"You think I can't kill you?"
"Honestly," said the woman, "no. I'm not doubting your physical ability to do so. But you can't afford not to know how I got into that troop transport, so for the moment at least I am safe."
"And once I've ripped the knowledge from your mind?"
"You're certainly welcome to try."
"How are you doing that?" he asked, a few minutes in. After he'd been forced to stop, because the effort of trying in the face of that - that -
It wasn't that she wasn't Force-sensitive. Lots of people weren't. But even then there was still something; everyone had midichlorians, after all. This woman was nothing, a yawning, implacable void. She was, he realized, absolutely right. He couldn't mind-rip her. As far as the Force was concerned, there wasn't a mind there to rip.
The woman smiled. "So we're at an impasse."
"No. I can still torture you."
"Not really," said the woman. "I don't have a pain tolerance limit."
She didn't, as it turned out, have a pain tolerance limit. She looked out calmly from her restraints at the assembled instruments of torture, and said, "Oh, dull," and then didn't say anything else until much later.
He asked her a dozen different ways how she'd gotten into the transport, what she knew of the Rebellion, what their plans were, all while she lay there silently and with an expression of slight boredom while the technicians worked her over. Finally, he ordered them away, got in close to her, close enough that his mask was practically touching her, and said, "What does it take for you to break?"
"You're ready to negotiate," said the woman. "Good. My offer is the locations of your children."
He stopped. There was a moment when his heart missed a beat, but that was all right because the suit pump compensated. There was a moment when he felt through the Force - that was a lie, it had to be a lie - and learned that he was a father. There was a moment when he stepped back, stunned, and let the suit take his full weight because he wasn't capable of it.
There was the moment when he said, "And what do you want, in return?"
She smiled, dark and humorless. "Everything."
It took them, in the end, four days to assassinate the emperor.
"It's simple," she'd said, still chained to the interrogation rig. "You tell him the truth: you can't mind-rip me. You can torture me, but the only thing you can get out of me is how close you are to killing me. It's a mystery, which is the perfect gift-wrapped present for a man like that. And then we wait.
"In the meantime, I suggest you finish torturing me into unconsciousness, and then call for some medics to get me in shape so we can do this all again tomorrow. It's the kind of impossible demand you'd make, right?"
So they did that, and then he made his report. Palpatine did mind rip it out of him, and it was impossible to lie by mind-rip, but he'd gotten good at only telling part of the truth. He held the memory of his failed mind-rip at the front of his mind, and behind that the memory of her calmly stating, "Oh, dull," and when Palpatine sat back, it was with an air of concealed pleasure.
"When will she be healthy enough for another interrogation?"
"The medics said a week. I gave them three days."
"Three days, then."
Three days later, he tried mind-ripping her, and it didn't work. She looked frightened this time, and if he didn't know, he'd have thought she was: the facsimile was that good. She spent the whole time saying nonsense things, "The false dichotomy of weakness and strength," and "the way that can be taught is not the way," and, "when you get to the desert, what will you do?" But she said them quietly, fearfully, almost tearfully. Palpatine got closer and closer, until he actually had his hands curled around her head, face a scant inch away from hers. At which point she said, "The silence of the lambs," and headbutted him.
To be fair, he was also struggling to stay on his feet. The sensation of having world rip itself away from him, of having everything too far away and muted and unresponsive, was nauseating. He grit his teeth against it, and stayed up. Also, he saw, Palpatine had a not-inconsiderable dent in the front of his forehead. He might live, but the damage to his frontal lobes was irrevocable.
"Lightsaber," said the woman - he didn't even know her name, he thought hysterically, while the whatever it was went away and the Force came back.
"Light. Saber. I hit him hard, and without medical care he's going to die. Even so, I like to make sure the people I kill are actually dead. Lightsaber, Vader. Decapitate him. We need to make sure he's actually dead, and it doesn't get much surer."
"There's nothing stopping me from killing you," he said.
"No, that's true, but good luck finding your children."
He considered. Then, carefully, he reached over and unlatched the restraint keeping her right hand locked in place. She began to unlatch the rest, while he took out his lightsaber and ignited it. She looked at it for a moment, and the jerked her head to indicate Palpatine's body. It took only a single swipe to make it Palpatine's corpse.
Immediately, something - Sith sorcery or Banite technique or simply Dark legacy - rose up and took him. It was ardent, ancient, angry, and it took no prisoners. He felt more than heard the woman take his lightsaber from hands unable to resist, and power it down.
"Go ahead," she said. "Pass out. I'll stay on guard."
It wasn't a choice. He passed out.
When he woke up, someone was singing. It was in an unfamiliar language and the song had rhythm and beat, but the meaning was opaque.
Out loud, he asked, "How long was I out?"
"I don't have a chrono," replied the woman. "Best guess is: more than four hours, less than six. Are you okay?"
"Fine. Did you know that was going to happen?"
"No. What was it?"
"A parting test," he said.
She nodded. "Well. That's the Sith Lord the galaxy never needed down. I'll need a blood sample and two weeks, but if you don't mind showing some skin, I can give you some effective analgesic now."
"It will take me two weeks and a decent botany lab to work up the nanites that will fix your burn scars. I can't do it any faster, sorry, but there are hard limits to how fast I can . . . I'm not even going to try to explain the science, actually. You were always more of a hardware person. In the meantime, I can give you something to shut up all the nerve cells that are, by virtue of the fact that you're in a malfunctioning life support suit, permanently on. I need to skin to do the injection."
"And you won't take advantage of that to kill me."
"Vader, I am holding your lightsaber in a locked room with the corpse of former Emperor Palpatine, and I just spent some hours guarding your semi-lifeless body. I realise you have trust issues, but seriously. How much more do I have to do to prove I don't want to hurt you?"
"There aren't a lot of people who wish me well."
"Well, I'm one of them," she said, and offered her hand. "Tangent."
He ignored the hand. "Why?"
There was a pause, and then Tangent said, "I've been responsible for a lot of deaths. Saving lives is a kind of penance, for me. That's all."
"You think I'm going to stop killing?"
"Of course not. I think you're going to do the thing that results in the least political chaos, if only because if you don't then your opponents will hunt you down and kill you. And I think I want you to be in the best possible shape to do it. So . . . I guess what I'm saying is, congratulations on becoming emperor. Don't fuck it up."
He considered. Then, very carefully, he dialed the ventral port on his suit, which opened with a hiss of escaping pressure, and peeled back the strip of armor to expose the ruined mess of his abdomen.
"Thank you," said Tangent, and put her hand on it. It hurt, like it always did when someone touched him, and then it didn't hurt at all. He gasped at the sudden cessation. "Not as bad as I'd feared."
"You've seen worse?" He hadn't meant to speak. It just came out.
"I've lived through worse. Now the blood sample."
"How much do you need?"
"A few hundred thousand white blood cells," said Tangent. "So . . . half a milliliter, probably.
"I need cell nucleii," said Tangent. "And that's plenty, really. Don't get weirded out by the licking thing, I have a coagulant in my saliva." So saying, she pressed the nail of her little finger against the exposed skin. It must have been some kind of blade, he thought, the way it cut in. And then she dropped and leaned in so she could lick it. The bleeding stopped only a little while later.
"And you can do what you do by swallowing my blood?"
"I didn't swallow it," said Tangent, standing back up. "I'm processing it for genomic DNA. It's a different organ. We'll see how the genetics work out in a couple of days. Here," she added, pulling the armor back over his scars. "And here," she handed back his lightsaber. "As far as anyone is concerned, you had an epic duel with the emperor, and I was only here as a distraction."
"I would probably have killed you, then."
"Nah. I was here to distract him, I'd already sworn personal loyalty to you. The whole thing was just a ruse. I'll need to be in medical for a few days to recuperate from whatever he did to me, and then I'll go to a hydroponics bay and start doing the thing."
" . . . would you swear personal loyalty to me?"
Tangent looked at him. Then she said, "I have other responsibilities, prior oaths that I won't break. But I swear to you, Anakin Skywalker, by blood and by fire and by the Void, that I mean no harm to you nor to any of yours, and that I'll help to the extent that I am able. Is that good enough?"
"Anakin is dead," he said.
"Blah blah, metaphorical rebirths, blah blah, false dichotomies, blah blah blah. It's not as though a person can be more than one thing over the course of a lifetime." The scorn in her voice was withering. "Is it good enough?"
"Great. And set a course for Coruscant. There will have to be a big fancy coronation."
"I hope you don't think I'm going to keep letting you order me around."
"Order. I'm going to keep telling you things you need to do to survive, and you're going to keep doing them because you're not an idiot. I'll stop it the moment you tell me to."
" . . . carry on, then."
"Thanks," she said, tartly. "Okay. Anything else?"
"Every. Single. One," said Tangent. "Come on. Show time."
It went down like a dream, him leading the way out and Tangent following. For the first time in years he didn't hurt in ways he shouldn't, and the Force was there where it had always been, and he was emperor. He told the stormtroopers to do an autopsy before incinerating Palpatine's corpse, and they did it without hesitation. But the galaxy, he thought, would be a bit more difficult.
He was right. Dozens of systems rebelled when he had the announcement made, and suddenly everyone was attacking again, the Rebellion the biggest and most organized but every halfway-competent planetary governor with dreams of being something more threw in as well. The world snapped into focus, like it hadn't been for over a decade, not since the end of the clone wars. He threw ships and taskforces around, quelling the rebellions one-two-three, teaching the galaxy to respect him. He learned his own troops too, which commanders were good for soothing ruffled feathers are which were good for getting the job done and which were good at getting the job done without casualties. He learned his governors the same way: who was good, who was bad, who was just lazy. It took months, and they were the best months he'd had since becoming Sith.
Through it all, Tangent stayed in medical and then in botany, although she showed up every twelve hours like clockwork to dose him with analgesic until the day three weeks in when she showed up to dose him with something else. The solution was milky-white in the vial.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I started with white blood cells," said Tangent. "Now they're reclastic. They eat scar tissue and lay down healthy cells. Although first they have to learn where all the parts of your body are, so they know what kind of cells to be laying down. You won't see any improvement for a while."
"Define 'a while.'"
Tangent shrugged. "A few months, depending on the types of tissues you're going to need to regrow."
" . . . you can do that."
"I told you. I've lived through worse. I've been reduced to a smoldering lump of charcoal with a few thousand live cells on the inside, and I regrew. Doing this," she held up the vial, "isn't easy and isn't pleasant for me, but I did say. Penance."
"Even when I'm at war with a third of the galaxy."
"Having an emperor, even a bad one, is far preferable to having no emperor. And I think you'll turn out to be anything other than a bad emperor."
"Really?" he asked, genuinely curious, as he opened the usual panel of the suit.
"Why wouldn't you?"
"There are a lot of people who'd say I make bad decisions."
Tangent pursed her lips, and filled a single massive syringe from the vial. "On the contrary. All right, take a deep breath. This isn't going to be much fun: two milliliters subcutaneously."
She did. It wasn't fun, but in comparison to his daily life for the past decade, it was barely a pinprick. "And done. I suggest you eat a lot of food in the next few days. Carbs and proteins, mostly, but if all you can get to stay down is honey ices, do that. You'll need the energy."
"Understood." And, before she got up to leave, "Tangent. Emperors. Talk."
"Good men seldom make good emperors," she replied. "And neither, it turns out, do very bad men. I think you're ruthless enough to do what needs doing, but still good enough to know when not to cross a line. That's all, unless you want a long and mostly boring discussion of game theory."
This time, when she got up to leave, he didn't stop her.
He read up on game theory, and it led him to make better battle plans, faster, more decisive, and fewer losses on both sides before his enemies realized how utterly outclassed they were and surrendered. It led him to make different policies, too: the actual governors who'd revolted died, but soldiers and generals and planetary governments which repudiated said governors and surrendered were merely reshuffled and sent across the galaxy to do their work somewhere else. The pacification proceeded more and more rapidly as people realized that Vader wasn't the merciless and increasingly paranoid emperor Sidious had been.
One day, he woke up and instead of feeling the suit compressing and expanding his lungs, felt his lungs compressing and expanding despite the suit. Very, very carefully, he turned off that function, ready to turn it back on at a moment's notice; but his diaphragm and his entire pleural cavity seemed to be working.
The first assassination attempt was three months in, and his heart was beating again on its own by then. He wasn't even aware of it until one of the stormtroopers guarding his personal dining room was pulling out a blaster and firing at him, and it didn't matter because he'd had his lightsaber up and out to meet it before he was quite aware of the motion. After that, it was short work to cut down the assassin.
He went to Tangent.
"I don't see why you come to me for this shit," said Tangent. "Surely people have tried to kill you before."
"It's been months. Can you eat normal food again?"
"Then I, personally, would redesign the helmet and start eating in the mess with the line soldiers. Anyone trying to kill you while you're alone is going to have to get a lot more creative."
"All of them. It's not a choice between weakness and strength. You're always strong and you're always weak. You're brilliant with the Force, mechanics, and certain forms of military strategy. You are not and have never been a politician. You have nearly no control over your own emotions. Philosophically, you're balanced almost perfectly between Jedi and Sith and you've never really bothered to confront this. These are all facts which are true."
"Thank you," he said, and left.
He'd read voraciously all through Jedi training, trying to learn to be the perfect Jedi. He'd tossed it all away for dear, dead Amidala: first when he married her, and again when he killed her. Since then, he'd read only slowly through the mountainous volumes of hidden Sith lore contained in the memory crystals. Now, though, it was important. He began to read again.
The Rebellion was really the only strong player left standing. They controlled a couple hundred systems, had attempted to set up a senate similar to that of the failed Republic, and fighting those damned X-wings was taking a toll that even the Hutt criminal syndicate hadn't. But the empire had more forces, and, somewhat to his surprise, eating in the general mess did more than protect him from assassination attempts.
A few days in, one of the troopers had addressed him. Respectfully, fearfully even, which was only right, but he'd really only wanted to express what an honor it was to have him there, with them, when they were just general grunts. It was lucky that he'd just taken a bite, because it gave him time to decide what to say.
In the end, he answered, "I lead my men from the front."
He always had, but it made a difference to them, that this emperor wasn't going to retreat into Palpatine's shadows. He had soldiers who'd been in the clone wars; some of them had even served under him back then, though they didn't know it. Now they were soldiers who were loyal to him, Vader, and not by the fear that Sith law dictated. They were volunteering to go into Rebellion-held systems. They were happy to do it, to restore order over the anarchy. He was winning those systems back, one after the next.
Four months in, he was sitting in Tangent's 'ponics lab, surrounded by Tangent's red-stemmed, black-needled fruit plants. The things produced an amazing amount of fresh food, really, and he was happy that she'd . . . done whatever it was she'd done to get them, but they didn't sit right in his mind. He said, "So. Children."
"Mm. What do Sith rules say you should do?" asked Tangent, not looking at him in favor of plucking individual brown needles off the plants.
"And Jedi rules?"
"Not have had them in the first place. But since I have, turn them over to the Temple in case they inherited my sensitivity."
"Shocking. Neither side wants you to care about them. Why not?"
"They'll be an obvious weak point."
"What have I told you about weaknesses and strengths?"
" . . . how, possibly, could having that kind of weak point be a good thing?"
"You were willing to betray the entire Jedi order for the sake of their mother. What is there, that you couldn't do for them?"
"I can't think of anything."
"Because getting your son, at least, is going to require you to face Kenobi again, and win without killing him. And then safely imprison him here, with your son, without letting him kill you."
"You didn't tell me that before."
"You didn't need to know before. Now you do. You've always been good, Anakin; but now you really do need to be the best."
"If that's what it takes," he replied levelly.
The thing was, there was only so good one could get, even spearheading invasion after invasion, encouraging assassins to try, rebuilding the empire planet by planet, without someone else who knew how use a lightsaber to spar with.
"Ah," said Tangent when he asked. "Well. I know how to use a regular saber, although I'm not good at it. And you'll be slowed down enough by the weapon having weight that it might . . . no?"
"I'd pick up an entirely wrong set of reflexes."
"True. All right, then. You pick up an apprentice. The point of Sith apprentices is to try killing their masters, right?"
"You have the philosophy almost entirely wrong."
"I have no interest in learning the philosophy," she replied.
"All right. I'd been holding off on this, but . . . there is always Jay."
"Who is Jay?"
"My . . . " she trailed off. "You know, I don't know that Basic even has a word for what we are? He's mine, anyway. And, upon finding himself alone in the galaxy, he'd have gone straight to Kenobi and stolen his lightsaber. By now he'll be pretty deadly, but not predictable. No formal training."
"Stolen his lightsaber."
"Jay likes to steal things."
" . . . and you can get a message to him?"
"Sure. Easy. Put it on the imperial news bulletin, he reads those. Message as follows: Trill Jenth 192.168.0.1, Vader. Message ends." She paused, then added, "You're kind of similar, actually. Prepare for him to be insanely jealous."
Those words turned out to be prophetic. The first thing Jay did, when he showed up a month later, was try to kill him. They hacked their way through the mess, a launch bay full of TIE fighters, two corridors, and very nearly the tokamak reactor before Tangent got to them. "No, seriously," she said, in tones suggesting she was merely picking up a previous conversation where it'd left off, "Jay. Stop it."
Jay stopped. He got his first good look at his opponent. He said, "Your lightsaber. How."
"It has to be made of light," said Jay, in a rough baritone. "No one said it has to be in the visible spectrum." He wasn't even looking at him, which was a more insulting way of saying that Jay had eyes only for Tangent. "Tan. How many people have you killed?"
"Six," said Tangent.
Jay clicked off his lightsaber, which appeared to be made of wood. Not even brylark, just some kind of black wood, polished to a glossy shine. "Skin time. Now."
"All right. We'll be out in a couple of days, Vader. Don't blow up any planets in the meantime."
He subdued a system. Everyone else had settled down to calling him emperor, but he was still having to reconquer the Rebellion worlds one by one. It had been interesting at the beginning. Now it was just tedious.
Tangent showed up for breakfast three days later, Jay in tow. They sat down across from him. "You probably know this already," said Tangent, "but introductions. Jay, Emperor Darth Vader. Vader, Jay."
He considered and discarded several responses. "I look forward to sparring with you again soon."
"Likewise," said Jay. They did, two days later, and it was golden.
"I don't understand how you are doing that," he said, afterwards, panting.
"Which?" asked Jay, who was spread-eagled on the mats.
"Any of it! You don't touch the Force, you shouldn't be able to!"
"Mm," said Jay, and flipped himself onto his feet. "I've had a good teacher."
"You are completely self-trained!"
"Like I said," replied Jay. "Are you ready to go again?"
But it did work. Doing that for a couple of hours a day, against the impossibly fast Jay and a blade he couldn't even track without using the Force, honed him right up. The next six assassination attempts were shocking in how easy they were to defeat.
Then the day came when he woke up and his eyes were back.
"Why did they take so long? My heart's been working for months."
"A heart is a whole lot of the same type of cell," said Tangent. "Well. The part that was broken, anyway. An eye is complicated. That's the last function the suit is doing for you, right?"
He stopped. It was. As soon as his eyes were working again, he'd be able to take it off permanently.
"Yes. Why don't they work now?"
"They do. But in the interim, you repurposed those neurons to do something else," said Tangent. "And now you have to turn them back into being your visual cortex."
