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Title: Imperial
Author: Second Last Herald Mage (http://www.fanfiction.net/u/1107492/)
Rating: PG-13
Genre: AU, drama, adventure.

Disclaimer: as usual, Lucas owns everything, and this fanfic was written purely for fun.

Summary: Darth Vader needs a new wingman, so he goes to the Imperial Academy in search of a competent pilot. At the same time, a certain Lieutenant Solo is about to be expelled . . . only to find that maybe he can survive being an Imperial after all.

Darth Vader strode menacingly along the uppermost level of Coruscant. He did not want to go to the Imperial Academy and choose a new wingman. Damn the old one for daring to get himself blown up!

Huffing irritably under his mask, he swept into the Academy Dean's office. The secretary jumped to her feet, babbling nonsense about a meeting the Dean was in. Vader mostly ignored her, except to change his course to enter the conference room rather than the study.

The Dean froze mid-sentence as Vader entered ominously. A wave of his black-gloved hand sent the Dean's guests scrambling for the door, and Vader was soon alone with the Dean.

“My lord?” the Dean asked timidly, unsure of the Dark Lord's purpose.

He wracked his brain, trying to think of any action he had committed that the Sith might have taken offense to.

“I need the name of your most promising pilot,” Vader replied, blunt as usual.

“That would be Lieutenant Solo, my . . . oh, never mind. I recommend Lieutenant Harlt,” the Dean replied hastily, anxious for Vader to leave..

Vader stared hard at him.

“What is wrong with . . . what did you say? Solo?”

The Dean paused.

“He is being expelled.”

“Whatever for?”

“He disobeyed orders to kill a rebellious Wookiee slave. In fact, he went so far as to help the animal,” the Dean explained, disgust evident in his voice.

“Where would I find him?” Vader demanded.

The Dean cocked his head, looking as if he hadn't heard right, but not willing to try Vader's patience by asking him to repeat his question.

“In the barracks, possibly, my lord. If he has already been discharged, I do not know.”

Vader left. This Solo character sounded promising.

It was easy to get the information he needed from the officer in charge of the barracks. No one questioned the authority of Darth Vader unless they had a death wish, and Vader soon found himself nearing the door he had been directed to. From the other direction, two more men approached.

Vader stopped at Solo's door. So did the military men. Sith and officers stared at each other for a long moment.

Finally, one of the officers – a captain, Vader noted – spoke up. “My lord?”

“I wish to speak with Solo,” Vader replied. “You need not know anything more than that.”

“My lord, Solo's actions are being dealt with,” the other officer, a lieutenant, assured him. “We are here to escort him to see the admiral and be discharged, stripped of all honours and blacklisted.”

“What?” a new voice demanded in shock. “You can't do that!”

The three of them turned to see a young man Vader assumed to be Solo standing in the now-open doorway.

The lieutenant scowled at him.

“You are in no position to be the judge of that, Solo,” he spat.

Despite his current predicament, Solo had the gall to look insulted. He opened his mouth to reply, but caught sight of Vader for the first time and his jaw ended up sagging open in shock. Evidently he had thought that his case was not important enough to call in the top men. And, Vader reflected, he was right. Vader's business here had nothing to do with Solo's problems. He merely needed a new wingman.

Vader casually flicked his wrist, sending the lieutenant crashing against the opposite wall. The captain's eyes widened, and Solo's jaw dropped even lower, though Vader would not have considered that possible.

“Solo,” Vader said calmly. “I have a proposition for you.”

“Uh . . .” Solo's eyes flicked to the unconscious lieutenant. “I'm listening.”

“I want to promote you to my personal wingman.”

Solo stared.

“Uh, sir, I mean, my lord, I mean --”

Sir will suffice,” Vader interrupted impatiently.

“Yes, sir . . . I'm kind of in disgrace, here, sir.”

“I have heard, and not anymore. Pack your things and come with me. The Executor leave in two hours; I want you to be on it.”

Solo gulped. “Yes, sir.”

“And I want a detailed record of your background and experience.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I will be waiting in the lobby. Hurry up.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If anyone tries to stop you, tell them that as of now, you work for me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If they continue to attempt to detain you, have them comm me. Their superiors will have my number.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Solo?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You do not have to say yes, sir after every sentence I speak. One time after you receive your full set of orders is acceptable. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Han packed his bags in a daze. He had expected to be expelled, not promoted! The Empire didn't accept aliens as a rather strict general rule, and Han had helped one escape slavery.

Briefly, Han wondered what had become of the Wookiee. He had been a very courteous creature, reminding Han painfully of his childhood caretaker, Dewlanna. Then he shook his head, determined to clear his mind of thoughts about . . . what was his name? Chewbacca?

Han had his own life to live; he would likely never see the Wookiee again. Especially now that he was serving under Darth Vader.

Still in a state of disbelief, Han shouldered his bag and headed downstairs to meet his fate.

Han didn't have any trouble on his trip down to the lobby to meet Vader. Everyone avoided him like the plague. When he reached the reception area and saw that they were treating the Dark Lord the same way, Han nearly grinned. Here they were, two misfits. Of course, no one would ever dream of calling the Sith a misfit, but essentially that was what he was.

Vader stood up as Han approached, towering over him.

“You are ready?” he inquired.

Han took a breath, then nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Then let's go.”

And so Han Solo entered the service of Darth Vader and followed him out the door, as everyone who witnessed the phenomenon stared at their retreating backs in shock.

Han struggled to keep up with Vader as the Sith made his expert way around Coruscant's twisting streets. Han was in good shape, and he wasn't short, but Vader's ground-eating strides were so long and swift Han was having difficulty keeping up the pace.

A respite came in the most unexpected form as a huge shadow move to intercept them.

Vader paused and stared up expectantly at the Wookiee, who growled at him. Vader turned to Han. “Do you know what he said?”

“He . . . he said he needs to talk to me.”

Vader nodded, crossed his arms, and stared at the Wookiee, silently telling him to get on with his business, he didn't have all day.

As Chewbacca talked (for that was who it was, Han realized), Han felt more and more awkward with the situation he was being put in.

“Look, pal,” Han interrupted. “For some reason I haven't gotten expelled for saving your furry behind; I can't have to following me around trying to repay a life debt.”

Vader looked at him. “Is that what he wants?”

Han nodded uncomfortably.

Vader was silent for a moment, then spoke directly to Chewbacca.

“Solo is in my service now,” he explained. “My men will not accept you as a crew member. The best I can offer if you refuse to leave Lieutenant Solo's side is as a janitor on the my flagship.”

Han stared at Vader in surprise. He was offering an alien a job? A paid job? Working for the Empire?

Apparently Chewbacca also thought it was strange, for he gave Vader a suspicious glare that didn't faze the Sith Lord in the least before accepting.

Great, Han thought. I'm going to have a giant hairy furball on my tail. This is going to make me popular among the crew.

The three of them continue on the way in silence.

The Executor was huge. Han had been on Star Destroyers before, but none that rivaled this one in size or firepower. It gave him a strange feeling of supremacy as he walked down through the corridors at Vader's side.

Vader took him to a small lounge filled with pilots, all of whom sprung to their feet and saluted when Vader entered.

The Sith addressed the squadron leader. “Captain, this is Lieutenant Solo,” he introduced Han. “He is here to replace Black Four. See him to his quarters, and get him settled in.”

“Yes, sir,” the captain replied.

“Lieutenant Jess,” Vader continued, now speaking to another pilot. “This Wookiee is named Chewbacca. Take him to the janitorial wing – he is now in charge of the cleaning droids.”

If the pilot was surprised, he hid it well. “Yes, sir.”

Vader left.

“Is he always like that?” Han asked the captain as the other man steered him out of the room.

“Lord Vader? Yes. He doesn't like bullshit. You'll remember that if you like to breathe.” The captain grinned at him. “Captain Thomas Lilrant, Squadron Leader,” he introduced himself. “Call me Cap . . . except when my lord's around. We're not sure what he thinks of nicknames, and to be honest, we'd rather not find out.”

Han understood completely.

Cap led him through a suite of rooms apparently all used by Vader's personal squadron.

“You'll be rooming with Wilkins; he's a good enough sort, he won't bother you.”

As Han dropped his bag and looked around, Cap continued, explaining the hierarchy and system used by Black Squadron, as they were known.

“Lord Vader flies with us, so there is actually only eleven of us in the squad, and in the air, we're are all equals under my lord. I'm only captain because he doesn't want to have to deal with all of us individually; he's something of a recluse. If I happen to get myself killed, he'll choose who he wants to succeed me – just because you're Black Four doesn't mean you're fourth in line, or anything. I'm actually Black Seven.”

“Is it different working for him than for anyone else?”

“Well, since he is the commander of the entire Navy, there is that pressure for us to be the best of the best, and as you can see --” He swept a hand around the large room. “-- he doesn't exactly leave us needing anything, the way we would be if we held different positions. It's a good life, you just have to live up to his expectations. He really can't stand incompetence. Drives him up the wall. And that is not a good place for him to be.”

Han thought about all the horror stories he had heard about Darth Vader.

“Definitely not,” he agreed wholeheartedly.

Cap clapped him on the shoulder.

“You'll be fine, Solo. In thirteen years, he's only killed two of his personal squadron, and that was because one was a Rebel in disguise who was feeding them information about him and the other got spun around in a battle and ended up shooting three of his own men before he realized what had happened. So no worries; unless you really mess up, you're fine. There aren't enough good pilots out there for him to waste us.”

That evening, Chewbacca caught up with Han as the Corellian wandered around the halls, getting used to the layout of the giant ship. “Ah, Chewie,” the pilot groaned. “D'you have to follow me around?”

Yes, the Wookiee replied. I owe you a life debt.

“So you've said, but Chewie, these people really don't like anyone who isn't human. Is it really worth it?”

Chewbacca looked offended. Yes!

Han rolled his shoulders. “You can't get in the way of my work.”

I won't.

“You better not. This is likely the best thing ever to happen to me. I don't want it screwed up.”

It will not be. You'll see.

“I hope you're right,” Han muttered. “And whatever you do, please don't make anybody mad. And by anybody, I mean Vader. Alright?”

Vader has come to talk to me. I know his expectations.

“He came to talk to you? Really? What did he say?”

But Chewbacca refused to tell Han what Vader had said to him, despite his whining and complaining. Instead, he sent him to bed. You have had a long day, and I doubt they will be getting much shorter.

It was only when Han fell onto the soft mattress and closed his eyes did he realize how right Chewie was.

The next two years flew by, though Chewie was right when he said the days would be long. They soon fell into a regular pattern of meeting every evening, just to chat. It reassured Chewie that Han hadn't been killed during the day and gave him some sentient contact, which he was severely deprived of, being surrounded by droids all day. As for Han, it was the least he could do – he knew how anxious it made the Wookiee, having him out in a battle zone, in an unprotected TIE fighter. And, he had to admit, Chewie was good company. He seemed to understand Han a lot better than most of the crew did.

One night after returning from one of their meetings, Han was getting ready for bed when he caught sight of something in the distance of deep space. Going to the port for a better look, he fell in love.

She was a YT-1300 light freighter, and in Han's eyes, she was beautiful. Redressing, he dashed for the lookouts' station. He had to know the name of the freighter.

One day, he promised himself as he dashed through the halls of the Executor taking shortcuts he had learned where he could, she will be mine. He grinned giddily. I can't wait!

“That ship,” he panted when he reached the desk of an acquaintance who worked as a lookout. “The Corellian YT-1300 freighter that went by about five minutes ago. What's her name?”

The man searched a list of ships that had passed by the Star Destroyer recently, mumbling makes under his breath until he came to the right one.. “Millennium Falcon,” he said finally. “Owned by Tomas Yrey.”

“Thanks,” Han said, already trying to figure out how he'd get Vader's permission to keep a ship of his own on board.

“ . . . and duralloy plating on her hull . . .” Han was in his element as he described the Falcon to Cap later the next day.

He didn't see the furtive shut up looks the captain shot him, and jumped a foot when a bass behind him rumbled, “What are you talking about, Solo?”

“Ah . . .” Han gulped. Two years under Vader hadn't done anything to ease the intimidation Han always felt in the Sith's presence. The big, black-clad man could be as pleasant as any normal person – and often was, except for a tendency toward extreme sarcasm and condescension– but it didn't soothe Han's nerves at all.

Well, Solo?”

“I saw a ship,” Han mumbled, looking at the floor.

“What kind of ship?” Vader asked – not demanded, Han noted, but asked, as if he were actually interested in the answer.

“A YT-1300 freighter.”

“Those have good hyperdrives,” Vader commented in a tone as amiable as was possible for the vocalizer to produce.

Slightly shocked, but not enough not to take that as permission to promptly forget his nervousness and rave about his new obsession, Han was off. “Modified CEC, Class 0.5,” he said, elaborating on Vader's reply. “Usually with Class 10 backups. And on this one I saw two AG-2G quad laser cannons and Arakyd ST2 concussion missiles --”

“Good for close-range combat.” Vader nodded once. “What was her name?”

Han resisted the urge to sigh dramatically. If Vader didn't like to beat around the bush, he probably didn't like theatrics, either.

“The Millennium Falcon, sir.”

Vader tilted his head thoughtfully, then disappeared down the hall leading to his private suite of rooms. Han stared after him, wondering what that was all about. Then he shrugged and turned back to his wingmates, deciding it was best to forget about it.

“She was beautiful, Chewie,” Han said feelingly later that evening. “She had that smooth, swift way of moving that made you just know she'd be a dream, you know?”

No, Chewbacca replied. I do not know. I have not flown much. Not on anything besides this Star Destroyer, anyway.

Han was horrified. “Well, we'll have to fix that! You can't go your whole life without trying to see every planet in the galaxy!”

I don't think it's possible to see them all.

“Well, I'm sure going to try! Don't you want to explore, Chewie?”

It would be interesting, I suppose . . . it's just not something I ever envisioned myself doing.

“If you're going to stick with me, get used to it!” Han declared.

Chewie gave him a look. Don't you have a job to do?

“Sure, but . . . they give us time off.”

By they, remember that you mean Vader.

“Oh yeah . . . but hey, even the man in black himself has to take a vacation or two, right?”

I wouldn't count of it.

Vader sized Gremm up, evaluating what he was about to do. The spy was the best gambler among Vader's extensive connections, but he was known to have a rather large mouth. More than one mission had had to be aborted because of Gremm's unrestrained chatter.

He was silent now, though, in the face of the imposing Sith Lord.

Vader eyed him a moment longer, then said, “I need you to collect a ship for me.”

Gremm looked at him cautiously. “Me? I'm hardly a pilot, my lord.”

“But you are a gambler,” Vader countered, “as is the owner of this ship. His name is Yrey, and the ship is the Millennium Falcon. You will find him, and play against him, and force him into throwing his ship into the pot. When you have won, you will bring the vessel here, to me.”

Gremm was interested now.

“Of course, my lord.” He paused. “Isn't this the ship the Solo kid was going on about?”

Vader sighed inwardly, but he was feeling generous. “Yes,” he replied shortly.

“So . . . you want it for him?”

Vader's jaw clenched under the mask. It seemed that generous wore down fast. “Yes.”

“If I may be so forward, my lord . . .”

