The Protege'Author :
jedinemoRating and disclaimer :
Rated PG-13. The Star Wars Universe belongs to George Lucas and Lucasfilm Ltd, and I have gained nothing but satisfaction from this fanfic.Summary :
Darth Vader has an unsettling encounter within the Imperial Palace that changes the course of Galactic history.Timeline :
A few years before the events of ANH
Darth Vader looked away from his clone and towards the great doors of the Throne Room. Apparently Palpatine had been caught so unaware by Anakin's attack that he had no time to send warning to the Imperial Guards, or otherwise they'd have stormed the room already. Instead, the room was peacefully quiet, with only the ebb and flow of his ventilator disturbing the silence. The Galaxy had changed forever, but only two people knew it.
In his head he understood that he was safe, but his body still pulsed with the adrenalin of near death. The task he had believed insurmountable, the boy had accomplished with ease. Did that mean he could have done the same all along? To his surprise, the concern fell away, and he realized that with the Emperor dead, much of his outrage had cooled. He had always thought Palpatine's chains sapped his strength, but perhaps they fed it, because without them he felt not joyous but hollow.
Anakin seemed similarly affected, remaining steadfastly next to Palpatine's body, frozen in place by some glimmer of attachment that persisted beyond death. He considered the boy carefully. Without Palpatine, the youth was no longer his rival, nor a point of contention to argue about with his master. Even the promise he'd made to the boy -I will see to it that your education is expanded
- seemed far less pressing. The boy was free now, just as he was, free to find his own destiny.
Without his mentor, though, the boy wouldn't last long in the rancor pit that was Palpatine's inner circle, so perhaps the kindest thing was to eliminate the youth, and let him be laid to rest with his creator. Vader's fingers tightened around the hilt of his saber, his thumb resting on the activator. Strangely, Anakin seemed to have no inkling of the threat that surrounded him. Looking at the unsuspecting boy, a memory drifted forward of other children who thought he had come to rescue them, and who failed to see the danger he presented. In his mind, a blond youngling approached, gazing up with innocent eyes of blue. What are we going to do?
the child asked, though by the time the sentence was finished, it was Anakin's face he saw.
His mouth went dry, and he almost dropped his lightsaber. He shut his eyes against the flood of revulsion that poured forth as he remembered the circle of small corpses he had left inside the Council chamber. However weak it was of him, it was an act he wouldn't repeat. And what was it the oldest of the clone troopers called each other? Ner vod
-my brother? He might not feel that towards Anakin, there was undeniably...something.
Whatever it was, they couldn't linger here, because it was only a matter of time before Anakin's deed was discovered and the consequences of the Emperor's death began to unfold. Unless Vader seized control quickly, there'd be a free for all among those who aspired to the throne. He clipped his saber to his belt and called to the boy. When Anakin didn't respond, he reached out and grabbed the youth's arm to pull him away. Anakin reacted as if the touch of the black glove burned him, flinging his arm out of reach, and igniting the saber he still clutched in his other hand.
The boy's eyes narrowed as he stared into the mask. "What do you think you're doing?"
Vader could sense the boy's agitation. He'd seen the response many times among green recruits, those who had been trained in combat, but were not yet inured to the realities of battle. Undoubtably Palpatine had taught the boy to kill, but he was far from being a seasoned soldier. "We need to leave," he said calmly.
"Oh, and so you think you're in charge?" Anakin said. "You think I'll just follow you now?"
He snorted. "It would hardly work the other way around."
"Oh, I don't know," Anakin said, his expression as hard as durasteel. "I'm the one who killed him. Maybe I'll be the next Emperor."
The boy's emotions were flying high, that was obvious. He knew how lightning fast his own responses were when he was in that state, and how little thought preceeded his reactions. Until Anakin was disarmed, he was a danger to them both. "All right, your highness. What is your first order?"
Anakin blinked, then stood a little straighter. His brow furrowed, and he walked away from the Emperor's body for the first time. He appeared to be deep in thought as he paced a circle in front of the throne, but if Vader approached him, the boy's lightsaber came humming upwards.
