It only took a few minutes to put down Luke's X-Wing. After that, they put away the wires and the items that lay scattered all over the place after four days of camping out.
Luke put on his pilot suit and reholstered his blaster. Then, he turned to Anakin.
The young man watched him with a funny expression. A strange blending of affection, pride, and melancholy.
Luke smiled radiantly and walked up to him.
"Well... It is time," he said.
"It is," Anakin nodded, staring at him intensely. Somehow, he felt he was missing a vital clue, and his inability to put the pieces together was unsettling him greatly.
Luke turned about and dropped to one knee in front of Artoo, who had rolled up to them.
"Well, my little friend. It was a pleasure meeting you. Thank you for everything," he said, patting the blue dome affectionately. "Now take care of yourself and Ani, will you?"
Artoo beeped assent and bid the young man goodbye with a few extra beeps that also oozed affection.
Luke stood up and met his father's gaze. His eyes roamed the handsome face and the connection between them flared to life.
"So," he began.
"So," Anakin repeated, looking away. He hated saying goodbye to the people he cared about. He felt as if he had spent all his life saying goodbye, most of the time forever. His mother, Qui-Gonn, Padme... His eyes filled with tears, and he blinked them back furiously.
"May the Force be with you, Ani. In the Light times and in the Dark times."
The indescribable emotion in those words pierced Anakin's heart, and the infinite shades of meaning shook his soul. His eyes sought his friend's.
Luke's eyes brimmed with tears, and his smile embraced Anakin whole. He reached out with both arms, but stopped halfway.
"May I?" he asked shyly.
Anakin nodded, mesmerized.
Luke took his head in his hands and brought it down. Soft lips kissed his forehead in what felt like a blessing, a benediction.
Letting go, Anakin hugged the shorter man to him for all he was worth. Luke's arms wrapped around him, and grabbed handfuls of his tunic with anguished desperation.
"May the Force be with you, Luke. May the Fates give you everything you prayed for." He brought one hand up and cradled the blond head in it, as he would a baby's. "Reach for the stars, but keep your feet firm on the ground. Don't hope for the impossible. Just..."
"No matter how Dark things are, how hopeless and irreparable," Luke cut in, "always remember the love, Ani. Remember the love," he whispered into his father's ear. So much he wanted to say, but couldn't. Still, he put all his soul into planting the tiny seed that he needed to grow in Darth Vader's spirit one day far, far away. "Love never dies. Love is the greatest power of the universe. Remember, Ani."
"I will, Luke. I'll always remember," Anakin promised, tightening his embrace until his arms protested. Luke never did.
They stayed in each other's arms for a lifetime, until they eased the pressure on one another bit by bit.
Anakin moved back and framed Luke's face in his gloved hand. He began to walk back to his ship without turning, and it wasn't until his fingertips lost contact that he dropped his arm.
Luke closed his eyes, soaking up the gentle caress until it faded away.
Artoo ignited his retrothrusters and propelled himself to his place in Anakin's Interceptor, beeping goodbye.
Luke waved goodbye, the pain of the separation twisting his chest into a knot.
"Farewell, Father," he murmured to himself. "I won't fail you when you need me most. I swear that to you on my soul."
The two young men climbed up to the cockpits of their ships, and secured their seatbelts. Casting one final look at each other sitting at the controls, they turned on their engines and a few seconds later, they left the ground.
Luke opened all channels and frequencies, hoping to receive the Fleet's homing signal, should he ever return to his time. Easily manoeuvring his X-Wing, he soon was flying in the clouds, a familiar feeling of freedom singing within him. But the pull of something that ran even deeper made him look back, at the blue and green sphere he was leaving behind.
"Luke. Luke, do you read me?" Anakin's voice resounded in his helmet out of the blue.
It took a moment for Luke to recover from the surprise.
"Yes. I do, Ani," he replied.
"Turn to point 34. Those were our coordinates when we entered the planet's atmosphere. If we follow the inverse course, maybe we'll emerge from the same points we were absorbed."
