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Still Life with a Nubian Mirror
Anakin Skywalker, Jedi apprentice of slightly more than a year, bounded down the ship's ramp with a triumphant hoot, his short padawan braid flapping. A brief glance over his shoulder told him that his master had stopped at the top of the ramp, squinting in the Nubian sunshine, watching him, a half-aloof, half-disapproving expression on his face, as he wore often these days. The knight shook his head, and Anakin felt a familiar pinprick of remorse for having disappointed his master.
It had not been easy to sweet-talk Obi-Wan into coming to Naboo for a brief visit. The Knight had seemed reluctant, but Anakin had persisted, and finally even Yoda had agreed that the boy needed to get away from the artificial transparisteel and duracrete environment of Coruscant. Standing behind a half-closed door with bated breath, Anakin had eavesdropped upon the ancient master argue with Obi-Wan. He had mentioned things like the burden of high expectations and distrust; but mostly, the young padawan suspected, Yoda somehow knew about his fears that came to him in nightmares.
Anakin was aware of Obi-Wan's reluctance. He felt guilty for disappointing his master his master yet again—but the guilt could not entirely mask his excitement. So he squared his shoulders and, once again making sure that Obi-Wan was indeed following, skipped towards the group of Nubian high officials and Queen's handmaidens who had gathered to welcome them.
As they approached and Anakin could see their faces, his feet slowed down to a hesitant walk. Neither of the two handmaidens was Padmé. And to the boy's dismay, he discovered that they were not just any visitors, they were Jedi, very high representatives of the Republic even when not on a Senate mission of saving the Galaxy, and so their arrival inevitably involved some pomp and formality. Even though the two handmaidens and a guard of honour winked at Anakin and greeted Obi-Wan in a very friendly manner, they were exactly that — a symbol of a free world recognising the authority of the Senate and the Republic. Anakin hated it from the very first moment.
It seemed as if nothing during this visit would turn out right, after all. The Queen received them in the throne room, expressed hopes of their well-being in a cool royal voice, and then there was a rather formal welcoming dinner. Anakin had been looking forward to some real food, not some substance from a synthfood processor, but sitting at the long table together with dignitaries, politicians, ministers, his appetite wilted. As a Jedi and hero of the Naboo people, he found himself at the centre of somewhat uncomfortable attention and suddenly the thought of everybody staring at every mouthful made him too nervous to enjoy it properly. Besides, he still hadn't been able to talk to Padmé. A Padawan should not speak to a planetary ruler unless addressed. Padmé, in her Queen's persona, did not speak to him, and so he had only managed to exchange a brief smile with her in the throne room. And at the dinner his constant spinning and craning his head towards the Queen's table earned him a fairly sharp mental reprimand from the Master. Anakin scrunched up his nose, wondering if a Jedi could really ever have a time off, just to be himself.
He breathed a sigh of relief when the day's official functions were finally over for the pair of Jedi, and Master Obi-Wan said Anakin was free to do what he wanted for the evening. Unfortunately the Queen was still busy at a late-night meeting somewhere. Disappointed, the Padawan shambled after his Master to their appointed rooms. He alternately sulked and fidgeted restlessly until he finally got on Obi-Wan's nerves. The knight in his turn wished for nothing but a little quiet, to laze away the evening in his luxurious bed (yes, a royal's life seemed much more comfortable than a Jedi's, in this respect!) with a good book; so he finally warned Anakin not to stay up long and not to get into any mischief, and told him without further ado to get lost.
Paradoxically, Anakin felt another sting of disappointment at that. For some reason he had hoped that Obi-Wan would share his enthusiasm at being back on Naboo. Oh well — he could understand his master too. It was not like Anakin had forgotten.
He liked the palace. It was just what it had to be, for Padmé to live in. The marble floors were highly polished, reflecting him in shades of red, grey and white. Statues stood in their niches tall and dignified; people walked about, calm and businesslike.
Anakin looked around and, finding no one in immediate vicinity, hopped onto the banisters and rode down. And grinned, as one of the palace guards shook a finger at him. Through the hallway, a short but wide and stately flight of stairs took him up again past the huge statue of some philosopher, whose name escaped him right now — Messala? Menestheos? — and he peered up the stairs to his right, which led to long, brightly lit hallways. This was the wing of the palace where council chambers, press centre, various senatorial and liaison offices were situated. Padmé would most likely be here.
But Padmé had not invited him. Padmé had no need for him. Of course, why would she? A fifteen-year-old beautiful queen, what would she do with a lowly ex-slave Padawan? In the temple, fifteen-year-olds were so high above his level that they only ever noticed Anakin and his peers barely enough not to run them down in the hallways. Why would Padmé be different? She was a woman. (Anakin suspected that Master Obi-Wan would have smirked and said, "Almost, Padawan. Almost." Well, she was, to a ten-year-old.) Much as Anakin hated this, at moments like these he felt most painfully that he was still a child, at least in the eyes of those who mattered.
So, instead of turning to the right, he chose the stairway on his left. This led to a palace wing that he had never been in before.
Wondering, he looked around. As he walked further and further down the hallways, the sounds from the main parts of the palace gradually died down. And then suddenly he realized how quiet it was around him. Even the lamps were not lit in this part of the palace, so the only light he had was from street lanterns that shone through the tall windows, throwing eerie splashes of light on the floor. It was not exactly deserted, it was just... dark and quiet. For a moment he thought he heard heavy footsteps — probably a palace guard — but then the sounds died down. Whoever it was must have gone another way.
