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Friction and Synthesis

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Alderaan, 1 BBY

Outside the window of his father’s office, the palace grounds are hazy and still in the early-morning light – the sun hasn’t even risen over the palace building proper yet, and the dew is still hanging on the grass. Luke covers a yawn and reaches for his tea. His early-morning meetings with his father are usually his favorite time of day, but they’re rarely this early; Grand Moff Tarkin arriving on a typically pompous state visit has added even more work to their already-busy schedules and pushed all of the routine business earlier in the morning and late into the night.

But he can’t even stare out at the grounds and let his mind wander properly: stormtroopers interrupt the quiet stretches of lawn at precisely-spaced intervals, pacing along their patrol routes in clicking white armor. They’re ostensibly here to protect Tarkin and the rest of his delegation, but Luke still feels besieged, and vaguely irritated at the inevitable damage to the grounds. Despite a very reasonable effort to be civilized about their presence, the stormtroopers have still worn strange paths into the grass where military convenience conflicts with the more leisurely design of the Palace’s walkways.

On the first day of the Tarkin’s visit, Luke had tried to retreat to the inside-outside room after dinner, only to find that the huge wall of windows effectively brought the itchy feeling of being under surveillance inside to him. He hasn’t been back since, but the troops outside are like a scab he can’t quite stop worrying at.

Frustrated, he turns away from the window to see his father serenely skimming over a news report, apparently unconcerned by their new security detail. “They don’t bother you?”

Bail Organa glances out the window, where a squad commander is gesturing at his men. “I lived on Coruscant during the Clone Wars. We learned to live with them, I suppose.” He looks almost as tired as Luke feels, although somehow he manages to make it look stately and dignified, where Luke just feels rumpled and constantly one step behind.

With a last glance out at the lawn, Luke turns back to his own lineup of holonews reports about the protests just outside the gates. They’re refugees, mostly – they want to return to their homeworlds, but Imperial policy is making it prohibitively expensive to do so. Unfortunately, they’ve picked the worst possible time: everything has stayed peaceful so far, but Tarkin isn’t above planting instigators and stirring up a riot if he requires a more effusive demonstration of loyalty from the Alderaanian Court.

“I don’t see any signs of anything escalating,” he says carefully, and Bail nods.

“Neither did I.” He looks up from his own pile of documents with an apologetic smile. “Which means you’ll be free all day for the thrilling task of meeting with the minor delegates.”

Luke hides his grimace behind the last of his tea. It’s important – at least one of Tarkin’s hangers-on will be an Imperial Intelligence agent under cover. This is a test of Alderaan’s loyalty to the Empire, and resting in the balance is the power and position that makes his work so useful to the Alliance. But being necessary and important doesn’t make it pleasant.

He checks his chrono: if he’s going to get down to his own office in time to appear gracious and unhurried, he’d better get going. “Are we still getting those new linens for the guest bedrooms today?” Luke asks casually, as he picks up his mug and starts gathering all of his datacards.

“I think so. You could ask Mason.” Bail looks up from his datapad. “I’ll see you at lunch?”

“Unless Delegate Ulm wants to discuss our taxes.” It’s an old joke, born on the occasion of Luke’s very first tangle with Imperial intelligence. The man had been an Intelligence agent disguised as a tax inspector, and he’d spent so long grilling Luke on an encyclopedic list of “irregularities” suspected of covering up Alliance activities that Luke had missed lunch and most of his afternoon meetings.

The next day, Bail had unofficially put Luke in charge of all tax-related issues, because even four and a half hours was an astonishingly short meeting with the Imperial Revenue Service, and managing to escape an official audit on top of that raised the success level to miraculous.

“Considering what we know about Ulm’s own financial records, I think you’re safe.” Luke laughs and lets himself be shooed out of the office to greet his day of hopefully uneventful diplomacy.

**

During the dancing that night, Luke excuses himself briefly to the balcony, ostensibly to get some fresh air, but more importantly to check in with “Mason,” the security officer coordinating the “linens.” There are in fact some linens involved, but hidden inside them is an Alliance agent fleeing Imperial detention, on her way to a safehouse in the countryside where she can stay until Tarkin leaves and it’s safe to send her on to Alliance headquarters.

The sun went down hours ago, but strings of yellow-white paper lanterns loop around the gardens and provide enough light to see the beings spilling out of the ballroom, even from Luke’s fourth-floor perch. Tonight, they’re punctuated by blue-white flashlight beams reflecting off white armor, but Luke prefers to watch the guests: the current fashion on Alderaan is for iridescent silk spotted with mirror-beads, and from above, the local dignitaries look like so many insects.

Slipping his left hand into his sleeve, Luke flicks on the transmitter and waits. In the Security room, an alert will be going off.

“It does rather ruin the effect,” comes a voice from behind his shoulder, and he turns around with deliberate calm to see one of Senator Illik’s senior aides, a young woman in a gold sheath dress. She’s not looking at him, gazing out instead at the stormtroopers pacing their beats around the garden.

Luke gropes for her name, and remembers it just in time.

“Brae,” he says in a carefully pleasant tone, offering her his arm. “I believe my father offered to lend them some Royal Guard uniforms, but the Grand Moff refused.”

On his other arm, the transmitter buzzes against his skin. Two short and one long: there’s been a delay. He looks out casually across the lawn again, but the service entrances aren’t visible from here.

Brae smiles, laying her thin fingers over his. “Well, considering the nature of the protests, one can’t be too careful.” Her smile is polite bordering on vapid, but something about the way her eyes flick over his face reminds him a little of the noble mothers considering him for their daughters’ hands: a practiced evaluation. Only this time, he’s reasonably sure there won’t be a proposal involved.

Luke shakes his head. “I doubt they’ll become violent.”

One of her eyebrows arches. “You really trust a rabble of anti-Imperial refugees to stay well-behaved when they’re surrounding Grand Moff Tarkin and his entire retinue?”

Luke’s first thought is that “surrounding” is a little much for a protest that barely encompasses a fifth of the palace perimeter, and remains all but invisible to everyone inside. The protestors had even left the main gates unobstructed for the procession of decorated land schooners that brought the guests to dinner, lining the road one-deep in silence and ignoring the constantly-increasing complement of nervous stormtroopers lining the boundaries of the palace grounds.

The stormtroopers that the Alliance agent is currently trying to get through. If he were alone, Luke would kick himself.

Instead, he looks at Brae carefully. If she wants a way in with Tarkin or one of the other important Imperial figures, assuring their flow of luxuries is certainly one way to do it…

“They do make it more difficult to bring in food and supplies for our guests. But perhaps you should give them more credit. I’ve always thought indigenous populations were capable of more autonomous government than Imperial rule allows them.”

Unfortunately, Brae doesn’t take the bait. “You think letting every half-developed alien society control its own little patch of the galaxy is a recipe for stability and order?”

“I think pointlessly repressing harmless local practices is a recipe for unrest,” he counters. “Surely the Empire has enough to worry about without stirring up unnecessary agitation.”

“Indigenous government works for systems with enough food and a tradition of rule by law,” Brae shoots back, with a pointed glance at the women in their shimmering robes. “Try that in Hutt Space and in a week you’d have half a dozen miniature autocracies all fighting civil wars with each other. You think that’s any easier on the locals?”

Luke takes a sip of champagne to give himself time to think. He’s had this conversation with any number of Senators and other minor dignitaries, and her response was supposed to be an appeal to the sector governor’s authority to resolve local grievances while maintaining Imperial authority. It’s almost a script at this point, a polite fiction that maintains the illusion of freedom to dissent in the Senate, and his role in playing it through with endless partners in public debates makes him useful, at least for the time being.

“I thought Imperial agriculture was supposed to be productive enough to feed the galaxy twice over,” Luke says, quoting the omnipresent propaganda holo.

“Forgive me; I forgot I was speaking with the Hero of the Wasting Years,” Brae shoots back with just enough scorn to be cutting.

