Nevoy choked on billowing dust. He couldn't see anything but that grey cloud. He shouted, "Xavier!" but the noise of the falling pillars was too loud for him to hear his own voice.
Slowly the dust drifted to the floor. Nevoy gritted his teeth, knowing that he almost certainly wouldn't like what he was going to see.
He risked a glance up, and saw the last of the Palace Guards still clinging to the cable. Man and cable swung back and forth like part of some acrobatics stunt.
Corporal Loen, with Destrehan still strapped to his back, had somehow made it to the floor above. He was now leaning over the edge, reaching down to steady the swinging cable.
Good. Loen should be able to get the guard to the next floor without Nevoy's help.
But Mulcahy and Skywalker …
With the dust still seeping down through the air, at first Nevoy couldn't see them. Then he caught sight of other colours amid the grey, what looked like Skywalker's black clothing and blond hair.
Nevoy started toward them, picking his way around and over fallen blocks of stone. He desperately wanted to hope, but he shoved that longing aside. Don't hope, he ordered himself fiercely. Don't, because what you hope for isn't going to be true.
And it wasn't.
He stopped in the midst of the rubble, and forced himself not to look away.
Mulcahy had not had a chance. Most of his body was hidden under massive chunks of rock. His head and upper torso were still visible and seemed unmarked, except by the pale grey dust of pulverised stone that drifted over him.
It had to have been quick. Nevoy repeated that to himself like a prayer, it had to be. There were too many vital organs that must have been crushed at the first impact. He couldn't have lived long enough to suffer.
Please, gods, he couldn't have.
The General's eyes were open, and his mouth was slightly open as well, as if he'd been gasping in a breath. His face looked blank and a little startled, and Nevoy thought how strange it was to see him without some sardonic expression.
Nevoy had thought he had himself pretty much under control. Until he felt the tears streaming down his face.
It seemed he was not alone in his grief. But the company did not give him any comfort.
Luke Skywalker knelt amid the heaps of stone, at Mulcahy's side. The young man's dark clothing was mottled with dust, but he'd apparently escaped injury. But he was crying. He made no sound, but his shoulders shook with the failed effort of trying to hold back his tears.
Nevoy was unprepared for the hatred that shot through him. He'd thought he hated Skywalker already, but this was so strong it felt as if he had to either kill the boy, or choke to death on the loathing that settled in around him like a poisonous cloud.
Stop crying! He wanted to yell at Skywalker.
You don't have the right. He's my friend, not yours. I've known him thirty-seven years. You've known him an hour.
Nevoy's hand moved to his holster, and closed around the cold weight of his blaster.
For a moment he truly believed that he would do it.
There'd never be any better time. Their dead were scattered all through this corridor. There was no reason at all why Commander Skywalker shouldn't have fallen in battle like all the others.
And then what? Nevoy tightened his grip around the gun until his hand hurt.
Laram would still be dead.
Laram, and Mulcahy.
And all he would have succeeded in doing would be to tear a piece out of Lord Vader's life. To hurt the man that this whole miserable bloody revolt had been created to help.
Xavier, he thought. Gods damn you, gods damn you, gods damn you. Why did you do this to me?
He knelt before he realised he was doing so, and stared at his friend's face. He knew he should close Mulcahy's eyes, but he didn't want to. He didn't want to admit to the finality of that action.
He tried to remind himself that this was what Mulcahy had wanted. Nevoy was sure that the General meant it when he said "I never fancied the idea of dying in bed."
But damn it, damn it. It shouldn't have been like this. Mulcahy had been enjoying himself. It didn't seem right for him to leave before the fun was over.
"I should have saved him," Luke Skywalker whispered. Nevoy glanced sharply at the younger man, and saw his lost, despairing look. "I should have …"
You should have? Nevoy thought bitterly. I should have. I should have known that wall was about to collapse … I shouldn't have let him get so near to it … I should have … what? Held his hand? Tried to babysit him when all the rest of us were risking our lives just as much as he was? Oh, yes, I'm sure. I'd like to hear what Mulcahy would've said to me if I'd tried that.
"I should have," Skywalker whispered again. "I could have – if I had the Force – I would've been able to stop the rocks from falling – I wanted to, I tried to, but – oh Gods, if I had the Force I could have saved him --"
"Well, you don't," Nevoy snapped. "So you'll just have to live with it, like the rest of us."
Skywalker looked at him in surprise, tears shining in his wide, sorrow-filled eyes. Nevoy bit back a curse and looked away. I'm not going to do this, Nevoy thought. I'm not going to fight with this brat when I should be saying goodbye to my friend.
I'll do this properly later, he thought to Mulcahy. I'll do this properly with a few friends and several hells worth of drinks.
You know I'll miss you, you bastard. I'll miss you, and I'll never forgive you for making me do this.
Before he could lose his nerve, he reached out and closed Mulcahy's eyes.
His tears felt like they were burning his face. Keeping his face turned away from Skywalker, he said gruffly, "let's go."
Skywalker said, "no."
Now Nevoy did look at him, not caring any more if the Rebel saw his tears. "What was that?"
"You go," Skywalker murmured, still staring at Mulcahy's motionless face. "I'm not. It's not worth it."
Oh my gods, Nevoy thought. My gods, I want to shoot him.
"Commander Skywalker," he ordered, "you will stand up and you will come with me to the transports, now." He added silently, you'll come with me to the transports if I have to bloody well carry you.
"No," said Luke Skywalker, "I won't. There's – there's nothing --" The young man shook his head, giving up on whatever he'd been going to say. "I won't."
Nevoy leaped up, grabbing Skywalker by his shirt and dragging him to his feet. Struggling loose from Nevoy's grasp, Skywalker gave some incomprehensible yell of rage and was suddenly pointing his blaster at Nevoy's chest.
"Let's see you do it," snapped Nevoy. "Let's see if you've got the courage to shoot people when they're not hidden by armour or a space station."
The fury on Skywalker's face was so desperate that Nevoy thought he really was going to shoot. Then Skywalker whispered, "why can't you leave me alone? You want me dead. So do I. Just get the hell out of here and leave me and both of us will be happy."
Oh, fifty hells. A very large part of Nevoy's mind wanted to do just that. But he knew that if he did leave this young idiot here, that decision would trouble him for the rest of his life.
Nevoy sighed. Gods, all of a sudden he felt so very, very tired. He could hear the loss and anguish weighing down his voice as he said "you listen to me, you miserable little shit. You killed my son. I've had to wake up every day for five years to the knowledge that I'll never see him again. Do you want your father to go through that? Because if you don't, then you shut up and come with me now."
For a long moment Luke Skywalker just looked at him. Nevoy saw the streaks of dried tears in the dust on the young man's face. The blue eyes stared at him with a strange expression, angry and sorrowful and thoughtful at the same time.
Then Skywalker jammed his blaster back into its holster. Without another word he walked through the rubble-filled corridor, jumped for the bottom of the grappling cable, and started to climb.
Nevoy watched his departure, feeling perversely disappointed that the Rebel hadn't argued with him more. There were five years worth of pain that Nevoy wanted to take out on this kid. But it wouldn't really do any good, he knew. He could yell at Luke Skywalker for as long as his voice held up, but it wouldn't make those five years go away.
And it wouldn't change the years to come.
All right, Osheen, he told himself. Time to get out of here.
He looked down at General Mulcahy, one last time.
"I hope you got what you wanted," Nevoy said. "Take care of yourself, you old son of a bitch."
He turned and walked away.
"Han! Han? If you die on me I swear I'm going to kill you."
Okay, Han thought, that's not a hallucination. He'd heard that voice yelling at him often enough to know it could be nothing in the galaxy but the voice of Princess Leia Organa.
"All right, Your … Your Highnessness," he joked weakly, startled at the faintness of his voice. "I'm alive."
"Oh, Han," she murmured, "Han, thank the gods." And then he was thanking the gods, very devoutly, because her mouth was all over his.
Her kisses felt as good as he remembered – hell, better – but he wished he didn't have burns down half his body.
He blinked as Leia pulled away from him, and tried to focus his eyes on the various blurred faces surrounding him. The blurs resolved themselves into Leia, Chewbacca and Iddims, all looking worried, and Darth Vader, looking like Darth Vader.
"Hey, Darth," Han managed to croak out. "Good to see you."
"You too," Vader said. "Do you think you can walk?"
"Yeah, sure, no problem." He didn't actually have a clue whether he could walk or not, but since the alternative was probably to be carried by Chewie – or, gods forbid, by Vader – he was going to try his damnedest.
Leia, meanwhile, was staring in disbelief, alternating her gaze between Han and Vader. She echoed, "'Darth'?"
"Yeah," said Han, trying not to let his voice shake with pain as Chewie and Vader gingerly took hold of his arms and helped him manoeuvre himself to his feet. "The Dark Lord hitched a ride to Coruscant with us. We did some male bonding on the way."
Leia's eyebrows shot further up her forehead, Chewbacca gave a growling chuckle, and Lieutenant Iddims suddenly developed a suspiciously laugh-like cough.
"Ah," Leia said dubiously. Han would have liked to tease her some more, but just then his eyes relayed to his brain the fact that she was missing one of her hands.
