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You Already Have
by Carrie Williams
 

She could still remember her first experience of him. To speak of 'seeing' him for the first time would be an inadequate way to describe the sensation of coldness that grew in her long before he set foot in the room. It felt as if every system of her body were slowing to a stop, while her senses were becoming so acute she could have named hundreds of details of her surroundings she had never noticed before, but had seen thousands of times. For all that, she hardly perceived the contingent of red-robed palace guards that preceded the absorbing darkness of the being who swept into the hallway-- whose presence, with a flawless stroke of power, instantly returned to her frozen body all the energy it had just lost in the form of searing heat that burned to the soul. It may have taken seconds, or minutes, or an eternity for him to pass from the room in all his majestic height and graceful stature; all she knew was that, when he had, the focus of her existence had changed forever. She wondered if he could tell, his masked face giving no sign, but she could not see how such a person could not. The staff of the Second Imperial Palace quickly dispersed, its members intent on fulfilling their next scheduled duties. As its newest, she broke from her trance to do the same, understanding more acutely now how intense her employer's anger must be if displeased. Her fear of his displeasure, however, was far secondary to her desire to occupy herself with his needs, and to keep the emptiness left by his absence from driving her insane.

That had been many years ago, and now she stood waiting at the edge of the landing area for another of Darth Vader's increasingly rare arrivals at his Coruscant estate. She allowed herself an inward smile at the memory, and at how each experience thereafter had only been a stronger version of all the ones before. Before the corners of her mouth could curl upward, though, she controlled her facial expression (which, many in the palace remarked when they thought no one was listening, was as unmoving as Vader's mask). She watched his angular shuttle sweep in and fold its wings upward, and felt his presence more than she felt his shuttle contact the landing pad when he touched down, perfectly as ever. As the ramp opened outward and the Dark Lord swept down it, gripping her very soul as forcefully as ever, she was quite certain that this time he looked at her immediately. She didn't ponder it long, timing her slow bow with his gaze. She fell in step behind him and the guards and walked quickly to keep up, past the rows of waiting staff in the hallway where she used to stand. She figured this visit would be short-lived; after all, Vader's new flagship, Executor, would be finished any day now. His primary reason for returning was most likely to provide himself with the opportunity for intensive treatment that only the full-scale medical facility in his Palace chambers could provide. It was those chambers where they soon arrived, all but a few of the guards and herself having been dispatched along the way. The guards took posts in a hallway covered in deep red velvet as she and Vader moved across the gleaming black marble floor of his half-circular office. As she did so, she took in the sight of the open doorway to his private rooms, impeccable through her efforts, and the closed double doors of the room that even she had never been permitted to enter. Vader moved behind his enormous desk and bank of controls and turned to her, silhouetting himself against what light of day still bathed the Coruscant cityscape visible outside the long windows. Her face remaining impassive as she focused on his mask's gleaming lenses, she listened intently to his orders, while her inner self seemed to awaken from years of sleep. Even as the familiar passion returned, however, she felt in Vader a new-found sense of urgency...or was it just that he had been gone so long this time? Wanting to pursue her mind's question further, but knowing it would be unwise, she simply answered his finished requests, "Yes, my lord," and retreated gracefully from the room. She was proud to have served him well enough to become head of the Palace staff, and knew that her apparently emotionless sense of duty had been an a factor in her ascent to her position. She supposed she was lucky in that any covert surveillance by her employer's legions had only shown him the efforts of a person who happened to excel at her position. She had heard told the fates of his military subordinates who could not or would not meet his expectations, and was often glad her own responsibilities were not so great. Then again, Darth Vader was Darth Vader, and working for him in any capacity meant that someone had to be gifted with more than luck to be in so high a place. She had often wondered what had happened to those who had "left" the Palace's service before they had a chance to achieve what she had, but as so many of them had tried to undermine her credibility, she had been relieved enough to see them go that she had not even wanted to ask questions. As long as she had been there, she had felt more secure in the knowledge that Vader was watching, rather than less, even when he was not physically present.

