Old Imperial Palace, Coruscant
C-3P0 stood off to one side, his golden awkwardness shining in the dim light of the anteroom. His head was cocked in a very human gesture of listening. R2-D2 was with him, his cylindrical, squat head revolving in a complete circuit every once in a while, a short whistle punctuating what should have been carpeted, governmental silence.
C-3P0 jerked his small head back, as if making a decision. "Perhaps," he ventured in his cultured voice, "we should wait somewhere else, Artoo."
A series of intelligent whistles greeted this statement.
"I am rather worried, and, no, I am not a worrywart!," Threepio said in irritated tones. "I knew the Princess' suggestion would not be received well. The very thought! Negotiating with the Empire, indeed! After all they've been though? I think they should all have their circuits checked! " Here his verbal modulator seemed to lose its function momentarily. If Threepio had been human, the cause could have been indignation, but as it was, well, maybe one of the cleaning droids needed an adjustment or two. "And what did I tell you? Why, just last night, as they were discussing this very thing, I wanted to tell them, I wanted to warn them. I knew the Senators would have a fit. The Noghri, especially, not to mention the Wookies...... But, do they listen to 'droids?"
Artoo whistled, but Threepio cut him off.
"No! Not even when General Solo was almost compelled to subdue poor Chewbacca by stun! I've never seen the Wookie so angry!"
This was punctuated by a snappy statement, the fact that it consisted of a series of chirps and whistles did not seem, at the moment, very untoward.
C-3P0 gave his companion what passed for a sharp look. "Not even when you beat him at Quest last week, Artoo. How can you compare negotiating with the Empire to your silly games! Sometimes I wonder what really goes through those logic circuits of yours!" He sniffed, or at least made a good approximation of it. His mind, mechanical though it was, was one-track. "They proceed," he said, returning back to the track like a Caridian bloodhound on a military exercise. "As if there is nothing wrong and when things get out of hand, when everyone starts yelling........" A lift of the awkward, arms here indicated exasperation. "You know I can't abide yelling, Artoo. It was exactly like this after the big battle at Endor -- Captain Solo was yelling! Well, actually he yelled all the way through........ But this time he was yelling at General Calrissian. Do you remember, Artoo? It almost caused my audio receptors to malfunction. I had to retire for a time. Of course, one of the Ewoks......"
This short story made long was cut off by rather frantic whistling from Artoo. Threepio cocked his head again. "You don't say, Artoo?"
A snap of a whistle occurred here, and Threepio accomplished an entire two seconds of silence as he listened. "Yes, I believe you're right, Artoo. They're headed this way....."
It was just at this moment that the droids were pushed into a small, shadowed corner by a group of agitated beings rounding the stately bend. The anteroom, small, comfortable and convenient, provided a good place to stop walking and talking at the same time and the beings took it. The mechanicals, looking on from an ignored background, resisted an almost irrational urge to protest as they watched as the Chief of State, looking harried and harassed by members of several, accompanying, non-human species, halted and turned.
Leia glanced around, almost frantic, but the room held no escape. The only doorway in was also the doorway out. And that was effectively blocked. She glanced around again, this time more slowly as she made a decision. "Senator Lo' kmimkar!" she said, her voice rising despite herself in irritation, "please let me explain! Perhaps you would care to accompany me to my private conference room....."
The agitated Senator intended nothing of the kind. "You will explain this outrage!" he said, his accented words melting through boiling Basic. Leia had never before witnessed a member of the Noghri race in full rage and, gazing at the agitated face showing rather too many needle pointed teeth, found herself resisting the urge to break headlong to the door... She swallowed, willing control. A Jedi calming technique appeared as if out of nowhere and she felt her face fall into a sort of dispassion. "Believe me, Senator," she said, bringing her voice down a notch, "I will. But I need time." She gestured to the little, but very public, room. "Do you wish to speak more fully here, or should we retire to my offices?"
Lo 'kmimkar, still on the offensive, found himself taking a step backwards, taken by surprise at the Chief of State's sudden willingness to talk. The agitation and pounding heart he had so clearly sensed with an ancient hunter's insight had almost completely disappeared. Now she stood before him, in her pure white, like a supernatural being of peace and serenity. He swallowed, fighting some agitation that was an instinctual defense mechanism and answered. "Yes, I would. As would," here he gestured to his following colleagues, "all of us." A Bothan nodded in hurried agreement, along with a small, immaculately combed Bimm. Even a stately Ithorian was there, following along with deceptive slowness in the back.
Leia smiled. "Well, then, my conference room it is. If you will follow me....." and here she turned, moved back through the crowd and marched down the hall as fast as her legs could carry her.
As the unlikely crowd moved away, filing in a reluctant line out of the room, C-3P0 stepped out of his shadow. Artoo followed behind. He gazed after his erstwhile mistress for a moment and then leaned conspiratorially to his astromech companion. "I think we're in big trouble here, Artoo," he said, his perfect, robotic modulation falling to barely audible, "Big trouble."
Artoo whistled, this time in agreement.
Kyp Durron, now well rested, walked soberly down a palatial corridor, past an anteroom where a loud argument was taking place, past another where, in contrast, there was nothing but silent wordings held by invisible threads within still space; and on through to the living areas of the former, imperial palace. The corridors changed color from time to time, pulsating from one pastel hue to another, as function changed. After a time, he sensed a quiet place, but an agitated mind was there, one possessed by worry and uncertainty. He halted and hit the entry bell.
Han Solo appeared at the sliding door, gesturing. Kyp followed his friend through a formal entry way, moved quickly through the reception room and off to an informal kitchen. Fresh vegetables held a peaceful place on an old-fashioned wooden counter as if they had just been washed. Kyp glanced around for a kitchen droid, but Han was the only one there.
Han saw the glance, but misinterpreted it. "The kids went off the rec center for a while," he said, retrieving a warm drink from a console by the oven. "Want some?" he said, interrupting. Kyp nodded and Han continued, pouring. "Jacen's on the new Luftball team at school. He's pretty good too, I guess, even if Jaina's the athletic one."
