Anakin and Luke Skywalker

A Skywalker By Any Other Name

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Type: Post ESB
Rating: PG
Summary: Luke Skywalker is struggling with the truths he learned on Bespin. Wanting to escape the deep trauma, he takes off in his X-Wing, only to end up on an unknown planet with a stranger. Or no stranger after all.
Acknowledgments: Thank you, Fiona, my wonderful beta.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Luke Skywalker sat on his bunk, naked feet on the cold floor. He had been like that for what seemed like forever. Staring down at his right hand.

His new hand.

His new prosthetic hand.

The hand Darth Vader had cut off.

The hand his own...

His mind stopped dead in its tracks before forming the words.

If he refused to think about it, it wouldn’t be real.

True, he didn’t know for sure. It could still be a lie. A bait to lure him to the Dark Side.

Then why did he believe it?

Why did he know it to be true?

NO!

Luke jumped to his feet and headed for the shower in long strides, ignoring the pain in his legs, numb after so long in the same position.

As he stood under the jet of water, his gaze turned to his hand, flat on the wall.

He hated it. Hated what it represented, what it reminded him of constantly.

He wanted to tear it apart and throw it away. It wasn’t a part of him and it would never be.

He wanted his hand back. He wanted his life back.

He wanted his innocence back.

He hated the nasty, vengeful, dark thoughts he woke up with every morning and took to bed with him every night.

He hated what he was becoming, but he was helpless to prevent it.

‘Much anger in him. Like his father.’

"Damn you too! Damn you to hell! You knew! You knew and didn’t tell me either." He banged his head against the tiles. "Damn you all! You’ve destroyed me!" The tears blended with the water streaming down his face and disappeared down the drain. "FATHER!" he cried out loud for the first time, sinking to his knees and curling up into a foetal ball.

The cooling water brought him back much later, and he found himself shivering under the spray.

Resigned, defeated, he stood up wearily, turned off the water and exited the shower stall.

Lost in a chilly corner of his mind, he towelled himself dry and got dressed sluggishly, slumping down on his bunk again, staring at the wall.

He felt small, used, soiled. The walls seemed to be closing in on him, suffocating him.

He had to leave. He needed to find peace somewhere.

But there was nowhere to go. No matter how much he ran or how far he went, he would never find that place. Peace was within. Peace lay in that inner, sacred core untouched by evil and Darkness.

The place he looked for wasn’t out there, but inside himself.

Still, that didn’t change the fact that he was dying a slow death here, wallowing in his feelings of failure and self-pity.

But he was faulty. So faulty. Yoda himself had said it. Not in those words but...

Reckless, impatient. Proud. Too proud to be a Jedi. He had been in dire need of a lesson. And life had taught him one.

One that had broken him.

How to survive when your very soul has been crushed, shattered? How to live when your sweetest dream becomes your worst nightmare?

What do you do when you have nothing to believe in?

He closed his eyes and reached for the Force inside him. He turned to it for comfort. A broken child begging for a compassionate, reassuring touch.

He remembered happier times. On Tatooine, as he chased womp rats with his T-16. He remembered Biggs’ words of encouragement every time he hit one.

So many friends he had lost. Friends, family... his every childhood dream.

Flying was the only thing he had left that made sense. Flying didn’t hurt anyone. You only had to let go and float away. Among the stars.

Flying... Flying away...

"Luke!"

Leia’s voice startled him and he turned about.

He wasn’t in his quarters anymore, but on the hangar, helmet in hand.

It seemed the decision had been made for him.

He waited for the Princess to catch up with him. She was breathless.

"Where are you going?" she asked softly.

"Out there," he said, his eyes turning to his X-Wing.

"And Artoo?"

"I don’t need him. I’m a good pilot and I can take care of myself. Besides, I don’t intend to go very far. I just... I just need..."

"What? What do you need?" Leia asked, taking hold of his hand. His right hand.

Luke moved his hand back more harshly than he intended. He couldn’t stand the feel of her touching that lifeless appendage.

The symbol of his failure. The mutilation of his spirit.

Resolutely, Leia reached out again and held his hand in hers, squeezing it hard. Forcing him to feel her touch. Her caring. Her love for him.

"Tell me," she invited with infinite tenderness.

"I have to get out of here," he blurted out. "I have to, just for a while." His eyes closed for an instant. "I can’t stop thinking about..."

Leia caressed his cheek.

"Everything feels better when I’m flying. It’s just me and space. The stars and the universe. Our big problems and our mighty wars don’t mean a thing out there." He freed his hand and looked at it with disgust. "I also want to see how it responds. Like it or not, I have to get used to it."

"The problem is in your mind, not in your hand," Leia stated through misted eyes.

Luke let out a poignant smile.

"I know. And until I sort myself out, I’ll be of no use to the Alliance, to my friends, or myself."

"I need you," a tiny voice reached his ears after a brief pause.

Bleeding inside at the pain in her voice, Luke wrapped Leia in his arms. She returned his embrace and they held each other desperately.

"I need you too," he kissed the soft hair cushioning his cheek. "If it hadn’t been for you, I’d be in a padded cell by now. Thank you for everything you’ve done." He moved back suddenly. "But I have to get over this on my own, or I never will." He wiped away her tears with his thumb. The left one. "I’ll be back by dinner time. I promise."

"Promise to be careful?" she asked shakily.

"Yes, mom," he made a weak attempt at humour.

She smiled at him.

"Remember we’re very close to the No More Zone."

A rumble of laughter escaped Luke’s lips.

"I fear Imperial ships, not ancient stories of invisible holes that swallow everything that passes near them."

"Still, be careful," Leia insisted.

"I will. See you later," he said, releasing her gently and heading for his ship.

"See you," she whispered back, too softly for him to hear.

The Princess stayed in the hangar until the X-Wing got lost in the blackness of space.

 

Alone at last, Luke drew his first deep intake of breath in days. He didn’t know what it was with flying, but it gave him more peace and sense of freedom than the constricting walls of the ship he had inhabited for weeks.

Leaving everything behind, Luke focused on getting reacquainted with his piloting abilities, on letting his mind wander free.

Free of bad memories. Free of fathers who had no qualms about mutilating their own children.

He floated in space, floated within himself, shutting everything out until he forgot who he was. He stayed like that for minutes, hours, forever.

A sudden lurch awakened him. Cursing himself for his near-fatal slip, he looked out into space. Then he looked harder, and rubbed his eyes in disbelief.

It... it couldn’t be. There were no stars! They had disappeared. There was only Darkness before him.

The young man freaked. The Dark Side was coming after him! It was coming to take him!

‘No. No! Get a grip. This has got to be some sort of hallucination. The stars are there. Calm down and check your readings.’

Luke checked the readings, and froze. There were no points of reference. The controls had gone mad, and they blipped out of sequence. He was heading in every possible direction at the same time!

He tried changing his course, to no avail. Something directly ahead was drawing him in, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

He reached for the Light, crying out for help.

‘Please, somebody help me!’

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

"Isn’t it incredible?"

"Incredible?"

"I’d forgotten how long it had been since I last had the space ahead entirely for me, without a million ships blocking the view."

"Anakin, are you drunk?"

"Jedi don’t drink intoxicating beverages, do they, master?"

Obi-Wan rolled his eyes and shook his head in a long-suffering gesture.

"Concentrate on piloting. Idle chit-chat can wait."

"You’re a spoilsport, aren’t you? YIPPEEEEEEE!!!!!"

"Anakin!" Obi-Wan yelled when his friend’s ship nudged his right wing softly. "Don’t ever, EVER do that again!"

"All right. If you’re no fun, I’ll indulge myself for a while. It’ll be a long way back to the base."

"Be my guest." Obi-Wan waved his hand, giving up.

Anakin’s ship flew past him at a manic speed, and spiralled ahead, in an impossible string of aerobatics.

"I feel dizzy just looking at him," he mused.

Anakin left his master behind and enjoyed himself for a while, teasing Artoo mercilessly, who beeped in terror at the young man’s riskier manoeuvres.

Finally, the young Jedi felt sorry for the freaking droid and took a break. He stabilized the ship and introduced the coordinates of the base.

Right then, the controls went crazy and started giving the weirdest readings. He was suddenly heading in all directions, which was simply impossible.

"What’s going on here?" he asked out loud.

The entire ship jolted and he lurched forward. Next, an instant acceleration forced his back against the seat.

The sight before him made Anakin’s blood run cold.

Blackness. An all-consuming blackness lay before him. Like a black curtain that was sucking him in.

Struggling to get control of the ship, he cried out in his mind when the increasing acceleration threatened to crush him.

"Oh, no. Oh, no! Oh, NO!" he yelled. His head felt about to explode, and he closed his eyes, preparing himself for the worst.

And just when he thought he couldn’t stand it anymore, the crushing pressure disappeared in a heartbeat.

Anakin opened his eyes tentatively, and gasped.

A beautiful planet floated in space directly ahead, and he was heading straight for it at full speed.

Shaking himself out of his momentary paralysis, he fought to reduce speed and prepare himself for the entry to the planet’s atmosphere.

Something zoomed past him on his right, and out of the corner of his eye, Anakin thought he saw another ship. It happened so fast he couldn’t tell if he had imagined it or not.

The ship’s hull began to overheat, and he concentrated on the matter at hand. He started the retrothrusters and managed to correct the wrong entry angle.

"Still too fast. Too fast!" he muttered angrily. "Come on... Come on!"

 

 

"Hey. Are you all right? Can you hear me?"

Luke’s head pounded as he slowly came to. He tried moving it, and moaned.

"Easy, easy. Take your time. I’m not going anywhere," a soothing voice floated into his brain.

Obeying the voice, Luke let his mind regain consciousness gradually, until he felt it was safe to open his eyes.

A beam of light blasted his retinas and he closed them again with another moan.

"Too much light?" the voice asked. "Here, try opening them now."

Taking a deep breath, Luke tried for the second time. Something was blocking the sunlight now, and he could keep his eyes open.

A dark blur greeted him.

"Focus," the voice instructed. "From the inside out. Focus on my voice and let the shapes take form."

It took a while, but Luke persevered and the blurry shapes began reforming, until the image before him coalesced into a face.

The face of a very good-looking young man, approximately his age. Blond and blue-eyed.

‘Just like me,’ was his first thought.

The stranger’s hair was pretty much as long as his own, thicker and slightly wavy. He had a straight nose and full lips. A thin scar crossed his face from the right side of his forehead to the top of his cheekbone.

"Welcome to the world of the living." A smile that couldn’t hide a hint of relief was his reward for his efforts. An arm reached out. "Can you move?"

The moment the hand touched his shoulder, Luke shook it off abruptly.

"Woa, calm down! I’m not going to hurt you. I didn’t wake you up to kill you." A chilling coldness replaced the kindness in the voice.

Luke knew he had hurt the young man’s feelings, and his first instinct was to apologize.

He didn’t.

Give as good as you get. That’ll show people to treat you with respect, and they’ll think twice before taking the chance of hurting you. Physically or otherwise.

"I’m fine," he said in a raspy voice.

"Can you get out?" the voice was polite, but not friendly anymore. The young man moved back, giving Luke room to move.

Luke unfastened the straps holding him to his seat and took off his helmet carefully. No dizziness. That was a good sign. With a sigh, he put it aside, and tried to stand up. He was sore in several places and his right shoulder hurt badly. He was also quite stiff, but apart from that, he was all right. With some effort, he succeeded.

"Bantha crap!" he exclaimed.

He hadn’t landed. He had crashed. It was a miracle he had survived relatively unscathed. His poor X-Wing was beyond repair, though.

His eyes turned to the landscape before him. A vast field extended as far as he could see. Trees, bushes and grass covered everything.

His heart sank. If this planet was uninhabited, or inhabited by a primitive culture, he was doomed. He would never get out of here.

His rescuer tilted his head to one side, and a compassionate expression crossed his features.

"Don’t worry. I’m sure your ship can be repaired. You were lucky enough to crash with the greatest craftsman in the galaxy. Give me anything and I will fix it."

"If you have the tools," Luke pointed out. "Mine are in the hold below."

"A defeatist attitude will lead you nowhere. Have faith. Only time will prove you right, or wrong."

Luke shrugged.

"Come on down. We have a lot to do," the young man gestured to follow him.

Cautiously, they climbed down the X-Wing’s nose and jumped to the ground. They turned to each other.

Luke’s fellow sufferer was about ten centimetres taller and seemed to be in pretty good shape. He was wearing a dark brown tunic that hung halfway down his thighs, a darker brown synthleather surcoat, lighter brown bottoms and dark brown leather boots. His belt had a myriad items attached to it.

Lightsaber included.

His mouth dropped open at the sight of it.

A Jedi! This young man was a Jedi! How could that be possible?! Ben had said that Jedi were all but extinct. So far, he had assumed he meant all but Yoda and himself, and now Luke. But obviously...

‘I’ve been told so many lies and half-truths that I don’t know what to believe anymore.’

Many questions had been raised. Who had trained that young man? And when? And where had he been hiding until now?

Who, when, where... who cared? Knowing it wouldn’t get them out of here.

Quickly brushing his questions aside, he addressed the other man.

"Where do we start?"

"I landed about five kilometres in that direction," Anakin pointed at the thick forest north-east. "I saw your ship crashing here and I chose the closest place I could find."

Luke felt strangely comforted by those words. He wanted to express his gratitude for so much thoughtfulness, but something held him back.

It wasn’t that easy opening up to another anymore. Something had died inside him. It was hard to admit, but it was the truth.

He took off his pilot suit and tucked it next to the X-Wing’s remains. He secured his blaster to his belt and turned to the man.

"Whenever you’re ready."

Anakin raised a curious eyebrow and, turning about, he set off.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, until Luke broke it.

"There’s something I don’t understand. You said you chose the closest place to me you could find. And instead of landing anywhere on this field, you chose the forest. Why the most dangerous place of all?" he asked.

"I had no choice. My entry in the atmosphere was anything but smooth. I was lucky enough to get control of my ship just before I landed."

"Oh," Luke said. "Unlike me," he added some time later.

"If your entry was as... bumpy as mine, you have to be one hell of a pilot to do what you did." He turned around and looked at Luke’s X-Wing in the distance. "You made a sharp turn to clear the surface, and crashed on your belly, judging from the skid marks on the ground." His eyes regarded Luke with open admiration.

"I don’t remember," Luke said truthfully, blushing at the compliment. "But I’m glad I’m here... and not alone."

A small smile appeared on the other man’s lips, and they walked in silence for another while.

"Do you have a name?" the young Jedi asked at last.

Luke had been fearing the question. His name was famous, and infamous, all over the galaxy. No matter where this man had been, he had to know his name. And not knowing where his political sympathies lay, he couldn’t risk telling him his full name. But a lie about something as apparently harmless as one’s name didn’t feel right either. And for some reason, he didn’t want this young man to distrust him. He had offended him enough already by rejecting his friendly touch.

"I’m... Luke," he said. "And you?" he asked quickly.

A pause, longer that it should be, followed.

"I’m Ani," was the dry reply.

‘He’s lying,’ was Luke’s first thought. But then, it occurred to him that the man could have chosen a better name, instead of something so... ahem, unusual.

"Pleased to meet you, Ani," he said, reaching out his hand. The left one.

Ani looked back at him and reached out his own hand. The right gloved one.

