Title: Lord Vader's Limpet
Disclaimer Not my characters and not my universe.
Summary: Vader, one way or another, got himself lost for quite a while out in the Unknown Regions a la Robinson Crusoe, and comes back to find that while there’s no more Empire for him to command, he has a new role to play: Grandpa.
Limpet: 1) a type of small, cone-shaped shellfish that fastens itself very firmly to rocks; 2) one that clings persistently.
Lord Vader had acquired a limpet.
This was a new ailment for him, heretofore foreign—and that was saying something, because over the course of his several decades of life, there were few physical afflictions that the Dark Lord had not experienced. His history of injuries ran the gamut from strains to sprains to dislocations to dismembered limbs to massive burns to headaches, and even included electrical shorts in his prostheses and life support systems. He had been beaten, trampled, shot, drugged, dragged, electrocuted, bitten, stung, lacerated, bruised, and concussed. He had yet to actually die, miraculously, but if this limpet remained attached much longer, that experience might be arriving sooner than expected. His strength was considerable, but it was not infinite, and his patience was even less so. There was no telling how much longer he could manage to drag it around everywhere he went.
He could not deny that it was a cute little parasite, cute enough to overcome a large portion of his own intimidating appearance. Every officer on his ship found him ten times more approachable than normal when it was attached. That, of course, was only one more reason for him to get rid of it.
Naturally, he had tried several techniques to remove it. Physical force, ignoring, abandoning, bribing—nothing would distract it for long. He had even resorted to terrifying the wits out of it, but that too was ineffective. The frightened little thing would dash off to be consoled and soothed, but it possessed a brazen spirit that he was forced to admire even at the height of his annoyance. Sooner or later, it would come creeping back and reattach itself, pestering him insistently until he could not ignore it any further.
When he had re-emerged from the depths of the Unknown Regions into a galaxy vastly different from the one he’d known twenty-five years previously, he had anticipated any number of trials. He had expected all sorts of opposition and enmity from the government, the populace, and his own children. Assassination attempts, political attacks, and universal contempt—he could take all these in stride. But this persistent attachment to him on the part of so small a thing, one he was powerless to prevent or even deter, he had not foreseen.
He felt a familiar tug on the corner of his cape. “Gampa?” a small voice queried for approximately the fiftieth time.
With a resigned sigh, Vader reached down and hoisted the limpet up to chest-level with one arm. It immediately began trying to play with the life-support control panel that was now within its toddler-sized reach, just as it did every time, and Vader brushed the mischievous hands away, just as he did every time.
For reasons that remained securely locked within Ben Skywalker’s two-year-old brain, his grandson had decided the first moment they met that he, Darth Vader—mass murderer, fallen Jedi Knight and Dark Lord of the Sith—was the greatest thing ever to grace the universe. They had known each other for all of six months now. It was almost exactly that long since Vader’s ship had fumbled its way out of the Unknown Regions and into the galaxy’s shocked lap.
Reactions had varied across the board. Luke had arrived aboard his Destroyer in a matter of days, looking nearly as traumatized as at Bespin, demanding to know whether or not he was immortal. Captain Solo, true to form, had shot a blaster at him and sworn a blue streak. Mara’s displeasure at seeing him alive was outweighed by her delight in his surprise at finding himself her father-in-law. Leia, now Chief of State of the New Republic, had looked as though she might kill him for having the gall not to be decently dead after she’d named her youngest son after him. As for the junior Anakin and his two elder siblings, they hadn’t had any idea what to think.
But their cousin had known right away what he thought of his grandfather. “Dada!” he had squealed, toddling into Vader’s boots without a moment’s hesitation. It had taken some work to convince him that although Vader and Luke’s Force signatures were quite similar, his grandfather and father were not the same person. Mara claimed that Ben understood this distinction perfectly now, but Vader was sure that the boy still believed he was Daddy 2.0.
The Dark Lord also suspected that Ben thought he was some sort of super-droid. After all, the toddler was quite fond of Luke’s astromech unit and Leia’s protocol droid. From the child’s behavior, the primary characteristics which made him more interesting than either droid were his cape and chest control panel. Additionally, he had caught the boy attempting to filch his lightsaber, and more than once had had to pry the small fingers out of the grill on his face mask. Further favorite pastimes included yanking on the chain that held his cape, attempting to infiltrate the compartments on his belt, and leaving grubby fingerprints on his eyeplates. The sheer amount of unusual mechanical features on his person was so enticing that no matter how Vader tried to scare him away, the youngster was always back within minutes, if not seconds.