“I was thirteen,” Luke says mildly, refusing to let defensiveness creep into his tone. Thirteen and all-too-eager to save the galaxy, and when a famine in the Outer Rim had started bringing shipload after shipload of desperate refugees to the Core Worlds, he’d been only too eager to blithely donate all of his personal savings in a fit of compassion, and later take a place among the prominent voices of public outrage at the stories of corrupt sector officials withholding relief shipments for their own profit. Unfortunately, the nickname he’d earned from one excessively fawning reporter had been picked up by his opponents forever after.

Brae tips her head in acknowledgement. “And supposing poverty were no object, I assume you also have a solution that would instantly overcome all the entrenched petty conflicts in the galaxy and avoid the kind of collapse that killed the Old Republic.”

He initially takes it as nothing but a barb, but after a breath she’s still looking at him expectantly. But as soon as he opens his mouth, another voice calls across the patio.

“Brae?” They both turn, to see Illik striding towards them. “Brae. Where have you been?”

She turns to her superior and smiles politely. “I was just discussing the problem of the protests with Senator Organa. They’re making it difficult to bring in food and other supplies to the palace, and I thought of your wife’s tobacco.” She turns to Luke. “Would there be a way to use the stormtroopers more effectively?”

The sudden flash of interest on Illik’s face makes Luke strongly suspect that his own purposes are not the only unspoken ones, but when he invents a problem with the South Gate, Brae seems very willing to move stormtroopers away from the kitchen entrance, so if she’s looking for the Rebel agent, she’s looking in the wrong place. And if she and Illik are playing some other, unrelated game of their own…well, he’s perfectly happy to use them for his own interests.

**

Rik System, 2 ABY

Mara closes Admiral Peffer’s hand around his “suicide note” and steps back for a once-over of the room. The scene is perfect: no trace that she was ever here, or that it wasn’t Peffer himself who tied the rope around his neck.

It was an ignoble death – several minutes of panicked kicking while his eyes bulged out and spit dribbled down his chin onto his uniform. Exactly the kind of death Peffer would have been stupid enough to choose for himself after a couple glasses of the Corellian brandy he’d been drinking. His swollen face is even uglier post-asphyxiation.

Well, if he wanted to live, he shouldn’t have sold the Emperor’s secrets to every passing smuggler gang – even more despicable in its own way than selling them to the Rebellion. Mara’s hunted down so many corrupt officials that it’s almost a routine now. Senator Koff, whose drug habit was almost unbelievable, Senator Illik, whose money laundering wasn’t nearly as subtle as he thought it was, Moff Vass, whose triple-crosses took her a week of surveillance to figure out: all of them are now permanently beyond the capacity to cause the Empire any more problems.

She glances around the room one last time and slides away a bookcase to slip right back out Peffer’s own secret passage. She’s hidden a speeder bike a few hours’ trek from the palace, with her ship a few hours’ flight by that; as far as Peffer or any of his subordinates know, she was never here.

The Rik system is a backwater among backwaters. The system’s main planet, Rikh, is an unremarkably temperate world that houses the sector governor along with most of the region’s fleet – and for the next few hours, Mara. A secondary planet, Rikshi, is enveloped in a thick atmospheric layer of ice and rock-storms that effectively blocks all modern forms of positional sensors and communicators. The atmosphere is barely navigable even with a complicated signaling apparatus, but that makes the planet perfect for the experimental weapons development facility hidden on the surface, where some of the Empire’s best architects of destruction hunker down happily in their labs to develop new and exciting additions to the Emperor’s arsenal.

The trip through the passage is uneventful, and the door opens out into a patch of uncultivated forest completely devoid of booby traps triggered by the death of its creator. Peffer’s private bike and landing pad are nearby, but Mara leaves them untouched and heads out for her bike. The forest on Rikh is uninhabited except for a tribe of relatively simple natives who exist on Imperial sufferance mostly because they’re happy to stay out of the way. None of them bother her, but by the time she’s a mile away from the bike, sheets of rain are sluicing down through the trees and she’s staggering through three inches of slippery rotting leaves, whippy wet branches catching at her ankles.

The ride back to her ship is wet and unpleasant. Mara ducks gratefully inside and gives herself the luxury of a quick towel-dry and change of clothes before she heads out. A quiet takeoff without any other ships even visible in orbit, and a quick jump to hyperspace – but just as she’s settling down to reach out to the Emperor, the ship shudders to a halt, hyperspace mottle collapsing abruptly back into stars, and an array of red lights flickering to life on her sensor board.

“Shavit.”

She’s in the middle of nowhere in the Outer Rim – and a check of the boards shows that the hyperdrive is completely overloaded. One of the circuit boards went completely on the fritz…

A quick trip outside in her evac suit makes it very clear that the board did not, in fact, go “on the fritz” in any respect. Mara floats next to the ship, grimly holding a completely useless board with the Rebellion symbol dripped onto it in corrosive acid and cursing the natives of Rikh in every language she knows. It’s just enough damage to let her get far enough out to die, without ever having to risk their lives attacking her personally.

Her long-distance comm isn’t powerful enough to reach any of the sector fleets likely to be in this corner of the galaxy, much less Imperial Center, but she puts a scanner out anyway. It sweeps through empty space, beeping forlornly. The problem with missions that officially don’t exist is that nobody is waiting for her to check in, and nobody will send a search party until she’s long since frozen in space. The Emperor…well, if she gets desperate, she can reach out to him, but he’s made it very clear what he thinks of frivolous distractions, especially ones caused by her own carelessness.

An hour later, Mara sighs and starts setting herself up for a basic hibernation trance. The ship’s comm will wake her if anyone responds to the scanner, and her oxygen will last longer if she’s unconscious – if she’s down deep enough, she can stretch out the supply for two or three days. After that’s exhausted, she’ll start thinking about the Emperor.

**

Luke has just gotten done with his report from the negotiations when he feels the Falcon revert from hyperdrive to sublight – this must be their comm stop. By the time he gathers up all his datacards and makes his way to the cockpit, Han is already on the line with Alliance command.

“…picked up Organa and we’re now on our way to drop off Commander Skywalker on Rikshi on our way back to base.” Han pauses, and nods him into the copilot’s chair, holding out his hand for Luke’s datacard. “I’m patching through his report right now. All right. Solo out.”

Luke is on the verge of asking to talk to Command himself, but Han shakes his head. “Kid, even with encryption, it’s dangerous talking too long. You can run through the full parliamentary procedure when you get back.”

Luke rolls his eyes, but there’s no real bite in it. “Where’s Leia?”

“In the hold with her lightsaber.” Han’s mouth twitches. “We had a minor disagreement over rewiring the power couplings on the hyperdrive.”

Luke gives his best diplomatic nod: he’d heard the shouting from the lounge. Before Han can launch into a detailed explanation of exactly why he was right, Luke glances down at the star map on the lower display.

“How long until we reach Rikshi?”

“Couple of hours.” Han is already pulling levers, preparing to head back into hyperspace. “Should be a nice, easy – ”

“Wait.” Luke reaches for his wrist, pointing down to the readouts. “Is that a distress signal?”

Han squints at it, then makes an exasperated face and flips a couple switches on the sensors. The scan area abruptly narrows and zooms into sharper focus. “Dammit,” he growls, “you got good eyes, kid. It’s a Mark 7 beacon, too.”

“Sorry?”

“They’re long-range distress calls. The Empire came up with them, but I, uh…reappropriated a batch for Alliance Intelligence.” He’s already turning the ship around, opening a comm channel. “They put ‘em in all their weird mismatching undercover ships.” He holds one finger to his lips, warning Luke to stay quiet, and opens the comm. “Unidentified ship, this is the Gandy Dancer, picking up your distress beacon. Please state your name and the nature of your emergency.”

There’s no answer. Han repeats the message, but gets nothing.

“Those little intelligence ships,” Luke says slowly, “most of them don’t have a lot of oxygen. The pilot would probably turn the flow down – ”

“…and pass out. Yeah.” Han starts plugging in the microjump. “Well, guess it was this one’s lucky day.”

