Vader was in a foul mood when he returned to his quarters; his interrogation of the Princess had proven to be entirely fruitless.
Interrogations using pain alone had never been overly effective, causing the subject to babble whatever it was they thought their interrogators wanted to hear. Knowing this from several first-hand experiences, Vader augmented his sessions with psychoactive drugs and his own command of the Force, allowing him to direct their thoughts to the truths that they fought to conceal.
Her Highness had proven uniquely able to withstand his mental probing, however. An admirable yet highly frustrating trait.
He stalked over to his comm station, bracing himself to report his failure to Tarkin. The two of them had an efficient working relationship, and as much of a rapport as Vader's grudges would allow - but he was wary of the man's growing place in his Master's inner circle. Ever since the collapse of the Inquisitorius, Vader had perceived his Master's favor for him waning. Any and all subsequent failures merely served to expedite this process.
The light on his console was blinking, informing him that a message had been received and stored in his absence. A curious thing. Nobody with high enough clearance to access his comm lines ever bothered to leave such messages. If the matter was so urgent, they simply used his mobile comm instead.
The Force rippled around him as his hand approached the button to open the message. Curious indeed.
The holo message that appeared bore the visage of one Viceroy Bail Organa.
"Lord Vader," he began solemnly. "I hope this message reaches you before Leia has been executed."
Organa took a deep breath. He looked unwell.
"I'm sure you're already aware that I have eyes within the Imperial Navy. One of my contacts has informed me that you have captured Princess Leia. Indeed, I have been told that you plan to interrogate her personally."
Pain passed briefly over the Viceroy's face, but he mastered himself quickly.
"I have sent this message because I now know that the only way to save Leia's life is to tell you the truth."
A pause, as Organa gathered his nerve.
"And the truth, Lord Vader, is that Leia is your biological daughter. Please protect her, Anakin - if not for her own sake, then for Padme's."
The message continued to play for a few more seconds, but Vader didn't hear a word of it.
Princess Leia Organa. His daughter.
The thought of it was absurd. A transparent ploy to keep the rebel Princess alive.
And yet, Organa knew that lying was futile. Confirming his assertions would be all too easy.
Of course, if what Organa said was true, then the official records of the Princess' genome would've been tampered with. By slicing, or by finding a way to confound the test, it certainly wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. It was therefore necessary to obtain a fresh sample and analyze it himself.
The Princess was sitting upright when he entered her cell, and stiffened visibly upon registering who had come to visit her. No doubt, she anticipated another round of interrogation.
That may yet come, depending on the outcome of his investigations.
He resisted the temptation to taunt her, despite the lingering defiance in her gaze. "I require a strand of your hair," he said, without preamble.
She eyed him suspiciously. "Why?"
Vader held out his hand. "You are not in a position to refuse," he pointed out. He would rather not have to take one by force. It was beneath both of their dignities.
Lips pursing, she reached up and plucked a stray flyaway from the top of her head. Her hair was still styled in the elaborate manner of royalty, despite the days of confinement - a matter of pride, no doubt.
She placed the short strand in the palm of his hand, which he closed tightly.
He left without another word.
When the medical droid returned the results, the walls of Vader's quarters expanded, and the transparisteel of his viewport cracked.
"Leia," he began, her given name feeling awkward on his tongue. He wondered suddenly if Padme had been the one to name her, but quashed the thought before he could linger on it. "I am your father."
He wasn't sure what reaction he was expecting. Outrage, perhaps. Denial, certainly. She was his enemy, and had been for many years. Her disdain for him was obvious even without the way it seeped into the Force. But she reacted with nothing so dramatic, favoring him instead with a slight creasing of her brows, a tightening of the mouth. "I see," she said.
He sensed her distress, her revulsion, but also...resignation. "You know it to be true," he stated.
"I've known I was adopted for as long as I can remember," she said. "Did my father tell you so that you would spare my life?"
That traitor was not her father. "Astute as always," he said.
The frown deepened a fraction. "You've never been a liar, Lord Vader. And neither has my father. It's...an unfortunate coincidence."
The words enraged him more than any denial could have. "There are no coincidences, Leia. This is the will of the Force."
"Maybe. But it doesn't really make a difference. This changes nothing."
"It changes everything!" he exclaimed, jabbing a finger in the air. "You are my daughter."
"No!" She stood up abruptly, hands clenched into fists at her sides. She shook with anger. "I am no daughter of yours, Lord Vader. Do not mistake your contribution to my genome as a claim on fatherhood!" She took a deep breath, dark eyes flashing. "You never struck me as the sentimental type. I'm still "rebel scum", am I not? Why not finish what you started before?"
She was bating him, he knew. She needed to believe that nothing had changed – that their connection was meaningless. And perhaps she was right. What did this impudent girl mean to him, even with her genetic connection? "Do not think I won't," he said. And he could, if he summoned enough hatred. He had struck down the remnants of Anakin's life before. Dispatching of her would indeed be far easier than the last of Anakin's comrades.
Leia raised her chin. "Then go ahead. I can't stop you."
His rage boiled. It would be so easy to reach forward with the Force and choke the life from her. Watch as the spark left those brown eyes once and for all.
Just as he had with her mother.
Please protect her, Anakin - if not for her own sake, then for Padme's.
Pushing those thoughts forcefully aside, he said. "It need not come to that. Join me, and together we can destroy the Emperor. We can rule the Galaxy, as father and daughter."
She gazed at him silently for a moment, as if digesting his words, then said, "That's your pitch?"
He said nothing.
She sighed. "First of all, what gives you the idea that I have any desire to rule the Galaxy?"
A pause, and then: "It's the most efficient means of achieving your ends."
She actually laughed at that. "Ah yes, of course. The most efficient way to restore democracy is clearly to become a dictator. How could I have thought otherwise?"
His anger intensified. "You are arrogant," he said, "and lack perspective. How do you hope to impose any kind of political order on a Galaxy in chaos?"
"Your "order" causes nothing but suffering," she replied, all hint of mirth leaving her. Her eyes were cold, calculating. For a moment, they reminded him very much of Padme's on a bad day. "Allow me to make a counteroffer, Lord Vader: you join me, we destroy the Emperor, and you help me to build a new order from the ashes of the Empire."
"You can't be serious," he said, and even the vocabulator couldn't completely filter out the incredulity in his voice. "This is not a negotiation. You will join me, or be destroyed."
She smirked coldly. "I don't believe you."
"Then you are a fool."
"Maybe I am," she said, crossing her arms. "But I just don't. For whatever reason, you want me to acknowledge our familial bond. I don't imagine it's from any kind of affection – that really would be foolish. But you do need me for something."
This was why Vader didn't care for politicians. "It is the will of the Force that revealed you to me," he said. It was the first time in years that he'd bothered to measure his words with anyone but his Master. "I do indeed believe that this revelation has a greater purpose."
Leia was unmoved. "Which is to help you overthrow Palpatine and take his throne for yourself. At which point I'll take on the role that you currently have: suppressing all dissent, perceived or real, without a care for the lives I ruin in the process."
Vader resisted the urge to reach forward and grasp her shoulders. "You will understand, once you embrace the Dark Side."
She laughed again. "I admit, I don't know much about the Force, but I suppose this "Dark Side" is what gives you all your little tricks?" She quirked an eyebrow. "Do you really think the promise of telekinesis is enough to make me betray everything I've ever cared about?"
"The Force is more powerful than you can comprehend!" He thundered, angered at her blasphemy. She knew nothing, and yet she presumed to mock the Dark Side! Anyone else would already be dead for such presumptuousness.
But...he did need her. He could sense that plainly in the Force.
Her amusement fell away, leaving nothing but durasteel on her face. "I don't care," she said. And he could sense that she meant it.
He was promising her power beyond her wildest dreams...and she didn't care. It was baffling.
"I won't lie," she continued, "I'm not exactly eager to die. But if the only other option is joining the Empire, it's a sacrifice that I'm willing to make. So if you really think the "will of the Force" is that important, then you'll at least consider my offer." Finally, she laid down her ultimatum. "There are three choices, Vader: keep me as a prisoner, and I'll resist until my dying breath; kill me, and lose any chance of changing my mind; or join me, and I'll tolerate your presence for as long as you're an asset. It's only with the last option that you'll get the chance to make your case. You plan to betray the Emperor anyway, after all. May as well do it now, if you really do need my help to defeat him."
He couldn't deny that her assessment was compelling. Coercion, murder, or capitulation: his only three options. "I can be very persuasive, your highness," he said.
"If my suffering and eventual death are what you desire, Lord Vader, then I'm in no position to stop you," she replied coolly.
He gazed at her for a few moments, taking in the plains of her face and the fire in her eyes, and decided that he would grant her a swift death – if it came to that. In reality, he only had two options.
Her cries of agony were not something he ever wished to see again.
"I will give you time to consider," he said, at length.
She snorted, taking a seat on the cell's platform. "Whatever you say, Lord Vader."
Her disdain clung to him as he left the cell.
Some of the dialogue in this chapter is lifted directly from ANH, then edited slightly to match the shift in circumstances.
Alone in her cell, Leia had entirely too much time to think.
Their confrontation kept running through her head, almost like she was watching a glitching holofilm. She remembered everything she'd thought and said, and yet it seemed, paradoxically, like it had all been done by somebody else.
Darth Vader, the Emperor's dog, was her biological father.
In her shock, her diplomatic training had taken over. She'd seen an opening, seen the leverage she'd held over him, and pressed her advantage mercilessly.
Frankly, it was a miracle that she was still alive.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked, even though her father - the real one, not the monster - couldn't hear her. She swallowed down the sudden wash of helpless sadness, the hint of resentment. She had no doubt that he had planned to tell her eventually. When she was mature enough to handle it, perhaps.
It was evident now that she lacked such maturity.
She wouldn't allow herself to cry, though. Even knowing that she had a monster's blood flowing through her veins; even knowing that her capture had made her father sacrifice everything in order to save her.
Perhaps Vader would spare her life, or perhaps he would kill her. Either way, he would now be part of her life in a manner that she had never conceived possible - not even in her bleakest of nightmares.
If she cried, Vader won.
And he'd already won far too much.
When he came for her again, it was to bring her to Tarkin. She expected him to taunt her, to dish out one of his infamously terrible puns, but he remained entirely silent, save for the sound of his breathing.
It was almost a relief when Tarkin came into sight, her hatred towards him comforting in its familiarity.
"Governor Tarkin," she said, acidly, "I should've expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board." The barb was meant as much for Vader as Tarkin. Vader was a creature of pride, and his subordination to any but the Emperor must have rankled fiercely.
Behind her, Leia could almost feel the tension coming off Vader in waves - silently urging her not to provoke Tarkin needlessly. But since the cyborg was taking his time with his decision, Leia felt no obligation to heed his tacit wishes.
"Charming to the last," drawled Tarkin, reaching out to grasp her chin in a mockery of avuncular tenderness. "I shall find it ever so difficult to sign the order for your execution."
That he hadn't signed it yet came as quite a surprise. Vader's intervention, perhaps. More likely, Tarkin was trying to find someone else to take the fall, lest the political ramifications proved troublesome. Jerking her head away from his grip, she said, "We both know that you lack the courage to take responsibility yourself."
Tarkin remained unfazed, turning on his heel to walk toward the transparisteel window of the chamber. "Before your fate is decided, Princess Leia, I would like you to be my guest at a ceremony that will make this battle station operational." He whirled back around, blue eyes like ice. "No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now."
A small smirk twisted the corners of her lips, despite her mounting trepidation. "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."
"Not after we demonstrate the power of this station," he said. Though he didn't raise his voice, the harshness of his tone made it clear that she was aggravating him.
A small victory, but one that she'd treasure for as long as she remained alive.
"In a way," he continued, turning back to the windows, "you have determined the choice of the planet that will be destroyed first." She followed his gaze to see an achingly familiar planet, and her stomach dropped into her feet. "Since you are reluctant to provide us with the location of the Rebel base, I have chosen to test this station's destructive power on your home planet of Alderaan."
She felt Vader's hand tighten on her shoulder. A warning, or perhaps some pathetic attempt at comfort. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that Alderaan – and all its billions of inhabitants – was in danger of obliteration. Her first instinct was to plead, appealing to whatever scrap of humanity was still buried in Tarkin's noxious soul. But Vader's iron grip on her shoulder was like an anchor, reminding her that it was pointless. Tarkin was a born sociopath, callous and utterly without compunction. Nobody with an ounce of compassion could rise so high through the Imperial ranks.
"This is madness!" she yelled instead, and perhaps the hand on her shoulder was indeed some measure of reassurance. If nothing else, she was certain that Vader wouldn't permit Tarkin to kill her just yet. It allowed her mind to remain clearer than it might have otherwise. For a man like Tarkin, only cold calculation mattered. "Are you Imperials really so blind? If you destroy a peaceful core world for the crimes of a few, you'll drive billions to our cause."
"Fear is powerful motivator, Your Highness. You should not underestimate its power to cow the masses." Tarkin sounded so calm. So unbearable smug.
She sneered at him. "Capricious violence makes people desperate, you fool – it will cow only those who are stupid enough to think that the Empire can be appeased." She let out a harsh laugh. "But of course, if you understood that, there would be no Alliance in the first place."
Tarkin raised a brow. "An impressive display of bravado, but I grow tired of this game. You will tell us where the Rebel base is located, or you shall watch your homeworld be destroyed."
For a moment, she considered telling him some lie to buy time, and she began to think of sparsely-populated worlds that she could afford to sacrifice. Nausea churned in her belly. Vader's hand tightened.
A flash of inspiration: Vader was here, as imposing and powerful as ever, but backed into a corner. If ever there was a time to see if she could wrest the Sith Lord's leash from Tarkin and Palpatine, it was now.
"Will you really allow him to do this, Lord Vader?" she asked softly. "To take my planet – my people – from me?" She would have appealed to his honor as warrior, if she thought he had any. But she suspected it was herself alone that concerned him. Or at least, her value to him as a tool in overthrowing the Emperor.
His breathing suddenly seemed very loud. Tarkin's eyes radiated cold amusement. "You must be desperate indeed, to plead with Lord Vader."
She ignored him. Softly, earnestly, she pleaded, "Please help me, father."
For a seemingly endless moment, Vader did nothing. But then everything was a flurry of motion. He released her and pulled the lightsaber from his belt, igniting it with a sinister hiss. She registered an expression of disbelief on the Grand Moff's face before Vader stabbed him through heart, and he did the same to Motti seconds later. Meanwhile, the soldier operating the firing mechanism was thrown across the room, hitting the back wall with a sickening crack.
The rest of the guards were well-trained enough that their own shock was brief, and they rounded on Vader with raised blasters. He deflected their shots with his lightsaber, directing them back at the soldiers with frightening precision. Both of them crumpled to the ground, dead on impact.
He turned to Leia, deactivating the lightsaber. "It is done," he said.
She let out a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding, relief washing over her like a narcotic. "So you've chosen," she said.
A pause. Perhaps it had been an impulse decision on Vader's part, and the implications of it were just now starting to sink in. But he was no fool. "We must go, Leia."
There he went again, using her given name – but she was too giddy from relief and adrenaline to mind. She nodded. "How much time do we have before the rest of the station discovers this?"
"l can lock this terminal at the highest security clearance," said Vader. "But Tarkin still controls this station. It will be only a matter of time before he's missed."
Leia nodded again. "Do you know of a way to disable this station's major weapons systems?"
Even through the vocoder, Vader's exasperation was clear. "We will leave now, Leia."
"No," she said, raising her chin. "If we leave now, some other psychopath will be given command, and other planets will be in danger. We must disable the station, even if only temporarily." With any luck, Obi-Wan Kenobi had managed to deliver the Death Star plans to the Alliance. Any time she could give them to process the plans and prepare their assault would certainly prove invaluable.
Vader moved forward. "You are in no position to make demands," he said. "My generosity is far from infinite."
She crossed her arms. "You're a rebel now, Lord Vader. Do you really want your enemies to have this kind of firepower at their disposal?"
He seemed to mull that over for a moment, then said, "Very well. But we must be quick." With that, he swept out of the room. Leia allowed herself a brief moment of grim triumph.
Against all odds, and though it sickened her to acknowledge it, this unfortunate genetic connection was proving to be beneficial, after all.
Right now I'm compiling and supplementing existing material, which I'll be running out of soon. Just a heads up for when the pace of updates slow down.
Vader led his daughter to the elevators with an outward sense of purpose he didn't actually feel, his limbs moving as if of their own volition. His mind was whirling, confusion and something akin to terror warring with hot, burning rage. He channeled that rage and fear into action.
Her words seemed to echo endlessly in his mind.
"So you've chosen."
Had he? Truthfully, he wasn't sure. He had betrayed his Master, certainly. The Empire, perhaps not. He was inclined to agree with Leia on the result of using the Death Star to destroy a core world. But that had not been Vader's reason for killing the Grand Moff.
No. What had motivated him to stab Tarkin through the heart was a sudden flash of insight, prompted by Leia's words: Leia, lying to Tarkin; Tarkin, destroying Alderaan; Leia, sentenced to death, and Vader all but powerless to stop it. His only chance to save her was at that moment, he knew, and he hadn't thought any further than that. If the choice was between Tarkin and his daughter, then Tarkin had to die. Leia was far more valuable an asset, and only slightly more of a threat.
Despite his initial hesitation, however, there was an undeniable satisfaction in having ended the existence of his long-time colleague. For all that he respected Tarkin's ruthless efficiency, this outcome had always been inevitable.
He stopped by an equipment depot and led Leia inside, gesturing to stormtrooper uniforms stacked on the far end. "This will deflect suspicion," he said.
"Good idea," she replied. She walked over to the uniforms and gave them a quick scan, then picked out one that looked to be her size. Vader turned so that she could change in privacy.
"Alright," came Leia's now tinny, modulated voice. The standardized armor, even at its smallest size, looked too big on her. But it would still attract less attention than that ridiculous white dress. "Let's get going."
At the very least, he knew that she could use the blaster she'd acquired more than adequately.
They carried on without saying a word, moving unencumbered through the corridors and elevators as officers and troopers alike passed them by. Soon, they were in front of the chamber that housed the components of the Death Star's main laser.
Vader keyed in his security clearance and disabled the security protocols. The blast doors slid open, and the two of them entered.
The giant kyber crystals that served to amplify the laser were suspended in a structure made of a carbon-based alloy. Even his lightsaber would have difficultly cutting through it quickly. Besides, tampering with the crystals themselves would likely trigger alarms that even his own high level of security clearance couldn't override.
Leia raised her blaster, and Vader placed a hand on the muzzle. "It is unwise to fire any energy weapons here."
She lowered it abruptly. "I take it that destroying the crystals themselves is out of the question," she said.
Always so astute, he thought, and was unable to stop a sudden burst of pride. "Correct," he confirmed. "But we are not without other options."
He moved swiftly to the consoles on the far side of the chamber. All of the weapon's main settings could only be adjusted manually from this location, in order to avoid access by low-clearance personnel. It was cut off from the station's main holonet, as well.
Which was all the better, given what Vader was about to do.
Vader's specialty had never been slicing, but – as with all things involving technology – he did have a knack for it. Having high-level clearance codes just made the endeavor that much simpler. All of his changes to various connections and circuits were subtle, spread over the entirety of the central weapons systems and main reactor. Only repairing every single tiny change would allow for the weapon to be reactivated. And after the upheaval caused by Tarkin's death, any such repairs would likely take days to be initiated. Then weeks, or even months, to be completed. He suspected that the Imperial engineers might even resort to a full-scale redesign.
He allowed himself the tiniest flicker of smug pride as he shut down the console.
Leia looked skeptical. "That's it?" she asked.
"You have no choice but to trust in my skills," he replied. His patience had officially run out. "We leave now."
Leia didn't look pleased, but she clearly sensed that arguing further was futile. "Lead the way, then."
With a flourish of his cape, Vader did.
He led them to a nearby docking bay and chose one of the generic, surplus Delta-class shuttles. His own ship, with its pre-Clone War Nubian design and notable modifications, would be far too conspicuous.
Within minutes, they had gained clearance from the tractor beam. Vader set hyperspace coordinates for an Outer Rim system that was deep in Hutt Space, and not under the direct jurisdiction of the Empire.
And then they were flying away from everything that Vader had built for the last two decades: his ship, his troops, his Empire.
It felt oddly like freedom.
"Thank you," said Leia, awkwardly, after Vader had activated the hyperdrive. She was sitting beside him in the copilot's seat, having changed into a pair of standard imperial overalls. "You saved billions of lives today."
"I didn't do it for their sake," he replied, easing his hands off the controls.
Leia tried to suppress the wave of disgust she felt at his words. She had to give him credit for his candor, at the very least. "Even so, I'm grateful."
Vader said nothing. She wondered if he found this as surreal as she did. Perhaps a change of subject was in order.
"We'll need to get you out of that suit, if you're to join me in the Alliance."
He stiffened visibly. "You plan to lie to your comrades?"
"Not at all," she said. "Getting rid of the suit will be a tangible way of showing your shift in allegiance." Convincing the Alliance leadership to accept the service of one of the Empire's most notorious war criminals would be no easy task; the suit would make the prospect nigh impossible.
"You hide it well, your highness, but you really are a politician." His tone made it clear that this wasn't a compliment.
Bristling, she retorted: "Why are you even still in that thing? Medical technology has advanced since the Clone Wars. You could've been fitted with less cumbersome prosthetics years ago."
"My reasons are my own," said Vader.
"That goes without saying," she quipped, suppressing the urge to roll her eyes. "But you can't deny that it must be removed. If nothing else, it makes you a walking target." Vader wasn't exactly known for his stealth; quite the opposite. But even he had to realize that a fugitive was in a very different position than the Emperor's chief enforcer.
Regardless of her undeniable logic, the prospect appeared to unsettle him. It made sense, she supposed; it was no doubt a fundamental part of his identity.
All the more reason to get rid of it, she thought.
"Do we have time to attend to such trivialities?" he asked, after a long stretch of silence.
"All the pieces are in place," said Leia, carefully. "I've dispatched the Death Star plans and temporarily disabled its destructive capacity; I can't influence the outcome any further." The thought of it made her stomach twist. "Besides: as you are now, I can't reveal the location of our base."
She doubted that he'd ever truly be a friend to the Alliance, but she needed to make sure that his betrayal of the Empire was complete. That any intelligence he leaked would be doubted as subversion, or a clumsy attempt to become a double agent. Relinquishing the symbol of his place within the Empire, and thus starting anew, would leave no doubt in any Imperial's mind as to the sincerity of his defection.
After a long, tense pause, he said, "I shall do as you wish, Leia."
On some level, she'd known he would. He had already come too far to turn back.
"I'll go make the arrangements," she said.
