Renewal: Chapter Five
Growing up on a desert world, Luke was accustomed to the sandstorms and more vicious gravelstorms which unpredictably arose on the horizon, spying them through his macrobinoculars in time to help his uncle secure their bumpout dwelling before they hit. A few occasions heíd outraced them in his landspeeder, knowing certain death befell those caught in the treacherous cyclones of sand and stone, ravaged skeletons all that remained of their unfortunate victims once the desert carrion got to them.
But it never rained.
In school he read about rainy seasons and torrential downpours, but on Tatooine the cloudless skies never darkened, and the twin suns unrelenting rays evaporated the smallest drops of dew after first sunrise. At times the whole concept of water showering from the heavens was as difficult to fathom as was its colder cousin, snow.
By now however, he was a well-seasoned galactic traveler, having seen more than his share of both, and the heavy drops pitter-pattering noisily on their tent awoke him before the first dim light reached started creeping across the floor. Rain gear wasnít an item he remembered seeing.
He held four fingers up against the sloped canvas ceiling. Four days left. Four days before they reached the base. Four days before they discovered if Home Fleet knew who was responsible for the Razionís Edge. Four days before a real meal. Four days until a hot shower. Four days before he could sleep on a real bed. Four days before his sister had to deal with Han, if heíd come, and knowing Han, Luke knew he must be near.
Four days, he thought, curling one finger down, and three mysteries.
The first was what had happened the other morning. Leiaís feet were healing well, an odd florescent pink with misshapen layers of new skin, marble-like, as though theyíd been unevenly peeled off. She insisted they looked worse than they felt, that a badly shaken psyche was the extent of the damage.
The second and third mysteries were alive and well, far enough away to remain hidden, yet so alien heíd been unable to sort through their emotions or motivations. They were simply ... near. Ever since that morning.
A gust of wind caused the trees above to shed accumulated rain with a loud clatter, fibrillations rippling the shelter. The noise accomplished what he had not as of yet, had the heart to do.
Leia came awake and groaned. "Please tell me Iím not hearing that."
"Oh you are," he chimed in. "Pitter, patter, pitter, patter." He cupped a hand over his ear and pretended to listen closely. "Do you hear what its saying." He lowered his voice. "I am here to make your life miserable."
"Huh. And I thought you had a monopoly on making my life miserable?"
"Me and the touch-knots."
"Then Iím doomed," she replied, elbowing him before she swept the blankets over her head and slumped back again. "Wake me up when it stops."
For her sake (and because he wasnít looking forward to a day of rain) he wished lassitude were a state they could afford. But it wasnít.
"What a great idea," he assented, over-excitedly on purpose. "Weíll stay here -- all day -- because you know if itís raining first thing in the morning itís going to see how unhappy we are and not want to quit there. And ... Letís see ... Iíll give you a rundown on the finer aspects of moisture farming, since you always say you find it so interesting-"
"Iím up. Iím up," she said quickly.
"You donít want to learn-"
"NO." She bolted upright again, then closed her eyes and swallowed.
"Open?" he asked, unclipping the door. He knew that look by now. Having an empty stomach first thing in the morning didnít agree with her. Nor did sitting up too fast, hiking without rests, rations that began with the word Ďinstaí and a few other forgotten culprits.
She scurried over his legs into the rain, dragged the vestibule over her head and crouched with her head between her knees. An early morning false alarm.
"Youíll feel better if you eat," he encouraged. He dug around at the foot of the tent for the last container of carbosyrup. The sooner she got something down the sooner theyíd be on the way.
"I know, I know," she mumbled, holding out her hands out and let the rain fall into to her palms. She drew them back under the flap and wiped at her face. "Have you ever tried to eat when you feel nauseous?"
"Not that I recall."
Regarding the carton as though it was poison and fumbling with the seal, she said, "I feel like Iíve been gassed with T-238. And I wish you would shoot me and get it over with."
"No oneís shooting anyone today," he assured her.
She swallowed a tentative sip, grimaced and slumped over outside of the vestibuleís protection. "Will you do it tomorrow if I feel like this?"
"Sure," he said. "Tomorrow if itís this bad Iíll blast you first thing. Any preference as to which blaster I should use?"
"Ha, ha. Very funny Luke. Youíre supposed to talk me out of it."
"I learned long ago it was useless to talk you out of anything."
"Good!" Then she said, "I wonder how much worse it was for our mother with two of us?"
Watching the rain splatter across Leiaís coveralls then, he knew that she had been thinking about their mother a lot lately. He could hear it in her voice, hear it in the way she brought it up casually mid-conversation, as if sheíd been wanting to but hadnít found the opportunity just yet. His heart did a little half-twist in his chest. "I donít know." He lifted an arm and tugged the vestibule out as far as he could. "Itís raining on you."
She shrugged without moving to sit up. "I like it. And weíre going to be out in it all day. What difference does it matter."
"Iíve been thinking about her a lot lately, you know."
He searched her face, trying to read more, sought out her emotions. He sensed grief and ... an unpleasant wave of queasiness he preferred not to share. Under the circumstances it would be quite natural for her thoughts to dwell in the past. "Have you?"
"I keep trying to remember her face," she murmured. "What she looked like. It seems important to me to remember."
Whenever he pictured his mother, tried to draw from ancient memories that were more of his own creation than real, he saw Leia. "You look more like her than I do, right?"
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut. "Her eyes, her hair." With a sigh she finally sat up and looked him straight the eyes. "You didnít get her eyes, but ... " Her gaze dropped to his mouth. "Maybe her smile."
He gave her his best cheerful smile. "Like this?"
"The beard wrecks any feminine resemblance." She frowned and reached for the carbosyrup again. "She was so ... sad. Thatís what I remember most. And then ... then I keep thinking that it wasnít the way she talked to me, or anything I saw in her face ... more... I think I could feel it."
Luke thought about that for a moment. Children were so susceptible to negativity, and her memories of her mother were a perfect example. Children had the uncanny ability to see through adults. They picked up on all sorts of emotions, deceit, mistrust, but a Force-sensitive child -- he or she would pick up everything, unfiltered, without understanding why. He had, after all.
"Do you think thatís possible?" she asked, plaintively now. "That I knew?"
"Yes. Without a doubt. Do you think your father knew you were Force sensitive?"
Or had they just said, "Here, you have to take this child." Had it been Ben? Another Jedi? Had their mother been a friend of Bailís? Who would they have been?
"I mean, think about it, you must have events or moments in your childhood you look back on now and recognize the Force at work, influencing you or your actions without your knowing why."
"No," she decided. "I donít think he did, although ... There were signs. My favorite household guard was killed at our private docking bay when I was six. It was one of those, wrong place at the wrong time, things. A faulty engine sparked an explosion and I knew. I locked myself in my bedroom closet crying until my Aunt Celly found me. She didnít know what to make of it, what I kept telling her. Then when my father got home that night ... he kept saying I must have heard it on the holovids but I didnít."
"Ben wouldnít have told him because he knew your father wouldnít be able to hide the truth from Vader," Luke murmured. "They probably crossed paths on numerous occasions on Coruscant." He frowned at his inward reflection and said, "Iím certain Owen and Beru knew, but the chances of Vader finding them were so remote, and Ben was close enough to keep an eye on me."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Huh," he shrugged. "There were a few times I guess, I knew things I shouldnít have ... like where my Uncle had misplaced his tools, or ... once I woke up everyone up -- I didnít know why -- I just kept telling my Uncle something was outside. It turned out to be Sand People, trying to swarm us with a surprise raid. That ... the advance warning saved us, I think. It was the only time my Uncle wasnít furious at me for acting strangely ... thatís what he used to call it."