"Is she on it, too?" Kyp asked, smiling.
"Naw, she doesn't care for all that team stuff, or so she says, anyway," Han said, grinning. "She's been into this combat fighting thing lately. I think her Uncle's reputation is beginning to influence her a little too much....." Here he paused, as if the past week had washed in on his mind all at once. Silent now, he put the old-fashioned pottery cup down in front of Kyp and made a place for himself at the other side of the table. His face had fallen and Kyp frowned.
"It can't be that bad, can it?" Kyp asked quietly, knowing that if Han wanted to tell him anything, he would do it in his own time and in his on way.
A sigh occurred here, a gathering of thought. "I don't think I've seen it any worse. Even during that business with Grand Admiral Thrawn, when we knew somebody was trying to kidnap Leia and the children... even then it was better. At least Luke was here....." Han took a sip out of the cup and set it down rather quickly, grimacing. "I always do that. It's too hot, isn't it? Here," he said gesturing toward Kyp's cup, "let me cool it...."
"It'll cool by itself," Kyp replied reasonably, withholding the cup by grasping it's handle tightly. "I know you're worried. That's what I've come to tell you. I think we can get Luke back."
Han gazed at Kyp's face, at his boyish hair, all tumbled, at his dark, now limitless eyes, at his regular, open features. "Are you sure that's such a good idea?" Han said quickly. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I want the kid back as much as anybody...... But what if Tionne's right? What if it really was Luke who tried to kill her? How do we control him?"
Kyp leaned forward, smiling at Han's use of the word 'kid.' No one else in the entire New Republic ever thought of Luke Skywalker as a kid. "I think it'll be alright, Han," he said, putting all his jedi reassurance into the statement. "You'll see, besides, I've been talking to Mara Jade-"
Han snorted. "Listen, Kyp, Mara's a good person and all, but she's a little sharp around the edges, know what I mean?" He saw Kyp nod, but gave him no time to offer further comment. "Let's see......" he said, glancing up into the air directly above their heads. "She thinks it's a setup, right? She thinks something's out there, gunning for the Skywalkers, and it's manipulating Tionne......" He set the cup down. "I wish I could believe her, Kyp. I wish Luke was as benign as you want to believe, but I have a feeling it's not so......"
Kyp's brow furrowed. "How so?" he asked, rather startled.
"Because, this has been coming for a while now, Kyp. Luke's power has grown so much in the last two or three years that I'm not too sure I trust anyone with that kind of power, no matter how well I think I know them, and no matter how closely I'm related to them." He paused here, to give the words a chance to settle. "Luke's a wonderful guy, Kyp, don't get me wrong. I've known him for what seems like all my life, he's like the kid brother I never had. But," he pulled up short, a choking sensation suddenly seizing his throat as his emotions began to rise, a hard thing for such a straightforward, common sense person. "But, after the Eye of Palpatine thing, and then Callista leaving him flat like that, I think he's been a little out of it ever since."
Kyp drew a hard breath and studied his cup intently. "I know the Master's been a little depressed lately...."
Han moved impatiently in his chair. "A little depressed is an understatement, Kyp," he said, his voice hardening. "Do you remember about six months ago? Do you remember when Leia started getting sick, out of the blue?" He grinned slightly. "At first, we thought she was pregnant again....." The grin faded. "But the doctors said she wasn't and there was nothing wrong with her. Finally, Cilghal told us, after a real bad episode, that she was being attacked through the Force. She was in the med center, Kyp....." He pulled his gaze into the Jedi's. "I thought we were gonna lose her."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Kyp asked, shocked.
"Because, Leia didn't want it to get out. She was afraid someone was listening in our transmissions." He grinned slightly to himself again, his smile crooked. "Looks like she was right about that. She thought it'd be bad for business, if you know what I mean...."
Kyp nodded. "I understand," he said after a silent time.
Han looked away. "She tried to contact Luke, you know, the Jedi way, after each episode, but she was blocked. She didn't want to admit it, but I think she suspected him as the cause...."
"But that doesn't make any sense, Han," Kyp put in. "Now Luke's the one in med center."
Han nodded. "That occurred to me. And," he looked sad, "it's given me hope, if you know what I mean."
Kyp nodded and tried for reassurance. "I know, Han. You love both of them...."
Han glanced at him and then moved to stand. "I don't want to have to choose between them, Kyp," he said simply.
Kyp stood, the beverage in the cup gone, the sun going down. "I don't think you'll have to, Han," he said, turning to gaze at the man who saved him from an almost unendurable life as a slave in the lightless mines of Kessel. An affection glinted in his endless eyes for a moment as he remembered, all in one instant, what the Skywalkers meant to him. "It's not coming from Master Skywalker, I know it. It can't be..."
"Is this something you sense in the Force?" Han asked, his dark eyes shadowed in the afternoon's falling light. "Or is it something you believe?"
Kyp stood perfectly still for a moment, considering. And then, without another word he turned back toward the entryway, hastening in gathering silence back to the corridor that had led him there, back to the med center.
Han heard the door slide open, then shut and leaning to pick up the cups, muttered, "That's what I thought."
Leia retreated out of her private conference room approximately 3 hours later, beaten and bedraggled. Slumping into her office, she pushed a stray hair out of her face and wondered, in a kind of frustrated pause, what she looked like. 'Like the COS from the Deserts of Araneth,' she thought. Slowly, like an old woman, she sank into her desk chair, her supporting hands clutching the top of the simple piece of furniture. Quietly, she ran her fingers along it, as if she had never seen it before. Someone had found it on Tatooine, somewhere. She just couldn't remember where now. It was made of some kind of native sandstone. With a great, creeping sadness, she wondered if Luke had ever seen it somewhere, inadvertently, as it sat in someone's shop or office, cluttered with the everyday junk of commerce. She wondered if he had ever brushed by it in boyish ambition to do something more than be a struggling moisture farmer, to find something other than sand and overrepairied mechanicals, to be somebody. Her fingers laced over it, her small hands spreading as if they could encompass the entire top. The sandstone, light but incredibly hard, remained fixed and implacable, just like Luke himself.