So it had come to this, he thought, staring into the whorls of hyperspace. He was to give up his suit to appease a horde of traitors.
To appease his daughter.
He was surprised at his own lack of anger at the prospect. His...resignation. He had come to appreciate the suit many years ago - the way it removed him from his ties to the flesh, so that he could focus exclusively on forging closer ties to the Force. His strength and endurance were greater now than they had ever been in his fully organic body.
But he suspected that this was all the will of the Force; a test to see if he was using the suit as a crutch. It was his rage and hate that truly gave him power, after all. The suit was ultimately immaterial.
There was an opportunity here, in any case. Leia, for all her brilliance, was still naive in her own way. Overconfident. She believed that he had no option but to obey her, and the Alliance by extension.
But she was very wrong.
He would play along, for now. Infiltrate the Alliance, gain Leia's trust, and plant the seeds of the Dark Side in her spirit. Given time, he could convince her of the folly of her cause. She would come to see that ruling the Galaxy at his side was the best outcome for everyone.
His mouth twisted into a smile under the mask as he sank into the cold embrace of the Dark Side, teasing apart the threads of probability to get some hint of future outcomes.
Leia was his daughter. Soon, she would understand her destiny.
Leia felt the beginnings of a headache as she shut down the comm. Her contact had made it clear that getting Vader out of the suit was not going to be cheap. Even calling in the favor the older woman owed her, it would clean out most of her private account. She wanted to avoid using Alliance funds if at all possible, especially on somebody like Vader. However valuable he might prove as an informant, he had simply killed too many of their members, and posed too much of a future threat, to warrant Alliance credits.
She gazed down at the now-inactive comm unit, wanting desperately to contact her father - to tell him that she was alright. But with Vader aboard, she dared not risk it. The cyborg was known for both his grudges and his explosive temper. Setting him off could derail everything.
She took a few minutes to massage her temples, to regain her composure, then stood up and walked to the cockpit. She held out a datapad to Vader. "The coordinates," she said.
He took it wordlessly, and immediately began to fiddle with the controls. He seemed almost...enthusiastic. Or whatever the Sith Lord equivalent of that was. Leia wasn't sure what to make of it.
"No second thoughts?" she asked.
"It is the will of the Force," he replied, as though it was obvious. This was apparently his way of saying "no".
She frowned slightly, her headache intensifying. "I'll take your word for it." It wasn't that she didn't believe in the Force. "May the Force be with you" was a familiar and treasured prayer, passed down to her by her parents. Rather, she didn't much trust Vader's judgment. It was evident that he was every bit the fanatic that the rumors said he was.
But even if he was right, it didn't matter. Destiny or no, her world was forever changed. And she would have to find some way of coping with it.
There was nothing more to say, so she retreated to the cabin to get some rest.
With the computer set and no need to remain at the controls for now, Vader followed Leia into the cabin. It was a pity that he could not have taken his private ship, with its meditation chamber on board. But he supposed that it wouldn't matter soon enough, if he was truly to be freed of the suit.
He wasn't sure why he'd come here. It wasn't as though he needed to lay down in order to sleep. Frustrated at his purposeless wandering, he looked over to the sleeping Princess. There were dark circles under her eyes, but her face was slack and peaceful.
Unbidden, his mind conjured up a memory of his mother sleeping after a long day of labor. The resemblance was...strong. It took a great deal of restraint not to reach out and push away a stray lock of hair that had fallen onto her face.
Another flash, this time of Leia's face twisted in pain as she refused to beg for mercy. Had his mother shown similar fortitude over the weeks that she had been slowly tortured to death?
Leia. His grown-up daughter. Beautiful and fierce and stolen. Is this how his mother had felt, when she had seen him that very last time?
He pushed these thoughts aside, annoyed at himself. They were irrelevant questions with equally irrelevant answers. She had been stolen, yes - but he had no intention of dying just yet.
Still, he couldn't entirely shake the unease. Leia was his daughter, and yet the truth of it had eluded him entirely. Looking at her now, it should've been all too obvious. Yet even her now evident Force potential hadn't occurred to him until after their interrogation. Was this too the will of the Force, or merely the trickery of a cunning traitor?
What other secrets was Organa hiding?
He'd make sure to question the Viceroy thoroughly before he killed him.
At the very least, he could be certain that he hadn't been alone in his ignorance. If Sidious had known that the child of Skywalker yet lived, she would have been procured and turned into an asset years ago. An Inquisitor, perhaps; trained just enough to be of use without posing a genuine threat to Sidious' power.
But now that Vader was aware of their connection, it was only a matter of time before his Master discovered it too. And he would not wish for Leia be a mere Inquisitor, now. Sidious would no doubt covet her as he had once coveted Anakin Skywalker - a prime replacement for the apprentice that had betrayed him.
Vader swore that he would never let it come to that.
He stood there for quite some time, gazing down at the sleeping young woman. But he eventually compelled himself to go to the engine room. He needed to make modifications to the ship's identification transmitter if they were to avoid detection long-term. No imperial vessel went missing for long without being noticed - even one as generic and nondescript as this.
In a way, tinkering was its own kind of meditation, and he allowed his thoughts to drift as he set about performing the familiar work. Like so much else, he hadn't indulged in daydreaming for many, many years.
But now, for the first time in his new life, the future seemed to spark with possibility.
Vader was awoken from a light sleep by the sound of Leia's scream.
He was on his feet in seconds, lightsaber drawn and activated, bounding to the cabin. He could sense no presence besides the Princess', however.
She was sitting up on the couch she'd used as her cot, staring at the wall, her face white and body trembling. Terror suffused the Force around her.
"Leia..." he began, deactivating the saber and stowing it at his side. "You are in no danger."
Her head snapped around to face him, her eyes wide and feverish. In the Force, her terror spiked. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but no sound came out save for the gasps caused by hyperventilation.
It occurred to him, then, what the nature of her dream must've been. He left as swiftly as he'd come.
Once he was out of her sight, he heard her scrambled desperately to the lavatory. She must not have had the time to close the door, as he could hear her retching violently into the toilet.
The retching continued for several minutes, making something twist in the pit of Vader's stomach. He considered bringing her a canteen of water, or a tube of nutrition paste. At this rate, she would become anemic and dehydrated.
He did not do so, however.
Instead, he listened carefully until he was reasonably sure that she had procured them for herself. He then reached out with the Force to make sure that the terror and panic had ebbed away into something less acute.
Even once he sensed that the Princess had fallen back to sleep, his own rest eluded him.
And the prospect of being rid of the suit became ever-so-slightly more attractive.
When the shuttle exited hyperspace, it quickly became clear why the Princess had chosen this particular location. The facility was a grubby-looking space station that had been salvaged from the Clone Wars, located just outside an asteroid field.
Vader docked the shuttle and left the cockpit. Leia was waiting for him, arms crossed, and said nothing as she led him off of the ship. There was a plump, stout, pale-skinned human woman waiting for them, dressed in a white lab coat. Her grey-streaked brown hair was pulled back into a messy bun.
She looked entirely too pleased to see them. "Princess!" she said jovially, spreading her arms in welcome. Her smile widened into a grin when her gaze turned to Vader. "And my dear, dear patient! I'm so happy that you've arrived - and with nary a TIE in sight."
"You are not a member of the Alliance," stated Vader, noting the sleek, well-kept interior of the station.
"Correct, dear," the woman confirmed. Vader bristled at the lack of deference. "Never cared much about that political nonsense. I made the acquaintance of the Princess here when she saved my life from some rather nasty pirates." She suddenly looked abashed. "Oh, where are my manners? My name is Doctor Franca, and I'll be overseeing your refurbishment." Her grin returned. "I know who you are, of course."
Vader's patience was wearing thin, but Leia's had worn thinner. "I'd appreciate skipping the pleasantries, Doctor," she said, her tone sharp despite the politeness of her words. "We're on a tight schedule."
Franca was unfazed. "Of course, of course - you're a busy woman. Do follow me."
She led them into a large operating theater, chattering away excitedly all the while. Vader didn't care enough to pay attention to her babbling, knowing her type all too well: completely absorbed in their chosen field, seeing test subjects in place of patients. They could prove to be extremely competent, if one were willing to put up with their narcissism.
He doubted the Princess would entrust a comrade to Franca's care, explaining why she'd yet to call in the debt incurred by her act of misguided heroism. But Vader was no comrade.
"I'm ready to start right away, if it pleases you both," said Franca, once she'd come back from her flight of fancy.
"It does," said Leia, before Vader could reply. She turned to look at him, her mouth set and eyes full of challenge. It was, he realized, the first time she'd looked at him directly since the incident on the shuttle.
It was much too late to turn back.
A med-droid hovered over to them - a model Vader recognized from Kamino. "If you'll help us remove your exo-suit, sir, we can begin the procedure."
Vader did as he was instructed.
Vader awoke slowly, groggy from narcotic painkillers and anesthesia, and was surprised to see Leia standing in front of his bed, her lips drawn in a thin line.
"You look unhappy, your highness," he rasped. "Is this not what you wanted?"
Franca appeared to be absent. The med-droid was at one of theater's consoles, however, and sped over to say, "It is best you not speak yet, sir. Your vocal chords are still fragile."
"Noted," he responded.
Leia's frown deepened, and she said, "You should listen to it, Lord Vader. I don't have the funds to repair any damage you inflict during recovery." She lifted the datapad she was holding. "They replaced your lungs with cybernetic implants, and repaired your vocal chords and skin with nanodroids. Your limb prosthetics have been upgraded and covered in synthskin."
If they had "repaired his skin", it meant that they had removed his scars. He would likely also regrow his hair. What an utterly superfluous vanity. But then, the Princess was a politician. She put far too much stock in appearances.
It was mildly interesting that nanodroids had applications outside of terrorism and organized crime, he supposed. Groggily, he recalled how the Droid Gotra had taken to using them to turn unwitting organics into walking explosives.
The med-droid continued: "You are to have bedrest for a full standard week, with moderate exercise once a day to walk to and from the bacta chamber. It is advised that you refrain from speaking until two days of bacta treatment are completed."
That was it? Vader had been sure that the process would take months. Though admittedly, he'd never been curious enough to investigate the matter in any detail. He visited his private bacta tank on Mustafar fairly regularly, but usually in response to new injuries acquired during missions. Its purpose was immediate survival and optimal integration with his suit. He'd had no need for anything more ambitious.
Actually thinking about it, though, he supposed that using synthetic lungs rather than attempting to grow new ones would minimize the need for bacta treatment. Likewise with synthskin. The treatments were for repairing the damage left behind by the various surgeries he'd undergone, then, rather than attempting to repair his body to the point of no longer requiring mechanical assistance at all.
Outwardly, he would look organically human, while remaining as cyborg as ever within.
He shivered, realizing suddenly that his entire body was cold. Not just his face, but his arms and legs and chest. Leia moved closer and pulled up his covers, tucking it in so that it wouldn't slip down again. He blinked at her in mute incomprehension, but she seemed unfazed, as though tucking him in was a completely natural thing to do.
"Rest well," she said as she pulled back. "You won't have much opportunity to after this is over." She then left him without another word.
Leia wasn't sure what she'd been expecting to feel when she first saw Vader after his surgery. Apathetic, most likely. Or perhaps curious. Instead, laying eyes upon his rejuvenated face made it feel as though she'd been punched in the gut.
Despite the genetic results, Leia had been holding out some hope. Of fabrication, perhaps, or some freak miscalculation. Actually seeing his real face for the first time had left her reeling, however. Because, even pale and gaunt and entirely bald, she saw in his face the curve of her own nose, the tilt and shape of her own lips, the furrows her own brow made when she frowned. She had seen enough holofootage of herself to know how these things looked to outsiders.
She had no doubt that any human who saw them side-by-side would conclude that they shared a familial connection. Hell, even many nonhumans would be able to see it.
And now, she wanted to see her father even more desperately than before. To ask him why he'd kept it from her for all these years, and why he'd bothered to take in the child of a monster.
She sighed and sat down shakily, putting her head in her hands. Of course he wouldn't have left her to die. It was her father who had always insisted that there was something valuable in every living being, after all. He wouldn't have blamed an innocent child for the crimes of her biological father, any more than Leia herself would.
In hindsight, his awareness of her origins certainly did explain some of the arguments she'd had with him as a child. The looks he'd gotten when she'd displayed a particular talent, and zeal, for enacting violence. Was there a part of him that saw the seeds of what eventually became Darth Vader within her?
Was there a part of Bail Organa that feared what she might become?
She laid back on the shuttle's main sofa, trying to clear her mind of such useless questions. She wouldn't see her father for a while yet, and it wasn't safe to try and contact him over the holonet without encryption. It was of no help at all to torture herself like this.
Whatever the personal consequences for her own sense of identity, she had achieved a major coup for the Alliance. The Emperor's top enforcer was willing to cooperate with them, whatever ulterior motives he may have, and she had temporarily disabled the Empire's monstrous superweapon.
This was what she tried to focus on as she waited for Vader to recover.
Doctor Franca came to see him a day after the procedure was finished, checking him over intently to make sure that everything was healing as it should.
It took quite a bit of effort not to fling her across the recovery ward when her fingers lingered entirely too long at the top of his thigh. She noticed his tension, however.
"I should probably tell you that killing me would be an exceedingly terrible idea," she said, smiling sweetly. "This station is set to self-destruct within five seconds of my untimely demise, in addition to some other lovely surprises." She waggled her bushy eyebrows. "It's a necessary precaution, when you specialize in a certain kind of clientele."
Not Alliance, and not Imperial. Likely, she worked freelance for various criminal organizations.
"Oh, don't give me that look, dear," she mock-scolded. "All I do is fix people. From what I've heard, you're hardly in a position to judge."
Vader rolled his eyes, but maintained his prescribed silence.
She continued her examination for a few moments, then said, "You know, it's quite astounding that a man of your means and position didn't do something like this sooner. But then again, your suit was Cylo's work, no? That man always did have a taste for the macabre." Her hands roamed over the place where his right prosthetic leg met his flesh one. "Though he's probably not strictly a 'man' anymore." A snort. "And people call me a fanatic."
Of course she loved to hear herself speak, especially with a captive audience.
"There's something else you should know," she said, moving to his left leg. "Cylo implanted a remote control mechanism into your suit, but it was also integrated directly into your nervous system. I asked the Princess if she wanted me to keep its functionality with your upgrades."
It shouldn't have come as a surprise, and yet it did. He mentally added Cylo to his list of people that required immediate termination.
She paused, catching his gaze for a few moments, then said, "She told me to remove it."
"Foolish," Vader noted, his voice a croak.
"Quite," she agreed, her hands falling away from his body. "These Alliance types are all so stupidly noble, it's a wonder they aren't all dead already." At least she didn't insult his intelligence by reminding him that he needed to rest his voice.
Once Franca had left, he allowed himself to dwell upon what she had revealed. It was something of note that the Princess had chosen to free him of such a weakness. He had long understood why so many Imperial personnel were seduced over to the Alliance, perceiving its naive 'nobility' as a chance for belonging and freedom. The incompetence and entitlement displayed by many Imperial officers was a problem that Vader himself could easily acknowledge, having dispatched of many personally. It was clear why the likes of Leia would appeal when compared to such sub-par leadership.
It was clear that even he himself wasn't immune to such gestures, as warmth spread through him at the thought of Leia's foolish compassion. He couldn't even dismiss it as a hollow manipulation, since she'd likely had no any intention of ever telling him of it.
It was self-indulgent, he knew, to attribute the decision to her finally coming to understand the depth of their connection. But he entertained the thought anyway.
They need not simply be of utility to each other, after all. The potential for something more meaningful was...tempting.
Perhaps too tempting. Skywalker's downfall had always been his desperate need to find trust and affection from others. It had, in the end, led to his demise.
The solution had come in the form of the suit; the best way to cure an addiction was to cut off access to the drug. Yet here he was, exposed once more, and already craving a fix. A test, indeed. He would have to be cautious.
His apprehension failed to dim the warmth within him, though. And as Darth Vader drifted off to sleep, an observer would've sworn there was the hint of a smile on his face.
Leia waited until two days were over before checking on Vader's recovery progress, not wanting to accidentally goad him into speaking. His eyes were closed when she entered the recovery ward, but she had a feeling that he wasn't asleep.
Indeed, his eyes snapped open when she approached his cot. His irises were an unnerving shade of yellow-orange, ringed in red.
They'd been blue when he'd awoken from the surgery.
"Your Highness," he said, his voice a pleasant, surprisingly youthful baritone. It stirred a sense of recognition within her, though she couldn't figure out why.
"Lord Vader," she replied, giving him a nod. "You're looking well."
It was, if anything, an understatement. Two days of extensive bacta treatment had accelerated his hair growth and restored some color to his cheeks. It was already clear that Vader was a handsome man, with a deceptively youthful face to match his voice. In fact, the only indication that he was middle-aged was the hint of grey in the otherwise sandy stubble growing on his head.
In the context of the Empire, he would've needed to wear a mask just to get anybody to take him seriously. The thought almost made her smirk.
"Leia?" he pressed, and she realized that she'd gotten distracted.
There was no point in hiding why. "It's just strange, seeing you like this."
"I can imagine," he conceded, with a small upward quirk of his lips. She wouldn't go so far as to call it a smile.
She crossed her arms over her chest, deciding that it was probably safe to assuage her curiosity. "Why are your eyes a different color than before?"
He gazed at her for a few long moments, perhaps considering if he was going to answer at all. Finally, he said, "It is the mark of the Dark Side."
Leia suddenly felt very cold, and suppressed a shiver. "I see," she said, hoping that he couldn't tell just how much he'd unnerved her.
But one of his powers was rumored to be preternatural empathy. Indeed, the darker rumors claimed he actively fed on the terror of his victims - like some nightmarish creature from folklore. Could he sense her fear, the way a predator smelled it?
"It upsets you," he noted, frowning slightly. Then he closed his eyes and let out a long, measured breath.
His eyes were blue when he opened them again.
It really was much more pleasant. "Thank you," she said sincerely, her arms falling to her sides.
His frown remained. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"
"Curiosity," she admitted.
That brought a smirk to his lips. "Is my 'refurbishment' to your liking, then?"
Darth Vader. With facial expressions.
It was so strange.
"It'll serve its purpose," she said. When he didn't reply, she added: "Is there anything I can get you while you're here? Something to read, maybe?"
It turned out that blue eyes didn't entirely stop his gaze from being unsettling. "The Force is all I require."
Leia couldn't stop herself from rolling her eyes. Overblown piety was the same everywhere, apparently - whether from Sith Lords or clergy. "Well, if you change your mind, feel free to comm me."
She left before he had the chance to say anything more.
It had been a long time since Vader had experienced awkwardness.
It was something that arose only when there was a lack of clarity about intentions. And it had been a very long time indeed since he'd had any cause to leave his intentions ambiguous.
Even longer since he'd been averse to the idea of somebody fearing him.
But he now saw Leia's fear for the obstacle that it was. After all, he knew from his own Master that one needed to foster trust when turning another to the Dark Side. Yet he also knew himself incapable of manipulating Leia as Sidious had manipulated Skywalker.
Nobody had ever accused Vader of being a subtle man.
Moreover, he now also knew that she couldn't be threatened into joining him. If she got the barest inkling that he was coercing her in any way, he had no doubt that she'd resist him out of spite alone. Even if joining him was unquestionably in her interests.
In other words, if Leia was to join him, it would only be on her own terms. That he'd ever thought otherwise had been desperate folly.
It was therefore incumbent upon him to try and undo some of the damage he'd unwittingly done to his prospects. The true reason, he now saw, why he'd needed to free himself of the suit. It was not his human face that haunted her dreams.
Perhaps Leia would never come to care for him as a daughter cared for a father. But, failing that, he could certainly make himself trustworthy. Reliable. A bulwark in the face of adversity.
He would have to make his intentions plain, however. Make Leia see that he was, if nothing else, an honest man. When the time was right.
And so Vader meditated, and tried to figure out just when exactly that was.
I present Darth Vader: the most awkward Sith Lord.
In the end, Vader never did comm her, and she only saw him again when his week of recovery was over. It was, she realized, the first time that she'd seen him standing up without the suit.
He made an impressive figure, she could admit: tall, handsome, clean-shaven, and with a full head of hair. Physically, there was nothing to tie him to the Vader of old.
But his gait - sure-footed, purposeful, commanding - was exactly the same.
Franca trailed behind him, her much shorter legs and bulky frame failing to match his pace.
"Leia," he said, with a nod of his head.
She nodded back, then turned to Doctor Franca, who had finally caught up to them. "Thank you for your help, Doctor."
"Oh, it was my pleasure," said the doctor, beaming at them both. "Do be careful, dears. I'd be dreadfully put out if I heard that all of my hard work had gone to waste."
Leia's gaze flickered to Vader, who was giving Franca the stink eye. Thinking of ways to kill the doctor without setting off any of her various booby traps, most likely. For the likes of him, those like Franca were to be dispatched once they'd outlived their usefulness - loose ends in need of tying.
Leia would be damned if she'd allow it to happen on her watch.
"Shall we leave, Lord Vader?" said Leia, her tone sharp.
After another beat of glaring at Franca, he replied, "Very well," and made his way onto their shuttle.
Once he was out of sight, she turned back to Franca. "I'll make sure he doesn't blow up the station before we enter hyperspace."
"That's very thoughtful of you, dear," said the doctor sweetly. "But I think he understands that it would be against his interests to murder me."
Leia gave the other woman she small smile. "I guess this makes us even," she said.
"Indeed," Franca confirmed. "But do feel free to come visit sometime, dear. We'll have tea."
"If I have the time."
Leia very much doubted that she'd ever have the time.
As it happened, Vader did not attempt to blow up Franca's station, which left the two of them in silence for several minutes.
Once they were in hyperspace, however, Vader turned to her and said, "I wish to discuss something with you."
She swiveled the copilot's chair in order to face him. He looked grimly determined, and she felt her anxiety spike. "Well, it's not like I have anything else to do."
Vader looked vaguely...nervous? Yes, that was definitely it. "I want to make my intentions plain," he said. "So that there are no misunderstandings between us."
He was clearly waiting for a response, so she nodded for him to continue.
He crossed his arms over his chest, his shoulders tense. "Before I begin, I want to make this clear: I needn't have gone to these lengths in order to find the location of your base, or gain intelligence about the inner workings of the Alliance. The former could've been achieved just as readily by allowing you to escape and placing a tracking device on your getaway ship. The latter, by having a far less conspicuous ISB agent act as an informant."
It made sense, but Leia still frowned. "Alright," she said, carefully. "Then why are you here?"
"Because," he began, tensing even further, "I wish to convince you to join me."
It was then that Leia understood. As she'd predicted, Vader had taken her words to heart. And he had chosen the only path that had even the remotest possibility of success.
