October 03, 2000
Category: Star Wars; PG13
Author: FernWithy

[Disclaimer]

Outer Rim: The Storm and the Lightning

Disclaimer:This, like all things associated with SW, belongs to Lucasfilm, Ltd, and no infringement on that copyright is intended.


A long time ago, in a galaxy that never was...

It is an uncertain time for the Republic. The Empire is no more, but the victory was slim, and the political morass that brought it into being remains.

Having borne the heaviest part of the Battle of the Outer Rim, the Skywalker family has shouldered the burdens of the shaky Republic in the ten years since. Anakin Skywalker has recreated the Jedi Order, bringing balance to its decimated ranks, while his wife, Amidala, works tirelessly as Chancellor of the Senate to bring peace to the shattered galaxy. Young Luke Skywalker has become a powerful Jedi in his own right, and prepares to take his own students, while his twin, Leia, travels the galaxy as head of Republic security.

As the family struggles to cope with its responsibilities, the unraveling political situation in the far off worlds of the Outer Rim has flared into a rebellion, as mysterious warriors, claiming to speak for Amidala, spread fire and desolation across the galaxy...


Prologue: Miseta

Motibi. Outer Rim.

The sky was red with blood and fire, but the two figures that stood silhouetted against it, high on a rise above the storm, no longer noticed such things. They had seen it on a dozen worlds. Their attention was on one another.

"So it comes to this, does it, my Miseta?"

"As you have always known it would, Master." The smaller figure stepped forward, cloaks and veils blowing wildly about her in the wind of the firestorm. "You named me for order. I will not destroy the order I've bought at such a high price."

A sneering laugh. "Order? You walk and breathe at the whim of a weak woman who cannot control even her own household, let alone the galaxy. Think, my Miseta! You have the power to mold this chaos to your own desires! To make of it whatever you like! You need only take that one step... a simple step. It is certainly not a new one for you."

"No, it is not." Her voice was strangely calm, even in her own mind. The time really had come to break the chain of command. "And I do plan to free myself of unnecessary controls today." She pushed her mind outward. "Walk into the fire, Master."

Her Master only laughed. "Try it with the feeble locals, my Miseta. They seemed to respond better when you told them to burn their precious hovels. I am stronger than they are."

"Perhaps. But you are not stronger than I am." She focused, concentrated... she knew that her Master was not to be toyed with... but she also knew that she spoke the simple truth. She had been strong enough to do this for years.

Her Master's face grew suddenly taut, and a pale hand grasped futilely toward the failing heart. Then, a strange, hateful smile. "This... " A gasp. "... is worthy of you... my Miseta." One more push, and the heart burst inside the ruined chest.

The larger of the two figures crumpled to the ground, becoming one more meaningless shape in the smoke. Miseta contemplated the shape for less than a minute, then pushed it over the rise into the raging fire below.

She hadn't wanted it to come to this, not after ten years of study and a strange variety of cold friendship. But her Master should never have told her to kill the Chancellor.

After all, what kind of monster would kill her own mother?

***

"Get down, Amidala!"

Amidala had learned long ago that the tone was not to be dismissed, and she dropped immediately under the cover of the balcony's parapet. Ani's lightsaber ignited in a flash of bluish-white as the high whistle of a blaster shot broke the air. He deflected it easily, and the one after it.

Amidala reached for her blaster, always set for stun, and followed the direction of the shots to their source: an old man, with crazed eyes and wild hair. She thought he was crying as he fired.

She turned the power level as low as it could go and still immobilize him, then aimed carefully and fired. The assassin dropped his gun and crumpled to the ground.

Ani glanced back at her. "Good shot."

She smiled. "Good cover. Please bring him to me, Ani. I need to talk to him."

"I think it a poor idea... "

"You'll be right here with us."

He nodded, and she watched him make his way down off the balcony, to the courtyard below where people were gathering around the semi-conscious shooter.

"Mother?"

She turned. Ben was standing ten yards behind her, a pallie in one hand, his eyes deep and troubled. A ten year old child, Amidala thought, should never have that expression. "Everything is all right, Ben," she said. "Go back inside. Please."

He started to protest, but in the end, Ben was a compliant child - much like Luke had been many years ago - and he nodded and went inside. She would explain to him later.

"...can walk on my own, don't touch me false Jedi..."

Amidala turned back toward the city, and saw that Ani was guiding the shooter up the stairs. The man was raving, barely allowing himself to be led. Amidala went to him. "Peace, old father," she said. "What troubles you?"

Ani rolled his eyes. His patience ran out quickly when he perceived someone as her enemy. But Amidala could not look at this old man and see an assassin. She saw only the pain in his eyes, the pain that was driving him to madness.

He spat on the ground in front of her. "I'm not your father, witch," he said. "I am Jaet Bishapi, of Anoat. Or what used to be Anoat until your demons burned it away."

"Mr. Bishapi, I - "

"Doctor. Doctor Bishapi."

"Very well, Dr. Bishapi, I am investigating what happened on Anoat. I did not order that siege, and my heart goes to the people who suffered it - "

"Do you think I can't smell your lies? They stink like the smoke and the fire and the melted steel. I saw the demon, walking through the flames like they were its very own doom. I heard it order men to their deaths, and women too. And I heard it do all those things in your name, witch." Bishapi looked at her disdainfully, then laughed. "So either you know, in which case, you ought to be in the same hell you put us in. Or you don't know, and you can't control it, in which case, you ought to go back to the desert and breed, since it's the only thing you seem to do right."

Amidala saw Ani's hand pulling tighter on the back of Bishapi's shirt, his eyes narrowing. She shook her head. She didn't want this man injured any more than he already had been. If she couldn't take an insult from a madman with grace and dignity, she really wasn't worthy of her position.

"Yes, yes. Call off your attack dog," Bishapi said. Amidala was surprised - insane, the man might be, but he missed very little. "False Jedi, servant of -"

"That is enough, Dr. Bishapi," Amidala said quietly. She thumbed a key on her comm-pad (a wrist device that she almost always wore), and the guards arrived. She instructed them to take Bishapi to a nearby hospital where his wounds - both physical and mental - could be tended, and watched them lead him off. His anger seemed not to have abated but --

"He's confused," Ani said. "You weren't what he expected."

"He expected a demon."

"Yes."

She sighed. "Because he saw one."

"He saw something, Amidala. Not necessarily what he believes he saw."

Amidala could think of nothing to say. The afternoon wind was beginning to pick up, as the rush hour traffic stirred the atmosphere stories above them. It always seemed to have a cold edge to it. "Let's go inside, Ani," she finally said.

He nodded, and followed her in.

Ben was sitting at the table, looking pinched and drawn. Amidala thought at first that it was simply a continued reaction to the assassination attempt - he'd dealt with them before, but they frightened him badly - but then she saw that he was watching a small holoproj, the kind with a privacy screen.

"What is it?" Ani asked him.

He turned the holo around, and Amidala saw red flames and black smoke. It could have been a repeat of a news item that had already run too many times for her to bear, but she knew it wasn't. "Again?" she asked.

Ben nodded.

***

"Come on, Luke," Shmi goaded. "Just let me take it for a little while."

"No."

She smiled widely, gray eyes dancing merrily as he led her out of the garage. "Please! I won't tell Father you let me drive."

"Since when would you need to?" Luke rolled his eyes, and pinched his sister's nose. She had thrived on Coruscant, growing into a bright teen, so cheerful that most people didn't peg her for a Temple student, even though she always wore the cropped beige tunic and brown boots that the others wore. She also wore a long padawan braid, though she was not officially anyone's padawan yet - Luke had chosen her four years ago, to take as a padawan when he finished his own training, and had braided his own hair into hers. She had let it grow since then, and cut the rest of her hair short so it would show. "And, at any rate, it's not Father who's saying no, it's me. It's one thing when we go back to Tatooine. You're not likely to hit anyone there. But it's another matter entirely here."

She stuck out her tongue, then wrapped her arms around his waist as they walked. Her small shoulder fit comfortably in his hand. "I just want to play for a little while," she said, "before everything gets serious. I think I like being your baby sister more than I'll like being your padawan."

"Thanks for the pre-judgment."

"You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do."

They walked on toward the Temple without saying much, feeling the last tattered shreds of their warm Tatooine childhood torn away in the chilly wind of Coruscant. Luke knew he was supposed to have shed his years ago, upon taking on the burden of his apprenticeship, but he'd had Shmi, and their baby brother Ben, at home to play with. Mother had always been there with a smile and a kiss, and Father's idea of being a master was not terribly different from his idea of being a father - protect and defend, love and cherish, teach and nurture. He'd been lucky, and had held on to his role as son for longer than most people were able to. Now, he would have to take on the role of father and master, albeit to a sister rather than a daughter. He'd try to see to it that he gave Shmi the same benefit Father had given him.

"Where is Leia?" Shmi asked quietly.

Luke shook his head. "I don't know."

"You always used to know."

"Yes, I did." He fell silent. It was a greater pain to him than Shmi imagined. Leia had drawn into herself over the years, losing touch with the Force - even deliberately cutting herself off from it -- as Luke gained strength in it. She'd severed their twins'-bond in doing so. He could sometimes sense strange tremblings, the phantom pains of an amputated limb, but he could not speak to her mind, or hear her speaking to his. Through their childhood, they had never been separated. Now, they were almost never together. He missed her desperately.

Shmi looked down, picking up on some of it. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to - "

"It's all right."

They reached the high door of the Temple's entrance. Two of the seven transparisteel window pains had not been replaced, and the gaping holes had been filled with mud bricks. That had been Yoda's idea, to leave the building with the permanent scars of the purge. Father had agreed, and the small, early group of knights and students had taken it as their first project. Inscribed on each brick were the names of fallen Jedi, all that each survivor could name. A final brick, placed between the doors, bore only the name of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the last to fall in the war against the Sith.

Luke led Shmi inside, up into the tower, where Father waited in the Council room with Yoda. They made a strange pair of shapes against the sunset,

(so it comes to this, my Miseta)

Father, the large mountain of a man, with roots deep in the soul of the galaxy; Yoda the diminutive Master, with power that reached upward into the sky. Luke took a moment at the Council door to just stand and love them both.

"Come in, children," Father said, turning to them.

Shmi went in without hesitation. The older Masters had been scandalized at first about Father's policy of free access to the Council room whenever the doors were open - which was whenever there wasn't an actual session in progress - but they had come around, and Shmi had never been aware of their disapproval. She felt much freer here than Luke did.

"Father?" Luke said. "You seem troubled."

"There has been another attack in the Outer Rim, on the world of Motibi."

"Wasn't there a riot there last week?" Shmi asked.

"Yes. That's been the pattern all along. Your mother believes someone might be trying to encourage rebellion by committing such brutalities in the name of the Republic. In her name." He grimaced.

Luke smiled to himself; Father was nothing if not predictable - he could live with the insult to the Republic, but an insult to Mother was unbearable. "Has Leia followed up on it?"

"She has found nothing. Burnt-out villages, many casualties, many injured. Little evidence of ammunition, or even troop movements. In most cases, it seems that the people themselves have destroyed their homes in a fit of madness."

Yoda turned for the first time, the sunset catching his wisps of white hair and turning them red and gold. "Madness, it would seem at first glance, Master Anakin, yet madness, I do not sense in these worlds."

"Nor I."

"Then what?" Shmi asked, sitting in front of a Council chair (the room was open, but the chairs were considered sacrosanct; Luke didn't remember when or how that had become the custom).

Father sighed. "A survivor of the raid on Anoat - one of the very few - made an attempt on your Mother's life today - "

"What? Why didn't you... ?"

"Peace, Luke. It was a clumsy attack, I was there; it ended without incident. That man really was mad. Yet one of his ravings struck me deeply."

"What was it?"

"A demon," Father whispered, closing his eyes. "He spoke of a dark-robed demon walking through the flames. It made little sense and yet... "

"Real, this demon is," Yoda said. "Real and dangerous. But not a demon."

"I don't understand."

There was silence, then Shmi said it first.

"Sith."

***

Chapter One: Someone Who Loves You

Corellia.

Han hadn't given much thought to the scars in years. He'd given her the damned veils, but he'd convinced her not to wear them when they were alone together, here in his house. The bottom part of Leia's face, a warped crescent that stretched from below her right ear to the left side of her chin, looked like melted plastic. But he'd rather see it than not see it. He'd rather see Leia Skywalker than the mask she always wore.

He thought she was beautiful. The scars just reminded him of it by marring it.

Her mouth twitched in something that resembled a smile. It was an expression she couldn't hold for long without pain. "What are you staring at, flyboy?"

He grinned. "Just wondering what kind of trouble I'm in, to drag Republic security all the way out here."

"Don't flatter yourself," she said, turning her nose up in mock arrogance. "As it happens I was just in the neighborhood... "

Han leaned over and kissed the upturned nose. "And you just had to drop by and say hello."

"Something like that." She pulled him to her for a more serious kiss, her strong fingers massaging the back of his neck. He'd kissed her the first time four years ago, the day he'd first pulled away the veils she wore. It was good then; it had gotten better. The only problem was that she always seemed scared of being found out - despite the fact that her family knew, and Solo couldn't think of anyone else who'd mind. She broke away, and linked her arm through his, leading them further into his house. "Things are going to get better now," she said. "I promise."

"You can still read minds, can't you?"

She gave him a hard sideways look. He caught a glint of something in her eyes, something he didn't like at all, but he let it go. She'd always had a temper. She'd always had this... he shook it off. He knew enough to be careful with her. He liked her enough not to let it bother him. "No," she said. "That part of my life is a long time ago. Leave it to my brother."

"Speaking of whom... "

"He's fine, and I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I said hello for him, though he didn't know I was coming here."

There was a distance in her voice, and that bothered Han more than the hardness in her eyes. When he'd first met the Skywalker twins, they were the closest sibs he'd ever imagined. He'd sort of wished to be part of that. But now... something was wrong.

"Nothing's wrong," Leia said.

"Thought you weren't reading minds anymore."

"I don't need to read your mind. I can read your face." She pulled away from him, and went to the window. "I just haven't seen my family for awhile. Things have been... a little intense." She turned, and gave him the smile she'd practiced longest. She was getting better at it. "And I didn't come to you to talk about my brother."

"What did you come to talk about?" He sat down on the tattered sofa, putting his feet up on an end table.

"Who says I came to talk?"

Experience, Han thought. Just plain old ordinary experience. He said, "Well, I know you just can't stay away from a good-looking guy like me for long and all... "

She rolled her eyes, and looked back out the window. The afternoon sun split around her in a hazy halo, and Han sat back to appreciate it. He tried not to think too clearly - whatever she said, he didn't think she'd lost the ability to read his thoughts, and didn't imagine she ever hesitated to do so. It wasn't a problem for him, though it had driven Chewie crazy. She'd never gotten an ear for the Wookiee language, but she was always and forever cutting him off in the middle of a sentence by predicting what he was going to say. He'd taken to finding errands to run any time she said she was coming. Too bad. Chewie'd liked her once, too. And his snub hadn't gone unnoticed where it counted. A bitterness had crept into Leia's tone when she spoke of him.

