Well, people, this is it—the final chapter. I can't believe that this is true… It took me one and half years to finish this nearly 500-pg-long story. I feel like a real writer.
Many of you might be slightly disappointed in the ending, but this is the conclusion that I planned before I began writing. It just seemed right to me this way… even if I land on your black list for writers.
I want to thank every single one of you who had been reading this story since the very beginning! With so much angst and so little humour in it, it hasn't been an easy feat.
Thanks to all the lurkers for your silent encouragement! It means much to me that you managed to pull off. But, maybe, there is still a chance to hear from a couple of you this one last time?
And, of course, many, many thanks to my faithful readers who were with me through all the 40+ chapters of this story, writing wonderful, encouraging reviews that helped defeating Writer's Blocks and drove me on! You don't know how amazing you are.
In the best tradition of SW, I now say 'May the Force be with You' to those of you who I won't be 'seeing' any more. To those of you who're reading my other WIP—"Cage Of Lies"—I say see you soon with an update. :D
With that last boring author's note over, I can only say—enjoy!
The soft grass tickled Leia's body as she lay motionless on the ground, a gust of wind fluttering onto her face. The ache from the spinning and pulling dulled slowly with each mouthful of the crisp air she took. The golden vortex dissolved into nothingness; the Force pulled back from them—they were at home. Vague noises from somewhere far away were lost in the thick quietness of their surroundings which flowed in a wave of wonderful scents in her nose—scents of a changed world. The sky was a firework of gold and pink, and the dimming rays of the sun brushed sadly against the top of the trees in a farewell kiss.
She couldn't wait to find out how the changed world looked, she was sure that it did change, that she and Luke had managed to make a difference…
Leia forced herself to stand up and stretched her nigh irresponsive limbs. They were on Endor, in the same clearing Luke had begged her to forgive Darth Vader in what seemed to have been eternity ago. Yet would they land on Endor if the Galaxy was changed? There must have been some kind of a special occasion in this different world—maybe, an anniversary of their parents' wedding, or a lifeday of their younger brother or sister. She couldn't wait to see them all…
Near her, Luke rose slowly to his feet.
"Leia," he called quietly, staring at something behind her back. There was something… wrong with his face.
"What is it, Luke?" Leia asked anxiously, seizing his arm.
A strange expression crossed Luke's features—it might have been called smile due to a slight curl of his lips, but the listlessness of his eyes made it look like a grimace of pain. "We are home."
Leia nearly laughed with relief. "I can't believe it! We will see our friends again—Han, Chewie, and Lando." Her heart made a mad jolt as excitement raced through her. "And… we will see our parents again—both of them, happily married as they should have been! What do you think, how many siblings do we have?"
Luke continued to stare at her with an almost pitying expression. "No, Leia. You don't understand." His voice quivered slightly.
Leia felt her smile dwindle. "Understand what?"
Why did Luke look so shaken as if something bad had happened? The timeline has been changed, their parents were together and were waiting for them here, on Endor—Leia was sure about this, she knew this… Han would worry if they didn't come back soon… or worse, her father would. An involuntary smile broke across her face as Leia thought of him.
She pulled Luke by his sleeve, feeling like she would burst from impatience… or the flooding anticipation. "Come on! Let's head to the others before Han or father comes to search for us. You know how they can be…"
Luke's lower lip trembled and he gently disentangled his tunic from Leia's grip. "Leia… he won't come searching for us."
Leia raised her eyebrow, laughter threatening to bubble up her throat. "You mean Han wouldn't be searching for me if I disappeared?"
"No, not Han. F-father."
"What do you mean?" Leia asked slowly, uncomprehendingly.
Her brother said nothing. He continued gazing at the grounds behind Leia's shoulders for several agonisingly long seconds. A cold, unpleasant sensation rose slowly in her chest.
"There," he choked out at last, motioning with his hand at something behind her. His voice was strangled as though it brought him physical pain to speak at all.
Leia turned around, half-expecting to find Palpatine sneering at them. But what she saw there was like a slap on her cheek.
Several charred logs had been thrown haphazardly on the ground, the grass beneath them appeared to have been licked away by tongues of flames. It was a mound of black, a body cindered to a pile of ashes…
It was a funeral pyre.
Air left her lungs, and a cold nothingness replaced it.
As if in trance, Leia walked slowly to the logs and squatted down, grabbing a fistful of the still-warm earth… but it was not soil. Black ashes fell mournfully from her palm in a cascade of black flakes. They touched the ground with a despondent sigh, as if happy to be reunited with the rest of black dust, yet sad for the young woman hovering above them.
"No," she whispered to the pyre. "It can't be…"
The ashes stared silently at her, but it was answer enough.