But playing his hand so openly seemed to serve no purpose. "And you're telling me this...why?"
The tension was finally leaving his body, which in turn eased some of Leia's anxieties. Vader was far less dangerous when he was calm. "Because I know that you won't even consider my offer unless I prove myself to be trustworthy first."
"Trustworthy..." It was not a word that she'd ever thought to associate with Vader, of all people. "I've heard rumors that you use your own men as shields in battle."
"I do," he said, not batting an eye. "Rarely. If it proves strategically necessary,"
Outrage caused her voice to rise in volume. "Because their lives are worth less than yours?"
"Yes, from a strategic point of view. Which is the only one that matters in battle."
He said it as though it was perfectly reasonable; a given, like taking stock of the weather. "They're human beings, not holochess pieces," she said, voice thick with disgust.
"That doesn't stop you and your comrades from killing them," he noted.
She shook her head. "It's not the same."
"Is it not?" he asked. "The bulk of the Imperial military is made up of enlistees, not conscripts. And even conscripts are quickly filtered out if they lack the will to fight. So every one of the soldiers who served with me ultimately made the conscious decision to join us, knowing that their lives would be on the line. Knowing the price of victory." His expression hardened, "Your precious Republic, I'll remind you, was not so considerate, employing hundreds of millions of clones who never had a choice in the matter."
"Under the auspices of Chancellor Palpatine," she snapped.
"With nigh-unanimous support from the Senate," he said, coldly. "And the Jedi."
Leia felt disgust and frustration churning in her gut. "You just have a rationalization for everything, don't you?"
The hardness left his face, replaced with a sardonic half-smile. "I apologize if my lack of tongue-tied deference to your supreme moral wisdom is a disappointment, Your Highness."
He was outright goading her now, she knew, and she'd be damned if she allowed her temper to get the better of her. But it wasn't easy to keep it under control when he was so relentlessly insufferable. "How can you be so callous? These people have friends and families who love them!"
The smile fell away. "And nothing is stopping them from choosing to become freighter pilots or clerks. Do the rumors mention me using civilians in this manner?"
"...No," she conceded. Oh, Vader had certainly killed his fair share of civilians, just not for that particular reason. But Vader being a war criminal wasn't news, and it wasn't relevant to whether or not he could be trusted as an ally.
He would face justice for everything he'd done, one day. Leia would make sure of it.
His gaze caught her own in that way that always unnerved her. "Think of me as a monster if you wish - I won't dispute it. However," his eyes were very blue, and very clear, and altogether too human, "I will never lie to you, Leia. Nor will I manipulate you, mislead you, or tell you half-truths. Ever."
For some reason she couldn't quite name, she believed him. She found herself reminded once more of some creature from folklore, who fed on sentients but would always tell the truth if you managed to ensnare it.
The question was: could she stop Vader from feeding on sentients?
Swallowing hard, she said, "If you really want my trust, then you'd better not pull any of that other crap while you're by my side. No choking people, no human shields, no torture."
"I'd deduced as much myself," he said, with another crooked smile. "Unless you instruct me otherwise, of course. You're now the one who's 'holding my leash', as it were."
Let it never be said that Vader lacked self-awareness.
She let out a shaky sigh. It seemed very daunting, all of a sudden, to have that kind of responsibility. Like she had personal control of some horrific weapon of mass destruction.
But she'd chosen this of her own volition, and would therefore have to live with the burden. "We understand each other, then."
She stood and left the cockpit.
Silence was something that Vader usually appreciated. It gave him time to meditate, and had been a fairly rare occurrence during his years of relentless service to the Empire.
Alas, it appeared he had become used to a certain pace of activity in his daily life, and several days of silence had left him...restless. He'd hoped to get something of a respite by talking with Leia. However, the silence had returned the moment that their brief exchange was over.
As had the restlessness.
He lingered by the door of the cabin for an absurdly long time before finally stepping through. Once he saw Leia absorbed in a datapad on the sofa, however, he found himself at a total loss for what to say.
He must've lost track of time, because eventually the Princess said, "Is there something else you'd like to discuss?"
Vader felt heat rush to his face. "...No," he admitted, trying to keep his embarrassment from coloring his voice. It wasn't something he'd had to worry about for years; the vocoder had modulated his tone without any conscious effort on his part.
"Then...could you please stop staring at me?"
He exited swiftly to the engine room. One could always find something to do in an engine room.
There were no droids on board, so he turned his attention to the ship itself. He'd already modified the ship's transmitter, of course, but any standardized model could do with a suite of improvements.
He decided to start with the sub-light engines, which were currently dormant, and quickly found a number of ways to increase their efficiency. It took him about five hours.
They had another three hours to go.
He returned to the cabin to find Leia lying back on the sofa, awake but clearly lost in thought. It didn't take her long to notice him, though.
Sitting up, she said, "Are you sure there isn't something you want to talk about?"
He walked up to the sofa to sit beside her, and leaned back against the wall. A deep fatigue settled over his body. "Would you tell me of Alderaan?"
He could sense her discomfort, her confusion, but still she said, "Sure. Why not."
She told him then of snow-capped mountain peaks, with lush valleys filled to bursting with wildflowers. How she'd love to pick them as a child, fashioning them into garlands and bracelets, pressing them between the pages of the old paper books she'd brought with her from the royal library. She told him of spring thunderstorms, where she'd gone out into the pouring rain to catch the raindrops on her tongue. How her aunts would scold her for getting her nice clean dresses completely drenched and covered in mud.
He listened silently, letting her smooth contralto voice wash over him.
Soon enough, he was asleep.
"Give me your lightsaber," Leia said, holding out her hand expectantly.
Vader glared, but didn't protest, unclipping the weapon from his belt and handing it over to her. She had no doubt that he'd be able to retrieve it with ease so long as it wasn't properly secured, but it was a necessary gesture all the same.
She was at once relieved and anxious now that they were finally arriving at the base on Yavin 4. Relieved, because she would no longer have to deal with the near-painful awkwardness of being alone with Vader. Anxious, because she was taking a huge risk by bringing Vader here.
Vader had been silent since she'd transmitted the security codes that would give her safe passage to land, his mouth a tight line. She hoped desperately that this wouldn't prove to be a mistake.
Still, her gut told her it was the right decision. Or perhaps it was the Force.
She wasn't sure she cared which.
The base was bustling with activity when they arrived, but Leia was still whisked away to Mon Mothma's private office with surprising speed for a debriefing, Vader in tow.
A few of the personnel they passed gave him curious looks, yet none seemed to recognize him. Which she supposed was a good thing, although she couldn't quite shake the feeling that she was leading a nexu straight into a herd of nerfs.
Mon embraced her once they entered her office, easing Leia's nerves just a fraction. "Leia," she said, once she'd pulled pack. "I'm so very glad that you've returned to us."
"No more glad than I am to have returned," Leia said, smiling a little stiffly. There was a growing pit of dread in her stomach. "My father isn't here?" she asked. Surely, he would've been present if he had been.
Mon's face was always carefully controlled, but Leia could see the edges of sorrow around her mouth and eyes. "You should have a seat, I think."
Both of them did so, with Mothma taking her customary place behind her desk. Leia already knew what she was preparing herself to say, though a part of her refused to believe it.
At length, Mothma finally said, "I'm so sorry, Leia, but...both of your parents were executed a week ago."
She allowed the shock and sadness to wash over her, before quashing it mercilessly behind a wall in her mind. On some level, she was sure that she'd already known. Back on their way to Franca, when she'd dreamed of Vader's torture and spent hours retching. The nightmare hadn't been enough to illicit such a reaction on its own.
She must've sensed them both die, and simply been too much of a coward to admit it.
Still, there was no time to be spared for sorrow. "Then we shall make sure to honor their memories by finishing what they started," she said firmly.
"Yes," said Mon, gravely. Belatedly, her gaze shifted to Vader, who had sat down without Leia noticing, and her face registered a moment of genuine shock.
"Mothma," said Vader, by way of greeting, eschewing the senatorial honorific. From their earlier conversations, Leia had no doubt that he was fully behind the Imperial edict to abolish the Senate.
"...Master Skywalker," said Mon, at length. "I'm glad to see that you're alive."
Vader smirked mirthlessly. "Your gladness will be brief, I assure you."
Skywalker. The name was familiar. "Senator Mothma," said Leia, using her contempt for Vader to quash the grief attempting to claw its way up her throat. "This is Darth Vader. After discovering that he is my biological father, he has decided to defect. He agreed to receive medical treatment before accompanying me here." The words came surprisingly easily.
"...I see," said Mon, after a very long pause. To Vader, she said: "That certainly explains how you survived the Jedi Purge." The expression on her face was the closest thing to hatred Leia had ever seen on the older woman, and it was subsumed mere moments later behind a mask of calm. Her focus returned to Leia. "Since you brought him here, I assume you have reason to believe his betrayal of the Empire is sincere. Even so, you have put me in an exceedingly difficult position."
"I know," said Leia. "But he's the only reason that Alderaan wasn't obliterated. And why the Death Star is currently out of commission."
"So our intelligence was accurate," said Mon. "That does alter circumstances considerably. Still, I will need some time to consider what to do next."
Leia picked up her carrier bag and pulled out Vader's lightsaber, holding it out to Mon. "Vader gave this to me willingly."
She took the weapon gingerly. "Given your extraordinary abilities, Lord Vader, I hope you won't oppose any measures I take to keep this weapon secure."
"I am at your mercy, Senator." There was a mocking air to the words, but Leia still knew them to be sincere. Leia didn't doubt his ability to do considerable damage without the laser sword, but it certainly enhanced his destructive capabilities. Without it, they'd be able to subdue him much more quickly, should he go on a rampage.
Mon let out a sigh. "I must ask you to keep Vader's true identity classified for now. There are many here who hate him too much to care for any utility he may provide - no matter how great."
"And they would act against your orders, since you have such shoddy discipline," Vader noted dryly.
Mothma didn't take the bait. "The desire for justice can drive even the most disciplined soldier to act rashly, Lord Vader. As I recall, there were several incidents in the Clone War when even the clones took matters into their own hands. And one could never accuse them of lacking discipline." She quirked a brow. "The campaign on Umbara comes to mind."
The tension in the room, already high to begin with, ramped up considerably. Vader's glare was icy. "I am no Pong Krell," he said.
"No," Mon agreed, airily. "After all, he didn't hide his betrayal behind a mask for twenty years."
Leia stood abruptly. "Vader and I will take our leave for now, Senator. Feel free to summon us whenever you wish." She glared down at Vader.
He rolled his eyes, but still stood up to follow her.
Leia's distress was heavy in the Force as she led the two of them out of Mothma's office. Vader wasn't entirely pleased at the news of the Viceroy's execution himself, as it deprived him of the opportunity to interrogate the traitor personally. But he could tell that Leia was devastated.
He felt as though he should say something comforting to her, but nothing came to mind. She was certainly aware that he had planned to kill the man himself, after all. She would find his sentiments laughable at best.
"Anakin Skywalker," she said, cutting through his thoughts. "I've heard the pilots talking about you. You're something of a legend for the ones who lived through the Clone Wars."
"That name no longer holds any meaning for me," he said, hoping that she wouldn't linger on the matter.
"I couldn't care less about what meaning it has to you," Leia said, voice flat. "I just want to know if there's a risk of any of them recognizing you, like Mon did."
"It's unlikely," he said. Any footage they might have seen of him would've been purged from the Holonet years ago. Mothma, in contrast, had known him personally. Not well, admittedly - but politicians were generally good at recalling faces.
She led them the rest of the way in silence, giving Vader a chance to take in some of the base's layout. Back in Mothma's office, it had been ever-so-tempting to retrieve his lightsaber with the Force and lop the traitor's head clean from her shoulders. He could probably use it to kill off a substantial number of rebels before they managed to take him down.
But it would've ruined his plans for Leia. Perhaps, once he'd convinced her to join him, they would do it together.
"Stay here for now," Leia finally said, upon leading him to an empty set of quarters. "I'll come get you when we're called."
"I'm surprised you think I can be left alone without supervision, Your Highness."
"You're not a child, and I need some time to myself. I trust that you'll behave yourself."
And so there he was, alone, sensing her anguish but helpless to do anything about it.
If she embraced the Dark Side, she could channel such feeling into power - and use that power to take her revenge - rather than languishing in her pain. But she was nowhere near ready to hear him out on the matter just yet.
But one day, she would be. He just needed to be patient.
And Vader could be patient, when it was necessary.
After a shower and a brief bout of meditation, he and Leia were back in Mothma's office. The red-haired former Senator had fully regained her composure.
"Your father informed us that the Death Star plans were on their way, not long before he was arrested. They've yet to arrive, however." She turned impassive eyes to Vader. "Did you hear anything about this matter before you defected?"
"No," Vader said.
"I'm fairly sure we left the Death Star before my father sent that transmission," Leia said.
Mothma sighed. "I see."
From behind them, Vader heard the sound of the door sliding open, and then: "Pardon the lateness, ma'am. I was on patrol."
Vader stiffened at the sound of that all-too-familiar voice, and, when he looked back, was greeted by the equally familiar visage of an aging clone. It was not just any clone, however; Vader would've recognized this particular clone even if he were blind. "Rex," he said, with an air of condemnation.
"It's good to see you too, General." said Rex, smiling wryly. He inclined his head to Mon Mothma and Leia in turn as he took a seat beside Vader. "Senator, Your Highness."
"Thank you for joining us, Captain Rex," said Mothma. She turned her impassive gaze to Vader. "Given your past collaboration, Lord Vader, I felt his input would be valuable."
He glared at her, wanting nothing more than to crush her windpipe. She had intended this to be an ambush from the very beginning!
"For the sake of transparency," Leia began, cutting through Vader's mounting rage and replacing it with cold dread, "you should know that Lord Vader is my biological father." Though her face was as blank as Mothma's, Vader could sense Leia's discomfort spike upon sharing that information for a second time.
Rex blinked. "Well then," he said. "Looks like Wolffe owes me a thousand credits."
Vader turned his glare on the clone. "You had a betting pool?"
"Of course we did," said Rex, unapologetic. He sighed wistfully. "It's a pity Fives isn't here. He would'a cleaned out a lot of pockets."
Vader tried to quash the answering twinge of sadness at the thought of his fallen comrade. There was no use for sentimentality in this den of traitors.
Mon Mothma cleared her throat gently. "If I may ask, Captain: do you think Lord Vader can be trusted, provisionally or otherwise?"
Rex looked from Vader to Leia, frowning slightly. "Well, I never would'a guessed he'd go all Dooku on us."
Vader bristled at the comparison, but held his tongue.
"That said - I don't see him betraying the Princess, if she really is his child." His frown deepened. "Though how confident I am of that comes down to what he did to Commander Tano."
Vader made an involuntary choking sound.
Mothma nodded thoughtfully. "Four years ago, Ahsoka Tano went missing in action after an encounter with you on the planet Malachor." She looked Vader straight in the eye. "Did you kill her, Lord Vader?"
He almost lied, because of how greatly he detested the truth - detested what it revealed about his convictions. But he knew all too well that both Leia and Rex would see through any obfuscations.
In any case, he couldn't afford to undermine what little trust he'd managed to build with his daughter, and so he ground out, "Ahsoka Tano is neutralized, but alive."
A long pause, and then: "...Carbonite, sir?"
Damn him. "Yes," Vader growled.
The room's other occupants radiated varying degrees of relief and joy at the revelation. Including Leia.
Leia knew Ahsoka and Rex. It was like the Force was laughing at him.
Mothma cut through his increasingly hysterical train of thought. "In that case, I propose you return her to us as a sign of good faith."
No. No, he wasn't ready for that. This was too much to ask. He didn't owe these traitors anything.
"Very well," he said, when he caught sight of Leia's hopeful eyes.
Mothma nodded. "Leia and Captain Rex will accompany you. We shall keep this mission on a need-to-know basis only, and leave as soon as possible."
"But what if the Death Star plans arrive while we're away?" Leia asked.
"You know I value your leadership, Leia," Mothma replied. "But you can do more for our cause by retrieving Ahsoka. We were dealt a heavy blow the day we lost her."
Leia looked as though she was going to argue more, but apparently thought better of it. "In that case, we'll go make preparations."
She stood to leave, and Vader followed suit.
"Off to rescue Commander Tano," said Rex, falling in beside him as they walked. "It's just like old times."
Vader refused to give him the satisfaction of a response.
A shortish chapter, but I like to think it's a substantive one. Sorry for the delay.
"I need to organize a ship," Rex had said, a few minutes after their meeting was over. "You two'll have a few hours to get ready." His gaze had then lingered on Vader meaningfully, which Vader had met with a glare.
Leia wasn't used to seeing Vader so obviously out of his depth. She'd deduced that Rex must've been one of the clones under his command during the Clone Wars, but couldn't imagine more than that. The casual ease that Rex displayed around the Sith Lord was oddly unsettling. That he seemed genuinely glad to see his former ally was utterly beyond her comprehension.
Vader, at least, didn't share his sentiments, as was evidenced by the way Vader trailed sullenly behind her.
In truth, she was glad for the silence, though a tumult of fresh questions were starting to nag at her insistently. And all the while, there was the little voice in her head reminding her that her parents were dead. In light of that, the intrusive doubts were almost welcome.
More insistent still was the hunger nagging at her belly; she couldn't remember the last time she'd eaten.
As she and Vader parted ways, silence unbroken, she vowed to get herself under control before they departed.
Vader was pulled from his meditation by a chime at the entrance to his quarters. It was Leia, he knew; he'd sensed her approaching.
"Enter," he called, unfolding his legs and getting to his feet. There was a crick in his lower back, and he winced slightly in pain - glad that Leia's evident hesitation had meant she wasn't present to see it.
After so many years, he'd become used to a very specific kind of pain. But his suit had never allowed for him to develop aches in his back. It was the first time Vader could recall actually feeling his age.
The door slid open to reveal the Princess, face schooled into impassivity. "I came here to ask you a question," she said, without preamble.
"It must be pressing indeed, for you to willingly subject yourself to my presence," he noted dryly.
She didn't take the bait he'd thrown her, choosing instead to cross her arms and walk past him. Her body radiated tension. It was clear that he had perhaps been a little too accurate in his needling.
"Did you agree with the decision to destroy Alderaan?" Leia asked, her tone clipped. She was still facing away from him.
Of course, it had been only a matter of time before she brought that up again. "I didn't agree with the construction of the Death Star to begin with," Vader said. And it was true: the Death Star had been nothing short of an abomination.
He couldn't see her face, but her frown emanated through the Force. "Then why didn't you do something about it earlier?" She huffed out a breath. "About Tarkin earlier?"
It took a moment for him to collect his thoughts. "It was a matter that required patience. Tarkin had always held particular influence with the Emperor, and that influence had only grown with time. Though he and I worked well together, I perceived in him a certain...deficit."
"You mean that he was a sociopath?" said Leia, dryly.
"I wouldn't go that far," Vader replied. "His downfall was more due to a narrowness of mind than a shallowness of affect. I knew that he would outlive his usefulness in time." A small smile tugged at his lips; this was an opportunity for instruction. "You see, Tarkin fundamentally misunderstood the nature of fear. It's an emotion that can indeed induce weakness and docility, but - if properly managed - it can also be an immense source of strength. You already do this instinctively, Leia, when you channel your fear into anger." Vader's smile faded. "And, as you yourself pointed out: destroying Alderaan would have galvanized the Rebellion. Indeed, it would have likely led to mass defections from within the Empire. Tarkin thought his success in fighting pirates gave him insight into the nature of all beings. That farmers and laborers would respond to fear in the same manner as the criminals he vanquished." Vader paused to let the words sink in. "He was mistaken."
"And yet the Emperor seemed to agree with him," Leia pointed out. "Since he gave the order to destroy Alderaan."
Vader snorted. "Tarkin was acting entirely of his own volition. While my Master would have no qualms destroying a heavily populated world, he would not have done so just yet. And likely would've avoided the Core. It is his greatest source of genuine support, after all."
"Which means..." There was a sharp intake of breath. "Tarkin was planning to leverage his control of the Death Star to usurp the Emperor!" Of course Leia had managed to piece it all together. Pride welled in his chest.
"Yes," Vader said.
"And you would've let him destroy Alderaan, because it would reveal his treason. You were waiting for him to implicate himself before you killed him!"
"Yes," said Vader, once more.
"You would have sacrificed billions of innocent lives for a petty power play," she spat, a sneer in her voice.
"All such maneuvers seem petty from the outside." Vader took no offense at her judgment. Her single-minded lack of perspective was something he was getting used to. "But you do not yet understand the power of the Force, or the foresight that it can provide to those who master it. Those billions would have been a necessary sacrifice to save trillions."
"That sounds like the rationalization of a coward to me."
"I am many things, Leia." He quirked a brow that she couldn't see. "But a coward has never been one of them."
There was a very long pause, tension stretching out between them. At length, Leia turned around and looked up at him. Her mouth was pressed in a tight, thin line. Finally, she said, "If you truly believe what you say - that saving Alderaan has led to trillions of deaths in the future - then why did you listen when I asked for your help?"
He considered his answer carefully. There was the pretty-sounding rationalization, which would conveniently divert attention away from his own weakness. And then there was the truth.
He had sworn to only tell her the truth. "The potential for future calamity was not a factor in that decision," he admitted, a little stiffly.
"Just like the billions of lives on Alderaan weren't," she said, eyeing him coldly.
He held her gaze. "If I had allowed Tarkin to go through with his plans, I would have lost you forever. One way or another."
"That was a foolish gamble," she said. "It's unlikely that I'll ever join you."
"I was aware of that, as well."
Leia snorted incredulously. "You can't mean to imply that you care for me, Lord Vader."
He didn't answer that. Couldn't. It was only with great effort that he managed to say: "I owed it to your mother."
At last, Leia paused. "You mean my biological mother," she said, voice soft.
"Truthfully, I'm surprised you've never asked about her." It had been at once a frustration and a relief, to be spared from speaking of Padme. He had no desire to divulge the details of Padme's fate, yet Leia's lack of curiosity both baffled and galled him.
Leia's pause was longer this time. "I have some memories of her, I think. Of her being...sad." She shook her head lightly, as if to clear it. "No, more than that - I remember despair, and wanting so badly to make her stop hurting. And I guess there's a part of me that's afraid to find out why somebody so kind and beautiful was so...broken."
The words hit Vader like a physical blow, knocking the wind from him. No doubt, she'd already surmised some measure of the truth on her own. Such an acute sensitivity to the Force, that she'd sensed her mother's emotions from the womb, would allow for nothing less.
Perhaps Leia was right; perhaps he was a coward. Because confessing the truth of how thoroughly he'd failed Padme was not something he could bear. Not yet. "I will tell you of it in the future, if you wish," he said. "But...I am not yet ready."