Was that part of why she had felt differently about him than everyone else from the start? she asked herself. Was it that she felt that she could meet Vader's expectations, and therefore not have to fear him? Or had her passion for him made her overconfident? If that had been the case, though, she might have let her vigilance slip. She knew for sure that Vader's return was not making it any easier to keep her feelings for the Dark Lord hidden; after all, she didn't have the benefit of an ebony mask obscuring her face. Even if she had, she thought, his heightened senses would likely make him aware that her feelings were growing stronger. She shivered suddenly, not knowing how he might respond, not knowing if he could feel it right now, but suspecting he did. For the first time, a trace of unease settled in her heart.

Lord Vader sat behind his impressive desk, keeping himself apprised of Rebel activity through holo-net transmissions, reviewing blueprints of his soon-to-be-ready Super Star Destroyer, and calculating battle scenario outcomes to insure a resounding Imperial victory at Yavin when the ship became ready. He allowed himself to relax his rigid posture and lean back in his chair, looking around the room and its adjoining chambers. She has kept the maintenance droids well occupied, he thought, running his gloved fingers along the edge of the polished black surface of the desk. It would be good to spend more time here, he started to muse, then stopped himself, arguing that the struggle to live should not be wasted on luxuries. The double doors of the room directly opposite caught his gaze, suddenly making him uncomfortable despite the cushioning of his chair. He stood quickly, pacing the room and resisting a sudden urge to cough. His helmeted head dipped slightly as he pressed controls on his belt and continued to pace. At least I will be able to eat a real meal for a change, Vader thought, having to concentrate in order to stop what glands remained in his mouth from watering. He felt an unusual twinge of emotion stir in him as he recalled giving her his culinary request, her intent eyes fixed upon his fa...his mask. He swatted the emotion away with his mind as most would swat a buzzing insect, berating himself for still thinking someone could see his face after all this time. At least he had finally sought revenge on the one who had injured him, but it seemed little consolation when Kenobi had disappeared and his own condition had improved none for the effort. He looked down at his chestplate's blinking indicator lights and clenched his cybernetic hands, becoming even angrier as he dwelt on the loss of his original ones. The anger fed the Dark Side as always, triggering memories of his recent battle with the Rebel pilot he had since learned was his son. He felt Luke's connection to the Force all over again, as he had that day, and thrilled to the idea that he might be able to find young Skywalker. He considered that his own son could be fighting against him right now, and would have to be plucked out from among the Rebels even while he destroyed them. It made his plans more difficult, but it also made him more determined to see the traitors vanquished. Imperceptibly, Vader's suit systems sensed his desire to take a long, deep breath and sigh, and enabled him to do so. He turned back again to the doors to his medical chamber, and admonished himself that it was no use to dwell on his condition; better to focus his anger at having failed to heal himself on a redoubled effort. Once again looking forward to removing his mask long enough to be able to savor his dinner, the anger retreated to a distance as he imagined tasting the food and drink he lifted to his mouth, setting aside the empty dishes for a healing meditation, reaching for her... The smile that Vader hadn't noticed was pulling at the scarred surface of his face vanished as he broke from his reverie, telling himself his last vision had only been prompted by his awareness of her approach. His cape swirling as he rounded his desk, he glanced at the chronometer. She lingered outside the door, and he felt her wait until seconds before the appointed time to have the guard signal her arrival. "Enter," he responded, his deep voice suddenly filling the room. She did so, carrying a tray which she placed on a table inside the door, then turning back to him to dip her head respectfully before meeting the dark eyes of his mask once again.

They held each other's gaze for a moment, then Vader spoke again. "I require nothing more." She would have turned to go, as she had many times before, but she suddenly felt unable to move. Was Vader causing it? No, I'm losing control, she told herself. I don't need him to answer that question. He has to know I feel this way, and he has never acknowledged it. What makes you think he would this time? He only wants you to serve him. He has no feelings for you. No, never, none...Just leave him... Her lips parted, as if she were about to articulate her own argument, but she could not move from Vader. As she grew impossibly cold and her chest felt as if it were being slowly crushed, she knew that in seconds it had gone too far, that she would be unable to stop whatever happened now. Each of the few mechanical breaths he took seemed to last forever. The sight of the mask from which they issued drove a knife of despair into a heart that even now still longed for its wearer.

