Renewal: Chapter Twenty-One Rated PG
Ivy

The sounds of the Wookiee bellowing echoed all the way down the curved hall. The Tas had been kind enough to have a Comm unit set up in one of the spare bedrooms, and Han had promptly spent two hours ‘sealing’ the connection before he made this call. Although Leia knew better than to huddle outside eavesdropping, there she was, folded against the wall, amused. At any rate, eavesdropping entailed listening on the sly, and this one-sided exchange she would have heard in any wing of the house.

The sounds eventually caught the attention of her brother, who wandered down and took up a place beside her. Leia pressed a finger to her lips and tucked away her smile. As far as she was concerned, Han was getting exactly what he deserved. It had been this morning that he’d admitted, in his own words, that, "I kind of took off and didn’t tell him where I was going." A deplorable act under any circumstances, more deplorable considering he’d abandoned his sworn protector, nearly broken his life-debt, though she was near to forgiving him on the Wookiee’s behalf. After all, it had been for her sake.

The Corellian found an opening between growls. "Chewie, I’m trying to explain it to you but if you’d just shut up long —"

The raucous bellowing began anew.

Luke whispered, as though he might disturb the ongoing racket. "Han’s going to be deaf by the time he gets out of there. Chewbacca isn’t taking the explanations too well."

As it was, Han had been unable to complete a sentence yet. She nodded in agreement and murmured low as well. "It will be a wonder if Han dares to go retrieve him at all. This might be a very long vacation for him and Malla."

Clucking to himself, apparently sharing her predilection for amusement at Han’s expense, Luke gestured to the bedroom. "Can we talk?"

"Certainly." Leia entered, smoothing back the coverlet on the bed and browsing to make sure no stray articles of clothing were strewn about. The pale sleeping shirt she’d dropped to the floor two nights ago lay tucked partly beneath the bed, forgotten. In an unusual change of pace, of habit, they’d been up for most of the night talking after the episode in the 'fresher, after making love. And she’d told Han her secret, about what she’d seen between her fingers on the holo in his hold. He’d already suspected, he’d told her, but hadn’t been sure. I would have known better than to mess with him, he had said. You can feel it just by looking at him.

Much to her dismay, Han had left her to sleep, and she’d woken up believing it was an overcast morning, inevitably disorientated when the bedside chrono had insisted it was near dinner. Fearful the lethargic week on Tatooine had softened her, she’d insisted they both rise early today. She picked up the shirt. "What is it?"

"He came home for one standard month and then he vanished." Luke reclined on the rounded settee of lush sky-coloured velvet beside the window. "He was never heard from again."

"Who?"

"Niras Qu’aristoff."

"Oh. Oh." It was enough to drive her to sit down beside him. Then he’d done it. They had been nearly sure he’d done it, but there had been a sliver of a chance that they were wrong. His own homeworld. His own people. His people’s children. It seemed inconceivable that one man could rape the culture that had given birth to him without mourning, without a conscience to save him. Unless of course ... She glanced up sharply. "Is it possible that Palpatine was controlling him?"

His face flickered slightly. "The way I was controlled?"

"I didn’t mean that," she replied, questioningly, wondering if she’d sounded accusatory without meaning to, or her twin was merely feeling sensitive. "I just meant —"

A particularly ferocious burst of Wookiee remonstrations silenced them. They raised their eyes at each other ominously and attempted to wait out the howling, until Luke finally slipped over to the door and sealed it. As he returned, he said, "It could be. It could very well be."

She regarded the now sealed entrance morosely. "Or perhaps Palpatine was covering his tracks. You can buy silence only for so long. Were Niras ever to reconsider, confess to what he’d done, it would have been disastrous. Moreover, if he truly was that close to the Emperor, there’s no telling what he knew. When I was on Elrood, I double-checked. Vader became the Emperor’s apprentice about the same time Niras disappeared from the picture, too. I’m quite certain there wasn’t enough room for the both of them at Palpatine’s feet."

"No. There wasn’t," he told her, as if he’d already given the matter extensive thought and was doubtless on that point.

Her chin inclined sharply. "The old apprentice is defeated by the new. That’s the way it was supposed to be. The way it always was."

