XV

Leia sat cross-legged on the ground, atop the berm which had sheltered her from the explosion. She stared out at the glowing ruins of the shield generator complex, ignoring everything else. Her stomach had been empty for hours, but she felt no hunger. She could hear the Sanyassan marauders thrusting their spears into every stormtrooper they found, but she did not care to look. As the hours slipped by, and the sky grew dark, Leia's body began to ache. She realized she'd been sitting for so long without moving that her feet were numb, but she didn't care. She grasped at the faint notion that any moment now, a lone survivor would stumble out of the smoldering crater in front of her, grinning like the scoundrel she had grown to love. He would embrace her, and she would see that she had been mistaken; that her eyes had deceived her earlier, and his wounds were only superficial. The idea popped up again and again, teasing her, forcing her to push it away each time it reared its ugly head. She knew the truth. She knew Han was gone, and that the shield generator was so thoroughly demolished that there was nothing left of him to recover. But just like her brother, she could be stubborn and defiant long after the truth was laid bare. So, she kept watch, scanning the jagged piles of metal and rubble, silhouetted from behind by the glow of a fire that would burn for days to come. A huge pillar of smoke towered above it all, rising high into the sky and blotting out the stars. Leia traced its path with her eyes, and wondered if the fleet was still fighting beyond the smoke, where she could not see. There was no way to know for sure, but she had the faint sensation that Luke, at least, was still alive.

A low, mournful groan reached Leia's ears, and for the first time in hours, she turned her face away from the smoke and fire. Chewbacca stood behind her, his head lowered, looking at her out of the corners of his eyes. It was the first time she had seen the proud Wookiee regard anyone with deference. Even though the Empire's ground forces had been utterly destroyed, he carried himself as if the war had been lost, and it was all his fault. She saw his hunched posture, his furry shoulders rolled forward, and his bandolier hanging away from his chest. He carried R2-D2's damaged chassis over one shoulder, walking with it as though it weighed nothing. A single light blinked on the astromech droid's domed head as he emitted a low whistle of his own. Leia dug her fingernails into the ground on either side of her, clawing grooves into the soil. I won't go, she thought to herself. She wanted to root herself to the ground, like the redwoods that surrounded her, and stay there forever. A part of her knew it didn't make sense, but there was simply nothing else she wanted. There was nowhere she would rather go, no one she would rather be with. The one she'd expected to spend the rest of her life with was gone, and if she couldn't bring him back, she wanted nothing more than to sit there until she joined him.

In the midst of Leia's despair, she felt a flicker of light in the recesses of her mind. It gave her an altogether unexpected feeling of peace, and it carried a unique strength that she recognized immediately. She leaned to one side, looking past Chewbacca and into the woods beyond. Sure enough, Luke was there. His black clothing concealed him perfectly in the forest, now that night had fallen. He stepped into the firelight, allowing her to see him clearly for the first time since he had surrendered himself to Vader aboard the Executor. He looked haggard, as if his fight above Endor had aged him by several years. As the light passed over him, she saw that the shoulder of his tunic was stained with blood. Chewbacca barked a sad greeting as Luke climbed up to the top of the berm. He acknowledged the Wookiee with a solemn nod, and knelt by Leia's side.

"There's nothing I can say," he said, assuming the truth would have more healing power than insincere pleasantries. "I can't believe we lost him."

Leia nodded, and gulped to suppress the lump in her throat. She relaxed her clenched fingers, allowing the color to return to her knuckles, and blinked rapidly as fresh tears streamed down her face.

"Is it over?" she asked, desperate to hear something about the day's events that wouldn't haunt her forever. Luke nodded.

"It was Vader," he explained. "He killed the Emperor, and...others. He called for a ceasefire, and a meeting here, with all of us."

Leia's eyes went to the lightsaber on Luke's belt, to her own blaster, and to Chewbacca's bowcaster, all within a fraction of a second. "Vader's here?" she asked, her voice dripping with hatred. "On this moon?"

