The doors closed behind Darth Vader and he looked around. The soft glow coming in from the big windows allowed him to see the hidden younglings, despite the darkest night outside.
His senses felt enhanced by the whirlpool of fear, hatred and thirst for power that had taken over his mind and heart. But underneath the raging beast he had unleashed, the spark of something made him hesitate for a millisecond.
That very human hesitation reassured the younglings of who the big man who had burst in was. It was Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight; hero and example to them all. They were safe now. He would protect them. And they would protect him too with their every bit of strength. They were young in age, but not in courage.
Jarrod, a seven year old child, brave and intelligent beyond his years, abandoned his hiding place and hurried to the newcomer's side.
"Master Skywalker, there are too many of them. What are we going to do?" Not a word about fear, fear for their security, for the mayhem and carnage happening only a few doors away. Unaware of the carnage that was about to happen, at their expense.
Vader allowed himself a fleeting feeling of admiration for the little boy looking up at him with those big blue eyes full of trust. Trust he was about to betray and destroy, along with his young life. Along with all the young lives in that room.
An electric buzz echoed in the room, and only then did he realize he had ignited his lightsaber.
No compassion. No mercy. This was for Padme. This was for his unborn child.
The thought of his unborn child infused his spirit with more determination than he had thought possible, considering what he was about to do. He wouldn't lose his child as he had lost his mother. He wouldn't lose his beloved wife. He would do anything to prevent that from happening. If others had to die... then so be it. Even if they were children.
He was killing Jedi, not children. He was wiping out future enemies.
The blade surged up and prepared itself to begin the slaughter.
Jarrod's blue eyes opened wide, and in a heartbeat of horror beyond belief he understood what that young man was going to do. He stepped backwards instinctively, but the shock made him trip on his own feet and he fell flat on his backside.
"NO!" he cried out, raising an arm, trying uselessly to protect himself.
The lightsaber remained suspended above the young Sith's head, eyes sparkling yellow.
Frozen in place by a spell he couldn't break, Jarrod looked in terrified fascination at the pure evil that Anakin Skywalker exuded.
No. Not Anakin Skywalker. Not anymore. Someone else. Something else.
Still, he tried to appeal to whatever humanity remained in that grotesque sneer of hatred, in that victorious snarl. Reaching for the Force, the strangest words left his lips.
The descending blade came to a dead stop centimetres away from the youngling's neck.
The handsome features twisted in a face of sudden comprehension, as if a ray of sanity had made its way through the Darkness surrounding it. A brutal shudder shook the distraught warrior and the lightsaber trembled in his hand. His eyes opened wide as he realized what he was about to do.
Children. These were children, not enemies.
He was about to murder innocent children in his bloody campaign to save the life of his unborn child.
His free hand closed around his face and he dug his fingers hard into his flesh. An indescribable animal scream resounded in the Hall's walls, and the former Jedi sank to his knees.
How would he ever be able to look at the faces of his future children, knowing that to save them he had defiled himself? Would they ever understand? Would Padme ever forgive him? Would he ever forgive himself, once this orgy of blood and infamy was over? Would he ever be able to live with himself?
"HELP ME!" he roared, for once demanding the Force to obey him.
But he received no answer.
He didn't know how long he stayed there, clinging desperately to the torn shreds of sanity he had left. A sudden touch in his hand made him jump.
Jarrod jumped too.
And in those innocent eyes, Vader saw forgiveness and absolution.
Vader broke down. Turning off his lightsaber and throwing it aside, he brought the small body to him and held it in a crushing hug.
The little boy didn't fight him; quite the contrary. He returned the hug, and the Dark Lord felt the touch of tiny hands burying themselves in his hair, caressing him comfortingly.
"Oh, Luke. Luke! Forgive me! What I was about to do for you, my son!"
Jarrod made a surprised face and looked at his companions with a confused shrug; but he didn't ease up the pressure.
"I can't do this, not even for you, my little angel. Forgive me! Now I'll lose you and your mother, just as I dreamed. Oh, Force! What will I do now? I've lost it all!"
"No, you haven't," an almost forgotten male voice whispered into his ear. "You came to the turning point in your life and made a decision. The right decision. Now you are truly free. Follow your heart and your instincts, Anakin. Trust the power of the love inside you. It will serve you well."
The young man's head snapped up.
"Master Qui-Gon?" he exclaimed.
Jarrod blinked, as if coming out of a trance. He looked at Anakin, uncomprehending.
"Master Qui-Gon!" Anakin called, grabbing the boy's shoulders and shaking him.
"Who?" the child asked, in total confusion.
Anakin shook his head, trying to pull himself together. His heart was beating wildly in his chest, and he felt as if he had reached the limit of his physical and emotional endurance.
But Qui-Gon had come to him when he had needed it the most. He was not alone. Not completely.
He made his choice.
A heartbeat later, he found himself on his feet and with Jarrod in his arms.
"Come with me, younglings. I will get you out of here before it's too late. I'll try to set right what I helped to unleash."
"Master," a little voice said.
"Yes?" Anakin looked down at the little twi'lek.
"Your lightsaber," there was no trace of fear in her as she gave back to him the weapon that had been about to kill them all.
Anakin's trembling hand took the weapon from the little girl's hands, barely able to look at it, and tied it to his belt.
"Be very quiet. I'll take you to the escape pods," his eyes turned to Jarrod. "You will plot a course to the Outer Rim, but don't tell me where. No one must know. Not even me. We'll look for you when the time comes."
The little boy swallowed visibly.
"Don't be afraid," the ghost of a smile crossed the young man's lips. "Trust the Force. It will watch over you, wherever you go. And I promise I'll return to look for you one day. Be brave, little Jedi. Everything will be all right."