"What father asked of me. What he wanted."

A buzz of irritation claimed her. "Yes."

Thoughtful, reflecting as though he was alone, Luke continued. "I wouldn’t be surprised if it had happened before, if father had been the winner. Palpatine knew it would have been father and I against him."

Father, father, father ...

The thrice-mentioned title, as familial as it was honorific, drove her to her feet. The way he made it sound so ... personal. "Why do you refer to him that way? He was never your father. He never earned that respect."

"He saved my life at the expense of his own." Her brother’s face reflected his conflict immediately, though his conflict was with her, and not with himself. "He sacrificed himself so that I would live."

"So did Ben Kenobi, who actually did some good in his lifetime. Why don’t you call him father? Why don’t you call your Uncle Owen, who actually raised you and loved you, father? People that cared about you and loved you?"

Rising, the Jedi crossed his arms defiantly at first, and then dropped them sheepishly, almost embarrassed, as though a burst of cogency regarding his own behavior was occurring, as though she might be right in what she was saying. Still, he said, "That’s not the same. It’s not the same at all."

"You’re making too much of blood," she accused, twisting the sleeping shirt, as if suddenly obsessed by the feel of the cloth against her palm. Hastily, she stepped over to the dresser, setting the garment on the light grainy wood. She turned and pointed at him. "I was adopted too. You’re not the only one who wasn’t raised by your real parents, yet I don’t dig my blood family out of the mire, out of the ashes, and call it my own for the sake of having one."

"This has never been a conscious choice to me," Luke replied. "It’s who I am."

Moodily, her eyes wandered to the tinted glass beyond him, to the rainbow shaped camber. She and Han had lain upside down and watched the sun rise in pieces though the ornamental balustrade, a broken aureate moon in search of day. She resented her brother for bringing discord, his name, into what was a sacred space. "I’d rather have nothing," she heard herself say.

Gaping, he dug his knuckles against his breastbone, rapping so forcefully she heard them strike bone. "You’d rather have nothing?"

Leia took a deep and cleansing breath, stilled her hands against her thighs and toned down her voice. The last thing they needed was for Han and Chewie’s shouting match to be usurped by their own across the hall. "I don’t mean you. You’re not hearing me," she told him, more quietly, resisting the urge to yell so that he did hear her; it was words and not volume that mattered. "There is a difference between fathering, siring offspring and being a father. Father should mean safety, love, respect ... childhood. Everything he took away. I know you’re desperately determined to hang onto the one decent thing he ever did in life Luke — but does his sacrifice truly outweigh his sins? Can it make up for any of it?"

"Are you going to hate me if I try?" He invaded her path of sight.

"No. No. But I’d rather you struck me across the face than bear to hear you refer to him that way any more."

Luke’s cradled arms raised slightly, as though resistant on their own. "Dramatic, aren’t we?"

"Or in our own private closet crammed with denial?"

A mass of blonde hair fell across his forehead as he shook his head. "Sister, neither of us are in denial, for I do understand what you mean. I do." He proceeded with an effort to shunt the awkwardness off to a distant point, to a later point. "When we were on Baskarn I was — I am under the impression we have a lot to talk about. We haven’t really had a chance to sit down and talk."

"No."

"I do want to. I meant it. When we get back to Coruscant. We have a lot of ground to cover."

Her reply was noncommittal; her focus blurred him away again. For if she stood there and said, "Did you know your niece would have died regardless of the stun blast, because of him," she knew that Luke’s spirits would have languished beneath that which was so luridly horrible, unspeakably horrible. Her private anguish was too strong, too overpowering; she knew she didn’t want to win that way against her brother, bowing his emotions down beneath the brute power of her own suffering. Still, the Princess realised that in her heart, she’d won already. She felt guilty momentarily, for all she hadn’t told him and wouldn’t tell him; still, there was also a sense of righteousness beneath it. He needn’t know it all, and protecting him was, by in itself, a small consolation, a power unto itself. She knew what it was like to have nothing left. She didn’t want to strip away what he had left.