"Likewise."

They shook hands awkwardly and Ani continued walking.

Luke froze.

The hand squeezing his own had felt too hard, too unyielding. And he knew.

It was a prosthetic, mechanical hand.

An immediate flashback paralyzed his throat. Sweat broke out all over his body and his respiration accelerated. His teeth began chattering.

Ani stopped when he realized Luke wasn’t following him, and retraced the few steps he had taken when he saw the state he was in.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

Luke got lost in the dark place inside him where his worst nightmares came true.

"No. No. Nononononono..." he groaned, unable to stop.

"Take it easy. Easy!" a voice penetrated the fog suffocating him. "Sit down and put your head between your legs. Take long, deep breaths." A warm hand started drawing circles on his back. "Reach for the Force and concentrate on my touch. It’ll pass. Trust me. It will pass."

Yielding to the caring concern in that soothing accent, Luke buried himself in it. He had nothing else to hold on to. Nothing and no one.

"Trust *me*," Ani insisted. "It’s gonna be all right in a minute."

Luke covered his face with his hands. A strangled whimper escaped him.

"It’s all right." The hand settled on his shoulder and stayed there. A steadying, grounding force.

"Th-thank you," he croaked. He lowered his hands and met the blue eyes of his companion. They were warm, full of understanding.

"I know how it is." The look in those eyes spoke volumes. "Rest for a moment."

Calmness returned little by little, and Luke swallowed the lump in his throat.

"What happened to us?" he asked to the heavens.

Ani flopped down on the ground beside him and followed his gaze skywards.

"I don’t know. But we’re in big trouble."

Luke shook his head and looked down.

"The No More Zone!" he suddenly remembered.

"The what?" Ani bent closer to him.

"The No More Zone," Luke repeated, louder. "Lei-- a friend of mine asked me to be careful cause we were flying very close to the No More Zone. Haven’t you heard of it?"

"Who hasn’t?" Ani replied. "A hole in space that swallows everything that comes near. Those who disappear in it never return." He clicked his tongue mockingly. "But lo and behold, I never heard of anyone who disappeared in it. It’s all space tales."

"Then how do you explain what happened?" Luke exclaimed. "The stars were gone! And that blackness sucking me in..."

Anakin looked away. Luke’s story was amazingly similar to his own. And coming to think of it... yes, he had been flying very close to the region where the No More Zone was supposed to be.

"How will we ever get out of here?" Luke asked weakly. "Even if we manage to repair my ship..." his voice faded away.

"We’ll find a way," Anakin said with conviction. "If there is a way to get out of here, we’ll find it."

Luke met Ani’s eyes, wanting to believe.

 

 

The two young men stopped under the shadow of Ani’s ship. It was an old Eta-2 Actis Interceptor model, but it showed Ani took good care of it. It looked almost as good as new.

A loud beep made the two men turn about with a start.

An astrodroid peeked out from behind a tree.

"I’m back, Artoo," Anakin said unnecessarily. "And I’ve got company."

Artoo rolled up to them. Luke’s jaw fell open.

"I’ve got an Artoo unit, too! Just like this one." He turned to Anakin. "I swear that for a second..." he looked back at Artoo, eyes wide open. "Anyway," he shook his head, "I’m glad I didn’t bring him with me. He’d have short-circuited in terror when the hole absorbed me."

"Mine almost did," Anakin confirmed.

Artoo exploded in a string of offended raspberries, that made the two men laugh out loud.

"He’s exactly like my own!" Luke said.

Ignoring Luke, Artoo proceeded to inform Anakin of the few things he had discovered.

"No apparent animal life in the area," Anakin translated for Luke’s benefit. "Just a wide variety of plants, and several springs of water."

"I have to sit down," Luke said all of a sudden, grasping his right shoulder.

"You okay?" Anakin asked, coming closer.

"Yes. I just need a minute," Luke nodded at the young Jedi reassuringly.

Anakin searched his belt and produced a tiny jar.

"Here," he gave it to Luke. "Rub this on your shoulder. It’s great for these type of injuries."

"Thank you," Luke said, taking off the top and sniffing at the content. The scent wasn’t unpleasant. He put it aside and began to remove his right arm from the sleeve. "You wouldn’t happen to have a portable crane in your belt too, by any chance?"

Ani chuckled.

"I’m afraid not," he said. "But I have some things in the hold that will help."

"Such as?" Luke asked conversationally, as he rubbed the lotion on his shoulder. The first touch felt wonderful on the sore articulation. Cooling and soothing.

"Such as several hundred metres of wire, a complete toolkit, a few blocks of alloyed metals, plates and moulds to make new pieces, if necessary..."

"WOW!"

"Oh, and food too."

"Please, stop," Luke begged. "You’re making me drool."

Anakin opened the hold and started rummaging through a zillion containers of different sizes.

"Yes," he announced. "I think I have pretty much everything we’ll need." He turned to Luke. "Want to eat something first?"

"I’m not particularly hungry right now, but a snack will be fine. Thanks." Luke put the cap back on the jar and his arm in the sleeve.

Anakin walked back to him and handed him a couple nutrition bars and a water bottle. He sat down cross-legged in front of him and started munching his own bars.

"Can you walk back to your ship from here?" he asked as he put away in his belt the jar Luke gave him back.

Luke stared at Anakin with startled eyes.

"Yes. Why?"

"Instead of walking back to your ship carrying all the stuff, it’ll be better if I bring my ship to yours. That way, we’ll have everything handy."

Luke let out all the air he didn’t know he had been holding.

"Right," he blurted out. "Good thinking."

Ani looked at him sternly.

"I’m not going to take off and leave you here," he said, as if he had read his mind. "It’s not my style."

Luke dropped his gaze, embarrassed.

"I’m sorry. I just..."

"I understand," Anakin interrupted him, looking into the distance. "War changes you. You stop believing in people’s honour."

"I believe in yours." Luke’s jaw dropped open. He didn’t know what made him say that, but it didn’t change the fact that it had come from his heart.

He had meant it. He trusted this total stranger. With a strength and a certainty that he hadn’t felt in years.

Ani’s eyes immediately sought his and studied him intently.

Luke felt the young man’s passion. Just from that look, he knew that was the way Ani functioned. He reached out with his instincts, he absorbed people’s emanations, for lack of a better word. He felt their sincerity.

Was that the Jedi way?

Stretch out with your feelings, Ben had said.

He hadn’t done that in what felt like a lifetime. He had withdrawn into himself. He feared reaching out to others now. He didn’t know what he would find if he did.

He had felt safe around his friends, as a valued member of the Alliance. He had no reasons to expect betrayal.

Betrayal had come from... other sources.

His actions lately had been anything but proper for a Jedi, and he wondered if he had it in him. If he was made of the stuff necessary to become one.

But if Jedi lied and didn’t hesitate to sacrifice other souls to achieve their goals, no matter how noble those goals were, maybe he should reconsider his vocation.

"Your feelings are a mess," Anakin stated plainly.

Luke snorted.

"You’re telling me." It hurt to hear the bitter sarcasm in his voice, and he stared at the ground.

"You’ve been betrayed. By a very trusted one," Ani said softly, his voice dripping with compassion.

Luke’s eyes misted, and he refused to meet the young man’s gaze.

"And still, you trust me. A stranger." There was wonder in Ani’s voice now; and a short silence ensued. "I will honour your gift, Luke. Always."

Luke swallowed hard and braved the warm eyes that observed him kindly.

"C-can I ask you something?"

"Of course." Anakin bent forward, giving Luke his undivided attention.

"Why did you tell me to reach for the Force? Can you tell...?"

"...that you’re Force-sensitive?" Anakin finished for him. "Yes, I can. Any trained Jedi can feel when there’s someone strong in the Force around. And you’re surrounded by it. It lingers around you like... like an aura." He stared harder. "I can’t see it, but I can feel it."

The two weeks training with Yoda obviously hadn’t been enough. It was no wonder the old master didn’t want him to leave. He had only begun to scratch the surface of everything it meant to be a Jedi, and understand the Force.

His shoulders drooped dejectedly.

"Aren’t you trained?" Ani’s voice brought him back from his somber thoughts.

"Well... I don’t know if a couple weeks count as training," he shrugged ironically.

"A couple weeks?!" Anakin’s eyes opened like two saucers.

"Not nearly enough, huh?" Luke let out a crooked smile.

"Nearly enough?" Anakin asked rhetorically. "Jedi start training since... well, since they’re old enough to walk! I was considered too old to be trained at first, and I was nine years old."

"NINE?!" No wonder Yoda had said ‘too old.’

Luke understood his old master then. Sometimes, it truly was too late. Sometimes, wanting something very badly wasn’t enough.

In any case, if he wanted to be honest with himself, he didn’t know if he still wanted to be a Jedi. In his mind, he had romanticized the notion of what being a Jedi Knight was. The reality of it was too painful. Too merciless.

"You mustn’t give up," Anakin’s voice brought him back once more.

Luke shook his head.

"It’s not that easy," he muttered. ‘Not anymore.’

"Luke..."

The kindness in Ani’s voice made him look up.

"The Force is in you. It’s part of you. Being a Jedi is not a choice. It’s what you are."

"Being strong in the Force doesn’t automatically make me a Jedi. It makes me Force-sensitive. Nothing more."

Anakin drew back, momentarily speechless. He didn’t seem to have considered that truism before.

"Still, you need training," he said at last. "You must learn to control your abilities, and for that, you have to understand them first."

"I grant you that," Luke agreed. "But..."

"It’s a miracle you found someone to train you at your age. It’s very unfair, and dangerous." Ani’s features hardened. "Your sanity could have been seriously compromised."

‘Sometimes, I feel as if I had already lost it.’ Luke mused. Suddenly, he felt an overwhelming need to laugh hysterically. ‘Force, I’m so on the edge!’

Ani finished his second bar and rose to his feet in a sudden burst of energy. "Let’s get going," he said. "Meet you by your ship?"

Luke stood up, a bit dazed. This young man was like quicksilver!

"I’ll see you there." He gave Ani a sharp nod and saw him walk back to his ship, feeling strangely lost. Bereft.

Artoo followed Anakin, beeping softly. Anakin spun around.

"Artoo, accompany him back to his ship. I’ll meet you two there."

Artoo beeped a vehement protest.

"I can manage on my own back to the clearing," Anakin’s voice left no room for discussion. "Go-with-him."

Artoo let out a reluctant beep of agreement and turned about, rolling up to Luke’s side.

Feeling more uncomfortable than he had ever felt around a droid, Luke stiffened a little, but at the sound of the engines roaring to life, he regained his composure and began the walk back to the crash site. Very soon, Ani’s Interceptor flew past them.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, Luke decided to try and break the ice.

"Listen, I didn’t mean to offend you earlier, when I said you were like my own Artoo unit. It’s just that... well, you’re exactly like him. The same... personality. But I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. That was never my intention."

Artoo’s dome turned to him and the little droid seemed to appraise him up and down. He apparently reached the conclusion that Luke was being sincere, and let out a friendly beep.

It sounded so much like his own Artoo, that Luke smiled widely.

"Friends?" he asked, reaching out a hand to the droid.

A little hatch opened in Artoo’s belly and a pincer-like device came out of it. It grasped Luke’s hand and shook it once.

Luke laughed, delighted at the droid’s gesture.

They continued the walk back to the clearing in a comfortable silence now, Luke lost in his own thoughts again.

There was something about Ani’s words that didn’t feel right. He spoke as if the Jedi Order still existed. His explanations about how old Jedi were when they began their training, about how old he was when he started his, everything indicated the Jedi Order was still in existence where he came from.

But that wasn’t the case where Luke came from.

Where he came from!

What if...? What if they were coming from different timelines? Different realities? Different dimensions?

His head began to spin with the implications, the possibilities, with the scope of what could be happening here.

Artoo’s loud beep greeting Ani returned Luke to the present. To the reality he had been thrown into, with that young man who happened to be a Jedi and told stories about a place where Jedi were trained since childhood.

Coincidence? An ironic twist of fate?

Something deeper?

Ani had already started setting everything up. Several containers had been taken out of his ship’s hold, and lay scattered around in an improvised camp. Hundreds of metres of wire, ropes, a wide variety of tools and spare pieces of machinery decorated the view.

Ani turned his head and waved his hand at them.

Luke approached his hyperactive companion.

"You’re fast," he commended. "What’s your plan?"

"How’s your shoulder?" Ani asked back.

Slightly taken aback by the non-sequitur, Luke flexed his shoulder and his eyes opened wide when he felt no pain. He touched his shoulder gingerly, squeezing softly. The flesh was a bit tender, but the articulation itself felt as good as new.

"WOW!" was all he could say.

"I’ll take that as a ‘better’," Ani chuckled. "My plan is to salvage everything we can from your ship, and then start working on it." He looked at the battered X-Wing. "Go to the cockpit and pick up everything you need and we can use. Then, we’ll start ‘treating the patient’."

Luke studied his beloved X-Wing.

"It’s not as bad as I thought at first. The upper half is quite intact. Now the lower half is an entirely different matter," he mused out loud.

"We’ll need the wires and ropes to lift it from the ground," Ani said. "Fortunately, we have those two trees. The trunks aren’t too thick, but I think they’ll hold."

Luke checked everything out for a few seconds, and took a deep breath.

"All right, let’s get started," he said, climbing up the ship’s nose and entering the pilot’s cockpit. There was not much to salvage. His comlink, flares and a few other gadgets.

He climbed down and put everything aside, turning to Ani.

"All the useful stuff is... was in the hold," he shrugged apologetically.

Anakin shook his head warmly.

"It’s okay. We have everything we’re gonna need." He faced the broken ship. "We’ll leave it in mint condition."

"You sound like a second-hand speeder salesman," Luke joked.

Ani patted Luke’s back.

"Your baby couldn’t be in better hands," he promised, taking off his surcoat and his tunic. "Ready?"

Luke followed suit and took off his top, preparing himself to sweat.

"Let’s go."

 

 

For the next few hours, the two young men worked hard under the unforgiving sun.

The hardest thing of all was lifting the ship. It took almost an hour, with them straining their muscles to their limit, using the trees for leverage and ultimately, Artoo’s help, until they secured the ship safely.

The X-Wing screeched dangerously when it was lifted from the ground, but once suspended in midair, it held.

"Pity I don’t have a force field," Anakin commented, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his bare arm.

"You can’t have it all," Luke said fondly.

Ani smiled at him.

The two young men walked under the X-Wing, studying the damage and deciding where should they start.

"As far as the bodywork goes," Anakin pondered, "I know a great body shop in Coruscant."

Luke burst out laughing. He was beginning to like Ani’s sense of humour.

"If I manage to return where I come from in one piece, it’ll be good enough for me," he replied, taking a sip of water and passing the bottle to Ani next, who also drank from it. Then, he picked up a lever. "I’ll try to open the hold. I seem to remember I have a force field inside."

"I’ll help you," Ani picked up a second lever.

It took a while, but the dented metal finally yielded. Ani quickly wedged his lever inside to prevent the hatch from opening completely and the cargo from falling onto the ground.

"Be careful. I don’t know if the lever will hold," he warned Luke.

"Right," Luke said, peeking inside. He didn’t see the force field, but he found a power generator and his sleeping bag, plus a couple blankets. He didn’t dare to risk rummaging.

