Title: That Which Remains
Disclaimer: As usual, Lucas owns everything, and this fanfic was written purely for fun.
Summary: It's been two years since Darth Vader destroyed Palpatine at Endor and helped the Alliance reforge the Republic, but swapping allegiences has not made his path any easier. Sequel to 'Come With Me.'
Lasercannon blasts thundered overhead, rocking the Capitol building and showering pieces of ceiling down into Zev Kiran's hair and eyes. In the distance, he could hear shouts in Basic. That might mean the cannon fire came from New Republic forces instead of the mercenary troops of the Hutt Syndicate, but he couldn't be sure. He wasn't sure of anything anymore.
Gone was the kriff-you sense of power that had filled him as he had unceremoniously dismissed the demands of the Hutts, cutting off their holo transmission mid-sentence for emphasis. Gone was the delirious optimism he and all the other citizens of Druckenwell had shared in the abilities of the New Republic to transform the old Empire. Growing in its place was the dawning realization that he would not be the President who liberated Druckenwell, but rather the one who caused it to at long last fall completely under the control of the Hutts.
His mind focused on the voices behind him, he stumbled over a chunk of shattered wall, and fell hard against the marble floor. He lay there for a moment, listening to the whine of blaster bolts draw closer. Such an ignominious end to an illustrious career. A junior executive at twenty five, a senior partner at thirty, President at forty-two. Nevermind that Druckenwell was not so much an independent world as a giant mining corporation, he was still the President.
He pushed himself to his knees. Yes, he was still the President. If Druckenwell was too far from Coruscant to be worthy of the Republic's attention, then he would face the Hutts' wrath alone. After all, they spoke the common language of credits; there must be some deal he could strike with them.
Brushing the dust from his trousers, he rose from the floor and continued down the corridor to his office. He paused at the engraved wall plate adjacent to the door, running his fingers over his name before activating the door. Once inside, he straightened his clothes and fingercombed his hair. Appearances were everything in the art of the deal. Cool, confident, self-assured, that was the image he needed to project when the Hutt forces found him, not a disheveled man terrified for his life.
When they arrived at his office, he would act as if everything were completely normal. Gentlemen, he would say, how can I help you? Insurrection? Why of course not. There must have been a glitch, some sort of miscommunication. Druckenwell has always cooperated with the Hutts, and always will. Let's send a holo right now and clear up this mess. The sooner we're settled here, the sooner we're back to business. And that is the point, now isn't it?
He smiled to himself. Everything was going to be all right. Just like the time he had averted a strike of the ore transport operators, or the time he had convinced the entire Excavators' Union to take a pay cut so that Druckenwell could underbid Exarga, he was the master of the last-minute save. Now that he thought about it, it might not be possible for him to lose.
Outside his office the slap of boots resonated in the corridor, the sound drawing closer with precise regularity. He seated himself at his desk, pulling a piece of flimsi from the middle drawer. Though the flimsi was completely blank, he studied it intently as he waited for the owner of the boots to enter his office. Appearances, it was all about appearances.
He didn't even look up when the door slid open, though his brow wrinkled at the sounds that replaced the footsteps : an ominous thrum accented by a repeating whoosh of air. He leaned back in his chair, and raised his head in his most nonchalant manner. Despite his best intentions, a gasp escaped him. Though he had expected he would be facing armor, he had thought it would be the Mandalorian type, not this. And the blade of blue plasma that seemed to spring directly from the figure's hand, it pulsed like a living thing, poised to cut him down.
The figure came forward, the blue blade growling with every movement of its hand. "Let's go. The ship is waiting."
He swallowed hard. The Hutts must be angrier than he had thought. "This has all been a misunderstanding. Perhaps we could resolve this ourselves. For the right sum, of course."
The black mask was unreadable. "You are wasting time. Get up!"
Perspiration began to run down his sides. He had the very bad feeling that his plan was not going to work. Of all the mercenaries who could have been sent after him, how could it have ended up being the one person with whom it was impossible to negotiate? And just when did the Hutts hire Darth Vader, anyways?
"Have you no sense?" Vader roared. "If you wish to save yourself, come with me now!"
Pain. Torture. Death. How was he ever going to get himself out of this? A cold sweat swept over him as he imagined the punishment Vader would inflict, punishment that would make his bones crack and his flesh weep. In front of him, Vader was gesturing emphatically, as if he was still speaking, but he couldn't hear any of Vader's words, only his own pulse pounding in his ears. He cringed as a black gloved hand grabbed his arm and then, mercifully, all went dark.
Luke rubbed his hand over his face. He shouldn't be doing this. As the commander of his unit, he ought to be with his troops, leading them against the mercenary forces who had descended on Druckenwell. But his own commander, who also happened to be his father, hadn't exactly followed military protocol either, and had vanished into the interior of the Capitol building. And so he found himself ignoring both protocol and common sense as he hurried down the corridors of a building being torn apart by cannon fire.
He leapt over piles of rubble and dodged collapsing walls to follow the invisible trail the Force set before him. Following the trail required no conscious thought, so familiar was his father's Force signature. In fact, the whole scenario was familiar : him chasing after his father who had purposefully put himself in the path of great danger. Not that he didn't appreciate a good thrill himself, but what his father did sometimes bordered on the suicidal. Luke now understood why his father had been called The Hero With No Fear, and he felt an urgent need to catch up to him before there was a miscalculation.
He recognized that his impulse to go after his father was not entirely objective. Just one of the reasons why it was policy in the New Republic Forces that family members never serve together. In the beginning they had made an exception because he was the only officer who would serve under the former Darth Vader, but over the last two years it had become quite clear that he was the only second-in-command his father would permit. The Emperor had been quite truthful about being the only person who could contain Vader, and in that matter the Senate and the Combined Forces had proven to be pale substitutes for Palpatine.
As for himself, he had given up any hope of restraining his father, and had settled for merely being able to influence him. That, and watching out for him, which led right back to the position he found himself in now. Though he had never jeopardized the safety of his men, or the success of a mission, he still sometimes felt like he was being pulled in two. He put his hand to the comlink on his belt, reassuring himself that it hadn't fallen off during his manueverings. Everything must be proceeding as planned, or the troops would have commed him already.
He paused at the junction of an intersecting corridor to reassess his direction. This wing of the building had been hit hard and he found it surprising that anyone would have stayed here, but the trail led unmistakably to the left. He pushed off into a jog, advancing a few hundred meters before a voice sounded in his head.
/Luke, come help me./
His eyes swung towards the source, and he caught sight of a door recessed in an alcove. As he slowed to a walk , he picked up the sound of the ventilator dead ahead. President Zev Kiran, announced a wall plate outside the door. As usual, his father's instincts were right on target.
He punched the door control, and grimaced when the office interior was revealed. Not only had his father accurately located the President, it had apparently been just in the nick of time. Zev Kiran lay sprawled across the office floor, his face a match to the alabaster tile. Immediately Luke went to the President's side, opposite his father. He glanced up and down the still figure, his brow furrowing at the lack of blood, or even bruises.
"Where is he hurt?" he said, helping his father to sit the man up.
"He is not injured."
He frowned."Then he's drugged?"
"No. Merely unconscious," his father said. "He fainted as I was talking to him."
Luke suppressed a chuckle. "Well, have you tried waking him up? It's going to be a lot easier getting him out of here if we don't have to carry him all the way."
"You can try," his father said. "He does not respond well to me."
"Were you using your nice voice?" he said, as he tapped his fingers against the President's face.
The President grunted a few times at the affront, and then his eyes blinked open. Abruptly, he appeared to realize where he was. Or rather who he was with. A look of panic filled Kiran's features and he struggled to free himself of the hands that held him on either side.
"Easy there, Mr. President," Luke said. "You're among friends. But we should get going."
Kiran's look of panic faded to apprehension. "You're here to help me?"
"You requested the assistance of the Republic," his father said, "and here we are."
Apprehension turned to confusion as the President looked into the mask. "You're with the Republic?"
The pitch of his father's voice lowered a notch. "Do you not read the Holonet?"
Luke rolled his eyes." We can discuss politics later. Let's get out of here before the building falls down."
Leia didn't need the Force to tell her they were discussing something they didn't want her to hear. Her politician's instincts told her plenty. The hasty breaking of eye contact, the subtle tightning of their circle as she approached, their discomfort with her was as plain as day. This might be the New Republic, but the game of politics was the same as always. Maintaining her most pleasant, if practiced, smile, she glided by the trio of senators, giving the senior senator from Cerea a gracious nod.
He returned her gesture, but there was a tension around his mouth that belied his smile."Good morning, Senator Organa."
"It is a beautiful morning, Senator Rion-Sei," she said. In the Force, a current of fear wafted from him and she worked to maintain her even expression. Now that she was more attuned to the Force, she found the hard part not to be sensing the feelings of others, but rather not reacting to them.
Moving deeper into the foyer of the Senate Hall, she threaded her way through the sea of beings until she was sure the Cereans had lost sight of her. Flowing with the crowd, she slowed her naturally fast pace, not even avoiding the shoulders and elbows that brushed her. She looped back towards the trio, allowing her small stature to work for her by hiding behind her taller colleagues. When she caught a glimpse of the silken magenta robe of Senator Rion-Sei, she carefully positioned herself where she could overhear the Cereans' conversation.
Through the din of surrounding voices she was able to pick up only snippets of the discussion. A disgrace...his time is over...do they think we have forgotten? They were careful not to specify just whom exactly they were talking about, but if they were worried about her hearing them, there weren't many choices. Han had been on exceptionally good behavior lately, and no one in the Republic would ever call Luke a disgrace, so that left only one possibility : her father. But expressing dislike of the former Darth Vader was so common it hardly called for secrecy. Hells, half the time she wasn't sure what she felt about him, either. No, if those senators were afraid, there must be more to their words than mere opinion.
Around her the crowd was starting to disperse, threatening to reveal her to the Cereans. She turned and picked her way through the crowd to the open plaza outside the Senate Hall. Blinking in the bright Coruscant sun, she glanced at her chrono. Just enough time to get a cup of caf before the session started.
She headed over to a kiosk emblazoned The Galaxy's Finest Caf , and joined the line. A few places in front of her she could see a head of red hair that could only belong to Mon Mothma.
She leaned forward. "Senator Mothma."
Mothma's slender form turned around. "Senator Organa. Good to see you."
"Do you have a moment?" she said. "There's something I'd like to talk to you about."
The Chandrilian senator nodded." Sure. Here, let me get your drink. You want the usual?"
"Yeah.Triple caf. Corellian style," Leia said. She stepped out of line and waited at the edge of the broad duracrete walkway.
"So what's on your mind?" Mon said, handing her a cup that felt hot despite its protective sleeve.
"I guess I'm looking for your opinion," Leia said. "I just had a really odd experience."
"Here, at the Senate?" Mon said, as they headed back towards the Hall.
She nodded. "With the Cerean delegation. I think they were talking about Anakin, but they were afraid for me to hear them."
A flicker of something ran across Mon's face, but then it smoothed to her usual look of serenity. "That doesn't sound so strange. I'm sure they were just trying to be considerate of your feelings."
"No, that's not it," she said. "Nobody else hides their opinion of Anakin Skywalker from me. These senators were genuinely afraid. I could feel it."
"Leia, you're taking this too personally," Mon said, and then she glanced from side to side. "You know how these senators from the small systems are. They think all the big name senators are out to get them. If Rion-Sei is afraid of you, it's probably only because he thinks you're going to shoot down some pet bill of his."
"Exactly," Leia said. "He wasn't just talking about how he felt. It was more like he had an agenda."
"Whatever it is, it's not worth worrying about, " Mon said.
Leia started to reply when through the Force she felt a tingle of shame from the woman who had always been her mentor. One day she was going to learn to talk and use the Force at the same time, but for now she had to focus on one or the other, so she walked silently at Mon's side trying to pick up every scrap of emotion she could. Yes, there was shame, and worry, and even a flare of anger. A conflict for sure, in someone who always seemed unflappable.
They were almost to the foyer. Leia paused before the door, putting a hand on Mon's forearm to stop her. "Is there something you want to tell me?"
Mon pulled her arm away. "About what?"
"The Cereans," she said. "This conversation is making you uncomfortable. You know what they're up to, don't you?"
"Leia, you've inherited some valuable traits from your father," Mon said, "but the one thing you don't need is his paranoia. Just forget about the Cereans and let's go inside."
On board the BlueSaber, Luke tried to let the soothing hum of the sonic shower wash away his frustrations along with the grime of Druckenwell. Even after his father had guided the President safely out of the ruins of the Capitol, Zev Kiran had still been completely astonished when they boarded a New Republic shuttle and flew into the belly of a New Republic frigate. Maybe if the President's reaction had been unique, he could have seen the humor in it. Instead it was annoyingly similar to the response they received wherever the Republic sent them.
Not that Kiran was totally at fault. Darth Vader's role in initiating a coalition government between the Empire and the Alliance had been big news. Two years ago. Since then, though, anyone reading the Holonet would have thought that the New Republic had sprung fully formed after the events at Endor. Though the Senate was quite willing to hand the team of Skywalker and Skywalker the high risk assignments, official reports usually only made reference to the use of "special forces."
And while they weren't in it for the glory, he still wished they'd give his father a little more credit. The black armor was too iconic, too hard for people to forget. As disloyal as it made him feel, Luke had to admit that until he had seen the mask come off, a part of him had held back, too. Anymore, though, his mind saw eyes of blue behind the dark lenses, and his ears heard the natural voice underneath the effects of the voice modulator. Now if only the rest of the Galaxy would see his father that way.
When he finally felt clean, he shut off the shower and exited the 'fresher. Walking through his cabin, he flipped on the desk comm and contacted the bridge. After confirming that everything was quiet, he finished pulling on a fresh uniform and stepped into his boots. With the BlueSaber settled into orbit around Druckenwell in a display of Republic strength, the next few days would likely be uneventful. He thought about catching up on his Holonet correspondence, then decided he wasn't in the mood.
Instead he walked the familiar route from his cabin to his father's, pausing before the door to ask permission to enter, and motioning the door open when it was granted. Behind the transparisteel wall that pressurized the rear of the cabin, his father was dressed in loose clothing, cleaning grit from the life support suit. Perfect. With the suit disassembled, his father had no choice but to stay put and listen.
Luke took a seat at the end of the cabin's black leather couch, resting his arm on the back so that he could look easily into the pressurized chamber.
"Would the Jedi have been sent on that the kind of mission in the old days?"
His father looked up from his armor.
"Yes. Though we never commanded troops until the Clone Wars."
Somehow, he had never quite realized that. "Then who acted as their support?"
"The reputation of the Order was such that the mere presence of a Master and a Padawan was often enough to settle a dispute."
"That's some reputation."
"A display of Force skills can be quite intimidating," his father said. "Creating a fear of what might happen is the most powerful weapon you hold."
"Well, you've certainly mastered that," he said.
"It's a useful technique," his father said. "One perhaps you should develop."
Luke shook his head. "Not my style. In fact, I was thinking we should work on your reputation."
The New Republic Senate had been in session all afternoon and Leia was ready for it to be over. Everything had been quiet in the Cerean pod, but she couldn't shake the feeling of dread that had been with her since morning, and her internal tension was giving her a headache.
Maybe Mon was right; she was just being paranoid. This session had been such a non-event that she might have dozed off if it hadn't been for the zing of triple caf running through her system. There had been the usual requests for reductions in tariffs along the major hyperspace lanes, the suggestion that spice be more heavily regulated, and even a proposal for the Republic to take control of Thyferra to ensure the equitable distribution of bacta among Republic citizens. The representative from the Combined Forces had outlined a series of successes in suppressing insurgent activity along the periphery of the Republic. About the only item of note was the report of unusual ship movements outside the black hole cluster near Kessel. Otherwise, the Galaxy seemed to be running quite smoothly.
She glanced in Mon's direction, but with the senators seated by system, the Chandrilian pod was halfway across the Hall from New Alderaan. She could barely make out the glint of Mon's hair, let alone pick up anything through the Force. Leia sighed. After everything they had gone through together in the Alliance, it did seem ridiculous to suspect Mon of lying.
"My reputation is flawless," his father said.
"Yeah, if this was still the Empire," Luke said. "But it gets in the way when we're dealing with civilians. Like Kiran. He was so afraid of you he passed out."
"Kiran is an idiot. It's a wonder he can run a planet," his father said, and then resumed cleaning his helmet. "The safest place he could have been is with me. You should know that."
"I do know that," he said with a gesture. "The troops know that. The trouble is, no one else knows that."
His father shot him a sharp glance.
"Since Palpatine's death I have done nothing but support the Republic."
"I'm not trying to make you mad," he said. "I'm just saying it's hard for people to see past the suit."
"I need my suit," his father said. "Do you think I have chosen to live this way?"
"Well, medicine has improved since you were injured," he said. "Have you ever thought of getting different prosthetics, like mine?"
His father gazed at his golden forearm, turning his metal hand back and forth. "Do you remember when you lost your hand?"
"How could I forget?" Luke said.
"I meant the process it took to accustom yourself to the prosthetic," his father said.
"Oh," he said, feeling small. "Yeah, it was months before it felt like it was actually me."
"As it was for me. Both times. And the second time they were so poorly constructed they were more hinderence than help," his father said. "I had to refine them until their function pleased me. It is not a process I wish to go through again."
Luke stood up from the couch.
"Well, then maybe there's something that could be done to help your breathing. Maybe you wouldn't have to always wear your mask."
"This mask has kept me alive for twenty five years," his father said. "Why are you so concerned? Are you ashamed of it?"
"No...no, of course not," he said. "It just bothers me that everyone else doesn't see you the way I do."
"The mask is not the problem. When I was a young man, the Council did not trust me either, even though I did everything they asked. It is no different now."
Luke sighed to himself. Definitely one of those conversations that had gone way off course. He walked over to the desk to activate the datapad. Maybe there'd be some neutral topic on the Holonet.
After all, Mon was not only her friend, she had been her adoptive father's and real mother's friend as well. Even more than friend : a comrade-in-arms and confidante. The first time she had heard Mon talk about the birth of the Rebellion, about how they all used to meet in Padme' Amidala's apartment, the small hairs prickled on the back of her neck. Bail and Mon and Padme, they had trusted each other to keep secrets in a time of exquisite danger. And for twenty five years after, Mon had never swerved from that initial pact. She was the very model of loyalty.
But if Luke were here, he'd say, trust your feelings. He'd already told her that more times than there were buildings on Coruscant. It was the key to using the Force, he said. Stop thinking, and just let it flow.
She took in several deep breaths and tried to empty her mind as much as was possible amid the distractions of the Senate Hall. For a moment, the murmur of voices and the hum of the holocams all faded away. With them gone, the tingling sensation that she'd come to recognize as activity in the Force intensified. Luke had warned her this would be a frustrating point in her training, when she could feel the Force, but not control it, and he was right. Something was about to happen, but she couldn't tell what.
She opened her eyes and the din of the Senate surrounded her once again. On the auditorium's main screen, the senator from Denon was cueing a small datapad and glancing up into the swarm of holocams. Leia refreshed her own datapad to display the upcoming topic. The Galactic Integrity Restoration Act. She pursed her lips and turned to the pod next to her.
"Didn't know we were missing our integrity."
"Where do you think they'll send us next?" Luke said, as he scrolled through news reports from Coruscant.
"Hard to say," his father said. "Wherever the next hot spot breaks out."
"It does seem like each mission is getting shorter," he said.
"The major threats to the Republic have been eliminated. The Galaxy is on the verge of peace."
He looked up from the datapad. "I don't even know what that's like. It feels like the war's been going on my whole life."
"And mine," his father said.
"So once the Republic is settled, what will be our role?" he said. "It sounds like even before the Clone Wars, the Jedi acted as a security force."
"Keepers of the peace," his father said. "That is the term the Council used."
"Still sounds like a security force to me," Luke said. "I always imagined the Order as something more noble."
"What is more noble than ensuring peace and justice in the Galaxy?"
"Well, when you say it like that, nothing. It's just that I never thought being a Jedi would involve so much combat," he said, remembering his first lessons in the swamps of Dagobah.