"Oh, Luke ... that must have been so hard for you."
He sighed and leaned back. Leiaís natural capacity toward compassion touched him. "He didnít know any better, he was trying to do the best he could. As an adult I understand that, or try to understand."
"He was trying to protect you."
"Yeah. He was."
She hugged her stomach. "It wonít be like that for us. Not with a Jedi Uncle Luke."
Jedi Uncle Luke...
He covered his smile with his hand. The crooning was rather endearing, although at the moment Leia looked least like the politician she was than heíd ever seen her. "I donít even know what sort of guidelines the Jedi used to follow with their offspring. I guess weíll figure that out as we go along?"
"I guess we will."
He thought her Ďweí was a good sign, a really good sign. Opting not to push that line of conversation, he picked another unpopular topic instead. "You havenít told me about Han yet. Iíd sort of... well, like to know what happened before I see him."
"Itís between us," she said.
Luke detected the note of dismissal in her voice.
And it affects all of us, he thought.
"Itís really hard to explain," she said plaintively. "Itís complicated and ... oh..." She shoved the carton into his hands and heaved her body up. "Oh, this isnít working. Iíll be over there."
"Thatís okay," he mumbled to himself, eyeing the tent and their gear wearily. "Iím a master at decamping on my own."
* * * * *
The dismal day only worsened.
"Thereís no way weíre going to get down there," she judged, with a glance.
Luke peered forward again and tried to ignore her agitation. Sheíd barely spoken to him for most of the day, resorting to monosyllabic responses when needed, and now that she was speaking, it was to dispute him. He continued peering over the cliff and frowned, at her mood and at their impending challenge. The white wall dropped indefinitely into a ravine -- or valley -- he couldnít tell in the poor visibility. If theyíd arrived at this point yesterday, it would have been a good vantage point. He might have even been able to spy the mountain they were aiming for. But as it was with the fog and rain ...
"Leia, itíll take us a day or two longer if we go around it."
"But how, are you planning on-"
"Levitating us down," he finished, shaking his head. "Not unless you want to end up splattered at the bottom." He could make out the treetops about thirty meters below, and their expanse stretched as far as he could see left and right, so there was no telling if theyíd find an easier way down in either direction. The drop-off was steep, but rocky enough that they should be able to scale it, although the packs would make it difficult. "Weíve got syntherope. Weíll just tie it to ..." He looked around for a strong anchor, and decided one of roots dangling over the side in hapless pursuit of soil would do. "This. Itíll work."
She dug out the coil of rope from her pack and held it up. "Itís not long enough. It wonít work."
"Weíll manage." He took it and tied a slipknot around the root, then tugged on it to make sure it was secure. "Iíll go first," he said, sliding his legs over the side and twining the rope around his hands. "When I yell, you go."
Appearing miffed at having been left out the decision planning, she lectured, "Well, be careful!"
"I will." He started his descent. Of course it was much more slippery than heíd anticipated. The soles of his boots slid off the wet stone, the skin of his fingers was quickly scraped raw. He gave up on trying to brace his body away from it and instead tried to ignore the jagged rocks scraping his chest. The gusts of wind were so fierce the pellets of rain felt more like needles than water. As sheíd warned, the diminishing rope looked not long enough, but heíd assumed there would be some sort of ledge or abri. So long as he reached it before the line ended, or else heíd have to climb back up, with his pack on. A wiser man would have let her send the pack down afterwards.
A level outcrop materialized just above the canopy, almost wide enough to hold them both with about one meter of rope to spare. He shouted to her. There was no audible response, but the rope swung alive from side to side like a dancing snake, and he reached out to steady it for her while he watched for her feet. He held his breath until he saw them, and then held it again until she was within reach, grabbing her waist and holding her to him.
"Wha... what n... n... now," she shivered, red-cheeked with windburn.
It was cold, so high up with wind and rain. He mentally envisioned the knot heíd made, undoing the loose end of the rope. It was simple to picture, slide the end through this loop, and back around, and ... pull. He caught the end in his free hand and searched for a new anchor along the slick rock face, decided heíd have to create one. "Can you scoot down?" he asked.
She crouched and locked her arms behind his knees while he ignited his lightsaber and drove it through a protuberant section of rock, creating a fist-sized tunnel round enough to pass the rope inside. Once heíd coaxed it through, he retied the slipknot and descended again, thinking, just drop through those boughs and hope thereís no thousand meter gully hiding on me.
It was slower going, curving his body around the highest leafy branches, unable to see down or up once immersed in them. They all twisted into awkward positions to accommodate the rock wall theyíd been forced against, creating a claustrophobic realm of wood, dark leaves and cliff side. It felt more like a gymnastic exercise than a descent, but eventually, he touched his feet along sloped earth over the rock between the branches, tipped precariously toward the jungleís floor yet another fifty meters below. There was nothing he could do but lie flat and hang on and there was no chance Leia could hear him if he shouted, so he sent out a mental prod to go ahead .
Fifteen minutes later, he still couldnít see her, though she was swearing loudly.
"Howís it going?" he shouted into the canopy.
The response was muted, but moments later he sighted a leg, and heard another swear, Corellian at that. Then another leg appeared. The rope was too far away for her to possibly be attached to it. He cupped his hand around his mouth and shouted again. "Are you all right?"
"You can see me?" she called. Her torso and head were above the ĎYí of the branches she was strung between.
"Yup." Is she stuck?
In response, she yelled back. "I canít hold on and I canít see anything."
Watching her legs scissor as though treading air to stay aloft, he gauged the distance between them. He wrapped the rope several times around his arm and leaned out as far as he could. "Okay, let go."
"Are you crazy?"
Leaves and water showered onto his head in the commotion. He swiftly caught the strap of her backpack, jerking her in the same motion backward onto the slope with a thud. She groaned and struggled to roll onto her stomach, but only succeeded in sliding further down with nothing to hold on to. He dragged her up beside him so that she could reach the rope, then let her go and relaxed his shoulder while he caught his breath. "Iím afraid to ask how long ago you lost the line," he huffed.
She rested her head and caught her breath too. "Thanks. Letís just say solo climbing with this much weight isnít easy and ... " Her eyes followed the course laid out below them. "Oh my. Thatís still a long way down."
"Yeah it is." The ground looked odd from so high above, almost as though it was moving and shifting, black and devoid of shrubs or plants. And these trees were gnarled and stockier than the others heíd seen. More like ... Dagobah. And what heíd thought was ground was not. It was water. It was swamps.
Leia was saying, "It looks awfully muddy down there ..."
"Weíre going to get a lot muddier than this," he interjected.
Deciding they shouldnít attempt this without the rope, he searched for some purchase for them while he set it free, but found none. The boughs theyíd climbed down through were now out of reach, and the twisted trunks stretched far enough away from the slope that heíd have to take a flying leap to get to one, and even then his arms werenít long enough to stretch around. Time for plan B. "Uh ... what do you think about sliding?"
"Youíre kidding?" She peered down. "Luke, I can guarantee you my physician wouldnít recommend this."
He winced. It was too late to turn back. "And I suppose you have a better idea?"
"I did. You werenít listening to-"
He flipped onto his side and lifted his free hand. They could argue or get this over with. "Wrap your arms and legs around me, I can slow us down."
She looked fearfully down, up, then at him. "Are you sure?"
Rolling his eyes, he let the rope slip through his fingers a little. "One ... two ..."
"Okay, okay," she muttered, scooting over.