A tingling feeling began to resonate in her mind, a soft, open, airy light filtered through like light filtering through a grove of trees. It laced about her thoughts, bringing reassurance, and a strange serenity. Serenity on the edge of chaos. She shook her head once, as if to clear it, but then thought the better of it. She needed a peaceful moment or two. Besides, she knew she was due at the med center, to check, always checking.....
Although, things there were never different. She reached out with her mind, to find out who was there. She felt Kyp arrive, a dark cloud over his thoughts. She thought maybe Kam was there with him. And there was someone else, someone she didn't know well...... it had to be....yes it was Mara. This surprised her. She knew that her brother and Mara had a rather oblique, almost formal relationship. Why would Mara....? But then, what better way to find out than to go?
She stood, smoothing her dress with her hands in a habitual, planeing motion, repeated all throughout her career first in the Imperial Senate and now with the New Republic Senate. Lifting her head, she made a move for the door, but something stopped her. She glanced around the room, scowling a bit, maybe to see if there was anything there she had missed. But no, everything was as it had always been. Various data pads and files lay scattered here and there, silent and waiting. A comm console lifted its blank face at her as if trying to speak but unable to. She frowned at it, seeing a floating, amber afterimage, as one does when one turns too fast. But then, after waiting for a quiet moment, she turned for the door.
It slid open but she was motionless before it. Where before she had been in her office, now she was in a vortex, a dust devil of wind and grit. It blew her bedraggled hair free of its restraints so that the dark mass whipped around her face. A hot wind fell into her being as if put there by injection, coursing through her veins, pounding within her heart. She reached out a hand, panicked, but the dirt did not lessen, in fact it became more and more dense, as if it were built into a sandy wall rather than being blown by the wind. She closed her mouth into a protective, straight line, grimacing into the wind. She felt the sting of thousands and thousands grains of sand and dirt as they pounded into her unprotected skin, pushing her back, back into ....... what? What was back there?
She turned, feeling oddly protective and saw a figure there, a human figure. It had an aura about it, a strange, blood aura of deep, dull red. It pulsated and for a moment she was nauseous as an odor fell about her, a stink of death, of sweet blood in the first moments of killing, of ozone that so littered the battlefields of space. She looked down at her white gown and saw, to her horror, that it was splashed with horrible gashes of ripe, full blood. She looked at her hands, at the small joints that held the fingers together outlined only in fresh blood, as if from a slaughterhouse.
She gazed up at the figure, trying to see it, to make it out, when it moved. A rippling laughter seemed to emanate from it, like an organic calling sound from the throat of a killing vulture. Then it raised something, something red and vicious, slashing with quick strokes as the dust devil intensified. She moved toward it, pulling at it, striking at it with her hands, hands finally searching for the lightsaber she always wore. But she found herself unmoving and the figure, now duller and more distant, only laughed at her, pulled the red shaft of light into a throwing gesture and flung it at her. She told herself to duck, to shift, to run, but she remained paralyzed, muted, staring. The red light flew toward her with an inexorable strength. Then blackness took hold, and sinking, whirling quicksand drowned her thoughts.
"Leia!" It was Han's voice, his worry and fear showing through an enforced calmness. Eyes still closed, she felt out with an oddly clean hand, to feel for his strong fingers. Momentarily, she was surprised that her fingers were dry, not slick and sticky. Very quietly, slowly, she opened her eyes.
She was lying on the floor, in the doorway. An alarm was blaring somewhere in the distance and she could hear the sound of running feet. She glanced around, coming to in one, awful moment, making to rise. "Han!" she said, unnecessarily, "where am I?"
He gave her face a frenzied look and clenched her hand. "In your office, or half in it anyway," he said quickly, gesturing with his head.
She let her eyes travel around the room. Nothing seemed amiss, except that she was lying flat on her back, sprawled as if she had fallen from a great height, right in the middle of the doorway. She pulled on his hand and he helped her to rise.
"Are you alright?" he asked, quietly, giving her a close look.
"I ...... I think so," she replied, more bewildered than afraid. "How long was I out?"
"Ten seconds, I think. Maybe a minute at most. I came in just as you fell. What do you remember?"
She frowned to herself. "Nothing....... I was going to the med center, the door opened and...... here I am now." She looked up at him. "You don't think......?"
"We'd better get you down there, now!" he replied, catching her thought. "Can you walk?"
"Yes," she replied fiercely.
Throughout the halls of the old palace they moved past people lying prone, blank faced and astonished. At first she stopped, to give help, but no one seemed injured. An overwhelming sense of darkness and astonishment seemed to have overcome them, like stepping into a hidden hole in the midst of a greened field. They pulled themselves up, embarrassed when they recognized her, although some of the younger beings showed signs of true fright. A few babbled in a near sleepwalking state, something about a red light.....
Leia shook off a feeling of familiarity and continued. The med center was crowded as she made her way back to where Luke was. She halted in her tracks as she saw Kyp Durron pull himself up slowly off the floor where he had collapsed. Kam Salusar was still unconscious. Mara Jade was conscious but sunk into a side chair, her head bowed in something like pain. Leia bent to look at Mara's face but the eyes were still closed, the breath coming in fast gasps. Leia moved on toward Kyp, and after helping him rise, went looking for Cilghal. Kyp smiled at her, an expression meant to be reassuring, but she could feel the aftertaste of clutching darkness in his mind.
She shook off a nagging fear and ran into the center. The machines pulsated, orderly and quiet. Tionne, now regulated to a regular room, was unconscious on the floor, where she had evidently fallen. Cilghal was with her, a portable diagnostic pad flung halfway across the room. Leia moved over to the small woman and the larger Calamari. She felt for pulses and then pulled her hand away. They were alive, just unconscious. She gave Tionne's and Cilghal's slack faces a quick look and made a decision. She knew it was wrong, but she had to know. Quickly, as if running a race, she made her way to Luke's room. She rounded the corner only to stop dead as if a cold, dark wave had reared an impenetrable mass over her head.
