"More and more, I realize how alike you two actually are," Leia's words brought everyone's minds back to the present.
"How so?" Vader asked without taking his eyes away from the stars outside.
"What you're doing right now. Looking out at the stars," the Princess walked up to him. "Luke's being doing that for as long as I've known him." She paused briefly and ended up smiling. "The same bearing... It's uncanny."
Vader remained silent, pondering.
"What do they do for you? The stars?" the young woman's curiosity was unfeigned.
There was a loud, long intake of breath.
"I couldn't say," Vader said at last. "I always looked to the stars when I needed... Answers. They calmed me. They always provided something I couldn't find by myself."
"Peace of mind?" Han joined in from a couple steps behind them.
"Perhaps," was the thoughtful reply. "They are... permanent. Unchanged. Eternal. They have been there for billions of years, and they will still be there billions of years after we're not even a memory."
"Those are some deep thoughts," there was no mockery in the Corellian's words. Quite the contrary, his voice conveyed a quiet admiration for the older man.
"Looking for the permanency you couldn't find anywhere else?" Leia didn't beat about the bush.
Vader's lips quirked in a sardonic grimace.
"Careful," he warned, "you're too good at getting inside people's heads."
Leia smiled, knowing the Dark Lord's words were anything but a warning.
"What are you thinking right now?" she asked out of the blue.
The sudden heaviness in the room was almost palpable.
"Are you thinking that the permanency you crave for is going to be denied once more?" she asked with merciless accuracy. "Are you looking for a reason to stay but can't bring yourself to believe that you deserve to stay? Are you afraid of finding happiness again? Of what it will do to you? To him?"
The tension grew to an even higher level. And the silence.
Leia sighed out loud.
"I wish I could see the future. I wish I could tell you this time won't be like the others. I wish I could give you the courage to take hold of that happiness and never let go."
The silence stretched on for what felt like forever.
"I can't even begin to imagine how damaged inside you are after..." Leia bit her lower lip, overcome by emotion. "But then again, life is a risk. It took great courage to leave the Empire behind, and you did it. It was a huge personal risk to switch sides, and you took it without second thoughts. You're ready now to face the Emperor to protect Luke. Why is the prospect of staying scarier than that?"
"Please," the almost begging tone of voice shocked everyone. "I appreciate your efforts, but you must cease your attempts to convince me. You know I'm a-"
"You're not a threat to Luke or any of us," Lando stated earnestly, stepping forward. "We all accept what you were, what you did, and what and who you are now. Such thinking is unhealthy and spiritually crippling. Your journey back to the good side has been nothing short of miraculous. No one in their sane mind in this Universe would have ever believed it possible. And yet, it happened. Don't ruin it now; don't deny yourself this final step. It's the easiest one of all, but you must want to take it."
Chewie put his hand on Lando's shoulder, deeply moved by the dark-skinned man's speech. It showed just how much the old gambler had changed in the last few months. He was in awe of how much growth had occurred in the souls of ALL those present in that room. It was mind-boggling, inspiring and wonderful. But he felt that the ultimate eye-opening words, the harshest of all, had to come from him. And he wouldn't shirk the responsibility, because he was the only one who could overpower the cyborg should he snap after he had his say.
He walked up to Vader and stopped right behind him, giving the black form a few seconds to feel the heat of his body at his back. Then, he bent down and whispered determinedly to him.
Vader spun around violently as if he'd been challenged beyond all limits. For a second, it felt as though he was going to charge at the Wookiee, but at the last moment he walked past him and stormed out of the room, leaving a blast of cold air behind him.
Petrified, the three friends looked at each other, not daring to move, almost not daring to breathe; all of them feeling they'd barely escaped with their lives.
Leia swallowed hard, trying to calm her wildly beating heart. Pale as a ghost, she met Lando's eyes, that stared back at her with the same look of consternation. Turning to her beloved next, she saw him walk up to his hairy friend and put one trembling hand on his shoulder.
