“You,” Darth Vader says. “Come.”
It takes CC-1010 a moment to realize he’s the one being addressed, a moment longer to realize that he should leave his post and follow the dark sweep of Vader's cape down the cruiser’s hallway. The shock is an unpleasant thing; he shouldn’t even be here, shouldn’t be taking over CC-2224’s duties, but CC-2224 is down with a training injury that isn't bad enough to warrant decommissioning and CC-1010 knows the basics of his duties.
He likely doesn’t know enough to satisfy Lord Vader, though, and CC-1010 thinks with an edge of tired resignation that this likely isn't a piece of ignorance he’ll be able to survive.
With a grimace that his helmet hides, CC-1010 inclines his head to one of the sergeants and hurries after Vader, trying to think if he’s left any tasks undone. Several on Coruscant, but none that CC-2224 will care about. CC-4477 will take over the Coruscant Guard, and he’s fully aware of all of CC-1010’s methods and systems. Nothing will halt just because CC-1010 is going to die displeasing Vader, and that’s enough to know.
CC-1010 falls into step behind the edge of Vader's cloak, careful not to step on it—he’s heard gruesome tales of the last trooper who managed that, and doesn’t want to be the next. They’re headed not towards the hangar or the observation decks, as he expected, but towards Vader's personal quarters, and CC-1010 feels a flicker of trepidation, of grim acknowledgment, because Vader has moods and usually he wastes them strangling officers, but sometimes a trooper ends up in the line of fire.
Usually it’s more of a spur of the moment thing, though.
Vader keys open the door to his quarters, then steps inside, silent except for the hiss of the respirator. CC-1010 hesitates, not sure if he’s expected to wait in the hall—
“Come,” Vader says curtly. “Quickly.”
“Yes, sir. sorry, sir.” CC-1010 slips through the door into the darkened quarters, large and sprawling even on tightly-packed cruiser, and falls into parade rest by the door, nerves curdling in his stomach. Remembers, belatedly and uselessly, that he has an un-reviewed form on a recent weapon’s test on his datapad, and that likely no one else knows that it’s there because CC-2224 doesn’t usually take an interest in such things.
It doesn’t matter now, he supposes, watching Vader close and lock the door. He does wonder how he’s going to die. Vader is fond of strangulation, but CC-1010 has heard a rumor that Sith can call electricity out of their hands. That sounds like an unpleasant way to end things.
“Commander,” Vader says. “Remove your helmet.”
Immediately, CC-1010 reaches up, pulling his helmet off. The red is the only splash of color in the black and chrome of the room, almost obscene, and he wishes for a moment that the Coruscant Guard wore plain armor like the rest of the clone troopers. Carefully, he tucks it under his arm, trying to remember the last time he took it off while on duty. Years ago, now. It’s…uncomfortable.
“Sir?” he asks carefully, looking up at Vader's looming figure.
Vader doesn’t answer. He steps forward, right in front of CC-1010, and the lights slowly come up, brightening the room in a long sweep.
From somewhere else in the apartment, there's a clatter.
Instantly, CC-1010 turns, one hand going for his blaster—
“Stand down,” Vader says, and it’s quiet, but it’s more impactful than if he had shouted. Instantly, CC-1010 snaps back to attention, taking a step back towards the door.
“Sorry, sir!” he says, and Vader advances again without acknowledging him, reaches up.
It takes all of CC-1010’s self-control not to flinch as a gloved hand curls around the side of his head. He looks up, but Vader's helmet shows nothing, reveals nothing. CC-1010 can't see any hint of the man beneath it, and a chill slides down his spine as his breath tangles in his chest.
The hiss of Vader’s respirator doesn’t change, doesn’t shift. He stays where he is, staring at CC-1010 for a long moment, and—
Something wrenches, deep inside his head.
A cry tears itself from CC-1010’s throat, and he crumples, collapsing to his knees as everything is eaten up but the blazing pain that flares up, radiates out, falls away. Jerking back, he scrambles away from Vader before he can help himself, runs up hard against the door as his helmet goes tumbling away. A step—
Fox looks up, heart pounding wildly in his chest, and moves.