He was still on the diagnostic bed, still in his frayed tunic and pants, his hair still rumpled and dirty from days of unconsciousness. But he was awake. The blue eyes flicked at her as she moved toward him, at first cold, then a shiver of fear ran through them. Quickly, almost too swiftly to see, he handed for the lightsaber that lay on a console nearby. It activated while in mid-air. She swallowed and took a step forward, but stopped in mid stride as the blade shivered through her vision.
An alarm blared away somewhere and every gauge and measurement on the diagnostic panel read off the scale. A clamor of medical bells and whistles signaled overload. She did not hear them, only saw Luke, her brother, coming to a full battle stance in the blink of an eye, the lightsaber, bright green, holding steady in his hand. He gave her a clean, warrior's look and she knew that, in battle, he would best her.
Quietly, with great deliberation, she stepped backward. He did not move or react. "Luke!" she whispered, her voice carrying with the power of the Jedi. "Luke, it's me....."
He answered, his stance unwavering. "Who are you?" It was a cold voice, commanding, sending shivers down her spine.
She gaped, momentarily off balance. "Luke, it's Leia. You're on Coruscant....."
"Why is there blood there?" he asked, as if he had not heard, as if she had not spoken. "Why is there blood on your dress?"
Involuntarily, she glanced down at her gown. It was rumbled and a little soiled but there was no blood there, only the remnants of a long, tiring day. "Luke," she said, her voice lowering with conscious effort. A vision flashed into her mind, a vision of blood and whirling, dirt soaked wind. Her face changed as she sought to reach him. "Luke, there's no blood....... it's a dream ........"
His voice rose, just factionally, frightening her. "There's blood everywhere....... you have blood on your hands," he said, focusing the Force through his voice. It began to echo through the room and she had, momentarily, a vision of a tall, black hooded figure speaking, summoning guards........
"Luke," she said evenly, "there's no blood. It's a dream......" She reached a hand toward him, as if by proximity alone she could show him that her hands were clean.
He shook his head and the saber dipped a little. He peered at her, as if seeing her for the first time since she had entered the room. Then his head jerked up, as if he heard something that was beyond her hearing. He scowled, and giving her a quick, warning look, took a glance around the room.
Leia, watching him, wondered what he saw. His reflexes, augmented by the Force, were lightening quick and she knew that he could not be subdued, not at least while he was armed. But, even unarmed, Luke was quite formidable. Hesitantly, not really sure what to do, she stepped forward, into the range of the lightsaber. Maybe, offering herself as a sacrifice, or seeming to do so, would get through to him.
A glint flashed through the blue eyes, as if he read her. He pulled the lightsaber up and away, and the muscles of his back clenched hard as the magical blade made an inevitable arch downward, toward his twin sister. Leia just stood, suddenly realizing that something else was moving, clutching at consciousness within him. His presence, usually so blocked, was free to her. And she felt his rush of confusion, hopelessness, restlessness, his pain. She put all her life force into the link just as he swung the blade. A scant second passed. The blade halted in mid-air, held impossibly high, seemingly of its own accord.
She had closed her eyes, her passiveness taking what was inevitable. But, as the moment passed, she felt a freedom, a breath passing, a peaceful day on the desert after a debilitating sandstorm, ocean smooth as glass. She opened her eyes and found herself looking into the bewildered face of her brother. His tunic was still frayed and old, his hair completely disheveled, his blade deactivated in a trembling hand. He gazed at her a long moment, feet flat on the ground. Then he looked down at the hilt of this saber.
"I almost killed you," he said, a note of wonderment in his voice.
"I'm sorry," she replied, not indifferent to him, but feeling a quiet joy. "I couldn't think of any other way to stop you."
The lightsaber went back to it's place on his belt and he moved, taking a seat on the edge of his bed. "Where am I?"
She allowed herself to become matter-of-fact. "Coruscant," she said quietly.
"Almost a week ago, now. Kam put you in the trance."
He nodded, knowledge flooding his eyes. "I remember. Streen wasn't able to do it."
Her brow furrowed. "How much do you remember?"
He sighed and shook his head. Suddenly it hurt, as if he had been drugged. "Only parts. I was asleep, but no, wait, I was waiting for someone....... Tia," he said, startling her with the name.
"She's here too."
His face brightened. "Tia? Why? I told her......." He frowned.
Leia's face became wary. "You told her what?" she said in an even tone of voice.
He shifted on the bed. "I told her she should leave Yavin for a while...... but no, that's not right," he added, sounding uncharacteristically confused. "I told her I was waiting for her...... that I wanted......." A flash went through his sense and he blushed hard, his own words taking him unawares, the color in his cheeks incongruous for person of so much power.
Leia felt her heart sink. But she could not prompt him. She had to know the truth. It was important for him, for her and her fledgling government.
"You say she's here too?" he asked, his eyes flicking as he changed the subject.
"Yes, she was in a trance when she arrived......"
"I wonder if she saw it too....." he began, his voice fading to a whisper.
He shook his head, his mind unable to retain what he had just seen. Or was it what he had just heard? The sounds and the visions rumbled through his head, refusing any technique to separate them. He found that he could only call up bits and pieces of it, the visions were all color and pain. Finally he gazed at his sister, noting the careful control on her face. "The laughing, the sandstorm, an ocean....... I was lost in it, then...." He hesitated, his face that of an ancient trying to remember the words of a childhood song. "Blood....... perhaps..... I don't know...." he said, after a long hesitation.
"What do you mean, 'you don't know?'" A small, impatient rise colored her question.
He looked away. "I'm not too sure. I can't make any sense out of it."
She sighed and gave the room an irritated glance. "Stay here, Luke," she said, an open note of resignation in her voice. "You've got a lot of explaining to do."