A little late for that now, Vader thought irritably.

“. . . why?”

Vader debated silently, then decided the damage was already done.

“He reminds me of someone I once knew.”

Gremm looked at him intently, insanely curious. “Who?”

“His name was Anakin Skywalker.”

“What happened to him?”

“I killed him.”

Gremm sized up his opponents: a cocky young man with a rather flamboyant taste in clothes named Lando Calrissian and Tomas Yrey, an older man currently in possession of the ship Vader wanted to give to Solo, who was apparently a current favourite of the Sith Lord's. Granted, he was a good flier, but why would Vader care to be reminded of someone he'd killed?

Gremm shrugged off the question and turned his attention to the sabacc game, which was about to begin. He decided not to attempt to figure out the Dark Lord's motives again. In Vader's head was not a place he wanted to be.

Calrissian played a card, and Gremm countered, then focused on Yrey, hoping the old gambler did not get a good hand during the game. If he went home without that ship . . . well, he didn't even have to speculate about what Vader would do.

Vader was in a bad mood. He had spent the last few of days questioning the sanity of his decision to bring in the Millennium Falcon for Solo. The man was only a wingman, after all. He couldn't go about randomly giving ships to all his wingmen, and if one received one, all the others would want one too. Vader was not about to hand out eleven YT-1300 freighters as presents, no matter how well he thought of his men.

And his left prosthetic was pinching his thigh something vicious. Those damn MD droids that had set them had been grossly incompetent, and Vader had never gotten around to having them replaced. Time to put that on my list of priorities.

He stalked up and down the bridge of the Executor, drawing nervous glances from the men as he focused on not limping. They had served under him long enough to know when he was angry – and that they should keep their distance.

It had fallen on one new recruit to brief him on the status of their pursuit of the Rebel squadron that called themselves Red Hand. The man, somewhere in his early thirties from the look of him, swallowed fearfully as he approached his commander.

As well he should. Vader could feel his temper begin to slide even further away. He did not want to talk to anyone right now; he wanted them all to be competent enough to be able to deal with the Rebels while he barricaded himself in his rooms and tended to his leg. The skin, despite the calluses that had built up over the years, had begun to crack and bleed, the sticky crimson liquid tracing rivers over both is real and synthetic skin.

That is going to stick and rust if I don't clean it thoroughly. His mood darkened even more.

“What?” he snapped harshly at the officer.

The man gulped. “The rebels have gotten away, my lord. There are too many possible hyperspace paths they could have taken for us to continue to attempt to track them at this --”

He stopped as Vader's mental fingers painfully sealed off his windpipe and crushed the vertebrae of his neck, a particularly gruesome but satisfyingly violent death Vader bestowed only on those who irritated him beyond normal. Tearing at the pain center of the brain for good measure, Vader let the man drop and swept out the door, leaving the officer, still in his death throes, in his wake.

“Calculate every trajectory possible,” the Sith Lord hissed ominously at his admiral, “and do not bother me until you have done so and narrowed the field down to the five most probable results.”

“Yes, my lord,” the admiral said meekly, bowing his head in deference to Vader's superior wisdom.

Vader sent a glare the man's way, then stalked menacingly off the bridge, Force-shoving every door he passed through closed with a tremendous clang as he made his way to his rooms and his hyperbaric chamber.

“Any idea what crawled up Lord Vader's --” Evan, titled Black Ten, began at dinner that evening, but was quickly shushed with a look from Cap as he strode over to them.

“Solo, you're to go see my lord when you've finished eating,” Cap said to Han.

“Which means right this very instant,” another pilot, Rodbert, translated.

“Essentially,” Cap acknowledged crisply, but with a small smile.

Han got up.

“And Solo --” Cap's voice dropped. “Evan's right. He's real pissed today. Tread lightly.”

Han grinned tightly. “Hey, he can't afford to waste us, right?”

But Cap didn't look convinced. “Just be careful, Solo. Watch your mouth, and if you don't know what to say, yes my lord is always acceptable.”

Han had seen plenty of Vader's infamous temper tantrums in the last two years, but judging from the way none of the other pilots would meet his eye, this one was a doozy. His stomach sank, and he was glad he hadn't eaten much before his summons had arrived. Ignoring the sympathetic looks they gave his back and the grateful stares they gave their plates, Han walked out the door toward Vader's personal chambers.

Han had never been inside Vader's quarters before. A couple of his colleagues had (mostly Cap, but Kieras and Zaine had also exited alive and healthy) but when asked about it, they never said much.

Han now realized that was because there was nothing to tell. The outer room was plain and spartan in its décor, the only indulgence being a painting hanging above a chair that, while looking brand new, was made in a style dating back at least five years.

The inner room was even worse. The only thing of interest it held was a large, round hyperbaric chamber that opened when Han entered.

A large black chair sat squarely in the middle of it, its back toward Han. The only evidence that it was occupied was the large, black-gauntleted hands on the armrests.

Funny thing was, although it was tall, it was not as tall as Vader was, even sitting down. He should have been able to see the top of Vader's droid-like helmet.

It was only when the Sith Lord spoke in a raspy, hoarse voice not much louder than a whisper that Han realized that the helmet was off, and he finally focused on the back of his superior's head.


He wasn't sure how he had missed it. Extremely pale –unhealthily so, in Han's opinion -- it did tend to blend into the sterile background of the hyperbaric chamber, but the angry, poorly-healed scars that crisscrossed the bare scalp were not exactly inconspicuous. His breath caught, but he forced himself to keep inhaling and exhaling in a steady pattern and to answer his commander's greeting.

“My lord.”

He bowed, knowing Vader could tell if he didn't and not wanting to upset him more than he was.

Something resembling a mirthless smile entered Vader's voice. “You are afraid, Lieutenant.”

“Ah --” Han's mind went blank.

Vader's left hand moved as if to rest on his left thigh, the arm moving back and forth. Han tilted his head to the side, curious, and glimpsed Vader massaging his lower thigh as if to get rid of a pain that was bothering him. He straightened quickly when Vader spoke again.

“I have had a trying day, that is all. Put your anxiety to rest.”

Han tried to do so.

A wheeze that could have been a laugh escaped the Dark Lord.

“Stop – stop, Solo, before you hurt yourself.” He chuckled dryly. “Your mind is woefully unorganized.”

Han waited uncomfortably, wondering where this conversation was going.

“Your lack of training in exercises of the mind aside, you remind me of someone I once knew, a man I was . . . very close to at one point in time. I have denied for years that I still consider him . . . something of . . . a partner, or . . . friend . . . but you do share some rather strong traits with . . . him. To honour him, and to reward you for your excellent work, I have acquired something I am sure you will appreciate. She is waiting in the hangar bay.”

Han's head began to spin as he realized what Vader was saying. “You got the . . .”

Millennium Falcon, yes,” Vader concluded.

“I – I – I-- thank you, my lord, sir. I –oh, wow . . . really?”

Vader sighed. “Yes, Solo, really. Now get out of here and go get acquainted with her. We will discuss your future with her tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.” He saluted and turned to leave, then paused. “My lord?”


“What happened to your friend? Where is he now? Do you still see him every now and then?”

“Why?” Was it Han's imagination, or did a hint of amusement enter Vader's tone? “Would you like to meet him, Solo?”

'Well – yeah, I would.”

The voice cooled considerably, falling flat. “I'm afraid that is impossible. He is dead. I made sure of that.”

Shocked, Han began to blurt, “But --”

Vader's chair swung around, and Han found himself staring into unnatural, malevolent yellow eyes.

“He had to die, Solo. Everyone has to die, and it was his time. He needed to die, along with the Republic. You will not ever meet him, Solo. Put him out of your mind, or I will do it for you.”

Mental fingers pressed hard at the inside of Han's head, and he felt his memories of the last few minutes fading under the pressure. If Vader chose to rip them from his mind, he would be powerless to stop him.

“Alright, alright, I'll forget it!” Han cried desperately, begging silently for Vader to let go of his mind. He took a step backward, trying to get away from it, but it moved with him, as unrelenting as ever.

“See that you do.”

Vader's voice was ice cold, but he sat back in his chair and let Han's mind go. The pilot nearly sank to the floor in relief.

When he had composed himself, he looked up quickly at Vader again before lowering his eyes and backing out of the room, trying not to tremble. He saw the horrible, disfiguring scars carved into Vader's face, but what he remembered most vividly from that last look was that Vader's eyes, when the Sith was not full of fury, were the brightest, most striking blue Han had ever seen.

The next four years passed in a blur. Vader permitted Han to fly the Falcon on his free time, and eventually trusted him enough to allow him to go on supply and, recently, even intelligence runs. Han discovered he could get away with quite a lot, as no one expected the pilot of a YT-1300 to be an Imperial – more like a smuggler or some other criminal. And with Chewbacca in the co-pilot's seat, he could have shouted the truth at the top of his lungs at every port he stopped at and still wouldn't find anybody who would believe it.

It hadn't been hard to convince Vader to allow Chewie to come along with him. Maybe Vader too saw the benefits of having a spy with an alien partner, but Han and at least expected the Sith to insist on a collar chip for the Wookiee. He knew that the Falcon had a tracking device somewhere on her, but try as he might he had never found it, and by now he knew the ship inside out.

Then, one day, Vader became moody and irritable – or at least, more so than usual. After two days of locking himself in his rooms, as he tended to to when working on battle plans, he called his officers and pilots together and shocked them all.

“The blueprints of the Death Star have been discovered by the Rebels,” he announced bluntly.

Everyone seated at the conference table went white. They all knew about the Death Star; it was one of the secrets they were privy to thanks to their rank in Vader's company. To destroy the Death Star would be a huge blow to the Empire – and if Vader was worried, than the destruction of the battle station was a very real possibility.

“Do you know where they are, sir?” Cap dared to ask. “Do you know who has them?”

“Red Hand Squadron,” Vader replied, naming the rebel squadron that had been a thorn in the Empire's side for years. “We also have their location: Toprawa, where the plans are stored. They are hoping to transmit them, I believe. We are going to launch an attack before they have the chance.” Strangely, he turned to Han. “Solo, how may people can your ship hold?”

Han blinked.

“You mean the Falcon, my lord?”

“No, Solo, your TIE fighter.” The Dark Lord's voice was dangerously sarcastic.

Han gulped. The years had passed without another incident, but Han could still vividly recall the feel of the Sith's invisible fingers around his throat.

“Ah, six, comfortably, sir.”

“We'll make it fourteen. You and I, plus a squad of stormtroopers. I don't want them to know we're coming until they are under lock and key. They cannot escape from Toprawa, but they more than likely know that and have suicide pills or some other means of avoiding capture.”

Vader turned to the admiral.

“Set your course for Toprawa. I want to be there in less than fifteen minutes. Solo, prepare your ship. I will meet you in the hangar bay with a squad of troopers in ten minutes.”

“Yes, sir.”

Everyone filed out, Han wondering what it would be like to have the dreaded Dark Lord aboard his ship.

It was crowded, was what it was. Vader was seated in the copilot's chair Chewie normally occupied, focused on the planet ahead of them. Twelve stormtroopers were squeezed into the main hold; some were even seated on the table in hopes of creating more room to move. It did help – they could now turn in full circles.

Every now and then Vader would absently give Han a tip on how to better handle the ship. Han had always known his superior was an excellent pilot, but he had never known the extent of his knowledge of freighters or other ships. It was an impressive repertoire. Han was envious.

When they finally entered atmosphere, Vader directed Han to the landing pad and ordered him to shut down all systems while they landed. Han stared at him, used to having a computer to help him land, until Vader growled and took over the landing himself, which he did effortlessly.

“Learn to land completely manually, Solo,” the black-clad warrior growled. “It won't hurt, I promise.”

There was a time Han would have questioned the validity of that promise, but after six years in Vader's service, he knew that the Sith kept all the rare vows he made. Han doubted that this one, despite being not quite serious, was any different.

“Yes, sir,” he replied simply.

They disembarked quietly, and were making their way toward the station where the plans were stored when a ship streaked overhead.

Vader looked up.

“An Alderaanian transport,” he murmured,and lengthened his already considerable stride. “Hurry. If that is the ship they are transmitting to, we may be too late.”

Bria Tharen saw the YT-1300 freighter land without its lights, and figured the pilot must have had a power failure. Still, she didn't want to be caught stealing Imperial property.

“Have you got it, yet?” she asked her main tech. “Someone's just set down outside – they'll probably stay in their ship, but you never know.”

“Don't worry,” he replied. “I've just received confirmation from the Tantive IV. They have the plans and --”

He was cut of with a scream as the door burst open and an Imperial stormtrooper grabbed one of their people. They didn't have time to get over the shock before they had all been captured.

Bria and her team had all attached suicide pills to the collars of their shirt for this very scenario. All she had to do was turn her head and --

-- found her chin in a vise-like grip.

“I don't think so,” a vindictive mechanical voice snarled victoriously.

A black-gloved hand crushed the pill between two fingers, and the powder slipped through the threads that had held the pill in place. Even if she could manage to lick the residue that still sat on her shoulder, there wasn't enough to kill her, only to make her violently ill.

Vader released her when he saw hopelessness and resignation creep into her eyes. He turned to a man standing behind him.

“Take her back to the ship, Lieutenant,” he ordered, moving away to observe the other prisoners.

Bria met the eyes of the man now in charge of her fate.

And nearly passed out in shock and horror.

It was Han.

She watched his own eyes widen as he recognized her.


Vader overheard and stalked back to them.

“You know her, Solo?”

Han nodded, disbelieving.

“We met about ten years ago. She was the one who encouraged me to join the Imperial Navy.”

Vader considered that, evaluating Han silently.

Finally, in a tone a lot softer than Bria would ever have expected from the Sith Lord, said, “Solo?”

There was a whole book of questions in that one word, Bria knew. It disturbed her when Han acknowledged them.

“It's in the past.”

Vader nodded and moved off again. The stormtroopers handed her off to Han, and his hand closed around her upper arm. He towed her toward the YT-1300 freighter.

“Han --” Bria began.

He whirled to face her, furious.

“You know, Bria, if you didn't want to be with me, all you have to do was say so. You didn't have to encourage me to join the Empire, then sneak off in the middle of the night to join the Rebels.”

“It wasn't like that --”

“The hell it wasn't.”

He resumed dragging her toward the ship.

“Han,” she cried desperately, “come with me. Come away with me and we fight the Empire together. We have the rest of our lives --”

“Who said I want to fight the Empire? Lord Vader's been good to me. And speaking of my lord, I'll have the rest of my life. He's not too pleased with you, Bria.”

Her heart broke when he referred to Vader as his lord. “If that's the way it has to be,” she whispered brokenly.

“It is,” he snapped. “I won't save you, Bria. Not this time.”

Bria kept her head down for the duration of the trip back to the Executor, her red-blonde hair falling forward to hide her face from Han and the world. Han himself was unusually quiet, talking only when Vader spoke to him.

When they reached the Star Destroyer, Han took off immediately, losing himself in the gigantic ship. He didn't want to hear or see what was going to happen to Bria and her comrades.

Still, as hard as it was for him to think about the suffering she would more than likely go through, it was harder for him to come to terms with the fact that she had betrayed him.

