"The Emperor has been expecting you," Vader intoned, falling into step with his son. As he did, it struck him that he couldn't remember the last time he had engaged in a simple conversation with anyone. It had been so long ago that the memory had faded completely. How strange, and how deliciously ordinary. To just walk beside someone... and talk.

But this boy wasn't just anyone. He was his equal. His only equal. Not only because of the blood bond they shared. He was also a survivor. His resiliency and inner strength were palpable in the way he had resisted his mental probes these past few months, in the way he was holding his own now.

Somewhere deep inside, Vader admitted that he was proud. Very proud.

"I know, Father," was the calm reply.

The sound of that word, spoken in such a quiet tone of voice, made Vader turn his head sharply. He couldn't detect any inflexion, any emotional cue for him to follow. The child was being nonchalant about it, playing it cool. Well, that was certainly progress, considering how he had taken it when he found out.

"So, you have accepted the truth," he observed ironically.

"I have accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father."

The shock and outrage of being called by that name brought Vader to an immediate halt.

"That name no longer has any meaning for me," he clarified/threatened, using the lightsaber for emphasis and pointing at the boy's chest with it, the message clear.

Unfazed by his outburst, the young man's vehemence doubled.

"It is the name of your true self, you've only forgotten," he insisted. "I know there is good in you. The Emperor hasn't driven it from you fully."

The string of nonsense coming out of the boy's mouth was so staggering that it rendered Vader speechless. But then, Luke turned about, a veil of Light wrapping itself around him protectively.

"That was why you couldn't destroy me," he said, walking away from him and leaning his arms on the railings. "That's why you won't bring me to your Emperor now."

Vader read the hope in the young voice and let out a quizzical smile behind the mask.

Force, had he ever been so idealistic? So naïve? So convinced that faith alone could conquer all?

He looked down at the lightsaber in his hand. Regrettably, that was always the answer. Change could only be brought about through violence and destruction.

Nothing ever turns out the way you plan. That was a truth Luke still had to learn.

He ignited the weapon, ignoring the child's startled reaction to it.

"I see you have constructed a new lightsaber," he turned the handle around, admiring the exquisite craftmanship with a new burst of pride. "Your skills are complete."

Vader experienced a sudden, unwelcome feeling of bitterness. Here they were, Father and Son. Flesh of each other's flesh and yet, two total strangers. Enemies, foes, disposable pieces in a galactic scheme controlled by another.

But it was too late to turn back. There was no turning back, for either of them. They were what they were, slaves of their own personal choices, and no one and nothing could change that.

He turned around, facing away from his child.

"Indeed, you are powerful. As the Emperor has foreseen." The battle for supremacy was about to begin, and it would be to the death. It was unstoppable now.

A long, endless pause ensued.

"Come with me."

Vader's eyes fell closed at the soft, heartfelt entreaty that appealed to everything he had been and left behind decades ago.

Far too late.

"Obi-Wan once thought as you do."

'I have failed you, Anakin. I have failed you.'

Pitiful that it took him all these years to recognize the sorrow in his old master's words. Blinded as he had been by his anger and his ambition of bending the Universe to his will, he had failed on so many levels. Nothing remained of the person he had been, before and after his turn. Not even his objectives were his anymore. There was only Darkness to sustain him now.

He faced the irrepressible youth.

"You don't know the power of the Dark Side. I must obey my master."

Luke's stance didn't waver. If anything, his strength of character reasserted itself even more strongly.

"I will not turn; and you'll be forced to kill me." Not a threat, but an unchangeable fact. Or so the boy thought.

"If that is your destiny..." Vader's voice sounded like a shrug, indifferent and casual.

No, he didn't want to kill his son, but there were so many things he hadn't wanted to do and he'd ended up doing them. That seemed to be the curse of their bloodline. Their every resolution was stripped from them, one after another, time after time.

The child's soul recoiled, and momentarily hearing his words from his son's point of view, his own soul also recoiled in disgust.

Was that what their relationship was heading for? This utter perversion of what a Father-Son bond should be?

Recovering with a swiftness and assurance that amazed the Sith Lord, the little Jedi approached him.

"Search your feelings, Father," he exhorted him. "You can't do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate!"

If there was one particular thing he'd learned after years of fighting it in vain, it was to let go. He'd become a master at letting go of everything that had ever been important to him. A lesson learned in blood; the most cherished blood.

He had no great destiny to fulfill anymore, there was nothing left in him to give or let go of. Not even his hate.