It took a good twenty-four hours to put the palace back on an even keel. As it turned out, all the force-sensitives in the area were affected, although some, depending upon age and experience, were affected more than others. Besides, as if this weren't enough, a political crisis was brewing within the Senate.
The news of the Core Systems' offer to negotiate a trade treaty with the New Republic had sent shockwaves throughout the youthful government. Beings whose compatriots had fought and died in the airless reaches of space, not surprisingly, protested strongly. Beings who had been enslaved by the very people who were now applying for legitimacy were profoundly insulted that the Chief of State would even consider such a proposal. Beings who had watched husbands, wives, sons, daughters, nest mates, den mates, whole home worlds fall to the oppressive, stormtrooper offensives, to military strategies perpetrated upon helpless, civilian populations, started away in instinctive distaste.
The New Republic still derived great deal of its strength from hatred of the stormtrooper; from hatred of the Emperor and his wicked underling, Darth Vader, against all the evil and misery they had made, together, in one great and profound study of the Darkside. People, pulled out of the complacency of peacetime, suddenly and with great force remembered that whole worlds had labored in misery as the Emperor and his minions had attempted to seize even more territory, to enfold the galaxy in full horror like someone pulling a black curtain over cheerful night. Everyone was outraged.
Even the Princess, whose world had been destroyed before her very eyes, who from this one terrible act had been bequeathed a lifetime of nightmares, underestimated the groundswell of protest that followed her announcement during a small committee meeting. Instantly, insidious whispers arose out of nowhere, out of the very fabric of the atmosphere surrounding her
It was said that she had begun to slip toward insanity, that her time in the Rebellion, always remembering Alderaan and all that had happened since, had finally begun to weigh upon her mind, so much rock weight upon a fragile mountainside. People, even people who knew her well, had known her for years, who were trusted friends and companions, even these people began to pull away from her, to question her in the deep depths of their respective souls.
She knew of it. Even she, herself, questioned her own motives. What was the purpose in accepting these adversaries, even in the most tangential of ways? Was it worth this pain and questioning? Was it worth the political catcalling that was fast becoming personal? Was it worth the doubting look on Han's face as he watched her pilloried in the press? Was it worth the children's questions when they were no longer accepted by their friends? She had to study that, to make sure that she had some faith in it, that it was real.
The day after Luke's awakening, as he was in quiet meditation and the other Jedi were being attended by healers and each other, she fled, up to the garden, the one that had called out to her with an almost physical voice only several days before. She wanted to hear, just for a while, small birds moving about the branches of the trees, to see a butterfly or two cast itself onto the currents of the wind, to hear a small breeze before she felt it on her face. All these were trivial things, but maybe they would bring healing and peace.
She was there a long time. Her footsteps, lightly held in small breezes, carried her noiselessly to a favorite nook, an out of the way corner on a tangential path which was generally deserted. Hot sun poured its life-giving light down into the artificial grove of trees. Their leaves shimmered in return, answering in restless movement. She took off her shoes, and felt, for the first time since she could remember, the grass between her toes. It was stiff and soft at the same time, sharp edges over smooth, cool surfaces. She pushed her feet into it, sitting carelessly, despondent on a disused, stone bench, her mind blank.
"Your Excellency!" A soft, youthful voice, fighting surprise, graced the sunlight as Leia glanced up. "What are you doing here?"
The speaker was a diminutive humanoid, a female from the looks of it. She had short, dark hair, very straight and rustling in the pleasant breeze. Hazel eyes stared out of the rather dark face, the greenish color black rimmed, black specked. Dark eyelashes fluttered in puzzlement.
"Uh ....... I'm sorry, but who are you?" Leia put in, attempting but not quite succeeding, to hide a quick, dark irritation.
"T'anonma," the girl answered with surprising assurance. "I'm a page in the Senate. I'm from the Spassjenye System." A small smile accompanied this explanation. "We've only been full members for about the last standard six months or so."
"Oh," came the abrupt reply. Leia resisted the urge to give the girl a curt word and send her on her way. But, after a moment she signaled a friendly, if resigned, sitting gesture. "What are you doing up here.....uh....T'a--?"
"T'anonma," the girl put in for her, a smile entering her voice. "When I miss home this is where I come." Her voice held all the subdued joy of the very young. "The trees here remind me a little of the forests of my home planet."
Leia glanced at the girl's face which was pointed away, up, at the trees and decided to play along. "Do you miss it often?" she asked.
T'anonma gave the Chief of State a quick look and then shielded her eyes with a miniature hand, looking away into the sunlight. "No, usually I'm too busy," she said briskly, in exactly the right fashion. "After all, being a page isn't easy," she continued in a very grownup, common sense manner. "It's been interesting, though. I've learned a lot since I came here."
Leia smiled but there was no light in her features. "What have you learned?" she asked being polite, although some small part of her really wanted to know.
T'anonma smiled. "Oh," the shy smile again, "a lot of things....." she said quickly, glancing at the Chief of State before turning her gaze back to the safety of the trees.
A moment of silence ensued but the small girl held silent. The former Princess sighed and opted for a slumped honesty and a little unsolicited advice. "Watching out for learning, T' anonma," she said after a breeze shuffled silence. "It can cost you....."
The serious young face turned to Leia's despondent one. "I know that, Your Excellency," she said, her voice showing no trace of surprise. "But still, you can't grow and be alive, unless you're is learning."
Leia sighed and let the silence return. T'anonma, who did not the seem the least uncomfortable, turned her face away, studying a pool of sunlight as it filtered through a shower of leaves. "It's like these trees, here," she continued after a time, her voice startling Leia out of a dark reverie. "They start out as saplings, grow to a certain height, mature and eventually die. They're not allowed to remain, always they change." She turned a youthful visage, full of idealism and quiet, involuntary wisdom, to Leia. "I'll never forget my time here, Your Excellency."
Leia scowled, suddenly afraid. "How so?"