Shaking himself free of his thoughts, he sought out some of the other pilots, eager to lose himself in a game of sabacc.

Vader contemplated Solo's reaction to Tharen as he gave orders for her and her people to be taken to cells for the night and for a chase to be given on the Tantive IV. He had obviously felt strongly for her at some point – perhaps still did. It would not be easy for him to accept her as a traitor. Vader knew that from personal experience.

He would talk to Solo, he decided. He would have to interrogate Tharen, there was no doubt or alternative; but if there was anything he could do to make the situation easier on Solo, he would do it.

Blast! He was getting sentimental again! The last time that had happened, he had given Solo a ship. He groaned inwardly. Unfortunately for Solo, and even more unfortunately for Tharen, there was nothing he could give Solo this time. Nothing that he wanted at the moment, anyway.

Maybe he wouldn't talk to Solo, he thought. But even as he walked toward his chamber, he made a mental note to call the pilot to him before he headed down to the interrogation room.

Han dragged his feet to Vader's quarters the next morning. He knew that Vader would want to talk about him and Bria, and that was something he did not want to discuss under any circumstances.

He knocked on the large door leading into the inner part of Vader's rooms, where the hyperbaric chamber was located. It swung open and Han found himself face to face with an unmasked Vader. He looked down.


“My lord.”

Vader studied him with those insanely blue eyes.

Finally, he said, “Tharen means something to you, doesn't she?”

Han steadfastly glared at the floor.

“She betrayed me. She said I should join the Navy, and then she went and hooked up with the Rebellion!”

“It's still hard to let her go, though, is it not?” Vader's voice, unaffected by the vocalizer, was a lot more compassionate than Han would have ever dreamed it could be.

“I want to let go,” Han insisted.

“That wasn't the question.”

Han raised his head suddenly, his gaze boring into Vader's.

“Why do you want to know, anyway?”

Vader's scarred face remained carefully passive, though a muscle twitched in his cheek.

“I have to interrogate her this morning, Han,” he said, using Han's given name for the first time ever. Han hadn't even been sure the Dark Lord knew it. “There is no way out of it. But if there is anything I can do to make it less painful for you --”

“No,” Han interjected. “Nothing,”

Vader gave him a look. “If you say so.”

“I do.” Han turned to leave the room, then turned back again as a suspicion hit him. “You were betrayed, too, weren't you?” he said. “Someone you loved hurt you, too.”

“More than one someone,” Vader replied, and hit a button.

The mask lowered onto his face and was fastened in place, followed by the helmet. The Sith stood, complete in all his black glory. Yet for the first time Han felt a true kinship with his superior, and knew Vader felt the same when he adjusted his stride so that he and Han comfortably walked side by side out of the suite.

Vader stared down at the Tharen woman, trying to see what his pilot saw in her. Although he had to admit she was a pretty woman, he was unable to see past the fact that she was a Rebel. That though, could have been caused by the fact that she was cursing him to the ends of the galaxy and back with every breath she took.

When one of the officers, fearful of Vader's wrath, made to backhand her, Vader grabbed his wrist. He didn't particularly care if Tharen was injured or not, but he could feel Solo's presence in the observation room, on the other side of the one-way glass, and was trying his best to keep the pain to a minimum for his sake.

Damn pilot, why did he have to come watch?

You wouldn't be able to stay away, either, a little voice in the back of his mind informed him. He beat it over its imaginary head with a mental club.

“Strap her down,” he ordered, releasing the officer without a word about the incident.

She quieted as fear entered her eyes that Vader recognized. Ah, so she has a fear of losing control of her body, Vader mused. She can't stand not being able to move , especially if she wants to.

When she was secure, Vader picked up a syringe and held it up, but placed his body between the needle and the one-way glass. He made sure Tharen could see it and gently pressed it until liquid spurted from the point, then tapped it to rid it of bubbles. He watched with clinical detachment as she began to tremble.

Normally he would insert the needle into her abdomen or neck as a psychological weapon; women like Tharen, he knew, couldn't stand a strange man touching the tender skin in those places in the first place; when it was someone like him, whom they hated and who was about to hurt them, it was almost as bad as a sexual assault. It was especially effective if he was gentle, almost soothing, when he stroked them. That really terrified them. One of the other Rebels had been such a woman – she had broken in forty-five minutes, just to keep Vader's hands off her bare stomach.

It was also a good move if they had husbands or boyfriends watching. Solo, however, was someone Vader wanted to keep as an ally, not an enemy. He inserted the syringe into her upper arm and depressed the plunger.

She cried out as the fiery liquid burned though her veins, gathering in her heart. She struggled against her bonds, but the movement only caused the drug to surge faster as her blood raced. She fell back, still and whimpering.

Vader held up another needle.

“This is the antidote,” he informed her. “Tell me what I want to know, and I'll give it to you.”

Han wondered what had possessed him to come watch as Vader interrogated Bria. He already felt ready to hurl his guts, and they were only on technique number one. The easiest, least painful one.

Just tell him the truth, he begged her silently. Then he'll kill you and it will all be over.

Bria opened her mouth.

“Go to hell,” she spat at Vader.

“We're already there,” he informed her easily, and signaled to the assistant for the next drug.

They kept at it for hours. Vader was impressed despite himself. She had held up longer than anyone else he had interrogated personally. Finally they reached the last of the drugs they had at the ready, but Vader wasn't going to give up yet.

The last drug was one that opened her up to suggestion. Vader had been persuasive, using the Force behind his words, but still she had held. He had one more thing to try, one he had never had to do before.

He debated it, unwilling to open his mind to the extent he would need to for this, but she would be dead soon, anyway. He placed a hand on her sweaty forehead as she gasped for breath, pushed his way into her mind, and released his own memory into the pain center of her brain.

She screamed as the fires of Mustafar ate her alive, but still she wouldn't talk.

Tharen had passed out. Vader hoped her comrades would be more cooperative than she had been. He smoothed his hand down to her temple, then looked straight into the one-way glass where he knew Solo was still watching.

He tapped his finger once against her thick red-blonde hair, flipping a switch in her brain. Her heart stopped, and Bria Tharen died.

Han made his way to Vader's quarters for the second time that day, and let himself in without knocking. Vader had taken off the armour; he was deep in meditation.

Han sat down to wait.

Eventually, Vader's eyes opened. He seemed unsurprised to see Han sitting against his wall.

“You didn't have to watch,” he said.

Han started, surprised Vader had known, then mentally kicked himself. Who was he kidding? Vader knew everything.

“I know,” Han replied. He took a deep breath. “I just wanted to say thank you.”

Han hadn't thought it was possible to shock Vader, but he had managed to do so.

“Whatever for?” the Sith Lord asked, blue eyes clouded in confusion.

“For giving her an easy death,” Han replied. “For not making her suffer more had she had to.”

Comprehension dawned, and Vader nodded once, solemnly.

“You're welcome,” he replied, the words sounding strange in his mouth.

Han nodded back and left the Dark Lord alone with his thoughts.

As they closed in on the Tantive IV, Vader grew more and more moody, much to the dismay of the crew. They had thought he would be pleased that they were so close to having the Rebels within their grasp and the plans restored to the Empire, but as they neared the Alderaanian transport, he only became more waspish than ever, stalking around the bridge, muttering under his breath in some foreign language, and locking himself in his suite for hours at a time.

“I want that ship captured before they enter atmosphere, Admiral,” he growled at his officer. “Do not fail me on this.”

“As you wish, my lord,” the admiral squeaked.

There was only one person on board the Executor who did not notice the Dark Lord's foul mood, and that was because Han Solo was wrapped up in his own emotions. It seemed that the more he tried to get past Bria's death, the more it came back to haunt him.

Vader noticed, too, and it was only Han's moping about that kept him distracted enough not to kill someone over their proximity to Tatooine. Force, but he hated the planet! All the sand, and heat, and bad memories . . . and the sand!

But Solo needed something to do right now, as much as he denied that fact. Tharen's death had affected him more than he wished to admit, even to himself. Vader knew this for a fact; he was well-acquainted with grief.

As they drew closer and closer to the capture of the Tantive IV, Vader formed a plan.

“Solo,” Vader called as he saw his pilot wandering aimlessly through the halls of the Executor.

Han turned. “My lord,” he said, his tone indicating that he would really prefer not to have to concentrate on anything right now.

Too bad.

“We are coming upon the Tantive IV. I want you to board with me and help search for the plans.”

Han blinked. “Sir, I'm a pilot, not --”

“I know what you are, Solo,” Vader interrupted him, “but the fact remains that you need to do something. We will not be flying in anything other than practice runs in the near foreseeable future, so you shall come with me to board the Tantive.”

Han sighed inwardly. Vader was right, he did need to get up off his sorry behind and do something, but he really didn't feel like it. However, Vader was his boss, and he had issued him an order, so Han had no choice but to comply.

“What time should I be ready?” he asked.

The Tantive IV was a small transport, but its crew was a hardy and loyal one, if the way they were shooting at the Imperials was any indication. Han stayed directly behind Vader, knowing that the Sith was the safest being on the ship to hide behind at this particular time. The Rebels all went deathly quiet, their eyes huge as they took in the imposing sight of the Dark Lord of the Sith. A few managed to break out of their stupor and make a run for it, only to have stormtroopers dash after them.

Vader moved swiftly through the transport, acting as if he knew exactly where he was going. They entered the control room, where Vader had men sifting through the memory banks of the ship. The captain stood, terrified and under guard, in the corner. Vader marched up to him and grabbed him by the throat. One of his officers came up to meet him.

“The Death Star plans are not in the main computer,” he said respectfully.

Vader appeared to ignore him, but he squeezed the Rebel's neck harder as the man twisted vainly in his grip.

“Where are those transmissions you intercepted?” he hissed as he lifted his arm, leaving the Rebel captain's feet dangling inches off the floor. “What have you done with those plans?”

This was the Sith Lord at his finest and most vicious. At the moment, Han was very glad Vader liked him.

“We intercepted no transmissions,” the Rebel was stupid enough to waste what little breath Vader was allowing him to say. He made a painful noise as Vader expressed his disapproval of his answer, but still he kept on. “This is a consular ship. We're on a diplomatic mission.”

“If this is a consular ship, then where is the ambassador?” Vader asked, his voice dripping with venom.

The captain remained silent. After a moment, Vader crushed his throat and tossed him aside like a broken doll. He turned to the troops waiting for his command.

“Commander, tear this ship apart until you've found those plans, and bring me the ambassador. I want her alive!”

As the troops scrambled to do Vader's bidding, Han thought, Her?

He didn't realize he had spoken aloud until Vader commented, without looking at him, “Yes, Solo, her. The Princess Organa of Alderaan. I can feel her. She has been a thorn in my side since he day she was born. It's about time I caught up with her.”

They continued to supervise the officers still combing through the ship's computers until Vader's comlink beeped. It was a stormtrooper.

“My lord, we have the ambassador in custody. Do you wish to speak with her before we take her aboard the Executor?”

“Yes,” Vader said shortly, and gestured for Han to follow him out of the control room.

They met the squadron of troopers in the hall. All Han could see was a crown of dark brown hair over their shoulders until they parted to let their captive face their boss.

Han was stunned by her beauty, and even more stunned by the raw fury and hate he saw in her eyes as she glared at Vader. A muscle twitched in her cheek as she began to speak.

“Darth Vader. I should have known. Only you would be so bold. The Imperial Senate will not sit for this. When they find out you've attacked a diplomatic --”

“Don't play games with me, Your Highness,” Vader snapped back. “You weren't on any mercy mission this time. You passed directly through a restricted system. Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies. I want to know what happened to the plans they sent you!”

“I don't know what you're talking about!” The Princess returned, her tone softer than Vader's but just as cutting. “I'm a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan --”

“You're a part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor! Take her away!”

Vader was angry now. Han decided it was best to take his leave.

“Would you like me to accompany the Princess aboard, sir?” he asked Vader.

“Whatever you like,” Vader said dismissively as a commander approached Vader.

Han hurried down the hall after the Princess and her jailers before Vader could change his mind.

He caught up with the group just as they exited the Tantive IV and stepped onto the deck of the Executor.

“I'll take her from here,” he informed the squadron leader, who just stared suspiciously at him. “Lord Vader's orders,” he added, looking apologetic. “You can follow us, if you like.”

The squad leader nodded grudgingly, and Han took the Princess's upper arm, much as he had Bria's on Toprawa, and escorted her down the hall toward the holding cells.

“There is no us,” she snarled at him, attempting to jerk her arm out of his grasp.

“Damn straight,” he agreed, holding her fast.

Outrage flared in her eyes.

“I may be a prisoner, whoever you are, but I am also the Senator and Princess of Alderaan, and I expect to be treated with respect!”

“Of course, Your Worshipfulness. Your wish is my command, Your Highnessness,” Han replied sarcastically.

“Why, you overbearing, pigheaded, boot-licking, scruffy-looking nerfherder!” she spat at him.

He gave her an insulted glare.

“Scruffy-looking? I'm well-groomed enough to meet Lord Vader's standards; are you saying you're more high-maintenance than Vader?”

She was so furious at being compared to Vader that she refused to acknowledge his presence the rest of the way to the detention block. When he released her into the cell, she turned an glowered at him as the door slid shut.

Good grief, Han thought as he walked away. No wonder Vader can't stand her.

Vader left the Tantive IV, his mind turning over his options now. He had sent a squad after the plans, and he needed to get to the Death Star itself as soon as possible with the Princess, but he didn't like leaving the troopers alone on Tatooine – they had a tendency to either fail or get into trouble if not supervised, and both options were unacceptable. Maybe he could send someone along to make their job a little easier, at the very least. But who?

He turned the question over in his mind as he strode down the hall toward his private suite, thinking of and discarding each of his officers in turn. When he came to Han, he paused. Yes, he could send Solo, but Vader was still worried about him. It was best to keep him under his eye for a while yet. He growled under his breath, growing more frustrated with each step. Did he have no competent officers?

He turned the corner to see Han's Wookiee friend – Chewbacca, was it not? -- giving orders to two of the cleaning droids. And an idea was born.

Han found himself unable to convince his thoughts to stray far from the Princess of Alderaan, despite her arrogance and disdain. She was pretty, sure, but that was all she had going for her, he told himself firmly.

He wandered around the Executor, eventually heading toward the docking bay to visit the Millennium Falcon. To his surprise (and to the surprise of everyone within viewing distance, if the stunned looks on their faces were any indication), Vader and Chewie stood together beside his ship.

Chewbacca roared a greeting when he saw Han; Vader said, “Solo,” as he usually did.

Han blinked at them for a few moments, then managed to collect his thoughts and ask, “What are you doing here?”

“Perhaps we could talk somewhere slightly more . . . private?” Vader suggested, glaring at the crew, who immediately turned back to their jobs.

“We could, uh, sit in the Falcon, I guess,” Han suggested, still feeling slightly off-balance.

Since when did Vader and Chewie talk to each other? Vader couldn't even speak Wookiee, as far as Han knew.

Vader nodded once in consent, and Han lowered the boarding ramp so they could enter the ship. Once inside, he sealed the door again.

“What's up, sir?” he asked Vader, who had settled himself in the pilot's seat.

Chewie sat on the floor, letting Han take the copilot's seat.

