As much as he denied it to the galaxy—as much as he denied it to himself—the nightmare was proof that Darth Vader still possessed a heart.

It was proof to him, at least. Fiercely unwelcome proof it might be, a haunting ghost that tormented his dark sleep at unexpected intervals, coming when he had not slaved hard enough to completely silence the background whispering of the man he once had been. But to this man, the erstwhile Chosen One of the Jedi and the second most feared being in the galaxy, the validity of nightmares had long since been proven, and he needed no other evidence. Oh, yes. He had a heart still.

In the beginning, when his wounds were raw beneath the rigid black mask and within his mind, he had not known a single night of respite from the nightmares. His master had been pleased with his rapid growth in the dark side, unaware that the fear his new apprentice used to increase his power sprang from the memories of a past master. In the beginning the nightmares had sometimes followed him through the day, even; legendary as his capricious temper was, he was infinitely more controlled and patient now than then.

For now, he had mastered the nightmares almost entirely—a feat he had dreamed of since those first hated visions of his mother. The memory of Obi-Wan's friendship was now completely banished; not for seven years had his old master made an appearance in his nightmares. After him had gone the Jedi he had once thought family. Whenever he now remembered his deeds in the Temple that night, he could no longer recall the faces of those he had killed. And then—Padme.

She was gone now, after years of racking grief and nightmares, waking and trying again to remember why she was not at his side, of watching the senate proceedings and searching the banks of pods for that one precious face. There had been dozens upon dozens of nightmares of his beautiful guardian angel. How many times had he watched in his dreams as his yet-unmutilated self reached that fateful hand out, grasping at her neck with the darkness and crushing it, while he screamed pleas that could not be heard, knowing the outcome could not be changed but driven each time by the desperate hope.? It had been years, but finally sheer agony forced the memory of her away, totally away. He had ordered her name wiped from the galaxy's databanks, erased every memory of her presence, bombarded Naboo from orbit until Varykino and Theed were barren, radiation-poisoned wastelands. And in the end, he had triumphed. It was rare that he thought of her now.

Yes—one by one, the nightmares had subsided to his overpowering will to defeat them.

All but one.

It was that one which had woken him tonight, as it had now for the past several nights. Now in full armor and pacing before the great viewport adorning his private quarters aboard Epsilon One, the images of the nightmare still sprang before the dark lord's mind.

He had frequently used new projects to banish troublesome nightmares in the past, and he had hoped that by focusing his energies on Epsilon One as well as his ongoing efforts to root out the nascent Rebellion, this one would also leave him in peace. Epsilon One was the prototype for a new class of Star Destroyer, the first new one since the Imperials entered the Navy six years ago. He did not anticipate that these gargantuan Super-class ships would soon replace them—cost alone was prohibitive, especially when one considered the vast leech plaguing the Imperial treasury that only recently had been dubbed the Death Star. Generally Lord Vader did not approve of enormous ships when more compact, efficient, cost-effective models could be made, but the pilot in him had been unable to refuse Sienar's proposal for Executor.

She lay out in space ahead of him, still nothing more than bare durasteel framework, discounting a small test patch of hull plating that had been laid down at the destroyer's nose just yesterday. When she was complete she would include thousands of specialized systems and engineering unique to her design, much of which he was personally designing. Between the Executor and her scaled-down prototype Epsilone One, and the cursed Rebellion, Lord Vader scarcely had time to sleep, let alone dream. But the more he sought to avoid the nightmare, the more it plagued him.

Even as he reflected on the fact, the images again leapt into his mind, and he very nearly flinched at the renewed sight of a small boy, smiling up at him with arms raised. Every time the dream was the same. He would again find himself at Mustafar, in the moments before Padme—

But those details were the same with many dreams; in the background of this one, he could see a small boy, certainly no more than five years old. And he watched as the child too pleaded silently with him, arms raised up, until his anger latched onto to Padme—and then the child would begin also to gasp for air, clutch at his throat, reaching out desperately towards—

His father. It was their child he saw in these nightmares. Generally it was a boy he saw, but sometimes a girl, and hair and eye color were different each time. Of course he could never know what their little one would have looked like.

"This is the happiest day of my life." How well he remembered those words!

Much had changed, but the instinctive love he had known the moment Padme told him of her pregnancy had not yet been shed, though the child it was directed for had perished ten years ago without ever seeing the light of day—murdered by his own father. It was an altogether different agony from anything else he had ever felt, and if anyone was an expert on pain in this galaxy it was Lord Vader. The child had done nothing, whatever betrayal he might believe its mother guilty of. He was the only innocent Darth Vader would admit to killing.

Generally he thought of their baby as a boy, though he had been sure at the time it would be a girl.

What he would not give for a second chance, to prove how much he had loved his child! Palpatine could have the cursed galaxy, if only it would restore that precious child to him. He called nothing his own that he would not now sacrifice for the son (or perhaps daughter) he had essentially thrown away.

Exhausted, he set his guilt aside once more. This was pointless, a waste of time. The past could never be changed, and it was best that he forget it had even existed. Sleep now being out of the question for the remainder of the night, the dark lord stalked from his private chambers in the direction of his hyperbaric chamber, intent upon making use of these hours. If he could not rest, he would spend the time working on the designs.