The corridors seemed endless. He covered one after another, a part of him wondering at not meeting anyone along the way. He knew the Princess had limited the access to the infirmary, but he had already ventured beyond that area and into non-cleared corridors, or so he thought, and there was still no sign of another living soul.
Whatever the reason, he wasn't about to question his good fortune. He kept walking until he reached the double doors leading to the hangar deck. They opened at his approach and he entered without hesitation, his eyes already set on the two Lambda shuttles parked there. Reckoning that the one to his left was the one that Solo, Calrissian and Chewbacca had arrived in, he headed straight for the other. The ramp was down, as if inviting him in, and he hastened his steps.
"What's the rush? Aren't you going to say goodbye?"
The Sith Lord's heart almost stopped on hearing that voice and he froze dead on the spot. Turning his head, he saw Princess Leia, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca appear from behind the shuttle he was about to board. They walked along the side of the vessel and stopped a few metres to his left.
Vader's legs finally obeyed him and he went to meet them, feeling both frustrated at having been discovered and relieved that he had. This wasn't the way he wanted to end his association with these outstanding people and he was glad for the opportunity to take his leave of them honourably.
"You seriously didn't think you'd be able to fool us, did you?" the Princess raised an eyebrow, looking at him with calculated disdain.
Getting back his wits, Vader replied with the same degree of sarcasm.
"This is the last time I will underestimate your capacity to surprise me."
Beneath his audacious rejoinder lay a real concern that they'd try to stop him, even now.
With a chuckle, the façade dropped and a genuine smile softened the lovely feminine features.
"Don't worry, we won't stop you," she put his fears at ease as if she'd read his mind. "Whether I approve it or not, this is the path you have chosen, and I will respect it, even though I think you're wrong."
Vader cocked his head to one side.
"You're speaking as a Jedi should," he said with profound admiration.
Leia snorted ironically.
"Yeah, well, at least I was able to anticipate your... sneaky departure."
Realizing what she was actually saying and what it meant, Vader felt himself in the obligation to confront the issue again, for her own good.
"The Force is very strong with you. Please, allow my son to train you. Your soul has already been in touch with the mystical connection that exists between all living things, and the journey of discovery it will mean. It is such an incomparable gift... Don't let it to go wasted."
The Princess' eyes skittered around the place nervously for a minute, considering all the variables, all the risks and responsibilities... And the rewards.
"All... right," she gave in at the end, looking up into his mask. "I don't know where this will take me and to be honest it spooks me a little, but what I've seen... what I felt..." her eyes took on a dreamy quality at the memory of what they had shared. "It will be worth it, I know."
Vader heaved a sigh of vast relief. For her. For the Light. For the Force itself.
"Thank you for making your decision. Your potential is extraordinary. The Force lingers around you like a flowing tide. You will not regret it."
His words seemed to remind her of something and she bent forward with vivid interest.
"I've been meaning to ask you, how could you tell I was strong in the Force when you came onboard, but didn't feel it in me in all the years we crossed paths?"
"I've also asked myself that question," Vader admitted, awestruck by her insight. "And the only answer I can think of is that you never tapped from it before."
His eyes covered the hangar deck in one sweeping glance.
"The Force is everywhere, all around us, always at the edge of our perception. But only those gifted enough can feel it and make use of it. It would be akin to someone being the greatest painter who ever existed. No one would ever know unless they picked up a paintbrush and a blank canvas and created a masterpiece. I only became aware that you were Force-sensitive when you were consciously open to it."
Leia considered Vader's explanation.
"Makes sense," she nodded assent in the end. "My life was always a pragmatic one. If I was aware of the Force at some point during my childhood, I closed the door on it at such an early age that I don't remember anymore."
"This is your chance to reconnect with your past and gain wisdom and enlightenment from it," Vader encouraged her. "It all will come back to you the moment you allow the Force access to the deepest recesses of your mind."
The Princess' suddenly closed face revealed nothing, but then she nodded again.
"It already enlightened me with those dreams I had about Luke and... you," she admitted vaguely. "It emboldened me to make the decision to seek you out although it went against all my principles. If the Force can open my mind beyond my prejudices and guide me to a higher Truth, then I will be a well-rounded, more balanced person at the end of the day."
Speechless, Vader just blinked, staring at the young woman as if seeing her for the first time.
Whatever the will of the Force was, it was clear to him now how influenced and shaped by it all of them had been. This was a pivotal moment in their lives, the beginning of something none of them could imagine, but whose consequences would result in a chain reaction that would echo throughout the galaxy for many years to come.
The dark eyes gazed at him with kindness and understanding, and the Dark Lord couldn't help but wonder what they saw in him and how he could deserve that look from her.
"I thank you for saving Luke's life," her heartfelt emotions resonated through the Force like the chime of a bell, shaking him to the marrow. "If I had lost him I don't know what I'd..." she trembled at the images undoubtedly flashing before her eyes. "I... I can't define what he means to me. Sometimes I think he's closer to me than flesh and blood. The soul-brother I never had."