"Better than nothing," he whispered to himself, reaching inside and taking it all out.

 

The sun was beginning to set when they agreed to stop for the day.

"At this rate, I’m guessing it’ll take two or three more days," Ani said. "The serious work will start tomorrow."

"Yeah," Luke nodded, wiping the sweat from his face. "Now I just need to wash thoroughly, some food and 10 hours of sleep."

"You read my mind," Ani agreed. "Artoo," he turned to the little droid, "where’s the nearest water reservoir?"

Artoo scanned the area and beeped his answer.

"One kilometre to the south," Ani translated for Luke’s benefit. "All right Artoo, you stay here and watch over the camp. We’ll be back in a while."

 

They were too tired to talk, so they walked in a companionable silence. The sound of the running water told them they were getting closer.

A good-sized brook made its way through the grass and rocks that bordered it. It was wider and deeper than they expected, so they stayed by the bank. They shared the bar of soap Luke had brought, and got rid of the sweat and grime, scrubbing thoroughly.

At some point, Ani moved aside surreptitiously, and Luke noticed it. Out of the corner of his eye, the young man saw Ani taking off the brown leather gauntlet he wore on his right arm.

Luke’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of the mechanical forearm that emerged.

He remembered his reaction when they had shaken hands, and a flash of blinding pain sliced through Luke’s heart when he realized that Ani had moved away to spare him the view.

Ashamed, Luke walked up to his companion. Sensing his approach, Ani tried to hide his arm by half-turning his back on Luke and squatting down.

"It’s all right," Luke said softly.

"What?" Ani turned his head and looked up at him.

Luke squatted down too, reached out and touched the mechanical arm.

"I’m sorry I freaked before when we shook hands," he apologized with all his soul. "It brought back... memories I... I can’t face right now. If ever."

"It’s okay," Ani shrugged in apparent nonchalance. "If you’ve never seen one of these, it’s logical to be put off by it at first. It’s not a pretty sight."

Squeezing his eyes shut for a second, Luke made a decision. Smiling ironically, he opened his eyes and met Ani’s. His gaze softened as he looked down at his own prosthetic hand, at his fingers resting on Ani’s forearm. He turned his hand, palm up, and opened the square pad on the inside of his wrist, showing Ani the electronic circuits inside.

Their eyes sought each other and they exchanged the most intense look. Something bound them together, something so achingly beautiful that Luke couldn’t believe such a painful sharing could bring.

They looked down at the same time, and with breathtaking gentleness, Ani closed the pad and caressed it with his mechanical thumb.

"How come you ended up with a cooler model than mine?" Ani cracked suddenly, his eyes suddenly bright with mischief.

The two young men shared a nervous chuckle, the easygoing banter having lightened the mood.

"I think it’s got to do with... where we come from," Luke replied, somewhat mysteriously.

"In what way?" Ani arched his eyebrows, curiosity piqued.

Luke looked up at the sky, noticing it was darker and darker. Ani followed his gaze and as one, they stood up and walked back to the camp at a brisk pace.

Artoo was waiting impatiently, and beeped in relief when he saw them coming.

In a few minutes, they made the necessary arrangements for the night. Luke’s power generator provided light and warmth, even if the night was anything but cold. They shared Ani’s food and water supply for dinner, and got ready for some well-earned rest.

Luke offered his sleeping bag to Ani, but the young man shook his head, noticeably touched by Luke’s gesture.

"No, thank you. Jedi are used to spending the night out in the open."

"If they have no choice," Luke pointed out. "But refusing at least one blanket is foolish. Not to mention reckless in our situation."

Ani nodded in acquiescence.

"Point taken," he reached out. "Bring on the blankets."

With a smile, Luke handed them to him.

Anakin spread one blanket on the ground and lay down on it, covering himself with the other. Five minutes later, Luke was tucked and comfortable in his sleeping bag.

The two young men lay on their backs, looking up as it got fully dark.

"I’ve been meaning to ask you about your ship," Ani broke the silence sometime later. "It reminds me of the ARC-170, but yours is different."

"Yes, it is," Luke nodded. "Just as our... prosthetics," he couldn’t help a little pause before saying the word.

"Where are you getting at?" Ani asked.

Luke’s loud gasp made him sit up with a start.

"What? What is it?"

"Look at the sky!" Luke exclaimed.

Anakin looked up and his heart almost stopped beating from the shock.

There were no stars in the sky. There were no moons orbiting the planet. Not the tiniest, single light. Nothing.

Just blackness. An all-encompassing blackness.

"By all the... what’s happening here? Where are we?" Anakin’s voice trembled with pure, unadulterated fear.

"Ani..." the tremor in Luke’s voice was an exact reflection of his own. "What if we are in a black hole?"

The blond head turned to him.

"That’s impossible! Nothing can survive in a black hole. Gravity would crush us. Even our atoms would disappear, if I remember my Astrophysics lessons right."

"We don’t know that. No one knows that," Luke reminded him.

"All right. If this is a black hole as you say," Ani reasoned, "where are the stars, the planets, everything that a black hole is supposed to absorb? Where’s the light? If by some miracle, everything that falls in here survives somehow, how come there’s only this insignificant planet, and the sun that’s been illuminating it all day?"

"I don’t know," Luke admitted. "This is beyond anyone’s experience. All I know is that we are here. We can’t deny that. I..."

"Go on. What’s your theory?" Anakin prompted, when Luke seemed to hesitate.

"What if this mini-system has been placed here to support the life that falls through the hole? What if this black hole, No More Zone, or however you want to call it, is a meeting point, a communicating vessel with infinite entrances and exits?"

"Communicating what?"

"Different universes, dimensions, timelines."

"Ahhh, now I see where you’re coming from," realization registered in Ani’s voice and face.

"That would explain our different ships, the different technology applied to our prosthetics. And also..." Luke trailed off.

"Also what?"

"Some inconsistencies in our respective tales."

"What inconsistencies?"

With a sigh, Luke turned onto his right side, propping up his head on his hand, and met Anakin’s eyes.

"Ani, Jedi still exist where you come from, don’t they?" he asked softly.

"Of course they do," Ani seemed befuddled by the question.

"But you see, where I come from, Jedi are extinct. They were massacred over two decades ago in what’s known as ‘The Purges.’ As far as I know, I’m one of the only two Jedi left in the galaxy."

"WHAT?!" Ani exclaimed.

"We’re at war against an Empire that rose when the Republic fell after a civil war that lasted several years." Luke’s eyes softened. "That’s not the case in your reality, is it?"

"N-no, it’s not," Ani was blown away by Luke’s words. "We’re fighting in a war against many separatist systems that rose against the Republic. We believe that a Lord Sith is behind the war, pulling the strings."

"See? Where I come from, the Sith have won, and there has been nothing but Darkness ever since."

Ani’s features clouded over and his respiration accelerated. Finally, he got some semblance of control.

"So," he swallowed hard, "you’re saying that we’re coming from different timelines."

"More like parallel universes," Luke said, "where most things remain the same. Planet names, certain events, probably even most people; but some big historic events are different. They took, or will take, opposite directions in our respective realities."

Ani looked away and considered Luke’s theory. After a while, he began nodding slowly, accepting the explanation.

"That’s why it’s imperative that we return," Luke stressed every word. "Who knows? Maybe we’re the key to our universes. Or one of the keys."

"But what if we return at a different time than we left? What if I return 50 years after I disappeared, and you return 20 years before you vanished?" An indescribable agony filled Anakin’s heart at the mere notion. Padme...

"We can only hope for the universe not to allow such paradoxes to happen. We’ve been thrown here for a reason. Maybe we’ll find out why, maybe we won’t. We must keep the faith," Luke sighed and raised his eyes to the heavens. "Force knows I don’t think I have it in me," he murmured after a long pause.

"I can feel your pain," Ani’s voice floated up to him, soothing and warm. "Want to share it with me?"

Luke smiled wistfully, grateful to the depths of his soul for Ani’s compassion.

"Thank you, but... I can’t. Maybe one day." He turned his eyes to Ani’s, begging for understanding.

Ani held his gaze for a minute, and then he nodded his acceptance.

"I hope you give me the chance," he said softly, lying down again and covering himself with the blanket. "Good-night."

"Good-night," Luke replied, trying to relax in his cozy bag.

Artoo’s soft beeping, as he kept watch, lulled them to a fast sleep.

Still, Luke had something to say. Something he owed to this man who had saved his life, and showed him nothing but kindness and friendship from the very beginning.

"Ani," he called in a hoarse voice.

"Yeah?" came the sleepy reply.

"Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Forgive me for the way I treated you when you found me." He drew in a shaky breath. "My personal problems don’t give me the right to..."

"Nothing to forgive." Luke could hear the smile in Ani’s voice. "I’m infamous for my temper back home. I’m not a saint."

"You’ve been my saviour, in more ways than one. Thank you for that, and for your help."

"My honour, Luke. Be a good boy and sleep now, okay?"

"Yes, Dad," Luke said, closing his eyes.

A soft chuckle was the last thing he heard.

 

 

Luke opened his eyes slowly. It was already morning and the sun was shining bright in the sky. He squinted a little and raised one hand, protecting his face from the sunlight.

Suddenly remembering, he turned his head to the blankets to his right.

The top blanket was thrown back and the lightsaber was lying on it, but Ani was nowhere in sight.

A soft beep made him look in Artoo’s direction. He was in the same spot he had been all night, watching over them.

"He went to the brook to wash, huh?" he asked the little droid needlessly.

Artoo beeped in the affirmative.

Luke’s eyes turned to the lightsaber in front of him. Irresistibly drawn to it, he reached out and held it in his hand.

And stared at it, unable to move. Unable to breathe.

The saber was exactly the same as his father’s! Some minor adjustments differed here and there, but even so... He swallowed hard, and the weapon shook in his helplessly trembling hands.

‘Calm down, Luke. Calm down!’ he willed himself not to panic. ‘All lightsabers are pretty much alike. After all, how different can what’s basically a handle be from another?’ He shook his head and took a deep breath. ‘You really have to get a grip, or you’ll start seeing ghosts everywhere.’

"A-ha! I knew you wouldn’t resist the temptation," Ani’s cheerful voice brought him out of his hazy trance.

"You left it here on purpose?" Luke asked, looking up at the newcomer.

"Yep," Ani admitted. "It’s not right for a Jedi to wield something as crude as a blaster, an offensive weapon. Although I’m sure you have your motives." He sat down in front of Luke and watched him look down at his saber.

Luke studied the handle appreciatively, admiring the exquisite handiwork and caressing it, lost in thought.

"I lost mine in the fight that... mutilated me," he mumbled, feeling as if a wound that hadn’t even begun to heal, opened again. He choked on his words.

"When did that happen?" Ani’s voice was low and caring, and the young man inched closer to Luke, as two friends sharing a painful scret.

"A month ago," Luke looked away. "After that, nothing has been the same again. I’ll never be the same again."

"No, you won’t." Ani spoke with the certainty of someone who’d gone through the same ordeal.

Luke smiled sadly, his mind light-years away from there.

"You don’t understand," he said, hanging his head and opening his hands. The saber rolled down to the ground.

"Something happened that shook your beliefs to the core," Ani stated, his voice trembling with emotion.

Luke felt Ani’s mind reaching out to his own, and panicked.

"NO!" he jumped to his feet. "I c-can’t talk about it! Please, please don’t insist!" he asked, beginning to pace aimlessly.

"All right. All right, I won’t," Ani promised, standing up and walking up to him cautiously, as one would when approaching a wounded animal. "I just thought that maybe you’d feel more comfortable talking to a fellow Jedi. It’s not easy to share with one’s master the things that disturb us. And since you told me there’s only two of you in your universe..."

"I have friends in my universe, and I didn’t tell them either," Luke’s throat ached with the million emotions that surged up, crying out for release. He stopped pacing and faced Ani. "I- I appreciate your concern. I really do, but no one can help me."

"Yes, they can. You only have to let them," Ani’s voice felt like a caress to his psyche. "If you want to talk, here I am."

Luke’s eyes raised to Ani’s, pained and confused.


"Why do you care?" he asked, in poignant wonder.

Ani seemed to blush and looked down.

"I-I don’t know," he looked like a little boy for a moment. "There’s something about you that..." he struggled for words, but gave up. "I don’t know. I just want to help. I need it."

Their eyes met. Ani shrugged.

"Don’t ask me why."

Luke’s hand reached out, but it stopped halfway.

"Thank you," he uttered weakly, emotionally drained. The hand dropped to his side. "For your friendship," he straightened up and sobered. "But I’m not worth the effort."

"Let me be the judge of that," Ani sounded more serious than ever. "You’re a good person. You’re sincere, upright, decent, and humble enough to apologize when you know you’ve done wrong." He shrugged again self-deprecatingly. "Me, I’m too proud for my own good sometimes." The blue eyes regarded Luke full of respect. "You’re a better man than I am, and I don’t want you to lose yourself, refusing to fight your demons or running away from them."

Luke shook his head.

"You’re a good man, Ani. You’re wise enough to be aware of your faults. I was too stupid and righteous. I was too quick to judge and jump to conclusions. And life hit me hard. It... broke me."

"But that’s where stubbornness comes in," Anakin reasoned. "Sheer refusal to surrender and face our fears head-on."

"I wish I had your courage," the words left Luke’s lips of their own volition.

"Oh, but you have it, my friend," Ani’s hand settled on Luke’s shoulder and squeezed it affectionately. "You’re very, very brave. You only need time to heal. Reach out with your feelings, with your heart, and you’ll find your path again. It’ll lead you to the truth. It may be painful, but it will set you free."

Luke hissed as if the pain had turned physical, shook his head and took off.

"I’m gonna wash," he said, without looking back.

Anakin watched him go until he disappeared. Looking down, he summoned his lightsaber from the ground and attached it to his belt. He cast one last look in Luke’s direction, and with a sigh, he started working on his friend’s ship.

 

 

He felt like a coward. He knew Ani was right, and he still was running.

Luke stared down at his hands, after washing his face.

Fear, anger and all ugly, negative feelings lead to the Dark Side, Yoda said. If he continued down this path, it would destroy him.

He had to open up and let it all out, come to terms with it and move on.

But how do you come to terms with something so unthinkable, with something so horrible, that you wish to die to not have to face it?

How do you face the Darkness... in you?

A splashing sound made him look up and check the brook.

Nothing.

Could he have imagined it? He’d have sworn he had heard it. Could there be some kind of fish in the water?

But Artoo had said there was no animal life.

Shrugging off the mystery, Luke grabbed his top and walked back to the camp.

 

Ani had already started on his X-Wing, and wearing safety goggles and gloves for protection, he was using the smallest blowtorch to return a badly dented piece back to its original form.

Luke’s heart constricted at the sight. He bit his lower lip to quench the overwhelming feeling of gratitude that washed over him.

Ani felt him coming and raising his head, waved the torch at him.

Luke walked up to Ani and stood by his side in silence, until the young man was finished. Ani raised the goggles to his forehead, and looked up. Luke smiled down at him timidly, and Ani answered with a full-blown smile.

All of a sudden, Luke’s heart felt light as a feather.

 

 

Most of the bodywork was finished by the afternoon. In the early evening, they took a break and had a snack, sitting under the shadow of a tree.

