Luke came out to the veranda, this time dressed in one of his father’s loose pants, again folded up around his ankles. Anakin awaited him, also dressed in dark loose pants and a sleeveless undershirt.
Threepio and Artoo stayed on the upper steps behind the couches, ready to watch the two Jedi’s training session.
Anakin smiled at his sparring partner.
“Are you ready to learn a lesson or two?”
“It’s the only way to get better,” Luke replied, tightening his hand on his lightsaber.
Anakin’s attention was diverted to his friend’s hand.
“May I see it?” he said, pointing at Luke’s saber.
“Of course,” Luke replied, giving it to him.
Anakin examined the hilt in complete fascination.
“You did an incredible job. It’s absolutely stunning!” he praised sincerely. “It’s funny, though. It’s so similar to my master’s! Are you sure you never crossed Obi-Wan’s path in the future?” he winked at Luke, giving him back his saber.
“Maybe I have. But I didn’t know him by that name.” Luke hated lying to his father, even though technically Obi-Wan was ‘Old Ben’ to him for almost nineteen years. “May I see yours?” he asked unnecessarily. He knew that lightsaber like the back of his hand, but he didn’t want Anakin to suspect.
“Sure,” Anakin promptly gave him his.
Luke smiled fondly at the familiar feel of that handle in his hand... again. For years, it’d felt like his palm had molded itself to the form of the lightsaber. The only physical testimony of his long lost father. His greatest treasure.
His eyes began to mist, and blinking rapidly to cover it, he gave the lightsaber back to Anakin with a smile on his face.
“It’s a real masterpiece. Congratulations,” the smile wavered for a heartbeat.
Anakin cocked his head, wondering why his heart seemed to break every time Luke got that eerie look in his eyes. His vulnerability to Luke’s vulnerability was disturbing. It made him want to do anything to erase that look from those innocent eyes, so full of cruelly acquired wisdom.
He cleared his throat, giving the young man a soft squeeze on the shoulder.
“And now that we completed the ritual of mutual admiration of each other’s lightsabers,” they laughed at Anakin’s pompous phrasing, “let’s get started. Are you ready?”
“As ready as I can be,” Luke said, stepping back a little. “Do you mind if I take off my slippers? It’ll be easier to move barefoot on this surface.”
“Good idea,” Anakin applauded. “I’ll do the same.” He kicked off his slippers and placed them by the nearest couch, beside Luke’s.
They stood in front of each other, presenting their lightsabers and saluting one another formally. They ignited them in unison.
“Wow!” Anakin was impressed by the green blade. For some reason, he didn’t expect it to be that colour.
“Thanks,” Luke smiled, pleased that he’d managed to surprise his father. “Blue looks great too.”
“Ready?” Anakin asked with a wink.
Luke nodded, bracing himself against his father’s attack.
Anakin charged with some harmless moves first, that Luke deflected effortlessly. Then, Luke counterattacked with more difficult moves that Anakin blocked just as easily. Gradually, they raised the difficulty and complexity of their lightsaber technique, until they were displaying all the range of skills they possessed. Faster and faster, taking turns being the aggressor and the defender. They chased each other around the couches and all the levels of the veranda.
Suddenly, Anakin turned off his lightsaber.
“What is it?” Luke asked, stopping in his tracks, slightly breathless.
“May I give you a little suggestion?” Anakin said.
“Please do,” Luke straightened up eagerly.
“When you’re fighting a taller opponent, it helps if you’re holding your lightsaber more diagonally above your head. You’re holding it almost vertically, and all my blows are backfiring on you. You compensate quickly, but in a prolonged fight, you’ll get tired sooner. That’s why you’re a bit out of breath now.” He reached out and held Luke’s wrist at the right angle. “There, that’s better. Try to keep this stance at all times.”
It dawned on Luke then that he was sparring with Darth Vader. His heart skipped a beat, not in fear, but at the fact that he hadn’t even thought about it. This was the first time he was engaging someone after that fateful day. As it happened, he was fighting the same person, and yet he hadn’t experienced a flashback, a single moment of apprehension. Nothing. He felt completely safe around Anakin. He knew in his blood that this young man would never hurt him.
