In order to change the course of the war, Alliance High Command orders three soldiers to eliminate Darth Vader. The difficulty is just when they are expected to do it and who those three soldiers are.
For the good of all, those who ruled Alderaan lived a lie.
Despite the tendency of politicians of all races, creeds and species to cover their tracks, the High Court of Alderaan had often been commended for their policies against that. It was well-known that Alderaanian information could always be relied on, and this was only enhanced by the fact that they had no motivation to serve anything but peace.
There were, however, two great lies perpetrated by the Viceroy and his Queen, but only a few knew of such an infraction. The few who were privy to such information were those who could be trusted to never divulge that information--except under the most dire of circumstances.
The first great lie began with a single datafile. It recorded the live birth of a daughter to Queen Breha and Viceroy Bail Organa in the summer that saw the beginning of the Empire. No detail was omitted, since the Viceroy had been present at the birth. They certainly had enough information to fabricate an heir for Alderaan. No one dared to question that the girl who had her 'mother's' dark hair and her 'father's' diplomatic patience was anyone but an Organa.
They might have noticed something different in the lines of her face or the almost Jedi-like intuition that she possessed from an early age, but there were no questions asked. When it came to the leadership of an entire world, no one could afford to ask any questions.
The second great lie was one that was hardly unique to Alderaan and stemmed from the dark presence of a being that they could neither call a machine nor a man. He was half-alive--if that--and condemned by his choices and his body to spend the remainder of his days in an armor that allowed him to feel nothing beyond the chafing of the leather against his scarred flesh. It was rumored that, because he had relinquished his right to emotions when turning to the Dark Side, any other sensations were irrelevant.
Alderaan lied because many asked who he had been. They spoke of the Jedi he murdered and the Separatists that he had slaughtered. They shuddered at the hatred he had for the Force and the contempt he held for justice, but they could not speak his name.
They could not speak it because there was a power anchored in the reminder of who he was and who he had become.
They could not invoke the name of Anakin Skywalker because the children that he had fathered might still draw on the same power that he had turned against the Galaxy.
A Time For Every Purpose
It was said that Leia Organa, the last High Princess of the murdered Royal Court of the erstwhile Alderaan, looked like her mother.
It was true enough. Most who voiced that opinion, though, were those who saw Breha Organa's dark beauty and nobility in her narrow features. They recognized the formidable stare that she had cultivated in the service of the Senate.
Those who had known her simply as Leia before the surname of Organa was granted to her knew that she looked instead like the woman who gave birth to her. They also knew exactly how dangerous the resemblance was.
When she had been held by the Empire and challenged Lord Vader's ability to break any mind, they feared that he would see enough of Padme Amidala in there that he would recognize her as his own. Instead, he was too distracted by the power to resist him that she had inherited from her Jedi father to care about what ghost she brought to mind.
That distraction had cost the Galaxy one of its Core worlds and cost Leia Organa, nee Leia Skywalker, any compassion she had ever harbored for the man who called himself Vader.
So instead, it was the report of a farmboy pilot by the name of Luke Skywalker that turned Vader's thoughts to a hunt for his child. No person could discern the mind of the Dark Lord, but they knew that his initial reaction killed four men. His search for young Skywalker had been claiming lives in the five months since that moment.
His intention was made clear when he had the opportunity to eliminate the enemy with his name and spared his life. Vader needed no corpse, but an apprentice. Skywalker was too valuable an asset to turn against the Alliance.
It was that fact, then, that compelled the last Alderaanian who would dare to speak of their lies to action.
"The High Command will see you now."
It was unusual for Leia to return to the convocation. She had chosen the path of a warrior with a few reservations, but fewer doubts, only months after the destruction of Alderaan. While Mon Mothma had attempted to draw her over to what Bail had jokingly called the "Diplomatic Dark Side," Leia had stubbornly resisted the woman's urge to keep her out of the ranks of the Alliance.
As a result, she only was summoned here when they required special services of her. What those services might be today was unclear, especially given the secrecy of the summons.
Standing, she smoothed the travel wrinkles from her slacks and followed the Lieutenant into the conference room. Immediately, her eyes sought out Rieekan. His facial expression tended to be the gauge of how severe the situation was.
The fact that he would not meet her gaze sent her confidence in the matter straight to all five Alderaanian hells.
Nevertheless, she bowed formally, then stood at attention in anticipation of further instructions.
"Leia, thank you for coming," Mon Mothma greeted. "Would you be seated?"
She settled into the chair with her back straight and her eyes on Mon Mothma. The older woman regarded her carefully, and then glanced at Rieekan as if asking for clarification.
"You seem apprehensive," Mon Mothma observed.
"I am willing to serve," Leia said flatly. "My feelings about the mission are irrelevant."
Rieekan nodded in seeming confirmation and Mon Mothma returned her gaze to Leia. "That is good to hear," she conceded.
"What do you require of me?" Leia asked with the same formal tones. "You didn't call me here to comment on my loyalties."
"Perhaps we did," Rieekan retorted. "We have a mission that will require a great amount of loyalty to justice. Naturally, you came to mind."
It wasn't like him to flatter her into accepting a mission. It was usually a matter of her prying the details out of him before making the necessary arrangements.
Whatever it was that they had called her here to perform, she was starting to suspect that she wouldn't want to know exactly what he defined as loyalty to justice.
"What do you require of me?" she repeated.
After a moment's hesitation, Rieekan passed a datacard to an aide, who brought it to her. She didn't even bother to look at it, only slipped it into the pocket of her jacket.
"We require an elimination," he said, voice finally taking on the tone of a man who was speaking unpleasant truths that were, nevertheless, truths.
With any other tone, she might have joked about whether or not they were eliminating Vader or the mess hall staff, but the entire tone of the meeting suggested immediately what they intended.
"You can't expect anyone to be able to simply 'eliminate' Vader."
They looked neither shocked nor disappointed that she had guessed their intentions with such ease, but there was a smug kind of acknowledgment on Mon Mothma's face. "Thank you for proving that you have the mental astuteness to carry out the mission," she said flatly.
"I have no intention of carrying out the mission," Leia retorted fiercely. "I am an Alderaanian. I have no intention of ever eliminating someone in the manner that you are suggesting."
"You are an Alderaanian," Rieekan agreed, nodding, "but you are the one Alderaanian or even Alliance member, for that matter, who would never be tempted to let that mission fail."
Of course, he was right about one aspect. If she were given the task of eradicating Vader's influence, she would not rest until the mission was accomplished simply because he was the antithesis of everything that she stood for. He was, moreover, the one who could be held responsible for almost every atrocity that she had been forced to witness in her years as a Rebel.
But there was a vast difference between bringing about justice or the end of an enemy and what the datacard would instruct her to do.
"I am an Alderaanian," she hissed. "'In cold blood' has never been translated into my native language."
"I think you misunderstand," he protested quietly.
"I'm hoping you're right about that," she retorted, "because you are asking me to do something that is impossible, both morally and practically."
"Practically?" Mon Mothma echoed. "What do you mean by that?"
"After the Emperor and perhaps Wynssa Starflare," she sneered, "Vader is the most well-protected and isolated monster in the Galaxy. Assassination has been attempted four times in the last five years and you know just as well as I that with the..."
"Leia," Rieekan interrupted, "we're not intending anything in the last five years."
Before she could ask precisely what he meant, there was another knock on the door.
"Show him in," Mon Mothma commanded the Lieutenant. "He'll need to give input on this particular situation."
"I'm not sure it's wise to try and let Captain Solo persuade her," Rieekan said dryly. "She doesn't have the habit of listening to much of anything he says."
His suggestion came too late as the one person who could make this situation worse came swaggering in.
"So," he said happily, "are we ready to go or are we still looking for an exorcist?"
"No," Leia said flatly.
"Ah," he grunted, "still in negotiation. I'll be outside."
"As long as outside involves being on the other side of the base," she agreed. "Since I have no business with this operation, I will accompany you."
"You won't do that."
If Rieekan presumed to know her mind one more time, she would have to mutiny.
"Why not?" she snapped.
"Because you are an Alderaanian," he echoed her adamant phrase of earlier. "You have always said that you would do anything to see the Empire fall and that includes taking it apart at the highest levels."
"Which is not possible," she reminded, "as I just explained."
He nodded towards the datacard that she had extracted from her pocket at some point during her rant. "If you look at that, it will acquaint you with the principle of time-travel..."
"First you ask me to do the impossible," Leia snorted, "and now you ask me to believe the impossible."
Rieekan regarded her with a bland expression that she recognized too well as being his victory look. "If it's impossible," he suggested, "then there's no harm in trying."
"We'll need you strapped in," Han explained as he pulled back the covers on the crew bunk. "The navcomputer will be doing the hard part of the navigation and I'll be in my quarters, but they want us both unable to resist."
"Asleep, you mean," Leia surmised.
"Ideally," he agreed. "We are going to have a bit of a jolt if all goes well and we don't want any permanent damage."
She shook her head. "I don't think you understand that the jolt will be the gravity tearing this piece of junk apart."
"Probably," he agreed with a grin as she sank onto the mattress, "but it's worth the experiment."
He grinned. "Come on, Your Highnessness, is this going to be all that bad?"
Nevertheless, she allowed him to fasten the crash restraints across her legs and chest, then settled in, slowing her breathing and trying not to think about the fact that they were more likely to spontaneously combust than move one second back in time.
It was an almost welcome thought to consider that this would all end just as quickly as it had started. The mission was beyond insanity and a sign of nothing more than the desperation that followed such things as Derra IV.
A distant beeping from the proximity alarm was the last thing she heard before the darkness took her.
"YT-1300," a voice was calling on the intercom, "this is Coruscant Sector Flight Control. Identify yourself. Repeating, this is Coruscant Sector Flight Control. You are in an inbound vector without a declared destination. Identify yourself and you will be assigned a landing slot. If you do not identify yourself, we will consider you to be a Separatist and open fire."
The crash restraints had been apparently ineffectual, since she was somehow half out of the bunk and bleeding from a gash across her right cheek.
"Han," she blurted, "where the stars..."
"Taking care of it," he called back, his voice distant through the ringing in her ears. "This is the YT-1300 Millenium Falcon out of Corellia. Kinda jumpy, aren't you?"
"You missed the battle," the controller retorted unapologetically. "If you'd had half the warships in the Galaxy crashing into your planet, you'd be 'kinda jumpy' too."
"Battle?" Han responded. "Did we win?"
"In a manner of speaking," the controller replied. "The Separatists are on the run and Chancellor Palpatine..."
That name immediately sent her scrambling to her feet, hand clamped around her torn cheek as she stumbled towards the cockpit. Pain stabbed various parts of her anatomy with each step, but she couldn't afford to notice that at a time like this.
"We can get you a slot at the Senate public bays," the controller offered. "Set vector..."
Han tapped in the vectors, then turned to frown at her. "You're hurt," he observed unnecessarily.
"That's one way of putting it," she agreed, lifting her hand to show off the gouged cheek. "That was more than a jolt."
"It was more than an experiment," he said triumphantly. "If you look to the East, we'll do a very scenic flyby of the Jedi Temple..."
Her hand dropped to her side in shock. "This is impossible," she breathed.
He nodded. "Apparently, you believed in the impossible strongly enough."
Her mind was reeling, but not just with the blood loss and the concussion that she had undoubtedly suffered.
"I believed in it a little too much," she countered. "We went to the last days of the Republic rather than the first years of the Empire."
"That's impossible," Han said immediately. "From the way we hit the anomaly..."
"From the way we hit it, we were lucky not to be killed," Leia retorted. "I'm surprised we aren't meeting up with the Empress Teta."
He nodded. "We were lucky," he finally conceded.
"Lucky?" she shrilled. "Vader doesn't exist yet!"
He winced sincerely, but she wasn't sure if it were because he was finally cognizant of their dilemma or if he were simply realizing that that lump on his head should hurt some.
"Minor drawback," he insisted. "Come on; let's keep a little optimism here."
Her hand came up once more to cradle her head, drawing a grimace from her as well. "Our credits," she said quietly, "our identifications, everything is based on the principle that we were going to the Empire."
"Our birth certificates are the right format," he countered. "That should be enough for now."
"Not when they ask you to prove how you're going to pay for the docking bay," she shot back.
Finally, that seemed to get through his concussed skull and the grimace turned into a full-out scowl. "No chance that you've got a Jedi mind trick hidden up your sleeve?"
"No, Han," she said impatiently, "you need to be a Jedi for that."
With that, she unstrapped and stalked towards the ramp, trying to ignore the fact that she wasn't exactly sure of her stability. Han followed a little more steadily, retrieving the bags.
"You're overreacting," he alleged loudly as she headed down the ramp. "Just because we've hit a few bumps..."
"A few bumps?" she interrupted. "You call all of this a few bumps?"
It had never occurred to her in the rather flustered state that she had been in from the moment that she laid eyes on the Jedi Temple that they might want to check on their audience. Unfortunately, their audience consisted of what looked to be the Senate guard.
"Lovers' quarrel," Han said cheekily, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
"Lovers?" Leia snorted, shrugging him off. "Not even in my worst nightmare!"
He shook his head, winking at the nearest guard. "You know how women are," he confided.
Reaching up, the guard pulled free the helmet to reveal narrow features and a thick head of long, auburn hair. "I do," she confirmed, "but probably not in the way you do."
Han at least had the decency to look abashed, but she ignored that and turned to Leia. "Commander Bey of the Senate guard," she introduced herself. "If you'll come with us, I can arrange some medical care."
"That's not nece..." Han began, but fell silent at Bey's look.
"You can stay behind," she said brusquely, "but I'm not letting her go untreated."
There was something in her tone that suggested a drastic misunderstanding, but Leia didn't argue.
The gash in her cheek required only a bacta patch, but she had apparently broken her wrist in the event, which required a cast. Han was in another room, having his bumps and bruises looked at, but Bey spoke in a low voice so that he would not be able to overhear.
"Say the word," she murmured, "and I can have him taken away."
She had no idea why the woman would even suggest such a thing, even with all the frustration she had with the man. A moment later, however, it became too clear.
Stunned, Leia could only stammer, "There was a crash..."
"The ship is in perfect condition, and he is hardly suffering," she retorted. "You don't have to be brave just because you think I'm easily fooled."
"I don't know," Leia insisted.
Bey sent another glance over her shoulder. "Where are you from, milady?"
"Alderaan," Leia supplied automatically.
Bey nodded solemnly. "I know Senator Organa well and he is a good man."
Of course he is. He'll be my father once I'm born.
"He can give you asylum," she suggested, "even if it's just until he cools down."
Asylum with an Alderaanian would mean more than a place to stay. It would, if necessary, mean a job. A perfect means to get the credits that they no longer had.
"I'll need to tell him..."
"No, you don't," Bey snapped. "If this is what happens..."
"He'll understand," she interrupted. "It's until he cools down and he could use the space."
Bey hardly looked happy about it, but she handed over a commsignal, the handheld version of a distress beacon. "If you need us, just signal with this. Otherwise, we won't interfere."
Half a minute later, Han entered, looking thoroughly bewildered.
"I need some space," she said loudly enough for the benefit of Bey. "They've offered me a place to stay for a few days in the Alderaanian consulate..."
"I don't understand," Han said flatly, expression darkening.
Her voice dropped to a cautious whisper. "They think you did this to me and I can't convince them otherwise," she explained, "but I'm not pressing charges. You'll go free and I'll have access to the higher levels of the Senate."
"Wait a minute," he protested. "They think..."
"No one will suspect both of us of being up to something if we're separated," she hissed. "It's for the good of the mission."
"They want to lock me away for beating you senseless," he hissed back. "I'm not getting labeled as a wife-beater for the good of the Alliance!"
"Wife-beater?" she snapped. "I don't even like you!"
He drew back, regarding her with a puzzled expression. "You're sure about this?"
She nodded. "I just don't know why."
He was clearly struggling to understand why he wasn't violently opposed to the idea, but at last he nodded.
"Drop me a line sometime."
There were few places that Leia knew like the back of her hand on Coruscant, but, naturally, the Alderaanian Consulate was one of them.
The Organas had purchased a home in the residential district just after she was born, but that had not meant that Bail Organa kept his distance from the diplomatic center of his homeworld. He had occupied the same office facing the eastern plaza for as long as she could remember and it had always held a small bench in the corner that seemed to be the perfect size for Leia.
When Papa was in meetings, however, she had been allowed to wander under supervision and she had found every back passage and half-hidden alcove. It had, of course, helped that Papa had allowed Winter to accompany her on such outings. After a mere two weeks of exploring the Consulate, she had never become lost again.
She could not, of course, have that kind of familiarity as a visitor to the Consulate. Instead, she dutifully followed the Lieutenant who would eventually become Tarrick, her father's most trusted aide, to the registry office.
It would have been awkward and inexplicable if she gave in to the urge to cry. The pangs of homesickness had started the moment they landed in front of the towering structure that had been carved out of solid Antibes granite, but they got much worse once she placed her foot on the first stair of the grand staircase that led to the administrative mezzanine. It was too familiar, too welcoming for comfort, so she kept her eyes fixed on the cream carpet that was shot through with a vine pattern in the colors of each province. It wasn't much of an improvement on having to re-memorize the position of the familiar statues and information kiosks, but it was easier to identify Antibes, Crevasse, Aldera, Thon and so on than to face more tangible reminders of those erstwhile locations.
Finally, they came to a door that she had only visited once, since the High Princess of Alderaan rarely needed to be introduced as a guest of the sovereignty. The old-fashioned tiah-wood door swung open and she preceded Tarrick into a small office that was currently unattended.
"If you'll take a seat," Tarrick invited graciously, "I'll have our registry officer take care of your accommodations immediately."
Even years before she would be old enough to remember him, he had the same painful formality that had intimidated her as a child and amused her as a young woman.
It was reassuring to see that some things never changed.
"Thank you," Leia said, forcing a rasp into her voice to match the experience she had supposedly been through.
The sun-speckled face of the flame-haired woman who arrived in the next moment was unfamiliar, but that was no matter. She was at last in somewhat familiar territory and that was certainly an improvement.
"Mere Garego," she introduced herself as she extended a hand in greeting.
"Leia Antilles," Leia responded automatically. "I understand you may be able to help me?"
Mere nodded. "You are seeking asylum?"
"At least on a temporary basis," Leia admitted. "My husband..."
It was not difficult to let her hand shake as she gestured to the gash on her cheek. "The Senate guard said you might be able to help me," she explained at last.
"Certainly," Mere soothed. "We don't make a habit of turning away those who are in need, even if they're married to a Corellian."
It was a familiar joke, since Corellians tended to think of Alderaanians as spineless pacifists who would negotiate their way out of all nine Corellian hells. Alderaanians conversely thought of Corellians as crass mercenaries who didn't have a word for manners in their language.
Not that either description was entirely inaccurate, of course.
Well, except when speaking of Han Solo and Leia Organa.
Neither of them, however, were permitted to be here, so she would have to comport herself in a way that would keep her from being notice. Han would most likely do the opposite. It was simply a manifestation of his incurable urge to make trouble.
"Do you have any identification or documents to prove your citizenship?"
Leia passed over the cards that she had kept carefully tucked away in a vest pocket since her departure from base. Mere inserted the first, her birth certificate, into the reader, then nodded slightly before scanning the rest of the cards.
"All seems to be in order," Mere assured. "I'll need your husband's identification number so that we can put out a bulletin to the guards. They won't let him in under any circumstances if they know who he is."
Leia rattled off the number as any person who had to keep track of their family would, as well as basic descriptions.
She could only hope that, once it was necessary, she could have such restrictions lifted.
"I'll pass that on to our sentinels," Mere commented, "but I'm guessing you'd like to find a place to rest."
"It's been a long trip," Leia agreed quietly.
"It'll mean some datawork in the end," she apologized, "but in the meantime, we can give you a place to stay and a stipend until we can arrange something more permanent."
Leia managed a wan smile. "If you have a durasteel crate I could curl up in, I'd be grateful," she assured the older woman.
"I think we can do better than that," Mere laughed, pushing to her feet. "One of our permanent residents defected to the Chandrilan delegation. I've put through the assignment for you to take those quarters for the time being."
"Thank you," Leia responded.
The woman pushed to her feet and handed the datacards back to Leia before heading for the door. "If you'll give me a few minutes, I'll be back to take you there," she promised.
The door closed behind her before Leia could speak again and Leia let out a long breath of relief. At least one thing was going smoothly.
Things would, however, be complicated by the impression that they were married. Estrangement was definitely the most convenient excuse to keep him at arm's length, but the inevitable reconciliation that would be necessary to succeed on this mission would be a lot trickier.
Standing, she tucked the datacards into her pocket once more and began gathering her things for the move to her quarters. When the door reopened, she turned her attention to Mere once more.
Instead, the bag that she had just retrieved fell unnoticed from her arms. Her eyes dropped immediately to the floor, not out of shame, but because she was very honestly terrified of Bail Organa seeing her cry.
It was unmistakably him, since he had the same neat goatee that he had sported in varying shades of grey and black over the years that he had called himself her father. The eyes were the same too, and held an all-too-familiar expression of curious empathy. Worst of all, it was as if his presence in the room pressed the memory of his tight embrace into her tense muscles.
She could not cry, but he was pushing her endurance to the limits.
"No need for that," he chided. "You are our new arrival?"
"Yes, sir," she said quietly.
It was almost impossible to imagine how her voice managed to remain so steady when her eyes were stinging and blurred by the impulse to break down completely. She took a long, slow breath, and then forced herself to look up at him.
He was looking more puzzled than anything, but didn't seem willing to press her for information.
"Are you afraid of me?" he asked flatly.
I can't be afraid of you. You're the man that I loved more than any other for my entire life. You're the one who rocked me to sleep at night and who made sure I was allowed to grieve for my Mama. You haven't met me yet, but you changed my life in every way imaginable.
How can I be afraid of you?
I'm not. I'm just afraid of what I might do.
I'm afraid that what I have been sent here to do is something that you would never forgive.
"No," she said at last. "I'm not."
He smiled cautiously. "That's good," he commended. "If you are to be working with our delegation, it's not right to have ill feelings."
Her eyes met his as her stomach jolted in shock. "With the..."
"You expressed a desire to work to Tarrick," Bail explained, "and your credentials are certainly suitable for such a job."
She let her eyes close against the tears in something between relief and fear, and then nodded.
"I'd appreciate that."
Being a smuggler had taught Han Solo many things, but the first and foremost thing was self-reliance. As a result, he had learned how to survive on his wits alone, even if it occasionally meant humiliation.
That didn't seem to be necessary this time around, though. Practicality had kept the Falcon running on parts that had been developed as early as thirty years ago, so he had a few crates of things that were positively antiquated, even by Alliance standards, but were cutting edge or standard fare in this era.
There was, of course, no other reason that he could give Leia for going into what was called Invisec by the Imperials and the Underground by anyone in the late days of the Republic.
At least, that would be the excuse he would give her if Her Worship ever decided that speaking to him was in the interest of the common good again.
None of his regular customers would be here, of course, but he was familiar enough with the area to know what back alleys to stay out of and what to look for.
It was, therefore, to his surprise that the person he settled on was a woman.
She had a head full of dark curls that were probably artificial, but cropped short so he could see a long neck marred by a burn scar on the right side. Her posture suggested that she didn't belong in some third-rate tapcafe, but he wasn't one to judge that.
As it was, she was drinking a julafizz, which seemed like too weak of a drink for someone keeping company with the scum in this area. It was one of those drinks that a polite socialite would sip at her debutante ball, rather than in a room full of peeling paint and illegal narcotics.
"You look like you have a discerning eye," Han remarked, sliding onto the barstool next to her.
The brunette looked him over with a highly unamused look. "I don't like pretty-boy talk," she muttered. "What do you want?"
He'd come here to get away from Leia and was getting her attitude at every turn.
"I've got some business to do," he explained, "and you look disrespectable enough to make it worth my while."
She nodded. "I think that's the nicest thing someone's said to me all year," she mused. "What sort of business?"
"Rare parts," he explained. "I've got hyperdrive components from Seinar..."
She laughed inexplicably. "Kid, you couldn't afford them if you sold whatever crate you're dropping out of the sky."
"Now you're just being rude," Han chided. "I've got a YT-1300 that still has fewer miles on her than credits that I spent to get her."
She turned an evaluative look on him, but her face remained expressionless. "Is that what you spent your charm school tuition on?"
"Of course," he responded with a grin. "I was born with more charm than you'll ever know."
Finally, the smile appeared. "You've got enough spirit to make this worthwhile," she guessed. "What else have you got?"
"I don't do business with strangers," Han countered. "The name's Han Solo."
"Is that a title or a name?" she shot back. "I'm Tizar Nan."
The name caused a twinge in his chest, but he couldn't pinpoint why. "A pleasure, Miss Nan," he said formally with a grin. "Shall we go look over the merchandise?"
The morning dawned clear and warm, as if the light of the stars had burned the threats of the day before away. Her mind thought for just a moment that she was on Alderaan, since the scent of lornas beyond the half-open window was almost overpowering, but the scent was laced with the industrial stench that she remembered too well from Coruscant.
Some things never changed.
The knock that had awakened her sounded again and she groped for the dark red robe that she had unpacked the night before before slapping the door release.
"Lady Antilles," the guard greeted. "The Viceroy would like to see you in ten minutes at his office."
"Thank you," she said around a yawn. "Where is his office?"
It was an unnecessary question, since he was six paces to the left, fifteen to the right and the third door on the left, but the guard smiled indulgently. "I'll guide you in nine minutes, if you like."
In nine minutes, she'd pulled her hair into some semblance of order by braiding it and pulled on the most formal of the robes that she'd brought along. It was a dark green gown in a simple style that was belted with a golden cord at the waist-something that would not be out of place at a consulate, but something that would be too informal for a member of the delegation's staff. Anything more formal would be above her station.
Bail, on the other hand, was dressed in the well-tailored robes that she had always found inappropriately military. Had she been able to act as herself, she might have been able to comment on it, tease him about being a pacifist ready for war, but instead, she bowed in silence and waited for instructions.
It was much less difficult to look on him this morning, since the shock of familiarity had worn off and she felt as though she were finally on familiar ground herself. He didn't seem to mark the difference, but greeted her a similar bow and gestured her to a chair.
"You were comfortable in your new quarters?"
"I slept well," Leia agreed.
I am not comfortable among my own kind, but it has nothing to do with the level of kindness you've shown to someone who is nothing more than a complete stranger to you.
"Good," he said. "After the day's session, I'll have one of the guards show you the location of such things as the kitchen and the comm center."
"Yes, sir," she responded demurely.
"I apologize for the early hour," Bail said with a slight smile, "but there is a message that I need delivered before the morning's session. It can't be entrusted to the comm units."
"I understand," she said honestly.
It had been her first duty as part of the Alliance, since she could pass along information and instructions without drawing much attention to herself.
"Who is the recipient?"
"Senator Padme Amidala," he supplied, passing over two datacards. "The directions to her address are on the second card. If you could wait for her response, I would appreciate it."
"Yes, sir," she said, executing another bow. "When I return, should I find you here?"
"No," he said quickly. "I will have arrived at the Senate by that point, so I will have one of our drivers look to your transportation."
She needed little time to find Republica 500, since it had been left standing even in the days when she was a young Senator. The Senator's quarters were on the eastern end of the building and she was about to press the annunciator chime when the door hissed open.
"I'll return tonight," the man who backed out of the door was whispering as a petite woman stretched up for a last kiss, "but if you don't let me go, I'll never get to the report on the Outer Rim sieges."
"And that's such a bad thing?" the woman teased as Leia hastily sidestepped, lowering her eyes to avoid staring.
"Bad, no," he laughed, "but suspicious. Obi-Wan would take it as a personal insult and the Council would think I was being rebellious again."
Abruptly, he stiffened and turned in her direction, eyes evaluating her as he would a threat. Cold blue eyes.
The resemblance was unmistakable, even in the cleft in his chin. Her instinct was to gasp, but instead, she sketched a formal bow.
"Master Jedi," she greeted politely, "I apologize for the interruption, but I have been asked to deliver a message to Senator Amidala."
His mouth quirked in displeasure. "From Senator Organa?"
"Yes," she agreed.
"You look like someone Organa would trust," he said cryptically.
She blinked, unsure of his intentions in saying that, but said the first truth that came to her mind.
"You flatter me too greatly."
He bowed formally, and then turned to leave, leaving the Senator in the doorway. She watched his retreat for a long moment, mouth half-opened as if she wanted to call some kind of warning, benediction or an admission of affection after him, but she finally turned her gaze to Leia.
"Come in," she invited. "I don't wish to keep you waiting."
She turned and this time, Leia did suck in a sharp breath at the barely noticeable swell of her belly beneath the loose nightgown that she was wearing. Fortunately, Padme didn't hear her.
"If you'll excuse me for a moment..."
Leia didn't wait for an invitation to sit--her knees seemed to give out on their own and she sank into the chair. Her breath came with difficulty as if she had been struck hard in the stomach and this apartment was certainly not helping matters.
She had expected many unusual experiences if they managed to survive the original journey to the past, but she had never expected to be granted an opportunity that Luke had been denied far too casually.
She had looked into the eyes of his father, spoken to him. She had seen his parents clearly and unabashedly in love.
The air became suddenly oppressive with the force of what would be denied. She had spoken to the parents that had never heard their son's voice, but in a few months, every trace of them would become a rumor of a memory. The love that had brought Luke Skywalker into the world would be a moot point because no amount of love could stop the evil that would come all too easily.
In four months, maybe less, all of this would be for nothing.
Vader, wherever he was, had obliterated the perfection of a love that was not weakened by war. He had betrayed and murdered the man that Luke had never been able to call Father.
Luke had every right to be here, and should have been the one to find Vader, just for this moment.
For the first time, the order to kill Vader was not a burden, but something that her hatred for him demanded of her.
Luke's mother emerged, nightgown replaced by a heavy blue gown with a high waistline and a loose skirt.
"I apologize," Padme said graciously. "I had a late morning..."
"I understand," Leia said. "Senator Organa simply asked that I deliver this message before the Senate session and that I return with your answer."
"Typical Bail," Padme sighed as she accepted the datacard, "always impatient on someone else's schedule."
She turned away, reading it by the morning light with shoulders hunched in some indescribable tension. Something on the datacard seemed to drain that tension away, at least in part and Padme turned back with a slight smile.
"Let him know that I will be there at the appointed hour, but that I will need a transport."
It was clearly a dismissal, one that Leia had no desire to accept, but had to.
It was no surprise to find that the Consulate had a speeder waiting, but the shock came the moment Leia slid into the passenger seat.
"I could get you arrested for this," she remarked.
"You could," Han agreed, "but if you hadn't forgotten, the High Command probably assigned me to this mission for a reason."
"Such as your ability to make trouble wherever you go?" she retorted.
"Something like that," he conceded, albeit reluctantly, though if I recall correctly, my run-in with the Senate Guard was entirely your fault."
She at least didn't bother to deny it.
"So, I've got a job," she pronounced, "and you..."
"Have been doing business," he supplied, passing over a credit transfer chip. "Some of the spit and crating tape you claim keeps my girl together goes for a nice price these days."
"Well done," she commended. "How much persuasion did it take?"
"Not much," he retorted, feigning a hurt look. "She was very friendly."
With his usual aplomb and flair for subtlety, he'd managed to ruin the moment of victory.
"What?" he demanded. "I took the business where I could find it."
"For the love of Taia," Leia sputtered, "for all we know, you were flirting with your mother."
His gaze, that had been drifting on occasion to register her reactions, became suddenly fixed on the passing cityscape. "Not likely," he said gruffly. "Near as I can tell, she died about eight years before now."
Any retort died mid-thought, responded by only one thought. She was immensely relieved to know that it was genuine.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly.
He nodded, not quite a response, not quite an acceptance, but certainly an acknowledgment.
"And your father?"
"Not sure," he flatly responded. "What were you doing at Republica 500?"
She wasn't entirely reassured by his tendency to change subjects, but given the subject matter, it was forgivable.
"I met Anakin Skywalker," she announced instead of pressing the previous matter, "and his pregnant wife."
He was silent for a long moment, obliquely reflective of the stunned silence that she had narrowly escaped upon encountering them.
"She's a Senator," Leia supplied, "and Senator Organa needed a message delivered."
"And you're sure it was him?"
"Striking resemblance to Luke and expecting his first child," she stated. "He was even heading off to talk to Ben Kenobi."
"Sounds like a Skywalker, all right," Han snorted.
The Senate was looming closer and yet he still hadn't managed to explain why he had stolen a Consulate speeder to play her chauffeur.
"Did you miss me or is there a reason you are pretending to belong to my sovereignty?"
"A few reasons," he explained. "First, I went to pay the docking fees and found that they had been taken care of."
"By the Consulate?"
"Exactly," he confirmed. "Even in your prenatal form, Bail Organa seems to have a soft spot for you."
"Not at all," he admitted. "It'll help in case we actually need some of those parts that I auctioned off."
"And the other few?" she prompted.
He finally looked at her again, expression having relaxed slightly now that they were on more familiar ground.
"I wanted to know what good you claim this is doing," he stated.
"In taking refuge with the Alderaanians and letting everyone else think you're a common criminal type?" she clarified.
He might have retorted that she had called him a few things much worse than a 'common criminal type,' but he simply shrugged.
"Something like that."
"Well, what do we know about Vader?"
"The basics," he replied. "A former Jedi who turned on the Order and was responsible for the majority of their deaths, Anakin Skywalker included."
"Also the man who is closer to the Emperor than any other in the Galaxy," she reminded.
"The best way to find out who is close to Palpatine," she reasoned, "is to look at the political hierarchy. I know who his enemies are, but not who comprised his inner circle."
"So, you'll be asking his enemies," Han guessed. "Makes sense."
"And don't worry," she soothed with a grin. "There's always the hope of reconciliation."
"Not if they find out about my hijacking tendencies," he teased back.
It was good to see the smile back. "What were the other things?" she prodded.
"Mostly wanting to keep an eye on you," he returned. "You have this way of getting yourself into trouble."
"How charming," she said drolly. "Who do you think I learned it from?"
"Luke," he suggested. "He's the only other one I know with that gift."
Without further comment, he pulled the speeder into the assigned slot and shut off the engine.
"I also managed to liberate a guard uniform," he continued unnecessarily. "Would you like me to take advantage of it and give you an escort?"
She was tempted to dismiss him with a roll of the eyes, but it was protocol for members of a delegation, even the staff, to be accompanied by a consular guard.
"Lead on," she conceded.
Even more than the Consulate, the Senate box of the Alderaan sovereignty was as familiar as the air of her homeworld. She had no difficulty in directing her 'guard' towards the box just as they were permitting the Senators to take their seats.
"Senator," Leia called, "a word?"
Bail turned, welcoming her with the smile that he used for familiar strangers and that only made her heartsick and homesick, yearning for the smile that she had known far too well. Turning to the Senator he had been greeting, he made his excuses, then gestured her into one of the conference rooms that adjoined the boxes. Han remained at attention outside, as if were assigned to the duty.
"She'll need transport, but she will come."
"Good to hear," he sighed, hands unclenching. "Thank you for bringing the message."
For a long moment, they stood in a silence that she could neither break nor understand. Finally, his eyes lifted to meet hers with a finally familiar solemnity.
"Where do your loyalties lie?"
To justice. To those who died unnecessarily.
"To Alderaan," she said honestly, "and to the Republic."
"The same as mine."
Of course. You taught me my loyalties by example.
"Why do you ask, Senator?" she quietly asked.
"My loyalties are to the Republic," Bail responded, "and most of the Senator in that arena don't believe that should be a priority."
"I've noticed," she said flatly.
He regarded her silently, then nodded to her datapad. "The meeting is one between those of us who are looking for an end to this war. No matter our loyalties to the Chancellor or the Senate, we want our Constitution and peace back."
It was too similar to the other things she'd heard for years for comfort and she had to lower her eyes to the carpet. Nonetheless, the tears were stinging too close to her eyelids to avoid escaping.
He turned away, arms spreading wide. "I'm sorry," he said frankly. "I didn't mean to...lecture."
"It's a relief to hear someone else think what is in my heart," was her inadequate response.
The smile that he wore once he turned was even harder to cope with, since he was finally giving her a look that she recognized from a more private life. "I knew you could be trusted," he stated.
Without another word, he passed her and opened the door. Han bowed slightly as he passed, then shot her a curious look as she managed to compose herself.
"Do you always cry when alone in a room with him?" he murmured.
"It's only happened once," she countered in like tones. "And he probably thought it had something to do with my loyalties."
"You'll have to explain to me sometime about loyalties that make you miserable," he muttered.
She was about to respond when his hand wrapped around her wrist, yanking her off her feet just as a blaster bolt spattered off the wall where her head had been. Too stunned to scream, she scrabbled for the blaster that wasn't there and, finding nothing at her waist, simply kept her head down.
A few heartbeats later, it was somehow over and she propped herself up on her elbows, eyes searching through the haze of shock for Han and Bail.
Han was helping Bail to his feet, both of them looking stunned, but the Senate Guards were crouched over the apparent assailant.
"For once you had your blaster on stun," Leia stammered.
"Easier to ask questions that way," Han explained.
"If you don't mind," Bail interrupted, "I have a few of my own."
"Han Solo," Han introduced myself.
"My husband," Leia supplied.
"The one we are protecting you against?" Bail hissed.
"The one who saved your life," Leia unexpectedly shot back.
"I have some explanations to make," Han interrupted, "but we need to decide if you're going to the day's session first."
Bail glanced at Leia. "If you'll make my apologies to Senator Turot," he suggested, "your husband and I have a few things to talk about."
The man was a puzzle.
He had a face of a professional sabacc player, the manners of a Gamorrean and a name that could only have been some kind of alias. At the moment, he also seemed wholly uninterested in explaining how he came to save the life of a complete stranger.
Bail reentered the same conference room that he had vacated just moments before and gestured to the seat opposite him while settling. Theoretically, this less formal atmosphere was supposed to put the other man at ease, but Solo wasn't buying it. Bail would have remained standing as well, but the mere act of narrowly avoiding death seemed to have drained all of the strength from his legs.
"I owe you thanks," he said by way of preamble.
Solo said nothing, only stared back at him as if he were waiting for a sabacc opponent to show his hand. The look of strained indifference remained fixed on his face.
"Will you at least tell me why?"
"For Leia," he said flatly.
It seemed paradoxical that the man who had been detained by the Senate Guard for assault and battery twenty-hours before could claim to do it for the love of his wife with such a straight face. Then again, the man was obviously both Corellian and one to play his hand close to the vest.
"According to her reasons for pleading for asylum," Bail said dryly, "I don't quite believe that. You are in the Senate illegally..."
"That's not quite true."
Bail didn't respond, per se, simply arched an eyebrow to invite an explanation. None came. In fact, if possible, Solo looked more stubborn than ever.