"Oh." And then, "You and Jay. What species are you?"
Tangent smiled at him, genuinely pleased. "We call ourselves Blacklit. As far as I am aware, we're the only examples of our kind in the galaxy. If someone attempts to make any more, we are going to come down on them with, oh, an entire Imperial battalion."
"Amateurs. But don't go looking. Orbital lances don't leave much to find."
He winced. There was absolutely not going to be anything left to find, if they'd used an orbital lance to get rid of the facility on the way out. "All right." He took a deep, fulfilling breath. "Thanks."
"I won't say it was easy. But you're welcome anyway."
The Rebellion worlds continued to fall, one after the next, until they got to Alderaan. It was really an unremarkable reconquest, all told: the system governor, one former Senator Bail Organa, had been neck-deep in the Rebellion, apparently since days after the founding of the Empire. He'd never governed the planet, even, being instead a figurehead-for-the-Empire while the planet continued to run on its age-old electoral monarchy. The taxes to the Empire had never faltered, even while some few of the beautiful mountains had been hollowed out to make room for X-wing factories.
Bail didn't run; he and his daughters and his wife were waiting in a stateroom. He could at least respect the way they were going to take responsibility for the whole crime, or try to. It wasn't going to work, since the scale of the operations meant practically the whole planetary population if not the entire system's had to be in on it. He was going to have to find out, probably by torturing the girls, and then broadcast the exe -
Jay was in the room. So was Tangent.
He paused. "Are you betraying me?"
"Keeping a promise," said Tangent. "Well. Half of it. Close the doors, you don't want anyone else to hear this."
"Leave us," he said to his guard.
"My lord - "
"They're not going to try to kill me," he said. They weren't. They'd have done it already if they wanted to. "Leave." Then he waited until the ponderous blast doors had closed behind him before saying, "So?"
"Anakin Skywalker, your daughter, Princess Leia Organa." She knealt before the girl. "Leia, your biological father, Emperor Darth Vader."
He stared, disbelieving. Then he pulled the Force to check, and that was absolutely his child, standing there with blazing brown eyes and messy brown hair and an expression of such total outrage that he almost took a step back. He turned to look at Tangent. "Now you tell me?"
"A few days ago would have been nice."
"A few days ago, and you'd have been able to make a plan to deal with it without needing to make a choice. Now you can't. Make your choice."
He'd killed the emperor just because he knew she and her brother existed. He'd arranged for the entire Jedi order to die for their mother. There was no choice, not in this. " . . . family, of course," he said. "Always."
"Good choice," remarked Jay.
"Wait," said Breha. "That's Anakin Skywalker?"
"Did you not know?" asked Tangent, rolling back onto her feet in one rocking motion. "I thought you knew. I'm sorry, I didn't meant spring that on you." She gave the woman a thin smile. "But, yes. The late Emperor Palpatine suborned him to the Sith."
"And now you're, what, trying to suborn him back to the Jedi?"
"What an idiotic idea," said Tangent. "No. I'm trying to teach him about dichotomies. Some of the time, he even seems to get it."
He continued to stare at her. Then he said, slowly and carefully, "What's the third option?"
"You want to have a philosophical debate here? Now?"
"You're the one who wanted to have it."
"Eventually. Later. When you were prepared to accept the arbitrariness of the divisions in question - "
"I'm prepared," he cut her off. "I want to know. I think I need to know." But he was looking at his daughter, and thinking of his unknown son. "Tell me."
"All right. The question: as a ruler, is it better to feared, or to be loved?"
The Jedi would have said loved, but he'd known love, and it had been a constant storm. He'd been feared, too, as Palpatine's apprentice. Now his men respected him, the way they always had when following the Jedi Anakin Skywalker, and just like that, the question came in focus. "I reject the premise of the question," he said. "This is a false dichotomy."
"Is the right answer," said Jay.
"And so are - but without a division, there's nothing preventing me from," and then he shut up and reached for the Force, the light side, which hadn't responded since he'd massacred a room full of younglings. It came, joyous and warm, and he heard and felt his daughter gasp as it flooded the room.
"Now you've got it," said Jay, smirk audible even in his voice. It could be forgiven, he thought, as he pulled on the dark side and that came too, rich and deep.
Leia meeped and then said, "It's so sad. Why is it so sad?"
"It's full of regrets," said Tangent. "Leia, your parents need to have a long talk now, about the fact that, if nothing else, Emperor Vader is the only thing holding galactic civilization together right now; we can go up to the Conquest and I'll show you my garden, all right?"
"Is it better than my garden?" asked Leia.
"I don't know. Are the trees in your garden small enough to go in pots?" asked Tangent.
"No. I want to see!"
"If your parents agree," she said, looking over at Bail and Breha.
"You'll keep her safe?" asked Breha.
"I'll keep her safe," said Tangent.
Breha took a breath, and then nodded. Leia squeaked, ran up to hug her, gave him and uncertain look, and then returned to where Tangent was holding out a hand. But she waited until the blast doors had closed again before saying, "Who was that?"
"I'd really like to know myself, actually," he replied. "Down to business. I can kill you, but not without my daughter hating me. I can't not kill you, not with the way I've been slaughtering my way through governors throughout this Pacification. But I've recently been made aware that all dichotomies are false. And, after all, what's the point of being emperor if I can't change the rules as necessary? So. The Rebellion and its surrender. Let's talk."
"The Empire and its dissolution," replied Bail. He really did admire the man's courage, if not his common sense. "Let's talk."
"Well?" asked Tangent, hours later. She was sitting on the floor of one of the receiving rooms on the Conquest, which had apparently been repurposed to a playroom. A sleeping Leia was using her lap as a pillow. She'd been doing some kind of work on a datapad, but put it away at his approach.
"They want a representative government."
"And I explained why it won't work; at least, not just by restoring the Republic. And . . . "
"They agreed with me!"
"Of course they did. The Republic was utterly dysfunctional during its last few decades."
"But they still want a representative government!"
"And you went around on that for a while, until - "
"Jay got us back on track. Yes. How does he expect us to recreate the early Old Republic?"
" - what?"
Tangent smiled, softly, at his reaction. "The Force comprises not only all life presently alive, but all life there has ever been. If you accept certain basic facts, it's not that hard to just reach back and remember the way things were. Or help even people who aren't Force-sensitive to do the same." She turned her head away. "I am Force-null by choice."
"Oh. Was it . . . very bad?" he asked. "Whatever happened?"
"Bad enough. Let's talk about something else."
"All right. We can talk about - the nature of dichotomies, the truth about the Force, all of it. You knew that. Why didn't you tell me?"
She looked back at him, or at least his helmet. "If I'd told you that the division between Jedi and Sith was arbitrary and entirely in your mind anyway, you'd have held the fact that you couldn't use the light side up as an example of how wrong I was. In the moment, the strength of your discovery was enough to melt through that blockage. The way that can be taught is not the way."
He pulled out a chair and sat down. Then he said, "What desert?"
"The way I experience the foothills of death." She shrugged. "It's . . . not fun. I've been responsible for a staggering number of deaths; they dwarf yours by at least an order of magnitude, and probably closer to three. I did my best to avoid that fact, up until the first time I died."
"Is that where Palpatine went?"
"Hmm? Oh. No. That's not how death works at all. Anyway, you're almost certainly not going there, so the point is moot."
"I don't think it is. I did still kill all those people, and I'm going to have to kill a lot more seeing this through."
"No words of wisdom?"
"I can't decide your morality for you, Anakin."
"No." He looked down at the sleeping Leia. "But you can force a confrontation about it in the middle of me reconquering a planet."
"You needed to make a decision."
"I suppose I did." He got up. "Tangent."
"When you finally do finish doing whatever it is that you're doing and leave, please don't leave without saying goodbye."
"Good night, Vader."
"Good night, Tangent."
The negotiations couldn't even get started until he figured out how to remember things from thousands of years ago. In turn that meant hovering in orbit around Alderaan for weeks while he meditated ad nauseum and sparred with Jay and had mostly one-sided rants with Tangent in the room until Tangent just shouted at him to go spend time learning how to be a father if he needed something to distract him.
So he did.
Leia had strong feelings on the Empire. Leia had strong feelings about the flavor of her tea, the color of her dresses, the way the Force went slow and sad around him. She had strong feelings about her teachers, and the other members of the royal family who were her classmates. She had strong feelings on him, too, it turned out.
"I always thought Daddy was my daddy," she said. "And then the lady who isn't there said you're my daddy, and I asked Daddy about it, and he says she's right. And you wanted to kill Mommy and Daddy and me, and now you don't, and it's because you're my daddy. But you're not, really, even if you are, because Daddy is my daddy."
It took him a moment to parse this out. "I know," he replied. "I'm sorry. I didn't even know you were alive until Tangent - the lady who isn't there - told me about you. And then I started fighting to come get you right away. I'm happy that you have had a good family."
"Oh." She'd clearly been expecting a fight about who were actually her parents. "Good." She paused, then said, "Why didn't you know about me?"
"Because the first emperor would have killed you, and some other people wanted you to be safe, so they hid you without telling me. It's . . . good, that they did. I wouldn't have been able to stop the emperor, back then."
"And now you are the emperor," said Leia, apparently pleased. "Only Daddy says the Empire is bad, because of sicko-pants and lies. Lies are very bad."
He blinked. "I don't think the Republic was any better, honestly. It just hid the lies."
"Um. Daddy said that too. But an Empire isn't the way to fix it, I don't think, or it wouldn't make you so sad all the time. What's a sicko-pants?"
"Sychophants," he said. "Well. Your class is twelve people. Let's say I have twelve gubu fruits," Leia's favorite, at least according to her. "I brought them to give the class, one for each person. That's fair."
"But you're my daughter. I like you best. So instead of giving them all out fairly, I give you two gubu fruits and someone else doesn't get any. Is that fair?"
"No . . . " But she was clearly conflicted.
"Well, what if instead of giving you two fruits, I gave someone else two fruits? Because they were nice to me, and told me that my cape is nice - "
"You cape is black" said Leia, wrinkling her nose.
" - and I like it when people tell me they like my black cape," he finished. "So that person gets two gubu fruits, and you don't get any. Is that fair?"
"A sycophant is someone who tells me my cape is nice, even if it's not, just to get two fruits."
"That's bad," said Leia.
"Yes. The Empire is full of people who do that. I'm trying to stop it, actually, but there is one of me and the galaxy contains millions of systems, and every system can have as many planets as Alderaan, and all the planets can have as many people as this one does."
Leia thought about this. Then she said, "So what are you doing here? Go fix it!"
"I don't know how. No one knows how." But he was smiling at her, even if she couldn't see it.
"Oh. Why are you all sad?"
"Just then, you looked a lot like my wife. Your other mommy, like I'm your other daddy. She is dead, and I miss her."
"All the time?"
"All the time."
Leia didn't say anything for a long moment, and then she darted in and hugged him. He could barely feel it through his armor, and it didn't matter in the least. She'd hugged him. She looked startled by the sudden burst of Force all around them, but satisfied too. Happy that her hug had worked.
Yoda arrived the next morning.
"Did literally everyone I ever thought was dead survive that order?" he asked.
"No. As far as I know, it's him, Kenobi, Tano - "
" - and a couple dozen others. And Kix, but being in cryo doesn't count. Why does it matter? She's not your student anymore."
"Felt you rejoin the light, I did, and curious, I was," said Yoda. "Hopeful. Came to see, I did. Something . . . odd, you have become. Who is this?"
"Tangent," said Tangent, waving. "Thanks for coming. We kind of need your expertise."
"Send a signal, you did?" He peered up at her, and then caught on to the reason that Leia called her 'the woman who isn't there.' "What - "
"That's normal," he cut in. "For her. And I didn't rejoin the light. I just stopped thinking in a certain way."
He looked over to Tangent, who shrugged. Up to him, then.
"Later," he said. "She's right. We need to remember what the early Old Republic was like. Tangent, why do we think he has this skill?"
"He's been tested a different way," said Tangent. "And not found lacking. So all he has to do is that, but backwards."
"Again, normal for Tangent," he said, to forestall Yoda's question, and then, realizing that nothing was ever going to get done without answering something, sighed. And pulled up both the light and dark sides at once, held them, crackling, in the palm of his hand.
Yoda dropped his cane.
"That's what I can do, now," he said, and let the power go. "Can we get on with the actual important task of finding out how the early Old Republic worked?"
Tangent hopped off the table, picked up Yoda's cane, and handed it back to him.
"Thank you," he said. "How?"
"If you're just going to be useless - "
"Skywalker," snapped Tangent. "Go hug your daughter."
He closed his mouth, turned on his heel, and left to go find a shuttle.
Behind him, before the door swished shut, he heard Yoda say, "Daughter?"
("She calms him down," replied the strange alien woman, Tangent. "Her Force-sensitivity seems to be manifesting primarily as empathy."
"And your Force-sensitivity?"
"No such beast," said Tangent.
"Knew I was coming, you did."
"Hoped you were coming, anyway. Hoped that feeling him again through the Force, and happy, would be enough to get you off of that swamp."
"Shocked, I was. Shocked, I am. How - "
"There is no light side. There is no dark side. It's just the Force."
" . . . a glimmering of truth, I begin to see." He was quiet, considering, and then said, "Help, you needed?"
"Like Vader was trying to say. The Republic was almost completely nonfunctional, at the end. It lasted barely a millennium. The Old Republic lasted twenty-five times that, and might have survived longer if not for the Sith Wars. So the question is: how did that Republic work? And the answer is, I happen to know, dead people talk to you."
"So find someone who knew how it worked and who's willing to talk. Please."
He looked up at her. He hadn't realized until just that moment how much he depended on Force-sense to read people. She was smiling slightly and otherwise completely inscrutable. He said, "A bargain, I will make. What you have taught to Vader, to me also teach."
"The way that can be taught is not the way," said Tangent. "But I can teach you something, and you can go visit Moraband and Tethys, and perhaps that will be enough."
"Perhaps. Meditate, I will."
"Thanks," said Tangent.)
Yoda was actually willing to do something other than ask questions when he got back, and was in fact deep in meditation. Jay wanted a fight, which was as good as the usually were, and walked with him up to Tangent's 'ponics lab.
"Feel better now?" she asked.
"Not really," he admitted, and pulled out the chair she kept in the room probably just so he could sit in it.
"Will anything help?"
"In cryo. Aboard the crashed Separatist cruiser Obexta Three, on Ponemah Terminal. He uncovered a conspiracy, you see. One that went right to the top."
He laughed bitterly. "Of course he did . . . He didn't want to train me as a Jedi. Master Yoda."
"Was he right?"
"Are you asking for my opinion?"
He thought about this. "Yes."
"All right. For the last thousand years, the Jedi were ascendant in the galaxy, and then along comes this child who is prophesied to bring balance. I'd not have wanted to train you either. Victory and balance are not same thing at all."
"I'm sure that's not why he didn't want to train me."
"You're defending him?"
He opened his mouth, and then shut it again. And the opened it to say, "He was thinking about how much being a Sith hurts."
"Same thing," said Jay. "Different direction."
Tangent nodded. "No, Skywalker. He wasn't right. You couldn't have learned balance without having been both Jedi and Sith, and the Force really does need you to balance it. That's all."
"Oddly," he said. "That doesn't make me feel better either."
"It should." said Jay. "Once that you know what is going to happen, you get to decide how you are going to make things go down."
" . . . you know prophecy."
"I know prophecy," agreed Jay.
"All right. We can start with the Greeks."
It was an interesting conversation, half story and half philosophical debate, and by the end of it he really wished someone had written even half as useful a set of parables for him. He resolved to write it, at least, so that no one else would have to be without guidance.
Yoda approached him later that evening.
"Meditate, I have. Old, forgotten knowledge have I learned. Unsettling. Speak with you, I now must."
"What," he said, reigning in his irritation. Yoda was making an effort, at least. So could he.
"The Old Republic and its government, still learning, I am. My teachers: Jedi Master Nawat-en Forchel, and her husband Jedi Knight Nawat-rem Tentenel." Yoda blinked, and lowered his head. "Horrified, they are, by the current Jedi code."
" . . . oh."
"Yes," agreed Yoda.
"Do you know when that became forbidden? And why?"
"No. The government more important is."
"But you're not going to leave it there."
"But leave it there, I certainly can not," agreed Yoda.
"Well. Thank you for telling me, at least."
"Of course. And now, bed I seek." He turned and walked away a few steps. Then he stopped. "What little wisdom I have, has been yours always. Even now, if want it you do."
He considered a number of rude responses before settling on saying, "Good night, Master Yoda."
He sparred again with Jay the next morning. Tangent had elected to come watch, which was rare; she'd said that almost fighting through a tokamak once was enough for her, and he fully agreed with the sentiment. But Jay fought better when he was showing off, and so Tangent's presence was usually an extra little bit of sugar on the cream confection.
Usually. Today, Yoda was there as well.
He was talking to Tangent and didn't seem to be paying much attention to them at all, which meant nothing. It was distracting, enough that Jay had to say, "Vader, head in the game," and then still beat him anyway.
"You are useless," said Jay, offering him a hand. But he was looking at Yoda with a particular kind of consideration.
"You're not serious."
"Why not?" asked Jay. "Could be fun."
"This must be some new and interesting definition of the word fun," he said, but Jay was already walking that way.
Yoda took him down in about six seconds the first time. He lasted maybe eight the second time, and almost thirty the third. Yoda clearly refused to beat him again, and picked up his staff to walk slowly over to them.
"Terrible form, your apprentice has."
"He's not my apprentice." Really, that was just offensive.
"I'm not his apprentice," said Jay, stepping up beside them. "I'm Force-null; if nothing else, that kiboshes the whole idea. Tan, skin time."
"That good, huh?" replied Tangent, but stripped off her shirt so Jay could settle sternum-to-spine pressed all along her back. He was used to this behavior by now, and ignored them.
"Ye-es," said Yoda, a slow hiss of breath. "Questions I have."
"You and everyone else. All I've been able to get out of them is that they were made, like some extreme version of clone troopers, and that they orbitally lanced the facility."
"People who are willing to make something like me and then attempt to remotely slave me deserve orbital lances," muttered Tangent darkly. "Have you had any luck?"
"Some, some. What I am learning, disturbing it is. Both in content, and that it ever forgotten was. But some basics I now know. The Old Republic two advantages had. One, the senate locked in could be, without rest or food, until a decision came. Two, deadlocked the senate could not be, for the second-chancellor power of tie-breaking had."
"Well, there you go then. But it had to be more than that. What else? Spill."
"The Jedi order in the government participated," admitted Yoda. "Ended that did, when too many turned - "
"To the Sith, yes," said Tangent. "Or at least the dark side."
"A difference, there is?"
"Sure. The light is holy and the dark is sacred. That's all."
" . . . a truth. Consider it deeply I must."
"Dichotomies," he said, because it was possibly the truest thing he'd ever heard.
"Well, yes," said Tangent. And then, "So. Would it be a fair fight, do you think, Jay and Skywalker against you at the same time?"
"An interesting challenge it would be. Enjoy it, I would. But a question, I would have you answer wholly and truthfully."
"You can ask. Match is off if I can't answer."
"When did you come from?"