"Holy shit," Han yelled. "Leia, what the hell -- "
She frowned impatiently. "I'll tell you about it later."
He was standing up now, and figured he could probably manage that without help. Walking was another question. He bit his lip as his burned side sent out another wave of pain. Think about something else, he told himself. "Where's Luke?" Han asked, suddenly realising that the kid wasn't here. "Is he okay?"
"He was about ten minutes ago," said Vader. "We're attempting to evacuate in two major groups. Luke went with the other."
There was a look on Leia's face that Han didn't like, that told him Luke had got himself into some kind of godsawful trouble again. But then, that was only to be expected. It wouldn't be a proper escape if they weren't in all manner of shit.
"Okay," said Han, really hoping he wasn't going to faint dead away with the first step he took. "If we're evacuating, let's evacuate."
He took one reckless step forward and nearly did black out. His vision wiped out and he hissed in pain. As sight and feeling swam nauseously back he realised that the only reason he was still standing was because Chewie was firmly gripping one of his arms and Darth was gripping the other.
"We're not waiting for you to walk," Vader said. "Chewbacca, would you mind carrying him?"
Chewie roared that no, he wouldn't mind at all. He scooped Han up in his arms like the fainting heroine in some holo-flick, before Han could even squawk in complaint.
"Hey!" Han yelled. "Damn it, Chewie -- "
Darth Vader said, "either he carries you or I do, son-in-law."
"Right," sighed Han. Gods damn, this was a disgusting situation. For about the trillionth time since the day he met Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi, he wondered, how did I get myself into this?
Leia stepped up to Chewbacca and Han, a teasing little smile on her face. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed Han on the cheek. "Don't worry," she told him. "I've seen you look a lot stupider than this."
"Great," Han groaned. "I love you too."
She grinned. "Would it be too predictable if I said ÔI know'?"
The voice of Leia's father broke in on this touching moment. "Lieutenant," he was saying to Iddims, " will you ensure that they reach the transport bay, and get them aboard their ship? I will join you there shortly."
"Yes, My Lord."
"Leia," Vader continued, "will you help me?"
"Of course." She reached out her one hand and squeezed Han's hand that wasn't burned. Then she walked to Vader's side.
Han tried to twist around to see where Leia and Darth were going, but it hurt too much. Especially when Chewie started striding along, and Han's burns periodically scraped against the Wookiee's fur and the belt across his chest.
"Gods damn, furball," Han hissed, "watch it, will you?"
Chewbacca growled cheerfully that he shouldn't be such a baby.
Oh, shit. Realistically he knew that the various Imperials they walked past were busy dealing with their wounded and with getting their own asses out of the Palace. They had a lot more important things to do than stare while an injured smuggler was carried off by a Wookiee. That didn't help, though. He still had the damned feeling that every last one of these guys was laughing at him.
He wanted to pretend that he was unconscious, only Lieutenant Iddims was bound to notice, and to know that he was faking it.
Iddims was walking to Chewbacca's left, his blaster rifle resting on his broken right arm. He looked entirely on the alert, determined to fulfil Darth Vader's instructions and get Han and Chewie safely to their ship.
But for the moment there didn't seem to be any enemy left. They passed scattered groups of Imperials helping their wounded to their feet. Han saw at least three medics hurrying from one group to another. The compact, folding stretchers from their medpacks were being unfolded and apportioned out to the most badly injured, but there obviously wouldn't be enough. Han hoped that the guy he and Chewie had pulled off the wall of corpses would be able to get one.
They'd reached the spiralling door where the enemy had sheltered, the door now frozen fully open. They had to detour around piles of bodies. Four guys that Han recognised from Iddims' rescue team were busy dismantling the laser cannon to bring it along with them – well, three guys that Han recognised and one of the team's stormtroopers, whom he figured he recognised by association.
"Hurry it up, will you," Iddims said to the four as he passed them. Han thought he saw one of the four men smirking at him, and determinedly tried to think of something else.
Damn it, where the hell had Vader and Leia gone to? And what was with the two of them, anyway? Just a few days ago Leia had hated her father worse than anyone else in the galaxy, and now here they were, as chummy as if all that stuff with being stolen at birth, fighting on opposite sides of a civil war, chasing and torturing and doing their best to kill each other, had never even happened.
Well, they'd probably been through a lot together recently. It made sense, since otherwise Leia wouldn't be missing a hand.
So, why not? If Han and Vader could bond through fixing the Falcon, then Leia and Vader could bond through – well, whatever the hell they had just been through.
Something that Han had shoved to the back of his mind was making its way forward again.
There hadn't been any ships firing down on them from the ruined skylight when they walked under it, so something had to have chased off that Lambda shuttle. But he knew it hadn't been what he'd thought it was. That couldn't have been the Falcon up there – could it?
They reached a dark metal blast door locked in its open position, with Palace Guards armed with blaster rifles standing at either side. Suddenly Han couldn't stand the thought of these Guards seeing his ludicrous position, and he snapped his eyes shut, not caring for the moment if Iddims did catch him at it.
Then a new selection of noises hit his ears, and Han's eyes popped open again.
Gods, for a moment it seemed just like similar scenes in the Rebellion. Uniformed people hurrying everywhere, the smells of metal and fuel, the hum of ships taking off. Only the uniforms were all Imperial, and the main ship at the centre of the troop transport bay, looming massively over a few shuttles and TIEs taking off around it, was a big ugly Imperial transport, the kind that Han always thought looked more like apartment buildings than ships. This time the comparison was even more apt than usual, since this thing was at least three times the size of a standard transport. Deluxe Imperial Palace model, Han figured. It also had about six times the usual weaponry, to judge from the cannons mounted all along its top edges like the rib spines on a Hewlian ghost lizard. The boarding ramps on each end were lowered, and as more soldiers entered the bay from the hallway behind Han and the others, he heard them being ordered to get to the transport, now.
A solidly-built, middle-aged army officer strode up to Han, Chewbacca and Iddims. "Lieutenant," he greeted Iddims, with a look at the Lieutenant's two companions that suggested he'd like to dump them into the nearest garbage chute.
"Colonel Wellaine," Iddims said respectfully. "Lord Vader should be here any moment. These men are his friends. Has their ship arrived, sir?"
The Colonel nodded. "Over there," he said, nodding his head in the direction of the huge Imperial transport. A sour smile touched the Colonel's face as he added, "watch out, it's got a guard dog. Or a guard puppy."
"Yes, sir." Iddims looked as confused as Han felt. "Come on," Iddims said to Chewbacca.
They moved on again. As they neared the vast bulk of the transport and started to skirt around it, another ship came into view beyond.
"Oh, gods," Han whispered. "Chewie, look at that."
Chewie made a quiet howl.
The Millennium Falcon sat on her landing struts on the transport bay floor, dwarfed by the Imperial vessel but looking, gods, absolutely wonderful. Her boarding ramp stood open, but Han couldn't see any sign of the "guard dog" that the Colonel had mentioned.
"Put me down, Chewie," Han hissed urgently. "Now."
He was damned if he was going to let himself be carried onto his ship. She'd come through for him again, and he was going to walk up her boarding ramp as her captain should, or die trying.
Chewbacca gave a muttered growl that said, "humans". But he cautiously lowered Han to a standing position. Han took a very careful step toward the Falcon.
He didn't faint, or fall over. He hurt like hell, but he ought to be used to that by now. He took another step, then another, starting to move faster and almost forgetting the fact that most of the skin on his right side was barbecued.
When he reached the ramp, he stopped, not just because he needed to catch his breath. He put out his hand and touched the Falcon's hull. He realised he was nearly crying.
"I told you to stay away from this ship!"
Han blinked and looked up as someone ran down the ramp and swung off the edge halfway down, an inch away from landing on Han's feet.
A very young woman had planted herself in front of Han, one hand on her hip and the other hand brandishing a blaster pistol.
She looked like an ad from some teen magazine. Her blue-black hair was pulled up in a ponytail at the top of her head, and her brown – almost purple – skin had a glow of youth and health that made Han feel profoundly old. Her clothing, such as it was, looked like it belonged in a gym instead of a transport bay in the Imperial Palace. A scanty black sports bra type thing and matching black leggings, with black running shoes and an incongruous pair of neon pink socks, made a very weird contrast to the blaster in her hand. Han couldn't tell if she was dressed for a commando raid or her morning jog.
The girl looked him up and down, and suddenly grinned. "Oh. Sorry. You're General Solo, right?"
"Cool. Good to meet you. Hey, you are pretty cute. My mom said you were."
"Oh," said Han.
"And you're Chewbacca, right? This is so cool! Hi," she added, to the bemused Lieutenant Iddims.
"Hi," Iddims replied.
Taking pity on Han's blank stare, she said, "I'm Camar Delayne. You met my folks a few days ago. They were busy tonight so they asked me to deliver your ship to you."
Oh, Han thought, of course. In the midst of everything he'd kind of forgotten that they'd left the Falcon with ex-crimelord Baccara Chovitza. The officially dead Baccara Chovitza, who was living under an assumed name, who apparently owed his life to Darth Vader, and who had a daughter at the University of Coruscant.
"Great," said Han, "thanks." If he thought about some college kid piloting his ship he would probably start screaming, so he just wasn't going to think about it.
