“You’re entirely too sceptical, Lord Vader,” drawled Tarkin. “I understand now why the Emperor wants you to be present when we test our full potential.”
“Do not think I doubt the facilities of Krennic's design,” Vader replied, his deep voice seeming to reverberate beneath Piett’s skin. “It is still a man-made weapon; built-in weaknesses are inevitable, and always vulnerable to exploitation.”
Tarkin only seemed amused at Vader’s thinly veiled attempts to disparage his great project. “There will be no weaknesses. We will be upon any threat before they even know what’s happening.”
Piett remained still, schooling his thoughts and expression into neutrality. Although Tarkin couldn’t see his face, he knew it would be an error to let any of his true feelings slip. This project of Tarkin’s was... not to his personal tastes anyway, but he was inclined to agree with Vader that it could never be truly foolproof, with or without some integral fault. It might certainly terrorise and subdue many billions of people for a time, but sooner or later there would be those willing to risk life, loved-ones and everything to bring it down. It would be only a matter of time to see who snapped first, and whatever the outcome, it would not be peaceful.
However, to insult the weapon was to insult the Emperor, and working under Tarkin would afford Piett no protection if he made such a mistake. As for Vader; Piett had met the man on a few occasions, but he was rarely ever in his company for longer than ten minutes at a time, and he was no less intimidated for it. Even if their outlook on Tarkin's weapon was shared, Vader would not defend him either.
The man in question was seated at the opposite end of the table like a great shadow, his rhythmic, mechanical breaths the only sign of life beneath the suit, while Tarkin was seated at the other. Piett stood ramrod straight just behind Tarkin’s chair, ready to explain should he need it, and in full view of Vader. Normally, Piett would relish in the opportunity to display his good conduct and hard work in front of him. The ‘project’ was not the only thing he knew he favoured Vader’s opinion on, and he was confident that his efficiency had not gone entirely unnoticed. But today he was meant to blend into the background, and for this sort of thing he was all too glad to do so. Tarkin was unlikely to end up choking to death if the meeting didn’t go to Vader’s liking, but it might not be impossible for Piett to get that honour bestowed on him in his stead. The fear of it was making the hour pass almost excruciatingly slowly, and so Piett kept resolutely silent and still unless Tarkin called upon him.
But... he kept sensing the weight of Vader’s gaze on him, the distinctive chill of being both in his presence and under his scrutiny. Whenever Vader responded to Tarkin, his voice sent shivers down Piett’s spine, and he tried with all his might to resist its effects. He only knew it was best to allow the appraisal without any protest, mental or otherwise. And it would do him no good to worry. He was good at his job; always had been, and besides – he was attending Tarkin, not Vader. There wasn’t much he could do that would directly affect the man; wrong or right. And yet Vader still continued to watch him from time to time.
He was aware that Vader was a Sith lord, and while he didn’t have much in-depth knowledge as to what that entailed, he’d seen enough to resolve to always err on the side of caution around him. Vader killed people who failed or disrespected him without question, and possibly without distinguishing between the two. It was said that he could read people’s thoughts and emotions – “I think only to an extent” as Veers once put it, but Piett wasn’t all-too comfortable with the idea of mind reading to any extent.
Still, he had no interest in testing the situation. He kept his gaze down; mostly towards the datapad in Tarkin’s grip, and the files he knew almost back to front.
When they were about fifteen minutes into the meeting, Piett became aware of a strange sensation passing by – through him, almost – and before he was able to stop himself, he’d glanced up in the direction it seemed to have come from.
His eyes met the red lenses of Vader’s expressionless mask, and he froze like a nerf in the headlights for a second before finally managing to tear them away again.
Tarkin continued his boasting, seeming unaware of anything going on between the other two people in the room.
Piett could have kicked himself. He had to be careful. There was a time and a place to be noticed by Vader, and this was not one of them.
Although... had he imagined that peculiar feeling just now? And had it really come from Vader?
There it was again - a soft kind of nudge against Piett’s mind that seemed to encourage his attention to the other side of the room.
Piett did allow himself another little glance towards Vader, right at the moment the man said, in answer to whatever Tarkin had asked, “That depends entirely upon your own efforts.”
Tarkin evidently wasn’t happy about that, because his tone went cold and he replied, “I understand your reservations, Vader, but you have more than enough men to spare. You speak much of having faith. I might ask the same of you.” He nodded his head over his shoulder, addressing Piett. “Where is the file on crew capacity?”
Piett swallowed and cast his gaze back to the datapad, lifting a hand to navigate it to the correct screen. “Here, sir,” he said quietly, feeling lost in whatever strangeness was taking place here.
He knew that Tarkin and Vader weren’t exactly fond of each other. Perhaps Vader liked to deliberately unnerve the officers around the other man out of spite? Piett shared no particular affection for his superior, and he had ambitions that he hoped would take him elsewhere soon enough. But he supposed there were plenty of others who might like to appear steadfastly loyal to Tarkin at a time like this, and would perhaps have spent the hour glowering back at Vader over his shoulder.