His eyes caressed the form of his father before him, as he also realized that Anakin had just given him the key to defeating him.
“Are you all right?” Anakin asked, seeing ‘that look’ in Luke’s eyes again. What crossed his friend’s mind to put that expression on his face?
“Yes,” Luke swallowed heavily. “I appreciate it, especially because we both know I’ll be mostly fighting opponents taller than me!”
Anakin laughed, loving Luke’s self-deprecating sense of humour.
“You’re just fine, trust me,” he assured the young Jedi. “Shall we continue?”
“You bet,” Luke smiled, looking forward to seeing if Anakin’s advice made a difference in his fighting.
Steadily, their duel built up again in intensity, and Luke was delighted to see that his father was right. Anakin’s blows didn’t push him back as hardly as they had earlier, and he was as fresh as he’d been when the sparring session began. He felt invigorated and terribly alive. A jubilant smile flashed across his face.
“Good!” Anakin nodded excitedly, noting Luke’s definite improvement. “Cover your right flank, now!”
Luke did, and in an upwards-sweeping movement, he disarmed Anakin.
“Yes! Well done!” Anakin exclaimed, thrilled beyond words with Luke’s prowess.
Luke thought his face was going to break, so hard he was smiling. This simple moment he had shared with his father encapsulated his every dream, that had just come true. He could see the pride in Anakin’s eyes, and he knew this was the happiest moment of his life. He threw his lightsaber away and flung his arms around the man who’d sired him.
Anakin returned the hug wholeheartedly, shaking with laughter. He’d never felt such an exhilarating feeling of accomplishment, helping this young man and enabling him to protect himself more effectively. It felt so good to pass on to another the lessons he’d been taught. He slapped Luke’s back a few times, before holding him fully again for a long time.
“You’re an amazing teacher,” Luke congratulated his father from his heart, sniffling a little.
“With such an amazing pupil, it’s easy,” Anakin congratulated him back. “You were great, Luke. It would be an honour to fight beside you.”
Luke bit back the choked sob that wanted to escape.
“The honour would be mine,” he said instead, crushing Anakin to him one last time before forcing himself to let go.
“What do you say to a shower, an early lunch and then we’ll see?” Anakin proposed.
“I say that I can’t wait, especially for the ‘we’ll see’ part,” Luke teased.
Anakin burst out laughing.
“Get moving, smarty!” he pushed Luke inside the apartment with mock exasperation.
It seemed like they both had something else in common. Sparring opened their appetite, so they healthily devoured the massive sandwiches they prepared, betting on who could make the taller one. Luke won in the end, but he had serious problems putting the five-decker sandwich in his mouth for a bite.
“You’ll hibernate for years to digest that,” Anakin commented with a smirk, as he waited for Luke to swallow his last mouthful.
“Flattery will get you anywhere,” Luke countered, licking his fingers avidly.
“What do you feel like doing next?” Anakin asked, wiping his mouth with the napkin.
“Nothing too strenuous,” Luke replied, patting his stomach pointedly.
“Ha! Maybe I should demand a rematch,” Anakin wriggled his eyebrows naughtily.
“Maybe, but then you’d have an unfair advantage,” Luke reminded him, wriggling his eyebrows back at his father.
“All right, nothing strenuous,” Anakin acceded. “I can’t think of anything more relaxing than some peaceful meditation.”
“That would be just perfect,” Luke agreed with a vigorous nod.
“Feel like going out?” Anakin invited.
“I like meditating outside,” Luke confessed shyly.
“What are we waiting for, then?” Anakin’s smile blossomed.
The two young men came out to the veranda and sat down cross-legged on the floor before the fountain, turning to face each other. They relaxed their bodies with long and deep intakes of breath, until they found their own inner rhythm.
Their eyes met and they nodded at each other.
“May the Force be with you,” Anakin bowed his head to Luke respectfully.
“May the Force be with you,” Luke returned the bow courteously.
With a parting smile, they closed their eyes and allowed their thoughts to float away.