He pushed himself up a few inches so that she could get a leg and arm beneath him and around his back, and when she had him in a tight stranglehold, he let go of the rope. The Force embraced them, enhanced the drag caused by his heels and the bulky shape of his pack. The mud was as slick as oil and he hadnít taken into account how much more difficult it would be to slow down two people. Midway down they careened out of control. Changing tactics, he no longer sought to slow them and instead concentrated on steering them straight for the water and away from the trunks waiting to pulverize them at this speed. Right before they began free falling over the edge of the slope, he shouted "let go," and shoved her away.
The water slammed into his chest so hard it knocked the wind from him, and it took him a moment to ascertain which direction was up in the blackness. When his head broke the surface and he gulped air into his burning lungs, coughing up fetid water and sludge in between breaths. Leia emerged beside him, neck deep, choking out the same sickening fluid, murky with decaying plant life.
"See ... I told you we could do it," he coughed.
"If thatís what you call slowing us down," she sputtered, "Iíd hate to see what full speed is like." Warily, she studied their new environment, and then screwed her eyes shut. "I canít decide whether to start screaming or crying."
Thick brown vines draped down and between the trunks rising from the water, and a variety of serpents dangled amidst them, flicking their tongues in curiosity at whoever had entered their domain. It was too dark to make out much else. A meter long watersnake danced across the water, pausing to hiss at them before continuing on its way.
Making her start screaming was a tempting idea. It could scare off everything in the immediate vicinity -- or make them all swim over to see what it was. He hurried forward to grasp her hands, sharing her distaste and wariness for the swamp. There was something about swamps in general that gave him chills, reeked of evil. Nothing beautiful ever grew inside them, the life that flourished tended to repulse him, and he remembered quite vividly that something enormous had almost eaten Artoo on Dagobah ... He tried not to think about draigon slugs, meter long leeches, swamp monsters or worse even, that something capable of taking off his leg with one bite was swimming his way already. With that disturbing thought he unclipped his lightsaber and activated it beneath the surface, just in time to slash at a long tentacle creeping toward his leg in the eerily greenish illuminated water. "Letís get out of here," he said. "As fast as we can ..."
"I think, "she said shakily, not budging an inch, "that I just felt something swim by my leg."
* * * * *
"Commander Halla Ettyk," Han boomed loudly as he entered the makeshift and decidedly spartan office hidden in the back of the control center. The office was comprised of two chairs, a desk, three console units and a few light fixtures. "What a surprise to see you here."
The dark haired woman who served as a member of Airen Crackenís counterintelligence unit looked up from her pile of paperwork and regarded him with un-welcoming grey eyes. Halla Ettyk had last served as the New Republicís prosecutor at Tycho Celchuís trial for his alleged treason and Corran Hornís death. It was later discovered that Corran Horn was alive and well, and the real traitor within Rogue Squadron was identified. She and the New Republic had both issued formal apologies to Celchu, but the public embarrassment had yet to fade from the holovid headlines. "General Solo. On the contrary Iím not surprised to see you here."
Undeterred by her facetiousness, Han sank without invitation into the deep emerald chair across from her desk. Her hair was arranged neatly in a sleek coronet of braids, the current fashion among Alderaanian women. He knew very well whoíd started the trend, felt his heart seize up. "Han," he prompted. "And congratulations on the promotion."
"Han then. Thank you, belatedly. It was some time ago."
"Sorry to have missed the inaugural celebration."
"It was very low-key," she corrected. "As for you these days ... You were charged with insubordination if Iíve read the reports correctly." One over plucked eyebrow arched. "Accusing a decorated Admiral of, how did you so eloquently put it, Ďbashing out his own targeting systemí in a room full of his inferiors."
He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully as if it were news to him. "Did I really say that?"
"The charges were dropped under orders from Madine," she clarified. "Not because the Admiral has a forgiving nature. Now what are you doing here?"
"I thought it was time we had a chat?"
"The charges were dropped? You donít need a lawyer."
"Thatís not what Iím here to chat about."
Her voice dropped to a hush. "Solo, you know I canít talk to you."
"Halla, history is about to repeat itself and you know it."
If the dig bothered Halla she hid it well. "Has it occurred to you that Iím here to make sure it doesnít?" she said calmly.
He shook his head. "You know as well as I do that Luke wouldnít have done this, that Leia wouldnít have had anything to do with it."
She skirted a glance into the passageway. "If youíre here on a fishing expedition I canít give you what I have," she said tersely.
He got up and closed the door, making sure it clicked. Then he waited a moment for footsteps outside. There were none. "Not on the record," he persisted, returning to his seat. "Off the record."
"Even off the record ... " She sighed and nervously twirled her writing stylus between her fingers. "My hands are tied. Youíre here strictly to assist in the search and recovery, not to assist in the investigation, and you certainly canít claim to be objective here."
"Itís not even objectivity thatís at issue," he countered. "Itís simple fact. They had nothing to do with it."
"Leia Organa, yes" Halla replied, nodding. "But we canít rule out Skywalker."
"Based on what?"
He was so sick of having the words classified or confidential thrown at him he almost snapped. Leia had said once that despite her role in the Celchu fiasco, Halla was an honest woman and could be trusted. Now he was desperately hoping she had been right. "After all these years Iíd say I know as much about Luke and Leia as anyone," he breathed.
"Of course you do," she agreed.
"Iíd be inclined to think I know anything SpecForce thinks they do." It was hint, and as near to admitting he had information as he was willing to go. At best he was hoping for a little game of you tell-me-what-you-know-and-I-might-tell-you-what-I-know, though he had no intention of letting it go that far.
"Thereís no way you could," she said curtly, holding up her hand. "And if I tell you anything, youíll brief them before we get a chance to question them. Donít bother to patronize me by suggesting otherwise." She pushed over a wide-screen datapad with a cartographic view of the areas surrounding the base across her desk. "I know youíre heading out with the scout teams tomorrow morning arenít you?"
"Bright and early."
"Theyíre sending out three teams, right?"
"Yeah," Han said, mildly surprised she knew already. Heíd left the planning session directly before coming to see her, and no one had passed him on his way in.
The HOS had traced the last known trajectory of the escape pod to a hundred kilometer square area about a two weeks hike away. All efforts to find the pod had been fruitless. Assuming the pair was within a few days of the base, theyíd decided to send out teams down to meet them.
"And youíre with the ... " She studied the readout, tapped the tip of her stylus on the screen. "The center team?"
"Right again," he replied. "Luke has an uncanny sense of direction. If theyíre on their way I say theyíll be heading straight for the North peak. Itís the most direct course from where they went down."
"A Jediís sense of direction," she mused. She picked up another datapad and scrolled through the pages. "Donít they call that area the memory wipe zone?"
"Iíve heard the rumors. Everyoneís equipment fails and erases their data. They end up disorientated or lost. Itís probably some electro-magnetic variance in the soil they havenít picked up yet and figured out how to compensate for."
"Well I agree thatís probably where youíll find them. And we simply canít take the chance you decide to brief them independently."
Han leaned in and rested his elbows on either side of the datapad. "And when we do find them?" he chided. "What am I supposed to tell them? That for the last two weeks theyíve been headed for an arrest?"
"Itís strictly preventative custody until this matter is sorted out," she clarified. "There is a difference."
"Preventative custody," he exclaimed. "Yeah ... Thatís gonna go over real well. Iíd hate to be the security officer in charge of Skywalkerís detainment."
"Weíre working out the logistics as best we can. And ... " She leaned forward, matching his tone. "If Skywalker is innocent Iím sure heíll comply. Heíll want this to be cleared up as soon as possible."