"Besides," Luke went on, oblivious to his soul’s fate, to her hovering ability to break him, convince him if she desired it. Both hands gestured between them innocently; then the gesture became one of surrender. He was smiling to himself in an attempt to charm her. "I’ve truly always thought he did at least three good things."

You will find a middle ground, she told herself. You will. Have patience ...

"Don’t you think?" he added, earnestly.

Finally she answered, without sharing in his humour, "I suppose he might have." It was as near to complimenting the Sith Lord as she would ever get in her lifetime. She moved onto a new set of concerns. The erstwhile ruler owed them answers for the Vibre-class Assault Cruiser parked outside of his city. Luke had taken the coordinates yesterday and gone to scout on his own, only to return and inform them the craft had been moved. Contacting the Tas had become something of a battle. Yesterday, he had either been ‘away,’ or ‘unavailable,’ or ‘not receiving visitors,’ and that was making answers hard to come by. "What about the Tas Mos’ir?"

"I’ll be seeing him in about an hour."

"A genuine, real appointment?" Leia inquired curiously.

"I believe I will be scheduling one at my leisure. Hopefully he won’t be in his bath."

Leia laughed, freshly mischievous. That would be interesting. Then she saw and exclaimed all at once, "Your beard?" The month of shaded facial growth (to which she’d never grown accustomed) had vanished, leaving in its stead the much younger smooth cheek.

"Gone," he exclaimed, stroking his chin.

"Any special occasion?"

Luke grinned. "I’m going to retrieve scrolls."

The scrolls in question were a genuine source of excitement for him. Harmakh had kept everything. When the Yashuvhi Jedi had vanished that fateful night, the records keeper had gone to their temple and collected their writings away before anyone thought to dispose of it. And he was giving it all to Luke.

"You’re going just to retrieve scrolls?" She raised her tattooed eyebrow suggestively, aware the eye gesture appeared imposing. "Or see her?

"Her?" Understanding dawned on her brother’s features like clear skies in the aftermath of a sun-shower.

Leia played innocent. Though she hadn’t been particularly impressed with Hataj the afternoon they had met, and had not seen her since, she suspected the girl had only been acting out to protect herself, or, as they’d since learned, to protect her uncle and avoid the Tas’ advances. For that she didn’t fault her. Actually, she was rather sympathetic to her plight having grown up on a world that had once had its own version of arranged marriages — at least within the royal families. It had effectively chained her aunts to their brother’s side for the duration of their lives.

However, her brother’s eye had not been that easily swayed these past few years, which saddened her from time to time; he wasn’t like Ben, as much as he emulated him. This recent attraction (if Han knew what he was talking about) was welcome.

"Her," she repeated.

"Oh, don’t you start, too," he mumbled. "You’re both reading too much into it."

"You can’t ..." Leia chewed at her lip, not wanting to meddle, but wanting to voice her thoughts just the same. "You can’t spend the rest of your life alone."

"And I can’t bring another person into my life right now," he said, the conviction steady in his tone. "Someday maybe, but not now. Besides, we leave tomorrow. What would I be thinking? Put it out of your mind."

Wishing she’d been there for Han’s side of that conversation, Leia let the issue go and began mentally categorizing her day aloud. "Well ... they’re broadcasting yesterday’s assembly meeting in and hour on the Holonet. I’m going to watch it, take notes — hope that when I’ll arrive at Coruscant I won’t be too lost. And then ... I’m preparing my Council speech."

"That’s not necessary. I’m fully prepared to defend myself and take responsibility for the deaths of the crew."

Feigning indifference to his plea, she shifted one shoulder and fixed her gaze. "You’re absolutely not going it alone. I have so much more experience than you do. Let it count. Let it help you. Not to mention there’s a very good chance I’ll be facing censure for my own actions." She began pacing back and forth between the bed and the settee. "As well, there are going to be a number of considerations to take into account, a number of issues that will impact your case. I’ve been thinking: it seems to me that if it was so important that you not go back that day, Sarin could have done more to stop you. He could have influenced your ability to decide, the same way he altered the memories of everyone from the base. He might have told you that monster living in the woods with him was more dangerous than anything you’d ever encountered. However, he never did any of that, Luke. In other words, he chose the most passive way to get his message across. He gave you no information. He left you unqualified to even make any sort of decision." Another few steps and she halted at his side, regarding him insistently. Much of what she told him came from Han and their night-long discussion, but the bulk of it was common sense culled from private reflection over the past several weeks. "I’m not saying that he let it happen, exactly, but he didn’t stop it. In addition, he told me not to turn back even if you did. He made me promise. Have you ever stopped to wonder about that? I have. I have ever since that day."

