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.
"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?"
"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.
TO BE CONTINUED...