To say that Darth Vader was not amused would be an understatement, and for one who was used to co-ruling the galaxy and commanding the most powerful naval force in history, he had somehow fallen to the level of a two-year-old’s personal playground.
His mistake, he concluded, had been reproducing in the first place. What had it gotten him? Two insurrectionists for children, a former assassin for a daughter-in-law, a reprobate ex-smuggler for a son-in-law, and a brood of overly affectionate grandchildren. At least Leia had managed to drum some sense into her three. None of them insisted on attaching their persons to him like some sort of fifth prosthetic.
Of course, they were all teenagers.
“Gampa?” his personal limpet demanded again. “Gampa, pay fy?”
“No,” Vader said in his most thunderous voice. “I am not going to ‘play flying’ like your inane father does.” This game, which involved zooming Ben through the air either by hand or with the aid of the Force, was in Vader’s opinion a cunning ploy of revenge devised by his son. Luke had doubtless invented this game just so the boy would demand that his grandfather play it, thereby making Vader look like a complete idiot.
He was not about to fall for such an obvious trap.
“Dada!” the limpet squealed happily, anything but intimidated. On the contrary: the Force-sensitive boy was thrilled every time Vader projected any thought of Luke, however derogatory. “Pay fy!” He wagged his arms through the air for emphasis, then was distracted once more by the blinking lights of the control panel. With a world-weary sigh, Vader batted the tiny fingers away again.
“You have certainly inherited your mother’s penchant for disrespect,” he informed the toddler.
“Mama!” Ben squeaked, even more exuberant. “Mama pay fy!”
Now there was an excellent idea. “Do you wish me to take you to your mother?” Mara was somewhere on the planet, he could sense that, although he did not know precisely where—
“Waz Gampa,” Ben said predictably, snuggling his chubby little self even more closely against his grandfather. The small boy could not understand most of what he said, but he usually sensed the direction of Vader’s thoughts with startling clarity.
Vader sighed. “What about your father?” Luke had been on his hurried way to some crisis or other an hour ago, which was when he’d saddled Vader with the toddler. The insolent boy had developed an alarming habit of using him as a convenient babysitter for Ben whenever Vader happened to be on Coruscant. As if a Dark Lord of the Sith had nothing better to do with his time.
He didn’t, but that was beside the point.
“He likes you,” his son had said by way of explanation.
“He is not permitted to,” Vader had fired back, attempting to untangle the toddler from his cape.
As usual, his effort to assert patriarchal authority was wasted on his disrespectful offspring. “Sure he’s not,” Luke said, and waltzed blissfully off to save the galaxy, leaving Vader to cope with Ben’s possessive demands in whatever way he could.
“No Dada, nuh-uh, waz Gampa,” Ben said now, his voice muffled due to his whole face being burrowed into Vader’s shoulder.
Vader sighed to himself once more and toted the little limpet into the Spartan main room of his quarters, setting him down on the floor next to a pile of blocks. He had been forced to buy the blocks out of self-defense, so that there would be something besides himself to entertain the child when Luke or Mara dumped the toddler on his hands. It had taken several deadly threats to quell the toy shop owner’s hysterical laughter at the sight of him wandering through aisles of plushies and action figures.
“Play with the blocks,” he commanded. Ben was diverted for all of two seconds before jumping back up and tugging on his cape.
“Waz pay wis Gampa!” he chirped.
Vader firmly disengaged the limpet and sat him back down two full feet away. “I have important duties that require my attention,” he rumbled. “You will have to entertain yourself.”
Ben bounced right back up around his feet. “Waz pay wis Gampa!” he insisted.
Why was it that all of his descendents only acted on their streak of independence when it was most inconvenient to him? And why had they had to inherit that particular streak from Padmé in the first place? “I told you,” Vader repeated, prying the toddler off of his boots once more, “I have important duties to complete.”
Ben, for all that he was two, seemed to sense that those “important duties” consisted mainly of signing requisition forms for new wall hangings for the Star Destroyer’s ‘freshers. As the determined child crawled back to his feet once more, Vader realized that only a distraction of superior guile was going to dissuade his stubborn grandson.
Accordingly, he racked the bare confines of his quarters for anything that Ben might conceivably find more entertaining than himself.
“Here,” he rumbled, waving his hand. Ben watched in fascination as his grandfather used a tendril of the Force to summon an object from another room. As soon as it came in view, the small boy squealed with excitement.
“Yes, snowman,” Vader agreed, settling the stormtrooper helmet over the small shock of auburn hair. He had tried on several occasions to teach his grandson that stormtroopers were in fact humans behind their white uniforms and armor, but Ben insisted that they were real live snowmen, just like the characters in his favorite children’s book.