"Have you seen Lord Vader?" Camar Delayne asked now, suddenly looking worried. "Is he all right?"
"Yeah, he's fine," Han said, wishing he could get out of this conversation. He had to get something onto these burns. The Falcon didn't have much in the way of med supplies, but it would be better than nothing. "He's helping with the evacuation, he'll be here any minute." Or he damned well better be, Han added silently. Where the hell are they?
The girl heaved a big sigh, and grinned. "Cool," she said.
He didn't even notice that he'd started swaying on his feet, until Chewie growled a warning and grabbed hold of his shoulder. Han blinked and found both the girl and Lieutenant Iddims staring at him in concern.
"Want me to get you a medic?" Iddims inquired.
"Nah," Han said quickly, "they're too busy. I'll go put on some burn spray."
Iddims nodded. "Why don't you two get the ship prepped for take-off. I'll keep watch for Lord Vader."
"Me too," said Camar.
With Chewie's help Han warily limped up the ramp. At the hatch he turned to check if Darth and Leia were in sight yet, but the entrance to the transport bay held only a few random soldiers. No huge dark figure and no tiny delicate princess. Camar Delayne had sat down at the end of the ramp and was apparently striking up a conversation with Lieutenant Iddims.
The Falcon's medbay was more like a closet. Not for the first time Han thought that he really had to get this place enlarged, especially if he was going to keep running around with his in-laws and nearly getting killed. Next time he burned half his body he wanted to be able to spray cool-seal on himself without bumping into the wall every time he moved.
He ignored Chewie's suggestion that he ought to get the burned fabric out of his wounds, and started for the cockpit, with the grumbling Wookiee at his heels. Time enough for that later when he could get to the Rebellion's med-droids with their nice knock-out drugs. Either that or a very big glass of kahy.
Getting the Falcon prepped was the work of about a minute. Han checked eight times that the hyperdrive was in working order, though he didn't know why he was bothering. It said it was working fine, but that didn't have to mean anything. For all he knew, Baccara Chovitza or his daughter could be some kind of double agents. They could have screwed up the hyperdrive just like Lando and his guys, and Han wouldn't know anything until he pulled the lever and heard that godsawful creaking noise and the ship just sat there.
If that happened again with Leia on board, she'd never let him forget it.
He stared out the Falcon's viewscreen. Damn, he had a bad feeling. Something would happen to Leia or Darth, they wouldn't make it to the transport bay by the time they had to evacuate, he'd have to choose between leaving without them and staying here and getting fried … and of course he'd stay, and go running out of the ship to look for them, and the place would be falling down around his ears just like godsdamned bloody Hoth all over again …
Chewbacca roared, here they come.
Sure enough. A large, somewhat straggling collection of soldiers was making its way through the entranceway, including several wounded men being carried on stretchers. At the very back of the group were Leia and Darth Vader.
Han didn't even try to control his jolt of emotions at the sight of the two black-clad figures, one barely half the size of the other. Vader had one arm resting on Leia's shoulders, and Leia had her uninjured arm around her father's waist. Darth wasn't walking with his usual sweeping stride, and it didn't look as if that was just so that Leia could keep up with him. Both of them looked almost too tired to walk.
It was all Han could do to keep himself planted in the pilot's seat instead of jumping up and running out there to them, burns or no burns. They're fine, he told himself. They had stopped walking now and let go of each other, and both visibly straightened their postures. Lord Vader was talking to a handful of officers. Han saw him take a portable com unit that one of the officers held out to him, and speak into it.
They're fine. They're completely fine. Gods damn it, though, why didn't they hurry up? Didn't they know how these things worked? That just as soon as they thought they were safe, some enemy would pop up behind them –or in front of them? Though, Han guessed, maybe they wouldn't have as many enemies popping up these days, since Darth Vader was now on their side.
Vader handed the com back to the officer, said something else, then he and Leia started across the transport bay floor. They walked more purposefully this time and they weren't holding on to each other. As Han watched, another figure emerged from under the Falcon and ran across the transport bay. Camar was too far away for Han to really see her flash of pink socks, but she was putting her running shoes to good use.
She stopped just short of Leia and Vader. Han saw the three of them talking, Vader apparently introducing his daughter to the daughter of Baccara Chovitza. Gods, Han wondered what Leia would think of this kid. He really hoped that little Miss Chovitza wouldn't repeat her comment that Han was "pretty cute".
Lieutenant Iddims had followed Camar at a more sedate pace. There was some discussion, then Iddims bowed slightly and headed toward the huge Imperial transport, while the other three set out for the Falcon again.
Han jumped and Chewie gave a little growling yelp as some unknown guy's voice emerged from the Falcon's com link. "Millennium Falcon, do you copy?"
"Yeah, we copy," said Han, mentally adding, and who in the hell are you?
"This is the troop transport Vengeance. You've got clearance for take-off as soon as Lord Vader's aboard. We'll follow as soon as you're clear of the building. We're to rendezvous with the other escape vessels at Viega and make the jump to Hyperspace there."
"Gotcha," Han acknowledged. He wondered what the population of the resort moon Viega would think when this lot showed up at their doorstep. When the link closed, he said quietly, "Chewie. Train our guns on that door. Anyone comes through it chasing Leia and Darth, we're not letting them take a shot."
Chewbacca growled agreement, and Han slumped down in his chair, wincing as the movement scraped his burns. He watched as Leia, Vader and Camar approached, way too damn slowly as far as he was concerned. He was hanging on to his pessimism, so it wouldn't be too bad of a shock if some gang of stormtroopers did rush through that door and start shooting. But a little voice of happiness and wonder was whispering in his mind, all the same.
Leia's safe. She's safe.
Of course another question, that he didn't even begin to want to think about, was their babies. Leia would have told him if something had happened to them, wouldn't she? Or maybe not. Not in the middle of a palace revolt. She'd want to wait till they could be alone. And she wouldn't want to talk about it any more than he did.
Please, he thought to whatever might be out there and might be listening. Please.
The three of them moved out of the Falcon's viewscreen, and a moment later Darth Vader's voice came through the com, "General Solo, we are safely aboard."
"Chewie," said Han, "close that hatch and let's get out of here."
The others joined them in the cockpit just as they rose through the transport bay's opened roof. Han glanced back, and he really didn't like the way Leia was looking. She looked way too pale, and her eyes seemed to be gazing at something that wasn't there. None of them sat down in the two available seats. Leia and Vader didn't seem to notice them, even though Vader had to bend down to avoid banging his head on the ceiling. Camar Delayne leaned casually on the back of the chair behind Chewie, but she clearly wasn't going to sit down if the others didn't.
"What do we do with you, kid?" Han asked her. "You joining the Rebellion?"
She smiled. "No, thanks. Can you drop me off on campus? I'm supposed to meet my room mate at the library to work on a research paper."
"Sure thing," Han shrugged, turning to the control panel again. "You'll have to give me directions."
They flew free of the Palace and turned left onto Imperial Boulevard. While Camar was giving him directions – down Imperial five blocks, turn right on Galactic, make a left on University – Han suddenly heard both Leia and Vader gasp. He turned around again, but this time Leia smiled at him, and there seemed to be more colour in her face. Darth Vader put his hand on her shoulder and nodded toward the empty seat in front of them. She squeezed Vader's arm and sat down.
"We're fine, Han," she said. "You'd better look where we're flying."
Something looked weird about the city. Han hadn't been here much, but even he could tell that there were fewer lights than usual. Scattered throughout the distance were large patches of darkness. From this angle, it looked like only about a third of Imperial City was lit.
"Where the hell are the lights?" Han asked.
"Oh," said the crimelord's daughter. "That was our guys. We took out power stations 3, 5 and 10, so the ground forces wouldn't be able to get to the Palace. Most of them are stuck guarding the department stores and ritzy houses, so they don't get looted in the blackout. We sent some looters over there, too. Oh, and the central communications computer's down at Police Headquarters."
"Impressive," said Vader, sounding amused. "Give my thanks to your father."
"I will. He's gonna be so glad you're alive!"
Han stared out at the cityscape, trying not to let his jaw sag in amazement. Hadn't Chovitza said he didn't have much of an organisation anymore? Of course maybe he didn't think that he did, since he'd once controlled about half the crime in the galaxy.
"How is school?" Vader asked Camar.
"Oh, fine. Kind of boring. We've got to take our humanities requirement freshman Year, so I'm taking the modern history class about how great the Empire is. Hey," she added, after a moment's thought, "maybe they'll cancel that one now."
Vader said, "I wouldn't be surprised."
"Turn here," Camar ordered. All the power seemed to be on at the University campus, and Han wondered if Chovitza had made that decision deliberately so his daughter could work on her homework.
"That's the library up ahead. You can land on the roof, it's big enough."
"Okay," said Han. The crew of the troop transport Vengeance were probably having fifty fits by now, if they'd noticed that the Falcon wasn't heading straight to Viega. Oh well, they were Imperials. They deserved a few ulcers.
The Millennium Falcon settled down on the roof of the tall, pillared library building. "This stop, University Library," Han said, punching the buttons that opened the entry hatch and extended the ramp.