T'anonma looked a little abashed at the scowl, but continued. "Because of your courage, Your Excellency. Because, when you allowed the Core Systems to come into the New Republic, you gave hope to their people." She sighed, acknowledging a reality. "I realize, of course, that the government there may be run by the same people who have fought against us since Endor, but finally, their people have some hope. The same hope as the rest of us have. This war can't go on forever." Here she gave a small smile, as one conceding a point in acrimonious debate. "Sooner or later, the remnants of the Empire will fade, as it already has in many places." There was a pulled silence here, as she momentarily retreated from an unpopular notion. Then the young/old voice continued. "We should make peace....."
Leia bowed her head, thinking. When she had been this girl's age, all everyone had thought about, discussed, dreamed about, was war, rebellion, violence. The Senate was breaking up, imploded in agonizing millimeters by Senator Palpatine and his allies. A great darkness had spread, cloaking out over the galaxy. Fear ruled, people were afraid to speak truthfully even within their own homes. The Jedi had been destroyed, rotting away under insidious intrigue.
Raging hopelessness had seeped through the souls of all her generation. She remembered the many people who had rebelled in despair, following their consciences, now dead. She knew many who had surrendered to the fear, some because of cowardice -- because there are always cowards. But some because of white hot concern for parents, mates and offspring. Neither group had fared much better than the first. Even she herself had felt compelled to run off, ill prepared, on a hopeless mission in a fragile, made over cruiser all because of an accidental interception and an innocuous artoo unit.
She shook her head, returning to the present. Now though, instead of the darkness of the past week, a sudden bright, white, luminosity filled her heart, searching out haunted cornices, opening old, locked doors, cleansing out dirtied corners. It filtered throughout her whole being, bringing peace and rest to every inch of her body. She spread out her fingers over the weathered stone of the bench and felt every luxurious, stony part of it, sensing, in a way she usually never was able to, its minute crevices, its microscopic hills and valleys. A strange expression creased along her face. She put up her hand and found a faint smile.
"T'anonma," she said, turning to the youthful page at her side. Her voice was light and strong, surprisingly young for one on the threshold of middle age. "Thank you for your words. And" she said, straightening and glancing at her simple chron, "I believe the Senate resumes its session in a few minutes. We should go now."
The hazel eyes smiled at her. "Certainly, Your Excellency."
And together, for a blinded space of time, the old guard, accompanied by the new, moved off through the woods, out into the sunlight and back into the shadowed palace.
"And so, colleagues, both old and new, we are honor bound to accept the invitation from this --- government," here the word fell echoing in an ominous manner. But the audience, stunned, remained silent. "They have every right, as an institutional entity, to request this." She turned her face quickly to one side, taking a breath. "As to your objections, of which I have heard so much, I have but one question for you. Do we have the right to deny the populations of the Core the same advantages and opportunities that we extend to other systems within the galaxy? Do we have the right to take from them this opportunity even before they have a chance to vote on it? If we deny them this, what does this say about us? About what we have striven so hard for, made so many sacrifices for?
A quick silence flew into the room, like birds inadvertently flying into a building. She drew breath and the swooping silence flew out again. "Yes, I am well aware that this may be a trick, a feint, another tactic in our ongoing conflict. I, just as well as many of you, understand the danger." The voice seemed to change for a moment, a quick trembling instantaneously covered. Then, with a lift of her head, she continued. "However, we must stand for our beliefs, even now ........now that we have become a government in our own right. We must retain our original ideals. For if we do not, if we lose these....." here she gave the huge chamber a haunted look, "we will become like those we have striven so hard to replace."
Shaky silence reverberated off the monumental stone walls, like the aftermath of battle. She gathered her data pad and, without waiting for any acknowledgment, sat down in her chair behind the speaking place. A short silence filled the room, echoing more loud than any noise. A moment passed, and a faint rustling occurred here and there. Leia watched as Mon Mothma grimaced and shook her head. Senator Garm Bel Iblis, of Corellia, shifted in his chair and Senator Lo'kmimkar of New Honoghr, despite objections, held to the perfect stillness of the ancestral hunter. A Bothan shifted, and a Verpine, sly in the back, appeared as if half asleep through slitted eyes. Only a Wookie, the Senator from Kashyyyk, reacted and stood. He lifted himself to his full height, a beautiful, towering tree of a being, graceful and intimidating. Leia almost winced, but caught herself in time. He did not look at her. Instead he gave the huge chamber a measured, courtly look and, in paced, measured Kashyyykii, he began to speak.
He spoke in a way she had never heard Kashyyykii, despite all her years of experience with it, spoken. She marveled at his beautiful phrases, beautiful for their sounds alone, since her understanding of Chewbacca's native language was always problematic at best. A picture came into her mind, based on, perhaps, more understanding of Kashyyykii than she realized, along with the musical sounds of the language itself. The beautiful, carefully modulated sounds portrayed a dark and shadowed picture; a people in abject misery, subjected to extortion, torture, kidnapping and slavery. Families were pulled apart one by one, village by village. Wookie children left to die in the bare trees with no shelter from Kashyyyk's harsh climate while parents were dragged off to slavery. And all the while the Empire's metal starships arrived and departed like evil, carrion birds, bringing more oppression, fear and death; leaving always with more slaves to be consumed, like so much firewood, in the never-ending orgy of tyranny that was the Empire.
She resisted the urge to jump to her feet, to cry, to shout, knowing she could not show so much emotion in such an exposed position. She could only listen with bowed head, in growing sorrow for the lives lost in the years of the Empire, in guilt for the terror her own family had planned. A dark presence faded through her vision, a ghostly outline, nightmarish and flowing. It paused as if called, it's flawless cape stilled at an impossible angle. It gazed up, its masked, blank eyes seeing everything, nothing. Then it was gone, vanished to watch in the helplessness of the afterlife along with the other vanquished evil spirits fading along the grand, stone walls.
