The doors opened to reveal a black, hooded figure framed against the soft light of the corridor, escorted by a couple of guards and Captain Kyle, who showed him in courteously.
"Most kind of you, young man," Palpatine dismissed the young officer in an old, scratchy voice.
"Your Highness," Kyle bowed to the Emperor, trying to hold back a shudder. His eyes settled on Vader briefly, and something akin to compassion appeared in them.
The doors closed after Palpatine, leaving master and apprentice alone.
Vader dropped to one knee, a part of him suddenly rebelling against the humiliation it represented. Such an act should be one of deference, not of complete submission.
But that's what Palpatine and the Dark Side demanded. Complete submission.
How could he have been so blind? How could he submit willingly to such corruption of mind and spirit? How could he become the very thing he had always rebelled against, even as a child?
Love enslaved you. And now, only love can set you free.
"Rise, my friend."
Vader complied, struggling to silence the turmoil in his soul.
"What is your wish, my master?" his nostrils flared at his own words.
"You forgot to contact me after completing your mission on Kolmenor," Palpatine went straight to the point, walking away from his apprentice, studying the dimly lit quarters surreptitiously.
Vader closed his eyes shut when he realized his oversight, but remained silent. It was inconsequential now.
"And your subordinates have informed me that this ship has been orbiting the planet for hours, since you gave no orders regarding your next destination."
Vader's silence lengthened.
Palpatine turned to his creation, his yellow eyes seeming to reach into his soul.
Vader never fidgeted, and stood his ground, projecting a mask of total calm, his mind an unreadable blank.
"Lately, I have been feeling a strong disturbance in the Force," Palpatine dropped the bomb, testing Vader's reaction with wicked interest. "Did you feel it too, Lord Vader?"
"Yes, I did," Vader replied, not giving an inch.
Palpatine took a step forward.
"And what do you think the reason might be?"
"For some time now, I have been experiencing some... difficulties, master," Vader was purposefully vague, hoping to arouse his master's curiosity and divert it from the almost imperceptible void in his chamber.
"What difficulties, my young apprentice?" Palpatine bared his teeth in a blood-curdling smile.
"In regard to my latest missions."
"Oh," Palpatine crossed his arms calmly, hiding his hands in his long, wide sleeves. "Tell me about them."
"I think that bright, keen intelligences that otherwise could have been very useful to the Empire, have been unnecessarily silenced."
"I... see." Palpatine half-turned, facing the sleeping pod in the adjacent chamber. "And you regretted extinguishing those lights."
"I considered it a waste, master." Vader made every effort not to think about Kolmenor's governor. "There inevitably comes a time when an excessive... zeal becomes counterproductive, and an opposing force is created."
Palpatine stood still in the middle of the room. He hardly seemed to breathe.
"I wonder what made you change your mind so drastically, Lord Vader." His voice sounded even darker and more threatening than the aura around him. "Just a few days ago, you displayed the fiercest zeal in the performance of your duties."
"It is a feeling I have been getting of late, master." Vader simply said, knowing that with those words he had sealed his fate.
"A... feeling." Palpatine turned to Vader again, and his eyes flashed under the hood. "I knew that feelings would be your undoing one day, my apprentice. You were always too passionate. In your hate as much as in your love." Rotten teeth showed beneath a twisted smile. "Let me help you to get rid of the source of those feelings you have been experiencing." A grey, wrinkled hand peeked out of the long-sleeved tunic and, without looking, Palpatine cast a massive Force lightning charge at Vader's pod, making it burst into flames.
"NO!" Vader cried out, drawing out his lightsaber in a split second.
Palpatine reached out his other hand and cast another charge at Vader, throwing him backwards.
Vader's back hit the wall heavily and he collapsed, all the air knocked out of his lungs. Smoke came out of his chestplate and the distinctive smell of burned circuitry filled the room. But Vader didn't care anymore.
The little presence inside his pod had ceased to exist.
The pain was infinite. Greater than any pain he had felt before. He was burning again, along with the small body being consumed by the fire a few metres in front of him.
He had failed. He had failed again.
Palpatine forgot about the burning chamber and walked up to Vader with slow, measured steps.
