September 15, 2000
Category: Star Wars, PG
Author: FernWithy

[Disclaimer]

First Encounters

Chapter One

I am Padmé Naberrie Skywalker, she reminded herself, clutching the blaster tightly against her chest. Amidala of the Naboo. I will not give in.

It wasn't easy. She was weak in body and spirit.

In body, because the supply lines had been cut months before, and there was little for anyone to eat. The commander of Camp One-A was a decent man, and saw to it that the officers received no more than the prisoners, and that what was foraged from the surface was shared evenly. But who knew how to forage and hunt now? Who had the technology to do so properly? The effect was becoming pronounced: officers and prisoners alike were thin and sickly, and no match for the band of pirates that had arrived an hour ago.

But a weak body wasn't of concern to her, at least not yet. She had the strength to move and hold a blaster, and in the chaos, the guards and the prisoners had banded together to defend themselves. What was bowing her down was her broken spirit.

She had not felt her children die. Palpatine had gleefully told her that Ani had hunted Luke down and chased him to Bespin, where he'd fallen, taking his gruesome pleasure in her grief. She had not given him that pleasure when he told her about Alderaan. There may not have been a need to keep that secret anymore, but Amidala refused to let him know what he had done to her. Her grief for the whole world was clear enough, for Saché and Bail, and the beautiful, rolling hills. For the millions of lost souls. Never allow him to know there was an even deeper, more personal pain to it. He fed on her agony as it was; she refused to let him feast.

But Ani -- Ani who had brought this misery on all of them -- Ani's death had come into her mind and soul with the shattering power of being torn in two. The children she had borne of her own body had not called out to her in their last moments; the man who had broken her heart every day for more than twenty years had. It wasn't right. For the last six months, she'd felt as though she were lurching from place to place, eating on command only, falling into the cold depths that surrounded her. The only thing that kept her from pushing herself through the strong Gungan shield was repeating her mantra: I am Padmé Naberrie Skywalker, Amidala of the Naboo. I will not give in.

She looked out the window of the medical building, where the prisoners had gathered for defense. A few guards were around them, or perhaps "with them" would have been a better way to put it. The guards said that the pirates had identified themselves as members of the army of the "New Republic," and had told the prisoners that they were welcome to surrender -- it had become apparent that the Empire had fallen a few months ago, though specific communications about the event had never reached them -- but most of the prisoners were not inclined to turn themselves over to this band. Better to starve among friends than risk being sold as slaves to pirates waving a flag of peace, or so the reasoning went.

Amidala was becoming less sure of this reasoning. As she watched the pirate band, she saw that they did, in fact, move like an army, that they were not shooting randomly, that they were making an effort to follow some kind of protocol. She noted that the commander of the camp had surrendered to them. Some even wore a semblance of a uniform, though the leader's outfit was plainly civilian (with the exception of a long, camouflage coat). She saw him break away from the group, and start toward the building by himself. A hotshot. Well, Amidala knew how to handle hotshots.

She'd gone to meet him, slipping unobtrusively out of the common room. Now, he was just beyond the entrance to this hallway, and about to turn. She took a slow deep breath, and raised her blaster.

***

Han Solo didn't know exactly when he'd lost control of the situation.

It had been going well at first, or at least he thought it had. They'd found the energy traces in the planet core, and the Gungan guide had identified them as Gungan shield technology. "Higher than we keep it, though," he said. He spoke gruffly, mainly to cover the strange accent that he seemed to slip into when he wasn't thinking about it. "Lotsa higher."

It hadn't taken long, once they suspected the existence of the base, to find it, and it hadn't taken long to ascertain that it was a prison camp. They'd found quite a few in the six months since the Death Star had been destroyed (many -- though not this one -- thanks to a high level Imperial security code that Luke did not explain his possession of, and Han did not ask about). Han had figured that would make it easy, that most of the people here would be willing to help themselves get out.

Well, he'd been right as far as it went. As soon as the cell doors had opened, they'd come streaming out. Then some rumor seemed to have spread, and Han never got a chance to tell them he'd come to help. They'd half-teamed with the old guards -- what the hell, Han thought, a place like this was for lifers, and they probably knew their guards a whole lot better than they knew a bunch of strangers -- and were defending themselves as if they were under attack.

"Great," he muttered under his breath. "This is just great." Naturally, this was the day Leia had chosen to drag Luke to the ruined city of Theed, to look for traces of their mother -- he could have used her knack for getting crowds under control just now. If that hadn't worked, he could use a few flashy swipes from Luke's lightsaber. It seemed to attract attention wherever they went, at any rate.

The fighting finally seemed to have localized around the large medical building, and was mainly being carried out by the prisoners, which was bound to make it a little more difficult, since it was a little outside mission parameters to start shooting them. He'd left a Lieutenant named G'shien outside the door, and made his way in, on the theory that in this chaos, one person could slip by easier than a whole squadron.

The first thing that struck him was the strong odor of antiseptic cleaning, then the gleaming, sterile tools behind forcefields on the wall. Gurneys floated, neglected, along the hallways. Lab equipment peeking out from open cupboards (Han chose not to wonder too closely what experiments were done here). He walked down the long hallway, listening for the sounds of the group shooting from the windows upstairs. They would be --

He turned a corner, and found himself facing down the barrel of a standard Imperial issue blaster. "Not one step," the woman behind it said. She was in her middle years, older than Han was, but he didn't think it was by much. She was thin to the point of starvation, but strikingly beautiful nonetheless. She wore a simple dress that hung loosely on her, and she was small-statured. She looked like she hadn't gotten enough food or enough sleep for quite some time.

She should not have looked at all threatening -- but Han got the feeling that this was a woman he didn't especially want to cross. And there was something about her, some trick of the light, something that made her seem... Han didn't know what it made her seem, exactly. "Not one step until you tell me who you are and what you're planning here."

"Look, lady, we're here to help you."

"You're doing a marvelous job so far." She arched an eyebrow over one exquisite eye. "Did it occur to you to try doing this with some kind of control? Or did you just plan to come in and start shooting?"

Familiar, Han decided. That's what it made her seem. He half-expected her to finish with, When you came in here, did have a plan for getting out? Well, he figured, that had worked out okay in the end. He took a deep breath, and tried to be reasonable. "Who do you think we're going to shoot?" he said. "We didn't even shoot the guards."

She looked at him cautiously, not lowering the blaster, but looking less like she planned to pull the trigger any second. "Who are you? Who sent you?"

"I'm from the Alliance. The New Republic," he corrected himself. "General Han Solo."

"The New Republic?"

"Yeah."

"Then it's true. The Empire fell." Flat tones, no surprise. Han thought she sounded hollow. "And Palpatine?"

"Dead."

A small spark appeared in her eyes. "And Vader?" she asked. "What happened to Vader?"

"Dead too."

She closed her eyes slowly, breathed deeply, opened them again. The spark of hope was still in them, but surrounded by... Han shook it off. He could drown in those eyes if he looked at them too long; they seemed to go on forever. She still didn't lower the blaster. "How?"

Han was cautious with this piece of information. Luke didn't mind telling anyone who asked, but it was bound to become public knowledge sooner or later that Leia was his sister, and she minded a great deal. Han thought the world of the kid, but Leia's wishes were paramount. "I don't know exactly. He's the one who killed Palpatine."

The spark blazed into life, an almost mad exaltation. "He really did it? He finally did it?"

Han wasn't sure what was going on with her, but whatever it was, the whole issue seemed to be of the utmost importance to her. He decided to chance a little more information. "Yeah. Saved my brother-in-law's life while he was at it."

He had thought she was still and calm before, but the stillness that came over her now was palpable, thick and pregnant with possibilities. Her voice was flat again, but this time it was under careful control. She was trying not say as much as he was trying not to say. "Your brother-in-law?" she asked, closing her eyes again.

Han considered taking the opportunity to get the blaster away from her, but she seemed to have forgotten entirely that she was pointing it at him. She'd gone deep inside herself, and a suspicion was starting to grow in Han's mind. It made a sick kind of sense out of it. "I think maybe I've done my share of the telling," he said. "You want to tell me who you are and why you're here?"

"I'm here as a traitor to the Empire," she said, then opened her eyes. She lowed the blaster slowly, then extended one bone-thin hand to Han. "I am Padmé Naberrie Skywalker," she said, her eyes distant, in a quiet tone that was almost a recitation, "Amidala of the Naboo." The tone changed, and she grimaced. "And, though I have no liking for the name, Lady Vader."

Han nodded, and took her hand. "I was starting to think you might be."

***

Leia felt a pull at her mind, like a gentle tug at the end of her braid. She looked across at Luke, wondering vaguely if he was trying to test her abilities again -- she had no desire to be trained as a Jedi, knowing where the talent, if she had it, came from, though Luke was still trying to convince her -- but he was also looking up with a slightly puzzled frown. "Do you feel it?" he asked.

It was pointless to deny it. Leia nodded. "What is it?"

"I don't know. It's distant. Like a wall came down, just for a minute, then went back up."

That wasn't at all what it felt like to Leia. She wondered if she was feeling something different, or if perhaps it was just a headache after all. Her comm-link beeped. She turned it on. "Leia Organa," she answered, then remembered to add, "Solo." Taking a husband's name hadn't been Alderaan's tradition -- in fact, when names were taken, it was usually the other way -- and she was still accustoming herself to it.

"Nice to be remembered," Han cracked on the other side, then his voice became low and serious. "Look, I think you and Luke better come down here. I... I found someone here."

Luke was across the courtyard in three large strides, and he took the comm-link from Leia without asking (this annoyed her immensely, but she knew that was petty of her and said nothing). "Who is it, Han?"

"Well, kid, if she is who she says she is -- and I gotta say, I'd bet good credits on it -- she's your mother."

Leia's eyes snapped up to meet her brother's. Without a word, they abandoned their work, and ran for Luke's speeder. The distance to the Republic camp seemed much longer than it had this morning.

***

Han was finally getting the hang of piloting a bongo. The water pressure had thrown him at first, but he'd learned to adjust to it, to use the flow of the currents instead of fighting it. He steered around the rock formations, coming slowly but surely out of the network of caves at Naboo's core.

Beside him, Amidala of the Naboo -- or whatever he was supposed to call this woman -- was sitting, tense as a highwire, looking up into the dark water. Seeking the surface. Han wondered how long it had been since she'd seen the sun. He suspected it wasn't the first thing on her mind.

For a moment, when he'd first told her that Luke and Leia were alive and well, and in one piece (for the most part -- he did feel obliged to warn her of Luke's mechanical hand before it took her by surprise), he'd seen her control overwhelmed. She had fallen to her knees, and he'd thought she was going to weep and knelt beside her, hoping he could be some use in getting her by. But she'd just held up one of those thin hands of hers, taken a deep breath, and collected herself. Han wondered what it would take to get an emotional reaction out of her. At first, he'd thought she was like Leia -- imperious and a little spoiled, in complete control of her outer world. But the more time he spent with her, the more of Luke he saw... and not the Luke he'd met in Mos Eisley either. This was a woman who'd spent enough time around Jedi to pass for one herself, aloof in the outer world, but in near-perfect control of the inner.

Near-perfect.

But not quite.

She bit her lip, and leaned forward, as if the few decimeters would get her to the surface more quickly.

"Hey," Han said, figuring he ought to say something, at least, to make her feel better. "I'm going as fast as I can."

She turned her head briefly, flashed him a nervous smile without meeting his eyes, then looked up again.

"I guess it must be something else again, finding out that you've got your family back. Plus one scruffy-looking nerf-herder you hadn't counted on."

"Nerf-herder?" She finally gave him a look of diffuse interest. It wasn't until then that Han realized that he wanted her to notice him. Not like he'd wanted Leia to notice him, but just... hell, to notice that it wasn't a droid piloting this machine.

"Something Leia called me once," he said. "Before we started... before we were a... " Han didn't know exactly how to put it. He and Leia hadn't exactly dated at all, and he didn't have a word to put on exactly what they were after the asteroid field.

Amidala gave him a real smile, and laughed. "Let's just settle for 'before,' shall we?"

"Good thinking."