Anakin soon discovered that he had problems detaching himself from Luke’s strong Force-presence. Something pulled him inexorably to that young man. The more he tried the more he was drawn towards that shining light that offered a soul-deep comfort like only his mother and Padme had ever given him. It was good, it was warm, it was... fated. Surrendering, he just let go.
Suddenly, he found himself in a bleak, grey and dreary place. A bottomless circular shaft with a myriad bright little windows. Wind gushed in a very violent manner, in perfect counterpoint to the panic that began to rise in his chest.
He jumped when a massive black form attacked him from nowhere. He raised his lightsaber defensively, but the most he could manage was protect himself from being cut to pieces. Naked terror poured out of him. He was ruthlessly forced to retreat, further and further, while that merciless beast advanced relentlessly, showing him with every strike of his red blade that he was no match for such power and Dark intent. Finally, the masked monster pushed him to the floor and aimed the tip of his lightsaber at his face.
In a flash of insight, Anakin understood that the vision had nothing to do with him, but Luke. He was seeing the events that had led to his friend’s mutilation through Luke’s eyes.
He had no time to wonder who that Sith Lord could be, or what kind of future the young man lived in, because Luke fend off his attacker and quickly stood up, fighting bravely, even if he had no chance to win the confrontation.
Anakin began to feel sick. Sick with fear and foreboding. He wasn’t witnessing this, he was living it, experiencing the same horror that consumed Luke’s soul. As real and brutal as he’d never imagined.
He allowed himself a fleeting moment of triumph when his friend broke through the Sith Lord’s defenses and hit him on the shoulder. But the small victory was short-lived, as it only fueled the Dark one’s anger. An instant later, Luke was hanging precariously over the chasm, giving the monster all the edge he needed. Luke’s hand was severed at the wrist with horrific, practical precision.
‘NOOOOOO!!’ Anakin’s heart screamed in agony. His spirit shrank from that inconceivable scene. He’d seen much worse in the war, but for a reason he couldn’t explain, this single event was beyond all horrors he could picture. He cried, bleeding inside for Luke’s physical and emotional pain. The trauma of what had just happened would stay with his young friend for as long as he lived, he knew that all too well.
He watched Luke crawl away from the Sith Lord like a wounded animal, holding on to the gantry, suspended from the abyss by his only remaining, trembling hand.
As if on cue, the roaring wind calmed, and for the first time since the vision started, Anakin heard their exchange, that shocked him to the core.
‘There is no escape. Don’t make me destroy you. Luke, you have not yet realized your importance. You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength we can end this destructive conflict, and bring order to the galaxy.’
‘I’ll never join you!’
‘If you only knew the power of the Dark Side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.’
‘He told me enough. He told me *you* killed him!’
On his part, Luke had experienced the same difficulties as his father, trying to detach himself from Anakin’s innate protective aura, that made him want to cuddle up to it and never let go. The harder he tried to focus on anything else the more irresistibly he was drawn towards the young man’s strong charisma and personality. Yielding to the will of the Force, he let it sweep him away.
Seconds later, he was standing on a plateau out of a hellish nightmare. A volcanic landscape, with lava explosions stretching as far as the eye could see. Glowing rivers snaked around the scorched surface, and stinking sulphur fumes rose into the suffocating atmosphere, clouding the sun and choking every illusion of hope along with them.
Standing in the middle of a landing platform, his father prowled around menacingly, like a deranged beast about to become unleashed, ignoring the body of his pregnant wife lying unconscious on the floor.
Before him, horrified but unfaltering, a younger version of the man who’d been his first mentor attempted a last effort to reason with the demon who already was beyond any dream of salvation.
‘You have allowed this Dark Lord to twist your mind, until now you have become the very thing you swore to destroy.’
‘Don’t lecture me, Obi-Wan. I see through the lies of the Jedi. I do not fear the Dark Side as you do. I have brought peace, freedom, justice and security to my new Empire.’
‘Your new Empire?!’
‘Don’t make me kill you.’
‘Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republic, to Democracy!’
‘If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.’
‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes. I will do what I must.’
‘You will try.’