"Leia Antilles came to the Consulate because she was afraid of her husband. He escorted her after illegally appropriating a speeder assigned to the sovereignty of Alderaan, to which he does not belong. He entered the Senate on falsified papers and assaulted another sentient with a deadly weapon."
Solo didn't bother to deny any of that, but his expression at least shifted from 'I don't even notice you,' to one that Bail clearly recognized as 'Your point being?' It was one that Breha used with maddening frequency, but at least the familiarity of the look meant that he knew how to respond to it.
Or at least he hoped he knew.
"What part of this is 'not quite true?'" Bail pressed.
"She wasn't afraid of me," he protested. "She had every chance to call the Guard on me, but she knew that I hadn't hurt..."
"I don't appreciate lies," Bail interrupted sternly. "Please bear that in mind before you continue."
"I don't appreciate being called a liar," Solo shot back, eyes hardening considerably. "What makes you think I am one?"
"You keep making excuses to not answer me," Bail retorted.
"Politicians," Solo said in obvious exasperation. "Leia's exactly like you."
Something about that struck an odd chord, but for the life of him, Bail could not discern what it was.
"Did you know about the attack?" Bail demanded. "If you entered the Senate to protect your wife..."
"You've got it all wrong."
Bail fixed him with the look of flat disbelief that was usually highly effective in prompting a confession out of his opponents. By some strange chance, it seemed to have an effect on Solo.
"I worry about her," he said with all sincerity, voice almost rasping with the level of emotion that he was allowing himself to feel. "With a war on, things are bad enough and we don't have anyone but each other, so I tend to get overprotective. Last I heard, you've been married long enough to understand that."
It was true enough, since he'd been that solicitously overprotective of Breha since the first days of their courtship. The emerging crisis in the galaxy had only made things worse.
That didn't explain the rest of the story in the slightest.
"Why did she claim asylum?" he asked flatly.
"I don't know," Solo insisted, "but I'll leave right now if she said a single thing about me mistreating her."
His mind automatically recalled the words of her hastily-completed application that had been more of a formality than a supplication.
I am requesting the protection of my home sovereignty as a preventive measure. Certain elements in my life have become both unstable and dangerous and I cannot afford to be left without support.
"She didn't say that, huh?" Solo gloated.
"No," Bail admitted. "She used the words unstable and dangerous but listed no source for those descriptions."
"We both know I didn't go after you first," he continued. "When shots were fired, my first priority was her. That won't change, no matter how many evil things you think of me."
Bail was no Jedi, but he prided himself and thanked whatever powers there were that he had a very good sense of judgment. He had often realized the strength of pretenses and the amount of deceit that a person was attempting.
From Solo, he sensed none of that. The man was either in complete earnest or the most skillful liar to travel between the stars.
"I owe you my thanks," Bail echoed his earlier statement. "If I decided that should be in the form of employment as one of my guards, would that even our score?"
Finally, the man's expression changed. The grin was one of someone who had just won the entire sabacc pot after a long run of winning hands.
"It would help," Solo conceded.
Leia half-expected to find Han served with a restraining order when he left the conference room. It certainly wouldn't be the first time, and he hadn't made the best first impression on the people of the Republic. Moreover, Han didn't have a particularly good sense of diplomacy when he was on an adrenaline high. That meant that he was either being very stubborn or blurting out the whole mission at the moment.
Given the level of caution that he'd exercised thus far on the mission, she could be fairly certain that it was the former, but it made her nervous nonetheless.
Being alone in the wake of an assassination attempt did not improve matters, either. Instability had hardly been a rarity in the Republic and the Empire had not improved that situation. As a result, Leia had witnessed assassination attempts, successful and otherwise. It was, however, the first time that it had threatened someone so personally connected to her.
An even greater difficulty arose from the fact that it drove home the idea that every person here was a potential enemy. She was perfectly aware of some later careers, but that did not mean that friends and allies of her own time wouldn't blindly inhibit the mission in this era.
As for the attacker, it was uncertain what his motivation had been or if it had anything to do with her reasons for being here. Even if they were able to identify the attacker, it was unlikely that the name would mean anything to her. Jango Fett was long dead and Boba Fett was still working his way up in the universe.
She feared enemies as was only natural, but what she feared even more were the nameless ones.
There were low benches along the windows that lined the outer corridor of the Senate, and if she hadn't been so preoccupied, she might have been able to sink onto one of them and relax for a few moments. Instead, she concentrated on catching her breath and keeping her eyes peeled for any sign of trouble.
Instead, none came. She remembered the Senate as a place that had tended towards the ability to put any insomniac to sleep, but that was in the days when there were no debates simply because dissension was tantamount to suicide.
Since most of the Alliance presence in the Senate had either gone into hiding or accepted 'retirement' by the time she was elected, Leia had been one of the few with the 'na?vet?' to argue with the atrocities.
The voice had a familiar edge to it, but she could not pinpoint why until she turned and looked the man in the eye.
There were only a few civilians who had volunteered to enlist in the Grand Army of the Republic. With a steady supply of clones and a willing group of Jedi to lead them, it had been, on the whole, unnecessary. Towards the end of the war, however, more civilians had been given low-grade officer's commissions and assigned to the defense of their own sovereignties.
She had simply never given thought to what that might mean in a more practical sense. It had helped that she hadn't expected to arrive here by mistake.
"Yes?" she responded, keeping her features carefully schooled to betray nothing.
Not surprisingly, it was not terribly difficult, since the young man who stood before her had taught her how to keep a sabacc face about six years from now when he had taken it upon himself to teach the High Princess how to keep a secret. Keeping him from noticing things had been her personal challenge since she was old enough to know what deception was in anything more than principle.
"Lieutenant Rieekan," he introduced himself politely. "The Senate Guard asked me to keep an eye on you until the Senator has finished his conference."
"Thank you," she said with genuine relief.
He studied her intently for a moment as if recognizing something familiar in the lines of her face or the way she carried herself, but apparently chose not to comment on it.
"An exciting first day," he commented instead. "Not many aides get an assassination attempt on their first day."
Her eyes crinkled slightly in amusement. "I guess I've been fortunate," she suggested.
"You're under the protection of Alderaan," Rieekan reminded. "You couldn't ask for a better haven."
"Really," she said with feigned curiosity.
"Senator Organa's doing," he confided. "He has no children of his own just yet, so he's an overprotective father to just about everyone."
It was a trait that Bail had always attributed to her mother.
"He's been very kind," she said carefully.
His gaze moved to the door of the conference room. "I understand a stranger intervened?" he asked with equal care.
"Not exactly a stranger," Leia said, color rising in her cheeks. "My husband."
Rieekan's dark eyebrows crept towards his hairline. "You've been fortunate in more ways than one," he observed.
She had no response to that. There were simply no explanations for what truth there was in that phrase, so she simply nodded.
He glanced over his shoulder. "If you'd prefer to sit on the Senate session," he offered, "the reading of the agenda is about to conclude and we could enter unnoticed."
"No need," Bail interrupted as he left the conference room with Han lagging behind. "I'll be heading back to the Consulate now. If you and Guardsman Solo would accompany me..."
Leia's gaze flicked to Han. The title explained the smug look on his face and she dipped her chin in an approximation of a grateful nod for his apparent and newfound ability to keep out of trouble for more than thirty seconds.
"Senator," Leia interjected, "shall I remain with the delegation?"
"I have arranged for a debriefing with the Senate Guard," Rieekan supplied. "They will doubtless want to take record of what you observed."
Bail nodded. "We'll need to get through some odious paperwork as well," he reminded, "for the both of you."
Han's arm snaked around Leia's waist. "As long as it means a place to call home for some time, we don't mind too much."
"Well," Han said wryly, "this could be worse."
It was a suite of rooms that outclassed anything on an Alliance base, and would have been at home in the palace at Antibes. But as he said, it could be worse.
"It could be better," Leia retorted.
He arched an eyebrow, passing over a stack of tunics from her case. "What doesn't live up to your standards, Your Worshipfulness? Are the Twi'lek silk sheets only 400-thread count?"
The smile came easily this time, but there wasn't much to smile about for one reason. "The sheets are fine," she assured him, "but there is only one bed."
Looking thoughtful, he nodded. "Could get cramped."
"Not really," she responded dryly, "but you're going to find out pretty quickly whether or not the floor makes a comfortable bed."
Without another comment, she lay back, spreading her arms in an almost cruciform position. It was a most comfortable form, allowed her to bleed some tension out of her muscles and best of all, it left no room for anyone else.
"Oh, no," Han protested. "I'm not sleeping on the floor."
"Fine," she said brusquely, "but I thought you were too much of a gentleman to let me rough it."
He regarded her for a long moment as if trying to decide how hard to hit her upside the head, but shook his head instead. "You dragged me here, two years before our target arrival, got me accused of domestic violence, nearly got me shot and now you're expecting me to sleep on the floor?"
"Better than risking a concussion every night," she shot back.
He rolled his eyes in an exacting imitation of her own exasperation. "I thought you were too much of a gentleman to rough me up," he teased.
"You're right," she conceded. "I'm just too much of a lady to let you within arm's reach."
"That'll change," he insisted.
"Maybe so," she agreed, "but I'm not taking my chances."
His brow furrowed. "I'm pretty sure that they'll be monitoring," he reminded. "How do we explain that we don't act like newlyweds?"
Rieekan had once joked that they fought convincingly enough to give the impression of being married, but that was beside the point.
"We fight enough to be estranged at times," she stated. "For the time being, that'll have to do."
Since the Senate met only three days out of each week, the next morning found Han still entangled in the blankets that he had used to make a bed on the floor. Leia was, typically, hard at work by the time dawn rolled around. When he managed to awaken about an hour after daybreak and headed into the living room, Han found that she'd already been to the kitchens to get breakfast and was looking rather triumphant for completely unknown reasons.
She was ready for the day, her damp hair pulled into an elegant twist at the nape of her slender neck, exposing the neckline of the borrowed white gown that left both shoulders bare. Moreover, her side of the table held three categories of things: food, datacards and both of their datapads.
She looked refreshed and energetic and terrifyingly ready to get to work. It was absolutely beautiful in a sickening sort of way.
"You look like you're in a good mood," Han said around a yawn. "What have you been up to?"
"Planning," she stated without a trace of fatigue in her voice.
"And how long have you been up?" he pressed.
"Not long enough," she responded. "I should have been up an hour longer, but I was tired."
Which meant that she had spent a token fifteen minutes lying on her bed and trying to sleep before she got up and started working herself to death again.
"Uh-oh," Han grunted, scrubbing his hands over his face. "You do realize that sleep is a generally accepted way of keeping yourself alive, don't you?"
She waved a hand dismissively with a slight grin. "Sleep is for mortals," she stated firmly. "I'm not exactly immortal, but I'm pretty indestructible, so I figure sleep isn't meant to be on the agenda."
Her tone was light, indicating her attempt to make a joke of the matter. He knew, though, that she was almost completely in earnest, even if she didn't know it yet. He had only seen her this way when she had built up her energy throughout the night. Leia Organa was simply the type who would not trust her own success to continue if she paused for breath.
Han also knew, however, that she would resent his tendency to worry over her, since they both knew how frequently concern had turned into chastisement on both their parts. So, instead of suggesting she take better care of herself or even complaining that she would get herself killed if she weren't careful, he dropped himself into the chair opposite her and looked over the spread of food with an approving nod.
"It's good to be Alderaanian," he surmised.
"We tend to take care of our own," she agreed. "Eat this and I'll tell you about what I've decided."
She passed over a plate, but her own remained untouched as she pulled up a datafile.
"You don't have to work yourself into a stupor," Han suggested.
"Yes, I do," she retorted. "We know that in roughly three months, Vader will have emerged and the Republic will have fallen. Given the fact that we haven't even had the chance to start looking, I don't want to take chances."
He hated that he couldn't argue with that. He hated the amused smirk on her face even more.
"Don't worry," she soothed. "You'll be working just as hard."
"That's what I'm afraid of," he admitted.
She glanced at the datafile, chewing idly on a julaberry torte. "We know that Vader was a Jedi of the Old Republic who was a student of Obi-Wan Kenobi," Leia summarized by way of review. "We know that he was not mentioned in the formation of the Empire, but that his first actions were recorded two standard months after the fall of the Republic."
"Which means he didn't join up with Palpatine until after the Empire started."
"Not necessarily," Leia countered, tapping the pad with her torte. "After all, Vader requires a respirator and a full body suit. I've been doing some research and have found one instance of such a system for a sentient."
"General Grievous," Han supplied.
She looked up in obvious surprise. "You've done research of your own."
"Not really," he said with a rather sheepish grin. "I was still young enough that Grievous was a spook story during the Clone Wars. Most of it was exaggeration, but he had a few of his natural parts and the rest was durasteel."
"Are we sure they're not the same?"
Han nodded. "Grievous was killed sometime around the first Empire Day."
She frowned slightly. "So, some time in the next few months, Palpatine will recruit a Jedi to become Vader. It's also possible that the Jedi has already joined him."
"What's your idea?" Han asked.
"Palpatine," Leia explained, "was advised or protected by several Jedi since his rise to power. Most notably, the Jedi Council met with him no fewer than a dozen times during the development of the Clone Wars. On the other hand, he probably had a few Jedi who were intensely loyal to him, both out of principle and out of a personal loyalty. That's where we need to look."
"It's not exactly a subtle way to go about things," Han reminded. "We can't just look at the Jedi vote for 'Most Likely to Commit Genocide."
"No," Leia agreed, "but we can start with one person in particular."
She pushed the datapad over and he nearly choked. "Anakin Skywalker?" he stammered. "You don't think..."
"Of course not," Leia snapped. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Then, why start with him?" Han challenged.
She tapped the header for the file. "This was an announcement of his Knighting," she explained. "Notice who his Master was."
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," Han observed. "So he'd know about the other students."
"Exactly," Leia confirmed.
"But we don't know him."
"We don't know anyone, Bail and Rieekan excepted," Leia shot back, "but Senator Amidala-Luke's mother-is aiding the early stages of the Alliance. Since Bail trusts me in that regard, I can make overtures through that."
Han grinned. "You have been thinking too hard," he commented.
"Of course," Leia responded with a matching grin. "I'm the only one likely to do so."
The day proceeded in a form that was only to be expected from a pacifist planet in the middle of a wartime crisis. Alderaan did not take part in the war effort so much as make an effort at keeping out of it, but Leia had spoken to many of the people who represented worlds that Bail had helped during the Clone Wars.
The downtime between the sessions, therefore, was spent mostly in meetings. Most were of the variety that involved petitions for asylum, legislative measures and such, but she had not expected to sit in on the convocation that Bail had called.
"The appointment with Senator Amidala will be at midday," he said quietly after giving her the day's assignments. "I would appreciate if you could attend."
It was a familiar request from the days when he could trust Leia to be his eyes and ears during meetings. She had her mother's intuition, if nothing else, and he had always found some kind of pretense to have her attend, whether it was note-taking or grooming her to take his place one day.
This was, however, obviously not his intention in the current circumstances. She had neither proved herself to be loyal nor made her intuition known to him. She was, for the moment, someone who had simply stated her loyalties.
"Yes, Senator," she said, her voice reflecting her innocent curiosity and unabashed confusion, "but wouldn't another with more experience be preferable?"
He nodded, more out of understanding than confirmation. "I certainly have aides that are more familiar with the situation. Even so, the number of people in my own delegation who can be trusted to remember our purpose here is dwindling."
"Yes, Senator," Leia said automatically.
His hand clapped her gently on the shoulder. "You need not worry," he assured her. "I believe you are to be trusted. I simply want to prove myself right."
She didn't ask any further questions, since that had been her priority for as long as she could remember.
The meeting took place in Bail's office, though it was hardly the most secure area of the Senate complex--Palpatine had seen to that. It was another one of the places that was inexpressibly familiar, the sensation only heightened by the fact that Threepio was wandering around as usual like an under-appreciated busboy.
Most of the faces were unfamiliar, since they were either names that she had only heard in reports or people who had been assassinated in the early days of the Empire, but perched on a chair opposite the position that Bail and Mon Mothma had taken was the person she had hoped to encounter again.
There was, however, no time to consider how she would approach Padme, since the appointment of regional governors-the first move towards the official tyranny that had been known under the system of Grand Moffs-had been announced that morning. Understandably, this pleased no one, but they could not know yet that this was one of the symptoms of the end-stage of the Republic.
As a result, Leia sat with her stomach churning as Bail read the amendment, but said nothing.
"Now that he has control of the Jedi Council," Bail explained, "the Chancellor has appointed Governors to oversee all star systems in the Republic."
Leia looked up sharply at that particular mention, since no one had mentioned the control that Palpatine had over the Jedi Council. Since that seemed to be old news, however, the concern was on the administrative change.
"When did this happen?" Fang Zar inquired.
"The decree was posted this morning," Bail supplied.
"Do you think he will dismantle the Senate?" Padme interjected breathlessly, almost as if she had been struck hard in the face by the statement.
It was starting to become very clear where Luke got the tendencies that made him a faithful Rebel and a conscientious leader.
"Why bother?" Mon Mothma scoffed quietly. "As a practical matter, the Senate no longer exists."
"The constitution is in shreds," Senator Danu concurred.
Just wait until you see what Palpatine has in mind for his post-Empire-Day legislation.
"Amendment after amendment..." he enumerated. "Executive directives, sometimes a dozen in one day."
The sort of executive directives that had instituted mandatory conscription programs in the second year of the war, the sort that had put Palpatine in control of every military movement...
Bail's hands clenched in his lap and she recognized the gesture as one that he used to curb the urge to lose his temper. It was comforting to recognize that level of devotion even in these dark times.
"We can't let a thousand years of democracy disappear without a fight," he said simply, and with great force.
That had the same emotional effect on her that his inquiries into her loyalties had, but she was surprised to see that everyone else was on the verge of squirming in fear.
"What are you suggesting?" Terr Taneel asked, voice strained by caution.
"I apologize," Bail replied hastily. "I didn't mean to sound like a Separatist."
She had momentarily forgotten just how dangerous it had been, even at this point, to have loyalty to what the government should have been.
Mon Mothma's smile was unapologetic, only determined. "We are not Separatists trying to leave the Republic," she explained. "We are loyalists, trying to preserve democracy in the Republic."
"It has become increasingly clear to many of us that the Chancellor has become an enemy of democracy," Bail continued.
"I can't believe it has come to this!"
Padme had finally spoken again, her voice guileless and ringing clear in the silence that had followed Bail's pronouncement. Leia turned her gaze to her, found her expression frankly crestfallen rather than defiant.
She at least recognized how drastically wrong things were becoming.
"Chancellor Palpatine is one of my oldest advisors," she continued as if trying to convince herself that there was a logical explanation for what was happening. "He served as my Ambassador when I was Queen."
Danu adopted the sympathetic smirk of someone who recognized in another the blindness they had once been victim to. "Senator," he said gently, "I fear you underestimate the amount of corruption that has taken hold in the Senate."
Mon Mothma concurred, "The Chancellor has played the Senators well. They know where the power lies, and they will do whatever it takes to share in it."
Her eyes lowered slightly as if she felt the guilt of allowing tyranny. "Palpatine has become a dictator and we have helped him to do it."
And that is why you have spent every waking moment since the founding of the Empire attempting to correct that.
"We can't sit around debating any longer, we have decided to do what we can to stop it."
No one responded, were clearly willing to follow Bail's lead as long as he was being reasonable about it.
"Senator Mon Mothma and I are putting together an organization..."
"Say no more, Senator Organa," Padme hastily interrupted. "I understand. At this point, it's better to leave some things unsaid."
"Yes," Bail confirmed. "I agree and we must not discuss this with anyone, without everyone in this group agreeing."
It was a common practice of Alliance cells, since they were too easily betrayed for anyone's tastes.
"That means those closest to you . . . even family ... no one can be told."
Leia immediately recalled that this had included her mother, since it had been two years into the reign of the Emperor that Breha Organa demanded to know what her peace-serving husband intended to do about the Empire. She had been fairly unsurprised to find how long ago he had been doing something about the Empire, but it had caused a minor rift that Leia had been somehow aware of at the time.
For the first time, however, her main focus was on whether or not Padme had ever voiced her loyalties to her husband.
In the next moment, however, Padme nodded. "Agreed."
She had no chance to approach the Senator during the meeting, but Padme lingered as the others made their way back to individual offices. Leia approached her as if her only priority was to ask Bail what more he required, but he gestured to her and then turned to Padme.
"You've met Leia before," Bail introduced her.
"The one who informed me of this meeting," Padme recalled. "Your loyalties match our own?"
"More than you might guess," Leia said with a slight smile.
Bail's smile matched hers. "What did you think of our meeting?"
"Very sensible," Leia commended, "but I have been considering the possibility of approaching a Jedi on this matter."
"To gauge where their loyalties lie?" Bail asked. "I've considered the same."
"Not formally," Leia clarified as she saw Padme's protest, "simply putting out feelers."
"It may be a good idea in the future," Padme conceded, eyes focusing on Leia's as if she were capable of reading her mind, "but I thought we had just agreed to keep others from knowing about our efforts."
"We will need someone we can trust in the Order," Bail reminded her, "and I would prefer not to leave a rift..."
Padme nodded as if no further explanation were needed, so Leia pressed on. "Your husband is a Jedi," she said as if guessing at his occupation. "Is he familiar with the Chancellor?"
She had expected an honest answer, but she had not expected the look of fond exasperation that almost perfectly matched the expression that Leia had seen on Luke so many times. "In a manner of speaking," the other woman said.
"Anakin Skywalker," Bail explained, "is the one Jedi that Chancellor Palpatine trusts implicitly. Knight Skywalker returns the favor."
Leia's gut wrenched sharply at that statement, but Padme's expression suggested that it was not as sinister as it sounded.
Or perhaps she was ignorant of what the Chancellor could do.
"Anakin came to Coruscant as a nine-year-old," Padme supplied, "and he felt very misunderstood, but the Chancellor was very kind to him. They have been friends for as long as I can remember them knowing each other, but he is more like a doting uncle than anything."
Unable to express the fear that would not let go of her, Leia simply nodded. "Do you think he might be willing to look out for the Chancellor's best interests?"
Her expression did not darken so much as change from a warm spring's day to a mid-autumn rainstorm. "I doubt he would think stopping Palpatine's tyranny would be in the Chancellor's best interests," Padme lamented. "If we approached him in the vein of wanting to know who the Chancellor can trust and who are potential enemies, he might be more cooperative, but I can't promise anything."
"What about Obi-Wan?" Bail recommended.
Padme's mouth turned even further down at the corners. "Possibly," she agreed. "His loyalty is to democracy above all else, even when it gets him in trouble, but he may know as much as his student."
This was a definite possibility, since Vader had been trained by Obi-Wan, but she would have to let these two take the lead.
"I'll see what I can do," Padme promised.
"How did you know about Senator Amidala?"
It was an unusual question for the first conversation of the day, but Leia managed a slight smile by way of response.
"I'm taking it from your question that it's not common knowledge," she guessed, "so I'll answer that question if you do."
Bail nodded. "A fair enough request."
"I guessed," Leia admitted, coloring slightly. "When I went to deliver your message, he was leaving her apartment in a manner that suggested theirs had not been of a diplomatic nature. In addition, she is carrying a child and it does not seem to be in her nature to make that sort of commitment outside of marriage."
Bail's mouth twitched, but whether it was out of amusement or some other emotion, she could not discern. "You and she are much alike," he observed.
Leia was, of course, flattered by the comparison to any founding member of the Alliance, but was unsure of why she felt that statement to be true.
"What about you?" she countered. "You are obviously close friends with the Senator."
"And I have been," he agreed, "ever since she came into that position. Our ideals have been similar in many aspects since she called for a vote of no confidence in an ineffectual ruler."
"But you elected a corrupt ruler in his stead," Leia blurted.
His mouth thinned. "I never said that the candidate I chose was elected," he countered.
That was something of an immense relief and her smile grew. "You still haven't explained how you divined the nature of her relationship with Knight Skywalker."
"It wasn't so much divination," he chuckled. "She managed to keep the secret for nearly a year before he was trapped behind enemy lines. For a week of nearly sleepless nights, she waited for news and I probably wasn't the only one to ask how much he meant to her. I was, however, the only one she would entrust with the fact that she was like every other wartime bride."
"Message from the Naboo Consulate," Han called from the front of the speeder. "We're to take on a passenger."
"Senator Amidala?" Leia called.
"No," he corrected, voice strained. "The Chancellor has requested to speak to the Senator."
"As he requests," Bail conceded as Leia's breath froze in her throat.
She managed to catch her breath by the time they reset their course, but Bail seemed to take her reaction as a confirmation that he shouldn't expect too much contribution from her regarding this matter. Han left the front seat of the speeder for a moment to open the hatch and permit Palpatine's entry before into the seat next to Leia in the rear compartment. His hand rested on hers, as if it were a natural gesture between husband and wife, but rather than balking at it as was her wont, she clutched at it. He didn't question it, only took it for granted that she would need a steadying force of some kind during this encounter.
"Good day," Palpatine said genially. "I appreciate your taking the time to speak with me."
She had heard Palpatine's voice enough times to know that he could be as silver-tongued as the finest diplomat while he spoke of his most evil intentions. It was apparently a skill that he had cultivated in the earlier days of his career. It helped that he had a mild, open-featured face that looked as if he were genuinely pleased to mingle with those of the Alderaanian delegation.
"As my Chancellor commands," Bail said in a convincing impression of sincerity. "I do not believe that you have met Leia Antilles or Han Solo. Leia is an aide to the delegation and Captain Solo..."
"I gather that he is the Captain Solo that gained a considerable amount of renown this past week for saving your life?" Palpatine interrupted, bowing impressively to Han as if honored to meet him. "The Senate is indebted to you for your bravery."
Han, with his characteristic lack of diplomacy, simply smirked at the future evil incarnate.
"Lady Antilles," he greeted in turn.
His hand gripped her free one and she was surprised that the hand entwined in Han's didn't crush a few of Han's metacarpals as the man who would become Emperor raised her trembling hand to frigid lips and brushed the knuckles with a courtly kiss. It was bad form to yank her hand away, no matter how repulsive the man was, even in the infancy of his corruption, so she let her hand land in her lap and returned the smile. The expression stopped well short of her eyes, but Palpatine, taking her to be a person of no consequence, didn't bother to look that far.
"Your Excellency," Bail interjected, "you requested a meeting?"
"Yes," Palpatine said quickly, turning the nauseating smile on Leia's father. "I am sure that you, as one of the more conscientious Senators, will have reviewed the amendment regarding control of the Jedi Order."
"Yes," Bail said cautiously. "I make a point of reading every point of legislation that arrives on my desk."
Palpatine's smile turned into a bit of a smirk that rivaled Han's. "A tragic minority," he mused. "The Jedi Order is, as of this morning, directly responsible to the Office of the Chancellor."
Within reach of stranglehold so that he can choke them to death once the time is right.
"I have already put a representative in place," Palpatine continued, "who will facilitate my dealings with the Council."
"Who would that be?" Bail inquired smoothly, though his eyes drifted to Leia so that she knew they were both thinking of a certain man.
"Knight Anakin Skywalker," Palpatine confirmed their mutual suspicion. "What would be an ideal situation, however, is to have a Senatorial liaison with the Jedi themselves. Given your ties to many of their number, I consider you to be an ideal candidate."
"Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to aid him in his struggle against the Empire."
The first genuine smile that she had seen on Bail's face since they approached the Naboo consulate appeared. "That would be an honor," he said candidly.
"I thought you would agree," Palpatine remarked. "I know of the high regard that Master Kenobi and the others have for you."
"Your Excellency is too kind," Bail lied diplomatically.
"Good," he sighed, glancing out the viewport at the looming Senate building. "If you will allow me to disembark at the twenty-third slot..."
He left them not a minute later and Leia let out a long, shuddering breath, but did not release Han's hand. Bail turned a grim smile on her.
"You are discomfited by him," he guessed.
"That man disturbs me," she stated frankly.
His chin dipped in assent. "I would be worried if he did not," he confessed.
"He has appointed Senator Amidala's husband as his representative," Leia mused, voice tight with tension. "I know that he is a friend of the Chancellor's, but I was not aware that the Chancellor would trust him with such an assignment."
Bail let out an indistinct noise of disgust. "Of course he could trust Anakin," he rejoined. "Skywalker is the one Jedi whose loyalty to Palpatine will always take precedence over other matters."
The disquiet that this statement caused was something that she, with all of her experience in public speaking, could not find a single word to express.
There were hundreds of Jedi on Coruscant alone, but it had been all too easy for the man who was, by the Chancellor's own admission, the Senator most openly tied to the Order to name accomplices. Of all the Jedi, the father Luke had never known was the most likely candidate to turn against them all.
She had dismissed the thought as ridiculous, but it was not clear if she had done it out of instinct or willful denial.
Thankfully, Han did not release her hand, only shifted his grip so that it supported her fingers rather than steadying her hand. She granted him a grateful smile that he acknowledged with a quirk of the mouth before departing the speeder.
"I hope you're as confused as I am," he murmured.
"I wouldn't use the word confused," she retorted. "Terrified is more appropriate."
His free hand rested against the small of her back, a comforting weight as he steered her into the building.
"Don't worry," he said, breath warm against her ear. "We'll take this in stride, but use our common sense."
Instinctively, she turned an amused look on him. "You know the meaning of the phrase 'common sense?'"
"No," he confirmed, "but I figure you'll compensate for the both of us."
His hand disengaged gently, and the trembling returned to her fingers. She pressed her hands to her thighs as he joined Bail ahead, a more natural position for a bodyguard.
"Identicard?" the Senate guard requested.
She passed it over to be scanned, then retrieved it with a smile of thanks before passing the checkpoint and breaking into a trot to catch up to the others. Ten paces into the journey, however, something felt drastically wrong.
Someone was watching her, but she couldn't quite identify the source of her discomfort, so she waited until they had reached the Senate box to risk a discreet glance over her shoulder.
It took every ounce of her energy not to cry out, but it was not the same panic that Palpatine had inspired. Instead, it was the recognition of someone who could not have arrived in the wrong place at a more wrong time.
"Luke," was the only whisper that could escape her throat.
It took all the energy she had to keep from calling out to him or, even worse, drawing attention to him by approaching. She had caught a glimpse of Luke as he stood in queue to enter the visitors' boxes, but other than the initial look that they exchanged, he seemed determined not to break her concentration.
As if that was possible.
Han was still in place, so she could not inconspicuously direct his attention to where Luke was standing. Instead, she followed them reluctantly into the box and extracted her datapad from her satchel. This was hardly unusual, since she always took notes on the session for further reference, but she had never attempted to do what she now intended.
Each session kept a tally of the delegates, staffers and visitors and then listed them by sovereignty. Tatooine was not part of the Republic because of Hutt control, but Luke would have had to provide identification in order to obtain a visitor's badge. The roster of visitors had only three natives of Tatooine in attendance-Anakin Skywalker, Ilana Lars and Luke Darklighter.
It was obvious which one referred to Luke, since the other names were either assigned to his father or female in nature. It did nothing to soothe her already raw nerves.
The name itself was common enough for a child raised on Tatooine. Many of the families that had been there for several generations had adapted more descriptive names than those with which they had arrived. Skywalker, Darklighter and Sandskimmer were just a few examples.
Still, it seemed impossible that he was anything more than a figment of her imagination. After all, her thoughts of the name Skywalker were rather jumbled at the moment.
Nevertheless, she sent the roster to Han just as the session started. He did not look back at her after glancing through the file, but she could see his shoulders stiffen and he worked for a moment before sending back the guards' files on the visitors' ID cards.
The holo alone confirmed that this was no figment of her imagination.
A message flashed into existence on her screen.
Han: Leia, we can have him detained.
He was always thinking in the short-term. Typical.
Leia: Imprudent, flyboy. We don't another member of the Alliance in trouble with the Republic before they leave the womb.
Han: Not that sort of detained. I was thinking of one of the contacts.
Leia: We've been here a short time. What kind of contact do you have that is [i]that[/i] bored?
Han: I'd prefer not to tell, but I can trust her with something this simple.
Leia: Ah. Of course it's a 'her.'
He didn't respond, but he did seem to be half-attentive throughout the session, keeping one eye on Father and one on his datapad.
Han: Set, he reported towards the end. All we need to do is convince our boss to let us have the night off for some 'newlywedding.'
She managed to avoid rolling her eyes, but it was an incredibly difficult task.
Leia: There isn't much I can do after a certain time, so it shouldn't be too difficult. What time did you arrange the meeting?
Leia: What do you think he's doing here?
There was any number of explanations, but none of them boded well. He simply could not become involved in this, but the fact of the matter was that there was no way of avoiding the truth. She could only hope desperately that she had been wrong about her suspicions.
She rarely was.
Han: I have no idea, but given the circumstances, it can't be for a good reason.
Leia: We're here to assassinate his father. Are we here for a good reason?
For the first time, there was a hesitation.
Han: I don't know.
They met at an apartment near the Industrial District, which was hardly the underworld, but certainly less respectable than the Alderaanian Consulate.
It was the same sort of temporary residence that she'd seen on a hundred missions, one that could be inhabited or vacated on very short notice. They always seemed to be a nuisance more than anything else because they were usually only available in areas where high crime levels were a fact of life.
In the time of the Empire, they were things of inconvenience to the Alliance. In the days that led to the founding of the Empire, there was nothing else available for the working class.
As it was, the roof was leaking an unknown substance, since it was certainly not raining. It was relatively tidy, but certainly had seen better days.
"Darklighter?" Leia asked as she entered.
Luke nodded. "Once I'm settled in here, my official name is Luke Lars."
"Love what you've done with the place," Han said without bothering to greet Luke with something more than an embrace. "Reminds me of most of the Alliance bases."
"Yeah," Luke grinned. "That was the idea."
He crossed to her, pinning her to him before she could think to stop him. Out of instinct more than anything else, she returned the gesture, but her voice was hardly warm as she finally addressed him.
"You have no idea what you're getting yourself into," she said flatly.
He pulled back, looking at her with the same concern that he usually wore on his expressive features when he couldn't figure her out. "That's what they're saying about you," he countered.
"They?" Han repeated. "The High Command?"
He nodded. "They ran history scans on the IDs that you were given and found them used two years before they should have been."
Leia let out a long breath that might have been relieved, but she couldn't quite be sure. "That explains how you arrived here," she conceded, "but not why."
"Backup," he said frankly. "It's not an easy mission and they thought that you could use the Force on your side."
Whatever the Force was doing, it was certainly not helping. They had the misfortune to be left in the time when the Force had seen just how few of its servants it actually needed.
"I won't say it's good to have you here, kid," Han said grimly, "but we could use the help."
Leia shot a sharp look at him that Luke fortunately missed. Han ignored it completely.
"We've got a lot to narrow down and even if we can find Vader, we know that he's practically indestructible."
Well, there's a one-percent chance that it's not your father.
"A few," Leia said instead.
Leia doubted that the woman, tentatively identified as Jocasta Nu, would have been so brusque if she were addressing a Jedi. Then again, her unsmiling face and shrewd expression suggested that even the Jedi had a reason to fear her, but Leia put both thoughts from her mind and handed over the identichip and letter of introduction from the Consulate.
"Welcome, Lady Antilles," Master Nu said in the same tone, as if it was all an unpleasant formality. "Have you been to our Archives before?"
Another formality. The woman could probably remember every outsider who had passed through the Archives of the Jedi Temple since she was conceived.
"No, Master," Leia said politely. "This is my first time to enjoy that privilege."
The woman looked pleased at her choice of words, if such a word as 'pleased' could be applied to someone who used wrinkles as body language. "A privilege it is," she mused turning away to scan Leia's letter of introduction. "I understand Senator Organa has asked to you read the materials on political precedent."
They could all be grateful that Jocasta Nu had enough discretion not to say which precedent Leia was there to research. Even though Padme had indicated some Jedi opposition to the constitutional breakdown, it was best to keep thoughts of dissent out of earshot of those who were conveniently loyal to Palpatine.
"Has he detailed the subject matter?" Leia asked carefully.
"Yes," the older woman assured her. "If you will take a seat, I will have one of the Padawans bring you the appropriate readercards and equipment."
"Thank you," Leia said with a slight bow.
She moved to the chair indicated by Master Nu, then powered up the display. A prompt asked her to either log in or create a user ID. It was a simple enough process and programmed the access code so that she was the only one able to view the files she would be reading. This would, hopefully, keep others from guessing at her intentions here.
Then, bereft of anything to do but wait, she took account of her surroundings. It was a place that Luke would have given anything to see, but there were no acceptable excuses to bring him here just yet.
So, instead of considering the situation, she memorized the echo of footsteps on the tiles and the murmur of voices. Her eyes roamed over the shelves that were filled completely with records and philosophies of the Jedi.
Within the year, all of this would be lost, a forbidden territory to even consider and she could do little to preserve it. There was enough to regret without even beginning to remember that.
Thankfully, that line of thought was broken as a 12-year-old boy approached with a tray full of datacards.
"Lady Antilles?" he asked.
"I am," Leia confirmed, placing her thumbprint on the registration card. "Thank you."
The young Jedi bowed as if by habit, then turned to leave just as another voice drew her attention away from the dozens of files.
"Antilles," the man said in a mild voice that turned her head at the familiarity of it. "An Alderaanian name?"
"It is," Leia confirmed, turning to face him more fully. "I am here at the request of the Alderaanian consulate."
The man's mouth stretched into a genuine smile beneath his ginger mustache as he settled into the comfortably-padded straightback chair next to hers. "I won't take too much of your time, then," he said, a trace of amusement in his voice. "Senator Organa never sends his aides on idle errands."
"Senator Organa rarely knows the meaning of 'idle,'" Leia mused, smile matching his.
The man grimaced slightly as if he had extensive personal experience with that fact. "Senator Ogana rarely knows the meaning of 'sleep.'"
This man knew her father well enough to know his most irksome habits or at least was an accurate assessor of character. Either way, he was quickly putting her at ease, which might have been his entire intention in the first place.
She let her smile broaden, then inserted the datacard into the reader, a pointed invitation to wrap up the conversation. It was not that she wanted to cut the conversation short, but it would not seem appropriate for a person to waste time in the Archives, especially when it was not a familiar place to them. She would do better to show an enthusiasm for the work she was here to do.
The familiarity that had begun with his voice, however, now seemed to extend to the eyes as if this man had given her that same mirthfully evaluative stare before.
"I'm sorry," the man said immediately as if recognizing the unnecessary nature of their amiable conversation as the scanner began to upload the files. "I had a reason for greeting you."
"I'm sure you did," Leia responded mildly, glancing through the summary of the datacard's contents. "I won't hold it against you."
He paused as if unsure how to express his purposes. Maybe it was a sociable nature or a physical attraction or, more likely, he would claim that there was something in the Force that drew him to her. Luke had used that particular explanation every time she wondered what had dragged him off Tatooine to the rescue of a girl he'd never met.
