Darth Vader leaned on the balcony railing of Leia and Han's new house, gazing down into the living room at their house-warming party.
Neither Leia nor Han were visible. The last he'd seen of them, they'd been in the kitchen, having sneaked off to indulge in a quick swig of the really expensive kahy – the bottle they hadn't brought out with the rest of the liquor. Vader had promised not to betray their whereabouts.
Chewbacca was in the living room, showing off to Generals Dodonna and Rieekan the Pokrovsk cedar shelving units he'd built as his house-warming present. Another present, which seemed from its shape in the wrapping paper to be some variety of bowl, had been dropped off earlier by General Madine, who remained a few minutes before departing for a night on the town with his new girlfriend, one of the Nagamasa City Council Members. A gaggle of x-wing and TIE pilots was gathered around the table with the food. Moff Nevoy, Captain Ifar and Lieutenant Iddims were talking about something that seemed to amuse them, at least Iddims was laughing and trying not to choke on a canapé, Ifar was flapping his hands in appreciation, and Nevoy was grinning into his drink. By one of the living room windows, chatting and enjoying the view of Nagamasa City, were Piett, Mon Mothma, Luke, and Wedge Antilles.
Piett and Mothma stood casually close, with the relaxed ease of a couple that's been together long enough that they're not trying to prove anything to anyone. Vader couldn't remember when their baby was due, and he didn't plan on asking. They must both be getting very sick of it being the only subject that people wanted to discuss with them. She was definitely beginning to show, at any rate. Damn, he'd have to start coming up with ideas for appropriate baby presents. Again.
Vader glanced at the other two members of the conversation. He was glad to see Luke spending time with Commander Antilles. Perhaps the older pilot would be a steadying influence.
Tonight, Luke seemed to be doing well. He was smiling as he talked with the others, and when Vader let his mind brush against the group he felt nothing from Luke but genuine enjoyment and interest in the conversation. Vader wondered how long that would last.
When they first came back from Coruscant, Luke had kept himself occupied. First there had been the official transformation of the New Alliance into the Fourth Galactic Republic, involving innumerable meetings with representatives of the member planets, and the establishment of Republic Headquarters on Nagamasa. There had been the training of their new pilots, which Luke had thrown himself into diligently, though Vader knew he still didn't really like flying without being able to sense the Force. Then, of course, had come the arrival of Leia and Han's twins, and the new uncle – not to mention the new parents and the new grandfather -- had more than enough to keep them busy, learning the intricacies of dealing with babies.
But now things were beginning to settle down. And for Luke, it did not seem an improvement.
The few times that Vader knew of in which Luke had tried to rebuild his link to the Force had ended in frustration, a good deal of shouting, and Luke storming off to the nearest bar. These days, he was going straight to the bar, without the intermediate steps.
Leia had talked with him about it. Han had. Chewbacca had. Vader had, though he had serious doubts of his right to lecture Luke on his drinking habits, considering his own history as a fairly dedicated drinker. He supposed he could remind Luke of the role alcohol had played in Anakin's famous accident, but he did not believe that Luke had forgotten that. And if Luke was anything like his father – and Vader was beginning to suspect that in matters like this they were very alike indeed – that kind of reminder would only make him drink more, out of sheer annoyance at the warning.
Well, the hell with it. Tonight Luke seemed fine, and Vader was going to accept that and let him enjoy the party, without lurking around and checking every few minutes to be sure the boy wasn't having a breakdown.
Vader thought, I ought to go back down there and mingle.
There were things he needed to talk about with some of Leia and Han's guests. He should talk with Nevoy at least one more time before their negotiating team set out for Coruscant, to make sure they had their strategies and priorities set for the debate on whether Coruscant should be admitted to the Republic. The election of Coruscant's new Senate meant that there was finally some kind of centralised power to represent the planet, and the Coruscanti Senate were all but drooling in their eagerness to join the Republic. Of course the Nagamasans wanted them kept the hell out, since with Coruscant back on the galactic scene, Nagamasa might lose its long-coveted position as the centre of government. And there were other reasons to want Coruscant kept out for now, such as the likelihood that the former galactic power base might erupt into chaos again at any moment.
Vader ought to meet with Piett as well, make sure the Admiral felt prepared and had enough support for the meetings he would be attending here on Nagamasa while Vader was away.