Straightening up with an awesome courage that made Anakin feel unworthy, the boy looked deeply into his eyes and nodded.
Anakin watched the escape pods disappearing from his sight in Coruscant's sky. He allowed himself a brief prayer for the younglings to reach a safe destination far, far away.
Without looking back, running as if the devil himself was on his tail, he returned to the only place in the universe where he felt safe.
"Anakin!" Padmé exclaimed when she saw her husband bursting into their home as if all the Furies were chasing him. "What's wrong?"
The young man fell to his knees before her, wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her protruding belly. Padmé could feel the wetness of his tears even through the layers of cloth that separated their flesh. She threw her arms around him and held him tight.
"Please, Anakin, talk to me! I can't stand this situation anymore," she pleaded. "You claim you want to help me, to save me, but you're only growing apart from me. I fear for you, for all of us! Tell me what's disturbing you so!"
"I-I..." Anakin stammered, his frantic mind still struggling with the atrocities he had been about to commit. "I went to the Jedi Temple... to murder."
"Murder? Murder who?" Padme asked, befuddled.
"Everybody. Even the children," the young man moaned, burying his face in her even harder.
Padme stiffened, and her caresses on his head stopped.
"Anakin," her voice sounded devoid of all emotion. For a second, she couldn't recognize the man she had in front of her.
"I wanted to save you, but I couldn't do it. I just couldn't! I couldn't murder a bunch of innocent children to save my own. And now I will lose you both, as I lost my mother."
"And how would the murdering of innocent children save us?" Padme began seriously doubting her husband's sanity. What had driven this upright young man she had known for almost fifteen years to defile himself in such a way? What kind of demon lurked in his soul?
"Palpatine," Anakin let out in a strangled wail.
"What about him?" she asked.
"He's a Sith Lord. He told me there are ways to cheat Death. He said we would find the knowledge to master those ways so I could save you."
"And he told you that murdering your fellow Jedi was the way to reach that knowledge?" Padme made a disgusted face.
Anakin nodded against her belly.
"I can't trust anyone, Padme. Not even Obi-Wan."
"Anakin, that's crazy!" Things were happening faster than Padme's brain could process. She was short-circuiting with all the disjointed statements coming out of her husband's mouth. "Obi-Wan is like a father to you, you told me yourself! Keeping our secret has torn you apart. We can't go on like this. Go to him, go to master Yoda. Talk to them. They'll understand!"
"You don't understand!" Anakin tore himself away from her and began pacing the room like a caged beast. "They can only talk about detachment, to rejoice in the losses and learn to let go. And I can't do it, Padme! I'm not like them! I never was! I fooled myself into believing that if I trained hard enough, if I worked hard enough, I would be like them one day. But I've reached a point where I can't go on any longer. What I feel and what they're telling me to achieve, are mutually exclusive, and it's tearing me apart." He stopped his relentless pacing and turned to her, arms open wide. "Look at me! I pledged myself to a Sith Lord to ensure your safety and our child's! Palpatine wants my soul, and the Jedi demand something from me that it's beyond my ability to give. They don't trust me, and I can't trust them anymore. I'm losing my mind!"
Padme stared at her beloved, and her heart broke. Not only for for him, but for them; for the entire galaxy, that was doomed now.
"I'm the biggest fool in history! I considered him my friend, the only one who truly understood my feelings; but he only used me to fulfil his own selfish ambition, I can see it now so clearly! Force, how could I be so blind?" He covered his face with his hands. "I handed the Republic to him on a plate. And I can still feel the pull of the Dark Side. It's like a siren song, demanding me to surrender my soul."
"Anakin!" Horror appeared on Padme's features, and she rushed to him.
They embraced and clung to each other desperately, fighting to keep the demons away with the power of their love.
"We must go, Padme. As far away as we can," he whispered to her, and she could feel him tremble like a leaf. "The younglings are already safe. I put them in the escape pods. But if we stay here he'll go after me, and I love you and our baby too much to resist his temptations. All I know is that I have to trust my feelings, and everything I am, is screaming at me that we must go. Now, before it's too late for us and the galaxy."
Padme moved back and stared at the man she loved more than anything. For the first time in her life she didn't know what to say, what to do. She was torn.
"Please, trust me!" he grabbed her shoulders. "I know it feels like we're deserting them all, but sometimes a retreat in time is a victory. We'll regroup and strike back when he least expects it. But I'm in no condition to be of any help to anyone. All I want now is to take care of you and our child, until..." he choked on his words. "How will we be able to help others if we can't help ourselves first? Charity begins at home, Padme. Come with me." He stepped back and reached out to her. "I need you. You're everything that matters to me in this life. I don't want to lose you. I love you so much!" he broke down again.
And his tears were Padme's undoing.
"Yes, Anakin. I will go with you." The moment she said the words she knew she had made the right decision. For him, for herself, and for their child.
His smile illuminated the room. Relief and joy, that had been absent from that young face for far too long, made him shine from within.
He crushed her to him so hard that he almost smashed her belly.
"Thank you, my love. Thank you! We'll take your ship and you'll plot a course to the Outer Rim. Don't tell me where. The farther we are from him the lesser his influence will be upon me."
"Can he reach you with his mind?" she looked at him, repulsed by the mere notion.
"We can feel each other. He still doesn't know that I didn't carry out his orders, but he'll find out soon enough. He keeps haunting me with promises of saving you and preventing your death, and I'm weakening." Sheer terror appeared on his face. "Please, Padme! My time is running short."
Those words spurred her to action. They hurried to their bedroom and between the two of them, they packed a suitcase with their most essential items and clothes. Then, they rushed to the private docking bay where Padme's ship waited. The two cloaked figures got inside, safe in the shadows of the night, and the ramp closed after them. The little ship took off seconds later, leaving Coruscant for a very long time to come.