Her fervent declaration caused a powerful ripple in the Force, and it embedded itself in the Dark Lord's heart. The bond between Force-sensitives could be closer than flesh and blood but... There was something else at work here... A deeper truth... He shuddered.
Such bond... Such devotion... Strong enough to commit an act of treason because your life will end if you lose that person...
He could so relate to it; it was his vital experience now and it would be for as long as he existed. He lived it, he breathed it, it defined him.
"Until we see each other again... May the Force be with you," Leia reached out her right hand, waiting for him to shake it.
Stunned, Vader stared at the little hand for a long moment.
Even after everything he'd done...
So much better than him.
Urgently craving the forgiveness that tiny hand could offer, Vader took it in his own oh-so-gently and sank to one knee before the shocked Princess.
"I tortured you, I stood by while your homeworld was destroyed and your family killed, I tortured and mutilated those you loved, I murdered countless innocents unremorsefully for decades, I abandoned every principle and broke every rule to feed my own selfish greed. I am a monster, unworthy of kneeling at your feet," he took a painful breath that seared through his lungs. "Still, I... I..." he swallowed the burning lump in his throat. "I'm daring to ask you to please have mercy on me, to please forgive me. Please, your highness."
Somehow, he found the willpower to look up into her eyes and dropped every shield, every pretense, every mask, just like he did with his son.
"Please, Leia," his voice cracked as his thumbpad caressed the back of the small hand in a pleading gesture that came to him unbidden.
A profound emotion stirred behind the big brown eyes looking down at him. Vader felt something being released into the Force, something dark and ugly, and the little hand squeezed him hard, almost in a spasm.
"I forgive you."
The Sith Lord felt the tremendous weight being lifted from both their shoulders. The Force spiralled joyfully around them, wrapping them in a healing and eminently loving bond that made him want to cry.
Overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment between them she clearly didn't know how to handle, the Princess coughed almost in embarrassment. Her awkwardness dealing with strong emotions in front of others became more evident than ever, and something in Vader softened. He could SO relate to that.
"If someone had told me only ten days ago that this is where I would be today, I would've sworn they didn't know me at all. I never thought I'd be able to forgive... so much. To forgive *you*, period," she gave him a lopsided grin, so reminiscent of the man she loved. "But I guess that's one of the advantages of being strong in the Force. It's as if I could read you inside out. You're so open right now... You're allowing it, aren't you?" she stated as an afterthought.
Vader tilted his head in answer.
Leia looked deeper into Vader, exploring this ability, testing its limits, its boundaries... and not finding any, for Vader was letting her in as deeply as she wanted to go.
Pain, more pain than she'd be able to bear in a million lifetimes, regret beyond comprehension, self-loathing and self-hatred so great that it bordered on insanity...
...And love. So much love! For his son, for them, for his regained humanity. Boundless, unlimited love.
His capacity to love rivalled Luke's.
Was that the real reason why he had turned to the Dark Side? Because the loss of all that love, not having anything and anyone to lay it on could only be bearable by turning to Hate and Murder?
It was terrifying. Appalling. Unthinkable. Sickening.
And even more terrifying, if she were ever faced with the same situation...?
Learn from my mistakes and never, *ever* be like me.
She gave a little jump. Had she really heard those words in her head or had they been a product of her imagination?
She stared at the Dark Lord in confusion and despair.
How would he live with himself from now on? Where would he find the courage to want to go on?
Pity and compassion swelled within her. If only there was a way for him to find peace, a sliver of sanity to hold on to and cope...
But Vader's only comfort was sleeping in the infirmary, oblivious to the decision that had been made for both and the excruciating sacrifice it would entail.
"It makes all the difference when you're not speculating about someone else's true intentions," tears brimmed in her eyes. "When you just *know* it, as absolutely as you know what's inside yourself. In a way, it's as much a curse as a blessing." She sighed wearily. "I just hope it's worth all the tears Luke is going to cry. I hope it's worth all the 'what ifs' you two could have had together," she shook her head mournfully. "I can't help but feel you're robbing him of the happiness he's earned after a lifetime of... aching for you."
Vader winced at her dismayed recrimination as she shook herself off her defeatist mood.
"But I will never doubt your commitment to him and the Alliance. I will never doubt your love for your son. I want you to know that you will be welcomed back when the war is over. You have my word, as a commander of the Rebellion and as a friend," she rolled her eyes at her own words. "Blast it, I can't believe what I'm saying!" After a pause, she gave him a real, open, affectionate smile, holding his gaze. "Go in peace, and be safe."
The Sith Lord's breath hitched.
Unbelievable. Just... Unbelievable.
"You... heal my soul," the voice coming from the vocoder sounded like sandpaper. Raspy, hoarse, and bleeding with gratitude. "Thank you, Princess, for that's exactly what you are. True and legitimate royalty. Of the blood and of the heart," he bowed his head over their hands. Then, he struggled to his feet.