How many things were there that got that tone these days?

Han shook his head, clearing it of the unwelcome thought. Hell, he'd never figured her for perfect. Just pretty and smart and tough enough to match him blow for blow in a word fight. Just more alive than anyone he'd ever met, more determined to make her life mean something. Just someone he loved.

She turned her head and looked at him with eyes that were sad and full of regret, then turned back to the window.

He couldn't stand not touching her for another minute, and he got up and went to her, slipping his arms around her from behind and kissing the nape of her neck.

She turned in his arms and pressed herself to him. "Hold me," she whispered, her voice thick.

Han was no mind-reader, but even he could feel the desperation in her, the confusion. "What is it, Leia?" he whispered between kisses. "Tell me. Talk to me."

"I can't tell you. Just hold me."

He did.

Two hours later, she had drifted to sleep at last, and Han cradled her in the crook of his arm. He imagined that he could see the dark circles under her eyes starting to fade, but he knew it was his imagination. It wasn't the circles that were holding his attention, anyway. Now, as she slept quietly, he could see her face more clearly, see the terrible scar.

And he could see that there were fresh burn marks on the old scar tissue, scattered red spots like pox. The burns of flying ash.

It wasn't the first time he'd seen burns like that on her. And every news report from another burned world made the uneasy suspicion stir in him that he knew where they came from. She always seemed to show up like this - not just burned, but looking like the devil himself was after her - not long after one of them.

He struggled against it. He loved this woman, and she loved him, and there weren't a hell of a lot of people in the galaxy that he could say that about. And she'd never so much as accidentally scratched him when they were together, at least not without profusely apologizing. She couldn't be...

Han thought about the holos of the Outer Rim worlds put to the flames.

She couldn't.

He held her closer, and knew better.

***

Luke sat in the meditation room of the Jedi Temple, not meditating. Across from him, Father wasn't even pretending to meditate - he just stood at the window, and watched the traffic weave its way across the sky. He didn't talk. That didn't bother Luke; he was one of the few people Father was comfortable being silent with, and that pleased him. Besides, it wasn't Father he needed to talk to.

Leia... he whispered into the empty spaces in the Force, the lifeless vacuum of space. It echoed through the energy, resonating against the thin lines that bound the galaxy. Hear me, Leia...

He reached deep into his own heart, feeling for the tattered remnants of the twins' bond they had once shared. Was there a response? A whisper? A plea? Was the loneliness hers, or merely his own, amplified and reflected back to him?

"Luke."

He looked up. "Yes, Father?"

"You need to let go of this."

"Of Leia?"

"No. Simply of the hope we had - all of us - that the Council would someday relent and allow her to be trained. She will never be lost to us as daughter and sister. But we must accept that she's lost as a Jedi."

"Have you?"

Father looked at him for a moment, then gave him a wry grin. "No. But I'm a bit more accomplished at hiding it."

"Do you miss her? As a Jedi, I mean?"

"I miss her in every way possible. Then, I miss you, too. I miss the two of you playing in the dust and making sandmen on the back porch. I miss having to go into your room to collect her at night because she just couldn't go to bed without telling you just one more thing. I miss our life as it was."

"So do I."

"But it is no longer there. And Leia, as I recall, was never quite as fond of it as we were. This new life has its charms as well. Human beings are strange creatures, Luke - we'll always miss what we don't have, even if we've missed what we do have at another time."

"Do you think she's in trouble?"

Father's eyes immediately became sharp and focused - the father was gone, the Jedi Master present. "No. Leia has always blocked me, almost subconsciously, and I have no standard to judge by. Have you sensed something?"

"No," Luke answered quickly, but he wasn't sure. Why was he so obsessed with reaching her? What danger was reaching through the broken bond? But could he honestly say that he sensed something? Or was it just his own bleeding heart, wishing for company?

"Luke?"

"I think I just miss her," he said at last.

Father put a hand on his shoulder. "I am glad of it, Luke. I am glad you love as deeply as you do."

"Master Yoda says it's a liability. That it can be used against me."

"He's right. But he doesn't understand that it is also your greatest strength. Do not let it go."

"Are you speaking as my father or my Master?"

"Yes." The hand on Luke's shoulder squeezed lightly, then Father stood. "Come. There are matters to be discussed in Council."

"Oh. I'll take Shmi home and - "

"No. Your presence is requested as well."

Luke stood. A strange, buzzing feeling in his mind accompanied him as he walked with Father through the partially rebuilt halls of the Temple. They entered the elevator without speaking, side by side. As the doors slid open, Luke was almost physically pushed back by a strange, nonsensical vision - he stood beside Father, in an elevator not unlike this one, but it opened into a dark, cavernous room, where a great spider perched at the center of a dark web. They stepped forward together...

... and the Council room came back into view, the circle of Masters looking at them with somber eyes.

Father glanced over, and Luke knew, somehow, that he'd had the same strange vision. Perhaps they could discuss it later.

Master Yoda motioned for them to come forward. "Come, come. Much have we to discuss, and plans have you to make."

Father squeezed Luke's shoulder, then took his seat beside Yoda. Luke went to the center of the room, as was the custom for the Council's guests. "Does the Council require something of me?" he asked, lowering his eyes.

"Patience, you need," Yoda said. "We will talk first, and require later."

"Yes, Master."

Yoda hit the control of a small remote in his hand, and a holoprojection appeared in front of him. A world set to the flames. It was a grainy transmission, and nothing could be seen clearly through the smoke.

"This comes from the world of Anoat," Old Bant said. She was a Calamarian woman, with a soft and gentle voice, and she had once been a friend to Obi-Wan Kenobi; Luke was fond of her. "It was caught by satellite, though most of the security measures were disabled early in the attack." She stood, and used a laser pointer to indicate what she was talking about. "You can see here and here that groups of Anoat settlers appear to have set the flame to their own homes" - she showed them men and women, huddled together, suddenly firing blasters into tinder-dry houses - "and you can see that little is being done to stop it."

Luke nodded. This was something he'd already known.

"We were aware that some entity had been instigating these events, but until Anoat, we assumed that witnesses were mistaken, that in fact the devastation was caused by a group of mercenaries or terrorists. But this footage corroborates the eyewitness testimony of Dr. Jaet Bishapi - if you look here, you can see - barely; this is a very poor recording - a single form, high on the hillside."

Luke looked carefully at the figure - tall, thin, black robes billowing around an otherwise shapeless form. It might have been taken for a scarecrow. But it wasn't. The longer he watched, the more intuitively apparent it was that the figure was overseeing the devastation.

"Then Shmi's insight was correct," Father said. "The Sith have returned."

Bant nodded. "Yes. But it becomes more complicated." The holo changed, and showed a different world - though Luke only knew it was a different world because the landmarks had changed. It was scorched and burned, and bodies littered the landscape. Bant zeroed in on one of them. A thin form, in a long cloak, only partially burned. She expanded its size, and they could all see the charred lightsaber lying on the ground nearby.

"Isn't that the figure we just saw on - ?"

"It is. I have no doubt of it."

"Then it's over."

"No. Someone killed this creature, there on Motibi. Had it been a native, I suspect responsibility would have been claimed. The most likely suspect is - "

"Another Sith," Father finished. "The apprentice. That must have been Palpatine's apprentice. That was what Obi-Wan was trying to remind me of, there at the end. Why didn't I listen?"

"None of us did," Bant said. "Which I find strange, to the point of assuming that it was somehow orchestrated. This creature blinded the whole Order. But someone was strong enough to kill it."

"Always two," Yoda said. "And this brings us to requiring, young Luke."

"Yes, Master Yoda?"

"Too long have you been an apprentice. This, you know well. The time has come for your Trials. And your Trial, young Luke, is to find this apprentice - "

"No!" Father said, standing. He began to pace. "That is not a Trial, Yoda, and you know it. It is an assignment for a knight with experience, and - "

"Find him, I said, not confront him. Know, we must, with whom we are dealing. Then, and only then, decisions will we make."

"Luke is my padawan," Father said obstinately. "I forbid it. I sense danger - "

"Danger, there always is in a Trial, Master Anakin. You have forbidden other Trials before now... "

Luke's eyes snapped up; this was something he hadn't known. Father looked at him guiltily, and Luke understood that his Trials had been put off for quite a long time. He felt a dull anger at the lack of trust, but it was faraway and dim. Closer was the slight embarrassment at being loved a bit more than the Council thought good for him. And the warmth of knowing it. "I accept the Trial," he said.

***

From the end of the hall, Shmi watched her father and her brother disappear into the elevator. They always looked so mismatched together - both blonde and blue-eyed, of course, but Father was large and solid, while Luke was small and lithe, like Mother and Shmi herself. None of the children had really taken after Father, though Leia did have his... solidity, Shmi guessed was the right word for it. She sometimes imagined her family as three wind sprites dancing around two trees.

Not that much had been seen of Tree Number Two just lately. And flying off to all corners of the galaxy was hardly tree-like behavior, so the mental image fell apart, as it always did. Shmi supposed it didn't matter all that much that she couldn't turn a metaphor the way old Bant sometimes liked to, but she sensed something in her search for an image that felt important to her, though she couldn't say why.

"Are you done for the day?"

She turned. Her younger brother was standing in the doorway, a lesson disk held loosely in one hand. People always thought him a somber child, but Shmi knew it was just his looks. Ben had deep, thoughtful blue eyes, and a fine delicate mouth that resembled Leia's (or what had been Leia's in what Shmi thought of as The Time Before). He didn't smile often, but Shmi knew that was because some of the other boys were cruel, and teased him about being "pretty."

He was pretty, Shmi thought, but it was a childhood prettiness that would turn him into a striking man someday. And he was happy. Not giddy, but genuinely content. Shmi sometimes thought she was the only person who knew it. "It looks like it," she said. "Do you want to go somewhere for a ruby bliel or something?"

He nodded, and gave her one of his rare smiles. It was Mother's smile, the beatific, angel-smile that she saved for special occasions. "We can go to... "

Then the world went gray.

Shmi felt herself pulled out into the Force, into the nameless, placeless spaces between the worlds, where she had no self and time had no meaning. Somewhere in the distance, she could sense another presence, and knew that once she had known it, but now...

The gray darkened, and became black, and she was in a great cave, where a giant spider sat at the center of its web. From two of its forelegs dangled long strings, and at the end of them, human faces - one was Father's, the other Leia's... unscarred and beautiful. Shmi found it compelling; she barely remembered her sister's face in the real world.

The spider spun them around, playing with fate like a child playing with whirler-bobs, and laughed a throaty old man's laugh. Then, to her horror, it became aware of her presence, and looked at her.

"Live," it said, twirling Leia's face up into the pincer-end of its limb. He squeezed, and Shmi felt a terrible rush of pain. Then it let go, and hooked Father up. "Or don't live."

Instead of squeezing, the spider pushed the gruesome toy out at her, and she felt the energy hit her, and scatter her mind into nothingness...

"...Shmi, Shmi, what is it? What's wrong?" p>Shmi blinked her eyes. Somehow, she was lying on her back in the hall of the Temple, staring up at the ceiling. Ben, no longer smiling, was kneeling above her, his hand stroking her hair. "What happened?"

"Your eyes bugged out and you fell down. Did you see something?"

He was so sincere that Shmi considered telling him - really, she did - but in the end, she found that the words wouldn't come. She pinched his nose. "Yeah," she said. "I got a really good view of the ceiling. It needs cleaning."

"Shmi - "

"Look, don't tell, okay?"

"I hate it when people tell me not to tell."

"I just don't want to get sent to the med lab to poked and prodded like they did last time. They didn't find anything then, and it just worried Father and Mother."

Ben sighed. "All right. But you flop again, I'm really going to tell."

"I won't." She stood and dusted herself off.

"If I'm not telling anyway," Ben said, "couldn't you at least tell me what you saw? For real?"

Feeling better already - Shmi was never bothered long by visions, and incorporated them into her mind as seamlessly as they would go - she gave him a mischievous smile. "It was a horrible vision," she said. "We got to Lom Detrick's, and they'd completely sold out of ruby bliels!" She winked.

Ben's mouth twitched back toward a smile, and, at the same moment, they called "Race!"

Shmi won.

***

Chapter Two: Partings

Han waited until he was pretty sure she was out of the system. She'd left that morning, lingering longer than she usually did, and her ship was tracked on its way to Malastare, where there had been a protest over the scourging of Motibi. She would assure the protesters that the matter was being investigated, that all avenues were being explored, that justice would be brought against whoever threatened the peace of the Republic.

A few days later, he knew, the firestorm would begin. He guessed it would center at the racing arena, the heart of Malastare's leisure industry. Then it would move on to the mining operations...

He closed his eyes, trying to will the idea out of his head, but it wouldn't go. They were ash burns. She'd been in the firestorms, and not as an investigator.

She talked in her sleep.

Or, more to the point, she screamed in her sleep. And wept. Han understood very little of it, but once, she'd called out to someone she called "Master." Then she had clenched her fist tightly enough for her short-cropped nails to draw blood. Han had patiently pried her fist open, and soothed her back into a more comfortable rest. How she slept through those episodes was beyond him, but she never remembered them in the morning.

That was what decided him, in the end. Whatever was going on with those burned worlds, it wasn't just hurting them. He couldn't just get in her way and keep her occupied. It was hurting her, and he didn't know how to fix it, and that meant he had to bring in someone from outside. He had to turn her in. But not without proof. He couldn't allow a chance for her to slip away, with mere suspicion aimed at her. She needed to be taken someplace where they would help her, even if it was against her will.

He found Chewie halfway around Corellia, working on the Falcon's hyperdrive with a half-crazy - but very talented - racing mechanic named Dervash.

"Hey there, Solo!"

"Hey, Chewie!" he called, grinning and ignoring Dervash's greeting. "What are you letting this ten-thumbed woman at my ship for?"

Chewie barked something about flying the Falcon more than Han did these days.

"Yeah, well, she's still my ship, pal. I'm taking her to Malastare. You on board?"

The frustrated howl was enough to tell Han that Chewie was on board, but not crazy about the idea.

Dervash asked if she could be useful. Han told her she could watch the pod races on the holoproj, same as everyone else. It was for her own good. Leia always got her back up when other women were around. Dervash disappeared into her speeder, and left the hangar.

Chewie spoke a little more plainly this time.

Han shook his head. "No, we're not going to help her out with anything, at least not anything she's going to like."

A brief question.

"Yeah, we're going there after her. But let's try to avoid Republic attention, okay?"

Chewie was happy to oblige.

They made good time to Malastare, and Han thought maybe they would even beat her there. No such luck. Her ship was in orbit already, and the shuttle was launching when they came out of hyperspace.

"Hang back, Chewie."

It was an unnecessary instruction; Chewie had anticipated it, and looped behind one of Malastare's moons until the launch was over. They didn't speak. Han wondered what the Wookiee was thinking, but wasn't sure he really wanted to know.