Anakin found he liked it that way. It was almost like an adventure. His former chagrin forgotten, he traipsed along the corridors, seeing Krayt dragons and Mandalorian blue tigers in every shadow.
The empty, dusty hallways of Theed Palace echoed under his heavy, measured steps. Cool draft swept in through empty windows — the coloured glass panes had shattered years ago, and now it seemed that winds had made their nest in the palace, bringing dry old leaves, sand and rubble from the streets and abandoning it in the corners and along the walls in unorganized piles and stripes.
Darth Vader was weary — weary and disappointed. Once again the elusive Skywalker had barely escaped, and the Dark Lord knew his time was running out. The Emperor would allow him to play cat and mouse with the young Force-wielder only for so long. And then... and then, there would come a day when he would order his Dark Lord to kill the young Jedi student. And Darth Vader would again have to postpone his hopes of overcoming the Emperor, this time indefinitely.
To his dismay, he had to admit that he didn't like the idea of killing the boy at all. And he wasn't convinced that it was merely because of the fear of losing his dream. He didn't even know when those feelings had first emerged — he was almost sure he'd gone to Bespin without them, but there, seeing the boy just... let go... and fall, fall, fall... Vader had grabbed the railing to hold himself upright, so sharp and sudden had the shock been. And the next moment he had rediscovered fear. Fear for the foolish youth who was his son. It was all he could do to reach out with the Force and soften Skywalker's impact with the bottom of the air shaft. Even now, remembering, his gloved hand clutched at the handrail and his gaze turned downwards. But of course, this time there was no pit filled with howling wind, just the mosaic floors laid in the pattern of some mythological monsters, half-birds, half-serpents. And tainted with dust like his memories.
Yet bitter as they were, those memories kept luring the Sith, calling him back to the moment when he had stood at the viewport on the bridge of the Executor and called out to his son. And the boy — and the boy had called him —
Father! The longing and betrayal that had been in Luke's voice cut right through the shell that Darth Vader had surrounded himself with, and he felt his heart lurch down into his stomach. Son... with a tremor in his mental voice that now made the Dark Lord wince in embarrassment.
With paranoid perseverance he kept replaying their brief mental touch in his mind, seeking for any connection, any memory, anything, and each time reliving the wonder, the pain and the embarrassment.
My son. Mine. Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh. His fist curled possessively around empty air. And oh, how he resented his Master calling the boy Son of Skywalker! "One day," he vowed, "one day the Galaxy will know that he is mine."
How long, how much longer?
Why don't you listen to reason, boy? Join me, it is the only way!
Having reported his failure at Bespin — with growing unease — he had felt the urgent need to gather his thoughts, so he had set his course to Naboo. Only now he was not entirely sure if this had not been a mistake. The planet had been laid bare, the royal palace ruined. Nothing of the serene happiness of its former atmosphere remained, and nothing to anchor his anger to. Nobody to blame or punish. Just... memories.
He stepped over a chunk of marble, the head of a statue, empty lifeless eye sockets staring up at him, eternal benevolent smile on stony lips. He remembered the sculpture, it had stood in a shallow niche, in such a position that light and shadow had always played on its face in a most peculiar way. If you ran down the corridors at night, it seemed as if the lips smiled and the eyes turned to follow you...
A two-meter-tall Sith Lord wouldn't run in the palace hallways, even though there was nobody to see him. But something stirred in his memory, something that he had kept and treasured, hidden from his master, and he could almost hear a boy's feet thud and skid on the polished marble floors.
An empty doorway, bearing burn marks, led to a room that was bare, except for a huge, floor-to-ceiling mirror that had miraculously remained intact. Vader stopped, staring at it thoughtfully. A piece of childhood, that. Childhood of a long forgotten man, the remnants of whom were still lurking in the dark corners of his mind. No matter how often his master had told him to get rid of those remnants, he had never been able to — he had never quite managed to stop looking back. Almost for as long as he remembered, in the slave dens of Tatooine, in the bustle of the Temple, in the turmoil that was the crumbling Republic and the emerging Empire, maintaining identity had been a question of survival.
He remembered having been quite fascinated with that mirror — why, he couldn't recall. Must have been its aura of luxury. Of course, as he grew older and saw more of the world, the wonder of the piece diminished, but a ten-year-old Padawan Skywalker had really stood before this mirror open-mouthed, awed at the sheer size of it, at the luxuriously carved golden frame, and wondering whoever it was who might have use of such things. That some things were made for beauty alone had not yet occurred to him. On Tatooine nothing had ever been.
Vader stepped into the room and tried to picture himself as he had been then, as yet unmarred... Gloved fingers ran almost reverently over the dim splashes of coloured light and traced the carvings on the mirror frame: no, it was not entirely intact, there was a crack running diagonally across the face of a fantastic sea-creature, making it grin slyly.
Laughing at me, are you?
The creature's slightly bulging eyes and seemingly toothy grin reminded him of... Palpatine. This thought jarred him out of the reverie. Disgusted, he gathered his wandering thoughts, turned abruptly and left the room.
As he descended the broken stairs, however, something stirred in him. He stopped abruptly, looking at the pale moonlight shining through empty window frames, and tried to recapture the moment when he had stood and briefly looked at his own image in the mirror — a foul figure — but there had been something wrong with the reflection.
Splashes of coloured light on the floor. Coloured. As in through coloured-glass windows.
The windows behind the back of his mirror image were whole.
No, surely not. It couldn't be.
He shook his head, determined to dismiss it as a figment of imagination brought about by memories. But there was something... His curiosity won out. The room really wasn't that far, he reasoned, and besides, he had to trust his instincts.