"You joined the Rebellion easily enough."
"That was different. That was fighting for freedom, battling oppression," he said. "Not mediating a trade dispute."
His father smiled at him.
"It may disappoint you, son, but running a Galaxy requires that level of control. Without it, chaos emerges."
"I'm not saying it's unnecessary," Luke said. "But most of the time I'm more soldier than Jedi, and I'd rather it was the other way around."
"But I count on your assistance," his father said. "Several missions would have gone poorly if you had not been there."
"And I'd never let you down," he said. "But once the Republic is calm, I think there's something more important for us to do."
"What do you mean?"
He hesitated. While they openly discussed many aspects of his father's life, he knew some topics were off-limits. Obi-Wan was one of them. This was another.
"I think it's time we rebuilt the Jedi Order."
His father's head swung up. "You must be joking."
He shook his head, refusing to wilt under the intensity of his father's stare.
After a few moments, his father looked away and resumed polishing the durasteel breastplate.
"That would be an impossible task, to recreate what was."
"Maybe, but I still have to try."
"Why? You should leave the past alone."
"Because it can't end with you and me," he said. He was on his feet now, energized by thoughts held in too long. "When Yoda died, Ben said that made me the last Jedi, the last hope for the Order. And even though you're here, I still feel the weight of that responsibility. I can't shake the idea that I am supposed to do something about it."
His father's eyes remained focused on his armor. "Then perhaps you should."
"But I can't do it without you," Luke said, moving next to the transparisteel panel.
His father pointed a golden finger at him. "You don't know what you're asking."
"Yes, I do," he said, positioning himself directly across from his father. "If you really think no one in the Republic appreciates what you do, why do you keep doing it? And why did you build a new lightsaber? No one understands the significance of red and blue anymore."
Luke waited for the scathing retort, but none came. Emboldened by the silence, he pushed his point home.
"I'll tell you why. Because deep down, you believe in everything the Jedi stood for. You've shown me who Anakin Skywalker is. Now show the rest of the Republic."
His father frowned and turned away.
"Help me restore the Order," Luke said. "Become a teacher."
"Patience was never my strong suit," his father said.
"But think of how much you know. The skills, the history, the philosophy," Luke said. His father's attention was focused on him now, and his last bit of self-restraint gave way. "In fact, you're the only one who knows how the Order was, how everything is supposed to be. And you've said that no matter what you do, you can never bring them back. But in a way, you can."
His father's eyes fixed on him. "How is that possible?"
There was an ominous crackle in the Force that made Luke acutely aware of how sensitive an area he had wandered into, and he softened his voice. "Because they're in your memories. Talk about who they were and what they were like, and you can make them live again. We'll make sure they're never forgotten."
For a long moment his father continued staring at him, but then he turned and sank onto the edge of his bed, and his eyes focused somewhere far away. Luke sank, too, taking a seat on the back of the couch, wondering if he had pushed too hard this time. He'd have to tell Leia he'd left their father speechless twice in a span of five minutes, but he wasn't sure she'd believe him. Either that, or she'd warn him about the dangers of playing with fire.
But for once, the fire seemed to have left his father. As the silence stretched into minutes, Luke decided the conversation was over. He stood and headed for the door.
"I'm going to go to the forward hangar. Check on repairs."
He had already waved the door open when his father finally answered, "Luke. Talk to me about this again, after we return to Coruscant."
Leia slammed her hand down onto her pod's comment request button, then looked up to the queue to see where she stood. She shook her head. There must be twenty other senators ahead of her. Her reflexes were usually pretty fast; how could that have happened? She looked up at the queue again. The first few system codes she didn't recognize, but CHD was Chandrila and CER had to be Cerea. An uneasy feeling of understanding settled in her stomach. Maybe they had all chimed in ahead of her because they knew what the senator from Denon was going to say before he said it.
She felt like jumping up and shouting from her pod, but all she could do was wait for her turn to speak. Galactic Integrity Restoration Act. That was rich. Try the Loss of Integrity Act. What good was a government if it couldn't be counted on to keep its word? It might as well be the Empire again. She felt herself getting angrier by the moment and realized she needed to get herself under control. She had to appear as the voice of reason in the crowd, not the lunatic that proved the validity of the Act. But listening to the statements roll in only tightened the knot in her gut. It was a slaughter out there.
"The system of Sullust concurs with Denon that the presence of Darth Vader as an officer in the Republic Forces is an embarrassment to the Republic."
"Taanab supports the removal of Darth Vader from the Republic Forces."
"Cerea has always been concerned by the empowerment of Darth Vader and believes the Galactic Integrity Restoration Act is long overdue."
"Chandrila believes the future of the Republic will be compromised by continued association with the former Darth Vader and also supports his removal from official position."
And there it was. At least Mon had the courtesy to acknowledge that the Alliance had negotiated with Anakin Skywalker, not Darth Vader. And Mon had been telling the truth, really. The Cereans were the least of Leia's worries when she was up against the whole rest of the Senate.
The holocam swung in front of her and she gathered her thoughts. "New Alderaan recognizes Admiral Skywalker's contributions to the formation and ongoing security of the Republic. New Alderaan believes the agreement between Admiral Skywalker and the New Republic to be binding and cautions the Senate..."
The projection of her voice cut off abruptly as the holocam buzzed to the next speaker. Damn, she thought she had been talking fast enough to beat the timer. Not that her statement had made any difference. No, she'd need the charms of a Falleen to change some of these minds. With only two weeks until the vote, she'd have to work fast, and the first thing she intended to do was call on a certain Chandrilian senator.
Leia could feel her heart thumping as the elevator carried her up the few floors that separated her apartment level from Mon Mothma's. As fearless as she was in taking opponents head on, this was different. This was a friend. She wasn't sure what she was going to say; she just knew that she couldn't let this breach of trust go unacknowledged.
The elevator made its stop, releasing her into a foyer that was near identical to the one on her floor, all plush carpets and tall windows. Not quite as elegant as 500 Republica had been in its heyday, but damn close. She walked down the hall to the end apartment and activated the chime. When the door slid open, Mon greeted her with a faint smile. "I knew you'd be here sooner or later. Please come in."
She'd been in Mon's apartment many times and she gravitated towards her usual chair in the living area, the overstuffed one that faced out towards the windows. Mon returned from the kitchen with two glasses filled with a hazy liquid. She handed one to Leia before sitting down on the couch adjacent to Leia's chair. "Here, try this. It's from a mineral spring on Corulag."
Leia took a sip, then set her glass on the side table. "You obviously knew this bill was coming up, so you must have a good reason for not telling me about it."
"I thought you'd be upset, and I wasn't sure you'd be able to talk to me about it rationally," Mon said, curling up on the couch and leaning back against its cushions.
"Ah, which left blindsiding me as your preferred option. Thanks."
"What would you have done if you had known about this earlier?"
"Maybe had some time to stop this bill from going through. As it is, it's only two weeks to the vote."
"You heard them today, Leia. There is no stopping this. It's the will of the Republic."
"We made a deal, " she said, moving forward to the edge of her chair. "You and I sat across the table from him and made promises as to what the Alliance would do in exchange for his cooperation. Now you want me to tell him we're going to break those promises? That's not the Republic I set up."
Mon took a sip of water. "Hopefully you noticed that his immunity from prosecution is still intact. You can thank me for that provision. There were many who wanted to withdraw that immunity."
"I'm supposed to thank you for only violating half of the agreement?" she said. "Do you know where we'd be without his help? Not sitting in an exclusive apartment on Coruscant, that's for sure. We'd still be dueling it out with the Empire and burying our dead."
"There is no doubt that the Republic owes him a great debt," Mon said calmly. "On the other hand, there is also no question that he owes the Galaxy a similar sum. All this bill will do is have us part ways while we're still ahead."
"Still ahead?" Leia shook her head. "Name one thing he's done since Endor that hasn't been for the good of the Republic. Need I remind you that he signed that agreement as Anakin Skywalker, not Darth Vader?"
"Unfortunately, that distinction doesn't give me the same comfort it gives you." Mon's expression tightened, and she unfolded her legs and leaned forward. "The problem is, Anakin Skywalker was the hero of the Republic once before, and that didn't stop him from being part of its destruction. Can you honestly tell me that you don't hear the ticking of a thermal detonator when you're around him?"
She did know that feeling, and realized that she was now the one retreating into the cushions. "But if power was his goal, then he'd never have helped us."
"I'm really surprised that you're defending him so strongly," Mon said, sinking back into the couch." I actually had some hope you might see the necessity of this bill."
"And I still can't get over that you would have the Republic break its word," she said, frowning."Where's the integrity in that?"
"Is that really why you're so upset?" Mon was leaning forward again."Because I can tell you, no one else in the Senate is thinking of this as a violation of ethics."
"Well, yes," she said. Isn't it? "Because I personally made those promises. I'll feel like a traitor."
Mon's eyebrows raised. "A traitor? To the Republic, or to your family?"
"Both, I guess," she said, letting her eyes wander to the twinkling lights of the traffic lanes. "This will absolutely devastate Luke. And Anakin will think I lied to him."
"I never knew you were so concerned about his opinion."
"I've tried not to be, but it's complicated." Her anger was no longer fueling her, and she sought comfort against the bolsters of her chair. The memory of binders cutting into her wrists and of her face striking a cold hangar floor crept into her mind, and she turned back towards Mon. "You weren't there on Executor. It was hopeless. I was resigning myself to the fact that Luke would die and I would be Palpatine's prisoner, and then...and then he appeared. He never slowed down, he never hesitated, he just walked right into Palpatine's reach and cut him down. He risked his own life to save us."
Mon lowered her head and nodded. "I'm sure it was a very powerful experience."
"And ever since then, ever since he's known that I'm his daughter, he's only been kind to me, even when I'm not kind to him." She didn't know why she was saying all this, but she couldn't stop herself.
"Leia, I'm sorry this complicates your family life," Mon said softly. "But I have to think of the Republic. With his history, he can't be left in a position of power. If he did something terrible again, I couldn't live with myself knowing that I allowed him to have that position."
She felt too unsettled to reply. It all seemed so clear just an hour ago. Her opposition to the Integrity Act was completely objective, wasn't it?
"You must see the truth in what I'm saying," Mon continued."You were Bail Organa's daughter long before you were Anakin Skywalker's. You know the Republic must come first."
"Admiral Skywalker, two vessels will be arriving shortly to relieve you from your patrol duties. Once they arrive, you are to take the BlueSaber to Kessel. Republic ships have spotted unidentified Star Destroyers in that sector, and your assignment is to investigate those sightings."
"Understood," he replied, and switched off his cabin's holoprojector.
"Another Imperial remnant?" Luke asked.
He nodded. " Quite possibly.Tarkin was in charge of a secret installation outside Kessel. At least he thought it was secret. Just like he thought the mistress he kept there was secret."
Luke gave a sly grin. "Tarkin? A ladies' man? Leia always said he was as tough and dry as ten year old nerf."
"Son," he said, as they headed out of the cabin towards the bridge, "women can be a greater mystery than even the Force."
Dawn was a magical time on Coruscant, when the soft light of the rising sun matched the intensity of the building lights, bathing every corner of the city in a warm glow. Leia usually savored the sunrise, but today it had a different meaning, and it made her aware that she'd been up for at least two hours. She rose from the couch and headed back towards her darkened bedroom.
She paused in the doorway, comforted by the sight of Han's big frame filling her bed. He was lying on his side, the sheets bunched under his arm, and his hair tousled across his pillow. As she slid in next to him, the steady rate of his breathing never faltered. She cozied up to the broad expanse of his back, warming herself against the heat of his skin. When she pressed her lips to the nape of his neck, he murmured in response.
Her eyes drifted shut and she tried to replace the turmoil in her mind with the simple pleasure of being with Han. She was almost asleep when she felt his hand reach up for hers, and pull her arm down across his belly.
"Where'd you go?" he said, in a voice that sounded not quite awake.
"Couldn't sleep. Didn't want to keep you up, too," she said.
"Hmmm," he sighed. "Must not have done my job very well if you're still thinking about the vote. Thought you'd be dreaming of me."
She squeezed his hand."No, you were... wonderful. I'm so glad you were able to take some leave. The past two weeks have been awful. "
"Well, what's the use of being a general if I can't pull some strings every once in awhile?"
"I just wish I'd been able to get in touch with Luke. Or Anakin. Neither one of them have answered my comms."
He rolled onto his back and looked up at her. "Those black holes near Kessel always screw up your transmissions. I'll bet they don't get your messages 'til they're clear of that whole area."
"And by then, it will be all over." She laid her head against Han's chest. As if the Integrity Act wasn't bad enough, its provisions were going to be played out on a completely unsuspecting Anakin. The Emperor's advice to her on board Executor floated through her mind : He doesn't deal well with betrayal. Great. If Mon was so afraid of him committing crimes against the Republic, then maybe she should think twice about provoking him. "Do you think people can really change?"
"Well," he said, his hand stroking through her long hair, "you seemed to have made an honest man out of me."
She smiled. "Maybe I should be more specific. Do you think Anakin has changed?"
His hand paused. "Let's see. Since Endor, he hasn't palmed my blaster or tried to strap me to an interrogation table. Yeah, I'd say that's a change."
She thumped his chest. "I'm serious!"
"So am I," he said, gesturing with his free hand. "The thing about him is, it just depends on which side he's on. If he's on your side, everything's great. If he's against you, good luck."
"So, besides breaking a promise, the Integrity Act is a very stupid idea because it will pit the Republic against him?"
"Hasn't anyone talked about that? I wouldn't want to be the one to tell him."
"No, it's never come up. I guess they think if he's stripped of his ship and his troops that he won't be a threat."
"Lock a few senators in a room with him and that lightsaber and they'll change their minds," Han said. He slid his shoulder out from underneath her head so that they were lying face to face. "On the other hand, maybe he won't do anything."
She rolled her eyes. "I doubt that."
"You'd be surprised what a man would do for love," Han said.
"Love? What are you talking about?"
He looked askance. "With your new Jedi skills I thought you'd have it all figured out."
"Quit being so mysterious! What are you getting at?"
"Why do you think Anakin negotiated with the Alliance in the first place?" he said, propping himself up on his elbow.
She shrugged. It was obvious, wasn't it? "He wanted to restore order to the Galaxy, and undo some of the damage he had done."
A wide grin split Han's face."Not even close. He did it for you and Luke."
"That's not true," she said, quickly looking away.
He tilted her chin up with a finger until their eyes met."The guy could have been the Emperor. He could have set up his own Senate, if he wanted. I'm telling you, there's only one reason a man gives up that much."
The knot that had lived in her gut the past two weeks was now awake. She rolled away from Han onto her other side, drawing her knees up and folding her arms tight against herself. Her mind went to the one and only time she had seen Anakin unmasked. Luke had been absolutely insistent, and she had at last given in, though she had refused to go inside the chamber.
When Anakin was ready, Luke had led her into the cabin, and at first she kept her eyes glued to the floor. In her peripheral vision she could make out Anakin behind the transparisteel panel, still an imposing figure without the armor. She raised her head to meet his gaze, but this time it was he who averted his eyes. Luke had warned her about the burns and the scarring, but he hadn't prepared her for the beauty that still resided in Anakin's ruined face. She walked trance-like to the transparisteel panel, now unable to take her eyes from him. He slowly lifted his head, and looked at her through lowered lashes.
In all the times she had faced the black helmet, this was never what she had imagined lay beneath it. Unwanted emotion threatened to take hold of her, and it was everything she could do to keep from bolting out of the cabin. She looked down to regain some self-control, but found herself drawn back to Anakin's face. Tears were forming in his blue, blue eyes, and he placed one black gloved hand to the inside of the panel, resting it opposite her cheek. The sadness and the longing in his expression transfixed her for a moment, but then it was just too much, and she had run out of the room.
Luke had been waiting in the hall, and she fell into his arms. Anakin never offered to talk to her unmasked again, and she had never asked. It was just easier that way.
As the memory faded, she clutched herself even more tightly, and then Han put his arm around her and pulled her to him. "Are you okay, sweetheart?" he whispered in her ear.
She nodded, and quickly wiped her eyes. "I should get up. Get ready for the session."
Anakin sank into his desk chair and activated the datapad. It had been many years since he had guided a ship though the maze of black holes near Kessel, and the process was just as difficult as he had remembered. It was a relief to complete the final hyperspace maneuver that freed them from the powerful gravitational forces, and he hoped his navigation skills had left Luke suitably impressed.
Now all that stood between him and some well-earned rest was the usual backlog of holotransmissions that had poured into the ship's communication center upon their return to normal space. What was not usual was the number of high priority messages. Luke had several urgent messages relayed to his personal comlink as well, and they had looked at each other on the bridge, puzzled. It was if the whole Galaxy had fallen apart while they were gone.
One number repeated itself on his message log, an unfamiliar number with a governmental prefix. Each time it was signified of highest importance, so he positioned himself within range of the holotransmitter and switched on the projector. As the figure on the other end resolved into electronic blue clarity, his brow furrowed, and he gave a nod into the projector."Chief of State Marest."
Marest gave a start, then appeared to gather himself. "Admiral Skywalker. You've returned from Kessel."
"We are still in the Outer Rim, but the mission has been completed," he said. "What do you require?"
The Chief of State swallowed visibly. "Yes, umm, we require your immediate return to Coruscant."
"A debriefing with Supreme Commander Piett is already scheduled in two standard days. What has changed?"
"This directive does not come from the Combined Forces, but from the Senate itself," Marest said. He stared into a piece of flimsi. "Additionally...I must inform you that you have been removed from your position and are instructed to surrender command of the BlueSaber to Captain Skywalker."
"What? On whose order?"
"A direct vote of the Senate enabling the Galactic Integrity Restoration Act."
"Is that a convoluted term for a court-martial?"
"Oh, no...no. There are no charges against you," Marest said. "The Republic has simply dissolved its relationship with you. Once you have conveyed official agreement with terms of the Act, you will be free to go."
"And you expect me to believe that you will not alter the deal further upon my arrival on Coruscant?"
"Well, yes. The Republic does not lie," Marest said. "And Admi...uh, Mister...Skywalker, please have Captain Skywalker contact this office as soon as possible."
The holo blinked out, and he leaned back in his chair. He had known it would come to this, eventually. From the first time he sat across from the Alliance's nervous leaders, he had known they would withdraw their support as soon as they felt the balance of power shift in their favor. But he had no regrets, because accepting that risk had given him everything he wanted. Even if the time had been far too short.
He felt Luke's anger just before the cabin door slid open. His son strode in, eyes ablaze, and he marveled at the sight of him, as he always did.
"Can you believe this?"
"Unfortunately, yes," he said. "Politicians are never to be trusted."
Luke paced the length of the couch. "Leia says the Act is illegal. We can fight this."
"We?" he said, standing up from the desk. "We are not doing anything. You are taking this ship back to Coruscant."
"I won't do it," Luke said, shaking his head. "I won't betray you, Father."
He ignored the flash of warmth that his son's loyalty gave him, and stepped towards Luke. "You will do as I tell you."
Luke snorted. "That might have worked when I was five, but it certainly won't work now."
He sighed. There was no doubt the boy had inherited his mother's stubborn streak.
"This is my battle. I will not have you jeopardize your future in the Combined Forces."
"Who said I wanted a career in the military?" Luke said. "I don't care about a future in the Combined Forces."
"Have you learned nothing from me?" he said. He looked at his son, golden haired and whole, and a true hero in the Republic's eyes. "You still have everything, as I once had everything. Do not throw it away as I did."
Luke paused, and then his head sagged. "But what they're doing to you is wrong."
"Everything will be all right," he said, putting a hand to Luke's shoulder. "But for now, this ship needs a commander, as do the men. Now go. The Chief of State is expecting your comm."
As he watched Luke nod and head out the door, sadness swept over him. Such a fine boy. He was going to miss him.
Somewhere, a womprat was caught in a turbine, a turbine like in his old X-34 landspeeder. Luke wished someone would pull it out of there, because the sound of its shriek was unbearable. Then his eyes opened a little, and he realized he was in his own bed on board the BlueSaber. That made womprat flat out impossible, so the screaming whine must really be the ship's alert system.
