Author's Note: All my long stories are very slow-paced, so I ask you to be patient and stick with me.

I wrote the first 100 pages (the first five chapters) before the release of Revenge of the Sith, so I didn't know what would ultimately make Anakin turn to the Dark Side. Please, bear with me on that.

Also, I never read any EU novels, so some events and planets mentioned in this story will probably have nothing to do with the events portrayed in those books.

Without any further delay, here it is "The Hardest Test." I hope it's worthy of your time. Thank you all.

Luke Skywalker looked at his father's long, slender fingers, deftly putting together the final pieces of his new lightsaber. Watching his father work was like witnessing the finest act of craftmanship. The way those fingers handled every tiny piece and attached it was mesmerizing. It seemed as if he had spent his whole life making lightsabers for a living. Quite a contrast with all the painstaking hours he had spent in Obi-Wan's hut making his own!

At last, Anakin looked up at his son with a boyish triumphant smile and held out the finished lightsaber to him. Reverently, Luke took it in his hand. It was lighter than his own but just as compact and, simply put, a work of art. The handle was longer also. No wonder, since his father's hands were bigger than his. He had maintained the proportions perfectly and adapted them for his bigger size. He caressed the bright, silver handle, and with a look of admiration, held it back to his father.

Anakin shook his head.

"You do it," he invited with a smile.

Luke blinked in astonishment when he understood that his father was inviting him to ignite the lightsaber first. He shook his head vehemently.

"No, it's yours. A lightsaber must be first turned on by its owner."

Anakin arched an eyebrow in amusement.

"Don't tell me you also believe in that age-old superstition."

Luke blushed.

"Well, I was told that a lightsaber should be ignited by its owner first, so that both of them can attune to each other through the Force and..."

"Come on, Luke," Anakin grinned. "A lightsaber is just a weapon, nothing more. It's not a living thing. The Force helps to keep both weapon and owner in tune, but it's got nothing to do with the saber itself."

Luked looked down, feeling embarrassed.

"Besides," Anakin's voice was suddenly full of unashamed affection, "who better to ignite my new lightsaber than the best part of me?"

Luke's eyes met his father's and Anakin smiled tenderly at his son, his eyes reflecting all the love and pride he felt for his child.

Not knowing how to react to those words, Luke took a deep breath and, stepping back a little, ignited his father's lightsaber.

The weapon surged to life with a soft, electric buzz, and the room filled with an orange glow.

"WOW!" Luke couldn't hold back an exclamation of surprise. His father certainly had eclectic tastes. The lightsaber's totally unexpected colour threw him for a loop. The blade was yellow, with a soft orange glow about it. He looked at it in fascination. "What kind of gemstone did you use?" he asked.

"A yellow topaz with ruby incrustations," Anakin replied.

Luke whistled in admiration. The skill necessary to forge such a weapon went far beyond anything he would be able to master in decades. He swung it around for some time, amazed at the lightness and ease with which the weapon responded to him. Finally, he extinguished it and handed it back to his father.

"It's incredible, Father. Just incredible. And I like the colour too. It's so... vibrant."

Anakin let out an impish smile.

"I like it, too. In the final years of the Republic, most Jedi had either green or blue lightsabers."

"Why?" Luke was interested in every little story about the everyday life in the Old Republic. He wanted to know everything about that time, how it was to live back then.

"I have no idea," Anakin answered honestly. "Custom."

"Custom?" Luke asked.

Anakin shrugged.

"It wasn't like that centuries ago, from what I read. Everything was more colourful, more open in every way. But in the end, it became a sort of unspoken agreement. With the sole exception of Master Windu." A fleeting expression of searing pain and guilt crossed Anakin's features, but it passed as quickly as it appeared. "He had a purple lightsaber. I liked it a lot. I thought it was..." he looked at his son and mischievously qualified, "" It was a word that had become very popular among the Coruscant youth lately, and Luke had ended up picking it up. Anakin loved it whenever his son used that expression. He sounded like the typical young man of his time. Which is exactly what he was. Anakin was untold happy for the fact that his son had had a normal youth and teenage years. Quite the opposite to what he had.

Luke blushed a bright crimson at his father's playfulness. It had been over four months since the birth of the New Republic and in that time, they had come to know each other so well that from the outside no one could tell where Anakin ended and Luke began and vice versa. Luke's respect and admiration for Anakin had increased exponentially. Not only as his father and a Jedi Master, but as his superior officer in the Fleet and his Vice-President.

As far as their private lives was concerned, Anakin had encouraged him over and over to call him "Dad" because he claimed that "Father" was too formal. But Luke simply couldn't bring himself to call him anything but "Father." Since he was a little boy, he had dreamed of a different life where he'd have a father to call by that precious word. Now that his dream had come true, he just couldn't stop saying it, both out loud and in their mental exchanges.

It had taken him four long months to convince his father to make a new lightsaber. Anakin had been procrastinating all that time, but Luke had insisted, and persisted, knowing only too well the reason behind his father's delaying tactics, and only too aware of the fact that the longer it took the more difficult it would be for Anakin to wield a lightsaber again.

Today, Anakin had taken the first step. Now Luke had to help him to take the next, and hardest, step of all.

"Now that you have a new lightsaber, what do you say to a sparring partner?" he softly asked, drawing out his own lightsaber.

Anakin paled and stiffened.

"No, Son. I can't."

Luke stepped closer and put one hand on his father's shoulder.

"Come on, Father. I can't use a seeker forever. I need a real person to practise with. My abilities with the lightsaber will rust at this rate."

Anakin shook his head. He was trembling now.

"Father, please. It's time to leave the past behind, where it belongs," Luke sat down beside the quivering man and wrapped his arm around his shoulders. "I know you'll never hurt me. I trust you with my life. If I can do this, why can't you?"

Slowly, Anakin's pain-filled eyes met his son's.

"I-I'm afraid," he stuttered. "The memories... I can't shake them off. I just can't."

Luke bent forward and leaned his forehead on his father's temple.

"Shhhh, it's all right. I'll help you. We'll help each other," he whispered. "We need to do this and you know it. The first step's always the hardest. We only have to be strong enough to take it," he squeezed his father's shoulder. "I'm here with you. We can do this, together. Trust me. Trust us!"