What in the hell am I doing?

The panic hit in a flash. If he was wrong, she'd never forgive him for spying on her. If he was right... he didn't even want to think about it. Did he really want to know, if he was right? And if she wouldn't forgive him for being wrong, how likely was she to forgive him for being right about this?

Whatever happens down there, he thought, Leia Skywalker will be out of my life over it.

And then, another voice, a voice he thought he'd left behind when old Kenobi had told him that he belonged with the Skywalkers: Is that necessarily the worst thing that could happen?

And that voice, he knew, would be relieved to be out of it, to be back on his own, with just Chewie, the Falcon, and the galaxy to play around in. Leave the complicated stuff to the Jedi and the politicians. It wasn't Han's concern.

He thought of the evening sun, making a red halo of her hair.

The political mess wasn't his concern. But she was.

"Okay," he said, when air traffic resumed its normal patterns. "Let's do it casual. Get around the planet. I know a few places to land."

Chewie complied.

They landed just over the nightline, at the deserted landing strip of an exhausted mine. Han had known the man who'd been in charge of it at the time. He wasn't likely to object, not least because he was in a cell at Jabba's place on Tatooine. He and Chewie got the Falcon under cover.

"Okay, pal," Han said, scratching Chewie's shoulder. "I need you to stick around here, for a fast getaway. I'll... " He shrugged. He had no idea exactly what he was going to do. "I'll figure something out."

Chewie told him to watch his back.

Han agreed to do so, but didn't think it was his back that was in any danger. It was his heart, and the damage was already done.

***

Luke habitually woke up before dawn, so the Coruscant sunrise was not a stranger to him. He just usually managed to get at least a little sleep before he saw it.

But last night, Father had asked him to come to the meditation room in the Temple, and they had been sitting quietly together, sharing memories and thoughts, until Luke noticed the first gray light coming through the window. He didn't begrudge the time. They both knew that they'd reached the last hours of Luke's apprenticeship, and there would be far fewer opportunities to simply communicate with one another now.

Father, whose back was to the window, looked over his shoulder at the brightening sky. "Someday," he said, "I'll figure out how to stop time."

Luke smiled. "But you'd always miss whatever comes after."

"And the padawan, again, instructs the Master. Yoda has mentioned more than once that he can no longer tell which of us plays which role."

Luke stood, then offered a shallow formal bow. He wouldn't allow Father to belittle himself. "It has never been in question, Master."

He was rewarded with a grin that made the sleepless night completely worthwhile. It was not the cold greeting of the Jedi Master, the Council spokesman. It wasn't the formal smile of the Chancellor's consort, or the Jedi ambassador. It was the grin of Anakin Skywalker, desert farmer and father to a pair of dusty twins, the grin he gave them when he picked them up by the scruffs of their tunics, and put them up on a rock to see the spread of the Dune Sea from the bluffs, the grin he wore when he ruffled Luke's hair or spun Leia through the air while she laughed, the sound bouncing off the red faces of the cliff-rocks. Luke hadn't seen it for years, and he returned it.

"We should go home," Father said. "I've been greedy. Your mother will want to say goodbye."

They chatted informally as they walked home, talking about the weather, about Ben's progress in school, about Mother's political troubles... about everything except Luke's mission.

By the time they arrived, they were in good spirits, and Mother did her best to match them. Her feelings about the matter were not as ambivalent as Father's - she was simply proud that Luke was taking his Trials, and told him several times what a great Jedi knight she thought he'd be. Luke was a bit embarrassed by it, but he appreciated it. He hadn't failed to notice that she had "graduated" Leia from her training several years ago. They were so different from one another, his parents... Father with his passion for keeping everyone together, Mother with her drive to see the children succeed in the galaxy on their own. Yet there was never a question in his mind that they both loved the family fiercely and completely, and he'd grown up comfortably in the balance between them.

Ben sat at the end of the table, looking as tired as ever. Luke thought he might be sick; he never seemed to get enough sleep. He blinked slowly at Luke. "What are your Trials going to be?" he asked.

"I can't discuss them."

"Something for real then."

"Yes." It was almost always "for real" now; with less than one hundred Jedi in the galaxy, creating fictional Trials was a waste of strength.

"And you're going soon?"

"He's going today, Benny," Shmi said, finally coming into the kitchen. "I'm going with him."

At this, Mother and Father looked up sharply. "I don't think so," Mother said, but she looked across at Father - matters of Jedi training always fell to him.

Luke had expected Father to simply refuse her and get on with the day, but instead, his eyes narrowed slightly. "And why, Shmi, are you under this impression?"

"I saw it."

"And you aren't making up a vision in order to do what you please?"

Shmi let the insult roll over her. One of the things Luke had always liked about his younger sister was that she rarely became defensive. "No, I'm not making anything up. It's hard to explain what I saw... "

"Then perhaps you should simply tell us, and let us try to understand it ourselves."

Shmi glanced over at Mother, suddenly self-conscious. Mother simply nodded at her.

"I saw... a large room, pitch dark. And a spider - "

Luke felt his head snap upward. "A spider?"

"With a man's voice."

Father had paled noticeably. He looked across at Luke, then merely said, "We know the place."

Shmi bit her lip. "The vision said it was my choice. I choose to go."

Mother shook her head. "Your father outranks a talking spider in a vision."

"You may go," Father said.

"Ani - "

"I don't know why Shmi was given this vision, Amidala. When Luke and I saw this place - " he glanced at Luke for confirmation; Luke gave it " - we were alone in it."

Shmi bit her lip; Luke could tell that she wanted to say something, but she didn't. He would ask her later. He had to admit, he would be glad of her company. He didn't often spend time alone, and never knew who to talk to when he was. And it was just a fact-finding mission, really.

Mother didn't look at all happy with the decision, but she was the one who had placed it in Father's hands. She went along with it.

They finished breakfast quietly, with practical advice taking precedence over emotional outbursts. The Trials were, above all, a test, and Father was Luke's teacher.

After breakfast, Mother only held them a little tighter than usual, and kissed Luke's cheek, which she didn't do as often as she once had. She whispered, "May the Force be with you, my precious son," then backed away, straightened Shmi's perpetually unruly hair, and sent them on their way.

The Council had provided a small spacecraft for them, smaller than most shuttles, but it was really all they needed. They stowed what little baggage they had in the hold, then went to the cockpit. Shmi sat in the pilot's seat.

Luke picked her up and moved her. "I don't think so."

She smiled, in high spirits. "Do I say 'Yes, Master' now?"

"Not yet. Ready?"

She nodded. Luke guided the ship up into the atmosphere, then, in a burst of speed, broke the gravity well. He had to keep his eyes and mind focused in the detritus of civilization around Coruscant - the satellites, the sailing barges, the various bits of space debris that always clustered around cluttered planets - so he wasn't looking at Shmi when he asked "What else did you see?"

"You weren't there," Shmi said. "Just Father and Leia. The spider had them."

"How strange. We only saw - " he shrugged. "I can't explain it. I was with Father, only it wasn't Father. Something was very wrong with him. I think he knows it. Then it disappeared."

"What was wrong?"

Luke thought about it. But when he thought of the vision, it wasn't simply that he couldn't explain what he saw. He couldn't... he couldn't see what he saw. It was like looking through a particularly bad glamour around a cheap holoprojection - a shifting pattern of poisoned light obscured the figure, even though he knew what it was. "I don't know," he finally said. "I think maybe he was sick. Something about his breathing."

Shmi shook her head. "I didn't see that part. I guess we'll find out how they fit together some time."

"Maybe we should find Leia."

"Maybe we should."

Her voice was cool and measured on the last, and Luke realized that he spoke of Leia in Shmi's presence more than he spoke of his fondness for her. He'd never thought about it, but he supposed she might feel... second best. He cleared the edge of the orbital ring around Coruscant, and reached over to take her hand. "I'm glad you're with me, Shmi."

She smiled and kissed his cheek, then settled herself in beside him. He hit the hyperdrive, and time and space bent around them.

***

Han knew something was going wrong as soon as he got into the governor's house. It was too easy. He'd trusted his luck for a long time, but he didn't trust it around Leia. She was better than that.

But he took the opening, lifting the wine cellar door and slipping down into the shadows. The smell of fruit in various stages of fermentation hit him in the face like a cobweb.

Turn around now.

He went forward, and the air started to circulate better. Real cobwebs dangled from the rafters now. He brushed them out of his hair. Light came from the base of a doorway somewhere ahead.

He didn't know what he was looking for. Was he really hoping to hear her planning out a purge? Well, not hoping but...

Not much good, even if he did. He hadn't brought anything to record it with.

He leaned against the wall, to heavy-hearted to be nervous about what he was doing.

Just turn around. Now. Leave.

He closed his eyes. It wasn't his own voice. It was hers. She knew he was here.

Go now! Please! I can't stop...

It faded into something incomprehensible, then was abruptly cut off, and he understood: Leia Skywalker was here... but so was the Other, the one she had become. And the Other was winning.

He reached the door, pushed it open. The room was empty, except for a hand-held terminal that had been left on the table. It was logged in. He picked it up, knowing what he would see, and that his discovery of it had been anticipated and planned for.

But by who? By the voice that was warning him to stay back? Leia or the Other?

Take it and leave! Please! Han! I can't -

No fading this time. Just a brutal cut. He heard motion at the cellar door.

He tucked the notepad into his vest. No more time to waste.

She was waiting outside the door, a line of battle droids on either side of her, and the governor of Malastare walking before her. Han did not mistake the power structure, even for a moment. She might as well have left the puppet strings attached. The governor was not acting of his own accord.

"Command them," Leia said.

The governor keyed a series of commands to the droids, and the moved forward, surrounding Han. They gripped his arms, and forced him to kneel. The governor stood aside stupidly.

"You can't even command the droids yourself?" he asked, trying to find Leia's eyes, somewhere behind the madness that burned above the veils.

"I command who I choose to command." She looked disdainfully at the governor. "You may leave us now."

"Yes, Lady Miseta."

Han shook his head. He'd have stood and turned his back on her, if the droids weren't holding him down. "Even your name," he said.

"Would you prefer I did this under my family name?"

It was the voice of the Other, but the words were strange... she was shamed by what she was doing. It was still Leia. And that made it worse.

She reached to him, pulled the notepad from his vest pocket. "Careless of me, to leave this out."

Han watched her carefully, saying nothing. Her tone was meant to suggest that it had been part of a trap, but he was used to reading her face even through the veils, and he knew she really was puzzled. She didn't remember leaving it out. And it bothered her.

He wasn't stupid enough to point this out. "Yeah," he said. "Well, you seem to be real careless lately."

"What were you planning to do with this?"

"Needed a few pointers on how to kill a thousand people in an hour. I'm a little rusty."

She picked up a droid control pad, and made the two droids holding Han tighten their grip, digging their pincer-like forelimbs into his upper arms and pulling him further down. Incredibly, she said, "I'm disappointed in you."

Han couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. "Yeah, well, it's mutual, Sweetheart."

"I'd really hoped you wouldn't come."

"So why leave out the welcome mat?"

She shrugged. "You're not as easy to read as you seem to think, but I can see some things. I felt you looking at my face. And I saw that you'd seen the new burns. And I saw you trying to rush me out." Again, that puzzled look under the veils. Han could see it in a slight change in the angle of the drape. "It was foolish of me to go to you then."

Foolish for you, Miseta, Han thought. But smart for Leia.

She laughed. "How convenient for you! I'm not really your lover! That's some other woman!"

"No. Just another possibility."

She bent, and slapped him across the face, hard. He could see tears in her eyes. "I am all there is, Han. Maybe I did want you to find me. Maybe I wanted you to know all of me, instead of the false face I show everyone else."

Han believed that part, at least. She wanted to share this with him. She wanted him to know. The question was, why? "Yeah, well, now I've seen you. Can't say I'm real thrilled with it."

"So," she said, "love only goes as far as the veils. I thought you were the one who wanted to see under them." She pulled it away, revealing the melted flesh around her jaws. Her mouth was pulled into a feral snarl. "Well, look. This is who I am!"

"My mistake," Han said. "Go on. Mind trick me into loving you again."

"I never did that."

"Why should I believe you?"

"I loved you!"

"Yeah, I know. That's the hell of it, isn't it?"

He let the droids lead him away. The last thing he saw before they pulled him from the room was Leia, turning away from him, throwing the notepad against the wall. It shattered.

***

Chapter Three: Only Child

Ben Skywalker went to the Temple before his father that morning (unless you counted that Father had already been there, but Ben didn't; that was part of yesterday, and this was part of today). Father was home with Mother, and the two of them had suddenly started lavishing attention on him in such quantities that he thought he might drown in it. He loved his parents, and was glad they loved him, but he was glad he'd had three siblings to share them with over the years... they could be pretty overbearing when the urge came on them.

"Early, you are, young one," Yoda said, coming out of the lift from the lake. "Much to consider at home this morning, heh?"

Ben nodded. "Luke and Shmi left this morning. Mother and Father are worried."

"And you? How feel you?"

"I feel like an only child."

"Heh." The old master hobbled up the hall, leaning on his gimer stick. "Come, come," he said. "I eat now. Join me."

Ben might have protested that he'd already had breakfast, but the truth was, he'd barely touched his food at home, and he was hungry, and Yoda cooked pretty good food. So he just said "Thanks" and followed along.

Yoda's quarters in the Temple were sparsely furnished, but lined, floor to ceiling, with plants and fish tanks. "Got used to it on Dagobah, I did," Yoda said, pointing to them. "The way of the Force is through living things." He smiled. "Got lonely without them, I did." He shuffled over to his small cookfire, and broke leaves into a pot of boiling water. "Eh, you know what I mean, young one, don't you?"

Ben didn't follow Yoda's train of thought, so, as was his habit (and it was one of the reasons Yoda favored him), he remained silent rather than trying to guess.

"Many kinds of things, the swamp had," Yoda went on. "Many, many things. Some good, some bad, yes?" He stirred the leaves, and added some kind of herb from a shelf. "Most, some of both. Yes, yes. Good and bad. Like everything, eh?"

Ben nodded, confused. His first impression was that it was very different from what Yoda taught the young children. But when he turned it over in his mind, he understood - when Yoda instructed children to know good from bad, he wasn't just talking about the things they'd see coming at them in the outside world. He was talking about the good and bad inside them. "Yes, Master Yoda," he said.

"Eh, thought you would, I did. Always questioning me, you were."

"I never questioned you, Master."

"You think because you say nothing, I hear nothing?" He broke a thick stem into the pot. It was starting to smell good. "Ask many questions, the other children did. How looks the Dark Side, Master? How do we fight it? But you asked nothing, so your question was the loudest."

"What was my question, Master?" This was a matter Ben had some real curiosity about. When Yoda said it, he realized that he really had been silent, that he really had been turning something over, but he couldn't quite figure out what it was.