Luke thanked the Force that Anakin had kept his head clear enough to note their entry coordinates.
"Thank you, Ani. You're a genius." He sighed out loud, quickly changing course.
The unexpected thickness in Anakin's voice made Luke's heart miss a beat.
"...Son." A choking sound followed before all communication was cut off.
Luke's blood ran cold. The word reverberated through every corner of his being, and took root in his deepest recesses.
He tried to answer, but could only form a croaking sound. He tried again, despite the excruciating burning in his lungs.
"A-Ani?" he asked tentatively. "Ani, are you there?" He suddenly realized that Anakin had closed all channels, and an irrational fear clawed at him. "Ani, answer me, please. Ani!"
"FATHER!!" the word exploded from Luke's core. He increased speed until he was flying at full throttle, in desperate search of Anakin's Interceptor.
It was useless. Anakin had left him behind, as the trail of ionized gas in front of him revealed.
A piercing shriek tore at his throat, and he followed the trail, wherever it led him.
An ocean of teardrops streamed down Anakin's face. His mind felt like it was collapsing into a black hole, bigger than the one surrounding him.
He didn't want to think, he didn't want to feel. If he did, he would die just from the horror consuming his soul.
His hands clutched the controls and beside himself, he increased speed until the very structure of his ship began to fall apart. The metallic, screeching sounds only intensified the horror in his imploding spirit.
"May the Universe forgive me, for there can be no forgiveness for what I did. Anywhere. Anytime." He threw back his head and looked out into the Darkness around, feeling its veil descending on him. "Oh, Force!" he exclaimed, wishing he'd cease to exist. "What will I do?"
The scream echoing inside blinded his senses, his sanity. He had to escape, he had to run away... from himself. He had to leave the monster behind.
But he couldn't.
He increased power until the hull became incandescent.
The roar of the beast suddenly quieted, and for a merciful second, everything stopped. And in that blessed oblivion, he found peace.
He was floating away, like a baby in its mother's womb. Nothing existed but the oblivion that offered forgiveness, asking for nothing in return.
He let go.
"Anakin! Anakin! Do you copy? Anakin, if you can hear me, just make a sound and I will hear it. Anakin, do you read me?"
The young man raised his head and opened his eyes.
He was drifting in space. A backdrop of stars greeted him, and a tiny red light in his radar informed him of another ship quickly approaching him.
"Ah... wha- what...?" he stuttered.
"Anakin, is that you?" Obi-Wan's voice filtered through the emergency channel, sounding immensely relieved.
"Ma- master! What happened?" he asked in complete confusion, straightening up in his seat and checking his instruments. The temperature of the hull was close to melting point. "Artoo, use the coolant before we roast here!"
It took a couple seconds for Artoo to acknowledge and obey Anakin's order, but the little droid complied with a little beep that sounded strangely rusty.
"Thank heavens!" Obi-Wan sighed out loud. "I've been looking for you for over two hours. You disappeared from my radar. You were there and a moment later... you weren't."
"What?!" Anakin repeated, shaking his head, trying to clear the cobwebs in his brain.
"You vanished for two hours, Anakin! What happened to you?"
"Well, I... I..." Anakin froze at the realization that he didn't remember. "I don't know." He brought up his hand and touched his temple. To his shock, he found his face covered in teartracks that were still wet. "What the...?" he wiped away the moisture and looked at it. For a fleeting second he felt... something that slipped through his fingers like a dream before he could touch it.
"You don't remember where you've been the last two hours?!" Obi-Wan's words shook him out of his state of numbness.
"I- I remember... the blackness," he said, wincing at the effort he was making to remember. "There were no stars and then... and then, I... was here, and I heard you calling out for me."
Obi-Wan sighed again.
"This region of space is known for the disturbances it causes in the instruments, and in the normal functioning of the ships that cross it. It was very reckless of you to venture out there alone."
"I-I'm sorry, master," Anakin mumbled, unable to shake off the awful feeling of loss. He had to hold back the sob that wanted to burst from him. "Where is he?" The words were out before he could actually think them.