“I want Chewbacca to go to Tatooine, to make sure the droids carrying the Death Star blueprints are not allowed off-world before they are in Imperial custody,” Vader explained. “And I want him to take this ship.”

Han managed to keep his jaw from dropping. Barely. “Do I get to go with him?”


“Oh.” Han considered. “Well, he does know how to fly her. I suppose it's alright.” Not that he had much choice in the matter, but still.

“She'll be less conspicuous than an Imperial vehicle,” Vader explained. “Especially since he . . . is not exactly the type of being the Empire would employ.”

An Imperial vehicle in my possession would raise suspicion, Chewie said bluntly. Han translated for Vader, who looked at Chewbacca.

“I was trying to be a little more subtle, but yes,” Vader agreed. His breath escaped the ventilator a little more forcefully, as if he had sighed. “Subtly has never been one of my strengths.”

Han chuckled, trying to imagine the huge, imposing warrior trying to be sneaky.

“Alright, Chewie,” he said to the Wookiee, “is there anything you need to know before you take off?”

Han watched the Falcon sail through space, and half-wished he was going with Chewie. At least it would get him away from that Princess.

“Don't,” Vader said, coming up beside him to stare out the viewport.

“What?” Han said, startled. "Sir," he added as an afterthought.

“You were wishing you were going with him. You don't want to. Tatooine is a horrible place, all sand and heat. There's no colour to the world, and the sand gets everywhere. It's a binary system; you're lucky if you get eight hours of darkness a night. There's nothing to do but drink and gamble. I can't stand it.”

Han grimaced.

“Sounds harsh.”

Han swore he heard a hint of amusement in Vader's mechanical voice.

“Not as harsh as the Princess was to you.”

Han gave him another startled look. “How do you know that? And how did you know I was wishing I was with Chewie?”

“You're projecting your thoughts all over the place,” Vader explained. “It is difficult not to pick up on them.”

“You're reading my mind?!” Han exclaimed.

“No . . . more like you're shoving your thoughts down my throat.”

“Oh, so it's all my fault.”

“Of course. I can teach you to contain your mind, if you like,” Vader offered.

“Please,” Han replied. “But . . . about the Princess . . . is she always like that?”

“You mean haughty, scornful, martyr-like and furious?”


“Yes, she is. At least as far as I know.”

Han shook his head.

“Great. So how do I block my mind?”

Once he had the hang of shielding his mind (which was actually pretty easy after he got used to it), Vader sent him down to check on the Princess. Han had begged out, had pleaded and complained, but Vader had insisted. Han had the distinct impression that the Sith had enjoyed arguing with him. Did he revel in Han's misery, or something?

Probably, Han thought. He is a Sith.

He had a stormtrooper open her door, and stepped inside. The Princess turned and narrowed her eyes.

“What do you want?” she demanded waspishly.

“You're hardly in a position to be using that tone of voice, sister,” Han shot back.

That got her hackles up. “If I was your sister, I would kill myself.” She cocked her head, considering. “Or maybe I'd just kill you.”

“Such violent words from the delicate little princess. You wound me, Your Highnessness.”

Anger flared in her eyes. “Stop calling me that!”

“Hey, you were the one who wanted to be treated with respect.”

“Where I come from, respect is not synonymous with derogatory sarcasm!”

Han sighed.

“I am demanding a pay raise,” he muttered as he signaled the stormtrooper to let him out. “My salary does not cover this kind of abuse.”

“Abuse? You're not the one being held against her will in a closet-sized cell!”

Han looked around the cell. It had to be at least four meters square.

“You call this closet-sized?”

She glared at him. "What do you want, nerfherder?"

He gave her a mocking bow.

“Lord Vader sends his compliments, and hopes your comfortable in your, ah, closet.”

She was practically on fire, she was so outraged at this point.

“You tell Lord Vader that when he grows a spine and can face me himself, I will be waiting.”

“Of course you will be,” Han said sincerely. “You can't exactly go anywhere, now, can you?”

She looked like she wanted to throw something large and heavy at him.

“And tell him that he will never get away with this. The Alliance is growing every day. We will reclaim the galaxy, and when we do, there will be no place in it for him!”

“Your funeral.” Han shrugged. “So much for equity and justice for all, huh?”

He left before she could scratch his eyes out.

Vader strode into the conference room on the Death Star, gritting his teeth in preparation for dealing with Tarkin and his lackeys. He didn't like Tarkin at all; the man was far too ambitious and far too dangerous. Vader longed for the day he fell out of the Emperor's favour so that he could choke him to death. Slowly.

“The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us,” the Grand Moff informed his men in his thin, nasally voice. Vader clenched his teeth all the harder and hoped he wasn't planning a long speech. “I've just received word that the Emperor has dissolved that misguided council permanently. The last remnants of the old Republic have been swept away.”

One of the more vocal officers spoke up. Vader fought the urge to choke him. He would never let his underlings backtalk him like this!

“That's impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?”

Quite easily, Vader thought.

“The regional governors now have direct control over territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station!” Tarkin smirked proudly.

The officer opened his mouth again. “And what of the Rebellion?” he questioned. “If the Rebels have obtained a complete technical readout of this station, it is possible, however unlikely, that they might find a weakness and exploit it.”

Who told the general population that we lost the plans?!

“The plans you refer to will soon be back in our hands,” Vader snapped, unable to stay silent any longer.

Another officer spoke up. “Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they've obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use it!”

“Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed,” Vader warned. The very mention of the abuse of power this station could allow set him on edge. “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

“Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader,” the man actually had the gall to reply. Vader's fingers itched. “Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebel's hidden fort --”

Vader smiled under his mask with pleasure as the man tugged at the collar of his uniform, trying to breathe the air that just couldn't make its way to his lungs.

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” He said it gleefully, but the vocalizer was not made to pick up gleeful tones.

“Enough of this!” Tarkin barked. “Vader, release him!”

Vader did not miss the lack of title, and knew it had been done on purpose. Who are you to order me around?! But the Emperor was someone to be obeyed, and Sidious had specifically stated that on the Death Star, even Vader must bow to Tarkin's orders.

“As you wish,” he said, a false show of respect.

Tarkin's lips compressed.

“This bickering is pointless. Lord Vader will provide us with the location of the Rebel fortress by the time this station is operational. We will then crush the Rebellion with one swift stroke!”

This time, Vader did not bother to comment.

Vader walked down the hallway in the detention area, an interrogation droid at his side. Two stormtroopers opened the door of the Princess's cell, and Vader stepped inside.

The Princess's face filled with defiance, but when she saw the spherical droid, eyes eyes began to reveal a glimmer of doubt and fear. Vader smiled.

“And now, Your Highness,” he said, as cheerfully as the mask would allow, “we will discuss the location of your hidden Rebel Base.”

She trembled as he filled a syringe manually, and trembled even more when he gripped her jaw and tilted her head to the side, exposing the side of her throat. He gently brushed a couple of stray brown hairs away from her neck. She fought him every step of the way, but it was easy for him to overpower her. Ignoring how much she looked like his late wife, Vader broke the soft skin of her neck with the needle.

She screamed as the drug, stronger than the ones he had used on Bria Tharen, coursed through her veins.

“What is your given name, Princess?”

“Leia,” she whimpered.

Leia? He had always heard it pronounced as Leah . . .

Leia . . . a memory rose, but he shoved it back before it could form fully.

“Leia.” He paced back and forth a couple times, then turned to her again. “It hurts, doesn't it, Leia?”


“It can stop, you know. All you have to do is name the planet the Rebel Base is on.”

She pressed her lips together and turned her face to the wall.

Han had no idea why he had made his way to the detention block after Vader returned from interrogating the Princess. He didn't even like her. There was absolutely no reason for him to be here.

The door opened to reveal the Princess, curled into a fetal position on the bench, facing the wall. For some odd reason, the sight tugged at his heart.

“Princess?” he called softly.

She pressed her hands to her ears.

“Go away,” she begged. “Go away, go away, go away.”

He left.

Vader was brooding in his hyperbaric chamber when he heard a knock at the door. He frowned. “Enter,” he called.

It was Solo.

“My lord,” he said formally. “I was just – well – I was kind of poking around, earlier.” He sounded embarrassed, like a child who had to admit he'd taken on extra cookie from the cookie jar. “And I came across some stuff – so – what exactly does this battle station do?”

Vader spun the chair to look at his pilot.

“Not a whole lot,” he admitted. “Well, not a lot in the sense that it can only do one thing. But it has enough firepower to destroy a planet.”

Han's eyes widened. “I figured it could destroy a few buildings in one shot,” he said, “but a whole planet --”

“It is nothing to be proud of,” Vader interrupted quickly. “Power like that can be dangerous if in the wrong hands. And Tarkin's hands are definitely the wrong ones.”

Han made a face.

“Yeah, I didn't really care too much for the toad.” He glanced at Vader apprehensively. “Are they going to use it?”

Vader frowned at him.

“They wouldn't have built it if they didn't intend to use it. The first target will likely be the Princess's home planet.”

“Alderaan?!” Han spluttered. “But – but that's a core world!”

“That is insignificant. The Emperor wants an effective demonstration, and the Princess has been uncooperative. There is nothing even I can do to override the orders of the Emperor.”

“She was uncooperative?” Han looked down. “She was so upset, I thought --”

“You went to visit her?” Vader demanded, surprised. “Why?”

Han shrugged. “I don't really know, sir.”

Vader gave him a hard look.

“Don't get too attached, Solo. I'll be getting orders to terminate her any day.”

Chewie stood at the bar in the Mos Eisley Cantina, watching all the different species as they filed up to the counter to get their drinks and then retreated back into the shadows. He felt comfortable here, far more so than he did on the Executor, and he was reluctant to leave. The droids hadn't been found yet, though, so he had a little more time.

Just then there was a commotion at the door. A farm boy had tried to enter with two droids, and had been ordered rather forcefully to leave them outside. Chewie caught a glimpse of them, though, and went over the suspected descriptions of the wanted droids in his mind.

They could be the ones, he thought. He needed to get a hold of them to find out for sure, but it was a very real possibility.

The boy moved to the counter, and an old man approached from Chewie's other side. Chewie didn't pay him much attention, and jumped when the man touched his furry arm.

“I'm looking for transport off this planet,” the man said softly. “Do you know where I might find such a thing?”

Chewie shook his head.

“I'm willing to pay handsomely,” the man pressed. “I understand that you have your own ship. We need to get to Alderaan. It is on the way to Kashyyyk, if you are headed home.”

Chewie growled wordlessly, and the man gave up and turned to survey the rest of the crowd.

Just then, there as a disturbance among the beings beside the farm boy. Apparently they had taken a dislike to the human, for they were threatening him rather loudly. Blasters were drawn, but before a shot could hit anyone, the old man intervened, a blue lightsaber flashing expertly in his hand.

Chewie's eyes went wide. A Jedi! He had always admired them, but this was an even better reason not to take the man to Alderaan. Because he would never make it to Alderaan. If Chewie knowingly took a Jedi aboard the Falcon, he would have to take him to the Death Star to meet Vader. And Vader would kill him.

Chewie really didn't want that to happen.

The old man and the boy left. Chewie followed shortly after. The smoke was bothering his eyes. Or so he told himself.

Outside, he saw the old man and the boy sitting with the two droids the boy had come in with. Chewie gazed at them covertly. Yes, one was humanoid, the other on three wheels, as the tracks the troopers had found indicated. Chewie wondered how they had gotten past the troopers stationed at the entrance to Mos Eisley.

He debated viciously with himself. If these were indeed the droids Vader was looking for, he couldn't just leave them here. He could call in stormtroopers, but the Jedi was very good with a lightsaber, and could likely beat a whole squadron single-handedly. If Chewie took them aboard the Falcon as passengers, he would have to take the Jedi to Vader.

It was a no-win situation.

Chewie owed Han Solo a life debt. He would do whatever Han needed or wanted him to do. Chewie was under Vader's order, but Han was loyal to Vader. Han agreed with Vader. Therefore, Han wanted Chewie to bring these droids in.

Chewie sighed. He did not like this at all.

He walked up and asked if the old man still needed a ride to Alderaan.

Once again, Vader had to endure Tarkin's presence. He even had to report to him. That, more than anything, was what was pissing Vader off.

“Her resistance to the mind probe is considerable. It will be some time before we can extract any information from her.”

An officer walked up, reporting on the Death Star's status. Upon hearing that the station was operational, Tarkin broke into a wide, evil grin.

“Perhaps she would respond to an alternative form of persuasion.”

Vader had known this would happen. He had even told Solo about it. But that did not make him dread it any less. The actions of one wayward princess was not enough to kill billions of people, in Vader's opinion.

“What do you mean?” He managed to ask, sounding as if he had no idea what kind of plot Tarkin had cooked up in his petty little mind.

“I think it is time we demonstrate the full power of this station.” He turned to an officer standing nearby. “Set your course for the Princess's home planet of Alderaan.”

“With pleasure,” the officer replied.

Vader resisted the urge to choke him, too. He had already nearly killed one of Tarkin's lapdogs. He doubted the Grand Moff would forgive him another.

Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, known to the locals of Tatooine as Ben, stood at the entrance of Docking Bay 94, staring at the Wookiee pilot's ship. Luke's jaw dropped. “What a piece of junk!” he gasped.

Ben merely smiled grimly. He had a bad feeling about this, one that he couldn't place, and it was bothering him. There as no sense in worrying Luke over a vague feeling of apprehension, however, so he kept his council.

He did notice, however, that the Wookiee, Chewbacca, talked to them as little as possible and was also slightly uncomfortable with their arrangement. He wondered what was bothering the hairy giant.

Apparently, he wasn't the only one with a bad feeling today. But they had to get to Alderaan.

A squad of stormtroopers suddenly appeared and opened fire on them. Chewbacca roared, and Luke and Ben dashed aboard the Millennium Falcon, Chewie at their heels. He immediately blasted out of the docking bay, and they were on their way.

But the stormtroopers hadn't been the cause of Ben's distress. He turned his attention to Luke and gave the boy a training device, determined to teach him as well and as quickly as he could.

Chewie strained his sensitive hearing, making sure the boy and the old man – especially the old man – were securely away in one of the holds. Hearing both their murmured voices, he relaxed, satisfied, and switched on his comlink.

Han answered immediately. “Hey, Chewie, how's it going?”

I have the droids with me, Chewie growled softly. Stormtroopers chased us off-planet, so you may receive a report otherwise, but I have them.

“That's great, Chewie! So – wait, did you say us?”

The droids are in possession of two humans. They want to get to Alderaan.

“We're right by Alderaan. How about this: Drive into the tractor beam kind of accidentally on purpose, you know? They won't suspect a thing! I'll tell Vader.”

Chewie agreed and ended the connection. He still didn't feel very good about this.

Just then the old man entered the cockpit.

“Who were you talking to?” he asked Chewie, staring through him with piercing blue eyes.

A friend, Chewie growled, conveying reluctance to talk.

The old man stared a him a moment longer, then left to return to his companion.

Chewie sighed and wished there was an alternative to his current situation.

Luke shut down the lightsaber. He wasn't having much luck with it anyway, and Ben looked worried.

“What's wrong, Ben?”

