EPILOGUE. ONE MONTH LATER.
The Senate was filled to capacity. In the centre of the immense Hall, the President of the Republic, flanked by her Vice-President, decorated all the pilots and Commanders who had participated in the battle against the Rebellion.
Vaughan Worthwing accepted the medal around his neck in as dignified a manner as he could, but tears escaped his eyes when Mon Mothma handed him Jesse Bilani's posthumous medal for bravery, in a gold and dark blue velvet box. Anakin Skywalker shook the young man's hand and squeezed his shoulder affectionately, sharing his pain.
When the President and the Vice-President returned to their posts and bowed their heads to the decorated pilots respectfully, honouring them and their courageous sacrifice, everybody rose to their feet and burst into applause.
When the thunderous standing ovation subsided, Mon Mothma walked up to the stand. On cue, everybody took their seats. The President's executives sat behind her in a fan-shape, except for Anakin, whose seat stood out slightly apart from the others and closer to his President. He looked impressive in his navy blue dress uniform.
Bursting with pride, Luke looked at his father from behind, momentarily lost in his love for the man who meant so much to him. This was a man he was proud to call 'father,' proud to be known as his son; and he was happy beyond belief for all the years they still had ahead. Years together. The only thing he had ever wanted.
A small hand grasped his softly, and the young Jedi smiled, squeezing his sister's hand, nodding imperceptibly at her, their thoughts totally in tune with each other.
As one, Luke and Leia sent to their father a warm tendril of thought, full of love. Anakin's body didn't seem to acknowledge his children's adoring mental wave, but the two siblings felt in their minds their father's answering smile and equally powerful wave of love and devotion. The three drank from the precious feeling they wanted to cradle to their hearts forever.
"Gentlebeings," Mon Mothma began her speech in her usual gracious manner, drawing everybody's attention. "We are gathered here today to honour those who protected us and our way of life, and to pay our respects to those who lost their lives in the attempt. Their selfless sacrifice will never be forgotten." She made a brief, heartfelt pause, and her gaze swept her attentive audience. "But we must not forget what brought this on. Ugly feelings like envy, resentment, hatred, greed and pride. In the end, everything came down to those." She took a deep breath. "We should know better by now. Hatred only begets more hatred." Her gaze intensified. "The choice is simple. Either we put an end to these violent, vengeful acts, or they will be our undoing."
She looked down at her interlaced fingers, feeling her Vice-President's eyes on her, caring and full of support. Snapping her head up, she grabbed the sides of her stand.
"There are millions of people looking at us right now who don't agree with some decisions I made when I formed a government." She braved her audience's stare resolutely. "I made those decisions for the common good. A President must make the right decisions, even if they are unpopular, if those decisions are just."
The echo of her voice faded as the pause stretched on. The ensuing silence was deafening.
"This government is still young and yet, it faced the hardest test any government can possibly face: the threat of its own destruction from within. A familiar scenario, as you will recall." She arched an eyebrow pointedly. "And just like before, blood, pain and death have been the consequences. Thank heavens, on an infinitely lesser scale this time. Still, hundreds have died uselessly. There are new broken families, orphan, widowed, parents who have lost their children... and what for?"
Her question resounded in the Senate's walls, unanswered.
"I can understand that many of you have your rightful doubts, who are distrustful. All we ask of you is to let us prove ourselves. We are here to serve you, to care for you and protect you to the best of our abilities. Only time will tell if this government's choices were successful or not."
All of a sudden, her features hardened. Her next words were spoken with all the authority of the President of the Republic.
"This is a legitimate government, and as such, it will not tolerate any outbursts of violence or any rebellion that threatens its stability. There are appropriate channels to express one's disagreement with one's politicians, but resentment and feelings of revenge will have to be dealt with privately, because the violent expression of those feelings is a crime. Nothing more, nothing less. This is a Democracy!"