"Leia," Luke warned, sensing her murderous intent, "we can't change any of this. If it falls apart now..." His voice trailed off, but somehow Leia knew what he was going to say next.

"...then Han died for nothing," she said flatly. She ignored Luke's astonished expression, and tucked her feelings of rage away, so he would not detect them. She could sense his thoughts, his worry for her, almost without effort, while he had just begun to perceive her ability to do so. She sniffed loudly to clear her nose, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. By the time her hand fell back to her side, her inner turmoil had been replaced by a semblance of calm. She allowed Luke to help her to her feet, put his arm around her, and escort her toward the shuttle landing platform. She could feel him probing her mind, and offered him nothing. She knew he only wanted to help her, and understand how she had grown since they last spoke, but she felt she had revealed enough. Luke, meanwhile, felt his sister's mind transform from a churning, storm-tossed sea to a frigid lake, covered with a thick, impenetrable layer of ice. He retreated from the cold image the Force relayed to him, and reminded himself to work with Leia and her natural power as soon as their business with Vader was finished.

The landing platform at the edge of the shield generator complex was one of only a few man-made structures still standing on the forest moon, and it had long since run out of space to accommodate arriving ships. Lambda-class shuttles covered the platform from end to end, the tips of their wings almost touching. On the ground below, Rebel pilots had to improvise, landing their starfighters alongside their former opponents, taking advantage of any opening they could find. The rough terrain caused some of the ships to list awkwardly, but none of them were unfortunate enough to tip over. A mobile command center, brightly illuminated by spotlights, had been hastily erected next to the landing platform. A small crowd had already gathered around it, and it grew larger by the minute. Although there was no open hostility, the Rebels and Imperials immediately segregated themselves, clearly reluctant to trust one another. This left a sea of alternating black and gray uniforms between the command module and the landing platform, and a less organized cluster of blaze orange jumpsuits and camouflage ponchos on the other side. There were so many conversations taking place at once that the casual observer would have heard only a dull roar, but the tone was unmistakeable. Everyone, Rebel or Imperial, was wondering what was happening inside the command center.

The module itself, having been provided by the Empire, was plain and unadorned. It was built to be light and easy to move, and since it was never meant to be deployed on the front lines, its walls could only withstand small arms fire. To Luke's eyes, it resembled an armored, gray circus tent. It had no windows, and only two standard-sized doors, one on each side. He walked to the closest door, carefully supporting his sister with his arm, and the stormtroopers gathered around the entrance quickly stepped out of his path. Once inside, Luke could see the wide-open interior of the module, with an elevated dais at its center. A round conference table had been moved onto the dais, with a small holoprojector dome in the middle, and twelve chairs around its edge. The chair on the far side of the table, furthest from Luke, had a higher back than the rest, suggesting that it belonged to the leader of the meeting. There was no question in Luke's mind as to who that would be. Vader stood by it, closely watching everyone who entered. Beside Vader stood three Imperial naval officers that Luke did not recognize. One wore the rank insignia of an admiral—Luke guessed that was Admiral Piett. The second man wore a captain's uniform, and the third wore the white tunic and gold epaulettes of a grand admiral. Luke counted only five others in the room, all of them Rebel leaders. Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, and General Madine stood to one side of Vader and his men, while Wedge Antilles and Bren Derlin stood on the other. Antilles and Derlin had their blasters holstered, but Luke could sense that they were agitated. He could feel the adrenaline coursing through their veins, and he saw how their eyes constantly flickered back and forth between their own leadership and Vader's expressionless mask. The tension dissipated only when Vader's rumbling voice broke the silence.