Anakin sought the warmth of his child's blue gaze, and lost himself in its love and infinite trust. Luke really wasn't afraid of doing this. He could see how eager his son was to practise with him, to spar with his father as a team, not as enemies. Luke needed this to put those terrifying memories to rest for good and replace them with new memories of sparring with his father, not fighting against him. Luke wanted to learn from him, wanted his father to teach him, to be the master he had so longed for. But if they let Anakin's fear win, it would always stand there, mocking them, reminding them of the hurdle they had failed to conquer.

Anakin swallowed the lump in his throat and biting his lower lip, he nodded, acknowledging the truth in his son's words.

Luke smiled and, with a final squeeze on his father's shoulder, he stood up and walked to the centre of the big room.

They were in the late Emperor's Palace, that had been the Old Republic's Jedi Temple. Mon Mothma, following Anakin's heartfelt suggestion, had agreed for the building to be remodelled as it had been in the past. A place of Wisdom, Light and Peace. They were still halfway, but a third part of the Temple had already returned to its glory days.

Anakin rose to his feet and crossed the room until he stood facing his son. He was still trembling, but he made a valiant effort to suffuse his spirit with calm. He loved his child, he was one with the Force. They would calm each other's remaining fears and nothing would ever stand between them again.

He ignited his lightsaber, and Luke responded in kind. They stood there, immobile; the buzz of the lightsabers the only sounds audible in the room.

Luke's eyes softened at the sight of the sweaty, shaking hands holding the yellow weapon. This wasn't easy for him, either. His own memories of attacking his father in rage, his soul infused with hatred and fear, and cutting off his mechanical hand returned to him in a sudden, brutal flashback, and his lightsaber trembled in his grasp.

To anyone who didn't know better it would look comical. Two formidable adversaries facing each other, both of them trembling like leaves, not daring to make a move.

Acting on a sudden impulse, Luke stepped back a little and started swinging his lightsaber in basic warming-up movements. Getting the hint, Anakin followed him suit and they started circling each other, describing harmless arcs around each other's form with their lightsabers, almost like two dancers, working in instinctive, eerie harmony. Their bodies moved lithely, noiselessly, studying each other with ever-increasing admiration. Fear evaporated like a bad dream as they observed one another, mesmerized by the other's gracefulness.

After several minutes of perfectly synchronized movements, they slowed down until they stopped altogether, in a classic salute. Their eyes met beyond their blades and they smiled. Extinguishing their lightsabers, they let out a long breath and put their arms down.

They were speechless. It had been infinitely better than they had imagined this first time to be. Fear had been replaced by a soft hum of joyful excitement running up and down their spines. They could do this. It was good and right. Their different styles had blended beautifully, complementing each other to perfection. And they had been only warming up!

"Incredible," Anakin managed to blurt out, not daring to breathe, lest he broke the magical spell.

Luke just nodded, his eyes wide open in wonder.

"What if you attack me now, so I can study your technique and your movements better?" Anakin asked, amazed at his own courage to make such a request.

"Only if you attack me later so I can do some studying of my own," Luke replied, a teasing twinkle in his eyes.

"I can make no promises," Anakin said, his voice dropping an octave. "But I'll try," he muttered, taking a long, deep breath.

Luke stood still for a moment, closing his eyes and relaxing noticeably. When he opened them, he winked at his father in an obvious attempt to ease any lingering fear, and with a respectful salute, he ignited his lightsaber. After asking his father's permission through his eyes, he surged forward with an impressive somersault. Anakin stepped back, giving his son a place to land before him. When he did, the big man blocked Luke's half-hearted blow effortlessly.

Luke displayed all the range of blows and pirouettes he had been taught, holding back the power of his lunges as much as possible. He gathered momentum as he progressed, until Anakin thought he was fighting a spinning top. The boy became a blur that reminded Anakin of Yoda when he had fought Count Dooku on Geonosis. He deflected his child's strokes by sheer instinct, since he couldn't see his form clearly and had no idea where the next blow was going to come from. If Luke could do that six months ago in the second Death Star, Anakin was learning a lesson in humility now. Luke could have killed him easily back then. Only now was he truly aware of how much his son had (mostly) held back on the Death Star.

When Luke had had enough of jumping and spinning around, he slowed down and showed off his most refined sword technique. Anakin could hardly keep his jaw from hitting the floor. He recognized movements out of all Seven Forms of Jedi fighting. Still, Luke seemed to favour Forms IV, VI and a bit less of Form VII, since this wasn't a fully-fledged fight. Even so, Anakin had the feeling that most of Luke's fighting was instinctive. From what his son had told him, Ben only had time to teach him the basic movements of Form I. It was also obvious that Yoda, a Form IV master, had decided on a mixed Forms training. He had picked up movements out of all Seven Forms and put them together so Luke could have the widest range of moves. Consenting to train someone as "old" as his son had been miraculous enough, so it made sense that Yoda broke his own rules all the way, given the limited time they would have at their disposal.

Still, it was impossible that Luke had learnt all those things from Yoda. He had been by himself most of the time, especially when fighting him on Bespin and on the second Death Star. Luke had improvised for the most part then, as he was improvising now; he could feel it.

Luke's instincts would never cease to amaze him. He was attuned to the Force to a level Anakin couldn't even begin to fathom. Luke was sheer instinct, coupled with a childlike innocence and curiosity; and with an endless hunger for improvement and betterment. His boy was Goodness personified. And he tapped from that Goodness in everything he did. Anakin had never felt so safe and protected as when he basked in his child's heart-warming, soothing aura of selfless love.

When Luke had enough and stopped, extinguishing his lightsaber, Anakin remained standing before him, staring at him as if seeing him for the very first time. Luke's respiration was mildly agitated as he looked at his father with barely restrained eagerness to know his opinion.

"Well?" he asked, excited like a little kid.

'Let me catch my breath first,' Anakin sent through their mental link, unable to speak out loud.

Luke arched an eyebrow in amusement.

"Would you mind telling me how do you do that?" Anakin asked, his voice dripping with admiration and wonder.

Luke's face turned a bright red. It seemed to him that he spent around 70% of his time with his father blushing.