Yoda poured their breakfast into two bowls - he only steamed the vegetables, so it was very quick - and handed one to Ben. "Thought of the Dark Side as a monster to fight, the others did. And it is, it is. Always, you must fight it. But asked in silence, you did, why someone wants to be with the monster."

"I did?"

"Eh." Yoda poked him with the gimer stick. "Eat, eat. It's hot. Good for you, it is."

Ben ate a little bit - it really was good - then said, "I just, you know, kind of wondered and everything. I bet everyone did."

"No. Not everyone." Yoda sat down with some effort, and began eating his breakfast. "The little children, they think that the Dark Side is all about other. Then, when they are ready to become padawans, they start to think they are other, which is why padawans are tempted -- one Other to another Other. But there is no Other, a full knight knows, except the Other here." he pointed at Ben's chest. "So I am wondering, young one, why do you know that now?"

Ben shook his head helplessly. He hadn't even realized his line of thought was strange - though he should have, he guessed, since he never could seem to talk to anyone his own age - and he certainly didn't know why. The only thing that came into his mind was a soft voice, whispering words that he didn't understand, warm gentle hands, and a feeling of awful sadness and fear. It was a vision without a context. "I'm sorry, Master," he said, "but I don't know."

"For what you don't know, there is no 'sorry'. Ask you to come here, I did, because I sense fear in you."

Ben's eyes widened. Did Yoda think he was being tempted by the Dark Side? Did he think... ?

Yoda's eyes grew gentle. "No, child, not that kind of fear. Misspoke, I did. Concern, you have. Worry."

Ben looked into his own heart, and realized that Yoda was right. This morning, alone with his parents, he'd felt the absence of his siblings deeply, and in that feeling was a strange, jittery premonition. "Something's going to happen," he said. "Something bad. But I can't see what."

Yoda closed his eyes and concentrated. "Sense something, I do," he admitted. "But clearer to me, it is not. A grave disturbance, I sense. Much sadness."

"Is it Luke? Is something going to happen in his Trial?"

"In Trials, many things happen. Something will happen. But sense I do not that this happening is the change you dread."

Ben nodded. He didn't sense that, either. And neither did Father. If he had, then, Council or no, he would have stopped Luke from going.

"Comforted you, I have not," Yoda said. "But tell you, I will... if coming the change is, then safe you are here." He put a small green hand on Ben's wrist. "Safe you are. And your sister and your mother. Care for your family, I do. Look after all, I will, if a need comes for it."

"Thank you, Master."

***

Anakin stood on the balcony, looking out over Coruscant. The wind whipped his robes around him. The sky was dark and threatening, and he wondered briefly if the climate controls were out-of-whack. It had happened now and then, and storms on Coruscant were nothing to take lightly. Aside from the violence they could do to the patterns of life, the world was so heavy with pollutants that any serious flooding caused contamination in several systems.

But he couldn't make himself concentrate on the problem of possible malfunctioning climate satellites. His mind was with his children, and he could not pull it away. He wanted to call out to Luke, to guide him on his Trial, but it was forbidden for the Master to interfere with the padawan at this point. Besides, he'd seen the look on Luke's face when he'd learned about the other Trials. For Luke, it was a matter of trust.

It's not trust, Anakin wanted to tell him. I simply cannot watch you go into danger... I cannot bear the thought of losing you. I am afraid to lose you.

But, although Yoda had not lectured him on his fear of losing people since his mother's death - he shut his eyes against the memory of those nightmarish days - it had been made abundantly clear that he was not to pass that sort of fear on to his son. So he hid it under many layers. Not as many as necessary - he supposed Luke knew, on some level - but deeply enough that it was never raised as a conscious issue.

So instead, he believes that I don't trust him.

He supposed the best answer would have been to treat Luke like any other padawan, and allow him to take the Trials when he was ready the first time. He had finally managed to force himself to relinquish Leia -

Oh, that's a lie. You put on a good act, but if she hadn't shut you out cold, you'd be holding her just as tightly.

True. Not a helpful insight, but true.

Amidala appeared at the door, a shawl wrapped around her thin shoulders, a weak guard against the rising winds. Anakin just watched her as she came to him, appreciating the way the sun struck her hair, the way the shawl dipped, just so, as it curved around her. As always, he was nearly overcome with a desire to pull her to him, to wrap his arms around her, and shelter her from anything that threatened.

She stepped easily into the embrace, and sighed. "I think we scared Ben off," she said.

Anakin laughed ruefully. Ben had squirmed between them for half an hour, looking like he was searching for a trap door, before finally "remembering" that he wanted to get to the Temple early. "I think you're right."

"I guess we never got a chance to master dealing with an only child."

"Not true. We had ten minutes to spoil Leia rotten before Luke came along."

"You might have. I was a little busy during those ten minutes." She kissed him softly. Then shook her head against his chest, smiling. "What are we going to do when we have no one left to take care of?"

"I thought I'd retire," Anakin said. "I'll take care of you. You can take care of the rest of the galaxy."

"Can we switch places? I'm older. I should settle down first."

"Of course, ancient one." She turned in his arms, and looked out across the city with him. He kissed the top of her head. They both knew that he was more likely to follow through on threats of retirement than she was. He'd already done it once before, leaving behind the Jedi and the Resistance to weave them a safe cocoon on Tatooine. For fifteen years, he'd been content with that retirement. She, on the other hand, had been happy, but always searching, always reaching out to the rest of the galaxy. She was a better person than he was; he knew that. He'd been perfectly willing to let the rest of the galaxy rot, as long as their cocoon remained untouched by it.

"I'm worried, Ani."

"About Luke?"

"About all of this that we've been building. And yes, about Luke. And Shmi. Whatever possessed you to let her go, Ani?"

"I don't know." He tightened his arms around her. She wasn't angry with him, and he knew she wouldn't be, even if the unthinkable did happen. But his decision was not one he normally would have made. He was aware of that. So was she. "The vision that Shmi had - "

"The spider?"

"Yes. It... troubles me. She saw something that she wasn't sharing; I could feel that she thinks it's important. And I just can't shake the feeling that she needs to be there. That neither she nor Luke will be safe without one another."

"Ani, what does it mean, what... ?"

Anakin squeezed her shoulders, then moved away from her. There was something about that brief moment of seeing that disturbed him, shamed him, made him question things that he didn't want to question. But he heard himself speaking to it anyway. "There's something... venomous... out there," he said. "It touched us at some point. It hangs over us like a shadow. No." He looked at the threatening sky. "A storm cloud. And I can't shake the feeling that it's... always been there."

He looked at Amidala, not knowing at all what to expect. Was this too much? Would she think him paranoid? Her eyes were scanning the far horizon. And she simply said, "I know."

***

Amidala stayed out on the balcony when Ani finally left to go to the Temple. He'd come back and held her a little longer - how she had needed it! - but there was little else to be said.

This is my storm cloud, Ani, she thought. My fault for misplacing my trust so long ago. It stole our happiness away from us before we knew we could have it. Some angel I turned out to be.

But he wouldn't have listened to her if she'd said that. Anakin always saw the best in people, forgave their mistakes, and helped them rebuild. He never asked questions about it; he just did it. She wished she were more like him sometimes.

The wind was becoming unbearable, and she could smell the filth of Coruscant on it. She needed to get to work, to call in the technicians to fix the climate satellites. Something was obviously wrong with them. Technically, that was the function of the mayor of Coruscant, not the Chancellor of the Senate, but she had started doing it after the war, and somehow or other, it had ended up in her overflowing basket of regular duties, and she accepted it, because someone had to. But now, she couldn't seem to move from this spot.

She was tired.

Just deeply, unutterably tired. This business in the Outer Rim was draining her, these fires and raids. She'd never wanted the position as Chancellor, but she had done her best, tried to heal the galaxy after the wounds Palpatine had inflicted upon it. But when the fires had started, all attempts at healing the deep injuries had stopped. She had to rush from one new injury to another, bandaging here, splinting there. Strictly battlefield medicine. The Republic needed more. It needed a chance to rest and renew itself, to remember itself.

So did she.

She thought with longing of Tatooine - certainly something she had never expected to do - and wondered if this storm cloud had been there even then, as she neglected her family to work the Resistance.

No, no. That wasn't fair. They had been happy, they had been together, and no one had neglected anyone else. Whatever the storm cloud was, it might travel with her family, but it wasn't innate to them. She thought again about the image of the spider in Shmi's vision -- a predator, sucking their lifeblood from them. But it was no predator she could see and fight. She was forced to stand on the sidelines, feeling this horrible draining but unable to act on it.

A large raindrop hit the floor beside her feet. She jumped away from it (not that she didn't still occasionally enjoy dancing in the rain, but an unplanned rainstorm on Coruscant was not meant for puddle splashing).

She sighed and went inside to contact the climate technicians. If she didn't take care of this, half the planet would stink for a month.

***

Chapter Four: The More You Thighten Your Grip

He was in a dismal cell. Cobwebs hung down from the light fixture, and some kind of yellow goo dripped down the north wall near the window. A small lizard-creature with sharp teeth lived in the corner, and was gnawing on a piece of rotten meat that the cell's last inhabitant had left behind.

Han Solo was not happy.

The lizard looked at him and chittered mindlessly. Han tossed it a piece of fruit that the guard had given him. Wouldn't hurt to make friends with his cellmate, and he wasn't hungry anyway.

He didn't know where Leia had gone after she'd had the governor's guards drag him in here. She'd just looked through the bars, muttered something about business, then left.

She didn't seem to be in any hurry to have him executed, which he supposed was a good thing. He guessed there was a little pathos in the thought that, hey, she can't be all bad - after all, she only dumped me in a cell with a carnivorous lizard and about five hundred spiders; it's not like she's killed me or anything. But he couldn't deny that the thought kept trying to surface.

Get over it. Just let her go and get out the other side. You can do a prison break. Chewie's out there; he's probably already working on it. Then just run off, get yourself lost, and never look this way again.

No. Just because Leia had given in to her "dark side" didn't mean he ought to be giving in to his own. Maybe he couldn't save her - she couldn't even decide if she wanted to be saved - but, if he did manage to escape, he could damn well get to her family and help them stop her.

Footsteps at the end of the hall.

Han stood, and went to the bars. It was a young Malastarian guard, looking furtively over his shoulder, three eyestalks waving nervously. "Solo?" he asked.

Han was the only prisoner here, but he didn't figure it was the right time to get sarcastic. "Yeah."

"A Wookiee on the outside persuaded me to slip in here." He looked over his shoulder. He was trying to look like a mercenary, and failing miserably. "Says to meet where you set it up before, he'll be ready to go." The guard fumbled at his belt for the old fashioned key that opened the cell. "Said you'd be able to get more persuasion once we got off planet."

"Then you're joining the party?"

"You think I'm sticking around here with her?"

At last, he found the key. Moved forward to unlock the door.

And fell grotesquely into the bars, the back of his shirt on fire.

Leia stood at the end of the corridor, blaster still drawn. "I see you haven't had any trouble making new friends," she said. "Or is it the same old ones?" She came to the bars, stared into his eyes. He could feel her probing his mind. It hurt. She sniffed. "I told you I wasn't reading you before. When I read you, you know it."

But Han suspected that she still hadn't read him. Otherwise, she'd already be out and after Chewie. She didn't know where to look.

"You're losing hold, you know, Miseta," he said. "A lackey guard got by you."

"I can't be everywhere," she said casually.

"So, when's my execution?"

She looked at him blankly, and didn't answer the question. "I'll be leaving Malastare soon," she said. "Things are getting a bit too close here. I sense that I'm being followed by someone a bit more competent than you."

"The Jedi are finally coming after you?"

"They're coming after someone. They don't know who they're looking for. If they did, Father would have kept it in the family."

"So how do you know they're coming?"

"I have eyes. People tell me things. Why shouldn't they tell the head of the Chancellor's security that her brother will be taking his trials?"

Luke. Han's heart sank. Luke was a good kid, but he'd never believe this, not about his sister, and that could get him killed. Han figured his best chance was to get Leia starting to think straight, or to at least get her off balance. So maybe she'd make a mistake. "You're scared, aren't you? This one's not going like you thought it would. Not quite as much fun when you're the prey, is it?"

She turned to him, and he regretted saying it. The anguish in her eyes was real enough. "Do you think I like doing this?"

"Yeah, I do."

"I hate it! I want this... rebellion... to end! If they would simply accept the authority of the Republic, if they would stop challenging Mother's every move... "

"You think you're doing this for your mother?"

"I am!"

"You're crazier than I thought."

She lunged at him, and Han was glad the bars of the cell were between them. She might have killed him for that. Instead, she simply pounded at the rusted iron. "You don't know what you're talking about! I only enforce. I want the Republic to be greater and stronger than it was before! Mother can do that..."

"So if you're doing such a great thing for her, why not tell her about it?"

"Mother doesn't know what she needs."

This was a dangerous game, and Han knew it, but he figured he could probably count his life in hours now as it was, so he played anyway. "She's a great Chancellor," he said.

"Yes. Yes, that's exactly it. No one should be challenging her."

"But she has no idea what needs to be done to keep the peace in the galaxy."

Leia started to say something, then fell silent and turned around. "I will not waste any more time with you," she said.

"So you do see the gap in your logic."

"What do you know, other than stealing and lying? I... serve a greater good." She nodded firmly to herself, and walked slowly up the corridor.

Han didn't call after her.

***

Malastare was an unlovely planet at its best - Luke had never been fond of it at any rate - and in the rain, it was truly dismal. He and Shmi docked near the racing arena, and made their way into the crowd.

"Is Leia still here?" Shmi asked.

"She left a few days ago, according to her logs. She put up some preventative barricades, but there was no sign of rioting. So she left. Some of her droids might still be here."

"What are we looking for, Luke?"

"I don't know. I feel... something in the Force."

"It's cold."

"Yes. Cold and dark"

Shmi smiled, brightening up the gray afternoon. "No, Luke, I mean, it's cold outside. Can we get something warm to drink while we talk? It's good to go to public places, too. People talk in public places."

Luke put a hand on her shoulder, and guided her toward what looked like a small restaurant. "Good thinking. I can't pick up anything specific. We'll get you warmed up, and see what we can hear."

They sat in a relatively comfortable booth, and Shmi ordered a bowl of soup. Luke had nothing. They didn't speak to one another - at least not in words - but they listened to as many groups as they could find.

"...my money's still on Sebulba. The miserable old Dug would cheat a Wookiee out of his fur, but... "

"...and Mama says I have to go to this stupid thing and... "

"...gotta say that Bespin's been looking real good lately, what with all the... "

"...no, really, I saw the Wookiee out there. Hard to miss a Wookiee trying to lurk quietly around."

Luke raised his head slightly. The conversation was behind him.

Who is speaking? he asked Shmi.

Two Malastarians. One's got a governor's uniform on.

Listen close. We'll follow them.

Shmi nodded almost imperceptibly. She turned her head a little, pretending to examine her soup closely, but Luke knew she was just focusing her eyes, and trying to get a better angle to read their lips if for some reason the sound became unclear.

"Miseta'll probably make us arrest him," one said.

