Anakin and Luke Skywalker

A New Life

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Type: Post ROTJ A/U
Rating: PG
Summary: Luke brings his newly resuscitated and healed father back to his friends.  But how will they, and the Alliance, react to Darth Vader suddenly becoming one of the good guys?
 
 
 
 

Father and Son rushed inside the Imperial shuttle. Luke shut the hatch behind them while Anakin quickly sat at the controls and started the engines. As the shuttle began to vibrate under their feet when the engines roared to life, Luke sat beside his father and quickly entered the coordinates. Once they were set, Anakin took off.

The deck began crumbling around and below them as the shuttle, all-too-slowly, began moving and leaving the collapsing hangar behind. Every moment was precious now.

Anakin knew it was too risky. The brutal acceleration could be dangerous, but they couldn’t afford to waste one single second. He looked into Luke’s eyes, which were already settled on him. At his son’s sharp nod, Anakin hit the full impulse power button. The sudden acceleration plastered their backs to their seats and they watched in horror as a ball of fire seemed to precede them into open space.

The Death Star’s explosion propelled them forward and they found themselves with their faces hitting the controls. For a few moments, it was hell around them and they closed their eyes to shield themselves from all the noise and death. Time seemed to stand still until they realized everything was silence and calm. Tentatively, they opened their eyes and they saw each other’s white faces, creased with tension. Their hearts were beating savagely within their chests and they felt the other had to be hearing them, so loud they resounded in their ears. When the oxygen felt too good they realized they had been holding their breath all the time. They blew out all the air in their lungs in a gesture of vast relief. They were alive! And they still were together!!

Luke winked at his father with a shaky little smile and Anakin squeezed his son’s hand, which he had instinctively grasped. They slowly let go of one another.

They sat up, checking there were no broken backbones, cheekbones or any bones in general. They felt their sore bodies and found them just that; sore, but otherwise intact.

The shuttle seemed to float in space, heading for Endor at a more reasonable speed now.

Anakin couldn’t believe they had actually made it. He looked at Luke to convince himself of his reality, and found him with his eyes closed, muttering something to himself. He recognized his whispered words as an old Jedi prayer, one taught to children, for the soul to make a safe journey to the All. With a start, he realized Luke was praying for all the lives that had just been lost in the Death Star. Closing his eyes in shame, he repeated the same heartfelt prayer. He had so much to learn from this wise, gentle and compassionate young man.

When he finished, he reached out and squeezed Luke’s shoulder, full of pride and love. The boy opened his eyes and looked at him with a sweet, grateful smile. His body seemed completely relaxed for the first time since they had met. Luke’s shoulders slouched, and almost immediately, a spasm ran through his body.

"Ouch!" he complained.

"What is it, Son?" Anakin asked, alarmed.

Luke’s hand reached behind him and began massaging his neck and shoulder.

"Cramps. All over," he announced.

Anakin stood up and came up behind his son’s seat, beginning a soothing massage to his neck, back, shoulders and arms. Now that the unbearable tension had eased off after enduring Palpatine’s force lightning and carrying his father’s deadweight, the brutal effort and his wounds were taking a toll on his child’s body. Luke let out a relieved sigh when his father’s hands worked their magic on his aching body.

"Thank you, Father."

"My pleasure, Son" Anakin replied, carefully massaging Luke’s right bicep. "I have to teach you some healing techniques. They can be very useful in certain circumstances."

"You have to teach me a lot of things." Unashamedly, Luke offered his left arm to his father, who took it in his hands with a chuckle and began a thorough massage.

"Not that many. You know what’s truly important. What I have to teach you is merely incidental. It will complete your training, certainly, but it will not make it any better than it is. In that aspect, you should be my master."

Luke stared at his father affectionately.

"Don’t underestimate yourself and your knowledge. I happen to believe I couldn’t possibly have a better master."

Immediately, Anakin’s hands began massaging his scalp.

"What are you doing?" Luke asked at his father’s probing fingers.

"Checking your head for a concussion," Anakin teased.

Luke let out a delighted snigger. He felt so relaxed, so at ease with his father! Here they were, cracking jokes and teasing each other as if they had been doing it forever. How much more intimate and rewarding their relationship would be by now if they had been allowed a normal father-son relationship. But it was useless to think about it. They had the rest of their lives now and Luke intended to make the most of them. He was so hungry to get to know his father! He needed him so much it almost frightened him. But it wasn’t just a young man’s longing, there was one Luke for every year he had been deprived of his father’s presence who desperately craved for that time to be made up for. There was an infant Luke, a child Luke, a teenager Luke and a young man Luke who had longed for this. And through their link, he felt his father’s determination to give love and comfort to each and every one of those Lukes who so much needed him. Reaching up, he held his father’s forearm, halting the massage he was receiving from him on the back of his neck.

"All right, I admit I might be biased in my opinion. But I can’t help but think that no one would have trained me better than my own father. I would have strained to my limit to succeed, to make you feel proud of me. That doesn’t mean I didn’t always try for all I was worth! I wanted to be a Jedi like you and the harder I tried, the closer I felt to my dead father, or so it seemed to me. Ben and Yoda were wonderful with me, but even so ..."

"Yoda?! You said Yoda?!" Anakin’s voice sounded shocked at Luke’s revelation. Moving back, he practically slumped on the co-pilot’s seat beside his son.

"Yes. After ... Ben’s death in the first Death Star ..." Luke tactfully explained, "... I was left with no one to teach me. Ben only trained me for ... hours, practically. But he appeared to me on Hoth and told me to go to the planet Dagobah where his master Yoda would train me."

Anakin looked away and swallowed, trembling visibly.

"I never knew he survived ... the purges. Palpatine truly thought he had exterminated them all. Yoda always was his primary objective to eliminate. How he hated him! He knew Yoda embodied the Jedi Order more than anyone, that he was its very image and had been for centuries." He sighed, in shame. "And deep down, I always resented him for not wanting me to be trained in the first place." He shook his head, full of self-contempt. So childish! "He knew better, I can see it now ..." Anakin’s face contorted in pain and remorse, remembering how he had hunted down and murdered all the Jedi. Friends and colleagues, older and younger, he had been trained with and fought side by side with for years. This was how the rest of his life was going to be. A crushing, infinite torment every time he remembered his monstrous crimes. Those vivid memories would plague him forever. Blinking back the sudden wetness in his eyes, he looked down. "He was said to be the best master anyone could ever have. I’m so glad he managed to escape so he could train you, Son ...", he let out in a choked sound.

Anakin felt a soft pressure on his hand, where Luke’s had held it. An overwhelming wave of sweet affection enveloped him, soothing the sharp agony that was lancing through his spirit. He felt Luke’s soft promise to be there for him, assuaging his pain whenever those memories returned to haunt him. The older Jedi shook his head in awe. How could Luke love him so, after ...?

"He was a stern, but understanding teacher," Luke related softly. He instinctively knew that the sound of his voice would calm his father’s inner turmoil. "I tried his patience very often with my doubts and questions. He judged I was too old, that being an adult would be detrimental to my training. I took too many things for fact, as all grown-ups do. Children’s minds are more receptive, more malleable, they haven’t been tainted by adult’s prejudices and experiences. But in the end, I was able to see beyond all that. As he said: ‘you must unlearn what you have learned.’ It took quite some time, but I learned."

Anakin was looking at his son with ever-increasing admiration. Here was where the difference between them lay. The difference that had meant it all. As a child, Anakin had thought that Yoda didn’t want him to be trained because he didn’t consider him worthy or because he simply didn’t like him. He was too fearful to realize he was doing it for his own good, because he could feel the potential danger he could represent in the future. Little Anakin had been unable to see through Yoda’s words. But Luke had seen Yoda had nothing against him. He just thought it was too late to train him, as simple as that.

Anakin could see now that as a slave child who had been taken from his mother’s side forever, a starved for love child full of fears and insecurities, they should have started by building up his confidence, showing him they had the utmost confidence in him. There were too many obstacles standing in the way that should have been brought down before he was truly prepared to be trained. Growing up had only aggravated those problems.

There had been a lot of good, well-meaning intentions, but ... they hadn’t been enough in the end. Every child was different. Some of them were more docile, others were more insecure and they needed to be shown more support and encouragement. Others questioned everything, others were more independent and rebellious ... every child was unique and they needed a unique approach in their training. He had sometimes thought that every single student needed to be assigned one single master, one who was compatible with the child’s personality to train him from the very first day. They were dealing with souls here, not setting up Jedi in an assembly line. In the Academy’s final years there had been over 30 students per classroom! So much prosperity had proved itself to be prejudicial. They had bitten off more than they could chew and that had made the Jedi’s downfall and extermination easier and quicker.

Again, the Old Republic’s holes had allowed people to leak through them. It was imperative for the New Republic to take care of that. If he obtained the Alliance’s pardon, this would be his first request to Mon Mothma’s goverment: to make sure not one single, precious being escaped through the system’s holes.

Anakin swallowed again and turned his face to his son’s. Luke was smiling tenderly at him, fully understanding his father’s thoughts.

"You have learned in your life far more than I have at twice your age," Anakin regretfully admitted, looking down in shame.

Luke’s fingers squeezed his.

"It’s never too late to learn. Look at me! I’m so eager to learn from you!"

Anakin let out a derisive sound and looked up again.

"What could you possibly learn from me?"

"You’d be surprised," Luke replied with a playful smile.

Anakin shook his head, giving up. His son’s respect and faith in him would never cease to amaze him. Still, he tried to play along.

"Well, this is hardly the place to begin teaching you anything. But when we’re..."

Luke’s start interrupted Anakin’s words. The boy quickly punched a code and began transmitting it in all frequencies time and again.

"What was that?" Anakin asked, his born curiosity reasserting itself.

"A white flag," Luke answered. "We’re boarding an enemy vessel. I don’t want us to be blown to pieces by mistake!"

Anakin’s eyebrows raised. He had forgotten about that! How clumsy of him! But along with that realization, other questions assaulted him then. Clearing his throat in sudden embarrassment, he ventured to ask.

"Have you figured out how will you introduce me to the Alliance? When we get to your friends, there’ll be no mistaking who I am. It will be a miracle if someone doesn’t blast me into oblivion as soon as they see me."

"I will protect you with my life, if I have to!" Luke vehemently stated.

Anakin froze, moved to his very core by his son’s heartfelt words. He gulped down the lump in his throat and looked down, unable to face Luke’s passionate eyes.

Feeling the need to calm down his suddenly keyed-up feelings, Luke got up and began pacing the shuttle. A little while later, he stopped and began rummaging through the shuttle’s compartments. Anakin followed his child’s graceful movements, almost mesmerized, lost in his own thoughts. He wouldn’t allow his boy to endanger his life for him. He would surrender or he would allow himself to be shot, but this young man’s precious life would be preserved at all costs!

He couldn’t go further in his ruminations, because Luke promptly returned with something akin to some pincers in his hand. He looked into his son’s eyes in silent question.

"We have to take off the rest of your mask", Luke explained, sounding pleasantly cheerful.

"Right," Anakin agreed, turning about and bowing his head, giving his son all the space he could to cut the remains of his mask.

Very carefully, Luke released his father’s neck from the remains of the black mask that had imprisoned him for half his life. When Anakin turned to him, Luke finally saw the last facial feature they shared. A dimple on the chin, although his father’s was more a hint of a dimple than a real dimple. He couldn’t help but smile at the sight of it and Anakin smiled back. It was such a gift to see his boy so happy, knowing he was the reason for his happiness! The joyful, gentle pride in Luke’s face was so much more than he deserved.

Luke reached out and placed his hand on his shoulder. On his armour, anyway. Looking down at himself, Anakin realized that a large part of his suit was unnecessary now. He was a human being again and he didn’t need all those accesories to remain apart from the outside world. He desired to be a part of it now. He craved to touch, to feel, to experience everything with all of his senses. When he looked into Luke’s eyes, he saw his son was thinking along similar lines.

He stood up and with his child’s help, dismounted his chest-plate and his belt. Next, Anakin took off his shoulder plate, revealing slightly narrow shoulders. Luke stared at him with his eyes open wide, greatly surprised. He clearly didn’t expect his father to be narrow-shouldered!

Anakin smiled at him fondly.

"I was never a hunk, my son," he explained. "I’m tall, but I was always lean-muscled. You, for example, are more muscular than I’ve ever been. I exercised a lot, but you can’t change your constitution, no matter how hard you try. That’s why, as Vader, I used the shoulder–plate. Much more menacing and imposing," he sighed and shook his head in a more than self-depreciating gesture, as he took off his now useless left glove. When he did, he flexed his fingers in an instinctive way, verifying in awe they really worked. He could even feel the soft brush of the air on his skin! He seemed to have become sensitive to a molecular level! And it was no wonder, after spending half his life apart from his natural environment. It felt so incredible to be alive, to be totally human again!! And he owed it all to this gentle, sweet-eyed boy he had sired. Force, how could he ever ...?

Luke’s soft voice interrupted his tumultuous thoughts again.

"Then did I get my constitution from ... Mother?" he shyly asked, obviously reluctant to bring up sad and painful memories in his father. But he couldn’t help it. He was the only one who could provide him with the answers he had craved all his life. He needed to know about his mother!

Anakin’s attention immediately shifted from his fingers and the myriad of sensations he was receiving from them to his son’s cautious, shy eyes. The pang of immediate sharp, bitter pain all over his body at the question almost choked him, but he understood his boy’s need to know. Also, talking about Padmé would keep her alive. And once he was gone, she would go on living in her children’s memories, as he would. He faintly smiled at Luke’s apologetic eyes and ruffled his hair affectionately to indicate it was okay.

"Yes. Both you and Leia have inherited your mother’s constitution. She was approximately Leia’s height. She had brown hair and brown eyes, just like your sister." His voice and his eyes became suddenly dreamy. "Long, shiny, beautiful hair. So soft and silky to the touch ..." His fingers rippled instinctively, almost reaching out, longing to feel those long strands sliding between his fingers again.

Luke sat down on the pilot’s seat, starving for more, for everything.

"What was her name?" he asked in a very soft voice, afraid to break the magical spell, looking up at his father with his gentle blue eyes wide open.

Feeling it was more than Time, Anakin looked down at his child, sobering with great effort. Slowly, he took his seat beside his son and turned to him, ready to answer each and every one of his questions. Much too long, indeed! And he had the rest of his life to acquaint the boy with the memory of the most beautiful and special person in the universe, the being who had given life to him and his sister. Life and so much more than that. His precious angel was alive now, looking at him from Luke’s warm blue eyes. The same indomitable spirit, the same blind faith in people, the same wisdom beyond their age, the same awesome capacity to love and forgive. Yes, Luke had inherited as many spiritual and emotional traits from his mother as he had inherited his father’s looks. Both children had inherited only the best of both. Thank heavens.

Squaring his shoulders and preparing himself for the assault of memories that might very well be more than he could take, Anakin began his tale. The Skywalker’s family story was about to pass on to the next generation.

"Her name was Padmé Amidala. She was the Queen of the planet Naboo."

Luke’s jaw hit the floor.

 

 

Ten minutes later, Anakin was forced to interrupt his account much to his chagrin, because the shuttle’s controls began beeping, indicating imminent arrival at Endor. Luke blinked a couple times as he returned to reality. His father’s fond remembrances had weaved a fairytale world that transported him backwards in time. During certain moments he was positive he had been able to see the story his father was telling. He had felt a total empathy with his father’s moods and feelings, he had accompanied him along his vital journey and he felt closer to him now than he had ever felt. He had seen that little slave child on Tatooine, his relatively happy childhood, his only security and comfort being provided by the steady, fierce love of his caring mother, Shmi. For a moment, he had almost envied him having a mother; but a second later, he realized it would have been twice as painful. His father had a mother and he had lost her at nine, whereas Luke had never had a mother to begin with. It had to be infinitely worse to have something and be forced to live with its loss than never having it. That way, you don’t really know what you’re missing. Instinctively, he felt the emptiness in his father’s heart that his mother’s love should have filled, the helplessness, guilt and hatred at her brutal, cruel loss that had been one of the reasons that led his father to the Dark Side. There must have been many different reasons that, sumed up, had irrevocably taken his father to perdition.

Anakin cast him a quick glance, smiling at him sadly, moved and grateful beyond words for his child’s insight and understanding. Those many different reasons certainly didn’t exonerate him in the least. Many people have had terrible, unforgiving lives, and they had remained honest and right-minded. He had been the faulty one all along. He had made the wrong decisions led by his quicksilver emotions, he had chosen the wrong path and no one else. He was to blame and he alone. But the fact that his boy could understand and sympathize with him was a gift he would be forever grateful for.

In silence, they landed the shuttle in the forest. They turned off all the controls, except for the homing signal and the Alliance code they had been transmitting.

"We’ve landed about an hour’s walk from the Ewok village. We’ll get there before sundown," Luke informed. At his father’s raised eyebrows, he explained further. "The Ewoks are the inhabitants of this moon. They’re very primitive. They live in huts hanging from the trees. They also eat humans," he hastened to amend his words at his father’s shocked face. "Don’t worry, we’re allies now. We convinced them to join us before they roasted Han for dinner!"

The two burst out laughing.

"I’m glad to hear that," Anakin said, between sniggers. "It would have been most unfortunate to survive years of war against the Empire only to end up devoured by some primitives on a forsaken moon!" A second later, Anakin realized that in a very short time, he would have to face the Alliance and namely, the very same people he had relentlessly chased all over the galaxy and tortured almost to their breaking point. The weight of the entire universe seemed to fall on his shoulders right then and there. His face darkened and he visibly paled.

Luke had turned about and was heading for the back of the shuttle to open the hatch. Anakin followed him and, pretending nonchalance, he ventured to ask.

"What about your friends? Shouldn’t you warn them about me first before they dead faint when they see me?"

"There’s nothing to warn them about. You’re on our side now," Luke replied adamantly, without turning. "Besides ... Leia already knows. I’ll leave it to her to inform the others. She’s the diplomat after all. She’ll find the best way."

Luke seemed very certain, but Anakin couldn’t help but question the wisdom of his son’s decision. As someone who had been the Commander of the Imperial Fleet, Anakin knew very well the importance of procedures and the value of doing things by the book. He didn’t want Luke to antagonize his people for his sake. That wasn’t the way. It wasn’t fair to the Alliance. Luke had to see that he would be asking too much of them. But before he could voice his doubts, Luke turned to him.

"I know I’m doing the right thing, Father. Trust me! Leia will know what to do. What could I possibly do, anyway? Tell everybody through the commlink: 'Oh, by the way, wait till you hear this: I’m bringing Darth Vader with me. He’s decided he’d prefer to be on our side. Cross my heart, folks!"

Anakin looked down and shook his head with an ironic smile. He had to concede Luke’s point. But there were other considerations at stake here. People’s feelings. He looked into Luke’s eyes.

"And are you certain you’re being fair to your sister? She may not be ready to make such a leap of faith on my behalf. Having to protect your bloodiest enemy all of a sudden ..."

"She’s faced far worse than this. She’s had to make life and death decisions that, in the end, she knew would mean the death of many people. And she made them because there was a greater good to protect. As there is now. I trust her to make the right moves by the time we arrive."

Anakin sighed out loud. He didn’t care about his welfare. It was Luke’s life and credibility what he was worried about. He was taking the biggest risk for his cause and involving his friends when he wasn’t worth the effort. If only he could convince his child to ...

"No, Father. Don’t even think about it! I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I ..." he gulped and looked deeply into Anakin’s blue eyes with feverished passion. "I know I’m doing the right thing. I can feel it! There’ll be some hard moments ahead, but it’ll work out in the end. Believe me! I’ll need your total support with this. I can’t do it alone. Father, please!" his eyes were imploring, brimming with tears now.

At the sound of those two last words he had heard for the first and last time when his child was being killed by Palpatine, something inside Anakin shattered again. On impulse, he reached out and clasped the boy to him. Luke clung to him for dear life, burying his face in his chest with a little sob.

They remained like that for a very long time, neither of them wanting to let go. This embrace was everything Luke had prayed for since he had been old enough to dream, and he wanted to cradle this moment deep in his heart and never come out of it. He suddenly felt like a baby, vulnerable and scared, and he desperately needed his strong, bigger-than-life father to make everything right again. He pressed his face to Anakin’s warmth as a wave of infinite peace and comfort enveloped and soothed him. He sighed.

Anakin stroked Luke’s head, tousling his hair. This was what he should have been doing instead of commiting slaughters all over the galaxy. He should have been there for his wife and for his children, loving them and taking care of them. Luke shouldn’t have to go through all this. He had suffered more in his young life than one thousand men should be allowed to suffer in their lifetimes. If only ...! He clenched his teeth in sheer helplessness and hugged the boy tighter to his chest, wishing he could protect him from the dead end Luke was about to face for him. But something inside Anakin was telling him there was no turning back from their destinies. Whatever happened, they would have to face it, together. He swore to protect this courageous young man until his last breath. He let out a shaky sigh.

