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You Can't Front on That

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By the time he was stationed on the Death Star, Darth Vader had been a Sith for nearly twice as long as he'd been a Jedi, yet some things were drilled deep into his psyche. For example, he still heard all critical internal commentary in the cultured voice of his old master, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Was that level of violence truly necessary? Kenobi's voice would wonder after Vader had viciously put down a rebel cell, killing all its members and anyone else who had the bad fortune to be in his way at the time.

We are bringing order and peace to the galaxy, he reminded himself, and never once stopped to think of the contradiction that is a Sith claiming to work towards peace. That was the sort of mental chicanery Kenobi would indulge in, and Vader would have none of it.

There's no need to be cruel about it, the mental voice he'd assigned to Kenobi said, and Vader took a savage sort of pleasure in reminding him(self) that it was not he who had betrayed and maimed and then denied the quick stroke of a merciful death to one he claimed to love during their duel on Mustafar.

Who is unnecessarily cruel now, master? he rebuked that mental voice and for a time it went silent.

So he reveled in the opportunity to finally face Kenobi and even though the man was a mere shell of who he used to be, it was with great satisfaction that Vader killed him. The last link to his old life as Anakin Skywalker was gone, and there was nothing left to hold him back.

(He hadn't counted on the boy.)

*

Vader's rage when the rebels escaped Cymoon 1 was cold and implacable. His men knew to stay out of his way as he stalked the corridors to his quarters. Yet again the terrorist princess had eluded his grasp. He was not looking forward to the report he would have to make to his master regarding her continued existence.

"At least the slaves were freed," Kenobi's voice said, and this time Vader swore he heard it, as if from an external source, rather than inside his head. "One of my greatest regrets is not listening to your pleas to return to Tatooine and free your mother and the others held in bondage there."

The mention of his mother, about whom he had not thought in years (what was one more reason to feel shame amid so many?), made Vader's rage burn hot instead of cold, and it was only by dint of sheer luck (or the Force) that he was alone when he shouted, "I killed you, old man. Cease your prattling."

"You did," Kenobi agreed equably. "But being dead gives one an endless amount of time to reflect on one's regrets, you see. And I have many."

Where once that admission would have pleased him, at the moment Vader was more concerned that his life support system had malfunctioned and lack of oxygen was causing him to have auditory hallucinations.

He reached his life support pod and instructed his med-droid to run all diagnostics on the suit. He wondered if he was finally going mad. There had been stories, when he was a padawan--but no, he would not think of his former life. It had no meaning here.

"I'm not a hallucination," Obi-Wan said once the diagnostics were complete and no failure of function was detected. "I'm as real as you are, if less physically present than I was when I was alive."

"I am not foolish enough to fall for your tricks, old man," Vader said, and did his best to ignore Kenobi's annoying response.

Finally, the voice sighed in resignation and faded away. Vader grunted in satisfaction. It had been no more than an aberration, due to the extensive amount of time he'd spent in hyperspace recently, or mold spores in his life support system. He was still in complete command of his faculties.

*

Kenobi's commentary returned occasionally, but Vader gritted his teeth and did not respond. He was no longer that impulsive young boy who rose to the bait every time it was dangled.

It was only after his encounter with Luke at Cloud City that he could no longer remain silent in the face of Kenobi's chiding.

"I know you are a master tactician, but was cutting off the boy's hand the wisest move?"

"Silence," Vader roared. The shocking guilt he felt over maiming his son, over replicating the injury Dooku had inflicted upon him so many years ago, was bad enough. To be scolded for it by his dead master's ghost was beyond all bearing. "I killed you once, Obi-Wan. I have no qualms about doing it again."

"Oh, Darth," Kenobi's voice made a mockery of his title, "you can't kill something that's already dead."

"Haven't you yet learned the folly of telling me I can't do something?"

Kenobi hummed thoughtfully.

Vader could practically see him stroking his beard. (It had been years since he'd been afflicted with visions, and he did not look forward to their resumption, if that's what this was.)

"Good point."

There was a time that validation would have made him warm with pride. Now he just felt tired. What was he going to do about Luke?

"He's a good boy," Kenobi offered, as if following along with Vader's thoughts. "Impulsive and prone to attachment, but perhaps those are not the grave sins I once believed them to be."

Was that--"Are you apologizing?" Vader asked incredulously.

"Perhaps."

"Equivocal even after the end. How typical." Vader frowned. "I do not accept." He exited his quarters, as if leaving would stop Kenobi from attempting to get in the last word. As if he weren't carrying that damned voice around in his head.

But Kenobi was silent for once, allowing Vader this small victory.

*

That wasn't the end of the subject, though, as much as Vader had wished it to be.

