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Title: At Any Price
Author: Lady Jehanne (lady_jehanne@yahoo.com)
Characters: Vader, OFC
Rating: PG

Disclaimer: George Lucas owns the Universe, I just play in it for fun.

Summary: A woman from Earth wins an Ebay auction for dinner with Darth Vader, but finds out it's not a joke. Written for a Bast Castle Fanfic Challenge.

There were very few perks to my old job in corporate internet security back on Earth; reading other people's emails and surfing the Internet were about the only two worth mentioning. Being a 'Net-Nazi' makes you a pariah of IT - everyone loathes you. Reading other people's email was a distasteful, but sometimes humorous, part of my job. As for the Internet surfing, 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' Who polices the police? Besides, skimming through eBay auctions was more entertaining than looking for porn or corporate secrets in people's email. If I ran across something really good, I'd share it with Larry, my fellow Net-Nazi who shared my office, a former janitor's closet.

One entry got a startled whoop from me.

"Larry, this is too perfect!," I exclaimed to my coworker. "Dinner with Darth Vader... Seller: Emperor Palpatine. Description: Be transported to a galaxy far, far away for a gourmet dinner with Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. Not one cent will go to charity, I don't believe in it. And look, no bids so far!"

I was laughing as I entered my bid of fifty bucks. I got a message that the reserve hadn't been met, and Larry leaned over my shoulder.

"What, are you nuts, Marian? It's got to be a gag. Or you'll get some sleazy cosplayer heavy breathing at you."

I scrolled down to the photos, and pretended to fan myself.

"He's tall, and the costume is hot. And those aren't movie stills. I'd recognize a set from any of the films" I snickered. "And if he can do the voice, he can do whatever he likes to me-- as long as he keeps the costume on."

The photos were of some room with a long, sleek glass table, with Darth Vader looming in the foreground. The costume actually looked better than the one on my life-size poster at home. The breastplate looked more like actual armor. Definitely not the movie costume, but I liked this one better.

Larry just shook his head and backed away, "You are sick, Marian. Seriously, you need professional help."

Thank goodness Larry didn't know about the poster.

I just laughed and waved him off, "My therapist says I'm beyond help."

I said it like I was joking, and upped my bid to one hundred. The little 'reserve not met' notice vanished and I closed the window before Larry saw any more. My therapist had actually said that my problem was that I didn't want to change. I said my problem was the world sucked. I stopped seeing her.

"Be careful what you bid on, Marian. You just might get it," Larry said, laughing.

I shook my head, dismissing Larry's warning. I was short-timing it, with only a week until my vacation. Two blissful weeks at home with nothing to do but lie around and goof off. My only real plans were to visit a couple of shelters and a cat rescue group, as I was thinking of getting a Siamese to keep me company.

I was still thinking of cats a week later when I got the automated email that I had won the auction. I quickly closed that window before Larry could come by and ask about it, but I thought about it the entire drive home. It was a Friday, and traffic was worse than usual, so I had plenty of time to think. At least I knew what to wear for dinner with a Dark Lord of the Sith. I could still fit in my one good evening gown-- with the right corset. Then my thoughts grew gloomy, wondering if I'd hear from the seller at all. Or perhaps they'd promise to pick me up and then leave me, waiting at home alone, all dressed up and no place to go. One thing was for certain, I wasn't going to send any money in advance.

I was surprised to find a second email waiting for me when I finally got home, from Emperor_Palpatine@TheEmpire.gov. I assumed the address was probably spoofed, but it merited a chuckle. The message asked if tomorrow night at seven was a good time for the date. I replied back that that was fine. There were no further emails from "Emperor Palpatine," so I headed to bed at a decent hour. I had the dress, no plans for Saturday, and if it proved a disaster I had two weeks to get over the humiliation.

If only I had known.

I spent most of Saturday getting ready, but I suppose I could be excused for that. It was my first date since college, but not for lack of trying. I'd tried everything from science fiction conventions to ballroom dancing, which is why I had the gown. It was long and black, sleeveless, backless, and as iridescent as a beetle's wings with countless tiny beads. I had spent half an hour on my makeup, so it looked pretty natural. The only thing noticeable was a hint of gold eye-shadow to bring out the green in my hazel eyes. My long brown hair was piled up high on my head with a few ringlets falling near my ears. A pair of diamond studs and a simple diamond drop pendant completed the ensemble. I spent a few minutes just admiring myself in front of the mirror. The ballroom dancing competitions had been good for grace, and for learning how to dress. Too bad all the men I had met who came close to my own age were married or gay.