**

The microjump brings Leia up out of the hold, her hair flying out of its braids and her lightsaber clipped to her belt. Her hands and upper arms are covered with tiny red burn marks: she notices Luke looking and pins him with a glare that dares him to comment. It’s really an undeserved challenge at this point; Luke has no interest in taking up Han and Leia’s brand of flirting by mutual provocation, and his only real response to her endless minor lightsaber injuries has been a thorough restocking of all the first aid kits. When he holds up his hands appeasingly, her expression twists up into a self-deprecating smile and she flops down into the chair next to his, peering at the displays.

To his credit, Han doesn’t comment on the burn marks, either, instead pointing to the sensor readouts, which are obviously picking up some kind of life-form in the ship. Whatever’s in there is probably unconscious but definitely not dead.

It’s also not a model of Intelligence ship that Luke’s ever seen, but then again, the entire point of Intelligence ships is that they aren’t recognizable as such. Still, Leia’s fingering her lightsaber when they finally pull the ship into the hold with the Falcon’s tractor beams and get close enough to take a look.

The ship itself isn’t in any obvious trouble, but the pilot inside is slumped back against the seat, the oxygen turned down so low that Luke is amazed she even survived. When Han tugs off her flight helmet, a long tangle of red hair falls down her back, and her head lolls back against the seat. She’s barely breathing; Chewie has to carry her into the Falcon’s primitive medical bay, but the only thing wrong with her is dehydration, so there’s not much they can do but give her IV fluids and wait.

Luke frowns down at her face.

“You know her?” Han asks.

“She looks familiar, but I can’t place her. I might have met her at Court, in the Senate, anywhere...”

Or he might have met someone who just happened to look like her, or she could be disguising herself as someone he’d met, or he could just be deluding himself. Still, the feeling worries at him.

Leia insists on staying to watch the sleeping woman while Han heads back up to make the jump to Rikshi. “There’s just something about her,” she says, frustrated, and they leave her grumbling about the Force and its unhelpfully vague warnings.

She still hasn’t figured it out by the time they’re in hyperspace, so she’s still on guard when Han and Chewie head down to rifle through the strange ship while Luke plugs its computer into the Falcon’s mainframe to see if he can identify anything that looks remotely like Alliance encryption. He wishes briefly for R2, but the little astromech is currently on loan to Supply and Procurement, meeting what Winter assures him is an absolutely desperate need.

Before he can really get anywhere, his comlink buzzes.

“Well, we found a sniper rifle, five stun grenades, three of those stinger things that shock you when they hit you, a couple electric nets, and enough knives to butcher a rancor,” Han reports. Chewie roars in the background, and Han snorts. “Okay, okay, put that down. And a flamethrower. All unmarked, and the rifle’s like nothing either of us have ever seen before. Wherever she was going, she didn’t expect a lot of friends.”

Luke frowns at the computer, which is resisting all his attempts to talk to it with Alliance encryptions. Granted, he doesn’t actually know every single Alliance code in use, but it’s still odd. He stares at a bit of gold plating on the side of the box, hyperspace-flickers glinting off the metal. But the color is wrong; there should be red somewhere –

He sits up abruptly and grabs for his comlink. “I have met her,” he says to Leia as soon as she picks up. “Put her in restraining cuffs right away.”

**

As soon as Luke finishes his explanation of meeting Brae in Court, Leia insists on a thorough body search on top of the binders, and turns up three more knives, a blaster, a holdout blaster, a pair of garrote wires, and an electric stun baton small enough to fit inside a comlink shell.

“Not a Senatorial aide, then,” Leia says grimly, looking down at the unconscious woman tucked into the Falcon’s tiny medical bunk. “I knew there was something about her.” A high-level Intelligence operative formerly attached to Grand Moff Tarkin is one of the most dangerous passengers they could take on in the middle of what Han calls a “sneaking-around mission.” Valuable, but dangerous.

Han has a hold that he’s used for prisoners in the past, so they move her in there, IV and all, with Leia stationed inside the door at least until she wakes up. And meanwhile, Han and Chewie continue their search of her ship: when Luke arrives with Leia’s lunch and the offer of a break, he shows her a holo of the ruined hyperdrive, with a crude but recognizable Alliance symbol obvious on the circuit board.

“We have a cell on Rikh?”

He shakes his head. “Not that I know of. It might not be an organized Alliance group; there are a lot of indigenous resistance movements that we’ve never contacted.”

Leia flicks through the holos – documenting the truly impressive amount of weaponry packed onto her ship – and glances warily at the still-unconscious prisoner. “Was she this deadly when you met her?”

“Probably. I knew at the time she was testing me.” He tries to remember what he might have said or done, or left inadequately guarded, but every time he tries to go back through the events of the visit, everything is fogged-over with fresh grief for people and places he’ll never see again. And it had been such a bizarre conversation, too, thick with the feeling of something under the surface that he couldn’t quite get a handle on. He’s put up with a lot of Imperial verbal probing over the years, but none of it ever felt quite like that.

“Luke?”

He’s staring at nothing. Luke wrenches his mind away from the memory of glittering metallic dresses on the dark lawn. “Sorry. She’s very…you’ll see when she wakes up. Wherever she comes from, I don’t think she was trained like the usual Intelligence types.” He takes a deep breath. “But if Tarkin found out anything about me or my father to justify destroying Alderaan, it was probably from her.”

“Nothing justifies destroying a planet full of civilians,” Leia snaps back almost before he finishes his sentence, and Luke winces at her tone even though he appreciates the intent behind it. Leia’s aggressive refusal to let him feel responsible for Alderaan’s destruction helped him fight off his survivor’s guilt when he couldn’t stand up to it himself, and even after he’s through the worst of it she’s still on guard on his behalf.

She relents a little when she sees his face. “Sorry. I know what you meant. But what could she possibly have told him?”

“I have no idea.” She could have been after the Rebel operative, but taking eight billion lives because a handful of them harbored one fugitive would be overkill even for the Empire. Did she find something else about him, or his father? There’s nothing he can imagine that comes close to the appropriate magnitude – but somehow, the idea that Tarkin destroyed an entire planet as a demonstration is almost too absurd to take seriously, and he’s left clinging to any potential alternative.

“I guess we’ll find out.” Leia glances down at the sleeping woman, and her face hardens from a frown into the glare that means now it’s personal. Luke realizes belatedly that he’s given her another enemy.

He pushes her lunch at her. “Go eat, and get out of here for half an hour. I can take care of one sleeping prisoner.”

**

“Brae” – if that’s even her name, which Luke sincerely doubts – wakes up ten minutes after Leia leaves. As soon as she’s conscious, her identity is obvious, and it’s also obvious why he didn’t spot it immediately: her face is so guarded while she’s awake that sleep made her look almost like a different person.

She opens her eyes without moving any other part of her body, blinks up at the ceiling once, and then turns to look at Luke. Even under the tangle of plastic tubing, the thin medical blanket, and the unforgiving overhead light, the economy of motion makes her look like a predator.

“Organa,” she says, or tries to: it comes out cracked and barely recognizable. Luke gets up and grabs for a hydration pouch, keeping it in her line of sight while he rips the cover off the straw and slides it into her mouth.

Brae eyes him suspiciously, but with her body strapped to the bed, there’s not much she can do about it. And in any case, if he wanted to poison her, there’s no reason why he’d be fussing around with a hydration pouch when she already has an IV in.

“Brae. Unless you’re going to tell me your real name.”

She just looks at him and takes another drink of water.

Luke searches her face for any hint of whatever she might be other than an Imperial agent. His father’s voice floats through the back of his head, an old warning about seeing what he wants to see in people instead of what’s actually there. If he’d seen her for what she was two years ago, could he have stopped her? He swallows the guilt and falls back behind the shield of protocol that defended him through so many of his earliest Senate meetings.

“You’re a prisoner of the Alliance to Restore the Republic. Would you like to make a statement?”

Brae pushes the straw out of her mouth. “No.” Her voice sounds much more human, but carefully blank.

“You’ll be kept here under surveillance until we reach an Alliance facility. Do you understand?”

“They poured acid on my hyperdrive, not my brain.”

Luke doesn’t rise to the bait. “Any other questions?”

“I don’t suppose I get to know where ‘here’ is.”

Luke shakes his head. She doesn’t look surprised.