Wait, who had said that? It was a long time ago...
Mentally reprimanding himself for this foolishness, he traced back his way to the mirror chamber.
The room was empty and unlit, and in the mirror image moonlight shone softly through coloured glass windows. Gasping, he turned. No. The windows behind his back were broken.
It could only be ascribed to his two decade long painful avoidance of all reflecting surfaces whenever possible that he had not realized this immediately. Where he stood, facing the mirror, he should have been able to see clearly his own full-length reflection. Only he wasn't there.
Well, he wasn't, but he was. He grasped the wall, feeling suddenly weak in the knees. Where his black form should have filled the doorway in the mirror, he saw a young and ridiculously small blue-eyed sandy-haired boy, squatting, playing with a fighter model, deeply immersed in his game.
Of course, he knew the boy. The one who had died in the lava pit.
Time shattered into tiny pieces, each a still frame. He felt the mirror-boy become aware of him, he felt rather than saw him raise his eyes, in slow motion but with a heavy sense of inevitability. Suddenly he felt as if an ice lump in his chest began to melt, or a door had opened somewhere. And he remembered the taste and feel of the world back when the Palace had not been empty, when the beautiful statues and works of art had taken the breath away as a slave-boy from Tatooine had seen them for the first time. And simultaneously he saw with his own eyes. He saw the boy—himself—still so young, pliable, still untouched by grief and pain, full of hopes, staring at the world, staring at him through the mirror, eyes full of wonder.
It was all too much, too sudden. He wanted to back away and hide. He didn't want to remember. He didn't want the boy to see him—not yet, not like this.
Everybody in Naboo seemed to retire early, Anakin thought, wondering. The long Nubian twilight had not yet darkened into night, but this wing of the palace seemed quiet and empty. Not a soul in hearing range, at least as much as Anakin could determine. But, as he passed a high window looking out towards the main street of Theed, he could still see people bustling about. Must be this place then, he concluded.
It was strange, to be suddenly in a place so deserted. A shiver ran down his spine — not fear, Anakin Skywalker was never afraid. But… apprehension? Weird, how suddenly the temperature would drop after nightfall, he thought.
The Palace was magical at night. The cold bluish light from the tall windows made shadows dance on the faces of the statues. It seemed their eyes moved to look after the ten-year old boy as he passed, and enigmatic smiles played on their stone lips. The enchanted light touched the figures of the ancient mosaic paintings on the wall, bringing them to life. A hand moved here, a cloth rustled…
Anakin smiled. In his conscious mind he knew that fairy tales were not real, but why shouldn't he just pretend and play?
There was one room he discovered, a small room with no furniture but for the largest mirror Anakin had ever seen. He had no idea what room it was or why it was empty — not even a chair in there — but he immediately took a liking to it. It felt like the sum of mysteries of the palace, the place where the nightly shadows crept up to worship their lost bodies. The mirror was of real-glass, faded with age, not as clear as it once had been. This seemed to give the mirror-world a life of its own. Anakin pretended another boy lived in the mirror, someone he could play with, who wouldn't look at him as a Force-weirdo or a former slave. He traipsed around and, passing the doorway so that he could see his reflection, he waved to himself. The other boy in the mirror seemed to be cold. "You come from a warm planet," he explained to him wisely, more to soothe his own longing. "Space is cold."
Space. He would love to pilot, but Obi-Wan had said he was still too young to take classes. Hah, as if he needed them, he already knew how to pilot! Whoever had made the rule that one couldn't sit at the starship controls at the ripe old age of ten? This was so unfair. It was not as if he didn't have the eyes, hands and knowledge, just some years were missing! Just a comfortable excuse for adults to keep children from having fun.
He sat down on the floor, leaning against the doorframe, and dug out a small toy fighter from his pocket. Using the Force, he flew it around in the room, imagining himself blasting into the skies in a sleek fighter. Blue, it would have to be blue—his very own fighter, the fastest in all Galaxy. "Bzzzzz... Wheeeeoooooow! Shields up! Enemy fighters coming in at oh point three! Vrrrrrrrooooooo... Whump! Wheeeooow... Bang! Gotcha! Yes! Oh no, I'm hit! Shields down 30 per cent! Stabilizer's hit! What? I have an idea, reroute power to the back deflector shields! Bzzzzzaaaaah... Bang!" Unfortunately his control was not yet so good, so the little fighter tended to veer off and pop down on the floor, giving the imaginary enemies a field day as they "shot down" the famous Anakin Skywalker now and again.
He wasn't sure what it was that brought him out of his game suddenly. As the echo of his clear voice faded in the room, it seemed as if a shadow descended upon him. An eerie feeling of being watched tickled at the back of his mind. He probed the surroundings as Obi-Wan had taught him to, but there was nobody in the vicinity. He opened his eyes and gasped. Instead of his "playmate", his own reflection sitting by the door, there was a huge figure was staring at him from the mirror, all flowing robes and leather of the blackest of black.
Anakin blinked. When he reopened his eyes, the figure was gone.
He sat there for a long time, wondering whether he had actually seen something or had it been just imagination. But there had been some sort of brief connection, like things sliding into place with a click, like getting past the passwords and entering into a vast database, with worlds upon worlds of something... alien, yet familiar. Should he go tell his master, or perhaps even ask Padmé about this mysterious mirror? But what would he say to them? That he thought he had seen something in a mirror? Obi-Wan would just say he had been daydreaming. And Padmé — the Queen had no time for little boys, it seemed.