At 6:59 I was sitting on the couch in my living room, wondering what he'd arrive in. Part of me hoped against hope for a stretch Humvee limo. I'd seen one once, and I thought it looked as though it should be Darth Vader's staff car. At seven o'clock I stood in alarm as a shifting, swirling blackness surrounded me. That I might be hallucinating was my second thought; my first thought was unprintable. Next came a feeling of motion, as if moving in half a dozen directions at once at an inconceivable speed. Next thing I knew I was in a large, dark room next to something my mind vaguely registered as a computer bank, standing on a large stone disk heavily inscribed in a hook-and-barbed lettering. A malevolent laugh came from my right. I turned to face a pallid figure mostly concealed by a hooded black cloak. I felt all the blood drain from my face and my body turn cold. I knew who it was.

"E-emperor Palpatine?"

The room was large, and most of it hidden in shadows. The floor had the appearance of stone tile, and the walls were black or something close enough to it as to make no difference in the poor lighting.

"Yes, child..."

The voice was a parody of friendliness, something rotten lurking just beneath the surface. Terror took over then, my mind went completely blank, which may have saved my life. If Palpatine had picked up even a fraction of what I knew even then, I'd have been lucky to be killed on the spot. More likely I'd have been tortured for every detail he could ring out of me about the future. His death. Instead any attempt to scan my mind would have met with a sheer wall of terror, no doubt flattering to his ego, but not horribly informative. Some people are ashamed of fear, they deny it or try to conquer it. Fear has a purpose though, to inform you when you're in danger and save your life. That night, it did its job, as I sank to one knee in front of him. To hell with dignity, I wanted to live!

"Foolish child, what did you think you were getting into, paying to have dinner with a Dark Lord of the Sith?"

"S-sir, I'm sure I have misunderstood what a Sith Lord truly is... If I have offended in my ignorance I apologize."

I hated that stutter in my voice, and I was still too frightened to have a single coherent thought.

"No, of course you don't understand. How could you? Still it will be amusing for my apprentice to make your acquaintance. I'm sure he will enjoy dining with you..."

That laugh came again. I didn't like it any better the second time around. He was enjoying my terror and misery.

"You might tell him that the Disk of Al'trazar is unlimited by distance as long as the subject is willing. That should please him. You have no idea how hard it is to find willing volunteers to test ancient Sith artifacts. The first half a dozen or so volunteers were not, shall we say, as successful in their journeys as you. A most interesting and useful tool, your eBay."

He waved a negligent hand towards the pair of Crimson Guards flanking the doorway, "Show her to Lord Vader's quarters. He is expecting her."

His smile meant nothing good, nothing like what a smile should mean, and the only thought in my mind as I followed the guards out was to get out of his presence while I was still alive.

Following the guards down the hallway, my mind calmed down a bit. It was grand, with high vaulted ceilings and marble floors, but it was still just a hallway. No insane, possibly mind-reading Emperors anywhere in it. That alone was a vast improvement. I realized the Emperor hadn't been speaking English, that I hadn't been speaking English, and nearly panicked again. I forced the panic down. I considered that perhaps disk of Al'trazar had a translation effect built into it. But I decided not to think about that prospect too much. I was overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all as it was, and there was still Lord Vader to meet.

My nerves were shot and I couldn't keep my brain from spinning off in every direction. The idea that I had gone mad did occur to me. It seemed more logical than being transported to the middle of a sci-fi movie alternative universe. I tried to seize control of myself and my thoughts as we walked through the halls of the palace, and couldn't. So I had to act like things were what they appeared to be, try to stay alive.

The fact that the Emperor was still lived, in this reality, along with Lord Vader, opened far too many possibilities that I didn't want to think about. I didn't know when I was entering the story, between which movie or book. After Mustafar but before Endor presumably... but had the battle of Yavin happened yet? What could I ask about, what could I say, without giving the future away? Or had the Battle at Endor failed, dooming the universe to an eternity of Palpatine? Had Vader killed his son, or had Luke given in to the Dark Side?