"You’ll have to climb up aboard your ship. We must check the landing gear," Ani said in between mouthfuls.

Luke smiled at his friend’s healthy appetite and nodded.

"I doubt it’ll display on its own. We’ll probably have to force it open and fix it."

"Probably," Ani agreed.

"Look!" Luke exclaimed unexpectedly, pointing at the ground.

Anakin followed Luke’s finger and had to do a double-take.

A long line of what looked like ants marched in a straight line towards them. They were slightly bigger and chubbier than the ants they knew, but that was unmistakably what they were.

"The crumbs we’re leaving behind drew their attention," Ani commented.

"Why didn’t we see them until now?" Luke wondered.

"We must be the first to land here in who knows how long," Ani guessed. "And it’s only now that they detected our presence. I bet they live quite underground."

Luke nodded. It made sense.

"And that explains the splashing sound I heard while I was washing. I bet there are fishes in the brook."

"Really?!" Ani’s eyebrows arched. "I didn’t hear anything." He tipped his head to one side. "Well, as long as there’s only harmless life like this, I suppose it’s all right," he said, throwing a little crumb at the ants, that promptly gathered around it and took it away.

Luke and Ani exchanged an amused look.

 

 

"Are you okay?" Anakin called out loud.

"Yeah," Luke replied, sliding into his X-Wing’s seat as carefully as he could. "As long as the wires hold on," he whispered to himself.

"Try displaying the undercarriage," Ani instructed from below.

Luke pressed the button. There was a vibration and then a screeching sound. The panels covering the landing gear tried to slide open, but the metal was too badly dented. It didn’t budge.

Anakin shook his head.

"All right, we’ll do it ourselves." He bent down and grabbed one lever resolutely. "Come on down!" he cried out to Luke.

Luke stood up very slowly. Then, with a smooth somersault, landed next to the young Jedi.

"Impressive," Anakin complimented. "You’ve got a great technique."

A tiny shudder crossed Luke’s body at the word Ani had chosen to praise him.

"The physical training was the easiest to master. I can’t deny it’s vastly helpful." His gaze got lost in the horizon. "And the only thing that doesn’t hurt to remember," he murmured faintly.

Anakin tried to say something, but the words died on his lips before voicing them.

Luke’s features hardened abruptly. Then, he reached down and grabbed the second lever.

"Let’s go," he said, walking under his ship and beginning to lever furiously.

Realizing that Luke was venting his anger in a physical way, Ani walked up to the other side of the panel and joined his efforts. He definitely knew the feeling.

 

 

Luke withdrew into himself for the next few hours, answering in monosyllables and grunts. Anakin respected his withdrawal chivalrously, and instead of words, he resorted to brief touches and soft nudges, to maintain a constant sensory feedback between them.

Luke cast Ani elusive looks, all too aware of what his tall friend was doing, and berating himself for making him resort to it. His treatment of Ani was unworthy of any honourable man.

"How do you feel about children?" he asked out of the blue.

The question took him as much by surprise as it did Ani.

Completely stunned, Anakin cleared his throat.

"Ah, I like kids. I like them a lot," he said.

"I don’t mean kids in general," Luke rephrased his question. "I mean children of your own."

Ani made an inordinately long pause.

"Erm, Jedi aren’t allowed to form strong relationships where I come from. We live a life of retreat and meditation. We practice detachment and of course, celibacy." A fleeting expression crossed his features so quickly that Luke couldn’t tell what it meant. "Of course, when the galaxy’s not at war," he amended ironically.

"Oh," Luke blushed, feeling somewhat embarrassed. "Sorry, I-I had no idea," he stammered shyly.

But then, Ani’s face lit up.

"A child of my own," he seemed to savour every word. "Holy Force, it would be... everything!" his eyes glistened with tears of immense joy. "A part of me that would go on living after I ceased to exist. All the love and hope inside me coming to life. My most precious little life." The tears finally spilled and Ani closed his eyes, his handsome face shining as if something deeply spiritual was blossoming inside him. He laughed ecstatically, throwing his head back in exultant bliss.

Luke watched Ani’s reaction unable to move a muscle, completely blown away by the look on his face. The Force around him surged up in a vital explosion of Light.

"You would be the best father in the galaxy." Luke wanted to cry at the sight before him. Ani understood the connection, the bond of love and mutual interdependence between parents and children. A bond that not even death could break.

The only thing he had ever wanted. The only thing he had ever needed.

The only thing life had not only denied him, but turned into a twisted perversion of a child’s dream.

It took a while for Ani to regain his composure. He sniffled and wiped away the moisture on his face clumsily.

"Excuse me. I... I don’t know what came over me," he apologized.

"Don’t apologize," Luke’s throat burned with barely restrained emotion. "You have no idea how much I needed to hear that, to know that..." Tears pricked his eyes, but he refused to shed them. No more tears over someone who didn’t deserve them. Never again!

His trembling hand reached out and grabbed Ani’s upper arm, squeezing it desperately, needing the steady reassurance of human touch. The touch of someone who cared, instead of the chilling presence that haunted him night after night in his nightmares.

Ani completed the circle closing his hand around Luke’s. The two young men shared once again something strangely profound that filled an empty spot inside them that nothing had filled before.

"Thank you," Luke mouthed wordlessly.

Ani nodded and squeezed Luke’s hand tighter.

 

 

They worked tirelessly in perfect harmony until it got so dark that it became impossible to continue. Most of the landing gear was fixed. Only some bodywork remained, that could be finished the next day.

After that, they would be ready to take off and leave the planet.

And go... where?

They kept turning over the question in their minds, but all in all, they knew it had no answer. They’d have to take their chances and hope for the best.

They made their joint trip to the brook in silence, each of them lost in his own thoughts, that were essentially the same. They washed thoroughly, had dinner and settled for sleep.

 

 

‘Join me.’

"No."

‘JOIN ME!’

"No!"

‘It is your destiny.’

"NO!"

‘It is useless to resist.’

"I’ll never join you!"

‘You know it to be true.’

"No! That’s impossible!!"

‘I am your father.’

"NOOOOOO!!!!"

Luke jerked awake and sat up in his sleeping bag, shaking brutally and bathed in sweat. The scream died on his lips, leaving his throat raw and sore. His eyes opened wide, desperate for some light in the searing Darkness that was swallowing him alive, within and without.

A powerful presence wrapped itself around him from behind, and losing his grasp on reality, Luke fought back viciously, frantic to get free.

"No, NO! Get away from me!! GET AWAY FROM ME!!!" he yelled maniacally.

"Luke, it’s all right! It’s Ani. It’s all right," a soothing, gentle voice whispered into his ear as he was held against someone’s chest. "Shhhhh, calm down now. Shhhhh." Strong hands restrained his punching fists and the body sheltering him began a slow rocking motion.

Luke collapsed emotionally and went limp in Ani’s arms.

"Get away from me... get away from me..." he repeated time and again, withdrawing into the tiny little corner of his mind where the last remnants of his sanity still held on.

"Shhhhhhh... It’s okay. No one will harm you as long as I’m here. It’s all right, my friend." Anakin continued his gentle rocking, until he felt Luke’s body relax completely against him.

Beside them, Artoo beeped softly, clearly shaken by the scene.

And it was the effect of his breakdown on the little droid that awakened Luke to the extent of the damage he had suffered.

"Oh, Force! It’s never going to end, is it? It will never end!" he moaned as his tears soaked Ani’s sleeve. "I don’t even remember who I used to be! Oh, no! Oh, please..." he begged for the agony to end, for someone, anyone, to put an end to this, in any way.

The embrace around him tightened, as if trying to pass on to him some of its owner’s strength and will to fight. He felt cradled and protected. Cared for.

"You’re strong. You’re good and strong, Luke. You will beat this," Ani’s voice reassured into his ear.

"No, I won’t. It will destroy me. It already did!" he buried the side of his face in Ani’s shoulder at a very uncomfortable angle.

"Who did this to you? Tell me and I will destroy them!" Ani’s voice hissed darkly, his tone dropping an ominous octave.

"My father!" Luke exclaimed, feeling as if that unspeakable truth was ripping him open. "My own father did it!"

"What?!" the breathless sound reflected the shock of the abomination Luke had just confessed.

"I always thought I was an orphan. My first master told me that a Lord Sith named Darth Vader had murdered my father, and helped to exterminate the entire Jedi Order. And when I finally confronted him, Vader cut off my hand and told me he was my father!" Luke bit his lower lip until he drew blood. "And I knew he was telling the truth. I could feel it in my veins, through the Force." He closed his eyes, fighting that truth even now. "My own father, Ani! My own father!" Giving up, he clung to Ani’s arm for dear life, letting out a horrified scream.

Anakin let out a strangled cry and crushed Luke to him with superhuman strength. Curiously, it was the painful pressure of Ani’s hug that allowed Luke to release all the horror he had bottled up inside. He let it all out in an endless stream of tears and incoherent sobbing.

Anakin braved it all, not letting go for a second. His hands petted and stroked constantly, sliding through Luke’s damp hair and massaging his scalp. Hours seemed to pass thus.

"Ani. Oh, Ani! Thank you! Thank you so much," Luke sobbed brokenly. "I’m sorry you had to see..."

"Shhhh, don’t say it," Ani soothed in a hoarse voice. "Don’t even think about it. Just let it go. I’m staying right here."

"What will I do? How will I live with this? With myself? With...?"

"I don’t know." Ani swallowed the massive lump in his throat, desperate for an answer that could give Luke a semblance of peace in his torment. "You can only hope for time to do its job, and heal the rawness of your pain. Focus on the Force, on your instincts, on your inner balance. The Light will guide you to the higher Truth you seek. Enlightenment will come when you least expect it, and you’ll know you have found your path again."

"And where will that path lead?" Luke’s head fell on Anakin’s arm, in utter dejection.

"Peace. Acceptance." Ani’s fingers carded through Luke’s hair unconsciously. "Maybe even forgiveness."

"Forgiveness?" Luke’s voice sounded distant. Disbelieving. Sarcastic.

Anakin smiled softly and looked down.

"You have that capacity. I don’t."

"You’re selling yourself short," Luke replied.

Anakin’s smile widened and the young man shook his burden affectionately.

"As you said, I’m well aware of my faults."

Luke’s eyes turned to him.

"And you tell me to forgive when you wouldn’t?"

"Because you need to forgive and move on, Luke. And for you, there can be no moving on without forgiveness. In your heart, you know this to be true." His blue eyes bored into Luke’s. "Right now, you can’t forgive, and that’s what is disturbing you so."

"He’s a Dark Lord. He doesn’t need my forgiveness, or want it." Luke’s heart sank again at the certainty.

"But you do. You need a closure to this horror. Give it time, and everything will turn out for the best. You’ll rise from your ashes, stronger and wiser than ever."

"Are you sure?" Luke asked like a lost waif, clinging to Ani’s faith like a drowning man to a lifesaver.

Anakin took a deep breath and his eyes flashed with conviction.

"I am."

And in those eyes, Luke saw a familiar pain.

"What’s your story? Want to share it with me?" he asked softly, not wanting for anything to shatter the wondrous circle of comfort they had suddenly found in each other.

Ani smiled tenderly.

"Don’t worry about me. Unlike you, I did kill those who murdered my mother. I had my closure." His features rippled with such a wide range of emotions that Luke got lost in them. In the end, the most profound sadness prevailed. "But the emptiness remains," he muttered in the lowest voice.

Luke’s heart broke once more. Only this time, for his friend.

"There’s no perfect solution, is there?" he said bitterly.

Ani made an ironic face and met his eyes.

"No, there isn’t. At the end of the day, we’re all alone with our pain. Hardened. Unforgiving. That’s the price we pay for learning our lessons. We leave a part of our soul behind."

"I refuse to believe there is no other way." Luke shook his head.

Anakin shrugged.

"That’s my experience. But it doesn’t have to be yours. I’m sure you’ll find your own way. The one that will work for you." He looked down at Luke, with the warmest smile. "Just give yourself time."

The weight of the world seemed to fall on Luke’s shoulders. He sighed.

"I- I’ll try." He murmured. "Especially, because I have no choice." He buried his face in his hands.

"There’s something very special about you, Luke," Ani said out of the blue. "Don’t ever lose it, for many will come to depend on it, for their own salvation."

"What?!" Luke asked, stupefied.

Anakin shook his head, as if coming out of a trance.

"It doesn’t matter. Just don’t lose faith in yourself. Everything’s possible, as long as we believe it is possible." Ani blinked, in sudden confusion. "Does it make any sense?" he asked, as if suddenly wondering what he was talking about.

"I think it will, when I figure it out," Luke replied, just as seriously.

They looked at each other, realizing they had no idea what they were talking about. They burst out laughing, half-timidly, half in sheer relief.

Luke wiped away the dry tear tracks and remaining wetness on his cheeks and upper lip, and dropped the hand onto his lap.

"It’s good to go mad, as long as you can laugh about it," he said, in a perfect blending of self-deprecating humour and irony.

"Indeed," Ani agreed, in a subdued tone of voice that was a statement in itself.

Luke’s head turned again to Ani, and an infinitely grateful smile appeared on his face.

"You’re my guardian angel, you know that?" And at the look on Ani’s face, he quickly replied, "And I’m not taking it back!"

Anakin raised an eyebrow in a fake arrogant gesture.

"Keeping in mind your current state of mind, I’ll spare you the obvious comeback." His features softened.

Luke’s eyes filled with laughter, and closing them for an instant, he drew in a deep intake of breath, and let all the air out in a long sigh.

Anakin released him from his embrace little by little, and gave Luke’s shoulder a fond parting squeeze.

"How’re you feeling?" he asked.

"Better. Better than I’ve felt in a month," Luke replied, sliding back in his sleeping bag. "I needed to share this more than I thought."

When Anakin was returning to his blankets, Luke’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrist.

"Thank you," he murmured in a shaky voice, the emotion making his throat ache.

"Anytime." Ani smiled.

 

 

Anakin’s eyes opened. Like the previous two mornings, his first impulse after remembering where he was and with who, was checking on his companion.

Luke slept soundly, apparently still some time away from awakening. He had burrowed deep into his bag, much like a cub looking for warmth. Or protection.

And just like the previous two mornings, something constricted inside him at the vulnerable sight.

The burning in his eyes promptly brought him out of his makeshift ‘bed.’ He stood and stretched his arms above his head.

But his eyes were drawn again to the sleeping figure on the ground.

And the pain returned once more.

A soft beep made him look at his astrodroid. Artoo was also looking at the sleeping form. Then, the domed head turned to him and a heartfelt beep followed.

Anakin nodded, understanding the little droid perfectly.

"There’s something about him, isn’t there?" he said, to no one in particular, and himself most of all. He shook his head and without thinking, drew out his lightsaber and put it on the blankets, within Luke’s reach. He sighed, and started for the brook.

"Take good care of him, Artoo," he instructed, taking one last look back.

 

Anakin had never been so confused. Since his emergency landing on this forsaken planet, everything had felt... unreal, eerie. And at the same time, inexplicably right.

His own reactions included.

In any other circumstances, Luke’s first rude gesture, shrugging him off and refusing his help and his kindness, would have resulted in Anakin ignoring the young man, and treating him with such cold detachment that it would have made master Yoda proud.

Never more detached than when your feelings have been hurt.