"Cool, thanks. Good to meet you, everybody. See you later, My Lord."
"Give your parents my love," said Darth Vader.
They watched the girl stroll across the library roof and disappear through a door that was probably an emergency exit. Han wondered if that would set off the alarms in the building, which wouldn't do much for anyone trying to study in there. But maybe the daughter of Baccara Chovitza had some handy device that turned off alarm systems.
"Where to now?" Han asked. "Off to Viega?"
"Yes," said Vader.
As they soared out of the atmosphere, Leia stood and leaned over to plant a kiss on the unburned side of Han's face. "I'll be back soon," she said. "I want to put something on my wrist. Chewie, can you come to the medbay with me?"
"I'll go," Han protested. "Chewie and Darth can fly this thing, I'll come with you."
"No, you stay here. It'll only take a minute. Will you come with me, Chewie?"
Chewie growled his "of course" growl, and the two of them left the cockpit. After a moment's pause Darth sat down in the co-pilot's seat.
Han glanced over at his almost-father-in-law. "What was wrong with you two in the transport bay?" he demanded. "You looked like shit." And you scared the shit out of me. He didn't say that part aloud, but he was pretty sure Vader could sense it.
Vader said, "Leia and I constructed a forcefield across the hallway, so the Imperial Guards could not pursue us from that direction. We kept it in place until the transport was clear of the Palace."
"Oh." Well, sure, Han thought, why not? "So, you wanna fill me in on what's been happening? How much trouble are we in this time?"
"Not as much as usual," said Vader. "The short version is, Leia and I killed the Emperor."
"Oh." And Han couldn't think of anything to say after that. "You mean, really killed him? You're sure?"
"Pretty sure," Vader said dryly.
"Well. Gods. Shit. That's great! Shit." Han shook his head and forced himself to shut up. Palpatine was a boring conversation topic, anyway. "Did you talk with Luke?" he asked instead. "Did he get out of the Palace okay?"
Vader sighed. "I haven't talked with him personally. I was assured that he's safely on board the Conquest." Vader leaned forward a little and stared out the viewscreen. "I'll have to call him," the Dark Lord went on, in a thoroughly unhappy tone of voice.
"Hey," Han said, attempting to be jovial, "it can't be that bad, can it?"
"Wait till you have children." Vader gave another heavy sigh, and Han had the distinct impression that he would have been rubbing his hands over his face, if his face had been accessible. "Ah, damn," he said. "I've got to write to Silistria and Ascelin." When Han glanced at him questioningly, he elaborated, "Palpatine's children. I don't know them that well, but – I'll have to contact them."
"What are you going to say?" Han demanded. "ÔI'm sorry I murdered your father'?"
"No, because they'll know that I am not. They haven't been close with their father for years, but I still owe them an explanation."
What fun, Han thought. Better you than me. They were nearing the Perimeter Defence Station, and he asked, trying to sound casual, "you want to make us invisible again?"
"It shouldn't be necessary. Their weapons should be off-line."
He didn't like the use of the word "should" in those sentences, but they sailed past the station without difficulty. Han was about to move them into orbit around Viega and try to contact their Imperial buddies, when a Star Destroyer soared into view ahead of them.
I knew it, he thought. I knew we weren't going to get out of this. He checked their shields and weapons and was keying in the Hyperspace route to Omean, when the com sprang into life again.
"This is Captain Cahusac of the Retribution," declared a man with a strong Nagamasan accent. "Is Lord Vader aboard?"
"He is," answered Vader in his unmistakable voice. "How are you, Captain?"
"Very well, thank you, My Lord!" The Captain sounded so happy, Han wouldn't have been surprised if he'd broken into song. "Your ship is the last to arrive, My Lord, the others are waiting for you. We haven't seen you, of course. We're experiencing technical difficulties with our sensors and communications systems."
"I see. I hope they'll be repaired soon, Captain."
"Thank you, My Lord. I'm sure they will be."
A few minutes later, when they had just made the jump to Hyperspace, Vader suddenly stood. He said, "I'll be in the lounge. It's good to work with you again, Han."
"Hunh?" Han asked in confusion. He turned toward the rapidly departing Vader, and saw Leia standing in the door of the cockpit, smiling at him. Chewbacca was nowhere in sight.
"Hi," said Han, feeling his insides leap and twist and go flying off on some hyperspace route of their own.
"Hi," Leia said. She crossed to the seat that her father had just vacated and sat down beside Han, reaching out to close her hand around his.
"Um." Han swallowed. "So what's going on, Princess?"
"I went to check on the babies," she said, running her fingers over the back of his hand. "You know, you've got pretty good obstetric monitors on this ship. I don't know whether to be impressed or suspicious."
"Leia," he said, "are you going to tell me or not?"
"They're fine." She smiled up at him, and he thought that he'd never loved anybody so much in his entire life. "They're absolutely fine. Chewbacca wanted to break out the cigars, but I told him that was bad luck and he had to wait."
Oh, gods. For a moment he stared out at the Hyperspace trails, wondering if they were really blurred or if that was something in his eyes.
He looked at her again. "I love you," he said. "And don't say 'I know', or I'll strangle you."
She grinned. "Okay. I won't say it."
She leaned over and kissed him.
Luke slumped in one of the big leather chairs in the Officers' Lounge of the Conquest, watching Hyperspace stream past the viewport that took up one entire wall.
There were a few other men in the lounge, and symbolic of the great upheaval that had just taken place in all of their lives, not all of them were officers. A mixed group of army, navy and Palace Guards were sitting some distance away from Luke, talking quietly over their drinks. At one end of the large room, a navy guy had stretched out on a couch and was fast asleep.
No one in the lounge had gone anywhere near Luke, except for the service droid that had asked if he required anything. I don't blame them, Luke thought. I don't want to be near myself either.
He felt weird. Empty and distant, as if all of this had been happening to somebody else. He'd barely exchanged two words with anyone since the dressing-down he'd gotten from Nevoy back in the crumbling hallway. He'd barely thought about anything either, except for the resolution that he was not going to cry. Not ever again, if he could help it. You've done too damn much crying already, he told himself. Enough to last you the rest of your life.
"Commander Skywalker?" came a voice from behind him.
He looked over his shoulder to see some young kid in a navy uniform. Luke was startled to realise that he'd thought of the guy as a young kid; he was used to feeling like the youngest person around, himself. He was certainly used to feeling like the most inexperienced and stupid person in the vicinity. But this kid looked like he couldn't be more than sixteen, and Luke suddenly felt old. The kid also looked nervous, and sweat shone on his forehead. Luke wondered if he was scared of having to face the monster who'd destroyed the first Death Star.
"Yes?" Luke acknowledged quietly.
"Moff Nevoy requests your presence in the Captain's office. There is a message for you from Lord Vader."
Oh, great, thought Luke. Now I'll have to explain why I've failed to live up to his expectations. Again. Must be shitty having such a disappointing son.
Though it's probably better now. Now he's got Leia.
Luke nodded and stood. The kid eyed him with a strange expression, half scared and half filled with awe. Luke wondered if the kid was impressed that he could face talking to Darth Vader without melting into a puddle of terror.
Hell, Luke thought, I wish I were scared of Vader. Instead of just being scared of the fact that I'll never be good enough for him.
"If you'll follow me, sir," said young Ensign Whoever-he-was.
As they walked through the hallways, Luke reflected that one could definitely tell this had been Palpatine's private barge. The halls had thick purple carpets.
They stopped at a door with the Imperial insignia blazoned on it, and the navy kid pressed the button at the door's side. Nevoy's voice replied "come in" through the com and the door slid open. The Ensign deferentially stepped back.
Luke stepped into a large office. It was separated by a clear plastisteel partition from another room beyond it, with comfortable-looking sofas and armchairs and a huge, oval-shaped viewport. In the office stood a desk with a holo-projecting com at its centre, that was currently projecting the image of Darth Vader. Only the Dark Lord's head and upper body were visible, making it look peculiarly as if he were sitting inside the desk.
Moff Nevoy, seated at the desk, said, "excuse me a moment, My Lord." He turned toward the door. "Thank you, Broenneke," he said. "That's all."
The petrified Ensign saluted and hastily departed. The door closed.
"Commander Skywalker is here, My Lord," Nevoy reported to the projection of Vader. There was no anger or hatred in his voice when he said that, which Luke reflected gloomily was a lot more self control than he'd be able to show in the Moff's situation.
"Yes," said Vader. The Dark Lord paused a moment, then said, "I am truly sorry about General Mulcahy. He will be missed."
"Yes. He will. My Lord." This time there was a hesitation on Nevoy's part, then he asked, with an almost challenging tone, "or should I call you Field Marshal Skywalker?"
Luke gasped in surprise. A much longer pause followed before Vader said coldly, "I would rather you did not." Luke would have expected that to be the end of the conversation, but Lord Vader continued. "I couldn't tell you. Perhaps you believe that I should have. But we didn't believe we could risk telling anyone. For our plan to work, Anakin Skywalker had to be dead. To everyone."
"I understand, My Lord," said Nevoy. Then he smiled. "But I'm glad that he isn't."
Luke was sure there was an answering smile in Vader's voice as he said, "thank you."
