AUTHOR'S NOTE: Okay, so I thought Chapter 5 was going to be the last one… I went back and reread Chapter 5, and I realize I ended things way too abruptly. So I've opted to add this epilogue in an effort to wrap things up a little more neatly. Of course, that doesn't rule out a possible sequel…
The Tusken charged him, howling in berserk rage, gaderffi gleaming in the moonlight. He bore his teeth in a feral snarl of rage as he drew his own weapon back and slashed with all his strength, slicing through the creature's neck and felling it. A second leaped to its feet, scrabbling for its projectile pistol, but a thrust to the chest pierced its heart. Black fire seared through his veins as he whirled on the next…
Luke shot bolt upright, gasping for breath. It took him a few minutes to ascertain that he was still in his bunk in Echo Base and not in the center of a Tusken encampment on Tatooine, having just witnessed his mother's – no, his grandmother's – death. Once he had calmed down, he wriggled out of the thermal wraps and tugged on his boots.
Father's must have had another nightmare, he thought. I wonder what woke him up from it…
No one roused as Luke threw on some clothes and ducked out, jogging down the halls toward the medbay. Then again, Luke doubted any of the Rogues would have awakened had he set off a thermal detonator in the room. They had just come back from a mission in the Ryloth system, defending the relatively unprotected system from another fragment of the Imperial fleet, and they were totally exhausted from both the fighting and the subsequent victory celebration.
In the two weeks following the Emperor's death on Jabesh, the entire Empire seemed to have fallen apart. Without a leader at its helm, the once seemingly invincible regime had disintegrated into warring factions, each led by a power-hungry warlord seeking to rule the galaxy for himself. The separate factions seemed perfectly willing to destroy each other rather than crush the Rebel Alliance, and consequently the Rebels focused their energy on keeping innocents out of the crossfire rather than directly fighting the splintered Imperial fleet.
Luke himself had led three such defensive missions so far, and he knew he could expect many more in the future. The Rebellion still had its work cut out for it.
But at least now there was an end in sight. Thanks to Darth Vader.
Thanks to his father.
When he got to the med center, he saw Mon Mothma at the door. He skidded to a halt and saluted.
She laughed. "At ease, Skywalker. It is I who should be saluting you, you know."
He blushed. "I'm not the only hero, Lady Mothma. If it wasn't for Han or my father, the Emperor would still be harassing the Alliance."
"You underestimate yourself, Skywalker. You proved yourself a Jedi on Jabesh. You showed mercy to one seemingly undeserving of it… and you brought us a powerful ally."
Luke raised an eyebrow. "So that means…"
"I just spoke with Vader a few minutes ago," she replied. "He has agreed to join the Rebel Alliance."
Luke snorted. "That'll go over big with High Command."
"We have allowed many Imperials to join our ranks," she countered. "To deny Vader a place among us would be hypocrisy. And if he desires to help us, if only to make restitution for his crimes, then why reject him?"
Luke felt himself relax. He had feared the Alliance would choose to put Vader on trial for his crimes – and some had indeed wanted to do just that. At least Mothma had proven to be a voice of reason.
"How is Princess Leia taking the knowledge of your… lineage?" asked Mothma.
Luke sighed. "She says she's fine with it… but she doesn't want to discuss it. I get the feeling it still bothers her."
"As well it should. You know she suffered much at his hands. I'm simply glad she hasn't chosen to defect over the knowledge. If we lose her, hundreds of men will follow."
"Luke?" came a deep, vaguely electronic inquiry from within the medbay.
Mothma stepped aside. "Go to your father. He needs you."
"Thank you, my Lady," Luke replied, and he entered the med center.
Vader was sitting up in bed, his gaze fixed upon a blank spot on the ceiling. The medical droids had done a superb job of healing his wounds despite the many complications presented by his cybernetic components. Due to his half-machine nature, a complete bacta submergence had been out of the question, so the droids had kept him in bacta wraps to mend his burns and outer injuries. It had taken several delicate operations to repair the damage done to his internal organs, both organic and cybernetic, and several more to install new prosthetic limbs in place of his shattered arms and legs. Even his mask had been repaired, and it gleamed even in the faint light of the med center like a beacon.
Luke sat down next to the bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I've been trampled by banthas," groaned Vader.
"You must be doing better," Luke noted. "Yesterday you said you felt like you'd been trampled by reeks."
Vader gave a slight laugh, then fell silent. Luke waited a moment for his father to reinitiate conversation, but when nothing happened he spoke up himself.
"Mothma says you've joined the Alliance."
Vader nodded slowly. "It is the least I can do to pay for my crimes."
"We'd be glad for your help. There's a lot you can teach us about how the Empire works."
"Indeed there is." A pause. "Luke… why did you save me back at the temple? Why were you so willing to protect me from the Emperor, even before you knew I was your father?"
Luke didn't even have to think about his answer. "You needed me. I couldn't deny you help. I couldn't deny anyone help. It's not the way I was raised."
Vader turned his head to look Luke in the eye. "Yet you believed I had killed your father."
"In the end, that didn't matter. I didn't see a killer when I saw you chained to the wall. I just saw a wounded man who needed my help."
Vader looked away. "You are a better man than I ever was, Luke."
Luke placed a hand on his father's arm. "Father… please don't drag yourself down like this. There is still good in you. Much good. I know there is."
Vader gave a slight laugh. "You have your mother's heart, my son."
Luke had to smile at that. "Tell me about her."
"Very well. You'd better get comfortable. This is a long story."
Luke settled back in the chair. "It's worth it."
Sharp-eyed readers have pointed out that Zeltros is an "official" Star Wars planet. To you readers -- good eyes! I honestly thought no one would know of its existence, seeing as I randomly picked it off of the map of the Star Wars galaxy that hangs on my bedroom wall (I pick a lot of my planets that way, actually). Ferron is an original world, however, and its name is derived from the Latin ferrus, meaning "iron," which fits its description as a mining world. Jabesh is also original, and despite its stormy climate, its name is Hebrew for "dry" (no, really).
Commander Leola was named by Katherine, a reader of my blog who placed in my story contest in March and won the chance to name a character. She submitted a list of names, and I selected Leola (Latin for "lioness") for this purpose. The concept of Vader preferring a female commander for his troops over a male has nothing to do with a potential Mary Sue-ish romance -- Vader/Anakin has always been one to flout custom, and placing a woman in a high-ranking position in a very sexist Empire seemed a fitting way for him to figuratively thumb his nose at authority.
Kaliska's name is Miwok Indian for "coyote chasing deer." No significance behind Kolton Nova's name -- it just sounded cool. His pet shop, "Paws, Claws, Scales, and Tails," however, has some significance. I work at a library, and the theme for the Summer Library Reading Program at many libraries in our area was "Paws, Claws, Scales, and Tales." I liked the name, and it decided to surface while I was writing this fic.
There are several instances of Force-invisible animals and aliens popping up in the Star Wars Universe, the Yuuzhan Vong and the ysalamiri being the most obvious examples. Others include Toydarians, who apparently are unaffected by mind tricks, and taozins, centipede-like monsters from the novel Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter who are invisible in the framework of the Force. For "Lean On Me," I decided to develop a completely unique animal, one that operated along a slightly different principle from the ysalamiri (the ysalamiri repel the Force in their vicinity, unlike the rock lizards who absorb the Force in their vicinity).
As for the title, yes, it comes from the song by Bill Withers, which is one of my favorites and was a strong influence on this fic.
Thank you for reading, and may the Force be with you.