Dark Lord and Princess looked into each other's eyes one last time before releasing one another with a courteous, respectful nod.
Moving his eyes away from her with great effort, Vader turned to Han Solo. Just his stance, tall and protective, cried out how much the former smuggler cared about the tiny force of nature beside him.
A noble man, and a deserving future husband.
Facing him head on, Vader reached out to him unhesitatingly.
Solo looked down at the gloved hand for a minute, as if examining how they'd come to that. But when his eyes raised to his, they shone with understated humour, and the impenitent crooked grin made its appearance.
Not giving Vader time to react, he took the proffered hand and shook it.
The armoured body started back in astonishment, eliciting a low snicker from the younger man.
"Yes, you tried to kill us the moment you knew of our existence; you chased us like a rabid Rancor for years; you tortured me, and Leia, and Chewie, to lure in a kid I love like a brother. You maimed Luke and put his mind and his body on the brink of death. You alone have caused more harm to all of us personally than any other Imperial."
The Corellian's concise summary of the atrocities he'd carried out against them slashed through Vader like a lightsaber. The big form swayed, dizzy with self-revulsion; but somehow finding his balance again, he straightened up to his full height. He would brave those accusations unflinchingly, for they were nothing but the Truth.
"But like Leia and I'm sure the rest of us," he looked passingly at Chewie and Lando next to him, "I've learned a couple things in the past few days. Three months ago, you didn't give a damn about our lives, and now you do. You were so full of rage that you cut off your own son's hand. It was no trouble for you to hurt others because you wanted them to hate you as much as you hate yourself, to feel as much pain as you felt."
The Dark Lord's eyes dropped closed. That young man's insight cut too deep. But what hurt the most was the compassion and understanding offered in spades by the very people he'd abused.
It really didn't come as a surprise to discover that a part of him still wanted to be hated, because he would hate himself for the rest of his life.
Would he ever get rid of these ugly feelings that were like a slow poison corroding his soul?
"Personally, I can't hold a grudge against someone who's changed to the degree that you have," the Corellian's light-hearted tone of voice tore him from his somber musings. "You're simply not that person anymore. So," the roguish grin returned and the grip on his hand tightened, "welcome back, Anakin Skywalker."
The second time being addressed by that name was even more shocking than the first, because it was coming from a direct victim of his cruelty. And paradoxically, the shock made the name more real. Real enough that he could begin to recognize himself in it again.
A dry smile grazed his lips.
"Thank you, Captain Solo, but you'll excuse me if I need to say the words. I owe them to you." At the fast nod, he took a deep, harsh breath. "Will you forgive me for my past wrongdoings, for the pain I caused you, and all the evil I have done to you and your loved ones?"
The quirky grin turned fond in seconds.
"Yes, I do forgive you," the emphatic answer was underlined by a strong shake of his mechanical hand. "I forgive you as long as you promise to return and give your son all the love he deserves."
"You have my solemn vow that I will return and be with my child for as long as he wants me," the wild passion in Vader's voice swept everyone away like a hurricane.
The Corellian's jaw slackened and he stared at the Sith Lord in sheer disbelief for the longest instant. Finally, he composed himself with another nod.
"Good then," he smiled easily. "May the Force be with you."
"May the Force be with you, Captain," Vader answered in kind. "It was an honour to meet your acquaintance. My son is fortunate to have people like you at his side. And so am I." Now that he was leaving, not knowing if the Fates would grant him his most cherished wish, he wanted his child's friends to know in how much esteem he held them. They'd earned his loyalty as much as his precious son had.
Solo released his hand in silence, his eyes giving away the emotion he would never express openly in front of him.
Chewbacca awaited his turn, his stand firm and apparently unyielding. Looking up at him steadily, Vader raised his hand in a gesture that only a Wookiee could understand.
"Chewbacca, I want to-"
That was as far as he could go before the hairy giant planted his paws right below his shoulder plate, on his upper arms, and then enfolded him in a mighty Wookiee hug. The Dark Lord found himself pressed hard against the powerful body, almost disappearing in it.
It was the first time he'd been hugged in decades, and albeit awkward and definitely uncomfortable because of his suit and the height difference, Vader found it exceedingly comforting, calming even. It was almost as if the Wookiee had known that somewhere deep down, really really deep down...
Then, Chewie growled some words to him and Vader's world narrowed down to them and the warmth of the big body all wrapped around him.
"No, you were right," he replied to the Wookiee's apology. "You were right about me. In one way or another, I have always been a slave. A slave of my passions, of my flaws and shortcomings. They led me to where I am today."
Suddenly needing to see Chewbacca's face, he tried to move back. The Wookiee allowed it but kept his hands on Vader's upper ams, continuing the physical contact between them.
"But as impossible as it seems," the Sith Lord let out a sad smile, "as undeserving of it as I am, they also led me back to my son, the son I thought lost forever in every way, and to the family he found and created along his journey. I couldn't ask for a better gift. And I thank you all so very much for that. For taking care of him, for protecting him, for loving him. He will never be alone, and you can't imagine how that thought comforts me."