Instead, he had accepted Luke’s clumsy subsequent attempts to make up to him for his discourtesy, and found himself actually liking him.

There was just something about him. He had felt it from the moment he had looked into his eyes.

Something about him. He couldn’t remember how many times he had looked at Luke and thought those words.

Maybe it was his innate sense of fairness, his admirable honesty in admitting his mistakes and apologizing for them. Maybe it was the air of deep, painful loss he exuded. Like an orphan cub. Which was exactly what he had turned out to be.

Just like him.

And he had responded like he had never done before. He had reached out, trying to coax Luke into satisfying his curiosity, somehow knowing the deep trauma that lurked behind that mask of initial anger and later resignation.

Very soon, the mask had crumbled and, just like Anakin suspected, it became clear that Luke wasn’t used to hiding his feelings and keeping secrets. That simply wasn’t him.

And so, he kept on pushing, needing to know more. To know it all.

Until last night.

Last night he got more than he had bargained for. Although, somewhere deep inside, he had known it had to be something as... horrendous as this.

How could such horror come to happen to anyone?

And why did such horror resonate so profoundly with him? Why did he feel... responsible for Luke’s suffering? It was insane!

It made no sense but in some crazed way, it fitted. It fitted the way he had been feeling since meeting Luke. He felt as if he should know him, as if he had been born knowing him.

The most intimate calling. The call of a broken soul crying for help.

A father hurting... mutilating his own child!!

It was an aberration! A father’s first instinct should be to protect, to nurture, to die for his children!

The mere thought made him want to run away from a universe that allowed such atrocities to happen to good people.

The sound of the running water calmed his frenetic thinking and slowed down his accelerated heartbeat.

He arrived at the brook and kneeling on the bank, he unfastened and took off his tunic and his gauntlet, putting them aside. He bent forward and washed thoroughly his face and hands. Then, he proceeded to wash his torso with the thinning piece of soap.

The thought made him smile ironically. Only someone who’d lived on Tatooine would be so obsessive about water and the simple pleasures of soaking in it. And judging from Luke’s expression "Bantha crap!", he’d also had the misfortune of living on that cursed planet.

A splashing sound brought him out of his musings, and Anakin scrutinized the brook, trying to see the creature that had made it.

It looked like Luke was right. There were some kind of aquatic lifeforms in the water. He couldn’t see anything, and giving up, he returned to his washing. When he finished soaping himself, he began rinsing, eyes fixed on the blazing colours of the early morning sky.

Bar complications, the repairs on Luke’s ship would be finished in the afternoon or the early evening. After that, they’d have to find their way home somehow. Otherwise, they’d be doomed to spend the rest of their lives here, stranded and alone, and die eventually. Not a prospect he was willing to contemplate, now or ever. He would return to Padme or die trying.

The picture of his beautiful wife brought a softness to his limbs. He couldn’t help but think how much she would like Luke too. He didn’t know how he knew. He just did.

The dreamy smile on his face disappeared in a heartbeat, that was the time it took for the loud splashing sound to register in his brain, and something long, thick and slippery to wrap itself around his neck and torso and throw him headfirst into the water. He didn’t have time to cry out.

His arms flailed blindly, looking for something to hold on to; a root, a rock, something, but he spent most of his energy and the oxygen in his lungs in his frantic search. Realizing he wouldn’t find anything, he changed his tactic, and his hands grasped the squeezing tentacles around him, digging into the pliant surface, hoping to break it or at the very least, cause enough pain for the creature to release him. His hands didn’t cover the entire circumference of the tentacles. This creature had to be enormous!

Then, a third tentacle wrapped itself around his waist, crushing him so hard that he lost the remaining oxygen he had.

Darkness began to close in around him, and he fought back savagely, knowing he only had a few seconds left before he lost consciousness and everything ended for him.

Oddly, only one word came to mind, and he shouted it desperately.

‘LUKE!’

 

 

Luke jolted and jumped out of his sleeping bag before he was completely awake and aware of what he was doing.

The shout had been deafening in his mind, and not stopping to question how could that be, or the terrifyingly familiar ring of that mind-voice, he summoned the lightsaber on the blankets to his hand and set off running like a madman towards the brook.

"ANI!" he yelled out. "HOLD ON, ANI!!! I’M COMING!!!"

Artoo didn’t even have time to beep a question before Luke disappeared from sight.

 

Never before had a kilometre been so endless to cover. Luke pushed his Jedi training to the limit, forcing his muscles, bones, tendons and his very system into a superhuman effort to get to the brook before Ani’s presence died in his mind.

Ani was fading so fast that he called out to him mentally, commanding him to resist until he arrived. He couldn’t tell if Ani understood his message, or received it, for that matter.

Finally, the brook appeared before him. The unfolding scene almost brought him to a dead stop.

Ani’s body was barely visible under three huge bluish tentacles wrapped around his waist, torso, and apparently, his neck underwater. His legs weren’t kicking anymore, and the creature was dragging him under, without resistance on Ani’s part.

An animal, barbaric scream left Luke’s throat, and rushing forward, he ignited the lightsaber and pounced on the creature that was killing his friend.

He jumped into the water and one single look was enough to know that he couldn’t cut off the tentacles strangling Ani without hurting him. The pressure on his body was that extreme.

He waded through the water, chest-deep, until he found himself facing the creature. Namely, one of its tentacles coming directly for him. It seemed to have decided on having them both for breakfast. One swing of the saber disposed of the looming tentacle. It fell to the water, sinking fast.

Enraged by the sudden, unexpected mutilation and searing pain, the creature surged forward, attacking with everything it had. Luke cut it piece by piece, tentacle after tentacle, that splashed on the water with loud plopping sounds. When he saw the big, chubby head, and the round bulging eyes staring at him, he snarled and stabbed it with the blue blade to the hilt.

It was over.

Luke turned off the lightsaber and threw it to the bank, as the sliced pieces of the creature sank around him. He hurried to Ani’s side and removed the tentacles from him. Then, he turned his friend’s body over and into his arms, holding the blond head above the water.

Ani’s face was white, as if the blood had been drained from him. He didn’t move, he didn’t breathe. Reddish strangulation marks crossed his neck and torso.

Acting on sheer adrenalin, Luke dragged Ani out of the brook and, turning him on his stomach, pressed his shaking hands to his sides and rubbed hard upwards time and again, trying to force the water out of his lungs.

"Come on, Ani. Come on! Don’t do this to me, don’t do this to me!" he chanted over and over. "You can’t leave me alone here. Please, Ani! You’ve got to come back!" he begged desperately. "Please, Ani. Please!"

Artoo’s soft beeping startled him back to the reality around him, and he cast a look to his left, where the little droid was landing on the grass beside them. Forgetting about the droid, he returned to his resuscitation attempts, refusing to give up.

An eternity seemed to pass, and he never faltered. He was trembling all over, as the shock began to settle in, but he ground his teeth and redoubled his efforts.

"Come on, man! Come on, blast it! You’ve got to come back NOW!" he cried, pounding Ani’s back with his fists, in total despair.

Then, he felt it. A tiny shudder within the broad ribcage.

"That’s it, Ani. That’s it! Come back, my friend. Come back, come on!" he encouraged, placing his palms on Ani’s sides again, and pressing upwards one more time.

Ani convulsed under his hands and spewed up a big mouthful of water, then another, and finally, a third smaller mouthful. Luke couldn’t tell if he had regained consciousness, so he turned him gently onto his right side and reached out with his mind.

‘Ani, are you all right? Can you hear me?’

And he heard it. Very weakly, just barely there.

‘Breathe... can’t... breathe... suffocating...’

Luke’s heart skipped a frightened beat. He turned Ani fully onto his back, trying to see what was wrong.

Ani’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down spasmodically as he tried to draw oxygen into his lungs, but something clearly prevented him from doing it.

What if the creature’s pressure on his neck had broken his windpipe? What if he had saved his friend’s life only to see him die horribly?

‘NO! No, Ani!’ he cried out. He had never felt so helpless, so completely useless. "Ani, breathe! You must breathe. Try!" he called, shaking the muscled shoulders.

Anakin tried with all his vanishing strength, but it soon became obvious that it wasn’t working. His lips turned blue and his body went limp in Luke’s grasp.

"NO! You’re not dying on me!" the young man yelled, putting his hands around Ani’s neck and beginning to rub the thick red mark across it instinctively. "You’ve got to breathe! Come on, Ani. Breathe! Breathe for me."

Maybe it was the friction, maybe it was the combination of the friction plus the pressure the creature had exerted on Ani’s skin, or maybe it was just because, but Luke noticed a strange heat in his fingertips being transmitted to Ani’s neck. Frowning, he eased the massage a little, turning it into a soothing, desperate caress.

"Ani. Please, Ani," he pleaded in a soft whisper. "Please come back to me." He splayed his hands around the now throbbing neck, until the heat became unbearable.

When he thought he couldn’t stand it any longer, Ani’s eyes blinked open.

Luke’s mouth dropped open and a loud gasp escaped his lips. Not even Artoo’s piercing, thrilled beeping could drown the triumphant cry of joy resounding in his heart.

"Welcome back," he greeted shakily, turning his face away for a second and wiping the wetness on his cheeks.

Ani stared at him in confusion, as if wondering where he was and how he got there. Then, he looked around and comprehension dawned on his features. His body tensed.

"Shhhhh, it’s all right," Luke reassured him. "I killed it. We’re safe now." He moved the soaked hair away from Ani’s forehead tenderly. "Can you speak?" he asked softly.

"I-I think so," Ani said. His voice sounded a bit raspy, but otherwise, normal. "Are you all right?" his blue eyes searched Luke earnestly.

"Yes, I’m fine," Luke smiled. "How do you feel?"

"Like a juiced Corellian lemon," was the explicit reply.

Luke laughed out loud.

"I prefer Corellian apples myself," he teased, sliding his arm under Ani’s shoulders. "Can you sit up?"

"I can try."

Anakin sat up with Luke’s help and with a long, excruciating moan.

"Womp rats!" he exclaimed. "That hypertrophied octopus crushed all my ribs. They hurt like hell!" he put his hand on his chest protectively, cradling his aching ribs.

Luke put his hand over Ani’s in a sympathetic move.

"Take it easy. I’ll help you up," he said, letting go and rising to his feet.

"Thanks." Anakin checked his ribcage gingerly, wincing more often than not.

Luke picked up his friend’s saber and attached it to his belt, and draped his tunic and gauntlet across his shoulder. They were soaking wet from all the wild splashing. Then, he returned to Ani’s side and squatted down.

"Ready?"

"No, but let’s get out of here," Ani answered firmly.

Luke put Ani’s arm around his shoulders and wrapped his own around Ani’s waist.

"All right. One... Two..." he took a deep breath.

"Three!" they said at the same time.

Anakin pulled himself up with Luke’s help, holding back another moan.

"Give me a minute," he asked, drawing in short and fast intakes of breath, controlling the pain.

"Sure," Luke nodded, adjusting Ani’s arm around him and squeezing his hand affectionately.

"Okay, let’s get moving," Ani said a little while later.

They began their slow walk back to the camp, accompanied by Artoo, who beeped in encouragement every step of the way.

"I don’t understand why I didn’t feel it coming," Ani broke the silence some time later. "I always sense everything around me." He was frustrated and angry with himself.

"Don’t be too hard on yourself," Luke patted Ani’s side comfortingly. "I guess we made the mistake of assuming there was no dangerous life here."

"At least, we survived our mistake," Ani made an ironical face, noticing the sudden tremor in his body.

"Yeah," Luke agreed. "You’re trembling. Do you want to take a break?" he asked worriedly.

"No, I’m fine. It’s just that I’m soaked, and a little bit shocked, too," Anakin replied.

"I know. Me too." Luke wrapped his arm more securely around Ani’s waist and splayed his fingers on the chilled skin, trying to warm if only that small spot.

"Do you want to stop?" Anakin offered. "Maybe that thing hurt you somewhere."

"It didn’t. Now be quiet and save your strength," Luke ordered. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ani’s answering smile, and almost imperceptible nod of acquiescence. Still, his silence was short-lived.

"It tingles," Ani said, wriggling a little in Luke’s grasp.

"What tingles?"

"The spot on my waist that your hand is covering. It feels warm and it tingles a little."

Luke’s eyebrows arched in surprise.

"First time anyone tells me that my touch is tingly. You must have swallowed more water than you think," he observed nonchalantly.

Anakin sputtered at the display of black humour.

"I’ll get you for that," he mock-threatened, biting his lower lip to not give himself away.

"You can try," Luke countered smugly.

They maintained a serious stance for a few seconds, but when they sneaked a peek at each other, the fašade crumbled and laughter echoed all over the meadow.

 

 

"Here we are. Now strip," Luke instructed when he got Ani seated on his sleeping bag. "We’ve got to dry our clothes. A chest cold or pneumonia is the last thing we need." He took off his sleeveless shirt, setting an example.

Realizing that any protestation would be futile, Anakin reached for his left boot.

"When you’ve finished stripping, get in my sleeping bag," Luke said, rummaging carelessly through the containers in his X-Wing’s hold.

"Hey, you be careful with that!" Anakin warned in alarm. "The fact that the wires have held all this time doesn’t mean it’s safe."

"Yes, Dad," Luke acknowledged without turning. His upper body disappeared inside he hold. "Here it is!" he exclaimed, showing Ani a medium-sized can.

"What’s that?" Anakin asked, taking off the right boot and unfastening his pants with cold fingers. Drat, his teeth were beginning to chatter!

"Soup. I was saving it for a special occasion." He made an hilarious face. "Meaning when I was desperate to get warm, as it’s our case right now."

"I’ve got brass plates and cutlery in my ship’s hold. Be my guest," Anakin invited, finally getting rid of his sodden pants and hurrying inside Luke’s bag, trying not to wince. He was quite sore in some places.

"Your hold is like a wishing well, man. Someone needs something, and you have it," Luke commented, putting his head in the hold and beginning the search.

"It’s a game of trial and error, my friend," Anakin said. "I put all those things inside after finding myself in situations where I needed them, and didn’t have them." He sighed. "Unfortunately, you never know when you’re going to need something, so I try to have a little bit of everything."

"I know what you mean. That’s the way I work, too," Luke said, turning about and holding out a couple plates and spoons. "And if you also have clothes pins in there, I’ll eat my blaster."

"Well..." the edges of Anakin’s mouth twitched with amusement.

"You mean you do?" Luke asked, gobsmacked.

Anakin burst out laughing, but immediately reached for his ribs.

"Ouch! Blast it! Oh, Luke, pulling your leg is so easy!" he couldn’t stop chuckling, despite the pain.

"Nya-nya-nya!" Luke stuck out his tongue at Anakin. But the smile only took three seconds to appear.

 

In less than ten minutes, Luke had the fire going and the can of soup warmed and ready to be served, which he promptly did. He served Ani first, filling his plate.

"Thank you. It smells good," Anakin complimented.

Luke smiled at him and returned to the fire. With all the bustle he had forgotten about his own wet pants, and now that they were beginning to dry, he felt all clammy and cold from his waist down. Wasting no time, he unclipped Ani’s lightsaber from his belt, and took off his boots and his pants. Then, he wrapped himself in the blanket Ani used as a cover, and spread both their pants, Ani’s tunic, and his own shirt on the grass to dry.

