TO GATHER STONES TOGETHER

PROLOGUE

There were few Republic loyalists alive who still remembered the first days of the Empire. Even before Palpatine declared himself Emperor, it had been a lethal choice to have any allegiance to justice.

That had not stopped many from being all too willing to give their lives for such an outmoded cause. It was this allegiance and this seemingly naïve devotion that had inspired the cause of the Rebel Alliance and allowed it to survive for over two decades.

It was because of the apparent futility of challenging an established and unchallenged government that it had taken the better part of those twenty years to bring the fragmented elements of the so-called Alliance together. No one who had been there for the first tumultuous months or even years could question that it had taken more than courage to go as far as they had.

It had taken courage that they could not even define because of the nature of the rulers. Palpatine had proven himself to be as pitiless as he was fearless in the dark times that could only be classified as purges. It had helped that his lieutenant, the masked monster who had earned his fame in association with massacres, had no time for fear or morals.

It took two decades for the Alliance to strike its first significant blow against the Empire, but that hardly meant that the founders and their growing list of allies had been idle. They vetoed legislation and proposed resolutions that would challenge the apathetic immorality of Palpatine's puppets.

The most important work, however, was what had been done on a more personal front. They were not simply patriots and politicians who did what they could to stem the flow of Imperial bloodlust. There were many who had the challenge of raising the first generation of children who had never known democracy.

As a result, they were forced to teach the moral standards of a failed Republic in a society that was morally bankrupt. While expecting integrity of the rising generation, they instructed them in duplicity so that they could appear to be model citizens for as long as necessary.

It was a strange double standard, but they could only hope that it would produce results. By the time this generation came of age, the Alliance would be able to ask things of them that would change the Galaxy.

Yavin proved that their efforts had not been in vain. The men and women who formed the Alliance from that point onward were a kind of hero that the Loyalist Committee had only dreamed of.

The only question seemed to be whether they had been right to expect such brave warmongering of their children. They were up to the challenge, more capable than anticipated, but it was never certain whether those who had raised these heroes should have spared them. After all, they had aspired to be men and women of action in that same way, but their children might never understand that they regretted asking them to do the unthinkable.

Part 1
I Have Seen the Travail

"Incoming!"

It was a familiar joke on Echo Base, since it was heard a handful of times each week when the local meteor activity decided to come by again. It was the tedious duty of the traffic officer to record each atmospheric entry and its nature as well as alerting the commanding officer.

Not that Rieekan needed it. He seemed to keep tabs on everything, but that was more a result of him having nothing else to do on his watch. He'd usually send her a wry smile and repeat the same phrase: "Duly noted, Lieutenant."

With each day that passed, though, with few visitors and fewer successes in the military operations staged from here, he seemed to get more and more exhausted. It was understandable. After all, they were sitting around in the middle of a snowball, waiting for something to happen to them or the Empire. She had to wonder if anyone in the other uniform was as bored as they were.

Sensor log, day 919: No Rebels here. A couple of fuzzy rodents, but they mostly just smell bad. Can't I at least have a lizard once in a while?

No, it wasn't likely. With Vader killing everyone in his path to the Rebels, his own men included, no one in the Empire seemed to have a minute to spare for boredom.

Apparently, this was one of Rieekan's worse days. Instead of responding to her alert, he didn't even seem to notice. He was just sitting there, head resting in his palms and elbows planted on either side of his keyboard. It was as if he'd fallen asleep or just didn't care that there was a change in status.

With an impatient sigh, she pushed to her feet and crossed to his station. It was time for some of that formality that her father had warned her about when she decided to make a career out of her military skills.

"General," she said respectfully, "we have incoming traffic."

"I know."

It was probably a bad idea to look at his personal computer, but she had to know what had sapped all the energy from his voice. If she had possessed any maternal instincts, she might have felt his forehead, but it was best to leave that sort of thing to Princess Leia or at least someone who had spoken more than one word to him at a time. As it was, she glanced at the screen and found the same sensor readings that she'd been monitoring.

"Looks like a ship this time," she said encouragingly. "One of ours, even."

"It's the Falcon."

He'd be dealing with it personally, then. No one really knew where the Falcon had gone three weeks ago, but they were pretty much used to a few long absences when things got messy. Since Derra IV had only happened in the last couple of months, things probably still qualified as 'messy.'

"I'll let them through," she offered, turning to head back to her station.

Before she could even replace her headset and hail the incoming freighter, the comm crackled. "Echo Base," Han Solo's familiar voice echoed through the control room, "this is the Falcon. I know it's early in the morning, but isn't anyone going to free up a parking space for us?"

"Working on it, Falcon," she called into her headset's mic, pulling up the docking assignments. "Looks like you're in luck. Set a heading for 174 mark 229 and 113 mark 5."