"All right, all right; you win," he conceded, resting his cheek on the top of Luke’s head. "I know that you are very aware of what you’re doing. But I fear for your life and your credibility within the Alliance. And your sister’s. If something happened to either of you because of me I would never forgive myself!"

Reluctantly, Luke moved back from the safe cocoon of his father’s arms and looked up at him.

"You’re worth all of that and far more to me. If our situations were reversed, wouldn’t you do the same for me?"

"I would give my life for you!" Anakin couldn’t help those most emotional words from escaping his lips.

‘And you did,’ Luke thought glumly, as a shiver ran up and down his spine. He shook his head once to clear his mind from those too fresh, painfully disturbing memories. An overpowering feeling of protection surged up from deep inside him and he took a deep breath.

"Then, you can’t blame me for being ready to give my life for you too. We’re tied!" It was time to lighten the moment, and the mischievous twinkle in Luke’s eyes was unmistakable now. His overwhelming argumentation was over.

Anakin shook his head in defeat. He had just been cornered and beaten ... and not for very first time in his life, precisely.

"You’re impossible, young man!" he let out, exasperated, trying to hold his own runaway emotions in check. "You’re just like your mother! I never had a chance!"

"None whatsoever!" Luke playfully rubbed his victory in his father’s face, like a cocky little boy. His face looked more boyish than ever. These moments of mutual comfort had eased Luke’s fears and energized him as nothing had ever been able to.

Anakin reached out and ruffled his son’s hair once again, affectionately. They looked deep into each other’s eyes, and gaining strength from the peace and fierce support he saw in Luke’s, Anakin stepped forward and opened the hatch.

The golden light of the falling day greeted them. Once outside the shuttle, Anakin gasped in surprise as the light breeze brushed his face. He froze on the spot, breathless. Tentatively, he reached out and looked up, shielding his eyes with his hand, allowing the sunrays to filter through his fingers, peeking shyly. The gentle wind played with his blond hair, making it flutter.

Luke didn’t dare to interrupt the beautiful communion between his father and all the life surrounding him. He had no idea what he could be experiencing right now, but it felt like a sacrilege to intrude upon such a wondrous, almost mystical moment. He watched him sniffing and pricking up his ears, avid for any scent and sound of nature. He felt privileged for witnessing such a pure, perfect moment in time.

After a while of utter peace and harmony, Anakin turned to his son and flashed him a smile of sheer wonder, like an innocent child facing something magical. He filled his lungs with oxygen and let it out in a soft blow. He shook his head, unable to put into words what he was feeling.

Luke smiled back, bursting inside with happiness. His joy for his father’s reencounter with his humanity knew no bounds.

‘And I owe it all to you, my son’, Anakin’s mind-voice softly touched his thoughts. ‘Thank you, so much!’

‘My pleasure, Father’, the boy responded, feeling a bit sheepish.

Within the realm of their minds, Anakin was able to show his son what he was feeling and experiencing, and Luke almost choked at the beauty his father found in every little sensation, that was practically new to him, after more than twenty years of physical separation from his natural environment. He felt his father’s need to share all of this with him, with another Force sensitive to boot, a caring and understanding soul that was also part of him. This touching felt like a sip of clean, fresh water to the two men. And it invigorated Anakin in such a way that shocked Luke.

"After ... the Purges, I had no one to communicate with like this," Anakin almost stammered, his face flushed.

Luke’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets.

"But ... But ... the Emperor ..." Luke didn’t dare to go further.

"At first, we used to communicate this way," Anakin admitted. "But, in time ... he became more and more distant, obssessed with destroying the few remnants of the Old Republic and building up the Empire in his own image. He became less and less communicative and he withdrew into himself. I was his right hand, I helped him to spread terror and keep control. I was his general, his minion, his apprentice ... And when I became a Lord Sith in my own right, he remained my master, but he raised a privacy shield within his mind I always respected. Occasionally, he touched my mind, to make certain I was still there, reminding me of our mission and the glorious ventures that awaited us. But when he had any orders to give me, for instance, he would use the holo. His mind contacts with me practically ceased. He was that certain of my loyalty. Or maybe he didn’t want to become too attached to me. I don’t know if he ever suspected that, after becoming aware of your existence, I began ... thinking for myself once again and questioning ... everything."

Realizing what his father was really telling him, Luke smiled at him warmly. He reached out and squeezed his father’s arm. Physical contact with him was as necessary as breathing now.

"Maybe he did become suspicious. After all, he wanted me to take your place ..." his grip on his father’s arm tightened in fear and he shuddered helplessly. Those moments in the throne toom had been out of the most revolting, hideous nightmare; he never thought such pure evil could possibly exist. Such an obscene, perverted mind, wanting a son to kill his own father. It was against every moral across the galaxy! There were no words to describe such an absolute corruption of feelings, thoughts ... His teeth began chattering in sheer terror.

The warmth of his father’s hand covering his own brought him back to the present.

"It is the way of the Sith, my son. Killing your master and finding your own apprentice who, in turn, will kill you to become a master on his own." He let out a tired sigh. And to think he had believed in and supported such an abomination ... How could he do it? What possessed his soul and clouded his sense of morality so completely? He clung to his child’s hand. Comforting him and being comforted by his living and loving presence beside and inside him. "I can’t say whether he eventually suspected me or not. And at this point, I don’t care. I can only be eternally grateful to you for believing in the tiny light that still lived inside me. I had no idea it was still there."

Luke smiled softly and tilted his head in an endearing gesture.

"I think that deep down, you knew. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have denied it so fervently. Reverse logic!" He winked.

Anakin smiled back.

"Very astute!" He let go of Luke’s hand with a parting squeeze. "Anyway, to answer your question, as years went by and as our mental contacts barely took place anymore, I began spending more and more time meditating, trying to find solace reaching out with my thoughts into the Force, since there was no one else I could really talk to and share. How rightfully ironic! On killing my friends, I cut myself off from any contact with other like minds."

Luke shivered at the mere thought. It was a miracle his father had managed to stay sane! Since Yoda had helped him to develop his Force gift and open himself to mind contact and reach out into the Force with his thoughts, he had been elated every time he had succeeded in touching another’s mind. That was why he hadn’t been able to resist his father’s probes. His mind instinctively sought Anakin’s out. He craved for mind contact. There was no deceiving in this realm. No misunderstandings were possible, it was the most perfect, honest language of all. And now that he was enthusiastically welcomed into his father’s mind, now that they could truly share a father-son relationship, their mind-touches were bright, totally open, full of shining lights, colours and nuances, soothing and warm. They embraced and held on to each other, sharing desperately, trying to make up for all the time they had been deprived of this miracle.

There was no need for Luke to hide anything anymore, like vital and potentially dangerous bits of information; or caring, positive feelings that could be used against him. It was perfection now!

"Oh, Father, I’m so sorry!! You must have felt so terribly alone!!", Luke heartily commiserated with his father’s situation. He must have felt as if one of his senses had been ripped from him.

Anakin smiled at him, grateful for his child’s compassion and understanding.

"I’ve only communicated mentally with you, Ben and Yoda," Luke explained. "Well, and Leia’s mind too. She still doesn’t quite know how to send back; I have to take the information directly from her mind after getting her permission. I’ve only touched her mind a few times, most of them today, and just a superficial touch, to make certain she was all right." He looked down and his face turned gloomy with deep sadness. "When Yoda died, you were the only one alive I had left to communicate with. I desperately wanted to, but it was a luxury I couldn’t afford. It felt incomplete being alone in my mind, unable to reach out. I felt as if I was blind or deaf."

The wave of immense grief that came over his father hit him almost physically.

"Yoda ... died?", Anakin asked, in a weak voice.

Incapable of uttering a single word, lest he should break down, Luke nodded and looked down.

"When you said he trained you after Hoth, I assumed ...", Anakin gulped, feeling a sharp pain in his chest. "I wanted to meet him again and tell him he ... that I ... I was so grateful for the unexpected chance to be able to see him again. There are so many things I wanted to tell him. So much to ask forgiveness for ... I would have liked to ..." He shook his head and sniffed, unable to help himself. Too many memories, too many feelings had brutally surfaced.

"He knows, Father. He knows, believe me," Luke’s tiny voice tried to comfort him. "And Ben knows too. I know both of them are so incredibly proud of you."

Anakin made an ironic, self-deprecatory face and shook his head.

"I can only honour their memories now. I will endeavour to grow into the person they expected me to be. I will dedicate my entire life to teach others the lessons I have learnt, to help and protect, to make my children proud of me. I want to be worthy of this second chance I’ve been given thanks to you, my son. The chance I denied so many innocent people," his voice broke and he slumped onto a boulder.

"I couldn’t possibly be more proud of you, Father," Luke’s affection bombarded him from all fronts: mind, words and physical touch. The warmth of his hand on his shoulder crept into his skin and steadily calmed his soul and comforted Anakin’s guilty spirit. "And the Alliance will be, too. And Leia, and all my friends. We’ve also learnt our lessons. You will never be alone again. You will belong with us, you will fulfill your destiny, strong and bright, and ..."

Anakin stared up at his son, in awe, as his love for him became almost a tangible entity around them. Luke’s ability to project his feelings was overwhelming. They crushed Anakin. They burned him. His words were full of ancient wisdom and for a second, he looked older than he really was. As old and wise as time itself. What a fine, pure, idealistic young man. So worthy! He only hoped he could provide his child with everything he needed, that he could prove himself as the father such a wonderful young man deserved to have.

"Stop that or it’ll go to my head," he teased. It was the only way he could think of to deal with such a highly emotional moment. He distinctly felt it wasn’t the right thing to say just now, but he couldn’t help it.

Luke let out a short laugh and squeezed his father’s shoulder in complete understanding.

"I have the feeling that’s exactly what you need: to believe in yourself and in your merits. You have done so much!"

"Sure I have; killing half the galaxy," Anakin looked away again.

"And saving the other half, including me, by destroying Palpatine," Luke’s voice softened, oozing tenderness. "Please, don’t let your feelings of guilt destroy you. You deserve to start over. You have so much to give! I need my father beside me, to guide me and teach me."

"You will have to teach me, my son, in almost everything," Anakin amended his son’s words.

"We’ll teach each other." At Anakin’s immediately open mouth, Luke hurried to be faster. "And if you say another self-depreciating word, I’ll ... I’ll tell Chewie to hold you!! And believe me, I’m threatening you!"

Anakin laughed out loud, despite himself. His boy’s optimism was almost contagious. The truth was he was deadly uncertain of the upcoming confrontation with the Alliance. But it was useless delaying the inevitable, and he wasn’t a coward. A mass murderer, yes, but not a coward.

"If you say so, I believe you." He looked deeply into Luke’s eyes, drawing strength from his son’s certainty and conviction. He was literally clinging to them.

"Ready?" Luke asked softly after a while, with a gentle smile of sympathy. Underneath, he was as certain about the ultimate outcome of his father’s plight as he was of his own name. But he also shared the trepidation. It was impossible to help. That’s why he needed it to pass as soon as possible. And the sooner his father faced the more than previsibly tense and uncomfortable first moments of the meet, when all his friends found themselves face to face with the former Darth Vader, the better. He reached out.

Anakin’s attention shifted from Luke’s eyes to his outstretched gloved hand. He winced, and the most terrible pain he had ever experienced stabbed him from side to side. His son’s mechanical hand. The hand he had ... He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to prevent the tears of infinite remorse from filling his eyes. It was so cruelly unfair! Here he was, completely human again, and his boy ... His bright, gentle and caring boy who had brought him back to life ... He reached out with both hands and held Luke’s desperately between his own, wishing he could perform a similar miracle on his boy. The tears fell through his tightly closed eyelids nonetheless.

‘Don’t, please!’, Luke’s soft mind-voice touched his thoughts. ‘I would have willingly given both arms for you!’

Anakin gulped. Luke’s words disturbed him to his very core. The notion that his son could care that much for him was frightening. Frightening, beautiful and comforting beyond belief. It had been so long since he had last felt that way! He felt as if he had been wrapped in a warm, cozy blanket, and no one and nothing could ever hurt him, so safe he felt. And that blanket was his son’s unwavering affection; selfless, steady, overwhelming. A rock of strength and reliabily he could always lean on. Anakin gulped again. He owed this child far more than he would ever be able to repay in thousands of lifetimes! He ...

‘Chewie ...’, Luke reminded him teasingly.

Anakin smiled. He opened his eyes and filled his pupils with Luke’s image. He breathed deeply and nodded. He was ready to face anything. And whenever he felt his resolution faltering, all he had to do was remember his boy’s love for him. That would be more than enough. He would be strong, he would be worthy of Luke’s pride and courage. Oh, yes, he would! He had to believe. If Luke thought he was worthy, then he had to be; no matter what his instincts were screaming at him. Such a wonderful young man couldn’t be wrong. He contented himself with that knowledge.

Luke pulled his father to his feet and they began walking through the thick, steep forest, heading for the Ewok village.

 

They walked in a comfortable silence for a few minutes, until Luke lagged behind his father.

"I like your cape," he began, conversationally. "It suits you." He reached out shyly and touched the surprisingly smooth and strong material.

"Really? Thank you!" Anakin seemed honestly flattered. "I always liked them. As a child, I watched the older Jedi, wearing those elegant cloaks with hoods, and I wanted to be older to get to wear one. Every child has a main reason for wanting to grow up. That was my reason. I wanted to wear one of those smart capes!"

Luke laughed delightedly.

"I see!" He got partially serious. "The funniest thing is that, as Vader, it suited you too. I guess it doesn’t matter who you are. Capes suit you, just because it is you!"

Anakin looked back and smiled at him, gratefully.

"I got to wear one of those cloaks with hoods when we went to rescue Han from Jabba," Luke went on. "It looked good, all right; but with my height, I looked like an overgrown jawa!"

This time, it was Anakin who burst out laughing.

"I mean it!" Luke complained. "It’s not fair to have a giant of a father and not be at least five centimetres taller. Five centimetres, that’s all I ask!" Luke threw up his hands, in pretended despair.

Unable to help himself, Anakin wrapped his arm around Luke’s neck and brought him under his armpit, as he rubbed the top of his head with his knuckles.

"Awwwww, my tiny little runt! You break my heart!" he played along.

"Watch it, ‘he-man’! I’m armed and you’re not!" Luke mock-threatened, tapping his father’s shoulder.

Immediately, Anakin released him, with a parting, gentle knock on Luke’s head.

"Acknowledged ... ‘little one’." Anakin couldn’t resist a final pun. He felt exultant and incredibly young again. He was suddenly transported back in time, at the time he was Obi Wan’s padawan, and his mind filled with fond memories of their constant repartees. He remembered his master chiding him for his carelessness with his lightsaber, for his temerarious driving and flying ... He had always loved those moments. Only then did he feel they were truly communicating. Communication, that had been the ultimate hindrance of their relationship. He had always been unable to make himself be understood, to get his feelings and thoughts across. In those days, he had blamed Obi Wan, but he could see now it had been mostly his fault, for not trying harder and better, for his impatience and arrogance, for ... his youth. Only now, that he was older and wiser, he hoped, he had gained a true perspective on things. How very different everything could have been!

But the past couldn’t be changed. It could only be accepted. It was the only way if you wanted to move on.

But he couldn’t shake off the joyful feeling that with Luke, everything was perfect. They communicated at every possible level. There was no need for words between them. He was his perfect partner, they were completely attuned to each other in an empathic way, not only through the Force. He didn’t know whether it was so because of their family bond or because age had finally conceded him the virtues of patience and understanding. There was also the fact that Luke didn’t remotely resemble the insolent, haughty young man he had been. Maybe it was a combination of all those elements that made them so compatible. The fact was that Luke had everything Obi Wan had seemed to lack. At least, in his eyes. He hoped his older master wouldn’t mind him thinking so, but he felt infinitely more comfortable and at ease with his son after a few hours of being together than he had ever felt with Obi Wan.

Oh, Force, life was so complicated and so simple at the same time!

It was a shame Luke was too old to be his padawan ... or he was too old to be Luke’s padawan. But they were Jedi in their own right. Both of them had passed through every possible test and they had survived the fires, wiser and calmer. They were true equals. And each of them seemed to have what the other needed to be whole. When they were together, everything made perfect sense; at least, to Anakin. And he felt that was true for Luke too. They completed one another. That was their strength. If Luke accepted him, he would gratefully become his tandem partner, as Luminara Unduli and her padawan Barriss Offee had been in the Old Republic. He had always looked on them with something akin to envy for the way they seemed to blend in combat, moving and fighting as one. They were virtually invincible when they created that amazing Force shield around them both, that nothing and no one could penetrate. He had always longed for such a partner, someone who could understand him that completely. A perfect partnership where he could disappear, if only momentarily, never afraid of losing himself. Becoming something that neither of them were alone, but the two of them were, together. He had been tempted more than once to ask Obi-Wan they would give it a try, but he realized it was too late for them. They were too individualistic, and too old, to start on a technique so foreign to them both. They had specialized in single combat, as most Jedi had, and it would take years to get the knack on the joint movements and learn to coordinate them. Besides, deep down, Anakin knew Obi-Wan wasn’t his ideal partner. It wouldn’t work. But now ... everything was different. He was different. He had found out it was never too late. He was the living proof of that truth! And this time he knew he had found his perfect partner. Aside that, he couldn’t allow such a precious technique to be forgotten. He owed it to all the Jedi he had murdered. And who knew? One day, that technique could prove to be very useful. They were the only two living Jedi and the more they widened the range of their lightsaber abilities, the better.

So much to teach each other! So much to learn, growing up together! Anakin felt as excited about it all as when he was 20 years old. And if his Leia eventually forgave him ... Ohhhh, then it would be total, absolute happiness! His two children! His chance to be a father, to learn from his offspring as well. There couldn’t possibly be a more beautiful Destiny! But his mind corrected him almost immediately. The most beautiful Destiny would be to have his angel beside him too. The mere thought brought a searing pain to his breast. ‘Oh, Padmé! Look at what fine children we’ve had! You deserved to be here with them far more than I do. You gave your life for them. If only ...!’

He was so absorbed in his agitated thoughts he didn’t realize Luke was speaking to him.

"I’m sorry, Son! You were saying?"

"Uhm ... I was asking you whether capes were really the main reason you wanted to grow up." Luke’s voice was tentative now. No doubt, he had picked up his father’s sudden shift of mood and the motive behind it.

Anakin looked at his boy and smiled at him softly.

"You know me too well. No, that wasn’t truly the main reason. I was desperate to grow up so I could be old enough for your mother should our paths ever meet again."

Luke seemed to consider something for a little while and a rascally smile ended up crossing his features.

"You know? It’s funny to think Mum was older than you. That’s something I didn’t expect. I don’t mean that is good or bad. Just ... unexpected. And now that I think about it ... I think it’s all right!"

"Good, ‘cause I think it was ... perfect." Anakin lost himself in a myriad of beautiful memories.

"And when did your paths meet again?" Luke’s curiosity overwhelmed him again.

Anakin realized he was walking ahead of his son again and he waited for Luke to catch up with him to resume his tale. He had to be more careful of his longer strides. Luke’s legs were shorter than his and he was wounded. He stared at his offspring with an affectionate gaze and reaching out, he ruffled his hair. He just couldn’t help it!

"Ten years later, on Coruscant. You see, your mother had become the target of an unknown agent and Obi-Wan and I were assigned to protect her by the Jedi Council ..."

 

"And you rode that reek? WOW!" Luke was excited like a little kid. His father’s adventures were what he had wished for since he could remember. But Yoda had warned him against those dreams. A Jedi shouldn’t crave those things.

"Every being is unique, my son. And we Jedi are, too. It’s wishful thinking to expect everybody to be, to think and to feel the same way."

"Uh?" Luke was lost in the world his father’s words had weaved. He was in that arena with Obi-Wan and his parents, fighting by his fellow Jedi comrades’ side, defending each other from Count Dooku, Jango Fett, Nute Gunray and the Trade Federation’s army of droids. His father’s voice brought him back to the present with an effort.

"I can feel your thoughts." Anakin smiled at his child fondly. "You shouldn’t feel guilty for your dreams. You must understand this, Son: every single being has got different aspirations. You just can’t cast people in the same mould. We are Force sensitive, but that’s the only thing we have in common. Jedi come from different species, different worlds, different systems, and with different sets of mind. You can’t expect them to think the same, to wish for the same things ... or not to fall in love. Some will and some will not. In my case, that proved to be fatal. I reached for different things. And I know of other fellow Jedi who experienced similar difficulties. You must find your own path, the things that make you happy and keep you focused. If you long for adventures, for higher deeds, or you prefer a quieter, untroubled life, then that’s strictly your affair. But constricting people’s dreams is not the way to keep a cohesive group. Something has got to give sooner or later. That’s what I have learnt. I don’t blame anyone, no one’s to blame for my wrong decisions and my recklessness but myself. But times change, and you must change with them or stagnate." Anakin looked up at the sky above him after his long tirade and heaved a long sigh. "That’s my opinion, anyway."