Finally, Anakin stopped. "I will order Sate Pestage to announce me to the Senate."
Not a bad idea, except that Pestage would more likely push the boy over the rail of the central dais. "We'll have to get past the Imperial Guards first."
Anakin's eyebrows raised for a moment, and he bit his lip, nodding. He powered off his lightsaber and began to pace again, fumbling to attach the saber to his belt. Vader watched him closely, feeling the churning activity in the boy's mind. With precise timing, he called Anakin's saber to his own hand. The boy looked over at him, astonished.
"Lack of focus," he said. "Was my problem. Is still your problem."
Anakin's gaze fell to the floor, and when at last he raised his head, there was a cold clarity in his eyes. "You were never trying to help me. You only used me to defeat him."
The youth's words startled him. Many years after he had led the assault on the Temple, he had reached the same conclusion about Palpatine. How was it that this boy could see the truth of things so quickly? Except that it wasn't the truth. He'd never dreamt that destiny could be altered so abruptly. In advising the boy he'd only been trying to...trying to what? Save him? Take care of him? He frowned. "I did not mislead you. And the Imperial Guards are still waiting. Let's go."
Anakin's feet remained planted. "Why should I go with you?"
He felt his temper flare. He couldn't remember the last time someone had questioned his orders. "Name one ally you have if you stay here."
Anakin stared at him for a moment, the looked away, shaking his head. "None. There's no one I can trust."
"That is why," he said. "Though the choice is yours."
"What will you do with me?" Anakin said.
He studied the boy, the oddness of seeing his own face beginning to lessen. He had hunted a long time for a Force strong apprentice, but he'd never considered anyone so young and untested. In the end, he simply told the truth. "I don't know. But to start, you can help me deal with the Guards."
"What, with my bare hands?" Anakin said, the cocky grin returning to his face at last.
He regarded the confiscated saber, and then proffered it to the boy. "Don't make me regret this."
As they entered the main hangar of the Palace together, Darth Vader had to admit the boy had been an able partner. Following his directives exactly, Anakin had dispatched the two guards on the side assigned to him with little fanfare. Afterwards, when they were standing back to back, lightsabers ignited and surrounded by fallen Guards, he felt a satisfaction he hadn't experienced in years.
Matching him stride for stride, Anakin looked toward the row of lambda
shuttles lining the far wall of the hangar. "Which one?" he asked.
Vader activated the transponder, and the ramp to his personal shuttle began to descend. Anakin stepped into an easy jog, crossing the hangar ahead of him, and disappeared up the ramp. He shook his head. The boy could hardly be made to stay in one place. When he finally entered the shuttle, he found Anakin occupying the pilot's position. He looked at him in annoyance. "Get out of my seat."
"I thought maybe you'd let me fly," Anakin said.
He hesitated a moment, remembering the joy that flying had brought to him in his youth, and still did to this day. "Do you know how?"
He could sense the boy's deception. "Your thoughts betray you."
"I've flown speeders," Anakin said, frowning. "And didn't you say you were going to expand my education?"
"Out!" he said with a gesture. If this boy were
to be his apprentice, he was going to have to learn his place.
Anakin shrugged, and moved over to the co-pilot's seat. Vader raised the shuttle ramp and performed the pre-flight check, then eased the ship upward and free of the other vessels. Once clear of the hangar doors, he accelerated the shuttle, bypassing the Imperial Center flylanes and heading for the stars. He glanced over at the boy and found him absorbed in the view outside the transparisteel window. A small smile escaped him at the sight, but he pushed it back.
They were almost through the atmosphere when the boy spoke. "I didn't bring any of my things."
"There are uniforms on board Devastator
," he said. "You will be less conspicuous that way."
"I don't see why we're even going there," Anakin said, swiveling towards him. "Why didn't you just tell the Senate you're the Emperor now?"
His neck prickled at the boy's insolence. "It's not that simple. The transition will be smoother with proper troop support."
"He didn't need an army behind him," Anakin said. "No one dared to disobey him."
