Renewal: Chapter Fourteen Rated PG
Ivy

The Y-Wing settled on solid ground just as the first of Tatooineís suns was making its ascent. The Jedi removed his helmet, peeled off his gloves, toggled the switches and slumped his head forward over the console. He needed to get out of his ship. He needed air. He needed to sleep. He needed to eat. Drawing on the Force to survive for this many days was dangerous, almost suicidal, and he knew it. The Forceís generosity might be boundless, but his bodiesí ability to subsist on it alone was limited. This was as long as heíd ever gone without the basics that kept a human body alive.

He had no idea how many days heíd been on Dagobah, meditating, praying, calling for his former master or teacher to answer him. No one had. This was the last place heíd known to come. He felt like a wounded animal licking his wounds and crawling home to die. Grief, guilt, shame -- they were diminished in the absence of cognition, of memory, but that only served to confound his confusion.

Without further delay he released the cockpit hatch and allowed first dawnís bite to revive him. It was in the process of snatching the crispness from the air. Within a few hours both suns would blaze and waves of intense heat would be billowing across the desert, scorching aerobic lungs and leeching every ounce of moisture from the surface. He recalled the looming unpleasantness without dwelling on it, gazing briefly overhead at the dusty pink skies. Then he staggered down from the cockpit, and began stumbling the hundred meters to Benís abode.

The only person he knew would have answered was here already, waiting for him. He hadnít yet made it to the doorway when she burst out and flung her arms about him. The relief at not being alone anymore was so intense he buried his face in her hair so she wouldnít see he was crying.

"I knew youíd come," she kept saying. "I knew you would."

How? he wondered. He hadnít known, wasnít sure at what part of his journey heíd set course for this destination.

It wasnít until he heard her asking Han to help her that he realized his legs werenít holding him up any more. "Letís get you inside. You need to rest. Everything is going to be all right."

* * * * *

Han finished tightening the fasteners on his left boot and looked up in time to give Leia a questioning glance. The divider swung back gently into place behind her.

"Heís already asleep," she said.

It didnít surprise him. Her brother looked as though heíd been nesting with gundarks and losing out on the competition for food. Heíd never seen Luke with a full-grown beard either. That, combined with the bright medcenter-wear poking through the neck of the jumpsuit, made him look like a very disturbed individual, one perhaps recently escaped from the local Ďborderline sentientí ward. "Did he tell you anything?"

"No. Heís in no condition to talk now. We donít know what heís been through since he left Baskarn."

"No, no we donít," he said, thinking that at least Luke looked more inclined to bump into a wall and knock himself out than hurt either of them. Lest she latch onto his subtext, and to ease the worry lines on her forehead he added, "But heís here, like you said. Thatís a good thing."

"Yes," she sighed. "Yes it is." Her gaze landed on his boots. "Where are you going?"

He said, "We need more blankets, another pallet -- if there are any more." There was no spaceport out here, and the thundering roar of a Y-Wing flying overhead this early in the morning was quite possibly the most obnoxious wake-up call heíd had in months. Beating the suns awake had not been his intention.

"We do need those," she replied. "Good thinking."

Taking in the circles under her eyes, Han paused. On any other occasion he would have expected her to be jumping up and down with joy at her brotherís arrival, though currently, jumping up and down was out of the question. Other than slightly tipsy on a few occasions heíd actually never seen Leia drunk as a Corellian pilot, as the expression went, though he thought it more of a prejudicial exaggeration. This was also not the first time heíd assisted a Skywalker in the joys of excess alcohol consumption, though fortunately last evening had not ended with a head over a receptacle. Of course, heíd taken a vow that involved threats to his ship and hyperdrive system to never breathe a word of it to anyone. "How are you feeling?"

"Awful. Horrendous. Like my head is going to split apart." Leia groaned and held her temples in both hands, as though it would keep it together, teetering slightly. "Just tell me I donít look as bad as I feel."

"You? Never. But next time you try to consume your weight in alcohol ... "

"Donít say it. No. No. There will never be a next time. I barely remember going to bed."

Han slipped his hands beneath her hair and began massaging her neck. "You conked out just when things started getting interesting."

"Oooh ... Thatís helping," she sighed appreciatively. "Interesting?"

"Sure. You wanted me to teach you all the words to the Corellian Pilotís Anthem. We only got to the third verse-"

She winced. "My memory is better than that, you know."