"Have you plotted a course already?" Anakin asked his wife after a while.
"Yes," Padme replied. "What about him?" she spat the last word.
"I'm shielding as hard as I can," he replied. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead with the effort.
Padme got up from her seat and dabbed tenderly at the sweating forehead with a small handkerchief she carried in a pocket. She winced suddenly, but she covered it. Anakin grabbed her hand and kissed the back of it, interlacing his fingers with hers.
"We must rest now. It will take us hours to get there, and we need to save our strength," he said.
She sat down next to him again, emotionally exhausted. Five minutes later, she was sound asleep. Not even the sharp twinges of pain in her belly awakened her.
Anakin tossed his head from side to side in his sleep. He was there, right at the edge of his consciousness, looking for him relentlessly. Closer and closer. The harder he tried to shield the closer he got. A few seconds more, and he would know. There was nothing he could do to stop it. He felt so vulnerable and weak...
Almost... there... Almost!
Anakin woke up with a start, gasping and drenched in sweat. Instinctively, he knew that if Padme had awakened him one second later, it would have been too late.
"W-what?" he asked, looking around him, wondering for a moment where they were.
"The baby's coming," she told him, looking fearfully into his eyes.
"What? Here? Now?" Anakin was immediately alert.
"Yes," Padme nodded. "I'm having contractions every six minutes now. I think I'm about to break waters."
"But the baby isn't due for two more weeks! You can't have it now!" Anakin paled. "Could it be a false alarm?"
Padme shook her head in the middle of her pain, wondering how men could lose their cool at times like this, when women needed them to be strong for them, for once.
She felt a sudden wetness below.
"I'm afraid not. We must land, Anakin, wherever we are. I can't have it here, it's too risky."
Seeing they had no choice, Anakin nodded his head.
"How close are we to our destination?" he asked.
The ship's brutal lurch threw them to the floor. Padme landed on her belly and she moaned in pain. Anakin was beside her in an instant, helping her up.
When they turned to the window they gasped, horrified. They had entered a planet's atmosphere, and the ship's hull was overheating dangerously due to the wrong entry angle.
"We have to stabilize the ship or we'll burn in the atmosphere!" Anakin cried out, sitting at the controls. "Fasten your seatbelt, Padme! Hold on!"
The ship was travelling at full speed and it had already covered half of the planet's atmosphere. It was a miracle it was still in one piece. Anakin started the retrothrusters, trying to slow down the ship's manic speed and raising its nose at the same time, looking blindly for the right entry angle. It looked an impossible feat. The ship was shaking mercilessly in all directions. The heat in the cabin was unbearable. They felt as if they were roasting alive.
"Anakin!" Padme cried out in the midst of the roar around them, an arm around her belly.
"I'm trying, Padme. I'm trying!" Anakin yelled, grabbing the controls for all he was worth. He had to do it. He had to save his wife and his child! It couldn't end like this, with them burned to death in an unknown planet's atmosphere, like a shooting star. A very poetic death, certainly, but not one he wanted to contemplate, ever.
Amazed at the weird thoughts that crossed his mind at such a moment, Anakin blinked in astonished confusion when the sudden silence broke through his senses.
Somehow, they had crossed the atmosphere, but the badly damaged ship was heading for the surface of the planet spinning out of control.
'Force, don't let us die now!' he prayed, as the ground below seemed to rise and grow closer and closer to them.
At the last moment, Anakin made a sharp turn, managing to clear the surface. The ship crashed and slid a couple of kilometres on its belly, until it came to a dead stop. Smoke and fire filled the cabin.
"We have to get out of here, Padme! The ship will explode any minute!" Anakin screamed, unfastening his seatbelt and turning to his wife.
Padme was unconscious beside him, her seatbelt still safely fastened around her torso. He tore at it and scooped her up in his arms. He rushed for the hatch, but it wouldn't open. He tried it several times, coughing hard. His lungs felt about to collapse under the intense heat and intoxicating smoke. He didn't dare to guess what those fumes would be doing to Padme's system and their child's.
He cried out, kicking the hatch with his boot, until something hit the floor.
Almost blind and with his eyes watering in reaction to the smoke, Anakin made out the shape of his lightsaber on the floor. Summoning it up to his open palm and cradling Padme with one arm, he ignited it and used the blade as a blowtorch, cutting the already melting metal. He opened a hole in the ship's hull, big enough for him to pass.
He jumped blindly and something soft cushioned his fall. Without thinking, he broke into a run, as fast as his legs allowed him. When he had covered about eighty metres, a huge explosion threw him to the ground.
Covering Padme with his own body, he remained still as fragments of metal rained all around them. There was a series of secondary explosions, as the fuel tanks exploded one after another. Finally, everything was mostly silent, except for the crackle of the fire as it consumed what was left of the ship.
Anakin opened his eyes and looked around him. What he saw made his heart sink. They were in the middle of a desert. Kilometres of orange sand spread in all directions. There were no plants anywhere, not even cacti. Only small rocks and medium-sized boulders. Looking up, he saw the globes of twin suns shining high in the sky.
Tatooine was the first thought that crossed his mind, but there were several desert planets like Tatooine orbiting binary systems in the Outer Rim, so it could be any of them.
Whatever planet it was, they were in a desperate situation. Their suitcase had blown up with the ship, so they only had the clothes on their backs. And what was worse, they had no food, no water, and their baby was coming.
A muffled moan beneath him made him move off his wife. Padme was slowly coming to.
"Anakin?" she asked, her eyes blinking open.
The young Jedi sat her up and turned her head to him.
"Yes, Padme. I'm right here." He put a loose lock of hair aside and caressed her cheek with the back of his hand.