"For the most skeptical among you," she went on after a pause to collect her thoughts, "I want to say this: I am aware of the fact that we're asking you to make a huge leap of faith. I know that the mere sight of some members of my government must be repugnant to you. But if someone went astray and one day they knocked on your door, begging your forgiveness; and more important, they showed you they had changed, wouldn't you give them a second chance, knowing how much good they could do?" She nodded emphatically. "I do believe in second chances. I do believe in redemption and forgiveness. Because in those people's redemption also lies our own. If we deny them the opportunity to redeem themselves, we won't only be condemning them forever, we will be condemning all those who could benefit from their good deeds in the future. And we will be denying ourselves the opportunity to know them, to learn from them and become better people."
Mon Mothma's eyes turned to Areen Worzzlek, who looked at her through misted eyes, hardly daring to hold her gaze. Beside him, Captain Thazzel squeezed the older man's forearm affectionately, in a warm and sincere gesture that said it all.
"This crisis taught me a few lessons that I will never forget," she continued, looking ahead again. "It is harder to forgive the more we've been hurt, especially if we've been betrayed by someone we trusted and loved. Someone close to us." She blinked several times, struggling to keep the tears at bay. "But I can tell you this, from my own experience. There is no force more powerful in the universe than the power of forgiveness. It's purifying, it's cleansing, for both parties involved. It demands an infinite generosity, it demands of us to let go of feelings we need to cling to, to go on living. Even to survive. But those feelings are a poison that will destroy us in the long run, slowly but inexorably."
She took a deep, shaky breath, not afraid to share something so private. All of them needed this catharsis. A common ground from where the entire galaxy could make a fresh start.
"Forgiveness is the best place to start our new life, together. Forgiveness is peace. Within and without."
Her eyes softened.
"Gentlebeings, open your hearts, for that is our only hope. The alternative is surrendering to hatred and violence, and we all know where that road will lead us all."
Anakin looked at his President in awe. Her speech was moving him to the core of his being. This was the leader of a lifetime. Charismatic, just, compassionate and wise. It was his honour and privilege to serve as a member of her government. She wasn't afraid to tackle the most controversial issues and let people see the truth for themselves. A true leader didn't patronize their people or belittle their intelligence, but appealed to the truth in them, letting them come to their own conclusions. It was the only way for a true Democracy to survive.
For his part, Luke's heart was just as full. His senses were picking up positive reactions from all over the place. People were letting Mon Mothma's words seep into their beings and illuminate them with their truth and wisdom.
But he was no fool. He also knew that millions of people all over the galaxy had a real moral problem coming to terms with this governments's more controversial decisions. There still was a lot of pain, anger and resentment lurking in many hearts, and those feelings could drive some people to do something harsh.
He could only hope they were given time to prove themselves, as their President had asked. Only time would bring peace to those souls and put their fears to rest.
In the meantime, the young Jedi soaked up the positive feelings around him, drinking from the love and gratitude Anakin was sending his way, returning them tenfold.
Then, he felt it.
Something wasn't quite right. Luke felt his sister stiffening beside him, and he knew she had felt it too.
Instinctively, the two siblings looked around them, trying to find out what it was.
Everything was perfectly normal. Everyone was sitting still, listening intently to Mon Mothma's speech. The Security guards stood calmly at their posts.
Luke and Leia looked at each other after scanning their surroundings. Something was most definitely wrong, even if they couldn't tell what it was.
In a flash of insight, just like the one he experienced when Ylek almost shot his father, Luke looked up.
A black shadow crept in between the niches and rafters that supported the Senate's roof. It stopped when it was directly above them. Then, it seemed to crouch and tense, as if preparing itself to... to jump down on them!
A heartbeat after her brother, Leia saw it too.
"LOOK OUT!" the two cried out in unison.
Anakin's senses picked up a disturbance in the Force one second before his children shouted their warning. Strangely, something told him to keep calm, not to fight what was about to happen.
The shadow jumped down and landed right behind the older Jedi, who was already rising to his feet. Drawing out something metallic and sharp, the huge being pressed it to Anakin's throat, and a young voice began crying out.
"Back up! Back up, you hear me?! Stay away from us! Stay away!"
The next few seconds were a blur of screaming and shouting, as shocked and terrified people ran in all directions, trying to escape the unknown threat.
Mon Mothma's executives stood up as calmly as they could manage, considering their options.