Chewie growled a short avowal.
"Thank you," Vader looked down, humbled by the creature's seemingly unending generosity. "Thank you from the depths of my being." Reaching up, he grabbed the hairy shoulders, completing the circle, and squeezed them intensely. "Will you forgive my many trespasses and transgressions, to you and those you care for?"
One single, fiery growl.
Vader's helmeted head hung in humility. He couldn't deserve... He just couldn't...
Chewbacca shook the Dark Lord's arms encouragingly, snapping him out of his mortifying thoughts. When he had his full attention again, he imparted some vehement words of wisdom, urging Vader to listen and believe in them.
"I-I will try," was all Vader had left to offer, moving his arms down from the Wookiee's shoulders and letting them hang at his sides. How to believe in his right to be forgiven when he didn't believe it himself?
One day at a time, maybe, as Chewie cleverly advised.
He gave the Wookiee a bleak smile, somehow knowing he would see it. Chewie patted his arms with a nod and then let him go.
Soul tired, the Sith Lord turned his head to Lando Calrissian who, as if feeling his utter exhaustion, took one small step forward, raising his hand with the palm outward.
"Contrary to my friends here and before you say anything," he cast a quick look to his left, where Leia, Han and Chewie stood, "I feel I'm the one who should thank you."
Vader blinked in stupefaction, wondering if the man in front of him had lost his mind. But Calrissian just smiled knowingly.
"You see," his eyes turned introspective, "before you wreaked havoc in our little mining outpost, my life on Bespin was one of a bureaucrat, a glorified storekeeper actually, even if I liked to see myself as a savvy businessman. Always pushing for the best possible deal and crossing my fingers that we never attracted the attention of the Empire; which we did of course, although not in a way I'd have envisioned," he laughed wryly in remembrance. "Little did I know that when you and your troops 'relieved' me from my responsibilities by taking control of the city, you would be doing me a favour."
Vader remained silent, letting the ex-entrepreneur explain himself. Maybe things would make sense when he did.
"Your actions forced me to make a decision," Lando went on. "Whether I wanted to keep maintaining an immoral neutrality as long as my business was spared or make a stand once and for all. Unknowingly, you put me on the right path; in the path of these great people next to me and your amazing kid," he shrugged nonchalantly. "I'm grateful for being given a chance to make a difference and fight for a just cause. It made me a better person."
The Sith Lord tried desperately to think of something to say, anything that conveyed his conviction that each and every one of the gentlebeings in front of him were a billion times better than him, a billion times better than the best version of himself, should it exist; but in the end, the most respectful answer was his silence.
And Calrissian took the opportunity.
"Thank you most sincerely for that," he declared with the kindest smile, reaching out his hand.
Vader looked down at it in awe, wishing he could give back as much as he was receiving.
Taking the man's hand in his, he squeezed it with the same fervour it squeezed him.
"Will you forgive my ruthlessness, my brutality? Will you ever be able to look at me and not see the beast that tortured your friends and ruined what you built?"
Calrissian gave him a warm smile.
"I already do."
"Thank you, sir," Vader breathed after a brief pause. The formality felt out of place, but it was the only way he could go on at this point.
Lando nodded, accepting the Dark Lord's awkward approach, suspecting the reason behind it.
They released one another politely and Vader took one step back, taking in the entire group in one single glance. His eyes settled on the beautiful Princess last, who stared at him with a sort of amused little smile on her face that seemed odd, considering the circumstances.
"Farewell." He bid goodbye with a bow and turned around.
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
The feminine voice made him look back at the petite young woman that, with a teasing grin, handed him something she'd been hiding behind her back all the time. An awfully familiar, metallic object.
Vader stared at it, a part of him bemoaning the fact that he'd totally forgotten about it and another part thoroughly disgusted by it.
Reluctantly, he walked over to the Princess, and the two of them laid eyes on the weapon he'd used to mutilate his own son.
Just the sight of it...
Meeting each other's gaze simultaneously, Vader knew she was thinking along the same lines as he. She offered him a shaky smile and shook her head bravely.
'You'll have it back when you leave.'
How far they'd come since she'd spat those words at him! Neither of them was the same person anymore. Solo was right.
There was nothing he wanted more than to tear that thing apart piece by piece, but it would be impossible for him to justify its loss before Palpatine. To all intents and purposes, he was returning to the Empire as the same vicious, merciless Sith Lord who'd left days ago.
Vader snatched the lightsaber from the small hand and attached it to his belt contemptuously.
Quick as lightning, the same little hand shot out and grabbed his, squeezing it in a gesture as full of forgiveness as his son's had been.
Vader's heart went out to her, so swiftly and completely that his chest felt about to explode with emotions not unlike his child evoked in him.
Holding on to her hand, clinging to it like a life preserver, he squeezed back and reached out tentatively with the other in the boldest move he'd ever attempted.
Wondrously, instead of rejecting it - rejecting him – the Princess gave him a wistful smile and her dark eyes gave their consent.