What followed was the most vicious, animalistic battle his petrified eyes had ever seen. Not even his own battle against Darth Vader had prepared him for the savage exchange of killing blow after killing blow between two men who had been like brothers once.
Luke wanted to close his eyes against the sickening vision, but he couldn’t. He was trapped in it, living it with an inconsolable feeling of finality, of a self-fulfilling prophecy that nothing and no one could prevent from happening.
But the absolute worst was *knowing* that these events were days... no, hours away from becoming a reality.
How could it be? In the name of everything holy and sacred in the universe... how?!
‘I have failed you, Anakin. I have failed you.’
‘I should have known the Jedi were plotting to take over.’
‘Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil!’
‘From my point of view the Jedi are evil!’
‘Then you are lost!’
‘This is the end for you, my master.’
Luke thought his heart was fading away in his chest with disbelief and shock. He wanted to die before seeing this. Please, Force, no! Don’t let it happen!
‘It’s over, Anakin! I have the high ground!’
‘You underestimate my power.’
‘Don’t try it.’
Luke’s soul screamed itself hoarse at the horrendous scene that followed. Obi-Wan’s blade cut through his father’s limbs while he completed his somersault, and what was left of his body landed and rolled down a cliff, to the very edge of a lava river. The Jedi master looked down at his pupil, eyes glazed with tears. Tears of betrayal, pain, and love too.
‘You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would destroy the Sith not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in Darkness!’
‘I hate you!’
‘You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.’
And then his father’s body burst into flame, that quickly devoured the man who had been a compassionate and caring soul once, a good husband and friend, and could have been much more. Oh, so much more!
As Obi-Wan walked away, Luke witnessed in hopeless despair how Darth Vader was born. There, in the cauldron of Darkness that had annihilated his family and an entire galaxy for decades to come.
The sound that left his throat wasn’t a shout nor a whimper. It was both and neither. Small and deafening at the same time, and enough to break them both out of their respective visions.
Anakin opened his eyes with a start, only to find himself face to face with an even more appalling vision than the one he’d just been prematurely woken up from.
Luke was struggling to stand, but could only stagger to his feet and stumble his way to the couch. His ashen, contorted face was bathed in tears, and he wrapped his arms around his middle, making awful retching sounds.
Anakin had never felt so much horror, helplessness and suffering coming out of a person. It seemed impossible that anyone could stand it, and not just... die. His heart, his soul, everything he was, went out to that indescribable pain that he knew he couldn’t even begin to soothe. He bolted forward and held Luke in his arms, just when he was falling to his knees before reaching the sofa. He dragged him the rest of the way and settled him back against the cushions. Instinctively, Luke grabbed his forearm with both hands and curled up into himself, almost into a foetal ball, facing away from him.
No words could help, he knew. And yet, gentle, soft, cooing sounds he didn’t know where they came from slipped from Anakin’s lips as he rocked the brutally shaking body back and forth, running his fingers through the damp hair, wishing he could give his life to spare this young man from such a pitiless destiny.
“It hurts. It hurts...” Luke sobbed out, so in shock that he didn’t know where he was, when, or with whom for that matter. “Oh, Force, it hurts! Help me. Help me! Please, somebody help me!” he buried his face in the cushions, trying to drown the foul smell of charred, burned flesh that was forever imprinted in his mind.
Anakin gave up words, realizing that the only way to reach Luke and pull him out of the nightmarish place he was visiting was through touch. He brought the young Jedi close, hugging him clumsily, given the awkward position they were in. He renewed his rocking motions, stroking through the blond hair with such fierce tenderness that it astonished him.
“I can’t. I can’t take it! Please, don’t let it happen. Don’t let it happen again! Oh, please, no. No!”
Tears ran unheeded down Anakin’s cheeks. It was insane! This young man’s pain was tearing him apart inside. He’d always been a very empathetic person, but this... This hurt infinitely worse than if it was happening to him. Luke’s pain was his. It was as if their souls were intertwined, as if they had become entangled in some supernatural way and couldn’t be separated anymore.