“Play with the helmet,” Vader ordered him. “I will see to my paperwork.”
“No’mah! Az no’mah, Gampa! No’mah, no’mah…”
Vader watched Ben crawl around in his new disguise for a few seconds. Then, satisfied that the limpet was thoroughly distracted for the moment, he fled to the relative safety of his office.
Here, life had not changed in the last forty years. He sat down. He looked at papers and forms vital to the security and prosperity of his command. He signed the papers and forms. Occasionally he called an officer to tell that officer in no uncertain terms what he thought of some particularly stupid paper and/or form. That had always been his favorite part, as it was usually accompanied by frenzied protests, the soiling of trousers and the snapping of necks. However, there were far fewer papers and forms to wade through these days, compared to the heyday of the Empire, and most of them were merely mundane.
With a world-weary sigh, Vader regarded the requisition on his desk, and wondered when, exactly, he’d gotten so soft that his crew would even think about considering submitting a request to add mini-shockball game tables to the mess halls. In the explanations box of the form, he noted irritably, some impertinent lieutenant had scrawled: The Rebels have them.
Deciding that Sith dignity prevented lowering himself so far as to consider such a plebeian issue, Vader forwarded the requisition to his admiral. Piett would, of course, sign off on it, because as the whole crew knew after twenty-five years of wandering uncharted space, Piett was the nice commanding officer. The Dark Lord was not, however, unaware of the steadily increasing rumors that he had softened up a hundredfold since the Emperor’s death.
He had done no such thing, of course. Circumstances had merely compelled him to adopt a more…diplomatic approach. After all, when one was lost in the middle of uncharted space for twenty-five years, one couldn’t very well afford to go around executing one’s officers, however much the officers deserved it. And now that they were back in the galaxy proper, they were at a political disadvantage. The Empire had fallen and the New Republic was in full force, backed up by a sizeable percentage of the ships that he had once commanded. Clearly it would be foolish to antagonize those of standing within the new government.
That, unfortunately, included his daughter, her howling brood and the unwashed pirate that she had the gall to call “husband.”
Which was why he humored his son by letting the boy drop off this little limpet from time to time—strictly for political reasons. Obviously, only expediencies of survival kept him from resuming the battle against the Jedi. Given his druthers he’d exterminate the lot of them again, re-establish the Empire, and see if one of his talented grandchildren would make a suitable apprentice. Not that there was any emotional connection to them, family being after all mere biological happenstance—
Vader turned just in time to see Ben totter into the office. Apparently he was too small for his eyes to align properly with the helmet’s eyeplates, for he veered disastrously into the side of Vader’s office desk and fell comically backwards on his padded bottom. The weight of the helmet swayed the rest of him off balance, and he swung over backward, arms flailing. The helmet hit the deck with a loud metallic clunk.
There was no explosion of crying, so Vader felt there was no need for adult intervention.
“Aren’t you going to get him?” a dry female voice asked.
He looked sharply up, mentally preparing to dice the unauthorized intruder into smoking bite-size appetizers, and saw Leia standing in the doorway of his office. Her elegant attire was, as usual, accessorized with an open look of amusement. He did not care for that look at all. She got it every time she saw him trying to manage his grandson.
“He is capable of standing without my assistance,” he said stubbornly, standing up and hooking his thumbs into his belt in his most intimidating fashion. Between them, Ben got himself on all fours, bottom stuck precariously up in the air, and promptly fell over sideways as the loose helmet shifted.
Leia lifted one perfectly trimmed eyebrow. “Obviously.” She crouched down and lifted the helmet off her nephew’s head. “You’re definitely a little short for a stormtrooper,” she told him.
“Ann Waya, az no’mah!” Ben chattered.
“He says that he’s a snowman,” Vader translated in response to her puzzled expression.
She raised her eyebrows again. He definitely did not care for that look.
“Darth Vader, the Toddler Whisperer,” she mused, with the same rebellious quirk of her lips that she’d had when facing Tarkin on the Death Star. “I confess I never saw that one coming.”
To his chagrin, he could not immediately think of a suitable retort. While hostility between himself and his daughter was surprisingly minimal, considering their history, neither bothered with any formal niceties. Except when the older grandchildren were present, their relationship rested mainly on unannounced encounters, where every conversation was a duel, every sharp comeback was a point scored. He was definitely losing this bout in a bad way.
Ben unwittingly snatched his reputation from the rising flames. “Ann Waya pay fy?”
“Sorry, Ben, I can’t stay,” she told him. “I have to get back to work.” Her brown eyes flicked up to Vader with a wicked spark in them. “I’m sure Grandpa would like to play flying with you, though.”
