"Daddy! Daddy!" a little boy's frightened voice called out. "Daddy, please!"
A few seconds later, the door of the child's room slid open, and a tall and muscular young man rushed to the little bed, sat down on it and wrapped his arms around the small bundle who reached out to him desperately.
"Shhhhh, it's all right, Luke. It's all right, little one. Daddy's here," Anakin rocked the trembling form, caressing it lovingly, pressing it to his chest and soothing the fear emanating from the small body.
"It was him again, Daddy! He was chasing after me, and I fell... and then he raised his red saber and pointed it at my face. He wanted to hurt me!"
Anakin dropped soft kisses all over the top of the blond head, holding it ever closer to his heart.
"No one will hurt you, Luke. No one! Mommy and I will not allow it."
Luke clung to his father's light top, burying his face in it.
"But he's always in my dreams, Daddy! With that scary mask and... and... his breathing is... is..."
"It's only a nightmare," Anakin explained once again. "We all have them. They're ugly ghosts and shadows, but they disappear when we open our eyes. They can't hurt us. Only when we let them get a grip on us." The young man reached down and wiped away the tears on his son's cheeks with his thumb.
"You promise?" Luke's big blue eyes sought his father's in the darkness, looking for the reassurance only a parent could provide.
Anakin met his son's gaze, promising a world of safety in his equally blue depths.
"I promise," he bent forward and kissed Luke's eyelids. "You should go back to sleep now, before you awaken your sister." He smiled and nodded to the bed next to his son's.
Anakin helped his child back into bed and tucked him snugly.
"Daddy," Luke whispered.
"Could you stay until I fall asleep again? Please?" A tiny hand peeked out from beneath the covers, looking for him.
Anakin took the little hand in his own and knelt down beside the bed.
"For as long as you need me, little one," he brought the small hand to his lips and kissed it. The fingers of his other hand combed through the soft strands tenderly, comfortingly.
"I love you, Daddy," Luke let out in a peaceful sigh.
"And I love you, my little angel," Anakin's heart constricted and his eyes began to mist. Something inside him ached every time his children proclaimed their love for him. It was as if a part of him didn't think he deserved it. Shaking off the irrational notion, he edged closer and touched Luke's nose with his own. They rubbed them together until the little boy dissolved into a fit of helpless giggles, as he always did every time they played their private little game.
It only took a few minutes for Luke to fall asleep. Still, Anakin stayed a little longer, making sure that no more nightmares haunted his son's sleep. He sent loving thoughts to his child through their mental link before rising to his feet and tiptoeing out of the room after checking on his daughter too. She seemed undisturbed by her brother's dreams.
- - - - - - - - - -
"Another nightmare?" Padme asked when Anakin joined her in bed.
Anakin nodded, lying down and holding his wife in his arms.
"The big man in black, with the mask, the cape and the strange breathing?"
"Yes." Anakin looked through the half-closed blinders, at the city outside.
"I'm worried about him, Anakin. This is getting out of hand. We should do something."
"I'll talk to Obi-Wan tomorrow. Maybe there's something to this that we can't see."
"Do you think it could be a vision? A premonition?" Padme rose on her elbow and placed her other arm on her husband's chest.
"I don't know. But we'll find out." Anakin's gaze turned to her and, lifting his head from the pillow, he kissed her lips softly. "Let's go back to sleep or we'll be dead on our feet tomorrow."
Snuggling up to each other, they closed their eyes.
- - - - - - - - - - -
Anakin crossed the entrance of the Jedi temple. It had been months since he had last stepped in there, but it never failed to overwhelm him with its magnificence. Wisdom and peace dozens of centuries old permeated every corner of the building.
He walked through the immense hall until he reached the veranda, where fifteen younglings received the patient training of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi.
On feeling his former padawan's presence, Obi-Wan turned about, and a lively smile illuminated his features. His hair and beard were slightly grayer than the last time they had seen each other, but his blue eyes sparkled youthfully.
"Anakin!" he greeted the newcomer, turning off his lightsaber.
Anakin smiled back at him.
"Good morning, master."
"To what do we owe the honour of your visit?" Obi-Wan asked, squeezing Anakin's forearm warmly.
"I could use some help from a friend."