"It was one hell of a chance you took there, pal. I can't believe you said that to him."
Chewie looked down at him and shrugged, growling that someone had to do it. Han sighed aloud and nodded regretfully.
"What did he say?" Leia approached them, followed by a wobbly-legged Calrissian.
The Corellian turned his head to look at her and translated from memory.
"'You want to leave before he asks you to stay, don't you? Before his love for you forces you to give yourself to your love for him. And if that happens your life will matter again, if only because losing you would kill him. I can't believe you're such a coward, running away from the love that would release you from the chains that have imprisoned you for so long. You're afraid of freedom because deep down you've always been a slave.'"
"Oh, my..." Leia covered her mouth with her hand, aghast. No wonder...
"What's even sadder," Lando muttered more to himself than to the others, "is that he still won't change his mind."
Everyone closed their eyes at that, privately acknowledging the truth in those words.
When the gang returned to Luke's room, they found him sitting up in bed with the two droids herded around it. He looked very refreshed and relaxed. His clean hair looked blonder than ever before, all soft and silky. It actually shone under the lights in the ceiling. His skin tone was healthier and almost seemed to glow. He wore a different round necked gown, cream-coloured and long-sleeved.
"Hi!" he greeted them.
"Hi," Leia greeted him back, looking around. "Where's your father?"
"In the bathroom," Luke pointed at it with his head. "He barged in and didn't even look at me," he met Leia's eyes, disconcerted. "What happened?"
His friends looked at each other out of the corner of their eyes.
"Ahhh, we had a small disagreement," Han explained vaguely.
Luke half-closed his eyes, trying to guess what he meant by that.
"Right," he quickly realized what it was and looked down dejectedly. "I... I thank you for trying... but I can't... I'm not..."
"You're the only one who can change his mind, Luke," Leia went to his side and took his hand between her own. "He'll listen to you and only to you. It's your call if you truly care about him."
The restroom door slid open and the Dark Lord emerged like a haunted spirit. He seemed to have regained his composure... mostly. He walked up to his son's bed and met the big blue eyes fixed on him.
"I... I apologize for my loss of control."
It was almost funny to see Darth Vader apologizing to his son instead of those who had witnessed his emotional meltdown. But his contrite demeanour was sincere. He looked as though he thought he'd lost all the credit he'd earned in the others' eyes, and didn't know where he stood anymore.
"Hey," Han gave voice to everyone's thoughts, "we're all entitled to lose our temper if we feel we've been pushed past our breaking point. No one's gonna stop speaking to you for that."
Vader's eyes searched the younger man's face. Han just shrugged off the issue. The Princess, the Wookiee and Calrissian all responded with shrugs and dismissive shakes of their heads. The Sith Lord looked down again, vastly grateful.
"Thank you," he simply said. "Thank you for your understanding."
"Erm, you're getting it backwards here," Leia swiftly clarified the matter. "We don't understand," her eyes flashed intensely. "But we're through with this matter. It's not our place to question the wisdom of your decisions anyway," she squeezed Luke's hand pointedly and then released it.
A long silence followed, not uncomfortable but not one hundred percent easy either. People scattered around the room - sitting down, leaning back against the wall, pacing... All but Vader, whose presence by Luke's bed was accepted by all as his natural place.
Some time later, someone tried to strike up an idle conversation that was met with half-hearted contributions at first. Gradually, as they warmed to it, the awkwardness and misery melted away.
"You landed with only half a ship?!" Luke exclaimed, blown away by his father's tale. Such a feat was beyond all his imaginings. His mind tried to conjure up images of the event and to his dismay, he realized that none of them would ever come close to the real thing.
"Kid, your father wasn't known as the best star pilot in the galaxy for nothing," Han reminded them all. Clearly, he was also taken by Vader's story.
His friend's words brought back the memory of Ben's description of Anakin Skywalker all those years ago. So, not everything had been lies and half-truths.