“As I recall,” Vader thundered, “there is still an Imperial death warrant on your head, Princess. Do not tempt me further.”
“Sorry,” she said, deadpan. “The Bastion Accords cancelled all the outstanding Imperial warrants.”
“You will notice that I did not sign that treaty.”
“But you did sign those terms of cooperation we gave you six months ago,” Leia reminded him. “You know, the ones that require you to cooperate with the New Republic Intelligence Agency in return for being left alone?”
“What do you want?” he asked resignedly.
“I don’t want anything. The agency director does.”
“Very well, what does the director want?”
“Access to some of your shipboard restricted files,” she said. He felt the beginnings of a surge of ire before she held up a hand and added, “On a onetime basis, just a few of your old Fleet personnel records. They’ve had some reports coming in of a rogue Destroyer out in Bethari Sector and want to know who’s behind it.”
“If it is something so minor, pray tell why the Chief of State saw fit to inform me personally?” he rumbled.
She gave him an arch look. “I don’t want my aide strangled to death, that’s why.”
“You know perfectly well I would not have—” He stopped dead at the distinct Gotcha! glint in her brown eyes. “—Done something so politically unwise,” he muttered instead, rather lamely.
“Or maybe you’re just out of practice,” she suggested, tilting her head at an impudent angle. Her gaze suddenly landed on something behind him. “Mini-shockball game tables?” she muttered, peering.
“That,” Vader boomed, “is restricted Fleet documentation—”
“You’re signing requisition forms for game tables?” Her eyebrows had lurched up to a nearly vertical position.
“No,” he snapped, stepping forward, “I’m ejecting you from my quarters.”
Both of them were well aware that, between Ben and the game tables, she had won this particular spat. Having cinched the real victory, Leia could afford not to protest. “You do that,” she smirked, dropping down to scoop her nephew into a hug. “See you later, Ben.”
“Ann Waya go bye-byes?” Ben asked sadly.
“Yes, I have to go.” She stood and headed through the door, pausing just on the other side. “Have lots of fun playing with Grandpa.”
“Gampa pay fy!”
“I’m sure Grandpa would love to play flying,” Leia agreed, meeting Vader’s death glare with a smile of unimpeachable innocence.
“I have important duties that require my attention—”
“Can’t afford to ignore those mini-shockball tables,” Leia agreed earnestly. “You never know when you might have to solve a military crisis with a one-on-one sudden-death match—”
She waltzed off down the hall with a supremely triumphant smile. Vader gnashed his teeth behind his mask.
“Ann Waya go bye-byes,” Ben announced.
“And good riddance,” Vader told him. “Your aunt is as bad as you when it comes to pushing buttons compulsively.”
Ben regarded him with an expression of utter confusion. “Badda?” he asked.
“Button, precisely.” Vader reached down for the stormtrooper helmet and re-deposited it on the toddler’s head. Squealing, Ben swayed off, waving his arms and weaving from side to side before crashing headlong into the opposite wall. There was an ominous silence before the small boy suddenly let out a shrill wail.
Vader would have beaten a hasty retreat, but experience had taught him that ignoring the limpet would only cause it to shriek more loudly and at greater length. He turned around reluctantly and hoisted his distraught grandson up to eye level by the back of his green coveralls. The wails were rather muffled from within the skull-like helmet. Vader pried it off, and wondered what to do with the tear-streaked, red-cheeked face that appeared. He settled for scanning the boy quickly with the Force, checking for damages. None presented themselves.
“You are uninjured,” he rumbled, setting the boy back down on the floor. “There is no need to make a racket.”
Ben plopped onto his padded bottom, sobbed even harder than before, and stretched both arms up.
“I am not going to coddle you,” Vader said, pointing a finger at his distressed descendent. “You will only be spoiled if I cater to your every whim.”
“Gaaaaaammmppaaaaaaa!” Ben bawled, crawling over and stumbling into his boots.
Sighing once more, Vader swung the toddler unceremoniously into one arm. “Does that satisfy you?”
The boy kept crying until Vader gave in completely and began using the Force to soothe him, in the same way that he had seen Luke and Mara do on the occasion of previous meltdowns. He could not help thinking as he did so that it should have been Luke who learned it from him, and not the other way around. His mood descended into morbid pensiveness as he paced the confines of the room. Ben’s sobs wilted into sniffles and finally faded altogether, but Vader kept stroking the young mind and patting the small back, his mind wandering years away to a beautiful face framed in brunette curls.
Ben’s willingness to be carried around quietly did not last, of course. Before long, Vader was again pushing inquisitive fingers away from his life-support control panel and mask. “Do not touch those,” he ordered, to no avail.