Then a pair of doors opened and there was no time to think. I had arrived, and Lord Vader was waiting.

The room was not what I expected. The marble floor was softened with what I thought of as a Persian rug, and a table of dark wood sat in the center, with seats for six but a place set only for one. Bookshelves lined the walls, about a third of them filled with books. The rest held other objects that no doubt meant something to someone native to this Galaxy. I suspected the table had been moved in, just for the occasion. There were marks on the rug where larger chairs had been off to one side, chairs now absent.

Lord Vader stood at the far end, waves of menace and cold rage seeming to radiate off of him. I entered the room a few steps, and dropped a proper curtsy. The Dark Lord's gaze fell on me then and I had the sense that his rage did not lift in the slightest. Nor did he speak and acknowledge my presence. So I rose, and spoke first, hoping that I wasn't being rude.

Doing my best to keep my words slow and my voice even, I said, "Lord Vader, my name is Marian LeBlanc. It is an honor to meet you."

"Be seated, Miss LeBlanc."

There was no warmth in the words, no other greeting. I was good at reading people; it was what had made me a good hacker before I changed sides and started working in network security. It didn't occur to me at the time that the armor should have stopped me from reading him. With the mask hiding his face, the distortion of his voice, the stillness of his armor-clad form, most people find Lord Vader impenetrable.

I wasn't foolish enough to defy him, I sat. But I wasn't smart enough to keep my mouth shut either. I looked from the array of covered dishes on my end of the table to the empty space before him.

"You won't be joining me?"

"I am unable to dine."

The last word came out angrily, almost making a curse of it.

The Emperor was using me as a tool to hurt him then, to reopen old wounds. I was certain that he was counting on Vader hurting me in return, perhaps drive me to lash out at Vader, make him suffer more. There were probably more layers to Palpatine's sadism than just that, but figuring out that much had given me what I needed to thwart his ugly plan.

"You are angry with me, my lord. You feel that the Emperor auctioning off this evening with you is... insulting."

I felt my soul wither and shrink beneath his glare. It didn't matter that his face was hidden behind his mask; he was glaring-I could feel it.

"Please, my Lord, it doesn't have to be that way."

An idea struck me, and high time too. I heard it escape my lips, though before I could even consider whether or not it was a good one.

"If...if you can use the Force to enter my mind, to share my senses, perhaps... we can both enjoy this meal."

I froze as he studied me, but the horrible feeling of rage was died down somewhat. I had done something different, something unexpected.

"You would do this? Why?"

If he was looking for pity in my expression, he wouldn't find it. Compassion, yes, but it was impossible to pity him, no matter how cruel his injuries. He was too strong for that. He certainly did not pity himself.

"I bid on this dinner, not knowing it was real, that I would be transported here. How could I have known that? On my world you are a legend, a myth told by a particularly gifted story teller. But I was willing to pay for an evening with someone pretending to be you, for the illusion of an evening in the shadow of that myth." I could tell my cheeks were flaming red with embarrassment, but I couldn't stop myself. "The Emperor is treating you poorly. You are a truly great man, and you deserve better than this. I would like, if I could, to try to make this evening a gift, something to honor you."

I sat there, heart hammering in my chest, feeling as if he was staring into my very soul. My small, lonely, insignificant and very frightened soul.

"I... accept."

I was shocked by the words. I was even more shocked by the sensation of his mind pouring into mine. It was like the ocean at midnight, but pouring into me. Filling and filling, and filling still more. He felt vast, vaster than the sea, more like the dark between the stars, but even more shocking was that he wasn't cold. His mind was warm...dark, deliciously, wickedly warm.

There were hot tears on my cheeks but a smile on my lips as I uncovered the first dish before me. We spoke very little--there was no need, with his mind nestled so deeply inside of mine. Our thoughts were mainly on the food, trying to savor each bite and sip, scent and texture. The Emperor hadn't lied about a gourmet meal; It started with Ukian Torbull tail soup, Byss cheese, and fresh rolls. Next came a salad with a red-wine vinaigrette, followed by a Nerf steak with a side of a vegetable that a soft whisper in my mind identified as Ootoowergs. Each course was paired with an appropriate wine, and though I do not normally drink in this case I indulged. This meal wasn't about me or for me any more. It was for Lord Vader. Dessert was Air cake, a light pastry, and Cassandran brandy. I had drunk far more than I was used to, of wines I had no concept of the strength of. Muzzily I thought that I didn't want this evening to end, that after all he had been through, Anakin deserved so much more than this.