"You have outlived your usefulness, Lord Vader," he taunted the shattered man. "Or should I say Anakin Skywalker?" he chuckled and threw another powerful bolt of Force lightning at his former apprentice, gloating over his muffled moaning.
Vader couldn't see, couldn't feel beyond the pure, innocent life he had failed to protect. He just wanted to die with that angel and beg his forgiveness on the other side.
He didn't hear Palpatine's taunts anymore, mocking his failure and his love.
'Please, let me die quickly,' he prayed, the crackling of the merciless Force lightning echoing in every corner of his torn body.
'No! Don't give up!' a sudden voice resonated deep within him, blossoming in his fading soul. 'I'm with you! Always with you!'
Vader's head snapped up from the floor where he was lying. He didn't know where that voice was coming from, but it made the blinders come off as if by magic, and for the first time in his life, he saw Palpatine as what he really was. A creature with no principles and morals except his own, whose only objective was to dominate, crushing and destroying those who opposed him. All the billions of beings in the galaxy were nothing more than subjects, necessary witnesses to his ambition, pawns in his boardgame of absolute dominion. The person he met as a child never existed in reality. It was an illusion that successfully fooled them all.
Fulfill your destiny, Chosen One.
Vader's thumb ignited the lightsaber he still clutched in his stiff hand and with his last bout of strength, he threw it like a javelin.
A horrifying scream filled the room. Palpatine fell to his knees, impaled on the red, glowing blade. His sunken yellow eyes bulged and reddened, before dark blood streamed from them. His already drawn, cadaverous features, became a grotesque mask of death. His pasty white skin was consumed before Vader's eyes in seconds, and with a piercing screech, he collapsed face down on the floor.
Wheezing, fighting for every breath, Vader crawled past the still form, heading like a wounded animal for the smoking pod. The fire was almost out by now, and thick smoke billowed out of its remains.
He knew the sight that awaited him if he opened the chamber, but he had to do it. He had to see it for himself, before he took his own worthless life.
A trembling hand reached out and hit the opening button. There were some metallic noises, but the pod finally began to open. The fire had fused both halves together in some places but at last, the chamber opened enough for Vader to look inside, and freeze in shock.
The pod was empty.
Everything in it had burned down, but there were no human remains inside. No smoking clothes. Nothing.
It was as if the child had never been there.
And in a moment of inspiration like he never experienced before, Vader knew that such had been the case each and every one of the nights they had been together.
The boy had never been in the Executor. Not in a physical sense. That explained why their scanners had failed to locate him time and again.
Somehow, the child had the ability to project himself from his home planet to his side every night, and then return home in the morning. That was why no one had reported him missing.
And that also explained the boy's fear to leave his quarters. Instinctively, he must have known that he only 'existed' within the confines of Vader's room.
He was safe now, back with his family.
Vader collapsed beside the pod when the shock of what had happened began to sink in.
Everything was over. Now he could die in peace. His respirator was damaged beyond repair and wouldn't last long.
But he was content. He had known love again, one last time. That elusive feeling that could be either one's greatest blessing or one's greatest curse. He had known the kind of love, pure and all-encompassing, that only children can give. Selfless and generous as no other love could be.
That little angel had redeemed him and now, he only wanted to join Padme and their unborn child wherever they were, and beg forgiveness of the souls of the countless lives he had terminated. Let them do with him as they wished.
Vader rose to his feet shakily and returned to his office. His eyes were immediately drawn to the dead beast on the floor and his lightsaber beneath it. Ignoring them, he walked tiredly to his chair and slumped down in it. It was a fitting place to die. In the arms of the loving, ghostly presence that had made his last days honourable and worthwhile.
He closed his eyes and let go.
'NO! Don't leave me! You promised! I need you! Please, I need you!'
Vader's eyes opened with a start.
He knew that voice! Bless the Force, he knew that voice! It was the same voice that had encouraged him not to give up, and reassured him that it was always with him. Only now he recognized it. How many times he had heard it in his mind when they had been face to face?
Vader closed his eyes, reaching for the Light. Something guided him to the innermost place inside him. There, the seed of the most wondrous love resided, pure and untouched from all the evil he had spawned the last four years. That sacred place was connected to another soul that was a part of him. More than that, it came from him!