They sit in silence for several minutes. Luke wonders whether she expected Imperial-style detention: the drugs, the sleep deprivation, the windowless, featureless rooms that made him lose track of time until he could barely remember if he’d been there a week or a month. She probably did. She probably still does, when they get to the Alliance base. “We won’t torture you,” he says. “Are you hurt anywhere? We couldn’t find any injuries.”

Brae’s eyebrows arch – somehow, the expression looks as self-assured here as it did years ago on Alderaan – but she seems to accept that he’s telling the truth at least for the moment. “No,” she says finally, “I’m not injured.” She tips her chin at the water pouch. “Thank you.”

**

Rikshi is a giant of a planet, with thick, rust-colored clouds swirling miles-thick above the surface. Every ship authorized to land has to wait around on its largest moon, Rikshi III, to make use of a special Imperial guidance unit that can cut through the storms.

The Falcon isn’t headed to Rikshi III. Instead, they’re creeping around the other side of the planet to Rikshi V, a smaller moon pock-marked with asteroid craters and largely ignored because there’s simply nothing interesting there.

In twenty minutes, Leia will be headed down into that storm with a drop ship of supplies for the Alliance outpost on the surface, on the gamble that the Force can work as a kind of substitute for functional sensor equipment. It’s not exactly a study in safety regulations, but even for the leadup to a mission, she feels unusually jittery. There’s something else, shadowy and dangerous, lurking in the Force just out of focus.

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s something…dangerous, or – there’s something coming. I’m not sure what.”

Han’s mouth twists. “Oh, well that clears it up.”

The Falcon drifts closer to Rikshi V, and she hears the landing gear start to engage – and then an ominous whine as the front support strut refuses to let down properly. Han jerks the ship back and forth in a convulsive sort of shudder, and the indicator lights turn back to green.

Leia rolls her eyes. “Or maybe it’s just being stuck on a nonfunctional ship with a lunatic who thinks he’s God.”

“And which one of us is winning so far?”

“By one!” Both of their eyes flick up to a crude scoreboard they’d attached to the hallway just outside the cockpit, tallying up both of their kills since the Battle of Yavin. That one little tick mark has been tormenting her for the past five days, while she sat on the Falcon with no chance to fight anything but remotes. But before she can defend her imminent reclamation of the top spot, Han swears softly and points out the window.

In the thin crescent of space beside the overwhelming bulk of the planet, an all-too-familiar trio of white wedges is appearing around the curve of the planet.

“Well, your Masterliness, I think your bad feeling was pretty accurate.”

**

“Shavit,” Leia mutters, and Chewie moans low in the back of his throat. So that was the foreboding feeling she couldn’t quite escape.

“It’s worse.” Han is slapping switches frantically. “One of them’s an interdictor.” He looks down at the planetary atmosphere below them, a surging swirl of clouds and rock and ice, and holds up his finger at Leia’s incredulous expression. “If we can skirt in around the edge of that big storm…”

“You’re insane. Do you know how many transport ships we’ve lost down there –”

“I didn’t see you worrying when it was your turn to go barreling off in one –”

“– and those were specifically designed for the atmosphere. You don’t even have proper wixx rivets on your hull plating because you won’t –”

“Nobody needs wixx rivets, not even for atmosphere, and I hate the way they –”

They both take a breath at the same time, and look at each other. Then Leia slides into the chair behind Han’s, rolling her eyes. “Fine, but I’ll guide us in.” Her command of the Falcon can’t begin to approach his (only, she insists to herself, because it takes a complete maniac to even want to fly a ship this impossible), but whatever she can do with the Force will at least be better than no sensors at all.

“As you wish, Master Jedi.” Han gives her a sardonic half-bow and turns back to the displays. “Hold on, Kid. Chewie, get ready for approach.”

The Falcon twists slightly, gathering speed and gliding up to skim along the edge of the atmosphere on its side…and then plunges downward, straight into the turbulent swirl of Rikshi’s atmosphere.

The ship shudders, skidding half a kilometer to the side, and then swooping back around, flipping nose over tail like a coin tossed in the air. Leia rattles around in her seat, gravity and momentum yanking her from one side to the other. Lights start flashing red on the status boards, and a shower of sparks erupts from the back of the cockpit, spitting out a stream of acrid smoke that stings in her nose. Focus. Use the Force.

“Leia?” Han barks.

“Left,” she says suddenly, barely even knowing where it comes from and when Han doesn’t respond, she reaches over and shoves the joystick herself, just in time to scrape past a chunk of ice the size of an X-wing.

“Go down.” This time, Han doesn’t hesitate. “Up. Hold on – ” a gust catches the ship, flipping them nose-up and then slamming them down through a kilometer of stomach-churning free-fall.

“I thought you said you knew how to do this.”

“Were you expecting a luxury cruise? Down. Down.” Han jams the stick as far as it’ll go, and winces as the top of the ship crunches against another huge chunk of rock. “Keep going – into that spiral thing.”

“Into it?”

“Go.” Han gives her an incredulous look, but aims straight for it – and with a shudder of the ship to the left, they’re through the twist of wind and into the eye of the storm, eerily calm with a tunnel of red-brown fury on every side.

“…and just follow it down.” He nods, easing back on the throttle. “I like it.”

“I’m so glad.” Her head aches fiercely. Leia sinks back into her seat limply, looking out at the storm without really seeing it.

**

They hit the lower atmosphere almost unexpectedly: Han is so focused on keeping them within the ever-narrowing tunnel of the twister that he doesn’t notice the sudden clearing of the clouds all around them and the onrush of the ground until Chewie barks a warning. With a sharp upward tug on the throttle, they’re leveled out to fly parallel to the ground, skimming over a huge mesa of gray-pink rock.

The surface of Rikshi is wrinkled and folded, with deep forest valleys and high outcroppings of bare rock dotted here and there by little scuds of gravel. Han hugs the surface for several minutes before he settles the Falcon on the slope of one of the rock heights, a few feet from the tree line. Above them, the upper atmosphere roils ominously and Leia looks away.

“We need somewhere more sheltered,” Han is saying. “As soon as those Star Destroyers send word to the planetside base, they’ll be out after us.”

“The Alliance cell here has a hidden hanger that could probably hold us.” Leia sits up, leaning forward to look at the map. “It’s only about a hundred kilometers away; we came in right on top of the route I was going to use in the pod drop.”

“Looks like they’re getting their supplies after all.”

**

The hangar on Rikshi involves a close approach through a series of canyons, with a sudden turn-flip into a cave at the base of a cliff, but once they’re in, they’re invisible from the air. Han immediately sets to arguing with the techs about the damaged exterior ventilators, and Luke drags Leia off with him through the base so she won’t dive into the still-brewing argument over her Force navigational skills.

After living most of his life in the Palace, Luke is amazed at how quickly the typical Alliance base atmosphere has started to feel just like home. The Rikshi outpost is cobbled together out of spare parts, constantly breaking down in one sector or another, and terminally overcrowded with the glut of half-broken equipment that seems to appear from the walls of every structure coopted by the Alliance for any length of time. He and Leia maneuver down hallways reduced to narrow footpaths between crates of ammunition and boxes of emergency rations, dodging logistics experts too busy with their datapads to look where they’re going.

The head of the local cell is a female Twi’lek called Rya; she meets them in her office, which features a desk made out of half the wing panel of a TIE fighter propped up on two emergency water purifiers. She’d known to expect Leia Skywalker coming down with the supplies, and her eyes keep straying to the lightsaber clipped to Leia’s belt, obviously too professional to comment but just as obviously intrigued even though she has plenty of news of her own.

“We just got word – the sector governor killed himself two days ago, local time.” She’s clearly struggling to contain her excitement. “It’s disorganized the entire Imperial fleet in the sector.”

Luke’s mind jumps back to another political “suicide” from his time in the Imperial Senate, a man whose murder had only been discovered when his wife thought to look at the secret camera she’d had installed in his office to catch him having an affair. It’s far from unheard-of for the Empire to kill its own, and for a man as notoriously corrupt as Peffer…He glances at Leia; she frowns back at him.

“Are you sure it was a suicide?”

Rya looks at them sharply.