"He wasn’t suicidal. I would have felt that — he couldn’t have hidden it from me."

"But willing to be a martyr if it was called for? You couldn’t know that. Maybe he was following his sense of honor, of duty." Leia paused. "All I’m getting at, is that if I were you, I would give due consideration to the fact that a Jedi Master allowed it to be simple for you to turn around and go after him, while at the same time making sure I would not. What you’ve wanted more than anything for all these years was knowledge. He knew that."

"This is all going to be part of my presentation to the Council." Knowing there might be pre-session coverage, Leia moved for the door. The Wookiee had gained a second wind, and the noise slammed into her with the force of a stun blast. She covered her ears and briskly moved to the common area.

Luke switched on the holo-unit and took a seat.

The advance coverage was just beginning, covering trivial events and upcoming legislation issues. Leia watched half-interested until a pair of strong hands clasped her shoulders, wringing knotted muscles until she winced. "Chewie?"

"... is one very, very pissed off Wookiee."

"Yes. I was getting that impression through the walls." Leia craned her neck back so that she was looking up at him. "You’ve arranged to pick him up?"

"I turned the receiver off," he said, pausing between each syllable and word so that he sounded like a droid with a faulty speech program.

"That’s not going to help matters any. You’re only going to make him angrier."

"Nah. You don’t know him the way I do. I’ll try again later when he’s gotten control of his temper. You can go ahead and use it, if you want."

"Are you sure it’s secure enough for me to check my messages?"

Han rolled his eyes. "Are you sure you understood me the last few times I said yes?"

Leia made a face at him and turned back to the holo-unit. The recycled clips showed three former Intelligence officers being arrested and shoved into transports. A voice over announced that they were being charged with a recent attack on a New Republic outpost. In short, the charges listed were tampering with New Republic property, forgery, attempted treason, and attempted terrorism. According to the announcer, the arrests were the result of a month long investigation into the New Republic Intelligence division by Airen Cracken, who purportedly brought in outside counterintelligence.

"Harkness must have delivered the messages," Luke commented.

There was only one comment from the aged head of Intelligence, given when a green holo-journalist dared to ask him why even the uppermost echelons of his branch had been kept in the dark. It was a veritable miracle that the tight-lipped man deigned to reply, but he did, saying, "Even if I marooned them on Kessel without a single communication device, one of you would have managed to find them and broadcast it all over the galaxy. How would that have served us?"

Han laughed.

After Cracken’s comment, a sub-screen opened in the upper right corner. The New Republic delegates were in an uproar, because the outpost’s location was being kept secret. They were also infuriated because pre-trial hearings were to be held in closed courtrooms to prevent leaks. Borrsk Fey’lya’s furry face appeared, passionately exhorting that funds should never have been diverted to the head of the Intelligence branch without Inner Council approval.

She sighed loudly. "He’ll never change. He’ll never understand that the Council is as dangerous a place as any to hand out that information."

"That’s probably because he’s responsible for the majority of the press leaks," Han commented.

"I dare you to say that to his face," Leia returned, deciding this was an opportune chance to start on her messages. A public rant from Fey’lya was a news item she could afford to miss. And the news was welcome, though her subsuming relief was piecemeal. It might not be enough that they knew who had placed the thermal detonators on the Razion’s Edge.

Moments later, she was not in the least surprised that there were nearly one hundred messages awaiting her. However, she was very surprised that the last three were from Yail Taskeen.

* * * * *

"And where might your Tas be?"

The servant blinked softly. "Who are you?"

"I have an appointment with His Majesty. I need to know where to find him."

"Yes ... You have an appointment. He resides in the right wing." He pointed. "That way."

