worked, and they would find a use for themselves anywhere in the galaxy now.

Solo piloted with a deft touch, jumping from sensor shadow to sensor shadow, dodging the occasional blast from a remote. He made the atmosphere of Coruscant just as the nightline crossed the ruins of the Jedi temple. Anakin glanced down at it, but had no time to meditate on the meaning of that building in his life. He had a job to do, and time was closing in on him.

"We're coming up on it," Solo said. "Get on down by the hatch."

Anakin nodded. He left his large robe on a chair, deciding that the short tunic was better suited to this kind of fight. He stopped beside the ladder that led to the gun turrets, looked up at Leia, down at Luke. She had asked to switch guns, but Anakin had forbidden it there was a hatch in the lower turret, and her plan was easy enough to read. He couldn't take the time he wanted to hold them again, but he couldn't go without seeing them, either. "Be careful," he admonished weakly. "I promised your mother you'd come home."

"We will," Leia said.

Luke came to the base of the ladder. "May the Force be with you, Father. Master."

"And with you, padawan." He smiled and rolled his eyes. "Son. And we'll stick to Father, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind. I'll see you later."

A voice from the past: what does your heart tell you?

"I hope so," he whispered, and left before he lost his nerve. A few minutes later, Solo swooped low over the Imperial palace, and Anakin dropped silently from the belly of the Millennium Falcon, falling into Palpatine's world.

He did not hear the slight sound of someone landing fifty yards behind him.

***

Han had already warned Skywalker that he wouldn't be able to hesitate long enough to make sure the drop had been clear, not without making it obvious that the drop had happened, which wouldn't be safe for anyone. So as soon as he finished the low run across the roof, he angled up and threaded between the spires of the palace. Laser bolts came at him, but the shields held. Beside him, Chewie kept a constant watch on the altitude controls. It really did take two people to fly in this kind of mess.

Three blasts from Leia's gun, one taking out the watchtower of the palace. Han swooped again, hoping that Palpatine's people would take it as an attempt to offload passengers at this point, then began what would look like an escape run.

Two guardships followed him. Good. He led them into the grand sports arena on Palpatine's property. It was only used three times a year, and this wasn't one of them. "Let's take 'em out!" he called.

"Already on it!" Leia answered. The first one fell into flaming ruins. The second guardship flew low it should have been right in Luke's sights, but no blast came at it.

"Hey, kid!" Han yelled. "You can make that shot easy!"

No answer.

"Luke!" Leia yelled.

The guardship fired. Han dove to get her a good shot at it, and she had the presence of mind to take it. It fell.

"Luke's gone!" Leia shouted up to him. "We have to go back!"

"I'm getting you out of here! You're not going to do either of them any good by running in right under the guard's nose!"

She appeared around the door to the cockpit, braids flying wildly behind her. One whipped in a semicircle and hit the door frame with a sound like a tin drum. "It's my fault! I practically dared him! I asked if I could trade turrets, and I said there was a hatch there! I told him! I shouldn't have told him!"

Han didn't fail to note that she'd been planning to do this herself. He hoped she was getting a good taste of what it would have been like if she had. "We'll figure it out," he said. "Right now, I have to land the Falcon and get it hidden."

"Let me out," she said. "Please. Let me out."

"Not a chance. I promised your father I'd keep you both safe, and I already lost one of you. I'm not letting both of you off."

She leaned around him, and suddenly something came at his mind, some huge push that left him reeling. "You will let me off," she said, her voice quiet.

It wasn't until after he'd landed and covered the ship in an underground hangar -- nearly twenty minutes after he'd let her drop down onto a high balcony -- that he recovered enough to question it.

***

Chapter Six: Balance of the Force

The hydroponic gardens were not at all aesthetically pleasing. The plants here would find their way into the formal gardens someday, but here in the nursery, they simply lined the room, their roots stretching down into the vats of water near the ceiling. Anakin couldn't shake the irrational sense that they were reaching for him.

I've been here before.

He rejected it he had not been in touch with Palpatine since the early days of the Empire, and had never been in the new Imperial palace. Yet his feet seemed to know the way through the gardener's chambers, as if they had memorized it long ago. The small door, the narrow staircase. The loose grip on the railing.

He reached the next level, and cautiously opened the door into the vast ballroom. No welcome. He went quietly into the shadows. The soft echo of his footsteps came back to him from the high ceiling and --

The laser blast just missed him.

He ducked and rolled as the remote came around for another pass. It was perfectly silent. Anakin wondered idly what modifications had been made to it -- it was impressive.

He deflected the blasts easily, but the remote was quick and agile, and avoided his own counterattack just as easily. It had taken up a position between him and the door. He would have to remove it before he could get through. He stared at it it stared back, matching his movements with tiny adjustments of its sensors.

A flash of light in the darkness, and a lightsaber flew through the air. The remote, focused fully on Anakin, didn't have time to react to the new presence. It fell in two sparking pieces, and Luke came out of the shadows. "Are you all right, Father?" He called his lightsaber back to him.

"I told you to wait on the Falcon."

"Well, I'm glad I didn't."

"I'm not."

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

Anakin sighed, and clapped a hand onto Luke's shoulder. He should have guessed. Leia was impulsive, and he always kept an eye on her. When she'd agreed too quickly to obey, he'd been suspicious. But Luke? Luke was stubborn. He didn't need to be defiant. "This isn't a game or an exercise, Luke. This is dangerous."

"I know."

"You shouldn't be here."

"I need to be here."

Anakin couldn't decide whether he was touched, angry, or relieved for the company. The only thing he was certain of was that a sick knot of worry was twisting itself in his stomach. If anything happened to the children, he would not be able to live with himself, nor would he be able to look his wife in the eye. "Luke, you are not easing the situation."

