A/N: I don't ALWAYS take four months. :)


CHAPTER 10


"What do you mean you won't."

Nobody could make a question sound so much like a pronouncement of doom as Darth Vader. Piett cleared his throat. "It's not so much that I won't, my lord," he said, "as that I've decided not to."

Vader stared at him—goggled, actually. No amount of durasteel armor could conceal consternation of that magnitude; Piett could practically see the man's mask turning purple. Behind him, sitting just within view, Skywalker ducked forward, elbows on his knees and head down in a futile effort to hide the fit of mirth shaking his shoulders. Belatedly Piett realized that his cheeky reply sounded like a quote from Cryptic Jedi Proverbs Through the Ages by L. Skywalker.

The fact was certainly not lost on Vader; he whirled and stabbed a forefinger at his offspring. "I should never have let you anywhere near him."

Skywalker, possibly asphyxiating on sheer glee, could only shake his head in mute denial.

Piett cleared his throat, mustering his courage. "He's had no part in it, sir. I—"

"He has had every part in it," Vader snapped over his shoulder. "His mere presence is sufficient to set an entire system on end, let alone one impressionable admiral."

Skywalker looked up, doing his best impression of a dutiful firstborn son, but his heart obviously wasn't in it; his eyes cackled. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"It's my decision, sir, no one else's." Piett cleared his throat again and hastily went on. "I've prepared a fresh set of proposals for this evening's session, if you would care to—"

"I ordered you to accept the terms offered yesterday," Vader snarled. "You will present no new proposals. You will carry out my orders or suffer the consequences."

Piett set his jaw and fought the urge to glance at Skywalker, his sole hope of surviving what he intended to say next. Sith Whisperer, don't fail me now. "Actually, sir, I've thought matters over, and as best I can make out, I am no longer obligated to accept your orders."

Dead silence.

For the second time Vader gaped at him, unable to comprehend that his reliable doormat of an admiral could finally have developed a spine after all this time. But fury caught up quickly. Piett could almost see it swelling the armor outward, wrath bulging from every orifice, and knew he'd made his last-ever mistake.

Vader started forward, one arm reaching fatally across the lightyears—then Skywalker seized him by the elbow. "Father—please."

Those two soft words somehow packed the punch of a quad-laser blast. Vader's fists balled. He ceased trying to break his son's grip and looked back into a pair of urgent, relentless blue eyes. For a long while they stared at one another in silence, speaking thought to thought perhaps. Then, almost audibly, Vader's rage sucked back in, and he retreated a step from the holoprojector, flinging his son's hand off his arm. Piett let out a shaky breath. If we ever get to the other side of this, Skywalker, I'm buying you a liter of hundred-year-old Whyren's.

Skywalker winked at him. Piett's inner accountant instantly regretted the thought.

"And what," Vader spat, "gave you that fantastical idea, Admiral?"

Piett tried to look as inoffensive and reasonable as possible. Which wasn't very much of either, given what he was about to say. "You did, sir, publicly abdicate the Imperial throne several weeks ago. By all precedent this entails the resignation of any military offices you held. Consequently"—if this was the end he might as well go out with a bang—"I have no remaining obligations to execute your orders."

Silence stretched, while Vader sought to absorb the incredible fact that anybody could be so monumentally stupid as to make that comment to his face not once but twice.

"You know, Father," put in Skywalker brightly, before the silence was quite long enough to hang someone with, "he's right."

The respirator ran through two exceedingly put-upon-sounding cycles before Vader turned to glower at the more experienced voice of insurrection.

"He'd actually be in dereliction of his duty if he did execute your orders."

The forefinger pounced. "When I require the assistance of rebels and traitors to interpret Imperial naval protocol, I will apprise you of the fact."

"Technically, you should've been kicked off the ship weeks ago—"

"Enough." The thundering bass dropped to a dangerous hiss. "It is unlikely the admiral will survive this conversation if I am compelled to eject his defensive force field from my quarters." Vader's helmet revolved to pin its withering regard on Piett. "That was your purpose in requesting his presence, was it not?"