He expected her to have something more to say: an item to report, confirmation of one of his requests, even a simple salutation to end the day, yet she stood motionless. Perhaps she was waiting for him to make any final requests he might have before retiring. He offered, "I require nothing more," yet she remained, staring at him, her only movement a small parting of her lips. His anger crawled back to the surface; she had never been anything but obedient before, why the change? He felt a pull on his inner being, and seethed at the sensation. How dare she intrude, he admonished silently. He considered that her curiosity might be getting the better of her, that like so many others, she felt that staring hard enough could expose all the secrets of his armored body. Or was it more than curiosity? How dare she, he repeated. How dare she think that is what I want. That I have room for that in my life. "Leave me," he said quietly. How dare someone ask me to be attractive to them when the body sealed in this suit is ruined and repulsive. Or does she only desire my power...but it is not hers to claim...she has not trained as I have, fought as I have, and sacrificed as I have! She has not given herself to the Dark Side. Well, if she wants a taste of my power, she shall have it! "LEAVE ME!!" Darth Vader lashed out with the Force, slamming her backwards against the wall so hard he could almost feel her bones shatter as she hit, fell against the table, and brought it and his meal crashing to the floor along with her broken body.

She could scarcely believe she was opening her eyes, but if she had any doubts, the intensely stabbing pain that tore through her was enough to convince her she was awake. Looking along the floor where her head lay and making out Vader's boots past the mess of spilled food and through the haze of her agony, she asked herself why he hadn't just killed her; it was the fate of so many of his victims, was it not? Was her waking a sign that he held a worse fate in store for her? Hot and angry tears began to trickle from her eyes as she lamented having let her emotions control her, then silently cursed Vader for his cruel rejection of the love she knew she could not have denied any longer. She tried to hate him, yet as she saw him approach her, she knew she still could not. Her anger at herself for still caring for him made her hope whatever he did next would take her life, so she would no longer have to think about him.

Vader watched as she lay motionless, at first satisfied to have quelled emotions he would rather not address. His breathing slowed as he continued to stare at her crumpled body, realizing soon enough she was alive, though injured. He could have snapped her like a twig, yet he had not killed her. Did I ever intend to? he asked. It was not as if she were a Rebel out to undercut the Empire, or one of his condescending fellow officers who obeyed him out of fear, yet held him in contempt. She was a model Imperial citizen who had served him well for years and had simply needed a reminder that her emotions had no place in her service. Why, then, had his reaction been as extreme as it was? Was his own fury as difficult to control as her emotions had been? He admonished himself for still having so much to learn about the Dark Side and the control one needed to wield its power. Then again, he had never before felt its use misplaced. He felt more angry at himself now, and moved toward her, noticing the tears that had started to fall from her face. "Get up," he said aloud in frustration, willing her to do so, more than asking it of her. She closed her eyes, crying out not only in pain, but more so in having been wounded in other ways. He knelt beside her, the armored shins of his boots punctuating the sounds of their equally labored breathing with a clack as they contacted the hard floor. She opened her eyes to look upon him, not in the victim's usual fear or defiance, but in angry acknowledgment of his rejection. The emotion that coursed between the two was something the dark man thought he had banished along with all traces of his former life. He did not want to admit he had been wrong, telling himself that his concern for her was exclusive to her value as a staff member. Desiring immediate control over the situation, and in putting the incident behind him, Vader reached for her.

