Title: Driving Lord Vader
Disclaimer Not my characters and not my universe.
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Anakin Solo is on the manly quest for a space piloting license, but the only person who can take him to the testing center is...his grandfather.
Note: Companion piece to Lord Vader's Limpet.
Leia Organa Solo had one foot out the front door when the holocom chimed.
Just outside the door, sixteen-year-old Anakin Solo groaned and slumped against the jamb. "I knew it. We'll never get there."
"Yes, we will," she promised, turning back to take the call. "I took work off today specifically so I could get you there, and I promise you, I'm not going in to the office for anything short of a galactic war."
Anakin did not grin. When your mother was the Chief of State of the New Galactic Republic, getting her to yourself for a whole day was a much rarer event than galactic wars. It was a feat on par with blowing up a Death Star your first time in a cockpit. But Dad was out with Chewie taking care of some problem Lando had gotten himself into, Jacen had gone camping on Kashyyyk, Jaina was in her fourth month of training at the naval academy, Threepio was on loan to the Ambassador from Malaiiy—heck, even Uncle Luke and Aunt Mara were gone. They were celebrating their anniversary, and they'd left Ben and Artoo with Master Tionne at the Academy on Yavin. It was just him and Mom.
Well, okay, technically, there was one other family member on Coruscant. Anakin imagined the possibility of that individual joining them for a whole second before wincing. Thank the stars it was just Mom. She was pretty much the only person in his family full of ace starfighter pilots who would understand if he failed his space license test.
Dad was upset he didn't get to take Anakin to the testing center—he considered "first license day" to be a more significant event in his children's lives than their actual birth—but the teen was secretly relieved. If he turned out to be an abysmal dishonor to the Solo reputation, better that Dad wasn't on hand to witness the tragedy. Same went for the rest of the family. Uncle Luke would doubtless be kind, but coming from the historical origin of the phrase blow up a Death Star your first time in a cockpit, that’d be real cold comfort. Aunt Mara, never to be outdone, had famously calculated her first lone hyperspace jump at the ripened old age of ten. As for his grandfather—
Anakin shuddered. Don't even go there, bantha brains. Grandad couldn't remember that he'd even been a teenager once, let alone what it was like.
Normally Anakin was not one to be nervous. He'd grown up on bedtime stories of smugglers, pirates, rebels, Death Stars, last-ditch battles, lightsaber duels, and daring rescues, and spent his childhood planning similar exploits for himself. But now that he was sixteen, staring down his first license test—suddenly a pair of Corellian bloodstripes, a Rebel Alliance Medal of Valor for extraordinary heroism in space combat, and the onetime commander of the entire Imperial Navy loomed like so many starscrapers.
The holocom projector lit up, interrupting his anxious thoughts. It was one of Mom's aides.
"I'm sorry to disturb you on your day off, ma'am," the aide stammered out, spastically brandishing a stack of flimsy, "but the Hapes Cluster has just declared war against Kuat!"
Anakin trudged back into the apartment and collapsed on the sofa. He didn't know whether to be relieved that he didn't have to take the blasted thing today, or terrified—because next time it wouldn't be Mom taking him, it'd be Dad. Jacen claimed that when he'd gotten his license, Dad had spent the whole time beforehand drilling him out of the test prep manual—which would have been a fantastic idea, Jaina added, if he hadn't felt obliged to correct the manual every other question. Miraculously the twins had scraped through the written exam, doubtless thanks to the fact that they could share answers via their Force bond. Anakin, having only one mind to work with, doubted he'd be so lucky.
Mom glanced away from the chattering aide, and the Mom-place in one corner of his head whispered I'm sorry.
Not your fault, he mumbled back. It wasn't like Mom could predict wars, after all. But the knowledge didn't make him feel any better.
Why, why, did the galaxy have to pick today of all days to fall apart?
His mom finished talking to the aide and Anakin expected her to rush straight off and change into something office-appropriate. Instead, she looked at him for a long minute before setting her jaw, flipping to the holocom's menu of stored contact codes, and selecting the absolute last one on the list.
Anakin sat up in surprise. "What're you doing?"
"I said I'd get you there today, didn't I?"
Anakin just stared at her, lost somewhere between disbelief and horror.
Darth Vader was not pleased when his holocom chimed. He was never pleased when his holocom chimed, because no matter who was on the other end it was an interruption. The fact that he was, at present, doing nothing at all was conveniently discarded without consideration.
If he had stopped to think about it, he would have realized that having nothing pressing to be distracted from was the thing that truly irritated him. Thirteen years as a Jedi followed by twenty-plus years of Empire building followed by twenty-five years teetering on the high wire of survival had left him accustomed to a heavy—indeed, an infinite—workload. Work had been the sum total of his existence. But now, here he was, staring out a synthetic viewport and watching all of Coruscant scurry around while he, last Dark Lord of the Sith, onetime galactic ruler, erstwhile naval supreme commander, and warrior-hero of yore…
Idly he wondered when a Sith Lord had last been recorded to be bored. This was probably an unprecedented historical event. So unprecedented, in fact, that the Dark Lord refused to admit that it was occurring, preferring to convince himself that he was practicing a relaxed form of meditation.
Assuming an intimidating pose of irritation at whoever had disrupted his meditation, he switched on the holocom.
Wide, expressive brown eyes. Exquisitely drawn features. A small but bright smile. Padmé.
He had to remind himself not to be tricked. These wide brown eyes glinted mischievously, the exquisitely drawn features held an unmistakable note of insouciance, and he could only imagine what barbs skulked behind that neatly curved smile. "What do you want?" he rumbled, hooking his thumbs into his belt the better to brace against whatever his daughter was conniving. She must be conniving something fierce, otherwise she would never have called on her rare day off work.
"Hello to you too," she said dryly.
Coming from Leia, such a mild response amounted to a holocard and flowers. Expensive flowers. "Do not toy with me," he thundered. "I know that you want something. What is it?"
She leaned back. "Something came up. I have to go in to the office."
"Hapes and Kuat."
Vader nodded. His agents had briefed him on the growing tensions. He made sure his agents briefed him on all galactic situations, out of habit—even if he was no longer the one responsible for handling them, ignorance remained dangerous.
Leia continued, "I already have important obligations scheduled for today, and I need someone to cover for me."
This was more like it. It must be a task of supreme significance if she was desperate enough to ask even him to do it. "What manner of obligations?"
Leia smiled sweetly—much, much too sweetly. Before Vader could beat an emergency retreat, she widened the pickup range to reveal her youngest son, his sixteen-year-old namesake, hovering a few feet behind her. The boy hesitated, started to wave, and quickly decided to run his fingers through sloppy bangs instead. To all appearances he was entranced by square of carpet situated somewhere to his left. His mother prodded him forward and nodded.
"Uh—hi—" His voice trailed off to a mutter. "Mom, it's not that big a deal, really…"
Leia fixed her patented Chief of State stare on him. Anakin edged forward once more, and cast a last unavailing glance over his shoulder before blurting out, "'HiGranddadcyoutakemetotheDSTsokayfyoucan'tiknowyou'reallybusy." He beat a hasty retreat, combing his bangs again anxiously and plainly hoping that would be all the speaking required of him.
"What?" Vader demanded.
Leia leaned back in. "He said, can you take him to the license testing center? We have a private appointment scheduled in about twenty minutes."
Vader considered for a moment, and then glared invisible blaster bolts at his daughter, who had just boxed him in tighter than a pregnant Hutt in an escape pod. If he agreed to take Anakin to the testing center, Leia would add another victory to her tally—and thanks to the inexhaustible antics of little Ben, she already held a commanding lead. Forcibly the Dark Lord suppressed a series of all-too-recent memories involving several expertly-aimed missiles of two-year-old birthday cake and glimpses of Leia howling with mirth through the frosting smeared over his eyeplates. He would be damned if he would let her win yet again!