Except, no one around here seemed to think he was. Furthermore, no one, not even Madine, would tell him why. Mon Mothma was away from Home Fleet and out of contact. since being oblique was getting him nowhere, he decided to be blunt. "Halla what does Rieekan have on him?"
She sighed and shook her head.
"Damn it, Halla -"
Abruptly, she eased out her chair and headed for the low fridge unit in the corner. "Would you care for a beverage? Water, one of those mystery fruit juices theyíre so fond of here?"
He was so taken aback by her civility in the face of his battering he merely nodded.
"Water or juice?" she repeated.
She returned with two glasses and a pitcher, filled both glasses halfway and handed him one. "You know Iím from Alderaan, right?"
"Everyone does." Heíd never had more than a few fleeting cross room glances with Halla outside Leiaís offices, but it was common knowledge. Everyone had heard of the star criminal prosecutor, hugely successful on Alderaan, off planet to cross-examine with a witness when the Death Star had destroyed it.
"Well, we actually have more in common than you think."
"We do, huh?"
"Did I ever tell you my father was from Socorro?"
Okay, Han thought. This is way off topic. Socorro had been settled by Corellians a few thousand years back, and was a giant volcanic ash ball with next to no natural resources. He wouldnít go so far as to say that left them with much in common. "Really?" he asked, thinking heíd play along for a few moments. "Then youíve got some Corellian blood running though you?" Diluted, he amended.
"Half. My father attended the University of Aldera. Thatís where he met my mother. After he finished his schooling he decided to stay on Alderaan, though his missed his home, told the old stories when I was growing up. He made Socorro sound like a paradise."
"Nothing changes perspective like a few decades."
"Ever been there?"
"A few times. "
"I had a chance to see it for myself a few years ago," she told him. "My father used to say, ofax ets burrin tehn, but I never understood the expression until I visited."
The air is too heavy here, he translated. "Thatís weather," he told her. "Have a windy day you need a ventilator to keep from inhaling the ash and whatever the factories spew out."
She sipped her water and stared him straight in the eye over the brim of her glass. "Personally, I thought the air there was too polluted."
"You werenít used to it. You didnít grow up there. Places like that youíve got to grow up there to be used to it."
"Alderaan was very clean. The industrial emissions were strictly regulated by the government. Visitors always remarked on how pristine the air was."
Why, Han thought, does she have this fixation with air? He took a deep breath. The air was fine, a little stale from being recycled, but perfectly safe. "So uh ... where did you go on your visit to Socorro?"
"Madra," she replied. "Itís at the base of the Rym Mountains."
"Madra," he repeated. Heíd only seen travelogues. "Well, itís supposed to be beautiful there but Iíve never been. Iíve only ever been to Vakeyya."
"On business?" she asked, seeming genuinely interested and without a trace of guile.
He almost laughed. Vakeyya was a smugglerís haven, but she wouldnít necessarily know it. Not many outside of the orders did. "Yes, business. But you enjoyed your stay?"
"Yes, aside from the air, as I was saying. My father was planning a return visit when Alderaan was destroyed. He hadnít been there in over twenty years. I guess I went back for him ... though at the time I thought I wanted to see where he came from, what my heritage was all about."
"Iím sorry Halla," he said, no longer playing at small talk. "I take it you two were close." He took another deep breath. Air?
The prosecutor imitated him, making her inhale more of an exaggerated sigh, as though she was remembering her deceased parent.
What in the gods names is going on, Han wondered? The air is too heavy here ... Well, off world, Socorranís used the expression to describe worlds where the air was dangerous, methane based, too low in oxygen. Dangerous, dangerous, Han thought, rapping his knuckles on the edge of her desk. But she canít mean to breathe. To talk? He looked overhead at the ceiling and studied it, moving from each corner of the tiny office, down the walls, to the light fixtures. They were being bugged? And Halla ...
Halla knew the details of his meeting already, didnít she? He started looking around for some sort of audio feed on her desk.
"Youíre right," she said nodding her head slowly and following his gaze. "We were very close."
Suddenly, Han found himself struggling for words to make the conversation as casual as possible. "He was a good man?"
"Yes, he was a good man. Honest, patriotic to his adopted home world, caring, the sort of father who believed in allowing us -- my brother and I -- to make our own mistakes without stepping in until we were over our heads."
"Or he liked to let you learn the hard way."
"Perhaps. We could never hide anything from him. Believe me, I tried, and he always knew what we were up to, always managed to catch us red handed and then he had a saying for everything." She smiled. "Kas tulisha abia al port il ke'dem. That was his favorite."
Chaos opens the door to opportunity and fools? While her vocabulary and syntax were off, Han got the gist. "Sorry, Iím a little rusty. I canít remember that one."
She shook her head. "Forgive me. Iíve digressed. My mind was wandering before you even arrived. Today is, or would have been his sixtieth birthday."
He considered asking her to take a stroll to the Falcon to where they could talk in private, but that would arouse too much suspicion. Even supposing whoever was listening in had a linguistic background in Old Corellian, they were skating on thin ice.
Someone in the New Republic counterintelligence believes this was a set up too and thinks they can flush out whoever did it.
"My condolences," managed, wondering if Leyíkel or Rieekan even knew. He doubted it. Not if whoever was in charge wanted the investigation to appear legitimate and if they were bugging everything. He caught Halla pointed to her desk chrono, took the hint. "I should get going."
"Iím sorry I canít be more help."
"Right," he said, pushing himself up. For good measure he decided not to sound too pleased with how their meeting had gone. "Know that youíre making a mistake."
"Iím doing my job Han," she retorted.
"Yeah sure," he snapped on his way out. "The Empire was big on that excuse."
It wasnít until he was almost at his quarters that he started wondering if today really was her fatherís birthday.
* * * * *
It was dark.
By the time the scant light that poked its way through the tree coverage began to wane, Luke had had no choice but to admit they were going to be stuck inside overnight, and he was starting to agree with his sister's repeated claims that this had been a stupid idea, that they should have gone around the long way. After swim-scouting for a half-decent place to stop, they selected one on a tiny island of ground between two large trees that looked like the calcified Gnarltrees on Dagobah. There was a large enough space between two exposed roots for two people to fit, and the curve of the trunk partially blocked the rain. Luke kept half expecting Yoda and his gimer stick to magically materialize in the mists.
The prospect of spending the night out here was so dismal, even Leia had given up berating him, collapsing over her pack and shivering while she wiped at the rivulets of greenish water streaming down her face and neck.
He did the same and scraped his nails along the fuzzy yellow fungi carpeting the trees. It was strange. His senses were going haywire, his danger sense tingled without reprieve, and some overactive part of his brain was thinking theyíd magically been transported to a world he knew. A scaly tail flicked up into the air beside them, then slapped against the water and vanished.
Leia jumped and tucked her arms and legs into her as closely as possible away from the edges if their island, blaster in hand.
He held his lightsaber ready. "Weíll be all right here," he assured her, "unless you want to keep going in the dark."
"No," she muttered between chatters.
He shrugged, sighed, and flipped his lightsaber around in his hand, watching her huddle and shiver. Then he debated whether it would be worth it to change into dry clothes for a few hours, or at least end the sloshing and squishing in his boots. He opted to do neither. "We could sit together," he offered. "Itíd probably be a lot warmer than freezing at opposite ends."
"Iím soaking wet."
"And Iím dry?" He held up an arm and squeezed the sleeve of his coveralls, let the water drip onto his lap.
Then she sighed. "Whatís the difference? Weíll probably be dead before the sun comes up. Weíre sitting bait."