His fingertips made the slightest contact with the rosy cheek, hardly daring to touch too much. Her lashes flickered like snowflakes and she breathed on his palm, letting out a long, melancholic sigh.
Feeling his throat constrict with a piercing blending of joy and unimaginable sorrow, Vader turned his hands into fists and whipped round, heading for the ramp with long, abrupt strides.
'Stop! Stop now. Come back!'
His mechanical legs felt wobbly and heavy as lead, his very lifeforce was weakening, and he wondered if it was possible to die of longing, for every step that separated him more from his son felt like a knife through the heart.
He was committing the worst crime. He was denying them both the only comfort that could ease their pain. One another.
Force. Sweet Force.
Vader stopped cold halfway up the ramp.
No. No way in all the...
He spun around.
Time stood still as the opened hangar doors showed a deadly thin, deathly pale young man practically dragging himself across the floor, left arm wrapped around the dome of an Artoo unit that beeped like mad, trying to draw everybody's attention. On the youth's other side, a golden droid held him up by his right arm, doing his best to keep him from collapsing.
The Force rose triumphantly in a momentous blast of Light like the Dark Lord had never experienced before; and yet, petrified by the inconceivable appearance, he could do nothing but stare in absolute incredulity.
"Father! Father, don't go! I need you! Please. PLEASE! I NEED YOU!"
And then, Vader's legs were moving, walking down the ramp with increasingly faster and lighter steps, until his feet didn't seem to touch the floor.
Seeing his father run towards him rekindled the young man's fading strength, and in a final effort that drained what was left of his energy, he pushed himself off the droids supporting him and walked the final metres by himself, reaching out to the older man frantically.
Father and Son crashed into each other, sliding down to the floor as they wrapped their arms around one another in a bone-shattering hug.
The boy buried his face in his father's shoulder plate, continuing his ceaseless pleading.
"Please, please, don't go! I know I'm being selfish, I know I should be better than this, but I just can't lose you. I can't! Stay, Father! Please, don't leave me!"
"Oh, little one!" Vader moaned, pulling his child's exhausted body tighter against him. "You are not selfish! You are the most decent, forgiving and perfect human being I've ever known!" he put one steadying hand on the back of the lolling head that didn't even have the strength to hold its own weight anymore. "What are you doing, compromising your recovery like this, my angel?"
"I had to do it! I had to!" Luke exclaimed breathlessly. "I needed to tell you. I needed to ask you!" his hand grabbed a handful of his father's cape and then he tried to move back to look at him.
Feeling his intent, Vader wrapped his arms more securely around his son and pulled back just enough to gaze upon the beloved face.
The blond hair was sweaty and plastered to the child's scalp in places; the haggard but so beautiful countenance was flushed now with the extreme exertion, and the cheeks were covered with wet teartracks that sliced through the Dark Lord's soul.
Reaching up timidly, he wiped them away with his fingertips, afraid that the leather of his gloves would scratch the delicate skin.
"Don't cry, my son," he begged quaveringly. "Please, don't. I'm not worth a single of your tears."
"But they're happy tears, Father!" Luke protested. "For this is the happiest moment of my life. Every minute we've been together has been the happiest of my life!" The entrancing, crystal blue depths skittered all over the hideous mask, caressing it with liquid waves of reverent adoration. Bringing his only hand around, he settled his palm on the hard planes and angles of the black durasteel and fingered it all over, imagining his father's face behind. He smiled woefully on hearing the man's sharp intake of breath. "I love you." And with those three little words he revealed himself in everything he was and everything he would ever be. "I love you so much!"
The young man's guileless admission of his feelings for his father drove a massive wedge in the pestilent Darkness that had ruled the galaxy for over two decades, and the Light started to filter through the cracks, ready for the final destiny of the Force to be decided.
Leia took hold of her true love's hand, knocked off balance by the shockwaves spreading through the very fabric of the Force. She couldn't understand what was going on in all its implications, she just knew that the scene before her was the portrait of Love itself in all its raw, vulnerable and glorious purity, and that Vader's next decision would determine not only the outcome of the war but the Fate of every single being inhabiting this galaxy of horrors and wonders. She felt Han's hand returning the pressure with the same intensity and hope.
His son's heart-stopping confession, faithful and innocent, as good and true as it could be, sanctioned earnestly by the Force, razed through whatever speck of Darkness that might remain ensconced in Vader's soul. The Sith Lord felt as if something physical, as real as the child he was holding in his arms, was walking through every nook and niche of his being and cleansing him for good. Not only that, as if it was disabling him for the Dark Side for all eternity.
One look into those heartbreaking, all-encompassing eyes, and he understood. He understood it all.
At last, something inside him cheered.
Now, he could only honour the gift he didn't deserve with everything he had to give, as poor as it was. All of himself. Because he craved it. He craved it like the air he breathed. If that was being selfish, then so be it.
Lightly, he took the roaming hand on his mask in his own and brought it down, next to his chest plate.