“We found a stranded woman in an Imperial intelligence ship on a vector heading away from here on our way in. She refuses to say who she is or what she’s doing.”

“And you brought her here?”

“We didn’t really plan on getting forced planetside by a Star Destroyer group,” Leia shoots back.

Rya sighs. “We have holding cells where we can keep her until Captain Solo gets his ship patched up.”

She seems almost unconcerned about the potential for heightened Imperial scrutiny. “We had four squadrons of TIE fighters down here once, scoping out something for a new missile test site. Flew right over us, but they never found us.” She shrugs, fatalistic. “You’ll have to stay for a week or two until the patrols die down, unless – how are you planning on getting back through the atmosphere?”

“I don’t think Captain Solo was planning that far ahead,” Leia says nonchalantly, “but I can bring us back up the same way we came down.”

Luke forces himself not to smile at Rya’s Jedi Adoration Gaze – Han’s nickname, of course – and starts organizing his mental notes so that at least he can get Rya more or less up to date on what the Alliance is planning. He’d originally given Leia a brief to deliver, but since he’s here, he might as well do it in person.

**

He and Leia emerge from Rya’s office an hour later, and Luke realizes suddenly how tired she looks when she’s not animated by talking. After a year off Tatooine, she’s almost lost her tan, and the bruises under her eyes show up even darker against the newly-pale skin. She looks dangerously brittle, and the bright-orange Alliance flightsuit doesn’t help.

“I’m going to go check on that Imperial agent,” Leia says. Their unidentified captive has been moved to a holding cell, but the inhabitants of the Rikshi base have left her alone other than providing her with food. “If she really did kill Peffer…I just don’t trust her. There’s something about her.”

“I can do that. I’ve talked to her before; I’ll see if I can get her to talk to me again – and anyway, you need rest.” Bringing them in through the atmosphere had drained her: Luke isn’t sure exactly how Leia’s Jedi powers work, but he can tell she’s pushing the limits of her abilities, worn out from the flight through the atmosphere. And with a pilot like Leia, they’ll find something for her to do in the two weeks of repairs to the Falcon; she doesn’t need to go into it already drained.

“You do have a way of getting people talking.” She smiles tightly, but there’s an edge of pain behind it. “I tend to be better at blowing them up.”

Luke thinks back over all her impassioned refusals to let him drown in his own grief: it wasn’t classical rhetoric by any means, but she’d get full marks on tailoring her tone to her audience. “You do just fine talking to me when I need some sense drilled into my head.” He smiles. “And besides, every time I hear you talking to Han, you seem to have a perfectly functional set of lungs.”

Leia rolls her eyes and pushes him clear across the hallway, but at least her smile is genuine, and she eventually agrees to get some rest on the condition that Luke will come and wake her up immediately if anything happens.

Luke heads down to the detention center of the outpost, which is really just half a hallway kept clear of stray boxes and random equipment for easier surveillance, and overseen by a pair of guards perfectly happy to let him in as soon as they verify who he is. He taps in the entry code, and the last thing he sees is a blur of red hair and gray prisoner’s jumpsuit before he passes out from the pressure around his neck.

**

When Luke wakes up, he’s buzzing. The vibrations ache ferociously in his head. There’s a rope digging into his wrists, scratchy and tied too-tight – a sudden tug of memory brings back the memory of an adrenaline spike, an attacker flying at him out of nowhere, and Luke tries to jerk upright, only to come up painfully short as the ropes holding him down stretch taut. He’s tied to a speeder bike, his chest flush against the back of the Imperial agent who had been his captive until she knocked him out.

They’re currently zipping through a patch of forest at a breakneck pace, thin under-branches rattling against the sides of the bike and occasionally whipping painfully against his legs. Luke has no real idea where they are, but there’s only one place they could plausibly be headed.

“If you scream, I’ll gag you,” Brae shouts into the headwind, without turning around.

**

“She took one of our speeders; she’ll make it to the planetside base in six hours, if that’s where she’s going.”

“And now she knows exactly where we are,” Han finishes for her, unnecessarily.

Guilt hits Leia right in the stomach: if she hadn’t been so tired, if she’d insisted on going with him, or even on sending someone else – why did she think the facilities here would be enough to hold down an elite agent? She swears viciously, more at herself than anything else, and when Han raises his eyebrows at the language, she turns to glare at him, daring him to tell her for a second time that he’s not going to stick his neck out for some snotty little Senatorial upstart dumb enough to get caught on the wrong side of Imperial law. So much has changed in the year since the Death Star, but she’s still waiting for the blind self-interest to resurface, and the man who acts like a friend to vanish into another string of anonymous seedy spaceports and smuggling contracts more lucrative than anything the Alliance can offer.

Han rolls his eyes. “Well, of course we have to go get him,” he says, as if anyone with half a brain would find it completely self-evident.

Leia blinks once and feels some of the tension in her shoulders fall away.

Rya looks from Han to Leia, and visibly decides not to ask. “I’m glad we all agree, then,” she says crisply. “Now if you’ll look at this terrain map…”

The nice thing about the Alliance is that everyone is completely accustomed to eleventh-hour plans that get changed again at 11:30 and again at 11:58. Han and Leia stand with Rya in the map room, squinting down at a holo of the planet between them and the Imperial base.

“It’s a small garrison – only one company of stormtroopers and a few speeder troops, plus one squadron of TIEs.” She grins, with teeth. “The Empire never expected us to build up such a substantial presence here.” The base itself looks like a small blister hanging midway up an enormous cliff face: it’s unimpressive from the outside, but according to Rya’s intelligence, the blister itself is just the front door, and the actual base extends fairly far back into the cliff. On the top of the escarpment is a landing pad next to a low, squat building that presumably houses the sensor array.

They pause for a tense moment as another pair of TIEs flickers into existence on the edge of the base’s sensor screens, gliding back and forth in a standard search pattern that takes them diagonally across the top left corner before they zoom out of sensor range again.

Leia is already turning back to Rya to discuss her speeder options, but Han interrupts them, still staring at the screen where the TIEs had been. “Even in atmosphere, those things move faster than a speeder,” he says slowly, “and they’d make it a lot easier to sneak in, especially with those helmets they wear.”

**

20 minutes later, the Falcon is slipping out from under the cliff face camouflaging the Alliance hangar and taking an intercept course that should bring them right into the search path of the two TIEs. Han is arguing with Chewie about the proper power level on the ion cannons, while Leia puts the finishing touches on their last-minute bait, an escape pod that she’s been beating up to make it look like it actually did have a rough trip down through the atmosphere. She’s currently taking their Imperial agent’s flamethrower to it for a realistic burned-in-the-atmosphere finish, and the process is surprisingly cathartic.

She pushes up her protective glasses and inspects the result with satisfaction.

“You done incinerating my cargo hold?”

“Considering everything that’s probably been in here, you ought to be thanking me for finally disinfecting the place.”

Han walks around the pod, tracing the gashes and dents on the surface. His face is set, but just the fact that he’s quiet for more than 20 seconds at a time is enough to tip her off.

“We’ll find him,” Leia says, as condescendingly as she can when she’s still trying to persuade herself that it’s true. “Don’t worry.”

Han’s indignant scowl at the accusation of caring about another human is interrupted by a roar from Chewie over the intercom: they’re in position.

They have just enough time to lay their trap and get the Falcon away behind a low ridge of rocky hills crowned with a line of trees – it’s not a hiding place that would fool anyone for long, but all they need is for the pilots to be distracted by the escape pod for 30 seconds. Han stays in the ship, while Chewie slides silently down the landing ramp and up the tallest local tree trunk, brown fur disappearing against the brown bark.

The two TIEs come over a ridge and Leia can tell the exact moment when they spot the pod, because they break off their fluid search pattern, one of them sliding in to cover the other’s tale as he dips down for a closer look.

“Come on, get out. Go take a look,” Han mutters, and after another few moments of circling, they do – first one and then the other steps out of his TIE and approaches the pod. They never get there: two sharp bolts from Chewie’s bowcaster, and they’re both toppling to the ground.

“Nice shooting,” Han says appreciatively, looking at the clean chest shots.

