The party was over.
Leia pulled herself out of her bedroll and sat up to stretch. Han was snoring across the room, his blanket draped and twisted around one booted foot. His arms were akimbo and his head lolled back over the edge of the small platform that led down into the Ewok village. His mouth was open; he was drooling a little.
Well, Leia thought, I love him like this, and I guess that says all it needs to. She smiled to herself.
Go back to sleep. There's something you're not thinking about, and it's much better if you don't start.
It sounded like good advice. She was tired, and the thing she wasn't thinking about was huge and frightening, and she didn't want to deal with it. But
(somehow I've always known)
it was right there and if she ever planned to get out of bed again, she had to do it now, this morning, and go outside to see whatever was waiting for her.
She dawdled over getting ready, finding a few baubles the Ewoks had left to ornament the plain dress the they had thrown together for her, and brushing her hair into soft waves. The latter took some doing - her hair was naturally straight and frizzy - but she felt she had the time, for the first time since she'd been elected to the Senate at the age of sixteen. She took a soft cloth that had been meant as a spare bandage (but had been miraculously kept clean) and tied her hair back out of her face. There would be no battle to fight today.
Except, of course, the one that she thought might be going on for a long, long time on the bloody field of her mind.
At last, there was no more to do, and she stooped to make her way out of the hut and into the square of the village. A few soldiers were draped along the walkways, in various states of inebriation and unconsciousness. Some were Rebels, some surrendered Imperials. With their uniforms mostly off, it took some doing to tell which were which, as they were all slumped chummily together. Later, she supposed she would have to sort them out. Later, they would want to pick up their arguments again. For now, they looked like tired boys passed out together after a long hike. She hoped that none of these were criminals. She didn't want to arrest anyone today.
A suit of stormtrooper armor had been draped with vines and leaves and propped up against the trunk of a tree. Suspicious yellow stains suggested what it had been used for during the party.
(But it's another suit of armor that you're looking for.)
She stopped walking, the thing she wasn't thinking about suddenly in front of her like an impenetrable wall. She wasn't looking for that suit of armor. Not at all.
She was looking for Luke, that was all. Her brother. And that part was all right. She could look for her brother, and the rest could just blow away in the morning breeze.
He was nowhere on this level, as she'd probably known as soon as she'd come outside. He might have been asleep among the pilots, but somehow, she didn't think so. He'd celebrated with them for awhile, celebrated the end of the war and... and the other thing he was celebrating... but he'd also been mourning, and he hadn't seemed amenable to socializing outside the family.
She made her way over the catwalk and down the network of ropes and ladders to the forest floor. The exercise was good. It cleared her mind. Something was tugging gently at her thoughts, and she'd already turned down a side path before she recognized, with some wonder, that she was using the Force.
(The Force runs strong in my family...)
Her stomach rolled over lazily, and she was glad she hadn't had much to drink last night, or to eat this morning. It was out there. She couldn't keep ducking it.
"Good morning, Leia."
She looked up. Luke was sitting on a fallen log in a clearing. The leaves above him were charred, and in front of him was a blackened pile of...
She closed her eyes. "Good morning."
"I was going to bury his ashes," he said. "But I thought... I thought you might like to help me. I can't do it alone. I got hurt yesterday and... I can't do it alone, Leia."
That's it. You can't not think about it anymore.
She sighed, letting the burden settle onto her heart, and sat down beside Luke. His face was far away. He winced when she touched his shoulder, and she realized he hadn't been kidding. Whatever else had happened yesterday, he'd taken a physical beating. Adrenaline may have covered it last night, but now he was feeling it. "I'll help you," she said.
"I thought about asking you to come when I... Well, for... " He smiled bitterly. "It wasn't much of a funeral. Just me. Everyone else was busy with the party and the fireworks."
Leia squeezed his unhurt shoulder, and thought about the stormtrooper armor up in the village. "It was better that way, Luke. No one else would have understood."
"Do you want me to tell you a lie?"
"No. I've had enough lies."
"I don't understand why you did what you did. I don't even begin to understand it."
"But I do understand that it was a better thing than anything I would have thought to do. A nobler thing. And, as it turns out, a pragmatically more effective strategy."
"The last thing he said was to tell you I was right."
Leia blinked, then a hoarse sound came from her throat and she realized she was laughing. She tried to stop, but it just kept coming.
Luke looked at her like he couldn't decide whether he was supposed to be hurt or concerned. "I don't see what's so funny."
"I'm sorry," she managed to get out. "I really am. It just - it struck me - it's like we were having some sibling spat, and Daddy decided to side with you, and... " And then she realized she was crying. "How did you know this alone for so long?" she asked. "How did you... how did you ever think about anything else?"
"There were other pressing problems to be solved," he said. His voice was flat and tired, but he managed a smile, not too different from one he might have given her on Yavin or Hoth. "Nothing like a war to keep your mind off family problems."
