Well, here it is – the final chapter of "Ring of Fire." I can hardly believe it myself. It has been an often fraught but generally amazing two – year journey for me.
I'm incredibly grateful to every reader who ever stopped by to let me know they were reading. I'm astonished and awed by the hardy few who stayed with the story from the beginning. Thank you so much. I will miss you all.
I owe a special thanks to all the people who have helped me along the way by reading drafts, beta-reading, and just generally listening to me moan or ramble. DarthBreezy, thanks and hugs for always being there through thick and thin! ELDRITCH, I owe you big time for all your time and energy and support. JediMasterRev and Souderwan, thanks for being there and for pinch hitting when I needed you!
Most of all, thank you for reading – whoever and wherever you are. Please stop by the thread one last time – or for the first time! – to say goodbye.
Chapter 41. There Are no Endings, Only Beginnings
On the day when Democracy finally died in the Galactic Republic, Alderaan's last Senator thought for one overwhelming moment that he had seen a ghost. Afterward he couldn't say what, precisely, had shocked him to a standstill in the middle of a crowded corridor in the Senate Building – was it the face he had glimpsed, or the impossibility of having seen it?
It was a face Aeron still found himself searching for in crowds, in holofeeds, and sometimes, dreamily, in the cloud formations of his native Alderaan. He still thought of her often, and always with guilt and sadness.
But he couldn't have seen her. Dellia was long dead.
The enormous corridor outside the Senate Chamber was mobbed with people trying to get inside for the final session of Congress. When Aeron abruptly halted in the midst of the flow it took several collisions, accompanied by mumbled apologies or muttered oaths, to get him moving forward again.
He looked around; desperately seeking another glimpse of the face that had frozen him in place. It was nowhere to be found in that crowd. Everyone was in such a hurry to get inside – and what for? To observe first hand the final blow in Palpatine's systematic extermination of Democracy? To approve it?
Emperor Palpatine. It was incredible. How was it possible that the Senate hadn't stopped him long before this? But they had not stopped him. After today, Aeron and his colleagues slink home wrapped in failure and futility and fear. Henceforth the Emperor and his military machine would govern the Galaxy in dictatorship and rule it with terror.
Aeron was surprised that the brief appearance of a face from the past could make him momentarily forget the terrible present. Perhaps he was losing his grip on reality in the face of the nearly unbearable tension and anger that had marked his term as Alderaan's last Senator? Perhaps he was more worn out than he had thought? The face he had seen (surely he hadn't imagined it?) had been young – as young as she had been the last time he'd seen her. But nearly twenty years had passed. She would have changed as much as he had… I'm being ridiculous. Dellia is dead. She died in the Temple that night along with her Jedi 'protectors,' and I coudn't save her…
To the utter annoyance of a number of hurrying Senators behind him, Aeron halted in his tracks a second time, searching his memory for details of the face he had seen so fleetingly. It had been so familiar – that pale oval, those wide-set eyes – but when he thought about it more, there had been differences. It was hard to be certain given the corridor's subdued lighting, but the eyes had seemed a different color; lighter, perhaps. And the hair – well, it had seemed darker, with glints of red that he didn't remember Dellia's hair having.
The crowd continued to stream around Aeron on both sides while he stood stolidly in place, thinking and wondering.
When the corridor had emptied out and penultimate session of the Galactic Senate was finally called to order, the Senator for the Alderaan System was not present in the Chamber.
It didn't matter. Who would take note, or care? A Senator already was a thing of the past, and of no consequence.
"Well, my dear? Did you attend the session?"
"Of course I did."
The Emperor of the Galactic Republic leaned back in his chair and contemplated his young visitor with the usual mix of irritation and solicitude. The irritation came from the child's continued breathtaking indifference to the reverence and the protocol due his august personage. She dared to sprawl sideways in his visitor's armchair with one booted leg casually flung over the arm rest. Instead of watching his face anxiously for any sign of displeasure, as one ought, she allowed her eyes to wander around the room and out the window. She never used the honorific when she addressed him. And most irritating of all, she was far more likely to be bored than afraid.