"Your fighting style is simply fascinating," Anakin said, making a great effort to pull himself together. "I would dare to say that you've created a new Form of Jedi fighting. A blending of all Seven Forms into one perfect, harmonic style. Every new movement complements the one before in a never-ending crescendo. At this rate, you will be virtually invincible, Son."

Luke didn't know how his father did that. Whenever he spoke to him in that tone of voice, he couldn't stop turning bright red.

"Ahhh, I didn't know about those Seven Forms of fighting," he managed to say. "Master Yoda simply told me that there were several forms of Jedi fighting, and he was going to teach me the most relevant movements from all of them, so I could have the widest range of assets possible."

"And he succeeded," Anakin nodded. "I could see movements out of all Seven Forms. But you seem to favour Form IV most of all. No wonder, since it was Yoda's fighting style. But it suits you, too. It fits your physique."

"What's Form IV?" Luke asked.

Anakin made a very expressive gesture, drawing circles in the air with his forefinger.

"It's the most acrobatic form of fighting. Somersaults, jumping, spinning, cartwheeling and such."

"And what's your favoured Form?" Luke questioned, walking up to his father, vividly interested.

"Form V," Anakin answered. "It's pretty aggressive, but I've always preferred to put an end to any fighting as soon as possible. You render your opponent useless and you can move on to more practical things." Anakin made an ironical, self-deprecating face. "As you know, I was never good at that special virtue known as patience."

Luke smiled at his father affectionately, sitting down on the chair Anakin had vacated a few minutes before. That might have been true in the past, but not anymore. His father had learnt a lot in the last few months. Both of them had.

"And what does Form V consist of?"

Luke looked so much like a pupil in a classroom that Anakin had to smile at the gleam in his son's eyes. Such hunger for knowledge! He felt humbled all of a sudden. To have the honour of teaching such an extraordinary person! He prayed to be worthy of such a precious task.

"It focuses on physical strength. You basically use your opponent's movements against them. Deflecting their blows and attacking relentlessly."

Luke nodded slowly, absorbing every word.

Quietly, Anakin sat down beside his child. Immediately, Luke turned to him, his eyes flashing with insatiable curiosity.

"Tell me, Father!" he asked, almost bouncing on his chair with enthusiasm.

Anakin burst out laughing. His son's eagerness was contagious. He looked so much like a little boy sometimes that Anakin had to hold back the impulse to hug the stuffing out of him.

"All right, Luke. I'll tell you everything I remember," he relented.

The two Jedi extinguished their lightsabers once more. They were somewhat breathless, but admiration and wonder lingered in the air like a warm bubble.

Luke stared at his father, speechless. The way Anakin had mastered his greatest fear and consented to spar with him despite his stark terror of playing the aggressive party, filled him with more respect than he thought he could possibly feel for anyone. It had taken him some time to see past his admiring filial feelings and start studying his father's technique from an objective point of view, but he found it to be the most polished, elegant style he had ever seen. His father's tall, muscular and graceful physique balanced his eminently agressive approach in an odd, fascinating way. Not one gratuitous movement. He was precision personified.

'You fight like a dancer,' he sent through their link.

Anakin's eyes opened wide. It was the first time anyone defined his fighting style with such words. They were so honest that his cheeks reddened.

"I see I have a lot to learn," Luke said out loud.

"We both have," Anakin reached out and mussed his child's hair in their favourite gesture of affection. "But I'm in no hurry. It's the journey that's important, not the ending."

Luke nodded, seeing something in his father's eyes. A sort of sad longing that broke his heart.

"What is it?" he asked.

Anakin closed his eyes. Nothing escaped those caring eyes.

"It is nothing. I just remembered something from when I was young, that's all."

"Something from your fellow Jedi?" Luke guessed.

Anakin nodded, looking away.

"Two fellow Jedi, to be exact. Luminara Unduli and her padawan, Barriss Offee."

"Tell me about them," Luke coaxed, feeling there was more there than met the eye.

Anakin looked up and took a deep breath.

"They had a relationship that I... I envied." His gaze softened. "They were a team in every sense of the word. When they fought together... they truly became one. Nothing and no one could stand against them. Their bond felt like a physical thing. Mystical even."

The tremor in his father's voice brought Luke closer to him.

"I envied what they had. I always felt so lonely deep down. In the core of my being, I had no one... no one to connect with... no one to share all the fears that haunted me, my dreams and hopes. On the occasions when I managed to connect with Obi-Wan and we allowed our friendship to show, those were the most fulfilling moments for me. But I craved for more. I wanted that mystical belonging. I... I needed... I just needed..."

Luke's heart ached. The void in his father's soul resonated so deep within him...

The only disadvantage of this sublime bond was that when his father was struck by the pain and horror of his past deeds, the young man was also torn apart by it. It got magnified by his own love for his father and his hopelessness to heal something that would never be healed. Oh, he helped; he knew he did! But it was terrible to know that those feelings would accompany Anakin for as long as he lived.

Luke's respect and veneration for his father knew no bounds. For his resignation and willingness to endure that torment.

His own pain and longing were more than a match for those feelings. Since he had been old enough to remember he was seized by bouts of fathomless need that no one could calm. He woke up screaming in the middle of the night and nothing Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen did, was enough to assuage his grief. It felt like he'd spent most of his life reaching out to a ghost that seemed to mock his loneliness.

Anakin felt responsible for all the things his child had lacked. Within their minds there was no deceiving, and he felt like dying every time he saw the depth of Luke's need. Of him.

But they had each other now. They could heal that pain and soothe those inconsolable feelings.

"Father," Luke whispered, his voice filled with wonder, "are you asking me to be your partner?"

Anakin shook himself out of his painful reverie. He smiled self-deprecatingly and looked down.

"You know me too well, little one," he replied, resorting to humour, as he usually did whenever his emotions were on the verge of spilling over.

Luke prayed for the day to come when his father wouldn't need to resort to either irony or humour to admit he needed something. He seemed to feel guilty for needing anything. Possibly because he knew that his need would be satisfied and he didn't consider himself worthy. He, who had denied people's very life.

He reached out and placed his hand on his father's shoulder.

"It will be my honour, Father," he responded, squeezing gently.

Anakin looked up at his child and shook his head.

"I can't ask you to do that, Son."