Manipulating the malleable minds of the few guards stationed around the manor had been effortless, though it helped that he had not encountered more than a pair at a time. Luke navigated his way through the corridors, past the main hall where they’d eaten dinner, past the offices where the ruler and he had had their discussion days ago. It seemed incredible that all of his wives lived within this manor, all of their children, all of their help; it seemed incredible that peace could be maintained, although his sense, trespassing through their residence, was that it was peaceful. It might have been their affinity for curving architecture, for soft bends where edges would have cut space away unnecessarily. The style also gave an illusion of spaciousness, and Luke had to admit, he’d had grown rather fond the native design.

As the attendant had directed him, the Yashuvhi royal’s personal living areas were toward the back of the manor. The main foyer leading into them was dazzling. The fiery opal walls were blanketed by a miasma of local artistry, verging on an effluvious haze of garish textiles, golds and silvers, swallowing him as he passed. Centuries old incised stone passed beneath his feet; antediluvian furniture was set out for show, not usage. When he reached the royal apartments, he passed through a day room where breakfast was waiting, into a second day room that was wall-less, opened to winter air.

There the heavy cloaked Tas stood, pressed up against the balustrade with his hood drawn forward, holding a long stemmed pipe and watching his emerald-feathered pets somersault and bound their way through across the first seasonal snowfall. Only one Duuvhal remained to flank him, and it grunted in warning upon his approach. The Jedi dampened his aggression with barely a thought.

"I see you’re resorting to your Jedi trickery."

"You’re resorting to hiding behind your servants and advisors."

The Tas lifted his pipe to his mouth and inhaled deeply, sending wisps of smoke above his head. Ice crystals were forming in the beard beneath his lower lip. "We each have our means."

"Pardon me, Your Grace, but it seem we each have our intentions." Luke crossed to the balustrade, locking his arms behind his back, subtly emphasizing that he had not come to threaten the Tas or interrogate him; the lightsaber by his waist would still effectively have the elder man on guard. "There’s a difference. As I’m sure you’re aware, there was an Imperial assault cruiser parked about twenty kilometers away from here."

"Was there?"

"Who are they and when did it arrive?"

The Tas was unfazed, unresponsive to his prodding. "They arrived several days before you did," he replied, as though the dates were relative. "The same day your government messaged to inquire about your whereabouts. But you needn’t sound so insulted — you did not ask."

Skywalker grimaced. They both knew that was irrelevant. Playing petty word games was not on his agenda. For the Tas had known, and he had been concealing that knowledge during their first meeting, just as he was managing to conceal his feelings now. "Where are they now and what do they want?"

"They were rather ambiguous about it. They professed a rather extreme interest in you, and wanted information regarding a man by the name of Niras." The Tas waited for a reply. When none came, he continued. "I presume you know who he was?"

"I do," he said, taking a breath so deep his chest twinged. According to Leia there were two groups of individuals who knew the importance of the name Niras. One was the Supreme Prophet Kadann and his followers. The second was the splinter sect of the old Royal Imperial Guard. If Han and Leia were correct, and the men they’d seen were not part of the Guard, than the Imperials had to be accompanying Kadann. Relief coaxed Luke to relax, but he knew better than to deem the Supreme Prophet less of a threat.

Sensing an intrusion, Luke turned to find another attendant, a teenager, in wait. The boy bowed quickly, eyeing the Jedi’s weapon clipped to his hip with rapt fascination. "The Lady is waiting. And would the Tas Skywalker care for a beverage."

"No he wouldn’t and tell her I won’t be long," he instructed, waving toward his pets. "I’ve no wish to rush them this morning. They’re enjoying themselves. In addition ..." He glanced toward Luke again. "Please tell the guards we’ll have a guest to be escorted out. He lost his way earlier. We want to make sure it doesn’t happen twice in one day."

"It won’t," Luke answered, wondering which of his wives was waiting. Was there a system? A head wife?

The head of state nodded. "Pardon me for wanting to make sure. Now, if you know of Niras then you know that he vanished decades ago and has never been heard of since," he continued. "To be honest, I found their queries rather odd and their purpose discrepant. They asked if they could remain pending some research."

Or they paid well, Luke thought.

"As such, I permitted it."