Leia sighed, hugging herself. It was a purely unconscious gesture - so unlike her practiced political persona. Under other circumstances, Vader would've counted it a victory. "You loved her," she said. It wasn't a question, but the surprise in her voice still stung.
"I suppose you thought me incapable of such an emotion," he said, unable to keep the words from sounding bitter.
Leia's hands fell to her sides, clenched into fists, and the Force spoke of too many emotions for him to parse them all.
"I got what I came for," she said tightly, before the silence stretching between them could become too unbearably awkward. "I'm sure you have hyperspace coordinates to prepare."
It occurred to him as she left that he still hadn't told her Padme's name.
Later, they met Rex together in the docking bay, both of them visibly tense. Leia didn't regret confronting Vader over his complicity in the Death Star, though. She'd needed to know that he at least had moral qualms on the matter before she could move forward.
And he had, in his own twisted way. Which she supposed was better than nothing.
Vader scowled darkly when he caught sight of the ship that Rex had procured for their use. "This is the best the Rebellion has to offer?"
Rex shrugged, remorseless. "I was thinking of asking General Syndulla if she'd lend us the Ghost, but she'd recognize you for sure. Ahsoka carried around one of the holocrons you made back in the day. Showed it to the whole crew. So, this is the next best thing available."
Pain flashed briefly over Vader's face, reminding Leia of how he'd looked when she'd revealed the memories she had of her mother. But he mastered himself far more quickly this time. "I will pilot, in any case."
"Obviously," said Rex. "I picked one that could take a lot of punishment, knowing how your landings usually go."
"My landings are fine," Vader snapped. It was almost petulant in tone, and Leia got the distinct impression that this had been a longstanding point of contention between them. It was surreal.
Leia sighed, a headache starting to pound behind her eyes. "Can we please just get a move-on? Save the bickering for hyperspace."
Vader huffed, but ascended the ramp without further comment.
"Being with the Imperial Navy's gotten him spoiled," Rex noted, melancholy and fond.
The headache spread upward, threatening to turn into a migraine. "If only that were the worst of it, Captain."
With that, she made her way up the ramp, and Rex followed closely behind.
Leia was sitting with Rex in the cabin. Vader meanwhile was in cockpit, dealing with getting them into hyperspace. Truthfully, she was more than happy to have a reprieve from the Sith Lord. Though Rex was providing her with a different sort of vexation.
"He says he's gotten better with his landings," Rex said, "but I'm not convinced. He's a hell of a pilot, mind, but mark my words - this ship'll need a full detail once he's through with it."
Leia let out a harsh breath. Rex had been doing this for several minutes, now: throwing out little anecdotes about his exploits with Vader during the Clone Wars. Making light chit-chat about the war-criminal monster who she had the misfortune to call her biological father.
She didn't know why it bothered her so much, if she was being honest. But it did.
"I don't get it," she said, once she couldn't hold it in any longer.
"Pardon, your Highness?"
"Didn't he betray you?" Leia asked, just barely keeping her voice from rising. "How can you be so- so-" She groped for the word, unaccustomed to being so inarticulate. "So nonchalant? Talking about him as though he's one of your old war buddies!"
Rex sighed, sadness passing over his eyes. "If you wanna get technical about it, the betrayal was a mutual thing." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I can rattle off platitudes about how I fought for the Republic, but it was never really true. I fought for my brothers. My comrades. And after I saw how the Empire used and discarded us clones, I couldn't fight for it anymore. Maybe I didn't realize it at the time, but that meant that I betrayed the General."
"You thought he was dead," Leia pointed out.
"The outcome's the same," Rex said, shrugging. "Fact is, we're not enemies anymore. Getting hung up on things that can't be changed is pointless when there's a war to be fought. Bad for morale."
Leia had rarely met clones. Even so, their consummate professionalism shouldn't have surprised her. "He's still your enemy, Captain."
Rex quirked a white brow at her. "Not so long as you're still on our side, I don't think." He smiled. "And especially not once we have Commander Tano back. No way he'll leave if both of you are in the Alliance."
Leia let out a strained sound of amusement. "As opposed to freezing us both in carbonite when we refuse to see things his way."
Rex' smile turned wistful. "From what I can see, the General's still the General - just with most of the heart stripped away. War can do that to a man, whether he calls himself a Jedi or a Sith or a regular old soldier. I could already see how much the fighting had affected him, toward the end. Made him more willing than ever to get his hands dirty. Losing Senator Amidala must'a just finished what the Clone Wars started."
Leia was struck by the name that she'd heard her parents mention so fondly. Padme Amidala: a champion of democracy and one of the founding members of the Alliance. And apparently, the woman that Darth Vader had loved.
Leia's biological mother. Beautiful and kind and so very sad.
"Soldiers get used to a certain way of living," Rex continued. "Tell themselves that it's normal. But sometimes, all it takes is a reminder of how things can be different to turn that all around. It even happened to some of us clones, during the war. And we were born to fight."
Leia actually laughed, then. "So all I need to do is give Vader a hug and he'll, what? See the error of his ways? Never betray me? I find that a little hard to believe, Captain."
Rex grinned sheepishly. "Honestly, your Highness? I don't even think you'll need to go so far as to hug him. If I know the General at all - and I think I do, even after everything - then just making sure you don't get yourself killed will keep him distracted from any other plans. Indefinitely."
"I refer you again to the carbonite," she replied, dryly. "Or maybe just a cushy prison, if he's feeling generous."
"Maybe you're right," Rex conceded. "But I think it's too late for that. He's gotten attached."
Leia bristled, trying to keep her emotions from getting the better of her. "He was apparently pretty attached to the first Fulcrum, and that didn't stop him from imprisoning her for years." She huffed. "And besides - he's only attached to the power he thinks I have, and to the idea of getting to rule the Empire after he's converted me to his miserable religion."
"Maybe you're right about that too," said Rex, just as Leia realized that she'd revealed entirely too much. "Reckon he'd want you on the throne, though, if you're anything like your mother. Politics would drive him crazy. And as for Commander Tano..." He let out a sigh. "Freezing somebody in carbonite is the only sure-fire way to hide their lifesigns from sensors without killin' 'em. It was the strategy he used when we had a mission to infiltrate the Citadel, back in the day. Figure he did it to the Commander because he wanted to make sure that the Emperor wouldn't find out she was still alive."
Leia repressed a shudder. The Citadel was infamous for being impregnable, and Vader was infamous for his single-minded tenacity. Both of these things had apparently held true during the Clone Wars. The thought of being imprisoned in a cold shell of carbonite, not quite dead, yet certainly not alive, was one of the most horrifying things she could imagine. That Vader had willingly undergone the process himself was a disturbing confirmation of the lengths he'd go to achieve his ends.
She decided to change the subject.: "...You really think that Padme Amidala was my mother?"
Rex gave her an avuncular smile. "It's not even a question, your Highness."
Leia couldn't wrap her head around it. The senator heralded as the greatest champion of democracy, in a romantic relationship with Darth Vader? He may have gone by a different name at the time, but Leia had serious trouble imagining that a person could change so much, so quickly. There must have been the seeds of what would later become Vader in the man called Anakin Skywalker, and a person as astute as Padme Amidala must have seen them.
"So...she and Vader were close?" she asked, not sure what she wanted the answer to be.
His smile turned into a grin. "There's a reason why we had a betting pool. Neither of them hid it all that well."
Leia nodded, mouth tightening. She supposed that was better than being born as the result of some tryst. Or something more sinister than a tryst. Yet it called into question either the judgment or the integrity of a woman who she'd admired for almost her entire life.
The woman who had given Leia her oldest memories, it turned out. Was it any wonder that Amidala had been broken, by the end of the Clone Wars? Had she seen the man she loved turn into a monster before her very eyes? Watched the father of her child tearing down everything she'd worked to build over the course of a lifetime?
Had there really been no warning of what he would become?
"We will be arriving in twelve hours," Vader announced, startling Leia from her thoughts.
"You still haven't told us where we're headed to, General," said Rex.
Vader said nothing for a moment, which compelled Leia to look up at his face. He was glaring down at Rex. "Our destination is Mustafar," he said, at length.
Leia's stomach dipped in sudden fear.
Rex remained unfazed. "Bit risky, to stow her away at your main residence."
"Which is precisely why it was the best location," Vader replied, tightly. "My master would expect such a failure to be shrouded in subterfuge."
"Typical," Leia muttered, half to herself. "Only you would be so bold."
"That's the General for you," Rex agreed. "So, what's the plan?"
Vader crossed his arms over his chest. "I will pose as a bounty hunter, and you two as my quarry. As I have had such mercenaries bring prisoners to Mustafar ahead of my arrival before, it should raise no suspicion."
"Assuming nobody's caught onto your betrayal yet," said Leia.
"It's highly unlikely," said Vader. A small smirk stretched across his mouth, making him look even younger than usual. Leia might've even called the expression roguish, had she seen it on anyone else. "And in the event that we encounter any resistance, it shall pose no threat to us. So long as you remain by my side."
It was no idle boast, Leia knew. Yet it did nothing to ease the growing pit in her stomach.
Wordlessly, she got to her feet and made her way to the cockpit.
"She's on edge," Rex noted, once the Princess had left them. "I don't think she's dealing so well with the news of what happened to her parents."
Vader almost corrected the clone on calling those traitorous impostors her parents, but managed to restrain himself. "You will tell me what you were discussing before I arrived."
"Sir, yes sir," said Rex, quirking a brow sardonically. "Her Highness was just asking me some questions."
"About Anakin Skywalker?" Vader said, voice low and dangerous.
Rex shook his head. "She doesn't seem all that curious about you, actually. Seemed upset that I was telling her stories from the Clone Wars." He sighed. "What'd you do to make her hate you so much, General?"
It should have pleased him, to hear that Leia put no stock in a dead man. But he knew it was because of the disdain she held for his present self. That he was an improvement over a failure like Skywalker made no difference to her.
"That is none of your concern," Vader snapped. "And I am no 'general'. You shall address me by the proper title."
The expression on Rex' face was akin to a parent appeasing a temperamental child. "As you wish, Lord Vader. I meant no disrespect."
Vader stood there for a moment, torn between punishing the clone for his insolence and demanding answers as to why he'd betrayed the Empire. But neither would bring him any satisfaction.
This...discomfort...had no doubt been Mothma's reason for insisting that Rex accompany them. A test, perhaps, to see if he could restrain himself.
He wouldn't give her the satisfaction.
"I shall speak to Leia," Vader said.
She was sitting in the pilot's seat when he returned, staring out into the whorls of hyperspace. Her emotions were a tangled mess in the Force, writhing like a serpent.
"What do you want?" she asked flatly.
"Rex has the impression that you have been unbalanced by the deaths of Queen Breha and Viceroy Organa." He didn't have the stomach to call them her 'parents'.
"He's mistaken," Leia said, tone icy. "I won't allow my personal feelings to interfere with the outcome of our mission."
The way she said the words reminded him so much of Padme that he was left winded. He remembered, then, how Padme had always thrown herself headlong into some crusade whenever something was upsetting her.
It had easily been one of her most frustrating habits. And it was no less infuriating to see it replicated so exactly in their daughter.
Because he knew where it ended: a reckless abandon, all other considerations subsumed behind an obsessive goal. In this state, Leia would no doubt make decisions without a single consideration for her own survival.
It made her dangerous. Both to her enemies and to herself.
"You haven't allowed yourself to mourn," he said.
"I don't have the time for such self-indulgence," snapped Leia. "The Empire -" there was a flare of outrage in the Force, "- your Empire, orphans countless children on a daily basis. Do you think that they have the luxury of wallowing in self-pity as they desperately try to get enough food to eat?" Her grip tightened on the armrests of her chair. "I owe those orphans a just Galaxy. Because, unlike them, I've never had to worry about starvation."
"You are not an orphan," Vader said, sharply.
"I am, in every way that matters," replied Leia. "Unless I'm confused, and Bail Organa was the one who tortured me for information, and you were the one who read me bedtime stories."
It was a low blow, and it struck true. He was momentarily rendered speechless by the sudden, acute sense of loss. The injustice of it all: that he had not been the one to watch her grow. That she had been stolen and twisted and turned into an enemy that he had been obliged to harm. "If I had known-"
She cut him off. "What? You would have spared me?" She whirled the chair around to glare at him. "If that's the case, then you have even less integrity than I thought."
He was reminded of someone else, just then: a boy, just on the cusp of manhood, lashing out in grief at an absent master. A master who had only acted according to his own flawed training. But still, the boy had raged and cursed. Even knowing full well that the only one who had failed his mother was himself.
And now here he was, faced once more with the culmination of all his failures. His own child, experiencing a pain that he understood all too well, and yet too alienated from him to accept any of the comfort he could muster. Paltry and clumsy though it was.
"I have no integrity," he said plainly. The fact that he was cooperating with the Alliance was proof enough of that. "So if you need to insult me in order to avoid confronting your feelings, I suggest you find another line of attack. Perhaps another reminder that I didn't have the chance to raise you myself?"
Leia's eyes burned with nothing less than loathing, even as a few tears managed to escape from them. "I wish it had been you, instead of them," she hissed, voice full of venom.
Alas, he found that he rather disliked how much she hated him. A weakness, he knew, for her hatred would prove to be an invaluable part of turning her. He should embrace it, twisting it to his own ends. And yet, her scorn still burned at his insides - the way that Mustafar's lava had burned away his flesh.
"I know," he said, once he was certain he could keep his voice from cracking. "And I understand."
Indeed, he understood all too well. What was done could not be undone, after all. And he had hurt Leia in a way that could not be forgotten, let alone forgiven.
By the way her face twisted, he could tell that it wasn't what she wanted him to say. Perhaps she'd been hoping for him to play the role of her callous enemy, instead - to mock her despair, proclaiming that those who'd raised her had gotten precisely what they deserved. To be a vessel into which she could empty her rage; a villainous monster composed of naught but the sum of his crimes. An effigy, rather than a man, who she could excoriate without any guilt.
"Don't," she said roughly, as more tears slipped down her cheeks.
He walked towards her, fighting to keep his gaze steady. "Do you regret your insistence that I discard my old suit?" he asked. "Would it be easier now, if I still wore it?"
"Shut up," she said, without as much fire. "Don't pretend like you wouldn't have killed them both yourself the second you had the chance." She let out a bitter laugh. "For the crime of taking me in and loving me, I guess. Would you have been happier if I'd wound up in an Imperial orphanage?"
"They knew exactly who you were," he spat, composure failing him. "Yet they hid you from me. Dangled you in front of me for years while allowing me to think you were dead."
She sniffed. "So, between hunting down Jedi to slaughter and subjugating entire species into slavery, you'd have found the time to tuck me into bed?"
"I suppose it doesn't occur to you," he ground out, "that knowing of your existence would have changed my priorities."
Her tone turned nasty, and it was with a sneer that she said, "I find that hard to believe."
"You shouldn't," he said, sharply. "It is only for your sake that I'm not currently hunting down and destroying every last piece of rebel scum in the Galaxy."
"Because you're trying to convince me to help you usurp the Emperor!" she yelled, standing suddenly. Her entire body trembled with rage and anguish. "Because you want to use the power you believe me to have! Not because you give a damn about me!" She took in a deep, shuddering breath. "But they loved me! And I loved them! And now they're gone!" She whirled away from him, then, hugging herself as she doubled over with a strangled sob.
Her despair hit him as a physical blow, leaving him winded.
"Leia..." he began, trying to find something - anything - to say.
"You wanted me to mourn?" she said, voice strained and wounded. "You have your wish, Lord Vader. Now get the hell away from me."
He was struck by a sudden impulse to embrace her - to cradle her in his arms and allow her to weep and rage into his chest. But he knew that she would push him away. Knew that she would be disgusted by his proximity. All he would do was cause her more pain.
Turning away from her, he did as she'd commanded.
I apologize for the long delay. I have every intention of seeing this fic through to the end.
Leia spent a very long time alone in the cockpit, crying until her eyes began to hurt. It was like a dam had broken within her, and there was nothing she could do to stem the torrent that came forth but ride it out.
She didn't exactly feel better once it was over, but she did feel a little more grounded. Which she supposed was something. She forced herself to go back to the cabin, where she found Rex and Vader discussing the strategy they'd employ upon landing.
For all the open hostility that Vader had shown to Rex since they'd been reunited in Mon Mothma's office, there was no hint of it now. Indeed, had Leia not known them, she could've easily taken them for any two career soldiers engrossed in the finer points of an upcoming operation.
The spell was broken, however, when they noticed that she'd joined them.
"I'll take over in the cockpit," said Rex, standing. It was accepted safety protocol to have at least one person in the cockpit at any time during a long hyperspace journey, in the event that anything should go amiss. Given how few people actually stuck to this protocol, however, Leia suspected that Rex was just using it as an excuse to escape the near-palpable awkwardness that descended between herself and Vader. It wasn't like she could blame him.
She chose to sit directly across from Vader, because doing anything else would've felt like surrender.
Neither of them spoke.
She hadn't realized that she'd fallen asleep until she was awoken by a dream, the vivid details of it fading as soon as groggy awareness returned to her. Her neck was wedged against the edge of the sofa, already starting to ache; she leaned forward, using the heels of her hands to rub her eyes, and discovered that her back was aching too.
"We will be arriving within the hour," said Vader, who was still sitting in the same place, reading a datapad.
She'd need some caf and analgesics before they landed.
Standing on slightly wobbly legs, she went the lavatory, then set about her other tasks on autopilot. The dream kept slipping further and further away from her, no matter how she tried to grasp at it. Like the eels in the mountain streams that she'd played in as a child.
The only thing she was certain of was that it had involved Ahsoka.
She'd made two cups of caf without even realizing it, and debated going to the cockpit to give one of them to Rex. But she knew, somehow, that she hadn't made it for him. So she handed it to Vader instead, who took it gingerly after setting down his datapad, then sat back down across from him.
Leia finished hers quickly. She'd never taken pleasure in caf the way that her father had, with his specialized roasts from all over the Galaxy. For her, it had always been a matter of practicality, helped along with sweeteners and creamers. The ship had neither on-hand, so she settled for downing the bitter liquid as fast as she could.
Vader was still looking down at his with a bemused expression when she was done, apparently lost in thought.
"I suppose it's been a while since you've had any," she said, putting the mug on the floor and reaching for the small canteen of water that was strapped to the belt of her jumpsuit. She needed to wash the taste from her mouth.
"Twenty years," he replied, before he finally took a sip. He swallowed visibly, grimaced, then followed her example by downing the entire mug.
She handed him the canteen when he was done, which he accepted quickly and drank from in great gulps. It was empty when he gave it back. She wouldn't need to refill it before they landed, though, since she'd be playing the part of a prisoner.
The dream, for all that its details had escaped her grasp, had left her with several questions lingering in her mind. Having nothing better to do, Leia decided that she'd indulge her curiosity.
"Why did you freeze Ahsoka in carbonite instead of just killing her?" she asked.
Vader didn't answer for a several long moments, to the point that Leia thought he was ignoring her. She was just about to tell him off for such pettiness, when he finally spoke. "I foresaw that she might be of use to me. Had I not used the carbonite, my Master would have realized that she was still alive in short order."
So Rex had been right, after a fashion.
Since she'd already started with this line of questioning, Leia supposed that she may as well continue. "Who was she to you?" Rex's anecdotes had made it clear that Ahsoka and Vader had been close - as comrades, rather than lovers. But Leia had a feeling there was more to it than that.
"...She was Skywalker's apprentice," Vader said.
Leia felt a sudden, unexpected flare of annoyance. "Has nobody ever told you that it's obnoxious to speak of yourself in the third person? You're not some Hutt crime lord with delusions of grandeur."
"You deliberately mistake my meaning," he said, glaring at her.
Leia met his glare, unflinching. "If I am your daughter, then she was your apprentice. If this is your way of denying that fact, then it's below you." She crossed her arms over her chest. "Call yourself whatever you wish - I couldn't care less. But I honestly expected better from you than this pathetic attempt to distance yourself from the realities of the past." And it was true: she had come to respect Vader's self-awareness and candor, despite herself. He had his rationalizations, to be sure - but he'd never used them to try and deflect responsibility away from his own actions.
She wasn't sure who Vader was trying to protect with his disavowal of his identity as Anakin Skywalker. Whether it was some way to distance his present self from past shame, or to shield his past self from his present crimes, or some twisted combination of both. In truth, she didn't even care which was the case. She just knew that it made her blood boil.
"Anakin Skywalker is dead," he grit out, and Leia felt gooseflesh prickling across her skin. A warning. "I killed him."
She sneered, using the wash of disdain to quash the fear that squirmed to life in her belly. "If only I could so easily hide from the past by changing my name and claiming some kind of metaphysical suicide," Leia said, her voice like ice. "Is this another tenet of your religion that I can look forward to embracing when you finally convince me that it isn't an evil, loathsome cult?"
"You know not of what you speak," he said, more softly, and some warmth returned to the cabin.
"Maybe not," she said. "But I want to make one thing very clear, Lord Vader: your personal identity issues mean nothing to me. I have no reason to believe that a man named Anakin Skywalker would be any more or less contemptible than the man named Darth Vader. So all you do when you speak of your own past as if it belongs to another is make me question your sanity. And then I begin to think that I've thrown in my lot with a madman, which makes me question the wisdom of relying on you for anything. Religious instruction or otherwise."
Vader was silent for several long, tense moments, a scowl twisting his handsome face into something entirely unpleasant. She found herself wondering just how often he'd worn that expression under the mask. And also what he'd look like if he actually smiled. Not a smirk, or one of the bitter, empty imitations he sometimes wore. But a true, genuine smile.
He'd shine as brightly as the sun, she was sure. The thought made her glad to have never witnessed it.
"I may well be mad," he said at last, his hands relaxing out of the fists they'd made. "It is in the very nature of madness to believe oneself sane."
"How comforting," said Leia, flatly.
"I will not offer you empty reassurances," Vader replied. "Our destinies are intertwined. Neither of us can escape that now - for good or ill."
With a sigh, Leia stood and turned away from him. "Let's go rescue your apprentice from the prison you made for her, then."
Their descent to the planet's surface went off without a hitch, which was only to be expected when they had an insider like Vader to help them. All of his security codes were up-to-date, after all.
Leia could admit that it was something of a nice change, given the risk and toil involved in acquiring what often turned out to be unreliable codes. She wondered how long they'd have such a trump card.
Vader had given the pseudonym "Lars Quell" over the comm, and done a surprisingly passable impression of a typical scoundrel. It was surreal to see the Sith Lord slip into an Outer Rim accent and speak with anything less than absolute formality.
"Reusing code names goes against standard protocol, sir," said Rex, once the comm channel had been closed and they'd initiated descent.
"The Empire does not employ Zygerrians," Vader replied dryly.