"I'm wet," her face contorted in pain and she let out a groan.
Looking down, Anakin saw there was a pool under his wife. She had broken waters. His eyes opened wide in raw fear when he realized there was no turning back. It was a matter of minutes now.
Sheer despair crossed his features. Their situation was worse than desperate and it was all his fault. He had dreamed of Padme dying in childbirth, and what had he done? He had taken her to a desert planet where they weren't going to have any medical help. Not even the minimum hygienic conditions to deliver the baby.
Anakin looked around again, wishing it was a bad dream. This couldn't be happening! It was as if destiny was laughing in his face. He couldn't have done things worse if he'd tried.
Padme grabbed the front of his cloak and bit her lower lip.
"Anakin, it hurts!" she let out in a strangled cry.
Casting self-pity to the wind, Anakin got to work. He had to help his wife. If she and the baby were meant to die, at least they were together, and the three of them would die together; because there was no way he would go on living after his two reasons to live were gone.
He picked her up in his arms again and took her to a boulder nearby. He put her on the ground on her feet, and took out her cloak. He spread it on the sand and made her sit down on it, leaning back against the boulder. Fortunately, its surface was smooth, so no sharp edges would stick into her back.
"Are you comfortable, so to speak?" he asked, trying to bring some levity to the moment.
Padme tried to smile and nodded sadly.
"I'm going to undress you from your waist down now. Raise your hips a little," Anakin instructed, his voice soft and gentle.
Padme obeyed and Anakin unfastened her bottoms. He sighed in relief when he saw she carried a little water bottle attached to her belt. It was all they had, but it was better than nothing. He unscrewed the top and poured a little on his left hand. Next, he put the bottle on the sand beside him, making sure it wouldn't spill, and he rubbed his hands. So much for a sterilized environment!
"Ani," her small, pleading voice broke his heart. He met her eyes and saw his own fear reflected back in them.
"I'm just as frightened as you are," he smiled shakily. "All I know about delivering a baby are the books we read and the holo documentaries we've seen. We'll have to play it by ear," he made an ironical face. "You have to help me. Tell me everything you're feeling, when you think things are going right or wrong."
"I only feel pain," Padme closed her eyes and ground her teeth, holding back a moan.
"Well, it *is* supposed to hurt, so we're doing okay so far," Anakin's eyes misted at her face of utter agony. "I'm going to take a look now. Hang on."
"All right," she said, grabbing the edge of her cloak and squeezing it.
"You're quite dilated already, but I still don't see the baby's head," Anakin announced after a few moments. "Try to relax and breathe. Deep and steady breaths. When you feel like pushing, just do it."
"Right," she agreed in a hoarse voice, her face bathed in sweat by now.
Anakin tore his own cloak in several pieces, some of them bigger than others. He used one of the smaller ones to dab at her forehead.
"Want some water?" he asked. "We must keep you hydrated."
"Just a little," she nodded. "We must save it."
Anakin brought the bottle to her lips and she took a small sip. Right then, a deep shudder shook her body.
"Ah!" she cried out.
"You feel like pushing?" Anakin hurried to put the bottle on the sand.
"YES!" she shrieked, grabbing her own knees and surging forward.
"Easy, easy, Padme!" Anakin tried to calm her down. "Let me see."
"Oh, my!" she let out a loud wail.
"I can see the top of its head!" Anakin exclaimed excitedly. Reaching out with trembling arms, Anakin placed the fingertips of his left hand on the baby, sending all his love and support. "Push, Padme. Push! That's right! Take deep breaths and push when you're letting all the air out."
"Argh!" she was beyond words. It hurt more than she could bear.
"Half its head is out already," Anakin told her. "One more push, Padme!"
"All... right!" she screamed, taking a deep breath and pushing for all she was worth.
"That's it!" Anakin encouraged her. "All its head is out now," he wiped away the sweat on his forehead with his rolled up sleeve. "Rest for a second. The shoulders are coming next."
Padme trembled at her husband's words. That was the worst part of all, but she swallowed her fear bravely.
In the meantime, Anakin was using a piece of cloth to wipe the baby's head and his own hands.
"It's almost bald, but there's a little dark fleece on its head," he informed his wife, his voice dripping with love. "Come on now. Push! It'll be out before you know it. Push hard!"
"O-kay," she complied, pushing as hard as she could.
"Harder!" Anakin shouted.
Padme felt as if her insides were being torn apart. The pain was relentless. Merciless.
"Yes, you can! Come on! One more push. I can see most of its shoulders. One more time and it'll slide out like a Rivan eel."
"What a comparison!" she made a disgusted face.
"Do it! NOW!" he commanded.
"You got it!" she shouted back and pushed angrily.
Anakin smiled to himself. He knew his beloved. Her determination redoubled when she was angry or frustrated. It would help her now. He closed his eyes for an instant and focused all his senses on their child. This was the trickiest moment. If he pulled too hard while trying to help her he could damage the baby's neck. He had to ride the moment with her and pull just as hard as she was pushing.
All of a sudden, there was a loud popping sound, and the baby burst out of its mother's womb in a flood of blood and amniotic fluid, following its mother's searing scream.
"It's here, Padme! It's here!" Tears rolled unheeded down Anakin's face. This was the most perfect moment of his life. It overwhelmed him, it swept him away in its transcendence. He had never felt more a part of everything than right here and now.
Padme was too exhausted to let out more than a tiny moan of acknowledgment. She leaned back against the boulder, panting non-stop. The pain receded noticeably.
"Is... is it... all right?" she asked in the weakest voice.
"Perfectly!" Anakin's voice shook. "Five fingers on every hand and five toes on every foot. And it's... a girl, Padme! We had a baby girl! Our baby girl!"
"A girl," she gasped, her features shining with more joy than she had ever felt.