Luke was staring at his father with his mouth hanging open, as his admiration and respect for him leaped ahead yet another eon, if that were possible.

"Also, that battle marked the beginning of the Clone Wars. The beginning of the end," Anakin went on, sighing sadly again and shaking his head. "War remains the same in any era. Look at this." His voice trembled all of a sudden.

Feeling strangely clumsy, Luke looked around him. He gasped in shock. Apparently, they had arrived at the shield generator site. It was a carnage. He saw dead bodies everywhere. Ewoks, stormtroopers and several members of the Alliance’s strike team. Many proud trees and bushes were burned or torn and there were debris and pieces of Imperial speeder bikes and ATSTs all around. The place still smoked and smelled of death and horror. Luke’s eyes filled with tears and he closed his eyes, as a helpless prayer escaped his lips for all the beings who had lost their lives here today. All of them.

A gentle hand settled on his shoulder and squeezed it softly.

‘Are you all right?’ Anakin’s mind-voice floated into his thoughts like a soothing balm.

Luke nodded as tears rolled down his cheeks.

"I’m sorry," he apologized for his emotional outburst, wiping his tears away with his hand. "I will never get used to this."

"We’d better never get used to this. The day we simply accept it as inevitable, we’ll be doomed." Anakin spotted a boulder a few feet away and gently pushed Luke towards it and forced him to sit down on it. Instinctively, he shielded him from the brutal sight with his own body. "Rest a bit, Son. You need it." He had felt Luke’s strength giving out all of a sudden. The physical and emotional turmoil he had gone through today were fully taking their toll on his boy at last. He walked up behind him and began massaging his muscles again, trying to pass on some of his strength to his child. Luke gratefully took it with a sigh.

"Thank you."

"Don’t mention it. If you can’t walk anymore, I’ll carry you," Anakin offered.

"No, that won’t be necessary, thanks. I’ll rest a couple of minutes only. If I rested longer, I couldn’t start walking again."

"As you wish," Anakin conceded. He recognized and understood Luke’s need to get to the end by himself. But he would be there for his son whenever he needed it. He pressed his fingertips to Luke’s temples and he attempted an almost forgotten technique.

"Ooooh, that’s wonderful!" came Luke’s dreamy voice. "You have to teach me to do that!"

"I will," Anakin assured his son with a little smile. He knew how relaxing this particular technique was. A few minutes more, and Luke would be sound asleep.

"You’d better stop that or I’ll start snoring," Luke advised his father after a while.

"How’re you feeling?" Anakin asked, slowly putting his hands down.

"Much better, thank you!" Luke sprang to his feet. There was a liveliness in his steps he had lacked before. He almost seemed to be bouncing. "Let’s go. We’re about fifteen minutes away from the Ewok village now, I reckon."

Anakin let out an uncertain smile, as uncertain as he suddenly felt. But it was useless to postpone the inevitable. The sooner he faced his destiny, the sooner everything would come to an end, for the best or for the worst. Plucking up his courage, he nodded and followed his son at a brisk pace.

For his part, Luke seemed to withdraw into himself, no doubt preparing himself for the upcoming confrontation with his friends. He didn’t need to be Force sensitive to feel it was going to be the most delicate moment of all. He had to handle the situation with extreme care. He was well aware that if he miscalculated, his father's future was in the balance. He was ready to protect and defend Anakin with every bit of strength he held. He knew what lay in that huge heart and in that bright mind, and he wouldn’t stop until his friends saw it too.

He felt something and tilted his head. When he understood what it was, he smiled. Leia was a fast learner! He had felt her thoughts reaching out to him aimlessly, explaining they would be waiting for them a bit apart from the main celebration. She was awkwardly projecting the image of the place, a middle-sized clearing by a bonfire.

Bonfires ... Yes, he could see those tiny, flickering lights in the distance. They were closer already.

Knowing what to look for now, Luke walked like a man with a mission and Anakin could barely keep up with his speed. His child’s feet didn’t seem to touch the ground!

Those few minutes seemed to fly. The hurried sounds of their footsteps seemed to mark the rhythm of their wildly beating hearts.

Until, finally, Luke spotted his friends’ bonfire. It was quite apart from the main celebration, in a hollow surrounded by trees, where their reunion could take place almost privately. They could see them moving about and talking to each other, all of them herded together, sharing the warmth of their living presences beside each other. All of them were there: Han, Leia, Chewie, Lando and the two droids. That meant Leia had already informed them of all the facts and what was to come. He was glad for that. He was too nervous all of a sudden to explain it all. He wasn’t as good with words as his sister.

Luke stopped dead in his tracks and Anakin, who was striding to catch him up, ran into him, almost bringing them both to the ground.

"Sorry!" the two of them exclaimed at the same time, clinging to each other to regain their balance.

They looked at one another’s suddenly pale faces and they burst out giggling, releasing part of their tension.

"I guess I’m more nervous than I thought," Luke explained shakily. He breathed in deeply, closed his eyes for a moment, muttered something to himself and opened them. He smiled up at his father and the colour slowly returned to his cheeks. "Are you ready?"

"No," Anakin said with a tremulous smile, shrugging with studied casualness. "But don’t let that stop you, Son."

Luke’s fond smile widened and he held out his hand. Anakin clasped it in his own and squeezed it softly, silently acknowledging Luke’s lead. He nodded.

Luke nodded back and he slowly let go of his father’s hand. Turning about, he began walking again, with Anakin following him at a more sedate pace.

The closer he got to his friends, the more Luke’s heart filled to bursting. When he was able to make out their smiling, happy features, the faster he walked. Until, inevitably, his friends became aware of his approaching figure. Leia was the first. Her beautiful face lit up and she stepped forward, encouraged by Han’s needless push.

Luke enveloped his sister in his arms and she buried her face in his shoulder with a little cry of boundless joy. They clung to each other desperately, blissfully making sure of the other’s beloved presence in their arms. So afraid they had been not to see each other again! Brother and sister!

When they let go of each other, she smooched his cheeks shamelessly. Luke giggled like a little boy and blushed. Leia then pushed him to Han, and the two friends hugged for all they were worth. Luke’s eyes filled with tears of happiness. He had everything he had ever wished for beside him now. Well, almost everything. A mantle of sadness settled in his soul at the thought of his mother; but almost immediately, he realized that wherever she was, she was looking down at them right now, sharing their happiness. Maybe it was only wishful thinking on his part, but he was certain he could feel her at the very edge of his senses. A warm, loving, maternal soft touch ...

From Han’s bearhug, Luke stepped into Lando’s no less powerful hug. And when he thought that between all his friends, they had squeezed the life out of him, he found himself raised in mid air and his face plastered to Wookie hair. Luke burst out laughing and briskly stroked his giant furry friend.

When Chewie finally brought him down to the ground, all of them looked at each other and burst out laughing in an explosion of ecstatic euphoria, some of them wiping away the wetness on their cheeks. Their faces hurt with so much smiling. Just then, Luke realized there was an empty space beside him. Suddenly frightened, he looked around frantically, until he spotted his father, standing at the very edge of the clearing, obviously not daring to intrude upon their private happiness. Luke waved him over enthusiastically. This joyful reunion had filled his soul with hope and optimism. He knew beyond any doubt now that no matter how ugly things seemed to turn, everything would turn out right in the end.

Hesitatingly, almost fearfully, Anakin stepped out of the shadows and into the light, and he walked up to the bonfire, a bit too slowly, his black cloak billowing behind him. Once there, he instinctively sought Luke’s side.

Luke opened his arms wide in a graceful gesture, encompassing them all in it.

"My friends, it’s an honour for me to introduce you to my father, Anakin Skywalker!" Luke’s voice was dripping with pride and affection and Anakin looked down at his son with sheer adoration, his creased with tension features softening into a loving, grateful smile.

A deathly silence that could have been cut with a knife was the reaction to Luke’s heartfelt introduction.

Feeling that the first conciliatory move had to come from him, Anakin reached out his hand, in a universal gesture of peace offering.

The silence lengthened until it became almost unbearable. Han and Lando looked at Anakin with a blending of hostility and surprise at his physical appearance, that clearly didn’t match at all with the person they expected to lie beneath Darth Vader’s mask. Leia seemed about to faint as she stared at this good-looking, strikingly handsome middle-aged man, who was the older spitting image of her brother. She couldn’t reconcile the ugly monster she had made up in her mind with the gentle, sweet-eyed man who was looking at each one of them alternately, anxious for a positive response to his friendly overture.

When the silence became so thick some thought they would scream, some excited beeping and whistling made everybody jump, Anakin included. All of them looked at R2, who was fidgeting and shaking on his little wheels, as if he had short-circuited.

"What’s the matter with him?" Lando asked.

"I don’t quite understand him," explained 3PO. "He says: ‘It is you! It is you!’"

"Of course it’s him!" Han countered sarcastically.

Anakin seemed to acknowledge the two droids for the very first time. A deep shudder raked through his entire body and he stepped forward, getting closer to them.

"Artoo?", he asked, weakly.

The little droid seemed about to burst with joy. His thrilled beeping resembled human babble too much.

"The Maker?" 3PO began arguing with his small friend. "You are mistaken, R2D2. My programming contains no data regarding Anakin Skywalker. According to my databanks, the Maker’s name was Ani. That’s all the information I have about my maker." There was an unmistakable hint of sadness in the golden droid’s voice.

Exasperated, Artoo whistled the missing bit of information.

"What did you say?!" 3PO seemed knocked out by the revelation. His head turned alternately from Artoo to the tall man in front of him now, his big rounded yellow eyes shining with all-too-human confusion.

Anakin reached out to the droid. His eyes were bright with unshed tears.

"3PO, I am Ani," he let out in a trembling voice.

The droid’s head tilted in an endearing gesture.

"You are Master Ani, sir?" the droid asked, almost in a child-like little voice. He had never looked more human than he looked right then.

"What?!" Han’s sharp accent broke the incredibly emotive moment. "C’mon, this is just too much! Darth Vader made this goldenrod here?"

Anakin nodded, both at the droid and at the Corellian.

"How come I don’t remember you, Master?" 3PO asked, his voice still trembling with barely restrained emotion.

"Someone must have tampered with his memory banks," Luke proffered, beginning to understand. After Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, someone had wanted the droid to forget who had created him and had erased the information from his memory. And probably, they had done it to protect them all from the truth. Still, it felt terribly cruel to the droid. "Don’t worry, 3PO. Maybe the information has just been made inaccessible to you. A tiny and virtually undetectable electric discharge or a simple overload directed at the right place should accomplish that. We’ll take a look at you later and if the information is still there, we’ll take it out so you can remember everything again." Luke was incredibly moved by this unexpected discovery. It was amazing how Destiny had brought all of them together again. Even the droids! All of them had completed the circle. They had survived this horrific nightmare, stronger and wiser. Once again, he realized how perfect everything seemed to be.

"Oh, thank you, Master Luke, Master Ani!" the droid’s head moved nervously from Father to Son. He seemed about to short-circuit from so many emotions. Artoo beeped softly beside him, equally excited about the happy turn of events. It was clear from the two droids’ actions that they didn’t care about who Anakin Skaywalker had been and what he had done for the last 20 years. The only thing that mattered to them was who was he now.

"I can’t believe it!" Han was shaking his head from side to side, almost talking to himself. "You built this walking headache. If only for that, you deserve to be convicted for life, man!"

His words seemed to ease the tension somewhat. Anakin looked at them with a bashful smile, until his eyes rested on his daughter. Summoning up his courage, he slowly walked up to her.

"Leia ..." he began, his voice choking with emotion.

Leia watched him approaching with something akin to dread, but as soon as he called her by name, she shook herself out of her reverie and her features hardened.

"I would prefer you didn’t address me in such a manner. Oh, I know that after torturing me, torturing all of us, as a matter of fact, a very strong emotional bond should develop between us. But I’m sure you’ll excuse me if I don’t throw myself into your arms calling out ‘Daddy!’" Her voice was dripping with irony and sarcasm and Anakin jerked back.

Han gave a start. Vader was Leia’s father too!! Somehow, that bit of information hadn’t completely leaked into his brain. Leia had told him Luke was her brother and Vader was their father, but he hadn’t quite made the connection between her and Vader. The mere thought disgusted him. How could such a bright, beautiful, upright person have such a monster for a father? How could the best two people he had ever met, have been sired by such an abomination? It wasn’t right, it was repulsive!

But ... looking at Vader now, he had to admit he felt ... well, not comfortable precisely, but ... maybe not quite uncomfortable defined his feelings better. Another disconcerting thought assaulted him then. If he hadn’t known beforehand that Darth Vader was about to show up, if he had only expected Luke and Leia’s father, he wouldn’t be feeling this way right now. Blast it, it was all so confusing! Feelings had always puzzled him. He had always reached out with them, even during his time as a smuggler. He had always trusted his instincts. If he had a bad feeling about his ‘client’, he didn’t make the deal. And he was usually right. Well, he had always had a deep and decidedly original sense of honour, he had to admit it. But the fact was that if he hadn’t known this guy was Vader, he ... he would have liked him immediately. Oh, no! He had finally lost it!

But it was the truth and Han Solo had never shied away from it. He stared at the big man, so alike Luke. They couldn’t deny they were related, all right. They were the living image of each other! The same eyes, the same hair, the same cheekbones, the same dimple on the chin... His head was beginning to spin now.

He could see how hurt Vader had been by Leia’s caustic reply. He deserved that and a lot more, but he couldn’t help but empathize with the pain displayed in his face.

Vader had changed. Han realized that with as much certainty as he had realized he loved Leia. He still felt an incredible hatred and resentment towards him. How could he not? He had tortured them all, he had made their lives hell for over four years. He had killed millions, he had mutilated Luke, he had frozen him in carbonite ... He, personally, was responsible for all the physical and emotional suffering all of them had endured. And yet, Han felt it would be useless to make this man pay for it.

Eyes were the windows to the soul and Han could see pain and torment in them, but also hope and gentleness. There was a softness in those eyes that was ... Luke’s. That was it! Something transcendental had happened aboard the Death Star. There was an almost tangible link between them, an eerie connection that stretched out between the two, like an invisible thread that bound them together. A connection impossible to break. And that connection was called love. Love had destroyed Vader and brought Anakin Skywalker back.

Han closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness descended upon him. They had a lot to forgive, a lot to understand and a lot to talk about. And it wasn’t going to be easy, for any of them. Too much had happened. Forgiveness didn’t come easy. Right now, he felt like grabbing Vader’s neck and slowly squeezing the life out of him, but ... hatred wasn’t the way. They must learn to grow beyond hate or there would be no hope for them. They had to learn to forgive and move on, as Luke had done.

The kid ... If one thought about it, Luke had suffered at Vader’s hands far more than any of them. Always pining for the memory of his lost father, hero-worshipping him, striving to become a Jedi Knight like him, and then finding out the truth in the most inhuman, brutal way he could imagine. Luke had more personal reasons than all of them put together to hate and want to destroy that black nightmare, and yet, he had forgiven and reached out to any remaining goodness in his father. And he had found it. His faith had redeemed Anakin.

Luke had grown, indeed! All of them had. War had made them all change and grow far more than they would have wished. It had hardened them and softened them at the same time, if that concept made any sense at all.

Han breathed in deeply. There still was a lot of anger inside him, but he had to get rid of it, and he had to help his friends to get rid of it too. Especially Leia. She had also lost a lot because of Vader. All her adoptive family on Alderaan, the entire planet ... Damn it! Not even on purpose could Vader have hurt his children more than he had.

There also was a lot of soul-searching to do. Vader/Anakin’s issue had raised a lot of questions about good and evil, and how those two concepts could live within the same person. No being was intrinsically good or bad, they knew that, but a blending of both. The trick consisted of letting one side or the other to rule your actions and your morals. Every person had the potential for killing and murdering; they had done it thousands of times throughout this bloody war. The difference was that they had done it because there had been no other choice, whereas Vader had made of murder and slaughter a way of life, a belief, a religion.

It was frightening, it was disturbing and terrifying. And Han suspected all those ideas had to be swirling around in Leia’s mind as well. A person couldn’t possibly have such duality inside ... could they? They were mainly one thing or the other, but they couldn’t be both, they couldn’t switch their morals on and off whenever it suited them. If they could, then they were lost. That meant the potential to become like Vader resided inside her too. And if she had that potential, how could she consider herself capable of deciding what was right and what was wrong? How could she judge others? How could she be certain she hadn’t tapped from that Darkness already when she had done some killing of her own? How could she consider herself better than Vader? How could she live with the knowledge of being Vader’s daughter? How could she forgive him for what he had unleashed inside her?

After all Leia had suffered, she couldn’t let go of all the feelings that had sustained her and kept her going for so long just snapping her fingers. So much pain, anger and resentment couldn’t be forgotten that easily. Too many dead people were crying for justice. The Empire had forced her to sacrifize many lives and she couldn’t forgive that. Vader and the Empire had destroyed her innocence, they had murdered and hurt those she loved. She felt lost, helpless, angry, confused, and she was clinging to those ugly feelings because they were the only thing strong enough to support her emotionally right now. She would break down if she gave up on them.

Yes, Han understood his beloved with all his heart, because that was what he felt too.

But he could also identify with Luke’s plight. The kid’s wounded look at his sister’s harsh words also hurt Han. If he had been able to forgive, he thought his sister also could. But Luke and Leia were quite different. They faced life and emotions differently. But, essentially, they walked the same path. Leia would come around sooner or later. She was noble, loving and caring enough to give up those sour feelings and embrace love and forgiveness as well. There was no other way out. And Han would be beside her when the time came.

Meanwhile, Anakin had moved back and dropped his head in resignation, unable to face Leia’s hard, unforgiving eyes. He couldn’t believe the irony. She had used the very same words he had imagined aboard the Death Star. His feeling had been right. He would never get his daughter’s forgiveness. The damage he had caused was too big. He had hurt her too deeply. And he couldn’t blame her. Somehow remembering his manners and pulling on a mask of sad, quiet dignity around him, he took a deep breath and bowed his head politely.

"By all means, your highness. I meant no disrespect."

Luke’s hand softly settled on his father’s shoulder and squeezed it, in loving support. On seeing it, Leia felt anger boiling inside her.

"I have instructions from Mon Mothma," she quickly reverted to business, clearing the anger from her mind. How many times had she found solace in duty when her wounded feelings were too close to the surface and they threatened to explode and wreak havoc at any moment? This time was no different.

"You have contacted her already?" Luke asked, in shock.

"Of course. What did you expect?" Leia was fighting to hold her wild emotions in check. "If we had hidden this from her, she would have found out soon enough and then it would have been more difficult to convince her of our good intentions." She pronounced the word ‘good’ with as much irony as she could muster. "She was very impressed by the news, let me tell you. She wants the two of you to report to her tonight."

"Tonight?!" Anakin and Luke exclaimed at the same time.

"Yep!" Leia nodded. "Her frigate will be orbiting Endor in less than 2 hours. How did you get here, by the way?"

"In an Imperial shuttle. We landed about an hour away from here," Luke explained. His head was swimming. Things were progressing too quickly for him to catch up with them. He needed time to rest and clear his mind, and facing Mon Mothma so soon didn’t enter into his plans.

"I thought so. We’ll use the Falcon now. It’ll be safer." Leia made a face and sighed. She felt no less tired than her brother. "Are we ready to go, then?"

Everybody nodded, growled or beeped assent.

Anakin looked around in awe, realizing all of a sudden Luke’s friends were going to accompany them.

"I ... I want you to know how much I appreciate ..." he started clumsily.

"Stop right there, milord!" Leia cut him short. "I’m doing this for my brother, not for you. Make no mistake about that. You mean a lot to him and I don’t want him to go through this alone. We all love and care for each other and I’ll do anything to see him happy. And as it happens, you make him happy. That’s the only reason why I’m doing this, no matter what I may think of Luke’s sanity."

Luke smiled despite himself. He wrapped his arm about Leia’s shoulders and kissed her cheek affectionately.

"If you don’t mind, I’m going to say hello to my Red Squadron and all the other pilots. I’ll be back in a few minutes."

"Uhmmm ... all right; but please, be brief," Leia advised him. The truth was that staying with Vader without Luke being nearby gave her the creeps, even though Han and the others were also there. She wouldn’t be able to stand being beside him without Luke’s soothing presence calming her.