Leia guessed that there was a story behind the exchange, but didn't care enough to make inquiries.
Within minutes, they landed on the planet's surface.
Mustafar looked different to him.
The planet had been a birth-place, of sorts - had given him power with the reminder of all that had been stolen from him. And yet, it now seemed somehow...diminished. Like the mining planet it had once been, rather than a hellish embodiment of Vader's very existence.
They had landed only meters away from Vader's fortress. Leia was taking in the surroundings with an expression that was carefully neutral, and yet somehow still haughty. She quirked a brow at him once she was done, saying, "This is a little much, even for you."
"The aesthetic is incidental," Vader said. "Though it has proven to be an asset in the past."
"Incidental to what?" she asked, dubious, while unconsciously pulling at her bindings. Both she and Rex were wearing them in order to maintain the ruse.
"Now is not the time. If you are still curious once our task is completed, I will elaborate."
Vaneé came out to meet them, his suspicion clear in the Force despite no outward sign of it in his demeanor. A foolish potential saboteur or thief would perhaps be convinced by the appearance of Vaneé being the sole line of defense. They'd quickly discover that killing the servant proved fatal, as he was the sole being - besides Vader himself - who could deactivate the security system.
"Lord Vader is not in residence," Vaneé said, in his usual serpentine manner. "I will require confirmation that you are who you claim."
"Indeed," said Vader, before he unholstered his blaster and shot Vaneé in the head. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Neither Rex nor Leia were surprised; he'd explained the purpose of Vaneé's death while they had still been aboard the ship. But Leia still did not look pleased.
"Such is the mercy afforded to those who serve Darth Vader," she said, as Vader undid their restraints.
"I suppose you'd have found it less objectionable if you had been the one to pull the trigger," Vader retorted. "Since I know you understand its necessity."
"He's not wrong, Your Highness," said Rex, rubbing gingerly at his wrists. "There was no alternative. He recognized you the moment he saw you, and would've insisted that any mask you wore be removed."
Leia's mouth tightened, though she raised no further objections. Vader understood that her discomfort came from a misplaced sense of honor. The weight of murder hung lighter when undertaken in the heat of battle. Premeditated murder no doubt struck her as a greater evil, despite the outcome being identical either way.
Vader supposed he was fortunate that Rex had come along, if only to serve as a voice of reason in the face of Leia's stubbornness. The clone at least understood, from years of hard-won experience, that war was no place for honor.
He put the blaster back in its holster and strode toward the fortress, Leia and Rex in tow.
"Do not stray far from me," said Vader, as they moved down one of the labyrinthine corridors of his fortress. "It's easy to become lost in this place, if one is not intimately familiar with its layout."
"I'd like to say that I can't believe that you actually decided to live in a place like this," said Leia. "But I'm starting to see a pattern in your life choices."
Vader would've pointed out that he didn't actually live in the fortress, so much as use it as a base of operations for when he had to recover from a mission, or wait for a new mission to present itself. But he suspected that this would simply reinforce whatever conclusion Leia had already come to.
A conclusion which, he suspected, was entirely correct.
They continued on in tense silence, until they reached the room which housed Ahsoka Tano.
The first time Vader had faced Ahsoka on Malachor, he had actually been trying to kill her.
It hadn't taken much effort at all, really, to summon up the hatred and rage that he'd needed. With the aggression in her eyes, and the fresh weight of her betrayal, it had been all too easy.
But going through with his plans had not been the will of the Force - evident in the fact that she'd disappeared before his very eyes. One moment, he'd been fighting her, and the next she'd been gone, his lightsaber meeting empty air just as he'd started to plunge through a crumbling platform.
He'd returned to Malachor months later on a hunch, seeking to finish what he'd started. When he'd finally found her, however, she had been...unwell. Malnourished, curled in a fetal position, weeping and muttering. Ahsoka was strong, but even she could not have resisted the ravages of a Sith temple indefinitely.
It would have been one thing, to kill her in honorable combat. But to strike her down when she was in such a helpless state? Vader had found the thought of it...distasteful.
"She won't come near me," Ahsoka had said, tears running down her cheeks. "I'm tainted, like I was before. I've failed her."
"You speak of Mortis," Vader had replied. The only time Ahsoka had ever come close to touching the Dark Side had been when it was foisted upon her. True surrender required one to be wholly willing; on Mortis, she had been as one possessed by a parasite. A parasite that had ultimately killed her.
Her eyes had scrunched closed, then, her body trembling in his arms. "Please kill me, master. I'm so tired."
He could have, if she had once again been staring him down with fierce, unforgiving eyes. Swearing vengeance. But instead her eyes had been unfocused with pain and sadness, her body entirely too thin. It would have been a mercy, perhaps, to grant her request.
Vader was not a merciful man.
So he had brought her to a medical station and overseen her recovery, instead, making sure she would be strong enough to survive the process of being entombed in carbonite. He hadn't known precisely when he planned to thaw her free. For years, the vague future possibility of overthrowing his Master had crossed his mind - ephemeral and distant. And Ahsoka's fate had become another variable in that half-formed ambition. In the event that he ever did finally decide to strike down his Master, he'd once more awaken her. He would give her the opportunity to make the right choice. And in the event the she still refused him, still insisted on clinging to the ideology of the Jedi who had forsaken her - only then would he destroy her.
That had been what he'd told himself, at least, as he'd watched an attendant lead her to the platform. She'd been in much better shape than when he'd brought her in, with something of her old spark glittering in her eyes. She'd gazed up at him impassively, saying nothing.
Accepting her fate with dignity, like a true Jedi.
He'd been caught off-guard by the flare of pride in his chest, and had quashed it as he gave the order to lower her into the device. He'd struck down the attendant once the deed was done.
It had only been afterward that he'd actually looked at Ahsoka's frozen form, and seen the small, sad smile on her face. Etched there in lifeless grey relief.
And now that he was looking at it once more, he thought that it was a little knowing, as well.
"Did you know about her from the start?" he asked, and immediately felt absurd.
'Fulcrum' had certainly been a close associate of Organa's - and Leia evidently knew Ahsoka personally, if not well. The idea that Ahsoka hadn't trained Leia herself was oddly galling, if she truly had known of Leia's parentage. An emotional response, he knew, that was no less irrational than asking a lifeless hunk of carbonite a question.
He let out a harsh breath and raised his arms, using the Force to levitate the heavy gray slab out of the chamber. Rex was unphased by the display of power, naturally, but Vader noted Leia's wide eyes with some amusement. She'd been glib about the Force in the past, yet now it was clear that she'd not seen it in action very often. If at all. Too much confidence from one with so little experience.
He would correct that, in time.
Having achieved their objective of retrieving Ahsoka Tano, Leia had thought the next phase of the plan involved returning to their ship as quickly as possible. But it was becoming increasingly clear that Vader was leading them even deeper into the belly of the fortress.
"Where are we going now?" asked Leia. Her analgesics must have been wearing off, because she could feel her headache returning with a vengeance.
"There is something I must attend to before we depart," Vader replied. For a man who was levitating a slab of carbonite with his mind, he was astonishingly nonchalant. "It should not delay us for long."
"This wasn't part of the plan, sir," said Rex, though that didn't seem to bother him overly much. It was more of a neutral observation than a reprimand.
"I have altered the plan," said Vader, with finality.
Leia's head was starting to pound in earnest by the time they reached Vader's ultimate destination - some kind of control hub and a bacta tank at its center. She guessed that the bulk of Vader's sojourns at the castle involved this room. It felt like the truth, somewhere deep in her gut.
How utterly depressing.
Vader was fiddling with one of the terminals, in much the same way he'd fiddled with the terminal on the Death Star. The reminder did nothing to ease her apprehension.
Her suspicions were confirmed when Vader announced: "We have fifteen minutes to evacuate."
She swallowed her anger and allowed him to lead herself and Rex out of the castle. He'd given them enough time that they just needed to walk briskly, rather than run, but the knowledge that certain death was looming over her did nothing to help Leia's ever-worsening headache.
By the time they were back on the ship, Leia was primed for something to go horribly wrong. Rex hurried to activate the shields and get them airborne, while she finally allowed herself to turn her temper loose on Vader.
"You couldn't have told us ahead of time that you were planning to set that awful place to self-destruct!?"
"I didn't know ahead of time," said Vader. He had set Ahsoka's frozen form up against the wall of the cabin, so his arms were free to cross over his chest.
She gaped at him, temporarily speechless. Leia had worked with many impulsive people over the course of her life, but Vader put all of them to shame. She was beginning to think that, back on the Death Star, he really had chosen to help her without any forethought whatsoever. It wasn't that the man was incapable of laying out long-term plans - the Alliance knew all too well how calculating he could be - so much as he was willing to abandon them on a whim. By the way Rex had taken it all in stride, she could only conclude that this had been the case as far back as the Clone Wars.
Which was probably part of what made Vader so effective. And dangerous.
With a sigh, all the anger drained out of Leia's body, leaving nothing but the headache behind.
Vader called out to Rex: "Hover within visual range."
"Yes sir," Rex called back, and the vessel ceased moving.
Vader began to walk to the cockpit, but paused to ask, "Will you join me, Leia?"
A part of her wanted to decline. It was a petty, childish part of her, however. "Alright," she said, and followed him.
Vader still wasn't certain why he'd decided to destroy the castle. He had gone through great trials in order to secure it, after all, and it would have no doubt proven to be useful in the future - despite his temporary shift in allegiance. Still, the stray thought had come to him as they'd entered the fortress, and had coalesced into a compulsion with every subsequent step. One that he hadn't tried very hard to resist.
And, as he watched the hard-won bastion become engulfed in flames, with Leia by his side, he couldn't bring himself to feel an iota of regret.
On the one hand, Leia could appreciate the symbolic meaning behind Vader's act of vandalism. It represented his commitment to his new path as much as his abandonment of the suit had done. On the other hand, she couldn't help but wonder if they'd just put up the equivalent of a giant holoboard proclaiming that Vader had betrayed the Empire.
It had admittedly been only a matter of time before somebody in the Empire realized it. She had just hoped that it would be later, rather than sooner.
"How long before word of this gets out?" she asked, as Rex resumed their previous course.
"I imagine a report has already been dispatched," Vader replied. "Though it may take several days for it to reach the Emperor."
"Because the officers in charge will want to make sure that they can't be held responsible," Leia surmised.
"That's what happens when you make death the price for failure," said Rex.
"Every system has its strengths and weaknesses," said Vader.
Leia scoffed. "Selecting for psychopathy is not what I'd consider a 'strength'."
"It also selects for genuine competence. I can assure you that it is very easy to tell the difference."
She barely resisted the urge to roll her eyes. There were more important things to do than argue politics with a religious zealot. "I'm going to revive Ahsoka."
At once, Vader tensed. "We should wait until we return to the base."
"I'm not waiting," Leia snapped, her patience having long since worn down to nothing.
"She will be weak and disoriented after being frozen for such an extended period of time, and this vessel lacks adequate medical facilities."
"I'll activate the med-droid we brought along," said Rex, which earned him an annoyed glare from the Sith Lord. "The Commander's resilient. Not least because of your training, Lord Vader. I've no doubt she'll be fine before long."
Vader looked as though he'd just swallowed something particularly unappetizing, but he put forth no further objections.
Vader followed Leia and Rex into the cabin, watching with silent disapproval as Leia used the control panel on the side of the carbonite to initiate the unfreezing process. Within seconds, the matte grey surrounding Ahsoka's form turned molten red, beams of light shining outward from where the carbonite was starting to melt away. It was oddly beautiful, despite the circumstances. Indeed, Leia was so entranced by the spectacle that she failed to react in time, and Ahsoka's body slumped out of the carbonite shell like a sack of tubers.
It was Vader who caught her with his telekinesis, much to Leia's embarrassment. He eased her limp body onto the floor of the cabin with surprising gentleness.
With a full-body shiver, Ahsoka drew in a breath. Then her eyes fluttered open. It was clear, by the way she stared out at nothing, that she was suffering from the characteristic blindness of carbon sickness.
After another long, shaky breath, Ahsoka pushed herself up with wobbly arms, her brow-ridges drawing together. "...Master?" she asked, voice hoarse from disuse.
"No," said Vader, his entire body taut. Leia could practically feel the tension roiling off of him.
Her expression became sad; her voice, resigned. "I'm surprised you finally deigned to free yourself of the suit."
Rex spoke next, stooping down to place a hand on Ahsoka's shoulder. "That's a very long story, I imagine."
Her face brightened as much as her diminished state would allow. "Rex." She smiled weakly, covering his hand with one of her own. "I'd hug you, but my muscles aren't working so well at the moment. I knew I could count on you to still be alive."
"Us clones are tough to kill," he replied, his eyes softening.
Ahsoka's face turned in Leia's direction, despite her eyes failing to focus. "Leia?" she asked.
"It's good to see you again," Leia replied.
Ahsoka let out a sigh, releasing Rex's hand. "A long story sounds about right."
Vader's mouth had set into a hard, thin line. Without another word, he stormed his way out of the cabin.
"He's even grumpier than the last time I got thawed out of carbonite," said Ahsoka.
"He's on his best behavior," said Rex. "I think he's pleased to see you."
"'Pleased' is not the word that I would use," Ahsoka replied dryly.
Leia activated the medical droid they'd stashed in the corner of the room, which made its way almost immediately to Ahsoka. "I detect that you have acute carbon sickness," it said. "It will resolve itself in time, but you will require nutrition, hydration, and rest."
Leia located the bag of medical supplies and pulled out several pouches of liquid. They contained saline mixed with amino acids, glucose, and bacta, all specifically calibrated for Togruta biology. Rex picked Ahsoka up with some effort, as her muscles couldn't help him support her weight, and maneuvered her onto one of the cabin's couches.
"You guys came prepared," Ahsoka noted, once she was lying down on the couch. "I guess that's all part of the 'long story'."
Leia sat down on the couch across from her as the medical droid inserted the intravenous needle into one of Ahsoka's arms. "I don't know if we should tell you now or after you're feeling better," she admitted. "I still get a little dizzy when I think about it too long, and I'm not suffering from carbon sickness."
Ahsoka gave another weak smile, though her eyes remained fixed ahead of her. "Now is as good a time as any."
Rex took a seat beside Leia. "Where would you like us to start, Commander?"
"I guess the most pressing question is: why is Vader helping you?"
Leia took a deep breath, and explained.
"...I'd suspected," Ahsoka said, once Leia was finished. "I never asked Bail, though. Your position afforded you protection from the Inquisitors. I wanted it to stay that way, in case I was ever compromised."
Leia understood. Sometimes, it was just better not to know.
When she continued, Ahsoka's voice was tinged with sadness. "Bail is dead, isn't he."
"...Yes," Leia replied, her voice catching on the word. She could feel the tears bubbling once more to the surface, but quashed the impulse ruthlessly. "He and my mother were executed not long before we undertook this mission."
"I'm so sorry, Leia," Ahsoka said.
All at once, Leia's diplomatic training failed her. She didn't know what to say. Her parents had been Ahsoka's friends, after all; their deaths were far more than an 'unfortunate incident' to the older woman. But every response that came to Leia's mind felt like platitudes - empty and insincere. With a deep breath, she decided that changing the subject was the best course of action.
"The Empire has constructed a superweapon called the 'Death Star'. It was there that Vader and I discovered our...familial connection. They say it has the power to destroy planets." She swallowed. "Had Vader not interrupted Tarkin's attempt to destroy Alderaan, I have no doubt that his demonstration of the Death Star's power would've proven successful."
"We must destroy it," Ahsoka said, grimly.
Leia nodded. "My mission, before Vader captured me, was to secure the plans to the Death Star. We have reason to believe that it has a structural weakness that we can target."
"That's quite the gamble," Ahsoka noted.
"It's one that we couldn't afford not to make," Leia replied.
"The plans hadn't arrived yet, when we left," Rex interjected. "But we're primed and ready to go the moment that they do."
Leia's belly squirmed at the reminder.
Ahsoka took in a long, slow breath, let it out, and then Vader was storming back into the cabin.
"What do you want?" he demanded, indignation clear in his voice, before he stopped dead in his tracks to take in the scene before him.
Ahsoka was outwardly unfazed, although Leia thought she could detect a slight edge to her tone as she said: "Leia and Rex are under the impression that an Imperial weapon called the 'Death Star' has a structural weakness to exploit. Are they correct?"
Vader glared at her, nostrils flaring, then ground out, "They are not mistaken."
Leia started. "You knew about it?" she asked, the squirming in her belly knotting into something painful. "Does the Emperor know?"
Vader's glare remained fixed on Ahsoka. "My Master, despite his pretensions, is not omniscient. I failed to inform him of my observations."
Ahsoka turned her unfocused gaze to Vader, her expression unreadable. "So there was still some fight left in you, after everything."
Vader had said that he didn't agree with the Death Star's construction, but it had never occurred to Leia that he might have purposefully overlooked a flaw in its design. "You never asked me about the plans," she murmured, her own gaze unfocusing as she recalled the details of her interrogation. It had been...thorough, and painful. He had asked her repeatedly about the location of the Rebel Base. And yet, he had never asked about what she'd done with the Death Star plans.
"He was probably counting on the Rebellion to do his dirty work," said Ahsoka. "He would've put up a convincing front of trying to stop you. In a way that ensured that he wouldn't be on-board this 'Death Star' when you mounted your attack." She gave a sardonic little quirk of her lips. "He's never been one to hang back on the sidelines during a battle, and he is quite the accomplished pilot."
"Your carbon sickness has not diminished your wits," said Vader, tersely.
"Finding creative ways to subvert authority has always been your specialty," she replied, then returned her focus to Leia. Her accuracy in spite of her carbon blindness was eerie, despite Leia knowing full well that Togruta were capable of echolocation. "Though I wouldn't give him too much credit. I bet that he just couldn't stomach being replaced as the most dangerous weapon in the Empire's arsenal. The welfare of the Galaxy is somewhere near the bottom of his list of priorities."
Vader rolled his eyes, some of the tension leaving his body. "You know not of what you speak, little Padawan."
And just like that, Ahsoka was on the defensive. "Don't give me that poodoo, Vader. The Sith never do anything unless it can be of some benefit to themselves."
Vader smirked. "Do be advised, Leia, that Ahsoka never completed her Jedi training. She abandoned the endeavor the moment circumstances became too difficult. Yet she presumes to lecture others on the nature of selfishness."
Leia could see the words strike Ahsoka as if they were a physical blow.
"Commander Tano needs her rest," interjected Rex.
"She should have thought of that before she summoned me."
"You're right," said Ahsoka. She really did sound exhausted. "It won't happen again, Darth."
"See that it doesn't," Vader said, before returning to the cockpit.
Leia reached up to rub at her aching temples.
As of the comic Darth Vader Annual 2: Technological Terror, it's canon that Vader had a hand in ensuring that the Death Star had a weakness for the Rebels to exploit. I just extrapolated from there.
I apologize for the long delay. I was struck by a very intense hyperfixation on another sci-fantasy space opera that took up all my mental energy. But Star Wars is my forever fandom, so it was only a matter of time before I came back to this. And now I have a solid grasp on exactly where it's going. I thank you all for your patience.
Luke, Obi-Wan, and Han are coming very soon. :)
Edit: I made a pretty egregious timeline error in the original version of this chapter, which I have corrected.
A few hours had passed. Ahsoka had dozed off, and Rex had gone to join Vader in the cockpit. Leia was staring out at hyperspace, her mind whirling. Trying to stave off another bout of useless, self-indulgent grief.
Ahsoka stirred. Too soon, by Leia’s reckoning, given how much Ahsoka needed to rest. Automatically, Leia got up and went to pour Ahsoka a cup of water.
“You have questions,” Ahsoka said when Leia handed it to her, sounding exactly as tired as she looked.
Leia sighed, sitting down across from her. She supposed she’d just have to get used to Force users who could sense her emotions. “I can ask them another time, when you have more strength.”
Ahsoka took a sip from her cup, then set it down on the floor beside her. “War doesn’t always allow for ‘another time’,” she said. “I want to help you, if I can.”
Leia crossed her arms over her chest, considering how to word the question so as to not accidentally insult the older woman. "Vader doesn't lie to me," Leia said. "At least, he hasn't yet. But I'm not the kind of idiot who thinks his perspective is anything but warped. He said you were selfish because you left the Jedi Order. But...I'd like to hear your side of the story, if you're up for it."
"I'll probably never be up for it," Ahsoka admitted. "But you're right to doubt the judgment of one who's succumbed to the Dark Side, so I'll just have to suck it up." She took in a deep breath. Let it out. "About three years into the War, I was framed for a terrorist attack on the Jedi Temple. The Senate insisted that I be put on trial, and the Order expelled me in order to minimize the political fallout." She let out another breath, this one shakier than the last. "Anakin managed to find the real culprit before the trial concluded. Afterward, the Order offered to take me back."
"And you refused," guessed Leia. It's what she would've done in the same position, after all. Her father had always spoken highly of the Jedi. But it was clear now that he'd been simplifying matters because he'd still thought she was too young to appreciate the nuances. Her impressions of the Order based on her experiences with Kanan and Ezra were obviously not representative of what it had been like before the Republic fell.
"And I refused," Ahsoka confirmed. "I still believed in the Force. In the Light. But I had lost my faith in the Jedi." Her voice became quieter. "Anakin wasn’t happy with my decision, but I still thought that he understood why I did it." A sigh. "And maybe he did, for a little while. But now all that’s left is the resentment, because that's what the Dark Side does: it takes all the pettiest, most selfish parts of a person, amplifies them, and burns away everything else."
"Or maybe he was always this petty and selfish," said Leia. "Maybe he just stopped trying to hide it. Or be better."
Ahsoka shook her head. "I won't deny that Anakin was always rough around the edges. But his generosity, his compassion? Those were just as real as anything else. Anakin wasn't perfect by any measure, but he was a good man. I was proud to call him Master." She swallowed visibly. "And Vader wasn't wrong: my choice to leave the Jedi Order was ultimately a selfish one. I knew that Anakin was trapped in a system that was failing him just as much as it had failed me, but I couldn't find the patience to try and guide him to another path. I left him behind, even though I knew that I was one of the few people who might actually help him to break free."
Leia could sympathize with Ahsoka’s feelings all too well. But, she also felt very strongly that Ahsoka was wrong. With a deep breath, she said, "After my Day of Demand, my parents finally let me lead humanitarian missions. The thing is, I wasn't content to just go around helping hungry people; I wanted to prove that I was ready to join the Rebellion." And, she was ashamed to admit, get her parents' attention. "So I got the bright idea to use my humanitarian efforts as a ruse to steal imperial ships." Her belly squirmed in shame."Without consulting my parents, naturally, because they were just so busy."
"Ah," said Ahsoka. "Perfidy."