Throwing off the sheets, he stumbled out of bed and silenced the alarm with a flick of his hand. After crossing the room, he braced one arm against the desk and rubbed his eyes. The blinking comm light glowed amidst the darkness of his room, and he punched the button. "Skywalker here. What is it?"
"Sorry to wake you, sir, but there's been an unauthorized departure from the main hangar."
Unauthorized departure. Maybe he was still asleep, because that didn't sound right.
"Someone has taken a ship?"
"Yes, sir. One of the lambda shuttles."
That was odd, because a shuttle wasn't much of a joyride, especially compared to the TIEs parked right next to it.
"Did the flight officer see anything?"
"That's the strange part, sir, because all he'll say is 'I don't need to report this.' Every time we've asked."
Luke was suddenly wide awake.
"Are you tracking the shuttle?"
"No, sir. It went into hyperspace right after the bridge crew spotted it. Then I commed you."
"Thank you, Commander. I'm on my way up."
Luke motioned on the room lights and pulled on the pair of trousers that were slung over the desk chair. As he finished dressing, he reached out with the Force, seeking the presence he knew was no longer there. He tried to comfort himself by thinking that perhaps his father was in a deep meditation, and that when he burst into his father's cabin, he'd get a chiding. Except that they could never block themselves this completely from each other. Never.
The door to his father's cabin yielded to him, and he shivered as he entered the room. It felt so...empty. He quickly looked through the cabin, but its small size didn't offer many hiding places. The bed was made and he could detect a trace of warmth in the pressurized shower. The desk had been cleared off, and he rummaged through the drawers, looking for something, anything, that might give a clue as to his father's destination. Then a thought struck him, and he logged on to the datapad, but there were no new messages for him. His father was just gone.
And that stung most of all, that his father hadn't trusted him with his plans. Hadn't even said goodbye. He wished it were the old days back in the Alliance, because then he would have jumped in his X-wing and gone after him. But now he had a ship full of men to think about, and an imperative direct from the Senate to follow. His search for his father would have to wait, and that, he thought glumly, might have been the whole point.
A Star Destroyer was simply a conglomeration of duralloy and doonium, a Super Star Destroyer just more of the same. It shouldn't be possible to tell one ship from another, but nevertheless, this one felt different. Energized. Special somehow. As the Supreme Commander of the Combined Forces, Firmus Piett had trod the decks of every Star Destroyer in the fleet, but none of them made him homesick for space the way that Executor did.
It gave him a little twinge to see someone else in charge of her, but he had to admit Admiral Torren was doing a fine job as the Executor's new commander. With the inspection almost over, Piett was savoring his remaining time on board before his return to Coruscant. Around him, the men were giving him extra wide berth and especially curt nods as he and Torren parted the sea of staff making their way through Executor's corridors. Ahead, though, he caught sight of a cap bobbing through the crowd, as if the owner of the cap was at a dead run. Then a face appeared with the cap, and he recognized the look of earnest determination it bore. It was the look of a serious problem, and it seemed as if Torren was about to have one last test.
The young lieutenant skidded to a halt in front of them, eyes averted, and breathing hard.
"Excuse me, sirs, but there is a problem in the forward hangar."
Torren glanced at him nervously before replying, " What is it?"
"Sir, Captain Rydan requested that I inform you that an unauthorized vessel has landed in our hangar," the lieutenant said, raising his head.
"What?" Torren said, scarlet creeping across his cheeks. "How did they get past the shields?"
Piett remained silent, content to watch the admiral struggle through his embarrassment. Not that there was any real danger, because only a fool would break in to a Super Star Destroyer.
"A transmission was detected coming from the shuttle which apparently instructed the hangar doors to open," the lieutenant said.
Now the young officer had his full attention. To his knowledge, only one other person knew about the override to the automated hangar control system, that being the person who installed it.
"We have the vessel surrounded," the lieutenant continued, "but the pilot requested to speak to you, Supreme Commander."
Luke leaned his head back and stared at the grey ceiling. There is no emotion, there is peace. There is no ignorance, there is knowledge. There is...
"Captain Skywalker, just tell us your father's location. You're going to tell us eventually, so why not make it easy on yourself?"
He brought his eyes down and glared at the Republic Intelligence agent on his left. Gevan, according to the patch on the man's uniform.
"How many times do I have to tell you, I don't know where he is."
Gevan leaned forward across the table that separated them.
"So you're going to stay with your story that he stole a Republic vessel, and then disappeared into hyperspace?"
"Yes. No. He didn't steal it," he said. "Whatever else he's done, he's not a thief. He'll bring it back."
"Ah, so you do know where he went, and that he's going to return," said the agent to his right, a man wearing the name Nall, who looked as drab as the room around them.
"No, I don't."
"But you just said you knew he was going to return."
"I said he's not a thief."
"Mmmm, so you merely believe he's going to come back, but you don't know," Gevan said smugly .
To hear his own doubts voiced by someone else gave them strength, and Luke fought to push them away. "But I know him."
"And that raises an interesting point," Nall said, rising from his chair. He walked around the table and leaned over Luke. "You've probably been privileged hear to his private thoughts. Anything we need to know for the safety of the Republic?"
"He hasn't been plotting against the Republic," he said, studiously ignoring Nall's presence. "You've been plotting against him. I don't blame him for taking off."
"So you're sympathetic to his actions, " Gevan said. "Are you sure you didn't help him to escape the BlueSaber?"
"No, I didn't help him," he said. This attempt to catch him in a lie was really starting to annoy him. "Ask my crew. I was asleep in my cabin when they discovered the shuttle had left the hangar."
Nall returned to his seat and the two agents leaned their heads in, whispering to each other. They sent him furtive glances, and then nodded as if in agreement. Gevan put his his folded hands on the table and focused on him.
"Now, it is our understanding that you Jedi use some sort of mental communication. I think it's possible that you're in touch with him as we speak."
"It's not that simple," he said. It was amazing how many people thought the Force was some kind of magic."You can hide behind your shields. If he doesn't want to be found, I can't make him respond."
"So you're saying that he doesn't want you to find him?" Nall said, glancing at his partner.
"Apparently not," he said, crossing his arms.
Gevan leaned back in his chair. "Captain Skywalker, this is disturbing news. We believed that you would always be the Republic's link to his location."
"I don't know why you thought that," he said."I can't control him any more than you can."
"The Chief of State will not be happy to hear that he's roaming the Galaxy unfettered," Nall said, looking anxious.
Luke shook his head."Well, maybe the Senate should have though of that possibility before they took everything away from him."
Gevan abruptly put a finger to his ear piece and appeared to listen intently. He nodded and looked at Nall, and then both men stood and walked out of the interrogation room. Luke stared at the the reflective pane next to the door, which he could tell concealed more than just the two agents who had interrogated him. After reporting his father's disappearance even before the BlueSaber arrived at Coruscant, he never expected to be led away from his ship by members of Republic Intelligence. For all they were counting on his loyalty, they weren't doing much to earn it.
After several minutes, Gevan returned to the room.
"Skywalker, you are free to go," the agent said, "but you must remain on Coruscant until you receive your next assignment. In the meantime, if you have any contact with your father, you are to let us know immediately."
"Yeah, sure thing," he said, as he rose from his chair.
It was easy to agree to something that probably wouldn't happen.
This might be the worst part of all, the fact that he had to sneak onto his own ship. And Executor was his ship, no matter whose insignia was painted on her side. Watching the platoon of stormtroopers surround the shuttle brought back fond memories of the days when every man on board jumped at his command, and when every vessel in the Galaxy feared Executor's approach. So much had changed since then, but thankfully, there was still at least one constant in this whole mess : the loyalty of the lone man who was now crossing the hangar.
As he watched Piett order the ring of stormtroopers to retreat from the shuttle, he knew the Supreme Commander had figured out who had so brazenly boarded Executor. He lowered the shuttle ramp and moved from the pilot's seat to the passenger compartment in the midsection. He heard Piett's boots hit the ramp, and then his former admiral appeared in the cabin, blaster still holstered.
"I knew it had to be you," Piett said, a hint of a smile playing on his face.
"Please join me," he said, motioning towards the row of seats opposite his own. "And then tell me how bad it really is."
Piett's smile faded as sat down on the black synthleather.
"That whole business, it's not right. I would have never allowed your commission to be withdrawn, but they went completely over my head."
He held up one hand.
"I know. We both served too long under Palpatine to expect anything but treachery from those in power. Are they looking to arrest me? "
"No...there's been no talk of that," Piett said, "although there is a good deal of concern about your disappearance from the BlueSaber."
"Yes, I'm sure there is," he said."I hope they have not been too hard on Luke."
"I'll make sure he's treated fairly," Piett said. "Is that why you're here?"
"No, not exactly," he said. "I need something from you."
Piett bowed his head. "Of course, m'lord. I am in your debt."
He smiled inside his helmet. "I am no longer your master, and I would not ask you to compromise the position you have earned. What I require is of a more personal nature."
"If you think I can help," Piett said."What is it that you need?"
"In a moment. But first I must ask if anyone has been inside my old quarters."
"No one would have the gell'se to go into your quarters."
"Good. Then all my files should be intact," He reached into the slit pocket on the inside of his belt. "This data chip contains the passcode to a file on my computer. A file that contains the plans to the Maw Installation."
Piett's eyes narrowed."The what?"
"Tarkin's weapons facility," he said, leaning forward. "And the source of the four Star Destroyers we identified on the BlueSaber's last mission, I am sure of it."
"And you think the facility is still operational?," Piett asked.
"I could not bring the BlueSaber in close enough to determine that. But if it is, it would be a significant threat to the Republic," he said. "A prototype for the first Death Star was built there."
Piett shook his head. "I had no idea this facility existed."
"Few did. Tarkin believed that even I was unaware of it," he said. If there was one thing he missed not at all about the Empire, it was the political maneuvering that had been necessary to survive. "I kept the information stored, as currency. A habit I learned from Palpatine."
"Fortunate enough for the Republic," Piett said, frowning. "The Senate doesn't understand the knowledge they're losing with your dismissal. I'm going to insist that they restore your commission."
"Do not plead on my behalf. They cannot harm me," he said. "I am only concerned that Luke not become collateral damage."
"What would you have me to do?" Piett said.
"Send Luke on the mission to retake the Maw Installation. It sits in the center of the black hole cluster, and navigation in and out is extremely difficult," he said. "It will be much easier with a Force-sensitive pilot."
"I suppose I'll have to send him, then, because he's now our only Force-sensitive pilot," Piett said. "Think he's ready to navigate a Super Star Destroyer?"
"He can fly anything that can get itself off the ground," he said, thinking fondly of Luke's talents.
Piett smiled. "Just like his father."
"Yes. But I do not want him to be too much like his father," he said. "This mission will reinforce his value to the Republic. And keep him out of trouble from trying to rescue me."
"It's as good as done," Piett said. " And now that you have once again helped the Republic, what is it that I can do for you?"
"In the storage closet in my cabin, you will find numerous small containers of liquid," he said. "I need you to bring them all to me."
"Of course," Piett said, nodding. He lowered his eyes for a moment before continuing. "May I ask what they are?"
There was a time when he would have never tolerated such an inquiry, but now there seemed to be no harm in indulging Piett's long contained curiosity.
"Nutrition designed to be consumed with my helmet in place," he said. "I have had little need for it the past few years, but that is about to change."
"Why? What's going to happen?"
"I'll tell you what's not going to happen," he said, with a conspiratorial grin. "I will not go meekly to Coruscant to sign whatever document they have waiting."
"I had no expectation that you would," Piett said, relaxing against his seat. "In fact, I almost told the Chief of State that I'd seen men die for lesser expressions of insolence."
"Yes, he would not have lasted long in the Empire, would he?" he said. "You may tell Marest that I declined his invitation and am otherwise occupied."
Piett's expression grew serious.
"And where will you be going?"
"It is better that you do not know," he said "I would not ask you to lie for me."
A ripple of sadness came from Piett, and then he stood.
"Well, then, I guess all that's left is for me to bring you what you requested." Halfway to the door, Piett paused. "I can't tell you how strange it will be to know that you're no longer out amongst the fleet."
Anakin rose from his seat to face his former second-in-command, and the reality of his choice began to hit him. No ship, no position, no master.
"Know that it will be equally odd for me. May the Force be with you, my friend."
The first time he saw it, Luke hadn't know what it was. Sitting alone, its five spires reached for the sky in a design unlike any of the other buildings he had seen on Coruscant. But beyond its unusual appearance, there was something about it that called to him. He had followed it with his eyes as their speeder zipped towards the governmental center. His fascination had been broken only by his father's answer to the question he had not asked. It's the Jedi Temple.
In the time since then, he had landed on its broad plazas and walked its grounds alone. Once he had climbed the great staircase at its base, imagining that he was a Knight returning home. But the feeling of dread that grew stronger with every upward step almost made him turn around. Soon after, he discovered the whole building was like that, permeated by strong currents in the Force. In some places he felt roiling waves of despair, and in others, a serenity more complete than anything he had known. It was as if the building was alive, and trying to tell him all its stories. He had never found a way in, though, its doors guarded by locks which no one in the Republic knew how to open. No one except Anakin Skywalker, and so he had waited patiently for the time when his father would reveal the Temple's secrets. After the last mission, he had thought that time had finally arrived, until the Integrity Act blew everything apart.
A tingle of irritation from Leia brought him back to the present, and he turned away from the row of windows in her apartment that faced the distant Temple.
"Did you say something?"
"Yeah, I said, Coruscant to Luke."
He lowered his head. "Sorry, I was just thinking."
"I could tell," she said, crossing the room to join him at the window. She put a hand to his forearm. "He didn't say anything about where he was going?"
"He didn't say anything about leaving," Luke said. "In our last conversation all he talked about was making sure I didn't screw up my career."
Leia looked away. "Maybe Han was right."
"Oh, nothing," she said, giving a thin smile. "But you can feel him in the Force, can't you?"
"I can tell he's out there somewhere. Not much else," he said. "He hasn't tried to contact me at all."
"I'm sorry, Luke," she said, her forehead lined with furrows of concern."This is such a mess. I tried to fight the Act, but it had overwhelming support."
"I know you did," he said, hoping she sensed how much it meant to him that she had stood up for their father. "It's just so disappointing. They didn't even give him a chance."
In the adjacent room, the holotransmitter began to chime.
"Excuse me," she said. " I should take that. That ring means an official call."
Leia straightened her clothing and smoothed her hair as they walked towards the apartment's small office. When she activated the holoprojector, he settled into a side chair, making sure he was out of range of the transmitter. A face familiar even to him materialized in blue.
"Prime Minister Cosara," Leia said, bowing slightly towards the image, "how can I be of service?"
"You can tell me who it is exactly you represent."
Leia stiffened visibly. "I have always represented the citizens of New Alderaan."
"One would not get that impression from reading the roll call on the vote for the Integrity Act."
"I believed New Alderaan wanted a government that could be counted on to keep its word," Leia said in a diplomatic voice that concealed the turmoil Luke felt coming from her. "In the end, I abstained from voting merely to avoid any question of a conflict of interest."
The prime minister leaned so far towards his transmitter that his image became distorted.
"If there was no conflict of interest, you would have voted "yes". It's a slap in the face of our people for New Alderaan to appear to support the man who destroyed our homeworld."
Leia's facade cracked, and her voice took on an edge. "He didn't destroy Alderaan. It was Tarkin. I was there, remember?"
The prime minister's glared at Leia as he sank back into his seat. "I didn't want to believe it, but apparently blood does win out. You should know that New Alderaan is reconsidering whether or not you should be our Senator. Good day."
Luke didn't wait for the holo to blink off before rushing to Leia's side. He put his arms around her, and they held each other in silence before she relaxed and stepped back from him. "So, this is what it's like to be a Skywalker, hmm?"
He gave her a broad smile."Welcome to the family."
She smiled back and shook her head. "Did they try to throw you out, too?"
"No," he said, his smile disappearing. He turned away and ran his hand through his hair. Maybe he should have had her strength of conviction. "I was going to resign, but then Supreme Commander Piett commed me directly. He said I was needed for a special mission. Since it came from him, I agreed."
"That's not disloyal, Luke," she said. "If it came from Piett, then I'm sure it's something Anakin would find important, too."
A wave of warmth and relief rushed over him.
"That's what I was thinking. But once it's over, I going after Father whether he wants me to or not."
As his shuttle cleared the edge of Executor's hangar and its wings locked into flight position, Anakin thought about his next destination. What he needed was a place to lay low while the uproar over his disappearance subsided, and Luke adjusted to serving in the Combined Forces without him. Someplace where he would not draw attention, and Force knew that was going to be difficult. Then it struck him. He would go where the Galaxy's outlaws and fugitives had always gone, to the world where neither the Republic or the Empire had ever exerted much influence. He would go home.
The sudden quiver of the Rodian's ears told Anakin he had offered too much for the use of the docking bay. As a boy he had accumulated that kind of knowledge unconsciously, but it had been far too long for any of his information to be current. Not that credits were a concern to him, but acting like a wealthy and ignorant stranger would bring him as much attention on Tatooine as his black armor.
Already it had emboldened the Rodian, who glanced at the Republic emblem on the folded wings of the shuttle and then back to him. "Bo chasska ee greeshka."
At least he still knew the appropriate answer to that request. With a twitch of his fingers, he used the Force to grasp the front of the Rodian's tunic.
"I believe your silence is included in the sum we previously negotiated," he said, flexing his index finger until the Rodian gulped. "Wouldn't you agree?"
His host nodded quickly, and he released his grip.
"As I thought."
He withdrew a single credit disc from the slit pocket in his belt and handed it to the now compliant Rodian before proceeding to the exit of the docking bay. The door slid open, revealing a narrow alley lined with mud walled buildings. By the architecture, it could have been any city on Tatooine, but it happened to be Mos Eisley. His boots sinking in the sand, he followed the curve of the walkway until the alley opened onto a main thoroughfare.
From what he could see, everything was exactly as he remembered. The peculiar brightness unique to Tatooine that had at first made every other world he visited seem dim. The intense heat of the dual suns that had left his boyhood self unprepared for the cold of space. The kaleidoscope of species and clamor of languages that made the homogenous parade of humans in the Imperial Forces appear odd to him. The familiarity of it all brought him comfort, but not enough to overcome the bitterness that had begun to surface even as his shuttle hit the planet's atmosphere.
He shook his head to clear his mind. There was no need to revisit the helpless feelings of his youth. He stood alone as the most powerful Force user in the Galaxy, a man of such military prowess that he could have ruled it all had he but chosen that path. Whatever had happened in the past could not touch him now. As he moved out from the shadows, his helmet busied itself adjusting to the sharp contrast between shade and light. The searing rays of Tatoo I and II tried to invade the insulation of his suit, but its cooling system fought back against their incursions. Yes, he was very well protected, indeed.
Out amongst the foot traffic, he was beginning to draw attention, no small feat in a space port as weary and jaded as Mos Eisley. He noted and dismissed the eyes that focused on him, and the flares of fear that accompanied the glances. Really, it was no different from walking down Executor's corridors, though he'd almost forgotten the feeling having been surrounded for the past two years by the ease of the BlueSaber's crew. Except, then again, this was different. He hadn't been out in public without the support of troops since...since before his armor became a necessity.
Acutely he became aware of how exposed he was. Of rooftop hiding places. Of hands that reached to touch blasters in gestures of nervousness. The lightsaber that hung at his belt could deflect every incoming blaster bolt he detected, but could he sense them all if there were fifty, or a hundred, or five hundred? Even the sharpest feelings of hatred that had been directed at him in the Empire had been blunted by the discipline of military structure. But out here among civilians, it was just chaos.
Where the street opened further to a plaza, he caught site of a tavern entrance, and headed for it. He wanted the security of walls at his back while he reassessed the level of threat that existed here. Part way to the door he encountered a being who had no fear of him at all: a small boy, dark haired and dirt-smudged, selling flatbread in a spot of shade thrown by a canvas awning. The boy hardly noticed him as he passed by, either too young to know who he was, or too poor to care. For a moment he saw himself at that age, and felt a wave of melancholy.