“Where Dada?” Ben wanted to know, rubbing a chubby-fingered smudge into his eyeplates.
“I have no idea where your irresponsible father has gone,” Vader said. Fed up once more, and brushing futilely at the smears on his eyeplates, he deposited Ben amidst the strewn blocks. “Play with the blocks now.” Once he had started a tower for the boy, Ben became sufficiently interested in the blocks that Vader was able to get through an entire stack of requisition forms without interference. He had nearly forgotten about his grandson by the time the little limpet came wandering back in.
There was an unusual note of urgency in the small voice, and Vader turned more quickly. Ben was bouncing up and down gingerly, wearing an expression of supreme discomfort. “Gaz doodoo,” he explained shamefacedly.
Vader was mystified.
“Gaz doodoo,” Ben said, clutching at his pants desperately.
“Come, I will take you to a ‘fresher,” Vader boomed. He began sweeping out the door, intent on resolving the crisis before it could blossom into a disaster, but soon realized that Ben was following at a hesitant waddle, swinging his chubby legs much more widely than usual. Now why was that?
Vader knelt down and gingerly patted Ben’s bottom. He had thought the padding there was merely for protective purposes.
He had been very wrong.
Now that he thought about it, it made sense, of course. A child so small was probably more prone to distraction and forgetfulness, and this—device—was apparently some sort of protective lining in case there should, ah, be a mishap. But what did one do with it now? He simply had never encountered this situation before, not having had previous occasion to familiarize himself with the intimate details of caring for a small child.
He contemplated the problem for a few seconds before pulling out his comlink and punching in a code he now knew by heart. A moment later a brisk female voice with a Coruscanti accent answered.
“Mara,” he rumbled.
“Oh. It’s you.” As had been the case since the first time they met—she had been all of six—his daughter-in-law was less than thrilled.
“What can’t you handle this time?” she continued.
“It is more a question of what you are responsible for handling,” Vader said.
There was a pause, and then the projector on his comlink lit up, displaying Mara in miniature. “I take it Luke left Ben with you again,” she surmised, one hand planted on her waist.
“Your offspring,” he said menacingly, “is interfering with my work. Retrieve him at once.”
Mara smirked. “Are you working on hologame units now? Or are you still stuck on the mini-shockball tables?”
“I see my wayward daughter has been spreading unfounded rumors,” Vader snapped.
“Actually,” she said, eyes alight with relish, “I heard it from Karrde, who heard it from Calrissian, who heard it from Solo, who heard it from Leia.”
“My son is not about to hear it from you,” Vader warned, mind already racing with schemes to murder all of Coruscant’s tabloid editors before they could print anything damning.
“I’d blackmail you, but spreading the news is so much more fun.”
“Jade, I will not—”
“Gampa!” Ben whined miserably, tugging on his cape with one frantic hand.
“Is that Ben?” Mara asked, leaning forward into her pickup.
“Yes,” Vader said, abruptly reminded of the other brewing crisis in his life. “Your son requires your immediate hygienic assistance.”
“Gaz doodoo, Mama,” Ben whimpered in the general direction of the comlink.
Mara’s eyebrows lifted a good two centimeters before she abruptly leaned out of the pickup range. There was an odd snorting noise that sounded suspiciously like stifled laughter. Several seconds later she reappeared, the corners of her mouth still twitching treacherously. “So that’s what you can’t handle.”
“This limpet is your responsibility,” he lectured.
Mara’s amusement was gone in a second. Her green eyes narrowed, and he was quickly reminded that, Jedi or no, she had still been raised by a Sith Lord. “Do not call my son that,” she snarled. “If you can’t handle the biological functions of a two-year-old, I’m sure you can always com Leia’s apartment and beg Threepio to help you.”
Vader clenched a fist. Tatooine would freeze over before he would beg a protocol droid for assistance of any stamp. And he certainly wasn’t about to go crawling to Leia.
It was time to bargain.
“I propose a deal. I will see to your mischievous offspring, and you will refrain from speaking to my son about any of today’s events.”
The dramatic green eyes glinted drolly, humor restored. “Deal,” she said.
“Now. With what implements am I to clean him?”
“Luke should have left you his bag,” Mara said. He glanced around the front room of his quarters and saw a no-nonsense brown leather bag sitting on the floor near the entryway. Ben’s name was stitched onto the front. “It’s got wipes and extra diapers. Get his overalls off, toss the old one, wipe him up, put on a new one. Have fun.”
“Mama!” Ben said.