Vader's eyes opened again slowly, and settled on the two halves of the teddy bear he had sliced with his lightsaber.
Without thinking, he stood up, walked up to the toy and took both halves in his hand. He stared down at them, looking for the truth. The ultimate truth that answered all the questions he had been asking the past few days.
And the moment the pale image of the child appeared before him, Vader knew he had to leave. Immediately. That angel's life depended on him.
With his heart fluttering in his chest with worry and the most fervent hope, Vader left his quarters. After issuing some quick orders to his shocked crew, he abandoned the Executor and the Empire for good.
He never noticed that his respirator had stopped working long ago.
When the shuttle left the hangar, it wandered aimlessly for a while, floating in the immensity of space.
Vader reached for the little light inside him, letting it lead him to the child. To his true Destiny.
His fingers plotted a course automatically and hit the hyperspeed button.
The small ship disappeared in the nonexistence of light speed, but Vader had never felt so real.
The light brown globe of Tatooine hovered below.
Vader's eyes contemplated the planet he had sworn never to visit again. His heart had missed a beat the moment he recognized it. An eerie feeling of foreboding started growing in his chest.
There had to be a reason for it to be Tatooine.
Why was he trembling all of a sudden?
Vader manoeuvred the shuttle through the atmosphere and asked permission to land on Mos Eisley's space port.
When he descended from the ramp, he smelled the instant fear in all those present in the docking bay.
It wasn't amusing anymore.
He rented a spacious landspeeder, big enough for his big form to fit in, and paid in advance, giving an extra tip and a polite 'thank you' to the flipping Rodian, who kept on staring in astonishment long after the speeder disappeared from his sight, unable to believe the episode he just had.
After two hours of crossing endless dunes, it became evident where the link was leading him.
Vader shuddered with the near certainty of what awaited him when he got to the Lars' farm. His hands tightened on the steering wheel, almost breaking it. Sweat started running down his forehead beneath the mask.
When he passed the first moisture vaporator, he had to stop the speeder. He was close to hyperventilating, and sweat was covering his body. The mix of fear, dread, and sweet hope was too much to bear. His heart felt on the verge of exploding.
He got off the speeder and stood beside it while he caught his breath, afraid to go on. After a while, his eyes looked up at the breathtaking blue sky and the twin suns that cast a blinding light on the sand.
Vader's legs started moving of their own volition. His feet sank in the sand, but that didn't slow him down. Instead, with every new step, he walked faster and faster.
Half an hour later, the familiar dome of the white adobe homestead appeared on the horizon.
With his eyes fixed on it, Vader lost track of time and even the awareness of where he was. He just walked, the feeling in his chest expanding more and more, until it enveloped him in a warm cocoon of ecstatic euphoria.
A figure emerged from inside the dome and stood still next to it, waiting.
Vader walked up to the man. His stepbrother.
The two men stared at each other in silence. Owen's stance of apparent bravado couldn't disguise the fact that he was shivering inside with fear. But not precisely for his life.
"Lord Vader," he greeted the newcomer at last, in a hoarse voice.
Despite himself, Vader found himself respecting the man. Not only for his courage, but for his obvious feelings of protection and devotion to the child. He shook his head.
"No," he reassured in a gentle voice. "Anakin Skywalker."
Owen's jaw dropped open.
Anakin reached out his hand.
Owen looked down at it, momentarily stunned. Finally, he shook it, his body relaxing visibly.
"You've come for him, haven't you," he said when they let go.
There was resignation in his voice?
Anakin opened his mouth, but no sound came out of it. Owen had just answered the only question he needed to ask, without actually doing it. He swallowed the lump in his throat.
"H-he..." he stammered, "...he's... m-my..."
"He's your son, yes," a kind female voice floated up to them. Beru climbed up the steps and joined her husband, looking up at Anakin intently with her big blue eyes.
Anakin stood still for what seemed like forever, as the healing power of those words washed over him.
No other words could connect him more to his very essence, to his origins, to his future, to everything that mattered.
His life hadn't been in vain. That angel had given meaning and purpose to his existence as nothing in the universe ever would.