Vader met the earnest, infinitely compelling eyes trying to bore into his soul with an almost compassionate look that the child couldn't see, responding to the urgent appeal with his last remaining offering. The truth.

"It is too late for me, Son." He was an empty shell, waiting, obeying, surviving. And the boy's only chance at survival was joining the Dark Side. He would learn that lesson whether he wanted it or not. He gestured towards the stormtroopers. "The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now."

The child's facial expression changed from impassioned to incredulous, and finally to abject horror. He glanced briefly at the troopers flanking him, and then settled his agitated gaze on him once more, nodding in acquiescence.

And Vader wondered again at the acceptance and inner peace reflected in those big, solemn eyes.

"Then my father is truly dead."

The unsentimental, matter-of-fact delivery of those words hit Vader to the core. Even his respiration faltered, and it was all he could do to watch his son's dignified exit, escorted by the two stormtroopers.

He couldn't take his eyes off the small form, so strong and brave. Stronger and braver than he'd ever been, he admitted, being honest with himself to the bitter end.

The relentless, piercing eyes stared at him accusingly even as the door slid closed.

'It is never too late, Father. Remember that.'

Once cut off from the boy's disturbing influence, the Dark Lord walked up to the railing, to the same spot where his son had leaned on, and grabbed it for support. He was shaking inside. Fragments of memories and feelings started to pound through his mind, ripping it apart.

'I don't know you anymore.'

'It is useless to resist.'

'Then you are lost!'

'That's not true. That's impossible!'

'You're breaking my heart.'

'Father.'

'If he could be turned, he would become a powerful ally.'

'I will not turn.'

'You're going down a path I can't follow.'

'Come with me.'

'It is too late for me, Son.'

'Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'

'If you're not with me, then you're my enemy.'

'I've accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.'

'You brought him here to kill me!'

'Search your feelings, Father.'

'He will come to me?'

'I feel the conflict within you.'

'Come with me.'

'You don't know the power of the Dark Side.'

'You'll be forced to kill me.'

'Come with me.'

'COME WITH ME.'

Something snapped within Vader, and with an animalistic snarl, he spun around and strode into the turbolift. When the door opened, he stepped into the landing platform and headed directly for the solitary Imperial shuttle. The ramp was down and his son stood to one side of it, guarded by the two stormtroopers, perfectly still and composed, staring straight ahead.

The pilot and copilot of the shuttle walked up to him from the other end of the platform.

"We are ready, milord," the pilot gave him a curt nod.

"Your services are not required," Vader dismissed the two officers. "You will remain on the moon until further notice."

The two men's eyes darted around in total bafflement, until they set on the Rebel prisoner. Luke had turned his head and observed the scene in his usual quiet way, head slightly tilted to one side.

"I wouldn't trust the prisoner not to try to escape, my Lord," the copilot argued.

"Are you questioning my ability to deal with such an eventuality, Lieutenant?" Vader asked dangerously.

The two men paled and swallowed convulsively.

"Not at all, Lord Vader," was the pilot's prompt answer.

"Good," Vader's sarcasm was lost on the pilots, too occupied in scurrying away with their lives.

Luke's eyes met the masks' empty sockets curiously. Vader replied tilting his own head pointedly.

Understanding at last, the young man walked up the ramp, followed by his father's ominous shadow.

Once in the shuttle, Luke turned around and looked at Vader interrogatively. He was clearly puzzled by his decision to get rid of the pilots.

Vader only stopped when he drew level with his son. The boy had to crane his head back to look up at him, but he never flinched away from his father's overwhelming nearness. He simply gazed up at him serenely.

Vader forced an inhuman control on his wild heartbeat, and raised a gloved hand.

Luke's attention shifted to the big hand and the finger pointing at his midsection now.

And then, the handcuffs opened and fell to the floor with a clang.

The boy's eyes returned to his expressionless mask, a mute question in them.

"You have ten seconds to plot a course someplace close enough where we can... talk," Vader commanded in a businesslike manner.

The light eyes opened wide in surprise. But quickly taking action, the young man flashed his father a pleased little smile and hurried to the controls.

Vader followed him at a more sedate pace, pondering that little smile. The first he had received in... a lifetime. He stood behind the pilot's seat, nodding to himself when the shuttle took off eight seconds later.

"What is our destination?" he asked when they were high above the forest moon.

Luke turned his head and looked up at him.