"Even when your family turns out to be the war." She shook her head. "Come on. Let's get his ashes gathered, before someone else finds this place. Where should we take them?"
"I don't know."
"Really. I don't know where he came from, or if there's any place he'd want to, you know, be. I was going to bury them here, but maybe it's not the right place. I was hoping that if I waited long enough, he'd come and tell me."
Leia registered the oddity of that on some level, but didn't have any mental place to put it.
"Do you know where he was from?" Luke asked.
Leia breathed in sharply. She supposed Luke didn't know everything about her past, but anyone with a few puzzle pieces would know that she'd had some contact with Vader before going fully underground in the Rebellion. Still, there were things that no one knew. In fact, hardly anyone knew anything. "I'm sorry, Luke," she said. "I only know where he lived on Coruscant. And I don't think, if he came back to you, that he'd want to go there."
He nodded. "I guess we can just gather the ashes for now. Someone must know something." He bent forward - wincing at some pain - and picked up a clay jar that was obviously of Ewok manufacture.
"You sure about that?" she asked. "I think, if we go back to Coruscant... "
"It needs to be something for now, and something made by the hands of a living creature is better than some Alliance packing crate."
"I see your point."
"I need to know, Leia."
"For now, just give me a hand, all right?"
It took them most of the morning. Components had melted into the ashes and sunk into the ground, and it was sometimes difficult to determine what was his ash, and what was ash from the pyre. By the time they'd finished, they were both coated with soot and exhausted. Leia took the soft cloth she'd wrapped into her hair down, and wiped ashes from her hands and face, then did the same for Luke. The cloth went into the jar as well.
They didn't speak during the process, but Leia could feel some kind of communication, or perhaps the right word was communion, with him, and with...
No, I'm not thinking about that.
But that wasn't an option. There were three in the clearing that morning, and the third was not the pile of ashes they were gathering up.
Luke carried the jar. Leia didn't want to touch it, though she had touched its contents already. They made their way back toward the makeshift Alliance camp that had sprung up on yesterday's battlefield, around the burned scar of the Imperial bunker. They could hear the muted sounds of an argument as they approached.
There was a small group of Alliance soldiers gathered in a knot around the landing platform, and Leia could see the curved shape of a transport in their midst. It was a strange, pinkish color.
Just above the heads of the humans, she could see the top of a non-human head. It was an orange-brown color, with at least one flapped ear and eyes on stalks, but she couldn't see much more through the crowd.
She was starting to work her way through the crowd when she heard the voice for the first time.
"But mesa seeing him! On the holoproj, last night. Meesa coming straight away."
A Rebel soldier spoke. "How can you be certain?"
The alien voice was tinged with pride now. "Meesa knowing Ani's son anywhere. And meesa thinking the girl was-a being here, too. But hersa name was-a changed."
Leia froze. She couldn't seem to do anything else, and just hoped that Luke would move in fast ? fast enough to keep this newcomer from saying things aloud that she didn't want spoken aloud in public. Ever.
She felt him brush by her and saw him disappear into the crowd. They parted for him, and she saw the alien fully for the first time.
He wasn't what she had half expected. The eyestalks and flap-ears were the most non-human things about him. Other than that, he appeared to be a middle-aged biped, with limbs only a bit longer than was normal for humans. She guessed from the texture of his skin that he might be amphibious, but there was no other real clue to it. He wore a military uniform, and she recognized an old insignia for "General."
Gungan. Like Captain Tarpals from Coruscant.
She frowned. The Gungans' numbers had declined severely at the rise of the Empire, and it was rare to see one anywhere. Tarpals had been an oddity, and Leia hadn't spoken to him for any extended time. But there was something about this Gungan, about the smile he was offering.
She'd seen it before.
(Heydey-hiyo! Yousa gonna be so pretty! Just like yousa mother!)
Her eyes snapped up to him, and he was smiling benignly down at her. Luke was looking at him curiously.
She had to get him out of this crowd, and now.
"Welcome to Endor, General? ?"
"Binks," he said. "Jar-Jar Binks. But yousa just callin? meesa Jar-Jar. Meesa just wearin? this ? " he pointed to the insignia " ? so theysa would let meesa in."
"You said you knew my father?" Luke prodded.
"Yes. Yousa mother, too."
There was quiet in the crowd, and Leia willed Luke to move him along into the forest, but he didn't. She was going to have to, even though, given the conversation thus far, it would look odd. "Please join us for lunch," she said. "We are staying far up in the village."
"Thankee," Jar-Jar Binks said.
Luke led him down from the platform and Leia gratefully led them both back onto the forest path. She turned off it, not intending to go anywhere near the Ewok village.
"Yousa the girl, right?"
She looked over her shoulder. "I'm Luke's sister."