"May I... May I see him?" he humbly asked.
Beru's features softened, as if she could see the maelstrom of wild emotions running through his heart and mind. She nodded and reaching out one arm courteously, she showed him inside.
Owen's hand shot out and touched his arm, effectively stopping him.
"He's... not well," he said, hesitantly.
"I know," Anakin's voice was infinitely soft. "I know how incredibly special he is."
Owen was taken aback for a moment, surprised that Anakin knew. But he shook his head.
"No, I mean he's... he's been unconscious for almost two days. Comatose. Nobody knows what's the matter with him."
"I do know," Anakin said in a deep voice after a pause, suddenly aching inside with the need to see his son with his own eyes. "Please, take me to him."
The dirty white room was small, but cozy and comfortable. There were shelves in the niches in the walls, filled with dozens of cuddly toys. There were two chairs, one clearly meant for an adult, and a smaller one at a small table in the far right-hand corner.
A little boy, apparently sleeping, lay in a bed in the far left-hand corner.
Beru entered the room and moved aside. Anakin walked in after her, and froze on seeing the child. The young woman could feel the big bulk beside her trembling like a leaf.
Neither made a sound. They just stared at the sleeping form in the tiny bed, in reverence.
"What's his name?" Anakin asked at last, in a whisper.
After all this time, he didn't even know the boy's name.
"Luke," Beru replied.
A strangled sound left Anakin's throat, halfway between a laugh and a sob.
"We can't afford to take him to Anchorhead's medical centre, but the doctor's been here twice," Beru explained softly, a hint of helpless impotence in her voice. "He was very pale and had been feeling more and more tired the last few days, but yesterday morning, he just didn't wake up. The doctor said he's perfectly healthy, and there's no reason for him to be like this. He trusts he'll wake up on his own any moment." She sighed. "He thinks that being here, surrounded by his toys and those who love him, should help."
Anakin nodded slowly, his eyes riveted on the slow rising and falling of the small chest below the sheets and the old bedspread.
"I'm so sorry we can't give him..." Beru lowered her head in shame.
"You've given him everything a child could possibly want or need." Anakin hastened to reassure her without taking his eyes away from the little bed. "Everything I was incapable of giving him. You took care of him and loved him. No child could possibly ask for more. No one could possibly..." his voice faded away.
Beru felt he was one heartbeat away from breaking down.
"I'll leave you alone now," she whispered gently, squeezing his upper arm and turning about. Then, she stopped. "Will you take him with you?" she asked without looking.
"Only if he wants to come with me," was the firm reply.
Anakin walked up to the small bed, looking his fill of the small being in it.
His son. Flesh of his flesh.
Carefully, Anakin sat down on the bed, that creaked softly under his weight. His hands reached up and took off the helmet. The mask came next, revealing his young, mostly healed face. His left ear was still missing and his skull was bald, although blond hair was beginning to grow again. All the scars and burn marks were gone.
He would face his son as Anakin Skywalker, not Darth Vader.
Mask and helmet were dropped to the floor, along with the shoulder and the chest plates moments later.
Anakin inched closer.
"Luke." The name sounded like the sweetest music, and felt righter than any word he ever uttered. The most beautiful name for the most precious being. "Luke, my son." Every part of his body that was human filled with goosebumps. He reached out tentatively and touched his son, really touched him for the first time. His gloved, mechanical palm cupped the side of the lovely face, and he felt something sparking between them through the physical contact. He didn't know what it was, he just knew that this was the most transcendental moment of his life. His fingers slid through the silky hair, and caressed all over the unresponsive face.
It hurt. The silence.
Instinctively, he reached for his belt, inside a small bag he carried attached to it. He took out a small cuddly toy, a blending between a frog and a teddy bear, whose two halves had been painstakingly put together again, and placed it beside the small body, leaning on it.
'I'm good at fixing things. Always was.'
Force, he felt so vulnerable and bereft all of a sudden!
"Why did you do it?" he asked at last. "Why did you choose to stay with me instead of returning here the moment the pod closed? You were endangering your life enough by projecting yourself to the Executor night after night."
He knew why.