"Let me see if she's breathing normally," Anakin told her, turning all his attention to his daughter. He picked up a piece of his torn cloak and wiped her small body with it as best as he could. Then, he wiped her nose and massaged her chest, compelling her to start using her lungs for the first time. She was all wrinkled and almost grey, but to him she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. After a few seconds, he felt movement under his fingers.
"Oh, thank heavens," Padme sighed, looking up and offering a brief prayer of thanks. But then, she gave a start. "The umbilical cord, Anakin! You must cut it!"
The urgency in her voice made Anakin start. He looked around him frantically, looking for something sharp he could use. But there was nothing.
"I have nothing to cut it with!" he exclaimed, freezing in panic.
"Use your lightsaber!" Padme cried out.
"My lightsaber?" Anakin was petrified, thinking of what the blade could do, should his hand falter for an instant.
"I trust you, Anakin. You can do it, don't be afraid," her voice was so calm that it seemed in complete contradiction with what she was asking her husband to do.
Anakin swallowed audibly, realizing they had no choice. He drew out his lightsaber, forcing himself not to tremble, not to hesitate. He held up the umbilical cord, keeping it as far away from his daughter as he could, and with a deep intake of breath, he ignited it. The buzzing sound of the blade resounded like a thunder in the quiet of the scene. With a quick, desperate prayer, Anakin brought it down and in a swift movement, he cut the cord. Then, he turned it off and attached it to his belt. The irony of what he had done was almost too much to bear. The same weapon that had been about to defile him forever had been used now to help his child.
Padme grasped his gloved mechanical hand and squeezed it hard. Closing his eyes, moved beyond words by her intuition, Anakin sniffled as his free hand stroked his daughter's head.
"Will you tell me her name now?" he asked, meeting her adoring eyes.
She smiled tiredly and nodded.
"Leia," she said simply.
Anakin's eyes shone in delight. No name had ever sounded so right. A name as beautiful and regal as his little princess.
"Of course. Leia." He nodded, feeling completely at peace and placing her in the hood of his cloak, that he had spared intentionally. Its form was perfect to hold a baby.
"Anakin, something's coming out now," Padme stiffened in alarm, feeling new contractions rack her belly.
"Don't worry. It's the placenta," Anakin soothed her, focusing again on his wife.
"Oh, right!" Relieved now, Padme tried to relax and let nature follow its course.
"Here it is, in one piece," Anakin said a while later, throwing it aside. "Are you all right now?" The young Jedi couldn't believe everything was over.
"I think so," Padme replied after a while.
"Want to hold our little angel?"
Her reddened and sweaty face glowed with love and joy, and she reached out her arms.
"Yes!" she exclaimed, fighting back tears.
Anakin put the baby in her mother's arms.
"She's beautiful," Padme whispered in awe.
"Like her mother," Anakin whispered back, kissing her brow, bursting with love for them both.
Padme took one of the little fingers.
"Hello, Leia. We're mummy and daddy, and we love you so much," she brought the little finger to her lips and kissed it. Anakin bent forward and kissed the back of the tiny hand.
"I can't believe it's over, Padme," he told her, shaking his head in stunned disbelief. "My dreams were so vivid that I..."
"Ah!" Padme moaned suddenly.
"What is it?" Anakin asked, sobering immediately.
"Something's wrong," she said, looking down at herself. "I feel like pushing again."
"What do you mean, 'pushing again'?" he asked.
"I'm having contractions, Anakin. I feel something moving inside me," Padme's scared eyes bored into her husband's.
"But what the... Oh, shit!" he cried out, after checking on his wife.
"What? What is it?" Anakin had never used that word in all the years she had known him. What had he seen to use it now?
"I see another head, Padme!"
"What do you mean, 'another head'?" she yelled, reason deserting her completely.
"Another baby's coming! We're having twins!"
"Oh, my goodness!" she moaned, throwing her head back.
"This one's coming faster," the young man commented, amazingly calm now. "It's almost bald like its sister, but I think it's blond." Anakin smiled, elated. "Come on, little one," he murmured to his second child, stroking the top of the blond head with his fingertips. "Help your mother a bit. She's exhausted after giving birth to your sister." He looked up at his wife and shrugged shyly. "Push, Padme. You're doing great. Keep pushing and breathe deeply. It'll be over very soon."
"Aaaaah!" Padme screamed all at once, wrapping one arm around her belly and holding Leia with the other. She felt something tearing inside her.
"Padme!" Anakin exclaimed when a gush of blood burst out of her. He swiftly closed the baby's nose and mouth, to prevent it from choking on it. "Hold on. The baby's head is all out now. Rest for a moment." His heart was beating savagely in his chest, and a sickening feeling of foreboding descended on him.
"Something's wrong, Anakin. I feel like I'm tearing apart inside." The look in her eyes was of sheer panic.
"Your body's exhausted after delivering our daughter, and you're feeling the pain more strongly, that's all," Anakin reassured her unconvincingly. "But it'll be faster now. Come on. Push! This is the hardest part, but once the shoulders are out, it'll be out in the blink of an eye. Push hard, Padme. Trust me! I won't let anything happen to you and this baby."
Padme felt dizzy. Everything was spiralling like crazy and she closed her eyes to try and make the feeling stop. Her hearing was abandoning her gradually. She felt disconnected, strangely out of synch.
"I think I'm going to pass out," she said, recognizing the signs.
"NO, you mustn't!" Anakin shrieked. "You could bleed to death if you lose consciousness, Padme!" His eyes darted desperately from the baby to his wife. "Hold on just two more minutes, please! Fix your gaze on a single spot and don't look away. It'll help."
"I- I'll try," her own voice seemed to come from far away, but she struggled to stay awake with her every bit of strength.