Chewie rumbles, and Han laughs at him, pushing him back towards the Falcon. “You and your trees. All right, go get the rest of those punks loaded up.”

After stripping off the helmets and comm equipment, they wrap the bodies in cryo bags and set a time-delayed beacon call: it feels wrong somehow not to at least give them a chance at some kind of burial. When Leia pulls the helmet over her head, it’s still warm from the other pilot’s body, and she shudders briefly before pulling herself together to fiddle with the comm.

The channel crackles with angry static, and eventually resolves into a voice: “Two flight, report. We’ve lost your sensor readouts and positional data.”

“Two flight, reporting,” Han says. His voice, filtered through the helmet vocoder, is mechanical and almost unrecognizable. “All clear. We identified an escape pod that may be from the Rebel ship; it fired an automated electrical charge at us but we’ve disabled it.”

“Copy that, Two flight. Do you need assistance transporting it back?”

“Negative. We’re turning back now and bringing it along.” And with the faux escape pod strapped to the bottom of Han’s TIE, they slide over the landscape in silence. The TIE isn’t the most annoying thing Leia’s ever flown, but it’s weirdly flighty, less solid than an X-wing, and the readouts are just off enough that she has to concentrate on them even though she’s essentially flying in a straight line.

Luke, we’re coming for you, she thinks at him through the Force, as insistently as she can. He can’t get the message, of course, but somehow it settles her to send it so she keeps trying.

**

When she’d reached out to the Emperor from the medical bay, he’d made it clear that he would get in contact with all the appropriate Imperial officials, so at least Mara won’t have to worry about convincing the garrison command of her legitimacy. All she has to do is get there with Organa unharmed, and luckily for her, he’d made it almost too easy by showing up without Skywalker or even the wookiee to protect him.

Halfway through the journey from the Rebel base to the Imperial garrison, Organa starts coughing from the dust kicking up in his face, and Mara has to let him down from the bike to give him some water and find something to tie around his mouth and nose.

He looks skeptically at the canteen when she offers it, so Mara shrugs and takes a drink herself before pushing it back towards his mouth.

“Turnabout,” she offers, thinking of the careful way he’d given her the hydropack. “Fair play. And besides, I have no interest in poisoning you. You’re much more valuable to me alive.” Organa is her penance to the Emperor for the failure with her hyperdrive on Rikh: if she can bring in a high-enough profile prisoner, she can turn even this disaster into something useful, and possibly save herself the punishment that’s otherwise coming to her.

“Thanks.” Organa tips his head back for a drink, but she doesn’t miss the shudder of fear over his face: of course, she remembers belatedly, he knows exactly what’s waiting for him in Imperial detention.

Well, if he didn’t want to risk that, he shouldn’t have joined the Rebellion. But somehow she opens her mouth anyway. “I didn’t call Tarkin down on you,” she says suddenly, looking straight ahead to meet his eyes.

Organa frowns at her.

“On your ship, you were talking to Skywalker – yes, I was awake,” she adds impatiently at his startled look. “Next time you want to have a private conversation, don’t do it with a prisoner in the room. Anyway, I never would have advised anyone to do something that strategically stupid.”

It’s true, she tells herself: destroying Alderaan was an obvious sacrifice of intelligent thought to doctrinal obsession. It did nothing but unite previously wavering systems behind the Rebellion, and shake the confidence even of the more loyal. It was an egregiously stupid error, and it had cost the Empire dearly.

She watches the brief openness on his face abruptly flatten back out into a flat, blank mask, and bites down a spike of sudden and inexplicable frustration.

They need to get going. “You need a mask for your mouth,” she says sharply. “Stand still.” There’s nothing on the bike itself, so she has to cut a long rectangle off the bottom of his tunic. He holds perfectly steady for her while she slits the fabric, but when she stands up to knot it around his mouth, he flinches back almost instinctively.

“I’m not going to kriffing strangle you,” she growls, but if he’s afraid of strangulation, why wasn’t he afraid of a very sharp knife an inch from his guts?

“I don’t suppose you’d let me do that myself.” His voice is far too even to actually be casual.

Mara frowns down at the cloth again, and then it hits her: they must have used a respiration restrictor on him, on the Death Star. They’re nasty things – heavy masks that cut off your oxygen flow just above the point where you pass out, so you’re lightheaded and dizzy and much less capable of keeping secrets. Rumor had it that Vader had either invented them or been the inspiration behind their design.

As part of her training, Mara was desensitized to most of the standard Imperial interrogation techniques. She’d been young and stupid for her first round in the restrictor, and she’d panicked, trying to fight off the instructor forcing the device over her mouth. In Mara’s case, the lesson had been repeated until she could take the mask without a flinch, but apparently the interrogators in the Death Star didn’t do Organa any such backhanded favors.

She could force the cloth onto his face anyway. He’s going to have to get over it at some point.

Out of nowhere, she remembers the desperate relief of water flowing through a hard plastic straw into her mouth. Mara rolls her eyes and pushes Organa down to sit on the ground, grabbing a spare pair of binders to lock his ankles together for good measure. With a few tugs, the knots binding his arms and hands are undone; she tosses him the piece of cloth and stands back to train her gun directly at the middle of his forehead. “Thirty seconds.”

Organa’s done in twenty, and Mara hauls him up without comment, twisting the knots tight around his arms again. “You ready? Back on the bike; let’s go.”

**

Mara’s first stop on reaching the Imperial base is a primitive landing pad, where she flashes her ID codes at a young lieutenant who rapidly changes from overbearing to overawed when he realizes that the strange woman in front of him is the operative from the emergency directive they’d just received. But as soon as he realizes what’s going on, he abruptly becomes extremely helpful, calling up a squad of stormtroopers to take over her prisoner and directing her down to the garrison commander without a fuss.

Garrison Commander Karst is a perfect storm of arrogance and stupidity – his first instinct on hearing her report is to insist on a full-scale assault on the Rebel base, and she wastes 20 precious minutes convincing him of exactly how disastrous that would be.

“They can’t pose much of a threat,” he says dismissively, “not with one ship against a garrison.”

“I remind you that these are the same operatives who rescued Organa from the Detention Center on the Death Star.” Not to mention that Skywalker is obviously strong in the Force: even with her fairly limited training, Mara can recognize that.

Karst provides a ship quickly after that, a small but perfectly usable transport that he insists on sweeping twice for potential bugs or sabotage before he allows them to board. Then they have to wait for two TIE fighters to land: apparently they found an escape pod suspected of being from Solo’s ship, and Karst wants to make sure it’s unloaded with all the proper security precautions.

It’s reasonable, but the delay chafes at Mara’s nerves. While they wait, she takes advantage of the armory to stock back up on weapons, debating the value of trying to talk her way into some of the experimental stuff just for fun before rejecting the idea as too time-consuming. The weapons are relaxing: sharp, bright knife-edges and cold gun barrels, none of them with any itchy discomfort about…whatever it is about Organa that gets under her skin.

When she reaches up to un-knot his face mask, he bends his head down without a fuss, and the look he gives her – it’s not exactly gratitude, and it has no reason to be; it’s more like he’s trying to adjust his mental estimation of her and he suddenly had to adjust all his calculations.

Finally, they’re escorted up an elevator lined on three sides by enormous fueling hoses and other pipes labeled with chemical names Mara barely recognizes, presumably materials for the weapons development nerds down below.

At least there are no additional stormtroopers crowded into the tiny passenger area: Mara can more than handle one noncombatant in restraints by herself and there’s no need to divert personnel from the already-small garrison for unnecessary guard duty. They sit on two low metal benches, facing each other across a metal security screen, and wait for the pilot to finish synchronizing all his sensors and readout displays with the special apparatus that will guide them up through the atmosphere. His face is a study in diplomatic calm that could be hiding anything underneath. Mara is still having trouble looking him in the eye.

**

Han and Leia land without much ceremony, after Han makes a brief pass over a walled-in section of the landing pad to drop off the decoy escape pod. The landing area is rectangular, with a low building and an elevator lining one of the short ends. There’s a single ship on another part of the pad, close to the building side, but they’re not directed there. Instead, they’re ordered to debriefing in an hour, and directed down to the main bubble part of the base, which apparently functions as a hangar door.