Luke looked pointedly at the shattered remote, but didn't comment on it. "Master Obi-Wan told me to stay with you and learn from you. I can't do that if you send me away any time things get dangerous. You accepted me as your padawan. That means you can't always treat me as your son."

A flash of anger Anakin quelled it. "So now that Obi-Wan is gone, you will be giving me the lectures?"

Luke smiled lightly, for all the galaxy as if he weren't standing in the Emperor's home, heading into a battle that it was unlikely anyone would come out of. "Only if you make me," he said.

Anakin shook his head and rolled his eyes. "You stay behind me, Luke," he said, and kissing his son's head. "For real this time."

Luke's smile widened. "What's safer?"

Together, they made their way to the Empire's heart.

***

Leia found herself in a large, plush room, with velvet draperies and exquisite tapestries on the wall. Palpatine's personal chambers, she remembered from the plans. Luck that Solo had been able to drop her here, in a part of the palace where surveillance was minimal -- a place, she supposed, where Palpatine occasionally wanted some privacy. The security outside these chambers would be high, but she didn't plan on leaving through the door.

The grate over the ventilation shaft was positioned high on the wall across from the bed. She used the Force to pull out the screws, and yank the grate cover down. It made a scraping sound as it came out, but she caught it so that it would make no clatter as it hit the floor. She set it on the end of the bed, gathered herself, and jumped straight up along the wall.

Her fingers caught the edge of the shaft, and she pulled herself up into it. There was plenty of room. She turned around, then hooked the cover back up and pulled it into place behind her. That would confuse them.

She hadn't forgotten Luke's warning about the vents, nor did she disbelieve it. But she'd memorized the paths of the palace, and she knew that they were the shortest route to the throne room. Luke would be a distraction to father. She would need to be there to cover them. The Force had been with her so far it would not betray her. There was no reason for the security system to assume there was anyone in these vents, not if it was on the alert in the ballroom (and she was sure it was Father was quick, but he wouldn't be able to get in entirely undetected). No one would be looking for Leia at all.

She hoped.

Along the passageway beside Palpatine's chambers. She could see guards stationed here, and crept silently, occasionally moving objects on the other side of the hall to distract them if she thought she wouldn't be able to make a turn.

Now, down -- careful. No noise, soft landing at the next level. She breathed deeply when she landed, gathered herself for the next stretch.

Quickly, delicately, she made her way through the maze of shafts that led toward the throne room. She had almost made it when she heard the telltale hiss of gas.

She was trapped in a narrow part of the system, and had nowhere to go but forward.

She crawled as quickly as she could. She could smell it coming, relentlessly pushing toward her from some unknown vent she'd passed along the way. The metal floor of the shaft was growing warm from conduction, and Leia could feel the deaths of small rodents who'd made their homes here. Ahead, she could see a downshaft, the last one, the one that would drop into the throne room. If she could get there...

The metal walls began to make strange clanging noises as the expanded with the heat. Her hands and knees were beginning to burn. She scurried forward, heedless of them. She would make the downshaft. In a last burst of speed, she got there.

I made it! she thought triumphantly, sliding her body into the new shaft. I made it! I'm clear!

Then there was a bright flash, and the roiling, burning gas came into the shaft she'd been crawling in. Her body was safely below, but she was transfixed at the sight for a second too long. A flame-tongue lashed out, tasted her face. The shock of the burn kept the pain of it away for a moment, and she used it to dive into the lower level. The gas cloud passed above her, sending down only a few sparks.

Her heart was beating wildly, but she'd come out of it. A little bacta would take care of the sting. It didn't hurt any worse than the time she'd fallen asleep on the mesa at true-noon and gotten sun poisoning. She'd have to look at it later, but the metal surfaces of the shafts were dull, and she could see nothing reflective in the vicinity.

"Are you coming down or not, child?"

A chill wind blew through Leia's soul, and she looked down toward the voice. Beneath her, hooded and lost in a deep shadow, was the Emperor. She could not see his eyes, but his pale lips were curved in a cruel smile as he looked up at her. The grating of the vent fell away, and Leia tumbled down from the ceiling. She had the presence of mind to tuck herself tightly and roll away without injury, but her hand brushed against her face in the process and the pain was suddenly hot and unbearable and --

What is that stickiness on my hand?

For a moment, even Palpatine was forgotten. She looked down at her hand, and saw a clear, reddish slime on the fingertips that had brushed her cheek. She raised her hand experimentally to her face again. The pain returned. She could feel a rough, wet patch across her cheek and her chin.

"A pity, that," Palpatine said conversationally. "Sulfur burns don't heal easily. I'm afraid it may scar. But I think that may be the least of your worries, child."

The physical shock wore off, and the burning pain set in. The sulfur worked into the blood stream, and the infection was radiating out from the edges of the burns.

My face! Leia thought in horror and agony.

She heard her father's voice in her mind, in the endless training sessions in the desert. Focus, Leia, focus!

She breathed deeply, shut out the pain and the fear. "My worries are nothing compared to yours," she spat, turning on Palpatine. "We're coming for you. You're finished." She drew her lightsaber, and ignited the blade. The cool blue glow reflected off the smooth floor, beside something else. Some other reflection from....

She looked up. The fire in the vents was spreading. The metal ceiling of the throne room was glowing dull red in several places. The palace was on fire.

Palpatine laughed. "Your faith is misplaced, child."

"You know the prophecy. The son of the suns is coming."

The laugh only became heartier. "The son of the suns is a spineless whelp who hid on a rock while his comrades fought and died. I think I shall have little problem there."

Leia charged on him, aiming her lightsaber at his midsection. Halfway to him, she was thrown back against the wall by a surge of energy from the Force. She slid to the floor, and looked up. Palpatine was advancing on her, no longer laughing.

"You are a fool, child," he said, then raised his hands and pointed at her. Blue lightning arced from his fingertips.