"What were you thinking, Anakin?" Kenobi scolded him several days later, when his spies in the Rebellion reported that his son had been fitted with a prosthetic. "Were you even thinking at all?"

"I no longer answer to that name, as you well know. I am a Lord of the Sith."

"I've noticed," Kenobi said dryly. "All that power and you still haven't learned to refrain from hurting those you love."

"I have no time or use for love, old man. It is a weakness to be exploited and one I purged long ago."

"Then why are you so hellbent on capturing Luke?"

"The Force is strong with him. He will be a powerful ally, and with him at my side, we can end Palpatine's reign and bring peace to the galaxy."

"You're a terrible liar. You always have been."

"That was always your area of expertise."

"You're not still angry about that time I faked my death, are you?"

"That pales beside the lie you told Luke about his parentage."

"You do claim to have killed Anakin Skywalker, though, do you not?" Kenobi sounded all too reasonable, the way he always had when pouncing on some inconsistency in his opponent's argument. "If you don't love the boy, why should you care what I've told him about you?"

"He is still my son, and you would have had him commit patricide." Everything in his office shook with the strength of his emotions. He clenched his fists, trying to control his rage. "He is a sensitive soul. Did you not think of how that would weigh upon him?" He still couldn't see Kenobi, but his sense of him in the Force was strong--Vader had long since admitted to himself that Kenobi was present somehow, even though he was dead--and Kenobi was taken aback. He had clearly never considered the ramifications of his lies and machinations. "You did not think of him at all, did you?" Vader sneered. "Always willing to sacrifice someone else's soul for the greater good, aren't you, Obi-Wan?"

"It was not I who slaughtered the younglings in the Temple, Vader." And then Kenobi's distress dissipated, replaced by the weary sadness that frequently characterized him during the last months of the war. "If you think I made it out of the war with my soul intact, then I guess you never did know me at all."

"This recrimination is pointless," Vader said. "I must win Luke over somehow, so if you have suggestions, make them. Otherwise, I have no use for you."

"I will not help you turn the boy," Kenobi replied. "I failed you and I will not fail him the same way."

"Then leave. There is no place for you here."

And Kenobi did, as far as Vader could tell.

*

Molavar was startlingly similar to Tatooine, Vader thought irritably as he surveyed the wreckage of his fighter. The addition of several million inhabitants over Tatooine's few hundred thousand was in no way an improvement, especially since he had landed nowhere near any cities or settlements.

The only reason Vader hadn't already destroyed what was left of his fighter in a rage was that Luke's X-Wing had crashed nearby. He needed to get to the boy before any locals, sentient or otherwise, found him.

Artoo leveled a blistering scold at him when he arrived to help Luke disembark from his damaged fighter. The X-Wing was in far better shape than Vader's TIE Advance, and Artoo was clearly taking credit for it, though by now Vader knew his son was a skilled pilot in his own right.

"Are you injured?" he asked, tilting his helmet up to gauge Luke's expression.

"I'll all right and I'd like to stay that way," he said warily. There was a hesitation and then, more softly, "Father."

Warmth such as he had not felt in the last twenty-three years burst in Vader's chest, the same joyous warmth he'd felt when Padmé had told him she was pregnant.

"So, you have come to accept the truth," was what he said, though. It wouldn't do to let Luke think he had grown soft, even if he had called the other TIE fighters off and sent them back to the Executor so he could deal with Luke on his own.

Luke sighed. "Yes." He clambered out of the cockpit and jumped lightly to the ground, swaying slightly upon landing.

Vader steadied him with one gauntleted hand and renewed his sharp-eyed appraisal. Luke looked tired and he was not eating enough, but otherwise he appeared healthy.

"Good," Vader said, and then, unsure what else to say, he repeated it. "Good."

Luke looked up at him curiously. "I know why I'm here, but why are you?"

"Do not be naive," Vader said. "I am here because I knew you'd follow any hint of Captain Solo's trail." His vocoder didn't translate his annoyed huff as grains of sand pelted the lenses of his helmet. "The wind is picking up. We should find shelter before it turns into a storm."

"I grew up on Tatooine," Luke replied. "I know how to spot a sandstorm."

Vader's temper, always unsteady and already primed to go off at the situation, spiked at this admission. It wasn't as if he hadn't known--Fett had brought him the information in the early days of his quest for knowledge about the pilot who'd destroyed the Death Star--but hearing Luke say it so matter-of-factly enraged him. His child should not have had to live on that Hutt-infested dustball, preyed upon by Tuskens and pirates and who knew what else.

"Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru were very kind," Luke said, obviously sensing his distress and for some reason--possibly self-preservation (Vader tried not to imagine that it was because his son actually cared; he failed, of course, because he wanted to believe it, but he did try)--trying to assuage it. "It wasn't the most luxurious way to grow up, but I was loved." He sounded wistful, and Vader, who had never been anything but angrily jealous that his mostly unknown stepbrother had gotten to raise his son (and even before that, had gotten to spend years with his mother), felt a pang of something like gratitude for a moment. It was only for a moment, though, because he would never be less than enraged by the fact that his son had been taken from him, and hidden away on the most worthless planet in the galaxy.

"I see."

"It seemed best to bring him to a place I knew you would never go," Kenobi said, and for the first time since Vader had begun to hear his voice after his death, he appeared visually, too, his body transparent and glowing blue, as if he were participating in a holocomm instead of returning from the afterlife. Kenobi turned to Luke, who greeted him with a warm smile that once again made Vader jealous. "He despises sand even more than you do, young Luke."

"It is pretty terrible," Luke agreed. "If you don't keep on top of cleaning out the filtration system, it can totally ruin your vaporators. And your speeder engine. And your blaster rifle." His mouth twisted ruefully. "Anything, really."

"There are other planets you could have chosen," Vader said, manfully ignoring his son's charming disquisition on the awfulness of sand in favor of his never-ending anger at Kenobi. "Places where the Emperor would not have found him."

"So you agree on that point, at least?" Kenobi asked. When Vader didn't reply, he continued, "I felt it would be best to leave him with family."

"I am his family, Obi-Wan. I am his father," Vader thundered. "I should have gotten to make that decision."

Even if there hadn't been a storm on the way, Vader's emotions would have kicked up a dusting of sand. It passed right through Kenobi's ghost, however, which left Vader even more disgruntled, as only he and Luke had been showered with the infernal stuff.

He used the Force--purposefully, this time--to shed the sand from his cape and armor, and with a flick of his hand, did the same for Luke, who looked startled at the action.

"There's a cave nearby where you can shelter," Kenobi said. "Follow me."

But Luke didn't move. "We have to bring Artoo. I'm not leaving him out here."

Vader glanced over at Kenobi, who looked back at him in somewhat exasperated amusement. "Yes, yes," Kenobi said. "Of course you must bring your droid." Vader thought he muttered, "Like father, like son," but since Luke didn't say anything, Vader chose to ignore it.

The boy was like him, though the more time Vader spent in his presence, the more like Padmé he revealed himself to be. It was not just his small stature or the slope of his nose that reminded Vader of her; it was his stubborn belief in the goodness of others, and of Vader in particular, that threatened to overcome the steady beat of his respirator and take his breath away.

*

The cave Kenobi led them to was small, but large enough for two humans--even one of Vader's size--and a droid to keep safe from the sandstorm. It helped that Kenobi's ghost didn't take up much room, and he kept himself as far from Vader as the meager space would allow.

Artoo subjected Vader to another harangue about the many times and ways he'd hurt and attempted to kill Luke, and Vader bore it with some measure of resignation, since he already felt ashamed of his actions where his son was concerned. However, he refused to give Kenobi the satisfaction of saying so; given how well Kenobi had once known him, his silence in the face of Artoo's vituperation was proof enough.

When Artoo had ranted himself out, Vader placed a hand on his dome and said, "Luke is lucky to have such a staunch protector."

Artoo beeped in agreement, and Luke nodded eagerly.

"He's a good little droid," Luke said, "though he's got some personality quirks I've never seen before."

"He was my astromech during the war," Vader said.

Luke looked down at Artoo. "You never told me that! You said you belonged to Obi-Wan!"

Artoo let out a forlorn beep.

"Another one of Obi-Wan's lies," Vader snapped.

"That one I can make no claim to," Kenobi said, folding one arm over his chest and cupping his chin with his other hand. "I believe the princess must have programmed him to say that, so Luke would bring him to me."

Another strike against the rebel princess, who had been a thorn in Vader's side for too long.

"Artoo was a wedding gift from your mother to me. He was a steadfast companion in trying times."

"So you are Anakin Skywalker," Luke said, homing in on the wrong part of that revelation.

"That name no longer has any meaning for me." But the refutation was automatic, not fervent the way it once had been.

"I don't believe that," Luke replied. "You claimed me as your son, and Artoo as your droid, a gift from your wife. If your past life has no meaning, why would you even care?"

Normally, the sound of Vader's respirator faded into the background--he was so used to it by now that he barely heard it--but at the moment it sounded louder than the storm blowing outside.

"I--" He began and then stopped. There were so many things he wanted to say, and so many things that he never could.