"Hold on to me," he told his son with a watery catch in his voice.
Uncomprehending, Luke obeyed, his heavenly eyes uselessly riveted on his empty sockets.
When he felt that his son was safely perched against him, he reached for his helmet.
"No!" Luke called out in abject fear on hearing the depressurizing sound of the life-support breathing apparatus.
Anakin quickly brought down one hand and put his forefinger on his little one's lips.
"Shhhh, it is all right," he reassured. "I can breathe the same air as you for a few minutes. I will be perfectly fine," he stroked the now pale cheek with the back of his hand and smiled apologetically. "I am a grisly sight and I beg forgiveness for what you're about to see, angel, but I need to look on you with my own eyes. It's been so long since I gazed upon another human being..." his eyes stung with the pent up pain of suppressed memories surging up like a volcano. "I need you to be the first, and the last when the time comes. Please, my son," he implored brokenly. "Please."
Luke bit his lips, torn between his father's request and his worry for his well-being. In the end, trusting the older man's word, he nodded his agreement.
Bringing his hands up again, Anakin took off his helmet and put it on the floor. Then, he reached for his mask and, careful to not damage the fasteners – it was always the pincer-like devices inside his pod that took care of that – he detached it from around his neck. It came off surprisingly easily.
The first thing he felt was the brush of the 'air' all over his skin, and his peripheral vision was inundated with soft bright light coming from everywhere at once. It was always so dim and reddish inside the mask that he'd forgotten there were other colours in the spectrum.
Taking the mask off his face with unexpected apprehension, he almost dropped it when his eyes encountered the splendorous vision waiting for him mere centimetres away.
He was unprepared; wholly unprepared...
Luke stared at him unblinkingly, apparently transfixed by what he saw; but Anakin couldn't remember ever being so moved in his life. This was his child in front of him. They were actually face to face, with no barriers between them.
His son. Flesh of his flesh.
My flesh and blood. My heart and my soul. My dearest life...
He reached for the luminous face just as his child's hand reached up for his.
"Ohhh!" he groaned when the warm palm rested on his cheek. The sensation - utterly foreign after so many years - of being touched, rippled through his body, making his insides clench violently. His eyes dropped closed.
"Father..." his son's dulcet tone of voice seemed to be coming from far away.
"Y-your voice..." he stammered in wonderment with another shudder. "The sound of your voice, Luke..." he whispered rapturously. "Vibrating... Caressing my mind..."
The unsteady hand's touch became firmer then, sliding all over his face experimentally. His cheeks, his nose, his forehead, the deep scar running over his scalp... The fist in his stomach clenched even tighter. Every molecule in his body hummed like the strings of a melodium.
The nimble fingers breezed over his skin so attentively, so carefully, feeling him as much as he was feeling them. Touching deep, so deep it was tearing him apart.
Too many sensations, too overwhelming. Too much.
He gasped and his eyes opened. He blinked hard several times and smiled, once again captivated by the view.
Luke's own smile was tremulous, uncertain, but his eyes... There were no words in any language to describe those eyes.
"Like yours," his son murmured unevenly. His fingertips settled on his eyelids, barely brushing them. "My eyes are like yours. They're so blue, Father... So beautiful."
"No, my angel," Anakin corrected him self-derisively. "Your eyes don't come from me. They come down from Force heaven. Like your unblemished soul," the relentless fist was twisting his guts into a knot.
"No, Father, no. Please, don't..." the sudden distress in his child's voice felt so wrong, but before he could say anything, the boy brought his hand around the back of his neck and lowered his head. His lips pressed against his right eye in a life-breathing kiss, and then they moved over to the left, gathering the wetness there and leaving a feathery tremor in their wake.
'I'm crying. I'm crying!' Anakin suddenly realized, feeling terribly small and lost. He was crying and his son had wiped his tears away with his own lips.
Luke's unfaltering mouth moved down to the deep scars across his left cheek, kissing them tenderly; then he ventured down the pasty white skin of his face, raining tiny little kisses all over it.
Anakin was paralysed. Literally. He couldn't move. His son's act of love had robbed him of words, thoughts and even movement.
His heart fluttered with the softest sound, like a lullaby. A sound he wanted to keep on hearing for the remainder of his life. That dainty melody rocked his soul, promising that he was fine, that he would be fine and that everything would be wonderful and perfect. Because he was loved. Loved.
And then, the melodic sound rearranged itself in his head, coming together into actual words.
"Don't cry, Father. Don't cry, please. This is such a happy moment... And I love you so, so very much..."
His son was doing more than kiss him. He was nuzzling him. Luke was caressing his face with his own, giving comfort, giving love in the most primal way of all. In the way he most needed it. Skin to skin. Flesh to flesh.
Twenty years. Twenty years without this. Twenty years trapped in this suit that was more like a coffin. Imprisoned. Walled up. Buried alive.
In a sudden delayed reaction, he became incandescent with sensation. As if every dying cell of what was left of his body was being revived one by one.