Once inside the tavern, he paused briefly while the gain in his helmet increased to compensate for the low light. Around him, the rumble of multiple conversations subsided to a murmur, then quickly resumed its previous volume. He took a seat at an empty table in the corner, and ordered a beverage he could not consume.
Like the rest of Mos Eisley, the tavern contained representatives of many worlds, yet the feelings that poured off of them were disconcertingly uniform. This aspect of Tatooine he had forgotten, or perhaps as a child his eyes had never quite seen it. The place reeked of desperation, the kind brought on when a being had nothing to lose and almost nothing to gain. It was an emotion more powerful than fear, and far more dangerous. Any one of the beings in this room would sell him out for the right price, making it impossible to maintain the level of control he had exerted in the Empire.
Several tables over, a trio of inebriated humans were eyeing him. They would talk amongst themselves, clapping each other on the back and laughing, but in the end their gaze always returned to him. Then their expressions would harden until they were staring at him openly. Finally one of them stood up from the table and walked a meandering path towards him. He smiled in amusement as he realized that he was about to be challenged. Leaning back in his chair, he folded his arms folded across his chest, and watched the scruffy looking human stumble up to him.
The man pushed aside the vacant chair and braced both arms atop the table. "And who do you think you are, Darth Kriffing Vader, or something?"
He let the silence hang between them before he spoke.
"Something like that."
Perhaps the deep resonance of his voice sounded a bit too authentic, because abruptly the man straightened up, and his face became more sober. He stood there blinking dumbly, then weaved his way back towards his companions.
Anakin shook his head as the human retreated. It was becoming obvious that he couldn't remain in Mos Eisley. He'd never get any rest.
Luke flicked the gleaming white switch, and the screen leapt to life, displaying the bridge. Watching the crew in secret made him feel like a spy, so after a few moments, he turned it off. He spun the black leather chair away from the screen and gazed up at the top half of the meditation chamber. In all the time they had spent together on Executor, his father had never shown him this chamber. Since there wasn't room for both of them in here, he supposed there had been no point.
Still, when one of his new crew mates surreptitiously brought him here, he felt like he had discovered treasure. It was such an obviously private space that it was like looking into the inner workings of his father's mind. The layout of controls and selection of displays were as efficient and well designed as those of a fighter, and with its halves sealed together, the sphere had the same comforting closeness as a cockpit. Insulated from the ship's constant buzz of activity, the chamber promoted clarity and focus. It was a crisply functional command center, the sanctuary of Darth Vader.
Maybe he had been too determined to strip his father of his armor to understand the man inside of it. While he had expected Anakin Skywalker to fight the Integrity Act, instead Darth Vader had casually circumvented it. And as he roamed Executor minus his father's assured presence, he was struck by the true enormity of a Super Star Destroyer, and the ease with which his father had negotiated its complexity. On board Executor, Luke was only one captain among hundreds, and if he saw a familiar face twice in a day, he counted himself lucky. He could see how many of Darth Vader's methods were born of necessity, and that it was probably impossible to undo the lessons his father had learned in the Empire. As much as he wanted his father to be only Anakin Skywalker, there was no way to separate the two.
At least that didn't seem to bother anyone on Executor. After his reception from Republic Intelligence, he had some trepidation about serving with an unfamiliar crew, but Admiral Torren and his staff had treated him with respect and concern. Maybe too much concern. Everyone seemed to know that his primary assignment was to navigate the ship through the maze of black holes, and he had been barraged by inquiries about the quality of his sleep and his satisfaction with the food. Although he had gotten his wish to be more Jedi than soldier, he was a little tired of being treated like some kind of fragile instrument. He was supposed to be resting now, but he couldn't stand staring at the four walls of his cabin any longer.
He swiveled the chair back towards the viewscreen, reactivating it. Glancing at the controls on the console, he pushed a button he had noticed earlier, and was rewarded with a screen full of stars. He thought it likely matched the view from Executor's bridge windows, and he leaned back in the chair and allowed his mind to drift. His eyelids sunk to half mast, and his breaths deepened as he used the Force to feel the ship traveling through space. So different from the litheness of his X-wing, and so calm compared to how it would feel to traverse the Maw.
His reverie was disrupted by the chime of his comlink. He put a hand to his belt, and then Admiral Torren's voice echoed in the chamber.
"You're on, Skywalker."
"Yes, sir," he replied, and waved the pod open.
Time to show them he could match his father's reputation.
After almost thirty years, Anakin had only a vague sense of where the homestead lay from Mos Eisley. On board the shuttle, he used a sighting of what had to be Anchorhead to orient himself. As the outskirts of the small town quickly vanished beneath his wings, he dropped the shuttle's altitude so that he could begin a visual search of the terrain. The typical low profile of moisture farms made them difficult to spot, and most often a ring of vaporators was the first sign that a dwelling was near.
He had a distant memory of flying over several farms before coming up to the Lars homestead, so he let the first cluster pass by without investigation. After that came a long stretch without any evidence of habitation. Just when he thought he had gone too far, a large pit in the sand appeared, unheralded by vaporators or vehicles. Luke had told him of visiting Tatooine after their encounter at Bespin, and of how the old homestead had become a looted ruin. He was counting on the farm still being unoccupied, and the lack of equipment seemed to support that this could be the right place.
He circled the shuttle back around and set it down in the sand a few hundred meters from the domed entrance to the dwelling, a caution in case there was someone inside. As he walked beneath the blazing suns he was reminded of the first time he had approached the homestead. Consumed with worry about his mother, he had drawn strength from having Padme' at his side. She had walked this path with him in silence, without question or comment, seemingly content to just stay with him. He had almost forgotten how much her presence had soothed him, and he felt an ache in his chest that he thought was no longer possible.
Pull yourself together, Skywalker, he berated himself.
He was almost to the entrance, and though he didn't sense any living creatures inside, that didn't mean there wasn't something deep in the recesses of the building. Ducking under the arch of the doorway, he descended the long staircase, ready to call his lightsaber to hand. He paused briefly at each room that opened on to the courtyard until he was certain the shadows concealed nothing larger than a sandrat. Though clearly abandoned, the homestead had held up well without maintenance, a testimony to the sturdiness of its design. As he had hoped, the old moisture farm would function as a spacious and well protected hide-out.
He crossed the open courtyard and entered a coved room with a crumbling stone table and a geometric design painted on the ceiling. If he had any doubt about having found the right homestead, it was removed as he gazed up at the vivid mural. He sat down on the long bench seat of the dining table, and thought about how Luke must have grown up around this very table. It was shameful how much he still didn't know about Luke's upbringing. Perhaps staying here would give him a glimpse into his son's childhood.
The other end of the dining room opened onto a lower level, and to a set of steps that were faintly familiar. The steps led to a sleeping area as he recalled, and he decided to go in search of Luke's old room. After descending one level, the walkway crossed a sunlit area, then ended in a large chamber. Whatever furnishings the room had once held were now gone, and it was difficult to tell what its function had been. Then he noticed upright bolts in the duracrete and the faded outline of a large piece of equipment that had been fastened there. On the wall above it, an array of cut wires protruded from the surface, surrounded by the shadow of a long gone electronic panel.
He groaned as he finally recognized where he was. This wasn't a bedroom; this was the garage, the very garage in which he had confessed his slaughter of the Sandpeople to Padme. Staring into the sunlight pouring in the door, he could almost see her there, and he remembered how powerless he had felt realizing that he was a slave to his own emotions. Unable to control his grief and rage at the Tusken camp, he was then equally filled with despair and guilt as he told her his secret. The intensity of that moment came flooding back, and he began to feel sick.
He closed his eyes. This was not supposed to be about awakening his old memories; he was supposed to be learning more about Luke. Though his son had told him of spending many hours working in the garage, it was not going to be possible for him to stay in this room. He traced his way back to the dining room and waited for his discomfort to subside. Everything would be fine. He would simply use only the main living area of the homestead; that was more than sufficient for his needs.
Needing a distraction, he decided to explore the other areas of the homestead. Like the garage, the upper rooms were mostly empty shells, the belongings in them having been stripped away long ago. He had almost given up on finding Luke's room when he spotted a crumpled shape with familiar lines stuffed into a corner. He bent to pick up it up, and smiled as he recognized it. Similar in form to the lambda shuttle parked outside, it was a model of a T-16 skyhopper, the kind of craft in which Luke had learned to fly. Feeling warmed by his discovery, he dusted it off and placed the old toy on one of the room's built in shelves. He'd have to remember to give it back to Luke the next time he saw him.
A rumble of hunger passed through his belly, reminding him it was time to unload his supplies from the shuttle. As he exited his son's room, he caught sight of a doorway hidden under the back side of the staircase. Abruptly his appetite faded, and he felt the back of his neck tingle, as if the hairs that used to be there were standing up. The feeling was too visceral to be a tremor in the Force, and his brow furrowed as he tried to grasp why this room was so distressing.
When the answer came to him, he had to brace himself against the wall. Of course. This was the room into which he had carried his mother's limp body. Acting on autopilot, he had walked directly to this room and set her gently on the floor, having absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do next. One by one, the others had joined him, until they were all standing silently around her body. It had been Beru who finally spoke, ordering Owen to bring water and rags, and telling Cliegg to find Shmi's favorite clothes. As the other men scattered to their tasks, he was left in numb bewilderment.
Once Owen returned, Beru had carefully untied the bindings on the burlap shroud that covered his mother. Her bruised face became exposed, and he had to look away. He heard water dripping from wrung cloth, and he turned back, puzzled by the sound. His breath caught at the sight before him. Kneeling on the stone floor, Beru was carefully washing his mother's face. Soon Padme' mirrored Beru's posture, and Beru passed a cloth to her. Together, the two women began to unwrap the rest of the shroud, and after that he could no longer watch.
He had run out of the room, his long legs carrying him up the stairs two at a time, towards the only task left for him: to dig the grave. Swathed in his Jedi robes and sweating in the midday heat, he had refused Owen's help, and battered the sun hardened soil until he had created the tomb in which she still rested.
Of all the people who had grieved for her that day, he was the only one left alive. He swallowed hard, and shoved away his memories. However functional the homestead was, he would not be able to stay here, either. The place was full of ghosts.
Leia brushed her fingers across the foundation of the Senate Hall, built over the original duracrete of the old Senate Rotunda. She tried to think of when she had first known that she would be a senator, but it felt as though she had always known. She remembered listening to dinner conversations about integrity and freedom. Of being very small, and walking next to the towering pillars of the Senate building, her father's fingers laced tightly with her own, as if they were crossing the wilds of Alderaan, instead of the hallway to his office. She recalled vividly the first time that her father spoke to her as an adult instead of a child, explaining that all was not right with the Senate and the Empire. And she remembered the pride in his face when he began including her in the secret meetings of the Alliance, and she joined the discussions with fervor.
She wondered if he'd still be proud of her now, with the citizens of New Alderaan questioning her competence. If they asked her to resign, she would of course, because her father had always taught her that being a senator was about service, not privilege.What she would do after that, she had no idea. She was willing to wrestle with that puzzle, but to think that she had let Bail down, or worse yet, disgraced his memory was absolutely unbearable.
Tears came to her eyes at the thought, and she raised her face towards the twilight sky to contain them. A childlike voice inside her protested that it wasn't fair, that she had followed every principle Bail had taught her. That same part of her craved his understanding and wanted to hear his reassurance that she had done everything honorably. She wanted to him to tell her that it was okay to walk away from the Senate, that they had accomplished every goal set forth in Padme Amidala's apartment. And even though it was completely illogical, she wanted this building to contain some trace of him.
But there was only the wind, and the heat radiating from the duracrete. She looked around the empty plaza. The end of another day without resolution of her status as a senator. It was getting too dark for her to stay out here by herself, and she headed for her speeder.
As she lifted off, a solution came to her. She couldn't talk to Bail or Padme, but she could talk to the remaining person who had been with them from the beginning. All it required was for her to swallow her pride.
Grudgingly, Anakin gave a nod of approval to the dwelling nestled in the rocks. He hadn't seen it at first, so well matched was it to the surrounding terrain. But the right angles of its sides caught his eye, and revealed its artificial origins. It sat exactly where Luke had described, at the end of a winding gully, sitting atop the last ridge of the Jundland Wastes at the beginning of the Dune Sea. With barely enough room to set down the shuttle, the limited access of the site was military perfection. If it had kept Obi-Wan hidden for decades, it could certainly keep him concealed for the short time he had in mind.
With the fading glow of the setting suns at his back, he approached the stone dwelling. The interior felt empty, serenely empty, as if some essence of Obi-Wan persisted, and he paused at the threshold. He'd had enough of unexpected flashes from the past, and he was not in the mood for any more. Tomorrow he'd explore his new refuge, but for tonight, he'd sleep in the shuttle.
Anakin awoke to a stab of light. Inside his helmet, he cautiously opened his eyes, and was greeted with a blinding flash of red. Grunting, he straightened his right leg to relieve the pain from where the durasteel shinguard was cutting into the side of his stump. As he shifted his weight, the air pump on the back of his suit pressed insistently against his shoulder blade. Even though he felt as though he had hardly slept, there was nothing to do but get up.
He pushed himself up from the pilot's seat and stretched his arms. Beside him, rays from the rising suns came straight through the viewscreen and struck the headrest of the seat. He should have remembered to orient the shuttle opposite the arc of the suns, not that he was going to use this seat for a bed again. He had tried lying flat across the row of passenger seats, but the air pump discouraged that, and even before the suit he had never been able to sleep on his side. As he walked stiffly into the shuttle interior, he recognized that creating a suitable sleeping area was going to have to be one of his top priorities.
He unhinged the plastoid codpiece and tossed it aside before he entered the 'fresher. After opening the suit's fly, he braced one arm against the wall and yawned as he relieved himself. When he was finished, he returned to the passenger compartment and reached for the discarded piece of armor. He held it for a moment, then set it back on the synthleather seat. There shouldn't be much need for it out here, and the damn thing always had been a bit uncomfortable.
Moving into the rudimentary galley area, he opened the storage compartment and surveyed his choice of nourishment containers. The last time he'd had to rely on these for any length of time had been after Luke had blown up the Death Star and he had been stranded on Vaal for two weeks. Somehow, they tasted better in his memory than the nerf stew flavor he'd chosen last night, but perhaps that was only because he'd been so hungry on Vaal. He sighed and picked one labeled blumfruit, then connected it to the delivery system that ended in the nutrient feed tubes within his helmet. As he put his lips around the silver tip and drew the liquid into his mouth, he wondered if the manufacturer even knew what a blumfruit was. Then again, maybe this was Palpatine's final revenge.
He suffered through a second container, then attached one of water to flush the system. Feeling fortified, if not satisfied, he decided he was ready to face the interior of Obi-Wan's former home. He lowered the ramp from the shuttle and descended into the desert heat. Sand crunched between his boots and the rocky ledge as he walked the short distance between the ship and the hut. It had been too dark last night for him to appreciate the view, but this morning he had to admit to a sense of awe upon seeing the limitless Dune Sea stretch to one horizon, and the natural rock monuments of the Jundland Wastes fill the other. He wished Luke were here to share the moment with him, and felt a wisp of sadness as he wondered where exactly his son was.
This time as he approached the dwelling he sensed nothing, and he walked straight in, using a Force push to open the door. The interior was suffused with a soft light admitted through numerous windows cut into the synstone walls, and unlike the Lars homestead, a few belongings remained scattered on the floor. Support pillars separated the living area from a kitchen furnished with a large round stove and an accompanying vent hood. Absently he opened a cabinet door in the kitchen and peered into the dusty shelves. The former contents of the cabinet were specified on neat labels pasted on the edge of each shelf. He rubbed the dirt from one label and stared at the handwriting underneath.
The pattern of the script was unmistakable. It was one thing to know from Luke's experiences that Obi-Wan had lived here, and quite another to see the physical evidence himself. He whirled about, his cloak floating behind him, and strode into the front room. He noticed a hallway adjacent to the entry, and he followed it to the bedroom and compact 'fresher at the end. Smiling in triumph, he returned to the main living area. These three small rooms in one of the most primitive spots on Tatooine had been Obi-Wan's whole world for twenty years. The thought that Obi-Wan had suffered after all brought him great satisfaction, far more than the lightsaber blow he had used to bring down his old master. Contrary to his first impression, he was going to enjoy staying here.
Executor shuddered as she re-entered normal space, and Luke allowed himself a sigh of relief. Coming through the maze, the black holes felt like predators hungry for her considerable mass, and it had taken everything he had to keep her on course. Even more disturbing was the sense that the Force itself was being pulled into the great gravity wells, and since it was a form of energy, maybe it was.
Through the viewscreen four Star Destroyers hung in space, far enough away that they looked like toys. There was no question that he had guided Executor to the right place. But instead of feeling the satisfaction of success, he felt a prickling sense of danger. All encounters with remnants of the Empire had required military intervention, so danger was to be expected, but what he felt was more than that, as if the outcome teetered on some unknown event. He reached out into the Force, but the future eluded him. Abruptly, his concentration was disrupted by a hand landing on his shoulder.
"That was quite a ride you took us on, Captain," Admiral Torren said. "Outstanding navigation, though. Don't think anyone else could have pulled it off."
He swiveled in his seat to look behind him. Besides the Admiral, a commander stood waiting in parade rest. "Thank you, sir. But I have to tell you, something's not right here."
The Admiral narrowed his eyes and stared at him intently. "What is it, then?"
He shook his head. "I'm not sure. I can just feel it."
"Hmmm," Torren said, lifting one eyebrow. "Well, maybe you'll think of it while you're taking a breather."
"I'm good, sir," he said. "It was a little tiring, but I can finish my shift."
The Admiral gave a polite smile. "Captain Skywalker, you're not understanding me. Commander Ulla will take over for you as navigator. Your turn will come again when it's time to get us out of here."
"Oh," he said, his face flushing, "Yes, sir." It had never occurred to him that his role would be so limited. He vacated the seat, and Ulla nodded at him as he slipped past him into the navigator's spot. Luke walked up the short flight of stairs to the main level of the bridge, and sensed Torren following behind him.
"Skywalker, wait a moment," the Admiral said, catching up to him."You know it's nothing personal. You did a fine job for us."
He lowered his head, embarrassed. His disappointment at being replaced must have shown too strongly. "Of course, sir. I understand."
"Ulla's been with me a long time," the Admiral said. "If...when..we get into trouble, it's just good to be working with familiar personnel. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about."
"Yes, sir," he said, and meant it. He could use some familiar faces around him right about now. "Is that all, sir?"
Torren gave him a paternal smile. "Yes, Captain. Oh, and if that feeling of yours develops into anything more solid, be sure to let me know."
It was a good thing the conversation was over, because he was absolutely speechless. He knew most people around him didn't understand what it was like to be a Force-user, but he'd never had his perceptions so thoroughly dismissed before. He glanced towards the large viewing windows, his father's favorite location on the bridge. He could picture him pacing the walkway, hands clasped behind him, and his cloak floating over the deck. He felt a wisp of sadness, and wondered where exactly his father was.
Leia was walking fast. On Coruscant streets, it was a necessity so as not to get swept away in the crowd, but she had the habit long before she ever came here. Right now she was walking so fast that Mon was working to keep up with her, even with her much longer stride. Since Leia had extended the invitation to Mon, it would be polite to slow down, but her feet seemed to have a mind of their own. Given the right route, it was possible to walk the entire circumference of the planet, and they were off to a good start.
"I know you're mad at me," Mon puffed behind her, "but I didn't think you were going to try to kill me."
"I'm not mad, "Leia sighed, finally easing her pace to allow Mon to catch up. "Well, maybe a little. I just have a lot on my mind."
"I never dreamt they'd come after you. I'm so sorry," Mon said.
"It's not your fault," she said, and realized that she really wasn't angry anymore. It almost didn't matter for herself that she might be stripped of her position as a senator. It mattered for them. And that was why she was here. "But I didn't ask you here to talk about the recall."
"Oh," Mon said. "Then what is it?"