"Oh, no!" he exclaimed suddenly.

"What is it?" Anakin asked, almost choking on his soup.

"Your gauntlet. Two of the braces are broken," he held it out for Anakin to see with a pained look.

"It’s all right," Anakin waved his free hand in dismissal. "I have two more in my cockpit."

"Oh," Luke said, a bit taken aback. He folded the gauntlet carefully and put it aside in an unconscious reverent gesture.

Anakin watched Luke’s ritual and something inside him softened.

"I didn’t thank you for saving my life," he said in a hoarse voice, when Luke joined him with his plate of soup.

Luke met his eyes and blushed at the look of gratitude shining in them.

"You would have done the same for me," he said softly.

"Yes, I would have, but that doesn’t change anything." The look in his eyes intensified, forcing Luke to acknowledge the depth of his feelings. "Thank you," he enunciated the words emphatically.

"You’re welcome," Luke replied solemnly.

Anakin nodded and returned to his soup.

"I’m very pleased that you used my lightsaber instead of your blaster," he said a little while later, when he had almost finished his plate.

Luke raised his head from his soup, looking somewhat confused.

"I-I didn’t think. I just acted," he said, struggling to find the words. "I heard you calling out to me, and before I knew, I was running toward the brook, lightsaber in hand." He squinted his eyes, trying to understand what had happened.

"You heard me in your mind," Ani’s voice sounded awed. "Luke, your Force-sensitivity is... immense," he stressed the word. "You mustn’t allow such an incredible gift to be wasted." He put down his plate and grasped Luke’s forearm. "Don’t give up. Don’t let what your father did to you make you lose your faith in yourself, in your inner strength, in the goodness in you. Don’t question yourself and your worth."

Luke bit his lips and looked away, his face contorted in pain.

"I know, I know." Ani’s hold tightened. "I wish I could do something to ease your suffering. I wish I could take it away. But you must do this, if only to prove to yourself that you’re everything your father is not." His eyes filled with gentle compassion. "You are a Jedi, Luke. Don’t deny it. Denying the essence of your being is foolish."

Luke put down his plate and closed his eyes. Twin tears rolled down his cheeks.

"I’m afraid," his voice almost broke. "I fear facing him again. I fear the Dark Side, now that I know what it does to a man’s soul. I fear not hating him enough to resist him next time. I-- I just..." he looked down at his hands hopelessly. "I’m afraid."

Long, mechanical fingers crossed the short distance separating them and wiped away the tears on Luke’s face with breathtaking tenderness.

"Your pain is my pain." There were also tears in Anakin’s voice. "And you don’t hate anyone. You can’t."

Luke’s head turned and met his friend’s glistening eyes. Reaching up, he took the mechanical fingers in his own right hand, and squeezed them, moved beyond words. Grateful beyond any feeling he could name.

 

 

The next few hours were quite hectic. Luke cleaned up the plates and spoons and returned them to Ani’s ship. He put out the fire and checked their clothes. His pants and shirt were already dry, but not his boots. Ani’s clothes were thicker than his own and needed more time.

He got dressed and ready to put the finishing touches to his almost completely repaired X-Wing. Ani was lying down in his sleeping bag, resting a little, but Luke had no intention of letting him help. He was too bruised to exert himself any more.

He gathered the tools he’d need and examined his ship, verifying what spots needed to be worked on.

"All right," he muttered to himself. "Let’s get star-" he trailed off when his eyes swept around him and saw that Ani had fallen asleep. His features softened into a fond smile.

He found himself walking up to his sleeping friend and kneeling down beside him.

Ani’s sleep looked serene and undisturbed by bad dreams.

"Lucky you," he murmured. "But I guess you also have your own demons, as we all do." He reached out and put his hand on Ani’s forehead. He frowned. It was hot. Not much, but Ani was definitely running a slight fever.

As if confirming his diagnosis, Ani let out a little groan and stirred a little.

His palms were cooler than his friend’s forehead, so Luke switched hands for a while, hoping to alleviate some of Ani’s discomfort.

It was incredible how much he had come to care about that young man. Ani was stronger and more self-reliant than him. He was also clearly used to being alone. Not only alone with himself, but alone around people as well. Alone with his thoughts, with his fears and hopes.

And yet, despite all that self-assurance, something told him that Ani was looking for something desperately. Something he desperately needed to be complete.

Ani had a truly complex personality. Both passionate and compelling, and laid-back and practical. He could be diplomatic and at the same time, have no qualms about showing his feelings and giving his opinion freely, openly, with no restraints.

He respected and admired Ani for that. For doing what he thought was right and damn conventions and consequences.

But his feelings for Ani ran deeper than that.

Maybe it was a subconscious bond between Force-sensitives. Something that made them understand each other better - the pain, the conflicts and fears that being what they were, entailed.

He felt the pull, the connection. The profound connection that had enabled him to hear Ani’s cry for help.

He pressed his palm to the warm forehead, thanking the heavens he had arrived in time.

He smiled ironically. He had cursed his gift. He had wanted it gone, and now it had helped him to save a life. A precious life.

He remembered Ani’s words of comfort the night before. How he had wrapped him in his arms and calmed him, rocking him as a parent would a scared child. With misted eyes, he wished for Ani to have a person to hold him through the night, when his demons came to haunt him.

Why did Ani do it? Why did he go to such lengths to help him? He didn’t have to. They were virtual strangers, forced to cooperate and help each other if they wanted to survive on that unknown planet, and return home safe and sound.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He was the one relying on Ani. On his tools, his help. Ani could have left the planet the very same day they landed on it. He had chosen to stay and help him repair his X-Wing.

If anything, it had been staying here that had endangered Ani’s life.

How could he thank him for what he had done?

Luke caressed the now relaxed brow with his thumbpad, feeling something flow between them.

The Force, maybe? He felt like he should know.

Ani let out a soft breath that tickled his wrist.

"Ani," he whispered softly, savouring the name.

He had thought at first that Ani was lying about his name. But somehow, it fitted him. Maybe it was an old nickname or an abbreviation of his real name, but the strangest thing was that it suited him. He *was* Ani.

Circumstances had forced them together, but a true bond had developed between them. It was real. It was strong. And his heart would bleed when they were forced to part and return to their respective realities.

That was the truth of his life. He seemed destined to lose all those he cared about. His parents, his aunt and uncle, Ben, all the friends he had lost in the war, even Han... Sometimes, he morbidly wondered how long would it take for him to lose Leia, and Chewie... even Threepio and Artoo.

Yes, a universe apart would be safe enough for Ani.

Sobering, he moved his hand back and stood up. With a sigh, Ani turned onto his side and continued sleeping.

Luke studied his friend for a long moment. An infinitely sad smile crossed his face, and taking a deep breath, he set to work.

 

 

It took him only a couple hours to finish the remaining bodywork and verify that the landing gear displayed correctly.

Finally, he stepped back, wiped the sweat from his face with his forearm and asked for Artoo’s opinion.

"So, what do you think?"

Artoo beeped his approval.

"Nice work, eh?" His eyes roamed his now fully repaired ship, and he nodded. "Yes, as good as new."

Artoo beeped something else and Luke turned to him.

"Want some power?"

Artoo beeped affirmatively.

Luke squatted down before the little droid and plugged the power cable into the socket Artoo opened for him.

"There you go," Luke patted the domed head, as Artoo let out something suspiciously similar to a mechanical sigh.

Luke stood up and studied his ship once more.

"I’ll need Ani’s help to put it down, but we can do that later or tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll clear the mess."

Efficiently, Luke put away all the tools in Ani’s hold, and then the few things that came from his own X-Wing. Then, he checked his friend’s clothes. They were already dry, so he placed them next to Ani and knelt down beside him. Carefully, he touched his forehead.

To his surprise, Ani’s fever had gone completely.

"Good news at last," he murmured, sighing softly. His gaze was drawn to the mechanical arm peeking through the top of his bag.

Unable to help himself, Luke brushed it with his fingertips, aching inside for the bitter twist of fate that had made their amputations so similar.

Remembering Ani’s earlier words, he decided to get one of Ani’s spare gauntlets. One less chore for his friend to take care of after he woke up.

Being extra cautious not to wake Ani, Luke walked away and climbed up the small ship, sitting in the Interceptor’s cockpit.

At first sight, he could see that Ani had made several changes. The most important instruments had been put together, making their readings easier to check. He looked around, nodding occasionally at the logic behind the modifications. He touched some panels, for no particular reason. Just feeling them.

Shaking himself out of his reverie, he began looking for a glove compartment. He touched one of the panels to his right, and a small compartment slid open. Two brown gauntlets appeared before him, neatly folded. He grabbed the one on top, and closed the compartment. Then, taking one last look around, he sat up and pushed himself up, ready to leave the cockpit.

Accidentally, he hit something with his elbow and a panel he hadn’t noticed before slid open. Inside, there was something that looked like a tridimensional hologram.

‘A secret compartment,’ Luke realized, wondering of whom the hologram would be. Maybe a close friend Ani had lost. Maybe even Ani’s mother.

Needing to know who the person was who meant so much to his friend, Luke activated it.

The image wavered, but soon took the shape of a stunningly beautiful young woman, dressed very much like a member of the nobility. She had long, wavy dark hair and exotic dark eyes. She looked petite, but he couldn’t tell for sure. She smiled radiantly, her beautiful face shining with love; but there was also an almost undetectable stiffness in the way she stood, that made Luke wonder what worried her.

Enraptured, he stared at the hologram endlessly, for some reason reluctant to deactivate it. But suddenly realizing that he shouldn’t be doing this, his thumb reached guiltily for the switch.

And just at that moment, the hologram spoke.

"Anakin Skywalker, wherever you are, always remember how much I love you."

In seconds, all colour disappeared from Luke’s face. His entire body went rigid and cold. The hologram slipped from his nerveless fingers, falling onto his lap.

Anakin Skywalker.

Anakin Skywalker.

Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker.

Luke’s respiration started coming in short and fast intakes of breath. His eyes strayed over to the young man sleeping peacefully a few metres away in his sleeping bag.

To his own father.

Luke began to hyperventilate, as realization after realization dawned on his rapidly imploding brain. His eyes never left Ani’s... Anakin’s form. He anchored himself to it, knowing that should his gaze wander, he would lose his mind.

An abbreviation, after all.

Gradually, sensation returned to his numb body. The feeling grew and grew and grew, until all of him was an erupting volcano of raging emotions.

Shock, confusion, horror, fear, indignation, betrayal, anger... Hate. Mindblowing hate; and childlike helplessness.

This man who had saved him, helped him to repair his ship, befriended him, cared about his problems, hugged him when he had broken down, laughed with him and entrusted himself to him, was – or would be – the masked black beast who had – or would – exterminated the Jedi, murdered countless of beings all over the galaxy, killed Ben, tortured Leia, chased them implacably for over three years, tortured and frozen Han in carbonite. And mutilated him.

No parallel universes after all, either, but the same timeline, only twenty something years apart.

Darth Vader was sleeping in front of him.

His stomach churned and his face reddened. His head felt all congested, crushed under the physical and emotional stress. Tears ran down his cheeks, unstoppable, scalding his skin.

He felt sickened to his soul. He burned.

His hands reached down and gripped the seat, squeezing it so tight that his knuckles went white.

He wanted to climb down the Interceptor and finish the work the creature in the brook had started, and he had stopped from completing. He wanted to break the man’s neck with his own hands.

And he wanted to hold him and never let go.

All his preconceived ideas collapsed and lay scattered at his feet. No creature of sheer evil and Darkness from birth as he had rationalized, but a kind, funny, caring, normal, and in many areas exceptional, young man.

‘In the name of everything that’s holy and sacred in the galaxy, what happened to you? How could such a noble and honourable spirit become so corrupted, and turn against everything he stood for and believed in?’

‘And how do I know I won’t turn like him? What makes me different and better than him, when in fact, I-am-him?’

Luke broke out in a cold sweat at the realization of his own fallibility. At the realization of everyone’s fallibility.

He didn’t know anything anymore. He was standing on quicksands. There was no safe place for him to run. No certainties. No safe haven.

Nothing for him to believe in.

Defeated, Luke’s hands let go of his seat and his whole body sagged.

His eyes settled on the hologram on his lap, and his heart skipped a beat. He took it in his hand and activated it again.

The image of the beautiful young woman smiled brightly at him.

"Anakin Skywalker, wherever you are, always remember how much I love you."

A searing pain slashed through him at the unshakable feeling that he was looking at his mother.

His eyes bored into the image, desperate for a clue, for an answer that made all the agony, all the horror and destruction worthwhile.

‘Mother, what? Why? How? Tell me! I need to know! I need to understand!’

"Anakin Skywalker, wherever you are, always remember how much I love you."

You love him. And he’s obviously capable of loving. Loving passionately. Madly.’ Luke mused, trying to make some sense out of what had no explanation. ‘The idea of having children of his own makes him giddy with joy.’

And in the heart of the thunderstorm sweeping him away, he suddenly found himself floating in its calm centre.

‘He wanted me. He wanted... me?!’

In a blind rush, he put away the hologram, grabbed the gauntlet and climbed down the Interceptor, staggering over to his sleeping father. He fell to his knees a couple metres away from him, all strength depleted.

‘How could you? To your own son. Your most precious little life. The part of you that would go on living after you ceased to exist.’

Tears continued falling from his eyes, but he didn’t feel them anymore. He didn’t feel anything.

‘Luke, it is your destiny.’

The unwelcome memory made him jump.

Darker, lower, older, but the same voice.

‘The same mind-voice, the same lightsaber. Force, the same eyes, the same hair, the same dimple on the chin, even. How come I didn’t...?’ he reached out, but he quickly drew back, remembering the nightmares, the reality he came from.

The same man inside the suit.

The same man.

Could it be possible that this young, beautiful man still lurked, silenced and forgotten, deep inside the black soul of Darth Vader?

‘How could you turn your back on over two decades of goodness and Light? How could you choose Darkness over what Mother and I could give you?’

"Why?" he whimpered out loud, letting out a little sob.

Artoo’s tiny, distressed beep made Luke turn. His eyes opened wide when they settled on the little droid, and he stood up, heading towards him unsteadily.

"Force, it is you too, isn’t it? It is you, Artoo! My Artoo!" he moaned, bracing himself against him. He dropped to one knee and leaned his forehead on the dome.

Artoo beeped in confusion, not understanding a thing Luke was babbling, truly worried about the young man. Tears trickled down Luke’s eyes and fell on him, increasing his concern.

"I knew there had to be a reason why we had been brought here." He raised his head and looked away. "Maybe... maybe I was supposed to find my closure... by meeting him?" He turned his head and stared at the oblivious man, sleeping soundly in his bag. He rose to his feet and walked back to his father, feeling strangely detached from his own feelings.

‘Is it supposed to make me feel better, knowing you were good before you turned? Was the knowledge supposed to comfort me? Well, it didn’t. It only made it worse, because I’m looking at everything I always wanted to have, at what I could have, and never did. And all for what?’

"Father..." he whispered inaudibly. "Help me. Help me understand."

Time passed without Luke noticing. At some point, he sat down cross-legged on the grass and watched over Anakin's sleep.

 

 

The sun was beginning to set when Anakin opened his eyes. He squinted a little at the sunlight, and turned his head away from it.