"Push! Hard!" Anakin cried out.
Padme growled deep in her throat and pushed with everything she had left.
"It's out!" Anakin's voice was thick with relief and dread. Along with the child and amniotic fluid, a scary gush of blood had come out as well. Controlling the fear as best as he could, he grabbed a piece of cloth and wiped the baby's face, paying special attention to its nose and mouth. "Oh, Padme! It's a boy! We did it in our first try, my love. We've got our little Luke, too!" Anakin's heart had never felt so full.
"Luke. Oh, Luke!" she moaned, her head dangling from side to side, unable to hold it up anymore. Reaching down, she brushed her fingertips across the baby's legs.
"I'll cut the umbilical cord now," Anakin told her, igniting his lightsaber and cutting the cord with practised ease. "I'll make sure he's breathing," he said next, attaching the lightsaber to his belt again after turning it off. He rubbed the baby's chest with his hand briskly, forcing the boy to breathe.
"Come on, Luke. Breathe. Don't be a tease," he rubbed the baby's chest in circles now and applied a little bit of pressure.
"What's going on?" Padme asked in the weakest voice.
"I don't know," Anakin replied, worrying at his lips, "I can't make him breathe." He turned the boy on to his side gently and rubbed his chest and back, sandwiching the tiny body between his hands. Just then, he realized the wrinkled little face was more blue than grey. "Luke!" he shouted.
"What's happening?" Padme wailed.
"His face is getting blue! He's suffocating!"
"No! Anakin, do something! Don't let him die! Please, don't let him die!" Padme sobbed. She tried to sit up, but she had no strength left. She could only hold Leia to her breast before blacking out.
"I won't. I'll die first!" Anakin vowed, opening the baby's mouth with his fingers and bending forward.
The young Jedi knew the basic first aid manoeuvres. He knew how to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and he guessed that if the baby's airways were obstructed at some point and he wanted to clear them, he had to suck out instead of breathing in. Closing the tiny nose delicately with his gloved fingers, he held the little mouth open and brought his own mouth down on it, sucking out hard. He heard a gurgling sound within the small ribcage.
"Come on, Luke! Don't do this to us!" Anakin encouraged his son before trying again. The little body's total stillness gave him the creeps. He almost seemed to be... Refusing to consider the idea, Anakin went on, ignoring the increasingly blue colour that spread all over the baby's face, and paying no attention to the tears that streamed down his cheeks.
Unexpectedly, a Dark and greedy presence he had forgotten completely in the last few hours slammed into his mind.
'I can save her and your child. Come with me and I will save them, Darth Vader. Return to me. Return to me...'
"Nooooo!" Anakin's head snapped up. The sight before him made him jerk backwards in shock.
His wife lay unconscious on a pool of blood. Leia moved her little arms and legs across her mother's torso, clinging to her top, as if trying to wake her up.
"Padme!" he moaned. Terror as he had never experienced before filled his mind and heart. He looked from his dying wife to his dying child and back, utterly torn.
Either Padme or Luke.
Whatever choice he made, it would kill him.
He brought up his dirty hands and covered his eyes with his fists. He knew that fear led to the Dark Side, but fear was was the only emotion in him right here and now.
'I will save them. Return to me. Return to me now...' the evilly seductive voice resounded closer and closer inside him, breaking through the shields he had erected, one by one.
Either his soul or his loved ones. Either Darkness or Light.
Now or never.
'Don't let him die! Please, don't let him die!'
Padme's last words echoed strong and resolute in his weakening mind, and blindly obeying them, Anakin bent down and started sucking out again.
'Come on, son. Open your mind to me and I will save them. Tell me where you are and I will send a shuttle after you. I will save your wife. I will save your child. You will never be alone again. You will belong forever. With me. The power over life and death, young one. Unlimited power. I will save them. I will save them...'
Anakin's mind spun in a maelstrom of torment and indecision. Palpatine had found his price and he wouldn't give up until he yielded, until he owned him, knowing this was the only way he could win.
His blurry eyes settled then on the inert form of his son. Reaching out, he cradled Luke's head in one hand and caressed his blue lips with the other.
"Please, little one. Fight! I need you! The pull is so strong that I cannot resist him. I'm not as strong as I thought I was. You are my strength. Please! If I lose you too, I'll lose myself forever."
Silence was his only answer.
Anakin closed his eyes in defeat, knowing this was the end. Bending forward one last time, he brought his mouth over the baby's and sucked out with his last hope.
And just as the final barrier within Anakin's mind collapsed and Palpatine's surged forward through the now open link to take him, a stronger consciousness, full of Light and love, penetrated through the open pathways, took firm root and merged with the young Jedi's, cutting all access to Palpatine's malign mind. Anakin heard the Sith Lord's animal scream as he beat a hasty retreat; the prey he almost had, lost to him for good.
The young man moved back with a start and spat out the thick liquid that had been obstructing his son's airways. His eyes opened wide when they met his child's. They were big and blue, just like his own. The baby took deep and fast intakes of breath, and the bluish colour began disappearing from his face.
"T-that's it, Luke. Breathe. Come on, angel, come back to me." Anakin stroked his son's chest lovingly, desperate for the physical contact.
A few seconds later, the baby's respiration returned to normal. He looked at Anakin and his lips curved upward in an unmistakable smile. His little arms jerked up and down excitedly, reaching out to him, and the happiest laughter burst from him, resounding through every corner of his father's heart.
Breaking into tears at last, Anakin took the little body in his arms and held it to his chest. Luke reached up and took hold of his thumb in his tiny hand.
The young man gasped as a mental link flashed open. He immediately recognized the strong, warm and loving presence that had thrown Palpatine from his mind, disabling it to the Sith Lord for always.