“I’m here, Luke,” he rasped out all at once. “You’re not alone in this. I am with you. I understand. Believe me, I do. Hold on to me. It will pass. It always does. I won’t leave you, little one. Just hold on to me. Shhhh...”
‘What am I saying?’ he wondered. It was as if a part of him that he never knew that existed, or didn’t exist yet, came to life only in Luke’s presence. For Luke and only him.
One minute, one hour, or quite possibly one lifetime passed until Luke’s desperate crying began to subside. Anakin’s protective embrace never eased up. Oddly, it was when the young Jedi’s sobbing faded that Anakin’s embrace tightened even more. He’d found the strangest peace in that unlikely sharing, a unique feeling of belonging, different from any other he’d ever known, and it crushed him to let go.
Mentally and emotionally devastated, Luke was feeding on his father’s touch on a totally organic level. He’d forgotten completely that it was Anakin Skywalker who hugged him. He just felt the warmth, the caring, the great concern and the passionate giving, and he clung to them for dear life, drawing strength and comfort from the physical contact like a starved man.
Little by little, he regained control of himself, becoming aware of his surroundings. His agitated, heaving respiration slowly returned to normal, and then he noticed the rhythmic movement of the strong, gentle hand sliding through his hair and down his back in circles, transmitting a sense of calm so overwhelming that he just wished to die there, in his father’s arms, and make the pain stop for good.
He breathed out loud, swallowing the dryness in his mouth. He dropped his head tiredly, resting it on Anakin’s forearm, needing that one final touch to face the reality around him again. Then, he made the feeblest, half-hearted attempt to move away from his father's embrace.
“Are you sure?” Anakin asked thickly.
The reluctance in his father’s voice brought a wistful smile to Luke’s lips.
“No. But you’ll have to let me go at some point,” he replied wearily.
“I don’t want to. I feel your pain,” Anakin was on the verge of tears again.
“Please?” Luke requested in the smallest whisper. It would be so easy to lose himself in that sublime, beautiful cocoon of fatherly love... every thing he’d always wanted. But it was a luxury he couldn’t afford, considering...
Anakin couldn’t refuse that open pleading, that pure heart that seemed to beat alongside his own. His arms began to widen, protesting every minute space that was created between them. And when Luke moved away from him and tried to stand, an ice-cold breeze blew past the two men, making them shiver.
Luke managed to stay on his feet, and walked a few unsteady steps. He clenched his fists at his sides, the superhuman effort and what it was costing him plain to see. Anakin rose as well and followed him, not daring to touch him but still guarding him. He needed it. He was meant to protect this man!
“And they still call it a ‘gift’?” Luke’s broken voice oozed sarcasm.
Anakin’s eyes dropped closed. His head began to nod.
“It is a gift when you can fix the situation or make it better. Otherwise, it’s a curse. Pure and simple.”
“I hate this feeling. I hate feeling so helpless!” Luke’s cry of anger and hopelessness startled them both.
“No, you don’t,” Anakin’s hand squeezed the tense shoulder hard. “You resent it, you despair at it, but you don’t hate. Somehow, you’re beyond that emotion,” he sighed despondently. “And I envy you for it.”
Luke turned his head and met his father’s gaze. Naked torment filled the terribly open eyes.
“I wish you could teach me to master it,” sadness impregnated every word.
Luke’s hand covered his father’s on his shoulder in heartfelt, resigned apology.
“I’m not a master. I wouldn’t know the first...”
“Oh, yes, you are!” Anakin’s vehemence was mesmerizing. “Just by listening! Just by... by being there, calming the dormant beast in my chest. When I look at you, I... I feel...” he hissed in frustration and raised his eyes skywards, fighting to verbalize emotions that didn’t even have a name. “I feel like you’re the promise of a better tomorrow. The living promise that there will be a future for us all. I... I...” he put his other hand on Luke’s other shoulder and turned him fully to him. “I need you.” His eyes roamed Luke’s features desperately, feeling he would go mad if he didn’t unravel the mystery around this young man now. “Why? Why do I need you so?”
Luke’s poignant smile slashed through Anakin’s soul. The young Jedi bit his lip and shook his head at him miserably.