"Hey," he smiled drowsily when he saw Luke sitting beside him.

Luke plastered a shaky smile on his face, his heart beating two hundred times a minute.

Ridding himself of the last vestiges of sleep, Anakin sat up in Luke’s sleeping bag and contemplated the sunset.

"H-How long have I been sleeping?" he asked suddenly, looking back at his friend.

"Through the day," Luke answered hoarsely.

"Through the day?!" The blue eyes almost popped out of their sockets.

"You needed it. How’re you feeling?" Luke was making a heroic effort to convey a semblance of normality, even if he knew it was only a matter of time before Anakin perceived the difference.

Anakin checked the multiple aches and kinks in his body, only to find them gone.

"There’s no pain," his features illuminated with relief and wonder. "I feel... just perfect."

"I’m glad to hear that," Luke said, meaning it. "Here, put them on," he handed Anakin his clothes.

"Thank you."

"You’re welcome."

"And what did you do while I was out?" Anakin asked conversationally while Luke got the fire ready. The evening was cooling rapidly, and he hurried to get dressed. "Did Artoo keep you company?"

"Artoo was great," Luke said, shrugging nonchalantly. He bent down and unplugged the wire from the little droid’s socket. "He asked for some power after I finished repairing my X-Wing." A lifetime ago.

"Wait a minute! You repaired your ship already?"

"Yup," Luke nodded without looking, putting the generator away in his hold. "I did a good job, don’t you think? I only need your help to put it down. After that, we’ll be free to leave this hellhole of a planet and return home," he said, more harshly than he intended.

"You seem pretty certain of that," Anakin commented.

Luke’s gaze turned skywards.

"I am."

"I’ll trust your judgment, then. Oh, I see you got a gauntlet from my ship. Thanks."

"You’re welcome," Luke repeated, his gaze shifting from the sky to the sight of Anakin adjusting his gauntlet with practised ease. He shuddered and looked away.

"I’ll get more nutrition bars," Anakin said after putting on his boots. On walking past Luke, he put his hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right?" he asked softly.

Luke stiffened helplessly at the touch.

"Yes, I’m fine. Just... jumpy."

"I can tell," Anakin patted the shoulder affectionately.

Luke watched Anakin’s every move, his every little gesture, desperate for... something. Anything.

Anakin returned with a box of nutrition bars from his hold and sat down by the fire.

Forcing himself to move, Luke sat down in front of him and accepted the generous handful of bars that Anakin gave him.

"T-thank you," he said in the weakest voice.

"I’m sorry I passed out on you like that," Anakin said, munching his first bar hungrily. "It wasn’t my intention."

"It’s okay. Your body needed to rest. You had a slight fever when I checked on you, but a few hours later, it was gone."

"Really? That’s strange. I don’t remember sleeping so well in a long time."

Luke nodded, eyes downcast. He took a bite of his first bar, but did nothing with it. Just kept it in his mouth.

"I can see you didn’t have a good time while on your own," Anakin observed. "You’ve been crying. A lot, judging from the puffiness of your eyes and your reddened face."

Luke closed his eyes, trying to hold back another shudder.

"Are you cold?"

Luke shook his head.

Anakin stood up, grabbed one of the blankets and draped it around Luke’s shoulders cozily.

"Is there something I can do?" he asked, returning to his spot in front of Luke.

Luke felt a hysterical smile forming, but fought it back.

"I wish you could," he said instead. "But I guess some questions simply have no answer."

"Everything has an answer," Anakin replied with conviction. "Everything has a cause, and an effect."

"And how can you understand the effect, if you don’t know the cause?"

"By tracking the effect back to the source."

"And when you don’t know the facts, what do you do?"

Anakin sighed.

"I suppose you can only guess, starting with what little facts you do have."

"Ani..." Luke’s eyes closed again. This conversation was leading nowhere. No words could help. Anakin couldn’t give an answer to something that still hadn’t happened. "Ani, touch me."

The request took them both by surprise and they looked at each other, stunned.

Luke’s heart went wild in his chest, but he still felt it. A part of him was coming back to life in a burst of light. And he knew he was finally on the right track.

"You said there was something about me. Something that made you want to help me," he murmured.

Anakin nodded slowly, looking bewildered, mystified.

"Look at me, Ani. Look at me good, and follow your heart." Luke’s eyes misted with the tears that waited to be shed. "Please, Ani. You have no idea how much I need it."

Anakin put down the bars and edged closer. His eyes roamed Luke’s face, taking their time, as if looking for some answers of his own.

Emotion swelled within him. Once again, he felt something stirring inside him. A feeling that made his head spin. An irrationally intense feeling of protection, so strong and primal that it couldn’t, wouldn’t be denied.

His left hand reached out and cradled Luke’s cheek in his palm.

Luke’s eyes closed with a hiss. He bit his lower lip and cuddled his cheek into the warm hand, like a needy cub.

Something exploded in Anakin. Giving himself to it, he brought Luke to him and enfolded him in his arms, in a warm, all-encompassing, crushing embrace.

A choked moan left Luke’s throat, and he returned the embrace, holding on to his father, as he had dreamed of doing since he could remember.

"I have my answer. I have my answer!" he exclaimed, tears running down his face. But this time, they were tears of hope. Of hope restored. Of a tiny shaft of Light shining in the Dark.

And Luke clung to it, knowing it was enough to hold him, forever.

 

 

Luke drifted in that unique place where you’re neither asleep nor awake. A million images, words, feelings, memories and fantasies zoomed past him, but only one of them stayed.

The sublime, unforgettable sensation of soaring in his father’s arms. That beautiful embrace had changed everything, replacing it with the sweetest hope. No. With the strongest, rock-hard certainty.

He had to fight. He had to fight for the soul of Darth Vader. He knew now beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Anakin’s spirit still lived inside the creature of Darkness that had taken his hand and his innocence.

The instinct to shield and protect was written in Anakin’s genes, it was the pure, true essence of Anakin Skywalker’s soul. And no matter how deeply buried it was, he would find it.

He had been about to lose his mind, desperate to find a logical, rational explanation, and a simple hug had answered everything.

How ironically perfect.

He smiled at the memory that followed. Anakin moving back, wiping his own tears away and smiling shyly, overwhelmed by his automatic response to Luke’s need.

And after that, his words.

"Is everything okay now? Is this what you needed? Cause I seemed to need it too."

Oh, yes, Father. It wasn’t only okay. It was perfection.

Luke turned about in his bag and let go, allowing his subconscious to sort everything out during sleep.

 

"Easy, easy. Take your time. I’m not going anywhere."

"I’m not going to hurt you."

"A defeatist attitude will lead you nowhere. Have faith."

"Trust *me*."

"It’s not my style."

"I will honour your gift, Luke. Always."

"I can’t see it, but I can feel it."

"I’ll help you."

"I can feel your pain. Want to share it with me?"

"There’s something about you that... I don’t know. I just want to help. I need it."

"I’m infamous for my temper back home. I’m not a saint."

"It’s not a pretty sight."

"I’m too proud for my own good sometimes."

"Reach out with your feelings, with your heart, and you’ll find your path again. It’ll lead you to the truth."

"All the love and hope inside me coming to life."

"No one will harm you as long as I’m here."

‘LUKE!’

"Your pain is my pain."

"I’ll trust your judgment, then."

 

"Trust me, Father. I will save you," Luke mumbled in his sleep.

 

 

Their last morning together dawned as sunny and bright as the ones before. And for once, they woke up in unison.

They procrastinated for a while, lying down on their backs and contemplating the sunrise, aware of the other’s wakefulness.

Finally, they turned their heads at the same time and met each other’s eyes, smiling softly.

"’Morning."

"Hi there."

Their smiles widened at their simultaneous greeting.

"You all right?" Anakin asked.

Luke nodded, his face shining with something he hadn’t felt in some time.

Hopefulness. Optimism.

"Good," Anakin smiled back. "Shall we go to the brook and watch each other’s backs?"

Luke nodded again, his smile never wavering.

Together, they got up and fell effortlessly into step with one another, as if they had done it all their lives. Anakin summoned his lightsaber and Luke the bar of soap, and they headed for the brook.

Anakin washed first while Luke stood guard like a Roonian hawk, and then it was Luke’s turn to wash while Anakin watched over him, lightsaber at the ready.

They shared a relaxed breakfast, exchanging smiles and sweeping glances at their surroundings, knowing they would be leaving very soon.

"You’re glowing," Anakin said out of the blue, studying his friend.

Luke blushed a little, and nodded.

"I’m finally at peace." He couldn’t hide the exhilaration bubbling in his veins. "And you are the reason."

Anakin gave a surprised start and seemed at a loss for words.

"Why, thank you. I-I don’t know what to say."

Luke smiled inwardly, somehow realizing that Anakin wasn’t used to having someone else’s fervour zeroing in on him.

"Don’t thank me," he shook his head. "Thank yourself. You restored my faith in my father. Now I know what I must do. I’m not afraid anymore."

Anakin tried to say something, but he couldn’t find the words. His features softened and a sweet smile illuminated them.

"You would have found your answer sooner or later, Luke," he said eventually. "But I’m honoured if I helped you in any way. It makes me very happy to know I spared you any more pain." Naked emotion poured out of his eyes, reddening them.

Luke’s blue eyes turned to the equally blue sky, getting lost in the million possibilities ahead.

‘I called him ‘Dad’ before knowing he truly was my father. Something I *never* called anyone, not even in jest. It was too sacred a title to give frivolously. And with him, it just slipped from my lips like the most natural thing.’

He smiled softly.

‘Acceptance, indeed. Forgiveness. Yes, Father. You gave me all the answers unknowingly. Enlightenment came when I least expected it, through the last person I expected for it to come from.’

"I can feel the peace in you. It’s beautiful," Anakin’s voice was full of wonder.

"I had almost forgotten what it felt like." Luke’s gaze settled on his X-Wing. "I’m ready now to return home."

There was a long pause that Anakin ultimately broke.

"I will miss you. I will miss you so much."

Luke’s eyes turned to his father, responding immediately to the raw pain in his voice.

"I will miss you too. More than it’s possible to miss anyone." He reached out and held Anakin’s hand in his own. "I’ll never forget you. Your generous friendship, your unconditional support, your gentleness, your compassion. I’m taking them with me deep in my heart. Something real and true to hold on to when I feel my confidence slipping." He smiled shakily. "Bless you, Ani. Now and forever."

Anakin looked down, profoundly affected by Luke’s words, trying to pull himself together.

Unable to help it, Luke caressed the uneven fringe falling on the side of Anakin’s forehead, and felt its soft thickness between his fingers. The texture was so different from his own thinner, finer hair.

Their eyes met and a universe of intimacy was shared through the secret connection.

"Want to help me put down my ship?" Luke asked hoarsely around the immense lump in his throat.

Anakin just nodded, feeling as if something was tearing apart inside him.

 

 

It only took a few minutes to put down Luke’s X-wing. After that, they put away the wires and the items that lay scattered all over the place after four days of camping out.

Luke put on his pilot suit and reholstered his blaster. Then, he turned to Anakin.

The young man watched him with a funny expression. A strange blending of affection, pride, and melancholy.

Luke smiled radiantly and walked up to him.

"Well... It is time," he said.

"It is," Anakin nodded, staring at him intensely. Somehow, he felt he was missing a vital clue, and his inability to put the pieces together was unsettling him greatly.

Luke turned about and dropped to one knee in front of Artoo, who had rolled up to them.

"Well, my little friend. It was a pleasure meeting you. Thank you for everything," he said, patting the blue dome affectionately. "Now take care of yourself and Ani, will you?"

Artoo beeped assent and bid the young man goodbye with a few extra beeps that also oozed affection.

Luke stood up and met his father’s gaze. His eyes roamed the handsome face and the connection between them flared to life.

"So," he began.

"So," Anakin repeated, looking away. He hated saying goodbye to the people he cared about. He felt as if he had spent all his life saying goodbye, most of the time forever. His mother, Qui-Gonn, Padme... His eyes filled with tears, and he blinked them back furiously.

"May the Force be with you, Ani. In the Light times and in the Dark times."

The indescribable emotion in those words pierced Anakin’s heart, and the infinite shades of meaning shook his soul. His eyes sought his friend’s.

Luke’s eyes brimmed with tears, and his smile embraced Anakin whole. He reached out with both arms, but stopped halfway.

"May I?" he asked shyly.

Anakin nodded, mesmerized.

Luke took his head in his hands and brought it down. Soft lips kissed his forehead in what felt like a blessing, a benediction.

Letting go, Anakin hugged the shorter man to him for all he was worth. Luke’s arms wrapped around him, and grabbed handfuls of his tunic with anguished desperation.

"May the Force be with you, Luke. May the Fates give you everything you prayed for." He brought one hand up and cradled the blond head in it, as he would a baby’s. "Reach for the stars, but keep your feet firm on the ground. Don’t hope for the impossible. Just..."

"No matter how Dark things are, how hopeless and irreparable," Luke cut in, "always remember the love, Ani. Remember the love," he whispered into his father’s ear. So much he wanted to say, but couldn’t. Still, he put all his soul into planting the tiny seed that he needed to grow in Darth Vader’s spirit one day far, far away. "Love never dies. Love is the greatest power of the universe. Remember, Ani."

"I will, Luke. I’ll always remember," Anakin promised, tightening his embrace until his arms protested. Luke never did.

They stayed in each other’s arms for a lifetime, until they eased the pressure on one another bit by bit.

Anakin moved back and framed Luke’s face in his gloved hand. He began to walk back to his ship without turning, and it wasn’t until his fingertips lost contact that he dropped his arm.

Luke closed his eyes, soaking up the gentle caress until it faded away.

Artoo ignited his retrothrusters and propelled himself to his place in Anakin’s Interceptor, beeping goodbye.

Luke waved goodbye, the pain of the separation twisting his chest into a knot.

"Farewell, Father," he murmured to himself. "I won’t fail you when you need me most. I swear that to you on my soul."

The two young men climbed up to the cockpits of their ships, and secured their seatbelts. Casting one final look at each other sitting at the controls, they turned on their engines and a few seconds later, they left the ground.

Luke opened all channels and frequencies, hoping to receive the Fleet’s homing signal, should he ever return to his time. Easily manoeuvring his X-Wing, he soon was flying in the clouds, a familiar feeling of freedom singing within him. But the pull of something that ran even deeper made him look back, at the blue and green sphere he was leaving behind.

"Luke. Luke, do you read me?" Anakin’s voice resounded in his helmet out of the blue.

It took a moment for Luke to recover from the surprise.

"Yes. I do, Ani," he replied.

"Turn to point 34. Those were our coordinates when we entered the planet’s atmosphere. If we follow the inverse course, maybe we’ll emerge from the same points we were absorbed."

Luke thanked the Force that Anakin had kept his head clear enough to note their entry coordinates.

"Thank you, Ani. You’re a genius." He sighed out loud, quickly changing course.

"You’re welcome..."

The unexpected thickness in Anakin’s voice made Luke’s heart miss a beat.

"...Son." A choking sound followed before all communication was cut off.

Luke’s blood ran cold. The word reverberated through every corner of his being, and took root in his deepest recesses.

He tried to answer, but could only form a croaking sound. He tried again, despite the excruciating burning in his lungs.