"Right," Leia confirmed. "Of course, I didn't know it was perfidy at the time. I was just a dumb, overeager kid who hadn't read the materials on wartime ethics that my parents had given me because I found them too boring. And when I returned to Alderaan, triumphant, I expected my parents to be — well, maybe a little angry, that I'd put myself in danger. But proud, as well." She let out a weak little laugh. "I don't think my parents were ever angrier at me than on that day." They'd yelled at her about all the possible consequences. About the complaints they'd already received, and the suspicion it had already brought down on the Alderaanian court. "I tried to pass the responsibility onto others. Why had none of the rebel cells I worked with said something? Weren't they the experienced soldiers? But my father pointed out that none of them were Imperially-recognized royalty that could conduct official humanitarian work in the first place."
Her parents hadn't let her go on another mission for a year after that.
"My father said that he trusted me, not long before he—" Leia cut herself off, throat clenching painfully with a sharp, sudden grief. It had been the last thing he’d ever said to her, in fact, before he’d sent her off on the mission to retrieve the Death Star plans. That there was nobody better for the mission, because he trusted her more than anyone. There was a part of her that hadn’t believed him, then. And now, that feeling had been validated; he clearly hadn’t trusted her enough to reveal who her biological parents were. Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Leia said, "But I wonder, sometimes, if my parents would still be alive if not for my carelessness back then."
"For what it’s worth," said Ahsoka. "I doubt it made a difference. Bail was a brilliant man, but there's no way he could've kept his Rebel ties under wraps indefinitely."
Leia quirked an eyebrow at Ahsoka. It was an unconscious gesture, since she knew Ahsoka couldn't see it just yet. "That goes for you, too. You said you were framed, right? Well, whoever orchestrated that was probably trying to get you out of the picture. Do you think they would've just given up if you hadn't left when you did?"
"No," Ahsoka said, her mouth twisting downward. "He wouldn't have."
“The Emperor?” Leia guessed.
Ahsoka nodded. “The Chancellor, at the time.”
“So, maybe your decision was selfish. But maybe it’s the only reason you’re alive to feel guilty in the first place.”
Ahsoka let out a rueful breath of laughter. “Bail and Breha taught you well.”
“They did,” Leia said. “Even if I didn’t always take those lessons to heart.” Of course, one of those lessons had been recognizing when somebody was no longer emotionally equiped to continue a conversation. And Ahsoka had clearly reached that point, by the way her face had become drawn with fatigue and sadness. Leia had so many more questions. About the Dark Side. About the Emperor. About Vader.
But it wouldn’t be fair to ask them now.
“Thank you,” Leia murmured.
“Any time,” Ahsoka replied.
Vader was almost thankful for Rex’s company, when the clone came to join him. If only because it provided him with a distraction from his own spiraling thoughts.
Rex sat down in the co-pilot’s chair, a thoughtful expression on his face. Vader was half expecting Rex to start talking about Ahsoka. Instead, Rex said, “You worked for the Empire for twenty years. You must’a noticed that something was off.”
Vader frowned at him, shifting minutely in his seat. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Well, for starters, I wore Stormtrooper armor a few years back,” said Rex, casually. “Do you know that it’s impossible to aim in those helmets?”
Vader was aware of the issue. “The Imperial Navy has allocated more resources to constructing weapons than manufacturing armor.” And Vader had no say in the matter.
“I’m sure that’s true,” Rex acknowledged. “But it’s not like that’s the only thing that’s strange about how the Empire’s run. Seems to me like Imperial officers get promoted due to practically everything but actual competence. And I don’t know much about what it’s like back in the Core these days, but the Empire punishes its Outer Rim territories whether they cooperate or not. Like they’re actively trying to get people riled up.” Rex frowned. “I’m a soldier. I understand better than anyone that sometimes there’s no peaceful solution. But, as far as I can tell, the Empire actively avoids any course of action that doesn’t involve as much suffering and violence as possible. Sometimes even at the expense of order.” He stroked his beard. “Frankly, it doesn’t make a lick a’ sense. Unless there’s something else going on. Something…Sith-related.”
Ah, so that was Rex's angle. Vader couldn’t help but be impressed, though he really should have expected it. Few Clone Troopers had as much experience with the Sith as Rex, and Rex had always been astute — it was what made him such an effective captain. “You’re correct,” Vader said. “The Emperor is a Sith Lord, and chiefly concerned with expanding his powers. For him, the Empire has always been a means to that end.”
Rex nodded in understanding. “Makes sense.” He quirked an eyebrow. “Does that mean you’re on board with it, being a Sith yourself?”
“I wouldn’t have turned against him if I was,” Vader said. He’d be insulted, if not for the fact that he truly had done nothing about it for the past twenty years — besides disposing of as many incompetents as possible. He wasn’t ashamed; he could see now that his acquiescence had been a necessity up to this point. Moving too soon due to outrage, and thus undermining his long-term goals, was the kind of weakness that he’d purged from himself. “The Sith are as arrogant and obsolete as the Jedi were, and shall meet the same fate. This has always been my destiny.”
There was a surge of anger and sadness in the Force. “I won’t pretend to understand why you came to hate the Jedi so much, or why you decided that every last one of ‘em needed to die. But it was an awful thing, what my brothers were forced to do. What you helped 'em to do.”
“It was awful,” Vader agreed. To say that he’d come to hate the Jedi was a mischaracterization. With few exceptions, the purge hadn’t been personal. “It was also necessary. And it makes no difference if you understand why.”
Rex let out a sigh, running a hand over his bald head. A few minutes of tense silence passed.
Eventually, Rex spoke again. “I’ve never cared much about the politics of it all,” he said, sounding calmer. “Clones were born to follow orders. To fight without worrying about the why of anything. But, after a while, most of us on the front lines learned that there was a good reason to fight the Separatists. We were proud to serve the Republic. Not because it was a democracy, but because it was the side of war that wasn’t deliberately targeting civilians.”
“Is there a point to this?” Vader asked.
“The point is: I don’t give a damn about what kind a' system is used to run the Galaxy. I only care about whether it’s being run well.” Rex looked right at Vader, eyes filled with determination. “And if you’re planning to put the Princess on the throne of the Empire, then you’ve got yourself an ally.”
That was not one of the things that Vader had expected Rex to say, and he could sense that Rex meant it. Vader was tempted to ask why, but held himself back. It didn’t matter.
Instead, he said, “Betray me, and I will make you suffer.”
Rex gave him a wry quirk of his lips. “Roger roger, sir.”
Feels good to be back in the swing of things.
Rex escorted Ahsoka to the medbay once they landed, allowing her to rest her weight on him as they walked together.
Leia and Vader were summoned to the War Room.
Mon was there, of course, standing as she usually did during briefings. But there were also two of the three resident Generals sitting on either side of her: Hera Syndulla and Davits Draven. Of the two, Hera was the one who recognized Vader. It was obvious by the look of shock on her face. Rex had mentioned that Ahsoka had shown her and the rest of her cell a ‘holocron’ of Vader’s younger self. Some kind of holographic recording, Leia surmised.
Besides those three, the room was eerily empty.
“Where’s General Dodonna?” Leia asked, taking a seat at the circular table. At first, Vader stood with his hands clasped behind his back, staring Mon down. But Leia shot him an expectant glare. With a scoff, he sat down beside her, crossing his arms over his chest.
“The Death Star plans have arrived,” Mon said. “General Dodonna is with the team in charge of analyzing the data.”
The knot of tension that had been coiled tightly within Leia since she’d sent the plans off with Artoo loosened just a little. “Finally,” she breathed.
“Lord Vader,” Mon acknowledged. “This is General Syndulla and General Draven.“ To the Generals, she said, “Vader has returned Ahsoka Tano to us, as promised. And, as I explained in our earlier briefing, he prevented the destruction of Alderaan. In light of that, I think we should hear him out.”
“One good deed doesn’t cancel out everything else that he’s done,” said Hera, glaring at Vader. Her anger had apparently superseded her shock.
“I would list his crimes,” said Draven, his clipped Core accent lending his words extra bite, “but I can scarcely think of where to begin.”
“I can think of where to begin,” said Hera. To Vader, she said: “You slaughtered an entire village of freed slaves on Ryloth. They weren’t rebels; they were just trying to live their lives in peace.”
“Yes,” Vader said, without any hint of shame. “They were witnesses to the Emperor’s Force abilities, and he ordered me to kill them in order to preserve his secret identity as Darth Sidious.”
Leia had to resist the urge to cringe. She’d known, intellectually, that Vader had murdered many civilians. But to hear him rationalize it so plainly was awful in a way that even his callousness towards his own soldiers was not. It was so unsettling that the fact that Vader had just outright admitted that the Emperor was a Sith Lord took a few moments to sink in. It seemed ridiculously obvious, in hindsight.
“So - what?" Hera demanded. "You were just following orders?”
“No,” Vader said. “I made the choice to follow orders. I am merely explaining that it was not an act of random or capricious violence.” His gaze was cold. Unwavering. “Your feelings betray you; your antipathy stems chiefly from the fact that I am ultimately the one responsible for the death of Kanan Jarrus. My other acts are of secondary concern.”
“You’re a monster,” Hera hissed.
“A useful monster,” Vader said. He uncrossed his arms and jabbed his index finger at her. “There are many Imperial defectors within your ranks, General Syndulla, and almost all of them have participated in behavior that the Alliance would classify as war crimes. Former ISB agent Kallus, for example. We worked together briefly on Lothal, and he was positively eager at the prospect of harming civilians to draw out your rebel cell. As I recall, he was also heavily involved in the scourging of Lasan.”
“That is true,” Mon interjected. “But these defectors have all agreed to stand trial once the Republic is restored. They joined us because they saw the Empire for the evil it truly is.” Her gaze was just as cold as Vader’s. “I do not get the impression that you have similar sentiments, Lord Vader.”
“I think the desire to restore the Republic is foolish,” Vader confirmed. “But the Empire as it exists now is far from optimal. The Emperor must die.”
“Why is it far from optimal?” asked Draven. “I’m sure we’d all be interested to hear your insights on the matter.”
It was plainly a test, and Leia felt a thrill of anxiety over what Vader’s answer might be.
Evidently, Vader did not share her trepidation. “When I first took my place as the Emperor’s enforcer, he advised me to use restraint — saying that he did not wish to rule over an empire of the dead. But this was not benevolence, nor was it pragmatism. Rather, it was all part of a long-term strategy. He wished to raise the hopes of those under his dominion. This helped him to secure his power, of course, but its true purpose was to maximize the impact of revealing that their hope had been a lie. That peace is a lie.”
“Are you saying that the Emperor is fomenting discontent on purpose?” Draven asked, clearly skeptical.
“He is,” Vader said. “Both within the ranks of his military and in the public at large. The purpose of the Death Star was never to enforce order, but to ignite a civil war.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Hera said. “Why would he be trying to undermine the stability of his own Empire?”
“As I said, the Emperor is a Sith Lord. I will not bore you with an extensive explanation of Force philosophy, but, in short: the Dark Side is usually fed by the user’s own emotions. The Emperor is a psychopath, however, and lacks the depth of emotion necessary to sustain such powers. As such, he has found a way to utilize the emotions of others in order to strengthen himself.”
It all suddenly clicked in Leia’s mind. “He feeds off our misery like a parasite.” It was almost fitting, that the rumors about Vader were actually true of the Emperor.
“Correct,” Vader said. “My destiny has always been the establishment of order. Of balance. As such, I cannot abide the Emperor’s ambitions. I joined the Empire to put an end to destructive conflict.”
“Let’s say that we buy all that,” said Hera. “Why now? You’ve had twenty years to realize what he’s really up to, so what changed?”
“And why join us, instead of simply usurping him from the inside?” Draven pressed.
“The Force revealed this to be the correct path,” Vader said. “Leia may elaborate on the details, if she wishes.”
Suddenly, all eyes were on Leia, and her stomach gave an uncomfortable lurch. Damn him. “If we’re to continue this discussion,” Leia said, mouth set in a grim line, “then I think it would be best for Vader to leave.” She couldn’t be truly candid while he was here.
The Generals exchanged dubious looks.
Vader rolled his eyes. “Put me in whatever passes for a brig, if it will make you feel more secure.”
“He’s more powerful than Kanan ever was,” Hera said, scowling. “I don’t think we could actually hold him anywhere, if he was really determined to escape.”
Mon looked at Leia. “Do you think he can be trusted to walk freely around the base?”
“Yes,” Leia said. She could feel that it was true. “Vader is a murderous war criminal, but he isn’t stupid. He knows that we’re the only option he has left.”
Vader smirked humorlessly. “Her Highness’ faith in me is, as always, touching.”
Mon gave a short nod. “You may leave, then, provided that you exercise discretion.”
Leia was wrong that the Alliance was Vader’s only option.
It would certainly be inconvenient if she failed to convince the Rebel leadership to let him remain as an ally, but he did have a contingency plan. It would simply undermine all the trust that he’d so carefully cultivated between Leia and himself, which was an outcome he would rather avoid.
He had nothing to gain by sabotaging the Rebels, however. Not presently, at least.
Vader’s stomach gave a loud growl, startling him out of his thoughts. It was only then that he realized just how hungry he was. He’d been subsisting off of ration paste since he’d left the suit, and didn’t know if he could even handle solid food. This was problematic, given that the Rebels were likely serving some of the local plants and animals in the mess to conserve rations. They didn’t have the reliable supply chain of the Empire to replenish such things on demand. But getting a checkup would require going to the medbay.
Ahsoka was currently in the medbay, with Rex by her side.
So, he would take the risk.
He reached out with his senses to find his way, and was struck by something else. There was somebody in the base who was strong with the Force. Untrained, or undertrained, but brimming with potential. A veritable beacon.
Leia occasionally felt that way, but it was always a momentary thing. And only ever when she was relatively relaxed. He presumed that she either had an innate talent for shielding, or else had been taught by one of her father’s associates. Perhaps even Ahsoka herself.
But this one wasn’t shielded at all.
Following the call of that radiant potential led him, conveniently, to the mess.
The Force-wielder was a slight blond-haired boy, no older than twenty. He was surrounded by a small crowd, speaking animatedly despite his obvious fatigue.
It had been a long time since Vader had bothered to try to be inconspicuous, but the method was simple enough. He grabbed a tray and utensils, then went up to the dispensary. A Twi’lek male was dishing out some kind of stew, accompanied by a green mush. It wasn’t much to look at, but it smelled appetizing enough.
“Lots of new faces today,” said the Twi’lek, in a thick Rylothi accent. “I advise you not to think too hard about the ingredients. It will taste much better that way.”
Vader gave him a nod, and proceeded to find himself a seat with a view of the boy. He took a small bite of the stew, chewing it slowly. The taste was bland, but inoffensive; exactly what Vader was hoping for.
“So that’s when we went to Alderaan to pass the plans onto Viceroy Organa,” the boy said to his audience. “But, when we got there, the planet was on serious Imperial lockdown. Artoo knew some landing codes, luckily, but I half expected them to shoot us down.” Artoo units were resourceful, indeed. One could always rely on droids. “And then it turned out that the Viceroy and Queen had been executed.” The boy let out a sigh. “So we were stuck in Aldera for a while, trying to track down a member of the Rebellion who could tell us about the base. Which isn’t easy when the entire city is swarming with Imps.”
“It wouldn’t have been easy even if the city hadn’t been swarming with Imps,” a man beside the boy groused. He was older, and his posture spoke of an affected cockiness. “It was like finding a needle in a trash compactor.”
“Anyway,” said the boy, shooting the older man a look of mild chagrin. “Ben had us go to a bunch of cantinas. He said that if there was a chance of finding Rebel agents, it would probably be there.”
The older one snorted. “Old man just wanted an excuse to get plastered.”
“He was right, though. It took us a few days, but we eventually found Cara here.” He gestured at a burly woman sitting across from him. “Of course, she didn’t trust us until we showed her the plans, but she eventually agreed to lead us to the base.”
“It definitely had nothin’ to do with her needing to get off-world to avoid local law enforcement,” said the older one.
“You’d know all about it, Solo,” Cara drawled, apparently unfazed.
The boy rubbed the back of his neck. “So yeah. Artoo didn’t have any codes that could help us leave. and we thought that getting past the blockade would be impossible. But Ben said he could figure it out if he stayed behind. I think he was planning to do one of those mind tricks, like he did when the Stormtroopers were looking for the droids.” Mind tricks? Another Jedi who’d survived the purge, perhaps. Or a charlatan posing as one. “But he promised that he’d find a way to follow us, eventually.” The boy’s tone and Force presence both indicated that he didn’t quite believe that this Ben would follow through on his promise. “And, well — here we are.”
“He also promised that I’d get paid,” said Solo, testily.
“Oh, you will,” said a dark-haired young man with a mustache who was sitting next to the boy. “We just have other priorities at the moment.” He clapped the blond one on the shoulder. “You just saved the whole damn Galaxy, Luke.”
Luke ducked his head, smiling bashfully. “I helped, Biggs. That’s all.” He pushed himself to his feet, which is when Vader saw the lightsaber strapped to his hip. A very familiar lightsaber. “Is there somewhere I can rest?”
“I’ll show you to the dorms,” said Biggs.
Vader resisted the urge to storm after them, knowing that it would cause a scene. He took a few more bites of his food - just enough to quell the pit of hunger is his stomach - before he left the mess. Somebody yelled after him about cleaning up after himself, but he ignored them.
Once more, he used Luke’s presence to guide him, and wound up in a room with several sets of bunk-beds. The single-occupancy room he’d been provided when he’d first arrived must’ve been for those of higher rank. Thankfully, Luke was the only person there, sitting down on a bottom bunk to the left of the entrance.
Vader approached him, and asked, “Where did you get that lightsaber?”
Luke looked up at him with a bemused expression. “Um, hi.”
It was ever-so-tempted to lift the boy up by his throat and demand that he not play such silly games, but Vader held himself back. “This is a matter of utmost importance,” he said.
“Well,” said Luke, running a hand through his hair. “I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you’re wondering. It was passed down to me, since it belonged to my father.”
Vader’s blood went cold. “Your...father.”
Luke nodded. “Yeah. He was a Jedi knight named Anakin Skywalker.”
Vader’s first instinct was to dismiss the claim as utter nonsense, except that the words rang with truth in the Force.
“Are you okay?” Luke asked him, sounding genuinely concerned.
Vader slumped down beside Luke on the edge of the bed, burying his face in his hands.
I present you with General Hera Syndulla: Space Mom.
It never got any easier, revealing the truth of her relationship with Vader. Mon obviously hadn’t told the two Generals, out of respect for Leia’s privacy. And Leia appreciated that. But there was a part of her that wished Mon had gone ahead and done it, just so that Leia could be spared the exercise.
Draven looked ever more thoughtful as Leia explained the revelation, and the events surrounding it. Hera looked increasingly sympathetic.
Once Leia was done, Draven said, “You utilized your leverage admirably, given the circumstances.”
Hera nodded her agreement. “Vader wasn’t the one who saved Alderaan, Leia. It was your quick thinking that saved your people.”
Leia resisted the urge to squirm in her seat. “I understand that bringing him here is problematic, to say the least. But he has information that we just can’t afford to waste.” She wanted to ask them if it bothered them, that she was related to a monster. She wanted to ask if they could ever fully trust her again. But she didn’t.
“You made the right call,” said Hera. “As much as I hate the prospect of working with him in any capacity, he’s privy to intelligence that could turn the tide of the war.”
“We can’t reveal his true identity, of course,” said Draven. “Morale is low enough as it is. I have no doubt that we’d risk a mutiny if it was widely known that he was here as anything but a prisoner.”
“And if we kept him here as a prisoner, there’s no way he’d cooperate,” said Hera.
Leia shuddered internally at the thought of Vader’s presence becoming common knowledge. There would definitely be somebody angry enough to try and kill Vader if they discovered his true identity, and she didn’t know if she could trust him to hold back if they did. She wasn’t fond of lying to her own people, but she could see the necessity in this case.
At least she knew that nobody in their right mind would guess that Vader was actually Vader just by looking at him.
Hera sighed. “And he can’t participate in any official operations. He should only act in the role of consultant.”
“He’s exceptionally skilled,” Mon pointed out.
“And completely volatile,” Hera countered. “Even if I thought he really was on our side — which I don’t — I still wouldn’t trust him not to be as careless with our people as he was with his own.”
Leia remembered what Vader had said about sacrifices on the battlefield, and how he’d veered completely off-script when they’d been on Mustafar. “Hera’s right,” she said. “He’s only here because he thinks it’s his one shot at winning me over to his side. He promised me that he wouldn’t use our soldiers as shields, or murder them for failure. But even if he held to that promise, I still think he would sacrifice them in other ways for the sake of his definition of victory. It wouldn’t even matter if he had formal command or not.”
The Alliance made sacrifices, of course, but only when its members made the conscious choice to do so. Vader considered one’s mere participation in a military organization to be tacit consent to any and all eventualities — including certain death — regardless of the actual opinions of those involved.
Mon sighed as well. “Yes, of course you’re correct.” She smiled ruefully. “I was being self-indulgent, imagining how cathartic it would be to use one of the Empire’s greatest weapons against them.”
Draven stroked his chin. “Do you suppose he’s telling the truth about the Emperor?”
“I think he is,” said Hera. “I’m no expert on the Force, but I was around Jedi for a long time. Based on what Kanan told me about the Dark Side and the Sith, his story checks out.”
Leia said, “I believe him as well.” She shifted in her seat. “Bear in mind, he doesn’t take issue with the Empire’s brutality. But his callousness is based in pragmatism — or, at least, his twisted understanding of pragmatism. All he cares about are results, and the results of some of the Empire’s policies have fallen short of his standards.”
“Yet he lacks the self-awareness to see how his own behavior fed into this alleged agenda,” Draven noted.
“He’s a walking mass of half-baked rationalizations and religious zealotry,” Leia said. “I think he’s convinced himself that everything he’s done, no matter how evil, was a necessary part of the Force’s grand cosmic plan.” She gave a small grimace. “He’s very fond of the word ‘destiny’.”
“I suppose it says something that he has such rationalizations in the first place,” said Draven.
“He’s not a psychopath,” Leia confirmed. “I can give him that much credit. Though that’s cold comfort for the loved ones of the countless people he’s murdered.” She looked at Hera. “Both directly and indirectly.”
Hera frowned. “Very indirectly, in the case of Kanan. If anything, Thrawn is the one to blame.”
“Yet he takes responsibility for it,” said Draven.
“‘Credit’ is probably the more accurate word,” said Hera, bitterly. Her expression darkened still further. “If he steps out of line…”
“We kill him,” Leia said. Something in her belly squirmed uncomfortably at the thought, but she resolutely ignored it. “I’ll do it myself, if I have to.”