There was no denying the event had somewhat unnerved him. It was not fear — no, Anakin Skywalker was not afraid of anything — but the feeling he'd had, of, of... familiarity? Like something cold, long forgotten and rarely seen, that still undeniably belonged to his life. Like... perhaps like father coming home from a long trip. Or at least that's how he had always imagined it, and he'd often wondered about how it would feel to have a father. A huge, powerful figure appearing at the doorway, and mother looking up from the cooking unit, an expression of joy and surprise on her face. "Anakin, set another place at the table for your father," she would say. And then, at dinner, Anakin would sit between his mother and father, and they would exchange wordless glances, and Anakin would peer up at the stranger who was his father, back from months-or-years-long expedition to the unknown stars, and he would be flustered, half remembering and half shy, but mighty proud of his father. Yes.
But of course, it never was. He shook his head and laughed a little, and instantly the gloomy mood dissolved. Well, whatever it was, it was just a mirror. It couldn't hurt him. And he resolved to look into the matter more closely. But, realizing it was late, he decided to put this off till the next day and made his way back to their rooms.
Obi-Wan was up, reading something. He looked up from the datapad pointedly. "I thought I told you not to stay long, Padawan."
"I'm sorry, Master. I got carried away."
Obi-Wan smiled. "What were you up to?"
Anakin hesitated. He never lied to anyone, but ... this was just plain crazy. He wasn't a baby to retell daydreams to his master. Or should he? What if it wasn't a daydream?
"Huh... nothing really, just... exploring," he mumbled.
"Very well. Bed now," Obi-Wan said absently, returning to his reading. Had he been more attentive, he would not have missed a mixture of relief and indecision on his Padawan's face.
That night Vader slept fitfully; a dream kept coming to him of Bespin. After that nearly disastrous duel he had left the generator room half running, desperate to get away, to get to the safety of his ship. He knew his son was hanging on a weather wane somewhere below the structures of Cloud City and his mind worked furiously, trying to decide what to do about it. The one thing he would not dare to do was to take his shuttle and retrieve Luke himself, for he knew the boy would prefer falling to his death — and this time there would be nothing to stop him. No bottom for this fall. Or maybe he was even more afraid of facing the boy now, after what had transpired between them.
But the pilot of his dream shuttle took a course directly to the belly of the Cloud City, and no matter how Vader raged, he could do nothing about it. He could not utter a sound or move a finger... all he could do was stare at the viewport where the small figure of Luke drew closer and closer, inevitably and unstoppably, until his tear-streaked face was finally pressed against the cockpit window — a face that kept haunting him — and then the boy let go.
Vader jolted awake, covered with a sheen of sweat, tears in his eyes. Just a dream, he muttered. Luke did not fall. He was saved. He is alive. Grabbing a glass of water, he gulped it down.
After he had calmed down a bit, his mind returned to the world below him, and the previous night. An unexpected phenomenon... Was this supposed to be a lesson from the Force? If so, a lesson of what? Of how incredibly foolish and weak he was, that he still had not been able to purge the last traces of light from his mind? He snorted: as if he wasn't reminded of that constantly by his master.
It was just a vision, he repeated to himself. Visions are normal, visions are supposed to come to a Jedi. Or Sith. But — why a vision of the past? He tried to remember if there had been anything in that part of his life that might give a clue for his present. The Anakin he had seen could not have been older than ten or eleven — quite early in his training then, not really going on missions. No key events as far as he could remember: he must have been gradually getting over the separation from mother and the Naboo incident; and Padmé, Palpatine and all the others had not yet begun to influence him seriously. One of the most quiet, most stable periods in his life.
Should he investigate the matter further? Should he consult his Master? After a brief hesitation he decided not to report to the Emperor unless there was something to report. He still had a couple of days before he would have to return to the Imperial Center, and he decided to use this time to look into this phenomenon more deeply.
Yet — he shook his head in disgust at himself — what in Hutt-spit had he been thinking, staring agape at the mirror like a Rodian in a Wookiee zoo? And then, shocked, slipping out of the room, only to lean against the wall panting like a frightened child who had just seen a monster? Fool, fool, fool! Fool a thousand times over!
He checked the chrono and grunted: still a couple of hours to the morning shift when the huge command ship would wake to its daily activities.
Donning his usual armour and mask, he made his way to the bridge. The bridge crew quickly snapped up from their semi-dozing state — as if they could fool him!
"Captain. Any activity down there? Life signs?"
"None registered, sir." The officer was young, but efficient-looking.
"None. The planet is bare, according to the sensors."
Vader grunted and turned towards the viewport. The planet loomed across one edge of it, its nightside turned towards them. It would be early morning according to Theed time, the Sith reckoned.
He pondered for a while. What was it that he had actually seen? Was it dream, or reality? It was clear that he had been shown a picture from his early apprenticeship. He very vaguely remembered playing in the palace during his first visit after being apprenticed to Obi-Wan. Oddly, the only thing he really remembered from that period with some clarity was a relatively minor accident, a fall down the stairs that had resulted in a concussion and a brief loss of memory — and that mainly because of the fussing and cosseting that had followed.
But the question was, why had he been shown that? Was he supposed to do something about it? Learn something?
And yet again he asked himself, should he consult his master? At times like these, when he was unsure, it would have been prudent to rely on the old Sith's superior wisdom and experience; but once again, Vader admitted to himself, any contact he initiated with Palpatine would undoubtedly bring uncomfortable questions about young Skywalker, questions he was not yet prepared to answer. And what would he tell him anyway? That he saw a vision of his old self, an insignificant boy? Palpatine would laugh at him, and he should count himself lucky if no bout of lightning was forthcoming.