How do you know that name?

His voice ripped through my mind, heavy with anger and suspicion, and darkness he had filled me with rose up to claim me.

What happened next felt very dream-like, though it was no dream. How many people could stand to see their life laid out, years fanned out like a hand of cards, random moments examined at someone else's whim? A turning point here, a tragedy there, the mundane details that make up most of our lives folded neatly out of the way-- insignificant but in their own way instructive. Isn't that what the movies had done with his life? He saw it all through my mind. And now he saw mine, my life, in exactly the same way.

Such a strange dual reality; him watching me, me watching him, feeling and thinking along with one another... I finally saw the truth of his life.

Darth Vader striding through the corridors of the Executor. If only I could endure my pain with such strength! The destruction of Alderaan. It hadn't been his order. He couldn't have saved it, I was sure, but it hurt him to watch it all the same The duel with Luke at Bespin. How we both wished Luke had listened!

The confrontation at the Second Death Star... That hadn't happened yet, and it shocked him. His death had shocked me, and I wept in the theater. I had seen what was beneath the helmet, and didn't care. Love should be greater than appearances. His mother had loved him enough to let him go. The Jedi hadn't loved him enough to save Shmi for his sake. Padme hadn't loved him enough to walk away, and let him be a Jedi. She hadn't loved him enough to stay at his side when he became a Sith. But he had loved her, and how I envied that. Love and hate weren't opposites, but siblings. The opposite of both were apathy, and that I felt the Jedi had shown in abundance to the death of both of the women in his life.

He saw his life through my eyes, and that outside perspective shocked him, turned everything inside out. And then he did the same to me. A boring, painful, lonely life became something else through his eyes. A life of quiet strength, quiet rage, waiting for someone to accept me, to see strengths I didn't even know I had.

Translation is not one of the properties of the Disk of Al'trazar. Your abilities are far greater than you have guessed.

His quiet, amused thought nearly shocked me awake.

Leather-clad fingertips brushed against my lips and then something cool and metallic was slipped onto the ring finger of my right hand.

"Palpatine is not the only one who collects ancient artifacts. But your mind has little defense against him... So for now, forget."

And forget I did.

When I woke, I was in a strange bedroom, laying on top of a bed, still fully clothed. The coverlet on the bed was thickly woven in red and gold, and the walls seemed to be enamelled in red and gold. I instantly loathed that room, for no reason I could fathom. My head was pounding, throbbing, and I was vaguely nauseated. I'd never had a hangover before, so I assumed the alien liquor was to blame. I tried to think about what had happened at dinner, but the memories scurried away from me like frightened mice. Random thoughts whirled by like leaves in an autumn breeze, and I tried desperately to collect them. As I sat up, the room seemed to swim, and a servant girl dressed in dull brown-red stood up.

"Are you all right, my lady?"

Her voice was bright with false cheerfulness. I knew from sharing the mind of the Dark Lord that she was a servant, and a spy in the pay of various nobles. I knew far too much now, and it made my body cold, my skin feel stiff and taut.

"Water, if you please. I will be fine... just... a little too much brandy, I think."

I pressed my left hand to my face, feeling a trace of cold sweat on my forehead. My right hand propped me up on the bed, but I never looked down at it. I accepted the glass from the girl, and sipped it, knowing it was just water, that she wouldn't dare put anything in it. How did I know all this? I didn't want to know this! I stopped thinking of the girl, and started doing math in my head. Two plus two is four, four plus four are eight, eight and eight are sixteen...

"Were any messages left for me?"

I handed the glass back to the girl, and rose slowly but steadily to my feet.

"Lord Vader wished to be informed when you awoke... He said he would escort you personally to see the Emperor when you were ready."

The girl was burning up with curiosity but was trying to conceal it. Five twelve and Five twelve were ten twenty four.

"Please see that Lord Vader is informed that I am awake, and that I await his pleasure."