"Well." Nevoy stood up and turned to Luke. "I'll be next door if you need anything," the Moff told him, nodding toward the room beyond the partition. "Don't worry, the partition's soundproof."
Luke nodded and waited while Nevoy stepped through the plastisteel door, that slid quietly open and then shut again behind him.
Luke walked to the desk and sat down.
"Luke," Vader said.
"Father," Luke acknowledged, glad that so far at least he'd managed to keep his voice steady.
"I wish we could talk in person."
Now there was no opportunity to see if his voice would stay steady or not, because Luke couldn't think of one damned thing to say.
Vader pursued, "Leia told me something of what's happened to you."
"I've lost the Force," Luke said. His voice was still even, but it was bitter and flat. He heard himself saying, "I don't know what good I am to anyone any more. I can't – I can't do anything."
"Luke," Vader said fiercely. "You are an excellent pilot, a skilled marksman and an experienced soldier. And you are my son. The Force wouldn't make it up to me if I lost you."
Luke gazed down at the desk. There was a damned lump in his throat, but thank the gods, he wasn't crying yet.
"When we get back," Vader went on, "you will be important to the Alliance. We will need people who can work to integrate our new troops with the existing forces. Pilots experienced with x-wings, to train those new pilots who have never worked with x-wings before. If the Alliance sets itself up as a new republic, our forces will need to evolve from a weapon of rebellion. You can be a leader in all of that."
Maybe, Luke thought. If I can stop myself from breaking down every five minutes. He looked up at his father. Luke said, "I wish I weren't a disappointment to you."
"Luke. I am not disappointed."
Luke held Vader's gaze for a few moments, then looked down again. He felt an absurd surge of triumph at the realisation that he still wasn't crying.
He heard Vader say, "there's something else. When I believed I was going to be executed … there were things I promised myself I'd say to you if I ever had the chance."
Luke forced himself to look up. He wasn't at all sure that he wanted to hear this. "What things?" he asked.
"I am sorry about Beru and Owen. I never intended what happened to them."
Now Luke didn't trust his voice at all. The smouldering corpses in front of their charred farmhouse appeared vividly before his eyes.
"I was thinking," Vader said, "perhaps you and I could go to Tatooine. We could see to it that some memorial is erected to them."
Luke thought about that. It did sound like something they should do – and he'd be a fool if he turned down the opportunity for some time with his father – but the idea of going back to Tatooine made him feel ill. He'd gone back when Han was captured, of course, but that was different. It had been the present that brought him there, not the past. And he hadn't had to go anywhere near his Aunt and Uncle's farm.
"I'd like that, I think," he said. "I'm just not sure I could stand going back there."
"Nor I," admitted Vader. "How about this. We can try going back, and if we can't handle it, we can go on vacation instead."
To his own amazement, Luke laughed. He grinned at his father. "All right," he said. "You've got a deal." And now he really needed to end this conversation, because his emotions were doing too many damn weird things and he wasn't sure he'd stick to his no crying resolution if he didn't get out of this fast.
He stood up. "I should get out of the office," he said, "in case anyone else needs it."
Vader nodded. "We'll talk more at the Base."
Luke nodded. "Yes."
"I love you, Luke," said Vader.
"Yeah. I love you too."
The projection of Vader winked out. Luke took a deep breath.
He looked through the plastisteel partition, and saw Moff Nevoy sitting in one of the armchairs that faced out toward the viewport. He wasn't gazing into space, however. He was looking down at something in his hands. Luke couldn't tell what it was. He wondered if he should just leave, but he knew that if he didn't face the Moff now, he might not get up the courage again.
He walked toward the partition, which opened in front of him.
"Sir," said Luke. "Do you have a moment?"
Nevoy looked up from the strange, small shape in his hands. Luke suddenly realised it was a very old and battered stuffed animal. Just maybe, from the horns at one end of it, it was a bantha. He quickly forced himself to stop staring at the thing, and wondered about the expression on Nevoy's face. The lines of tension and sadness were very visible. But Luke didn't see, for the moment, the hate that he expected to see there.
"I have plenty of moments," Nevoy said quietly. "What can I do for you, Commander?"
Luke swallowed and wanted to run from the room. "I'd consider it an honour," he said, "if you would tell me about your son."
Nevoy gazed at him steadily. He was turning the weather-beaten stuffed toy around in his hands.
"Will you tell me his name, sir?" Luke requested.
"Lieutenant Commander Laram Nevoy." He was still studying Luke, and Luke thought it had been a lot easier to face Darth Vader.
"I'll tell you about him," Nevoy said finally. "Later."
"Thank you, sir. I appreciate it."
"Was there anything else?"
"No. Goodnight, sir."
Luke walked from the room and through the office. He risked a glance back just before stepping into the hall. Moff Nevoy was looking down again at the stuffed bantha he held in his hands.
A strident beeping from her console jerked Mon Mothma awake. She sat up with a gasp from where she'd fallen asleep at her desk, desperately straightening her hair and rubbing her face to make sure there weren't any bits of paper stuck to it. Then she realised that the computer screen didn't show the image of whoever was making the call. Instead of one of the Rebellion's communications officers or the command staff, there was just a small written message at the top of the screen, preceded by the spiralling green starfield logo of Starways Communications Corp. The message read, "you have a collect call from Public Terminal No. 53, Ynyos Station, Ksedje Three. Will you accept the charges?"
Mon Mothma stared, reaching out to mute the alarm.
A collect call?
What? Or more to the point, who?
No one outside the Rebellion should know the number to reach her here. She didn't have any friends outside the Rebellion any more, and she wasn't in touch with any relatives. Theoretically, if she did accept the charges, they would be paid through the carefully laundered and camouflaged communications accounts that the Alliance maintained. The contact shouldn't be traceable to the Rebellion. But the odds were that whoever was calling, they already knew damned well who and where she was.
So what did it mean?
A stab of dread jolted through her as she thought of Captain Needa and the unknown amount of information in his possession.
He could easily have her account number -- or that of anyone else in the Rebelliion. Her mind leaped ahead to the horrible speculation that he had passed on their contact information to Imperial Intelligence. The message could have some sort of self-destruct virus embedded in it. If she opened it her console could blow up, taking her and this whole wing of headquarters with it …
You're paranoid, she told herself. Of course, twenty years in the Rebellion hadn't given her any reason not to be paranoid.
She took a deep breath. Ynyos Station, Ksedje Three. She thought Ksedje was about five hours away, by the shortest Hyperspace route. It was in a system where the Empire had only the shakiest hold, but the Rebellion had never got much of a foothold there either. To be honest, neither the Rebellion nor the Empire wanted it. The Ksedjans were primarily interested in charging inflated prices to travellers unlucky enough to stop in their system, running gambling establishments so crooked that even the criminals stayed clear of them, and distilling a thoroughly nasty kahy, drunk only by alcoholic vagrants and alien species that thrived on raw alcohol.
Mon Mothma glanced at the chronometer on her desk. Five hours away. And it was nearly six hours, she thought, since Needa had blasted his way off Omean.
She frowned, reading for the first time a much smaller, third line of text glowing green underneath "will you accept the charges?" She'd assumed before that it was some sort of copyright statement by Starways Communications, but now she read, "message title: I apologise about the Admiral."
That could mean it was Needa, of course. He would know that one way to lure her into opening the message was to use the word "admiral", since one of the very few Admirals she knew was Piett.
Then again, who had more reasons to apologise than General Madine? And the title didn't read "I apologise to the Admiral", it said "about". It would be just like Madine to apologise to her about the whole damned mess, but never apologise to Piett.
Right. If the message did have a self-destruct virus, she would just have to accept getting exploded. Feeling more than a little stupid, she activated the emergency forcefield around her office, hoping it would be enough to contain any explosion. Not that there's going to be an explosion. After making sure that the computer was set on the highest possible level of virus screening, she typed in "yes" and her confirmation code, and waited.
The Starways Communications logo rotated while the connection was processed, then, just as Mon Mothma had decided that the call wouldn't come through at all, General Crix Madine appeared on the screen.
"Simara!" he yelled. "Thank God! I thought you'd never answer."
Her annoyance with being yelled at was far outweighed by her relief at seeing Madine alive – that, and the fact that her terminal hadn't exploded.
"Crix," she said, "are you all right?"
The General scowled. "I'm fine. I just spent forty-five minutes getting this call to go through. I've spent every last one of the hundred credits I had on me – twenty-five for the privilege of using the supposedly public toilet, and seventy-five for one hour on this terminal."
Oh, dear. She was not going to laugh, she absolutely was not. That resolution was severely tested by the unfortunate General's appearance, which she only really took in now that the first shock of seeing him was wearing off. He'd washed off the blood that had caked on his face, but he still had a swollen lip and a very noticeable black eye. Something else looked different from the usual Madine, but she couldn't place it until the thought hit her: oh, my gods. Needa stole his toupee.
Really, she thought, he looks much better without it. The fact that his hairline was somewhere around the top of his head might not be something Madine was willing to live with, but it looked a lot better than the peculiarly fake pancake of hair that the General usually wore.
I am not going to laugh. He has been through enough, without me snickering at him. But oh, dear. She was going to have to be desperately careful, for the rest of her career, never to mention hair or wigs or baldness in General Madine's presence.