A lump formed in her throat as she thought of Bail and Padme', and she stopped, becoming a stone around which the river of pedestrians eddied. Mon tugged on the sleeve of Leia's blouse and they retreated from the main walkway to sit on the broad lip of a massive duracrete planter. Leia looked around and noticed that they wandered far past the governmental sector into a commercial zone of dubious reputation. It was probably good that they hadn't gone any further. To her left, the tall spires of the governmental core rose like mountains above the plain of the city.
"Tell me about the beginnings of the Alliance," she said. "The very beginning."
Mon looked at her quizzically. "We've talked about this before."
"I know," Leia said. Suddenly she felt like a little girl at bedtime."Tell me again."
"It was just a few of us to start," Mon said, staring out at the cityscape. "Only the senators we could really trust. Bail, Padme', Fang Zar, Giddean Danu, a few others. We were concerned about the changes Palpatine was making in the Republic. But none of us truly understood who we were up against."
Leia nodded. "And what were you trying to do?"
"We were trying to preserve the principles of the Republic," Mon said. "At first, some of us thought Palpatine could be swayed. I know Padme' did. She was the one who presented the Petition of the Two Thousand to him. She was absolutely fearless."
"Is that why she was made a target?" she said.
Mon frowned. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"Did she die because she opposed Palpatine?"
"I'm sorry," Mon said, with a sad smile."I can't tell you how she died. I don't know."
Leia lowered her head. She could have asked the one person who would know, but she'd never been able to bring herself to talk to Anakin about it. It was too strong an acknowledgement of their relationship. Strangely, though, Luke had never told her what happened either, and he always shared everything he found out. "Back on Executor, Palpatine taunted Anakin about being too late to save his wife. I guess I just assumed her death was politically motivated, what with everything that was going on back then."
"The official story was that she died in the Jedi Rebellion, but every report from that time was a lie," Mon said. " And I don't know why he called her Anakin's wife, because that's impossible."
She had sometimes thought of it as unlikely, but never impossible. "Why do you say that?"
"Well, even if I'm being overconfident in thinking she would have told me," Mon said, "there's still the fact that the Jedi were not permitted to marry."
Oh, but Luke did tell me that part. I even know where the ceremony was performed. She was beginning to have a better picture of who Padme' Amidala had been : a woman who never went against her principles, no matter the price. A woman willing to keep dangerous secrets to protect what she believed in. Padme' had shared the secret of the Alliance with Mon, but not of her marriage. And maybe that meant she had believed in Anakin most of all.
Leia had come here for clarity, and instead her mind was swirling. She thought she had opposed the Integrity Act because it violated a promise made by the Republic, but perhaps it had been more than that. Perhaps it was because she had seen a glimmer of what her mother had always known.
Mon turned sideways on the duracrete ledge, and looked at her with concern. "Leia, what's going on? Why are you bringing all this up now?"
Luke must have been right about Obi-Wan's reputation as a wizard serving to keep the Jawas away from the stone hut. Anakin could think of no other explanation for why the mechanical systems of the home were still intact. What was even more incredible than the equipment being present was the fact that Obi-Wan hadn't blown himself up, given the way the solar collection system was wired. He shook his head in disbelief. Had Obi-Wan listened to nothing he had tried to teach him about electronics?
He had intended to restore the vaporator to working status first, but this utter disarray of the hut's solar generators offended him, and he couldn't stop himself from dismantling the components. He carried the charge controller and the inverter into the living room, and set them on the built-in seating area that flowed from the stone walls. Using the tool kit he had brought in from the shuttle, he began to remove the casing from the charge controller, but his thick gloves impeded his progress, so he removed them and set them aside.
With the inner wiring of the device exposed, he applied a test current to the controller. He frowned at the results on his meter. At these settings, the controller would have allowed the batteries to overcharge, promoting the formation of explosive gases. He wondered if Obi-Wan had adjusted the settings himself, or worse yet, unknowingly purchased the collection system in this state. This was exactly why he had always been in charge of any mechanical issues when they had served together during the War.
After recalibrating the controller, he used a solvent to clean the dust from the circuit board, and then resoldered it after it dried. Satisfied, he turned his attention to the inverter. Little in the dwelling required power except for the lights recessed in the ceiling and the large stove in the kitchen, so he tuned the wave output of the inverter to favor the lights. Now that both pieces of equipment were restored to his satisfaction, he went back outside to reconnect them.
The rising heat of late morning motivated him to work quickly. Sunlight glittered off the metal of his hands as he reattached the controller and the inverter to the solar modules. With the long dead batteries set to accept a trickle charge, he pronounced this project finished. Fighting against the scorching temperature, the cooling system in his suit was running almost continuously, a condition he had never before experienced. Caution told him to delay his plan to repair the vaporator, and instead he returned to the shuttle.
Once inside he selected a Notha broth flavored nutrient drink and sat in the passenger compartment to sip his meal though the feed tubes. He had still not solved the problem of a sleeping area, but as he stared at the row of seats across from him, an idea came to him. If he cut a hole in the cushions to accomodate the suit's air pump, he should be able to lie flat. And if he transported the seats into the nearly windowless bedroom of the hut, he would not be awakened by the rising suns.
With a twirl of his finger, he loosened the bolts that held the seats in place. Raising the whole row, he carefully maneuvered it out of the passenger compartment and down the ramp. Getting it through the narrow hallway of the home was more difficult, but an excellent exercise in control. Once he had it situated, he drew his lightsaber and sliced a section out to accomodate the air pump.
He returned to the shuttle to remove the co-pilot's seat in a similar fashion. This he positioned on the exterior of the building, on the side overlooking the valley floor. Around him, the Force was quiet, all living things having retreated beneath the surface of the sands. Uphill from the stone dwelling, the old vaporator wobbled in the wind, fully exposed to the suns. His resurrection of the device would have to wait until the midday heat had subsided. On Tatooine, even he was required to submit to the rhythms of Nature.
The two halves of the meditation pod locked together with a satisfying thunk. Inside the chamber, Luke took possession of the broad command chair and flicked through the controls, bringing the screen to life. It didn't feel like spying this time; it felt necessary. The farther away he had gotten from Executor's bridge, the stronger the disturbance in the Force had become. Somehow, he was supposed to be on the bridge, taking an active role in the engagement of the four renegade Star Destroyers. If Torren wasn't going to permit him to be up there, then this was the next best thing.
Maybe even better. Now that he was actually working in the chamber, he appreciated its functions even more. The main display was splitscreened to show various areas of the bridge, and a multitude of microphones relayed the accompanying conversations. Once he detected Torren's voice in the background, he increased the volume until he could hear the Admiral clearly. Settling deep into the chair, with his arms atop the wide armrests, he studied the activity on the bridge.
Someone was commenting on the four Star Destroyers. "Their transponders codes are not listed in Republic records, sir."
"Then it's as we thought," he could hear Torren say. "Have you checked the Imperial archives?"
"Yes, sir. The odd thing is, their last recorded deployment date is several years ago. They seemed to have been out here a long time."
"That is strange. Almost every Star Destroyer saw time in the Civil War," Torren said.
The microphone relayed a new voice, and Luke looked to the screen to try to visualize its owner. "Sir, one of the Star Destroyers is attempting to make contact."
"Put them through," Torren said, walking off screen towards the communications area.
Luke recentered Torren in the viewscreen, and leaned forward to listen. The voice transmitting from the approaching Star Destroyer sounded a bit informal. "So, they finally built it, eh?"
Onscreen Torren hesitated, and stared into the transmitter. "Yes... finally."
"What's the name of the ship, then?" the voice continued.
That question Torren answered readily. "This is the Super Star Destroyer Executor."
"A fine name," came the reply. "You must have curried the Emperor's favor to get that assignment."
Luke sat upright. The Emperor? Was it possible they were unaware that the Empire no longer existed? Torren moved to answer, and an ominous undercurrent rumbled in the Force. Luke scanned the console for the comm button, and punched it. Through the screen he could hear it chime on the bridge, but no one seemed to notice. He pounded the button repeatedly until a blond haired lieutenant wandered over, his image becoming large in the viewscreen.
The lieutenant stared into the camera, his face scrunched as if he was trying to see who lay on the other side. "Lord Vader?"
Luke chuckled. This man must have served under his father. "Not exactly. This is Captain Skywalker. Tell Admiral Torren not to reveal that the Empire has fallen."
"Tell, sir?" the lieutenant replied.
"Tell, suggest, whatever you have to do. It's very important," he said.
He watched the lieutenant jog over to the Admiral and say something too softly for the microphone to catch. Torren whipped around and strode into the display.
"Skywalker?" the Admiral said, squinting into the camera. "Where are you?"
"That doesn't matter, sir," Luke said, leaning back into the seat. "You said to let you know when my feeling turned into something more solid, and it has. The crews of those Star Destroyers think we're part of the Empire, that we're all on the same side."
Torren nodded. "That's a possibility. Now what's this about not telling them the truth?"
"Sir, the outcome of this mission hinges on whether or not they know we're from the New Republic."
"How do you know that?"
He smiled. The Admiral was going to love this. "I can feel it."
Torren shook his head.
The meditation chamber seemed to deflect the Admiral's skepticism, because it didn't touch him this time."Sir, you trusted me to get us to the Maw. Now you'll have to trust me on this."
Leia ruffled her fingers through the flowers in the planter. Their colors were beautiful, a welcome contrast to all the artificial materials that defined Coruscant. She knew she was avoiding Mon's question, but these thoughts she'd shared with no one. To say them out loud would give them life. "Have we done it then? Have we fulfilled all the promises that were made between you and Padme' and Bail?"
"Yes," Mon said, a smile spreading over her face. "You had me worried there. Yes, we've done it all. Removed Palpatine, restored peace and the Republic. Sometimes I think we get so caught up in our day to day struggles that we fail to appreciate everything we've accomplished."
Her heart was pounding in her throat, and she kept her gaze fixed on the city. She couldn't look Mon in the eyes and say this without crying. "So, I can walk away from the Senate, and feel that I'm not abandoning the cause?"
"What?" Mon reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't give up. This will all blow over. New Alderaan will look at everything you've done for them and the Republic, and they'll make the right choice."
"I'm not giving up," she said, and this time she believed herself. "I'm moving on."
"Leia, being a senator is in your blood," Mon said.
"I know. Every day I think of their legacy," she said. "That's why it's important to me to make sure I'm not letting them down."
"No, never think that," Mon said. "Bail would be so proud of you. And Padme' too."
"Even if I'm recalled from the Senate?" she said, and her throat tightened.
"Of course," Mon said. "They understood politics. You always follow your conscience, and they would admire that."
Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them back. "Thank you. That means a lot to me. I've really struggled with this, and I keep looking for some sign to tell me I'm moving in the right direction."
"I can't imagine how difficult this has been for you," Mon said. "Come on, let's head back, and I'll buy you dinner. We can talk some more."
Leia exhaled deeply, and let her tension flow out. After all her worrying, it was a relief to have her feelings out in the open. She hopped down off the duracrete ledge and they headed back towards the governmental district. Around them, the sunlight was beginning to fade and the streets lights were popping on.
"What do you feel like eating?" Mon asked. "There's a new Kuati restaurant down near the Senate. Or we could always go to your old standby, the Corellian place."
She smiled. "What can I say? Han's corrupted me."
"Have you talked to him about any of this?" Mon said. "I'm sure..."
Whatever else Mon was saying was lost as she became filled with a tingling sense of danger. She didn't even have the impulse to look around, instead feeling that she should immediately draw the pocket blaster she kept in her purse. She could see the headlines now : Crazed Senator Goes Berserk on Public Street. But she knew without a doubt there was an assailant behind them; she could even see his face in her mind. In one smooth motion, she pushed Mon to the side and whirled about, blaster in hand. The face she had imagined was staring back at her, albeit wearing an expression of complete surprise.
A kid. A punk kid. Her indignation escalated into anger and she strode towards him almost faster than he could backpedal. She had the feeling that she could push him off his feet without even touching him. The sense of power was exhilarating, but also a little frightening. She lowered her blaster, and he took off running. She watched him vanish in the distance, and then Mon's voice was at her side.
"How did you know he was there?" Mon said.
"The Force," she said. "But I've never felt it like that before. I could see what was going to happen."
Mon stepped back and gave her an appraising look. "I don't know what it means, but I'd say this might be your sign."
Under Anakin's careful touch, the vaporator hummed to life for the first time in who knew how many years. Like the solar generator, this piece of machinery essential to desert life had suffered from neglect, and not just in the time that the home had been abandoned. The bearings had run dry even while the vaporator had been in use, as evidenced by the worn sides of the bearing cup, and the condenser was clogged with debris blown in by the wind. In a dark corner of the hut's cellar he had found an almost new container of grease, as if Obi-Wan had the intent, but not the knowledge to maintain the device for maximum efficiency. Newcomers seldom understood what a harsh master the desert could be, and he almost felt sorry for Obi-Wan, as ill-prepared as he must have been for life on Tatooine.
With the bearings freshly repacked, and the condenser brushed clean, he replaced the collection cup and closed the access hatch on the vaporator. By morning the first small harvest of water would be present. From inside the hut a warm glow of light leaked from the windows, proof of his success at bringing the power system on line. The sands were taking on tones of purple and red and gold as the suns dipped low in the sky. Even though they baked the planet during the day, Tatooine's suns were more distant than the stars of most systems, distant enough that it was safe to look at them when they were at the horizon. He left the vaporator and walked to the co-pilot's seat he had placed in the sand outside the dwelling. Settling into it, he gazed out upon the Jundland Wastes and towards the setting suns. A light breeze played through his cloak as he looked out on his domain with satisfaction. This had been a good day.
Anakin opened the battered hatch that covered the vaporator collection chamber. The chill of night lingered in the morning air, or so he liked to think. The suit insulated him from any sense of warmth or cold, but the stinging bite of a Tatooine dawn was vivid enough in his boyhood memories to let him imagine how it felt. He had plenty of water stored on board the shuttle, but harvesting moisture from the vaporator gave him a job, and a reason to be up at first light every day.
It was a ridiculously minor task for a man who had clutched the reins of the Empire between his fingers. For as long as he could remember, his days and nights had been filled with the manipulation of men and ships and history. It felt comfortable to be immersed in the strategies and adrenalin of battle. But the quiet dissatisfaction in Luke's eyes over the military life had reminded him of a time when he had almost walked away from it all himself. Before everything changed, before the Purge and before Mustafar, he had almost chosen to live simply as a husband and a father.
To imagine a life lived as an ordinary man seemed impossible now, but oddly that path lay before him again. Freed of the shackles of both the Empire and the Republic, he was finally his own master and could do whatever he wished. If only he knew what that was. While the daily chores of restoring the hut had given him unexpected satisfaction, he knew himself well enough to know that it wouldn't last. On whatever planet he might choose, he would eventually look to the horizon and want more.
Inside the vaporator, the collection cup held several hundred milliliters of water distilled from the seemingly dry air. The moisture was almost like the Force, everpresent but invisible until it was focused into a vessel, as the Force was revealed in him. He swirled the water within the container and watched the waves subside. The answer to his dilemna was obvious: he should fulfill Luke's wish and rebuild the Order. While he had never told his son, the fantasy of repairing what he had broken did sometimes play through his mind.
But rebuilding the Order would require him to reveal the enormity of his destruction. What the boy knew already was bad enough. To take Luke through the burned shell of the Temple, to show him how in one day twenty five thousand years of tradition had been reduced to a pile of ash was unthinkable. To describe the scope of knowledge once contained in the Archives, and how it was plundered and lost by Palpatine, was a disgrace. And no two men could ever replace the reach of the hundreds of Jedi who had protected the Galaxy.
He flung the water from the cup and watched it disappear into the sand. Forgiveness was a childish dream. He could never tell Luke the truth. The boy would just have to accept that the Order was no more.
"Sir, the Star Destroyer Gorgon is making contact again. Their admiral is requesting to speak with the commander of this vessel."
In the viewscreen, Torren turned away to reply, "I'll be right there, Lieutenant."
Dark clouds gathered in the Force, and Luke leaned forward with a sense of urgency.
"With all due respect sir, the commander can't be you."
Torren looked sternly into the camera.
"Skywalker, you're pushing my limits. What are you talking about?"
"Well, sir, if this was the Empire, who would this ship belong to?" he said, a plan becoming clear in his mind as he spoke. "Who did this ship belong to?"
"There's no time to summon your father," the Admiral said, "and we don't need him to make a credible impression of an Imperial vessel."
"As I understand it, sir, this installation was under Tarkin's direct control," he said. "For them to follow anyone else, even Vader, might take some convincing."
"That's possible," Torren said, frowning. "You have an idea?"
"I could pretend to be him, sir, my father I mean," he said.
"I hate to break this to you, but no one is ever going to mistake you for Darth Vader," Torren said. "That plan won't work."
"There's got to be old holos stored in the ship's computer," Luke said. "We can use those. It's not like you can see his lips move."
A small smile escaped the Admiral.
"And the voice?"
"You must have someone on board who could modify the transmission," he said. "And I've listened to him long enough to know exactly what he'd say."
"We'd be taking a terrible risk," Torren said. "Tell me again why you think this ruse is necessary."
He closed his eyes and reached for the future.
"Because if they resist, even though Executor has them out-powered, with four Star Destroyers they'll have us out-manuevered. Down that path I see the beginning of a long conflict. Significant damage. Heavy casualties. I just want us to all get out of here safely."
Torren's gaze dropped away from the camera, and his jaw clenched. After a long pause, he nodded and looked up.
"All right. I'll get Information Services to dig through the communications files. And if you come out of wherever you're hiding, you can work with a technician to get the voice right."
Off screen, the lieutenant spoke, "Sir, the Gorgon is demanding a reply."
Already feeling his father's persona settling around him like a cloak, Luke leaned back in the great chair.
"Tell them Lord Vader does not take kindly to demands. He will contact them when he is ready."
Han stepped away from Leia's speeder and glanced uneasily around the broad plaza.
"Are you sure we should be here?"
She looked up to the five spires that pierced the Coruscant sky and nodded.
"It's okay. Luke comes here all the time."
"I'm sorry I don't have any updates for you on his mission," Han said. "But I'm sure he's fine. We didn't expect we'd hear anything yet."
"I'm not worried," she said. "If anything was really wrong, I'd know it."
"Yeah, I guess you would," he said, reaching down for her hand. "Now what is it that you couldn't tell me from the comfort of your apartment?"
She turned and leaned back against his chest, drawing his arms around her.
"What would you think if I wasn't a senator anymore?"
"Did you hear something?" he said, resting his chin on her shoulder. "I thought the recall election wasn't for another week."
"It isn't," she said. "I've decided to resign."
He swung her around so that they were facing.
"You, give up? That's hard to believe."
She shook her head.
"That's what Mon said. But I'm not giving up. I'm choosing my own path."
"Okay, then," Han said, nodding slowly, "if you're not going to be a senator, do I have to stay a general?"
"What?" she said. That made no sense. "You don't have to resign just because I am."
"Oh, you want me to be the responsible one now," he said, rolling his eyes.
She hated when he did that.
"What are you talking about?"
"If you're going to be without a job, you might need some help. That cush apartment can't be cheap."
"I've got credits!" she said, glaring at him. "I don't need you to take care of me."
"Never said you did," he said softly. He lowered his head and brought her hand up to his lips, kissing it gently. "Just thought that maybe someday you'd let me. I'd like to, you know."
He'd been teasing her again. Most of the time anymore she realized what he was doing, but every once in awhile, he still got her.
"What did you have in mind?"
"Oh, I always thought you'd make a pretty good smuggler," he said, giving her hand another kiss."Smart, fast talker, handy with a blaster. We could go into business together, you, me, and Chewie."
She wasn't going to fall for that one.
"You'd really go back to smuggling after being a general in the Republic?"
"No, but I have to say that this political stuff has always been your party," he said. "Are you sure you want to resign?"
"Being a senator is about serving the people," she said, pulling her hand free and walking towards the edge of the plaza. "It would be wrong to try to stay in power if they don't want me."
He leaned against the speeder and crossed his arms.
"All right, so if you're not going to be a senator, and you won't accept my offer, what are you going to do with yourself?"