"Yes, well," Vader's baritone jolted Luke back to the present, "you wouldn't say that if you had seen the state of the landing strip afterwards. And the control tower."
"Oh?" Luke stared up at his father.
"A total wreck," Vader summed it up. "It took weeks to build another."
Luke blinked repeatedly, both amused and stunned.
"And what did Obi-Wan say?" he finally asked.
The Dark Lord tilted his head to one side, pretending to think hard.
"I seem to remember that his exact words were: 'Another happy landing.'"
Roaring laughter exploded from everyone in the room. That last sentence was the icing on the cake. Vader not only turned out to be an excellent story teller, he certainly knew how to crown them.
Just then, the door slid open and Dr. Vilk walked in, followed by a couple bricklayer droids carrying heavy cases.
"Sorry to interrupt your fun, but there are some repairs to be done in the bathroom. It shouldn't take long," he announced, turning to Luke. "Ready for lunch, young man?"
"Yeah," Luke replied, looking somewhat embarrassed. He could guess what the droids had come for.
"Repairs?! In the bathroom?!" Han arched his eyebrows in bafflement. "What's the matter, kid?" he turned instinctively to Luke. "Did you take a Force-leak or somethin'?"
Luke rolled his eyes and made an exaggerated facepalm, shaking his head at the same time in a show of infinite patience.
When the sputtering chuckles died down, Vilk answered the Corellian's question.
"Gotta repair the fist marks on the wall. Apparently, someone decided to vent their frustrations on the tiles," he cast a pointed look at Vader.
Everybody turned wide-open eyes to the Sith Lord who just sat there, dead still.
Smiling compassionately, Luke reached out and squeezed the gloved hand, interlacing his fingers with Vader's in a statement that spoke volumes.
The bathroom door closed after the droids and a few moments later, muffled pounding sounds began.
"But I can let such behaviour slide, considering the nerve-wracking days we had when it was touch-and-go with you," Vilk's eyes softened as he gazed at his patient. "A couple holes on the wall are nothing."
"Yes," Luke nodded, feeling his father squeeze back warily. Grinning up at him, he nudged the big body with his shoulder.
Wondering once more at the unfathomable relationship between those two men that went completely over his head, Vilk nodded back.
The door opened again and this time a robot nurse rolled in, carrying a tray with Luke's lunch. After placing it over his legs carefully, she left.
Everyone studied the content on the plate with keen curiosity.
"Looks like Antar turkey," Luke made an educated guess.
"Exactly," Vilk nodded, pleased. "I hope you like it."
Luke gave him a big smile.
"You can bet I will, doctor," he took the fork and picked up a generous amount of the accompanying rice. His eyes widened in surprise after tasting it. "Delicious!" he declared, diving in for a second taste.
"All right, you don't need me around for now," Vilk said, delighted with the young Jedi's enthusiasm, "but I'll return in a while for your second walk of the day. Enjoy your meal."
"I am," Luke mumbled between mouthfuls. "See ya!"
With a stifled snicker, Vilk turned around and left.
Luke devoured half the rice before turning his breathtakingly expressive eyes to his father with a shy request. Vader's heart skipped a beat and with a curt nod, he took the knife and the fork the boy handed him and cut the turkey fillet into several pieces.
Taking the fork from his father's hand with a loving smile, Luke attacked the turkey with relish, washing it down with a glass of carrot juice.
The Dark Lord stared at his child totally enraptured; imprinting the mundane moment into his memory – the sparkling eyes, the cute upturned nose, the moving mouth as it chewed, the puffy cheek...
Of its own volition, his hand reached out and caressed the rosy cheek with such reverent tenderness that the blond head immediately turned to him. Their eyes met and everything else in the universe just disappeared.
Forever, my precious little life.
The soulful blue eyes enveloped him in a fragrant cocoon of love and Vader trembled with the raw intensity of it.
'Father, I... I...'