The blaster pistol is in his hand before he can even think to grab it. He rises, fires, is already ducking away as the dreaded snap-hiss of a lightsaber’s ignition vibrates across his nerves. Fox doesn’t wait for the bolts to be deflected back at him; he throws himself forward, rolls behind the meager cover of a sofa and grabs for the vibroblade in his boot sheath. Hears steps, the hiss of the respirator, and knows he can't stay hidden forever. It’s a small room, and Vader is—is a Sith, is everything the Jedi were fighting, and Fox might not have been on the frontlines of the war but he was made for the Jedi just like his brothers. He was made for them and he helped hunt them and—
He rises, fires, feels the blaster wrenched from his hand and lunges without hesitating, flips the vibroblade around and drops low, sliding beneath Vader's guard. Comes up fast, one hand on the grip and the other on the end of the pommel to give the blade enough force to cut through all the plastoid and wiring of Vader's armor. Feels the first blow miss as Vader steps back, but twists around the red flash of the lightsaber, sets a foot, and thrusts.
The vibroblade stops, a bare centimeter from Vader's armor, and Fox suddenly can't move so much as a single muscle.
There's a long moment of silence, and then Vader takes another step back. He deactivates his lightsaber, clipping it to his belt, and says, “Very good, Commander. Your reflexes remain impressive.”
Fox snarls. He strains against the force holding him, muscles trembling, and thinks of all the Rebels his Guard has arrested, all the lives they’ve ended, all the prisoners they’ve handed over just because they were against a Sith Lord who toppled the entire Republic. Fox’s greatest duty was that Republic. It was his life, worth everything and everything.
And he betrayed it. One order, ringing in his ears, and the emperor was the only thing that mattered.
“You bastard piece of bantha shit,” he hisses, and the vibroblade pulls itself from his hands no matter how much he tries to hold onto it. It hovers there for a moment, then carefully, deliberately re-sheathes itself in his boot.
Vader is still watching him, perfectly unreadable. “You are a commander in the Galactic Empire,” he says coolly. “Comport yourself.”
“Kark you! What did you do to us?” Fox demands, and his stomach turns. He was—he’s been Fox since Alpha-17 let them name themselves, he wouldn’t give up his name. But he had, and so has every other trooper in the army. Even kriffing Cody, who’s the stubbornest bastard Fox has ever met, and he’s met senators.
He thinks of calling Cody by his number alone, seeing nothing wrong with that, and wants to be sick.
“A control chip,” Vader says, unmoving. “Biological, Kaminoan in origin. The one ARC Trooper Fives attempted to warn the Republic of.”
Fox’s hands twitch. Fives. That was—he remembers that. Remembers Fives, bright and cocky and brave. Fives tried to shoot the Chancellor, and Fox shot him.
He doesn’t know why he didn’t stun him. It doesn’t make sense.
(Except Palpatine is the emperor. Except Palpatine is a Sith Lord. It makes perfect sense.)
“Control chips,” Fox repeats, furious. “You're using us, like karking slaves.”
Vader is perfectly, terribly unmoved. “Yes,” he says. “I deactivated yours, CC-1010—”
“My name is Fox!”
A pause. Long, careful, and it occurs to Fox suddenly that yelling at Vader is probably the best way to die out of all the methods in the galaxy. He refuses to be cowed, though, doesn’t even flinch, just meets that blank helmet head-on and doesn’t waver.
“Fox,” Vader allows after an endless moment. That in itself is—bewildering. “Yours has been destroyed, Commander. I have other uses for you that require…more lateral thinking.”
Fox is shaking, maybe. With rage, white-hot in his bones, so vicious that he can hardly breathe past it. “I would rather die,” he spits, and it feels like freedom. Choosing his own death, after six years serving the Empire blindly, is more freedom than any of his brothers have had.
And then, soft, there's a click.
Vader turns, looking deeper into the apartment, to where a door cracked open. His hold on Fox loosens, and Fox hits the ground on his knees, muscles trembling from strain. Grits his teeth, wanting to reach for the vibroblade while Vader's back is turned, but—he’ll expect that.
“Come out here,” Vader says, sharp, and there's a quick, soft breath. Fox looks up, and—
There's a child in the doorway. A young child, not more than six, with a head of sandy blond hair and wide blue eyes, tear-streaks on his cheeks, and he’s looking from Vader to Fox with fear obvious on his face.