"You don't have to ask, I'm offering," Luke replied. "It would be a shame for such a lovely form of fighting to be lost or forgotten. By the time we feel confident enough to train others, we must have gathered every possible scrap of knowledge to pass on to them."

As usual, Luke disarmed him with his flawless logic. Once again, Anakin felt like a padawan in front of his son. He met his his eyes.

"As you wish," he conceded humbly.

Luke returned the soft stare.

"Let us start," he encouraged happily.

Anakin took a deep breath, reaching into long-forgotten memories.

"I remember they assumed a prearranged position and they maintained it in battle at all times, always protecting one another and not allowing anyone to penetrate their defenses. On one occasion, I witnessed their fully-fledged fight against a whole squadron. They started spiralling until they became a blur, a tornado that wiped out everything in its way. I couldn't make out their forms," his eyes filled with wonder. "Somehow, they... they managed to alter their molecular structure through the Force. I can't explain how they did it. Even today, it awes me."

Luke was mesmerized by his father's words. The emotion they conveyed struck a deep chord within him.

The perfect partnership. Absolute mutual understanding. A supernatural bond between two souls willing to die for each other...

Anakin blinked and looked at his child.

"Do you really want to try, Son? I never want to impose on you."

"I do want it, Father. I need it, just as much as you do." Luke's heart overflowed with sincerity and passion.

And in those gentle blue eyes, so like his own, Anakin saw the truth. He smiled, his own heart overflowing with more gratitude than he would ever be able to express.

"All right, then. My lessons will be disjointed at best because I don't remember much, only the few times I saw them train and the things I inferred from that." He took a deep breath, realizing for the first time he was actually training his son.

For a split second, he wondered if he would be up to such a responsibility. Was he even worthy of walking in the shadow of the countless Masters who had come before him? Yoda, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn? Oh, Force!

But then, he saw Luke's eyes sparkle with such joy and absolute trust that all his fears simply vanished.

Half an hour later, a sweaty Anakin turned to his son with a soft smile.

"Very good. That movement was exactly as I remembered it."

An equally sweaty Luke smiled from ear to ear.

"Even the fact that you're left-handed and I'm right-handed works to our advantage, because we're essentially mirroring each other's moves."

Luke nodded happily. This was just as perfect as he had imagined it to be. This was his every dream come true!

"Now that we can manage to keep our positions, what do you say to throwing a few seekers in to the mix and seeing what happens?" Anakin winked at his son, his eyes flashing youthfully.

Luke nodded enthusiastically, unable to believe the change in his father. He looked so young, so exuberant! It was amazing. There was a mischievous look in his eyes that told him this was Anakin 25 years ago. Full of life and in a permanent state of excitement. Enjoying life to the fullest. He wished it could be like this forever.

"Four of them?" he suggested, winking back it him.

"You got it!" Anakin replied, sounding alarmingly like Han.

Luke's eyes followed his father as he returned with four seekers and activated them. They remained suspended high above the floor and Anakin assumed his position, back to back with his child.

They took a deep breath.

'Ready?' Anakin asked through their mind-link.

'Ready, Father,' Luke replied eagerly.

They ignited their lightsabers in unison and the four seekers came to life, firing at will.

Anakin tried to absorb most of the attack, instinctively protecting his child, but Luke wouldn't let him. He was literally pushing him out of the way, struggling to keep this between equals.

Anakin understood that in real life there would be no time for chivalrous behaviour, and that each of them would have to take care of his own problems while fighting to keep their space impregnable, always trusting their partner to keep their half of the field safe. If any of them doubted the other's ability to protect them both, it would be fatal.

It was the hardest decision to make, but little by little, Anakin granted Luke his half of the space. Only when he started minding two of the seekers, trusting Luke to take care of the other two, did the technique start working.

Anakin lost track of time, and feeling eerily in tune with his son's movements, he concentrated on their joint efforts with everything he was.

Somehow, everything came to a dead stop and he found himself back to back with his child, his turned-off lightsaber in hand.

"Holy mother of droids!" An unmistakable voice echoed in the big chamber.

Father and son turned about and saw Han and Leia standing by the closed doors, staring at them as if they had grown another head.

"What?" Luke asked, somewhat dazzled.

"How in hell do you do that?!" Han asked back, walking up to them, followed by an open-mouthed Princess. "I've never seen anything like that! You were moving so fast I couldn't make out the shape of your bodies. They were all..." He paused, unable to find the words.

"Blurry," Leia provided, totally stunned.

"Right, blurry," Han nodded at his beloved.

Blushing and feeling suddenly awkward, Luke changed the subject.

"Want to find out for yourself what it's like?" he asked his sister for the umpteenth time.

Leia shook her head, feeling both frustrated and guilty.

"With all my obligations I hardly have any free time. Days just aren't long enough, Luke."

"That's an excuse and you know it," Luke's intense stare was inescapable.

Brother and sister exchanged a long look, until Leia finally looked away, throwing up her hands in defeat.

"All right, all right. I'll see if I can find some time," she relented.

"Good!" Luke smiled happily.

"But please, not now," Han butted in. "We came to let you know it's lunch time. You've been here for over four hours."

"Four hours?!" Anakin and Luke exclaimed simultaneously.

"You know, honey?" Han began conversationally, wrapping his arm around Leia's shoulders and holding her close. "Sometimes, I think these two are the real twins, not you and your brother."

"Really," Leia agreed, pursuing her beloved's joke.

Luke punched Han's arm lightly.

"You're too funny," he teased.

"Well, maybe you're triplets," Han winked surreptitiously at Leia, who looked away to hide her mirth.

"Han, you're asking for it," Luke warned his friend.

"And what are you going to do? Levitate me, tie a thread around my ankles and carry me like a balloon?" Han challenged.

"Don't tempt me," Luke mock-threatened, following him and his sister out of the room.

Han looked back at him and stuck out his tongue.

Luke answered back accordingly.

Anakin followed the youngsters with a big smile on his face and shaking his head patronizingly.

Lunch progressed uneventfully. Luke and Anakin were quite hungry after all their exertions and they ate with gusto.

Sitting right in front of them, Han and Leia were once again lost in their own private world, staring deep into each other's eyes.

Chewie and Lando joined them shortly after, but the two lovers didn't hear their arrival or their greeting.