"I didn't turn you down," she said. Maybe he had been joking about smuggling, but now she wondered if he wasn't kidding about them being partners. "There's just something I have to do first."
She looked away to the massive stone building at the end of the plaza. The answer lay poised on the tip of her tongue, but it felt silly to say it out loud. It was almost like saying she wanted to be a ballerina or a fireship pilot. Except that this dream couldn't be fullfiled by wishing about it. One had to be born to it, which meant maybe it wasn't silly after all. Maybe it was only natural.
"While you were gone, Mon and I had a little excitement. We almost got robbed outside of the Orange District."
"I've asked you not to go down there," he said, frowning. "It's a rough section of town."
"You shouldn't be worried about me. You should be worried for the robber."
"I saw him in the Force and caught him off-guard," she said. "And then I was so mad, I went after him. The angrier I was, the stronger I could feel the Force. I could have really hurt him."
"Would have served him right."
"You're not getting it. It made me realize I'm like a blaster with the safety off."
"But, sweetheart," he said with a grin, "that's what I like best about you."
She smiled even as she shook her head.
"I can't just dabble in using the Force the way I have been. I need to commit to serious training, like Luke did."
He looked over towards the Temple.
"Last time I checked, this place was closed."
"I know, but coming here inspires me," she said. "I've been going over all the exercises Luke taught me. I was hoping he might loan me that old book of Ben's when he gets back."
"I'm sure he will," Han said. "And I know you won't like this, but I'd say Anakin's got a lot of free time on his hands."
She didn't want to tell him that thought had already crossed her mind. It was hard enough admitting it to herself.
"Well, since no one knows where he is, I can't ask him, can I?"
Anakin stared at the nutrient container and wondered how was it possible that he had ended up with only sweetberry flavored drinks left. He hated sweetberry. The first thing he was going to do when he was back in civilization was eat a good, hot meal. No, that was second, because first, he was going to take a shower, and relieve the blasted itching of his skin. If there had been a way to cut the arms and legs from the padded suit, he would have done it already. But the material was capable of resisting almost every assault except a lightsaber blow, and he was not desperate enough to try altering the suit while he was still in it.
He had dispensed with wearing the armored cloak however, having grown weary of brushing it out of his way every time he leaned over to work. The durasteel shinguards lay discarded in the bedroom as well, his boots being more than enough protection against the natural environment. He longed to be free of the restrictions of the armored breastplate, but removing that would require him to take off his helmet, a dangerous proposition outside a hyperbaric chamber.
He sighed. There was nothing to do but wait. His years with Palpatine had taught him that public had a short memory, and that once a new crisis filled the headlines, the worry over his location would evaporate. But it was too soon for the Republic leaders to have forgotten about him yet.
Protected from the midday heat by the thick walls of the hut, he gazed out a window in the back of the dwelling towards the Dune Sea. In the ravine below the hut, something flashed in the sunlight, something that had not been there yesterday. Instantly, his mind thought of probe droids and remotes dropped from the sky in search of him. Perhaps he had underestimated the Republic's interest.
Moving cautiously down the slope of loose sand behind the dwelling, he worked his way towards the bright object. It would have been simple enough to call it to his hand, but a remote sensor might also have a self-destruct mechanism. He ignited his lightsaber and angled it in a defensive position, only to see that the flash came from an empty bottle. The burrow of a profogg opened nearby, and he realized the bottle must have been pushed to the surface during the rodent's excavations. After shutting down his lightsaber, he used the Force to retrieve the bottle, turning it face up to read the label. Johrian Whiskey. Obi-Wan's drink of choice; he had noticed an unopened bottle in the cellar earlier. He was preparing to toss it back into the sand when he noticed the Galactic Standard Date printed on the side.
It was the last year of the Old Republic, before Palpatine restarted the calendar to commemorate the creation of the Empire. This bottle was old, then, and must have been buried deep beneath the surface. He reactivated his lightsaber, and slashed it through the sand. Part of the hillside slid away, exposing discarded containers of all sorts, and he decided the ravine must have been Obi-Wan's garbage dump. More bottles poked through the surface, and he pulled them out one at a time. Almost all of them were marked with that same fateful year.
He nodded to himself. So, Obi-Wan had done a bit of drinking in his first year of exile. He knew his old master enjoyed the occasional intoxicant, but he remembered only one other time when Obi-Wan's consumption might have been considered unseemly for a Jedi. It had been his first year in the Order, and at the time Obi-Wan's solitary and nightly habit had seemed quite ordinary to him. Many beings in Mos Espa had been drunk every night, and so he thought nothing of it. It was only several months later, when Obi-Wan stopped his customary indulgence, that he realized his master's behavior might have been unusual. It was only many years later that he realized that Obi-Wan had been grieving for Qui-Gon.
He nudged a bottle with his boot, and wondered what Obi-Wan had mourned then. The loss of his beloved Order? The fall of the Republic? Or perhaps he had just felt sorry for himself being stranded in this isolated location. Whatever it had been, it had brought his old master a torment beyond the reach of meditation.
Luke noticed there was something about the repeating whoosh of air that was not quite right. To anyone who hadn't listened to the ventilator at close range, though, the simulation would sound authentic. And even for himself, hearing the familiar pattern gave him the eerie feeling that his father was in the meditation pod with him. It was even stranger to hear his own words converted into the deep mechanical voice. He pulled the audio receiver out of his ear. Listening to the modified transmission was fine for practice, but it would be far too distracting once this exercise went live.
The viewscreen displayed the four Star Destroyers in formation facing Executor, waiting on his, or rather Lord Vader's, next command. While he had confidently presented his idea to Admiral Torren, now that the plan was about to be enacted, he found worry creeping in. What if he didn't really sound like his father? What if he said something that made them realize an imposter sat at Executor's helm? He shook his head to dispell his fears. Darth Vader would never feel any self-doubt, so neither could he.
He signaled the bridge to intiate contact with the Gorgon. The broadcast of the archived hologram must have been successful, because within a few moments the holoprojector within the pod activated and a slender figure resolved in blue.
"Lord Vader, your visit is a great honor," the figure said. "Although we were expecting Governor Tarkin."
The high pitch of the voice made him stare at the hologram. Now that he really looked, it was quite obvious the figure was a woman. A female Admiral? A female officer of any rank had been rare in the Imperial Navy. But Vader would have known about her, so he couldn't allow his surprise to show.
"The Governor is indisposed," he said. Remember, no contractions, sound formal, and slow down. "And the Emperor requires an update on your progress, Admiral."
"I'm sorry, Lord Vader, Governor Tarkin was quite adamant that I communicate with no one but him," she said, her head bowed.
He raised an eyebrow. Someone would dare defy his father?
"Are you refusing to give the Emperor the information he needs?"
"Of course not," she said. " I am only following the orders of my commander."
He shouldn't have worried about impersonating his father, because that was apparently going over well. The hard part was bluffing his way through a situation that he knew little about. He wondered if his father would have simply demanded her compliance, but it appeared that she wouldn't fold easily. He would have to try a more subtle approach.
"The fact that we are here at all demonstrates the Governor's approval. How else would we know this installation existed?"
She paused, apparently thinking. "Then you have brought a message from Governor Tarkin?"
Loyalty was one thing, but her preoccupation with Tarkin bordered on devotion. What was it his father had said? Just like he thought the mistress he kept there was secret. Luke had joked with his father about the type of woman who would be attracted to Tarkin, and the answer was staring him in the face.Though the hologram was small, he could still make out that she had a lean, drawn look similar to the Governor's. As Luke, he felt the pain she would know upon learning Tarkin's fate, but as Vader, he recognized a weakness to exploit. Creating a fear of what might happen is the most powerful weapon you hold.
"No," he said, trying to think of what she would find most concerning. "The Rebellion has strengthened considerably. Every commander is now personally involved in the war."
"We've heard nothing of this," she said, frustration evident in her voice. "I regret to tell you that the Suncrusher is incomplete."
His ears pricked at the slip of information.
"The Emperor will not be pleased to hear that."
"We just need more time. You must remember how long it took to build the Death Star."
"I remember all too well. Unfortunately, that is time we do not have."
She grew animated. "I'll push the crews harder. Now that we know the war is not going well, every man will work twice as hard. I promise you."
"That is not a satisfactory solution," he said, sensing that the seed of fear he had planted was growing.
"What else can we do?"
"Since you have failed to complete your project, the entire installation must be evacuated. These Star Destroyers are needed to fight the Rebels."
She sagged visibly.
"I can't abandon this project. Governor Tarkin entrusted me with its success."
He knew he had only to twist the blade a little more, and she would fall. He hated lying to her, but hundreds of thousands of lives were at stake.
"Governor Tarkin no longer holds the Emperor's favor. His future will darken further if you do not cooperate."
She lowered her head.
"Then I'll give the order to begin the evacuation."
There, it was done. Conflict averted. Lives saved. So why did he feel sick inside? All he had done was trade on his father's reputation and tell a few half-truths, nothing worse. A small price for the benefit that had been reaped. He knew his father would heap hearty approval on his actions, because his father always believed in the philosophy of by any means necessary. And he had to admit that in the arena of war, that outlook did make sense. But while his father thrived in this environment, it was slowly killing him. No matter what his father wished for him, this had to be his last mission as a soldier.
As Anakin settled into his makeshift bed, he put a finger to the small, square window cut into the bedroom wall. It had drawn his attention since the first night he had slept in here, mainly because it was so different from all the other windows in the home. It was almost too small to be functional, and it was only when he was lying down that it was at eye level. And whereas the sills of the other windows retained the rough texture of the synstone, this opening, which was about the length of his hand, had the smooth, glazed edges that characterized the work of a lightsaber.
He laid his head down on the stack of cushions which he had pilfered from the shuttle, and dimmed the ceiling lights with a wave of his hand. As the helmet display adjusted to the darkened room, he was able to make out stars in the night sky peeking through the little window. Once the stars brightened in the display, he recognized the pattern as the constellation the Krayt Dragon. Any child in the northern hemisphere of Tatooine could point it out, so familiar was it in local culture. While doubtless Obi-Wan had picked up bits of Tatooine lore, he couldn't imagine the constellation becoming so important to Obi-Wan that he needed it to be the last thing he saw every night.
Curious, he got back out of bed and wandered outside the dwelling to identify what the window was really intended to highlight. In the dark, he could see nothing out of the ordinary. Around him the stars were blazing, and he tilted his head back to take in the view. On the core worlds, stars glowed bright and dense in the night sky, but on Tatooine as on all the Rim worlds, the Galaxy itself bisected the heavens. He smiled as he remembered laying on a rooftop in Mos Espa, the evening air just pleasantly warm, with his mother teaching him the names of the stars.
The air was probably like that now: the perfect midpoint between the searing heat of day and the icy cold of deep night. It probably smelled crisp and clean, with maybe a hint of night blooming cereus. Suddenly, he wanted to know for sure, and to feel the light breeze that usually swept over the desert at night. Just for a moment, to crack the helmet open and breathe unrecirculated air.
He shook his head. If anything went wrong he would be unable to save himself. But the memory beckoned to him, and he found himself pushing the button on his belt to stop the ventilator. A minute or two was all he had before the light-headedness would start, and his ruined lungs demanded pressurized air. He removed the outer helmet and set it on a nearby boulder, then used both hands to fold the mask forward, being careful to keep it hinged in the lower section.
Though the air carried only the scent of dirt and rocks, it was rich beyond belief after the sterility of the ventilator. A warm breeze caressed his bare skin, as luxurious as the softest velvet in one of Padme's gowns. It was life, it was freedom. It was wonderful. Already he was short of breath, but he wasn't ready to leave the embrace of the Tatooine night. Only the thought of Luke finding his skeletal remains, the mask still clutched in his hands, convinced him to fold the mask back in place. He retrieved the outer helmet and locked it down, tapping the belt control to restart the ventilator. His lungs rejoiced, but sadness filled him as he resigned himself once more to the reality of his prison.
Tomorrow he would take the coordinates outside the window, and follow them to their conclusion. Whatever it was that Obi-Wan had held so dear would soon be revealed.
Anakin flew the shuttle as close to the ground as he dared. Every once in a while the collision sensors on the tips of its trailing wings squalled in protest, and he would raise the ship's altitude slightly. He was troubled by how far he'd come without seeing anything that seemed worthy of Obi-Wan's attention, not unless his former master had become a geologist in his old age. Several times natural obstacles caused him to deviate from the coordinates he'd taken outside the lightsaber created window at the hut. He resumed the correct course as quickly as he could, but now he wondered if he had missed something important in those small detours.
He wasn't sure why he'd become so concerned about finding the answer to this puzzle. At first it had been just a matter of curiosity, and an excuse to escape the quiet routine of life at the remote dwelling. And even though he was thoroughly enjoying the sensation of the ship coursing over the contours of the land, he realized that at some point this flight had ceased to be a joyride. Even though it should make no difference at all, he had to know what it was that been so important to Obi-Wan.
Ahead the terrain was transitioning into a flat expanse of sand. It made no sense to continue further, as anything he would encounter now would be invisible from the hut, what with the towering rock formations of the Jundland Wastes standing in between. He nosed the shuttle upward before reversing direction, and from the higher elevation he caught sight of a familiar opening in the sands, kept company by its domed entrance. Had he really come this far?
He hit the throttle and made a pass over the underground dwelling, just to make sure it was what he thought it was. Still disbelieving, he set the shuttle down on the side of his original approach and took another reading. The vector coordinates matched exactly those he had taken at the hut. There was no question that the little window in Obi-Wan's bedroom pointed directly to the Lars homestead.
Inside the helmet his lip curled in a sneer, and he gripped the arms of the pilot's seat. Obi-Wan must have been quite pleased with himself, stealing the boy away and bringing him here. He must have carefully planned how he would turn Luke against his own father. How he would train the boy to use the Force and a lightsaber, and one day send him to complete the task at which Obi-Wan had failed. Oh, yes, every night Obi-Wan had kept guard over his young protege.
His anger billowed inside him and he punched the button to lower the shuttle ramp, unable to stay still any longer. He walked out of the ship and towards the dwelling, surrounded by a fog of hate. It was a miracle that Luke had ever come to his side. He pictured Obi-Wan in the courtyard of the homestead, teaching Luke his first katas. At the dinner table, seeding lies as skillfully as Palpatine. Next to Luke in a speeder, flying across the wilds and creating a bond of influence.
He crossed into the shade of the entrance, trying to remember every detail Luke had shared. He paused, because he could think of nothing that matched the treacheries he'd imagined. Luke had said that growing up he rarely saw Obi-Wan, and that Ben, as Luke knew him, had been not a mentor, but an eccentric neighbor. Anakin descended the long staircase and entered the room he had identified as his son's, the crumpled skyhopper model sitting on the shelf where he'd set it weeks earlier. Surrounded by the remnants of his son's childhood, he realized the truth was nothing like the images he'd invented. Despite sharing only an occasional word with the boy, Obi-Wan had still ended every day by looking out the window and watching over Luke.
It was an act of devotion. Of love. He leaned up against the wall, his fury draining from him. So, after the fall of the Jedi, the Great Obi-Wan Kenobi had succumbed to the sin of attachment. He smiled with satisfaction. His old master hadn't been perfect, after all, at least when no one was looking. But something about the situation made no sense at all. If Luke was almost a stranger to Obi-Wan, why would he have loved him?
For a moment, the sound of his own heartbeat drowned out even the noise of the ventilator. There was but one answer. Obi-Wan would have loved Luke not for Luke, but because of who the boy's father was. Because Obi-Wan had loved him. His vision glazed, and he raised his head, unable to wipe his eyes. He tried blinking back the tears, but they fell anyway, and he tasted them on his lips. Obi-Wan had told him those very words, but he had never believed him. How could he believe him, when his old master had crippled him and then left him alone to suffer and die?
Burned into his mind more permanently than some of the injuries to his body was the memory of Obi-Wan walking away without a backwards glance. After that, he knew Obi-Wan felt nothing for him, no matter what had passed between them. But now, with Obi-Wan's feelings exposed in his devotion to Luke, he wondered if Obi-Wan had turned away because he couldn't bear to kill him.
He shook his head. It was almost too much to comprehend. All along, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi with no flaw, had given in to attachment? Every time Obi-Wan had lectured him about his feelings, it was not because his master looked down on him for having them, but because he understood? It seemed unbelievable, but at the same time, undeniable. The way that Obi-wan had dealt with Qui-Gon's death was not exactly letting things pass into the Force. And the whiskey bottles strewn down the side of the ravine said that nothing had changed twenty years later, except that, he now suspected, those bottles were for him.
Maybe Obi-Wan could help us.
He had dismissed her idea immediately because it was so ridiculous. In his mind, the words of disapproval had rolled off his master's tongue accompanied by the stern shake of his head. But what if she had been right? What if there had been something, anything, that his closest friend could have done to help her? With all of his Force vision, why was it his curse to always see the truth too late? He stumbled out of Luke's room into the courtyard. He'd carried this hate for so long, he felt disoriented without it. All the things he'd done because he didn't understand. Because he told himself he had no other choice. Suddenly he wanted to talk to Obi-Wan, to know what could have been, but he'd destroyed that possibility years ago.
"I'll always be with you, Anakin."
He whipped around, but there was no one there. A voice in his imagination, or the wind. He was completely alone, and he couldn't stand to be anymore. He climbed the staircase and stared out at the empty sands. The headstones were no longer there, but the direction he had taken to dig the grave was imprinted in his mind. He walked as though in a trance, dropping to his knees where it seemed right.
"I'm sorry, Mom," he whispered.
Faces flashed through his mind, their expressions similar as his lightsaber cut them down. All except the younglings, who hadn't known what was coming. He thought of how selflessly his mother had let him follow his dream of becoming a Jedi, and he was suddenly more ashamed than he had ever been.
"I'm so sorry. Tell me how to make it right."
He imagined her face, and her palm warm and soft against his cheek. She always knew what to say to make him feel better. But this time, even in his fantasy, she had no answer.
Luke had to laugh at the change in his fortune. A few weeks ago when he'd brought the BlueSaber into the Coruscant docks, he'd been taken straight to an interrogation room. But today, when Executor assumed orbit over Coruscant, he had been selected to be in the first group going planetside, and been greeted by the Chief of State's Special Guard. He'd suspected something was up when Admiral Torren instructed him to put on a dress uniform, but he never expected to be escorted directly to Marest's office.
As they entered the foyer to the Chief of State's office, the Special Guard peeled aside, leaving him facing the great double doors that protected Marest's sanctum. He gazed for a moment out the expansive windows, noting how high up they were in the Coruscant sky. Then the doors slid apart, and the Chief of State came towards him, smiling broadly.
"Captain Skywalker," Marest said, extending his hand, "Admiral Torren says it was your ingenuity that saved this mission. I have to say, that was a bold move, impersonating your father."
He shook the Chief of State's hand. "Thank you, sir. Unusual problems call for unusual solutions."
"Well, come in, come in," Marest said, gesturing towards his office. "There's something I need to discuss with you."
He nodded curtly and followed the Chief of State past the double doors. Inside the office, Marest offered him a chair before taking his own seat behind the massive desk. Luke sat down, resting his elbows atop the arms of the chair, then decided that looked too cocky, and brought them down to his sides instead. He still had no idea what this was all about.
Marest continued to smile. "So, Captain, how was it that you were able to get Admiral Daala to lead her fleet out of the Maw so easily?"
He shrugged. "I used a technique that my father favors. I played on her fears."
"I see," the Chief of State said, pursing his lips. "But the part that I'm not understanding is where you obtained your knowledge. She is barely mentioned in the Imperial database."
He hesitated before answering. The question was an echo of the ones Republic Intelligence had thrown at him. "My father told me that Tarkin maintained a secret relationship with someone at the Maw. From her responses, I guessed it was her."
Marest nodded. "And you were right. As was Supreme Commander Piett about the importance of retaking that installation. The funny thing is, the Supreme Commander says he was also working on information given to him by your father."
He felt himself tense. This wasn't sounding good.