Obi-Wan noticed the worry in Anakin's eyes, and with a silent nod, he turned to the younglings.
"We are taking a break, children. Wait for me here."
"Yes, master Kenobi," a chorus of child voices replied.
The two old friends contemplated Coruscant's skyline from the terrace, enjoying the morning breeze blowing on their faces.
"Is everything all right?" Obi-Wan asked conversationally, squinting at the sunlight.
"Quite all right." Anakin said, staring at the Senate's dome in the distance where Padme had to be this very moment.
"The children's birthday is coming up soon, isn't it?"
"Next month," a little smile of pride and love lit up Anakin's face.
"Seven." Anakin corrected.
"Seven already! Force, I feel so old!"
Anakin's smile widened at his former master's running joke. But the reason for his visit erased the smile from his lips.
"What's wrong, Anakin?" Obi-Wan turned to his friend and focused all his attention on him.
"It's Luke." Anakin said after a pause.
Obi-Wan winced at the concern in the young man's voice.
"He's been experiencing recurrent nightmares for the past few weeks." Anakin bowed his head a little, and looked down at his interlaced fingers on the rail. "At first it was once, twice a week at most. But lately, it's happening almost every night, and the nightmares are getting more and more disturbing."
"Many children go through a phase of very intense and vivid nightmares during their childhood. And one day, they disappear as suddenly as they appeared," Obi-Wan offered.
"I know, and that's what we thought at the beginning. But now I'm not so sure. It's the same nightmare over and over again. A man dressed in black, wearing a mask and a cape, and with a strange breathing is chasing after him, with the intention of hurting him."
"Not very different from the nightmares of millions of children all over the galaxy, Anakin," Obi-Wan reassured.
"In other circumstances I would agree with you. But last night was different."
"In what way?"
"Last night, the man in black was brandishing a red lightsaber."
Obi-Wan's eyebrows shot up.
"Still, it doesn't have to mean something necessarily," the Jedi master tried to reason. "You've brought the children here quite a few times, and they've seen us train with our lightsabers. They've seen you use your lightsaber occasionally."
"I know." Anakin's body seemed carved into stone. Only his flashing eyes revealed that he was flesh and blood. "But I fear it could be a premonition of some kind. You know Luke's inherited my..."
Anakin snorted and let out a sarcastic grin.
"I would hardly call it that, since all my premonitions have been about death and destruction."
A short silence followed.
"Do you want to bring Luke here to receive some counseling?" Obi-Wan suggested. "Maybe it could help him to get some control over his nightmares, and make some sense out of them."
"I don't know," Anakin sighed. "This has escalated so quickly..."
"Anakin," Obi-Wan broached the subject for the umpteenth time in the last few years. "You cannot allow your highly Force-sensitive children to remain untrained. Their minds can't cope with their abilities. They need guidance, they have to build up their minds to be able to handle..."
"No, master," Anakin shook his head adamantly. "I am training them, my way, the way I feel is best for them."
"And do you think that your way will be enough in the long run?"
"There are no certainties in this life, but I don't want to make the same mistakes..." realizing what he was about to say, Anakin's voice faded away.
"...that we made in your training?" Obi-Wan finished for him matter-of-factly.
Anakin looked away and closed his eyes.
"I..." he took a deep breath, gathering his thoughts together. "I'm not blaming you, master. Believe me. I don't blame anyone for my almost fall. I am responsible for my actions and my wrong choices." He sighed again, opening his eyes. "But I learned my lessons. Being a father opened my eyes to so many things! It gave me the self-awareness and perspective I always needed." He looked at Obi-Wan straight in the eye. "I only have my love and my instinct to guide me, but somehow, I know they're guiding me right."
Obi-Wan smiled despite himself. Fatherhood had indeed given Anakin the focus and stability he had needed all his life. Right after the traumatic events that almost brought down the Republic and the Jedi, Anakin had confessed his secret marriage to Senator Padme Amidala, and the fact that they were about to become parents. Then, Anakin made one of the biggest decisions of his life. He abandoned the Order for good.
The Jedi master often medidated about the chain of events that had transpired all those years ago. It seemed unbelievable that everything had turned out for the best, when so many things could have gone wrong.