"Close," said Tangent. "Very close. And you're right, there's a specific future I was fighting. But it's an imaginary time now. Asking when makes about as much sense as asking what color the sixth hour is."
"Buttercup yellow," said Yoda, but stood creakily. "Well, younglings?"
"That was insane" said Jay, in tones of deep appreciation.
"You're too slow to keep up with us." He was irritated; he would have thought they'd do at least a little better, working as a team.
"Everyone is too slow. He's reacting to things before we do them." Jay was heading towards the 'freshers, and he was following half a step behind. "And so are you, sometimes."
"I don't know how it works for you, but I'm operating at a third of the speed of light. He has to be reacting before I move in order to counter."
"Speed-of-light? You're fast, but not that fast."
Jay rolled his eyes as he opened the door to the locker room. "There are hard limits on how fast muscles can contract. Nerve impulses move faster. Especially along my nerves."
He paused, took a deep breath. "You . . . read all of the documentation, didn't you? After you escaped and before you lanced the place. You know exactly what you can do."
"Stupid to be a fighter with no idea of one's capabilities."
"True. And Yoda is always reacting before you act?" He reached up, hit the clasps on his helmet, and pulled it off. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the sudden light, and it hurt, but his eyes could react to the light.
"Not always, but pretty consistently. He uses it to bully us into lining up for those takedowns."
"So we stop lining up for them." The armor catches went next, and the the armor. It seemed far too small once he was outside it.
"Easier said than done," said Jay. "We have to coordinate with one another. You're not used to working with others anymore, I'm not good at using anything other escrima sticks or springblades in a group fight, and we need to work out communications that he can't crack. Also, I'd have to tell you all about how my lightsaber works."
"Are you going to?"
"It's Yoda; of course I'm going to. Tan and I can see into the ultraviolet."
" . . . that's not much of a trick." He flexed one of his purely mechanical hands.
"Had you fooled," said Jay.
"Not so much fooled as not that interested in how you did it." He paused, then added, "That's the handle, though. I was never very good at illusion, but I can probably figure out how to project light in the ultraviolet."
"I'm not sure he can't see UV. We'll experiment. There are other wavelengths. Or plane polarization, almost no one can see that."
He tilted his head. "Who thought that would be useful?"
"Polarization? It's very useful for increasing contrast in low-light environments." Jay stepped under a 'fresher head and dialed it on.
"So you can see in the dark."
"I can see in the dark."
"Yes, but why not just make you really Force-sensitive?"
"We needed to have abilities that don't cut out when the Force does."
He - paused, remembered staggering under the blow that had downed Palpatine. "Is that something you do a lot?"
"The cost is pretty steep," said Jay.
"Steep enough that it won't happen again?"
"Unless you need to die," replied Jay. "Relax. As long as you keep on choosing family over power, there won't be a need. Actually . . . " Jay looked at him, a long slow sweep from toes to head. "I have a much better idea."
Jay shrugged. "Fair enough."
" . . . but, purely out of curiosity, what about Tangent?"
"This again," Jay said, and rolled his eyes. "She's my sister, not my lover." Jay turned and started soaping up. "We don't fuck. It never really worked, and then it worked so much less after . . . But there's no issue with getting laid. I thought you might want to. You don't, that's fine, offer's open if you change your mind."
It was a truth. It wasn't anything like the whole truth, not much more than a sliver. "No. While I admit that you're aesthetically striking, I'm not attracted to madmen."
Jay laughed. "How would you know?" He stepped back into the spray to sluice down. "In case you were wondering, though? I am." He stepped out of the 'fresher.
There was no point answering, so he turned to begin soaping up himself.
Jay, however, did not push it. He pushed in other ways, made him figure out how to do illusions that he couldn't even see and then sit down and practice until he was good at them. They did sparring that was more about moving with and around each other, two-person stances that he hadn't used since he'd been forced into the suit. He was really bad at it, and Jay was not any better. At least to start.
"People really are going to think you're my apprentice," he said, one time, after they'd just completed the same form for the sixth time and still not gotten it perfect.
"I don't really care what people think," said Jay.
"No, but I might start giving you missions. Your entire job can't be to hang around in Tangent's 'ponics lab and spar with me once a day."
Jay rolled his eyes. "My job is to see to Tan's health and safety. She wanted you to see to my need for mayhem, and that's been working pretty well, but you and your missions don't rate. Ready to go again?"
They ran through the exercise another handful of times, stopping only once they'd gotten it up to their mutually exacting standards. Then he went to where Yoda was sitting on the observation platform. The old Jedi seemed to have decided it was his, even so far as to do his talking-to-dead-people meditations. It was probably a good choice, given that he and Jay were the only ones using the room otherwise, and only a few hours a day, but . . .
"Better you are," said Yoda. "Even if Anakin you are not."
"This is what it takes to get you to believe it?"
"Anakin practice with such devotion did not," said Yoda mildly. "More history I have learned. Go to speak with Bail and Breha, we should."
So they took the next shuttle down to the planet, and spent a long time talking with Bail and Breha and, by holo, a half-dozen other people who put the signal through a disruptor to keep from being recognized. There was no chance of that, because he already knew who they were, but they didn't need to know that. Yoda just told them, in no uncertain terms, what the Old Republic had been like. They didn't like it, he could tell; but it was Yoda, and he was Vader, and they hadn't tried to kill one another once.
They got back to the Conquest late, and he gave the order to plot a course for Coruscant only to find that Tangent had already requested a course for Tatooine. He blinked and then said, "Fine. I'll find out why we're going to that dustball in the morning."
"I thought you wanted to meet your son," said Tangent.
He stared. He said, "Kriffing - of course. Because it wasn't somewhere I'd ever look."
"That," said Tangent, "and because penance is a many-edged sword."
"I really hate Tatooine."
"So," suggested Tangent, "change it. Emperors get to change the rules, you know."
" . . . apparently not."
She smiled. "And later, we'll go back to Coruscant and rub the entire ex-Imperial ex-ex-Republic Senate's noses in all the good they didn't ever have the tits to do, and that Darth fucking Vader did."
"I like this plan," he said; and, " - I'm going to have to kill Jabba."
"Probably," said Tangent. "Problem?"
He trained with Jay for a couple of hours, and then he trained with Jay and Yoda. They still weren't good enough to beat the little troll, but Yoda wasn't fighting particularly seriously either so the bout lasted longer than three minutes. After, he went to sit with the old master.
"A conclusion I have reached," said Yoda, before he could say anything at all, so he didn't. After a long wait, Yoda continued. "Wrong the Jedi were."
He waited to see if there was more; when there wasn't, he said, "That's nothing new."
Yoda hit him with his stick. It didn't actually hurt, except in a way that was pure emotion. Yoda said, "Speaking with Tangent I have been. 'The way that can be taught is not the way.'"
"So a truth I have learned. Vader. A school I wish to build."
He blinked. "No."
"Listen! Listen, listen, you please will. A school for all who wish to study, those who feel the Force and those who do not, old and young. No one too old to learn there is, save those who wish to learn do not; and therefore, to jealously hoard wisdom and refuse to teach my mistake was. To my sorrow."
"Still no. I will not allow you to steal children."
" . . . no younglings will I teach without their parents. That mistake a second time wish to make I do not."
"More like a thousandth," he said, and got a second whack with the stick for his trouble. "Stop hitting me. Just because it isn't a truth you want to hear doesn't mean it's not the truth."
"That your reaction is?"
"I can get angry, if you like. Just like the old days."
"Please do not."
He nodded. "Where do you want to build this school? Not Coruscant, surely?"
"No, no. On Ossus it must be."
His lips twitched up at the bilingual pun. "Sure. And you're going to raise it with your own hands, I suppose."
"Mine, and the hands of those who will come. When they do - destroy them, you will not?"
"I only kill sanctimonious Jedi," he said.
"Then Jedi, and sanctimonious, we will not be. I . . . students, do you plan to take?"
"In what time?"
Yoda nodded. "Nevertheless. At least three more students you will have. In the Force this I have seen." He held up a small hand to forestall comment. "I say this only to warn you. In the end your choice it must be."
" . . . thank you." He paused, and then added, "And since when is the future unclouded?"
"Since the last of the Sith you have killed."
He smiled, and even though he knew it wasn't visible behind his mask, he could see that Yoda knew it anyway. "Then I suppose I have some meditating to do."
"Remain here," commanded Yoda; and, less imperiously, "Meditate with another, for years, I have not."
"All right," he said, because, well, what else did one say when Yoda offered to meditate together?
He turned immediately to try and get a look at the three people Yoda had seen, but he was never good at the future except for when he was. The only thing he was getting were regrets anyway. Ahsoka, turning away, leaving to find her own path. Padme, as he had last seen her, whispering 'I love you,' even though he was denying her the breath to say it. Obi-wan, as he'd last seen his old master, crying with what he'd insisted to himself was only the heat of Mustafar and which he'd always known were, truthfully, real tears: "I loved you."
He opened his eyes. Yoda opened one eye and tilted his ears.
"I have a big day tomorrow," he said. "I am going to go do some necessary work before bed. You should get some sleep too."
"Presently," said Yoda, and went back to his meditation.
Tatooine was as shit as ever. He stared down at the planet and said, "I'm going to have to do this in the wrong order, aren't I? Free the slaves and then meet my son."
"You have one chance to hit Jabba, anyway," said Tangent. "Make it count. Jay, if you want to go make some mayhem, this is a great opportunity."
"Thanks, Tan," said Jay.
So he went down to Jabba's palace, killed the Hutt, killed a lot of the people who suddenly and stupidly wanted him dead, and to finish the day stormed Mos Espa. Jay was very helpful and disturbingly bloody at the end. The next few days he spent in mopping up, and even then, it was clear that his medics were going to be weeks digging explosives out of freed slaves. The jammer worked, however: none of the explosives went off, not one. The slaves would live to enjoy their freedom.
"Okay," said Jay, after coming out of one of their seclusion sessions. "Good job, freed the slaves, reorganized the economy to result in equitable resource management - at least, I hope you have, or it's all going to fall apart in about two minutes - "
" - time to go meet some people," finished Tangent, cheerfully.
"Anchorhead!" That was the boonies, even on a backwards planet like Tatooine. He'd been there once before. "Wait, is my son - "
"With actual in-laws, yeah," said Jay. "If you were going to stay attached, you really ought to have stayed more attached."
Anchorhead was terrified of him. This was particularly ironic, since they seemed to be just fine with stormtroopers having already imprisoned and replaced their actual police force, and the laws which were for the first time, possibly ever, being enforced. He had taken a dropship with a six-man speeder. That was a tight squeeze, but Jay had suggested that it would be useful, so he left the stormtroopers behind in favor of having more seats.
"Let me guess," he said, once they'd gotten the shields powered up enough that they could leave the ship. "The Lars farm."
"Yup," said Jay, popping the word.
But the Lars farm, when they got there, was abandoned: hastily so.
"Oh for fuck's sake," said Tangent. "This shit? We did not need."
"Do you know where they are?"
"Either heading towards or already at Ben's place. I wish this planet weren't so windy. My sense of timing is all messed up."
Jay ran a finger along the dusty countertop and licked it. "Within the last seventy-two hours," he said. "And Owen was not happy about it."
"Great. Okay, Jay, take the stick. We're going to Ben's, I guess."
Jay on the stick was terrifying in a way he loved immediately. "Why didn't you tell me you're a pilot?"
"I'm not," said Jay. "I'm just fast, you knew this - shit!" He swerved and managed not to bowl over the man who hadn't been there a moment ago and now seemed about as immovable as one of the granite boulders. More impressively, he managed not to let any part of the speeder connect with the bright blue lightsaber.
"Seriously?" said Tangent, jumping out of the speeder. "Hey! Asshole!"
Jay followed her, pulling up his cloak and palming his invisible lightsaber, which would be even more invisible in the bright sunlight.
"Excuse me?" came Obi-wan Kenobi's voice, older and more tired but eminently recognizable.
"Yes, I am talking to you!" said Tangent, continuing to stomp over to him. "What in all the horrible hells do you think you're doing?"
" - attempting to stave off disaster on a galactic scale," replied Kenobi. "Are you somehow unaware of who that man is?"
"I think I have a better idea than you do, at this point," said Tangent. "In case you were unaware: five months ago, I informed Darth Vader that his children survived being born. His response was to kill Palpatine, launch an immediate blitzkrieg to take out all the nasty little traps Palpatine left behind, and then turn around to negotiate an orderly handover of power from the Empire to what we are hoping is going to be a slightly less dysfunctional republic. Plus he actually did free the slaves, I'm sure you heard about that."
"Basically," said Jay, from far too close for someone as paranoid as Kenobi had to be to have survived, "your plan was shit from the start, has failed comprehensively, and was never necessary anyway. Also, hi. This is yours," he said, and held up something small and cylindrical and metallic.
" . . . okay," said Kenobi. "You have my attention."
"That's great," said Jay. "Get in the speeder. We can talk on the way."
"Hey, Vader," called Tangent. "Do the thing."
He sighed. "I told you to stop giving me orders." He did do the thing, though. Feeling Kenobi's shock through the Force was kind of worth it.
"Seriously, Kenobi," said Tangent. "Get in the speeder."
"I," said Kenobi, looking at the lightsaber that Jay had just handed back to him, "have so many questions."
Jay, meanwhile, was stripping his lightsaber, the one he'd had before Mustafar. The one Kenobi had kept all these years.
"I'm Tangent, that's Jay, and Vader you already know," said Tangent. Her eyes were firmly locked on the landscape.
"That actually wasn't one of my questions," said Kenobi.
"No midichlorians," said Jay, without looking up from checking the lightsaber.
"No midichlorians. An active and vicious lack of midichlorians. Against a background as unliving as Tatooine, it doesn't look like there's anyone there at all," said Jay.
"You don't have midichlorians?" he was shocked into asking.
"Except for when we do, yeah," said Jay.
"You didn't know that?" asked Kenobi.
"Jay and Tangent are remarkably reticent about who created them, and how, and why. I did know that the lack of apparent existence in the Force was something they did on purpose." He shrugged. "That . . . wasn't what I wanted to say at all."
"I met Leia."
"And I . . . she's not my daughter. She is Bail and Breha's daughter. I'm just this weird guy who makes the Force go all slow and sad and needs a hug every time she sees me." He paused, took a deep breath, let it out. "They are really great parents. We've more or less worked out how this is going to go. About two seconds before Tangent introduced us, I was contemplating the necessity of torturing her in front of Bail."
"I don't think any of us were under the impression that you are a nice person."
"Not important," said Jay, as he put the lightsaber back together. "This is some pretty solid work, except that the insulator on the second power conduit is a bit melted so the wire is flexing."
"That's not quite the proper Basic," said Tangent. "It is important, but in the opposite direction. Good is not the same as nice, and neither of them mean the same thing as effective."
"Another dichotomy, then," he said.
"What?" asked Kenobi.
"Yeah," said Tangent.
"I was not ever really a Jedi," he said. "The logical conclusion is not, and should not be, that therefore I had to be Sith. We of all people should have known about how many ways there are to speak to the Force, and let it speak to us. But someone decided to make those the only two options, and everyone on both sides fell for it." He paused, and considered. "Hey, Tangent. Do you know who did that?"
"It's happened more than once," replied Tangent. "The oldest I know about was the schism in the old Jee'dai order, twenty-five thousand-ish years ago; but there was the very dark Rakatan Empire, and nine temples built in an extremely long-term plan to restore balance, so even that can't have been the first time. And there's your house."
" . . . yes. I. Should go first," began Kenobi.
"You will go together," said Tangent. "Or you will not go. If nothing else, these are his son's more-or-less parents. He's not killing them in front of the kid."
"And you know that for sure."
"As sure as negotiations to hand over the Empire can make me, yeah."
Kenobi blinked. And then, silently, got out of the speeder. He stood out of sight while Kenobi knocked on the door. The eyeplate on the opened. "Ben?" said a woman. "You're not dead!
And - "
"The situation has changed," said Kenobi. "I - no longer think the boy is in danger of death. Let us in, please."
"Er," said the woman. "Us? Who else - " he heard a gasp as he stepped into view. "Are we safe?"
"You're less unsafe than you will be if you refuse to open the door and I have to break a structural wall to get in." It was true.
"Please do not blow holes in my house," said Kenobi dryly.
That got a muffled giggle, and then the door opened.
Kenobi's house was tiny, an oblong space maybe a few paces longer than it was wide and clearly the residence of a working moisture farmer. He stepped inside, turning his head to make sure he hadn't missed anything. Beru was just as dust-colored as anything else on this miserable planet. Owen Lars was fifteen years older than he'd been the first time they met and looked like it had been thirty. Only the boy looked anything like his years, staring at him with unabashedly wide eyes.
"Well. I won't say you're particularly welcome," said Kenobi, pushing in past him, "but I'll make tea if you want it."
"Really I don't," he said. "Owen. Beru. You married."
"Er," said Owen. "Have we met?"
"Yes," he said.
"I think I'd remember that," said Owen. "You - are Darth Vader? The Emperor's Fist?"
"The emperor now, thanks."
"Right," said Owen. "So. When would we have met?"
"A long time ago. Before the mask. Before the Clone Wars, even." He reached up to begin popping the catches on his helmet. "I'd like my son back now." He pulled off the helmet, wincing a little as the dry Tatooine air immediately attempted to suck all the water from him. "Hello again."
Owen paled. Beru said, " But - you're dead! Order Sixty-six!"
He nodded. "Which is why I don't typically believe people are dead unless I've seen the corpse. This is him?" As though there were anyone else the boy could be. He knealt down. "Hey. What's your name?"
"Luke," said the boy. He twitched; even from beyond the grave, Queen Amidala did not pull her punches. "Luke Skywalker. An' you're Darth Vader. Why do you think you're my dad?"
"Because I am," he said. "A lot of people have been keeping us apart for a long time, and I can't say they were entirely wrong. Even so, I'm here now; and I really do want to be a good father to you."
Luke looked up at him, wide open and earnest in way he couldn't remember being. Then he said, "I get to be a prince?"
" . . . probably," he agreed.
"And have cookies and no lessons or bedtimes or chores?"
"Princes get more lessons," he said. "And bedtimes just like everyone else. Cookies when you finish your vegetables - what?"
"Being a prince doesn't sound any different," complained Luke. "What's the fun in that?"
"The chores are different," he said. "More interesting than vaporator maintenance, at least. And you'd be on a starship."
"With pilots?" asked Luke, attention immediately caught.
"Starships generally have pilots, yes."
"Wizard," said Luke; Kenobi winced. "When do we go?"
"In a little bit - "
"You have to do talking, yeah?"
"Yes. You can go outside if you want; the man and the woman there will show you the speeder."
"Yeah," said Luke, and scrambled out of Owen's hold to head to the door.
"Is that wise?" asked Kenobi.
"I trusted them with Leia when I didn't trust myself with Leia."
"Not that. Taking him. You have made a lot of enemies."
"Oh, well. I'd planned to leave guarding him to you."
"Since you have done such a good job of it so far, and all."
"You - trust me."
He sighed. "I trust you not to kill a youngling. Any youngling." Which was not something he could trust himself to do. "And I trust you to be the best 'saber fighter in the galaxy. I'm not sure I trust your judgement regarding child-rearing; it is demonstrably awful."