"Darn." He leaned down to kiss her forehead. "Thereíre a few antidotes on the Falcon. Iíll get you something."

"That would be wonderful. I donít want to feel like this when he wakes up."

* * * * *

The first time he awoke -- in a sleep weary haze -- Luke thought he heard his aunt and uncle speaking in hushed voices outside his bedroom. A cool hand smoothed the sweaty strands of hair off of his forehead and a soothing voice asked him if he needed anything. He drank the sweetened water proffered to him, rolled over and went back to sleep.

The second time he awoke he was upside down on a pile of inflatable cushions that were in the midst of an appalling divorce. One elbow and both knees were poking through the cracks. His other elbow touched the floor. The cushion had plastered itself to his face, hissing quietly when he shifted his neck. It was badly deflated enough that his upper body lay on a downward slope.

There were voices coming through the slatted vents, a series of loud zap-zaps he identified as blaster fire and howls. Sound association instinctively tensed his body, then he realized the raucous howling was laughter.

"Hah! Thatís five for five."

"It was not! The last two were together. It was four shots."

"Four shots, five targets -- same difference. Thatís why they call it random target selection, honey. If they want to kiss in the air, itís not my fault if one took the other out."

A woman made a sound that resembled a frustrated nunaís squawk, then mumbled, "Best two out of three then?"

Half tumbling, half scrambling off the cushions, Luke kicked off the partially undone jumpsuit heíd taken from one of the guards outside the medcenter. Next to the foot of the collapsing bed was a pile of clean clothes that had actually belonged to him once upon a time, an old pair of black trousers and wrap shirt. It took a moment for him to remember how many months it had been since heíd seen the items last. Hanís ship invariably ended up storing bits and pieces of everyone who ever traveled on it extensively.

He ascertained immediately that he was too weak and wobbly legged to do much without eating and too filthy to change without showering. Limping his way to the kitchen, he discovered concentrated soup stock left warming on the stove. He ate it straight out of the pot with the serving spoon. It might have been their dinner, or leftovers, but his stomach hurt so badly he couldnít wait. He ate propped up against the narrow counter space, studying his former mentor's abode. It wasnít that different from how he remembered it, though it appeared to have been rearranged. A broken bench was tipped up against the wall, and beside it rested a broken chair and a crate of broken dishes.

When his shrunken stomach could hold no more he made his way into the refresher cubicle. Too shaky to stand, Luke settled on the tiles beneath the blasting spray, resting his cheek against the cool metal siding. The heated water felt like a thousand needles stabbing his flesh at first, but within minutes the sting was replaced by a bone-deep relaxation. He rested until the tiny stall had been converted into a Calamarian deptonic infusion tank and his skin was a patchy red.

The target practice was still underway by the time he was out and dressed, so he went to watch and rejoin the living, hanging back in the shade. It didnít take most offworlders long to figure out that if there was any fun to be had on Tatooine they had to invent themselves. All the fun heíd had growing up had involved racing or firing at targets. If heíd stayed longer he supposed frequenting the Anchorhead Cantina would have followed.

"Last shot," Han was saying. "You miss this and I win. You get it, weíre in ..." He lowered his voice dramatically, " ... the first sudden death overtime."

"Hey, Hotshot, this isnít smashball and I can keep track of the score on my own."

"Whatever you say, Sweetheart. Now quit with the delay tactics. Theyíre not gonna save you this time."

Leia was too intent on following the dancing chrome remote and lining up her shot to notice his movement behind them. Han however, did notice, purposely waiting until her finger started to snap down on the press plate before he shouted, "Luke! Youíre finally awake!"

Predictably, her shot went a few hairs wild. The remote plummeted safely to a new position, hovering untagged.

"Nice move," Luke commented dryly, striding over to them.

Han shrugged. "Itís every life-form for himself. What can I say?"

"You have to cheat to win," Leia suggested helpfully.

Your daughter, he thought at her, swallowing hard. She was smiling at him warmly. Her slim cut fatigues were rolled up above her knees, her pale lawn tunic was wrist length and tied at the waist with a scrap of fabric. A matching piece of fabric held back her hair, though a few tendrils had strayed. Her skin glowed with a sheen of perspiration, golden hued. She looked healthy and relaxed, no longer as gaunt and fatigued as he remembered her being on Baskarn.

She looked happy.

"You found all the things I left out for you?" she asked.