Han, Lando and Chewie looked at each other. With a few nods and gestures, they quickly came up with a plan. They had no weapons, but between the three of them, and if Anakin, Luke and Leia played along and tried to distract that maniac, they had their chances of making it work.
Mon Mothma refused to be taken away by her bodyguards. She immediately realized what was really going on there, and she obeyed the newcomer's barked orders to stay back, her mind frantically considering every possible alternative.
The hollering man wore tight, black top and bottoms. He had long dark hair and huge green eyes. But what really impressed them all was the man's size. He was over two metres tall and in evident good shape. His left arm was wrapped around Anakin's torso in a vicelike grip, and his right hand held a large jackknife to Anakin's throat as if his very life depended on it. He continued yelling at everybody to back up, seemingly unable to think of anything else.
"Do as he says. Do as he says!" Anakin's strangled voice commanded everyone, his friends and children included. Especially his friends and his children. He didn't want anyone to get hurt trying to protect his insignificant life.
The Jedi master's eyes momentarily met his President's, and Mon Mothma shuddered inside, as Anakin's words to her, spoken merely a few weeks earlier, suddenly resounded in her mind, triggered by that sad, infinitely accepting look.
"My past will catch up with me one day, and then... everything will be over. I pray that the day that happens, my children and everyone else will be spared."
'He knew! Oh, my goodness. He knew this would happen!' she thought, horrified.
Anakin smiled softly at her and then, his gentle blue eyes turned to his children. Only then, the peaceful serenity his features conveyed wavered, at the sight of the naked panic on Luke and Leia's faces.
More seconds passed and no one moved. Everyone understood by now that this wasn't a terrorist attack, but a mentally unbalanced man carrying out a personal vengeance.
The young man's eyes moved rapidly all over the crowd, checking that no one was attempting a foolish rescue of the... creature he had totally at his mercy, at last. At long last!
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man taking a hesitant step forward. He tightened his hold on Anakin and pressed the knife to his neck even harder.
"You, hero! Don't come any closer, you hear me!?" he cried out.
"Hey, take it easy, fella," Han reassured him, "I won't get any closer, all right?"
"You'd better not," the green eyes flashed with a spark of insanity, "or I'll have to kill this bastard sooner than I'd like to." He bared his teeth. "And believe me, I just can't wait to slit his throat!"
Anakin tried to get his breathing and heartbeat under control, but it seemed an impossible task. His children's raw fear resonated deep within him, and he couldn't shield from it.
Unfortunately, it was far too late to regret the anguish and pain he was causing his loved ones.
"So, Darth Vader," a quiet voice hissed into his ear. "I finally got you where I wanted, fifteen years later. Isn't revenge sweet?"
Anakin bit his lower lip and remained silent.
"Isn't it?" the young man insisted, impatience tinging his voice.
"Revenge is never sweet. Revenge is bitter, and sad," a compassionate, caring voice echoed in the Senate.
The young man looked at Luke, and his lips twisted in an ugly, nasty smile.
"Look who's here," he sneered. "The Son of the Beast," he clicked his tongue. "Hello, Sonny," he greeted disdainfully.
Luke dared to take a tiny step forward.
"My name's Luke. What's yours?" he asked.
"You can call me... Reborn." Hatred poured out of the tall man in waves. "The person I was once died when your daddy dearest slaughtered my family before me when I was ten."
Luke and Leia closed their eyes, as the impact of the young man's words hit them like a ton of bricks.
"I'm so sorry," Luke shook his head and opened his eyes, regarding the stranger with overwhelming sympathy. "What a devastating trauma for a child."
Something moved behind Reborn's eyes, but he quickly shook it off.
"Spare me your condolences. They're as useless as the life of this son of a bitch." He pressed the blade to Anakin's neck, relishing the expressions of fear in everybody's faces every time he did that. All of a sudden, his eyes opened wide and, after looking around him, he whispered to them. "Oooooh, and don't bother trying any mind-tricks on me. My race's immune to your Jedi powers. Besides, any brusque movement would be too dangerous to Big Daddy's wellbeing." He shook his head contemptuously. "In any case, this bastard's dead anyway."