Piett forced a faint smile. "I simply know that you value his opinion, sir."

Vader snorted. "His opinion is inconsequential. He is an interfering and overconfident whelp."

"I get that from my mother's side, you know," put in Skywalker, in a pitch-perfect imitation of Solo's cheery sarcasm. Piett went from forcing a smile to smothering laughter—then panicked all over again as Vader whirled on his son like a striking vaapad.

"Your mother is not a matter of jest, boy."

"I'm not making fun of my mother," said Skywalker, laying on more condescension than Piett had heard anybody address to Darth Vader since Admiral Ozzel and the So Many Uncharted Settlements fiasco of '22. "I'm making fun of you. Been awhile, I take it."

"What you are doing," Vader snarled, "is being a deliberate and disrespectful nuisance."

"Yes," said Skywalker. "I am. But he is not." He flicked his chin at Piett, suddenly in dead earnest. "By everything I've seen for the past couple months, he is a competent, courteous man who is well-regarded by all his subordinates. By you too, since we've just established you can't put up with a disrespectful nuisance for five minutes, let alone twenty-five years."

"Twenty-eight."

Vader and Piett stopped at the same time, startled glances darting between them before they both found other things to look at—meaning Skywalker, who was shaking his head with a wry but benevolent smile. "My apologies, twenty-eight years. My point is, he obviously is an expert in not pushing your buttons. Don't you think he must have a pretty strong reason for doing it now?"

"His reason," said Vader, glaring blaster bolts at his pontificating progeny, "is all too obvious."

"As inspiring as I am, I don't think he's so dumb he'd try to score points with me by irritating you."

Vader made noise of utter exasperation and paced away from what he evidently would have the universe believe was the bane of his existence. On the far side of the platform he about-faced and stormed back the other way, eyes boring into Piett as he passed. "Do you intend to explain yourself, or will you merely continue to stand there like a wiped protocol unit?"

Something went tick in his brain, and Firmus W. Piett was suddenly angrier than he'd ever been in his life. "I shouldn't have to explain it, sir. I accepted a responsibility to the honor of the Empire when I assumed command of this vessel. I swore an oath never to surrender her, and the entire galaxy can go to ten hells before I'll break it, not excepting you, sir!"

Words ran out and he just stood there, scowling and half-panting. Vader had frozen mid-stalk, staring at him—he'd really caught him at the knees, by gods, he'd managed to throw that blasted metal bastard a curve ball at last! He felt—powerful, for a change, downright tipsy with adrenaline, and yes, he'd probably signed his death warrant big and bold with that little speech, Skywalker was half out of his seat looking like he expected a murder any instant, but who cared! Stars! If this was what letting your anger run wild felt like, no wonder Vader had never bothered to rein it in!

Except…except maybe he was right now. In fact Piett couldn't see any of the usual signs of temper—literally none. Vader had become as still and blank as a durasteel bulkhead, as if confronted by some inexplicable new organism. As if Piett hadn't been entirely real to him until this instant. In the background, still watchful, Skywalker eased back into his seat.

"I know there isn't an Empire anymore," Piett finally said, when several minutes had crawled by with no indication that Vader planned on speaking. "Maybe it was only ever a—a job to you, sir. But it meant something to me, and I won't dishonor that now. If I can by any means preserve this piece of it that we've kept alive all these years, I intend to."

Vader finally stirred, and Piett braced for the inevitable tidal wave of scorn. But the man only turned to Skywalker.

"Leave us."

Skywalker studied him closely for several seconds; then he nodded, shot Piett a reassuring wink, and vanished from the transmission field. A moment later Piett heard the distant whish of a sealing door, and gripped his hands tightly behind his back as Vader turned back to him.

"You think that I have betrayed you, Admiral?"

Piett gulped, hoping it wasn't obvious. "I never said that, my lord."

"You have more than implied it."