"Yes, thanks. And the soup -- if that was for me."

"Who else? See any other sleeping Jedi around here?" Han asked gruffly. "You know, the kind that sleep so long their sisters wander in and out every two hours to make sure theyíre still breathing ..."

"It hasnít been that long." Luke checked the skies and saw that it was late afternoon. It was sunrise --"

"Yesterday."

"Yesterday?"

"Yesterday. And today -- though you missed the lovely event second time around." Soloís expression remained amused, and Luke imagined the manís mind was running amok with witty remarks about sleeping Jedi. Briefly, he thought of his fist, flying at him not all that long ago, and wondered whether the jocular brevity of this reunion was for his benefit or for Leiaís. Before heíd come to any conclusion, Han said, very solemnly, "I have only one question for you."

He forced back his apprehension. You know youíre going to have to answer a lot of questions ... "Which is?"

"Distractions donít count, do they? Tell your sister she lost fair and square."

"Ah ... if it was a real groundfight ... " he began, because that was the way one always concluded the training sessions and addressed the fatal combat errors a trainee had made. Training guidelines, including those such as had been in place on the simulators on Folor when he was teaching, supported Han. The opportunity to make a clear shot while not under pressure was a rare occurrence. On the downside, Hanís propensity to gloat could be god-awful to deal with.

The bumbling prelude was easily interpreted by the victor. "Ha, ha, ha."

"Thanks a lot, Luke," Leia grumbled, shooting Han a very effective look of withering consternation.

"Thanks a lot Luke," Han repeated, but his tone bounced merrily up and down with an entirely different form of sarcasm than his opponentís. He waited until sheíd leaned over to set down her weapon to wink, and Luke knew they were allies again, or at least no longer enemies. He shuffled his feet, waiting to obliquely send an apology to Leia for siding with an obnoxious captain whose poor sportsmanship often rivaled his hirsute co-pilotís, but Han didnít turn away as he gathered the remotes up. Instead, he said loudly, "Iím gonna bring all this stuff back to the Falcon before the sand does its dirty work and think about what to bet on for our rematch. In fact, Iím going to think about what I want for winning this one."

"As if," Leia scoffed. "Hoth will be listed as tropical in your Spacerís Guide first."

"Yeah, yeah," Han groused, "Weíll see about that. And Luke, I explained to her that grown men donít like to be watched when theyíre sleeping. She wouldnít believe me."

Without further fanfare or dispute he left them alone, leaving Luke with the distinct impression his departure had been pre-planned, and Leia somewhat flustered in his wake. "Well I was worried about you. I was afraid youíd stopped ... breathing or something. I was just making sure."

"Iím still breathing." He rapped on his chest and hyperventilated noisily. "Hear that?"

"Yes." She gestured to the doorway. "Do you want to go in?"

Before they reached Benís table heíd caught his twin in his embrace. There were much more pressing matters to apologize for, a thousand regrets. No words were needed. Leia wept a little, swiping at her eyes with her fingertips when they finally parted. Luke rested his palms along the outside of her upper arms. "You look good," he said. "I wasnít sure what to expect, how youíd be doing but you do."

"Thanks. You look ... a heck of a lot better than yesterday," she returned weakly.

"I knew what happened when I came to," he explained. "They told me about the stun blast."

"I know."

"And Iím so sorry. I donít even know how to begin to tell you how sorry I am."

"It wasnít your fault, Luke," she hushed. "Whatever you think, it wasnít."

None of her assurances were going to ameliorate his shame or guilt. "Had I been with you ... I might not have been the one who fired at you but I wasnít there. I left you and if Iíd stayed it never would have happened. You donít know how much I hate myself for that. I donít even know how to ask for your forgiveness."

"Thereís no need," she maintained. "It wasnít your fault."

"But Leia --"

"It wasnít." She fidgeted out of his grasp and took a deep breath, her mien hastily back under control, making a retreat that was both physical and emotional. "Stop. It wasnít. Whether or not youíd been there, stayed with me, turned away -- it wouldnít have made a difference. Nothing would have made a difference. Nothing anyone could have done would have made a difference. I still would have lost her."

"What do you mean?"

She exhaled laboriously and reached up to untie her hair, running her fingers along the nape of her neck to free the kinks. "Look, you may as well know there was ... an irregularity with my blood and my immune system. It was only developing when you were with me -- still relatively benign, but ... Luke, I would have miscarried within the next month or two. There wasnít anything anyone could have done."

