Disclaimers: All things Star Wars belong to Lucasfilm.
All non-original dialogue in this story is credited to The Empire Strikes Back script (Script adaptation by Lawrence Kasden and Leigh Brackett, from a story by George Lucas).
Please do not reproduce this story without permission from the authors.
BY THE GRACE OF LADY VADER
by Alderaan21, ami-padme, and FernWithyPROLOGUE
The shot seemed to come from the sun, knocking Vader's TIE fighter into an uncontrolled spin away from the slight gravity around the Death Star. His wingman's fighter exploded against the side of the trench.
"What?" he demanded of no one in particular. But the answer was obvious. As the fighter spun, he saw the smuggling freighter skim over the surface of the station, guarding and clearing the way for the one remaining X-wing - the X-wing piloted by someone who called out to Vader's Force sense like a clarion... or a warning alarm.
My death begins today.
The thought did not trouble him; in fact it seemed something of a relief. What waited could not be worse than the lava, or the suit that had followed it.
But his concern now was with that freighter. He hadn't felt it coming at all, could sense nothing of its pilot. Was it simply that the Other drowned it out?
No... no this one was a blind spot in the Force. He would mean trouble. Vader carefully stabilized the TIE, started to lock his guns on the freighter (a shame; he would have liked to examine the ship more closely, as it was a well put together machine), and prepared to fire.
There was no sound when the Death Star blew, at least not this far out in space. Vader saw a flash of fire, then froze as he felt the deaths of thousands of men he had served with and commanded. He had little sorrow for the upper echelons - Tarkin particularly would have no grief wasted on him - but the pilots and guards, the mechanics and workers... Vader had not cared for their project, but they had served under him, and he was responsible for them. He felt them ripped away as if part of himself had been there with them. For a moment, he was incapable of doing anything other than hold his hands to the crown of his helmet, trying to shut out their dying screams. Then the shockwave hit, and the TIE was thrown clear, spinning off into deep space.
He re-stabilized by instinct before realizing that it was pointless. This TIE was specially designed and could handle somewhat greater distances, but he was far from any Imperial base, and he somehow doubted the Rebels would take kindly to a landing on Yavin IV. And he sensed that he couldn't hide himself, not for long, not with the Other, the-one-who-called, anywhere nearby.
He was dead.
This time, the thought brought no relief. He would die, alone in the cold of space, with no one to even notice his absence. A fitting punishment, perhaps, but unacceptable nonetheless. If he were to die in anonymity, he would at least be warm. He adjusted the navigational controls, and set course for Yavin's sun. The Son of the Suns, he thought (with all the bitterness the phrase always evoked), would return home to die.
A light flashed on his communications board. He almost didn't answer it; he was too focused on deciding how to die. But something... some other sense...
He leaned down, and touched the speaker curiously. "Vader," he said.
Silence. Then, slow surprise. "My Lord?"
"We've lost contact with the Death Star."
"The Death Star was destroyed by the Rebel force on Yavin."
More silence, longer. Finally, the stranger said, "My Lord, this is a grievous blow."
Vader had had enough of the conversation. "Identify yourself, your vessel, and your location."
"I'm sorry, sir. I am Captain Reotti, of Prison Camp 1-A. We were moving several prisoners to the Death Star, under Governor Tarkin's orders. As a shield against Rebel attacks."
The fury rose in Vader. Even dead, Tarkin made his mind burn with it. A foolish, dishonorable, dangerous...
His thoughts stopped abruptly. "Captain Reotti?"
"Please repeat your station."
"Prison Camp 1-A, my Lord. Previously located on Naboo."
The name of the world was enough to send his blood coursing through what was left of his body. Naboo. HER world. And Palpatine had a prison camp there... a prison camp whose existence Vader had been kept ignorant of. He no longer imagined the impossible - that SHE would suddenly appear again, miraculously risen from the ashes of her funeral fire, whole and beautiful - but it was an interesting puzzle. Interesting enough, perhaps, to delay his death. "What is your current location, Captain Reotti?"
"Currently two light days from the position we are tracking you in. But we were attempting to contact the Death Star because we have had an engine malfunction. We will need time to repair our hyperdrive... or we will need to come at sublight speeds. Either way, we're two days distant from you, my Lord."
Vader nodded. "I will find my way to you, Captain. Send your coordinates. It would be wise to have medical personnel on hand."
The coordinates came through, and Vader did the calculations in his head. He would have to lower his metabolism considerably, but that was much easier now than it had been before the machinery. He made the adjustments, then slipped into a deep meditative state, trusting in the Force and Captain Reotti to bring him out when the time came.
Just before he crossed the threshold of consciousness, he felt the strange, inexplicable presence again. But then he was deep under, and knew nothing at all.
Amidala sat quietly in a darkened alcove.
