A New Life (Part 2)

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 short 3 dimensional 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.

"Yes. When Palpatine realized I wouldn't kill my father to 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! "But then, 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's lives." 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 will 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 almost 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 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. 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.

Or 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.

And 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. Much better. 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. Black is very elegant and makes people look very distinguished and all. 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 and almost exploded.

"You are happy, Son?"

Luke's eyes sparkled with life and joy.

"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 mum."

The regret in his voice was more than Anakin could bear. His son's soul- deep pain joined his own. He bit his lips and searched for Luke's hand, in a feeble attempt at mutual comfort. 'Oh, Padmé, my love! If only you were here!'

He stared at their joined hands and something in Luke's made him open his eyes like two saucers and catch his breath.

"Luke!" he gasped.

"What is it?" the boy was suddenly alarmed. His father had paled and seemed about to collapse.

"Y- Your hand!" Anakin stuttered, staring at it. He didn't dare to move a muscle, lest he was dreaming.

Luke looked down at his right hand and he 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. That was why he had taken off his glove.

"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 almost reverently across the palm. Luke's fingers flexed instinctively in reaction.

"Son ..." Anakin's voice choked and he didn't dare to raise his head.

"Don't, Father. Please. It doesn't matter to me. Really!"

"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 in his life he used these words rightly. He clenched his eyes shut. If only he could change his hand for his boy's! "Please, forgive me!" The anguish and remorse in his voice and in his eyes were infinite when he finally opened them and looked at his son.

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 intense, soothing and gentle; 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? Anakin 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 helpless 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. Her thoughts were mostly a mystery to him, so close she kept them to herself.

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. He smiled to himself. He couldn't wait to attend his sister's and his best friend's wedding!

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 a rectangular table, at one of its ends. 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 full of some kind 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. They were going to retire right after the meal, and they wanted to have a good digestion despite the fact that they were really hungry. They would make up for it in the morning.

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. It made no sense, but ...

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. But all of a sudden, Anakin looked up from his fruit to the faces that watched him in silence, blinking. He smiled bashfully at them. He reminded them of a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"Sorry. I got carried away," he softly explained.

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

"First time?" he softly asked.

Anakin nodded, staring down at his plate and at the fruit it contained.

"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 juices, purées and very simple foods. My digestive system was quite damaged too."

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

Anakin nodded, suddenly pensive.

"Yes, Calrissian, I was indeed. In every way," his voice and his face had 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 very first time!

Luke smiled to himself. 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, until lately that is, 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 sitting together, having supper. How could such a simple, ordinary thing make him want to jump up and down on his chair like a little boy? Because of the sheer exceptionality of it. It was one of his many lonely childhood dreams come true. Good heavens! He felt like standing up and hugging every single one of them in turn! But he restrained himself. He was a Jedi!

Anakin finished his fruit and began attacking the next, oblivious to his audience staring at him with their mouths hanging open. Luke bit his lips, trying his best not to burst out laughing. If only his friends could see their faces!

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 makes my mouth water, man!" he commented, before biting it hungrily.

Han's words seemed to bring 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 artificial 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 use 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. With an inner shiver of foreboding, he made up his mind.

"There's something I would like to say to you, and it's not easy," he began, in a slightly trembling voice. "It's not easy because I 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, already knowing what was Anakin's intention. Luke gazed lovingly at his father, sending him all the emotional support he could through their link. He was very impressed by his father's courage. He would be about to collapse if he was in his place. His admiration for the man kept on growing the more he knew him, with no ending in sight.

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 wanting to capture 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, 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 little 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. I know it's not enough, but 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 I can't stand it!" He clenched his teeth, touched his chest with his fist and pressed, trying to make the pain stop. "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. That's the deal. Your forgiveness is a gift I didn't expect and the only thing that's giving me the peace and 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. "Thank you, General. Thank you so much!"

Anakin's words seemed to reverberate in every corner of the room, echoing in everybody's minds time and again. 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 with his heart broken 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 now that no matter how much he wanted to help his father, it wasn't the right time to do it. 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. They couldn't have just forgiven him that easily! 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 to have something to do with him from now on, but something held her back. 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.

"You have no idea how difficult this is for me," his voice trembled, but he struggled to keep control. "I don't even know where to begin. There's so much to say, so much to beg forgiveness for. I can't find the right words. But I see there are no right words possible here." 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 had filled his eyes. When he managed to prevent them from spilling, 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. He bravely went on. "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 and unworthy for having witnessed such an emotional and private speech. With a sharp feeling of shame, 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 words and 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. He had rested his elbows on the table at the beginning of his father's speech, but then he had put up his left hand and covered his mouth with his trembling fist. 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 Luke apart. He was praying time and again 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 soulfully tired and 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, lest she burst out sobbing. 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 constantly 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. Even more tragic, 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 did it have to end up like this? 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 gripped 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. And his words! Her chest constricted with a searing pain as she had rarely known.

"I ..." she cleared her throat. Her voice had come out on its own. Her brain had never intended for her to start talking, but her heart seemed to have a mind of its own. And yielding, she let her heart take over. It felt the right thing to do. "I don't know what to say." She looked down briefly and took a deep breath. She looked up again at Anakin when she felt strong enough to brave his eyes. "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 his 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 war you've helped unleash 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. I really do! 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 used him as a guinea pig to freeze 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 so very 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 covered her mouth briefly as she 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 Bespin; you took his innocence, his will to live, 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, crying and 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 my brother's 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 so awfully clear!" Her eyes reddened and she sniffed. 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 for you 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 like my real 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 me, 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 Cloud City! Do I know!" She bent forward and placed her now intertwined fingers on the table right after quickly 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, as if searching there for some desperately needed answers. "I know I have to release my anger. It's like a predator that consumes your soul and takes you nowhere. You're the living proof of that." She looked at him with something akin to detached compassion. "Love always comes naturally. Love's the only way. But there's something inside me that can't tear down the wall I've 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 within 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. And 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 that 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 alright. 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.