"How serious is it?"

"Itís not. Not any more. Iíve been treated for it and given a clean bill of health."

Luke launched into a series of questions trying to get the specifics out of her, but all she would say was that she was fine, and that there was no chance of the condition reoccurring in the future. She promised half a dozen times, ultimately putting her foot down firmly. "We need to talk about you first and worry about me later. Where have you been and do you have any idea how worried Iíve been? You didnít even reach out once to let me know you were okay!"

"I couldnít."

"Why?"

"I needed to be alone."

Eyeís blazing, Leiaís anger was bared nakedly to him. "You could have told me that. You could have given Han a message. You could have acknowledged me once when I reached out to you so that I wouldnít have been terrified that something awful had happened to you. You could have just once --"

He broke in. "I knew you wouldn't understand --"

"You never gave me a chance to understand."

"It wasnít a decision I had much time to think about," he sighed. "It was an impulse. I only had a few minutes with Han ..." There was a soft click the back of his mind, an insight. "I wasnít intentionally planning to hurt you or make you feel as though Iíd abandoned you. That was never my intention and I'm sorry if I did. And Iím here now with you."

She nodded, somberly. "I know that."

Attempting to steer the conversation back on course, he said, "Iím astutely guessing Han managed to dodge security on Baskarn."

The tight line of Leiaís mouth reluctantly curved, building until she laughed softly. "He tricked me into it. I had no idea what was going on until we were on board the Falcon and he was shouting at me to fire at the generators."

"I asked him to."

"I had a feeling ... And Han told me that you canít remember anything."

"I donít. The first memory I have after leaving you in the forest is of lying on the ground. Of lying on the ground and feeling like my side and my leg was on fire. I tried to roll over and I couldnít. I never ... I never even saw the bodies. Other than that ... I remember it all going ... dark." Luke paced to the recessed doorway, staring long beyond across the dunes. Han was nowhere in sight. His Y-Wing, a lump of beige far off in the distance, had been covered with camouflage netting. "I heard the tapes. I know my own voice."

"Luke, I heard them too and --"

His voice was a monotone. "We both know what happened down there."

"No we donít. You didnít do it. Luke, whatever happened, itís only the tip of the iceberg. Thereís more going on here ..."

"Yes, there is. Donít think I donít know that." Heíd failed again, through fault of recklessness, by refusing to heed a warning. These were experiences with which he was intimately familiar, only now heíd lost more than a hand. The joy over his reunion, so vivid when heíd first awoken was wearing thin already.

For so many years heíd thought that Tatooine represented his exiled childhood, that it was the furthest thing from the center of the universe and heíd escaped. Here he was again. It was beginning to feel more like a place he was destined to return to again and again. At present his primary option was turning himself in to the New Republic and pleading for leniency. Heíd thought about it, almost non-stop since leaving Baskarn, but he wasnít sure that he could do it. As guilty as he felt a huge part of his logical mind protested that he could not be guilty for events over which he had no recollection. The Force had proved to be an unwilling judge and jury; it had yet to deliver a verdict. He was beginning to conclude that heíd be better off hiding out. As he was he was of little use to anyone, of little use to the future.

Maybe heíd wind up becoming like Ben. No one would ever find him here, that was for certain. Looking around the interior of the dwelling and trying to picture it as his permanent home, he said," Itís ironic, isnít it?"

Leia regarded him, perplexed. "What is?"

"That this is where I always end up, on the planet I was born. Full circle. Just like ..." Reconsidering, he shrugged. "Actually, I donít even know if I was born here. I could have been born on Coruscant or Alderaan."

"Just like after Bespin," she finished. "Thatís what you were going to say, isnít it?"

He shrugged. "You know me too well."

"That wasnít a failure, Luke. It was learning the hard way, and you did learn. Youíre a better man for it, a Jedi."

This sort of talk wasnít going to help him. "Leia, not to seem ungrateful or impolite but Iím not in mood for any of Bail Organaís old sayings. Not today."

"Iím going to forget you said that," she admonished. "And itís not Bail talking, itís me. As well, youíre wrong about what Iím getting at." Rising to fetch a beat-up knapsack behind the folded sleeproll, she carried it over to the table and withdrew four datapads. "Han and I have managed to unearth quite a bit of relevant information." She pointed to a chair. "So I suggest you get comfortable and prepare yourself to listen to me, because this will take a while."