"They’re under the impression they’ve struck a bargain with you."

"I choose to leave everyone the impression that they’ve struck a bargain with me. It makes affairs run much more smoothly. Besides, you leave on the morrow. I’m certainly not intending to stop you. And certainly such a small crew will have little chance seizing you, a Jedi Knight."

"Unless you’re feeling inclined to cooperate with them," Luke amended. Perhaps they stood a chance against the small crew, but should the planetary security force decide to cooperate, their odds of escaping dwindled considerably. Briefly, he debated his courses of action. If he chose to retrieve the scrolls from Harmakh and leave before the farewell banquet, that would place him in a sticky diplomatic situation; if this was truly Yashuvhu’s first impression of New Republic delegates, he did not want to flee on the eve of their departure based on mere suspicions. Local law might intervene in the meantime, should any problems arise. Of course, there was no telling what private agenda the Tas was entertaining.

"You’ve been at liberty since the day you arrived. I’ve only asked one thing of you," the Tas Mos’ir added.

Knowing this meeting would end unsatisfactorily if he pressed further, Luke straightened his back. "Allow me to thank you for the hospitality you’ve shown us since our arrival. It’s been most gracious of you. However, if you think that Empire holds any power now, that striking a bargain with them will garner you a safe haven, a foothold, than you are gravely mistaken. There is no Empire."

"One of their representatives is invited this evening. He wished to be introduced to you; I agreed to that. But no young man, I am not so naïve."

"No, I don’t believe you are," he returned, bowing his head in farewell, opting to meet his escort halfway through the manor. "And I appreciate the warning."

After contacting Leia by comm, he warned her and Han to be on high alert, and ready the Falcon just in case. After a brief consultation, Leia agreed that avoiding any touchy diplomatic incidents was the wisest move.

It was not until he neared Hataj’s dwelling that he realised the Tas had asked nothing of her; rather, he’d alluded to the request he’d made the very first evening, but not asked for an answer. At first, Luke was relieved, but by the time his hand was upon her door, he was worried. For then, it meant there was a good chance that he already knew.

Entering as though he was a habitual guest, he located Harmakh’s great-niece in the kitchen, preparing the ceremonial yammansk as though she’d known he was coming. Her face was somber and reflective from afar, brightening when she saw him. After the previous day’s session with her uncle, the small house smelled familiar to him, comfortable, and the veiny arching stone walls were homey, her slightly clipped accent sounded proper.

"Luke! That’s so strange." She gestured to the elaborate spread. "I had the sudden urge to make this — which I never do alone, and here you are."

"Drink tea alone?"

"Yammansk," she explained. "It’s more of a social tea."

It took him a moment to separate strange from the simple fact that ordinary people frequently yielded to premonitions. Reflecting on the vague sense of intoxication he’d fought off the first afternoon, Luke nodded. Social tea indeed.

She answered before he could ask, shoving back her midnight hair before breaking the tea leaves. "My uncle left the scrolls in the basket by the front door. You’re sure you won’t need a translator for them?"

"I have someone," he told her. With six million forms of communication programmed into his memory, he was counting on Threepio’s ability to translate an old version of Basic precisely. Or learn it very quickly.

"He told me everything after you left," she blurted out. "I could never understand why the Tas treated me the way he did. But ... yes. I’ve had dreams for years ... that I belonged to him."

His reaction was sharp. "You belong to yourself, first and foremost."

"But you would say I also belong to the Force."

"Everything is part of the Force. Your uncle, your home." He wrapped his knuckles on the countertop. "This surface, the gardens outside, your planet, your sun." In his mind, he could hear Yoda speaking as clearly as if it were yesterday. Life creates and makes us grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us ... between you and me and that tree and that rock. Everywhere. There’d been little occasion to repeat the philosophy until now, and he was conscious of the strangeness of it as he spoke, remembering his own befuddlement.

"But you’re different. It guides you."

"It’s not so much my guide as my ally. I have a responsibility to it because it empowers me, a mutual respect."