The last thing he needed was the boy to remind him how easily Palpatine maintained control. "That was because he had me to enforce his decisions."
"Then why did he want me to replace you?"
That question had gnawed at him ever since he'd learned of the boy's existence. However easily Palpatine changed allegiances, it was never without reason. In what way had his old master thought him deficient? Had his losses in Force ability been too great? Had he proven incapable in some way? He felt his anger rising as he thought of how much of his life he had spent in service to an unappreciative master. "Enough! What I fail to comprehend is how he tolerated listening to your incessant questions."
Anakin looked at him through narrowed eyes, and then flung himself out of the co-pilot's seat and towards the rear of the ship. Vader glanced back and saw the boy curled up in a first row seat in the passenger compartment. He returned his gaze to the viewscreen, sighting Devastator's
ever enlarging profile. He sighed, hoping he had not made an error in bringing the boy, because it was seeming that having Anakin present was less liking having an apprentice, and more like having a child.
"Lord Vader, there is a priority call from Grand Moff Tarkin on channel two-nine-two."
Darth Vader stared at his desk com speaker. That had to be a record. Since his return to Devastator
, he had only issued the command to retrieve the 501st Legion, and settled the boy into a cabin. An hour, tops. Yet there was Tarkin, somehow having already received word of his change to the status quo.
"Send the call to my quarters, Lieutenant."
"Yes, m'lord. Transferring now."
Even though he was expecting the call, he let the com chime several times before answering it. "What is it, Governor?"
"Bevil Lemilisk tells me you are removing the Five-oh-first from the project," Tarkin said, his voice spiked with anger.
Ahh, there was the source of the leak: the mealy-mouthed chief engineer of the Death Star. "The Five-oh-first has always been under my direct control," he said. "I have a more urgent need for them."
"More urgent? What is more important than the project?" Tarkin stormed. "The Emperor must be unaware of your manuever."
Tarkin was silent for a moment. "Things will not go well for you once I inform him."
"Be my guest."
"What are you up to, Vader?"
Tarkin's refusal to grant him the respect he deserved had long irked him, particularly the way he addressed him like a common soldier. That was one habit that was going to change. "Is that any way to speak to your new Emperor?"
"What?" Tarkin's shock was evident over the speaker. "Palpatine is dead? Why have there been no reports?"
He couldn't help feeling smug. "You're the first I've told."
"Are you saying you
killed him, then?"
"No," he said innocently. "Not me. Not exactly. But he is dead."
"I have no time for your games, Vader. And even if the Emperor is dead, you don't automatically inherit the title."
His humor faded in the face of Tarkin's continued opposition. "It is too late for debates, Governor. Control of Imperial Center will be mine shortly."
"You have few friends, Vader. You'll never be able to keep it."
He was done with this conversation. "I suggest you stop worrying about me and instead ensure that progress is maintained on the project now that the Five-oh-first is gone. And that, Tarkin
, is an order from the Emperor."
Pacing the length of Devastator's
bridge windows, Darth Vader calculated the time remaining until the 501st Legion arrived. Their battle honed discipline would have allowed them to mobilize quickly, and by now they should have loaded their gear onto a transport and be enroute to Imperial Center from Despayre. That left only the two hour hyperspace journey before the unit rendezvoused with Devastator
and the occupation of the Palace could begin. As long as no one on Imperial Center was yet aware of Palpatine's demise, that brief delay should present no problem.
He paused at the center of the bridge and turned his head from side to side, attempting to relieve the tension in his neck. In all the times he had imagined taking over Palpatine's position, he had never dreamt that when it actually happened, he'd be so unprepared. He berated himself for allowing Tarkin to irritate him, because it would have been much smarter not to have informed the Governor. But even thinking of Tarkin's words still perturbed him, as the Grand Moff would not be the only one to dispute his right to the Throne. Until the 501st filled the halls of the Palace, and he could demonstrate the overwhelming control Palpatine had always mustered, there was a chance his bid could fail.