In fact, if he was honest with himself, one of the reasons he had asked for a brief reprieve from his duties was the opportunity to be away from the oppressive feeling of being Darth Vader, Sith lord and Lord Protector of the Empire. He had needed a chance to be alone with his thoughts and try to settle his newly emerged and roiling emotions in order, and he was loath to ruin his rare and treasured moments of solitude here, on the rim of the Empire. No, he would seek the answers by himself.
An unexpected wave of something akin to eagerness rose in him. This promised to be not such a bad way to pass time, as far as things went. Vader allowed himself a tiny smirk behind his mask at the whimsical thought: what if the vision would repeat?
Or what if it wouldn't?
Well, there was only one way to get the answers, he thought, bracing himself against the inevitable disappointment.
"Have my shuttle readied."
"As you wish, my lord."
When Anakin arrived in the mirror room, the stranger was already there. He was standing on his side of the mirror, apparently studying it carefully, touching the glass surface with the tips of his gloved fingers.
Anakin was hit with the same odd mix of emotions: eager anticipation, borderline familiarity and apprehension. Reminding himself of Master Obi-Wan's teachings and gulping down his nervousness, the boy took a moment to study the other. The man was a veritable giant, over two meters tall, Anakin estimated. Clad all in black, the only spots of colour on him were the blinking lights of a panel on his chest, not unlike the respirator control panel that Orbital Security pilots wore. The stranger's face was covered by a weird mask that reminded him of some insect with its huge eyes and small mandible-like protrusions by the triangular breather. The boy could hear the whirring and hissing of the breathing machine.
What was he, an alien?
Anakin wasn't entirely sure what to do. Should he say something? Would the other hear him at all? Perhaps he should wave or bow? He moistened his dry lips slightly and nodded in a way that could pass as a greeting. "H-hi."
The stranger did not seem to hear him at first, but slowly the insect-eyes of his mask turned towards him, and although he could not see the eyes, he knew they were probing him and then looking at him with unabashed curiosity.
"Good morning, young one."
The voice made him want to cower and hide. Dark and rumbling, with the metallic clang of a vocoder, but beneath it the inflections were undeniably human or humanoid. And at the same time it was the deepest, strongest voice he had ever heard. Mesmerising. A voice to match the figure. That made Anakin even more curious about the stranger. He wiped his moist palms surreptitiously into his tunic.
"Are you real?"
The stranger looked at him indignantly. "What do you think?" he scoffed.
Anakin frowned slightly, only now becoming aware that he was actually quite... well, aware of the other's presence in the Force. Quite real, then. And, he realized with a jolt, the emotions he had been feeling weren't all his own. He was feeling the stranger, just as if he had been here, in this room with him, and not in a mirror. And the gaze from the invisible eyes was so palpably on him that it felt almost as real as his master’s… but stranger, edgier, more forceful. Perhaps like the Supreme Chancellor’s. Yes, that must be it.
Somehow having anchored his feelings in the known world helped. This was something he could relate to, something he could deal with. He stepped closer to the mirror.
"Uh... what are you doing?"
The tilt of the helmet changed slightly, and Anakin almost imagined a raised eyebrow. The giant shifted and slid his gloved fingers over the mirror again. "I am trying to find out how this works."
Emboldened, Anakin stretched out a hand and touched the cool glass surface. Nothing happened, no tickling static on his fingertips or a holo-field ripple. It seemed like, felt like, just plain, simple glass, a mirror like all others. Except that it wasn't.
"What do you think this is, sir? Definitely not some sort of communicator."
"No. My guess is, it is some sort of portal that has opened for some reason between..."
The giant did not answer.
Anakin twisted a little, peering past the other's black figure into the other room. It was... eerie. Dead, he would have said. Plagued with some sort of desolation that he could not name, but it left him with a feeling of loss and sadness. Come to think of it, there was a vague thought that the stranger seemed to fit into that atmosphere. And yet... not.
"What are you staring at?"
The stranger's abrupt tone jolted him out of the reverie, but he lifted his chin defiantly. "You. It's dark... and sad... on your side. You're dark." That brought a sudden frightening thought. “You can’t come through?” Anakin asked nervously. “I don’t think you can. Can you?”
Moments ticked past and Anakin began to half expect the mirror burst in shards of glass and...
“No, little one. I can not.”
It was a relief, but also, oddly, a disappointment. He felt sad for the strange black-clad giant in his bleak-looking palace. Anakin shifted from foot to foot, thinking of something to say. "I'm sorry," he said lamely.
There was a pause in the mechanical breathing, but he thought he heard a wisp of a sigh. "You have no idea, young one." There was a pause, a sense of I almost wish... “It's best this way," the giant rumbled.
The mask stared at him wordlessly.
"Um... I'm Anakin Skywalker. Who are you?"
"You can call me... Vader."
Vader. Anakin decided that, apart from the fact that the guy looked freaky and felt freaky, he liked the name. It had a strong ring to it. It sounded cool, the way it rolled off his tongue, and even cooler when uttered in such a deep, resounding voice. Perhaps, Anakin thought, he should try to use it sometime, maybe as an alias in some hologames. After all, it was not like the other would even know.
For another moment neither said anything, merely staring at each other. Anakin would have loved to ask many questions, but he was not sure how the other would react. In his experience adults were never particularly patient with his questions, and rarely willing to give satisfactory answers. He did not want to drive his secret companion away. Still, it was equally awkward to just stand and stare.