"Thanks, control," Han responded. "Incoming…"

"Captain Solo," Rieekan's voice interrupted. "It's good to see you back. Everyone still in one piece?"

There was a hesitation that couldn't have anything to do with comm interference or a transmission delay, but when Han came back on, his voice was the same. Either he was a good liar or had a good answer for that question.

"A little worse for the wear," he admitted, "but we'll tell you about it once we've landed."

"I look forward to it," Rieekan replied. "Rieekan out."

"Solo out," Han concurred.

She cut the transmission, then chanced a look at Rieekan. He was still seated, but at least he didn't look as if his best friend had died any more. Maybe they had some good news after all.

Rieekan wasn't sure what he had expected. After all, time travel was hardly a normal occurrence and for all the theories and accounts that he had read, he had never seen the aftereffects for himself.

At first glance, it was evident that the trip had been, at least, turbulent for the ship itself. The Falcon seemed to have acquired an entirely new set of scars, but he couldn't tell if that was a result of the travel or what they had found in the past. Perhaps it was a product of both.

Rieekan hung back, not sure of why he hesitated to approach. He felt almost afraid of what he would find when the ramp lowered. Nothing had changed here, to his knowledge; maybe everything had changed in ways that he would never understand.

Nevertheless, Leia looked exactly the same at first glance. Well, that wasn't entirely true, since she seemed to have forgotten to eat for the better part of the time that she had been gone.

Her bearing was the same, but then again, that could mean absolutely nothing. After all, three years ago, he had watched her leave the iFalcon/i for the first time and he had barely registered a faltering in her step. She had been through many things that he would never even understand, but as a product of both Bail's tutelage and Vader's interrogations, she would rather die than disclose that.

In the long nights that neither of them ever mentioned, she had dropped that guard, but today, he saw the defenses rise again. He had simply hoped that he would never have them directed towards him.

One marked difference was the fact that her hand was entwined with Han Solo's. Whatever had happened to bring them back here, the enmity and constant bickering that had been both entertainment and intense frustration for him had been replaced with something much more productive.

When she finally glanced up, her eyes found him immediately as if her thoughts had been on him already. He was not comforted at all by the fact that he recognized that look; it was because he had seen her direct that kind of look through the sights of a blaster.

Even worse, her hand clenched almost convulsively as soon as she set eyes on him. Solo extracted his fingers hastily, but did not speak, only kept his eyes on Leia.

Finally, she moved forward with the same determined stride that he had seen on Yavin IV. It was the gait of someone who had suffered immensely, but who was determined to make someone suffer for it. It suggested that he should run for cover if he had any sense.

Instead, he stood his ground and let her assault him with an embrace that was somehow colder than the night winds of Hoth. It was obviously for appearances, since more questions would be raised by hostility than anything else. Everyone on base seemed to know that Rieekan, the man who had lost his wife and only daughter on Alderaan, had stepped up to the challenge of being the same kind of family that Leia had in Solo and Skywalker.

"General," she greeted.

Anyone else might have taken that word to be a sign of respect, but she had not spoken his rank by way of greeting ever. It only solidified the feeling that he would have to take this to a more private setting soon. Whatever had happened, she was willing to keep it out of the public eye, but if he did not resolve it, that could change very quickly.

"We've finally got the thermal heaters going," he said without returning the salutation. "Let's take this somewhere where we can be comfortable."

"Great idea," Han commended a little too loudly. "Got anything to eat?"

He managed a small, not quite genuine smile. "Not yet, but that can be arranged."

Half-turning, he nodded to the third member of their party. "Sky…"

He broke off. If Leia had chilled him with her greeting, Luke Skywalker looked as if he fully intended to burn him alive. Whatever Rieekan intended to say by way of apology or comment, it died in his throat and Skywalker didn't seem to take notice. He simply tucked his hands into his sleeves and moved purposefully after his friends.

"We weren't sure when you'd be back," he said conversationally, "but by the time we finish our business, I'll have your rooms prepared."

"It won't take long," Leia said tersely. "Just some unresolved issues with the mission."

Unresolved was a bit of an understatement. He couldn't tell who exactly would be receiving the brunt of their anger or if it was, in fact, anger. All he could feel was a vague sense of relief that it was a very short walk to his quarters.

He didn't say anything more, only extracted his datapad from a vest pocket and entered an order to be sent to the kitchens. There was precious little by way of real food on the base, since they couldn't be sure when things such as the cooktops and rehydrators would stop quitting on them, but he ordered a portion of what they could spare. The only thing he excluded was anything hot that could be easily thrown in his face.

"Take a seat where you can," he invited as they entered his cramped quarters. "I'll stand, but…"

As he turned from closing the door, he remembered little except the sudden, blinding pain and the vague awareness that his nose was bleeding. He narrowed his eyes against the pain to glare at Solo for his impertinence, but Solo was still across the room. Instead, Leia stood with her fist cocked, practically daring him to provoke her.