“Nothing you need to worry about, Luke. Just an old man's paranoia.”

“Come on, Ben you can tell me!”

Ben patted his shoulder. Force, but he was so much like his father! He even wheedled answers out of Obi-Wan like Anakin had.

But Ben was older and wiser than Obi-Wan, and he knew better than to give in and give the boy a hero complex. Anakin had always done that; tried to make things easier for Obi-Wan. It usually just caused more trouble, but he had never reprimanded Anakin for it. What harm was there in trying to help someone?

If only he had known.

“I could help you, Ben. I know I haven't done a lot, but I'm pretty good at figuring things out.”

Ben smiled.

“Thank you, Luke. I appreciate the offer, but I assure you, this is something you cannot help me with.”

Luke looked at the floor.

“Alright,” he muttered, and went back to his exercises.

Vader followed the Princess into the control room of the Death Star. She marched right up to Tarkin and began to snarl at him. Vader was pleased. Tarkin deserved her wrath far more than he did.

“Governor Tarkin. I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash.” Vader frowned. No need to rub it in. “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”

He nearly laughed at that. When it wasn't aimed at him, he had to admire her spirit.

Tarkin, apparently, did not share the sentiment.

“Charming to the last,” he replied, lips pinched. “You don't know how hard I found it signing the order to terminate your life.”

That was news to Vader. The order must be sitting on his desk. He hadn't bothered to look at anything waiting there for him this morning.

Even faced with death, she still had the nerve to insult the Grand Moff yet again.

“I'm surprised you had the courage to take the responsibility yourself,” she said, her smile cold.

Tarkin looked down his nose at her.

“Princess Leia.” He says Leah too! Vader noted. “Before your execution I would like you to be my guest at a ceremony that will make this battle station operational. No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now.”

This was actually quite entertaining.

He looked down at the princess as she answered, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

“Not after we demonstrate the power of this station,” Tarkin smirked. “In a way, you have determined the choice of the planet that'll be destroyed first. Since you are reluctant to provide us with the location of the Rebel base, I have chosen to test this station's destructive power... on your home planet of Alderaan.”

That got her attention, and effectively wiped all confidence from her being.

“No! Alderaan is peaceful! We have no weapons! You can't possibly --”

Tarkin stood menacingly over her. Unlike Vader, however, he had to work at it.

“You would prefer another target? A military target? Then name the system!”

She remained quiet.

“I grow tired of asking this,” Tarkin hissed. “So it'll be the last time. Where is the Rebel base?”

Leia took a deep breath. “Dantooine,” she said softly. “They're on Dantooine.”

Tarkin smiled victoriously.

“There. You see, Lord Vader, she can be reasonable.” he turned to one of his men. “Continue with the operation. You may fire when ready.”

What?!” Leia gasped, staring at him with wide eyes.

Vader growled under his breath. He hadn't expected any less of Tarkin (or of the Emperor) but they could have at least checked the validity of their claim before blowing up an entire planet!

“You're far too trusting. Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration.” Huttese curses ran through Vader's head. It's not that far out of the way, you lying, slimy -- “But don't worry. We will deal with your Rebel friends soon enough.”

No!” the Princess cried, moving toward Tarkin. Vader pulled her back against his chest.

The order was given, and Alderaan disappeared. Vader immersed himself in the Dark Side, trying to avoid the backlash that would come through the Force due to so many deaths. Leia seemed to forget who he was as she huddled back against him, shaking her head as tears streamed down her face.

Vader caught sight of Solo, standing at the back of the room near the exit. He wrapped his arm around the Princess's waist and led her, shocked, over to the pilot.

“Take her back to her cell,” he ordered gruffly. “I'm going to meditate.”

Solo looped his arm around her waist, much as Vader had done. Completely in shock, she didn't resist as he gently encouraged her to move her feet, one at a time, in the direction of the detention block.

Ben's headache was on a level with a migraine. Still, he worked through the pain as he had been taught all his life.

Their pilot tersely informed them that they were coming out of hyperspace. Ben nodded.

Vader listened dispassionately as Tarkin raged.

Of course she lied to you! She didn't actually think you'd blow up a planet without checking out her claim first! That's too barbaric for most people to comprehend, no matter what they've seen! She thought she'd escape, or get a message to her friends! She thought she would be able to warn them!

Truth to tell, he still had some trouble believing that Alderaan was gone for good himself, and he had had years to get used to the idea of getting rid of planets the Emperor didn't like.

“I told you she would never consciously betray the rebellion,” he reminded Tarkin, happy that he could throw this back in the man's face.

Tarkin glowered.

“Terminate her – immediately!”

Chewie came out of hyperspace and entered into massive turbulence. He fought to hold the ship steady as Luke and Ben rushed up to ask what was happening. He just growled at them.

He saw the small round figure of the Death Star in the distance, dead ahead. That was good. He didn't want his passengers to get suspicious, which they would have if they had changed course. Of course, he could have just said that he was trying to get out of the turbulence.

At any rate, it was no longer a problem. It was right there, directly in front of them.

Chewie watched out of the corner of his eye as the old man grew uneasy. He knew the station wasn't a moon. He said as much to the boy. Eventually he turned to Chewie and urgently asked him to turn the ship around.

Chewie fiddled with the controls, pushing buttons and pulling levers that didn't do anything to change the direction the ship was traveling in. When he eventually got around to the steering, it was too late. The tractor beam had them.

Vader and Han stood side by side as the Falcon gently touched down on the polished floor of the docking bay. With stormtroopers at their backs, they began to board. Vader stopped suddenly.

“I sense a presence, one I haven't felt since . . .” he paused. “Go ahead,” he ordered Han. “Secure the droids and have the passengers taken to the detention area. I have to talk to Tarkin.”

Raising an eyebrow – since when did Vader voluntarily go talk to Tarkin? -- Han sketched a salute and replied, “Yes, sir.” He walked up the ramp and entered his ship.

“Hey, Chewie,” he greeted the Wookiee cheerfully, who roared happily and gave him a big hug.

Han grinned. At that moment, an old man and a kid walked up.

They stopped dead at the sight of their pilot embracing an Imperial, and the old man, face pale as death, ignited a lightsaber. Han eyed it.

“That's interesting,” he drawled, drawing his blaster. The two faced off, each waiting for the other to make the first move.

That was how Vader found them.

“Hello, Obi-Wan,” the Sith Lord said, igniting his own lightsaber.

Only Han, working closely with Vader for six years, was able to pick out the tones of dark, mirthless glee through the vocalizer.

“Take the boy to the detention area,” Vader ordered Han, the black orbs that passed for eyes on the mask never wavering from Kenobi.

Han moved around the kid and pulled his hands behind his back, completely ignoring the boy's objections and his cries to “Ben” for help. Grabbing the kid's arm, he pulled him away.

The old Jedi glanced worriedly at his young charge, but didn't say anything, knowing full well that Vader would comment nastily on anything he could say to reassure Luke, and being young and naïve, Luke would be far more inclined to believe the towering, ominous bulk of Vader. The Sith did not have his reputation for nothing, after all.

Once they were alone on the freighter, Obi-Wan allowed a sad smile to curve his mouth.

“Hello, Darth.”

The boy muttered in a language Han didn't know all the way to the detention level, and it was grating on Han's nerves.

“Look, kid, if you're going to insult me, at least do it so I can understand you,” he finally snapped.

The boy fell sullenly silent for a few moments, then said, “My name's Luke.”

Han blinked, and looked the boy full in the face for the first time.


“My name,” he repeated, big, familiar-looking blue eyes staring back at him. Where had he seen those eyes before? “It's Luke, not kid.”

Han rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”

A stormtrooper walked up to Han. “Lieutenant Solo, the Princess wants to talk to you.”

Han stopped in shock. The kid nearly tripped at the abrupt halt. “She wants to talk to me?”

“Yes, sir.”

Han swore and continued down the hall. He shoved the kid into a cell by the Princess's, ignoring his yells of, “Princess? She's here? Where?”

He entered Leia's cell. “Yes, Your Worshipfulness?” Han snapped at her as she watched him enter.

She glared at him. “Well, I was going to thank you for helping me after – after Alderaan, but if you're going to snarl at me, get out again!”

“Fine!” he replied. “I only did it because I was under orders anyway. It's not like I like you or anything!”

“Good!” she hurled back. “Because I don't like you either. Force knows no one on this forsaken ball of metal would know how to deal with a display of proper manners!”

She turned her back to him, yet still she yelled, “I saw that!” as he rolled his eyes heading out the door.

He checked on the kid before he left, making sure he was secure. “All right, kid?”

“What happens if I say no?” he asked, blue eyes piercing Han shrewdly. Now they really looked familiar.

Han stepped in side the cell. “Do I know you, kid? Or a relative of yours, maybe?”

Luke gave him a strange look.

“No. I mean, I've never seen you before, my parents have been dead for years, and my aunt and uncle never left Tatooine.”

Han shook his head.

“That's so odd. I'd've sworn I'd seen those eyes of yours before.” He paused. “And maybe a bit of your facial structure . . .”

He gave himself a mental shake.

“If you say no? Then I tell Lord Vader, and he comes down see to you and your complaints personally.” He leaned forward a bit an dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “If I were you, kid, I'd just say yes.” He winked and left the kid alone.

“My name is LUKE!” followed him down the hallway.

The first thing to cross Vader's mind after Obi-Wan's greeting was, Darth? Is he trying to be funny?! No one called a Sith Lord Darth. They called him my lord or Lord Vader to his face. They called him Darth Vader or simply Vader behind his back. But they never, never had the audacity to attempt to call him just Darth.

He chose to simply ignore the fact that Obi-Wan had spoken altogether. He wasn't a Padawan anymore; he didn't have to acknowledge every word that left Obi-Wan's mouth.

“I have been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is complete. When I left you, I was but the learner. Now, I am the master.”

He swung before Obi-Wan could get a word in edgewise.

Vader remembered vividly how much damage he and Obi-Wan could cause in a space as small as the Falcon; lightsabers were not built to be used in confined spaces full of sensitive wires. Vader, however, was not about to let that stop him. He made a mental note to pay Solo for the repairs and made a large sweep if the hold, which sent sparks flying from several different spots.

Obi-wan barely managed to leap out of the way – he was slightly out of shape, Vader noted, and he was getting on in years. Vader had a very large advantage, being bigger, younger, and stronger, and he was going to use it as much as he possibly could.

“How did you manage to convince Wookiee to work for you?” Obi-Wan panted, parrying Vader's next hard blow, with effort. “After what you did to Kashyyyk?”

Vader grinned maliciously under the mask.

“Trade secrets,” he replied.

“Force persuasion,” Obi-Wan guessed flatly.

“You've gone senile,” Vader sneered. “You've forgotten that mind control does not work across such large distances.”

“I thought you could do anything,” Obi-Wan commented.

Infuriated, Vader entangled Obi-Wan's blue lightsaber with his own crimson one and forced it aside, then pressed his free arm across his old Master's throat, backing him against a wall. Obi-Wan struggled to slip free or to get his blade up, but Vader's grip did not yield a millimeter.

“That,” he hissed, his mask close enough for Obi-Wan to kiss if he wanted to, “was before.”

They both knew before what.

“My apologies. Am I confusing your skills with those of Anakin?”

Vader stepped back and Obi-Wan immediately took advantage of the situation to bring his blade up in a classic Soresu defence. Vader delivered a jarring blow, putting all the power of the Dark Side and his mechanical limbs behind the swing. Unfortunately, it didn't shatter Obi-Wan's arm. The old Jedi just gritted his teeth and tried to maneuver around Vader, all the while attempting to keep Vader's lightsaber tightly occupied and unable to slash him to pieces.

He nearly made it.

As he neared the door, his grip on Vader's blade slipped, just for half a second, but it was enough for the Sith to yank his blade free of the entanglement. Obi-Wan managed to duck the swing, but when Vader unexpectedly stopped short and turned it unto a backhand slash before Obi-Wan could blink, the blade caught him at the neck with a lethal flash.

“That name no longer has any meaning for me,” Vader informed the corpse of his old Master.

When the body vanished before his eyes, the stunned Sith wondered who he was trying to convince: Obi-Wan, or himself.

Then he wondered why he was wondering such a thing.

Shaking himself out of his oddly melancholy, introspective phase, Vader left the Jedi's nondescript brown robes and lightsaber lying on the floor of the Falcon. He he looked back over his shoulder and called the blade to him. He ran his fingers over it, his fingers recalling every line of the well-crafted weapon. He had known Obi-Wan's lightsaber almost as well as he had known his own.

Furious with himself, he clutched the blade hard enough to put dents in the handle. He was not upset over this; he had been praying for it for years. What was wrong with him?

Clearing his mind of such un-Sith-like thoughts, he headed for his meditation chamber, intent on immersing himself in the Dark Side of the Force.

Luke sat in his cell, staring hard at the white door, wishing it would open. He focused all his energy, as Ben had taught him, and put it all into wishing the door would open.

He hadn't really expected anything to happen. It was just something to do while he sat here, bored out of his mind. When the door actually did open, he sat in shock for a couple moments before scrambling out of the cell and into the hallway.

Now, where was the Princess?

In his meditation chamber, Vader felt the surge in the Force. His eyes flew open.

“Solo, get down to the detention level now,” Vader snapped through the comlink, eyes blazing. “I'll be there as soon as soon as I can get my suit back on.”

“Yes, sir!” Han said hastily, scrambling down the hallway. “Uh, sir – what's wrong?”

“I have reason to believe that that boy who came in with Obi-Wan has escaped his cell. Get him secured.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Solo?”

“Yes, sir?”

“I want him alive. I am going to question him personally.”

“Of course, sir. Solo out.”

Luke stood in front of the cell he was pretty sure belonged to the Princess, and sat on the floor in front of it, looking warily around for stormtroopers. Satisfied the coast was clear, he closed his eyes and wished for this door to open, too.

Nothing happened.

He frowned. How had he opened the other one again? Oh, right – focus.

He concentrated hard on the door and imagined it opening. When he opened his eyes again, the Princess was staring at him through the doorway.

“Hi, I'm Luke Skywalker,” he said. “Do you know how to get out of here?”

She blinked at him in shock, then jumped to her feet. “This way. May I inquire as to what you're doing here?”

“Ben Kenobi and I were on our way to Alderaan with your droids, but our pilot turned out to be an Imperial and drove is unto the tractor beam.”

She looked at the ground, but didn't stop walking. “Alderaan . . . doesn't exist anymore.”

“I know.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I'm sorry.”

She smiled faintly. “Me too. I'm Leia Organa, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Leia.”

“You too, Luke.”

Han dashed into detention area and took a deep breath.

“Everybody out!” he shouted. “There has been a breach in security, and Lord Vader is coming to deal with it personally! He doesn't need your help! So clear out!”

The officer in charge sneered at him. “I've received no such report.”

Han raised a brow.

“You want me to call Lord Vader so you can ask him? He's not in a good mood, you know, what with the prisoner escaping and all. And you know what he's like when he's pissed.”

He gave the officer a significant look.

The man swallowed nervously. “Right. Alright, men, let's give Lord Vader room to work. I'm sure he'll call us back when it's safe.”

Han grinned as they filed out the door. Perfect. Now he could do his job in peace.