But there was no way out. Leia had, with Palpatine-esque cunning, made sure that it was Anakin who had actually asked him. If he refused such an innocent request, his grandson would conclude he was a heartless monster. Should opportunity arise in the future for him to destroy the Jedi, eradicate the New Republic, re-establish the Empire, and select an apprentice (as naturally he would do, given the chance), it would be best not to alienate his talented grandchildren. He glanced back at the boy, his gaze lingering on a pair of blue eyes much like his own. Much like Luke's.
"I suppose that I could cut my meditation session short," he grated, in a tone intended to impress upon them the generosity of such a sacrificial gesture.
Leia looked as though she was aching to make one of her trademark jibes. But she abided by their unspoken rule of ceasefire in front of the children. "Thank you," she said instead.
That had to have hurt. Vader felt more cheerful at the knowledge that he'd scored at least one point.
"I will be there in ten minutes," he said, leveling an authoritative finger at the junior Anakin. "I expect you to be prepared for departure."
"Ah—yes—yessir." Jacen and Anakin both had a satisfying tendency to answer his briskest tones with yessir. The same could not be said of Jaina, who had a very dissatisfying tendency to take after her mother, but Vader cherished high hopes that a few months of naval training would cure her shocking lack of respect.
As he cut the connection, the Dark Lord reflected that perhaps he ought to see about sending Leia to boot camp.
Anakin tried in vain to convince his mom to stick around—at least until Granddad got there. His anxiety about the upcoming test had ballooned like a Mon Calamarian blowfish at the prospect of being left alone with Granddad for the first time ever.
"I would, sweetheart," Mom said, "but the sooner I speak with the Hapans, the easier this crisis will be to resolve." She finished buttoning up her dress and paused long enough to give him the hug he would never ask for but really wanted. "You'll be fine. I wouldn't send you with him unless I was sure. You know that."
He did. After the number of times the Solo children had been kidnapped, it was no small thing for Mom to trust anybody with them. And it was a cosmically huge thing for her to trust their grandfather with anything at all.
Granddad had been living on Coruscant for months now, having emerged from the Unknown Regions after being presumed dead for decades. The discovery of a living grandparent where there had been none would have been a lot for any teenager to get used to—but when the grandparent in question was Darth Vader, Anakin doubted a decade would be enough time to adjust. After nearly a year's acquaintance, Vader remained a fascinating enigma to all the junior Solos: partly because their two-year-old cousin Ben quashed all competition for the man's attention with a sly cunning inherited straight from Aunt Mara, but mostly because they rarely saw him more than once every few months. Granddad got along much better with Uncle Luke than with Mom, and Anakin knew just enough family history to understand that there were excellent reasons for that into which he should never inquire.
Anakin considered that, as sixteen-year-old boys on the short side went, he did pretty well when confronted with the hulking legend on two legs that was his grandfather. He'd been out with Granddad a couple of times before. The most crowded walkway would empty within seconds of his appearance, without the ex-Imperial despot having to do anything but breathe. Clearly it was not every being that could stand to be around Darth Vader.
Anakin could—or at least, he could when his parents, siblings, aunt, uncle, and cousin were around to back him up. But one-on-one?
Well, Anakin Han Solo, you are about to find out.
One of the more novel changes that had occurred since Vader commenced life as a private individual was that he now flew himself around Coruscant, rather than calling for his shuttle and leaving arrangements to personal aides. He liked this alteration; it gave him an excuse to purchase the air speeder of his choice.
Well, almost. He would have preferred an open-cockpit number, but had selected a closed cabin in the interests of survival.
But it was still a slick speeder—long, lean, black, armed to its illegally-modified teeth, and ten times as fast as any speed limit Coruscant had to offer. Admittedly Sith weren't supposed to love anything, but there was no denying the satisfaction of pushing the speeder into its sonic-booming red zone. Grudgingly he ordered himself to abide by the traffic laws today. It would not do to set a bad example for his teenage grandson on the way to get the boy his piloting license.
The guard at the private landing pad, braver than most, actually demanded to see Vader's identification. He did not deign to produce it, addressing the man with a few choice threats instead, which was what the guard doubtless expected of him. Properly cowed, the man opened the barrier. Vader perused the pad twice before spotting the junior Anakin hovering in the overhang of the building entrance. The boy hesitated a moment before heading toward the speeder and jumping in the passenger door. "Hi," he said.
Vader pointed a finger at him. "You should have checked the pad before crossing to ensure that there were no threats."
Anakin blinked. "Uh—well, Security—"
"Don't be too proud of these security forces your New Republic has constructed," Vader warned.
Anakin leaned slightly closer to the window. "O-kay…" He ran a nervous hand through his shaggy brown hair again and studied the floor of the cabin as if it held the encoded answers to all of life's greatest philosophical questions. Vader took the opportunity to study the boy. It had been some time since they had spoken; his middle grandson usually evaded notice, being the quietest grandchild by far. He noted with disdain the Corellian Comets smashball jersey Anakin was sporting under what looked to be a space jacket his disreputable father had worn twenty years ago in a Nar Shaddaa cesspool and never washed.
It could always be worse, however. At least he wasn't following Jacen's lead. Nary an earring or nose stud in sight.
Anakin glanced up at him after several seconds of silence. "Are we gonna go?"
Vader decided he would not require a change of wardrobe this time, and guided the speeder back towards the gate. "Where is this licensing agency?"
Anakin flicked on the navicomputer and typed in the destination with one adroit hand. "You want to take Central Airway north, then come off right and down on Military Express Junction, and it's on the far side of the spacestrip."
Vader knew the building. The subsequent ride was short and pristinely silent. Anakin made a point of discovering a great many fascinating tidbits of scenery out the windows. All too easy, Vader reflected as he guided the speeder down into the parking level of the Department of Space Transportation. Anakin led the way, not without a good deal of nervous peering over his shoulder. The pair drew many startled glances on the way to the licensing office, but Vader silenced any comment with well-aimed stares.
Just as the doors of the licensing office came in view past the next corridor intersection, Anakin jolted to a dead halt, and Vader almost barreled into the boy.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
Anakin batted a hand furiously at him without turning around. He pointed at two orbs hovering near the office entrance.
Vader glanced half a meter down at Anakin's mop of brown hair. "I fail to see—"
With more shushing and furious hand-batting, Anakin backpedaled around him. I'll do this another day, the boy thought at him. You can just drop me back off at home.
Vader crossed his arms and refused to budge. We are not leaving until you have taken the licensing test. Do you intend to let two media droids scare you away?
You don't understand! They're going to watch every move I make and I'll fail the blasted thing and it'll be all over the tabloids by this afternoon!
Vader glanced back at the droids. The boy's conclusion regarding the droids' intentions was likely accurate—the media were forever salivating over the doings of the Chief of State and her array of interesting relatives. His response, however, was most unbefitting to the grandchild of a Sith Lord. Particularly a Sith who was an ace pilot.
You have the power of the Force at your disposal, young one, he lectured. Fear of these lesser beings is beneath you.
Anakin frowned. Just because I can use the Force doesn't make me any better than anybody else in the galax—oh, shavit!
Vader would have objected to the language but was interrupted by the lightning arrival of the media droids, which had finally spotted them.
"Anakin Solo! How does it feel to be nearly legal?"
"I—I don't really—"
"Mr. Solo, are you worried about the upcoming test?"
"Look, I'd really rather not—"
Crack. Sizzle. Ka-thunk.
Two wide blue eyes stared in stunned horror at him. "You—you—you can't do that!" Anakin yelped, surveying the crushed remnants of two media droids.
Vader dropped his closed fist. "You were not prepared to offer a better solution."
"You killed them!"
"Droids are not living sentients," Vader reasoned. "You cannot kill something that is not alive."
Anakin nudged the crushed wreckage with his boot toe. "You can so! Look at them, they're dead! What if you did that to Threepio or Artoo, what would you call it then?"
"Artoo," Vader said, "is different."
"He is not—" Anakin began, and then cut himself off. "Okay, Artoo's different. But Mom's still going to fly off the restraining bolt when she finds out," he muttered under his breath.