"And… what did you think?"
The girl shrugged. "S'all right. You said you were going to do it, and you did." Big deal, was the unspoken subtext.
"Politics do not interest you? The uncontested replacement of a so-called Democracy by absolute Empire does not impress you?"
The girl merely shrugged. Palpatine contemplated her for a while.
Though she could be infuriating, he approved of the qualities that made her that way – most of them, anyway. She was without a doubt fearless, and utterly disdainful of fear in others. She was intelligent and ambitious enough for his purposes. Her sense of entitlement was unsurprising since he had brought her up as his rightful heir, with the best of everything and the expectation of inheriting all. Most importantly, she was strong with the Force, gratifyingly trainable, and entirely dependent on him – his creature in all things. At the age of nineteen she already had the skills of an accomplished Jedi Knight, but her spirit had never been stifled by the cloying strictures of their ridiculous Jedi Code. Under the circumstances, her youthful arrogance was understandable.
"I have a surprise for you, my dear."
The girl's eyes flickered in distrust at his repeated use of the endearment. "Oh?" She asked with studied nonchalance, as if she didn't care.
But she did. He could sense her curiosity. She could hide nothing from him.
"Now that the question of Empire has been settled, I have decided to begin your training in earnest."
He eyes widened. He had captured her interest after all. He refrained from smiling.
"More training? Why would I need more training? I'm over-trained as it is. There is no one who can match me." Her mobile mouth pursed with the faintest hint of sullenness. "It's a pity you destroyed all the Jedi. At least they might have posed a challenge."
Ah, the arrogance. It would disappear shortly.
"You have barely begun your training, young one. I suggest you refrain from questioning me."
This time her long legs swung off the chair and her booted feet landed squarely on the floor. The sullenness had left her face, replaced by antagonism.
"Then tell me for what I'm to be trained! I'm already bored to tears!"
Palpatine let an eloquent silence pass between them before asking slowly and deliberately, "Do I understand correctly that you are bored because you feel that you have achieved the peak of your powers?"
She glared at him, refusing to answer, but it was answer enough. She was tensed and ready for a confrontation – feet firmly planted, thighs like springs, the Force gathering around her.
A second later she flew out of her chair backwards as if yanked by an invisible chain and smashed into the far wall of Palpatine's office. The only reason her neck didn't snap was because she managed to cushion the impact with the Force. Her body crumpled onto the floor and she lay still, gasping.
Palpatine got up slowly and crossed the office to her without hurry. She was conscious, with blood trickling from her nose and one arm twisted in an odd position.
"When you can best me," he hissed, "then you can call yourself powerful. Until that time, you still have much to learn."
The girl did not answer; nor did she moan or cry out. Her eyes glinted with the green fire that lit their depths when she was in the grip of powerful emotions. He probed her feelings ruthlessly, without restraint or permission. He found no trace of fear. He sensed anger, ambition – and determination. She was probably plotting his demise.
"Get up. See to yourself. Your training begins at dawn tomorrow."
The girl struggled to her feet without a whimper and walked stiffly to the door of his office, holding one arm protectively with the other. Just before she reached the door, she turned around and favored Palpatine with a bow of the appropriate form and depth.
He nodded graciously in return.
She was worthy of his training. Truly worthy, unlike that despised Other One. As an infant, the child had impressed him by surviving the destruction of the Jedi Temple against all odds. He had found her screaming in a pile of the dead, and immediately had understood her potential – she was strong with the Force but too young to have been ruined by the Jedi. In her, the Force itself had provided him with the solution to the terrible quandary in which Anakin Skywalker's unprecedented treason had placed him. He had resolved at that moment to raise her, without interference, to become his new apprentice.
She had done well. She would meet his needs. Her overconfidence would not last; fear and respect would come quickly enough. And once her dark training was complete, she would realize that she could not grasp the ultimate prize without first destroying Skywalker.