(That's the governor's guard, Shmi clarified.)

"Anyone not going to get arrested in this little business?"

"Well, I'm not planning to be, so I'm staying on her good side. That pirate she arrested got the dungeon cell."

A Wookiee and a pirate. Luke supposed there could be a few other pairs like that, but something told him that it wasn't another pair he was looking for. Han and Chewie were here, for some reason, and Han had been arrested by someone named Miseta. Luke had heard the name before, but he couldn't place where.

It's Han, Shmi said. We should call Leia. She can get him out.

No. I'll take of it. Let's find out where he is.

She nodded again, then suddenly finished her soup in a gulp. They're getting up.

Okay. Be casual. Don't attract attention.

But Shmi was already better at that than he was. She stood and stretched like a feline, and made a show of yawning. "Can we go home now?" she said petulantly. "You already lost most of our credits, or you'd be able to eat something, too."

Luke stood up and played along. "Fine. But you don't say anything to Mother and Father. You promise, right?"

She laughed, and painted a perfectly accurate pain-in-the-neck-kid-sister look on her face. "'Til I need something else from you, anyway."

They continued this banter, leaving the restaurant right after the guards without looking at all like they were following. In the crowd again, it was easier to be invisible, and by the time the guard separated from his friend and headed down a narrow alleyway, it was evident that he had no idea he was being followed. Luke put a finger to his lips to remind Shmi to be quiet.

She rolled her eyes at him, and slipped away into the misty rain. Luke caught her arm, and pulled her behind him. You can be here, but I go in first. Clear?

Clear.

The guard was approaching a back entrance to a large, forbidding building. The Governor's palace, Luke remembered from maps and holos, but this entrance looked like the entrance to a hovel. The front of the building would be grand and richly appointed. The back simply stared blindly into a trash-filled alley.

The guard used a metal key to open the door, which meant it was an old, simple lock. When Luke followed only a few minutes later, he simply used the Force to move the tumblers inside, then he and Shmi slipped into the dimly lit corridor.

A set of steps led immediately down, though the guard had bypassed them. Luke didn't think they needed to follow him anymore. The "dungeon-cell" would probably be in the cellar. Shmi nodded her agreement, and, for a wonder, let him go down first without argument.

The hallway at the base of the stairs was even dimmer than the one by the door. Luke could, at the far end, a pair of hands resting on the bars. Across from that cell, an arched door led into either another cell block or another stairwell. He started down, signaling Shmi to wait at the end of the hall.

Han Solo didn't look at all surprised to see him. In fact, he looked like he'd been waiting. "Luke," he said, "you have to get out of here right now. I mean it."

Luke started working the lock - it was a bit more secure than the outside lock - and paid little attention to Han's comment. He was getting sick of people underestimating him. "I'll have you out of here in a second."

"I'm not kidding, and don't look at me like I'm insulting your - " he glanced over and saw Shmi " - lightsaber." He lowered his voice. "Luke, this is hard to say. I don't even know if I can say it. But it's important that you get out of here. Right now."

"Not an option, Han." He located two of the tumblers in the lock, and moved them to an open position. There were three more sets, one fairly cleverly blocked. He needed to concentrate...

Han reached through the bars and grabbed his wrist. "Luke, get out of here. There are things you don't want to know."

As the second set of tumblers fell in, Luke suddenly felt a rush of cold flooding into his mind. A low female voice said, "It's a bit too late for that now."

Luke straightened his back. He couldn't turn around. He couldn't... he could look. He couldn't see what he knew was there.

In the moment of silence, a lightsaber began to hum.

A cry broke the silence and the stalemate. Shmi charged down the hallway, saber drawn, and the clash of laser on laser filled the corridor.

Luke had to turn.

There was no way Shmi could best Leia.

***

Shmi felt the powerful recoil when her lightsaber met Leia's, and had time to think I'm never going to be able to do this before Luke was there, his lightsaber raised, pushing her out of the way. "Get Han," he said coolly. "There's only one set of tumblers left."

Shmi stumbled to the cell door, but she couldn't concentrate. Leia was laughing. It didn't reach her eyes, but Shmi didn't care about that. She was laughing, and confronting Luke as if she'd been waiting.

"Shmi, honey, Chewbacca's outside the city. Run and get him. He'll get you and Luke out of here."

She turned. That's right. Han was here. Leia had put Han in a cell? "Uh-uh," she said. "I'll get you out." She forced herself to look away from the duel, and found the last set of tumblers. She pushed them in, and the door opened. "You get Chewie," she said. "I'll get Luke out of here."

"But - "

"No time to argue. Go!"

She ignited her lightsaber.

Leia had pushed Luke against the row of cells, and the parries were furious. Luke's sword arm was strong, and he kept his own, but there was no obvious way out. "How could you?" he demanded. His voice was so cold, so faraway, so hurt. "How could you betray everything we believed in?"

"I'm trying to keep the order I'm supposed to keep!"

"You're destroying the Republic. And the family. Do you know what you've been putting Mother through?"

An inchoate shout came from Leia's throat, and she attacked in fury, forcing Luke into a twisting retreat along the bars of the cells. He was backed almost into Han's cell.

The one with the open door.

Shmi used the Force to call the door shut, and locked it before Leia could trick him into it.

Leia turned on her. "So you've figured a thing or two out, have you?"

Shmi tried to answer, tried to emulate the cold tone in Luke's voice, but she couldn't. This was Leia. Leia, who used to braid her hair and tell her funny stories in their room on Tatooine after everyone else had gone to bed. Shmi was vaguely aware that she was crying, but she didn't care much. She raised her lightsaber into a challenge position. She'd never win, but she might buy Luke enough time to get around to the right end of the corridor. "You're not my sister," she said.

Leia spoke dryly. "I'm crushed."

"And we'll never let you see Ben again."

That had the intended effect. Whatever else had been true, Leia had always treasured Ben, fussing over him when she was home and sending him gifts when she wasn't. She'd been there the night he was born, and had cared for him often when he was a baby. Whatever secrets she'd had then had probably been whispered into his crib. Leia attacked, pushing Shmi back with a strength that she wasn't prepared for.

Shmi ended up with her back against the wall, crossed sabers in front of her face. "I'll see who I choose to see!" Leia snapped.

"And you think Ben will want to see you once he knows about this?"

"Ben won't turn his back on me. Even if everyone else does. He'll see me. He'll come to me in the end, and I'll train him."

The mad light came into her eyes then, and Shmi saw to her horror that Leia was no longer even here. Her body was there, her strong arm still held the lightsabers in their deadly lock, but her mind was racing ahead, seeing visions of a future too terrible to contemplate -

"Ben will study with Father," Luke said calmly. His lightsaber rose up between them, pushed Leia's away, and finally took it from her. "And you are no longer any part of his life, or our family."

"So kill me," Leia goaded, kneeling. Shmi recognized the gesture. It was a grotesque parody of the moment Obi-Wan Kenobi had bared his neck to Father, when Father had blamed him for losing the house on Tatooine. She even pushed her hair away, and made an exaggerated mockery of the way Kenobi had held his arms to one side.

Luke raised his lightsaber, and for a horrifying moment, Shmi was sure it was going to drop, that he would sweep Leia's head from her shoulders right there in the cell block.

But at that moment, there was a clatter at the end of the hall, near the stairs. "Come on!" Han called. "Get out of here! Chewie's waiting!"

Luke looked back and forth between them, and Leia looked up, smiling grotesquely. Her veil had fallen away during the fight, and the scar seemed to make her smile stretch to the top of one ear.

Luke lowered his lightsaber, grabbed Shmi by the elbow, and ran.

Shmi could hear Leia laughing behind them until the Governor's mansion fell out of her view. She dimly realized that she was hearing it in her head most of the way, and that the laughter was an anguished scream, but she couldn't think of that now. She couldn't think of anything except, Maker help me, I've lost my sister.

She'd barely known her sister for most of her life, but in the moment of losing her, Shmi Skywalker felt an aching loneliness that would never leave her.

***

Chapter Five: "It Is Too Late For Me"

Luke couldn't bring himself to say anything to Shmi or Han or Chewbacca when they boarded the Falcon, though he knew he needed to. He touched Shmi's face lightly, then slipped down into the shadows of the cargo hold, finding a deep corner behind an access ladder where he could meditate. And grieve.

His wrist had been twisted fairly badly at some point - it was swollen and stiff, and it hurt - but he couldn't remember when. He could hardly remember anything after he turned around and saw her. There were flashes of fighting, but his mind hadn't been there at all. It couldn't be happening. He hadn't just dueled her to a draw.

Not Leia.

Not his twin.

Memories rose unbidden in his mind, as he tried, desperately to find a pattern, a clue, anything to explain what he had seen in her eyes. All he could see was a dusty little girl, bursting into his room at sunsup because she had some new secret that she just couldn't hold for one more minute, a little girl with long brown hair who looked to the stars and wished to be among them.

He found nothing, no telltale sign of this incipient madness. A bit of a temper, some impatience... but she had been loved, she had been supported in her times of trial. She had begun her adult life earlier than he had, but she hadn't been pushed into it. She'd been eager for it.

Of course she had. It was easier to slip out from under watchful eyes when those watchful eyes are half a galaxy away.

What did I do wrong?

(Some things aren't about you.)

He looked up, then squeezed his eyes shut and covered his ears, as if either would help.

Now. Now, she chose to find their twins' bond again. It was the surmounting insult and perversity. The almost-healed wound opened and flooded his mind with pain and rage.

Why now? he called to her. Why have you come back to me now?

(I wasn't the one who broke away. You're remarkably good at not seeing what you choose not to see.)

He shook his head. Not true. A lie.

A pause. The voice in his mind modulated, just a little bit, became thoughtful. (A half-truth.)

A lie. I've called to you many times.

(Would you have heard, if I'd answered?)

Why didn't you come to me when you needed me?

A rush of laughter, and the harsh voice of Miseta returned. (And when was that, little brother? While you've been toddling around after Father and Yoda, I have learned the secrets of the universe! What would I have needed you for?)

are you here now?

No answer.

Leia... hear me. Come back.

There was a very long pause, and Luke thought she had withdrawn again. Then, very softly, she whispered, It is too late, Luke. There is nothing you can do. Leave it be.

Then the bond was snapped with a finality that Luke felt physically, like a blow to the side of his head.

Whatever conflict she'd been having had been decided.

She was lost.

Luke slipped further into the shadows.

***

Han guessed he'd had more time to get used to the idea, so he was doing a little better at coping with it.

Little Shmi had come into the cockpit with him, looking dazed. She was older than he remembered her being, looking more like Amidala every day, except with Luke and Anakin's coloring... or maybe it was that she looked like Luke, except as a girl... and what strange kind of train of thought was that to be having at a time like this?

Maybe my head's not as clear as I thought.

She looked up at him. "Is she going to send anyone after us?"

"I don't know. I think maybe we better figure on it. I know it's awful. But I need you take one of the gun turrets. There's no way Luke can do it right now."

She nodded. "I can do it."

"Good." He patted her shoulder and gave her the best smile he could find. He figured he was the best she was going to get in the big sibling department right now, and if that wasn't enough to scare some sense into him, he didn't know what was. "Take the top one. You'll have a cleaner shot."

She nodded. "What if it's... what if she comes herself?"

"She won't."

"But what if?"

Then give a yell, and Chewie and me will fly like crazy to get past it. Don't fire."

"Thank you."

"I'll get you home to your mom and dad, Shmi."

"I know," she said. "I trust you." She disappeared up the ladder to the high turret.

It turned out not to be necessary. Leia's security troops had left when she was supposed to; she was controlling the governor's forces on the ground, and there was nothing in orbit to stop them. Han was thankful that one mercy.

Chewie barked a few comforting words at him as soon as he'd made the jump to hyperspace.

"Yeah, thanks, pal. But we're not outta this yet."

The Wookiee didn't answer, and Han figured that was answer enough. Chewie would stick with him, but this wasn't his fight. Han decided to keep him out of it as much as he could.

Shmi came down from the turret and sat between them - just like Leia used to do, before things went bad, he thought - and planted her elbows on her knees. "You're sad, too, aren't you?"

"Yeah. Yeah, sure I'm sad."

"Did you know?"

"I was starting to make guesses. Didn't want to believe them."

"Wish I didn't have to."

"I know, kiddo. I know."

***

The Falcon came out of hyperspace in orbit, but Han wasn't wasting any time, and he dove them right into the atmosphere.

Shmi blinked, not sure what she was seeing at first. It was raining. Big, fat, ugly raindrops. Not the planned kind that the climate controls made. Great. On top of everything else. Han looked like he was thinking the same thing, and he was swearing under his breath. The neverending traffic of Coruscant was tapering off. No one liked to drive in real weather, and for good reason.

She felt a familiar presence, and looked over her shoulder to see Luke. His eyes were dark and sunken. He reached out a hand and touched her shoulder. He was sad, but he was back. She squeezed his fingers.

Han landed the Falcon in the hangar near the Senate chambers. "Okay," he said. "Back and safe. Do you want me to come with you?"

Luke still wasn't talking, so Shmi said, "Yes. Please. You're one of us."

Han looked over at Luke. "Kid?"

Luke nodded wearily.

"Okay, then. Chewie, you stay here with the Falcon, in case all the sudden we need to leave again."

Shmi scratched Chewie's shoulder, then followed Luke and Han out into the rain. It smelled awful. Luke took off his long outer robe, and spread it out to cover them. He and Han each held up one side, and Shmi walked between them. It took them only ten minutes to get home, but the robe was soaked through and had a gray sludge of some kind on it by the time they got there.

Ben opened the door, saw their faces, and ran inside. "Mother! Father! Something's happened!"

Mother and Father appeared - for a wonder, neither of them was anywhere else; the story would only need to be told once - and when they saw Han something seemed to click. Mother's hand flew up to her mouth, and Father closed his eyes. "Leia," Father said. "What has happened to her?"

Shmi was struggling to find a way to start telling it when Luke spoke for the first time since they'd left Malastare. His voice was flat and cold. "Tell the Council that I found the Sith apprentice," he said. He didn't really need to finish. Shmi saw it in her parents' eyes. But he finished anyway. "It's Leia," he said. "It's been Leia all along. She's done all of it."

The next several minutes were a nightmare, and Shmi could barely hold it in her mind. Father cried out and fell to his knees, and Mother doubled over, her hands buried in her face. Ben came straight to Shmi herself, flung himself into her embrace and held her so tight that she could barely breathe. He kept whispering Leia's name. Han was trying his best to bring Mother back to some kind of rational place, and Luke stood solidly beside Father, his eyes...

Dead.

Something in Luke's eyes was dead, and that was the worst part of it.

It ended; all things end.

Mother's chest hitched with a few sobs, then she got to her feet and pulled herself to the small couch. Han helped her. Father remained on his knees, but exerted control over his pain. Ben finally let go enough to turn around, and let Shmi breathe freely.

"How long?" Mother managed. "How long has this been?"