"Ha! Meesa knowin' this. Yousa face? a little of the Queen, a lot of Ani. All round. Like when his'm was just a little boy."
Leia barely managed to restrain an urge to turn around and hit him. She had a feeling that she would have dreams of that for quite awhile ? Vader's mask, leaning over her in that cell on the Death Star, suddenly becoming transparent to reveal a little boy with a round face and a button nose. It couldn't really look too much like her own face ? Vader was many things, but stupid was not one of them, and he surely would have noticed a pronounced resemblance ? but she knew that in her dreams, it would actually be her own. But this Gungan probably remembered Anakin Skywalker before he became Vader. He might be hurt to know how things had turned out, so she kept her mouth shut.
A large brownish-orange hand landed on her shoulder. She looked across, startled, and found that Binks had put the other hand on Luke's shoulder. He looked for all the galaxy like a proud uncle. "Oh, yousa two. The last time meesa seeing yousa was the night yousa was borned." He grinned at Luke. "His'm wet on me."
Luke blushed, then looked away as they walked further into the woods. Leia realized with some dismay that they were headed for the clearing they'd just left. Her feet had simply carried her this way.
"Then you were with our mother when we were born?" she asked. "We owe you thanks for the kindness."
He waved his hand as if to say, It was nothing. "Meesa with her lots of times. Shis'm very special lady." He looked at Leia. "I thought yousa were hers, but theysa never telling meesa what name
"I thought you said I looked more like my father."
"Like both of them. Theysa both in yousa face, and in his." Binks grew melancholy for a moment, eyestalks drooping and jowls slack. "Theysa good, good people. Meesa thinking dat maybe yousa don?t know this. Meesa thinking dat yousa maybe seeing only? "
"Only what?" Leia asked, but she knew.
He came here and knew about Vader, and still told her to her face that she looked like him.
She was already in the clearing before she realized that she'd drawn ahead of Luke and Binks. She was on the other side of the scorched mark.
They were just at the tree line, looking at her.
Then Binks looked down. He saw the scorch mark, then he looked at Luke again, and saw the Ewok vase. Luke nodded.
Binks knelt beside the scar with an odd dignity, then put his hands to his head, and let out an ear-splitting howl. When it faded, he stood, and held out his hands. Luke handed him the vase, and he sat down on the fallen log, cradling it gently. "Yousa gonna be missed," he said softly to it.
Leia couldn't stand it any more. She crossed the scar and stood in front of him, her hands itching to hit either him or the vase. "You know what he was!" she accused. "You know what we saw!"
Binks was quiet for a long time, then he held the vase out. Leia stared at it, but didn't take it.
He pulled it back. " Meesa could tell yousa lotsa stories, about who his'm was in the before. But yousa not ready to be listening."
"Luke's ready. Tell him. Don't let me get in the way."
"No. Yousa both should be knowing at the same time."
Luke looked across at her, a vague and unformed accusation in his eyes. She met it as defiantly as she could.
Binks looked down at the vase again. "Theresa story dat meesa thinking yousa can hear. This one?"
"About Vader?" Luke asked.
"Yes. About the Vader."
"I know enough about Vader," Leia said, turning away.
Turning away, but not leaving.
"Yes," Binks said again. " Meesa thinking yousa knowing a lot. But yousa forgetting some."
None of them spoke. Leia heard Luke move to sit down. She herself didn't turn around. She just looked out into the woods, and tried to focus on a far-off tree.
"The last time meesa seeing Ani," Binks said after a long time, "?twas maybe three, four years after yousa two was born? "
Leia tried not to listen to the voice, but there was nothing else to listen to. It carried her into another forest, another shadowy clearing, a place far away and long ago?
There is smoke in the air, and the flames crackle in the distance. The water comes blessedly up to the shore, and the Gungan dives into it. It's too warm and something in it smells foul, but it's enough. He can hide here as the stormtroopers go by, their white boots trampling what's left of the greenery. Soon, it too will be gone.
He stays underwater, only the tops of his eyestalks breaking the surface as he watches the troop movement. It goes on for a long time. They are headed for the city of Theed. It's been deserted for four years, but still they go there, they destroy even what could still be useful, because they hate what is beautiful.
Or because they are looking for something.
Jar-Jar Binks is pretty sure he knows what they might be looking for in Theed. They won't find it there. But if they find him, he's not sure how much he can hide.
The sound of the troop movement fades, but he still waits, waits until it has disappeared entirely. No chances. No ?
He is rising up at the water's edge when he sees the edge of a black boot.
There is no chance to hide again. He has been seen, and he can feel that he has been seen. He is caught by an unseen wind, pulling him up and to his feet. He is set down, almost ? but not quite ? gently.
Before him stands a nightmare, a towering humanesque form, in a flowing black cape, its face concealed by a horrible mask. It regards him without expression.