Well, maybe she would tell Piett about it. After the shit Madine had put him through, she thought Piett deserved a little amusement at the General's expense.
Keep a straight face, she told herself. That's an order. "Where is Captain Needa?" she asked.
"I don't have the faintest idea. He didn't give me his itinerary when he left."
She sighed. Madine was clearly not going to be the most pleasant person to be around for the next few days. "We'll send someone to get you," she said. "Admiral Akbar's strike team is on their way back from the Baxtri Sector, perhaps we can re-route them to send one of their ships to your location.
Madine closed his eyes briefly and heaved a very heavy sigh. In a moment of compassion Mon Mothma thought she knew exactly what he was thinking. The poor silly man was worried about the impression he'd make when Akbar's team saw his bald head.
Maybe she should have a talk with him about it when he got back. Play big sister to him and convince the poor idiot that going bald was far preferable to that thing sitting on his head. Even better, she should find him a girlfriend who would take the matter in hand and forbid the toupee. Of course, any girlfriend of Madine would have to have the patience of a saint, but there had to be some woman in the Rebellion who could handle it.
More beeping announced the arrival of another message, this time from the base's communications centre. "I'm sorry, Crix," Mothma said, "I've got to put you on hold." A look of near panic touched Madine's face, and she added, "I'll be right back, I swear. I won't lose your signal."
Madine's image on the screen was replaced by that of a young communications officer, Lieutenant Dvarshkis. Before she could stop it, the speculation crossed Mon Mothma's mind, I wonder if she'd be interested in going out with Madine?
Dvarshkis' face wore a look of delight crossed with amazement. The moment she saw Mon Mothma, she blurted out, "Ma'am, we've got a message from Lord Vader! He's coming home!"
Once again Mothma found herself staring. And her first coherent thought was oh, thank gods, Grigori will be so glad!
Of course this development had a good deal more implications besides the happiness of Admiral Piett. Hoping that she had her dignified stateswoman expression firmly in place, she asked Dvarshkis, "can you put me through to him?"
She couldn't tell much about Lord Vader's surroundings. Some dimly lit metallic environment. The familiar black-armoured figure inclined his head politely when he saw her. "Mon Mothma."
"Lord Vader. I hope you are well? And the rest of your party?"
"We are. We have successfully retrieved Commander Skywalker and Princess Leia. And we have some new recruits. We are returning with the Millennium Falcon, the Imperial Barge Conquest, the troop transport Vengeance, eight Lambda shuttles, and approximately five hundred officers and men."
Good gods. She was really beginning to wonder if Vader had some particularly powerful gods on his side, or if it was simply true what some of the ex-Imperials said, that Vader would never lose because he refused to admit the possibility that he could.
She nodded. "We'll arrange temporary accommodations for them on the Executor and the Mircalla until their new duties are assigned." Which of course meant that none of Vader's "new recruits" were to be allowed on the base until the Alliance had all of their names, backgrounds, and their oaths of loyalty – not that it would help much, she reflected grimly, if any of them decided to follow the path of Captain Needa.
"Of course," Vader said. "There is something else you should know, Ma'am. Emperor Palpatine is dead."
Mon Mothma froze. She noticed distantly that she'd grabbed hold of her desk, and the edge of it was digging into her palm. "You're sure?" she inquired, amazed to find that her voice sounded calm.
"I am. I will, of course, be presenting a full report. But I thought you should be the first in the Alliance to know."
She nodded again, forcing herself to let go of the desk. "Thank you."
Emperor Palpatine is dead. How incredibly strange it was to finally hear those words.
She wondered what Vader was thinking. He had sounded solemn, almost regretful, when he said it. She wondered if, now that it was over, Vader was thinking not of the mad Emperor but of the man who must once have been his friend.
Now that it was over? It wasn't over, of course. Even with Palpatine gone, it was too much to expect that the galaxy would just hail the Alliance as the legitimate government. They would have their work cut out for them, as always.
Well, she told herself, that's what we're here for.
And she had immediate problems to deal with. Such as getting a disgruntled General off of Ynyos Station.
A truly evil thought occurred to her.
No, she told herself, that's too cruel. Not to mention petty. Get a hold of yourself and start acting like the leader you're supposed to be.
"If there's nothing else, Ma'am -- " Darth Vader began.
"Just a moment, My Lord," she said. "There is something."
Of all the people that Crix Madine would not want to see him just now, Darth Vader and a bunch of Imperials were probably right at the top of the list.
It's awful and wrong. He came to you as a friend, because he thought you could get him out of this without putting him through too much embarrassment.
Of course if he was her friend, he shouldn't have made so damned many public, insulting comments about her and Piett.
Mon Mothma smiled. She asked the Dark Lord of the Sith, "do you think one of your vessels could make a stop at Ksedje Three?"
Leia was asleep with her head on Darth Vader's chest. She was nestled to the side of his chest-box. He didn't imagine that his chest could be all that comfortable to sleep on, particularly with her cheek pressed up against the side of the metal box. But Leia did not seem to mind. She had fallen asleep clutching his hand, and had not let go.
She had been in the Falcon's cockpit with Solo and Chewbacca – who'd rejoined them after giving them a decent amount of time to be alone together -- while Vader talked with Luke and then Mon Mothma. A few minutes ago she had joined him here in the crew lounge. They had started to talk about what the Alliance's next steps should be, but almost immediately Leia had fallen asleep.
With his free hand, Vader stroked her hair. She hadn't yet brushed her hair after their battle, and the silken brown tresses were escaping out of her braid. Vader wished that he could lean down and plant a kiss on the top of her head, but of course that was not going to happen unless he entirely redesigned his mask and breathing apparatus. Not worth it. He would rather retain the face of Darth Vader than sacrifice it for the chance to kiss his daughter.
He could hardly dare to believe that she was here. And that they weren't fighting each other.
She was his. Really, really his.
He was still sorry not to have any of the usual parental memories. Her first step, her first words, all those moments that parents seemed to treasure.
Still, though. At least he had something now. Fighting beside her to destroy the ruler of the galaxy was as good a place as any for their family life to begin.
The air around him shivered with a familiar tremor of energy. Even before he looked up, Vader knew precisely what that meant.
Vader barely managed to suppress a groan. "Obi Wan."
The Jedi's glowing form stood a few feet away from them, near the entrance to the lounge. He seemed more hesitant than Vader remembered him, watching Vader and Leia with a strange wistful expression.
Exhaustion crashed down on Vader. He said, "I do not need this today."
Kenobi asked, "can we talk?"
"No," said Vader. "Leia's just fallen asleep. I don't want her disturbed."
"It is important."
Vader nearly snarled. Everything was always important to Obi Wan, wasn't it? Why could the man never relax, not even now that he was dead? He thought, I hope, when I'm dead, I find the self-restraint to not keep turning up and annoying the living.
Leia shifted uneasily against him, and made a little wordless whimper. Damnation. She was going to wake up unless he got his irritation under control. With as much patience as he could summon, he blocked Obi Wan's presence out of his mind. It's all right, Leia, he thought. Go on sleeping. Everything will be all right.
He felt Leia relax, and her grasp on his hand loosened. He carefully freed his hand from hers and managed to ease out from under her, shifting one of the cushions so she could lean on it instead of on him. The Princess curled up a bit more, snuggling into the cushion. But she did not wake up. Vader stood and crossed to Obi Wan. He walked past the dead Jedi and into the corridor. Kenobi followed.
From where he had stopped, Vader could still see Leia asleep on the bench. He watched her for several moments more, then reluctantly turned toward Obi Wan Kenobi.
Crossing his arms under his chest box, Darth Vader inquired, "to what do I owe this visit?"
Kenobi met Vader's gaze calmly, his earlier hesitation gone. "I need to be sure that Luke and Leia will be all right."
"They will be," said Vader. "We all will."
"Have you spoken with Luke?"
"I have." The familiar anger seethed in him, that Obi Wan dared to challenge his parenting skills after everything Vader and his children had been through together.
The dead Jedi's expression spoke volumes of disbelief. It grated on Vader, the idea of explaining anything to Kenobi. But just maybe, Vader thought, if I say this right I can make the bastard go away. "Luke is still hurting. A great deal. But I believe his state of mind is improving. He seems to have formed a liking for Osheen Nevoy, which should assist matters. He should be able to talk with Nevoy, without having to contend with the baggage that you or I would bring to any conversation." There was still the same doubtful look on Kenobi's face, and Vader added belligerently, "Nevoy is a good man."
Obi Wan nodded. "I know he is."
Which leaves us where, exactly? Vader wondered. If we're not going to fight, what are we supposed to do? He felt like he should be offering the glowing blue Jedi some tea. "Was there anything else you wanted to know?"
The dead Jedi frowned. "Why can't you give up your anger, Darth? Even now?"
Vader's right fist clenched. Not again, he thought. He asked, "why should I?"
"Because it hurts the people you care about. Just like it always has. Look at Leia, she can feel your anger, it's breaking into her sleep. It will keep hurting them, and you, until you let it go."
Vader felt a whisper of unease from Leia in his mind. Once again, he shoved his annoyance away. "Leia understands anger," he said quietly, "and accepts it. As you were never able to do."