His hand dropped and the Sith Lord looked down at it, bewildered. It felt almost as if it tingled. He knew it was impossible, that it was a phantom sensation, but that didn't make it any less real.
You own my heart, my soul and my life, my son. They belong to you. They always did, even before I knew you existed, even before I made you. You are my saviour, my hope, my eternity. Don't fear for me, angel, for nothing can touch me now. You marked me with your Goodness and I will not fail again. How could I, after knowing such purity? You showed me the way and there's no turning back. Always with you, always a part of you, my Light. Forever yours.
Leia bit her lips and wiped away a stray tear from her cheek surreptitiously. Such waste. Such waste...!
Luke resumed his eating in self-conscious silence. When he was done with the turkey and the rice, he moved the plate back and brought the smaller one with his dessert closer – eight boneless cherries that promptly disappeared. He took the final sip of his juice and wiped his mouth with the napkin. Then, he leaned back against his pillows with a low sigh.
"I feel full," he commented, clearing his throat.
"That's to be expected," Leia said. "Your meal was more..."
"Substantial," Vader provided the precise word.
"Just so," she nodded. "But don't relax too much now 'cause you'll be out of bed in a few minutes," she winked at her best friend.
"True," Luke quickly sat up.
As if on cue, the door opened and the robot nurse entered, heading straight for the young man's bed. She took the tray and rolled away.
Luke threw the bedclothes aside and moved his legs to the edge of the bed. Sliding his feet into his slippers, he waited for Vilk to arrive. The wait was short.
"Wow!" Vilk exclaimed upon entering, "you really are in a hurry to start."
"I want to see how long I can last," Luke's determination was apparent.
"It's good to test one's strength," Vilk agreed, "but don't push it."
Luke nodded vigorously and rose to his feet as Han and Lando moved close. Slowly, putting one foot in front of the other and making sure that his legs would hold him up, the young man took his first steps.
Everyone watched with lumps in their throats, silently encouraging the young Jedi's resilience. The minutes ticked by; one turned to two and then to three. A thin sheen of sweat appeared on Luke's forehead and upper lip, but he wiped it away resolutely. His legs began to shake, subtly at first and then noticeably. And he still didn't stop.
"I think you should take a break," Leia raised her eyes to Vader. "You've made enormous progress, but if you try too hard your legs might not hold you up in the evening."
"I agree," Vader said. "Save some of your strength."
The softness in the mechanical voice was something Vilk wasn't prepared for, and he shook his head once again in disbelief. Never in his whole life he had encountered such a bond. He would give anything to understand where it came from.
Luke met Vader's eyes and something clicked physically between them. Vader reached out and, as if pulled by an invisible force, Luke walked up to him, not looking down for the first time. He'd put all his trust, all his faith, in the dark form beckoning him. His legs seemed about to give out, but he didn't waver. He covered the three metres separating them and the moment their fingers touched, he collapsed into Vader's arms.
The Sith Lord cradled him against his body, lowering his masked face until it touched the blond hair.
Leia's heart ached at Vader's gesture, its meaning painfully obvious for all those who cared to see.
Wrapping one arm around his son's waist, Vader guided him to the bed and helped him sit. The muscles in the thin legs twitched uncontrollably and Vader sat down before him, placing his hands on them until the spasms stopped.
"A laudable effort, but impractical," Vilk put it in a nutshell. "You need time to recover the muscle mass you lost, and pushing yourself like this now won't make the process any faster."
Luke made a grimace.
"It's frustrating to be bedridden. My life consists of either lying down or sitting."
"I know," Vilk smiled sympathetically. "But in a couple days you'll be walking around the medical ward without any difficulty; and remember that you're free to return to your quarters. Surely, you'll find more ways to occupy your time there."
Luke flinched at that and looked down, withdrawing visibly into himself.
Puzzled by the young man's suddenly despondent behaviour, Vilk opened his mouth to ask, but the bathroom door slid open at that very moment and the two bricklayer droids came out.