“Artoo, Detoo, what are you doing? You're going to get us blown up if you don't stop fiddling with that computer, and I really think we're in enough trouble as it is!” C-3PO huffed at his counterpart.

R2-D2 made a rude noise ands continued nosing around the strange-looking computer terminal he had found in the room they were locked in.

“Well, I never --” 3PO began, only to shut up as the door opened. “Why Artoo, maybe you're good for something after all!”

“There's no one here,” Luke observed as he and Leia peered around the corner into the control area.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Leia murmured. “There should be some resistance.”

“There is, Your Worshipfulness,” an all-too-familiar voice responded as the man it belonged to rose from his hiding place behind the console.

Leia groaned. “What do you want, nerfherder?”

“I want you and your little friend to stay right where you are until Lord Vader gets here to deal with you, alright, Your Highnessness? Makes my life a hell of a lot easier,” Han explained.

“I don't suppose you have a blaster,” Leia asked Luke wistfully, glaring at Han.

Han snorted. “Like we're stupid enough to let a prisoner keep a weapon. Really, Your Worship, give us some credit.”

Leia gave him a dispassionate look. “I'd really rather not.”

Just then, an officer entered the room. Han swung around, pointing the blaster at him.

“Don't shoot!” the man squawked, wide-eyed. “I just forgot my identif-- Look out!”

Han turned again just in time to have Luke and Leia tackle him from the front instead of behind. Leia immediately snatched his blaster from him as Luke took down the other officer and stunned him with his own blaster.

“Princess?” he said breathlessly.

“I'm debating whether to use stun or kill,” she replied, studying Han with cool, calculating eyes.

“Nice to know you think so highly of me, Your Worshipfulness,” Han snapped back.

Luke rolled his eyes, stunned him, grabbed Leia's wrist and took of out the door.

Vader strode furiously down the hallway, his long strides eating up the ground. He was so focused on getting to the detention level he nearly ran over two droids.

“Oh, I apologize most sincerely, sir,” the golden protocol droid (which looked like the one he had had as a young man, not that he was comparing or anything) said as he stared down at them. The blue R2 unit (also looking quite like his old one) also gave a polite beep.

“Just move,” Vader gritted out.

They did so, and Vader continued down the hall. Then he stopped.

“Droids,” he muttered and whirled around, recognizing the machines that the Death Star plans had yet to be recovered from.

Cursing under his breath at the fact that droids did not have Force presences, Vader took off in the direction they had gone.

Han woke all alone. Mustn't have been out long, he thought. The other officer was still out cold, and Vader hadn't arrived yet.

He groaned as he sat up, then stood. “Now if I were on a strange battle station and I wanted to get off, where would I go?” he asked himself.

To the place I came aboard, of course.

Still feeling slightly sluggish, Han took off toward the docking bay.

“That's the ship we came on,” Luke told Leia, pointing to the Millennium Falcon. “But the tractor beam might still be in effect.”

“If it's an Imperial ship like you said, they probably took it off,” Leia reasoned. “I say we go for it.”

They were about to make a run for it when a voice called out, “Master Luke! Princess Leia! Master Luke!”

“Threepio!” Luke turned and saw the two droids coming quickly down the hall. “Come on!”

“Ready?” Leia asked when the droids had reached them.

Luke nodded and they dashed to the Falcon and up the ramp.

Han saw the escapees enter the Falcon and his eyes widened in outrage, then narrowed in determination.

“Oh no you don't,” he muttered, and took off after them.

Vader had choked three people by the time he made his way to the docking bay.

He was just in time to see the Millennium Falcon blast its way out of the Death Star.

“Turn on the tractor beam!” he roared, but it was too late.

The ship was out of range.

Vader growled, choked the man who had switched on the tractor beam for being too slow, and stamped off toward his chambers.

It was only then that he wondered where Solo was. His comlink beeped.

Luke and Leia collapsed in the cockpit, huge grins splitting their faces. “We did it!” Leia sighed happily.

“As long as they don't send any fighters after us,” Luke added, looking over the hyperdrive console. “Wait – and Ben! We forgot Ben!”

“They won't,” a voice assured them. “I've already spoke with Lord Vader, he trusts me to return you safely into his custody. And don't worry about the Jedi. Lord Vader's taken care of him, too.”

Leia her head fall forward and banged it repeatedly against the the dashboard. Luke went pale.

“Watch it, sweetheart, you'll damage my ship!” Han told her.

Luke and Leia swung the chairs around to face him and came face to face with the blasters they had carelessly left lying in the hold.

“So nice to see you both,” Han said, his voice sugary. “Now get away from the controls of my ship. I'm locking you in the hold the remainder of this flight.”

Han sat in the now-empty pilot's seat aboard the Falcon, alternately grumbling and swearing under his breath. The kid and the Princess were safely locked up in one of the holds, and Han was heading back to the Death Star, where they would be under constant watch for the remainder of their stay.

Which, if Vader had anything to say about it, probably wouldn't be too long. Han hoped he wouldn't be too mad with him for letting them get away in the first place.

He heard the Princess ranting and raving behind him and sighed, wishing the walls of the Falcon were as soundproof as those in the detention level.

Then he grinned. At least he wasn't the one stuck back there.

“Why, that overgrown --”

Luke sighed. Yelling wasn't going to help them get out of this situation.

“-- stubborn --”

He wished Ben was here. Ben wouldn't mind telling the Princess to shut up and think of a way to escape.

“-- misguided --”

He considered wishing the door open, like he had on the Death Star. But would it work on this kind of door? Did that even matter?

“-- arrogant --”

Well, it wouldn't hurt to try.

“-- overbearing --”

Luke stood up. That got the Leia's attention.

“Luke? What are you doing?”

“I'm going to see if I can open the door, like I did on the Death Star,” he told her.

She studied him. “How exactly did you do it, anyway?”

He frowned at the floor.

“I'm not sure. I was just wishing the door would open, and then I decided to practice some of the Jedi exercises Ben showed me, and it opened.”

Interested, she asked, “You're a Jedi? I didn't know there were any left, besides Obi-Wan.”

Luke gave her an embarrassed smile.

“Well, I'm not, but my father was. Ben says he knew him, and he said he'd teach me to use the Force, like my dad could.”

Leia smiled. “A noble goal.” She sat beside him and took his hand. “Alright, Luke. Let's see if it works.”

Luke took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He focused on the door, until he could see it clearly in his mind, the way he could with the training device when Ben had instructed him. Then, he mentally begged it to open.

At Leia's gasp, he opened his eyes.

The door was open.

“Hey, Chewie,” Han greeted his friend over the comlink. “How're the cleaning droids doing?”

Chewbacca just growled and rolled his eyes.

“That good, huh?”

Chewie glared.

Han chuckled.

“Sorry, pal. Couldn't help myself. I suppose you've heard about the prisoners getting away?”

The Wookiee had heard. After all the trouble I went to to get them here.

“Well, it wasn't completely wasted. Lord Vader did get to kill the Jedi,” Han reminded him.

Chewie glanced down, hesitating before agreeing.

“Chewie,” Han said sternly, leaning forward, “the Jedi are enemies of the Empire. You know that.”

Yes, Chewie did know, and he told Han that. But when he abruptly ended the conversation, Han knew Chewie still didn't feel good about delivering the Jedi to Vader.

Han sighed. Truth to tell, he didn't see the point in persecuting the Jedi any further, either. But Han trusted Vader to know what he was doing, and he wouldn't question him about it. Chewie would just have to get over himself.

Vader sat in his meditation chamber, staring at Obi-Wan's lightsaber. He got up and paced for a few minutes, then sat down and stared at it again. He repeated this cycle a quarter of an hour.

Then he put his suit back on and went back down to the docking bay to wait for Solo to arrive with the prisoners.

At the door, he turned back to stare at the lightsaber again.

As if in a dream, he picked it up. He ran his glove-clad fingers over the smooth metal. He knew this blade almost as well as he knew his own. This was the one Obi-Wan had used on Mustafar.

He wondered what Obi-Wan had done with his old one. His blue one.

Vader tucked he blade into a pocket on the flat oxygen pack he wore under his cape. No one would notice it there.

After all, it wasn't appropriate for a Dark Lord of the Sith to carry around sentimental objects.

He told himself that was not what this lightsaber represented. This blade was a trophy of his victory over Obi-Wan, as Obi-Wan had taken his when he nearly killed him all those years ago..

He hoped that if he told himself this often enough, he would start to believe it.

“Where are the droids, do you know?” Leia whispered to Luke as they crept out of the hold Han had imprisoned them in.

Luke shook his head. “This ship isn't very big, though. We should be able to find them.”

She nodded, staying close behind him.

“Do you have plan as to how to get us out of here? Considering the nerfherder has the blasters and all.”

“I was thinking the escape pods,” Luke whispered back.

Leia stared at him. “That's brilliant!”

Luke grinned and blushed.

“I try.” He paused. “Leia, do you think he was telling the truth? About Ben?”

Leia gave him a look of sympathy.

“Luke, Ben wouldn't want you to pine over him. He knew Vader was dangerous, and he was willing to take that risk for the good of the galaxy.”

“I know.” He continued down the hall, keeping an eye out for R2-D2 and C-3PO as he moved toward the closest pod. “I just miss him, is all. He's all I had left, you know? I feel . . .”

“Adrift?” Leia supplied.

Luke nodded. “Yeah.”

Leia smiled sadly.

“So do I.” She attempted to smile. “But don't worry. The Alliance is like one big family. We've got our geniuses, and our crazy people, and our regular, everyday people. I think you'll like it.”

Luke smiled back and opened the door of the pod for her.

“Me too.”

C-3PO rounded the corner, R2-D2 right behind him, just in time to see Luke crawl into the escape pod.

“Master Luke! Master Luke!” the protocol droid called frantically as the astromech beeped and whistled at his side.

“Threepio!” Luke hissed. “Pipe down and hurry up!”

The droids obeyed. It was a tight fit, but soon they were all aboard. Luke hit the jettison switch.

In the cockpit, Han thought he heard a noise. Probably just a one of those insane droids, he thought, and settled back as the ship was guided into the docking bay once again.

Vader watched the Falcon come to rest in the docking bay. He strode aboard almost before it had settled on the floor.

“Where are they?” he demanded of Han, as the pilot came to meet him.

“Back here,” Han said, leading him back to the hold. “I locked them in --” He stopped at the sight of the door to the hold, which was wide open.

“Locked?” Vader repeated, his voice sounding dangerous.

“Um --” Han began uncomfortably.

Vader reached out with the Force.

“They took an escape pod,” he informed Solo. “The boy is Force-sensitive. He opened the door.” His head tilted. “Obi-Wan was wise to hide him from me. He cannot be allowed to live.” He turned to look at Han. “And yet you let him.”

“I didn't --” Han began, eyes wide.

“Precisely,” Vader said crisply, and threw him into a wall with the Force. Han's head made a loud cracking sound, and he fell to the floor, unconscious.

Vader stalked out of the ship.

“Take the pilot to the medical bay,” he ordered the stormtroopers.

He couldn't afford to lose a pilot, especially one as good as Solo. Pilots of his caliber were hard to come by.

Vader turned to an officer next.

“Track that escape pod. It cannot go into hyperspace, so if you lose it you are not worth your pay. That is a threat, officer.”

The man bowed. “Yes, my lord.”

“We're going to have to land and find a ship with hyperspace capabilities to take us to Yavin IV,” Leia told Luke as he steered them through space.

Luke frowned at the primitive console of the pod.

“I don't even have a decent computer,” Luke complained. “How am I supposed to find a planet?”

“With your eyes,” Leia said, amused, as she pointed over R2-D2's dome and out of one of the small portholes.

Embarrassed, Luke grinned.

“Oh. Right.”

He turned the pod and aimed for the planet the Princess had spotted.

Vader dismissed the officer who had reported the movement of the escape pod to him and contemplated how to deal with this situation. It would be painfully easy to recapture them – after all, the only weapons they had were a couple of blasters and the rudimentary Force skills of an untrained sensitive who, if the Vader was interpreting the ripples from the boy correctly, was still completely awestruck by the fact that he could open doors. Yet he wondered if recapture would be in the best interest of the Empire.

If he could find a way to attach a tracking device to them, and they led him to the Rebel base . . . Vader smiled as his helmet and mask were removed. The thought of how close he was to taking the Rebel base made him feel as if he were six years old and his birthday had come early, in a slightly darker sense.

But first he needed to get a tracking device into their possession.

Han opened his eyes to the sight of the bright, sterile white ceiling of the medical bay. His head pounded furiously, and he groaned as he attempted to sit up. The medic rushed over.

“What happened?” Han asked.

“You got on Lord Vader's bad side,” the medic replied tactfully.

“So I'm dead?”

“Ah – no,” the medic said, amused.

“I didn't think so. If I was dead, I wouldn't hurt so much.”

The medic chuckled. “No, you're not dead, and if you wish to stay that way, I suggest you steer clear of Lord Vader for awhile.”

Han nodded and sank back into his pillow.

“Thanks,” he said as he drifted back off to sleep. “I'll do that.”

“You!” Vader barked at the captain.

He had remembered this particular man because the one time Tarkin had given him orders, he had been intelligent enough to ask Vader about them before carrying them out. That alone brought him up several levels in the Sith Lord's eyes.

“Yes, sir?” the captain inquired politely, turning to face Vader with respect in his eyes.

Only respect, too, Vader noted with curiousity. Not even a hint of fear. His opinion of the man went up another few pegs. It was nice to be treated like a human being for once in his life.

“Do you have any experience with piloting?” Vader inquired.

“Yes, sir. I took the advanced piloting course offered at the Academy.”

Vader sized him up. “You'll do,” he said. “Follow me, Captain --?”

“Piett, sir.”

“Thank goodness!” Leia sighed as she stood outside the escape pod, stretching. She looked around, then turned to Luke. “We must be on Delaya.” She turned to peer back into the pod. “Artoo? Threepio?”

There was a cheerful beep from R2-D2 and a mournful groan from C-3PO.

“Oh, Princess,” the protocol droid moaned. “I think my joints have stiffened up. I'll need some oil.”

R2 made a rude noise.

3PO gasped. “Well, I never! Artoo Detoo, don't you know it's inappropriate to use such language in the presence of a lady as finely bred as the Princess?!”

Leia smiled as she grasped the golden droid's arm and pulled him out of the pod, followed closely by R2.

“Don't worry, Threepio, I'm sure I've heard worse.”

3PO huffed, but remained silent. He and R2 followed Luke and Leia as they headed for the nearby town.

Firmus Piett sat in a cantina on the world of Delaya, a neighbour of Alderaan's. Now that Alderaan was gone, it was the only planet with life left in the system.

Piett nursed a drink while carefully surveying the customers in the cantina. A few careful questions had directed him here; anyone looking for a ship to hire would come here, the locals had said. Piett hoped they were right; he had heard what had happened to the last man Vader had trusted to bring the rebels in.

A cracked skull and several sprained ribs really doesn't sound too pleasant.

A flash of light caught Piett's eye; the door had opened. He glanced at the newcomers, and sucked in his breath. It was the rebels!

He forced himself to sit still, but he could not resist watching them as they moved about the small, crowded room. Over here, he thought at them. You need a ship, I've got one . . . over here . . .