Palpatine smiled to himself. Once she learned about Skywalker's murder of her Jedi father, he was quite sure she would not stop until she had succeeded.
"You!!!" Anakin growled at his unexpected visitor, but he reserved his killer glare for Pell, who was responsible for bringing the man into the compound without his knowledge or authorization.
The man with Pell bowed politely. Anakin did not return the greeting.
"Have you gone mad, Pell? I said no visitors!"
Pell stood with his feet planted firmly and his arms crossed over his chest, rocking a little from heel to toe. He had a stubborn look on his face. The visitor gazed up at the ridge beyond, pointedly ignoring Anakin's temper tantrum. A piece of personal luggage sat beside him. This made Anakin even more furious. He's not planning to stay, is he…?
"I was followin' orders," Pell responded calmly. "I was told to fetch 'im, an' I did. Per orders," he emphasized again.
"I did not order you to…"
Suddenly Padmé was beside him. Anakin desisted, albeit sullenly. He had little enough of Padmé's time and attention as it was, and he bitterly resented the intrusion into their privacy. The fact that she had evidently arranged the intrusion hurt.
"Thank you, Pell," Padmé said warmly. "You never fail me."
The little man bowed deeply to her, and with a triumphant glance at Anakin, excused himself. By the time he had turned away, Padmé was hugging the visitor so hard that he involuntarily staggered back before somewhat awkwardly returning her embrace. His nervous glance toward Anakin gave away his discomfort at her display.
Good! Anakin thought with satisfying hostility. Since he couldn't be angry with Padmé, he had to turn it on someone. Be afraid! Be very afraid!
"General, I am so grateful to you for coming – and so quickly!"
"Anything for you, My Lady," Typho said with all the warmth his still-awkward demeanor allowed. "You know that."
General? Anakin thought sourly. In place of his Alliance Officer's uniform, Typho wisely wore only shabby local clothing. They promote everyone lately. Next thing you know, they'll be commissioning pirates and farm boys.
"Did you bring it?" Padmé asked eagerly.
Typho ventured a little smile, which transformed his face. "Of course, My Lady. It took some doing, but I finally have the complete prototype based on your exact specifications…" he again glanced cautiously at Anakin, who by this time was even more irate because he didn't know what they were talking about. Typho lowered his voice. "Do you want it now?"
Anakin shifted impatiently. Padmé stroked his arm soothingly.
"Yes, why not," she agreed. "Have them bring it inside. Then come have some refreshments. You must be tired after your journey."
"Thank you, My Lady. I'll be there shortly." With a last, almost furtive look at Anakin, Typho headed back out toward a cluster of vehicles at the canyon entrance.
Anakin turned on her. "Would you like to explain to me just what…"
"Yes, Anakin, I would. I would very much like to explain everything to you as soon as General Typho returns."
"Hmph." Anakin growled and grumbled, but followed her back into the main house because she had bidden him. There was nothing he would not do for her, and mostly he was frustrated by how little she asked of him. He would happily have showered her with the wealth of the Galaxy and placed armies at her feet, but all she ever wanted was help and support for her Rebel Alliance network and safety for their children. He did all he could, diverting vast amounts of legally and illegally acquired wealth to secret Alliance cells across the Galaxy, all the while spying on his Master while shielding his family from him. Sometimes it took everything he had, but he gave willingly and wished she would ask for more.
Of course, she also wanted him to be patient and just and honorable, but that was a near impossibility. Anakin could not have built and ruled the New Independent Territories without availing himself of the all the resources available to him. Only by using the Dark Arts could he cling to life, protect his family, secure his territories, and keep the Other at bay all at the same time. Deep down, Anakin was sure that Padmé did not fully understand who and what he had become. Terrified that she would reject him if she comprehended all the aspects of his true nature, he tried hard to walk a path that would not dishonor or disappoint her.
When she was with him, he deferred to her in everything.