The young man's exaggeratedly open eyes skittered everywhere, unable to stay focused on one single spot for more than a few seconds. His gestures and reactions were erratic and sharp, just like his speech patterns. His precarious mental condition was painfully apparent. He was a ticking bomb.
"But first, I want to hear this monster beg!" the suddenly piercing voice made everybody jump. "Just like my parents begged him not to kill them in front of me." He jerked Anakin back and forth, with superhuman strength. "Come on, Vader! Beg! Beg me for your life!" he taunted.
Leia winced at the sight of the knife pricking the flesh on her father's neck. A trickle of blood ran down Anakin's throat.
Her heart pounded wildly in her chest. They couldn't just stand there! They had to do something! They had to save her father before it was too late!
The fierceness of her feelings took her totally by surprise. She blinked hard, trying to clear her head.
And just like that, she knew.
She loved her father. She loved him so much that the thought of losing him was... unbearable.
She swayed on her feet, blown away by her discovery.
She felt Luke taking hold of her hand and squeezing it fervently, transmitting his joy at her realization. She squeezed back, apologizing for all the time it had taken her to open up to the truth he had known so early.
Why did that young man call her father Vader? Her father wasn't Darth Vader anymore! Everything inside her flinched at the sound of that ugly word, so wrong it felt.
"You will not beg, Lord Vader?" Reborn growled, drawing them all out of their musings. "You'd rather become a martyr before everybody's eyes? Do you want me to put an honourable end to your despicable life? Is that what you want? Do you want me to look like a monster instead of you?!" He moved the knife away from Anakin's throat and slid the tip of the blade down the older Jedi's left cheek. "Or do you think you're better than me, and will not lower yourself to beg me for your life? Do you consider yourself superior?" His eyes skittered everywhere again, as he momentarily lost grasp of reality. "Or do you think I'm crazy? Huh? Is that what you think?!" he yelled, shaking Anakin again, the jackknife getting dangerously close to his eye.
"He doesn't think that," Luke's voice echoed again, even gentler than before.
"Oh, he doesn't?" Reborn asked teasingly. "Does he think he's better than my parents, then? Braver than them?" Anger and hatred beyond belief contorted his features.
"No," the young Jedi's eyes misted momentarily. "He's not begging for his life because he doesn't think he deserves to live." Luke's eyes met his father's across the distance separating them, and at that single moment in time, they had never been so close.
Anakin's poignant smile couldn't disguise his quiet pride and love for the boy he had sired.
Luke had always known.
"Really?!" Reborn seemed honestly surprised at the young Skywalker's confession. "So, if I kill him, I'll be actually doing him a favour, right?" he smiled excitedly.
"No." Luke shook his head, his glittery eyes roaming his father's face.
"Because if you kill him, you will kill me too," Luke simply stated, blinking his tears away. "You see, I love him."
"Oh, yes. Of course you do." Reborn moved his head mockingly. "I've seen your cheesy, nauseating displays of affection on the holos. They made me sick!" he exploded. "How can you love this abomination?! He cut off your hand, man! The whole galaxy knows that. Your own father cut off your hand! How can you love him?! How can you stand being in the same room as he?"
Luke just smiled.
"There is no logic in that, I agree. I cannot explain it, either. But that is the way I feel." He shrugged, frustrated with his own incapacity to make himself understood. "As a child, I would have given anything to have my father with me. When I found out that my father was alive, the loss of a hand seemed like a small price to pay if I could get him back."
Reborn swallowed compulsively several times, struggling to think rationally. Finally, seething anger flashed in his eyes again.
"But I have no father! He took him away from me and I will never get him back, like you did! He killed him!" he shrieked. "Do you know what he did?" he spat, his voice dropping an octave. "He broke my mother's neck, and when my father protected me with his own body and knelt before him, begging him not to kill me, he cut off his head with his lightsaber! My father's head rolled up to my feet!" He shook his head from side to side, hitting his forehead with the ball of his hand repeatedly, as if trying to get rid of a permanent, frozen image in his mind.
Luke's face twisted, as the shockwaves of the young man's torment penetrated his mental shields. He was reliving Reborn's nightmare through his unconscious projection.