"Those two are to be seated here as well," he ordered, pointing to Luke and Leia. Luke reached out with the Force to keep Leia calm, knowing that she did not yet understand Vader as he did, but he was unable to connect with her. Her mind was still closed off to him, and he quickly retreated. They stepped onto the dais together, and Luke moved to pull Leia's chair out for her. Without a word, she broke away from his supporting grip and did it herself. Her eyes never left Vader. If it could have, her furious gaze would have burned a hole right through him. The mechanical rhythm of his breathing did not change. He must have sensed his daughter's ill will toward him, but he showed no reaction. His officers shuffled nervously around him, unwilling to do anything without Vader's explicit command. Next, Vader extended his right hand to Luke.

"With me, my son," he requested. Luke frowned, having hoped to stay by Leia's side throughout the meeting. Reluctantly, he obeyed his father's wish, and stepped around the table. Vader gestured for Luke to stand at his right side, and Luke was humbled by how quickly the Imperial officers stepped out of his path. Whatever Vader's plans for the galaxy, Luke could tell those men would carry out his orders as if he were the Emperor himself. Before Luke took hold of his chair, he looked around at the others. There were twelve chairs, including his own, but only eleven present. He wondered who the twelfth might be, and was answered before he could open his mouth to ask. There was a muffled noise from just outside the structure that caused his heart to sink in his chest. It was the enraged roar of a Wookiee. Luke's eyes widened with concern, and he glanced over at Vader, who remained perfectly still and said nothing. The roaring subsided after only a few seconds, and to Luke's surprise, it was not accompanied by blaster fire. Something, or someone, must have calmed Chewbacca down. Once the room had fallen silent again, the twelfth and final attendee walked in, his light blue cape billowing behind him. The twelfth was Lando Calrissian.

Lando's eyes locked onto Vader, and gave him the same burning stare that was still etched on Leia's face. He walked at a brisk pace, making a beeline for Leia's side. Only when he reached her did he look down, away from Vader. He opened his mouth to offer her words of comfort, but her expression and body language was enough to dissuade him. He quickly thought better of it, straightening his uniform and turning to face Vader as the others in the room had done.

"Be seated," Vader ordered. Everyone was quick to follow the command. When Vader followed suit, his movements were slow, as he silently endured the pain from his damaged hips and torso. Once he sat, he placed his hands on the armrests of his chair, and became still as a sculpture once again.

"The record of this meeting," Vader began, pointing to the holoprojector at the center of the table, "is to be transmitted across the galaxy when I am finished."

He paused, giving enough time for the men and women around him to nod or quietly mumble their agreement. Only Luke, Leia, and Lando remained silent.

"Remember that as of this moment, I alone carry the authority of the Emperor. My word is law, and there will be no recourse for any who defy me."

Here, he paused again. To the eleven who heard him speak, it felt as if the temperature of the room dropped by several degrees.

"As my first act, I am announcing the formation of a new government," Vader continued. "By my command, the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance no longer exist." There was a noticeable gasp from one of Vader's men, but he went on without making any effort to acknowledge it. "Instead, the galaxy will be united under a new Republic. The Senate is to be reformed, with executive power divided equally between two heads of state. In the interim, I will divide my authority between two in this room, who are to maintain order until new elections can be held."

As Luke absorbed his father's words, it dawned on him that there was much he had left unsaid. "Father..." he began.

"Mon Mothma," Vader called, ignoring Luke. "Will you accept this power, and ensure the discipline of your followers while these reforms are enacted?"

Luke's eyes shifted to Mon Mothma. He sensed her struggle to hold back tears, and her trepidation at being offered what was tantamount to absolute power. It was more than she could have ever hoped for at the outset of the war, and she could think of no other who could more effectively resist the temptation to abuse it.

"Yes," she answered, her voice full of conviction. "I will."

Luke felt Vader's attention turn to him, and could sense what would happen next.

"Luke," Vader rumbled, "Will you take control of the existing Imperial command structure, and bring justice to any who refuse to accept this transition?"