Luke, seeming to sense his distress once again, came to his rescue. "I didn't know you were married." His smile was small and sad. "I asked Aunt Beru once who my mother was, and she said she didn't know, though the one time she met you, you were traveling with the most beautiful girl she'd ever seen. Aunt Beru thought it was probably her, but she didn't know for sure."

Vader was speechless yet again, though now it was due to the more familiar feeling of anger that coursed through him at this travesty. He stood and loomed over Kenobi's ghost. "You denied him knowledge of his mother?" he roared. "How dare you leave her name unspoken and unremembered?"

"Your new master did that," Kenobi answered, annoyingly unafraid of Vader's towering rage. "He had her erased from official history as much as possible, while you stood by his side. It wasn't safe--"

"You were on Tatooine," Vader interrupted. "It would have been safe enough there." He shook his head and paced the small area of the cave, all the old insecurities and feelings of paranoia flooding him. "You never approved of our relationship. You always tried to take her from me."

"No, Anakin, I will accept the blame for many things that went wrong, but not for that. I knew how happy she'd made you, and I turned a blind eye to it as long as I could." Kenobi shook his head and smiled wryly. "You were never as discreet as you thought."

Luke inserted himself between them before Vader tried to vaporize Kenobi's ghost. "That means you can tell me all about her," he said, placing a tentative hand on Vader's arm and giving him that sad smile again.

He could feel Kenobi's considering gaze upon him the way it so often had been when he was a padawan, and he regained his control under that cool, familiar regard. He didn't let go of his anger--he would never do that--but he let it subside for the moment, in order to respond to his son.

Even if he had been as silver-tongued as Kenobi at his wiliest, Vader knew that words could never do her justice. Still, he tried. "She was extraordinary." He sighed, the sound making his vocoder crackle with static. "She was beautiful and brilliant and kind. She was one of the bravest people I ever knew."

"She had the courage of her convictions," Kenobi added. "In a way so few politicians ever do."

"Like Leia," Luke murmured, and Vader was too lost in his own memories to rebuke him, or to make much of the sharp glance Kenobi threw his way.

It had long been too painful to bring his memories of her out for contemplation. They always ended in the same place, with her dead at his hands on the steaming ground of Mustafar. Even now, knowing that she had at least lived long enough to give birth and name their son, Vader shied away from thinking of her. He had used his grief to fuel his rage for so long that he was afraid the sorrow would bring him to his knees should he let the anger go.

Something of that thought must have seeped into the Force, because Luke was there, warm and suffused with light, offering to hold him up should he happen to fall.

"No, Luke," he said as gently as he could, putting a hand on Luke's shoulder, "this is not your burden to bear."

"Tell me more," Luke said, and Vader did.

*

Vader talked himself hoarse, with some help from Artoo and even Kenobi, for they had known and loved Padmé as well, as the storm blew itself out after several hours.

Between them, he and Luke made short work of the sand piled up at the entrance of the cave, and then Luke said, "I'm sorry, Father, but I'm not going with you." His chin was raised pugnaciously, and Vader could see the echoes of his younger self in the gesture as well as the line of Luke's jaw.

"No," Vader replied, "nor do I expect you to." He glanced at Kenobi's ghost. "Continue your studies, and perhaps in a few months' time--"

"I will never turn to the dark side." Luke was so achingly young and sincere that it made something in Vader's chest ache for the first time in years with a feeling other than rage or pain. "Come with me." He seemed to realize how ludicrous that request was, for he scrambled on, "Or if not that, at least leave the Emperor's service. For mother's memory, if not for me."

"You are wise and brave, my son, and your mother would be very proud of you," Vader said, clasping his shoulder again and giving it a squeeze, "but I cannot." If only he could make Luke understand. He glanced at Kenobi. But now was not the time or the place.

"Father--"

"Go now, Luke. I will give you as much of a head start as I can. My ship was destroyed the crash, and the storm will have interfered with communications, so it will be several hours before my men come to find me. You cannot be here when they do."

Luke's gaze was searching, and Vader knew that as powerful as he was now, he would someday make a formidable Jedi indeed. Finally, he nodded. "Okay, Father. But think on what I've said. You don't have to do this--be this--anymore. You can turn back."

He jogged out of the cave, Artoo trundling behind him.

"It is too late for me, even if I wished to turn from the dark side," Vader said, challenging Kenobi's ghost.

"Before today, I would have thought so," Kenobi replied, "but you have given me a lot to consider, and should take some time to consider yourself." He stroked his beard and gave Vader an inscrutable grin. "May the Force be with you, Anakin." And then he faded away before Vader could get in the last word.

For once, Vader found it amusing, and as he made his way back to the crash site, he allowed himself a small smile beneath his mask.

end