It all hinged on whether Palpatine's death was discovered before he could pronounce himself Emperor. In truth, Tarkin was unlikely to spread the news because he harbored his own dream of ruling the Empire. But if the body were to be found accidentally.... He shook his head. No one would enter the Throne Room without permission, and if Palpatine had been expected for a meeting, his tardiness or absence would be completely accepted. And anyone seeking audience with the Emperor would know that access was not always speedily granted. But if someone had something to report, something so important that they would fear not
reporting it, that might drive them to search for Palpatine. Something unusual, such as the disappearance of the boy.
With an abruptness that startled some of his crew, he whirled about and headed down the command walkway of the bridge towards the turbolifts. Once inside, he selected the level of his own quarters; the boy was housed only a few doors away. When he arrived at Anakin's cabin, he activated the door chime, but received no response. Frowning, he pushed the button again and again until the boy answered from within.
"Go away!" Anakin growled.
Instead, Vader reversed the servos in the door lock with a twist of his hand, and waved the door open. The interior of the cabin was darkened, but the brilliance of the boy's presence revealed him at the back of the room. He motioned on the overhead lights and walked towards Anakin, who squinted as his eyes adjusted. Dressed in the Imperial uniform Vader had provided, the boy was sitting on the floor with his knees drawn up, and his back against the cabin wall. The scarlet banded shirt he had worn previously was clutched in his hands, and dried tear tracks lined his face.
"You don't listen very well," Anakin said.
For a moment Vader wondered what had happened to prompt the change in the boy's emotional state, but he made himself ignore the distress he sensed in Anakin. There was business at hand. "I need to know if anyone will be looking for you. A tutor, perhaps, or a caretaker of some sort."
"What, did you come here to rub it in?" Anakin's demeanor changed from sullen to outraged. "The only person who cared about me, I just killed."
Even as a sense of relief flowed through him about his own plans, the profound lonliness emanating from Anakin resonated within him. The sorrow consuming the boy was so familiar. He remembered all the losses of his own youth: his mother, his arm, and the last, when everything went away on Mustafar. When he killed the person who loved him most. His hand went to his chest, pressing against the leather of the suit as the dull ache in his heart sprung anew. It was a pain he had tried to will away, but could not. He looked away from the boy to the cabin desk, where the meal he'd ordered for Anakin lay untouched.
"Is there something wrong with your food?" he said, trying to bridge the gap between them, as if assuaging the boy's pain would soothe his own.
"I'm not hungry," Anakin said, leaning his head back against the cabin wall.
Though rusty in offering comfort, he persisted in spite of Anakin's rebuff. "When I was your age I was hungry all the time."
Anakin met his gaze, holding it for a moment, then nodded. "Maybe later."
A small acknowledgement, but he would accept it. With nothing else for him to offer the boy, he headed for the door.
"He wasn't all bad, you know," Anakin said.
Silently, he turned back towards his clone.
"He told me he found me on a beach of black sand," the boy continued. "He said I was all alone and would have died if he hadn't saved me."
He listened, fascinated. The boy hadn't been found anywhere. He'd been decanted in a glass vat somewhere.
"When I was younger, I did have tutors, but never the same ones for long. He was always there for me, though," Anakin said. He unclipped his lightsaber and held it gently. "He taught me how to make this, and how to use the Force."
Vader could almost say the same thing about his own life. If not always, Palpatine had often been there for him, too, with words of advice and encouragement. Of course, that all changed after Mustafar, and he now recognized his master's kindness as a ploy, but he still remembered what it was like to bask in the warmth of Palpatine's praise. Sometimes he wondered if the memory of that warmth was what had kept him from severing his tie to his master, the remaining person in the Galaxy to know who he had been. And since Anakin existed, perhaps Palpatine had
valued his former self. Unbidden, a ripple of sadness spread through him at the thought of the slight form sprawled across the Palace floor.
Anakin gazed up at him. "He said that I was special. That there was no one more gifted in the Force than me."
How many times had he worn those same words as a cloak of protection against the bitter wind of Jedi disapproval? To strip the boy of their comfort was to leave himself bereft as well. He walked up to Anakin and looked down into his own troubled face. "Not everything he said was a lie."