The unsettled terrain was grueling. Dense brush clawed at his suit and cape. Blooming trees swayed gently in the breeze.
Vader noticed none of it.
He ran and wondered what exactly he thought he was doing.
Well...he was running. It was a curious experience. Even now, he wasn't wholly comfortable in the mechanical suit. And his duel with Obi-Wan was three years ago. Of course, the medics had assured him he would return to his peak level of performance and skill. Maybe they couldn't tell, but he hadn't fully recovered. He knew he was one step slower; slightly below where he needed to be. The sensation was maddening.
He couldn't take a quick breath. He couldn't take a deep breath. Sometimes he felt that everything he did revolved around the automated actions of his lungs. And though his cybernetic legs afforded him extra height, they weren't helping him move any faster now.
But it was his vision that troubled him most. The images filtered through the mask resembled a holo-projection. Various upgrades in his sight hadn't stopped the outside world from appearing...fake. Three years, and he hadn't accepted this surreal existence as his reality.
Little matter. Where his body had failed him, the Force would compensate. Palpatine's Dark Side teachings were often all that sustained him. Not today though. Today was about her - finding her.
How is it that nothing I've experienced - not the loss of my mother, not betrayal by the Jedi, not joining the Emperor - has erased her from my soul? Probably nothing ever will.
That brought Vader's running to an abrupt halt, a wave of bitterness enveloping him. He could admit he loved her now - when it was likely too late. Palpatine had surely known all along.
Vader knew he provoked his Master's suspicions repeatedly. Though he joined the Emperor with a fanatical belief in the ways of the Sith, his zeal subsided soon after the Clone Wars. He still agreed with Dark Side teachings, but something inside him had changed - and his suddenly reflective, low-key behavior signaled that. Palpatine incessantly probed his thoughts on the matter, but Vader countered with the strongest mind shield he could muster, determined to shut him out. But from what? When was the last time he allowed himself to think of her? To miss her? It felt like an eternity. It would be an eternity...
...because Palpatine found her first. Shivers ran up his spine. Vader took off again, sprinting towards the capital city. He had no clue if she was there, but guesses were all he had to go on.
Vader's search for her had been constantly hindered by a need for secrecy. He had only found out about her by sheer coincidence. An Imperial spy discovered her on Alderaan while tracking the royal family's suspected ties to the Alliance. Ignorant of the unusual status of this particular "traitor," the agent followed protocol by alerting Imperial command before forwarding a thorough account to Palpatine. Vader happened to spot the report mere minutes before its deletion. Vader left for Alderaan immediately, but knew the stormtrooper unit had a small, crucial head start. He had no doubt what would happen to Amidala if they found her first.
Vader almost unconsciously slowed his pace. His frustration was mounting. The speed with which he ran meant little if he wasn't headed in the right direction.
Vader stretched out to her with the Force. Nothing revealed her presence to him. As upsetting as that was, he was thankful for it. Apparently, nothing had happened to her - yet. Under normal circumstances, she kept a mind shield up for protection. Protection...from him. How ironic, given how desperate I am now to save -
Without warning, fear ripped through him and coursed through his veins. Vader barely had time to react to the sensation before it disappeared. But those few seconds were enough.
He knew they had found her.
She panicked when they first tackled her, and for an instant, her shield had wavered. Just as quickly, she restored it to ensure no information was obtained from her. The last thing Vader felt from her was a flash of defiance - they would not see her terror. If he had felt capable of it, Vader would have been amused.
But now, he was simply relieved that she was considerably closer than he thought. Amidala was in the forest; he wouldn't have to go all the way to the capital. With a surge of new energy, Vader set out in her direction.
With each stride, Vader's apprehension intensified. How would he react when he finally got there? Probably the same way he always had - awed by her presence, blinded by her beauty...
What would she think when she saw him? She'll simply see a monster, he thought bitterly. Her eyes would grow wide. Her breath would catch in her throat.
She'll recoil in disgust, trying to distance herself from the hideous vision in front of her... Vader was beginning to feel ill.
None of it mattered. Finding her was his only concern.
She was in his sights. Amidala lay on the ground, surrounded by six stormtroopers. Every attempt to stand, to escape, to move was met with a kick or a punch. The troopers mocked her efforts as they discussed what to do with her before her "accidental" death.
Vader watched Amidala glare at her attackers, her brown eyes flashing angrily. He watched her body jerk violently with each blow. Watched her hair fly untamed around the welts and scratches on her face.
He watched one of the stormtroopers approach her ominously.
In all the years he had known her, Vader had never seen Amidala look afraid. But now, he plainly saw defeat in her eyes. It broke a heart he wasn't aware he still had.
Without warning, all six stormtroopers hurtled through the air at break-neck speed. Screams of confusion and terror reverberated throughout the woods, until sickening thuds indicated they had smashed into tree trunks. The troopers collapsed lifelessly to the ground.
Vader crouched beside his stunned wife. Gently, almost reverently, he lifted her chin.
Amidala met his gaze, shocked by his presence and by what he had done to her assailants. Though she had never seen him in his suit, she immediately knew it was her husband. Amidala absorbed the appalling image before her, struggling to reconcile it with the young, handsome man she had fallen in love with. The man she had never believed was completely gone. Vader wasn't him. Vader hadn't destroyed him.