Her gaze shifted up again, and Han thought their brief moment of communication was over, when she said, quietly, "Is it safe to assume that your... other in-law experience was less than pleasant?"

Han wasn't sure how to handle that question, so he slipped into joking. "Well, Luke has been a handful since I picked him up in Mos Eisley. Always getting himself into trouble, which I have to get him out of. I'll tell you, it's been tough -- "

She laughed again. "Thank you."

"Sure. But your first guess was right."

She nodded. "I thought it might be. I'm sorry. Things should have been different. I should have made them different."

She lapsed back into silence, and Han didn't have the faintest idea how to break it.

***

Amidala chastised herself mentally. She shouldn't have brought the subject up. Her mind was bursting with questions, and she didn't know where to begin. To begin with Ani... that was a mistake. That was always a mistake, and she had a feeling it always would be. Over the years, she'd gotten a running catalogue of the crimes he'd committed at the orders of his Master. Palpatine had come down at least twice a year just to torment her with information. But that information had been her only tie to the world above... she'd submitted to the torture, in order to find whatever truths there were to be found in it.

She should have listened more closely. Thinking back, she imagined inflections, hints hidden in twisted riddles... she should have questioned. Why hadn't she?

Looking up into the endless sea, seeking the first glimpse of watery sunlight, she thought she knew: it was harder to wait for the light when one knew it was coming than it was to simply consign oneself to the darkness. Much harder.

Solo came around an outcropping of rock, and the water had a distinctly greenish tint. There was light coming from somewhere, though Amidala still couldn't see the surface.

She turned to her right, looking out into the sea through her own ghastly reflection in the transparisteel (she hadn't looked into a mirror for many years, and had been shocked at her own gauntness -- what would the twins think when they saw her?). It was strangely empty of wildlife outside, barren and desolate. What had happened here? What had they really done? It was one thing Palpatine hadn't told her, which at least made her believe that, whatever it was, Ani hadn't been instrumental in it. But he hadn't stopped it, either.

Chosen one, indeed.

She squeezed her eyes shut. The future was coming; it was time to stop gnawing on the past.

"How long have you been under?" Solo asked abruptly.

"A little under twenty-five years. How old are the twins?"

"Twenty-five."

"I left when they were two going on three. Twenty-three years then."

Amidala might have sunk into contemplation of this, but Solo's purpose in asking was practical. He nodded over his shoulder. "I got a bag behind the seat. There's some eye guards in there that I used on Hoth against the sun glare. You might want to get them out. I think we'll see the sun pretty soon, and your eyes might not be ready for it."

She reached back for the bag, and began rummaging for the guards. "Thank you, Captain -- "

"Han," he said.

"Han. Thank you. I hadn't considered that." She found the guards -- nearly opaque lensed goggles of some sort, much too big for her. She would have rather the children saw her own eyes the first time they met, but, by the same token, she wanted to be able to see. She rested the goggles on her nose, and the world went momentarily dark.

Then Solo dove up out of the lagoon-like cave they had been in, and the sun broke the surface. Even behind the guards, it stabbed Amidala's eyes like knives, but she didn't care about the pain -- it was beautiful! The ripples on the surface sent shadows down into the bongo, rolling across them in shades of mild green. Above the ripples, the sun itself rolled in the waves.

Amidala smiled.

Ten minutes later, they broke the surface.

***

Leia found herself holding Luke's natural hand tightly with both of her own. He squeezed back absently and she had a momentary flash of a memory, or a dream of a memory, wordless and painful, of being torn from that comforting hand long ago, pulled away from the other half of herself --

He glanced at her, picking up on the image. She could feel him inside her mind, and fought the instinct to push him away. He was her brother. She had nothing to fear from him. "I don't remember that at all," he said after awhile.

She shrugged. "It might not have happened. Maybe I'm making it up." She looked out across the water, waiting. "Maybe... maybe she can tell us."

"Maybe she can."

"Aren't you nervous at all?"

Luke smiled at her, and her mind was suddenly flooded with his emotions. The image that came to her was of a small boy, peeking around a curtain at a school concert, to see the rows of big people milling about waiting for the show. He was as nervous as she was. She smiled back.

A great splash exploded up from the water at the camp, and the nose of the bongo appeared in the sunlight. They ran to the water's edge as Han piloted into shallow water.

Leia could see the small woman beside him, her eyes covered with dark guards. For a moment, the awful, disturbing sensation of being watched by eyes she couldn't see returned to her, the sensation of staring into an unreadable mask...

The she shook her head, and the woman's face returned. Leia could see the shape of it around the eyeshields, the pretty turn of a cheek that she had remembered in her secret dreams, the small nose she remembered pinching. She let go of Luke's hand and ran into the waves. She heard him following her.

The bongo came to a stop, and the door lifted. The woman took a tentative step out of it, stood to her full height, and bit her lip.

Leia paused for only a brief moment, then ran the rest of the way, and threw herself into the woman's arms. "Mother," she whispered. "It's really you."

A hand on her head, gentle. "My Leia." Then the other hand, reaching out beyond, and Luke was drawn into the circle. Leia didn't open her eyes.

Over the sound of the waves, Han laughed. "Well, I see no introductions are needed. I'll get myself lost now."

Leia shook her head against her mother's shoulder, and reached out for him. She couldn't see him, and didn't know that he would come until she felt his hand close around hers. Her family was together -- she didn't want anyone to leave it. And if a less welcome presence was hovering nearby...

Well, let it.

The four of them stood in the waves, at the edge of sunset on a ruined world, holding each other and willing the moment not to end.

***

Chapter Two

The sun set, and the shadows crept in.

Luke Skywalker stood alone at the edge of the clearing where the Republic camp had been set up, looking over at his mother and his sister, still sitting quietly at the table. He didn't feel unwelcome, nor did he feel separate. He had just wanted to stand back and see them together, see them glowing in the light.

Mother had removed the eyeguards as soon as the sun was far enough down, and Luke had seen her eyes for the first time in more years than he remembered. And yet, when he'd seen them, a memory had come to him, of being held, and looking up into those eyes, of feeling safe and warm and loved. And he remembered them behind a screen of beads, though he couldn't place that memory and hadn't asked about it.

She was so beautiful, and so tiny. He tried to imagine her standing beside his father, dwarfed and fragile. He could have crushed her without meaning to, swallowed her whole in his deep shadow. And yet, he was gone, and she was here.

As are we.

Leia laughed, the sound high and clear across the desolate plain. Mother was smiling. Oddly, Luke could read neither of them well -- Leia was always fighting her urge to push him away, and Mother... well, she'd been keeping up mental blocks for so long that she claimed not to know how to lower them anymore.

"It's not that you're not welcome," she'd said when she'd felt him reaching for her mind. "I just don't remember how to let you in. So we'll have to settle for more traditional modes of communication."

It had taken awhile before they knew what to say to one another, before the floodgates opened and the stories poured out. There had been excruciating small talk, then Mother had finally reached out, taken their hands and whispered "Tell me who you are."

Then Han -- trust Han to get it right -- had known where to start: "Well," he'd said, "it started in Mos Eisley... "

Leia had corrected him, saying that it had really started in a battle, when plans for the Death Star were stolen, and Luke himself had corrected both of them, saying that the real beginning was with a pair of droids being kidnapped by jawas.

Then the tales had come, and the tears, and the laughing. Luke hadn't sorted it in his mind yet. He only knew that suddenly, he felt as if his past was completely real for the first time since he'd learned that what he'd always been told was a lie.

Well, at any rate, a peculiar point of view.

He sat on a supply crate, and watched his family, a smile fixed lightly on his face. He loved them, simply and purely. Leia, with her strength and steadfastness. Mother with her soft voice and gentle touch. Han, with his never failing ability to be himself in any situation. He knew he could go back into that circle any time he wanted to. But for now, he was happy just to stand aside, to cherish the vision and hold them to his heart.

He was happy to look into the circle, and understand completely, for the first time, who he was.

***

Leia finally got Luke to come back for dessert, but it was getting late, and Mother was starting to look tired. Leia didn't know how to manage letting go of the evening, but she knew she had to. Tomorrow was going to come, and the next day, and the day after. Sooner or later, all first encounters had to end, and the new future had to start.

It would be a good future.

She lent her mother a nightdress, embraced her one more time, then tore herself away. Luke and Han were putting up a small extra shelter for her. Chewie and Lando would come with the Falcon tomorrow, and they could find someplace better for her to live, someplace suitable for Amidala of the Naboo.

For my mother.

"Does that smile come unglued?" Han asked at the door, smirking.

"I'm not really sure."

"Well, I guess I can get used to it." He kissed her forehead, then pretended to examine her critically. "Yeah, I'd bet I'll get used to it real fast."

She kissed him, her smile not fading, then took his hand and pulled him outside, to the small patch of barren ground outside their shelter that served as a yard. From where she stood, she could see Luke walking away from his own goodnight, and Mother disappearing into the newly constructed shelter. Her light glowed through the seams in the metal. Leia leaned back into Han's arms, pulling them around her waist and holding his hands loosely. She could feel his chin resting on her head. It was a good, solid feeling.

"Are you okay, Leia?" Han asked, out of the blue.

"What? I don't understand."

"Your heart's beating like a Toydarian's wings. You nervous about something?"

"No. Nothing. I'm just so happy, Han. I can't even explain it." Even as she said it, though, she wondered. The image came back to her, of the first moment when the bongo had surfaced -- the eyeguards, the wall between them, the unreadable eyes... but that had gone away, and she'd seen her mother's eyes, the soft, deep brown eyes she had always remembered and dreamed of.

Except that they weren't quite what she had always dreamed of, were they?

She took a deep breath, and willed the thought away. She supposed that she had her suspicions about just whose eyes those had been in her dreams, but she didn't want to think about it too closely. The thought that her very dreams had been violated like that... she didn't want to imagine that she really had let him inside her head, despite her best waking efforts. And, at any rate, this wasn't about him. This was about Mother. Vader no longer haunted her dreams, if in fact he ever had. And Mother was good. Kind. Leia's memories were vague and confused, but she remembered that, at least.

She pulled Han's arms tighter around her, and leaned further back into him. There were times she wasn't sure anymore where she ended and he began, and that was good. "I'm just happy," she said again. She tried to close her eyes, but the mesmerizing glimpses of light in the seams of her mother's shelter beckoned her. "Maybe I should check on her."

"She's not going anywhere, Leia. She'll be there in the morning."

A nervous flutter went through Leia's stomach, and this time she could pin it down with no uncertainty. She had never forgotten the morning she had woken up to find that the woman who was her mother was no longer anywhere to be found. Then the weeks and weeks of waiting. And the empty places. But that was an old memory. It wasn't going to repeat itself. The Empire was dead, and Mother was released from her bondage. "I know," she said. She shook her head. "It's silly. I should let her get some sleep."

"Yeah, you should. And you should get some, too."

"I know." She sighed, and stared at the light in the shelter. It went out. Mother would go to sleep. She would be there when they woke up in the morning.

All manner of things would be well.

She let her husband lead her back inside.

***

Amidala sat alone in the dark, looking through the transparisteel window in the ceiling of the shelter. The stars, at least, were untouched since her childhood.

But Naboo! Beautiful, gentle Naboo... destroyed, somehow. Stripped of grasses, rocks laid bare. And the twins said that Theed was in ruins.

The twins. She brought their faces to her mind, traced every perfect line of them over again. She had once worried about Leia, worried that if she ever saw her again, it would be at Palpatine's side... but the stormcloud had passed somehow, and left her unscathed. Beautiful, intelligent, everything the child had promised to be, the woman was, and more. She had defeated her own demon, that terrible anger Amidala had seen at Saché's funeral -- how that had hurt her, to keep silent, when she wanted only to draw her close and comfort her! -- and become a true leader.

And Luke... the strength of what he had done astounded her. To face Ani and Palpatine, alone, unarmed, and maintain his belief... her heart burst with pride. What he would do now... that was an even grander accomplishment, to return the Jedi to the world of the living.

A tingle at the base of her spine.

She looked up. She was alone in the dark. She could see no one. And yet...

The pleasant nervousness, the arc of energy in her mind, the ache in her arms to reach out and...