By this time, Luke had more questions than answers, but he knew there was only one answer he could give if their victory was to have any meaning at all. His refusal would plunge the galaxy back into chaos, and end any hope of peace in his lifetime.

"I will, father," he promised.

"Good," Vader said curtly. "Then it is done. I have only one more thing to say before this message is complete." He stood from his chair, pushing it quietly back toward the edge of the dais. "Let it be known that unforgivable crimes have been committed during this war."

"The first Death Star," grumbled the grand admiral to Vader's left.

"Alderaan," Leia snarled through gritted teeth.

"Silence!" Mon Mothma snapped. She was staring at Leia, but both parties held their tongues when she spoke.

"Some are well-known," Vader continued, "while others are a closely guarded secret. These atrocities will serve as a convenient excuse for renewed hostilities...unless they are punished. Therefore, I am taking responsibility for all of them. Whatever you may hear, whatever outrage it may cause, you must blame me, and me alone. The blood of every casualty suffered during this war is on my hands...and I will pay for that blood tonight. I will be the last casualty of this war."

More involuntary gasps erupted from around the table. Vader ignored them, gesturing toward the holoprojector and deactivating it with the Force. Luke rose to his feet, and stepped in front of Vader, looking up into the black lenses that shielded his eyes from view.

"Father," Luke pleaded, "You had plans, for us, for the fleet—the Death Star! You can't do this!"

"It is too late for me, son," Vader replied. "The Death Star belongs to you now. Take it to every system that holds one of the Emperor's concentration camps, and order the immediate liberation of the prisoners. Remind every commander that if he attempts to follow the protocol of our departed Emperor, and liquidate the prisoners rather than surrender them to you, you will not hesitate to demonstrate its power."

"No!" Luke begged, his sentences running together as his body language became more animated. "I watched you destroy the Emperor. I watched you bring an end to this war. There's no need to do this! You've redeemed yourself. You've come back!"

Vader was unmoved. "I have left a scar on the galaxy that will never fully heal," he growled. "There is no redemption for me."

"You lied," Luke argued. "You told me you wanted us to lead the galaxy together."

There was a momentary pause, allowing Vader to take another breath before he gave his answer. "That...was never my destiny," he said at last.

After taking a deep breath of his own, Luke realized there was nothing he could say to dissuade his father. "You can't die," he protested weakly. Vader stepped forward, breathing deeply as he towered over his son.

"I died the day the Emperor put this mask on me," he rumbled. "If I linger, a part of his legacy will endure. There is no honor in that. If Obi-Wan were here today, he would help you to understand. As long as I wear this mask, I disgrace him, and myself."

"You really think he'd let you do this?" Luke asked in bewilderment.

"As my true master, he would have no other choice. That is why I want you to lend me his lightsaber."

Luke was stunned. He felt his hand go to his belt, and retrieve Obi-Wan's dormant blade. For the first time, it felt uncomfortably heavy. Ignoring the icy sensation of Leia's eyes on the back of his neck, he held it out, and let Vader take it from him. As soon as it left his grasp, he felt something through the Force that caused his breath to catch in his throat. He felt Vader's pain, a raw, constant pain that had smoldered for decades. At the same time, he felt Vader's regret, a longing for the chance to go back and raise his children from infancy, to teach them, send them out into the galaxy, and grow old with the smile of his wife to encourage him. He also felt his father's unspoken gratitude. Darth Vader, who had given himself to the dark side and served as the Emperor's apprentice as long as he'd been alive, was grateful to him for helping to bring his plot to fruition, and for allowing him to honor Obi-Wan with one last sacrifice. Vader gripped Obi-Wan's lightsaber tightly, recognizing the images and feelings that had just passed between Luke and himself.

"The holocron is waiting for you aboard my Star Destroyer," Vader said. "It is a record of everything I was taught...and everything I wanted to teach you."

"I'll remember it," Luke promised. Vader gestured to the doors of the command module, and his stormtroopers entered, marching in unison with their blaster rifles slung.