Vader almost—almost—issued a cutting retort anent the fact that the chief aim of his existence was not nor had it ever been keeping his disrespectful daughter perfectly pleased, a feat which was in any case impossible. Then he remembered the rules about behaving in front of the grandchildren. "I see no reason for your mother to know anything about it," he said instead, aiming a forefinger at his grandson. "Now continue to the office so we can obtain this license as quickly as possible."
Two-year-old Ben Skywalker would not have been even distantly intimidated. His teenage cousin tripped over the jumbled parts of the media droids in his haste to get to the entrance. Vader shook his head and followed.
Inside the sliding doors, the large lobby of the testing office was packed tighter than a Hutt's fist with license applicants; most of them adolescents accompanied by visibly anxious parents; some of them ancient, half-blind, and crotchety; all of them in an advanced state of aggravation. There were a great many clipboards and flimsy forms floating around; the air was filled with the scrabble of styluses. At least, it was up until Vader stepped through the door. At that point a number of the styluses and clipboards clattered to the floor. The desk attendant's tedium transformed to shock and went directly on to abject terror. One by one the beings in line turned around, saw him, and melted back against the lobby walls. Anakin rubbed his forehead with a faint groan.
"Excellent," Vader said. He turned to his grandson. "Your mother said that you have a private appointment scheduled?"
Anakin nodded without looking at him. His hands were now jammed deep in his jacket pockets, threatening to burst a seam.
Vader turned to the desk attendant, a Caruthian who was turning such a violent shade of orange that he would probably pass out on the spot if the Dark Lord came any closer. "My grandson is here for a private testing appointment," he thundered.
"A-and I'm sure we can arrange th-that, m-my—"
"I trust that it is already arranged," Vader retorted, taking one step towards the counter.
The Caruthian squeaked and plowed into his ledgers. "Yes, yes it is! Anakin Solo! Right through that door!" He fled from his seat to the far corner of his cubicle, pointing at the door in question as if it were on trial for murder.
"Thanks," Anakin cut in. The beings unfortunate enough to be seated near the door ironed themselves against the wall as Vader headed their way; those behind him seized their children by the hand and fled through the main entrance as soon as they judged the dark lord to be far enough away. Anakin winced as the door sealed off the pandemonium in their wake.
"You could at least try not to terrify every single person on the planet, you know."
"What is your complaint?" Vader asked him. "The fewer people there are in this office, the sooner we will be able to finish and the less time you will be required to spend in my presence."
Anakin followed him a little more readily down the hall after considering that. At the next lobby they were met by the director of the Department of Space Transportation himself. Having been bracing himself to welcome the Chief of State, the director took Darth Vader more or less in stride. "I assure you, Mr. Solo, Lord Vader, that the test will be conducted with the utmost privacy," he announced, with only a faint quaver in his voice. "I've ensured that our most highly regarded practical examiner will be available for you, and given your family's record, I'm sure you'll pass with flying colors." He trotted out an encouraging grin.
"How long will these proceedings take?" Vader demanded.
"Certainly, we'll expedite as much as possible," the director stammered. "We can complete preliminary testing and paperwork in about thirty minutes. But the practical exam will require at least an hour."
Vader nodded impatiently. "Then begin at once."
"If you'll come with me, Mr. Solo," the director said, "we'll have you take the written test and make sure you can pass the reflex requirements."
Vader snorted audibly. "You will find that any descendant of mine possesses more than adequate reflexes to operate spacecraft."
Granddad! Anakin's voice yelped in his mind.
"I'm sure that he does, my lord," the director gibbered, in obvious terror of the possibility that Anakin didn't. "If it will be convenient, I'd be happy to place this lobby at your disposal while your grandson and I go up to the private testing facility." He turned to Anakin. "Can I ask that you leave your com with your grandfather? It's testing procedure."
Anakin fumbled the com off his belt and handed it hesitantly to Vader; the director led him out of the lobby with stern instructions to the desk attendant to let no one disturb Lord Vader. The attendant took these instructions so seriously that he himself vacated the room, leaving Vader to wait in solitude with absolutely no diversions. After several minutes he resorted to dredging through a stack of holomagazines. At the bottom languished a years-old copy of Modern Military History; according to the headline the feature story was an article on the origins of Rogue Squadron. He clicked to the first page and immediately stared at the poorly-resolved holo in the bottom corner.
A painfully young Luke frowned back through the decades, helmet slung beneath one arm and free hand hanging on the belt of a lurid orange flight suit. According to the article the image dated to less than three months after the Battle of Yavin.
It was, in fact, the very first holo he had seen of the boy, obtained by agents tasked with investigating the destruction of the Death Star, and which had graced the first Imperial wanted posters. His face looked nearly as youthful as Anakin's now; his expression, decades older. If memory served, that dogfight at Yavin had been Luke's first time at the helm of a spacecraft. There had been no quiet routine license test for him—the shock of war still showed fresh. Silently Vader contemplated the holo…
…Until Anakin's com went off.
The Dark Lord had no intentions of answering—he could certainly come up with a better use of his time than entertaining some odious specimen of teenage riff-raff who happened to have befriended his grandson and who was undoubtedly unworthy of either of their attention—but whoever had built Anakin's ridiculously small, latest-generation model hadn’t had Sith gloves in mind. In the process of trying to switch it off, his thumb skidded onto the accept button instead. "Yes?" he thundered, hoping to frighten whoever it was away instantly.
This was not to be. The little projector hummed awake and presented a young brunette woman in the uniform of the New Republic Navy. "Not the Anakin I was looking for," she commented, sweeping her beret off. "Hi, Granddad."
"Hello, Jaina," he said mechanically. He had not spoken to his sole granddaughter since she left for the naval academy some months ago. Except for the uniform, she looked even more like his late mother than she had then. The fact of an individual possessing his mother's features, his daughter's contrariness, and Solo's snark disoriented him.
"Where's Anakin, why do you have his com?" she asked, unwinding her hair from its braid.
"Your mother was unable to take him to the space license test center and has foisted that task upon me," Vader told her. "Now—"
"I thought she was taking the day off?"
"Hapes and Kuat. I must go now—"
"Oh, poor Anakin," Jaina sighed as she detangled herself from her uniform jacket. "I was hoping I'd get out of sim training today in time to talk to him. 'Spose he's already in testing?"
"Yes," Vader said with relief, "you will not be able to—"
The com buzzed again and the second projector winked on.
"—ang on just a damn minute, Chewie, I'm tryin' to call Junior!" Only the back of Han Solo's head was visible in the projector, as he had spun his seat around the better to shout at his Wookiee compatriot.
I should have set that carbon freeze chamber to kill, Vader upbraided himself as Solo swiveled back to face the pickup.
"What the ninth hell're you doing with my kid's com?" Solo bellowed after an instant of thorough surprise.
"Hi, Dad," Jaina chirped from the other projector. "How's it going with Lando?"
"He's an idiot, sweetie, same as always," Solo growled. "Now how about you tell me why you're talking to him?"
"I was calling to wish Anakin good luck," Jaina told him complacently, combing her fingers through her hair. "Just got the wrong Anakin."
"That name," Vader began in loud exasperation, "no longer has any—"
"Back the Star Destroyer up!" Solo snapped. "You're taking my kid to the DST? Why are you taking my kid to the DST?"
"His mother was otherwise occupied," Vader seethed. "To say nothing of his father."
"Don't feed me that load of bantha fodder! I know for a fact she took the day off—"
"Dad?" Jaina cut in, unperturbed. "Hapes and Kuat."
"Fusst," swore Solo, glaring resentment at his father-in-law and at the situation generally. "Yeah, that's right, Lando did say something this morning about them getting into it. Some kind of pissing contest over who owns what hyperspace trade route." He glowered even harder, as if he suspected Vader of having instigated the entire conflict purely for the joy of spending an afternoon swamped in bureaucratic sludge.
Jaina snapped her fingers and dug a datapad out of her trouser pocket. "Which reminds me, I'm supposed to meet Brant tonight to study for that astronavigation exam."