"We don't often have visitors here," he said at last, "so I thought I would welcome you."
She flushed slightly at her misunderstanding of his intentions. "Thank you," she responded.
"Is this your first time here?"
"Yes," Leia confessed, bowing her head in greeting. "I'm Leia Antilles of Alderaan."
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," he introduced himself.
In half a heartbeat, the entire familiarity was explained. It was the same man whose voice she had heard in Clone Wars reports and in the hallways of the Antibes Palace when she was young. The look he had given her was a reminder of the first time he'd come to visit, when she was still a small, shy girl clutching at her mother's skirts. It had seemed evaluative because he had been looking at her as if he would be able to recognize someone else if he looked hard enough.
It was the same way Anakin Skywalker had looked at her. On the Death Star, she had never seen the face of her tormentor, but the way Vader's mask had always turned towards her had given her the same impression.
Perhaps it was the trait of all Jedi that they thought they had mistaken you for someone else.
"General Kenobi," she breathed at last.
Another grimace. He clearly wasn't fond of the recognition, but would not rebuke her for reminding him of it.
"Yes, they call me that," he admitted ruefully, "but usually not to my face."
"Master Kenobi, then," she suggested.
He nodded accomodatingly. "It is a title I've earned," he mused.
She had heard enough stories of what he had been willing to sacrifice in the name of the Republic, and had read enough reports on the pivotal battles of the Clone Wars to know that the man was simply plagued by an overabundance of sincere humility.
"I suspect you've earned many titles," she rejoined.
"Yes," he confirmed, "even the unpleasant ones."
Before she could even think to turn back to the task at hand, he nodded fractionally to the pile. "You look as if you have considerable amounts of work to do," he sympathized. "Might I be of help?"
The Senators had been wary of any Jedi awareness of their intentions and involving a Master of the Jedi would not go over well at all. Still, he was trusted by Bail.
It did not keep her from being wary of what might result. "You have work of your own to do," she protested feebly.
He shook his head, smile disappearing. "I've found it more and more difficult to find calm these days, so I go wherever the Force is still to clear my mind."
"And that brought you here today," she guessed.
Another nod. "As long as I'm seeking the aid of the Force, I might as well aid you."
She had no idea why she hesitated, but it was a strong instinct and for a moment, it choked off her voice.
There was no question that the man was trustworthy. After all, he had been the one person that Bail could trust implicitly and that was not an idle compliment in House Organa.
"Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him..."
It was impossible to find a reason not to trust him, but she hesitated for a moment nonetheless.
But just for a moment.
"I would appreciate it," Leia agreed, passing over several of the cards, "but you must tell me if I can be of service to you in return."
His expression didn't darken so much as bleaken. Most changes for the worse in a countenance would remind her of storm clouds gathering, but instead, Obi-Wan Kenobi looked as if the warmth of the sunlight had simply been stripped away.
He was, however, hesitant in answering as if he did not want to confess the source of his distress. "A friend is troubled," he explained simply. "There is little that can be done to improve that."
"A student?" she inquired.
He nodded, not surprised that she would guess that first. Then again, the Jedi were famous for their strictures against attachments and students were the closest thing a Jedi had to a family.
"My finest," he described the man. "He is headstrong and quick to anger, but he deserves every honor that has been given him."
That should have given her some kind of relief, since it would narrow down the list of candidates for Vader. Instead, her stomach knotted at the thought that something similar had been said of Anakin Skywalker. She did not need five more reasons to think that this entire affair would only end in disaster.
"Now," he said, quickly changing the subject before she could come up with another question, "where shall we start?"
With Leia doing research and Han off-duty, it seemed like a reasonable time to make Luke useful in some way. For some reason, he felt compelled to ask to meet Han's contact.
A call early in the morning seemed inappropriate, but it let them get an 'appointment' with her for mid-morning, provided that they pretended to be customers of a different sort.
Around 1100, therefore, they made their way to her 'office,' which was comprised of a typical vendor stall in the Senate district. It was not uncommon, Han had explained, to find underworld contacts conducting their business in otherwise average settings. He even boasted of the time when he arranged a weapons shipment while pulling weeds in the contact's garden.
Ti, on the other hand, had the fairly respectable trade of being a money changer. They were familiar enough on Coruscant, where most sentient species of the Galaxy were represented in one form or another.
In addition, being surrounded by a few dozen heckling souvenir-sellers made it easy for them not to be overheard.
"This is Luke Lars," Han introduced, "a friend of mine."
She clasped his hand for one firm shake. "Tizar Nan."
"A pleasure," Luke replied formally.
Ti glanced him over, brow furrowed slightly as she surveyed the state of his clothes. "Mos Espa," she guessed dryly.
The Alliance had insisted that he dress the part that he was asked to play, so while he was not dressed to give the impression of being a straight-off-the-vaporators kid, he wore the kind of rough-spun tunic and slacks that any loyal son of Tatooine would wear until he knew better.
"Anchorhead," Luke corrected, allowing himself a grin.
"Ah," she sighed, gesturing to the seats on the other side of her crate-desk. "I must be losing my touch. I can usually tell where someone's from to within a few homesteads."
He nodded, taking the chair that she indicated. "You're from Tatooine?"
"Raltiir," she amended, mouth curving up on one side. "My best friend used to be part of Mos Espa's Involuntary Laborers' Union."
The way she said it suggested that something good had come of that. The fact that it produced the first smile he'd seen on her since they entered her office was an even better sign.
"Was?" Luke repeated.
"He's a Jedi now," she explained.
They waited for a long moment, since that sort of statement usually warranted explanation, but none was forthcoming.
"You met him when you were a Jedi, then?"
She blinked, then blinked again as if she were stalling for time. She then glanced at Han as if making an unspoken accusation, even though Han looked just as surprised as she was.
"You've done your research," she hazarded a guess.
"No," Luke assured her. "You just seem like the type."
She nodded. "And you recognize your own."
"I wasn't trained as a Jedi," Luke rejoined.
"No, you wouldn't have been," she agreed. "You're about the same age as Anakin and he was a 'special case.' We don't know of any other Tatooins who came to the Temple since the Hutts took over."
That made it impossible for him to speak. It hit him hard in about the same place that a conversation with Ben Kenobi had a few years ago.
"We were hoping you knew something about the Jedi," Han interjected before either of them could continue. "That's why we're here."
She turned her gaze on Han and the smile disappeared. "If you've got something planned against the Jedi, I wouldn't recommend trying to involve me. I may have left them when they got involved with a war that wasn't theirs to fight, but my loyalties to the Jedi aren't to be taken lightly."
"We don't have anything against the Jedi," Luke insisted.
"But we're no friends of Palpatine," Han explained.
She snorted none-too-gently, but the smile returned. "Who is, these days?"
"Good point," Han commended with a matching smirk.
"What's your point?" Ti demanded, "and what's it got to do with me?"
"We're trying to see where loyalties lie in certain organizations," Luke said carefully.
"Getting support and the like," Han added helpfully.
"And we need to know what Jedi are closest to the Chancellor."
She regarded them both as if she wasn't sure how to respond, but in the end, opted for honesty. Moreover, her eyes turned to Luke as if he were the only one who would understand what she was about to say. Maybe she wasn't as blind to his Force potential as he'd hoped.
"If you had asked three years ago, I wouldn't have been able to count them on one hand with fingers to spare," she said flatly.
Given that the hand she held up was missing two of the fingers, that was saying quite a bit.
"We know that one of Obi-Wan Kenobi's students..."
"There's only been one."
There was a strange tone in her voice, an abrupt straining that reminded Luke of the way Leia spoke when she had unpleasant truths to tell.
He wanted to admit that he'd heard differently, but she was still watching him in that unnerving way.
"Obi-Wan Kenobi has had only one student and I hardly blame him," she said mirthlessly. "Anakin Skywalker has been my best friend since the age of ten, but he has a head that is harder than durasteel and that's when he's in a good mood."
Leia returned to the Consulate in the late afternoon, since Bail had required her presence at a meeting of the Senate Military Appropriations Committee. A comm at midday confirmed that Han would be home around the same time, but she hadn't heard from him since.
It was, therefore, something of a shock to find that the only person in their apartment was Luke.
"I ran into an old friend of yours today," she said by way of greeting as she set her things on the endtable, "and I think I made some headway on our task here..."
She trailed off as her eyes adjusted to the dim light that illuminated the living room and Luke's expression became clear. She had rarely seen him angry, but only once before had she seen him look at her with accusation in his eyes.
It came very close to terrifying her.
Her first instinct was to take a step back, for all the good it would do her, but the second, more prudent, option had to do with the fact that Luke responded well to empathy. Instead of turning away from him, she moved to sit on the repulsorcouch nearest him. He would not appreciate questions in this situation, but if she waited, he would explain his disquiet.
His gaze hadn't shifted since first looking at her, but now, instead of finding her face again in the gathering darkness, he lowered his chin so that he was staring at his hands.
"You spoke to Obi-Wan," he said at last, voice low and almost hoarse.
"Yes," Leia admitted quietly. "He was at the Archives at the same time."
He nodded distractedly, still not daring to look at her. "Did he say anything about a student?"
The same unsettled feeling that had punched her in the stomach just before Luke's arrival returned in full force. He obviously had discovered something, but was not ready to disclose it.
"He said a friend who had been a student of his was troubled," she responded candidly.
Finally, Luke's gaze lifted, but he still did not turn. He simply stared beyond the space in front of him to a place that she would never understand. "A student of his," he repeated. "Did you know that he's only had one?"
The color drained from her face, but she shook her head. "I did not," she stated.
He let out a shuddering breath as if he were relieved to believe her. "I didn't think you did," he mused to himself, "but you suspected."
"I suspected everyone," she retorted, "but the evidence that your Father has close ties with Chancellor Palpatine was something that we did not realize until the day you arrived."
With the nature of the conversation, she had thought that it would ease his spirit, but when he looked at her in the next moment, the accusation remained.
"When were you going to tell me that you were sent here to kill my Father?"
"Is that what you think I'm doing here?" she asked, voice more shrill than she'd have preferred. "I was sent here to find a way to stop Vader and no one mentioned who he once was!"
It would have been better to keep her voice level, but that would have shown no remorse, no frustration for the situation that she was not sure she would ever understand fully. The least she could do was to express the fact that she was just as frightened of what she had been expected to do as he now was.
"But you said nothing to me," he shot back. "I was sent here as a backup because they knew that I had reason enough to hate Vader."
It made sense in the context of the mission. Of all the victims of the Empire, they had chosen the girl who had been tortured at his hands and the boy who had lost his father to Vader.
She had to know if they had known all along what Vader had been.
"Why didn't he tell me?" Luke hissed between his teeth. "Did he think I was stupid, that I wouldn't figure it out?"
'He' could only be Obi-Wan, the same man that had worried about his student to a complete stranger today. It didn't seem possible that the Obi-Wan of today would have deceived Luke that way.
Then again, she couldn't think of a single person who would be unchanged by two decades of losing battles.
"And the High Command sent us here to murder," he continued, encouraged by her lack of argument. "They sent us, probably thinking we wouldn't catch on."
"They sent us both here because they thought we could do the right thing," she asserted, forcing her voice back into a normal tone.
He nodded distractedly and his gaze averted once more. "I wish I could believe I knew what that was."
"You don't think you do?" Leia countered.
"I can't kill my own father!" he snapped. "I don't know why you think that's the 'right thing' to do..."
"I didn't say it was," she retorted sharply. "If I even considered that to be an option, I could have done it days ago."
Something in her tone changed the tone of the conversation. He turned to face her fully, eyes narrowed in some kind of pain rather than accusation.
"It's not that simple," she concluded, "and I never thought it was as simple as murder, even before I knew who we were here to destroy."
She was immensely consoled by the fact that he did not argue with this point. His next statement could have been a demand or a taunt, but instead, it came out in the form of a plea.
"If you have an idea..."
"I don't," she apologized. "Not yet."
He nodded slightly, then pushed to his feet slowly as if it was a difficult task. "I've been trying to think of something," he explained, "and there is only one thing that I can think of that will accomplish the same thing as our mission parameters."
At least he had some idea.
"What's that?" she asked.
His mouth quirked into the first smile that she'd seen since entering the apartment. "We were sent here to stop Vader," he explained. "I think everyone would be satisfied if we stopped Anakin from becoming Vader."
Leia had no memory of this place.
She felt as if her lungs were being filled with some kind of scorching poison and the air was so heavy that it was a physical weight.
The breaths that came in short, sharp gasps and seared her lungs were not brief because of the inadequacy of the atmosphere, but because there was an unspoken and unknown tension that she could not explain or express. More than the fire within and without that threatened to consume all those who stood here, there was something wrong with the minds that met here.
Leia was no Jedi, had no idea what kind of dramatic irony granted her insight, but could almost taste desperation and malice in the air. Despair was the most prevalent emotion, since it seemed to come from a lack of understanding on all parts. She was unable to determine its source and frustration came from that inability in a way that she could not describe.
Perhaps it was her own despair, but she had no idea what cause she had to feel that way.
Leia had no knowledge of this place, but her heart claimed that it should seem familiar to her. The only familiar thing about this world was that it felt like Vader.
Or maybe it was her imagination.
She had been aware of the atmosphere and of the half-imagined suffocation, but the surrounding world was as dark as if she had suddenly gone blind. Now, however, with the realization of what emotional atmosphere came with this unfamiliar place, the world came into focus.
She was hardly surprised to find that the world was colored in the tones of blood and fire. It was all that this place could produce. It was a place of destruction-the air and the anger that she sensed here made that perfectly clear.
Instead of taking a cursory glance around to find if any visual stimulus could spark a memory, her gaze locked on the same face that she had recognized outside of Senator Amidala's apartment.
Anakin was here, wrapped in the sense of Vader that Leia recognized too well as if it were his second skin.
Her legs carried her forward with painful slowness and every movement made her increasingly aware of the weight in her abdomen that had nothing to do with the fear that seemed to creep upwards from her toes at realizing that Anakin was here.
For some reason, she was forced to witness this scene from within the body of a woman she had only met a few times.
Padme's limbs wrapped around Anakin's, fitting into curves and angles as if she were embracing someone that she had never stopped loving. Perhaps she was.
"I saw your ship," Anakin said, his breath almost a gasp. "What are you doing here?"
She was not here as Leia, daughter of Bail and Breha, the chosen of the Rebellion. She was here to know the full effect of what their failure here would mean.
"I was so worried about you," she explained in a rush of breath of her own. "Obi-Wan told me terrible things."
Immediately, the embrace that had been so perfectly familiar turned bitterly alien to them both and Anakin drew back, eyes as cold as a Hoth midnight in this burning wasteland.
His voice held the same chill, but it was not anger, only dispassionate hatred. That should have been a warning sign, but there were too many other things to consider. The immediate concern was that the wife of Anakin Skywalker seemed to not have realized that she had come here to find Vader, not her husband. Most likely, this was their first encounter and she had no idea what he could do to her.
To their child.
Would this end with Luke held captive in his newborn innocence?
Her hands clutched at his forearms, feeling the taut muscles that had come from years of lightsaber battles and vicious hand-to-hand sparring. The same arms that held her so tightly that their heartbeats and their breaths came as one and there was no need to fear what lay beyond their home. They were strong arms and she had to be equally strong.
"...you have turned to the Dark Side," she said, her voice nearly a whimper, "that you killed younglings."
That he could kill her child just as easily as he had murdered the children of the Jedi Temple.
Anakin drew further away and she clutched instinctively at his hands, keeping him within arm's reach. "Obi-Wan is trying to turn you against me," he reasoned in the same voice.
It was not cold. She had been wrong about that. It was dead.
It was the voice of someone trying to breathe life and emotion into what he was saying, but lacking the soul to do so.
"He cares about us," she assured him.
The word froze the air in accusation, but she could not deny it.
"He knows," she nearly whispered. "He wants to help you."
His mouth curved up in disgust and disbelief. "Is Obi-Wan going to protect you?"
Leia had the distinct impression that protection was not Anakin's intention at the moment. It was a kind of war of conquest to keep her on his side.
"He can't..." He shook his head. "He can't help you. He's not strong enough."
If this was strength...
Strength was not what was needed and it would not turn back time. There was no way of doing that, but there was a way of moving forward.
"Anakin, all I want is your love."
"Love won't save you, Padme," Anakin scoffed immediately. "Only my new powers can do that."
The child kicked hard as if in protest and denial. It nearly took her breath away, but instead of drawing away, she lifted her hand to the cheek of the man she called husband. "At what cost?"
His cheek burned as if he was already being consumed by the hell that surrounded them.
"You are a good person," she shrilled. "Don't do this."
"I won't lose you the way I lost my mother!" he barked, trying to pull back.
She only advanced further, never losing contact as if it would keep him from slipping away. Instead of responding to that anchor, however, she could see that the manic glint only intensified in his eyes.
"I've become more powerful than any Jedi has ever dreamed of," he asserted triumphantly, "and I've done it for you. To protect you."
She didn't want his protection. Not like this.
"Come away with me," she pleaded. "Help me raise our child. Leave everything else behind while we still can."
There was absolutely no question of his answer. Maybe Padme had known the answer all along as well. Denial was, after all, a very powerful anesthetic.
"Don't you see?" he countered. "We don't have to run away anymore."
Leia remembered too well their fear of being discovered, the way that their love had been spoken of as a state secret. The idea of not having to live a lie must have been addictive.
"I have brought peace to the Republic. I am more powerful than the Chancellor. I can overthrow him, and together you and I can rule the galaxy. Make things the way we want them to be."
They were the ranting of a madman, nothing more and they knocked her back a step as if they were a physical blow.
"Well, they should be made to."
"By whom? Who's going to make them?"
"Of course not!"
"That sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me."
"Well, if it works."
"I don't believe what I'm hearing," she keened. "Obi-Wan was right. You've changed."
This time, his anger was unmasked and unashamed. "I don't want to hear any more about Obi-Wan," he hissed. "The Jedi turned against me. Don't you turn against me."
He thought she was no better or worse than the people that he had not hesitated to murder. Whatever idea of love or goodness he had once understood, this was something that he was no longer willing to acknowledge.
The tears were coming so strongly and so suddenly that they nearly choked off her words, but instead forced her to gulp for each breath. "I don't know you anymore."
And she doubted that he would ever know himself again.
"Anakin, you're breaking my heart," she accused. "You are going down a path I can't follow."
This should have brought him to his senses, but he was distracted, smug and she should have known why.
"Because of Obi-Wan?"
"Because of what you've done," she corrected vehemently. "What you plan to do.
"Stop, stop now," she rushed on. "Come back! I love you..."
The hoarse scream of hatred, barely recognizable as that of the father of Luke Skywalker, was not directed at her, but the man who stood in judgment at the top of the ship's ramp.
"No!" she gasped.
"You're with him. You've betrayed me! You brought him here to kill me!"
"NO! Anakin. I swear ... I ..."
Leia remembered the sensation that came next all too well. When Vader could not control a situation, he took control of his enemy's life. She had felt his invisible grip on her throat through several interrogations, but this time, there would be no reprieve...
"Let her go, Anakin," Obi-Wan said in a voice that should have stopped anything. "Let her go!"
And then she knew no more.
It had seemed impossible to sleep after a day such as the one that had just transpired, but exhaustion had finally taken hold of them all sometime after midnight. Han had even insisted that Luke stay at the consulate rather than chancing the return trip to his apartment.
He couldn't have known what prompted him to accept that offer, but the moment that Leia's scream awoke him, he had a suspicion.
He entered the bedroom to find Leia struggling against Han's grip and her neck arching as if she were trying to break a stranglehold.
"Hold her down," Han barked. "I'm trying to get her to wake up, but she's not cooperating."
"I can try..."
"Don't suggest it," Han snapped, "just do it!"
With the fear that had immediately clouded his mind at the realization that Leia was in distress, it was difficult to focus on the Force, but he had just skimmed the surface of her subconscious when she came rushing back into the conscious world.
Immediately, instinctively, he bent and pulled her to him, but she did not fight against him, only clutched his shirt as she trembled so violently that he thought for a moment that she was having a seizure.
"I'm here," he said in the most calming voice that he could manage. "Don't worry. I'm here."
Han, finally assured that she was in good hands, headed for the nearest drinking glass and something cold to fill it. Her gasping, frantic breaths quieted, but the trembling only lessened rather than going completely away.
"Nightmare?" Luke guessed.
"You have no idea," she countered. "It was so real..."
"You're safe," Luke promised.
"No," she moaned, "we're not."
He had to wonder what inspired her to include him in that statement. Perhaps it was an aftereffect of the dream, or a fear of what had to be done.
Or maybe she had seen through Luke's occasional optimism. She had been troubled with good reason since he had met up with her again, but this seemed to be different. Then again, this was the first night that had come since they both realized that they had been sent here to commit an unthinkable crime.
Han returned and Leia pulled away, but she did not go through the familiar motions of concealing her grief. Her right hand remained on Luke's forearm as if she needed a physical anchor while she accepted the glass of water and drained it gratefully.
"Bad?" Han prompted.
Leia nodded, mouth pinched. "I don't even know what prompted it," she admitted.
He frowned, glancing at her face as if that would give him a good idea of what she meant by that. "What was it about?"
"Vader," she said flatly.
He had guessed that. Most of her nightmares involved him in one form or another, which was probably why the Alliance High Command had thought she would be well-suited for this job in the first place.
"Before the armor," she immediately clarified.
When he was still Father.
It was the first time he had dared to think of it as something other than a nightmare that followed him into the day.
"I think it was to remind me what will happen if we fail," Leia said at last. "I don't think I'll need a more convincing argument."
His free hand came up to cup her cheek, more out of a need to make sure she wasn't ill than as a gesture of affection. Her skin was cool and damp with both sweat and tears, but the gesture at least prompted a tentative smile. He offered one of his own.
"I wonder why the Force wanted you to see that," he mused.
She drew back as if stung by the possibility. "You think it was the Force?" she asked in a strained voice that betrayed a sudden and unexplained fear of that.
"I think the Force has a hand in this," he explained.
It was obviously the wrong thing to say-she pulled back abruptly, and then got to her feet as quickly as possible. "Then why not you?" she shot back. "You're the one who can feel the Force, control it, do something about this. I don't have any use for phantom ideas and visions of possible futures."
"Maybe it showed you this because of that," Han suggested. "What exactly did it show you?"
"I already answered," she snapped, hunching forward as if on the attack, "and I'm not ready to give more details."
Han's hand wrapped around her right bicep to steady her. "Easy, Worshipfulness," he soothed. "We're not asking you to tell us everything."
"You want to know what the Force put inside my mind," she countered. "That's everything."
Without another comment, Leia left the room and headed through the apartment to the door. Before either of them could find out why, she exited the apartment altogether. She was presumably being herself and retreating to the safety of her office.
"I think she saw something about my mother," Luke guessed quietly.
"How she died," Han suggested, "or what might have happened."
Han scrubbed his hands over his face, but couldn't manage a customary grin afterwards. "Are you sure you want to know?" he asked.
"If it will help her," Luke responded without hesitation.
Han nodded, then pushed to his feet and headed for the living room without another comment. Luke remained in the bedroom, breathing deeply and stretching out with everything the Force could give him in order to sense what Leia's presence had left behind.
It wasn't much help. After all, even in distress, Leia had a great deal of control over her thoughts and rarely let anything slip that she didn't mean to. He could feel her fear and despair, but not what had caused it.
Maybe she'd be more cooperative in the morning.
She had always found this time of morning to be a comfort. It was one of the few times of the day when she could escape her circumstances without having more of an audience than a few vigilant security guards. Instead of worrying about appearances or what she might say in an encounter, she could retreat into herself and simply think.
Tonight, however, she had no way of knowing what could calm her. Thinking about the nightmare certainly would not help this time around. So instead, she headed for the kitchens with measured steps as she tried to clear her mind.
It wasn't entirely successful, since her throat was still as tight as if Luke's father were still choking off her air supply and the ebb of her adrenaline brought on a pounding headache in its wake.
I can't tell him, but I can't not tell him.
He shouldn't have to know this and I don't even know if it has a basis in truth. After all, I'm no Jedi and there is no reason to think that the Force would give me a nudge in the right direction.
Then why am I seeing things that haven't happened yet? I have no tie to man who came before Vader, so this should not be my burden.
I don't want it to be anyone's burden.
She made it all of a hundred paces before her thoughts were interrupted by company.
"I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who takes refuge in the kitchens when sleep won't come," Bail commented.
She had completely forgotten the number of times that they had met in this hallway with matching, sheepish expressions and a need for something full of chocolate. After some time, they had stopped asking for explanations and simply joined forces.
"I haven't slept well tonight," Leia confessed.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said genuinely. "After all, you need to be able to keep me on track at the meeting with the Chancellor."
She must have blanched the color of bleached bones because when she turned to comment on that, she found him grimacing. "I know you don't like him," Bail commented, "but this time, I was the one to ask for the meeting."
"What do you hope to discuss with him?" Leia asked, trying to quell her disgust at the thought of seeing Palpatine again.
"One of the upcoming amendments that he has proposed," Bail stated. "I think there may be a way around what he proposes without losing the end result of saving lives."
"I hope so," Leia said.
She glanced over at him, found his expression pensive. "What keeps you up this late?"
"Early," he corrected. "It's my wife's birthday and I wanted to call her before she had to get to work."
"Is she well?"
He nodded. "You knew of her illness?"
Only by hearsay, of course, but it had been fairly common knowledge on Alderaan. Very few had known of the extent of her illness and that it would kill her only three years from now, but any citizen of the world would have at least heard of the Queen's plight.
"There was some question of ascendancy," she recalled.
He nodded. "Legally, if we adopt a child and recognize her as our heir, there will be no question of ascendancy."
It seemed to be entirely unnatural to walk the halls of her own 'home' with her father while asking how she would arrive on the scene, but nothing about this situation was particularly typical of life.
She had to wonder, since Luke had been confronted with his own origins, if she would be able to finally hear the names of the people who gave her life. She had known, both by instinct and Bail's reluctant explanations, that she was adopted, but it had always been too dangerous to say much more.
She knew that her mother had died in the earliest days of the Empire, but her mind only provided vague images of a bittersweet smile and a dark curtain of hair like her own.
Perhaps she had met her already and had simply been too blind to recognize the person she had missed every day since her mother's death.
"You will adopt, then?" she prompted.
"We hope to," Bail agreed. "We've been going through the normal channels simply because we don't want to have any advantage in being given custody of a child."
It was typical of him-even when she was a child, he would make her follow the letter and spirit of the law simply because not even a Princess could be above the law.
"What troubles you, then?" he continued abruptly.
"Dreams," she said evasively. "It is little to worry about."
"It's enough," he countered. "Do you have them often?"
"Not of this sort," she said truthfully. "The bad nights come and go."
He grimaced. "I know what you mean."
She could imagine that he did without any effort at all.
The morning dawned as cold as the dream had been scorching, but it made no improvements on Leia's mood. Every time she had tried to return to sleep, her throat had closed off again and panic had set in.
She was unsure what had sparked the dream or what would drive it off again, but there was no way of coping with it during the day, so she simply pushed it to the back of her mind. The day had its own problems.
That much was evident the moment she left the bedroom to find Luke sitting on the repulsorcouch nearest the door.
"I'd have thought that you would have left by now," she said around a yawn.
"I should have," he conceded, "but I wanted to talk to you before I left."
She nodded, then sank onto the cushion next to him. "About the nightmare," she guessed. "I've had them before."
"About this sort of thing?" he countered.
I saw your mother die. I was your mother when she died. I know what will set it off, but I can never put it into words.
"No," she admitted. "This was something different."
"That's what I thought." His voice was neither smug nor demanding, only world-weary and concerned. "It was a premonition."
"It couldn't have been," Leia snapped. "I'm not a Jedi."
His face paled considerably. "Sometimes, I'm not so sure," he rejoined. "You have blocked Vader from your mind, you survive everything by luck..."
"Or Fate's twisted sense of humor," she corrected.
"And you're now having premonitions," he stated as if that explained everything.
She did not respond to that. There was too much truth in what he had said and it made her distinctly uncomfortable. Moreover, this was not the time to go into such matters.
"What did you see?" he pressed on.
He probably saw straight through her hesitation, but it was more of a reflex than a willful deception. Her mouth simply could not speak of Padme Amidala's murder.
"I saw Vader's first kill," she confessed at last.
He let out a breath as if her statement had lifted some kind of burden. She could almost hear him explaining that he thought it was something worse.
"We are allied with a Jedi," he reminded. "Have you considered speaking to her of it?"
"Absolutely not," Leia said curtly. "She would want to reach into my mind and we know what she could find there."
Information on Vader, the purpose of their mission, the fate of Alderaan, the identity of the Emperor. All were things that would have been useful knowledge to someone during the fall of the Republic, Leia could not afford to interfere with this timeline any more than necessary.
Luke looked ready to argue, but apparently decided against it. "Were you ever tested as a Jedi?"
"I don't think it entered Bail's mind," Leia retorted. "It would have been lethal for Vader to discover a Jedi on the throne of Alderaan."
"Then you might have the potential," he argued. "It would explain a great deal about the premonitions."
"I would have known by now," Leia insisted. "Besides, I think the Force is what permitted us to come here. It simply wanted to give me a very brutal nudge in the right direction."
He did not argue with that, but his mouth stretched slightly in a grim smile. "Right," he mused. "The right direction. That's the other thing I need to discuss with you."
"Go on," she prompted, relieved at the change in topic.
"We need to keep my father from turning," he reminded, "but we have no contact with him at this time. You've seen him once and heard a lot of things about him."
"He hasn't exactly been within reach," Leia stated. "What do you propose we do to change that? The Jedi Temple would not accept you at your age..."
"No," he conceded, "but the Grand Army of the Republic would."
Her mind wanted to rebel. It was a kind of instinct that kicked in whenever Luke displayed his innate ability to possess a death wish. Instead of the fire that burned its way from her stomach into the air in the form of powerful arguments, a cold recognition filled the pit of her belly and stayed there, weighing her down.
"What do you think?" Luke asked rather nervously.
I think you're crazy and it's because I've rubbed off on you.
She lowered her eyes to stare at her hands, which had turned suddenly white-knuckled at his statement. She forced them to unclench and spread her hands, face-down on the tabletop before responding.
"I don't want it to make sense," she said.
"But it does," he guessed. "That's what's bothering you now."
Among so many other things.
"There are few units assigned to Coruscant itself, so it's a good chance that, with my piloting skills, I'd be assigned to Father's squadron," he continued confidently.
"So, you think that you can get close enough to change his mind?" Leia suggested.
"That's what I hope," Luke confirmed.
Her eyes met his once more, and for a long moment, she held his gaze as if waiting for him to blink or admit that the entire thing was some kind of cruel joke.
"What makes you think you won't turn as well?"
From the rather guilty expression on his face, it was clear he had not even considered that possibility.
"You can't claim that you know with complete surety that you would never make the same choice as Vader," Leia asserted before he could begin to argue with her. "You don't even know what made him turn."
"I know what the difference between us is," Luke said firmly.
"You know what the difference between you and Vader is," Leia retorted. "You have no idea what Anakin was like or if you learned how to keep yourself from the darkness from the strength of your mother."
Luke studied her carefully in the wake of this outburst, but seemed to not make any headway in understanding her. "You've given a lot of thought to this," he said grimly.
"You are not the only one who has worried about becoming just like the enemy," Leia replied flatly.
"No," he agreed, "but you are not a Jedi."
She managed the first smile of the morning, but it was rather mirthless. "I'm starting to wonder if that's a blessing or a curse," she commented.
There seemed to be so little left to say, yet too much that she could not put into words, so she simply reached out and let both of her hands engulf his right hand. His left rested on the grip for just a moment, then pulled away as he stood.
"We can talk about this later," he promised, "but we have no time to waste."
Leia hardly thought that it was a waste of time, but she nodded. "You'll let me know, won't you?"
If he noticed the way her voice cracked, he didn't comment on it, just nodded. "I'll need to be in pretty constant contact," he admitted, "since I have no idea how exactly I'm going to pull this off."
"Well, I know how you won't do it," she rejoined.
His brow furrowed. "How?"
Pushing to her feet, she embraced him tightly with all the energy of her emotions. "Alone."
The recruiter, for some reason, did not believe he was serious. He simply stared at Luke, as if he had no patience for practical jokes.
"Local trouble?" he guessed.
Something like that.
"No," Luke said firmly. "Is it so hard to believe that I want to serve the Republic?"
"What's left of it," the recruiter mumbled.
This man was either going to be an early Alliance member or one of the Republic's last victims. Either way, Luke would have appreciated his opinion on any day other than today.
"I was on Muunilist when the Federation came along," Luke explained with a carefully researched cover story as his only means of persuasion, "and I saw what the Grand Army of the Republic did to keep the people of that planet free. I want to do that."
"Do you know how many people died on Muunilist in the Grand Army of the Republic?" the man retorted.
"I'm not afraid to die," Luke said without having to think about it; some things were far more terrifying than death. "Is that your only reason for not letting me join?"
The other man squinted at him for a long moment, obviously irked by the fact that Luke wouldn't give up on this idea as easily as the rest. Finally, he sighed and reached for his stylus.
"There is a unit currently based here on Coruscant," he stated. "You may have heard of their CO lately. Anakin Skywalker?"
Luke nodded. "I think I saw him on the newsfeeds," he suggested.
The recruiter barked out a laugh that wasn't quite amusement, but wasn't completely mirthless either. "Probably," he agreed. "After all, he's Palpatine's golden poster-boy and you'd think that he was winning this war single-handedly."
"Are we winning, then?" Luke asked, forcing himself to sound eager.
The other man smirked. "I thought you weren't afraid to die."
Within five minutes, Luke's enlistment papers were filled out and he had been directed to a stark examining room on the other side of the complex. There, a female Army medic seemed altogether too pleased to have to give a physical to someone who wasn't genetically engineered to be in good health. With his medical clearance assured, he retrieved the basics of his uniform from another department and then caught the first transport that he could find heading for his unit's headquarters.
"Identification?" the man at the door requested.
Luke passed over his identichip as well as the orders he had been given by the recruitment officer and the officer scanned it. Without thinking, Luke glanced at the other door warden and had to keep himself from taking a step backwards.
It shouldn't have been a surprise to find clones in the Army, since these were the end days of the Clone Wars, but Luke had not yet seen two guards with the same faces. If either of them noticed his discomfort, they didn't mention it and within a half-minute, the first guard had passed back his identichip.
"One of our officers will be here shortly to escort you," he assured him.
"Thank you," Luke managed to say.
They did not interact further-he had no doubt that they had personalities, but they seemed to be reserved for more permanent fixtures and people they knew would be part of the squadron. Within another moment, the inner door opened and the escort stepped through.
Luke was not sure he would be able to survive this day, much less the war, if he kept having shocks like this. The escort was a bearded man with narrow blue eyes and an almost regal bearing. Even without having seen that face before, the Jedi robes that he wore would have given him away immediately.
"Good morning, General," the second guard greeted.
"Good morning, Deadeye," Ben Kenobi responded before turning to Luke. "You're our latest victim?"
"I am," Luke croaked, managing a rather shaky salute.
"Ben? Ben Kenobi? Boy, am I glad to see you here!"
There was something of the man Luke had known in the lines of that face, the same kind of weariness that had made it all the more startling to see the amount of stamina that he possessed. Nevertheless, he at least seemed to be a man who could be courteous under any circumstances.
"Welcome," he said genially, returning the salute without seeming to notice Luke's nervousness. "I'm General Obi-Wan Kenobi."
"Luke Lars," Luke responded around a very dry throat. "I was told by recruiting to report here."
Ben nodded, then stepped aside to let him pass into the complex. "Lars," he mused. "That's a Tatooin name, isn't it?"
Luke had to wonder how he knew that before spending the last half of his life under the twin suns. "It is," he agreed. "I'm from Anchorhead."
Ben's brow furrowed slightly, as if he recognized that for some reason, but he didn't comment on it. "Our Commander Skywalker was raised in Mos Espa before he came to the Jedi," he commented. "He will be glad to have someone to remember the heat with him."
There was a rush of adrenaline that he couldn't define as terror or pride. It wasn't exactly clear what he was supposed to feel in this situation and the Force seemed to have abandoned him completely at the moment.
"Really?" he asked, his voice taking over where his brain couldn't and making him sound relieved. "I haven't seen too many people from Tatooine around here."
"They don't tend to make their way Coreward," Ben agreed, "so I guess we'll just have to count ourselves lucky that we have two of you."
"Thank you, sir," Luke said.
Ben glanced at the door to their left, then pivoted and knocked on it. It hissed open without a response and they stepped in.
Anakin Skywalker was not Luke's mirror image, but there was no mistaking the things that he had given his son. They had the same eyes, had the same cleft in the chin and posture, but there was something about the intensity of his gaze that reminded Luke of Leia. It was something he associated with all people of great power, but he dismissed it immediately and tried to banish the mental image of Vader with equal speed.
"This is Luke Lars," Ben introduced. "He's been assigned to our squadron."
His father gave him a rather distracted smile as if it was a habit, but one that he couldn't really express because there were too many other things on his mind. "Welcome," he said, his voice genuine. "I'm Commander Anakin Skywalker and I see you've already met Obi-Wan. He's our Executive Officer and the comic relief."
This seemed to be a familiar joke between the two, since even Obi-Wan seemed amused by it. He permitted himself a smile, but did not argue with the comment.
"Yes," Luke responded, surprised at the steadiness of his voice. "He said you were from Tatooine?"
It was obviously a sore subject, since Anakin didn't bother to keep his feelings from showing on his face and he blasted him with a mixture of emotions through the Force. Luke wondered if his father was aware that he had communicated with the mind of his newest recruit, but if he was, he gave no sign of that.
"I came from there, yes," Father said flatly. "I grew up in Mos Espa."
"And I was raised in Anchorhead," Luke answered.
His expression darkened for just a moment, but he did not say anything that would explain that. Instead, he nodded slightly. "I had family in Anchorhead."
Owen and Beru.
Without further comment, he gestured to the seat. "Thank you, Obi-Wan," he said rather curtly. "I'll take it from here."
Obi-Wan didn't argue, but left them alone in the office. Almost immediately, the air seemed to close in, pressing in on him so that he could barely breathe. He was not sure what was more oppressive-the fact that he was facing the father he had never known or the knowledge that this man was about to become his worst enemy.
"It's good to have you here," Anakin said rather distractedly. "We lost some good men in the battle over Coruscant and replacements haven't been high on the list of priorities."
"I'm glad I could be assigned here," Luke agreed.
Father managed a faint smile that reminded him again of Leia as if he, too, was unaccustomed to being that expressive with his positive emotions. "You look forward to being stationed on Coruscant?"
"I have..." He smiled slightly, affectionately. "A little sister here. We haven't had much chance to see each other since she left home."