"It was you!" he exclaimed, moving back and staring at his son in total awe.
The baby smiled at him non-stop, making funny gurgling noises, his eyes riveted on Anakin.
The underdeveloped consciousness touching his own didn't send any words. It couldn't. But it flooded his mind with feelings. Feelings of warmth, need, protection and love. So much love that Anakin drowned in it, starved for it.
Truly never alone. Belonging forever with everything that truly mattered. He recognized those feelings. He had felt them the night he had bonded with his children while Padme slept at their home in Coruscant.
His eyes turned to his wife then, and his heart shattered in a billion tiny pieces.
He had made a choice. Now he would have to live with it for the rest of his life.
He edged closer to Padme's body. She was leaning back against the boulder, her eyes closed. She seemed to be sound asleep, but the young Jedi knew better. She was gone.
The pain was so immense and all-encompassing that Anakin couldn't breathe. He bit his lower lip until he drew blood.
Luke's loud cry snapped him out of that state, and he looked down at him.
"This is your mother, my little one," Anakin turned the baby in his arms so he could look at her. "She loved you more than her own life, and she gave it up for you. You will never get to know her, but I swear you will never forget her, as long as I'm around to tell you everything about her. To you and your sister." His eyes turned to Leia, who still wriggled on her mother's chest, pulling at her top desperately.
Luke's eyes turned from his mother to his sister, just as Leia's turned to him.
The moment the two babies' eyes locked, something happened. Anakin felt it all over his body, as if a shockwave had hit him at point-blank.
Time and space disappeared. It was as if he had entered an alternate dimension of reality, where the laws of physics didn't apply.
Following an impulse, he brought Luke closer to his sister, and the two siblings held hands. Anakin felt a surge of something, like electricity. But it was so much more than that. Like a higher consciousness the three of them had formed. A consciousness of Love beyond any boundaries, beyond any limits. And Anakin recognized it with his heart, not with his mind.
The Force. In its purest, most genuine form. Like a living entity that beat deep within each one of them and connected them with one another. It enveloped them in a bubble of warmth and power. The most selfless power.
Anakin had never known such beauty. It cleansed his soul and washed away his every twisted dream of control. Under such glorious perfection, his arrogance and pride shamed him and made him feel small and ugly.
But then, he felt that consciousness wrapping itself around him in the sweetest welcome. He'd transcended his faults through his unselfish love for his wife and his children, and their love for him.
Unaware of what he was doing, he grasped Padme's lifeless hand.
A blast of white light, more beautiful than anything he'd ever imagined, burst behind his mind's eye, and that was the last thing he knew.
Anakin's eyes fluttered open when he felt the touch of a loving hand sliding through his hair.
He knew that touch. He had felt it countless times when he'd lay beside his wife in the cozy warmth of their bed in Coruscant.
The loving hand moved unhurriedly, as if they had all the time in the world. He purred happily, until his eyes grew accustomed to the fading light of the setting suns.
He sat up with a start, remembering in a flash everything that had transpired in the last few hours.
Padme! His Padme had...
He turned about and froze.
His wife was smiling up at him, her arms full of sleeping babies.
"PADME!" he cried out, holding her in a crushing embrace.
"Careful, darling!" she warned him, her voice full of love and laughter.
Anakin only opened his arms wider and included their children in his bearhug.
"Oh, my love! I thought I'd lost you!"
"Never, Anakin. Never!" Padme reassured him. Unable to return the hug, she nuzzled his hair and cuddled up to him needfully.
Anakin couldn't let go. It seemed like a dream, and he feared it would slip through his fingers, just like his mother's life had, not that long ago.
"We are here with you. We'll be with you forever," Padme whispered into his ear, as if she had read his thoughts.
"Yes. Forever," he swallowed the lump in his throat and wiped his tears away with her silky brown hair.
A soft baby gurgle made the young Jedi move back a little. Leia's eyes were open and looked at him curiously.
"Hello, my little princess," Anakin greeted his daughter, bending down and rubbing noses with her playfully.
Leia wrinkled her nose, trying to relieve the ticklish sensation. She reached out and touched her father's cheeks. Anakin turned his head and kissed the tiny palms, blinking back tears.
"We must find a shelter for the night," he said, looking up at his wife but still very much clinging to his daughter's tiny hands.
Padme looked around. There was nothing but sand as far as the eye could see. She was in no condition to walk, and she knew that Anakin would never leave them to look for help. They would share the same destiny.
The young man stood up and his eyes searched all around them, verifying what his wife had already seen. He bit his lips in despair. How would they survive the night in the desert? They would freeze to death. His Jedi training gave him an edge on his family, but Padme and especially the children didn't stand a chance. He dropped to one knee and
met his wife's eyes.
Padme smiled at him shakily, knowing what her husband didn't dare to voice.
Without a word, Anakin picked up the water bottle that was half-buried in the sand and made Padme take a few sips. Then, he placed the bottle over Leia's lips and made her drink a little. Next, he turned to his sleeping son.
"Luke," he called softly.
Immediately, the breathtaking blue eyes opened and the baby looked at his father, totally alert.
"I can't believe it," Padme muttered to herself.
Anakin smiled at his wife.
"I will explain later," he said with a wink. He brought the bottle above Luke's lips and poured a trickle of water down his son's throat. Luke swallowed eagerly and then looked up at Anakin, letting out a chirpy sound.
Anakin smiled again, full of love. He bent down and kissed one chubby cheek and then the other.
All of a sudden, his sharpened senses felt something. His head snapped up.
"Someone's coming," he announced. He jumped to his feet and scanned their surroundings. Beyond the still smoking remains of Padme's ship, he made out the shape of something approaching. His acute hearing picked up faint noises of engines.
It could be anyone, from natives riding to the rescue to scavengers, or even worse, looters. They would only know their intentions when they were face to face.