"Do you think I can't tell you're there?" she said to the empty air. "I'm not there far gone, you know."

"Yes," he said. "I know." He appeared slowly, thinly, in the dark.

She raised her eyes to him gradually, afraid of what she might see in the image he was showing her, of what she might feel at seeing his face again, after all these years. He had chosen to show himself in his middle years, her own age. No scars or injuries, but no pretense at their lost youth. The features were sharp, knife-like, strange and compelling in his round face. His eyes --

She gasped. She had forgotten his eyes, how they struck the soul. He was searching her face, as uncertain as she was. "Ani," she whispered. "My Ani."

One hand reached to her, surrounded by a soft blue glow. A trail of energy traced across her cheek. "My love," he said.

A storm of conflicting feelings rose in her heart. Thunderclouds of anger, a torrent of tears and sadness, the bright lightning of passion, the wind of pain. But the tempest raged over steady ground; she could feel beneath it the solid, simple foundation of the love she had always felt for him, and had always known he felt for her, no matter how dark the world around them became.

"I don't know how to fix this," he told her, his voice low and quiet. "I don't even know where to start."

Amidala turned away from him. It was easy to love him, looking at him. Looking away made it easier to remember what he had put the children through, what he had put her through, because he hadn't been strong enough to fulfill his destiny when he needed to. "Quite an admission from the boy who can 'fix anything.'"

"I don't remember him all that well."

"You're such a liar, Ani."

No response, but the energy cooled. She turned to him. He was looking at her with an expression she didn't know, had never known from him. Yet she recognized it. It was an accusation.

For a moment, she didn't understand, but it came to her in the cold rain of sorrow. Liar. Ani was many things, and she could see in his face that he would admit to many things. But lying? That was her own crime.

She saw his face change, an expression of horror coming over it as he realized that she understood what he was thinking. "I'm sorry, Amidala," he said. "I have no right to question you."

Amidala felt an urge to apologize, to reach out to him. She fought it. "Oh, why not?" she said, trying to summon the anger she knew she ought to feel. "Leia tells me you've developed quite a talent for... questioning."

The horror faded into the stone-faced anger she remembered well. "Do you think that would have happened if I'd known the truth in the first place? Not even... not even then, Amidala. It would not have happened." He started to fade into the darkness.

"Ani, wait," Amidala said, her throat tight. The image stopped fading, but didn't come back. "Please. I'm sorry. I don't know where to start, either. But we're not going to get anywhere like this."

The light grew, and he became almost solid again. "You're right, of course. I should not leave in anger, at any rate."

"I've questioned it too," she said after awhile. "Over and over. I wanted to tell you. I was coming to you when -- "

"When what, my love? What happened?"

"You didn't know?"

"Of course I didn't know. I wouldn't have allowed... " The image closed its eyes -- she knew it didn't need to, but he was putting on a face that he knew she would understand. "I knew you had disappeared from Alderaan. No one knew where you were."

"Tatooine... "

"And then Palpatine sent me to Corellia, to... to handle a disturbance in a small outpost. I handled it... efficiently." He grimaced at the memory. "I was on my way back when the news came. The story was that you had gone mad. That you had come to Coruscant, put on your state gowns and makeup, and jumped from a landing platform. The funeral was in progress before I could get back. It was -- "

"It was Sabé." The tears came without warning. Palpatine had never told her what the official story of her disappearance was. She'd suspected that her bodyguard was dead -- no one had seen her for months before she herself had been captured -- but she had not thought, had not considered... "Ani, she'd disappeared, and I never even thought.. Sabé..."

"I'm so sorry."

She found that she could say nothing. There was nothing to be said.

"Yousa Majesty?"

She jumped. Even Anakin looked surprised. The Gungan was standing at the door of the shelter, looking uncomfortable and awkward. "Yes?" she said, trying to swallow her tears.

"Me-sa... I hear... I heard you saying something to the air, and was thinking... and thought you needed help."

"I am all right. Thank you."

The Gungan didn't move on, as she had intended. If anything, he looked more uncomfortable than before. "What is it, Lieutenant...?"

"Arphon, yousa Majesty."

"Lieutenant Arphon. And please do not feel the need to address me formally when I'm in a nightdress and talking to thin air." She sniffed back her tears, and tried to give a reassuring smile. Behind her, Anakin moved closer, hovering protectively.

"Well, yousa Majesty, wesa been talking and wondering and thinking... it's been a longo time since there's-a been a queen in Theed, and we, the Gungans, want to give you a celebration when you come back. Wesa gonna rebuild the place. It'll be grand." He ducked his head in a bow.

Anakin was smiling, and looked pleased. Amidala was touched. But she couldn't allow the Gungans to pin false hopes on her. "There is no queen in Theed, Lieutenant," she said as gently as she could. "Perhaps, when you've rebuilt, someone will run."

"No, yousa Majesty. All the Gungans liking you. And the Naboo that are left. There are more than yousa thinking, living with us on other worlds. Wesa only just came back ourselves, but they coming with us. Wesa all thinking, when you come back up from under the sea, that it's gonna be grand, to have Queen Amidoll back again."

"That's very sweet, Lieutenant Arphon, but I cannot resume the throne. It's quite impossible."

Arphon nodded glumly, and backed into the night.

Ani looked at her curiously. "What was that about? Why aren't you taking the throne?"

"How can you ask? I was a terrible queen."

"That's ridiculous. You were -- "

"I was the queen on whose watch all this happened." Amidala gestured vaguely around herself. "If it hadn't been for my notoriously poor judgment -- "

"Listen to me, Amidala. What happened here was not your fault in any way."

"I let Palpatine talk me into -- "

"Into voting for the end of a system that had allowed your world to be invaded and nearly destroyed. That the system he had in place to replace it was worse is not your responsibility. Something needed to be done, Amidala. Your intention was not to allow this."

She turned away from him again. "I chose my advisors and companions, Ani," she said softly.

"And your husband," he finished, and disappeared.

She nodded, and drew her knees to her chest, leaning against the wall of the shelter. "And my husband," she whispered. "Whom I would choose again."

A gentle caress of energy trailed down her arm. Then she was alone.

***

Chapter 3

Amidala slept solidly for almost three hours -- a record in recent weeks, and she might have slept even longer if she hadn't remembered that she wanted to see the medical droid before dawn. She'd seen the awkward expression on Leia's face at the sight of the goggles; she didn't want to repeat the experience.

The droid was a model she was unfamiliar with. It introduced itself as Two-Onebee as it examined her. She could see other prisoners around her; many seemed to have been taken into the infirmary immediately. The Imperial guards, she thought, had been taken into custody elsewhere. She hoped she would be able to speak on their behalf -- they had done their jobs honorably, and kept a large group of people alive for several months.

"Your eyes will regain strength in time," Two-Onebee told her, with an expressive gesture of his pincer-like hands. "Meanwhile, I will insert filtering lenses. We should be able to remove them in a few weeks."

"Will they interfere with my vision?"

"They may cause some difficulty with rapid changes in the light, but otherwise, they will be undetectable."

She nodded, and the droid began the implantation procedure. It only required a mild, local anesthetic, and she used the time to ask the droid's nutritional advice for the prisoners.

"Most seem in relatively good shape," Two-Onebee said. "You yourself are among the weakest in basic body chemistry. I recommend mild foods, and not too much at any given time."

"Perhaps you could accompany me to the mess tent, to help program the kitchen droids?"

"Yes, ma'am, if that is your wish."

"It is."

She didn't speak through the remainder of the implantation -- to her disappointment, the lenses did render everything slightly off color once they were in -- then led the medical droid to the mess tent. They were beginning the programming of the kitchen droids when Solo came in, a sleepy grin on his face.

"Morning," he said. "You're up early."

"I thought I should have something done about my eyes before the sun came up today. Two-Onebee put in some filtering lenses. I hope they work as planned."

"Did you sleep okay?"

"Yes, thank you." She smiled, hoping that she looked glad for the concern, and hoping that he wouldn't inquire too deeply about the state of her health. He didn't.

"What do you want me to call you?" he asked.

"I hadn't thought about it. Do you have a preference? I have a feeling it's going to be 'Mother' from the twins; it's a bit late for pet names, I suppose." She allowed herself to wonder, for a moment, what it would have been like to be "Mom" or "Mama," but shut the thought aside; it was no good to wonder about such things anymore. "But you don't seem the type for something so formal. You may use my name, if you like."

"Which one? You gave me quite a string of them."

Amidala felt herself blush, remembering the long-winded introduction she'd given when they met. She didn't think she needed to worry about him calling her "Lady Vader" (though the guards frequently did), but there had been a few other choices. "I suppose I did. Amidala is what I call myself. But I've had many friends call me Padmé. You may use whichever you prefer."

"Amidala it is, then. Anything short for that?"

"Not that I know of."

A programmed wake-up alarm spread around the camp, and people began wandering in for breakfast. Leia came in groggily, and scolded Han lightly for not waking her up, then linked her arm through Amidala's and led her to a table. A moment later, Luke came in. He had obviously been out running, or doing morning calisthenics, and came in rubbing a sore elbow. Amidala had an almost instinctual urge to go get some ointment to rub on it, as she always had in the mornings with Anakin, but of course, there was no ointment, no cupboard to retrieve it from, and no established habit here. Instead, she kissed his cheek when he sat down, and he smiled at her.

Leia and Han sat down across from them, and the stories started coming again, almost without preliminaries. Amidala learned of Han and Leia's romance, and she told them all about the day she'd first met Anakin, and about the pod race in Mos Espa. Leia glanced at her oddly at this mention, but didn't explain herself. The conversation drifted to the present, to the state of things on Naboo. They hadn't been here long; no one had.

"You probably shouldn't go to Theed," Leia said, putting frela-butter on a piece of bread. "It's... well, among other things, it's not safe. It's really the only place to land the Falcon -- the plains are pretty uneven now -- but we'll be in and out pretty fast, just long enough to get Lando and the droids set up to bring equipment here."

"The droids? Not Artoo and Threepio, by any chance?"

"Yes, actually," Leia said. "They've had their memories wiped a few times, though, I think."

"I'd imagine so. But it will be good seeing them again."

"They were yours?" Han asked.

Leia nodded. "That's where I got them."

"Actually," Amidala said, "Artoo was mine. Threepio was your father's."

A moment of silence. Then Han grinned and said, "And here I thought the worst thing he ever did to me was freeze me in carbonite."

Leia's eyes widened in shock, and for a moment, Amidala wasn't sure what was going to happen. She surprised herself -- and everyone else -- by laughing aloud, heartily. "Obviously spoken by someone who knows Threepio well," she said. "You do my heart good, Captain Solo. I'm glad my daughter has such excellent judgment." She considered adding, Though I don't know how she came by it, with Ani and myself for parents, but opted against it. That would be pushing it. "At any rate," she said, "I would like to come with you today. Theed is my home. I'd like to go with you, Leia. Among other things, I don't want to lose the two of you to a day of errands." She smiled, and reached across for Leia's hand, squeezing it tightly. It felt good to touch that hand again. Luke's solid form on her right side, giving off a mild warmth in the cool morning, was a blessing. She linked her right arm through his left, then let go so he could finish eating.

"I don't know," Han said, "it is pretty rough. I wish these two wouldn't go on their own, but I guess they can take care of themselves."

"What's dangerous?" Amidala asked. "I understand that the city is ruined, but -- "

"A few people stayed," Leia explained. "They got tough and mean, trying to live there. There are gangs that roam around, looting and stealing from each other and anyone else who happens by. I doubt there's much left in the palace. I just... I had wanted to know."

Amidala nodded. She understood the desire for artifacts well. There was a particular item she wanted desperately, but it had been on Alderaan, and it was beyond recovery now. "I also want to know, Leia," she said. I'll come with the two of you."

"I wish I could see it as it was," Luke said. "It looks like it would have been a lovely city."

"It was. I'm sure there are holos somewhere, but you won't experience it as it was. I -- " She thought of Theed, bathed in the dawnlight, the fragile sun dancing across the stonework. The sense of loss threatened to overwhelm her again; if she started grieving, she would never stop.