Luke made a pretended disgusted face and looked at his father, sitting on his left.

"Disgusting, don't you think?"

Anakin shrugged in amusement. He was very happy to see his daughter so in love with such a noble, caring and brave man. He couldn't think of anyone more worthy than Han Solo.

His musings were interrupted by Luke, asking his sister to please pass him the basket with the bread.

Leia didn't even turn her head.

Luke turned his head and shrugged helplessly at his father.

"What do you think? Hell froze over!" he commented. Next, he turned back to his sister and best friend. "Can any of you please pass me the bread?" He asked for a second, and then for the third time. "Bread. Please."

No answer.

Lando chuckled and Chewie snorted hilariously.

Finally, Luke resorted to using the Force, and he levitated the basket up to his hand.

The two lovers saw the basket flying past them and they immediately turned their heads and saw Luke helping himself to a slice of bread.

"You could've asked instead of showing off," Han bugged.

"I did; three times," Luke replied tiredly.

"You could get up and pick it up like the rest of us," Leia joined in Han's bugging.

"You're just jealous because you can't do it," Luke teased.

"Nya-nya-nya," Leia made a face, getting into the banter headfirst.

Luke looked up in an exaggerated display of patience.

Leia watched her brother through slitted eyes.

Luke was calmly sipping at his juice when his glass suddenly tipped over, and spilled its remaining content all over his front. The young man yelped in surprise and jerked back, but it was too late already. He was soaking wet.

Everybody at the table jumped too at the realization that it hadn't been Luke's clumsiness that had tipped over the glass. Anakin's eyes opened wide in astonishment.

"Very good, little sister," Luke commended Leia, instantly knowing what had happened there. "I see you've been practising on your own."

Leia arched one eyebrow and looked at her brother smugly, but her self-satisfied expression was short-lived. A flying drop of sauce splashed her right on the tip of her nose, leaving it all red.

"Hey kid, you've got great aim!" Han congratulated Luke, earning his beloved's furious stare. He put up his hands conciliatorily, palms out.

"A lot to learn, still you have," Luke gave a flawless impersonation of Yoda, that left Anakin with his mouth hanging open.

Leia had no idea whom her brother was imitating or if he was mocking her, but fuming now, she tried it harder than ever. An apple went flying aimlessly and Luke dodged it easily.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," he told his sister as the little potatoes on her plate rearranged and formed a smilie.

"You... You..." Leia pushed with her mind. The bowl containing all fruits overturned and a dozen pieces of fruit rolled all over the table, ending up on the floor.

Right then, her napkin floated up to her face and wiped away the sauce mark on her nose, and then wiped her mouth in an elegant sweep.

"That's it!" Leia exploded. Plates, pieces of fruit and cutlery went flying and everybody sitting at the table ducked their heads, trying to avoid them.

Han and Anakin managed to maintain an unflappable stance in the midst of the 'battle'.

"Picture them as children like this," Han told the older man, as if they were the only two adults in the room.

Anakin rolled his eyes exaggeratedly, but inside, he would have given anything to witness such a scene with his beloved Padmé beside him, while their eight year old children 'fought' like that.

"Ouch!" he exclaimed suddenly, when a spinning fork pricked his forefinger.

Luke immediately stopped throwing things about and stilled all the flying objects, that fell to the floor, clattering.

"Father! Are you all right?" he asked in a shaking voice tinged with regret.

"I'm all right, Son, don't worry," Anakin reassured his boy, sucking off the drop of blood on his fingertip.

Leia's eyebrows skyrocketed.

"I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have... I'm too old for this..." Luke babbled nervously.

"Easy, Luke, easy," Anakin placed his hand on Luke's arm, trying to calm him down. "It's good to let one's hair down from time to time," he squeezed the strong bicep. "Accidents happen. It *is* all right," he smiled.

"OW!" Leia groaned, drawing everybody's attention.

"What's wrong?" Luke asked.

"My head," Leia replied, rubbing her temples in circles, "it's throbbing."

"You've expended a lot of effort levitating all those objects. Until you're properly trained, you should take it easy," Anakin rose to his feet. "I know a technique to soothe the pain."

"No!" Leia exclaimed immediately. "I'd rather have Luke doing it, if you don't mind." She composed herself quickly and made an apologetic face at her father. Truth was, she was wary of trusting her mind and thoughts to Anakin. She knew she was hurting him, but she couldn't help it.

Anakin didn't show any outward signs of being hurt, but everybody knew better.

"By all means," he complied, sitting down again as Luke stood up and approached his sister, squeezing his father's shoulder in passing.

Luke stood behind Leia, applied his fingertips to her temples and began a soothing and thoroughly relaxing technique his father had taught him. A technique he had experienced firsthand quite a few times by now and he considered a real blessing.

"Did your head throb too when you first tried levitating things?" Leia asked her brother in a soft whisper, so relieved she felt already.

"At first," Luke replied. "But mostly because I tried too hard. Eventually, I discovered I only had to calm down, relax and sort of 'coax' things into floating up to my hand. Detachment was the key. The Force is always there, you only have to learn to recognize it and find the method that works for you."

Leia absorbed every word and nodded to herself.

"And what's easier for you? Levitating things? Acrobatics? Fighting? Meditation?"

"I find everything easy." Luke replied honestly. "In the beginning, I was too impatient and emotional, and I wanted everything now. It took me some time to overcome my impatience and control my emotions. And especially, opening my mind to concepts I considered impossible and taken for a fact all my life. Being an adult was a hindrance in many aspects." He let out a soft sigh. "But back to your question, when I learned just how things were done, everything became equally easy for me to do. I don't know if it's just me or if it was the same for the other Jedi..." The young man looked at his father questioningly.

"My personal experience when talking to my fellow Jedi was that most of them found some things easier to do than others," Anakin replied. "All of them could levitate things and were more or less proficient in sword fighting. But most of them were better at doing something, even after years of training. That led me to believe I was better than most because I could do everything without batting an eyelid." He looked away, shame colouring his features. "One of the reasons for my downfall," he sighed dejectedly. "I became arrogant and conceited. I thought the Masters were jealous and afraid of my potential, and they were trying to hold me back, Obi Wan included. Especially Obi-Wan. And Palpatine took advantage of my frustrations, stroking my ego and manipulating me expertly. I was such a naïve, pathetic, spoiled brat! I thought that just because I was more skilled than most, I was also wiser than most. I thought their dogmatic outlook on life and the Force had blinded them, and they couldn't see what was plain for me to see." He shook his head sadly, looking down. "When there was no one more flawed and imperfect than me."