"In fact, the Supreme Commander said he was completely unaware of the Maw, despite his former position as an admiral in the Imperial Navy," Marest continued. "Preliminary analysis of the files we seized from Admiral Daala's computer show that the Suncrusher would have been even more powerful than the Death Stars. Without your father's assistance, the Republic would have been in great danger."
They were just now seeing that? He struggled to keep a straight face. "As always, we're glad to be of service, sir."
Marest must have caught something in Luke's expression, because the Chief of State raised an eyebrow. "I can see how you might find some irony in this situation. By the way, have you heard from your father?"
"No," he said warily.
"That's too bad.The Republic may have been a little hasty in terminating its relationship with him," Marest said. "These last few weeks have demonstrated how valuable his knowledge is to the Republic."
Luke leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "I'd have to agree."
The Chief of State smile only deepened. "Yes, and while the Integrity Act prohibits him from holding an official position in the Republic, there is nothing that says we can't hire him as a private citizen. As a consultant."
This conversation had just gone from odd to surreal."You want to offer him a job?"
"Yes. He could function as an advisor to the Combined Forces and to me in areas where he might have specialized knowledge," Marest said. He pushed a data disc across the desk . "All the details are in here. Scope of responsibility, confidentiality agreements, compensation, and so forth."
"I take it you want me to present this to him."
Marest nodded. "And since you haven't heard from him, consider this an official assignment to find him."
"It may take awhile," he said, leaning forward to take the disc. "The Galaxy's a big place."
"You have all the time you need," Marest said. "We'll just require you to make weekly reports. Do you think he will accept?"
"I don't know," he said. He remembered their last conversation on board the BlueSaber, and how strongly his father wanted him to continue his career in the Combined Forces. "Maybe. I think the military life is all he knows."
The hallway was library quiet. Leia's footsteps disappeared into the deep cushion of the carpet, and only the slight rustle of her clothing disturbed the silence. Behind her lay the media holocams and the reporters clamoring for a quote outside New Alderaan's Capitol. In front of her was Prime Minister Cosara's office, and her future. But here in the hallway it was as though time had stopped. She was still a senator. Her office still awaited her on Coruscant. The people of New Alderaan were still her responsibility. As long as she stayed in this hallway, everything was still the same.
But then the hallway ended, casting her out into the waiting room of the Prime Minister's office. Even now she could turn around, invent an explanation of why she'd broken her appointment, and everything would still be the same. But then the executive assistant acknowledged her, and sent a message through on the comm. The doors slid open to admit her, but all she saw was doors closing on the past. She couldn't go back now.
"Senator Organa, good to see you," the Prime Minister said with a smile, walking around his desk to greet her. "Are you here to do some last minute campaigning?"
The warmth of his greeting surprised her, and she felt bewildered for a moment. Her powers of oration failed, and all she could manage was, "No."
"I thought you should know the latest poll results," Cosara said. "It appears that the recall will fail."
Temptation reached out to her. Don't tell him what you really came to say. Make something up, and everything can stay the same. A part of her wanted to do just that, and reassume the familiar cloak of senator. But even as she pleaded with herself, she knew things had already changed. And the support he was showing her now wasn't real, it was a product of the polls.
She tamped down her fears and spoke from her heart. "It doesn't matter what the polls say. I'm resigning."
The shuttle's repulsors were still throwing sand into the air as Anakin strode down the ramp towards the entrance to the hut. Waving the door open, he proceeded straight to the cellar, where the unopened bottle of Johrian whiskey awaited him. He carried it back upstairs to the kitchen and dusted it off with a rag. He had no idea whether this was a liquor that got better or worse with age, but he was about to find out. He grabbed a sweetberry nutrient drink from the shelf and pulled its tabs so that he could empty it into the ground outside the hut. Wasting liquid was an offense in the desert, but right now he didn't care.
Returning to the kitchen, he cracked the seal on the whiskey and careful poured some into the small openings of the now empty nutrient container. He grimaced at its glowing green color; it didn't look like something that was meant to be ingested. His first swig on the tubing system did nothing to change that opinion. He stifled a cough, and swallowed hard to get the liquid down. The second swig was easier since he knew what to expect, and he wandered outside towards the co-pilot's seat.
The suns were low enough in the sky that the hut shaded the seat, and he sat down, looking out across the valley floor. The whiskey's warmth was spreading through his body, and he closed his eyes, the pain in his heart still sharp. There was nothing he could do to absolve himself. Because of him the old Order was gone forever, and defeating Palpatine and restoring the Republic had done nothing to erase his crimes. He lowered his head. Neither did denying Luke his rightful heritage. The boy had the courage of the survivors of the Purge, the ones he'd hunted down one by one, who never gave up the Light.
He pulled hard on the nutrient tubes, and swallowed a great mouthful of whiskey. Those survivors had looked at the impossible odds of restoring the Order, and ignored them, dying as Jedi instead of remaining hidden. They had believed in the Order, just as Luke believed now. But here he sat, too paralyzed by the monumental size of the task to even start it. He wondered when he had become such a coward.
He reached down and unclipped his lightsaber. Sleek and smooth, it resembled more the ones he'd built in his youth than the ones he'd carried as Vader. Luke was right, why had he built a new one? Because he believed in the Order? No, because there were still some days when the word Jedi tumbled off his tongue with a bitter taste. He thumbed the saber to life and gazed into its pure blue light. But he wanted to believe.
More than that, he wanted his old feelings back, the ones he'd felt when the Team was recognized throughout the Galaxy. When the sight of the robes evoked a sense of safety in the public. When giving up everything he knew was worth it, because becoming a Jedi was that important. Yes, the Council had frustrated him, but he'd still been proud to be a Jedi. A flood of nostalgia came over him, and he realized those feelings were still alive, just withered underneath the forest of doubt Palpatine had planted in his mind.
He thought of Obi-Wan watching over Luke day after day, and this time he felt gratitude instead of anger. He was humbled by the knowledge that their friendship had survived not only time, but his own terrible acts. A peace he hadn't known in a lifetime filled him, and he recognized this was what he wanted, to know the brotherhood of the Jedi again, not to live the rest of his life under the influence of Palpatine's poison. The humming blade of the saber disappeared into the hilt as he shut it down. It was time to stop hiding from himself, and from Luke. He couldn't change that he'd destroyed the Order's past, but he could help it survive the future.
Luke had no idea which one of them was the elder, but Leia's confidence and sense of authority always made him feel like her little brother. So on those rare occasions like this one when she sought his advice, he savored being the big brother for once. He continued folding his clothes into his travel case as she paced the length of the apartment's guest bedroom, and recounted her experience in the Orange District. In one fluid move she pulled an imaginary blaster from a non-existant purse and whirled about, fingers clasped together and pointing dead ahead. She dropped her shooter's stance and looked at him expectantly.
"See, you are strong in the Force," he said, smiling. "I was much further along in my studies before I had any sort of Force vision."
She grinned and dipped her head. "So, you'll lend me the book?"
"Sure, you can look at it," he said with a shrug. "But I can't recommend it as a do-it-yourself course. I used it only because I had no other choice."
She threw her hands up. "But how else will I learn?"
"You know," he said, tilting his head at her.
She frowned deeply. "It would be much simpler to study on my own."
"Simpler, yes. Better, no," he said. "On Dagobah, Yoda gave me not only information, but structure and guidance. He pushed me when I was ready to give up, and demonstrated things I thought were impossible."
"Well, then you could teach me," she said cheerfully.
He set the shirt he was holding back on the bed. "It's not that I don't want to, but there's holes in my education, too. The book is filled with references that I don't understand. Being a Jedi is more than learning a bag of tricks. It's about tradition and ritual and philosophy."
She looked at him dubiously. "Anakin never struck me as the philosophical type."
"True," he conceded, "but he's the last person living to have been trained in the old Order. It's an opportunity that can't be duplicated. You should give him a chance."
"I'll think about it," she said. "Right now I have to go clean out my office. Funny, you resign, and they want you out of there."
He crossed the room and put a hand on her shoulder. "You feel okay about that, resigning I mean?"
"Yes, I do," she said, and she sounded convincing. "Are you going to be here when I get back?"
He shook his head. "I'm almost done packing."
"Where will you go first?"
"Good question. I guess I'll have to decide by the time I fire up the X-wing."
She kissed him on the cheek. "Be careful."
"I'll be fine," he said, giving her a hug. "I'm proud of you, you know."
Leia slid out of his arms and headed towards the front of the apartment, and after a few minutes he heard the front door open and close. He stuffed the last of his clothes into the case and snapped the lid shut. He really didn't know where he was going to start. There'd been no news, no reports, no contact through the Force. Nothing. He sighed and grabbed the case by its handle, sliding it across the bed.
As he turned towards the door, he caught sight of a shimmering blue shape, and in his mind he felt a familiar presence. "Ben! I haven't seen you in awhile."
"You've been with your father," Ben said with a wry smile. "I didn't think he'd appreciate me dropping in all the time."
He returned the smile. "Well, not lately I haven't. He took off a few weeks ago, and now I have to find him."
"I know. He's been staying at my old home."
"At your place? That's hard to believe," he said. "So you've talked to him?"
"Not exactly. I don't think he's ready for that," Ben said. "But you should hurry. He needs you."
The stone hut appeared unchanged from when Luke had been here three years ago. Except for the lambda shuttle parked outside. As Luke approached the dwelling, he caught sight of the figure in black seated in a tall chair alongside the exterior wall. Just as Ben had said, his father was here. At least it sort of looked like his father. The flowing cloak was gone, as was a good deal of the durasteel armor, and the fingers wrapped around the armrests were completely exposed. And in the Force, though the presence was immediately identifiable, it was at the same time different.
Even though the crunch of his boots on the sand announced him, his father failed to acknowledge him. They hadn't seen each other in weeks, but his father was acting as if nothing had happened. Luke stood next to him, waiting for a response.
The black figure never stirred. "You didn't scratch my ship, did you? There's not much room over there."
"No," he said, amazed. He'd hurried all the way from Coruscant for this? "And I'm glad to see you, too."
The helmet continued to face out towards the valley floor. "How did you find me?"
"Ben told me," he said, staring at his father's chair. There was something familiar about it.
"Hmmm," his father said, nodding.
That response was far less dramatic than what he'd expected. He was beginning to wonder if his father was suffering from heatstroke. He looked again at the black synthleather seat. "Is that the pilot's seat from the shuttle?"
"Co-pilot's seat," his father said. "I have had to make some modifications to the interior."
"I promised them you'd bring it back," he said, frowning.
His father shrugged. "I'll pay for it."
"A shuttle? You're going to pay them for a whole ship?"
The black helmet finally turned towards him. "Didn't I tell you, son? I have credits. Lots of credits."
This conversation was threatening to top the one he'd had with Marest for oddness. He noticed a tall bottle resting alongside the chair, and when he reached for his father's mind, he found it...fuzzy. He squinted at the mask. "Are you drunk?"
"No," his father said indignantly. "I am relaxed. You should relax as well. Sit here with me."
He examined the patch of ground next to his father for crawling things and then sat down, leaning up against the wall of the hut. For a few minutes the only sound was the rhythmic ebb and flow of the ventilator, and he closed his eyes, reminded of how peaceful it was out here.
"Did Obi-Wan send you?"
He cracked one eye open and glanced at his father. He knew mentioning Ben had to have generated some sort of reaction. "No. Actually I'm here on official business."
"The Republic sent you?"
"Yes," he said. His father was looking at him now, but he didn't return the gaze. "They've decided they need you after all."
"Really. What changed their minds?"
"Oh, probably all the information you supplied for the mission to the Maw. And I get the feeling Piett's been pulling pretty hard for you."
"Are you supposed to bring me back?"
"Well, that's up to you," he said, digging into his jacket pocket for the disc. He handed it to his father. "This is an offer for a position as an advisor to Marest and the Combined Forces."
His father turned the disc from side to side as though considering it, and Luke's stomach sank. Wasn't that the way things always were between them? Just when he'd decided to leave the military, his father was going to take the opportunity to rejoin it. He sighed and leaned his head back against the wall.
"Here," his father said, tapping him on the arm with the disc. "They may need me, but I no longer need them."
He looked unbelieving into the mask and felt a grin erupt across his face. He plucked the disc from his father's hand and pushed himself to his feet. It was only a few meters to the edge of the promontory and he flung the disc off the end, watching it soar across the sky before falling into the rocks below. "Me neither."
The mask followed him as he returned to his spot sitting against the wall. "Last mission not go well, son?"
"No," he said, shaking his head, "the last mission went great. I pretended to be you."
"Why was that?"
He smiled. "Admiral Daala didn't know the Empire was gone. We transmitted old holos and modified my voice and Darth Vader convinced her to cooperate."
"I am surprised you were able to pull that off."
"Why? It was easy." Luke sat up straight and narrowed his eyes, growling out the words for effect. "The Emperor requires an update on your progress, Admiral. That is not a satisfactory solution."
His father stared at him. "I do not sound so stiff."
"Yeah, you do," he said, laughing. "Now are you going to offer me some of whatever it is you've got over there?"
"I do not think so, my ungrateful child," his father said, tilting his head up, but then he reached down and passed the bottle over, its green contents sloshing inside of it.
Luke chuckled as he grabbed the bottle, and found he couldn't get the smile off of his face. They'd never been able to joke this freely with each other. There was something different about his father, and it wasn't the alcohol. His father's whole presence seemed less angry. More at peace. He unscrewed the cap and sniffed the contents, then shrugged and took a drink. He grimaced at the taste, and set the bottle in the sand between them. As his X-wing had crossed the Jundland Wastes, he'd practiced speeches in his head, but now he realized they wouldn't be necessary. He could just say what was on his mind.
"I told the Chief of State that my price for delivering their offer to you was my release from the Combined Forces. So I guess I'm a free man."
"Good," his father said. "I've been thinking we should build the first training center here on Tatooine."
He'd only had one swallow of the liquor, but he felt as if he'd missed something. "Training center for what?"
"For Jedi," his father said. "The rigors of desert life promote self-reliance and strength of character, don't you think?"
"Yes. Wait, what did you say? For Jedi?" he said.
"Isn't that what we were discussing right before the Republic fired me?"
"It's what I discussed and you rejected," he said. "What happened to you out here?"
The sound of the ventilator was the only response for a few moments. "There was much opportunity for reflection. I was able to see some truths I was unable to see before."
He reached for the bottle and took another sip. He remembered how hurt he'd been by his father's disappearance from the BlueSaber. Even worried that he might not see him again. But instead here they were watching the suns set and sharing a drink, talking with an ease he'd only dreamt of. In fact that was the word he'd use to describe what was different about his father. He seemed more at ease with himself, about the past, about Obi-Wan even. For the first time it felt like they were truly on the same side.
But it still seemed unbelievable that his father was agreeing to rebuild the Order. "Do you really think would be Jedi need to know how to fix vaporators and keep sand out of their shorts, or are you just spinning my gyro?"
"Hardly. Your comment that the Order seemed like a security force for the Republic was far too close to the truth. Tatooine has always been beyond the reach of the politicians."
He tried to see through the mask. "You're serious, then. What about the Temple?"
"We will reclaim it eventually, after the Senate has become accustomed to the idea that the Jedi Order no longer answers to the Republic," his father said. "I hope that will not cause your sister further difficulty."
"Oh, it won't," he said. "She's not a senator any more. She resigned."
"She took a lot of criticism for opposing the Integrity Act," he said. "She chose to follow her conscience rather than to placate the people."
His father appeared to gaze into the distance. "I should have you thank her for me, for her loyalty."
"You can tell her yourself," he said. "She wants to be trained as a Jedi, and I've encouraged her to talk to you."
The mask focused on him. "She would allow me to teach her?"
He could sense his father's swirling emotions and he smiled gently as he looked into the lenses. "I think she will."
Leia glanced to the side as she pushed the chime button next to the entrance of the storefront. The shop was small, and located a few levels farther down than she usually ventured. It hardly seemed like the kind of place that could do high-volume production, but she'd reviewed the old discs in Mon's office twice. To her relief, the door buzzed, and then slid open. Inside the light was dim, and the walls were covered with posters of holovids she'd seen as a child. Footsteps sounded from somewhere in the back, and then a young man appeared, barely older than herself.
"Can I help you?" he said, leaning up against the counter, his eyes narrowing.
She licked her lips, suddenly flustered. "Yes, I believe you used to sew the garments for the Jedi Order."
"Not us," he snorted. "You've got the wrong place."
"But I looked it up in the old Senate records," she said, walking up to her side of the counter. "Every year it was the same name in the budget. Beshmaal's."
He shook his head. "Must have been a different Beshmaal," he said, backing away from her. "We only manufacture for the wholesale trade. I'm sorry I can't help you."
From the rear of the shop came another voice, this one rich with age. "Zin, who is it?"
"Don't worry, Pops, I got it," he answered. He turned back to Leia. "You need to leave. My father can't get upset. Blood pressure, you know?"
She looked around the yellowed room. What was she doing here? Why had Luke's comment about the importance of tradition resonated with her? "But I'm sure this is right. The address matches the Senate records."
"I'm telling you, we never made clothing for the Jedi," the young man said, anger glittering in his eyes. "How could we have survived the Empire if we did?"
From behind the divider a grey haired man shuffled towards the counter. He tossed his head at Zin, who then rolled his eyes and moved down a meter or so. The old man stopped directly in front of her and looked her up and down. "Are you one? A Jedi?"
Her face flushed. "Not yet. I'm learning."
"A Padawan, then," the old man said, nodding. "That's what they used to call the students."
"Yes." She supposed she was. His familiarity with the Order encouraged her. "Can you still make the Jedi garments?"
Zin sidled up to his father. "Pops, this is crazy."
The old man frowned and waved the young man off, his expression turning warm again as he returned his gaze to Leia. "Sure we can. I hid all the patterns on a secret disc." He covered her hand with his own. "I always knew they'd come back some day."
Leia stared as Anakin drilled bolts into the cool synstone of the underground wall. There was something strange about watching him work. The black armor seemed fit only for battle, and to see him assembling a hyperbaric chamber, using the Force to slide a transparisteel panel into place with almost artistic precison, was just plain odd. But work he did, as they all did, to transform the old moisture farm.
She turned back to her own task, grunting as she hefted the first of several buckets of water up to chest level. The liquid that she sent cascading into the filter tank was hazy and faintly brown. Her one concession to comfort had been this filtration system, otherwise she was determined to live as Luke had lived. Nevermind that liters of purified water shipped in on the Falcon filled one of the storage rooms. If her father and her brother had survived the primitive conditions on Tatooine, then she could, too.
That wasn't to say that she hadn't been shocked the first time she saw the Lars homestead. She thought she knew what desert life was like from the time she'd spent waiting to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt. But even though Mos Eisley had been rough and dangerous, it was Coruscant compared to the exposed pit in the ground, surrounded by kilometers of absolute nothing. Her jaw dropped when she looked down into the home's courtyard. Luke had quickly apologized, saying it looked much better before its long years of abandonment. But he had misunderstood her. She wasn't being critical; she was astounded by the twist of fate that allowed her upbringing to be so different from his.
It pained her to think that for every memory she had of growing up surrounded by wealth and privilege, Luke's memories were of toil and struggle, of hazy water and a simple diet. He seemed to bear no resentment, though, diligently instructing her on how to service the ring of vaporators they'd placed around the homestead. Both men were puzzled by her insistence in taking over this chore. But they didn't understand what it was like watching them look to the sky and nod, both of them seeing something she did not. To have them pull her back because she was about to step on a sandscorpion, or to hear them laugh when she jumped at some creature they both knew was perfectly harmless. She might have been raised in an opulence that neither of them had ever known, but she would not be the soft off-worlder.
Sometimes she wondered if Anakin was testing her, to see if she was strong enough. In all the discussions about rebuilding the Order and expanding the homestead to accomodate students, he had never once laid out a plan for her. At first she attributed it to the fact that all their efforts were concentrated towards the physical rehabilitation of the homestead, but now several weeks had passed since the dwelling had been restored to functional status, and she had begun to think it was a purposeful omission. She knew Anakin thought she was incapable of taking care of herself, because he insisted that Luke accompany her any time she went to collect water. She bristled against the limitation, but it was a point on which he simply would not budge. Had they forgotten she'd been through war just like they had? That she was the one who'd shot Palpatine for Force's sake?