Leia deflected the first bolts with her lightsaber, sending them harmlessly into the floor, but they were strong, and they came fast. The first struck her in the shoulder, a jarring pain that made the burn in her face seem insignificant. She turned to bat at it -- too late -- and another hit her in the small of the back. She was knocked off her feet. She heard her lightsaber clatter away from her.

Another bolt of lightning struck her. She screamed out into the Force -- for her father, for her brother, for anyone who might hear her.

Palpatine began to laugh again.

***

"Chewie! We're not done yet!" Han scrambled back up to the cockpit, and fired up the engines.

The Wookiee barked a terse question at him.

"I don't know what happened, Chewie! Why didn't you say something?"

He didn't have an answer to that.

"All I know is that we better get back there. I told Skywalker I'd watch 'em, and they're both gone. I'm not just leaving her there."

No more arguments came from his co-pilot. Chewie was fond of Leia, too. They rose up out of the underground hangar, and sped back toward the palace. Han noticed the yellowish haze of smoke immediately. "We'll land in the arena," he said.

Chewie growled something about being easy to see.

"I don't think it matters anymore," Han told him. "Someone seems to have knocked on the front door."

Han guided the Falcon down into the arena, and landed it dead center. He lowered the gangplank along with the landing gear, and was halfway out before the cycle was completed.

Only to run, full speed, into the nose of a blaster. The creature holding it wasn't of a race Han was familiar with, which at least meant it probably wasn't allied with the Empire. "I'm Resistance," he said.

The creature nodded, looked up and saw Chewie at the hatch, and signaled behind itself. An assorted group of humans and aliens emerged from the stands. A lanky, dark-haired teenager came forward first. "Wedge Antilles," he said. "Captain Solo?"

Han nodded.

"I thought I recognized the ship. I've flown a few missions you were hired for."

"Nice to meet you, but I don't have time to chat. There's a fourteen-year-old kid inside that mess." Han pointed at the palace, where yellow smoke was pouring from several windows now. "Two of 'em, actually, but the other has a Jedi with him."

This piqued Antilles' interest. "Is it Skywalker? We got a coded message from Queen Amidala on Tatooine -- "

"I don't have time for this," Han said, and pushed past Antilles, going for the burning building. "Do whatever she told you. Right now, I'm going after her daughter."

Antilles didn't try to stop him. He made a few quick gestures at the gathering crowd, and the Coruscant Resistance fanned out through Palpatine's grounds.

***

Anakin heard Leia's scream in his mind long before he was close enough to hear it with his ears. It was maddening, deafening. He had neither the time nor the inclination to wonder why she was here he knew only that she was, and that she was in pain. Luke felt it, too. He tried to get past Anakin, to run through the smoky hallways toward his sister, heedless of the remotes and the guards. Anakin barely had the presence of mind to pull him back.

"Behind me, Luke!"

Luke offered no argument, and fell back. His lightsaber swung in a tight arc, defending against a quick blast from a sensor. Anakin tried to shut his daughter's voice out of his mind long enough to concentrate on getting to her. In objective terms, it didn't take long to reach the throne room, but there was nothing objective about time now. By the time they reached the sealed door, Anakin thought he had been living in the hell of Leia's pain for an eternity.

He started to plunge his lightsaber through the door, to cut it open, when he saw Luke dodge quickly under his arm and hit a button. The door slid up on its own. Anakin didn't take the time to feel foolish he just charged inside.

The ceiling glowed an ominous red, and smoke was sinking from the high vents. It didn't matter. Leia screamed, "Father!" and Anakin saw her, against the far wall, her face... dear Maker, what had happened to her poor face? Palpatine glanced over his shoulder, smiled sharply, then, with an exaggerated movement of his arm, sent an arc of pure energy into Leia. She looked up at Anakin as it hit her, tried to call out to him, then fell to the floor, motionless. Beside her, a bit of the superheated wall slid into a molten pool.

"No!" Luke yelled. He ran toward Palpatine, saber raised.

"Luke, stop!"

Palpatine flicked his wrist, and Luke flew backward, past Anakin, into the wall beside the door. His lightsaber was knocked from his grip. He fell, stunned but unhurt.

Anakin pushed Palpatine backward with the same strength. The old man stumbled in surprise, but didn't lose that maddening smile. He pushed back Anakin held his ground against it, and began walking forward. It was like walking through water, pushing against unbearable pressure.

Palpatine laughed. "So it comes to this, does it, Chosen One? Your children fallen around you, your wife coming up out of hiding to lead this foolish quest -- oh, yes, I know she's done it. I have my people tracking her communiqués, and we will have her soon."

"You'll have no one. You'll be dead soon."

"At your hands, Chosen One? I think not." He waved, and Anakin felt himself pushed back, losing all the distance he'd gained. Palpatine advanced on him, arms outstretched. "What a pathetic enemy fate has chosen for me. A coward, with neither the courage of conviction nor the strength of resolve."

Anakin raised his own arms, and pushed back, hard. Palpatine fell backward, and Anakin took the offensive, drawing his lightsaber in a smooth motion and closing the distance between them. Beyond Palpatine, he could see Leia's small body, quivering beside the pool of molten metal on the floor. More smoke was making its way in to the room. He needed to finish this, and get both the children out of here.

He raised his lightsaber above Palpatine, and prepared to bring it down.

Palpatine looked up, smiling. "Yes, Chosen One," he said, "give in. Do it. There will be no turning back from it. Become it."

Anakin hesitated. Was this the prophecy, then? That he would come into the galaxy to murder an unarmed old man?

The hesitation was enough for Palpatine. He stood suddenly, the energy arcing out of his fingertips again, pushing Anakin into the wall.