“I love you, sweetie,” she cooed, in a most un-Mara-like fashion. Blowing Ben a kiss, she switched off her comlink, and Vader was left staring back and forth between his hopping grandson and the innocuous-looking bag.
“Mama pweddy,” Ben stated at the silent comlink, rubbing absently at his bottom.
Vader stashed the device on his belt and hefted Ben. “I do not share your estimate of your mother’s attractive qualities,” he said, retrieving the bag from its spot with a commanding swipe of one hand. “Now. You will cooperate, and we will finish this business as soon as possible.”
He rummaged through the bag and discovered a package of damp wipes, a thin collapsible mat, and a pile of fluffy folded white objects with adhesive sealing tabs. Hesitantly he pulled out one of the white things, along the wipes, and laid out mat and grandson on his office desk. Presumably, getting the coveralls off was the first order of business, but it proved trickier than expected, given the impossibly small and complicated clasps that secured them. Vader cursed Mara’s choice of wardrobe several times before finally wriggling Ben free.
Underneath it, Ben was garbed in a miniature long-sleeved shirt and one of the fluffy white things—except this one was no longer pristinely white. Horrified, Vader noted that there had been…containment issues.
He checked the inside of the coveralls.
The containment issues continued.
Thoroughly disgusted, Vader stripped the coveralls off altogether and stuffed them into a separate pocket of the bag. “I find your lack of control disturbing,” he said, pointing at Ben in a fashion that had terrorized scores of ruthless Imperial officers into cowering submission.
Ben only giggled and grabbed at his toes.
That was undoubtedly his father’s side.
Cautiously Vader reached down and peeled the diaper away. The hideous mess that was (partially) contained therein made him exceedingly thankful that his life-support mask and helmet cancelled out his sense of smell.
Now that was his mother’s side.
An entire package of wet wipes and a lengthy wrestling match with a diaper later, Ben was properly cleaned up and toddling around Vader’s quarters in nothing but his shirt and freshly padded bottom. The Dark Lord elected not to dwell on how incredibly unbefitting such a lack of dignity was for the grandson of a Sith Lord. Hopefully he would not have any other undesirable visitors before Ben left.
Not that it really mattered anymore. He’d have to stand out on the street corners offering hugs to random passersby to ruin his reputation any further than Ben already had. His grandson’s capacity for mass destruction was rivaled only by that of a Death Star. Considering the amount of galactic havoc Luke and Leia had managed to wreak as teenagers, this was in no way one explanation for this behaviour was possible: there must have been some very questionable characters on Padmé’s side of the family. He didn’t know where else his offspring could have gotten all these undesirable traits.
Ben had been surprisingly patient with the extended changing process, but once he had been suitably sanitized, his attention span returned to its usual miniscule dimensions. The fascination value of the blocks had been exhausted, as had that of the stormtrooper helmet. Vader tried a TIE pilot’s helmet, but Ben only inspected it for a few seconds before deciding it was not nearly as interesting as his grandfather. Deactivated comlinks, hydrospanners, and a spare pair of boots proved equally futile. He had a little more luck when he showered a stack of cancelled requisition forms and styluses on the boy, encouraging him to draw on the blank reverses, but although Ben was quite engrossed in producing artwork, he insisted that his grandfather view and approve of each new masterpiece. “Gampa, see? See? Ben dawr!”
Vader tried to satisfy the boy with a few generic words of praise per sheet of scribbling, but this only encouraged Ben to ask for help in sticking the pictures up for display. With a resigned sigh, Vader broke out the sticky tack. Initially he tried to affix the pictures to the least visible sections of wall, but Ben was not so easily deceived. “Uz pud up dewr,” the toddler ordered imperiously, pointing to the very front wall of Vader’s quarters, where any visitors would be sure to see.
Vader gritted his teeth and began filling in the blank expanse, wishing he had had the foresight to purchase a large painting of an exploding volcano or a battle or something equally suited to a Sith Lord. Instead he would be exhibiting an entire wall full of black scribble—probably for several months, as Ben would be devastated if the pictures were gone the next time he visited.
Not that he was worried about upsetting a toddler—it was the toddler’s overprotective mother that posed the biggest problem. Mara was not known for her tolerance of people who unnecessarily inhibited the happiness of her son. And unlike Ben, Mara had plenty of inventive ways to make her displeasure known.
Besides, the rest of the family would be on her side. When it came to Ben, Luke always sided with Mara. Solo would say he was being an idiot—which, coming from Solo, was beyond intolerable—and as for Leia, she would inevitably gravitate to whatever position was the direct opposite of Vader’s. Jacen and Jaina would ask him what the big deal was, and Anakin—the deceptively quiet prankster of the family—would probably draw a very large picture of his own, sneak into Vader’s quarters, and superglue it to the wall.