"The other side of the moon. It can't get any closer than that."

Vader nodded again, approvingly.

"You do realize that this... little detour will not change the final outcome," he reminded him.

The boy gave him a small shrug.

"I have my hopes. You agreed to come with me after all, didn't you?"

Vader didn't answer. At the moment, he couldn't decide if he felt manipulated... or freer than he'd been in twenty years.

The trip was made in silence. Father and Son reached a sort of unspoken agreement to not trespass on each other's boundaries, and when the shuttle landed on a clearing in the middle of the forest, Vader wondered what in Sith hell he was doing.

Luke opened the ramp and rose, gesturing to his father to go out first. Vader almost snorted at the unexpected courtesy.

The landscape that greeted them was pretty much the same there was on the other side, with a significant difference. Whereas it was dawn when they had taken off, it was getting dark here, due to the moon's rotation.

Vader ventured out a few metres, checking the surroundings. His eyes followed the length of the trees, thoroughly impressed. Vegetation proliferated in every shape and size. Mostly conifer and fern, he noticed. Dead trunks and branches also abounded, judging by the sound his boots made when he stepped on the smaller branches.

"We'll have to light a fire when it gets darker," Luke commented beside him, taking in the vista.

Vader nodded wordlessly.

"I'll take out a few things from the shuttle," the boy continued. "A power generator and a lamp."

Vader remained as he was, looking around, unable to tell what it was about that place that filled him with such an eerie feeling of nostalgia. He could hear noises in the background as Luke set up an improvised camp. He approached him stealthily and when his son looked up from his sitting position on a boulder, he met the black mask gazing down at him.

"Any dangerous lifeforms?" Vader asked.

"None that I know of," the boy shrugged. "I haven't been here long enough to find out. The natives are rather primitive, and we should feel them coming."

Vader nodded again and looked up, mesmerized by the richness of the plant life growing there. He felt Luke's eyes observing him kindly.

Pulling himself together abruptly, Vader's gaze returned to his child and, on an impulse, gave him back his lightsaber.

Luke took it with a nod of acknowledgment, and attached it to his belt.

Vader decided it was time to stop beating about the bush. He sat on a bigger boulder on Luke's left.

"And now that you think that you have me where you wanted me, what do you intend to accomplish?" he spoke harshly.

The boy gave a start, taken aback by his brutal choice of words. He looked away, gathering his thoughts.

"I intend to let things happen in their own good time," he finally said.

"And that statement translates as...?" Vader asked tersely, irritated by the child's cryptic wording.

There was a short silence and then, the strangest sound echoed through the clearing. Luke's laughter.

"Yes, I know," the boy chuckled. "I guess some of Master Yoda's way of speaking rubbed off on me."

"Yoda?!" Vader exclaimed in absolute incredulity. "Master Yoda, did you say?!"

Luke sobered instantly and looked at him.

"Yes. He's the one who trained me after... after you..." he trailed off, taking a deep breath.

Vader waved a hand dismissively.

"Who would have thought," he muttered to himself, "that the little green scumbag was still alive," he practically spat.

"He's not. Not anymore," Luke's voice dripped with sadness and pain.

"Good riddance," Vader hissed vengefully.

A thick silence descended on the clearing. Vader felt how the boy shut himself off from him, retreating somewhere deep inside where the Dark Lord couldn't feel him.

So empty. So cold.

"And what did Yoda teach you, other than to rejoice in the losses and learn to let go?" he asked caustically, grinding his teeth at his conciliatory overture.

Luke raised his head and studied him through slitted eyes, trying to read the story behind his spiteful words. When he failed, he bit his lower lip and looked away again. His face was bathed in the reddish glow of the sunset. He smiled dreamily, apparently in fond remembrance.

"He said that I had to unlearn what I had learned to truly open myself to the Force. He said that the Force is all around us; everywhere, binding us together. That we are luminous beings," he turned his head, and those stunning eyes stared at him full of hope, embracing him. "That there's more to life than we know. That believing is the first step to turn faith into reality."

Vader sat immobile, entranced by the inescapable beauty that the child was. His eyes seemed to bore into his soul, so sweet and warm, so pure and caring, calling out to him the way only his flesh and blood could.

'Father...'

"Pretty. Very pretty," he mocked disdainfully, rising to his feet. "Let me tell you something, young one. I stopped believing in fairytales a long time ago."

Luke stared up at him unblinkingly.