Anakin was aware that his meekness and deference in Padmé's presence was a much-discussed subject among his inner circle of followers and hangers-on, but he didn't care. As long as they remained loyal and did their jobs they could think what they liked. They knew enough not to cross or betray him. They also understood that Padmé's word was as much law for them as it was for Anakin. Pell had acted rightly.
But Anakin was still aggravated. For the first time it appeared that Padmé was taking full advantage of her access to Anakin's people, and Mon Mothma's too, judging by Typho's presence. He couldn't imagine what she was up to.
When he found out, he had to desperately seek the Light to keep from flying into a dangerous rage.
Typho returned to the house pushing a long, boxy rectangular container ahead of him. On entering, he de-activated the container's repulsorlifts and let it settle on the floor by the door. Without further comment he joined Anakin and Padmé for tea. For an infuriatingly long time Padmé and Typho had chatted about people, places and events that didn't interest Anakin at all. No one had mentioned the container. His eyes kept straying to the door, where it sat mutely. Even a Force probe had revealed nothing. For some reason, it gave him a very bad feeling.
Padmé seemed to sense when Anakin's patience had reached its absolute limit. In the nick of time, she turned to him and took both of his hands in hers. Anakin braced himself, not quite knowing why.
"Anakin, I have asked General Typho to procure something for you – something that will allow you to move around freely and to travel without discomfort."
Anakin stared straight into her eyes. "Why," he asked mildly enough, "would I want to do that?"
Padmé didn't waver. "Because it's time for you to take your rightful place in the Alliance."
Typho looked quickly from Padmé to Anakin and back again with visible alarm, as if this was news to him as well.
Anakin couldn't think of a response. He was too busy wondering what could have happened to make Padmé loose her grip on rationality.
"You know how much the Alliance network has grown over the past nineteen years and how strong we have become. We have well-developed cells throughout the Galaxy. Through the generosity of many secret supporters, we have a large number of mobile command bases and a reasonable amount of resources. Thanks to you we have been able to remain fairly well hidden and to know more about our enemy and his plans than we had ever thought possible." She glanced away for a moment as if gathering her thoughts. "It is time for the Alliance to come out of the shadows."
Anakin didn't say a word.
"We can't win as long as the Emperor remains in power." She took a breath. "You are the only one who can destroy him, Anakin. We need you. The Alliance is at your disposal."
The ensuing silence lasted so long that Typho began nervously tapping his fingers on his knee. Padmé's gaze remained steady, but her hands trembled in Anakin's.
"You know perfectly well why that is not possible," he said at length. His tone was still mild, but the room seemed to grow colder.
"I understand your reasoning, Anakin. You can't keep us all safe at the same time if you are distracted elsewhere. But what if… what if we were all together? As a family, I mean. What if we traveled and… worked… together?"
Anakin couldn't believe it. She had lost her reason. She couldn't seriously be suggesting that they endanger their children…
"Leave us!" he snapped at Typho. Padmé was venturing into private matters that should not be spoken about in front of others.
The General jumped to his feet instantly, but Padmé intervened. "Please, General, stay for one more moment. Perhaps you could open the container…"
Anakin yanked his hands away from Padmé's and pointed to the thing by the door. "I've had enough! What is that?"
Typho hurried to the container and fumbled with the seals. The lid hissed open and he pulled out something that at first glance looked like a Clone-Wars era armor of the kind issued to the cloned troops. It appeared to be a molded white full-body armor of some kind, but the resemblance ended quickly upon closer inspection. The breast plate looked like some kind of a control panel. The interior was a mass of circuits, wires and tubes whose purpose Anakin didn't want to imagine. Typho laid it out on the floor piece by piece. It looked like a fallen soldier, complete from high neck to boots to gloves – only headless. Anakin stared. When Typho retrieved an odd, almost bell-shaped helmet and face mask combination from the container and added it to the assembly, Anakin lost control.
"What in the seven hells do you think you're doing?" he bawled, leaping to his feet as well as he was able.