Vaguely, Leia felt Luke's hand gripping her shoulder, but she felt too numb to acknowledge it. Choked sobs ripping from her throat, Leia seized another fistful of ashes and stared at them through the burning of unshed tears.
They were just tiny, black things against the whiteness of her palm. There was no spiritual connection like she had secretly expected that there would be, no trace of Anakin brushing against her mind—there was only a feather weight in her trembling hand.
Her hopes, her dreams, the meaning of life—it was only ashes.
Her father was only ashes.
Disappointment was burning in her throat; everything started spinning. Angrily, she threw the ashes back to the pyre and stood up.
Nothing has been changed. Their trip to the past has been for nothing…
The pain of loss rippled like an ugly wound across her suddenly empty chest. Her parents, Obi-Wan, the younger brothers and sisters she wanted to have—everything had been robbed from her in a twisted joke of fate. They hadn't saved her father… and she would never see him again. Agony lashed through her as Leia remembered his barking laughter, his warm eyes, the elegance of his dance with a lethal lightsaber… It seemed impossible that in this timeline, she used to hate him with her whole heart in what was in all actually only hours ago.
The clearing, the pyre, the ashes—everything disappeared behind a thick haze of burning tears as waves of shocking reality rose higher and pulled her under with brutal force.
"Luke, he's gone," she whispered to her brother, leaning weakly into the warmth of his comforting embrace. "What was the point of going back if we lost everyone again?"
Luke said nothing but tightened his arms around her.
"No difference… it made no difference." Her voice abandoned her.
"No, it made all the difference to the Galaxy," a quiet voice whispered into her ear. Through the fog of swirling thoughts in her mind, Leia registered vaguely that the voice was not Luke's. It was deeper, huskier, yet it rang with familiar notes… painfully familiar notes. She felt Luke stiffen around her before a barely audible gasp escaped his lips.
A tinge of shimmering blue framed her vision.
There was a new, peculiar feeling rising in her chest. Very slowly, unbelievingly, Leia turned her head to the bluish glow… and saw a transparent image of a young man with long, wavy hair who looked at her with a very slight, almost sad smile on his lips. It was the man she had lost all hopes of seeing again…
"Father," she choked.
The bluish image gently brushed her cheek with a transparent hand. There was a soft, tangible warmth… and her father's essence touched hers with a beautiful intensity that she had never felt before.
Leia felt herself smiling. "I thought I'd never see you again, I thought you were dead…"
She couldn't see his face; it was just a smear of blue behind a new wave of tears—tears of joy.
"Leia, I am dead. My body is nothing but ashes now."
"Will you… will you stay with us?" she asked in a small voice even though she already knew the answer.
Luke grasped her shoulder in a painful grip.
The blue outline shook his head. "I don't belong into this world—I have become one with the Force." He glanced at Luke. "If it hadn't been for my son, I don't know where I'd be now."
Leia blinked away her tears. "But you… you died on the second Death Star only hours ago!"
The apparition closed its eyes briefly. "Yes, Leia. I was Darth Vader only this morning."
"You're from this reality," Luke said softly, a wistful glint in his eyes. Probably, he was also thinking about the other reality, about what could have been, about what they have lost—like she did.
Anakin smiled a grim, short-lived smile. "Yes." His eyes were focused on Leia—wary, almost fearful of her reaction. "I was Darth Vader who destroyed Alderaan… the man you hated so much."
He was afraid that she would hate him again… But how could she after everything she had seen?
With an exaggeratingly slow gesture, Leia reached for his phantom hand and brushed its shimmering surface with her thumb. "I don't think you had even been a monster," she said softly. "You were alone, trapped in that suit for twenty years… You hated being a monster, but you were forced to be one because you didn't know how to get out. Because there was no one left to help you. I feel so sorry for the man you have been."
Just as slowly, his bluish hand clasped hers in a flow of warm air, and their hands melded as one. Anakin glanced at her, his eyes reeling with myriads of undecipherable emotions, and Leia couldn't force herself to look away. "Deep down, I was conflicted," he said quietly. "But I was afraid to change; I wasn't strong enough to fight. I was a coward who knew what he was doing—and that's what made me a monster."
"But you came back—you were strong enough to fight the monster."
The apparition averted his eyes. "It took me too long." His voice was quieter than the whisper of the wind. He pulled away his hand from Leia's grip, and her hand was immediately cold.
"No one has accomplished it before," Luke reminded him.
"My other self did it."
A soft silence fell gracefully between them. One of the last rays of dying sunlight found its way through the thick canopy of trees, and bathed the remnants of the pyre in a vivid orange. For a short moment, it looked as if flames were dancing on her father's tomb once more.
"Father… do you know why our trip to the past didn't change anything?" Luke asked.