Han stepped forward. "I don't know, Ma'am," he said. "She's been... there've been things for awhile. I should have put 'em together, but - "

"Peace, Han. Please. We all should have seen something terribly wrong."

Han looked around miserably. "Look, it wasn't... it wasn't you guys. I know that. She never said anything but good about you. "

"Thank you," Father said. "I understand what you mean to say by that. Nevertheless, we should have seen. We should have helped her. I feared, when the Council rejected her... " His control broke, and he gasped in air. He regained himself. "We need to help her now."

"It's too late," Luke said. "She doesn't want to be helped. We have to stop her."

Ben broke away from Shmi and ran at Luke. "No, Luke! You can't!"

Luke shook his head. "Ben, I don't want to. No one does. But she's done... awful things."

Father stood. "We will find her. I hope Ben is right. I hope another way can be found."

"There's no other way. She's lost to us," Luke said, raising his eyebrow in a way that made Shmi believe he was being ironic. "We have to accept that."

"No." Father took Luke's arms. "No, Luke. As a Jedi, she is lost. But as a daughter and sister... "

"She is also lost."

Luke left the room.

"Don't let him go after her," Ben said. "He'll kill her."

"I don't think he will, not when it comes to it. Luke loves her deeply and has been wounded badly by this. But the love will overcome the wound."

Han nodded. "Yeah. If he wanted to kill her, he'd have done it on Malastare."

"Ani, please," Mother said. "Go with him. Try to talk to her. And try to talk to him."

"Yes, of course." To Shmi's surprise, Father turned to her. "Before we go anywhere, Shmi, it is vitally important that you tell me all of your vision."

Shmi looked after Luke, then looked to Father and Mother. "My vision? The spider?"

"Yes. There was something you didn't share. Something about Leia."

She closed her eyes. "And about you."

"I guessed as much."

"It had you both." And she told him, fully and completely what she had seen when she'd collapsed in the corridor. "It said the choice was between you. I didn't know. I didn't understand. I should have said something. I should have..." She caught herself starting to babble. "I knew it was important, but I didn't want to worry you until I understood it. And I still don't."

"It's all right, Shmi," Father said. "I think I do."

"Ani... "

"I'll go with Luke to find her, Amidala. Things are... unbalanced. I didn't - " He shook his head. "I can't express it. But I will go. I will find where she is lost, and I will bring her home."

Han stepped forward. "Falcon's ready to fly when you are."

"We'll leave immediately. Shmi, this time, you'll stay here. Luke and I have one more journey to take together."

Shmi nodded, to weary to argue, then felt Mother pulling at her arm. She sank gratefully into her mother's embrace, and let the troubles of the world return to the adults.

She wasn't ready for her Trials yet.

***

Leia boarded her ship on Malastare. It was just a box with an engine, and it barely maneuvered, but it was her own, and she was glad to have it. She often needed to escape into deep space, to let the power seep out and dissipate. There were many times she felt that she simply couldn't contain it all within herself. Times like now, she thought, hitting the thrusters and rising into orbit. The Dark Side was all about raw, untamed power, and when it had her, it filled her with rage and strength. With her Master, she had often found a focus for that rage, but since her Master's death, it had simply swirled inside of her, poisonous and searing.

When it came out, it lashed without any proper aim. She had not meant to taunt Luke, let alone attack him. She had missed him. He was her brother. And Shmi was her sister. She'd watched herself saying those things, seen the looks on their faces when they heard. She couldn't make herself believe that it had been for a greater good - Han's arrest, though it had hurt her to do it, had been in defense of the Republic; she couldn't have him spying on her and attracting attention to her - because she knew that what she'd told Han was true. There was no difference between Leia and Miseta. Miseta was just another veil to wear.

Leia had, at first, felt foolish with her second name, just as she'd felt foolish the first days with the veils, but she'd come to understand that each served a purpose. The veils made ugliness into mystery, turned pity into guilty fascination. The name... the name protected her family's honor. It was important for the Republic to see only the good in them. They served as beacons to the whole galaxy. She simply cleaned up a few messes that had been left behind by the Empire. It was a filthy, untouchable job, however much it needed to be done; she didn't want it to contaminate them.

But the fires... what good do those fires do for anyone?

She blinked it away. She had asked the question before, both of her Master and of herself. The answer was simple - they needed to learn obedience. Leia had taught it to them.

(Ah, my Miseta,) she could almost hear her Master saying. (You do see. I was beginning to wonder if you were losing your courage.)

The thought was unwelcome. She did not care to think about her Master, or the fires, for that matter. She needed to decide what to do. Any secret she had tried to keep was gone. She was Master now, and she needed to do something with it.

(You walk and breathe at the whim of a weak woman who cannot control even her own household, let alone the galaxy...)

"No!" She screamed it out loud, and it echoed in the small ship. Her Master had been wrong. Mother was not weak. Mother was good.

(weak)

Mother could help her. Mother would understand, if it was just explained to her. Mother would...

She will disown you. You have shamed her.

(And what right has she to be ashamed? You have offered the greatest of glories. If she cannot see it, then perhaps she is unworthy after all, as Han suggested.)

Leia looked down at her hands and noticed that they were shaking. She willed them to stop. It came back to Mother, one way or another.

"Computer," she said, "reset coordinates, program Home 3."

The engines hummed quietly for a moment, then the ship shot into hyperspace.

It was time to go home.

***

Chapter Six: Into The Web

Anakin walked between Han Solo and Luke, all three of them bending slightly against the rising wind. They had opted to walk to the hangar; even Anakin thought it was insane to take a speeder out in this weather. He could have handled it - probably - but it was only half an hour's walk, and the time... the time might be helpful in easing the shock, if not the pain.

Solo had retreated into a sullen silence, and Anakin could feel waves of regret and grief coming from him. He hadn't liked the cocky pirate at first, but Solo had earned his way into the family, and into Anakin's trust, before he fell in love with Leia. Anakin would have been proud to call him a son-in-law. But now, in the ashes of the family, Solo didn't seem sure where he fit. Anakin put a hand on his shoulder, the same as he would with Luke, then took it away when he could feel that Solo was comforted. Neither man said anything.

Anakin pulled the hood of his robe up over his head, though it did little good against the rain. It was a place to hide, to retreat from this new knowledge.

How could I not have known? How could I not have seen it?

He had no answer. Leia had always been able to put him in a blind spot. That had been one of the things he'd delighted in about her when she was a child - she could honestly surprise him, and did so, frequently. And when she'd seemed to adjust to life after the Council had rejected her, he'd been...

Relieved.

"Of course you were relieved, Father," Luke said. "You couldn't stand to see her frustrated all the time. Something changed that, and it seemed good to all of us. But it was a lie."

The chill in his voice broke Anakin's heart. Luke had always been the empathic, kind one. That was why she'd been able to hurt him so deeply, but Anakin feared that the wound was deeper than she'd expected. No one was more closely connected to Luke than Leia; if anyone could deal a mortal blow to his emotions, it would be her. "Luke," he said, "taking vengeance will not change what happened."

"It's not vengeance." He went a few steps ahead, and spoke without turning, though it was difficult to hear over the traffic and the weather. "She's lost, Father. And if we don't stop her, she's going to destroy whatever we have left of our family. Of herself."

"You don't want to kill her."

"I will do what I must."

Anakin grabbed his arm, stopped him. Solo stopped alongside. "Luke, be mindful of your feelings. This is not a rational course of action that you're pursuing. You're angry and you're hurt, and you are planning to act on it."

Luke looked like he might argue. Then he just nodded. "Yes. I know. But I don't know what else to do."

"Can't you save her?" Solo asked suddenly. "Can't you get her back? She's... Hell, I can't explain it. But when she talks, you can hear her sometimes, behind whatever Miseta's saying."

"It's unlikely," Anakin said. "Those who are caught on the Dark Path are rarely freed of the choice."

"Even if she turned back today, she'd never be free of it." Solo ran a hand through his hair, pushing the rain out of it in a torrent. "You can't do something like that and then walk away like nothing happened, right? But that doesn't mean you can't walk away."

Anakin wanted to believe it. He wanted to agree, without reservation, and simply embrace Leia, bring her home, and forgive all, if she would just turn back. But he knew that the answer was somewhere between Luke and Solo. Leia would not return easily. But how his heart jumped at the chance to get her to return at all! "We will... attempt it."

He expected an argument from Luke, but didn't get one. Luke was looking up in a puzzled way, and Anakin opened himself to feel the slight tremor of energy that Luke was picking up on. "Han," Luke said, "go ahead to the ship. We'll meet you there. There's something we need to do in the Temple."

"You're going to stop and do some ritual now?"

"No. Something practical. Meet us there."

It was a measure of Solo's fatigue that he didn't argue with Luke at all.

Luke watched him go, then turned toward the hangar they were approaching, and stopped. It wasn't the hangar where Chewie was waiting with the Falcon, just one they needed to pass along the way. A technician was waving them a friendly hello from beside a small, boxy ship that looked vaguely familiar.

"Hey, Skywalker!"

"Not today, Dack."

"Okay..." the young tech said. "What is it with your family today? Out in this kind of weather and everything. And your sister's driving in it!"

Anakin's head snapped up of its own accord. Of course. She'd bought the ship only three years ago. Her private ship. She'd had to convince Amidala to let her travel outside the security convoy from time to time. Anakin had only seen it once or twice. "Leia has come home?" he asked.

Dack shrugged. "Yeah. Got here about twenty minutes ago. You didn't know?"

"We didn't know."

Luke turned around. His face had lost all of it slackness, and his eyes were wild - but they were his own eyes, and they were alive. "Mother," he whispered. "She's gone home to Mother."

***

The rain was becoming steadily worse, and the traffic lines were beginning to break up as drivers sought the safety of hangars and docking bays. Mother was watching it at the window, the dirty gray rain-shadows making her face look like melted wax. Ben wanted to say something to her, but he didn't know what. He knew she was thinking how she should have paid more attention or known or something. But Leia was careful. Leia never let on.

Except in whispers. Long, long ago. And she might not have been saying that. Maybe Ben's mind was just filling in what he thought the whispers might have been, now that he knew her secret.

Mother was eating herself up, blaming herself for lots of things. And she shouldn't be. She was a great mother. Ben couldn't remember ever feeling like he was second place. Whatever happened with Leia, it wasn't Mother's fault, or Father's or anyone's but Leia's. That's what Han had tried to say, and he was right. What happened, happened in spite of us, not because of us.

Shmi was sitting at the table, on the other side of the room from him. And he was sitting all the way in the corner away from Mother. They were as far from each other as they could get and still be in the same set of walls.

That wasn't the way it needed to be. They needed to be together.

He went to Mother first, because she needed him more, and took her hand. She turned to him and smiled gently, understanding. She reached her other arm out to Shmi.

Shmi was across the room in two long strides, putting her arms around both of them and settling into the shelter of Mother's embrace.

The door opened, and Shmi pulled away, her eyes wide and terrified. Mother looked puzzled. Ben just felt his insides sinking down through his feet. He could barely find his voice to call, "We're in the parlor, Leia."

Shuffling footsteps coming down the hall. "I know Shmi's in there," she said. "So I know you're not happy to see me."

Mother stepped forward between Shmi and Ben, putting her arms out protectively by instinct. "Come inside, Leia. We need to talk."

Leia appeared at the door. She was soaked, and her veil was plastered against her face, making a grotesque silken mask of her jaw. She was trying to smile. "I knew you wouldn't reject me..."

Mother looked over at Shmi. "Take Ben out of here. I want to talk to your sister alone."

"Are you afraid I'm going to scare them?"

"It's useless to fear what has already occurred, Leia. Or am I to call you Miseta now as well?"

"Call me what you will."

Mother looked significantly at Shmi, and Shmi reached around for Ben's hand. "Now, Benny," she said.

A part of Ben wanted to argue, but another part was wiser, and knew what he needed to do. He took Shmi's hand, and let her lead him docilely out of the room. Once they were in the hallway, hearing Mother's voice only as a soft drone, he pulled on her arm and stopped her. "We need to get Master Yoda here," he said. "I don't know how far away Father and Luke are, but Master Yoda is right over at the Temple. We need him quick. You'll need to drive."

"In this?"

"Shmi, please. Yoda promised he would help us. We're going to need help. I know it."

She looked over her shoulder. "I don't want to leave Mother alone with her... "

"It's what Mother wants. And Leia won't kill her. I feel it. She'll destroy herself before she destroys Mother. But she can do a lot of damage on the way there. We have to get Yoda. He needs to be there."

Shmi spared one more glance, then turned back to Ben, determined and strong. "All right," she said. "Let's go."

***

Amidala looked at the woman who stood before her, the woman her promising girl had become. "What has happened to you, Leia?"

"I learned. I grew up."

"You found a live power source and grasped it with your bare hands."

"Yes! And it is... intoxicating! It's... " But her voice trailed off.

"It's dark. It's what caused this morass in the first place. How dare you ally yourself with Palpatine?"

Her tone was vehement. "I never did! I've always fought for the Republic!"

"In deciding that it no longer mattered how you achieved your goals, you betrayed everything the Republic stands for. And you did these things in my name, Leia."

"It was for the... the greater... " She faltered, and something changed in her eyes. "I am stronger than you are," she said flatly, loudly. "You used that strength when you needed it."

"What you are showing me is not strength."

"Maybe I have been mistaken. Maybe my Master was right all along. Maybe I should have killed you instead."

Amidala closed her eyes. "You already have, Leia."

In the silence between them, Amidala could hear the runnels of rain beside the windows, a sad, hushing sound that wrapped cold fingers around her heart. Amidala opened her eyes. Leia was looking at her, eyes wide and frightened, a lost child. Amidala opened her arms, to accept any embrace Leia chose to give... even if it held her death.

Leia whispered "Mother..." but she never finished. Her eyes flared suddenly, her face became livid. She turned toward the door just before Amidala heard it slide up.

"Am!" Anakin called, bursting in from the rain. Luke called "Mother!" at the same time.

Then they were in the parlor, and Leia ignited her lightsaber. She ran at Luke.

"Stop it!" Amidala screamed.

But there was no response. The twins were locked in battle.

***

The speeder was thrown in the tempest, the automatic stabilizers useless against the strength of the wind and the driving rain. It was all Shmi could do to keep it straight - it was a good thing no one was on the trafficways, because she was weaving crazily, praying that a bolt of lightning wouldn't hit her.

Ben sat beside her, his face white and pinched. He was barely paying attention to the storm at all. His eyes were focused forward, seeking the Temple, as if he could reach out and use it to pull them ahead faster.

"We'll get there," Shmi said. In all her life, it had never seemed like a long trip. She usually walked it. But now, two kilometers seemed like two lightyears, trapped in the filthy placelessness of the Coruscant sky.

A gust of wind pushed the speeder to one side, throwing Ben against the door and Shmi against Ben. She fought to regain the steering column.

"Are you okay?" Ben asked, when she finally pulled herself back into the driver's seat.

She rubbed her shoulder. "Wrenched my arm, but I'll be okay."