"Father!" Luke called out from the door. Anakin tried to stop him, but he wouldn't be stopped. He ran at Palpatine again, this time unarmed himself. Palpatine caught him midway, not letting up on the lightning bolts he was sending through Anakin, and threw him hard against the wall. He fell beside his sister.

Anakin felt his son's ankle break from the fall, felt his daughter's burning pain. Hate and anger filled him, and he rose up in wrath. He raised one hand, and pushed back the energy bolts. They exploded out from Palpatine, lighting the room in a hellish glow. Part of the ceiling behind him bubbled down, spat glowing metal outward. The anger began to escalate, to make it impossible to think clearly. He wanted only to crush Palpatine's bones, cut off his air, hurt him as badly as he could.

Kenobi's voice was soft in his mind. Not like this, Ani. Not in hate. In justice. Be at peace with yourself.

He moved forward, gaining control. He was a Jedi knight, a Jedi master. Focus! Palpatine is not unarmed, and has proven it amply it is a fair duel. Do not confuse the issue. Let go of the hate, the anger. He raised his lightsaber again, and deflected the next bolt of lightning. He continued advancing Palpatine retreated, step by step.

***

Leia was certain she was dead. She could not feel so much pain and still be alive. She vaguely heard the sounds of the struggle, tried to will herself to take part, to defend her father and her brother, but her will was gone in a wave of shame -- she had brought them to this.

Then, the wrenching pain in her ankle as Luke fell beside her, his foot twisted under him. She was alive. The bond to her twin was still there. He bit his lip, looked across at her. Even through his pain, she could see that he was shocked and disgusted at her appearance. The burn was spreading she could feel it making its way across her lips. "Leia," he whispered.

"I'm here," she said, and oh, how it hurt to move her mouth. "I'm still here, little brother."

Father's lightsaber ignited again, and she saw him advancing on Palpatine. It was a stand-off. Leia could see from here that they were evenly matched. The wall beside her was superheated, and bits of metal were beginning to run down it. She reached into herself for strength, and pulled Luke away from the danger. "I'm going to finish this," she said. "It's my fault. I'll fix it."

"No, wait, Leia..."

She didn't listen. Her lightsaber was lying on the floor ten yards from her, and she called it into her hand. Every part of her was in pain, but she shut it out, and moved on the Emperor.

***

Anakin was beginning to tire, his arms sore and stiff from the exertion, his heart heavy inside of him. He hoped he could outlast Palpatine, but it wasn't a certainty, and he knew it. He blocked another bolt of lightning.

He looked to the children for the strength he had always found in them, saw Luke lying a bit away from the wall, struggling to stand on his bad ankle. Leia...

Leia was gone. He reached out with his mind, found a maelstrom of fear and rage, shot through with pain and shame. "Leia, no!" he yelled.

Too late.

Palpatine fell away from him, a charred smell rising as his body weight pulled more of itself across the lightsaber's blade. Behind him, the shadowy figure, the burned face, the wild, frightened eyes. "Father... " she whispered, and fell into his arms.

Anakin held her.

***

Even from the lawn of the Imperial palace, Han could hear the great statue in front of the Senate fall, and the cheering of the crowd that had brought it down. Things were moving fast now.

Beside him, Chewie raised his crossbow and took out the two guards stationed at the main entrance... or at least the two that had been crazy enough to remain there.

Of course, even they weren't crazy enough to go in to the burning palace. It was an oven in there. Han took a deep breath, and ran in, Chewbacca at his side.

They made their way through the corridors toward the throne room -- it was easy enough to find -- bent low to avoid the smoke. They had almost reached it when they ran into Skywalker, struggling out with one child under each massive arm. Luke looked all right, but his right ankle was badly swollen and twisted there was no way he could get out of here on his own. Leia was walking -- barely -- but Han almost didn't recognize her. She was in much worse shape than her brother. He reached out his arms. "Here. I'll carry one of them."

Skywalker drew away in an angry motion. "You've done enough today."

"Leave him alone," Leia muttered. "My fault. Made him."

"My fault," Solo said. "I was responsible. I screwed up. But right now, we have to get out of here. You can't run fast enough with both of them."

Skywalker set his jaw, then handed Luke to Chewbacca. He carried Leia himself, and brushed past Han.

Han tried not to take it personally.

***

Chapter Seven: Recovery

Getting from place to place was a challenge in the days following the Empire's fall. Confused portmasters refused all dockings, not knowing which side might have won, or who might be lying about his alliances. Traffic control around the major planets was slipshod, at best, and there were many accidental collisions. Amidala traveled to Coruscant as quickly as she could, but it had still taken her almost three days to rejoin her heart there.

She had seen Ani's eyes when he'd called for her... or rather, she hadn't seen them. He wouldn't look her in the eye. Leia was injured -- badly -- and he knew she hadn't done anything to stop her from coming along, had even encouraged it.

They can help you...

The words repeated themselves over and over in her mind. She'd been sure that everything would be all right. And now, this...

Luke was waiting for her on the landing platform, his face pale and serious. He was using a cane while his ankle knitted itself back together, and he walked with the lurching motion of a land-dweller at sea for the first time. He leaned against her, lying his head on her swollen belly, then wrapped his arms slowly around her. "Mother," he whispered.

"Shh. It's all right."

Little Shmi raised her arms to him, and he bent to give her a kiss. She looked disappointed that he didn't pick her up, but accepted it and settled for walking beside him, her little fingers hooked through his. Amidala took the cane, letting Luke use her for support as they made their way to the transport. "Father won't leave the hospital," he said. "The medics tried to make him go last night, to get rest, but he wouldn't."

She smoothed his hair, and led him into the transport. He took a seat. Shmi crawled into his lap and put her arms around his neck. He kissed her head. "Leia's going to be all right," he said at last. "The surgeon droids stabilized the nerve damage from the... from the lightning. And they stopped the sulfur burn from spreading." He looked down. "But they can't heal what was already burned. They keep putting bacta on it, but it's just scarring. And the... the flesh is too destabilized for a graft."

