LEST YE BE JUDGED
He had heard once that people yearned to travel among the stars because they were the only things in the Galaxy that did not judge.
Sentients failed themselves and each other. They had their grudges, their foibles, and their petty wars, but the stars never took part in such biases. They did not welcome the unworthy any more than the worthy and when they went supernova, there was no sense of justice in their ability to destroy.
The man whose name demanded that he walk the sky had crossed the stars because they offered uncompromising possibility. They bore silent witness to the pain of a nine-year-old boy who had trusted in those possibilities enough to put his faith in an unknown Jedi Master. They had safeguarded his first battle and his return to the place that he would soon call home at the Jedi Temple.
He had crossed the stars many times on the way to manhood. It was the one place where he finally felt that he was on common ground with his Master. He couldn't be told that his ability to fly was an unnecessary distraction. Obi-Wan couldn't argue that repairs were a demonstration of his misunderstanding of the Force. There were no rules to be broken in space travel and he rarely felt utterly stupid at the controls of a ship.
Ten years after the boy had left his home to find his correct place in life, the stars guarded across a gulf of misunderstanding and fear to the place where his angel would find her soulmate. They had crossed many lightyears and many events to come to a place where they could find mutual love, so it was among the stars that he had quietly asked her to become a permanent part of his life. By the time they'd seen the stars in the night sky at Naboo once more, she had become his beloved and loving wife.
The stars had never betrayed him during the Clone Wars, except to separate him from her. He had, at last, attained the power that he had craved for too long, he gazed through a lens darkly at the stars and found they held only emptiness for him.
This was punishment enough, to be forsaken by his guardians, but he was condemned by his actions to wander the stars, always seeking alliance and fulfillment and only finding more betrayal.
It should have been no surprise, since every other thing that he had dared to love had turned against him.
The only exception was the son that had never known him as anything but a murderous enemy. He could not tell what had caused this change in pattern. Perhaps it was that he had not allowed to love the young man that he chased for the better part of three years. He had desired his allegiance, pleaded for his understanding, but he had never yearned for his son's love in the way that he had yearned for his love of an angel to be requited.
The other possibility, one that he hadn't believed possible, was that the love that came from forgiveness of an enemy was something so powerful that he had not been able to understand or return it.
That, however, would change soon enough. It was one of the few explanations he could offer for the fact that the Force had been cruel enough to let him live.
"The Empire is dead. Long live the Alliance."
At the inception of the New Order, one audacious holoshill had sent a message of despair across the comm channels to those who would listen: "The Republic is dead, but I cannot bring myself to declare, 'Long live the Empire.'"
The Republic had lasted more than a thousand years and no one had been permitted to mourn its passing under the threat of their new tyrant. The Empire had stood a mere twenty-four years, but it was questionable if there was anyone who could still honestly find a reason to mourn.
The triumph was undeniable, but the victory was inexpressable because the word peace was spoken tonight for the first time as a reality rather than a delusion of grandeur.
The Alliance was no stranger to success, but 'tranquility' was almost an obscenity among the ranks. Ease in their efforts bred opportunity for ambush. Paranoia was a more acceptable word, since it kept them on the move, one step ahead of the Empire no matter the scale of their short-lived victory. They could mourn those left behind while in transit, when it didn't require the effort that kept them alive. They could not afford to leave behind their friends or their equipment, but it was a necessary evil to ensure that they would not have to leave so much behind the next time.
Instead, to compensate for the loss, they counted each breath of air as a small miracle. They could never be certain if the next daylight they saw would bring a wedge-shaped eclipse or a storm of turbolaser fire. They were hunted animals, not sure if they were growing weaker or finding new forms of strength.
Tonight, however, the strength they found had proven to be enough. Mere hours before, they had been strained to the breaking point on too many fronts to count. Those who had been watching from the ground observed a sky full of fire and those who were struggling in space doubted that the struggle on the ground had ever taken place. There had been too many lives lost to catalogue. Heroes had been proved on both sides, but the sum of the parts added up to an impossible victory.
The end result was the only thing that occupied the minds of most of the survivors.
With the demise of their dictator, liberty was no longer an impossible dream or a fool's hope. It was no longer a capital crime to believe in justice.
This seemed to strike with the same impact as a ram-ship in stages.
The first class was largely comprised of those who had been involved in the ground assault because the effects of their labors meant swift success and immediate results. They had been able to catalogue and organize their prisoners, patch their wounds, and make the arrangements for a more large-scale affair than the stunned embraces that they'd shared in the aftermath of a new sun on the horizon.
Most fell into the second class, of those who had rejoiced in the Death Star's destruction, but had been afforded no time to celebrate it until the rest of the Imperial presence in the system had been driven back or eradicated. They arrived piecemeal, the pilots arriving with weary grins and casualty reports that dampened their enthusiasm. The others took it upon themselves to raise their spirits instead.