"Do you know why I'm here today?" Reborn continued, his memories gushing out of him in a flood now, unstoppable. "Because I wet myself, and worse." Shame coloured his features. "He looked down at me and said, 'It is not worth it.' And he walked away, leaving me alone with my parents' bodies. I'm alive because I lost control of my bowels!" he shouted hysterically.
Anakin trembled from head to foot, as Reborn's tale sparked the memory of one of his million past crimes, long forgotten. Never mind the reason that had taken him to Reborn's home that fateful morning. There were hundreds of people all over the galaxy who could tell Reborn's same story, with slight variations.
He had destroyed that boy. He had destroyed his mind and his spirit. He would never be the person he was destined to be. He would never live a normal life.
He hadn't just destroyed that young man's life that morning. He had destroyed his future and all the possibilities he had brought with him.
He had destroyed thousands of futures and possibilities that would never come to be.
Force, he couldn't take this! He wanted to die. He wanted to find merciful oblivion in death. He didn't want to soil his children by sharing their name.
"I wish I could ease your pain and make it bearable!" Luke exclaimed from the bottom of his heart. "I wish I could heal your soul and give you back your life. Nothing any of us ever say or do, will be of any help to you." His arms fell to his sides dejectedly. "But there is something I do know. Revenge won't make you feel better. Killing my father won't give you your parents back. It won't give you peace. Believe me, I know."
The young Jedi looked down and bit his lips, fighting back all the demons that surged up to haunt him all of a sudden. His head jerked up suddenly.
"For some time, I thought Darth Vader had killed my father," he confessed, braving those bottomless green eyes. "A part of me was as full of hatred and lust for revenge as you are. I relished in all the ways I would kill the monster who had murdered my father." He smiled bitterly, shaking his head. "And one day, I found out the truth." He closed his eyes against the memories of that time. "After that, I had to face the beast inside me and learn to tame it, if I didn't want it to destroy me." Tears rolled down his cheeks at last. "And forgiveness was the way." He sniffed. "I didn't forgive my father for his sake, but my own. Because I couldn't go on like that anymore. And the moment I opened my heart and let go of all that ugliness inside me, everything took on a whole new meaning." He smiled hopefully. "Forgiveness gave me the insight to believe in the goodness in my father's heart. And it turned out I was right. I reached out to him out of sheer faith, and look at us now." He put out his hand and his eyes worshipped Anakin, never afraid to show how much his father meant to him. "If I had killed him, I'd have gotten my revenge, but I'd have never known the kind of love we share today. A love that has saved thousands of lives already, including our own."
He looked up at Reborn with loving compassion.
"Revenge is not sweet, my friend. It won't heal the wounds in your soul because at the end of the day, you will still be alone with your pain, with the emptiness of your losses."
Reborn winced as he desperately tried to hold back the tears. His eyes became elusive, trying to avoid looking at Luke.
"The only thing that will give you peace is acceptance. Acceptance of what happened that day, acceptance that you can't go on like this anymore and need help. And courage to face the rest of your life, braving your nightmares head-on, like all of us do. My father more than anyone." He reached out. "Please, let us help you."
The young man's face contorted in a mask of pain and anguish, and he began shaking his head again.
"Shut up. Shut up! SHUT UP!" he cried out. "Don't you see?! No one can help me! I am beyond help! My only purpose in life is saving us all from this monster." He placed the blade of the knife on the side of Anakin's neck. "The fact that he's still alive is an offense against the millions he murdered! I'm sorry if you love him, but that's not my fault." He tensed his arm, his next action terrifyingly obvious.
"Please!" Luke moaned in the weakest voice, all reason gone at the sight of that hand, ready to take his life away from him. "Do you hate me that much to do to me what he did to you?"
Reborn's hand froze. His eyes met the young Jedi's, and a semblance of sanity seemed to return to them.
"What?" he asked.
"Do you want to subject others to the same horror you witnessed? Don't you see how useless this is? Do you want this spiral of murder and blood to go on forever?" Luke trembled like a leaf. He seemed about to collapse.