"No we wonít ... " The scaly tail flipped out of the water again, slamming down so hard a cascade of water rose and came down on them. He dug a glowrod out of his pack and hung it from a broken branch just above his head. Visibility was nil, even with the glowrodís strong beam. It had the effect of making the shadows more menacing, by pointing out how much they couldnít see. "Come sit over here," he encouraged again. "I think I know a trick or two."
"Warm tricks?" she asked hopefully.
He nodded, and made room for her to squeeze herself beside him. With one arm wrapped around her he focused his energies on magnifying his body heat, trapping it around them so that they were enclosed in a small bubble of force generated warmth. She slumped idly with him for a while, then her chin nodded, bobbed, until it relaxed against his shoulder. He thought maybe sheíd fallen asleep, but he didnít dare do the same. The tail didnít reappear, but he knew for certain several hungry reptiles were watching them, greedy eyes gleaming in the shadows like phosphorous jewels. He kept his thumb on the activator of his lightsaber.
He had silent conversations with the child in her womb.
Who will you look like, he wondered? Who will you be like?
He tried to picture Leia pregnant and huge, but she was so slender and small against him it was impossible. How long would it be before he could feel it kicking against his hand. In some cultures the delivery was a family celebration; in others, one of those occasions where men were cloistered away from women as though theyíd do more harm than good by being present. He had no idea what sort of views Alderaan had held, had never actually seen anything give birth, but found himself hoping Leia would want him to be there and share it with her.
He thought of his aunt and uncle and wondered why theyíd never had any children of their own. He didnít remember a household tinged with regret; both of them were too pragmatic to have wasted time ruing over what wasnít meant to be. Still, he recalled his aunt looking wistfully through his outgrown clothes as sheíd packed them for a charity drive in Anchorhead. Heíd been around ten or so, and wanted nothing to do with clothes that didnít fit or childhood stories about his first words, determined to grow up as soon as possible. His aunt had packed the items away, then given him a huge hug and told him it was hard to believe heíd ever been so small. Maybe sheíd been mourning the end of his childhood. Maybe sheíd been sad because there were never going to be any more infants to cuddle and hold. Fifteen years later, he had no idea.
Out of the darkness came Leiaís voice. "Thereís a spider right below your left knee."
He looked, saw the webby legs lifting, and used his prosthetic hand to gingerly pluck it off his leg.
"If it bites," she warned ...
"Itíll hit wires," he reminded her. He set it on a low branch over it his head. It eagerly scampered upward in pursuit of a new home.
Leia reached over and traced a ragged fingernail across his synthaflesh knuckles. "What does it feel like? Is it different?"
He flexed and opened his prosthetic hand. It had taken him almost a year to get used to it, but by now it was so much a part of him that concentrating on it jarred him with a novel sense of unfamiliarity. Like new all over again. "It feels like pins and needles almost worn off, but not quite there yet." Then he said, "I thought you were asleep. You should really try and get some sleep."
"I will. I was just thinking though..."
"We had a fight," she admitted quietly. "He threatened to leave and I told him to go right ahead and he did."
He almost asked who, before he remembered.
"I thought he was bluffing," she added. "I didnít really think heíd actually do it."
Luke unconsciously started clamping his thumb down, then stopped. "What was the fight about?" This time.
"I was going to Tyshapahl. He didnít want me to go."
"Tyshapahl?" Tyshapahl had joined the Alliance of Free Worlds before it was restructured into the New Republic, so there was little need for a diplomatic presence. "Whatever for?"
"They were commemorating a memorial to the victims of the massacre and invited a New Republic representative. I volunteered."
Massacre? Then he remembered. It had occurred before he joined the Alliance. A peaceful demonstration had been staged the day the Sector Moff arrived and Vader had ordered him to use force if necessary to put an end to it. Upwards of five thousand people had been killed that day. "Someone else could have gone," he reminded her. He didnít go out of his way to avoid reminders of his fatherís crimes, but he didnít volunteer for them.
"It was important for us to be present Luke. But I didnít ... end up going."
She leaned up and out of the half embrace. "Why good? Why do you say it like that?"
"Well, why didnít Han want you to go?"
The flicker of hostility waned. "He wanted me to go away for a while."
"No," she retorted sarcastically. "He thought I should maroon myself at the resort of his choosing without him."
Ignoring the insincere bite, he said, "You decided to go to Tyshapahl instead of going of on vacation?"
"No -- I mean we hadnít planned any sort of vacation yet. It was just an idea."
"Why didnít you? You could have."
"Itís not that simple."
"Sure it is," he said. "They would let you go, you merely havenít asked."
"No." She shook her head. "Itís not all about needing a break. It was more for personal reasons." Her own words caused her to shake her head harder. "Not personal the way youíre probably assuming ... or ... I donít know. Maybe that was part of it. Weíve both been so busy."
"Mmhmm." He dug his arm under hers and hoisted her up to keep her from sliding off.
She didnít say anything else for few minutes, then murmured so low Luke had to strain to hear her. "Once upon a time we were a bunch of idealists who believed we could change the galaxy for the better."
Yes, yes we were, he thought, failing to see what this had to do with Han or their relationship. Heíd heard the line before, many, many times. It was accredited to a Senator from Kuat, one of the first politicians to publicly speak against Palpatine and his New Order. The speech had gone down in history as a pivotal turning point, marking the nascent development of the movement against the Empire. Luke knew most of it by heart, as did most people whoíd joined the Rebellion. Once upon a time we were a bunch of idealists who believed we could change the galaxy for the better ... And then, my friends, we awoke to discover ...
"Do you ever miss the craziness of the past few years? Never knowing what was going to happen or if weíd win, but so determined to try we werenít going to give up while we had breath in our body."
The query stirred a glut of memories. He thought carefully. Miss it? No. After Mrlsst heíd decided heíd had enough. Being responsible for his own life was one thing, but having others under his command perish in battle ...
It had been more than he wanted.
Being made a General had been more of a curse than a blessing. But he knew what she meant. War could be therapeutic. It offered an external focus for grievances, anger, justified the need for revenge. His aunt and uncle were fresh on his mind, and Tyshapahlís innocents, but there were Ghormanís, Ralltirís, the countless other planets that had suffered similar demonstrations, the countless Alliance recruits who could claim parents, brothers, sisters, lovers, friends among the numbers the Empire had destroyed, murdered, made to disappear. "We dedicated our lives to it," he said, tightening his arm. "I guess ... itís been the only cathartic outlet weíve had. But back to Han." Han was a safer topic. "He thought going to Tyshapahl was bad idea, and that you should take some time for yourself -- with him -- for personal reasons. And when you wouldnít he took the Sumitra assignment."
"Yes," she said. "That about sums it up."
"And you havenít spoken to him since?"
Luke was puzzled. Solo would not have backed her into a corner unless he felt like he had no choice, and even then his actions, leaving, were drastic. He almost let it go. He stared at the viridescent, almost prismatic mists, heard a splash a few meters away, and felt the death of whatever had been, the excited bloodlust of whatever had found a meal. Leia watched with him. He thought, that people so often said ĎIím fine,í when they didnít mean it, when they wanted the burden of initiating troubles to rest on anotherís shoulders. And she had brought this up, out here no less, where there was nowhere she could go. "Care to elaborate?"
"I donít know what else to tell you," she mumbled, blowing at drying wisps of hair tickling her forehead. "Unless you want a mercenaryís take on psychoanalysis?"
"How about plain old Han Soloís?" he suggested, trying to sound cheerful. "Hanís insight is unique."