"Flesh is what we are while we are alive. We are flawed and imperfect. We need sustenance for our physical bodies; we have emotional needs that must be met. And when you deny your true nature, the result is always... disastrous."

"Is that what happened to you?" Luke asked with unnerving insight. "Were you forced to be something you weren't? Were you pushed to your breaking point when... you had no one to turn to in a time of need?"

"Watch yourself, Luke," Vader growled in a clipped tone of voice, pointing a warning finger at his prying son. "Or you will get more than you bargained for."

"There is only one thing I intend to get, and it's not turning to the Dark Side," the boy declared calmly, interlacing his fingers in his lap. "Darkness has got nothing to offer that my moral principles can accept."

In two short strides, Vader was facing his son, livid with rage.

"Are you sure about that?!" he barked viciously. "Are you really sure about *that*?"

The boy's eyes bulged at his frenzied loss of control, and in that split second, Vader saw him put the pieces together. Then, he stood on shaky legs and moved as close to him as was physically possible.

"You... You turned... for me? For us?" he stammered in horrific realization. "To protect us somehow?"

Vader's respiration became increasingly ragged and uneven.

"Is that how Palpatine turned you? We were your price?" the child pressed, paling visibly.

And it was Luke's agitation that enabled Vader to regain a hold of himself.

"Never say never, Son. Chances are that you will pay dearly for your arrogance," he screeched.

Silence befell them both, and hours seemed to pass as the universe itself appeared to close in on them.

All of a sudden, Vader felt something take hold of his hand and squeeze it fervently.

"Oh, Father!" the boy moaned in a choked voice. His irresistible eyes shone with unshed tears.

Vader's heart skipped a beat. He couldn't look away from those eyes; he couldn't turn away from the unshakeable promise shining in them.

'Come with me.'

Vader's free hand moved of its own volition, and with a gentleness he hadn't displayed in more than twenty years, touched the boy's lower eyelid, taking the single tear on his finger. He looked at it in disbelief.

What kind of power did that child have over him? What was it about those eyes that drew him so inexorably? What was this pain that he felt in his chest just looking at him?

Something brushed faintly against his senses like a shy, tentative caress. Inviting, hopeful.

Vader's eyes turned from the pearly teardrop on the tip of his gloved finger to the beautiful face of the young man he had sired. He could drown in the comfort those misted eyes radiated.

The only one who could ever understand him... his son. The best part of him... and her.

Warmth began to spread within like an invigorating heartbeat; like an old friend welcoming him back with open arms...

NO!

He shook off the smaller, trusting hand holding his.

"Don't you dare to try a cheap trick like that on me again!" he hissed, seething with anger. "I will not turn back from the Dark Side. Give up your pathetic platitudes and accept reality as it is."

"I can't, and I won't," the boy answered adamantly. "I will never accept that the man who once upheld the belief that the ultimate act of compassion was being ready to give your life for the greater good, isn't still in here somewhere," he nodded fiercely to him.

"Are you ready to give your life proving that theory?" Vader challenged. "Don't insult my intelligence, Luke. Obi-Wan and Yoda trained you to become my executioner. You are a mere tool to complete the job they couldn't finish twenty three years ago."

Luke's eyes flared with something so powerful that Vader couldn't begin to unravel all the nuances of it.

"I have my own free will, Father. I make my own choices. And I choose to believe in you!" the young man exclaimed with a passion Vader had never seen before. He had barely raised his voice and yet, it seemed to echo all over the clearing.

His son's blind faith in him hit Vader like a living thing, throwing him off balance and robbing him of all the arguments to negate the greatest gift he would ever receive.

"Is that how you justify your weakness to carry out the mission you were programmed for?" he threw out a last-ditch effort to eschew that gift. The gift that hurt so deeply.

Luke stared up quietly at him for what felt like an eternity. Then, he smiled poignantly, shaking his head.

"Are you this obstinate because you truly believe what you're saying, or because it's easier to hold on to your hatred than take responsibility for your crimes, and devote the rest of your life to making up for them?"

No blunter words were ever spoken so tenderly. There was no accusation or condemnation in them. It was a simple affirmation that, unbelievably, opened a door before him. It only requested of him to make a decision, and believe.

But along with that almost forgotten feeling, another more primal emotion boiled in his blood, so quick and fiery that he clung to it like the security blanket it was. He lunged forward with a guttural cry, like an enraged animal.

Luke stood where he was, facing the beast with nothing but his small body and the courage he possessed.

