“...Then I have only one lesson for you.”
Laurita turned to beam up at Vader. “I would be grateful! Your advice, your mentorship, it means more to me than I can say.”
With one sudden and fluid movement Vader turned and grasped Laurita by the front of his uniform, sweeping him over the edge of the balcony to dangle over the vast void below. “Never suffer rivals.”
“Wha--?” Laurita’s lone arm flailed as he gaped at Vader in shocked disbelief. “No! Please--!”
But Vader’s grip released, and with a final gasp from Laurita, he plunged into the depths of Coruscant.
– And then suddenly he was not. With a sudden jolt his freefall halted in mid-air, and Laurita found himself slowly rising again. Turning his good eye up to the balcony he had just been dropped from, he could see Vader leaning over the edge of the rail. One gloved hand was extended, palm up, slowly rising in the air in tandem with Laurita’s own returning ascent. The few brief moments seemed to pass in an eternity, but his feet finally met the duracrete of the balcony’s floor. Vader’s grip on him through the Force slackened, but Laurita’s knees gave out when he tried to carry his own weight. He stumbled forward, only to be caught in a firm, leather-clad grip.
Vader steadied him, that expressionless black mask of his staring him down. “What have you learned, Admiral Tohm?”
He could practically feel the response he was supposed to give. One of strictest submission and obedience, fueled by crippling fear. One of rescinding any attempt or ambition to vie for Vader’s position and status.
But that was not the answer Laurita could give. He was an honest person by nature, and that did not change even as his slender frame shuddered under Vader’s touch.
Vader already knew of Laurita’s submission and obedience. He already knew of his steadfast and unshakable loyalty, his clear and unabashed admiration for the dark lord, his yearning and ambition to do everything in his power that he could for the good of the Empire, for the Emperor, and for Vader himself.
But Laurita did not have crippling fear. Yes, he was afraid. But even mere moments after a brush with death, even after Lord Vader had just seemingly attempted to murder him, he was not terrified of the dark lord. Afraid, yes. Only an utter fool would be completely fearless in Vader’s presence. But he was not terrified. Laurita trusted him. Trusted that if he did murder him, it would have been for the good of the Empire. Trusted that he had stopped short of actually following through on killing him for a reason. And perhaps he was an utter fool for doing so, but that trust remained, very nearly unwavering.
He sighed, his head bowed as he stopped trying to support his own weight on legs that insisted on feeling like jelly. He let Vader keep him standing and steady, and shook his head. “I have learned that I am not your rival.”
“No, you are not.” The rumble of Vader’s voice made another shudder run up Laurita’s spine, and the fleeting, if ridiculous, thought that he might never learn how to stand steady again flitted across his mind.
“Nor was it my intent, ever.” He felt cold all over, and he could swear that if he could see Vader’s eyes, they would have narrowed.
“I know of your feeble attempts to touch the Force, Admiral.”
At that, Laurita could only turn his face up to Vader and smile weakly. “Curiosity and childish mimicry of the only man I admire, Lord Vader. Misguided, yes. But an attempt to gain the power that you wield, it was not. My only ambition is to be by your side and at your feet. The Empire is my lifeblood, Lord Vader. You are the Empire’s pulsing heart. No one could replace you. ”
An uncomfortable pressure at his temples made Laurita flinch, and with a quick revelation he realized Vader must be using the Force to reach into his mind – to confirm that there was truly no deception in his words. It made him dizzy and nauseous, and he was already entirely unsteady on his feet. He crumpled in Vader’s grip, his good eye rolling back into his head as he blacked out.
It lasted only a brief moment, and when the pressure vanished from his temples he gasped and went rigid, only to find himself supported against the dark lord’s chest. Both of Vader’s hands still gripped Laurita’s narrow shoulders, keeping him upright. A rumble more felt than heard seemed to be fading all around him, and he could swear he felt something akin to thoughtful amusement emanating briefly from Vader. Not willing to risk attempting to move, Laurita remained where he was, leaning against Vader’s chest. The click-hiss of his respiratory equipment sounded so loud in his good ear, and he was so close he could even hear the mechanically-assisted beat of Vader’s heart. Resigning himself to whatever decision the dark lord would make about his life, he let his eyes slip closed and deliberately released the tension in his muscles, relaxing into Vader’s grip.
And it seemed as though Vader was mulling over that decision himself. Or perhaps he was… surprised? They stood there for long moments in silence, neither man moving.
But finally Vader did speak.
“You do indeed touch the Force, Admiral Tohm. Not enough to be effective, but enough to sense things around you more acutely. But it will never amount to anything beyond that.”
Laurita could only manage a nod.
“The Emperor has instructed me to continue grooming you for your new position of leadership within the Empire. I will do so. You will not be assigned to a ship of your own, just yet. And Captain Volta will not be joining you.”
His small tremor of relief once again seemed to surprise Vader, and he managed to smile into the electronic monitors strapped to Vader’s chest. “Thank you, lord Vader. She made me… uncomfortable.”
“Hn.” Vader (gently?) pulled Laurita away from him, still supporting his weight as he steadied him on his feet. “Get used to discomfort, Admiral Tohm. Having me as your mentor will not be easy.”
This time Laurita’s smile was wider, almost beaming as he met the gaze of that inscrutable mask. “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, lord Vader.”