"Itís scary." She breathed out, breathing back in deeply as though she was working up courage. "I supposed heíd say he doesnít think Iíve been handling all this stuff very well."
Warning bells sounded in the back of his mind. He shifted his leg to escape whatever was digging into his thigh, and thought of her nightmare. "What stuff?"
"Itís part of it."
"Sure." Her voice was oddly detached.
He withered inside at the obvious. If he'd been there all along, he would have known. "Why havenít you said anything to me?"
"I donít know. You never ask for one" she sighed. "When I reflect on it, I think it hurts you too much to talk about it, but you donít want to admit, so you avoid it altogether. You ... well you avoid discussing the past just as religiously as you adhere to Yodaís aphorisms. We talk about the future. We talk about what I might be, you might be. We donít talk about who we were three years ago."
I hate talking about him too.
Sure, heíd said that scant days ago, but he hadnít meant it the way sheíd heard it. I never will talk about him. A dismal sense of failure tore through him. But she was right and wrong. He didnít try to bring it up, and no, it wasnít so much that it hurt.
When he thought about what his father had done to her the rage was too primal. He wanted to crawl back in time, to those moments on the Death Star when he supported his fatherís failing body. He wanted to return to those moments and carve through him piece by piece, smash his fists against the pale, scarred skin until it was nothing but a pulp of flesh and bone. Darkness, hate, the need for vengeance; all those could flow through him as evenly as the light he followed and dedicated himself to. Vader was a sadistic machine, and if he let himself forget the man whoíd died, he feared heíd crumble at the realization that the one good thing heíd ever thought heíd done was little more than a mirage erected to placate his own self worth.
"It makes me angry," he admitted, sensing immediately that the admission pleased her and wanting to rescind it.
"Iím angry too," she said softly. "Yet I feel as though I canít be angry around you without you looking at me like Iím about to turn into something evil. And I canít help it ... I canít stop it ... I feel like Iím holding it in whenever Iím around you. It makes... it makes... it just makes everything more difficult."
Words escaped him. Her anger was intense, palpable, her armor against her pain and the past. Heíd felt it the other afternoon and been taken aback by its contagiousness.
"And then," she added. "I keep waiting for him to find some way to hurt me, to take away everything I have again ... "
"Leia he canít."
"I know that. I know I should know that. And I just wish someone would tell me everything is going to be all right, that it wonít always hurt this much, even if they didnít believe it. For the sake of saying it because for once I want to hear it. You used to do that."
When I was naÔve enough to think it meant something, he thought sadly. He said it anyway, for the record.
She gave him the barest of smiles. "It doesnít count if I have to tell you."
He swallowed. "Leia, I never intended to make you feel like you canít talk to me. If I did somehow, Iím sorry."
"No. Itís my fault too. I never ... You told me once I was the stronger of the two of us and I never ... " She exhaled slowly again. "I never wanted to tell you how wrong you were about me. I thought youíd be so disappointed."
"You are strong," he insisted. "Iím not disappointed in you. I never have been."
The assurance mollified her for all of ten seconds. "Iím trying ... I really am Luke." Her face fell again. "Han says I try too hard." She choked out a cynical half-laugh. "But what does he know? He decided to run away."
Luke didnít know what Hanís leaving was supposed to have accomplished? So he hadnít wanted her to go to Tyshapahl, she hadnít been able to take time away with him. To the best of his recollection either he or Han had been with her but for a few weeks here and there for the past five years and without them ... Solo must have expected her to contact him if he left. Yet she hadnít, because she was too stubborn, too proud. "Maybe he didnít mean trying. Maybe he meant trying alone. Maybe he meant letting the people who care about you try to help too?"
"Oh yeah," she murmured. "And where was he when I needed him? Where was he four months ago? I did need him. I do. How could he not know?"
There werenít any answers for that. Struggling to put confidence into his voice, he said, "Leia, I know he loves you. I know he loves you and heís not exactly predictable. He was coming back and you chose this mission. Iím sure otherwise you two would have ... "
Talked? Reconciled? Worked it out? Sheís pregnant with someone elseís child ...
"You two have been through too much together for him to walk away now," he finished lamely.
"No," she said in a quivering voice that rang of self-fulfilling defeat and a broken heart. "I always knew that some day he would leave, Luke. I just didnít know when."
"You donít mean that." He hugged her as fiercely as he dared, pressed his face into her hair. "Thatís not true and we both know it. And look, I know itís not the same but Iíll be here." She murmured what sounded like okay against his jacket, and he resolved that when they got out of this mess they were going to sit down and have a long, long talk. As for Han ...
His sister was not the first, nor would she be the last to fall into anotherís arms seeking consolation, a respite from loneliness, out of sheer desperation. He prayed this would be one of those occasions Hanís egotistical pride, self professed, I owe no one ideology that had enabled him to almost walk away on Yavin IV wouldnít resurface in the worst way. This time, however, Luke suspected, as Leia believed, that it would.
"Thereís one good thing," she said. "I love her and itís the strangest feeling, like it comes from someplace so deep down inside of my heart and soul. I donít know. And it makes it okay ... how it happened, that I donít know whatís in store for me next ... Even when all the stuff I donít want to think about slams into me like a ton of bricks."
"Whatever you decide you it will be your decision," he promised. "I know youíll have a lot of decisions to make, and Iím not saying I wonít have very strong opinions. She will need to be protected, especially if who we are gets out, but I know you." There was so much more he could have added, but he had months, so he simply said, "Youíll do what needs to be done." With that last bit he sought to lighten the mood. "You know what?"
"In a few months Iím going to be outnumbered two to one by the women in this family."
She made a vain effort to smile. "If any male I know deserves it, you do."
He drifted off sitting up, though he hadnít meant to, with her head cushioned by his leg and his hand on her forehead. He had two dreams in a row that were related -- he knew they were related but he wasnít sure how -- and completely different. In one, his sister lay unconscious while he frantically tried to get her to respond. In the second, she was scooping a tow-headed youngster into her arms and laughing. In the background of both a voice kept saying tolíhiídenata over and over.
* * * * *
It was mid-afternoon when they finally reached solid ground. Behind the clusters of sloe colored limbs was green, green, green. Green as far as her eye could see. And green, at least on Baskarn, usually grew on solid ground, which meant walking, and the end of the noxious soupy realm which had been their prison for fifty hours.
Luke had told her yesterday the swamps were similar to his Jedi Masterís home in many ways, except that each continent on Yodaís planet was covered in a never-ending expanse of swamp. In fact, he spent most of the morning comparing the two planets and pointing out fauna and creatures they had in common. She made a mental note to never visit the Jedi Masterís home world, if and when her brother ever revealed its name to her. Whatever had attempted to make Artoo its lunch when his X-wing crashed no doubt had a doppelganger here.
Luke had also been telling her details of his grueling training, adding off hand that their trek couldnít even begin to compare. Each day he told her, heíd applied himself, focused, and succeeded at trials three days previous heíd believed beyond his capabilities. Yet his tiny master would only nod, and present him with a task he would fail, as though his penchant for overconfidence were a greater threat to him than Vader, or the Emperor. This Jedi Master, Leia mused, should really have been around in Lukeís early years with the Alliance, when he was ready to hop into his X-wing and take on half the Imperial Navy at a momentís notice. Lukeís reality checks usually came from herself, Han, or Wedge, his youthful exuberance and determination reluctant to hear the voice of reason.
Little if any exuberance remained when they touched land. After nearly two days of being buoyed by water, emerging from it was like readjusting to gravity after being stuck in hyperspace for days on end with broken stabilizers. Every muscle in her body felt like it had been turned to liquid fire, and her head pounded as though a bantha had stepped on it. Theyíd been sprawled on the ground resting for almost an hour.