Vader began to lash out. He wanted to crush that source of Light, that pure Goodness that kept reminding him of just how ugly and faulty he really was. But at the last moment, the look in those eyes, those forgiving, immensely understanding eyes – even now – broke something inside him. His descending fist opened wide and he released a massive Force push instead.

The boy was thrown backwards five metres. He landed on his backside with an expression of utter surprise that would have been hilarious in any other situation.

Father and Son stared at each other in silence, in a duel of wills neither was ready to concede.

"It is like this for all of us, Father," Luke admitted, while an all-too-familiar pain surfaced in his no longer innocent eyes. "I also committed mass murder four years ago, and I will have to live with it forever."

That was more than Vader could bear. He had to leave here before he did something he'd regret. He turned around savagely and strode into the shuttle.

"It's never too late, Father. Trust me! I know it's not!" the child yelled tirelessly after him.

Once in the safe confines of the shuttle, Vader exploded. With a bloodcurdling scream, he released all the pent-up frustration, self-hate and pain he had accumulated after decades of failure and servitude, of putting the blame on others when he had been the main architect of his own destiny.

The Force vibrated around him in a whirlwind of infinite shame and guilt. It felt like a thousand daggers sinking into his flesh.

'What have I done!?'

'You have allowed this Dark Lord to twist your mind until now you have become the very thing you swore to destroy.'

'I won't lose you the way I lost my mother.'

'You're a good person. Don't do this.'

'I'm doing it for you. To protect you.'

'And the baby?'

'Our baby is a blessing.'

'His compassion for you will be his undoing.'

'Let go of your hate.'

'It is too late for me, Son.'

'It's never too late, Father.'

'Come back! I love you!'

'You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you!'

'Come away with me.'

'I know there is good in you.'

'I have foreseen it.'

'NO!'

'What does your heart tell you?'

'I feel the conflict within you.'

'You have become a far greater Jedi than I could ever hope to be.'

'We are luminous beings.'

'Flesh is what we are while we are alive.'

'There's more to life than we know.'

'It's never too late, Father.'

'Never.'

'Never too late!'

'I choose to believe in you!'

The ruthless whirlwind of memories battered against his defences, shattering them and sweeping away the last outpost of sanity he had left as if it was nothing but dust. Vader felt his mind going up in flames, the same flames that consumed him on a forsaken planet more than two decades ago.

'I don't want things to change.'

'But you can't stop the change.'

'Come with me.'

'Trust me!'

'It's never too late!'

'You were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.'

'Accept reality as it is.'

'I can't and I won't!'

'Come back!'

'Father!'

'This boy is the offspring of Anakin Skywalker.'

'I choose to believe in you!'

'I'm a person and my name is Anakin.'

'I have my own free will.'

'I make my own decisions.'

'I'm a person and my name is Anakin.'

'I'm a person and my name is Anakin!'

'I make my own decisions!'

'My name is Anakin!'

'I choose!'

'My name is Anakin!'

A blast of white light cut through his mind and everything went dark.

When he came to, the first thing he saw were the black shadows of the forest moon outside the shuttle's cockpit. Slowly, he turned his head from side to side. He was sitting on the pilot's chair, although he had no recollection of passing out even near it. He straightened up and ran a quick check of his vitals. He didn't find any damage or malfunction in his respirator.

It was almost completely dark, which meant he had been unconscious for a while. He rose to his feet with surprising ease and descended from the ramp. The sky was black except for the fading vestiges of daylight westward.

The glow of the small bonfire flickering a few metres ahead seemed to beckon him, and Vader walked up to it. The sight that appeared before his eyes froze him on the spot.

His son lay asleep in a sitting position on the ground. His head and upper body rested on a big boulder that reflected the fire's light.

Holding his breath, the Sith Lord approached carefully the sleeping form, examining it minutely as he did.

The boy's face was cast in lights and shadows. His right side was illuminated by the fire, and the left was hidden by the darkness and Luke's own hand that pillowed his head on the rock. His slightly mussed fringe fell on his forehead and his closed eyes, giving him a much younger appearance.

The closer he got to his child, the greater the pain in Vader's chest became. He had to stop when he was only four paces away from him, and force himself to start breathing again.

'He's an angel.' The thought came to mind unbidden.

Vader observed his son, in awe. The soft, light hair blown by the evening breeze, the upturned nose that made the boyish face look utterly charming, the full lips that had turned into a pout in their sleep, the small but compact body forged in the rigours of the hardest training all curled up to keep warm.