Piett suppressed a scoff at the idea. As if pulling faces would have any impact on someone like Vader, except perhaps to get him to add that individual’s name to a personal kill list or something.
Piett felt an unmistakeable spark of amusement from the other side of the room at that. He risked another little look over at the Sith lord. He still wasn’t getting that usual cold air from him.
He blinked. Was Vader sharing a sort of... private joke with him?
No, he thought firmly, trying to keep it on the down-low in case the man was listening in. That was impossible. Vader didn’t joke with the officers. He was capable of humour, but it was usually only in prelude to an execution. He barked orders at them, terrorised them and occasionally killed them. He didn’t like any of them, if he liked anyone at all.
At that, he felt another wave of mirth, so much so that it nearly caused him to smirk. He caught himself in time and gave a little shake, trying to refocus on the meeting at hand, but it was growing difficult, what with the next sensation actually being tangible. The touch came to his chin first, gently, ever so gently lifting it, drawing his line of sight back to Vader yet again, and still those other little nudges against his mind, calling for his undivided attention.
And then, somewhere inside his mind or just outside it – he couldn’t figure it out – came the words, Look at me?
He tried to swallow his astonishment. That was Vader addressing him, all right. But... since when did he ask things of people instead of demand them? And... was that... desire he could feel?
Piett bit his lip, his heart hammering.
Surely he was imagining this; projecting somehow?
There was another touch; one to the back of his head that actually shifted his hat until it was askew, and he lifted a hand automatically to straighten it. Another rush of fond amusement came his way at the action. He blushed.
This was – this was ridiculous. Had Tarkin finally bored him into insanity? Was he coming down with something? He wasn’t some blushing Ensign in his twenties, although he wouldn’t have expected this kind of attention back then, either.
And why not?
Piett froze again at the question he very much had not asked himself, coming to his senses just in time to redirect Tarkin to the mainframe.
He’d been warned plenty about Lord Vader, but he didn’t recall any of his colleagues mentioning an incident like this. It was generally accepted that the Sith lord didn’t do relationships of any kind except whatever complicated respect he held for the Emperor. And so, for him to flirt...
But he wasn’t flirting! Piett was simply mad or hallucinating, and if he didn’t put a stop to this now, Tarkin would be left to ask exactly why Vader had just randomly killed one of his more insignificant subordinates.
He tried to keep his thoughts in the present; on Tarkin and Vader’s exchange, which was still going on, and yet they began to wander yet again.
He couldn’t help it anymore. He felt his mind roused from its normally strict concentration, and was growing intrigued; excited by the small touches. He recalled his first ever glimpse of Vader, of thinking what a big, imposing figure he was, and understanding why everyone spoke of a chill whenever he was around. Suddenly, he was remembering the words he’d overheard Vader speak, of being fascinated that there was an intelligent, and calculated mind behind the mask, feeling a little thrill at the sound of his voice. And then there he was meeting Vader properly the first time; having to crane his neck up to address him, and then as the Sith lord walked away, again being drawn back to his size and power; noticing – despite himself – the impressive span of Vader’s shoulders and thighs.
Piett closed his eyes, feeling his cheeks redden even further, and all he could do was lower his head in shame. He would have to say goodbye to his dreams of becoming an admiral, then.
He didn’t see Vader give a slight tilt of his helmet, but he knew it had happened, and then suddenly, through a red tint he saw himself, standing awkwardly at Tarkin’s elbow. The perspective shifted; focusing on his large, sleep-deprived eyes, his nervously clenched jaw, lips pressed together. There was another shift, and then there he was walking with Veers, being introduced to Vader and dutifully bowing his head to him, demanding nothing but ready to serve if necessary. There was more, from each and every time they’d met, or been in the same space together – all those times Piett had thought Vader hadn’t noticed him, he had – he’d seen his professionalism, his quick-thinking, tenacity and the calm demeanour he’d worked years on perfecting and how it carried across this... this...
Piett’s eyes opened, and he lifted them to meet Vader’s again. He did not school his expression now; he couldn’t have done if he’d tried.
Vader held his gaze, and whether it came from him or not Piett couldn’t tell, but a spike of raw longing permeated the air between them. The gentlest of caresses swirled around Piett's body, and applied a firmer touch to his back.
He inhaled, fighting to keep it inaudible. He saw Vader’s helmet shift almost imperceptibly towards him again. His reaction had caused his body to stretch outward slightly and Vader was taking the opportunity to admire the view.
Tarkin still hadn’t noticed.
Piett licked his lips. Deliberately.
The fingers of Vader’s right hand gave a small twitch.
“You may leave,” Tarkin addressed Piett then as he held out the datapad, bringing him crashing back down to reality.
“ – Thank you, sir,” he replied, just managing to formulate an answer in good time as he took the datapad. He gave a small bow to Tarkin, and then another, towards the end of the table. “Lord Vader.”
The light caught Vader’s mask as he inclined his head just slightly towards Piett in acknowledgment.
Piett marched out, and as the door closed, he swore he felt another touch upon his lower back. He let out a shaking breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding, and then made a hasty retreat to his office.