But if anything could convince her that the man she loved no longer existed, it was the figure before her. The black mask. That strange breathing...this couldn't possibly be him. Yet here he was, having just saved her - bent over her in a posture of concern. Even hidden by this dreadful disguise, Anakin, her Anakin, still shone through.
Moments lapsed silently. Amidala pulled herself into a sitting position.
Finally, Vader found his voice. "Are you harmed?"
Amidala, shaken by the filtered sound, merely shook her head no.
"You are obviously injured, Amidala," Vader replied. His hand went toward a dark discoloration on her face, but stopped just short of touching her. Amidala still said nothing, continuing to stare at him.
Vader abruptly stood, towering over his wife. "We must return to my ship. If you are able to walk, we should leave immediately." This was not a suggestion. It was a command that brooked no room for dispute - or so he hoped. Vader was trying to shake himself out of the emotional haze he was in, desperate to gain control of the situation, and himself.
Amidala did not move. Instead, she softly whispered, "Thank you."
She continued before he could form an appropriate response. "You don't have to be here...you didn't have to do this...but somehow, I've always known...always felt that you would."
Her voice cut through to his core. Vader forgot about regaining control. Deep down, Amidala's words were what he had longed for.
Amidala stood and moved closer to him. Her hand reached up to touch the "cheek" of his mask; she stared as though she were trying to make eye contact. "What happened to you, Ani?" she asked quietly.
Mask be damned - her touch electrified him. Terrified him. What had happened to him? What had he become?
As if she were reading his thoughts - she always said she didn't need to be a Jedi to do that - she whispered, "No Ani, you're not a monster. A monster wouldn't have risked so much to save me."
Vader felt her sorrow. Not horror, not judgment...just searing anguish and a staggering sense of guilt. She still believed she had failed him; still held herself responsible for losing him to Palpatine.
"It's not...your fault, Amidala," Vader managed to say. His mind spun with things he needed to tell her. Nothing was making sense to him anymore.
"Oh, Ani..." Amidala sighed, seeming to understand what he couldn't articulate.
A blaster shot rang out. Amidala's back seized violently as the impact flung her into Vader's arms. A shriek escaped her lips. Vader felt the burn on her back - felt her slip slowly toward the ground. He carefully let her fall.
Vader frantically scanned the area and found a stormtrooper fleeing. The trooper froze in mid-stride. As his hand reached for his neck, he hurled through the air and slammed into a nearby tree.
Vader collapsed to his knees and stared at his wife. She was already fading, life draining from her body. Vader gathered her in his arms, cradling her against him in agony.
Why didn't I sense the danger? I couldn't feel a stormtrooper that close?
I should have known. I should have stopped him.
But no...he had allowed his emotions to run wild. He had become unfocused, distracted...weak. Oblivious to his surroundings; unable to focus on anything but her.
And now she would die because of it.
Amidala's eyes fluttered open. She almost managed a small smile. "At least I know I was right about you, Anakin..." Her voice trailed off. Her eyes closed. Her body went limp in his arms.
Vader stared at Amidala's lifeless form.
His focus began to return.
The Dark Side reclaimed him, infused him with its energy.
Her light was gone, nothing but the Darkness remained now.
Vader laid Amidala down, straightening her arms along her sides. As he stood, sparks ignited from the ground around Amidala's body. The sparks turned into flames - the beginnings of her funeral pyre.
The fire began to consume her. And the Darkness continued to consume him. He barely noticed the flames start to spread to the surrounding grass. Outsmarted - defeated - by a stormtrooper! The thought sickened him. He resolved that he would never be so weak again.
The fire crawled up nearby trees. Vader still stood there, unaffected by the flames.
Palpatine was still right. Palpatine had always been right.
His powers had been diluted. And for what? A tearful reunion?
No, he vowed. This can never, ever happen again.
Vader turned his back on Amidala and headed for his ship. The blaze trailed him - leaping from tree to tree, devouring grass, destroying everything in its path. Vader was unconcerned.
Hatred seared within him - hatred at himself. His former self.
The fire strayed from its path, scattering in all directions. A segment made its way to the capital city.
No more doubts. No more inaction.
He would experience the complete breadth of his powers with no childish memories to hold him back.
With that decision made, Vader turned to face the now raging fire. This is true power, he told himself. Command over nature; the ability to destroy. A minute ago, he couldn't stop an inept stormtrooper. No matter what she had thought or said, Anakin was a failure.
As Vader he was strong. Anakin was dead.
Vader calmed his mind, encouraging his anger and hatred to fester within him. When he felt utterly in command of himself, those emotions flowed through him and towards the fire.
A fireball billowed up and exploded from the forest, racing in every direction with startling speed. As Alderaan burned, Vader closed the remaining distance to his ship. He boarded it, set course for Coruscant, and left his former life behind.
In the capital city, panic ensued as the fire bore down upon them. A little girl watched the scene from the royal palace, despair and loss washing over her. She was horrified by what she saw, but knew that wasn't the reason she was hurting. Something else had happened. The pain was acute, but she couldn't quite place it.
"Leia, please come away from the window, honey," Bail Organa gave her a hug and picked her up. Leia took a last look at the fire, then buried herself in her father's arms as he carried her away.
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