But it really wasn't fair, was it? Nevoy and Piett and the rest of them barely had any time away from work as it was. Now when they had the chance to enjoy themselves a little, tear their minds away from the toils of government for a few hours, was he really going to stride up to them and drag them back into it?
He would have a couple of years ago, but then a couple of years ago he wouldn't have been at his daughter's house-warming party.
All right. So he ought to go down there and just chat.
He'd done pretty well so far tonight, he thought, but he had the feeling that his reserves of chatting ability were rapidly wearing out. It wasn't a skill he'd had to use much in the past twenty years. Though, he admitted, he probably couldn't blame this particular inability on his existence as Darth Vader. Anakin had had problems coming up with things to say, too. Hence his habit of standing around looking interested and, he hoped, intelligent, giving the impression that he was thinking deeply about the whole topic – whatever the topic was. When in reality he just couldn't think of one damned thing to say.
And there was always the question of the effect Vader had on most people, too. It was peculiar. Usually, he didn't mind the surge of adrenaline and the wisp of fear that emanated from people's auras when he approached. Quite the contrary, in fact. He usually liked it; it added a certain edge and immediacy to every interaction, that might not have been there otherwise. Most of his co-workers had that instinctive reaction pretty well under control; they could work together, and even, so he believed, enjoy each other's company. But the hint of fear that would surface now and again did provide him with a little extra amusement.
However. It was possible to have too much amusement. After a few days of this, he would start to get tired of people's fear. Little by little it would build up, until it started to give him a headache.
Ha, he thought. I wonder if that's what Obi Wan meant when he talked about fear being part of the Dark Side.
He'd never had much of a problem with it before. Darth Vader had seldom interacted with people on a constant, regular enough basis for their fear to get to the headache stage.
Vader looked down at his daughter's guests, and decided that the party could get along without him for a while.
There were, after all, at least two people in the house with whom he wouldn't have to worry about coming up with conversation. And who had never been afraid of him – and who, he hoped, never would be.
He turned abruptly, his cape swirling as he did so, and walked along the landing toward Koji and Alli's room.
When he stepped into the room he found it illuminated by the warmly-gleaming nightlight in the image of Alderaan. In daytime the lamp, hanging over the babies' crib, looked like any standard depiction of the planet. Just a placid, blue and white ball. But at night, when the lamp was lit, light escaping from tiny fissures in its surface seemed to swirl around the planet like glowing clouds.
Gods, he had worried himself sick before finally deciding to give that lamp to Leia, as a present for her and the twins. It had taken him months of frustrating shopping attempts before he found what he was looking for, and then when he did find it, he nearly threw it away out of fear that Leia wouldn't be able to stand looking at it. She had cried when she first saw it, but then when he started to apologise, she told him to shut up, it was the best present she'd ever had.
Alderaan was not alone, dangling over the twins' crib. They just about had an entire fleet. There was the mobile in the shape of the Millennium Falcon and an x-wing squadron, and there were the TIE-fighters on springs attached to the crib's railings, each TIE capable of playing a different charming lullaby. Vader thought the musical TIEs were rather hideous, actually. But the babies seemed to like them, so who was he to complain?
As usual, he had sensed the children before he even entered the room. Koji was asleep, he could recognise the feeling of warmth and protection that always wrapped the boy when he was sleeping well. There was a little bit of discomfort, somewhere, but it wasn't enough to darken Koji's sleep.
Alli was awake. As usual. Although Vader had in fact seen her sleep on occasion, it definitely seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. She always seemed to find something more interesting to do than sleeping, even if it was just gazing at the Alderaan nightlight.
At the moment she was occupied in closing and unclosing her fists in front of her face, an accomplishment that delighted her. It was, as always, flattering to realise that her grandfather was more interesting to her than her fists. She blinked a few times as he loomed over her and her brother, then she gave a little gurgle of welcome.
Hello, Alli, he thought. She giggled and kicked her feet.
And hello to you, too, Koji, he added. He reached down one black-gloved hand and gently tickled the sleeping Koji's chest. Koji didn't quite wake up, but with one fist he took hold of his grandfather's index finger and manoeuvred it into his mouth. He seemed to be trying to bite it, which was complicated by his not having any teeth.
Ah. Vader thought he could place the vague discomfort he'd felt from Koji. Good gods, he thought, teething already? Well, he supposed it probably wasn't all that early. He tried to remember when it had hit the children of his various in-laws, but he didn't have much success. He'd usually been too busy with other things, such as fighting a war, to pay that much attention to when they started teething.