Master Yoda was particularly meditative and introspective every time they discussed the matter. Something seemed to disturb him greatly, but not even Yoda knew why.
In the end, it didn't matter.
"If there's something I've learned since I met you, it's to trust your instincts, Anakin," Obi-Wan smiled affectionately.
Anakin smiled at his friend's words, gratefully.
"Thank you, master." He was silent for a second before plunging ahead and saying the words he should have said long ago. "You didn't fail me. No one failed in my training." He shrugged. "The fact that I'm full of midi-chlorians doesn't mean that I was made for this life. Deep down, I always knew that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be one of you. Master Yoda was right all along."
Obi-Wan's features softened, infinitely grateful in his turn for the words that he so had needed to hear.
"I value all the years I spent here, all the things I was taught. Never think that I don't. You were my family, this was my home all those years, until I found a home of my own, with Padme first, and with Padme, Luke and Leia now." His face shone with love and inner peace. "This is what I was always meant to be. This was my true Destiny."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes and nodded.
- - - - - - - - -
"Master Luke, Master Leia, have you finished your homework?" 3PO asked his two little masters, entering the children's bedroom and putting a tray with two glasses of juice on the table.
"I have, Threepio!" Leia jumped to her feet and grabbed her glass in one sweep of her arm, almost spilling its content. Her long pony-tails moved up and down, mirroring the little girl's excitement.
"And you, master Luke?" the golden droid asked the blond-haired boy, who seemed quite busy, head bent over his notebook, the tip of his tongue sticking out in an unconscious gesture, completely focused on his slow writing.
"Almost... there, Threepio," he mumbled absent-mindedly.
"Dinner will be ready in one hour," 3PO announced, unaware of the fact that the two children still couldn't tell the time. "Your father just called. He'll be bringing one special guest for dinner."
"Who?! Who's coming with daddy?" Leia asked.
"He said it was a surprise, and I wasn't to tell you," 3PO replied, sounding a bit subdued. Keeping information, even as harmless as this, didn't seem right for some reason. After all, one of the duties of a droid was providing information to their masters, especially when asked so directly.
"I know who's coming," Luke said with a little smile, raising his head from his notebook.
"How do you know?" Leia turned to her brother, her upper lip stained with juice.
Luke touched his left temple with his forefinger in answer.
"Yeah, sure. Bluffing again," Leia said disdainfully.
"I don't...!" Luke began. Then, he sighed out loud. "I'll tell you just before they come, all right?" he compromised.
Leia smiled to herself. She knew how to play her brother like a violin. Luke had an amazing ability to know some things before they happened, just as she seemed to know when something was wrong, or right, just by touching people. It was becoming more and more difficult for her to control her gift. It was almost painful sometimes, and she was unconsciously refraining from touching people lately, just in case she picked up painful or disturbing things.
Their father had told them to come to him when they had problems with their gifts and didn't know how to handle them. Maybe she should tell him.
Luke grabbed his glass from the tray and took a long sip.
"Wanna practise with the sticks?" Leia asked.
"Yeah," Luke nodded.
One heartbeat later, the two children burst out of the room so fast that if he could, Threepio would have blinked in astonishment at the empty room.
- - - - - - - -
Leia and Luke were helping Threepio to set the table in the dining room when Padme walked in, smartly dressed.
"Children, your father will be here shortly with our guest. Why don't you go and change your clothes now?"
A gust of wind followed the children out of the room.
"Why can't they just walk?" Padme wondered for the fifth time that evening.
- - - - - - - - -
"Are you gonna tell me now who's coming?" Leia asked her brother, slipping into a light green dress, with little blue knots on top of the straps.
"I don't know. Maybe I should keep you waiting some more..." Luke wriggled his eyebrows mischievously while fastening his cream-coloured bottoms.
"Oh, c'moooooon!" Leia pouted, hands on her hips.
"All right, all riiiiight," Luke mimicked, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly. "It's Obi-Wan."
"Uncle Obi-Wan?" Leia's face lit up. "Oh, that's great! We haven't seen him in ages!"
"Yeah," Luke agreed, smiling.
- - - - - - - - - -
"Hello, Threepio," Anakin greeted his droid, getting off the speeder.
"It's good to see you again, Threepio," Obi-Wan smiled at the golden droid, stepping into the terrace.