Typho looked anxiously at Padmé. "I spent a good deal of time after the war locating and looking after discarded cloned troopers," he explained quickly. "The Alliance fed and sheltered as many as we could find. We employed them in training and drilling our new recruits until the clones died naturally after a decade or so from their accelerated growth and development rate."
Padmé nodded encouragingly. Anakin refrained – barely – from strangling the man.
Typho went on, speaking faster than usual. "We had to keep them outfitted, so we developed contacts among the finest designers and manufacturers of armor in the Galaxy." He nodded toward Padmé. "Some time ago her Ladyship commissioned a specially designed armored suit that would address your particular... ah…" Typho paused, visibly sweating, "… disabilities."
"What? Anakin looked at the thing on the floor in horror and fury. It looked like a shiny white corpse. "I'm not going to put something like that on! Are you mad?"
Typho looked helplessly at Padmé.
"Thank you, General," she said kindly, releasing him at last. He left as quickly as courtesy allowed.
"No." Anakin spat when Typho had gone.
"Anakin, please, just… "
"How exactly do you imagine this fantasy of yours taking place?" Anakin demanded coldly. He could feel his fury rising up through his chest. He fought it down.
"It is not a fantasy, Anakin. To free the Galaxy, we must destroy Palpatine. We can't do that without you." She looked at him with sorrow and determination. "But you are physically weakened. That suit…" she pointed at the ugly, shiny white thing, "is designed to restore your muscle strength, to assist your breathing and to keep you comfortable and pain free at all times. With it, you should be able to move ... and fight… the way you did before." She glanced up at him anxiously for his reaction.
Anakin's fists clenched of their own accord. He looked away from her.
"You refuse to leave your family unprotected," Padmé persisted. "And I don't want you to. But with the children grown and ready to break their bonds, the only possibility of keeping them safe is to keep them close to us." Anakin remained mute. "Let's ask for their help, Anakin. Let us go to them finally and make them understand who we are, who they are, and what is at stake. They are no longer infants. You don't know Leia, but she is strong and wise…
"I know her through you. I see her as you do."
Padmé nodded. "And I know Luke through you. He is also strong, and a superb pilot. Just think of it…together we can help you and support you, and it will be easier to keep us safe. You've said that the Force is strong with Luke. I think it is with Leia, too. Perhaps you could train…"
"What exactly do you expect me to do?" Anakin rasped. His shoulders were so tight with tension they trembled. "Go down to Owen's farm and say, without explanation or apology, 'Luke, I am your father'? Are you serious?"
"Well, yes." Padmé was slumped on the bench, gripping her hands together in her lap. "I will have to do the same." When she looked up again, her eyes were dark with pain. "There is no good or honorable or right way to tell a child that you have known of his existence all his life but never made contact with him." She swallowed. "And then, if Luke is willing, the three of us must travel to Alderaan to face to Leia."
Anakin covered his face with his hands. He couldn't remember the last time he had wept. The tears seared his cheeks like the flames of long ago. He could hardly breathe. "You can't mean this," he grated out. "I couldn't do that to him – to either one of them."
Padmé rose and approached him slowly and carefully. "I think you don't give yourself – or your children – enough credit," she murmured, sliding her arms gently up his back and over his shoulders. "I know they will learn to love you as I do."
"I can't do it, Padmé. I can't face them. Not like this."
Padmé continued to caress him in silence, running hands run down his arms and back. Stroking him. Gentling him. Weakening him.
At last, with a sadness Anakin had not heard in her voice since their decision to give up the children, she said softly, "Then the Emperor has already won."
"Padmé, I will do anything you ask," he moaned. But please don't ask me for this."
"I have asked, Anakin. I am asking. You are our only hope."
Anakin shook with despair. Shrugging away from her touch, he gave the empty white armor as vicious a kick as he could manage with one damaged leg. It moved only a little. "I'd look like a clone trooper in this thing. I won't wear it." He waved his hand and hurled all the pieces across the room where they crumpled against the far wall in a random heap. The helmet landed upside down, revealing complex circuitry inside. Anakin fought down a feeling of dread.