“And hurry up about it,” the traffic controller says, “Some important prisoner needs to shoot up fast; we don’t have time to wait around all day for you two to get docked.”

“Acknowledged,” says Leia, and spares herself a tiny moment of regret for how much harder this is all about to get before she spins around and opens fire on the control tower.

Her ship’s comm starts squawking immediately, and she slaps it off, switching to the pair-frequency that lets her and Han talk to each other through their own comlinks. They’re still being recorded from inside the cockpits, but at least they can’t be jammed so easily like this.

Beside her, Han is wheeling around to target the squad of stormtroopers rushing over to the prisoner ship, his lasers cutting massive blackened streaks through the line of attack.

From behind her, an enormously loud cannon-scream is her only warning to dodge out of the way: Leia shoots up and the blast flies harmlessly under her TIE, but she’s huge and clumsy this close to the ground, struggling to maneuver on the tiny scale. And the guns themselves are hidden under layers of camouflage armor, hard to see much less hit.

On the other hand, Leia doesn’t have to see them to hit them. Rolling her shoulders back, she lets herself feel out for them, over the tumble of camouflage netting and triple-reinforced metal armor. Clusters of spiking adrenaline mark the places where the defenders are hiding behind their shields, but even a direct hit on the surface doesn’t seem to do anything but scare them. And meanwhile, the shots are still coming, flying around her wing panels with one particularly close miss scoring a line along the underside of her cockpit

“We need to get on the ground.” With the control tower hopefully out of commission, the TIEs have served their purpose, and they can’t do Luke any good crashing around the landing pad unless whoever’s in charge of that ship decides to take off.

“I got a better plan.”

She wheels around, looking for Han, and goggles at him: is he actually shooting at the ship?

“What are you doing?”

“Relax,” he drawls, and Leia is biting back a distracting stream of invective when she notices that it’s actually methodical: he’s targeting the landing struts and the sublight engines, shooting to maim and not to kill. Another cannon blast whizzes past him, and Leia wheels around to shoot at the source just as Luke is shoved out of the ship, pushed forward by their former Imperial prisoner.

“Han.”

“I see him.”

Unfortunately, with Luke out in the open, their options for shooting are getting more and more limited, and without a comm of his own, he has no way of knowing who they are.

“We need to get to him.”

“I’m on it.” Han wheels around, heading low over the top of the ship for Luke and his captor.

Leia rolls her eyes. “The hell you are.” With a last spurt of fire at the cannon shields, she swoops down in a stomach-clenching arc, cutting in clear underneath him so close that the bottoms of her wings screech along the duracrete landing pad as she skids to a halt and pops the top canopy before the ship is even still, sliding clumsily down the rounded cockpit and using the Force to cushion the impact of her feet on the duracrete.

She’s landed right beside the ship Luke just left, on the control-tower side of the landing pad, and when she jumps out, Luke and the Imperial woman are less than a hundred meters away. He’s in wrist cuffs and arm binders, struggling to find his footing on the torn-up duracrete, while she half-drags him in an evasive run towards the control tower.

Leia sprints. Shots start spitting at her, a few scattered ones from the remnant of the guard brigade, and a denser stream from the woman herself. She snatches her lightsaber off her belt, reaching for the Force. It’s always harder in real life – somehow nothing about a remote can capture a fraction of the urgency of an actual battle. The intensity of focus makes it hard to broaden her mind to anything beyond the blaster bolts, much less clear it.

She tries anyway, and she’s halfway into the flow of it when she gets to Luke, some of the shots arching slowly towards her in plenty of time to block, while others burn past her in sudden spikes of reflexive adrenaline. Luke’s head turns toward her, and he holds her eyes for a moment and then flops down to the ground just before she reaches them, pulling the woman off-balance as she’s grabbing for her gun.

Leia’s so focused on the blaster shots that she doesn’t see the stinger until it hits her in the stomach with an electric shock that sends her staggering to her knees, barely managing to avoid Luke’s body with her lightsaber. She rolls forward, crashing into the woman’s feet and grabbing for her ankles, but Brae sprawls backwards, kicking her legs out of reach and letting her whole weight crush down onto Leia’s back.

Luke does something above her, and Brae staggers backwards: Leia scrambles out, grabs Luke, and takes off across the flattest-looking patch of duracrete in a short arc around to the back of the Imperial ship, where at least they’re out of the immediate line of fire. “Hold still.” She spins him around, carefully slicing through both sets of restraints with the very tip of her lightsaber.

“Give me your comm,” Luke says as soon as he turns around, and Leia shoves it into his palm, pushing him back against the wing of the ship as she braces herself for Brae racing around the side of the ship, gun back in her hand.

“Han!” Luke screams into the comlink. “See the service elevator, right by the building where all the stormtroopers are?”

Leia can’t hear the response: she’s squinting out onto the duracrete for Brae, her eyes flickering from the half-meter gap under the ship to the quarter-circle of open space in front of them.

“The fuel lines. Shoot the fuel lines coming out of it.” A pause. “Right.” He grabs her shoulder, pushing her out of their hidey-hole back in the direction they came. Leia half-turns, irritable. “We have to get – ” but the sentence breaks off into a yelp as Leia shoves him down, just barely out of the way of a stun net that falls down over her calf as she crushes him underneath her onto the ground.

The one direction Leia hadn’t been looking, and she almost got them – Leia shakes off the wave of irritation and rolls to the side. Her foot is numb from the calf down, but the stun net isn’t powerful enough to knock her unconscious with that little contact. Brae isn’t going to wait for her to get better, though, so she crawls forward blindly, shoving Luke in front of her under the ship and dragging her leg behind her, wincing at the pins and needles.

Her hands scrape on the ground, and the bottom of the ship rips at her borrowed flight suit. They roll out on the other side Luke first, and of course, Brae is waiting for them, a spray of gunshots screaming down around their shoulders as they duck out.

But then Luke is grabbing for her hand and tugging her the other way, and the shots are stopping: Leia wheels around to see a massive fire blooming in the corner by the elevator, blue and green flames among the orange indicating different kinds of fuel. Brae is sprinting towards the fire, belatedly followed by the few stormtroopers left standing from the traffic control tower, and Luke drags her off the landing pad, sliding one arm under her shoulders so she can run on her numb foot.

“Those fuel lines go straight down the elevator shaft,” he pants at her.

“Like a giant fuse for the whole operation. Cute.”

Luke stares at her and pushes her forward more urgently. “A giant fuse that we’re standing right on top of; come on.”

They stagger off the landing platform into the woods encroaching on its edge – not any kind of cover for any length of time, considering that the Imperial troops have speeder bikes and 10 more TIE fighters at their disposal, but at least enough to slow them down.

“Han’s in the other TIE,” Leia says, “and Chewie’s coming with the Falcon, but he’ll be a while; he’s loading up the whole base.” She’s shaking with released adrenaline. Behind them, more gunfire starts crashing through the forest, but the scream of a TIE fighter swooping down almost over their heads drowns out everything else.

It’s Han, gliding down to a more graceful landing than Leia’s on top of a relatively treeless mound of rock. He scrambles down from the TIE and flashes Luke his trademark daredevil grin. “Good to have you back, Kid.”

Before Luke can respond, he’s already turning back to Leia, pushing his pilot’s helmet into her hands.

“I’ll take him. Two of this squad are still out on patrol but the other eight are coming up over that hill.” He shifts on his feet, and then blows out his breath impatiently. “Can you keep them off the Falcon?”

Leia takes the helmet, trying to hide the half-incredulous, half-triumphant grin. Han Solo, admitting that anyone else can do anything better than him?

“Yeah, yeah, save it,” Han mutters, and on impulse she reaches over to peck his cheek, just briefly, before jams the helmet over her already-ruined hair and takes off for the TIE at a run. Safe inside the helmet, she doesn’t even have to pretend her wild laugh is purely a matter of battle-joy.