"Have your men remove this structure," Vader ordered. "I want everyone gathered here to see the truth with their own eyes."

The stormtroopers marched out as quickly as they had come in, and Luke could hear their muffled voices shouting orders. Within moments, the walls of the command module were torn away. More men clambered up into the scaffolding, pulling away the ceiling panels before disassembling the metal supports and carrying them off. Vader, meanwhile, held up his hand to the new leaders of the interim government he'd established, waving them away. All of them stepped off the dais except for Luke, who planted his feet, determined to remain by his father's side until the end. Vader's men removed the table and chairs from the dais, giving everyone in the crowd a near-perfect view.

"I would be honored if you would act as my second," Vader said to Luke, holding out his own red-bladed lightsaber in exchange for the one he'd just taken. Before Luke could respond, a voice piped up from behind him.

"I'll do it," Leia said firmly, ignoring the way Vader and Luke stared at her. She calmly held out her hand, and added, "if it comes to that."

"I would not expect it," Vader replied. Even so, he allowed Leia to take his lightsaber from him. He stepped past his children, his boots thumping heavily as he moved to the center of the dais. He stopped, reached up to the chain that fastened his cape around his neck, and removed it. He slowly knelt down, and laid the cape flat on the dais in front of him. He placed both of his knees on the edge of the cape, and held Obi-Wan's lightsaber in front of him with both hands. For a moment, he seemed to stare off into the distance, and his breathing quickened. Luke's brow furrowed as he struggled to perceive what Vader was seeing. To his eyes, there was nothing beyond the faces of the crowd.

"My master beckons," Vader announced. He raised Obi-Wan's deactivated lightsaber in front of himself, with the blade emitter facing the center of his chest. "I proudly walk to his side," he continued, moving his thumb over the ignition switch, "and call him brother."

Vader's haiku was immediately followed by a sharp hissing noise, and a flash of brilliant blue light as Obi-Wan's blade erupted from the center of his back. His breathing changed, taking on the sound of the last bit of liquid being sucked through a straw. He gave out one final gasp, then fell silent. The only noise that could be heard was the humming of the lightsaber. Leia clutched Vader's weapon tightly, seeing that his body was still mostly upright, and wondered for a moment if she would have to use it. The question disappeared from her mind when Vader's grip slackened. His gloved thumb slipped away from the ignition switch, and Obi-Wan's blue blade disappeared. Vader's lifeless body slumped forward, falling onto his cape with a muffled thump. It was finished.

Without conscious thought, Luke stepped forward to tend to his father's body. He bent down, and gently rolled the armored corpse onto its back. It remained on the cape, allowing him to wrap the body and give it a more dignified appearance. Luke studied his surroundings to decide how best to lift the body, and found Leia at his side. Dozens of others stepped onto the dais with them, Rebels and Imperials alike. They brought dry wood from the surrounding forest, and piled it next to the body. Once they had a sufficient amount for a funeral pyre, all who could find purchase gripped Vader's body and lifted. Even Leia joined in, bearing the burden without the slightest hint of a struggle. They laid the body on top of the wood pile, leaving the cape wrapped loosely around it. Wedge stepped up next to Luke, and passed a lit torch to him. Luke accepted it, and thrust it into the base of the wood pile. The flames spread quickly, engulfing Vader's body within seconds. Those who stood around the fire took a step back in response to the sudden wave of heat. Not a word was spoken. The Rebels had survived too much to engage in casual conversation. Instead, they stared into the roaring fire, reflecting on their hard-earned victory, and what it had cost.