"Brant who?" Vader and Solo barked in unison, before starting and glancing at each other.
Jaina grinned and twirled her stylus. "Oh, nobody."
"You tell Brant Nobody if he puts one hand on you I'm gonna"—Solo scrambled for an adequate threat and spotted his father-in-law—"I'm gonna send your grandfather after him!"
"He may count himself fortunate if I wait until I arrive at the academy to kill him," Vader rejoined. He squeezed a threatening fist around Brant's imaginary neck, irate at the very thought of his granddaughter being pawed and fawned over by some ridiculous bare-chested twenty-year-old cocky hotshot starfighter pilot. Someone like, oh, say, Solo.
"Between you two," Jaina huffed, pulling out a steel file and running it over her nails with a vengeance, "I'll never get within half a lightyear of a male my age." She leaned back in her seat and kicked up her feet on her desk.
"Nah," grinned Solo, mirroring his daughter as he swung his boots atop the Falcon's control console, "there's always—"
"Who isn't my twin brother," Jaina snapped. "Maybe you haven't noticed I'm an adult now, but other people with a Y-chromosome eventually will, you know."
"That is exactly my point," Vader thundered, forgetting that it had originally been Solo's point, "and if you are both finished wasting my time—"
"Am I interrupting something?" yet a third voice inquired. Vader suppressed an oath as a third projection sprouted out of the com; the newcomer was Luke.
"Can none of you think of a more productive use of your time than disturbing my meditation?" he roared.
Solo rolled his eyes. Jaina raised a Leia-like eyebrow. In the background of Luke's projection Vader suspected he heard an echo of Mara's derisive snort.
"Sorry," said Luke, "but why do you have Anakin's com? I was trying to catch him before his test –"
"He is already taking his tests," Vader bellowed at the com, "he cannot speak with any of you, and since it is not necessary that any of you speak with me I am going to resume my meditation."
"You do that," Solo smirked. He sobered up. "Look…would you…" His mouth contorted, as if asking for anything from Vader put a bad taste in it, but he forged onward. "Just tell the kid…I'm sorry I'm not there. And that I said good luck and he'll do fine anyway."
Vader nearly demanded what he meant by anyway, but refrained in fear of prolonging the conversation.
"Same from me," threw in Luke.
"And tell him I said to keep an eye on his debris scanner"—Jaina brandished her nail file at him—"unless he wants to pull a Jacen and crash into an old chunk of Star Destroyer."
"Very well," Vader said, and cut the connection with a huge sigh of relief. He was only barely in time before Anakin and the director reappeared.
"Thank you for your patience, my lord," the director said, looking not a little relieved himself. "I'm happy to report your grandson passed the preliminary tests without any trouble. All that's left is the practical exam, so if you'll both wait here just a moment I'll go and finalize the arrangements with the test ship."
Vader hooked his thumbs in his belt, his suspicion wakening. "Test ship? What does this practical examination entail, Director?"
"Oh, it’s quite straightforward. Our examiner will take young Mr. Solo here up in one of our standard test shuttles and make a short hyperdrive transit out and back once they're past the planetary traffic.”
"What nature of security precautions will you be taking to ensure his safety?" Vader demanded.
The director blinked. "My lord…it's only a routine flying test. We conduct thousands of them every week. I'm sure there won't be—"
"Perhaps you are, Director, but I am not. If media droids can discover information about my grandson's itinerary, so can bounty hunters and assassins."
"I assure you, Lord Vader, there's no danger. Planetary Security constantly monitors the inner system, and of course the outer system is under Navy surveill—"
"Is your test ship armed?"
"Granddad…" Anakin tried to edge in.
"Of course not!" bristled the director.
"How then do you propose to protect him in the event of an attack? I have seen armed criminals infiltrate this system when it was under three times as much security!" The armed criminal in question had been Luke, and Vader had at the time been delighted with the devastation he wreaked on the property of Prince Xizor while rescuing Leia from the Falleen's amorous clutches, but the point remained.
"Granddad," Anakin protested, "it's fine, really—"
"I'm sure we don't need to worry about anyone attacking the test ship," the director stammered, "they are clearly marked—"
"Those arrangements are unacceptable," Vader announced. "I am coming."
Anakin went dead white and had to rub his head again.
"I'm afraid that won’t be possible, my lord," the director gibbered. "It's strictly required that the license applicant be accompanied by no one but the examiner, otherwise Mr. Solo might have an unfair advantage over other applicants—"
"I am not coming to offer an unfair advantage," Vader drowned him out. "I am coming to take the helm in the event that an experienced combat pilot is required!"
"You aren't coming at all!" screeched the overwrought director. "I can't allow anyone to interfere with our testing protocols!"
"If you do not wish me to board the test ship," Vader countered, "my only alternative will be to dispatch a squadron of TIE fighters from the Executor as an escort, which I suspect your superiors may not be pleased to hear about. I assure you the Chief of State and the New Republic Navy will not be."
Five minutes later they were both being escorted to the test ship.
"You seem displeased, young one."
"Me?" Anakin answered. "Oh, I'm great. Fantastic. Really wizard."
Grandad paused midstep and regarded him from his half-meter's advantage in height. "I sense that your sarcasm is strong. What is upsetting you?"
Anakin sighed, "Nothing," and tried to resort to his usual silence.
"I may be old, but I am not yet blind, young one. What is it?"
Anakin stared at the far wall. Figured Granddad would want to talk now of all times. Well, things couldn't get any worse anyway. "You really want to know? Alright"—he started ticking off finger by finger—"first you butchered the media droids—"
"I see you still insist on your delusion that it is somehow possible to kill something that is not—"
"Second," Anakin cut over top of him, "you terrorized the entire Department of Space Transportation. Third, you tried to turn the Imperial Navy into my guerrilla bodyguard squadron, and fourth—"
Upon remembering what Issue Number Four was—Darth Vader would now be sitting in the cockpit watching him forget everything he was supposed to know about flying—Anakin cut himself off. You just couldn't admit in front of Granddad that he made you nervous. "Fourth…I'm…just going to screw this up," he muttered instead, combing hair away from his forehead with his fingers. What had possessed Mom to send him off with his grandfather?
"Stop saying that," Vader ordered. "If I could fly a starfighter into orbital combat when I was ten, then you can certainly pass a routine space license exam."
"You what?" Anakin yelped.
The Dark Lord paused. "Or perhaps I was nine."
Anakin trudged in even greater dismay towards the boarding ramp of the test ship. That would be the one thing that Granddad remembered about being a kid. He heaved a short, sharp sigh.
"Solo, Anakin?" a thin dry voice demanded.
Anakin jerked his head up and found himself face to face with a datapad. Over the datapad bent a stiff crew cut, which slowly tilted up to reveal a face so steely it could only have been transplanted from a battle droid—eyes trained on them like two targeting lasers, nose straight and rigid as a police baton, thin lips arc-welded in a level line, chin jutting forward like a blaster muzzle.
"Me," Anakin faltered, inching his hand into the air very much as if he were in primary school.
The battle-droid-man skewered him with his stare for one second precisely before scribbling on his datapad screen. Several more seconds scraped past. Anakin shuffled his boot toes. The scratch of the stylus seemed to be dueling with the rasp of Granddad's respirator, which was sounding more impatient with every intake…
"I trust you do not intend to keep us waiting any longer," Vader thundered.
That voice set chills running down Anakin's spine, for all the Force told him Granddad probably wasn't super angry; but it did not faze the examiner, who could sense no such thing. Slowly he looked up from his datapad to bestow on both of them a practiced scowl of general disapproval. "I do not indulge in unnecessary delays," he responded. "The additional preparations for your particular requirements will shortly be completed…" He stabbed one last note on the datapad and snapped it down. "I am Practical Examiner Grommis. Aside from volunteering with the Department of Space Transportation, I am an senior active-duty patrol officer with the Coruscant Planetary Security Division of Regulations Enforcement and serve as Adjunct Prosecutor for the Galactic City Third District Moving Violations Disciplinary Court."