"Acceptance," said Kenobi, "brings defeat."
"Or victory. You should never close yourself off from possibilities, my Master." And this, Vader thought, is the same damned argument we kept having twenty-five years ago. What was the point of having lived though those decades, if they were just going to find themselves back where they started?
He said, "you want me to let go. Why can't you? Let the living build their own lives. I can accept your presence if Luke wants it. But do not preach to me, Obi Wan. I will lead my life, not yours."
Obi Wan Kenobi looked away. In a voice almost too quiet to hear, he said, "Luke has said that he does not want to see me again." He turned back to meet Vader's gaze defiantly, his voice strengthened again. "He will see me again if he wishes to. But not until then." Challenge in his eyes, the Jedi added, "be there for your children, Lord Vader. They will need you."
Vader inclined his head solemnly. He answered, "and I need them." There was a pause, then Vader asked, "is there any message you would like me to give them?" Because you really are outstaying your welcome, dear old teacher of mine.
"No. But there is a message for you. Everything I did, I believed was for the best. Can you believe that of me?"
Can I believe it? he wondered.
It wasn't, he thought, that he had forgiven Obi Wan. Or, Gods forbid, that he was sorry for what he himself had done.
Not for most of it, anyhow.
But he was just so tired of it all. It was over. Or it should have been over, long ago.
"I believe it," said Vader. "Can you believe that I am doing what I think is for the best?"
Kenobi stood in silence, his eyes seeming to bore through Vader's mask. Then he answered, "I believe it."
They watched each other, and for a moment Lord Vader knew what his old teacher was feeling. There was too much that should be said. Too much that, even now, they would not be able to say. That they would probably never say.
"May the Force be with you," said Obi Wan Kenobi.
The glowing blue Jedi was gone.
Vader stood staring into the space where Kenobi had stood. Then he walked back to where his daughter slept.
It would disturb her too much if he tried to sit on the bench again; she had stretched out to occupy most of it. But he didn't want to leave. Not just yet.
Sitting on the floor was hardly consistent with his dignity, but what the hell. Who was going to see him, anyway, with the possible exception of a few busybody dead Jedi?
He sat on the metal floor, leaning up against the bench, and once more taking Leia's hand in his. Everything was going to be all right.
He had a family. And they were on their way home.
Admiral Piett opened his eyes, to see, of all people, Darth Vader standing by his hospital bed. With a miniature tree in his hands.
"Uh --" Piett began. He had to clear his throat and try again. "My Lord. It's good to see you."
"And you, Admiral. How are you feeling?"
"Drugged. Getting better, I think. They say I'll be out of here in a day or so."
"Good." The Dark Lord seemed to hesitate a moment, then he sat gingerly on the edge of Piett's bed. The tree, in a little pot with silver and blue gift wrapping and a large metallic bow, still perched awkwardly in Vader's hands.
"I had ulcers once, you know," Lord Vader remarked. "When I was in the hospital, after my ... accident. Pretty nasty. Of course I had several other things wrong with me."
"Um ..." Time for a change of subject. Piett murmured, "My Lord, you've got a tree."
Vader looked down at the tree and adjusted the bow, then set the gift on the bedside table. "A Get Well Soon present. Mon Mothma said you had a collection, so I picked it up on the way back from Coruscant."
The universe was insane. Piett fully believed that. Escaping from his own execution and a revolution he had caused, Darth Vader stopped off at a Florist's.
"It's beautiful," said Piett. "A Mandusari spice tree, isn't it?"
"That's what the label says," answered Vader, the faintest hint of laughter in his voice. "Do you have one already?"
"No. Too expensive. Thank you." There was so much Piett wanted to ask about what had been happening these last few days. But his drugged sleepiness kept getting in the way. He queried faintly, "the Emperor ...?"
"He's dead. Really dead. Finally."
"Thank the Gods," breathed Piett. And now he really was going to fall asleep. If only Lord Vader would go away. Drugs or no drugs, he wasn't going to do anything so disrespectful as falling asleep in the Dark Lord's presence.
Vader got to his feet. "I'll leave you to get your rest, Admiral. And --" he paused, then said something that drove all thought of sleep from Piett's mind. "And I want to apologise."
"My Lord?" Piett propelled himself up on one elbow, staring at the dark figure. "Apologise for what?"
Vader shrugged. "For many things. For being the sort of commanding officer that I am. If I were not, you might not have developed your ulcer."
The universe is ending, Piett thought, that's the only way to explain this. He said, "you shouldn't blame yourself, My Lord. Dr. Tomczyk says ulcers aren't actually caused by stress at all. It's bacteria." And I do not believe I am having this conversation.
"Still. I have not been ... the easiest man to work for."
How the hell does one answer that? "Well ..."
"There is one thing you should know. I did not promote you with the intention of strangling you. I promoted you because I knew I would not have to strangle you." Then, while Piett still floundered to process that information, Vader said brusquely, "get well soon, Admiral. We all need reliable officers. And reliable friends."
The Dark Lord strode out of the room. Piett lay back in his bed.
Oh well, he thought. Stranger things have happened. He turned his head toward the Mandusari spice tree at his bedside, and fell asleep gazing at its bright silver bow.
It was one of the stranger dinner parties that he had attended.
Actually Nevoy wasn't sure he'd glorify it with the title of "party". One of the stranger dinner gatherings, at any rate. He didn't think it would qualify as a party unless a good deal more drinking were involved.
Well, they had a plan to take care of that. As soon as they could gracefully escape from dinner, he and his fellow conspirators were going to re-convene at Captain Raby's quarters on the Conquest, and do their damnedest to deplete the Imperial Barge's liquor supply. For now they had to content themselves with the utilitarian cooking of the Rebels' mess hall, a few bottles of bland Chandrilan wine that had apparently been the Chandrilan delegates' gift at some recent negotiations, and small talk with their new-found allies.
Nevoy vaguely recognised most of the Rebel leaders at the table, from wanted posters, Imperial Intelligence reports, and news stories. It seemed that at least half of them were Generals, including Han Solo the smuggler and some flamboyant character with a moustache and a cape, whose name Nevoy had forgotten immediately after they were introduced.
Idly, while picking at the boring but edible piece of pie on his plate, Nevoy wondered how the Rebellion could possibly need so many Generals. Maybe it was a more generic term in the Rebel chain of command, something like "chief". Perhaps they had a General of Station Maintenance, a General of Food Production, a General of …Waste Disposal. Or perhaps, he told himself more seriously, it was the rank used to reward soldiers who made it back alive from particularly deadly missions. And once they made General, they weren't sent on deadly missions any more, and the supply of Generals just kept building up. Eventually, the Rebellion would have more Generals than it had Privates.
Stop thinking like that, he told himself. The Rebellion will not have more Generals than Privates, because with Palpatine dead and all of us on its side, the Rebellion is going to triumph in no time flat. The Rebellion, or the Fourth Republic, or whatever the hells this is.
Of course then there would be the problem of coming up with salaries to pay all these Generals, when they were integrated into whatever new government they ended up with. Maybe some of them would accept early retirement.
You're being ridiculous, he thought. Stop thinking and eat your pie.
"Do you need more wine?" The friendly voice from his right-hand side belonged to one of the Generals, who had surprisingly turned out to be someone Nevoy knew from the old days. It had taken him a while to place the face, when they met earlier today at the first of their briefings on board the cruiser Mircalla. But as soon as he heard the General's name, he remembered. Jan Dodonna had been Colonel Dodonna when he disappeared in the Fourth Year of Palpatine, and was rumoured to have joined the Rebellion. He and Nevoy had run into each other occasionally when Dodonna served on General Mulcahy's staff, when Mulcahy was Chief of Combined Operations at the close of the last war. Of course Nevoy had only been a Commander then, so his interactions with Dodonna and the rest of the staff had usually consisted of comments like "good afternoon, sir". But Dodonna claimed to remember him.
He certainly remembered Nevoy's ex-wife, who had defected at around the same time as Dodonna's disappearance. Nevoy had dreaded asking about her, but he finally forced himself. To his intense relief, Dodonna informed him that Colonel Toranaga had retired about six years ago, for health reasons. She was living in semi-hiding under an assumed name on the Mon Calamari homeworld, at some settlement near the equator where the warm, watery environment was apparently good for her arthritis.
Gods, that was an odd thought. Ardella as an old woman, retired and suffering from arthritis. Of course she was considerably older than her ex–husband, but the news of her still made him feel ancient. But it was better than finding out she was still here, and he might run into her at any second.
Talking of Ardella naturally led them into discussion of other old acquaintances. Dodonna's face had gone very grim when Nevoy told him of Mulcahy's death. On impulse, Nevoy invited him to join in their after-dinner wake. He wasn't at all sure if Dodonna would show up, but he hoped so. What was the point of joining forces with these people, if they couldn't get drunk together?
Speaking of which, Dodonna was right. Nevoy's wine glass was somehow empty. He briefly considered stopping there; after all he didn't want their new allies to think the ex-Moff of Coruscant was some kind of hopeless sot. Then another glance at the peculiarly assorted people at the table told him that no, having another glass was really the smartest thing he could do.