Leia knew she should be thinking of her father. A part of her wanted to understand what made him into the embodiment of evil she'd hated for so long. Another part of her wanted to know what he and Luke had been through, and how Luke's understanding of his character had changed. But as she watched the flames lap at Vader's lifeless black armor, her thoughts turned to the future that could have been—a future with Han that was forever lost to her now. She expected more tears, more pain, as she thought of her love being torn away forever. Instead, she felt only one thing: quiet, seething rage. It was the same feeling that had consumed her when she took revenge on the hapless Imperial officer who'd shot Han in front of her. She knew that the feeling wasn't healthy, and she recognized that it was growing stronger, but she didn't care. For some reason, it brought her comfort to let it grow. So, she embraced it, clutching her father's lightsaber tightly in her hands as it washed over her like a cleansing shower. She felt more powerful, more aware, than she'd ever been in her life. It numbed her pain, and she had no desire to resist it. It was a feeling she could get used to.

Chewbacca stood behind Leia, his shaggy paws dangling at his sides. He'd long since passed R2-D2 off to an Alliance technician, being in no mood to repair the droid himself. He breathed deeply, silently mourning the loss of his closest friend. As he filled his lungs with air, he caught the scent of agitation and stress rolling off of Leia. The scent told him more than any words could possibly express, and he knew she would never be the same again. Chewbacca remembered the promise he'd made to Han over a year ago, that he would protect Leia at all costs. He considered that promise to still be in effect. He would continue to watch over her, and lay down his life for her if necessary. He knew it was what Han would have wanted.

Lando also thought of Han while watching Vader's funeral pyre. Han had been a good friend, even after winning the Falcon from him. He'd been a man of few words, and he'd never been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Even so, Lando was skilled at reading people, and from their last conversation, he knew Han intended to reconcile. They would have talked things out, eventually, in their own way. Everything could have been patched up...but it was too late now. Lando sighed, knowing that it was his burden to bear. He remembered reading about survivor's guilt after the Battle of Tanaab, but he'd never felt it himself. Not until today, anyway. It should have been me, Lando thought. Han was a good man, with a good woman who loved him. His eyes went over to Leia. He knew there were no romantic feelings between them, but he could tell from the look on her face that she would need the support of a friend. It should have been me, he thought again.

Like his sister, Luke felt empty and numb as he watched the flames break down Vader's corpse. He was confident in his ability to resist the dark side of the Force, but in that moment, he also could not feel the light. He felt detached, and wondered if he could ever live up to the commitment he made to Yoda, to rebuild the galaxy and raise up a new generation of Jedi Knights. He looked up at the sky, where the crescent-like edge of the Death Star was just visible beyond the wall of smoke. He imagined himself commanding it, and wondered what use he could possibly have for a superlaser that could destroy an entire planet. Vader was right to assume that it would coax the surrender of even the most fanatical Imperial officers, should they cling to their loyalty to Palpatine's regime. Once that was done, however, he would have no use for it. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack, he recalled. Then, he had an epiphany. Once his mission was complete, and the galaxy united by a new Republic, he would have the Death Star completely rebuilt, from the inside out. The superlaser would be decommissioned, and the entire battle station would be christened as the new Jedi Temple. Never again would the Jedi be in danger of extermination, not when they had a sanctuary the size of a small moon that could travel through hyperspace to any point in the galaxy. A smile tugged at one corner of Luke's mouth as he imagined the limitless potential that lay before him. His eyes came back down, to the fire, and the people gathered around it. He spotted Leia's face right away, and his smile disappeared. He still could not discern her thoughts, but when he looked into her eyes, he saw a flicker of yellow that reminded him of the Emperor. He blinked and looked again, but it was gone. He told himself it must have been a trick of the light, a reflection from the fire, perhaps. Still, he couldn't help but fear for her future. It was then that he heard Obi-Wan's voice in the back of his mind, repeating the warning he'd issued on Dagobah. Watch over your sister, the voice warned. You must not allow her to suffer your father's fate. Luke felt Obi-Wan's spiritual presence nearby, along with Yoda's, and his father's. He turned away from the fire, searching the open space where the Force drew his eye, but he saw nothing there at all.

VADER'S VALKYRIE