"I wanted to do that," she hissed, "once more with feeling."

He didn't respond immediately, only tilted his head back and pinched the bridge of his nose while the others waited in silence for their next cue.

It was Solo who spoke next, his voice as level as it had been on the comm. "You can't say you don't deserve it," he challenged unabashedly. "Would you like to know how the mission went?"

He could work it out very quickly on his own and certainly didn't need Leia Organa's fist to explain it to him any further. "You failed," he guessed.

"You knew," Leia said simply as if she were lecturing a foolish child. "You knew exactly what you were asking me to do and you sat there and convinced me that it was right to commit murder in the name of justice."

Again, he could not argue with that. He couldn't deny that there had been a thousand times when he could have stopped all of this from happening.

"You are an Alderaanian, but you are the one Alderaanian or even Alliance member, for that matter, who would never be tempted to let that mission fail."

"I did," he confirmed.

He lowered his chin to look directly at Leia, but did not raise a hand to ward her off. If she intended to strike again, he would accomplish more by giving her a chance to succeed than by pretending that it was undeserved.

Instead, her hand dropped to her side. It was probably less a gesture of defeat than an acknowledgment that she would prefer to not be this way. Immediately, he was reminded of the initial misgiving that he should have never thought to send Bail Organa's daughter to do the unthinkable. She was devoted to justice but she had never thought to redefine it to suit her own needs.

"Why?" Luke asked quietly as if her action against Rieekan had robbed him of the need to demonstrate his anger.

"Because it could have changed everything," Rieekan replied frankly. "Who knows what could have been accomplished if the Emperor had been robbed of his greatest warrior or what could have been accomplished if Bail had never been killed?"

"Do you think it would have been really worth it?" Leia blurted. "You asked us to become the very thing that we have been fighting against for this entire war and you thought it might have accomplished good?"

It suddenly seemed absurdly appropriate that he was forced to answer that question with blood on his hands. He let his own hand fall to his side to mirror her stance and he could see Solo relaxing slightly.

"It was never supposed to be that way," he explained. "When the files that we pulled from Artoo's memory banks were dated from the last days of the Republic but under your cipher, we knew that something else had to be done."

"So you sent Anakin Skywalker's son to do the same instead," she snorted. "Was that your idea as well?"

"No," he said adamantly. "I even fought that…"

"You should have fought all of this," Leia interrupted.

Honesty seemed to be what was required most right now, so all he could tell her was, "I know."

The fire didn't leave her eyes, but she turned away as if there was something that she could not even say to his face. She did not speak, however, only moved to Luke's side. His hand extended to her by way of invitation and she didn't hesitate, only slid her fingers into his palm and let him pull her into a silent embrace. It was a familial gesture that had always seemed natural to them, though they could not have possibly known why. The way she rested against him this time suggested that he was welcoming her back after a hard-won battle.

Rieekan felt spent as well, but it was a sensation that followed fear of a strike that never came. It was as if he had been anticipating this sort of return since their moments of departure and now that it had transpired, he had no idea how to move off the battlefield.

"Would you like to know how the mission went?" Solo challenged again.

He nodded, sinking onto the edge of his desk. "I want to know everything."

Solo frowned. "Since we didn't have a way for asking for new orders, we redefined the old. Leia was on the Alderaanian delegation's staff and I eventually managed to get a job as Bail's guard. Luke decided to be a hero and join the Grand Army of the Republic."

His mouth twitched, but he didn't dare smile. "Ingenuity that I would have only expected from the three of you," he commended.

"It didn't take much time to figure out who we had been asked to 'eliminate," Luke interjected, "so Leia and I decided that more could be done if we kept our father from becoming Vader."

Leia's only response was to clench her bruised knuckles in memory of what she had done to him.

"It didn't work," Solo picked up the storyline again. "We tried everything from working with his wife to having the kid here on Skywalker's wing in his squadron, but we underestimated how quickly it all went to hell."

Rieekan nodded. "It must have been in the works long before then," he confessed, "but none of us was prepared for how little resistance there was to the Empire's founding."

Leia's nod paralleled his own, but her mouth was pinched for a long moment as if she had swallowed something rotten. "We fought back as best we could," she assured him, "but in the end, all we could do was get out of there alive."

"And come back here," he concluded.

She nodded again. "There was nothing more we could do there."

He had expected to feel defeat, not remorse for their uncompleted mission. "So, you terminated the mission…"

"We did not," Leia corrected.

He regarded her in silence, waiting for an explanation of some kind. None came, but she was looking at him as if he didn't need one. Perhaps he didn't. After all, Leia Organa would not have left a duty unfulfilled unless she had an alternate plan.

"What do you intend to do now?" he asked wearily.

"Eliminate Vader," Luke stated. "We just have a different idea of how to go about it."