"Right!" Luke let her go and headed for the main clearing.

Sensing that the level of uncomfortableness had raised awfully high with Luke’s departure, Anakin pretended to be tired and he seated himself on a boulder several feet away from them. Still, he picked up Han’s grateful look and Chewie’s soft growl of appreciation. At least, he had the Corellian and the Wookie’s understanding. And he picked up positive vibrations from Calrissian as well. After all, short of almost taking his mining business away from him, he hadn’t hurt him too much ... personally... he hoped. How ironic! Everybody was showing him some measure of understanding but his daughter. He bent his head. Force, how much it hurt!

‘Padmé, help me! Help us all!’, he cried out in his mind.

Just then, a soft, cooing whistle jerked him out of his thoughts. The two droids were beside him, clearly trying to comfort him. Anakin reached out and softly settled his palm on the dome of the little droid. R2 began beeping happily now, turning his head from side to side. Anakin couldn’t help but smile gratefully at the extremely solidary gesture. 3PO stood at his side, uncharacteristically silent. It seemed his unexpected encounter with his maker had driven speech from him.

The droids brought with them a myriad of old memories. Memories of another time. Ah, he had been a different man then! Idealistic, impetuous, arrogant, always ready to jump into action to protect others ... It felt as if all of that had happened eons ago, and it also felt as if it had happened yesterday. Part of him felt like a 22 year old young man who had just awakened from the most terrifying nightmare, and another part of him felt as old as Time itself.

If someone had told him when he woke up this morning where would he be a few hours later ... But he didn’t regret anything. How could he? Luke had saved his soul and healed his body. That beautiful young man! He owed him everything. His life, his sanity. Everything that happened from now on, he would owe it to him. Anakin didn’t know what to do and what to say to convey his gratitude, his joy, his love. Force, how much did he loved Luke! Sometimes, he looked like a shy, clumsy, lost little boy he felt like crushing to his chest, and other times he seemed as old and wise as the universe. So much love! He didn’t know he had so much love inside. Where had it been all these years?

Questions. Questions! Terrible questions he was too tired and shaken to try and answer them right now.

Anakin needed some peace and his mind automatically looked for the only thing in his life that filled his spirit with it. He reached out with his thoughts and followed his son’s steps. He saw him greeting and hugging his fellow pilots. It made him very happy to see Luke had so many good friends.

Anakin smiled when he saw Luke crouching and scratching the fur of several of the natives and laughing out loud when they began squirming, asking for more. Ahhh, he had also been young and exuberant once, but not much. Obi-Wan wouldn’t have permitted him such over the top behaviour.

He was so lost in his thoughts that before he knew, Luke was already coming back. He got up and walked back to the bonfire. He was beginning to feel the chill of the evening, but he was grateful for that too. He could feel everything now! Cold, heat, the wind blowing on his face, the soft touch of his son’s hand ... He sighed.

"Ready," Luke announced. "Shall we go?"

Leia was about to say something, but a small shadow came into the light all of a sudden, making them all jump.

"Holy crap! The furball!" Han exclaimed, in vast relief. His heart had been about to stop beating. "What the hell is he doing here?"

"Apparently, he followed me," Luke explained.

Wicket looked up at all the people gathered there. He already knew most of them and he liked them a lot. But two of them were new. He stared at the dark-haired, dark-skinned one and sniffed at him curiously. He decided he liked him too. He turned his head and observed the light-haired giant who stood beside the young one he had followed. He liked Luke lots. There was something about him that ... he was someone very special. There was a soft, wise gentleness about him that was like a magnet. And there was a quiet sadness about him too that made him look like an orphan cub in need of comforting. Luke also reminded him of Logray, with all his powers and all, only Luke was infinitely gentler and didn’t grumble at all. Wicket perked up his ears, very surprised, when he felt that Luke’s sadness was almost gone now. He was gazing adoringly at the big man next to him. Looking more closely, Wicket realized the amazing physical resemblance between them both. He sniffed at Anakin and then at Luke and he began jumping up and down, prattling excitedly. They were family! He already knew Luke and Leia were kin too, they smelled very much the same. But this man was ... their father! That was it! The father and his two young cubs!

"What’s the matter with him?" Lando asked, puzzled. That seemed to have become his recurring sentence for the evening.

"I think he knows we’re related," Luke replied.

"Yes, Master Luke," 3PO confirmed. "He’s saying: ‘You’re the father of these two cubs!’"

Anakin and Luke smiled helplessly at that, only for different reasons. Luke had never considered himself a ‘cub’, but it was a very funny thought. And somewhat appropriate, he had to admit it. On his part, Anakin fondly remembered when Luke had cuddled up to him in the Death Star, making him feel like a true father for the very first time in his life. He had reminded him of a cuddly cub so much!

Leia frowned, annoyed. She didn’t know whether to take offence or burst out laughing in despair. She decided to remain straight-faced.

The others chuckled, obviously very amused by the Ewok’s words.

Infected by the general amusement his comment had brought, Wicket grabbed Anakin’s leg and began purring in happy contentment, snuggling against it. He decidedly liked this blue-eyed giant. There was also an air of sadness and deep regret about him he felt like comforting right now!

The chuckling quickly subsided at the extravagant sight.

"Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you he’s got the nasty habit of doing that when he feels comfy," Han explained to Anakin with a wicked smile.

Anakin looked down at the creature clinging to his leg and then he looked up, as if asking the others what was he supposed to do with this now.

It was just too hilarious. The former Darth Vader, standing there with a purring Ewok holding on to his leg, unable to think of anything to put an end to the strange scene.

Luke began spluttering and looked away, biting his lips. Han and Lando stared down at their boots, suddenly finding them fascinating and making the weirdest noises from deep within their throats. Chewie was looking up, seemingly very interested in the stars above. His shoulders were shaking.

In the end, even an extremely confused Anakin saw the hilarity of his situation. Watching the others and their pathetic attempts at restraining their laughter, he smiled broadly and exploded in gales of laughter, that inevitably triggered the others’.

Some time later, when they managed to catch their breath, Anakin softly released his leg from the Ewok’s grasp and scratched his head warmly. Wicket was jumping up and down and clapping excitedly. He had eased up the tense atmosphere around them all!

Anakin looked up from his crouched position.

"Are we leaving now?" he asked.

"I think we’d better. The Falcon’s about 40 minutes away," Lando replied.

Anakin nodded and looked back at the tiny Ewok.

"In that case, I shall bid farewell to you, my little friend. Take care of yourself."

3PO translated Anakin’s words for Wicket’s benefit. The little creature said something in his strange language.

"He’s asking if we’ll be back again," the droid said.

The group looked at each other.

"Sure we will!" Leia finally said. She had felt unthinkably at peace and homely amongst those creatures. Safe, for once. She needed to return here and say goodbye properly to these little fuzzballs who had welcomed them to their homes and sacrificed many of their tribe on helping the Alliance. They were forever in their debt.

One by one, they said goodbye to Wicket, who purred happily, knowing he would be seeing his big friends sometime soon.

The walk back to the Falcon was made mostly in silence. All of them were lost in thought. They also realized they needed to save their strength, since exhaustion was beginning to take its toll on them.

Lando and Chewie led the way with Han and Leia behind them. Han had wrapped his arm about Leia’s waist, in silent and loving support. The Princess seemed to have withdrawn into herself and Han was deeply concerned about her. Vader, or Anakin’s, presence, was disturbing her greatly, and he could understand her only too well. She had opposed him since she had been little more than a teenager, during her time as Senator, and when the war finally broke out, she had thoroughly hated him for his endless atrocities, before and after experiencing them firsthand and in those she loved. Not to mention what he had done years before, when he had exterminated, at his Emperor’s orders, the entire Jedi Order and helped him to bring down the Old Republic. To be forced all of a sudden to accept him not only on their side, but also as her father, was too much to ask of her too soon. She was holding up admirably for Luke’s sake and that wasn’t fair. Not to her, not to Luke, who adored his father and clearly didn’t consider him a threat anymore.

Another fact to be taken into account was the fact that Han was slowly coming to Luke’s point of view. His feelings were screaming at him that Darth Vader was gone for good. But he was terribly afraid of what this situation could unleash. He feared that, should they be forced to choose, a rift could open between the two siblings that could destroy all of them in the process. He shook his head, trying to get rid of the terrifying possibility. No, that wouldn’t happen! Above all else, they all loved each other. Their love would survive any test. It would! A chilly wind brushed past him and Han shivered helplessly. He clasped Leia’s body closer to him, desperate for her physical contact.

He suddenly realized that cold wasn’t only in his soul. The night had turned quite fresh. Lando had put on his warm-looking cape. Chewie had more than enough with the thick mat of hair he had, that had allowed him to survive even in the extreme conditions they had endured on Hoth. Han looked briefly behind him to see how the others were doing, and he had to do a double take. Luke and Anakin were walking quietly side by side and Anakin had wrapped his cloak around his son’s shoulders. Only Luke’s head was visible above the black cape. Han quickly looked back ahead, swallowing the sudden lump in his throat, terribly moved. That man had changed. He felt it in his bones. Now, they had to convince Leia and the entire Alliance of it.

Soon after, they found themselves by the Falcon’s rounded form. The ramp was down and everybody hurried inside, looking for its warmth. All but Han. He remained outside looking at his ship, walking around it, feeling very strange. Unable to help himself, he patted the ship’s hull, needing the reassurance of touch. He had been so certain he would never see his baby again! Obviously, he had been mistaken. But he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he had somehow fooled his destiny, that he ... that between all of them, they had made a new Destiny. Somewhere along those few hours, the written history had been changed. Something had happened that made all the difference. Some strange forces were at work here ... He shivered.

"You feel it too, don’t you?" Leia’s soft voice suddenly whispered beside him, making him jump.

"Yes," Han answered, in awe. "Things feel different."

Leia nodded, suddenly lost in thought.

"Do you think Luke and ... him have something to do with it?"

Han shrugged.

"I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to revert ... and he did. Maybe that changed it all."

Leia looked away.

"Do you think he’s really changed?" her voice sounded incredibly sceptical, but she couldn’t disguise an undertone of doubt underneath.

"What can I say?" Han looked down at her. "If someone had told me that a few hours ago, I’d have laughed at the bad taste joke. Vader and goodness seem two opposite concepts, like matter and antimatter. But that man ..." he pointed at the Falcon. "That man is not Vader. If he wasn’t wearing that suit and that cape and no one had told me he was Vader, I ..."

"You would have liked him," Leia finished for him.

Han looked deep into her eyes and nodded.

"And matter and antimatter can’t exist without each other, remember that."

"But can they exist within the same person?" Leia asked sharply.

Han made a grimace and looked into the distance.

"They do, sweetheart. Inside all of us."

"But to such a degree ...?" Leia insisted passionately, desperate to understand. "Can a person be apparently good, then become a monster and then ...?"

"I don’t know, Leia. What do you think?" Han returned the question to her.

"All I know is that I can’t afford to trust him. He’s caused too much pain. He’s slaughtered millions, I can’t forget that. And I have a great resposibility within the Alliance. It’s not just my life, or our lives that are at stake here, but the whole galaxy’s."

"Luke trusts him," Han pointed out.

"I am not Luke," Leia adamantly replied.

"In that case, we’ll have to wait and see. We don’t want to make a hurried decision we might regret later. Right?" Han wrapped his arm about her shoulders.

Leia didn’t move for a moment. She stood like a statue, her eyes blazing. But then, she looked down and biting her lower lip, she nodded, in silence.

"Good," Han said, softly. "Let’s get inside, honey. There’s a lot to do."

Yielding, Leia allowed herself to be guided inside the ship. The ramp closed up behind them.

 

 

Han and Leia walked past 3PO in the central hold area, who was sitting at the table, fastening his seatbelt. R2 was whistling softly, trying to convince his golden friend to engage in a holochess game.

When they entered the Falcon’s cockpit, they found Chewie sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, readjusting it for his size. Lando, Luke and Anakin were standing behind him.

"I did my best not to get her scratched, old buddy," Lando explained, apologetically. "But that wasn’t always possible."

"Ah, don’t worry," Han patted his back warmly. "That’ll give me the opportunity to think of some more special modifications that will improve her and make her shine better than ever."

Leia looked down and shook her head with a patronizing smile. Why did men always give their ships a female personality? It started in their teenage years with their speeders and it went on for the rest of their lives.

Lando offered the pilot’s seat to Han with a polite gesture and Han sat at the controls with a flourish. He quickly hit some buttons and the engines began roaring. The floor started vibrating under their feet.

Leia brushed Anakin’s arm with her shoulder when she walked up past him to the seat directly behind Han’s. She immediately stiffened and tried to quench the feelings the touch had evoked in her. Flashes of images passed before her eyes too quickly for her to grasp them. But one thing did remain. The tenderness. That was the feeling uppermost in the huge man’s mind. The kindness and gentleness about him were overwhelming, and something inside her instinctively reached out to hold on to it and cradle it to her. She crushed the feeling mercilessly. No. NO! She couldn’t! She COULDN’T! She couldn’t care! He wouldn’t escape his crimes that easily! He ...!

Anakin stepped back courteously, giving her more space.

"Excuse me," he sincerely apologized.

"It’s all right," Leia replied without thinking. She clenched her teeth, angry at herself, and flopped down on the bloody seat. She put her hand on Han’s shoulder and squeezed it, needing to calm down. Han patted her hand comfortingly and kissed it, strangely attuned to her agitated feelings.

Luke sat down behind Chewie’s seat with a sigh, giving up to Anakin’s whispered requests. The big man quietly stood behind his son, knowing only too well that Leia wouldn’t welcome his nearness. Lando placed himself behind the Princess’ seat and grabbed the back of it, getting ready for takeoff.

A few minutes later, the Falcon was leaving Endor’s atmosphere. After contacting the fleet, Han announced they would rendezvous with Mon Mothma’s frigate in 35 minutes.

From there on, the trip was made in absolute silence. Chewie would growl something here and there and Han would answer mostly in monosyllables. Leia withdrew into herself again and Luke was trying to prepare himself mentally for the upcoming confrontation with the Alliance’s leader. He was fidgeting with foreboding. He felt he was too exhausted to make a logical presentation of the situation. If only Mon Mothma could see right through their hearts! And Leia as well, for that matter. He was extremely worried about his sister. She seemed to have bottled up her feelings, as she did whenever she was deeply hurt. Luke knew from his own experience that wasn’t the way. She had to face them and accept them. Only then she would have peace. He began to search for a harmless subject to bring up, but his mind was a jumble. He couldn’t think of anything even remotely intelligent to say.

Finally, it was Lando who broke the uneasy silence. Luke was sorely tempted to get up and hug him.

"So, what happened to your mask and your helmet?" he asked Anakin out of the blue.

Anakin was wondering when someone would pluck up the courage to ask the question that had to be plaguing them all. He let out a tiny smile.

Realizing he had phrased his question somewhat brusquely, Lando hurried to elaborate.

"I mean, did you use them to hide your identity and scare the wits out of everybody in the process, or did you ...?"

"Oh, no, General Calrissian!" Anakin kindly explained. His voice sounded soothingly cheerful and with a hint of amusement. "I did need them. I sustained an incurable respiratory injury that didn’t allow me to breathe normally. I would have lasted only a few minutes outside the mask. I used it for over twenty years."

"Then, how come you can breathe normally now?" Lando blinked, perplexed.

It was a delicate question and Anakin instinctively looked down at his son, asking him with his eyes how much did he want him to explain. It was complicated, because it could greatly disturb his friends to know Luke could resuscitate people! Some things had to be explained with a lot of tact and under the right circumstances. And this particular moment, with so many people’s nerves on edge, decidedly wasn’t the right circumstance.

Luke looked up at his father and smiled at him affectionately with a shrug, telling him he didn’t care how much he said.

Anakin smiled back at his child and placed his hands on Luke’s shoulders. He decided to compromise. He would protect this incredible young man with his every bit of strength.

"Luke healed me," he said simply, his soft accent oozing pride and love.

"WHAT?!" was the collective exclamation. Chewie’s roar was just as eloquent.

"Just wait a minute! How did he do that?" Han was twisting his neck at an almost impossible angle, trying to look at Luke from his seat. When his eyes met Luke’s teasing, twinkling ones, he gulped. "Uhhh, on second thoughts, don’t tell us." He quickly looked back ahead.

Unable to help themselves, Luke and Anakin began chuckling softly. Anakin gently tousled Luke’s hair. It had become his favourite caress, one that Luke didn’t seem to mind. He seemed to be as hungry for them as Anakin was to give them.

"And what did you do for him in return?" came Leia’s unexpectedly brutal question, that cast a chill over everybody’s spirits.

Anakin’s chuckle died on his lips and a flush of deep shame took its place. He knew very well what Leia meant. She was referring to the 20 odd years he had been the bloodiest murderer in the galaxy, to the millions of lives he had taken, to the countless crimes he had committed in the name of the Empire. And also, she was namely referring to all the years of longing a little boy had suffered, separated from his family and being raised on a desertic planet, far away from all those who could have loved him as he deserved and completely ignorant of where he came from, being hidden from his own father, the galactic butcher, for his own safety. She was referring to the animal hunt he had subjected them all, to the obscene amputation of Luke’s hand, to the following weeks of near madness Luke had endured until he had finally accepted the truth. That was what Leia was really asking him about. What had he ever done for those who had loved him.

Anakin paled and shivered as if his very soul had been ripped from him. His powerful form almost collapsed under the weight of Leia’s rightful accusation. He closed his eyes, trying to hide the rush of tears that had been squeezed out from deep within his chest. His throat constricted with a burning heat. He tried his best to hold back the imminent breakdown, shutting off his link with Luke, so his boy wasn’t subjected to this searing pain. He looked away, so that no one could see his face. It wouldn’t be fair to them to see his tears fighting to come out. He deserved Leia’s rebukes and hatred. He deserved everything they wanted to spew at him and more. His hands began to slip from Luke’s shoulders. He didn’t want to soil his son with his touch.

Luke gave a start in sudden fear when he felt his link with his father abruptly muting. Although he didn’t need it to know what Leia’s words had just done. He couldn’t blame his sister for her anger and resentment, but hurting Anakin for it was useless now. Nothing she ever said or did, would change the past and it would only cause more suffering. He could only hope Leia would come to understand this one day, or those ugly feelings would destroy her. Luke vowed to himself he would help her in every possible way.

When he felt his father’s hands slowly sliding from his shoulders, Luke quickly reached out and grabbed one of them. He touched his mind with a soft shove, softly knocking. Since the Death Star, their minds had been completely opened to each other, and they had shared a constant gentle outpouring of feelings and thoughts. To Luke, that contact had immediately become a soothing background murmur, like lukewarm raindrops falling onto his soul, and its sudden disappearance made him feel as if he had gone blind or deaf all at once. The brutal silence within his mind was terrifying. He knocked again, insistently.

Anakin stubbornly refused to give in for a moment; but then, realizing he was wounding his son by denying him his touch, he reluctantly opened his mind to him again. He couldn’t stand this! What made one of his children happy, hurt the other. They had to put an end to this conflict or he feared ... He dejectedly thought it would have been better for all of them if he had died in the Death Star. That would have solved everything.

‘NO!!’ Luke cried out into his mind. ‘Don’t give up so soon, Father! Leia will come around in time. Trust me! If you had died, a big part of me would have died too. I don’t know if I would have ever found the strength to go on.’ He quickly cast away those terrible thoughts. ‘I feel that Han, Lando and Chewie are beginning to see it. Leia needs more time, that’s all. She’s had to remain strong for all of us when things turned out desperate. She has assumed too much responsibility and endured too much pressure since she was far too young. And she couldn’t afford the slightest doubt or it would have made her look weak in everybody’s eyes. And that could have been fatal for the Rebellion. She can’t give up that unrelenting firmness, because that strength is what has sustained us all. She’s entitled her anger and resentment at what Destiny has thrown her way. But she will realize anger is not the way and she will embrace forgiveness.’ Luke gazed up into his father’s gentle eyes. ‘That’s what I did, and look at us now!’ He smiled tenderly.

Anakin shook his head in awe. This child was wiser than many Jedi Masters he had greatly admired in his youth. Once again, he felt as if he was Luke’s padawan. He shook his head and looked up at the ceiling, overwhelmed. But then, he felt Leia’s eyes on him like daggers. He shuddered.

‘Her anger is so deep ... I fear for her.’

‘It’s no bigger than mine was. And that encourages me. That means her love will eclipse everything else when she finally lets it out.’

Luke’s passionate faith left Anakin speechless. His son’s certainty felt as solid and constant as a rock, and Anakin desperately held on to it, wanting to believe. If his presence created a rift amongst all these good people, he would never forgive himself. He quietly made the decision to disappear from their lives before that happened.

‘How can you be so certain?,’ he asked, in wonder.