"Who?" Obi-Wan asked.
"I don't know," Anakin said, feeling terribly small and helpless. "Someone... important. Someone... vital... to me."
"My friend, I think the two hours you've been missing have messed up your mind," Obi-Wan said compassionately. "Get a grip until we get to the base, and they'll give you a check-up there."
"I don't need a check-up. I need... him." Anakin's last words were a weak murmur that Obi-Wan couldn't hear.
Luke pushed his X-Wing to the limit in his despair to find his father, to talk to him one last time and say the words that made everything worthwhile, impossible as it might be.
The hull of his ship began to overheat, but he ignored it. He had to answer his father's distress call. He had felt it down to his very soul, encapsulated in the choked mention of the blood tie that bound them.
THE word. The word that, coming from Anakin's lips, had healed the wound that had been bleeding since Bespin.
"Father. Father, please. Please, let me... Oh, Force, please!" he moaned to himself, his mind calling out to the only one who could soothe it, to the one only he could soothe.
The blackness facing him seemed to mock his need, his filial love, and crying out his anger and his impotence, he increased power until he felt something snapping inside him. He closed his eyes when the blinding light behind them became too much to bear.
An insistent beep brought him out of the incipient trance, and he opened his eyes, recognizing it instantly. It was the Fleet's coded homing signal, and he thanked the heavens for the beautiful sound.
Heading for the source of the sound, he caught a glimpse of the lagging frigate he had left what felt like a lifetime ago.
He identified himself and a moment later, a feminine voice responded.
"Luke, is that you?"
A smile of happiness lit up his face.
"Yes, Leia. It's me."
"Blast it, Luke, where have you been?!" Leia's angered voice only made his smile bigger. His dearest Princess. "We were about to leave the quadrant!"
"I was... out," Luke replied, wondering at the sudden confusion in his mind. He brought one hand up and touched his forehead, trying to remember.
"Out for seven hours! We'd almost given up on contacting you," came Leia's shaky voice.
"WHAT?!" Luke exclaimed. "But that's impossible! I only have fuel for five hours."
"Precisely," fear was evident in Leia's voice.
"I-I don't understand it," Luke muttered, perplexed.
"Neither do I." Leia sounded just as perplexed. "I'll meet you in the hangar."
"I'll see you there," Luke acknowledged, concentrating on piloting. Once back home, they'd try to put the pieces together.
Five minutes later, he climbed down from his X-Wing. Leia clung to him for dear life and he returned her embrace, burying his face in her shoulder. The vast feeling of relief coming over him came as a complete surprise.
"What happened?" Leia asked, moving back and holding his shoulders.
"Nothing happened," Luke replied, smiling softly. "I left, I was flying for a couple hours and then..." he paused and frowned. "And then I..." he looked around, as if searching for something. "I don't remember," he said, looking back at her.
"Come, let's go to your quarters," Leia urged, grabbing his hand.
As they walked the decks, Luke's anxiety grew. From his point of view, he had only been out for two hours, and yet, Leia claimed...
When the door shut after them, Luke headed straight for his bunk and collapsed on it.
"What do you remember?" Leia asked, sitting beside him and putting her small hand on the back of his neck.
"I'm not sure," Luke said, without looking up. "I had been flying for a couple hours, and then... and then all my instruments went crazy. I tried to control the ship and... and..."
Leia squeezed his neck, massaging it gently.
"There were no stars," Luke remembered suddenly. "There were no points of reference and I feared I'd never come back," a sharp pain behind his eyes made him close them and rub his temples instinctively. "And then... I heard the Fleet's coded signal."
"Thank goodness that I begged Commander Rieekan to wait just a few hours more. Otherwise..." Leia shuddered, resting her head on Luke's shoulder.
Luke wrapped an arm around her, holding her close, and leaned his own head on hers.
"Thank you for waiting for me," he whispered into her hair.