The momentum of the discussion came to an abrupt slowdown, which prompted Mon to ask, “Do we have consensus regarding these conditions?”
Leia, Hera, and Draven all answered in the affirmative.
Mon stood. “In that case, you’re all dismissed for now. But you’ll need to be ready to mobilize at any time.” She looked at Leia. “I trust you will make our conditions plain to our guest.”
“Of course,” Leia said, then made her way to the door.
Hera caught up with her there. “Will you join me in my quarters? Just for a few minutes, I promise.”
Leia was anxious to track down Vader, but didn’t have the heart to refuse such a simple request.
When they arrived at Hera’s quarters, there was a teal-skinned Twi’lek woman awaiting them. The high-pitched sound of crying, and the crib beside her, made it clear that there was also a baby involved. “Thank goodness,” said the woman, when she caught sight of Hera. “He’s been getting fussy. Nothing I do seems to calm him.”
“No worries, Numa,” said Hera, walking over to the crib. “You’re off the hook for now. Zeb agreed to look after him during my next shift.”
“I will be going, then,” said Numa. She gave the baby one last stroke on his head before leaving the room.
Hera picked up the crying infant, kissed his forehead, and held him up against her shoulder, gently bouncing her body. He quieted almost immediately. “There we go,” she cooed. “See, Jacen? Mama’s here.”
Leia almost asked if it was safe to keep such a young infant on the base, but thought better of it. With a Jedi for a father and a Rebel general for a mother, this was probably the only safe place for him in the entire Galaxy.
“How old is he?” she asked instead.
Hera smiled gently. “He’s going on three months, now.”
That was insane. “And you’re already back on duty?”
“The Death Star doesn’t really leave open the option for maternity leave,” Hera noted with dry humor.
“No,” Leia agreed, her throat tightening. “I guess it doesn’t.”
Jacen made a noise of discontent, which prompted Hera to reach for the bottle inside his crib. But when she pushed the silicone nozzle against his mouth, he screwed up his little face and jerked his head away. Hera chuckled, putting the bottle back in the crib.
“It’s amazing how well they can communicate without any words,” said Hera, shifting his body so that he was now facing Leia fully, and slipping her arm beneath him in order to support his chest with her hand. Then, placing her other hand on his back to make sure he was fully secured, she began to rock him back and forth. “He’s already a little thrill-seeker. The one way he really takes after me.” Leia could see what Hera meant. His thin mop of hair had the hint of a green tint, and there was green pigmentation around his ears. But he definitely favored his father in terms of looks. “This is the closest thing he’ll get to flying for a while.”
Jacen let out a delighted squeal, his mouth spreading in a toothless smile. Leia felt something warm spreading inside her, along with a peculiar kind of melancholy.
“He’s beautiful,” Leia said, feeling suddenly as though she wanted to cry. She quashed the impulse ruthlessly.
“Do you want to hold him?”
Leia swallowed past the lump in her throat. “I wouldn’t want to interrupt.”
“Don’t be silly,” Hera said, walking over and holding him out. The moment Leia reached out to take him, though, his smile fell away, and his bottom lip began to tremble.
Hera grimaced apologetically. “I guess he just really wants some mommy time.”
Leia couldn’t decide if she was relieved or disappointed. Hera resumed her rocking, more gently this time — an action intended to soothe rather than entertain.
Once Jacen’s eyelids began to droop, Hera said, “I asked you here because I feel like there’s something you need to hear.” She looked Leia straight in the eye. “Never forget that we don’t choose our parents. You are your own person. And if Bail were here, I know that he would have nothing but pride in that person.”
“I’ll try my best to keep that in mind,” Leia said, averting her gaze as that awful lump returned to her throat.
From the way Jacen’s eyes were closed, and how his chubby little limbs were flopping around, Leia could tell he’d fallen asleep. Moving very carefully, Hera lowered him back down into the crib, then covered him with a blanket. “Another thing that I think you should know,” said Hera, straightening. “One of the people who delivered the Death Star plans is named Luke Skywalker. He has a lightsaber.”
Leia felt a jolt of shock. “Do you think it’s a coincidence?”
“It could be. But...I’m pretty sure that Vader used to go by the name Skywalker. He’s older now, but he’s definitely the same person that I saw in one of Kanan’s old training holocrons. And if there’s one thing Kanan taught me, it’s that the Force works in mysterious and sometimes frightening ways.”
Leia remembered something that Rex had said. “Didn’t the holocron belong to Ahsoka?”
Hera blinked in surprise. “Technically, yes — after Kanan gave it to her.” Her expression shuttered. “This must be hitting Ahsoka hardest of all. I accidentally walked in on her, once, when she was watching it. The look in her eyes...” Hera sighed. “You could tell that he meant the Galaxy to her.”
Leia’s mouth twisted. “Vader has much to answer for.”
Hera approached Leia and drew her in for a hug. It was a surprise, because they weren’t especially close, but Leia reciprocated. It felt good. Like, for just a moment, she was safe again.
When Hera pulled back, she said, “I won’t keep you any longer. May the Force be with you.”
Leia needed to find this Luke Skywalker; it was something that she was absolutely certain of.
Of course, there was a chance that it meant nothing. Maybe Skywalker was a common name on whichever planet Vader came from. And even if Luke was a relative, it didn’t mean he was a close relative. Maybe there was an entire clan of Skywalkers somewhere out there in the Galaxy.
The thought felt wrong, though. And she really wished it didn’t.
She started with the most obvious place: the mess. Without bothering to be discreet, she called out: “Is anyone here named Luke Skywalker?”
“He went to the dorms,” said Cara Dune, approaching Leia with her customary swagger. Leia had made it her business to know the names of all the Alderaanians in the Rebellion. “Darklighter knows which room he’s in.”
“Thank you, Cara,” said Leia, turning to leave.
Cara grabbed her by the wrist. Gently, but firmly. “Just so you know, things are heating up back home.” Leia looked back at her. Cara’s face was a mask of her usual affected nonchalance. “We’re gonna take revenge for what the Empire did the Queen and the Viceroy. Show them what us timid Alderaanians can really do when we’re pushed too far.”
The words ramped Leia’s nerves up to new heights. It was good that people were getting riled up, and it made sense. Breha and Bail had both been very popular with their people. But that kind of violent resentment could do more harm than good if it lacked direction.
And Leia knew that it would fall to her to provide that direction, even if she couldn’t take the throne in a formal capacity. The reality of it was daunting.
Right now, she could only deal with one thing at a time. “First we’ll make sure that the Empire can’t destroy any planet that becomes too unruly,” she said, extricating her wrist.
Cara gave her an unnerving smirk. “Just point me at the Imperials I need to kill, Your Highness.”
Leia gave her a jerky nod, then left the mess. She was met with another obstacle in the corridor, however.
“Hey, you!” a male voice called out to her. Leia wanted nothing more than to ignore him, but his strides were much larger than hers. Soon enough, he was standing in front of her, blocking her path. He was handsome, in a scruffy kind of way. He looked like the sort of scoundrel who would dine and dash at a cheap cantina. “You’re the girl from the message.”
Leia frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. “Which message?”
“The one you recorded on that crazy Artoo unit,” said the man. He thumped himself on the chest. “Name’s Han Solo, and I was promised payment for delivering that damn thing to Alderaan. The thing is, I already did that — plus a bunch of extra stuff that almost got me killed — and I’m still waiting for my credits. I didn’t sign up to hang around a Rebel base!”
Leia had absolutely no patience for this. “And why do you think that I have anything to do with this?”
“Because you’re clearly someone important.”
Leia scoffed at him. “Rest assured, Solo: you’ll receive your due. But your love of money is of secondary importance to the fate of the entire Galaxy, so you will have to be patient.”
With that, she shoved him out of her way, paying no heed to his outraged sputtering.
Vader didn’t know how long he sat there, precisely. After the third time asking if Vader was alright, and then if Vader would move — only to be ignored — Luke had given up and relocated to another bed. He had fallen asleep soon after.
It was not an act of trust, Vader knew, but a testament to the boy’s sheer exhaustion. His hand was curled protectively around the lightsaber at his hip in a way that confirmed he wasn’t entirely naive. Indeed, he probably hadn’t even intended to fall asleep.
It gave Vader the opportunity to study his face. The youthful, delicate features.
Leia resembled their mother far more than her brother did. And while there was much of their grandmother in Leia, she manifested far more strongly in Luke.
Suddenly, he sensed Leia approaching — as if she’d been summoned by the thought. And, sure enough, his daughter strode into the room within moments, exuding a cocktail of volatile emotions into the Force.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. The words were not delivered delicately, and yet Luke didn’t so much as stir.
“The boy is strong in the Force,” Vader said. “He is also in possession of my old lightsaber.”
“And that’s why you’re watching him sleep?”
Vader lacked the energy to roll his eyes. “He claims that the saber belonged to his father.”
Leia stiffened. “Did it?”
“Yes,” Vader said, the word rasping uncomfortably from his throat.
Leia’s emotions reached a crescendo in the Force, even as her expression became uncharacteristically blank. “Follow me to my quarters,” she said. “We need to have a private discussion.”
“I just need a moment,” Leia said, once they arrived at her quarters, before heading to the lavatory. Vader made no comment, sitting down on the edge of her sleeping berth. It didn’t take a mere moment, however, and the outpouring of anguish in the Force made it clear that she wasn’t using the lavatory for its intended purpose.
Padme had never let Anakin see her break down. Not until the very end, on Mustafar, when she’d been so desperate that she could no longer help herself. Yet he’d known when she did it, every single time, because it had felt like this.
It hadn’t been a common occurrence. He could recall only a handful of times before the pregnancy. After Onaconda Farr had betrayed her, then again after he’d been murdered. After Mina Bonteri had been murdered. After Obi-Wan had faked his death. After Satine had been murdered. And finally, after she’d witnessed Anakin nearly beat Rush Clovis to death in front of her.
During the pregnancy, though, it had happened more times than during the entire rest of the war combined. Anakin had sensed it when he’d been away in the Outer Rim Sieges, not realizing that she was pregnant. But all she’d let him see when he’d returned were beatific smiles and wistful talk of unattainable fantasies.
She’d done practically nothing but lie to him during those last few months, while expecting him to be completely open with her.
Vader let out a shaky sigh and ran a hand through his hair. He didn’t want to think about this. About her. Not now. How he’d failed to save her, then failed to bring her back, and then failed to recognize their child for who she truly was until the man who’d stolen and brainwashed her saw fit to reveal it.
Vader had the sudden impulse to reach out with the Force and open the door to the lavatory. To make it so that Leia couldn’t hide from him the way that her mother had. But he didn’t give in to it, recognizing it for the weakness it was.
Her eyes were red and puffy when she finally emerged a few minutes later.
“Is it really such a tragedy to find out that you have a twin brother?” Vader asked her, unable to keep the bitterness from coloring his tone.
She looked affronted, as if she’d expected him to completely ignore the fact that she’d just had a minor nervous breakdown. “Not all of us can take life-altering revelations in stride by chalking them up to ‘the will of the Force’.”
He wasn’t going to correct her. She didn’t know about his embarrassing little episode in the dorm, and she didn’t need to. An omission wasn’t a lie.
She sat down at the small table in the center of the room. “Senator Mothma and the Generals have agreed to let you stay, on the condition that you operate under a pseudonym, and that you only act as a consultant.”
Right to business, then. “That’s a complete waste of my talents,” Vader said, scoffing.
“It’s not your competence that’s in question, but your ethics.”
It was probably for the best, all things considered. He didn’t know if he could resist the temptation to actively sabotage any mission he was assigned to that didn’t involve the Death Star or the Emperor directly. Giving the Rebels information and advice was one thing; actively helping them follow through on their subterfuge in a manner that fell outside of his own interests was quite another.
Leia was far too observant not to notice such efforts.
There was one matter he would not compromise on, however. “I will not hide the truth from Luke. He will receive the same courtesy that I show you.”
She looked as though she wanted to object, but thought better of it. “You’re right,” she said softly. “He deserves to know the truth. We’ll meet with him together and explain the situation, as well as the need to keep your true identity a secret.”
Vader had to fight the urge to insist they do so immediately. It was clear that the boy was in no fit state to have such a conversation, and he wanted to do things right with Luke.
“So,” Leia continued, “in light of all these long-lost family members appearing out of nowhere, I feel the need to ask: do you have any other family? Parents? Siblings?”
“Just my mother,” he said tightly. “And she passed away many years ago.”
Leia frowned. “No father?”
“None that I know of.”
Leia looked as though she was deciding whether or not to follow that line of questioning further. He could sense her curiosity, but also her trepidation. And something else. Something bordering on belligerence.
“You haven’t really been trying very hard to convince me to rule the Empire with you,” she noted.
Vader felt his brows creasing into a slight frown. “I did not think the time was right.”
“Well, color me curious.” She clasped her hands together in her lap. “Let’s do a thought experiment. You’ve successfully overthrown the Emperor and taken his place. What do you do with your new-found power?”
“I never said that I wanted to take the throne for myself, Leia.”
She had no doubt picked up on the implications of those words, yet she seemed entirely unsurprised. Perhaps Rex had been discussing the matter with her, after all. “But let’s say you did. If you had absolute power over the Galaxy, how would you rule it?”
It felt like a test, though he couldn’t say for certain what precisely she was testing. “To start with, I would crush the Rebellion.”
She huffed out a sound of disdain. “And then what?”
“I would set about destroying all the criminal elements that my former Master either tolerates or actively cooperates with: the Hutts, the Black Sun, the Droid Gotra -- among others.”
At this point, with absolutely anyone else, Vader would have lost his patience. But he found himself wanting to indulge his daughter. He was curious to see where she was going with all of this. “I would reform the Imperial military so that the only means of admission and advancement was actual merit. I would give Stormtroopers decent equipment, and invest in expanding the navy.”
“To keep order from the inside, and prepare against threats from the outside.”
That certainly caught Leia’s attention. “What threats from the outside?”
“There are rapacious powers in the Unknown Regions that will inevitably turn their gaze towards the rest of the Galaxy.” Vader preempted what he knew would be her next question by saying, “I saw the results of their efforts for myself not too long ago.”
Leia lapsed into momentary silence, processing this new information. It had likely never occurred to her that there could be genuine threats to peace and security besides the Empire she so despised. Organa had certainly neglected her education in such matters, presenting the history of the Clone War in a deceptively ‘balanced’ manner.
Her line of questioning took yet another swerve. “How many times have you deliberately targeted civilians in order to achieve some strategic aim?” Her tone was neutral despite the way her emotions roiled in the Force.
“I do not keep count of such things,” Vader said. “But the self-indulgent compassion of certain Rebel elements has often made it a useful tactic to draw them out of hiding.”
Her disgust swelled. “And how many times have you doled out collective punishment in order to set an example?”
“Often enough,” Vader said.
She let out a harsh breath, crossing her arms over her chest in what she probably didn’t realize was a defensive gesture. “You understand that destroying a planet will only drive people to the Rebellion, but think that this kind of behavior is somehow different?”
“It is different.”
“You really wish to know?” Vader prompted, because he knew that she wouldn’t like the answer.
“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.”
Vader took a few moments to formulate his response. These were things he understood on an intuitive level from years of experience, but understanding wouldn’t come naturally to one such as Leia. She had been indoctrinated too thoroughly by her kidnappers. Moreover, he’d never actually articulated them to anyone before. He hadn’t needed to, when his orders were usually followed without question.
Finally, he said, “In any given population, the number of law-abiding citizens usually surpasses the number of traitors. And the law-abiding citizens are usually quite happy to cooperate with weeding out the traitors -- provided that they think it’s actually within their power to do so, and understand the consequences for failing to do so. This is why demonstrations on a local level are effective. A small community can police itself reasonably well, and demonstrating a willingness to exact collective punishment on such a scale encourages this self-correction.
“On a planetary scale, however, the logistics are completely different. What power does a farmer in a rural community have to stop traitors in the cities? Or on other continents? The connection between cause and effect is entirely lost, making the punishment appear to be an act of random, sadistic cruelty. The belief spreads that cooperation with the Empire is meaningless, since there is no reasonable or attainable way of avoiding retribution, leaving rebellion as the only logical choice.”
Leia looked, briefly, as though she wanted to vomit, but mastered herself. “And I suppose you rationalize all this as being sacrifices for the greater good.”
“It’s not a rationalization if it’s true,” Vader noted dryly.
“Let’s run another thought experiment,” Leia said, tone clipped with barely-restrained fury. “You live in a mining settlement on a planet that was integrated into the Empire a few years ago. At first, things seemed to be improving. Your family was freed from slavery. The Empire built infrastructure and provided a real administration to replace the primitive tyranny of a local warlord. But then, over time, things get even worse than they did before. Food prices are so high that the wages you earn are meaningless, but you’ll be executed if you stop working. The infrastructure that seemed like such a miracle is falling into disrepair. And the administration? Well, you have Stormtroopers coming by to use your young men and women as...entertainment. You have nobody to complain to, and -- even if you did -- such complaints would result in reprisals.
“So now you’re faced with three choices: you can enlist in the Imperial Navy, leaving your family behind to fend for themselves; you can stay and cooperate, watching as your community, and all those you cherish, slowly die out from malnourishment and disease with the slim hope that things might one day improve; or you can fight -- which may result in death, but which could also actually improve things in the immediate future.” She looked him straight in the eye, challenging. “Which path would you choose, Lord Vader?”
She framed it as a thought experiment, but Vader knew that it wasn’t a hypothetical scenario. Leia was probably recounting the circumstances that drove one or more of the Rebels on this very base to join the Alliance. “Since my hypothetical self would lack information about the broader state of the Galaxy, I would choose to fight,” Vader admitted. It wasn’t as though he didn’t understand the impulse. On the contrary: understanding the Rebels was the key to combating them efficiently. “But, as I said in the meeting, this is all part of the Emperor’s design. If I had full discretion, the incompetence and corruption that leads to such a predictable outcome would be punished far more harshly than even the Rebels.” He narrowed his eyes. “However, it’s disingenuous to act as though the people of worlds like Alderaan or Chandrila face similar hardships. For them, rebellion is a matter of pride, stubbornness, or idealism -- not desperation.”
“The Core systems prosper at the expense of the Outer Rim,” Leia said heatedly. “Those who benefit from the system have even more of a responsibility to oppose it.”
“Alternatively, they can use the official channels within the system to alleviate the suffering that they so abhor.” Pointedly, he added, “Instead of abusing them to steal equipment from the Empire.” Oh, he knew all about Leia’s little adventures with perfidy. It had been one of the main reasons why her capture had been so satisfying, before he knew her true identity. Nothing was quite so obnoxious as pampered royalty flaunting their privileges, then whining self-righteously in the Senate when it resulted in fewer humanitarian permits being issued. “How many thousands of sentients do you suppose suffered needlessly as a result of your collusion with the Rebels?”
There was outrage, of course, but guilt as well. He had clearly struck a very raw nerve. “We both know you don’t give a damn about their suffering, so spare me the faux sanctimony.”
“I have come to accept that some degree of suffering is inevitable, and that allowing oneself to dwell upon it only results in paralysis. That doesn’t mean it’s an outcome I desire.”
Leia’s face twisted into a snarl. “If not for the Empire, they wouldn’t be suffering in the first place!”
Vader couldn’t help it. He laughed. “The only reason Palpatine managed to become Chancellor is because the Senate under his predecessor refused to prevent an illegal occupation of one of their own member worlds by a corporation. That’s setting aside the state of worlds that weren’t members of the Republic. Mandalore and Carnelion IV, reduced to ash by the own internal feuding. The countless worlds choked by the criminal tyranny of the Hutts. Trillions of sentients living in deprivation, slavery, and oppression, without an Empire in sight.”
“But the Empire made it worse,” Leia insisted. “Not even you can deny that. You admit yourself that the Emperor did it on purpose.”
“The Emperor is not a god, Leia. He can’t force people to play along with his schemes. He didn’t force the Separatists to secede; he didn’t make the Hutts into criminals or the Zygerrians into slavers. I reject your assertion that the negligence he allowed to flourish has made the Galaxy worse. At most, it’s allowed for a return to the sorry state it was in before the Empire brought order.” He snorted. “And the Rebels have done nothing but play into his hands. As a prominent member of one of the oldest and most respected royal houses in the Galaxy, you could’ve leveraged your privilege to improve the lives of countless people. But I suppose that was too mundane for your tastes. Not nearly enough glory or excitement.”
She stood up sharply, glaring down at him with utmost venom. “No amount of humanitarian aid is going to free species like the Wookiees from slavery! Or stop the Empire from ravaging worlds like they did with Lothal!”
“Those species are indentured servants as a temporary punishment. They’ll become free citizens of the Empire once they’ve made up for the damage that they helped to cause.”
“The whole point is that they shouldn’t be enslaved at all!”
She was visibly shaking, now, and Vader once more sensed that thread of belligerence in the Force. It was only then that he realized what should have been all too obvious from the start.
She had been looking for an argument.
But it wouldn’t accomplish what she wanted. Leia was very much his daughter, after all, and the catharsis she sought would not be found in petty words.
“Is there some kind of gymnasium on this base?”
“Why would you ask about that now?” she demanded.
“Because you can yell and curse at me until you lose your voice, and it won’t make you feel any better.” He quirked his brows at her. “But sparring with me will, and you need to calm yourself before we speak with your brother.”
“That’s absurd,” Leia said, even as he sensed her curiosity spike.
“Why?” Vader asked.
“Because you’re Darth Vader, and I don’t even weigh 60 kilograms!”
“Not Darth,” Vader said, automatically. “Just Vader.” At her look of angry bafflement, he explained, “Darth is the title used by Sith Lords, and I no longer count myself among them.”
“Whatever,” Leia said. “My point is that you’re a very large man with cybernetic enhancements and decades of fighting experience. Sparring with you would be pointless.” She huffed. “Besides, we don’t have a gymnasium.”
Vader stood up himself. “Then we shall have to go outside. What’s your preferred weapon?”
“Have you not been listening to a word I’ve said?” Leia asked incredulously.
“Your words say one thing,” Vader said. “But your feelings say another.” He cocked his head to the side. “If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that you received at least some training in hand-to-hand combat. Not even Organa would leave the heir to the throne completely helpless. But you enjoyed that training just a little too much for his tastes, didn’t you?”
Her stricken expression told him that he was entirely correct.
Vader pressed on. “Organa could see just as plainly as I do that you are a warrior. But that is not the way of Alderaan, and he made you hide from who you truly are. Made you ashamed.”
“He showed me a different way,” Leia said, all but confirming Vader’s words. “But he never once made me feel ashamed of who I am.”
“Then spar with me and prove it,” Vader said.
Leia glowered at him, and he could sense just how badly she wanted to give in. His triumph was short-lived, however. She took in a deep breath, let it out, then said, “I have nothing to prove to you, Lord Vader. And the only thing I need before I speak to Luke Skywalker is rest.”