So, in the end, he was leaving Ben’s collection up in order to protect his walls from superglue. It was a matter of defensive strategy. Nothing more.
The last masterwork was tacked up and Vader and Ben stepped back to admire the overall effect. Ben bounced happily. “Az show Mama an’ Dada!” he declared.
Vader groaned. If Luke—or worse, Mara—were to see this absurd display plastered all over his quarters, his reputation would be beyond salvage. Perhaps—perhaps if he managed to distract Ben from the pictures, he would be able to rush the boy out to meet his parents in the corridor when he sensed them coming, thereby avoiding any further mortification.
But…what was left that would take Ben’s mind off the wall full of pictures? The blocks and helmets were exhausted and nothing else seemed to hold any interest for a small toddler. Nothing…except for…
Vader quailed for a second before gritting his teeth. It was either that or watch his reputation crumble to dust while his offspring howled in hysterical laughter. And if both were equally incompatible with Sithly dignity, at least he could accomplish this idea without being seen by anybody but Ben.
“Ben,” he said tentatively, “would you like to…play flying?”
Ben’s Force signature and emotions exploded with the force of a Death Star. “PAY FY!!!!!!” He dashed over as fast as his unsteady legs could manage, grabbing Vader’s boots and squealing in unabashed delight. “Pay fy! Pay fy, Gampa pay fy!” To all appearances, this moment was the highlight of his two-year-old life.
Vader had to admit that his enthusiasm was just a bit contagious. “Very well,” he said, and hefted Ben up in both hands.
“Az payship!” Ben shrieked merrily, spreading both arms wide. Vader took this as his cue to swing the boy about, pivoting in a perfect circle. He got through two revolutions before Ben had to correct his technique.
“Na-no! Gampa gotsa go up an’ down like payship!” Ben waved his arms vaguely in the indicated directions. Bemusedly, Vader started again, this time swinging alternately up and down as they went around. Ben began embellishing the game with sound effects, alternately imitating engine squeals and laser blasts. Vader, getting into the spirit of the thing—apparently it was not so much “play flying” as “play high-pitched starfighter combat”—began taking advantage of the entire space of the room, swinging Ben in intricate combat maneuvers and making use of the Force to throw in a barrel roll or two along the way.
“Lock S-foils in attack formation!” he commanded, swinging Ben around about seventy degrees to begin an approach on an imaginary target. Ben pointed his fingers forward and blasted the target to pieces with invisible torpedoes.
“Az got him!” he announced. Then he pointed towards the other side of the room. “Daw’s nuzzer one! Az get him!”
“Heading sixty-five by twelve,” Vader responded, assuming the proper direction and trotting across the room a little more quickly. “Stay on the leader!”
“Bang!” Ben yelled triumphantly. “Az got him ‘gen!”
“You are a truly remarkable shot,” Vader muttered under his breath—thus far, Ben had not once failed to hit his target on the first try. But being as he was a Skywalker, this really was not too far-fetched, so the Dark Lord did not attempt to improve the realism of the game. It was doomed to fail anyway. When asked what kind of fighter he wished to impersonate, Ben had insisted that he was an X-wing—“az like Dada payship!”—and no amount of discourse on the superior maneuverability of TIE fighters could convince him otherwise.
“Assume formation gamma twelve,” Vader directed instead, letting go of Ben altogether and spinning him in a spectacular spiral across the room before calling him back into his hands and preparing for the next attack run. “We have them now!”
“You have who now?” somebody asked from behind him.
Vader performed a panicked pirouette, tucking Ben hastily into a less compromising position and hoping that it was someone he could safely kill on the spot.
No such luck. Luke was standing just inside the door to his quarters, valiantly attempting to wrestle the lightyear-wide grin off his face and failing abysmally.
He could not think of a single thing to say.
“Dada!” Ben said, swinging his short arms spastically with excitement. “Gampa pay fy!”
“Grandpa’s doing what?” a disembodied female voice demanded. To Vader’s unrestrained horror, Mara appeared behind Luke.
“Mama!” Ben crowed. “Gampa pay fy!”
Luke had to clamp a hand over his mouth. At least he was trying to express an appropriate degree of respect for the patriarch of the Skywalker family. Mara looked to be on the verge of collapsing in a fit of hysterics, but was cleverly hiding it behind a satisfied smirk.