"I told you to be careful of the No More Zone. I'm as sceptical as the next person about these space tales, but it's a fact that this region of space interferes with communications and instruments. It's a miracle we got you back." She pressed against him, needing the reassurance of his touch.
"Shhhhh, it's all right," Luke soothed, kissing her forehead. "I'm not going anywhere." A pang of bitterness at his own words made him flinch.
Leia moved back and looked at him.
"Are you all right? Are you hurt?" she asked.
"Yes... yes... I'm fine," his voice sounded distant, distracted.
"What is it?"
Luke shook his head with a pained expression on his face.
"I don't know. I feel as if... as if I had lost something. Something vital to me. As if I had lost the answer to all my prayers." He looked down at his hands and raised the right one, palm up. "As if for a moment, I had held my most cherished dream in my hands, and it had slipped through my fingers. I feel... empty."
Leia reached out and took Luke's hand in her own. They stared at their joined hands.
"You didn't pull back," she observed, smiling.
Luke tipped his head to one side, as he became aware of it.
"No, I didn't," his words were full of wonder. "When just a few hours ago..."
"Whatever happened while you were out there, it was something good," Leia stated, never losing her smile. "You're at peace. It's plain to see."
"Nothing's really changed," Luke reminded himself, waiting for the accustomed sinking feeling in his heart. "And yet..." he trailed off, "I feel as if it had. My head knows that nothing's changed, but my heart's... light for a reason." Puzzled, he closed his fingers around Leia's.
Leia kissed the back of his hand.
"You don't know how happy it makes me to hear that." She touched his cheek. "Are you hungry? Want me to bring you something to eat?" Luke had lost several kilograms after his ordeal in Cloud City. His appetite had virtually disappeared. She had been forcing him to eat since then, her concern escalating to the point that she had seriously considered confining him to the medical frigate to be fed, against his will if necessary.
"No, thank you," Luke shook his head with a smile. "I feel as if I had eaten just a while ago. I'll have a heavy breakfast tomorrow."
Leia's eyebrows arched in surprise at his words.
"I'll hold you to that in the morning," she promised, releasing his hand. "You look tired. Rest now. I'll pick you up at 7:30, all right?" She stood up.
"All right," Luke agreed. "Sleep well." His eyes softened.
Leia contemplated him for a moment, and her spirits lifted as if by magic.
Impulsively, they hugged, feeling that the veil of darkness surrounding them was beginning to lift. Hope flourished in their hearts.
"Sweet dreams, Luke," Leia whispered, walking away with a beautiful smile that lit up the room.
Once alone, Luke sighed and prepared himself for his nightly shower before going to sleep. He was feeling a strange languor all over his body that he couldn't explain. The tension he had accumulated for an entire month was seeping away like a bad dream.
And he knew a lot about bad dreams.
Fresh and clean, he sat down on his bed cross-legged, wondering at his last shower. At the absolute despair and hopelessness he had felt, and how different it was from the one he had just taken.
He had been full of resentment and anger. He'd felt used, betrayed and manipulated. And now, he felt all soft inside. Even content.
Why? He was still the son of a Dark Lord. The offspring of the monster who had helped to annihilate the Jedi Order, and paved the way for the Empire to rise. The Emperor's right hand and main henchman.
There was no hope for his childhood dreams. He didn't even have the fantasy to keep him warm at night, the way it had helped while growing up on Tatooine.
He had nothing left. And yet... there was no pain anymore. A tiny light had been kindled, and it seemed to be calling him from afar.
Closing his eyes, he reached for that little light glowing in the shadows. What he found on the other side was...
He jerked back in shock.
It was... him! He felt his Force aura, the dark warmth of his presence, the familiar pathways that had been built with their first mind-touch.
His heart went wild and he brought one hand over his chest, trying to calm it.
He couldn't tell if Vader had felt him. He fervently hoped not because if he had, he could interpret it as a sign of weakness.
He couldn't show any vulnerability. The Dark Side took advantage of your deepest insecurities and turned them against you.
He hung his head. It was a no-win situation, no matter how he looked at it. But he couldn't shake off the feeling that... maybe...