Captain Reotti had seen to it that she was given a full sized stateroom with a porthole - he was a kind man, in his own way, if not terribly perceptive - but she had been unable to sleep in the soft bed, and the streaking of the stars outside had held no charm for her. The ship was dismal. Its destination would undoubtedly be more so. She wanted to return to Naboo, to the cool blue depths where Camp 1-A had been hidden inside Gungan shields. The water held a comforting oblivion that deep space never seemed to carry for her, and she wanted to sink into it.
My Leia. My beautiful little girl.
She lowered her head, pressing her hands against the back of her neck. Palpatine had made a special call just to tell her about Alderaan. He thought he was simply taunting her with the knowledge that her final haven no longer existed, that Ani had stood by and watched it destroyed for the punishment of a rebel spy. She hoped that she had not let on anything else.
She knew that she should be mourning the whole world - the rolling hills, the gentle plains. Millions of souls had been lost. Bail Organa had been taken from the galaxy. But there was only one soul she wept for, one that mattered to her. Leia's little face, round and pixie-ish, so like Ani's that it was a wonder anyone who saw her didn't jump to all the right conclusions... her lisping little voice... the fine brown hair... Leia admiring herself in a pane of transparisteel, Leia chattering away to a bird that had landed on a window beside her crib, Leia playing with her royal makeup and giggling at the sight of herself "all paint-y upped."
She had fought the hysteria successfully, but she was tired and hollow, and when Reotti had chosen fifty prisoners, she'd simply gone along docilely. She wondered in a distant way if this was Palpatine's idea, or if heads would roll. And she wondered if Ani would be waiting at the end of the voyage for her.
She hoped so.
She would trade every ideal she'd ever had right now, just to sink into his embrace and never come out of it. It was a horrible impulse. He had stood there and watched Leia's world destroyed, been a party to it, even if only by inaction. She wanted to kill him for it. But she wanted him to hold her first. Just long enough to feel her whole heart beating for the first time in twenty years.
She was too tired to be confused by it. She felt what she felt. There was little to be gained by analyzing it or chastising herself for it.
The ship shuddered, and suddenly the starlines vanished, replaced by the thick blackness and tiny points of light that marked the eternal midnight of deep space. She felt a vague stirring of puzzlement, maybe even full-fledged curiosity. There had been no effort to organize the prisoners, so they were not approaching their destination. They had simply stopped.
A strange, tickling sensation crept across Amidala's arms, making the tiny hairs stand on end. She could feel it in her scalp as well. It was like walking through thunderstorm, just before the lightning began. She could even almost smell the ozone.
"Ani?" she whispered.
No one answered.
For the next four hours, no one came to her, but her mind was gradually beginning to reassert itself. There was a question to answer, a problem to solve, and she responded to it as naturally as she would respond to a treatment for an illness. She came to the conclusion that they had engine troubles, but that didn't explain all the clacking armor on the floor outside. Stormtroopers were mobilized, and there was a great deal of shouting.
A battle had been lost.
The station Palpatine had bragged to her about, the one that had destroyed Alderaan, the one the prisoners were being brought to shield... it had been destroyed in turn. She didn't know this with absolute certainty, but it made the most sense.
A moment's fierce joy rose up in her, and she quashed it. She didn't want to feel joy so close to Leia's death... especially since Ani had been on that station as well.
That sobered her. Had she lost them both? Was Luke still out there, someplace?
She let the last possibility soothe her as much as it could. Luke, safe on Tatooine, probably bored but certainly protected with Owen and Beru. She pictured him as well as she could - Ani's hair and eyes, her own face. Maybe he would be small, as she was. She went to the bed, and tried to dream it, but succeeded only in bringing back her last moments with Leia. It was still a kind dream, and she didn't know that she'd slept for nearly thirty hours until Captain Reotti was standing beside her, clearing his throat loudly. No Imperial officer would have dared touch Lady Vader; Amidala could at least take comfort in that knowledge, though the extreme aloofness made her feel lonely. When she opened her eyes - noting the time and date in a surprised second - she saw Reotti silhouetted against the porthole. "My Lady," he said. "I think you should come with me."
She followed him out into the corridor, quiet during sleep hours, and into an infirmary. In the middle, a temporary oxygen tent had been set up. Droids worked inside of it, creating an effective wall.
"We retrieved his TIE fighter this morning," Reotti said. "He'd put himself in some kind of stasis for a long voyage without proper life support, and we're reviving him. I thought you might like to be here."
Amidala almost asked, Who? But that would have been absurd. The question was, Who else?
The walls of the oxygen tent collapsed, and the droids parted to begin the cleanup. There, in the middle of the circle they'd left, was Ani... or whatever Ani was hiding behind.
Amidala felt her hand rise to her lips, heard herself gasp. He was encased, head to toe, in some kind of mechanical armor, and his head was covered with a grotesque mask that looked like a skull. The soft sound of the respirator that kept him alive filled the small room.
For a long moment, they simply stared at one another.
Then, in a burst of courage and desperation, she ran to him.