As Leia said, all things were true to a degree if you found the right wording for them.
"Well, we seem to be in the eye of the storm right now," Father said. "Our unit was in the Outer Rim sieges for the last five months. I think it took the personal intervention of the Chancellor to give us this assignment."
Luke hated that he had to be suspicious of everything the man he had yearned to know said. He hated the twist of his stomach every time Palpatine's name came up, but he hated the fear of how much of himself he saw in his Father.
"That's generous of him," he said at last, unable to get anything else past the tightness in his throat.
Anakin finally glanced up. "You have experience with the Sprites?"
Luke could only assume that he was referring to the popular Aethersprites that were considered relics in polite company and hunks of junk to the more educated pilots of Luke's day.
"Some," he admitted, "but I'm a quick study."
"If your scores from the pre-screening are any indication," Anakin commended, "you'll do fine here."
"I hope so, sir," Luke replied respectfully.
Without further comment on the subject, Anakin gave him a passkey. "This will let you into the barracks," he explained. "Take the first available bunk for now and tonight, we'll see about getting you a wingman, a fighter and a better idea of what you're up against."
"You clean up well," a low voice said at her ear.
Leia turned her head slightly so she could see Han across the curve of her shoulder and let him see a smile. "I could say the same," she said dryly, "but you look just as uncomfortable in a dress uniform as you do on less special occasions."
His hand caught her elbow and she turned to face him fully, allowing her smile to broaden. Before she could greet him properly, however, he caught her lips with his own for a brief, rather intense kiss.
She probably would have felt something, but her mind seemed to short-circuit at that very moment and by the time she had composed a coherent thought, he had pulled away. In that moment, she finally felt the heat of the kiss and found herself missing it when it was taken away.
"What..." she breathed.
"What?" he asked with a grin. "I can't miss my wife?"
It was all an act, then, all part of the cover story. It had been a nice act while it lasted, though.
An altogether too nice act.
"I didn't think you'd be here," she admitted, wrapping her fingers around his, since the order of the evening seemed to be looking the part; it was easier to think of it in those terms than try to accept the electricity that was passing between them. "Most of the security detail is at the perimeter."
"They are," he agreed, "but the Senator wanted to make sure that a few of us were on hand in case things got rough."
"It's the Liberation Day celebration," Leia countered. "What could get rough?"
He shrugged indifferently. "That's what you seem to say every time things blow up in our faces."
He had a point there.
"And you seem to think that I'll be the one making trouble?" she teased.
"No," he countered, "but you tend to be the center of attention when trouble happens. I'd rather we not let that happen this time."
Leia disengaged her hand, then glanced over her shoulder. "I suppose you've heard about Luke?"
"I heard that he hasn't been at his apartment today," Han admitted, "but not much more than that."
He seemed to have the kind of contacts that were as mercenary as he had been once upon a lifetime, so Leia nodded and stepped closer to disclose the information. "He's joined the noble ranks of the Grand Army of the Republic."
Han's expression darkened in recognition of Luke getting himself into another suicidal situation, but after a moment, comprehension seemed to dawn. He glanced around as if to make sure that they were not being overheard, then half-turned to draw her under his protective arm.
"Let me guess," he said quietly. "It's the easiest way to be in closer contact with our man Skywalker."
"Something like that," she agreed.
Again, he was looking thoroughly less than happy. "I don't like it," he confessed.
"You don't like anything that involves him and his instincts," Leia reminded, her smile turning slightly bittersweet.
"That's because his instincts have no sense of self-preservation!"
She had no way of arguing with that. Then again, if there was any tie that bound the three of them together, it was their unconventional and vaguely suicidal tendency towards heroics. She had never been sure if it had something to do with their upbringing, breeding or a simple lack of intelligence.
"It's a plan with merit," she rationalized. "There are few situations in which Luke could credibly follow a Jedi around. Being part of his squadron is one of those few."
"Good point," Han muttered, "but I still don't like it."
"You don't have to," Leia assured him.
He didn't look very reassured by that, but at least he dropped the subject and instead looked towards the balcony that had been conveniently vacated moments before. He then looked pointedly at the crowd around them.
"You look as if you could use some fresh air," he suggested.
"Thank you," she conceded. "Would you escort me?"
He simply offered his arm and she allowed him to guide her through the throngs of both vaguely and agonizingly familiar faces until they were able to breathe the warm night air. The seclusion of the balcony did not, however, keep them from hearing snatches of conversation as the other guests passed by the open doors.
..."Too dangerous as it is. First we gave those vigilantes an army and now the Chancellor is giving them his personal attention?"
"I think he's taking them under control and it makes me feel better. I don't know about you, but as long as someone's keeping an eye on things..."
"Even if it's the same eye that belongs to a dictator whose only priorities are seeing what part of the constitution he can obliterate next?"
Han pulled her away from the doorway into the eastern corner of the balcony. It was the section that lay flush to the Consulate so that the city lights did not highlight them in the slightest.
"We haven't had much chance to talk since this whole mess was confirmed," Han said in a low voice.
Leia nodded. "I haven't been sure where to start," she explained. "It's been hard enough to talk to Luke about this."
"But you know what we have to do," he retorted. "Luke's probably got the best shot..."
"I thought you didn't like it," she said flatly.
"I don't," he rejoined, "but if we're going to keep his father from turning into Vader, it's probably a better idea than playing diplomat here."
She bristled at the comment, since she was all too aware of her current impotence. "There are things we can accomplish here," she defended tersely.
"What?" he challenged. "We can't exactly send fanmail to Vader."
"No," she snapped, "but he's not the only one at risk."
He drew up to his full height, but she could still see his frown. "The Senator?"
"Of course," Leia answered. "We don't know what part she had in this, only that Vader..."
She broke off abruptly, eyes lowering, but Han wouldn't be fooled. From the sharp intake of air that came next, she could tell that she was already too late.
"Is that what the dream was about?"
She nodded without meeting his gaze. "I shouldn't be surprised," she murmured. "With all that Vader did..."
"I hope you don't intend to tell Luke," he shot back.
"Don't be ridiculous," Leia bit out. "This is something that will happen in a very short time and I have no intention of letting it remain unchanged."
She might have been mistaken, but she could have sworn that he smirked. "That's my girl," he commended.
Leia had seen many battlefields throughout the course of the war, but few had sickened her like this.
It was not the gory massacre that she had expected, but even before she saw the way most of the wounds had been cauterized, she was instinctively aware of why that was.
The Jedi had gone down fighting. That much was made evident by the fact that bodies of clonetroopers were in no short supply.
It was difficult to discern, looking at lives that had been extinguished by the same killing force of fire, who had been the victor here.
Perhaps none of them had been.
It was immensely difficult to say that there was a purpose for the bodies of the children.
It was a thousand footfalls between the doorway and where the two men had stopped and there seemed to be a body for each step. She did not look down to identify the faces-it would have been beyond her power, anyway-but approached the Masters with leaden steps and an equally heavy heart.
"Not even the younglings survived," Obi-Wan said as if this scene needed an explanation.
Master Yoda heaved a sigh; in air that was so weighted with murder, it was almost impossible to draw breath, so the heaviness of his exhalation seemed appropriate.
"Killed not by clones, this Padawan." His voice was appropriately hushed as if not wanting to disturb the rest of those who had earned their peace in an unjust war. "By a lightsaber, he was."
She could see the familiar furrow in Obi-Wan's brow, but his face remained otherwise impassive. "Who? Who could have done this?"
This time, there were no screams when she awoke, only a sick burning in the back of her throat, almost as if she had meant to vomit and had restrained herself. It was not surprising, since she had felt the emotional equivalent during the dream, but hers threatened to beat its way out of her ribcage nonetheless.
Something about her breathing must have been different, though, because there was a grunt and a rustle of blankets as Han propped himself on one elbow.
"Another vision," he guessed.
"They're not visions," Leia said sharply.
It was an instinctive response, rather than something that she could back up and therefore Han was not fooled. Before she could give a further explanation, he stood and crossed to the bed, settling in next to her. She didn't bother to pull away, not even when he echoed his earlier gesture by taking her hand. It was a mute gesture of undemanding support and she could not protest that.
"What was it?" he asked quietly. "The same?"
"No," she said honestly. "It was the first time..."
Her throat closed and she shook her head, though she doubted that he would be able to see it in the darkness.
"Take your time," he urged, reaching across her to turn on the light. "Would something to drink help?"
She nodded and he released her hand, sliding off the bed to comply. When he returned a moment later with a cold glass of water, her throat muscles had finally released their tension. It was a long moment, however, before she could find the words for it.
"The Jedi Purges," she explained at last. "The children as well as the Masters."
His mouth twitched. "How much of it did you see?"
"Mostly the aftermath," she whispered.
From years of shared experience, he understood that there were times when nothing was more horrific than seeing a battle when there was nothing she could do about it.
He let out a long breath at last, his face utterly unreadable. "I think you should tell Luke."
"The Force is trying to tell you something," he reasoned.
"You don't believe in the Force," Leia reminded.
"I don't believe in time travel," he retorted. "Doesn't mean it doesn't believe in me."
She shook her head. "This is something he can't know," she insisted.
"Until when?" Han snapped. "When it happens to him, too?"
"He has his own burden," Leia asserted. "If we succeed, none of that has to happen, but it is not fair to him to remind him of what will happen if we don't."
Han seemed to be on the verge of disagreeing, but kept his mouth shut for once. "I wish someone would tell your dreams that."
Sleep had eluded her since that moment and it was a long night before duty called her away from the apartment. She had hoped that the day's tasks would keep her mind off of the dream, but instead, when she arrived at Bail's office, she found that it would be impossible.
Tarrick ushered her in immediately as if her presence was urgently needed. Padme had already seated herself, looking stiff and uncomfortable in a way that probably had nothing to do with her advanced pregnancy. She did not look up as Leia entered, but Bail took notice of her immediately.
"Leia," Bail greeted with his usual smile, "I'm glad you arrived early."
"You have an assignment for me?" Leia asked.
"I have my own errands for the morning," Bail stated, "but I need you to represent me."
"Yes, sir," Leia responded. "What is the errand?"
Padme looked up at last and her eyes seemed to be slightly wary, not of Leia, but of what they had to do. "We have an appointment with Master Kenobi of the Jedi Council," she said flatly. "Are you familiar with him?"
"I have met him," Leia said warily. "When I was doing some research at the Archives, he was kind enough to be of assistance."
Her expression seemed to soften and she nodded. "That does sound like Obi-Wan," she conceded fondly. "We have decided to consult him on our petition to the Chancellor. Bail had hoped to come, but he has suggested that you would be a trustworthy emissary as well."
"I will do my best," Leia promised. "We leave immediately?"
"Yes," Padme confirmed.
Bail stood with them. "I would like you to report back immediately following the meeting, Leia," he requested. "If I have not returned, return to your quarters and I will come to discuss the outcome afterwards."
"Yes, sir," Leia said dutifully.
It was not until they had reached the Naboo delegation's speeder and they were safely on their way that Leia dared to ask the obvious question. "What changed the committee's mind on the matter of involving the Jedi?"
Padme's smile was absolutely mirthless. "Finding a Jedi we could trust."
She didn't bother to ask why Anakin had not fit the description. For all her experience as a politician, there was no way of creating that kind of deception.
"We do not want to openly ask for their support," Padme explained, "but we know that the relations between the Council and the Chancellor have been strained since Geonosis and we hope that the tension will work to our advantage."
"And Obi-Wan is a friend," Leia observed, "so he will know what to do with the trust you give him."
Luke's mother looked away abruptly, though her skin remained pale and her voice was steady. "That is our hope."
This time, they were not taken to the Archives, but led by one of the apprentices to a conference room in the recesses of the Temple. Obi-Wan greeted Padme with an unnecessarily formal bow that Leia could sense was for appearances only, then repeated the gesture with her.
"A pleasure to see you again, milady," he said without a trace of guile.
"And you, Master Kenobi," Leia responded in kind. "I hadn't expected to see you again so soon."
He gestured them to chairs at the round table and took the seat nearest Padme. "I understand that you have some political matters to discuss with me," he began dryly.
Padme's mouth curved into a smile. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I know that you hate this sort of thing, but we felt that you would be the best Jedi to consult on this."
"Does it have anything to do with the Chancellor?" he asked immediately.
"Does anything not?" Leia interjected. "I think there are few who still believe that he is doing some good for the Republic."
At least she assumed that was one rationale for the contention in the Republic. Then again, there might have been a few obstinate fools still around.
"We are wary of him," Obi-Wan granted, glancing at her with an expression that suggested both amusement and admiration. "He has taken the power that the Republic granted him in good faith and used it to an extreme extent."
"That is what concerns the loyalists most," Padme expressed. "There is no indication that his bids for power will ever stop."
"He makes them under the guise of doing what is best for the Republic," Leia said, "but all he is doing is making himself the only one able to decide what that constitutes."
Master Kenobi nodded grimly. "I do not believe that he will be willing to relinquish that power once the crisis has passed."
"What he led the Senate to believe is that this will be the only crisis," Padme stated. "I'm not sure they'll ever learn to believe otherwise."
Obi-Wan grimaced. "It reminds me of my training," he observed. "When I was young, I balked at the idea that my Master would constantly discipline me. I felt it was unduly harsh and asked when he would stop thinking of me as a learner. He told me that even he would never consider his own education complete so I should never assume that instruction was a punishment."
Leia had heard a similar story from Bail in her early years. Perhaps every truly great man had such an epiphany.
"The Republic thought that it learned its lesson with Valorum," Padme retorted. "They have permitted this complacency because it is the easy thing to do."
"They'll learn now or learn through bitter experience the price of what they have allowed," Leia predicted.
"That is why we are taking action now," Padme said at last. "There is a petition of two thousand Senators asking for the amendments to the constitution to be repealed."
"A well-conceived plan," Obi-Wan murmured, "if the Chancellor is willing to listen to the voice of reason."
"We hope that having a majority in the matter will force his hand where diplomacy cannot," Padme agreed. "As a Jedi, what is your opinion on that matter?"
"It is prudent," he said cautiously, "but it may take more than politics alone to stop Palpatine."
Leia caught a flash of insight from his tone. "You have your own contingency plan, then?" she asked.
He turned a gaze on her that was infinitely weary. "That is one way of putting it," he conceded. "I should not say too much of it, but it is something that is a more permanent solution to Palpatine's abuses."
"That is good to hear," Padme breathed. "We were not sure if the Jedi would see our perspective on this matter."
He nodded with a slight smile. "Despite the necessity of our role in this war, we are keepers of the peace, milady," he reminded. "As long as you agree with us on that level, we will have the same goals."
Before either of them could respond, his commlink sounded and he retrieved it. "Kenobi," he answered.
"We are convening a session of the Council in ten minutes' time," a brusque, male voice said.
"On my way," Obi-Wan said without questioning the need for the session. His smile turned remorseful. "I'm sorry to cut this short, but we will have to continue this discussion in further detail and with the input of the Council."
"Thank you," Padme responded, getting to her feet with as much grace as she could manage.
As Leia turned to follow her out, however, he caught her elbow. "Lady Antilles," he said, "might I have a word with you in private?"
Padme glanced at Leia. "I will be waiting at the speeder," she assured her.
"Certainly," Leia replied.
The door shut behind Padme and Obi-Wan released her elbow, but did not take his seat once more. "Is there something wrong?" Leia asked bluntly.
"I was going to ask the same thing of you," Obi-Wan admitted. "You seem to be troubled this morning."
If he had even the slightest suspicion of why that was, he gave no indication. The concern in his eyes was genuine.
"It's nothing," Leia lied. "I am troubled by the current situation."
"As we all are," Obi-Wan soothed. "If there's anything I might do to..."
He broke off with a stifled gasp that Leia matched in tone and emotion. She immediately knew why, but she had made the move involuntarily. It had simply come when she felt his mind touch hers in the same way that Vader had begun his interrogation. Without thinking or knowing how, she had pushed her mind against the influence until he was unable to touch her thoughts again.
It was a survival instinct, since he could not know of her mission here or her true identity, but she had not expected to have to use it against someone that she had been taught to trust both by her father and by her instincts.
His hand landed on her arm as if he could connect their minds by starting on a physical level. "You have no reason to fear or hide from me," he promised.
She had every reason to fear what she could tell him, though it would have been infinitely simpler to pour out the story and let him take over the crisis from here. She shook her head, but did not respond for a long moment.
It seemed impossible to think that she could hide anything from a Jedi, much less something that directly involved him, but it made as much sense as the reason that she had been able to fend off Obi-Wan's only student.
At last, she nodded as if in understanding. "I am hiding nothing."
He could have stretched out to touch her mind once more, then, but he chose to avoid another encounter. "What troubles you?" he asked again.
"Everything and nothing at all," she said honestly before fleeing.
Many things had been changed in the war. No one who had been sent off to lead or support the Grand Army of the Republic returned to Coruscant with the same attitude towards the men and women who ruled there.
Tragically enough, there were even those who had refused to return to the Temple because they felt that the Jedi were just as treacherous as the Chancellor who had sent their friends to their deaths. It was hardly surprising, since the Jedi had entered the entire affair with something between resignation and resentment.
For Obi-Wan, the Temple had never stopped being a haven. Perhaps it was a result of knowing how desperately the Council had fought against the war. He had listened to the sessions in which even Master Yoda had searched for loopholes to preserve the lives of those they served.
Perhaps it was a product of some idealistic idea that there was still peace to be found there.
He had asked for an audience with Master Windu the moment that Lady Antilles had left the office. It was no matter of urgency, but it was on an order instated just after Geonosis.
Mace's quarters were simply decorated, with just one chair for visitors wedged against the desk, and a bed against the opposite wall. The Korun Master was a reclusive man who preferred to keep the spiritual atmosphere of his room uncluttered.
"Obi-Wan," he greeted. "You have some information?"
"More of a concern," Obi-Wan corrected grimly.
Mace nodded grimly. "It's all any of us have," he reminded. "Who is the cause for concern?"
"Lady Antilles," he supplied. "She is an aide to Senator Organa."
Mace's eyes narrowed and Obi-Wan knew that he was thinking of the trail of information that had led several Jedi to the possibility of a Sith in Republica 500. Someone placed that highly in the political structure would certainly be able to afford such accommodations.
"And what leads you to believe that she may be connected?" Mace asked carefully.
"She was troubled in our meeting this morning," Obi-Wan explained, "and because we had met before here..."
"At the Temple?" Mace interrupted sharply.
Obi-Wan nodded. "She was authorized to do research in our archives," he stated.
"What were your impressions of her then?"
He grimaced. "I didn't give her much thought," he admitted, "but when I attempted to touch her mind today, she cloaked her mind."
"And you were not aware of any Force potential," Mace observed.
"I was not," Obi-Wan confirmed.
Mace let out a long breath. "It is not necessarily a skill of the Force," he mused, "but it bears investigation."
"What do you suggest?"
"First, there are blood samples taken from each person registered for access to the Senate," Mace said. "Test hers for a midichlorian count."
"And if she is Force-sensitive?" Obi-Wan asked.
"Find out," Mace suggested, "why exactly she's so eager to keep her mind closed to you."
"I'm not sure she would answer that question," Obi-Wan protested.
There was something strange in Master Windu's expression that was distinctly frightening. "I said nothing of asking," he countered easily.
"Have you encountered clones before?"
His Father's tone was conversational, but there was a certain amount of tension in the way he carried himself. Luke couldn't be sure if it had to do with the orientation of a new recruit or something else.
"No," Luke admitted, "but I haven't exactly been traveling a lot."
Father smiled slightly. "It's pretty difficult to get off Tatooine," he reminisced. "How long did you stay there?"
"Twenty years," Luke said with a grimace. "You?"
"Nine years too long," Father said with an almost matching expression that suggested Luke had learned it from him.
He paused in mid-stride and turned to Luke. "Other than myself and General Kenobi and now you, there are no pilots in this squadron who are not clones," he explained.
"How do you keep them straight?" Luke asked.
Something flashed through his eyes that looked like bitterness, but he masked it quickly. "You find ways," he conceded. "For all their identical genetic traits, they each have some unique skills or personality quirks. It is...unlike any other kind of warfare that I've gone through."
"Me either," Luke agreed without thinking.
Father frowned. "You've been through a war yourself?"
He had completely forgotten that it was a risk to mention the ties that bound them together. There could be no relating of common experiences or names to be dropped into conversation.
This was going to be more difficult than he thought.
"Minor conflicts on outlying worlds," he said hastily. "My uncle says I have a chronic sense of heroism."
Father grimaced again, but this time, it was a different expression, one of sympathy. "Funny," he said. "Obi-Wan says much the same of me."
For the first time in a full day, that comparison didn't twist his stomach into knots.
Without another comment, he turned and continued walking. Luke followed in silence, flexing his hands as if he had felt the need to clench his fists, but never realized it.
"We have several bunk rooms," Father continued. "The smallest has one open space and you'll be rooming with three others."
"Much better than usual," Luke quipped. "The last squadron I was in had everyone in a single room, including the commanding officer."
He didn't mention exactly who they had been fighting and who had been their commanding officer.
"Well, you'll like them," Father said amiably. "Even Obi-Wan has a soft spot for some of them and sometimes I don't even think he likes me."
"Anakin was a cunning warrior...and a good friend."
Before Luke could respond, they came to a halt and Father pressed the anunciator before opening the door.
"Officer on deck," a clipped voice barked.
"At ease," Father said immediately.
His tone was not one of a person disregarding discipline and respect. Instead, it seemed to indicate that he was aware of what they respected and felt a further demonstration was unnecessary. The three clones inside unsurprisingly complied immediately with their legendary penchant for obedience.
"We have a new recruit," Father said in the same tone. "Flight Officer Luke Lars has joined our squadron and will be taking position Six as Deathwish's wingman."
Luke was well-aware of pilot nicknames, but he wasn't exactly encouraged by this one.
Father nodded towards a man on the end who was completely identical to the others. "Deathwish is Five," he introduced. "He's one of our veterans and the communications specialist, but doesn't understand the value of keeping out of the line of fire."
Luke exchanged the customary salute with him and the man's expression remained absolutely neutral. He was about as opposite to Wes Janson as possible, but the description of someone who had a stronger sense of duty than self-preservation made him vaguely homesick.
Without further introductions, Father turned to Luke. "I'll have the duty roster sent to your squadron comm code. Your enlistment code will be your password."
"Yes, sir," Luke said dutifully.
"Get settled in, then," he suggested. "We'll put you to work tomorrow."
"I look forward to it," Luke responded and meant it.****
The durasteel of the bulkhead against which she cowered was even colder than her perspiration, but it was the only comfort she could find. It anchored her to something more secure than the terror that had driven her into that position.
She was hardly naked-though her gown had been removed, she was still wearing the thin shift that she wore beneath-but she might as well have lain bare on that durasteel slab for all the protection that she was given.
It seemed ridiculous to be curling into a fetal position with her face turned away from her tormentor, but it had taken all of her energy just to fend off the effects of the mind-jagger and her remaining strength was insufficient to control her physical instincts.
At least, that was the explanation she gave herself for the violent tremors that had already taken over her body. Maybe it was just fear.
A sharp sting at the base of her spine arched her back as her hands clawed for purchase on the smooth surface.
Stop it! You're stronger than this.
Her palms flattened against the bulkhead as if to steady herself, but the rush of adrenaline that had accompanied the pain had driven the narcotics through her blood more quickly than she could manage.
"Your resistance is admirable, Leia."
How did he dare call her that? How did he...
There were few people who would dare to call her that and he had no right to speak to her as her father would.
"Have to," she mumbled.
Don't think! If you think, they all die!
"This is unnecessary," he said, his voice absolutely neutral as if he were carrying on an amiable conversation.
"Right," she muttered. "If you leave me alone, we'll all be fine."
He was probably smirking under that mask or sneering. She couldn't trust anything she thought or felt.
"If you just tell me what I wish to know..."
His voice was soothing and she nearly yielded to the suggestion, but the moment that her mind began to relax, she felt a kind of pressure against the inside of her skull. Her shoulders hunched inward in anticipation of a blow, but there was no strike.
"Stop," she keened.
"I will stop when you tell me what I wish to know," he echoed himself.
"Never," she hissed.
"We will leave it for now," he claimed.
"Liar," she whispered.
Another pain came this time, but the red-hot blade sliced beneath the skin instead, charring and blistering where it emerged. Immediately, she doubled over, hissing between her teeth as her arms wrapped around her knees.
"Stop," she snapped again.
"Where is the base?" he demanded.
"Far beyond your iron grip," she snarled as the fire-knife struck again, "and that is all you need to know."
She jerked abruptly, shying away from the voice that dared to address her.
"Leia," Han repeated sharply, "it's all right. I'm here."
Her eyes snapped open to find that the harsh lighting of the Death Star detention block had been replaced by the thin sunlight of early Coruscant morning. It was partially blocked by Han, since he was hovering like a mother vrelt over her. Yet it was at least something more comforting than the insanity of her nightmares.
"More about the Jedi?" he asked.
"No," she hissed.
He drew back in recognition. Leia immediately knew that he recognized the tone from other times that he had caught her in a memory of Vader, but he didn't comment on it.
"Are you all right?"
I don't know.
"I will be," she said evasively.
From the look on his face, she knew that he was not convinced in the slightest, but again, he was silent on the matter. Instead, he drew back and schooled his features into an expression of neutrality.
"We have a visitor," he said flatly.
Her heart leapt into her throat at the thought that it might be Luke, having come to his senses, but he would have said it outright if that were the case. Instead, he was looking vaguely suspicious.
"I believe you know General Kenobi," he continued.
"I do," she confirmed cautiously. "What does he want?"
"To talk to you," he said simply. "I've got him in the living room."
She nodded and threw back the covers, standing and heading for the storage cubicle. Opening it, she pulled out a robe and donned it.
"Is there something you're not telling me?" Han asked pointedly.
There had been no need to speak to him of what happened in Obi-Wan's quarters yesterday. She hadn't even given Padme an explanation for their private audience. There were simply too many things on her mind to figure out the words for this.
"He tried to touch my mind yesterday," Leia explained quietly, still not facing him.
"Tried," Han echoed. "What did you do to stop him?"
"The same thing I used against Vader," she retorted.
There were a number of expressions that crossed his face as she turned to face him fully, but he settled on a look of exasperation.
"And it worked?"
"It must have," she countered. "He thought I was hiding something."
"Don't blame him," Han snorted. "If you managed to hide from Vader, it's probably a powerful shield."
Leia nodded. "I think he got authorization to be paranoid and came back to abuse that," she guessed.
Without waiting for a response, she moved past him and opened the door into the living room.
Obi-Wan was looking slightly uncomfortable, but she didn't dare to guess why, only bowed formally as he rose to greet her.
"I never expected to see you here," she said truthfully.
"Nor I," Obi-Wan responded in kind. "I don't ordinarily make house calls, but I did not like the way we left things yesterday."
She could have said any number of things by way of response, but Leia simply nodded. "I guessed that."
Han touched her elbow lightly, then leaned in to brush her cheek with a kiss. "I'm heading to work," he murmured. "Take care of yourself."
She nodded again, relieved for a moment by the contact, but frustrated by his retreat. Neither she nor Obi-Wan noticed his actual departure, but sat at some unspoken signal.
"What troubled you about yesterday?" Leia asked.
"I could ask the same thing," he reminded. "You responded to me as if I were an enemy."
"That's one way of looking at it," she mused, "but there is another."
His smile was wry. "I was hoping you would say that," he admitted.
She hesitated for a long moment, considering how exactly to justify what had happened there. It was time to think as a politician rather than an enemy.
"You were a teenager once, weren't you?"
He laughed. "I think I was," he conceded, "though Anakin thinks that is impossible."
Leia cautiously returned the smile. "Did you ever hide something from your Master?" she pressed on.
"Yes," he said, frowning at the transition.
"When you feared you would be hurt, correct?"
That seemed to finally give him a modicum of understanding and his expression cleared. "You've had experience with a Jedi before," he observed.
"I wouldn't call him that," she corrected carefully.
"May I know under what circumstances?" Obi-Wan requested.
"Four years ago," she said. "I was a freedom fighter and he was my captor."
It was amazing how much of an evasive maneuver straight talk could be. Her mind cast back to the nightmare, the strength of the memory and the familiarity of the fear.
"I'd like you to see," she said at last.
It was the only way to regain even a small amount of his trust, but it was still risky. He had to sense her hesitation, but perhaps that would give him more confidence in what she was willing to give him.
"I can access the memory if you can tell me one element to look for," he invited.
It would, hopefully, give him limited access rather than allowing him to browse as it were.
"It was very cold in that cell," she whispered, "and he wore a black mask that covered all of his face."
"Thank you," he said, though the reason for his gratitude was unclear. "Please relax your mind."
She had to smile at the absurdity of that request, but did as he asked. She felt the same pressure that she could remember both from their previous encounter and the nightmare itself. This time, however, she forbade the fear to enable her shields and let him into that memory.
When he withdrew an indeterminate amount of time later, his face was ashen, but there was no judgment in his eyes. Instead, he was looking at her as if recognizing something new in her features.
Perhaps he knew now that she knew the same depths of hell as he by simply having known Vader.
"He never told me his name," she said without waiting for an inquiry.
It was true. She had heard the name of Vader a thousand times before becoming his prisoner and repetition had been utterly unnecessary.
"And you have not encountered him here?" he asked.
Not Vader, but the man who he was first, certainly.
"I'm sorry," he said, in a tone of heartfelt sympathy, "for trying to do the same..."
"You did nothing of the kind," Leia interrupted. "It was an instinct, nothing more."
His smile returned reluctantly at that, but he cupped his chin in his hand thoughtfully. "I tend to disagree, Lady Antilles."
"Yes," he confirmed. "I was curious about your use of your mind to block me, so I ran a test on your blood and you are strong enough in the Force to be a powerful Jedi. Why were you not taken to the Temple?"
"Because I never knew."
The words were out of her mouth before she could even think about them, but they were true enough and her eyes stung at the statement. It was impossible to consider, but made far too much sense to deny.
"You were not tested?"
"I don't know," Leia argued. "My family has always been influential and they thought Jedi powers were dangerous."
"They sometimes can be," Obi-Wan said dryly, "but you seem to have done a great deal of good with them."
She had kept Vader at bay so long that he had allowed Alderaan to be obliterated. She could hardly call that a 'great' thing.
"I hope so."
"Blue Lead, standing by."
"Blue Five, standing by."
"Blue Six, standing by."
There was a barely audible sigh over the commlink and then Father's voice came through. "All right, boys," he said wearily, "I know this is child-minding, not the stuff of heroism, but it's only for a few hours."
"Everyone can be bored for a few hours," Luke reminded. "Just don't make a habit of doing it to us."
"Second that," Deathwish agreed.
"I'll let Command know your orders," Father joked. "In the meantime, Deathwish, you've got your course. Lars, I'd like you to fly with me."
A shiver ran up his spine at the thought of being on his Father's wing, but he couldn't express any of that. He had to treat this as if it were any other order and not something that he had never thought to be possible.
"As ordered, sir," he said without a trace of emotion in his voice.
A course came through his astromech, one that would take them on a rather convoluted course through the traffic that was hanging in the space above Coruscant.
"Looks like fun," he commented.
"It should be," Father agreed. "I saw your sim scores and would just like to see how your reflexes are in a less...artificial environment."
Luke had to grin, since he tended to follow the same protocol. "Shall I take point or follow your lead?"
"Take point," Father ordered.
It was probably the first time in years that he had actually felt unsure that he should start a run. Taking a deep breath, he guided his fighter onto the assigned vector, and then reactivated his mike.
"On my mark," he commanded. "Three, two, one, mark."
He had to keep his hand steady so he would not jump into the exercise too quickly. It turned out to be a good move, since a moment later, a light freighter veered sharply from the vector that it had been assigned by ground control. He pulled up gradually enough to clear it, noting that Father was choosing to swing beneath the freighter.
The course called for a steady vector until they passed a bulk cruiser called the Determination and Luke followed that until the designated left turn at a yacht dubiously called the Cheater's Prize.
He had swung too wide and he had to compensate, but Father followed the course with a precision that showed a good deal of determination, even as they wove a serpentine path through the traffic.
The course dumped them out on a parallel course to the traffic heading towards the Senate district, but Luke did not speak until his Father made contact.
"Except for that one wide turn," Father called, "that was about as good as your scores had indicated. You do a lot of precision flying?"
Luke grinned. That was one word for escort duty and the trench run at the Death Star.
"I'm not sure if you've heard of Beggar's Canyon," he admitted.
"I've heard it's the favorite place for hotshots out of Anchorhead to get their thrills," Father said with a laugh. "I suppose you're going to tell me about threading the Stone Needle?"
"You've flown with Tatooins before," Luke observed.
"A couple," Father explained.
"Well," Luke replied with a shrug, "there's no better place to learn the need for a steady course."
He could almost hear the grin on his Father's face. "I'm not complaining," Father corrected. "New vector coming through. Let's see if we can put those skills to good use."
If Leia had felt awkward at the squadron barracks, the base itself was much worse. They had grudgingly allowed her entrance once she'd shown her credentials, but there was only one person who had seen her inside the base. Of course, it was the one person she had wanted to avoid.
"Lady Antilles," Obi-Wan greeted. "You have business here?"
"A visit," Leia corrected. "Is Luke Lars here?"
"He will be returning in a few minutes from patrol," Obi-Wan supplied. "He mentioned he had a sister here, but I wouldn't have guessed that she was Alderaanian."
Her mind scrabbled for some kind of matching cover story, which was no mean feat since Luke hadn't mentioned anything about this. "Our parents were divorced when we were young, so I was raised in Antibes and he remained with our father on Tatooine."
If Obi-Wan had noticed the momentary panic, he gave no indication of it. "I hope you are well," he said with sincerity.
"I'm..." She blushed, then confessed, "slightly confused."
"You've lived for twenty-three years with the Force and never knew it," Obi-Wan sympathized. "I can understand a bit of confusion."
She offered a sincere, slightly sheepish smile. "I don't suppose there is a way to train?"
"Not formally," Obi-Wan sighed. "Anakin was trained at the age of nine and that had its own challenges, but there are ways of developing what talents you have."
He nodded towards the hangar entrance, where she could see three fighters approaching. "I would go into more detail," he offered, "but your brother is here."
She inclined her head. "I will look forward to speaking to you later, then," she said graciously.
Obi-Wan followed her into the hangar, standing well clear of the landing zone until the pilots left their craft.
"So," Luke was saying as he dismounted, "why are we Blue Squadron?"
Anakin grinned. "One of Obi-Wan's little jokes," he said cryptically.
"Squadrons usually honor something that they respect," Obi-Wan called by way of response. "Since we are notoriously connected with the Chancellor, we are associated with the blue robes of office. It is what you might call an honor for both sides."
Luke caught sight of her and his step faltered for just a moment, but then his grin broadened and he crossed to envelop her in a tight hug.
"I didn't think you'd ever see daylight again," he teased as he let go.
"It seemed unlikely," Leia agreed with a smile, "but I thought I'd come visit my favorite brother before we both turned old and grey."
Luke turned to Anakin. "What is..."
"You've got a sim in two hours," Anakin supplied without needing him to finish the question. "You are at liberty until then."
Luke's grin was definitely that of a child on the receiving end of a parent's benevolence. "Thank you, sir," he said brightly.
The moment they had found a private corner of the base's officer's lounge, however, the grin slid off of his face as quickly as it had appeared. They settled on a pair of chairs against the far window and he clasped her hand tightly, his features drawn in the fading daylight.
"What's happened?" he asked.
She didn't insult him by making excuses or dodging the question. "Obi-Wan came by this morning," she explained.
"And?" he prompted.
She tried to work her fingers loose, but he did not let go, only let his frown deepen further. "Yesterday," she explained, "he tried to touch my mind and I stopped him. It was instinct, but I didn't know how I did it."
"Which is why he visited you this morning," he suggested.
She nodded. "He did some tests beforehand," she confirmed, "and found that there is a reason for that."
She did not have to find the words to explain, but he nodded in understanding. "The reason that the Force has been granting you visions is that you have as much power to become a Jedi as I do."
She shook her head. "Not that much," she corrected.
"But enough," he countered.
She flinched at the enthusiasm and had to work hard to keep her voice under control. "I don't want this burden," she protested.
"It doesn't have to be a burden," Luke retorted.
"Oh, no?" she demanded. "Then, why has the Force cursed me with nightmares and the ability to make Vader hurt me more?"
Now it was his turn to flinch. "Those are the only ways you recognize," he asserted. "It doesn't mean the Force hasn't worked through you in other ways."
She shook her head, forcing her gaze away from him. "I don't want to be like him," she whispered. "Everything I have fought and suffered for has been to avoid that."
"And you've succeeded," Luke insisted.
Taking her chin in his hand, he forced her to meet his gaze once more. "For every one of him, there will always be at least one of me," he promised. "For now, that's all you need to work towards."
Without prompting, Luke let his right arm loop around her left so he could keep her close to him as they made their way from his quarters to the nearest exit. She doubted that she needed protection from anything-there were too many honorable men here for an attack to be likely-but he seemed to sense a different kind of vulnerability in her.
He apparently understood and remedied that weakness; she simply despised it.
If there was anything that unsettled her most in the Galaxy, it was a loss of control over her situation. With such a regimented lifestyle as a High Princess of Alderaan, she had preferred power over her circumstances at all times, but her time on the Death Star, where any fallibility could mean life or death for millions, had taught her to be focused at all costs.
Perhaps that was why the discovery of a different kind of power had unsettled her so much. It was something that she had never understood about Luke and it was certainly something that was far beyond her ability to control.
Perhaps that was why he kept her so close. He was protecting her in any way that he could because he knew little other than the fact that she needed a shield of sorts.
He did not need to accompany her-she was perfectly capable of finding her way out-but she appreciated the almost fraternal over protectiveness that made him walk her to the vehicle that she would be flying home. She just wasn't sure what he was protecting her from.
It was a testament to his understanding of her fear that he didn't speak until they had reached the berth where the speeder she had borrowed from the Consulate was stationed. He either was aware of the need for discretion or felt, as she did, that she might blurt out something wrong right now.
When they left the base, he separated with obvious hesitation, as if he was afraid to let go and his hand lingered on hers for a moment longer before he stepped back to let her enter the speeder. It was not until she was strapping in for the flight home that he dropped into a crouch and reached for her hands again. She did not resist, only let his warm fingers stop the tremors of her own.
"Will you be all right?" he asked solicitously.
She nodded as she struggled to find appropriately honest yet reassuring words for this particular separation. "I'll survive for now," she promised. "Things are getting crazy at the Senate, and Han will be waiting at home when I'm no longer busy enough to avoid the issue."
Neither of them commented on the fact that she had used the word 'home' to describe a place which was both foreign and familiar. She was not entirely sure when she had begun to think of it in those terms, but she could be fairly certain that Han seemed to fit comfortably into the term.