Amidala put an arm around him, and pulled him close. In the awful moments of learning what had happened, she'd heard "burns" and "nerve damage," but the word "graft" brought it home. It was Leia's face. She would live with it for the rest of her life, and there was nothing she could do to hide it. Luke had put it together first.

They didn't speak for the twenty minutes it took to arrive at the hospital. It was crowded many had been hurt in the battle. Amidala was forced to give Luke his cane and let him walk on his own, so she could carry Shmi as they wound through the gathered families. Some among the Resistance recognized her and praised her some among the Imperials spat. Luke said they'd been doing so the whole time he'd been there. Amidala nodded and took it without complaint. She had other worries.

Anakin was sitting beside her bed, his back to the door, and he didn't turn when they came in. Amidala couldn't see Leia through him.

"Mother?"

The voice was thick, weary, but it was hers, and she was calling out. Amidala was around the bed, across from Anakin, in seconds. "I'm here, Leia."

Leia's face twitched around the bandages and the thin pipe that was feeding bacta into the burn area. She reached out for her sister. "Shmi... "

Shmi screamed and wriggled out of Amidala's arms. She ran to Luke.

Leia's hand dropped, and Amidala saw a tear run down her ruined cheek. She didn't know what to say.

"I'm so sorry," Ani said. "Amidala, I didn't mean for this to happen. I shouldn't have let them come with me at all, I -- "

Amidala shook her head. "No, Ani, I never should have -- "

"Stop it!" The heavy voice came up from the pillow. "Please. Stop. My fault. I went." She breathed deeply, glanced sideways at Anakin. "He blames himself. You blame yourself. He blames Solo. Who's next? My fault," she said again, then fell silent.

Amidala looked up at Anakin, meeting his eyes for the first time. He wasn't accusing her... he was seeking her forgiveness. She reached across the bed, and took his hand. Leia smiled slightly, then winced for the pain of it.

"There, come on," Luke said, leading Shmi over. "Climb up on Father's lap, and say hello to Leia. She's missed you."

Leia closed her eyes and turned her head away.

Shmi climbed up onto Ani's lap, Luke still holding her hand. "See?" Luke said. "It's still your Leia."

Shmi took another cautious look, then pointed to the tube with some curiosity. "What's this?"

"That's giving your sister medicine," Amidala told her.

"To make you feel better?" Shmi asked Leia.

"Not much." Leia turned back.

Shmi regarded her curiously. "Does it hurt?"

"Not anymore."

"Can I give you a kiss?"

Leia tried to smile, but shook her head. "The doctors say you can't," she said. "Not until everything heals up."

"Oh. Can I kiss your head?"

"Don't know."

Amidala nodded. "I can't see where that would be a problem."

Ani stood and picked Shmi up, hovering her over the bed so that her weight wouldn't jostle Leia. Shmi bent down delicately, and placed a kiss in the middle of Leia's forehead, then patted her hairline. "All better," she said.

"Lots better," Leia said, and drifted off to sleep.

***

Anakin let Leia persuade him to leave that night. She said he needed sleep, and she was right. She said he should be with the rest of the family, too, and that was also true. So he squeezed her hand, kissed her forehead, and tore himself out of the hospital for the first time since she'd been admitted. He resisted the urge to run back several times, but never got over the terrible fear that the minute he left her, she would slip away from him forever. He gave her a communicator, so that she could reach him if she felt at all frightened, or if things changed with her condition, or if she just wanted him there.

But she didn't use it, and the medics didn't call, and the evening wore on, and Anakin slept with his head on Amidala's lap, her fingers running soothingly through his hair. He could hear her talking to Luke about the war in the Outer Rim, but he lost the thread of the conversation. He dreamed of Yoda, sitting in a swamp and admonishing him sternly that work to do, he still had, yes, important work.

"But Master Yoda, I've done what I was meant to do."

"Heh. Started it, you have. And finish it you will, sooner or later."

A flash of anger -- Yoda had been hiding as much as he had, communing with his green things and animals just as much as Anakin had turned to his family. But he knew in his heart that Yoda's years on Dagobah had not been idle. The old Master had found a lush, living world on which to nurture the Force after the purge of the Jedi, to help it heal from the grievous wound inflicted upon it. "And in this, sooner is preferable to later?"

"A great strength, patience is," Yoda said. "But when action is needed, act you must. Very few of us there are now. Later will not always be there."

When he woke up, Luke and Shmi had gone to bed, and Amidala had carefully gotten up, wrapping him in a warm blanket before she left.

She was standing at the window of their suite, heavy form silouhetted against the lights from the traffic. He went to her and held her.

"There's a world outside, Ani," she said. "We can't retreat from it again."

"I know, my love."

"I've been asked to reform the Senate, and serve as Chancellor pro temps, until elections can be held."

He'd expected as much. "Then we stay on Coruscant."

"For the time being."

Anakin felt an urge to scream that they needed to stay somewhere, they needed a permanent haven... but it wasn't the time for it. She was right. There would be no more retreats. "Will you run for the permanent post?"

"If I'm asked to. They may all recall that my judgment in the Senate chambers has not always been exemplary." She slipped away from him, went back into the parlor he followed. "I've spoken to Yané and Saché. They plan to join me here."

"I'm glad of it."

"What will you do now, Ani?"

"I'll call back the Jedi, however many there are. Perhaps enough to reform the Council."
"Will you tell them what happened in Palpatine's palace? That Leia...?"

"I haven't decided. Without Leia, we would have lost. But they won't approve of her methods."

"Perhaps you should leave the question to her. Let her choose the story that will be told."