Reborn's respiration accelerated alarmingly. The knife shook in his hand.
"I... I..." he stuttered.
"I know I have no right to ask you this, because a part of me actually understands your need for vengeance. Force help me, I do understand it!" Luke almost screamed, his voice sounding disturbingly vulnerable and a bit out of control.
And then, Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, dropped to his knees.
"No, Son. No!" Anakin moaned to himself, going limp in Reborn's arms at the sight of that brave and decent young man humbling himself, begging for his father's life. The unworthiest life of all.
"I beg you, Reborn," Luke pleaded, "don't take my father away from me." Tears seemed to burn a path down his face. "I need him, I love him. I will die without him. Have mercy! The mercy he didn't have with you."
Silence stretched on for an eternity. It seemed as if Time itself had stopped to watch the scene unfolding on that small planet, lost in a galaxy, lost in a universe of galaxies, lost in the wink of an eye - the time it took to take a life.
The first to react was Princess Leia. She wrapped her arms around her brother's shoulders and hugged him to her. Her eyes were red and swollen as they turned to Reborn.
She didn't know what to say to stop what seemed inevitable, but she had to try. For her father. For her brother. For everyone. For herself.
And for Reborn. Especially for Reborn.
Her eyes met her father's. The blue depths were devoid of all life and light. They only reflected agony and defeat. Surrender. Total, absolute surrender.
"Reborn," she began, in a hoarse voice. "Destiny brought you here today. You needed to face my father and come to terms with what happened that day." She sighed. "But that is not all. If it was, you could have killed him the moment you jumped down on him." She regarded the young man compassionately. "You came here to die too, didn't you?" she stated in the softest voice.
Slowly, Reborn's eyes turned to hers, and when they finally met, tears streamed quietly down his cheeks.
Leia nodded and reached out her arm.
"No one will harm you, Reborn. You will not die today. No one has got to die today." Her gaze intensified. "You need help. All of us do. We all paid the greatest price. Many lost their lives; and many are alive, but the war scarred them so badly they will never be the same." A lonely tear escaped her eye. "Look at my father. Not as the armoured beast in black who murdered your parents, but as a helpless man whose life lies in your hands now." She tilted her head, in gentle request. "Look at him."
It seemed to take a lifetime, but Reborn eventually lowered his gaze and looked down at the Jedi he had come to kill.
"He's not the man who killed your parents anymore. That's the irony of it. You would not be killing Darth Vader, but Anakin Skywalker. A good man who would die for any of us, any day, at any time."
Reborn ground his teeth, wanting to deny Leia's words.
"Look at him with your heart," Leia went on in a trembling voice. "A part of him wants to die at your hands, can't you see it? Every minute of his life he's got to live with the burden of the millions of lives he took, ordered to be destroyed, or died because he simply didn't care. Can you imagine how that must be?" Her dark eyes wandered her father's features. She shook her head slowly, wetness dampening her face once more. "I can't. And I doubt any of us will ever know. To him, it is fitting to die at your hands. It would give him peace to know it gives you peace." She grabbed her brother's hand and squeezed it tight, needing his touch to get through this without breaking down. "Don't be afraid to look into his eyes. You will see your pain reflected in them. He's carrying your pain, and the pain of millions, every single day."
Reborn's eyes settled on Anakin's face and studied it with a blending of reluctance, hatred and disgust. But after a few seconds his look intensified, as he found something he didn't expect to see.
Pain. So much pain and remorse that he couldn't wrap his mind around what those eyes cried out.
NO! It couldn't be! It had to be some sort of trick.
But those dead blue eyes didn't lie. Even he couldn't deny it.
"Look into his eyes and then look into yourself. It is the same pain, Reborn," Leia bit her lower lip. "You're the only one who can heal it. And my father's the only one who can heal your own. Acceptance and forgiveness are the only way." Her features softened. "Help each other. Heal each other."
Reborn braved the eyes of his parents' murderer. Anakin could barely hold his close scrutiny, but he forced himself to endure it. He owed it to that young man whose life he had ruined. He held nothing back. He shared everything. Every nightmare, every hope, every small joy. He allowed Reborn deeper into the horror he carried inside than he would ever allow his children.