As the Sith Lord kneeled in front of her, she thought it might be at an end. "Get up," he commanded, making her wish she could, at least long enough to spit on him before he dealt the final blow. As she met his cold stare with her own look of indignation, however, she somehow realized the hand he reached out toward the base of her neck would not injure her further. She shot off silent curses at his letting her live in the fleeting moment before his hand touched her. It felt as if the painful months that healing from her injuries would have taken were being compressed into a matter of seconds. The worst part was, she could not even scream, the nature of his healing, yet horrifying energy stifling her very breath. Her fractured bones healed, nerves were awakened, tissues reconnected, and bruises and swelling dissipated, and she felt it all. You wanted to feel his touch, she mentally scolded as she choked on her returning breath, now you have. Her skin still burned in every place his hand had moved to repair the damage he had caused her, the hand he now reached toward her face to wipe the last of her tears away. She felt every drop of blood flowing through her veins in that moment, but nowhere so acutely as beneath the arc his fingers traced along her face. The sleek black leather of his glove swept along her cheek and down to her jawline so gently she would have questioned whether the same person was touching her, if she hadn't been spellbound by the connection. He had no sooner removed his hand than she was helped to stand, her own hand brushing the folds of his cape and the edges of the life-support controls on his belt. He led her to the door, opening it and informing the guards that she required medical attention, and to send someone to remove the remains of his meal from the floor. She felt the familiar emptiness return when his strong arms released her body into those of the guards, but his only response was to turn and sweep to his chamber doors, which swallowed the edge of his fluttering cape as they closed behind him. After the medical droids had finished their examination and treated her for injuries that had the outward appearance of being caused by a bad fall, she was helped back to her rooms for the night's rest. She was glad the other staff members were not questioning how it had happened, but she felt sure they were wondering all the same. She fell into a deep sleep as soon as she lay down, desiring only peace from all she had been through, but mostly from the stir of emotions Vader evoked. She awoke the next day, horrified at the lateness of the hour. She burst from her quarters, seeking out the members of her staff, furious that no one, not even a droid, had awakened her. "Lord Vader departed this morning," one of them informed her before her tirade could start. "His ship was finished ahead of schedule, he wanted to take immediate command, and gave strict instructions to leave you to your rest."

Once again, she had plenty of intervening time to reflect on her encounter, and to resolve that she would rid herself of anything she might still feel towards the man. The next time he returned, she vowed, whatever power he held over her would be unable to find purchase among the craggy slope of her emotions. She would wield her own strength as well. In the days after Darth Vader had left, she had considered leaving his service altogether, but had realized there would be no other place for her. The Empire, in all the coldness she had come to realize it could possess, had given her the only life she had ever known, and a very comfortable one at that. Damned if I will let personal matters force me astray from my chosen path, she thought. She would serve Vader in an official capacity; the rest of her life would be lived with no consideration of him whatsoever. There might even be a chance at romance, if she would make room for it. It had not been easy for her to steel herself against what she had felt for the Sith and the desire she knew would try to find its way back into her soul. She had touched her face many a time where he had dried her tears, but each time she had told herself he had only done so to remove the physical evidence of emotional contact. There were times when thoughts of him were extraordinarily hard to banish; during one of the most intense, word reached her that Vader had found his son and told him of the fact. She had almost been glad for Vader, but quickly chided herself for thinking only of him. His son, Luke, would be going through ten times the agony she had; better to use her feelings to wish him strength in the face of his father's identity. Vader, a father. Vader, once a lover, even a husband. The thought would have been comforting, had she not known how easily he could forsake what he loved. No, it would not be easy to do the same to him in return, but do it she would. She turned to her work, trying once again to forget him.

Darth Vader had to consider whether or not she was a liability. For the Dark's sake, she could not control herself; it might have been simpler to dispose of her and give someone else her position, or put the droids in charge of the Palace. He felt he had struck enough fear into her heart to ensure she would not overstep her duties again, but he had to wonder.

He just didn't have to wonder this often. Why did he keep dwelling on this matter? He would not be returning to the Palace for a long time, and if he could trust her with anything, it was her ability to keep order in his absence. His skin began to crawl with anger as he went through the all too familiar argument, his suit suddenly feeling tight as he stood up and headed for his shipboard meditation chamber. Focus, that was the key, he reminded himself. He would become a master of it with the help of the Force; those who could not match his gift would bend to his will or face the consequences.