‘Because I know her heart ... and yours,’ Luke replied, softly.

Anakin swallowed the lump in his throat. Shakily, he reached out and placed his free hand on Luke’s shoulder again. Once again, he thanked the Force for having his touch welcomed. There were no words to express his soul-deep gratitude for this privilege. He had no idea how he had managed without it for so many years. But it didn’t matter anymore. All he knew was that he couldn’t live without it now. Just as he couldn’t live without the anchor of Luke’s faith. If only he had had it at his age! If only ...

Luke’s head had turned from his father’s caring eyes to his sister’s blazing ones. The unbearable tension was back, permeating everything again. He smiled peacefully at her, completely understanding her resentment and knowing only too well it came from a love that ran even deeper and more strongly than any hatred she could ever feel. She was merely one step behind them. And they had to help her to give that step as soon as possible.

"He saved my life," he simply said. That was the only truth he needed. The truth he cherished and cradled deep into his heart as a parent would a baby.

This time, the acknowledgement to his statement was a collective gasp and Leia’s deep intake of breath. No one was able to utter a word for a long moment. Until Lando’s stutter broke the silence.

"He ... he did?"

Luke looked up at Lando and nodded with a solemn expression on his serene face.

"When Palpatine realized I wouldn’t kill my father and take his place beside him, he decided I was expendable, just as my father had been until that moment in his attempts to turn me. He began killing me," he swallowed hard. "I thought I was going to die." Luke shivered at the terrible memory and his muscles spasmed involuntarily. He had wanted to die when he had seen his father standing beside the Emperor, doing nothing but staring. But he knew better now. The real battle wasn’t taking place in the throne room at that moment, but deep inside his father’s heart. And Anakin Skywalker had won that battle. And Luke would love him forever for that. The protective, caring daddy the young man had always craved for, had finally come to the rescue! "He grabbed the Emperor and threw him down the reactor shaft." Luke softly squeezed his father’s hand, needing the physical reassurance, and Anakin returned the pressure, both on his son’s fingers and on his shoulder, moved beyond reason by the sentiment Luke’s words had conveyed. He had relived it all in those few instants too, and he needed the physical reassurance of his child’s precious life as much as Luke did.

The simple tale knocked everybody out. The silence stretched for a very long time and nobody dared to say a word. They were slowly digesting this vital piece of information that made all the difference.

"I ... I thank you for saving my brother’s life," Leia’s weak voice suddenly spoke. "We are in your debt. I don’t know what would I do if I lost him." She had been completely blown away by the information and she seemed about to break down.

Luke immediately reached out his had to her, having a pretty good idea of what his story, and her own answering words, had cost her. Leia grabbed it and clung to it desperately, needing the reality of Luke’s touch to convince herself of what all of them could see: that Luke was really there, alive, safe and sound. Her eyes were brimming with tears.

"Don’t thank me, Lei-- your highness," Anakin replied, his deep voice full of shame and self-contempt. "That’s what I should have been doing all these years, protecting my children." He pronounced the word ‘children’ so softly he raised goosebumps. "I would give my life a billion times to change what I have done. But I can’t. I can only try to atone for my crimes by saving other lives. And that’s what I intend to do for the rest of my life, if I have the chance."

Another long silence followed. They knew now what was Anakin’s hope ... and Luke’s. To get the Alliance’s pardon and try to make up for his atrocities. A huge and virtually impossible task, but they all could read the sincerity and deep commitment in the big man’s gentle voice.

Chewie’s soft bark of gratitude broke the silence. And he also added a few words that only Han and Anakin fully understood. Luke briefly let go of his father’s hand and stroked the Wookie’s back affectionately. He still couldn’t understand him very well, but he had a very good idea of what he had said.

"Thank you ... Chewie." Anakin’s voice was trembling with barely restrained emotion. He risked using the Wookie’s nickname and his heart felt lighter when the huge Wookie didn’t complain at all, but nodded, clearly giving him permission to keep on addressing him like that.

"I ..." Han’s hoarse voice followed the new short silence. "I also want to thank you. I love Luke like a brother and I ... I just can’t bear the thought of losing him. I don’t know what I ..."

"I understand," Anakin kindly interrupted him. He was aware of the fact that Solo didn’t feel very comfortable expressing his emotions in public, although he was a man of deep feelings. He loved his friends fiercely, he was loyal, caring, understanding and with an understated compassion. And Anakin didn’t want him to bare his feelings on his account. It was unnecessary and he didn’t deserve it. But he thanked him in his heart for making the effort. Anakin looked down and shook his head, overwhelmed by shame. He didn’t deserve so much understanding! And he was getting it from the very people he had hunted down and tortured ...

‘Father ...’ Luke admonished him in his mind, as if he was a child.

Anakin smiled sadly and patted Luke’s shoulder, in acquiescence.

"I want to thank you too," Lando unexpectedly joined in. "I’ve only known Luke for a few months, but I’ve come to care a lot about him. He’s a bright, brave, caring kid. And I’m glad you finally came to your senses and realized on which side truth lay." He made a short pause, as if deciding whether he should go ahead and say it all. He made a decision. "It’s never too late."

Both Anakin and Luke stared at Lando, deeply impressed by his words. The dark-skinned man seemed to flush under their gazes.

"I mean, look at me." He tried to divert their attention back to his words. "I wasn’t interested in joining the Rebellion. My business was prospering and I was busy minding my own affairs. I didn’t like the Empire, but as long as they stayed out of my business, I didn’t care about anything else. But that neutrality was immoral. You made me see that when you took over with your troops." He looked briefly at Anakin and then looked away, as the truth dawned on him. "You have to decide which side you’re on, or one day, you’ll be the next whose door they’ll knock down," he said, almost to himself.

A deathly silence followed his statement.

"But the Alliance didn’t mind my disgusting neutrality. They accepted me and all the ideas I could contribute," Lando went on, never noticing the silent commotion he had created around him. "This is a system I’m proud to be a part of, despite the fact that I almost joined it too late. But at least, I could be there and give a hand in the final battle. I felt I was doing something worth dying for. And I suppose that’s what you realized too when you killed Palpatine to save Luke." He lost himself in his thoughts again, completely oblivious to the people who were staring at him with their mouths hanging open. He took a deep breath a rushed ahead with his words. He looked into Anakin’s eyes, full of conviction. "I’ll tell you something, for what it’s worth. If the Alliance asks for my opinion, I will completely support your pardon. You have changed, man. I know you have." He couldn’t help an amused little smile as he pointed at Anakin’s hand. "You wouldn’t be standing here, messing about with Luke’s hair in front of us if you hadn’t."

Anakin gave a start and looked down at his fingers, that were absently combing through Luke’s hair, totally unaware of them. It had become second nature to him to touch his son, as if he was unconsciously trying to make up to him, and to himself, for all the lost years. He left his son’s hair alone and placed his hand on Luke’s shoulder. On second thoughts, he left his arm dangling at his side, to grab the back of Luke’s chair next. Blast it, he suddenly didn’t seem to know what to do with it!

Lando softly chuckled.

"Darth Vader would have never done that," he stressed. "That monster would have never allowed himself the tiniest gesture of affection or vulnerability, if he had ever felt them in the first place. You’re not Darth Vader anymore." He sounded adamant in his conviction. "As simple as that."

Anakin was speechless. He didn’t know what to say to those words. He swallowed hard, as he desperately tried to respond to the sudden vote of confidence Lando had bestowed on him.

"Calrissian, I ... I ..." he began.

"And I don’t think we can label people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for life. Life’s a constant change, with infinite shades of gray. People change, that’s the deal. It’s our nature to change. If we deny people that right, or refuse to acknowledge it, we’re condemning them forever. I won’t do that." He crossed his arms, as if reinforcing his words with the gesture. His tirade was over.

Nobody dared to breathe. They couldn’t think of anything to say or do after such a speech.

Only Anakin plucked up his courage to say something. The most inappropriate words, he knew, but there were no others.

"Thank you. Thank you very much."

"Don’t thank me," Lando shrugged. "Thank yourself for what you’ve accomplished. Nobody across the galaxy would have given a credit for you. You were only an evil to be wiped out. Only Luke risked to see beyond that, and he’s taught us all a lesson. I only hope we can convince the Alliance now."

"I hope so, too," Anakin’s voice was very soft. "But even if it doesn’t turn out the way we expect, I’m not afraid to die. I only hope I’ll be given enough time to leave everything settled behind me."

Before Luke could say anything, Han anticipated him.

"Oh, c’mon. Let’s not get melodramatic, shall we? There’s no death penalty in the Alliance. You’d be convicted for life at worst and that won’t happen. We’ll all testify in your favour. Mon Mothma will see you’re not a threat anymore. She’s a very practical woman and she’ll realize what an asset it’ll be to have you beside her. As a matter of fact, I have the feeling that with you two working side by side, peace will be a reality much sooner. It’ll project the image that true understanding between both parties is possible. It’ll save a lot of time and efforts."

Luke stared at his father pointedly. That was exactly what he had been trying to make his father understand all along. Maybe the fact that other people were of the same opinion would finally convince him!

Anakin looked down, accepting the silent reprimand. A soft pat on his hand lifted his spirits again. He met Luke’s affectionate eyes and he sighed. That gentle young man certainly knew how to restore his confidence.

On his part, Han had lost himself in the labyrinth of his thoughts. All of a sudden, everything seemed so clear! This was the right thing to do, he could feel it. Before, he had been a bit worried and uncertain about the whole thing. It didn’t seem fair to all the millions of people Vader had killed and to the millions who had died later as a consequence of the war. He felt guilty for wanting to support Anakin’s pardon. But that was exactly the point. Anakin wasn’t Vader anymore. And it would be useless to crucify the man to seek revenge for something that couldn’t be changed. Maybe it could satiate people’s vengeful instincts to make Anakin rot in a brig for the rest of his life, but in the end, it wouldn’t bring back the dead.

That aside, Luke loved the man with all his heart and if there was something Han Solo had learnt after all the years they had known each other, was that Luke Skywalker didn’t love anyone who wasn’t worthy. That fact in itself was enough for Han. To lock up his father for life would shatter the kid. Luke had suffered enough to take away from him now that which had brought a light and a happiness to his life as Han had never seen before.

And talking from a strictly political point of view, it was infinitely more practical to have Anakin working to rebuild what he had destroyed. That was called poetic justice!

Now, knowing that not just him, but Lando, Chewie and even the two droids shared his way of thinking, Han had seen his convictions reinforced. No, they couldn’t be wrong about this. Even Leia was beginning to soften up a little. She had had the guts to thank Anakin for saving Luke’s life, and Han knew very well how much that must have cost her. The Corellian sighed softly. He was extremely worried. Her unforgiving attitude had been frightening. But Han could understand her. It was easier to forgive a stranger, as Chewie, Lando and himself had done, than a relative, let alone your own father. And it was easier because a stranger, someone who doesn’t know you and doesn’t care about you, is more likely to hurt you than the person who sired you. How could a parent possibly hurt their children? The notion that such a thing could happen was too unthinkable. But when it happened, it unleashed some atavistic forces that were at work here right now. The wound was too deep to be closed that easily. Vader’s atrocities were too horrendous for Leia to want to have anything to do with Anakin, and the fact that he was her father only made her shrink away from him even more. Maybe it was too late.

Han shook his head in denial. No, it couldn’t be too late. Luke had forgiven and Leia would also forgive ... eventually. He knew her heart. He knew her too well to know only love made her act so. She couldn’t afford to trust because the disappointment would hurt too much, maybe more than she would be able to bear. She was trying to remain cool-headed in case everything fell apart, so she could be ready to help and fight, if necessary. Always the leader, always the strong-willed one, always on guard. Damn war! She was little more than a child and she had been forced to harden her feelings, not to allow herself the tiniest crack on her defences, not even for someone who clearly didn’t represent a threat to her anymore and was truly desperate for a second chance; her own father! Han felt like hitting something.

Hopefully, the war would be over very soon. They had just inflicted the deathblow to the Empire and if Anakin helped them, maybe the remaining Imperial forces could be persuaded to surrender and put a quicker end to this nightmare that was lasting far too long, and destroying much more than ‘just’ lives.

A beep from the console brought him back to the present. His eyes opened wide. Mon Mothma’s huge frigate filled their sight. He acknowledged the incoming communication and he began maneuvering the ship, smoothly heading it toward the open docking bay. Five minutes later, the Millenium Falcon landed inside the big freighter.

After turning off the engines, they stood up in silence and they left the cockpit in a single file. The two droids were already waiting for them in the central hold area. Anakin softly patted 3PO’s shoulder with a smile. It felt incredible to have the droid beside him again. He was the link that had unexpectedly connected his past and his present. A link that, he hoped, would also connect him with a worthy future. He breathed in deeply. He felt more focused somehow. He looked at his son beside him and the boy’s supportive smile brought a warmth to his breast that restored his confidence anew. He smiled back and, resolutely, he followed the others outside.

When they descended the ramp, they found a small reception committee waiting for them at the foot of the ship. At the head, they recognized Mon Mothma’s right hand, Areen Worzzlek.

"Welcome aboard," he greeted them. "Mon Mothma sends her apologies for being unable to receive you tonight. She’s very busy with her staff right now, coordinating the information and data coming from all fronts. The next few hours and days will be crucial, hopefully to bring this war to an end. She’s asked me to tell you she’ll meet you tomorrow morning at 10 hundred hours in the main conference room." He addressed the last sentence to Luke and Anakin only. The group silently commended the man’s self-control. It was very obvious from the way he was glaring at Anakin he was aware of his true identity.

Anakin held his stare with dignity, but also with an overwhelming feeling of shame. This is what lay ahead for him from now on. He’d better get used to it.

Luke stood proudly at his father’s side, with a gentle but firm stance that perfectly matched his father’s quiet dignity. It was far from him to antagonize Mon Mothma’s representative and get into an ego contest with him, but he would never let his father go through this alone, under any circumstance.

Nobody said a word for a few tense seconds, and finally relenting, Areen Worzzlek continued.

"Now, if you’ll follow me, we’ll escort you to your assigned quarters for the night," he made an elegant gesture with his hand.

With curt nods, the little group followed the smartly dressed committee.

While they were walking through the endless corridors of the ship, Lando furtively caught up with Han and Leia, who walked ahead of him, the Corellian’s arm always wrapped around the silent Princess’s waist.

"Why do you think they scheduled the meeting for tonight, if they already knew they’d have to postpone it for tomorrow? Do you think they have a hidden agenda?" he whispered to them.

"I guess they preferred to have Luke and his father safely aboard, not walking around Endor, where his suit could be easily recognized," Han surmised, pointing at Anakin, who walked ahead of them by his son’s side. "Some things have to be announced to the public with a lot of tact. I suppose they want to settle everything here first, before any public announcement has to be made."

"Yes, it makes sense," Lando agreed.

They kept on walking in silence while Han began to have second thoughts. Leia was one of the most important members of Mon Mothma’s staff. The fact that she wasn’t invited to join in the key conference that was taking place right now could only mean two things. Either Mon Mothma intended to give them all a good night’s rest after almost losing their lives on the moon below ... or the recent turn of events had already jeopardized Leia’s position in the Alliance’ headquarters and seriously compromised Mon Mothma’s trust in her. He shivered at the thought.

Nah, it couldn’t be! After all, Leia had informed her right after finding out how things had finally turned out. If Vader had died on the Death Star, it would have been ludicrous to tell her. The problem would have simply solved itself. But as soon as she had known Vader was alive and he intended to join the Alliance, her first thought had been to loyally notify her leader of the unexpected turn of events, being perfectly aware of the personal consequences it could entail to all of them. Leia was not to blame for the fact that the Alliance’s worst enemy also happened to be her father and Luke’s. No one was to blame for where they came from. Her loyalty to the Alliance was unquestionable. But there were always opportunists, ready to slander to improve their own position, closer to the centre seat.

No, he was definitely being paranoid. The Alliance was not like that. The Alliance was exactly what the decaying Old Republic and the Empire had never been. Mon Mothma’s staff wasn’t made of that kind of people, she had made sure of that. That was why he had joined the Rebellion in the first place. He, Han Solo, the paradigm of solitary ‘enterprises’, had finally found a cause worth being a part of. His mind suddenly filled with lots of instances in which the Alliance had demonstrated time and again what type of ideals it had been founded on. Such as all the Imperial prisoners they had reprieved and allowed to come to the truth by themselves, and then offering them the choice to join them.

The abolition of the death penalty was a decisive factor for Han to join in. The Alliance had been intelligent enough to realize that killing their enemies was never the way. When the war was over, they would have to coexist peacefully again, and summary executions would only make hatred and resentment grow. The galactic wound would never heal.

The Alliance had learnt from all the mistakes the Old Republic had made that had permitted the Empire to rise. Families divided by both sides, people fighting their own relatives ... a galactic civil war, that’s what this nightmare had been about. Forgiveness and understanding were the only ways to survive now. Punishing or suddenly doubting Leia or Luke, or any of them for that matter, after all they had sacrificed, because Darth Vader happened to be their father, was petty. Their commitment was out of the question. Han knew that couldn’t be what the Alliance intended. He was certain they only had their best interests in mind.

But still, Han Solo was only human, and he wondered. He couldn’t wait for the morning to arrive, so he could put all this stupid apprehension behind him once and for all.

Areen Worzzlek’s voice brought him back to the present with a start, and the Corellian felt an illogical surge of gratitude for the interruption of his musings.

"These are your rooms. You will find a fair variety of clothes to get changed. There’s a small mess at the end of the corridor, so you can have some refreshments before you retire. And now, I shall bid you good night."

With another graceful bow, the small party left the tired and confused group standing in the middle of the long corridor filled with rooms.

"Well!" Lando opened his arms wide. "I suppose we’re free to choose our own room now. I refuse to give one more step than strictly necessary, so I’ll take this one." He indicated the door directly in front of him.

By silent mutual agreement or in sheer need of remaining close to each other, it didn’t matter what, the others chose the adjoining rooms. Chewie chose the one beside Lando’s, Han’s was between Chewie’s and Leia’s and Luke’s between Leia’s and his father’s.

"Leia," the young man softly called his sister when she was about to get inside her room. "You should get a med droid to check your arm before you go to sleep. It’s nothing serious, but it’s got to be bothering you."

"How did you know ...?" Han couldn’t help the first words from escaping his lips, as he had the first time. "Don’t tell us. Another Force thing, right?" He let out his famous lopsided grin, Han Solo’s trademark.

Luke wriggled his eyebrows playfully at his friend in a pretended spooky gesture, and Anakin chuckled to himself.

"You’re right," Leia replied with unexpected aplomb. "And you should do the same about your burns."

Luke’s eyes opened like two saucers. He clearly didn’t expect his sister to know about his own wounds in return.

"Wait a minute! Are you hurt?" Han asked. His voice was full of concern.

Luke looked down, a bit sheepish.

"Yeah. You can’t refuse the Dark Side without expecting to be punished to death. Palpatine made that point very clear." He shivered helplessly at the memory.

Leia stepped forward and held him. The two siblings clung to each other for a while, needing the reassurance of touch once again.

Leia sighed and closed her eyes at the images that had begun to cross her mind again. While she had been waiting for Han and the others to blow the shield generator, sitting by a boulder and fiercely guarded by Wicket and several Ewoks, her thoughts had instinctively turned to Luke. She had thought of him often during the battle and when she concentrated deeply, she thought she could feel his emotions: rage, doubt, fear, despair, anger, helpless love ... But right then, she had felt a searing pain all over her body. Heat, smarting. And flashes of images too. Lightning, sparks, darkness. And then, she had a quick flash of a cloaked figure holding a smaller hooded one above him ... She had shaken her head sharply and then, the images were gone, and with them, the unbearable feeling of pain. From there on, she had only received peaceful feelings, boundless love and happiness beyond belief. Until a few minutes later, when she had suddenly felt so much anguish and heartbreaking grief that she had struggled to shut out any incoming feelings from her brother. It was too overwhelming, and unethical, since it was her brother’s privacy she was invading, albeit involuntarily. Until Luke taught her how to control this gift, she refused to keep on receiving. She had only opened her mind again twice: when she had felt him reaching out to her, informing her they were coming, and to please prepare their friends for the inevitable news; and when she had felt him approaching and she had sent out the image of where they were waiting for them.

She knew Luke had told them the truth when he had related to them how his father had killed Palpatine to save his life. It fit exactly with everything she had felt ... and seen in her mind. But something told her that Vader ... Anakin ... that he hadn’t told them the whole truth when he had said Luke had healed him. There was much more there than met the eye, she could feel it. Something transcendental had happened between them, something that had bound the two of them together in a way Leia couldn’t even begin to understand. But in a good, positive way, she was certain about that. Well, positive for her brother, that was.