Piett worked his hands behind his back, old habit telling him to shut up and leave the bait lying—but no. No, he was done with that.

"That was not my intent, sir. But yes, I do feel that way to some extent. Had I or any other Fleet commander yielded our command in such a manner you would not have excused it in the slightest. And not just myself but every man aboard this vessel has made great efforts and great sacrifices in the service of the Empire for the past twenty-five years. Dropping them with so little ceremony after all of that would—" He had to stop, anger and grief getting the better of him momentarily.

Vader had never had patience for displays of lamentation. "Would what, Admiral?"

Piett forced himself back under control. "It would tell them that everything they've done hasn't meant anything to you. Don't do that to them, sir." He swallowed hard. "Don't do that."

"Do you think I am some omnipotent machine?" Vader hissed. "Do you think I can repair this ship to a defensible state with a wave of my hand? Do you expect me to re-staff and re-provision her out of vacuum? Even if I could achieve that much, how long do you expect me to keep this ship intact against the entire Republic fleet?"

"We've survived outrageous odds before, sir."

"There comes a time," Vader answered flatly, "when one can do nothing but accept one's fate. It is pointless to resist destiny."

"I don't agree with that, sir." Boldly he added, "I don't think your son would either."

Vader spun away in another exasperated huff. "I should not have let him anywhere near you."

"It really wasn't him, sir."

"Then you are as great a fool as he is."

Piett squared his jaw stubbornly. "If by that you mean we both care about your welfare in spite of your best efforts to discourage us, then I take that as a compliment, my lord."

He could see the astonishment fast turning into dismissal, so he added, "And you can't tell me I don't know what I'm saying. I've known you for nearly thirty years, sir, and I'm still here. I—I should think that would deserve a little of your trust, at least."

That was really what it came down to—whether Vader trusted him enough to believe that his defiance wasn't a betrayal. Twenty-eight years, and now the moment of decision. Vader stood silent for a disheartening length of time.

"It deserves more than a little, Admiral," he said finally. "That I have none to dispense is not your doing." He looked away, into some middle distance, remembering, regretting—something, Piett wasn't sure what, except that it had obviously involved some grievous betrayal. Kenobi? Was that why no form of treason, however inconsequential, had ever met with the slightest mercy from him?

Watch you don't get into waters too deep for you. Not even Skywalker could mention Kenobi with impunity.

"Well, my lord," he said, with exaggerated cheerfulness, "the nice thing about retirement is, one can afford a few risks."

"Retirement?"

"You did abdicate, sir."

Vader speared him with a forefinger. "Trust is one matter, Admiral. Patience is another."

"I'm certain your leadership in both respects shall to continue to inspire us for years to come, sir."

Vader visibly fumed. "I see it is also imperative you be removed from the Princess' influence, before you are contaminated beyond repair."

"Yes, well." Piett coughed. "I must admit that one was hers." He thought fondly of the lovely shade of blue Borsk Fey'lya had turned when she'd tossed it at him.

Vader gestured at him impatiently. "Very well. What are these proposals you plan to impose upon me and the committee?"

Piett reined in his giddiness and tried to look like a serious, intelligent, resourceful man of experience with a foresighted and ingenious plan. "In brief, sir, I intend to propose—


"—that the Executor be repurposed as an orbital education and training facility."

Borsk Fey'lya's eyeballs bulged. "Education and training facility?"

"Yes, Senator. I am given to understand that the New Republic operates many older Star Destroyers, including several of the Executor's class. Surely it would be to your fleet's advantage to have a ship available where cadets can train without throwing a hydrospanner into field operations."

"And who," Fey'lya bellowed, "gave you to understand that?"

The Princess cleared her throat, with some amusement. "I don't believe that the Fleet roster constitutes classified information, Councilor. Am I wrong, General Cracken?"

"Spot on as usual, Princess," said the general from New Republic Intelligence, chipper and irreverent as only an ex-Rebel could be.