"Thanks," he said as Dodonna refilled his glass. He looked around at his co-conspirators, wondering how soon they could make a break for it. Colonel Wellaine, who was sitting next to one of the Rebels' Mon Calamari captains and trying manfully not to look disturbed at sharing the dinner table with someone who looked like a fish, would probably be only too happy to get out of here. But the rest seemed to be enjoying themselves. Captain Sandar was in some lively conversation with the commander of one of the x-wing squadrons. Raby was discussing something with another of the Mon Calamari, an Admiral from his uniform. Dr. Hayashida was paying a lot of attention to Leia Organa, across the table from him – too much attention, from the sour looks Han Solo cast in his direction.
Nevoy sighed, letting his gaze wander over the rest of their dinner companions. Several, of course, were the Imperial officers who had defected with Vader. He recognised many of the Captains, and of course Veers, who'd commanded the army personnel on Lord Vader's flagship. Where was Veers' navy counterpart, though?
"I haven't seen Admiral Piett around," he commented to Dodonna. "Didn't he defect with the others at Endor?"
Dodonna nodded. "He's in hospital. Just had an ulcer operation a few days ago."
"Good heavens." That was not much of a recommendation for joining the Rebellion. Though, Nevoy supposed, one probably couldn't blame the Rebellion for the state of the Admiral's health. Piett, after all, was the officer who had the most constant interaction with Darth Vader.
That thought made Nevoy glance to where Vader was sitting, near the far end of the table. The Dark Lord wasn't eating or drinking – though the surreptitious looks people had been casting him throughout the meal showed that most of them were wondering if he might. He was, however, seated with everyone else, unlike at the damnable annual banquets where he'd just loomed menacingly behind Palpatine's chair.
At Vader's either side sat his children, Princess Leia to his left and Luke Skywalker to his right. Neither of them was wearing black any more, having changed into the beige and blue uniforms of the Rebellion. But even without that colour-coding to tie them to their father, Nevoy thought he could still see the connection between them, just in the way they talked and the way they looked at each other.
He sighed again, watching them. They seemed happy. Even Commander Skywalker looked fairly cheerful, for once.
An unwelcome surge of jealousy hit Nevoy, at the sight of that happy family group. Not that he could begrudge the Skywalker family – or the Vader family? – their chance to be together. He stared at Vader's mask, trying to envision the face beneath it. The face he had seen on display in the Great Hall, and when he went to visit Anakin Skywalker in the hospital.
Nevoy thought to Vader, or Anakin, you're happy, and I'm glad for you. Even if your son does need to see a psychiatrist and your daughter scares the shit out of me.
Damn. There was still time to get out of this. Maybe he should announce that he'd changed his mind, get the hells out of here, go spend some time with Rosmarin and Marida and the children.
He was not at all keen on going job-hunting at age fifty-eight. And as much as he loved his family, he wanted some kind of identity besides just being Dad and Granddad.
Face it, he told himself. If you retired, you'd go insane.
Gods, this dinner had to be nearly over. There wasn't much left on anyone's plates, and nobody was eating with the fervour that suggested they were clearing their plates to make way for another helping.
He glanced over his shoulder toward the other occupants of the Rebels' cafeteria. People were scattered around at just about every table in the place. There wasn't any set dinner-hour, so there'd been a good deal of coming and going during the time they'd been here. But he did get the feeling that a lot of the Rebels were lingering over their meals, waiting to see if the Big Brass would do something interesting.
Some hope, he thought. But just when he thought it, he was proven wrong.
Something was going on at Vader's end of the table. The Rebel leader Mon Mothma stood up from her place at the table's head, and conversation around the table ceased.
Mon Mothma said, with a graceful smile that didn't quite conceal her look of bone-deep weariness, "thank you all again for being here. We've all had a long day, and the days ahead won't be any shorter. But before we leave, I believe Lord Vader has something he wishes to say." She turned toward Vader, who inclined his head politely as Mon Mothma sat down.
"Thank you," Vader said to her. He didn't get to his feet, but he didn't need to. He had the attention of everyone at the table – and of quite a few others throughout the room. The cafeteria had gone deathly silent. It occurred to Nevoy that if anyone dropped their fork just now, the resultant noise would make every last one of them jump out of their skins.
Darth Vader said, "we have fought side by side, and our fight is not yet over. In the challenges that face us, our alliance will be the stronger if we can have confidence and trust in each other." He paused, as if trying to muster his words. "Some of you already know what I am about to tell you. Some have been told. Some have figured it out on their own. Some do not care in the slightest, and with those I am in full sympathy. I would be only too glad to say that the past is the past, and ignore it. But there will always be speculations if I do not make this announcement. And all of you deserve the truth.
"When I first joined the New Alliance a year ago, I told you it was because I wanted to build a connection with my son, Commander Skywalker." There was a communal intake of breath and the beginning of whispered exclamations from the newly-defected Imperials who had not heard this before. Vader continued calmly, "that was only part of the story. Among the questions many have asked themselves over this past year, is how to explain Luke Skywalker being the son of Darth Vader."
There was a faint rustle of movement, almost like leaves being blown by a breeze, as all around the room people sat up straighter, and listened.
"A few of you may recall a soldier of the Clone War named Anakin Skywalker, who died in mysterious circumstances around the same time that Palpatine came to power. If Skywalker's grave were to be exhumed, no body would be found. Anakin Skywalker's death was faked, and he reappeared the next year as Darth Vader."
Someone did drop a fork, or some piece of cutlery, anyway. The noise wasn't as startling as it might have been, because all around the Rebellion's cafeteria there sounded gasps and half-voiced exclamations.
"I have no wish to reclaim my life as Anakin Skywalker. As far as I am concerned, he can remain dead. But I am more grateful than I can say for the chance to build a life with my family. And if the chance exists to regain some of the friendships that were part of Anakin's life, then I am grateful for that as well."
The Dark Lord's gaze included Nevoy as he said that. Nevoy raised his wine glass in Vader's direction and took a drink. For a moment he contemplated inviting Lord Vader to Mulcahy's wake. But the image of Vader standing around menacingly, and putting the rest of them off their drink, killed that idea. Friendship and reconciliation only went so far. Perhaps someday they'd be comfortable enough with the Lord of the Sith to hang out with him. But not tonight.
Darth Vader turned toward Princess Leia. She smiled warmly at him, then stood.
The Princess stood so that she seemed to be addressing everyone in the room. Her clear, strong voice carried effortlessly across the mess hall, just as it had done in the Imperial Senate.
She said, "There's a third part to Lord Vader's story. At my request, he and the others who know have kept silent. I should have acknowledged it earlier, but I wasn't strong enough. I hadn't yet found the courage to accept who I was."
The cafeteria had gone silent again. Princess Leia looked steadily at the hundreds of people who were watching her, and Nevoy noticed that she had the ability to make you feel she was looking straight at you, even if she wasn't. He was willing to bet that every person in that room had the feeling that she was speaking directly to them.
"I am the adopted daughter of Bail and Keeiara Organa of Alderaan. I will never forget them, or forget the millions of lives that were lost with them on the day Alderaan died. I'm not asking any of you to forget. We have to remember the lives that were lost on all sides of this conflict. We have to remember the ideals that we fought for, so that as we try to rebuild our galaxy, we do it with the goal to make it better for everyone within it. We owe it to everyone who has suffered over these past twenty years, to create something better. We need to make sure that the suffering won't have been in vain.
"I will never forget the parents who brought me up. But I've been given a second chance that not many people get. I've always said that I've found a second family in the Rebellion. That was more literally true than I knew.
"When Lord Vader and the rest of our new allies joined us a year ago, I was as suspicious of them as any long-term Rebel among us. I was suspicious, and I was also afraid. Because for me, Lord Vader wasn't just the face of the Empire. He was also the man I had just discovered to be my father."
The tide of exclamations that swept up this time was louder than before, but Princess Leia gave no sign of noticing it.
"Commander Skywalker is my brother and Lord Vader is my father. I was afraid to accept it because I hadn't yet learned to move beyond the past and work to build the future. But that is what we must all do now. I want Luke and Lord Vader to be part of my life, and I want to be part of theirs. And I hope and pray that when people see we have been able to rebuild our family out of the disasters of twenty years of war, they will see it as proof that our galaxy can do the same."
Someone, somewhere started clapping. Soon the applause was sweeping around the room.
Nevoy couldn't quite bring himself to join in, though he knew he should. He felt a little whisper of foreboding as Vader and Skywalker stood and went to Princess Leia, and the three of them clasped hands.
He wondered, despite himself, if this was the first step in the whole thing starting again. If the presence of a family of Force-users at the centre of power would just lead to a new upsurge of the Jedi, to centuries of conflict between Force-users and non Force-users, to a new Palpatine and new purges and new wars. With nothing learned and with nothing changed.
Then he thought he could hear what Mulcahy would say to that. He could see the General fixing him with a gaze from under those bushy eyebrows, and could hear him say, "Osheen. You've been depressed so long you've forgotten how to be happy. We won this one. It's okay to be happy for a while. Now have a drink."
Nevoy picked up his half-filled glass of bland Chandrilan wine.
To the future, he thought. To the future and to the past.
He drained the glass.
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