Leia allowed herself a split second of closed eyes. The Wookie's trained voice paused and the last of the perfect modulations rested over the silent crowd like a fading, echoing musical chord. At last he was finished, his measured words and sentences falling like a soft rain after harsh wind, starlight after bald, fast lightening.
And then, after a held silence, one by one, every Senator, every delegate, every page, every military official, stood, like a field of wheat growing in fast motion, wave upon wave of beings, turned to the agitated Wookie Senator and gave him a standing ovation. Flustered, as she rarely was, Mon Mothma glanced over at Leia on the raised platform and saw her standing too, tears in her dark eyes, giving the Wookie his due, knowing deep down that it was not enough. The sound of it rose and fell over the ancient chamber like purifying rainwater, washing away a horrible past. Then, like a small rainstorm bowing to sunshine, the sound of the ovation faded as, reluctantly, everyone sat. Another silence passed, transitory, as the washed emotions of victory at terrible cost faded to hard practicality.
When the voting was over, the measure was approved.
Leia wanted rest, rest and quiet, but there was no time. For, while the measure regarding the Core Systems' negotiation had been passed, she still had a personal, rather more difficult matter to discuss with Luke.
He came to her office in the early morning as sunshine was pouring through the windows like liquid fire. She glanced up, after a soft word, to see him standing in the room, alone. He was dressed in a new tunic and pants, his lightsaber, as always, at his side. She glanced at it, surmising that no one had worked up the courage to ask him to surrender it. He was wary, but relaxed and in his face she recognized the workings of the Force.
"Good morning, Luke," she said formally. "Please sit down."
Nodding, uncharacteristically taciturn, he sat in the chair.
She glanced up at him, seeing his closed face and knew that, once again, his mind was silent to her. She sighed and wished this had never happened, but dismissed the thought. Wishing would not help now.
She placed a data pad off to one side and clasped her hands together. Leaning a little across the sandstone desk, she engaged his gaze. His blue eyes held hers, neither knowing nor innocent. Finally, after a time, though, it was he that looked away.
She spoke. "Luke, do you love Tionne?" It was point blank, no subtlety at all.
He did not seem to mind. "No," he answered, a dead certainty in his voice.
"Did you try to rape Tionne?"
This was too direct. "Certainly not," he replied. His gaze flicked away but the words were straight and true.
Another sigh. "That's not what Tionne says."
He raised his eyes. They were like crystal in off-center light, shimmering and refracted. "I knew that she loved me, I've known for a long time," he began, as if he had rehearsed the words.
She frowned in irritation. "Luke, we have to get to the bottom of this, or I'll be unable to shield you if there are charges." She looked away, as if almost unable to bear what she had to say. "And even if Tionne does not press charges.....I may be compelled, for integrity's sake, to launch a formal investigation. Or rather, to appoint someone to do so." Here she pulled her face into his gaze, "I can't simply brush it under the carpet. There was too much of that before......"
He nodded. "I understand, Leia. You do what you have to do...."
She stood at that, a sudden anger coursing through her. "No, that's not good enough, Luke," she said rather more strongly than she had first intended. She began to move from behind the desk. "You can't evade me on this! You must tell me what happened." A sense of his shock at being spoken to so harshly struck her, but she plowed on. "Don't you see, Brother? You are a very important person to the New Republic. You hold, at Yavin and through the new Jedi you send to us, the heart and soul of our ideals. You preserve, even when we cannot, our integrity." A filled silence descended here, as if she were contemplating words unspoken but long considered. "Even a hint of such things as this...." Here she gestured at him, at the door. His eyes flicked once, but other than that, he made no reaction. "Will be devastating to us."
She turned into the fading sunrise, its jewel-like colors now only burnished copper along intricate windowpanes. She moved slowly into a silence, as if she were alone. Watching her, he wondered how she managed to do it, how she managed to continue against all odds, never giving up, always finding alternatives.
A sudden shame flamed up through him, but when he lifted his head to speak his voice was steady. "I didn't mean for it to happen," he put in, his words fading to those of a simple, fallible man. "I can't control how other people think of me. I tried to give her a way out, I tried to let her go. Even when Kyp....."
She turned toward him, but slowly, as if nothing could surprise her anymore. "What about Kyp?"
He shook his head, his eyes dull and tired. "Kyp's in love with her. He has been for a while now. He pleaded with me to let her stay, to find her a place where she wouldn't see me so much." He lowered his head in something like pained amusement. "I guess he figured maybe she'd come around if she wasn't........"
Leia stopped moving, held fast, her breath coming just a shade quicker. "Do you mean to tell me that you let her remain on Yavin just because Kyp thought she'd favor him over you?! And what about Tionne's opinion of all this? Did either of you," her voice was sharp, critical, like a knife hissing, "ever once talk to Tionne herself about this?"
His face blanked a little. "Well, I tried...... but Kyp wouldn't say anything." He lifted his face. "But she must have known. I don't see how she couldn't have."
Leia began moving again, her gown following her small movements in graceful curves. She put her hands behind her back, and leaning a bit, described a circle before the fading window. "Luke, this is even worse than I thought. Sooner or later, it's going to get out that there's a love triangle on Yavin. That's practically what the tabloids are broadcasting now, although I don't think anyone really believes them yet. This can't be true."
He bowed his head again. "It's true, or at least some of it is. That's why," here he lifted his gaze into his hands, "I asked her to leave. I knew Kyp was gone from the Academy. I knew that she had to go somewhere else, to recover, to see the truth."
"You think she loves Kyp?"
"Certainly she does," he replied. The surety in his voice brooked no argument.
She sighed. "Is that why you tried to kill her?"
He lifted his eyes and a snapping, surprised violence lashed out at her. "I did not......." he hissed.
Glancing up at him, she found herself stepping involuntarily backwards. Across his face was the same, cold, commanding expression she had witnessed in the med center. A shiver ran down her spine as she willed control, stillness. But a short, sure anger arose instead. "And just what were you intending, Luke?" she put in, hissing back. "To teach her a lesson?" She lifted her head, a pit of despair forming in her stomach. "You, of all people, should know better than to even think of such things."
