Steadying herself against the blast that shook the Falcon, Leia bent down and kissed Luke's lips comfortingly.
"I'll be back," she reassured him, leaving him momentarily to check on Lando and Chewie, and see for herself how their merciless hunt was going.
Half conscious with pain and shock, Luke couldn't even moan at her to stay. Only Leia's proximity and soothing aura were keeping the insanity at bay. Now, Darkness and horror closed in on him, threatening to consume what was left of his soul.
He'd rather die than live with this. He couldn't live with this! He couldn't face it, he couldn't even consider it! Because if it was true... then nothing in his life had ever been real.
He'd been ready to die before becoming a part of that Horror, and now he found himself alive, almost against his will, chased by the demon outside... and inside him.
He could feel sanity slipping through his fingers. Mutilated not only of his hand, but of all hope. Not even the Force provided any solace, muted by a discovery too unthinkable to bear.
It had to be a lie. It had to be a lie! His distraught mind kept shouting in denial.
Then, why did Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru exchange *those* looks every time he mentioned his long lost father? Why did Obi-Wan make that odd pause before telling him how his father had died? Why the ominous tone in Yoda's voice when he said that his father had been a "powerful Jedi"?
Memory after memory, clue after clue began to surface and coalesce into a larger picture, and Luke thought his head would explode.
No. No. NO! Please, don't let it be true! Don't let Vader be his...
"Father!" he answered mentally and out loud.
His knee-jerk response proved better than a blood test that although his mind kept rejecting that inconceivable piece of knowledge, his guts had accepted it already on a visceral level because... because it was...
'Son, come with me.'
The words pulled at his heartstrings, and Luke's essence went out to that dark presence shining like a beacon in the vortex of his madness. A presence that beckoned him from the depths of his own mind, that not even Ben or Yoda had ever touched.
"Ben, why didn't you tell me?" he cried out in a whisper, rising to his feet with his last bout of strength.
Dragging his feet along, resigned to his fate, he made it to the cockpit. He was barely aware of Leia, Chewie and Lando. He only had eyes for the insatiable monster out there, determined to have him.
Lando squeezed his arm kindly in passing and he nodded like an automaton. Darkness. Everything was Darkness. No hope. No hope for him. No hope for anyone.
"It's Vader." And it felt to him as if he had doomed them all just by saying the name.
A veil of blackness descended on him, and he shrunk from it, collapsing on the seat directly behind him.
He was coming closer. He wanted his soul, and nothing would stop him until he had it because... because it was the Truth.
'Luke, it is your destiny.'
Luke felt as if the presence on the other side of his mind was draining him of his very lifeforce.
He had gone to Vader ready to resist his taunts about his dead father, ready to resist his Dark side temptations. But he hadn't been ready to resist the Dark side temptations of his living father.
"Ben, why didn't you tell me?" he moaned again, dying a little more inside.
His heart was broken, shattered into a billion shards. The dreams of an orphan child crying out to his father at night, begging him to come and ease his devastating loneliness had been mocked and crushed by this... creature of sheer evil who dared to appeal to their blood bond to claim him.
His weakness before that appeal was humiliating and excruciating. But he had been dispossessed of everything today. His dignity was redundant at this point.
He had nothing left, absolutely nothing; and giving in to his wounded animal urges, he projected all the love and need of a lifetime in a searing wave of helplessness, and channelled it in a hopeless plea to the greedy, ruthless beast that had been his father once.
The shockwave threw him back just as the Falcon jumped into hyperspace. An irresistible force pulled at the link joining him to Vader and stretched it, stretched it brutally until it broke, releasing him from the Dark Lord's corrupting influence.
But instead of relief, the young man felt as if his heart had been torn from his chest.
'Father, don't go!' he shrieked in pure agony, bringing up his left hand and pressing on his left temple. He closed his eyes shut against the blinding pain.
And just like that, everything was over. Only silence remained, and an emptiness so unfathomable that he was convinced that Vader had already taken him and left a dead carcass behind.
Little lights danced before his eyes when he opened them. They hurt from the pressure of keeping them closed so hard, and he winced with a breathless gasp. But instead of the Falcon, a phantom sequence of images appeared before his mind's eye at a blistering speed; so fast that he wondered for an instant if it had actually been a product of his imagination. A close-up of a swollen womanly belly covered by an exquisite blue material, and a big, gloved hand settling reverently on that belly, cupping it and caressing it with infinite tenderness.
A choked sob exploded from Luke's insides at the onslaught of raw emotion those images evoked in him. Its poignant, sublime beauty became engraved on his memory like fire.
Clinging to that vision for dear life, the young man abandoned himself to the blissful oblivion of unconsciousness.
Darth Vader stood where he was, looking out of the Executor's huge window, and staring at nothingness.
The Millennium Falcon had jumped into hyperspace. In only two seconds, it was far beyond the Empire's reach, and Vader's influence on the slipping mind of his son.
But it wasn't his failure at capturing the Falcon that disturbed Vader now. The fact that the entire Fleet had been shown up by that ridiculously small ship was the furthest thing from his mind.
Something immensely more disturbing paralysed the Sith Lord and rendered him unable to react, unable to even issue the next self-evident order.
Meeting his son face to face had seriously undermined his capacity for rational thinking. It was one thing to decide a course of action studying a holo image, and another to confront the eyes of the being he was bent on breaking.
He had known that mutilating the boy was a mistake the moment he did it. Only a fool would join the person who had just maimed them. Their hatred would just redouble, and they would seek revenge even more forcefully, blood relative or not.
But the looks of horror, denial and revulsion in the boy's eyes at his revelation, and resignation and defiance just before jumping into the abyss had been so unexpected that he was still reeling from them.
Something wavered inside Vader, and he braced himself against it with a snarl. He had expected to tempt the boy with dark promises of power and domination, but instead of persuading him, his final act of suicidal disobedience only aroused feelings of admiration and pride. For being able to find an alternative when there had been none.
Vader shuddered and swayed inside the suit. The flood of emotions the boy had shoved his way hit him harder than the most lethal Force push. He was certain it would take a lifetime to sort out through them. And it would take longer to close the breach they had made in his defences, straight into his very core.
The fading echo of his broken-hearted cry for his father had torn from him a random, long-forgotten memory that belonged to someone else. A memory over two decades old that, reduced to mere bits of information, had failed to stir any emotion in him for many years.
But if it truly was someone else's life as he maintained, why the savage, relentless, vicious search of a boy whose presumed death along with his mother's, had marked the passing of Anakin Skywalker? Why did the sudden flashback of his mechanical hand caressing the pregnant belly of his wife and the life that grew in it cause a pain greater than his own flesh going up in flames?
'Father, don't go!'
Holding back a hiss, Vader turned his back on the window. He had to leave here. Now.
But the smooth, youthful features, so ethereal and beautiful, refused to go away. They stayed with him, strong, brave and resilient, accusing him in silence.
That vibrant personality, that idealism, that innocence...
He had failed where his son had succeeded. And now, there was only the Dark Side, as it had been for twenty years. An all-consuming hate. A ravenous greed. An endless lust for power.
And a little boy, with his lovely face bathed in tears, begging the Universe to give him his father back.
Feeling as if his mind was caving in on itself, Vader strode out of the bridge, ignoring everything and everyone but the renewed sense of purpose that was slowly beginning to take shape deep within.
And despite the stinking shadow that followed him, whispering to him perversely that there was no turning back, Vader resolved to wait. And hope for the ultimate answer that didn't lie with him anymore.
And in the wake of that hope, a lone candle that had been almost snuffed out, started to flicker again.