What about you, Alli, he wondered. Any tooth troubles yet? No? Well, it's probably all that sleep your brother gets. He probably puts all his excess energy into growing teeth.
Since Koji was getting to chew Vader's finger, it seemed that Alli deserved a treat as well. Her favourite game these days was when her grandfather would make her float. He smiled behind his mask as the baby girl in her fuzzy blue pyjamas bobbed upwards and out of the crib, to the accompaniment of her delighted gurgles.
He let Alli swoop around the room for a bit, but although her aura continued to be happy, he had the feeling she was starting to get tired. Moving her over the crib again he brought her to just a few inches above the mattress, and tried rocking her gently back and forth, using the Force as a cradle.
Koji was drifting deeper into sleep and let Vader's finger escape. Vader noticed that one of the kids' stuffed toys was missing, and he looked around for it on the floor. There it was, one of them had probably kicked it. Or else Alli had already discovered the wonder of throwing things. Reserving just enough attention to keep Alli in her floating Force cradle, he called on another tendril of the Force and retrieved the babies' furry Star Destroyer pillow.
He was placing the Star Destroyer in the crib, when he felt Leia approaching from down the hallway.
For an instant he considered replacing Alli safely in her bed before Leia came in. But, for gods' sakes, he didn't have to feel he was doing anything wrong. Leia had seen him do the floating trick for Alli and Koji countless times before. And she trusted him not to do anything that would harm the children.
It was one of the realisations he treasured most, to know that she trusted him with them.
"Hey, Dad," she said softly, leaning against the side of the crib and reaching up to touch his arm. Her face was illumined by the Alderaan nightlight as she looked down at her babies and smiled. Then she turned her face up toward her father.
"You're missing the party," she went on, her voice and her smile taking on a teasing air. "As the hostess, you know, I can't allow that. Come back down soon, okay?"
He said in a solemn tone, "I hate to break it to you, daughter. I am not a party animal."
Leia grinned. "Nonsense. You know you get a kick out of people's reactions when they bump into Darth Vader at a cocktail party. Anyway," she coaxed, "they're your friends down there. They'd love the chance to talk with you outside of work. None of us have been able to do enough of that lately. And," she concluded with the final, unanswerable argument, "I want you to."
Ah, family life, thought Darth. So much for the days when my word was law throughout the galaxy. There wasn't any point in pretending he was annoyed, though. Leia could read him well enough to know that he wasn't.
"All right," he said. "I'll be down in a few minutes."
She squeezed his arm. "Thanks, Dad." She stayed by the crib for a moment longer to gaze at Alli and Koji, then with a last impish grin for her father she walked out of the room.
It was remarkable how good the words "thanks, Dad" sounded to him.
Lord Vader, he told himself, you are getting too soft and cuddly. Your daughter can twist you around her fingers and your favourite pastime is playing with your grandchildren.
But he didn't regret it in the least. It felt damned good to know that Leia was comfortable enough with him to even try wheedling him into things. And having the chance to be mushy about his grandkids was what grandparenthood was all about – well, that and being on twenty-four hour call for babysitting duty, and subtly getting Han and/or the kids out of the house when Leia had a speech to write and hadn't gotten any sleep because Koji and Alli had her out of bed every hour on the hour, and convincing himself that his image could withstand being seen in public changing two babies' nappies.
Thus far at least some of his image seemed to have survived. No one had laughed at him yet – at any rate, not in his presence. The first person who did was going to suffer some distressing difficulty in breathing.
Hell. It was going to feel very odd on this trip to Coruscant, not having his family around.
It would probably be good for him. A little while of nothing but politics, conflict and intrigue – just what he needed to make sure his edge was not dulled too badly by doting over babies.
Maybe he would even get the chance to strangle someone. He wondered if, after all this time, his technique was getting rusty.
No, it probably wasn't. It was as much good practice, after all, using the Force to float babies around, as it was to crush somebody's windpipe.
He looked at Alli and thought, I'll be damned. She's fallen asleep.
Carefully Vader lowered his granddaughter onto the crib's mattress. She moved around a little, fitfully, until she ended up with her head against the Star Destroyer pillow. That seemed to satisfy her, and she settled down with a tiny, baby version of a snore.
Darth Vader glanced at the Alderaan nightlight and nudged its light up one level, with a thought. Then he walked from the room.
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