The corner of Anakin's lip twitched barely noticeably, his eyes very soft. "You weren't in the past," he said dejectedly. "Our universe has many parallel realities, and each of them can have only one outcome. The Force sent you to one of them. You saved my other self, but… your deeds have no impact on this reality."
A nauseating lump clambered up Leia's throat. "But I didn't want to go to an alternate reality! I wanted this reality to change…" Her voice trembled oddly. "Then, our trip was for nothing."
"No, Leia," Anakin said firmly. "It changed everything. You saved me, got to learn your mother, and found yourselves along the way. The memories and feelings of the past will stay with you until your dying day, and no matter how bitter, how disappointed you feel now, you'll be grateful for them one day."
Luke chuckled grimly. "Well, it had been a nice adventure… "
Anakin chuckled softly before turning back to Leia. "Think, if you arrived to a better, changed reality, you wouldn't be the same people you are now because you'd have changed with the rest of the Galaxy. You'd have no memories of your life as Alderaanian princess or you, Luke, as the last Jedi; you'd know nothing of your trip through the time. Would you have wished that? Would you have liked to be a different person than you are now?"
Leia looked away, pondering. If she were able to change her life, would she choose an easy one, one devoid of Darth Vader and the Empire? All the pain and suffering she had experienced, had shaped her to a person she was now. There had been much love in her world—strong, raw love that would be unknown to someone who had grown up in a happy, unmarred world. Would she have traded all of it for a different life? For the life of a different person?
"No, I wouldn't," she said slowly. "It'd be a lie."
"Neither would I," echoed Luke.
Anakin smiled at them wistfully. "I know everything you had to go through in the other reality, and I'm incredibly proud of you, more than I can ever put into words."
"Thank you," Luke whispered hoarsely.
Leia could only nod, she couldn't speak.
Suddenly, a thought flared up in her mind—it was something she had always wanted to know, but never had an opportunity to ask. Something that might seem insignificant, but meant the world to her…
"Father, who named us?"
Luke stirred, his eyes gleaming softly, his trembling mouth slightly open.
The apparition stared unseeingly at the dark trees, his eyes more than twenty years away now. His voice was very soft. "Your mother was convinced that she was carrying a boy, and she named him Luke." His eyes darted towards Luke, who looked much like the young boy Leia had met on the first Death Star five years ago. "I was sure that we'd have a girl… and that we would call her Leia." He grinned shyly. "I hope you don't mind your name."
Leia shook her head. "I like it," she replied softly. Her stomach twisted into an aching knot… but this was not an agonising, unbearable sensation.
A silence fell over them, broken only by distant noises of the feast where beings celebrated the downfall of Empire and Vader's death… Leia wondered what her parents were doing in the other reality—were they playing with their children while Obi-Wan watched over the Skywalker family, smiling his wrinkle-eyed smile? She imagined little Leia laughing in delight, showing her eight perfect pearly teeth as her father would spin her around… or little Luke eager to play with a toy starfighter while Padmé would watch over him. This was a life they deserved to have—life full of happiness and love. But also a life that was robbed away from Luke and she, robbed twice.
Her father's bluish image eyed her with a slight, compassionate smile on his lips as though he knew every thought that crossed her head. Thoughts of unfulfilled dreams, of disappointment, of bitter happiness…
"You should leave the past behind," Anakin said softly. "The memories, the feelings, some pieces of yourselves you'd found—it will stay with you, forever locked in your hearts. But… let go of the people. They're not a part of your lives anymore."
His words echoed tenderly on the inside of her head. Looking at her father's glowing figure disperse the gloom of the old forest, Leia knew with a sudden realisation that it was time to part. The knot in her stomach intensified—she didn't like the idea of saying goodbye at all. Their reunion was too brief, there was so much she wanted to tell him, millions of questions to ask him…
"Can't you stay? Even for a little bit?" she whispered, sounding as if something was choking her.
The ghost shook his head very slightly. "I'm dead, Leia. I don't belong here."
Her vision was hazing again, and there was something salty on her lip. "But- "
Anakin stretched his hand to brush briefly her cheek. The warmth of his gentle, phantom touch tightened the knot, and Leia had to bite her lip to stop a howl that threatened to escape from her lips.
"Leia, the dead never really leave us, but we must go on without them." He chuckled sadly. "It's something I've never learnt... Don't repeat my mistakes."
His image started to pale.
"Will you visit us?" Luke asked, his voice much more childlike than what Leia was used to.
A last smile graced the fading apparition. "If the time is right…"he said, but his phantom voice could have been passed for a whisper of the wind.
A tinge of blue lingered on the grass for a tiny moment… and then it too was gone. The forest was perfectly still and calm.