**

Luke smothers a smile under layers of diplomatic control as he watches Han’s hand belatedly fly up to his cheek. Han shakes himself, scruffs up his hair again, and squeezes Luke’s shoulder briefly before he takes off towards the cliff face at a dead run.

“Where are we going?” Luke pants.

“Chewie’s coming in the Falcon to pick us up.” Han scrambles through a patch of bushes and nearly loses his balance on another gravel outcropping. “Brought the whole outfit.”

“That was fast.”

Han snorts. “Chewie and me once loaded up an entire Hutt lord and his retinue in an hour, and that was before we had those extra floor compartments. This is nothing.”

Luke jerks his head in acknowledgement and climbs up next to Han, squinting up at the sky. Flying parallel to the cliff is the Falcon, and headed straight for it at a 40-degree angle is a small cloud of TIE fighters. And racing toward them is one lone TIE skimming low over the treetops.

“She knows what she’s doing,” Luke says, more for his own benefit than Han’s. “She’ll be fine.”

**

That’s all they see of Leia’s battle: the next few minutes are a blur of bush-scratches and tripping over roots, with the occasional ankle-twisting patch of gravel. Luke follows Han all the way out to the sheer drop-off where the bubble marking the Imperials’ front door is just barely visible several hundred meters down.

Below them, the Falcon is rising up the cliff face; there’s nowhere to land, but the ship pauses and hovers barely half a meter away. Luke scrambles across the top of the Falcon on all fours, his knees banging on the hull, and half-falls feet first down the top hatch, rolling out of the way so Han can drop down over him and pull it shut.

“All in,” Han pants into his comlink. “Hit it, Chewie.”

The ship shudders, and Luke staggers into the wall, thrown off-balance by that kind of maneuver in atmosphere. Han, on the other hand, is taking it in stride: he’s hauling himself towards the main corridor with handholds on the walls, and when the ship tilts sharply the other way, he just falls down to his hands and knees and treats it like a giant slide.

They skid into the cockpit to see Chewie slapping switches and Leia, flushed with the victory of eight TIE fighters in pieces at the foot of the cliff, mapping out hyperspace coordinates. A quick glance at the wall shows Luke that the tally board is already updated. The Imperial base is receding into the background, the cliff flattening out into a ridge only a hundred meters tall, and then devolving into a bank of gravel and finally merging into the treeline.

“We’re gonna have a hell of a time trying to get that signal beam going for us now.”

Leia gives him a withering look. “What signal beam? We blew it up, remember?”

“We blew it up.” Han’s eyebrows are practically a challenge of their own. “That’s funny; I only remember one of us randomly shooting at everything in sight.”

“There were hidden gun emplacements in the – ” Leia stops and scrubs her hand over her face. “Okay, fine. I blew it up. Happy?”

“Well, in any case, it’s gone,” Luke interrupts.

Han shrugs agreement, and glances over at Leia. “Think you’re up for giving us all another ride on the Jedi Express?”

“Sounds like a party.”

Luke gets up to leave, but Leia grabs him and pulls him back down. “Stay. I’m not sure why, but it’s easier when you’re around.”

“But I’m not a Jedi,” Luke protests.

“I think you might have an… aptitude for it or something. I’m not sure.” Luke thinks of the inexplicable surety he’d felt as he clung to Brae’s back on the speeder bike, and decides to ask her about it later.

“An aptitude,” Han says skeptically, looking everywhere but at Leia’s hand still wrapped around Luke’s wrist.

“It just helps to have him here, all right? Don’t get all excited.”

“Who’s excited?” Han sinks down into his chair, scowling at his levers.

Leia frowns at Luke, who shrugs: he’s not sure about any of this, but he’s willing to take Leia’s word for it that he’s helpful, and he’s more than willing to sit here if it’ll do anything to lighten the bruised shadows under her eyes.

Leia settles herself in the copilot’s seat and takes a deep breath, settling her shoulders and letting her eyes flicker half-shut. With no idea what to do or whether he’ll know if he’s doing it right, Luke tries to imagine some kind of positive energy in Leia’s general direction.

“Heading into atmosphere in three, two, one – ”

The crosswind shears them at least half a kilometer off course immediately, until Chewie can adjust the thrust to compensate.

“Left,” Leia barks at Han, and this time he twists to the side without hesitating. Two seconds later, a deceptively slow-looking chunk of icy rock spins past the cockpit. “Do a Verpine back loop. Straight up.”

Without a convenient storm system to head down, it seems to take longer going up, but eventually they Leia slumps back in her seat, exhausted, and with a final push upward, the Falcon is free. They burst out of the atmosphere in a spray of dust and rocks and glittering ice, right into a confused welter of TIE fighters and Imperial small craft buzzing around one of the Star Destroyers from earlier.

Luke is up and running for the turret guns before Han has time to tell him, but Han has other plans: with a gut-wrenching twist of the accelerator, he’s flipping on two axes and tearing off on an escape vector before the Imperial fleet can begin responding to their arrival. The ship shakes underneath him, the hull screaming with stress, and Luke slams into the seat just in time for Han to slingshot around Rikshi I and then suddenly ricochet off in a different direction, sending a TIE screaming by his field of vision too fast to aim at.

Luke fires wildly, hitting one or two Imperial ships by pure luck – but the chase is disorganized and inadequate, and Han is by far the better pilot. In the middle of an attempt to aim, he feels the ship halt, shudder, and jump, and the stars outside the canopy streak into bright lines before they coalesce into the familiar mottling of hyperspace.

**

Breath whooshes out of Han’s chest as the Falcon decides to cooperate for once, flickering into hyperspace without a whisper of complaint. He turns to Leia triumphantly, a vindication of his piloting skills ready on his lips, but she’s slumped backwards in her seat, breathing so shallowly that her chest is barely moving.

“Leia? Leia!” Han reaches over to shake her shoulder. “Hey, wake up.”

“Huh?” Her head rolls to the side, and she sits up with a start only to fall back into the chair, her jaw tight, staring fixedly at the altitude levers. “We made it?”

“We made it. You alive in there?”

“More or less.” She grimaces. “Obi-Wan would yell at me for overextending myself.”

“Don’t scare me like that.”

Even floating on the edge of consciousness, Leia still finds the energy from somewhere to muster up a glare for him. It shouldn’t be as reassuring as it is.

Han flicks at the comm. “Kid, get down here. We need some aptitude voodoo.”

“That’s not how it works,” Leia protests, but when Chewie intercepts Luke at the door to the cockpit with a hug so forceful it nearly bowls him over, she laughs and reaches over to squeeze Han’s hand briefly before she stands up to join the clump.

**

It was the only logical choice. Organa was one prisoner, and one prisoner, no matter how high-profile or gratifying to her ego, can’t possibly compare in importance to an entire facility full of borderline-genius weapons developers and all of their potentially war-winning prototypes. He must have known it – he’s a Rebel, but he isn’t stupid, and she probably would have done the same.

But the fact remains that by the time she locks down the fuel lines to contain the fire, Organa and his friends are long gone, and Mara is left with the unpleasant task of explaining the whole catastrophe to the Emperor.

She emerges from her meditation shaking with the echoes of his displeasure, barely coherent enough to snap at Karst for a ship. Her mind aches, occasionally shuddering with little aftershocks of pain. The hyperdrive failure was unfortunate, but at least she’d completed her primary mission. To have Organa and Skywalker and then lose them, though…

Mara closes her eyes and reminds herself that the pain is a sign that she’s valuable enough to discipline. Anyone useless to the Emperor is simply killed outright. She looks down at her own arm, where a tiny pinprick-mark is all that’s left of the IV she’d been given on the Rebel ship. The memory infuriates her: Organa and his self-righteous gentleness, and the way it snuck under her skin when she wasn’t looking.

Scowling, Mara grinds the heel of her palm into the mark and forces her mind back to the present. Her newest assignment is Nar Shaddaa: apparently there’s an Imperial defector who went to ground with the Hutts, of all beings. Perfect. She resolutely ignores the memory of Organa trying to defend Hutt Space as a civilizable society, and sets up the jump. She’ll get over it or she’ll learn to live with it, and if she ever sees the man again, she damn well won’t be that soft a second time.