"You will notice I didn't attempt it a second time."
"Yes," he said, and turned his attention back to Owen and Beru. "And I am little sorry that I'm just - walking in and taking the boy you raised through infancy."
"Not sorry enough not to do it," said Beru.
"No; that's who I am, for better or worse. Is there. I know you won't accept monetary compensation, even though raising a Skywalker can't have been cheap. But is there anything else I can do?"
"No," said Owen immediately.
"Yes," said Beru, a bit more slowly. "I want a child." He did not understand the request, until she added, "With my husband."
She nodded. "And we can't afford the bribes for the clinic in Mos Eisly."
He coughed. "I did not kill Jabba and then spend the last week cleaning up this dustball so that people can't get the services they actually need. You can afford the clinic? It was just the bribes?"
"Then the problem had better already be solved. Are you sure you don't want - I have some really good doctors on board the Conquest . . . ?"
"Mos Eisly's clinic is fine," said Beru.
"Alright. But I'll leave orders with the garrison commander. If you ever need anything, don't hesitate to ask."
"If you've actually cleaned up the corruption," said Owen, sounding very doubtful.
"If I haven't, make sure to let me know. I can conquer this place again, and again, until the lesson sticks." He paused, then said, "Do you want a ride back to your home?"
"We took our speeder here; we'll be fine," said Owen.
"Kenobi? Anything you want to take?"
" . . . I have what I need," said Kenobi, in a tone that suggested no, he didn't, but the thing he needed most wasn't a physical object.
"I can send a dropship or two to bring all this stuff up - "
"Leave it. I made or scavenged most of it. The next resident can do what they like with it."
"As you say."
Luke was sitting on Jay's lap. Jay was showing him all the various controls for the speeder, while Luke watched with rapt attention. Tangent was sitting in the shade of the building, watching them.
"Owen, Beru," she said. "You should go say goodbye."
"I don't - " said Owen.
"I will," said Beru, and marched forward. Owen trailed her a moment later.
"So," he asked. "Did this turn out the way you planned?"
"I don't know yet. Certainly we're nowhere near worst-case scenario territory, so I'm hopeful."
"What's the best-case scenario?" asked Kenobi.
"For whom?" asked Tangent.
" . . . for whatever your goal is."
"You seem to think I'm putting a lot more planning into this than I ever have." She pointed over to where Owen and Beru were hugging Luke goodbye. "But the fact that that kid isn't going to have to grow up and kill his father? That's a good indication that I'm doing the right thing."
Kenobi gaped for a moment, and then demanded, "What else was there to do?"
"The good that was in front of you," replied Tangent. "You shouldn't have left him to burn."
Kenobi turned to look at him, incredulous. He shrugged. "I don't tell them these things; they just know. It might be related to the reason they choose not to be Force-sensitive."
"For the record," said Tangent, "when I'm killing people, I back it up with decapitation. Merciful and unambiguous. Ah, and they're leaving. Jay!"
"Yeah!" called back Jay, and said something to Luke, who smiled widely and strapped into one of the seats in the back. Tangent headed over, and a moment later so did Kenobi. He followed.
The trip back to the Conquest was really uneventful, for which he was glad. Luke was wide-eyed and excited and chattered the whole way. Tangent was quiet and smiling very faintly, and it took him a moment to realize quite why it alarmed him so much: that was Yoda's smile. Kenobi was quiet out loud, and loud in the Force, probing, trying to get a sense of him. He let it slide off of him without touching him at more than a surface level.
Once on the Conquest, he began giving orders for things appropriate to a ten-year-old boy, only to find it had already been arranged. Tangent held Luke's hand and headed off toward the quartermaster's, where apparently there were some clothes waiting for him to look at and try on. Jay looked after them, and said, "If you ask her, Tan will say that she hates children."
"Really?" asked Kenobi. "That doesn't seem . . . "
Jay shrugged. "I need some violence. Spar?"
"You just spent a week killing Hutt thugs."
"Yeah, but I haven't killed anyone today. Spar."
He sighed, but went to the salle. Kenobi followed them, presumably because he wanted to see the two of them spar. He stopped at the door, and said, "I'm . . . not hallucinating, am I?"
"Hallucinating, you probably are not," replied Yoda. "Good to see you, it is. Come, sit. How you have been, you must tell."
"I came here to watch - Vader, I guess - spar with his apprentice."
"I'm not his apprentice," said Jay.
"He's not my apprentice," he said.
"Although exciting to watch, it often is."
Kenobi sighed, and went to sit with Yoda on the mats. He lined up with Jay.
A good thing about sparring with Jay was that he couldn't do it and something else, even something as nonspecific as worry vaguely about the wisdom of having two Jedi masters on the same ship. There was just no time, and no concentration to spare: he had to use it to track Jay's blade. So he focused down on the fight, and they went at it for a while, Jay hitting fast and sharp against his necessarily slower attacks. On the other hand, once he did finally manage to get in a hit, pinning the other man went smoothly enough, and then it was all over but the decapitation.
"Yield," he commanded.
"I yield," said Jay, and powered down his 'saber before accepting a hand up. "Thanks."
"Likewise," he said, because he felt better too.
"I'm going to grab a shower. You'll be okay?"
"I'll be fine," he said, oddly sure of it.
Jay nodded, and clasped his hand briefly before heading away.
He went to go sit on the mats.
"That," said Kenobi, "was amazing. Why were you never that good when you were my padawan?"
"Because I was your padawan," he said.
"Consequences," he said. "You'd shout at me. Sidious would actively try to . . . improve me. Via unanaesthetised surgery. I got better very fast during the first few years."
"But we're really not here to talk about how I've been, are we."
A sigh. "No, I suppose not. I . . . owe you an apology."
He tilted his head. "Yeah?"
"For being such a hypocrite."
"Huh. That's . . . not what I thought you were going to apologize for."
"Better, though. It's one I can actually accept. I apologize for not leaving the Order the moment I figured out that I was never going to be able to survive without attachments."
"Which was when?" asked Yoda.
"The first time I attempted to save someone I loved," he said, "and ended up slaughtering a room full of younglings."
"You what," said Kenobi flatly.
"There is a very good reason I want you to be the one watching out for Luke's safety, and it really has almost nothing to do with my enemies."
"When was this?" asked Kenobi.
"About a week before Geonosis," he replied.
" . . . then right, I was. Great darkness with you always dwelt," said Yoda sadly.
"The potential for it, anyway," he said. "Absolutely. Are you going to say I did not have a right to want the people I loved to be safe? Because, for me, the two are inseparable: most of my power comes from my emotions, and always has."
"The dark side," said Yoda.
"Mm. Not really. Anger and hate and fear are strong, but I still avoid using them whenever possible. Those are - it's not a nice state of mind. Mostly, I used pain. As of late, I've been using love. I doubt even you can call love part of the dark side."
"There is no emotion, there is peace," quoted Kenobi.
"And that is exactly why I should have quit before it all went to shit. Maybe that works for some people. It never was going to work for me." He sighed. "Hindsight always is perfect."
"It doesn't seem to have worked very well for me either," Kenobi surprised him by saying. "I - that woman was right. I should not have left you."
"I don't think, at the time, you could have done anything else. Not with who we both were, back then."
"Even so. It was cruel."
"Regrets we all have," said Yoda, not unkindly. "What we should do about them, our decision is."
"Well, I seem to have a child to protect," said Kenobi, pointedly.
"Thank you," he said.
"And, possibly, a . . . friend." He said it quietly, hesitantly, utterly unlike his usual self-possessed poise.
It was a peace offering, the only one Kenobi had to give.
"It's an attachment," he said, because he really wasn't going to let Kenobi do this and then claim to be ignorant about it later. "But I'm game if you are."
"Good. Because I really want to spar with you now."
Sparring was great. Jay was terrifying, but having more than one possible opponent for training was always better. Also, Kenobi had picked up at least a few tricks since they'd last crossed blades. That was fine; so had he.
It ended when Kenobi stepped aside and lowered his 'saber and said, "Hold on, hold on, you have to explain how to do that."
"It's just push-pull," he answered, and allowed the spar to dissolve into them demonstrating new techniques. Then they went to sit on the mats because for a lot of it the power was in the setup and the setup was subtle, so much so that they were closing their eyes to set up. Somebody pushed at him, and he looked up, expecting to see Yoda being mischievous, and instead meeting the very blue eyes of Luke.
"Wizard," said Luke, clearly delighted. "Why didn't anyone ever tell me that's what that's for?"
"Most people can't do it," said Tangent gently. "Try feeling me."
Luke did, scrunching up his little face and then opening his eyes in alarm when he realized the problem. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," said Tangent. "Jay is like me, and also my plants. It's nice of you to ask, because for most people, if they felt like I do right now, it would mean they are either dead or very close to dying. Healthy people feel like your Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen. You can feel them, but they can't feel you. Only bullies like to spy on people, though; you have to get permission before you look inside of anyone. Got it?"
Luke nodded seriously, and asked, "But you're not dying, right?"
"I'm not," agreed Tangent, and tapped him on the nose. He giggled. "And then there are people like your Uncle Obi-wan, and your dad, and you. You don't just feel things; you can change things. All last week your dad was busy freeing the slaves."
"Which slaves?" asked Luke.
"All of them."
"All of them everywhere?" asked Luke.
"Well. All the slaves on Tatooine anyway," said Tangent. "I imagine freeing all the slaves everywhere will take a bit more time."
"I want to help!" He scrambled up out of Tangent's lap. "Show me how to help!"
Tangent jerked her head to indicate the salle.
It helped, at least, that this was something he remembered: being ten years old and starting training years late as far as the Order was concerned, not knowing even the basics and unable to control his own strength. Luke figured out floating things after a few short minutes of watching him - watching, at least, until he looked over at Tangent and bit his lip and said, "Can I - take a look? Inside you? Just so I can see how!"
"I," he said. "Only the very front, okay? There are some scary things inside me."
Luke's mind was bright and clean and free, unshaped by anything other than love. It was there, sliding up against his, getting a sense for how the Force and floating worked, and then gone again just as quickly. "Ohh," said Luke, and launched the datachip they were practising with towards the ceiling. He caught it about a meter before it hit the durasteel, and lowered it back down gently.
"Try again," he said to Luke, placing the chip back on the floor.
By the time Jay showed up, they were playing catch with the chip. It was a youngling game, and Luke was wobbly still, but he didn't feel the need to hide his happiness. Not even a little.
"Hey," said Jay, wheeling a tray in behind him. "Food."
Luke crashed halfway through the meal, and then curled up, using Jay's lap for a pillow. Tangent said, "If I were the mothering type, that would make me spontaneously ovulate."
"Care for him you do," said Yoda.
"He's a kid," said Jay, and that was that. "Tan. Skin time."
"All right," said Tangent, and stood up while Jay handed Luke over to Kenobi.
"Skin time?" asked Kenobi, once they'd left.
"They go and be naked together, but not in a sexy way. In a mental health way."
" . . . where did you even find them?"
"They found me," he replied. "And really, I'm happy they did. Who knows how many more years I'd have gone on serving Palpatine if something hadn't pushed the issue?"
"Too," said Yoda, which was really all that needed to be said. "Late it is. Perhaps bed we should seek."
"I have actual business to do before I can," he said. "But it will be boring. I understand if the two of you want to go."
"I'm not leaving my charge," said Kenobi.
"Ever? Because growing boys do need their space."
" . . . what are the accommodations on this ship like?"
"Very spare, unless you're Lord Darth Vader," he replied. "But I'm half-afraid that if we check, something will have been arranged anyway."
"They do seem the type," agreed Kenobi. "Let's check."
In fact what had been arranged was for his suite to grow and takeover the one next to it, by means of removing a few bulkheads. The second suite's bedroom now held one of Tangent's creepy plants, growing up the walls and into a living, child-sized hammock. The office space had been retrofitted into a second bedroom, one with lots of shelves for Kenobi's inevitable clutter but, as of yet, surprisingly spare. The double-size common room was more than large enough for a big hunk of it to be given up to a miniature machine shop, even with clean lines of a new table and couches.
"Well," said Kenobi. "That seems fairly straightforward."
"What the hells?" he said. "Sure. Why not. Cohabitating with my ex-Master, who at one point very did nearly manage to kill me, and the son I never, ever want to hurt. There's no way this can end badly."
"I can go bunk someplace else, if it's - "
"No. It's the only real solution: Luke has to be close, and therefore you have to be close enough to protect him if I need to be stopped. I'm just - there's a little cognitive dissonance."
"It has been a day," agreed Kenobi. "Maybe we should sleep on it. See if things look less crazy in the morning."
In the morning, things looked more crazy. To start, he woke up to the sound of a ten-year-old boy attempting to stealthily climb onto his bed. The day didn't particularly improve once he called Luke out on it, since his son seemed to take him being awake as permission to start bouncing off the walls.
"Why did I think this would be a good idea?" he complained.
Kenobi was very pointedly not laughing at him. Tangent didn't bother to hide her laughter, but did take both of them away to the botany lab to do . . . things. He really hoped some of those things involved enough physical activity to get Luke to calm down. Meanwhile, he was busy setting things up so that the economy of Tatooine could be less focused on water and more focused on the planet's immense mineral wealth. Also, there was still the rest of the Empire, including planning galaxy-wide elections for everyone from senators down to local superintendents. On some planets, including Alderaan, this meant wiping out thousand-year-old governments to make room for elected officials. Breha was at least willing to go; many were not.
Probably it meant another war. The prospect didn't even phase him.
Lunch showed up with Tangent and Kenobi and Luke, who was on Kenobi's shoulders. "And you're sure she got the message?" Tangent was saying.
"It's a dead-drop, Tangent. Of course I'm not sure."
"Who got what now?"
"Resistance agent named Fulcrum," said Kenobi. "I have no clue why that one in particular has to come meet you."
"Because, Cypher, Luke needs more conspecifics. Luke, get down and show your father the frittata we made."
A frittata was a sort of crustless egg pie, and this one was pretty good. He made sure to broadcast that a little, to keep Luke from vibrating out of his skin. "What is a conspecific?"
" . . . did you not read the child psychology book I sent you?"
"You sent me a child psychology book?"
"That answers that. I'll print it out and bring it up to you hardcopy. A conspecific is a person who is not the child's primary caregiver but is still deeply involved with the child's upbringing. They're important for proper psychological development, and not just one or two. Thinking about it, the lack of conspecifics once Jedi got to padawan age probably explains a lot. Luke, give your father a hug. He needs one right now now."
Luke barrelled into his abdomen in a way that would have been painful without the armor plating, and hugged him hard enough that he could feel it even so. "How many conspecifics do I have?" asked Luke.
"There's your Uncle Obi-wan, and Master Yoda, and me and Jay. But me and Jay are going to leave as soon as - well, anyway, pretty soon. Not more than another couple of months now. I don't know what Master Yoda is planning to do. Regardless, one is not enough, so I'm calling in some other people."
"I don't want you to go!" said Luke.
Tangent said, "You barely know me. We met yesterday."
"Yeah, but. I like you. You're not like Aunt Beru."
"That's not very hard. Most people aren't the same. No, don't cry - I will not be leaving because I don't like you. I was just always going to leave.
"You were?" asked Kenobi.
" . . . so then what was the point of putting yourself in the middle of this in the first place?"
"Once again, you're assuming a degree of planning that never existed."
"You snuck onto that troop transport!" he accused.
"No. I did not."
"You were on that troop transport."
"How could you have gotten there if you didn't sneak on?"
"I cannot believe you didn't check the logs," said Tangent.
"I did check the logs. The logs only make sense if - " he said, and stopped. He blinked. "You spontaneously appeared on that ship."
"Without great difficulty."
"No, seriously," he said. "How?"
"It's called orthogonal travel. Mostly it is months of really convoluted math, and then one fast step. I wasn't aiming for that troop transport. I wasn't aiming at all. It was just the bubble of oxygen atmosphere closest to the opening singularity, so that's where I was shunted."
"Oh. But." He thought about what she'd done, when she'd stood in front of Palpatine and pretended to be afraid. "You didn't have to stay and help."
"I did," she said. "You do the good that is in front of you. Or at least, I do."
"So then why are you leaving again?" asked Luke. "Isn't there still good to do?"
"There's always still good to do," answered Tangent. "If I never left because of that, I'd never get anywhere. It's just no longer good that only I can do: I'll leave it to you and your dad and your sister and your uncle. You'll do fine."
"Because clearly that went so well bef - " began Kenobi.
"I have a sister?" demanded Luke.
"Yeah. Leia Organa, your twin. You can feel her in the Force right now if you try. But remember what I said about asking permission before looking inside someone."
"Okay!" said Luke, but he was already reaching in, and out, impossibly far for a trained Jedi master, much less a ten-year-old -
Leia responded. She was surprised, curious; and then she was caught up in Luke's infectious joy, and she was laughing, all the way away on Alderaan, and amazing parents who'd never seen their reserved and intelligent daughter do this before.
"They were together under their mother's heart," said Tangent, softly. "Of course a silly thing like distance can't matter. Not to them."
"Thank you," he said, around the lump in his throat.
"De nada." She waved her hand dismissively. "To answer your question, Kenobi: of course it didn't work before. Neither of you were being emotionally honest. You know better than to make that mistake a second time. You know better than to make a lot of mistakes a second time."
"I don't know if I do," said Kenobi.
"Are you asking for advice?"
"I am," he said decisively. Kenobi could dither; he'd ask, and didn't have to take her advice.
"Skin time. Lots and lots of skin time. Just the two of you, or you and your son, or Kenobi and Luke, or - well, there will be more possible combinations as you get your clade together - but skin. Positive physical contact. It's important."
"I don't," he began, and then stopped, not quite sure how he wanted to finish that.
"At the very least, lots of hugs for Luke and Leia. Whenever you're there and you even have the thought, give them a hug. They'll need it."
"Of course," he agreed, because yes, always, whatever they needed.
"Great," said Luke, suddenly with them again. And, "Can we eat dessert now? Then play catch with the Force again? That was fun!"
Luke . . . settled, somewhat, over the next few days. Part of it was that between Tangent and Jay and Kenobi and himself, there was always an adult on hand to give him hugs. Part of it was, he was sure, Leia; he caught flickers of her presence on the edges of his awareness. Part of it was that Luke was now spending a lot of energy using the Force. He was a bit horrified when he learned that Jay had him in medical, learning to do deep-tissue scans on the troopers who were facing Tatooine resistance to his anti-slavery policy.
"I don't see why," said Jay. "It's a useful lesson in practical anatomy."
"He shouldn't have to see the kinds of wound soldiers ge - "
"You're joking, right?" asked Jay. "Have to. We have trouble getting him to go anywhere else. It's . . . not a bad thing, if he wants to be a healer."
"I know," he said, because of course the galaxy needed a healer, after the last - Force, quarter century, if counted from the initial attack on Naboo.
Jay nodded. "And even if he doesn't, it's good to have a working knowledge of anatomy. You are welcome to come too, you know."
"There isn't much a healer can do for me. Tangent . . . "
"Oh, the reclastic cells, yeah. I meant letting Luke know that you're okay with whatever he decides. I can definitely see why communication is a focus area for you."
"Jay, shut up and fight."
Jay offered him a mocking salute, and powered up his lightsaber.