He had led the battle on Hoth. Confronted his son and told him of his ancestry in Cloud City. Now he had returned to Coruscant to more closely monitor Prince Xizor, the Falleen who had curried favor with the Emperor of late. She mentally reviewed Vader's personal history since his last departure, telling herself it was simply a list of political moves. If it was an attempt to depersonalize the arrival, she hoped it would work. He stepped off the shuttle. Her heart lurched, whether in fear or love, she wasn't certain, but she was prepared and pushed the sensation away as quickly as possible. Vader stalked toward the building more quickly than usual, which suited her, leaving her little time to dwell on his presence as she concentrated on going through the motions of his arrival. She was relieved that he dismissed the entire staff before retreating to his chambers; she would not need to be alone with him right away. She was surprised how well her efforts to block him from her mind succeeded, especially as Vader's stay wore on for much longer than usual. Sending others for all but the most essential of duties, she concerned herself with Vader's schedule only as a guide for delegating authority. She might have noticed he did not ask for her in particular on many occasions, had she not been concentrating on putting him out of her mind. One particular night, she even lingered after the evening meal with her fellow staff members. When talk turned to Xizor and a meeting he had had with the Emperor, no one had to elaborate for her to realize they were speculating on what it might mean for Vader, and all those who served him. Wary of saying too much in her presence, several people stood and turned to go, leaving her to silently affirm her own faith in Vader's power. All the feelings she had been suppressing suddenly flooded back, rendering her attempt to bring them under control useless. She would not struggle against them for long, as an aide approached her at that moment to announce, "Lord Vader wishes to see you personally."

With the last downward swipe of his lightsaber, the battle droid fell to the floor, shattered. Vader thumbed the control off, the red blade withdrew, and he hooked the weapon back in place on his belt. He strode to the door and threw it open, ordering an aide to clean up before making his way back to his private chambers. He pushed open the doors to his meditation chamber with the same force, still feeling the flow of the dark energy running through his body. I may well heal myself today, he considered. If not today, then soon. Stepping into an inner chamber, he unhooked the silver chain of his cape and laid the garment over a rail, pulling off his boots and gloves and propping them against it. He rounded a bank of controls and sat in the chair nestled between them, then sealed the inner chamber's ceiling hatch. The oxygen concentration in the room began to increase, and he reached to his chestplate and belt controls to shut down his suit's functions and open its seals. He sat back and waited for a series of metal clamps to descend from the ceiling and remove his helmet, mask, neck support, and shoulder armor, then let them ease his head back into the chair's support. Free of the desensitizing and confining armor, his skin tingled in the open air. He worked himself out of the suit, only pausing to unhook it from a number of wires and tubes that made their way into his body. He reattached the now- loose ends of these to the machinery beside him, adjusted it, and turned it on. Going through the process never failed to disgust him, but it was just as well, he thought. It would only focus him more sharply on the task at hand. Taking what shallow breaths he could manage, he let his body sink into the cushioned chair and concentrated on healing himself. Still invigorated with the dark power from his lightsaber duel, he began to take deeper and deeper breaths. He commenced another test, opening the chamber's top to expose himself to the air of the outer room, continuing to breathe. It was difficult not to allow his success to break his concentration, but he felt that recent lengthy meditation sessions had given him the discipline he needed. I will not continue to live this way, he told himself. He brought to the surface of his memory every look of contempt ever turned his way, each whisper of those who would deny him his humanity, his right to his very life itself, for relying on the armor he wore. A life whose destiny had been pursued with far greater devotion than those who would mock him. They would wish to be so easily rid of me, he seethed, but it is only I who have those powers. Only I who will bring the Rebels who challenge the Empire and stole my very son to their knees. Only I who will expose the arrogant mistakes of those officers who would believe me unfit to command them, even to exist. Only I who will convince my son to rule as my legacy, in an Empire where loyalty will not be forsaken! History and my appearance will both soon change, and there will be no more question of my superiority! The Dark Side will be my restoration! In that moment of exultation, Vader remembered every instance in his former and current life that he had felt the same way. The victorious race that had won him his freedom, his mother's bittersweet goodbye, and the expressions on the faces of two different women he had loved. He reached a hand to the last woman's face; a black-gloved hand seen through the lenses of his suit. It was then he realized he had made the same mistake he always made. As his last breath caught in his throat, he angrily punched the control to reseal the chamber. The feelings of exhilaration that always followed his success had once again blocked his connection to the dark side and swept it away it along with its healing trance. It should not be this way! he admonished himself, gripping the arms of his chair and seething. The Dark Side should not be lost so easily! I have tried to banish all else from my soul, he reasoned. For the most part, it has worked, and a great deal belongs in a past no longer my own. Yet there are matters I have not resolved; those that involve banishing frivolous love from not one soul, but two. He activated a comlink to one of the staff, asking him to send her to his chambers immediately, and turned his gaze to his scarred body. One look at me, he thought, and her desire will vanish. When I think of her, she will be just another face trying to turn away in disgust, and I will finally be able to heal completely.