“Really,” she returned. What with the Coruscanti accent, the understated tone, and the pointedly raised eyebrows, she reminded Vader far too much of Obi-Wan Kenobi for his liking. He felt as though he was twelve years old again and Mace Windu had justcaught him pranking a fellow Padawan. Or as though Palpatine had caught him being too lenient with a misbehaving lackey.
“Grandpa looks like he was having lots of fun playing flying,” Mara added, glinting green eyes firmly fixated on her father-in-law’s mask.
“Lots of fun,” Luke added. Vader swiveled his scowl onto his son, who clamped his lips together in a determined effort not to keel over laughing. His jaw muscles twitched helplessly. “Maybe even as much fun as—mini-shockball—game tables—”
At Vader’s sudden surge of ire, Luke lost the battle altogether and leaned back against the wall, sniggering uncontrollably.
“You,” he snarled, pointing a condemning finger at Mara Jade, “have not upheld your end of the bargain.”
“Of course I did,” she returned innocently, crossing her arms. “I didn’t say a single word to him after you called. Now, before you called, of course, is a different story…”
Luke sounded as though he was in danger of asphyxiating himself.
“Mama!” Ben piped up. “Az dawr picksos!” He pointed enthusiastically at the wall covered in his scribbled artwork. “Az pud zem up dewr wis Gampa!”
Luke glanced at the wall and clamped his hand even more solidly over his mouth for several seconds before he could summon enough Jedi restraint to comment on the display with something approaching calm.
“Oh, they’re so good, sweetheart,” Mara cooed appreciatively, sidling around to inspect her son’s efforts and completely forgetting about her father-in-law in the process. For once, Vader was profoundly grateful for her hyperactive maternal instinct.
“If you would deign to take your offspring back,” he rumbled, extending Ben towards his son. Luke scooped the toddler up and wrinkled his eyebrows at Ben’s state of undress.
“What happened to your clothes?”
Ben responded with a stream of unintelligible nonsense, and concluded with “Gaz doodoo!”
Luke choked down a snort.
“Your son’s lack of control is his weakness,” Vader said, more severely than he really felt to make up for having been caught pampering his grandson.
“Father,” Luke told him, as though explaining biology to a youngling, “he’s two.” Vader crossed his arms petulantly. I am not a youngling.
“He would be much further in his training were he my son,” Vader retorted.
“There are so many places I could take that, you know,” Luke muttered, shifting Ben on his hip and swinging up the brown bag onto his shoulder. Vader turned stiffly aside, attempting to stem a tide of regret. He glanced back in time to see Luke shake his head slightly, with a light smile.
“Thanks for watching him,” Luke added easily.
Vader stared at him. You have nothing to thank me for, son.
You think I don’t know how hard it is to watch a Force-sensitive toddler? Luke sent back wryly. Between him and Leia’s kids?
Vader nearly flinched at the idea of Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin in their toddler years. One of them was quite enough—he could not begin to imagine how Leia had dealt with three at the same time. His daughter deserved even more credit for courage than he gave her.
Ben gave an enormous yawn, interrupting the mental conversation.
“Guess your grandpa wore you out,” Luke told his drowsy son.
“Az not sewpy,” Ben mumbled, rubbing his eyes. “Ben waz pay fy wis Gampa!”
“You can play flying with Grandpa next time,” Luke said.
“I have not agreed to any ‘next time’,” Vader reminded them. Behind him, Mara snorted as she padded back into view with a few samples of Ben’s artwork in one hand. Vader glanced at them. One was a black, vaguely triangular scribble garnished with stick-like limbs and a misshapen square on its chest. Ben had been particularly proud of that one. Dis you, Gampa! Ben dawr Gampa!
“Where are you taking those?” Vader asked her.
“Off your hands, I would have thought,” she retorted.
Vader was silent for a long moment, glancing between Mara, the pictures, and Ben, who was still insisting (in between yawns) that he wasn’t “sewpy” at all.
“I will keep that one,” he ordered finally, stabbing a finger at his portrait.
Mara glanced at Luke, raising an eloquent eyebrow. With uncharacteristic restraint, she handed the picture back to him. Her lips curved up in one of her rare genuine smiles.
It was completely inconceivable for a Sith Lord to ever say thank you, so Vader settled for a curt nod. “But do not expect me to babysit for you again,” he warned, waving a threatening finger at his collected descendants.
“He likes you best,” Luke argued, following Mara out the door. “Ben, say goodbye.”
“Bye-byes, Gampa,” Ben murmured, waving a chubby-fingered hand. Luke nodded at him just before the door resealed.
“He is not permitted to,” Vader muttered. He glanced down at the sheet of flimsy in his hand. Then he crossed the room and stuck it back up in its place on the wall.
Strictly to keep Mara happy, he told himself.