Through his son's love. Through his pure, childlike, unabashed love.
Shivering so hard that he almost dislodged his boy from his grasp, Anakin's spirit rose forth to meet his child's loving. No more pandering to his needs. He would be the father this utter miracle deserved. This young man who'd never asked anything for himself, until now. Always thinking of others, always putting everybody else first. This was the only thing his precious son had ever asked of him, and he would have it.
Reaching up, he took hold of the hand on the back of his neck and engulfed it in his own.
"That is enough, angel. Please, stop," he asked, trying to move back from the lips that wouldn't stop their healing path all over his face. "I need you to listen to me now." He whimpered when he felt the tip of his son's nose grazing his. Sniffing.
So primary. So basic. Creating a sensory memory of his parent, like a newborn. Memories of touches, sounds, scents.
Not knowing how, Anakin managed to pull himself together while his body soaked up the electrifying caresses to his scarred skin. The tsunami of soul-deep chills washing over him was the closest thing to heaven he would ever be.
He had just been made new again. Reborn. Born again in his child's arms. And now, it was his turn to heal.
"Are you listening to me, Son?" he asked, cupping the side of the pink face in his other hand and leaning forward, pinning the glassy blue gaze with his own. "I need you to listen and believe, because this is the truth. The truth that defines me. For you, and only for you."
Like a flower turning to the sun, Anakin felt Luke's presence into the Force become blazingly strong and totally open to him. Projecting an immense serenity and enveloping him in it, the boy nodded.
Drawing from that serenity and taking a calming breath, Anakin let go of every restraint, stripped himself of every protective wall he'd ever built to keep people at a distance, as flimsy as it was. No self-consciousness, no shame. This was all of him, bare and exposed down to the bone.
"I love you, Luke. I love you with everything I am."
A deep shudder wracked the frail body from head to foot. Everything that Luke Skywalker was, convulsed in the warmth of his father's embrace.
"I loved you the instant your mother told me she was pregnant. Since that day, I dreamed of the moment I would hold you in my arms and see your little face and your eyes looking into mine," he smiled at the poignant realization. "I dreamed of this moment."
Luke's eyes filled with tears and his chin began to quiver.
"When I lost you, I lost all hope, all reason to live," Anakin's own eyes misted also. "I was an empty shell that only animal anger could fill," he shook his head in infinite remorse. "I should have put an end to my existence right then and there, but I didn't. And now I know why."
He smiled like he hadn't done since that fateful day, when the happiest moment of his life had occurred. He unhurriedly released the hand he was holding and took the beloved head between both of his.
"This is why."
Lingeringly, Anakin bent forward and pressed his lips to the wide forehead.
"My dearest," he murmured, dropping another kiss a little bit lower, "beautiful son. Now I am complete," his lips took on a life of their own and he lost all sense of propriety, kissing time and time again, all over the adored face. "Now I am at peace. You are my world, my freedom, all the goodness in me. I love you. I love you more than anything."
Luke's subdued sobbing and his hand jerking up to grab his wrist, seeking more human contact, made Anakin lose any inhibition he had left. Something primordial awakened inside him and just like his little angel before him, he began to caress his child's face with his own; sliding their skin together, nuzzling it, learning it by touch alone.
He wanted to prolong this moment for as long as possible, to live in it forever, but the Force was screaming at him to seal their Destinies, and it would wait no longer.
He was so full inside. So full of love for this boy that he had sired... He moved his lips to the hand grabbing his wrist and kissed the fingers one by one. Luke's helpless wail was the last straw. Acting on sheer instinct, he felt down his son's right arm and rolled up the sleeve of the medical gown, revealing the stump at the end of the forearm. Cradling it between his palms like a holy offering, he kissed it with all the passion and grief that exploded from his core, wetting it with renewed tears that burned his eyes with as much self-hate as repentance.
With a choked cry, Luke snuggled up to Anakin's body desperately, as if he needed it to live.
Touching his forehead to his child's, breathing the same air as he, Anakin quietly made his oath.
"I will stay. I will stay for as long as you want me to."
"Forever, then. Forever!" Luke was feverish in his need for reassurance.
A contented, soothing smile appeared on the scarred features.
"Forever," he complied, yielding to the irresistible temptation and kissing the tip of the adorable nose.
'We're together now and we'll never be alone again! Never again!'
'I love you. I love you so much, daddy! Don't go. Please, don't go again!'
'Never! I'll never leave you, my baby. We will never be parted again. Never. Never! NEVER!'
The tears poured unheeded down Leia's cheeks as she watched the scattered pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Her dreams, that had seemed so preposterous and far-fetched at first and had almost made her give up before even trying, had ultimately coalesced into the One picture that explained it all.
She rejoiced in the sight before her despite the shame she felt for being witness to something so painfully private. But it was so beautiful! So heartrendingly, devastatingly beautiful that she couldn't look away.
They were witnessing a miracle, pure and simple. Darth Vader's... Anakin Skywalker's complete redemption. And with it, through it, the Light had spilled over like an uncontainable torrent and conquered the Darkness.
