She shouldn't be so nervous. Afterall, it was just a Senate roll call, for a session that was primarily ceremonial in nature. She'd participated in hundreds of sessions, debating subjects of great importance back in a time when voicing your opinion could have gotten you killed, or worse. And she hadn't been this nervous back then.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.Maybe she was nervous because it was the first Senate session in over four standard years, taking place in a hastily erected shell of a building because the old Senate Rotunda was in no shape to house delegates. It would have been too small anyways, now that each system was entitled to its own representative. As it was, many of the delegates were participating by holoprojector, instead of in person on Coruscant.
By heritage she could have run for election on Naboo, or even Tatooine, but the citizens of New Alderaan had asked her to be their senator and of course she had accepted. They were her people after all, whom she had represented before the holocaust and having shared that loss as well as the guilt of survival, they were even more tightly bound together.
She took a quick glance around the room. Maybe she was nervous because even though several years had past since the last session, she was still one of the youngest Senators. She knew many of her colleagues were old enough to have served under the old Republic, while she had only known the Senate as it existed under Palpatine. Without a doubt it had been dangerous to be an Imperial Senator, but this was almost more frightening, to carry the true weight of responsibility in a Senate that could actually accomplish change.
In that thought she recognized the true source of her tension : she didn't want to disappoint those who had gone before her. As if the pressure of following in the footsteps of Bail Organa hadn't been enough, she had come to know that she was the daughter of Padme' Naberrie, another member of the group of Senators who had been the origin of the Alliance. For them as much as for the peoples of New Alderaan, she must be strong and diligent and just in building this New Republic.
The roll was steadily making its way to her, the holocam gliding up to each delegate.Her turn came, and she sat up straight and announced herself in the steadiest voice she could muster. "Leia Organa, representing New Alderaan."
Because Luke had told her how difficult it was for even Force-strong beings to communicate across the divide between life and death, she understood that what she was feeling had to be impossible.But just as she could have sworn that someone besides Threepio was in her apartment earlier, she couldn't shake the feeling now that she was accompanied on either side. More unbelievable than that, she knew she heard a whisper after the holocam moved on.
He stretched his neck against the confines of his uniform collar. Adjusted his jacket. Touched the brim of his cap. He was one of the few who had proven capable of commanding a Super Star Destroyer, but that ability did not carry with it a love of public speaking. But he'd better get used to it.
A man he knew to be a fomer Rebel officer began the introduction, and he felt in his pocket for the comforting presence of his speech notes. Stepping from behind the stage curtain, he strode towards the podium as the loudspeaker blared its message."Gentlemen, I present to you the Supreme Commander of the Combined Forces of the New Republic, Firmus Piett."
Quite a title for a working class lad from the Outer Rim. Hard to believe he'd risen higher than all those classmates of wealth and privilege he had known in the Academy. Must have been all that hard work and clean living. Of course, it didn't hurt that his strongest supporter was also a poor kid from the Outer Rim.As unbelievable as it seemed, he was going to miss working with Vader, but he admired the choices Vader had made since Palpatine's death. There was more going on under that mask than he had ever known.
He spread his notes over the podium and looked out into the audience. He recognized many of his compatriots from the Imperial Navy, at least those who had earned Vader's approval, as well as scores of faces, many of them nonhuman, whom he knew only from briefings about the Alliance command staff. It would be no small feat to create a truly unified organization.
"We are at unique point in history," he began,"when two opposing sides of the Galaxy have been reunited. Many of us are old enough to remember that the Galaxy was whole once before, but we have been fighting each other long enough that the memory may not seem real. Our task then is to put aside our differences and focus on the future, a future defending the New Republic."
What had he been thinking? This speech didn't sound like him at all; it sounded like some bureaucrat. As the Supreme Commander, he was free to create the armed forces that he had dreamt of, keeping the impressive discipline of the Imperial Navy, but no longer bound to the questionable directives of Palpatine.
He crumpled up his notes and threw them on the floor. "You've all been in the military long enough to recognize bantha fodder when you hear it."
A ripple of laughter spread through the audience.
"We each understand the amount of work we have ahead of us, so I won't belabor the point," he said. "All you need to know about the Combined Forces can be stated in three words."
He paused, letting the room fall to absolute silence.
His conviction poured out of him. "Service. Integrity. Honor."
In a hundred different voices the words came back at him, repeating until it became a chant.
Service. Integrity. Honor.
"What do you think, Artoo?"
The droid burbled and chirped at his side, casting its photoreceptor towards the open panel on the X-wing fighter.
"I think you're right," he said."I'm sure it's plenty fast now."
He knocked the cover flap down over the panel and latched it. Around him the hangar was quiet, the ship's mechanics having retired to their quarters long ago. The X-wing stuck out like a Wookiee among Ewoks, the only non TIE among the ship's complement of fighters. His father had tried to convince him of the superiority of the TIE Interceptor, but he had staunchly defended his X-wing. To end the debate, his father had suggested that he at least try flying a TIE before making his final decision.
"Why bother," he had said."When you came after me at the Death Star, as I recall my X-wing came out on top."
There had been dead silence from within the helmet. "You had a head start."
He had laughed. "Maybe. But since you've never flown an X-wing, and I've never flown a TIE, let's say we take them both. At some point we switch fighters and see who can fly a strange ship the fastest. For bragging rights as to who's the best pilot in the Galaxy."
The reply had been immediate. "Be prepared to lose."
And so the X-wing had been loaded into the BlueSaber's hangar along with the TIEs. So far in this mission there'd been no time for them to indulge in their wager, but it remained as an inside joke between them.