Anakin nodded. He supposed that was the best way -- they would judge her harshly, he feared, but he could then defend her, and between them, they might sway at least a few Jedi. Perhaps one who would be willing to take her on as a padawan. "Luke has told you Obi-Wan's final wishes?"

"Yes. I suppose he is beyond my anger now."

"And mine."

She sighed. "Saché suggested that Leia could serve as a handmaiden. I dislike the idea -- my daughter should not be serving as my employee."

"I don't think she'd take it as an insult, Amidala. I think she'd like to feel useful."

"I know."

"But I'll seek a Jedi master for her, as Qui-Gon did for me. She's strong she needs training."

"And if they all reject her?"

"They won't. They can't."

Amidala didn't answer, but she didn't need to. Anakin's memory was long, and the shame of the council chamber still fresh in his mind.

They could. And they almost certainly would.

***

Han tucked the box under his arm, and wove his way through the crowded hallways of the hospital. He hadn't been in to see Leia yet -- Skywalker hadn't allowed it until this morning -- and he wasn't sure what to expect.

She was resting listlessly on the bed, her face bandaged and medicated, one arm wrapped in a nerve stim brace. She barely turned when he came in.

"Hey, kiddo," he said, sitting down beside the bed. "You're looking tougher than you were the last time I saw you."

"Glad you're here," she muttered. "Sorry... my father... I tried to explain about what I did. He doesn't believe me."

"Fathers are like that," Han said, though he actually had no idea what fathers were like in any but the most general sense.

"Sorry I did it."

Han didn't know how exactly to answer her apology. Her mind trick -- he vaguely remembered such things from the Jedi adventure novels he'd read as a kid -- had stung him deeply. He still liked her, and thought she was someone he'd like to spend more time with, but he didn't think he'd ever quite trust her after that. The feeling of being moved around like a puppet on a string was not a pleasant one. He settled for, "Yeah, well, you did what you thought you had to."

She nodded, and leaned back into the pillows again, eyes focused on a spot on the ceiling.

Han pulled out the box he was carrying. "Look, I brought you something. You might not like it so much, but I -- " He shrugged, and put the box beside her good hand.

She took it curiously, opened it, and drew out one of the long swaths of thin cloth inside. This one was a pale red. "Veils?"

"Yeah. There's traders on Corellia. They're not exactly like most Corellians they kind of wander the planet around selling things. The women wear these. And beads. All the guys think they're good-looking under it."

"Cover up my ugly face?" Leia asked bitterly, as Han had been afraid she would.

"No." He wasn't sure how to put it. "You're a pretty girl. Just the kind that we'd think was under there. I can see it. You got beautiful eyes and -- "

"And half a face."

"Look, people aren't real nice. They're going to look at you. I gave you the veils for that. I'd look at your face all day, myself, and it's not because I think it's ugly. Okay?"

"Thank you," she said. "For the veils. And for not pretending... my parents pretend." She lifted the veil, ran her hand over it. "What is this cloth? It's wonderful."

Han smiled, relieved. "It's moon moth silk. It will pick up the colors of whatever you're wearing, so it's always the right shade. I was smuggling some of it when Kenobi distracted me. Now my customer isn't there anymore."

"Nice for me." She tried to laugh. "I'll make a whole dress of it and match whatever room I'm in. Real time saver."

On an impulse, Han took her hand and squeezed it. "You're going to be okay, kid," he said.

"Not a kid."

"Kid."

The door slid up behind them, and Skywalker and Luke came in. Han stood. "Sir."

Luke went around the bed. He picked up one of the veils and crossed his eyes at it. "You headed for a costume party?"

She snatched it away from him. "I'm a travelling costume party now. Captain Solo brought me these as a present."

Han let the twins go on bantering it seemed to do them good, and to come naturally to them. He turned to their father. "Sir, I know you asked me not to come -- "

Skywalker shook his head, and gave a curt wave of his hand. "I've treated you poorly. I apologize."

"It's okay. I understand completely."

"No, I don't think you do. But I understand that what occurred wasn't of your doing. Forgive a father who sought to place blame."

"Yes, sir. Thank you." He nodded to Leia. "I have to be going now. They expect me home tomorrow. Some damn parade or something."

"Have fun," she said.

"Yeah, right."

He left the hospital, feeling better about himself. But he was still wary. Like the kid all you want, he reminded himself as he warmed up the Falcon's engines. But whatever you do, don't trust her.

Chewie told him that all was well with the navigational systems, and the space traffic over Coruscant was light. "Okay then," he said. "Let's fly."

***

Epilogue: A Master... and an Apprentice

Obi-Wan Skywalker -- who would be called Ben all the days of his life -- was born less than a month after Amidala began her role as Chancellor pro temps. Nervous jokes had been made about the first birth in the Senate chambers, but Ben was considerate, and came into the galaxy in the decorum of his mother's chambers, where her two remaining handmaidens and her older daughter tended her.

Leia had been released from the hospital only a week prior to her brother's birth, and had taken to hiding her face behind the Corellian veils immediately. She had also been glad to adopt the hooded gowns of a handmaiden. The combination was disturbing to Amidala, though she couldn't have said why. She hadn't yet offered Leia a position as a handmaiden -- they both knew that it was a fallback if a Jedi Master wasn't found -- and some cold part of her heart told her not to. She shut it away.

It was an easy birth (anything seemed easy after the twins), and she was back in the Senate, the baby at her side, within the month. Leia kept the boy still while Amidala performed her duties, and Yané and Saché took on some of the administrative work. Ani offered to keep him during the days, but Amidala reminded him that, at this age, babies were a bit more dependent on their mothers. Furthermore, he and Luke had entered training in earnest, and it was hard enough to balance that with watching Shmi without adding a newborn to the mix.

Besides, she didn't want to give him up just yet.