Shortly his head was spinning with an information overload of monumental proportions. Leia explained to him what theyíd learned on Elrood, covering the Royal Imperial Guard, the Supreme Prophet Kadann, and the last transmission from the Death Star over Endor. Though the individual saboteurs of the Razionís Edge remained anonymous, at least there was evidence indicating he had been set-up, though they had no hard evidence to go by as of yet. Leia had been unable to contact Home Fleet lest she tip them off to her whereabouts, but assured him that Harkness had been entrusted to brief Airen Cracken and carry a message from her. By the time they did return to Coruscant, she hoped hard evidence would have been secured.

(Luke was familiar with Harkness, recalling that Harkness had been one of Airen Crackenís key informants up until a few years ago; heíd seen the name in a number of sensitive files. He hadnít known that he was coincidentally one of Soloís old smuggling friends.)

Leia told him about her theory regarding the creation of the Force detectors, about what might have they might have been researching on Baskarn. She told him what they had done to the Korriban station, that she and Han had forwarded the coordinates of the Razionís Edge to Major Risken afterwards, and that any ground investigations should have been completed. Their best running theory as of late was that whoever had Ďinformedí SpecForce about who Anakin Skywalker had become would lead them straight back to the Royal Imperial Guard.

Leia paused mid-thought going over their theory and said one name. "Sarin?"

The Jedi squeezed his eyes tightly shut, shook his head.

You didnít listen to her.

No, he didnít
.

"Luke, is he alive?"

He grit his teeth, grateful she had not asked if he killed him, frustrated, angry even, that it didnít matter because either question wrung out an identical responses. "I donít know."

She lifted her eyes earnestly and moved the topic forward. "Okay, then ... I need to ask you a few questions? First off, did you request the central access codes before we left for Baskarn."

He scratched at where his collar was rubbing against his bare skin, feeling impatient. Having nothing to do with the Razionís Edgeís sabotage was one thing; lined up beside his other offenses it was almost silly, a redundant worry. "Is this important? It was over a month ago?"

"SpecForce thought it was. Itís their trump card."

"Ah ..." He thought back to that morning. "Yes, I did. The Razionís Edgeís dummy cargo manifesto was missing. I commed Intelligence from the cargo bay and asked them to send a new one, but the Commander on duty knew me and simply gave me the codes. I printed it off from a secure terminal at the back of the bay." Luke frowned. "Come to think of it, it wasnít exactly a request but ..."

Leia sniffed made a disapproving face. "He violated security by giving the command codes out over the comm. Whoever was in charge probably made it sound as though you dropped by and made a formal request. Okay, that clears that up. Next question; Does the name ĎNiras Alia Quíaristoffí mean anything to you?"

"Should it?"

"Just wrack your brain and think first. Then Iíll tell you."

He scanned his memory swiftly. He was usually good with both names and faces. Someone heíd served with? Had they met? A famous name in the news? Actor? Politician? "No," he said finally. "Iíve never heard of him. Should I have?"

"In my research I didnít run across any Sarins in the records from Yashuvhu, but there was a Niras. Theyíre anagrams. And ... interestingly enough, he served as one of Palpatineís advisors on Coruscant for almost a decade. He also disappeared near the end of the purges, near to the same time Sarin told us he was brought to Baskarn."

"Then he didnít give us his real name?" he said, unable to concede that the golden-eyed healer had been in league with the Emperor. It couldnít be true, Luke thought, though his muddied brain quickly pointed out that it might also make sense. Maybe thatís why heíd never left Baskarn.

"I donít think so. Call it a hunch or a gut instinct but ..." Leia chewed her lower lip. "No. All indications are that Niras was Palpatineís stand-in, his speechwriter, his voice in absentia, his understudy. None of it fits with anything Sarin told us about his life and he certainly had no reason to lie to us. If heíd repented, he certainly wouldnít have been the first, and if heíd wanted to destroy us he had ample opportunity ..." Her eyes narrowed. "You always tell me to trust my feelings and I am, here. Iím positive theyíre not the same person, but I believe they knew each other. There has to be some significance to their names. I simply havenít been able to figure it out yet."

"Heís tied to me? You asked if Iíve ever heard of him?"