Luke took put his arm around her, and squeezed her shoulders. "Are you all right, Mother?"

"I am. I just... " She sniffed. "Here. Let me try to show you the Theed I remember." She closed her eyes, concentrated all her energy on dropping the shields she had been keeping up in her mind for years. Last night, she hadn't been able to, but certainly, that was just because she had been tired. She'd never had a problem allowing herself to be read when she wanted to be.

She felt Luke's mind reach for hers --

-- and felt the sting as he was pushed away.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I thought I could... "

"It's okay, Mother. As someone told me last night, we'll just have to settle for more traditional forms of communication." He smiled at her.

She smiled back, but she felt as if she were smiling behind a glass wall. This couldn't go on indefinitely. Could it?

***

Luke sat in the front of the speeder with Han, letting Leia sit with Mother in the back. There was little conversation; not only was it hard to hear in a windblown speeder, but Mother was getting her first real glimpse of the devastation of Naboo, and Luke could see by the expression on her face that each mile made it seem more real and more horrible. But he couldn't find his way into her mind. Encountering her mental blocks was like approaching a seamless wall.

They arrived in Theed at noon, and pulled the speeder into the courtyard. Mother got out first, stepping carefully into the rubble. She looked up at the palace, over at a piece of ruined statuary...

Leia followed her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Mother returned the embrace fully, and reached out for Luke's hand. He gave it willingly, wanting to offer her whatever reassurance he could. Han stood awkwardly to one side -- Luke got the sense that the Corellian didn't really believe Mother's stated fondness for him.

"It really is gone," Mother said. "All of it."

"No," Leia said. "We're here. The statues are here. The air is breathable. Alderaan is gone, Mother. Naboo... Naboo just needs some fixing." She smiled bravely.

"Of course, Leia. I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."

"It's okay. I know how you're feeling. There aren't many who could say that fairly."

Mother smiled, and squeezed Leia's shoulders and Luke's hand, then separated herself from them and moved toward the shattered palace steps. She was leaning over to start sifting through the rubble when a shot was fired from above.

Luke cursed himself. He had been distracted, and not felt the closing of the gang. He drew his lightsaber. Han was out with a blaster, and Leia was already aiming in the direction the shot had come from.

But it was Mother who fired first.

They had all agreed that she should carry a blaster, just in case, but Luke had not, frankly, expected to see her use it. She didn't seem the type. Yet she had fired, with nearly perfect precision, and hit the top of a broken column, shivering it into a pile of gravel. When the dust cleared, Luke saw a figure crouching beyond, in a cubbyhole on the steps. He stood and came forward.

Luke stepped in, lightsaber ignited, and waited to see what would happen.

The sniper emerged from the dust, his face a strange mix of fear, resentment, and curiosity. He was an old man, older than Mother at any rate, with gnarled hands and a scarred cheek. His hair was white and wild, his eyes bright.

"Who are you?" Luke asked.

The man turned, gave him a cursory glance, then a second one when he recognized the lightsaber, then looked back at Mother. "Your Highness?" he asked.

"You were asked a question, sir."

"Oh, I'm no one," he said, shaking his head. "That is to say, not no one, but no one you would know. I flew for you once. Is it really you?"

Mother looked uncomfortably at Luke, then at Leia. Luke let his lightsaber fade. Mother turned to the old man. "Yes, it is, old father. Why have you waylaid this party?"

The man dropped to his knees before Mother -- she gasped in shock -- and covered his face with his hands. "Oh, Your Highness, we've only been trying to keep the outsiders out."

"These are my children, and there are no more outsiders."

"Yes, Your Highness, as you wish, whatever you wish."

"Please, sir, rise. I am no longer a queen; you mustn't... " She looked again at Luke, pleading.

Luke knelt beside the old man. "It's all right, sir. You needn't be on your knees to anyone."

"Thank you, Luke," Mother said, quietly. Luke smiled at her.

The old man stood slowly, not quite meeting Mother's eyes, but not offering obeisance, either. "Your Highness, you'll always be our queen."

Mother shook her head, stepping back in disbelief. "I can't retake the throne. I will always be Amidala of the Naboo, I suppose, but no longer the queen. Can you simply accept me as one of your own?"

The man cast his eyes downward. "If it is your wish."

Luke read the man easily; in his mind, he was very much still addressing his queen.

"What is your name?"

"Hariel Dorati," the man said. "I'm mayor of what's left of Theed, and director of the guard."
"I do remember your name, Captain Dorati," Mother said. "I'm sorry I didn't recognize you immediately. How many are there here?"

"Only one hundred three, Your -- Ma'am."

Mother nodded. "That's enough to start rebuilding. The remaining Gungans have also offered help. If you could give me schematics on the damage... "

Dorati smiled widely, enthusiastic, and, at her permission, left at a quick pace to rejoin his people. Luke decided against telling Mother that she'd just issued a royal command. He had a feeling she wouldn't take it much better than Leia tended to.

***

The Millennium Falcon was a ship only a mechanic could love, Amidala thought when she saw it landing in the cavity of the palace hangar. It looked like a glued together piece of junk, but judging by the stories the children had told her, it pulled its own weight. It was the kind of thing Ani would have loved, in the days when he was capable of loving the simpler things in life. She wondered what he had thought of it as an enemy.

Dorati had come and gone again while they waited, with news that the scant population of Theed was ready to help in the rebuilding. Amidala wondered why they had done nothing so far, but assumed it was to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Now, the need for secrecy was past. She hoped. Nothing Leia had told her so far about the New Republic made it sound like a stable government yet; it would be ripe for troubles until they strengthened it.

A hatch opened on the mongrel ship, and the gangplank lowered. First out was R2-D2; the astromech droid paused at the bottom of the ramp, then whistled happily and rolled to Amidala. So much for memory wipes, Saché, she thought, You seem to have missed one. "Hello, Artoo," she said. "Shall I clean you up later?"

A series of beeps and whistles answered her, and she chose to take it as an affirmative, though the droid didn't actually look too much the worse for wear. She just had a desire to do it.

Threepio came next. His memory wipe seemed to have taken more completely, and he required a full introduction. "I am honored to meet you, Madam," he said. "I am See-Threepio -- "

" -- human-cyborg relations," she finished for him.

"Oh. Well, yes."

She smiled. "Still perfect."

A human and a Wookiee came next, carrying a crate between them. They hoisted it into the speeder before coming to be introduced.

The human came first. He was a handsome man, between her own age and Solo's. Ani's age, she would guess at a glance, though the sort of smooth-talking, overdressed dandy that would have driven Ani purely insane. And had, if she remembered the stories right. "General Calrissian?" she asked.

"I'm flattered, Your Highness," he said, kissing her hand. "You're more beautiful now than you were on the holonews when I was a kid."

Amidala rolled her eyes. "And you're as smooth as Han said you would be."

"I aim to please, Your Highness."

"You can begin pleasing by calling me Amidala."

Calrissian laughed at that, and the group adjourned to the interior of the Falcon, much to Threepio's annoyance. He seemed never to have developed a taste for space travel or any of its accouterments.

Talk over lunch was light and practical, and focused largely on the possible rebuilding of Theed. Calrissian was the first one of the group to show interest in that particular subject, though he definitely seemed to take it as a challenge that he was betting he could meet. "You got the Gungans down at the camp with you? That's good... all the hands you can get... I know a Sullustian marble dealer, totally on the up and up, of course, who could get you materials for fixing that courtyard..."

"You were administrator of a city, weren't you?" Amidala asked.

"Yes. Cloud City on Bespin."

Amidala's heart seized up from habit at the name of the planet, and she looked across at Luke involuntarily, thinking for a panicked instant that he wouldn't be there. But there he was, eating quietly, perhaps gnawing on his own memories of Bespin... but not dead there. She turned back to Calrissian. "By all accounts I've heard, you were rather good at it. I'd be happy for any help you can offer in the rebuilding of Theed. I mean, we all would. I'm not under the impression that many of the current citizens are connected to mass level suppliers."

"I'd love to help."

"Good." She squirmed a bit, remembering that Calrissian, like Solo, had not always been... how had he put it? On the up and up. "I do want to say that I'd like things kept... well... "

"Legal?"

"Yes."

"It'll cost more, but it's doable. Most of the suppliers are front line people anyway."

Amidala nodded, and glanced toward the hatch. The sunlight was streaming up into the ship. She was anxious to begin.

***

Chapter 4

The hours passed quickly, and night fell while they were still in the city. Lando, Han, and the twins all drifted to sleep on the Falcon -- Han cursing himself for not convincing the group to head back to the camp earlier -- and the Wookiee Chewbacca stood guard at the hatch. Amidala explained to him that she thought Dorati's people would leave them be, but he was adamant. She didn't understand his language as well as she once had, but the general turn of it seemed to be that he had a life debt of some kind, and was bound to be a guard to Solo. She nodded, and simply asked him not to shoot first. He growled an agreement.

She herself, of course, simply couldn't sleep. She waited for Chewbacca's diligence to be directed elsewhere, then slipped off the ship and out of the hangar, into the ruins of the palace. The halls were smashed, strewn with rock and dust; the ceilings were gone. She could stare up for several stories at the night sky. She noticed tonight that there was a strong haze in the air, and wondered if that had something to do with the high temperatures she was beginning to register. At first, she'd thought it simply a result of being above the water for the first time in years. She was becoming less sure.

The frame of a large window stood sentry along the edge of the hall, the transparisteel long gone and the top of it long collapsed, but the stonework on the edges was as dainty and beautiful as she recalled. She ran her finger over the carving, marveling that it could be as she remembered it.

"I'm so sorry about this, Amidala."

She didn't look at him, but smiled sadly. She hadn't realized that she was waiting for him. "I know that, Ani."

He moved closer to her. The image was slightly different tonight; she wondered if he hadn't mastered this skill quite yet, or if he just couldn't decide what he looked like. "Your people need you."

She sighed. "Not you, too."

"Amidala, look at me." She did. He reached out, brushed a hand over her hair. It flew out toward him, as if caught in a current of static electricity. "You are at the heart of this world. The Naboo know that. The Gungans know that."

"I do not know that. Naboo is a democracy. I was never queen by birthright, only by the legal sufferance of my people -- "
"Who wish you to return to the role."

She couldn't argue with that, so she turned away again, and looked out through the window frame. "I was always free to abdicate."

"Amidala."

"I want to be with the children, Anakin. Can't you understand that? If I retake the throne, I'll be tied to Naboo, and they can't be."

"I do understand it." He drifted around her, hovered on the other side of the window, over the drop. It was disconcerting. "Of course I understand it. How could I not? But their time with us... I took it from us, Amidala. It's a very short time, anyway, and I destroyed it. If I could repair that, I would. But time isn't something I've found a way to change."

"It's hard to know what to change, anyway."

His eyes narrowed -- not his cool anger, but more his obstinate refusal to be drawn from the subject. "The point, Amidala, is that they are adults. However much we may regret, and however sorry I am, that won't change. They have their lives. And you need yours."

She turned from the window and walked across the hall into a wide alcove, overlooking the grand staircase. She could see down into the deep basements of the palace, and up into the depths of the sky. She felt small. "I'm afraid, Ani," she said.

"I know."

"A part of me... Ani, I loved Naboo. I loved being queen. It was hard, and it took so much out of me... but there were moments... " She closed her eyes, breathed deeply. "But it all went so wrong, so quickly. And I don't know if I could take that again."

"You won't need to. The war is over. It's time to heal this wound."

She looked to him. He had come closer to her, back on this side of the window. One hand was extended to her. She longed to take it, but of course that was impossible. Instead, she simply walked closer to him, reached into the nothingness, and touched his heart. His eyes closed, and for a moment, she felt herself wrapped, enfolded in the warm energy of his presence. She drew back -- Leia would not forgive this. She should not forgive it. "I can't, Ani. Some wounds don't heal."

"I'm sorry," he said. "Amidala, I had no right... " He started to fade. "You are a widow," he said before he disappeared. "I recognize that. Should you wish to... " He came more brightly into the room again. "I saw how Calrissian was speaking to you. I cannot pretend to like it, but if -- "

Amidala shook her head, and offered him a smile. "Ani, I'm your wife. I have no interest in anyone else. I thank you for your generosity, but I'll have enough trouble readjusting to the world without trying to change who I am on top of it. And whatever wound is between us, who I am is your wife. Understood?"