Padmé didn't flinch. "I could have it modified," she offered. We could change the color. What about… black? Like the cloak you wear. It would be unique. Even the Mandalorians don't have something like that."
Anakin stared at it hopelessly. "I would be able to fight again?" he croaked after a time.
"It is designed for that. You should be able to fly as well, with the suit protecting you from the pressures."
He stared at the white thing for a long time without moving. It still looked like a corpse, and the container it came in, like a coffin.
"That is not a thing one puts on and takes off like a cloak," he whispered. "Once inside, I could no longer feel your touch."
Resting her face against his back, Padmé slid her hand around his chest to rest over his heart. I am always with you.
It isn't the same.
It wouldn't be forever. Only for this purpose. I would not ask if there was another way.
Anakin opened and closed his metal hand, by far the strongest part of his body, and tried to imagine himself encased inside that mechanical suit. A suit of armor suited for what … a droid?
Not a droid … something whispered faintly in the back of his mind… a knight….
Panicked, Anakin yanked open the door violently and fled, leaving Padmé behind. Waving away the guards outside the compound who automatically moved to join him, he stumbled painfully toward the path that led up to the ridge. His breathing was labored. Out of pride he tried not to limp, but it was difficult. He struggled on. He needed space. He needed to breathe. He needed to think, to weep, to grieve.
Perhaps to meditate.
Back in the main room of the house Padmé sank to her knees on the floor. Opening her mind to Anakin in hopes that he would reach out to her, she remained there for a long, long time, waiting for thought-words that did not come.
"Lady, come quickly!"
Padmé opened her eyes and groaned when she realized how stiff she was from having fallen asleep slumped on the bench. In the faint early morning light she could barely see Pell's face.
"What is it?" she rubbed her eyes, trying to wake up. "What has happened?"
"I'm to take you to the Lars homestead, Lady. We're to leave right now."
Padmé woke up immediately. "I'll be right there."
She washed and dressed quickly, all the while reaching out for Anakin in her mind. He was there – she felt his presence – but he remained silent.
For the first time in a long time, she felt afraid.
A team of five men awaited her in the courtyard, Pell among them. Padmé knew them all. The other four had been part of Anakin's squadron in the Battle of Nowhere, and had refused to leave his side… after. She climbed into the waiting transport silently, wrapped in thought. It seemed that her private time with Anakin was already over. Unless he wanted to be alone with Padmé, Anakin never made a move without his crew by his side.
If her suspicions were right, he was giving her what she had asked for.
The Lars homestead was not far away. When the two transports arrived, the early morning sunlight was just beginning to tint the low domes and the surrounding sand with pink and lavender. Further away, the green fields still looked dark and somber in the low light. Anakin was already there – she could make out his height and his heavy dark cloak and cowl from far away. He was over by the garage talking to a man, probably Owen Lars. Even from a distance, she had the distinct feeling that the conversation was not a pleasant one.
The transports pulled up in a cloud of dust and someone helped Padmé down to the ground. She looked around anxiously for Luke, and realized that she was shaking with anxiety. He was nowhere to be seen. She stayed where she was, pressing herself against the vehicle's side for stability.
"I'll stay here for a moment."
This was what she had wanted and dreamed of.
She hadn't known how difficult – how terrifying – it would be to face her child with the truth.
Anakin's and Owen's raised voices carried clearly in the still morning air.
"… Leave him alone! Just because you're some petty warlord who everybody's scared of, you can't just come in here and…"
"I have the right to see him, Owen."
"You abandoned him with us, brother. That was your choice."
"You have been well compensated, Owen. I have made you a rich man, or have you forgotten?"
"You think that matters? Do you think I wouldn't have taken him anyway, and done it gladly?"
"I'm grateful, Owen. I've told you that. But he's grown now. It is time for him to face his destiny."
"You stupid, crazy Jedi! He's not some soldier you can order around; he's a kid, and a good one, too. Let him have his own life!"