"Good," Luke sighed. "I don't want you to feel alone right now."
"Like you have?" she asked quietly.
He grimaced, almost as if she had discovered a secret that he hadn't ever meant to disclose. It was, however, no surprise that his status as a hero and a Jedi had set him apart. She knew too well the loneliness of leadership. They could not deny that their powers were indispensable both to them and those they served, but they both knew what sort of reprieve would come from being stripped of that responsibility.
Perhaps, as with her other abilities, she would find a way to count herself lucky for having discovered her connection to the Force.
"You know I haven't been alone since I met you," he said quietly. "You wouldn't let me be."
Finally, she smiled again and bent forward at the waist to kiss his cheek in gratitude and farewell. "I could say the same for you," she reminded.
"I hope so," he replied, releasing her hands.
He straightened to his full height. "You're not going to do anything crazy," he asked carefully, "are you?"
Leia managed to smile rather than letting herself smirk. "Nothing as crazy as joining the war," she countered.
"But a lot of the loyalists were targeted when the Empire got created," he reminded.
"Not Bail," she reassured him. "I will do what I must, but I've only got so many deathwishes to waste on suicide missions."
"Just tell me this isn't one of them," he requested.
There was nothing to lie to him about. This was the right thing to do, nothing more and nothing less.
It wasn't until she had closed the hatch and left him behind that she realized her hands had stopped shaking. It was a surprise to find how easily he had calmed her, but perhaps there had been nothing to fear in the first place.
This time, Bail had requested that she meet him at the Jedi Temple after his meeting with Masters Windu and Yoda of the Council. Frankly, it was the last place that she wished to be at the moment, but she would have raised more questions by avoiding the place than by experiencing discomfort there.
Instead of directing her to the Archives, the guard who cleared her for entrance escorted her instead to an entirely different place.
She had heard many times from Bail about the legendary Temple gardens. They had been as extensive as the Senate arboretum and certainly boasted of the same range of flora, but they were especially renowned for their fountains. It was at the edge of one of these that she found her seat and she perched on the rim of the fountain, letting her fingers dip into the cool water.
Since it was nearly midday, it was no surprise to find that she was not alone here, but she hardly expected the variety of visitors that she observed here. There was everything from teenagers to seemingly ageless Masters and they seemed to be completely isolated from each other in their conversations.
She was only half-surprised to find herself listening for similarities or trying to find a bit of herself in these people. After all, there were few people that she had met who had even been alive at this time, much less been familiar with the Jedi.
The first thing she heard, however, proved a little too well that some things about the teenage years would never change.
"What did you get for number three?"
"I didn't. Isn't this a pretty rhetorical question? How does she define Sith? Are we answering by the race or by the philosophy?"
"Maybe if we just count everyone up to Darth Bane..."
"Then, what killed Master Jinn?"
With a war on and with the halls of the Temple echoing with the absence of most of the Jedi, they were still carrying on with life and worrying about ordinary assignments. It was a common coping strategy that Bail had encouraged and even enforced when Leia had become unnecessarily aware of the Empire's dealings.
Others, however, were just as preoccupied with the current events as the Loyalists seemed to be. They were the ones whose quiet words were nearly drowned out by the fountains. This seemed to be intentional, since the two Masters that she overheard kept shooting furtive glances around the garden as if they were expecting Chancellor Palpatine to be eavesdropping. For some reason, she gave them no reason to worry.
It may have been that they either sensed no malice from her or recognized something in her that she could not discern. Nevertheless, they made no attempt to move away from their position a few meters away.
"They will be sending more to the sieges, mark my words."
"Of course. It's war, after all, and the Senate expects us to do the fighting for them."
"Well, is our duty not to the Republic and to peace? If we are able to bring about peace..."
"You think another Cato Neimoidia will give us peace? My apprentice is going to turn twelve in five days' time...and in four days' time, they want her to be joining the ranks on Kashyyyk."
"Well, perhaps the war will end by then."
"Don't be na?ve."
She had nearly calculated exactly how many days remained before the "end" of the war and the beginning of the one that she was still fighting when another sound interrupted her thoughts.
"No hands! No hands!"
The answering high giggle was that of a young girl, perhaps no more than five years old.
"Master Ihera," the same voice protested, "Tila's cheating!"
"Am not," the young girl squeaked. "Darik keeps splashing me!"
Leia half-turned towards the voices and found that there was a group of younglings at the next fountain, supervised by a harried-looking young woman who was obviously meant to be supervising them. It was true enough that the oldest of them, the boy named Darik, was splashing the dark-haired girl named Tila, but his hands were not moving at all. He simply was sitting there, smirking at the water that leapt through the air at his mind's command.
"Do you remember what we said about touching the water with the Force?" Master Ihera asked patiently. "We don't have to touch the water at all..."
"But it's more fun this way," another child, a six-year-old Rodian reasoned. "Besides, he doesn't expect us to cheat."
"And that makes it right?" Ihera countered.
The Rodian looked slightly abashed. "It's not fair," he muttered. "Darik's older..."
"But you've proven yourself against him before," Ihera interrupted. "You can make excuses or you can practice and make sure it doesn't happen again."
The Rodian nodded. "I guess I...Hey!"
Tila giggled again, flicking her hand so that the water between them struck his face again, and Ihera shot her a look that would have been reproachful if she weren't grinning so broadly. In the next moment, she became aware of Leia's gaze and shook her head ruefully as if Leia should understand what all children were like. Leia could do nothing more than return the smile and then turn away before the woman could see the tightness in the skin around her eyes.
There wasn't much time left, a matter of days before all of this would be obliterated in the name of greed and bloodlust. She knew from the stories that these fountains would run red and that the colonnade that she had traveled in order to reach this garden would be littered with bodies.
And had things been different, if Palpatine had chosen to bide his time for a few more years, this might have been her life. She might have been among those killed during the Purges.
Bail and Breha had never dared to speak of her parents to her beyond the mention of her mother's strength or her father's death in the last days of the Republic. She knew well enough the stories of how Bail had taken her in after the death of a close friend, but he had never said if that friend were a Jedi, an aide or even one of his early compatriots in the Alliance.
She might even have seen her mother already or passed her father in the corridors of the Temple. Had things been different, she and Luke might have been trained in the same cr?che or teased each other in water fights.
Perhaps, if they succeeded in this impossible mission, the entire future in which they had met across the emptiness of a prison cell would be changed. Maybe that, above all, was something worth fighting for.
"I hope I didn't keep you waiting long."
Bail's voice startled her from her reverie and Leia turned quickly back to face him, blinking as if that would help her refocus.
"I don't know," she confessed. "I lost track of the time here."
His answering smile was wry but genial. "I've done the same myself," he admitted.
Leia pushed to her feet immediately, following him from the garden in silence. He did not speak again until they had left the Temple, but it seemed to be more out of a desire to keep his reasons for being there quiet than a lack of things to say. He and Luke seemed to be sharing the same set of priorities today and she appreciated the discretion if nothing else.
"We have the support of the Jedi Council," he said once they had been escorted into the speeder, "at least in principle. They do not endorse the idea of replacing one dictatorship with another, but as for our hopes to rein Palpatine in, they will do what they can to help."
"That's good to know," she said hopefully. "Where do we go from here, then?"
At her perennial eagerness to take part in the risk, he gave her a paternally stern look as if he didn't want her to get involved, but did not correct her choice of words. "The Chancellor has agreed to meet the Loyalists," he explained. "We have our two thousand signatures and the support we need from the Jedi. Perhaps now, if ever, is the time to trust that we will succeed."
An absurd part of her believed that he might be right.
By Leia's own reckoning, it was surprisingly easy to arrange another contact with Ti. The Core World black market was certainly thriving in the face of wartime restrictions, but she seemed to be operating under the assumption that they would not waste her time. It was the only explanation for the fact that she tended to clear her schedule immediately when they commed her.
Their meeting places tended to change, as they always did when dealing with a semi-criminal underworld, and today, she asked them to join her in a stand of fledgling wroshyrs at the Senate Arboretum. Leia immediately approved of the location, since the sturdy trees from Kashyyyk were famous for their ability to muffle sound.
She wasn't exactly what she had expected of the self-proclaimed rogue Jedi who had been feeding them information about Jedi affairs, but Tizar Nan was certainly not that. Leia had expected her to be comparable to the Obi-Wan that Luke had described and that Leia had glimpsed in her encounters with the Kenobi of this time.
Instead, the woman who met them in the Arboretum could have been a psychological mirror of Leia herself. She had all the markers of someone who had learned the art of war at an early age and never let herself stop fighting. It was a curious parallel, since that did not seem conducive to someone who would have left the Jedi.
"We have a new visitor," she observed.
"Leia Antilles," Leia introduced herself. "I'm Han's wife."
Ti glanced at Han with an amused look as if wondering how he pulled that off, and then looked back to Leia. "Tizar Nan," she stated unnecessarily. "I didn't think he'd risk involving you."
Leia shrugged as she settled onto one of the lower branches that formed a kind of rudimentary bench. "He's risked me in a lot more," she countered. "He knows I don't like to be coddled."
"Good," she said shortly. "That means I won't have to hold anything back."
"We wouldn't expect you to," Han assured her. "What exactly would you hold back?"
She waved a hand dismissively, obviously trying to avoid the subject until the right time. "Later," she insisted. "Why did you ask for this meeting?"
"What do you think of Palpatine?" Leia bluntly asked.
The woman rolled her eyes in Leia's direction. "He's half the reason I don't call myself a Jedi," Ti explained.
"Only half?" Han laughed. "If I were expected to bow to his every wish, I'd have quit on the first day."
She nodded, her mouth still set in a grim line. "If he represented the Republic that I was trained to protect, I would have left a lot earlier."
"I would hope so," Leia interjected. "He stands for everything that the Republic despised."
"I'm glad you have enough sense to say it in the past tense," Ti retorted, regarding her as if they were finally on the same page.
"I'm not blind," Leia rejoined with a grim smile, "and I work for Bail Organa. I know too well how far Palpatine has gone."
For a long moment, Ti studied her and Leia had the uncomfortable feeling that she would have delved into her mind if she had not been satisfied with what she found in the expression on Leia's face. Instead of throwing up her shields as she had with Obi-Wan, however, Leia refused to put her mind on the defensive until the other woman gave her cause to do so.
"You work for Bail Organa," she said at last, "so you believe the Chancellor's gone too far?"
It was not difficult at all to conjure memories of what Bail had taught her from too early an age. After all, half of what had motivated her involvement in the Rebellion was current events in this timeframe. The most powerful argument she could have now, however, was based on principles of what she considered to be unrighteous dominion.
"It's not enough that he has taken the power away from the people by appointing regional governors," Leia asserted fervently. "He has individually taken complete control of a Republic that should never be directed by a single individual. By destroying the constitution, he has made the Senate a power in name only.
"What disturbs me more, however," she continued without bothering to wait for a response, "is what he is doing on a more personal level. On Alderaan, by the Education of Special Talent Beings Act, non-humans and Force-sensitives alike are separated by force from their own societies. Palpatine has divided this Galaxy enough without forcing segregation in his own way."
Ti nodded. "The independence of the Jedi has always irked him," she agreed. "Controlling the future of the Order is something that would certainly come naturally to his way of thinking."
It certainly could have inspired the Jedi Purges. After all, according to what public records remained of the first days of the Empire, the Emperor had justified the Purges as a matter of law enforcement.
"You want to know what I think of Palpatine," Ti pressed on. "Why?"
"We think this war will be coming to an end soon," Han explained. "What do you think Palpatine will do then?"
"He claims he'll return the emergency powers given him and stand for election as he should have three years ago," Ti scoffed. "If he's willing to give up his powers, I'm a Hutt."
"I agree," Leia concurred, "but what do you think can be done about it?"
"Absolutely nothing if the Jedi aren't willing to get involved," Ti postulated.
"And you think they wouldn't?" Han challenged.
She glanced at him, expression slightly wary, but she didn't comment on the question itself. "The sensible Jedi opposed getting involved in the war in the first place. As long as Yoda heads the Council, there's little chance of the Jedi getting involved, unless..."
She trailed off and it seemed clear that she wasn't fully aware of their presence any more.
"Unless what?" Han pressed.
"Yoda's on Kashyyyk from last reports," she said distractedly. "Mace Windu is the real presence of the Council on Coruscant. He's more reactionary than the others."
"He might take action?" Leia suggested.
Ti nodded. "If any one Jedi were compelled to force the Chancellor from office, Mace Windu would be the most likely candidate."
"Would the rest of the Jedi support it?" Leia asked. "The others on the Council, perhaps? Skywalker and Kenobi?"
She snorted. "If you have to ask about Skywalker," she reminded, "you haven't been listening to common sense."
"But surely his loyalties to the Jedi..."
"I don't know if he has any left," Ti interrupted. "He's like me and is loyal to individuals more than the entity known as the Jedi Order."
"So he would support Palpatine, even if the Order didn't?" Han inquired.
Ti's smirk was as much bitterness as certainty. "I doubt the Chancellor would have to even bother to ask," she said tersely. "Anakin is as much a slave now as he was on Tatooine..."
She broke off abruptly as she pushed to her feet and began pacing restlessly, as if she had suddenly become aware of the trap that she had entered of her own free will. Just what that trap was, Leia could not yet say, but it was probably a safe bet that it had to do with her continued status as the best friend of a future Sith.
Han shot Leia a strange look, apparently as confused by the sudden defensiveness as she was. She shook her head, forestalling any question. It was best to allow someone in this state to make the first move.
"Half the time," Ti muttered, "I think I'm crazy. I think I'm only seeing these things because he's my best friend and I feel jealous of the fact that he's loyal to a dictator in a way that he was never loyal to me."
Leia nodded sympathetically. "It doesn't make it any less valid, especially where Palpatine is concerned."
Ti nodded curtly. "He's got too much control over the Republic, over the Senate," she snapped, "and it's because they let him. Same thing with Anakin. Anakin almost craves having someone with that much power..."
"He certainly is...charismatic," Han agreed, making it sound as if his mother should have washed his mouth out with soap for saying that word.
"Charisma is one explanation," Ti asserted, "but I keep thinking that no amount of charisma could have gotten him this far if the Force hadn't been on his side."
Leia felt the blood drain from her face in the heartbeats before she realized why. "You think that he's sensitive to the Force," she guessed.
"Yes," Ti sighed, "and I find that I shouldn't believe it because none of the Jedi have ever brought it up."
"Maybe they haven't had the guts to mention it," Leia suggested. "Have you ever tried to reach into his mind?"
"No," Ti said immediately as if she hadn't even had to think about it. "I'm terrified of what I might find."
Leia, having fought the Empire for the better part of her life, could think of at least a hundred things that the Jedi might have found in time if they had dared to look closer at the man who ruled them.
"I don't blame you," she said grimly.
"You've never been curious what's going on in that twisted little mind of his?" Han interjected unhelpfully. "I know I have."
Perhaps it was the name they shared that made them give him identical glowers.
"Have you ever felt him in the Force?" Leia persisted.
It was the sort of question that someone who had only vaguely heard of Jedi powers would have asked, but given the circumstances, it was appropriate.
"I've only been around the Chancellor personally a few times," Ti said almost apologetically. "I'm not Anakin."
"But when you were around him, nothing seemed strange?" was Han's question.
"Not in that way, but he could be masking it."
A strange look came over her face as if she said something of importance that she hadn't thought of consciously. Leia knew that if there was a time to glean important information, it was now, when the guards were somewhat lowered.
"Is that even possible?"
When Ti spoke again, her voice was quiet, almost stammering over the words. "If he's very skilled, and in this case, it might mean..."
It might mean that Palpatine had a kind of control over the Galaxy that they had never considered.
She couldn't say that she blamed Ti for being afraid at all.
With the focus of the war on the Outer Rim sieges, the work of a fighter squadron was fairly tedious. It mostly consisted of patrols in the system proper of Coruscant and intercepting suspect ships.
As a Rogue, Luke might have complained about that. After all, there were times when the entire affair made him feel as if he were useless to the war effort.
Since it gave him more time to speak to his father, though, it was something of a relief. The problem was that between his duties to the Council and the Chancellor and his duties to Mother, Anakin was spending less and less time at the squadron's headquarters.
Instead, it came down to the old family principle of making quality time for each other.
"What's she like?"
Father glanced up from his food, looking vaguely amused. "Who?"
The person who should have kept you from turning.
"Whoever's got your attention," Luke said with a grin. "She must be something pretty special."
The grin that came back at him was almost identical to his own and it felt good to see something that familiar.
"She is," he admitted, "but we don't get much time to ourselves."
"Well, you've got a lot of responsibilities," Luke agreed. "I don't think the Chancellor likes being put on the back burner."
Father looked slightly uncomfortable, as if Luke wasn't the first one to mention it. "As you said," he replied defensively, "a lot of responsibilities."
"And if you had to choose between them?" Luke asked.
"We are at war, Anakin."
He had the sudden impression that he hadn't been meant to hear that.
"I hope it doesn't have to come to that," he said quietly.
"It shouldn't have to," Luke said.
Father's look of discomfort turned into a scowl. "No," he agreed, "it shouldn't."
It was almost too much of a temptation to say something that would betray them, that would explain everything. There wasn't much he could say to comfort his Father. There wasn't much he could to explain why he cared about someone he'd never met before coming here.
Maybe it was because he'd wanted to care from the moment that he realized he'd never be able to meet the man who was supposed to care for him more than anyone else.
"It's hard," Father unexpectedly said. "When I came here, I never thought I would be pulled in so many different directions by people who are supposed to believe in the same thing."
"I can understand that," Luke responded honestly.
His father didn't argue with that, but he got the same kind of detached look that Leia claimed was a Skywalker trademark. "I always thought that it would be an easy choice, but there's really nothing easy about it."
If he knew exactly how much Luke understood, he would have been stunned, to say the least.
"But you think you would be able to choose one without betraying another?"
Anakin shook his head, but it seemed to be a gesture for clearing his head, not disagreeing. "I'm still trying to work that out," he mused. "Each of the most important people in my life seems to want to use me against the others."
"Then, choose for yourself," Luke urged. "It shouldn't be about anyone except what is the right thing to do."
For a long moment, they were both silent. Finally, Father shook his head again and this time, it was to disagree.
"It's never that simple."
When they finally met that night, Leia had managed to take command of one of the cooktops in the Consulate's kitchen. The result was, to Han's surprise and Luke's amusement, a passable imitation of braised bruallki with mashed tubers on the side. With a bottle of Alderaani green that Han had obtained, they were guaranteed either to have a fairly gourmet meal or to be able to drown their sorrows in short order.
"Food first," Leia commanded as soon as she heard Han and Luke enter the apartment, "worries later."
"Can't argue with that," Luke agreed. "If I'm going to be sick to my stomach, I want to at least enjoy it first."
She managed a smile by the time he approached for a kiss on the cheek. "How's my favorite little sister?" he asked.
"About as expected," Leia sighed. "Yourself?"
"About as expected," he echoed.
Thirty minutes and a full stomach later, the conversation finally turned to the events at hand and it became clear that one bottle of green wouldn't be enough. They had at least possessed enough sense to stop at one drink, but with what they had to face, it was a sore temptation to lose their heads.
"How many days do we have left?" Luke asked.
"We know that the first Empire Day will be about five days from now," Leia explained, "so we can assume that Palpatine will have to make his move before then."
"He'll have to," Han agreed. "It also means that whatever he set in motion against the Jedi started before then."
She dreaded what she would see if she dared to look at Luke's eyes, but she forced herself to turn to him nonetheless. There was a nervous terror in his eyes as if he didn't want to consider the truth she needed to understand. She wasn't particularly eager to ask for details, but it was somewhat necessary.
"We know that the earliest evidences we have of Vader are months after the Empire's founding," she stated. "Do you have any idea of when he actually came into the picture?"
He shook his head. "Obi-Wan only said that he helped the Emperor hunt down and destroy the Jedi," he supplied with a trace of bitterness in his voice. "He seemed more intent in turning me against Vader than trying to explain him."
"Sounds like the High Command," Leia gritted out. "You have to wonder how much of this they knew."
"One thing's for sure," Han said. "The moment I see him again, my fist is going to come in very close contact with his face."
"I have first crack," Leia shot back.
"I wonder if it's possible to exorcise a Force ghost," Luke suggested.
"Back on topic," Leia interrupted. "What about now? Has he said anything?"
Luke nodded. "A few things. He thinks that he's expected to do very different things by all of the important people in his life, and isn't sure which one he's supposed to obey."
Han grimaced. "And no chance of appealing to his conscience?"
"While he still has one," Leia added.
Luke gave her a withering look that was something of a first for him. "What do you think I've been doing in my spare time?"
"Good," Leia said. "I'm not exactly sure what good I'm doing on the political side of things, but between the two of us, we know a lot about where we stand with the Jedi."
"We at least know that they're very divided," Han argued. "We know that they didn't manage to take down the man who became Emperor and that most of them didn't want to be involved in this war in the first place."
"Of course not," Luke said. "If they were guardians of peace and justice, the war would have gone against everything that they should have stood for."
"Which is probably why Palpatine had to eliminate the Jedi," Leia replied. "The Empire only continued what started with the Clone Wars and the Jedi would have gotten in the way."
"What I think Her Worship's trying to say," Han interjected, "is that we need to know if our man Vader was involved in the Purges from the beginning. What do you think are the chances?"
The fact that Luke was silent immediately following the question was something of a comfort. If he had jumped to a response, it would have been a solid indicator that the response was one that she didn't want to hear. After all, none of them particularly wanted to know that they could be facing their greatest enemy in very short order.
His eyes were downcast in quiet contemplation, but he finally shook his head and looked up. "He's still conflicted," he explained. "Palpatine wants his allegiance, but the Jedi and his wife are his family. That much is clear and it's what holding him back."
"But they are holding him back," Leia reasoned. "For now, we can hope that's a good thing."
A meeting with Palpatine was, admittedly, one of the few things that Padme worked hard to avoid at all costs. She prided herself on being a person who would take risks for the good of all without hesitation, but that did not mean that facing a tyrant did not make her squeamish.
She did not know if she had been simply too young or too naive to see Palpatine for what he was when she was queen, or if she had watched him change everything he had claimed to stand for. When looking at the man who had been her ambassador, she felt emotionally torn. One part of her thought that she should have stopped him. The other part realized that she couldn't have stopped him if she tried.
Either way, he had transformed from her most stalwart supporter to a man who would gladly see her fall if it furthered his own causes. The thought that she had never seen it coming chilled her to the core, to say the least.
As much as she tried to avoid him, however, it seemed as if he had the same agenda. It was something of a miracle that the Loyalists had been able to make an appointment with him in the first place. He had cancelled the first two appointments that they had set, citing various reasons. When Sly Moore almost snidely offered the last appointment of the day, they had taken it with the hope that Palpatine would be more inclined to keep his commitments this time around.
An hour before the appointed time, however, Moore had called to confirm that the Chancellor would be awaiting their convenience as expected. Bail had managed to refrain from scoffing in disbelief until he had severed the connection, but from then on, there had been a kind of heart-pounding anticipation of what was about to transpire.
They had worked hard for the support that their petition had gained, but in the fragile state of the Republic, they had felt that the time was limited in which their request would have any power. When Palpatine had repeatedly delayed their presentation, Bail had cynically suggested that the Chancellor was waiting until he could destroy their right to question his authority.
But tonight, it would happen. Whether Palpatine liked it or not, he would be faced with undeniable proof that the handful of dissenters who called themselves Loyalists were not the only ones who thought he was out of control. There was no concrete evidence that their petition would succeed, other than an admittedly naive hope in sanity.
Perhaps that was why Padme found herself trembling in anticipation. It was either that or the fact that Palpatine was only willing to meet with them at sunset, when the darkness was setting in. If she had been the superstitious type, she might have looked on that as portentous. As it was, she simply felt unsettled by it for reasons that she could not quite explain.
"You're sure you don't want the others to come?" Dorme asked conversationally as they rode to the Senate complex.
"I couldn't if I wanted to," Padme reminded, though the question was a valid one. "Palpatine is being 'gracious' enough in letting us bring an aide apiece as it is."
"I'm surprised he's making that concession at all," Dorme replied. "He seems to have little tolerance for dissention and having more than one witness could be risky for him. If he were cunning, he would have let Bail or Mon Mothma drop off the petition with thirty seconds to introduce it and an armed escort from the premises."
Padme managed a tight smile that was more for her own benefit than an effort to reassure Dorme. "He's being cunning enough," she commented. "He's making it appear as though he cares about the concerns of his Senate. That way, when he does something to stop it, he'll be able to say how it was for the common good."
For a long moment, Dorme was silent, her chin lowered so that she was studying her hands. Padme could not discern what she thought might find there, but the other woman barely seemed to breathe until she looked up again.
"Do you think there is any point to this, then?" she asked.
"There has to be," Padme said sharply. "We have worked hard and if we have to do something drastic to get him to at least consider the petition, we may."
Dorme's eyes rolled towards the ceiling in exasperation. "I think Bail would enjoy something drastic," she suggested. "Don't give him the chance."
"I hope Palpatine won't either."
They didn't bother to say anything more, since they had come to a sort of unofficial agreement concerning how far Padme was allowed to take this effort. It was no guarantee that she would not risk her life for this cause, but Dorme was one of the few who knew exactly why the fearless Senator of Naboo had developed an uncanny sense of self-preservation.
The moment their speeder docked at the Senate building, Bail opened the hatch and extended a hand to help her out. Padme nodded her thanks to him, then turned to his companion as he moved to render the same service to Dorme.
"I was hoping you would be here," she greeted Leia.
"It is an honor," the younger woman said gravely as she sketched a respectful bow. "Do you think the Chancellor will listen?"
The tone in her voice was a familiar one, since Padme recognized in Bail's youngest aide some of the attributes that turned fierce dedication into excellent leadership. She spoke as if there was hope, not because there was proof of it, but because she felt she could work hard enough to accomplish it.
"I think it's the least he owes the Republic," Bail retorted. "Besides which, we have a compelling spokesperson."
Padme turned a smile on him to silently express her thanks for his confidence, but she secretly wished that she could feel as capable as he believed her to be. It had never been precisely defined why she would be speaking for the two thousand, but Bail's most solid reasoning had been to say that the Chancellor had a long history of listening to her crazy ideas.
"The others are meeting us there," Bail explained without prompting, "so we'd best be going."
The walk seemed to do some good, since it at least stilled her trembling hands and gave her enough time to focus her thoughts. By the time Bail passed over the datapad containing the petition, they were standing in the office's foyer and she was at least confident that she wouldn't lose her nerve in this matter.
"The Loyalist Committee," Sly introduced them unnecessarily.
Common courtesy dictated that the Chancellor rise to meet them, but he remained seated as if he had no respect for them. In fact, the only person who was standing in the office was Palpatine's own support.
The man standing behind Palpatine startled her for a long moment and she froze in her tracks, eyes locked on his as each of them tried to discern why the other was there. He had known about this meeting, but obviously had not suspected its nature.
"You have a meeting with the Chancellor? The last one of the evening?"
There had been something in his tone that had frightened her. It had been as if he were privy to a terrible secret that she was involved in, but was too horrified by that knowledge to explain it to her. She had wanted to ask what that was supposed to mean, but in the interests of preserving domestic tranquility, she had opted for honesty.
Padme had expected opposition here. She had not expected it to come from her husband.
"Won't you sit down?" Palpatine invited as an afterthought as if he had finally remembered his manners.
Padme settled into the chair directly across from the Chancellor--it was only appropriate in her capacity as the spokesperson. Perhaps it was because Anakin had caught her completely off guard, or because Palpatine's presence was so overwhelming, but the atmosphere was no longer comfortable. She felt as if her entire body had doubled in weight and as if the child that she was carrying high beneath her ribcage were trying to bury himself in her spinal cord. The most noticeable change, however, was in the air that she found suddenly difficult to breathe.
Relax. You are here for the right reasons and any enemies here can do nothing to harm you permanently.
Except if you count a broken heart.
"We appreciate your willingness to see us," she said without having to think about the words.
"I understand that you are quite committed to your cause," Palpatine said dryly. "If I did not give you the opportunity to explain that cause to me, I would be an unjust Chancellor."
If the room had been filled with anything other than professional diplomats, they would have had something to say about that.
"What may I do for you?" he asked in a more genial tone.
He was trying to put them at ease so that they would allow him to embrace their cause just long enough to stab them in the back. Padme's eyes narrowed and she glanced at Anakin, looking for some kind of signal that he recognized the same thing. Instead, he looked back at her as if he were trying to see through a disguise.
"We have come on behalf of the Republic," she explained to them both, "but more specifically, on behalf of two thousand elected representatives of that same Republic."
"Two thousand," Palpatine echoed. "I think that's the closest we've ever come to a consensus."
It was possible that he meant it to be a joke, or perhaps it was a wry jab at the inefficient legislature. Padme, however, was feeling particularly opportunistic. Everything he said here had to be taken at face value.
"It probably is," she granted. "I hope you will consider the weight of that unity when you hear what they have to say."
"I certainly will," came the empty promise.
Without waiting for her to continue, he turned to Bail instead. "Senator Organa," he greeted, "would you read the particulars of the petition?"
Padme passed the datapad to him, almost relieved at having someone else to share the task.
"To the esteemed Supreme Chancellor of the Republic, Cos Palpatine," he read in a strong voice. "In light of the constant and continuing deconstruction of both the Constitution and Republic for which it stands, we, the elected representatives of its people, present to you our grievances and petition for immediate action.
"In the face of another crisis, we put our faith in you so that you might guide us to a peaceful resolution. We granted you emergency powers because we had faith that you would use them to do the right thing for the good of the whole Republic."
They had chosen their wording carefully. Half of the effort had gone into the obtaining of signatures. The other half had been spent in trying to find the right words to condemn this man, to shame him or appeal to his better nature until he realized what course he must take.
With every draft and every rewording, there was only one emotional influence that remained constant. They had written this to condemn him with three words: We trusted you.
"Whereas you have exploited our good faith in the efforts of warmongering and disregarded the basic needs and rights of sentient beings...
"Whereas you have enforced your emergency powers both by brute force and unrighteous dominion...
"Whereas you have completely disregarded the Constitution of the Republic and moreover have destroyed said Constitution, we, the duly elected Senate of the Republic, present this petition.
"The terms of our request are simple: We ask that you return the power to the Senate as it is laid out in the fundamental articles of the Constitution. This will require the disbanding of the regional governors and a reorganization of the Republic's hierarchy.
"We furthermore ask that the amendments to the Constitution be subject to review by the Senate. Those that are found to be unjust and unconstitutional must be repealed. We finally ask that you be immediately subject to election."
It wasn't too much to ask, but Padme couldn't help but notice that Anakin looked as if they both had been gutshot. As Bail finished reading, his expression darkened considerably until he looked as if he might resort to violence.
You're a Jedi. You expect to be able to raise our child to uphold justice as you were taught to do by everyone from your mother to Obi-Wan.
Does that mean nothing to you if Palpatine doesn't mandate it?
Do you think I want you to teach that to our son or daughter?
She did not know if he had reached into her mind, but he seemed to sense something anyway. His attention turned away from her and instead fixated on her compatriots.
Finally, Palpatine let out a vaguely sympathetic sigh that he had used so often that Padme could be fairly sure that he had rehearsed it. "I understand your reservations completely, Senator," he said in an equally rehearsed tone of equanimity, "and I assure you the appointment of Governors will in no way compete with the duties of the Senate."
That was a complete fabrication, but they were trying to be diplomatic here. That seemed to be the curse of the entire meeting.
"May I take it then," Padme asked carefully, "that there will be no further amendments to the Constitution?"
Lie to me. Lie to all of us as long as necessary, but do something about this.
Besides, lying has always been easy for you.
He allowed himself a small smile that suggested sympathy. "I want this terrible conflict to end as much as you do, My Lady, and when it does I guarantee an immediate return to democracy."
That's what you've been saying for three years.
"You are pursuing a diplomatic solution to the war, then," Padme pressed.
"You must trust me to do the right things, Senator," Palpatine insisted. "That is why I am here."
Fang Zar finally spoke up, his voice terse. "But surely..."
"I have said I will do what is right," he said sharply.
If they had been able to trust that, they wouldn't have been here.
"That should be enough for your...committee."
A noble cause reduced to a word that sounded exactly like a profanity.
Bail's hand grazed her arm, a silent signal that they had done as much as they could. Anakin's eyes darted to her arm as she quickly pushed to her feet.
"On behalf of the delegation of two thousand," she said, attempting to keep her voice level, "I thank you, Chancellor."
"I thank you for bringing this to my attention, Senator."
They were both getting very skilled at deceiving each other. It seemed to be a skill that he was teaching Anakin as well.
Without bothering to speak further, she turned a look on Anakin that was a completely inadequate expression of the disgusted frustration that she could not force from her mind.
Like Palpatine, he did not bother to respond.
"I'm not sure how much longer it will last."
The advantage of having met with the future Emperor at the end of the day was the fact that Leia had been able to seek out advice in short order. Han had listened to her account of the meeting and immediately called for backup. Luke had met them at Ti's apartment and taken the story into consideration without a single comment.
Ti, not knowing the full implications of what had just happened and what was to come, was the first to speak. "It's the closest thing the Senate has given to an ultimatum," she admitted, "but I'm not sure what exactly what good it will do."
"I'm not sure it will do anything," Leia insisted. "Ultimatums tend to inspire more anarchy where dictators are involved."
It seemed to suggest that the Chancellor had allowed the meeting, not to hear the petition, but to identify exactly who would be a threat to him. Even in Leia's infancy, some of the people who had presented that petition had been systematically and pointedly eliminated.
"And the Chancellor did nothing?"
"He gave the same excuses as always," Luke guessed.
"How did you know?" Leia confirmed wryly. "The war has to end soon, since the Separatists have lost their principal leader."
"They still have Grievous," Han reminded, "but I heard they've got a Jedi after him now."
"Obi-Wan will have him disposed of in short order," Ti assured them. "Once he is gone, I'm not sure how long the CIS can hold together."
"It will depend on whose motivations they follow," Leia suggested. "As I understand it, Dooku and Grievous promised either protection for their weaker allies or offered to unite against common enemies. If that is powerful enough motivation to continue the war, we may be in trouble."
Luke turned to Ti, frowning slightly. "You've fought against them," he recalled. "What do you think the chances are that the war will end soon?"
A shadow passed over her face as if she wanted to express much more, but didn't have the words to do it. "Everyone thinks the Separatists are cowards," she explained, "but as long as they have a Sith Lord directing things, there's no knowing the amount of stamina that they can have."
"You really think a Sith's running the show?" Han asked.
She nodded. "The Council wants to deny it," she confessed, "but it gives explanations instead of raising questions. If they didn't fancy themselves to be some kind of invincible, they wouldn't have as many blind spots."
It was a relief to find someone that understood that in foresight rather than in perfect hindsight.
"What can we do, then?" Luke asked.
"That's where I'm not sure yet," Leia said. "We can hope that it will be enough, but for now, we'll need to play it by ear."
"You don't look very reassured," Han said as they were returning to the Consulate.
"We've got four days until the founding of the Empire," Leia countered quietly, "and all we can do now is damage control."
"Isn't that what we're here for in the first place?" Han rejoined. "Damage control?"
Leia nodded. "I suppose so, but I don't know if our mission here will ever be successful."
One of his hands released the steering yoke and found hers, but for some reason, the gesture didn't inspire her to pull away. Instead, their hands fit together comfortably and a warmth seemed to spread from the connection.
"We've had to rewrite the entire mission," Han insisted. "If we can do even one thing for good here, we can count it as a success."
She was quiet for a long moment, only able to consider whether or not that was true.
They remained that way until they reached the Consulate and even then, his hand found hers as soon as she had left the speeder. It was a comforting sort of anchor and for the first time, it did not feel as if he were teasing her or simply trying to take advantage of their cover story as young married people. She almost wanted to ask what he meant by it, but instead, he accepted the gesture in the spirit that it was intended.
As soon as they were in the safety of their suite, however, Han had questions of his own. He turned to face her, his hand never releasing hers and studied her with a grim expression.
"You're spooked," he said flatly.
Before coming here, she would have disagreed or denied it. The utterly alien nature of this situation, however, had forced them to be more honest with each other than they had ever dared before.
"Yes," she confessed. "I'm very spooked."
"Because of Palpatine?"
Her brow furrowed in concentration as she considered that for a moment. "Not precisely," she amended. "I stood at the back of the Emperor's private office tonight and for the first time, I saw a bit of Darth Vader in Anakin Skywalker."
His expression turned both understanding and vaguely horrified. "How much?" he asked.
"I don't know," Leia explained. "All I know is that I watched him standing at Palpatine's side, opposing his own wife, and he looked as if that title were the only thing keeping him from attacking her."
She remembered too vividly how her throat had closed off in the exact same manner that it had in the vision of what Vader had done to his own wife. It had also reminded her of the torment that Vader had chosen to inflict on her to break her spirit on the Death Star. She doubted that Anakin Skywalker had even recognized her from their previous encounters, but the atmosphere in all of those situations had been the same and there was no
"I don't think," she continued, "that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader are as separate as we think at this point."
"You think he's already turned?" Han asked, obviously alarmed.
"No," she replied sharply, "but it won't take much. It could be a matter of weeks, even days. We just won't know until it happens and that's what frightens me most."
This was the first time that one of the visions had repeated itself, but despite the fact that all of the visual cues were the same, everything felt different. Certainly, it felt wrong in the same way that it had before, but this time it seemed to be enhanced by familiarity.
When she had first walked these corridors, her breath had been stolen by the horror of it all. Even as a veteran of too many battlefields, she had not been prepared for the sight of children among the casualties. Her steps had faltered because there had been no mercy shown and there was no reason why any of these people should have been dead.
Tonight, her footsteps were steady, but it still felt as though a weight were crushing every breath from her lungs. Instead of noting the balance between civilian and clonetrooper or counting faces, she recognized such things as the turnoff that would lead to the gardens or the place where she had heard the clash of lightsabers during training.
Now, there was no murmur of voices or bark of orders. Occasionally, she could hear the isolated hums of individual lightsabers, but mostly, it was the silence that frightened her when she could so clearly remember the power of the sounds associated with this place.
Moreover, where she had wandered before, tonight, her path seemed to be clearly directed. She could not have explained why she chose to turn at certain junctions or what made her enter a particular room. The moment she entered the corridor adjacent to the Garden of the Thousand Fountains, however, she knew that it was the correct place to be.
It was virtually deserted, since the victims had tended to take shelter in familiar rooms, but she did not need to search each body. The one she had been compelled to find was sprawled against the wall to her left. It was as if he had either nearly made it to a haven or as if he were protecting one.
Either way, he had failed utterly.
She had no idea why, but her hands were steady as she reached for him. Her knees were not so cooperative, buckling before she could even think about what she had to fear so strongly.