Luke wasnít moving much. Beneath the soft brown stubble that covered the old Wampa scars running along his left cheek, his face was flushed and pinched taut with exhaustion. She didnít know how many hours Luke had gone without sleep at this point, how many hours of sleep sheíd managed. On top of that, one of the reptiles with the long tails had gone for his pack and won, gouging his shoulder in the process. His pack had been the one with the medkit, the shelter, and the hydro-extractor.
Each time she tried to rouse him he pushed her away and insisted help was on its way.
What help, she wondered, but he was adamant, so she rested too.
His wheezing intensified. "Hey! There they are."
There was grunting nearby. She pushed back onto her knees, raised a hand to her face, feeling sticky blood on her forehead, cheek and neck from the knife vines dangling in the swamp. She spat out the stale taste of swamp residue again and looked up. Two Yrashu, the same two Yrashu whoíd visited their camp, were gesticulating wildly and motioning for them to follow.
"Theyíve been tailing us for days," Luke wheezed.
She frowned. For days?
"I didnít know why," he stressed. "Just that they were."
The largest one immediately came over and grunted more forcefully, then picked up her pack, while the female continued encouraging them to follow.
"We must look universally desperate and pathetic," he moaned. "To all species ... "
"Can you make it?" she asked, moving to help him up.
He struggled to stand, and she sucked in her breath at the sight of blood soaking through both sides of his jacket. She looped an arm around his back for support.
They followed for almost an hour with the odd sight of a primitive creature wearing a survival pack their beacon. When they eventually arrived at a small encampment, Leia was amazed to see a cabin surrounded by carefully tended gardens, flowering plants. A loom with a partially completed shirt, strung taut hung between two beveled posts. Snares, clay urns, benches were outside the domicile. It was almost gentrified. Several clay urns were positioned on either side of the doorway, sealed with a crude form of netting. It was far too advanced to be Yrashu. Anxious, she patted the pocket of her coveralls to make sure her holdout blaster was ready.
At that moment, a man emerged from the main cabin, murmured something softly to the two Yrashu. They set the gear down and continued on.
Luke waved his hand. "Hello."
The stranger was maybe half a head taller than her brother, but less muscular, wirier. He wore a loose fallow tunic, reaching to his knees and belted loosely at the waist. The outfit was completed by a threadbare and worn cloak, a mixture of grey halftones and silver, which was, along with an amber amulet, the only item he wore that didnít look pitifully homemade. Braided plant fibers tied back raven hair that was nearly as long as her own, but his beard was grey enough for her to guess he was long past his youth. "Welcome," the man said. "I see my friends led you in the right direction."
"Yes, yes, they did. You could say ... " He turned to her and shrugged. "Weíre in need of some assistance."
Friends, Leia thought, hoping that was a good sign, although she wasnít about to risk anything based on their character assessment. She couldnít place the light accent either. And his eyes ... His eyes were a brilliant gold. She had never met a human with eyes that color, and was so captivated by them she barely noticed the cylindrical item clipped to his waist.
The two men stared long and hard at each other, and it was then that Leia became aware of the unspoken dialogue, the undercurrent of the meeting, the unfamiliar touch of a foreign mind, not Lukeís, against her own. The tingle of power around her was profound and overwhelming.
A Jedi, she thought. A living, breathing Jedi ...
The manís eyes flicked up and down over them, absorbing their bedraggled appearances, Lukeís shoulder. "Dry clothes, food, shelter, medical attention?"
Luke appeared to be at a complete loss for words. "Uh ... In that order, even."
"Well then," the man said, gesturing to his cabin. "Iíve been expecting you. Please, come inside."
The dwelling was well built, obviously by a person possessing some craftsmanship; smooth heartwood planks had been used, extending to the ceiling, made watertight with the addition of heavy thatching. There was a cooking area in one corner, across from which was a stack of crates stamped with the Kuat shipyards logo, some of which had been broken apart and turned into shelves for what looked like stacks and stacks of junk, bowls, datapads, jars filled with gods knew what. The only bed in the room was across from the cooking area, padded with some sort of floccose fiber.
The man retrieved a tunic and blanket. "Whatever I have that you can use ... I donít have much but I suggest you warm up first. You must be Luke?"
Leia froze but her brother maintained his composure implacably, stripping off his clothes with a habitual lack of modesty. She made of point of focusing her attentions elsewhere.
"I am," he said, as though it were perfectly natural for this man to greet him by name. "Though you seem to have me at a disadvantage. I donít know who you are."
The manís brow raised in amusement. "No you wouldnít. You wouldnít have even been born when I arrived here. Iím Sarin." The brow wandered higher. "I always pictured you as being older though ... Iíve heard so much about you over the years."
"Really? Here? Do you mind my asking how?"
"Your base is only a day from here by speeder. I receive wayward visitors from time to time." Turning sideways, he addressed her. "And you, my dear, would be?"
"Leia," she replied, sighing inwardly with relief; then they werenít that far at all, though ... what was he still doing out here? Luke was known to be the last of the Jedi, so upon meeting him, it wouldnít be hard to figure out.
"Youíre from Tatooine?" Sarin asked.
Luke slipped the calve-length tunic, nearly identical to their hostís, over his head, carefully leaving his one arm free and exposing the nasty mass of bleeding puncture wounds on either side of his shoulder. "I grew up there."
"Oddly..." The elder man reflected, confused. "Iíve heard you were strong in the Force, but never that you had a sister who was, too. Leia is it? Not Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan?"
Icy shivers ran up and down her spine, and mistrust tightened her stomach. For a man who lived in the middle of nowhere, he was very well informed and she didnít like it. She slipped her hand into her pocket. Sure, their names might have come up in casual conversation, but not their relationship to one another. "No one from the base would have told you that," she said.
Sarin headed for his kitchen, selected a bowl and dipped it into the earthenware pot resting on his stove. "The extent of a Jediís perception is as varied as any inherited skills, natural tendencies," he called over his shoulder. "Mine are more unique." He returned and handed the bowl to Luke. "Drink this. It may not taste very good but itís quite effective against anything you may have picked up in those swamps."
Luke took a sip and grimaced. "Youíre not exaggerating."
"Now letís have a look at that bite," Sarin suggested. "Take a seat on the floor."
Neither seemed to notice her standing there, still soaked and miserable, wondering where she could go change that wasnít inside or out in the rain, but in the next breath all concerns were forgotten.
Her brother sat obediently while Sarin knelt beside him and probed the ragged wounds. The elder Jedi clenched his hands into fists and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they glowed red, as though lit up from within. She could see the bones through his fingers, veins and tendons. It was almost as though his hands had a luma pressed tight beneath them, while she gazed upon them from above. Then he cupped both hands over the wounds.
"What are you-" Luke closed his eyes and groaned. In pain at first from the contact, but the rigidity of his jaw eased up within seconds. His next groan was one of relief. When Sarin removed his hands a few seconds later, his shoulder was smooth and only faintly scarred. With a shrug, the Jedi grabbed a torn piece of cloth and wiped away the blood from his hands and Lukeís shoulder.
Leia was incredulous. Her brother was capable of advancing his recovery for most injuries but not that instantaneously.
"Holy ..." Luke began, touching his shoulder in fascination. "How did you ... how ..." He looked up in astonishment. "Why, you were a healer, werenít you?"