Leia stared at him unblinking. "Kadannís writings claim Niras Quíaristoff will be reborn. Jai told me heís the one mentioned in Kadannís writing. Specifically, what it says is that you will be reborn and claim his name."

"Me? Claim his name?"

"Maybe ... maybe the way Anakin Skywalker called himself Darth Vader. Iíve gone over the writings dozens of times and ... Iíve only been able to come up with one possibility."

What Leia laid out for him over the next while was utterly inconceivable. "But itís impossible."

"What about on Cirpacous?" she demanded. "You called yourself Ben Kenobi."

He shook his head. "No, I didnít."

"I heard you."

Heard what, he puzzled. Theyíd had this discussion before, though not in many years. He remembered the battle vividly, facing Vader for the first time alone. Thereíd been an incredible rush of the Force, a blinding sense of power, and then Vader -- his father -- had fallen. It had all flashed by in seconds ... Heíd been lucky, a novice whoíd not had the training to succeed against a Sith lord. Of course explaining to his sister that her memory might deceive her, that with the burns and lacerations sheíd suffered even if she had been conscious sheíd probably been in shock, was out of the question. Leiaís mind, once made up, was tougher to budge than a worn-out Tauntaun.

"I heard you then," she repeated. "And itís never been worth obsessing over until now, itís never even mattered that you donít remember it. My point is that I believe Obi-Wan Kenobi aided you through means that may be beyond our comprehension. And letís not forget that Sarin told you the Emperorís soul, his spirit, was still out there, that nothing truly dies within the Force. If I believe what I heard on Mimban and I believe what Sarin told us then it stands to reason that there are forces out there capable of controlling another being, even for a short period of time." Sliding her fingertips across the tableís coarse finish and rising off of her seat, she spoke softly. "Kadann says a terrible act precedes your fall. We've got one. Letís not forget many of the Jedi who passed years ago may have been more powerful than you are, even in death. We donít know what weíre dealing with."

This is absurd, this is ludicrous, he thought. "Leia --"

"We know Sarin was protecting us from something in there. He spent a great deal of time, in retrospect -- if you reflect on it now -- dropping hints, saying Palpatine still existed somewhere out there. You canít remember what happened to you. You canít remember what happened to the teams. I submit that you canít remember because you ceased to be you for a short period of time. I believe thereís some credence to be found in Kadannís prophecies, and if I do, I believe that Niras became you, that he was what Sarin was protecting us from all along. What other answer could there be?" she pleaded. "I canít think of anything other alternative and I know you didnít do it. Iím right. I have to be."

"I want to believe I didnít do it," he said. And he did. This was all so fantastically plausible, frighteningly beyond the scope of Yodaís training, but definitely plausible. The thought stretched out into a suspended silence. It was tempting to believe her, easier to believe her than accept full responsibility for the murders on Baskarn, if he could ultimately be held responsible for acts committed for which he had no recollection. On Dagobah, heíd exhausted all Force-assisted means to tap into his subconscious, sift his memories. All extraneous unknowns aside, his wounds might have driven whatever was controlling him out. Untreated, the blaster shots would have proved fatal. To make matters even more cogent, Leia could pinpoint her renewed sense of him to the same moment heíd suffered his injuries.

Heíd returned, from wherever it was that heíd been.

"I donít know how to explain how much worse this is, to not remember what happened to me," he moaned quietly. "To have been used, to have been unable to fight back, prevent what was happening. Those men died senseless deaths. I feel ... violated ... exploited ..."

"I understand Luke, quite well," she whispered sadly. "More than you can imagine. Sarin did too, if anything we suspect about that station is true."

"Youíre overlooking a crucial fact," he warned.

"Which is what?"

"I have no way of knowing itís not still in me, part of me?"

Leia peered at him, plainly unperturbed. "Wouldnít you know?"

"I want to believe I would. I do."

"I trust you."

"Do you?" A breeze ruffled through the open doorway. The mellifluous laughter of ancient wind chimes, made of sand-polished glasses and strung with curled titanium wires. Theyíd been there as long as he could remember, even when he was boy. He'd come here once with his uncle. "You remember the first exercise I ever taught you?"

She caught her hair and pushed it back over her shoulders. "To hear you?"

"Second lesson, then." He stretched out his hand, took her own and lifted her palm to his temple. "See. Look. Tell me if Iím lying, to you or to myself."