Incredibly, despite all the wrongdoings he was confessing, Anakin could feel everybody's heartfelt compassion and understanding.

"That's the most important lesson I've learnt." Anakin looked up suddenly. "No matter how powerful we think we are or how many things we can do, we're just as imperfect and faulty as any non-Force sensitive." He pinned Luke under his stare. "Son, don't feel guilty for being able to do things others can't do, for there's nothing wrong with that. Feel free to levitate objects in front of your friends. Make use of your gift, because what we have, is a gift, nothing more, nothing less; and it should be used to make people's lives easier. Chewie doesn't apologize or feel guilty for reaching places that we can't, since being so tall is not wrong, it's just what he is;and sometimes, he can use his size to his advantage. Refusing to make full use of our gifts is foolish." His face darkened then. "What is wrong is considering ourselves superior for it, hurting others and making them feel inadequate and inferior. Non-Force sensitive beings are scientists, painters, architects, musicians, and they're better than us in those areas. Every single being has got their own blessings, but we're all equals. As long as we never forget that, this galaxy will be a place worth living in."

An awesome silence followed Anakin's speech. The big man, realizing all of a sudden he had everybody's eyes on him, blushed endearingly and looked down again.

"Thank you, Father." Luke was the first to speak, his voice sounding infinitely relieved and grateful, as if a heavy load had just been lifted from his shoulders. "You have no idea how much you've eased my mind."

"That's what parents are for," Anakin smiled, trying to bring some levity to the moment.

Luke smiled back. "Are you feeling better?" he asked his sister.

"Yes, thank you," Leia nodded. "So, does that mean I'll be better at something other than levitating things?"

"Quite the contrary," Anakin replied. "You've had no training at all, so the fact that you can throw things about already means that you have a great Force sensitivity. Only after you've mastered the techniques, you'll be able to tell whether you find some things more difficult to do than others."

Leia turned inwardly and half-closed her eyes.

"What is it?" Luke asked, curiously.

"I think I'll be much better at empathy," Leia answered, in a faraway voice. "Since I can remember, every time I touched someone, even brushed past them, I could tell if they were hiding something, if they were to be trusted or not. I didn't know why I knew, but I know now." She made a face. "If only I had known sooner!"

"You're aware of it now, and you can learn to develop your gift to the fullest," Anakin encouraged her with a proud smile.

Leia stared at her father for a few moments and then she nodded slowly, as if she had just made up her mind about something.

"Yes," she conceded.

Right then, the doors opened and R2-D2 and C-3PO entered.

"Oh, my goodness, what happened here?" Threepio exclaimed at the sight of the floor all scattered with cutlery, pieces of fruit and other objects.

Everybody looked at each other with little smiles of amusement and by silent mutual agreement, Anakin, Luke and Leia levitated the objects back on to the table.

"What is it, Threepio?" Anakin asked when the chore was completed.

"Her Excellency the President wants to meet Master Luke, Generals Solo and Calrissian and Chewbacca immediately," the droid announced ceremoniously.

The four in question quickly rose to their feet and left the room, followed by the two droids.

Anakin looked at the closed door for a while with a pensive expression.

"Something wrong?" Leia asked.

Anakin returned to reality with a deep intake of breath.

"Mmmm? Oh, no. Nothing really," he smiled at his daughter, realizing this was one of the very rare occasions they were alone together.

Now it was the Princess' turn to study her father with an appraising look.

Anakin noticed his child's scrutiny and looked at her quizzically.

Finally, Leia seemed to make up her mind and changed seats, sitting right in front of her father.

"I was thinking..." she began.

"Yes?" Anakin prompted after a while, when his daughter didn't ask him whatever was preying on her mind. She had come a long way in the past few months, but the final barrier inside Leia refused to give in. He was aware of the fact that he might never have with his daughter the type of relationship he had with his son, and had resigned himself to that possibility, even though it broke his heart. He knew he had no right to ask for more.

"I was thinking about the wedding picture of you and Mother," Leia finally blurted out.

"Oh," Anakin nodded, trying to hide the pain he felt every time someone mentioned his beloved wife. "Is there something you want to ask me?" he invited, struggling to talk past the lump in his throat.

"Yes," Leia said softly, as if looking for the right words. "I noticed that you already had a prosthetic right arm back then. A mechanical one."

"True," Anakin nodded, unaware of where this conversation was leading. "I had lost it a few weeks earlier fighting Count Dooku, a renegade Jedi who turned to the Dark Side," he explained.

Leia nodded again and looked straight into her father's eyes, plucking up her courage.

"Then, how come you bled when the fork pricked your finger a while ago? Prostheses don't bleed," she asked at last.

Anakin paled at his daughter's question, not because he had something to hide from her, but because he wasn't certain about how would she take the truth. Their relationship was still on shaky ground. Besides, Luke was also deeply involved in that truth.

"Well, ahhh, you see..." he stammered, not knowing how to begin.

"Luke did something else besides healing you, didn't he?" Leia put her father out of his misery with a kind look. "He regenerated your limbs," she stated.

Anakin met his daughter's gentle eyes, so like his sweet Padmé's, and nodded.

"What else did he do?" Leia asked again, softly.

Anakin bit his lower lip, in a gesture that said it all.

"I don't want to pry if it's too personal," Leia offered her father a way out, seeing this was becoming increasingly difficult for him.

"It's not too personal," Anakin immediately reassured her. "Well, it is, but not so that I can't tell you. Only..." he trailed off.

"This isn't the right time and you'd rather have Luke present when we talk about it," Leia finished for him.

Anakin nodded once more.

"All right," Leia accepted it nonchalantly, letting the matter drop.

"Can I ask you something in return?" Anakin asked tentatively, still unsure about how to approach his daughter at times like this.

"Of course." Leia leaned forward, crossed her arms and rested them on the table, looking at her father with a receptive and open expression on her face.

"You're wary of being trained in the ways of the Force, aren't you?" Anakin asked kindly.