He rose quickly at that, stung, his hands clenching at his sides. She noted, in a calm sort of way, that his right hand brushed the lightsaber. "What are you saying, Leia?" His voice was dangerous.
She took a breath, but the words were out and there was nothing for it. "I think you know, Brother. You have come even closer to him over the years." She refused to give him time for a rejoinder, but instead moved away, so that her voice echoed in an accident of acoustics. "He began in just this way, arrogant, unrelenting, prideful....."
She felt the flash of hot violence reach through the air between them, a hand that pushed almost to her physical body. It halted, giving her the alarming feeling of a heated branding iron held too close to her face. "I saved him, Leia, don't you remember?" Luke whispered, his voice burning and perilous. "I knew there was good in him........"
She remained where she was, rooted. "I only hope," she said, her voice lowering to the same dangerous key, "that someone doesn't have to do the same for you."
A full minute of silence stretched between them, brother and sister, pulled taut almost to breaking. Jedi to Jedi, each remained where they were, standing still in silent combat. A flaring of something slashed between them, hot, aggressive, pushed back and forth. Then, he turned his face away and like a breath released, it faded, cool water in a garden. For a moment she saw a shaft of sunlight spill through restless leaves. He sat. She moved toward him. Rounding him, she began to speak.
"Luke, I have to know what happened between you and Tionne. If that means dragging Kyp in here, I'll do it. You have to explain it to me. We can't....," she continued to move, as if the physical act of walking helped her concentration, "we can't have even a suspicion of Father's methods or intentions." A sudden determination took hold, molding her voice. "I refuse to let such a thing happen. And, I warn you," she continued, turning her profile to him, as if edging her words to the same, sharp, 90 degree angle, "don't try to block me out. I 'll have to interpret that as lying." A cutting silence followed.
He swallowed, gazed at her for a long minute in something like defiance and then retreated. "I understand," he said quietly. And, at her nod, he began to talk. He spoke knowingly of Tionne, how he, at first, had not meant to hurt her, how she had come to him, confronted him. How she had tempted him, without seeming to know that she was tempting. He spoke of a deflected anger, about Callista, about the fact that Callista had not communicated with him for more than two years now.
But when he got to the events that lead him to Tionne's charges, his words halted, taken by confusion and darkness. Leia wasn't too sure, but she thought she saw fear there, buried somewhere in all that confusion.
"You mean you don't know how you, or your spirit, came to be in Tionne's room?"
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "All I know is," he said, looking a little desperate, an expression she hadn't seen on his face in years, "is that I 'woke up' there and after that, I only remember feeling.........hate, then love, then ....... and then I drew my lightsaber....."
"Did you want to kill her?"
He lowered his gaze to the floor and his voice was low with humiliation. "Yes..... at just that moment I wanted to kill her."
Leia sighed. The light in the window, now headed toward the lunch hour, was long past the bright fire of dawn. It was only ordinary daylight, plain and flat. Simple, deceptive. "Did you know that she had a message for you from Callista?"
His mouth dropped open and quickly, almost eagerly, she noted with some discomfiture, he looked up at her. "No, I didn't. Are you sure?"
"She'd received it six months before. You never knew?"
Slowly, in the throes of true astonishment, he shook his head. "How did she hide it from me?" he asked wonderingly of thin air. Then he faced Leia again. "What......what.... did the message say....?"
Leia turned and, in a quiet rustle of gowned elegance, pulled a message cube from a small shelf behind her chair. "Here, look at it yourself. I'll give you ten minutes." Her voice was dull and flat with pain, like the daylight that plodded through her paned windows. Without letting him speak she made toward the table and set the cube quietly upon it. She gave him a searching look before she bowed her head and exited the room.
A moment of pure, dead silence followed his sister's exit. Then slowly, as if his hands were made of lead, he made a small motion over the innocuous thing and magically, Cray Mingla's holo appeared in striking simplicity on the table before him. Her hair had finally grown out, and just as he suspected, it was the malt color of Callista rather than the blonde of Mingla. The face was gaunt and thin, but the eyes were the same: smoky and enigmatic. A vision of a ship, darkened and filthy, leapt to his mind, of amber words floating up whole into half-repaired comm screens. His heart began to race.
"Luke," the holo said, its face looking slightly distorted. "I'm sorry it's taken me so long to send this." There was a hesitation and then she plunged on, as if afraid to stop. For a frightened moment he felt as if Cray had come back to life, that Callista had never existed...... "I've decided, after a long time away, that I can never be what you want me to be....."
He shifted in his chair, numb, too stunned even to stand. "I never wanted you to be anything more than what you were...." he whispered, as if the very words were ripped from him, syllable by syllable.
"I can only see the Darkside, Luke," she went on, her six-month-old holo oblivious, of course, to him. "I can't subject you to that. You're too important to the New Republic. You're too important to..... to everyone." She spread her fine, long-fingered hands palms upward in a gesture of surrender and he noticed, in a fit of perceptiveness, that she still wore her lightsaber. "I'm just a failed Jedi, washed up. I've had to give up." She drew breath and her face changed, so that momentarily she did not look anything like either Cray or Callista. "I prefer to live my life without you ......... and I think we'll both be better off." The figure, again so reminiscent of Cray, looked into the holo screen for a moment, as if speechless. Finally, after a feeling of breathlessness came and went, words formed on the beautiful lips, simple words, killing words. "Forgive me, Luke." The words echoed from somewhere out of the past. "Good-bye." And with that, the small screen faded into dreaded static.
When Leia returned twenty minutes later, she found her brother staring into a middle space, the message cube still projecting a small shaft of comforting static. She seated herself at the table with great quietude and deliberation, directly across from him. Finally gazing over at him, through the low static storm, she thought she saw just for a moment, through a narrow shadow, the tracings of one tear glimmering down the worn face and into the black night of his high collar.