Finally, the young man approached him cautiously. Piett was careful to show a bit of curiosity as he met the boy's frank blue stare, but to also appear detached and aloof. He was, after all, not desperate.

Or at least, he wasn't supposed to be.

Vader had warned him about the boy's powers, but had also mentioned he was untrained. Piett hoped that lack of training extended to an inability to pick up on feelings. Or to read minds, as Vader was rumoured to be able to do.

“Hi,” the boy said softly. “Do you know anybody who has a ship for hire?”

“Sure,” Piett said casually. “I've got one. Can't pilot it for you, though. I've got business to attend to.”

This didn't seem to faze him in the least.

“That's fine. Um . . . could we buy it from you, maybe?”

Piett leaned back, appearing thoughtful.

“I don't see why not. If you have thirty thousand credits on you.”

The boy beckoned the Princess over, and whispered in her ear. She pulled out a data chip.

“Here,” she said. “There's an extra ten thousand on it; you can keep it if the shuttle is ready to leave tonight.”

He smirked at her. “It's ready to leave now.”

She smiled coolly. “What's its name?”

Lady Raina,” Piett replied, naming the small shuttle he had arrived in, which also happened to have a tracking device attached to it..

The Princess nodded and strode outside, her purposeful walk reminding Piett strongly of Vader.

“Thanks,” the boy said hastily, and hurried after her.

Piett grinned into his drink. He'd give them an hour or so to get underway, then call up to the Executor to request a ride back.

Lord Vader would be very pleased.

Once he was released from the medical bay, Han moped. For the first time in weeks, months even, he was just a normal pilot with nothing to do but gamble or read in the pilots' lounge until he was needed. He was bored out of his mind, and that only made him depressed and pessimistic. He actually found himself missing Vader and the little assignments the Sith would give him that kept him busy.

There was a rumour going around that Vader had found a new favourite. Not a pilot, this time, but one of the officers. Han was more jealous than he would have thought possible.

It was also rumoured that this officer (a captain, did they say?) had successfully carried out a mission that gave Vader the location of the Rebel base. All the pilots gave Han sideways glances as they talked, as if he would care about what the stupid captain did.

He did care, but they shouldn't know that. It should be him doing stuff like this, not that new guy!

“I heard Vader's trying to get him transferred to the Executor,” Han heard Jess say in a stage whisper, as if Vader would overhear and kill him for spreading rumours. Or as if Han would stand up and sock him if he said it too loud.

Han closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.

As the Death Star closed in on Yavin IV, the tension in the halls of the giant battle station built to fever pitch. The pilots were especially jumpy, knowing that if the Rebels decided to try and attack the station, as they surely would with the blueprints in their possession, they would be called out to harry them.

Finally, Cap got sick of waiting for orders, and left to check the situation with Vader. He ordered Han to come with him.

“I don't think this is a good idea,” Han said nervously as the big black figure came into view.

“Relax,” Cap relied. “You'll have to get used to working with him again sometime. Now's as good a time as any.”

They had only taken a few more steps when Vader whirled and stalked toward them.

“We'll have to destroy them ship-to-ship” he said, half to Cap, who sent out the call for trhe pilots to head for their TIEs, and half to the officers he had been speaking to. “You two,” he ordered as Han and Cap made to follow the rest of the squad to the hangar bay, “come with me.”

Han had never really liked TIE fighters. He could fly them well enough, but the fact that they had no shields always made him tense up whenever he climbed into the cockpit. He glanced longingly at Vader's TIE, a heavily modified, shielded version of the original. It was said Vader had even equipped it for hyperspace, something no TIE should be capable of.

He thought even more longingly of the Millennium Falcon. If only he could be out in this battle in his beloved freighter! However, with Vader angry at him already, he didn't dare ask to take her out. Instead, he slipped wordlessly into his TIE, put on the headset, and readied both himself and the ship for the upcoming battle.

Han and Cap flanked Vader as the Sith zipped easily through the battle, shooting a Rebel here and there. When the Rebels started to dive for the trench that ran around the equator of the Death Star, though, Vader began to curse so badly that even Han, who was not only Corellian but had grown up with a band of pirates who swore more often than not, felt his ears begin to burn. And he suspected the curses were in Huttese, a language Han didn't even understand.

The three of them shot off after the rebels, shooting down most of them. Han was so focused on his task he hardly even noticed when Cap disappeared from his viewscreen.

Cap followed Vader down to the trench, Solo on the other side of him. He was slightly worried about Solo. The man had taken a crack to the head only a few hours ago; he really shouldn't be flying so soon after that. The medic would have a fit if he found out.

Cap was so preoccupied trying to keep both Vader and Han alive and well that he didn't even notice the Rebel behind him until it was too late.

There was not even enough time to scream as Cap's TIE fighter exploded.

Vader noticed the loss of his captain, just as he had noticed the deaths of about half his squadron out on the front lines. It was impossible to ignore the Force ripples they created as they died.

It was also impossible to ignore the Force ripples coming from the Rebel pilot in front of him. It was the boy who had rescued the Princess from the Death Star, Vader was sure of it. He had to kill the child before he created more problems than Vader cared to deal with.

He focused on the boy's X-wing. Although they handled nothing like a Jedi starfighter, Vader knew, they looked far too much like one for Vader's comfort. As soon as he had the ship in his scopes, Vader grinned beneath his mask.

“I have you now,” he growled, feeling a thirst for Jedi blood he hadn't felt in years, not even when he had killed Obi-Wan. That had just been revenge.

He was about to release the bolts that would engulf the X-wing in flames when a voice spoke to him in his mind – not so incredible if you were Force-sensitive, but this was a voice Vader had fully expected never to hear again.

You don't want to be doing that, Obi-wan said.

Vader reared back in shock, his mechanical fingers going slack on the controls of his modified TIE. He recovered in time to keep the fighter on track. What the hell would you know about what I want? Vader snarled back, aiming again at the Force-sensitive Rebel.

But two proton torpedoes had already entered the Death Star's one weak spot, and the pilot pulled up.

“Force take him!” Vader raged. “Damn him to all the hells and back! Solo, pull up. We need to get away before we get caught in the explosion.”

“Yes, sir,” Solo replied, and they soared out into open space.

“Meet on the Executor,” Vader ordered the remainder of his squadron – five out of eleven men. “She's in orbit around Yavin II.”

Yavin IV and Yavin II only came within sight of each other every two thousand years or so. The Executor was safe from prying Rebel eyes while orbiting around Yavin II.

The pilots all acknowledged the order and headed for the flagship.

Captain Piett was standing just behind the admiral when the six ships docked. Han scowled inwardly. So Vader had managed to get him transferred. That was a pity.

Vader headed off in a storm of black armour and harsh words to meditate. Han gave the captain one last glare before he slunk after his four squadmates to the pilots' lounge.

In his hyperbaric chamber, Vader groaned. He was going to have to do some serious recruiting.

On Yavin IV, a large party was in full swing. Luke glanced over at Leia, who had told him earlier that he was being awarded a medal for bravery the following day. He caught her eye and grinned; she smiled back.

Yes, it had been a very good day.

The months passed with agonizing slowness, at least from Han's point of view. With only his normal piloting duties to attend to, he was often bored and spent his time moping about the Executor. After the destruction of the Death Star, Vader promoted Jess to Squadron Captain in Cap's place. Cap himself was mourned by the five remaining pilots for months, to the point the new recruits became depressed because they hadn't known him.

Han only saw Vader at a distance now, and as the time passed, the Dark Lord showed no signs of relenting and letting Han back into his good graces. Today was the closest he ever got to the Sith in two months - a brief passing in the hall as he showed Corry, one of the new recruits, around the Executor. Vader had passed Han without so much as a glance as he followed a couple stormtroopers and a screaming Rebel to the interrogation chamber.

Frowning, Han went to find Chewie. The Wookiee could always make him feel better.

Vader stalked in circles around the interrogation chamber as the rebel was strapped down to the table, still shrieking curses at Vader and the troopers at random intervals. Vader just rolled his eyes impatiently underneath the mask.

Their job complete, the troopers left, leaving Vader alone with the Rebel. Ironically, being alone with Vader seemed to scare the man more than being in a roomful of Imperials. Vader smirked and prepared the first drug.

The Rebel gave an ear-popping yell as the burning sensation caused by the drug made it's way through his veins.

“What was the name of the Rebel who destroyed the Death Star?” Vader demanded without preamble.

The Rebel glared. “I – was on . . . leave!”

“Does it look like I care?” Vader asked dispassionately. “Tell me the name and I will let you continue your vacation.”

“I – don't believe . . . you!”

“Your funeral,” Vader replied easily. “Quite literally.”

The Rebel just continued to glare. Vader gave him the next drug, and they started all over again.

Two hours into the interrogation, the Rebel cracked. “Fine . . . fine. The name.”

Vader leaned forward eagerly. “Yes?”

“Skywalker. Now give me the damn antidote and send me home.”

Vader was paralyzed with shock. It was several moments before he could convince him limbs to move again.

What did you say?” he demanded.

“Skywalker . . .”

“Are you sure?”


“It couldn't have been something else? Starwalker, or Skyrunner, or --”

“It was Skywalker! The antidote!”

Skywalker. It can't be. Impossible. There are no Skywalkers left. There can't be. It's just not possible. No. He's wrong. He has to be.

But what if he's not?

But he is!

But what if he's not?

Vader shot the antidote to the drugs into the Rebels arm. The man barely had enough time to enjoy the reprieve before Vader strangled him to death.

Tell the truth, but only a half truth and whatever you do, don't lie, not even a little white one, Vader reminded himself as he strode toward Sidious' throne and knelt at the foot of the stairs leading up onto the balcony.

“Lord Vader,” Sidious growled. “Care to explain just what happened to the Death Star?”

Vader recounted the battle in detail, but left out the part about Obi-Wan returning from death to stop him from shooting down the Force-sensitive pilot – Skywalker. Instead, he said he hadn't been able to maneuver his TIE into position in time to shoot the Rebel. Which was true, except that it was all Obi-Wan's fault.

He was kind of glad for the distraction the old Jedi had caused now, though. He had nearly shot his own child. It was all he could do not to shudder at the thought.

“And where have you been in the months since this battle?” Sidious asked, voice dangerously calm.

“I have been hunting down the Rebel who fired the shot, Master,” Vader replied, hoping that would appease the old Sith.

“I trust you found and dealt with him?”

“Yes, Master.” I did find the Rebel I was looking for. And I'm sure he did fire a shot. Just not the one you're talking about.

“Good. You are dismissed. Continue looking for the rebels. I want them all a dead as the men aboard the Death Star once you are through, Lord Vader.”

“Yes, Master.”

Vader had another Rebel in his custody, and was again demanding the name of the Rebel who had destroyed the Death Star.

“I know it's Skywalker,” Vader snapped irritably. “I want a first name, a given name.”

This particular question had started to plague him once it had fully sunk in that he had a son – that he was a father. Him. A father. It was unbelievable at best.

He remembered how . . . she had insisted that the baby was a boy. He had been equally certain of a girl. They had had many playful arguments about mother's intuition and the Force. It seemed that mother's intuition won out.

He recalled the names she had picked out. There had been quite a few, but she had eventually narrowed it down to two. Yet neither of them seemed to fit the Force-presence of the Rebel – of his son.

So what was the boy's name?

He would be nineteen now, Vader realized. Nearly a fully-grown man. Why, in a few months he would be the same age Vader had been when he had married – no, he would be the same again Anakin had been when he had married . . . her.

Was she still alive? Obviously, Vader had not killed her and the baby on Mustafar as he had thought he had.

No, she was gone. He could feel it through the Force. The Force was like a dark room, in a way. Finding a presence was equal to finding a light source. A presence hidden by ysalamiri was like encountering a wall. Looking for someone who had died ended in nothing but dark, empty space.

She wasn't where he had left her, in the Force. She was nothing but dark, empty space.

And that is good, Vader firmly insisted to himself. Really.

He shouldn't be dwelling on her, anyway. He had to find his son. He gave the Rebel he was interrogating another shot.

This one was stronger than the last one, but not by much. He soon gave Vader a name. Luke.

Luke Skywalker.

As they cruised from one end of the galaxy to the other on some top secret mission of Vader's, Han moped. There was a time, he remembered, when Vader might have told him what was going on. Now, he didn't have a chance in any of the nine hells to discover the Sith Lord's motives.

Unless he could get back on Vader's good side . . .

He sat down and began to think, hoping that whatever plan he managed to come up with wouldn't blow up in his face.

After poring over many possibilities, Han finally decided to simply talk to Vader. That plan alone had a very high chance of backfiring on him; the others, such as washing Vader's TIE Advanced, or organizing his datapads, were far too hazardous to ever be used as peace offerings. Everyone knew that one didn't touch Vader's stuff without permission. It was an unwritten law of nature – water was wet, stars gave off light, Vader's possessions were off-limits without express orders.

And so Han was hyperventilating in front of Vader's door, praying to all the gods he knew of and sending a general prayer to all the ones he didn't that Vader was in a good mood. They had had to go to Coruscant last week to pick him up after he somehow left the planet he was on and gone to the Core after another mysterious mission. For some odd reason, he hadn't been as furious as everyone had expected him to be. In fact, for Vader, he was nearly downright cheerful.

Han swallowed for what he hoped would not be the last time, and knocked on the door.

“Luke, could you take this box to Mon Mothma?” Leia asked her friend as he came up beside her with an armful of boxes of his own. “Her things must have gotten mixed in with mine.”

“Sure,” he said, taking it from her.

The Rebel Alliance was in the middle of unpacking at their new base on Hoth, and things were chaotic right now. Luke fought his was through the large base to the supreme commander's quarters.

After delivering the box, he made his way back to Leia's side. He had made other friends in the Alliance, but she never had, and he had the feeling that she was lonely at times. She was, after all, the only person of rank younger than forty-five, and at twenty-two she needed a social life.

At least, that was Luke's opinion.

Besides, for some reason he felt more comfortable at her side than with the other pilots. After having made the rank of commander over others who had been in the Alliance for as long as he had been alive, Leia was the one person who knew what it was like to command people old enough to be his parents (or, in a couple of cases, his grandparents). The truth was, it was decidedly unsettling.

He thought back over the one encounter with Darth Vader he had had so far. He had only seen the Dark Lord from a distance, but that had been enough. Talk about unsettling.

Apparently, the Dark Lord had a special interest in him. He had no idea why. Could Vader have somehow figured out that it was Luke who had destroyed his precious Death Star? He must have; Luke could think of no other reason for the Sith's attention.

Leia smiled as she saw him approach.

“Come on,” she said happily, grabbing his hand, oblivious to his worries about Vader. “Let's go beg something hot off of the cooks.”

He smiled back and together they raced off down the hall of their new base.

“Enter,” Vader said absently in reply to Han's knock.

The pilot cracked the door open and peered inside.

Vader was sitting in his hyperbaric chamber, his back to Han. A machine was in the process of lifting the black helmet off his head. After it had been set aside, Vader tilted his face toward the ceiling, giving the droid better access to his mask.

“What do you want, Solo?”

Han stepped nervously inside.