A poignant smile crossed his lips.
Fool. Foolish dreams. Childish dreams of a poor, starry-eyed orphan, who's offered his dearest wish.
He was grasping at straws. Nonexistent straws in all probability, that could cost him everything. His soul, the most precious thing he had.
Just like his soul was the most precious thing his father had.
And if there was the sheerest, the most diminutive possibility of saving his father's soul, wasn't it worth his every effort? His life?
Force, he was considering it already! Why was his mind doing this to him? It seemed to have joined his heart in its insane quest to save his father.
His father, who most likely didn't have the slightest interest in being saved.
Shaking his head tiredly and unfolding himself from his meditating position, he slipped into his small bed, welcoming the coolness of the sheets.
He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling illuminated by the faint light of the stars coming in through the porthole directly in front of him. Raising his head a little from his pillow, he looked at them as they zoomed past him. Becoming a part of his present for a second, only to become a part of his past in the next.
He rested his head on his pillow again, letting out a weary sigh.
If only the stars could give him the answer...
He drifted off with a silent, desperate prayer.
'Remember the love... Remember... Love never dies... Never dies... Never... Remember... Remember...'
Voices floated in his mind. His own. Someone else's. Joy. Friendship. The infinite comfort of a fraternal embrace. Affection. A sweet melody that filled his being with hope and dreams... Possible dreams that could be his if only he had the courage to fight for them.
'You're strong. You're good and strong.'
'I'm staying right here.'
'I'll always remember.'
Luke opened his eyes, waking up gradually. The voices still echoed in his mind. Compelling. Hypnotic. Irresistible.
And then, they were gone.
The emptiness they left behind brought him out of bed. He padded barefoot over to the porthole, seeking the comfort of the stars. Sometimes, he felt it was among them where he truly belonged. After all, that's what "Skywalker" meant.
The one who walked in the sky.
But there was another Skywalker. Anakin. Anakin Skywalker. The most precious name to him since he had heard it for the first time. The name of the father.
Without thinking, he reached out and pressed his palm against the glass.
It was the night shift already, and Darth Vader still hadn't retired. He had been staring out of the massive windows of the Executor for hours.
He had been doing that more and more often since the Millennium Falcon had escaped, and the Sith Lord's obsession with it.
And there was more. Vader's impatience and merciless pushing - and punishing - of his men, looking for Skywalker all over the galaxy, had transmuted into an uncharacteristic apathy and despondency.
Not even Vader knew the reason for his behaviour. He spent his days looking out of the windows, deep in thought. Patient. Inscrutable. Imperturbable.
Waiting. Anticipating the time when their paths would meet again.
But tonight was different. He could feel it. He could almost touch it. The Force rippled around him. Whispering to him, calling him, enticing him...
His hand reached out and pressed against the glass, the dark mind wondering briefly at the absurdity of the gesture.
An infinite bitterness rose in his throat, and his soul surged forward, seeking... wanting to grasp that elusive feeling. Wanting to find a purpose again. A new purpose that gave meaning to the ambiguous feelings that had been plaguing him since Bespin.
Sometimes, he felt the answer so close. But it always slipped through his fingers like a vaporous dream.
But one day, soon, he would catch it.
Luke dropped his hand and looked at his palm. A ghostly sensation spread all over it. The phantom feeling of a fleeting touch. A feather-like brush against his consciousness, mournful, obscure, full of confusion that called out to him for an answer.
And in that confusion, he found his own answer.
Mangled and twisted, but it was there, illuminating faintly the way in the Dark.
The young man's eyes closed and he threw back his head, transfixed by the beauty of the feelings sweeping him away.
Hope. Faith. Acceptance. Forgiveness.
Love. The most sublime kind of love. Self-sacrificing love.
And with a strangled cry, he embraced his Destiny.
Wake me up inside, wake me up inside
Call my name and save me from the Dark.
Bid my blood to run, before I come undone,
Save me from the nothing I've become.
Evanescence – Bring Me to Life