He nodded, relief evident in his face. She understood what a huge gesture it had been for him, however misguided. "I love you," he said, and faded.

She smiled into the darkness, and called out. "You do realize that I'm tempted to say 'I know,' don't you?"

A laugh on the nightwind. Amidala shook her head sadly, then returned to the Falcon and slept for five hours.

***

Luke rose before the sun, and ran the course of the dry riverbed. The others were still sleeping, except Lando, who had convinced Chewbacca to get a rest by offering to stand guard himself. He'd greeted Luke with a rolling of the eyes, which Luke had returned, though he was not entirely sure he was happy with Lando just lately.

He jumped a deep gully and swung himself up onto a plateau, turning into a tight somersault around a boulder. He was getting better at maneuvering. He'd have to start taking students soon -- already, he found messages in his comm-pad from strangers saying "I know a girl who can levitate" or "I know a boy who fights like a Jedi already," and he knew that he needed to start looking into these reports -- but he thought he needed to get just a little bit stronger, a little bit more sure of himself as a Jedi knight, before he declared himself a Jedi master. He felt like he was missing quite a lot that he really needed to know.

He rounded a bend and came back in view of Theed. He looked up the cliff, and saw the small figure of his mother standing at the top of the rise. He raised his hand to her, then leapt onto the rocks, and climbed up to join her.

"Impressive," she said when he sat down beside her.

A voice in Luke's mind echoed, Most impressive, and he shivered, but thought little of it. They had undoubtedly picked up a few mannerisms from one another. "Good morning, Mother."

She swept her skirt under her -- another of Leia's dresses, Luke thought, though he couldn't tell -- and sat on the ground, drawing her knees up and holding them to her chest. He put an arm over her shoulders, and she smiled. It was good to have her here. "I've been thinking," she said. "What season is it here?"

"I'm not sure. They're not very well defined anymore." He gave her the date.

She nodded. "I thought as much. It's late fall. It's too warm."

Luke, who still found anything short of Tatooine vaguely chilly, said nothing.

"You see the haze? The water vapor is being drawn up. It will seal in the warmth, and create more vapor... if it doesn't rain soon, it will be a runaway greenhouse in a century or two."

Luke had heard of the phenomenon before -- there was some suspicion that it had happened long ago in Tatooine's geological history -- but he didn't know where Mother was going with it. "I hope not," he said.

"Hope not about what?" Leia came up behind them, her hair loose and tugged in the breeze. She was twining a braid to hold it back from her face.

"The ecosystem is just going to keep getting worse," Mother said. "No rain, no plants to stir the air, except for the ones at the equator, in the swamps that were... missed... and they can't last forever. I'm afraid Naboo is dying. Or will be if we don't do something about it." She stood, walked to the edge of the cliff, and looked out over the plains. "Luke, I need your help. It needs to rain."

Luke was taken by surprise. She ought to know better than that. "Mother, I can't control the weather. That's not really something in my power."

She turned back to him, laughing. "Oh, Luke. Sometimes you need to try the simple way first. I find it hard to believe that someone raised on a moisture farm doesn't know where to get some decent vaporators and set them up. I think if we can use them to start drawing some of the excess vapor out of the atmosphere, the cycle will start working more normally again."

He blushed. "I'm sorry, Mother. I hadn't thought about moisture farming for awhile. You're right. I know where to go."

"Good. The bigger problem will be finding enough species of plants to really re-create an ecology."

Luke felt a sudden surge of energy coming from Leia. Her eyes had widened, and she was smiling. "I have an idea," she said. "I'm leaving for a few days. I'll be back soon." She kissed Mother's cheek.

"Leia, where are you going?"

"It's a surprise. A good surprise. Courtesy of my -- well, of one of your handmaidens. I think she'd like it."

"Your mother," Mother said. "It's all right to call her that."

"Okay. But it's still a surprise. I'll be back." She ducked back inside.

"What was that about?"

Luke shrugged. "A surprise, apparently. Do you want me to get those vaporators? I'll have to go home for them -- the comm system isn't too good in Anchorhead, and I want to make sure we don't end up with junk."

Mother nodded, and they went back inside. Leia was still there, but she convinced Han to take her on "a quick errand" -- Luke could feel the excitement about the "surprise" coming off of her in waves, but he couldn't tell what it was, only that she thought it a great opportunity. They blasted off an hour later, and Luke took the speeder back to the Alliance camp, where the smaller ships, including his X-wing, had been able to land. Mother and Lando had come with him, and Mother saw him off when he took off for Tatooine. He promised to be back soon.

The flight wasn't long; he hadn't realized how close Tatooine and Naboo actually were. He'd never actually tried to land near Anchorhead before, and was amused at how difficult it was to find, even with Artoo's scanners. No wonder people didn't drop by on a regular basis.

Toshi Station hadn't changed much. The sand had shifted -- he was pretty sure it had, anyway -- but still formed small waves along the walls Fixer was still leaving most of the work to his droids, and Camie was still working the desk. Windy still sprawled by the games, though he had a small boy with him now who looked too much like him to be anything but his son. Deak was gone; Luke remembered hearing that he'd gone to join the war. As a stormtrooper. He'd been killed in battle somewhere near Sullust, not long before the fleet had gathered there.

"Howya doin', Wormie?" Camie drawled, offering her prettiest smile. "Long time no see."

Luke looked around. "Too long. I should have come home before."

"So, you're coming back?"

"To stay? I'm not that crazy." He grinned, and they laughed. Anchorhead was the kind of town that only existed to be left, and everyone in it was planning an escape of one sort or another.

Windy introduced his son -- who turned out also to be Camie's, to Luke's surprise -- and dinner invitations were roundly offered. Luke accepted gratefully. "But I really did come for a reason," he said. "I need vaporators. A lot of them. I'll explain over dinner."

Fixer and Windy listened carefully to the situation, not paying much attention to the food in front of them, then started throwing around recommendations for new models that had been developed. Camie rolled her eyes, and said the new ones weren't worth the spare parts. She switched on a terminal, and started making purchase arrangements. "How exactly are you paying for this?" she asked.

"Money's not an issue," Luke said quietly. In fact, the only code he hadn't mentioned to Leia was the security code to Father's accounts. She wouldn't approve of using that money. But Father said it was a drop in the ocean of what he owed, and if Luke would use it to start repairing the physical damage he'd done, then it was his. Luke had agreed to the terms.

"Okay," Camie said. "I can line up a hundred and fifty of them. You can look at them tomorrow and make sure they're okay. Meantime, you can stay here with Windy and me, and tell us about all these stories we get back. You wouldn't believe what's going around."

"Is it true you're the one that took down Jabba?" Fixer asked.

"Actually, that was my sister, Leia."

"Sister?" Windy said. "First a mother, now a sister... Wormie, you're turning into a regular family man." He pulled his son onto his lap, and Luke envied him for a moment.

"Not quite yet," he said. "Maybe someday."

They spent the evening pleasantly enough, and Luke told them enough of the stories for them to understand what was going on, without telling them parts that Leia did not want to be public knowledge. In the morning, they met a group of jawas on the Dune Sea, and Luke inspected the vaporators. They were in good condition, and he offered enough credits for them that the jawas didn't complain about the poor choice of trading commodities. Even they could find a use for that many credits. He arranged for a transport to bring them to Naboo, bade farewell to his friends (with promises to come back soon that he thought he might keep when he made them), and returned to the Alliance camp.

Han and Leia had not returned yet. Mother had occupied herself with the Gungans and Naboo who were returning from exile. Lando was also there, asking them for details about what had been where, and what it was all made of. The droids stayed close to Mother.

Han, Leia, and the vaporators arrived the next morning. Leia was bursting with her surprise, but she insisted that the vaporators be set up first. "It's no good without them." So for a week, Luke oversaw the installation of the vaporators, and got them started. On a cool morning almost two weeks after Queen Amidala was raised from the bottom of the sea, Naboo awoke to a gentle rainfall.

"It's time," Leia said at breakfast.

"You mean I finally get to see what's in that crate of yours?" Han asked.

She nodded, and drew a box forward on antigrav units. It wasn't a large box, and there was nothing special about it, as far as Luke could tell, though Leia treated it as something fragile and precious.

"I'm sorry it took me so long to get back. The Empire had sealed my house on Coruscant, and I didn't want to risk losing this to an incendiary. I'd forgotten it until you said something about starting a whole ecosystem."

"What is it?"

Leia took a deep breath. "When my... my mother Saché... was travelling, she heard of a custom on the world of Gala. The royal garden contained at least one specimen of every species of plant on the planet."
"Yes, I'd heard of something like that."

"When I told her I was planning to run for Senate, she started making a gift for me. I never used it on Coruscant, because I never had time. She'd gone all over Alderaan, collecting seeds. These seeds. All the plants that are native to Alderaan. A whole ecosystem." She pulled the box further forward, and pushed it toward Mother. "An ecosystem whose world is gone, and a world whose ecosystem is gone... it seemed to fit. Do you like it?"

Mother opened the box slowly, reverently. "It's exactly right, Leia. It's perfect." She smiled, and ran her hands over the tiny, sealed jars of seeds, hundreds and hundreds of them, lining the box. Her hand ran across something else, and Luke saw her smile widen. She drew out a small wooden pendant on a leather string. "And my pendant, too. I thought I would never see it again." She offered them both a radiant smile. "It's finally brought all of us luck," she said, and put it around her neck.

Neither of them asked for an explanation.

***

Leia took no chances with the seeds. It wasn't like there would be a second chance with this garden. She worked in the laboratory with Two-Onebee -- who had botanical skills programmed into him along with his medical skills -- and found ways to strengthen the soil, and quicken the root-taking process.

She didn't know why she'd lied about what had taken so long on Coruscant. Oh, her house had been sealed, but she'd been a Rebel operative long enough to know how to get around Imperial seals. It had only taken a few minutes. The truth was, she'd found herself pulled into political issues. Old friends from the Senate had been contacting her regularly since Endor, and many of them had come to her when she arrived on Coruscant. Han had joked about getting practice at being a royal consort -- she hadn't found it funny, but she knew what he meant. The demands were starting to press. She needed to come up with a solution to the government's problem. She didn't want to tell her mother that things were beginning to crowd in on the family, but she knew she would have to eventually. Just not yet.

Somehow, she knew this had to be done first. The government could, for the moment, wait.

Everything could wait.

As the weeks passed, she could see Mother growing stronger, her gaunt face becoming round and full, her scant arms gaining muscle tissue. She was sleeping normally now, Leia thought, and eating well. She had moved her shelter to Theed, where she was living among Dorati's people, and Leia had convinced Han and Luke to follow (it hadn't taken much convincing). She was still frustrated whenever she tried to drop the mental shields she'd been carrying, but Leia was beginning to believe that she didn't really want to.

She drew up plans for the city, gave lists to Lando to retrieve items, and saw to food and shelter for the citizens, as well as the camp prisoners, who had been offered a home if they had nowhere else to go (to Leia's chagrin, Mother had also offered sanctuary to the prison guards, though none of them had taken it). The implants were taken out of her eyes. Leia thought she looked almost serene. And envied it.

She herself was growing increasingly impatient and edgy, and couldn't pin down why. She wanted to be here. And she knew she could leave at a whim. She even began to reach out to her companions on Coruscant, to begin the long distance work of rebuilding the Senate. She wasn't prevented from doing anything. So why, when the work slowed to only one project at a time, was she starting to feel the old anger gnawing at her? Why was it sitting at the pit of her stomach like a bad meal?

She answered it by taking on more projects. With Two-Onebee's help, she built a seeding droid -- she had never done such a thing before, but found it absurdly easy -- with scanners to find good soil, and devices to deposit hormones and other growth enhancers. Finally, on a day late in what would have been Naboo's fall -- the climate change had made it possible to plant anyway -- she led her family out onto the plains. It was drizzling again, and the rain was becoming less charming as the days and days of it went on.