"I'm very happy to see you too, sir," Threepio bowed his head courteously. "Dinner will be ready in thirty minutes, master Anakin," he informed the young man.
"All right. Thanks," Anakin said after the retreating droid.
The two friends walked inside the apartment. Anakin put their robes away in a small closet.
"Something to drink?" he asked his former master when they entered the living-room.
"Juice will be fine, thank you," Obi-Wan nodded.
Anakin served them both, and when they were finishing their drink in a comfortable silence, a commotion made the two men look in the corridor's direction.
A bright smile, full of Light and love illuminated Anakin's face, and before his children charged into the room, he stood up and opened his arms wide, bracing himself for the impact.
Two short, blurry forms burst in, and headed straight for the young man, falling on him. They clung to him, squeezing him as if he had been away for months.
Anakin kissed his children fervently, blinking back the tears that invariably, always filled his eyes. He was greeted like this every single day, and every single day felt like the most beautiful gift he would ever receive.
When the children moved back, still clinging to their father, they became aware of Obi-Wan's presence.
"Hi, uncle Obi-Wan!" Leia smiled at the bearded man.
"Hello, uncle Obi!" Luke grinned happily.
"Hello, children," the Jedi master couldn't hold back the wide smile on his face. "Come here and give me a hug!" he invited.
The two siblings readily accepted the invitation and hugged the juice out of the older man, while Anakin observed them with an impish smile on his face.
"Force, you've grown!" Obi-Wan said when he could take a good look at them.
"Not much. We're among the shortest of our class," Luke pouted, looking dejected.
Anakin squatted down and brought his children close. They huddled together and all of a sudden, Obi-Wan felt like the odd man out.
"I told you," he heard Anakin say, "you still have many years ahead to grow and catch up with your friends. Besides, size doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is what you have in here." He tapped his children's chests.
Luke and Leia nodded and smiled adoringly at their father. Time seemed to stop.
"We already finished our homework, can we go out to the terrace and play?" Leia asked.
"We'll be having dinner very soon, but I guess you can, just for a little while. Okay?" Anakin instructed.
"Okay!" the siblings said at the same time, taking off for the terrace.
Anakin rose to his feet and saw his children leave the room with a bittersweet smile on his face, lost in thought.
"They're good," Obi-Wan said, moved beyond words by the scene he had just witnessed.
"They're the best thing that ever happened to me," Anakin said softly. "They're my heart and my soul, the best part of me. They're my peace and my sanity." He shook himself out of his reverie. "I need them so much!"
"And they need you every bit as much," Obi-Wan smiled at his friend.
"No, master. I need them more. Infinitely more." Anakin's voice lowered with emotion.
"Master Obi-Wan!" Padme entered the room, looking lovely.
Obi-Wan stood up and reached out to her. They held hands and gave each other an appraising look. The Jedi master bent forward and kissed her cheek.
"You're just as beautiful as the last time I saw you," he complimented sincerely.
"Don't listen to him, darling," Anakin whispered to his wife, but loud enough for the other man to hear him. "You're more beautiful than the last time you saw each other."
"Oh, Anakin," Padme chuckled, in obvious amusement.
"You know, master? You could give a beautiful woman a complex," Anakin teased Obi-Wan.
"I'll have to improve my social manners, then," Obi-Wan pursued the joke. "The problem is that I'm not around beautiful women often, so in the end it would be a waste of time."
The three friends shared a hearty laughter.
"Juice?" Anakin suggested his wife when they calmed.
"Please," Padme nodded.
"Master?" Anakin looked at Obi-Wan pointedly.
"No, thank you. One is enough." Obi-Wan shook his head.
"I'll have another," Anakin said, serving his wife and himself. On his way back, he stopped by the terrace's door and checked on his children. A proud smile softened his features as he watched them train with the sticks he had made for them.
Padme walked up behind him and took her drink from his hand, putting her free hand on his back and rubbing soothing circles on it. Anakin looked back at her with a grateful smile, took her hand in his and squeezed it meaningfully.
Obi-Wan felt out of place for the second time that evening, this time contemplating the couple's unconscious exchange. Watching them, he suddenly understood Anakin's words. This was what his younger friend had been seeking all his life. Love. A family. And it didn't matter how big the Jedi family was, none of them could give him what that woman and those two children were giving him every day, even when they were apart. Warmth. Peace. Joy. Belonging. Touch. Real human touch.