"Hmm." She babbled on as though she wasn’t hearing him while putting the final touches on the tea, much as Leia had earlier. (Luke wondered if all women shared a secret skill for tuning him out — if his voice didn’t register with their auditory senses.) "I belong to or have an accountability to a Force I cannot feel or even begin to comprehend." She filled a clouded glass with the pungent smelling tea and passed it too him, silvery bracelets jingling. Tealeaves that had evaded the filter eddied on the surface. "What does that mean for me, Jedi Master Skywalker, Luke? I’ve no one else to ask save yourself. What does it mean? Tell me." Suddenly, her narrowed eyes were expectant. "Can you fix me? Can you undo it?"

"I don’t even know how they would have done it, save that it was a last resort to protect you. I’ve never encountered anything like it."

"Then I’m responsible to something that will give me nothing in return," she murmured abjectly. "That’s how it will be. And the old traditions of Yashuvhu will return and I’ll be subject to them. To protect me," she whispered, depressed, uselessly focusing on what was most apparent, over and over. "Even if it was to protect me, it’s not going to protect me anymore. He’ll find out. You don’t know him. He’ll find out and find a way to force me to marry him. My uncle will die alone."

Luke sipped back a scalding mouthful, instantly numbing his tongue like a film so that he tasted none of it. Foolishly, he offered her his word. "I won’t tell him. I won’t let him."

Wild gold eyes flashed over her shoulder. "And do you enjoy making promises you can’t keep?"

"I always keep my promises," he replied, following her to the common room and forgetting that that was not true, that he had broken one to Leia not so long ago. At that moment though, it was not intentionally a lie.

"We all mean to," she advised.

"I mean it," he replied.

The girl sank against the cushions, cradled her tea and sipped cautiously from the rim. "I was curious about something. Two days ago when we went to the market you said your sister grew up on a different world than you. Was that so that you might be protected also?"

"We were separated so that we might be protected, yes."

"Was it the same man who came here?" A deluge of questions was unleashed upon him. "Were there others who did what he did, traveled from world to world."

"Our circumstances were unique. We were hidden from our father."

"Hidden from your father?"

Grimly, Luke opened a few fragments of the past to her. Without naming him, he described his heritage in an opaque fashion, alluding to his father’s fall to the Dark Side, to their eventual confrontations and his redemption. Throughout, she remained keen to listen, fascinated, but she never asked him any questions, as though she knew that a single interruption might silence him straightaway. Had he not known better he might have imagined they’d been brought together to play out the duration of an awkward courtship. She clasped her hands together over her knee politely, maintaining a prescribed distance, immobile and still as dead air. There was no chance to reconsider, and he filled the air with his story, his side, until he had nothing left to tell her.

When he finished, she said, "I know all this makes you who you are, but why did you come here? It can’t just have been to research old Jedi ways. Because it’s more than that, isn’t it? Something greater must have led you here."

"You’re right." Disembodied memories clawed at him briefly. "Something happened. I have no recollection of it, but still ..." He ended there.

"You’re not guilty," she pronounced, honing in doubtlessly on the question balanced in his mind. "I know you aren’t. Whatever you did."

Even Luke had to admit that he was beginning to think the same. However, he was hanging on to the vestiges of his guilt, defiantly. If after these long weeks he believed in his innocence, that was only the beginning of the battle. It would matter what others believed. It wouldn’t do for him self-righteously separate his inner self from his physical self and the irrevocable fact that it had been his physical self that had committed the massacre. Even if, as Leia had reassured him, this would not be the first time the New Republic was faced with an individual whose guilt and innocence were both absolute. There had been several cases of mind control in recent months. He, as a sentient being, was not unique; however, being a Jedi made him a danger. The New Republic deserved better than that.

"After all, if you can say that you can forgive your father for the terrible things he did knowingly, why can you not forgive yourself for something you did and cannot remember?"

Clearing his throat, he reached for his glass, then saw that he had unwittingly emptied it already. "I don’t know. I’m not sure I have forgiven him. It’s more that I strive for it, and when I hear myself say it ... I suppose I can almost believe it."

"If I were you, I would start with you and not the past. Today should be about you."

"This trip has been for me," he told her. "That was the entire reason for it."

"This trip; I’m curious." She set down her tea and, haltingly, began lightly stroking his arm. "Would you have come here someday, regardless — to learn about our healers?"