But it was with those words in mind that, when Kenobi finally worked himself up to ask, he was able to answer. Not that he had an answer ready, of course. Kenobi waited until after Luke was sleeping but before either of them were and said, "So. Skin time."
He didn't throw Kenobi across the room. "No."
"Okay," said Kenobi. "Can I ask why not?"
He didn't want to answer that either, but if anyone had a right to know . . . "All my skin is new right now," he said. "The skin-nerve interface is all over the place. I read pressure as heat, and heat as pain. And, well. People are warm." Kenobi ran hotter than most.
" . . . oh," said Kenobi. "Have you told anyone about this?"
He shook his head. "No point. I'm retraining a bunch of nerve cells to register sensation properly. That's not something Tangent can use her magic biotech to fix. It was like this when my eyes started working again, too, except with movement and color. Synaesthesia."
"I'd been meaning to ask," said Kenobi. "What did she do?"
"I honestly don't know," he said. "Took a blood sample, extracted my DNA, did something that she refuses to explain, injected me with a bunch of something called 'reclastic cells.' They eat scar tissue and lay down healthy cells. I'm not sure how - I know once a retina dies it is dead, but mine came back, so." He shrugged.
Kenobi said, "And there's a reason she hasn't made this available to the general public."
"She told me it's - not just difficult, but actively painful. She did it for me, but I don't think she would have if my sudden death wouldn't have caused a brawl. More than we've got already, anyway."
Kenobi nodded. "All right. No actual skin time, yet. But positive physical touch? Is there any physical touch that won't . . . "
"My hands," he said. "And legs, I suppose, from the knees down. They won't hurt."
"They won't - you can feel them?"
"You remember when I was always complaining about the shit feedback I used to get?"
"You fixed that."
"Took me some time, but yes. I did." He reached up to his elbow, opening the buckles holding the glove in place. Kenobi already knew the arm was bionic, and wouldn't be frightened.
It wasn't the same arm, of course. He tinkered with them constantly and swapped them out regularly. The basic structure of the thing, though, what he suspected Kenobi would call the artistry, was the same. It was still black and gold and as clean as he could get it. It just also had a lot more concealed toys.
"Oh," said Kenobi, and without even asking leant forward to touch it. It wasn't anything he'd have done a decade ago, but that one word, that one syllable, told him that he'd wanted to. He felt his throat close up. Kenobi had never been body shy, exactly, and then there'd been the war, but he'd wanted to. And never had.
Padme was the only other person who'd ever looked at his arm and wanted to touch it.
"Okay?" asked Kenobi, sounding concerned.
"I - there are four poison-tipped needles I could be stabbing you with right now," he said. "One of them is on a dead-man's-trigger: if I were unconscious and you tried to remove my arm, you'd die. Probably without even feeling the injection that killed you."
Kenobi, because it was Kenobi, increased the pressure. "How many times did that happen?"
The question was not about how many people he'd killed that way. "Too."
"Do you need me to stop?"
"Do you want to?" he asked.
"I will if you tell me - "
It must have been something. Time or distance or the fact that he wasn't twenty-three and desperately fighting to save a system he wasn't sure he even really believed in, but he could see exactly what Jay meant. "I thought it disgusted you."
To his credit, Kenobi didn't miss a beat. "No! No. I - it's beautiful. A work of art. I just thought it might be uncomfortable."
"Not physically," he said.
He sighed. "The last time someone who wasn't me touched any of my limbs without intent to hurt me was, almost certainly, the night the twins were conceived."
The fingers on his arm stopped for a moment before resuming their motion. "I would have thought Lord Darth would get the best medical care available."
"And you'd be wrong. Palpatine enjoyed hurting people. Not even for some purpose, just because he could and you couldn't stop him. Also don't call me Darth.
"Darth's not a name, it's a title. A Sith title."
"Which you're not?"
"About as much as I was ever a Jedi." Not none, but not a huge amount, either. "Politically, Vader is necessary, but it's always been more a role than an identity. Just like Skywalker was the Jedi I was . . . good at pretending to be, but not actually very good at being." He thought about it. "Ani, I suppose. I was happiest when I was just Ani."
"But not in public. There aren't that many people who know who I actually am, and I'd like to keep it that way. Let dead men lie."
"Someone's going to put Luke Skywalker and Vader's son together eventually," said Kenobi.
"Yes, but there's a reasonable explanation for that: Anakin and Luke are both from Tatooine, where Skywalker was a common enough slave name. And everyone knows Force-sensitivity runs in families but often skips generations. I just wanted an heir."
" . . . no one is going to buy that. Not after seeing you with Luke."
"How many people do you think are going to get to see me with Luke, exactly?"
The fingers on his hydraulics started tapping absently. "I don't know. Me. Master Yoda, but he'd never endanger a youngling. Whoever Fulcrum turns out to be - "
Kenobi's hand froze. "Hurts?"
"No," he said, hoarsely, and swallowed. "It feels like you're typing on my bones. In a good way."
"Too intense," said Kenobi, and went back to the almost-petting motion, right against the fine little articulated joints in his wrist.
"If we're being honest," he said, because having somehow received this chance he was not going to wreck it with the same mistakes, "Why didn't you like my arm, back then?"
"I didn't like that you had it. It was a reminder of all the ways I failed in my responsibilities, and it was, is, permanent."
"You kept staring! And then looking away whenever I met your eyes - "
"Yes, because it was a gorgeous piece of hardware and I wanted to help - "
" - even after I replaced the first one - "
" - but I thought it made you uncomfortable! I couldn't do that -
" - which was, I admit, total crap." He stopped.
" - without asking." Kenobi blinked. Then, very carefully, he said, "It would have been like touching your lightsaber. And you kept angling yourself so that I couldn't see it. I thought you didn't want me to . . . "
There were multiple ways the sentence could have ended, and Kenobi meant all of them. "Really?"
"Yeah," said Kenobi. "I mean. You and machines. You could have left the Order and made a fortune for yourself, just on your WALDO interface alone. You know that, right?"
"I never considered it," he said truthfully. "You were just - so physical. We both were, and then there was my arm. It was the one part of me you were always careful not to touch."
"Well now I'm not going to because of poison needles," said Kenobi, and tapped his joints for emphasis.
" . . . yeah. Okay, fair." He took a breath. "I was thinking about an arm with a lightsaber built-in, but then it might be too General Grievous at the Battle of Coruscant. Opinions?"
"Do we know how Jay gets a lightsaber you can't see?"
"It's ultraviolet," he said.
"Right, so," said Kenobi, and didn't say anything else.
He understood anyway. "Excellent," he said.
It was, it turned out, not an inconsiderable engineering challenge in its own right to make a kyber that conducted plasma only in ultraviolet bands. He kept getting ones that inadvertently conducted on lower bands as well, which made for useless but pretty blades. Luke asked if he could have one, so he derailed for a few days to build a training 'saber. Master Yoda got involved, which resulted in there being a blindfolded ten-year-old swinging a lightsaber around on his ship.
"This is going to end in disaster," he said, flatly.
"He's doing better than you," said Kenobi. "He doesn't keep trying to break the safety overrides on his 'saber so he can go fight the bad guys."
The bad guys had more or less stopped fighting. Tatooine, ancient and backwards home of the most batshit crazy system of resource management in the galaxy, had finally given in. He was handing the government over to a couple of the moffs he mostly trusted, and making a note to come back and check in three months.
"Glad to hear it," he said. "Jay! I have questions."
"I might have answers," said Jay. "What's up?"
"Kybers. Ultraviolet-conducting kybers."
"Oh, yeah," said Jay. "It's a band-gap problem."
"How do you solve it?"
"Gravity-gradient crystal growth," said Jay. "You have to use acoustics to generate pseudo-gravity at the right gradients; or at least, I did. I don't know, does the Force let you do gravity gradients?"
It did, but it was going to take days to grow big enough crystals so he let that project sit on the backburner while they went down into the hangar to greet the smallish and unassuming ship that had arrived that morning, just after the imperial courier.
"Why do I have to come too?" asked Kenobi.
"It's a surprise," said Tangent. "I'm not telling."
"And why are you coming?" he asked Yoda.
"A presence I have not felt in years, yet now I feel," said Yoda. "A very good surprise, it is."
"Am I gonna like this person?" asked Luke.
"I don't know, I can't see the future. Fulcrum's going to love you, though."
Hangar Nineteen was big enough to comfortably accommodate diplomatic ships. By contrast, this ship was small and . . . he hesitated to say worn. It was old, yes, but also clearly well-cared-for, by someone who knew what they were doing. And the gun turrets had been retrofitted, recently, with sleek new multilasers.
He was almost certainly looking at some kind of Rebellion ship. But he wasn't fighting them anymore, or at least, he was trying not to start any new fights while an entirely new government was hammered out. It might not matter to a certain kind of person, he thought, as the airlock cycled and opened to reveal -
Two brothers: one with a stylised V off-center on his face, one without any particular marks at all, both people he knew; and one togrutan female, reddish skin, facial markings in white, blue and white montrals, also someone he knew. "You utter, utter bitch," he said, wondering, to Tangent.
"Language," reproved Tangent.
"Also, she's not a bitch," said Luke helpfully. "She's not a rancor at all, and it's really rude to call people animals. Dad?"
Meanwhile, Tano had caught sight of Yoda and Kenobi and was walking forward, a confident stride that showed she, at least, had grown into the young woman she'd promised to be. She slowed as she approached. "Masters?"
"Tano," said Kenobi. "Tangent, I agree. Good surprise, never do it again."
"Wait, I'm confused," said Tano. "I got a message from Cypher asking me to come to Tatooine because he needs transport, and then when I get here there's a different message waiting that I'm supposed to just waltz onto the actual Imperial flagship. Which I did. Everyone was very polite and no one threatened me at all. What's going on?"
"Heard, you have not?" asked Yoda. "Surrendering, the Empire is, to the very Old Republic. In need of more family, young Skywalker is."
" . . . master?"
"No," said Tangent. "Ahsoka Tano, Luke Skywalker. Luke, this is your Aunt Ahsoka."
Luke waved, staring up at Tano with wide eyes.
"Tangent," he said. "Explain."
"I thought Master Yoda did a pretty good job there, actually," she said. "The short list of people with whom you can trust Luke is very short. I picked the one whose location I more-or-less knew, and asked her to come help. We can also recruit Rex and Wolffe, if you can't trust Dogma and Slick."
"He knows all about slavery. And freedom."
"Ah," he said. "Of course. Tano, if you would like to accompany us, someone probably has tea and snacks waiting."
"And kaff?" asked Slick in a low growl. "There had better be kaff."
"There will be kaff," allowed Tangent. "Come on. This way."
Weirdly, she led the way, not to the salle that was becoming their common room, but to a mid-level conference room. It was probably a good decision, because nervous people with blasters and/or lightsabers, in a room that could be used for executions. Also, as promised, there was tea and kaff that he would lay money had come off the trees yesterday and also little pastries.
Tano looked around curiously before stepping inside. After a moment, so did Dogma, and then Slick. Kenobi and Luke and came in with no hesitation, and Yoda brought up the rear.
Once everyone was settled with drinks and snacks, Tangent said, "So. At this point - and this is not an order, because, for the last time, I don't do orders - I think you should do the thing, and then take off the helmet."
"Surveillance blackout?" he asked.
"Done," confirmed Jay.
He did the thing.
"Ooh," said Luke. "Can I do that?"
"I don't know. Can you?" asked Tangent, which meant that Luke immediately started trying to do it. "You have to be a dessert storm," continued Tangent. "Underneath, the bedrock, ancient and patient. Above, the howling winds. Can you be both together?"
"Yes!" Luke didn't scowl when he meditated. He was not good at meditating, unless he was contacting Leia. But for a ten-year-old, Luke's focus was superb.
Meanwhile, he reached up, unlocked the clasps, and took off his helmet.
There was a very pregnant pause.
"Okay," said Slick. "You have my attention."
"A bit over five months ago, Tangent's path accidentally crossed mine," he said. "Since then, I've killed an emperor, started negotiating what we hope will be a much better government, met my children, gained custody of one, and now, apparently, am in need of a slightly bigger family."
"You forgot the important part," said Jay. "You freed a planet's worth of slaves."
"I don't know if that one is going to stick," he said. "I might have to come back and bash some more heads."
"Bash some heads, he says," said Jay.
"Go back to the family bit," ordered Dogma. "I thought Jedi didn't do families."
"I'm not a Jedi, and I do."
"Uh-huh," said Tano. "And also, you're Darth Vader. Emperor Darth Vader."
"Only until we manage to hash out the treaty," he said. "I am bad at politics."
"And the last ten years have just been a mass hallucination."
"No, they happened," said Tangent. "I'm not asking you to forgive. I'm asking you to come and help take care of a very small boy who is going to need a lot more love than one man who is also the Emperor can provide, no matter how much he would like to."
It was at this point that Luke, possibly by virtue of not knowing he wasn't supposed to be able, managed a single floor-to-ceiling discharge of storm-blue lightning. The lights went out immediately. A few moments later, the fuse cycled and the lights came back on.
"Um," said Luke.
"Case in point," said Tangent. "Luke, I said wind and rock. Both together, or not at all. Too much wind and you can't have any control. We're okay in here because the bulkheads could be a strike rod, but what if you'd hit someone?"
"Defibrillation!" Luke sang out. "I'm getting good at that!"
"And there's another one?" asked Slick.
"Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan," he said. "She also inherited it, but she's much less likely to, I don't know - "
"Accidentally stop a star," supplied Kenobi.
"Accidentally a star ignite," countered Yoda.
"Either or both of the above," said Jay, pushing his chair back and opening his arms. Luke obligingly went over to sit in his lap.
"Yes, because he's powering it with emotions!" said Tano.
"Tell you a secret, Snips," he said. "I always did. I can barely feel the Force unless I'm feeling something; but I didn't Fall until I started powering it with fear and anger. I was never a very good Jedi."
"The best of us, you were," said Yoda. "A difficult lesson, for me, that is."
Tano was looking back and forth between them. Then she looked across at the brothers.
Dogma shrugged. Slick said, "Do I get to hit him upside the head whenever he's being an evil bas - "
"Also, yes," said Jay. "I'm going to have to show you how to use a lightsaber first, but yes."
Slick froze. "I thought only Jedi can use lightsabers."
"Bantha fodder. Only Force-sensitives can get battle meditation and the precognition that comes with it," explained Tangent. "Anyone can learn to use a lightsaber. You can practice with Skywalker the Smaller." She reached over to tap him on the nose.
"'mnot small," he said.
"Depends. In comparison to your dad, you are. In comparison to a grain of sand, you're huge. In comparison to a star, you and me and this ship and the planet are all tiny. But stars don't grow, and you will."
"To be as big as dad?"
Tangent coughed. "Well, maybe. If you drink your milk."
Slick muttered something uncomplimentary before squaring his shoulders. "Right," he said. "I'm in."
"Thank you," he said, honestly, reaching to put his helmet back on. "Tangent. I do still want to know where Rex and Wolffe are."
"To drop them a comm."
She tilted her head. "Yeah, okay."
"So," said Tano, sitting on the observation mats and watching Jay and Luke and Slick. They were en route to Coruscant, where the Imperial Senate had been told to reconvene. "What did finally make you snap?"
"Tangent told me about the twins, and made an offer."
Tano blinked. "Was it a good offer?"
"I think I'm going to spend the rest of my life paying, but on the other hand, I've been happier in the last few months than I was in the entire decade preceding. Worth it, on the whole."
"You're . . . not very much like Skyguy," she said.
"You're not terribly much like Spygirl."
Tano nodded, acknowledging the point. "I spent a long time, after Empire Day, wondering if I'd been there, what difference it would have made."
"And I was a padawan. A Jedi. I'd have died in Order Sixty-six, along with everyone else. At the time, that list included you. That was it, the entire time I was with the Rebellion, being Fulcrum." She looked out at where Jay was physically repositioning Slick's limbs. "I've been having a lot of those thoughts since yesterday, though."
"Don't. I was grateful, that you were out of it. Even if you did decide to just turn and jump right back into it."
"I learned from the best," she said, and then, "Wait, is he - is Jay flirting with him?"
He checked. "Yes."
"The man did a lot of killing on Tatooine. I know for a fact that he is good with a lightsaber, because we spar together daily. And yet he showed up every day covered in blood, because he likes vibros better. Slick is very nearly exactly his type."
"I thought him and Tangent - "
"No, they are siblings."
"Really creepily close siblings, then."
"I do not ask about that relationship," he said. "I made that mistake exactly once, and spent the rest of the day with a headache." He watched Luke attack Slick, slowly, working through the stances Jay had set them. There wasn't even a tiny bit of Temple form, but the overall style was deadly effective. He wasn't worried about Luke having to relearn anything. "So. Dogma and Slick. If someone had told me you were going to go on the run with a couple of brothers - "
"Yeah, yeah," said Tano. "Slick was on Kamino, pending execution. I went to rescue him. Dogma was his cellmate. We've been on the run pretty much constantly since then."
"Someone set up an Empire that keeps trying to kill us - "
"Why go rescue Slick?"
" . . . I had questions. He was right, you know. At least a little." She shook her head. "If nothing else, the Empire did emancipate the clones."
"Reservist status," he said. "And colonies on marginally-hospitable worlds. But I was able to swing that much. Palpatine wanted to just kill them. There was a kriffing order for it, in fact."
"You - oh. Well. Slick would have joined the Empire, but Dogma wanted to stay with me. They had a huge fight, but stuck with me in the end. Slick has an awful personality, but he's good people anyway."
He was smiling, he realised. Amazing. "And Jay is planning to turn official me-wrangling duties over to him when they leave."
"They're going to leave?"
"That was the whole point of calling you in, actually. They're going to be able to leave, I think, would be more accurate, and they're . . . arranging things. I'm not sure why, and neither is Kenobi, and Yoda just sits there and - "
" - does the inscrutable laughter bit," she finished for him. "And you haven't, uh," she gestured, clawlike and snatching.
"Try it. I dare you. Jay's right there, and he's busy enough that he probably won't even notice."
Tano gave him an odd look, but turned over to where Jay was standing well in Slick's personal space, repositioning him again.
He felt her try, and saw her eyes widen. "What?" she asked. " - how?"
"No midichlorians," he said. "We've been calling the effect Force-null. It's something they say they do deliberately. I'm stuck judging them by actions. Everything they have done thus far has been to my benefit. In one way or another."
"You're sure they are arranging things, though."
"She's the one who asked you here. I had no idea. Neither did Kenobi."
"Good surprise," she said; quoting, he realized. "Never do it again."
"Has anyone just tried asking?"
There was an awkward pause.
"Right," said Tano, standing up. "I bet Master Yoda did. I am going to go do the same."
"She is probably in her botany lab," he said.
"Thanks," she said, not turning to look at him.
The trip to Coruscant from Tatooine took three weeks and change. As they were by far the farthest ship, and also the most important, the Senate had better be convened when they got there. He'd explain the new laws, and new government, once they arrived. He planned to spend the trip growing crystals, showing his son how to use the Force, and preparing for that meeting.
It wasn't exactly derailed on the second day. Not exactly. It was just Slick walking (unannounced) into his personal office and saying with no discernable politeness, "I've been told to ask you about what happened to you."
He put down his datapad. "Palpatine," he said.