Leia and Luke remained on the clearing, listening to a quiet chirping of a nocturnal bird, staring at the perfectly smooth grass where their father's ghost had stood only a minute ago… two minutes ago… an hour ago. When the grey twilight was defeated by a thick night, they trudged slowly to the feast which had long ended.
The stars twinkled merrily at the charred logs and black ashes on the empty meadow.
Time was a mysterious creation, passing slowly yet surprisingly quickly, hurrying to run its own unknown errand, taking all lives with it. It healed open wounds, but it also washed away some precious memories that people held close to the heart.
Sometimes, their trip through the past seemed like a mere mirage, like a vivid dream one could never forget for its realness, yet only a dream it stayed.
At other times, the events had seemed as if they had happened only the day before, and Leia was certain that she would one day feel the gentle touch of the Force again to be lifted off and hurled through reality and time once more. Spending time with Jaina and Jacen—little bundles of joy with the free spirit of their father and stubbornness of their mother—reminded her of taking care of the Skywalker twins at times so strongly that her memories seemed almost real, and she felt as though she was on the jungle planet in the Outer Rim again.
Life went on, and years flew by—good years, filled with love, friendship and joy.
She and Luke had vowed to never speak about their trip through time again, for they knew that looking back would only open old scars and make the aching worse. Sometimes, when their eyes met, Leia believed that she saw a certain glint flicker through her brother's eyes and felt the silver bond of understanding stretch between them. At those rare moments, she knew that he was reminiscing the past like she often did and that it came to visit him in his dreams as often as it did her…
Every red-haired, bearded man with wise, grey eyes reminded her of Obi-Wan. A gentle whisper of the wind was her mother reaching to her from within the Force as if telling her that for all Padmé had suffered in her life, she was happy in the netherworld, reunited with her husband—or so Leia hoped. She didn't know whether the identity of non-Force-sensitives would be preserved in the Force…
Were her parents reunited in the afterlife? She had no answer, yet the clear, blue sky her father had loved soaring in gave her hope that not everything was over for Anakin and Padmé after their death. Besides, how could the stars twinkle so merrily, so inviting if the boy who had once wanted to visit them was to spend a lonely eternity without his wife?
Sometimes as she lay awake in her bed, Leia pondered over what her father had told her about the dead never really leaving the living… But he had never visited after Endor—it was as if he had left them. There was no tangible reminder that Anakin Skywalker had ever existed. Yes, his blood flowed in Luke and her's veins, but this fact was so banal, so simple that Leia often disregarded it.
And so, time passed in a kaleidoscope of golden dawns, behind a veil of mourning rain and in the cold embrace of black space. Slowly yet incredibly swiftly, her children turned from little bundles into wobbling wonders and then into laughing and talking little creatures.
As time passed, her stomach became round once more… and another life was beginning within her.
The newborn rested peacefully within her arms, still red and covered in a thin layer of moisture. He shook his tiny fists in the air as though already eager to use lightsabre that he someday would as his Uncle Luke had promised him countless times while the baby was still in his mother's womb. The baby's eyes were shut tightly, but his mouth was already stretched in what one could call a smile. Leia knew that he would grow into a handsome man…
"So, what are we goin' to call him?" Han asked her, perching himself at the edge of the bed and gently touching the baby's tiny fists as if he were afraid of breaking them.
Leia stroked the newborn's forehead. "I don't know yet."
Han smiled her favourite crooked smile. "What about Han Junior? You suggested Thaal, but it's too simple. What about-"
At this exact moment, the newborn opened his eyes, and Leia gasped, Han's voice fainting into the background of her mind until she could no longer hear him. The baby's eyes were blue—a vivid, brilliant shade of blue that Leia had seen only in two persons so far: Luke and… her father. Her son had her father's eyes.
The baby smiled and seized her finger. It was a familiar smile from her past, the unique smile of a blue-eyed man who was gone now…
"Anakin," Leia panted.
"What?" she heard Han's voice as though from light years away.
A familiar, phantom warmth brushed against her cheek—the touch she hadn't felt since Endor. Her heart racing, Leia looked up, but there was no one there. Yet she felt that someone was in the room—someone who she knew, someone who loved her very much… She could sense his presence even though her eyes were too little sensitive to see.
She glanced up at Han, her lips stretched into a genuine smile as myriads of emotions swirled within her.
"Anakin. His name is Anakin."
And then, Leia saw the blue figures of her father, Obi-Wan… and her mother standing in the middle of the room, watching the Solo family with slight smiles on their faces. Her parents smiled at her—forever young, beautiful and together. Leia smiled back at them, too moved to speak.
Following her gaze, Han turned around, and his jaw dropped—he could see the ghosts as well… The visitors from the afterlife and the Solo family simply looked at each other while the golden bond of affection and love stretched between them as the present and past became one under the quiet murmur of the Force.