For a few long moments it was quiet. He was conscious of the coolness of her palm against his skin, of her mind pressing against his, the intrusion, but he removed himself from it, listened to the wind chimes, stared at the grooves cut into the tabletop. He was expecting her to find something, a lie, cunning or guile his mind had construed to shield him. His body could not have acted without him. So long heíd been carrying memories he longed to forget; now he desperately needed to recall an equally terrible one.

It took her some time.

"Itís just you," she assured him. "Iím not skilled enough to force my way through your mind, but youíre not being deceptive, even subconsciously. I would feel that." Her fingers skittered back across the tabletop, and then flattened out. She stared at her sleeves and began folding the cuffs.

Relieved beyond words, Luke stared at her sleeves too, or rather not at her sleeves but at her wrists. Then up over her wrist to the soft undersides of her forearm where her flesh was mottled, yellow and purplish with fading marks. Angling his chin toward them and hoping it wasnít SpecForceís handiwork, he asked, "What happened to you?"

"Oh these?" she queried lightly, flipping her bruised limbs over and appraising them as though they were adorned with the finest Krayt sandpearls Tatooine had to offer. "Elrood. I thought I could wrangle my way out of binders, but apparently I lack the muscle to do it." She flexed her arm and managed a wan smile. "Maybe that can be the next thing you ever teach me?"

"You guys were picked up?"

"Yes," she admitted, face falling with an emotion that closely resembled embarrassment. "Only it wasnít us, it was me." Her shoulders slumped so low they practically sank beneath the table. "Oh, Luke, it was so unlike me. Iím never that careless. I wasnít paying attention. I let myself get distracted and the next thing I knew I was in binders and if Han hadnít been able to stop them ..."

Theyíd all had their close calls over the years, more often than not a momentís lull in caution was to blame. "Thank the Force you were both all right." He studied her features closely. "I mean you were all right?"

"Yes. Han was stupid and brave all at once -- he scared me half to death and if ..." Her voice caught, and then she blurted out so fast he barely understood her, "If you want to pick up where you left off with the compulsive hugging itís okay with me."

He did. Over her shoulder he took another long look around Benís again, eyed the rolled up sleeproll by the door again, recalling the way theyíd been bantering outside. "Does Han knows everything?" he asked, with a final squeeze. "I donít want to say something I shouldnít ..."

"What do you mean?"

"Well ..." Even as he began to reply the approaching restlessness of a third person interrupted, before familiar footfalls burst through the doorway. Leia heard them too and extricated herself, watching the entrance.

If Han found it odd or unsettling to walk in on a dead silence and find two people staring at him he didnít show it. Instead, he announced boisterously, commanding the silence, "Is anyone hungry? I hope you two are, cause Iím starving."

Luke turned sideways and shrugged. "Iíd eat a bantha right about now." That was not far from the truth either. "Iíll order two of everything your making."

"Iím making? Iím making?" Han hopped up into the kitchen. "Iím making. Whatever gave you the idea Iím making anything?"

"Would you?" Leia asked, smiling. "Iím hungry, too."

Han pretended to consider her request. "For you ... for you ... Why, yes." Then, regarding them both intently and demonstrating how frighteningly perceptive he could be with only his natural abilities, he offered them a gracious exit. "Thatís quite a sunset you two are missing. Iíd almost forgotten what they were like here. You should go take a look."

Leia held out her arm. "Weíll be back in a few minutes. Shall we?"

They walked maybe a hundred meters from Benís, coming to a stop on the precipice that overlooked the Ebe Crater Valley. Farther South the valley joined up with Beggarís Canyon, evolving into the familiar dips and turns Luke had frequented growing up, where he, Biggs and Deak had goofed off endlessly, avoiding chores and their parents. Much farther across the valley, erupting like hiccups on the flat mesa, the Mospic High Rangeís rocky outcroppings were silhouetted by the sunset, a geographical trick of the eye. Although they looked only a day or two away, and anyone familiar with Tatooine knew Mos Espa was only just beyond them, from where they stood they it was over a week by foot. Han was right about the sunset.

Leia toed the sand in small semi-circles, then gazed toward the outcroppings. "To answer your question, yes, he knows everything."

Luke wondered how Han had reacted when he learned but thought better of asking. "Things are good between you two then? I mean ... unless Iím misinterpreting things and you two arenít ..."

She flushed beneath her tan. "We are. Though Iím not sure thereís an easy status quo for everything weíve been through. But Iím happy. And ... and ... Iím scared to death."