Apparently satisfied, Vader inclines his head. “Commander Fox,” he says curtly. “He is your charge. Should anything happen to him, your life will be both vastly unpleasant and very short. Tell no one where you got him. That is an order.”
The last word vibrates unpleasantly down Fox’s spine, and he grits his teeth. Thinks about fighting, and about resisting—
“Commander,” Vader says, silky with threat. “There are nearly thirty thousand troopers on this ship. I will not hesitate to kill as many of them as I need to, should you require…convincing.”
Bile turns in Fox’s stomach, and he remembers his own resignation just minutes ago, the way he followed Vader even though he knew he likely wouldn’t survive it, and didn’t think of anything but his duties as he did. Any of his brothers would do the same. They wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance against Vader even if they could resist, and they wouldn’t know, would die controlled, chipped and brainwashed and mindless.
Fox’s breath escapes him on a ragged sound, almost a sob, and he slumps. Lets his head fall forward, and says, vicious, “Yes, Lord Vader.”
The words taste like ash and blood on his tongue.
“Good.” Vader pauses for a moment, like he’s waiting for protests, and then turns. “You will be transferred to my personal command. Do not leave the boy’s side. There will likely be attempts on his life.”
On the life of a six-year-old? Fox looks at the kid again, finds him staring back, and—maybe just being around Vader is enough to paint a target on his back. Maybe he’s a new apprentice of some sort. Or maybe he’s just a political prisoner, held as leverage over someone else.
“Yes, sir,” he says, and—it’s not the kid’s fault. Fox meets his blue eyes and tries to convey as much without words.
“Do not fail me, Fox,” Vader says darkly. “Your brothers will be the ones to suffer for it.”
Fox swallows, but nods. Can't even speak, but Vader doesn’t seem to need a response. He sweeps out of the room, and the door slides shut behind him but doesn’t lock.
Carefully, warily, the boy approaches a handful of steps, watching Fox like he can't decide if he’s a threat or not. “Are you okay?” he asks uncertainly.
Fox lets out a harsh breath, then pushes up, sitting back on his knees. Tries for a smile, as best he can; it’s not exactly an expression he’s practiced at. “Sure,” he says. “Not bleeding anywhere. That’s a good start, right?” He forces himself not to think about the chip in his head, broken but still present. Doesn’t let himself consider how easily Vader reached into his skull and turned it off. Breathes in, breathes out, and asks, “How about you? Anything hurt?”
The kid smiles. It’s tentative, but it’s there, and it’s an absurdly bright expression for a boy who looks like he was crying his eyes out just a few minutes ago. “I'm not bleeding, either,” he says, and closes a little more of the distance between Fox and himself.
“Bruises?” Fox asks, and hesitates for a moment before he reaches out, offering the boy his hands. Too late, he realizes that his gauntlets might give the wrong impression, might scare him—
“None of those, either,” the kid says, and doesn’t even seem to notice the gauntlets. He takes Fox’s hands, and Fox swallows, pulling him in. The kid seems to realize what he’s intending, because he instantly lunges, throwing himself against plastoid with a thump and wrapping his arms tight around Fox’s neck. Fox feels a wet face pressed against his throat and has to close his eyes, wrapping an arm around the kid and splaying a hand over his back. Kriff. Six years old and Vader's personal prisoner. It’s a fate he wouldn’t wish on a fully-grown senator, let alone a little boy.
“Good,” he says roughly, and sinks back as best he can, settling on the floor. The kid won't loosen his grip on Fox’s neck, so Fox hitches him up, settles him in his lap as best he can, and lets him cling.
“What’s your name?” he asks softly.
“Luke,” the kid says, and finally lifts his head, looking up at Fox. “I'm Luke Skywalker.”
Fox’s breath tangles in his throat, hitches hard and painful in his lungs. Skywalker. It’s a big galaxy, but—karking hells, Anakin Skywalker was a hero of the war, one of the greatest Jedi in the Order. Vader's a Sith; he probably hates everything Anakin stood for.
That’s reason enough to kidnap a dead hero’s son.
“Skywalker, huh?” Fox says, and it rasps like broken glass in his throat. “I think I knew your father once. His name was Anakin.”