She agreed with Han, they had many things to discuss, much to understand about each other, many pending issues to sort out. She strongly doubted she would ever change her mind, but they had to settle everything down, for good or evil. She dreaded facing him, she could feel her resolve wavering just by looking into those kind gentle eyes, so much like Luke’s ... But she couldn’t forgive. It wouldn’t be fair to all the people he had slaughtered. Millions of tortured souls, her own mother among them, stood between them and they always would.

She let go of her brother with a little shiver. Luke stroked her cheek, smiling, in sweet understanding.

"Shall we meet at the mess in, say, one hour?" Luke proposed to them.

They all looked at each other, nodding in agreement, and they entered their rooms in complete silence.

 

Once inside his room, Anakin leaned on his door, and let out a sigh of ... relief? Defeat? Resignation? He couldn’t be certain. He felt as if a stampede of Banthas had run over him. He had no idea where he stood now, what to expect, what to feel.

Well, he did know what he felt, that was the problem. He was feeling everything at the same time. His mind was in a turmoil and he couldn’t make it stop. Too many things had happened, and too fast. He slowly began pacing his room in circles.

This morning he was Darth Vader, a Dark Lord of the Sith, loyal to his Master, to whom he had faithfully served for over 20 years with all the strength his cyborg body had possessed. Now, he was Anakin Skywalker, father of two children, Jedi Knight and fully human. Human!

His heart skipped a beat in his chest when he found himself staring at his reflection in the mirror by the bed. With suddenly trembling legs, he approached the stranger who stared at him, gaping, from the other side of the glass.

Force, who was this man? For a moment, reality shifted, and he thought he was contemplating an older Luke. He touched his face, in a vain attempt at identifying himself with that person. He still bore some resemblance to the young man he had been once, whom he vaguely remembered. He was older, with sharper features, several lines ... And there was a remaining eerie youthfulness in that face as well. They were the effects of the logical aging process. After all, more than 20 years had passed.

He smiled ironically. The logical aging process! There was no logic in anything that had transpired in the last few hours. It was overwhelming to think about it. And so disturbing ...

It suddenly dawned on him it was the suit what made him feel so odd. He was Anakin Skywalker, dressed in Darth Vader’s suit. Or was he Darth Vader with Anakin Skywalker’s face? Reality began spinning again.

No, no! Darth Vader was gone. There was nothing left of that maniac in him anymore. He knew it, he could feel it! It had happened all so fast his mind was still getting used to ... to ...

Somehow, he felt as if the last twenty years had never happened. It had to be some sort of post-traumatic reaction. Delayed shock, perhaps. He had been one person for over half his life and reverting back to Anakin all of a sudden had left him disconnected and strangely detached from himself.

These last 20 years seemed to unreal! It was as if he had been trapped in a dark tunnel he couldn’t escape from, and he had only existed there and turned round and round ... He felt as if he was 20 years old and had suddenly awakened one morning to find himself 20 years older; as if no time at all had elapsed.

He was going to need some psychological help to readjust himself to his new life. Maybe he had developed a personality disorder. Maybe he was mad.

Maybe he was just tired.

He stopped feeling his face and put his arms down. He hadn’t seen his face for over twenty years. It was understandable he didn’t recognize the man he had become during that time. And that suit symbolized someone who didn’t exist anymore, that was why he felt so detached from himself and from his entire situation. It was as simple as that.

Was it?

Force, he felt so vulnerable! Almost like a newborn. And he was frightened. What would become of him now? He felt as naked inside as he suddenly realized he also was outside. Somewhere along his musings, he had stripped off. The sight of his naked body was another shock. He truly was flesh and blood again! His arms, his legs ... Everything was human! He looked down at himself for a while, as if trying to sort out the mysteries of the universe.

‘Oh, Luke, child, what have you done to me?’, he thought, almost in despair.

And again, he realized all his thoughts converged in Luke. His son seemed to hold the answer to his every question.

He shook his head and entered the small bathroom. He needed a shower, he needed to wash off twenty years of atrocities, he needed to feel the soothing feel of the water running down his skin, washing away the Dark Side stench he could almost smell.

After so many years, he was going to experience again something as ordinary as a shower. And now he could eat too! To taste, to chew ... everything a human being could do! He raised his eyebrows at the completely offhand thoughts that came to his mind one after the other. Force, he was going crazy! His mind was jumping from one thought to another, completely at random. He felt he was about to short-circuit.

As he stood within the stall, letting the lukewarm water soak his body and his mind, Anakin was able to stop his mental meandering. He breathed in deeply, reaching into the Force and trying to enter the first levels of meditation, only from the Light Side this time. The first time in over two decades.

It instantly reached out and swept him away in soothing, gentle arms. It felt as new and awesome as it had felt years ago. It was calm and warm, and comforting, and loving. It seemed to respond to him and recognize him. They got reacquainted with each other in a joyful, ecstatic reunion. And Anakin felt all his fears dissipating in this pure embrace. He shouldn’t worry about his Destiny. Things would happen at their own pace and at the right time. And as they should. He only had to let go, and accept them.

Anakin filled his soul with that beautiful certainty. Time would take care of everything. He would eventually stop feeling so detached from his new situation, from his own body, from his new life. He had a lot of adapting to do. Too much had happened too soon, and it was no wonder he felt so disoriented and confused. He only had to trust. Trust the Alliance. They would do the right thing, for all of them. Trust his son. Anakin smiled. That was easy. He trusted Luke until the last spark of life he possessed. The mere thought of his boy gave him peace and joy as he had never known.

His love for Luke reverberated in the Force and it bounced back at him in a blinding flash of colours and lights that left Anakin breathless. Their Destiny lay with each other, he knew that now. A lot depended on them. The rebuilding of the Jedi Order rested on their shoulders. The biggest challenge and responsibility. It would take generations, but one day, it would be as prosper and bright as it had been in the past. A source of inspiraton and guidance for the whole galaxy. He only hoped he could prove himself worthy of such a momentous task. He smiled in self-disgust. Here he was, helping to rebuild what he had exterminated! What he had defiled and ... A sudden nausea made him double over. He gasped and breathed deeply for a few moments, trying to catch his breath. He broke sweating and he shivered, feeling sick. His skin felt all flushed.

This was what awaited him from now on. Remorse and unbearable torment would chase him, both awake and asleep, for the rest of his life. This agony would constantly remind him he was alive. Life. A right he had denied millions.

He felt his face again. This wetness ... this wetness wasn’t only from the shower. He was crying. He was crying!! And it wasn’t the first time, it joyfully dawned on him. He had cried in happiness when he had seen his child’s immense joy at seeing him alive and he had felt his boundless love for him. He could cry! The realization felt like a benediction fallen from the sky. He could cry for himself! For the others! For all of them! Blessed humanity! He still could cry! This was what being human truly meant!

Anakin arched his head back and let the water from the sprinkler fall directly onto his face. It felt like rain. Ah, so long since he had last felt the rain falling on him! An almost forgotten sensation that felt as old and new to him as if it had happened yesterday, a million years ago. He burst out laughing, unable to help himself. He felt ecstatic, alive as he had never felt, or so it seemed to him. He could feel everything and it overwhelmed him blissfully! If he was going crazy, he never wanted to be sane again!

He was human. He was human! He laughed and cried at the same time and he didn’t care. He had refused the release of his emotions for so long they had exploded from him now in an avalanche he couldn’t stop. Nor did he want to. He was healing his soul, the same way his son had healed his body a few hours ago.

He completely lost track of time as he completely gave himself to this emotional cleansing. Until, slowly, he opened his eyes and blinked. He rubbed his face again and sighed. He looked at the ceiling for a few moments, collecting himself. He felt better now. Water was so soothing, so relaxing he would gladly remain like that for hours. He gave a sudden start then, realizing it had to be quite late already. He hurriedly rinsed himself off and turned off the water. Dripping, he got out of the stall and dried himself in silence. At last, there was silence inside his head as well. He had run a whole gamut of emotions, emotions he had bottled up for much too long. He felt as if that cathartic release had reopened old pathways inside his heart. He felt like a floating bubble, full of gentle, serene feelings. He felt peace.

He knew now everything he needed to know. He should be dead, but he wasn’t. Luke’s love had brought him back and thus giving him a chance to redeem himself and try to make up for crimes that were impossible to make up for. But he had to try, if only for all the lives he still could save and help. He contented himself with that thought.

He checked the standard gear in the small closet. There were clothes for a variety of species, but ... none of them his size. Well! It wasn’t the first time he faced this particular problem. It was frustrating, but it didn’t matter. He chose the closest thing to his size he could find. A matching cream coloured bottoms and a long-sleeved top. The tissue was light and fresh. The bottoms’ legs didn’t reach his ankles and the sleeves didn’t reach his wrists. He felt a bit silly, but he didn’t care. The good thing about it was that he wouldn’t step on his bottoms while he walked. He let out a tiny smile. Positive thinking, that was the key! At least, he had found slippers his size!

With a blending of fear and trepidation, he risked looking at himself in the mirror again. It was still shocking, but ... good. He edged closer. The feeling of detachment wasn’t as definite as it had been a while ago. The familiar stranger was still there, staring back at him, but he felt he could get used to him. He reminded him too much of a certain young man called Luke Skywalker. A big smile came unbidden to his lips. Now, that was a beautiful, comforting thought! And one that made him so happy!

He grabbed Darth Vader’s useless, repulsive suit, and without looking at it he threw it down the chute. He had been right. Those black, ugly clothes had confused him terribly the first time he had looked at himself in the mirror. They had made him doubt himself. Now he knew who he was, who he wanted to be and who he would become, with his children’s and their wonderful friends’ help.

He looked at the chrono. It was the time. Squaring his shoulders resolutely, he exited his room.

 

Once in the corridor, Anakin instinctively looked at his left, at his son’s door. Right then, it slid open, and a medical droid came out.

"Thank you, 2-1B," came Luke’s soft voice from inside.

"You are welcome, sir," the droid replied.

Not really knowing why, Anakin barged into he room like a charging reek.

Luke stood by his bed, happily fastening his top, looking very refreshed, his hair still partially wet. He was wearing clothes very similar to Anakin’s, only they were lighter in colour and ... his size. The young man looked up and his smile widened. His face lit up.

"Hello, Father!" he greeted enthusiastically. His eyes opened wide as he noticed the older man’s attire. "Hey, you look great!" He half-closed his eyes and a twinkle appeared in them when he saw the size of the clothes his father was wearing. "Do you plan to go fishing this evening?" he teased.

Anakin let out a sigh of relief, realizing he had panicked needlessly. He should have been able to ascertain via the Force his son was perfectly all right. But as soon as he had seen the med droid coming out of his boy’s room, all coherent thought had deserted him. He was beginning to understand that as far as his children’s wellbeing was concerned, rational thinking did not apply.

A heartbeat later, Luke’s teasing registered, and he raised his eyebrows in an exaggeratedly dignified expression that couldn’t hide his amusement.

"Not really, but if I ever decide to go fishing, I already know what to wear." He looked down at himself, held the legs of his bottoms and raised them up slightly, as he supported his weight on his heels and wriggled his toes inside his slippers. The gesture was so comical Luke burst out giggling.

"Couldn’t find anything your size, uh?" Luke surmised as he sat down on his bed and put on his slippers. "I guess being so tall for a human, also has its disadvantages."

"Several. My repeatedly bumped head over the years can testify to that," Anakin confirmed and Luke chuckled. He stepped closer. "Are you all right, Son?"

Luke looked up at him with a gentle, grateful expression on his face.

"Sure I am! 2-1B patched up my burns. And I have to tell you they sting more now after being healed than before! They were mostly superficial, so no problem!" Luke opened his arms wide, showing his father he still was in one piece.

Anakin stared at his son up and down, seeing it for himself. The truth was his boy looked younger and infinitely more alive than an hour ago. There was a boyish aura and an almost childish happiness about him that was incredibly endearing. He looked as if the weight of the universe had been taken off his shoulders. Anakin looked down, realizing the motive behind his son’s new youthful appearance. He shook his head and tried to get rid of the sudden pang of bitter remorse.

He looked up again and smiled, despite himself. Luke’s eyes were shining with hope, joy and confidence. His still wet hair made him look like a dishevelled cub. Some lines across his face had softened and his sweet smile made him look several years younger than he was. The clothes he wore also had something to do with it. Their light colour made Anakin realize that was a big part of the answer.

"You look good too," he praised. "And that colour becomes you more than black. It matches your aura."

Luke stared at him curiously.

"Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always liked to wear dark colours myself. But ..."

Luke reached out with an understanding smile and squezed his father’s forearm. He knew very well what his father was truly saying.

"I understand," he said softly. "And I’m glad to see you’ve heeded your own words. You look completely different too. We are part of the Light, and our clothes are reflecting what we are, in a way. Although the contrast also looks good. But I agree with you. Besides, I’m happy, and my clothes only reflect my mood!", he finished with a smile from ear to ear.

Anakin’s heart swelled with joy.

"You are happy, Son?"

Luke’s eyes sparkled.

"Of course I am! The war is close to an end, most of my friends survived it and I got my father back. I couldn’t possibly wish for more!" A veil of sadness crossed his features a second later. Anakin felt the echo of his child’s spiritual pain. "Well, except Mother."

The regret in his voice was more than Anakin could bear. His son’s pain resonated with his own. He bit his lips and searched for Luke’s hand, in a feeble attempt at mutual comfort. ‘Oh, Padmé! If only you were here!’

He stared at their joined hands and something in Luke’s made catch his breath.

"Luke!" he gasped.

"What is it?" the boy was suddenly alarmed at his father’s pallor.

"Y- Your hand!" Anakin stuttered, staring at it.

Luke looked down at his right hand and realized what had shocked his father so. 2-1B had also repaired the shot he had received on Jabba’s Sail Barge and it looked as good as new now.

"It’s all right, Father," he smiled. "It’s bionic, but it does look fully human, don’t you think? There have been incredible advances in biomechanics these last few years. And I got the best." He let go of his father’s hand and brought his own up to their eyes’ level.

Anakin took it again and studied it with a blending of horrified fascination and heartbreaking pain. He turned it over and brushed his fingertips reverently across the palm. Luke’s fingers flexed instinctively in reaction.

"Son ..." Anakin’s voice broke.

"Don’t, Father. Please. It doesn’t matter to me. It really doesn’t."

"But it does matter to me! It’s not fair ..." his words reminded him of his youth, when he was always complaining about things that were mostly irrelevant. And he knew this was the first time he used them rightly. He clenched his eyes shut. "Please, forgive me!" The anguish and remorse in his voice and in his eyes were infinite when he finally opened them.

They gazed into each other’s eyes. Anakin’s were brimming with tears and Luke’s were full of love and understanding.

"Very well. If you still need me to say the words, I will say them. I do forgive you, Father! With all my heart!" His eyes and his voice were a balm to Anakin’s soul.

Anakin closed his eyes and took a deep breath that burned a path down to his lungs. He sighed and sniffled.

Luke smiled tenderly. He clasped his father’s fingers in his hand and squeezed them, trying to convey his heartfelt feelings in every way he could.

"Are you two ready?" Leia’s voice came from Luke’s door.

Anakin turned about slowly, furiously blinking his tears away, and faced his daughter, who looked lovely on a violet jump suit. The colour fit her amazingly. Her hair was braided on the top of her head, and the final inches fell loosely on her shoulders, giving her a very juvenile look. Her physical resemblance to Padmé was eerie now. How come he hadn’t noticed it sooner? He couldn’t help but feel a tremendous rush of pride in the two children he had sired, even though one of them couldn’t care less about the pride he could feel in her achievements. He looked down to hide his sorrow.

"Yes, we are," Luke replied, collecting himself. He looked up at his father, who nodded at him with a forced smile.

As they left Luke’s room, the young man noticed the strange way Leia’s eyes lingered a bit longer than necessary on Anakin. He wished to know what was going on inside her head. He realized then his door had remained open all the time since 2-1B had left. He couldn’t help but think Leia had overheard most of their conversation. He didn’t mind at all. He only hoped their exchange had helped his sister to see things more clearly.

 

 

Han was leaving his room at that particular moment and he greeted Leia with a loving kiss and a thoroughly appreciative look. The Princess clung to his arm as they walked up to the mess. That gave Luke a pretty fair idea of just how very mixed up her feelings had to be. And also, how very much they loved and depended on each other’s strength and support. Despite everything, it was still beautiful to see.

When they entered the mess, they found Chewie and Lando were already there. Lando was wearing an attire pretty similar to his friends’. All of them had opted for light, fresh, loose clothes. He was sitting at an end of one of the tables. It seemed he had just arrived, because he still hadn’t made a start on his food. He had several pieces of fruit on a plate and a glass of juice. Chewie was sitting at the other end of the table. He had also chosen a few pieces of fruit for supper.

Following their friends’s example, the newcomers also chose pieces of fruit and juices. One by one, they sat at the table. Everybody was casting surreptitious glances at Anakin. All but Luke. Looking at him now, dressed like that, nobody could believe that man had ever been Darth Vader. He irradiated goodness and gentleness and it was very confusing. They felt uncomfortable around him because they knew who he used to be, not because of who he was now.

Han and Leia sat together at one side of the table and Anakin and Luke sat in front of them. Luke was facing Leia and Han faced Anakin. They began eating in silence, none of them knowing what to say to break the ice.

Anakin grabbed a peach-looking piece of fruit from his plate and stared at it, turning it round in his hand, feeling it. He brought it to his nose and sniffed at it, his eyes dreamy and unusually bright. He seemed completely lost in his thoughts. All of a sudden, he looked up from his fruit to the faces that watched him in silence, blinking. He smiled bashfully at them.

"Sorry. I got carried away," he apologized.

Luke’s hand softly touched his father’s forearm.

"First time?" he asked.

Anakin nodded, staring down at his plate and its content.

"Yes, Son. My first solid food since before you were born."

"What do you mean? You haven’t eaten in 20 years either?" Han’s eyes popped out of their sockets.

Anakin nodded and looked at the Corellian straight in the eye.

"My injuries didn’t allow me to eat any solid food. I could only have very simple foods. My digestive system was quite damaged too."

"You were a real human wreck," Lando commented, impulsively.

Anakin nodded, suddenly pensive.

"Yes, Calrissian, I was indeed. In every way," his voice and his face darkened, clearly lost in one of the countless horrors that filled his memory. But then, he breathed in deeply through his suddenly flared nostrils and brought the fruit to his mouth. He bit it and tore a small piece. He made a strange face at the taste, but a few seconds later, his features lit up and an almost childish expression crossed his features.

"Delicious!" he announced, as he tore a second bite without swallowing the first. Even chewing seemed completely new to him. He felt like a child discovering the world for the first time.

Luke smiled. He felt privileged, albeit a bit uncomfortable, for witnessing again such a private, beautiful moment. Happiness seemed to have taken permanent residence inside his heart and he clung to that evasive, precious feeling for all he was worth. Some people seemed to gain their happiness from big deeds, huge accomplishments and especially from power, whatever the word meant to them. Luke Skywalker’s happiness was sitting at that table right now. His friends, his sister and his father, all having supper together.

Anakin finished his fruit and began attacking the next, oblivious to his audience staring at him. Han recovered first. He blinked and looked down at his plate. He grabbed one piece of fruit and looked at it, curiously.

"Looking at you almost makes my mouth water," he commented, before biting it hungrily.

Han’s words brought the others out of their collective stupor, and they began eating eagerly.

Some minutes later, Chewie barked something.

"It feels incredible, Chewie," Anakin replied, trying to prevent some drops of juice from dribbling down his lower lip. "Everything feels heightened. All my senses seem keener. After a lifetime of using artificially-enhanced senses, I guess it’s normal to feel this way. It’ll pass when I get used to it." He smiled apologetically as he finally had to make use of the napkin. He looked up afterwards and saw that everybody had either finished their meal already or were about to. He put the napkin back on the table, closed his eyes and concentrated deeply. He needed calm to say what he had to say, and with the right words. He had to say it now that they were all gathered together, in case it wasn’t possible afterwards. It was going to be a very difficult time for all of them, and he prayed not to cause too much harm by bringing up those clearly unhealed wounds between them. But it had to be done. He owed it to every single one of them.

"There’s something I would like to say to you, and I don’t know where to start," he began, in a slightly trembling voice. "I also know it won’t change anything. But I owe it to you, I owe it to everybody across the galaxy. Hopefully, one day I’ll have the chance to say the words to all the beings I owe it to."

Everybody at the table braced themselves, guessing what was Anakin’s intention. Luke gazed lovingly at his father, sending him all his emotional support through their link. He was very impressed by his father’s courage. His admiration kept on growing the more he knew him.

Anakin’s head turned to his right, where Lando sat.