Skywalker. His son’s name was Luke Skywalker.
“Your quarters are the same as they were before,” Leia said. “I trust you remember how to reach them.”
The philosophy espoused by Vader in this chapter is inspired by the classical Chinese school of thought called Legalism. Though it's obviously far less nuanced than the real deal.
Next chapter we're getting two whole new POV characters: Ahsoka and Luke. I'm looking forward to writing some fresh perspectives.
A little late for the Star Wars holidays, but I'm counting it anyway!
The Clone Wars is over, and I can finally write in peace.
This chapter will contain spoilers for the finale.
The carbon sickness wasn’t the worst of it. Not by a long shot.
Physically, Ahsoka already felt better. Her vision was still slightly blurred, but it was clearing up by the minute. She could feel her strength returning to her, little by little.
And yet, every gain in that strength was another step towards the inevitable.
She had gone to visit the Bendu before she’d departed for Malachor, and the Bendu had promised her change. Death. She had taken it to be literal at the time, but now she knew better. The Ahsoka Tano who’d existed before that confrontation with Vader, before her sojourn into that World Between Worlds, was no more. She would never be the same again.
Morai had not abandoned her. That had been a lie told to her by the voice of Malachor’s temple. The Dark Side. Ahsoka could feel Morai’s presence once again. Weaker than before her ordeal on Malachor, but unmistakable, and it was a testament to what she now knew lay ahead of her.
Her heart ached under the weight of her destiny.
Rex was there to escort her to her quarters once she’d been discharged from the infirmary, though she managed to walk on her own with only minimal wobbling. She could sense a strong presence in the Force, bright and inviting in contrast to the icy foreboding that was Vader. But she just didn’t have the strength to do anything about it yet.
Once the door slid shut behind them, Ahsoka flung her arms around Rex, burying her face in his shoulder. He returned the embrace, stroking a soothing hand over her back lek. Ahsoka had to choke back the sudden, intense desire to weep.
She broke away only once she was certain that she had herself under control, walking over to the berth.
“So…” Rex said, with a strained-looking smile. “I guess that Maul was right.”
Rex was the only person she’d ever told of Maul’s warning about Anakin being groomed by Sidious. “Unfortunately,” Ahsoka confirmed. She lowered herself onto the edge of the berth as Rex leaned against the wall opposite her. The room was narrow enough that there was just under two meters of distance between them.
“Did you know, before you left for Malachor?” Rex didn’t sound angry, or even hurt.
“Yes,” Ahsoka said. “I...didn’t know how to tell you.”
He nodded. “I knew that something was off. Never would’a guessed it was this.”
“I’m sorry, Rex. You deserved to know.”
“Don’t sweat it, kid.” His eyes twinkled when he said ‘kid’, and Ahsoka felt immediately better.
They lapsed into silence for a few moments. There was so much to say. Too much. Eventually, Ahsoka settled on, “I’m impressed by how you’re able to keep your cool around him. I can barely stand to be near him.”
“Oh, there’s nothing to be impressed about. I’m just too tired of it all to be angry.” He sighed. “I mean, yeah — he’s become everything we fought against in the war. Hell, he may even be worse than Dooku. But I’ve lost so many brothers, Ahsoka. To the war. To the Empire. And the General’s my brother, too, no matter what he says. So...I want to show him that there’s a better way. Not for his sake, but for mine. If I don’t try, I know I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”
Ahsoka could feel his sadness in the Force. And, as much as she hated the prospect of shattering his hopes, it wasn’t fair to allow him to deceive himself. “There’s no coming back from the Dark Side, Rex.”
“Well, if there’s anybody who can do the impossible, it’s General Skywalker.” Rex gave her another weak smile. “Besides: he’s been trying to pick fights. I think he wants us to be angry with him.”
“The Sith thrive on conflict,” Ahsoka noted.
“I don’t know if he considers himself a Sith, anymore. Seems pretty keen on destroying ‘em, in fact.”
Ahsoka grimaced. “That doesn’t bode well.”
Rex’s eyebrows shot up. “Pardon my ignorance, but...isn’t him rejecting the Sith a good thing?”
With a sigh, Ahsoka said, “Maul became even more dangerous after he rejected the Sith and completely struck out on his own.” There was an old, familiar twist of guilt in the pit of her stomach. While she could recognize that her decision to release Maul from his confinement during the first wave of the Purge had probably been the single greatest factor in both her own and Rex’s survival, the consequences for it were still her responsibility.
Rex’s expression suggested that he was thinking along similar lines.
Ahsoka forced herself to continue. “The Sith don’t own the Dark any more than the Jedi own the Light, but that doesn’t make the Dark any less of a corrupting influence. Ventress and Krell weren’t Sith, either. Nor were any of the Inquisitors.”
“Point taken,” Rex said.
But Ahsoka wasn’t done. Rex needed to understand. “I don’t think the Vader that I met on Malachor actually cared enough about anything to do much outside of what he was told. All his little rebellions were easy to back out of. If he changed his mind about sparing me, he could’ve just left me frozen forever. And he may have had a hand in giving the Alliance a chance at destroying this ‘Death Star’, but even then — he could’ve decided to deal with any assault against it with his usual flair. But Leia forced him to commit, and I think it awakened something inside of him. Something very dangerous.”
“Ambition,” said Rex.
“Yes.” Of course Rex had noticed it as well. “You know as well as I do that Anakin never really had any serious long-term goals. He just had missions. And I think that carried over into Vader. But I sense a change in him. A...clarity, that wasn’t there before.”
“Vader wants to make the Princess into the Empress,” said Rex, by way of confirmation. “At least, I’m pretty damn sure that he does.” He rubbed the back of his head, a little too tense to be sheepish. “I may have said I’d help him do it.”
Ahsoka’s stomach gave an uncomfortable lurch. She could figure out Rex’s reasoning easily enough. Having Leia on the throne was as good as a guarantee that all the abuses perpetrated by the Empire would be done away with as swiftly as possible. There was just one hiccup. “He won’t just want her to be Empress, Rex. He’ll want to turn her to the Dark Side first.”
Rex’s face fell. “But — Leia’s his daughter.”
Her hands dug into the thin blanket covering the mattress. “Maul warned me of what was to come,” Ahsoka said softly. “And I didn’t tell the Council when I had the chance because I was convinced that he couldn’t be right — that Anakin would never succumb to the Dark Side.” She hastily wiped away the tear that managed to escape despite her best efforts to hold it back. “I won’t make that mistake again. The Dark Side is a parasite that manipulates its users into helping it spread, and Vader is no exception.”
Rex crossed his arms, frowning deeply.
“It’s not that I don’t want to have hope,” Ahsoka said, a little helplessly. “I just don’t want it to be false hope. Not after I lied to myself about Anakin for so long.”
So sad, Jedi, without your pretty lies.
Ahsoka shook her head to dispel the memory of that awful voice. In the Force, she reached out for Morai, and felt her there: a warm, reassuring anchor. A devastating reminder.
“I hear you, Ahsoka,” Rex said at last. “I do. And maybe I’m just an old fool. But I have to believe that there’s a chance.” His expression set into one of determination. “I won’t let him hurt the Princess.”
Ahsoka knew better than to underestimate the strength of Rex’s will, but she didn’t think she could stand to lose him. “He’ll kill you if you stand in his way.”
“Maybe,” said Rex, with the barest hint of a smile. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
When Luke woke up, he knew that he hadn’t slept nearly enough. But he also knew that he definitely wasn’t going to be able to fall back to sleep.
The strange man had left at some point, and Luke was relieved to find that the lightsaber was still attached to his belt. It had been foolish, he now realized, to wear it like that. On Tatooine, that kind of carelessness would’ve gotten him in real trouble. He chalked the lapse up to his sheer exhaustion.
Maybe the man was some kind of...collector? Luke pushed himself upright, feeling ashamed. He shouldn’t assume the worst of people, especially on a Rebellion base. He was probably just somebody who admired the Jedi.
Or maybe he’d known Luke’s father.
Actually, now that Luke was waking up a bit more, that last possibility seemed like the most likely one. Luke didn’t want to get his hopes up too much, but what else would explain how the man had reacted? The shopkeeper in Anchorhead had sometimes frozen up like that, when he heard a loud noise. He’d almost died a few years back in an attack by some of Jabba’s thugs, according to Uncle Owen.
Luke’s heart squeezed painfully at the thought of his aunt and uncle, but he stubbornly returned to puzzling over the strange man instead. Maybe he’d fought alongside Luke’s father and Ben in the Clone Wars. He looked a bit on the young side for it, but looks could be deceiving. Granted, on Tatooine, people usually looked older than they actually were. Like Ben, who Luke had learned was only 57.
And here came the worry over Ben. Just great.
Frustrated at himself, Luke stood up from the bed and swallowed down a sudden surge of nausea. That was just from not getting enough rest, though, and it passed quickly. He walked over to the water dispenser in the far left corner of the dorm and poured himself some into a little disposable cup.
He didn’t think he’d ever get over just how easy it was to get water now that he was off of Tatooine. He took a sip; it had a clean, sweet taste that only came from high-quality filtration. He would’ve had to pay several months’ worth of allowance to afford even a few hundred milliliters of this back home.
He refilled the cup several more times. Just because he could.
Luke was good with directions — you kinda had to be, if you grew up on a moisture farm out near the Wastes — so it was no trouble finding his way back to the hangar. It wasn’t hard to find the Falcon, either, being one of only three freighters on the entire base. Luke took notice of one of them in particular: a custom VCX-100, by his reckoning. A real beauty, especially in contrast to the shabby disrepair of the Falcon. He’d have to track down the owner at some point and pick their brain.
Speaking of disrepair: Chewie was still hard at work fixing up the ship when Luke ascended the gangplank. He gave Luke a howl, which Threepio promptly translated.
“He says that Master Solo is negotiating the terms of his payment and will be back when he is done.”
“Oh,” said Luke, an uncomfortable lump forming in his throat. “Thanks for telling me, Chewie.”
Chewie let out another series of yowls.
“He wishes to know if there is anything wrong, Master Luke.”
Luke shook his head. “I’m just tired, is all.”
So much for storing the lightsaber on the Falcon. For all Luke knew, Han would be on his merry way within hours. And then Luke would end up having to keep it with him, anyway.
He’d take Threepio and Artoo while he was at it, since it would spare him hassle down the line. They were his droids, after all.
He left Artoo with the rest of the astromechs, promising to return later to give him some proper maintenance. He didn’t see any other protocol droids around, but it would be a major inconvenience to have Threepio trailing him through the whole base.
He went up to one of the jumpsuited rebels, a middle-aged human man with dark skin and short, tightly-curled black hair.
The man looked up from the droid he was repairing when he noticed Luke’s presence. “What can I do for you, kid?” he said, giving Luke a once-over.
“I have this protocol droid,” Luke said, gesturing to Threepio.
“Hello,” said Threepio. “I am See-Threepio, human-cyborg relations.”
“And I was wondering if it was okay to leave him here, even though he’s not an astromech.”
The man shrugged. “Just power him down and stash him anywhere there’s room. We’re pretty flexible around here.” He gave Luke a wry half-smile. “Don’t have much choice in the matter.”
Luke couldn’t help but smile back. He held out his hand. “I’m Luke Skywalker, by the way.”
“Zef Zapro.” Zef stood up and straightened to his full height, which was a good ten centimetres taller than Luke. He took Luke’s hand, giving it a firm shake. “But everyone just calls me Zee.” After the handshake was done, he said, “You look like you could use some rest.”
“No kidding,” said Luke, turning to Threepio. He ignored the little pang of guilt as he powered the droid down.
After thanking Zee, he set out to find the strange man who might have known his father.
Happy late New Year, everybody!
I have not forgotten this fic and have no intention of abandoning it.
I hope you enjoy this humble offering.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Vader was awoken by a stirring in the Force.
Luke...was searching for him.
Vader had agreed to talk with Luke for the first time with Leia present, but it seemed that Luke was not the sort to wait around for others to come to him. Truthfully, given Luke’s parentage, it had been foolish to ever assume otherwise.
In order to honor his word to Leia, Vader would need to avoid the boy for now.
However, the growling of his stomach informed him that he would not be able to do so by remaining in his quarters. After taking a quick shower and changing into a fresh set of clothing—a jumpsuit that was slightly too short at the ankles and wrists—Vader headed out to the mess hall.
The server on duty this time was a pale human boy, certainly no older than Leia, who kept ducking his gaze and blushing whenever he looked at Vader’s face. Luckily, he didn’t try to make any conversation, though it was clear he was trying to work up the nerve to do so. Vader left as soon as he received his food so that the boy didn’t get the chance.
When Vader’s appearance had been restored, he hadn’t factored in the obnoxious possibility that people might find him attractive again. He did not have the patience to put up with such nonsense.
He ate the food as quickly as he could manage, before standing up and attempting to return to his quarters. However, inconveniently, the serving boy had managed to work up the spine to cut off his exit.
“Um, excuse me, uh, sir,” the boy stammered out, “but we have a policy of diners cleaning up after themselves — to make things easier on the kitchen staff.”
Vader’s first impulse was to grab the boy by the neck and toss him aside, but he valiantly quashed it. An alternative strategy was called for. Perhaps there could be a use for the boy’s attraction, after all.
Plastering a smile on his face, Vader said, “What’s your name?”
The boy swallowed. “Um. Chase, sir. Chase Wilsorr.”
“Well, Chase, you have my apologies. However, I have an extremely pressing engagement. Could I trouble you to help me out this one time?”
Chase’s luminous blush told Vader that his approach was successful. “Um, okay. But only this once.”
Reminding himself that this state of affairs was only temporary, Vader widened his smile and said, “Thank you, Chase.”
Vader finally made his escape, only to be ambushed once again about halfway back to his quarters. This time by somebody far less easily dismissed.
Luke Skywalker stood before him, determination written on his face.
The boy’s hands clenched into fists, and he took in a deep, steadying breath. Like he was bracing himself. Then, without any introductions or preambles, he asked, “Did you know my father, Anakin Skywalker?”
Vader could only stare at him.
“I think you must have known him,” Luke continued, apparently only encouraged by Vader’s reaction, “because you get weird whenever I bring him up. Did you fight with him and Ben — Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Clone Wars?”
Obi-Wan. Realization dawned on Vader like a lightsaber through the gut.
Luke’s fists loosened, and his face twisted in sudden shame. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t know me and it’s obvious this isn’t easy for you. But...you’re the one who brought up the lightsaber in the first place.”
Vader cast his senses around the corridor, and was relieved to find that nobody was within earshot. At least, not yet. He forced himself to respond, “I can answer all your questions, but only in private.”
At once, Luke’s face lit up. “Thank you, mister!”
“Follow me,” Vader said.
Leia would just have to understand.
After arriving in Vader’s quarters, Luke took a look around and said, “So you have a room all to yourself? You must be pretty important!”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Vader said. “I suggest you take a seat.”
Luke sat down at the small square table, and Vader took the seat across from him.
Vader was briefly struck by the absurdity of this whole situation. He’d never expected to have this kind of conversation even once, let alone twice.
But there was nothing for it. Delaying matters would change nothing.
“I didn’t merely know your father, Luke,” Vader said. “I am your father.”
Now it was Luke’s turn to stare at Vader. “Um…” Luke blinked, a frown creasing his brows. “That’s not really...possible.”
It was almost humorous, in an ironic sort of way. Leia, who despised him, had accepted the revelation immediately. And yet Luke, whose feelings towards him were not at all hostile, did not. Sighing, Vader said, “If you search your feelings, you will know it to be true.”
Luke shook his head. “Except Ben said my father is dead, and Ben wouldn’t lie to me.”
Vader tamped down on a sudden burst of rage. “If this ‘Ben’ is Obi-Wan, then I can assure you that he would.” Vader took in a breath. Let it out. It was perhaps only logical that Luke would rather his father still be dead than Obi-Wan be proven a liar; the boy had never known his father, while Obi-Wan was obviously a tangible source of guidance and direction. “How did he say that your father died, precisely?”
“He said—” Luke’s voice cracked, and he stopped speaking to swallow thickly. “He said that my father was killed by Darth Vader.”
“Half-truths and hyperbole,” Vader sneered. “How very typical.”
Luke was glaring at him now, his emotions an utter mess. This was not going as Vader had hoped.
Vader pinched the bridge of his nose, a headache starting to make itself known as a pounding behind his eyes. How was he going to put this in a way that didn’t just cause more confusion? “I once went by the name Anakin Skywalker, but that was a long time ago. In that sense, Anakin Skywalker is dead.”
Luke’s face fell, his confusion and disappointment coming to the fore of the maelstrom. “So then why did he say that Darth Vader killed you?”
“Because, on that day, my identity as Anakin Skywalker came to an end, and I took on the name of Vader. From his point of view, therefore, Vader did indeed kill Anakin Skywalker.” From Vader’s, as well, but that wasn’t pertinent at the moment. “However, the fact remains that I am still your father. It is in that detail that you were deceived.”
Luke stared at him once more.
Vader cleared his throat. “I understand that this is...unexpected, but it is imperative that you keep this knowledge to yourself. Up until very recently, I wielded much authority within the Empire, for which I’ve gained some notoriety. The Alliance’s leadership have thus insisted that I use a false identity in order to preserve order within their ranks.” More softly, he said, “I’m telling you this because I believe you have the right to know the truth. The whole truth. And I am placing my trust in your discretion.”
Luke nodded slowly, visibly dazed.
“There’s something else, as well,” said Vader.
“Of course there is,” Luke muttered.
Vader felt his own patience reaching its end, but held back his instinctive retort. It wasn’t the boy’s fault, after all, but Obi-Wan’s.
Carefully, Vader said, “I suppose that Obi-Wan failed to mention that you have a twin sister.”
Luke buried his face in his hands, and his body began to shake. It took a few seconds for Vader to realize that he was laughing. Vader withheld yet another biting remark, since it was clear through the Force that the laughter was born more of hysteria than amusement.
So Vader simply sat there as Luke worked it out his system.
It took a full minute for Luke to get himself under control. He straightened up and wiped tears from his eyes, taking in uneven, panting breaths. At last, he asked, “Is my sister here?”
“Yes,” Vader said. “I can take you to meet her.” Leia was probably still asleep, but he realized now that this wasn’t something that could wait. Not if he wished to salvage the situation.
“I…” Luke let out a shuddering breath. “Yeah. Okay.”
Leia was already awake before she heard the chime at her door, but only barely.
She had an...odd feeling, which was only confirmed when she opened the door to find Vader and Luke Skywalker standing before her.
With the two of them side-by-side, the resemblance between them was particularly striking. At least, in their faces. Luke Skywalker had not inherited Vader’s height.
Padme Amidala had been rather petite, Leia recalled.
With a deep sigh, she stepped aside and said, “Come in.”
She sat down at the table. Luke floundered for a few moments before settling on the berth. He couldn’t seem to keep his gaze off her, his eyes wide and expression dumbstruck. As though he didn’t quite believe she was real.
“Luke confronted me in the open,” Vader said, and Leia definitely wasn’t imagining the hint of defensiveness in his tone. “I thought it best to communicate certain details before interrupting your rest.” Vader leaned against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest. “He knows my true identity, and that I am his father. He also knows that you are his sister.”
Leia supposed she could see Vader’s reasoning. Her behavior earlier had not been the most...balanced. Getting some of the big revelations out of the way before coming to her may have indeed been for the best.
“Okay,” she said.
Vader seemed to relax a fraction, as though he’d been expecting a more dramatic reaction.
To Luke, she said, “Are you alright?”
Luke blinked somewhat dazedly. “...Yeah,” he said. “It’s just that — you’re Princess Leia Organa! From the message!” So did this mean that Luke had been travelling with Solo, and they’d both seen her recording? How many others had seen it? “You’re the whole reason that I’m here!” He shook his head in disbelief. “And you’re actually my sister?”
“I am,” she said, certain of it. Some unnamable emotion twisted up inside of her belly. “That message was intended for General Kenobi. How in the Galaxy did you get a hold of Artoo?”
“Well, I lived on a moisture farm on Tatooine. Artoo and Threepio ended up being salvaged by Jawas, and my aunt and uncle just happened to be looking to buy some droids. I...had this feeling, I think, so I convinced them to buy those particular droids.” He smiled a little shakily. “It was just a normal, boring day, until Threepio told me that Artoo was looking for Obi-Wan Kenobi, who I figured was probably a relative of Ben’s — but it turned out that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ben Kenobi were actually the same person! And then...” He trailed off, pain flashing in his eyes. “I guess...everything that Ben says about the Force is really true.” He frowned. “Does Ben know that you’re my sister? And, if he does, then why didn’t he tell me?”
“Because he does not trust in your judgment,” Vader answered, before Leia had the chance. “He believes that you are a foolish, impulsive child that is unable to handle the truth.’
Leia had to resist a flinch. For a moment, she’d become so absorbed in Luke’s presence that she’d almost forgotten that Vader was still there. She said, “If he does know—” and Leia suspected that he did “—then he probably didn’t tell you for the same reason we were separated in the first place.” She glanced darkly at Vader. “To protect us from the Empire.”
“...Right,” Luke said. “I guess that makes sense.” He didn’t sound entirely convinced, though.
“Are your aunt and uncle safe?” she asked. She suspected she already knew the answer, but it was still important to make sure.
Sure enough, his face crumpled. “The Stormtroopers came looking for the droids.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “They’re gone.”
With genuine regret, Leia said, “That’s awful. I’m so sorry to hear that, Luke.”
Vader remained resolutely silent.
Luke, at least, didn’t seem to notice. “I thought for sure I didn’t have any family left.” Tears welled up in his eyes, his bottom lip trembling. “And now…”
Leia’s heart ached for him. As loathe as she was to show vulnerability in front of Vader, she couldn’t just watch a display like this and not do anything about it. Even if Luke hadn’t been her long-lost brother. She stood up and went to the berth, sitting beside Luke, then pulled him into a hug.
Luke didn’t hesitate for a moment to bury his face in her shoulder, his tears dampening the fabric of her jumpsuit. She wondered at his ability to show his emotions so freely with someone who was essentially a stranger. Though...she also couldn’t deny that she felt a connection. As if she’d been yearning for something all her life, and had only realized it when the yearning was finally quelled.
She couldn't tell him that everything was going to be alright — not when she could barely believe it herself. But there was at least one thing that was undeniably true.
“You’re not alone,” she told him softly.
Chase Wilsorr is a canon backgound character from Empire Strikes Back who is, as of last November, canonically mlm. That is, he has has own chapter in FACPOV: ESB, where he mentions working as a kitchen boy at Yavin IV. He is shy and insecure and has failed basic training many, many times. I absolutely had to include him somehow.