The moment her hands touched him, however, the tremors set in and she had to draw back, suddenly afraid of what she had to do. It was, however, absolutely inevitable. No matter what the Force had done to compel her here, it had intended for her to be the one to find him this way.
Finally, though the tremors had not stopped and she was no more convinced that she could face this, she wrapped her hand around his upper arm and turned him onto his back.
Blue eyes stared back at her, blank and somehow accusatory as they seemed to bore through her to a soul that seemed to know nothing but helplessness.
Perhaps he was right. After all, with friends, family, and now with someone who seemed to fit into both categories, she could do nothing but deal with the aftermath. She felt as if there should be more emotion, but while it felt as if her own heart had been lacerated, the strongest sensation was one of defeat.
Her hand went instinctively to his chest, the comforting gesture of being able to reach the heart of him. It was something that they always seemed to do out of instinct, though she couldn't remember when or why it had begun. It always seemed to work, because their hearts had never seemed to be that different.
The problem was that it was his heart that had had killed him. Or, more precisely, there was a perfectly cauterized wound where his heart should have been, a surgical strike that offered no pity, but hopefully had offered a quick death.
She could only think that whoever had killed him had seen too much goodness in his heart. There was no other explanation for why they might have intended to eliminate the evidence.
She suddenly awoke, but she was not thrashing or hyperventilating as she had in the past. Her only outward manifestation of distress was her posture. Her shoulders hunched painfully inward and her knees were drawn up to her chest as if she were trying to keep her own heart protected.
"Quiet night?" Han commented dryly from the doorway.
"Something like that," she lied around a yawn. "What time is it?"
"Too early," he replied over his shoulder as he headed for the kitchen. "I had to escort the Senator at around 0500 and haven't been able to sleep since."
Leia forced herself to uncurl, her arm reaching for her wrist chrono. One glance confirmed that it was still before 0800. Fortunately, unless Bail had decided to change her schedule drastically during the night, she had little to do today other than reports and secretarial work. It was hardly going to be something of a challenge.
"Any word from Luke?" she asked.
"Not since last night," he responded. "You want me to do some recon?"
"No," she assured him, reaching for her robe. "I could use a few words with him myself."
He paused in the door once more and his frown suggested that he had heard something in her voice. Certainly, there was a frustrated fear that had fueled her words, but if she had allowed him to hear it, she was losing her emotional equivalent of a sabacc face.
"I'm guessing," he said in an uncharacteristically cautious one, "that you were lying about the quiet night?"
He was getting too perceptive for his own good and she was allowing herself to slip. It was not something particularly comforting in a time when she could not afford a single heartbeat without self-control.
"I didn't want to worry you," Leia admitted, more to herself than anyone else.
His smile was somewhat sarcastic. "That would be a first."
She didn't bother to respond to that, only headed for the 'fresher. "You're avoiding the question," he accused.
"I have a right to," Leia insisted. "You can make fun when you've had a few Force visions of your own."
"Ah," he sighed. "That kind of quiet night. Did it have anything to do with Luke?"
She didn't trust her voice, so she simply nodded and turned her back.
When she emerged from the 'fresher some time later, she had managed to scrub the sweat of fear from her skin and was looking at least more presentable than before. She had just finished plaiting her hair into a single thick braid when the anunciator chimed and she heard a familiar murmur of voices.
"I didn't need to have a word with him here," she protested as she pulled on a dark-blue sleeveless shift and low-heeled shoes.
"I thought it might help," Luke countered. "Are you hungry?"
"Of course," she called back.
"Good," he said. "Come out and we'll discuss whatever it is that's bothering you over something hot."
She settled into the chair next to him, greeting him with a kiss to the cheek. Immediately, the warmth of his skin reminded her strongly of how cold his skin had seemed to feel in the vision and she drew back quickly.
"Nausage?" Han offered.
"Yes, thank you," she sighed. "I could eat a bantha right now."
Luke grinned. "Wrong side of the Outer Rim for that," he said apologetically, "but I know the feeling."
Halfway through the first dustcrepe, Han applied his usual amount of subtlety. "You're awfully quiet. Who died?"
She frowned. "You haven't guessed?"
"I'm guessing one of us," Luke mused, though his voice was somewhat less steady than normal; it was understandable, given the situation.
She nodded. "I may be getting skittish," she admitted, "but last night was different."
"How?" Luke pressed a little too quickly.
Han was studying her with a look that indicated that he would have been asking the same thing if Luke hadn't been so talkative.
It was the first time I didn't feel lost.
It was the first time I knew what I was doing there.
It was the first time I found you dead.
"All of the other ones have been visions of what happened in our past," she explained, "as well as indicating what we have to prevent. Last night, I can be absolutely sure that it doesn't fall into the category of the former."
"Right," Han grunted. "I can be pretty sure neither of you died in your childhood."
Leia silenced him with a look, but he looked as if it was a survival maneuver instead of docility. He simply busied himself with loading his plate and dared her to look away with a similar expression.
"Did Han tell you about my meeting with Palpatine last night?" she inquired.
"No," he replied.
"It wasn't just with Palpatine," she elaborated. "Your father was somewhat there."
Luke looked distinctly uncomfortable about that. Perhaps it was the word 'somewhat' that made a difference. As it was, his hands pressed against the tabletop as if to steady himself. He was definitely as unsettled by something as she had been by the familiar atmosphere of the Dark Side.
Perhaps he was doing the same thing that she had at times. On too many occasions, she had looked at her own life and seen too much of Vader in herself.
"What do you think?" he asked bluntly.
"I think," she said carefully, "that I don't trust my assessment of Anakin Skywalker any more. I saw too much of who he will become last night."
"Then, he might be closer to becoming Vader than we might think," Han guessed.
"I don't know," she tensely said, voice beginning to crack. "My vision last night-if that's what it was-may have been nothing more than fear of what I thought I saw there."
"Or it could be a warning," Luke suggested.
"All of it seems to be just that," Leia snapped. "What are we supposed to do about them?"
Luke frowned pensively. "I don't know," he muttered. "I'm trying to figure out what's going to make a difference for him, but I don't know how he can go from who he is today to what he becomes in a few weeks."
"We need to stop it," she agreed, "but other than doing damage control, we don't know if there's anything we can do."
She pushed away her plate, but still could not bring herself to stand. Instead, she focused on her clenched fingers and forced her breathing to become more regular.
"What happens," she asked, "if we can't do anything?"
"You mean if we can't keep him from turning?" Han rejoined. "Do we carry out the original mission?"
"I can't kill him," Luke objected. "Not as Anakin Skywalker and not as Vader and especially not because they'll be the same thing."
"But we have to eliminate the threat," Leia reminded. "The High Command trusted us with that much."
"They trusted that it wouldn't matter to us if he lived or died," Han shot back. "Things have changed."
Luke lowered his gaze and his hand formed a similar fist as hers. "They've changed a lot," he said quietly. "If we fail, I don't want to give up on him."
"We may not have a choice," Leia said in kind. "Once he's Vader, he'll have the Emperor's protection and we don't know how fast he went."
Tentatively, she reached out with her open hand and wrapped her fingers around his. "It may be like a cancer," she observed. "Sometimes, it kills quickly and sometimes it takes years to even show how malignant it is."
Han nodded, but the look he gave Luke was one that she didn't recognize; it was a kind of studied compassion that apologized for not being able to give him something more hopeful than speculation. "All we know is what he's capable of in our time. Doesn't mean that he's more like the Skywalker we know at this point."
For some reason, that was vaguely reassuring.
At 1500, she was finishing the notes on the previous day's Senate session when a comm came through. Leia keyed up the image without thinking, but managed a smile when Luke appeared on the screen.
"I have some good news," he reassured her.
"I could use some of that," Leia confessed wearily. "A lot of it. What do you have for me?"
"You remember Grievous?" he asked unnecessarily.
"Obi-Wan was sent to kill him," she recalled.
"He succeeded," he blurted, returning her smile with more strength. "We just got the news through the clone Intelligence network."
"That's what is supposed to have ended the war," she said quietly. "Do you think it will?"
The smile turned more genuine suddenly, since Luke had finally sounded like his old optimistic self for the first time in weeks.
"How is Anakin taking it?" she asked.
"I don't know," Luke said, his smile shrinking just a little so that she regretted bringing it up. "He had an early patrol today and hasn't been back since."
"But that's pretty normal these days," she commented. "He has many obligations, so we'll just need to find out which appointments he intends to keep."
Ben Kenobi had spoken of many things about the Force when they were going from Tatooine to Alderaan, but there was one that Luke had never been able to quite forget. It wasn't so much he had taught as an understanding they had reached.
When he had spoken of a disturbance in the Force when Alderaan was destroyed, Luke had found an explanation for the twisting in his stomach and the momentary flash of pain in his skull. It had to have been one of the first things he felt clearly in the Force.
After Ben died, however, he'd found that there were other kinds of disturbances in the Force. Most times, they didn't come as a stab of pain or a flash of insight. Instead, they seemed to be a humming in the air that felt like the air before a major storm.
Today, every minute seemed to be that way. Maybe it was anticipation of what would be happening in the next few days or something that he didn't even know would happen.
He didn't understand it, but it was clear enough that he had to be on alert for something, at least until he could figure out what exactly that something was. It certainly wasn't something he could bring up with Leia, since she had enough to worry about as it was. She shouldn't have to be alert to what made him extremely nervous as well.
A lot of things became much clearer, though, about three hours after sundown. The sun should have set hours ago, but the fire spewing from the roof of the Jedi Temple was almost as bright.
Whatever he had been anticipating that day, those months, or even his entire life, it had now been set into motion.
A Time to Weep
Technically speaking, they were only authorized to use the squadron's secure frequencies in cases of extreme emergency. It was, though, safe to say that this qualified.
"He hasn't been back? Any idea where he went?"
"Heard tell that he's at the Jedi Temple," Deathwish said without hesitation. "I wouldn't get involved."
"Wouldn't get involved?" Luke snapped. "You'll just let them die? Would you let General Kenobi?"
The line had already gone dead.
"Blast!" he snarled.
If no one was willing to give more information than that, he'd just have to get it at the Temple itself. In the meantime, all he could do was try to get a hold of his father and hope he'd have enough sense to help.
His comm sounded and the code indicated it was coming from Leia. Without hesitating, he blocked the call and shoved the commlink deep into the uniform pocket. There was no time for this and she would only have questions that he couldn't afford to answer.
His shipboard comm crackled unexpectedly, followed by a coldly efficient voice. "Unidentified craft, you are entering an interdicted zone. Turn back immediately or we will be forced to open fire."
Luke didn't bother to speak, only sent through his military clearance codes and hoped that they would buy it without a verbal response. A half minute of heart-pounding tension later, there came a response in the same flat tone.
"Clearance granted," he stated. "Come to heading 113 mark 419 and no one will block your way."
After a minute, Luke began to wonder if he should be worried that they were letting only military personnel through. It was standard fare for martial law, but there had been no orders to the squadron that he'd known of. They weren't treating this as if it were a state of martial law.
Or maybe there were orders that he, as a child born of a mother instead of a test tube, had never heard of. The clones shared everything from genes to priorities, and there was no way of telling if that was something that would stop him from doing the right thing.
His hand went to his belt, where his father's lightsaber should have been. They had called it a security risk, even though there weren't too many people who would go against a Jedi in this time period. Now, it felt like something he should have never left home without. Instead of feeling awkward, he felt weakened by its absence.
Maybe he'd find another way to fight that was just as effective. He just hadn't felt like using a handheld blaster in a few years.
The landing pad was deserted, but Luke pulled off his flight helmet and stowed it under the seat of his craft, and then vaulted over the side of the ship and landed in a crouch on the pad.
The first thing he noticed was the din of blasterfire that whined over the hum of lightsabers, many at first, but one by one falling silent. His hand snatched the blaster free of its holster and he charged in, firing before he could even bother to pick a target. The first bolts spattered off the walls, but the third salvo took down a clonetrooper.
Immediately, another blaster turned on him and he ducked behind one of the pillars, shying away as a shot came uncomfortably close to his face.
Stop it. I'm supposed to be on your side. This doesn't make any sense.
The echoing bootsteps drew closer, then stopped and it seemed as if they were just meters away. Luke didn't dare move or even breath, only let his grip tighten on the grip of the blaster.
"Six-oh-nine-nine-five-five-nine," Luke bellowed.
It was a jumble of numbers that would mean nothing to most people, but he had been asked to memorize them in case of an emergency. They formed the code that would let any member of the Grand Army of the Republic know that he was an ally and a fellow fighter. It was probably the only thing he could have said that would have saved his life.
There was a long moment in which the only noise was the cacophony of blasterfire that was moving further away with each passing moment. Finally, a crackle of a helmet commlink sounded.
"Confirm, six-oh-nine-nine-five-five-nine," the clonetrooper repeated the clearance. "Stand down. He's not one of them."
Luke didn't have to ask what that meant, but he lowered his blaster, if nothing else to keep the clonetroopers from seeing how hard his hand was shaking.
"Civilian?" the clonetrooper asked bluntly. "I didn't think they were letting them through."
He could either open fire or find a half-truth that was easy enough to turn into a lie. "I'm with Skywalker's squadron," Luke barked. "They wanted all the help they could get."
The trooper's chin bobbed in agreement. "It's mostly mop-up now," he assured Luke. "We'll need you to keep them from escaping."
"Yes, sir," Luke said deferentially. "What commlink frequency?"
"Oh-nine-five-three mark four," the trooper recited. "If you need backup..."
He couldn't think of a single reason why he would need it, but he needed to lie long enough to get the job done. It was obvious that this had something to do with the Jedi Purges and was probably the first thing that could have been called such. If he was to stop this, he had to start at the very beginning.
He had to be able to intervene while he still had even a small amount of control over his situation. That might not last past the next ten heartbeats.
"I'll let you know."
Leia's work day should have ended several hours ago, but when Han managed to locate her, she was locked in her office and not answering her commlink. That either meant that she was in an important meeting or in a lot of trouble.
Betting on the fact that she had about as much luck as Luke had common sense, he hotwired the door.
She was not at her desk or at the comm station, but from the way she was standing at the window, he knew that he'd been right to think she was in trouble. He just hadn't guessed what kind.
"I don't want to talk about it," she said quietly.
"I know," he admitted, "but if you have any ideas..."
Of course. It was the only thing that would make her close in on herself this way. He could give her everything he was and it might make some kind of difference, but Luke always seemed to succeed.
"To the Temple?"
"Where else?" she gritted out through clenched teeth.
It seemed like an obvious question, so he asked one of his own: "Are you sure?"
Her shoulders hunched upwards, more of a defensive posture than a shrug. Her arms didn't unwrap themselves from around her body, though, which only convinced him further that she was in more trouble than she'd ever let on.
"He's shut off his commlink and he has a chronic sense of heroism."
He could safely take that as a yes.
"You want me to go after him?" he asked quietly.
All right, if she was going to be that way, he could respond in the only way that seemed appropriate. His hand reached out to her and within a few steps, his hand had slid between her arm and ribs, then encircled her waist.
He could have taken advantage of this moment to draw her closer, but instead, he decided to understand her fear. He followed her gaze to the east and saw a sky full of fire above the Jedi Temple.
Bail had been panicked enough just by the fact that there was a military lockdown in the Temple district. Leia had probably guessed how much trouble was happening before the reports even began coming in and Luke's disappearance was only making things worse.
The fact that she couldn't safely do anything about it had to be the worst of it.
"Han," she whispered.
"Leia," he answered in kind.
"I don't need to be held," she said, her voice strained. "I need to do something."
"What?" he demanded, frustration building with each word. "You want to go after Luke? You want to get yourself killed?"
"I want to stop this!" she shrilled. "I wanted to stop this from happening in the first place..."
"You're not going to," he snapped.
She pulled away so abruptly that she ran into the window, her hands pressed to the glass and for a moment, she hesitated. Then she pushed off the window and whirled on her heel to face him, her dark eyes full of fire.
"Why not?" Leia demanded. "We have failed in everything we were sent here to do and if Luke dies as well, I'm not..."
Leia broke off, seemingly unable to speak another word as she shook her head in small jerks. Without bothering to say anything further, she turned away.
"So, you want to die, too?" Han blurted. "You think it's worth it?"
Whatever the answer might have been, they never found out, since someone began pounding on the door. Apparently grateful for the distraction, Leia strode briskly to the door and palmed it open.
"Senator," Han stammered. "Didn't think we'd see you here tonight."
Bail, grim-faced and ashen, spared each of them a glance, then ducked inside and closed the door behind him. His gaze went to the window and focused on the plume of fire spewing from the roof of the Temple.
"Sit," he ordered Leia brusquely. "You too, Solo."
Leia circled around her desk and sank into her chair, her hands spread on the surface. Han sat as well after motioning Bail to the vacant chair nearest the desk.
"What is it?" Leia asked, her voice returning to the deadly quiet that she had used when Han had first come in.
"The Tantive's leaving within the hour," he explained in a low voice. "We've got work to do, but I need some answers first."
"I'll do what I can to help," Leia promised earnestly. "Do you have any information on what's going on?"
Bail glanced at Han, as if apologizing for what he was about to ask and for the first time, Han noticed him looking absolutely exhausted. He looked as if he had already been through one battle and was facing another.
"Not information, per se," Bail retorted, "but I was one of the few who tried to get to the Jedi Temple."
"What did you see?" Leia burst out.
"Easy," Han interrupted. "Why don't you let the man talk?"
They both sent him pretty unamused looks, but neither responded to that comment. Instead, Leia looked pointedly at Bail by way of invitation.
"I never entered the Temple," Bail replied grimly. "The clonetroopers wouldn't let me get past the docking platforms."
"It's under martial control, then?" Leia asked, her voice alarmed; her eyes suggested that she knew exactly what he had found there, but that she had to hear it from him.
"I wouldn't say control," Bail corrected. "I saw them kill a child who chose to fight back, nothing more and I hardly think it was an isolated incident."
Leia's hands clenched into fists immediately and she looked away, but other than that, she didn't make a single move. If something that personal had gotten in Han's way, he'd have probably been pacing or throwing something. Leia was a politician and a diplomat, so she simply waited for a diplomatic way of panicking.
"How?" she breathed.
"I'm not sure," Bail said in the same controlled tone that Leia was demonstrating. "All I can be certain of is that the Jedi are being systematically killed."
Leia glanced back towards the window. "I had guessed as much," she said in an attempt at nonchalance.
"Which is what brings me here," Bail concluded tersely. "I look after my own, but only if I know how."
Leia, to her credit, looked somewhat impassive.
"You were visited by Obi-Wan Kenobi," he said bluntly. "Was there a reason for that visit that I should know about?"
Leia did not hesitate, but she looked directly at Bail with absolute honesty in her expression. "There was," she confessed. "He had reason to believe that I had ties to the Jedi."
"And you do?" he prompted.
"In a manner of speaking," she said dryly. "I have no training, but it apparently isn't for lack of powers."
"You could be at risk, then?"
More than you know.
"I don't know," Leia said. "I don't know how far this will go or who is really at risk here."
He looked at her in evaluation, mouth pinched as if he were debating how much he could believe. Finally, he nodded slightly and stood.
"The Tantive is leaving soon," he echoed his earlier statement, "but I don't know if that is the best place for you."
"My place is with my people," Leia protested.
"I agree," he stated. "Lieutenant Rieekan will be returning to my wife's service on Alderaan. I want you to go with him."
Han hadn't been aware that he was holding his breath until it left him immediately after that statement. Leia spared him a glance, but nodded towards Bail.
"And my brother?" she asked.
Bail did not look the least bit surprised. "He has the same powers?" he asked.
"He does," Leia confirmed. "He is even in Anakin Skywalker's squadron, but I don't know what's happened to him."
Bail shuddered at the thought of something having "happened to him," but did not disagree. "We will protect him as we will you," he promised.
And then, finally, the panic that Leia had been quelling since the moment Han entered the office, possibly before, escaped her through her tear ducts. She did not turn away to hide the tears, only looked at them both and dared them to do something about it.
"That's the thing," she cried. "I don't know if it's too late for that."
The silence was worse than anything he'd heard today. The thunder of blaster fire, the roar of lightsabers clashing and the screams of the dying had been bad. If he had stopped to think about it, he probably would have been paralyzed by the shock of it all, but instead, he survived by keeping himself moving. Now, instead of hearing the sounds of war, he heard nothing, which meant that there was no one left to fight back.
Instinct made him proceed with caution, since Luke half-expected to find a dark lord lurking around every corner. His footsteps seemed to echo through every hallway, no matter how carefully he walked. Even then, his heart was pounding too loud for him to even notice at first that he was hyperventilating.
Bootsteps approached at a run and Luke ducked back against the wall, forcing himself to breathe more quietly. His shoulders slumped as if that would help and he let his eyes closed so he would block out the lights that suddenly seemed too bright. Finally, it stopped hurting when he breathed and his heart was beating at a more normal rate.
The troopers had moved on, apparently unsatisfied with the lack of people to attack, so he half-turned, inching out so that his left eye was able to scan the hallway. Immediately, he stepped back and forgot how to breathe again.
He had only seen Vader a handful of times since watching him murder Obi-Wan on the Death Star, but there were a lot of things other than the full-body armor that made him recognizable.
The man in the corridor was shrouded in a robe that was such a dark shade of brown that it might have been black. He was of a smaller build and he was breathing quietly as if he didn't want to be overheard. Just by looking at him, Luke would have never associated him with the Emperor's right hand man.
If Luke had dared to look into the man's eyes, though, he would have recognized part of himself. Anakin Skywalker's body was here, but he had chosen to come here without bringing the Skywalker spirit with him.
There was no doubt that, somehow, Darth Vader had been involved in the Purges from the very beginning.
It was the way Anakin carried himself, the air of intense concentration that reminded Luke of Vader. He seemed to be completely aware of his surroundings, but still searching for something.
The self-preservation that he didn't usually have screamed immediately for him to run, for all the good it would do him. After all, he'd seen Vader deflect blaster bolts without a second thought and Luke had nothing else to fight with.
Except the Force.
He had no idea where that thought came from, but it probably was his suicidal side. He couldn't use the Force, since he had a few days of training and three years of trial and error. It would never be enough to fight against the man who could kill without lifting a finger.
As it turned out, the argument was pointless because Vader found a new prey.
"I didn't think you'd be here," Anakin said quietly.
His quarry said nothing in response, but the sound of her breathing suggested that she was trying very hard not to cry and not really succeeding. She was a strong woman and it took a lot for her to feel this much, but maybe she thought that confronting Vader with something that should have shamed him would keep him from doing the unthinkable again.
Luke wanted to dart out from behind the pillar, to put himself between the two of them, where he should have been in the first place, but this was not his battle. Not yet.
If he does anything to her...
"You shouldn't be here," Anakin pressed on, his voice strained.
"I'm here because I am loyal to the Jedi," Ti snapped. "I thought that was why you came here."
"You know where my loyalties lie," Vader snapped, "and I thought I knew where yours did."
"I'm not a fool," she hissed. "My allegiance is not to one person or one cause. That's something that only the blind or the stupid would do. Maybe you qualify as both."
"No," Anakin said, his voice deadly quiet, "I feel like I'm seeing clearly for the first time in my life."
And then Vader attacked.
The first clash of lightsabers and the hiss of aggravation on both their parts competed for volume, but the next blow came after a long pause as if both of them were debating the merits of this battle.
Luke backed away, half-afraid to listen, completely afraid to see the end result. His head knew perfectly well what was about to happen, but his heart kept arguing that whatever he had tried to keep his father from turning might save her.
A strangled cry from Vader indicated that he had not been the first to draw blood and immediately, Ti began arguing against the inevitable. "It's not too late," she insisted.
"Not too late?" Vader scoffed. "You stepped over the bodies of people we trained with and had to fight your way past our own soldiers and you think it's not too late?"
Luke was inexplicably relieved to hear the fear and desperation in Anakin's voice. For the first time since seeing him in the corridor, he thought he heard his father again.
Ti's reply was so quiet that Luke barely heard it over the stagnant hum of lightsabers. "It's never too late to do the right thing, Anakin."
Luke could not explain why that seemed to be the wrong thing to say, but immediately, the lightsabers met again and the blows intensified until he could no longer hear the individual strikes.
Even then, when the first strikes started to slip past guards and he heard Ti's yelp of pain, he could not bring himself to leave. Anakin snarled as one of her blows cost him a bit of strength. Instead of more cries of pain from his father's closest friend, he heard again the sobbing gasps that she had tried to quell before.
They were past words now. Ti had nothing further to say to him and Anakin seemed unable to bring himself to respond to her last statement with anything but hatred. Maybe that was why she cried now.
She was realizing what Luke should have suspected all along: Anakin should have loved her, but no amount of love would have saved her.
Too quickly, it ended with a sickening squelch, the sound of a vibrocleaver passing through wet meat. He heard a sharp intake of breath that never seemed to release, then the sickening thud of a body hitting the floor.
He could still hear gasping sobs as if Ti were still alive, but instead they were coming from the man who had seemed to kill her without mercy or pity. It was a strange contrast to hear remorse from the man who hadn't hesitated to murder his best friend.
Finally, silence resumed for several heartbeats and then Vader's footsteps began retreating. Compelled by something he could not define, Luke finally found the courage to come out of hiding.
Maybe it was the fact that Luke's shields had been slammed too hard to stay intact or that he wanted to punish his father with what he was feeling, but he was unable to keep his thoughts hidden. Vader turned, alerted by this sudden onslaught. For a moment, it seemed as if he didn't recognize Luke at all.
After a second, though, Anakin's eyes hardened and his hand went to his lightsaber. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"My duty," Luke managed to say without letting his voice break. "You?"
There was a hesitation before his father responded, his voice almost inaudible. It sounded as if he were trying to convince himself of his answer.
Luke's gorge rose, but he did nothing except letting his grip tighten on the blaster that would never help him. He had seen Ti's eyes staring sightlessly in accusation up at him only moments before, so there was only one appropriate response to that claim.
"I don't believe that," he rasped.
"You're not expected to," Anakin said dismissively, turning on his heel. "Get out."
His voice sounded distant, as if he had taken leave of his senses already. Anakin didn't turn, only shoved back his hood so Luke could see him shaking his head.
"Your place isn't here, Lars," he snapped. "I don't know what brought you here, but if you don't get out soon, I won't be able to protect you."
He couldn't help the bitter snort of laughter that erupted from him as he glanced back at the eviscerated remains of Anakin Skywalker's best friend.
"Like you protected her?" Luke shot back without bothering to think.
Anakin hesitated at that. Vader took over a moment later and showed no remorse.
"She wanted no protection," he claimed, "so she got what she wanted."
"Is that what you're going to tell your wife?"
No hand touched him, but Anakin was shoved backwards as if he'd been punched in the face.
"Leave her out of this," was all Vader said.
He obeyed, since he couldn't afford to break his concentration. Instead, Luke's mind stretched out towards the fallen Jedi, searching for the strength that would let him reach what he needed.
"My place is with the Jedi..."
If he could just reach the lightsaber...
"As it should always have been."
Finally, there were results; the hilt of the saber slapped against the palm of his hand. A sudden rush of adrenaline coursed through him as if his grip on the lightsaber were as powerful as the feeling of powering up his X-wing. He was no longer completely helpless.
Again, Vader seemed to realize that. He unhooked his saber from his belt, but still did not turn.
"They sent you to me," he accused blandly as if he had suspected the lie all along.
"No," Luke responded truthfully.
Anakin turned a look on him that reminded Luke too much of Han Solo to be misunderstood. "I don't believe that," he mimicked.
"Why should you?" Luke demanded. "You don't believe any other truth."
The familiar blue blade that he had wielded since that first day in Ben Kenobi's desert home sprang to life. No attack came; it had been a move inspired by indifference. His father did not care if he lived or died.
"You can't protect me, so you'll kill me?" Luke called.
"You're a traitor to the Republic if you are one of them," Vader hissed.
"The Republic I serve would have nothing to do with genocide," Luke asserted.
He had hoped that would make some kind of impact, but Vader was still in control of the situation and that meant that little, if anything, would make a difference.
"This is justice," Vader recited, "not genocide."
It had to be the lie Anakin had repeated on the way here to stop himself from remembering that he had a conscience. Luke momentarily wondered if it had started to sound convincing yet.
"They sent you to be their spy," Vader claimed as he stalked forward. "Did you find what you wanted?"
Again, it was only easy to tell the truth: "No."
Vader smirked in triumph as he brought his saber up in a mock salute. "Maybe I can help you with that," he taunted.
Luke barely had time to activate Ti's saber before Vader attacked. Her amber blade met his blue in a shower of sparks, but Luke had to step back to ground himself in a fighting stance. The smug expression solidified on his adversary's face as if he had won some kind of bet with himself.
Luke took advantage of that moment's distraction to twist his wrists counter-clockwise. Since he had met the blow from beneath, this cleared his blade and he swung hard in a short arc from the left. Vader parried it quickly, but not easily.
"You're going to put up a fight," Vader observed, angling his blade towards Luke so that he had to step back once again. "Good. I don't want to kill something weak."
Luke certainly felt weak, since Vader was already weakening his defenses with strong, percussive blows. He had never had to use his lightsaber in extended combat, so survival here would only happen if he managed to save his strength.
The next blow came from above and Luke snapped the blade into a horizontal position, blocking it before it could cut through his skull. The blades disengaged and before he could think again, Vader imitated his arc cut. Luke managed to block it, but just in time.
Let go your conscious self and act on instinct.
He was no fighter. X-wings and fisticuffs were one thing, but the only training he'd gotten in this kind of mortal combat were a few lessons when he had more enthusiasm than skill.
Anakin blinked as if coming out of a trance, then swung again. Luke parried the strong uppercut, but his arms trembled with the effort of holding off another attack.
"You are no Jedi," was all Anakin said.
I should have been.
Luke did not answer, only stepped back and lowered his lightsaber to a low guard at his right thigh.
"Get out," Anakin echoed himself. "Your place is not here."
Luke didn't argue but he didn't budge, either.
"I'm not leaving until you do."
With each passing moment, he was seeing more and more of his father return. Anakin paced. He was not as a predator, just as a perplexed man. The voice that had been making threats was now almost pleading as if he finally understood that this was going terribly wrong.
"I can't stop this," Anakin bleated, "but I'm not adding you to my casualty list. I can't."
And now they came to it. It would have been the perfect moment to do the work that the High Command had asked of him in the first place. No one would have blamed him for killing Vader. No one would have known that Anakin Skywalker was still a part of the fledgling Dark Lord of the Sith.
He could have killed Vader now, should have done it while his father was still fighting against a newly rediscovered conscience.
Instead, Luke could no more kill Vader than Vader could unwittingly kill his own son.
"I'm not going anywhere," Luke said, his voice a little stronger. "I came here because I thought I could help stop this. You can stop this."
"You think it's that easy?" Father challenged. "There are reasons that you could never understand..."
For a moment, he recognized his father. He could see again the man who flew on his wing and who worried about the people they both loved.
Luke had been afraid of seeing something familiar in the man who became Vader. He had hated the thought of recognizing himself. The man who looked away at that last demand, though, was someone that Luke could identify as a Skywalker.
"Haven't you ever loved someone more than your own life?" he asked quietly.
"Of course," Luke said immediately, honestly.
I love Leia like that.
I should have had the chance to love my mother that strongly.
I had hoped that loving my father enough would have kept this from happening.
I'm still hoping that it might make a difference.
"Then you know why," Anakin said flatly.
Luke shook his head, hooking the lightsaber to his belt. "I'm still waiting for a good reason," he responded.
Anakin stepped back, as if he were afraid that Luke might attack with something other than words. "My allegiance..."
"I don't want to hear about your allegiance," Luke snapped, unable to contain himself any longer. "If you had any honorable allegiance, you would have never brought Vader to this place."
The silence was absolutely deafening for one long moment and then Luke's heart remembered to start beating again. In fact, it started sounding like the thunder of turbolasers against a frigate's hull. When he finally found the ability to breathe again, it was in short, shallow gasps as if he were being choked to death.
Maybe it was his imagination, or maybe he was trying to save Vader the trouble of killing him.
Anakin's voice was so quiet that it seemed impossible that Luke should have heard it over the hammering of his heart, but it was so intense that he could not have missed it in the first place. It was as terrifying as if Luke had heard that voice through a vocoder and respirator.
"I know who you have become," Luke said without thinking. "You don't deserve the name of Skywalker."
That seemed to strike a nerve, since the air became as frigid as a Hoth blizzard, but Vader said nothing. Instead, the sound of his lightsaber was his only response.
"Maybe I don't," Vader conceded. "Maybe I have never deserved it."
Luke did not argue with that.
"I have only begun to earn the name of Vader," he stated, "but it is not a name that you should know."
Luke could not think of a single explanation, but he was spared the trouble. Without another moment's hesitation, Vader attacked again.
He barely had time to parry, his hand snatching the saber from the hook at his right hip and swinging it to run parallel to his chin before he even activated the blade. Even then, he only stopped the blow a handful of centimeters from his throat. His arms strained to force the crossed blades further away from his neck.
"You're insane," he managed to stammer.
"That's what the Jedi thought," Vader hissed and Luke's stomach knotted immediately at the past tense. "Is that why they sent you to kill me?"
Vader responded by hammering his blade against Luke's and he had to retreat several steps before he could find adequate footing. He dropped his right shoulder so that he could catch the low strike at his thigh, then swung the blade clockwise to knock his adversary off-balance.
It would have worked, except Vader had anticipated the move and had twisted away from the swing so that he was leading with his left shoulder.
Without further hesitation, Vader thrust in at Luke's unprotected left side. The blade drove straight through, grazing the lower edge of his collarbone and searing his paralyzed lung as it bored through to erupt from his back.
He choked, his undamaged lung straining to do the work of both and dimly, as the pain began to darken his vision, he heard his father's breathing match his own. It was as if neither of them had consciously meant for things to go that far.
It was difficult enough to escape, but his first instinct was to get out of range of that blade. He slumped back, colliding with the wall as the blade retracted. He fully expected the killing blow and his mind immediately hoped that it would come quickly.
Instead, it never came.
"It doesn't have to end like this," Anakin said tersely, though there was a touch of terrified regret in his voice for the first time since Luke had first found him here.
"You're right," Luke blurted. "It's not too late for you."
His eyes drooped closed as exhaustion crashed over him and a chill began to creep through him. Overwhelmed by tremors and feeling the cold approach of death, he could do nothing but reach for the one constant of warmth in his universe.
Leia, hear me.
She was as silent as the Force that had abandoned him when he needed it most.
His father's chest heaved as if he felt like laughing, but he shook his head. "You know my allegiance," he explained simply.
The next swing arced in before Luke could manage to block it, and their eyes locked as if Luke could stop the murder with guilt. Just before the blade would have struck, though, Anakin shut down the blade.
The durasteel hilt cracked against his temple and finally, mercifully, the darkness took him.
Leia had somehow let sleep overcome her sometime before midnight. Rieekan had promised to come for them once it was safe to slip away from the planet, so instead of fleeing to safety, they had to bide their time.
For the first time in too many weeks, her mind was silent and not a single dream came to her. It should have been a comfort or some kind of reprieve, but instead, the emptiness left her completely exhausted.
Her mind was silent that night, so when Luke's anguished cry pierced her sleep, it was as if he had screamed in her ear.
She bolted upright, heart hammering against her ribs and lungs burning from lack of oxygen. Her breath was the only sound in the bedroom, but the echoes of his pain drowned it out.
Her hand lifted to her chest, not resting against her heart, but just above it. The pain was a phantom one, but as real as the anguish that she could not have felt on her own.
Han, somehow attuned to the terrors that were becoming standard for her nights, was in the doorway by the time she remembered that she was, in fact, still alive.
"Luke?" he guessed immediately.
She was unable to answer. The agony that she could not limit to the mental or physical bound her voice while her mind moved too freely.
I can't do this. I shouldn't have come here.
I was too late.
I will always be too late, even twenty-four years in the past.
He is lost to me.
"I can't feel..."
That was a lie. She felt too much.
"He's gone," she whispered.
Once again, Han went to her. This time, she could not draw away from his embrace. Instead of fighting it, she curled into his arms in the desperate hope that he might be able to drive away some of her demons.
"You felt him die?" Han asked quietly.
It was the question that she had avoided, since she feared the answer so strongly, but instead of fear, she felt some kind of reassurance.
"I'm not sure," she confessed, wrapping her arm around his as she rested her head against his chest. "I felt him..."
I felt his death throes.
I felt him reach out to me and I could do nothing.
"He called for me," she explained inadequately, "and before I could realize what he needed, he disappeared."
"But he's not dead," Han insisted. "You would have known."
"Would I?" Leia challenged, pulling back to stare at him through pain-hazed eyes. "I didn't know when the Jedi were in danger and I don't know what did this to Luke..."
Another easy lie. They all knew and they had known for too long to deny it.
"We came here to stop Vader," she choked.
"And you think we'll never have another chance?"
She pulled away, suddenly overwhelmed by the need to move, to do something. Her arms disengaged as she got to her feet and began pacing.
"Did we ever have a chance?" Leia demanded.
"Of course," he insisted. "You could have done it."
Some part of her rebelled at that thought, since she still wanted to be the child of Alderaan who would have balked to take any sentient life. Another part of her felt a relieved kind of pride that someone still had confidence in her principles.
"Do you really believe that?" she keened.
"Yes, Leia," he said firmly, "I believe it."
No relief came with that statement, only bitter sorrow. "Then what stopped us?"
For once, he had no response to that, and only looked at her as if she should have known the answer all along. Maybe she should have, but she had felt as if it was too dangerous to heed her own instincts as of late.
Without waiting for further comment, she crossed to the storage cubicle and started rifling through the hanging clothes in an attempt to find something that would suit her purposes.
"You're not going after him."
It was more of a plea than a statement, but she did not want to respond to it. "I have to, Han," she snapped, yanking a sleeveless jumpsuit off its hanger. "Even if I can do nothing more than give him..."
An escape route.
A proper burial.
A kiss goodbye.
She turned, shaking her head to explain what she could not put into words. "I have to go," she said at last. "I can't really explain why."
"Then at least tell me what I'm supposed to do while you're off on a suicide mission," Han challenged.
There was only one possible answer: "Find us a way out."
"Don't suppose you have a mind trick up your sleeve."
"No, Han, you have to be a Jedi for that."
She had no time for backtracking or exploring alternate routes, so Leia simply approached the Temple from the only vector that was remotely safe. The Consulate was well-informed enough to keep a schematic of all public buildings in its archives and she had found that standard maintenance routes were too sparse and unreliable to use as an entrance.
The complex sewer system of Coruscant, on the other hand, went much deeper into the structure. By going through the access hatches that allowed for a more specialized kind of maintenance than remote droid work, she was able to enter the Temple only a few levels from the long-forgotten ground levels of Coruscant.