He reached out with the Force and verified that his son was indeed sound asleep. Out in the open, unprotected, vulnerable to any predators.

Vader winced. Didn't the boy know how reckless and downright stupid that stunt was? What did he intend to prove by risking his life so needlessly? Was it yet another testament to his trust in his father?

Yes, of course it was. It was the only answer insane enough.

Vader crossed the few steps that separated him from his son and all but collapsed on the boulder next to him, close enough to touch. But he didn't. He just stared at him; at the play of the flames on his beautiful features, at the peace and contentment he exuded even in his sleep.

'Do you truly feel safe in my presence? Do you really trust me that much?'

And Vader knew that this was the most perfect moment of his life.

Luke took a deep breath and let the air out in a short sigh. Responding without meaning to, the Dark Lord's hand reached out and moved away the few bangs falling on the closed eyes, caressing the skin beneath at the same time.

An unconscious smile rewarded his act of gentleness. Luke's head turned towards him, as if seeking his touch. Startled, Vader's hand moved away a little, but still lingering over the noble face. Luke lay still again. After a few seconds of hesitation, Vader's fingers moved anew and the tips brushed the smooth cheek awkwardly.

'I couldn't hold you in my arms when you were born. I could never rock you to sleep. I couldn't see you grow. My fault. Mine. Mine.'

His fingers began a searching caress, drawing slow patterns on his child's face; his forehead, eyebrows, the bridge of his nose, around his eyes. Endless patterns full of confusion and sorrow.

'You were always the answer, but it's too late now.'

Never too late.

Vader's hand opened and framed the side of his son's face.

'Forgive me. Oh, Force, forgive me.'

Luke stirred under his hand. Vader felt him surfacing from the depths of slumber but didn't move his hand away this time. His thumbpad slid all over the cheekbone, and only when the caress was complete did he allow his hand to leave.

Luke's respiration became faster and deeper, and his eyes fluttered open. Vader was directly in his line of vision, and his smile widened gradually when he recognized him.

"What part of 'never fall asleep alone in the woods' don't you understand?" Vader asked tiredly.

An impish chuckle was his reply. The boy straightened up lazily and stretched out the muscles of his upper body.

"I didn't know I had fallen asleep until I woke up," he explained, turning his gaze to the fire and keeping it there.

'What do you see when you look into the fire?' Vader wondered. 'What does the fire see in you?' And at long last, the candid, honest question that cried out to be asked. 'What do you see in me?'

"Our time is running short," he reminded them both.

"I know," his son nodded unflinchingly, hypnotically.

'Where does so much courage come from? Why do I wish we could stay like this forever?'

As if answering his question, Luke turned his head and looked at him intensely. Vader braced himself for his Force probing, but it never came.

"We cannot escape what we are," he hoped that his words could give the comfort their situation couldn't. "Today, the destiny of the galaxy and the Force will be decided."

"Yes, it will," Luke promptly agreed, dropping his gaze and releasing a long, heartfelt sigh.

Suddenly, the young man looked up with a start. His eyes skittered all around him, as if reading his Force aura, and then he smiled radiantly at him. An ecstatic smile that lit up Vader's heart and confused his mind even more.

Getting a hold of himself with great effort, Luke reached out his gloved hand, palm up. Vader looked down at it uncomprehendingly.

"May I see your lightsaber?" the child asked softly.

The Sith Lord blinked at the non-sequitur, but figuring that his son was just trying to stall for time, he decided to indulge him. He did want to give them both a few more minutes together. He wanted to give them a lifetime. He unclipped his lightsaber from his belt and gave it to him.

Luke took it with a pensive look on his face. He turned it around, studying it curiously, but also warily.

"An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age," he muttered to himself with a private, wistful smile. He swivelled around to the firelight, eyes transfixed on the saber.

Time seemed to stand still, and Vader allowed himself to drift, turning his gaze to the forest, to the trees surrounding them that he could make out in the semidarkness. He rose and walked away from the bonfire, needing a final contact with nature. He walked the perimeter of their campsite, stopping on the verge of the shadows, not daring to go beyond them for some reason.

He could feel it. Throbbing, pulsing deep within. Rising like a geyser. His destiny was coming to meet him.

'Anakin, you're breaking my heart.'

'Let. Her. Go.'

'It seems in your anger you killed her.'

'Come with me.'

'It is too late for me, Son.'