"I'm scared."

"Me, too."

Lightning split the sky, and Shmi didn't dare concentrate on anything other than piloting.

At last, the Temple loomed up in front of them, its spires shedding dim light into the grayness. The rain glimmered for a moment as it passed the windows of the Council chamber, then fell down to the surface in darkness. Shmi fought the controls, and landed the craft on the wide walkway leading to the doors. Not exactly standard practice, but she doubted anyone would be checking.

"Okay," she said. "I'll keep us here and ready to go. You go get Yoda."

"Don't need to," Ben said.

Shmi looked up. The old Master was coming out the door, hobbling on his gimer stick, taking no notice of the rain.

"Go meet him," she said. "Get something over his head. He's old. Let's not get him sick on top of everything else."

Ben nodded, and was out in a flash, running under a tarp that Luke kept in the speeder's back seat. Shmi watched him fade into an indistinct boy-shape in the rain, then join Yoda and hover over him. They made good time - Yoda was hurrying as much as he could - and were both in the speeder quickly. Ben got back into the front seat, while Yoda perched in the middle of the back. He pushed away the tarp, and said, "Waiting for you, I have been."

"Do you know what's happening?"

"Turned, has Leia. Ben told me, yes. A terrible thing, this. Feared her power, we did. But know we did not what waited for her in the shadows."

"I didn't know what else to do," Ben said. "She came home after Father and Luke went off to find her. You were closer... "

"Come, I will. But Luke and Master Anakin, already home they are." He looked at Shmi. "See, I do, that you feel foolish. You should not! Need me you will. Wise and brave for you to come, yes. Wise and brave."

Shmi lifted the speeder into the air without answering. A hundred thoughts were in her mind, and feeling foolish for rushing off to find Yoda wasn't near the top of the list. She fought a downdraft that tried to crash her into a walkway, then took to the wind and flew for home.

***

The anger had already dissipated and the shock was beginning to wear off. All Luke could feel was anguish.

He met Leia's aggressive thrust and dodge away from it. "I don't want to be having this fight with you, Leia."

"Of course not. You always lose."

That she chose the bantering tone she had used when they'd practiced together as children saddened him, but didn't shock or surprise him. "Leia, you have to stop this."

"And do what?" She pushed forward. "What is left for me, if I stop now?"

Father drew close, but Leia warned him away with an aggressive sweep of her saber. She had done so several times. It was true that working together, Father and Luke could have beaten an enemy easily, but that kind of strategy was to tire and destroy one's opponent. Neither of them wished that for Leia, so by unspoken consent, Luke had met her attack, and Father and Mother were trying to talk to her. "Leia," he said, "you have come partway home. Come fully."

"Oh, and you'll fix it all, like you did before, with the Council?"

"I can't fix this, Leia. I won't pretend to."

Leia didn't let him go on. She drove her attack against Luke in a furious new pattern that took them toward the windows. Luke met her, blow for blow, defending only. If I absorb it, he thought, sooner or later, she'll have to run out of this rage.

But the rage didn't seem to be running out. She pushed harder and harder, and, though Luke could see in her eyes that she hated this as much as he did, she seemed to be compelled to go on. Some horrible power had worked its way into her. And she can't control it. It's controlling her.

She laughed. "No, Luke. Nothing is controlling me."

"Yes it is, Leia. It's more than you can handle."

"Oh, yes. The Jedi and their platitudes about power. I remember."

"This isn't a Jedi platitude. This is what I'm seeing with my own eyes. If you let go right now, I don't think this power would let you stop."

It only served to anger her, which he supposed he should have foreseen. She screamed, and launched herself into another attack. He barely fought it off. The duel moved onto the balcony. Mother and Father ran for the door, but Leia slammed it shut with the Force, and Luke heard frying circuits above the rain. Father was beating at the transparisteel, and had raised his lightsaber to cut through it, but it was designed against laser attacks, and it repelled every blow. It would give in under constant pressure. But Father was half out of his mind. Luke could feel it. He saw Mother reach out to try and calm him, then Leia was blocking his view.

"Just us," she said.

"Why are you doing this? Why are you so angry at me?" Beyond her, a light was growing, and Luke understood that Father had finally calmed enough to use the lightsaber with patience, to melt the transparisteel. The window pane was beginning to glow.

Lightning illuminated her face, making the scar stand out in grotesque relief. "A few hours ago, you'd have had me executed, and you dare to ask me that?"

"I was wrong. I'm sorry."

She smiled horribly. "You may be sorry," she said. "But you weren't wrong." Her eyes opened and closed, and Luke could see the conflict written on her face. For a brief, flickering moment, he saw another woman in her eyes, a strong woman with light in her soul, a woman who might have been, if things had been different. It was that woman who whispered, "Goodbye, Luke."

Then Miseta was there, and the fury was beyond anything Luke had experienced. He rolled away from her, meeting each blow with all the strength he had, but still feeling like he was falling behind. She had always been able to beat him, but this... it was like fighting the storm itself.

She swung her saber in a brutal arc, and he was forced to retreat in a motion that spun him away from her. He sensed the next blow coming, and blocked it behind himself. He had to disarm her.

Behind him, he could hear the hum of Father's attack on the door.

He spun again, bringing his lightsaber around. She would be swinging downward to meet the blow, and he would use the moment to hook it away from her, the move she had always used to disarm him when they were children. He saw the edge of her lightsaber coming down -

- and suddenly stop, as she was distracted by the crash of the pane coming down.

It was too late to stop his blow; there was too much momentum. He watched in horror as it struck her high in the chest, burning through silk and flesh, revealing a white bone. She fell.

Someone screamed.

***

Chapter Seven: Father's Heart

After the burning pain, Leia was aware only of the mists. They rose around her, and she couldn't see anything. Everything was gray and formless, and she was alone. She could see her arms and legs, but she understood on an intuitive level that any shape here was just something her mind was creating to make sense of it. She had passed into the Force, and all things were possible here.

Dimly, she could feel Luke calling to her. She reached tentatively for the bond that held them to one another, then shrank away again. She was filthy; she would make him filthy if she touched him. It was all right. At first, it was all right.

Then the mists darkened, and she heard a booming laugh. She looked up, and saw ahead of her a great spider, perched on a web between the worlds. No, not a spider... a shadow. A living darkness with a hundred limbs reaching out for her. One wrapped itself around her wrist. It was cold.

She screamed and pulled away, running mindlessly through the mists.

Strange things passed before her eyes, other worlds than the one she knew. She saw herself as a slave on Tatooine, and as a soldier in a camouflage cape on some forest world. Her arm was wounded there, and she was looking up at the sky.

Other worlds, other visions. But no one to help her, and the shadow was gaining on her again. She felt it wrap itself around her legs, and she fell.

There was nothing to hit in the mists, and falling was just a curious sensation. She was snapped back to her own place, and again felt Luke reaching for her, holding her steady. The madness had left her.

I am myself, she thought, and it wasn't welcome. As herself, she remembered every atrocity, every burned city, every cruel word. She couldn't fight the shadow that held her, because it was her.

But not just her.

She could feel another presence beyond herself, beyond the shadow, lost as she was, and calling...

To her?

No... not calling. But thinking about her. About...

(tell your sister, you were right)

"Father?" she called, or tried to call, though it wasn't Father. The mists poured into her mouth, choking her. She began to cough. The other presence heard her, tried to reach to her... she could feel him trying to help... but he was too far beyond her, and he had already been freed of the shadow. He was lost and confused. She pushed back at him. Go! You've won! I will fight!

Her push wasn't hard, but someone else was pulling him away, into whatever light waited for him. She had lost her chance at help, but there was joy and hope in the moment of knowing that someone had escaped this place.

Somewhere behind, she could feel Luke's hands on her already broken body, trying to hold it back together. She wanted to tell him it was too late, but she couldn't seem to remember how to send anything back to him.

(leia, fight, you always fight, don't slip away...)

How can you still love me? she called, but she knew it wasn't reaching him. After everything, how can you?

(leia...)

Fainter.

The shadow-spider dragged her further itself, into its horrible laughter. She felt the coldness seeping into her, reaching into her heart, into her mind... reaching across... reaching through the mist...

Reaching across her twins' bond.

"No!" she screamed into the nothing.

Leia rose up into the Force, and attacked the Darkness that held her.

***

Anakin saw what would happen a fraction of a second before it did, but not soon enough to stop it. Carried by momentum, Leia finished turning to face him, and he saw the gash across her chest with perfect clarity in a flash of lightning, then she slipped to her knees and fell across the balcony floor.

Luke screamed leaned over her, putting his body between her and the rain. Amidala brushed past, running to the twins and putting her thin arms around both of them. She wasn't screaming, and the rain made it impossible to tell if she was crying.

All Anakin knew was that he was not.

The unthinkable had happened and his mind simply... stopped. His lightsaber was held uselessly in one hand. Two thoughts circled each other, stopping all others. The first was, If you hadn't tried to interfere... and the second was, If you'd stepped in sooner... Neither was going to help either twin, or Amidala, or himself. He couldn't seem to move.

(it had you both)

The vision of the spider came back to him, the shame and terror of it. He had been something awful, something...

(it said the choice was between you)

...something that had been left undone. Some purpose he had not fulfilled, and Leia had paid the price for it.

Amidala looked up, held out one hand to him. He wanted to back away. Somehow, he had done this. Not by distracting her while she was fighting, but by... by something...

But Amidala needed him, and Luke needed him, and Leia -

A pale hand reached up.

He ran to his family, reached between Amidala and Luke, and took that hand, kissing it. "Leia, come back..."

"Ani." Her hand was on the back of his neck. "Ani, we need to call for the surgeon droids. Or you need to get her to them."

"Late..." Leia whispered. "Going..."

"No!" Luke yelled.

But Leia slipped back down into unconsciousness. For a moment, her face relaxed into something sweet and peaceful.

Then the ruined flesh twisted in horror, and she began to gasp for breath. Anakin searched the Force - even now, she was so hard to see! - and sensed a darkness beyond, reaching for her. She was fighting it, terrified of it.

It was too big for her.

It was supposed to be me.

The thought came to him with the finality of a closing door. The choice was between them. Choice.

(he is the chosen one)

"No," he whispered. "No..."

"Ani?"

He squeezed Leia's hand, then stood and backed away. He had failed her one too many times. In this fight, he would not let her down. He would save her, because the debt she was paying was one he had been meant to pay. And there was only one way to do it.

Luke was holding her, but had calmed enough to examine the wound. There was nothing he could do, but he was trying to bandage it. Amidala was simply holding them tightly. They were beautiful. All of them.

Leia gasped again, and her hands clenched into fists. Blood began to trickle from her nose. Whatever battle she was fighting, she needed help.

(father help me... please...)

He needed to cross over to where she was. He thought he could do it in a way that he could come back - he would certainly try - but the important thing was getting there. The demon she was fighting wasn't here on this rainy balcony. It wasn't even in her mind.

It was Beyond.

Amidala's face paled. "Ani, what are doing? Ani?"

She tried to stand, but couldn't keep her arms around the children if she did. She stayed there.

"I need to help her, Amidala."

"Are you going for help?"

"I'm going to help her." He bent down, kissed Amidala's cheek and the top of Luke's head. Then he took his lightsaber from his belt, and - before common sense or guilt could stop him - ignited it and plunged it into his chest.

The last thing he heard was Amidala's voice crying out to him.

But it was too late to stop it now.

***

The spider took shape again, becoming solid in the dark, and Leia hacked uselessly at its legs. Around it, she could see the glimmering, deadly web it sat in. It was like spun crystal.

She flailed at the shadow, tearing at it with her hands, but she couldn't get free of it. It was too powerful for her. It would have her, and it would use her one last time to pour itself into Luke.

She screamed again, and beat at it, but it was ineffective. Every motion simply drew her closer to it. Help me... she whispered.

Then, suddenly, the web shivered and split, falling to pieces, and she felt another enter the cold world around her. Leia!

Father, no!

She couldn't see him, but she knew he was here... not simply Father, but the vast power he carried inside of himself. This was not the confused, distant presence of a moment before. It was her own Father, and he was looking for her.

Leia! Where are you?

I'm here!

She saw a glimpse, an eddy in the mists, pure energy, then the darkness rose between them. She ran at it.

***

Anakin had dreamed this place, in the deep secret places of the night. He knew it. He wasn't afraid for himself. The wound he'd inflicted on himself still burned; he was alive. That would tie him back to his world, to Amidala and the other children, but he feared that it might make him too weak to help Leia. He wondered if he would have the strength to sever it completely if she needed him to.

Father!

The shadow-spider rose before him, red eyes glaring contemptuously at him. He reached his arm to one side, drew the energy to himself, and cast it into the ether. A bright arc of light - not electricity, just a brilliant white light - cut through the gray, bursting into a small sun against the spider's forelimb. For an instant, he saw Leia beyond, then she was hidden again.

So the time is here, Chosen One, the darkness whispered.

I will see my daughter.

A malicious glee spread through the dark side of the Force. She is mine. Will you trade places with her, Son of the Suns?

It was on the tip of Anakin's tongue - figuratively - to say "Gladly," but that was clearly what the darkness wanted. You'll have neither of us, do you understand? My family is no longer yours to destroy!

Again, he raised his hands, and the light spread in two bright suns. A distant corner of his mind had a moment's wrathful thought, Now you will know the Son of the Suns!

(mind your anger... and your pride)

The voice came from nowhere and everywhere. He recognized it as his own, but also as outside himself. It was a strange, doubling sensation.

(strength comes from love of your child, not hatred of the darkness; i have learned this, far too late)

Anakin was tempted to tell this other voice that it was a little slow in picking things up, if that lesson needed to be learned this late in the game... but he realized that he himself was not heeding the advice. He was fighting the darkness with anger and pride. It would win that way.

The other presence slipped away into a light that was growing inside the Force. Anakin tried to calm himself.

Father...

Leia. I am here. I am coming for you.

And suddenly, in his heart, the scales balanced. No longer was he divided between fighting for the greater good and loving his family with all his heart. He needed to rescue Leia. And to do that, he needed to defeat this thing between them, but he did not hate it. He did not rage at it.

He opened his arms, and pushed the light out again, this time simply letting it flow, letting it penetrate the shadows with its own momentum.

Beyond the spider, Leia's voice was still fading.

***

The pain of the wound was almost gone, and with it, her connection to the world.

The bond to Luke still held her, strongly. She was beginning to see it as a shape in the mists, an open hand, reaching out for her, but not quite getting there. More real was Father, beyond the shadow. She wanted to cry out to him - she recognized the rage; she had felt it often herself. But suddenly, it went away. Father's strength began to flow through the Force.

She grabbed hold of what she could of it, and attacked the shadow again, but as soon as she touched it, it began to be solid again, darker and colder. Her hand stuck in it, immobile and numb. She kicked at it, but to no avail.

She had to defeat this thing, had to destroy it once and for all, but she didn't know how.

Leia, Father's voice whispered to her. I love you and I am coming for you.