"This is it," she said, calling the seeding droid with the remote. She lowered the seed case into the receptacle she'd made for it, and took a deep breath.

Luke kissed her cheek and winked. "For luck," he said.

She smiled, and took Han's hand.

"Well," Mother said. "Shall we try it?"

"Let's do it."

Leia bit her lip, and hit a button on the remote. A light on top of the droid activated, and the sensor on the front began to spin. It paused... then it began to float across the plain, stopping here and there, to plant...

Leia followed it. The growth hormones worked quickly, and within ten minutes, tiny sprouts appeared in the dirt, reaching upward. "It's working," she whispered to herself, then called back to her family. "It's working!"

She could see Mother standing beside Luke and Han, her face radiant, her hands clasped over her heart. Leia thought she was holding the pendant. She supposed it was all right.

She turned back, and followed the seeding droid, as it began to bring two worlds back to life in the gently cleansing rain.

Within a month, a thin green film was beginning to stretch across the plain outside of Theed, as the new plants took root and spread. It was only a tiny part of the whole planet, but it would keep going. The soil was rich here. It would survive.

On the first morning without rain since the seeding, Leia received a call from Coruscant. There was no more she could do at a distance -- she was needed there. She promised Mother that she would come back, and Mother told her that she loved her.

Leia glanced at the fragile new world beneath her as Han began to lift off of Naboo, then settled herself into her notes. She had some catching up to do before she could really begin to work.

***

Chapter 5

Amidala stood with her son on the high cliff overlooking the plains, and watched the Falcon blast into space. They were all taking great care, now, where the ships landed and took off -- no burning of the ground by stray thrusters, no trampling of tender shoots by landing gear. A raised landing area of thick stone was being built, under Calrissian's direction, near the seashore, beyond the new growth. But the Falcon had remained in the smashed royal hangar, and Amidala had insisted on seeing it off.

See-Threepio stood a few meters off, looking forlorn. Leia hadn't explicitly refused to allow him to travel with her, but she had also not asked his assistance with anything since she'd learned his origins. Amidala wasn't sure that Leia even noticed that she was doing it, but Threepio had taken note of it, and whatever passed for feelings in his circuits had been bruised. His normally unstoppable vocoder was often silent. She supposed it must be puzzling to him, without even having the memories to back it up, let alone a clear enough understanding of humans to see what the trouble was.

She linked her arm companionably through Luke's and they made their way back toward the makeshift city of temporary shelters, Threepio trailing behind them with the constant click of metal on rock. More Gungans had arrived -- most would not say where they had been hiding these many years -- and with them, more Naboo. Amidala had put out word that all remaining citizens of Alderaan had Naboo citizenship if they wanted it, and a few wandering groups had made their way here. The population had reached nearly two thousand.

Some of the Naboo had brought her gifts; she turned most of them away, but admitted that she and all the other prisoners were in need of clothes. She'd taken several dresses that were offered, and had to admit that it felt good to wear her own image again, even if it was somewhat more Padmé's image than Amidala's. Which was appropriate, she reminded herself. Padmé was not the queen. Nor am I now. She had to explain this at least once a week.

She felt Luke reaching for her mind, tried to let him in, and didn't succeed. "It's not working," she said. "I think I have to accept it as a permanent condition. Most people do, you know." She smiled at him, but it still stung that she couldn't share her mind, even with one who had a right and a need to know what she felt and remembered.

"I just don't understand it."

"Obi-Wan was a good teacher. To me, anyway. He wanted to make sure that neither the Emperor nor Ani could find a way into my mind."

Luke shook his head, as always, at the mention of the name "Ani" -- he found it incomprehensible that his father had once been known by it. "Why not just stay hidden from them altogether?"

"You're asking?"

"You tried to bring him back to us?"

"It was my plan. But I never got a chance to try. Palpatine was waiting when I got there. Then I was at Camp One-A." She looked out across the plains as the walked, trusting Luke not to let her trip on a stray rock or the raised edge of a broken slab. "The blocks served me well, for a very long time. Palpatine didn't learn about you until a few years after you'd destroyed the Death Star."

She didn't know how to explain her feelings, the day Palpatine had come to One-A to gloat. "Well-played, Your Majesty," he'd said with genuine admiration as he entered her cell. "But I don't believe you need those mental blocks of yours anymore. We've found your secret. Vader tracked young Skywalker to Bespin. He fell there. It took less than an hour." All in the same clipped, arrogant voice, as if he were telling her that a particularly annoying plague had been cured.

He had continued talking, staying for four hours that day, telling her minute details of Imperial campaigns, occasionally mentioning a murder Ani had committed ("He's been a bit harsh on my command structure lately; I'll have to discipline him"), or a cruelty he'd imposed. The fight not to scream had sapped her of all her energy. She had not been able to stop the shaking, or stop the tears from coming. Palpatine had ignored both (well, not ignored them -- he was quite gleeful about the whole thing -- but certainly not respected them) and continued the torment. By the time he left, she couldn't have screamed; she was too exhausted. She'd just sunk to the floor of her cell, wrapped her arms around her knees, and waited to die.

That had been the worst of it. But she could never explain it.

"Mother?"

"You were my last hope."

"Obi-Wan said that, too. But there was still Leia."

Amidala smiled. "I love your sister very much, Luke. But she... she is very like your father in many ways. You mustn't tell her I said so; I know she wouldn't take it well. But she wouldn't have done what you did. She would have done what Obi-Wan wanted you to. It wouldn't have been easy for her, but... " She shook her head. "I love her very much. But I worry about her. I saw her after Saché died. At the funeral. She was very angry. She still is."

"I don't think you need to. She's got a temper, but she's fine. She's very strong. And very good."

"So was Ani."

"Are you suggesting that I don't train her?"

"I'm making no suggestions. It might prove helpful to her, to learn the control you've learned, and I would never suggest that your father hadn't been trained. That was the old Council's way; I don't approve of it. But if she herself doesn't wish it -- and I've gathered that she doesn't -- then of course you shouldn't force her. You need to seek your students elsewhere. There are talented people who aren't related to us at all, you know." She winked.

"Point taken."

"Not the whole point."

"Go on."

They stopped walking. Threepio went on past. "Luke, your sister is right. You have to go on and do what you need to do. I'm all right. I wish for more time. What parent doesn't? We had little to begin with, and we lost most of it. But, as a friend told me recently, no matter how much we regret or how sorry he is, we can't get that time back."

Luke grinned at her. "A friend?"

"My dearest friend, whom you restored to me." She stood on her toes, and kissed his cheek gently. "Luke, you need to go. You have work to do. I know that."

"I know it, too." They stood silently together for a moment, studying each other's faces, then linked their arms around each other's waists and walked on.

They arrived at the edge of the makeshift city, where two Gungan children had accosted Threepio to tell them the tale of the Battle of Endor (Amidala thought they were the same two who had done so every day for the past week, but Threepio was infinitely patient with them). Threepio gave her a wave, and she thought his electronic voice was sounding somewhat happier. A silly idea, she supposed. But she believed it.

As soon as they were spotted, people began to approach. A young Naboo couple -- raised entirely in exile -- asking if she could preside at their wedding (until she abdicated, she supposed she could). One of the prisoners from One-A, with another list of names to contact, relatives of those who hadn't made it through all the long years. The new Gungan Boss, Carn-Gari, with another list, this one to go to Calrissian for supplies. Amidala tried to answer all of them as they approached, but she could feel them pulling Luke away from her.

He squeezed her elbow, and pulled her to the side of the crowd. "I'm going now, Mother," he said, and kissed her cheek. "You also have work to do."

***

Separated, Leia thought, looking out across Coruscant's skyline. It was always in motion, but it never really changed. Han's commission in the army had taken him back to Sullust for a time, to deal with an outbreak of crime that had come in the vacuum after the Empire fell. Not long, he promised, but she didn't think he was sorry for an excuse to leave Coruscant. She smiled ruefully, wishing she could think of one for herself.

Mother had called, and told her that Luke was travelling again, seeing potential students. More good news... he would let her alone on the subject, at least for the time being. So why did she feel so low?

Separated.

The four of them, pulled apart by the shifting energies of the galaxy. She hadn't wanted it to happen. She wanted the family together. She wanted... She didn't know what she wanted, exactly, except for the buzz-birds in the pit of her stomach to go away. But they seemed to have taken up permanent residence.

She left her quarters, pulling an old white cloak off a peg near the door. It might have been there for five years. Nothing had been changed.

Except, of course, her.

Leia Organa had been changed quite a lot since she'd last lived within these walls. Was it any wonder that they didn't hold her as comfortably as they once had?

She had no set destination when she set out -- she almost never had when she'd wandered this world -- but she knew long before she got to Vader's house that she would end up there. She'd tried to distract herself in the shopping district, then in the Senate halls. She'd spent many long hours in the latter, but this afternoon, the Senators she'd been working with to hammer out a decent government had declared a break. They had spent the past three weeks trying to unravel the knotty issue of how to handle worlds that had been loyal to the Empire during the war, and still rejected the Alliance government, and everyone was tired and short-tempered. They had encouraged her to come with them to various recreations, but none had appealed to her. They were not, at any rate, in their offices.

So she had slipped onto the public transport, hiding behind a handheld viewscreen to avoid notice. Hating herself at every transfer, vowing to turn around and go home at every stop, she'd made her way into the Imperial quarter. She didn't know what she expected to accomplish.

"The trunk," she muttered to herself. "I've come to get Mother's trunk. That's all."

She sighed, decided she was convinced of it -- it was plausible at any rate; learning Vader's identity had at least confirmed her suspicion that the trunk she'd seen through his window long ago was the same one Mother had once hidden her in, and that meant it had her things in it -- and approached the door. She reached into her handbag and discovered to her chagrin that she'd been carrying a code-breaker kit (very illegal, madam Senator) for at least a week. She pulled it out from under the hairbrush and wallet, and plugged it into the lock-terminal beside Vader's door.

The door slid up. A light was flashing, and Leia guessed that somewhere in the abandoned Imperial security buildings, absent stormtroopers were being summoned to the site. She could see a few in-house security systems as well, but nothing she couldn't handle. She stepped easily over an infrared trip wire, and entered her father's house.

The entry hall was a vault, high and silent, lined with large boxes. Off to the sides, she could see more richly appointed rooms, but nothing that looked truly livable. She shuddered. She shouldn't be here.

She went further into the hall, her footsteps echoing against the ceiling high above. She felt dwarfed and...

Awed?

Yes. That was the word. She was awed in the presence of her father's life.

He is not my father. My father was Bail Organa. A good man.

The incantation had no power in this place. Leia's heart knew the truth, and always had, though it had been careful not to discuss the matter too closely with her mind. It had known in her dreams. It had known on Ampinua. It had been certain, beyond all doubt, the day he had brought her to the landing platform here on this world, and touched her face and sheltered her from the wind --

A sound other than a footstep echoed back to her -- a sudden gasp of breath, a brief high-pitched moan. A sob. Her own.

She wiped her face in annoyance, and put her hand over her heart to try and calm its beating. The buzz-birds in her stomach flapped their wings harder, making her queasy. It was time to get out of here.

She turned back toward the main door, and saw the trunk sitting in the same place it had been in when she'd seen it many years ago, looking across from the small window in the opposite door. Even her mind had almost known that day. She wondered what would have happened if she'd allowed it to know.

The buzz-birds increased their pace. Leia's hands were shaking, and she barely made it to the trunk to sit down before her legs gave out.

All of those paths, closed. Forever. She could not know what would have happened if she'd let herself understand what she knew. Or if she'd told him enough that he might have understood. Or if she'd let him hold her, even just once.

Or if Mother had told him the damned truth in the first place.

Leia felt her eyes widen in horror at the thought. She was not angry with Mother. Mother was blameless in this. It was Father... it was Vader who had stolen all the good memories that might have been and replaced them with pain and terror. Her father -- her real father, Bail Organa -- had told her that Vader had stolen himself from her. And that was it, wasn't it? That was the seed the buzz-birds were feeding on. She'd been robbed of what was rightfully hers -- her mother, her brother, and yes, even her poor excuse for a father -- and she was angry. And she wanted it back.