For some absurd reason, no one bothered to stop a civilian headed for the seventeenth level. There were no Jedi to question her presence here and it seemed as if the clonetroopers who remained were occupied with securing the perimeter.
As a result, it was just as silent as her visions had suggested.
If her breathing had been strained by the absence of Luke before, the silence now threatened to betray her position by making her weep. If nothing else, it would have filled the void that was left behind in the wake of the Jedi Order.
Instead, common sense and respect for the terrible emptiness of this place kept her silent. The only sound beyond her quiet respirations and the distant murmur of voices that alerted her to the location of enemies were her footsteps.
As in the vision, she knew exactly where her footsteps should lead her, but her hand still braced against the wall for support. It ran over cold marble as well as the smoking craters left by blaster bolts.
Her path was obstructed at times, but since she knew exactly what she could find if she looked for it, she forced herself to move on through the aftermath of an ambush.
And as before, her pace quickened in the moment that she entered the corridor leading to the Fountains.
She had cursed and feared the visions because of what they had suggested. Now, she found relief in what she had been shown because she knew exactly where to find Luke.
She had not, however, been prepared for what she had to do now. She sank to her knees out of habit more than anything else, then let her hand turn Luke's body. Unlike in the visions, she would not let her hands tremble with fear.
The eyes that she had expected to stare at her in accusation were closed, but the furrow in his brow suggested that he was having a troubled sleep as well. That, however, was not what drew her attention.
It was the shallow rise and fall of his chest beneath her hand.
Obi-Wan had once told him, in the bitter days that followed the battle of Geonosis, that the Sith dealt in naught but lies. Anakin had thought it to be a testament to his anger towards the man who Qui-Gon had once called Master Dooku. After all, Obi-Wan had been asked to give his allegiance to a man who had abandoned everything that Obi-Wan believed in. Padme had likewise received an invitation, based on false ideas that would have turned her into as much of a traitor as the last of the Lost Twenty.
Dooku, knowing the folly of asking a Skywalker to betray Palpatine, had never broached the subject with him. Even before Anakin had known the power that his friend possessed and what that strength could offer to him, he had been unwaveringly loyal.
For a small eternity between each heartbeat in the Chancellor's office, after he had realized that Palpatine was the Sith lord, that had changed. His hand had found and activated his lightsaber because for thirteen years, the boy who had mourned Qui-Gon Jinn had known that he would take up arms against any Sith lord. Palpatine, the one man who had never failed to support and understand him, had been unrecognizable.
The only thing that had allowed him to deactivate his saber was the simple fact that he recognized in Palpatine's words the same truth that had earned the man Anakin' s allegiance at every turn. The Sith were said to deal in naught but lies, but Palpatine's only crime was one of verbal omission.
Unlike the Jedi, Palpatine had never asked him to betray himself or those who had earned his loyalty. He had never asked him to believe in the morality of his actions without question.
He had lied only in what he had not told Anakin. Tonight, to protect those he loved most, Anakin would have to follow his example.
Padme did not need to know the extent of what had happened to him. She did not need to know how far he had gone to protect her from a phantom menace. She did not have to hear that the attack of the clones on the Temple had been led by the man who led her to bed with gentle hands and persuasive whispers.
If he was able to protect her and to save their child, she only needed to trust him. It would have been a difficult thing to ask of her, so he would never do so.
His comm line was open, ready to receive any further communications from the man he could rightfully call Master, but it remained silent. Nor were there any attempts to contact him by the people of his former life.
There was a certain loneliness to the power that he had found in the Temple, but that should have come as no surprise. After all, his power and his destiny as the Chosen One had denied him a normal childhood. With Ti dead, the only people who would have contacted him were the ones who would want something from him.
Palpatine's orders had eliminated that dynamic.
With Ti dead...
With Ti dead...
He'd heard many colleagues or subordinates talk about how it felt to lose themselves in battle. He had even experienced it a few times, when duty took control of thought to such an extent that he could not remember what had caused the outcome of the battle.
Since the moment that she had fallen, he had prayed to whatever desert gods still watched over him that he would be able to forget that moment. Instead, he was cursed by remembering every moment.
He could remember the last blow that she landed, one that batted his blade aside with the same fierce determination that he recognized from years of sparring. He remembered the resistance of her parry when he struck at her midline.
He remembered too well that there had been such little resistance when he landed the killing blow. His saber had pierced her defenses, then the abdominal wall, and for a moment, it had seemed that she would be able to block that as well.
She should have been able to push him back. So many of the Jedi had died after a paltry, half-hearted struggle; it was as if they knew that there was nothing to be gained by survival. Too many others had been too young to fight him properly, but they had fallen all the same.
This was Ti, though. They had joked too often that they were only friends with each other because neither of them was afraid to give his or her best friend a solid thrashing in training. She should have fought him until he himself had no strength left to fight.
It must have been the pain. While she had never been one to fear injury, the pain as he drove his saber deeper must have eliminated what defenses she had left. From that moment, it had been to easy to end her life.
With Ti dead...
Or maybe she, like the others, felt that there was nothing left that was worth fighting for.
With Ti dead...
Oh, Maker, what have I done?
There had been no satisfaction in betraying her. No victory had been achieved. She could have lived another century and done him no harm. Force knew that the most lethal blow she had used against him was the truth, nothing more.
And yet, the one he saved, the man who had somehow deserved his mercy, was someone he had barely known. It was dangerous to grow attached to your unit because they could die just as easily as the next person, so he allowed tentative camaraderie.
He could not explain what stayed his hand when it had been all too easy to kill one of the three women he would have never hurt. Ti had never held his love as his mother or his wife had, but the unconditional love that he had allowed to pass between them was just as strong a bond as family.
Why that had been insufficient for her and enough for Luke Lars was something that he might never be able to understand. Certainly, he would never be able to forgive himself for that distinction.
His vision had hazed with tears while he was lost in thought and he blinked those away immediately, forcing his eyes to focus on where he was going.
Instead, he recognized the familiar lights of her-their-apartment. He had not thought to set a course or decide on a destination. He had simply wanted to flee as far away as possible, leaving the mop-up to the Grand traitorous Army of the fallen Republic.
Those lights had always been a welcoming beacon, but now they blazed in accusation. It was well after midnight and Padme could not afford to lose this kind of sleep. She was exhausted enough by her duties in the Senate...
And her treachery against Palpatine, his mind reminded viciously without prompting.
He shook that thought away. She had been idealistic, foolish even. It was one of the things that had given her strength but betrayed her too many times. If he acted now, he could insulate her from what would happen to those who opposed Palpatine in the future. She could not deny him that privilege.
Despite the urge to make another circuit of the Senate district, to avoid her until the time that he recognized himself again, he drew his speeder alongside the veranda and shut down the engines.
Padme was there, ready to take him into her arms the moment he was within arm's reach. He suspected that she would have climbed into the cockpit with him if he had waited a moment longer, but they fell into each other's embrace easily enough. Their arms fit perfectly around each other as always, as if nothing had changed.
The only differences were startling enough, though. She was pressed hard enough against him that he could have probably felt each contraction of her veins beneath his fingers, but what he felt was the squirming of their child beneath the taut flesh of her belly. He could not tell if the child were responding to her agitation or if it sensed a change in the father who had almost timidly reached out to his firstborn with the Force that had been granted to them both.
The disquiet did not end there because Padme was trembling, as if she had been immersed in ice water. Before, the warmth of his embrace had been able to drive that chill away, but tonight, it seemed to be taking hold of her on a permanent basis.
"Are you all right?" she asked solicitously.
She pulled away so that he could see the pallor of her skin and the way her eyes narrowed against tears. It was as much a condemnation as the fervor of her greeting, since she knew how much he hated making her worry.
"I heard," she said breathlessly, as if the night's events were choking the life from her, "that there was an attack on the Jedi Temple. You could see the smoke from here."
He nodded and trusted that she would respect his need to find his own words for what had happened. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he lied too easily. "I came to see if you and the baby were safe."
It was true enough. With everything else falling to pieces, with things spiraling out of his control, he could safely say that he was here to make sure that he had not already failed his family.
He could not involve her in this further. She was at enough risk as it was, but he could not take the chance that Palpatine would ask him to see her as a target. For all her foolishness, she would not be a threat and that could not change, no matter what else in the Galaxy did.
If he could not keep her from acting against what had happened tonight, everything for which he had fought and suffered would be destroyed. That, in the end, was the reason that he had to lie.
To protect her.
Never ask me about my business.
In the early days of their marriage, she had wanted to know too much. She had seen changes in him and felt the need to understand what had twisted his thoughts against himself. He had never found the right words to speak of the star battles, of the bloodless deaths that were somehow worse than the ones on the battlefields below.
They had made a pact that he would let her know what was necessary as long as she trusted him enough to speak of it first.
Of course, she hadn't been happy about it. Padme was the one who thrived on understanding and when she knew that he would not allow her to comprehend the horrors of his duties, she worried more. They had been forced into a kind of compromise that satisfied neither one, but at least allowed them to keep the peace. After all, they had such little time as it was that bickering over the definition of a "need to know basis" seemed selfish.
Never ask me about my business.
Perhaps their child was not the only one who had sensed a change.
"The situation is not good. The Jedi have tried to overthrow the Republic," he stated, shocked that he managed to say it without betraying the fury that he had felt at that event.
Padme seemed simultaneously torn between relief that someone had taken action and fear about the repercussions. If only she knew.
"I can't believe it," she whispered.
Of course she could. She had turned with them, had consorted with Obi-Wan for the means to take Palpatine down. She had stood against not just Palpatine but Anakin as well. It had taken a love that he still could not measure to begin to forgive her for that.
His eyes had been locked on hers, but he could not hold that gaze and continue to speak to her. Instead, he let his gaze slide away so that he was staring at his hands. He could have sworn that, if he had lifted his fingers, he would have left bloodstains on her arms. His hands would never be clean again, but she would never understand why.
"I couldn't either at first, but it's true."
He was not the only one who had been na?ve. He had thought that the Council, for all their talk of bringing Palpatine to justice, or stopping his abuses of power, would never have the audacity to betray the man who stood for their Republic. He had been just as blind as the rest of the Jedi to the madness of the Council.
"I saw Master Windu attempt to assassinate the Chancellor myself," he managed to say at last.
It was the first damning evidence that he had put before her, the first thing that would someday explain what he had been forced to do.
It was something of a relief to see that she at least balked at that idea. Perhaps they were not on such opposite sides as they thought.
"Anakin," she keened, "what are you going to do?"
That was the first easy question of the night, but it was one that he could not answer as easily as he'd have thought. He looked away, almost afraid for her to see any hint of uncertainty.
"I will not betray the Republic," he said firmly. "My loyalties lie with the Chancellor and with the Senate . . . and with you."
It should have reassured her, but that only increased the violence of her tremors. "What about Obi-Wan?"
I couldn't spare my Jedi sister. How can I spare the man who was my only father?
The clonetroopers would have taken care of Obi-Wan the way they had dealt with the Jedi in the Temple. If Palpatine was as thorough as Anakin suspected, he would have never seen the attack coming. It was, perhaps, a cruel mercy.
Then again, he might have found a way to survive. He could have resisted or fought his way out. He could be on his way here now.
Then again, Anakin had thought that Ti had that same tenacity. Perhaps he was doomed to be wrong about them all.
"I don't know," he confessed. "Many Jedi have been killed."
He almost thought that she would guess the truth from those five words, but the fear she began to display in her delicate features was not towards him.
"We can only hope that he has remained loyal to the Chancellor," he said honestly.
That was all he could hope for any of them.
Instead of drawing away, she attempted to pull him further into her embrace. It was her natural response to comfort him. It had been something that seemed to be an instinct since the days when she had dealt with her own grief over the plight of her people by comforting his anguish over leaving his mother.
He did not deserve it.
Many Jedi have been killed.
Many Jedi have been killed by me.
If we name our daughter after Tizar as we hoped, someday, I will have to tell her that Aunt Ti died a hero fighting Daddy.
Force forgive me if I ever have to explain what it took to protect her.
Force forgive me if this goes on.
But there was no stopping it. Not after tonight, not after the choices he had made. He could hope for no forgiveness or understanding, not at first, but he could hope that it was worth it.
"How could this have happened?"
You can't tell me that you haven't guessed.
"The Republic is unstable, Padme," he said patiently. "The Jedi aren't the only ones trying to take advantage of the situation. There are also traitors in the Senate."
And I hope for your sake that you are not one of them. The Chancellor is not as forgiving as I am.
She drew away sharply as if he had struck her with something other than truth. "What are you saying?"
"You need to distance yourself from your friends in the Senate," he insisted. "The Chancellor said they will be dealt with when this conflict is over."
In the same way that the Jedi were dealt with. Don't make me take arms up against you as well.
"What if they start an inquisition?" she demanded, her voice regaining a measure of its alacrity. "I've opposed this war. What will you do if I become a suspect?"
She was not accusing him of turning against her. He simply had to remind himself that she wanted to know what he would to protect her on a less domestic level. He couldn't deny that he had considered the options, but he had nothing to offer her beyond a faint hope.
"That won't happen," he promised, forcing himself to give her an openly honest stare. "I won't let it."
He had no idea if she had seen something or if the threat had finally made an impact, but when she spoke again, her confidence had faded into a brutal honesty. "Oh, Anakin, I'm afraid."
"Suddenly, I'm afraid."
"This is my first assignment on my own. I am, too."
His hands had done so much evil that night, but they pulled her into a tight embrace now. "Have faith, my love," he requested so quietly that perhaps not even the droids heard. "Everything will soon be set right."
It was not a promise that he made lightly. Whether it took all the power of the Force or a thousand more deaths, he would find a way to set all of this right.
"The Chancellor has given me a very important mission," he clarified. "The Separatists have gathered in the Mustafar system. I'm going there to end this war. Wait for me until I return . . . things will be different, I promise."
That was the first truly empty promise that he had made to her. He couldn't end this war now any more than he could end all life. There would always be another war to be fought and he had no way of preventing that.
He could not admit to that, though, so he pressed his lips to hers, inviting her to return the gesture. She stretched up to do so, clutching at him either for balance or to reassure herself that he was still there. It was as if she might fall if he weren't there.
It was a tremendous emotional investment, one that she had resisted at first but repented of with her whole heart later. He hated that he did not have the moral energy to do the same for her tonight. He could only kiss her with his fear and his hope that the darkness he had embraced would be enough.
"Please," he repeated, "wait for me."
The redeeming quality of Bail Organa's staff was that they were trained well in how to handle crises. More specifically, even as a young man, Carlist Rieekan knew not to ask questions.
Han couldn't say he had been that good. When Leia had staggered from the confines of the Temple to board the Alderaanian Consulate shuttle off the consular ship Seventh Dawn, Luke's limp body hanging like a sacrificial victim in her arms, he had asked too many questions. The first one, though, was the only one that really counted.
"Is he dead?"
Rieekan, on the other hand, had alerted the Dawn that they were inbound to the medcenter and Luke had been attended to within heartbeats of boarding the ship. They were absolutely certain that he was going to survive and almost as sure that he was going to make a full recovery.
Leia he wasn't so sure about. It was like she had suffered the same way as Luke, even though she hadn't been touched. Maybe it was one of those crazy Jedi things or, more likely, just like the times that Luke had felt some kind of sympathetic bond to her.
After all, she'd been the one to find him in that hell. She'd fought her way out with a blaster and an improbable amount of luck, but she might blame herself for not getting there in time. Still, considering that the clonetroopers had left no other survivors, she was lucky to have gotten Luke out of there alive.
He couldn't tell her that, though. She would either disbelieve it or become angry with him for trying to make light of what had just happened.
Han didn't want to do anything but help her, but he had no idea if that was possible. Instead, he stayed by her side until word on Luke's condition came and then he turned into a mothering nek.
She had taken her seat on a stasis unit, her knees pulled up to her chest and her hands pressed to the sides of her head as if she were a small child threatened by a thunderstorm. The only way that he could approach her was to wrap an arm around her narrow, hunched shoulders and draw her as close to him as the space would allow. Maybe it was a good sign that she was at least willing to let him to do that. On the other hand, maybe it was a sign that she was too shell-shocked to function.
Either way, he wouldn't stop until she told him to herself. There was nothing flirtatious or demanding in the gesture. He didn't ask her to reciprocate the gesture. He just wanted to look after her until she could do the same for herself.
It was an extraordinary thing to feel that sort of over protectiveness towards her, since it made him feel as if he had a life debt to her. It wasn't a kind of family bond, but could be something just as strong. At that moment, he began to understand how shaken she had been by what could have happened to Luke.
All the same, it was a different kind of feeling. The same electricity that kept him interested in their own time was there, as well as the intense attraction that kept him from leaving her, but he cared too much to act on it.
When the medic, a soft-voiced woman from Antibes that Leia had probably known on Alderaan, left once more, Han expected Leia to pull away. In normal circumstances, she would have gotten to work, destroying her feelings of helplessness with the power of her efficiency.
Instead, she remained curled against him. It was as if she had been drowning in a river, fighting the current and now was aware that she would fail whether she fought or not.
"C'mon," he encouraged as he attempted to use his grip on her shoulders to lever her into a standing position. "Rieekan said he had some quarters ready for us."
Rieekan had even been kind. When Han had suggested that Leia might want to be alone tonight, Rieekan had found separate rooms for each of them. She would be able to rest comfortably the moment that she stopped being thick-headed about her need to survive this.
Leia shook her head silently and sagged against his arm so that it would be more difficult to move her. "I'm not going anywhere," she stated firmly.
She seemed to be channeling Luke's spirit, since she was showing some of that absurd Skywalker stubbornness at the moment. "You won't do him any good if you kill yourself with exhaustion," Han reminded.
He had hoped that she would smile at that, tease him for having a soft spot for her or at least make some comment about only mortals needing sleep. Instead, she shook her head as if she were trying to clear it after a serious blow to the skull.
"I can't do this," Leia said so quietly that he almost needed to read her lips.
"You don't have to," Han insisted. "You got him out..."
"He shouldn't have been there in the first place," she shrilled. "I should have been able to stop him..."
"How?" Han challenged. "None of us knew what was coming and I'm not sure Luke even planned to get this involved. He doesn't really stop to think about what's in his best interest when it comes to this sort of thing."
If possible, her shoulders hunched further inwards, but her hands slid down until they clasped behind her neck. He recognized the gesture immediately-she was protecting herself as if she expected to be struck. It was his experience that the only thing that would attack her now was her own conscience. Then again, that could be the worst of it.
"He shouldn't have been here," she said, her voice more under control than before as if she had remembered exactly where and, more importantly, when she was. "If he doesn't recover..."
"Didn't you listen to the medic?" Han demanded impatiently. "He's going to live. I think you should be unselfish enough to do the same."
At least that brought her to her feet, but not for the reasons that he wanted. He had hoped to give her some kind of relief, not rile her up more. It seemed to be his only talent when it came to dealing with Leia, though.
"Unselfish?" she hissed. "I'm the selfish one when you were perfectly willing to stand back and watch it happen until I mentioned Luke was involved?"
"I'm not much for suicide, Your Highnessness," Han asserted. "Pointless self-sacrifice is your area of expertise."
Her hand flew up, and he fully expected her to hit him at that point, but after a moment of violent trembling, she let it fall to her side and she turned her back on him.
"Where can I rest?" she asked flatly, the abrupt change in tone a slap in the face in itself.
Nowhere. You won't let yourself.
He hesitated for once, not sure they should leave such raw emotions untreated. They hadn't dealt with what was really bothering her and she wasn't likely to talk about it again. She was at least listening to his request to get some sleep, but the only thing it accomplished was getting him to shut up. Maybe that was the best thing he could do for her.
"I'll take you there," he offered instead.
She nodded curtly, not acknowledging the kindness of the gesture. "Lead on," she commanded.
Maybe it was too much for her to care that, if Luke hadn't made it, he'd still have been there.
He had to keep a brisk pace, since Leia was in full 'politician' mode, moving as if she were about to take control of the Galaxy. It was the kind of attitude that he had expected of the woman who had organized the Battle of Yavin instead of dealing with the loss of her world. It was kind of reassuring to see her back to her old self, but he wasn't fool enough to think that it was genuine. It was a parry, a way of keeping him from getting too close.
Finally, when they reached the assigned quarters, Han palmed the unlocked door open and stepped in. "Lights on or off?"
Taken aback by her suddenly exhausted tone, he turned to make sure that she wasn't going to collapse. Instead, he was tackled as she buried herself against him. Her heartbeat thudded against his ribs and her slim arms barely reached around his waist, but he didn't hesitate to return the gesture. If she was finally ready to take what he had been trying to offer all night, he wasn't going to argue. She needed to be held, pure and simple and until she asked for something else, that was enough.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I don't want to think about what could have happened to you there any more than you want to face what Vader did to Luke."
"I know," she mumbled against his shirt.
For a long moment, they didn't need to say anything else. Finally, he pulled back and half-turned to slide past her into the corridor.
"You think you can sleep now, sweetheart?" he asked.
The corridor light silhouetted her, allowing him to see the weary nod that she gave by way of response. "I think I will," she promised.
He couldn't explain to her how much that relieved him or why he was caring so much about her when he felt like he was about to fall over himself. Instead, he let his hand slide around her thin neck and brushed his lips against her forehead by way of thanks and apology for not being able to do more.
"Sleep well," was his final request.
Luke had felt something wrong many times in his life and they were usually signals of disturbances in the Force. From the age of twenty-three on, though, he would always remember the feeling as the same one that had brought him to the Jedi Temple on the night that the Republic went to hell.
Tonight, the disturbance felt the same and he knew immediately that it had to be because of Vader. He didn't know why. He had never been to this place, had never heard the night wind rustling through these gargantuan trees.
He didn't even know what brought him to this bridge. His attitude towards Vader had always been what Leia called a "fight or flight policy," with no middle ground. After their last encounter, or rather, their first encounter, he felt it would be best to take flight.
The thing he couldn't understand was the current burning desire to go to Vader that he was becoming aware of. It made no sense, but then again, neither did the fact that he felt a slight spike of fear when he sensed Leia approaching.
"Luke, what's wrong?"
He shouldn't have hesitated, shouldn't have been afraid of what he should say and what he had to tell her. She had never ceased to be his friend, even when she knew...
No, this was different. Somehow, he was aware of a change. This was not a time and place when they had shared the madness that was the last days of the Republic. They had never faced the man who would become Vader together, but somehow he had faced Vader himself.
And that had made all the difference. That was no surprise, since he could not have faced his father again without it having made some kind of impact. He did, however, have the feeling that Leia had no idea what it had done to him.
In this nightmare, she knew nothing of who he could become. He had no idea how this had happened, but if that was the way the Force was working, he knew he had to pay attention to the distinction.
He had hesitated too long and she deserved an answer, but he had no idea what that answer would be. He turned to her, hoping that the sight of her might spark a memory, or a kind of understanding of what was going on here. Instead, his eyes traced the lines of her face and he found something that was both familiar and terribly alien to him there.
Her concern for him, etched into the furrow of her brow and the curve of her lips, was his only enemy. It was a dangerous thing because it might just as quickly turn on him. He was afraid enough of his own dark side that he could not risk seeing Leia's.
He did not look for acceptance or permission tonight. He just wanted her to understand that there were no other options.
Of course, he had no idea where those thoughts came from.
"Leia," he said without thinking, "do you remember your mother? Your real mother?"
They hadn't spoken much of the difference before, since her adoption seemed to be a state secret as it was. There was something terribly important about what she remembered of the woman who had given Leia life before losing her own.
She sagged against the railing, her eyes suddenly softened with a distant pain as she steadied herself with one hand. "Just a little," she admitted in a low voice as if she were still keeping the secret. "She died when I was very young."
Just like his. He didn't know why that gave him some comfort.
"What do you remember?"
Leia looked away, ever the one to choose her words carefully before presenting them to him. "Just images, really," she mused. "Feelings."
It wasn't like Luke to make demands, to not give reasons for what he was asking of her. There was some kind of urgency about getting this information, though. It was almost as if it were a survival skill.
"She was..." She let out an almost inaudible sigh. "Very beautiful. Kind, but sad."
His stomach clenched at that. He could almost picture a woman just like that, one who was world-weary but compassionate. Of course that was the woman who Leia had grown up to resemble.
"Luke," Leia probed quietly, "why are you asking me all of this?"
Luke's eyes turned towards their hands, just millimeters from each other, but not yet bridging the space between. He always seemed to feel like this recently, as if he was just beyond reach of anyone who could free him.
"I have no memory of my mother," he explained, his voice surprisingly flat. "I never knew her."
He was stating a fact, one that he had recognized a hundred times. Maybe that was why he seemed to be resigned to the facts that he had just presented to Leia.
Her hand slid closer until their fingertips brushed and then she let her fingers slide between his. Leia was the one to finally reach him, of course. He shouldn't have ever doubted that she could.
"Luke," she pleaded, "tell me what's troubling you."
He met her eyes and for a long moment, the words would not come. He had to explain to her something that he didn't fully understand himself, so he would have to choose his words with the same care that she exercised. Even when he found the right thing to say, it was something that would cause her distress and he hated that.
"Vader's here," the last of the Skywalkers clarified. "Now, on this moon."
A sharp intake of breath followed, but she did not disagree and only asked, "How do you know?"
How could he not? How could he mistake the suffocating feeling for anything other than Vader's influence? It was almost impossible to explain exactly how that felt to her, but he could at least make her understand the results.
"I felt his presence," he said at last. "He's come for me. He can feel when I'm near. That's why I have to go."
To protect you.
He glanced up so that she could see the earnestness of his expression. "As long as I stay, I'm endangering the group and our mission here."
And then he hesitated again. This time, it was for a very different reason. Instead of the fear of something he didn't want to face, it was apprehension of something he could not deny.
"I have to face him."
"Why?" Leia breathed.
Now, it was time for his own secret, the one that he could only speak to the night and to the one person who might not ever understand. He felt no fear, though, only calm.
"He is my father."
The sounds of a conversation he had never heard, never suffered, came pouring into his mind.
"Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father."
"He told me enough. He told me you killed him."
"No. I am your father."
Her lip curled and her brow furrowed even more, but her hand stayed where it was. Maybe she just thought he'd made a tasteless joke.
"Your father," she hissed.
Luke could not stop there, could not leave her vulnerable to her own ignorance. He did not respond to her horror, but plunged on with the conversation.
"There's more. It won't be easy for you to hear it, but you must."
Leia nodded invitingly, and he expected himself to hesitate, but there was nothing potentially offensive in what he had to say next.
"If I don't make it back," he asserted, "you're the only hope for the Alliance."
That made an impact, but not the one that he would have expected. She wasn't one to run away from the truth and she certainly didn't now, but she jerked away, pushing to her feet before he could reach for her again.
"Luke, don't talk that way," Leia snapped as if arguing with an uncomprehending child. "You have a power I--I don't understand and could never have."
She had been blind for so long. There were too many things that pointed to her Force potential to deny that she had a comparable power. He had the advantage that no one would be threatened by a farmboy with delusions of grandeur, but Leia had been too powerful even without the Force to risk exposure.
"You're wrong, Leia." She stared straight into his eyes as if looking for a sign that he was joking. "You have that power too. In time you'll learn to use it as I have. The Force is strong in my family."
He had to look away, but just for a moment to get his bearings. "My father has it," he reflected. "I have it..."
I could be Vader someday.
"And...my sister has it," he concluded.
The man who dreamed this had not been aware of that fact, but it only took a pair of heartbeats before he wondered why not. After all, they had been drawn to each other without having to ask questions. They had been able to relate to each other on a level that not even their friends understood.
From the look on her face, she was beginning to think the same thing.
"Yes," he confirmed. "It's you, Leia."
The tone of her voice was the same as his had been before. "I know," she replied. "Somehow, I've always known."
Maybe he had given her too little credit, then. Maybe she wouldn't fight this instinctively.
"Then you know why I have to face him."
"No!" she blurted. "Luke, run away, far away. If he can feel your presence, then leave this place."
She was arguing with him now because she knew that it would never be that simple. It was one of the defense mechanisms that she had in place.
"I wish I could go with you," she murmured.
He stood quickly, pulling her closer. "No, you don't," he insisted. "You've always been strong."
The strongest woman he had ever known was squinting in accusation through her tears, her face pinched as if he had dealt her a physical blow.
"But, why must you confront him?" she demanded.
"Because...there is good in him."
Then again, he had thought there was still good in Vader when they had met in the corridors of the Jedi Temple.
"I've felt it," the Luke who had lived through a different kind of encounter with Vader explained with confidence that he could not have justified. "He won't turn me over to the Emperor. I can save him. I can turn him back to the good side."
She did not argue with him, but she would not voice support of that. On the other hand, she seemed too resigned to stop him.
"I have to try."
They had lived through the last days of the Republic in hopes of stopping a man from becoming Vader. They had failed, but instead, there was a second kind of redemption possible.
Maybe that was what they had left worth living for.
The last time Leia had stood in the Aldera spaceport, she had been unable to shake the feeling that she shouldn't go. She had always spent a few moments breathing in the smell of lornas that mixed oddly with the equally-familiar stench of engine grease. She always wanted to remember her last breath on Alderaan, with the good and the bad.
That time, however, she had taken several shaky breaths, but had not been able to calm her nerves because she had felt some kind of half-fearful certainty that she would not be returning. Leia had attributed it to the dangerous nature of the mission that was to take her away from Alderaan, not any real threat to Alderaan.
Since the day she had watched her homeworld obliterated with a casual word from a madman named Tarkin, she had yearned to return. Every scent of a lorna blossom of the taste of the trademark green wine would make her ache powerfully to find herself in the streets of Antibes.
Tonight, she got her wish, but there was a strange bitterness to the end result. She stood among her own people once more, shivering in the night air of Aldera, and she felt more strongly than anything that she should not have come back.
Returning here meant that she had conceded defeat. It was true that Bail had ordered her here for her own protection, but if she had not failed so utterly in her mission, she would not have needed that protection.
Worse, Luke still had not regained consciousness. The medics assured her that he should be awakening sometime soon, since the blow to his skull did nothing more than give him a concussion, but he seemed to be mired in something that had nothing to do with his physical health. She knew how powerful the mind could be as a weapon, but she had no way of curing it.
Instead, she remained at his side as the medics removed his repulsor-gurney from the ship. Her hand wrapped comfortably around his, as if she could simply anchor him to the conscious world with her touch. Han did not comment on that, since he had been only too willing to do the same for her during the journey. He claimed to not understand what was passing between them, but his empathy seemed to suggest otherwise.
She could not afford to show discomfort here, however. After all, she was certainly an Alderaanian and being ill at ease on her own homeworld would raise too many questions. Instead, she straightened her spine and forced herself to breathe deeply as they waited for the bureaucrats to present themselves.
Han was uncharacteristically quiet, actually acting the part of a concerned husband rather than trying to prove something. Whatever his motives, she could not deny that it was something of a relief to have him keeping her close.
"V'Antilles Dhem," the immigration official greeted, "e viadu v'Organa regha. Sym au..."
"V'aoslen," Leia requested. "My husband does not speak Taiald."
"My apologies," he said immediately in lightly-accented Basic, bowing to Han. "I'm Velor Clevur and I'll be taking care of the necessary datawork for your life and work here."
Leia recognized the name, even if the man had died when she was only an infant, but she didn't comment on it. "Leia Antilles," she introduced herself.
"Han Solo," Han said in kind.
"A pleasure," he said genuinely. "Queen Organa has sent me per the instructions of her husband, the Viceroy to see that you're taken care of."
"If you can follow me, I can show you to your suite."
"Queen Organa has sent me per the instructions of her husband, the Viceroy. If you can follow me, I can show you to your suite."
"Thanks," Han said with a sigh. "We could use it after..."
"What about my brother?" Leia interrupted.
Han half-turned--he had obviously not noticed the approach of the medics who were directing the gurney. The official turned a solicitous look on Luke as if he had forgotten that these visitors had not come alone.
Clevor turned a solicitous look on Luke as if he had forgotten that these visitors had not come alone. "I was given to believe that he was out of danger," he said carefully, consulting a datapad.
He will never be out of danger, not now, not ever.
"His condition is stable," Medic Vhas supplied, "but he has not regained consciousness."
The official nodded in understanding. "What would you recommend, then?"
Vhas glanced at Leia and it seemed fairly clear that she was more concerned about Leia's emotional well-being than that of someone who was already on the mend. "I don't see why he requires constant supervision," she granted. "We can do nothing more for him until he chooses to awaken and it may be better for him to recuperate outside a medcenter. We can set up a nutrient feed and catheter until then."
"If you tell us what to do," Han offered, "we can do some of the mothering ourselves."
Leia smiled slightly at the suggestion, since Han wasn't one to mother anyone. He was probably doing it with the correct assumption that she would want to look after her best friend personally.
"We'd appreciate it," she agreed, "and I have some medical field experience."
She didn't mention that most of that 'field experience' was done under more unsanitary conditions and with only the rudimentary tools of medicine. No one had to know anything beyond the fact that she knew how to place an IV line and change dressings.
"Good," Vhas said. "There should be a computer console in your suite and ..."
"Aren't there two bedrooms in our suite?" Leia interjected.
Clevor considered for a moment, then finally allowed a small smile. "As far as I know, yes," she confirmed. "You would like to keep him there?"
Han's hand tightened on hers, but not by way of warning. He relaxed his grip a moment later, signaling his consent.
"We'd like to," Leia agreed.
Vhas nodded. "I'm sure we can make the necessary arrangements."
"As soon as you're settled in," Clevor interjected, "the Queen would like to meet you."
"Sounds like a good idea," Han said with a grin. "I've heard good things about her."
"Of course," Clevor chuckled. "After working with the Viceroy for a day, you can't help but have a high opinion of Her Majesty."
Leia suspected he remembered more of the things that she had divulged about her foster mother in the days following the escape from the Death Star. She had, naturally, felt overwhelmed by the force of the loss and talking of what had been destroyed seemed to ease the pain.
"Lead on, then," she invited. "We'll try not to keep the Queen waiting."
New additions to the Queen's personal staff were usually received in the Grand Audience Chamber. It was a chance for the rest of the court to become familiar with the person who would pass them by every day. Leia had never been fond of this, since she hated being ogled as much as the next person, but she had grudgingly agreed to uphold the tradition once she took her mother's place.
She had never been given that opportunity, but it seemed to be a strange coincidence that she should see the only woman she had ever called Mami in the private setting that she had always wanted. After all, when one was on the run, it wouldn't do to parade them before the entire planet.
Instead of meeting them in the Grand Audience Chamber, Breha had them shown to her private office. It was the one that she rarely used because she preferred an even more informal setting, yet it was appropriate to the situation.
She was as stately as ever, though Leia could recognize the lingering shadows of the illness that had left Breha unable to bear children just one year before the fall of the Republic. Leia remembered the dark purple velvet gown with gold embroidery as one of her father's favorites, but the lines of her mother's collarbones and the thinness of her waist was more pronounced then she remembered.
Nevertheless, one thing would never change: No matter the situation, Breha was more interested in the needs of others than her own. It was a trait that had been both exasperating and admirable to her family. It was early in the morning and knowing Breha, she would have an immensely busy schedule, but she had chosen to meet with them first.
"I hope you can find some peace here," she said by way of greeting.
Leia had found it difficult to even speak her own name when she entered this office again, since being here invoked almost as strong a reaction as when she had seen Bail again. Han had made the introductions himself and Breha had not asked the reason for her silence.
The kindness in her mother's low voice, however, released some of the anguished tension that had been building in her chest. Leia forced her hands to unclench her hands and looked up to meet Breha's gaze.
"You don't know how much I hope for that," she confessed.
Breha's smile was thin, reflecting an unspoken frustration. "I know that you're as caught up in the madness on Coruscant as my husband," she reminded. "Since he can't be with us yet, I hope I can help you instead."
"He'll be safe soon enough," Leia insisted.
If the stories are true, he will be here himself in a few days with something you did not expect.
I'll finally know how exactly I came to be here. Maybe I can find out what they would not dare to tell me when they were alive.
Breha's expression softened and she nodded. "As Taia wills it," she recited, "or, failing that, even if I have to die trying."
Leia had to smile as she recognized the fierce loyalty to family that Breha had taught her by example. "As Taia wills it, let's hope that it doesn't come to that."
"I dare not keep you in the public eye," Breha pressed on without responding to the last comment. "Even Captain Solo would be recognized as one of Bail's personal guards."
"How much can you trust your security people?" Han countered. "They could start to ask questions about the people that you're trying to keep out of sight."
"And even then, Republic Intelligence may have its eye on Alderaan," Leia added. "The Chancellor knows that the Viceroy is a Loyalist."
Breha nodded. "It's a danger," she conceded, "but there are certainly positions that would allow you to contribute to the function of the Palace without worrying about endangering yourselves."
"And Alderaan," Han agreed.
"What do you propose?" Leia asked.
"Well," Breha sighed, "we are already receiving hundreds of requests for repatriation. There aren't many of our kind that want to stay on Coruscant since Palpatine's announcement."
"The Chancellor's announcement?" Han asked.
The frustration in Breha's face turned into full-blown anguish. "The Emperor's," she corrected.
"It's happened, then," Leia blurted out.
"It shouldn't have been a surprise after what happened to the Jedi," Breha rasped, her voice suddenly breaking, "but we always thought that we could stop this before it went that far."
She would never know exactly how much Leia understood.
After a heartbeat, however, duty took precedence over emotion and she straightened her shoulders. "We will need someone to help process those applications," Breha explained without further comment on the current political situation. "Bail suggested that you might be able to do so."
"I would be glad to," Leia assured her. "And my husband?"
"We'll find a way," Breha promised.
Before she could elaborate, the door creaked open and Rieekan stepped in. "We've got a message incoming from Viceroy Organa, Your Majesty," he said.
"Put it through to my comm," Breha requested, "and Lady Antilles and Captain Solo will need an escort to their quarters."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
It was the only time that he could remember feeling chilled to the bone on Tatooine. Luke could remember sitting in this same chair and breathing in the oppressive heat of the Jundland Wastes, but something in the air here made it feel as if he had been left all night on the ice plains of Hoth.
It took him a moment to realize why. After all, he had only been to Ben Kenobi's hut on Tatooine once and he had taken more notice of what had been said than what was in the room.
It had been the first time that anyone had spoken freely of the man who had been his father. Uncle Owen had done nothing but avoid questions and speak in bitterness of what had been. Ben, on the other hand, had finally explained why Luke had become an orphan and what course the rest of his life could take.
Luke had to wonder how easy it was for him to lie.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked the emptiness of the room.
"You would have preferred to have another reason to fear him?" Obi-Wan retorted from somewhere beyond his eyesight.
Luke didn't dare turn to look at him for a long moment, but shook his head. "Would it have been so bad to let me know the truth?"
"Not bad," Obi-Wan amended, "but dangerous."
"And it's less dangerous to make me find out this way?" Luke challenged. "You would have had me kill my own father."