"General Calrissian, I offer you my deepest apologies for what happened at Bespin. I was completely beside myself with my obsession with capturing Luke and that was the first time in my life I didn’t respect an agreement. Believe it or not, during the time I was Darth Vader, I always respected the deals I made and I always abode by them. I always had a sense of honour, although that may sound like a bad taste joke to you, and rightfully so. Please, accept my humble excuses for what happened there."

Lando stared deeply into Anakin’s eyes for a few moments, seeing his total sincerity. The words he had said to the big man aboard the Millennium Falcon had been the right ones. This man had changed, the more time he spent with him, the more convinced of it he was. Words couldn’t change all the evil he had done and certainly, there was no way for him to undo it. But it was a beginning. He looked down and filled his lungs with much needed oxygen before facing Anakin’s eyes again.

"I believe your words and I know you’re sincere. If you need my pardon, then it’s yours. What I said in the Falcon stands. Everybody has the right to change and we’re bound to give them the chance. I won’t deny you that opportunity and I hope the Alliance grants you that right as well."

Anakin gulped and looked down at his lap for a moment, pulling himself together. With a deep intake of breath he met Lando’s eyes, and the hint of an infinitely grateful smile crossed his pale features.

"Thank you, Calrissian. Thank you ... for everything."

Lando nodded and his answering smile felt like a sip of fresh water to Anakin. The older man closed his eyes for another moment, drawing strength from Lando’s words, before turning his head to the other end of the table, and settling his gaze on Chewbacca.

"Chewie, I want to ask your forgiveness for all the years of hunt the Empire has subjected you to. I apologize for all the pain I brought to you, not just for your physical injuries, but for the pain I made you feel when I hurt and took away from you those you cared about. I know that words can’t take the pain away, but they’re all I have. Please, accept them."

Chewie didn’t need any time to think things over. His feelings and his instincts had told him since Anakin had first approached them on Endor on Luke’s promptings that he wasn’t the same man who had tortured them all in Cloud City. He even smelled different. He couldn’t explain it properly, but Vader’s scent had been so mechanical-like, so coldly devoid of any humanity and compassion, and so full of anger and hatred that Chewie had been almost physically repelled by it. The essence of that smell was still there and always would, because every single being had a unique scent, only Anakin’s was now full of warm, sweet gentleness and love. It was the scent of a decent, caring and loving human being. Chewie sniffed at it once again and suddenly exploding with joy, he reached out and half-hugged Anakin over the table, roaring vehemently. Anakin didn’t count on Chewacca’s impulsive reaction, and found his mouth full of Wookie hairs.

Luke covered his mouth with his hand, hiding his smile.

‘I threatened you before with Chewie’s hugs. Now you know why. And be grateful he was easy on you because of the table!’ he sent teasingly.

‘Why, thank you so much for warning me in advance, Son! That was so thoughtful of you,’ Anakin sent back, ironically.

When Chewie let him go, Anakin smiled up at the big creature with misted eyes. He was deeply moved by the Wookie’s fervent and heartfelt pardon. To him, Anakin’s repentance had erased any evil he could have done to him. All that mattered was that Anakin had changed, and that was the end of it. Chewie considered Anakin to be one of his clan now, as Han and all his closest friends in the Alliance were, and he would support and defend him as such, just as fiercely.

"Thank you so much, Chewie. I don’t deserve your words, but thank you." Anakin looked down, overwhelmed.

Chewie reached out and ruffled Anakin’s hair until he left it as if he had been caught up in a sandstorm. This time, Luke couldn’t prevent an snigger from escaping his lips at the sight.

It took longer this time, but after calming down again, Anakin ventured to face Han’s intense eyes, that were already settled on him, as if he had already figured out he was going to be next.

"General Solo," his voice broke and he quickly cleared his throat. "Please accept my humblest apologies for the way the Empire and myself have treated you. I can’t find the words to express ... to convey all the remorse and shame I feel. I wish I could turn back time and change all the things I did to you, but I can’t. I have to live with it, and believe me, there can be no worse punishment." He swallowed hard, fighting the terrible ache in his throat. "I only hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me ... sometime."

Han held his gaze for a long, deeply intense moment. The Corellian was trying to reach Anakin’s heart in the only way possible for a non-Force sensitive, through his eyes and innermost sensations ... his own special brand of human intuition. His eyes were ablaze.

Anakin could feel Solo’s eyes burning a path to his soul, and he offered no resistence. There was nothing inside him he wasn’t ready to share with any of them, no matter how ugly it was. He would keep no secrets from them. He only hoped they were strong enough to face what they found.

Finally, Solo looked away. His eyes seemed distant, lost somewhere far away, as if he was turning inwards now, listening to his own inner voice.

"I can feel your sincerity and the decision is mine now ..." he suddenly said in a deep voice, "... is it?" His eyes became alive then and he turned to Anakin with a crooked smile. "I can only forgive what you’ve done to me. And I do forgive you, unreservedly. But you’ve killed and hurt others. And I’m not only talking about the people I love and whose pain means more to me than my own. Those are the crimes I can’t forgive you."

Anakin winced and his face clouded. A second later, a resigned expression replaced it and he nodded once, looking down.

"But it’s not that easy," Han went on dryly. "You’re not the person who did those things anymore. No matter how much I want you to pay for it; I can’t punish Darth Vader, because that monster no longer exists. There’s only Anakin Skywalker here, and he doesn’t deserve that," he took a deep breath and looked at all the people sitting at the table, Luke being the last one his eyes lingered on before facing Anakin again. "Chewie, Lando ... blast it, even the droids have forgiven you! Even Luke has." His eyes then met Luke’s again, with a blending of awe, respect, admiration and plain astonishment. "And if Luke can forgive ... I guess I can learn to forgive because I’m no better than him."

Luke’s eyes filled with unshed tears and he shook his head, moved beyond words. He nodded at his friend gratefully. So moved he was he could only mouth the words: "thank you" to the Corellian. The depth of his feelings would never cease to amaze him. Once again, he thanked the Force for the friends he had found along the way. If a being measured their blessings by the friends they had, then Luke Skywalker was the richest person in the galaxy!

Anakin was stunned. He couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, couldn’t even breathe. He felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. He couldn’t believe these people could ... he swallowed hard and started breathing again. His entire body ached with a pain that wasn’t physical. He took several deep breaths until he brought himself back under control.

"Thank you, General Solo. My gratitude is all I have left to offer. I’m sitting here between you and I can’t believe your generosity. I feel so ashamed, so unworthy!" He clenched his teeth. "Part of me wants to fade away and die; spare you, and myself, the burden of my own existence. But I can’t do that, because I would be denying the most precious gift I will ever receive." Anakin looked at his son with incredibly loving eyes. They both knew what Anakin was really talking about now. "Giving up would be the easiest way out. But I’m not a coward and I’ll try to live with what I’ve done. Your forgiveness is a gift I didn’t expect and the only thing that’s giving me the strength I need to go on." His eyes faced Han again. "You’re a good, compassionate and caring man, Solo. Don’t be afraid to show that part of you to those you love. No one should be ashamed of letting out that part of themselves. That is the part that makes us truly human and worthy of being called by that name." His eyes softened.

Anakin’s words seemed to reverberate in every corner of the room, echoing in everybody’s minds. Han gulped. Anakin’s speech had touched him so deeply he had to blink to get rid of the sudden moisture in his eyes. He looked down for a moment, trying to collect himself. When he looked up again, Anakin’s eyes were still on him, only less intense now. He nodded at him solemnly. He had the feeling he had just learnt something very important. He couldn’t quite fathom what it was, only that it was now a part of him. Anakin had just given them all a gift beyond price.

Luke stared at his father, his heart breaking into a million little pieces. He wanted to reach out and hold him, as he had been about to do when he had felt his father breaking down in his room. But as it had happened then, something told him that no matter how much he wanted to help his father, it wasn’t the right time. Anakin had to go through that spiritual cleansing alone in his room, and he had to go through this emotional release of his innermost feelings now. Anakin needed it, and what was even more important, his friends needed to hear it. Other times would sadly come, and he would be there for his father, night and day. Always. But this first time was different. Anakin had to finish on his own what he had begun. And one person still remained. The most important person. He prayed for Leia to realize their father’s terribly vulnerable frame of mind and that she could bring herself to offer him the receptive, understanding part of herself Luke so loved.

Anakin was already looking in Leia’s direction. The Princess was much aware of her father’s eyes on her, but she couldn’t face him. Not now. Han’s short speech had torn something deep inside her. On the one hand, she felt betrayed by them all. A lifetime of atrocities and genocides couldn’t be put aside just like that. What about all the innocent lives he had taken and rejoiced in? What about the lives he hadn’t taken but had been marked forever by his countless crimes? What about justice? That was what the irrational, vengeful part of her was screaming right now. But on the other hand, her rational, logical part was screaming at her to forgive, accept the past and move on with no burdens on her conscience and her heart. And it was proving to be the biggest challenge to reconcile both sides of herself. Both were a part of her, and she felt both sides were partially right. How to come to an agreement between them?

She sighed softly. This man had nothing to do with her. He had never been a part of her life, she wasn’t responsible for his pain now. He had earned it, all alone. He had no right to expect anything from her. And yet, she wanted to give it to him. She wanted, but she couldn’t. Too much stood in the way.

But she had to face him. They had to face each other and the demons who kept them apart. And the sooner they began facing them, the better. She braved his gaze with a sharp move of her head, surprising Anakin. He swallowed and took a deep, shaky breath.

"Leia. Please, allow me to call you Leia if only this once, because no matter how much you despise me, I’m your father and I need to address you like this for what I have to tell you."

Leia’s eyes never left his face, reading his every expression, and she nodded quickly after a while.

"There’s so much to say, so much to beg forgiveness for," his voice trembled, but he struggled to keep control. "I want to find the right words, but I understand there are no right words possible." His blue eyes met hers fully and he surged ahead. "You’re my daughter. You’re part of me. I should have been beside you since you were born. I should have loved you, protected you and defended you with my life from those who wanted to cause you any harm. And yet, I’ve been your bloodiest enemy. I’ve hurt you, allowed your foster parents to be killed, your adoptive planet to be destroyed and I’ve murdered many people you loved. I’ve committed repugnant acts towards you. Immoral to any sentient being, let alone my own child. I tortured you, just as I did Luke." He closed his eyes, brutally fighting tears of immense shame and infinite pain. "You’re my children and I seem to have been more merciless with you than with anybody else. I’ve done things that not even the ugliest mind could conceive. Living with those memories will be a torment." His respiration had quickened considerably and Anakin felt himself on the verge of hyperventilation. He closed his eyes and touched the Force, desperate for balance. After a few moments, he was able to continue. "I have no right to ask your forgiveness. Some things are beyond such a gift. But I’m honour bound to beg you for it, maybe more so because I may never get it. I would give my life a billion times to take back what I did to you, and I know it will mark your trust in me and any relationship we can have forever. But I need your forgiveness, my daughter. That’s what I’ll live and dedicate my entire life for." He looked down, hiding the tears that filled his eyes. When he succeeded, he looked up again. "If you can’t, or won’t, forgive me, I’ll understand. I know I don’t deserve it. Don’t feel bad for hating me. I’ve earned your hatred. You owe me nothing whatsoever, so don’t ever feel guilty for not being able to forgive me. Just ..." his eyes suddenly shone brighter than ever when the helpless tears finally streamed down his cheeks. His chin and his lips trembled, but his face remained otherwise devoid of any strong emotion; only full of sad, quiet dignity. He had done his best to hold them back, but they had won the battle. He wouldn’t use them to soften his child’s heart now. "Just know that I love you. Now that I’ve opened my heart to love again and purged from me all the evil that had rotted my soul for so long ... everything feels so new, so intense I can’t stop it, nor do I want to. I love you so much I think I could die. You ought to know it, in case you don’t want to have anything to do with me after tonight."

The most overwhelming silence fell upon them all when Anakin ended. Even breathing seemed to have come to a sudden halt. Lando, Chewie and Han stared at Anakin as if they were watching a complete stranger. Their faces reflected astonishment, awe and pain. Pain for this honest, caring man, who had just bared his soul in front of them in a way they had never seen. They felt extremely uncomfortable for having witnessed such an emotional and private speech. They looked down, trying to compose themselves.

Han swallowed the lump in his throat. He understood now why Luke loved this man so fiercely. It was a miracle the kid had been able to detect Anakin’s soul beneath the mask of pestilence and horror Vader’s acts had left disgustingly clear throughout the years. He would always be grateful to Luke for recovering this extraordinary man and bringing him back to them.

Luke remained immobile, sitting by his father. His eyes were closed and he was biting his lips, doing his best to hide his crying. Through his link with his father he was perceiving all his mental emanations. Anakin’s sorrow, his infinite repentance and regret for not having the love of the daughter he so loved, was tearing the young man apart. He prayed for Leia to be merciful. She had to feel Anakin’s love for her as he did. She had to see he had changed. She had to know he would give his life for them. She had to understand!

The silence stretched for several minutes. Anakin looked down, too shaken to face them. He felt so tired, so physically and emotionally drained he doubted he could stand without collapsing.

Leia stared at her father with her face flushed. She was so moved she didn’t dare to say a word. She was trembling softly, with a pain and a trepidation that wasn’t entirely her own. She had the feeling many of these feelings came from Anakin. She had no idea how this could be possible and it disturbed her deeply. But right now she had other things to consider. Her father’s speech had reopened a wound she had no idea it existed. But it had been there all her life, she knew that now. The wound of never knowing her real parents. Only her mother had been present during her first years, and she had gone far too soon. Her mother was an ever present, unhealed wound, and Anakin’s presence reminded Leia of her devastating loss. But she had no idea the absence of her real father, never knowing who he was or even his name, was also an unhealed wound. She had never really thought about it, but the pain had always been there, latent, waiting for her to finally acknowledge it.

Now her real father was suddenly a part of her life and she couldn’t even love him. No, that wasn’t true. She was desperate to love him, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She felt unforgivably weak and unworthy for wanting to love him. She felt she was betraying her adoptive parents, her real mother and the millions Vader had slain.

Why couldn’t he have died in the Death Star, as he should? It would have saved her, saved them all a lot of trouble. Saved her this needless heartache and torment and ...

When her gaze met Anakin’s, she felt as if an invisible hand had grabbed her heart and was squeezing it mercilessly. She felt so exposed and so vulnerable it hurt.

She had to get a grip. She had to think very carefully what she was going to say. But those eyes! Good heavens, she felt as if she was looking into Luke’s eyes. So loving, so open and affectionate. Her chest constricted with a searing pain as she had rarely known.

"I ..." she cleared her throat. Her brain had never intended for her to start talking, but her heart seemed to have a mind of its own. Yielding, she let it take over. It felt the right thing to do. "I can feel you’re sincere. Your feelings are genuine. You seem a decent and caring man. That’s what my feelings are telling me. I want to forgive you and I wish we could get to know each other. I wish I could ... love you too." She bit her lower lip. She was slipping again. "But I can’t."

Anakin’s features contorted with a pain beyond belief for a millisecond. He closed his eyes slowly and lowered his head. Somehow managing to control the unthinkable agony his heart and soul were experiencing, he just nodded.

"Luke, Han, Chewie, Lando ..." Leia went on almost immediately, and Anakin’s haunted eyes hurried to meet hers. Now that she had begun, she had to go until the end. "All of them have forgiven you wholeheartedly, and I almost envy them for that. But there’s something inside me that ... just can’t do it. They keep saying you’re not Darth Vader anymore. And they’re right. I can feel that monster is gone. But the point for me is that you were Darth Vader. That’s what I can’t forget. All the millions of people you murdered can’t be changed. The millions of orphans, vidowed and broken families you left behind can’t be changed. The new order you helped create can’t be changed." She took a deep breath to calm herself down. She was letting all out now and there was no stopping her. She needed this release as badly as breathing. "You ask for my forgiveness. And you have it. I forgive you with all my heart. But I can only forgive what you’ve done to me. Whenever I look at Han and I remember what you did to him, how you tortured him and froze him in carbonite, as if he was no more than a laboratory specimen to be used and thrown into the garbage if the experiment failed ..." She shivered at the brutal memory. Something had snapped inside her then. Vader had killed something inside her that day, something she would never get back. "The way you tortured Chewie, just because ... Your complete lack of respect for the lives of others, how you relished in your refined methods of torture, just staring at your victims, studying their pain with cold-blooded fascination ... It’s so obscene and perverted it makes me sick!" She made a pause to compose herself again. She brought up her trembling hand and took some calming breaths through her nose. "And what you did to my brother ..." she hissed through clenched teeth. "I don’t think you even know what you did to him. You didn’t just take his hand that day in Cloud City; you took his innocence, everything that made him my little boyish Luke. You destroyed him; you broke him completely. You almost drove him to insanity. I’ll never forget those first days when he woke up screaming, sometimes several times a night. He was feverish, crying out to you to come back and finish what you had begun. He wanted to die because he couldn’t face what he had learnt. I never knew what had really happened between you two, but I only had to look at his distraught face, at his shattered dreams, at his soiled innocence to hate you more than I ever thought I could possibly hate anyone." She was gasping with the vehemence of her speech. Her body was shivering with the pressure of her wild emotions. But she had to finish. She also had to purge from her this beast that was crawling and twisting inside her. "When Luke told me last night who you really were, everything became awfully clear." Her eyes reddened. The weight of her conflicting emotions was overwhelming her fast. "When he said he was going to try and turn you back I thought he had finally lost his sanity. He looked so serene and peaceful it terrified me. I knew that nothing I ever said would make him change his mind. I felt helpless because I couldn’t make him understand that what he sought was impossible. You couldn’t be turned! You would kill him, or worse, you would use his love to make him like you! And I had to let him go, knowing I had lost him forever ..." The tears finally exploded from her and ran down her cheeks in rivulets. Her expression filled with ironic detachment all of a sudden. "And now you’re back," she practically spat, "all goodness and wisdom, begging our forgiveness. But I can’t forget! I can’t forget my mother! I can’t forget her sadness, how she slowly faded away and died. I can’t forget how little I remember her. You took so much away from me! From all of us! I can’t forgive what you’ve done to so many people. People I love and people I don’t even know." She sniffled and paused briefly to catch her breath. She felt calmer now after letting all out. "Han’s right. It’s easier to forgive what has been done to yourself than to those you love." Her strength seemed to desert her all at once and she looked like a little girl, confused and overwhelmed. "The irony of this is that ... just like Luke back then ... I still want to love you. And I hate myself for it. I feel as if I was betraying the memory and the suffering of all those who died, those you killed. I feel guilty for still wanting to love you."

She lay back on her seat and her voice became dreamy and full of melancholy. "You know? I always wondered about my real father, since I was a little girl. I loved Bail Organa. He was the only father I ever knew and to me, he was my father. He took care of me, he loved me, taught me everything I know, he passed on to me all the principles I abide my life by. But inside, I desperately wanted to know about my real father. Why even his name was taboo. I wondered about his height, about the colour of his eyes and his hair, what he liked, what he enjoyed to do ... maybe he was serious or maybe he was funny ... But I learned to live with the mystery, even though I would have given anything to see an image of him." Her features darkened with an inner shudder. "And then, last night, I find out Darth Vader is my father. That monster took away from me even the illusion, the fantasy of what my wonderful father could have been like!" She clenched her fists. "Oh, I know now what Luke had to go through after Bespin! Do I know!" She bent forward and placed her now intertwined fingers on the table after wiping away her tears. She seemed suddenly calmer. She had exorcized a lot of demons after this emotional outburst. "But you’re a good man now, I can’t deny that. I understand only too well why Luke has forgiven you so completely and why he loves you so unconditionally. I can feel how much you love him ... and how much you love me. But the past cannot be changed, cannot be forgotten or we’ll be doomed to repeat it." She sighed in seeming defeat. "I am not Luke, I can’t let go that easily." She looked down at her lap, searching for some desperately needed answers. "I know I have to release my anger. Anger’s like a predator that consumes your soul. You’re the living proof of that." She looked at him with something akin to compassion. "Love is the only way. But there’s something inside me that can’t tear down the wall I placed between us. I need that wall! And not only to keep you away. I’ve relied on it all my life, it’s saved my sanity and kept me focused during the hard times and the terrible decisions I’ve had to make over the years. I know I have to tear that wall down. I’m the only one who can do it. But right now, I just can’t. I can’t afford to be close to you. It gives me the creeps to even think how much I could love you! How much I need to love you! But too much has happened and I couldn’t live with myself if I just ..." She wiped another tear away, almost angrily. "I’ll need time, and patience. And your help, I can’t do this on my own." She looked at them, feeling drained to the last corner of her soul. "Forgive my extra long speech, but I was a Senator, and old habits die hard." She couldn’t help that final ironic retort.