"I went crazy, my wife betrayed me, my best friend did his level best to kill me, I got put into a life-support suit that I recently learned was deliberately made to not be part-interchangeable, I spent a decade killing people who were probably more innocent than not, at least of the crimes they were accused, and now it turns out I didn't manage to kill my children. Why did you need to know?"
"Something Jay said. The false dichotomy of slavery and freedom."
There was a rushing in his ears, and then a pop. He looked down and realised he'd just shattered the datapad. "He said that?"
"And then told me to ask you about it."
"Oh. I'm - oh." He sat down again. "I need to meditate. A lot."
"More often than I slept, for a few years in there."
Slick sighed. "I know what that's like. Okay. Go ahead."
"While you wait?"
" . . . you can meditate with other people there. Tano does it all the time."
"Usually with people you trust."
Slick gave him a look. "You have weird trust issues, I got it, but I'm not going to hit you unless you're being an asshole. Meditation is the least shit thing you can do. So do it already."
There wasn't much else to do: he seated himself comfortably on the floor. Settled his breathing, and focused on his children. Leia was far away, he brightness dimmed by distance, but she was happy. Luke was much closer, and currently very frustrated because someone wasn't letting him get away with something. Luke felt him, and sent him the equivalent of a smile and a bright wave.
What was it Tangent had said? 'There is nothing you can't do for those children.' At the time he'd had his doubts, but after Alderaan - after Tatooine - he knew she was right.
He also knew what it was she hadn't said: there is nothing you won't do for those children. It was, after all, what had terrified the Jedi so hard they'd forbidden attachments even though attachments, love, and joy were demonstrably not Dark.
Well. Not inherently.
The false dichotomy of slavery and - "Freedom," he said, opening his eyes. "I have to go ask Tangent a question."
"Great," said Slick. "I'm coming with."
Tangent wasn't in her botany lab. She wasn't in the salle, and she wasn't in medical, which was where Kenobi and Tano and Luke were. Which meant she and Jay were wherever, having skin time. He sighed.
"Well. I have other work to be doing."
Slick followed him there too. "You are not my bodyguard."
"I'm not guarding you," agreed Slick.
" . . . what?"
"If it hadn't been just Kenobi trying to kill you - if there had been even a single brother - the galaxy would never have had Vader."
He closed his eyes. "There is no way you can win in a fair fight."
"Then I won't fight fair," said Slick.
"You don't think telling me might make no sense?"
"I'm hoping that if you know I will kill you, you'll be less likely to do something stupid," said Slick.
"Hope." He turned his attention to the brief. More governmental minutiae. Gods, he would be glad when this was turned over to the politicians.
Later, while sitting at the smaller workstation in his suite, working on a new arm and allowing Kenobi, who was sitting on the floor, to pet his toes, he said, "So. Slick has apparently decided to become the guy who follows me around and kills me if I go crazy."
Kenobi paused, and said, "There's a major logical flaw in this plan."
"I thought so too," he said.
"But you're not trying to stop him?"
"No, I - he's got the right set of instincts. If he's trying to kill me, it's probably because I'm the wrong kind of crazy."
"And you'll let him kill you?"
He laughed, glad that it was no longer the wheezy sound of lungs trying to do something they couldn't. "When did I ever just sit down and die?"
"Point," said Kenobi, tapping on his toes. He prodded back, tapping on Kenobi's hand with the clawlike tips of the digits. "So what do you do, then?"
"I rely on someone else. To get me to the twins, or the twins to me."
"This isn't necessarily a good plan," replied Kenobi.
"If I don't stand down after that . . . ion cannons. Orbital lances. Blow the tokamak. Whatever it takes, Kenobi, I cannot be allowed to kill my children."
"I couldn't kill you now any more than I could then, Anakin."
There was a click as he placed his acoustic multitool down, fighting for calm. "Kenobi - "
"No, listen. Your problem was that you never had any self-control at all, no matter how much I tried to get you to learn some. But I was following that takeover, on Tatooine: very nearly surgical. I don't think that lack of control is your problem, anymore." Kenobi ran his fingers along the arch of his foot. "Lack of, mm, direction, maybe."
"Yeah. I wanted to ask Tangent, but they've both - "
"Gone to ground. I wanted to spar with Jay."
"Yeah, that was pathetic," he agreed.
"Not all of us have had top-of-the-line combat droids and actual Emperor Palpatine for practice."
"No; I hear you had Tusken raiders, instead."
"Mostly I had well-placed proximity alarms and a blaster."
"Just the one?"
"If you're doing it right - "
" - one is all you need," he finished.
There was a pause. "What did Rex say?"
"He didn't. I mean. I don't even know if he got the comm. But I imagine it's going to be something like, 'Oh, you asshole.' Followed immediately by an attempt to kill me."
"Correct me if I'm wrong," said Kenobi. "But there was an order on those godsdamned chips that went, 'execute yourself.'"
" . . . there is."
"I pointed out the strategic value of having enclaves of extremely trained and very loyal soldiers spread out all across the galaxy. Palpatine was willing to be convinced."
"I think you're selling yourself short," said Kenobi. "You were never as bad as you wanted to believe. Although you were exactly as bad as I was afraid of."
Thankfully, Kenobi stopped talking after that, just running a thumb up and down an actuator. It was . . . nice. Pleasant. He understood exactly what Tangent meant, and wondered idly if things would have turned out any differently if he'd been able to have this back then. He turned his mind away from that line of thought by long practice, focused down on the work he was doing. It wasn't difficult, putting together a limb, but it required dedicated concentration. Especially with the extra nasties he was putting in.
" - Dad?" asked Luke.
He blinked, then carefully put the multitool and the arm down and sat back. "Luke. Can't sleep?"
Luke shook his head. "Can. Don't want to."
"You feel good. Like this."
Luke shrugged. "Can I have a hug?"
There was only one answer. He opened his arms, and Luke came and climbed up on him and settled in. The hug went on for a while. When it ended, Luke squirmed only a little, resting his small face again his chestplate. He felt the moment Luke noticed the arm, because there was a bright, buttercup-yellow moment of surprise. "Is that an arm?" asked Luke.
"Why are you making an arm?" asked Luke.
"To replace the one I'm using now."
Luke blinked. Looked at the arm on the table, and the gloved hand holding him, and said, "Your arm is a robot arm?"
"Both of them are, yes."
"Can I see?"
"You have to hold on for a minute. I need both arms to take off the gloves - " But Kenobi had stood up, and was unbuckling them and sliding them off. "Or that. That works too."
Luke was not paying attention. Luke was staring in open mouthed amazement at his left arm. "Wizard." And, without the slightest hint of hesitation, he ran a small hand up the primary hydraulic. "Oh!"
"That was - all right?" Luke wrapped a hand around the hydraulic and squeezed slightly, like a tiny hug. "How can you feel that?"
"Molycirc," he said. "And a number of implants. Luke, how are you . . . ?"
"Why didn't you tell me you have robot arms?"
" . . . I don't really think about it anymore. They're just a part of me, like the Force."
"Oh." He drummed his feet against the chair for a few moments. "I - is it okay if I ask what happened?"
"Like Tosche back in Anchorhead had his legs crushed by a power convertor, only if you ask him he just shouts a lot."
"I lost a lightsaber duel," he said.
Luke's eye went wide. "With the Emperor?"
"With me," said Kenobi, which at least spared him the agony of trying to figure out what to tell Luke.
" . . . why?" asked Luke in a very small, confused voice.
"I was - sick. In my head; in the Force. I was trying to hurt him very badly, maybe even kill him." He shook his head. "I don't even know. We fought. He won."
"Yeah," said Luke. "But when Master Yoda wins you just turn off your lightsaber and then stand up. He doesn't - cut off people's arms!"
"He has, actually," said Kenobi. "On occasion. Sometimes it's the only way to make sure someone won't just pick up their lightsaber any try again. I thought it was one of those times."
" . . . I don't know," he said, honestly. "Probably. I was very sick. I was trying to kill your mother, and I loved your mother like rain. I might have tried to kill you."
"No," said Luke.
"I could have - "
"No," repeated Luke. "Not ever. Not me, and not Leia: never. I feel that; don't you?"
Wordlessly, he shook his head.
"Let me show you," said Luke, and took his hand and one of Kenobi's. "Like this, okay?"
Luke showed them.
When he came back to himself, it was to a terrified Luke, plastered to his armor and whispering "Come back, come back," over and over again. Kenobi was slumped over, alive to every one of his senses and also completely absent. If he'd been like that -
"Dad!" said Luke, flooding relief. "You're okay!"
"Not quite," he said, because that was going to take some time to integrate. A lot of time. "But better. Thank you."
"You showed both of us the truth," he said. "We weren't ready for it."
"You were gone," said Luke.
"Yeah. Sorry. I didn't mean to be."
"And Uncle Obi-wan?"
"Also doesn't mean to be," he said, standing up. He held Luke in place with his left arm; with his right, he focused on lifting Kenobi. It was much, much easier with him not there to protest.
"I didn't know you could float people," said Luke, while he got Kenobi over to the couch and into a position that wouldn't kill him if he went straight from absence to sleep.
"It's very rude to do it without asking," he said, sitting down beside Kenobi's prone form. "At least if the person is there. If they're not, it's a different situation and you do everything you can to get them someplace safe."
"But we are safe already," protested Luke.
"It depends. He's fine. Sometimes when people do this, it means you need to get them medical help - "
"I know what a coma is, Dad," said Luke, with all the contempt of ten-year-old who spent most of his time in medical. "He's not in one. I just can't tell where he is!"
"In the Force, for the moment. He's just . . . meditating. Very deeply. And won't be able to stop until he learns the thing he needed to learn."
"Can I stay and wait for him?" In a smaller voice, he added, "Because it's my fault, and I think I should be here when he wakes up, too."
He thought about it. "Tell you what," he said. "I'll float him to my bed. It's a pretty big bed, there's room for all three of us. You and I can go to sleep, but we'll both be there when he wakes up. Okay?"
"Then you go get the covers open. I'll bring him in just a minute."
That worked well enough. He took some time to tug off Kenobi's boots before bringing him to bed. Luke had piled all of the blankets at the foot of the bed, and insisted on tucking in each one individually. Then Luke settled himself down in the middle of the bed, which was good: he'd act as a living buffer when Kenobi woke up. He stripped himself of his heavy armor and gloves, but stopped at the thermal underlayer. Luke didn't need to see his scars.
Luke was staring anyway. "And robot legs?"
"I tried to get up and go after him after he'd cut off my arms," he said, as an explanation.
"Oh," said Luke. "That was stupid."
"It really was," he agreed.
"You're better now, okay?"
"Most days," he said. "Come on. Time to sleep."
"I love you."
"I love you too, Luke."
It took Luke, who was up hours past his usual bedtime and had just been through the emotional wringer, about two seconds to go to sleep. It didn't take him much longer, but for almost exactly the opposite reason: he was still going through the wringer, and would need a lot of sleep to deal with it.
He woke up, hours later, because Kenobi had said, "Mist on Mortis," which was an old clone wars code and meant, more or less, "Wake up and tell me I'm not hallucinating."
"You're not hallucinating," he said, and, "Luke wanted to make sure he'd be there when you woke up. I know you tend to wake up hot, so."
"Is he okay?" asked Kenobi.
"He will be. We were both catatonic for a while and he had no idea what to do. He's sleeping it off. Which you should be as well."
"I - yeah. I will. I just. That was. I'm so, so sorry, Anakin."
"Such coherence," he said. "We'll talk in the morning. Okay?"
Kenobi gave in. "Okay. Goodnight, Anakin."
In the morning, Luke was wrapped around him, and Kenobi was a lot closer. Not touching, exactly, because even unconscious the man had insane self-control; but close enough for there to be an awareness.
"Seven hundred on the clock," he said. "Kenobi."
The was enough. Kenobi opened his eyes, focused on the white-painted ceiling, and said, "Last night actually happened."
"Last night always actually happened," he said.
"You know what I meant."
He did. "Feel better?"
"Still sleeping. I was going to let him."
Kenobi sat up and nodded. "We should talk."
It wasn't as simple as that. Luke was clingy, even still mostly asleep, and it took time and assurances that he'd only be in the other room to get him to let go. Even then, Luke kept pinging him, just little checks through the Force. He sent back warmth and love and reassurances; it was a welcome enough distraction. Kenobi, meanwhile, made tea for himself and kaff doctored with a splash of milk only.
He sat down and drank it. It was good-quality, almost absurdly perfect, and he sipped a little at a time, savoring. He was halfway through the mug before he said, "You're the one who wanted to talk."
"I. I don't quite know what I'm supposed to say. Sorry doesn't quite seem to cut it."
"I didn't know either," he said.
"And that makes it all right? It's been a decade. It needed to be about a week."
"Somewhat more than that, I suspect," he said. "I needed to learn, oh, any number of things."
"But a decade?"
"No. Not a decade." He drank more kaff. "But given the things I was doing, it wasn't unreasonable to take the twins and run. I. Will you tell me? How Padmé died? I was told it was Separatists, but I don't really believe that."
"Collapsed trachea. While giving birth. She forced herself to live long enough to see them into the world."
"So it was me."
"New rule: you're only allowed to apologize for things that were actually your fault."
"I'm sorry that I didn't think to check her using the Force instead of a twenty-year-old medical droid. They didn't have deep-tissue scanners; I would have found it, we could have intubated - "
"Why? You never have."
He didn't bother asking; of course Kenobi would have figured that out. "Active versus passive failures. I took an action that I knew I really shouldn't have while I was doing it. You failed to take an action, and it wasn't an obvious course of action, either. Not for someone used to top-of-the-line Coruscanti medical droids."
"But that's my point! I went for the most out-of-the-way place I could get to in the time I had, I should have considered - "
Kenobi took a gulp of tea. "I will if you will."
"I can't not regret - "
"No. But stop blaming yourself; if he'd wanted to, you really think Palpatine couldn't have helped her?"
"Yes," agreed Kenobi, his point made.
He closed his eyes. "It was my choice, though. They were all my choices. I refuse to just dump all responsibility on Palpatine."
Kenobi dropped his head, looking at his tea, but not before he caught the edge of a smile.
"I remember telling you to sleep more times than I can count because you wouldn't let anyone else take responsibility for some of the work. Even if it was work they could do. Even if it was work they wanted to do."
"So it figures you wouldn't be able to separate blame and responsibility."
He couldn't help his answering chuckle. "Fine. We'll blame Palpatine, and accept responsibility for the things we did or - or failed to do. I don't think there's anything to do about the regret."
"Agreed." Kenobi sipped again. "So it looks like I am going to spend a lot of the morning meditating. What about you?"
"I have reading to do."
"Tangent sent over a human child psychology book."
"Send it over to me too, please."
The book was hard to read. Not in a technical way: it'd been pretty clearly written for a lay audience of parents who wanted to do a good job with their children. He just had to keep putting it down to go hyperventilate about how basically the entire Jedi concept of proper childcare read like the 'don'ts' list out of the book. After a while, he got up to find Tangent. She'd vanished again, though, so he was stuck with Jay.
"You might as well tell me," said Jay. "At the least, I can't hurt. At best, maybe I can help."
"What would you possibly know about the topic?"
"I was raised by a man who saw me more as a tool than as a person," said Jay. "I know something of paternal figures who are terrible at it. At least in your case, they were attempting not to fuck it up."
"Yeah, all right," he said, and explained.
It took a while. Jay waited patiently for him to finish talking, but every time he thought he was done, he found another thing. Finally, he did wind down. Jay said, "Okay, you want my opinion?"
"Yes." Why else would he have done that?
"Two things," said Jay. "One: you need to forgive Kenobi, at least a little. He was grieving, and from what I understand about Jedi, their entire approach to grieving is the same certifiable repressive insanity I was taught. It took Tangent actual years to train me out of it. On top of that, he was doing his best, but he only knew how to deal with Jedi children, which you weren't. It probably never occurred to him to read up on how normal children act, or express individuality.
"Two: you need skin time with your clade. When Tan and I first started - we weren't raised together. She was much healthier than I was, except for when she wasn't, but we both had trust issues. It took us a long time to figure out that skin time was important. Take my advice. Talk to them."
"Nudity helps," said Jay, "but isn't an absolute requirement. Skin-to-skin contact is."
"Hmm," he said, but sent out a ping to ask Kenobi to come find him, when convenient.
It wasn't until late that evening. After the first twenty minutes he gave up and went back to playing with kybers, and actually did make some progress on that. Dinner, which took place at a table in the general mess, included Luke and Kenobi and Tano and Dogma, and was a loud affair. Then Luke wanted to show him what he'd learned in 'saber practice that day. He did so very enthusiastically for half an hour before he wound down, and accepted a suggestion that he shower before bed. Luke liked showering, too, but after that refused to sleep in favor of sitting on the couch, sleepily watching him tinker with the new lightsaber casing. Eventually, though, his son did list sideways and doze off.
"So, that book - " began Kenobi.
"Kenobi, I - " he started at the same time.
They both stopped, met each other's eyes. Kenobi took a deep breath. "I owe you an apology."
"Ten years long," said Kenobi.
"Ten? Try a thousand."
"That was not my fault," said Kenobi, daring him to challenge that statement.
"Not only," he sighed. "But you're not innocent, either. I wonder if Tangent actually did have it printed out hardcopy."
Kenobi smiled. "Wait until I'm there. This, I want to watch."
"Fair," he said. "I - don't want to talk about grief."
"We need to talk about grief," he said, "And how we've - both - been doing it wrong our entire lives."
"Oh," said Kenobi. He seemed to be debating something internally.
"Tell me," he demanded.
"If it were just me, I would," said Kenobi. "It's not. I'll ask, and that's the best I can promise."
"There is a word for people who think they have a right to make decisions for other people," said Kenobi.
"Yes," he admitted.
"I'm going to meditate before bed. You can join me, or not."
"Not," he said.
"Then get some sleep."
He shrugged. It wasn't like he had something important to do, in the morning.
He dreamed, that night. He didn't, as a rule: he'd had screaming nightmares until he'd figured out lucid dreaming enough to never do it. Since then sleep was a lot less terrible unless it was a Padmé night, in which case it was always more terrible even though the only thing she ever did was sit quietly and sometimes cry. But this was less a nightmare and more someone knocking politely on the edges of his mind, so he opened up enough to go check who it was.
He'd dreamed of Qui-gon before, in his first few years as a Jedi, but never since Empire Day. Reflexively, he reached out to push, the same way he pushed phantom Windus away. And Kenobis and Tanos and regrets, although he suspected he'd have fewer of those dreams now. He met resistance, a presence in the Force that was actually palpable. The realization brought him screaming back to consciousness, and it was six hundred already, so he sighed and meditated instead of going back to sleep. Qui-gon was still there, waiting patiently.
"You know, if you're just going to smile at me creepily," he began.
"Creepy, is it?" said Qui-gon, and then faded. He felt vaguely irritated, like he hadn't wanted to fade and was doing so anyway, and he'd wanted to have a conversation, damn it!
He opened his eyes, and asked Kenobi about it at breakfast.
"Really?" said Kenobi. "That was fast. It took me months to figure out how to perceive him. But you always did rush ahead."
" . . . I don't think I did," he said, thinking of the way he'd never been able to make himself push Padmé away. "Actually. Will he be back again later?"