"In that case, Councilor, shall we allow Admiral Piett to proceed with his proposal?"

She smiled her warmest, sweetest, contradict-me-and-you'll-wish-you'd-never-been-born-est smile. Fey'lya huffed and sat back. General Cracken snickered into his sleeve, and Piett cleared his throat. "As I was saying, I believe this arrangement offers practical benefits to the Republic fleet on the educational level," he said. Carefully not catching Fey'lya's eye, he continued, "I've also noted that your deployments to conflict zones in the Mid and Outer Rims have left coverage somewhat thin in the Core systems—"

General Cracken burst into gusts of laughter before Fey'lya could do more than sputter in indignation. "Damn, Admiral, you've done your homework! You've got a job in my office any time you like, sir." He thumped the table.

"I'm honored, General," said Piett, hoping that was not an enormous diplomatic faux pas. Fey'lya cast an imploring look at the Princess, who was now fighting a real smile.

General Madine cleared his throat, like a small mortar exploding. "If you're proposing that we trust the defense of any sector to Darth Vader, Admiral Piett, you'd best think again. I think I speak for all of us on that."

"I heartily concur with the general," said Fey'lya hotly. Cracken snorted; apparently agreements between Fey'lya and Madine were an endangered species.

"Certainly not," said Piett. "That would be a great deal to ask. However, the Executor has something to offer besides firepower. I propose to contract our available hangar space as a mobile launch and staging platform for starfighter squadrons. She can easily house twelve complete squadrons, complete with reserve ships and all necessary personnel, to provide quick-response coverage for the outer system here in Coruscant, thereby freeing up heavier hyper-capable forces for deployments."

The military types in the room looked keenly interested; Cracken whistled, and Madine unbent so far as to hoist an eyebrow half a millimeter. Fey'lya looked very interested too, probably by the inference that the Executor herself would not be hyper-capable.

"A thought-provoking proposal, Admiral," said the Princess. Her eyes smiled at him; just how much did she know about his little tiff with Vader? "But I have one question. We could, after all, insist on your ship's surrender and put her to these uses as our own vessel. What is the advantage in allowing her to remain an Imperial naval vessel?"

Fey'lya thumped a hand on the table. "I second the President's comment!"

"…there's one you don't hear every day," Cracken was heard to mutter.

All eyes turned expectantly toward Piett, who would have felt very lonely at his end of the table if not for the warm encouragement in the Princess' eyes, cheering him on. Hard as she played for her own team, she wanted him to win this one.

He cleared his throat. "Early this morning, I had the privilege of touring the Palace Mausoleum. Although many changes had taken place, the memorial dedicated to the men whom the Empire lost at Yavin remained. I'm told there was great pressure for that memorial to be demolished, given the number of innocent lives the Death Star claimed at Alderaan and elsewhere."

At the mention of Alderaan the room went still. The Princess' gaze rested on him in intently.

"That the New Republic was able even in its hour of triumph to acknowledge the losses of its enemies stands greatly to its credit. You have held true to the Rebellion's ideals of freedom, even for those who fought against you." He leaned forward on his elbows earnestly. "Aboard the Executor are three hundred thousand men who have served and suffered many years for a government in which they believed. Although it was not this government, I am hopeful that the spirit which could honor the men who served aboard the Death Star can respect our sacrifice as well."

He crooked a little smile. "So in answer to your question, Your Excellency, I suppose there isn't any advantage to the New Republic in acceding to my proposal…except the satisfaction of doing the right thing."

Greatly to his surprise, the Princess laughed—not mockery, but a bright, devil-may-care merriment. Several old Alliance hands around the table joined in, even the intense Madine. Fey'lya gave a resigned sigh, kneading his eyebrows like the substitute teacher of an exceptionally rowdy class who knows what the joke is but thinks it's stupid. "Ah, Admiral," grinned General Cracken by way of explanation. "Now you're speaking Rebel!"

And from that point on, diplomacy was suddenly the easiest thing in the universe.


TBC