'It's never too late, Father.'

'I know it's not.'

'Trust me!'

I CAN'T!

I'm a mass murderer.

There can be no forgiveness for me.

I'm a monster.

I killed younglings.

I killed my fellow Jedi.

I killed my master.

I almost destroyed my son.

I destroyed everything and everyone that once mattered to me.

I killed *her*.

Her.

Padme!

"You did not kill Mother," a broken voice whispered to him from behind.

Vader whipped around, breathless and about to snap.

His son was shaking from head to foot, and a million tears streamed down his reddened cheeks. He looked as if he had just emerged from the very bowels of Hell.

"She died in childbirth, like in your vision." Luke trembled brutally with what could only be described as shock. Vader's lightsaber slipped from his nerveless fingers.

"How do you know?" Vader rasped out at last. "How do you know that?!" he cried out, grabbing his son's upper arms, on the brink of losing his mind.

"Obi-Wan's told me," Luke's mouth and chin quivered helplessly. He shook his head. "You couldn't change what was destined to happen, the same way I couldn't save Leia and Han on Bespin." Tears of bitter failure rolled down the ravaged face.

"I hurt her. I choked her!" Vader strangled out.

"I know," Luke nodded earnestly. "But she didn't die from that. She died because it was her Time."

"You don't know that. Nobody knows that!" Vader shook his head ferociously. "No one will ever know."

"Father..." the boy insisted.

"Look at me!" Vader shouted, falling apart once and for all. "Look at what I am! Look at what I did! How do you expect me to live with it?! How can I? How... How will I?" he knew he was going mad. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think. He couldn't shake off the horror he carried inside and he had spread throughout the galaxy.

Ashen and shaky, Luke grasped his wrist.

"That's the price we have to pay for belonging to the Light," his teary eyes drilled into his meaningfully. "We accept responsibility for our acts."

Vader went rigid like a steel bar. No. No, it couldn't be. There was no salvation possible for him! There couldn't be after living a life of moral corruption and pure evil.

In the midst of his own personal trauma, his son's face shone like the angel's he came from. Like the angel he was. He wrapped him in loving, all-encompassing eyes and nodded to him.

Cautiously, almost fearfully, Vader touched the Force.

An inhuman scream seared his throat and his thoughts. NO! He didn't deserve it! He couldn't be welcomed back after the depraved criminal acts he had committed against the Light, the others, and himself. It hurt! It burned! It burned him with its boundless love and absolute forgiveness.

He dug his fingers into his mask, as if trying to tear his flesh into shreds, and sank to his knees.

Luke followed him down and tried to pry his hands away, but Vader wouldn't let him.

"I am here for you, Father. Let me in. Please!" he begged unabashedly. "Don't be afraid of opening your heart again. I won't leave you. I will never leave you!"

Vader shook his head in denial.

"I need you to trust me. I need you to be the man and the Jedi you were meant to be." There was a hitch in his son's voice that spoke of new, fresh tears. "Come back to me, Anakin!" he demanded, taking hold of his forearms and squeezing hard, very hard. So hard that he moaned in pain.

Pain! Vader jerked back and looked down at his forearms in bewilderment. Then, with raving frenzy, he pulled off his gloves.

Father and Son stared in mute disbelief at the flesh and blood hands that appeared before their eyes.

Vader was stunned beyond comprehension. He gaped at the miracle the Force had made possible. A miracle that was a statement in itself. He let out a distressed whimper.

The next thing he knew, he was running like a man possessed. He didn't know where or why, and didn't care. He just ran, and ran, and ran. He could hardly see in the darkness, the undergrowth and the thick trees that stood in his way, but somehow he dodged them, and continued his escape to nowhere.

He could feel his mind implode in shards, and the more it hurt, the faster he ran. Instinctively, he turned his gaze skywards. A million stars winked at him through the tree tops, accompanying him in his pointless flight.

Tears slipped from his eyes in a neverending flow, and when a shooting star zoomed by, he understood why he was running.

I'm not worthy!

I cannot be worthy of anything, after all the evil I spawned.

Master Windu.

Obi-Wan.

The younglings.

Thousands.

Millions by omission.

My own son's hand.

Flesh of my flesh.

Oh, my precious child!

His legs gave out under him and he crashed to the ground. And cried; cried harder than he ever had. Giving up the pride, the arrogance, the fear and the sick need for control that had prevented him from fulfilling his potential years ago, and still prevented him from accepting the gift his son and the Force had bestowed upon him. He emptied himself in a paroxysm of tears until there was nothing left inside.