I stepped into my shoes, and walked over to a mirror. My makeup, surprisingly, was intact. A few quick tucks made my hair presentable. Eighty one ninety two and Eight one Ninety two were sixteen, three, eighty four...

The girl curtsied, "Yes, my lady."

Then she left the room. Thank God.

I stood in front of the mirror, trying to figure out what had happened. But every time my thoughts approached the subject, they skittered away again. I knew who was responsible for that: Lord Vader. But was he trustworthy, I asked myself? He was a Sith Lord, so absolutely not! And yet, I believed him. I believed in him. It wasn't that I believed he would make everything all right. I didn't believe in happy endings. Everything is never all right. But I believed in him anyway. I smiled when the door opened behind me, and his dark armored figure appeared behind me in the mirror's reflection. I was still smiling when I turned to face him, and strange peace settled over me. My breathing slowed, trying to match the steady, mechanical rhythm of his.

My voice was warm as I addressed him, "Lord Vader."

"My lady."

His voice was dark, resonant, hypnotic.

He offered me his right arm, and I took my place on it gracefully. My mind was calm, clear, empty as a crystal goblet as we walked together through the halls of the palace. No fear or thoughts troubled my tranquillity, even when people we passed in the hallways started and backed away, staring at the pair of us. There was no reaction from the pair of Crimson Guards outside the final door we passed through, and they remained outside.

I recognized the room I had arrived in, the stone disk in which I had appeared about three feet across. The Emperor was sitting in a large blocky chair that lacked the grace to be called a throne. Lord Vader and I both sank down to one knee in front of him in perfect unison. I wasn't afraid, I was calm, empty. The Emperor kept us kneeling there for sometime.

"You may rise. Step into the center of the disk, girl."

I did as I was instructed, stepping carefully over the slight rise at the edge of the disk. I wanted to fold my hands in front of me, but only my left hand moved. I thought nothing of it at the time. Something was keeping me from thinking much of anything.

The Emperor cackled with malice. The unholy sound of his laughter failed to disturb my sense of utter peace.

"I hope you enjoyed your dinner, my apprentice. Now I will use the Disk of Al'trazar to return this girl... and then we shall see what we can do about young Skywalker."

As the darkness started to rise, my unnatural calm shattered. I didn't want to go home! A red light flared on my right hand, and I looked down at it in alarm. There was a ring there, gold inscribed with a hook-and-barbed pattern, a ring I had never seen before. It glowed alarmingly, and the black glow around me turned red and flared, engulfing Palpatine as well. Pain then, and I screamed in agony as raw power ripped through me, opening doors in my mind that I didn't know existed. Screamed even as Emperor Palpatine started to scream, power ripped from him by the interaction of the ring with the disk. I could feel how the ring was reaching through the disk, into him, draining his power into me, power I had no idea what to do with. A hum then, and a flash of a red light in the form of a red blade, and the head of Emperor Palpatine rolled away, his body lifeless at Darth Vader's feet. A final dark surge of power through me, and the glowing vanished, the power releasing me.

Lord Vader crossed the room to where I stood dazed, clipping his deactivated lightsaber to his belt, and waited. I could feel the dark power in him, calmer than when we first met. And for the first time, I could feel the same power in myself, a candle to his greater flame. I suddenly understood the insight I had into people, even him, was just a small aspect of something so much greater. I sank to one knee slowly, still feeling dazed, battered inside my head, and bowed my head.

"My Master."

That was three months ago, and my fledgling Force powers continue to grow. Further experiments with the Disk have proven unsuccessful, but the demands of the Empire have brought them to a halt. It's just as well, as next week I will be meeting with a representative from the Rebel Alliance to discuss the possibility of a constitutional monarchy. Reforms have already begun, the graft and corruption of Palpatine's reign swept away. Even if the rebellion does not agree to lay down its arms, their resolve will be weakened, support for them eroded. Emperor Vader believes democracy's day is done, that the Empire has grown too large to be ruled by anything other than a firm hand. That doesn't mean the common people have to suffer, however. I will also be carrying offers of amnesty for certain key Alliance members, signed by Emperor Vader himself. In a secret pouch will be two letters for his children, and the name signed on those is Anakin Skywalker.

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