Luke's eyes go wide, and he jerks his head up, staring at Fox desperately. “You knew my father?” he asks, like he’s never met anyone else who has. And—maybe he hasn’t. Anakin died in the Purge, along with all the other Jedi. Luke must have been born right before or right after, so there’s every chance his father never even got to hold him.
It aches, to think about. Anakin Skywalker's son, raised in a galaxy where the Jedi are traitorous war criminals at best and the root of all the galaxy’s evils at the worst, never knowing anything about his father. It’s—well. Fox would call it a tragedy, but every kriffing piece of this whole pile of bantha shit is a tragedy. Luke's is just one more to add to the pile.
“Yeah,” Fox says, and when Luke's knees scrape his armor, he winces. Not exactly great for hugging, and it seems like Luke needs a hell of a lot of comfort right now. “Want to give me a second? I’ll get my armor off and then I can tell you about him.”
“Okay.” Luke carefully detaches himself, then slides out of Fox’s lap. “What’s your name?” he asks, watching with interest as Fox quickly starts the familiar process of detaching the pieces of plastoid.
“Fox,” he says, and rises slowly, not wanting to scare Luke. He keeps his boots, even if it looks ridiculous without the armor, because the vibroblade is still sheathed in the right one. His blaster is on the table, and he retrieves it, then neatly stacks his armor on a chair and turns to find Luke watching him, uncertain but clearly wanting something.
“Hey,” Fox says as gently as he can, and goes down to one knee, offering his hands. Thinks Darth Vader has Anakin Skywalker's son, and feels cold all over again. He has no idea what Vader's planning on doing to Luke, but—nothing good. Hells, Anakin fought enough Dark Side users during the war that there's every chance Vader is one of the people he faced, and that taking his son is a very personal sort of revenge.
Fox was ordered to protect Luke, but—Vader didn’t specify who he’s supposed to protect him from. It just so happens that Fox is more than willing to protect Luke from Vader just as much as from assassins.
The safest thing would be to get him away from Vader entirely, smuggle him off the ship and run, but—
Thirty thousand brothers on the Executor. Thirty thousand brainwashed clones, stripped of their identity and any personality beyond basic function. If Fox runs, they're all going to die. He knows Vader won't hesitate to execute them all just as punishment for Fox.
It’s not like doing so would tip his hand at all, either. There are millions more Vader could use to bring Fox to heel afterwards.
Luke looks from his face to his hands, swallows. When he takes them, Fox pulls him into a hug, and without the plastoid in the way Luke practically burrows into his chest, grabs onto Fox like a monkey-lizard and clings. Fox doesn’t even try to stop him; he wraps his arms around Luke, picks him up and lets him bury his face in the collar of his blacks, and—aches. Aches all the way through and down to his bones.
He’s never felt so alone before. Like he’s the last person standing in the whole galaxy, the only clone with his own mind. Because he’s useful, because Vader wanted his instincts and his ability to fight back. Because he needed a guard and caretaker for his prisoner, and Fox is unspeakably, entirely grateful to have his sense of self back, but—
But he’s one man. One man on a ship full of brothers with chips in their brains, with a Sith Lord watching him, holding their lives over his head. One man with a little boy depending on Fox to keep him safe from everything, including the Sith Lord who captured him for unknown reasons.
“It will be okay,” Fox whispers to Luke. “Everything will be okay. I’ll keep you safe, all right? Don’t worry.”
“Okay, Fox,” Luke says, perfectly trusting, and his fingers twist into Fox’s blacks. Fox swallows, has to close his eyes at the feeling of his trusting weight in his arms.
Vader took him. Vader stole him, the same way Vader and the Emperor stole every last one of Fox’s brothers. Fox can't leave, can't get him to safety, but—he can make sure Luke is safe and as happy as possible here. Train him, maybe, and find him a weapon, a small vibroblade, something. Something to make sure he can protect himself until Fox can reach him, no matter what.
Anakin Skywalker was a hero. He deserves better than to have Darth Vader sully his memory, torture his child. Fox can't do much—can't do anything, with the threats hanging over his head, but—
He can do this. He can keep Luke safe, because Luke is innocent in all of this, because Luke needs to be protected. Because this one bright thing Fox can do, and it won't make up for everything else he did with that karking chip in his head, but—
It’s enough. It’s a start. It has to be.