"Well, I still am," Sarin chuckled, getting up to rinse the blood from his hands. "Though Iíve rarely had human patients over the last twenty five years ... but for the few from your base who had an unfortunate encounter with the Hrosma tigers a short distance away from here."
Tigers, Leia thought, feeling chilled again. She hadnít read that in the files.
"Iíve never seen anything like it," Luke murmured, touching his shoulder, rejoined flesh. "Not even my Master or the other Jedi I trained with ..."
"There werenít many of us," Sarin told us. "I was descended from a long line of healers, of Jedi who dedicated themselves to nothing else."
"Really," Luke breathed.
"Where do I even begin? Imagine if you will, all of your training narrowed towards one goal, one specialty, and imagine then how proficient your capabilities in that area would be."
"I suppose," Luke reasoned rapidly.
"Ah, but of course," Sarin amended, "the healers of Yashuvhu were already born with the gift, the ability to see auras, read a personís physical history by sight alone. We had the advantage."
The recognition shot through her like a bolt of lightening, and her next movement was to draw her holdout blaster and aim the barrel at his chest.
Luke vaulted forward and settled his hand over the nozzle. "Heís not going to harm us."
She jerked the carbine free of his palm. "Ask him to explain then!"
"Explain what?" Sarin asked.
"Leia," Luke sighed. "The blaster isnít going to do you much good ..." But she held her line of fire and forced him to explain. "Okay ... My apologies but she was attacked by something, by someone who sounded like you and spoke Yashuvhi. Four days ago...." He took a deep breath. "We havenít been sure what happened. It wasnít something I could sense ... or feel ..."
A shadow passed across Sarinís features. "She was?"
"Yes she was."
"Unexpected," Sarin murmured. "I am not the only native of Yashuvhi who was held at the Korriban station, which ..." He leveled his gaze. "I gather you found as you have yet to ask me how I came to be here."
"Yes," Luke told him.
"As far as I know I am the only survivor."
"As far as you know," Luke furthered, saying more slowly, "If you say unexpected, it would indicate you have some idea of what weíre talking about."
"Rest assured it was not I." The reply was understated, an acknowledgement, but not an invitation to ask more.
Luke nodded. "I believe you."
"Then heís using some sort of mind trick on you," she put in. "I could hear him, feel him. This is too much of a coincidence!"
"You donít believe him?" Luke asked.
"No." Her instincts clawed at her, forced her fingers to tighten their grip. Lukeís reassurances found their way into her jumbled thoughts, coaxing her to please remember she was a guest here. Logically, it didnít make sense for him to have led them here when they needed help if he intended to harm them. Logically ... Luke might rely on the Force but she would have been dead years ago if she trusted so easily. "No!"
Her brother countered. "And why would anyone bother to use mind tricks on me and not you? Why would he have healed me, helped us?"
She mulled that over for a second. He did have a point, or rather two good points. "He still knows who or what it was. Heís not saying."
Luke studied Sarin. "You do know something. I can sense that."
"You are in no danger here," Sarin replied, rising to his feet and going to fetch another bowl. The weapon turned on him may have well been a spoon or a feather. "Thatís whatís most important."
"But how ..." A new current of surprise seemed to run through Luke, from the hair on the tip of his head to his extremely wrinkled toes. "The Yrashu! You sent them to us?"
"That I did. Though I would not have advised the route you chose. The swamps are too dangerous, even for the Yrashu, as you discovered the hard way." He came to extend his peace offering. "Perhaps your hands will be better occupied with this," he suggested to her. "And perhaps youíd like to get out of your wet clothes."
With a sigh of exasperation she slipped the weapon back in her pocket.
"Is it some sort of mental link, or bond?" Luke was asking. "I thought I felt ..." He shook his head.
"That the Yrashu are Force sensitive?" Sarin finished. "Yes, they are, though they lack what we would consider sophisticated control. However they are able enough to serve as my eyes and ears. Over long distances the impressions are incoherent. I merely instructed them to escort you."
"Like a reconnaissance droid," Leia murmured, clear-sightedness finally replacing the anxious rush of adrenaline. She supposed his concern for their well-being should have completely smoothed the vague uneasiness she felt, but there were simply too many questions. From what Luke had told her and what she knew of Palpatine, her father even, use of the Dark side was utterly antithetical to healing. It drained the life away from its users, did not replenish it as the light side did. Sarin had sent the Yrashu ahead because he was worried, she could assume that much, though what worried him was unclear. And if the base was so nearby ...
Her twin asked it before she could. "Though you claim to have made contact with members of our base theyíve never reported a lone Jedi living here."
"They may have reported me," Sarin winked, "If they remembered meeting me."
Her muscles tightened with apprehension again. "Brainwashing!"
"Oh? And am I the only Jedi who chose to remain anonymous rather than face certain death," their host demanded, resting his strange eyes on her once more.
"No," Luke said. "Youíre not."
"The Alliance needed help," she said shortly, anger firing her temper. If what he was saying was true ... Theyíd been so desperate five years ago. At least Ben Kenobi had emerged from hiding to teach Luke, as had Master Yoda. "You had to have known that yet you chose to do nothing. Whose side were you on?"
"Who am I helping now?" Sarin replied evenly. "It was never meant to be me. My training was not that of a warrior, and my lightsaber was little more than a symbol of the order I loosely belonged to. And," he pointed to Luke, "if my memory serves me, you did receive help and heís standing next to me."
Lukeís mouth twitched. "I was one of thousands, not an army of one. Iíll do my best to dispel the myths when we arrive at the base."
"And now that weíve found you," she cut in. "Are you going to erase our memories too?"
"Leia," Luke whispered harshly.
She shook his thoughts off.
Sarin set the unaccepted bowl on the floor by her feet. "Nothing of the sort. Now I suggest you take what I have offered you before you catch a death of a cold. In your condition, itís probably not a wise gamble." And with that he headed for the doorway and swept the netting aside.
"That was smooth," Luke breathed after he had gone.
"This doesnít make any sense," she insisted. "It doesnít! Somethingís going on here!"
"Youíd prefer to refuse his aid because you think his being here doesnít make sense? Does that make sense?"
"No," she whispered meekly. But if Sarin was from Yashuvhu it meant what had happened to her was real. The hatred she had felt directed toward her was real. Furthermore he knew what it was or was connected to it. Yet... he was helping them? She began to feel ashamed, even appalled at her behavior. "Are you sure we can trust him?"
"Yes." Luke picked up one of the blankets and opened it wide for her. "Now take his advice before he gets back and get changed."
"Fine," she sighed. Donning a strange manís bedclothes was disconcerting, but was better than being wet. It took a few minutes to work her way out of her boots and soggy coveralls, the fatigues and tunic she wore beneath them. When she was done she took the blanket from Luke, which upon closer inspection appeared to be made of plant fibers, treated until they were supple and pliable enough to be woven into a sturdy cloth. She wrapped it tightly around herself, scooped up the dreadful smelling concoction and went to sit on the edge of his bed. There wasnít a chance she was going to be able to make herself drink it, even if it was medicinal.
"You know what I think?" Luke said, collecting the wet items and hanging them from pegs beside the doorway. "I think youíre so exhausted you canít see straight or make heads or tails of anything."
"Thanks," she grumbled. "And youíre in peak form right now."
"Well why donít you lay down and get some sleep."
She pushed the heel of her palm down against the bedding. Her vision was starting to blur from fatigue, her head ached. Overall she felt ill. To lie down for a little while would feel so good. "This is his bed. Thatís not very polite."
"He wonít mind," Luke assured her.
In your condition, he had said. He knew. "What about you?"
"Iím going to go talk to him, thank him, and do the same on the floor."
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