"Mr Vader, sir—"
"Anakin! Padawan, where are you?"
Anakin jumped at Obi-Wan's voice drifting to them through the hallways. He looked uncomfortably at Vader. "Er—"
"You'd better run, young one, when Master Kenobi calls," Vader said.
"Ho— how did you know?"
"I know everything about you. Now, run along."
"Yes, but how—?"
"Anakin Skywalker." The giant's tone told Anakin quite clearly that he'd better obey — in fact there was something parental, a wisp of a memory of his mum standing in the doorway, hands in her hips, saying in a similar tone, Anakin Skywalker, you come in this instant.
He looked back from the doorway. "Mr Vader, sir, will you be coming back here in the afternoon, after my lessons?"
Vader did not answer, but the helmet tilted slightly and there was an exasperated sigh. Anakin took that as a hopeful sign. "Coming, Master!" he called over into the hallway, then turned back and waved. "Bye, Mr Vader. See you."
The Sith spent a busy day combing through the whole palace, peering into the remaining mirrors (mostly fractured or completely shattered), studying picture frames and "sniffing" for any other abnormalities through the Force. When he finally made his way back to the mirror room, he was somewhat tired but there was a definite spring in his step. For a moment he even caught himself humming, but stopped immediately in embarrassment. Sith lords do not hum, ever. Neither do they make appointments with little boys, but then, he had not returned to the room to talk with the boy, had he? No, absolutely not; it was merely to study the magic mirror. He would leave before the boy's lessons were over.
What had the lessons been about, anyway? Vader stretched his memory back, but could not remember. Apparently his little trip down the stairs had blotted out that particular memory, among others. He remembered waking up though, Obi-Wan and Padmé hovering nervously above him, and feeling that there was something he had forgotten.
Perhaps that was what it was all about? Some secret that was buried within his past and that he was now supposed to unlock? Vader peered at the mirror curiously, but the thing yielded no answers.
Frustrated, he chose a window niche that was suitably wide and sat down to meditate on what to do about a certain rebel youngster called Luke.
He was still there when Anakin returned nearly two hours later. A mixture of anger and misery rolled off the boy in waves. He delivered a vicious kick at the toy fighter, sending it crashing into the wall. "Chuba wanko man gheela!"
Aroused from his contemplation, Vader found himself inexplicably irritated. "Do me the favour, young one, of leaving me out of such generalizations!"
"Oh! Sorry, sir. I did not see you there — uh — didn't know you spoke Huttese."
"Clearly,” he snapped, stalking away to the door. Vader was not even sure what disturbed him more — the fact that he had failed to leave in time, sitting here like a fool waiting for a child, or the boy's childish sulk that was very unsavoury to see when you knew you were dealing with your own younger self. Surely he had never been so immature? Perhaps it was time to cut this vacation short and return to the Empire where things made sense.
"Wait — please, Mr Vader, don't go!"
The boy's voice was so pitifully pleading that something in the Sith made him stop. "What do you want?"
Anakin shrugged. "Dunno. Just... talk, I guess?"
Vader laughed bitterly, and flinched at the unpleasant sound. Still, after a moment of hesitation he turned. "What would you want to talk with me about?" Indeed, what would a boy want to talk about with a Sith lord?
"Uh — dunno. It's been sorta lonely, and things have happened, and there's been nobody to talk to. Even Master Obi-Wan is always too busy."
Vader had no answer to that. Of course the boy was alone, he was born to be so. Why, Vader himself had been alone for most of his life: there had never been any natural peers for him, no Jedi who had understood his connection with his mother or with his wife, his need to belong and his hunger for someone who was truly his; nobody who could ever have an inkling about what the Force was to him, no one. Not even his master — his true Master, Palpatine. They all had their demands and expectations of him, trying to tie him to them and away from what he wanted for himself, trying to convince him that he did not really need it all; and in the end, those conflicting forces had torn him apart.
But perhaps not irreparably. For there was Luke still, and a chance for Vader's own personal redemption, a chance to at last have someone who would be his, and to whom he would belong as a father. If only Luke would see...
Anakin shuffled from foot to foot. "I'm sorry I bothered you," he muttered.
Vader pitied him: to feel so lonely as to seek companionship in a mirror. Yes, he understood loneliness.
"Care to tell me what happened in the lesson to upset you so?" he asked.
There was a glimmer of relief in Anakin's eyes, quickly replaced by embarrassment. "I failed. Again. Master Obi-Wan says I am too impatient. I'll never be able to still my mind properly in his way!"
"Ah." Vader understood the problem. Quiet meditation in the Jedi way had never been his forte. He waited for Anakin to continue.
"Now you must think I'm a whiney."
Vader tilted his head. "No," he said, "you are not. You are a person, and your name is Anakin Skywalker."
"Yes," the boy whispered, " how did you know?"
The Dark Lord smiled wryly. How could he not know? It was not what he had said that made the boy wonder, but how he had said it. The old mantra that had kept him going, reminding him of who he was when the pressure of being a peedunkel, shag or Chosen One had been too much to bear. The mantra that, for all his declarations to the contrary, he still remembered secretly.
"As I said before, I know everything about you."
"But how? Who are you?" Anakin demanded.
"What do you think, young one?"
"I..." Anakin hesitated, then shook his head. "I don't know."