There were, of course, those who fell into a third group. These were the ones that few dared to call pessimists or mopers, since they shared a common ground of insurmountable loss. Every soldier of the Alliance could name the squadmates or co-workers who had been caught on the wrong end of a turbolaser or had a console explode in their face. They could recite the casualties of each mission so that those who had passed on would never pass out of mind, but would not cause further torment with the psychological surprise attacks that inevitably resulted. The third group, however, consisted of those who had lost too many of those too close to them or who had lost the one most dear to them in the battle itself.
There were the compassionate few who stayed by their sides, waving away offered drinks so that they wouldn't wake up tomorrow monumentally depressed and hungover. They were the friends who had perhaps been in that same situation and provided a shoulder to sob unrestrainedly on or a lap to curl up in. They could be found in both secluded corners and the middle of the action, wherever their expertise in listening, consoling, or simply embracing was required.
Throughout the night, the three groups tended to blend together until there were few recognizable symptoms of each. Daylight found most in a drunken stupor or relieved slumber, while others grudgingly reported for work. Duty never ended, even though the war had.
The first rays of daylight that crept through the thick canopy of branches spotlighted a solitary figure on a bridge who formed a fourth group of her own.
She had obviously not looked after herself since returning to the village. She had discarded the battle fatigues, but she looked just as intense as she had when sighting in on the enemy. Rings of sweat marked exertion, but the most remarkable stain on her borrowed dress was a dark stain that spread beneath the fingertips that rested against her bandaged bicep. She clearly took no note of it, but she didn't seem to be aware that she was still alive, much less upright.
Her eyes had not closed since she had last stood in this spot. They had spent many hours narrowed as she squinted down the barrel of a blaster with a singular determination, but they narrowed now against the sting of tears that she could not afford to shed. They were rimmed in red, but focused on the shadows beyond.
She heard nothing, cared for no contact, and saw nothing but the emptiness of the forest, but she had believed in many impossibilities in her lifetime and this one was no different.
She could repeat the words "The Empire is dead," but they turned to bile in her mouth because she had somehow lost her brother along with the enemy.
She paid no heed to the man who approached cautiously from the village until he set a mug of something hot and strong-smelling on the railing next to her hand. Even then, she did not move her gaze.
"I'm not coming back," Leia protested quietly.
Her voice was hoarse, both from the effort of weeping and not using it for too many hours.
"I know," Han assured her, "but if you feel compelled to keep this vigil, I'm going to at least make sure you're able to stay awake for it."
I couldn't sleep. I don't think I'll be able to until he returns because I know my brother is not dead.
He simply has chosen not to come back to me. I don't know why, I don't know if he's all right, I don't know if I'm just being an idiot...
She retrieved it, more out of courtesy than need, and took a tentative sip. It was tisane, strong and grainy, with a hint of sweetener.
He knows me too well.
"He's not dead," they said in unison, half-conscious of what the other person had said.
Then, almost in a whisper, she replied, "I know."
"I can feel it."
In her peripheral vision, he moved to sit on the railing behind her, hands planted on either side to steady himself as he twisted to follow her gaze.
"Where do you think he is?" he asked unnecessarily.
Since "alive" was not a place, she had no answer. "I don't know," she confessed. "He's in the forest..."
"Well," Han grunted, glancing pointedly at the surrounding landscape, "that narrows it down."
Her lower lip thrust forward and the edges of her mouth stretched before she could stop herself from smiling. "Nerf-herder," she said affectionately.
"Your Highnessness," he replied with a grin in his voice.
One hand reached up to clasp her shoulder and she leaned into the grip, grateful for something to anchor her to the familiar.
"Something terrible's happened," he murmured. "I need to leave you."
Her breath left her in a shuddering sigh. "Debriefing?"
"Is that what they call it? Rieekan seemed to use the words 'glorified torture' when he commed."
"That too," she agreed. "How soon?"
"As soon as I can get a shuttle," he explained. "I came here to see if you were all right..."
"And to find out what you're supposed to tell them about our missing team member?" she guessed.
She was no Jedi, but he sent out something like a telepathic blanch. "Right," he confirmed.
"He hasn't betrayed us," she insisted. "You have to make them realize..."
"I know," he protested. "I just need your help in figuring out how to make them."
I don't know if I can explain it myself and I know him better than anyone. What are you supposed to say?
"I know that he left to go head-to-head with Vader..."
"Turn him back," she corrected.
There was a sharp intake of air. "Is the kid delusional?"
"Possibly," she said, smile disappearing. "Luke had to face Vader to keep him from interfering in the mission, but his main objective was to redeem him."
"Well, that will go over well," Han snorted. "At least his heading off the enemy makes his actions for the benefit of the mission, so when he shows up, no one will have a particular desire to court-martial him. Putting Darth Dad in touch with his inner Jedi is something..."
"Inconceivable," she finished. "I know."
I still believe it.
He dismounted, then pulled the curtain of her hair away from her face to brush her cheek with a kiss. "I'd better go explain Commander Skywalker's heroism."
"You do that, General," she ordered, turning to kiss him properly. "I'll be waiting."
Her eyes followed him until he disappeared into the village proper, then turned back to the shadows to find she was no longer alone.