Anakin glanced over at her, and she realized she was broadcasting her thoughts rather loudly. But enough was enough. She hadn't walked away from her position as a senator to fail at becoming a Jedi. Or to never even be given the chance. She wiped her hands on her pants and smoothed back the stray hairs from her face. Her boots clacked against the stone floor of the coved corridor, but Anakin remained focused on the gauge panel that monitored the last of the pressurized rooms.
She tried to insert herself into his line of sight.
"I need to talk to you about something."
The helmet turned towards her.
She'd never felt so at his mercy. To request something from him, to become indebted to him, she wasn't sure if she could do it. But if she couldn't ask, then she might as well leave now, and she wasn't willing to give up. She knew he must sense her inner turmoil, but the mask stared down at her dispassionately. Its blankness suddenly irritated her.
"I can't talk to you with that thing on your face."
He stiffened visibly, and then gestured towards the door of the chamber.
She frowned. This was not what she had in mind. She thought it would be like the last time, with him on one side, and herself on the other. But to decline now would only appear cowardly. Once inside she knew it was not at all like the last time. Then he had waited for her to approach, his eyes averted and his struggle with his own emotions evident on his face. He showed no such signs of vulnerability now, his gaze fixed on her as he tapped a button on his belt. The room fell silent, and she realized she was holding her breath, as though she, too, was tied to the ventilator. She watched him reach behind his head, and then the top of the helmet came free, accompanied by a release of air.
When he folded the mask forward, the blue eyes she remembered came into view, framed by his strong brow and and prominent cheekbones. She willed herself to maintain eye contact, and as she searched his face, a storm of thoughts whirled through her mind. Luke's voice, urging her to give him a chance. Han's voice, laughing about what a man would do for love. Her own inner voice realizing Anakin was Padme's most guarded secret. If this was going to work at all, she was going to have to give a little.
He quirked his head at her.
"You had something to say?"
She dropped her gaze to the floor as she worked to gather the words. What if he rejected her request? Having to prove herself to him would be even worse than being obligated to him. Maybe there was still a way to convince Luke to teach her. Not likely though, considering the unity he and Anakin had been showing lately. She raised her face to Anakin, and found him wearing an amused expression. Fine. If he laughed at her, he laughed at her.
"I want to be a Jedi. I've asked Luke, but he says it would be better if you trained me," she said, and then narrowed her eyes. "I'm sure he's talked to you about it."
"He has," Anakin said, a faint smile curling his lips, "but you have not."
The tightness in her stomach increased. He obviously wasn't going to make this easy.
"You're right," she said with a nod. "But I'm asking you now."
"And it bothers you that you need something from me," he said.
It was not a question. He knew he held the advantage in this situation. There was nothing for her to do but admit the truth.
He looked down and chewed his lip for a moment.
"I will tell you something that I have not revealed even to Luke."
She stared at him, surprised, wondering what could possibly involve her more than her brother. His jaw clenched and he walked towards the front of the room. She followed him with her eyes, realizing he was now the one struggling for words.
"I never attained the rank of master," he said, turning to face her. "It was most commonly granted after one trained their first Padawan. As you would be my first, it appears that I need you as much as you need me."
It was a gesture she hadn't expected, the first admission of deficiency that she'd ever heard him make. And even though he held all the power, he'd decided to share it with her.
"Does that make it easier?" he asked, moving closer.
For a moment she thought he was going to touch her shoulder, but then he withdrew his hand.
"Yes," she said, and meant it. "So, you'll accept me as your student?"
"Of course I would," Anakin said, shaking his head.
She thought of what he'd said as Palpatine had laid slain across Executor's deck. I would do anything for you. The openness in his eyes now told her it was not an empty claim, and she felt like she should at least acknowledge his devotion. She brushed her hand over his arm.
Anakin watched his daughter slip out through the door of the chamber and disappear down the corridor towards the courtyard of the homestead. He had almost given up hope that he would ever gain her confidence. Now that she had given him the barest measure, he would show her he was worthy of it. And he would train her to be a Jedi. He only hoped the two were not mutually exclusive.
He walked over to a corner of the chamber, absently running a finger down the seal. If she was to succeed, he would have to be hard on her. He remembered the resentment he'd felt towards Obi-Wan over the strictness of his discipline, and how it had sometimes stretched thin the bond between them. And that was with thirteen years of continual contact tying them to one another. He and Leia had no such foundation of familiarity and trust. Plus, she was willful and quick to anger. He suddenly had a much greater appreciation of how difficult Obi-Wan's task had been.
An old saying from the Temple drifted through his mind: You're not truly a Jedi until you've trained a Padawan. At the time the saying annoyed him, because it felt like just another way for the Masters to reinforce their superior position, but now he could hear the ring of truth in it. To train Leia, he would have to not only recall everything that had been taught to him, but exercise more patience and discipline than perhaps was in him. But he would not fail her.
At the edge of his vision he caught a blip of motion, and he turned towards the front of the chamber. Squinting, he made out a tall figure concealed in the shadows of the corridor. He cast out with the Force and found the answer: Solo, who must have arrived with the latest shipload of supplies. He hadn't intended for the Corellian to see him without the helmet, but it was too late to change that now. He supposed he would have to get used to the idea of many people seeing him without the mask. Though their eyes met, Solo showed no reaction, continuing to lean up against the wall with his arms folded across his chest. Turning away, Anakin replaced the mask and helmet, and exited the chamber.
"It doesn't hurt her to be in that thing, does it?" Solo said, straightening as Anakin drew near.
"You think I would harm my own daughter?" he said.
Solo thought for a moment. "No. But I had to ask." He stepped forward and stared into the mask. "You understand, right?"
Inside the helmet, Anakin smiled at Solo's bravado. The protectiveness the man was exhibiting was quite familiar.
"Good. I'm glad that's settled," Solo said, and his whole demeanor relaxed. "Oh, and that archival quality holorecorder you wanted is here."
He nodded and started down the corridor. "You negotiated a good price, I presume?"
"Hey, it's me. Any cheaper and it'd be stolen," Solo said, keeping pace with him. "Why? You worried about your credits running out?"
Anakin snorted. "There's no fear of that."
"Must be nice," Solo said. "This place is visible from space with the power grid you've established."
"That is an exaggeration."
"Yeah, well, maybe," Solo said. "But all this stuff you're having me bring in is attracting attention. And that ain't a good thing in Mos Eisley."
He shrugged. "I am not concerned."
"Maybe you should be, " Solo said, pointing a finger at him. "You never know who'll show up on your doorstep."
He stopped and turned towards Solo. "The two most powerful Force users in the Galaxy are under one roof. Only a fool would come here uninvited."
"You never want for confidence, I'll give you that," Solo said. He paused and rubbed his chin. "So, Leia just told me you're going to train her."
"Yes," he said, pleased that she'd been eager to spread the news.
"How long does that take?"
"Years. A lifetime for some."
Solo gave a low whistle. "Then we're going to be seeing a lot of each other. We should try to get along. For her sake."
Anakin gazed at the former smuggler. His daughter could have done far worse. At least Solo had sense, and some useful skills, unlike the aristocratic snobs she must have encountered as a Princess.
"Yes. For her sake."
Luke ran his fingers across the rough surface of the stone slab. They'd cut four of them from a vein of zionite high in the walls of Beggar's Canyon, left exposed when the ancient waters of Tatooine had formed the ravine. Letters carved into the slab by his father's lightsaber glittered in the light of the workshop, the crystals within the stone fused by the energy of the saber. Even though he'd been taught the name -Shmi Skywalker- he never knew that a marker had ever adorned her grave. Or that at one time other markers had stood next to hers. His father didn't know the names of the others, but Anakin guessed they might be Owen Lars' mother, and perhaps a sibling. They both thought Cliegg Lars probably lay there, too, but he'd been gone as long as Luke could remember.
They should have cut two more markers, but those they would honor had never been laid to rest. Luke tried not to think about that part. He focused instead on applying sealant to the stones, but the parade of images in his mind wouldn't stop. He relived the shock of seeing black smoke boiling out of the only home he'd ever known. The acrid tang of that smoke filling his nostrils. And the last part, the horrifying sight of Owen and Beru, their bodies burned away to bone.
Though his father didn't look distressed, it felt to Luke that the pressurized room held no air at all. Nausea rolled through him in waves, and he walked away from the workbench to lean against the transparisteel panel. He closed his eyes to shut out his memories, but that only made them more vivid. Behind him, he heard his father power down the lightsaber.
"Luke, what is it?"
His face flushed hot as he turned to face his father.
"I should have done more."
Anakin tilted his head in silent question.
"Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. I...I just left them after the stormtroopers came through," he said, lowering his eyes to the floor in shame."Just left them to the animals."
His father set the lightsaber down and walked towards him.
"Sometimes in the moment of battle we have to leave those who have fallen. In the Clone Wars..."
Luke didn't wait for his father to finish. This was different. They hadn't been comrades, they were family.
"But they raised me. I owed them more than that."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Luke," his father said, concern evident on his face. "We all have regrets."
He supposed that was true. Certainly his father must have dealt with such feelings many times over.
"What do you regret?"
"You are asking that of me?" his father said. "It should be obvious."
But it wasn't. His father only talked obliquely about such things.
"No, tell me. What do you regret the most?"
Anakin looked away. He walked to the other end of the pressurized room, and then slowly turned back.
"That I could not change your mother's fate," he said. He wet his lips before continuing. "Even more, that I may have contributed to it."
Luke stared at his father. That didn't make sense.
"But you told me you tried to save her."
"Everything I did, I did for her," his father said, his expression becoming hard. "But she could not accept what that meant."
A chill ran through Luke. He wanted to stop his father from saying more, but at the same time he was mesmerized. He had to know.
His father shrugged.
"And... we argued. I was very angry."
Luke glanced down. The scar around his right wrist was tingling.
"Did you hurt her?"
His father's face became unreadable, and his presence in the Force retreated behind his shields.
"Until I found you, I thought I killed her. Palpatine told me I did."
Every time Luke thought he'd heard it all, there was always something worse. He swallowed hard and averted his gaze. Though he supposed the slaughter at the Jedi Temple was the most heinous of his father's crimes, this assault against his mother seemed even more inexcusable. It wasn't Darth Vader against perceived enemy Jedi, it was Anakin Skywalker against his own wife. He couldn't even look his father in the eye anymore.
He turned for the door.
"I've got to go walk around, or something."
"Luke, wait," his father said. "You asked me what I regretted most and that was it, even when I did not feel regret for anything else."
He paused. He could hear desperation in his father's voice, an emotion he'd never heard from him before. Now he wished he'd never asked the question.
"I should have been with her, and I was not," his father continued.
He summoned the patience to turn around.
"Where were you?"
"I was becoming...this," his father said, gesturing towards himself. He lowered his head. "I don't even know where you were born."
Luke had never felt more like an orphan. He envisioned his mother dying and alone, left to give birth in some bleak location. He could almost feel her despair, and it made him wonder if he'd given his father far too much credit.
He headed for the door, but before he could wave it open he felt a stirring in the Force, and a shimmering figure materialized in front of him. Luke shook his head. How could Ben have possibly chosen this particular moment to reveal himself? While his father had become far less reactive to any mention of Obi-Wan, the last thing Luke felt like doing right now was mediating between the two of them.
Ben smiled warmly at him, without making any effort to acknowledge Anakin.
"You are a child of the stars, Luke. You were born on the asteroid Polis Massa."
His own astonishment at finally knowing a fact most people knew all their lives was interrupted by the cold flare of recognition that came from his father. He heard his father move closer, close enough that he could hear the catch that marred his father's unassisted breaths.
Anakin's voice was low and quiet.
"You were there."
"Yes, old friend, I was," Ben said, sadness replacing his smile. The Force crackled as he moved past Luke. "We did everything we could to save her. The medics never could tell us why she failed."
Luke turned to see his father's reaction, and realized he shouldn't have worried about playing mediator. There were only two people in the room, and he wasn't one of them. There was only Anakin and Obi-Wan, together again after long last. Luke retreated, watching the emotional armor fall from his father's face. Tears brimmed in his father's eyes, making him look very young and lost.
Anakin nodded slowly, his gaze dropping to the floor. Sorrow poured from his mind.
"Thank you, for taking care of her."
"You should know that her last words were of you," Ben said, and Anakin's head jerked upwards. "She never stopped seeing the good in you, even at the end."
The grief on his father's face was so raw, Luke had to turn away. But there was no escaping the anguish that echoed in the Force, and he closed his eyes, letting the pain wash through him. Even as the last of it ebbed away, another wave of emotion rode over him. It stole his breath and made his chest ache, leaving him weak. It matched nothing in his own experience, but in the moment, he realized what it was. However great his father's capacity for anger, it was apparently matched by his capacity for love.
When its grip eased, he opened his eyes and saw that his father had sunk to the floor, legs outstretched and his back against the transparisteel panel. Ben mirrored Anakin's posture, resting near him in a manner that reminded Luke of Rogue pilots recovering after a long mission. His father's eyelids fluttered as if he were dreaming, and his lips formed unsaid words. Quietly, Luke sat down crosslegged on the floor, and absorbed the peace that now permeated the room.
He thought of what Ben had said about his mother's last words, and of how they matched what he had told Leia on Endor's moon. There is good in him. I've felt it. Sometimes he questioned why he had been so sure, whether it was mere sentiment or wishful thinking. Now he wondered if his mother had guided him somehow to at last bring his father home. Though he had never known her, he thought they might have understood each other. As he watched his father, he could feel her love surrounding him, and he knew he would never think of himself as an orphan again.
With a wave of his hand, Anakin brightened the light in his private chamber. The stubbled cloth he held in his hands looked remarkably like the fabric of the old Jedi robes. And maybe it was just the new gloves Luke had convinced him to wear, thin and flexible, with metallic strands that enhanced the perception in his prosthetic fingers, but the texture felt exactly right, too. He brought the sleeve up to his nose and inhaled. The subtly sweet scent of the natural fiber matched what was in his memory. He glanced at the pile of garments on Luke's lap, and then to Leia's expectant face.
"Where did you find these?"
"I went to a little place on Coruscant," she said. "Down many levels. It was called..."
"Beshmaals," he finished.
"Yes," she said, riffling through the stack on her own lap. "Do they look right? I didn't know there would be so many pieces."
He smiled. "Oh, yes. There are many layers. It takes some practice to put them all on correctly."
"I can't believe you had these made," Luke said. He flopped the stack of clothes onto the bed and stood up, selecting the outer robe from the pile. He pulled his arms through and shrugged it over his shoulders. "Seems like they're a good fit, too."
"I used the last of my Senatorial privilege to obtain your measurements from your military record," Leia said with a sly grin, " And you, well, you were still in their files. I just told them to make yours a little bigger."
He met her gaze. So, Leia had been thinking of him training her for a while, probably even before he'd made the decision to rebuild the Order. He wondered what she would have done if he'd declined. Probably dragged him protesting down the path she wanted, just like her mother would have done. To his surprise, the sense of shame he always felt when he looked into Leia's face and saw Padme looking back was gone.
"What, is there a bug in my hair again?" Leia said, patting her head. "You're looking at me like you see something."
"Hmm," he said, breaking away from his thoughts. "I was thinking how much you look like your mother."
"What was she like?" Luke asked, sitting back down with the tan robe gathered around him.
Already his son had the demeanor of the old Order, and he only looked more the Jedi with his hands withdrawn into the deep sleeves of the robe. But there was a part of Luke that hungered like he hungered, for family, for connection. He wanted to feed his son's need, but how could mere words ever convey who Padme had been? Just thinking of her flooded his mind with memories he thought were long gone, and when he opened his mouth to speak, nothing came out. Luke leaned forward, waiting, and Anakin knew he would have to tell him something.
"She was so determined that I knew never to argue with her," he began, his mind drifting to times gone by. "So fearless that she fought alongside me in the Battle of Geonosis. And so generous of heart that she loved me despite my faults."
His children's eyes fixed on him with rapt attention. In telling them of their mother, he had never felt more like their father. Knowing that Padme had kept even a shred of faith in him made him believe she would want him to be here, taking care of their children. And even if they were already grown, he would do exactly that. Emotion swelled in him, making it impossible to speak.
He cleared his throat. "That is all I will tell you for now. But since we are passing out gifts, I have something for you, Leia."
After setting aside the pile of dark clothing that covered his lap, he went to the storage cabinet in his closet. Inside the top drawer was something he'd kept, though he wasn't sure why. Maybe as proof of his victory over a fallen enemy, or to have control over that which had vanquished him. Or, it seemed, because he was supposed to give it to his daughter. He summoned the hilt and returned to his seat.
"When you are further along in your training, you will be expected to build your own. But you may carry this one until then."
Leia's eyes flicked to Anakin's face as she took the lightsaber from his outstretched hand.
"That's Obi-Wan's," Luke said.
Leia turned the saber in the light. "I'm honored that you would give this to me."
"It is an honor," Anakin said, "but also a challenge, to become as skilled as its previous owner."
Leia raised her hand to tip the shade on the spotlight, then remembered to use the Force instead. Focusing, she pushed the shade with a wave of two fingers, but frowned when she saw the result. Too far. She sighed and brought it back into position manually before moving on to the next light. While she might need practice to refine her control of the Force, her years in the Senate had left her confident in her ability to properly light a holostage.
The subject of her exercise sat patiently in the broad armchair in the center of the pressurized room. Like her, Anakin was dressed in full Jedi regalia, though the color of his clothing was many shades darker. With them on, he seemed to have acquired a grace that she'd never noticed when he was in the black armor. About satisfied with the blend of light from her three sources, she traced a semicircle in front of him, checking the angles of his face for any unwanted shadows. His eyes followed her as she moved about, but she kept to her work. Pausing in front of him, she gave the far light a nudge with a subtle movement of her finger, then smiled at her own accomplishment.
Anakin reached towards her. "Your obi is folded incorrectly. Let me fix it."
"Oh," she said, glancing at her waist. "I'll get it later."
He stood up from the chair. "It will only take a second."
She rolled her eyes and turned her head away, raising her arms to give him access. When she felt the tug of the sash going snug, she turned her head back, only to find him slipping his arms around her. She tensed against him, then decided that tolerating his hug was kinder than raising a fuss. Tenatively she placed her arms around his back, and discovered that at least through the thick layers of clothing, he didn't feel all that different from Bail, just warm and solid. Then she felt him bend down, and when he kissed the top of her head, she froze.
His voice was almost a whisper. "I used to talk to you when you were in your mother's belly. I always told her we were having a girl."
She was stunned. Small though it might be, they did have a history together, in a time when everything was still right. Before Bail, before Alderaan, he had been her father, in more than just the biological sense of the word. Tears formed in her eyes, and she tightened her arms and leaned into his chest. A choked noise escaped him, and for a moment she could sense the depth of his feelings. No matter how brief their time together had been, their bond was apparently unbreakable.
Luke's eyes shined with the warmth and acceptance that were always there, but Anakin saw something else, too: pride. He supposed he should warn his son that pride wasn't very Jedi, but it had been so terribly long since anyone had been proud of him that he couldn't bring himself to tell him.
"Pretend you're talking to me," Luke said, smiling. "I'll stand in back of the recorder, and you just say everything the way you would say it to me."
He took in a breath and considered his son's advice. Public speaking had never been his forte, and the thought of recording material for the new archive was daunting, to say the least. Assuming the role of elder statesman was perhaps the part that had concerned him the most about rebuilding the Order. He, who had not always listened closely in class, who had always flaunted the rules, who had at the end had brought the Order down, was now to be its leader. But there was no other way, since the remaining knowledge as reposited only in him.
Leia motioned from her seat at the control panel of the recorder, and he settled into the central chair. Around him, the Force hummed, as if pleased. Perhaps he was making it too complicated. In the old Temple it was said that each instant, the universe annihilates itself and starts again. He was not bound to what he had done in the past, nor burdened to carry the future. All he had to do was choose, in each moment choose to be Anakin Skywalker. To be a Jedi.
To be continued...in Part 2