"The repairs are completed," one of them announced in a lifeless monotone. "You may enter whenever you wish."
"Ahh, thank you," Vilk replied distractedly, moving aside for the droids to leave. When they did he looked around, seeing how the mood in the room had plummeted inexplicably. Knowing he wouldn't get an explanation, he chose to overlook it. "You can always have some of your stuff brought here to help time pass faster," he offered instead.
"That's a good idea," Han commended the doctor's suggestion, sounding a bit subdued.
"Anyway," Vilk straightened up, shaking off the gloomy shadow that seemed to have descended on them all, "I'll be back in the evening. Try to cheer up. The worst is long over; you'll get back your independence very soon."
Luke forced a smile and nodded at him.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said sincerely.
Nodding back and casting the group a final nonplussed look, Vilk left.
Plainly uncomfortable with the situation he was mostly responsible for, Vader raised his eyes from the skinny legs.
"Have the spasms ceased altogether?" he asked softly.
"Yes," Luke breathed deeply and leaned back on his pillows. "Thank you, Father. That was very kind of you."
The exaggerated formality didn't conceal the heartbreak beneath.
Vader rose and took hold of the bedclothes, covering his child up to his waist. "Rest now. It'll do you good."
The blue depths stared at him with such earnestness that the Dark Lord quivered inside. Force, those eyes! He couldn't hide from them; they made him want the impossible, for what they offered was... the impossible. And it couldn't be.
It couldn't. Not to him.
A long silence, full of 'if onlys' and bitter regrets followed, until Luke let out a defeated sigh and closed his eyes.
Vader stroked down the smooth cheek with the back of his fingers one last time, before taking his seat beside his son's bed and looking his fill of his reason to live. It wasn't enough. It would never be enough.
Eventually, Luke's respiration became calmer and slower as sleep began to claim him.
"Thank heavens," Leia whispered absent-mindedly. "He pushed it pretty hard."
"Yeah," Han nodded. "A small nap will do wonders for him."
The Princess' eyes were riveted on Father and Son. Luke's head was turned towards Vader, always attuned to his presence as if he needed it to breathe. And the black mask was totally focused on the sleeping youth, as if imprinting every minute detail of the lovely face in his memory...
Unthinkingly, Leia reached for the Force. She didn't know what she was looking for, she just opened herself to it, letting it guide her, show her...
She stiffened in her chair abruptly.
"Wha-?" Han turned to her with a start.
Leia didn't give him time to phrase his question.
"Now that he's sleeping, maybe we should go and have a proper lunch at the mess," she suggested. "I for one would welcome something other than sandwiches and soup," she threw them a knowing look.
"Y-yeah, me too," Lando was the first to react, suspecting that she was up to something.
Han blinked at Leia, who was casually getting up from her seat. Quickly catching up, he followed suit as did Chewie.
"We'll be back in 30-40 minutes," the Princess smiled gently at Vader. "Take care of him."
Vader nodded at the retreating group.
"I will," he said as the doors closed after them.
Once alone with his son and the droids, the Sith Lord looked around, taking in the emptier room. It felt colder somehow, and the silence bounced off the walls creating a strange buzzing sensation in his skull.
Artoo beeped happily and Vader turned to him. The little droid rolled up to the bed and let out a string of soft cooing sounds that immediately brought him back to a different time, decades ago.
"Yes, Artoo," he said in his lowest tone of voice. "If she were here..." almost choking on the words, he turned to his child in the bed. Her legacy, the living proof of her love for him. "And she is," he nodded to himself. "She lives in him, through him; her spirit, her integrity, her love." He raised his eyes heavenwards. "And mine also."
He had made peace with himself after all, and it was this unearthly angel who had made it happen.
"He is our gift to this galaxy. Through him, a new Jedi Order will rise, free from doctrine and dogma."
He sank to one knee, placing his hand on the warm forehead, hardly daring to move it for fear of waking the boy up.