He nodded to himself. Yes, Anakin had made the right decision. He was finally walking the path he was meant to follow.
Anakin and Padme walked back up to him, still hand in hand. A short pause ensued.
"I guess Anakin told you..." Padme began in her usual straightforward manner.
"Yes," Obi-Wan nodded again. "And I'm telling you the same thing I told him. Most likely, it's a phase the boy's going through. It doesn't have to be a premonition of any kind." His next frown belied his words somewhat. "Certainly, the fact that he's dreaming of a Sith Lord is... interesting, considering he's never seen one." He looked at his younger friend. "Perhaps his bond with you enabled him to come up with such an image, adding some elements of his own imagination."
"What do you suggest?" Padme asked.
"I will study him tonight and maybe ask him a few questions after dinner. Nothing that will make him suspicious, don't worry. We'll see."
Anakin and Padme looked at each other and nodded in agreement.
- - - - - - - - - -
Dinner was nice and pleasant, between longtime friends who cared deeply about each other, and felt totally at ease and comfortable in each other's company. Luke and Leia behaved, eliciting a comment from Obi-Wan on how mature and grown-up they were, that earned a giggle and twin expressions of childish pride that had the adults holding back their mirth.
After dinner, back in the living room, Padme and Obi-Wan engaged in a lively conversation about diplomacy, while Anakin and the children played a three-way boardgame.
At some point, Obi-Wan and Padme realized that they were alone in the room. Laughter from the terrace drew their attention, so they stood up and went out to continue their conversation there.
Obi-Wan's eyes almost popped out of their sockets when he faced the scene before him.
Luke and Leia were fighting each other with two flexible sticks that obviously were a harmless imitation of a lightsaber. The two children seemed to be having the time of their lives as their father watched over them, nodding occasionally at his offsprings' technique.
"I can't believe it," Obi-Wan muttered to himself.
"What?" Padme asked.
"He's training them. He's actually training them!" Obi-Wan's jaw dropped open.
"Didn't he tell you?" Padme's disbelief was palpable.
"Yes, he did. But he was so determined he was training them his way, with no outside interference from the Order, that I thought he was procrastinating."
"Well, he wasn't," Padme's gaze turned to her family. "He's been training them for almost two years now. He taught them to meditate first, to get consciously in touch with the Force. The physical training started only six months ago."
Obi-Wan shook his head in astonishment, unable to tear his eyes away from his best friend and his children.
"What I don't understand," he said a long moment later, "is why are they training with those sticks. Why aren't they using lightsabers?"
"Anakin and I agree on it. If we're keeping our children away from any knives and sharp objects for fear of their getting hurt, the more reason to keep them away from something as deadly as a lightsaber." Her eyes hardened. "Children shouldn't handle any weapons, not until they're mentally ready and they understand the risks and dangers they entail. When they're mature enough to deal with the responsibility, they'll build their own lightsabers."
Obi-Wan's heart skipped a beat at Padme's words. He had never stopped to consider...
Just then, Luke deflected one of his sister's blows and performed an impressive somersault. He took too much impulse, and Obi-Wan realized with horror that the child would land headfirst. His mouth opened to cry out a warning.
Right before the boy's head hit the floor, strong arms held him around his small body and put him back on the floor so very gently.
Luke looked up at his father and smiled at him, shining with gratitude and love.
"Thank you, Daddy."
"You're welcome, little one," Anakin smiled back, ruffling his son's hair playfully. "Don't let your enthusiasm get in the way. Remember. Focus. Control."
"Yes, Daddy," Luke nodded eagerly.
Obi-Wan looked at Padme in absolute shock.
"You didn't even flinch. The boy could have easily broken his neck!"
Padme smiled calmly.
"I'm more worried about my children when they're at school, out of my sight and Anakin's, than when they're training with him. The most intimate part of me knows that nothing bad can happen to them, as long as they're with their father."
Obi-Wan swallowed hard. He didn't expect to learn some lessons of his own that evening. He had made too many assumptions that were proving to be completely unfounded.
TO BE CONTINUED...