"I am part of his life! Anakin yelled hoarsely, and then he stopped abruptly and turned toward the main dome. Everyone else turned to look as well.
Luke and his Aunt Beru stood at the top of the stairs, looking warily around at all the people who had congregated in front of the homestead.
Padmé's hands flew to her mouth. Her heart beat so fast that the blood pounded in her ears. She couldn't take her eyes off Luke.
My son. Nothing in her life had prepared her for this moment of reunion. Nothing.
For an endless moment no one said anything. Then Anakin moved toward Luke. Owen grabbed his arm, but he shook it off.
Anakin stopped a few paces away from Luke and Beru in the long shadow of the dome. "Do you know who I am, Luke?" he asked.
The boy looked nervously at his Uncle, who was still standing over by the garage. Owen shook his head and looked away.
"Everyone around here does," Luke said clearly and steadily, "Although most of us have never really seen you. They say you run everything in the Territories."
Anakin nodded gravely. Padmé held her breath. Then Anakin called out quite clearly, so that everyone could hear, "You let the sand bury Shmi's grave, Owen."
Luke's Uncle made an impatient movement, the gesture of a man who is warding off the inevitable. "Why shouldn't I have?" he growled. "It would only have raised questions."
Anakin nodded again. "Would you come with me, Luke? I'd like to show you something."
Luke looked anxiously at his Aunt. She nodded and patted him on the shoulder. "Go on. It's all right."
Anakin strode – quite steadily, Padmé noticed – away from the dome toward an otherwise utterly featureless stretch of sand nearby. Luke followed reluctantly. About halfway there, he stopped.
Everyone else moved closer, raptly watching the unfolding scene. Padmé's knuckles were white with tension.
Anakin slowly raised one arm. As his hand rose up, so did a thick column of sand and dust from the unremarkable landscape beyond. There was no wind; there wasn't a breath of air to explain it. The column kept its narrow shape as if sculpted. Not a grain of sand escaped from it. The movement – so precise, so deliberate – was like nothing known in nature. It was the will of one man, written in sand and sky. As the column rose higher and higher, a bowl-shaped depression emptied out beneath it until at last a small, grey slab of stone became visible. Only then was the column of sand allowed – that was the strong impression of all the astounded observers – to arc over and downward, gradually returning to the ground in another location. Another movement of Anakin's hand flattened the edges of the bowl; the sand simple skittered away from it so that the stone marker became accessible from all sides.
Anakin turned to Luke. The boy's mouth had fallen open. He gestured for the boy to come closer. Luke moved toward him a good deal faster than before.
Awkwardly, painfully, Anakin knelt down in front of the slab. Luke crept closer. No one dared to breathe.
"This is the grave of Shmi Skywalker, Luke. She was your grandmother. She died before you were born."
The suns had risen higher in the sky. The stronger rays had lightened the pinks and purples to yellows and browns. It was already warmer. Where the light slanted through Luke's hair, it shone gold.
"Who are you?" Luke asked.
Anakin looked up at him. From her vantage point Padmé couldn't see his face under the black hood. She wondered whether Luke could.
"I am Shmi's only son," Anakin said simply.
"Then … you're my father?"
"I am." Anakin struggled to get to his feet, but was having difficulty. Luke jumped forward to help and pulled him up easily by the hand. Their hands still clasped, father and son stared at one another.
The men standing behind Padmé rumbled among themselves. Further away, she heard Beru's voice saying, "It's all right, Owen. It's all right," over and over again. Suddenly Padmé couldn't help herself. She sprinted toward Anakin and Luke.
"Who is that?" Luke asked his father.
"That," Anakin grated, "is the best news you will ever receive. She is the Lady Padmé – your mother – and she more than makes up for me."
Without hesitation Luke held out his other hand to her.
Padmé took her son's strong hand, marveling at his straightforward, unabashed acceptance of the truth.
At long last, Padmé felt at peace.
There are no endings. There are only beginnings.