Obi-Wan made an indistinct noise in his throat that Luke couldn't quite figure out. "It might never have gone that far."
"Or it might have," Luke shot back. "He's nearly killed me twice. Who says I wouldn't have done the same to him?"
Obi-Wan sighed and Luke turned to find him looking just as world-weary as he had been at the moment that Alderaan was destroyed. "You were taught..."
"You taught me that I had every reason to hate Vader," Luke snapped. "What else did you expect?"
Obi-Wan fixed him with a pointed look. "We had to trust that you would continue to remind us of your mother," he admitted.
And with that, the chill turned into a violent trembling that kept him from speaking for several moments. When he did, his voice was tight with the anger that he might never be able to release.
"And what happened to her?"
Ben was finally silent, had no easy answer for that. He even had the grace to look away, confirming what Luke had suspected, but Luke had to hear it for himself.
"You haven't guessed?"
That only angered him more until his voice was almost a bellow: "What happened to her?"
Obi-Wan finally looked him in the eye again as if he had nothing to apologize for. As if there were no lies to correct, no faults to forgive.
Before he could answer, however, Obi-Wan's mind blasted him with an image of a fire-scorched world and the crumpled figure of the mother that he had never known.
"She believed in him when we could not afford to," he explained unnecessarily. "She would not help us find Vader, so she found him herself and he killed her for it."
Luke wanted to challenge that, to ask if this was another one of the Jedi lies. It could have been nothing more than Obi-Wan's attempt to rekindle his anger towards Vader.
Then again, it could have been true.
It was a paralyzing shock that left only one thing in his mind and even then, he couldn't explain what had inspired it. "Does Leia know?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "Leia knows that Vader hurt her mother," he explained, "but not who she was or how badly he hurt her."
He had never considered before that they had lied to her just as much as they had to him.
"Your dealings with him are not finished," Obi-Wan stated. "No matter your opinion on the matter, Vader will not let an enemy live."
"It's a chance I'm willing to take."
"Perhaps it is not your choice," Obi-Wan mused mirthlessly, his gaze stone-cold. "Have you never considered your obligation to the Force?"
"My obligation?" Luke hissed. "Is this the same obligation that you had to lie to me? If that's the Force, I don't want anything to do with it."
Obi-Wan didn't dispute that. Maybe he'd felt the same way once.
"I'm not going to do it," Luke asserted at last. "I can't kill my own father."
Had he known what was expected of him before coming to this time, the words would have been the same, but he would have never truly understood why. Now, instead of doing it on principle, he knew that he had been given every opportunity before and had stopped himself because it had been the right thing to do.
"You were perfectly willing to eliminate Vader," Obi-Wan reminded bluntly. "He was your enemy and the enemy of everything you stood for."
"But there is still good in him," Luke insisted, not entirely sure that it wasn't a fool's hope.
"That's what your mother's last words were," Obi-Wan said bluntly. "She died for that belief and we can't risk you doing the same."
"Then you should have never lied to me."
For a long moment, there was nothing but silence. Even the usual sounds of krayts or banthas had been completely blocked out. It seemed as if the entire Galaxy and the Force itself was waiting for a resolution to this conflict.
"Aren't you at least going to admit that you regret it?" Luke demanded.
"You told me not to lie to you," was his only answer.
He hadn't been aware that he had reached for his lightsaber, but his hand tightened on it as if he was facing a mortal enemy. Perhaps it was Obi-Wan. Perhaps it was himself.
"What will you do about Leia?" Obi-Wan asked at last.
"What about Leia?" he asked, his voice low. "You think that if I can't do your dirty work, you can convince her to do it for you?"
A whisper sliced across his thoughts: "If you will not turn to the Dark Side, then perhaps she will." It was too frightening a thing to think about, so he forced himself to focus on something else.
"No," Obi-Wan responded blandly. "She will someday know what you do and you may have to stop her from taking matters into her own hands."
"She wouldn't," Luke insisted.
"She has greater reason to hate Vader than you at times," Obi-Wan retorted. "Can you really trust that cooler heads will prevail in every circumstance?"
Before he could answer, the vision faded, leaving Luke as empty as he ever been with the darkness of the Force.
Leia awoke with a start as if an electric jolt had shot through her, but she felt nothing more than the night's chill. Her eyes focused on the passing lights of speeders and the glimmerflies that moved among the nightflowers.
And then, her skin registered the warmth of Han's hand on her shoulder. He hadn't shaken her, only rested his hand there to bring her out of her fitful slumber or maybe to steady them both.
"What is it?" she asked immediately.
"Bail's coming," he explained. "He won't be in-system until this afternoon, but he wants some discrete security and time alone with his Queen."
It was understandable, after everything they'd all been through in the last days. Bail had told her once of how the only thing that had kept him from succumbing to the same madness that had taken the rest of the Republic was coming home to his family.
"He's coming with me," she whispered, more to herself than to him.
He nodded, settling on the edge of the bed. "I think so," he murmured. "What do you want to do?"
"Leave," she said without having to think about it.
"Do you think that's..."
He stopped, apparently fully aware of the fact that he was starting to sound like her. She didn't comment on it, only waited for the remainder of his question.
"Why?" he asked at last.
Leia shook her head to clear it. "I don't know that I would be able to," she admitted, "but I feel as if it's more dangerous to be here than to take our chances with Vader."
His mouth twitched as if he was reconsidering every promise he'd ever made to stick by her side. "Dangerous to..."
"I don't know."
He frowned as if she had gone crazy. Maybe she had.
"You've seen something," he guessed.
"No," she protested, her voice cracking. "That would have made things easier, but I'm flying blind here."
He was starting to look a bit rattled and that was even more unsettling. "But you think it's dangerous."
"Holding her is dangerous."
"You know what Vader did to me," she said, forcing her voice into a more normal range. "I can't put Alderaan at risk and if that all that I accomplish here..."
"I get the idea," he interrupted before she could go any further.
Not without Luke, of course," Leia said quickly. "Vader has already attacked him once and there's no telling if it will happen again."
"I know," he soothed, tugging on her hand until she rested against him and she could feel that his heart was pounding almost as much as hers. "I don't want anything to happen to either of you, but I'll carry him myself if I have to."
She felt her mouth stretch slightly in what might have been her first genuine smile since arriving here. "It won't come to that," she said and, surprisingly, found that she finally believed it.
Breha insisted on dismissing her by the early afternoon, after patiently going over the latest round of repatriation applications while her mind was clearly on something else. Given that Bail was inbound, that was only natural, but Leia was sorely tempted to ask a few uncomfortable questions.
Bail had never spoken of exactly how they found out that she would be theirs. He had spoken of her Naming one week after her arrival and how she had been surprisingly calm as if she was already accustomed to her royal destiny. He had told countless stories of her growing impatient with her own childish nature and trying instead to imitate her mother.
He had claimed that she had been the greatest gift they'd ever been given, but had also said nothing of what brought her here.
On the other hand, she remembered very clearly that there was a kind of tension in his voice when speaking of her adoption. It was as if, though none of them had ever talked about it in the open, just thinking about it would betray them all. She had thought for a long time that she was just imagining it, but she learned that the look in her father's eyes when he watched her was too often a sign of fear.
Like most daughters, she thought her father to be impervious. She saw him, rightly, as her greatest protector and champion and he never gave her reason to doubt that. The fact that she frightened him was unthinkable.
There were few things that she could think of that would give him cause to fear her. She had finally realized that he was afraid of what she could become.
Perhaps the only time he had not dreaded her fate was at the moment when he first brought her to the world that she should have someday ruled. Perhaps he had seen darkness in her future even now. Either way, she had never understood why.
If nothing else, that uncertainty was what brought her to a particular veranda at sunset.
There were few who had the access codes to this section of the Palace, but the members of the Queen's personal staff were certainly among them. As a result, she could gain access to the balcony that overlooked what Bail simply referred to as "the haven."
Bail had told her that the young couple that would face the burden of royalty had eloped here three days before the torturously elaborate royal wedding was to take place. They had grown tired of having nothing to themselves, so they had started each new chapter of their lives on this same veranda. It was only appropriate that they should come here for their first moments as parents.
The Tantive had touched down at the Palace's private hangar no more than ten minutes ago, so Leia chose one of the marble benches that lined the balcony, half-hidden from view by both the railing and the planter of arralutes that was built into the railing itself.
She didn't need to see the scene clearly to know when Bail approached. His footfalls were as familiar as his voice, since she had spent so much of her childhood trying to keep up with them. This time, though, he was moving carefully as if he were afraid of breaking something.
Her left arm, wrapped around the base of the planter, tightened as she edged forward until her cheek was pressed against its cool surface. Shadows were slowly creeping across the Palace as the sun set, but it seemed to be no coincidence that the Organas were still bathed in light as if they were generating it themselves.
Her breath froze in her throat, though the heat of the day was still bleeding off the world and the force of the amazed apprehension that swept through her was dizzying. Instinctively, she squeezed her eyes shut and sucked in deep, steadying breaths until the vertigo passed.
Before she could open her eyes to study their faces and to memorize this moment, she heard a familiar, gentle voice speaking.
"What shall we call our daughter?" Breha asked in a tone that suggested that she herself had forgotten how to breathe.
"Leia," Bail said reverently. "It's the name that her mother gave her."
In the perfect stillness of this moment, she could hear Breha's sigh. It was not one of unhappiness, but one that acknowledged a part of her daughter's life that was not her own.
She let her eyes open at last and found that within the few moments that she had been distracted, they had somehow formed a perfect unit. She could no longer see the timid awkwardness of them trying to welcome a stranger to their family circle. With one arm around Breha's shoulders and the other supporting the narrow arm that was holding their newborn daughter.
Perhaps she had been foolish all along to doubt him. Then again, that was something that she should have known from the beginning. Either way, it seemed perfectly unnatural to see herself, just out of reach, but as much a part of this family as Leia had been from that day forward.
"Leia Organa," Breha reflected quietly. "Her first mother chose well."
There was a moment of hesitation, but Bail did not comment on that, only let out a slight sigh of his own. Almost unconsciously, Leia leaned forward, though it didn't improve the view much.
"She did," he agreed at last.
There were only a few times that she had heard Bail speak directly of the woman who had given her life. Hopefully, he would be more willing to speak of the truth than he had been in her previous experience.
Finally, as if knowing that she was not the only one who needed to have the question answered, Breha asked, "Who was she?"
Another hesitation, but this one had more the tone of being unsure of the right words to use rather than withholding something. That was at least more of a reassurance than before.
"One of the last defenders of the Republic," he said simply at last, though there was an immense amount of respect in those words. "She died because of how far Palpatine was willing to go."
Breha didn't seem to require further elaboration for the moment. Leia had heard too many arguments between them to think that Breha was unaware of what danger Palpatine posed to his rivals. She had also been, perhaps, too conscious of the fact that with each Loyalist that fell, there was the danger that Bail would be next.
It was no surprise, however, that Breha did not ask for further details. There were very few times when she wanted to know exactly how bad it could get because usually, her imagination was vivid enough to suffice.
"And the father?" she pressed on.
The answer was immediately and completely devoid of the careful awe that he had used when speaking of her 'first mother.' "Dead before the war even ended."
She had to wonder how much of that was true.
"You knew her well, then," Breha prompted.
"Well enough to know that we can give Leia as much love as she would have," he insisted, turning his face to press a kiss against her brow.
Breha nodded distractedly, her dark eyes fixed on the face of the child she bore in her arms. "She will be loved with us," she promised the gathering shadows.
"There was never any question of that," he said, his tone relaxing once more as if they were finally on familiar ground.
"But you will not speak their names?"
"They are dead," he said firmly, almost dismissively. "Until the wound of that loss has healed a little, I prefer not to say anything further."
Breha nodded in understanding as if this was not the first time that he had deflected a difficult question with that reasoning.
"I will make the necessary arrangements for the Naming," he promised, "as is tradition for any child of Taia."
Leia couldn't even be sure that she was, by lineage, worthy of that title. The Naming served both as the presentation of a child to her own community and the formal declaration of her status as a legitimate heir. If they had eschewed that ceremony, there would have been questions. As it was, they had to be careful to follow all proper traditions as if Leia had never known another parent's embrace. It was comforting to know that they had been willing to take her that easily into their hearts.
"In the meantime, you should take our daughter home," he recommended.
"I will," she promised. "Are you coming?"
"In a few minutes," he assured her. "It's been a very long week and I need to spend some time with Alderaan before I can begin to feel at peace again."
Breha was half-turned away from Leia, but the Queen's daughter could imagine the familiar smile of perfect comprehension. "We'll see you at home, then," she said, stretching up to kiss him gently. "Take as much time as you need."
He watched them go, back ramrod straight as if he were keeping up appearances for someone. Finally, his shoulders slumped slightly, but he did not turn away.
"Lady Antilles," he greeted in a nearly expressionless voice.
Leia somehow found her way to the stairs leading from the balcony and, without waiting for an invitation or letting him ask what she was doing there, made her way to his side. He did not move until she was nearly within arm's reach of him. The look in his eyes was not accusatory, just cautious and hopeful.
"You heard," he guessed.
"I did," she admitted quietly. "My congratulations on the birth of your daughter."
He let out a soft hiss, then nodded. "I didn't think I would have to worry about your knowing," he observed.
"You wouldn't have sent me here if you didn't believe in my discretion," Leia reminded. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but..."
He waved a hand dismissively, but smiled ruefully. "I'm not the only one who needs peace here," he said.
Leia nodded. "What do you require of me?" she asked.
The smile disappeared into the familiar expression of earnestness that he could sometimes adopt in more private moments. "More than the usual discretion," he explained. "I need to know that I can trust you with this secret."
"As all of your staff will," Leia rejoined.
"They won't know exactly what happened here," he corrected. "I need to know that it will remain that way."
If he had ever known what he was asking of her, he would have thought that one of them was crazy.
"Of course," Leia said fervently. "I would do anything for..."
"Alderaan," she finished.
His smile finally reappeared, and the tension in her chest eased some. "How does it feel to be a father?" she inquired.
The expression that followed was one that she could only remember seeing once, when he had come to tell her that she had won the Senate seat.
"Perfect," he said honestly.
Turning, Bail gestured to the doors leading back into the Palace proper. "After you," he offered.
Leia complied and it seemed for the first time in weeks that her shoes weren't filled with duracrete.
Before they reached the public area of the Palace, however, there was one question that she could not leave unanswered.
"I know the defenders of the Republic," she said carefully. "Which one of them was Leia's mother?"
His stride faltered for just a moment and then he stopped in his tracks. Without turning to face her, he simply shook his head.
"You heard what I told my wife," he protested feebly.
"I did," she agreed. "Which one was she?"
His chin lowered in either defeat or mourning; either one was entirely possible. "You worked closely with her," he retorted, "and you know the danger she faced. You have to ask?"
And with that, he turned on his heel and left her still wondering when her heart would start beating again.
"You worked with her."
"She died because of how far Palpatine was willing to go."
Her knees buckled and she would have fallen, but she caught herself against the wall, blindly groping for purchase as her vision blurred. Abruptly, oxygen seemed to be in short supply.
She didn't know how she got her feet moving again, only found that the adrenaline forced her to move to a place where she would not be disturbed.
Leia had spent every waking moment aware of Padme Amidala. She had found a worthy ally and a kindred spirit in the woman who had given birth to the hero of the Rebellion and Leia Organa's closest friend.
"My Lady," the voice said again.
She couldn't focus, couldn't identify who it was who would not leave her alone. Somehow, she had been so blind to the truth that she had somehow missed...
"My Lady?" the man asked rather urgently.
She snapped out of her reverie, blinking furious tears from her eyes as she clutched at the man's arms for support.
"My Lady, do you require assistance?"
The man who had sent her here in the first place, fully aware of the fact that he would ask her to kill her own family, was the one showing such paradoxical concern. He was the one who would have let her betray everything she stood for just for his own means.
Just like the rest of the High Command.
On the other hand, Rieekan was the only one within arm's reach. Her hand released his arm and before she could even think, it had balled into a fist and connected solidly with his nose. He staggered back, releasing her arm so he could stem the flow of blood from his broken nose.
"My Lady!" he snapped.
"Someday, you'll understand why," she hissed.
Finally, with one thing done right, she managed to turn and flee. She wasn't even sure of where she was going, but needed to keep moving. It was a kind of self-preservation technique, since she wasn't sure she could get moving again if she stopped now.
Abruptly, she stumbled and crumpled, landing hard on her knees and then canting forward until her forehead pressed against the hardwood floor. Her arms braced against her abdomen as if she were about to be violently ill, but she could do nothing but catch her breath.
A moment after she buried herself in Luke's arms, her mind registered the fact that he was the last one she had expected to meet at the moment. For now, however, it didn't matter. He was the only one who could possibly understand this paralyzing terror that had taken over her mind. Of course, she would have to find a way to tell him.
For the time being, he didn't seem to need to know what was troubling her so much. Since the moment that they had met, they had developed a kind of compassion that needed no invitation or explanation. It was the same kind of instinct that kept them wiping each other's tears and seeking the other out when they felt that something had gone wrong.
She had been such a fool to think that it was nothing more than a sign of perfect friendship. She would have never believed that it meant they were family. Yet for some reason, there was no way of arguing with it. The knowledge had come without having to think about the reasons why.
Somehow, I've always known.
Luke pulled away, his eyes searching her face "Come on," he said quietly, not bothering to ask questions. "We need to get you inside."
She didn't argue, only let him lever her to her feet and help her into the suite and onto a repulsorcouch. His hands released hers as he headed to the kitchen for a glass of water, but she still could not manage to form a coherent thought.
"Do you need me to comm Han?" Luke asked, pressing the drinking bulb into her hands.
She tried to shake her head, but it just made small jerking motions since the rest of her body seemed to have seized up.
"You know," he guessed, his voice resigned and laced with tension.
Her chin came up sharply as she met his gaze. "You..."
He inhaled deeply, but nodded in response to whatever she was accusing him of. Maybe she blamed him for everything. Maybe she blamed him for nothing.
Maybe the blame was all her own.
Immediately, the anger and frustration that still coursed through her brought her to her feet and she wrapped her arms around herself, pacing. She wasn't particularly restless, but at the moment, she couldn't look at the brother she should have recognized all along.
"You knew?" she demanded. "What else have you decided not to tell me, Luke?"
"Don't lie to me!" Leia shrilled. "Everything I know has been a lie and I can't take one more!"
He blanched at that and she remembered that he had been angry for the same reasons not very long ago. Their parentage had come as a shock to him, just as it had to her. The only thing that she could not see past was the fact that he seemed to have known what part of his heritage she shared and had simply never bothered to tell her.
"I didn't," he countered. "Not at first..."
She didn't know why she believed him. She couldn't tell what made her keep from breaking his nose as she had with Rieekan. There was no way of knowing how long he had been lying to her and frankly, it didn't matter.
Maybe he had known since before rescuing her for the first time and had simply spared her the frustration of having another family that Vader might destroy. Maybe he had realized it at the moment that he connected her dreams of his mother to a bond that only a daughter could have developed. Maybe he had, in fact, not known at all.
"Not at first?" Leia challenged, her voice cracking around the emotion that she dared not put into words for fear of doing some permanent damage. "When exactly were you going to tell me?"
His voice raised in volume, but he did not look angry, only extremely frustrated. He at least didn't need to hold any of his emotions back. He had been able to master them weeks ago while she was left in ignorance.
"You don't understand," he asserted fervently. "If it weren't for Ben Kenobi, I still wouldn't know. The Force wanted me to make a decision on what to do next before I could come back to you and he was their only ambassador."
She had no reason to believe him, but she couldn't help it. To add insult to injury, the anger was draining away, leaving nothing but a resigned terror in its place. Terror and another strong urge to vomit. Instead of emptying her stomach, she chose to calm her own emotions. It was a difficult task to say the least, but Luke was at least waiting for her to make the next move.
She wasn't sure what else to throw at him. It all seemed to futile to hate any of this, since it would never be changed and despising it would only take away her control of herself. That was something she could not afford, not now, not ever.
"They wanted us to kill him," she croaked, sinking into another chair. "They claimed to be our allies and wanted us to turn into the same kind of monster that our father is."
"But we didn't do it," Luke interrupted fervently. "Whatever we came here for, we chose to do the right thing."
Again, the feeling of vertigo returned in full force and she had to put her head between her knees to regain her equilibrium this time. There was a rustle of movement and Luke was suddenly crouched before her, taking her by the hand and waiting until she could continue. Finally, something was familiar to her.
"I don't know that it was the right thing to do," she admitted hoarsely. "Maybe we should have done what the Alliance asked before he could do more damage."
"And you think that would have stopped this?" Luke challenged quickly. "We'd have had to fight someone else until Palpatine..."
"Palpatine," Leia sniffed loudly. "We should have been after him from the start."
"And we will be," Luke promised. "In the future, we'll know who our real enemies are and we'll have some way of fighting them."
She stared at him, unsure of how crazy he was at the moment. "We can't," she muttered. "We have no allies and no way of pulling it off."
Luke nodded, but when he spoke again, his voice remained the same. "We don't have them here," he agreed, "but who says we have to stay?"
"In the future."
He was already ready to give up, to abandon the field of battle that they'd been holding for too long already. She had hated herself for conceding defeat by coming here, but he wasn't even interested in a rematch. The worst of it was the feeling that she should agree with him. Instead, she chose the traditional path of argument.
"You don't think we have obligations here?" Leia asked, prompting an explanation of any kind.
"Your father would understand," Luke said.
Immediately, she had to wonder which father she meant, but after a moment, she realized that Luke would always know that Bail was the only man to earn that title. Regardless of genetic coincidence, that would always be the case.
"He would," Leia conceded, "but we are giving up on everything for which we have fought and suffered if we go back now."
It was a low blow to attempt to place that guilt on him, but he didn't seem to notice at all. In fact, his expression grew more resolute than ever and it was infuriating as Han on a bad day.
"No," Luke gritted out. "You keep thinking that we only had one reason to be here."
"That's not true," Leia defended. "We came here to kill him and instead decided he was worth saving. We failed utterly and completely to do that."
Luke was silent for a long moment and this time she knew that he was taking her oft-repeated advice to consider his words carefully. His hand remained wrapped around hers, but the grip slackened slightly so that it seemed as if he was ready to pull away.
Instead, he set his jaw for a moment, then spoke in a low, deliberate tone. "We came here," he explained, "to find out what it would take to eliminate Vader. We decided that it would require us to keep him from turning. The same...tools that we used in that effort aren't completely useless now."
"Oh, yes?" she asked patiently.
He sucked in a long breath and held it as if steeling himself for an attack that never came. "The Force asked me to choose what I would do to Vader," he stated. "I choose to turn him back."
Finally, she understood and it didn't frighten her the way she had expected. There was nothing either offensive or unrighteous about his intentions. He simply wanted to finish what they had begun here. It was the one thing that could have eased the sharp pain of failure and, for some reason, she found herself nodding in assent.
"Besides," he said, his voice lowering slightly, "you don't want to stay here."
"I can't," she agreed.
It was a simple enough question, but one that had no simple answers. The only one that she could put into words, though, was one that she had fought for too long.
"Because there is nothing more that we can do here," she expressed.
Before he responded, the door hissed open and Han moved in with a kind of caution that strongly suggested that he'd heard something. He immediately took in the scene and she could see his mouth curving downwards.
"I ran into Rieekan," he said flatly. "What part of you ran into his nose?"
Leia's hand clenched rather involuntarily in her lap and Luke stared at her, mouth slightly agape. "You..."
"You know how I angry I was," Leia shot back. "It was no more than he..."
"Twenty-three years in the future," Han corrected with a vaguely amused look.
"Deserved," she concluded.
He sat down hard in the chair opposite her, his expression unchanged. "What happened?" he asked.
Leia looked away, not entirely sure of why she couldn't look him in the eye when telling him something this important. They all meant too much to each other for this to inflict permanent damage, but then again, she wasn't even sure that she would recover from it.
"I asked Bail who my parents were," she explained.
He kept an uncharacteristically sympathetic silence and Luke turned so that they were both facing him. It was the first sign, verbal or not, that he was willing to face this horror together with her. In any other situation, she would have clasped his shoulder in gratitude or reached for his hand, but instead, her hands remained in her lap, twisting a fold of her skirt. She flattened her fingers against her thighs, then sighed and looked him directly in the eyes.
"Anakin Skywalker was the father of twins," Leia said.
It was the first time she had been able to put it into words and they nearly choked her. She had to clear her throat twice before continuing and even then, her voice was high, unnatural.
"Fraternal twins," she clarified.
Han's eyes darted between the both of them, comprehending immediately, but not willing to betray any emotion until he was willing to get it under control.
"How long have you known?" he asked.
"About half an hour," Leia answered.
"I don't know," Luke responded.
Han's hands dropped to his sides, but he made no move. There was no revulsion or fear on his face, only a kind of helpless concern that Leia had not thought within his abilities.
"We need to leave," Han murmured. "Not just Alderaan, either."
"I know," Luke said in a voice so quiet that Leia could barely hear him.
It wasn't that simple of course, since the anomaly that served as a portal between this time and the one from whence they'd come was only active on certain days. They could miss it completely and have to wait weeks for the next chance. And while they waited, there was the danger that Vader would take a more personal interest in them.
The timeframe might mean that there would be no room for goodbyes or explanations. There was always time for regrets, since they lasted longer, but she had no desire to leave here with any more than she already had.
"When is the next opening?" Leia asked, surprising herself with the amount of control that a consensus brought to her voice.
"Seven days," Han supplied.
Time enough, then. Relatively speaking.
"It will take one to get to Coruscant," Leia calculated, "and another three to get to the jump point. That's not counting time if we run into difficulties on Coruscant."
"We should be able to," Luke insisted. "Even if we have to leave the Falcon..."
No debate was necessary.
"We'll have time," Leia persisted. "The difficulty will be getting into the necessary places. Two Jedi on the newly-christened Imperial center will draw too much attention."
"If I have to," Han suggested, "I'll get the ship myself and swing by here on the way back."
She wanted to protest, to argue that they weren't going anywhere without each other. She wanted to insist that he take someone to get him out of the trouble that he would inevitably land himself in.
Instead, Luke took the more direct approach. "That's not practical if it's being tracked," he dismissed the idea. "We go together or not at all."
They set the departure for the next day. Han seemed restless, always ready to get moving, but Luke had given him a passable imitation of the Organa Glare of Death when he suggested that they forget "the sentimental stuff" and make an immediate run for it.
The difficulty, however, was finding a way to explain the need for escape to the man who had selflessly offered her so much. He had set the Naming Day as promised, but had cancelled all public audiences for the next four days.
It then fell to her to approach him in a more private setting. She knew perfectly well that he would end each day in his personal study, since she had gone there every night that she could remember for a kiss goodnight and the occasional conversation. She had no idea when this habit had started, but Han helpfully reported that Breha had retreated to the royal quarters by the time Leia found her way to the administrative wing.
She had walked this corridor every night that she spent at home and had often heard things that she would have probably been forbidden to know. More often than not, she would make a 'scouting run' in order to gauge how long she should wait before asking permission to enter. Most of her friends among the Palace Guard were made this way, since no one else had the time to talk to their boss' daughter.
Tonight, there were, as ever, guards, but the heaviness had returned to her steps and the tension in her chest made it difficult to speak. She had almost hoped to hear Bail in a meeting, but instead, she heard silence coming from within.
She heard a murmur of voices behind her and immediately, the door swung open to reveal Bail standing there.
"I had hoped you would come to see me," he said without preamble.
That did nothing for her nerves, since it was a familiar greeting from the days when they would quarrel. They had not fought, per se, but he had obviously picked up on the fact that something was not right.
"I need to speak to you," she said unnecessarily, tucking her hands into the long sleeves of her gown. "May I come in?"
He nodded. "I ordered the night watch to permit only certain civilians here tonight," he explained, "and you were on the list."
"On the off-chance that I might come to my senses and visit?" she teased.
"Of course," he responded with a slight smile.
Without further explanation, he stepped aside and let her enter the office. Without thinking, she moved to the old-fashioned armchair that sat in the corner and curled up in it, tucking her feet beneath her as she had often done as a child. Bail sent her an amused smile, and then settled into the chair behind his desk.
"No one chooses that chair," he observed. "They always seem to feel too uncomfortable to take advantage of it."
Leia's legs immediately stretched out and she felt the heat rise slightly in her cheeks. "My father has one very much like this," she stated while planting her feet on the floor once again. "I could use his guidance right now and I wasn't thinking..."
"It's all right," he assured her. "I could use some of my father's wisdom myself these days."
She only nodded by way of response, but she at least resumed the more comfortable, comforting position in her favorite chair.
"I feel that I acted badly this afternoon," he continued. "I hadn't meant to leave things at that."
"There wasn't much more that we could say," Leia countered, "and I know how highly you regarded the Senator. It's troubling news...for all of us."
He did not argue with this, only nodded thoughtfully. "The moment I knew that her daughter would need a home, I knew it would be with us," he mused. "I am troubled today because I am constantly reminded of how little I can do to protect her."
She wasn't sure exactly of what, at the moment, he thought would be Leia's greatest adversary. In the wake of the Jedi Purges and knowing full well the power of his daughter's birth father, there was one logical option.
"She could be as blind to the Force as her mother."
It was an empty assurance, and probably the first time that she had consciously decided to lie to him. She had learned long ago that there was little that mattered more to her than giving her father peace of mind.
For that peace of mind, she had omitted her reasons for being here. She had withheld the love that had come so naturally to them both. She had never outright lied until now, but she was not prepared to do it again.
"Taia willing," Bail murmured.
"Taia willing," Leia echoed.
His hands lay supine on his thighs and he seemed to be studying them as if he had lost something. Finally, he looked up and turned his wrists so that his fingers were splayed on top of his knees. It was a familiar sign that the time for contemplation, selfish or not, was over.
"What did you want to say to me?" he asked.
Leia lowered her eyelids, ashamed to have to broach the subject. "It's about our place here," she blurted.
Immediately, his brow furrowed in concern. "You are uncomfortable?"
Not in the way you'd think.
"No," she insisted. "You've been more than kind to all of us and your wife is no different."
"Good," he said cautiously. "What, then, is your question?"
Tears stung at her eyes, but she blinked them away and lifted her eyes to meet his. "We need to take our leave of Alderaan," she explained.
She wasn't sure what she expected by way of a reaction from him, but she felt a certain amount of guilty relief when his shoulders slumped and his jaw clenched in grim frustration. It was a strange but potent sign that she had made some kind of an impact.
She had changed much since the destruction of Alderaan and she had too often wondered if Bail would have been proud to associate with the Leia Organa that she had become after his death. With little more than body language, he had assured her that he would have been. That meant more than she could ever express.
His attitude of defeat reminded her of her own and for some reason, it was a comforting thought that they resembled each other in habit if not in genetics. She could almost imagine that the defeat he felt was a mirror of her own feelings that she could do nothing more.
"Are you sure?" he asked simply.
"I'm a danger," Leia rejoined. "You have many more people to protect than one foolhardy aide and her Jedi brother."
"But you are welcome here as long as protection is ours to give," Bail protested. "There are ways of keeping you safe..."
"It's not your place," Leia interrupted. "The Empire will take an interest in Alderaan too soon if you continue with your loyalist tendencies and you can't afford any liabilities. That means that I cannot be a part of Alderaan any longer."
He at least had the grace not to argue with that, only nodded as if he understood what she was struggling to comprehend herself. "When do you intend to leave?" he asked.
"Tomorrow morning," Leia supplied. "We have a rendezvous with someone who can help us disappear safely in seven days. If we are to retrieve our ship from Coruscant, we can't afford to leave any later."
Finally, inexplicably, his mouth stretched in a smile. "We have some time, then," he retorted. "The Taia's Hand arrived this evening and it had precise instructions to retrieve your ship."
Leia's throat tightened immediately and she let out a long breath. "I should have known that you would have thought of that," she murmured.
Bail's smile was bittersweet, but he reached across to squeeze her hand for just a moment. "We take care of our own, Leia," he reminded, "and whether you like it or not, you qualify."
"I'm not sure whose army he thinks we'll be feeding," Han observed, "but I'm not complaining."
"Yeah," Luke said with a grin. "Besides, when Chewie starts crewing again, you'll need all the food you can get for free."
"True," Han sighed, "but this is Her Worship's sort of food. Practical, vegetarian...healthy. It's not natural."
"I heard that," Leia called from the cargo hold where she was unloading the last of their supplies. "One more comment like that and I'm leaving you here to learn gratitude for a few decades. Understood?"
"Yes, Your Highnessness," Han shouted back.
Turning to Luke, he lowered his voice. "I'm keeping the steak under lock and passkey."
Luke nodded in understanding, then brushed past him. "Hey, Leia, where do you want..."
He stopped short, momentarily caught off-guard by what was going on in the cargo hold. Then his face broke into a broad grin and he entered quietly.
"I didn't want to let you slip away unnoticed," Bail explained, stepping forward to shake his hand, "but I couldn't bring any more attention to your departure, so I thought we'd just make it a family affair."
He probably would never know how accurate the term was. Whatever the motive, Leia looked happier than she had in days. This was surprising, since she was seated next to her mother, holding the infant version of herself in the crook of her arms for a few moments.
"Good idea," Han interjected lightly from behind Luke's left shoulder, "but if that daughter of yours wakes up half the city, it's your fault."
Breha smiled genially from her seat at the gaming table. "She won't," she promised. "Leia's turning out to be a quiet child."
"That won't last long," Han and Luke chorused, earning a glower from Leia and an amused look from the Organas.
"We can't thank you enough for your kindness," Leia said pointedly, passing the baby over to Breha so she could stand comfortably. "You have taken my family and I in when we most needed it and expected so little in return."
"Which you have repaid with kindnesses of your own," Breha reminded.
Leia's face pinched slightly, an uncharacteristically open facial expression. She seemed to be less prone to putting on a sabacc face around those who she had adopted. Luke had noticed that she did the same with him from almost the beginning of their friendship and had found it both amusing and flattering. Now, he wondered if it had been an unconscious acknowledgment of what they should have always known.
"Not enough," she commented quietly. "I don't think it will ever be enough."
Bail's own face grew solemn. "Then we will have to meet again, so you can fulfill your end of the bargain to your own satisfaction."
The pinched look disappeared and Leia had to look away. They probably suspected that she feared that Vader would find her as well. They had no way of knowing that she would be thinking how much she wished she had Alderaan to return to in the future.
"Besides," Breha reminded, "you should come see your namesake on occasion."
Leia managed a small smile. "I hope," she admitted, "that our paths will cross in the future."
"And if not," Bail added, "we have something for you."
Luke recognized it immediately, since the onyx pendant was an almost exact replica of the one that Leia had received on her twelfth birthday. It was one of the few personal effects that she had brought here, but was always hooked onto a thread in her clothes.
"You will have the protection of the Royal House whenever you need to ask for it," he assured her, "and I will trust you to know when that is."
This time, when the tears started to well, she did not bother to hide them.
She remembered too well when she had received the signet of the Royal House that her real father was now bestowing on her. She had finally reached the Alderaanian age of legal accountability and her first request had to somehow help with the Alliance. Bail had sent her on her first assignment, a courier mission that was hardly risky but certainly more than she had ever been asked to do before.
She knew that the symbol of protection was more for his own nerves than hers, and his hands trembled as he fastened the necklace around her thin neck, but she had taken it because she knew what it meant to him. He had no real way of keeping her safe from all the evils of the Galaxy, but he could at least try.
Today, his hands were more steady, but the gesture meant the same thing and she could not keep the tears from coming. She was not sure if they were a sign of frustration, fear, joy or mourning. Perhaps it was something completely unfamiliar or a combination of all of them.
As it was, he let his hands rest on her shoulders as if he were giving some kind of blessing, then pulled her into an embrace. Her arms wrapped around his waist, but as always, she let her cheek rest against his heartbeat so she could remember that his pulse always seemed to match hers.
The last time she had seen him on Alderaan, she had completed this gesture out of habit, more concerned with the mission than the fact that she might not have the chance to come back for a more appropriate farewell. When Alderaan had been blasted out of existence, her heart had stopped for a few moments to recognize that it had to beat on its own from now on.
There was so little to celebrate here, as she was constantly reminded by her own dreams and the news reports coming in daily from Coruscant. If nothing else, she could treasure the fact that she had finally been given the opportunity to give him the goodbye that they had been cheated out of.
As they pulled away, she found his expression slightly wry, but respectful of her emotion. "We have had too little time," he lamented, "but I think I trusted you because you reminded me of myself."
"I should hope so," Leia murmured, offering a smile. "I also hope that it doesn't change."
His smile matched hers. "At the very least," he commented, "I hope my daughter has that same aspiration."
Without further comment, he moved aside to farewell the others and Breha shifted the future High Princess of Alderaan to the other arm so she could give Leia a quick, fervent embrace.
"I hope you will someday find your way back to us," was her heartfelt comment.
"If not in this life, in the next," Leia repeated the familiar adage. "Taia willing."
Her mother squeezed her shoulder firmly, then pulled away. "Taia willing."
As Breha moved on, Han wrapped an arm around her shoulders so he could speak in her ear. "We need to get airborne," he said simply. "Let me know when you're ready."
"Thank you," she responded.
Leia slipped from beneath his arm and fell into step with the Organas, finding too few steps between the cargo hold and the hatch. Neither of them asked why she was seeing them off the ship, but no words seemed necessary.
She did not dare step onto the ramp, since even now, the temptation to stay was too great, but they both sketched a respectful bow before leaving.
"Clear skies," was Breha's parting benediction as they reached the bottom of the ramp.
Leia smiled and stepped back, hand hitting the closure switch before she even bothered to reply. "The same to you."
Before they were even out of sight, she had turned her back on Alderaan once more, but this time, there was no bitterness in the act.
Her gait was surprisingly steady as she returned to the cockpit and Luke glanced up from the copilot's seat, clearly anticipating the need to go to her rescue. Instead, she took a deep breath.
"Ready when you are," she said truthfully.
"All right," Han said, sounding relieved as he brought the engines to full power. "We have a plan?"
"Avoid all Imperial ships on pain of death?" Luke suggested.
"Best idea I've heard all year," Han grunted.
"Amazing," Leia teased. "I didn't think you guys knew the meaning of the word 'plan.'"
Han shrugged, his eyes on the viewport as he turned the Falcon toward the sky. "I knew you'd rub off on us at some point," he confessed. "It might as well be for something good."
Luke's eyes remained on her, though, as they began climbing through the clear skies of morning. No matter what their relationship, he always seemed to be the one who would keep an eye on her longer than absolutely necessary. It was his own way of knowing that he had done the right thing.
"You're sure you want to do this?" he asked.
"Want, no," she corrected. "That will come later. For now, we're doing what we need to and that's enough."
With no more assurance than that, they cleared the atmosphere and set their course for home.