Leia's mental voice sounded tired to her, almost petulant. I'm stuck, Father, I'm cold and I'm lost...

Be calm.

I'm so tired.

You can rest soon.

A gray light was beginning to show through the shadows. The spider-shape was breaking apart into a million small shapeless clouds, each of which held its own poison storm, but not strong enough to stand against Father's power.

Maybe she could fight these. She threw her strength into it, battling to push them away from her. Some shrank back, others attached themselves to her.

Leia, do not strike out. Push them away by not allowing them in.

I can't quit fighting!

You must!

She looked for the calm center that had always eluded her in meditation, searched desperately and deeply within herself. She could feel it, just out of reach, and was trying to touch it when he burning in her chest suddenly stopped, and the tether that bound her to the world was snapped. Through the twins' bond, she heard Luke calling. The hand-shape in the mist reached out desperately, but she found there was no action she could take.

Leia!

Too late. It's too late.

No!

The light grew bright, shocking, then the energy that was Father was with her, and holding her. My Leia, my Leia, my beautiful girl...

She reached out to him, whispered one last time, Father, but then lost language, and could only feel the warmth of his arms around her. She looked up. The darkness had dissipated, and the gray-white mists were infused with a deep light. She could still feel/see the twins' bond, far and small.

Reach out, Leia, Father whispered. He will need you.

With her last conscious act, she reached up, brushed against the shape of the bond in the mist, and felt it reaching out to catch her.

She knew no more.

***

Amidala ran to Ani as soon as he...

But she couldn't think of that. She was too terrified to be angry, but she knew she would be later. How could he, now, with this happening, when she needed him?

Then his mouth moved, and a breath of air escaped, and on the breath was the single word "Leia..." and she understood that he was calling to her, that he hadn't done this thing from despair, that he did mean to come back to her.

The terror remained, but the anger underneath it became pride. She kissed his temple and whispered, "May the Force be with you, my love."

"Leia... where are you..."

His hand, beneath the wound, reached weakly into the air. Thinking in a confused way that it would be easier if they were close, Amidala found the strength to half-carry, half-drag his supine form over to where the twins were huddled in the rain. She laid him down beside Leia, and put a hand on each of their heads, kneeling and leaning down so that her head was between theirs touching both of them. She tried to shelter them both from the storm, but she knew there were things she couldn't protect them from.

"Come home to me," she said. "Come home safely."

His body began to shudder and shake, as some awful battle was being fought. Amidala looked up at Luke. He was desperately trying to hold Leia's broken body together, but she could see that he was also fighting to reach her mind. His lips were moving ceaselessly, shaping her name and calling for her.

But she was slipping away.

"Mother!"

There was a crunching sound in the shattered transparisteel beside the patio door, and Amidala looked up to see Shmi come charging through. Her eyes went wide, and she ran to Ani and Leia. "Mother, what - "

Amidala felt the small hand on her shoulder even before she heard the gravely voice. "Help them, I will."

She looked up. Ben was standing with Yoda, his small, dear face white with concern; Amidala offered him as much hope as her face would allow her to offer, then said, "Yoda... please. Whatever you can do...I can't... "

The old Master nodded, looked at them. "Hold on, you should. And you, young Luke. Hold on tightly. Fragile, things are. Easily broken. Need your strength, they do."

Yoda walked between the two forms, listening to their whispers and bending over their wounds. "Strong they are," he said. "Fighting and trying. But harsh are the wounds."

Amidala moaned, deep in her throat, and dug her fingers more deeply into their hair, trying to hold them still.

Yoda looked at Ani's wound. "Live, he will," he said. "Struck carefully, he did, yes. Planned to come back." He turned to Leia, started to say something, then simply shook his head.

"Master Yoda, will she die?" Luke asked.

He looked up, and his answer was all any of them really needed: "Luminous beings are we."

Luke grimaced, fighting tears, then cried out, "Leia!"

Amidala kissed her poor, ruined face. There was still something there.

And then there was nothing. She was gone.

Luke looked up, shook his head. "I'd stopped wanting to hurt her. I didn't..."

They heard Ben hitch in a sob, then he fell on Leia's body and clung to her. Shmi knelt awkwardly beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. Amidala leaned forward and embraced all of them.

But Anakin was still unconscious, and suddenly, she saw an awful look of emptiness come into his face. "Ani!" she cried. "Ani, you're not going to die!" She turned to Yoda. "What's happening?"

Yoda raised his head and closed his eyes. "Trying to stay, he is."

Amidala shook him. "Don't you leave me, Ani! Don't you dare!"

Yoda touched her face. "Calm, you must be, Amidala. If hear you he does, to his body he still must return, and wounded is that body. With care you must treat it."

She nodded, barely able to see. The rain was beginning to taper off, but water still clung to her eyelashes. She held him gently. "Ani, don't stay there. We need you here. Especially now." She glanced over, saw Leia's body spread out. Her firstborn, and her heart suddenly cried out, in an anguish she didn't know. She didn't want Ani to come back, she wanted to go to where he was, to find whatever oblivion he was lost in. "Ani, Ani..."

Then Shmi was there, and Luke, and Ben. And with Luke, there in his eyes...

No, surely that was her imagination.

She couldn't reach for oblivion. She was needed here. So was Anakin.

Yoda, apparently feeling the wave pass, hunched down beside the wound. He took a small dressing from his pack, and a container of bacta solution to treat the burn. He dressed Ani's wound without speaking, then closed his eyes, and put his hands on Anakin's head.

"Time it is to come home, my friend. Save her, you did. Now, rest you may, in the warm place of your own home."

In the silence that followed, the rain trickled to a stop.

Anakin opened his eyes.

He looked at them all, meeting their eyes one at a time. Then he turned his head to the side, and saw Leia there. "My Leia," he whispered. Then he wept.

They all did.

And time moved on.

***

Epilogue: Son of the Suns

Tatooine.

Han carried her to the unlit pyre, and laid her gently down on it. It was a husband's place to do so, but neither he nor anyone else questioned it. He kissed her forehead, but there was nothing behind the cool skin, no return of hope or regret. But it was the last kiss he would have from her, so he didn't shrink from it. "You beat it, kiddo," he whispered to her. "I knew you could."

The Skywalkers stood nearby - Amidala, holding Ben's hand; Luke, his face tired and sad; Shmi, looking dreamy and distant in the pre-dawn light. Anakin wasn't here. Han wasn't sure he would show. He'd gone half rogue last night, when they were building the funeral bier, insisting that they were not going to burn Leia, that she was afraid of fire, that he could save her... crazy stuff. Luke had put a hand on his shoulder, and said, "She isn't afraid anymore, Father."

Whether it was a mind trick or not, Han Solo didn't know. Whatever it was, Anakin had accepted it, and calmed. He'd kept vigil beside the body with the others most of the night, but he hadn't accompanied them to the funeral site.

"Han?"

He looked up. Amidala had come to him, concern written plainly on her face, and he realized that he was still bent over Leia, clinging to her. He stood. "Yeah. I'm coming. I'm okay."

She nodded. "I wish I could say the same."

Han didn't know what to say to that. Amidala was, in some ways, hit harder than anyone else - Leia had drawn away from her over the last several years so that she wouldn't suspect, but the two had been tied very tightly to each other. Leia had revered Amidala over any other being... but it was that very reverence that the darkness had twisted into horror and death. She had to be going through hell. "What are you going to do now?" he asked.

"I don't know. Ani and I need to look after one another for awhile."

"Is he all right?"

She half-smiled, and nodded. "Ani loves his children beyond all reason, and he is hurting. But he's lived through other losses. He knows the way home. I will follow. As I did before."

It didn't sound like the best plan Han had ever heard, but he said nothing. Every family had to deal with its grief in its own way. Or at least, so he thought. He didn't exactly have a lot of experience to judge by. The Skywalkers were his only family, at least the only one that counted. But Anakin had built something good from the ashes of whatever loss he'd suffered before, and out of the ruins of the Empire; maybe Amidala was right this time, as well.

Ben stepped forward and kissed Leia's cheek. He slipped something under her cool hands, then went back to his mother and Han. "Where is Father?"

"I am here."

Han looked up, and at first didn't register what it was that was making Shmi's eyes so wide. Beside him, Amidala sighed deeply. Luke looked like he had been expecting this.

Anakin Skywalker was still walking stiffly, his body recovering from the wound he'd inflicted on it. He was dressed simply, in the khaki tunic of a Tatooine farmer. Then Han saw it: He was carrying his Jedi robes, and his lightsaber rested on top of them. Without speaking, he went to Leia, placed the bundle on her chest, then stepped back to put his arms around Amidala. She leaned into his embrace, pulling Ben into it, and Han could see her face relax, just a little.

"Father?" Luke said.

"I cannot. But I won't prevent it."

So it was that Luke touched the flame to the pyre as the first sun came up.

As Han watched the flames reach into the morning sky, he remembered Leia as she had been, maybe not before the darkness, but before it had claimed her so completely.

He remembered a young girl, with long, thin braids, hiding behind a ladder in the Falcon, demanding that he carry her off to someplace where she could make a difference.

He remembered her lying still in a hospital, her lovely face bandaged, and he remembered her thanking him for not pretending that it would make no difference.

He remembered visiting that girl time and again, watching her grow up - so fast! - and become a strong, beautiful woman. He remembered drawing aside the veils, and tasting her lips for the first time, and he remembered the way her hands had felt as the slipped into his hair.

The fire burned brightly before him, carrying her back into the Force. Through the smoke, he could still see her face, yet untouched. He was facing the unscarred side, and it was so beautiful it broke his heart to look at it.

From the other side of the flames, Luke looked across at him, and, for a moment, there was something else - someone else - in his eyes. Then it was gone.

But it had> been there. Leia was not lost, not completely.

Somewhere, beyond the veil of his sight, he saw her standing in the morning light, the cool dawn shining through her hair, making it glow.

He thought about whispering "I love you," but he figured that she knew.

***

Owen and Beru had prospered over the years, and the farm was large enough to house a second family without any crowding. Beru had never stopped hoping for children of her own to fill it, but they had never come.

Anakin sat on the stoop, feeling husked out and empty, but clean. This place, with its safe memories, was where he needed to be, at least for now. Home.

He looked up at the suns, taking what comfort was theirs to give him. They looked back impassively. He closed his eyes, and let them warm his face.

Amidala sat down across from him. He didn't need to open his eyes to see her, leaning her back against the opposite door frame, planting one foot on the stairs inside for balance, stretching the other out to touch his hand lightly. He wrapped his fingers around her toes. "I'm not ready to go back yet," he said.

"Neither am I. Beru says we're welcome here."

"And Owen?"

"Grunted something about this being home, and not needing permission to stay at home."

Anakin opened his eyes. "We can go back when you're ready."

"I won't be." She leaned forward and took his hands, and they rested their foreheads against each other companionably. "Ani, I've resigned as Chancellor. Saché has been serving for Alderaan, and she's taken the Chancellorship temporarily, until elections can be held."

"You are certain?"

She nodded. "I am certain."

He kissed her. It was the first time he had done so since the storm on Coruscant. "We'll stay as long as you need to. And we can travel back to Naboo. I've always thought it was possible to... repair some of the damage."

A deep sigh came from her. "Someday," she said. "I'd like that, someday. But I'm so tired now, Ani. I just want to rest."

"Me, too." He turned his head slightly, saw Ben working with Owen on a droid. "What will Ben make of it, being plucked out of everything?"

"I expect he'll be bored after awhile, but you can teach him how to love the desert." She was quiet for a moment. "Ani, did you mean it? Burning your things? Do you really mean to leave the order for good?"

"I meant to leave it for good last time." He saw a flicker of fear in her eyes, and moved to calm her. "I am not angry, Amidala. I'm not rejecting the order. I simply... have completed my task. The prophecy is filled. The slaves I set out to free are free. The cost was... more than I ever would have agreed to pay. My mother on one end, my daughter on the other." He stopped speaking. It didn't sound right. It sounded cold. But it didn't feel cold. In his mind, Leia's death and his mother's formed a horrible circle. "I may return. I may build a new lightsaber. But for now, I... also want to rest."

She nodded, then moved to his side, and wrapped her arms around him. He held her tightly, and the suns shone down on them both, wrapping them in a warm, healing embrace.

***

Shmi was offered the choice at dinnertime: remain here, with Mother and Father and Ben, or return to Coruscant with Luke to finish her training and become a Jedi (he had very quietly been conferred the level of Jedi knight, and had been given permission to take her as his padawan).

Uncle Owen told her to stay. "Young girl like you oughtta be someplace safer than that."

But in the end, it wasn't a choice, or rather it was one she had made long ago. She looked at Luke, asked if he still wanted her company, and told him he had it when he said yes.

After supper, she cuddled with Mother and Father for a little while, glad of their warmth, glad they had turned toward one another instead of away in their grief. Ben had involved himself in exploring his new surroundings - he hurt, too, but he was, in the end, a ten-year-old boy, and he couldn't spend every waking hour thinking about his loss. "Besides," he said, poking his head down into Uncle Owen's maintenance shed not long after Shmi left the house to find him, "Leia always told me that I should be happy. She said it all the time, when she wrote to me, and when she came home. She'd bring me stuff and say, 'Ben, you should be happier.' So I'm going to try to be." He smiled, then said, matter-of-factly, "I miss her a lot." It was an understatement, but at the same time, it said everything. Ben stopped moving for a moment, his eyes going distant and sad, then he blinked, and headed across the farm. "I'm going to see the vaporators. Uncle Owen said not to touch them, but I'm allowed to look. Do you want to come?"

Shmi didn't want to go. She couldn't seem to find the way through her own feelings. She didn't have Mother and Father's dependence on anyone, or Ben's determination to live up to some idea. She didn't have her own memories, really, of Leia. She thought she ought to be thinking about Leia all the time, and felt guilty if she found herself thinking about something else.

But time had to move on. She knew it. She had to move into her future.

She went looking for Luke... not as her brother, but as her new Master. Maybe a padawan bond would be a poor substitute for his old twins' bond, but she would try to be there for him now, try to be something new, and worth counting on.

She found him quickly enough and started to call out to him, but something stopped her.

He was standing alone, on a slight rise near the main part of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru's home, watching the sunset. The red of the sky caught in his hair, and the last of the golden light made his face glow.

I have seen him like this before. When?

But she couldn't place it; it belonged in another world.

He glanced back at her, sensing her presence, and held out his hand. More important, he opened his mind to her, and his heart, and she felt what he was feeling. He was sad, and lonely... but whole. The part of him which had been torn apart when Leia had turned was healed. She was silent, but she was with him, and he was at peace.

Shmi smiled at her brother, then joined him on the rise. She sat at his feet, one hand reaching up to grasp his. They said nothing to one another that night, though there were many conversations to come. They simply waited together as the suns dropped beneath the horizon.

THE END

This was written in segments, spaced widely from one another. If you spot any inconsistencies, chances are, they're something that got missed in the in-between times. Let me know, and I'll fix it in revision!

FernWithy

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