She wanted to remember fighting with Luke about what music to listen to during chores. She wanted to remember Mother going over her schoolwork. She wanted to remember being held by her father, dancing with him at her wedding, fighting with him over her choice of companions (well, to be honest, she had to admit that he'd met that requirement quite completely). She wanted those memories of things that would never be.

Naming the absurd and impossible wish calmed her, at least a little bit. She was sure that every quasi-sentient creature in the galaxy wished to re-write his or her past now and then. She stretched out her hands in front of her, watched them until they stopped shaking. She was Leia Organa Solo, senator and princess of Alderaan, a leader of the Rebel Alliance and a founder of the New Republic. And this nonsense was going to stop right here and right now. She breathed deeply of the stale air, and stood up.

The house became merely a house, the echoes merely echoes. She flipped the antigrav switch on the trunk -- a device meant to make carrying the bulky box possible for a small woman -- and hooked it out the door, then locked up behind herself and headed home.

***

Amidala was glad for the chance to perform the marriage. It was one of the pure pleasures of being queen, and she supposed she would miss it after she abdicated. The couple -- the girl Tirzé and her fiancé Drel -- would be the first married on Naboo since the Desolation (as it was now being called). Calrissian had wheeled and dealed to get some of the traditional clothes from a collector on Gonjua, and a set of ritual Binders. The collector hadn't had any of Amidala's state gowns, so she had to settle for simply wearing a good dress and painting her face.

They stood before her and the new population of Theed, feet bare to touch the soil of the world. She clasped their hands together, high and perpendicular to the ground, and wound the first Binder around them.

"Green, for the peace of the waters of the seas."

The guests repeated the phrase (most had small viewscreens to follow along; the Naboo had lost a lot of memories, and most of the Gungans and Alderaanians had never participated in a Naboo wedding before). Tirzé spoke the water vow, and Drel accepted it.

Amidala could feel the questions in the crowd. She had been approached by emissaries from both the Gungans and the Alderaanians, and asked to retain the crown. Votes had been taken, she was told. The people wished it. She couldn't imagine why. Particularly from Alderaan -- why would they wish a queen who had offered sanctuary to Imperial guards? And yet, they did. They were tired of fighting. She took the second Binder from Threepio, and threaded it through the first.

"White, for freedom of the air of the skies."

It was repeated. Drel spoke the air vow; Tirzé accepted it. This part of the ceremony made Amidala think of Anakin -- how he had loved the freedom of the skies! -- and she smiled. A better world would come to these two children. She took the third Binder.

"Red, for the warmth of the fire of the sun." The repetition, the fire vow, the fourth Binder. "Brown, for the permanence of the soil of the world."

"May it ever be so!" someone called out from among the Alderaanians after the soil vow.

It wasn't part of the ceremony, but Amidala thought it appropriate, so she echoed it. "May it ever be so."

The Binding completed, Amidala spoke the final blessings ("Then let no wall rise between you, no shadow hide the light, no wind tear your souls from one another"), and concluded the ceremony. Tirzé and Drel invited all present to the feast in the courtyard, and the formal group scattered into a social setting.

Amidala drifted among the various gatherings, wishing people well and hearing their tales. Calrissian and several of the Republic troops who had come to town for the party were finding places to fit in, but she herself had no one -- even Threepio had been swept away by the children to tell stories and amuse them with sounds they had never heard before. Their parents were grateful for the tireless caretaker.

Amidala herself felt more acutely alone than she had since coming up from One-A. The other prisoners had either gone to their homeworlds or bonded with one another (she was willing to bet that this was only the first in a long string of weddings to come), but still treated her with the same deference they had in the world below. Some had still been unable even to make the transition from "Lady Vader" to "Queen Amidala." She had protected them from occasional rogue officers under the shadow of Ani's name for many years -- a fact she had not shared with either of the children -- and they couldn't get beyond it. She didn't feel comfortable among them anymore.

She waited until she was fairly certain that no one was paying attention to her, then slipped up the broken steps into the palace. Some clean up had been done, but she was adamant about having more practical housing rebuilt before the great monuments were repaired. The present now, the past later. She climbed the grand staircase, wound her way into the throne room. From the window, she could see the celebration below. Tirzé was dancing with Carn-Gari, and the children around Threepio were cheering some grand tale.

Amidala was tired of being separate. The glass wall between herself and everyone around her was unbearable. It needed to come down. She needed help.

She walked to the center of the room, reached out with her mind and her feelings. "Ani? Can you hear me?"

"I always hear you," he said. "At least when you speak out loud. If I could see into your mind and come when you need me without asking, I would."

Amidala smiled at him. "There are times I wish for you that would be... awkward to share."

He raised his eyebrows and grinned. "Is that so?"

"And very frustrating."

His eyes widened and she laughed. She had occasionally enjoyed surprising him by being forward, and it felt good to know she could still fluster him after all these years.

"I need your help," she said.

"You have it if it's mine to give."

"I need you to see into my mind. I need you to help me bring down this wall. Ani, you know every path into my soul. Help me find one."

He turned from her, took a few steps away. "My mind is... not a pleasant visitor, Amidala. There are things I don't wish you be burdened with. So many things I would be ashamed to let you see."

"Then they are things that properly shame you." She crossed to him, brushed her hand through the trail of energy that he showed her as his arm. "I know what you were, Ani. Don't imagine that I've forgotten, any more than Luke has. I know how far you had to come back. But there shouldn't be walls between us."
"Amidala... "

"Even when we were furthest apart, I was in your heart, wasn't I?"

"Yes."

"And at the furthest, you were in mine. A symbiont circle."

"Now you sound like Obi-Wan."

"Ani, please help me."

She thought he might simply disappear into the Force, let her remain behind her shell, fade into the ether that had produced him. Then she felt the light touch of his mind as it reached for hers.

At first, he ran into the same block that had stopped Palpatine and Luke and the others who had tried to read her. She felt the shields strengthening themselves, and willed herself to relax. His touch came back to her, running gently over her mind, not stopping anywhere, not trying to read anything in particular. Images came to her. Most of them were, as he'd warned, not things she wanted to know.

But others came -- in the midst of the cruelties, unexpected kindnesses; in the midst of the burning hatreds, rare consuming loves. She could feel his love for her driving him to small mercies; his love for Luke pulling him relentlessly toward redemption; his love for Leia pushing him into making dangerous concessions that would allow her to live. The last was a confused, desperate love -- she had betrayed him, she was like him, she reminded him of all that he might have been. A helpless desire to protect all of them, ruthlessly quashed, but always reborn. Like stepping stones in an endless poison river, they gave her a place to find her balance in the rush of vision.

She felt the first of her shields fall, and the grief and pain of the last twenty years flowed out of her, and the small joys she'd found. She couldn't stop the image of Palpatine's taunting visit from coming up, and she felt Ani's anger burn out at it. She reached out instinctively to soothe him. Another barrier fell. The wind of their minds circled, caught the edges in a great swirling eye. The walls fell away, and the Binding was complete.

The sun was setting on the celebration below when the storm finally subsided. The dancing was still going on, the laughter and the feasting. Amidala bade her husband goodnight, and went down to touch the soul of her world.

***

Chapter 6

The rumor spread like fog, appearing thinly from below and seeping into the shelters and half-built homes before people noticed it was there.

Tirzé heard it first at dawn, the day after her wedding. She and Drel had discussed taking a honeymoon off-world, but they had fallen as deeply in love with Naboo as they had with one another, so they had simply moved their shelter to the slightly greened plains beneath the city, and she'd come up to get provisions for breakfast. She got the light teasing she'd expected from passers by, and a knowing grin from an old woman at the mess hall, but most didn't give the bride a second glance. It might have bothered another woman, but Tirzé was relieved; she'd felt uncomfortable with the attention yesterday as it was. Marriage, she thought, was a properly private affair.

She heard the younger Naboo talking at a table, in hushed but excited tones -- an election was to take place. Who would they nominate?

Tirzé was horrified -- she loved the queen very dearly, and had hoped that Her Majesty would change her mind and rule Naboo for a very long time -- so she joined the conversation. No, the others assured her, equally horrified at the suggestion. No, it was for advisors. A legislature. To be chosen equally from among the Naboo, the Gungans, and the Alderaanians. Of course there would not be an election for monarch; Naboo's queen was still alive. Relieved, Tirzé sat to talk with them for awhile. She was fairly certain Drel would understand.

It reached the Gungans through Carn-Gari, who of course reported it as pure fact. That he would be one of the Gungan advisors was beyond question, but there was some bewilderment about whether or not he would run against Amidala as ruler of all Naboo. He denied the idea hotly -- he was the leader of the Gungans, he said, and that was enough for anyone. Besides, he confided in Lieutenant Arphon, there wasn't a chance of winning. He'd vote for Amidala himself.

The Gungan children, who habitually woke earlier than the humans, were delighted with the news. The Queen had taught them the history of Naboo, of how the Gungans and the Naboo had once not liked one another very well, but had finally become the very best of friends. They thought it might be nice to have a Gungan king someday, but never ever if it meant that Queen Amidala wouldn't be queen anymore, even though she herself said that it would be a fine thing to have Gungan king in Theed. And now there would be Gungans on the council; they would be the very best of friends forever now.

They spun stories with each other, and told their human friends as soon as they began appearing from their shelters. Each tale was grander than the one before it, and by the time they were finished, Theed was the capitol of the whole galaxy, and there was a statue of a Gungan right beside the big human statue beside the palace door. Amidala would later promise them that such a statue would be the first priority of an artisan; there was no good reason that one had not been there before.

The children brought the rumor back to the Alderaanian camp. The families had come together, had been so used to huddling for mutual protection and the warmth of shared memories, that they had not initially considered pitching their shelters among the dreamchasing Naboo or the cheerful Gungans (some thought the Gungans were simply born cheerful; they had not made themselves aware of the value Gungan culture placed on good cheer as a virtue -- dancing in the middle of the Desolation was in fact considered a mark of true honor and bravery). They had built along the edge of the city, bordering the riverbed, and by the time they realized that they didn't wish to be separate, it was too much trouble to make the physical move.

Their feelings were more subdued, more ambivalent... they were glad of a new home, and glad to be welcomed as citizens, but it couldn't replace the world they had lost, and there was often bitter talk among the older people about taking charity from strangers. But then, Queen Amidala was not a stranger -- she had offered them sanctuary because Alderaan had offered her the same. And she was the birth mother of Princess Leia... that was also to be taken into consideration. (The news of the adoption of a royal child had been a shock, but all agreed that Leia bore the title with the dignity it deserved, and should not have it taken from her on some ancient technical ground.) Perhaps someday, when they felt more at home, an Alderaanian could run for such a high office here, but for now, they were content to serve on a council.

The issue that Amidala thought would break them was not an issue at all -- giving sanctuary to Imperial guards was thought wise and compassionate. And since more than a few of those who had survived the destruction of Alderaan had survived it because they were in the Imperial fleet on assignment elsewhere (the vast majority of these retained enough Alderaanian sensibility to resign immediately upon hearing of the disaster, but most had simply opted out of the war rather than joining the Rebellion) it seemed a poor idea to start casting stones. It was brothers and husbands and sons who would end up bloodied, and there weren't enough of them to afford it. Living on Palpatine's homeworld was more of a sore spot, but, by the same token, it had been the first world he'd destroyed, and rebuilding it seemed like thumbing their noses at him, and that was good.

They began to feel a cautious optimism about their new world, and, in case the rumors were true, began to bring up names within their number who might be good advisors to the queen.

Amidala was well aware of the rumor of the council. She had started it herself, at the wedding, in a conversation with Carn-Gari. She'd known it would spread quickly, and counted on it. The population of Theed was growing by leaps and bounds, and if a government of some sort didn't take shape soon, it was inevitable that a crisis would arise, and the factions of the population would be at a loss to handle it. She had not intended it to be an informal referendum on her own position -- if anything, she'd thought that perhaps discussing government more rationally might lead to the idea of disposing of the monarchy altogether -- and didn't know until mid-morning that it had turned into one.