Leia's eyes opened wide momentarily, but she quickly brought herself back under control.

"Is it that obvious?" she said.

Anakin tilted his head to one side with a soft smile.

Leia looked down and sighed dejectedly.

"You're right, I don't want to be trained." She admitted at last.

"Why?" Anakin asked with infinite tenderness.

Leia let out all the air in her lungs in a long blow.

"Too many reasons."

"Tell me. Maybe I can help," Anakin offered.

Leia looked away, reluctant to talk about it. But she knew that silence would get her nowhere, so she tried to articulate her motives as best as she could.

"It's part laziness, because I think I'm too old to start with this; part uneasiness, because this is new territory for me and I don't know what am I getting into. Also, I don't know how much my life will change once I start walking this path. I don't know how much this will change me, and I fear my friends won't recognize me anymore, or worse, I won't be able to recognize myself. I don't know if I'll be able to dedicate all the time necessary to my training. I have responsibilities within the Government and I can't take that lightly." She took a deep breath and forced herself to voice the biggest reason of all. "But most of all..." she raised her eyes and met her father's, "...I'm terrified of what I'll find on the other side. I'm afraid of opening that door and what lies behind. I wonder if I'm strong enough to take it, if I'm ready for it." Her eyes regarded her father with sad compassion now. "And above all... if you turned, how can I be safe from suffering the same fate? How do I know...?" She pulled herself together swiftly. "Luke told me once that fear leads to the Dark Side, and that's the primary emotion in my heart at the thought of being trained." She shrugged in defeat. "I'm not good material right now, I'm afraid."

"Powerful reasons, all of them," Anakin agreed in a surprisingly light tone of voice, that eased the heavy atmosphere around them. "Reasons I can understand."

"What do you think I should do?" Leia arched her eyebrows in astonishment when she realized she was actually asking her father for advice.

Anakin looked up, as if asking for help from someone beyond this realm.

"That's a question only you can answer, my daughter," Anakin replied lovingly. "But I'll try to shed some light on your doubts and questions."

"Please do," Leia pleaded. "Perhaps the most honest answer is that I just don't know what to do."

Anakin interlaced his fingers and tried to put some order in his thoughts.

"For what it's worth," he began, "I'm just as scared as you are. I've never trained anyone, and the past twenty odd years are not a good résumé for any Jedi Master. I'm terrified of making mistakes in your training that could..." He couldn't bring himself to say the words.

"Like you and Obi-Wan," Leia summed up perfectly, in her usual practical way.

Anakin nodded.

"But I have to accept the fact that there are no certainties in life. I can only do my best and hope it will be enough, even if those odds are not good enough for me, as far as my children are concerned. We can only embrace the Light in us, trusting it to guide us, trusting we'll be able to tell when we're straying from it."

Leia considered her father's words and nodded to herself, seeing the truth and wisdom in them.

"Just like we do in our ordinary lives. We always try to follow the good path. We try to be fair, not to hurt others intentionally, always think of the common good first... this is no different."

"Exactly," Anakin smiled proudly. "Now, back to your reasons. Laziness. I know what you mean by that. It's always hard for an adult to embark on a journey whose end is a long way ahead. A journey that's bound to change you on many levels. I can see why you feel uneasy about that too." He paused and smiled at his daughter. "But take your brother's example. Has Luke changed so much that you can't tell today's Luke from the young man you first met? Has he become a 'weirdo,' someone you can't relate to anymore?"

"No," Leia instantly replied. "He has changed, as we all have. Life's a constant change. We all mature and evolve. But Luke's essence will always be there," she said softly.

There was a short silence as Leia started seeing things a bit differently.

"Another issue you mentioned. Time," Anakin continued. "There's no schedule to follow, no deadline set for this. This is a training for life, for both Master and padawan. We'll take it slowly, dedicating only the time you can afford. No rush, no pressure, no hurry. And if you ever feel that your personal life is suffering for it, we'll take it easier."

Leia smiled, relieved.

"Now, the biggies," Anakin said, using slang quite intentionally. "What lies on the other side?" He took a deep breath. "That's something you have to find out for yourself." He looked away and his voice got a distant, mesmerizing quality. "It is a whole new world, a higher consciousness of what we are, what we mean; how everything is bound together, how every single being in the Universe is part of a greater whole, more all-encompassing than any of us could possibly fathom. It's a deeper understanding of our limitations, our weaknesses and flaws; but also, how in those flaws lies a strength and a compassion beyond belief. It's the comforting knowledge that Love is the only answer. Love's the intimate connection between all creatures, and nothing, not even death, will ever break it. Love is immortality, it's what will keep us going wherever we go; but at the same time, it will keep us rooted to our loved ones forever. There's no beginning and no end. It's the miracle of Life; neverending, eternal. More beautiful and fulfilling than anything we can imagine."

Anakin's face had transfigured as he spoke. His features glowed. He'd finally found the answer he had been seeking all his life.

Leia stared at her father in awe, as if she was seeing him for the very first time. She couldn't believe this could be the man who had spread mayhem on the galaxy for over two decades.

Her heart constricted with an instinct for protection she had never experienced before. He looked so vulnerable! But at the same time he seemed bigger-than-life, certain of his Destiny. She was so moved by the sight that it hurt. She felt a part of her unlocking and opening up like a flower to the warmth of the sun.

"Don't be afraid, Leia." Anakin's eyes turned to her, brighter than she had ever seen them. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Yes, I turned, but don't let that lingering fear hold you back. Thank heavens, you and your brother are wiser and smarter than I'll ever be. You have inherited the best of me and your mother. You'll rise above the Darkness that witnessed your birth and you'll make of this galaxy a safe home for all its peace-seeking beings. Nothing will ever be the same, for anyone."

Leia swallowed hard, not quite certain of what was going on there. She felt as if she was contemplating something... transcendental.

Anakin smiled bashfully and looked down, a bit embarrassed at having revealed perhaps too much of himself.

"All right, Father. You can start training me as soon as I find the time," came Leia's strangely hoarse voice.

Their eyes met across the table in a new understanding of each other, and for the first time, Anakin felt there had been a meaningful breakthrough in their relationship.

"I'll only be able to spare short periods of time, and that'll make my training even slower. As if I wasn't old enough already!" She sighed out loud. "But I'd rather take it slowly," she confessed.