"Probably."

She smiled. "Good. I’d like to believe I would have learned the truth regardless, eventually."

"It matters to you?"

"It matters to me that my fate was inevitable. It will make my fate easier to bear."

"Why do you say that?" Luke caught her moving hand and turned it over, losing his query, losing his breath. Criss-crossing scars, pale as gossamer thread, etched across her flesh from the heel of her palm to her elbow, peeking between the silver bands, a warning. He’d never seen them before; she’d always worn long, clinging sleeves.

"We all take solace in knowing certain things are inevitable. I don’t want to live wondering ‘what if?’"

He didn’t hear her, tracing the lattice of faded pain, the patterns. "What happened?" he asked dumbly, though the scars were universally familiar. Anyone would know.

"It’s not what you think," she said, gentle with her explanation, without drawing the willowy limb back. "I was young and foolish and only wanted to harm myself — before I made sense of it all. I believed that I was right and the rest were wrong. I wanted someone to see."

Such pain, he thought. "Did they?"

"Perhaps not the way I wished them too, but yes, they saw."

When Luke reached for his empty tea yet again with his free hand, Hataj reached for her own and passed it to him. He drank it in three gulps. Then he found his tongue again, wondering what his former mentors would have said. "Perhaps you were seeking the truth about yourself, even then," he considered thoughtfully. "Many philosophers say that only in our darkest moments do we really learn who we are — and that when we are not tested enough, we can be driven to seek those moments out."

"I learned that I preferred to survive, above all else," she responded, slipping her wrist free and squeezing his fingers instead.

"That’s the only sort of person I know any more."

She considered that, and then laughed at him warmly, embracing him. "But you’ve been at war for ages, Luke."

It felt like it had been several lifetimes ago that anyone had touched him with affection, save perhaps a clap on the back or the occasional embrace from his sister (whose words that morning were suddenly at the forefront of his mind, for many reasons, but primarily because the notion of spending his life in a form of self-imposed isolation did not appeal to him, deep down). It seemed that he could barely remember how nice it felt and he did nothing to dissuade her, while at the same time an ineffable hunger, a yearning so powerful it nearly left him nauseous when it overcame him. The mindblindness that plagued him around her felt as though it had lifted.

Her leg wound across his hip, her reddened mouth parted slightly, the tip of her tongue stroked her upper lip, exhaling moist breath against his throat ... "Luke ... "

The future was mutable.

In the present, suddenly he was kissing her tenderly, unsure if he had initiated the kiss or she had. His hands were buried in her hair, spooning the back of her neck so that she could not pull away.

Stop ...

What he was envisioning could not come to be. He could not allow it. He drew his face back and laughed softly, as though nervous, a habit he thought he’d left behind on a sand-covered world or an abandoned rebel base.

"What is it?"

"I should go. I really need to go. I’m sorry ..." He leaned over and pressed his lips to hers once again, maybe to make up for what he was saying, maybe subconsciously hoping his will would break. "I have to leave now. I’m sorry." It was terrible to say it. He eased his body off the lounge and moved for the door without looking over his shoulder, trying to not see her. "I can’t start something I can’t finish. Not this way."

Her voice was confused and hurt all at once. "So then you do not belong to yourself either," she called. That was the last he heard her say and then the sibilant sounds of running transports drowned out any possibility of his hearing her call after him further.

When their guesthouse appeared at last, a bruise on the snow-heavy horizon, he could see Leia huddled beneath the arching frontispiece, as though waiting for him. Chilled and aching after the long walk back, he could only wonder if ‘moral dilemmas’ were perceptible through their Force bond. He sincerely hoped that they were not.

"Everything all right?" he asked her.

"Yes." Holding her thickly bundled arms out to indicate emptiness, she noted, "You didn’t get the scrolls after all?"

Luke groaned inwardly. They were by the door in the basket, exactly where he had left them. "I’m going to pick them up later," he lied. Her expression masked worry that had not resolved itself since his arrival. "What are you doing out here?"

"Have you seen Han?"

"No, not since before I left."

"Because I don’t know where he is."


To Chapter Twenty | To Chapter Twenty-Two

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