He felt her presence as the guards admitted her to his chambers. Activating a comlink to the outside rooms, he heard her call to him when she did not find him, weakly at first, then more loudly. "Lord Vader?" He allowed her a moment to conclude he was not there, then spoke through the link in an unfamiliar voice, "I am in my meditation chamber; you will find the doors open."

She turned to face the double doors of the room Vader had never allowed anyone to enter. Not knowing quite what to expect from either the room or its occupant, she placed her hand on one of the doors, pushed it open, and crept in silently. The outer room was large and empty, save for what had to be an inner meditation chamber. Machinery of various sorts was visible and humming softly outside its walls, the closest of which presented a door and accompanying control panel. She moved gingerly toward it, her heart pounding. While she paused to consider if she would need to use the panel to unseal the door, it opened. She stepped into a room equal to those in any medical facility on Coruscant, and just as antiseptically white and clean. Vader's cape and boots caught her eye as the door closed behind her and she rounded a bank of machinery to face him. At that moment, she realized she had rarely considered Darth Vader's armor and life-supporting machinery to be separate from the rest of his body. She had always loved him, but more as a fantasy being, larger than life, whose spell had been cast upon her.....

Curious thoughts of what he had looked like before his injuries, and beneath the black suit that had sustained him since, had hardly seemed related. Now, they were everything. He sat in a black leather chair that could be reclined for sleep if need be, made perfectly for a man of his height. With only a small throw covering his midsection, it still took only a split second for her to take in all the modifications his body had needed to stay alive. Vader's arms and legs had all been replaced, to differing degrees, with artificial limbs. His chest and abdomen was completely covered by replacement skin and metal plating, from which she could see several tubes and wires leading to the medical equipment by his side. What remained of his natural skin was stretched and scarred, most noticeably so from his left cheek to the back of his head, where his hair would have been. His throat held an attachment for a breathing tube, should the pump for his mask or the oxygen level in his chamber become insufficient for ventilation. He turned his head toward her ever so slightly, supported by the chair's head rest, and tried to focus his eyes upon her. His face was taut with anger, but she sensed he could not see her well, and moved closer. Whatever he was about to say or do to her would be unaffected by where she stood; his power over her was as strong as it had always been. Feeling it, and remembering her promise to herself, she tried to push away her love for him and stand close enough for him to see she was doing so. Whatever the consequences, she wanted him to know his rejection had not destroyed her. He pierced her with an intense stare once he finally had her in view. Motioning with his hand, he indicated a small mask with hoses attached. Taking ragged breaths, he struggled out the words, "Put that on. It will allow you to breathe the outside air; you cannot breathe the concentration of oxygen in this chamber." She did so, pulling its band over her head. Vader watched her closely, then continued, "You have always wanted to see me, to be near me. Well, you can look as closely as you want now, or do you wish you could turn away? Tell me now that you desire me, that it was ever anything more than a fascination with the power I possess! I know you have been avoiding me, trying to deny what you feel. Is it easy now that I have given you the opportunity?" Vader's mention of her avoidance made her swallow hard. She grew angry at his words, but knew she could not answer him truthfully unless she was true to herself. She met his cold blue eyes, and slowly, deliberately began to answer him, not at all as he expected. "I am glad you brought me here, Vader, and because of who you are, and what has happened between us, I know you could answer those questions yourself. Would you have me deny what you know is the truth? You ask if I desire anything about you other than your great power. Yes. I admire your faith in it, which made you determined to live through every form of injury and still pursue your destiny. You have become larger than the life itself that was almost taken from you. I cannot say I agree with everything you have done with that life; you have hurt me, you have done worse to others. Yet if I forsake you along with what you have done, if I go on denying how I feel to either one of us, I too will have turned away from love. I don't want to do that; I never did, I don't now. Ask yourself if I ever looked upon your mask and made you feel less than whole. Ask yourself why I look upon you now and see the face of an attractive man. You may believe your dark power can give you everything you want or need, but if just one thing were left out, it could be what matters most. It's the reason you don't realize that showing me more of yourself only makes this easier to tell you. I love you, Darth. I do not say that to just anyone, but I think you deserve it. Please accept it from me and anyone else, or I don't believe you will able to enjoy being healed, or finding your destiny, any more than you do your life as it is." She pulled off the mask, set it down, and looked back at Vader. He said nothing, but his eyes had changed. She bent to him, kissed him with all the emotions she had ever felt toward him, then let her fingertips brush his chin as she got up and left the room.