"The brightest future awaits you, my son, and also a terrible responsibility; but I have the utmost faith in you. Obi-Wan and Yoda have taught you well, and under your wise guidance, the next generation of Jedi Knights will see the Light of day."
He shuddered with the wave of emotions churning inside him.
"Whatever Good that's left in me will always be with you, little one. My legacy is one of Darkness, Death and failure, but you can also learn from it; from my mistakes," he made a heavy pause, crushed by the weight of the genocide he'd lustfully taken part of. "My unforgivable, ghastly mistakes."
The admission of his uncountable crimes didn't ease the burden or change anything.
It never would.
His gaze wandered into the distance; far, far away, to a time and place that were long gone, and to a Destiny in perpetual motion that was yet to come.
And he knew that his Time was upon him.
Collecting himself, he looked down at the sleeping innocent. So trusting, lying there, unafraid of committing himself to the care of a heinous criminal, with the blood of a thousand worlds on his hands and his conscience.
But no more. No more blood would be shed. Except Palpatine's. And his own.
He smiled as he experienced an unaccustomed, sublime sense of inner peace.
"It is time for me to face my Destiny as the Jedi I once was. Far too late, I know, but for the first time in my life, I want to leave behind a legacy you can be proud of. I need you to remember me if only with a touch of grace."
His bittersweet smile transformed into one of untold love. Of a love so sacred that made every instant of his life worthwhile - the good, the bad, even the unspeakable.
Bravely, he caressed the wide forehead with his fingertips. Back and forth, over and over, in an unconscious soothing motion.
"Farewell, my angel. Take my blessing with you as well as my heart, for that's where I will live from now on," he pressed his palm against the side of the perfect face. "Forever," he sealed his oath with a feathery brush on the full lips.
He rose smoothly and turned about.
Artoo planted himself in front of him with a sad whistle. Ruefully, Vader put his hands on the domed head and crouched down.
"I need you to do something for me, Artoo," he waited for the acknowledging beep. "I need you to take care of him as well as you took care of me," he smiled as a hundred memories flooded his mind, "I know you have been doing it all these years, just... be his guardian, his protector. Keep him from harm as much as you can. Promise?"
Artoo let out a chirpy whistle followed by a soft raspberry that sounded like a reproach.
"I know you don't understand why I'm doing this, and I'm grateful that it is so," Vader sighed and paused. "Now," he swallowed hard, "you and Threepio watch over him. His friends will be back shortly."
The little droid beeped his agreement and then emitted a sorrowful, low-toned noise.
"You too," Vader nodded and stood up again. His eyes settled next on the golden droid, a few steps behind Artoo, who contemplated the scene with his big round eyes, frozen in a permanent expression of confusion, and a burst of naked affection washed over him. "Goodbye, Threepio," he walked up to him and put one hand on the metallic shoulder. "It has been good to see you again."
"That's very nice of you to say, sir," Threepio's words only underscored the Dark Lord's feelings of utter loss. Pulling himself together ruthlessly, he walked past the droid and strode over to the door without looking back.
'Now, be brave and don't look back. Don't look back.'
The door hissed open before him and he crossed the threshold.
His feet came to a stop.
'I can't do it, Mum. I just can't do it!'
He whirled around and upon looking on the perfection in front of him, he truly, finally understood.
'How could you take it, Mother? How could you stand there and let me go? It's ripping me apart!'
His eyes caressed the beloved form, the pain in his chest so unbearable he thought he would cave in and die.
But then, inexplicably, a sudden surge of strength, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once, infused him with the resolve he lacked to do what had to be done. For him, for the only one who mattered.
The ultimate act of love. To let go. Now he knew the answer.
'May the Force be with you, my treasure. May the Fates allow me to gaze upon your sweet face again someday,' he sent through their mental bond.
Sensing that his newfound courage might fail him all too soon, Vader turned around savagely and walked away.
TO BE CONCLUDED...