"So would I," Anakin agreed, "and I'm positive so would Luke. You're going to be our first padawan, and the two of us will be feeling our way through the whole process. You'll have to tell us when you think we're doing something wrong, what things work for you and what don't. You'll be teaching us just as much as we'll be teaching you."

"We'll be teaching each other," Leia said.

"Yes." Anakin nodded once more. "But don't feel pressured because you think you're too old. I was considered too old to start training, and I was nine years old."

"N-nine?" Leia gulped audibly.

"But Luke was twice my age when he got started, and look at what an incredible Jedi he's turned out to be," Anakin reminded his daughter.

She nodded, still uncertain.

"True. But that doesn't mean that just because Luke..."

"You know?" Anakin interrupted his child, knowing already what she was going to say. "In some aspects, I think it's an advantage to start training as an adult. You know what you're getting into, you're aware of the commitment you're making and the sacrifises it will entail. In the Old Days, children started training as soon as their Gift was uncovered. They weren't given any choice in the matter, and by the time they grew up, their whole life had been decided already. To me, a conscious decision is paramount before starting any training." He made a brief pause. "Disadvantages? An adult has got lots of years of experience, they think they know everything that's possible and impossible. They take many things for fact. And the Force is never restrained by our limited mental patterns. That's what Luke found out. Through the Force, the impossible is often possible, and it took him some time to unlearn what he had come to learn. But once he truly opened his mind, he learned faster and deeper than any child could, because he was using his intellect as much as his feelings and emotions." He smiled warmly. "Everything's got its advantages and disadvantages, but I honestly think it'll be better for you to be an adult in this lifetime project." His smile widened.

And Leia couldn't help but smile back.

"You convinced me. I'm still a bit wary, but I guess it's mostly fear of the unknown."

"It's not an unknown. Believe it or not, you're quite familiar with the Force already. You've been tapping from it all your life. You only have to learn to recognize it consciously around you and inside you. There's nothing to fear, believe me."

The Princess took a deep breath and released it loudly with a shaky smile.

Right then, the doors opened and Luke, Han, Chewie, Lando and the two droids came in.

Anakin immediately met his son's gaze and was startled to see a flicker of uncertainty and uneasiness in his eyes.

"What is it?" he asked.

Luke sat down beside his father, instinctively seeking his nearness.

"I just got my first assignment as a Jedi," he announced, with a tremor in his voice.

"Really?!" Both Leia and Anakin exclaimed at the same time.

"The President just asked me to try and mediate in a border dispute that's arisen on Ansion. They've explicitly asked for a Jedi to arbitrate between both parties, and give them an objective point of view."

Anakin's eyes almost popped out of their sockets. "Ansion, you said?"

"You've been there before?" Luke asked back.

Anakin nodded. "I was there with Obi-Wan about 25 years ago. A very unpleasant experience. They made me so fed up that Obi-Wan could hardly keep me from voicing my opinion about their petty squabbles." He made an ironical face. "Nice to see some things never change."

"Indeed," Luke agreed. "At least, whatever Obi-Wan suggested back then managed to work for the past quarter of a century."

"Make no mistake about it, Son," Anakin corrected Luke, "it worked because the Clone Wars broke out soon after. And with the coming of the Empire, they had more urgent matters to take care of than their childish disagreements."

"I see," Luke sighed, resigning himself to a quite unsavoury first mission. "Still, even though this seems to be a minor problem, I want to make a good first impression. It's difficult to live up to a legend. If I fall short of their expectations, our reputations as Jedi could end up seriously undermined." He looked away. "I wish you'd accompany me! If they remembered you, perhaps they'd welcome your input more than mine."

"If they remembered me, the whole assignment would be doomed from the start, trust me," Anakin smiled at his child, trying to shake him out of his fears with a little bit of humour. "I regret these daily meetings with the Senate are keeping me so busy. Maybe next time I'll be able to accompany you."

Luke ground his teeth and looked away, obviously reluctant to tell him something.

"What?" Anakin's heart sank in foreboding.

"When I asked Mon Mothma to let you accompany me, she made it pretty clear that all Jedi assignments will fall on my shoulders," Luke explained, visibly upset. "You're the Vice-President of the Republic and your place is on Coruscant, unless it involves an official trip representing our Government."

Anakin's mouth fell open at that.

"B-but I'm a Jedi!" he stammered. "My children and rebuilding the Order are my first priorities. How am I supposed to...?" He trailed off, so off-balance had he been caught.

Luke's eyes met his father's, reflecting the same helplessness and disappointment Anakin felt.

And it was the underlying apprehension in those eyes that brought back Anakin's resolution.

"We'll talk about this when you return. We'll find a way to make it work," he promised his child.

"If I survive this assignment," Luke exclaimed dramatically, trying to cheer himself up. "If I fail, maybe I won't be summoned again, and that will solve our problem."

"I doubt it. You will make it, Son; I know." Anakin smiled proudly.

Luke made an sceptical face.

"Well, I should start packing. We'll be taking off in two hours. Han, Lando and Chewie will be my escorts," he explained, looking at his friends with an expression that left pretty clear his opinion of protocol procedures like that. His gaze returned to his father, dead serious now. "Wish me luck, Father."

"There's no such thing as luck," Anakin replied automatically, grasping his child's unexpectedly sweaty hand in a comforting gesture. "May the Force be with you, my son. May it inspire you on this your first mission."

Luke let out a quivering smile, and turning on his heels all of a sudden, he quickly left the room.

There was a short silence full of meaning, as everybody digested what was happening and shared the same feelings about it.

"Take good care of him," Anakin asked Lando, Han and Chewie, unable to help himself.

"Hey!" Han replied immediately. "Need you ask?"

Everybody grinned at the familiar crooked smile that always seemed to promise a happy resolution to any predicament.

"Right," Anakin admitted contritely. "I apologize."

"We should start packing too, if we want to be ready in two hours," Lando suggested, bringing them all out of their highly emotional state.

"Yeah," Han agreed, walking around the table and saying goodbye to Leia with a loving kiss. Their eyes met and a silent message flashed between them. Han nodded and strode out of the room, followed by Chewie, Lando and a self-invited Artoo.