"A-Ani?" he asked tentatively. "Ani, are you there?" He suddenly realized that Anakin had closed all channels, and an irrational fear clawed at him. "Ani, answer me, please. Ani!"

Nothing.

"Anakin!!"

Silence.

"FATHER!!" the word exploded from Luke’s core. He increased speed until he was flying at full throttle, in desperate search of Anakin’s Interceptor.

It was useless. Anakin had left him behind, as the trail of ionized gas in front of him revealed.

A piercing shriek tore at his throat, and he followed the trail, wherever it led him.

 

 

An ocean of teardrops streamed down Anakin’s face. His mind felt like it was collapsing into a black hole, bigger than the one surrounding him.

He didn’t want to think, he didn’t want to feel. If he did, he would die just from the horror consuming his soul.

His hands clutched the controls and beside himself, he increased speed until the very structure of his ship began to fall apart. The metallic, screeching sounds only intensified the horror in his imploding spirit.

"May the Universe forgive me, for there can be no forgiveness for what I did. Anywhere. Anytime." He threw back his head and looked out into the Darkness around, feeling its veil descending on him. "Oh, Force!" he exclaimed, wishing he’d cease to exist. "What will I do?"

The scream echoing inside blinded his senses, his sanity. He had to escape, he had to run away... from himself. He had to leave the monster behind.

But he couldn’t.

He increased power until the hull became incandescent.

The roar of the beast suddenly quieted, and for a merciful second, everything stopped. And in that blessed oblivion, he found peace.

He was floating away, like a baby in its mother’s womb. Nothing existed but the oblivion that offered forgiveness, asking for nothing in return.

He let go.

 

 

"Anakin! Anakin! Do you copy? Anakin, if you can hear me, just make a sound and I will hear it. Anakin, do you read me?"

The young man raised his head and opened his eyes.

He was drifting in space. A backdrop of stars greeted him, and a tiny red light in his radar informed him of another ship quickly approaching him.

"Ah... wha- what...?" he stuttered.

"Anakin, is that you?" Obi-Wan’s voice filtered through the emergency channel, sounding immensely relieved.

"Ma- master! What happened?" he asked in complete confusion, straightening up in his seat and checking his instruments. The temperature of the hull was close to melting point. "Artoo, use the coolant before we roast here!"

It took a couple seconds for Artoo to acknowledge and obey Anakin’s order, but the little droid complied with a little beep that sounded strangely rusty.

"Thank heavens!" Obi-Wan sighed out loud. "I’ve been looking for you for over two hours. You disappeared from my radar. You were there and a moment later... you weren’t."

"What?!" Anakin repeated, shaking his head, trying to clear the cobwebs in his brain.

"You vanished for two hours, Anakin! What happened to you?"

"Well, I... I..." Anakin froze at the realization that he didn’t remember. "I don’t know." He brought up his hand and touched his temple. To his shock, he found his face covered in teartracks that were still wet. "What the...?" he wiped away the moisture and looked at it. For a fleeting second he felt... something that slipped through his fingers like a dream before he could touch it.

"You don’t remember where you’ve been the last two hours?!" Obi-Wan’s words shook him out of his state of numbness.

"I- I remember... the blackness," he said, wincing at the effort he was making to remember. "There were no stars and then... and then, I... was here, and I heard you calling out for me."

Obi-Wan sighed again.

"This region of space is known for the disturbances it causes in the instruments, and in the normal functioning of the ships that cross it. It was very reckless of you to venture out there alone."

"I-I’m sorry, master," Anakin mumbled, unable to shake off the awful feeling of loss. He had to hold back the sob that wanted to burst from him. "Where is he?" The words were out before he could actually think them.

"Who?" Obi-Wan asked.

"I don’t know," Anakin said, feeling terribly small and helpless. "Someone... important. Someone... vital... to me."

"My friend, I think the two hours you’ve been missing have messed up your mind," Obi-Wan said compassionately. "Get a grip until we get to the base, and they’ll give you a check-up there."

"I don’t need a check-up. I need... him." Anakin’s last words were a weak murmur that Obi-Wan couldn’t hear.

 

 

Luke pushed his X-Wing to the limit in his despair to find his father, to talk to him one last time and say the words that made everything worthwhile, impossible as it might be.

The hull of his ship began to overheat, but he ignored it. He had to answer his father’s distress call. He had felt it down to his very soul, encapsulated in the choked mention of the blood tie that bound them.

THE word. The word that, coming from Anakin’s lips, had healed the wound that had been bleeding since Bespin.

"Father. Father, please. Please, let me... Oh, Force, please!" he moaned to himself, his mind calling out to the only one who could soothe it, to the one only he could soothe.

The blackness facing him seemed to mock his need, his filial love, and crying out his anger and his impotence, he increased power until he felt something snapping inside him. He closed his eyes when the blinding light behind them became too much to bear.

An insistent beep brought him out of the incipient trance, and he opened his eyes, recognizing it instantly. It was the Fleet’s coded homing signal, and he thanked the heavens for the beautiful sound.

Heading for the source of the sound, he caught a glimpse of the lagging frigate he had left what felt like a lifetime ago.

He identified himself and a moment later, a feminine voice responded.

"Luke, is that you?"

A smile of happiness lit up his face.

"Yes, Leia. It’s me."

"Blast it, Luke, where have you been?!" Leia’s angered voice only made his smile bigger. His dearest Princess. "We were about to leave the quadrant!"

"I was... out," Luke replied, wondering at the sudden confusion in his mind. He brought one hand up and touched his forehead, trying to remember.

"Out for seven hours! We’d almost given up on contacting you," came Leia’s shaky voice.

"WHAT?!" Luke exclaimed. "But that’s impossible! I only have fuel for five hours."

"Precisely," fear was evident in Leia’s voice.

"I-I don’t understand it," Luke muttered, perplexed.

"Neither do I." Leia sounded just as perplexed. "I’ll meet you in the hangar."

"I’ll see you there," Luke acknowledged, concentrating on piloting. Once back home, they’d try to put the pieces together.

 

Five minutes later, he climbed down from his X-Wing. Leia clung to him for dear life and he returned her embrace, burying his face in her shoulder. The vast feeling of relief coming over him came as a complete surprise.

"What happened?" Leia asked, moving back and holding his shoulders.

"Nothing happened," Luke replied, smiling softly. "I left, I was flying for a couple hours and then..." he paused and frowned. "And then I..." he looked around, as if searching for something. "I don’t remember," he said, looking back at her.

"Come, let’s go to your quarters," Leia urged, grabbing his hand.

As they walked the decks, Luke’s anxiety grew. From his point of view, he had only been out for two hours, and yet, Leia claimed...

When the door shut after them, Luke headed straight for his bunk and collapsed on it.

"What do you remember?" Leia asked, sitting beside him and putting her small hand on the back of his neck.

"I’m not sure," Luke said, without looking up. "I had been flying for a couple hours, and then... and then all my instruments went crazy. I tried to control the ship and... and..."

Leia squeezed his neck, massaging it gently.

"There were no stars," Luke remembered suddenly. "There were no points of reference and I feared I’d never come back," a sharp pain behind his eyes made him close them and rub his temples instinctively. "And then... I heard the Fleet’s coded signal."

"Thank goodness that I begged Commander Rieekan to wait just a few hours more. Otherwise..." Leia shuddered, resting her head on Luke’s shoulder.

Luke wrapped an arm around her, holding her close, and leaned his own head on hers.

"Thank you for waiting for me," he whispered into her hair.

"I told you to be careful of the No More Zone. I’m as sceptical as the next person about these space tales, but it’s a fact that this region of space interferes with communications and instruments. It’s a miracle we got you back." She pressed against him, needing the reassurance of his touch.

"Shhhhh, it’s all right," Luke soothed, kissing her forehead. "I’m not going anywhere." A pang of bitterness at his own words made him flinch.

Leia moved back and looked at him.

"Are you all right? Are you hurt?" she asked.

"Yes... yes... I’m fine," his voice sounded distant, distracted.

"What is it?"

Luke shook his head with a pained expression on his face.

"I don’t know. I feel as if... as if I had lost something. Something vital to me. As if I had lost the answer to all my prayers." He looked down at his hands and raised the right one, palm up. "As if for a moment, I had held my most cherished dream in my hands and it had slipped through my fingers. I feel... empty."

Leia reached out and took Luke’s hand in her own. They stared at their joined hands.

"You didn’t pull back," she observed, smiling.

Luke tipped his head to one side, as he became aware of it.

"No, I didn’t," his words were full of wonder. "When just a few hours ago..."

"Whatever happened while you were out there, it was something good," Leia stated, never losing her smile. "You’re at peace. It’s plain to see."

"Nothing’s really changed," Luke reminded himself, waiting for the accustomed sinking feeling in his heart. "And yet..." he trailed off, "I feel as if it had. My head knows that nothing’s changed, but my heart’s... light for a reason." Puzzled, he closed his fingers around Leia’s.

Leia kissed the back of his hand.

"You don’t know how happy it makes me to hear that." She touched his cheek. "Are you hungry? Want me to bring you something to eat?" Luke had lost several kilograms after his ordeal in Cloud City. His appetite had virtually disappeared. She had been forcing him to eat since then, her concern escalating to the point that she had seriously considered confining him to the medical frigate to be fed, against his will if necessary.

"No, thank you," Luke shook his head with a smile. "I feel as if I had eaten just a while ago. I’ll have a heavy breakfast tomorrow."

Leia’s eyebrows arched in surprise at his words.

"I’ll hold you to that in the morning," she promised, releasing his hand. "You look tired. Rest now. I’ll pick you up at 7:30, all right?" She stood up.

"All right," Luke agreed. "Sleep well." His eyes softened.

Leia contemplated him for a moment, and her spirits lifted as if by magic.

Impulsively, they hugged, feeling that the veil of darkness surrounding them was beginning to lift. Hope flourished in their hearts.

"Sweet dreams, Luke," Leia whispered, walking away with a beautiful smile that lit up the room.

Once alone, Luke sighed and prepared himself for his nightly shower before going to sleep. He was feeling a strange languor all over his body that he couldn’t explain. The tension he had accumulated for an entire month was seeping away like a bad dream.

And he knew a lot about bad dreams.

Fresh and clean, he sat down on his bed cross-legged, wondering at his last shower. At the absolute despair and hopelessness he had felt, and how different it was from the one he had just taken.

He had been full of resentment and anger. He’d felt used, betrayed and manipulated. And now, he felt all soft inside. Even content.

Why? He was still the son of a Dark Lord. The offspring of the monster who had helped to annihilate the Jedi Order, and paved the way for the Empire to rise. The Emperor’s right hand and main henchman.

There was no hope for his childhood dreams. He didn’t even have the fantasy to keep him warm at night, the way it had helped while growing up on Tatooine.

He had nothing left. And yet... there was no pain anymore. A tiny light had been kindled, and it seemed to be calling him from afar.

Closing his eyes, he reached for that little light glowing in the shadows. What he found on the other side was...

He jerked back in shock.

It was... him! He felt his Force aura, the dark warmth of his presence, the familiar pathways that had been built with their first mind-touch.

His heart went wild and he brought one hand over his chest, trying to calm it.

He couldn’t tell if Vader had felt him. He fervently hoped not because if he had, he could interpret it as a sign of weakness.

He couldn’t show any vulnerability. The Dark Side took advantage of your deepest insecurities and turned them against you.

He hung his head. It was a no-win situation, no matter how he looked at it. But he couldn’t shake off the feeling that... maybe...

A poignant smile crossed his lips.

Fool. Foolish dreams. Childish dreams of a poor, starry-eyed orphan, who’s offered his dearest wish.

He was grasping at straws. Nonexistent straws in all probability, that could cost him everything. His soul, the most precious thing he had.

Just like his soul was the most precious thing his father had.

And if there was the sheerest, the most diminutive possibility of saving his father’s soul, wasn’t it worth his every effort? His life?

Force, he was considering it already! Why was his mind doing this to him? It seemed to have joined his heart in its insane quest to save his father.

His father, who most likely didn’t have the slightest interest in being saved.

Shaking his head tiredly and unfolding himself from his meditating position, he slipped into his small bed, welcoming the coolness of the sheets.

He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling illuminated by the faint light of the stars coming in through the porthole directly in front of him. Raising his head a little from his pillow, he looked at them as they zoomed past him. Becoming a part of his present for a second, only to become a part of his past in the next.

He rested his head on his pillow again, letting out a weary sigh.

If only the stars could give him the answer...

He drifted off with a silent, desperate prayer.

 

 

‘Remember the love... Remember... Love never dies... Never dies... Never... Remember... Remember...’

Voices floated in his mind. His own. Someone else’s. Joy. Friendship. The infinite comfort of a fraternal embrace. Affection. A sweet melody that filled his being with hope and dreams... Possible dreams that could be his if only he had the courage to fight for them.

‘You’re strong. You’re good and strong.’

‘I’m staying right here.’

‘I’ll always remember.’

‘Always remember.’

‘Always...’

‘Always...’

Luke opened his eyes, waking up gradually. The voices still echoed in his mind. Compelling. Hypnotic. Irresistible.

And then, they were gone.

The emptiness they left behind brought him out of bed. He padded barefoot over to the porthole, seeking the comfort of the stars. Sometimes, he felt it was among them where he truly belonged. After all, that’s what "Skywalker" meant.

The one who walked in the sky.

But there was another Skywalker. Anakin. Anakin Skywalker. The most precious name to him since he had heard it for the first time. The name of the father.

Without thinking, he reached out and pressed his palm against the glass.

 

 

It was the night shift already, and Darth Vader still hadn’t retired. He had been staring out of the massive windows of the Executor for hours.

He had been doing that more and more often since the Millennium Falcon had escaped, and the Sith Lord’s obsession with it.

And there was more. Vader’s impatience and merciless pushing - and punishing - of his men, looking for Skywalker all over the galaxy, had transmuted into an uncharacteristic apathy and despondency.

Not even Vader knew the reason for his behaviour. He spent his days looking out of the windows, deep in thought. Patient. Inscrutable. Imperturbable.

Waiting. Anticipating the time when their paths would meet again.

But tonight was different. He could feel it. He could almost touch it. The Force rippled around him. Whispering to him, calling him, enticing him...

His hand reached out and pressed against the glass, the dark mind wondering briefly at the absurdity of the gesture.

An infinite bitterness rose in his throat, and his soul surged forward, seeking... wanting to grasp that elusive feeling. Wanting to find a purpose again. A new purpose that gave meaning to the ambiguous feelings that had been plaguing him since Bespin.

Sometimes, he felt the answer so close. But it always slipped through his fingers like a vaporous dream.

But one day, soon, he would catch it.

And know.

 

Luke dropped his hand and looked at his palm. A ghostly sensation spread all over it. The phantom feeling of a fleeting touch. A feather-like brush against his consciousness, mournful, obscure, full of confusion that called out to him for an answer.

And in that confusion, he found his own answer.

Mangled and twisted, but it was there, illuminating faintly the way in the Dark.

The young man’s eyes closed and he threw back his head, transfixed by the beauty of the feelings sweeping him away.

Hope. Faith. Acceptance. Forgiveness.

Love. The most sublime kind of love. Self-sacrificing love.

And with a strangled cry, he embraced his Destiny.

 

THE END.