Alone with the memory of his crimes till the end of time.

"Never alone, Father. Never alone."

The beloved presence was right behind him, kneeling on the ground and holding his arms in the strongest grip.

He could feel the unswerving strength and determination in his son's touch.

And in the wake of that strength and determination, he could almost believe that love wouldn't be taken away from him this time.

Believe.

He felt the warmth of Luke's body cover him completely. An oath, a sacred pledge from Son to Father.

"What part of 'never run alone in the woods' don't you understand?" the boy retorted in a conspiratorial whisper.

The sound that came out of Vader's – Anakin's – lips was one the Universe hadn't heard in decades.

Laughter. Clean and pure.

Luke leaned his head on his helmet, sharing the moment with him. Soaking it up.

Nothing mattered but this moment. This single, perfect moment in time. For both.

Anakin's heart opened wide with the trusting innocence of a child, and was met halfway by another heart that was just starved for him. They recognized one another and merged in an explosion of Light like the Force had never known. The shroud of the Dark Side lifted and dissolved into nothingness like a bad dream.

Anakin clutched Luke for dear life, and felt his son cling to him just as needfully. They swam in the healing waters of their love for each other, as the Light swirled around them in a glorious affirmation of life and freedom.

It was too much beauty, inside and outside, and they wept with joy, never wanting to let go.

Luke was the first to regain a semblance of composure, and got to his feet somewhat unsteadily an eon later.

Anakin could feel his child's keen eyes on him, and he met them with equal passion.

And then, his son reached out a hand to him.

"Come with me?" he requested one last time.

Anakin looked at that open hand in the starlight and what it offered to him.

Everything.

He raised his eyes to the bravest being he had ever seen, and in him he saw a new life, a life full of promise, a life of eternal remorse and guilt, and also purpose and significance, if he was strong enough to face it.

He never hesitated. If he did, then he was unworthy of his son, unworthy of the second chance he had been given.

But there was one small but vital matter that had to be dealt with first. He reached up and, with his eyes riveted on the young man he loved more than anything, took off his helmet.

Luke watched, mouth agape in amazement. Anakin could feel the boy's aching need to see him, to see himself reflected in his father's features, and truly know where he came from.

Praying that he was what his son needed him to be, Anakin reached for his mask and took it off.

The evening breeze hit him like a physical thing. The sensation of it brushing his bare skin and ruffling his hair felt foreign, so long it had been since the last time. The smell of the forest, greenery and fresh, filled his nostrils with its fragrance.

But no sensation, sight or smell in the galaxy could be compared to the breathtakingly beautiful face that looked down at him, eyes welled up in tears.

Blond hair and blue eyes. Anakin smiled, feeling his chest swell with the most selfless pride. Luke wasn't the one recognizing himself in his father, it was the father who was recognizing himself in his son.

Luke didn't seem able to move or even utter a word. He just observed him hungrily, avidly, never having enough. He seemed almost afraid of it all being a dream.

The tears finally fell.

Anakin's hand shot out and grabbed the smaller one that was still reaching out to him. He felt the warm fingers in his own and he had to close his eyes, blown away by the reality of it. He was touching flesh. His child's flesh.

But it wasn't enough. Not nearly enough, for either of them. He brought the hand to his cheek and pressed the palm up to it. He shuddered down to his soul and began to caress himself with it, sniffing at it delicately, kissing it all over.

Luke groaned and kneeled down again, sobbing openly. He tried to say something but Anakin stopped him, putting the fingertips of his other hand on his son's lips.

"Yes," he answered simply.

Luke's eyes flickered closed in boundless peace. Then, heaving a little sigh that tickled his father's sensitive fingertips, he kissed them reverently.

Anakin cupped the beloved face in his hand, and after wiping away all the tears, he devoted himself to explore and memorize it by sight and touch, the way he should have done many years ago. He lost himself in his love for his boy, and let out a shuddering breath when his son began to reciprocate his caresses with indescribable fervour.

Faith and love. The answer to all the questions that had plagued him forever, and it had taken him a lifetime to learn.

So wrong he had been! So wrong about everything.

Except for maybe one thing. Nothing ever turns out the way you plan. That was a universal truth that Luke had twisted to show him that everything was possible, even the redemption of a Sith Lord. Even when that Sith Lord has given up all hope.

THE END.