“I – uh, I want to say I'm sorry, sir, for what happened with the Princess and the kid --”

“That was months ago,” Vader interrupted, turning his chair around to stare at Han with piercing blue eyes.

“Well – yes, sir, but I didn't think you'd forgiven me for my mistake, and I'd like it if we could be friends again --”

“Friends.” Vader chuckled mirthlessly, the absence of the mask toning the noise down to a hoarse wheeze, but it was chilling nonetheless. Then his tone turned thoughtful. “Friend. So much more difficult to pronounce than foe. And if you drop a single letter, you get fiend.”

There was a pause so heavy Han thought he might collapse under the weight.

“Friend,” Vader finally continued, saying the word as if it was a foreign language. “it's a tricky word, Solo.”

Han stomach was in knots.

“Yes, sir --” he began nervously.

“Hey, Uncle D!” a voice crowed behind him. “I'm afraid that the governor you wanted to talk to has met with a rather unfortunately fatal, ah, accident.

Han whirled around to face the newcomer as Vader rolled his eyes, a strangely normal action for the enigmatic Sith Lord.

The man was a nondescript but large and powerfully built being who could have easily donned Vader's suit and no one would have known any better, saving a slight difference in height. With brown hair and brown eyes to offset a permanently tan complexion, he could have been from any number of worlds. Yet Han knew, both from the accent and the audacity with which the man had greeted Vader, where this particular man was from.

“Solo, this is Wrenga Jixton,” Vader introduced them wryly. “Jixton, this is Han Solo. Jix is Corellian too, Solo. You two should get along just fine.”

Luke enjoyed practicing with his lightsaber. It was the one thing he had to connect him to his unknown father, and he wished to do it justice. Sometimes he would imagine that the blade had a personality, and he strove to improve his skill with it, so that it wouldn't get bored of him. After all, his father must have been much better than he was.

He swung the blade in a slow arc above his head, then repeated the motion over and over again, picking up speed each time he brought the blade up and around. Careful not to cut his own head off, he added in a swooping movement that brought the lightsaber close to the floor and up in a block.

Outside the door and unknown to Luke, Leia watched. She didn't know much about lightsabers or the Force, but it seemed to her that he was doing a good job. She turned and silently crept back to her room and to the warmth of her bed.

“Okay, and about your kid,” Jix continued after giving a report on the mission he had just been on for Vader.

Han nearly choked. “What?”

Vader sighed. Jix merely looked confused.

“He doesn't know about Luke,” Vader explained to the other Corellian.

The name caught in Han's memory.

“Luke? The kid who ran off with the Princess? That Luke?”

Vader's brow furrowed.

“The boy that came in with Obi-Wan?”

“Yeah . . .” Suddenly Han swore. “He looks like you!

“What do you mean?” Vader demanded.

“Well, I took him down to the detention level, and I kept thinking I'd seen him somewhere before, but he'd never been off Tatooine, he said, and I've never been there. But it's you; his eyes are exactly like yours, and a bit of his facial structure. That's why I thought I saw him before,” Han said excitedly, happy to provide his boss with this information.

Vader looked surprised at the thought of his son being so close and not noticing. The boy had been right there when he had boarded the Falcon, after all.

Jix nodded casually.

“Fits with what I found, Uncle D.”

For reasons Han could not fathom, Vader did not give Jixton an irritated glare at the nickname. He merely nodded slowly, thinking.

“Have ten thousand probe droids ordered,” he instructed Han, who sketched a bow and left.

On his way out, he heard Vader murmuring to Jix about another accident that needed to occur.

Jixton disappeared from the Executor as quickly as he had appeared. Han didn't know where he went or what he was doing, but he suspected he didn't want to know.

Vader had ordered his fleet to the planet Hoth, a Force-forsaken ball of ice and snow, due to the discovery of lifeforms by one of the probe droids Han had ordered for him. Yet Vader was still in a temper. Luckily, it was not directed at Han, this time.

“He is as clumsy as he is stupid,” the Sith hissed as Han lurked in the corner of the room. “Prepare for a surface attack.”

“Yes, my lord,” the general replied hurriedly, nearly tripping over his own feet as he scurried out of the room and away from Vader's anger.

Vader swung his chair around to face a large viewscreen, catching sight of Han in the process.

“What are you doing here, Solo?” he asked, but Han breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing mostly slight curiousity rather than anger in the mechanical tone.

“Nothing, just observing,” Han replied.

“That is hardly nothing,” Vader shot back. “I've known of many missions that have gone awry due to observers.

“I'm not spying, if that's what you're implying,” Han said, eyes widening.

“You had better not be,” Vader replied with deadly calm as the pressed a button and the screen flickered on to reveal Admiral Ozzel and Captain Piett.

“Go tell Jess to prepare for a ground attack,” he ordered, turning to the screen.

Han left as Vader began to snarl at Ozzel. He doubted he'd see the admiral alive again. After all, Vader was pissed, and Ozzel was expendable.

A ground attack meant AT-ATs. Han had never really liked controlling the cumbersome machine – give him a TIE fighter any day, and he didn't like those, either – but he did have to admit they were effective as one shot struck down about six Rebels who were on foot.

Jess, Zaine and Corry were on board with him and efficiently doing their jobs. This was Corry's first time in a large-scale battle and he was white with fear, but his hands were steady as he aimed the AT-AT's other gun. Han shouted encouragement whenever he could be heard over the blasts, trying to keep the younger man from freezing up.

Suddenly a movement caught the corner of his eye.

“Hey! One of those little Rebel ships got in under us!” he shouted indignantly over his headset.

“So get it out!” Jess yelled back.

“I can't turn the gun that way!” Han snapped.

Jess activated the viewscreen and swung the camera around, searching for the Rebel speeder. Then he swore.

“They're tangling the feet up in cable! Evacuate, or we'll be Alderaanians!”

It was a popular Imperial saying nowadays, but Han still winced every time he heard it.

“Copy that,” he replied calmly. “Corry, shut down the movement systems and follow me!”

They made it to an escape pod, but Jess and Zaine didn't, Han knew, when the AT-AT finally collapsed and the other pod hadn't been jettisoned. He didn't allow himself time to mourn for his fallen comrades, though. They had to finish this raid.

They landed the pod on the peaceful side of the base just as Vader's shuttle set down. The Sith didn't ask any questions – he likely knew about the AT-AT's destruction anyway – he merely nodded and ordered, “Follow me.”

Corry, who had officially gone into shock after the explosion, staggered after Han, who stayed safely in the Dark Lord's wake.

They entered the control room they were greeted with a very familiar, very unwelcoming face.

“Princess,” Vader greeted her coldly.

She glared furiously at him, short brown hairs coming lose from the braid wrapped around her head and framing her face. “Lord Vader.” Her gaze slid to Han as she searched for an escape route and her expression turned even more sour. “Oh, not you again.”

Han smirked.

“Perhaps you can help me with a task of mine, Your Highness,” Vader continued smoothly.

She looked back at him.

“I doubt it,” she replied acidly.

“Oh, I'm quite sure you can,” Vader countered. “Surely you've kept in touch with your rescuer, Skywalker.”

She froze.

“Just tell me where Luke Skywalker is, Princess, and things don't have to get as nasty as they did last time.”

The blood drained out of her face.

“Never,” she replied defiantly.

“Very well.” He nodded at Han and Corry. “Take her to the Executor.”

Her lip curled in disgust as each man grasped one of her arms, but she didn't protest. Vader continued his sweep of the base.

Han sat outside the princess' cell as she paced. He knew he didn't have to, but he wasn't going to risk losing her again. Doing so once had been painful enough.

Finally, he opened that door to the cell. “Could you stop walking around? It's getting on my nerves.”

She glared. “I'll be sure to keep it up, then.”

And she did, blast her. Han gritted his teeth and settled down for the long haul, trying to block her angry footsteps out of his mind.

It didn't work. It just made his head pound in time with her footsteps.

Vader met Han in the detention level.

“What are you doing, Solo?” he asked.

Even with the vocalizer, it was clear Vader thought Han was crazy.

“Making sure she doesn't get away again,” Han replied, stifling a yawn.

Han got the distinct impression that Vader was rolling his eyes at him.

“Go to bed, Solo. There is no Force-sensitive child around to help her, this time. Stormtroopers will be just fine as guards.”

Han came wearily to his feet. “If you insist.”

“I do. You're no good to me dead from exhaustion.”

Han yawned again and followed Vader out the door. The princess, he registered distinctly, was still pacing.

Far away, a ship had landed on the swampy planet of Dagobah, and Luke Skywalker was listening to a lecture given by a small green creature.

“Wars do not make one great . . .”

“There is a great disturbance in the Force,” Sidious informed Vader over the huge comm he used to make himself appear more important.

About time, Vader thought.

“I have felt it,” he replied smoothly, his mental shields tight.

“We have a new enemy, the young Rebel who destroyed the Death Star. I have no doubts that this boy is the offspring of Anakin Skywalker,” the Emperor continued.

Vader felt the other Sith Lord's scrutiny and mustered up some surprise to send through his shields, purely for Sidious's benefit.

Damn, he knows more than I thought he did! Why did I tell him I killed the boy? Why? “How is that possible?” Yes, how is it possible that the kid I killed is still alive?

Thankfully, Sidious seemed more preoccupied with the fact that Vader had a child and making sure that child would not get in the way of Vader's connection to the Dark Side than punishing Vader for lying to him.

Besides, then he would have to face the fact that he lied to me about . . . her. Oh, blackmail is a beautiful thing.

“Search your feelings, Lord Vader. You will know it to be true. He will destroy us!”

Us? Somehow I doubt that . . . maybe you

“He's just a boy. And Obi-Wan can no longer help him.”

“The Force is strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.”

“If he could be turned, he would be a powerful ally.”

For me, anyway. You won't be around very long after he is standing at my side.

“Yes . . . yes. He would be a great asset. Can it be done?”

“He will join us or die, Master.”

So yes, it had better damn well be done.

The transmission ended, and Vader clambered awkwardly to his feet, missing the old days, when every movement he made was fluid and graceful, easy and thoughtless.

With a sigh, he made his way back to his chambers, his plans tumbling through his head. He had decided to bring the Princess to Coruscant, and use her to lure his son to him.

He had chosen Coruscant – Imperial Center – because it was a planet he knew well, and Luke had never been to before. The boy would have no idea where to go, would not know how to lose himself in the city's bowels, and that would make him all the easier for Vader to track if he decided to run. Having spent his teen years exploring Coruscant's underbelly, Vader knew all the nooks and crannies a person could hide in.

The only disadvantage was that Sidious was close by, but that could not be helped.

Piett caught up with him, hovering near his elbow. “We have entered Imperial Center's atmosphere, my lord.”

“Excellent. Admiral, I have business to attend to that takes top priority, but in my absence I wish for you and Captain Solo to go to the Academy and find new pilots to replenish my squad.”

“Yes, my lord . . . ah, sir, I was under the impression that Solo was only a Lieutenant.”

Vader cocked his head. “Now that you mention it, so is he.”

Han had taken to going down to the detention area every day to check on the Princess. Call him paranoid or obsessive, or whatever, but he was determined not to let her get away this time.

He opened her door, only to receive a fierce, incredulous look.

Again?” was all she said, exasperated.

“We've entered Imperial Center's atmosphere,” he informed her. “You'll be taken down to the city in about six hours.”

“Are you going to put me up in a luxury hotel, too?” she asked sarcastically.

Han raised his brows.

“I've heard that Lord Vader's residence here is quite extensive, yes.”

He took pleasure in seeing her face pale at the implication.

“I'm being kept at Vader's private residence?” she screeched.

Han cocked his head, considering.

“Well, his private residence is actually on – well, it's not here. This is just a --”

“-- needlessly showy and disgustingly elaborate display of Imperial wealth and power,” Leia finished for him.

“Not the description I would use,” Han replied.

“But it's true,” she shot back.

He glared at her, unable to come up with a suitably witty response, and left her alone again.

Han had barely entered his room when he was summoned to Vader's quarters.

“Yes, my lord?” he said as he entered the inner room, where the hyperbaric chamber sat.

Vader swung his chair around.

“In light of the recent losses at Hoth,” he said without preamble, “I am promoting you to squadron leader. You will accompany Admiral Piett to the Academy on Imperial Center and fill the ranks of the pilots lost. Am I making myself clear, Captain Solo?”

Han was speechless, until he saw the hidden sparkle in the Sith Lord's blue eyes. He knew exactly what kind of bomb he was dropping, and he was enjoying Han's reaction.

Han drew himself up.

“Impeccably, my lord,” he said, attempting to be impassive.

Apparently, it didn't work, because Vader smirked, scars stretching across his face.

“Excellent. Dismissed, Captain.”

Han bowed and left, swaying down the hallway in shock, drunk on life. After surviving nine years in Vader's service, he'd finally been promoted!

Luke was meditating upside down, Yoda perched on his foot, when a sudden vision of Leia popped into his head. She was alone and scared, though she was trying hard not to be,and he realized she had been captured by the Imperials. He panicked, remembering the nightmares and resulting insomnia she had had for over a year after he had rescued her from the Death Star, images often so vivid he would pick up on them. If Vader had her again . . .

Much to Yoda's dismay, he toppled over.

“My lord, your shuttle is ready,” Piett informed Vader.

“Good work, Admiral. Find Captain Solo and go with him to collect the Princess. The three if you will be coming with me.”

Piett bowed. “Of course, my lord.”

“No!” Leia snarled, digging in her heels as Han and Piett attempted to drag her down the hall. “I will not go live with that . . . that thing!”

Han resisted the urge to smack her. That would only make her all the more determined not to go.

“Look, Your Worshipfulness,” he snapped, “you haven't exactly got a choice here. Either you come with us now, or we go get a sedative and then you won't have any control at all over what we do to you.”

He gave her a leering smile.

Her eyes widened at the implication. Her lips thinned, and she allowed them to lead her down the hall.

Piett shot Han a dirty look over Leia's head, which Han ignored. Mr High-and-Mighty may not approve of his tactics, but he had gotten the Princess to move her cute little behind, hadn't he?

Vader was waiting for them.

“Princess,” he greeted Leia politely.

She glowered so evilly that Han half expected Vader to wither into dust, but she didn't say anything.

Vader waved a hand over the manacles Han and Piett had broken a sweat trying to wrestle onto her. They fell to the floor and Vader gestured to the lowered boarding ramp.

“Make yourself at home.”

“She's not to be locked --?” Piett began, only to fall silent at Vader's gaze.

“She is my guest,” he said mildly. “She may move about the ship as she likes. Not to worry, Solo – I've had all escape pods removed.”

Leia glanced over her shoulder as she removed the plate that covered the wires leading to the ship's controls, ensuring that Vader, Solo, and the other one were still safely in the cockpit. The transport may not have escape pods, but that wouldn't stop her from trying to end their mission once and for all, even if it meant losing her own life. It would be worth it, if she could manage to take Vader out of the game.

She glanced at the assortment of wires and switches, and groaned.

The transport had been modified so heavily, she did not know which wire it was that sent the sublight engines into backlash.

Add in the note in bold black letters – Nice try, your Highness – that practically screamed of Vader, and for the first time it sank in that she was royally screwed.

Part 2

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