Anakin, sheerly by dint of his Corellian nerve, did not physically cringe from the man—despite the fact that his very soul had just wilted within him. Granddad's helmet tilted his way and irritation flashed in the Force, which might have been meant for Anakin or Grommis—or, more likely, both.
"Before we commence," Grommis barked, "I shall review the examination guidelines. There shall be no irrelevant conversation aboard the examination craft. All relevant conversation shall consist of examination-related questions, directives, and correctives as necessary. Questions may be asked only by the examinee. Directives and correctives may be issued only by the examiner. Any other verbal interference shall be considered a breach of examination protocol and will result in automatic failure of the testing session. I trust that is clear."
"Transparently," Granddad retorted, prowling towards the landing ramp and casting disdainful glances at the shuttle's landing gear and engine bloc. Anakin feared the Force might be in danger of shorting out with the overwhelming voltage of his ire. If Dad's stories were to be believed, this was about the time people used to start suffocating back in the days of the Empire.
Grommis aimed his scowl at Vader for a daring instant. "I was, naturally, addressing Mr. Solo."
"Yes, crystal," Anakin intervened hastily. In the corner of his vision Granddad’s lightsaber hand had twitched.
"Very well. Please read the consent form and sign it." He whipped the datapad under Anakin's nose. Anakin jumped, snatched at the edges, and dropped it. Grommis sniffed. Granddad's respirator sucked an extra-long breath. Anakin pretended to read the form and scrawled his name the second he thought enough time had passed. Grommis examined his handiwork, nodded tersely, and led them aboard the examination test shuttle.
The shuttle was a recycled lambda model, but the controls had been upgraded to a standard modern array not unlike the ones on Aunt Mara's ship. "Taim & Bak twelfth generation midsize suite," Anakin ventured, sliding into the pilot's seat. "Nice."
"That is correct," Granddad rumbled, sounding a tad surprised and maybe even—if such a thing was possible—the teensiest bit pleased. "Perhaps you also recognize—"
"We don't test for trivia recognition, Mr. Solo," barked Grommis. He pointed his gaze first at Vader, then at the rear-placed navigator's seat. Granddad crossed his arms and cemented himself standing in the aft section of the cockpit. Even Grommis did not dare issue an actual point-blank order to Darth Vader to sit. The cockpit hatch sealed on the scene like the lid of a coffin.
"The examination commences now," Grommis said, positioning his datapad on his lap and whipping his stylus out of his pocket again. "First step of takeoff procedure, please."
Anakin blew out a breath. Landing ramp, no sweat. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad! He tapped the control. The ramp status light blinked a few times before settling into steady green. He grinned at Grommis, whose expression suggested no approval. "Second step."
Right. Repulsors on—no, wait! Engine warmup! Anakin's hand veered halfway across the control panel and alighted on the sublight engine lever. Carefully he drew it to the one-quarter mark, just as Dad had shown him a thousand times, and the engines rose to the perfect hum. Anakin beamed at Grommis—and winced as the examiner marked a thick X on the test screen. "Engine warmup is the third step of takeoff procedure," he announced. "Deduction of zero-point-five test points. You may now complete the second step correctly to receive half credit."
In the background, Granddad paced impatiently. Anakin winced again, wishing he had any idea what he could have missed. For as long as he dared he racked his brains, but the only thought they would produce was Dad's going to disinherit me. "Repulsors?" he mumbled, inching his hand hopelessly in that direction.
"Repulsor activation is the third step," Grommis said severely, marking another X. "The correct second step is to ensure that all passengers are securely seated for takeoff."
Anakin scrabbled at his crash webbing, swearing at himself. Well, no wonder he'd forgotten! Did the Falcon even have crash webbing? On second thought, there isn't a whole lot to inherit from Dad anyway... He finished buckling himself in and risked a glance at Grommis, who coughed pointedly. Slowly Anakin peered over his shoulder. "Umm…Granddad…"
The infamous black mask glowered first at him then at Grommis, but finally Vader planted himself in the nearest seat. Anakin ducked back around; it'd be great if he could be as intimidating as Granddad, but it'd be even better if Granddad were somewhere on the Outer Rim instead of one seat behind him. If only it were Mom instead! She'd have Grommis eating out of her hand by now.
"Repulsors…" he muttered, turning up the dial as he took hold of the sticks. Infinitesimally he increased the power. The ship lifted off the deck at an evolutionary pace.
"Mr. Solo," Grommis sighed, "we don't have all day."
"Um—right—sorry—" The shuttle lurched sideways and one wing scraped the hangar wall. Anakin yelped, jerked the stick to straighten out, overcorrected, and punched the dorsal fin into the ceiling. "Shavit!"
"Please do not panic," Grommis snapped. Two more X's slapped onto the sheet.
Vader had encountered more than his fair share of fools in his day, but this Grommis surpassed all belief. A mere ten minutes into the practical examination, there remained no nit which the examiner had not picked. Secure seating of all passengers! Vader had flown podracers, starfighters, shuttles, light attack craft, and disintegrating dreadnoughts without wasting time on such foolishness. Any truly dangerous situation was not a situation in which crash webbing made any difference. And that stupidity about broadcasting directional signals for the benefit of other traffic! His ships did not even possess directional signals; the space had been allotted to truly useful safety-enhancing modifications, such as retractable single-barrel laser cannons and miniature trace missile launchers. Of course the signs plastered on the ship's hull served as crowning proof that the DST knew nothing about security: STUDENT PILOT, they read in Basic, which translated into street slang was DEFENSELESS TEENAGER ABOARD, EXPLOITERS WELCOME.
As if it was not a sufficient offense that the boy was forced to test in an antique lambda shuttle! This troop-trucking cargo-hauling mechanical bantha could barely be said to fly—even Solo's precious Falcon would have been preferable. That was the craft his grandson would be flying anyway. Instead they were lumbering through the choked Coruscant airways with all the aerodynamic grace of a sandcrawler and not so much as a laser pointer to defend themselves, each blinking directional signal broadcasting their planned route to every assassin and bounty hunter in the district.
With rare effort, Vader held his silence through these travesties, telling himself he could always commandeer the helm and take evasive action through the canyons between the starscrapers if the situation required. What was harder to stomach was his grandson's rising anxiety as Grommis docked quarter-points for every insignificant mistake. Things settled a little as they trekked through the atmosphere. The most distraught pilot could hardly fail to fly a straight line within a fifteen-klick radius of his preplanned flight path until they reached the outer system. Even Grommis discovered nothing to criticize.
Far from being reassured by the examiner's silence, though, Anakin's dread was surging. Clearly the boy could think of nothing but the upcoming hyperspace jump exercise, which would be far more complicated.
Exam rules be damned! Observing his grandson’s fingers going white on the controls as he guided the ship through a ludicrously slow arc out of Coruscant's gravity well (completely misreading the navigational directions to the test jump point in the process), Vader decided creative intervention was in order—lest the Skywalker reputation be forever unjustly smirched.
Veer fifteen degrees to 0-12-2, he commanded through the Force.
Ahead of him, Anakin jerked and only just refrained from whipping around to stare at him incredulously. He glanced at his nav readout, realized his impending mistake, and hastily adjusted course before Grommis could accuse him of anything worse than a lazy turn. You're not supposed to say anything! his young mental voice wailed.
I did not, Vader pointed out smugly.
You did so!
Not that this fool Grommis—OR your mother—shall ever know, Vader dismissed. Besides, you cannot afford to lose further points on basic maneuvers.
Thanks a million, Anakin returned glumly. Like I wasn't sucking enough already.
Vader was not familiar with this particular use of the verb suck, himself associating the term purely with space vacuum physics, but followed the gist of it. Your performance will only continue to deteriorate if you insist on indulging defeatist thoughts!