The delegates were coming back, more and more every day, squabbling among themselves, asking for her guidance to resolve their problems. She stole a moment for herself, leaving her handmaidens in her office, and picked up the baby to hold him. His little fist came up and wrapped itself in her hair. It was comforting. Maybe she couldn't hide here as long she'd hidden on Tatooine, but a brief, blessed respite was still possible.

The door slid up, and Leia came in, quiet as a canyon shadow. Above the veil, her eyes were red from lack of sleep. Amidala shifted the baby so that he rested in one arm, and raised the other to Leia. She slipped into it easily.

"What is it, love?"

"Nightmares. I just can't sleep. Everything's on fire. And I'm tired."

"Do you want to go home? Try to rest now?"

Leia shook her head, then hissed an indrawn breath as the veil scraped across the burned area. It was beginning to heal and scar, but it was still tender. "The Malastare contingent needs to meet with Alderaan, and I can't get their schedules to match up. And you'll need to be there, too, and your schedule doesn't match up with anyone's."

"Yané and Saché are supposed to be taking care of that."

"I just wanted to do something, Mother. I asked them to let me." A slight laugh. "It's dull enough that maybe it will put me to sleep."

"Leia, do you want to talk to me about what happened? At the palace?"

"I killed someone," she said. "He was trying to kill me, and he would have killed Father, so I killed him. That's all there is to say."

Apparently, it was all she had to say, because she fell silent, and simply held Amidala's hand. After awhile, she got up, kissed the baby (ever since Ben had been born, he had been Leia's one special joy, but for some reason, she was reticent about admitting it), and went back to the offices.

Ben began fussing, and Amidala cuddled him closer. "It's all right," she whispered to him. "Everything's going to be all right." But as she held him tightly against her, she wondered.

***

The remaining Jedi -- so very, very few! -- made their way back to Coruscant. Most had involved themselves in distant territories, fighting one on one to defend those they had chosen to love. They were different now, Anakin thought. Sadder, wiser... more

(balanced)

understanding of the life of the galaxy. Some had refused to leave the people who had come to depend on them, and Anakin respected their decision. He asked if they would be willing to serve their particular new worlds as Jedi in the open, and most had agreed happily. That was seven.

Eleven had come back to Coruscant so far, and there had been word from eight more. Plus himself. Twenty-seven Jedi in the galaxy, all told -- twenty-eight, if you counted a single padawan -- were all that remained of the ten thousand who had stood when Palpatine came to power.

Luke was learning diligently, practicing for hours every day. His saber work had improved exponentially, and he surpassed Anakin already in sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of those around him. Amidala joked that Luke could tell little Ben was crying ten minutes before the baby opened his mouth. "A great Jedi knight, he will be," Yoda said in private after meeting him. "Some impatience, but his mother has taught him well to control it. Take heed of it, you should, Master Anakin." He smiled.

"I think I prefer 'When action is needed, then act you must.'" Anakin shot back.

"Heh. As did Obi-Wan. And Qui-Gon before him."

"I miss them."

"Luminous beings are we -- "

"I know. Not this crude matter. But I find it hard to argue with the luminous, or seek its advice."

"Advice, you need? About the girl, heh?"

"About a great many things." Anakin was not interested in Yoda's opinion about "the girl." Yoda had always made Obi-Wan look like a moderate. He steered the conversation back to the re-creation of the Jedi order, and Yoda let him do it.

The Council met again -- for the first time in nearly twenty years -- two weeks later. The full complement of Coruscant Jedi took part in it this time it made little sense to single out half and reject the other half. Elections could be held when the order grew large enough to need them. Yoda took his accustomed place as if he'd never left it. With some trepidation, Anakin took Mace Windu's seat. Luke stood beside him. Shmi sat on the floor at his feet. Some of the elder survivors looked at her askance, but Anakin stared them down.

For a long moment, they simply looked at one another hungrily, reaching into the Force to feel each other's presence. Most had been the only Jedi on their worlds for all the years of hiding. The youngest -- a Calamarian woman named Re'asa who had been padawan to a knight (whose name Anakin didn't recognize) when the purge began -- had not seen another Jedi for more than half of her life. Her master, seeing the danger, had tricked her into returning to her homeworld, and abandoned her there for her own safety. She felt heavy guilt at his death. Old Bant, the only one of Obi-Wan's comrades who had come to his small memorial service, had taken her in hand, and was trying to comfort her.

"Many long years has it been," Yoda said quietly. "And much have we to say."

The talk began slowly, experimentally. At first, there was cool, logical conversation about finding padawans and increasing numbers, but at each reminder of the depth of their loss, more memories came flooding into the mental link they shared. So much suffering. So much baseless hatred aimed at them. Was it any wonder that all of them felt a shadowy presence around every corner? That first day, little of practical use was accomplished, but Anakin felt that he understood them better, or perhaps that they understood him better. He brought Leia before them the next day.

She told the story, leaving nothing out, taking responsibility for her actions. She started to try to give Anakin "credit" for destroying Palpatine, but old Bant caught her and held up one pink hand. "Truth, child," she said.

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Angry, were you?" Yoda asked when she finished.

"Yes."

"And still are?"

"No!"

"Why do you hide your face so?"

"Because it's -- " The veil twitched, and Anakin could see the irritation in Leia's eyes. He reached out to her and calmed her, as subtly as he could, but of course several of the other Jedi caught it. "Please, Father," she said. "I am capable."

Luke stepped forward and stood beside her. She allowed this, and her eyes continued seeking his as she spoke. She did not remove the veil. When the testing was completed, Anakin sent them both home.

"She is partially trained now," he said. "I have -- " He stopped. Their faces were impassive again, the faces of the old council, the ice cold eyes. "Will no one speak for her?"

"Strong, she is," Yoda admitted. "And full of much courage. But also much anger. Dangerous, she is."

"I was also declared dangerous. Yet I sit here with you now, and no harm came of my training."