The Sith smirked behind his mask. Oh, wouldn't it be good to see the boy's reaction to the truth? But this would never do. What if Anakin knew the truth? Would it change anything in the choices the boy, Vader himself, would make? That was a risk the Sith was not prepared to take. Anakin was an astute boy, better not lure his mind onto dangerous tracks, or the whole world as Vader knew it might collapse. So he changed the subject. "Tell me about the lesson then."
"Master Obi-Wan says I am not doing it correctly. That I should quiet my mind and let the Force be at rest and just observe. But it is never at rest! It is alive, moving, not some dead thing that I can observe quietly! Why will he not allow me to do it my way? So I told him I could do it better. He got angry at me. I think he is afraid. He doesn't understand. I think he hates me. He always did. I heard what he said to Master Qui-Gon."
“Obi-Wan does not hate you." A year, even a few weeks ago, Vader would never have even considered saying something like that, but the newly-emerged awareness of his own fatherhood had suddenly given him a new perspective. Watching one's son plunge to probable death had given him a better understanding of Obi-Wan. Not that he could ever forgive him, but some things made better sense now, and he spoke with a new conviction. "Obi-Wan loves you like a father, you know that, do you not, little one?”
“I suppose so.” The boy looked down sullenly, drawing circles with his boot-tip. “But still I don't understand why I must meditate in his way. I'll never be able to do that!"
Vader hesitated for a moment; he had never shared his own particular way of meditation. After all, he had struggled long and hard to teach himself that particular technique; in fact he had been a knight and self-confident enough to truly follow his own instincts before it had come naturally enough for him. "Sit down, little one, and let us try this together."
From there, the evening progressed much more peaceably. They talked, and meditated, and talked some more, about Anakin’s studies and Mother and even Obi-Wan. And later, returning to his flagship, Darth Vader slept as soundly as he had not slept for a long time, blissfully free of terrifying visions of Bespin.
“Mr Vader! Mr Vader, sir! Are you there?”
Anakin peeped into the mirror, wondering if he could will the other to appear. Pressing his cheek to the cool glass, he tried to peer into the room on the other side of the mirror, but the stranger was not there. He must have visited though, some time in the morning, for Anakin could see that one of the fractured statues in the other-hallway had been hoisted up onto its pedestal, and a chair had been placed near one of the windows. The weather on the other side looked cool and sunny, unlike in his own Theed where rain, driven by harsh gusts of wind, whipped against the window-panes.
Even though he knew it was silly, he knocked on the mirror. “Mr Vader! If you are there, please show yourself!”
No reply. Anakin was somewhat disappointed. He actually liked the man. Yes, this Mr Vader could be testy, but it seemed he could understand him like nobody else did. And he was strong, and powerful, and fearsome! This black giant looked like he would be able to drive away all Hutts and other scum single-handedly, and free his mum and all slaves on Tatooine. Oh, to be like that when he grew up! To have such power, to do anything he wanted! Free the slaves, punish the loan sharks and body traders, rein in the greedy, squabbling bureaucrats who would not help people, make them all see justice!
Sighing, Anakin looked around. No going out today — and even if Master Obi-Wan had suggested it, he would have declined. He had been so much looking forward to speaking with the mirror-man. Perhaps if he waited a bit? He slid down on the floor and opened his xenobiology textbook.
He hadn’t heard anything, but something prompted him to raise his eyes from the book, and there he was in all his dark glory, leaning against the doorframe in his own room.
Anakin smiled slightly. “Hello. I’ve been waiting for you.”
A slight tilt of the helmet, and the other came forward and squatted before the mirror. “And why is that, little one?”
“Dunno.” He shrugged. “Curious, I suppose.” He paused, wondering if he sounded very foolish, but then admitted, “I was trying to summon you, you know.”
“Oh. I thought I felt something.”
“Have you talked to anybody else like that?”
A rich, low chuckle. “I do not live in this mirror, you know. Neither do you, Anakin.”
Anakin grinned, folding his legs into a comfortable position. “Where do you live, sir? Do you have family? I have a mother, but she is back on Tatooine and I am not allowed to see her. Do you know Tatooine?”
“Yes, I do. I harbour little love for the place.”
“Yeah." Anakin could share that feeling. He could not imagine anybody really loving the place. “Been to Mos Espa?”
“Wizard! That’s where I used to live. But now I live on Coruscant. Where do you live?”
“On my spaceship,” came the clipped answer. Anakin could feel the warm amusement from the other and returned it with a warm smile. “It is a big ship, almost like a city in itself.”
“Wow! Have you been to all the stars?”
Vader shook his head.
Vader chuckled. “You are full of questions today, little one. But yes, I have a son.”
“Back on your ship?”
“No. In truth, I have no idea where he is. I am trying to find him. You see, I only recently became aware of his existence.”
Anakin wondered how that could be, but did not ask. He sighed. “I never had a dad. I wish I did, though.”
Some minutes passed in a companionable silence. Anakin stared at the sunlight pouring into the room on the other side of the mirror. He reached out slightly with his senses, feeling the Force flow around and through him. Spreading his fingers he watched it swirl and dance between them like a river over golden stones. And there, opposite him, was a presence like a dark sun, burning and dangerous and yet oh so comfortingly familiar. Anakin smiled a little. He had really enjoyed their shared meditation exercise last night, so much so that he had tried to repeat it alone before going to bed. This had earned him a curious glance from Master Obi-Wan, but the elder Jedi had not said anything.
With some concentration Anakin gathered a little happy swirl of Force into a pinprick of light and made it dance across the mirror's surface. Soon it was joined by another, on the other side of the mirror; and if someone had made their way to the unused palace wing, they would have heard peals of boyish laughter as a Jedi Padawan and a Sith Lord chased each other’s lightspots.