Well maybe, Anakin shot back, if you would stop distracting me—
"Veer left!" Grommis barked. Anakin started, spotted a backup satellite about to be bisected by his starboard fin, and plunged the ship sideways frantically, which put them on a direct collision course with a stray asteroid.
"Mr. Solo, kindly do not panic!" Anakin lurched away from the asteroid and swiveled a spiral around their heading as he fought to steady the ship and resume course.
Do not allow him to intimidate you! Vader roared at the boy.
I can't help it, stang it! Anakin yelled back.
Had it not been utterly unbefitting Sith dignity, Vader would have rubbed the forehead of the mask. This could only be Solo's genetic influence. Curse the day his daughter had first laid eyes on the reprobate. Or rather, curse Obi-Wan; now that he stopped to really consider things, it was all Kenobi's fault for booking passage on the Falcon in the first place. Of all the mercenaries for hire in Mos Eisley, the old man simply had to choose the most dashing womanizer of the lot.
Do you truly expect me to believe, Vader returned, that you possess the self-confidence to stand up to me but not to this examiner?
Anakin twitched in surprise. Stand up to you? When have I ever done that?
You insisted that I should not have killed—that is, eliminated—the droids.
That's—that's nothing special—you just shouldn't have!
How many beings in the galaxy do you imagine have the nerve to contradict me to my face?
Anakin glanced at himself in amazement, as if just realizing that he had, in fact, done precisely that.
Not many, Vader supplied. Now…although your father may prefer unorthodox approaches—he clenched his jaw for a moment—I am sure he…taught you well. Trust what you know.
"Our jump point is now located twelve klicks to stern, Mr. Solo," Grommis drawled, adding one more X to his collection. Anakin blew out a short sigh, returned his attention to the controls and swung the craft around. The ship limped to the jump point and fell still. Grommis breathed sharply through his nostrils and clicked to the next screen of the exam. "Now," he gritted, "you may proceed with the first step of the hyperspace jump procedure."
"Right," Anakin nodded, and then with more conviction, "right. Coordinates."
Grommis' eyebrows lurched. "Correct," he begrudged. A check mark appeared on the datapad.
"And I suppose I ought to let people know that I'm about to start moving at the speed of light," Anakin added, nonchalantly tapping the key to broadcast a jump proximity signal to anybody nearby. Grommis scowled, but checked a second box.
Vader leaned back in satisfaction. That is more like it.
"Congratulations, Mr. Solo!" The director of the Department of Space Transportation looked as though he had never been done a thing in his life that he enjoyed more than handing Anakin his license. Anakin surveyed the holo of himself displayed on the front. Better than Jacen's—not that that was saying much. "Examiner Grommis tells me you performed that jump perfectly."
Anakin stole a peek at the other side of the hangar, where an anxious Rodian teen now cowered in front of the examiner. Grommis glanced up from his clipboard, displaying a scowl that made Anakin suspect the director's quotation hadn't exactly been word for word. "Thanks—"
"Indeed he did, in spite of—"
"—his…doubts to the contrary," Darth Vader finished. The mask tilted for a moment at Anakin.
"Well," croaked the director, "I'm sure with a bit of experience you'll prove to be as fine a space pilot as your father, Mr. Solo."
Granddad loomed forward a step, on the verge of launching another verbal missile.
"And my grandfather too," Anakin got out first.
It was the right thing to say. Granddad’s pointed finger stopped halfway up as he looked down at Anakin, and the respirator sounded slower, quieter, while the brusque edges of his presence in the Force softened. "No doubt." Granddad patted him once, rough and curiously uncertain, on the shoulder. Then he stepped back again. "Come, young one." With a dramatic swirl of black fabric he was off, hurtling towards the exit at a pace that threatened to cause a sonic boom.
"Listen," Anakin said hastily to the director, "thanks for everything, you've been really great, I'll let Mom know."
"Tell Her Excellency it was our pleasure!" beamed the director, but Anakin was sprinting to catch up with Granddad and didn't really hear him. They barreled through the back corridors of the DST and terrorized the lobby once more on the way to the speeder. Granddad jerked to a halt in front of it and turned to Anakin.
"I was only going to observe that the testing craft was clearly inadequate," he said.
"It was fine! I was—I was just nervous."
"I fail to understand why. You understood the procedures. And you are descended from an entire family of excellent pilots. Even your mother—"
"That's just it!" Anakin sagged against the side of the airspeeder, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "What if I'm not as good as all the rest of you? It's not a guarantee, you know."
"If you do not possess a talent for flying, you should realize this is not within your power to alter and should cease to concern yourself about it," Granddad philosophized.
"It's not that easy," Anakin mumbled. "It's…it's so important to Dad." He kicked at the deck, scuffing his boot toes. "He loves flying so much. I mean, he had us behind the controls before we could walk. I think he bought drinks for half of Corellia when Jaina got into the starfighter program at Academy. I just want to make him proud."
Granddad studied him, looking somehow thoughtful. "It is only natural," he said finally, "for a father to desire to have his son at his side. You must understand, young one, it is because he takes pride in you already that he wants you with him."
He stood in silence for a long moment before he added, "However, a father sometimes…forgets to consider what his son desires. Perhaps yours will learn that lesson sooner than—" He stopped short and stared out at the bustle of traffic beyond the hangar entrance.
"Are you talking about—" Anakin stilled, sensing sacred ground, and laid the end of the question to rest in his thoughts.
"I am merely suggesting that if you require assistance in defying the expectations or desires of your father, you should consult with your uncle."
Anakin could not contain his giddy grin. Who knew Granddad had a sense of humor? Probably just him and Cousin Ben.
"However, your fears are unnecessary. That license in your hand indicates that you are a capable pilot."
Anakin waved it dismissively. "Anybody can do the basics. I wish I knew how to really fly. You know, the crazy death-defying stuff that's fun."
"Very well." Granddad swept past him—to the passenger-side door of the speeder.
Reaching into his pocket, he produced a key chip and tossed it onto the planed nose of the speeder next to Anakin.
"Wait," Anakin stammered. "You want me to fly?" He stared first at the key, then up at Vader, blue eyes wide with surprise. They were very much like Luke's eyes must have been when he was a nervous teenager just stretching his wings, somewhere in the Tatooine deserts—far from his father's presence or knowledge. For reasons he did not stop to decrypt, the observation redoubled the Dark Lord's determination.
"You wish to learn, do you not?"
"Yeah, but—I mean—I just got a license today!"
He opened his door with a wave of one glove. "I fail to see how that is relevant. If I could compete in podraces at the age of—"
"Please," Anakin groaned, "just stop there!"
"There are two main elements of flying in combat," Vader began as they idled midair above the vacant wastes of Coruscant's industrial district. Here in the Works they shouldn't have to worry about interference from other traffic; the only commodity any of these factories produced anymore was rust. "You must avoid the enemy's fire. You must also prevent the enemy from avoiding your fire."
Anakin nodded, staring out at the dilapidated factory infrastructure as if it represented an attacking fleet. "So which am I learning first?"
"The idea is to achieve both at once. I will do you no favors if I attempt to separate them."
"I have equipped this speeder with two lightweight blast cannons in the bow," he continued. "The controls are located on the yoke. On my mark I want you to perform a ninety-degree dive between those buildings, then pull up and target the glowboard on that platform. Understood?"
Anakin nodded weakly.
"I find your lack of confidence disturbing."
"Uh—yeah. Got it." Anakin gripped the yoke grimly and sucked in a deep breath.
It was not nearly the cleanest vertical dive Vader had ever witnessed, nor was it the smoothest of recoveries, and by no stretch of the imagination was it the most economical use of firepower, but it got the job done. Anakin whooped with delight as the glowboard splintered into explosions. "I hit it!"
"Most impressive." And for a first attempt, it was.
"D'you think I can try a spiral that way and then go for the exhaust tower?" Anakin pointed with newfound ambition at a dizzying maze of tumbledown factory spires. Had he been at the helm it would have been his next direction as well, which served as warning to his more logical and adult thoughts that it was probably too difficult a maneuver for his grandson.