Jar-Jar's mind is suddenly opened. It feels like a strong wind catching a canvas that is tied over a box, and he struggles to hold on to it. He is able to. Gungan minds and human minds don't match too closely, and the Jedi always had some trouble with him. But before he closes the connection, he sees enough, feels enough. He falls to his knees, because he no longer has strength to stand.
"Ani," he whispers. "Yousa alive."
"That name is not mine," Vader tells him, calmly enough.
Jar-Jar has many questions, but he dares not ask them. He has wondered why Obi-Wan and Padm? were so frightened. Instead, he just asks, "Whatsa happened to you?"
Vader regards him with a cocked head and says, "If Kenobi still lives, you may ask him."
" Meesa knowing nothing ?bout Kenobi. Not for longo time."
"You know something, Jar-Jar." His voice is not angry. Merely puzzled. "Where is Padm?? If you know something, it is sure to be about her."
Jar-Jar shakes his head. He knows something about Padm? - something very important - but he hopes that Ani is only asking where she is, which he really doesn't know. He heard of her on Alderaan, but she has disappeared since then. "Meesa thinking she's dead," he says, and he does, in fact, think so. Padm? would never stay away from Ani if he needed her like this.
Ani turns his back, and Jar-Jar can only see that he's put his hands on his hips and is letting his cape billow around in the firewind. Jar-Jar takes a tentative step forward, but can't find the nerve to move any closer. He thinks of seeing Padm? in Palpatine's quarters on Coruscant, when she was the Queen and he didn't know that she was also Padm?. He had felt like this then, like he was standing behind a familiar stranger who he didn't quite dare to reach out to, even though it was obvious that the stranger needed a friendly hand. This stranger who is Ani is frightening and violent, but he is also in pain.
"I am uncertain," Ani says after awhile. "I feel her in my mind. Within me."
"Shis'm always going to be with yousa," Jar-Jar tries.
"But where is she?" Ani yells, then there is a bright red light. The lightsaber flies into the trees and chops off branches, then he calls it back into his hand, and holds it up in a challenge to the sky. "Where is my life?"
Jar-Jar isn't sure if Ani meant to say his "wife" or not, and doesn't ask. He doesn't think there's much difference. "Ani, yousa not chasing her with this'm? ?" He points after the stampeding soldiers.
Ani turns around again. "No. They are on a different errand. I seek her alone, and should anyone learn that I seek her at all ? "
"Theysa not hearing it from meesa." Jar-Jar is too relieved to say anything else.
Ani looks at him for a long time, then suddenly comes forward. One steel-hard hand wraps around his wrist. "Jar-Jar," he says, "the Emperor is conducting the final destruction of this world. I have no wish for it, but I will not stop it. If the Gungans yet remain, lead them away. Now. Today. Do you understand me? Do not tarry here, and do not try to reason. There will be no reasoning. Lead them away. Find a safe haven and do not depart from it."
Jar-Jar starts to turn around, but there is still something he needs to know. "Why yousa helping me?" he asks.
"Do not ask foolish questions."
"Wesa hiding then? How long?"
"How much time, meesa ask. And his'm tell me, 'Yousa gonna know, Jar-Jar Binks. Yousa gonna know the time.'"
Leia came out of the faraway, and looked over her shoulder at him. He was still cradling the vase. "And this is the time?" she asked dryly. Her voice sounded hoarse in her ears.
"Meesa knowing it, when meesa hearing his real name."
"But you got Gungans to safety?" Luke asked.
"Yes. Wesa got away. Wesa just ahead of the stormtroopers. If the Vader hadn't sent them to Theed, theysa woulda found us?n before wesa got away. His'm didn?t say, but this is why his'm sent them, meesa thinking. And why his'm stayed and waited."
"I think you're a generous soul," Leia said. "I'm glad you were able to rescue some of your people, but I suspect it was an afterthought. I ran with my mother. I remember. Someone was looking for her, and there were definitely stormtroopers involved."
"This'm not Ani. This'm Palpatine."
Leia turned to argue, but she saw the dismay on Luke's face at whatever he thought she was about to say, and she bit her tongue on it. Luke needed this story.
"Then he saved you," Luke said.
"His?m saved lots of us?n. Two, three hundred maybe that day."
"Thank you. Will you tell us more? More about what came before?"
Binks stood up and smiled. He held out the vase to Leia again. This time he was more stubborn, and at last, she took it.
He turned back to Luke. "Meesa wanting to tell yousa everything meesa knowing," he said. "But this should come at the same time for both of yousa. And yousa got to wait for yousa sister to be ready."
"When will that be?" Leia asked.
"Yousa gonna know the time,? he said. ?And den, yousa both come to meesa."
With that, he disappeared down the forest path, leaving the twins alone with their father.
Original cover by FernWithy. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.