"Sometime," said Kenobi. "Eventually. It's . . . I think it is difficult, to appear to a conscious mind. It will probably be months, fair warning."
"Noted," he said. He wanted to go back to sleep immediately, which was stupid because, one, she didn't show up on any kind of schedule and, two, he had other things to be doing. Those other things were important, too, so he ate his sweet roll and drank his kaff and went to do them.
In the afternoon, he threw the childcare book at Yoda. Tangent had printed it out, a shocking waste of plast, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. It would have been more satisfying if Yoda had argued, defended himself, done anything other than sit there and take it. He threw his hands up in disgust after only ten minutes. Jay was waiting to challenge him to spar, because Jay was not an idiot. By the time they were done with that, he was calm enough to sit down and work on kybers some more.
In the background, Jay was explaining some of the finer Vader-wrangling techniques to Slick, who was grinning the depraved smile of someone who was very pleased with themselves. Tano had Luke in her lap, and the Force was practically humming with their meditation. Kenobi was also meditating, but in a different direction entirely. Yoda was reading the book, and crying silent tears; Luke was trying to comfort him. This, he realized suddenly, was what the Temple was supposed to have been: a huge silent collaboration of friends and equals, not a tomb filled with living ghosts.
Possibly, for the Jedi who'd been raised there - the Jedi who'd been accepted there - it had been. The anger tried to well up, old and worn, and he refused it. The Jedi would never have let him have Luke, and would never have accepted Luke, either. He'd have had to have left anyway. He regretted the way this had happened, but he could never regret his children's happiness.
"Boo," said Tangent, in his ear, then jumped back a full two meters to avoid his retaliation, cackling as she went.
"Where have you been?" he demanded, only slightly mollified that she'd brought food for all of them.
"Slicing. Tracking down more conspecifics. Potential conspecifics. I . . . there is no one left, who you knew back then. I had to look further afield." She frowned. "Assuming they don't try to kill you, they could be good for you."
"Billaba died during Sixty-six," said Tangent. "She shielded her padawan with her body. He ran fast, and hid well, and sank deep roots. He's not going to divorce his wife any more than you would have, or abandon the people who have become his family. I'm not sure they're even willing to parlay, even. They've met a lot of Inquisitors."
"Fuckers," he said.
"Language!" called Luke, without breaking meditation.
"But if you want to meet them," continued Tangent, "I'll send a comm."
He stared. "No. Thanks, but. If someone else got out - found balance, got out, I'm not going to destabilize it." Then he paused, and added, "How many Inquisitors?"
It took him a moment to figure out she hadn't said, 'two,' and another to realize it meant she had to have dug up the Ghosts. He clenched his jaw, blew out a long breath. "Could they use any help? Materiel, I mean."
Tangent smiled. "Authorize the funds. I'll send the comm. The other option is a couple of anti-Empire agitators from Lothal, Ephraim and Mari Bridger. They have a son Luke's age, and it will be good for both boys. And for you, to have a couple of random citizens to explain the normal everyday viewpoint."
"Are they alive?" Usually the empire executed traitors.
"Alive but imprisoned."
"You have their release orders?"
"Waiting to be signed. And a comm, making them the offer."
He nodded. "Now tell me what you're not telling me."
She smiled. "You're learning. Ezra and Luke have more in common than being ten-year-old boys raised in the rougher parts of the galaxy. When he gets there, Ezra will need a teacher. I was thinking Tano."
" - oh."
"But not without his parents, obviously."
"Forward me the comm," he said. "I'll personalize it."
So that was pretty good. The work on his new kyber was proceeding apace, although he was still failing to get kybers that only conducted below four hundred nanometers. Luke's work on learning how to use a lightsaber was going pretty well, considering that Luke was more interested in how to fix people's insides than how to damage them. He sat down to figure out how he felt about that, and realised that the shame and regret were because he'd killed all the healers so there was no one left to teach Luke; under that, he was happy that Luke was a healer. He sighed, and called up some texts on Republic and Imperial law, and tried to distract himself with asking dead people questions by way of Yoda.
It only sort of worked. He'd never been a politician, not interested in legalities and precedent and elections and limitations of rights; and this wasn't the lightest of reading. The transition from Republic to Empire had been a thirty-year slide, and he'd only become involved in the last three of them: far too late to ever have seen the Republic as it should have been, too late to do anything about it even if he had. Sidious had run the galaxy like his personal puppet stage for years, planned contingencies on contingencies until even his own agents were armed to the teeth and waiting to kill each other.
He just hadn't planned on Luke or Leia. Kenobi had, at least, done well there.
It took him almost five days to get past the terrible stage of having to force himself to read and absorb information. That was one of the longer timeframes; even Sith lore was more interesting than this. But he read, and took careful notes. Slowly, began to build a picture of what laws Sidious has changed, what protections he'd removed, how he'd broken the Republic.
He shouldn't have been surprised to find that it went back further than that, much further, hundreds of years. Sidious had been the end of a long line of Sith, and that line had been preparing since it went into hiding during the Ruusan Reformation. It wasn't nice, but it was effective. He wasn't going to be able to do this alone.
He managed to work himself up to asking, and it only took another day and a half. "Kenobi."
They were in more-or-less private, resting after an open spar which had left Jay stripping as he left the mats to go join Tangent. He understood it, now: he'd love to be able to curl up inside of someone else like that, soul to soul, but the only person who'd ever really wanted him was dead. He was stuck with just asking Kenobi awkward questions, while Yoda didn't even pretend he wasn't listening.
"Ani," said Kenobi.
"When we get to Coruscant, I am going to dissolve the Senate." Kenobi opened his mouth to protest, so he quickly continued. "Pending senatorial elections. Real, true, neutral elections, as there haven't been anywhere in Republic space for at least five hundred years. I've been reading up."
"Did you know it used to be illegal for individual entities to contribute to campaign funds? Corporate or private, it didn't matter - each candidate got the same amount of money from a central pot, and that was it. The Senate changed the law centuries ago, after a proposal put forward by then-senator Orn Tik, an iridonian human.
"Orn Tik's other name was Darth Ramage."
"Show me," demanded Kenobi.
"Not everything," he replied, immediately. "I'll show you the diaries in translation, but not the originals; they are Sith artifacts. You read them, they read you back," he added as an explanation. "Unless you know enough of the Dark to stop them doing it."
Kenobi stared, then straightened up and said, "Show me."
"If you like," he said.
It was only another few days after that when Kenobi looked up from writing out Sith runes and said, "Is your skin done integrating?"
He blinked, looked up from from the Imperial law he'd been reading, and rubbed his eyes. "What?"
"Your skin. Have you stopped processing heat as pain?"
"I don't know," he said. "Pressure is coming across properly now, so I suppose it's worth a shot."
"And thermals," he replied.
Kenobi tilted his head. "How much of that suit do you need to wear?"
"I'm not taking off my body amor, Kenobi."
"But you can," persisted Kenobi.
"Answer is still no."
"Not even for, uh. Skin time?"
He stopped. "Here? Now?"
"It's safe enough." Jay and Slick were doing one their spars-with-flirting. Tano was in the infirmary, with Luke and possibly Tangent. Or possibly she was being creepy somewhere else, and had taken Dogma with her.
"It's kind of indecent in public," he said.
"You're the Emperor. You get to decide what indecent looks like. Besides, didn't Tangent say more people, not fewer?"
"Clade," he said. "Hey, Jay!"
Jay and Slick both ignored him in favor of finishing the form, but after that they did stop and wander over. "What's up?" asked Jay.
"Mm. I'm not sure Basic has a word. Family and clan and - the people who are your home."
"Oh," said Yoda.
"But the Jedi Order wouldn't have been a clade, would it?" he asked. "Too big."
"Too big, too determined to not understand the difference between love and attachment." Jay hesitated, and then added, "I'm not really the person to ask. I'm kind of nuts about the difference between love and attachment, too."
"Fuck you in the eye with a rusty spoon," said Jay, cheerfully.
Things probably would have escalated if Kenobi hadn't asked, "Two is also too small. You and Tangent have other clade."
"Oh, sure," said Jay. "Not here."
"More Blacklit?" asked Kenobi.
"Some of them," said Jay.
"I thought there were only two of you," he said.
"In this galaxy," agreed Jay.
He blinked. "Orthogonal travel . . . "
"Sure, if you can handle the side effects," said Jay. "Sometimes you end up inside-out on the other end. We can handle that. You can't."
"Inside-out?" asked Slick.
"Blacklit," said Jay, holding up his hands. "We were made to last."
"Why?" asked Kenobi.
Jay shrugged. "Sometimes, the question that is never asked is, 'why not?'"
"Understood," he said, even though he desperately wanted to know the story there. "Do you - skin time - with anyone else in your clade?"
"Some of them don't like it," said Jay. "Everyone else, yes, when we see each other. But Tan and I saved each other first, and we're still closest. You should, you know."
"The only lie Kenobi ever told was to himself," said Jay. "Even I can see that. You must know it."
He closed his eyes, breathed. Jay was great for telling him truths he'd neglected to understand, and he was going to miss that kind of forthright honesty. He opened his eyes. "Thank you."
"You don't have to actually go full-frontal nudity," said Jay. "I need that, but I think it would drive you up the fucking walls. Start with an arm. Slick!"
"Yeah!" called Slick, and a moment later they headed off. To their credit, they always cleaned up after themselves when there were done in the showers.
"An arm, huh?" asked Kenobi.
He responded by popping the catches on his left arm.
It turned out that his skin still wasn't registering heat properly, but it was no longer pain. It was, instead, itchy. The test lasted only a few minutes before he said, "Okay, you have to stop before I start scratching myself bloody."
"Itchy just means it's healing," said Kenobi. He didn't know why. They'd both healed enough to know what itchy meant. Kenobi added, "It shouldn't still be healing, should it?"
"I have no damned idea," he said.
Kenobi nodded, and let it drop.
With him, anyway. Tangent showed up a couple of days later, prodded him mercilessly, took another blood sample, and then left. "What was that about?"
"You're not supposed to still be healing," said Luke. "Something about improper neural connections. I think she's going to ask the trees about it."
"The . . . trees."
Luke nodded. "They're kind of hard to understand, at first, but - " he didn't hear the rest. He was already sprinting for the lifts.
Tangent was, at least, in the 'ponics lab. She was holding a seedling up to her head, and one tender rootlet was resting on tongue. He'd had to carve his way in, because the door lock did not want to let anyone who wasn't Blacklit into the room. His own overrides hadn't worked.
"What the hell?" he demanded, holding his blade in ready stance but not - yet - attacking.
Tangent glanced at him. The rootlet curled back. "Symbionts."
"I'm surprised you didn't put the pieces together earlier."
"Tangent. What do the trees get out of this arrangement?"
"On an individual basis, not much," said Tangent. "As a collective . . . well, this colony is much too small to be sapient; but when you're a bunch of trees, having someone who is mobile and willing to share experiences and do you favors? Is worth acting as external memory and computational power."
"You were asking them a question."
"If a piece of information is useful enough, the lifthrasir can move it from chemical to genetic memory. They have a lot of genetic memory. I'm not a doctor, or geneticist, or even a botanist. I'm more of an access terminal."
He nodded, and put away his 'saber. "Who made them? How? Why?"
"In order: a woman by the name of Eily, by turning herself into the very first one, because she wanted to change the world. It worked, more or less. Lifthrasir are capable of terraforming entire planets, in addition to providing food and water and shelter for everyone, and are also a fantastic database of everything ever. I was asking why your skin hasn't integrated yet. It should have. There isn't an answer, which means it is probably midichlorians again."
"Okay," he said, and took a breath. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"No point," said Tangent. "It's not like a dreaming prenatal lifthrasir mind is anything other than friendly - puppyish, even - and this colony will die when I leave."
"Luke said he could talk to them."
"He could what?" But she wasn't actually asking for an answer. She was preparing to smash someone into next week for not telling her something important, and the person in question was not him. She lifted the plant again, and stuck a leaf in her mouth.
She pulled back. "Oh, that asshole."
"No, Luke's a bundle of sunshine and joy," said Tangent. "I regret to inform you that someone has been using your genome to reverse-engineer Force sensitivity, which neither of us authorized. I swear, the next time I see him, I'm going to punch him; but the damage has already been done. On a related note, this particular colony of lifthrasir now have some ability to support midichlorians, and it's getting better as they parse out what the genes do."
"They can do that?"
"Rewrite their genomes on the fly?" asked Tangent.
"How else do you suppose they put data into genetic memory? I'm just upset because stealing people's genomes is not an acceptable method of gene mining!"
He paused. "Does it mean I can talk to them?"
"If you like," said Tangent. "They don't have enough neuron between the whole lab of them to outthink a nematode, much less have a conversation, but you're welcome to try."
He turned around and tried. After a few minutes, he opened his eyes and said, "Puppyish."
"Lifthrasir like to help. It's hardcoded into them." Tangent shrugged. "I apologize for this: I owe you a debt."
"Does this debt extend to explaining who made you, and why?"
"Same person who is currently mining your genome for Force-sensitivity. He's called the Black. As to why," Tangent sighed. "To his credit, he recognized fairly early on that he is totally devoid of anything even resembling a conscience, and made the decision to surround himself with people who could do that for him. Be that for him. He just didn't ask first. See: lacks any form of intrinsic conscience."
"Blacklit," he said.
"How is training him to have morals going?"
"Some days better than others. It's not unethical to gene mine bacteria for efficient antibiotics, or plants for the ability to put more vitamins into foods, or shrimps for ultraviolet-sensing proteins to put in retinas. He doesn't see why it is unethical to gene-mine sapient people for similar useful properties."
"Sounds like an interesting person," he said. "I assume it's SOP for someone to orbitally lance any facilities on the way out?"
"He works mostly through viruses," said Tangent. "It's safest to just disintegrate the place when he's done. Fewer accidental galactic outbreaks of inadvertently deadly diseases."
I've been responsible for a lot of deaths. Saving lives is a kind of penance, for me. Later, they dwarf yours by at least an order of magnitude.
"Oh. But you were at least always trying to help."
"You do the good that is in front of you," said Tangent.
"I am so glad you didn't say 'do or do not.' I think I'd have had to have taken the lightsaber back out if you had said, 'Do or do not.'"
"That is always what happens anyway," said Tangent. "If you're going to say that to Yoda, wait until I'm present, please. I want to watch him have the aneurism."
He laughed. "Will do."
Kenobi was waiting outside the door. So was Luke.
"How much of that did you hear?"
"None," said Kenobi. "Why? Was there shouting?"
"Only at first," he said. "I learned some things. Luke, why were you trying to talk to Tangent's trees?"
"They give me good dreams," said Luke. "It's nice. I wanted to say thank you."
He met Kenobi's eyes. Kenobi said, "Do we think they're dangerous?"
"No," he said, and began walking toward their quarters. "Not to children. I apologise for running off like that, Luke. I thought Tangent might have been lying in a way that was dangerous to you."
Luke considered this. "That's silly. Tangent is good."
"Good people can still do terrible things," he said. "And she was lying."
"Was she?" asked Kenobi.
"A lie of omission is still a lie."
Kenobi sighed, but conceded the point. "What in particular was she lying about?"
"How Force-sensitive they'd be if they weren't being Force-null. The answer is almost certainly on the low end of human-normal."
Kenobi shrugged. "You can't call it a bad thing. Not if it meant you couldn't mind-rip her; not if it led to this."
"What's mind-rip?" asked Luke.
"Something you will never do to another person," he said. "Remember what Tangent said about looking inside of people? It's like that, but instead of just looking, it's like forcing your way in and stealing things from inside other people."
"Oh," said Luke. "No. I won't. I promise. I - that's scary. Do people do that?"
"The first emperor did," he said. "I did."
"I'm not a good person, Luke," he said. It was better that Luke know this now, well ahead of people telling him things Darth Vader had done.
"Nope," said Luke, but it wasn't the blank negation of a ten-year-old. "Like you said. You're a good person, but you did bad things. Now you do good things."
He stared at his son. "I'm trying," he whispered.
Later, during their nightly positive-physical-touch-after-Luke-is-sleeping, Kenobi said, "I - how long have the Sith been in control of the Senate?"
"Not in control," he said. "A long slow slide into the dark, with Sith greasing the way."
"As near as I could tell? Since only fifty years or so after the Ruusan Reformation. As soon as Darth Zannah picked her apprentice, who was no one the Senate would recognise."
Kenobi winced. "You're right," he said, finally. "The Senate as it is now is Sidious' creation. It needs to be dissolved and built again from the elections up. Real elections. But you know a lot of people who won't like how heavy-handed you're going to have to be."
He said, "Yes."
Kenobi sighed. "I don't like it."
"Do you have a better idea?"
"Mm." Kenobi continued to stroke the hydraulics in his shins. "I'm terrible at diplomacy. I think I'll be able to get Organa and maybe even Ackbar on side, but Orn Free Taa and the Banking Clan . . . "
"Ani. If you're asking a question, ask."
"I don't need High General Kenobi," he said. "I can do that myself. I need the Negotiator. There will be some fighting, but I think, if I make the right parts of this data public, I think there does not have to be a war. A brawl, maybe. Can I ask your help in keeping it to only a brawl?"
"Ani. I'm with you."
"Thank you," he said. "We can start putting together the press docket in the morning."
The press docket was terrible, a week solid of pounding his head against politics, which he hated, and probable galactic opinion, which hated him. Kenobi knew what he was doing, and surprisingly Tano and Tangent stepped in to help. Tano had the perspective of someone who'd been on the Alliance side almost from the beginning, and good documentation of some of the more egregious atrocities the Empire had committed. Tangent had an ability to tell amazing lies while only speaking the exact truth.
Tano and Yoda and Kenobi all picked up on it. He got the sense Yoda actually asked, because the next morning the little troll was disgruntled and Tangent had the particular gleam in her eye that she got from baiting the old master. Tano had a thoughtful look. He decided he didn't want to know.
On the last few days before they reached Coruscant, he finally finished a kyber that performed to spec and set about making a 'saber to house it. He put the thing together in a single six-hour working meditation, then called Jay and Kenobi and Yoda for a spar. Having two 'sabers that he couldn't see upped the difficulty, but in both directions. It went on for fifteen minutes, and even then it was to find that they two of them had finally managed to win against the diminutive green master. He tucked the 'saber away in his arm and offered a hand up.
"Well done," said Yoda, slowly walking back to the observation platform. "Well done indeed."
"Unreal," said Slick.
"Wizard," agreed Luke. "Am I going to learn to do that?"
"If you like," he said. "It takes a lot of practice, though."
"Drills forever," he confirmed.
Luke sighed. "I kind of thought being a prince would be more interesting."
"It's better than vaporator maintenance, though," he said.
"Dad! Everything is better than vaporators."
"It's up to you if you want to do this, or put the time into other things you enjoy more," said Kenobi. "But remember, a lightsaber is a weapon. It can only ever be a weapon."
"How were you even doing that?" asked Slick.
"I told you, I only look like a human," said Jay.
"Look and act," said Slick, leering a bit.
Jay looked at him, and said, "Okay, yeah. Just let me shower."
"I don't think I'm ever going to understand that relationship," said Dogma, watching them go.