“It’s not your fault, but mine,” Anakin quickly reassured him. “I feel that I should know you. If I did, everything would finally make sense. And still... I’m happy just knowing that you exist. It’s like... like you’re the answer to this... nightmare I’m living in.” Hissing again, his face twisted in a grimace of harrowing agony. All hope, all semblance of composure seemed to be ripped from him. He released Luke and turned away with a strangled sob.
“What? What is it?” Luke pressed, following his father earnestly, sensing that this was it. The demon that would tip the balance in favour of the Dark.
“Padme! Our baby!” Anakin wailed brokenly.
“What about them?” Luke’s heart felt about to beat out of his breast.
“I’m going to lose them! I’m going to lose them and there’s nothing I can do about it!” the powerful Jedi collapsed to his knees in gut-wrenching grief. All the bottled-up stress, fear and anguish exploded from him like a breaking dam. At that moment, he looked as forsaken and vulnerable as a child.
Luke kneeled down beside his father and held his arms in fervent support.
“Why do you say that? Why would you lose them?”
“Padme will die in childbirth! Oh, Force, I’m going to lose it all!” Anakin covered his face with his hands, trying to block out the horror he could see looming over his loved ones.
Luke was shocked speechless. All colour drained from his face as the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.
“I saw it happen. I dreamed it! Just like I dreamed about my mother three years ago. I was too late to save her, but now... now I’m just as powerless!” Anakin brought his hands down, turning them into fists, fighting a faceless enemy that couldn’t be defeated. “I seem to be destined to lose all the people I love. Why? WHY?” he turned his head to Luke, and the young man saw straight into his father’s soul. Bare, raw, exposed to its deepest recesses. And he saw his father reaching out to him for an answer. The words that would make it all better, that would make the nightmare go away. “Why?” he asked weakly, despairingly; his swimming eyes looking straight into his soul.
Luke tried to say something, but his vocal cords, his thought processes were all but paralysed. He could only look back into Anakin’s eyes, conveying all the consternation that his father’s revelation had caused, and submerging himself in that tormented spirit that begged for the only comfort it had ever needed.
Love. A family. And the balance and focus they provided.
It was in that split second, staring into his father’s eyes, that Luke knew, and understood, what made Anakin Skywalker tick. The source of all his strength, that was also his greatest weakness. Beyond his love for those who kept him sane and grounded, lay the abyss. Total and absolute. His mother first, and now Padme and their unborn children were his sanity. Anakin’s essence, his very being was rooted in the emotional ties he’d formed in his lifetime. His concept of the Force was wrapped up in the steadfast love that bound him to the people he cared about.
‘That was always my greatest fear. To be alone.’
Take away everything that Anakin Skywalker loved, and you had a broken shell of a man. A shattered and crippled soul to whom nothing mattered anymore, with nothing left except a ravenous need to be filled with anything that made the unbearable emptiness go away.
Force. Oh, Force!
One of his hands moved from his father’s arm and cupped the hot, almost feverish cheek.
“Anakin, I...” his voice sounded like sandpaper.
“Excuse me, master.”
Threepio’s intrusion felt like a kick in the guts. The two young men flinched, torn away from a precious, fragile moment in time where everything was shared and understood. Composing themselves with a heroic effort, they turned their heads to the golden droid, presenting the same quiet, melancholic expression on their faces.
“Lady Padme just arrived,” Threepio announced.
Anakin’s poise changed in seconds. He straightened up and rose to his feet with steely grace.
“We’ll be right there, Threepio. Thank you,” he said.
With his eyes fixed on the disappearing droid, Anakin spoke to the Jedi beside him.
“Please, don’t comment any of this with her. It is my responsibility and I will take care of it. It’s my family.”
Luke remained frozen on the floor, staring blankly into the distance, feeling his blood run cold. When Anakin entered the apartment and the warmth of his father’s presence next to him dissipated, he brought one trembling hand to his chest, trying to slow his wildly beating heart.
“Force help me. May the Force help us all,” he raised his murmured plea to the heavens.
TO BE CONTINUED...