"The Force may be with you, young Solo, but you are not a starfighter pilot yet." Vader gestured instead to a hangar bay, open on both ends. "Perform a roll through that bay, carry it upward as you emerge, and target the roof tower."
Anakin tackled the new assignment with near-contagious enthusiasm—the zeal of youth, Vader reminded himself. This was hardly on par with starfighter combat, and even if it was, it would not pose a challenge to a snub pilot of his vast experience. Certainly he was not about to succumb to some vicarious adrenaline derived from a combination of inexperience and—
"I think I could get used to this!" Anakin plunged nose-first at a maze of power transfer —then pulled up in the nick of time, whipping between the coupling towers, swerving and juking. Letting the cannons fly he blasted debris out of the way—piloting Vader faster than thought into a storm of memories, old thrills, death-cheating podraces, harebrained midnight chases. For a second he was certain that if he looked to his right he'd see Obi-Wan, ginger hair standing on end. I don't mind flying, but what you're doing is suicide! Oh, he had once shared this sheer mad euphoria! Riding beside Anakin as they screamed through the Works, diving through rusting canyons of durasteel at breakneck speed with guns blazing, relishing his grandson's delight—he devised run after attack run for the boy, each more devilish than the last—
A small hurricane of sirens and alarms rocketed into their flight path.
"Kreth!" Anakin hammered the reverse thrusters as he swerved. The speeder careened to a halt. The blur of lights resolved itself into a madly gyrating traffic droid. It raced up in front of the transparisteel and began projecting a holo recording of their speeder's antics over the last several minutes, fully annotated with traffic law violations.
Vader eyed the thing with disdain. "Ignore it."
"But it says to halt or it'll call Coruscant Planetary Security—"
"It is bluffing. CoruSec has more important districts to supervise."
Anakin nervously resumed course. The droid screeched bloody murder and darted forward in hot pursuit, dogging their afterburners through the whole next attack maneuver. "Blast that thing," Anakin hissed through his teeth.
Vader considered that for a second. "An excellent suggestion. Proceed."
"I was kidding!" Anakin yelped. "Kidding!"
"I am not. You have practiced on stationary targets long enough."
"Do you realize what CoruSec will do to me if they find out I blasted a traffic droid?"
Vader snorted. "I assure you, young one, I have destroyed entire squadrons of traffic droids in my time. They are regularly damaged in traffic. CoruSec does not bother investigating."
"And do not," Vader thundered, "attempt to object that it is alive."
Anakin stared at the light-riddled sphere of mechanical wrath convulsing outside his window. "Looks pretty darn alive to me."
"If you insist." Vader reached across and reduced the laser intensity to ten percent. "There. Even a direct hit will only incapacitate it. Now what is your excuse?"
"I so have a bad feeling about this," Anakin muttered as he punched the accel.
Leia fell into the living room sofa with a sigh, running a hand over her aching forehead. In the course of four hours of intensive negotiations by three-way holocom, she'd somehow coaxed Hapes and Kuat into a ceasefire pending summit talks, then resolved a couple of trade disputes that had come up in the meantime, and to cap it all off had sat through another briefing about another warlord starting another revolt. All in a day's work at the office. Why the ninth hell had Palpatine ever wanted to run the galaxy? And how could he have enjoyed it? Commanding an empire couldn't be that much more fun than taking the helm of a republic.
He should be done with his test by now. So where was he?
Leia generally preferred to avoid exercising Force abilities if she could help it, but her children were the exception to that rule. It never hurt to have one more way to keep track of them. According to her admittedly limited senses, her son was down at the landing platform—and so was his grandfather. Frowning, she stepped over to the holowindow and switched the view to the landing platform. Vader's distinctive black airspeeder lounged just beyond the security barrier on the far edge, opposite the guard station. Outside the craft there seemed to be a lot of gesticulating going on.
Looked like she wasn't done with conflict crises for the day.
Since they had left for the DST, the guard had changed. The new man on duty had more backbone than the first, who had only demanded to see Vader's license once before caving. But this time the Dark Lord found himself more entertained than annoyed by the guard's futile efforts. He had traded retorts for a few enjoyable minutes before disembarking the speeder so as to make the best possible use of his intimidating stature. The security guard was now quaking in his boots but still hanging grimly to his nerve, a deliciously precarious state Vader took great delight in prolonging. Anakin, having at last realized that attempting to intervene in these predicaments was the equivalent of trying to put out a supernova with a garden hose, now leaned in the speeder window, chin in hand, watching the confrontation unfold with morbid interest.
"Sir," stuttered the stubborn guard, hoisting his blaster in what Vader idly supposed was meant to be a threat, "without some form of ID I cannot permit you to—"
"Do you imagine you can truly prevent me from entering if I wish?"
With a nonchalant wave of one glove, Vader deactivated the security barrier and sauntered towards it. Snatching the very last scrap of his reserve courage from some dusty back shelf, the guard stepped into the breach and declared, "No intruders enter this building without authorization except over my dead body!"
"Uh, Lieutenant," Anakin spoke up at that. "He can probably live with that."
"Sounds like you boys are having fun," a female voice broke into the ruckus. Sith, guard, and grandson twisted around to see the Chief of State of the New Republic approaching from the apartment building.
"Princess," Vader acknowledged, none too pleased.
"Your Excellency!" The guard snapped to attention.
Leia crossed her arms. "Thank you for your dedication, Lieutenant, but I'll authorize an exception for this speeder."
"Er—of course, Your Excellency…if you say…" The guard shot a last glance at Vader, relief edging out resent at having lost. He retreated to the station. Vader billowed past the barrier on foot. As Anakin idled the speeder forward and parked, he waited on one side of the platform beside Leia, arms crossed obstinately. She glanced up at him, once again not bothering to disguise her amusement.
"Charming to the last, I see," she remarked into the breeze.
"If your security forces continue to harass me," Vader said, "I will be forced to wipe them out. All of them."
"And will that be before or after your next play date with Ben?"
Vader turned sharply, trying to decide between three or four retorts he had stockpiled in his arsenal on the subject of Ben and babysitting. Then Anakin trotted up, putting the terms of the grandchild truce into effect before he had a chance to use any of them.
"Well, how did it go?" Leia asked, immediately flipping the switch from insolent daughter to solicitous mother.
Anakin beamed and flashed his license. "Mission accomplished."
"See?" Leia's mouth curved in a satisfied smile. "I told you there was nothing to worry about."
Anakin's grin quirked to one side as he glanced at his grandfather. Vader shook his helmet slightly and knowingly.
"So what took you so long getting back?" Leia held up the license for inspection. "Don't tell me they didn't have the appointment on the rosters."
"No, it was all fine at the DST.” He scratched the back of his neck, brow scrunching. “We sort of went and practiced afterwards though…"
"Practiced what?" Leia asked, but nobody answered because it was at that point that a Skipray blastboat flashed up to the security barrier, sirens shrieking. Down the starboard hull in huge yellow letters was stamped CORUSCANT PLANETARY SECURITY: REGULATIONS ENFORCEMENT. The barrier dropped immediately.
"So much for those important districts," Anakin muttered.
Leia turned slowly to Vader, smiling like a ravenous krakana. "You practiced what, exactly?"
The blastboat came to a halt, perched stiffly on its struts, and opened the cockpit hatch. The officer emerged around the prow. He carried a datapad and stylus the way black ops commandoes carried blasters and vibroshivs.
Vader decided on the spot that the galaxy would be a better place without him. Unfortunately executing irritating CoruSec officers with the Chief of State standing directly to his right was bad strategy.
"Mr. Solo, I believe," Grommis drawled. "You seem surprised. I did inform you that I am a patrol officer with Planetary Security."
"What seems to be the trouble, Officer?" Anakin sounded as though he was aiming for his father's trademark nonchalance. If so he had missed the mark.