"You have your mother's spirit. And your mother's heart," he bent over the still body. "Open your eyes, Luke. Please. No one will harm you for as long as I live." He smiled poignantly. "I need you, Son. Without you, I am nothing." One big hand clasped a tiny one. Anakin pressed his lips to the small palm, kissing it fervently.
An explosion of Light in the back of his mind blinded him, forcing him to close his eyes. He thought he would die with the searing intensity of it, but he didn't. Impulsively, Anakin projected the Light inside him through the link connecting him to his son, feeding him with it and holding the boy to him, to his lifeforce, until there was no spiritual separation between them.
He blinked his eyes open drowsily, and found himself staring into the bottomless blue depths of the most treasured life.
How he had longed to see himself reflected in that blessed Blue again! He'd rather find oblivion in death than live without this love.
"Luke," he whispered in a quivering voice. "My son. My cherished Son."
The boy's lifeforce pulsed with renewed vigour, and his smile lit up every corner of Anakin's soul. The young man released the little hand and resumed his hungry caresses all over the beautiful face.
"I am your father, Luke. I really am your father." His eyes filled with tears and he bent closer, until they were mere centimetres apart.
The child threw his arms around Anakin's neck.
Unable to hold back the avalanche of joy and happiness exploding in him, Anakin hugged the tiny body back and sat up, dragging Luke with him.
The boy wrapped his legs around Anakin's torso, clinging to him for all he was worth.
Nothing existed in the universe except each other. They got lost in each other's arms, filling one another's minds with love and sweet promises of forever, crying tears of overwhelmed gratitude.
'You saved me and I saved you.'
"Yes," Anakin nodded, smiling through his tears. "We saved each other."
They moved back just enough to look at each other's radiant faces. They were flushed and covered with tear tracks, but it was the most beautiful sight they had ever seen.
Luke reached out and touched Anakin's chin, then his eyes, and then his own. His eyes glittered with joyous mischief.
Anakin laughed softly and nodded again.
"Yes, you were the first to notice how much we resemble each other." He framed the child's healthy pink cheek in his hand. "Oh, my son. My son!" he exclaimed, glorying in the wondrous truth.
Luke wiped away the tears on Anakin's face. His little hands roamed his father's every feature, moving away playfully every time Anakin tried to kiss them. Finally, he bent forward and leaned his forehead on his father's, nuzzling him needfully.
Anakin's heart had never been so full. He wanted to fuse that small body with his own so they never had to separate.
But he had to be fair, even despite himself. His feelings were irrelevant in this matter.
Anakin moved back and cupped his son's chin in his hand.
"Luke, listen to me." He swallowed the hard lump in his throat that brought new tears to his eyes. He blinked them back resolutely. "I will be leaving today, and nothing would make me happier than take you with me." He took a deep, painful breath. Force, nothing would ever hurt as much as the words he was about to say! "Owen and Beru love you very much. You're like a son to them, and it would break their hearts to part with you. If you want to stay with them, I will understand. They have the right to keep you. More than I do, in more ways than one. I won't..."
Luke covered Anakin's mouth with his hands, not allowing him to finish. He pinned Anakin under those eyes that seemed as old as Time, and shook his head.
Anakin bit his lower lip.
Luke wound his arms around his father, burying his face in his shoulder. Anakin returned the embrace, beyond words anymore.
'Are you sure?' he asked mentally.
Luke nodded against the side of Anakin's neck.
'With you. Always with you!'
Anakin climbed up the stairs with his son in his arms. Luke refused to let go and clung to his father like a baby Wookie, arms and legs wrapped around him, his head resting on Anakin's shoulder.
The young man threw his head back and closed his eyes, bathing in the sunlight and the warmth of the suns on his face.
Anakin sighed exuberantly and opened his eyes again. Luke watched him with an amused little grin on his face.
"You're even more beautiful in the suns," he observed teasingly, triggering a first-class blush. He chuckled and kissed the pink cheeks.
Owen and Beru joined them. Owen had an arm around his wife's shoulders, trying to comfort her to no avail. Both of them were doing their best to hold on in front of the child, but Beru was rapidly losing the battle. She carried a small, worn suitcase that handed to Anakin.
"I put his best clothes and some of his favourite cuddly toys in it," she said, tears streaming down her face at last.