"Cover the children," the young Jedi instructed his wife.
Padme nodded silently and covered Luke and Leia with the few pieces of Anakin's cloak they still hadn't used. Then, she tried to keep them hidden by pressing them up against her body. The siblings didn't make a sound of protest at being so rudely squashed.
The engine noises gradually got closer and closer. Anakin half-closed his eyes, trying to make out the forms of those approaching, but they were against the light, and the suns were setting awfully fast.
Not wanting to be taken by surprise, he drew out his lightsaber and ignited it, adopting a defensive stance.
A dozen speeders surrounded them a few seconds later. Anakin stepped back a little, shielding his wife and his children with his own body, holding his lightsaber high above his head in an impressively threatening pose.
"Take it easy, son!" a muffled male voice cried out from behind the mask that protected the man's face from the desert winds.
Something in Anakin recognized the voice. Instinct made him look at the man's legs. The right one was missing.
The pieces fell into place. He finally realized where they were and why the desert and the twin suns had a familiar look to them. Heaving a sigh of relief, he turned off his weapon.
"Cliegg Lars!" he walked up to the speeder and reached out.
The man shook warmly the outstretched hand, putting his mask aside.
"Looks like you had a bumpy landing," he commented, looking down at Padme, who was leaning back against the boulder.
"To put it mildly," she replied.
"Are you all right?" Owen asked her, getting off his speeder and approaching her. She was a bit pale, and the fact that she hadn't stood up seemed to confirm his suspicions.
"We must take them to Anchorhead's medical centre as soon as possible," Anakin knelt down beside his wife. "I think they will be fine, but I'm not willing to take any chances." He wrapped his arms around a bundle that was pressed up against Padme's side.
"Take them?" Owen asked, perplexed.
Anakin stood and handed the bundle to his step-brother oh-so-carefully.
"I'll be damned!" the young man exclaimed. "It's a newborn!"
"They're two weeks premature," Padme said, cradling Leia to her breast. "We need a doctor to see them."
"Of course!" Cliegg smiled exuberantly at Shmi's son. His dead wife would be so happy to know that her beloved child was a father now! He could almost see her holding the babies in her arms and coming up with the most extraordinary similarities between their features and their parents'. He held back the pang of bitter nostalgia. He would miss her for as long as he lived, but life had to go on. And go on it did. He only had to look at those two babies to experience the most comforting feeling of hope, of continuity. "Owen, give your speeder to Anakin and his family. You'll ride with me," he instructed his son.
The young Jedi's chest filled with gentle pride. His family. The source of all his strength. He would love them and protect them with his life, but never giving in to fear and anger. He had a new sense of purpose now. He belonged to something bigger and better than himself. It was his duty and his greatest joy to provide, and nurture, and guide, and love those two little angels with everything he was and everything he had, for Luke and Leia were the best part of him. The best part of them. They were hope and the promise of a better tomorrow, of a brighter future for them all.
In the last few days, he had walked the path of self-destruction, of absolute depravation, only to emerge redeemed and purified by his wife and his children's love. And also, by his own inner strength. Strength he didn't even know he had, and he had discovered when he had thought there was nothing left in him to resist and believe in.
He had found a greater wisdom, a higher sense of being. And he had learned to let go. To give up his unhealthy need to control and bend Destiny to his will. Sometimes he would be able to change things, and sometimes he wouldn't. That was life. He was more privileged than most in many ways, and he had to be grateful for it.
Lost in his musings, he picked up Padme in his arms, who carried Leia in her arms in turn, and placed them on the speeder very gently. Then, he reclaimed Luke from Owen's arms and cradled him to his chest. The baby cooed to him soothingly, and Anakin lost himself in the lulling sound.
'Yes, little one. I love you, too. With all my heart,' he sent to the mind that was forever linked with his own.
His son cuddled against him with a purr, and sent back a myriad of loving feelings and emotions that made the young man want to cry.
Anakin put Luke in his leather vest carefully, pressed up to his heartbeat. Contentment poured out of the baby's mind in waves, and the reborn Jedi knew he had found Peace at last.
He sat behind Padme and looked at his precious daughter, safely held to her mother's bosom.
Hope and future, indeed.
As the speeders zoomed past the crash site, leaving the still smoking wreckage behind, Anakin found it to be a fitting metaphor. The galaxy had entered its darkest time, but it wasn't the time to fight back. For him, it was the time to heal and pick up the pieces of his almost wasted life. The right time would come and, along with all the surviving Jedi and those still loyal to the Republic, Democracy would be restored.
He briefly thought of Mace Windu and Obi-Wan. He prayed for master Windu's soul to forgive his treacherous action that had allowed Palpatine to dispose of him. As for Obi-Wan... Force, everything had been so beautiful between them when they bid each other good-bye! But now he just wanted to disappear someplace where they had never heard of the words Jedi, Sith, war or duty.
His duty now was to his family, and he would commit himself to them in body and soul. He would be patient and trust his feelings. One day, the Force would bring them all together again.
And then, Palpatine's reign of terror would be over.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that they'd happened to crash on Tatooine. It would have been his last choice, but thinking about it, it made sense. It was a hard environment to raise a child, but life had a different pace on Tatooine. Days were longer, slower, perfect for meditation and contemplation. Perfect for a lost man to find his way again.
As long as they had each other, everything would be all right.
Padme pressed up against him and with a smile, Anakin kissed the top of her head, knowing that somehow, she understood and supported him. That was all he'd ever needed.
For the first time in his life, Anakin trusted his Destiny and his own to the Force. It would guide them well.
And for the first time in centuries, a fleeting rainbow appeared for a few seconds in Tatooine's sky, with the last rays of the twin setting suns.