Her words had torn apart all those sitting at the table. Han had felt her every emotion as his own, and he had desperately wanted to wrap his arms around her and hold her tight. He wanted to make everything right for her, give her anything she needed to get rid of these ugly feelings he understood so well. He could see how shaken she was, how very much everything had hurt her, much more than any of them had ever suspected; how very, very much and how successfully she had bottled up her feelings. The extent of it all shocked him to his very core, and he regretted with all his heart not having been beside her to give her all the love and support she had needed so much. Now that she had finally let it all out, it had been like a raging storm that had poured down on all of them. He felt exhausted, but also, with an eerie feeling of peace. Everything was calm now. The brutal release of her emotions had shaken them all, but it had also been a sort of collective catharsis as well. A much necessary catharsis. Now, he would take care of her and give her anything she needed, in any way she needed it.

Luke had watched his sister opening her heart with a blending of awe and incredible respect. As she gradually broke down, he had felt real physical pain. Through the Force, he had gone through every single feeling his sister had experienced. He knew her very well, but after her heartbreaking display of sincerity, he felt he had never admired her and loved her so much. What courage! What integrity! She had bared her very soul in front of them in a way he had never imagined it could be possible. She had exposed her every fault, resentment, fear, need, hope and dream, and she lay them all before them with a crude honesty as Luke had never seen. The tears streamed down the young man’s cheeks shamelessly. How he loved her! He wanted to take her in his arms and assure her everything was going to be all right. He felt they were halfway already. This terribly painful emotional release was the beginning of their healing. Leia had opened the door. Now they could start building up the base of their quite unconventional family. They had the best base possible: the truth. And one day, they would look back at this moment and they would remember it as the moment where they were brave enough to get rid of every burden and reservation, and they embraced their future head-on. There was too much love, too much need to share that love with each other not to succeed. They had a lot to accept, a lot of forgiving to do, but the wounds would heal. He knew that now with a certainty as he had never felt. Full reconciliation would be a reality. Leia had just taken a huge step, and sooner than he had expected. His sister had too much love inside. But the extent of her pain was so immense! He wanted to cradle her wounded heart close to him and heal it forever. He would help her in any way he could, he would soothe her pain, he would see again the carefree, exhuberant Princess Han and he had rescued (or had she rescued them?) in the Death Star years ago. They would help each other through these trying times and they would emerge, stronger and wiser than ever.

On his part, Anakin was experiencing more pain that he thought a person could feel without going insane. He was seeing firsthand the irreparable damage and trauma he had caused his daughter. He had found out more than he had bargained for. How that same pain had slowly killed his wife; his beautiful, precious angel. How his actions had affected so many lives, how much pain and suffering he had brought to all those who had ever loved him, or could have loved him. He looked down, not bothering to hide his tears anymore. He had gone beyond that point by now. He felt so ugly in front of these good, forgiving people! He wanted to run away and hide where no one could ever find him, he wanted to fade away and die, just as his sweet Padmé had done. He couldn’t stand it! He couldn’t live like this, with so many things reminding him constantly of what his fall had cost to so many people. His son, his daughter, his wife, Obi-Wan, Yoda, the whole galaxy ... because of him!

"My beautiful, dear daughter," he found himself speaking in a ghostly voice. He had no idea where his words came from. "Don’t blame yourself for your bitterness, for your ugly feelings towards me. They’re my fault, they’re a consequence of my actions, a reflection of what I was, of what I did. You’re paying the price for my crimes. But you still remain clean, despite everything I put you through. Believe me because it’s the truth! You’ll release those ugly feelings and you’ll leave them behind when you set free the love you feel inside, and when you allow our love for you to touch you. Believe my words, for I’m talking from my own experience. Don’t be afraid to open that most intimate part of your soul. There’s no need to be afraid anymore. No one will hurt you now. And the reward you’ll receive will be a balm that will heal all your wounds. Luke, Solo ... all your friends are already living deep within that place inside you. Trust your feelings and you’ll see how simple and beautiful it is. As for myself ..." He made an ironic face, full of self-contempt. "Fear not. I won’t pressure you. I’ll stay away from you until you want me to. I’ll wait all the time necessary until you’re ready. And if by then you realize you just can’t forgive, I’ll respect your decision." His chin began trembling and the tears ran freely down his cheeks. He had to leave here. Right away! "If you’ll excuse me now, I must retire before I ... I ..." Anakin pushed his chair backwards and he stood up so brusquely the chair fell to the floor with a loud clang. His feelings were in a turmoil. He was about to break down and he needed a safe place to go through this privately.

Luke stood up too, a heartbeat after his father. He was feeling so much pain coming from him it felt as if he was having a heart attack. He was terrified, but his feelings of protection overruled everything. Anakin had to understand his sister’s feelings would pass and one day, love would fill everything. It would be good and bright!

"Father!" he exclaimed, grabbing Anakin’s forearm.

Luke’s touch focused Anakin again. His son’s loving touch flowed through his skin and right along his nerves, reaching his broken, bleeding heart. The child’s fierce, unconditional love reminded him of the steady, constant rock he could lean on, and Anakin clung to it like a dying man to his final chance of staying alive and sane. He closed his eyes and some measure of peace returned to his features.

"I’ll be all right, Son. Don’t worry about me. I just can’t face you right now. I’m too ashamed. I’ll leave you alone so you can talk and enjoy each other’s company." He smiled weakly.

"But ...!" Luke protested. He was aching for his father.

"I need to be alone for a little while. Respect my wishes, if only this time. Please," Anakin begged, bringing up his hand and cradling Luke’s cheek in it, as he had done in the Death Star.

Luke didn’t want to let his father go. He wanted to be beside him and comfort him. But Leia needed him too, and he felt torn.

"She needs you more than I do. I can deal with this. I have no choice. My past will return to haunt me for as long as I live. I’d better start accepting it as soon as possible." He sent through their mental link.

Luke put up his own hand and covered his father’s.

"The worst is over now, Father. She needed this release to purge all the negative feelings that were rotting inside her. I did it too. From now on, everything will be better, you’ll see. She’ll come to love you as much as I do. She already does! That’s why she’s acting like this. It’s years of pain and disappointments talking. Fear of deception and further pain. You can feel it, can’t you?"

"Yes, I can. That’s the only thing that gives me hope to go on. I don’t understand what I ever did to deserve a second chance. But having your love is a treasure I’ll protect and cherish until my last breath. I’ll devote my life not to hurt you and disappoint you ever again. I swear it!"

"You could never hurt or disappoint us, Father. Please, stay! We’ve got to help her bring that wall down. Let’s start now, together."

"My presence here is hurting her, Luke. You stay and help her. You’ll do it better than me. You know I’m right."

Very reluctantly, Luke admitted the fact. But he wasn’t through with his father yet.

"I’ll go to you when you need me. You know that."

Anakin smiled tenderly and his thumb wiped away Luke’s tear tracks.

"I do know. And I will be all right. Thank you, my son." Anakin let his hand slip from Luke’s cheek, finding the hardest thing to part from his caring, soothing eyes and from the cozy, healing warmth of his love. He bent down and picked up his chair from the floor. A part of it had broken and he placed the loose piece on the table.

"I’m sorry about the chair," he said with a crooked smile. "Good evening." He bowed his head politely and with quiet steps, he left the room.

"I love you!" Luke sent to his father’s retreating figure. It was so easy to say the words in his mind that they came out of their own volition. It was the first time in his life he actually said ... well, thought the words out loud. He felt himself being infused with that blessed, all-encompassing feeling. It was so exhilarating and soulfilling! He had waited all his life to say these words to his father!

An infinitely grateful mental caress and a deep shudder of his father’s big frame was Anakin’s overwhelmed answer before the doors closed behind him.

Luke stood looking at the closed doors for a while before sighing loudly and sitting down again. He called upon the Force for balance and when he had managed to compose himself once more, he reached out across the table and took Leia’s hand in his own. Han’s arm was lovingly wrapped around her shoulders now.

"Are you all right, honey?" he gently asked her.

"Yes," Leia nodded eagerly, clasping her brother’s fingers. She still was a bit breathless. "As a matter of fact, I feel better now that I’ve felt in quite some time. I guess I needed this more badly than I thought!"

Han smiled.

"We all need to vent our feelings once in a while. You’ve needed to take this off your chest for a very long time. I’m sure you feel as good as new now!"

Leia arched her eyebrows as she realized it was indeed true.

No one said anything for a long time. They were digesting everything that had happened in that room. They were too moved; their agitated feelings wouldn’t settle down. Finally, Lando broke the silence.

"The more I know that man the more I am convinced he deserves a second chance. The way he behaves ... so gently ... It seems impossible to believe he was the monster the Alliance’s been fighting against for so many years! It’s so confusing you don’t know how to take it!" he shook his head in awe. "I hope he will be reprieved. He’s caused much harm, but he’s paid for it more than any of us. He degraded himself to a level beyond any human comprehension. He’s entitled to make up for all the evil he’s done. Any life is precious and if he ever saves one single life after this, then we’ll have done something good here."

Chewie roared, wholeheartedly agreeing with Lando. He had been silent most of the time, witnessing his friends’ exchange, and he had come long ago to an unmovable decision. Anakin was good. To him, it was that simple. He had forgiven Anakin sincerely and he would support him forever.

Han and Luke stared at each other for a moment, sharing their worry about the suddenly introspective Princess.

"And what do you say?" the Corellian softly asked her.

Leia smiled ironically as she played with her brother’s fingers, looking down at their clasped hands.

"After the speech I just gave, do you still want me to say more? I thought I had made myself clear."

"And you did," Luke reassured her. "But I have the feeling you still have a lot of things inside you that need to be dealt with. Many doubts and questions." He shrugged. "If you want to ask me anything, I’ll do my best to answer."

Leia remained silent for a while, shaking her head and taking long, deep breaths occasionally, not knowing where to begin. At last, she came up with something she could articulate.

"It’s just that ... I envy you. All of you. You have been able to forgive him, accept what he did and what he is now and you’re already moving on. And I’m stuck with my feelings. Unable to move away from them, neither backward or forward. I can’t forgive and I can’t forget. And I guess ..." She took a deep breath again, plucking up the courage to admit the ugly truth. "I guess I feel resentful towards you for not feeling the way I do. I’ve been left behind." She sighed, dejected. "But it’s more than that. I feel ... bad because of it."

"You’re not bad!" Han almost chided her, gently shaking her shoulders. "We’re all different people and we react in different ways."

"But in this case, you’ve all reacted the same way. Why can’t I?", she painfully asked them, raising her eyes to them.

Luke’s eyes filled with love and understanding.

"You know why, Leia. You’ve had to remain strong for all of us. As one of the Alliance’s leaders, you’ve had to harden yourself to face the weight of the life and death decisions you had to make. You not only had to mind your own feelings, but ours too. Our pain, our problems, our losses. You couldn’t afford to be soft or lenient about many things. And now you’re paying the price for carrying that burden. But we all know the real Leia. The caring, loving person, full of love and compassion who would die for any of us, who would sacrifice her life for the greater good. That person is there, although you can’t see her right now. We all know her. She’s here with us now. Vulnerable and frightened, needing help. You need more time to forgive our father, that’s all. You know how much he loves you ... and you know how much you love him. Or rather, how much you want to love him. But you can’t bring yourself to do it because you can’t shake the idea of who he was off your mind."

Leia met her brother’s gaze, awed that he could read her so completely. Her eyes filled with tears and her chin began trembling in a sign of impending crying.

"I know what’s happening to you," Luke went on with infinite gentleness. He reached out and took her chin in his hand. His voice was soothing and caring, like a balm to Leia’s soul. "It would be easier for you if Vader were here. That way you could face him and tell him everything that’s boiling inside you. You could blame him, scream at him and release your anger at him. But there’s only Anakin Skywalker here now and that fact renders your anger useless. You hate Vader and love Anakin. But they’re the same person and you can’t love him and hate him at the same time. You can’t decide what to do and the conflict is tearing you apart."

Leia felt as if Luke was reading her mind. But she knew he wasn’t. He was acting on instinct now, and he couldn’t be more right. She lowered her head and the tears rolled down her face.

Han shook his head in despair. He didn’t know what to do to comfort her. He felt helpless. He bent forward and kissed her temple and her hair several times. Leia cuddled up to him.

Luke wiped her tears away with the back of his fingers and smiled at her with so much love he thought he would burst.

"How do you do it?" she asked after a while. She spoke so weakly they could barely hear her. She raised her teary eyes up to her brother’s and asked him with frenzied desperation. "How can you see past what he did to you, to all of us, to millions of people?" There was a blending of awe and desperate need to understand in her voice.

Luke looked up at the ceiling with a deep sigh. He bit his lower lip, praying he could make himself be understood. After a few seconds of gathering his thoughts about him, he faced his sister openly.

"I don’t know. It’s the way I am, I suppose. But it hasn’t always been like this. After Bespin, I went through the same process you’re undergoing right now. You know how very close to insanity I was. At the time, I was convinced there was no remaining goodness in him anymore. If he had been able to do what he did, there couldn’t be." He looked away, lost in those terrifying memories. "I still don’t know how I survived. You were there beside me, picking up my pieces and refusing to give up on me, staying with me during those nights of sheer horror. And when the worst passed, I was able to start thinking again. I began recognizing the signs ..." His lost gaze returned to his friends. He needed to sort out his thoughts properly, so there couldn’t be any misunderstandings. "I remembered how he had called me ‘young one’, in that disconcerting, patronizing way ... But I suddenly thought there was an undercurrent of ... I don’t know how to put it ... something twistedly fatherly there, perhaps? At first I thought I had gone crazy. Now that I had found out my father was alive, I was so desperate to have him I was seeing what I wanted to see, clinging to any presumed sign of humanity in him. But then, more and more details surfaced. How he had refused to kill me and had offered me a place beside him in the Empire. Together! That was the key for me. He wanted me beside him, to ‘rule the galaxy as father and son’, and I’m quoting him. And then ..." Luke bit his lips, searching for the oh-so-elusive words. "Just then, something told me he could be redeemed. He was supposed to kill me right then and there when I refused to join him. But he let me escape instead. He had to ..." he rolled his eyes in a most expressive gesture. "... ‘care’ about me enough to risk his master’s displeasure, maybe even his anger, at his failure. Maybe he did it for a completely different reason. I may never know. But I felt I was his only weak spot and as such, I was morally and humanly bound to try and bring him back, even if it cost me my life." His eyes turned to Lando, with a depth and an intensity as the man had never seen. "As you said, any life is precious. And to me, my father’s life is beyond price! He had fought for what was good and right once, he had saved millions of lives when he had been a Jedi Knight. He had loved our mother." His eyes misted helplessly at the mention of her. "There had to be some trace of that love inside him. And I had to help him find it. I was so focused on what I knew I had to do, I guess I forgot any other implication. I never considered I could be wrong and my good intentions could backfire on me. But there are moments when you have to stop thinking and follow your instincts." His eyes met Leia’s and they were ablaze with passion. "Everybody told me he was evil and I had to destroy him. But I couldn’t destroy one single life as long as it was possible to spare it. I found that out after I killed hundreds of thousands of people in the first Death Star. At that moment, I also became a mass murderer, just like Vader. I also left orphans, widowed and broken families behind me." He quoted his sister’s earlier words on purpose to emphasize his point.

Leia’s eyes opend wide in sheer horror as the meaning of Luke’s words dawned on her, and Han immediately opened his mouth to protest, but Luke raised his hand to stop him, already knowing what he was going to say.

"All right, all right. I realize there’s more here than meets the eye. I wasn’t a monster like Vader was. I’ve never killed for pleasure. Our morals were absolutely opposite. I didn’t make of murder a way of life, wiping out anyone who stood in my way. But I did commit mass murder, there’s no denying that. It’s an objective fact. My point is that what you do, is not what you are. Not always, not completely. Somewhere along the line, our father lost himself, and to such a degree we can’t even begin to understand. He lost all track of his humanity, or maybe something happened that made him jump past those morals. Something so inconcievably terrible he didn’t care what he did or where he ended up afterwards. Maybe he was pushed to some extreme limit he just didn’t care anymore. We can’t judge him. We’re not inside him and we don’t know what chain of events pushed him to make such a terrible decision. Maybe when he got to that point, there was no decision to make anymore, he found out he had already crossed the line." He took a deep breath and went on, calmer now. "We know it’s not that simple. We’ve seen too much to know things are not just black or white. People are not only ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There are infinite shades of grey, as Lando said. But evil is there. Good people can go astray if the circumstances take them to some intolerable point for too long. We all have the potential to become like Vader", his face darkened suddenly, "believe me, I know what I’m talking about! But he’s got the right to turn back. We’re bound to give him the opportunity to redeem himself, to help him to rebuild what he helped to destroy. These are the principles the Alliance is founded on. That’s what I have learnt from Mon Mothma."

Luke’s eyes stared at each of his friends, looking for any reaction to his words. He hoped he had been able to successfully convey all the thoughts and feelings in his mind and his heart. They all remained silent for a while, letting his words sink in. Finally, Han reached out and gratefully squeezed Luke’s forearm. He had indeed helped him to sort out some loose ends inside him. Everything seemed more confusing than ever now, but somehow, Luke had cleared the way for all of them. He felt much better now. About himself and about everything.

"Thanks, kid. There aren’t straight answers or absolute truths here, we know that, just approximations, but what you’ve just said, makes a lot of sense."

"Yes, it does," Leia agreed, raising her eyes to her brother. They looked less haunted how, more at peace. "But I still don’t know how to cope with my feelings. How can I face him? How can I stop feeling so divided about him?"

Luke smiled softly and squeezed her fingers.

"Give yourself time. Stretch out with your feelings. Pay attention to your sensations when you’re around him and when you think about him. Sometimes, your head only causes you more trouble and messes everything around. I found out only feelings hold the real answers in these cases. Don’t force yourself. Let the answers come to you. I’ll teach you some basic meditation techniques that will help you focus", he suddenly arched his eyebrows, "which reminds me I have to start training you in the ways of the Force!"

Leia didn’t say anything for a few seconds. She seemed to be listening to some inner voice. But then, her eyes came alive.

"Yes, you’re right. I have to find the answers for myself." She looked at them with her eyes bright, in a sudden shift of her mood. "But I need to take a break, if only for tonight, or my head will explode." She smiled with a true, genuine smile, that infused her friends with renewed hope and optimism. Everything was going to be all right, that was what Leia’s smile promised. "It’s very late. I suggest we retire and get some sleep."

At her words, everybody looked at the chrono and they realized it indeed was quite late. They nodded assent. Chewie stood up first and stretched his long frame. He felt quite stiff after the heavy exertion and the brutal tension his body had endured in today’s battle. After some sore spots had eased up, he reached out and placed his big hand on Leia’s shoulder and growled some words at her.

"Thank you, Chewie. I’ll try," she answered, patting the hairy hand.

"Take your time, Princess. No hurry," Lando reinforced his words by reaching his hand across the table and grasping Leia’s wrist. "We’re doing a good job here, I can feel it. I may not be Force sensitive, but I’ve got some good vibrations of my own about the whole thing. Everything’ll turn out right." He stood up and grabbed his tray.

Leia smiled at him, gratefully.

While Lando and Chewie disposed of the leftovers of their food, Luke and Han remained sitting at the table, still in need of reassuring her further.

"Are you sure you want to retire?" Luke asked her gently. "We could talk some more in your room, if you want. I know from my own experience what it’s like to be alone with your mind in the middle of the night. You start to turn things over in your head and your thoughts won’t leave you alone."

Leia looked at him with another disarming smile. She knew very well what her brother was talking about.

"Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. After today’s workout, I’ll fall asleep as soon as I lie down. That’s the only good aftereffect about going into battle. I always sleep like a log afterwards. Besides, 2-1B told me to take a mild painkiller for the night, in case my arm starts bothering me. So, I can guarantee nothing will wake me up." She pointed at Luke with her forefinger. "You need to have a good night’s sleep more than I do, if you want to be sharp and keep your wits about you for tomorrow’s meeting with Mon Mothma. We’ll talk later, when all this is over."

Luke nodded slowly, knowing his sister was right. He needed a good rest if he wanted to be ready for tomorrow’s nerve-racking meeting with their leader. But even more important than that, he knew Leia was being sincere about herself. Their talk had truly helped her. It would be all right to leave her alone for the night. Although he suspected she wouldn’t spend the night alone. Han would take good care of her.

As one, the three stood up with their trays, and in a single file, they got rid of their leftovers. Chewie and Lando were waiting for them and the group left the mess together, heading for their rooms. Once in the corridor, they turned to each other and they hugged goodnight. It was good to feel the warmth of their friends’ bodies reassuring them of their living presence. They treasured that feeling of comfort and belonging after being so close to losing it forever. Curiously, none of them could help a look at Anakin’s door before entering their quarters.

 
 
TO BE CONCLUDED...

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