"Scared of Han?"

"Of trusting him. Iíve decided to trust him and that terrifies me, the power that trust engenders. I think right now weíre both figuring out how to trust one another again, if that makes sense."

"It makes perfect sense."

"I know ... I know he feels he did the right thing by leaving, and Iím trying to respect that. If I donít, it means all this time apart was meaningless. I also know it was difficult for him and in a very basic and selfish way that helps, knowing I wasnít the only one hurting, especially because parts of me are still very angry with him. It just ... now it comes in flashes and waves ..." She turned so that the sunset illuminated half of her face, auric and shadowed, light and dark. "He was there when I started miscarrying. He was with me when they told me there was no heartbeat."

The ache in the back of his throat throbbed anew with sharp pricks and jabs. "Well Iím relieved that you werenít alone. I was worried that you were."

"No, I wasnít alone," she murmured, "Not that way."

What way, he wondered, but she was already going on.

"But itís good that you asked. He ... we havenít talked about it very much. Itís probably better for both of us if I donít dwell on it. Itís probably better if you donít mention it, at least for now. In fact, I would appreciate it if you didnít."

Luke thought about that, then said, "That doesnít sound fair. To you, I mean ..."

"Nothingís fair, Luke," she said, an all-too-familiar edge cutting her tone. "Besides, itís easier for me this way. My mind buzzes with platitudes and bromides, like, Ďthis was probably for the best,í and Ďthings are meant to happen for a reason.í And I want to believe them. I need to. It hurts too much for me think differently. Right now thatís the fairest I can be to myself."

"Okay, then, thatís probably natural." He guessed. He supposed. No matter how often heíd tried to insert himself into his sisterís shoes, imagine what sheíd been going through these past few weeks, he imagined he only grasped a shade of her pain and, as usual, she was quick to hide it from him.

The long thought stretched out enough for her to use it to her advantage, pressing their jaunt for an end. "I think thatís it then. We came out here --"

"To talk about you," he finished.

"I came to see the sunset and discuss what you want to do next," she amended. "Youíll have to read the datapads when you feel up to it and let me know what you think."

He hmmphed. "Either I take them at face-value or I regard them as rubbish. I donít know. Iím supposed to be Niras. Iím supposed to lead the New Order. Iím supposed to have crashed my ship in the middle of nowhere, blacked out, committed terrible crimes, awoken to discover I was someone else ... How can a bunch of belletristic words scrawled on scattered datapads dictate my future?"

"They donít. Theyíre not going to. We believe you. What matters now is clearing you."

Giving her a brief smile of gratitude, he said, "I just realized I havenít thanked you for everything youíve done."

"Youíre welcome."

They turned and started for the dwelling. "I only have one idea and I donít know how well itís going to go over with Han."

Leia grinned. "Leave that to me."

Feeling more like his old self than in weeks, he put his hands up and surrendered when Leia ordered him back to the table and instructed him not to budge from his seat. Han had methodically arranged foodstuffs in neat piles on the counter; a pile of greens, a clump of white bulbous globes, a jar of milk-colored sauce. Leia went to assist, pointing at him as she hopped up into the kitchen. "I almost forgot to ask. Do you want me to find Hanís extra shaver for you?"

Luke stroked the coarse knuckle length growth, an uneven blend of brown sprinkled with reddish-gold. After a month he was almost used to the feel of it, though not of the appearance. "I donít know. Is that an innocent offer or your opinion broad-siding me under the guise of an innocent offer?"

"Your brotherís sense of humor seems unaffected," Han commented, in between cupboard doors slamming and pots clanging. "And itís both, kid. Itís always both. Opinions are included free with everything."

She planted her hands on her hips, gazing back and forth between both men in wonder. "They are not!"

"Maybe later," he decided. He settled into watching them cooking together. It made the universe almost seem deceptively normal and at ease. It was some time later, when the smell of something delicious was wafting his way and two pots were bubbling noisily, that he wondered out loud, "Was that wall around the stove always like that?"

Both of them looked up sharply.

"Yes," Leia said, at the same time Han said, "No." Then Leia said, "Yes," again and gave him a lateral poke with her elbow. Han leaned over to kiss her forehead, after which they both replied in unison, "Yes."

There was only one thing to declare. "You two are weirder than ever."


To Chapter Thirteen | To Chapter Fifteen

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