Anakin was still giggling when he blurted: “Mr Vader, you wouldn’t be my father by any chance?”
The Sith almost choked. “What?” He stared at the boy in disbelief. Of all the stupid things…! “Whatever made you think that? Anakin Skywalker, if you really do not know who your father is, your mother and your teachers have done a very poor job indeed.”
It was almost agonizing to see the boyish giggles dissolve. “Right,” Anakin muttered, blushing to his eartips. Then, after a brief pause, “I still wish I had a real dad, flesh and blood, like everybody else.”
Ah, yes. To be normal, like everybody else. Vader felt a bite of remorse for his outburst. "Young one,” he said softly, “why would you want something as common and ephemeral as that? Real people die, they leave you; whereas the Force is always with you. It is always your ally, never betraying you, always near at hand when you need it. Real fathers may hurt their sons, and real sons betray their fathers.”
The boy frowned. “I don’t believe that. Mum would never—”
“Mother was different!” Vader snapped sharply; but seeing the young one flinch, he immediately pulled back, sighing. “We were talking about fathers.”
He was not even sure why he wanted so desperately for Anakin to understand or believe that — perhaps to prepare the boy for his future, so that he would not be hurt so much. “I... know a man who also has a son. Their world is at war, and the father and son are on opposing sides. The father is a military commander and each time he heads his troops against the enemy, he knows his own son will be facing him." Anakin listened in rapt attention. “Recently they met up with each other. The—the father wanted his son to join him, to put an end to the war. But the son was stubborn, he wouldn’t listen. He pulled a lightsabre against the father. They fought. He cut off his son’s hand. So you see—”
“My father wouldn’t.”
“Pardon me?” Vader was almost dumbfounded at the bold interruption.
Anakin shrugged. “My father would never hurt me. I guess, my father would, that is, if I had a father, he would be a lot like me. Um… does this make sense?” Vader nodded. “And, I would never, never ever do anything like that to my son.”
He smiled ruefully at the boy’s naivete. “And what makes you think so?”
“Because he’d be my father. He’d love me as I am, no matter what I believe in or on whose side I fight, because he is my father and we are family! And I would love him too, no matter what,” Anakin declared vehemently.
“Even if he were your worst enemy?”
“He’d be my father first!”
Vader wanted to scoff at that. He really did. But the image of a young man choosing death rather than to acknowledge him as his father was burned into his mind. "You know absolutely nothing!" he hissed venomously.
“I know enough. I know my mother loves me. And if I had a father, my father would love me too. And if I had a son, I would love him like my mum loves me.” Anakin’s voice rose gradually until the last words were practically shouted.
Mum loves me.
My beautiful son.
It took the greatest effort to stifle the emotions that were threatening to spill out. Images of Shmi dying in his arms, Luke plunging down the shaft, Padmé, Obi-Wan, Tatooine and Coruscant and Naboo and Bespin, swirled chaotically in his mind. I would love him — Oh, if only it could be so simple! Had he really ever felt that way, was it possible at all to feel that way? A long suppressed memory of the day Qui-Gon had taken him away and Mother had stood at their door, hugging herself—
No, no, no, all lies, this boy was confusing him! All it had brought him was pain and destruction, every single person he had ever cared about had weakened him and betrayed him. There was a reason why the Sith never loved. The Dark Side was safe. Ruthless, yes, but just and safe.
“You know nothing, young one,” he repeated flatly. “The Sith do not love.”
Anakin had risen, his eyes huge and dark with betrayal.
Angry at the boy for being stupid, and even more angry at himself, Vader felt a perverse pleasure as he straightened up, staring back levelly. “That is what I said.”
The boy had admirable self-control, he had to give him that. There was no screaming, no childish fits or tears. He simply nodded and stalked to the door.
On the doorway the boy turned and said levelly, "I know who you are, Mr Vader. And I will never, ever, turn to the Dark Side!"
And then he turned and ran.
It was like a cold shower to the dark lord. What a confounded mess! Indeed, he was weak, like his Master had always said! He slammed a palm against the mirror.
“Anakin Skywalker, come back here this instant!”
But of course, the footsteps didn’t even falter, retreating ever further. And with unease Vader noticed that the image of the other-room had begun to blur. He could still see the unmarred perfection of the other side, but it was becoming ever more vague, being gradually overlaid with the reflection of the real, present-day Theed. The bright presence that was Anakin Skywalker was moving ever farther, becoming more and more muffled.
No! He couldn’t let it happen! Frantically Vader pulled the Force to him, putting all his being into it and letting his fury give it direction. There! Vader let the Force wrap tightly around Anakin’s memories of the past couple of days and — yanked.
The last thing he heard was a body falling down the stairs. Then the mirror shattered in a spectacular shower of glass.
The sun was still shining serenely when the Sith returned to the shuttle. A blinking light on the comm panel signalled a message, but that could wait. He contacted the bridge of his flagship.
“Any news, Captain?”
“None, Lord Vader. All’s quiet.”
“Thank you. Stand by for my return.”
Apparently, the galaxy had not changed; all was as it should be. After all, how many things could be changed by the recovery of a once-forgotten memory? And were the simple words, “I would love him like my mum loves me,” really worth all that trouble?
The Sith Lord had no answers to that. He only knew he wanted his son by his side. Shaking his head ruefully, he strapped himself into the pilot’s chair and engaged the engines. Darth Vader’s vacation was over; he had things to do and no time to mull over inane things like magic mirrors.