No one else spoke. A few later agreed to speak with Leia privately, but the Council as a whole never again addressed the subject. Other padawans were sought. Anakin was able to prevail upon them to allow the children to maintain ties with their parents. He didn't want the order to again become distanced from the galaxy around it. But it was the only battle he won. They were convinced that a shadow remained -- and they were convinced that it was forming around Leia.

Three masters met with Leia privately over the next week, and all three told Anakin that they were terribly sorry, but felt that perhaps they were better suited to a padawan of a different temperament. He told Leia. She took it calmly each time, but retreated further from him. Sometimes, he heard her speaking quietly beside Ben's crib, but he couldn't make out what she was saying. She was blocking her mind, and she was very good at it.

After the fourth rejection, she said nothing at all, simply walked away from him, and did not rejoin the family until dinner that night, where she spoke only of her duties as Amidala's "aide." (Amidala had decided this title was preferable to "handmaiden" and had urged Yané and Saché to take it as well).

Anakin dreamed of Kenobi that night, for the first time in the weeks since his death. It was not as his dream of Yoda had been. It was simply a memory. In it, he saw Obi-Wan, sliding down the wall at the Guardpost, then lying on the medical table on board the Falcon. His eyes were tired, but bright and wise. "Ani," he whispered. "Do not forget. There are always -- "

Then his voice faded, and the dream faded with it.

He awoke with the dream in his mind. What had Kenobi been saying? What was he forgetting?

The day passed. Other Masters agreed to speak to Leia -- she was strong and compelling to them, at least. Night fell. He dreamed the same dream, and woke up with the same unanswered question.

Ani, do not forget, there are always...

Always...

***

Two.

Leia bit her lip in frustration, and tears sprang to her eyes from the pain of scraping the burn. She always forgot about it.

Two rejections in a single day. It was a new record. Usually, Father only arranged for one at any given time.

She supposed she shouldn't be angry with him. He was trying. He had made a promise that he meant to keep, and she had to admit that Luke was doing better than she would under his discipline. But it was becoming difficult to take, this constant examination, constant scrutiny. She wanted a teacher, yet they all seemed to insist that she should be a Master already, in perfect control. It wasn't fair.

The baby cried, and she gave him warm milk. She didn't remember doing this when Shmi was born -- she'd been somewhat disinterested in a sister at the time -- but now she found it soothing. Ben wanted so little, demanded so few answers. But it wouldn't last. He would grow, and begin asking questions, soon enough.

She gave him to Yané when he'd finished eating, and went out into the marketplace to run Mother's errands. She didn't mind doing this, though she knew Mother thought she was insulted the silly new habit of calling handmaidens "aides" was meant to appease an offense that hadn't occurred. She rather enjoyed being in Mother's circles, seeing how the New Republic operated from the inside. It fascinated her. She would have Mother for a Master, if such a thing ever occurred to her. But it never did -- Mother did not think of herself as a Master politician, and thought she had little to teach. Leia had to settle for gleaning what she could.

The marketplace was a buzz of activity, with merchants coming in from newly freed worlds to sell their wares. Here in the wild mix, Leia didn't feel out of place in her veil and beads. She even saw a group of Corellian traders, who signaled her with an ancient hand sign. She had learned it when she'd taken up the garb, and returned it. The Corellians were a strong people, she thought, and she would like them as allies.

Allies? A handmaiden with allies?

But Leia didn't believe that she would always be a handmaiden, however little she objected to it now. She had defeated Palpatine. She had a destiny beyond her present life. She wondered what it meant that she had done what the Son of the Suns had been prophesied to do.

She stopped walking, horrified at her train of thought. Had she seriously been contemplating usurping Father's place? It was one thing to consider surpassing Mother someday -- government was a career, and Leia believed she could do well in it without offering insult to those who had gone before -- but to try and re-write the prophecy, to take her Father's very destiny?

"You already did, child."

She turned. The sunny plaza was full of people, but no one seemed to have spoken to her. She shrugged it off, and went to a booth that sold flags. She was to buy several, to mark the new Senate boxes.

Laughter. "What a grand destiny you've chosen for yourself."

A chill finger of energy traced up her spine. She stood, stiff and alert as an eopie catching the scent of a Sarlaac nest beyond the next dune. Again, she searched the plaza, and saw no one around her. The voice was inside her mind. She pushed herself out into the Force, found the eddy of energy that had targeted her, then opened her eyes and looked directly at it.

The figure stood at the very edge of the plaza, a dark-cloaked figure almost invisible in the shadows of the Great Marketplace building.

"Well done. The whole Jedi Council has not been able to find me. But we both know you're brighter than they are. Why, they have forgotten my very existence. That is an interesting skill I can teach you."

"Teach me?" Leia responded in the same voice, still not moving.

"Yes, child. You seek a Master? I seek an apprentice."

"Who are you?"

"A seeker, as you are. A dreamer of dreams. And one who was misunderstood, as you are."

Something was at the edge of Leia's consciousness, some knowledge that she didn't want to see. She turned away from it. "I have work to do."

"Yes. It is well that you remain in the circles you are in. For now. But there is time later for this small task you have been given. Come now. I would speak with you."

The draw was irresistible, but Leia felt in her bones that she didn't want to be seen leaving.

"Your instincts are good. Let no one see."

Leia looked back into the sunny plaza, where traders bartered back and forth. Beyond it, the dome of the Senate, and her Mother's safe haven. Still further beyond, the spires of the Jedi temple, where Father was training Luke, and other Masters tried to think of ways to turn her away from them. She looked over her shoulder, the veil sliding painfully against her burned cheek. No one was looking.

She followed the dark, silent figure into the shadows.

In place of the Dark Lord, you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!

--Lady Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring (Book 2, Chapter 7), J.R.R. Tolkien

FernWithy

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