Threepio was waiting for her on the palace steps, gleaming in the bright sunlight. The weather was starting to cool, now that the rains were finally trailing off and the climate beginning to normalize, but the days had been brilliant lately. "Mistress Amidala!" he greeted her cheerfully. "I am happy to hear the news that you will be continuing as queen! Though why you didn't tell me yourself is beyond my capacity to understand. I am programmed to assist in all royal duties -- "

Amidala shook her head and put her hand over the speaker of his mouth. "Threepio, what do you mean?"

Then Carn-Gari approached her with a deep bow, and introduced three other Gungans (one, Arphon, the soldier she'd met on her first night). The Alderaanians were just behind him, and the Naboo waited for pride of place. Hariel Dorati and Tirzé came forward with their nominees.

Electees.

The rumor had spread even faster than she'd anticipated. People were ready to settle in for the long haul. In less than four hours of debate, Naboo had elected its first governing council in over twenty years. And the first ever to include the Gungans. Amidala couldn't conceal her delight at it.

Carn-Gari stood forward. "Wesa been talking already. And the first thing wesa want to do is tell you that you should still be the queen. Wesa all thinking so." He gestured grandly to the surrounding council members.

Amidala looked to the first Alderaanian delegate, a thin waif of a girl who had introduced herself as Ivva Japui, and she nodded solemnly. Tirzé simply smiled.

They all looked at her with such hope -- the new council, the crowd gathered on the plaza, the little ones on their parents shoulders. It weighed her down suddenly, like a dense star hovering above her. Acting as a temporary leader was one thing, getting the new world organized. But to take back the responsibility forever? When she had failed so miserably at it before?

And yet, she could feel the faith of the crowd coming to her. Ani had finally helped her bring down the walls she had built, and she could feel the quiet strength of their belief in her. Maybe it was enough to make it possible.

She smiled at Carn-Gari. "I will consider it," she said, and retired to her own shelter. She had her own council to convene.

***

It was a strange, almost surreal experience to land on Naboo, Luke thought, piloting his X-wing toward the meridian. This part of the world had been scarred badly during the Desolation, left a barren desert that looked not unlike Tatooine from space (though on the ground, the destruction left behind made Tatooine look homey and comfortable).

Beyond the meridian, just past the nightline at the moment, there was a swath of green that was the equatorial swamp, a large mudbar overgrown with large trees and mosses that had somehow been missed by whatever disastrous event had destroyed most of the rest of the world. It had supplied most of the oxygen that remained in the atmosphere.

The ocean stretched away for many miles after that, until it finally came up against the main land mass. Most of the continent was empty and barren, but as Luke approached, he could see Theed arising out of nothing, a busy hive of activity in the midst of cold death. A fragile ring of green was edging tentatively out from it. He veered to the south, and finally saw the small Republic camp on the seashore, the raised landing platform overlooking the circle of shelters. Ignoring Artoo's instructions, he landed on it by sight and feel.

To his great surprise, he felt like he was coming home.

Mother was waiting for him at the base. She had looked nervous when she'd called for him to return, and she still did, though it seemed more like stage fright than real discomfort. She kissed his cheek lightly, and he put an arm across her shoulders. Maybe someday he'd grow tired of being able to show affection for her, but he hoped it was many years off. For now, it just felt good and right to feel the reality of his mother beside him, as it had to see his father's face.

An image came into his mind, a baby in a woman's arms, holding on to her finger. There was a sense of perfect contentment in both of them...

"Is that us?"

"I don't have a lot of them to share, but I thought you might like it." Mother smiled. "I enlisted assistance with my communication problem."

"It seems to have done a world of good."

"I'm alive, Luke. I'm really, actually still alive." She shook her head in amazement. "I was really beginning to wonder if it was all some kind of strange dream of an afterlife."

"It's not." They walked quietly toward a small shelter at the edge of the camp, and Luke let himself explore his mother's mind. He watched for any signs that she felt like he was intruding, but found none. He stayed away from matters that he considered none of his business. He saw her years in prison, her time with Leia on Alderaan, her last meeting with Father... and he saw himself, in Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru's home, through a screen of beadwork. She'd given him a half-completed toy starship; he'd had it for many years (in fact, the last time he remembered seeing it was the day Threepio and Artoo had arrived at the farm). It had been Father's. He'd never known that before.

"I saw the Falcon flying toward Theed an hour or so ago. Your sister and Han should be on their way by now." They reached the shelter and ducked inside. Luke sat on the ground; Mother took a small supply crate. "Did you find any hopeful padawans?" she asked.

Luke shook his head. "Only three of the eight I went to see could really do the things their neighbors said they could."

"You didn't tell them you were testing them did you? It would break their hearts to know."

"Of course not." It had taken some planning to arrange the tests, but Luke couldn't imagine being cruel enough to tell any child that she wasn't up to snuff. Eventually, he'd settled on going to the schools, showing all of the children some simple tricks, and then, on the pretense of play, seeing if any of them could duplicate them. He'd actually found a few more hopefuls than had been reported to him, but he hadn't decided what to do with them yet; it wasn't like he had any implicit permission to be evaluating them, and he wasn't sure how their parents would react. Of the three who had shown promise, only one had parents who had been willing to let her go (why the other parents had informed him in the first place, he wasn't sure; he had a strong sense that they simply wanted to be reassured that their children were special, and he'd been happy to do so), and that one had cried so hard at the prospect of leaving home that Luke wouldn't have dreamed of taking her. She wasn't ready.

He felt Mother's hand on his own. "It's never going to be easy, Luke," she said. "The old way made it easier on the Jedi, but the children never knew who they were. The new way, the way Yoda trained you... I think you know that it wasn't optimal. The skills are better learned young, when they're nearly instinct as it is. There needs to be a happy medium. But it will always be hard for them to leave home."

"What should I do?"

Mother sighed. "It was never my intent to begin advising the rebuilding of the Jedi order. But since you asked... " She gave him a sheepish grin; he was beginning to understand that she simply couldn't resist the urge to put in her opinion on any matter. "I think you need to bring them with you when they're young, and train them. But don't cut them off from their homes, as the Jedi used to do. Let them live in both worlds. It will be better for them in the long run, I think."

Luke was inclined to agree. He was starting to say so when a shadow fell across the door. He looked up.

The figure was wearing a deep hooded robe, orange and red, with a floor-length skirt. The hood dipped slightly over her eyes. But the smile was unmistakable, and he knew the presence anywhere. He went to his sister, and greeted her with a hug.

Mother stood and joined them, pushing the hood of the gown down quickly. She shook her head in amazement. "Leia, where in the galaxy did you find this?"

"In here." Leia used a remote to call a small metal trunk in on antigrav sleds. "It was at... Well, it was... "

"Your father had it?"

"Yes." Leia shrugged. "I hope you don't mind my wearing this. I remembered that my mother Saché had one like it. It's a handmaiden's gown, isn't it?"

"Yes it is. I wore it as Padmé. But why are you wearing it? Not that I mind, I'm just puzzled."

"Join the club," Han said, coming in from the speeder. "She won't tell me, either."

Leia gave him an irritated glance that no one would mistake for real irritation, then turned back to Mother. "You may be circumspect in your communications, Mother, but I do occasionally speak to the Alderaanians. They contacted me before you did. If you're going to retake the throne, you'll need a handmaiden."

Mother laughed. "That's quite the speech, Leia. But there are a few glitches in your logic. The first is that you are a Senator of the Republic, and in my opinion the best candidate for Chancellor. It's not appropriate for you to serve as a handmaiden to a backwater queen."

"It's temporary. I just want to be a part of it at the beginning, Mother. Please. Out of respect to my adoptive mother, if nothing else."

Luke could have told her not to bother arguing; Leia's mind was quite made up on this matter. But she didn't seem to need to be told.

"The second problem with the theory," Mother said, "is that I have not made a decision to retain the throne. I called you all here to discuss the question."

Leia's face fell. "Well, why wouldn't you?"

Mother turned away, looked toward the blank back wall of the shelter. "I'm disturbed by request. I've given these people no reason to believe I would be a good queen. My record as queen was... somewhat spotty, to put it mildly. I'm concerned that they -- "

"That they're looking for an Empress to tell them what to do?" Han said suddenly.

"Yes. Yes, that's it exactly."

Han shrugged. "Look, maybe I'm not the best one to be speaking up here -- "

"Don't be silly."

" -- but the way I see it, these folks have been seeing what kind of queen you'll be for months, and they've been seeing it a whole lot better than you have. You put this place together, and you got them here. You don't need to 'retake' any throne. You never left it in the first place. Just my opinion."

"He's right, Mother," Leia said. "They want some kind of confirmation that you're not planning to leave them, but they already see you as the queen. Not because of what you were, but because of what you are. What they've seen you do."

Luke could feel Mother's question in his mind without her asking it. He sent her a reassurance.

"It will mean that I'm tied to Naboo," she said. "Permanently."

"Then it will be good to have a home to come to."

Mother looked from one to another among them, biting her lip. Then she smiled. "Then I suppose the decision is made."

Leia's smile lit the drab shelter, and Luke couldn't help but mirror it. Han rolled his eyes, but Luke thought the old pirate was happy to see things work out.

Mother pulled the trunk forward, and punched a command into the lock. It opened easily. Leia squatted beside her, and pulled a white dress from the box. It was elaborately designed of some shimmering cloth that Luke had never seen. Mother just shook her head. "I am far too old for white." She reached into the box, and her hands disappeared under another dress. After a moment, her eyes lit up, and she pulled a small red jewel from the base of the trunk. "The Jewel of Zenda," she said. "I was hoping this would still be there. I don't know what would have possessed Saché to put it into Ani's hands, but I'm glad she did."

Leia held out the white dress insistently. "Please, Mother. I've seen pictures of you in this one. It's beautiful."

"It was my favorite."

"So why not wear it?"

Mother touched the gown hesitantly, took it from Leia's hands. "I don't want to seem... a parody... a mockery of... "

An image of Father, in flowing black robes and the black mask, came into Luke's mind, and behind it, an image of Mother, tiny and clad in white, her face hidden under white powder. "Mother, I don't think anyone else will see it that way. Including Father."

Slowly, she drew the gown to herself, then looked at Leia and smiled. "Well, young handmaiden," she said, "I think maybe I'll need some help after all."

***

The grand courtyard had been cleared of rubble, and the crowd assembled was dressed gaily. One of the great statues had been restored, and stood sentry beside the door. The shell of the palace kept benign watch through blinded eyes.

Amidala stepped out into the sunlight, Leia beside her, dressed in the robe of a handmaiden, and Luke only a step behind. She herself was dressed in the white festival gown, but after hours of trying to find a new ritual makeup pattern to express the role of Naboo in the War of the Empire, she and Leia had come to the decision to simply abandon the white face paint, as a sign that innocence had been lost. She used a flesh toned paint on her lower lip to make the Scar of Remembrance stand out more clearly. Rather than an elaborate headdress, she had decided to simply let her hair fall loose around her shoulders, with only a thin braid to keep it neat and out of her face. The Jewel of Zenda depended over her forehead from a chain pinned into the braid.

Carn-Gari waited on the stairs, with the other elected council members. He gave her a small blue ring, made of a stone she didn't know, as a symbol of the Gungans. She turned to the crowd, and spoke to them from her heart, of the future she hoped to see, and the past she would not forget. She could feel the figures of that past around her -- Bibble, Panaka, Binks, Nass. Jinn and Kenobi. Ani. She could feel him with her, giving her that half-smile that she had loved so well. She could almost see it from the corner of her eye, and couldn't help returning it. The future stood with her in fact. Her children, beginning their own paths. The new council, with young Tirzé and the others who were just growing into the world.

She finished speaking, having nothing more to say, but still, they waited expectantly. She needed to come to some kind of closure, bring the circle back to its beginning. She looked from one face to another, in the crowd, here on the steps. "I am Padmé Naberrie Skywalker," she said quietly to them. "Amidala of Naboo."

The cheer began at the center of the crowd, and spread in a powerful wave through the courtyard. Around them, Theed lay in ruins, looking forlornly across the still-barren plains. But after many long years of sorrow, its heart was beginning, slowly, to beat again.

THE END

FernWithy

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