She couldn't wrap her mind around it. The Dark Side had been defeated not with Palpatine's demise, but with six little words - "I love you," and "I will stay."
It didn't need anything else.
She understood now the Emperor's frenzy to turn Luke or destroy him. He was the deciding factor that would tip the balance either in favour of the Light or the Dark. But his influence had extended far beyond him or anything that Palpatine could have ever foreseen. Luke's importance to Darth Vader had been the variable that no one counted on. The Sith Lord's attachment to his son had brought Anakin Skywalker back, and turned the galaxy on its head.
So earthshakingly lovely in its simplicity. Defeated by love. Such had been the will of the Force.
The Force, that sang through her veins in sizzling bursts of joy, wild and free, bathing her in its healing power, confirming to her that her sacrifices had been worthwhile and there was nothing to fear anymore.
'The Force is everywhere. All around us.'
It was everywhere, all right. She was feeling it, she was floating in it - floating in the ocean of Love that Father and Son radiated. The Force was Love and Love was the greatest force of all. Luke and Anakin embodied that transcendental truth as if they were made of it.
The Princess beamed. She was finally looking at Anakin Skywalker. Meeting him for the first time, just like Auren 25 years ago. His features were dreadfully scarred; he looked decades older than he was, all worn and weathered; but at the same time, something youthful and... untainted swam in his deep blue eyes, in the loving warmth of his smile. Something that wrapped him in the same blissful euphoria she had experienced in her dream.
The same person indeed, made young and innocent again, glowing with love for his son.
Overcome by the avalanche of sublime emotions, she looked away at her friends.
Han's face was streaked with tears that lingered on his chin as if they didn't dare to fall to the floor. She'd never seen him cry, and it was such a profoundly personal moment that she knew she had no right to intrude on it.
Her eyes sought Lando, who stood biting his lower lip in a valiant attempt to hold his own, but his dark lashes were moist with unshed tears.
The hangar deck suddenly felt like it was falling down around her, and she needed to focus on something to not lose herself.
Chewie's always supportive presence was her last chance and she craned her head back, looking for his kind, gentle eyes.
As if he'd been expecting it, Chewie tilted his head to one side when he met her gaze, and she would have sworn that he was smiling. With a little nod, he encouraged her to not be afraid to look. Sharing in a love like this wasn't an act of immodesty. It made you the most fortunate person in the universe. It made you blessed.
Taking in a jittery breath, Leia turned her eyes again to the two men kneeling on the cold floor, inwardly asking their forgiveness.
The brutal release of tension, the immeasurable relief at his father's pledge after spending days in agony over it, and the strain he'd put his body through had clearly caught up with Luke. He shivered as he pressed up against Anakin for dear life. In his aching need, he had to be bruising himself with all the sharp edges of his armour.
Anakin noticed right away and with a joint shudder, he quickly brought his arms around the small body, that looked even smaller in its fragility.
"You're trembling," he whispered in deep concern. Panic showed in his expressive eyes for a fraction of a second.
"I'm fine," Luke assured him eagerly, burying his face in the side of his neck and breathing in his scent. "I'm fine as long as we're together."
Closing his eyes, Anakin sighed powerlessly. Thinking fast, he brought his right hand up while he held his child securely against him. Unhooking his cape from his shoulder plate, he cocooned his son in it with such unbounded compassion and love that Leia felt faint. The young man all but disappeared under his father's cloak as the imposing black form rose to his feet with his child in his arms.
"Are you getting warm, angel?" Anakin asked, kissing Luke's forehead again.
Luke nodded, cuddling up to him needfully.
"Take us home," he murmured so weakly that Leia barely heard him.
Resting his head on his son's, Anakin blinked back tears.
"You are home, my treasure," he declared thickly. "Always will be."
Responding as one, Leia, Han, Chewie and Lando gathered around them. Leia bent down to pick up the mask and Han did the same with the helmet. Anakin's gaze met Leia's briefly and she gave him a smile that spoke louder than a million words. He returned it shyly before turning his eyes again to the single being who was the source of all his strength, his beginning and his end, his everything.
As they started for the doors, the Princess couldn't help but think that never had so much depended on apparently so little. She'd embarked on this crazy adventure to save someone she loved more than her own life, and they'd ended up saving two lives, the Rebel Alliance and the very galaxy they called home.
A warm, strong hand took hold of hers and she squeezed it fiercely, moving closer to the wonderful man walking beside her. She had never felt so close to him before, but to her surprise, she realized that the feeling of closeness went beyond them both. It was also in Chewie's paw on Lando's shoulder as they walked side by side in front of them, in Threepio's golden hand on the dome of a happily chirping Artoo; and shining bright like a beacon of hope for generations to come, it was in the redeemed Jedi Knight carrying his son back where they belonged.
It was more than a feeling of belonging or togetherness. It was a feeling of soul-deep connection between them all. Of family.
It was so perfect.
They'd all come home.