"The trouble." Grommis swung the datapad up. From a projection node at the time sprang the traffic droid's recording of their speeder, swooping through the Works and blasting things. It began playing as Grommis read from the screen, "You ignored the traffic lanes, you disregarded multiple direct warnings, you failed to use directional signals on no less than three hundred and seventy-four turns…and ah, yes, you deliberately fired on a Droid Traffic Control Assistance Unit"—Anakin snuck a staccato scowl at Vader—"all within two hours of obtaining your first license." Grommis paused to glare before continuing. "I am, obviously, citing only your most blatant moving violations. Your reckless and indiscriminate destruction of millions of credits' worth of private and public industrial property in the Works district is a question for the city public prosecutor to handle—"
Vader did not need to look at Leia; he could physically feel the incredulous, vertical-eyebrowed disapproval of the stare she was inevitably fixing on him at the moment. He kept his attention on Grommis as he announced, "That is ridiculous. Everything in that district is beyond use for anything except target practice. Where would you prefer him to learn combat techniques?"
"A simulator, sir," retorted Grommis.
"A simulator," Vader scoffed, "is inadequate for training purposes."
"In light of the fact that Mr. Solo has trampled on nearly every section of the planetary traffic law," Grommis returned, "that is entirely irrelevant." He trained his scowl on Anakin again. "Your license, please."
With a sigh, Anakin reached for his pocket.
Once upon a lifetime ago, it had been the driving ambition of another Anakin to obtain a piloting license…and the consuming dread of one Obi-Wan Kenobi that the day would finally arrive when his headstrong, daredevil apprentice was unleashed on the galaxy's traffic routes.
Vader stepped forward. "If you are determined to blame someone, the boy was operating my vehicle, under my direction."
Anakin froze, the license half out of his pocket. Grommis paused, regarding him warily over the datapad—but the bait was irresistible. "Then I'll need to see your license, sir."
"For what purpose?" Vader loosed his reserves of sarcasm. "Identification?"
"According to the Coruscant Transportation Regulations Code, Article B section thirteen point two—"
"Or perhaps," Vader purred, taking a step closer, "you intend to fine me?" He leveled at the officer's nose the finger that had put the fear of the dark side into legions of hardened Imperial officers.
"If you refuse to comply with the legal requirement to produce a license," Grommis barked, "I assure you the consequences will cause any fine to pale in comparison!"
"I suggest you cease this discussion of drastic consequences," Vader shot back. "It would be unfortunate if I had to educate you on the subject."
"Granddad," Anakin sighed, "can't you just show him the license?"
"He does not need to see it," Vader retorted. "My identity is perfectly obvious." In the corner of his mask's vision field, Leia crossed her arms and donned the expression of an entertained observer who was blithely content to let the disaster unfold without interfering on anyone's behalf.
"Even if he doesn't need to see it, why not let him?" Anakin's reasonable expression reminded Vader that in time of peace his offspring had an irritating amount of respect for the law, a trait undoubtedly associated with their Naberrie genes. The only genes Solo could have been of use in replacing. "Is it really going to hurt? Let's just show him and we can get this over with quicker."
"I do not want to show him the—" He stopped, realizing how childish it sounded. Involuntarily his gaze flicked to his daughter. Leia's sardonic smirk galled him more than a thousand lopsided Solo grins.
"Come on, Granddad," Anakin cajoled. "Why not?"
Vader glowered at his grandson, then at Grommis, at Leia for good measure, and then at Anakin once again. "I…do not have one."
The silence stretched for several seconds. Then Leia's smirk swelled into a full-blown grin, she started laughing silently, and the dam shattered.
"You don't have one?" Anakin squeaked. "After everything I went through today and all the times you told me it was no big deal—you don't even have one?"
"Sir," bellowed Grommis, "owning and operating an airspeeder without a license is a criminal offense in this system—"
"No," Vader answered his grandson, "I do not."
"—punishable by up to three years in—"
"—New Republic prison without parole or—"
"Because I do not need the Department of Space Transportation to tell me that I am capable of piloting any vehicle," Vader declared.
Anakin burst out laughing. "Is that why you wouldn't let the security guard check your clearance? You don't have any ID?"
"—a fine of not less than four thousand, and—"
"I have no need for an ID. My identity is entirely obvious and—"
"—if you cannot produce any form of flight license, then in the name of the Galactic Republic, you are under arrest!"
Vader whirled on Grommis. Simply because strangulation was not an option did not mean the Force could not be used to remove the nuisance. He should have done this from square one. "You have already seen my license," he purred, bringing to bear all the annoyance-fueled force at his disposal.
Grommis was not weak-minded. He just toed the CoruSec line so religiously that it could barely be called a mind trick to convince him he'd done so again. His outraged countenance was replaced by a considering and increasingly satisfied expression. "I have already seen your license," he mused, staring thoughtfully through his datapad.
"Granddad?" Anakin whispered. He cast a nervous glance at his mother. Leia's eyebrows were all but standing on end.
"There is no incident to report," Vader added, mentally daring his daughter to object as he stole the datapad out of Grommis' slack hand.
"I don't see any incident to report here," Grommis agreed.
"You're going to go take the rest of the day off.”
Both the former and the current Anakins whirled towards Leia in astonishment.
Grommis smiled dreamily. The last vestige of resistance floated away. "I think…I'll take the afternoon off…"
Vader nudged him back into the blastboat. They watched it go. Then he and Anakin turned the other way to look at Leia, as if unsure she was really the right Leia Organa Solo.
"I did not know you could perform mind tricks," Vader ventured finally.
Her lip twitched treacherously, barely containing what would surely have been a scathing retort. "Just don't expect me to bail you two out the next time CoruSec throws the book at you." She considered them for a minute, glancing back and forth between son and less-than-honored father. Her gaze paused for a minute linked with Vader's. Then she turned around and headed back into the building. "I'll see you upstairs in a bit, Anakin," she called over her shoulder. The door slid shut behind her back, leaving Vader alone once more with his grandson. An unusual knot seemed to have formed in his stomach. Perhaps he should check the nutrient digestive systems of the life support suit to ensure everything was functioning normally.
"Thanks for taking on Grommis," said Anakin. "I thought Mom was gonna skin me alive."
"Do not thank me. I merely dislike the inconvenience of ill-considered regulations."
"Well," Anakin grinned, "even so."
Vader swung into the driver's seat of the speeder and glanced back at the boy. "I suppose you are welcome."
"Granddad?" Anakin jogged to the window and bent down. "D'you…d'you suppose you could teach me again sometime? Since…I mean, we didn't do much with moving targets…"
Vader leaned away reflexively. "I have many important duties which require my attention—"
Anakin's face fell.
"…But I believe I could find another opportunity to continue your education," he amended a little too quickly.
"Great." Anakin leaned against the speeder on one arm, trying desperately to appear casual and nonchalant. "So…what about next week? You know, some day you're not too busy…"
"I suppose that I am less occupied on Wednesdays than on other—"
"Okay then—Wednesday morning? Like maybe ten-ish?"
"Alright, see you then!"
Anakin darted away from the speeder before Vader could say anything else. He waved goodbye from the cover of the door, then vanished inside. Vader stared at the closed door for a moment before shaking himself and whipping the speeder away, reflecting on the day's events. It must be some esoteric Force power available only to children and grandchildren that enabled them to manipulate him so easily. He would have to regain the ability to resist it—
Motion at the edge of his vision turned his head toward the passenger seat, where he had tossed Grommis' datapad. The projector on top was still displaying the recording of the speeder blasting its way through the Works. Intending to erase the device's memory, he picked it up and froze the playback just as the image zeroed in on the cockpit. Anakin grinned a lightyear wide as he himself reached towards the yoke to adjust the boy's grip on the cannon control. Ignoring the honks of indignant traffic around him as his speed dropped, Vader stared for a long minute at the image, thumb hovering over the delete button.
Well. Perhaps he would wait until he had reviewed the recording once. Or twice. It could be useful comparison material for that next lesson. With a last glance at the image, he set the device down and resumed speed. That twitching of his lip was merely a coincidental itch, no doubt. Sith Lords certainly did not grin like teenagers.