"It's good, though," said Luke. "He's not as, um, eggshells, as he was when you got here."
"Yeah, that's a good way to put it." Dogma swallowed. "What are we going to do when he leaves?
"He won't go back to being eggshells," said Luke. "Now Slick has us, and - and understands how to not be like that. What he needs."
"Another thing to be grateful for, then," said Tano.
"As soon as they're done, I'm going to take a shower," he said. "In the meantime, though - would it be completely inappropriate to hug you?"
"You're wearing armor," said Tano.
"I don't want armor bruises," said Tano, before opening her arms. "You'd better not squeeze too hard."
He probably squeezed too hard anyway. When he pulled back, he said, "There is armor on this ship, you know. If you wanted some."
"Armor?" asked Tano, wrinkling her nose. "Me? I wouldn't be fast enough!"
Fast enough for what, he didn't ask. "Not at first, but - Snips, you're not on your own anymore." He wasn't hunting Jedi anymore. "It only takes a few weeks, and then you learn to compensate."
"I'll think about it," said Tano, which was the best he could get, he supposed.
They emerged from hyperspace to find the Corus system absolutely packed, the Empire waiting with bated breath to see what the emperor had to say.
"Ah," he said, staring down at the planet. From orbit, it twinkled.
From the surface, the grimy patina of Sidious' corruption was everywhere, from the soot-blackened streets to the boarded-up businesses. It clung, slimily, to the walls of the building now called the Palace which had once been the Jedi Temple. Two dozen stormtroopers came to attention as he walked in the great atrium.
Unsurprisingly, there was an immediate attempt by two of Sidious' Hands to assassinate him. Jay, and Yoda, who'd been riding Jay's shoulders, were both moving by the time the first shots were fired. One assassin went down to Yoda's green blade almost immediately. Seconds later, the other one went down to Jay. Yoda had killed his target. Jay, sensibly, had merely disarmed his.
"This place is a killing ground," said Jay, offhanded.
"Yes," agreed Yoda sadly.
"We're not staying." He turned to look at the rest of the Emperor's Own. "Anyone else want to give it a try?"
No one did. He took a breath and looked deeper, down and out. The wellspring under the Temple had flipped dark, the bad kind of dark, tangled in blood and hate. It was never meant to be only of the light, but he could at least clean it up a little. Gently, like coaxing a sunny-side up egg out of the pan, he rolled up the blood magic and picked it up and set it on fire. It fought, of course, clawing for a way to continue, but he held it steady as it burned as the smoke was ripped to shreds which dissipated into the spring.
"Okay," he said. "We're done. "
"You - don't want to tour the palace? Sir?" asked one of the troopers.
"We came to spring a trap and do some cleanup. Trap sprung. Cleanup - " He paused. "If there are any bodies remaining, give them a pyre and spread the ashes in the Room of a Thousand Fountains." It was the most fitting burial he could think of, for those children he'd murdered once upon a time. He gestured to the remaining assassin. "And have him sent up to the Conquest. I'll want to ask some questions."
Yoda said, "Here I will remain. Study I must."
He tilted his head. "If you like." To the guards, he said, "Yoda has the run of the place. Assist him with his requests, if he has any."
His next stop was the Senate dome, where another Hand tried to kill him. Jay didn't even have time to light his 'saber before he'd dispatched that one, and then decapitated - her. The Coruscant guard was staring at him in shock. He sighed. "Are they all going to come out like this?"
"There's such a thing as a Force compulsion," said Jay.
"There's - and it didn't occur to you to tell me this earlier?"
He turned back to the stormtroopers. "Burn the body. See if there are family on file; if there are, pay her pension out to them."
The Senate Dome was packed, not just senators but anyone who could get a seat in one of the hoverpods. In the background, the huge air filter mechanisms were at work, making sure everyone had enough oxygen. He looked at them until they quieted. "Three people have tried to kill me today. Does anyone want to try for a fourth?"
Not surprisingly, someone did. With a blaster. He didn't move; Jay caught it on the edge of his 'saber, made visible for an instant before the energy cycled back and the blast was shot exactly back on its former track. There was a cry as someone was hit.
"Arrest that assassin," he said. The Coruscant guard began moving in.
"This is Sergeant Slick," he continued. "He follows me around with standing orders to stab me in the back if I go too insane."
"This is Jay. He's only here until his nav finishes computing his exit vector. Say hi, Jay."
" . . . hi," said Jay.
"I am Emperor Vader," he finished. "And emperors, as I have been unambiguously learning, get to change things. Therefore: this Senate is dissolved. You who were appointed by Emperor Palpatine have no right to represent the peoples and planets you represent. There will be elections, true and fair and legal as elections haven't been for centuries, or I will know why. There is a press docket, which contains instructions; I sent it to every major press outlet and also your 'pods. Read it. Go home. Convince your people, if you can, that you deserve your seats. Or don't. A new Senate will reconvene in a year's time. That's all."
"You can't do that!" cried someone.
He scanned the crowd, found the offender. "Orn Free Taa. A month ago, I personally strangled Jabba the Hutt to death. I can do whatever I want, and what I want is for you. To answer. To the people of Ryloth." He paused, then added, "If you do not make it to Ryloth, I will track you down, and you will die a very unpleasant death. Do I make myself clear?"
Orn Free Taa gulped, and said, "Alumina."
"Good. This Senate is dissolved. One year. Election. Go."
He stood there, waiting, while the Dome emptied. It took hours, but he wasn't bored: he dialed the helmet's HUD and watched as the news tried to grapple with the fact that the new Emperor wanted an effective Senate. Also that apparently Yoda was in the Imperial Palace, which meant the Purges were no longer in place. Also also, Vader had plastered a millennium-long slide to the fall of the Republic all over the news, and annotated it with all the ways each step was illegal under the pre-Ruusan laws. Finally, the Alliance to Restore the Republic formally declared a cease-fire with regards to Vader. It wasn't support, but it was much more than Palpatine had ever gotten.
Once the Dome was finally empty, he decided that he did have one more thing to do after all, and went to Monument Plaza. The monuments had once been as diverse as the peoples of the Republic; now, they were dedicated to various Imperial military figures. To cap it all, an immense statue of Palpatine presided from one end of the vast space, dwarfing even the Imperial statues. He looked at it, then tilted his head. It was big, yes, but the balance was impossible unless it was also hollow.
He pulled, and then pulled a little harder, and then people began to notice as the statue, slowly but inexorably, tilted further than its internal cantilevers could compensate. Further than anything short of a capital tractor beam could compensate. Then it was falling under gravity, and he could stop pulling on it and begin working on the statue of Tarkin.
It took some time, and was probably more effort than he should have spent, but each statue's fall invigorated him, made it that much easier to pull down the next, until the dust from the last was settling. "Get rid of them."
"My lord?" asked one of the troopers guarding him.
"Get rid of them," he repeated. "Find out what was done with the memorials which were already here, and restore them. This place is supposed to be a monument to the strength of diversity, not the glories of imperial conquest."
The news, for the first time in a decade free to run their own stories, were cautiously running an attempt at a biography of him that evening. It was hilarious, because pretty much all that was known about Darth Vader was that he'd appeared just after Empire Day, was very good with a lightsaber, and until recently, had been fanatically loyal to Emperor Palpatine. The boldest of the networks was even broadcasting a list of confirmed kills which had to have been compiled by the Alliance. None of them had any good theory as to why he'd killed Palpatine. Some of them were daytime-holodrama levels of terrible.
"That's amazing," said Slick, snickering, about the one which was suggesting that he was just a murderous madman, and after assassinating planetary leaders and Jedi the only way to go up was to the emperor.
"Not untrue, though," he replied.
"Anyone who thinks you're just a killer deserves what is going to happen to them," said Slick. "Maybe if all you'd done was kill Palpatine, but after taking and holding the Empire?"
"Mm," he said.
"After getting Bail on-side," said Tano.
"He's not on-side; he's watching. Just like everyone else."
"Ah-huh," said Tano. "Is it - can I ask what happened, to make you Fall in the first place?"
He blinked. Tano and Slick and Dogma hadn't been there for that part, but he'd thought Kenobi or Yoda had told her. Apparently not. "Precognition at the worst possible time. I knew Padmé was going to die in childbirth, and instead of doing the logical thing and insisting on an immediate abortion, I tried to stop it with the Force."
"The Force doesn't work like that," said Tano.
"No. Palpatine lied." He shrugged. "What else is new?"
"Huh," said Slick, and, "That explains everything but Kenobi."
"Kenobi is here to keep Luke safe," he said.
"Why he forgave you," clarified Slick.
This was new to him. "He did?"
Slick said, "I hate that helmet. Are you up for sparring?"
"With you?" he said, doubtfully.
"I'm never going to be able to beat you in an unfair fight if we don't," said Slick, which was a point.
"First thing tomorrow morning," he said.
Luke was bright-eyed in the morning, watching the two of them with intense focus. Slick wasn't bad, but he was very obviously not a Jedi. He kept having to pull his blows; or at least he did until Slick said, "Stop going easy on me." He immediately beat Slick six times in rapid succession. Slick was lining up for a seventh when the ship alarms went off.
"Oh what now," said Dogma, from where he was sitting at the little raised area. It had acquired cushions and a permanent low table. Kenobi was already dialing the helm to see what was up.
"Vader," said Kenobi a moment later, voice still and flat and utterly terrified. "Get Jay and Tangent. Get them now."
A short while later, the eight of them - Yoda was still in the ex-palace ex-ex-Temple - stood on the bridge and stared at a holoprojection. It was only a sixteen light-minutes away, and this close to Coruscant, the entire thing had immediately been blanketed by the local sensor array. It wasn't a trick: everyone had sent out ships to check it wasn't a clever bit of hypernode warfare, and it wasn't. "Tangent," he said. "What am I looking at?"
For a long moment, he thought she wasn't going to answer. Not because she didn't know, but because . . . and there was no hiding this. Not from him, and not from anyone connected to the HoloNet. "That," said Tangent, "is the RBN Zodiac-class heavy supercarrier Outside Context Solution."
He looked at the holograph, which was turning gently. "It's a planet," he stated.
"With a hyperdrive."
"Ansible orthogonal drive."
"Someone hollowed out a planet and built a drive - "
"The power reactors and drive systems were built first, and the rest of the planet assembled around them," said Tangent.
He blinked, glad he had the mask to cover his sagging jaw. Every word in the sentence made sense, and so did the sentence itself, but the things it implied . . . "There was never any chance we could have beaten you, was there?"
"No," she said, not unkindly. "But this way, Palpatine didn't even attempt to throw half the galactic population into a pissing war. Close your mouth, you'll catch flies."
"So this is it," said Kenobi. "The other boot."
"Mm, no," said Tangent. "The Solution is a diplomatic ship."
"Once again," he said. "Planet."
"Well. Some people only respond to aggressive negotiations."
"Right," he said decisively. "How do I surrender?"
"Um," said Tangent. "You wait for the Black to send a shuttle, and surrender when he gets here. Back up a few steps. Why are you surrendering?"
"There's an extra planet in orbit around Corus, and it's a capital ship. There is no way we can fight against someone who can field a planet."
"Zodiac is a ship class, too," said Tano, faintly. "There's more than one of them. Aren't there?"
He dearly wished he could pinch the bridge of his nose like Kenobi was. "Exactly. Surrender."
"But - " Jay held up a hand, and Tangent stopped talking.
"The thing you're missing," said Jay, "is that it's not here for conquest. It's thirty, thirty-five percent here as a show of force. The Black will accept a surrender, but if he hasn't asked - and you'd know if he'd asked - he doesn't require it. Mostly, he brought the Solution because Tangent asked him to."
Everyone turned to look at Tangent.
"What? Project Stardust is an acceptable threat, but Zodiacs aren't? The Solution is here to prevent a war over founding the Third Republic. You're welcome."
He looked at her for a long moment and asked, "Is there a reason it's just orbiting there?"
"Because that's what planets do?"
"Waiting for someone to get on the comms. Generally it takes people a few hours to get over 'sudden extra planet' and rule out attacking with, well, anything, really, and then try saying hello."
"Comms," he called. The general low murmur of conversation cut out like he'd flipped a switch.
"Yes, sir!" replied the comm tech on duty.
"Send a message, unencrypted, as follows: Hello."
"At the planet?"
"Is that a problem, soldier?"
"Uh - no, sir! Sending message now. It's, uh - I have a handshake, holding steady. Should I put it onscreen?"
The screen flicked on to reveal a dark-featured man who was sitting in an office, or at least a room panelled in some red, rich-textured wood. He smiled when he saw them. "Hello. This is Alexander Merchant, helming the Outside Context Solution. You're the first one to get up the nerve to talk."
"I had inside information," he said, gesturing to Tangent and Jay. Tangent waved, but said nothing. Jay raised an eyebrow.
"I'm sending over a small shuttle to get my clademates; we'll be out of your way once they arrive safely. Shouldn't take more than eight hours or so. Less if can get clearance for some micro-jumps, but this system looks a bit busy for that."
"And that's it?" broke in Kenobi. "You don't do anything else in the meantime?"
"No; why would I?"
"That's . . . actually a good point, if you are a diplomatic ship. Okay. Objection withdrawn."
"Excellent," said Alexander. "Jay, Tangent, see you soon. Merchant out."
He waited until the line cut, and then said, "Merchant?"
"In-clade: he's family."
"No," said Jay.
Slick asked, "Out of curiosity, what happens if someone fires a missile?"
"It hits," said Jay, and shrugged.
"Yeah, alright. It was a stupid question."
"What happens if the Solution fires a missile?" he asked.
"It hits," repeated Jay.
"Yeah, that's pretty much what I thought," he said. "So. I guess once that shuttle arrives - "
"Oh, yeah. I suppose this does count as sufficient warning. We can have a going-away party if you like."
"And that's it? You just - leave?"
"That was always the plan," said Jay.
"I don't want you to go!" cried Luke.
Tangent looked at him, unimpressed. "You knew I was going to."
"I don't want you to," he replied mulishly.
She nodded. "That's fine. Your feelings are always valid. But I need to go, and you only want me to stay. Do you see? It isn't okay to place your own wants above the needs of other people. Not ever."
"But why do you need to go?" asked Luke.
"I'm not where I should be. The way you felt on Tatooine, like there was something else you ought to be doing? That's how I feel all the time. I need to go to the right place. I don't know where that is, and I've spent a long time looking. I'm glad was able to help you along the way, but this place isn't right either. So. I have to go."
Luke blinked. "Will you send comms?"
"I probably won't be able to."
"Don't worry; you'll get over it."
"The galaxy will not, though," he said. "And that's a good thing. Tangent."
She smiled. "I hope you still feel that way later. Come on; party time."
The party was weird. It was held in the general mess, and people kept showing up to thank Tangent and say goodbye. He didn't even know most of them.
"So?" she said. "On a ship this size, there's a lot of good to be done, and - "
" - you do the good that is in front of you," he finished with her. "You helped all these people?"
"It's not hard. Mostly it was just telling them who they needed to talk to. Sometimes that meant finding the right person first, but - the personnel files were complete enough. I just, um, fostered a culture of making the information available to whoever needs it? The Conquest ship comms have most of it on record, if you're curious. Oh, and there's Solo. Excuse me, I really do need to congratulate him on his understanding of the difference between other people's perceptions and the truth."
There was also a lot of food that he knew the mess hadn't made, primarily because alcohol was officially forbidden. Of course, it didn't stop anyone from having it, but this stuff wasn't typical shipboard rotgut: it was sweet, bubbly dessert wine, the kind they'd had at fancy Senatorial shindigs back in the day. The food was Corellian ryshcate and popovers and puff dainties, which possibly the mess had made; but if so, they must have been made in advance and flash-frozen and had now just been thawed and placed on trays.
Not that they couldn't have. It just spoke to a lot of favors.
He didn't stay a terribly long time, anyway. He had work to do. And, he suspected, he really needed to meditate before the shuttle arrived. Maybe take a nap, too.
They were actually standing in Hangar Seven waiting for the shuttle when Tangent said, "Oh, so, hey. It just occured to me that you might confuse the Black with clones."
"What?" asked Slick.
"The Black is a clonal organism, but he's not clones. There is one of him, regardless of how many millions of bodies he happens to have at any given moment."
"Millions?" he asked, but it went unheard over the roar of the shuttle. The shuttle, he thought, was something he'd like to study in further detail. It looked like it was made of wood, for one; for another, it had sleek, organic lines that would allow it to manage a decent clip even inside an atmosphere.
Almost as soon as it had settled there was the distinct hiss of an airlock opening. There was no ramp; the person inside just hopped down the meter-and-change. He blinked, once, and then made a beeline for Jay.
A second later, an identical person exited the shuttle, and headed for Tangent.
"What," he asked, watching as Tangent pulled back and arm and threw a damned good punch, then followed Jay's example and reeled hers is for a kiss. With tongue.
By then a third identical person was walking over to talk to him. "Emperor Vader."
"Yes. Are you Alexander Merchant?"
A shrug. "Merchant was the name of the man whose body I wear."
"Not really, then," he said. "What should I call you?"
"My callsign is Zuus, after the king of the gods."
"That's not a bit presumptuous on your part?"
"I didn't pick it," said the clone. "And I don't really like it, but the Black is worse, Alex is reserved for family, and if you won't use Merchant - "
"I'll use Merchant," he replied, dryly. "As long as we're clear on the fact that you are the Black."
"Never said I wasn't," said Merchant.
"You didn't introduce yourself that way, either."
"I wanted to get a handle on you first, figure out what it was that Tangent was seeing."
"And have you?"
"I think so. It hinges on a historical linguistic quirk which doesn't exist in galactic Basic."
"Etymology of the word 'emperor,'" said Merchant.
"Annd we're done," said Tangent, walking over with the copy she'd been kissing. "Alex, can I introduce you properly now?"
"Too late; did it myself."
"No, you didn't," she said. "Vader, the Black. Alex, Anakin. Skywalker, Alex is going to be staying. He can adjust how many copies he is, so if you decide only one now and then want more later, he can do that. If you decide two or three now and then want to have fewer later, he can do that, too. You don't get to refuse having at least the one, though."
"I was trying to make one specific future not happen. The Black . . . is going to make a different future happen. It's a good future, you'll love it, but he does have to stick around to see it through. There will even be Zodiacs when you need to make a point, as long as you don't abuse the privilege. Okay?"
" . . . no. What's the future?"
"The one in which building a new planet in the Corus system because all the other ones are full is a normal thing to do," said Tangent. "The one in which everyone, just for having been born, is entitled to clean water and food and shelter and medical care and freedom to pursue their goals, whatever those are, for their entire lives. The one in which the idea of limited resources is treated like the joke it is. That future."
"That's your goal?"
"That of the Red and the Black," said Merchant. "Collectively and individually. Tangent, you're supposed to be a goodwill ambassador. Why do you keep failing to explain these things?"
"He wouldn't have believed me," she said. "I did tell Master Yoda. And Tano. And Luke. I don't know if they believed me about the scale, but I did warn them. Jay probably told Slick."
Merchant continued to look at her, while behind them Jay and the other copy finally stopped kissing. Jay said, "Hey. Tan. Shuttle."
"Yeah, yeah," said Tangent. "Anakin. Hug before I go?"
" . . . all right," he said, and opened his arms.