"Thank you very much, for everything." Anakin smiled softly, knowing all too well how they were feeling. Exactly how he would be feeling if Luke had chosen to stay. He couldn't resist offering some comfort and hope. "We will return. And stay in touch. I promise." His eyes flashed passionately.
Owen nodded to him gratefully, and his eyes turned to his nephew.
Anakin looked at his son, who already had his misted gaze settled on the two people who had given him everything the past four years. He reached out to Owen and Anakin passed him to his stepbrother's arms.
Owen hugged Luke and closed his eyes tight, biting his lips mercilessly. He kissed the boy's cheek and took a deep, shaky breath.
"Good-bye," he whispered in the little ear. "Remember us, son."
The child moved back and looked at Owen with an intensity beyond his age. He held his uncle's face in his hands and bending forward, kissed his forehead lingeringly.
Owen sighed as a strange peace came over him. His heart was bleeding, but something inside him seemed to tell him that everything would be all right. He didn't know what it meant, but he trusted the little voice. He stared into the boy's other-worldly depths one last time before passing him on to Beru, who received him with a helpless sob.
"My little boy," she moaned, kissing the soft cheeks time and again. "Take care of yourself and your father, and be happy. Be very happy!" she cried.
Luke kissed her tears away and just like he had done with Owen, kissed her forehead as well, holding her head in his hands. Peace appeared on Beru's features, and she smiled dreamily. With a last kiss, she returned him to his father's waiting arms.
Anakin met Owen and Beru's eyes one last time.
"I promise," he reassured again, reaching out to both of them.
They shook his hand with a bittersweet smile.
Owen wrapped his arm around Beru's shoulders again, and they watched them go until they disappeared in the horizon. Luke's little arm waving goodbye was the last thing they saw.
Standing on a dune on the other side of the homestead's limits, a cloaked figure also watched father and son's departure. Slowly, he moved the hood back, revealing a brown-haired, blue-eyed, middle-aged bearded man. His gaze turned skywards, and, as if talking to someone up there, he closed his eyes and nodded, a serene smile on his face.
Halfway back to the landspeeder, Anakin's resolve wavered for a heartbeat. He wasn't only responsible for his own life anymore. He was a father now. A Father.
What would they do? How would they live? Maybe he had acted too rashly in his desperate claiming of his son, for what could he offer Luke? Not even a home.
A little hand stroked the side of his face.
'Home is with you.'
Untold peace filled Anakin's troubled soul, and his eyes turned to the source of all his strength. The fear in his heart vanished as if it had never existed. He returned the tender caress on the flushed cheek, and reaching for his cape, he enveloped his precious bundle with it, protecting it from the unforgiving evening suns. He pressed the little head to his chest.
A small, anonymous shuttle took off from Mos Eisley's space port a few hours later.
Dressed in dark blue bottoms, matching top and black boots, Anakin Skywalker sat at the controls, manoeuvring the ship out of Tatooine's atmosphere. Standing beside him, wrapped in his father's cape and holding Froggy Bear, Luke watched Anakin's gloved hands moving skilfully on the console.
The young man looked at his son, his eyes shining with love and hope. He reached out one arm and held the little body to his side.
"Let the Force be our guide, my little angel," Anakin kissed the top of the blond head. "Reach for it within you, and plot our course."
Luke returned his father's stare, full of faith and joy, and following Anakin's instructions, hit the hyperspeed button after setting a course.
Anakin sat back in his seat. It was done now, and it felt good. He opened his arms to his son, and with a soundless squeal of delight, Luke climbed up to his father's lap. He turned to Anakin and pointed at the words on Froggy Bear's top.
Laughing, the young man was quick to comply. He hugged his son to him with a fervour and a need such as he had never known he possessed.
Luke cuddled up against Anakin's body, losing himself in his love for his father and in his father's love for him. He was free at last.
Anakin moved back. He had felt something clicking in his son's mind, and looked down at him in confusion, not understanding what it was.
Luke rose to his knees and smiled at his father. It was the smile of a soaring heart, of a truth that couldn't remain silent any longer.
Anakin's eyes filled with tears at the sound of his son's first word.