He gave the fighter one last pat before heading towards the interior corridor with Artoo at his heels. After the past two months aboard Executor the BlueSaber felt cozy, with a crew numbering in the hundreds instead of the hundreds of thousands.The smaller frigate had been his father's choice for this mission because of its greater stealth and maneuverability. They'd probably be back on board Executor soon, though, unless the blockade of the Rimma Trade Route by three renegade Grand Admirals was resolved by diplomacy. If that failed, they'd be sent to end the problem by what his father termed "aggressive" negotiations.
But for now, the BlueSaber streaked through hyperspace towards Ciutric, where Republic intelligence said Sate Pestage was hiding. He looked forward to the day when the assaults on the fledgling New Republic would taper off, and peace would be restored to the Galaxy.
He rounded a corner and stopped in front of an elevator. While waiting for the door to open, he pulled his com from his belt. "Commander Ardes, what's the status on the bridge?"
"Everything's under control, sir. Nothing to report," Ardes replied.
"Good. Notify me when we're coming up on Ciutric," he said.
"But Captain, I heard that you Jedi just know those kind of things."
He smiled and returned the humor."Oh, we do. But I need to know that you know."
Three decks later he exited the elevator and turned towards his quarters. Half way there he decided to take a detour and ended up in front of his father's cabin instead.
// Can I come in? //
// Of course. //
The door yielded to a wave of his hand and he entered the room, walking past his father to throw himself on the cabin's long black couch. Seated at his desk, his father remained focused on his datapad and offered no further greeting, not even to Artoo. He might have begun using the name Anakin Skywalker again, but some days he was still just...Vader.
"The troops are prepared?" his father said, still facing the desk.
He rested his head on the couch arm and stared up at the ceiling. "All briefed."
"And you have contacted the bridge?"
"Under control," he said, and glanced at his chrono." A little over two hours until we exit hyperspace."
"Good," his father said."I have something to show you."
He sat up from the couch with interest."More Djem So techniques? Or will you guide me through active meditation again?"
"Another time. For today I will show you only...me."
He couldn't think of anything to say. It didn't seem possible for the statement to mean what he thought it meant, but when his father walked through the opening in the transparisteel wall to the back half of the cabin, he didn't hesitate to follow.
He sealed the door behind Luke, and activated the control panel."It will take several minutes for the chamber to reach full pressure. You will want to clear your ears as you would after a ground level take-off."
The necessary rituals to which he had long ago become accustomed seemed strange and unnatural once again, now that he had to explain them. But Luke simply nodded and seemed to take it in stride.
For himself removing his mask was unnecessary. They could sense each other's feelings and communicate whole thoughts without even speaking. And when they did speak, it was with increasing openness, born of a trust developed from working together. But though Luke never asked, he knew his son wanted this, to at last see his face.
He felt a sudden need to warn Luke. " You should know that I was severely burned."
"I know," Luke said."The Emperor told me a little."
Palpatine had told Luke what had happened? If so, it would not have been to elicit sympathy, but to widen the gap between them. And perhaps that's what unmasking would do : cause Luke to reject him for his deformities, or worse yet, fill his son with pity. Abruptly, he wanted to shut off the chamber and walk away.
By giving up the Empire he had regained more than he had ever thought possible. His sense of purpose. His place in the Republic, with a respect granted because of his achievements, rather than from fear . And most of all, his family. Though Leia still maintained a careful distance, the past several weeks with Luke had been everything he had hoped for. They were a team now, much like he and Obi-Wan had been. To jeopardize that closeness seemed foolish.
But if he stopped the process now, he would only appear the coward. And just as he had been unable to disappoint Luke on Endor's moon, he found he could not disappoint him here. Whatever Luke's true destiny was, not a small part of it involved making his father a better man.
He closed his eyes and released his fear. Not in the way that Palpatine had shown him, so that it could be used as a weapon, but as the Jedi had tried to teach him, so that it washed away in the Force. In his youth the technique had never worked for him, but now, as with many things Jedi, he at last understood.
Once the chamber reached sufficient pressure, he deactivated the suit, hitting the override on the chestplate before turning the system off at the belt. He paused in the silence.The mask had become his face, providing both strength and protection.Not even Palpatine had seen him without it in many years. He was thankful for the darkness provided by the now unpowered helmet, as he reached behind his head to unlatch its outer shell.
With the outer helmet gone, the cool air of the chamber brushed against his neck. He blinked back against the invading light, disengaging first the upper portion of the mask, and then the lower portion that contained the voice modulator. Both pieces he set carefully on his bed, alongside the outer helmet. Exposed, he felt the weight of Luke's gaze and lowered his head.
"You really are in there," Luke said.
He found his eyes drifting towards his son. "You expected a hologram?"
"I'm not sure what I expected," Luke said."But it doesn't look so bad."
"You say that only because you do not know how I looked before," he said, at last raising his head to face Luke.
"And it's nice to hear your real voice," Luke said, his smile broadening.
He had forgotten how contagious a smile could be, and found one starting on his own face. "But the other one is so useful."
Luke moved to one side of the bed and sat on its edge, a knee folded across its top. "Tell me what happened. Tell me about your life."
"What do you want to know?" he said.
"Anything. Everything," Luke said.
"Everything will take too long," he said.
"Then start at the beginning," Luke said. "And maybe tomorrow we can do this again."
He undid the clasp on his cloak and swung the durasteel breastplate over his head. As he set them alongside the pieces of the helmet, the mask flipped over and he saw it for what it really was. Not his face, but just something he wore.
Taking a seat at the foot of the bed, he turned his true face to his son."Tomorrow, and the day after, and the one after that."