Reborn bit his lips until he drew blood. He started shaking his head, a part of him still fighting the truth he was seeing.
Love was the only thing that kept Anakin going. Love for his children and his friends, and their love for him.
As insane as it may seem, Anakin was as much a victim as he was.
His breathing got totally out of control. He swallowed hard, tasting the bitter flavour of hate and revenge. And his resolution began wavering.
"Is there anything you have to say?" he asked Anakin dryly. He felt he was betraying his parents by allowing their murderer to live. This was the purpose of a lifetime being thwarted by... compassion. The only thing Darth Vader never knew.
For the first time, Anakin spoke.
"If you must kill me to have peace," his voice sounded infinitely old, "please, don't kill me before my children," he implored. "Have mercy on them. The mercy I didn't have when I killed your parents in front of you. Please, Lagan! I beg of you!" he cried.
The shock of being addressed by his real name was too much for Reborn. It felt as if the part of him that had died a long time ago had just been restored. At least, partially.
Tears poured down Reborn and Anakin's faces when they looked at each other.
With a guttural moan, Reborn lowered his right hand and pushed Anakin with the left. The knife hit the floor as the young man fell to his knees, burying his face in his hands.
Anakin collapsed in his children's arms. Leia and Luke embraced their father and held him tight, feeding hungrily from the touch they had thought they would never know again.
The older Jedi was barely conscious. He could hardly respond to all the kisses, caresses and tears his children rained on him, for at that moment, life felt more a curse than a blessing.
'It's not a curse, Father. It is a blessing, as long as we honour the lives we took by helping others and making our own existences worthwhile,' Leia's soft, soothing voice resounded in his mind. There was a short pause, and then... 'I love you, Father,' her mind-voice choked. 'I am so proud of you!'
Anakin groaned and clutched his daughter to him. He was shattered. He only craved to be held and disappear in his children's loving warmth.
Luke's caresses roamed his back. The young man buried his face in his neck and grabbed a handful of his top, desperate to feel him close.
'What did I ever do to deserve two angels like you? So strong and noble, defending... this?' his mind-voice oozed self-hatred.
Luke stroked his father's hair.
'You are our strength, Father. And we are yours. We are a family!' He cuddled up to Anakin's body in a burst of searing need.
But the soft crying that could be heard even above the jubilant scream of joy echoing in his heart, crushed his happiness mercilessly.
'But Reborn's got no one. He will never get back what he lost,' he reminded them all. In the midst of the tragedy that had befallen their own family, they could still consider themselves lucky.
Anakin stiffened, as Luke's gentle reminder reawakened something inside him.
The older Jedi rose to his feet and turned about, his children's arms still wrapped around him. His gaze settled on the big man who wept like a little boy, lost and alone in the world.
Anakin looked back at his children, and understanding immediately, Luke and Leia nodded, smiling lovingly at him.
Anakin cupped the much loved faces in his hands and wiped the tears away.
Leia and Luke pressed their father's hands to their cheeks, kissing the palms, giving him all their love.
Drawing strength from his children's devotion and from something inside him he didn't even know he had, Anakin walked up to Reborn. When he was right in front of him, he got down on his knees. Reaching out, he gently pried the young man's hands away from his face.
Reborn's tear-streaked countenance appeared before him, and with the utmost tenderness, he cupped the ravaged visage in his hands.
Reborn's green eyes looked at him through the million tears he had shed, and the million he still had to cry.
"Forgive me, Lagan. Please, forgive me!"
No words had ever been so inadequate, and yet, they were all it took for the young man to collapse in Anakin's arms, clinging to him for dear life.
Anakin enfolded the big body in his arms and pulled it close.
Reborn let out a wail that felt like the pain of a lifetime being released.
Anakin buried his face in the long dark hair, soaking it with his tears. He took the young man's pain into his soul with gratitude.
And the moment Reborn's arms moved around him to return his embrace, the former Darth Vader knew the meaning of the word Peace for the first time since he could remember.
Reborn was a fitting name. For Lagan. For his children. For himself.
For the galaxy.