Luke kept thinking he was mistaken in what he felt from his father, but it had to be. He must help his father feel it, if there was to be any hope for either of them. "Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you. The conflict."

"There is no conflict," Vader lied. He could hardly assert the statement when he kept feeling his mother's touch, envisioning one woman's pale face, experiencing another's kiss that held universes in its contact, and looking upon the hope in his son's face. Palpatine could not be allowed to discern otherwise, however; Vader had long ago agreed to serve him, knowing anything he could possibly desire would be insignificant next to what the Emperor could offer him. It had seemed so then, at least; now he knew he would never be able to train his son himself with his soul so much at odds. It would be better to let Palpatine help Luke toward the destiny he had failed to reach; perhaps he would be a more worthy servant. There was conflict, yes, but conflict meant he could make a choice. He would make the right one.

She awoke that morning, feeling more ill than she could ever remember feeling, and with a heaviness upon her soul she could not shake or understand. She struggled to go about her duties, but had to stop and rest more times than she cared to count. The medical droids could have examined her, but she decided there was nothing she wanted more than to be in Vader's private quarters, thinking of the man who could have healed her if he had been there. Perhaps, she thought, just being in the rooms would be enough. She no sooner arrived, than the sickness grew worse. Her chest erupted in pain as she struggled for breath, barely making it to Vader's bed to collapse on one side of it. She began to shake violently and out of control, crying out helplessly for Vader. Her only answer was an explosion of pain behind her eyes that ebbed away with her last breath.

How can I be alive? she asked with the first tickling realization of returning consciousness. Or am I? she questioned, feeling sensation and yet an eerie disjointedness from what she could remember of life. She opened what she last knew as her eyes, wanting to discover why she felt so relaxed and comforted when her last thoughts had terrified her. I've lost Vader, she said aloud without realizing it, as she looked into the eyes of a shimmering vision of a man before her. The chimera smiled, and immediately she knew it could be no one else. He was completely healed, and seemed to be dressed in Jedi robes, but she knew without a doubt who had returned. She sat up, noticing her own body had become as much an apparition as his had. He reached for her shimmering hand, enclosing it gently in his much larger ones as he began to speak. "I suppose in a way you have, but you will never lose me. You may call me Anakin." "Anakin," she repeated, still trying to get used to their new voices as she spoke his real name that she had never known. "Luke?" "Is alive and well, and knows the truth of how I feel. And now it is time that you know as well. You were right, just as Luke was. I wish you could have known. I only hope you do not feel I am too late in telling you that the connection we have is something I never should have ignored." "Anakin," she said again, "you already have." He stood up from where he had knelt at the side of the bed, reaching his arms around her to spin her around the room a few times before falling with her into the softness once again.

When she did not return from Vader's quarters, they went in to look for her. Not finding her there, they searched the entire Palace and surrounding area with no success. Their efforts were quickly called off when the news came in that Vader and the Emperor had both been killed on the Death Star hours earlier, making the defeat of the entire Galactic Empire a real possibility. That possibility is now a reality, and Coruscant is once again the capital of the Republic. The Second Palace is the new residence for many of the Rebel leaders, their families, and staff, but the mystery of her disappearance has never been solved. Except by me.

<[>8)

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